"Are you blind?" she whispered. "Can't you see how I have felt—since Christmas night, even if you couldn't long before that? Don't you know why I just couldn't go away? But I thought you didn't care for me—that you couldn't possibly have kept away from me so long if you did—that you thought I wasn't good enough—Oh, my dear, my dear—" She laid both hands on his shoulders.
The next instant she was in his arms, his lips against hers, all the sorrow and bitterness of their lives lost forever in the glory of their first kiss.
When, two days later, Sylvia and Sally left for New York, none of the Grays had been told, much less had they suspected, what had happened. A certain new shyness, which Austin found very attractive, had come over Sylvia, and she seemed to wish to keep their engagement a secret for a time, and also to keep to her plan of going away, with the added reason that she now "wanted a chance to think things over."
"To think whether you really love me?" asked Austin gravely.
"Haven't I convinced you that I don't need to think that over any more?" she said, with a look and a blush that expressed so much that the conversation was near to being abruptly ended.
Austin controlled himself, however, and merely said:
"I'm going down to our little cemetery this afternoon to put it in good order for the spring; I know you've always said you didn't want to go there, but perhaps you'll feel differently now. All the Grays are buried there, and no one else, and in spite of all the other things we've neglected, we've kept that as it should be kept; and it's so peaceful and pretty—always shady in summer, when it's hot, and sheltered in winter, when it's cold! I thought you could take a blanket and a book, and sit and read while I worked. Afterwards we can walk over to your house if you like—you may want to give me some final directions about the work that's to be done there while you're gone."
"I'd love to go to the cemetery—or anywhere else, for that matter—with you," said Sylvia, "and afterwards—to our house. Perhaps you'll want to give some directions yourself!"
The tiny graveyard lay in the hollow of one of the wooded slopes which broke the great, undulating meadow which stretched from the Homestead to the river, a wall made of the stones picked up on the place around it, a plain granite shaft erected by the first Gray in the centre, and grouped about the shaft the quaint tablets of the century before, with old-fashioned names spelled in an old-fashioned manner, and with homely rhymes and trite sayings underneath; farther off, the newer gravestones, more ornate and less appealing. The elms were just beginning to bud, and the cold April wind whistled through them, but the pines were as green and sheltering as always, and Sylvia spread her blanket under one of them, and worked away at the sewing she had brought instead of a book, while Austin burned the grass and dug and pruned, whistling under his breath all the time. He stopped once to call her attention to a robin, the first they had seen that spring, and finally, when the sacred little place was in perfect order, came with a handful of trailing arbutus for her, and sat down beside her.
"I thought I remembered seeing some of this on the bank," he said; "it's always grown there—will you take it for your 'bouquet des fiancailles,' Sylvia? I remember how surprised we all were last year because you liked the little wild flowers best, and went around searching for them, when your rooms were full of carnations and hothouse roses. And because you used to go out to walk, just to see the sunsets. Do you still love sunsets, too?"
"Yes, more than ever. In the fall while you were gone, I used to go down to the river nearly every afternoon, and watch the color spread over the fields. There's something about a sunset in the late autumn that's unlike those at any other time of year—have you ever noticed? It's not rosy, but a deep, deep golden yellow—spreading over the dull, bare earth like the glory from the diadem of a saint—one of those gray Fathers of early Italy, for instance."
"I know what you mean—but they seem to me more like the glory that comes into any dull, bare life," said Austin,—"the kind of glory you've been to me. It worries me to hear you say you want to go away to 'think things over.' What is there to think over—if you're sure you care?"
"There are lots of details to a thing of this sort."
"A thing of what sort?"
"Oh, Austin, how stupid you are! A—a marriage, of course."
"I thought all that was necessary were two willing victims, a license, and a parson."
"Well, there's a good deal more to it than that. Besides, your family would surely guess if I stayed here. I want to keep it just to ourselves for a little while."
"I see. It's all right, dear. Take all the time you want."
"What would you tell them, anyway?" she went on lightly,—"that I proposed to you, and that you accepted me? Or, to be more exact, that you didn't accept me, but said, 'No, no, no!' most decidedly, and went on repeating it, with variations, until I threw myself into your arms? It was an awful blow to my pride—considering that heretofore I've certainly had my fair share of attention, and even a little more than that—to have to do all the love-making, and I'm certainly not going to go brag about it—' This time the conversation really did get interrupted, for Austin would not for one instant submit to such a "garbling of statistics" and took the quickest means in his power to put an end to it."
He had the wisdom, however, greater, perhaps, than might have been expected, not to oppose any of her wishes just then, and it was Sylvia herself who at the last minute felt her heart beginning to fail her, and called him to the farther end of the station platform, on the pretext of consulting him about some baggage.
"I don't see how I can say good-bye—in just an ordinary way," she whispered, "and I'm beginning to miss you dreadfully already. If I can't stand it, away from you, you must arrange to come down for at least a day or two."
It was beginning to sprinkle, and, taking her umbrella, he opened it and handed it to her, leaning forward and kissing her as soon as she was hidden by it.
"I never meant to say good-bye 'in an ordinary way,'" he said cheerfully, "whatever your intentions were! And, of course, I'll manage to come to town for a day or two, if you find you really want me. Fred would be glad to help me out for that long, I'm sure. On the other hand, if it's a relief to be rid of me for a while, and New York looks pretty good to you, don't hurry back—you've been away for a whole year, remember. I'll understand."
In spite of his cheerful words and matter-of-course manner, Austin stood watching the train go out with a heavy heart. He was very sincere in feeling that his presumption had been great, and that he had taken advantage of feelings which mere youth and loneliness might have awakened in Sylvia, and from which she would recover as soon as she was with her own friends again. And yet he loved her so dearly that it was hard—even though he acknowledged that it was best—to let her go back to the world by whose standards he felt he fell short in every way.
"If I lose her," he said to himself, "I must remember that—of course I ought to. King Cophetua and the beggar maid makes a very pretty story—but it doesn't sound so well the other way around. And then she's given me such a tremendous amount already—if I never get any more, I must be thankful for that."
Sally spent a rapturous week in New York, and came home with her modest trousseau all bought and glowing accounts of the good times she had had.
"The very first thing Sylvia did, the morning after we got there," she said, "was to buy a new limousine and hire a man to run it. My, you ought to see it! It's lined with pearl gray, and Sylvia keeps a gold vase with orchids—fresh ones every day—in it! She helped me choose all my things, and I never could have got half so much for my money, or had half such pretty things if she hadn't; and she began right off to get the most elegant clothes for herself, too! I knew Sylvia was pretty, but I never knew how pretty until I saw her in a low-necked white dress! We went to the theatre almost every evening, and saw all the sights, besides—it didn't take long to get around in that automobile, I can tell you! Perfect rafts of people kept coming to see her all the time, telling her how glad they were to see her back, and teasing her to do things with them. I bet she'll get married again in no time—there were dozens of men, all awfully rich and attractive and apparently just crazy about her! We went out twice to lunch, and once to dinner, at the grandest houses I ever even imagined, and every one was lovely to me, too, but of course it was only Sylvia they really cared about. I was about wild, I got so excited, but it didn't make any more impression on Sylvia than water rolling off a duck's back—she didn't seem the least bit different from when she was here, helping mother wash the supper dishes, and teaching Austin French. She took it all as a matter of course. I guess we didn't any of us realize how important she was."
"I did," said Austin.
"You!" exclaimed his sister, with withering scorn. "You've never been even civil to her, much less respectful or attentive! If you could see the way other men treat her—"
"I don't want to," said Austin, with more truth than his sister guessed.
A young, lovely, and agreeable widow, with a great deal of money, and no "impediments" in the way of either parents or children, is apt to find life made extremely pleasant for her by her friends; and every one felt, moreover, that "Sylvia had behaved so very well." For two months after her husband's death, she had lived in the greatest seclusion, too ill, too disillusioned and horror-stricken, too shattered in body and soul—as they all knew only too well—to see even her dearest friends. Then she had gone to the country, remaining there quietly for a year, regaining her health and spirits, and had now returned to her uncle's home, lightening her mourning, going out a little, taking up her old interests again one by one—a fitting and dignified prelude for a new establishment of her own. She could not help being pleased and gratified at the warmth of her reception; and she found, as Austin had predicted, that "New York looked pretty good to her." It is doubtful whether the taste for luxury, once acquired, is ever wholly lost, even though it may be temporarily cast aside; and Sylvia was too young and too human, as well as too healthy and happy again, not to enjoy herself very much, indeed.
For nearly a month she found each day so full and so delightful as it came, that she had no time to be lonely, and no thought of going away; but gradually she came to a realization of the fact that the days were too full; that there were no opportunities for resting and reading and "thinking things over"; that the quiet little dinners and luncheons of four and six, given in her honor, were gradually but surely becoming larger, more formal and more elaborate; that her circle of callers was no longer confined to her most intimate friends; that her telephone rang in and out of season; that the city was growing hot and dusty and tawdry, and that she herself was getting tired and nervous again. And when she waked one morning at eleven o'clock, after being up most of the night before, her head aching, her whole being weary and confused, it needed neither the insistent and disagreeable memory of a little incident of the previous evening, nor the letter from Austin that her maid brought in on her breakfast-tray, to make her realize that the tinsel of her gayety was getting tarnished.
* * * * *
DEAREST (the letter ran):
It is midnight, and—as you know—I am always up at five, but I must send you just a few words before I go to bed, for these last two days have been so full that it has seemed to be impossible to find a moment in which to write you. "Business is rushing" at the Gray Homestead these days, and everything going finely. The chickens and ducklings are all coming along well—about four hundred of them—and we've had three beautiful new heifer calves this week. Peter is beside himself with joy, for they're all Holsteins. I went to Wallacetown yesterday afternoon, and made another $200 payment on our note at the bank—at this rate we'll have that halfway behind us soon.
To-day I've been over at your house every minute that I could spare and succeeded in getting the last workman out—for good—at eight o'clock this evening. (I bribed him to stay overtime. There are a few little odd jobs left, but I can work those in myself in odd moments.) There is no reason now why you shouldn't begin to send furniture any time you like. I never would have believed that it would be possible to get three such good bedrooms—not to mention a bathroom and closets—out of the attic, or that tearing out partitions and unblocking fireplaces would work such wonders downstairs. It's all just as you planned it that first day we tramped over in the snow to see it—do you remember?—and it's all lovely, especially your bedroom on the right of the front door, and the big living-room on the left. The papers you chose are exactly right for the walls, and the white paint looks so fresh and clean, and I'm sure the piazza is deep enough to suit even you. I've ploughed and planted your flower- and vegetable-gardens, as well as those at the Homestead, and this warm, early spring is helping along the vegetation finely, so I think things will soon be coming up. We've decided to try both wheat and alfalfa as experiments this year, and I can hardly wait to see whether they'll turn out all right.
Katherine graduates from high school the eighteenth of June, and as Sally's teaching ends the same day, and Fred's patience has finally given out with a bang, she has fixed the twenty-fifth for her wedding. Won't she be busy, with just one week to get ready to be a bride, after she stops being a schoolmarm? But, of course, we'll all turn to and help her, and Molly will be home from the Conservatory ten days before that—you know how efficient she is. By the way, has she written you the good news about her scholarship? We may have a famous musician in the family yet, if some mere man doesn't step in and intervene. Speaking of lovers, Peter is teaching Edith Dutch! And when mother remonstrated with her, she flared up and asked if it was any different from having you teach me French! (I sometimes believe "the baby" is "onto us," though all the others are still entirely unsuspicious, and keep right on telling me I never half appreciated you!) So they spend a good deal of time at the living-room table, with their heads rather close together, but I haven't yet heard Edith conversing fluently in that useful and musical foreign language which she is supposed to be acquiring.
I haven't had a letter from you in nearly a week, but I'm sure, if you weren't well and happy, Mr. Stevens would let us know. I'm glad you're having such a good time—you certainly deserve it after being cooped up so long. Sorry you think it isn't suitable for you to dance yet, for, of course, you would enjoy that a lot, but you can pretty soon, can't you?
Good-night, darling. God bless you always!
* * * * *
There was something in the quiet, restrained tone of the letter, with its details of homely, everyday news, and the tidings of his care and interest in her little house, that touched Sylvia far more than many pages of passionate outpouring of loneliness and longing could have done. She knew that the loneliness and longing were there, even though he would not say so, and she turned from the great bunch of American Beauties which had also come in with her breakfast-tray, with something akin almost to disgust as she thought of Austin's tiny bunch of arbutus—his "bouquet des fiancailles," as he had called it—the only thing, besides the little star, that he had ever given her. She called her maid, and announced that in the future she would never be at home to a certain caller; then she reached for the telephone beside her bed and cancelled all her engagements for the next few days, on the plea of not feeling well, which was perfectly true; and then she called up Western Union, and dispatched a long telegram, after which she indulged in a comforting and salutary outburst of tears.
"It will serve me quite right if he won't come," she sobbed. "I wouldn't if I were he, not one step—and he's just as stubborn as I am. I never was half good enough for him, and now I've neglected him, and frittered away my time, and even flirted with other men—when I'd scratch out the eyes of any other woman if she dared to look at him. It's to be hoped that he doesn't find out what a frivolous, empty-headed, silly, vain little fool I am—though it probably would be better for him in the end if he did."
Sylvia passed a very unhappy day, as she richly deserved to do. For the woman who gives a man a new ideal to live for, and then, carelessly, herself falls short of the standard she has set for him, often does as great and incalculable harm as the woman who has no standards at all.
Uncle Mat received a distinct shock when he reached his apartment that night, to find that his niece, dressed in a severely plain black gown, was dining at home alone with him. Before he finished his soup he received another shock.
"Austin Gray is coming to New York," she said, coolly, buttering a cracker; "I have just had a telegram saying he will take a night train, and get in early in the morning—eight o'clock, I believe. I think I'll go and meet him at the station. Are you willing he should come here, and sleep on the living-room sofa, as you suggested once before, or shall I take him to a hotel?"
"Bring him here by all means," returned her bewildered relative; "I like that boy immensely. What streak of good luck is setting him loose? I thought he was tied hand and foot by bucolic occupations."
"Apparently he has found some means of escape," said Sylvia; "would you care to read aloud to me this evening?"
"Why, Sylvia, my dear! I never dreamed that you would come to meet me!"
Austin was, indeed, almost beside himself with surprise and delight when, as he left the train and walked down the long platform in the Grand Central Station, he saw Sylvia, dressed in pure white serge, standing near the gate. He waved his hat like a schoolboy, and hurried forward, setting down his suit-case to grip her hands in both of his.
"Have you had any breakfast?" she asked, as they started off.
"Yes, indeed, an hour ago."
"Then where would you like to go first? I have the motor here, and we're both entirely at your disposal."
He hesitated a moment, and then said, laughing, "It didn't occur to me that you'd come to the station, and I fully intended to go somewhere and get a hair-cut that wouldn't proclaim me as coming straight from Hamstead, Vermont, and replenish the wardrobe that looked so inexhaustible to me last fall, before I presented myself to you."
Sylvia joined in his laugh. "Go ahead. I'll sit in the motor and wait for you. Afterwards we'll go shopping together."
"To buy things like these?" he asked, eyeing her costume with approval.
"No. I have enough clothes now. I was going to begin choosing our furniture—and thought you might be interested. Get in, dear, this is ours," she said, walking up to the limousine which Sally had described with such enthusiasm, and which now stood waiting for her, its door held open by a French chauffeur, who was smiling with true Gallic appreciation of his mistress's "affaire de coeur," "and here," she added, after they were comfortably seated inside, taking a gardenia from the flower-holder, "is a posy I've got for you."
"Thank you. Have you anything else?" he asked, folding his hand over hers as she pinned it on.
"Oh, Austin, you're such a funny lover!"
"Because you nearly always—ask beforehand. Why don't you take what you've a perfect right to—if you want it?"
"Possibly because I don't feel I have a perfect right to—or sure that I have any right at all," he answered gravely, "and I can't believe it's really real yet, anyway. You see, I only had two days with you—the new way—before you left, and I had no means of knowing when I should have any more—and a good deal of doubt as to whether I deserved any."
There was no reproach in the words at all, but so much genuine humility and patience that Sylvia realized more keenly than ever how selfish she had been.
"You'll make me cry if you talk to me like that!" she said quickly. "Oh, Austin, I've countless things to say to you, but first of all I want to tell you that I'll never leave you like this again, that it's—just as real as I am, that you can have just as many days as you care to now, and that I'll spend them all showing you how much right you have!" And she threw her arms around his neck and drew his face down to hers, oblivious alike of Andre on the front seat and all the passing crowds on Fifth Avenue.
"Don't," Austin said after a moment. "We mustn't kiss each other like that when some one might see us—I forgot, for a minute, that there was any one else in the world! Besides, I'm afraid, if we do, I'll let myself go more than I mean to—it's all been stifled inside me so long—and be almost rough, and startle or hurt you. I couldn't bear to have that happen to you—again. I want you always to feel safe and shielded with me."
"Safe! I hope I'll be as safe in heaven as I am with you! Don't you think I know what you've been through this last year?"
"No, I don't," he said passionately; "I hope not, anyway. And that was before I ever touched you, besides. It's different now. I shan't kiss you again to-day, my dear, except"—raising her hand to his lips—"like this. Are you going to wait for me here?" he ended quietly, as the motor began to slow down in front of the Waldorf.
"No," she said, her voice trembling; "I'm going to church, 'to thank God, kneeling, for a good man's love.' Come for me there, when you're ready."
"Are you in earnest?"
"I never was more so."
He joined her at St. Bartholomew's an hour later, and seeking her out, knelt beside her in the quiet, dim church, empty except for themselves. She felt for his hand, and gripping it hard, whispered with downcast eyes and flushed cheeks:
"Austin, I have a confession to make."
"Of course, you have—I knew that from the moment I got your telegram. Well, how bad is it?" he said, trying to make his voice sound as light as possible. But her courage had apparently failed her, for she did not answer, so at last he went on:
"You didn't miss me much, at first, did you? When you thought of me I seemed a little—not much, of course, but quite an important little—out of focus on the only horizon that your own world sees. Well, I knew that was bound to happen, and that if you really cared for me as much as you thought you did at the farm, it was just as well that it should—for you'd soon find out how much your own horizon had broadened and beautified. Don't blame yourself too much for that. I suppose the worst confession, however, is that something occurred to make you long, just a little, to have me with you again—just as you were glad to see me come into the room the last day our minister called. What was it?"
"Austin! How can you guess so much?"
"Because I care so much. Go on."
"People began to make love to me," she faltered, "and at first I did—like it. I—flirted just a little. Then—oh, Austin, don't make me tell you!"
"I never imagined," he said grimly, "that Thomas and Mr. Jessup were the only men who would ever look at you twice. I suppose I've got to expect that men are going to try to make love to you always—unless I lock you up where no one but me can see you, and that doesn't seem very practical in this day and generation! But I don't see any reason—if you love me—why you should let them. You have certainly got to tell me, Sylvia."
"I will not, if you speak to me that way," she flashed back. "Why should I? You wouldn't tell me all the foolish things you ever did!"
"Yes, Sylvia, I will," he said gravely, "as far as I can without incriminating anybody else—no man has a right to kiss—or do more than that—and tell, in such a way as to betray any woman—no matter what sort she is. Some of the things I've done wouldn't be pleasant, either to say or to hear; for a man who is as hopeless as I was before you came to us is often weak enough to be perilously near being wicked. But if you wish to be told, you have every right to. And so have I a right to an answer to my question. No one knows better than I do that I'm not worthy of you in any way. But you must think I am or you wouldn't marry me, and if you're going to be my wife, you've got to help me to keep you—as sacred to me as you are now. Shall I tell first, or will you? A church is a wonderful place for a confession, you know, and it would be much better to have it behind us."
"You needn't tell at all," she said, lifting her face and showing as she did so the tears rolling down her cheeks. "Weak! You're as strong as steel! If all men were like you, there wouldn't be anything for me to tell either. But they're not. The night before I telegraphed you, an old friend brought me home after a dinner and theatre party. We had all had an awfully gay time, and—well, I think it was a little too gay. This man wanted to marry me long ago, and I think, perhaps, I would have accepted him once—if he'd—had any money. But he didn't then—he's made a lot since. He began to pay me a good deal of attention again the instant I got back to New York, and I was glad to see him again, and—Of course, I ought to have told him about you right off, but some way, I didn't. I always liked him a lot, and I enjoyed—just having him round again. I thought that if he began to show signs of—getting restive—I could tell him I was engaged, and that would put an end to it. But he didn't show any signs—any preliminary signs, I mean, the way men usually do. He simply—suddenly broke loose on the way home that night, and when I refused him, he said most dreadful things to me, and—"
"Took you in his arms by force, and kissed you, in spite of yourself." Austin finished the sentence for her speaking very quietly.
"Oh, Austin, please don't look at me like that! I couldn't help it!"
"Couldn't help it! No, I suppose you struggled and fought and called him all kinds of hard names, and then you sent for me, expecting me to go to him and do the same. Well, I shan't do anything of the sort. I think you were twice as much to blame as he was. And if you ever—let yourself in for such an experience again, I'll never kiss you again—that's perfectly certain."
"Well, I mean it—just that. I don't know much about society, but I know something about women. There are women who are just plain bad, and women who are harmless enough, and attractive, in a way, but so cheap and tawdry that they never attract very deeply or very long, and women who are good as gold, but who haven't a particle of—allure—I don't know how else to put it—Emily Brown's one of them. Then there are women like you, who are fine, and pure, and—irresistibly lovely as well; who never do or say or even think anything that is indelicate, but whom no man can look at without—wanting—and who—consciously or unconsciously—I hope the latter—tempt him all the time. You apparently feel free to—play with fire—feeling sure you won't get even scorched yourself, and not caring a rap whether any one else gets burnt; and then you're awfully surprised and insulted and all that if the—the victim of the fire, in his first pain, turns on you. 'Said dreadful things to you'—I should think he would have, poor devil! Perhaps young girls don't realize; but a woman over twenty, especially if she's been married, has only herself to blame if a man loses his head. Were you sweet and tender and—aloof, just because you were sick and disgusted and disillusioned, instead of because that was the real you—are you going to prove true to your mother's training, after all, now that you're happy and well and safe again? If you have shown me heaven—only to prove to me that it was a mirage—you might much better have left me in what I knew was hell!"
He left her, so abruptly that she could not tell in which direction he had turned, nor at first believe that he had really gone. Then she knelt for what seemed to her like hours, the knowledge of the justice of all he had said growing clearer every minute, the grief that she had hurt him so growing more and more intolerable, the hopelessness of asking his forgiveness seeming greater and greater It did not occur to her to try to find him, or to expect that he would come back—she must stay there until she could control her tears, and then she must go home. A few women, taking advantage of the blessed custom which keeps nearly all Anglican and Roman churches open all day for rest, meditation, and prayer, came in, stayed a few minutes, and left again. At eleven o'clock there was a short service, the daily Morning Prayer, sparsely attended. Sylvia knelt and stood, mechanically, with the other worshippers. Then suddenly, just before the benediction was pronounced, Austin slid into the seat beside her, and groped for her hand. Neither spoke, nor could have spoken; indeed, there seemed no need of words between them. A very great love is usually too powerful to brook the interference of a question of forgiveness. The clergyman's voice rose clear and comforting over them:
"'The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with us all ever more. Amen.'"
"Is there a flower-shop near here?" was the perfectly commonplace question Austin asked as they went down the church steps together into the spring sunshine.
"Yes, just a few steps away. Why?"
"I want to buy you some violets—the biggest bunch I can get."
"Aren't you rather extravagant?"
"Not at all. The truth is, I've come into a large fortune!"
"Austin! What do you mean?"
He evaded her question, smiling, bought her an enormous bouquet, and then suggested that if her destination was not too far away they should walk. She dismissed the smiling Andre, and walked beside Austin in silence for a few minutes hoping that he would explain without being asked again.
"Did you say you were going to Tiffany's to buy furniture—I thought Tiffany's was a jewelry store, and in the opposite direction?"
"It is. I'm going to the Tiffany Studios—quite a different place. Austin—don't tease me—do tell me what you mean?"
"Why? Surely you're not marrying me for my money!"
"Good gracious, you plague like a little boy! Please!"
"Well, a great-aunt who lived in Seattle, and whom I haven't seen in ten years, has died and left me all her property!"
"Mercy, Sylvia, how mercenary you are! Enough so you won't have to buy my cigars and shoe-strings—aren't you glad?"
"Of course, but I wish you'd stop fooling and tell me all about it."
"Well, I shan't—if I did you'd make fun of me, because it would seem so small to you, and I want to be just as lavish and extravagant as I like with it all the time I'm in New York—you'll have to let me 'treat' now! And just think! I'll be able to pay my own expenses when I take that trip to Syracuse which you seem to think is going to complete my agricultural education. Peter's going with me, and I imagine we'll be a cheerful couple!"
"How are things going in that quarter?"
"Rather rapidly, I imagine. I've given father one warning, and I shan't interfere again, bless their hearts! I caught him kissing her on the back stairs the other night, but I walked straight on and pretended not to see."
"Thereby earning their everlasting gratitude, of course, poor babies!"
"How many years older than Edith are you?"
"Never mind, you saucy boy! Here we are—have you any suggestions you may not care to make before the clerks as to what kind of furniture I shall buy?"
"None at all. I want to see for myself how much sense you have in certain directions, and if I don't like your selections, I warn you beforehand that the offending articles will be used for kindling wood."
"Do be careful what you say. They know me here."
"Careful what I say! I shall be a regular wooden image. They'll think I'm your second cousin from Minnesota, being shown the sights."
He did, indeed, display such stony indifference, and maintain such an expression of stolid stupidity, that Sylvia could hardly keep her face straight, and having chosen a big sofa and a rug for her living-room, and her dining-room table, she announced that she "would come in again" and graciously departed.
"I have a good mind to shake you!" she said as they went down the steps. "I had no idea you were such a good actor—we'll have to get up some dramatics when we get home. Did you like my selections?"
"Very much, as far as they went. Where are you going now—I see that your grinning Frenchman and upholstered palace on wheels are waiting for you again."
"Well, I can't walk all day—I'm going to Macy's to buy kitchen-ware. You'd better do something else—I'm afraid you'll criticize my brooms and saucepans!"
"All right, go alone. I'm going to the real Tiffany's."
"To squander my fortune, Pauline Pry. I'll meet you at Sherry's at one-thirty. I suppose some kindly policeman will guide my faltering footsteps in the right direction. Good-bye." And he closed the door of the car in her radiant face.
They had a merry lunch an hour later, Austin ordering the meal and paying for it with such evident pleasure that Sylvia could not help being touched at his joy over his little legacy. Then he proposed that, although they were a little late, they might go to a matinee, and afterwards insisted on walking up Fifth Avenue and stopping for tea at the Plaza.
"I've seen more beautiful cities than New York," he said, as they sauntered along, much more slowly than most of the hurrying throng,—"Paris, for instance—fairly alive with loveliness! But I don't believe there's a place in the world that gives you the feeling of power that this does—especially just at this time of day, when the lights are coming on, and all these multitudes of people going home after their day's work or pleasure. It's tremendous—lifts you right off your feet—do you know what I mean?"
They reached home a little after six, to find Uncle Mat, whose existence they had completely forgotten, waiting for them with his eyes glued to the clock.
"I was about to have the Hudson River dragged for you two," he said, as Austin wrung his hand and Sylvia kissed him penitently. "Where have you been? I came home to lunch, and made several appointments to introduce Austin to some very influential men, who I think would make valuable acquaintances for him. It's inexcusable, Sylvia, for you to monopolize him this way."
The happy culprits exchanged glances, and then Sylvia linked her arm in Austin's and got down on her knees, dragging him after her.
"I suppose we may as well confess," she said, "because you'd guess it inside of five minutes, anyway. Please don't be very angry with us."
"What are you talking about? Austin, can you explain? Has Sylvia taken leave of her senses?"
"I'm afraid so, sir," said Austin, with mock gravity; "it certainly looks that way. For about six weeks ago she told me that—some time in the dim future, of course—she might possibly be prevailed upon to marry me!"
Uncle Mat declared afterwards that this last shock was too much for him, and that he swooned away. But all that Austin and Sylvia could remember was that after a moment of electrified silence, he embraced them both, exclaiming, "Bless my stars! I never for one moment suspected that she had that much sense!"
"Are you two young idiots going out again this evening?" asked Uncle Mat as the three were eating their dessert, glancing from Sylvia's low-necked white gown to Austin's immaculate dress-suit.
"No. This is entirely in each other's honor. But I hope you are, for I want to talk to Austin."
"Good gracious! What have you been doing all day? What do you expect me to do?"
"You can go to your club and have five nice long rubbers of bridge," said Sylvia mercilessly, "and when you come back, please cough in the hall."
"I want to write a few lines to my mother, after I've had a little talk with Mr. Stevens—then I'm entirely at your disposal," said Austin, as she lighted their cigars and rose to leave them.
"I'm glad some one wants to talk to me," murmured Uncle Mat meekly.
Sylvia hugged him and kissed the top of his head. "You dear jealous old thing! I've got some telephoning and notes to attend to myself. Come and knock on my door when you're ready, Austin."
"You have a good deal of courage," remarked Uncle Mat, nodding in Sylvia's direction as she went down the hall.
"Perhaps you think effrontery would be the better word."
"Not at all, my dear boy—you misunderstand me completely. Sylvia's the dearest thing in the world to me, and I've been worrying a good deal about her remarriage, which I knew was bound to come sooner or later. I'm more than satisfied and pleased at her choice—I'm relieved."
"Thank you. It's good to know you feel that way, even if I don't deserve it."
"You do deserve it. In speaking of courage, I meant that the poor husband of a rich wife always has a good deal to contend with; and aside from the money question, you're supersensitive about what you consider your lack of advantages and polish—though Heaven knows you don't need to be!" he added, glancing with satisfaction at the handsome, well-groomed figure stretched out before him. "I never saw any one pick up the veneer of good society, so called, as rapidly as you have. It shows that real good breeding was back of it all the time."
"I guess I'd better go and write my letter," laughed Austin, "before you flatter me into having an awfully swelled head. But I want to tell you first—I'm not a pauper any more. I've got twenty thousand dollars of my own—an old aunt has died and left most of her will in my favor. I've taken capital, and paid off all our debts—except what we owe to Sylvia. She can give me that for a wedding present if she wants to. It's queer how much less sore I am about her money now that I've got a little of my own! There are one or two things that I want to buy for her, and I want to pay my own expenses and Peter's on a trip through western New York farms this summer. The rest I must invest as well as I can, to bring me in a little regular income. I'm sure, now that the farm and the family are perfectly free of debt, that I can earn enough to add quite a little to it every year. If Sylvia lost every cent she had, we could get married just the same, and though she'd have to live simply and quietly, she wouldn't suffer. I thought you would help me with investments—or take me to some other man who would."
"I will, indeed—if you don't spend all your time, as Sylvia fully intends you shall, making love to her. This changes the outlook wonderfully—clears the sky for both of you! It's bad for a man to be wholly dependent on his wife, and scarcely less bad for her. But there's another matter—"
"I don't want you to think I'm meddling—or underestimating Sylvia—"
"I won't think that, no matter what you say."
"How long have you and she been in love with each other? Wasn't it pretty nearly a case of 'first sight'?"
Austin flushed. "It certainly was with me," he said quietly.
"And haven't you—quarrelled from the very beginning, too?"
The boy's flush deepened. "Yes," he said, still more quietly, "we seemed to misunderstand—and antagonize each other."
"Even to-day?"—Then as Austin did not answer, "Now, tell me truthfully—whose fault is it?"
"The first time it was mine," said Austin quickly. "She made me clean up the yard—it needed it, too!—and I was furious! And I was rude—worse than rude—to her for a long time. But since then—"
"You needn't be afraid to say it was hers," remarked Sylvia's uncle dryly. "She wants an absolutely free hand, which isn't good for her to have—she's only twenty-two now, pretty as a picture, and still absolutely inexperienced about many things. She can't bear the thought of dictation, and you're both young and self-willed and proud, and very much in love—which makes the whole thing harder, and not easier, as I suppose you imagine. Now, some women, even in these days, aren't fit to live with until—figuratively speaking—they've been beaten over the head with a club. Sylvia's not that kind. She's not only got to respect her husband's wishes, she's got to want to—and I believe you can make her want to! I think you're absolutely just—and unusually decent. If I didn't I shouldn't dare say all this to you—or let you have her at all, if I could help it. And besides being fair, you know how to express yourself—which some poor fellows unfortunately can't do—they're absolutely tongue-tied. In fact, you're perfectly capable of taking things into your own hands every way, and making a success of it—and if you don't before you're married, neither of you can possibly hope to be happy afterwards."
"There's one thing you're overlooking, Mr. Stevens, which I should have had to tell you to-night, anyway."
"What is it?"
"I'm not worthy of tying up Sylvia's shoes—much less of marrying her. I've been straight as a string since she came to the farm, but before that—any one in Hamstead would tell you. It was town talk. I can't, knowing that, act as I would if I—didn't have that to remember. It's all very well to say that a man—gets through with all that, absolutely—I've heard them say it dozens of times! But how can he be sure he is through—that the old sins won't crop up again? I love Sylvia more than—than I can possibly talk about, and I'm afraid—afraid that I won't be worthy of her, and that if she gave in absolutely—that I'd abuse my position."
Uncle Mat glanced up quietly from his cigar. There were tears in the boy's eyes, his voice trembled. The older man, for a moment, felt powerless to speak before the penitent sincerity of Austin's confession, the humility of his bared soul.
"As long as you feel that way," he said at last, a trifle huskily, "I don't believe there's very much danger—for either of you. And remember this—lots of good people make mistakes, but if they're made of the right stuff, they don't make the same mistake but once. And sometimes they gain more than they lose from a slip-up. You certainly are made of the right stuff. Perhaps you will go through some experience like what you're dreading, though I can't foresee what form it will take. Meanwhile remember that Sylvia's been through an awful ordeal, and be very gentle with her, though you take the reins in your hands, as you should do. I'm thankful that she has such a bright prospect for happiness ahead of her now—but don't forget that you have a right to be happy, too. Don't be too grateful and too humble. She's done you some favors in the past, but she isn't doing you one now—she never would have accepted you if she hadn't been head over heels in love with you. Now write your letter, and then go to her. But to-morrow I want you all the morning—we must look into the acquaintances I spoke about, and the investments you spoke about. Meanwhile, the best of luck—you deserve it!"
Austin smoked thoughtfully for some minutes after Uncle Mat left him, and finally, roused from his brown study by the striking of a clock, went hurriedly to the desk and began his letter. Before he had finished, Sylvia's patience had quite given out, and she came and stood behind him, with her arm over his shoulder as he wrote. He acknowledged the caress with a nod and a smile, but went on writing, and did not speak until the letter was sealed and stamped.
"Sorry to have kept you waiting, dear. Now, then, what is it?"
"I've been thinking things over."
"So I supposed. Well, what have you thought, honey?"
"First, that I want you to have these. I've been going through my jewelry lately, and have had Uncle Mat sell everything except a few little trinkets I had before I—was married, and the pearls he gave me then. In my sorting process, I came across these things that were my father's. I never offered them to—to—any one before. But I want you to wear them, if you will."
She handed him a little worn leather box as she spoke, and on opening it he found, besides a few pins and studs of no great value, a handsome, old-fashioned watch and a signet ring.
"Thank you very much, dear. I'll wear them with great pride and pleasure, and this will be an exchange of gifts, for I've got something for you, too—that's what my shopping was this morning."
He took her left hand in his, slipped off her wedding ring, and slid another on her finger—a circle of beautiful diamonds sunk in a platinum band delicately chased.
"Austin! How exquisite! I never had—such a lovely ring! How did you happen to choose—just this?"
"Largely because I thought you could use it for both an engagement ring now, and a wedding ring when we get married—which was what I wanted." And without another word, he took the discarded gold circle and threw it into the fire. "And partly," he went on quite calmly—as if nothing unusual had happened, and as if it was an everyday occurrence to burn up ladies' property without consulting them—"because I thought it was beautiful, and—suitable, like the little star."
"And you expect me to wear it, publicly, now?"
"I shall put it a little stronger than that—I shall insist upon your doing so."
She looked up in surprise, her cheeks flushing at his tone, but he went on quietly:
"I've just written my mother, and asked her to tell the rest of the family, that we are engaged. They have as much right to know as your uncle. You can do as you please about telling other people, of course. But you can't wear another man's ring any longer. And it seems to me, as we shall no longer be living in the same house, and as I shall be coming constantly to see you after you come back to Hamstead, that it would be much more dignified if I could do so openly, in the role of your prospective husband. While as far as your friends here are concerned—after what you told me this morning—I think you must agree with me that it is much fairer to let them know at once how things stand with you, and introduce me to them."
"I don't want to use up these few precious days giving parties. I want you to myself."
"I know, dear—that's what I'd prefer, in one way, too. But I have got to take some time for business, and later on your friends will feel that you were ashamed of me—and be justified in feeling so—when they learn that we are to be married, and that you were not willing to have me meet them when I was here."
Sylvia did not answer, but sat with her eyes downcast, biting her lips, and pulling the new ring back and forth on her finger.
"That is, of course, unless you are ashamed—are you perfectly sure of your own mind? If not, my letter isn't posted yet, and it is very easy to tell your uncle that you have found you were mistaken in your feelings."
"What would you do if I should?" she asked defiantly.
"Do? Why, nothing. Tell him the same thing, of course, pack my suit-case, and start back to Hamstead as soon as I had met the men I came to see on business."
"Oh, Austin, how can you talk so! I don't believe you really want me, after all!"
"Don't you?" he asked in an absolutely expressionless voice, and pushing back his chair he walked over to the window, turning his back on her completely.
She was beside him in an instant, promising to do whatever he wished and begging his forgiveness. But it was so long before he answered her, or even looked at her, that she knew that for the second time that day she had wounded him almost beyond endurance.
"If you ever say that to me again, no power on earth will make me marry you," he said, in a voice that was not in the least threatening, but so decisive that there could be no doubt that he meant what he said; "and we've got to think up some way of getting along together without quarrelling all the time unless you have your own way about everything, whether it's fair that you should or not. Now, tell me what you wanted to talk to me about, and we'll try to do better—those troublesome details you mentioned before you left the farm? Perhaps I can straighten out some of them for you, if you'll only let me."
"The first one is—money."
"I thought so. It's a rather large obstacle, I admit. But things are not going to be so hard to adjust in that quarter as I feared. I'll tell you now about the little legacy I mentioned this morning." And he repeated his conversation with Uncle Mat. "You can do what you please with your own money, of course—take care of your own personal expenses, and run the house, and give all the presents you like to the girls—but you can't ever give me another cent, unless you want to call the family indebtedness to you your wedding present to me."
"You can't get everything you want on the income of ten thousand dollars—which is about all the capital you'll have left when you've paid all these first expenses you mention."
"I can have everything I need—with that and what I'll earn. What's your next 'detail'?"
"I suppose I'll have to give in about the money—but will you mind, very much, if we have—a long engagement?"
"I certainly shall. As I told you before, I think too much has been sacrificed to convention already."
"It isn't that."
"I don't know how to tell you, and still have you believe I love you dearly."
"You mean, that for some reason, you're not ready to marry me yet?" And as she nodded without speaking, her eyes filling with tears, he asked very gently, "Why not, Sylvia?"
"No—that is, not of you personally—but of marriage itself. I can't bear yet—the thought of facing—passion."
The hand that had been stroking her hair dropped suddenly, and she felt him draw away from her, with something almost like a groan, and put her arms around his neck, clinging to him with all her strength.
"Don't—I love you—and love you—and love you—oh, can't I make you see? Are you very angry with me, Austin?"
"No, darling, I'm not angry at all. How could I be? But I'm just beginning to realize—though I thought I knew before—what a perfect hell you've been through—and wondering if I can ever make it up to you."
"Then this doesn't seem to you dreadful—to have me ask for this?"
"Not half so dreadful as it would to have you look at me as you did on Christmas night."
He began stroking her hair again, speaking reassuringly, his voice full of sympathy.
"Don't cry, dearest—it's all right. There's nothing to worry over. It's right that you should have your way about this—it's my way, too, as long as you feel like this. I hope you won't too long—for—I love you, and want you, and—and need you so much—and—I've waited a year for you already. But I promise never to force—or even urge—you in any way, if you'll promise me that when you are ready—you'll tell me."
"I will," she sobbed, with her head hidden on his shoulder.
"Then that's settled, and needn't even be brought up again. Don't cry so, honey. Is there anything else?"
"Just one thing more; and in a way, it's the hardest to say of any."
"Well, tell me, anyway; perhaps I may be able to help."
"My baby," she said, speaking with great difficulty, "the poor little thing that only lived two weeks. It's buried in the same lot with—its father—at Greenwood. I never can go near that place again. I've paid some one to take care of it, and Uncle Mat has promised me to see that it's done. I think some day you and I—will have a son—more than one, I hope—and he will live! But if this—this baby—could be taken away from where he is now, and buried in that little cemetery, you know—I could go sometimes, quite happily, and stay with him, and put flowers on his little grave; and later on there could be a stone which said, merely, 'Harold, infant son of Sylvia—Gray.'"
Apparently Austin forgot what he had said that morning, for long before she had finished he took her in his arms; but the kisses with which he covered her face and hair were like those he would have given to a little child, and there was no need of an answer this time. For a long while she lay there, clinging to him and crying, until she was utterly spent with emotion, as she had been on the night when they had stayed in the wood; and at last, just as she had done then, she dropped suddenly and quietly to sleep. Through the tears which still blinded his own eyes, Austin half-smiled, remembering how he had longed to kiss her as he carried her home, rejoicing that his conscience no longer needed to stand like an iron barrier between his lips and hers. He waited until he was sure that she was sleeping so soundly that there would be little danger of waking her, then lifted her, took her down the hall to her room, and laid her on the big, four-posted bed.
"That's the second time you've been to sleep in my arms, darling," he whispered, bending over to kiss her before he left her; "the third time will be on our wedding might—God grant that isn't very far away!"
"Graduation from high school" ranks second in importance only to a wedding in rural New England families. For not only the "Graduating Exercises" themselves, with their "Salutatory" and "Valedictory" addresses, their "Class History" and "Class Prophecy," their essays and songs, constitute a great occasion, but there is also the all-day excursion of picnic character; the "Baccalaureate Sermon" in the largest church; the "Prize Speaking" in the nearest "Opera House"; and last, but not least, the "Graduation Ball" in the Town Hall. The boys suffer agonies in patent-leather boots, high, stiff collars and blue serge suits; the girls suffer torments of jealousy over the fortunate few whose white organdie dresses come "ready-made" straight from Boston. The Valedictorian, the winner at "Prize Speaking," the belle of the parties, are great and glorious beings somewhat set apart from the rest of the graduates; and long after housework and farming are peacefully resumed again, the success of "our class" is a topic of enduring interest.
A wedding brings even more in its train. The bride's house, where the marriage service, as well as the wedding reception, generally takes place, must be swept and scoured from attic to cellar, and, if possible, painted and papered as well. Guest-rooms must be set in order for visiting members of the family, and the bridal feast prepared and served without the help of caterers. The express office is haunted for incoming wedding presents, and though the destination of "the trip"—generally to Montreal or Niagara Falls if the happy pair can afford it—is a well-guarded secret, the trousseau and the gifts, as they arrive, stand in proud display for the neighbors to run in and admire, and the prospective bride and groom, self-conscious and blushing, attend divine service together in the face of a smiling and whispering congregation.
It was small wonder, then, that the Gray family, with the prospect of a graduation and a wedding within a few days of each other before it, was thrown into a ferment of excitement compared to which the hilarity of the Christmas holidays was but a mild ripple. Molly had won a scholarship at the Conservatory, and was beginning to show some talent for musical composition; Katherine was the Valedictorian of her class; Edith had every dance engaged for the ball; and though Thomas had not distinguished himself in any special way, he had kept a good average all the year in his studies, and managed to be very nearly self-supporting by the outside "chores" he had done at college, and it was felt that he, too, deserved much credit, and that his home-coming would be a joyful event. He was trying out "practical experiments" with his class, and could promise only to arrive "just in time"; but Molly, who headed her letters with the notes of the wedding march, and said that she was practising it every night, wrote that she would be home plenty long enough beforehand to help with everything, and that mother simply mustn't get all worn out working too hard with the house-cleaning; Sadie and James were coming home for a week, to take in both festivities, though Sadie must be "careful not to overdo just now." Katherine was entirely absorbed in her determination to get "over ninety" in every one of her final examinations; and Mr. and Mrs. Gray were both so busy and so preoccupied that Edith and Peter were left to pursue the course of true love unobserved and undisturbed.
The effect which Austin's letter to his mother, written the night after he reached New York, produced in a household already pitched so high, may readily be imagined. A thunderbolt casually exploding in their midst could not have effected half such a shock of surprise, or the gift of all the riches of the Orient so much joy. And when, a week later, he came home bringing Sylvia with him—a new Sylvia, laughing, crying, blushing, as shy as a girl surprised at her first tete-a-tete, Mr. and Mrs. Gray welcomed the little lady they loved so well as their daughter.
Those were great days for Mrs. Elliott, who, as mother of the prospective bridegroom, as well as Mrs. Gray's most intimate friend, enjoyed especial privileges; and as she was not averse to sharing her information and experiences, the entire village joyfully fell upon the morsels of choice gossip with which she regaled them.
"I don't believe any house in the village ever held so many elegant clothes at once," she declared. "For besides all Sally's things, which are just too sweet for anything, there's Katherine's graduation dress an' ball-dress, an' a third one, mind, to wear when she's bridesmaid—most girls would think they was pretty lucky to have any one of the three! Edith has a bridesmaid's dress just like hers, an' a bright yellow one for the ball, an' Molly's maid-of-honor's outfit is handsomest of all—pale pink silk, draped over kind of careless-like with chiffon, an' shoes an' silk stockin's to match. An' Mis' Gray, besides that pearl-colored satin Austin brought her from Europe, has a lavender brocade! 'I didn't feel to need it at all,' she told me, 'but Sylvia just insisted. "Two nice dresses aren't a bit too many for you to have," says Sylvia; "the gray one will be lovely for church all summer, an' after Sally's weddin', you can put away the lavender for—Austin's," she finished up, blushin' like a rose.' 'Have you any idea when that's goin' to be?' I couldn't help askin'. 'No,' says Mis' Gray, 'I wish I had. Howard an' I tried to persuade her to be married the same night as Sally! I've always admired a double-weddin'. But she wouldn't hear of it, an' I must say I was surprised to see her so set against it, an' that Austin didn't urge her a bit, either, for they just set their eyes by each other, any one can see that, an' there ain't a thing to hinder 'em from gettin' married to-morrow, that I know of, if they want to—unless perhaps they think it's too soon,' she ended up, kinder meanin'-like."
"The presents are somethin' wonderful," Mrs. Elliott related on another occasion. "Sally's uncle out in Seattle—widower of her that left Austin all that money—has sent her a whole dinner-set, white with pink roses on it—twelve dozen pieces in all, countin' vegetable dishes, bone-plates, an' a soup-tureen. She's had sixteen pickle-forks, ten bon-bon spoons, an' eight cut-glass whipped-cream bowls, but I dare say they'll all come in handy, one way or another, an' it makes you feel good to have so many generous friends. Austin's insisted on givin' her one of them Holsteen cows he fetched over from Holland, an' Fred says it's one of the most valuable things she's got, though I should feel as if any good bossy, raised right here in Hamstead, would probably do 'em just as well, an' that he might have chosen somethin' a little more tasty. Ain't men queer? Sylvia? Oh, she's given her a whackin' big check—enough so Sally can pay all her 'personal expenses,' as she calls 'em all her life, an' never touch the principal at that; an' a big box of knives an' forks an' spoons—'a chest of flat silver' she calls it, an' a silver tea-set to match—awful plain pattern they are, but Sally likes 'em. Yes, it's nice of her, but it ain't any more than I expected. She's got plenty of money—why shouldn't she spend it?"
Only once did Mrs. Elliott say anything unpleasant, and the village, knowing her usually sharp tongue, thought she did remarkably well, and took but little stock in this particular speech.
"I'm glad it's Sally Fred picked out, an' not one of the other girls," she declared; "she's twenty-nine years old now—a good, sensible age—pleasant an' easy-goin', same's her mother is, an' yet real capable. Ruth always was a silly, incompetent little thing—she has to hire help most of the time, with nothin' in the world to do but cook for Frank, look after that little tiny house, take care of them two babies, an' go into the store off an' on when business is rushin'. Molly's head is full of nothin' but music, an' Katherine's of books. As to that pretty little fool, Edith, I'm glad she ain't my daughter, runnin' round all the time with that Dutch boy, an' her parents both so possessed with the idea that she ain't out of her cradle yet—she bein' the youngest—that they can't see it. Peter ain't the only one she keeps company with either—if he was, it wouldn't be so bad, for I guess he's a good enough boy, though I can't understand a mortal word he says, an' them foreigners all have a kinder vacant look, to me. But the other night I was took awful sudden with one of them horrible attacks of indigestion I'm subject to—we'd had rhubarb pie for supper, an' 'twas just elegant, but I guess I ate too much of it, an' the telephone wouldn't work on account of the thunderstorm we'd had that day—seems like that there'd been a lot of them this season—so Joe had to hitch up an' go for the doctor. As he went past the cemetery, he see Edith leanin' over the fence with that no-count Jack Weston—an' it was past midnight, too!"
In the midst of such general satisfaction, it was perhaps inevitable that at least one person should not be pleased. And that person, as will be readily guessed, was Thomas. Sylvia, thinking the blow might fall more bearably from his brother's hand than from hers, relegated the task of writing him to Austin; and Austin, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, wrote him in this wise:
When you made that little break that I warned you against this spring, Sylvia probably offered to be a sister to you. I believe that is usual on such occasions. You have doubtless noticed that she is exceptionally truthful for a girl, so—largely to keep her word to you, perhaps—she decided a little while ago to marry me. Of course, I tried to dissuade her from this plan, but you know she is also stubborn. There seems to be nothing for me to do but to fall in with it. I don't know yet when the execution is going to take place, and though, of course, it would be a relief in a way if I did, I am not finding the death sentence without its compensations. Why don't you come home over some Sunday, and see how well I am bearing up? Sylvia told me to ask you, with her love, or I should not bother, for I am naturally a little loath, even now, to have so dangerous a rival, as you proved yourself in your spring vacation, too much in evidence.
Your affectionate brother
P.S. Have you taken any more ladies to Moving-Picture Palaces lately?
Needless to say, if Sylvia had seen this epistle, it would not have gone. But she did not. Austin took good care of that. And Thomas did come home—without waiting for Sunday. He rushed to the Dean's office, and told him there had been a death in the family. It is probable that, at the moment, he felt that this was true. At any rate, the Dean, looking at the boy's flushed cheeks and heavy eyes, did not doubt it for an instant.
"Of course, you must go home at once," he said kindly; "wait a minute, my Ford's at the door. I'll run you down to the station—you can just catch the one o'clock. I'll tell one of the fellows to express a suit-case to you this evening."
Travel on the Central Vermont Railroad is safe, but its best friend cannot maintain that it is swift. To get from Lake Champlain to the Connecticut River requires several changes, much patient waiting in small and uninteresting stations for connections, and the consumption of considerable time. It was a little after seven when Thomas, dinnerless and supperless, reached Hamstead, and plodding doggedly up the road in a heavy rain, met Mr. and Mrs. Elliott just starting out in their buggy for Thursday evening prayer meeting.
"Pull up, Joe," the latter said excitedly, as she spied the boy advancing towards them. "I do declare, there's Thomas Gray comin' up the road. I wonder if he's been expelled, or only suspended. I must find out, so's I can tell the folks about it after meetin', an' go down an' comfort Mary the first thing in the mornin' after I get them tomato plants set out. I always thought Thomas was some steadier than Austin, but Burlington's a gay place, an' he's probably got in with wild companions up there. Do you suppose it's some cheap little show girl, or gettin' in liquor by express from over in New York State, or forgin' a check on account of gamblin' debts? I know how boys spend their time while they're gettin' educated, you can't tell me. Or maybe he hasn't passed some examination. He never was extra bright. Failed everything, probably.—Good-evenin', Thomas, it's nice to see you back, but quite a surprise, it not bein' vacation time or nothin'. I suppose everything's goin' fine at college, ain't it?"
Thomas had never loved Mrs. Elliott, and lately he had come as near hating her as he was capable of hating anybody. He longed inexpressibly to cast a withering scowl in her direction, and pass on without answering. But his inborn civility was greater than his aversion. He pulled off his cap and stopped.
"Yes, everything's all right—I guess," he said, rather stupidly. Then a brilliant inspiration struck him. "I've been doing so well in my studies that they've given me a few days off to come home. That doesn't often happen—they made an exception in my case."
It was seldom that the slow-witted Thomas was blessed with one of these flights of fancy. For a minute he felt almost cheered. Mrs. Elliott was baffled.
"Do tell," she exclaimed. "It must be a rare thing—I never hear the like of it before. I'm most surprised you didn't take advantage of such a chance to go down to Boston an' see Molly. Didn't feel's you could afford it, I suppose. I guess she's kinder lonely down there. She don't seem to get acquainted real fast. You'd think, with all the people there are in Boston, she wouldn't ha' had much trouble, but then Molly's manner ain't in her favor, an' I suppose folks in the city is real busy—must be awful hard to keep house, livin' the way they do. I don't think much of city life. The last time Joe an' I went down on the excursion, we see the Charles River, an' the Old Ladies' Home, an' the Chamber of Horrors down on Washington Street, but we was real glad to come home. There was somethin' the matter with the lock to our suit-case, an' we couldn't get it undone all the time we was there, but fortunately it was real warm weather, so we really didn't suffer none. I thought by this time Molly might have a beau, but then, Molly's real plain. If the looks could ha' ben divided up more even between her an' Edith, same's the brains between you an' Austin, 'twould ha' ben a good thing, wouldn't it? But then you say you're gettin' on well now, an' in time some man may marry her, so's he can set an' listen to her play when he comes in tired from his chores at night. I've heard of sech things. An' then there's quite a bunch of love-affairs in the family already, ain't there?"
"Yes," said Thomas angrily, "there is."
Mrs. Elliott was quick to mark his tone. She nudged her husband.
"Well, well," she said playfully, "Austin's cut you out, ain't he? Mr. Jessup was in the race for a while, too, an' I thought he was runnin' pretty good, but you know we read in the Bible it don't always go to the swift. An' Austin may not get her after all—I hear there's several in New York as well an' she might change her mind. I never set much stock in young men marryin' widows myself. Seems like there's plenty of nice girls as ought to have a chance. An' Sylvia's awful high-toned, an' stubborn as a mule—I dunno's she an' Austin will be able to stick it out, he's some set himself. I shouldn't wonder if it all got broke off, an' I'm not sayin' it mightn't be for the best if it was. But I don't deny Sylvia's real pretty an' generous, an' I like her spunk. I was tellin' Joe only yesterday—"
"I'm afraid I'm keeping you from meeting," said Thomas desperately, and strode off down the road.
The barn—the beautiful new barn that Sylvia had made possible and that had filled his heart with such joy and pride—was still lighted. He walked straight to it, and met Peter coming out of the door. Peter stared his surprise.
"Where's my brother?" asked Thomas roughly.
"Mr. Gray ben still in the barn vorking. It's too bad he haf so much to do—he don't get much time mit de missus—den she tink he don't vant to come. I'm glad you're back, Mr. Thomas. I vas yust gon in to get ve herd book for him. I took it in to show Edit' someting I vant to explain to her, and left it in ve house. Most dum."
"You needn't bring it back. I want to see him alone."
Peter nodded, his bewilderment growing, and disappeared. Thomas flung himself down the long stable, without once glancing at the row of beautiful cows, his footsteps echoing on the concrete, to the office at the farther end. The door was open, and Austin sat at the roll-top desk, which was littered with account books, transfer sheets, and pedigree cards, typewriting vigorously. He sprang up in surprise.
"Why, Thomas!" he exclaimed cordially. "Where did you drop from? I'm awfully glad to see you!"
"You damned mean deceitful skunk!" cried the boy, slamming the door behind him, and ignoring his brother's outstretched hand. "I'd like to smash every bone in your body until there wasn't a piece as big as a toothpick left of you! You made me think you didn't care a rap about her—you said I wasn't worthy of her—that I was an ignorant farmer and she was a great lady. That's true enough—but I'm just as good as you are, every bit! I know you've done all sorts of rotten things I never have! But just the same this is the first time I ever thought that you—or any Gray—wasn't square! And then you write me a letter about her like that—as if she'd flung herself at your head—Sylvia!"
Austin's conscience smote him. He had never seen Thomas's side before; and neither he nor any other member of the family had guessed how much their incessant teasing had hurt, or how hard the younger brother had been hit. In the extremely unsentimental way common in New England, these two were very fond of each other, and he realized that Thomas's affection, which was very precious to him, would be gone forever if he did not set him right at once.
"Look here," he said, forcing Thomas into the swivel chair, and seating himself on the desk, ignoring the papers that fell fluttering to the floor, "you listen to me. You've got everything crooked, and it's my fault, and I'm darned sorry. I never told you I cared for Sylvia, not because I wanted to deceive you, but because I cared so everlasting much, from the first moment I set eyes on her, that I couldn't talk about it. No one else guessed either—you weren't the only one. The funny part of it is, that she didn't! She thought, because I steered pretty clear of her, out of a sense of duty, that I didn't like her especially. Imagine—not liking Sylvia! Ever hear of any one who didn't like roses, Thomas? But I never dreamed that she'd have me—or even of asking her to! As to throwing herself at my head—well, she put it that way herself once, and I shut her up pretty quick—you'll find out how to do it yourself some day, with some other girl, though, of course, it doesn't look that way to you now—but I can't give you that treatment! I guess I'll have to tell you—though I never expected to tell a living soul—just how it did happen. It's—it's the sort of thing that is too sacred to share with any one, even any one that I think as much of as I do of you—but I've got to make you believe that, five minutes beforehand, I had no idea it was going to occur." And as briefly and honestly as he could, he told Thomas how Sylvia had come to him while he was making his bonfire, and what had taken place afterwards. Then, with still greater feeling in his voice, he went on: "There's something else I haven't told any one else either, and that is, that I can't for a single instant get away from the thought that, even now, I'm not going to get her. I know I haven't any right to her and I don't feel sure that I can make her happy—that she can respect me as much as a girl ought to respect the man she's going to marry. I certainly don't think I'm any worthier of her than you—or as worthy—never did for a minute. I have done lots of rotten things, and you've always been as straight as a string—and you'd better thank the Lord you have! When you get engaged you won't have to go through what I have! But you see the difference is, as far as Sylvia and you and I are concerned"—he hesitated, his throat growing rough, his ready eloquence checked—"Sylvia likes you ever so much; she thinks you're a fine boy, and that by and by you'll want to marry a fine girl; but I'm a man already, and young as she is, Sylvia's a woman—and God knows why—she loves me!"
Austin glanced at Thomas. The anger was dying out of the boy's face, and unashamed tears were standing in his eyes.
"A lot," added Austin huskily. Then, after a long pause: "Won't you have a whiskey-and-soda with me—I've got some in the cupboard here for emergencies, while we talk over some of this business I was deep in when you came in? There are any number of things I've been anxious to get your opinion on—you've got lots of practical ability and good judgment in places where I'm weak, and I miss you no end when you're where I can't get at you—I certainly shall be glad when you're through your course, and home for good! And after we get this mess straightened out"—he bent over to pick up the scattered sheets—"we'd better go in together and find Sylvia, hadn't we?"
Strangely enough, Sylvia and Austin were perhaps less happy at this time than any of the other dwellers at the Homestead. After the first day, the week in New York had been a period of great happiness to both of them, and Austin had proved such an immediate success, both among Sylvia's friends and Uncle Mat's business associates, that both were immensely gratified. But after the return to the country, matters seemed to go less and less well. During the year in which they had "loved and longed in secret," each had exalted the other to the position of a martyr and a saint. The intimacy of their engagement was rapidly revealing the fact that, after all, they were merely ordinary human beings, and the discovery was something of a shock to both. Austin had thought over Uncle Mat's advice, and found it good; he was gentle and considerate, and showed himself perfectly willing to submit to Sylvia's wishes in most important decisions, but he refused to be dictated to in little things. She was so accustomed, by this time, to having her slightest whim not only respected, but admired, by all the adoring Gray family, and most of her world at large besides, that she was apt to behave like a spoiled child when Austin thwarted her. She nearly always had to admit, afterwards, that he had been right, and this did not make it any easier for her. His "incessant obstinacy," as she called it, was rapidly "getting on her nerves," while it seemed to him that they could never meet that she did not have some fresh grievance, or disagree with him radically about something. She wanted him at her side all the time; he had a thousand other interests. She saw no reason why, after they were married, they should live in the country all the year, and every year; he saw no reason why they should do anything else. And so it went with every subject that arose.
If Sylvia had been less idle, she would have had no time to think about "nerves." But the manservant and his wife whom she had installed in the little brick house were well-trained and competent to the last degree, and the menage ran like clock-work without any help from her. She was debarred from riding or driving alone, and the girls at the farm had no time to go with her, and it was still an almost unheard-of thing in that locality for a woman to run a motor. She could not fill an hour a day working in her little garden, and she had no special taste for sewing. The only thing for her to do seemed to be to sit around and wait for Austin to appear, and Austin was not only very busy, but extremely absorbed in his work. It was impossible for him to come to see her every night, and when he did come, he was so thoroughly and wholesomely tired and sleepy, that his visits were short. On Sundays he had more leisure; but Mr. and Mrs. Gray seemed to take it for granted that Sylvia would still go to church with them in the morning, and spend the rest of the day at their house. She could not bring herself to the point of disappointing them, though she rebelled inwardly; but she complained to Austin, as they were walking back to her house together after a day spent in this manner, that she never saw him alone at all.
"It's not only the family," she said, "but Peter, and Fred, and Mr. and Mrs. Elliott are around all the time, and to-day there were Ruth and Frank and those two fussy babies needing something done for them every single minute besides! It was perfect bedlam. I want you to myself once in a while."
"You can have me to yourself, for good and all, whenever you want me," replied Austin.
This was so undeniable a statement that Sylvia changed the subject abruptly.
"There is no earthly need of your working so hard, and you know it."
"But Sylvia, I like to work; and I'm awfully anxious to make a success of things, now that we've got such a wonderful start at last."
"Are you more interested in this stupid old farm than you are in me?"
"Why, Sylvia, it isn't a 'stupid old farm' to me! It's the place my great-grandfather built, and that all the Grays have lived in and loved for four generations! I thought you liked it, too."
"I do, but I'm jealous of it."
"You ought not to be. You know that there's nothing in the world so dear to me as you are."
"Then let me pay for another hired man, so that you'll have more time for yourself—and for me."
"Indeed, I will not. You'll never pay for another thing on this farm if I can help it. No one could be more grateful than I am for all you've done, but the time is over for that."
"Won't you come in?" she asked, as, they reached her garden, and she noticed that he stopped at the gate.
"Not to-night—we've had a good walk together, and you know I have to get up pretty early in the morning. Good-night, dear," and he raised her fingers to his lips.
She snatched them away, lifting her lovely face. "Oh, Austin!" she cried, "how can you be so calm and cold? I think sometimes you're made of stone! If you must go, don't say good-night like that—act as if you were made of flesh and blood!"
"I'm acting in the only sane way for both of us. If you don't like it, I had better not come at all."
And he went home without giving her even the caress he had originally intended, and slept soundly and well all night; but Sylvia tossed about for hours, and finally, at dawn, cried herself to sleep.
The first serious disagreement, however, came just before Katherine's graduation. Austin, who loved to dance, was looking forward to his clever sister's "ball" with a great deal of pride and pleasure, and was genuinely amazed when Sylvia objected violently to his going, saying that as she could not dance, and as all the rest of the family would be there, Katherine did not need him, and that he had much better stay at home with her.
"But, Sylvia," protested Austin, "I want to go. I'm awfully proud of Katherine, and I wouldn't miss it for anything. Why don't you come, too? I don't see any reason why you shouldn't."
"Of course you don't. You weren't brought up among people who know what's proper in such matters."
"I know it, Sylvia. But if that's going to trouble you, you should have thought of it sooner. My knowledge of etiquette is very slight, I admit, but my common-sense tells me that announcing one's engagement should be equivalent to stopping all former observances of mourning."
"I didn't want to announce it. It was you that insisted upon that, too."
"Well, you know why," said Austin with some meaning.
"All right, then," burst out Sylvia angrily, "go to your old ball. You seem to think you are an authority on everything. I'm sure I don't want to go, anyway, and dance with a lot of awkward farmers who smell of the cow-stable. I shouldn't think you would care about it either, now that you've had a chance to see things properly done."
"I care a good deal about my sister, Sylvia, and about my friends here, too. There are no better people on the face of the earth—I've heard you say so, yourself! It's only a chance that I'm a little less awkward than some of the others."
The result of this conversation was that Austin did not go near Sylvia for several days. He was deeply hurt, but that was not all. He began to wonder, even more than he ever had before, whether his comparative poverty, his lack of education, his farmer family and traditions and friends, were not very real barriers between himself and a girl like Sylvia. What was more, he questioned whether a strong, passionate, determined man, who felt that he knew his own best course and proposed to take it, could ever make such a delicate, self-willed little creature happy, even if there were no other obstacles in their path than those of warring disposition.
Something of his old sullenness of manner returned, and his mother, after worrying in silence over him for a time finally asked him what the trouble was. At first he denied that there was anything, next stubbornly refused to tell her what it was, and at last, like a hurt schoolboy, blurted out his grievance. To his amazement and grief, Mrs. Gray took Sylvia's part. This was the last straw. He jerked himself away from her, and went out, slamming the front door after him. It was evening, and he was tired and hot and dirty. The rest of the family had almost finished supper when he reached the table, an unexpected delay having arisen in the barn, and he had eaten the unappetizing scraps that remained hurriedly, without taking time to shave and bathe and change his clothes. He had never gone to Sylvia in this manner before; but he strode down the path to her house with a bitter satisfaction in his heart that she was to see him when he was looking and feeling his worst, and that she would have to take him as he was, or not at all. He found her in her garden cutting roses, a picture of dainty elegance in her delicate white fabrics. She greeted him somewhat coolly, as if to punish him for his lack of deference to her on his last visit, and his subsequent neglect, and glanced at his costume with a disapproval which she was at no pains to conceal. Then with a sarcasm and lack of tact which she had never shown before, she gave voice to her general dissatisfaction.
"Really, Austin, don't come near me, please; you're altogether too barny. Don't you think you're carrying your devotion to the nobility of labor a little too far, and your devotion to me—if you still have any—not quite far enough? You're slipping straight back to your old slovenly, disagreeable ways—without the excuse that you formerly had that they were practically the only ways open to you. If you're too proud to accept my money and the freedom that it can give you, and so stubborn that you make a scene and then won't come near me for days because I refuse to go to a cheap little public dance with you—"
She got no farther. Austin interrupted her with a violence of which she would not have believed him capable.
"If! If you're too stubborn to go with me to my sister's graduation ball, and too proud to accept the fact that I'm a farmer, with a farmer's friends and family and work, and that I'm damned glad of it, and won't give them up, or be supported by any woman on the face of the earth, or let her make a pet lap-dog of me, you can go straight back to the life you came from, for all me! You seem to prefer it, after all, and I believe it's all you deserve. If you don't—don't ask my forgiveness for the things you've said the last two times I've seen you, and say you'll go to that party with me, and be just as darned pleasant to every one there as you know how to be—and promise to stop quarrelling, and keep your promise—I'll never come near you again. You're making my life utterly miserable. You won't marry me, and yet you are bound to have me make love to you all the time, when I'm doing my best to keep my hands off you—and I'd rather be shot than marry you, on the terms you're putting up to me at present! You've got two days to think it over in, and if you don't send for me before it's time to start for the ball, and tell me you're sorry, you won't get another chance to send for me again as long as you live. I'm either not worth having at all, or I'm worth treating better than you've seen fit to do lately!"
He left her, without even looking at her again, in a white heat of fury. But before the hot dawn of another June day had given him an excuse to get up and try to work off his feelings with the most strenuous labor that he could find, he had spent a horrible sleepless night which he was never to forget as long as he lived. His anger gave way first to misery, and then to a panic of fear. Suppose she took him literally—though he had meant every word when he said it—suppose he lost her? What would the rest of his life be worth to him, alone, haunted, not only by his senseless folly in casting away such a precious treasure, but by his ingratitude, his presumption, and his own unworthiness? A dozen times he started towards her house, only to turn back again. She hadn't been fair. They couldn't be happy that way. If he gave in now, he would have to do it all the rest of his life, and she would despise him for it. As the time which he had stipulated went by, and no message came, he suffered more and more intensely—hoped, savagely, that she was suffering, too, and decided that she could not be, or that he would have heard from her; but resolved, more and more decidedly, with every hour that passed, that he would fight this battle out to the bitter end.
It was even later than usual when he came in on the night of the ball, and when he entered, every one in the house was hurrying about in the inevitable confusion which precedes a "great occasion." Edith, the only one who seemed to be ready, was standing in the middle of the living-room, fresh and glowing as a yellow rose in her bright dress, Peter beside her buttoning her gloves. She glanced at her grimy brother with a feeble interest.
"Mercy, Austin, you'd better hurry! We're going to leave in five minutes."
"Well, I'm not going to leave in five minutes! I've got to get out of these clothes and have a bath and it's hardly necessary to tell me all that—one glance at you is sufficient," said Edith flippantly.
"Well, I can come on later alone, I suppose. Where's mother?"
"Still dressing. Why?"
"Do you happen to know whether—Sylvia's been over here this afternoon—or sent a telephone message or a note?"
"I'm perfectly sure she hasn't. Why?"
"Nothing," said Austin grimly, and left the room.
Like most people who try to dress in a hurry when they are angry, Austin found that everything went wrong. There was no hot water left, and he had to heat some himself for shaving while he took a cold bath; his mother usually got his clothes ready for him when she knew he was detained, but this time she had apparently been too rushed herself. He couldn't find his evening shoes; he couldn't get his studs into his stiff shirt until he had had a struggle that raised his temperature several degrees higher than it was already; the big, jolly teamful departed while he was rummaging through his top drawer for fresh handkerchiefs; and he was vainly trying to adjust his white tie satisfactorily, when a knock at the door informed him that he was not alone in the house after all; he said "come in" crossly, and without turning, and went on with his futile attempts.
"Has every one else gone? I didn't know I was so late—but I've been all through the house downstairs calling, and couldn't get any answer. Let me do that for you—let's take a fresh one—"
He wheeled sharply around, and found Sylvia standing beside him—Sylvia, dressed in shell-pink, shimmering satin and foamy lace, with pearls in her dark hair and golden slippers on her feet, her neck and arms white and bare and gleaming. With a little sound that was half a sob, and half a cry of joy, she flung her arms around his neck and drew his face down to hers.
"Austin—I'm—I'm sorry—I do—beg your forgiveness from the bottom of my heart. I promise—and I'll keep my promise—to be reasonable—and kind—and fair—to stop making you miserable. It's been all my fault that we've quarrelled, every bit—and we never will again. I've come to tell you—not just that I'll go to the party with you, gladly, if you're still willing to take me, but that there's nothing that matters to me in the whole world—except you—"
The first touch of Sylvia's arms set Austin's brain seething; after the hungry misery of the past few days, it acted like wine offered to a starving man, suddenly snatched and drunk. Her words, her tears, her utter self-abandonment of voice and manner, annihilated in one instant the restraint in which he had held himself for months. He caught the delicate little creature to him with all his strength, burying his face in the white fragrance of her neck. He forgot everything in the world except that she was in his arms—alone with him—that nothing was to come between them again as long as they lived. He could feel her heart beating against his under the soft lace on her breast, her cool cheeks and mouth growing warm under the kisses that he rained on them until his own lips stung. At first she returned his embrace with an ardor that equalled his own; then, as if conscious that she was being carried away by the might of a power which she could neither measure nor control, she tried to turn her face away and strove to free herself.
"Don't," she panted; "let me go! You—you-hurt me, Austin."
"I can't help it—I shan't let you go! I'm going to kiss you this time until I get ready to stop."
For a moment she struggled vainly. Austin's arms tightened about her like bands of steel. She gave a little sigh, and lifted her face again.
"I can't seem to—kiss back any more," she whispered, "but if this is what you want—if it will make up to you for these last weeks—it doesn't matter whether you hurt or not."
Every particle of resistance had left her. Austin had wished for an unconditional surrender, and he had certainly attained it. There could never again be any question of which should rule. She had come and laid her sweet, proud, rebellious spirit at his very feet, begging his forgiveness that it had not sooner recognized its master. A wonderful surge of triumph at his victory swept over him—and then, suddenly—he was sick and cold with shame and contrition. He released her, so abruptly that she staggered, catching hold of a chair to steady herself, and raising one small clenched hand to her lips, as if to press away their smarting. As she did so, he saw a deep red mark on her bare white arm. He winced, as if he had been struck, at the gesture and what it disclosed, but it needed neither to show him that she was bruised and hurt from the violence of his embrace; and dreadful as he instantly realized this to be, it seemed to matter very little if he could only learn that she was not hurt beyond all healing by divining the desire and intention which for one sacrilegious moment had almost mastered him.
A gauzy scarf which she had carried when she entered the room had fallen to the floor. He stooped and picked it up, and stood looking at it, running it through his hands, his head bent. It was white and sheer, a mere gossamer—he must have stepped on it, for in one place it was torn, in another slightly soiled. Sylvia, watching him, holding her breath, could see the muscles of his white face growing tenser and tenser around his set mouth, and still he did not glance at her or speak to her. At last he unfolded it to its full size, and wrapped it about her, his eyes giving her the smile which his lips could not.
"Nothing matters to me in the whole world either—except you," he said brokenly. "I think these last few—dreadful days—have shown us both how much we need each other, and that the memory of them will keep us closer together all our lives. If there's any question of forgiveness between us, it's all on my side now, not yours, and I don't think I can—talk about it now. But I'll never forget how you came to me to-night, and, please God, some day I'll be more worthy of—of your love and—and your trust than I've shown myself now. Until I am—" He stopped, and, lifting her arm, kissed the bruise which his own roughness had made there. "What can I do—to make that better?" he managed to say.
"It didn't hurt—much—before—and it's all healed—now," she said, smiling up at him; "didn't your mother ever 'kiss the place to make it well' when you were a little boy, and didn't it always work like a charm? It won't show at all, either, under my glove."
"Your glove?" he asked stupidly; and then, suddenly remembering what he had entirely forgotten—"Oh—we were going to a ball together. You came to tell me you would, after all. But surely you won't want to now—"