"Prudence, I think it only right to tell you that I am going to be married."
One apple rolled from the bowl down along the floor and under the kitchen stove. I cannot conceive of any shock, however great, that would cause Prudence to lose more than one apple. Partly to conciliate, and partly to conceal my own trepidation, I made a gallant effort to rescue the wanderer, and as I poked the hiding-place with my stick, I heard her say: "Lord, I know'd it'd come!"
"The fact that it has come, Prudence," I answered with a sickly attempt at gayety, "does not seem to be a reason why you should call with such vehemence on your Maker. There does not appear to be any need of Providential interposition. Things are not so bad as all that."
I always used my most elegant English when conversing with Prudence. If she did not understand it, it flattered her to think that I paid this tribute to her intelligence.
"Mr. John," she said, and there was a suspicious break in her voice, "for twenty years I have tried to do my duty by you, and now that I must go—"
"Go?" I interrupted; "who said you must go? Who spoke about anybody's going? You certainly do not expect to turn that bowl of apples over to me and leave me to get breakfast?"
"No, Mr. John, I shall go on and do my duty, as I see it, until you have made all your plans and are comfortable."
"Now, look here, Prudence, I am very comfortable as things are, thank you. And you will pardon me if I say I cannot understand why you should go at all. I shall continue to eat, I hope, after I am married, and I think it altogether probable that I shall require a house-keeper and a cook. I believe they do have such things in well-regulated families."
"At my age, and with my experience, and considerin' how we have lived, Mr. John, I couldn't get along with a mistress, 'specially," she added with a touch of malice, "with a woman considerable older than me."
"Older than you? What are you talking about? Miss Kinglake is young enough to be your daughter."
Another apple rolled on the floor. "Miss Kinglake!" she exclaimed in astonishment, "that lamb? Good Lord, I thought you were goin' to marry the other one!"
"Prudence," I said rather hotly, for I did not relish her amazement, "you will oblige me by not speaking of these ladies as the 'lamb' and 'the other one.' I might gather from your remarks that I am a sort of ravening wolf, instead of a well-meaning gentleman who is merely exercising the privilege of selecting a wife. But," I said, checking myself, for I was ashamed of my explosion, "I shall be magnanimous enough to believe that you are delighted with my choice, and that I have your congratulations. You will be glad to know that Miss Kinglake and I are perfectly satisfied with each other, and that we are both entirely satisfied with you. And now that we understand the situation, I think I may presume that we shall have breakfast at the usual hour this morning, and to-morrow morning, and for many mornings to come. And, by the way, Prudence, while I have honored you with my confidence, permit me to impress it upon you that this revelation is not village gossip as yet, and you will put me under further obligations by not mentioning the circumstance. Good-morning, Prudence. Kindly call the ladies at eight o'clock."
And thereupon I hastily departed, leaving the good woman in a state of stupefaction, since, for the first and only time in our long and controversial association, had I retired with the last word. Taking a second turn in the garden I encountered Malachy, and my conscience reproached me. "Am I doing right," I asked myself, "in withholding the glad news from this faithful servant who has shown himself so worthy of my confidence? Is it not my duty to tell him—not so much to interest him in his future mistress as to demonstrate the trust I repose in him?"
Malachy received my confidence with less excitement than I had expected. In fact I was slightly humiliated by his seeming lack of gratitude. He touched his hat very respectfully, and observed irrelevantly that the roses below the arbor were looking uncommonly well. This was a poor reward for my attempt at consideration, and further convinced me of the uselessness of establishing anything like intimate relations with the proletariat.
"By the way, Malachy," I said in parting, "you will keep this matter a profound secret. Miss Kinglake and I are desirous that we shall not be annoyed by village chatter and premature congratulations."
Having discharged my duty to my good servants, I felt that my obligations, so far as the relation with Phyllis was concerned, were at an end, and the morning wore away without further misgivings of disloyalty. In the afternoon Bunsey came over for his daily smoke, and as we sat together in the library, and I noticed the entire absence of suspicion in his manner, my heart smote me. "Truly," I reasoned silently, "I am behaving ill to an old friend who has never withheld from me the very secrets of his soul. Should I not be as generous, as outspoken, with him as he has always proved to me? Should I not confide to him this one precious secret, at the same time swearing him to preserve it as he would his life?"
I blew out a ring of smoke, and then I began with the utmost seriousness: "Bunsey, how do you like the ladies?"
He shifted his position, tipped the ashes from his cigar, and replied tranquilly: "Oh, I dare say I shall in time."
The answer vexed me. Bunsey was a bachelor, and should have been therefore the more impressionable. I forgot for the moment, in my annoyance, that he was a novelist, and had been so diligently creating lovely and impossible women to order that he was not easily moved by the realities of humanity.
"At all events," I replied with delicate irony, "I am glad that the future is hopeful for the ladies. My reason for asking the question was simply to lead the way to a confidence I intend to repose in you. To proceed expeditiously to the end of a long story, I intend to marry one of them."
Bunsey's tranquillity was unshaken. "Which one?"
"Which one?" I echoed with heat, "why, Miss Kinglake, of course."
"Does she intend to marry you?"
"Confound your impertinence!" I roared, "what do you mean by that?"
"No impertinence, at all, my dear fellow. In fact it is most pertinent. Miss Kinglake is a girl, and you—well, you voted for Grant."
"Which is your gentle way of saying that I am too old."
"No, not too old; just old enough—to know better."
"We are never too old to love," I said, conscious that I was uttering a melancholy platitude.
"Too old to love? Heaven forbid! But we may be too old to marry—at least to marry anybody worth while. Come, Stanhope, tell me: do you really love this young woman?"
"Love her? Here I have been telling you that I intend to marry a charming girl, and you turn about and ask me if I love her. Of course I love her. I have been loving her in one way and another for years."
"What do you mean by that? I thought you only met her a few weeks ago."
I smiled pityingly. "So I did, but for years she has been my affinity. Incidentally I don't mind saying I began by loving her mother."
Bunsey sat up straight. "Oh, you loved her mother. Was her mother pretty?"
"She was as you see Phyllis. In fact I think she was, if anything, a trifle prettier. We were playmates and schoolmates, and in the nature of things, if I had not wandered off to the city, I presume we should have married. Dear little Sylvia," I went on musingly, "I can see her at this moment, looking down from heaven and smiling on my union with her daughter. For if ever a match was made in heaven this was. Confound it! what are you doing now?"
While I was talking Bunsey had reached over, taken a sheet of paper and was busily writing. He looked up carelessly.
"Your story interests me, and is such good material that I thought I would make a few notes. Young boy loves young girl—goes to city—forgets her—young girl marries—has charming daughter—dies—years pass—venerable gentleman returns—sees daughter—great emotion on part of v. g.—thinks he loves her—proposes—accepted—mar—no, there I think I must stop for the present."
"Oh, don't stop there, I beg," I said sarcastically; "if you are thinking of using these materials for one of your popular novels, be sure to throw in a few duels, several heartrending catastrophes, and other incidents of what you call 'action,' appropriately expressed in bad English."
Bunsey was imperturbable. "Thank you for your appreciative estimate of my literary style," he replied coolly; "but really, my consideration for my old friend deprives me of the pleasure of robbing his diary."
I was still out of temper. "Bunsey, I don't mind favoring you with a further confidence. You're an ass!"
With this parting shot I strode out of the library, when, remembering the sacredness of my revelation, I turned back.
"Of course you will understand, Bunsey, that however flippantly you may choose to regard what I have said to you, you will have the decency to keep the subject-matter to yourself. I do not ask your congratulations or your approval, but I demand your secrecy."
"The ass brays acknowledgments," answered Bunsey meekly, helping himself to another cigar. "You may rely on my loyal and devoted interest. The fact that I have heard your secret twice before to-day shall not open my lips or cause me to violate your trust."
Notwithstanding my attitude of indifference I was greatly troubled by Bunsey's unfeeling suggestion. Could it be possible that I had mistaken my own heart? Was I, yielding, as I had believed, to the first strong passion of my life, only deluding myself with a remembrance of my vanished youth? I dismissed the thought impatiently. For, after all, was not Bunsey a hopeless cynic, a fellow without a single emotion of the ennobling sentiment of man toward woman, a sordid story-teller, who created characters for money, wrecked homes, committed literary murders, played unfeelingly on the tenderest sensibilities, and boasted openly that the only angels were those made by a stroke of the pen and retailed at department store book-counters? And while thus reasoning Phyllis came to me, so winsome in her girlish beauty, so radiant in the happiness I had infused into her life, so joyous in the pleasures of the present, that I laughed at my own doubts, reproached myself for my own unworthy suspicions, and straightway forgot both Bunsey and his evil promptings.
Love at eight and forty is a very pleasant and indolent emotion, marking the most delightful stage in the progress of the great human passion. At twenty-five we talk it; at thirty-five we act it; at forty-five it is pleasant to sit down and think about it. The very young man loves without really analyzing. Ten years later he analyzes without really loving. In another decade he has compounded the proportions of love and analysis, and becomes, under favoring conditions, the most dangerous and hence the most acceptable of suitors. The man in middle life takes his adored one tolerantly, and keeps his reservations to himself. In the ordinary course of events he has acquired a certain knowledge of feminine character, he knows the rocks and the shoals of love, and, skillful pilot that he is, he avoids them. He is sure of his course, master of his equipment. If he errs at all—but I anticipate.
Those were very joyous days, notwithstanding the applications of cold water so liberally bestowed by my confidential advisers. And eagerly and successfully I exerted myself to convince the doubting ones in general, and Bunsey in particular, how absurd were their suspicions, and how apparent it was that Phyllis and I had been purposely created for each other. Mary threw herself into our pleasures as heartily and joyously as her New England nature would permit, which was never a very riotous demonstration, and Phyllis, with the effervescence and enthusiasm of girlhood, eagerly assented to every proposition that had its pleasure-seeking side; while I, as a thoughtful lover should, busied myself in schemes for summer dissipation, thankful that it was in my power to prove so devoted a knight, and inwardly rejoicing at my triumph over those who had taxed me with such unworthy thoughts. Even Frederick—good fellow that he was—allowed himself unusual days of vacation to partake of our merriment, and it pleased me greatly to see that when business cares or physical disinclination kept me off the programme, he no longer allowed his indifference to interfere with his duty as my nephew and personal representative. Such, I take it, is the obligation of all young men similarly placed.
For, before many weeks had passed, I discovered that it was not wise to allow the fleeting dissipations of the moment, however alluring, to monopolize time which should be given to the serious affairs of life. I found that a cramped position in a boat in the hot sun brought on nervous headaches, and that too much time in the garden when the dew was falling was conducive to lumbago. Furthermore I had been invited by a neighboring university to deliver my celebrated lecture on the protagonism of Plato, and several new and excellent thoughts had come to me which required careful and elaborate development. I explained these matters conscientiously and fully to Phyllis, and while she offered no unreasonable protest, her pretty face clouded, and she did me the honor to say that half the enjoyment was removed by my absence. Once she even went so far as to declare that Plato was a "horrid man," and that she believed I thought more of him than of her—a most ridiculous conclusion but so essentially feminine that I forgave her at once. And, when she came to me, and put her arms around my neck and urged me to go with her to a tennis match—a foolish game where grown-up people knock little balls over a net with a battledore—I pointed out to her that such spectacles, while eminently proper for young folk, argued a failing mind in those of maturer years. With a charming pout she said:
"Do you think you would have refused to go if my mother had asked you?"
Now tennis is a sport that has come up since Sylvia and I were children together, but I recalled, with a guilty blush, the time when she and I won the village championship in doubles in an all day siege of croquet, so what could I say in my own defence? Therefore I went with Phyllis to the tennis-court and sat for two long and inexpressibly dreary hours watching the senseless and stupid proceedings. It was pleasant to reflect that I was with Sylvia's daughter, and I tried to imagine that the keen interest of youth still remained, but I was sadly out of place. I am satisfied that this game of tennis has nothing of the fascinating quality of croquet. On our arrival home Phyllis kissed me, and thanked me for what she called my "self-denial," but after that one experience Frederick represented me at the tennis-court, as, indeed, the good-natured boy consented to do at many similar festivities.
And so the summer wore gradually away, one day's enjoyment lazily following another's, with nothing to disturb the serenity of my life, or to interfere with the calm content into which I had settled. Phyllis was everything that a moderate and reasonable lover could wish—kind, gentle, affectionate within the bounds of maidenly discretion, attentive to my wishes, and considerate of my caprices. The more I saw of her the more I was persuaded that I had chosen wisely and well. One afternoon—Frederick, at my suggestion, had gallantly given up his work in the office and taken Phyllis down the river. I sat with Bunsey in the library, and took occasion to expound to him the philosophy of perfect love.
"The trouble is," I said, "that people rush blindly into matrimony. They think they are in love, work themselves up to the proper pitch of madness, propose and marry while they are in delirium. Hence, so much of the wretchedness and misery that we see in the homes of our friends. For my part I am committed to the doctrine of affinities. It is true that I, like many others, was guilty of the usual folly in my youth, and perhaps that gave me the wisdom to wait for my second venture until precisely the fight party came along. Matrimony, Bunsey, is an exact science. If we regulate our passion, control all silly emotion, study feminine nature as critically and methodically as we investigate a mathematical problem, and commit ourselves only when the affinity presents herself, we shall make no mistakes. For, after all, what is an affinity? Nothing more than a human being sent by Providence as perfectly adapted to the wheels and curves of your nature."
"A very pretty theory," retorted Bunsey, grimly; "and, by the way, when do you think of rushing into matrimony?"
"Really," I said, somewhat confused, "to be entirely honest with you, I have not settled on any particular day. You see Phyllis should have her fling. She is very young."
"True, but you are not."
As Bunsey said this he rose and tossed his cigar out of the window. "Stanhope," he went on, "we are old friends, and I don't wish to be continually seeming to interfere with your business, but if I were a man with fifty years leering hideously at me, and engaged to a pretty girl of two and twenty, I'd make quick work of it before Providence came along with a younger affinity in a Panama hat, negligee shirt, and duck trousers."
I stared at him with a sort of helpless amazement. "Exactly what do you mean?" I asked.
"Well," he answered, shrugging his shoulders, "at the risk of being kicked out of the house, let me say that I think such an affinity has already presented himself."
"Indeed, and who may that be?"
"Suppose we say Frederick."
"Exactly; your nephew. He is an uncommonly good-looking fellow, and, thanks to his uncle's childlike belief in Providence and the doctrine of affinities, he has most unusual opportunities to test that doctrine for himself. I dare say that he is making a formal study of the situation at this very moment, and inviting Providence to appear on the scene as his sponsor."
What more was said at this interview, if, indeed, it did not terminate with this brutal statement, I cannot recall, for Bunsey, usually so flippant and cynical, spoke with an earnestness that stunned me. My knowledge of the philosophy of love told me that he was wrong; my observation of the actualities of life made me fear that he might be right. Theoretically, I could not have been mistaken in my course; practically, I began to see weak spots in the chain of evidence. Swiftly, I ran over the events of the spring and summer, and as little spots no bigger than a man's hand magnified themselves into black clouds, Bunsey, sitting opposite, seemed to grow larger and larger, and his smile more malicious and demon-like. Possibly, had I been a younger and more impetuous man, I should have flown into a passion, taken Bunsey at his word, and kicked him out of the house; but the philosophy of the thing engrossed me, filled me with half fear, half curiosity, and engaged all my mental faculties. Had I been mistaken? Could I be deceived in the daughter of Sylvia?
However strong my suspicions may have been, they were not increased when, with the evening, Phyllis and Frederick came home from their excursion. Never was Phyllis more unreserved, more cordial, more joyous, more attentive to the little wants, which I, in a mean and shameful test, imposed on her. She could not be acting a part, this New England girl, with her alert conscience, her Puritan impulse and training, her aversion to everything that savored of deceit. And Frederick was as much at his ease as if I knew nothing, as if I had not heard of his duplicity, as if the whole house and grounds were not ringing with accusations of his unworthiness. Such are the phenomena of the philosophy of middle life, I insisted that he should remain for the evening, and, after dinner, with that contrariness accountable only in a true student of psychology, I made a trifling excuse and walked down to the square, leaving them together.
The curfew was ringing as, returning, I entered the lower gate at the end of the garden, and passed slowly along by the arbor. It may have been Providence, it may have been chance, it certainly was not philosophy that directed my steps to the far side of the syringa hedge which shut me off from the view of those who might come down to the rustic seat at the foot of the cherry tree. At least I had no intention of playing the spy, and when I heard Frederick's voice, and knew instinctively that Phyllis was with him, I quickened my pace that I might not be a sharer of their secrets. But an irresistible impulse made me pause when I heard the foolish fellow say:
"After to-night I shall not come again. It is better for us to break now than to wait until it is too late."
Her reply I could not hear. Presently he said, and a little brokenly:
"I have fought it all out. It has been hard, so hard, but I must meet it as it comes."
Then I heard Phyllis's voice: "It is for the best."
"I believe that you care for me. I know how much I care for you, and how much this effort is costing me. We were too late. No other course in honor presents itself. God knows how eagerly and hopelessly I have sought a way out of this tangle of duty."
Again I heard Phyllis's voice, sunk almost to a whisper: "I have given my word; it is for the best."
"The governor has been so good to me," Frederick exclaimed resentfully, "that I feel like a criminal even at this moment when I am making for him the sacrifice of a life. He has been my father, my protector. What I am I owe to him, and I must meet him like a grateful and honest man. You would not have it otherwise?"
And for the third time Phyllis answered: "It is for the best."
Had I been of that remarkable stuff of which your true hero is made, of which Bunsey's heroes are made, and had I come up to the very reasonable expectations of the followers of literary romance, I should have burst through the syringa with passion in my face and rage in my heart and precipitated a tragedy. Or, on the other side, I should have taken those ridiculous children by the hand, and ended their suffering with my blessing then and there. But as I am only of very common clay, with little liking for heroics, I did what any selfish and unappreciative man would have done, and stole quietly away. I even felt a sort of fierce joy in the knowledge of the security of my position, a mean exultation in the thought that Phyllis was bound to me, and that those from whom I might reasonably fear the most, acknowledged the hopelessness of their case. Most strangely there came to me no resentment with the knowledge that I had been supplanted by my nephew in the affections of the girl; the fact that she loved another surprised rather than agitated me. My argument was upset, my doctrine of affinities had been seriously damaged in my individual case, and here was I, who should have been yielding to the pangs of disappointment, or raging with wounded pride, reflecting with considerable calmness on the reverses of a philosopher.
I went into the library and lighted a cigar. I threw myself into an easy-chair, and as I looked up I saw a spider-web in a corner of the ceiling. "I must speak to Prudence about that in the morning," I said to myself with annoyance. Then for the first time it came to me that I was out of temper, for I am customarily tranquil and not easily upset. My mind wandered rapidly from one thing to another, and oddly enough I caught myself humming a little tune which had no sort of relevancy to the events of the day. I tried to dismiss the incident of the garden as the temporary folly of a romantic girl, which would wear itself out with a week's absence. Why should it trouble me? Had I been lacking in kindness or affection? Should I be disturbed because a few boat rides and the influence of moonlight had wrought on a mere child? Was I not secure in her promise, and had I not heard her say she had given her word? As for Frederick, was he not my debtor? Had he not confessed it? Then why give more thought to the matter? It was awkward, but both were young and both would outlive it. Sylvia and I were young, and we outlived it.
But still kept ringing in my ears that despairing half-whisper: "It is for the best."
Petulantly I threw away my cigar and went up to my room. I walked over to the dressing-case and turned up the gas. The shadow displeased me and I lighted the opposite jet. Then I stood squarely before the mirror and looked critically at the reflection.
Yes, John Stanhope, you are growing old. That expanding forehead, with the retreating hairs, tells the tale of time. The gray upon your cheeks is whitening and the razor must be used more vigilantly to further deception. Those creases in your face can no longer be dismissed as character lines; the shagginess of your eyebrows has the flying years to account for it. Plainly, John, you and humbug must part company. You are not of this generation and it is not for you.
I turned down the gas, threw open the window and let the moonlight filter in through the elms and over the tops of the little pines. The soft beauty of the night soothed me, and gradually and very gently my irritation and annoyance slipped away. Why should not a young girl, radiant in youth and beauty, affect a young man of her generation? What has an old fellow, with all his money and worldly experience and burnt-out youth, to give in exchange for that intoxication which every girl may properly regard her lawful gift? Undoubtedly I should make a better husband, as husbands go, than my romantic nephew, and any woman of rare common sense would see the advantages of my position, but why burden a woman with that rare common sense which robs her of the first and sweetest of her dreams? No, John Stanhope, go back to your pipe and your books and your gardening, your life of selfish, indolent do-nothing. Take life as it comes most easily and naturally. By sparing one heart you may save two.
And that nephew of mine—what a fine, manly fellow he proved himself when put to the test! The governor had been good to him and he was going to stand by the governor. How my heart jumped, and what a warm little feeling there was about the internal cockles as I recalled his words. Bravely said, my boy, and nobly done! I fear I should not have been so generous at your age, and with Sylvia—
And with Sylvia! How the past crowded back at the thought of her! Who are you, old dreamer, who neglected the gift the good gods provided in the heydey of your youth to return to chase the phantom of the past? Behind that little white cloud, sailing far into the north, Sylvia may be peeping at you, and smiling at the delusion of her ancient wooer. Or why not think that she is pleading with you—pleading for her child and the lover, as she might have pleaded for herself and somebody else, had somebody else known his own heart before it was too late?
I watched the white cloud as it passed on and on, growing smaller and fainter as it receded. I settled back still deeper in my chair and sighed. And then—O unworthy knight of love!—and then, I fell asleep.
In the morning, before the family was astir, I wrote a note, pleading a sudden and imperative call to town, and vanished for the day. I argued with myself that such a step was a delicate consideration for a young woman, who, having listened to a confession of love a few hours before, would be hardly at her ease at a breakfast-table conversation. Incidentally I was not altogether sure of myself, although I was much refreshed by an excellent night's sleep which comes to every philosopher with courage and strength to rise above the unpleasant things of life. If Phyllis had yielded to an emotion of grief, there was little trace of it when we met at evening. I fancied that she was somewhat paler, and her manner at times seemed a little listless, but otherwise there was no great departure from her usual demeanor. As for myself the long sunshine of a summer day and the conviction that at last the opportunity had come to me to play the role of a minor hero gave me a peace that amounted almost to buoyancy. No need had I of the teachings of the musty old philosophers reposing on my bookshelves. John Stanhope had learned more of life in a few short hours than all his tomes could impart. His books had helped him many times in diagnosing the cases of his friends; when John fell ill they mocked and deceived him.
Opportunely enough Phyllis followed me into the library, and when at my request she sat on a little stool at my feet, and I held her hand and stroked her soft light hair, a pang went through my heart, for I felt that she might be near me for the last time. The philosopher had yet much to learn. For several minutes we were both silent. Of the two I was doubtless the more ill at ease, though I concealed it bravely.
"Phyllis," I said at last, "did you ever get over a childish fondness for fairy-stories?"
She smiled at this—was I wrong in fancying that her smile was that of sadness?—and answered: "I hope not."
"Because," I went on, bending over and affectionately patting the hand I held, "a little fairy-tale has been running through my head all day, and I have decided that you shall be the first to hear it and pass on its merits. And because," I added gayly, "if it has your approval I may wish to publish it. Shall I begin?"
She nodded her head—I could swear now to the weariness the poor child was so staunchly fighting—and looked off toward the sunset.
"Once upon a time—you see that I am conventional—there lived a beautiful young princess, on whom a wicked old troll had cast an evil eye. Now this wicked troll was not so hideous as the trolls we see in our fairy-books—I must say that—but he was so wicked that even this deficiency could not excuse him. The princess was as young and innocent—I was going to say as simple—as she was beautiful, and the wicked troll talked so much of his experience in the world, and boasted so hugely of his wealth and generosity and other shining virtues, that the imagination of the poor little princess was quite fired, and she was flattered into thinking that here was a treasure not to be lightly put aside. And so, in a foolish moment she consented to be his bride, and he took her away to his castle—I believe trolls do have castles—to make ready for the marriage. While the preparations were going on, and the wicked old troll was laughing with glee to think how he had deluded a princess, a handsome young prince appeared on the scene, and what so natural as that the princess should immediately contrast him with the troll. And it came about, also quite naturally, that before the prince and the princess knew that anything was happening, they fell so violently in love with each other that the birds, and the bees, and the flowers in the garden, and the squirrels in the trees sang and hummed and gossiped and chattered about it."
Here I paused. Phyllis did not look up, but I felt a shiver run through her body as I stroked her hair and put my arm around her shoulder to caress away her fear.
"But it happened that although the princess was so much in love that at times she must have forgotten even the existence of the old troll, she was still possessed of that most inconvenient and annoying internal arrangement which we call the New England conscience, and one night, when the prince had declared his love with more ardor than usual, she remembered the past, how she had promised to marry the troll, and how she must keep her word, as all good princesses do. And the prince, who was a very upright young man, most foolishly listened to her, and agreed to give her up. Whereupon these poor children, having resolved that it was for the best—"
Phyllis looked up quickly. Her face was white, and a look, half of fear, half of reproach, came to her eyes. She sank down and hid her face in her hands. Both my arms were around her and I even laughed.
"Dear little princess," I whispered, "don't give way yet. The best is still to come. For you must remember that this is a fairy-tale and all fairy-tales have a good ending. And, to make a long story short, this wicked old troll was not a troll at all, but a fairy-godmother, who had taken the form for good purposes. I would have said fairy-godfather, but I have never come across a fairy-godfather in all my reading, and I must be truthful. Well, the fairy-godmother came along right in the nick of time—and, of course, you know who married and lived happily ever after?"
The convulsive movement of the poor child's body told me she was weeping. And I, being a philosopher, and more or less hard-hearted, as all philosophers are, let her weep on. Presently she said in a voice hardly audible:
"I gave you my promise and I meant to keep it. I am trying so hard to keep it."
"Of course you are, little girl, but why try? A bad promise is far better broken than kept, and, come to think of it, I am not at all sure that I am anxious to have you keep it. How do you know that I am not making a desperate effort to secure my own release?"
She raised her head quite unexpectedly and caught me with the tears in my eyes. My eyes always were weak. "Why, you are crying!" she said.
"Of course I'm crying. I always cry when I am particularly well pleased. It is a family peculiarity. You should see me at the theatre. At a farce comedy I am a depressing sight, and that is the reason I always avoid the front seats."
Then realizing that I might be carrying my gayety too far, I went on more soberly:
"Can't you see, Phyllis, that the old fool's romance must come to an end? Don't you understand that had I the selfish wish to hold you to a thoughtless promise, our adventure would terminate only in misery to us both? Perhaps you and I have been the last to see it, I, because I was thinking too much of myself, you, because you were carried away by an exalted sense of duty. Thank heaven it is clear to us both now. For it is clear, isn't it, dear?"
The foolish girl did not reply, but she kissed my hand, and it is astonishing how that little act of affection touched and strengthened me.
"So we are going to make a new start and begin right. To-morrow I shall see Frederick and make a proposition to him, and if that rascal does not give up his heroics and come down to his plain duty as I see it—well, so much the worse for him. No, don't raise objections"—she had started to speak—"for I am always quarrelsome when I cannot have my own way. Go to your room and think it over, and remember," I said more gently, for that old tide of the past was coming in, "that you are Sylvia's daughter, and that Sylvia would have trusted me and counselled you to obey me in all things."
Slowly and with averted face Phyllis rose and walked toward the door. I had commanded her, and yet I felt a sharp pang of bitterness that she had yielded so quickly to my words. It seemed at the moment that everything was passing out of my life; that Phyllis, that Sylvia, that all the once sweet, continuous memory was lost to me forever. I could not call her back, and I could not hope that she would return. Philosopher that I was I could not explain the sinking and the fear that took possession of me. The philosopher did not know himself. All his thought and all his reasoning could not solve the simple riddle the quick intuition of a girl made clear.
She had reached the door before she paused. Then she turned. I had risen mechanically and stood looking at her. As slowly she came back and waited as if for me to speak. And when the dull philosopher groped helplessly for words and could not meet the appealing eyes, she put her hands on his shoulders, and laid her warm, young face on his heart, and said, "Father!"
* * * * *
The night was peacefully beautiful. I had strolled out of the garden and down to the river, and there along the bridle-path on the winding bank I walked for miles. Absorbed in my own thoughts I gave no heed to my little dog, Hero, trotting at my side and looking anxiously up at me with her large brown eyes, as if saying in her dog fashion: "Don't worry, old man; I'm here!" A strange, inexplicable happiness had fallen to him who thought he knew all others, and did not know even himself. I crossed the river to return on the opposite shore, and all the way back, through the arching trees, the shadows danced in the moonlight and the crickets chirped merrily. Life seemed so contrary, so bewildering, for I thought of the wedding music in those early mornings at my boyhood home, and I wondered at the optimism of Nature in attuning all emotions to a joyous note.
Again in my garden I saw a half-light in Phyllis's room. Coming nearer I saw that she was standing at the window, with the same cloud on her face that had betrayed the battle with her conscience. At sight of her all the joyous emotion of my new tenderness overwhelmed me and I cried out cheerily:
Something in my voice sent a smile to her eyes and gladness to her heart, as, half leaning from the window, she kissed her hand to me and called back softly: "Good-night, father dear!"
The south wind came, bringing the scent of the rose and the honeysuckle, and stirring the drowsy branches of the elms. The river rippled merrily in the moonlight, hurrying to bear the tidings of happiness to the greater waters, and off in the distance the blue hills lifted their heads above the haze. Toward the north scudded the friendly little white cloud, and it seemed again a soothing fancy that Sylvia—
O sweet and pleasant world!
Page 103: Changed housekeeper to house-keeper for consistency.
Page 116: Changed typo "effervesence" to "effervescence."
Page 142: Changed typo "moolight" to "moonlight."