"Why not, I'd like to know?" asked Sylvia.
"Don't let her go," repeated Henry.
Sylvia looked suspiciously from one man to the other. The only solution which a woman could put upon such a request immediately occurred to her. She said to herself, "Hm! Mr. Allen wants Rose to stay at home so he can see her himself, and Henry knows it."
She stiffened her neck. Down deep in her heart was a feeling more seldom in women's hearts than in men's. She would not have owned that she did not wish to part with this new darling of her heart—who had awakened within it emotions of whose strength the childless woman had never dreamed. There was also another reason, which she would not admit even to herself. Had Rose been, indeed, her daughter, and she had possessed her from the cradle to womanhood, she would probably have been as other mothers, but now Rose was to her as the infant she had never borne. She felt the intense jealousy of ownership which the mother feels over the baby in her arms. She wished to snatch Rose from every clasp except her own.
She decided at once that it was easy to see through the plans of Horace and her husband, and she determined to thwart them. "I don't see why she shouldn't go," she said. "It is a lovely afternoon. The walk will do her good. Lucy Ayres is a real nice girl, and of course Rose wants to see girls of her own age now and then."
"It is Sunday," said Henry. He felt and looked like a hypocrite as he spoke, but the distress in Horace's gaze was too much for him.
Sylvia sniffed. "Sunday," said she. "Good land! what has come over you, Henry Whitman? It has been as much as I could do to get you to go to meeting the last ten years, and now all of a sudden you turn around and think it's wicked for a young girl to run in and see another young girl Sunday afternoon." Sylvia sniffed again very distinctly, and then Rose entered the room.
Her clear, fair face looked from one to another from under her black hat. "What is the matter?" she asked.
Sylvia patted her on the shoulder. "Nothing is the matter," said she. "Run along and have a good time, but you had better be home by five o'clock. There is a praise meeting to-night, and I guess we'll all want to go, and I am going to have supper early."
After Rose had gone and Sylvia had left the room, the two men looked at each other. Horace was ashy pale. Henry's face showed alarm and astonishment. "What is it?" he whispered.
"Come out in the grove and have a smoke," said Horace, with a look towards the door through which Sylvia had gone.
Henry nodded. He gathered up his pipe and tobacco from the table, and the two men sauntered out of the house into the grove. But even there not much was said. Both smoked in silence, sitting on the bench, before Horace opened his lips in response to Henry's inquiry.
"I don't know what it is, and I don't know that it is anything, and that is the worst of it," he said, gloomily; "and I can't see my way to telling any mortal what little I do know that leads me to fear that it is something, although I would if I were sure and actually knew beyond doubt that there was—" He stopped abruptly and blew a ring of smoke from his cigar.
"Something is queer about my wife lately," said Henry, in a low voice.
"That's just it. I feel something as you do. It may be nothing at all. I tell you what, young man, when women talk, as women are intended by an overruling Providence to talk, men know where they are at, but when a woman doesn't talk men know where they ain't."
"In my case there has been so much talk that I seem to be in a fog of it, and can't see a blessed thing sufficiently straight to know whether it is big enough to bother about or little enough to let alone; but I can't repeat the talk—no man could," said Horace.
"In my case there ain't talk enough," said Henry. "I ain't in a fog; I'm in pitch darkness."
The two men sat for some time out in the grove. It was very pleasant there. The air was unusually still, and only the tops of the trees whitened occasionally in a light puff of wind like a sigh. Now and then a carriage or an automobile passed on the road beyond, but not many of them. It was not a main thoroughfare. The calls and quick carols of the birds, punctuated with sharp trills of insects, were almost the only sounds heard. Now and then Sylvia's face glanced at them from a house window, but it was quickly withdrawn. She never liked men to be in close conclave without a woman to superintend, yet she could not have told why. She had a hazy impression, as she might have had if they had been children, that some mischief was afoot.
"Sitting out there all this time, and smoking, and never seeming to speak a word," she said to herself, as she returned to her seat beside a front window in the south room and took up her book. She was reading with a mild and patronizing interest a book in which the heroine did nothing which she would possibly have done under given circumstances, and said nothing which she would have said, and was, moreover, a distinctly different personality from one chapter to another, yet the whole had a charm for the average woman reader. Henry had flung it aside in contempt. Sylvia thought it beautiful, possibly for the reason that her own hard sense was sometimes a strenuous burden, and in reading this she was forced to put it behind her. However, the book did not prevent her from returning every now and then to her own life and the happenings in it. Hence her stealthy journeys across the house and peeps at the men in the grove. If they were nettled by a sense of feminine mystery, she reciprocated. "What on earth did they want to stop Rose from going to see Lucy for?" seemed to stare at her in blacker type than the characters of the book.
Presently, when she saw Horace pass the window and disappear down the road, she laid the book on the table, with a slip of paper to keep the place, and hurried out to the grove. She found Henry leisurely coming towards the house. "Where has he gone?" she inquired, with a jerk of her shoulder towards the road.
"How should I know?"
"Don't you know?"
"Maybe I do," said Henry, smiling at Sylvia with his smile of affection and remembrance that she was a woman.
"Why don't you tell?"
"Now, Sylvia," said Henry, "you must remember that Mr. Allen is not a child. He is a grown man, and if he takes it into his head to go anywhere you can't say anything."
Sylvia looked at Henry with a baffled expression. "I think he might spend his time a good deal more profitably Sunday afternoon than sitting under the trees and smoking, or going walking," said she, rashly and inconsequentially. "If he would only sit down and read some good book."
"You can't dictate to Mr. Allen what he shall or shall not do," Henry repeated.
"Why didn't you want Rose to go to Lucy's?" asked Sylvia, making a charge in an entirely different quarter.
Henry scorned to lie. "I don't know," he replied, which was the perfect truth as far as it went. It did not go quite far enough, for he did not add that he did not know why Horace Allen did not want her to go, and that was his own reason.
However, Sylvia could not possibly fathom that. She sniffed with her delicate nostrils, as if she actually smelled some questionable odor of character. "You men have mighty queer streaks, that's all I've got to say," she returned.
When they were in the house again she resumed her book, reading every word carefully, and Henry took up the Sunday paper, which he had not finished. The thoughts of both, however, turned from time to time towards Horace. Sylvia did not know where he had gone. She did not suspect. Henry knew, but he did not know why. Horace had sprung suddenly to his feet and caught up his hat as the two men had been sitting under the trees. Henry had emitted a long puff of tobacco smoke and looked inquiringly at him through the filmy blue of it.
"I can't stand it another minute," said Horace, almost with violence. "I've got to know what is going on. I am going to the Ayres's myself. I don't care what they think. I don't care what she thinks. I don't care what anybody thinks." With that he was gone.
Henry took another puff at his pipe. It showed the difference between the masculine and the feminine point of view that Henry did not for one moment attach a sentimental reason to Horace's going. He realized Rose's attractions. The very probable supposition that she and Horace might fall in love with and marry each other had occurred to him, but this he knew at once had nothing to do with that. He turned the whole over and over in his mind, with no result. He lacked enough premises to arrive at conclusions. He had started for the house and his Sunday paper when he met Sylvia, and had resolved to put it all out of his mind. But he was not quite able. There is a masculine curiosity as well as a feminine, and one is about as persistent as the other.
Meantime Horace was walking down the road towards the Ayres house. It was a pretty, much-ornamented white cottage, with a carefully kept lawn and shade trees. At one side was an old-fashioned garden with an arbor. In this arbor, as Horace drew near, he saw the sweep of feminine draperies. It seemed to him that the arbor was full of women. In reality there were only three—Lucy, her mother, and Rose.
When Rose had rung the door-bell she had been surprised by what sounded like a mad rush to answer her ring. Mrs. Ayres opened the door. She looked white and perturbed, and behind her showed Lucy's face, flushed and angry.
"I knew it was Miss Fletcher; I told you so, mother," said Lucy, and her low, sweet voice rang out like an angry bird's with a sudden break for the high notes.
Mrs. Ayres kept her self-possession of manner, although her face showed not only nervousness but something like terror. "Good-afternoon, Miss Fletcher," she said. "Please walk in."
"She said for me to call her Rose," cried Lucy. "Please come in, Rose. I am glad to see you."
In spite of the cordial words the girl's voice was strange. Rose stared from daughter to mother and back again. "If you were engaged," she said, rather coldly, "if you would prefer that I come some other time—"
"No, indeed," cried Lucy, "no other time. Yes, every other time. What am I saying? But I want you now, too. Come right up to my room, Rose. I know you will excuse my wrapper and my bed's being tumbled. I have been lying down. Come right up."
Rose followed Lucy, and to her astonishment became aware that Lucy's mother was following her. Mrs. Ayres entered the room with the two girls. Lucy looked impatiently at her, and spoke as Rose wondered any daughter could speak. "Rose and I have some things to talk over, mother," she said.
"Nothing, I guess, that your mother cannot hear," returned Mrs. Ayres, with forced pleasantry. She sat down, and Lucy flung herself petulantly upon the bed, where she had evidently been lying, but seemingly not reposing, for it was much rumpled, and the pillows gave evidence of the restless tossing of a weary head. Lucy herself had a curiously rumpled aspect, though she was not exactly untidy. Her soft, white, lace-trimmed wrapper carelessly tied with blue ribbons was wrinkled, her little slippers were unbuttoned. Her mass of soft hair was half over her shoulders. There were red spots on the cheeks which had been so white in the morning, and her eyes shone. She kept tying and untying two blue ribbons at the neck of her wrapper as she lay on the bed and talked rapidly.
"I look like a fright, I know," she said. "I was tired after church, and slipped off my dress and lay down. My hair is all in a muss."
"It is such lovely hair that it looks pretty anyway," said Rose.
Lucy drew a strand of her hair violently over her shoulder. It almost seemed as if she meant to tear it out by the roots.
"Lucy!" said her mother.
"Oh, mother, do let me alone!" cried the girl. Then she said, looking angrily at her tress of hair, then at Rose: "It is not nearly as pretty as yours. You know it isn't. All men are simply crazy over hair your color. I hate my hair. I just hate it."
"Lucy!" said her mother again, in the same startled but admonitory tone.
Lucy made an impatient face at her. She threw back the tress of hair. "I hate it," said she.
Rose began to feel awkward. She noticed Mrs. Ayres's anxious regard of her daughter, and she thought with disgust that Lucy Ayres was not so sweet a girl as she had seemed. However, she felt an odd kind of sympathy and pity for her. Lucy's pretty face and her white wrapper seemed alike awry with nervous suffering, which the other girl dimly understood, although it was the understanding of a normal character with regard to an abnormal one.
Rose resolved to change the subject. "I did enjoy your singing so much this morning," she said.
"Thank you," replied Lucy, but a look of alarm instead of pleasure appeared upon her face, which Rose was astonished to see in the mother's likewise.
"I feel so sorry for poor Miss Hart, because I cannot think for a moment that she was guilty of what they accused her of," said Rose, "that I don't like to say anything about her singing. But I will say this much: I did enjoy yours."
"Thank you," said Lucy again. Her look of mortal terror deepened. From being aggressively nervous, she looked on the verge of a collapse.
Mrs. Ayres rose, went to Lucy's closet, and returned with a bottle of wine and a glass. "Here," she said, as she poured out the red liquor. "You had better drink this, dear. You know Dr. Wallace said you must drink port wine, and you are all tired out with your singing this morning."
Lucy seized the glass and drank the wine eagerly.
"It must be a nervous strain," said Rose, "to stand up there, before such a crowded audience as there was this morning, and sing."
"Yes, it is," agreed Mrs. Ayres, in a harsh voice, "and especially when anybody isn't used to it. Lucy is not at all strong."
"I hope it won't be too much for her," said Rose; "but it is such a delight to listen to her after—"
"Oh, I am tired and sick of hearing Miss Hart's name!" cried Lucy, unpleasantly.
"Lucy!" said Mrs. Ayres.
"Well, I am," said Lucy, defiantly. "It has been nothing but Miss Hart, Miss Hart, from morning until night lately. Nobody thinks she poisoned Miss Farrel, of course. It was perfect nonsense to accuse her of it, and when that is said, I think myself that is enough. I see no need of this eternal harping upon it. I have heard nothing except 'poor Miss Hart' until I am nearly wild. Come, Rose, I'll get dressed and we'll go out in the arbor. It is too pleasant to stay in-doors. This room is awfully close."
"I think perhaps I had better not stay," Rose replied, doubtfully. It seemed to her that she was having a very strange call, and she began to be indignant as well as astonished.
"Of course you are going to stay," Lucy said, and her voice was sweet again. "We'll let Miss Hart alone and I'll get dressed, and we'll go in the arbor. It is lovely out there to-day."
With that Lucy sprang from the bed and let her wrapper slip from her shoulders. She stood before her old-fashioned black-walnut bureau and began brushing her hair. Her white arms and shoulders gleamed through it as she brushed with what seemed a cruel violence.
Rose laughed in a forced way. "Why, dear, you brush your hair as if it had offended you," she said.
"Don't brush so hard, Lucy," said Mrs. Ayres.
"I just hate my old hair, anyway," said Lucy, with a vicious stroke of the brush. She bent her head over, and swept the whole dark mass downward until it concealed her face and nearly touched her knees. Then she gave it a deft twist, righted herself, and pinned the coil in place.
"How beautifully you do up your hair," said Rose.
Lucy cast an appreciative glance at herself in the glass. The wine had deepened the glow on her cheeks. Her eyes were more brilliant. She pulled her hair a little over one temple, and looked at herself with entire satisfaction. Lucy had beautiful neck and arms, unexpectedly plump for a girl so apparently slender. Her skin was full of rosy color, too. She gazed at the superb curve of her shoulders rising above the dainty lace of her corset-cover, and smiled undisguisedly.
"I wish my neck was as plump as yours," said Rose.
"Yes, she has a nice, plump neck," said Mrs. Ayres. While the words showed maternal pride, the tone never relaxed from its nervous anxiety.
Lucy's smile vanished suddenly. "Well, what if it is plump?" said she. "What is the use of it? A girl living here in East Westland can never wear a dress to show her neck. People would think she had gone out of her mind."
Rose laughed. "I have some low-neck gowns," said she, "but I can't wear them, either. Maybe that is fortunate for me, my neck is so thin."
"You will wear them in other places," said Lucy. "You won't stay here all your days. You will have plenty of chances to wear your low-neck gowns." She spoke again in her unnaturally high voice. She turned towards her closet to get her dress.
"Lucy!" said Mrs. Ayres.
"Well, it is the truth," said Lucy. "Don't preach, mother. If you were a girl, and somebody told you your neck was pretty, and you knew other girls had chances to wear low-neck dresses, you wouldn't be above feeling it a little."
"My neck was as pretty as yours when I was a girl, and I never wore a low-neck dress in my life," said Mrs. Ayres.
"Oh, well, you got married when you were eighteen," said Lucy. There was something almost coarse in her remark. Rose felt herself flush. She was sophisticated, and had seen the world, although she had been closely if not lovingly guarded; but she shrank from some things as though she had never come from under a country mother's wing in her life.
Lucy got a pale-blue muslin gown from the closet and slipped it over her shoulders. Then she stood for her mother to fasten it in the back. Lucy was lovely in this cloud of blue, with edgings of lace on the ruffles and knots of black velvet. She fastened her black velvet girdle, and turned herself sidewise with a charming feminine motion, to get the effect of her slender waist between the curves of her small hips and bust. Again she looked pleased.
"You are dear in that blue gown," said Rose.
Lucy smiled. Then she scowled as suddenly. She could see Rose over her shoulder in the glass. "It is awful countrified," said she. "Look at the sleeves and look at yours. Where was yours made?"
"My dressmaker in New York made it," faltered Rose. She felt guilty because her gown was undeniably in better style.
"There's no use trying to have anything in East Westland," said Lucy.
While she was fastening a little gold brooch at her throat, Rose again tried to change the subject. "That candy of yours looked perfectly delicious," said she. "You must teach me how you make it."
Mrs. Ayres went dead white in a moment. She looked at Lucy with a look of horror which the girl did not meet. She went on fastening her brooch. "Did you like it?" she asked, carelessly.
"An accident happened to it, I am sorry to say," explained Rose. "Mr. Allen and I were out in the grove, and somehow he jostled me, and the candy got scattered on the ground, and he stepped on it."
"Were you and he alone out there?" asked Lucy, in a very quiet voice.
Rose looked at her amazedly. "Why, no, not when that happened!" she replied. "Aunt Sylvia was there, too." She spoke a little resentfully. "What if Mr. Allen and I had been alone; what is that to her?" she thought.
"There is some more candy," said Lucy, calmly. "I will get it, and then we will go out in the arbor. I will teach you to make the candy any day. It is very simple. Come, Rose dear. Mother, we are going out in the arbor."
Mrs. Ayres rose immediately. She preceded the two girls down-stairs, and came through the sitting-room door with a dish of candy in her hand just as they reached it. "Here is the candy, dear," she said to Lucy, and there was something commanding in her voice.
Lucy took the dish, a pretty little decorated affair, with what seemed to Rose an air of suspicion and a grudging "thank you, mother."
"Come, Rose," she said. She led the way and Rose followed. Mrs. Ayres returned to the sitting-room. The girls went through the old-fashioned garden with its flower-beds outlined with box, in which the earlier flowers were at their prime, to the arbor. It was a pretty old structure, covered with the shaggy arms of an old grape-vine whose gold-green leaves were just uncurling. Lucy placed the bowl of candy on the end of the bench which ran round the interior, and, to Rose's surprise, seated herself at a distance from it, and motioned Rose to sit beside her, without offering her any candy. Lucy leaned against Rose and looked up at her. She looked young and piteous and confiding. Rose felt again that she was sweet and that she loved her. She put her arm around Lucy.
"You are a dear," said she.
Lucy nestled closer. "I know you must have thought me perfectly horrid to speak as I did to mother," said she, "but you don't understand."
Lucy hesitated. Rose waited.
"You see, the trouble is," Lucy went on, "I love mother dearly, of course. She is the best mother that ever a girl had, but she is always so anxious about me, and she follows me about so, and I get nervous, and I know I don't always speak as I should. I am often ashamed of myself. You see—"
Lucy hesitated again for a longer period. Rose waited.
"Mother has times of being very nervous," Lucy said, in a whisper. "I sometimes think, when she follows me about so, that she is not for the time being quite herself."
Rose started and looked at the other girl in horror. "Why don't you have a doctor?" said she.
"Oh, I don't mean that she—I don't mean that there is anything serious, only she has always been over-anxious about me, and at times I fancy she is nervous, and then the anxiety grows beyond limit. She always gets over it. I don't mean that—"
"Oh, I didn't know," said Rose.
"I never mean to be impatient," Lucy went on, "but to-day I was very tired, and I wanted to see you especially. I wanted to ask you something."
Lucy looked away from Rose. She seemed to shrink within herself. The color faded from her face. "I heard something," she said, faintly, "but I said I wouldn't believe it until I had asked you."
"What is it?"
"I heard that you were engaged to marry Mr. Allen."
Rose flushed and moved away a little from Lucy. "You can contradict the rumor whenever you hear it again," said she.
"Then it isn't true?"
"No, it isn't."
Lucy nestled against Rose, in spite of a sudden coldness which had come over the other girl. "You are so dear," said she.
Rose looked straight ahead, and sat stiffly.
"I am thoroughly angry at such rumors, merely because a girl happens to be living in the same house with a marriageable man," said she.
"Yes, that is so," said Lucy. She remained quiet for a few moments, leaning against Rose, her blue-clad shoulder pressing lovingly the black-clad one. Then she moved away a little, and reared her pretty back with a curious, snakelike motion. Rose watched her. Lucy's eyes fastened themselves upon her, and something strange happened. Either Lucy Ayres was a born actress, or she had become actually so imbued, through abnormal emotion and love, with the very spirit of the man that she was capable of projecting his own emotions and feelings into her own soul and thence upon her face. At all events, she looked at Rose, and slowly Rose became bewildered. It seemed to her that Horace Allen was looking at her through the eyes of this girl, with a look which she had often seen since their very first meeting. She felt herself glowing from head to foot. She was conscious of a deep crimson stealing all over her face and neck. Her eyes fell before the other girl's. Then suddenly it was all over. Lucy rose with a little laugh. "You sweet, funny creature," she said. "I can make you blush, looking at you, as if I were a man. Well, maybe I love you as well as one." Lucy took the bowl of candy from the bench and extended it to Rose. "Do have some candy," said she.
"Thank you," said Rose. She looked bewildered, and felt so. She took a sugared almond and began nibbling at it. "Aren't you going to eat any candy yourself?" said she.
"I have eaten so much already that it has made my head ache," replied Lucy. "Is it good?"
"Simply delicious. You must teach me how you make such candy."
"Lucy will be glad to teach you any day," said Mrs. Ayres's voice. She had come swiftly upon them, and entered the arbor with a religious newspaper in her hand. Lucy no longer seemed annoyed by her mother's following her. She only set the candy behind her with a quick movement which puzzled Rose.
"Aren't you going to offer your mother some?" she asked, laughing.
"Mother can't eat candy. Dr. Wallace has forbidden it," Lucy said, quickly.
"Yes, that is quite true," assented Mrs. Ayres. She began reading her paper. Lucy offered the bowl again to Rose, who took a bonbon. She was just swallowing it when Horace Allen appeared. He made a motion which did not escape Mrs. Ayres. She rose and confronted him with perfect calmness and dignity. "Good-afternoon, Mr. Allen," she said.
Lucy had sprung up quickly. She was very white. Horace said good-afternoon perfunctorily, and looked at Rose.
Mrs. Ayres caught up the bowl of candy. "Let me offer you some, Mr. Allen," she said. "It is home-made candy, and quite harmless, I assure you."
Her fair, elderly face confronted him smilingly, her voice was calm.
"Thank you," said Horace, and took a sugared almond.
Lucy made a movement as if to stop him, but her mother laid her hand with gentle firmness on her arm. "Sit down, Lucy," she said, and Lucy sat down.
Henry Whitman and his wife Sylvia remained, the one reading his Sunday paper, the other her book, while Horace and Rose were away. Henry's paper rustled, Sylvia turned pages gently. Occasionally she smiled the self-satisfied smile of the reader who thinks she understands the author, to her own credit. Henry scowled over his paper the scowl of one who reads to disapprove, to his own credit.
Both were quite engrossed. Sylvia had reached an extremely interesting portion of her book, and Henry was reading a section of his paper which made him fairly warlike. However, the clock striking four aroused both of them.
"I think it is very funny that they have not come home," said Sylvia.
"I dare say they will be along pretty soon," said Henry.
Sylvia looked keenly at him. "Henry Whitman, did he go to the Ayres's?" said she.
Henry, cornered, told the truth. "Well, I shouldn't wonder," he admitted.
"I think it is pretty work," said Sylvia, angry red spots coming in her cheeks.
Henry said nothing.
"The idea that a young man can't be in the house with a girl any longer than this without his fairly chasing her," said Sylvia.
"Who knows that he is?"
"Do you think he is interested in the Ayres girl?"
"No, I don't."
"Then it is Rose," said Sylvia. "Pretty work, I call it. Here she is with her own folks in this nice home, with everything she needs."
Henry looked at Sylvia with astonishment. "Why," he said, "girls get married! You got married yourself."
"I know I did," said Sylvia, "but that hasn't got anything to do with it. Of course he has to chase her the minute she comes within gunshot."
"Still, there's one thing certain, if she doesn't want him he can take it out in chasing, if he is chasing, and I don't think he is," said Henry. "Nobody is going to make Rose marry any man."
"She don't act a mite in love with him," said Sylvia, ruminatingly. "She seemed real mad with him this noon about that candy. Henry, that was a funny thing for him to do."
"What?" asked Henry, who had so far only gotten Rose's rather vague account of the candy episode.
Sylvia explained. "He actually knocked that candy out of her hand, and made her spill the whole box, and then trampled on it. I saw him."
Henry stared at Sylvia. "It must have been an accident," said he.
"It looked like an accident on purpose," said Sylvia. "Well, I guess I'll go out and make some of that salad they like so much for supper."
After Sylvia had gone Henry sat for a while reflecting, then he went noiselessly out of the front door and round to the grove. He found the scattered pieces of candy and the broken box quickly enough. He cast a wary glance around, and gathered the whole mass up and thrust it into the pocket of his Sunday coat. Then he stole back to the house and got his hat and went out again. He was hurrying along the road, when he met Horace and Rose returning. Rose was talking, seemingly, with a cold earnestness to her companion. Horace seemed to be listening passively. Henry thought he looked pale and anxious. When he saw Henry he smiled. "I have an errand, a business errand," explained Henry. "Please tell Mrs. Whitman I shall be home in time for supper. I don't think she knew when I went out. She was in the kitchen."
"All right," replied Horace.
After he had passed them Henry caught the words, "I think you owe me an explanation," in Rose's voice.
"It is about this blamed candy," thought Henry, feeling the crumpled mass in his pocket. He had a distrust of candy, and it occurred to him that he would have an awkward explanation to make if the candy should by any possibility melt and stick to the pocket of his Sunday coat. He therefore took out the broken box and carried it in his hand, keeping the paper wrapper firmly around it. "What in creation is it all about?" he thought, irritably. He felt a sense of personal injury. Henry enjoyed calm, and it seemed to him that he was being decidedly disturbed, as by mysterious noises breaking in upon the even tenor of his life.
"Sylvia is keeping something to herself that is worrying her to death, in spite of her being so tickled to have the girl with us, and now here is this candy," he said to himself. He understood that for some reason Horace had not wanted Rose to eat the candy, that he had resorted to fairly desperate measures to prevent it, but he could not imagine why. He had no imagination for sensation or melodrama, and the candy affair was touching that line. He had been calmly prosaic with regard to Miss Farrel's death. "They can talk all they want to about murder and suicide," he had said to Sylvia. "I don't believe a word of it."
"But the doctors found—" began Sylvia.
"Found nothing," interposed Henry. "What do doctors know? She et something that hurt her. How do doctors know but what anybody might eat something that folks think is wholesome, that, if the person ain't jest right for it, acts like poison? Doctors don't know much. She et something that hurt her."
"Poor Lucinda's cooking is enough to hurt 'most anybody," admitted Sylvia; "but they say they found—"
"Don't talk such stuff," said Henry, fiercely. "She et something. I don't know what you women like best to suck at, candy or horrors."
Now Henry was forced to admit that he himself was confronted by something mysterious. Why had Horace fairly flung that candy on the ground, and trampled on it, unless he had suddenly gone mad, or—? There Henry brought himself up with a jolt. He absolutely refused to suspect. "I'd jest as soon eat all that's left of the truck myself," he thought, "only I couldn't bear candy since I was a child, and I ain't going to eat it for anybody."
Henry had to pass the Ayres house. Just as he came abreast of it he heard a hysterical sob, then another, from behind the open windows of a room on the second floor, whose blinds were closed. Henry made a grimace and went his way. He was bound for Sidney Meeks's. He found the lawyer in his office in an arm-chair, which whirled like a top at the slightest motion of its occupant. Around him were strewn Sunday papers, all that could be bought. On the desk before him stood a bottle of clear yellow wine, half-emptied.
Sidney looked up and smiled as Henry entered. "Here I am in a vortex of crime and misrule," he said, "and I should have been out of my wits if it had not been for that wine. There's another glass over there, Henry; get it and help yourself."
"Guess I won't take any now, thank you," said Henry. "It's just before supper."
"Maybe you are wise," admitted the lawyer. He slouched before Henry in untidy and unmended, but clean, Sunday attire. Sidney Meeks was as clean as a gentleman should be, but there was never a crease except of ease in his clothes, and he was so buttonless that women feared to look at him closely. "It might go to your head," said Sidney. "It went to mine a little, but that was unavoidable. After one of those papers there my head was mighty near being a vacuum."
"What do you read the papers for?" asked Henry.
"Because," said Sidney, "I feel it incumbent upon me to be well informed concerning two things, although I verily believe it to be true that I have precious little of either, and they cannot directly concern me. I want to know about the stock market, although I don't own a blessed share in anything except an old mine out West on a map; and I want to know what evil is fermenting in the hearts of men, though I am pretty sure, in spite of the original sin part of it, that precious little is fermenting in mine. About three o'clock this afternoon I came to the conclusion that we were in hell or Sodom, or else the newspaper men got saved from the general destruction along with Lot. So I got a bottle of this blessed wine, and now I am fully convinced that I am on a planet which is the work of the Lord Almighty, and only created for an end of redemption and eternal bliss, and that the newspaper men are enough sight better than Lot ever thought of being, and are spending Sunday as they should, peacefully in the bosoms of their own families. In fact, Henry, my mental and spiritual outlook has cleared. What in creation is that wad of broken box you are carrying as if it would go off any minute?"
Henry told him the story in a few words.
"Gee whiz!" said Meeks. "I thought I had finished the Sunday papers and here you are with another sensation. Let's see the stuff."
Henry gave the crumpled box with the mass of candy to Meeks, who examined it closely. He smelled of it. He even tasted a bit. "It's all beyond me," he said, finally. "I am loath to admit that a sensation has lit upon us here in East Westland. Leave it with me, and I'll see what is the matter with it, if there's anything. I don't think myself there's anything, but I'll take it to Wallace. He's an analytical chemist, and holds his tongue, which is worth more than the chemistry."
"You will not say a word—" began Henry, but Meeks interrupted him.
"Don't you know me well enough by this time?" he demanded, and Henry admitted that he did.
"Do you suppose I want all this blessed little town in a tumult, and the devil to pay?" said Meeks. "It is near time for me to start some daisy wine, too. I shouldn't have a minute free. There'd be suits for damages, and murder trials, and the Lord knows what. I'd rather make my daisy wine. Leave this damned sticky mess with me, and I'll see to it. What in creation any young woman in her senses wants to spend her time in making such stuff for, anyway, beats me. Women are all more or less fools, anyhow. I suppose they can't help it, but we ought to have it in mind."
"I suppose there's something in it," said Henry, rather doubtfully.
Meeks laughed. "Oh, I don't expect any man with a wife to agree with me," he said. "You might as well try to lift yourself by your boot-straps; but I've got standing-ground outside the situation and you haven't. Good-night, Henry. Don't fret yourself over this. I'll let you know as soon as I know myself."
Henry, passing the Ayres house on his way home, fancied he heard again a sob, but this time it was so stifled that he was not sure. "It's mighty queer work, anyway," he thought. He thought also that though he should have liked a son, he was very glad that he and Sylvia had not owned a daughter. He was fond of Rose, but, although she was a normal girl, she often gave him a sense of mystery which irritated him.
Had Henry Whitman dreamed of what was really going on in the Ayres house, he would have been devoutly thankful that he had no daughter. He had in reality heard the sob which he had not been sure of. It had come from Lucy's room. Her mother was there with her. The two had been closeted together ever since Rose had gone. Lucy had rushed up-stairs and pulled off her pretty gown with a hysterical fury. She had torn it at the neck, because the hooks would not unfasten easily, before her mother, who moved more slowly, had entered the room.
"What are you doing, Lucy?" Mrs. Ayres asked, in a voice which was at once tender and stern.
"Getting out of this old dress," replied Lucy, fiercely.
"Stand round here by the light," said her mother, calmly. Lucy obeyed. She stood, although her shoulders twitched nervously, while her mother unfastened her gown. Then she began almost tearing off her other garments. "Lucy," said Mrs. Ayres, "you are over twenty years old, and a woman grown, but you are not as strong as I am, and I used to take you over my knee and spank you when you were a child and didn't behave, and I'll do it now if you are not careful. You unfasten that corset-cover properly. You are tearing the lace."
Lucy gazed at her mother a moment in a frenzy of rage, then suddenly her face began to work piteously. She flung herself face downward upon her bed, and sobbed long, hysterical sobs. Then Mrs. Ayres waxed tender. She bent over the girl, and gently untied ribbons and unfastened buttons, and slipped a night-gown over her head. Then she rolled her over in the bed, as if she had been a baby, and laid her own cheek against the hot, throbbing one of the girl. "Mother's lamb," she said, softly. "There, there, dear, mother knows all about it."
"You don't," gasped the girl. "What do you know? You—you were married when you were years younger than I am." There was something violently accusing in her tone. She thrust her mother away and sat up in bed, and looked at her with fierce eyes blazing like lamps in her soft, flushed face.
"I know it," said Mrs. Ayres. "I know it, and I know what you mean, Lucy; but there is something else which I know and you do not."
"I'd like to know what!"
"How a mother reads the heart of her child."
Lucy stared at her mother. Her face softened. Then it grew burning red and angrier. "You taunt me with that," she said, in a whisper—"with that and everything." She buried her face in her crushed pillow again and burst into long wails.
Mrs. Ayres smoothed her hair. "Lucy," said she, "listen. I know what is going on within you as you don't know it yourself. I know the agony of it as you don't know it yourself."
"I'd like to know how."
"Because you are my child; because I can hardly sleep for thinking of you; because every one of my waking moments is filled with you. Lucy, because I am your mother and you are yourself. I am not taunting you. I understand."
"I do. I know just how you felt about that young man from the city who boarded at the hotel six years ago. I know how you felt about Tom Merrill, who called here a few times, and then stopped, and married a girl from Boston. I have known exactly how you have felt about all the others, and—I know about this last." Her voice sank to a whisper.
"I have had some reason," Lucy said, with a terrible eagerness of self-defence. "I have, mother."
"One day, the first year he came, I was standing at the gate beside that flowering-almond bush, and it was all in flower, and he came past and he looked at the bush and at me, then at the bush again, and he said, 'How beautiful that is!' But, mother, he meant me."
"You remember he called here once."
"Yes, Lucy, to ask you to sing at the school entertainment."
"Mother, it was for more than that. You did not hear him speak at the door. He said, 'I shall count on you; you cannot disappoint me.' You did not hear his voice, mother."
"What else, Lucy?"
"Once, one night last winter, when I was coming home from the post-office, it was after dark, and he walked way to the house with me, and he told me a lot about himself. He told me how all alone in the world he was, and how hard it was for a man to have nobody who really belonged to him in the wide world, and when he said good-night at the gate he held my hand—quite a while; he did, mother."
"What else, Lucy?"
"You remember that picnic, the trolley picnic to Alford. He sat next to me coming home, and—"
"There were only—four on the seat, and he—he sat very close, and told me some more about himself: how he had been alone ever since he was a little boy, and—how hard it had been. Then he asked how long ago father died, and if I remembered, and if I missed him still."
"I don't quite understand, dear, how that—"
"You didn't hear the way he spoke, mother."
"What else, Lucy?"
"He has always looked at me very much across the church, and whenever I have met him it has not been so much what—he said as—his manner. You have not known what his manner was, and you have not heard how he spoke, nor seen his eyes when—he looked at me—"
"Yes, dear, you are right. I have not. Then you have thought he was in love with you?"
"Sometimes he has made me think so, mother," Lucy sobbed.
Mrs. Ayres gazed pitifully at the girl. "Then when you thought perhaps he was not you felt badly."
"You were not yourself."
Mrs. Ayres took the girl by her two slender shoulders; she bent her merciful, loving face close to the younger one, distraught, and full of longing, primeval passion. "Lucy," she whispered, "your mother never lost sight of—anything."
Lucy turned deadly white. She stared back at her mother.
"You thought perhaps he was in love with Miss Farrel, didn't you?" Mrs. Ayres said, in a very low whisper.
Lucy nodded, still staring with eyes of horrified inquiry at her mother.
"You had seen him with her?"
"Ever so many times, walking, and he took her to ride, and I saw him coming out of the hotel. I thought—"
"Listen, Lucy." Mrs. Ayres's whisper was hardly audible. "Mother made some candy and sent it to Miss Farrel. She—never had any that anybody else made. It—was candy that would not hurt anybody that she had."
Lucy's face lightened as if with some veritable illumination.
"Mother perhaps ought not to have let you think—as you did, so long," said Mrs. Ayres, "but she thought perhaps it was best, and, Lucy, mother has begun to realize that it was. Now you think, perhaps, he is in love with this other girl, don't you?"
"They are living in the same house," returned Lucy, in a stifled shriek, "and—and—I found out this afternoon that she—she is in love with him. And she is so pretty, and—" Lucy sobbed wildly.
"Mother has been watching every minute," said Mrs. Ayres.
"Mother, I haven't killed him?"
"No, dear. Mother made the candy."
Lucy sobbed and trembled convulsively. Mrs. Ayres stroked her hair until she was a little quieter, then she spoke. "Lucy," she said, "the time has come for you to listen to mother, and you must listen."
Lucy looked up at her with her soft, terrible eyes.
"You are not in love with this last man," said Mrs. Ayres, quietly. "You were not in love with any of the others. It is all because you are a woman, and the natural longings of a woman are upon you. The time has come for you to listen and understand. It is right that you should have what you want, but if the will of God is otherwise you must make the best of it. There are other things in life, or it would be monstrous. It will be no worse for you than for thousands of other women who go through life unmarried. You have no excuse to—commit crime or to become a wreck. I tell you there are other things besides that which has taken hold of you, soul and body. There are spiritual things. There is the will of God, which is above the will of the flesh and the will of the fleshly heart. It is for you to behave yourself and take what comes. You are still young, and if you were not there is always room in life for a gift of God. You may yet have what you are crying out for. In the mean time—"
Lucy interrupted with a wild cry. "Oh, mother, you will take care of me, you will watch me!"
"You need not be afraid, Lucy," said Mrs. Ayres, grimly and tenderly. "I will watch you, and—" She hesitated a moment, then she continued, "If I ever catch you buying that again—"
But Lucy interrupted.
"Oh, mother," she said, "this last time it was not—it really was not—that! It was only something that would have made her sick a little. It would not have—It was not that!"
"If I ever do catch you buying that again," said Mrs. Ayres, "you will know what a whipping is." Her tone was almost whimsical, but it had a terrible emphasis.
Lucy shrank. "I didn't put enough of that in to—to do much harm," she murmured, "but I never will again."
"No, you had better not," assented Mrs. Ayres. "Now slip on your wrapper and come down-stairs with me. I am going to warm up some of that chicken on toast the way you like it, for supper, and then I am coming back up-stairs with you, and you are going to lie down, and I'll read that interesting book we got out of the library."
Lucy obeyed like a child. Her mother helped her slip the wrapper over her head, and the two went down-stairs.
After supper that night Sidney Meeks called at the Whitmans'. He did not stay long. He had brought a bottle of elder-flower wine for Sylvia. As he left he looked at Henry, who followed him out of the house into the street. They paused just outside the gate.
"Well?" said Henry, interrogatively.
"All right," responded Meeks. "What it is all about beats me. The stuff wouldn't hurt a babe in arms, unless it gave it indigestion. Your boarder hasn't insanity in his family, has he?"
"Not that I know of," replied Henry. Then he repeated Meeks's comment. "It beats me," he said.
When Henry re-entered the house Sylvia looked at him. "What were you and Mr. Meeks talking about out in the street?" she asked.
"Nothing," replied Henry, lying as a man may to a woman or a child.
"He's in there with her," whispered Sylvia. "They went in there the minute Mr. Meeks and you went out." Sylvia pointed to the best parlor and looked miserably jealous.
"Well," said Henry, tentatively.
"If they've got anything to say I don't see why they can't say it here," said Sylvia.
"The door is open," said Henry.
"I ain't going to listen, if it is, and you know I can't hear with one ear," said Sylvia. "Of course I don't care, but I don't see why they went in there. What were you and Mr. Meeks talking about, Henry?"
"Nothing," answered Henry, cheerfully, again.
Rose Fletcher had had a peculiar training. She had in one sense belonged to the ranks of the fully sophisticated, who are supposed to swim on the surface of things and catch all the high lights of existence, like bubbles, and in another sense it had been very much the reverse. She might, so far as one side of her character was concerned, have been born and brought up in East Westland, as her mother had been before her. She had a perfect village simplicity and wonder at life, as to a part of her innermost self, which was only veneered by her contact with the world. In part she was entirely different from all the girls in the place, and the difference was really in the grain. That had come from her assimilation at a very tender age with the people who had had the care of her. They had belonged by right of birth with the most brilliant social lights, but lack of money had hampered them. They blazed, as it were, under ground glass with very small candle-powers, although they were on the same shelf with the brilliant incandescents. Rose's money had been the main factor which enabled them to blaze at all. Otherwise they might have still remained on the shelf, it is true, but as dark stars.
Rose had not been sent away to school for two reasons. One reason was Miss Farrel's, the other originated with her caretakers. Miss Farrel had a jealous dread of the girl's forming one of those erotic friendships, which are really diseased love-affairs, with another girl or a teacher, and the Wiltons' reason was a pecuniary one. Among the Wiltons' few assets was a distant female relative of pronounced accomplishments and educational attainments, who was even worse off financially than they. It had become with her a question of bread-and-butter and the simplest necessaries of life, whereas Mrs. Wilton and her sister, Miss Pamela, still owned the old family mansion, which, although reduced from its former heights of fashion, was grand, with a subdued and dim grandeur, it is true, but still grand; and there was also a fine old country-house in a fashionable summer resort. There were also old servants and jewels and laces and all that had been. The difficulty was in retaining it with the addition of repairs, and additions which are as essential to the mere existence of inanimate objects as food is to the animate, these being as their law of growth. Rose Fletcher's advent, although her fortune was, after all, only a moderate one, permitted such homely but necessary things as shingles to be kept intact upon roofs of old family homes; it enabled servants to be paid and fuel and food to be provided. Still, after all, had poor Eliza Farrel, that morbid victim of her own hunger for love, known what economies were practised at her expense, in order that all this should be maintained, she would have rebelled. She knew that the impecunious female relative was a person fully adequate to educate Rose, but she did not know that her only stipend therefor was her bread-and-butter and the cast-off raiment of Mrs. Wilton and Miss Pamela. She did not know that when Rose came out her stock of party gowns was so limited that she had to refuse many invitations or appear always as the same flower, as far as garments were concerned. She did not know that during Rose's two trips abroad the expenses had been so carefully calculated that the girl had not received those advantages usually supposed to be derived from foreign travel.
While Mrs. Wilton and Miss Pamela would have scorned the imputation of deceit or dishonesty, their moral sense in those two directions was blunted by their keen scent for the conventionalities of life, which to them had almost become a religion. They had never owned to their inmost consciousness that Rose had not derived the fullest benefit from Miss Farrel's money; it is doubtful if they really were capable of knowing it. When a party gown for Rose was weighed in the balance with some essential for maintaining their position upon the society shelf, it had not the value of a feather. Mrs. Wilton and Miss Pamela gave regular dinner-parties and receptions through the season, but they invited people of undoubted social standing whom Miss Farrel would have neglected for others on Rose's account. By a tacit agreement, never voiced in words, young men or old who might have made too heavy drains upon wines and viands were seldom invited. The preference was for dyspeptic clergymen and elderly and genteel females with slender appetites, or stout people upon diets. It was almost inconceivable how Mrs. Wilton and Miss Pamela, with no actual consultations to that end, practised economies and maintained luxuries. They seemed to move with a spiritual unity like the physical one of the Siamese twins. Meagre meals served magnificently, the most splendid conservatism with the smallest possible amount of comfort, moved them as one.
Rose, having been so young when she went to live with them, had never realized the true state of affairs. Mrs. Wilton and Miss Pamela had not encouraged her making visits in houses where her eyes might have been opened. Then, too, she was naturally generous, and not sharp-eyed concerning her own needs. When there were no guests at dinner, and she rose from the table rather unsatisfied after her half-plate of watery soup, her delicate little befrilled chop and dab of French pease, her tiny salad and spoonful of dessert, she never imagined that she was defrauded. Rose had a singularly sweet, ungrasping disposition, and an almost childlike trait of accepting that which was offered her as the one and only thing which she deserved. When there was a dinner-party, she sat between an elderly clergyman and a stout judge, who was dieting on account of the danger of apoplexy, with the same graceful agreeableness with which she would have sat between two young men.
Rose had not developed early as to her temperament. She had played with dolls until Miss Pamela had felt it her duty to remonstrate. She had charmed the young men whom she had seen, and had not thought about them when once they were out of sight. Her pulses did not quicken easily. She had imagination, but she did not make herself the heroine of her dreams. She was sincerely puzzled at the expression which she saw on the faces of some girls when talking with young men. She felt a vague shame and anger because of it, but she did not know what it meant. She had read novels, but the love interest in them was like a musical theme which she, hearing, did not fully understand. She was not in the least a boylike girl; she was wholly feminine, but the feminine element was held in delicate and gentle restraint. Without doubt Mrs. Wilton's old-fashioned gentility, and Miss Pamela's, and her governess's, who belonged to the same epoch, had served to mould her character not altogether undesirably. She was, on the whole, a pleasant and surprising contrast to girls of her age, with her pretty, shy respect for her elders, and lack of self-assertion, along with entire self-possession and good breeding. However, she had missed many things which poor Miss Farrel had considered desirable for her, and which her hostesses with their self-sanctified evasion had led her to think had been done.
Miss Farrel, teaching in her country school, had had visions of the girl riding a thoroughbred in Central Park, with a groom in attendance; whereas the reality was the old man who served both as coachman and butler, in carefully kept livery, guiding two horses apt to stumble from extreme age through the shopping district, and the pretty face of the girl looking out of the window of an ancient coupe which, nevertheless, had a coat of arms upon its door. Miss Farrel imagined Rose in a brilliant house-party at Wiltmere, Mrs. Wilton's and Miss Pamela's country home; whereas in reality she was roaming about the fields and woods with an old bull-terrier for guard and companion. Rose generally carried a book on these occasions, and generally not a modern book. Her governess had a terror of modern books, especially of novels. She had looked into a few and shuddered. Rose's taste in literature was almost Elizabethan. She was not allowed, of course, to glance at early English novels, which her governess classed with late English and American in point of morality, but no poetry except Byron was prohibited.
Rose loved to sit under a tree with the dog in a white coil beside her, and hold her book open on her lap and read a word now and then, and amuse herself with fancies the rest of the time. She grew in those days of her early girlhood to have firm belief in those things which she never saw nor heard, and the belief had not wholly deserted her. She never saw a wood-nymph stretch out a white arm from a tree, but she believed in the possibility of it, and the belief gave her a curious delight. When she returned to the house for her scanty, elegantly served dinner with the three elder ladies, her eyes would be misty with these fancies and her mouth would wear the inscrutable smile of a baby's at the charm of them.
When she first came to East Westland she was a profound mystery to Horace, who had only known well two distinct types of girls—the purely provincial and her reverse. Rose, with her mixture of the two, puzzled him. While she was not in the least shy, she had a reserve which caused her to remain a secret to him for some time. Rose's inner life was to her something sacred, not to be lightly revealed. At last, through occasional remarks and opinions, light began to shine through. He had begun to understand her the Sunday he had followed her to Lucy Ayres's. He had, also, more than begun to love her. Horace Allen would not have loved her so soon had she been more visible as to her inner self. Things on the surface rarely interested him very much. He had not an easily aroused temperament, and a veil which stimulated his imagination and aroused his searching instinct was really essential if he were to fall in love. He had fallen in love before, he had supposed, although he had never asked one of the fair ones to marry him. Now he began to call up various faces and wonder if this were not the first time. All the faces seemed to dim before this present one. He realized something in her very dear and precious, and for the first time he felt as if he could not forego possession. Hitherto it had been easy enough to bear the slight wrench of leaving temptation and moving his tent. Here it was different. Still, the old objection remained. How could he marry upon his slight salary?
The high-school in East Westland was an endowed institution. The principal received twelve hundred a year. People in the village considered that a prodigious income. Horace, of course, knew better. He did not think that sum sufficient to risk matrimony. Here, too, he was hampered by another consideration. It was intolerable for him to think of Rose's wealth and his paltry twelve hundred per year. An ambition which had always slumbered within his mind awoke to full strength and activity. He began to sit up late at night and write articles for the papers and magazines. He had got one accepted, and received a check which to his inexperience seemed promisingly large. In spite of all his anxiety he was exalted. He began to wonder if circumstances would not soon justify him in reaching out for the sweet he coveted. He made up his mind not to be precipitate, to wait until he was sure, but his impatience had waxed during the last few hours, ever since that delicious note of stilted, even cold, praise and that check had arrived. When Rose had started to go up-stairs he had not been able to avoid following her into the hall. The door of the parlor stood open, and the whole room was full of the soft shimmer of moonlight. It looked like a bower of romance. It seemed full of soft and holy and alluring mysteries. Horace looked down at Rose, Rose looked up at him. Her eyes fell; she trembled deliciously.
"It is very early," he said, in a whispering voice which would not have been known for his. It had in it the male cadences of wooing music.
Rose stood still.
"Let us go in there a little while," whispered Horace. Rose followed him into the room; he gave the door a little push. It did not quite close, but nearly. Horace placed a chair for Rose beside a window into which the moon was shining; then he drew up one beside it, but not very close. He neither dared nor was sure that he desired. Alone with the girl in this moonlit room, an awe crept over him. She looked away from him out of the window, and he saw that this same awe was over her also. All their young pulses were thrilling, but this awe which was of the spirit held them in check. Rose, with the full white moonlight shining upon her face, gained an ethereal beauty which gave her an adorable aloofness. The young man seemed to see her through the vista of all his young dreams. She was the goddess before which his soul knelt at a distance. He thought he had never seen anything half so lovely as she was in that white light, which seemed to crown her with a frosty radiance like a nimbus. Her very expression was changed. She was smiling, but there was something a little grave and stern about her smile. Her eyes, fixed upon the clear crystal of the moon sailing through the night blue, were full of visions. It did not seem possible to him that she could be thinking of him at all, this beautiful creature with her pure regard of the holy mystery of the nightly sky; but in reality Rose, being the more emotional of the two, and also, since she was not the one to advance, the more daring, began to tremble with impatience for his closer contact, for the touch of his hand upon hers.
She would have died before she would have made the first advance, but it filled her as with secret fire. Finally a sort of anger possessed her, anger at herself and at Horace. She became horribly ashamed of herself, and angry at him because of the shame. She gazed out at the wonderful masses of shadows which the trees made, and she gazed up again at the sky and that floating crystal, and it seemed impossible that it was within her as it was. Her clear face was as calm as marble, her expression as immovable, her gaze as direct. It seemed as if a man must be a part of the wonderful mystery of the moonlit night to come within her scope of vision at all.
Rose chilled, when she did not mean to do so, by sheer maidenliness. Horace, gazing at her calm face, felt in some way rebuked. He had led a decent sort of life, but after all he was a man, and what right had he to even think of a creature like that? He leaned back in his chair, removing himself farther from her, and he also gazed at the moon. That mysterious thing of silver light and shadows, which had illumined all the ages of creation by their own reflected light, until it had come to be a mirror of creation itself, seemed to give him a sort of chill of the flesh. After all, what was everything in life but a repetition of that which had been and a certainty of death? Rose looked like a ghost to his fancy. He seemed like a ghost to himself, and felt reproached for the hot ardor surging in his fleshly heart.
"That same moon lit the world for the builders of the Pyramids," he said, tritely enough.
"Yes," murmured Rose, in a faint voice. The Pyramids chilled her. So they were what he had been thinking about, and not herself.
Horace went on. "It shone upon all those ancient battle-fields of the Old Testament, and the children of Israel in their exile," he said.
Rose looked at him. "It shone upon the Garden of Eden after Adam had so longed for Eve that she grew out of his longing and became something separate from himself, so that he could see her without seeing himself all the time; and it shone upon the garden in Solomon's Song, and the roses of Sharon, and the lilies of the valley, and the land flowing with milk and honey," said she, in a childish tone of levity which had an undercurrent of earnestness in it. All her emotional nature and her pride arose against Pyramids and Old Testament battle-fields, when she had only been conscious that the moon shone upon Horace and herself. She was shamed and angry as she had never been shamed and angry before.
Horace leaned forward and gazed eagerly at her. After all, was he mistaken? He was shrewd enough, although he did not understand the moods of women very well, and it did seem to him that there was something distinctly encouraging in her tone. Just then the night wind came in strongly at the window beside which they were sitting. An ardent fragrance of dewy earth and plants smote them in the face.
"Do you feel the draught?" asked Horace.
"I like it."
"I am afraid you will catch cold."
"I don't catch cold at all easily."
"The wind is very damp," argued Horace, with increasing confidence. He grew very bold. He seized upon one of her little white hands. "I won't believe it unless I can feel for myself that your hands are not cold," said he. He felt the little soft fingers curl around his hand with the involuntary, pristine force of a baby's. His heart beat tumultuously.
"Oh—" he began. Then he stopped suddenly as Rose snatched her hand away and again gazed at the moon.
"It is a beautiful night," she remarked, and the harmless deceit of woman, which is her natural weapon, was in her voice and manner.
Horace was more obtuse. He remained leaning eagerly towards the girl. He extended his hand again, but she repeated, in her soft, deceitful voice, "Yes, a perfectly beautiful night."
Then he observed Sylvia Whitman standing beside them. "It is a nice night enough," said she, "but you'll both catch your deaths of cold at this open window. The wind is blowing right in on you."
She made a motion to close it, stepping between Rose and Horace, but the young man sprang to his feet. "Let me close it, Mrs. Whitman," said he, and did so.
"It ain't late enough in the season to set right beside an open window and let the wind blow in on you," said Sylvia, severely. She drew up a rocking-chair and sat down. She formed the stern apex of a triangle of which Horace and Rose were the base. She leaned back and rocked.
"It is a pleasant night," said she, as if answering Rose's remark, "but to me there's always something sort of sad about moonlight nights. They make you think of times and people that's gone. I dare say it is different with you young folks. I guess I used to feel different about moonlight nights years ago. I remember when Mr. Whitman and I were first married, we used to like to set out on the front door-step and look at the moon, and make plans."
"Don't you ever now?" asked Rose.
"Now we go to bed and to sleep," replied Sylvia, decisively. There was a silence. "I guess it's pretty late," said Sylvia, in a meaning tone. "What time is it, Mr. Allen?"
Horace consulted his watch. "It is not very late," said he. It did not seem to him that Mrs. Whitman could stay.
"It can't be very late," said Rose.
"What time is it?" asked Sylvia, relentlessly.
"About half-past ten," replied Horace, with reluctance.
"I call that very late," said Sylvia. "It is late for Rose, anyway."
"I don't feel at all tired," said Rose.
"You must be," said Sylvia. "You can't always go by feelings."
She swayed pitilessly back and forth in her rocking-chair. Horace waited in an agony of impatience for her to leave them, but she had no intention of doing so. She rocked. Now and then she made some maddening little remark which had nothing whatever to do with the situation. Then she rocked again. Finally she triumphed. Rose stood up. "I think it is getting rather late," said she.
"It is very late," agreed Sylvia, also rising. Horace rose. There was a slight pause. It seemed even then that Sylvia might take pity upon them and leave them. But she stood like a rock. It was quite evident that she would settle again into her rocking-chair at the slightest indication which the two young people made of a disposition to remain.
Rose gave a fluttering little sigh. She extended her hand to Horace. "Good-night, Mr. Allen," she said.
"Good-night," returned Horace. "Good-night, Mrs. Whitman."
"It is time you went to bed, too," said Sylvia.
"I think I'll go in and have a smoke with Mr. Whitman first," said Horace.
"He's going to bed, too," said Sylvia. "He's tired. Good-night, Mr. Allen. If you open that window again, you'll be sure and shut it down before you go up-stairs, won't you?"
Horace promised that he would. Sylvia went with Rose into her room to unfasten her gown. A lamp was burning on the dressing-table. Rose kept her back turned towards the light. Her pretty face was flushed and she was almost in tears. Sylvia hung the girl's gown up carefully, then she looked at her lovingly. Unless Rose made the first advance, when Sylvia would submit with inward rapture but outward stiffness, there never were good-night kisses exchanged between the two.
"You look all tired out," said Sylvia.
"I am not at all tired," said Rose. She was all quivering with impatience, but her voice was sweet and docile. She put up her face for Sylvia to kiss. "Good-night, dear Aunt Sylvia," said she.
"Good-night," said Sylvia. Rose felt merely a soft touch of thin, tightly closed lips. Sylvia did not know how to kiss, but she was glowing with delight.
When she joined Henry in their bedroom down-stairs he looked at her in some disapproval. "I don't think you'd ought to have gone in there," he said.
"Why, you must expect young folks to be young folks, and it was only natural for them to want to set there in the moonlight."
"They can set in there in the moonlight if they want to," said Sylvia. "I didn't hinder them."
"I think they wanted to be alone."
"When they set in the moonlight, I'm going to set, too," said Sylvia. She slipped off her gown carefully over her head. When the head emerged Henry saw that it was carried high with the same rigidity which had lately puzzled him, and that her face had that same expression of stern isolation.
"Sylvia," said Henry.
"Does anything worry you lately?"
Sylvia looked at him with sharp suspicion. "I'd like to know why you should think anything worries me," she said, "as comfortable as we are off now."
"Sylvia, have you got anything on your mind?"
"I don't want to see young folks making fools of themselves," said Sylvia, shortly, and her voice had the same tone of deceit which Rose had used when she spoke of the beautiful night.
"That ain't it," said Henry, quietly.
"Well, if you want to know," said Sylvia, "she's been pestering me with wanting to pay board if she stays along here, and I've put my foot down; she sha'n't pay a cent."
"Of course we can't let her," agreed Henry. Then he added, "This was all her own aunt's property, anyway, and if there hadn't been a will it would have come to her."
"There was a will," said Sylvia, fastening her cotton night-gown tightly around her skinny throat.
"Of course she's going to stay as long as she's contented, and she ain't going to pay board," said Henry; "but that ain't the trouble. Have you got anything on your mind, Sylvia?"
"I hope so," replied Sylvia, sharply. "I hope I've got a little something on my mind. I ain't a fool."
Henry said no more. Neither he nor Sylvia went to sleep at once. The moon's pale influence lit their room and seemed disturbing in itself. Presently they both smelled cigar smoke.
"He's smoking," said Sylvia. "Well, nothing makes much difference to you men, as long as you can smoke. I'd like to know what you'd do in my place."
"Have you got anything on your mind, Sylvia?"
"Didn't I say I hoped I had? Everybody has something on her mind, unless she's a tarnation fool, and I ain't never set up for one."
Henry did not speak again.
The next morning at breakfast Rose announced her intention of going to see if Lucy Ayres would not go to drive with her.
"There's one very nice little horse at the livery-stable," said she, "and I can drive. It is a beautiful morning, and poor Lucy did not look very well yesterday, and I think it will do her good."
Horace turned white. Henry noticed it. Sylvia, who was serving something, did not. Henry had thought he had arrived at a knowledge of Horace's suspicions, which in themselves seemed to him perfectly groundless, and now that he had, as he supposed, proved them to be so, he was profoundly puzzled. Before he had gone to Horace's assistance. Now he did not see his way clear towards doing so, and saw no necessity for it. He ate his breakfast meditatively. Horace pushed away his plate and rose.
"Why, what's the matter?" asked Sylvia. "Don't you feel well, Mr. Allen?"
"Perfectly well; never felt better."
"You haven't eaten enough to keep a sparrow alive."
"I have eaten fast," said Horace. "I have to make an early start this morning. I have some work to do before school."
Rose apparently paid no attention. She went on with her plans for her drive.
"Are you sure you know how to manage a horse?" said Sylvia, anxiously. "I used to drive, but I can't go with you because the washerwoman is coming."
"Of course I can drive," said Rose. "I love to drive. And I don't believe there's a horse in the stable that would get out of a walk, anyway."
"You won't try to pass by any steam-rollers, and you'll look out for automobiles, won't you?" said Sylvia.
Horace left them talking and set out hurriedly. When he reached the Ayres house he entered the gate, passed between the flowering shrubs which bordered the gravel walk, and rang the bell with vigor. He was desperate. Lucy herself opened the door. When she saw Horace she turned red, then white. She was dressed neatly in a little blue cotton wrapper, and her pretty hair was arranged as usual, with the exception of one tiny curl-paper on her forehead. Lucy's hand went nervously to this curl-paper.
"Oh, good-morning!" she said, breathlessly, as if she had been running.
Horace returned her greeting gravely. "Can I see you a few moments, Miss Lucy?" he said.
A wild light came into the girl's eyes. Her cheeks flushed again. Again she spoke in her nervous, panting voice, and asked him in. She led the way into the parlor and excused herself flutteringly. She was back in a few moments. Instead of the curl-paper there was a little, soft, dark, curly lock on her forehead. She had also fastened the neck of her wrapper with a gold brooch. The wrapper sloped well from her shoulders and displayed a lovely V of white neck. She sat down opposite Horace, and the simple garment adjusted itself to her slim figure, revealing its tender outlines.
Lucy looked at Horace, and her expression was tragic, foolish, and of almost revolting wistfulness. She was youth and womanhood in its most helpless and pathetic revelation. Poor Lucy could not help herself. She was a thing always devoured and never consumed by a flame of nature, because of the lack of food to satisfy an inborn hunger.
Horace felt all this perfectly in an analytical way. He sympathized in an analytical way, but in other respects he felt that curious resentment and outrage of which a man is capable and which is fiercer than outraged maidenliness. For a man to be beloved when his own heart does not respond is not pleasant. He cannot defend himself, nor even recognize facts, without being lowered in his own self-esteem. Horace had done, as far as he could judge, absolutely nothing whatever to cause this state of mind in Lucy. He was self-exonerated as to that, but the miserable reason for it all, in his mere existence as a male of his species, filled him with shame for himself and her, and also with anger.
He strove to hold to pity, but anger got the better of him. Anger and shame coupled together make a balking team. Now the man was really at a loss what to say. Lucy sat before him with her expression of pitiable self-revelation, and waited, and Horace sat speechless. Now he was there, he wondered what he had been such an ass as to come for. He wondered what he had ever thought he could say, would say. Then Rose's face shone out before his eyes, and his impulse of protection made him firm. He spoke abruptly. "Miss Lucy—" he began. Lucy cast her eyes down and waited, her whole attitude was that of utter passiveness and yielding. "Good Lord! She thinks I have come here at eight o'clock in the morning to propose!" Horace thought, with a sort of fury. But he did not speak again at once. He actually did not know how to begin, what to say. He did not, finally, say anything. He rose. It seemed to him that he must prevent Rose from going to drive with Lucy, but he saw no way of doing so.
When he rose it was as if Lucy's face of foolish anticipation of joy was overclouded. "You are not going so soon?" she stammered.
"I have to get to school early this morning," Horace said, in a harsh voice. He moved towards the door. Lucy also had risen. She now looked altogether tragic. The foolish wistfulness was gone. Instead, claws seemed to bristle all over her tender surface. Suddenly Horace realized that her slender, wiry body was pressed against his own. He was conscious of her soft cheek against his. He felt at once in the grip of a tiger and a woman, and horribly helpless, more helpless than he had ever been in his whole life. What could he say or do? Then suddenly the parlor door opened and Mrs. Ayres, Lucy's mother, stood there. She saw with her stern, melancholy gaze the whole situation.
"Lucy!" she said.
Lucy started away from Horace, and gazed in a sort of fear and wrath at her mother.
"Lucy," said Mrs. Ayres, "go up to your own room."
Lucy obeyed. She slunk out of the door and crept weakly up-stairs. Horace and Mrs. Ayres looked at each other. There was a look of doubt in the woman's face. For the first time she was not altogether sure. Perhaps Lucy had been right, after all, in her surmises. Why had Horace called? She finally went straight to the point.
"What did you come for, Mr. Allen?" said she.
Suddenly Horace thought of the obvious thing to say, the explanation to give. "Miss Fletcher is thinking of coming later to take Miss Lucy for a drive," said he.
"And you called to tell her?" said Mrs. Ayres.
Horace looked at her. Mrs. Ayres understood. "Miss Fletcher must come with a double-seated carriage so that I can go," said she. "My daughter is very nervous about horses. I never allow her to go to drive without me."
She observed, with a sort of bitter sympathy, the look of relief overspread Horace's face. "I will send a telephone message from Mrs. Steele's, next door, so there will be no mistake," she said.
"Thank you," replied Horace. His face was burning.
Mrs. Ayres went on with a melancholy and tragic calm. "I saw what I saw when I came in," said she. "I have only to inform you that—any doubts which you may have entertained, any fears, are altogether groundless. Everything has been as harmless as—the candy you ate last night."
Horace started and stared at her. In truth, he had lain awake until a late hour wondering what might be going to happen to him.
"I made it," said Mrs. Ayres. "I attend to everything. I have attended to everything." She gazed at him with a strange, pathetic dignity. "I have no apologies nor excuses to make to you," she said. "I have only this to say, and you can reflect upon it at your leisure. Sometimes, quite often, it may happen that too heavy a burden, a burden which has been gathering weight since the first of creation, is heaped upon too slender shoulders. This burden may bend innocence into guilt and modesty into shamelessness, but there is no more reason for condemnation than in a case of typhoid fever. Any man of good sense and common Christianity should take that view of it."
"I do," cried Horace, hurriedly. He looked longingly at the door. He had never felt so shamed in his life, and never so angrily sympathetic.
"I will go over to Mrs. Steele's and telephone immediately," said Mrs. Ayres, calmly. "Good-morning, Mr. Allen."
"Good-morning," said Horace. There was something terrible about the face of patient defiance which the woman lifted to his.
"You will not—" she began.
Horace caught her thin hand and pressed it heartily. "Good God, Mrs. Ayres!" he stammered.
She nodded. "Yes, I understand. I can trust you," she said. "I am very glad it happened with you."
Horace was relieved to be out in the open air. He felt as if he had escaped from an atmosphere of some terrible emotional miasma. He reflected that he had heard of such cases as poor Lucy Ayres, but he had been rather incredulous. He walked along wondering whether it was a psychological or physical phenomenon. Pity began to get the better of his shame for himself and the girl. The mother's tragic face came before his eyes. "What that woman must have to put up with!" he thought.
When he had commenced the morning session of school he found himself covertly regarding the young girls. He wondered if such cases were common. If they were, he thought to himself that the man who threw the first stone was the first criminal of the world. He realized the helplessness of the young things before forces of nature of which they were brought up in so much ignorance, and his soul rebelled. He thought to himself that they should be armed from the beginning with wisdom.
He was relieved that at first he saw in none of the girl-faces before him anything which resembled in the slightest degree the expression which he had seen in Lucy Ayres's. These girls, most of them belonging to the village (there were a few from outside, for this was an endowed school, ranking rather higher than an ordinary institution), revealed in their faces one of three interpretations of character. Some were full of young mischief, chafing impatiently at the fetters of school routine. They were bubbling over with innocent animal life; they were longing to be afield at golf or tennis. They hated their books.
Some were frankly coquettish and self-conscious, but in a most healthy and normal fashion. These frequently adjusted stray locks of hair, felt of their belts at their backs to be sure that the fastenings were intact, then straightened themselves with charming little feminine motions. Their flowerlike faces frequently turned towards the teacher, and there was in them a perfect consciousness of the facts of sex and charm, but it was a most innocent, even childlike consciousness.
The last type belonged to those intent upon their books, soberly adjusted to the duties of life already, with little imagination or emotion. This last was in the minority.
"Thank God!" Horace thought, as his eyes met one and another of the girl-faces. "She is not, cannot be, a common type." And then he felt something like a chill of horror as his eyes met those of a new pupil, a girl from Alford, who had only entered the school the day before. She was not well dressed. There was nothing coquettish about her, but in her eyes shone the awful, unreasoning hunger which he had seen before. Upon her shoulders, young as they were, was the same burden, the burden as old as creation, which she was required to bear by a hard destiny, perhaps of heredity. There was something horribly pathetic in the girl's shy, beseeching, foolish gaze at Horace. She was younger and shyer than Lucy and, although not so pretty, immeasurably more pathetic.
"Another," thought Horace. It was a great relief to him when, only a week later, this girl found an admirer in one of the schoolboys, who, led by some strange fascination, followed her instead of one of the prettier, more attractive girls. Then the girl began to look more normal. She dressed more carefully and spent more time in arranging her hair. After all, she was very young, and abnormal instincts may be quieted with a mere sop at the first.
When Horace reached home that day of the drive he found that Rose had returned. Sylvia said that she had been at home half an hour.
"She went to Alford," she said, "and I'm afraid she's all tired out. She came home looking as white as a sheet. She said she didn't want any dinner, but finally said she would come down."
At the dinner-table Rose was very silent. She did not look at Horace at all. She ate almost nothing. After dinner she persisted in assisting Sylvia in clearing away the table and washing the dishes. Rose took a childish delight in polishing the china with her dish-towel. New England traits seemed to awake within her in this New England home. Sylvia was using the willow ware now, Rose was so pleased with it. The Calkin's soap ware was packed away on the top shelf of the pantry.