That evening there was a little dinner given in a private parlor by Mr. Benson in honor of the engagement of his daughter. It was great larks for the young ladies whom Mrs. Cortlandt was chaperoning, who behaved with an elaboration of restraint and propriety that kept Irene in a flutter of uneasiness. Mr. Benson, in mentioning the reason for the "little spread," told the story of Abraham Lincoln's sole response to Lord Lyons, the bachelor minister of her majesty, when he came officially to announce the marriage of the Prince of Wales—"Lord Lyons, go thou and do likewise;" and he looked at Forbes when he told it, which made Miss Lamont blush, and appear what the artist had described her to King—the sweetest thing in life. Mrs. Benson beamed with motherly content, and was quite as tearful as ungrammatical, but her mind was practical and forecasting. "There'll have to be," she confided to Miss Lamont, "more curtains in the parlor, and I don't know but new paper." Mr. Meigs was not present. Mrs. Farquhar noticed this, and Mrs. Benson remembered that he had said something about going down to North Conway, which gave King an opportunity to say to Mrs. Farquhar that she ought not to despair, for Mr. Meigs evidently moved in a circle, and was certain to cross her path again. "I trust so," she replied. "I've been his only friend through all this miserable business." The dinner was not a great success. There was too much self-consciousness all round, and nobody was witty and brilliant.
The next morning King took Irene to the Crystal Cascade. When he used to frequent this pretty spot as a college boy, it had seemed to him the ideal place for a love scene-much better than the steps of a hotel. He said as much when they were seated at the foot of the fall. It is a charming cascade fed by the water that comes down Tuckerman's Ravine. But more beautiful than the fall is the stream itself, foaming down through the bowlders, or lying in deep limpid pools which reflect the sky and the forest. The water is as cold as ice and as clear as cut glass; few mountain streams in the world, probably, are so absolutely without color. "I followed it up once," King was saying, by way of filling in the pauses with personal revelations, "to the source. The woods on the side are dense and impenetrable, and the only way was to keep in the stream and climb over the bowlders. There are innumerable slides and cascades and pretty falls, and a thousand beauties and surprises. I finally came to a marsh, a thicket of alders, and around this the mountain closed in an amphitheatre of naked perpendicular rock a thousand feet high. I made my way along the stream through the thicket till I came to a great bank and arch of snow—it was the last of July—from under which the stream flowed. Water dripped in many little rivulets down the face of the precipices—after a rain there are said to be a thousand cascades there. I determined to climb to the summit, and go back by the Tip-top House. It does not look so from a little distance, but there is a rough, zigzag sort of path on one side of the amphitheatre, and I found this, and scrambled up. When I reached the top the sun was shining, and although there was nothing around me but piles of granite rocks, without any sign of a path, I knew that I had my bearings so that I could either reach the house or a path leading to it. I stretched myself out to rest a few moments, and suddenly the scene was completely shut in by a fog. [Irene put out her hand and touched King's.] I couldn't tell where the sun was, or in what direction the hut lay, and the danger was that I would wander off on a spur, as the lost usually do. But I knew where the ravine was, for I was still on the edge of it."
"Why," asked Irene, trembling at the thought of that danger so long ago —"why didn't you go back down the ravine?"
"Because," and King took up the willing little hand and pressed it to his lips, and looked steadily in her eyes—"because that is not my way. It was nothing. I made what I thought was a very safe calculation, starting from the ravine as a base, to strike the Crawford bridle-path at least a quarter of a mile west of the house. I hit it—but it shows how little one can tell of his course in a fog—I struck it within a rod of the house! It was lucky for me that I did not go two rods further east."
Ah me! how real and still present the peril seemed to the girl! "You will solemnly promise me, solemnly, will you not, Stanhope, never to go there again—never—without me?"
The promise was given. "I have a note," said King, after the promise was recorded and sealed, "to show you. It came this morning. It is from Mrs. Bartlett Glow."
"Perhaps I'd rather not see it," said Irene, a little stiffly.
"Oh, there is a message to you. I'll read it."
It was dated at Newport.
"MY DEAR STANHOPE,—The weather has changed. I hope it is more congenial where you are. It is horrid here. I am in a bad humor, chiefly about the cook. Don't think I'm going to inflict a letter on you. You don't deserve it besides. But I should like to know Miss Benson's address. We shall be at home in October, late, and I want her to come and make me a little visit. If you happen to see her, give her my love, and believe me your affectionate cousin, PENELOPE."
The next day they explored the wonders of the Notch, and the next were back in the serene atmosphere of the Profile House. How lovely it all was; how idyllic; what a bloom there was on the hills; how amiable everybody seemed; how easy it was to be kind and considerate! King wished he could meet a beggar at every turn. I know he made a great impression on some elderly maiden ladies at the hotel, who thought him the most gentlemanly and good young man they had ever seen. Ah! if one could always be in love and always young!
They went one day by invitation, Irene and Marion and King and the artist—as if it made any difference where they went—to Lonesome Lake, a private pond and fishing-lodge on the mountain-top, under the ledge of Cannon. There, set in a rim of forest and crags, lies a charming little lake—which the mountain holds like a mirror for the sky and the clouds and the sailing hawks—full of speckled trout, which have had to be educated by skillful sportsmen to take the fly. From this lake one sees the whole upper range of Lafayette, gray and purple against the sky. On the bank is a log cabin touched with color, with great chimneys, and as luxuriously comfortable as it is picturesque.
While dinner was preparing, the whole party were on the lake in boats, equipped with fishing apparatus, and if the trout had been in half as willing humor as the fisher, it would have been a bad day for them. But perhaps they apprehended that it was merely a bridal party, and they were leaping all over the lake, flipping their tails in the sun, and scorning all the visible wiles. Fish, they seemed to say, are not so easily caught as men.
There appeared to be a good deal of excitement in the boat that carried the artist and Miss Lamont. It was fly-fishing under extreme difficulties. The artist, who kept his flies a good deal of the time out of the boat, frankly confessed that he would prefer an honest worm and hook, or a net, or even a grappling-iron. Miss Lamont, with a great deal of energy, kept her line whirling about, and at length, on a successful cast, landed the artist's hat among the water-lilies. There was nothing discouraging in this, and they both resumed operations with cheerfulness and enthusiasm. But the result of every other cast was entanglement of each other's lines, and King noticed that they spent most of their time together in the middle of the boat, getting out of snarls. And at last, drifting away down to the outlet, they seemed to have given up fishing for the more interesting occupation. The clouds drifted on; the fish leaped; the butcher-bird called from the shore; the sun was purpling Lafayette. There were kinks in the leader that would not come out, the lines were inextricably tangled. The cook made the signals for dinner, and sent his voice echoing over the lake time and again before these devoted anglers heard or heeded. At last they turned the prow to the landing, Forbes rowing, and Marion dragging her hand in the water, and looking as if she had never cast a line. King was ready to pull the boat on to the float, and Irene stood by the landing expectant. In the bottom of the boat was one poor little trout, his tail curled up and his spots faded.
"Whose trout is that?" asked Irene.
"It belongs to both of us," said Forbes, who seemed to have some difficulty in adjusting his oars.
"But who caught it?"
"Both of us," said Marion, stepping out of the boat; "we really did." There was a heightened color in her face and a little excitement in her manner as she put her arm round Irene's waist and they walked up to the cabin. "Yes, it is true, but you are not to say anything about it yet, dear, for Mr. Forbes has to make his way, you know."
When they walked down the mountain the sun was setting. Half-way down, at a sharp turn in the path, the trees are cut away just enough to make a frame, in which Lafayette appears like an idealized picture of a mountain. The sun was still on the heights, which were calm, strong, peaceful. They stood gazing at this heavenly vision till the rose had deepened into violet, and then with slow steps descended through the fragrant woods.
In October no region in the North has a monopoly of beauty, but there is a certain refinement, or it may be a repose, in the Berkshire Hills which is in a manner typical of a distinct phase of American fashion. There is here a note of country life, of retirement, suggestive of the old-fashioned "country-seat." It is differentiated from the caravansary or the cottage life in the great watering-places. Perhaps it expresses in a sincerer way an innate love of rural existence. Perhaps it is only a whim of fashion. Whatever it may be, there is here a moment of pause, a pensive air of the closing scene. The estates are ample, farms in fact, with a sort of villa and park character, woods, pastures, meadows. When the leaves turn crimson and brown and yellow, and the frequent lakes reflect the tender sky and the glory of the autumn foliage, there is much driving over the hills from country place to country place; there are lawn-tennis parties on the high lawns, whence the players in the pauses of the game can look over vast areas of lovely country; there are open-air fetes, chance meetings at the clubhouse, chats on the highway, walking excursions, leisurely dinners. In this atmosphere one is on the lookout for an engagement, and a wedding here has a certain eclat. When one speaks of Great Barrington or Stockbridge or Lenox in the autumn, a certain idea of social position is conveyed.
Did Their Pilgrimage end on these autumn heights? To one of them, I know, the colored landscape, the dreamy atmosphere, the unique glory that comes in October days, were only ecstatic suggestions of the life that opened before her. Love is victorious over any mood of nature, even when exquisite beauty is used to heighten the pathos of decay. Irene raved about the scenery. There is no place in the world beautiful enough to have justified her enthusiasm, and there is none ugly enough to have killed it.
I do not say that Irene's letters to Mr. King were entirely taken up with descriptions of the beauty of Lenox. That young gentleman had gone on business to Georgia. Mr. and Mrs. Benson were in Cyrusville. Irene was staying with Mrs. Farquhar at the house of a friend. These letters had a great deal of Lovers' Latin in them—enough to have admitted the writer into Yale College if this were a qualification. The letters she received were equally learned, and the fragments Mrs. Farquhar was permitted to hear were so interrupted by these cabalistic expressions that she finally begged to be excused. She said she did not doubt that to be in love was a liberal education, but pedantry was uninteresting. Latin might be convenient at this stage; but later on, for little tiffs and reconciliations, French would be much more useful.
One of these letters southward described a wedding. The principals in it were unknown to King, but in the minute detail of the letter there was a personal flavor which charmed him. He would have been still more charmed could he have seen the girl's radiant face as she dashed it off. Mrs. Farquhar watched her with a pensive interest awhile, went behind her chair, and, leaning over, kissed her forehead, and then with slow step and sad eyes passed out to the piazza, and stood with her face to the valley and the purple hills. But it was a faded landscape she saw.