"Dr. Kemp," she replied, "may I give you a little friendly scolding?"
"You have every right." His tone was somewhat earnest, despite his smiling eyes. A man of thirty-five does not resent a friendly scolding from a winsome young girl.
"Well, don't you think it is rather hard of you to deprive poor Bob of any pleasure to-day may bring, on the ground that to-morrow he may wish it too, and will not be able to have it?"
"As you put it, it does seem so; but I am pugnacious enough to wish you to see it as practically as I do. Put sentiment aside, and the only sensible thing to be done now is to prepare him for the hard, uncushioned facts of an active life."
"But why must it be so hard for him?"
"Why? In the face of the inevitable, that is a time-wasting, useless question. Life is so; even if we find its underlying cause, the discovery will not alter the fact."
"Yes, it will."
"By its enabling us to turn our backs on the hard way and seek a softer."
"You forget that strait-jacket to all inclination,—circumstance."
"And are you not forgetting that friendly hands may help to remove the strait-jacket?"
Her lovely face looked very winning, filled with its kindly meaning.
"Thank you," said he, raising his hat and forgetting to replace it as he spoke; "that is a gentle truth; some day we shall discuss this further. For the present, use your power in getting Bob upon his feet."
"Yes." She gave a hurried glance at the door behind her, and ran quickly down to the lowest step. "Dr. Kemp," said she, a little breathlessly, "I have wished for some time to ask you to let me know when you have any cases that require assistance outside of a physician's,—such as my father or I might lend. You must have a broad field for such opportunities. Will you think of me then, please?"
"I will," he replied, looking with amused pleasure at her flushed face. "Going in for philanthropy, Miss Levice?"
"No; going out for it, thank you;" and she put her hand into his outstretched one. She watched him step into his carriage; he turned and raised his hat again,—a trifling circumstance that Ruth dwelt upon with pleasure; a second glance always presupposes an interested first.
He did not fail to keep his promise; and once on the lookout for "cases" herself, Ruth soon found enough irons in the fire to occupy her spare moments.
Mrs. Levice, however, insisted upon her resuming her place in society.
"A young girl must not withdraw herself from her sphere, or people will either consider her eccentric or will forget her entirely. Don't be unreasonable, Ruth; there is no reason why you should not enjoy every function in our circle, and Louis is always happy to take you. When he asked you if you would go with him to the Art Exhibition on Friday night, I heard you say you did not know. Now why?"
"Oh, that? I never gave it a second's thought. I promised Father to go with him in the afternoon; I did not consider it worth an explanation."
"But, you see, I did. It looks very queer for Louis to be travelling around by himself; couldn't you go again in the evening with him?"
"Of course, you over-thoughtful aunt. If the pictures are good, a second visit will not be thrown away,—that is, if Louis is really anxious for my companionship. But, 'I doubt it, I doubt it, I do.'"
"What nonsense!" returned her mother, somewhat testily. "Why shouldn't he be? You are always amiable together, are you not?"
"Well," she said, knitting her brows and pursing her lips drolly, "that, methinks, depends on the limits and requirements of amiability. If disputation showeth a friendly spirit, then is my lord overfriendly; for it oft hath seemed of late to pleasure his mood to wax disputations, though, in sooth, lady fair, I have always maintained a wary and decorous demeanor."
"I can imagine," laughed her mother, a little anxiously; "then you will go?"
If Arnold really cared for the outcome of such manoeuvres, Mrs. Levice's exertions bore some fruit.
There are few communities, comparatively speaking, with more enthusiastic theatre-lovers than are to be found in San Francisco. The play was one of the few worldly pleasures that Mr. Levice thoroughly enjoyed. When a great star was heralded, he was in a feverish delight until it had come and gone. When Bernhardt appeared, the quiet little man fully earned the often indiscriminately applied title of "crazy Frenchman." A Frenchman is never so much one as when confronted in a foreign land with a great French creation; every fibre in his body answers each charm with an appreciation worked to fever-heat by patriotic love; at such times the play of his emotions precludes any idea of reason to an onlooker. Bernhardt was one of Levice's passions. Booth was another, though he took him more composedly. The first time the latter appeared at the Baldwin (his opening play was "Hamlet") the Levices—that is, Ruth and her father—went three times in succession to witness his matchless performance, and every succeeding characterization but strengthened their enthusiasm.
Booth was coming again. The announcement had been rapturously hailed by the Levices.
"It will be impossible for us to go together, Father," Ruth remarked at the breakfast-table. "Louis will have to take me on alternate nights, while you stay at home with Mamma; did you hear, Louis?"
"You will hardly need to do that," answered Arnold, lowering his cup; "if you and your father prefer going together, I shall enjoy staying with your mother on those nights."
"Thanks for the offer—and your evident delight in my company," laughed Ruth; "but there is one play at which you must submit to the infliction of my presence. Don't you remember we always wished to see the 'Merchant of Venice' and judge for ourselves his interpretation of the character? Well, I am determined that we shall see it together."
"When does he play it?"
"A week from Saturday night."
"Sorry to disappoint you, but I shall be out of town at the end of next week."
"Oh, dear? Honestly? Can't you put it off? I want so much to go."
"Impossible. Go with your father."
"You know very well neither of us would go off and leave Mamma alone at night. It is horrid of you to go. I am sure you could manage differently if—"
"Why, my child!"
She was actually pouting; and her father's quiet tone of surprised reprimand just headed off two great tears that threatened to fall.
"I know," she said, trying to smile, and showing an April face instead; "but I had just set my heart on going, and with Louis too."
"That comes of being a spoilt only child," put in Arnold, suavely. "You ought to know by this time that of the many plans we make with ourselves, nine out of ten come to nought. Before you set your heart on a thing, be sure you will not have to give it up."
Ruth, still sore with disappointment, acknowledged this philosophic remark with a curled lip.
"There, save your tears for something more worthy," cut in Levice, briskly; "if you care so much about it, we or chance must arrange it as you wish."
But chance in this instance was not propitious. Wednesday came, and Arnold saw no way of accommodating her. He left town after taking her to see the "Fool's Revenge" as a sort of substitution.
"You seemed to be enjoying the poor Fool's troubles last night," observed Dr. Kemp, in the morning; they were still standing in Mrs. Levice's room.
"I? Not enjoying his troubles; I enjoyed Booth, though,—if you can call it enjoyment when your heart is ready to break for him. Were you there? I did not see you."
"No, I don't suppose you did, or you would have been in the pitiable condition of the princess who had her head turned. I sat directly back of your box, in the dress-circle. Then you like Booth?"
"Take care! That is a dangerous subject with my family," broke in Mrs. Levice. "Ruth has actually exhausted every adjective in her admiration vocabulary. The last extravaganza I heard from her on that theme was after she had seen him as Brutus; she wished herself Lucius, that in the tent scene she might kiss Booth's hand."
"It sounds gushing enough for a school-girl now," laughed Ruth merrily, looking up at the doctor; "but at the time I meant it."
"Have you seen him in all his impersonations?" he asked.
"In everything but 'Shylock.'"
"You will have a chance for that on Saturday night. It will be a great farewell performance."
"Undoubtedly, but I shall have to forego that last glimpse of him."
"Now, Doctor," cried Mrs. Levice, "will you please impress it on her that I am not a lunatic and can be left alone without fear? She wishes to go Saturday night, but refuses to go with her father on the ground that I shall be left alone, as Mr. Arnold is out of town. Is not that being unnecessarily solicitous?"
"Without doubt. But," he added, turning deferentially to Ruth, "in lieu of a better escort, how would I do, Miss Levice?"
"I do not understand."
"Will you come with me Saturday night to see 'Shylock'?"
To be candid, Ruth was embarrassed. The doctor had said neither "will you honor me" nor "will you please me," but he had both pleased and honored her. She turned a pair of radiant eyes to her mother. "Come now, Mrs. Levice," laughed Kemp, noting the action, "will you allow your little girl to go with me? Do not detain me with a refusal; it will be impossible to accept one now, and I shall not be around till then, you know. Good-morning."
Unwittingly, the doctor had caused an excitement in the hearts both of mother and daughter. The latter was naturally surprised at his unexpected invitation, but surprise was soon obliterated by another and quite different feeling, which she kept rigorously to herself. Mrs. Levice was in a dilemma about it, and consulted her husband in the evening.
"By all means, let her go," replied he; "why should you have had any misgivings about it? I am sure I am glad she is going."
"But, Jules, you forget that none of our Jewish friends allow their girls to go out with strangers."
"Is that part of our religion?"
"No; but custom is in itself a religion. People do talk so at every little innovation against convention."
"What will they say? Nothing detrimental either to Ruth or the doctor. Pshaw, Esther! You ought to feel proud that Dr. Kemp has asked the child. If she wishes to go, don't set an impossible bogy in the way of her enjoyment. Besides, you do not care to appear so silly as you would if you said to the doctor, 'I can't let her go on account of people's tongues,' and that is the only honest excuse you can offer." So in his manly, practical way he decided it.
On Saturday night Ruth stood in the drawing-room buttoning her pale suede glove. Kemp had not yet come in. She looked unusually well in her dull sage-green gown. A tiny toque of the same color rested on her soft dark hair. The creamy pallor of her face, the firm white throat revealed by the broad rolling collar, her grave lips and dreamy eyes, hardly told that she was feeling a little shy. Presently the bell rang, and Kemp came in, his open topcoat revealing his evening dress beneath. He came forward hastily.
"I am a little late," he said, taking her hand, "but it was unavoidable. Ten minutes to eight," looking at his watch; "the horses must make good time."
"It is slightly chilly to-night, is it not?" asked Ruth, for want of something better to say as she turned for her wrap.
"I did not feel it," he replied, intercepting her. "But this furry thing will keep the cold off, if there is any," he continued, as he held it for her, and quite unprofessionally bent his head to hook it at her throat. A strange sensation shot through Ruth as his face approached so close her own.
"How are your mother and father?" He asked, holding the door open, while she turned for her fan, thus concealing a slight embarrassment.
"They are as usual," she answered. "Father expects to see you after the play. You will come in for a little supper, will you not?"
"That sounds alluring," he responded lightly, his quick eye remarking, as she came toward him, the dainty femininity of her loveliness, that seemed to have caught a grace beyond the reach of art.
It thus happened that they took their places just as the curtain rose.
Everybody remembers the sad old comedy, as differently interpreted in its graver sentiment as there are different interpreters. Ruth had seen one who made of Shylock merely a fawning, mercenary, loveless, blood-thirsty wretch. She had seen another who presented a man of quick wit, ready tongue, great dignity, greater vengeance, silent of love, wordy of hate. Booth, without throwing any romantic glamour on the Jew, showed him as God and man, but mostly man, had made him: an old Jew, grown bitter in the world's disfavor through fault of race; grown old in strife for the only worldly power vouchsafed him,—gold; grown old with but one human love to lighten his hard existence; a man who, at length, shorn of his two loves through the same medium that robbed him of his manly birthright, now turned fiend, endeavors with tooth and nail to wreak the smouldering vengeance of a lifetime upon the chance representative of an inexorable persecution.
All through the performance Ruth sat a silent, attentive listener. Kemp, with his ready laugh at Gratiano's sallies, would turn a quick look at her for sympathy; he was rather surprised at the grave, unsmiling face beside him. When, however, the old Jew staggered alone and almost blindly from the triumphantly smiling court-room, a little pinch on his arm decidedly startled him.
He lowered his glass and turned round on her so suddenly that Ruth started.
"Oh," she faltered, "I—I beg your pardon; I had forgotten you were not Louis."
"I do not mind in the least," he assured her easily.
The last act passes merrily and quickly; only the severe, great things of life move slowly.
As the doctor and Ruth made their way through the crowded lobby, the latter thought she had never seen so many acquaintances, each of whom turned an interested look at her stalwart escort. Of this she was perfectly aware, but the same human interest with which Kemp's acquaintances regarded her passed by her unnoticed.
A moment later they were in the fresh, open air.
"How beautiful it is!" said Ruth, looking up at the stars. "The wind has entirely died away."
"'On such a night,'" quoth Kemp, as they approached the curb, "a closed carriage seems out of season."
"And reason," supplemented Ruth, while the doctor opened the door rather slowly. She glanced at him hesitatingly.
"Would you—" she began.
"Right! I would!" The door was banged to.
"John," he said, looking up at his man in the box, "take this trap round to the stable; I shall not need the horses again to-night."
John touched his hat, and Kemp drew his companion's little hand through his arm.
"Well," he said, as they turned the corner, "Were you satisfied with the great man to-night?"
"Yes," she replied meditatively, "fully; there was no exaggeration,—it was all quite natural."
"Except Jessica in boy's clothes."
"Don't mention her, please; I detest her."
"And yet she spoke quite prettily on the night."
"I did not hear her."
"Why, where were you while all the world was making merry on the stage?"
"Not with them; I was with the weary, heart-broken old man who passed out when joy began."
"Ah! I fancied you did not half appreciate Gratiano's jesting. Miss Levice, I am afraid you allow the sorry things of life to take too strong a hold on you. It is not right. I assure you for every tear there is a laugh, and you must learn to forget the former in the latter."
"I am sorry," replied Ruth, quite sadly; "but I fear I cannot learn that,—tears are always stronger than laughter. How could I listen to the others' nonsense when my heart was sobbing with that lonely old man? Forgive me, but I cannot forget him."
They walked along silently for some time. Instinctively, each felt the perfect accord with which they kept step. Ruth's little ear was just about on a level with the doctor's chin. He hardly felt the soft touch of her hand upon his sleeve; but as he looked at the white profile of her cheek against the dark fur of her collar, the knowledge that she was there was a pleasing one.
"Did you consider the length of our walk when you fell in with my desire?" he asked presently.
"I like a long walk in pleasant weather; I never tire of walking."
"You have found the essentials of a good pedestrian,—health and strength."
"Yes; if everybody were like me, all your skill would be thrown away,—I am never ill."
"Apparently there is no reason why you should be, with common-sense to back your blessings. If common-sense could be bought at the drug-store, I should be rid of a great many patients."
"That reminds me of a snatch of conversation I once overheard between my mother and a doctor's wife. I am reminded of it because the spirit of your meaning is diametrically opposed to her own. After some talk my mother asked, 'And how is the doctor?' 'Oh,' replied the visitor, with a long sigh, 'he's well enough in body, but he's blue, terribly blue; everybody is so well, you know.'"
"Her sentiment was more human than humane," laughed Kemp. He was glad to see that she had roused herself from her sad musings; but a certain set purpose he had formed robbed him now of his former lightness of manner.
He was about to broach a subject that required delicate handling; but an intuitive knowledge of the womanly character of the young girl aided him much. It was not so much what he had seen her do as what he knew she was, that led him to begin his recital.
"We have a good many blocks before us yet," he said, "and I am going to tell you a little story. Why don't you take the full benefit of my arm? There," he proceeded, drawing her hand farther through his arm, "now you feel more like a big girl than like a bit of thistledown. If I get tiresome, just call 'time,' will you?"
"All right," she laughed. She was beginning to meet halfway this matter-of-fact, unadorned, friendly manner of his; and when she did meet it, she felt a comfortable security in it. From the beginning to the end of his short narrative he looked straight ahead.
"How shall I begin? Do you like fairy tales? Well, this is the soul of one without the fictional wings. Once upon a time,—I think that is the very best introduction extant,—a woman was left a widow with one little girl. She lived in New Orleans, where the blow of her husband's death and the loss of her good fortune came almost simultaneously. She must have had little moral courage, for as soon as she could, she left her home, not being able to bear the inevitable falling off of friends that follows loss of fortune. She wandered over the intermediate States between here and Louisiana, stopping nowhere long, but endeavoring to keep together the bodies and souls of herself and child by teaching. They kept this up for years until the mother succumbed. They were on the way from Nevada to Los Angeles when she died. The daughter, then not eighteen, went on to Los Angeles, where she buried her mother, and endeavored to continue teaching as she had been doing. She was young, unsophisticated, sad, and in want in a strange town. She applied for advice to a man highly honored and recommended by his fellow-citizens. The man played the brute. The girl fled—anywhere. Had she been less brave, she would have fled from herself. She came to San Francisco and took a position as nurse-girl; children, she thought, could not play her false, and she might outlive it. The hope was cruel. She was living near my home, had seen my sign probably, and in the extremity of her distress came to me. There is a good woman who keeps a lodging-house, and who delights in doing me favors. I left the poor child in her hands, and she is now fully recovered. As a physician I can do no more for her, and yet melancholy has almost made a wreck of her. Nothing I say has any effect; all she answers is, 'It isn't worth while.' I understand her perfectly, but I wished to infuse into her some of her old spirit of independence. This morning I asked her if she intended to let herself drift on in this way. I may have spoken a little more harshly than necessary, for my words broke down completely the wall of dogged silence she had built around herself. 'Oh, sir,' she cried, weeping like the child she is, 'what can I do? Can I dare to take little children by the hand, stained as I am? Can I go as an impostor where, if people knew, they would snatch their loved ones from me? Oh, it would be too wretched!' I tried to remonstrate with her, told her that the lily in the dust is no less a lily than is her spotless sister held high above contamination. She looked at me miserably from her tear-stained face, and then said, 'Men may think so, but women don't; a stain with them is ignoble whether made by one's self or another. No woman knowing my story would think me free from dishonor, and hold out her clean hands to me.' 'Plenty,' I contradicted. 'Maybe,' she said humbly; 'but what would it mean? The hand would be held out at arm's length by women safe in their position, who would not fail to show me how debased they think me. I am young yet; can you show me a girl, like myself in years, but white as snow, kept safe from contamination, as you say, who, knowing my story, would hold out her hand to me and not feel herself besmirched by the contact? Do not say you can, for I know you cannot.' She was crying so violently that she would not listen to me. When I left her, I myself could think of none of my young friends to whom I could propound the question. I know many sweet, kind girls, but I could count not one among them all who in such a case would be brave as she was womanly—until I thought of you."
Complete silence followed his words. He did not turn his glance from the street ahead of him. He had made no appeal, would make none, in fact. He had told the story with scarcely a reflection on its impropriety, that would have arrested another man from introducing such an element into his gentle fellowship with a girl like Ruth. His lack of hesitancy was born of his manly view of the outcast's blamelessness, of her dire necessity for help, and of a premonition that Ruth Levice would be as free from the artificiality of conventional surface modesty as was he, through the earnestness of the undertaking.
There is something very sweet to a woman in being singled out by a man for some ennobling virtue. Ruth felt this so strongly that she could almost hear her heart beat with the intoxicating knowledge. No question had been asked, but she felt an answer was expected. Yet had her life depended on it, the words could not have come at that moment. Was she indeed what he esteemed her? Unconsciously Dr. Kemp had, in thought, placed her on a pedestal. Did she deserve the high place he had given her, or would she?
With many women the question would have been, did she care for Dr. Kemp's good opinion? Now, though Ruth was indeed put on her mettle, her quick sympathy had been instantly touched by the girl's miserable story. Perhaps the doctor's own feelings had influenced her, but had the girl stood before her at the moment, she would have seized her hand with all her own gentle nobility of soul.
As they turned the corner of the block where Ruth's house stood, Kemp said deliberately,—
"I thank you. Where does she live?"
Her quiet, natural tone told nothing of the tumult of sweet thoughts within. They had reached the house, and the doctor opened the gate before he answered. When he did, after they had passed through, he took both her hands in his.
"I shall take you there," he said, looking down at her with grave, smiling eyes; "I knew you would not fail me. When shall I call for you?"
"Do not call for me at all; I think—I know it will be better for me to walk in alone, as of my own accord."
"Ah, yes!" he said, and told her the address. She ran lightly up the steps, and as he turned her key in the door for her, she raised a pair of starry eyes to his.
"Dr. Kemp," she said, "I have had an exceptionally lovely evening. I shall not soon forget it."
"Nor I," he returned, raising his hat; holding it in his hand, he gently raised her gloved hand to his lips. Herbert Kemp was a gentleman of the old school in his manner of showing reverence to women.
"My brave young friend!" he said; and the next minute his firm footfall was crunching the gravel of the walk. Neither of them had remembered that he was to have come in with her. She waited till the gate clicked behind him, and then softly closed the heavy door.
"My brave young friend!" The words mounted like wine to her head. She forgot her surroundings and stood in a sweet dream in the hall, slowly unbuttoning her glove. She must have remained in this attitude for five minutes, when, raising her eyes, still shadowy with thought, she saw her cousin before her down the hall, his arm resting on the newel-post.
"Louis!" she cried in surprise; and without considering, she hurried to him, threw her arm around his neck, and kissed him on the cheek. Arnold, taken by storm, stepped slightly back.
"When did you get home?" she asked, the pale rose-flush that mantled her cheeks making her face exquisite.
"A half an hour ago."
She looked at him quickly.
"Are you tired, Louis?" she inquired gently. "You are somewhat pale, and you speak in that way."
"Did you enjoy the play?" he asked quietly, passing by her remarks.
"The play!" she echoed, and then a quick burning blush suffused her face. The epilogue had wholly obliterated the play from her recollection.
"Oh, of course," she responded, turning from the rather sardonic smile of his lips and seating herself on the stairs; "do you want to hear about it now?"
"Well," she began, laying her gloves in her lap and snuggling her chin in the palms of her hands, "shall I tell you how I felt about it? In the first place, I was not ashamed of Shylock; if his vengeance was distorted, the cause distorted it. But, oh, Louis, the misery of that poor old man! After all, his punishment was as fiendish as his guilt. Booth was great. I wish you could have seen the play of his wonderful eyebrow and the eloquence of his fine hand. Poor old, lonely Shylock! With all his intellect, how could he regret that wretched little Jessica?"
"He was a Jewish father."
"How singularly you say that! Of course he was a Jew; but Jewish hardly describes him,—at least, according to the modern idea. Are you coming up?"
"Yes. Go on; I will lower the gas."
"Wouldn't you like something to eat or drink? You look so worn out; let me get you something."
"Thanks; I have dined. Good-night." The girl passed on to her pretty white and gold room. Shylock had again fled from her memory, but there was singing in her heart a deep, grave voice saying,—
"My brave young friend!"
"A humble bard presents his respects to my Lady Marechal Niel, and begs her to step down to the gate for about two minutes."
The note was handed to Ruth early the next morning as she stood in the kitchen beating up eggs for an omelette for her mother's breakfast. A smile of mingled surprise and amusement overspread her face as she read; instinctively turning the card, she saw, "Herbert Kemp, M. D.," in simple lithograph.
"Do I look all right, Mary?" she asked hurriedly, placing the bowl on the table and half turning to the cook as she walked to the door. Mary deliberately placed both hands on her hips and eyed her sharply.
"And striped flannel dresses and hairs in braids," she began, as she always did, as if continuing a thought, "being nice, pretty flannel and nice, pretty braids, Miss Ruth do look sweet-like, which is nothing out of the common, for she always do!"
The last was almost shouted after Ruth, who had run from the cook's prolixity.
As she hurried down the walk, she recognized the doctor's carriage, containing the doctor himself with Bob in state beside him. Two hands went up to two respective hats as the gate swung behind her, and she advanced with hand extended to Bob.
"You are looking much better," she exclaimed heartily, shaking the rather bashfully outstretched hand; "your first outing, is it not?"
"Yes, lady." It had been impossible for her to make him call her by name.
"He elected to pay his first devoirs to the Queen of Roses, as he expressed it," spoke up Kemp, with his disengaged hand on the boy's shoulder, and looking with a puzzled expression at Ruth. Last night she had been a young woman; this morning she was a young girl; it was only after he had driven off that he discovered the cause lay in the arrangement of her hair.
"Thank you, Bob; presently I expect to have you paying me a visit on foot, when we can come to a clearer understanding about my flower-beds."
"He says," returned the boy, turning an almost humbly devoted look on Kemp, "that I must not think of gardening for some weeks. And so—and so—"
"And so," explained the doctor, briskly, "he is going to hold my reins on our rounds, and imbibe a world of sunshine to expend on some flowers—yours or mine, perhaps—by and by."
Bob's eyes were luminous with feeling as they rested on the dark, bearded face of his benefactor.
"Now say all you have to say, and we'll be off," said Kemp, tucking in the robe at Bob's side.
"I didn't have anything to say, sir; I came only to let her know."
"And I am so glad, Bob," said Ruth, smiling up into the boy's shy, speaking eyes. People always will try to add to the comfort of a convalescent, and Ruth, in turn, drew down the robe over the lad's hands. As she did so, her cousin, Jennie Lewis, passed hurriedly by. Her quick blue eyes took in to a detail the attitudes of the trio.
"Good-morning, Jennie," said Ruth, turning; "are you coming in?"
"Not now," bowing stiffly and hurrying on.
Bob delivered himself of this sentiment as gently as if he had let fall a pearl.
The doctor gave a quick look at Ruth, which she met, smiling.
"He cannot help his inspiration," she remarked easily, and stepped back as the doctor pulled the reins.
"Come again, Bob," she called, and with a smile to Kemp she ran in.
"And I was going to say," continued Mary, as she re-entered the kitchen, "that a speck of aig splashed on your cheek, Miss Ruth."
"Oh, Mary, where?"
"But not knowin' that you would see anybody, I didn't think to run after you; so it's just this side your mouth, like if you hadn't wiped it good after breakfast."
Ruth rubbed it off, wondering with vexation if the doctor had noticed it. Truth to say, the doctor had noticed it, and naturally placed the same passing construction on it that Mary had suggested. Not that the little yellow splash occupied much of his attention. When he drove off, all he thought of Ruth's appearance was that her braided hair hung gracefully and heavily down her back; that she looked young,—decidedly young and missish; and that he had probably spoken indiscreetly and impulsively to the wrong person on a wrong subject the night before.
Dress has a subtile influence upon our actions: one gown can make a romp, another a princess, another a boor, another a sparkling coquette, out of the same woman. The female mood is susceptibly sympathetic to the fitness or unfitness of dress. Now, Ruth was without doubt the same girl who had so earnestly and sympathetically heard the doctor's unconventional story; but the fashion of her gown had changed the impression she had made a few hours back.
An hour later, and Dr. Kemp could not have failed to recognize Ruth, the woman of his confidence. Something, perhaps a dormant spirit of worldliness, kept her from disclosing to her mother the reason of her going out. She herself felt no shame or doubt as to the advisability of her action; but the certain knowledge of her mother's disapproval of such a proceeding restrained the disclosure which, of a surety, would have cost her the non-fulfilment of a kindly act. A bit of subterfuge which hurts no one is often not only excusable, but commendable. Besides, it saved her mother an annoying controversy; and so, fully satisfied as to her part, Ruth took her way down the street. The question as to whether the doctor had gone beyond the bounds of their brief acquaintance had of course been presented to her mind; but if a slight flush came into her face when she remembered the nature of the narrative and the personality of the narrator, it was quickly banished by the sweet assurance that in this way he had honored her beyond the reach of current flattery.
A certain placid strength possessed her and showed in her grave brown eyes; with her whole heart and soul she wished to do this thing, and she longed to do it well. Her purpose robbed her of every trace of nervousness; and it was a sweet-faced young woman who gently knocked at room Number 10 on the second floor of a respectable lodging-house on Polk Street.
Receiving no answer to her knock, she repeated it somewhat more loudly. At this a tired voice called, "Come in."
She turned the knob, which yielded to her touch, and found herself in a small, well-lighted, and neat room. Seated in an armchair near the window, but with her back toward it, was what on first view appeared to be a golden-haired child in black; one elbow rested on the arm of the chair, and a childish hand supported the flower-like head. As Ruth hesitated after closing the door behind her, she found a pair of listless violet eyes regarding her from a small white face.
"Well?" queried the girl, without changing her position except to allow her gaze to travel to the floor.
"You are Miss Rose Delano?" said Ruth, as she came a step nearer.
"What of that?" Asked the girl, lifelessly, her dull eyes wandering everywhere but to the face of her strange interlocutor.
"I am Ruth Levice, a friend of Dr. Kemp. Will that introduction be enough to make you shake hands with me?"
She advanced toward her, holding out her hand. A burning flame shot across Rose Delano's face, and she shrank farther back among her pillows.
"No," she said, putting up a repellent hand; "it is not enough. Do not touch me, or you will regret it. You must not, I say." She arose quickly from her chair and stood at bay, regarding Ruth. The latter, taller than she by head and shoulders, looked down at her smiling.
"I know no reason why I must not," she replied gently.
"You do not know me."
"No; but I know of you."
"Then why did you come; why don't you go?" The blue eyes looked with passionate resentment at her.
"Because I have come to see you; because I wish to shake hands with you."
"Why do you wish to do that?"
"Because I wish to be your friend. May we not be friends? I am not much older than you, I think."
"You are centuries younger. Who sent you here? Dr. Kemp?"
"No one sent me; I came of my own free will."
"Then go as you came."
She stood gracefully and quietly before her. Rose Delano moved farther from her, as if to escape her grave brown eyes.
"You do not know what you are doing," cried the girl, excitedly; "have you no father or mother, no one to tell you what a girl should not do?"
"I have both; but I have also a friend,—Dr. Kemp."
"He is my friend too," affirmed Rose, tremulously.
"Then we have one good thing in common; and since he is my friend and yours, why should we not be friends?"
"Because he is a man, and you are a woman. He has then told you my story?"
"And you feel yourself unharmed in coming here—to such a creature as I?"
"I feel nothing but pity for you; I do not blame you. But, oh, little one, I do so grieve for you because you won't believe that the world is not all merciless. Come, give me your hand."
"No," she said, clasping her hands behind her and retreating as the other advanced; "go away, please. You are very good, but you are very foolish. Bad as I am, however, I shall not let you harm yourself more; leave my room, please."
"Not till I have held your hands in mine."
"Stop! I tell you I don't want you to come here; I don't want your friendship. Can't you go now, or are you afraid that your sweetheart will upbraid you if you fail to carry out his will?"
"My sweetheart?" she asked in questioning wonder.
"Yes; only a lover could make a girl like you so forget herself. I speak of Dr. Kemp."
"But he is not my lover," she stated, still speaking gently, but with a pale face turned to her companion.
"I—I—beg your pardon," faltered the girl, humbly drooping her head, shamed by the cold pride in her tormentor's face; "but why, oh, why, then, won't you go?" she continued, wildly sobbing. "I assure you it is best."
"This is best," said Ruth, deliberately; and before Rose knew it she had seized her two hands, and unclasping them from behind her, drew them to her own breast.
"Now," she said, holding them tightly, "who is the stronger, you or I?" She looked pleasantly down at the tear-stained face so close to hers.
"O God!" breathed the girl, her storm-beaten eyes held by the power of her captor's calmness.
"Now we are friends," said Ruth, softly, "shall we sit down and talk?"
Still holding the slender hands, she drew up a chair, and seating the frail girl in the armchair, sat down beside her.
"Oh, wait!" whispered Rose; "let me tell you everything before you make me live again."
"I know everything; and truly, Rose, nothing you can say could make me wish to befriend you less."
"How nobly, how kindly he must have told you!"
"Hush! He told me nothing but the truth. To me you are a victim, not a culprit. And now, tell me, do you feel perfectly strong?"
"Oh, yes." The little hand swept in agony over her sad, childish face.
"Then you ought to go out for a nice walk. You have no idea how pleasant it is this morning."
"I can't, indeed I can't! and, oh, why should I?"
"You can and you must, because you must go to work soon."
Two frightened eyes were raised to hers.
"Yes," she added, patting the hand she held; "you are a teacher, are you not?"
"I was," she replied, the catch in her voice still audible.
"What are you used to teaching?"
"Spanish, and English literature."
"Spanish—with your blue eyes!" The sudden outburst of surprise sent a faint April-like beam into Rose's face.
"Then you must teach me. Let me see. Wednesdays,—Wednesday afternoon, yes?"
Again the frightened eyes appealed to her; but Ruth ignored them.
"And so many of my friends would like to speak Spanish. Will you teach them too?"
"Oh, Miss Levice, how can I go with such a past?"
"I tell you," said Ruth, proudly rearing her head, "if I introduce you as my friend, you are, you must be, presentable."
The pale lips strove to answer her.
"To-morrow I shall come with a number of names of girls who are 'dying,' as they say, to speak Spanish, and then you can go and make arrangements with them. Will you?"
Thus pushed to the wall, Rose's tear-filled eyes were her only answer.
Ruth's own filled in turn.
"Dear little Rose," she said, her usual sweet voice coming back to her, "won't it be lovely to do this? You will feel so much better when you once get out and are earning your independent, pleasant living again. And now will you forgive me for having been so harsh?"
"Forgive you!" A red spot glowed on each pallid cheek; she raised her eyes and said with simple fervor, "I would die for you."
"No, but you may live for me," laughed Ruth, rising; "will you promise me to go out this morning, just for a block or two?"
"I promise you."
"Well, then, good-by." She held out her hand meaningly; a little fluttering one was placed in hers, and Ruth bent and kissed the wistful mouth. That pure kiss would have wiped out every stain from Rose's worshipping soul.
"I shall see you to-morrow surely," she called back, turning a radiant face to the lonely little figure in the doorway. She felt deliriously happy as she ran down the stairs; her eyes shone like stars; a buoyant joyfulness spoke in her step.
"It is so easy to be happy when one has everything," she mused. She forgot to add, "And gives much." There is so much happiness derived from a kind action that were it not for the motive, charity might be called supreme selfishness.
She told her mother in a few words at luncheon that she had arranged to take Spanish lessons from a young protege of Dr. Kemp, who had been ill and was in want.
"And I was thinking," she added with naive policy, "that I might combine a little business with pleasure this afternoon,—pay off some of those ever urgent calls you accuse me of outlawing, and at the same time try to get up a class of pupils for Miss Delano. What do you think?"
"That would be nice; don't forget Mrs. Bunker. I know you don't like her, but you must pay a call for the musical which we did not attend; and she has children who might like to learn Spanish. I wonder if I could take lessons too; it would not be exciting, and I am not yet so old but I may learn."
"You might ask the doctor. He has almost dismissed himself now; and after we get back from the country perhaps Jennie would join us two in a class. Mother and daughter can then go to school together."
"It is very fortunate," Mrs. Levice observed pensively, sipping her necessary glass of port, "that C—— sent your hat this morning to wear with your new gown. Isn't it?"
"Fortunate!" Ruth exclaimed, laughing banteringly; "it is destiny."
So Mrs. Levice slipped easily into Ruth's plan from a social standpoint, and Ruth slipped out, trim and graceful, from her mother's artistic manipulations.
Meanwhile Mrs. Levice intended writing some delayed letters till her husband's return, which promised to be early in the afternoon.
She had just about settled herself at her desk when Jennie Lewis came bustling in. Mrs. Lewis always brought in a sense of importance; one looked upon her presence with that exhilarating feeling with which one anticipates the latest number of a society journal.
"Go right on with your writing, Aunt Esther," she said after they had exchanged greetings. "I have brought my work, so I shall not mind the quiet in the least."
"As if I would bore you in that way!" returned Mrs. Levice, with a laughing glance at her, as she closed her desk. "Lay off your things, and let us have a downright comfortable afternoon. Don't forget a single sensation; I am actually starving for one."
Mrs. Lewis smiled grimly as she fluffed up her bang with her hat-pin. She drew up a second cosey rocking-chair near her aunt's, drew out her needle and crochet-work, and as the steel hook flashed in and out, her tongue soon acquired its accustomed momentum.
"Where is Ruth?" she began, winding her thread round her chubby, ring-bedecked finger.
"She is paying off some calls for a change."
"Indeed! Got down to conventionality again?" "You would not call her unconventional, would you?"
"Oh, well; every one has a right to an opinion."
Mrs. Levice glanced at her inquiringly. Without doubt there was an underground mine beneath this non-committal remark. Mrs. Lewis rocked violently backward and forward without raising her eyes. Her face was beet-red, and it looked as if an explosion were imminent. Mrs. Levice waited with no little speculation as to what act of Ruth her cousin disapproved of so obviously. She like Jennie; every one who knew her recognized her sterling good heart; but almost every one who knew her agreed that a grain of flour was a whole cake, baked and iced, to Mrs. Lewis's imagination, and these airy comfits were passed around promiscuously to whoever was on hand. Not a sound broke the portentous silence but the decided snap with which Mrs. Lewis pulled her needle through, and the hurricane she raised with her rocking.
"I was at the theatre last night."
The blow drew no blood.
"Which theatre?" asked Mrs. Levice, innocently.
"The Baldwin; Booth played the 'Merchant of Venice.'"
"Did you enjoy it?" queried her aunt, either evading or failing to perceive the meaning.
"I did." A pause, and then, "Did Ruth?"
Mrs. Levice saw a flash of daylight, but her answer hinted at no perturbation.
"Very much. Booth is her actor-idol, you know."
"So I have heard." She spread her crochet work on her knee as if measuring its length, then with striking indifference picked it up again and adjusted her needle,—
"She came in rather late, didn't she?"
"Did she?" questioned Mrs. Levice, parrying with enjoyment the indirect thrusts. "I did not know; had the curtain risen?"
"No; there was plenty of time for every one to recognize her."
"I had no idea she was so well known."
"Those who did not know her, knew her escort. Dr. Kemp is well known, and his presence is naturally remarked."
"Yes; his appearance is very striking."
"Aunt Esther!" The vehemence of Mrs. Lewis's feelings sent her ball of cotton rolling to the other end of the room.
"My dear, what is it?" Mrs. Levice turned a pair of bright, interested eyes on her niece.
"You know very well what I wish to say: everybody wondered to see Ruth with Dr. Kemp."
"Because every one knows that she never goes out with any gentleman but Uncle or Louis, and we all were surprised. The Hoffmans sat behind us, and Miss Hoffman leaned forward to ask what it meant. I met several acquaintances this morning who had been there, and each one made some remark about Ruth. One said, 'I had no idea the Levices were so intimate with Dr. Kemp;' another young girl laughed and said, 'Ruth Levice had a swell escort last night, didn't she?' Still another asked, 'Anything on the tapis in your family, Mrs. Lewis?' And what could I say?"
"What did you say?"
Mrs. Levice's quiet tone did not betray her vexation. She had feared just such a little disturbance from the Jewish community, but her husband's views had overruled hers, and she was now bound to uphold his. Nevertheless, she hated anything of the kind.
"I simply said I knew nothing at all about it, except that he was your physician. Even if I had known, I wouldn't have said more."
"There is no more to be said. Dr. Kemp and Ruth have become friendly through their mutual interest in several poor patients; and in the course of conversation one morning he heard that Ruth was anxious to see this play, and had no escort. So he asked her, and her father saw no objection to her going. It is a pity she didn't think to hand round a written explanation to her different Jewish friends in the theatre."
"There you go, Aunt Esther! Jewish friends! I am sure that no matter how indifferent Uncle is to such things, you must remember that our Jewish girls never go alone to the theatre with any one outside of the family, and certainly not with a Christian."
"What has that to do with it, so long as he is a gentleman?"
"Nothing. Only I didn't think you cared to have Ruth's name coupled with one."
"No, nor with any one. But as I cannot control people's tongues—"
"Then I would not give them cause for wagging. Aunt Esther, is there anything between Ruth and Dr. Kemp?"
"Jennie, you surprise and anger me. Do you know what you insinuate?"
"I can't help it. Either you are crazy, or ignorant of what is going on, and I consider it my duty to enlighten you,"—a gossip's duties are all away from home,—"unless, of course, you prefer to remain in blissful or wilful ignorance."
"Speak out, please."
"Of course I knew you must have sanctioned her going last night, though, I must confess, I still think you did very wrongly; but do you know where she went this morning?"
Mrs. Levice was put out. She was enough of a Jewess to realize that if you dislike Jewish comment, you must never step out of the narrowly conventional Jewish pathway. That Ruth, her only daughter, should be the subject of vulgar bandying was more bitter than wormwood to her; but that her own niece could come with these wild conjectures incensed her beyond endurance.
"I do know," she said in response to the foregoing question. "Ruth is not a sneak,—she tells me everything; but her enterprises are so mild that there would be no harm if she left them untold. She called on a poor young girl who, after a long illness, desires pupils in Spanish."
"A friend of Dr. Kemp."
"A young girl, unmarried, who, a few weeks ago, through a merciful fate, lost her child at its birth."
The faint flush on Mrs. Levice's cheek receded.
"Who told you this?" she questioned in an even, low voice.
"I thought you could not know. Mrs. Blake, the landlady where the girl lives, told me."
"And how, pray, do you connect Ruth with this girl?"
"I will tell you. Mrs. Blake does my white sewing. I was there this morning; and just as I went into her room, I saw Ruth leaving another farther down the hall. Naturally I asked Mrs. Blake who had the room, and she told me the story."
"Naturally." The cutting sarcasm drove the blood to Mrs. Lewis's face.
"For me it was; and in this case," she retorted with rising accents, "my vulgar curiosity had its vulgar reward. I heard a scandalous account of the girl whom my cousin was visiting, and, outside of Dr. Kemp, Ruth is the only visitor she has had."
"I am sorry to hear this, Jennie."
"I know you are, Aunt Esther. But what I find so very queer is that Dr. Kemp, who pretends to be her friend,—and I have seen them together many times,—should have sent her there. Don't you?"
"I do not understand it at all,—neither Ruth nor him."
"Surely you don't think Ruth knew anything of this?" questioned Mrs. Lewis, leaning forward and raising her voice in horror.
"Of course not," returned Mrs. Levice, rather lamely. She had long ago acknowledged to herself that there were depths in her daughter's nature that she had never gauged.
"I know what an idol his patients make of him, but he is a man nevertheless; and though you may think it horrible of me, it struck me as very suggestive that he was that girl's only friend."
"Therefore he must have been a good friend."
Mrs. Lewis bounded from her chair and turned a startled face to Mr. Levice, who had thus spoken, standing in the doorway. Mrs. Levice breathed a sigh of hysterical relief.
"Good-afternoon, Jennie," he said, coming into the room and shaking her hand; "sit down again. Good-afternoon Esther;" he stooped to kiss his wife.
Mrs. Lewis's hands trembled; she looked, to say the least, ashamed. She had been caught scandal-mongering by her uncle, Jules Levice, the head and pride of the whole family.
"I am sorry I heard what I did, Jennie; sorry to think that you are so poor as to lay the vilest construction on an affair of which you evidently know nothing, and sorry you could not keep your views to yourself." It was the habit of all of Levice's relatives to listen in silence to any personal reprimand the dignified old man might offer.
"I heard a good part of your conversation, and I can only characterize it as—petty. Can't you and your friends see anything without springing at shilling-shocker conclusions? Don't you know that people sometimes enjoy themselves without any further design? So much for the theatre talk. What is more serious is the fact that you could so misjudge my honorable friend, Dr. Kemp. Such a thing, Jennie, my girl, would be as remote from Dr. Kemp's possibilities as the antipodes. Remember, what I say is indisputable. Whether Ruth knew the story of this girl or not, I cannot say, but either way I feel assured that what she did was well done—if innocently; if with knowledge, so much the better. And I venture to assert that she is not a whit harmed by the action. In all probability she will tell us all the particulars if we ask her. Otherwise, Jennie, don't you think you have been unnecessarily alarmed?" The benign gentleness of his question calmed Mrs. Lewis.
"Uncle," she replied earnestly, "in my life such things are not trivial; perhaps because my life is narrower. I know you and Ruth take a different view of everything."
"Don't disparage yourself; people generally do that to be contradicted or to show that they know their weaknesses and have never cared to change them. A woman of your intelligence need never sink to the level of a spiteful chatterbox; every one should keep his tongue sheathed, for it is more deadly than a sword. Your higher interests should make you overlook every little action of your neighbors. You only see or hear what takes place when the window is open; you can never judge from this what takes place when the window is shut. How are the children?"
By dint of great tenderness he strove to make her more at ease.
Ruth, confronted with their knowledge, confessed, with flushed cheeks and glowing eyes, her contretemps.
"And," she said in conclusion, "Father, Mamma, nothing you can say will make me retract anything I have done or purpose doing."
"Nothing?" repeated her father.
"I hope you won't ask me to, but that is my decision."
"My darling, I dislike to hear you call yourself a mule," said her father, looking at her with something softer than disapproval; "but in this case I shall not use the whip to turn you from your purpose. Eh, Esther?"
"It is Quixotic," affirmed Mrs. Levice; "but since you have gone so far, there is no reasonable way of getting out of it. When next I see the doctor, I shall speak to him of it."
"There will be no occasion, dear," remonstrated the indulgent father, at sight of the annoyed flash in Ruth's eyes; "I shall."
By which it will be seen that the course of an only child is not so smooth as one of many children may think; every action of the former assumes such prominence that it is examined and cross-examined, and very often sent to Coventry; whereas, in a large family, the happy-go-lucky offspring has his little light dimmed, and therefore less remarked, through the propinquity of others.
If Ruth, in the privacy of her heart, realized that she was sailing toward dangerous rapids, the premonition gave her no unpleasant fears. Possibly she used no lens, being content to glide forever on her smooth stream of delight. When the sun blinds us, we cannot see the warning black lurking in the far horizon. Without doubt the girl's soul and sympathies were receiving their proper food. Life was full for her, not because she was occupied,—for a busy life does not always prove a full one,—but because she entered thoroughly into the lives of others, struggled with their struggles, triumphed in their triumphs, and was beginning to see in everything, good or bad, its necessity of existence. Under ordinary circumstances one cannot see much misery without experiencing a world of disillusion and futile rebellion of spirit; but Ruth was not living just at that time under ordinary circumstances.
Something of the nature of electricity seemed to envelop her, that made her pulses bound, her lips quick to smile, and her eyes shine like twin dreamstars. She seemed to be moving to some rapturous music unheard save only by herself. At night, alone with her heart, she dared hardly name to herself the meaning of it all, a puritanic modesty withheld her. Yet all the sweet humility of which she was possessed could not banish from her memory the lingering clasp of a hand, the warm light that fell from eyes that glanced at her. For the present, these were grace sufficient for her daily need. Given the perfume, what need to name the flower?
Her family, without understanding it, noted the difference in their different ways. Mrs. Levice saw with a thrill of delight that she was growing more softly beautiful. Her father, holding his hands a few inches from her shoulders, said, one morning, with a drolly puzzled look, "I am afraid to touch you; sparks might fly."
Arnold surprised her standing in the gloaming by a window, her hands clasped over her head, a smile parting her lips, her eyes haunting in the witchery of their expression. By some occult power her glance fell unconsciously on him; and he beheld, with mingled amazement and speculation, a rosy hue overspread her face and throat; her hands went swiftly to her face as if she would hide something it might reveal, and she passed quickly from the room. Arnold sat down to solve this problem of an unknown quantity.
Ruth's birthday came in its course, a few days after her meeting with Rose Delano.
The family celebrated it in their usual simple way, which consisted only in making the day pass pleasantly for the one whose day of days it was,—a graceful way of showing that the birth has been a happy one for all concerned.
On this evening of her twenty-second birthday, Ruth seemed to be in her element. She had donned, in a spirit of mischief, a gown she had worn five years before on the occasion of some festivity. The girlish fashion of the white frock, with its straight, full skirt to her ankles, the round baby waist, and short puffs on her shoulders made a very child of her.
"Who can imagine me seventeen?" she asked gayly as she entered the library, softly lighted by many wax candles. Her mother, who was again enjoying the freedom of the house, and who was now snugly ensconced in her own particular chair, looked up at her.
"That little frock makes me long to take you in my lap," said she, brightly.
"And it makes me long to be there," answered Ruth, throwing herself into her mother's arms and twining her arms about her neck.
"How now, Mr. Arnold, you can't scare me tonight with your sarcastic disapproval!" she laughed, glancing provokingly over at her cousin seated in a deep blue-cushioned chair.
"I have no desire to scare you, little one," he answered pleasantly. "I only do that to children or grown-up people."
"And what am I, pray, good sir?"
"You are neither; you are neither child or woman; you are neither flesh nor spirit; you are uncanny."
"Dear me! In other words, I am a conundrum. Who will guess me?"
"You are the Sphinx," replied her cousin.
"I won't be that ugly-faced thing," she retorted; "guess again."
"Impossible. Once acquire a sphinx's elusiveness and you are a mystery perpetual. You alone can unriddle the riddle."
"I can't. I give myself up."
"Not so fast, young woman," broke in her father, shutting his magazine and settling his glasses more firmly upon his nose; "that is an office I alone can perform. Who has been hunting on my preserves?"
"Alas! They are not tempting, so be quite calm on that score." She sat up with a forlorn sigh, adding, "Think of it, Father, twenty-two, and not a heart to hang on my chatelaine."
"Hands are supposed to mean hearts nowadays," said Louis, reassuringly; "I am sure you have mittened one or two."
"Oh, yes," she answered, laughing evasively, "both of little Toddie Flynn's. Mamma, don't you think I am too big a baby for you to hold long?" She sprang up, and drawing a stool before her father's chair, exclaimed,—
"Now, Father, a grown-up Mother-Goose story for my birthday; make it short and sweet and with a moral like you."
Mr. Levice patted her head and rumpled the loosely gathered hair.
"Once upon a time," he began, "a little boy went into his father's warehouse and ate up all the sugar in the land. He did not die, but he was so sweet that everybody wanted to bite him. That is short and sweet; and what is the moral?"
"Selfishness brings misery," answered Ruth, promptly; "clever of both of us, but what is the analogy? Louis, you look lonesome over there. I feel as if I were masquerading; come nearer the footlights."
"And get scorched for my pains? Thanks; this is very comfortable. Distance adds to illusion."
"You don't mean to admit you have any illusions, do you? Why, those glasses of yours could see through a rhinoceros, I verily believe. Did you ever see anything you did not consider a delusion and a snare?"
"Yes; there is a standing institution of whose honest value there is no doubt."
"And that is?"
"After all, it is a lying institution, my friend; and are you not deposing your masculine muse,—your cigar? Oh, that reminds me of the annual peace-pipe."
She jumped up, snatched a candle, and left the room. As she turned toward the staircase she was arrested by the ringing of the doorbell. She stood quite still, holding the lighted candle while the maid opened the door.
"Is Miss Levice in?" asked the voice that made the little candle-light seem like myriads of swimming stars. As the maid answered in the affirmative, she came mechanically forward and met the bright-glancing eyes of Dr. Kemp.
"Good-evening," she said, holding out her disengaged hand, which he grasped and shook heartily.
"Is it Santa Filomena?" he asked, smiling into her eyes.
"No, only Ruth Levice, who is pleased to see you. Will you step into the library? We are having a little home evening together."
"Thank you. Directly." He slipped out of his topcoat, and turning quietly to her, said, "But before we go in, and I enact the odd number, I wish to say a few words to you alone, please."
She bent a look of inquiry upon him, and meeting the gaze of his compelling eyes, led him across the hall into the drawing-room. He noticed how the soft light she held made her the only white spot in the dark room, till, touching a tall silver lamp, she threw a rosy halo over everything. That it was an exquisite, graceful apartment he felt at a glance.
She placed her candle upon a tiny rococo table, and seated herself in a quaint, low chair overtopped by two tiny ivory horns that spread like hands of blessing above her head. The doctor declined to sit down, but stood with one hand upon the fragile table and looked down at her.
"I am inclined to think, after all," he said slowly, "that you are in truth the divine lady with the light. It is a pretty name and a pretty fame,—that of Santa Filomena."
What had come over her eyelids that they refused to be raised?
"I think," he continued with a low laugh, "that I shall always call you so, and have all rights reserved. May I?"
"I am afraid," she answered, raising her eyes, "that your poem would be without rhyme or reason; a candle is too slight a thing for such an assumption."
"But not a Rose Delano. I saw her to-day, and at least one sufferer would turn to kiss your shadow. Do you know what a wonderfully beautiful thing you have done? I came to-night to thank you; for any one who makes good our ideals is a subject for thanks. Of course, the thing had no personal bearing upon myself; but being an officious fellow, I thought it proper to let you know that I know. That is my only excuse for coming."
"Did you need an excuse?"
"That, or an invitation."
"Oh, I never thought of you—as—as—"
"As a man?"
How to answer this? Then finally she said,—
"As caring to waste an evening."
"Would it be a waste? There is an old adage that one might adapt, then, 'A wilful waste makes a woful want.' Want is a bad thing, so economy would not be a half-bad idea. Shall we go in to your family now, or will they not think you have been spirited away?"
He took the candle from her, and they retraced their steps. As she turned the handle of the door, she said,—
"Will you give me the candle, please, and walk in? I am going upstairs."
"Are you coming down again?" he asked, standing abruptly still.
"Oh, yes. Father," she called, opening wide the door, "here is Dr. Kemp."
With this announcement she fled up the staircase.
She had come up for some cigars; but when she got into her father's room, she seated herself blindly and looked aimlessly down at her hands. What a blessed reprieve this was! If she could but stay here! She could if it were not for the peace-pipe. Such a silly performance too! Father kept those superfine cigars over in the cabinet there. Should she bring only two as usual? Then she was going? Why not? It would look very rude not to do so. Besides, she wondered what they were talking about. She supposed she must have looked very foolish in that gown with her hair all mussed; and then his eyes—— She arose suddenly and walked to the dressing-table with her light. After all, it was not very unbecoming. Had her face been so white all the evening? Louis liked her face to be colorless. Oh, she had better hurry down.
"Here comes the chief!" cried her mother as she entered. "Now, Doctor, you can see the native celebrating her natal day."
"She enacts the witch," said her father "and sends us, living, to the happy hunting-grounds. Will you join us, Doctor?"
"If Lachesis thinks me worthy. Is the operation painful?"
He received no answer as Ruth came forward with a box of tempting Havanas. She selected one, and placing the box on a chair, reached to the high-tiled mantel-shelf, whence she took a tiny pair of scissors and deftly cut off the point of the cigar. She seemed quite unconscious that all were watching her. Louis handed her a lighted match, and putting the cigar between her lips, she lit it into life. The doctor was amused.
She blew up a wreath of the fragrant smoke and handing it to her father, said,—
"With this year's love, Father."
The doctor grew interested.
She took another, and lighting it as gracefully, and without the slightest approach to Bohemianism, gave it into Louis's outstretched hand.
"Well?" he suggested, holding it from his lips till she had spoken.
"I can think of nothing you care for sufficiently to wish you."
"Unless," with sudden mischief, "I wish you a comfortable bed all the year round—and pleasant dreams, Louis."
"That is much," he answered dryly as he drew a cloud of smoke.
The doctor became anticipative.
Ruth's embarrassment was evident as she turned and offered him a cigar.
"Do you smoke?" she asked, holding out the box.
"Like a chimney," he replied, looking at her, but taking none, "and in the same manner as other common mortals."
She stood still, but withdrew her hand a little as if repelling the hint his words conveyed; whereupon he immediately selected a cigar, saying as he did so, "So you were born in summer,—the time of all good things. Well, 'Thy dearest wish, wish I thee,' and may it not pass in the smoking!"
She swept him a deep, mock courtesy.
After this, Ruth sat a rather silent listener to the conversation. She knew that they were discussing the pros and cons of the advantages for a bachelor of club life over home life. She knew that Louis was making some brilliantly cynical remarks,—asserting that the apparent privacy of the latter was delusive, and that the reputed publicity of the former was deceptive, as it was even more isolated than the latter. All of which the doctor laughed down as untruly epigrammatic.
"Then there is only one loophole for the poor bachelor," Mrs. Levice summed up, "and that is to marry. Louis complains of the club, and thinks himself a sort of cynosure in a large household. You, Doctor, complain of the want of coseyness in a bachelor establishment. To state it simply, you need a wife."
"And oust my Pooh-ba! Madame, you do not know what a treasure that old soldier of mine is. If I call him a veritable Martha, I shall but be paying proper tribute to the neatness with which he keeps my house and linen; he entertains my palate as deliciously as a Corinne her salon, and—is never in my way or thoughts. Can you commend me any woman so self-abnegatory?"
"Many women, but no wife, I am glad to say. But you need one."
"So! Pray explain wherein the lack is apparent."
"Oh, not to me, but—"
"You mean you consider a wife an adjunct to a doctor's certificate."
"It is a great guarantee with women," put in Louis, "as a voucher against impatience with their own foibles. They think only home practice can secure the adequate tolerance. Eh, Aunt Esther?"
"Nonsense, Louis!" interrupted Mr. Levice; "what has that to do with skill?"
"Skill is one thing; the manner of man is another—with women."
"That is worth considering—or adding to the curriculum," observed Kemp, turning his steady, quiet gaze upon Arnold.
Ruth noticed that the two men had taken the same position,—vis—vis to each other in their respective easy-chairs, their heads thrown back upon the cushions, their arms resting on the chair-arms. Something in Louis's veiled eyes caused her to interpose.
"Will you play, Louis?" she asked.
"Not to-night, ma cousine," he replied, glancing at her from lowered lids.
"It is not optional with you to-night, Louis," she insisted playfully, rising; "we—desire you to play."
"Or be punished for treason? Has your Majesty any other behest?"
"No; I shall even turn the leaves for you."
"The leaves of what,—memory? I'll play by rote."
He strolled over to the piano and sat down. He struck a few random chords, some soft, some florid, some harsh, some melting; he strung them together and then glided into a dreamy, melodious rhythm, that faded into a bird-like hallelujah,—swelling now into grandeur, then fainting into sobs, then rushing into an allegro so brilliantly bewildering that when the closing chords came like the pealing tones of an organ, Ruth drew a long sigh with the last lingering vibrations.
"What is that?" asked Levice, looking curiously at his nephew, who, turning on his music-chair, took up his cigar again.
"That," he replied, flecking an ash from his coat lapel, "has no name that I know of; some people call it 'The Soul.'"
A pained sensation shot through Ruth at his words, for he had plainly been improvising, and he must have felt what he had played.
"Here, Ruth, sing this," he continued, turning round and picking up a sheet of music.
"What?" she asked without moving.
"'The bugle;' I like it."
Kemp looked at her expectantly. He said he had not known she sang; but since she did, he was sure her voice was contralto.
"Why?" she asked.
"Because your face is contralto."
She turned from his eyes as if they hurt her, and walked over to Louis's side.
It could hardly be called singing. Louis had often said that her voice needed merely to be set to rhythmic time to be music; in pursuance of which idea he would put into her hand some poem that touched his fancy, tell her to read it, and as she read, he would adapt to it an accompaniment according to the meaning and measure of the lines,—grandly solemn, daintily tripping, or wildly inspiriting. It was more like a chant than a song. To-night he chose Tennyson's Bugle-song. Her voice was subservient to the accompaniment, that shook its faint, sweet bugle-notes at first as in a rosy splendor; it rose and swelled and echoed and reverberated and died away slowly as if loath to depart. Arnold's playing was the poem, Ruth's voice the music the poet might have heard as he wrote, sweet as a violin, deep as the feeling evolved,—for when she came to the line beginning, "oh, love, they die in yon rich sky," she might have stood alone with one, in some high, clear place, so mellow was the thrill of her voice, so rapt the expression of her face. Kemp looked as if he would not tire if the sound should "grow forever and forever."
Mrs. Levice was wakeful after she had gone to bed. Her husband also seemed inclined to prolong the night, for he made no move to undress.
"Jules," said she in a low, confidential tone, "do you realize that our daughter is twenty-two?"
He looked at her with a half-smile.
"Is not this her birthday?"
"Her twenty-second, and she is still unmarried."
"Well, it is time she were. I should like to see it."
"So should I," he acquiesced with marked decision.
Mrs. Levice straightened herself up in bed and looked at her husband eagerly.
"Is it possible," she exclaimed, "that we have both thought of the same parti?"
It was now Mr. Levice's turn to start into an interested position.
"Of whom," he asked with some restraint, "are you speaking?"
"Hush! Come here; I have longed for it for some time, but have never breathed it to a soul,—Louis."
"Levice had become quite pale, but as she pronounced the familiar name, the color returned to his cheek, and a surprised look sprang into his eyes.
"Louis? Why do you think of such a thing?"
"Because I think them particularly well suited. Ruth, pardon me, dear, has imbibed some very peculiar and high-flown notions. No merely commonplace young man would make her happy. A man must have some ideas outside of what his daily life brings him, if she is to spend a moment's interested thought on him. She has repelled some of the most eligible advances for no obvious reasons whatever. Now, she does not care a rap for society, and goes only because I exact it. That is no condition for a young girl to allow herself to sink into; she owes a duty to her future. I am telling you this because, of course, you see nothing peculiar in such a course. But it is time you were roused; you know one look from you is worth a whole sermon from me. As to my thinking of Louis, well, in running over my list of eligibles, I found he fulfilled every condition,—good-looking, clever, cultivated, well-to-do, and—of good family. Why should it not be? They like each other, and see enough of each other to learn to love. We, however, must bring it to a head."
"First provide the hearts, little woman. What can I do, ask Louis or Ruth?"
"Jules," she returned with vexation, "how childish! Don't you feel well? Your cheeks are rather flushed."
"They are somewhat warm. I am going in to kiss the child good-night; she ran off while I saw Dr. Kemp out."
Ruth sat in her white dressing-gown, her heavy dark hair about her, her brush idle in her hand. Her father stood silently in the doorway, regarding her, a great dread tugging at his heart. Jules Levice was a keen student of the human face, and he had caught a faint glimpse of something in the doctor's eyes while Ruth sang. He knew it had been harmless, for her back had been turned, but he wished to reassure himself.
"Not in bed yet, my child?"
She started up in confusion as he came in.
"Of what were you thinking, darling?" he continued, putting his hand under her soft white chin and looking deeply into her eyes.
"Well," she answered slowly, "I was not thinking of anything important; I was thinking of you. We are going to Beacham's next week—and have you any fine silk shirts?"
He laughed a hearty, relieved laugh.
"Well, no," he answered; "I leave all such fancies to your care. So we go next week. I am glad; and you?"
"I? Oh, I love the country in its summer dress, you know."
"Yes. Well, good-night, love." He took her face between his hands, and drawing it down to his, kissed it. Still holding her, he said with sweet solemnity,—
"'The Lord bless thee and keep thee.
"'The Lord make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee.
"'The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.'"
It was August. The Levices had purposely postponed leaving town until the gay, merry-making crowds had disappeared, when Mrs. Levice, in the quiet autumn, could put a crown to her recovery.
Ruth had quite a busy time getting all three ready, as she was to continue the management of the household affairs until their return, a month later. Besides which, numerous little private incidentals had to be put in running order for a month, and she realized with a pang at parting with some of her simple, sincere proteges that were this part of her life withdrawn, the rest would pall insufferably.
The evening before their departure she stood bareheaded upon the steps of the veranda with Louis, who was enjoying a post-prandial smoke. Mr. and Mrs. Levice, in the soft golden gloaming of late summer, were strolling arm-in-arm among the flower-beds. Mrs. Levice, without obviously looking toward them, felt with satisfaction that Ruth was looking well in a plain black gown which she had had no time to change after her late shopping. She did not know that, close and isolated as the young man and woman stood, not only were they silent, but each appeared oblivious of the other's presence.
Ruth, with her hands clasped behind her, and Arnold, blowing wreaths of blue smoke into the heliotrope-scented air, looked as if under a dream-spell.
As Mrs. Levice passed within ear-shot, Ruth heard snatches of the broken sentence,—
This roused her from her revery, and she called to her mother,—
"Why, I forgot to drop in at Jennie's this afternoon, as I promised."
"How annoying! When you know how sensitive she is and how angry she gets at any neglect."
"I can run out there now. It is light enough."
"But it will be dark in less than an hour. Louis, will you go out to Jennie's with Ruth?"
"Eh? Oh, certainly, if she wishes me."
"I wish you to come if you yourself wish it. I'll run in and get my hat and jacket while you decide."
Ruth came back in a few minutes with a jaunty little sailor hat on and a light gray jacket, which she handed to Louis to hold for her.
"New?" he asked, pulling it into place in the back.
"Yes," she answered; "do you like it for travelling?"
"Under a duster. Otherwise its delicate complexion will be rather freckled when you arrive at Beacham's."
He pulled his hat on from ease to respectability and followed her down to the gate. They turned the corner, walking southward toward the valley. Mrs. Levice and her husband stood at the gate and watched them saunter off. When they were quite out of sight, Mrs. Levice turned around and sang gayly to Mr. Levice, "'Ca va bien!'"
The other two walked on silently. The evening was perfect. To the west and sweeping toward Golden Gate a hazy glory flushed the sky rose-color and molten gold, purple and silver; and then seas of glinting pale green to the northward held the eye with their beauty. The air was soft and languorous after a very warm day; now and then a piano, violin, or mandolin sounded through open windows; the peace and beauty of rest was over all.
They continued down Van Ness Avenue a few blocks, and unconsciously turned into one of the dividing streets toward Franklin. Suddenly Arnold felt his companion start, and saw she had taken her far-off gaze from the landscape. Following the direction of her eyes, he also straightened up. The disturbing object was a slight black column attached to a garden fence and bearing in small gold letters the simple name, Dr. Herbert Kemp.
As they approached nearer, Arnold knew of a certainty that there would be more speaking signs of the doctor's propinquity. His forecasting was not at fault.
Dr. Kemp's quaint, dark-red cottage, with its flower-edged lawn, was reached by a flight of low granite steps, at the top of which lounged the medical gentleman in person. He was not heaven-gazing, but seemed plunged in tobacco-inspired meditation of the flowers beneath him. Arnold's quick eye detected the pink flush that rose to the little ear of his cousin. The sound of their footsteps on the stone sidewalk came faintly to Kemp; he raised his eyes slowly and indifferently. The indifference vanished when he recognized them.
With a hasty movement he threw the cigar from him and ran down the steps.
"Good-evening," he called, raising his old slouch hat and arresting their evident intention of proceeding on their way. They came up, perforce, and met him at the foot of the steps.
"A beautiful evening," he said originally, holding out a cordial hand to Arnold and looking with happy eyes at Ruth. She noticed that there was a marked difference in his appearance from anything she had been used to. His figure looked particularly tall and easy in a loose dark velvet jacket, thrown open from his broad chest; the large sombrero-like hat which had settled on the back of his head left to view his dark hair brushed carelessly backward; an unusual color was on his cheek, and a warm glow in his gray eyes.
"I hope," he went on, frankly transferring his attention to Ruth, "this weather will continue. We shall have a magnificent autumn; the woods must be beginning to look gorgeous."
"I shall know better to-morrow."
"Yes; we leave for Beacham's to-morrow, you know."
"No, I did not know;" an indefinable shadow over-clouded his face, but he said quickly,—
"That is an old hunting-ground of mine. The river teems with speckled treasures. Are you a disciple of old Walton, Mr. Arnold?" he added, turning with courtesy to the silent Frenchman.
"You mean fishing? No; life is too short to hang my humor of a whole day on the end of a line. I have never been at Beacham's."
"It is a fine spot. You will probably go down there this year."
"My business keeps me tied to the city just at present. A professional man has no such bond; his will is his master."
"Hardly, or I should have slipped cables long ago. A restful night is an unknown indulgence sometimes for weeks."
His gaze moved from Arnold's peachy cheek, and falling upon Ruth, surprised her dark eyes resting upon him in anxious questioning. He smiled.
"We shall have to be moving on," she said, holding out a gloved hand.
"Will you be gone long?" he asked, pressing it cordially.
"About a month."
"You will be missed—by the Flynns. Good-by." He raised his hat as he looked at her.
Arnold drew her arm within his, and they walked off.
They say that the first thing a Frenchman learns in studying the English language is the use of that highly expressive outlet of emotion, "Damn." Arnold was an old-timer, but he had not outgrown the charm of his first linguistic victory; and now as he replaced his hat in reply to Kemp, he distinctly though coolly said, "Damn him."
Ruth looked at him, startled; but the composed, non-committal expression of his face led her to believe that her ears had deceived her.
A few more blocks were passed, and they stopped at a pretentious, many-windowed, Queen Anne house. Ruth ran lightly up the steps, her cousin following her leisurely.
She had scarcely rung the bell when the door was opened by Mrs. Lewis herself.
"Good-evening, Ruth; why, Mr. Arnold doesn't mean to say that he does us the honor?"
Mr. Arnold had said nothing of the kind; but he offered no disclaimer, and giving her rather a loose hand-shake, walked in.
"Come right into the dining-room," she continued. "I suppose you were surprised to find me in the hall; I had just come from putting the children to bed. They were in mischievous spirits and annoyed their father, who wished to be very quiet this evening."
By this time they had reached the room at the end of the hall, the door of which she threw open.
Jewish people, as a rule, use their dining-rooms to sit in, keeping the drawing-rooms for company only. This is always presupposing that they have no extra sitting-room. After all, a dining-room is not a bad place for the family gathering, having a large table as an objective plane for a round game, which also serves as a support for reading matter; while from an economical point of view it preserves the drawing-rooms in reception stiffness and ceremonious newness.
The apartment they entered was large and square, and contained the regulation chairs, table, and silver and crystal loaded sideboard.
Upon the mantel-piece, the unflickering light from a waxen taper burning in a glass of oil lent an unusual air of Sabbath quiet to the room.
"I have 'Yahrzeit' for my mother," explained Jo Lewis, glancing toward the taper after greeting his visitors. He sat down quietly again.
"Do you always burn the light?" asked Arnold.
"Always. A light once a year to a mother's memory is not much to ask of a son."
"How long is it since you lost your mother?" questioned Ruth, gently.
Jo Lewis was a man with whom she had little in common. To her he seemed to have but one idea,—the amassing of wealth. With her more intellectual cravings, the continual striving for this, to the exclusion of all higher aspirations, put him on a plane too narrow for her footing. Unpolished he certainly was, but the rough, exposed grain of his unhewn nature showed many strata of strength and virility. In this gentle mood a tenderness had come into view that drew her to him with a touch of kinship.
"Thirty years," he answered musingly,—"thirty years. It is a long time, Ruth; but every year when I light the taper it seems as if but yesterday I was a boy crying because my mother had gone away forever." The strong man wiped his eyes.
"The little light casts a long ray," observed Ruth. "Love builds its own lighthouse, and by its gleaming we travel back as at a leap to that which seemed eternally lost."
Jo Lewis sighed. Presently the thoughts that so strongly possessed him found an outlet.
"There was a woman for you!" he cried with glowing eyes. "Why, Arnold, you talk of men being great financiers; I wonder what you would have said to the powers my mother showed. We were poor, but poor to a degree of which you can know nothing. Well, with a large family of small children she struggled on alone and managed to keep us not only alive, but clean and respectable. In our village Sara Lewis was a name that every man and woman honored as if it belonged to a princess. Jennie is a good woman, but life is made easy for her. I often think how grand my mother would feel if she were here, and I were able to give her every comfort. God knows how proud and happy I would have been to say, 'You have struggled enough, Mother; life is going to be a heaven on earth to you now.' Well, well, what is the good of thinking of it? To-morrow I shall go down town and deal with men, not memories; it is more profitable."
"Not always," said Arnold, dryly. The two men drifted into a business discussion that neither Mrs. Lewis nor Ruth cared to follow.
"Are you quite ready?" asked Mrs. Lewis, drawing her chair closer to Ruth's.
"Entirely," she replied; "we start on the 8.30 train in the morning."
"You will be gone a month, will you not?"
"Yes; we wish to get back for the holidays. New Year's falls on the 12th of September, and we must give the house its usual holiday cleaning."
"I have begun already. Somehow I never thought you would mind being away."
"Why, we always go to the Temple, you know; and I would not miss the Atonement services for a great deal."
"Why don't you say 'Yom Kippur,' as everybody else does?"
"Because 'Atonement' is English and means something to me. Is there anything odd about that?"
"I suppose not. By the way, if there is anything you would like to have done while you are away, let me know."
"I think I have seen to everything. You might run in and see Louis now and then."
"Louis," Mrs. Lewis called instantly, "be sure to come in often for dinner while the folks are gone."
"Thank you; I shall. The last dinner I ate with you was delicious enough to do away with any verbal invitation to another."
He arose, seeing Ruth had risen and was kissing her cousins good-by.
Mrs. Lewis beamed with pleasure at his words.
"Now, won't you take something before you go?" she asked. "Ruth, I have the loveliest cakes."
"Oh, Jennie," remonstrated Ruth, as her cousin bustled off, "we have just dined."
"Let her enjoy herself," observed Louis; "she is never so happy as when she is feeding somebody."
The clink of glasses was soon heard, and Mrs. Lewis's rosy face appeared behind a tray with tiny glasses and a plate of rich, brown-looking little cakes.
"Jo, get the Kirsch. You must try one, Ruth; I made them myself."
When they had complimented her on her cakes and Louis had drunk to his next undertaking, suggested by Jo Lewis, the visitors departed.
They had been walking in almost total silence for a number of blocks, when Ruth turned suddenly to him and said with great earnestness,—
"Louis, what is the matter with you? For the last few days you have hardly spoken to me. Have I done anything to annoy you?"
"You? Why, no, not that I remember."
"Then, please, before we go off, be friendly with me again."
"I am afraid I am not of a very hilarious temperament."
"Still, you manage to talk to others."
"Have you cared very much who talked to you lately?"
Her cheek changed color in the starlight.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Anything or nothing."
Ruth looked at him haughtily.
"If nothing," he continued, observing her askance from lowered lids, "what I am about to say will be harmless. If anything, I still hope you will find it pardonable."
"What are you about to say?"
"It won't take long. Will you be my wife?"
And the stars still shone up in heaven!
Her face turned white as a Niphetos rose.
"Louis," she said finally and speaking with difficulty, "why do you ask me this?"
"Why does any man ask a woman to be his wife?"
"Generally because he loves her."
If he had spoken outright, she might have answered him; but the simple monosyllable, implying a world of restrained avowal, confronted her like a wall, before which she stood silent.
"Answer me, Ruth."
"If you mean it, Louis, I am very, very sorry."
"Because I can never be your wife."
"I do not love you—like that."
Silence for half a block, the man's lips pressed hard together under his mustache, the girl's heart beating suffocatingly. When he spoke, his voice sounded oddly clear in the hushed night air.
"What do you mean by 'like that'?"
Her little hand was clinched tight as it lay on his arm. The perfect silence that followed the words of each made every movement significant.
"You know,—as a woman loves the man she would marry, not as she loves a brotherly cousin."
"The difference is not clear to me—but—how did you learn the difference?"
"How dare you?" she cried, flashing a pair of dark, wet eyes upon him.
"In such a case, 'I dare do all that may become a man.' Besides, even if there is a difference, I still ask you to be my wife. You would not regret it, Ruth, I think."
His voice was not soft, but there was a certain strained pleading about it that pained her inexpressibly.
"Louis," she said, with slow distinctness, her hand moving down until it touched his, "I never thought of this as a possibility. You know how much I have always loved you, dear; but oh, Louis, will it hurt you very much, will you forgive me if I have to say no, I cannot be your wife?"
"Wait. I wish you to consider this well. I am offering you all that I have in the world; it is not despicable. Your family, I know, would be pleased. Besides, it would be well for you—God knows, not because I am what I am, but for other reasons. Wait. I beg of you not to answer me till you have thought it over. You know me; I am no saint, but a man who would give his life for you. I ask of you nothing but the right to guard yours. Do not answer me now."
They had turned the corner of their block.
"I need no time," said Ruth, with a sad sob in her voice; "I cannot marry you, Louis. My answer would be the same to-morrow or at the end of all time,—I can never, never be your wife."
"It is then as I feared,—anything."
The girl's bowed head was the only answer to his bitter words.
"Well," he said, with a hard laugh, "that ends it, then. Don't let it bother you. Your answer has put it entirely from my mind. I should be pleased if you would forget it as readily as I shall. I hardly think we shall meet in the morning. I am going down to the club now. Good-by; enjoy yourself."
He held out his hand carelessly; Ruth carried it in both hers to her lips. Being at the gate, he lifted his hat with a smile and walked away. Ruth did not smile; neither did Arnold when he had turned from her.
Beacham's lies in a dimple of the inner coast range, and is reached nowadays through one of the finest pieces of engineering skill in the State. The tortuous route through the mountains, over trestle-bridges that span what seem, from the car-windows, like bottomless chasms, needs must hold some compensation at the end to counterbalance the fears engendered on the way. The higher one goes the more beautiful becomes the scenery among the wild, marvellous redwoods that stand like mammoth guides pointing heavenward; and Beacham's realizes expectation.
It is a quiet little place, with its one hotel and two attached cottages, its old, disused saw-mill, its tiny schoolhouse beyond the fairy-like woods, its one general merchandise store, where cheese and calico, hats and hoes, ham and hominy, are forthcoming upon solicitation. It is by no means a fashionable resort; the Levices had searched for something as unlike the Del Monte and Coronado as milk is unlike champagne. They were looking for a pretty, healthful spot, with good accommodations and few social attractions, and Beacham's offered this.
They were not disappointed. Ruth's anticipation was fulfilled when she saw the river. Russian River is about as pretty a stream as one can view upon a summer's day. Here at Beacham's it is very narrow and shallow, with low, shelving beaches on either bank; but in the tiny row-boat which she immediately secured, Ruth pushed her way into enchantment. The river winds in and out through exquisite coves entangled in a wilderness of brambles and lace-like ferns that are almost transparent as they bend and dip toward the silvery waters; while, climbing over the rocky cliffs, run bracken and the fragrant yerba-buena, till, on high, they creep as if in awe about the great redwoods and pines of the forest.
Morning and night Ruth, in her little boat, wooed the lisping waters. Often of a morning her mother was her companion; later on, her father or little Ethel Tyrrell; in the evening one of the Tyrrell boys, generally Will, was her gallant chevalier. But it was always Ruth who rowed,—Ruth in her pretty sailor blouses, with her strong round arms and steadily browning hands; Ruth, whose creamy face and neck remained provokingly unreddened, and took on only a little deeper tint, as if a dash of bistre had been softly applied. It was pleasant enough rowing down-stream with Ruth; she always knew when to sing "Nancy Lee," and when "White Wings" sounded prettiest. There were numerous coves too, where she loved to beach her boat,—here to fill a flask with honey-sweet water from a rollicking little spring that came merrily dashing over the rocks, here to gather some delicate ferns or maiden-hair with which to decorate the table, or the trailing yerba-buena for festooning the boat. But Ethel Tyrrell, aged three, thought they had the "dolliest" time when she and Ruth, having rowed a space out of sight, jumped out, and taking off their shoes and stockings and making other necessary preliminaries to wading, pattered along over the pebbly bottom, screaming when a sharp stone came against their tender feet, and laughing gleefully when the water rose a little higher than they had bargained for; then, when quite tired, they would retire to the beach or the boat and dry themselves with the soft damask of the sun.
Ruth was happy. There were moments when the remembrance of her last meeting with Louis came like a summer cloud over the ineffable brightness of her sky, and she felt a sharp pang at her heart; still, she thought, it was different with Louis. His feeling for her could not be so strong as to make him suffer poignantly over her refusal. She was almost convinced that he had asked her more from a whim of good-fellowship, a sudden desire, perhaps a preference for her close companionship when he did marry, than from any deeper emotion. In consequence of these reflections her musings were not so sad as they might otherwise have been.
Her parents laughed to see how she revelled in the freedom of the old-fashioned little spot, which, though on the river, was decidedly "out of the swim." It was late in the season, and there were few guests at the hotel. The Levices occupied one of the cottages, the other being used by a pair of belated turtle-doves,—the wife a blushing dot of a woman, the husband an overgrown youth who bent over her in their walks like a devoted weeping-willow; there was a young man with a consumptive cough, a natty little stenographer off on a solitary vacation, and the golden-haired Tyrrell family, little and big, for Papa Tyrrell could not enjoy his hard-earned rest without one and all. They were such a refined, happy, sweet family, for all their pinched circumstances, that the Levices were attracted to them at once. To be with Mrs. Tyrrell one whole day, Mrs. Levice said was a liberal education,—so bright, so uncomplaining, so ambitious for her children was she, and such a help and inspiration to her hard-worked husband. Mr. Levice tramped about the woods with Tyrrell and brier-wood pipes, and appreciated the moral bravery of a man who struggled on with a happy face and small hope for any earthly rest. But the children!—Floy with her dreamy face and busy sketch-book, Will with his halo of golden hair, his manly figure and broad, open ambitions, Boss with his busy step and fishing-tackle, and baby Ethel, the wee darling, who ran after Ruth the first time she saw her and begged her to come and play with her; ever since, she formed a part of the drapery of Ruth's skirt or a rather cumbersome necklace about her neck. Every girl who has been debarred the blessing of babies in the house loves them promiscuously and passionately. Ruth was no exception; it amused the ladies to watch her cuddle the child and wonder aloud at all her baby-talk.
Will was her next favorite satellite. A young girl with a winsome, sympathetic face, and hearty manner, can easily become the confidante of a fine fellow of fourteen. Will, with his arm tucked through hers, would saunter around after dusk and tell her all his ambitions.
The soft, starry evenings up in the mountains, where heaven seems so near, are just the time for such talk.
They were walking thus one evening toward the river, Ruth in a creamy gown and with a white burnous thrown over her head, Will holding his hat in his hand and letting the sweet air play through his hair, as he loved to do.