OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL
By Emma Wolf
A humming-bird dipped through the air and lit upon the palm-tree just below the open window; the long drowsy call of a crowing cock came from afar off; the sun spun down in the subdued splendor of a hazy veil. It was a dustless, hence an anomalous, summer's afternoon in San Francisco.
Ruth Levice sat near the window, lazily rocking, her long lithe arms clasped about her knees, her face a dream of the day. The seasons single out their favorite moods: a violet of spring-time woos one, a dusky June rose another; to-day the soft, languorous air had, unconsciously to her, charmed the girl's waking dream.
So removed was she in spirit from her surroundings that she heard with an obvious start a knock at the door. The knock was immediately followed by a smiling, plump young woman, sparkling of eye, rosy of cheek, and glistening with jewels and silk.
"Here you are, Ruth," she exclaimed, kissing her heartily; whereupon she sank into a chair, and threw back her bonnet-strings with an air of relief. "I came up here at once when the maid said your mother was out. Where is she?"
"Out calling. You look heated, Jennie; let me fan you."
"Thanks. How refreshing! Sandal-wood, is it not? Where is your father?"
"He is writing in the library. Do you wish to see him?"
"Oh, no, no! I must see you alone. I am so glad Aunt Esther is out. Why aren't you with her, Ruth? You should not let your mother go off alone."
The young girl laughed in merry surprise.
"Why, Jennie, you forgot that Mamma has been used all her life to going out without me; it is only within the last few months that I have been her companion."
"I know," replied her visitor, leaning back with a grim expression of disapproval, "and I think it the queerest arrangement I ever heard of. The idea of a father having the sole care of a daughter up to her twenty-first birthday, and then delivering her, like a piece of joint property, over to her mother! Oh, I know that according to their lights it did not seem absurd, but the very idea of it is contrary to nature. Of course we all know that your father was peculiarly fitted to undertake your training, and in this way your mother could more easily indulge her love of society; but as it is, no wonder she is as jealous of your success in her realm as your father was in his; no wonder she overdoes things to make up for lost time. How do you like it, Ruth?"
"What?" softly inquired her cousin, slowly waving the dainty fan, while a smile lighted up the gravity of her face at this onslaught.
"Going out continually night after night."
"Mamma likes it."
"Cela va sans dire. But, Ruth,—stop fanning a minute, please,—I want to know, candidly and seriously, would you mind giving it up?"
"Candidly and seriously, I would do so to-day forever."
"Ye-es; your father's daughter," said Mrs. Lewis, speaking more slowly, her bright eyes noting the perfect repose of the young girl's person; "and yet you are having some quiet little conquests,—the golden apples of your mother's Utopia. But to come to the point, do you realize that your mother is very ill?"
"Ill—my mother?" The sudden look of consternation that scattered the soft tranquillity of her face must have fully repaid Mrs. Lewis if she was aiming at a sensation.
"There, sit down. Don't be alarmed; you know she is out and apparently well."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that Aunt Esther is nervous and hysterical. The other day at our house she had such an attack of hysteria that I was obliged to call in a neighboring doctor. She begged us not to mention it to either of you, and then insisted on attending a meeting of some sort. However, I thought it over and decided to let you know, as I consider it serious. I was afraid to alarm Uncle, so I thought of telling you."
"Thank you, Jennie; I shall speak to Father about it." The young girl's tone was quite unagitated; but two pink spots on her usually colorless cheeks betrayed her emotion.
"That is right, dear. I hope you will forgive me if I seem meddlesome, but Jo and I have noticed it for some time; and your father, by allowing this continual gayety, seems to have overlooked what we find so sadly apparent. Of course you have an engagement for to-night?"
"Yes; we are going to a reception at the Merrills'."
"Merrill? Christians?" was the sharp reply.
"The name speaks for itself."
"What does possess your parents to mix so much with Christians?"
"Fellow-feeling, I suppose. We all dance and talk alike; and as we do not hold services at receptions, wherein lies the difference?"
"There is a difference; and the Christians know it as well as we Jewish people. Not only do they know it, but they show it in countless ways; and the difference, they think, is all to their credit. For my part, I always feel as if they looked down on us, and I should like to prove to them how we differ on that point. I have enough courage to let them know I consider myself as good as the best of them."
"Is that why you wear diamonds and silk on the street, Jennie?" asked Ruth, her serious tones implying no impudence, but carrying a refined reproach.
"Hardly. I wear them because I have them and like them. I see no harm in wearing what is becoming."
"But don't you think they look aggressive on the street? They attract attention; and one hates to be conspicuous. I think they are only in place at a gathering of friends of one's own social standing, where they do not proclaim one's moneyed value."
"Perhaps," replied Mrs. Lewis, her rosy face a little rosier than before. "I suppose you mean to say it is vulgar; well, maybe so. But I scarcely think a little outward show of riches should make others feel they are better because they do not care to make a display. Besides, to be less personal, I don't think any Christian would care to put himself out to meet a Jew of any description."
"Don't you think it would depend a great deal both on Jew and Christian? I always have been led to believe that every broad-minded man of whatever sect will recognize and honor the same quality in any other man. And why should I not move on an equality with my Christian friends? We have had the same schooling, speak the same language, read the same books, are surrounded by the same elements of home refinement. Probably if they had not been congenial, my father would long ago have ceased to associate with them. I think the secret of it all is in the fact that it never occurred to us that the most fastidious could think we were anything but the most fastidious; and so we always met any one we desired to meet on a level footing. I have a great many pleasant friends in the court of your Philistines."
"Possibly. But not having been brought up by your father, I think differently, and perhaps am different. Their ways are not my ways; and what good can you expect from such association?"
"Why, pleasant companionship. What wouldst thou more?"
"I? Not even that. But tell me, can't you dissuade Aunt Esther from going to-night? Tell your father, and let him judge if you had better not."
"I really think Mamma would not care to go, for she said as much to Father; but, averse as he generally is to going out, he insists on our going to-night, and, what is more, intends to accompany us, although Louis is going also. But if you think Mamma is seriously run down, I shall tell him immediately, and—"
A blithe voice at the door interrupted her, calling:
"Open the door, Ruth; my hands are full."
She rose hastily, and with a signal of silence to her loquacious cousin, opened the door for her mother.
"Ah, Jennie, how are your, dear? But let us inspect this box which Nora has just handed me, before we consider you;" and Mrs. Levice softly deposited a huge box upon Ruth's lace-enveloped bed.
She was still bonneted and gloved, and with a slight flush in her clear olive cheek she looked like anything but a subject for fears. From the crown of her dainty bonnet to the point of her boot she was the picture of exquisite refinement; tall, beautifully formed, carrying her head like a queen, gowned in perfect, quiet elegance, she appeared more like Ruth's older sister than her mother.
"Ruth's gown for this evening," she announced, deftly unfolding the wrappings.
"Yellow!" exclaimed Mrs. Lewis, in surprise.
"Corn-color," corrected Mrs. Levice, playfully; "how do you think it will suit my girlie?" She continued, shaking out the clinging silken crepe.
"Charmingly; but I thought Ruth objected to anything but white."
"So she does; she thinks white keeps her unnoticed among the rest. This time, however, my will overrode hers. Eh, Daughter?"
The girl made a low courtesy.
"I am only lady-in-waiting to your Majesty, O Queen," she laughed. She had hardly glanced at the gown, being engaged in a silent scrutiny of her mother's face.
"And how is my prime minister this afternoon?" Mrs. Levice was drawing off her gloves, and Ruth's look of pained discovery passed unnoticed.
"I have not been down since luncheon," she replied.
"What! Then go down at once and bring him up. I must see that he gets out of his studiousness and is clothed in festive mind for this evening. Come to my sitting-room, Jennie, and we can have a comfortable chat."
Left to herself, Ruth hesitated before going to her father with her ill-boding tidings. None knew better than she of the great, silent love that bound her parents. As a quiet, observant child, she had often questioned wherein could be any sympathy between her father, almost old, studious, and reserved, and her beautiful, worldly young mother. But as she matured, she became conscious that because of this apparent disparity it would have been still stranger had Mrs. Levice not loved him with a feeling verging nearer humble adoration than any lower passion. It seemed almost a mockery for her to have to tell him he had been negligent,—not only a mockery, but a cruelty. However, it had to be done, and she was the only one to do it. Having come to this conclusion, she ran quickly downstairs, and softly, without knocking, opened the library door.
She entered so quietly that Mr. Levice, reading by the window, did not glance from his book. She stood a moment regarding the small thoughtful-faced, white-haired man.
If one were to judge but by results, Jules Levice would be accounted a fortunate man. Nearing the allotted threescore and ten, blessed with a loving, beloved wife and this one idolized ewe-lamb, surrounded by luxury, in good health, honored, and honorable,—trouble and travail seemed to have passed him by. But this scene of human happiness was the result of intelligent and unremitting effort. A high state of earthly beatitude has seldom been attained without great labor of mind or body by ourselves or those akin to us. Jules Levice had been thrown on the world when a boy of twelve. He resolved to become happy. Many of us do likewise; but we overlook the fact that we are provided with feet, not wings, and cannot fly to the goal. His dream of happiness was ambitious; it soared beyond contentment. Not being a lily of the field, he knew that he must toil; any honest work was acceptable to him. He was possessed of a fine mind; he cultivated it. He had a keen observation; he became a student of his fellow-men; and being strong and untiring, he became rich. This was but the nucleus of his ambitions, and it came to him late in life, but not too late for him to build round it his happy home, and to surround himself with the luxuries of leisure for attaining the pinnacle of wide information that he had always craved. His was merely the prosperity of an intellectual, self-made man whose time for rest had come.
Ruth seated herself on a low stool that she drew up before him, and laid her hand upon his.
"You, darling?" He spoke in a full, musical voice with a marked French accent.
"Can you spare me a few minutes, Father?"
"I am all ears;" he shut the book, and his hand closed about hers.
"Jennie was here just now."
"And did not come in to see me?"
"She had something to tell me."
"Yes; something I must repeat to you."
"Father—Jennie thinks—she has reason to know that—dear, do you think Mother is perfectly well?"
"No, my child; I know she is not."
This quiet assurance was staggering.
"And you allow her to go on in this way without calling in a physician?" A wave of indignant color suffused her cheeks.
"But—but—why?" She became a little confused under his calm gaze, feeling on the instant that she had implied an accusation unjustly.
"Because, Ruth, I have become convinced of it only within the past week. Your mother knows it herself, and is trying to hide it from me."
"Did she admit it?"
"I have not spoken of it to her; she is very excitable, and as she wishes to conceal it, I do not care to annoy her by telling her of my discovery."
"But isn't it wrong—unwise—to allow her to dissipate so much?"
"I have managed within the past week to keep you as quiet as possible."
"But to-night—forgive me, Father—you insist on our going to this reception."
"Yes, my sweet confessor; but I have a good reason,—one not to be spoken of."
"'Those who trust us educate us,'" she pleaded in wistful earnestness.
"Then your education is complete. Well, I knew your mother would resist seeing any physician, for fear of his measures going contrary to her desires; so I have planned for her to meet to-night a certain doctor whom I would trust professionally with my wife's life, and on whom I can rely for the necessary tact to hide the professional object of their meeting. What do you think of my way, dear?"
For answer she stooped and kissed his hand.
"May I know his name?" she asked after a pause.
"His name is Kemp,—Dr. Herbert Kemp."
"Why, he lives a few blocks from here; I have seen his sign. Is he an old physician?"
"I should judge him to be between thirty-five and forty. Not old certainly, but one with the highest reputation for skill. Personally he is a man of great dignity, inspiring confidence in every one."
"Where did you meet him?"
"In the hospitals," said her father quickly. "But I will introduce him to you to-night. Don't lose your head when you talk to him."
"Why should I?"
"Because he is a magnificent fellow; and I wish my daughter to hold her own before a man whom I admire so heartily."
"Why, this is the first time you have ever given me worldly advice," she laughed.
"Only a friendly hint," he answered, rising and putting his book in its place with the precision of a spinster.
"This is what I call a worldly paradise!" A girl with a face like dear Lady Disdain's sank into a divan placed near the conservatory; her voice chimed in prettily with the music of a spraying fountain and the soft strains of remote stringed instruments.
"Is it a frivolous conceit?" she continued, laughing up to the man who stood beside her; "or do the soft light of many candles, faint music, radiant women, and courtly men, satisfy your predilections also that such a place is as near heaven as this wicked world approaches?"
"You forget; paradise was occupied by but two. To my notion, nothing can be farther removed from Elysium than a modern drawing-room full of guests."
"And leaving out the guests?"
"They say imagination can make a paradise of a desert, given the necessary contingencies."
"A solitude of two who love? Dr. Kemp, methinks you are a romantic."
"You supplied the romance, Miss Gwynne. My knowledge is of the hard, matter-of-fact sort."
"Such as bones, I suppose. Still you seem to be interested in the soft-looking piece of humanity over by that cabinet."
"Yes; his expression is reminiscent of a boy's definition of a vacuum,—a large space with nothing in it. Who is he?"
"And I thought you not unknown! He is the husband of a brilliant woman, Mrs. Ames, who has written a novel."
"Decidedly so; it stands the test of being intoxicating and leaving a bad taste in the mouth,—like dry champagne."
"Which is not made for women."
"You mean school-girls. There she is,—that wisp of a creature listening so eagerly to that elegant youth of the terrier breed. No wonder he interests her; he is as full of information in piquant personal history as a family lawyer, and his knowledge is as much public property as a social city directory."
"You have studied him to advantage. Are you sure you have not stolen a leaf from him?"
"Dr. Kemp!" she exclaimed in pouting reproach, "do I appear as promiscuous as that? You may call me a 'blue book,' but spare my snobbery the opprobrious epithet of 'directory.' There goes the fascinating young Mrs. Shurly with Purcell Burroughs in her toils. Did you catch the fine oratory of the glance she threw us? It said, 'Dorothy Gwynne, how dare you appropriate Dr. Kemp for ten long minutes? Hand him over; pass him around. I want him; you are only boring him, though you seem to be amusing yourself."
Kemp's grave lips twitched at the corners; he was without doubt amused.
"Aren't you improvising?" he asked. A man need only offer an occasional bumper of a remark to keep the conversation from flagging, when his companion is a woman.
"No; you evidently do not know what a feminine sneer is in words. Ah, here comes the Queen of Sheba." She broke off with a pleased smile as Ruth Levice approached on the arm of her cousin, Louis Arnold.
Singly, each would have attracted attention anywhere; together they were doubly striking-looking. Arnold, tall and slight, carrying his head high, fair of complexion as a peachy-cheeked girl, was a peculiarly distinguished-looking man. The delicate pince-nez he wore emphasized slightly the elusive air of supercilious courtliness he always conveyed. Now, as he spoke to Ruth, who, although a tall girl, was some inches shorter than he, he maintained a strict perpendicular from the crown of his head to his heels, only looking down with his eyes. Short women resented this trick of his, protesting that it made them stand on tiptoe to speak to him.
There was something almost Oriental about Ruth, with her creamy, colorless face, like a magnolia blossom; her dusky hair was loosely rolled from her forehead and temples; her eyes were soft and brown beneath delicately pencilled brows, and matched the pure oval of her face. But the languorous air of Southern skies was wholly wanting in the sweet sympathy of her glance, and in a certain alertness about the poise of her head.
Arnold stopped perforce at Miss Gwynne's slight signal.
"Where are you hastening?" she asked as they turned to greet her. "One would think you saw your Nemesis before you, so oblivious were you to the beauties scattered about." She looked up pertly at Arnold, after giving one comprehensive glance over Ruth's toilet.
"We both wished to see the orchids of which one hears," he answered, with pronounced French accent and idiom; adding, with a slight smile, "I did not overlook you, but you were so busily contemplating other ground that it would have been cruelty to disturb you." He spoke the language slowly, as a stranger upon foreign ground.
"Oh, yes; I forgot. Dr. Kemp, are you acquainted with the Queen of Sheba and her doughty knight Louis, surnamed Arnold?" She paused a moment as the parties acknowledged the curious introduction, and then broke in rather breathlessly: "There, Doctor, I shall leave you with royalty; do not let your republican ignorance forget her proper title. Mr. Arnold, Mrs. Merrill is beckoning to us; will you come?" and with a naive, superbly impish look at Ruth, she drew Arnold away before he could murmur an excuse.
At the impertinent words the soft, rich blood suffused Ruth's face.
"Will you sit here awhile and wait for Mr. Arnold, or shall we go and see the orchids?" The pleasant, deep voice broke in upon her confusion and calmed her self-consciousness. She raised her eyes to the dark, clever face above her; it was a strong, rather than a handsome face. From the broad sweep of the forehead above the steady scrutiny of the gray eyes, to the grave lip and firm chin under the dark, pointed beard, strength and gentleness spoke in every line. His personality bore the stamp of a letter of credit.
"Thank you," said she; "I think I shall sit here. My cousin will probably be back soon."
The doctor seated himself beside her. Miss Gwynne's appellation was not inaptly chosen, still he would have preferred to know her more conventional title.
"This is a peaceful little corner," he said. "Do you notice how removed it seems from the rest of the room?"
"Yes," she answered, meeting and disconcerting his pleasantly questioning look with one of swift resolve. "Dr. Kemp, I wish to tell you that my father has confided to me your joint secret."
"Your father?" he looked bewildered; his knowledge of the Queen of Sheba's progenitors was vague.
"My father, yes," she repeated, smiling at his perplexity. "Our name is not very common; I am Jules Levice's daughter."
He was about to exclaim "NO!" The kinship seemed ridiculous in the face of this lovely girl and the remembered picture of the little plain-faced Jew. What he did say was,—
"Mr. Levice is an esteemed friend of mine. He is present, is he not?"
"Yes. Have you met my mother yet?"
The mother would probably unravel the mysterious origin of this beautiful face and this strange, sweet voice, whose subdued tones held an uncommon charm.
"No; but your father is diplomat enough to manage that before the evening is over. So you know our little scheme. Pardon the 'shop' which I have of a necessity brought with me this evening, but have you seen any signs of illness in your mother?"
"No; I have been very blind and selfish," she replied, somewhat bitterly, "for every one but me seems to have seen that something was wrong. She has been very anxious to give me pleasure, and I fear has been burning the candle at both ends for my light. I wish I had known—probably it lay just within my hand to prevent this, instead of leading her on by my often expressed delight. What I wish to ask you is that if you find anything serious, you will tell me, and allay my father's fears as much as possible. Please do this for me. My father is not young; and I, I think, am trustworthy."
She had spoken rapidly, but with convincing sincerity, looking her companion full in the face.
The doctor quietly scrutinized the earnest young face before he answered. Then he slightly bowed in acquiescence.
"That is a pact," he said lightly; "but in all probability your father's fears are exaggerated."
"'Where love is great, the smallest doubts are fears,'" she quoted, softly flushing. The doctor had a singular impersonal habit of keeping his eyes intently bent upon the person with whom he conversed, that made his companion feel that they two were exclusively alone,—a sensation that was slightly bewildering upon first acquaintance. By and by one understood that it was merely his air of interest that evoked the feeling, and so gradually got used to it as to one of his features.
"That is so," he replied cheerily; "and—I see some one is about to play. Mrs. Merrill told me we should have some music."
"It is Louis, I think; I know his touch."
"Your cousin? He plays?"
Ruth looked at him in questioning wonder. Truth to say, the doctor could not but betray his surprise at the idea of the cold-looking Arnold in the light of a musician; his doubts took instant flight after the opening chords. Rubenstein's Melody in F, played by a master-hand, is one long sound of divine ecstasy thrilling the listener to exquisite rapture. Played by Louis Arnold, what the composer had conceived in his soul was magnificently interpreted. As he finished, there was not a murmur; and the next minute he had dashed into a quaint tarantelle that instantly dispelled the former spell of grandeur.
"An artist," said some one standing near.
"Something more," murmured Kemp, rising as he saw Ruth do so. He was about to offer her his arm when Mrs. Merrill, a gently-faced woman, stepped up to them, and laying her hand upon Ruth's shoulder, said rather hurriedly,—
"I am sorry to trouble you, Doctor, but Mrs. Levice—do not be alarmed, Ruth dear—has become somewhat hysterical, and we cannot calm her; will you come this way, please, and no one need know she is in the study."
"My family is making itself prominent to-night," said Ruth, with a little catch in her voice, as they turned with Mrs. Merrill through the conservatory and so across the hall.
"I shall be here, Doctor, if you wish anything," said Mrs. Merrill, standing without as he and Ruth entered and immediately shut the door after them.
"Stay there," he said with quiet authority to Ruth, and she stood quite still where he left her. Mrs. Levice was seated in a large easy-chair with her back to the door; her husband had drawn her head to his bosom. There was no one else in the room, and for a second not a sound, till Mrs. Levice began to sob in a frightened manner.
"It's nothing at all, Jules," she cried, trying to laugh and failing lamentably; "I—I'm only silly."
"There, dear, don't talk." Levice's face was white as he soothingly stroked her hair.
The doctor stepped in front of them, and laying both hands upon her shoulders, motioned Levice aside.
"Hush! Not a word!"
At the sound of his stern, brusque voice, the long quivering shriek stopped halfway.
"Be perfectly still," he continued, holding her firmly. "Obey this instant," as she began to whimper; "not a sound must I hear."
Ruth and her father stood spell-bound at the effect of the stranger's measures. For a moment Mrs. Levice had started in affright to scream; but the deep, commanding tone, the powerful hands upon her shoulders, the impressive, unswerving eye that held hers, soon began to act almost hypnotically. The sobbing gradually ceased; the shaking limbs slowly regained their calm; and as she sank upon the cushions the strained look in her eyes melted. She was feebly smiling up at the doctor in response to his own persuasive smile that gradually succeeded the gravity of his countenance.
"That is well," said he, speaking soothingly as to a child, and still keeping his smiling eyes upon hers. "Now just close your eyes for a minute; see, I have your hand,—so. Go to sleep."
There was not a sound in the room; Ruth stood where she had been placed, and Mr. Levice was behind the doctor, his face quite colorless, scarcely daring to breathe. Finally the faint, even breathing of Mrs. Levice told that she slept.
Kemp turned to Mr. Levice and spoke low, not in a whisper, which hisses, but his voice was so hushed that it would not have disturbed the lightest sleeper.
"Put your hand, palm up, under hers. I am going to withdraw my hand and retire, as I do not wish to excite her; she will probably open her eyes in a few moments. Take her home as quietly as you can."
"You will call to-morrow?" whispered Levice.
He quietly assented.
"Now be deft." The transfer was quickly made, and nodding cheerfully, Dr. Kemp left the room.
Ruth came forward. Five minutes later Mrs. Levice opened her eyes.
"Why, what has happened?" she asked languidly.
"You fell asleep, Esther," replied her husband, gently.
"Yes, I know; but why is Ruth in that gown? Oh—ye-es!" Consciousness was returning to her. "And who was that handsome man who was here?"
"A friend of Ruth."
"He is very strong," she observed pensively. She lay back in her chair for a few minutes as if dreaming. Suddenly she started up.
"What thoughtless people we are! Let us go back to the drawing-room, or they will think something dreadful has happened."
"No, Mamma; I do not feel at all like going back. Stay here with Father while I get our wraps."
Before Mrs. Levice could demur, Ruth had left the room. As she turned in the direction of the stairs, she was rather startled by a hand laid upon her shoulder.
"Oh, you, Louis! I am going for our wraps."
"Here they are. How is my aunt?"
"She is quite herself again. Thanks for the wraps. Will you call up the carriage, Louis? We shall go immediately, but do not think of coming yourself."
"Nonsense! Tell your mother you have made your adieux to Mrs. Merrill,—she understands; the carriage is waiting."
A few minutes later the Levices and Louis Arnold quietly stole away. Mrs. Levice has had an attack of hysteria. "Nothing at all," the world said, and dismissed it as carelessly as most of the quiet turning-points in a life-history are dismissed.
The Levices' house stood well back upon its grounds, almost with an air of reserve in comparison with the rows of stately, bay-windowed houses that faced it and hedged it in on both sides. But the broad, sweeping lawns, the confusion of exquisite roses and heliotropes, the open path to the veranda, whereon stood an hospitable garden settee and chair, the long French windows open this summer's morning to sun and air, told an inviting tale.
As Dr. Kemp ascended the few steps leading to the front door, he looked around approvingly.
"Not a bad berth for the grave little bookworm," he mused as he rang the bell.
It was immediately answered by the "grave little bookworm" in person.
"I've been on the lookout for you for the past hour," he explained, leading him into the library and turning the key of the door as they entered.
It was a cosey room, not small or low, as the word would suggest, but large and airy; the cosiness was supplied by comfortable easy-chairs, a lounge or two, a woman's low rocker, an open piano, a few soft engravings on the walls, and books in cases, books on tables, books on stands, books everywhere. Two long lace-draped windows let in a flood of searching sunlight that brought to light not an atom of dust in the remotest corner. It is the prerogative of every respectable Jewess to keep her house as clean as if at any moment a search-warrant for dirt might be served upon her.
"Will you not be seated?" asked Levice, looking up at Kemp as the latter stood drawing off his gloves.
"Is your wife coming down here?"
"No; she is in her room yet."
"Then let us go up immediately. I am not at leisure."
"I know. Still I wish to ask you to treat whatever ailments you may find as lightly as possible in her presence; she has never known anxiety or worry of any kind. It will be necessary to tell only me, and every precaution will be taken."
Here was a second one of this family of three wishing to take the brunt of the trouble on his shoulders, and the third had been bearing it secretly for some time. Probably a very united family, loving and unselfish doubtless, but the doctor had to stifle an amused smile in the face of the old gentleman's dignified appeal.
"Still she is not a child, I suppose; she knows of the nature of my visit?" He moved toward the door.
"Ruth—my daughter, you know—was about to tell her as I left the room."
"Then we will go up directly."
Levice preceded him up the broad staircase. As they reached the landing, he turned to the doctor.
"Pardon my care, but I must make sure that Ruth has told her. Just step into the sitting-room a second," and the precautious husband went forward to his wife's bedroom, leaving the door open.
Standing there in the hallway, Kemp could plainly hear the following words:—
"And being interested in nervous diseases," the peculiarly low voice was saying, "he told Father he would call and see you,—out of professional curiosity, you know; besides we should not like you to be often taken as you were last night, should we?"
"People with plenty of time on their hands," soliloquized the doctor, looking at his watch in the hallway.
"What is his name, did you say?"
"Dr. Herbert Kemp."
"What! Don't you know that Dr. Kemp is one of the first physicians in the city? Every one knows he has no time for curiosity. Nervous diseases are his specialty; and do you think he would come without—"
"Being asked?" interrupted a pleasant voice; the doctor had remembered the flight of time, and walked in unannounced.
"Keep your seat," he continued, as Mrs. Levice started up, the excited blood springing to her cheeks.
"You hardly need an introduction, Esther," said Levice. "You remember Dr. Kemp from last night?"
"Yes. Don't go, Ruth, please; Jules, hadn't you something to do downstairs?"
Did she imagine for a moment that she could still conceal her trouble from his tender watchfulness? Great dark rings encircled her now feverishly bright eyes; her mouth trembled visibly; and as Ruth drew aside, her mother's shaking fingers held tight to her hand.
"I have nothing in the world to do," replied Levice, heartily; "I am going to sit right here and get interested."
"You will have to submit to a friendly cross-examination, Mrs. Levice," said the physician.
He drew a chair up before her and took both her hands in his. As Ruth relinquished her hold, she encountered a pair of pleasantly authoritative gray eyes, and instantly divining their expression, left the room.
She descended a few steps to the windowed landing. Here she intended joining the doctor on his way down. Probably her father would follow him; but it was her intention to intercept any such plan. A fog had arisen, and the struggling rosy beams of the sun glimmered opalescently through the density. Ruth thought it would be clear by noon, when she and her mother could go for a stirring tramp. She stood lost in thought till a firm footfall on the stairs aroused her.
"I see Miss Levice here; don't come down," Kemp was saying. "What further directions I have must be given to a woman."
"Stay with Mamma, Father," called Ruth, looking up at her hesitating father; "I shall see the doctor out;" and she quickly ran down the few remaining steps to Kemp, awaiting her at the foot. She opened the door of the library, and closing it quickly behind them, turned to him expectantly.
"Nothing to be alarmed at," he said, answering her mute inquiry. He seated himself at the table, and drew from his vest-pocket pencil and blank. Without another glance at the girl, he wrote rapidly for some minutes; then quickly moving back his chair, he arose and handed her the two slips of paper.
"The first is a tonic which you will have made up," he explained, picking up his gloves and hat and moving toward the door; "the other is a diet which you are to observe. As I told her just now, she must remain in bed and see no one but her immediate family; you must see that she hears and reads nothing exciting. That is all, I think."
Indignation and alarm held riot in Ruth's face and arrested the doctor's departure.
"Dr. Kemp," she said, "you force me to remind you of a promise you made me last night. Will you at least tell me what ails my mother that you use such strenuous measures?"
A flash of recollection came to the doctor's eyes.
"Why, this is an unpardonable breach upon my part, Miss Levice; but I will tell you all the trouble. Your mother is suffering with a certain form of hysteria to a degree that would have prostrated her had we not come forward in time. As it is, by prostrating her ourselves for awhile, say a month or so, she will regain her equilibrium. You have heard of the food and rest cure?"
"Well, that is what she will undergo mildly. Has she any duties that will suffer by her neglect or that will intrude upon her equanimity?"
"No necessary ones but those of the house. Under no circumstances can I conceive of her giving up their supervision."
"Yet she must do so under the present state of affairs. Remember, her mind must be kept unoccupied, but time must be made to pass pleasantly for her. This is not an easy task, Miss Levice; but, according to my promise, I have left you to undertake it."
"Thank you," she responded quietly.
Kemp looked at her with a sense of calm satisfaction.
"Good-morning," he said, holding out his hand with a smile.
As the door closed behind him, Ruth felt as if a burden had fallen from, instead of upon her. For the last twenty-four hours her apprehensions had been excessive. Now, though she knew positively that her mother's condition needed instant and constant care, which she must herself assume, all sense of responsibility fell from her. The few quiet words of this strange physician had made her trust his strength as she would a rock. She could not have explained why it was so; but as her father remarked once, she might have said, "I trust him implicitly, because, though a man of superiority, he implicitly trusts himself."
As she re-entered her mother's room, her father regarded her intently.
"So we are going to make a baby of you, Mamma," she cried playfully, coming forward and folding her arms around her mother, who lay on the lounge.
"So he says; and what he says one cannot resist." There was an apathetic ring to her mother's voice that surprised her. Quickly the thought flashed through her that she was too weary to resist now that she was found out.
"Then we won't try to," Ruth decided, seating herself on the edge of the lounge close to her mother. From his armchair, Mr. Levice noted with remorseful pride the almost matronly poise and expression of his lovely young daughter as she bent over her weary-looking mother and smoothed her hair.
"And if you are to be baby," she continued, smiling down, "I shall have to change places with you, and become mother. You will see what a capital one I shall make. Let's see, what are the duties? First, baby must be kept clean and sweet,—I am an artist at that; secondly, Father and the rest of us must have a perfectly appointed menage; third—"
"I do not doubt that you will make a perfect mother, my child;" the gentle meaning of her father's words and glance caused Ruth to flush with pleasure. When Levice said, "My child," the words were a caress. "Just believe in her, Esther; one of her earliest lessons was 'Whatever you do, do thoroughly.' She had to learn it through experience. But as you trust me, trust my pupil."
The soft smile that played upon her husband's face was reflected on Mrs. Levice's.
"Oh, Ruth," she murmured tremulously, "it will be so hard for you."
This was a virtual laying down of arms, and Ruth was satisfied.
Louis Arnold, the only other member of the Levice family, had been forced to leave town on some business the morning after Mrs. Levice's attack at the Merrill reception. He was, therefore, much surprised and shocked on his return a week later at finding his aunt in bed and such rigorous measures for quiet in vogue.
Arnold had been an inmate of the house for the past twelve years. He was a direct importation from France, which he had left just before attaining his majority, the glory of soldier-life not proving seductive to his imagination. He had no sooner taken up his abode with his uncle than he was regarded as the most useful and ornamental piece of foreign vertu in the beautiful house.
Being a business man by nature, keen, wary, and indefatigable, he was soon able to take almost the entire charge of Levice's affairs. In a few years his uncle ceased to question his business capabilities. From the time he arrived, he naturally fell into the position of his aunt's escort, thus again relieving Levice, who preferred the quieter life.
When Ruth began to go into society, his presence was almost a necessity, as Jewish etiquette, or rather Jewish espionage, forbids a young man unattached by blood or intentions to appear as the attendant of a single woman. This is one of the ways Jewish heads of families have got into for keeping the young people apart,—making cowards of the young men, and depriving the young girls of a great deal of innocent pleasure.
Arnold, however, was not an escort to be despised, as Ruth soon discovered. She very quickly felt a sort of family pride in his cool, quizzical manner and caustic repartee, that was wholly distinct from the more girlish admiration of his distinguished person. He and Ruth were great friends in a quiet, unspoken way.
They were sitting together alone in the library on the evening of his return. Mrs. Levice had fallen asleep, and her husband was sitting with her. Ruth had stolen down to keep Louis company, fearing he would feel lonesome in the changed aspect of the house.
Arnold lay at full length on the lounge; Ruth swayed backward and forward in the rocker.
"What I am surprised at," he was saying, "is that my aunt submits to this confining treatment;" he pronounced the last word "tritment," but he never stopped at a word because of its pronunciation, thus adding a certain piquancy to his speech.
"You would not be surprised if you knew Dr. Kemp; one follows his directions blindly."
"So I have heard from a great many—women."
"And not men?"
"I have never happened to hold a conversation with a man on the powers of Dr. Kemp. Women delight in such things."
"Why, giving in to the magnetic power of a strong man."
"You err slightly, Louis; it is the power, not the giving in that we delight in, counting it a necessary part of manliness."
"Will you allow me to differ with you? Besides, apart from this great first cause, I do not understand how, after a week of it, she has not rebelled."
"I think I can answer that satisfactorily," replied his cousin, a mischievous smile parting her lips and showing a row of strong white teeth; "she is in love."
"With Father; and so does as she knows will please him best. Love is also something every one loves to give in to."
"Every one who loves, you mean."
"Every one loves something or some one."
"Behold the exception, therefore." He moved his head so as to get a better view of her.
"I do not believe you."
"That—is rude." He kept his eyes meditatively fixed upon her.
"Have you made a discovery in my face?" asked the girl presently, slightly moving from his gaze.
"No," he replied calmly. "My discovery was made some time ago; I am merely going over beautiful and pleasant ground."
"Really?" she returned, flushing, "then please look away; you annoy me."
"Why should I, since you know it is done in admiration? You are a woman; do not pretend distaste for it."
"I shall certainly go upstairs if you persist in talking so disagreeably."
"Indulge me a little; I feel like talking, and I promise not to be disagreeable. Always wear white; it becomes you. Never forget that beauty needs appropriate surroundings. Another thing, ma belle cousine, this little trick you have of blushing on the slightest provocation spoils your whole appearance. Your complexion should always retain its healthy whiteness, while—"
"You have been indulged quite sufficiently, Louis. Do you know, if you often spoke to me in this manner I should soon hate you?"
"That would indeed be unfortunate. Never hate, Ruth; besides making enemies, hate is an arch enemy to the face, distorting the softest and loveliest."
"We cannot love people who calmly sit and irritate us like mocking tarantulas."
"That is exaggerated, I think. Besides, Heaven forbid our loving everybody! Never love, Ruth; let liking be strong enough for you. Love only wears out the body and narrows the mind, all to no purpose. Cupid, you know, died young, or wasted to plainness, for he never had his portrait taken after he matured."
"A character such as you would have would be unbearable."
"But sensible and wise."
"Happily our hearts need no teaching; they love and hate instinctively before the brain can speak."
"Good—for some. But in me behold the anomaly whose brain always reconnoitres the field beforehand, and has never yet considered it worth while to signal either 'love' or 'hate.'"
He rose with a smile and sauntered over to the piano. The unbecoming blush mounted slowly to Ruth's face and her eyes were bright as she watched him. When his hands touched the keys, she spoke.
"No doubt you think it adds to your intellect to pretend independence of all emotion. But, do you know, I think feeling, instead of being a weakness, is often more clever than wisdom? At any rate, what you are doing now is proof sufficient that you feel, and perhaps more strongly than many."
He partly turned on the music-chair, and regarded her questioningly, never, however, lifting his hands from the keys as he played a softly passionate minor strain.
"What am I doing?" he asked.
"Making love to the piano."
"It does not hurt the piano, does it?"
"No; but never say you do not feel when you play like that."
"Is not that rather peremptory? Who taught you to read characters?"
"I? What a poor teacher I was to allow you to show such bungling work! Will you sing?"
"No, I shall read; I have had quite enough of myself and of you for one night."
"Alas, poor me!" he retorted mockingly, and seeming to accompany his words with his music; "I am sorry for you, my child, that your emotions are so troublesome. You have but made your entrance into the coldest, most exciting arena,—the world. Remember what I tell you,—all the strong motives, love and hate and jealousy, are mere flotsam and jetsam. You are the only loser by their possession."
The quiet closing of the door was his only answer. Ruth had left the room.
She knew Arnold too well to be affected by his little splurt of cynicism. If she could escape a cynic either in books or in society, she invariably did so. Life was still beautiful for her; and one of her father's untaught lessons was that the cynic is a one-sided creature, having lost the eye that sees the compensation balancing all things. As long as Louis attacked things, it did no harm, except to incite a friendly passage-at-arms; hence, most of such talk passed in the speaking. Not so the disparaging insinuations he had cast at Dr. Kemp.
During the week in which Ruth had established herself as nurse-in-chief to her mother she had seen him almost daily. Time in a quiet sick-room passes monotonously; events that are unnoticed in hours of well-being and activity here assume proportions of importance; meal-times are looked forward to as a break in the day; the doctor's visit especially when it is the only one allowed, is an excitement. Dr. Kemp's visits were short, but the two learned to look for his coming and the sound of his deep, cheery voice, as to their morning's tonic that would strengthen the whole day. Naturally, as he was a stranger, Mrs. Levice in her idleness had analyzed and discussed aloud his qualities, both personal and professional, to her satisfaction. She had small ground for basing her judgments, but the doctor formed a good part of her conversation.
Ruth's knowledge of him was somewhat larger,—about the distance between Mrs. Levice's bedroom and the front door. She had a homely little way of seeing people to the door, and here it was the doctor gave her any new instructions. Instructions are soon given and taken; and there was always time for a word or two of a different nature.
In the first place, she had been attracted by his horses, a magnificent pair of jetty blacks.
"I wonder if they would despise a lump of sugar," she said one morning.
"Why should they?" asked Kemp.
"Oh, they seem to hold their heads so haughtily."
"Still, they are human enough to know sweets when they see them," their owner replied, taking in the beautiful figure of the young girl in her quaint, flowered morning-gown. "Try them once, and you won't doubt it."
She did try them; and as she turned a slightly flushed face to Kemp, who stood beside her, he held out his hand, saying almost boyishly, "Let me thank you and shake hands for my horses."
One can become eloquent, witty, or tender over the weather. The doctor became neither of these; but Ruth, whose spirits were mercurially affected by the atmosphere, always viewed the elements with the eye of a private signal-service reporter.
"This is the time for a tramp," she said, as they stood on the veranda, and the summer air, laden with the perfume of heliotrope, stole around them. "That is where the laboring man has the advantage over you, Dr. Kemp."
"Which, ten to one, he finds a disadvantage. I must confess that in such weather every healthy individual with time at his disposal should be inhaling this air at a leisurely trot or stride as his habit may be. You, Miss Levice, should get on your walking togs instantly."
"Yes, but not conveniently. My father and I never failed to take our morning constitutional together when all was well. Father always gave me the dubious compliment of saying I walked as straight and took as long strides as a boy. Being a great lover of the exercise, I was sorry my pas was not ladylike."
"You doubtless make a capital companion, as your father evidently remembered what a troublesome thing it is to conform one's length of limb to the dainty footsteps of a woman."
"Father has no trouble on that score," said Ruth, laughing.
The doctor smiled in response, and raising his hat, said, "That is where he has the advantage over a tall man."
Going over several such scenes, Ruth could remember nothing in his manner but a sort of invigorating, friendly bluntness, totally at variance with the peculiarities of the "lady's man" that Louis had insinuated he was accounted. She resolved to scrutinize him more narrowly the next morning.
Mrs. Levice's room was handsomely furnished and daintily appointed. Even from her pillows she would have detected any lapse in its exquisite neatness, and one of Ruth's duties was to leave none to be detected. The house was large; and with three servants the young girl had to do a great deal of supervising. She took a natural pride in having things go as smoothly as under her mother's administration; and Mr. Levice said it was well his wife had laid herself on the shelf, as the new broom was a vast improvement.
Ruth had given the last touches to her mother's dark hair, and was reading aloud the few unexciting items one finds in the morning's paper. Mrs. Levice, propped almost to a sitting position by many downy pillows, polished her nails and half listened. Her cheeks were no longer brightly flushed, but rather pale; the expression of her eyes was placid, and her slight hand quite firm; the strain lifted from her, a great weariness had taken its place. The sweet morning air came in unrestrained at the open window.
Ruth's reading was interrupted by the entrance of the maid, carrying a dainty basket of Duchesse roses.
"For Madame," she said, handing it to Ruth, who came forward to take it.
"Read the card yourself," she said, placing it in her mother's hand as the girl retired. A pleased smile broke over Mrs. Levice's face; she buried her face in the roses, and then opened the envelope.
"From Louis!" she exclaimed delightedly. "Poor fellow! he was dreadfully upset when he came in. He did not say much, but his look and hand-shake were enough as he bent to kiss me. Do you know, Ruth, I think our Louis has a very loving disposition?"
"Yes. One would not think so, judging from his manner; but I know him to be unusually sympathetic for a man. I would sooner have him for a friend than many a woman; he has not many equals among the young men I know. Don't you agree with me, girlie?"
"Oh, yes; I always liked Louis."
"How coldly you say that! And, by the way, it struck me as very queer last night that you did not kiss him after his absence of a week. Since when has this formal hand-shake come into use?"
A slight flush crimsoned Ruth's cheek.
"It is not my fault," she said, smiling; "I always kissed Louis even after a day's absence. But some few months ago he inaugurated the new regime, and holds me at arm's length. I can't ask him why, when he looks at me so matter-of-factly through his eyeglass, can I?"
"No; certainly not." A slight frown marred the complacency of Mrs. Levice's brow. Such actions were not at all in accordance with her darling plan. Arnold was much to her; but she wished him to be more. This was a side-track upon which she had not wished her train to move.
Her cogitations took a turn when she heard a quick, firm footfall in the hall.
Ruth anticipated the knock, and opened the door to the doctor.
Bowing slightly to her, he advanced rather hurriedly to the bedside. He had not taken off his gloves, and a certain air of purposeful gravity replaced his usual leisurely manner.
"Good-morning, Mrs. Levice," he said, taking her hand in his, and looking searchingly down at her. "How are you feeling this morning? Any starts or shakes of any sort?"
"No; I am beginning to feel as impassive and stupid as a well-fed animal. Won't you sit down, Doctor?"
"No; I have a consultation in a very short time. Keep right on as you have been doing. I do not think it will be necessary for me to call for several days now; probably not before Friday."
"And to-day is Tuesday! Am I to see no one till then?"
"No one but those you have seen. Pray do not complain, Mrs. Levice," he continued rather sternly. "You are a very fortunate invalid; illness with you is cushioned in every conceivable corner. I wish I could make you divide some of your blessings. As I cannot, I wish you to appreciate them as they deserve. Do not come down, Miss Levice," as she moved to follow him; "I am in a great hurry. Good-morning."
"How harassed he looked! I wonder who is his patient!" observed Mrs. Levice, as Ruth quietly returned to her seat. A sunbeam fell aslant the girl's preoccupied face. The doctor's few words had given her food for thought.
When later on she remembered how she was going to disprove for herself Louis's allegations, she wondered if he could have found anything to mock at, had he been present, in Kemp's abrupt visit of the morning.
Ruth always dressed well. Indeed, any little jealousy her lovely presence might occasion was usually summed up in the terse innuendo, "Fine feathers make fine birds."
To dress well is to dress appropriately to time, place, and season. Having a full purse, she could humor every occasion with a change of gown; being possessed of good taste, her toilets never offended; desiring to look pleasing, as every woman should, she studied what was becoming; having a mother to whom a good toilet was one of the most pressing convenances, and who delighted in planning beautiful gowns for her beautiful daughter, there was nothing lacking to prevent Ruth from being well-dressed.
On this summer's afternoon she was clad from head to foot in soft, pale gray. Every movement of her young body, as she walked toward town, betokened health and elastic strength. Her long, easy gait precluded any idea of hurry; she noticed everything she passed, from a handsome house to a dirty child.
She was approaching that portion of Geary Street which the doctors have appropriated, and she carefully scanned each silvery sign-plate in search of Dr. Kemp's name. It was the first time she had had occasion to go; and with a little feeling of novel curiosity she ran up the stairs leading to his office.
It was just three,—the time stated as the limit of his office-hours; but when Ruth entered the handsome waiting-room, two or three patients were still awaiting their turns. Seated in one of the easy-chairs, near the window, was an aristocratic-looking woman, whom Ruth recognized as a friend of one of her Christian friends, and with whom she had a speaking acquaintance. Nodding pleasantly in response to the rather frigid bow, she walked to the centre of the room, and laying upon the table a bunch of roses that she carried, proceeded to select one of the magazines scattered about. As she sat down, she found herself opposite a stout Irishwoman, coarsely but cleanly dressed, who with undisguised admiration took in every detail of Ruth's appearance. She overlooked the evident simplicity of the woman's stare; but the wistful, yearning look of a little girl who reclined upon the lounge caused her to sit with her magazine unopened. As soon as she perceived that it was her flowers that the child regarded so longingly, she bent forward, and holding out a few roses, said invitingly,—
"Would you like these?"
There is generally something startling in the sudden sound of a voice after a long silence between strangers; but the pretty cadence of Ruth's gentle voice bore no suggestion of abruptness.
"Indeed, and she just do dote on 'em," answered the mother, in a loud tone, for the blushing child.
"So do I," responded Ruth; and leaning farther forward, she put them in the little hand.
But the child's hand did not close over them, and the large eyes turned piteously to her mother.
"It's paralyzed she is," hurriedly explained the mother. "Shall Mamma hold the beautiful roses for ye, darlint?"
"Please," answered the childish treble.
Ruth hesitated a second, and then rising and bending over her said,—
"No; I know of a better way. Wouldn't you like to have me fasten them in your belt? There, now you can smell them all the time."
"Roses is what she likes mostly," proceeded the mother, garrulously, "and she's for giving the doctor one every time she can when he comes. Faith! it's about all he do get for his goodness, for what with—"
The sudden opening of the folding-door interrupted her flow of talk. Seeing the doctor standing on the threshold as a signal for the next in waiting to come forward, the poor woman arose preparatory to helping her child into the consulting-room.
"Let me help Mamie, Mrs. O'Brien," said he, coming toward her. At the same moment the elegant-looking woman rose from her chair and swept toward him.
"I believe it is my turn," she said, in response to his questioning salutation.
"Certainly, if you came before Mrs. O'Brien. If so, walk in," he answered, moving the portiere aside for the other to enter.
"Sure, Doctor," broke in Mrs. O'Brien, anxiously, "we came in together."
"Indeed!" He looked from the florid, flustered face to the haughtily impassive woman beside her.
"Well, then," said he, courteously, "I know Mrs. O'Brien is wanted at home by her little ones. Mrs. Baker, you will not object, I am sure."
It was now the elegant woman's turn to flush as Kemp took up the child.
Ruth felt a leap of delight at the action. It was a quiet lesson to be laid to heart; and she knew she could never see him in a better light than when he left the room holding the little charity patient in his arms.
She also noticed with a tinge of amusement the look of added hauteur on the face of Mrs. Baker, as she returned to her seat at the window.
"Haughtiness," mused Ruth, "is merely a cloak to selfishness, or the want of a proper spirit of humanity."
The magazine article remained unread; she drifted into a sort of day-dream, and scarcely noticed when Mrs. Baker left the room.
"Well, Miss Levice."
She started up, slightly embarrassed, as the doctor's voice thus aroused her.
"I beg your pardon," she said, coming forward and flushing slightly under his amused smile. "It was so quiet here that I forgot where I was."
He stood aside as she passed into the room, bringing with her an exquisite fragrance of roses.
"Will you be seated?" he asked, as he turned from closing the door.
"No; it is not worth while."
"What is the trouble,—you or your mother?"
There had been nothing disconcerting in the Irish-woman's stare; but she felt suddenly hot and uncomfortable under the doctor's broad gaze.
"Neither of us," she answered; "I broke the tonic bottle this morning, and as the number was destroyed, I should like to have you give me another prescription."
"Directly. Take this chair for a moment."
She seated herself perforce, and he took the chair beside the desk.
"How is she since yesterday?" he asked, as he wrote, without looking up.
"Quite as comfortable."
He handed her the prescription presently, and she arose at once. He stepped forward to open the outer door for her.
"I hope you no longer feel alarmed over her health," he remarked, with a hand on the knob.
"No; you have made us feel there was no cause for it. But for your method I am afraid there might have been."
"Thank you; but do not think anything of the kind. Your nursing was as potent a factor as my directions. It is not Congress, but the people, who make the country, you know."
"That is condescending, coming from Congress," she laughed gayly; "but I must disclaim the compliment, I am sorry to say; my nursing was only a name."
"As you please. Miss Levice, may I beg a rose of you? No, not all. Well, thank you, they will look wonderful in a certain room I am thinking of."
"Yes?" There was a note of inquiry in the little word in reply to Kemp's pointed remark spoken as with a sudden purpose.
"Yes," he continued, leaning his back against the door and looking earnestly down at the tall girl; "the room of a lad without even the presence of a mother to make it pretty;" he paused as if noting the effect of his words. "He is as lonely and uncomplaining as a tree would be in a desert; these roses will be quite a godsend to him." He finished his sentence pleasantly at sight of the expression of sympathy in the lovely brown eyes.
"Do you think he would care to see any one?"
"Well," replied the doctor, slowly, "I think he would not mind seeing you."
"Then will you tell me where he lives so that I can go there some day?"
"Some day? Why not to-day? Would it be impossible to arrange it?"
"Why, no," she faltered, looking at him in surprise.
"Excuse my curiosity, please; but the boy is in such pressing need of some pleasurable emotion that as soon as I looked at you and your roses I thought, 'Now, that would not be a bad thing for Bob.' You see, I was simply answering a question that has bothered me all day. Then will you drive there with me now?"
"Would not that be impossible with your driver?" she asked, searching unaccountably for an excuse.
"I can easily dispense with him."
"But won't my presence be annoying?" she persisted, hesitating oddly.
"Not to me," he replied, turning quickly for his hat. "Come, then, please, I must waste no more time in Bob's good cause."
She followed him silently with a sensation of quiet excitement.
Presently she found herself comfortably seated beside the doctor, who drove off at a rapid pace.
"I think," said he, turning his horses westward, "I shall have to make a call out here on Jones Street before going to Bob. You will not mind the delay, Miss Levice, I hope."
"Oh, no. This is 'my afternoon off,' you know. Father is at home, and my mother will not miss me in the least. I was just thinking—"
She came to a sudden pause. She had just remembered that she was about to become communicative to a comparative stranger; the intent, interested look in Kemp's eye as he glanced at her was the disturbing element.
"You were thinking what?" he prompted with his eye now to the horses' heads.
"I am afraid you would not be edified if I continued," she answered hastily, biting her lip. She had been about to remark that her father would miss her, nevertheless—but such personal platitudes are not always in good taste. Seeing that she was disinclined to finish her sentence, he did not urge her; and a few minutes later he drew up his horses before a rather imposing house.
"I shall not be gone a minute, I think," he said, as he sprang out and was about to attach the reins to the post.
"Let me hold them, please," said Ruth, eagerly stretching forth a hand.
He placed them in her hand with a smile, and turned in at the gateway.
He had been in the house about five minutes when she saw him come out hastily. His hat was pulled down over his brows, which were gathered in an unmistakable frown. At the moment when he slammed the gate behind him, a stout woman hurrying along the sidewalk accosted him breathlessly.
He waited stolidly with his foot on the carriage-step till she came up.
"So sorry I had to go out!" she burst forth. "How did you find my husband? What do you think of him?"
"Madame," he replied shortly, "since you ask, I think your husband is little short of an idiot!"
Ruth felt herself flush as she heard.
The woman looked at him in consternation.
"What is the matter?" she asked.
"Matter? Mayonnaise is the matter. If a man with a weak stomach like his cannot resist gorging himself with things he has been strictly prohibited from touching, he had better proclaim himself irresponsible and be done. It is nonsense to call me in when he persists in cutting up such antics. Good-afternoon."
And abruptly raising his hat, he sprang in beside Ruth, taking the reins from her without a word.
She felt very meek and small beside the evidently exasperated physician. He seemed to forget her presence entirely, and she had too much tact to break the silence of an angry man. In nine cases out of ten, the explosion is bound to take place; but woe to him who lights the powder!
They were now driving northeast toward the quarter known as North Beach. The sweet, fresh breeze in the western heights toward Golden Gate is here charged with odors redolent of anything but the "shores of Araby the blest."
Kemp finally gave vent to his feelings.
"Some men," he said deliberately, as if laying down an axiom, "have no more conception of the dignity of controlled appetites than savages. Here is one who could not withstand anything savory to eat, to save his soul; otherwise he is a strong, sensible man. I can't account for it."
"The force of habit, perhaps," suggested Ruth.
"Probably. Jewish appetite is known to dote on the fat of the land."
That he said this with as little vituperation as if he had remarked on the weather Ruth knew; and she felt no inclination to resent the remark, although a vision of her cousin Jennie protesting did present itself. Some Jewish people with diseased imaginations take every remark on the race as a personal calumny.
"We always make the reservation that the fat be clean," she laughed.
Kemp flashed around at her.
"Miss Levice," he exclaimed contritely, "I completely forgot—I hope I was not rude."
"Why, certainly not," she answered half merrily, half earnestly. "Why should you be?"
"As you say, why should I be? Jewish individuals, of course, have their faults like the rest of humanity. As a race, most of their characteristics redound to their honor, in my estimation."
"Thank you," said the girl, quietly. "I am very proud of many Jewish traits."
"Such as a high morality, loyalty, intelligence, filial respect, and countless other things."
"Besides, it is wonderful how they hold the balance of power in the musical and histrionic worlds. Still, to be candid, in comparison with these, they do not seem to have made much headway in the other branches of art. Can you explain it, Miss Levice?"
He waited deferentially for a reply.
"I was trying to think of a proper answer," she responded with earnest simplicity; "and I think that their great musical and histrionic powers are the results not so much of art as of passion inherited from times and circumstances stern and sad since the race began. Painting and sculpture require other things."
"Which the Jew cannot obtain?"
A soft glow overspread her face and mounted to her brow.
"Dr. Kemp," she answered, "we have begun. I should like to quote to you the beautiful illustration with which one of our rabbis was inspired to answer a clergyman asking the same question; but I should only spoil that which in his mouth seemed eloquent."
"You would not, Miss Levice. Tell the story, please."
They were on level ground, and the doctor could disengage his attention from the horses. He did not fail to note the emotion that lit up her expressive face, and made her sweet voice tremble.
"It is the story of the Rose of Sharon. This is it briefly: A pilgrim was about to start on a voyage to the Holy Land. In bidding a friend good-by, he said: 'In that far land to which I am journeying, is there not some relic, some sacred souvenir of the time beautiful, that I can bring to you?' The friend mused awhile. 'Yes,' he made answer finally; 'there is a small thing, and one not difficult to obtain. I beg of you to bring me a single rose from the plains of Sharon.' The pilgrim promised, and departed. On his return he presented himself before his friend. 'You have brought it?' he cried. 'Friend,' answered the pilgrim, sadly, 'I have brought your rose; but, alas! After all this weary travelling it is now but a poor, withered thing.' 'Give it me!' exclaimed the friend, eagerly. The other did so. True, it was lifeless and withered; not a vestige remained of its once fragrant glory. But as the man held it tenderly in his hand, memory and love untold overcame him, and he wept in ecstasy. And as his tears fell on the faded rose, lo! The petals sprang up, flushed into life; an exquisite perfume enveloped it,—it had revived in all its beauty. Sir, in the words of the rabbi, 'In the light of toleration and love, we too have revived, we too are looking up.'"
As the girl paused, Kemp slightly, almost reverentially, raised his hat.
"Miss Levice, that is exquisite," he said softly.
They had reached the old, poorer section of the city, and the doctor stopped before a weather-beaten cottage.
"This is where Bob receives," he said, holding out a hand to Ruth; "in all truth it cannot be called a home."
Ruth had a peculiar, inexplicable feeling of mutual understanding with the doctor as she went in with him. She hardly realized that she had been an impressionable witness of some of his dominant moods, and that she herself had been led on to an unrestrained display of feeling.
They walked directly into a bare, dark hallway. There was no one stirring, and Kemp softly opened the door of one of several rooms leading into the passage. Here a broad band of yellow sunlight fell unrestrained athwart the waxen-like face of the sleeping boy. The rest of the simple, poor-looking room was in shadow. The doctor noiselessly closed the door behind them, and stepped to the bed, which was covered with a heavy horse-blanket.
The boy on the bed even in sleep could not be accounted good-looking; there was a heaviness of feature, a plentitude of freckles, a shock of lack-lustre hair, that made poor Bob Bard anything but a thing of beauty. And yet, as Ruth looked at him, and saw Kemp's strong white hand placed gently on the low forehead, a great wave of tender pity took possession of her. Sleep puts the strongest at the mercy of the watcher; there is a loneliness about it, a silent, expressive plea for protection, that appeals unconsciously. Ruth would have liked to raise the rough, lonely head to her bosom.
"It would be too bad to wake him now," said the doctor, in a low voice, coming back to her side; "he is sleeping restfully; and that is what he needs. I am sorry our little plan is frustrated; but it would be senseless to wait, as there is no telling when he will waken."
A shade of disappointment passed over the girl's face, which he noticed.
"But," he continued, "you might leave your roses where he cannot fail to see them. His conjectures on their mysterious appearance will rouse him sufficiently for one day."
He watched her move lightly across the room, and fill a cup with water from an earthenware pitcher. She looked about for a second as if hesitating where to place it, and then quickly drew up a high-backed wooden chair close to the bedside, and placed thereon a cup with roses, so that they looked straight into the face of the slumbering lad.
"We will go now," Kemp said, and opened the door for Ruth to pass before him. She followed him slowly, but on the threshold drew back, a thoughtful little pucker on her brow.
"I think I shall wait anyway," she explained. "I should like to talk with Bob a little."
The doctor looked slightly annoyed.
"You had better drive home with me," he objected.
"Thank you," she replied, drawing farther back into the room; "but the Jackson Street cars are very convenient."
"Nevertheless, I should prefer to have you come with me," he insisted.
"But I do not wish to," she repeated quietly; "besides, I have decided to stay."
"That settles it, then," smiled Kemp; and shaking her hand, he went out alone.
"When my lady will, she will; and when she won't, she won't," he mused, gathering up his reins. But the terminal point to the thought was a smile.
Ruth, thus left alone, seated herself on the one other chair near the foot of the bed. Strange to say, though she gazed at Bob, her thoughts had flown out of the room. She was dimly conscious that she was pleasantly excited. Had she cared to look the cause boldly in the face, she would have known that Miss Ruth Levice's vanity had been highly fed by Dr. Kemp's unmistakable desire for her assistance. He must at least have looked at her with friendly eyes; but here her modesty drew a line even for herself, and giving herself a mental shake, she saw that two lambent brown eyes were looking wonderingly at her from the face of the sick lad.
"How do you feel now, Bob?" she asked, rising immediately and smiling down at him.
The boy forgot to answer.
"The doctor brought me here," she went on brightly; "but as you were asleep, he could not wait. Are you feeling better, Bob?"
The soft, star-like eyes did not wander in their gaze.
"Why did you come?" he breathed finally. His voice was surprisingly musical.
"Why?" faltered Ruth. "Oh, to bring you these roses. Do you care for flowers, Bob?" She lifted the mass of delicate buds toward him. Two pale, transparent hands went out to meet them. Tenderly as you sometimes see a mother press the cheek of her babe to her own, he drew them to his cheek.
"Oh, my darlings, my darlings!" he murmured passionately, with his lips pressed to the fragrant petals.
"Do you love them, then, so much?"
"Lady," replied the boy, raising himself to a sitting posture, "there is nothing in the world to me like flowers."
"I never thought boys cared so for flowers," remarked Ruth, in surprise.
"I am a gardener," said he, simply, and again fell to caressing the roses. Sitting up, he looked fully seventeen or eighteen years old.
"You must have missed them during your illness," observed Ruth.
A long sigh answered her. The boy rested his dreamy eyes upon her. He was no longer ugly, with his thoughts illumining his face.
"Marechal Niel," she heard him whisper, still with his eyes upon her, "all in soft, radiant robes like a gracious queen. Lady, you fit well next my Homer rose."
"What Homer rose?" asked Ruth, humoring the flower-poet's odd conceit.
"My strong, brave Homer. There is none like him for strength, with all his gentle perfume folded close to his heart. I used to think these Duchesses would suit him best; but now, having seen you, I know they were too frail,—Marechal Niel." It was impossible to resent openly the boy's musings; but with a quick insistence that stemmed the current of his thoughts, she said,—
"Tell me where you suffer, Bob."
"I do not suffer. I am only weak; but he is nourishing me, and Mrs. Mills brings me what he orders."
"And is there anything you would like to have of which you forgot to tell him?"
"I never tell him anything I wish," replied the boy, proudly. "He knows beforehand. Did you never draw up close to a delicate flower, lay your cheek softly upon it, so,—close your eyes, so,—and listen to the tale it's telling? Well, that is what my good friend does always."
It was like listening to music to hear the slow, drawling words of the invalid. Ruth's hand closed softly over his.
"I have some pretty stories at home about flowers," she said; "would you like to read them?"
"I can't read very well," answered Bob, in unabashed simplicity.
Yet his spoken words were flawless.
"Then I shall read them to you," she answered pleasantly, "to-morrow, Bob, say at about three."
"You will come again?" The heavy mouth quivered in eager surprise.
"Why, yes; now that I know you, I must know you better. May I come?"
Ruth went out enveloped in that look of gratitude. It was the first directly personal expression of honest gratitude she had ever received; and as she walked down the hill, she longed to do something that would be really helpful to some one. She had led, on the whole, so far, an egotistic life. Being their only child, her parents expected much of her. During her school-life she had been a sort of human reservoir for all her father's ideas, whims, and hobbies. True, he had made her take a wide interest in everything within the line of vision; hanging on his arm, as they wandered off daily in their peripatetic school, he had imbued her with all his manly nobility of soul. But theorizing does not give much hold on a subject, the mind being taken up with its own clever elucidations. For the past six months, after a year's travel in Europe, her mother had led her on in a whirl of what she called happiness. Ruth had soon gauged the worth of this surface-life, and now that a lull had come, she realized that what she needed was some interest outside of herself,—an interest which the duties of a mere society girl do not allow to develop to a real good.
A plan slowly formed itself in her mind, in which she became so engrossed that she unconsciously crossed the cable of the Jackson Street cars. She did not turn till a hand was suddenly laid upon her arm.
"What are you doing in this part of town?" broke in Louis Arnold's voice in evident anger.
"Oh, Louis, how you startled me! What is the matter with this part of town?"
"You are on a very disreputable street. Where are you going?"
"Then be so kind as to turn back with me and take the cars."
She glanced at him quickly, unused to his tone of command, and turned with him.
"How do you happen to be here?" he asked shortly.
"Dr. Kemp took me to see a poor patient of his."
"Dr. Kemp?" surprise raised his eyebrows half an inch.
"Indeed! Then," he continued in cool, biting words, "why didn't he carry his charity a little farther and take you home again?"
"Because I did not choose to go with him," she returned, rearing her head and looking calmly at him as they walked along.
"Bah! What had your wishing or not wishing to do with it? The man knew where he had taken you even if you did not know. This quarter is occupied by nothing but negroes and foreign loafers. It was decidedly ungentlemanly to leave you to return alone at this time of the evening."
"Probably he gave me credit for being able to take care of myself in broad daylight."
"Probably he never gave it a second's thought one way or the other. Hereafter you had better consult your natural protectors before starting out on Quixotic excursions with indifferent strangers."
She actually stamped her little foot while walking.
"Stop that, please. You are not my keeper."
Her cousin smiled quizzically. They took their seats on the dummy, just as the sun, a golden ball, was about to glide behind Lone Mountain. Late afternoon is a quiet time, and Ruth and Louis did not speak for a while.
The girl was experiencing a whirl of conflicting emotions,—anger at Louis's interference, pleasure at his protecting care, annoyance at what he considered gross negligence on the doctor's part, and a sneaking pride, in defiance of his insinuations, over the thought that Kemp had trusted to her womanliness as a safeguard against any chance annoyance. She also felt ashamed at having showed temper.
"Louis," she ventured finally, rubbing her shoulder against his, as gentle animals conciliate their mates, "I am sorry I spoke so harshly; but it exasperates me to hear you cast slurs, as you have done before, upon Dr. Kemp in his absence."
"Why should it, my dear, since it give you a chance to uphold him?"
There is a way of saying "my dear" that is as mortifying as a slap in the face.
The dark blood surged over the girl's cheeks. She drew a long, hard breath, and then said in a low voice,—
"I think we will not quarrel, Louis. Will you get off at the next corner with me? I have a prescription to be made up at the drug-store."
If Arnold had showed anger, he was man enough not to be ashamed of it; this is one of man's many lordly rights.
Mrs. Jules Levice was slowly gaining the high-road to recovery, and many of the restrictions for her cure had been removed. As a consequence, and with an eye ever to Ruth's social duties, she urged her to leave her more and more to herself.
As a matter of course, Ruth had laid the case of Bob and his neighborhood before her father's consideration. A Jewish girl's life is an open page to her family. Matters of small as well as of larger moment are freely discussed. The result is that while it robs her of much of her Christian sister's spontaneity, which often is the latter's greatest charm, it also, through the sagacity of more experienced heads, guards her against many indiscretions. This may be a relic of European training, but it enables parents to instil into the minds of their daughters principles which compare favorable with the American girl's native self-reliance. It was as natural for Ruth to consult her father in this trivial matter, in view of Louis's disapproval, as it would be for her friend, Dorothy Gwynne, to sally anywhere so long as she herself felt justified in so doing.
Ruth really wished to go; and as her father, after considering the matter, could find no objection, she went. After that it was enough to tell her mother that she was going to see Bob. Mrs. Levice had heard the doctor speak of him to Ruth; and any little charity that came in her way she was only too happy to forward.
Bob's plain, ungarnished room soon began to show signs of beauty under Ruth's deft fingers. A pot of mignonette in the window, a small painting of exquisite chrysanthemums on the wall, a daily bunch of fresh roses, were the food she brought for his poet soul. But there were other substantial things.
The day after she had replaced the coarse horse-blanket with a soft down quilt, the doctor made one of his bi-weekly visits to her mother.
As he stood taking leave of Ruth on the veranda, he turned, with his foot on the last step, and looked up at her as if arrested by a sudden thought.
"Miss Levice," said he, "I should like to give you a friendly scolding. May I?"
"How can I prevent you?"
"Well, if I were you I should not indulge Bob's love of luxury as you do. He positively refused to get up yesterday on account of the 'soft feel,' as he termed it, of that quilt. Now, you know, he must get up; he is able to, and in a week I wish to start him in to work again. Then he won't be able to afford such 'soft feels,' and he will rebel. He has had enough coddling for his own good. I really think it is mistaken kindness on your part, Miss Levice."
The girl was leaning lightly against one of the supporting columns. A playful smile parted her lips as she listened.