At this stage of the little evening drama he would be conscious of such a strong desire to do something rash that he took refuge in a new form of intoxication and proposed music, sometimes so abruptly that Rose would pause in the middle of a sentence and look at him, surprised to meet a curiously excited look in the usually cool gray eyes.
Then Phebe, folding up her work, would go to the piano, as if glad to find a vent for the inner life which she seemed to have no power of expressing except in song. Rose would follow to accompany her, and Archie, moving to a certain shady corner whence he could see Phebe's face as she sang, would give himself up to unmitigated rapture for half an hour. Phebe never sang so well as at such times, for the kindly atmosphere was like sunshine to a bird, criticisms were few and gentle, praises hearty and abundant, and she poured out her soul as freely as a spring gushes up when its hidden source is full.
In moments such as these Phebe was beautiful with the beauty that makes a man's eye brighten with honest admiration and fills his heart with a sense of womanly nobility and sweetness. Little wonder, then, that the chief spectator of this agreeable tableau grew nightly more enamored, and while the elders were deep in whist, the young people were playing that still more absorbing game in which hearts are always trumps.
Rose, having Dummy for a partner, soon discovered the fact and lately had begun to feel as she fancied Wall must have done when Pyramus wooed Thisbe through its chinks. She was a little startled at first, then amused, then anxious, then heartily interested, as every woman is in such affairs, and willingly continued to be a medium, though sometimes she quite tingled with the electricity which seemed to pervade the air. She said nothing, waiting for Phebe to speak, but Phebe was silent, seeming to doubt the truth till doubt became impossible, then to shrink as if suddenly conscious of wrongdoing and seize every possible pretext for absenting herself from the "girls' corner," as the pretty recess was called.
The concert plan afforded excellent opportunities for doing this, and evening after evening she slipped away to practice her songs upstairs while Archie sat staring disconsolately at the neglected work basket and mute piano. Rose pitied him and longed to say a word of comfort, but felt shy he was such a reserved fellow so left him to conduct his quiet wooing in his own way, feeling that the crisis would soon arrive.
She was sure of this as she sat beside him on the evening of the concert, for while the rest of the family nodded and smiled, chatted and laughed in great spirits, Archie was as mute as a fish and sat with his arms tightly folded, as if to keep in any unruly emotions which might attempt to escape. He never looked at the program, but Rose knew when Phebe's turn came by the quick breath he drew and the intent look, so absent before, that came into his eyes.
But her own excitement prevented much notice of his, for Rose was in a flutter of hope and fear, sympathy and delight, about Phebe and her success. The house was crowded; the audience sufficiently mixed to make the general opinion impartial; and the stage full of little orphans with shining faces, a most effective reminder of the object in view.
"Little dears, how nice they look!" "Poor things, so young to be fatherless and motherless." "It will be a disgrace to the city if those girls are not taken proper care of." "Subscriptions are always in order, you know, and pretty Miss Campbell will give you her sweetest smile if you hand her a handsome check." "I've heard this Phebe Moore, and she really has a delicious voice such a pity she won't fit herself for opera!" "Only sings three times tonight; that's modest, I'm sure, when she's the chief attraction, so we must give her an encore after the Italian piece." "The orphans lead off, I see. Stop your ears if you like, but don't fail to applaud or the ladies will never forgive you."
Chat of this sort went on briskly while fans waved, programs rustled, and ushers flew about distractedly, till an important gentleman appeared, made his bow, skipped upon the leader's stand, and with a wave of his baton caused a general uprising of white pinafores as the orphans led off with that much-enduring melody "America" in shrill small voices, but with creditable attention to time and tune. Pity and patriotism produced a generous round of applause, and the little girls sat down, beaming with innocent satisfaction.
An instrumental piece followed, and then a youthful gentleman, with his hair in picturesque confusion, and what his friends called a "musical brow," bounded up the steps and, clutching a roll of music with a pair of tightly gloved hands, proceed to inform the audience, in a husky tenor voice, that "It was a lovely violet."
What else the song contained in the way of sense or sentiment it was impossible to discover as the three pages of music appeared to consist of variations upon that one line, ending with a prolonged quaver which flushed the musical brow and left the youth quite breathless when he made his bow.
"Now she's coming! Oh, Uncle, my heart beats as if it were myself!" whispered Rose, clutching Dr. Alec's arm with a little gasp as the piano was rolled forward, the leader's stand pushed back, and all eyes turned toward the anteroom door.
She forgot to glance at Archie, and it was as well perhaps, for his heart was thumping almost audibly as he waited for his Phebe. Not from the anteroom, but out among the children, where she had sat unseen in the shadow of the organ, came stately Phebe in her wine-colored dress, with no ornament but her fine hair and a white flower at her throat. Very pale, but quite composed, apparently, for she stepped slowly through the narrow lane of upturned faces, holding back her skirts lest they should rudely brush against some little head. Straight to the front she went, bowed hastily, and, with a gesture to the accompanist, stood waiting to begin, her eyes fixed on the great gilt clock at the opposite end of the hall.
They never wandered from that point while she sang, but as she ended they dropped for an instant on an eager, girlish countenance bending from a front seat; then, with her hasty little bow, she went quickly back among the children, who clapped and nodded as she passed, well pleased with the ballad she had sung.
Everyone courteously followed their example, but there was no enthusiasm, and it was evident that Phebe had not produced a particularly favorable impression.
"Never sang so badly in her life," muttered Charlie irefully.
"She was frightened, poor thing. Give her time, give her time," said Uncle Mac kindly.
"I know she was, and I glared like a gorgon, but she never looked at me," added Steve, smoothing his gloves and his brows at the same time.
"That first song was the hardest, and she got through much better than I expected," put in Dr. Alec, bound not to show the disappointment he felt.
"Don't be troubled. Phebe has courage enough for anything, and she'll astonish you before the evening's over," prophesied Mac with unabated confidence, for he knew something the rest did not.
Rose said nothing, but under cover of her burnous gave Archie's hand a sympathetic squeeze, for his arms were unfolded now, as if the strain was over, and one lay on his knee while with the other he wiped his hot forehead with an air of relief.
Friends about them murmured complimentary fibs and affected great delight and surprise at Miss Moore's "charming style," "exquisite simplicity," and "undoubted talent." But strangers freely criticized, and Rose was so indignant at some of their remarks, she could not listen to anything on the stage, though a fine overture was played, a man with a remarkable bass voice growled and roared melodiously, and the orphans sang a lively air with a chorus of "Tra, la, la," which was a great relief to little tongues unused to long silence.
"I've often heard that women's tongues were hung in the middle and went at both ends now I'm sure of it," whispered Charlie, trying to cheer her up by pointing out the comical effect of some seventy-five open mouths in each of which the unruly member was wagging briskly.
Rose laughed and let him fan her, leaning from his seat behind with the devoted air he always assumed in public, but her wounded feelings were not soothed and she continued to frown at the stout man on the left who had dared to say with a shrug and a glance at Phebe's next piece, "That young woman can no more sing this Italian thing than she can fly, and they ought not to let her attempt it."
Phebe did, however, and suddenly changed the stout man's opinion by singing it grandly, for the consciousness of her first failure pricked her pride and spurred her to do her best with the calm sort of determination which conquers fear, fires ambition, and changes defeat to success. She looked steadily at Rose now, or the flushed, intent face beside her, and throwing all her soul into the task, let her voice ring out like a silver clarion, filling the great hall and setting the hearers' blood a-tingle with the exulting strain.
That settled Phebe's fate as a cantatrice. The applause was genuine and spontaneous this time and broke out again and again with the generous desire to atone for former coldness. But she would not return, and the shadow of the great organ seemed to have swallowed her up, for no eye could find her, no pleasant clamor win her back.
"Now I can die content," said Rose, beaming with heartfelt satisfaction while Archie looked steadfastly at his program, trying to keep his face in order, and the rest of the family assumed a triumphant air, as if they had never doubted from the first.
"Very well, indeed," said the stout man with an approving nod. "Quite promising for a beginner. Shouldn't wonder if in time they made a second Cary or Kellogg of her."
"Now you'll forgive him, won't you?" murmured Charlie in his cousin's ear.
"Yes, and I'd like to pat him on the head. But take warning and never judge by first appearances again," whispered Rose, at peace now with all mankind.
Phebe's last song was another ballad; she meant to devote her talent to that much neglected but always attractive branch of her art. It was a great surprise, therefore, to all but one person in the hall when, instead of singing "Auld Robin Grey," she placed herself at the piano, and, with a smiling glance over her shoulder at the children, broke out in the old bird song which first won Rose. But the chirping, twittering, and cooing were now the burden to three verses of a charming little song, full of springtime and the awakening life that makes it lovely. A rippling accompaniment flowed through it all, and a burst of delighted laughter from the children filled up the first pause with a fitting answer to the voices that seemed calling to them from the vernal woods.
It was very beautiful, and novelty lent its charm to the surprise, for art and nature worked a pretty miracle and the clever imitation, first heard from a kitchen hearth, now became the favorite in a crowded concert room. Phebe was quite herself again; color in the cheeks now; eyes that wandered smiling to and fro; and lips that sang as gaily and far more sweetly than when she kept time to her blithe music with a scrubbing brush.
This song was evidently intended for the children, and they appreciated the kindly thought, for as Phebe went back among them, they clapped ecstatically, flapped their pinafores, and some caught her by the skirts with audible requests to "Do it again, please; do it again."
But Phebe shook her head and vanished, for it was getting late for such small people, several of whom "lay sweetly slumbering there" till roused by the clamor round them. The elders, however, were not to be denied and applauded persistently, especially Aunt Plenty, who seized Uncle Mac's cane and pounded with it as vigorously as "Mrs. Nubbles" at the play.
"Never mind your gloves, Steve; keep it up till she comes," cried Charlie, enjoying the fun like a boy while Jamie lost his head with excitement and, standing up, called "Phebe! Phebe!" in spite of his mother's attempts to silence him.
Even the stout man clapped, and Rose could only laugh delightedly as she turned to look at Archie, who seemed to have let himself loose at last and was stamping with a dogged energy funny to see.
So Phebe had to come, and stood there meekly bowing, with a moved look on her face that showed how glad and grateful she was, till a sudden hush came; then, as if inspired by the memory of the cause that brought her there, she looked down into the sea of friendly faces before her, with no trace of fear in her own, and sang the song that never will grow old.
That went straight to the hearts of those who heard her, for there was something inexpressibly touching in the sight of this sweet-voiced woman singing of home for the little creatures who were homeless, and Phebe made her tuneful plea irresistible by an almost involuntary gesture of the hands which had hung loosely clasped before her till, with the last echo of the beloved word, they fell apart and were half outstretched, as if pleading to be filled.
It was the touch of nature that works wonders, for it made full purses suddenly weigh heavily in pockets slow to open, brought tears to eyes unused to weep, and caused that group of red-gowned girls to grow very pathetic in the sight of fathers and mothers who had left little daughters safe asleep at home. This was evident from the stillness that remained unbroken for an instant after Phebe ended; and before people could get rid of their handkerchiefs she would have been gone if the sudden appearance of a mite in a pinafore, climbing up the stairs from the anteroom with a great bouquet grasped in both hands, had not arrested her.
Up came the little creature, intent on performing the mission for which rich bribes of sugarplums had been promised, and trotting bravely across the stage, she held up the lovely nosegay, saying in her baby voice, "Dis for you, ma'am." Then, startled by the sudden outburst of applause, she hid her face in Phebe's gown and began to sob with fright.
An awkward minute for poor Phebe, but she showed unexpected presence of mind and left behind her a pretty picture of the oldest and youngest orphan as she went quickly down the step, smiling over the great bouquet with the baby on her arm.
Nobody minded the closing piece, for people began to go, sleepy children to be carried off, and whispers grew into a buzz of conversation. In the general confusion Rose looked to see if Steve had remembered his promise to help Phebe slip away before the rush began. No, there he was putting on Kitty's cloak, quite oblivious to any other duty. Turning to ask Archie to hurry out, Rose found that he had already vanished, leaving his gloves behind him.
"Have you lost anything?" asked Dr. Alec, catching a glimpse of her face.
"No, sir, I've found something," she whispered back, giving him the gloves to pocket along with her fan and glass, adding hastily as the concert ended, "Please, Uncle, tell them all not to come with us. Phebe has had enough excitement and ought to rest."
Rose's word was law to the family in all things concerning Phebe. So word was passed that there were to be no congratulations until tomorrow, and Dr. Alec got his party off as soon as possible. But all the way home, while he and Aunt Plenty were prophesying a brilliant future for the singer, Rose sat rejoicing over the happy present of the woman. She was sure that Archie had spoken and imagined the whole scene with feminine delight how tenderly he had asked the momentous question, how gratefully Phebe had given the desired reply, and now how both were enjoying that delicious hour which Rose had been given to understand never came but once. Such a pity to shorten it, she thought, and begged her uncle to go home the longest way the night was so mild, the moonlight so clear, and herself so in need of fresh air after the excitement of the evening.
"I thought you would want to rush into Phebe's arms the instant she got done," said Aunt Plenty, innocently wondering at the whims girls took into their heads.
"So I should if I consulted my own wishes, but as Phebe asked to be let alone I want to gratify her," answered Rose, making the best excuse she could.
"A little piqued," thought the doctor, fancying he understood the case.
As the old lady's rheumatism forbade their driving about till midnight, home was reached much too soon, Rose thought, and tripped away to warn the lovers the instant she entered the house. But study, parlor, and boudoir were empty; and, when Jane appeared with cake and wine, she reported that "Miss Phebe went right upstairs and wished to be excused, please, being very tired."
"That isn't at all like Phebe I hope she isn't ill," began Aunt Plenty, sitting down to toast her feet.
"She may be a little hysterical, for she is a proud thing and represses her emotions as long as she can. I'll step up and see if she doesn't need a soothing draft of some sort." And Dr. Alec threw off his coat as he spoke.
"No, no, she's only tired. I'll run up to her she won't mind me and I'll report if anything is amiss."
Away went Rose, quite trembling with suspense, but Phebe's door was shut, no light shone underneath, and no sound came from the room within. She tapped and receiving no answer, went on to her own chamber, thinking to herself: "Love always makes people queer, I've heard, so I suppose they settled it all in the carriage and the dear thing ran away to think about her happiness alone. I'll not disturb her. Why, Phebe!" said Rose, surprised, for, entering her room, there was the cantatrice, busy about the nightly services she always rendered her little mistress.
"I'm waiting for you, dear. Where have you been so long?" asked Phebe, poking the fire as if anxious to get some color into cheeks that were unnaturally pale.
The instant she spoke Rose knew that something was wrong, and a glance at her face confirmed the fear. It was like a dash of cold water and quenched her happy fancies in a moment; but being a delicate-minded girl, she respected Phebe's mood and asked no questions, made no comments, and left her friend to speak or be silent as she chose.
"I was so excited I would take a turn in the moonlight to calm my nerves. Oh, dearest Phebe, I am so glad, so proud, so full of wonder at your courage and skill and sweet ways altogether that I cannot half tell you how I love and honor you!" she cried, kissing the white cheeks with such tender warmth they could not help glowing faintly as Phebe held her little mistress close, sure that nothing could disturb this innocent affection.
"It is all your work, dear, because but for you I might still be scrubbing floors and hardly dare to dream of anything like this," she said in her old grateful way, but in her voice there was a thrill of something deeper than gratitude, and at the last two words her head went up with a gesture of soft pride as if it had been newly crowned.
Rose heard and saw and guessed at the meaning of both tone and gesture, feeling that her Phebe deserved both the singer's laurel and the bride's myrtle wreath. But she only looked up, saying very wistfully: "Then it has been a happy night for you as well as for us."
"The happiest of my life, and the hardest," answered Phebe briefly as she looked away from the questioning eyes.
"You should have let us come nearer and help you through. I'm afraid you are very proud, my Jenny Lind."
"I have to be, for sometimes I feel as if I had nothing else to keep me up." She stopped short there, fearing that her voice would prove traitorous if she went on. In a moment she asked in a tone that was almost hard: "You think I did well tonight?"
"They all think so, and were so delighted they wanted to come in a body and tell you so, but I sent them home because I knew you'd be tired out. Perhaps I ought not to have done it and you'd rather have had a crowd about you than just me?"
"It was the kindest thing you ever did, and what could I like better than 'just you,' my darling?"
Phebe seldom called her that, and when she did her heart was in the little word, making it so tender that Rose thought it the sweetest in the world, next to Uncle Alec's "my little girl." Now it was almost passionate, and Phebe's face grew rather tragical as she looked down at Rose. It was impossible to seem unconscious any longer, and Rose said, caressing Phebe's cheek, which burned with a feverish color now: "Then don't shut me out if you have a trouble, but let me share it as I let you share all mine."
"I will! Little mistress, I've got to go away, sooner even than we planned."
"Because Archie loves me."
"That's the very reason you should stay and make him happy."
"Not if it caused dissension in the family, and you know it would."
Rose opened her lips to deny this impetuously, but checked herself and answered honestly: "Uncle and I would be heartily glad, and I'm sure Aunt Jessie never could object if you loved Archie as he does you."
"She has other hopes, I think, and kind as she is, it would be a disappointment if he brought me home. She is right, they all are, and I alone am to blame. I should have gone long ago I knew I should, but it was so pleasant, I couldn't bear to go away alone."
"I kept you, and I am to blame if anyone, but indeed, dear Phebe, I cannot see why you should care even if Aunt Myra croaks and Aunt Clara exclaims or Aunt Jane makes disagreeable remarks. Be happy, and never mind them," cried Rose, so much excited by all this that she felt the spirit of revolt rise up within her and was ready to defy even that awe-inspiring institution "the family" for her friend's sake.
But Phebe shook her head with a sad smile and answered, still with the hard tone in her voice as if forcing back all emotion that she might see her duty clearly: "You could do that, but I never can. Answer me this, Rose, and answer truly as you love me. If you had been taken into a house, a friendless, penniless, forlorn girl, and for years been heaped with benefits, trusted, taught, loved, and made, oh, so happy! could you think it right to steal away something that these good people valued very much? To have them feel that you had been ungrateful, had deceived them, and meant to thrust yourself into a high place not fit for you when they had been generously helping you in other ways, far more than you deserved. Could you then say as you do now, 'Be happy, and never mind them'?"
Phebe held Rose by the shoulders now and searched her face so keenly that the other shrank a little, for the black eyes were full of fire and there was something almost grand about this girl who seemed suddenly to have become a woman. There was no need for words to answer the question so swiftly asked, for Rose put herself in Phebe's place in the drawing of a breath, and her own pride made her truthfully reply: "No I could not!"
"I knew you'd say that, and help me do my duty." And all the coldness melted out of Phebe's manner as she hugged her little mistress close, feeling the comfort of sympathy even through the blunt sincerity of Rose's words.
"I will if I know how. Now, come and tell me all about it." And, seating herself in the great chair which had often held them both, Rose stretched out her hands as if glad and ready to give help of any sort.
But Phebe would not take her accustomed place, for, as if coming to confession, she knelt down upon the rug and, leaning on the arm of the chair, told her love story in the simplest words.
"I never thought he cared for me until a little while ago. I fancied it was you, and even when I knew he liked to hear me sing I supposed it was because you helped, and so I did my best and was glad you were to be a happy girl. But his eyes told the truth. Then I saw what I had been doing and was frightened. He did not speak, so I believed, what is quite true, that he felt I was not a fit wife for him and would never ask me. It was right I was glad of it, yet I was proud and, though I did not ask or hope for anything, I did want him to see that I respected myself, remembered my duty, and could do right as well as he. I kept away. I planned to go as soon as possible and resolved that at this concert I would do so well, he should not be ashamed of poor Phebe and her one gift."
"It was this that made you so strange, then, preferring to go alone and refusing every little favor at our hands?" asked Rose, feeling very sure now about the state of Phebe's heart.
"Yes, I wanted to do everything myself and not owe one jot of my success, if I had any, to even the dearest friend I've got. It was bad and foolish of me, and I was punished by the first dreadful failure. I was so frightened, Rose! My breath was all gone, my eyes so dizzy I could hardly see, and that great crowd of faces seemed so near, I dared not look. If it had not been for the clock I never should have gotten through, and when I did, not knowing in the least how I'd sung, one look at your distressed face told me I'd failed."
"But I smiled, Phebe indeed I did as sweetly as I could, for I was sure it was only fright," protested Rose eagerly.
"So you did, but the smile was full of pity, not of pride, as I wanted it to be, and I rushed into a dark place behind the organ, feeling ready to kill myself. How angry and miserable I was! I set my teeth, clenched my hands, and vowed that I would do well next time or never sing another note. I was quite desperate when my turn came, and felt as if I could do almost anything, for I remembered that he was there. I'm not sure how it was, but it seemed as if I was all voice, for I let myself go, trying to forget everything except that two people must not be disappointed, though I died when the song was done."
"Oh, Phebe, it was splendid! I nearly cried, I was so proud and glad to see you do yourself justice at last."
"And he?" whispered Phebe, with her face half hidden on the arm of the chair.
"Said not a word, but I saw his lips tremble and his eyes shine and I knew he was the happiest creature there, because I was sure he did think you fit to be his wife and did mean to speak very soon."
Phebe made no answer for a moment, seeming to forget the small success in the greater one which followed and to comfort her sore heart with the knowledge that Rose was right.
"He sent the flowers, he came for me, and, on the way home, showed me how wrong I had been to doubt him for an hour. Don't ask me to tell that part, but be sure I was the happiest creature in the world then."
And Phebe hid her face again, all wet with tender tears that fell soft and sudden as a summer shower.
Rose let them flow undisturbed while she silently caressed the bent head, wondering, with a wistful look in her own wet eyes, what this mysterious passion was which could so move, ennoble, and beautify the beings whom it blessed.
An impertinent little clock upon the chimneypiece striking eleven broke the silence and reminded Phebe that she could not indulge in love dreams there. She started up, brushed off her tears, and said resolutely: "That is enough for tonight. Go happily to bed, and leave the troubles for tomorrow."
"But, Phebe, I must know what you said," cried Rose, like a child defrauded of half its bedtime story.
"I said, 'No.'"
"Ah! But it will change to 'yes' by and by, I'm sure of that so I'll let you go to dream of him. The Campbells are rather proud of being descendants of Robert the Bruce, but they have common sense and love you dearly, as you'll see tomorrow."
"Perhaps." And with a good night kiss, poor Phebe went away, to lie awake till dawn.
Chapter 8 BREAKERS AHEAD
Anxious to smooth the way for Phebe, Rose was up betimes and slipped into Aunt Plenty's room before the old lady had gotten her cap on.
"Aunty, I've something pleasant to tell you, and while you listen, I'll brush your hair, as you like to have me," she began, well aware that the proposed process was a very soothing one.
"Yes, dear only don't be too particular, because I'm late and must hurry down or Jane won't get things straight, and it does fidget me to have the saltcellars uneven, the tea strainer forgotten, and your uncle's paper not aired," returned Miss Plenty, briskly unrolling the two gray curls she wore at her temples.
Then Rose, brushing away at the scanty back hair, led skillfully up to the crisis of her tale by describing Phebe's panic and brave efforts to conquer it; all about the flowers Archie sent her; and how Steve forgot, and dear, thoughtful Archie took his place. So far it went well and Aunt Plenty was full of interest, sympathy, and approbation, but when Rose added, as if it was quite a matter of course, "So, on the way home, he told her he loved her," a great start twitched the gray locks out of her hands as the old lady turned around, with the little curls standing erect, exclaiming, in undisguised dismay: "Not seriously, Rose?"
"Yes, Aunty, very seriously. He never jokes about such things."
"Mercy on us! What shall we do about it?"
"Nothing, ma'am, but be as glad as we ought and congratulate him as soon as she says 'yes.'?
"Do you mean to say she didn't accept at once?"
"She never will if we don't welcome her as kindly as if she belonged to one of our best families, and I don't blame her."
"I'm glad the girl has so much sense. Of course we can't do anything of the sort, and I'm surprised at Archie's forgetting what he owes to the family in this rash manner. Give me my cap, child I must speak to Alec at once." And Aunt Plenty twisted her hair into a button at the back of her head with one energetic twirl.
"Do speak kindly, Aunty, and remember that it was not Phebe's fault. She never thought of this till very lately and began at once to prepare for going away," said Rose pleadingly.
"She ought to have gone long ago. I told Myra we should have trouble somewhere as soon as I saw what a good-looking creature she was, and here it is as bad as can be. Dear, dear! Why can't young people have a little prudence?"
"I don't see that anyone need object if Uncle Jem and Aunt Jessie approve, and I do think it will be very, very unkind to scold poor Phebe for being well-bred, pretty, and good, after doing all we could to make her so."
"Child, you don't understand these things yet, but you ought to feel your duty toward your family and do all you can to keep the name as honorable as it always has been. What do you suppose our blessed ancestress Lady Marget would say to our oldest boy taking a wife from the poorhouse?"
As she spoke, Miss Plenty looked up, almost apprehensively, at one of the wooden-faced old portraits with which her room was hung, as if asking pardon of the severe-nosed matron who stared back at her from under the sort of blue dish cover which formed her headgear.
"As Lady Marget died about two hundred years ago, I don't care a pin what she would say, especially as she looks like a very narrow-minded, haughty woman. But I do care very much what Miss Plenty Campbell says, for she is a very sensible, generous, discreet, and dear old lady who wouldn't hurt a fly, much less a good and faithful girl who has been a sister to me. Would she?" entreated Rose, knowing well that the elder aunt led all the rest more or less.
But Miss Plenty had her cap on now and consequently felt herself twice the woman she was without it, so she not only gave it a somewhat belligerent air by setting it well up, but she shook her head decidedly, smoothed down her stiff white apron, and stood up as if ready for battle.
"I shall do my duty, Rose, and expect the same of others. Don't say any more now I must turn the matter over in my mind, for it has come upon me suddenly and needs serious consideration."
With which unusually solemn address she took up her keys and trotted away, leaving her niece to follow with an anxious countenance, uncertain whether her championship had done good or ill to the cause she had at heart.
She was much cheered by the sound of Phebe's voice in the study, for Rose was sure that if Uncle Alec was on their side all would be well. But the clouds lowered again when they came in to breakfast, for Phebe's heavy eyes and pale cheeks did not look encouraging, while Dr. Alec was as sober as a judge and sent an inquiring glance toward Rose now and then as if curious to discover how she bore the news.
An uncomfortable meal, though all tried to seem as usual and talked over last night's events with all the interest they could. But the old peace was disturbed by a word, as a pebble thrown into a quiet pool sends telltale circles rippling its surface far and wide. Aunt Plenty, while "turning the subject over in her mind," also seemed intent on upsetting everything she touched and made sad havoc in her tea tray; Dr. Alec unsociably read his paper; Rose, having salted instead of sugared her oatmeal, absently ate it, feeling that the sweetness had gone out of everything; and Phebe, after choking down a cup of tea and crumbling a roll, excused herself and went away, sternly resolving not to be a bone of contention to this beloved family.
As soon as the door was shut Rose pushed away her plate and, going to Dr. Alec, she peeped over the paper with such an anxious face that he put it down at once.
"Uncle, this is a serious matter, and we must take our stand at once, for you are Phebe's guardian and I am her sister," began Rose with pretty solemnity. "You have often been disappointed in me," she continued, "but I know I never shall be in you because you are too wise and good to let any worldly pride or prudence spoil your sympathy with Archie and our Phebe. You won't desert them, will you?"
"Never!" answered Dr. Alec with gratifying energy.
"Thank you! Thank you!" cried Rose. "Now, if I have you and Aunty on my side, I'm not afraid of anybody."
"Gently, gently, child. I don't intend to desert the lovers, but I certainly shall advise them to consider well what they are about. I'll own I am rather disappointed, because Archie is young to decide his life in this way and Phebe's career seemed settled in another fashion. Old people don't like to have their plans upset, you know," he added more lightly, for Rose's face fell as he went on.
"Old people shouldn't plan too much for the young ones, then. We are very grateful, I'm sure, but we cannot always be disposed of in the most prudent and sensible way, so don't set your hearts on little arrangements of that sort, I beg," And Rose looked wondrous wise, for she could not help suspecting even her best uncle of "plans" in her behalf.
"You are quite right-we shouldn't, yet it is very hard to help it," confessed Dr. Alec with a conscious air, and, returning hastily to the lovers, he added kindly: "I was much pleased with the straightforward way in which Phebe came to me this morning and told me all about it, as if I really was her guardian. She did not own it in words, but it was perfectly evident that she loves Archie with all her heart, yet, knowing the objections which will be made, very sensibly and bravely proposes to go away at once and end the matter as if that were possible, poor child." And the tenderhearted man gave a sigh of sympathy that did Rose good to hear and mollified her rising indignation at the bare idea of ending Phebe's love affairs in such a summary way.
"You don't think she ought to go, I hope?"
"I think she will go."
"We must not let her."
"We have no right to keep her."
"Oh, Uncle, surely we have! Our Phebe, whom we all love so much."
"You forget that she is a woman now, and we have no claim on her. Because we've befriended her for years is the very reason we should not make our benefits a burden, but leave her free, and if she chooses to do this in spite of Archie, we must let her with a Godspeed."
Before Rose could answer, Aunt Plenty spoke out like one having authority, for old-fashioned ways were dear to her soul and she thought even love affairs should be conducted with a proper regard to the powers that be.
"The family must talk the matter over and decide what is best for the children, who of course will listen to reason and do nothing ill advised. For my part, I am quite upset by the news, but shall not commit myself till I've seen Jessie and the boy. Jane, clear away, and bring me the hot water."
That ended the morning conference. And, leaving the old lady to soothe her mind by polishing spoons and washing cups, Rose went away to find Phebe while the doctor retired to laugh over the downfall of brother Mac's matchmaking schemes.
The Campbells did not gossip about their concerns in public, but being a very united family, it had long been the custom to "talk over" any interesting event which occurred to any member thereof, and everyone gave his or her opinion, advice, or censure with the utmost candor. Therefore the first engagement, if such it could be called, created a great sensation, among the aunts especially, and they were in as much of a flutter as a flock of maternal birds when their young begin to hop out of the nest. So at all hours the excellent ladies were seen excitedly nodding their caps together as they discussed the affair in all its bearings, without ever arriving at any unanimous decision.
The boys took it much more calmly. Mac was the only one who came out strongly in Archie's favor. Charlie thought the Chief ought to do better and called Phebe "a siren who had bewitched the sage youth." Steve was scandalized and delivered long orations upon one's duty to society, keeping the old name up, and the danger of mesalliances, while all the time he secretly sympathized with Archie, being much smitten with Kitty Van himself. Will and Geordie, unfortunately home for the holidays, considered it "a jolly lark," and little Jamie nearly drove his elder brother distracted by curious inquiries as to "how folks felt when they were in love."
Uncle Mac's dismay was so comical that it kept Dr. Alec in good spirits, for he alone knew how deep was the deluded man's chagrin at the failure of the little plot which he fancied was prospering finely.
"I'll never set my heart on anything of the sort again, and the young rascals may marry whom they like. I'm prepared for anything now—so if Steve brings home the washerwoman's daughter, and Mac runs away with our pretty chambermaid, I shall say, 'Bless you my children,' with mournful resignation, for, upon my soul, that is all that's left for a modern parent to do."
With which tragic burst, poor Uncle Mac washed his hands of the whole affair and buried himself in the countinghouse while the storm raged.
About this time Archie might have echoed Rose's childish wish, that she had not quite so many aunts, for the tongues of those interested relatives made sad havoc with his little romance and caused him to long fervently for a desert island where he could woo and win his love in delicious peace. That nothing of the sort was possible soon became evident, since every word uttered only confirmed Phebe's resolution to go away and proved to Rose how mistaken she had been in believing that she could bring everyone to her way of thinking.
Prejudices are unmanageable things, and the good aunts, like most women, possessed a plentiful supply, so Rose found it like beating her head against a wall to try and convince them that Archie was wise in loving poor Phebe. His mother, who had hoped to have Rose for her daughter not because of her fortune, but the tender affection she felt for her put away her disappointment without a word and welcomed Phebe as kindly as she could for her boy's sake. But the girl felt the truth with the quickness of a nature made sensitive by love and clung to her resolve all the more tenaciously, though grateful for the motherly words that would have been so sweet if genuine happiness had prompted them.
Aunt Jane called it romantic nonsense and advised strong measures "kind, but firm, Jessie." Aunt Clara was sadly distressed about "what people would say" if one of "our boys" married a nobody's daughter. And Aunt Myra not only seconded her views by painting portraits of Phebe's unknown relations in the darkest colors but uttered direful prophecies regarding the disreputable beings who would start up in swarms the moment the girl made a good match.
These suggestions so wrought upon Aunt Plenty that she turned a deaf ear to the benevolent emotions native to her breast and, taking refuge behind "our blessed ancestress, Lady Marget," refused to sanction any engagement which could bring discredit upon the stainless name which was her pride.
So it all ended where it began, for Archie steadily refused to listen to anyone but Phebe, and she as steadily reiterated her bitter "No!" fortifying herself half unconsciously with the hope that, by and by, when she had won a name, fate might be kinder.
While the rest talked, she had been working, for every hour showed her that her instinct had been a true one and pride would not let her stay, though love pleaded eloquently. So, after a Christmas anything but merry, Phebe packed her trunks, rich in gifts from those who generously gave her all but the one thing she desired, and, with a pocketful of letters to people who could further her plans, she went away to seek her fortune, with a brave face and a very heavy heart.
"Write often, and let me know all you do, my Phebe, and remember I shall never be contented till you come back again," whispered Rose, clinging to her till the last.
"She will come back, for in a year I'm going to bring her home, please God," said Archie, pale with the pain of parting but as resolute as she.
"I'll earn my welcome then perhaps it will be easier for them to give and me to receive it," answered Phebe, with a backward glance at the group of caps in the hall as she went down the steps on Dr. Alec's arm.
"You earned it long ago, and it is always waiting for you while I am here. Remember that, and God bless you, my good girl," he said, with a paternal kiss that warmed her heart.
"I never shall forget it!" And Phebe never did.
Chapter 9 NEW YEAR'S CALLS
"Now I'm going to turn over a new leaf, as I promised. I wonder what I shall find on the next page?" said Rose, coming down on New Year's morning with a serious face and a thick letter in her hand.
"Tired of frivolity, my dear?" asked her uncle, pausing in his walk up and down the hall to glance at her with a quick, bright look she liked to bring into his eyes.
"No, sir, and that's the sad part of it, but I've made up my mind to stop while I can because I'm sure it is not good for me. I've had some very sober thoughts lately, for since my Phebe went away I've had no heart for gaiety, so it is a good place to stop and make a fresh start," answered Rose, taking his arm and walking on with him.
"An excellent time! Now, how are you going to fill the aching void?" he asked, well pleased.
"By trying to be as unselfish, brave, and good as she is." And Rose held the letter against her bosom with a tender touch, for Phebe's strength had inspired her with a desire to be as self-reliant. "I'm going to set about living in earnest, as she has; though I think it will be harder for me than for her, because she stands alone and has a career marked out for her. I'm nothing but a commonplace sort of girl, with no end of relations to be consulted every time I wink and a dreadful fortune hanging like a millstone round my neck to weigh me down if I try to fly. It is a hard case, Uncle, and I get low in my mind when I think about it," sighed Rose, oppressed with her blessings.
"Afflicted child! How can I relieve you?" And there was amusement as well as sympathy in Dr. Alec's face as he patted the hand upon his arm.
"Please don't laugh, for I really am trying to be good. In the first place, help me to wean myself from foolish pleasures and show me how to occupy my thoughts and time so that I may not idle about and dream instead of doing great things."
"Good! We'll begin at once. Come to town with me this morning and see your houses. They are all ready, and Mrs. Gardner has half a dozen poor souls waiting to go in as soon as you give the word," answered the doctor promptly, glad to get his girl back again, though not surprised that she still looked with regretful eyes at the Vanity Fair, always so enticing when we are young.
"I'll give it today, and make the new year a happy one to those poor souls at least. I'm so sorry that it's impossible for me to go with you, but you know I must help Aunty Plen receive. We haven't been here for so long that she had set her heart on having a grand time today, and I particularly want to please her because I have not been as amiable as I ought lately. I really couldn't forgive her for siding against Phebe."
"She did what she thought was right, so we must not blame her. I am going to make my New Year's calls today and, as my friends live down that way, I'll get the list of names from Mrs. G. and tell the poor ladies, with Miss Campbell's compliments, that their new home is ready. Shall I?"
"Yes, Uncle, but take all the credit to yourself, for I never should have thought of it if you had not proposed the plan."
"Bless your heart! I'm only your agent, and suggest now and then. I've nothing to offer but advice, so I lavish that on all occasions."
"You have nothing because you've given your substance all away as generously as you do your advice. Never mind you shall never come to want while I live. I'll save enough for us two, though I do make 'ducks and drakes of my fortune.'"
Dr. Alec laughed at the toss of the head with which she quoted Charlie's offensive words, then offered to take the letter, saying, as he looked at his watch: "I'll post that for you in time for the early mail. I like a run before breakfast."
But Rose held her letter fast, dimpling with sudden smiles, half merry and half shy.
"No thank you, sir. Archie likes to do that, and never fails to call for all I write. He gets a peep at Phebe's in return and I cheer him up a bit, for, though he says nothing, he has a hard time of it, poor fellow."
"How many letters in five days?"
"Four, sir, to me. She doesn't write to him, Uncle."
"As yet. Well, you show hers, so it's all right and you are a set of sentimental youngsters." And the doctor walked away, looking as if he enjoyed the sentiment as much as any of them.
Old Miss Campbell was nearly as great a favorite as young Miss Campbell, so a succession of black coats and white gloves flowed in and out of the hospitable mansion pretty steadily all day. The clan was out in great force, and came by in installments to pay their duty to Aunt Plenty and wish the compliments of the season to "our cousin." Archie appeared first, looking sad but steadfast, and went away with Phebe's letter in his left breast pocket feeling that life was still endurable, though his love was torn from him, for Rose had many comfortable things to say and read him delicious bits from the voluminous correspondence lately begun.
Hardly was he gone when Will and Geordie came marching in, looking as fine as gray uniforms with much scarlet piping could make them and feeling peculiarly important, as this was their first essay in New Year's call-making. Brief was their stay, for they planned to visit every friend they had, and Rose could not help laughing at the droll mixture of manly dignity and boyish delight with which they drove off in their own carriage, both as erect as ramrods, arms folded, and caps stuck at exactly the same angle on each blond head.
"Here comes the other couple Steve, in full feather, with a big bouquet for Kitty, and poor Mac, looking like a gentleman and feeling like a martyr, I'm sure," said Rose, watching one carriage turn in as the other turned out of the great gate, with its arch of holly, ivy, and evergreen.
"Here he is. I've got him in tow for the day and want you to cheer him up with a word of praise, for he came without a struggle though planning to bolt somewhere with Uncle," cried Steve, falling back to display his brother, who came in looking remarkably well in his state and festival array, for polishing had begun to tell.
"A happy New Year, Aunty, same to you, Cousin, and best wishes for as many more as you deserve," said Mac, heeding Steve no more than if he had been a fly as he gave the old lady a hearty kiss and offered Rose a quaint little nosegay of pansies.
"Heart's-ease do you think I need it?" she asked, looking up with sudden sobriety.
"We all do. Could I give you anything better on a day like this?"
"No thank you very much." And a sudden dew came to Rose's eyes, for, though often blunt in speech, when Mac did do a tender thing, it always touched her because he seemed to understand her moods so well.
"Has Archie been here? He said he shouldn't go anywhere else, but I hope you talked that nonsense out of his head," said Steve, settling his tie before the mirror.
"Yes, dear, he came but looked so out of spirits I really felt reproached. Rose cheered him up a little, but I don't believe he will feel equal to making calls and I hope he won't, for his face tells the whole story much too plainly," answered Aunty Plenty, rustling about her bountiful table in her richest black silk with all her old lace on.
"Oh, he'll get over it in a month or two, and Phebe will soon find another lover, so don't be worried about him, Aunty," said Steve, with the air of a man who knew all about that sort of thing.
"If Archie does forget, I shall despise him, and I know Phebe won't try to find another lover, though she'll probably have them she is so sweet and good!" cried Rose indignantly, for, having taken the pair under her protection, she defended them valiantly.
"Then you'd have Arch hope against hope and never give up, would you?" asked Mac, putting on his glasses to survey the thin boots which were his especial abomination.
"Yes, I would, for a lover is not worth having if he's not in earnest!"
"Exactly. So you'd like them to wait and work and keep on loving till they made you relent or plainly proved that it was no use."
"If they were good as well as constant, I think I should relent in time."
"I'll mention that to Pemberton, for he seemed to be hit the hardest, and a ray of hope will do him good, whether he is equal to the ten years' wait or not," put in Steve, who liked to rally Rose about her lovers.
"I'll never forgive you if you say a word to anyone. It is only Mac's odd way of asking questions, and I ought not to answer them. You will talk about such things and I can't stop you, but I don't like it," said Rose, much annoyed.
"Poor little Penelope! She shall not be teased about her suitors but left in peace till her Ulysses comes home," said Mac, sitting down to read the mottoes sticking out of certain fanciful bonbons on the table.
"It is this fuss about Archie which has demoralized us all. Even the owl waked up and hasn't got over the excitement yet, you see. He's had no experience, poor fellow, so he doesn't know how to behave," observed Steve, regarding his bouquet with tender interest.
"That's true, and I asked for information because I may be in love myself someday and all this will be useful, don't you see?"
"You in love!" And Steve could not restrain a laugh at the idea of the bookworm a slave to the tender passion.
Quite unruffled, Mac leaned his chin in both hands, regarding them with a meditative eye as he answered in his whimsical way: "Why not? I intend to study love as well as medicine, for it is one of the most mysterious and remarkable diseases that afflict mankind, and the best way to understand it is to have it. I may catch it someday, and then I should like to know how to treat and cure it."
"If you take it as badly as you did measles and whooping cough, it will go hard with you, old fellow," said Steve, much amused with the fancy.
"I want it to. No great experience comes or goes easily, and this is the greatest we can know, I believe, except death."
Something in Mac's quiet tone and thoughtful eyes made Rose look at him in surprise, for she had never heard him speak in that way before. Steve also stared for an instant, equally amazed, then said below his breath, with an air of mock anxiety: "He's been catching something at the hospital, typhoid probably, and is beginning to wander. I'll take him quietly away before he gets any wilder. Come, old lunatic, we must be off."
"Don't be alarmed. I'm all right and much obliged for your advice, for I fancy I shall be a desperate lover when my time comes, if it ever does. You don't think it impossible, do you?" And Mac put the question so soberly that there was a general smile.
"Certainly not you'll be a regular Douglas, tender and true," answered Rose, wondering what queer question would come next.
"Thank you. The fact is, I've been with Archie so much in his trouble lately that I've gotten interested in this matter and very naturally want to investigate the subject as every rational man must, sooner or later, that's all. Now, Steve, I'm ready." And Mac got up as if the lesson was over.
"My dear, that boy is either a fool or a genius, and I'm sure I should be glad to know which," said Aunt Plenty, putting her bonbons to rights with a puzzled shake of her best cap.
"Time will show, but I incline to think that he is not a fool by any means," answered the girl, pulling a cluster of white roses out of her bosom to make room for the pansies, though they did not suit the blue gown half so well.
Just then Aunt Jessie came in to help them receive, with Jamie to make himself generally useful, which he proceeded to do by hovering around the table like a fly about a honey pot when not flattening his nose against the windowpanes to announce excitedly, "Here's another man coming up the drive!"
Charlie arrived next in his most sunshiny humor, for anything social and festive was his delight, and when in this mood the Prince was quite irresistible. He brought a pretty bracelet for Rose and was graciously allowed to put it on while she chid him gently for his extravagance.
"I am only following your example, for you know 'nothing is too good for those we love, and giving away is the best thing one can do,'" he retorted, quoting words of her own.
"I wish you would follow my example in some other things as well as you do in this," said Rose soberly as Aunt Plenty called him to come and see if the punch was right.
"Must conform to the customs of society. Aunty's heart would be broken if we did not drink her health in the good old fashion. But don't be alarmed I've a strong head of my own, and that's lucky, for I shall need it before I get through," laughed Charlie, showing a long list as he turned away to gratify the old lady with all sorts of merry and affectionate compliments as the glasses touched.
Rose did feel rather alarmed, for if he drank the health of all the owners of those names, she felt sure that Charlie would need a very strong head indeed. It was hard to say anything then and there without seeming disrespect to Aunt Plenty, yet she longed to remind her cousin of the example she tried to set him in this respect, for Rose never touched wine, and the boys knew it. She was thoughtfully turning the bracelet, with its pretty device of turquoise forget-me-nots, when the giver came back to her, still bubbling over with good spirits.
"Dear little saint, you look as if you'd like to smash all the punch bowls in the city, and save us jolly young fellows from tomorrow's headache."
"I should, for such headaches sometimes end in heartaches, I'm afraid. Dear Charlie, don't be angry, but you know better than I that this is a dangerous day for such as you so do be careful for my sake," she added, with an unwonted touch of tenderness in her voice, for, looking at the gallant figure before her, it was impossible to repress the womanly longing to keep it always as brave and blithe as now.
Charlie saw that new softness in the eyes that never looked unkindly on him, fancied that it meant more than it did, and, with a sudden fervor in his own voice, answered quickly: "My darling, I will!"
The glow which had risen to his face was reflected in hers, for at that moment it seemed as if it would be possible to love this cousin who was so willing to be led by her and so much needed some helpful influence to make a noble man of him. The thought came and went like a flash, but gave her a quick heartthrob, as if the old affection was trembling on the verge of some warmer sentiment, and left her with a sense of responsibility never felt before. Obeying the impulse, she said, with a pretty blending of earnestness and playfulness, "If I wear the bracelet to remember you by, you must wear this to remind you of your promise."
"And you," whispered Charlie, bending his head to kiss the hands that put a little white rose in his buttonhole.
Just at that most interesting moment they became aware of an arrival in the front drawing room, whither Aunt Plenty had discreetly retired. Rose felt grateful for the interruption, because, not being at all sure of the state of her heart as yet, she was afraid of letting a sudden impulse lead her too far. But Charlie, conscious that a very propitious instant had been spoiled, regarded the newcomer with anything but a benignant expression of countenance and, whispering, "Good-bye, my Rose, I shall look in this evening to see how you are after the fatigues of the day," he went away, with such a cool nod to poor Fun See that the amiable Asiatic thought he must have mortally offended him.
Rose had little leisure to analyze the new emotions of which she was conscious, for Mr. Tokio came up at once to make his compliments with a comical mingling of Chinese courtesy and American awkwardness, and before he had got his hat on Jamie shouted with admiring energy: "Here's another! Oh, such a swell!"
They now came thick and fast for many hours, and the ladies stood bravely at their posts till late into the evening. Then Aunt Jessie went home, escorted by a very sleepy little son, and Aunt Plenty retired to bed, used up. Dr. Alec had returned in good season, for his friends were not fashionable ones, but Aunt Myra had sent up for him in hot haste and he had good-naturedly obeyed the summons. In fact, he was quite used to them now, for Mrs. Myra, having tried a variety of dangerous diseases, had finally decided upon heart complaint as the one most likely to keep her friends in a chronic state of anxiety and was continually sending word that she was dying. One gets used to palpitations as well as everything else, so the doctor felt no alarm but always went and prescribed some harmless remedy with the most amiable sobriety and patience.
Rose was tired but not sleepy and wanted to think over several things, so instead of going to bed she sat down before the open fire in the study to wait for her uncle and perhaps Charlie, though she did not expect him so late.
Aunt Myra's palpitations must have been unusually severe, for the clock struck twelve before Dr. Alec came, and Rose was preparing to end her reverie when the sound of someone fumbling at the hall door made her jump up, saying to herself: "Poor man! His hands are so cold he can't get his latchkey in. Is that you, Uncle?" she added, running to admit him, for Jane was slow and the night as bitter as it was brilliant.
A voice answered, "Yes." And as the door swung open, in walked, not Dr. Alec, but Charlie, who immediately took one of the hall chairs and sat there with his hat on, rubbing his gloveless hands and blinking as if the light dazzled him, as he said in a rapid, abrupt sort of tone, "I told you I'd come left the fellows keeping it up gloriously going to see the old year out, you know. But I promised never break my word and here I am. Angel in blue, did you slay your thousands?"
"Hush! The waiters are still about. Come to the study fire and warm yourself, you must be frozen," said Rose, going before to roll up the easy chair.
"Not at all never warmer looks very comfortable, though. Where's Uncle?" asked Charlie, following with his hat still on, his hands in his pockets, and his eye fixed steadily on the bright head in front of him.
"Aunt Myra sent for him, and I was waiting up to see how she was," answered Rose, busily mending the fire.
Charlie laughed and sat down upon a corner of the library table. "Poor old soul! What a pity she doesn't die before he is quite worn out. A little too much ether some of these times would send her off quite comfortably, you know."
"Don't speak in that way. Uncle says imaginary troubles are often as hard to bear as real ones," said Rose, turning around displeased.
Till now she had not fairly looked at him, for recollections of the morning made her a little shy. His attitude and appearance surprised her as much as his words, and the quick change in her face seemed to remind him of his manners. Getting up, he hastily took off his hat and stood looking at her with a curiously fixed yet absent look as he said in the same rapid, abrupt way, as if, when once started, he found it hard to stop, "I beg pardon only joking very bad taste I know, and won't do it again. The heat of the room makes me a little dizzy, and I think I got a chill coming out. It is cold I am frozen, I daresay though I drove like the devil."
"Not that bad horse of yours, I hope? I know it is dangerous, so late and alone," said Rose, shrinking behind the big chair as Charlie approached the fire, carefully avoiding a footstool in his way.
"Danger is exciting that's why I like it. No man ever called me a coward let him try it once. I never give in and that horse shall not conquer me. I'll break his neck, if he breaks my spirit doing it. No I don't mean that never mind it's all right," and Charlie laughed in a way that troubled her, because there was no mirth in it.
"Have you had a pleasant day?" asked Rose, looking at him intently as he stood pondering over the cigar and match which he held, as if doubtful which to strike and which to smoke.
"Day? Oh, yes, capital. About two thousand calls, and a nice little supper at the Club. Randal can't sing any more than a crow, but I left him with a glass of champagne upside down, trying to give them my old favorite:
"'Tis better to laugh than be sighing,"
and Charlie burst forth in that bacchanalian melody at the top of his voice, waving an allumette holder over his head to represent Randal's inverted wineglass.
"Hush! You'll wake Aunty," cried Rose in a tone so commanding that he broke off in the middle of a roulade to stare at her with a blank look as he said apologetically, "I was merely showing how it should be done. Don't be angry, dearest look at me as you did this morning, and I'll swear never to sing another note if you say so. I'm only a little gay we drank your health handsomely, and they all congratulated me. Told 'em it wasn't out yet. Stop, though I didn't mean to mention that. No matter I'm always in a scrape, but you always forgive me in the sweetest way. Do it now, and don't be angry, little darling." And, dropping the vase, he went toward her with a sudden excitement that made her shrink behind the chair.
She was not angry, but shocked and frightened, for she knew now what the matter was and grew so pale, he saw it and asked pardon before she could utter a rebuke.
"We'll talk of that tomorrow. It is very late. Go home now, please, before Uncle comes," she said, trying to speak naturally yet betraying her distress by the tremor of her voice and the sad anxiety in her eyes.
"Yes, yes, I will go you are tired I'll make it all right tomorrow." And as if the sound of his uncle's name steadied him for an instant, Charlie made for the door with an unevenness of gait which would have told the shameful truth if his words had not already done so. Before he reached it, however, the sound of wheels arrested him and, leaning against the wall, he listened with a look of dismay mingled with amusement creeping over his face. "Brutus has bolted now I am in a fix. Can't walk home with this horrid dizziness in my head. It's the cold, Rose, nothing else, I do assure you, and a chill yes, a chill. See here! Let one of those fellows there lend me an arm no use to go after that brute. Won't Mother be frightened though when he gets home?" And with that empty laugh again, he fumbled for the door handle.
"No, no don't let them see you! Don't let anyone know! Stay here till Uncle comes, and he'll take care of you. Oh, Charlie! How could you do it! How could you when you promised?" And, forgetting fear in the sudden sense of shame and anguish that came over her, Rose ran to him, caught his hand from the lock, and turned the key; then, as if she could not bear to see him standing there with that vacant smile on his lips, she dropped into a chair and covered up her face.
The cry, the act, and, more than all, the sight of the bowed head would have sobered poor Charlie if it had not been too late. He looked about the room with a vague, despairing look, as if to find reason fast slipping from his control, but heat and cold, excitement and reckless pledging of many healths had done their work too well to make instant sobriety possible, and owning his defeat with a groan, he turned away and threw himself face-downward on the sofa, one of the saddest sights the new year looked upon as it came in.
As she sat there with hidden eyes, Rose felt that something dear to her was dead forever. The ideal, which all women cherish, look for, and too often think they have found when love glorifies a mortal man, is hard to give up, especially when it comes in the likeness of the first lover who touches a young girl's heart. Rose had just begun to feel that perhaps this cousin, despite his faults, might yet become the hero that he sometimes looked, and the thought that she might be his inspiration was growing sweet to her, although she had not entertained it until very lately. Alas, how short the tender dream had been, how rude the awakening! How impossible it would be ever again to surround that fallen figure with all the romance of an innocent fancy or gift it with the high attributes beloved by a noble nature!
Breathing heavily in the sudden sleep that kindly brought a brief oblivion of himself, he lay with flushed cheeks, disordered hair, and at his feet the little rose that never would be fresh and fair again a pitiful contrast now to the brave, blithe young man who went so gaily out that morning to be so ignominiously overthrown at night.
Many girls would have made light of a trespass so readily forgiven by the world, but Rose had not yet learned to offer temptation with a smile and shut her eyes to the weakness that makes a man a brute. It always grieved or disgusted her to see it in others, and now it was very terrible to have it brought so near not in its worst form, by any means, but bad enough to wring her heart with shame and sorrow and fill her mind with dark forebodings for the future. So she could only sit mourning for the Charlie that might have been while watching the Charlie that was with an ache in her heart which found no relief till, putting her hands there as if to ease the pain, they touched the pansies, faded but still showing gold among the somber purple, and then two great tears dropped on them as she sighed: "Ah, me! I do need heart's-ease sooner than I thought!"
Her uncle's step made her spring up and unlock the door, showing him such an altered face that he stopped short, ejaculating in dismay, "Good heavens, child! What's the matter?" adding, as she pointed to the sofa in pathetic silence, "Is he hurt? ill? dead?"
"No, Uncle, he is—" She could not utter the ugly word but whispered with a sob in her throat, "Be kind to him," and fled away to her own room, feeling as if a great disgrace had fallen on the house.
Chapter 10 THE SAD AND SOBER PART
"How will he look? What will he say? Can anything make us forget and be happy again?" were the first questions Rose asked herself as soon as she woke from the brief sleep which followed a long, sad vigil. It seemed as if the whole world must be changed because a trouble darkened it for her. She was too young yet to know how possible it is to forgive much greater sins than this, forget far heavier disappointments, outlive higher hopes, and bury loves compared to which hers was but a girlish fancy. She wished it had not been so bright a day, wondered how her birds could sing with such shrill gaiety, put no ribbon in her hair, and said, as she looked at the reflection of her own tired face in the glass, "Poor thing! You thought the new leaf would have something pleasant on it. The story has been very sweet and easy to read so far, but the sad and sober part is coming now."
A tap at the door reminded her that, in spite of her afflictions, breakfast must be eaten, and the sudden thought that Charlie might still be in the house made her hurry to the door, to find Dr. Alec waiting for her with his morning smile. She drew him in and whispered anxiously, as if someone lay dangerously ill nearby, "Is he better, Uncle? Tell me all about it I can bear it now."
Some men would have smiled at her innocent distress and told her this was only what was to be expected and endured, but Dr. Alec believed in the pure instincts that make youth beautiful, desired to keep them true, and hoped his girl would never learn to look unmoved by pain and pity upon any human being vanquished by a vice, no matter how trivial it seemed, how venial it was held. So his face grew grave, though his voice was cheerful as he answered: "All right, I daresay, by this time, for sleep is the best medicine in such cases. I took him home last night, and no one knows he came but you and I."
"No one ever shall. How did you do it, Uncle?"
"Just slipped out of the long study window and got him cannily off, for the air and motion, after a dash of cold water, brought him around, and he was glad to be safely landed at home. His rooms are below, you know, so no one was disturbed, and I left him sleeping nicely."
"Thank you so much," sighed Rose. "And Brutus? Weren't they frightened when he got back alone?"
"Not at all. The sagacious beast went quietly to the stable, and the sleepy groom asked no questions, for Charlie often sends the horse round by himself when it is late or stormy. Rest easy, dear no eye but ours saw the poor lad come and go, and we'll forgive it for love's sake."
"Yes, but not forget it. I never can, and he will never be again to me the Charlie I've been so proud and fond of all these years. Oh, Uncle, such a pity! Such a pity!"
"Don't break your tender heart about it, child, for it is not incurable, thank God! I don't make light of it, but I am sure that under better influences Charlie will redeem himself because his impulses are good and this his only vice. I can hardly blame him for what he is, because his mother did the harm. I declare to you, Rose, I sometimes feel as if I must break out against that woman and thunder in her ears that she is ruining the immortal soul for which she is responsible to heaven!"
Dr. Alec seldom spoke in this way, and when he did it was rather awful, for his indignation was of the righteous sort and such thunder often rouses up a drowsy soul when sunshine has no effect. Rose liked it, and sincerely wished Aunt Clara had been there to get the benefit of the outbreak, for she needed just such an awakening from the self-indulgent dream in which she lived.
"Do it, and save Charlie before it is too late!" she cried, kindling herself as she watched him, for he looked like a roused lion as he walked about the room with his hand clenched and a spark in his eye, evidently in desperate earnest and ready to do almost anything.
"Will you help?" he asked, stopping suddenly with a look that made her stand up straight and strong as she answered with an eager voice: "I will."
"Then don't love him yet."
That startled her, but she asked steadily, though her heart began to beat and her color to come: "Why not?"
"Firstly, because no woman should give her happiness into the keeping of a man without fixed principles; secondly, because the hope of being worthy of you will help him more than any prayers or preaching of mine. Thirdly, because it will need all our wit and patience to undo the work of nearly four and twenty years. You understand what I mean?"
"Can you say 'no' when he asks you to say 'yes' and wait a little for your happiness?"
"And will you?"
"Then I'm satisfied, and a great weight taken off my heart. I can't help seeing what goes on, or trembling when I think of you setting sail with no better pilot than poor Charlie. Now you answer as I hoped you would, and I am proud of my girl!"
They had been standing with the width of the room between them, Dr. Alec looking very much like a commander issuing orders, Rose like a well-drilled private obediently receiving them, and both wore the air of soldiers getting ready for a battle, with the bracing of nerves and quickening of the blood brave souls feel as they put on their armor. At the last words he went to her, brushed back the hair, and kissed her on the forehead with a tender sort of gravity and a look that made her feel as if he had endowed her with the Victoria Cross for courage on the field.
No more was said then, for Aunt Plenty called them down and the day's duties began. But that brief talk showed Rose what to do and fitted her to do it, for it set her to thinking of the duty one owes one's self in loving as in all the other great passions or experiences which make or mar a life.
She had plenty of time for quiet meditation that day because everyone was resting after yesterday's festivity, and she sat in her little room planning out a new year so full of good works, grand successes, and beautiful romances that if it could have been realized, the Millennium would have begun. It was a great comfort to her, however, and lightened the long hours haunted by a secret desire to know when Charlie would come and a secret fear of the first meeting. She was sure he would be bowed down with humiliation and repentance, and a struggle took place in her mind between the pity she could not help feeling and the disapprobation she ought to show. She decided to be gentle, but very frank; to reprove, but also to console; and to try to improve the softened moment by inspiring the culprit with a wish for all the virtues which make a perfect man.
The fond delusion grew quite absorbing, and her mind was full of it as she sat watching the sun set from her western window and admiring with dreamy eyes the fine effect of the distant hills clear and dark against a daffodil sky when the bang of a door made her sit suddenly erect in her low chair and say with a catch in her breath: "He's coming! I must remember what I promised Uncle and be very firm."
Usually Charlie announced his approach with music of some sort. Now he neither whistled, hummed, nor sang, but came so quietly Rose was sure that he dreaded this meeting as much as she did and, compassionating his natural confusion, did not look around as the steps drew near. She thought perhaps he would go down upon his knees, as he used to after a boyish offense, but hoped not, for too much humility distressed her, so she waited for the first demonstration anxiously.
It was rather a shock when it came, however, for a great nosegay dropped into her lap and a voice, bold and gay as usual, said lightly: "Here she is, as pretty and pensive as you please. Is the world hollow, our doll stuffed with sawdust, and do we want to go into a nunnery today, Cousin?"
Rose was so taken aback by this unexpected coolness that the flowers lay unnoticed as she looked up with a face so full of surprise, reproach, and something like shame that it was impossible to mistake its meaning. Charlie did not, and had the grace to redden deeply, and his eyes fell as he said quickly, though in the same light tone: "I humbly apologize for coming so late last night. Don't be hard upon me, Cousin. You know America expects every man to do his duty on New Year's Day."
"I am tired of forgiving! You make and break promises as easily as you did years ago, and I shall never ask you for another," answered Rose, putting the bouquet away, for the apology did not satisfy her and she would not be bribed to silence.
"But, my dear girl, you are so very exacting, so peculiar in your notions, and so angry about trifles that a poor fellow can't please you, try as he will," began Charlie, ill at ease, but too proud to show half the penitence he felt, not so much for the fault as for her discovery of it.
"I am not angry I am grieved and disappointed, for I expect every man to do his duty in another way and keep his word to the uttermost, as I try to do. If that is exacting, I'm sorry, and won't trouble you with my old-fashioned notions anymore."
"Bless my soul! What a rout about nothing! I own that I forgot I know I acted like a fool and I beg pardon. What more can I do?"
"Act like a man, and never let me be so terribly ashamed of you again as I was last night." And Rose gave a little shiver as she thought of it.
That involuntary act hurt Charlie more than her words, and it was his turn now to feel "terribly ashamed," for the events of the previous evening were very hazy in his mind and fear magnified them greatly. Turning sharply away, he went and stood by the fire, quite at a loss how to make his peace this time, because Rose was so unlike herself. Usually a word of excuse sufficed, and she seemed glad to pardon and forget; now, though very quiet, there was something almost stern about her that surprised and daunted him, for how could he know that all the while her pitiful heart was pleading for him and the very effort to control it made her a little hard and cold?
As he stood there, restlessly fingering the ornaments upon the chimneypiece, his eye brightened suddenly and, taking up the pretty bracelet lying there, he went slowly back to her, saying in a tone that was humble and serious enough now: "I will act like a man, and you shall never be ashamed again. Only be kind to me. Let me put this on, and promise afresh this time I swear I'll keep it. Won't you trust me, Rose?"
It was very hard to resist the pleading voice and eyes, for this humility was dangerous; and, but for Uncle Alec, Rose would have answered "yes." The blue forget-me-nots reminded her of her own promise, and she kept it with difficulty now, to be glad always afterward. Putting back the offered trinket with a gentle touch, she said firmly, though she dared not look up into the anxious face bending toward her: "No, Charlie I can't wear it. My hands must be free if I'm to help you as I ought. I will be kind, I will trust you, but don't swear anything, only try to resist temptation, and we'll all stand by you."
Charlie did not like that and lost the ground he had gained by saying impetuously: "I don't want anyone but you to stand by me, and I must be sure you won't desert me, else, while I'm mortifying soul and body to please you, some stranger will come and steal your heart away from me. I couldn't bear that, so I give you fair warning, in such a case I'll break the bargain, and go straight to the devil."
The last sentence spoiled it all, for it was both masterful and defiant. Rose had the Campbell spirit in her, though it seldom showed; as yet she valued her liberty more than any love offered her, and she resented the authority he assumed too soon resented it all the more warmly because of the effort she was making to reinstate her hero, who would insist on being a very faulty and ungrateful man. She rose straight out of her chair, saying with a look and tone which rather startled her hearer and convinced him that she was no longer a tenderhearted child but a woman with a will of her own and a spirit as proud and fiery as any of her race: "My heart is my own, to dispose of as I please. Don't shut yourself out of it by presuming too much, for you have no claim on me but that of cousinship, and you never will have unless you earn it. Remember that, and neither threaten nor defy me anymore."
For a minute it was doubtful whether Charlie would answer this flash with another, and a general explosion ensue, or wisely quench the flame with the mild answer which turneth away wrath. He chose the latter course and made it very effective by throwing himself down before his offended goddess, as he had often done in jest. This time it was not acting, but serious, earnest, and there was real passion in his voice as he caught Rose's dress in both hands, saying eagerly: "No, no! Don't shut your heart against me or I shall turn desperate. I'm not half good enough for such a saint as you, but you can do what you will with me. I only need a motive to make a man of me, and where can I find a stronger one than in trying to keep your love?"
"It is not yours yet," began Rose, much moved, though all the while she felt as if she were on a stage and had a part to play, for Charlie had made life so like a melodrama that it was hard for him to be quite simple even when most sincere.
"Let me earn it, then. Show me how, and I'll do anything, for you are my good angel, Rose, and if you cast me off, I feel as if I shouldn't care how soon there was an end of me," cried Charlie, getting tragic in his earnestness and putting both arms around her, as if his only safety lay in clinging to this beloved fellow creature.
Behind footlights it would have been irresistible, but somehow it did not touch the one spectator, though she had neither time nor skill to discover why. For all their ardor the words did not ring quite true. Despite the grace of the attitude, she would have liked him better manfully erect upon his feet, and though the gesture was full of tenderness, a subtle instinct made her shrink away as she said with a composure that surprised herself even more than it did him: "Please don't. No, I will promise nothing yet, for I must respect the man I love."
That brought Charlie to his feet, pale with something deeper than anger, for the recoil told him more plainly than the words how much he had fallen in her regard since yesterday. The memory of the happy moment when she gave the rose with that new softness in her eyes, the shy color, the sweet "for my sake" came back with sudden vividness, contrasting sharply with the now averted face, the hand outstretched to put him back, the shrinking figure, and in that instant's silence, poor Charlie realized what he had lost, for a girl's first thought of love is as delicate a thing as the rosy morning glory, which a breath of air can shatter. Only a hint of evil, only an hour's debasement for him, a moment's glimpse for her of the coarser pleasures men know, and the innocent heart, just opening to bless and to be blessed, closed again like a sensitive plant and shut him out perhaps forever.
The consciousness of this turned him pale with fear, for his love was deeper than she knew, and he proved this when he said in a tone so full of mingled pain and patience that it touched her to the heart: "You shall respect me if I can make you, and when I've earned it, may I hope for something more?"
She looked up then, saw in his face the noble shame, the humble sort of courage that shows repentance to be genuine and gives promise of success, and, with a hopeful smile that was a cordial to him, answered heartily: "You may."
"Bless you for that! I'll make no promises, I'll ask for none only trust me, Rose, and while you treat me like a cousin, remember that no matter how many lovers you may have you'll never be to any of them as dear as you are to me."
A traitorous break in his voice warned Charlie to stop there, and with no other good-bye, he very wisely went away, leaving Rose to put the neglected flowers into water with remorseful care and lay away the bracelet, saying to herself: "I'll never wear it till I feel as I did before. Then he shall put it on and I'll say 'yes.'"
Chapter 11 SMALL TEMPTATIONS
"Oh, Rose, I've got something so exciting to tell you!" cried Kitty Van Tassel, skipping into the carriage next morning when her friend called for her to go shopping.
Kitty always did have some "perfectly thrilling" communication to make and Rose had learned to take them quietly, but the next demonstration was a new one, for, regardless alike of curious observers outside and disordered hats within, Kitty caught Rose around the neck, exclaiming in a rapturous whisper: "My dearest creature, I'm engaged!"
"I'm so glad! Of course it is Steve?"
"Dear fellow, he did it last night in the nicest way, and Mama is so delighted. Now what shall I be married in?" And Kitty composed herself with a face full of the deepest anxiety.
"How can you talk of that so soon? Why, Kit, you unromantic girl, you ought to be thinking of your lover and not your clothes," said Rose, amused yet rather scandalized at such want of sentiment.
"I am thinking of my lover, for he says he will not have a long engagement, so I must begin to think about the most important things at once, mustn't I?"
"Ah, he wants to be sure of you, for you are such a slippery creature he is afraid you'll treat him as you did poor Jackson and the rest," interrupted Rose, shaking her finger at her prospective cousin, who had tried this pastime twice before and was rather proud than otherwise of her brief engagements.
"You needn't scold, for I know I'm right, and when you've been in society as long as I have you'll find that the only way to really know a man is to be engaged to him. While they want you they are all devotion, but when they think they've got you, then you find out what wretches they are," answered Kitty with an air of worldly wisdom which contrasted oddly with her youthful face and giddy manners.
"A sad prospect for poor Steve, unless I give him a hint to look well to his ways."
"Oh, my dear child, I'm sure of him, for my experience has made me very sharp and I'm convinced I can manage him without a bit of trouble. We've known each other for ages" Steve was twenty and Kitty eighteen "and always been the best of friends. Besides, he is quite my ideal man. I never could bear big hands and feet, and his are simply adorable. Then he's the best dancer I know and dresses in perfect taste. I really do believe I fell in love with his pocket handkerchiefs first, they were so enchanting I couldn't resist," laughed Kitty, pulling a large one out of her pocket and burying her little nose in the folds, which shed a delicious fragrance upon the air.
"Now, that looks promising, and I begin to think you have got a little sentiment after all," said Rose, well pleased, for the merry brown eyes had softened suddenly and a quick color came up in Kitty's cheek as she answered, still half hiding her face in the beloved handkerchief: "Of course I have, lots of it, only I'm ashamed to show it to most people, because it's the style to take everything in the most nonchalant way. My gracious, Rose, you'd have thought me a romantic goose last night while Steve proposed in the back parlor, for I actually cried, he was so dreadfully in earnest when I pretended that I didn't care for him, and so very dear and nice when I told the truth. I didn't know he had it in him, but he came out delightfully and never cared a particle, though I dropped tears all over his lovely shirtfront. Wasn't that good of him? For you know he hates his things to be mussed."
"He's a true Campbell, and has got a good warm heart of his own under those fine fronts of his. Aunt Jane doesn't believe in sentiment, so he has been trained never to show any, but it is there, and you must encourage him to let it out, not foolishly, but in a way to make him more manly and serious."
"I will if I can, for though I wouldn't own this to everybody, I like it in him very much and feel as if Steve and I should get on beautifully. Here we are now, be sure not to breathe a word if we meet anyone. I want it to be a profound secret for a week at least," added Kitty, whisking her handkerchief out of sight as the carriage stopped before the fashionable store they were about to visit.
Rose promised with a smile, for Kitty's face betrayed her without words, so full was it of the happiness which few eyes fail to understand whenever they see it.
"Just a glance at the silks. You ask my opinion about white ones, and I'll look at the colors. Mama says satin, but that is out now, and I've set my heart on the heaviest corded thing I can find," whispered Kitty as they went rustling by the long counters strewn with all that could delight the feminine eye and tempt the feminine pocket.
"Isn't that opal the loveliest thing you ever saw? I'm afraid I'm too dark to wear it, but it would just suit you. You'll need a variety, you know," added Kitty in a significant aside as Rose stood among the white silks while her companion affected great interest in the delicate hues laid before her.
"But I have a variety now, and don't need a new dress of any sort."
"No matter, get it, else it will be gone. You've worn all yours several times already and must have a new one whether you need it or not. Dear me! If I had as much pocket money as you have, I'd come out in a fresh toilet at every party I went to," answered Kitty, casting an envious eye upon the rainbow piles before her.
The quick-witted shopman saw that a wedding was afoot, for when two pretty girls whisper, smile, and blush over their shopping, clerks scent bridal finery and a transient gleam of interest brightens their imperturbable countenances and lends a brief energy to languid voices weary with crying, "Cash!" Gathering both silks with a practiced turn of the hand, he held them up for inspection, detecting at a glance which was the bride-elect and which the friend, for Kitty fell back to study the effect of silvery white folds with an absorbing interest impossible to mistake while Rose sat looking at the opal as if she scarcely heard a bland voice saying, with the rustle of silk so dear to girlish ears: "A superb thing, just opened; all the rage in Paris; very rare shade; trying to most, as the lady says, but quite perfect for a blonde."
Rose was not listening to those words but to others which Aunt Clara had lately uttered, laughed at then, but thought over more than once since.
"I'm tired of hearing people wonder why Miss Campbell does not dress more. Simplicity is all very well for schoolgirls and women who can't afford anything better, but you can, and you really ought. Your things are pretty enough in their way, and I rather like you to have a style of your own, but it looks odd and people will think you are mean if you don't make more show. Besides, you don't do justice to your beauty, which would be both peculiar and striking if you'd devote your mind to getting up ravishing costumes."
Much more to the same effect did her aunt say, discussing the subject quite artistically and unconsciously appealing to several of Rose's ruling passions. One was a love for the delicate fabrics, colors, and ornaments which refined tastes enjoy and whose costliness keeps them from ever growing common; another, her strong desire to please the eyes of those she cared for and gratify their wishes in the smallest matter if she could. And last, but not least, the natural desire of a young and pretty woman to enhance the beauty which she so soon discovers to be her most potent charm for the other sex, her passport to a high place among her maiden peers.
She had thought seriously of surprising and delighting everyone by appearing in a costume which should do justice to the loveliness which was so modest that it was apt to forget itself in admiring others what girls call a "ravishing" dress, such as she could imagine and easily procure by the magic of the Fortunatus' purse in her pocket. She had planned it all, the shimmer of pale silk through lace like woven frostwork, ornaments of some classic pattern, and all the dainty accessories as perfect as time, taste, and money could make them.
She knew that Uncle Alec's healthful training had given her a figure that could venture on any fashion and Nature blessed her with a complexion that defied all hues. So it was little wonder that she felt a strong desire to use these gifts, not for the pleasure of display, but to seem fair in the eyes that seldom looked at her without a tender sort of admiration, all the more winning when no words marred the involuntary homage women love.