A BEAUTIFUL ALIEN
BOSTON Richard G. Badger & Co. (Incorporated) 1901
COPYRIGHT 1899 BY RICHARD G. BADGER & CO.
All Rights Reserved
PRINTED BY LAKEVIEW PRESS SOUTH FRAMINGHAM, MASS., FOR RICHARD G BADGER & COMPANY (INC) BOSTON
A Beautiful Alien
On the deck of an ocean steamer, homeward bound from Europe, a man and girl were walking to and fro. Their long march of monotonous regularity had lasted perhaps an hour, and they had become objects of special attention to the people scattered about.
A man, who was taking his afternoon exercise alone, and who had accidentally fallen into line directly behind this couple, kept that position purposely, turning as they turned, and, without seeming to do so, observing them narrowly, for the reason that the woman was uncommonly beautiful.
This man—Albert Noel by name—was an artist by instinct and habit, though a lawyer by profession. He painted pictures for love and practised law for money, or conventionality, or to please his mother and sisters, or from some reason which, however indefinite, had been strong enough to predominate over the longing he had always had to go to Paris, live in the Latin Quarter, and be simply and honestly what his taste dictated. Few people, perhaps, suspected his Bohemian proclivities; for he lived an extremely conventional life, was the idol of his mother and sisters, and, being well born, well-off, and sufficiently good-looking, was regarded as an excellent match matrimonially. In spite of this fact he had never been known to be seriously in love; though, being a quiet man, this experience might have befallen him without the knowledge of his friends. He was coming home from Europe now, reluctantly and with regret; but, since he had a profession, it must be attended to.
He observed the tall young woman who walked in front of him on her husband's arm (some instinct told him that it was her husband) from an artist's standpoint only. It had occurred to him that here was a remarkable model for a picture. He furtively studied the lines of her figure, which was clad in a long, tight-fighting cloak, trimmed with fur, and the contour and color of the knot of brown hair, whose living lustre shone richly between the dull fur that bordered her collar and her hat. Every moment the study fascinated him more, as he followed and turned, as they turned. Suddenly it struck him that perhaps his interest in the pair ahead of him might, in spite of him, be observed; and so, rather reluctantly, he took a seat in one of several empty chairs at the steamer's stern. Here he could still observe them, at intervals, as they came and went. They spoke to no one, not even to each other, though he was convinced they were newly married. Both of them looked very young.
After a few turns the lady complained of being tired, and proposed they should sit down. Her companion assented by a nod, and they took the seats next to Noel. She spoke English, but with much hesitation and with a strong foreign accent. The man was silent still, as they seated themselves and wrapped their rugs about them; for in spite of the full blaze of the sinking sun it was very cold. Noel also kept still, looking and listening. He was a little back of them, and only her pure profile was visible to him. The man's profile, which was also a handsome one, he could see beyond hers.
For a long time there was silence. The wind grew keener. The tarpaulin which covered the white life-boat near by trembled from end to end, as if the thing hid were alive and shivering. The sea-gulls that followed the boat fluttered and dipped about in the cold air. The sun, a great gold ball, was sinking rapidly in a mist of pink and yellow light. The wide stretch of water underneath it was a heavy iron black, except where, near the ship, it was dashed into green-white foam. Noel looked at the face of the woman near him, and, seeing a sudden light of interest in her eyes, followed their glance to where a school of dolphins was rising and plunging in the cold sea water. He heard her call her companion's attention to them by a quick exclamation; but he made no answer, scarcely showing that he heard.
Noel became aware that the face before him was not only beautiful, but sad. There were no lines upon it of either care or sorrow, but both were written in the eyes. These were very remarkable,—almost gold in color, and shaded by thick lashes, darker even than her dark brown hair. They were large, well-opened, heavy-lidded; and no wonder was it that, when he had seen all this, he began to desire to meet their gaze, that he might thereby know them thoroughly.
The sun sank. People began to complain of the increasing cold, and gather up wraps and books and move away; but still the man and woman sat there silent, and Noel did the same. The distant sky was tinted now with colors as delicate as the flowers of spring,—pink and cream and lilac, softening to a rich line of deep purple at the horizon. A slight sigh escaped the woman's lips; and then, as if recollecting herself, she sat upright, and looked about at the objects near her. Her glance passed across Noel, and was arrested with a certain amusement on the little cannon lashed to the side of the deck, which in its cover of white tarpaulin had evidently given her some diverting thought. Then in the most hesitating, laboriously constructed English, Noel heard her telling her companion what it had made her think of. By using a little imagination with what he heard and saw, he arrived at her meaning. She was attempting to say that it looked like a child on all fours, trying to frighten its companion by throwing a table-cloth over its head. There it was complete,—the head, the hands and feet, the bulky body. Noel caught her meaning, and smiled involuntarily. It was really wonderfully like. He controlled his features instantly, however; and, as her gaze was fixed upon her husband, she did not see him. But her childish idea had awakened no response in the husband. He simply asked her meaning over again, and seemed unable to comprehend it, and not sufficiently interested to make much effort. The few words he uttered proved that English was his native tongue. One would have said he had the ability, but not the inclination, to talk, while with her the contrary was true. Noel, now that he found that she was alive to her immediate surroundings, got up and moved away. He went and looked out at the sea-gulls; but all the time he was seeing her eyes, and comparing them to topaz, to amber, to a dozen things, but without feeling that he had matched, even in his imagination, their peculiar and beautiful color.
It was the first day out; and he liked to think that he could occasionally look at this face for a week to come, and when he got to shore he would paint her. He had a studio in the suburbs, to which he often went and to which his mother and sisters had never been invited. It was often a delight to him to think of its freedom and seclusion.
He was acutely jarred upon, as he stood alone at the deck rail, by the approach of a man who had a club acquaintance with him at home, which he had shown a disposition to magnify since coming aboard the steamer. He was not a man for whose talk Noel cared at any time, but he felt a distinct rebellion against it just now. This feeling was swiftly put to flight, however, by the fact that on his way to him the new-comer passed and bowed to the beautiful girl, receiving in return a bow and a smile. The bow was gracious, the smile charming, lighting for an instant the gravity of her calm face, and showing perfect teeth.
"Ah, Miller! that you? How're you coming on?" said Noel, with a sudden access of cordiality, making a place for the new-comer at his side.
"All right, thanks, considering it's the first day out. That's generally the biggest bore, because you know there are six or seven more just like it to follow. Pretty girl that, ain't it?"
"Who is she?" asked Noel, refusing to concur in the designation.
"Mrs. Dallas, according to her new name."
"And that is her husband?"
"That is her husband. He's not a bad-looking fellow, either; but you don't look as if you approved him."
"I?" said Noel. "Why shouldn't I? He seems a good-looking fellow enough. Do you know her?"
"Yes, I know her. Everybody knew her at Baden. It was not very hard to do."
"What do you mean?" said Noel, looking at him suddenly very straight and hard.
"Oh, I simply mean that her father, who seems a rather bad type of adventurer, gave free access to her acquaintance to any man who might turn out to be marriageable. He introduced me to her as soon as he saw I had been attracted by her looks, and I used to talk to her a good deal. Her mother, it seems, died in her childhood; and she was put to school at a convent, where she remained until she was eighteen. Her father then brought her home, and began assiduously his efforts to marry her off. It was plain that she hampered him a good deal, but he had a sort of sense of duty which he seemed to fulfil to his own satisfaction by rushing her about from one watering-place to another, and facilitating her acquaintance with the young men at each."
"And what was the girl thinking of to allow it?" said Noel.
"The girl was absolutely blind to it,—as ignorant of the world as a little nun, and apparently quite pleased with her father, who was avowedly a new acquisition. She must have had good teaching at her convent; for she sings splendidly and is a pretty fair linguist, too. I tried her in English, however, and found her so uncertain that my somewhat limited conversation with her was carried on in French. My French is nothing to boast of, but it's better than her English."
"What is she?"
"An Italian, with a Swedish mother. She seems awfully foot-loose, somehow, poor thing; and I hope the marriage which her father suddenly contrived between her and this young American will turn out well for her. He's an odd sort of fellow to me, somehow."
"Where does he come from?"
"I don't know,—some misty place in the West somewhere, I believe. I tried to talk with him a dozen times, but I never got so little out of a man in my life."
"Was he so deep or merely forbidding?"
"Neither. He was good-tempered enough, and would answer questions; but he seemed to have nothing to give out. He is a quiet man and inoffensive, but somehow queer."
"Does he play cards?"
"Not at all."
"Seem to have money?"
"Yes, as far as I could judge, he appears to have enough to do as he chooses and go where he pleases, though I should say he was not extravagant. He seems to care too little for things."
"He cares for her, it's to be supposed."
"Yes. He could hardly help that, and yet he showed very little emotion in his courting days. I used to see them walking together or sitting on the piazza for hours, and they seemed a strangely silent pair under the circumstances. I got some key to that mystery, however, when I found that he doesn't know a word of French or Italian; and I had already discovered her limitations in English."
"Why, good heavens! how can she know the man then? It is not possible. And he may turn out to be anything! Do you think her father could have forced her into this marriage against her will?"
"No, I'm sure he did not. I thought of that, but I'm certain it isn't so. I think she was in love with the man, as she understood it, in her convent-bred sort of way. He's good-looking and has a certain gentleness of manner. It may be dulness, but it's what women like. I think her father, though he felt her a great burden, wanted to do the best he could for her, without too much trouble. He saw plainly the dangers she was surrounded by, and was glad to get her married to a quiet young American, who had no vices and would probably be kind to her. He told me he wanted her to marry an American, because they made the best husbands. Look at them now. It is always the same thing,—either silence or that difficult sort of talk. She has to do the most of it, you see, and in English. He literally knows not a word in any other tongue."
It was beautiful weather; and Noel, being a good sailor, spent much of his time on deck. Wherever he went about the ship, his eyes continually sought Mrs. Dallas. Her beauty and singular history interested him much. He also made a close study of the husband. So far he had not cared to avail himself of the opportunity of making their acquaintance, which he knew Miller would gladly have given him.
On the afternoon of the second day out he looked up from his book, and found Mr. and Mrs. Dallas seated near him. He was partly hid by a pile of rope, over which, however, it was easy to see them. He folded his paper noiselessly, and, leaning back, began to watch them furtively. As usual, they were silent. The man was smoking cigarettes one after another, and looking apathetically at the water. The woman's eyes were on the water, too; but their expression was certainly not apathetic. Noel had never been so puzzled to read a face. He was not only an artist, but also a very human-hearted man; and he longed to go beneath that lovely surface, and read the thoughts of this woman's mind. Now and then she turned a puzzled gaze upon her husband, who seemed completely unconscious of both it and her. Once she spoke, and the strong accent in her painstaking English was fascinating to Noel's ears. She only inquired if her husband were comfortable and satisfied to stay here. When he answered affirmatively, she spoke again,—this time so low that Noel caught only the last word, "Robert." It was pronounced in the French manner, and came from her lips very winningly.
"Can't you say Robert?" said her husband, bluntly. "People will laugh at you if you talk like that."
"I vill try," she answered, and turned her eyes away across the water. Noel fancied he saw them widen with tears for a moment; and he looked to see if her companion were watching her, but his whole attention was given to the cigarette he was rolling. In a few moments, at the man's suggestion, they rose and walked away.
Noel noticed that she looked at no one as she passed along on her husband's arm; but he interpreted this to be not shyness nor self-consciousness, but rather a sort of instinct against giving any one that opportunity of looking into her heart through her eyes.
One morning a new mood came over Noel, and he asked Miller to introduce him. The latter complied with alacrity. Noel had no sooner bowed his acknowledgments than he looked at Mrs. Dallas, and addressed her in the Italian tongue. The light that came into her face at the familiar sounds made his heart quicken. They stood some time by the railing, the group of four,—Miller talking in a desultory way to Dallas, while Noel spoke, in animated, if somewhat halting Italian, to the young wife. There was quite a strong breeze blowing; and some dark ribbons, which tied her fur collar, fluttered and sounded on the air. She held to the rail with both little smooth-gloved hands; and her heavy cloth dress clung close about her, and was blown backward in strong, swaying folds. They talked of Italy, where Noel had once lived for a while, and of pictures, art, and music, for which she had an enthusiasm which made the subjects as interesting to Noel as his greater knowledge made them to her. He found her a genuine girl in her feelings, and at once perceived her absolute inexperience of the world. Her convent breeding came out frequently in a sort of quaint politeness of manner, and it provoked him a little to find that he was being treated with a sort of deference due to a superior in age or in experience. He felt himself aged indeed in comparison with her vibrating youth and the innocence of her simple little life, which, up to this point, had plainly been that of a child; and he dreaded to think how soon and how suddenly she might grow old. She seemed in a world of mystery now, as one who had utterly lost her bearings, and was too dazed to see where she was or what were the objects and influences that surrounded her. Out of this shadow his presence seemed for the moment to have lifted her; and as he talked to her of these subjects, round which the whole ardor of her nature centred, she seemed a different creature. The restraint and severity disappeared from her manner, she forgot herself,—her recent self that was so strange to her,—and over and over again he looked far into the clear depths of her golden eyes.
More than once he glanced at Dallas to see if he showed any disrelish of this talk, carried on in his presence in a foreign tongue; but he was evidently not concerned about it in the least. He smoked his eternal cigarettes, and answered in monosyllables the remarks that Miller was making. He did not look bored, for that expression implies a capability of being interested; and that he seemed not to possess, at least so far as Noel's experience went, and Miller's confirmed it.
Noel had been at home a month. He had opened his law office and gone hard to work, and his friends complained that they saw but little of him. He had learned from the Dallases, before parting with them at the wharf, that they were expecting to go to housekeeping in his own city, and he had asked them to send him their address when they were established.
So far, it had not come, and he was beginning to fear he had lost sight of them when one day he met them on the street. She, at least, was glad to see him, and when she gave the address and asked him to call, the husband, in his dull way, echoed the invitation.
The next evening he went to the house, which was in an unfashionable quarter, but very charming, tasteful and homelike. As he sat down in the pretty drawing-room some living objects caught his eye, and to his great amusement he saw that the rug in front of the open fire was occupied by a picturesque group composed of a Maltese cat and four kittens. The mother, who was an unusually large and imposing specimen of her kind, was seated very erect, her front feet straight before her, evidently making an effort to enjoy a nap, which her offspring were engaged in thwarting, after the most vigorous fashion. They were all exactly alike, distinguishable only by the ribbons—blue, green, yellow and red—which ornamented their necks and were tied in bows under their chins. The mother had a garland composed of these four colors around her neck, upon which hung a little silver bell. Noel had been watching this pretty sight, with a fascinated gaze, and was so preoccupied with their gambols that he failed to hear a soft footstep approaching, and did not turn to look until Mrs. Dallas was standing quite near him, holding out her hand.
She was dressed in a gown of a peculiar dim shade of blue that fell in free, straight folds about her, confined by a loose silver girdle round the waist. It clothed her beautiful body in a way that satisfied the soul of the artist who stood and looked at her, uttering light words about the cat and kittens and inaugurating a conversation that immediately put them at ease.
It was evident that she was glad to see him. She told him so at once. Her husband, she said, had wanted her to go to the theatre, but she had been every night for so long that she was tired of it, and had just decided to stay at home. Was Mr. Dallas then such an infatuated theatre-goer? Noel asked. Oh, yes, he always wanted to go every night, she said. It seemed to be a confirmed habit with him, and she was sorry to say she did not care for it much, though she usually went with him. Noel knew that the season was not fairly opened yet, and reflecting upon the bills advertised at the various theatres, he could but wonder at the man's choice of entertainments.
Presently Dallas entered and greeted him civilly, though with his usual apathetic manner, and said he was glad he had come in, as he could keep Mrs. Dallas company, as he was going to the theatre. Mrs. Dallas looked a little surprised at this announcement and suggested his postponing the theatre, so that he might not miss Mr. Noel's visit, but he answered that Mr. Noel he knew would excuse him, and turned to leave the room. As he did so he stepped on one of the kittens which cried out pitifully. It had been an accident, of course, but he might have shown some compunction, which he utterly failed to do. The little creature hopped away on three feet, and Mrs. Dallas, with pretty foreign words of pity, followed it and brought it to the fireside where she sat down with it on her lap, and stroked and soothed it, laying the wounded little paw against her lips and making, what seemed to Noel, munificent atonement for the injury inflicted by her husband.
As the kitten settled down contentedly purring in its mistress' silken lap, the front door closed behind Mr. Dallas, and turning to his hostess, Noel for the first time addressed her in her native tongue, asking the abrupt question, "How are you?"
She lifted her golden eyes to his a moment, and then dropped them under the scrutiny of his gaze, which he felt, the next instant, to have been inconsiderate.
"A little homesick, I dare say," he went on, looking down at the kitten, "that was to be expected."
"Even when one never had a home?" she asked. "The nearest thing to it that I have had was the convent where I was educated. The sisters were very good to me. It was a sweet home, and of course I do miss it at times."
"Perhaps you had a dear friend there among the sisters, or possibly the pupils."
"Oh, yes," she said, "a dear girl friend—Nina her name was. She was a year younger than I, and was not permitted to leave the convent to see me married. She was heartbroken. We had always planned that the one first married was to take the other to live with her. Her parents are both dead."
"Ah, then when she leaves school she will come to you, no doubt," said Noel. "That will be delightful for you."
"I don't know. It is not certain. No, I don't think she will do that," said his companion, evidently in some confusion. "The fact is I have not written to her—I couldn't. I don't know what she will think of me, but I cannot write to her. I have tried in vain. I fear she will be hurt, but I have done no more than send her a brief note to tell her she must not judge me by the frequency of my letters—that I love her just the same—but I seem really not to know what to write. It is all so strange—the new country and the changes—and everything being so different—and I feel she would want a full and interesting letter, which I cannot yet compose myself to write. This seems very strange, but it will be different in time, will it not? You don't think this feeling of being in such a strange, strange land, as if it couldn't be real, and couldn't be I—myself—will last always, do you? It will surely pass away. Oh, if you knew how I long to feel at home—to feel it is a place where I am to stay! I feel all the time that I must be just on the way to somewhere, and that I have just stopped here a little while. But I have not. It is my home and I am to spend my life here. I try to tell myself that all day long and make myself believe it, but I cannot. I often fear it will distress my husband that I feel so, but he has not found it out, I'm glad to say. He seems so quiet and satisfied, that I feel ashamed to feel so restless. It will go away in time, will it not? It is perhaps because I am a foreigner and this is a strange land that the feeling is so strong, but it was almost the same when we were in Italy. Sometimes I am afraid I have not a contented disposition, and that I will make myself unhappy always by it, and perhaps my husband too, if he should find it out. Sometimes I cry to think how wrong it is of me. My father told me it was my duty to be happy, with a kind, good husband to take care of me, and I know I ought, but I feel so homesick—for, I don't know what—for Nina and the sisters and the convent. Oh," she broke off suddenly, "I do hope you will forgive me. It is very silly to talk to you so, all about myself, but I have had no one to speak to—at least no one but my husband, and I could not tell him all these feelings that I ought to be ashamed of. I know it is my duty to be satisfied and not feel homesick, but you think it will pass away after a while, do you not?"
What was he to say? The truth was very plain to him that it would never pass, but go on growing worse and worse, as gradually she came to know her own soul better and to understand herself, in the light of the new relationship she had entered into. In the case of most women the revelation she had so unconsciously made to him of the insufficiency of her marriage would have been unwomanly, and perhaps it was even so in her, but it was so only in the sense of being childlike. She was really no more than a child, and more ignorant of the world than many a child of ten. What did she know about marriage or the needs of her own soul? Evidently nothing, and some day he saw before her a terrible awakening from this trance of ignorance. His heart literally ached for her as he sought diligently in his mind for some way to help her and could find not one. The only thing was to let her talk freely, to encourage her by a gentle friendly interest, such as a girl friend might have shown, and to give her the relief of expression for these vague troubles and perplexities which, when uttered, seemed intangible and entirely inexplicable to her. Not once did she so much as imply any reproach to her husband, and it was plain that she felt unconscious of any ground for complaint. She alluded to him frequently and always most kindly, and laid at her own door the entire fault of her discontent.
Noel spoke little, but led her gently on to talk as freely as she chose. Often she would pause and remind herself that she was doing wrong to take up his whole visit with talk about herself, but it was evident it never once occurred to her that she had been guilty of any self-betrayal which she should not have made. He saw her utter loyalty to her husband, even in thought, and it made his blood boil to think of his stupid insensibility to the possession he had in such a wife.
Gradually he was able to soothe her—or perhaps it was the relief of utterance that made her presently seem more light-hearted. Noel pronounced a great many platitudes in an insincere effort to persuade her that things would get better, and somehow they seemed to give her comfort for the moment. As if to put the subject by, she called the big cat to her, snapping her fine slim fingers, and saying, "Come, Grisette"; and the creature jumped into her lap with the obedience of a well-trained dog. Then she enticed the kittens to follow, one by one, until they were all in her lap playing with her ribbons, catching at her little embroidered handkerchief with their soft paws, and rolling over in high glee. She talked to them as if they had been children, petted and chided them in the prettiest way, and then put them down, one by one, with a kiss on each little soft head that made Noel half angry and wholly pitying. It was so touching to see her tenderness, her longing to expend the great store of love within her—and to see her, too, so utterly without an object for it.
The cat and kittens having returned to their place on the rug, Noel proffered a request he had been wanting to put all the evening and asked her to sing. He had found out on the steamer that she possessed an extraordinarily beautiful voice. Her face, which had grown brighter, clouded suddenly.
"I cannot," she answered. "I don't sing at all. My husband got me a piano, thinking it would please me, but I have not opened it. I was afraid he would be disappointed, but he has not noticed it. I used to be sorry he was not fond of music, but this makes me glad."
"Do you really mean that you are going to give up singing? If you do you must let me assure you that it would be very wrong, a wrong to others, to let such a voice as yours be silent."
"Oh, do not tell me that," she said, "I want not to do anything wrong, but indeed I cannot sing. I have tried it sometimes when I sit alone, and it is always the same thing—I choke so I cannot sing. I will get over it, but don't ask me to sing yet."
He could not say another word, especially as the tears were evidently near her eyes, and seeing that the hour was late and her husband, for whose return he had expected to wait, was delayed, he got up to take his leave.
"Vill you not vait for Robert?" she said, speaking for the first time in English and showing already a greater ease in its use. "He vill not be late. I haf not know him to remain so long as this, since I am here."
Noel smiled to hear her, but shook his head.
"No," he answered, "I must go now, but first I want to get you to give me a promise." He put out his hand as he spoke, and she placed hers in it with the confidence of a child.
"You are in a strange land," he said, "but I don't want you to feel that you are altogether among strangers. You may have some need of friends—trouble or sickness or some of the things that are always happening in this sad world, may come to you. I trust not. I hope to God they may let you go by, but we can never tell what will come to us, and I want you to promise me that if you are ever in need of a friend you will write to me. Your husband may be ill, or something like that," he added hurriedly, fearing he had ventured too far, though she showed no sign of thinking so. "And if it is a thing in which you want a woman's help, I have sisters and a mother and they shall come to you. Will you promise me this?"
"I vill. Oh, I vill promise truly," she said. "But vill you not come more?"
"Oh, perhaps so, now and then," he said hurriedly. He could not tell her he had resolved not to, but that was the fixed determination which had been the result of this evening's experiences. He saw her needs of help and tenderness so clearly and he longed so to answer them that the very intensity of that longing was a warning to him. If he had been a younger man, or she an older woman, he might not have come to this hard resolution, but he was experienced enough to know that there was danger in such a companionship as he was tempted to enter into. If she had been older and better acquainted with the world that also might have made a difference, but it would have been exactly the same thing as taking advantage of the unknowingness of a child. Then again, in the third place, if her husband had been careful of her, or even suspicious and jealous, he might have thought it some one's else affair than his, and allowed himself the delight of this acquaintanceship, guarding and loving her like a brother, but none of these supposititious cases was so. The matter as it stood threw the whole responsibility upon him, and, as a man of honor, he could see but one course open to him.
So he stood and held her by the hand with a feeling that she was his little sister, struggling with another feeling that she was not, and took a long look at her lovely face. How he yearned to paint it, and perhaps, for the asking, he might!
"One thing more," he said at last, feeling that he must get it over, "I have never heard your first name, will you not tell me what it is?"
"Christine," she said, and as he repeated it gently she exclaimed:
"Oh, it is truly a pleasant thing to hear it. I have not heard it since so long a time. Robert do say it is too, vat you call—I forget, but he call me Chrissy, and my own name do seem a thing forgot."
"Good-night, Christine," he said, feeling sure he might venture this once, "and do not think I have forgotten you, if you don't see me soon. I am very busy—my friends claim my spare time—I live very far away, but if you are ever in any trouble, little or big, and you or your husband should need me, send a line to my club, and I will come the instant I receive it. Good-by, be a good, brave girl, and don't forget me."
During all these parting words she had let him hold her little hand. He wanted to kiss it before dropping it, for it seemed to him unlikely that he would ever touch it again. He resisted this, however, and merely said good-by again and left her.
Looking back before he closed the front door he could see her in the pretty drawing-room seated on the rug before the fire, her silk draperies crushed beneath her, and holding all the kittens in her lap, the mother-cat sitting by, and looking on contentedly. It was upon this picture that he closed the door.
Just outside he met Dallas, who apologized for being late. He had stayed for the ballet, he said, knowing his wife was not alone. He asked Noel to come again, but got no very satisfactory response.
During the months that followed Mrs. Dallas did not see Noel again, and the news accidentally reached her that he had gone abroad with his mother and sisters. He had called on her once, probably on the eve of his departure, but she had been ill that evening, and the servant had excused her. It had been reported to her that he had inquired particularly whether her illness was serious and had been informed that it was not. That was the last she had heard of him, until she had made some acquaintances in the society in which he was known, and then she occasionally heard his name mentioned and gained the information alluded to.
Her introduction into this society had come about very suddenly. For a long time she had known absolutely no one, and once, in her intense longing for some one to speak to, she had obeyed an ardent impulse and run across the street to a house where a young girl and her mother lived, the former keeping a day-school for small children, and had begged the little teacher to come over and spend the evening with her. Out of this a friendship had sprung, which had been for a long time her only resource. Her husband's habit of going to some place of amusement in the evening seemed to be an inveterate one, though he cared little, apparently, for what he saw. She wearied through a great many evenings with him, and then got out of the habit of accompanying him. It was evident he cared little whether she went or stayed.
One Sunday afternoon the little school-teacher persuaded her to go with her to a great church near by. They were given seats close to the choir, and when a familiar piece of music began Christine, in utter self-forgetfulness, lifted up her voice and sang. When the service was over the conductor of the singing came up to her, and pleading the common bond of music, introduced himself and begged that he and his wife might be allowed to call on her to enlist her interest and services in a great charity entertainment which he was getting up. Christine agreed, with the feeling that it would be ungracious to decline, and the next day they called.
The outcome of the visit of Mr. and Mrs. Jannish was an engagement on the part of Mrs. Dallas to sing the leading role in an opera which had become a cherished wish among some of the best amateur musicians of the city. The scheme had halted only for want of a soprano capable of taking the responsibility of the most difficult part. Jannish was an authority in this musical set, and he knew that the acquisition he had made for their scheme would be not only approved, but rejoiced over. It was such an infinite improvement upon the idea of securing the services of a professional—a thing that they had almost been compelled to resort to.
Mrs. Dallas qualified her consent by the securing of her husband's approval, though she said she felt sure he would not withhold it. He was out at the time, but before the visitors left he came in. He was called and introduced and the request put to him by Jannish, in his most elaborate and supplicatory style. Consent was immediately given, with an air of slightly impatient wonder at being dragged into it at all. It was precisely what his wife had expected, and as she looked at him as he spoke, there was a different expression on her face from that which it would have worn a few months back. That vague and wondering look was less noticeable and an element of comprehendingness that made her eyes look hard now struggled with it sometimes.
After the visit of Jannish and his wife other people called, and immediately Mrs. Dallas was drifting in a stream of musical engagements and rehearsals that took up most of her time, and formed a strong contrast to her former mode of life. She had opportunities to indulge her taste for dress and to wear some of the charming costumes which belonged to her trousseau—bought with what girlish ardor, and then laid away out of sight! She soon came to be admired for her dressing, as well as her beauty and her voice, and as is usual in such cases, the men regarded her with more favor and less suspicion than the women. The good will of the latter sex was, however, secured to some extent, when it was discovered that the prima donna, who they all perceived was to make their opera a great success and the envy of all sister cities with aspiring musical coteries, was apparently indifferent to the attentions of the men, if not, indeed, embarrassed by them. She never went anywhere, to rehearsals or resorts of any kind, public or private, without her husband, no matter who tried to entice her away. She never left his side, except under the necessity of going through her part, and then she returned to him unvaryingly. He was good-looking and well-dressed, and some of the company of both sexes made an effort to make something out of him, but he always seemed surprised when he was spoken to, and to find it a trouble to respond. He was too free from self-consciousness to be awkward, and would sit passive, twirling his mustache and looking on, and was apparently as satisfied to be a spectator of this performance as to go to see something professional. He had grown accustomed to sameness, perhaps, for he never seemed to object to it.
To see his wife the object of enthusiastic adulation on all sides, whether sincere or put on of necessity, as it was by some of the company, appeared to arouse in the husband no emotions of either satisfaction or displeasure.
The great occasion came. The evening's entertainment rose, minute by minute, to its climax of glory, on which the curtain fell, amidst an enthusiasm so intense that only the controlled good breeding of the invited audience prevented demonstrations of a noisy character. Christine had been previously seen by very few of them, and as the audience dispersed, her name, coupled with expressions of enthusiastic surprise and admiration, was on every lip.
Fifteen minutes after the curtain went down the theatre was empty and deserted, every light was out, and profound silence reigned where so lately all had been excitement and animation, and the young creature who had occasioned so much the greatest part of it was being driven homeward, leaning back in the close carriage and clasping close the work-hardened hand of the little teacher who was her companion. Her husband sat opposite, silent as usual, and after a few impetuous, ardent words of love and appreciation Hannah had fallen silent too, merely holding out her hand to meet the hard and straining clasp that had seized upon it as soon as they were settled in the carriage.
After the performance people who had leaped from the audience to the stage, privileged by an acquaintance with some of the company, had pressed forward eagerly for an introduction to Christine. Invitations to supper were showered upon her. She might have gone off in a carriage drawn by men instead of horses if she had desired it. But she had turned away from it all. She was in haste to go, and summoning her husband and friend as quickly as possible, she had declared she was tired out, and had made her excuses with an air so earnest, and to those who had the vision for it, so distressed, that amidst the reproaches of some and the regrets of others she had made her escape.
She shivered as the cold night air struck her face outside the theatre, and drew her wrap closer about her as she stepped into the carriage which was waiting. The drive homeward was silent. The two women sat together, each feeling in that fervent handclasp the emotions which filled the heart of the other. Mrs. Dallas had been roused by something to an unusual pitch of excited feeling, and her little friend, by the intuition of sympathy, defined it. The way was long and Mr. Dallas, making himself as comfortable as possible on the seat opposite, took off his hat, leaned his head back and in a few moments was breathing audibly and regularly.
"He is asleep," whispered his wife, and then, on the breath of a deep-drawn sigh, she added in the same low whisper, "Oh, God, have mercy on me."
"What is it?" whispered Hannah timidly, her voice tender with sympathy.
"Hush! I am going to tell you everything. Wait till we get home. I am going to tell you all."
She spoke excitedly, though still in a whisper, and it was evident that the agitation under which she labored was urging her on to actions in which the voice of discretion and prudence had no part.
Hannah, who had long ago suspected that her beautiful friend—whose face and voice, together with the luxury of her surroundings and dress had made her acquaintance seem like intercourse with a being from a higher sphere—was not happy, now felt an impulse of affectionate pity which made her move closer to her companion and rather timidly put her arm around her. In an instant she was folded in a close embrace, the bare white arm under the wrap straining her in an ardent pressure that drew her head down until it leaned against the breast of the taller woman, and felt the bounding pulses of her heart.
"I am so miserable," whispered the soft voice close to her ear. "I am going to tell you about it. If I couldn't talk to somebody to-night I feel as if I should go mad. Whether it's right or wrong I'm going to tell you. I can't bear it this way any longer. Oh, I am so unhappy—I am so unhappy."
Hannah only pressed closer, without speaking. There was nothing that she could say. She felt keenly that in what seemed the brilliant lot of her beautiful friend there were possibilities of anguish which her commonplace life could know nothing of. So they drove along in silence until the carriage stopped at the door. Mr. Dallas was sleeping so soundly that it was necessary for his wife to waken him, and he got up, looking sleepy and confused, and led the way into the house, while the carriage rolled away, the wheels reverberating down the silent streets.
In the hall Hannah looked at her friend and saw that her face, though pale, was perfectly composed, and her voice, when she spoke to her husband, was also quiet and calm.
"Hannah is going to stay all night, you know," she said. "You needn't stay up for us. I will put out the lights."
He nodded sleepily and went at once up-stairs, as the two women turned into the drawing-room. The lights in the chandelier were burning brightly and a great deep chair was drawn under them, upon which Mrs. Dallas sat down, motioning her friend to a seat facing her. She was wearing the dress in which she had sung the last act of the opera—a Greek costume of soft white silk with trimmings of gold. It was in this dress that she had roused the audience to such a pitch of admiration by her beauty, and seen close, as Hannah was privileged to see it now, there were a score of perfections of detail, in both woman and costume, which those who saw her from afar would not have been aware of. Hannah, who had an ardent soul within her very ordinary little body, looked at her with a sort of worship in her eyes.
Meeting this look, Mrs. Dallas smiled—a smile that was sadder than tears.
"Oh, Hannah, I am so unhappy," she said. "I want to tell you but I don't know how. Oh, my child, I am so miserable."
Her utterance had still that little foreign accent that made it so pathetic, although, in spite of some odd blunders, she had become almost fluent in the English tongue. There was still no indication of tears in either her voice or her eyes, as she leaned back in the padded chair, her head supported by its top, and her long bare arms with their picturesque Greek bracelets resting wearily on its cushioned sides.
Hannah looked at her with the tenderness of her kind heart overflowing in great tears from her eyes and rolling down her cheeks. She pressed her handkerchief to her face in the vain effort to keep them back, but the woman for whom they fell shed no tears. She sat there calm and quiet in her youth and beauty and looked at the plain little school-teacher with a wistful gaze that seemed as if it might be envy.
"Tell me, Hannah," she said presently, when the girl had dried her eyes and grown more calm, "tell me frankly, no matter how strange it may seem to you to have the question asked, what do you think of my husband?"
This startling question naturally found Hannah unprepared with an answer, and after clearing her throat and getting rather red, she said confusedly that she had seen so little of Mr. Dallas, her intercourse with him had been so slight, that she really did not feel that she knew him well enough to give an answer.
"You know him as well as I do," his wife replied. "As he is to you—as you see him daily, exactly so he is to me. I have waited and waited for something more, but in vain. I have come at last to the conclusion that this is all."
Hannah, between wonder and distress, began to feel the tears rise again. The other saw them and bent forward and took her hand.
"Don't cry, poor little thing," she said. "Yes—cry if you can. It shows your heart is soft still—mine is as hard as stone. Oh, God, how I have cried!" she broke off, in a voice grown suddenly passionate. "How I have laid awake at night and cried until my body was exhausted with the sobs. I have thought of my little white bed in the convent, where I slept so placidly, for every night of all those blessed, quiet, peaceful years, until my whole longing would be that I might once more lay myself down upon it and close my eyes forever. If an angel from Heaven had offered me a wish it would have been that one. Oh, Hannah, you do not know. You ought to be so happy. You are so happy. Do you know it? I didn't know it, and I was never grateful for it, but always looking forward to being happy in the future, and oh, how I am punished!"
She wrung her hands together and bit the flesh of her soft lips, as if with a sense of anguish too bitter to be borne.
"I always thought," said Hannah, in a husky voice that sounded still of tears, "that a woman who was beautiful and gifted and admired, and had a husband to take care of her, must be the happiest creature in the world. I used to look at you with envy, but I knew, before to-night, that you suffered sometimes."
"Sometimes! Oh, Hannah, it is not sometimes—but always—continually—evening and morning—day-time and night-time, for when I sleep I have such dreams! The things that were my day dreams long ago come back to me in sleep, and when I wake and think of myself as I am, I know not why I do not die of it. Oh, Hannah, if you have dreamed of marriage, give it up. Live your life out as you are. Die a dear, sweet, good, old maid, teaching little children and being kind to them and taking care of your old mother. Oh, my dear, don't call yourself lonely. Don't dare to say it, lest you should be punished. There is no loneliness that a woman can know which can be compared to a marriage like mine. Oh, I am so lonely every moment that I live, that I feel there is no companionship for me in all this crowded world, for the bitterness of my heart is what no one can feel or share."
"Why did you marry your husband?" said Hannah, surprised at her own boldness.
"Why? I am glad you asked me that. I will tell you, and perhaps you may be saved what I have suffered. If my mother had lived it might have been all different. Surely, surely a mother would have known how to save her child from what I have suffered. A father might not—perhaps a father might not be to blame, though sometimes—oh, Hannah, it is dreadful, but my father seems to me a cruel, wicked man. It was he that did it. What did I know? Why your knowledge of the world is great and vast compared to mine! I had had only the sisters to teach me, and they were as ignorant as I. My father told me he had no home to take me to, and that Robert would give me a sweet home, and love and protection and kindness, and that I would be so happy and must consider myself very fortunate. He told me that Robert could not express himself very well, speaking a different tongue from my own, but that he loved me devotedly and that the great object of his life would be to make me happy. And so I married him, glad to please my father, pleased myself, as a child, at the idea of having a home of my own, and ignorant as a child of what I was doing."
"And without loving your husband?" said the little teacher, with a look that showed she could be severe.
"What did I know about love? I thought I loved him. He was handsome and kind to me and my father said he adored me—he told me himself that he loved me. If his manner was not very ardent, what did I know about ardor in love-making? I knew my not being able to speak English fluently must be a hindrance to him in expressing himself, and I thought he was everything I could wish, and never doubted I should be as happy as a child with a doll-house and everything else that she wanted. As I remember now," she said reflectingly, as if searching back into her memory, "Robert was different in those days—not an impassioned lover, compared to the tenor who sang in the opera to-night, but compared to what he is now, he was so. There was once that he seemed to care a little—"
She broke off and Hannah spoke:
"I was thinking to-night about you and whether you were not in danger," she said, with a certain air of wisdom which her somewhat hard experience of life had given her. "How that man looked at you as he sang those words! That wild passion of love which they expressed seemed a reality. I wondered if you could hear them unmoved—and a thought of danger for you made me feel unhappy."
Christine did not answer her for a moment. A strange smile came to her lips as her eyes rested gently on the little teacher. Eyes and smile had both something of hopelessness in them, as if she despaired of making herself understood.
"That was sweet of you, Hannah," she said presently, a look of simple affectionateness chasing away the other. "It is good to think that there was any one, in all that great crowd of people, who cared so much about me, but, my good little friend, never trouble yourself with that thought in connection with me again. My heart is dead—so dead that it seem weary waiting for the rest of me to die, and nothing but the resurrection morning that renews it all can ever give me back the heart I had before I was married. It did not die suddenly at one blow, but it died a lingering death of slow, slow pain. Think what it is! I am younger than you, and already joy and pleasure and hope are words that have no meaning for me. Oh, poor Hannah! I oughtn't to make you cry, and yet your tears are blessed things. When I could cry I was not so wretched."
She leaned toward the girl and clasped her close, kissing the teardrops from each eye and soothing her, as if hers had been the sorrow.
"I want to be just to my husband," she went on presently. "I do believe he is not to blame. He gives me all he has to give, but there is nothing! Oh, when I look into my heart and see its power of suffering, and see, too, how marvellously happy I might once have been, I seem a thousand worlds away from him—my husband, who ought to be the very closest, nearest, likest thing to me! Perhaps he is not happy, but at least he does not suffer, and he is always contented to live on as we are—no work, no friends, no ambition, no interest in life, except mere living. Oh, but it is hard! How long will it go on so, Hannah?" she broke out suddenly, with a ring of fervor in her voice. "Did you ever hear of any one living on and on and on, in a life like this? Could it go on until one got old and deaf and wrinkled, and can anything end it but death? It seems so impossible that I can be the little Christine who used to sit and dream of happiness in marriage, and of the handsome lover who would come some day and carry me off to a beautiful land where all my dreams would be realized. I came out on that stage to-night," she went on, sitting upright and folding her beautiful arms, "and while the people were looking at me and clapping, a thought came to me that made me feel like sobbing. I wondered in my soul how many broken hearts were covered by those lace and velvet garments, and those smiling, superficial faces. The thought absorbed me so that I forgot everything and the prompter thought I'd forgotten my part entirely and gave me my cue."
"I saw you. I saw the strange look that came over your face, but I did not know what it meant. And perhaps the people envied you and thought you must be so happy, to be so beautiful and admired. Oh, poor Christine! I am sorry for you. I wish you could be happy. It seems as if you might."
"You might! Everything is possible to you. There is no reason, I suppose, why you may not have all the happiness I ever dreamed of, for, after all, the beginning and end of it was love. And yet I have advised you never to marry—for I often disbelieve in the existence of the sort of love that I have dreamed of—but how can I tell? I know nothing but my own life, and I tell you that is an intolerable pain. I sit here and say the words and you hear them, but they are words only to you, shut off as you are from all the experiences that make up my suffering. Lately there has been a new one. If anything could make my life more miserable it would be the addition of poverty and privation to what I bear already—and that is what I am threatened with—what may probably be just ahead of me. Suppose that should come too! Why, then I should be more unhappy yet, I suppose, although I have thought I couldn't be."
She spoke still with that strange calm which her companion had wondered at from the beginning of their conversation. Her manner in the carriage seemed to be a part of the excitement of the evening's performance, but now the cold calm of reaction had come on and she was very quiet. She had leaned back again in the big chair, and looked at Hannah gravely. Neither of them thought of sleep, and their faces expressed its nearness as little as if it were afternoon, instead of midnight. The last words uttered by Christine had presented a practical difficulty to her friend which her own experiences brought home to her forcibly, while they shut her off from a just sympathy with some of her other trials.
"What do you mean?" she said. "Isn't your husband well off and able to support you comfortably?"
"How do I know? How am I to find out?"
"Ask him. Make him explain to you exactly what his circumstances are. I wonder you haven't done that long ago."
"You will wonder at a good deal more if you go on. For my part, I have wondered and wondered until I have no power to wonder left. I did ask him—that and many other things—and the result is I am as blind and ignorant this moment as you are." She spoke almost coldly. One would have thought it was another and an almost indifferent person whose affairs she was discussing.
"But how can you be ignorant?" said Hannah. "Does he refuse to answer your questions?"
"No—he doesn't refuse to answer them, though it is evident he thinks them useless and annoying—but generally he tells me he doesn't know."
"Doesn't know how much money he has, or whether he is rich or poor?"
The other nodded in acquiescence.
"Why, how on earth can that be so? Doesn't he always have money to pay for things as you go along?"
"Yes—heretofore he has always had. I have needed nothing for myself. All the handsome clothes you see me wear belong to my poor, miserable trousseau." She smiled bitterly as she said it, but there were no tears in her eyes and her voice was utterly calm.
"What makes you think, then, that he may not continue to have plenty?"
"A letter I read without his permission, though he left it on the table and probably didn't care. I have been troubled vaguely for some time to find he knew nothing whatever about his business affairs, and that he merely drew on his lawyer for what he wanted, and was always content so long as he got it. Lately, however, although he had been looking for a remittance, the lawyer's letter came without it, and it was that letter that I read. I saw he looked annoyed, but not for long. He put the letter down and spent the evening playing solitaire, as he always does when he doesn't go to the theatre. After he went to bed I read the letter. It was from the lawyer in the far West, who had always had charge of the money left by his father—and he said that having repeatedly warned him that he could not go on spending his principal without coming to the end of his rope, he had to tell him now that the end was almost reached. He might manage to send him a remittance soon by selling some bonds at a great sacrifice, and as his orders were imperative of course he would have to do this, but he notified him that there was scarcely anything left, a certain tract of land, which was almost valueless, and that, he said, was the entire remnant of his inheritance, which could never have been very much as he certainly has no extravagant tastes."
"Why didn't you tell him you had read the letter and ask him about it?" said Hannah, her rather acute little face animated and serious at once.
"And what did he say?"
"That a woman had no business meddling with men's affairs, and that he could not help it."
"But if it is so why doesn't he get something to do?"
"I asked him and he said he couldn't."
"But had he tried?"
"He said he had—several times."
"What could he do?"
Christine shook her head.
"I have wondered," she said, "and I can think of nothing. He said he was not trained to any business, and I know no more what to tell him to do than he knows himself. The lawyer advised him to go to work, but did not suggest how. He spoke as if he did not know of his marriage, for he said a man ought to be able to get something to do that would support one."
"Oh, Christine! and is this all you accomplished?"
"This is all."
"How long ago was it?"
"About a week."
"And you have gone through with all that rehearsing and dressing and acting with this weight on your mind? How could you do it?"
"I was determined to do it. It kept me from thinking. I could not withdraw at the last moment. I knew that as soon as the performance was over I would have to look the thing in the face somehow, though I am more helpless than any child. The thought has pursued me through everything. It terrifies me less when I sit and face it calmly, so, than when I put it by and it comes rushing back—as it did to-night while I was singing my last solo. I thought it would take my breath away, but instead it seemed to give an impulse to my voice that made me sing as I had never sung before. I wondered to hear myself, and I was not surprised the people applauded. It was a love song, but what did I care for the stupid man who stood and rolled his eyes at me sentimentally while I sang it? I was in a frenzy, not of love, but despair. This last knowledge that has come to me has put the final touch. To be an actual beggar, as I may be before long, leaves nothing more but death—and that would be peace and satisfaction and joy."
"But surely your father will help you when he understands."
"He has no money generally. I know he had to borrow some to get my wedding clothes. He explained to me that the last cent of my little inheritance from my mother had been spent on my education. Besides," she added, with a change of tone that made her face harden, "I shall not tell him. I feel bitterly toward my father. He could never have truly loved me: he wanted to rid himself, as soon as he could, of the burden of me. So I am left absolutely without a friend. I don't forget you, Hannah," she added quickly. "You are my friend, I know, and would help me if you could. Your love can help me and it does and will, but we are poor little waifs together—only you can do something to support yourself, and your mother loves you, while I am utterly helpless and have no love in all the world except what you give me. Oh, Hannah, you must never leave me!"
"Where is Mr. Noel—the gentleman you told me of who was so good to you on the steamer, and afterward came to see you and spoke to you so kindly?"
"He has forgotten me—at least I suppose so," she said, shaking her head. "Yes, he was good to me. I think he would be sorry for me. He has gone back to Europe and taken his mother and sisters. Some one was speaking of them and said they all loved him so. You and I are more desolate than most people, Hannah. You have only your mother and me to love you—and I have only you."
The clock on the mantel struck twelve. Christine rose to her feet with a little shiver. There was a mirror not far away, toward which she turned and surveyed herself from head to foot. As she did so the soft folds of her Greek drapery settled about her, severe and beautiful. The masses of her dark hair were drawn into a loose, rich knot pierced by a gold dagger, and her eyes—so remarkably beautiful in color and expression that no one ever saw them unimpressed—were clear and steady as they gazed at the reflected image in front of her.
"I wonder," she said, lifting her bare arms with a sort of conscious unconsciousness and clasping her hands in a fine pose behind her head, which she turned slightly to one side, "I wonder if this is the very last of me—the very last of the Christine who loved to look beautiful and wear rich clothes and be admired, and who thought that she would one day be loved."
Turning away from that long look she held out both fair arms to Hannah.
"Come close, close, Hannah," she said, as the plain little teacher, in her rough dark gown, was drawn into her embrace. "I want to feel some living thing near my heart to-night, for I am frightened and lonely. I have told myself good-by. Christine is dead and gone and I have buried her. I want some one near me in these first moments of my strange new self. Oh, Hannah, if we could die! Not you—for your mother needs you—but me. Oh, Hannah," she said, in a strained voice that sounded as if it were only by an effort that she kept her teeth from chattering, "if I hadn't you to-night I don't know what would become of me."
Hannah tried to soothe her with soft words of comfort and assurances of love.
"It will not be so dark and sad and friendless as you think," she said. "All those people who have admired and praised you so will surely be good to you—" But she was interrupted sharply.
"I am done with them," she said, "and done with fine dressing, and becoming colors." Her voice shook, and Hannah, seeing that she was completely unnerved, succeeded in persuading her to go up to her own room. On the threshold she paused.
"Come into the dressing-room with me," Christine said. "Don't leave me. He will not wake," she added, seeing her friend glance toward the door between the dressing-room and sleeping-room. "He sleeps like a stone. I shall lie here on the lounge till morning. I often do. I have lain there, night in and out, and almost sobbed my heart away, and no one knew."
Hannah braided the lovely hair, unfastened the exquisite white and gold dress, which fell in a rich mass on the floor, and out of it Christine stepped, looking more lovely than ever and more childlike. She caught sight of the ornaments she still wore, and hastily taking them off laid them in a heap on the dressing-table.
"They can be sold," she said. "I shall never want to put them on again. Oh, Hannah, you are so good to me," she went on in the plaintive voice of an unhappy child, as Hannah brought a warm dressing-gown and made her put it on, and little soft-lined slippers for her feet. "I am so cold," she said, shivering. "Some day you will know, perhaps, how unhappy I am. You don't know half of it now, and I cannot tell you. Oh, you have made me so comfortable," she added, as Hannah tucked a warm coverlet over her, on the big, soft lounge. "I haven't had any one to take care of me for so long. Don't leave me, Hannah. Sit in that big chair and hold my hand and let me go to sleep. I am so tired."
Her lids drooped and her voice fell. In another moment she was asleep.
Once only Christine opened her eyes, and finding Hannah still there said piteously, "Oh, I am so unhappy," but the plaintive little tones died away in sleepiness, and in a moment she was drawing in the regular breaths of profound slumber.
By-and-by, without waking her, Hannah drew her hand away, and leaning back in the big chair, threw a great shawl all around her, and worn out by the experiences of the evening, she also fell asleep.
Morning found them so. The rising sun looking in at the window waked them simultaneously, and with a remembering look on both faces, they were clasped in each other's arms. A long embrace and then a kiss. No word was spoken, and when they met at breakfast and were joined by Mr. Dallas, the manner of all three was as usual. The servant who waited saw nothing to comment upon, except, perhaps, that the unwonted presence of a guest made little difference in the usual silentness of the meal.
Noel remained abroad a year and a half and came home at last with a new determination, which he promptly put into effect. This was to begin in earnest the practice of his profession. He was tired of travelling, and even his beloved painting was not enough to satisfy the more insistent demands for occupation and interest, which his maturity of mind and character gave rise to.
Not very long after his return he went to call on the Dallases. He was informed, on inquiring at the house, that a family of another name now occupied it, and no one could tell where Mr. and Mrs. Dallas had gone. He made inquiries at several places in the neighborhood, but in vain.
He walked away, with a sad and tender feeling in his heart for the poor foreign girl, whose beauty, youth and childlike charm had taken a strong hold upon his mind. The annoying thought occurred to him that he had been foolishly prudent and apprehensive of danger. He wondered if it hadn't been a sort of coxcombry in him to think there was any danger to her in free and frequent intercourse with him! As for the danger to himself, that it was cowardly to think about. He wished he had acted differently, and felt unreasonably troubled at having let the girl drift beyond his knowledge. She had looked so young and appealing as he had seen her last, seated on the rug with the kittens on her lap, and so beautiful. No one he had seen before or since was as beautiful. The type seemed almost unique. He knew her to be utterly ignorant of the world, and he hated to think what experience might have taught her of it. He ought to have looked after her more. The reproachful thought stung him. He said to himself that he'd be a little more careful the next time he felt inclined to occupy this high moral platform and be better than other men! He ought to have seen that common kindness demanded a little more of a man than this. He was completely self-disgusted, and registered a sort of mental vow that if he ever found the young creature again he would befriend her, if she were still in need of a friend, and take the consequences. He was not so irresistible, he told himself, as to be necessarily dangerous to the peace of mind of all the women of his acquaintance. He had acted the part of a prig and he was well punished for it.
Noel had altered in some ways since his former return from Europe. For one thing his appearance had changed. He had now a thick, close-trimmed beard, which made him look older and graver. There were some premature gray hairs, also, in his close-cropped hair.
The weather was very hot, and his mother and sisters had gone at once to their country house, but Noel lingered in town, although, socially, it was almost deserted.
One afternoon of a very hot day, when the neighborhoods of soda fountains alone were populous, and men walked about the streets with umbrellas in one hand and palm-leaf fans in the other, with coats open, hats pushed back and frequent manipulation of their pocket-handkerchiefs, Noel, whose sense of propriety admitted of none of these mitigations of the heat, was standing at a down-town crossing, waiting for a car. He was going to his club to refresh himself with a bath, order a dinner with plenty of ice accompanying it, and then take a drive in the park behind a horse warranted to make a breeze. It was getting intolerable in town, and he had just determined to leave it to-morrow.
As he stood waiting he observed, on the opposite corner, a woman carrying a baby. He had a good heart and it troubled him to see that the child seemed ill. He was struck, too, with the fact that the woman, although closely veiled, had something in her figure and bearing, as well as her dress, which made her present position seem in some way incongruous. His practised eye perceived that her figure was good, and his instinct told him that she was a lady. He looked at her so attentively that his car passed without his seeing it until it was too far to hail. As another car, going the opposite way, came along and stopped, the woman got on it, and a resemblance, which some fleeting movement or position suggested to his mind, struck him so powerfully that almost without knowing what he was doing he found himself running to overtake the car, which had started on. It was not difficult to do, and once having undertaken it, it would have looked silly to stop, so he swung himself on to the platform. The car was full and he did not go inside. He saw the figure his eye was following take a seat high up, and turn the child so that it might get the air from the window. He could see the poor, little pinched face, utterly listless and wan, and by reason of its sickness totally bereft of the beauty that belongs to plump, round, rosy babyhood. And yet the child had wonderful eyes—strange, large eyes of a clear, golden-brown color—the like of which he had seen once only before. Memories, speculations and presentments seemed to crowd upon him. He tried to get a view of the mother, but her back was turned to him, and a fat German woman, with a pile of unmade trousers from a clothing establishment, almost hid the sight of that. Usually he could not see these poor sewing-women, with their great, hot burdens of woollen cloth on their knees, without a sentiment of pity, but he did not give this one a thought. His mind was wholly absorbed in scanning curiously, though furtively, the baby's poor, little white face, and all that he could see of the mother's dress and figure. Presently the car came to a halt. The German woman got up and labored down the aisle with her burden and got off, but some one quickly moved into the vacant seat. Still he could see better now, and the better he saw the stronger grew the conviction in his heart. Gradually the car thinned out, and he might have gone nearer, but something held him back. He kept his position by the conductor, until he rang his bell and called out the name of a landing from which the excursion boats went out daily. Then the woman rose, lifting her baby with gentle carefulness, and came down the aisle and got out. She passed directly by Noel, but her thick veil was impenetrable, and yet, from the nearer view of her figure and the pose of her head, the feeling he had was deepened and strengthened. He got out, too, and followed her, and as he walked directly behind her, his eyes fastened on the rich coil of her wavy dark hair, he felt sure that this was Christine Dallas.
"Poor thing!" he said under his breath. The tears were near his eyes, but a feeling of rage surged up and overmastered them. Where was the girl's husband? Where were all the men and women that ought to have protected her and given her support and companionship in this hour?
She toiled on in front of him now, her figure braced to its burden. The baby was light, but she carried in addition to it a shawl and a small bag. He longed to go and help her, but he feared to startle or distress her. If he had been a stranger he would not have hesitated, and he wondered at the cruel indifference of the passers-by. They were mostly laborers, draymen and porters, but at least they were men, and it made his blood boil to see them passing her carelessly and almost jostling her.
She got on board the boat, which was not crowded, and he followed a little way behind. It gave him a sense of keen distress to see her threading her way through groups of rough men, who ignored or jostled her, to the little window where she bought her ticket, and it angered him to see how indifferently the man sold it to her, and pushed her her change.
For a while he kept at a distance, observing her, however, as she took her way, with an air of familiarity with her surroundings, to a place on deck sheltered alike from observation and from the strong breeze which was already beginning. Here the stewardess brought her a pillow, handing it without speaking and waiting significantly. She took it in silence, then got out her purse, a meagre-looking one, and put a little coin into the woman's hand. As she did so she said, "Thank you," and the least little foreign inflection—a lingering difficulty with the "th"—gave Noel the last assurance that he needed. How unforgotten the voice was! He believed he would almost have recognized it without any words.
The woman made no reply, but pocketed her fee and walked away. Then Noel, who had seated himself quite near, with his face so turned that he could see her without the appearance of gazing at her directly, set himself to watch what followed. There was no one else near and it was evident that she had not observed him. Indeed, she did not look about her at all, but kept her eyes on the baby, whose apathetic little face did not change. Shaking and smoothing the pillow she laid it on the seat and tenderly placed her baby on it. The boat had started and the breeze, delicious as it was to a strong person, might yet be too much for a sick child, and this the mother plainly feared, for she hastily hung her shawl over the railing beside the pillow. But this she soon discovered kept off too much air. Noel could note her mental processes and comprehend them as he saw her put up her hand to loosen her thick veil.
His pulses quickened. He was sure already, and yet a figure, a pose, a knot of hair, even a voice and accent might deceive him. So he watched intently as she unfastened her veil and took it off. The brim of her hat was narrow and left her face fully exposed.
It was Christine Dallas—a girl no longer, no longer blooming and childlike and wondering—but saddened, matured, mysteriously changed, with more than the old charm for him in her exquisite woman-face. It was turned to him in profile, distinct against the distant sky, and the remembered eyes were veiled by their dark-fringed lids, as she looked down upon her child.
The veil, ingeniously fastened with a few pins, proved a convenient awning. She laid her arm above it on the rail, as she bent her head toward the baby. Although the eyes were hid, the mouth—in her a feature of extreme sensitiveness—told the story of past suffering and present pain.
What a face! No artist had ever had a model such as that before him, and the pale attenuation of the sick child was almost as interesting a subject. But Noel never thought of it. For once the artist in him became subservient, and he looked on with no feeling but a pity so great that it absolutely filled his heart and left no room for any other.
The mother's suffering face put on a smile, and she made a little kissing sound with her lips to try to attract the baby's notice, and rouse it from its apathy.
"Mother's precious little pigeon," she said caressingly, and catching the thin little face between her soft thumb and forefinger and giving it a loving twitch. But, instead of smiling back at her, a piteous little tremor came around the baby's mouth. His thin forehead wrinkled and he began to whimper.
She caught him to her heart with a motion of passionate love and pity, and began to rock her body to and fro as she held him there.
"Did mother hurt her baby?" she said, speaking in low tones of keenest self-reproach. "There, then, mother wouldn't trouble him any more! Mother was bad and naughty to try to make her boy laugh when he was so sick! Mother loves her baby, that she does, and when her little man gets well he'll play and laugh with mother then, won't he?"
The whimper died away, and when the soft crooning and rocking had continued a little while the baby dropped its weary lids and slept. She laid him in her lap, raising her knee to elevate his head, by resting her foot on the round of a chair. He sank into his new position with a tremulous sigh, and slept on. And as he slept she watched him, her great eyes fastened on his thin little face with a look as if she would devour it with love. Afraid to touch him, lest he should wake, she caught the folds of his dress in her hand with a strength that strained its sinews, as if she were afraid he would be snatched away from her.
Noel, who had expected every moment that she would turn, had now ceased to look for it. She was evidently unconscious of everything, herself included, except the child. As she bent her head above it, never taking her eyes from its wan little countenance, the look of hungry love that came to her was stronger than any look he had ever seen expressed upon a face before. Presently, as if unable to resist the impulse, she took one of the little hands, blue-white for lack of blood, and held it in her own. He could divine the fact that it cost her an effort not to squeeze it hard. Her eyes fastened on it hungrily, and then looked into the pinched little face. Evidently this sleep was something coveted, for she made these slight movements with the utmost caution, and did not venture to change her constrained position. And as she so watched the baby, Noel, keeping as profoundly still, watched her. He saw that her plain, gray costume, charmingly fashioned as it was, was yet somewhat worn and shabby, as if from over-long usage; that her round straw hat was shabby, too, and one of her little boots, cut and finished in such a pretty, foreign fashion, had a small hole in it. The long glove on her left hand was ripped at the finger-ends. The right hand was bare, and looked very strong and healthy as it held the little feeble one. With her other hand she was holding a fan between her child's eyes and the sun. She had never ceased a little rocking motion of the knee. Oh, if she could only keep him asleep! her whole attitude and motion seemed to say. Now and then she uttered low, hushing sounds as a pang of pain would contract the baby's face, and threaten to waken him. These little noises came to Noel faintly, and he felt himself sharing with her this intense desire to keep the child asleep. Suddenly, above the soothing monotone of the vessel's motion, there was a sharp steam-whistle. Christine gave a little smothered cry, and the next instant burst into tears. It was too much for her over-strung nerves. At the same moment the baby waked and began to cry weakly. The sound recalled her to herself and she took the little creature in her arms and rocked and hushed it, at the same time fighting with her own sobs, brushing away her tears with a fold of the baby's dress and trying to speak to it soothingly. But she was utterly unnerved, and the tears and sobs kept coming back even while she spoke those calming, loving words.
Noel could bear it no longer. He was afraid of increasing her agitation, but he felt he must go to her aid. So he took quietly the few steps that brought him to her and said gently:
"Christine, give the baby to me. Don't mind my seeing you. Don't mind anything, but just try to be quiet and rest a little. I will help you."
She looked at him an instant without recognition, then a gleam of comprehension came into her eyes, and in a confused, weak way she let him take the baby, and falling back upon the seat she hid her face in her hands and fell to sobbing. Noel, for the first time in his life holding a young baby in his arms, was yet skilful with it, since nothing but strength and tenderness were required, and he had both. He soothed the little creature into silence, walking backward and forward a few steps, and watching Christine intently, without speaking to her. It was only a moment or two that she gave way, and he felt it would relieve her. She wiped her eyes and sat up.
"I don't know what made me do it," she said. "I have never done so before. It is so foolish; but I did so want baby to stay asleep, and I was hoping nothing would wake him, and the whistle scared me so. Let me have him now, Mr. Noel. Thank you, oh, thank you. Perhaps he feels better. He has had a nice little sleep."
Noel would have kept the child, but he saw she was not to be prevented from taking it, and when she had got it in her arms she began to look at it and talk to it and walk it about with every appearance of having forgotten Noel altogether. He had called her Christine under impulse, and he now recalled the fact that she had taken it simply and without any protest. On the whole, he was glad. To have called her by the formal name by which he had known her might have struck some chord of pain. He did not even know that she bore it still. Dallas might be dead or worse than dead to her. A score of possibilities suggested themselves to his mind. But he felt he must try, if possible, to make her understand him.
"Poor little ill baby," he said, going close to her side, where she stood by the railing with the baby laid upon her shoulder, her head tilted so as to rest her cheek on his. "I hope he is better. I am so glad I saw you, Christine. You must let me help you, exactly as if I were your brother, for no brother could want to help you more. I really think I forgot I wasn't when I called you by your name just now. But you didn't mind it, did you?"
"Oh, no," she said simply. "But where did you come from?" she asked, as if the question had just occurred to her.
"Let us say from the skies," he answered, smiling. "I think my good angel must have sent me to take care of you. Sit down, if you will hold the baby. Let me make you more comfortable."
He went and brought a large and easy chair from some unknown quarter and made her sit in it. Then, saying he would be back presently, he walked away. Before he returned the stewardess appeared, smiling and obsequious, making a profuse offer of her services to hold the baby, or to do anything desired of her. She brought a comfortable hassock, which she placed under Christine's feet, and only the latter's determination prevented her from taking possession of the baby. She told her exactly where she was to be found in case she should be wanted, and ended by presenting her with a key which, she told her, would open a stateroom at the head of the stairs. As the woman walked away Noel returned. Christine told him how kind the stewardess had been, and said that she had never known there were any staterooms on board, this being an excursion boat.
"Oh, there are generally two or three," said Noel carelessly, "for the people to go to when they want to rest. If you'd like to, we'll go now and inspect."
Evidently the prospect pleased her, so they went together, but she refused to allow him to carry the baby, or even to send for the woman. When they opened the door everything was clean and fresh, as if just prepared for them. Christine looked about her with an air of relief that it rejoiced him to see. He told her to get a little rest, if she could, and that he would stroll about for a while and come back for her. She went in and closed the door and he turned away. In a few minutes the stewardess knocked, to offer her services, and Christine, as she accepted them, felt a sudden change as to her whole surrounding atmosphere.
Noel, meanwhile, had gone up on deck, and was walking about and looking around him curiously. He was certainly out of his element, but his habits of life had been such as to make him feel at home almost anywhere. What he rebelled at was the thought of Christine being in this place. Her distress of mind and her poverty seemed so indecently exposed to view. He lingered a while in the thick of the crowd, torturing himself with the horrible incongruity between it and the poor, dear woman in the stateroom below. He had contrived to have put at her disposal the best the boat afforded, but it was abominably meagre. What business had she here at all? It was no place for her. His whole nature rebelled at it, and he grew savage as he thought that it was no business of his to put it right.
Throwing his cigar away he went below and knocked very gently at the stateroom door. It was opened by Christine, who had, perhaps, bathed her face, for the traces of tears were almost gone, though enough remained to give her eyes an appealingness that went to his very heart.
"Well," he said, in that tentative tone which admits of any sort of answer.
She looked immediately at the baby lying on the berth and stood aside to let him see. "He is quiet," she said. "I don't think he is in any pain. I am going to take him on deck again. The doctor said the only thing for him was change of air. I couldn't take him away, so he said to bring him down here on the water every afternoon would do him good, and I've been bringing him every day."
"And is he better?" Noel said, forcing himself to appear to be thinking chiefly of the child. He saw that the idea absorbed her so completely that she had no thought of herself and apparently none of him, and this was well.
"His fever is not so high," she said. "Oh, he has been so ill. Once I thought—" but she broke off unable to speak, and turning toward the berth caught up the child with the fervor of passion, though she did not forget to touch him tenderly, and held him close against her. Then she put on his little head a muslin cap that perhaps had fitted him once but was now pitifully large, and carried her light burden out into the saloon and up the steps, refusing Noel's offer to help her. They went back to their old places, which were quiet and away from the crowd, and when Noel had made her as comfortable as he could, he drew his chair near and sat down. And then the watch began again. He looked at her, and she looked down at the baby on her lap, and apparently the baby was no more unconscious of the gaze bent on him than Christine was of the look with which Noel steadily regarded her. He burned to ask her questions as to what had taken place since he had seen her last, but he feared to waken her from her unconsciousness. It was evident that she accepted him as a simple fact. He had come and here he was. If he helped her to take care of the baby it was all right and she was glad. Not a scruple as to the acceptance of the help had occurred to her. He saw this and was too thankful for it not to be willing to take precautions against interrupting this most satisfactory course of things.
The child would die, he felt sure of that, and his heart quivered to think how she would suffer. And who was there to help her to bear it? He almost wished he was in truth her brother, that his might naturally be that right; almost, but not quite. Well, he wished a great many vain and useless things as he sat there opposite to her, conscious that she had forgotten him. He moved, and even coughed, but she took no notice. The baby's little mouth twitched slightly and her whole being became acutely conscious. She changed its position and words of passionate lovingness crowded upon her lips. But instead of responding to them, it began to whimper fretfully—a sound that brought a spasm of positive anguish across her face.
"There, then, mother's little dear lamb that mother has hurt and troubled! Mother loves her little man, and he'll get well and make poor mother happy again—won't he?"
It was some time before the child could be quieted. The peevish little whine almost angered Noel when he saw how it was cutting into Christine's heart. In the hope of diverting the baby he put out his hand and began to snap his fingers softly in front of its face. There was a ring on the hand that sparkled, and the baby saw it and stretched out his little hand toward it. A gleam of pure delight came into the mother's face.
"He hasn't noticed anything for days," she said, catching Noel's hand in an ardent grasp and holding it so that the baby could see the ring. He felt her fingers close upon it almost lovingly. He knew she could have kissed it, because it had for that second been of interest to her child—and with no knowledge that it was in any way different from the ring upon it. When the baby turned away from it fretfully she let it drop.
At last the little invalid went to sleep in Christine's lap. The boat, which was not to land but went only for the excursion on the water, had turned and they were going back toward the city. The breeze that played around Christine's bent head blew little curly strands about her face and called a faint flush into her cheeks. Noel noted everything.
Night began to draw on and she could no longer see the baby's face distinctly. She drew the end of a light shawl over him, saying as she did so:
"The doctor says this is the best of all—the coming back in the fresh evening air."
She sat up in her place then, and Noel could see that she kept her hand upon her baby's pulse.
"Do you ever sing now?" he asked abruptly.
She shook her head.
"No—except little songs to baby."
"I heard while I was in Europe of your making an immense hit in the amateur opera. Why did you stop?"
"I was forced to. Those people compelled me. I don't know why, but they looked on me as something apart from them. The women were strange and unfriendly, and the men—I don't know," she broke off confusedly, "but it is all hateful to me to think of. I was glad to get away from them. The night of the opera was the last time. Oh, if my baby will get well," she said, bending to touch his thin hair with her lips, "I will never need anything but him. You believe in prayer—don't you? Will you pray to God to make him well?"