E-text prepared by Malcolm Farmer
DR. HEIDENHOFF'S PROCESS
The hand of the clock fastened up on the white wall of the conference room, just over the framed card bearing the words "Stand up for Jesus," and between two other similar cards, respectively bearing the sentences "Come unto Me," and "The Wonderful, the Counsellor," pointed to ten minutes of nine. As was usual at this period of Newville prayer-meetings, a prolonged pause had supervened. The regular standbyes had all taken their usual part, and for any one to speak or pray would have been about as irregular as for one of the regulars to fail in doing so. For the attendants at Newville prayer-meetings were strictly divided into the two classes of speakers and listeners, and, except during revivals or times of special interest, the distinction was scrupulously observed.
Deacon Tuttle had spoken and prayed, Deacon Miller had prayed and spoken, Brother Hunt had amplified a point in last Sunday's sermon, Brother Taylor had called attention to a recent death in the village as a warning to sinners, and Sister Morris had prayed twice, the second time it must be admitted, with a certain perceptible petulance of tone, as if willing to have it understood that she was doing more than ought to be expected of her. But while it was extremely improbable that any others of the twenty or thirty persons assembled would feel called on to break the silence, though it stretched to the crack of doom, yet, on the other hand, to close the meeting before the mill bell had struck nine would have been regarded as a dangerous innovation. Accordingly, it only remained to wait in decorous silence during the remaining ten minutes.
The clock ticked on with that judicial intonation characteristic of time-pieces that measure sacred time and wasted opportunities. At intervals the pastor, with an innocent affectation of having just observed the silence, would remark: "There is yet opportunity. . . . . Time is passing, brethren. . . . . Any brother or sister. . . . . We shall be glad to hear from any one." Farmer Bragg, tired with his day's hoeing, snored quietly in the corner of a seat. Mrs. Parker dropped a hymn-book. Little Tommy Blake, who had fallen over while napping and hit his nose, snivelled under his breath. Madeline Brand, as she sat at the melodeon below the minister's desk, stifled a small yawn with her pretty fingers. A June bug boomed through the open window and circled around Deacon Tuttle's head, affecting that good man with the solicitude characteristic of bald-headed persons when buzzing things are about. Next it made a dive at Madeline, attracted, perhaps, by her shining eyes, and the little gesture of panic with which she evaded it was the prettiest thing in the world; at least, so it seemed to Henry Burr, a broad-shouldered young fellow on the back seat, whose strong, serious face is just now lit up by a pleasant smile.
Mr. Lewis, the minister, being seated directly under the clock, cannot see it without turning around, wherein the audience has an advantage of him, which it makes full use of. Indeed, so closely is the general attention concentrated upon the time-piece, that a stranger might draw the mistaken inference that this was the object for whose worship the little company had gathered. Finally, making a slight concession of etiquette to curiosity, Mr. Lewis turns and looks up at the clock, and, again facing the people, observes, with the air of communicating a piece of intelligence, "There are yet a few moments."
In fact, and not to put too fine a point upon it, there are five minutes left, and the young men on the back seats, who attend prayer-meetings to go home with the girls, are experiencing increasing qualms of alternate hope and fear as the moment draws near when they shall put their fortune to the test, and win or lose it all. As they furtively glance over at the girls, how formidable they look, how superior to common affections, how serenely and icily indifferent, as if the existence of youth of the other sex in their vicinity at that moment was the thought furthest from their minds! How presumptuous, how audacious, to those youth themselves now appears the design, a little while ago so jauntily entertained, of accompanying these dainty beings home, how weak and inadequate the phrases of request which they had framed wherewith to accost them! Madeline Brand is looking particularly grave, as becomes a young lady who knows that she has three would-be escorts waiting for her just outside the church door, not to count one or two within, between whose conflicting claims she has only five minutes more to make up her mind.
The minister had taken up his hymn-book, and was turning over the leaves to select the closing hymn, when some one rose in the back part of the room. Every head turned as if pulled by one wire to see who it was, and Deacon Tuttle put on his spectacles to inspect more closely this dilatory person, who was moved to exhortation at so unnecessary a time.
It was George Bayley, a young man of good education, excellent training, and once of great promise, but of most unfortunate recent experience. About a year previous he had embezzled a small amount of the funds of a corporation in Newville, of which he was paymaster, for the purpose of raising money for a pressing emergency. Various circumstances showed that his repentance had been poignant, even before his theft was discovered. He had reimbursed the corporation, and there was no prosecution, because his dishonest act had been no part of generally vicious habits, but a single unaccountable deflection from rectitude. The evident intensity of his remorse had excited general sympathy, and when Parker, the village druggist, gave him employment as clerk, the act was generally applauded, and all the village folk had endeavoured with one accord, by a friendly and hearty manner, to make him feel that they were disposed to forget the past, and help him to begin life over again. He had been converted at a revival the previous winter, but was counted to have backslidden of late, and become indifferent to religion. He looked badly. His face was exceedingly pale, and his eyes were sunken. But these symptoms of mental sickness were dominated by an expression of singular peace and profound calm. He had the look of one whom, after a wasting illness, the fever has finally left; of one who has struggled hard, but whose struggle is over. And his voice, when he began to speak, was very soft and clear.
"If it will not be too great an inconvenience," he said; "I should like to keep you a few minutes while I talk about myself a little. You remember, perhaps, that I professed to be converted last winter. Since then I am aware that I have shown a lack of interest in religious matters, which has certainly justified you in supposing that I was either hasty or insincere in my profession. I have made my arrangements to leave you soon, and should be sorry to have that impression remain on the minds of my friends. Hasty I may have been, but not insincere. Perhaps you will excuse me if I refer to an unpleasant subject, but I can make my meaning clearer by reviewing a little of my unfortunate history."
The suavity with which he apologized for alluding to his own ruin, as if he had passed beyond the point of any personal feeling in the matter, had something uncanny and creeping in its effect on the listeners, as if they heard a dead soul speaking through living lips.
"After my disgrace," pursued the young man in the same quietly explanatory tone, "the way I felt about myself was very much, I presume, as a mechanic feels, who by an unlucky stroke has hopelessly spoiled the looks of a piece of work, which he nevertheless has got to go on and complete as best he can. Now you know that in order to find any pleasure in his work, the workman must be able to take a certain amount of pride in it. Nothing is more disheartening for him than to have to keep on with a job with which he must be disgusted every time he returns to it, every time his eye glances it over. Do I make my meaning clear? I felt like that beaten crew in last week's regatta, which, when it saw itself hopelessly distanced at the very outset, had no pluck to row out the race, but just pulled ashore and went home.
"Why, I remember when I was a little boy in school, and one day made a big blot on the very first page of my new copybook, that I didn't have the heart to go on any further, and I recollect well how I teased my father to buy me a new book, and cried and sulked until he finally took his knife and neatly cut out the blotted page. Then I was comforted and took heart, and I believe I finished that copybook so well that the teacher gave me the prize.
"Now you see, don't you," he continued, the ghost of a smile glimmering about his eyes, "how it was that after my disgrace I couldn't seem to take an interest any more in anything? Then came the revival, and that gave me a notion that religion might help me. I had heard, from a child, that the blood of Christ had a power to wash away sins and to leave one white and spotless with a sense of being new and clean every whit. That was what I wanted, just what I wanted. I am sure that you never had a more sincere, more dead-in-earnest convert than I was."
He paused a moment, as if in mental contemplation, and then the words dropped slowly from his lips, as a dim self-pitying smile rested on his haggard face.
"I really think you would be sorry for me if you knew how very bitter was my disappointment when I found that, these bright promises were only figurative expressions which I had taken literally. Doubtless I should not have fallen into such a ridiculous mistake if my great need had not made my wishes fathers to my thoughts. Nobody was at all to blame but myself; nobody at all. I'm blaming no one. Forgiving sins, I should have known, is not blotting, them out. The blood of Christ only turns them red instead of black. It leaves them in the record. It leaves them in the memory. That day when I blotted my copybook at school, to have had the teacher forgive me ever so kindly would not have made me feel the least bit better so long as the blot was there. It wasn't any penalty from without, but the hurt to my own pride which the spot made, that I wanted taken away, so I might get heart to go on. Supposing one of you—and you'll excuse me for asking you to put yourself a moment in my place—had picked a pocket. Would it make a great deal of difference in your state of mind that the person whose pocket you had picked kindly forgave you, and declined to prosecute? Your offence against him was trifling, and easily repaired. Your chief offence was against yourself, and that was irreparable. No other person with his forgiveness can mediate between you and yourself. Until you have been in such a fix, you can't imagine, perhaps, how curiously impertinent it sounds to hear talk about somebody else forgiving you for ruining yourself. It is like mocking."
The nine o'clock bell pealed out from the mill tower.
"I am trespassing on your kindness, but I have only a few more words to say. The ancients had a beautiful fable about the water of Lethe, in which the soul that was bathed straightway forgot all that was sad and evil in its previous life; the most stained, disgraced, and mournful of souls coming forth fresh, blithe, and bright as a baby's. I suppose my absurd misunderstanding arose from a vague notion that the blood of Christ had in it something like this virtue of Lethe water. Just think how blessed a thing for men it would be if such were indeed the case, if their memories could be cleansed and disinfected at the same time their hearts were purified! Then the most disgraced and ashamed might live good and happy lives again. Men would be redeemed from their sins in fact, and not merely in name. The figurative promises of the Gospel would become literally true. But this is idle dreaming. I will not keep you," and, checking himself abruptly, he sat down.
The moment he did so, Mr. Lewis rose and pronounced the benediction, dismissing the meeting without the usual closing hymn. He was afraid that something might be said by Deacon Tuttle or Deacon Miller, who were good men, but not very subtile in their spiritual insight, which would still further alienate the unfortunate young man. His own intention of finding opportunity for a little private talk with him after the meeting was, however, disappointed by the promptness with which Bayley left the room. He did not seem to notice the sympathetic faces and out-stretched hands around him. There was a set smile on his face, and his eyes seemed to look through people without seeing them. There was a buzz of conversation as the people began to talk together of the decided novelty in the line of conference-meeting exhortations to which they had just listened. The tone of almost all was sympathetic, though many were shocked and pained, and others declared that they did not understand what he had meant. Many insisted that he must be a little out of his head, calling attention to the fact that he looked so pale. None of these good hearts were half so much offended by anything heretical in the utterances of the young man as they were stirred with sympathy for his evident discouragement. Mr. Lewis was perhaps the only one who had received a very distinct impression of the line of thought underlying his words, and he came walking down the aisle with his head bent and a very grave face, not joining any of the groups which were engaged in talk. Henry Burr was standing near the door, his hat in his hand, watching Madeline out of the corners of his eyes, as she closed the melodeon and adjusted her shawl.
"Good-evening, Henry," said Mr. Lewis, pausing beside the young man. "Do you know whether anything unpleasant has happened to George lately to account for what he said to-night?"
"I do not, sir," replied Henry.
"I had a fancy that he might have been slighted by some one, or given the cold shoulder. He is very sensitive."
"I don't think any one in the village would slight him," said Henry.
"I should have said so too," remarked the minister, reflectively. "Poor boy, poor boy! He seems to feel very badly, and it is hard to know how to cheer him."
"Yes, sir—that is—certainly," replied Henry incoherently, for Madeline was now coming down the aisle.
In his own preoccupation not noticing the young man's, Mr. Lewis passed out.
As she approached the door Madeline was talking animatedly with another young lady.
"Good-evening," said Henry.
"Poor fellow!" continued Madeline to her companion, "he seemed quite hopeless."
"Good-evening," repeated Henry.
Looking around, she appeared to observe him for the first time. "Good-evening," she said.
"May I escort you home?" he asked, becoming slightly red in the face.
She looked at him for a moment as if she could scarcely believe her ears that such an audacious proposal had been made to her. Then she said, with a bewitching smile—
"I shall be much obliged."
As he drew her arm beneath his own the contact diffused an ecstatic sensation of security through his stalwart but tremulous limbs. He had got her, and his tribulations were forgotten. For a while they walked silently along the dark streets, both too much impressed by the tragic suggestions of poor Bayley's outbreak to drop at once into trivialities. For it must be understood that Madeline's little touch of coquetry had been merely instinctive, a sort of unconscious reflex action of the feminine nervous system, quite consistent with very lugubrious engrossments.
To Henry there was something strangely sweet in sharing with her for the first time a mood of solemnity, seeing that their intercourse had always before been in the vein of pleasantry and badinage common to the first stages of courtships. This new experience appeared to dignify their relation, and weave them together with a new strand. At length she said—
"Why didn't you go after poor George and cheer him up instead of going home with me? Anybody could have done that."
"No doubt," replied Henry, seriously; "but, if I'd left anybody else to do it, I should have needed cheering up as much as George does."
"Dear me," she exclaimed, as a little smile, not exactly of vexation, curved her lips under cover of the darkness, "you take a most unwarrantable liberty in being jealous of me. I never gave you nor anybody else any right to be, and I won't have it!"
"Very well. It shall be just as you say," he replied. The sarcastic humility of his tone made her laugh in spite of herself, and she immediately changed the subject, demanding—
"Where is Laura to-night?"
"She's at home, making cake for the picnic," he said.
"The good girl! and I ought to be making some, too. I wonder if poor George will be at the picnic?"
"I doubt it," said Henry. "You know he never goes to any sort of party. The last time I saw him at such a place was at Mr. Bradford's. He was playing whist, and they were joking about cheating. Somebody said—Mr. Bradford it was—'I can trust my wife's honesty. She doesn't know enough to cheat, but I don't know about George.' George was her partner. Bradford didn't mean any harm; he forgot, you see. He'd have bitten his tongue off otherwise sooner than have said it. But everybody saw the application, and there was a dead silence. George got red as fire, and then pale as death. I don't know how they finished the hand, but presently somebody made an excuse, and the game was broken off."
"Oh, dear! dear! That was cruel! cruel! How could Mr. Bradford do it? I should think he would never forgive himself! never!" exclaimed Madeline, with an accent of poignant sympathy, involuntarily pressing Henry's arm, and thereby causing him instantly to forget all about George and his misfortunes, and setting his heart to beating so tumultuously that he was afraid she would notice it and be offended. But she did not seem to be conscious of the intoxicating effluence she was giving forth, and presently added, in a tone of sweetest pity—
"He used to be so frank and dashing in his manner, and now when he meets one of us girls on the street he seems so embarrassed, and looks away or at the ground, as if he thought we should not like to bow to him, or meant to cut him. I'm sure we'd cut our heads off sooner. It's enough to make one cry, such times, to see how wretched he is, and so sensitive that no one can say a word to cheer him. Did you notice what he said about leaving town? I hadn't heard anything about it before, had you?"
"No," said Henry, "not a word. Wonder where he's going. Perhaps he thinks it will be easier for him in some place where they don't know him."
They walked on in silence a few moments, and then Madeline said, in a musing tone—
"How strange it would seem if one really could have unpleasant things blotted out of their memories! What dreadful thing would you forget now, if you could? Confess."
"I would blot out the recollection that you went boat-riding with Will Taylor last Wednesday afternoon, and what I've felt about it ever since."
"Dear me, Mr. Henry Burr," said Madeline, with an air of excessive disdain, "how long is it since I authorized you to concern yourself with my affairs? If it wouldn't please you too much, I'd certainly box your ears.
"I think you're rather unreasonable," he protested, in a hurt tone. "You said a minute ago that you wouldn't permit me to be jealous of you, and just because I'm so anxious to obey you that I want to forget that I ever was, you are vexed."
A small noise, expressive of scorn, and not to be represented by letters of the alphabet, was all the reply she deigned to this more ingenious than ingenuous plea.
"I've made my confession, and it's only fair you should make yours," he said next. "What remorseful deed have you done that you'd like to forget?"
"You needn't speak in that babying tone. I fancy I could commit sins as well as you, with all your big moustache, if I wanted to. I don't believe you'd hurt a fly, although you do look so like a pirate. You've probably got a goody little conscience, so white and soft that you'd die of shame to have people see it."
"Excuse me, Lady Macbeth," he said, laughing; "I don't wish to underrate your powers of depravity, but which of your soul-destroying sins would you prefer to forget, if indeed any of them are shocking enough to trouble your excessively hardened conscience?
"Well, I must admit," said Madeline, seriously, "that I wouldn't care to forget anything I've done, not even my faults and follies. I should be afraid if they were taken away that I shouldn't have any character left."
"Don't put it on that ground," said Henry, "it's sheer vanity that makes you say so. You know your faults are just big enough to be beauty-spots, and that's why you'd rather keep 'em."
She reflected a moment, and then said, decisively—
"That's a compliment. I don't believe I like 'em from you. Don't make me any more."
Perhaps she did not take the trouble to analyse the sentiment that prompted her words. Had she done so, she would doubtless have found it in a consciousness when in his presence of being surrounded with so fine and delicate an atmosphere of unspoken devotion that words of flattery sounded almost gross.
They paused before a gate. Pushing it open and passing within, she said, "Good-night."
"One word more. I have a favour to ask," he said. "May I take you to the picnic?"
"Why, I think no escort will be necessary," she replied; "we go in broad daylight; and there are no bears or Indians at Hemlock Hollow."
"But your basket. You'll need somebody to carry your basket."
"Oh yes, to be sure, my basket," she exclaimed, with an ironical accent. "It will weigh at least two pounds, and I couldn't possibly carry it myself, of course. By all means come, and much obliged for your thoughtfulness."
But as she turned to go in she gave him a glance which had just enough sweetness in it to neutralize the irony of her words. In the treatment of her lovers, Madeline always punctured the skin before applying a drop of sweetness, and perhaps this accounted for the potent effect it had to inflame the blood, compared with more profuse but superficial applications of less sharp-tongued maidens.
Henry waited until the graceful figure had a moment revealed its charming outline against the lamp-lit interior, as she half turned to close the door. Love has occasional metaphysical turns, and it was an odd feeling that came over him as he walked away, being nothing less than a rush of thankfulness and self-congratulation that he was not Madeline. For, if he had been she, he would have lost the ecstasy of loving her, of worshipping her. Ah, how much she lost, how much all those lose, who, fated to be the incarnations of beauty, goodness, and grace, are precluded from being their own worshippers! Well, it was a consolation that she didn't know it, that she actually thought that, with her little coquetries and exactions, she was enjoying the chief usufruct of her beauty. God make up to the haughty, wilful darling in some other way for missing the passing sweetness of the thrall she held her lovers in!
When Burr reached home, he found his sister Laura standing at the gate in a patch of moonlight.
"How pretty you look to-night!" he said, pinching her round cheek.
The young lady merely shrugged her shoulders, and replied dryly—
"So she let you go home with her."
"How do you know that?" he asked, laughing at her shrewd guess.
"Because you're so sweet, you goosey, of course."
But, in truth, any such mode of accounting for Henry's favourable comment on her appearance was quite unnecessary. Laura, with her petite, plump figure, sloe-black eyes, quick in moving, curly head, and dark, clear cheeks, carnation-tinted, would have been thought by many quite as charming a specimen of American girlhood as the stately pale brunette who swayed her brother's affections.
"Come for a walk, chicken! It is much too pretty a night to go indoors," he said.
"Yes, and furnish ears for Madeline's praises, with a few more reflected compliments for pay, perhaps," she replied, contemptuously. "Besides," she added, "I must go into the house and keep father company. I only came out to cool off after baking the cake. You'd better come in too. These moonlight nights always make him specially sad, you know."
The brother and sister had been left motherless not long before, and Laura, in trying to fill her mother's place in the household, so far as she might, was always looking out that her father should have as little opportunity as possible to brood alone over his companionless condition.
That same night toward morning Henry suddenly awoke from a sound sleep. Drowsiness, by some strange influence, had been completely banished from his eyes, and in its stead he became sensible of a profound depression of spirits. Physically, he was entirely comfortable, nor could he trace to any sensation from without either this sudden awakening or the mental condition in which he found himself. It was not that he thought of anything in particular that was gloomy or discouraging, but that all the ends and aims, not only of his own individual life, but of life in general, had assumed an aspect so empty, vain, and colourless, that he felt he would not rise from his bed for anything existence had to offer. He recalled his usual frame of mind, in which these things seemed attractive, with a dull wonderment that so baseless a delusion should be so strong and so general. He wondered if it were possible that it should ever again come over him.
The cold, grey light of earliest morning, that light which is rather the fading of night than the coming of day, filled the room with a faint hue, more cheerless than pitchiest darkness. A distant bell, with slow and heavy strokes, struck three. It was the dead point in the daily revolution of the earth's life, that point just before dawn, when men oftenest die; when surely, but for the force of momentum, the course of nature would stop, and at which doubtless it will one day pause eternally, when the clock is run down. The long-drawn reverberations of the bell, turning remoteness into music, full of the pathos of a sad and infinite patience, died away with an effect unspeakably dreary. His spirit, drawn forth after the vanishing vibrations, seemed to traverse waste spaces without beginning or ending, and aeons of monotonous duration. A sense of utter loneliness—loneliness inevitable, crushing, eternal, the loneliness of existence, encompassed by the infinite void of unconsciousness—enfolded him as a pall. Life lay like an incubus on his bosom. He shuddered at the thought that death might overlook him, and deny him its refuge. Even Madeline's face, as he conjured it up, seemed wan and pale, moving to unutterable pity, powerless to cheer, and all the illusions and passions of love were dim as ball-room candles in the grey light of dawn.
Gradually the moon passed, and he slept again.
As early as half-past eight the following forenoon, groups of men with very serious faces were to be seen standing at the corners of the streets, conversing in hushed tones, and women with awed voices were talking across the fences which divided adjoining yards. Even the children, as they went to school, forgot to play, and talked in whispers together, or lingered near the groups of men to catch a word or two of their conversation, or, maybe, walked silently along with a puzzled, solemn look upon their bright faces.
For a tragedy had occurred at dead of night which never had been paralleled in the history of the village. That morning the sun, as it peered through the closed shutters of an upper chamber, had relieved the darkness of a thing it had been afraid of. George Bayley sat there in a chair, his head sunk on his breast, a small, blue hole in his temple, whence a drop or two of blood had oozed, quite dead.
This, then, was what he meant when he said that he had made arrangements for leaving the village. The doctor thought that the fatal shot must have been fired about three o'clock that morning, and, when Henry heard this, he knew that it was the breath of the angel of death as he flew by that had chilled the genial current in his veins.
Bayley's family lived elsewhere, and his father, a stern, cold, haughty-looking man, was the only relative present at the funeral. When Mr. Lewis undertook to tell him, for his comfort, that there was reason to believe that George was out of his head when he took his life, Mr. Bayley interrupted him.
"Don't say that," he said. "He knew what he was doing. I should not wish any one to think otherwise. I am prouder of him than I had ever expected to be again."
A choir of girls with glistening eyes sang sweet, sad songs at the funeral, songs which, while they lasted, took away the ache of bereavement, like a cool sponge pressed upon a smarting spot. It seemed almost cruel that they must ever cease. And, after the funeral, the young men and girls who had known George, not feeling like returning that day to their ordinary thoughts and occupations, gathered at the house of one of them and passed the hours till dusk, talking tenderly of the departed, and recalling his generous traits and gracious ways.
The funeral had taken place on the day fixed for the picnic. The latter, in consideration of the saddened temper of the young people, was put off a fortnight.
About half-past eight on the morning of the day set for the postponed picnic, Henry knocked at Widow Brand's door. He had by no means forgotten Madeline's consent to allow him to carry her basket, although two weeks had intervened.
She came to the door herself. He had never seen her in anything that set off her dark eyes and olive complexion more richly than the simple picnic dress of white, trimmed with a little crimson braid about the neck and sleeves, which she wore to-day. It was gathered up at the bottom for wandering in the woods, just enough to show the little boots. She looked surprised at seeing him, and exclaimed—
"You haven't come to tell me that the picnic is put off again, or Laura's sick?"
"The picnic is all right, and Laura too. I've come to carry your basket for you."
"Why, you're really very kind," said she, as if she thought him slightly officious.
"Don't you remember you told me I might do so?" he said, getting a little red under her cool inspection.
"When did I?"
"Two weeks ago, that evening poor George spoke in meeting."
"Oh!" she answered, smiling, "so long ago as that? What a terrible memory you have! Come in just a moment, please; I'm nearly ready."
Whether she merely took his word for it, or whether she had remembered her promise perfectly well all the time, and only wanted to make him ask twice for the favour, lest he should feel too presumptuous, I don't pretend to know. Mrs. Brand set a chair for him with much cordiality. She was a gentle, mild-mannered little lady, such a contrast in style and character to Madeline that there was a certain amusing fitness in the latter's habit of calling her "My baby."
"You have a very pleasant day for your picnic, Mr. Burr," said she.
"Yes, we are very lucky," replied Henry, his eyes following Madeline's movements as she stood before the glass, putting on her hat, which had a red feather in it.
To have her thus add the last touches to her toilet in his presence was a suggestion of familiarity, of domesticity, that was very intoxicating to his imagination.
"Is your father well?" inquired Mrs. Brand, affably.
"Very well, thank you, very well indeed," he replied
"There; now I'm ready," said Madeline. "Here's the basket, Henry. Good-bye, mother."
They were a well-matched pair, the stalwart young man and the tall, graceful girl, and it is no wonder the girl's mother stood in the door looking after them with a thoughtful smile.
Hemlock Hollow was a glen between wooded bluffs, about a mile up the beautiful river on which Newville was situated, and boats had been collected at the rendezvous on the river-bank to convey the picnickers thither. On arriving, Madeline and Henry found all the party assembled and in capital spirits; There was still just enough shadow on their merriment to leave the disposition to laugh slightly in excess of its indulgence, than which no condition of mind more favourable to a good time can be imagined.
Laura was there, and to her Will Taylor had attached himself. He was a dapper little black-eyed fellow, a clerk in the dry-goods store, full of fun and good-nature, and a general favourite, but it was certainly rather absurd that Henry should be apprehensive of him as a rival. There also was Fanny Miller, who had the prettiest arm in Newville, a fact discovered once when she wore a Martha Washington toilet at a masquerade sociable, and since circulated from mouth to mouth among the young men. And there, too, was Emily Hunt, who had shocked the girls and thrown the youth into a pleasing panic by appearing at a young people's party the previous winter in low neck and short sleeves. It is to be remarked in extenuation that she had then but recently come from the city, and was not familiar with Newville etiquette. Nor must I forget to mention Ida Lewis, the minister's daughter, a little girl with poor complexion and beautiful brown eyes, who cherished a hopeless passion for Henry. Among the young men was Harry Tuttle, the clerk in the confectionery and fancy goods store, a young man whose father had once sent him for a term to a neighbouring seminary, as a result of which classical experience he still retained a certain jaunty student air verging on the rakish, that was admired by the girls and envied by the young men.
And there, above all, was Tom Longman. Tom was a big, hulking fellow, good-natured and simple-hearted in the extreme. He was the victim of an intense susceptibility to the girls' charms, joined with an intolerable shyness and self-consciousness when in their presence. From this consuming embarrassment he would seek relief by working like a horse whenever there was anything to do. With his hands occupied he had an excuse for not talking to the girls or being addressed by them, and, thus shielded from the, direct rays of their society, basked with inexpressible emotions in the general atmosphere of sweetness and light which they diffused. He liked picnics because there was much work to do, and never attended indoor parties because there was none. This inordinate taste for industry in connection with social enjoyment on Tom's part was strongly encouraged by the other young men, and they were the ones who always stipulated that he should be of the party when there was likely to be any call for rowing, taking care of horses, carrying of loads, putting out of croquet sets, or other manual exertion. He was generally an odd one in such companies. It would be no kindness to provide him a partner, and, besides, everybody made so many jokes about him that none of the girls quite cared to have their names coupled with his, although they all had a compassionate liking for him.
On the present occasion this poor slave of the petticoat had been at work preparing the boats all the morning.
"Why, how nicely you have arranged everything!" said Madeline kindly, as she stood on the sand waiting for Henry to bring up a boat.
"What?" replied Tom, laughing in a flustered way.
He always laughed just so and said "what?" when any of the girls spoke to him, being too much confused by the fact of being addressed to catch what was said the first time.
"It's very good of you to arrange the boats for us, Madeline repeated.
"Oh, 'tain't anything, 'tain't anything at all," he blurted out, with a very red face.
"You are going up in our boat, ain't you, Longman?" said Harry Tuttle.
"No, Tom, you're going with us," cried another young man.
"He's going with us, like a sensible fellow," said Will Taylor, who, with Laura Burr, was sitting on the forward thwart of the boat, into the stern of which Henry was now assisting Madeline.
"Tom, these lazy young men are just wanting you to do their rowing for them," said she. "Get into our boat, and I'll make Henry row you."
"What do you say to that, Henry?" said Tom, snickering.
"It isn't for me to say anything after Madeline has spoken," replied the young man.
"She has him in good subjection," remarked Ida Lewis, not over-sweetly.
"All right, I'll come in your boat, Miss Brand, if you'll take care of me," said Tom, with a sudden spasm of boldness, followed by violent blushes at the thought that perhaps be had said something too free. The boat was pushed off. Nobody took the oars.
"I thought you were going to row?" said Madeline, turning to Henry, who sat beside her in the stern.
"Certainly," said he, making as if he would rise. "Tom, you just sit here while I row."
"Oh no, I'd just as lief row," said Tom, seizing the oars with feverish haste.
"So would I, Tom; I want a little exercise," urged Henry with a hypocritical grin, as he stood up in an attitude of readiness.
"Oh, I like to row. 'I'd a great deal rather. Honestly," asseverated Tom, as he made the water foam with the violence of his strokes, compelling Henry to resume his seat to preserve his equilibrium.
"It's perfectly plain that you don't want to sit by me, Tom. That hurts my feelings," said Madeline, pretending to pout.
"Oh no, it isn't that," protested Tom. "Only I'd rather row; that is, I mean, you know, it's such fun rowing."
"Very well, then," said Madeline, "I sha'n't help you any more; and here they all are tying their boats on to ours."
Sure enough, one of the other boats had fastened its chain to the stern of theirs, and the others had fastened to that; their oarsmen were lying off and Tom was propelling the entire flotilla.
"Oh, I can row 'em all just as easy's not," gasped the devoted youth, the perspiration rolling down his forehead.
But this was a little too bad, and Henry soon cast off the other boats, in spite of the protests of their occupants, who regarded Tom's brawn and muscle as the common stock of the entire party, which no one boat had a right to appropriate.
On reaching Hemlock Hollow, Madeline asked the poor young man for his hat, and returned it to him adorned with evergreens, which nearly distracted him with bashfulness and delight, and drove him to seek a safety-valve for his excitement in superhuman activity all the rest of the morning, arranging croquet sets, hanging swings, breaking ice, squeezing lemons, and fetching water.
"Oh, how thirsty I am!" sighed Madeline, throwing down her croquet mallet.
"The ice-water is not yet ready, but I know a spring a little way off where the water is cold as ice," said Henry.
"Show it to me this instant," she cried, and they walked off together, followed by Ida Lewis's unhappy eyes.
The distance to the spring was not great, but the way was rough, and once or twice he had to help her over fallen trees and steep banks. Once she slipped a little, and for, a single supreme moment he held her whole weight in his arms. Before, they had been talking and laughing gaily, but that made a sudden silence. He dared not look at her for some moments, and when he did there was a slight flush tingeing her usually colourless cheek.
His pulses were already bounding wildly, and, at this betrayal that she had shared his consciousness at that moment, his agitation was tenfold increased. It was the first time she had ever shown a sign of confusion in his presence. The sensation of mastery, of power over her, which it gave, was so utterly new that it put a sort of madness in his blood. Without a word they came to the spring and pretended to drink. As she turned to go back, he lightly caught her fingers in a detaining clasp, and said, in a voice rendered harsh by suppressed emotion—
"Don't be in such a hurry. Where will you find a cooler spot?"
"Oh, it's cool enough anywhere! Let's go back," she replied, starting to return as she spoke. She saw his excitement, and, being herself a little confused, had no idea of allowing a scene to be precipitated just then. She flitted on before with so light a foot that he did not overtake her until she came to a bank too steep for her to surmount without aid. He sprang up and extended her his hand. Assuming an expression as if she were unconscious who was helping her, she took it, and he drew her up to his side. Then with a sudden, audacious impulse, half hoping she would not be angry, half reckless if she were, he clasped her closely in his arms, and kissed her lips. She gasped, and freed herself.
"How dared you do such a thing to me?" she cried.
The big fellow stood before her, sheepish, dogged, contrite, desperate, all in one.
"I couldn't help it," he blurted out. The plea was somehow absurdly simple, and yet rather unanswerable. Angry as she was, she really couldn't think of anything to say, except—
"You'd better help it," with which rather ineffective rebuke she turned away and walked toward the picnic ground. Henry followed in a demoralized frame. His mind was in a ferment. He could not realize what had happened. He could scarcely believe that he had actually done it. He could not conceive how he had dared it. And now what penalty would she inflict? What if she should not forgive him? His soul was dissolved in fears. But, sooth to say, the young lady's actual state of mind was by no means so implacable as he apprehended. She had been ready to be very angry, but the suddenness and depth of his contrition had disarmed her. It took all the force out of her indignation to see that he actually seemed to have a deeper sense of the enormity of his act than she herself had. And when, after they had rejoined the party, she saw that, instead of taking part in the sports, he kept aloof, wandering aimless and disconsolate by himself among the pines, she took compassion on him and sent some one to tell him she wanted him to come and push her in the swing. People had kissed her before. She was not going to leave the first person who had seemed to fully realize the importance of the proceeding to suffer unduly from a susceptibility which did him so much credit. As for Henry, he hardly believed his ears when he heard the summons to attend her. At that the kiss which her rebuke had turned cold on his lips began to glow afresh, and for the first time he tasted its exceeding sweetness; for her calling to him seemed to ratify and consent to it. There were others standing about as he came up to where Madeline sat in the swing, and he was silent, for he could not talk of indifferent things.
With what a fresh charm, with what new sweet suggestions of complaisance that kiss had invested every line and curve of her, from hat-plume to boot-tip! A delicious tremulous sense of proprietorship tinged his every thought of her. He touched the swing-rope as fondly as if it were an electric chain that could communicate the caress to her. Tom Longman, having done all the work that offered itself, had been wandering about in a state of acute embarrassment, not daring to join himself to any of the groups, much less accost a young lady who might be alone. As he drifted near the swing, Madeline said to Henry—
"You may stop swinging me now. I think I'd like to go out rowing." The young man's cup seemed running over. He could scarcely command his voice for delight as he said—
"It will be jolly rowing just now. I'm sure we can get some pond-lilies."
"Really," she replied, airily, "you take too much for granted. I was going to ask Tom Longman to take me out."
She called to Tom, and as he came up, grinning and shambling, she indicated to him her pleasure that he should row her upon the river. The idea of being alone in a small boat for perhaps fifteen minutes with the belle of Newville, and the object of his own secret and distant adoration, paralysed Tom's faculties with an agony of embarrassment. He grew very red, and there was such a buzzing in his ears that he could not feel sure he heard aright, and Madeline had to repeat herself several times before he seemed to fully realize the appalling nature of the proposition. As they walked down to the shore she chatted with him, but he only responded with a profusion of vacant laughs. When he had pulled out on the river, his rowing, from his desire to make an excuse for not talking, was so tremendous that they cheered him from the shore, at the same time shouting—
"Keep her straight! You're going into the bank!"
The truth was, that Tom could not guide the boat because he did not dare to look astern for fear of meeting Madeline's eyes, which, to judge from the space his eyes left around her, he must have supposed to fill at least a quarter of the horizon, like an aurora, in fact. But, all the same, he was having an awfully good time, although perhaps it would be more proper to say he would have a good time when he came to think it over afterward. It was an experience which would prove a mine of gold in his memory, rich enough to furnish for years the gilding to his modest day-dreams. Beauty, like wealth, should make its owners generous. It is a gracious thing in fair women at times to make largesse of their beauty, bestowing its light more freely on tongue-tied, timid adorers than on their bolder suitors, giving to them who dare not ask. Their beauty never can seem more precious to women than when for charity's sake they brighten with its lustre the eyes of shy and retiring admirers.
As Henry was ruefully meditating upon the uncertainty of the sex, and debating the probability that Madeline had called him to swing her for the express purpose of getting a chance to snub him, Ida Lewis came to him, and said—
"Mr. Burr, we're getting up a game of croquet. Won't you play?"
"If I can be on your side," he answered, civilly.
He knew the girl's liking for him, and was always kind to her. At his answer her face flushed with pleasure, and she replied shyly—
"If you'd like to, you may."
Henry was not in the least a conceited fellow, but it was impossible that he should not understand the reason why Ida, who all the morning had looked forlorn enough, was now the life of the croquet-ground, and full of smiles and flushes. She was a good player, and had a corresponding interest in beating, but her equanimity on the present occasion was not in the least disturbed by the disgraceful defeat which Henry's awkwardness and absence of mind entailed on their aide.
But her portion of sunshine for that day was brief enough, for Madeline soon returned from her boat-ride, and Henry found an excuse for leaving the game and joining her where she sat on the ground between the knees of a gigantic oak sorting pond-lilies, which the girls were admiring. As he came up, she did not appear to notice him. As soon as he had a chance to speak without being overheard, he said, soberly—
"Tom ought to thank me for that boat-ride, I suppose."
"I don't know what you mean," she answered, with assumed carelessness.
"I mean that you went to punish me."
"You're sufficiently conceited," she replied. "Laura, come here; your brother is teasing me."
"And do you think I want to be teased to?" replied that young lady, pertly, as she walked off.
Madeline would have risen and left Henry, but she was too proud to let him think that she was afraid of him.. Neither was she afraid, but she was confused, and momentarily without her usual self-confidence. One reason for her running off with Tom had been to get a chance to think. No girl, however coolly her blood may flow, can be pressed to a man's breast, wildly throbbing with love for her, and not experience some agitation in consequence. Whatever may be the state of her sentiments, there is a magnetism in such a contact which she cannot at once throw off. That kiss had brought her relations with Henry to a crisis. It had precipitated the necessity of some decision. She could no longer hold him off, and play with him. By that bold dash he had gained a vantage-ground, a certain masterful attitude which he had never held before. Yet, after all, I am not sure that she was not just a little afraid of him, and, moreover, that she did not like him all the better for it. It was such a novel feeling that it began to make some things, thought of in connection with him, seem more possible to her mind than they had ever seemed before. As she peeped furtively at this young man, so suddenly grown formidable, as he reclined carelessly on the ground at her feet, she admitted to herself that there was something very manly in the sturdy figure and square forehead, with the curly black locks hanging over it. She looked at him with a new interest, half shrinking, half attracted, as one who might come into a very close relation with herself. She scarcely knew whether the thought was agreeable or not.
"Give me your hat," she said, "and I'll put some lilies in it."
"You are very good," said he, handing it to her.
"Does it strike you so?" she replied, hesitatingly. "Then I won't do it. I don't want to appear particularly good to you. I didn't know just how it would seem."
"Oh, it won't seem very good; only about middling," he urged, upon which representation she took the hat.
He watched her admiringly as she deftly wreathed the lilies around it, holding it up, now this way and now that, while she critically inspected the effect.
Then her caprice changed. "I've half a mind to drop it into the river. Would you jump after it?" she said, twirling it by the brim, and looking over the steep bank, near which she sat, into the deep, dark water almost perpendicularly below.
"If it were anything of yours instead of mine, I would jump quickly enough," he replied.
She looked at him with a reckless gleam in her eyes.
"You mustn't talk chaff to me, sir; we'll see," and, snatching a glove from her pocket, she held it out over the water. They were both of them in that state of suppressed excitement which made such an experiment on each other's nerve dangerous. Their eyes met, and neither flinched. If she had dropped it, he would have gone after it.
"After all," she said, suddenly, "that would be taking a good deal of trouble to get a mitten. If you are so anxious for it, I will give it to you now;" and she held out the glove to him with an inscrutable face.
He sprang up from the ground. "Madeline, do you mean it?" he asked, scarcely audibly, his face grown white and pinched. She crumpled the obnoxious glove into her pocket.
"Why, you poor fellow!" she exclaimed, the wildfire in her eyes quenched in a moment with the dew of pity. "Do you care so much?"
"I care everything," he said, huskily.
But, as luck would have it, just at that instant Will Taylor came running up, pursued by Laura, and threw himself upon Madeline's protection. It appeared that he had confessed to the possession of a secret, and on being requested by Laura to impart it had flatly refused to do so.
"I can't really interfere to protect any young man who refuses to tell a secret to a young lady," said Madeline, gravely. "Neglect to tell her the secret, without being particularly asked to do so, would be bad enough, but to refuse after being requested is an offence which calls for the sharpest correction."
"And that isn't all, either," said Laura, vindictively flirting the switch with which she had pursued him. "He used offensive language."
"What did he say?" demanded Madeline, judicially.
"I asked him if he was sure it was a secret that I didn't know already, and he said he was; and I asked him what made him sure, and he said because if I knew it everybody else would. As much as to say I couldn't keep a secret."
"This looks worse and worse, young man," said the judge, severely. "The only course left for you is to make a clean breast of the affair, and throw yourself on the mercy of the court. If the secret turns out to be a good one, I'll let you off as easily as I can."
"It's about the new drug-clerk, the one who is going to take George Bayley's place," said Will, laughing.
"Oh, do tell, quick!" exclaimed Laura.
"I don't care who it is. I sha'n't like him," said Madeline. "Poor George! and here we are forgetting all about him this beautiful day!"
"What's the new clerk's name?" said Laura, impatiently.
"Rather an odd name," said Laura. "I never heard it."
"No," said Will; "he comes all the way from Boston."
"Is he handsome?" inquired Laura.
"I really don't know," replied Will. "I presume Parker failed to make that a condition, although really he ought to, for the looks of the clerk is the principal element in the sale of soda-water, seeing girls are the only ones who drink it."
"Of course it is," said Laura, frankly. "I didn't drink any all last summer, because poor George's sad face took away my disposition. Never mind," she added, "we shall all have a chance to see how he looks at church to-morrow;" and with that the two girls went off together to help set the table for lunch.
The picnickers did not row home till sunset, but Henry found no opportunity to resume the conversation with Madeline which had been broken off at such an interesting point.
The advent of a stranger was an event of importance in the small social world of Newville. Mr. Harrison Cordis, the new clerk in the drug-store, might well have been flattered by the attention which he excited at church the next day, especially from the fairer half of the congregation. Far, however, from appearing discomposed thereby, he returned it with such interest that at least half the girls thought they had captivated him by the end of the morning service. They all agreed that he was awfully handsome, though Laura maintained that he was rather too pretty for a man. He was certainly very pretty. His figure was tall, slight, and elegant. He had delicate hands and feet, a white forehead, deep blue, smiling eyes, short, curly, yellow, hair, and a small moustache, drooping over lips as enticing as a girl's. But the ladies voted his manners yet more pleasing than his appearance. They were charmed by his easy self-possession, and constant alertness as to details of courtesy. The village beaus scornfully called him "cityfied," and secretly longed to be like him. A shrewder criticism than that to which he was exposed would, however, have found the fault with Cordis's manners that, under a show of superior ease and affability, he was disposed to take liberties with his new acquaintances, and exploit their simplicity for his own entertainment. Evidently he felt that he was in the country.
That very first Sunday, after evening meeting, he induced Fanny Miller, at whose father's house he boarded, to introduce him to Madeline, and afterward walked home with her, making himself very agreeable, and crowning his audacity by asking permission to call. Fanny, who went along with them, tattled of this, and it produced a considerable sensation among the girls, for it was the wont of Newville wooers to make very gradual approaches. Laura warmly expressed to Madeline her indignation at the impudence of the proceeding, but that young lady was sure she did not see any harm in it; whereupon Laura lost her temper a little, and hinted that it might be more to her credit if she did. Madeline replied pointedly, and the result was a little spat, from which Laura issued second best, as people generally did who provoked a verbal strife with Madeline. Meanwhile it was rumoured that Cordis had availed himself of the permission that he had asked, and that he had, moreover, been seen talking with her in the post-office several times.
The drug-store being next door to the post-office, it was easy for him, under pretence of calling for the mail, to waylay there any one he might wish to meet. The last of the week Fanny Miller gave a little tea-party, to make Cordis more generally acquainted. On that occasion he singled out Madeline with his attentions in such a pronounced manner that the other girls were somewhat piqued. Laura, having her brother's interest at heart, had much more serious reasons for being uneasy at the look of things. They all remarked how queerly Madeline acted that evening. She was so subdued and quiet, not a bit like herself. When the party broke up, Cordis walked home with Madeline and Laura, whose paths lay together.
"I'm extremely fortunate," said he, as he was walking on with Laura, after leaving Madeline at her house, "to have a chance to escort the two belles of Newville at once."
"I'm not so foolish as I look, Mr. Cordis," said she, rather sharply. She was not going to let him think he could turn the head of every Newville girl as he had Madeline's with his city airs and compliments.
"You might be, and not mind owning it," he replied, making an excuse of her words to scrutinise her face with a frank admiration that sent the colour to her cheeks, though she was more vexed than pleased.
"I mean that I don't like flattery."
"Are you sure?" he asked, with apparent surprise.
"Of course I am. What a question!"
"Excuse me; I only asked because I never met any one before who didn't."
"Never met anybody who didn't like to be told things about themselves which they knew weren't true, and were just said because somebody thought they were foolish enough to believe 'em?"
"I don't expect you to believe 'em yourself," he replied; "only vain people believe the good things people say about them; but I wouldn't give a cent for friends who didn't think better of me than I think of myself, and tell me so occasionally, too."
They stood a moment at Laura's gate, and just then Henry, coming home from the gun-shop of which he was foreman, passed them, and entered the house. "Is that your brother?" asked Cordis.
"It does one's eyes good to see such a powerful looking young man. Is your brother married, may I ask?"
"He is not."
"In coming into a new circle as I have done, you understand, Miss Burr, I often feel a certain awkwardness on account of not knowing the relations between the persons I meet," he said, apologizing for his questions.
Laura saw her opportunity, and promptly improved it.
"My brother has been attentive to Miss Brand for a long time. They are about as good as engaged. Good-evening, Mr. Cordis."
It so happened that several days after this conversation, as Madeline was walking home one afternoon, she glanced back at a crossing of the street, and saw Harrison Cordis coming behind her on his way to tea. At the rate she was walking she would reach home before he overtook her, but, if she walked a very little slower, he would overtake her. Her pace slackened. She blushed at her conduct, but she did not hurry.
The most dangerous lovers women have are men of Cordis's feminine temperament. Such men, by the delicacy and sensitiveness of their own organizations, read women as easily and accurately as women read each other. They are alert to detect and interpret those smallest trifles in tone, expression, and bearing, which betray the real mood far more unmistakably than more obvious signs. Cordis had seen her backward glance, and noted her steps grow slower with a complacent smile. It was this which emboldened him, in spite of the short acquaintance, to venture on the line he did.
"Good-evening, Miss Brand," he said, as he over took her. "I don't really think it's fair to begin to hurry when you hear somebody trying to overtake you.
"I'm sure I didn't mean to," she replied, glad to have a chance to tell the truth, without suspecting, poor girl, that he knew very well she was telling it.
"It isn't safe to," he said, laughing. "You can't tell who it may be. Now, it might have been Mr. Burr, instead of only me."
She understood instantly. Somebody had been telling him about Henry's attentions to her. A bitter anger, a feeling of which a moment before she would have deemed herself utterly incapable, surged up in her heart against the person, whoever it was, who had told him this. For several seconds she could not control herself to speak. Finally, she said—
"I don't understand you. Why do you speak of Mr. Burr to me?"
"I beg pardon. I should not have done so."
"Please explain what you mean.
"You'll excuse me, I hope," he said, as if quite distressed to have displeased her. "It was an unpardonable indiscretion on my part, but somebody told me, or at least I understood, that you were engaged to him."
"Somebody has told you a falsehood, then," she replied, and, with a bow of rather strained dignity turned in at the gate of a house where a moment before she had not had the remotest intention of stopping. If she had been in a boat with him, she would have jumped into the water sooner than protract the inter-view a moment after she had said that. Mechanically she walked up the path and knocked at the door. Until the lady of the house opened it, she did not notice where she had stopped.
Good-afternoon, Madeline. I'm glad to see you. You haven't made me a call this ever so long."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Tuttle, but I haven't time to stop to-day. Ha—have you got a—a pattern of a working apron? I'd like to borrow it."
Now, Henry had not chanced to be at church that first Sunday evening when Cordis obtained an introduction to Madeline, nor was he at Fanny Miller's teaparty. Of the rapidly progressing flirtation between his sweetheart and the handsome drug-clerk he had all this time no suspicion whatever. Spending his days from dawn to sunset in the shop among men, he was not in the way of hearing gossip on that sort of subject; and Laura, who ordinarily kept him posted on village news, had, deemed it best to tell him as yet nothing of her apprehensions. She was aware that the affection between her brother and Madeline was chiefly on his side, and knew enough of her wilfulness to be sure that any attempted interference by him would only make matters worse. Moreover, now that she had warned Cordis that Madeline was pre-empted property, she hoped he would turn his attention elsewhere.
And so, while half the village was agog over the flirtation of the new drug-clerk with Madeline Brand, and Laura was lying awake nights fretting about it, Henry went gaily to and from his work in a state of blissful ignorance. And it was very blissful. He was exultant over the progress he had made in his courtship at the picnic. He had told his love—he had kissed her. If he had not been accepted, he had, at least, not been rejected, and that was a measure of success quite enough to intoxicate so ardent and humble a lover as he. And, indeed, what lover might not have taken courage at remembering the sweet pity that shone in her eyes at the revelation of his love-lorn state? The fruition of his hopes, to which he had only dared look forward as possibly awaiting him somewhere in the dim future, was, maybe, almost at hand. Circumstances combined to prolong these rose-tinted dreams. A sudden press of orders made it necessary to run the shop till late nights. He contrived with difficulty to get out early one evening so as to call on Madeline; but she had gone out, and he failed to see her. It was some ten days after the picnic that, on calling a second time, he found her at home. It chanced to be the very evening of the day on which the conversation between Madeline and Cordis, narrated in the last chapter, had taken place.
She did not come in till Henry had waited some time in the parlour, and then gave him her hand in a very lifeless way. She said she had a bad head-ache, and seemed disposed to leave the talking to him. He spoke of the picnic, but she rather sharply remarked that it was so long ago that she had forgotten all about it. It did seem very long ago to her, but to him it was very fresh. This cool ignoring of all that had happened that day in modifying their relations at one blow knocked the bottom out of all his thinking for the past week, and left him, as it were, all in the air. While he felt that the moment was not propitious for pursuing that topic, he could not for the moment turn his mind to anything else, and, as for Madeline, it appeared to be a matter of entire indifference to her whether anything further was said on any subject. Finally, he remarked, with an effort to which the result may appear disproportionate—
"Mr. Taylor has been making quite extensive alterations on his house, hasn't he?"
"I should think you ought to know, if any one. You pass his house every day," was her response.
"Why, of course I know," he said, staring at her.
"So I thought, but you said 'hasn't he?' And naturally I presumed that you were not quite certain."
She was evidently quizzing him, but her face was inscrutable. She looked only as if patiently and rather wearily explaining a misunderstanding. As she played with her fan, she had an unmistakable expression of being slightly bored.
"Madeline, do you know what I should say was the matter with you if you' were a man?" he said, desperately, yet trying to laugh.
"Well, really"—and her eyes had a rather hard expression—"if you prefer gentlemen's society, you'd better seek it, instead of trying to get along by supposing me to be a gentleman."
"It seems as if I couldn't say anything right," said Henry.
"I think you do talk a little strangely," she admitted, with a faint smile. Her look was quite like that of an uncomplaining martyr.
"What's the matter with you to-night, Madeline? Tell me, for God's sake!" he cried, overcome with sudden grief and alarm.
"I thought I told you I had a headache, and I really wish you wouldn't use profane language," she replied, regarding him with lack-lustre eyes.
"And that's all? It's only a headache?"
"That's quite enough, I'm sure. Would you like me to have toothache besides?"
"You know I didn't mean that."
"Well, earache, then?" she said, wearily, allowing her head to rest back on the top of her chair, as if it were too much of an effort to hold it up, and half shutting her eyes.
"Excuse me, I ought not to have kept you. I'll go now.'
"Don't hurry," she observed, languidly.
"I hope you'll feel better in the morning."
He offered her his hand, and she put hers in his for an instant, but withdrew it without returning his pressure, and he went away, sorely perplexed and bitterly disappointed.
He would have been still more puzzled if he had been told that not only had Madeline not forgotten about what had happened at the picnic, but had, in fact, thought of scarcely anything else during his call. It was that which made her so hard with him, that lent such acid to her tone and such cold aversion to her whole manner. As he went from the house, she stood looking after him through the parlour window, murmuring to herself—.
"Thank Heaven, I'm not engaged to him. How could I think I would ever marry him? Oh, if a girl only knew!"
Henry could not rest until he had seen her again, and found out whether her coldness was a mere freak of coquetry, or something more. One evening when, thanks to the long twilight, it was not yet dark, he called again. She came to the door with hat and gloves on. Was she going out? he asked. She admitted that she had been on the point of going across the street to make a call which had been too long delayed, but wouldn't he come in. No, he would not detain her; he would call again. But he lingered a moment on the steps while, standing on the threshold, she played with a button of a glove. Suddenly he raised his eyes and regarded her in a quite particular manner. She was suddenly absorbed with her glove, but he fancied that her cheek slightly flushed. Just at the moment when he was calculating that she could no longer well avoid looking up, she exclaimed—
"Dear me, how vexatious! there goes another of those buttons. I shall have to sew it on again before I go," and she looked at him with a charmingly frank air of asking for sympathy, at the same time that it conveyed the obvious idea that she ought to lose no time in making the necessary repairs.
"I will not keep you, then," he said, somewhat sadly, and turned away.
Was the accident intentional? Did she want to avoid him? he could not help the thought, and yet what could be more frank and sunshiny than the smile with which she responded to his parting salutation?
The next Sunday Laura and he were at church in the evening.
"I wonder why Madeline was not out. Do you know?" he said as they were walking home.
"You're not nearly so friendly with her as you used to be. What's the matter?"
She did not reply, for just then at a turning of the street, they met the young lady of whom they were speaking. She looked smiling and happy, and very handsome, with a flush in either cheek, and walking with her was the new drug-clerk. She seemed a little confused at meeting Henry, and for a moment appeared to avoid his glance. Then, with a certain bravado, oddly mingled with a deprecating air, she raised her eyes to his and bowed.
It was the first intimation he had had of the true reason of her alienation. Mechanically he walked on and on, too stunned to think as yet, feeling only that there was a terrible time of thinking ahead.
"Hadn't we better turn back, hear?" said Laura, very gently.
He looked up. They were a mile or two out of the village on a lonely country road. They turned, and she said, softly, in the tone like the touch of tender fingers on an aching spot—
"I knew it long ago, but I hadn't the heart to tell you. She set her cap at him from the first. Don't take it too much to heart. She is not good enough for you."
Sweet compassion! Idle words! Is there any such sense of ownership, reaching even to the feeling of identity, as that which the lover has in the one he loves? His thoughts and affections, however short the time, had so grown about her and encased her, as the hardened clay imbeds the fossil flower buried ages ago. It rather seems as if he had found her by quarrying in the depths of his own heart than as if he had picked her from the outside world, from among foreign things. She was never foreign, else he could not have had that intuitive sense of intimateness with her which makes each new trait which she reveals, while a sweet surprise, yet seem in a deeper sense familiar, as if answering to some pre-existing ideal pattern in his own heart, as if it were something that could not have been different. In after years he may grow rich in land and gold, but he never again will have such sense of absolute right and eternally foreordained ownership in any thing as he had long years ago in that sweet girl whom some other fellow married. For, alas! this seemingly inviolable divine title is really no security at all. Love is liable to ten million suits for breach of warranty. The title-deeds he gives to lovers, taking for price their hearts' first-fruits, turn out no titles at all. Half the time, title to the same property is given to several claimants, and the one to finally take possession is often enough one who has no title from love at all.
Henry had been hit hard, but there was a dogged persistence in his disposition that would not allow him to give up till he had tested his fortune to the uttermost. His love was quite unmixed with vanity, for Madeline had never given him any real reason to think that she loved him, and, therefore, the risk of an additional snub or two counted for nothing to deter him. The very next day he left the shop in the afternoon and called on her. Her rather constrained and guarded manner was as if she thought he had come to call her to account, and was prepared for him. He, on the contrary, tried to look as affable and well satisfied as if he were the most prosperous of lovers. When he asked her if she would go out driving with him that afternoon, she was evidently taken quite off her guard. For recrimination she was prepared, but not for this smiling proposal. But she recovered herself in an instant, and said—
"I'm really very much obliged. It is very considerate of you, but my mother is not very well this afternoon, and I feel that I ought not to leave her." Smothering a sick feeling of discouragement, he said, as cheerfully as possible—
"I'm very sorry indeed. Is your mother seriously sick?"
"Oh no, thank you. I presume she will be quite well by morning."
"Won't you, perhaps, go to-morrow afternoon, if she is better? The river road which you admire so much is in all its midsummer glory."
"Thank you. Really; you are quite too good, but I think riding is rather likely to give me the headache lately."
The way she answered him, without being in the least uncivil, left the impression on his mind that he had been duly persistent. There was an awkward silence of a few moments, and he was just about to burst forth with he knew not what exclamations and entreaties, when Madeline rose, saying—
"Excuse me a moment; I think I hear my mother calling," and left the room.
She was gone some time, and returned and sat down with an absent and preoccupied expression of face, and he did not linger.
The next Thursday evening he was at conference meeting, intending to walk home with Madeline if she would let him; to ask her, at least. She was there, as usual, and sat at the melodeon. A few minutes before nine Cordis came in, evidently for the mere purpose of escorting her home. Henry doggedly resolved that she should choose between them then and there, before all the people. The closing hymn was sung, and the buzz of the departing congregation sounded in his ears as if it were far away. He rose and took his place near the door, his face pale, his lips set, regardless of all observers. Cordis, with whom he was unacquainted save by sight, stood near by, good-humouredly smiling, and greeting the people as they passed out.
In general, Madeline liked well enough the excitement of electing between rival suitors, but she would rather, far rather, have avoided this public choice tonight. She had begun to be sorry for Henry. She was as long as possible about closing the melodeon. She opened and closed it again. At length, finding no further excuse for delaying, she came slowly down the aisle, looking a little pale herself. Several of the village young folks who understood the situation lingered, smiling at one other, to see the fun out, and Cordis himself recognized his rival's tragical look with an amused expression, at the same time that he seemed entirely disposed to cross lances with him.
As Madeline approached the door, Henry stepped forward and huskily asked if he might take her home. Bowing to him with a gracious smile of declination, she said, "Thanks," and, taking Cordis's arm, passed out with him.
As they came forth into the shadow of the night, beyond the illumination of the porch lamps of the church, Cordis observed—
"Really, that was quite tragical. I half expected he would pull out a revolver and shoot us both. Poor fellow, I'm sorry for him."
"He was sorrier than you are glad, I dare say, said Madeline.
"Well, I don't know about that," he replied; "I'm as glad as I can be, and I suppose he's as sorry as he can be. I can't imagine any man in love with such a girl as you not being one or the other all the while."
But the tone was a little, a very little, colder than the words, and her quick ear caught the difference.
"What's the matter? Are you vexed about anything? What have I done?" she asked, in a tone of anxious deprecation which no other person but Harrison Cordis had ever heard from her lips.
"You have done nothing," he answered, passing his arm round her waist in a momentary embrace of reassurance. "It is I that am ill-tempered. I couldn't help thinking from the way this Burr pursues you that there must have been something in the story about your having been engaged, after all."
"It is not true. I never was engaged. I couldn't bear him. I don't like him. Only he—he—"
"I don't want to pry into your secrets. Don't make any confessions to me. I have no right to call you to account," he interrupted her, rather stiffly.
"Please don't say that. Oh, please don't talk that way!" she cried out, as if the words had hurt her like a knife. "He liked me, but I didn't like him. I truly didn't. Don't you believe me? What shall I do if you don't?"
It must not be supposed that Cordis had inspired so sudden and strong a passion in Madeline without a reciprocal sentiment. He had been infatuated from the first with the brilliant, beautiful girl, and his jealousy was at least half real, Her piteous distress at his slight show of coldness melted him to tenderness. There was an impassioned reconciliation, to which poor Henry was the sacrifice. Now that he threatened to cost her the smiles of the man she loved, her pity for him was changed into resentment. She said to herself that it was mean and cruel in him to keep pursuing her. It never occurred to her to find Cordis's conduct unfair in reproaching her for not having lived solely for him, before she knew even of his existence. She was rather inclined to side with him, and blame herself for having lacked an intuitive prescience of his coming, which should have kept her a nun in heart and soul.
The next evening, about dusk, Henry was wandering sadly and aimlessly about the streets when he met Madeline face to face. At first she seemed rather unpleasantly startled, and made as if she would pass him without giving him an opportunity to speak to her. Then she appeared to change her mind, and, stopping directly before him, said, in a low voice—
"Won't you please leave me alone, after this? Your attentions are not welcome."
Without giving him a chance to reply, she passed on and walked swiftly up the street. He leaned against the fence, and stood motionless for a long time. That was all that was wanting to make his loss complete—an angry word from her. At last his lips moved a little, and slowly formed these words in a husky, very pitiful whisper—
"That's the end,"
There was one person, at least, in the village who had viewed the success of the new drug-clerk in carrying off the belle of Newville with entire complacency, and that was Ida Lewis, the girl with a poor complexion and beautiful brown eyes, who had cherished a rather hopeless inclination for Henry; now that he had lost that bold girl, she tremulously assured herself, perhaps it was not quite so hopeless. Laura, too, had an idea that such might possibly be the case, and hoping at least to distract her brother, about whom she was becoming quite anxious, she had Ida over to tea once or twice, and, by various other devices which with a clever woman are matters of course, managed to throw her in his way.
He was too much absorbed to take any notice of this at first, but, one evening when Ida was at tea with them, it suddenly flashed upon him, and his face reddened with annoyed embarrassment. He had never felt such a cold anger at Laura as at that moment. He had it in his heart to say something very bitter to her. Would she not at least respect his grief? He had ado to control the impulse that prompted him to rise and leave the table. And then, with that suddenness characteristic of highly wrought moods, his feelings changed, and he discovered how soft-hearted his own sorrow had made him toward all who suffered in the same way. His eyes smarted with pitifulness as he noted the pains with which the little girl opposite him had tried to make the most of her humble charms in the hope of catching his eye. And the very poverty of those charms made her efforts the more pathetic. He blamed his eyes for the hard clearness with which they noted the shortcomings of the small, unformed features, the freckled skin, the insignificant and niggardly contour, and for the cruelty of the comparison they suggested between all this and Madeline's rich beauty. A boundless pity poured out of his heart to cover and transfigure these defects, and he had an impulse to make up to her for them, if he could, by sacrificing himself to her, if she desired. If she felt toward him as he toward Madeline, it were worth his life to save the pity of another such heart-breaking. So should he atone, perhaps, for the suffering Madeline had given him.
After tea he went by himself to nurse these wretched thoughts, and although the sight of Ida had suggested them, he went on to think of himself, and soon became so absorbed in his own misery that he quite forgot about her, and, failing to rejoin the girls that evening, Ida had to go home alone, which was a great disappointment to her. But it was, perhaps, quite as well, on the whole, for both of them that he was not thrown with her again that evening.
It is never fair to take for granted that the greatness of a sorrow or a loss is a just measure of the fault of the one who causes it. Madeline was not willingly cruel. She felt sorry in a way for Henry whenever his set lips and haggard face came under her view, but sorry in a dim and distant way, as one going on a far and joyous journey is sorry for the former associates he leaves behind, associates whose faces already, ere he goes, begin to grow faded and indistinct. At the wooing of Cordis her heart had awaked, and in the high, new joy of loving, she scorned the tame delight of being loved, which, until then, had been her only idea of the passion.
Henry presently discovered that, to stay in the village a looker-on while the love affair of Madeline and Cordis progressed to its consummation, was going to be too much for him. Instead of his getting used to the situation, it seemed to grow daily more insufferable. Every evening the thought that they were together made him feverish and restless till toward midnight, when, with the reflection that Cordis had surely by that time left her, came a possibility of sleep.
And yet, all this time he was not conscious of any special hate toward that young man.. If he had been in his power he would probably have left him unharmed. He could not, indeed, have raised his hand against anything which Madeline cared for. However great his animosity had been, that fact would have made his rival taboo to him. That Madeline had turned away from him was the great matter. Whither she was turned was of subordinate importance. His trouble was that she loved Cordis, not that Cordis loved her. It is only low and narrow natures which can find vent for their love disappointments in rage against their successors. In the strictest, truest sense, indeed, although it is certainly a hard saying, there is no room in a clear mind for such a feeling of jealousy. For the way in which every two hearts approach each other is necessarily a peculiar combination of individualities, never before and never after exactly duplicated in human experience. So that, if we can conceive of a woman truly loving several lovers, whether successively or simultaneously, they would not be rivals, for the manner of her love for each, and the manner of each one's love for her, is peculiar and single, even as if they two were alone in the world. The higher the mental grade of the persons concerned, the wider their sympathies, and the more delicate their perceptions, the more true is this.