NOT PRETTY, BUT PRECIOUS, AND OTHER SHORT STORIES.
John Hay, Clara F. Guernsey, Margaret Hosmer, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Lucy Hamilton Hooper, Etc.
Not Pretty, but Precious, Margret Field. The Victims of Dreams, Margaret Hosmer. The Cold Hand, Clara F. Guernsey. The Blood Seedling, John Hay. The Marquis, Chauncey Hickox. Under False Colors, Lucy Hamilton Hooper. The Hungry Heart, J.W. De Forrest. "How Mother Did It," J.R. Hadermann. The Red Fox, Clara F. Guernsey. Louie, Harriet Prescott Spofford. Old Sadler'S Resurrection, R.D. Minor.
Not Pretty, But Precious.
Mille modi veneris!
Mr. Norval: It is now four weeks since your accident. I have made inquiry of your physician whether news or business communications, however important, brought to your attention, would be detrimental to you, cause an accession of feverish symptoms or otherwise harm you. He assures me, On the contrary, he is sure you have not been for years so free from disease of any sort, with the sole exception of the broken bones, as now. This being so, I venture to approach you upon a subject which I doubt not you are quite as willing to have definitely arranged, and at once, as myself. I can say what I mean, and as I mean it, so much better on paper than in conversation—as I have so little self-possession, and am so readily put out in the matter of argument—that I have determined to write to you, thinking thus to be better able to make you understand and appreciate my reasons and motives, since you can read them when and how you choose.
I have been your wife three weeks. The horrible strangeness of these words is quite beyond me to compass; nevertheless, realize it or not, it is a fact. I am your wife—you, my husband. Why I am your wife I wish simply to rehearse here. Not that we do not both know why, but that we may know it in the same way. You, a handsome, cultivated man, whose dictum is considered law in the world of fashion in which you move and reign, with an assured social position, a handsome fortune, and a popularity that would have obtained for you the hand of any beautiful or wealthy woman whom you sought, have deliberately chosen to make me, a poor, plain, brown-faced little school-teacher, your wife. Not because you wanted me, not because you thought or cared about me, one way or the other, but simply because, in a time of urgent necessity, I was literally the only available woman near you. It chanced, from many points of view and by a chain of circumstances, that I was particularly available. So you married me. The reasons for such a sacrifice of yourself were—you had behaved badly, very badly, to a lady, compromising her name and causing a separation between herself and her husband. Within a few months, her husband having died, both herself and her father had determined to force you to make her reparation by marriage. Going to work very warily, they had taken an opportunity, after a very luxuriant and fast opera-supper, when you were excited by your surroundings and flushed by the wine you had been drinking, your head very light, your judgment very heavy, to draw from you a promise of marriage at the expiration of the year of mourning for her husband. As soon as you became aware of what you had done, you ignominiously fled, and after a Western tour were about to sail for Europe when this unfortunate accident overtook you. Your narrow escape from death, upon having been thrown from the carriage of a distinguished gentleman while driving with him behind a pair of celebrated racers, gave such publicity to your adventure that your amorata was at once aware of your whereabouts. The fear of this had taken possession of you as soon as you were able to think of anything, and the dread that she would follow and marry you while you lay helpless was made a certainty by this telegram from an intimate friend in New York, received the sixth day of your illness:
"It's all up with you, old fellow. The R. has heard you're fast with a broken leg, and she starts on Monday for Boston. Have the clergy ready, for it's marriage."
Then in your bitter need you remembered having talked with me in this hotel-parlor the very day of your accident. I had been a school-friend of your dead sister, and for her sake, on the rare occasions of your seeing me, you have always been polite and kindly patronized me. Now, lying helpless and unable to extricate yourself from your dilemma, you recalled the evident pleasure upon my foolish, tell-tale face at seeing you, the delight I had betrayed in the attention you had shown me, such as finding a seat at dinner for myself and my old lady friend, although some elegant and fashionable girls were waiting with ill-suppressed eagerness for your escort. Remembering all this, knowing as you did that I was poor, wearing out my life in teaching, in your sore need you suddenly thought, "I wonder if the girl wouldn't marry me? She'd make a good nurse, could look after my traps, and, though she is as ugly as sin and a nobody, wouldn't be the deuced disgrace to a fellow this Rollins woman will be. At all events, she'll save me from that fate if she takes up with my offer. It's a choice of evils, and this would be the least; and I'll try it." This, in plain, unadorned speech, was what you thought. Then you sent for me, began very pathetically to talk of your desolate state, your family all dead, and so on; that it had been sadly brought home to you how alone you were while lying sick, hour after hour, in this great hotel, with only your valet to attend to you and take an interest in your well-being; and that, day after day, as you lay thinking of your fate, my face had come before you, recalling tender memories of your lost and dearly-loved sister. Then you had remembered that as girl and boy we had been lovers, and really cared very much for each other. As you got this far toward your grande denouement, something in my face, I suppose, made you realize that if you were to compass your ends with me it must be by honesty only. Then you blurted it all out—in, as I could not help thinking as I listened, as school-boyish and abashed a way as if you had—well, as if you had not been a consummate man of the world, rather noted for your aplomb.
It came across me (as I heard you in dumb amazement, with crimson face and trembling frame) that even the best polish of years' laying on will crack somewhere under very hard pressure. Well, you were honest and told me all, never pretending, as you had at first essayed to do, that it was out of any lingering regard for myself as your sister's friend that you sought me now, but simply on account of my availability. Had there been some bright young beauty with wealth and station at hand, no thought of me would ever have entered your mind: all this I understood at once from your half confessions—all this, I was glad to find, you had at least enough honor to let me know, although you risked what to you in your actual situation was very perilous—a refusal.
I asked until the next day to consider the matter—whether it would be better to take service with you, exchange for my boarding, clothing and incidental expenses the daily care of your comfort and pleasure, or earn my bread in the old wearing way. And the second day after that we were married. That is all. I believe that to be a simple statement of the facts in your case: I am right, am I not?
The day after our marriage your lady-love and her paternal ancestor came. At my own suggestion and with your eager consent I received them, and the result you know.
Now for my own reasons for this strange marriage. You are aware that my father was a professor of mathematics in various schools and colleges of the city where he lived, teaching in the school, among others, in which your sister and myself were pupils. I believe you know that when a young man he had eloped with and married one of his scholars, the daughter of a rich and proud family, who discarded her. For years she was a stranger to them, until her husband had won a name and handsome fortune for himself: then she was taken into favor again, her husband's distinction in the scientific world being supposed to add lustre to the family name. Alas for us! it was a favor that has cost us dear. I was their only child. When my sweet, pretty mother lay dying she left to me, her sixteen-year-old child, my dreamy, unworldly father as a legacy. "Take care of him: he knows no guile, and your uncles will wrong him if they can," she said. And they did, or one of them. Ere the bitter agony of my mother's death had enabled him to return to his duties, it was discovered that one of her brothers had forged his name and literally stripped him of everything.
Of course, then he went to work again to earn our daily bread—not with his old love or ability, but in an inert, feeble way that was pitiful to see. I think from the day my mother was buried he was dying. Some people, you know, die hard—some part with life lightly, as if it was a faded robe they shook off to don a brighter one. Others—my father was one, and I am like him—see one by one their trusts, their hopes, their loves die: then with a deathly throe sunder themselves from life. But pardon my digression.
When I was twenty my father died. Since then, spite of expressions of disapproval and offers of support from my mother's family, I have maintained myself by teaching in the schools where my father had been known, preferring to do without assistance so long as I had health. One of my uncles desired to take me into his family, and thus wipe out the wrong done my father by his brother, and my aunts proffered me an income out of their private means. I mention this to do them every justice, but I think even a man of fashion like yourself will acknowledge the impossibility of my accepting, while I could avoid it, a life of dependence. I could not accept favors from those who had treated my dear parents unkindly; so I have e'en gone my own way for these last ten years, and led a not unhappy life, if a busy and rather wearing one.
My gay cousins, all of whom you know well—the Wilber girls, Leta and Jennie, pretty little Lou Barton, and another set of Wilbers whom I think you do not know so well, who are married now—my gay cousins, then, most of them beauties, all of them rich and fashionable, are somewhat ashamed of me, and have let me feel it in every petty way that we women know so well how to find. I am ugly and poor, my earning my own living is a spot upon their gentility, and I have unfortunately, and quite against my will, more than once given them cause for serious annoyance and apprehension. Then, one of our uncles, who is a bachelor and very rich, has insisted that I am never to be slighted—always to be invited to everything in the shape of a party given by the family. If it lay with me, of course I would never accept these invitations, but I have had it explained to me over and over again that my not doing so is visited upon the party-givers in one way or another by our masterful uncle Rufus. So, occasionally, very much against my inclination, I leave my little third-story room, with its cozy fire and humble adornments, and sit in the corner of their great rooms, a "looker-on in Vienna" in every sense.
I have many kind friends: it would be strange if in all these years I had not found some who did not care for outward advantages. I have dreamed my sweet love-dream, and it is over, and the roses have grown above my buried hopes.
Since then I have let one idea fill my life to the exclusion of everything else, putting away from me all desires and thoughts of other needs; and that too has left me. I call it an "idea" for lack of a better name. I had put away all thought of marriage with my bright youth, but took into my heart instead what I deemed would serve as well—a friendship for another woman. For ten years we knew no separate life—I thought no separate hopes. She had loved, been on the eve of marriage, her lover had died: that was her heart's history, and henceforth the idea of love had fallen out of both our lives—not the idea only, but the possibility of love. I thought so—she said so.
I trusted her and loved her with a perfect love. I wound my hopes about her: I gave up all my life to her as if she had been my lover. I never cared to form other friendships. I deprived myself of all possibilities of making other ties of any sort, and with the first opportunity she whistled me down the wind, and cared no more for me than if she had never professed to love me. She had been my one bright thing—she was sweet and winsome—the one golden gleam in my sombre life. My future was bound up in her so completely that when she severed the fine, close cords (brittle, yet so strong) which had bound us together for years, she cut into my heart—nay more, wrested from me all my sweet trusts and faiths. If she is false, who else in all God's earth is true? I pity myself very much. You, of course, will not see why her marrying should make a difference if we loved, and will call me selfish. Not so, not so! She might have married as soon as it pleased her, and I should have been glad. It would have made a difference, of course: she must in some sort have been parted from me, but that I could have borne if it made her happy. But from her acceptance of her lover—about whom we will say nothing, save that he was the sort of man she had always held in abhorrence—she has coolly ignored my right to any part or lot in her fate. She had told me (or I, poor fool! thought so) every hope and fear of her life: now she told me what she chose, and was astonished that I expected more—hurt that I seemed changed and did not find my friendship flourish on crumbs after being nourished for years from full loaves—was quite unhappy that I cared so little for the minor concerns of her life, when, good lack! I did not know what I might or might not ask and not be snubbed; for once she told me there were things due to the man one is going to marry (at that time she had not got to the extent of saying whom one loves) that could not be spoken of to me. Of course she had only to mention the fact to me to make it perfectly plain, and henceforth he and his doings, his belongings and himself, all of them of the tamest sort at best, were a sealed book to me. And again she quenched a feeble effort of mine to get back to my old place, by telling me such topics she could discuss only with her sister, "her shadow sister" she prettily called her. So I am desolate!
Knowing this, you may understand in some degree what could induce a little waif like me to accept such an offer as yours. I think no one in all God's earth is more desolate than I. In my heart I bear always that unforgotten love in my life. I have only a barren waste to show. It is as if I had started from a lovely, radiant garden in the fair morning of my life, in which I had left the bright, sweet rose of my love, and walking along a narrow, dark path, had clasped hands with, and drawn my light and warmth from, a figure walking close beside me; and though from all sides as I walked forms had come to me, offering me fair fruits and sweet flowers, I declined them all without ever a word of thanks, being so content with my one companion. And suddenly, when all my youth, all my prospects of other things, had gone, this idealized one had withdrawn its hand-clasp, and turning on me a face I did not know, faded into darkness, leaving me nothing but my broken hopes, a wreath of withered flowers,
"Tangled down in chains about my feet."
You do not of course realize how the old French emigre blood in my veins, inherited from my father, makes this a very vital matter to me. We cling to our hopes very tenaciously while they abide—then we are distraught. We loved, my father and I, very few, but those with a clinging oneness that is wellnigh pain: he loved my mother and myself—that was all. Likewise I had my two: they having failed me, my life is a blank. I have heard of empty-hearted people: I know now what the phrase means. I am empty-hearted: I have not one hope, one particle of faith, one real, honest desire, except to "drie my weir," as the Scotch say, doing my duty as best I may, as it comes to me. But I have a woman's hatred of pity: my cousins have long accorded me a contemptuous pity for being an old maid. I laughed their pity to scorn while I had Esther Hooper. What more did I need? We could enact over again the sweet old life of the Ladies of Llangollen.
We had planned our lives a thousand times. Poor we both were, yet we would put something away every year for our old age, and work cheerily on until we could work no more, then creep to our nest like a couple of old kittens, and cuddle down by our warm, pleasant fire—together, and therefore content. Well, you see it was not to be: she had grown affrighted, I suppose, at the thought of all that weary life with only me, and has married a man who outrages all her delicate instincts and traditions of an accordant husband. But why speak of him? He supports her, and she has escaped the obloquy of old-maidism. She has married a maintenance. She says she loves him, so of course she does.
For myself, my health, which has always been very rugged, has failed me utterly this last year; but as my bread depends upon my ability to endure daily and constant fatigue, I have forced myself to endeavor to get up the amount of strength required for my winter's work by the present expedition, planned for me by a friend. Bah! what do I talk of friendship for? An old lady who was once a teacher in the school from which my father had married my mother, and who, I think, had cared with more than friendship for him, has in these last few years fallen heir to a small property—not a very great deal, but enough to enable her to live in comfort, and exercise her kindly heart in deeds of charity occasionally. She has chosen for years to occupy rooms beneath my own, and has always been a sort of mother to me. Most of the pretty things that have fallen into my life, and most of its pleasures, have come to me through her. She has many troublesome faults, as we all have, but she is old, and I have always had Esther to talk them over and laugh them off with, so have borne them easily. This year, because she saw I was dying, she took me with her to the mountains of Vermont, and I have got a new lease of life, and new capacities for suffering as well.
On our way back she was suddenly attacked with the illness which detained us at this Boston hotel. Here your accident laid you up, and the rest came as I have told.
You have married me to rid yourself of a union with a woman you detest, being utterly indifferent to me. I have married you because I cannot bring myself to go back to that old teaching-life, now so cold and gray. I think I can earn my board in taking care of your belongings, and the having saved you from a dreadful fate must compensate to you for the little of my presence you will for the future be compelled to endure. It need not be much or long continued if we start with a fair comprehension of each other.
This brings me to the reason of all this long history. I have always looked upon marriage without love as nothing more or less than legalized vice. I think you, who are so intrinsically a man of the world, will have imbibed the (so-called) sensible and popular views upon such subjects, and will at once coincide with me that in such a union as ours—a literal mariage de convenance on both sides—my ideas are not unwise. Since upon you will henceforth depend my maintenance (as I of course understand that a wife who worked for her own support would be a disgrace to you: indeed, I doubt whether the having married a girl who has already done so is not a cause of shame), I ask that now, when Mrs. Keller is about to leave me, and my arrangements as your wife must be finally made—when, in fact, her giving up her room necessitates my coming to yours, her leaving compelling me either to go with her, or come, as of course I must, to you—we may have a definite understanding as to our future relations.
You have been kind enough to approve of the little I have been able to do for you since our marriage—to say to Mrs. Keller you did not know what it was to be taken care of in sickness; and to myself you have more than once laughingly spoken of a wife as a good institution, adding, that had you known how comfortable it was to have some one about you to think of and care for you, you would have invested in the article before; and so on. I am glad of this: I am pleased that my society has not proved repugnant to you; for since it has been no annoyance in its first trial, I think we can manage that it shall not be so in the future. I would ask, as an especial piece of mercy to "your handmaiden," that you will grant her some favors at the outset of our somewhat tangled fate. Please let me be your sister. It is for your well-being the world should know me as your wife, and, the Lord helping me, I will be a willing, faithful helpmeet to you, caring most for your comfort and happiness, spending and being spent in your service; never demanding or desiring your attention, except so much as is due me in outward seeming; interfering with none of your pleasures or pursuits, or thrusting my needs or feelings never before you. I have no expectation of winning your love: it has been an understood thing from the first—that is something neither expects from the other—therefore any show of caressing fondness upon your part would be quite out of keeping with our position. I have watched with some amusement, and a little pain that you should imagine it requisite, your attempts at petting me during these last two weeks. Poor, helpless man! it was a little hard to have to pretend an interest and tenderness you did not feel. Will you let this cease, with every other demonstration of affection, in our private relations?
For the rest, claiming nothing from you, giving you nothing but the services for which you render me a full equivalent, I grant you, as far as I have a right to do so, the largest liberty of action. We are only jealous of those we love: therefore all women will be as free to you as they have hitherto been or their will accords, save that you have debarred yourself for a time from offering any one of them marriage. I hope to be so little trouble to you, and so serviceable to you in many ways, that you shall realize to the full that if an unloving union could be so much more comfortable than a bachelor's life, a life passed with a loving and beloved wife would be bliss indeed, and so when my life has ended you will not be sorry that I stopped in your path a few years. For I shall not trouble you very long. I am a poor little perfumeless flower, having no sweetness or beauty with which to charm the eye or senses, only fit to grow among the kitchen herbs—rue and thyme, and such old-fashioned things. But I need a great deal of sunshine, spite of my plainness, to keep life in me. And now that all the heat and passion of love, all the sunny hopes and glow of friendship, have left me, I shall just fade and fade until some day you will find the poor little weed has dropped to earth for ever.
I am but two years younger than yourself, and women, especially women with a great sorrow, age cruelly fast. I look and feel older than I am—you wear your years like a crown, and appear younger than you are. I have made my little venture on life's ocean—made and failed: my barque, freighted with a few cherished hopes, has been wrecked, and though I have reached a rock to which I can cling for a time, yet I am terribly hurt, the waves have buffeted me cruelly, and in a little while I shall let go my hold and float out—out into the ocean of eternity. Ah! there is comfort after all: life is hard, but afterward there is peace and rest!
I am nearly through this long tirade. Pardon its length: it is my first, and shall be my last, heart-outpouring to you; and if it make you comprehend me, I shall not have written or you have read in vain.
Your income will not support the establishment your position in society would require if we went to housekeeping; besides, you would feel as if you must then be more stationary, more in your own home, than is at present your custom, therefore in a degree in bondage. And a hotel-life is very expensive and very cheerless. You have kindly said you intended dividing your income with me, giving me half. At first I was indignant at the idea, but now I think I see that it will be in every way the best. One of my cousins has been occupying a very elegantly-appointed suite of rooms on Twenty-fourth street. Harry writes me he is going very suddenly to Europe. His rooms will of course be vacant: he talks of renting them furnished. I have thought, if you would not object to it, we might take them off his hands. I have calculated that the part of your means you intend for me will meet all our expenses of every sort if you permit me to have the arranging, of our daily affairs. I will pay the rent and meet all the expenses of our living out of this sum, leaving you your reserved funds to meet your ordinary requirements and pleasures. By this arrangement, you see, I shall get my living free, and I am sure shall have a surplus over and above our expenses, as I am a good manager and used to making the most of everything.
There is one sacrifice which, do we enter into this arrangement, I must ask of you—that when we return to New York you give up your valet. For more than one reason: I cannot have a spy upon the mode of life we are to lead. I am foolishly sensitive of the position of a neglected wife, and I feel assured your gentlemanly instincts will prevent your ever offering any observable slight to the woman who bears your name. Besides, in the apartments I propose our taking there will be no room for a man-servant, and one of the maids connected with the house will be all the assistant I shall require. When you are away on your frequent excursions to all parts of the world it will be very easy to provide yourself a servant. Will you try for a few weeks how well I can supply, or have the place supplied, of this man, whom you intend in any case to dismiss? This is all. Next week, the doctor thinks, you may be moved to a lounge, and perhaps the week after be able to travel, or at farthest the week following.
I acknowledge to the womanish feeling of being exultant at the idea of the envy I shall awaken in the breasts of your adoring circle of lady friends—my lady cousins among them—in having, spite of my unattractiveness, secured the husband they have long striven by every wile to win. Ah! they little know, and I trust never may, why I, without seeking, have ensnared their rara avis to be my legal bondsman. Rather a contradiction in terms!
The pretty fiction of our sudden marriage being a renewal of an old love-affair is more of an untruth than I am used to letting pass, and yet has enough truth in it to make it reality, since you were the hero of my girlish dreams. So we will let the explanation thus worded, which you have written to my uncles and stated verbally to Mrs. Keller, stand; also, that the undue haste was caused by your pressing need of me during your accident. I think, indeed, from my cousin Harry's letter yesterday, and one from Shelton last week, they have taken the idea that we have been spending the summer together, and that you were following me home when you were stayed in your mad career by a broken leg.
I am done; are you not thankful? There have been some things in this letter very hard to say, which, if I were braver or knew you better, I should have liked to be more outspoken about. But enough has, I think, been said to make you appreciate my earnest desires and my reasons for them. I am most truly,
And he, prone upon his back this warm September day, read this long epistle from his new wife, then laid it down and closing his eyes murmured softly, "What a strange little puss it is!" Lying in the dim light her hand had created for him, he thought of his own troubles and hers, just as she had stated them. The blood would flush up to his brow as her cool ignoring of his surpassing attractions, to which all other women accorded their full meed of praise, rose up before him. He of whom it had been said if he beckoned with his finger women left their duties, gave up their very life to do his pleasure!—he to have the girl he had honored by making his wife, a little brown woman, plain and almost passe (he was man enough not to care for her poverty), show she cared no more for his love than he did for hers I—was as indifferent to him as he to her! Indifference from a woman was a new experience to him, and annoyed him.
Yet her quaint, frank letter touched him. What did she mean by dying soon and letting him be free again? Poor little midge! was she dying of a broken heart because a treacherous woman had fooled her out of a part of her life? Poor little robin! she was his wife now, and he could heal the worst heartache in any woman's breast. He had tried that thing before, and succeeded, even if he broke the heart afterward. Die, indeed! Not if he knew it: even Death should not have a little woman he meant to be good to.
And as he remembered all her faithfulness to him during these weary weeks of pain, he thought, "By Jove! beauty's not all, for no woman, had her face been like that of Phryne of Thebes, or her charms as entrancing as the bewitching Dudu's, could have been more lovely in her kindness to me. How brave and strong she has been! What a faithful little soul it is! Always ready, day and night, to do just what I want done and in the way I want it, never knocking things about or fidgeting round, but just ready-handed, neat and bright. God knows, a handsome woman wouldn't have risked the spoiling her beauty by all these weary, sleepless nights, especially for a man she did not love." And then to think she was actually willing to work and slave for him, and support him out of her share of the booty, and let him fool away his own on other women! "Wonder what the little dame means to buy her own fine things with, for even robins must get clothing? I'll ask her that. Bless the little woman's soul! she makes me think of her so much that I believe I'm half in love with her. Um!" and he stopped: "I'm getting sentimental and poetic, I swear! But if it were in me to love anything that was not beautiful, I believe I could love this little girl, who has come into my life so strangely. She owns up to having loved, and is done with all the stale farce. Some fools," and he felt very indignant, "slighted her because she had no beauty, though, upon my soul, now I think of it, I'm not so certain about that. There's a something in her face takes a man's breath—something that one would rather die than lose if he once loved it, and which once loved would be better than any beauty. What's that Spenser says?—
'A sweet, attractive kind of grace,... The lineaments of gospel books,'
That's just it: it's a look that makes one think about one's prayers, if one only knew them. But whether the man slighted her or not, he missed it—confound him!—in losing such a love. I'll make her tell me his name. And as for being my sister, that's all nonsense, of course, as she's my wife." Then more thoughtfully, "Well, maybe not: a household where there is no love is cruel—I knew that in my early home—and children are a beastly trouble, and as expensive as a man's wines. She's a brick, this wife of mine, and as sensible as steel. I'll put myself in her hands for better or for worse, I vow I will!
"The jolly way she manged that Rollins affair was proof poz of her ability. Her cool assumption of wifely dignity—her actually bringing them up to see me without announcing their coming to me, and never letting them have one bout at me, was beyond anything! It's like a dip in the sea to recall it all. Her breezy voice coming in before them was all the warning I had: 'Oh certainly, you can come up and look at him, but not talk to him: he's nervous and feverish, and I cannot permit even such old friends as you doubtless are to say anything to him. You know, of course, the doctor thought he needed constant attention, and caused us to hurry our marriage in a most Gretna-Green style; but I could not nurse him unless we were married. And it did not matter so much, after all, since we had loved'—and she hesitated with the prettiest affectation of having said something she ought not—'we had cared for each other since we were quite children. Ross's sister Bell was my school-friend.' Then she brought them straight to the bed, and stooping down gave me the only kiss with which she has honored me—her show kiss, I call it—saying, 'My darling' (how soft she said it, too, with a little trilling cadence upon the sweet old word!)—'My darling, you are not to speak, or even look, save this once: now I must cover up my dearie's eyes;' and she laid her cool hand over my eyes and held it there while they stayed. 'These are some kind New York friends, Mr. Rollins and his good wife'—and a faint pressure on my face emphasized the joke—'who are come to see you. I cannot understand all they mean, except that you have been behaving badly, making these good people's daughter believe you meant to marry her, when of course you were only going to marry your little, ugly Percy. Oh, my bad boy, what shall I ever do with you? Oh the hearts you have broken while you have been waiting for me! Ah! dear, bad boy!'—and, as if overcome with tenderness, she laid her cheek down on mine. I clasped my arms about her—the first and last time I've had a chance, by George!—but she sprang away with a laugh: 'No, you shall not be petted for being bad. Why, Ross, these dear people came to take you and marry you to their beautiful daughter, for I know she's a beauty, since her mother is still so handsome.'
"Oh, it was gorgeous, to see the Rollins standing there in all her Cleopatra-like splendor, utterly upset and put down by my little brown berry! And the impossibility of correcting such a mistake without putting herself in an absurd position actually stopped the Rollins speech, and—Lord help me!—I thought that mouth could only be closed by bon-bons and a man's kisses—any man's, par exemple. And her poor old catspaw of a pater stood helpless before my little hurricane—a very reed shaken by the wind. Then my sea-breeze spoke again: 'But the doctor will shed vials of wrath upon me for letting you see strangers.' (It must have cut the Rollins sore to be called a stranger to me!) 'But these kind friends could not realize your being ill, so I was fain to let them see my Apollo in his box; but we will go now if you please;' and she positively ushered them out in wordless dismay, bidding them good-bye at once, and seeing them no more. I thought she would have rushed back to laugh the scene over with me, but that shows how little I know her. When, in the course of an hour, she did come, it was with such an utter ignoring of having done a smart thing, waving aside my admiration of her finesse, that I was taken aback. She said sadly, 'I am unused to falsehood, and finesse of any sort is distasteful to me. I quenched this woman this time, but, in spite of her bad, hard face, I pity her very much. You, and such men as you, have, I suppose, made her what she is, God help her!' So by this good little girl's management I am rid of my troubles. I declare I'll do just what she wishes, and be thankful my follies have worked me no more harm."
Then he began to wish she'd come in, and to feel aggrieved and neglected because she did not come—to feel an eager desire to see her and talk the matter of the letter over with her. But he had read it through again twice ere she appeared, and then, to his dismay, equipped for a journey, and saying, in the most matter-of-fact, nonchalant manner possible, "Ross, Mrs. Keller has come to say good-bye. I am going with her to Newport, where she makes the only perilous part of the trip—the, to her, dreadful change from cars to boat. So I shall be away all night, of course."
Then Mrs. Keller came forward with—"I hope you don't mind my taking her off, Mr. Norval?"
"But I do mind it deucedly, madam," he said. "Why, Percy, I don't like your traveling alone this way at all. Why can't James go with Mrs. Keller?"
"Not for the world, Ross, thank you. I'm used to taking care of myself, and of Mrs. Keller too, for that matter. I'm not much of a traveler, because I have not had much of a chance—none, indeed, except what she's given me—but somehow I always manage to come out right. You are very kind to offer to spare James, but he's your necessity. I have told him about the medicines, and how to loosen the bandages at night. So I expect to find you better than usual when I get back. He knows your ways so much better than I, and I sha'n't be here to interfere;" and she went about arranging little matters as she spoke, and not looking at him.
But Mrs. Keller saw the look of annoyance upon his face, and said, "But, Percy, Mr. Norval dislikes your going, and you're bound to stay."
"Oh, nonsense, Mrs. Keller! Of course he don't care particularly, as I am going to be away but one night, and he's got to spend all my life with me;" and her face saddened, he thought. "I'm sure to come back to-morrow: my cousin Shelton says, 'Percy always manages to be at hand when she's wanted.' Am I to write to Harry that we will take the rooms? I must do it at once, or he may let some one have them;" and she came and stood beside him.
He answered, sullenly, "Do just as you like about it: it's no concern of mine."
"Of course I shall do nothing of the kind. If you had liked the idea, been very much pleased with it, it would have been different. I only threw out the suggestion as a mere suggestion. But we will think of it no more." All this in her quick, bright way, without a shade of annoyance visible, and she began talking of something else as if the matter was settled: "The hotel-keeper will put a sofa-bed into your dressing-room for me to-morrow, so I shall be quite out of the way when your callers are here. I have told them about bringing my trunk in there from Mrs. Keller's room: James will attend to it all for me. So, as long as you are a 'prisoner of hope' in here, I'll reign supreme in the dressing-room. Now say 'Good-bye,' Mrs. Keller: James will put you in the coach while I finish my adieux."
"But, Percy, you mistake," he said, quite humbly, when her old friend was gone: "you do talk a fellow down so confoundedly," with a laugh. "I like your idea about the rooms most heartily: indeed, I like all your ideas, all your letter, except where you are so deucedly severe upon me; but even that is true, and I like it when you tell me of it. I think your management the best in everything, and I expect to be as happy as a king, or rather a good subject, with my little queen to rule over me and keep me in order in our new domain."
She clasped her hands in a quick, passionate sort of way at his words, as if they gave her a pang. He saw that, but her calm face and voice made him half doubt if it meant anything. "Are you quite sure, or are you only saying it because you think I have a wish to go there? I thought you did not seem to like it just now, and indeed I do not care: I shall be quite content with whatever you arrange when you are well."
"No, Percy: write and say we will take the rooms from the time he leaves them. I"—with a half-abashed laugh—"I was only cross because you are going away. I shall miss you sorely, dear, and I'm sorry you're going and are so glad to go—that's all."
Her face turned crimson to the very temples, and she said, "I'm sorry I made my arrangements without consulting you: I will not do so in future. I did not think you would care one way or the other."
"You've been so good to me, little one, and I'm so unused to being cared for except as a society ornament, that I think I shall never be able to get along without you again."
Her eyes filled with tears which she would not let fall, and she said, "You are very kind to say so: I will be more careful in future. But I must go now." He waited in quite an eager expectancy to see if she would kiss him. "Take good care of yourself, and be sure I shall come by the first train;" and she started to leave the bedside.
He caught her dress and drew her toward him, holding her hands: "Is that all, Percy? Is there nothing else?"
"I think not, Ross," she said, doubtingly, but coloring painfully.
"Kiss me good-bye, Percy." She held down her face instantly, and when he had kissed her, drew herself away without a word; but he clasped his arm about her: "You have not kissed me after all, my darling."
"My kisses are nothing worth now, Ross: their sweetness died out years ago. Yours are good enough for both;" and she laughed and left him.
He was bitterly chagrined: it seemed a little thing to make him feel so mortified. That she should leave him willingly, that doing so she should refuse to grant him so small a favor, when almost all other women—her own pretty cousins among them—had denied nothing he chose to ask, it was incomprehensible!
"By Jove! I never cared so much for a little thing in my life as her leaving me and not caring to kiss me. I swear, I'm a perfect baby about her! Little, truthful, honest soul! I believe she could make another creature of me if she cared enough for me to try. There is something restful in truth and honest purity, after all: one feels safe, and grounded on a sure place. It's good to have a little fairy lying close in one's bosom; and I vow I'll have my little brownie there yet, though I have to go as suitor on a regular courting expedition to my own wife before I win her heart. Curse this old lover of hers, who bars her heart against me! And curse my own past follies, which make a good woman fear to trust me! Marriage is a sell generally, even when a vast amount of so-called love is brought to the sacrificial altar; so perhaps I shall not make a bad thing of it if I win my wife's heart after she knows me au fond, instead of in the glamour of gas-light flirtations. Poor little heart! What a pitiful story it is! How quaintly she writes her pathetic, desolate history! What a ready pen the little woman holds!" and he took out her letter again. "I declare, the child has better attractions than beauty—a lovely, faithful soul."
But though he was tender of her in his thoughts, he was a hard master that night: everything went wrong, nothing pleased or contented him, and the sullen, much-tried servant at last announced that with the morning he would leave his master to his own devices.
"Go, and be damned to you!" was the savage reply; and the man took him at his word, decamping, after making a few necessary arrangements, as soon after breakfast as he could.
"And I have been as good to that fellow the year he has lived with me as I could," thought Ross Norval as hour after hour he lay alone wanting everything—water, the papers, a handkerchief. There was nothing he did not want, and he could reach nothing but those nauseous medicines. "Service cannot be bought: in very truth, love and patience must be a free gift. However, now even love and patience seem to have fled from me. I want my wife—I want her awfully."
Percy, with her sad little heart lying as heavy as a plummet in her breast, was just as bright and useful and entertaining to her cranky old friend as if life was a boon instead of a bane to her. You know from her letter how bitter life was to her; and I think if you have ever known sorrow and a great disappointment, you will comprehend how it was possible for her, with the fear of God before her, and a desire to be His faithful child, to make this match for herself. Anything was better than the dull stagnation into which she had fallen: she had felt this year, unless some great change came to her to take her out of this weary groove in which she was set, she must go melancholy mad. She had laid out a hundred schemes, all of them, she knew, impracticable; and now, in a strange, providential way, this chance to change every thought and action of her whole life had come to her. Do you wonder much she accepted it? I think it was not strange.
That night after his offer (the night she had asked for in which to decide, although she said to herself, with a bitter little shrug as she made the request, "A woman who hesitates is lost"), as she lay awake pondering the whole matter, she thought: "It can't be worse than it is, and it won't be very long either way, I think. I can be faithful to him, make and mend, dig and delve, if needs be, for his benefit, in return for the honor he does me in giving me his name and protection. I shall expect nothing, literally nothing, from him that wives usually demand. I, who have borne for years with the caprice of school-girls, can surely bear the humors of one man, especially when his name shields me from other sorts of ills. I have rather plumed myself these last few months upon having learned the depth of meaning and force of truth there is in that expression from Sartor Resartus I used to think so wicked: 'Say to happiness, I can do without you—in self-renunciation life begins,' I can try it now. I need not be a spaniel or fawn upon my lord, and yet I can obey and honor, if he will let me, this man to whom I shall vow myself for life. For life! Can I endure it all the years I may have to live an unloved wife—so near and yet so far from him to whom I am bound? Will it not be a death in life? Will it be better than this dead, cold monotony I now bear? Better or worse? Ah, there's the rub! I can never hope to win his faithful, abiding love. Even did use make me acceptable to him, I could not trust its continuance. And yet who knows whether, if I try to keep a pure life and an honest purpose to walk before him worthily every day, I may not win from him at last a sort of respect and friendship that will be next to love? I will some time let him know of the friends my literary efforts have brought me. I know he will be proud of the judgment that scholarly men, whose opinions he honors, have placed upon the heirloom of intellectual ability that has been my sole dower from my dear father and his learned ancestors. And when I am Ross Norval's wife I will reveal myself to these letter-friends of my inner life, and, meeting them no longer in the spirit only, let them see eye to eye their hidden sister, their 'nebulous child,' as they have half playfully, half angrily, called me. A husband's hand shall rive the rock in which their crystal has been for years embedded.
"Oh, Ross, I shall be glad to come to my inheritance through you; to gather my band of chosen ones into my actual, as I have long held them in my inner, life; to know those at last whom my unprotected woman's state has hitherto forbidden me to know. And if I take him, if I give myself to him, I shall at last have the desire of my life. Ah, Ross! you will never know that your boyish flattering, which meant nothing to you, and should have meant nothing to me, did really mean so much that it simply broke my heart, leaving me at sixteen so utterly incapable of loving any man but yourself that since then no hand has ever touched the seal which closed the fountain of love and passion in my heart for ever. Ah! I wonder what penalty there is for those who carelessly destroy our hopes and blot out all possibilities of love from us? What would you say, Ross Norval, if you knew that the last kiss I ever gave to any man was given you that cold, dark day they buried my father? You came with a note from Bell—she was dying, she said; after to-day no one but her family would be admitted to her: would I come and say good-bye to her, even from my father's grave? I went with you, and stayed an hour with her. Then you brought me, more dead than alive, back to my desolate home, and taking me in your arms carried me from the carriage to my bed. As you laid me down you said, 'My sister's little friend, I am glad to have seen you once again. Bell tells me all these years I have been absent you have been pleasant friends to each other. You are dear and sweet because she loved you. I shall never see you again perhaps, for when she dies I shall have no ties here and shall go elsewhere. Kiss me good-bye,' and I did.
"For a year after that I was alone: then Esther Hooper came, and I was not wretched. I have had my share of lovers and friends—what girl has not?—have had rare treats of music, of books and paintings, and shared their pleasant harmonies with an appreciative soul; and I have been very contented.
"But now I am desolate again, and out of the darkness you have come and beckoned me to follow you and stand near you all the rest of my life. It will be happiness enough, as much as is good for me, to live with you, even if I am nothing to you, for, oh, I love you very faithfully!"
And so, you know, they were married, with only the doctor and Mrs. Keller to witness the ceremony; and at once, with her little decided way, the sort of certainty that years of self-dependence give, she became his nurse, attending to him as persistently and indefatigably as if the sole purpose for which she had been born was that. From the first service she rendered him—bathing his head and face through an intense August day with iced water delicately perfumed, arranging the curtains so that the air, when there was a breeze, blew freely to him, though the glare of the sun was gone, and his room in dim, soothing shadow—she seemed a blessing to him. Some hours after she came with her bright, quick ways, arranging his disordered room, bringing order out of chaos on his dressing-table, never peeping into things, and yet getting them into beautiful order, and, wonderful to relate, keeping them so: the air seemed to grow cooler, his medicine less bitter, the time shorter, and his broken leg and weary back to ache less acutely.
One day she said in a shy way, "Mr. Norval, if you will let James lay out your things, I will see what mending they need, and will sit here and do them, so you sha'n't spend so many hours alone. Mrs. Keller has made some friends in the house, and they kindly sit with her so much that she does not need me."
"But, Percy, what's the use of James having a hand in it? Here are my keys," with a laugh as he handed them to her: "you know they are a part of the worldly goods with which I did thee endow; and the keys always belong to the female department by right, don't they?"
She took them with a vivid blush. "Shall I look over your trunks and bureau, then?" she asked.
"Certainly, while I go to sleep and dream what a jolly thing it is to have you here." Then, pretending to sleep, he watched her with careful hands examine his belongings, with a contemptuous little smile at this piece of bungling mending or an anxious frown over that frayed place. Then how neatly she folded and laid back all the good, and seated herself with a pile before her and began to sew! When he opened his eyes she handed him the keys.
"No, Percy, keep them: I make all right and title to them over to you," he said.
From that day he seemed to feel delight in her companionship, reading to her hour after hour while she sewed, always choosing some poetical or light bit of reading—"To suit my capacity," she thought.
So they had gone on week after week—with the single exception of the Rollins episode—without any change. He was a rare favorite in society, and every day received a host of calls from gentlemen, baskets of fruits and flowers from ladies. Always, when a card was sent up, she would gather all her womanish "traps" together and go to Mrs. Keller—this, too, in spite of his earnest invitation to her to remain.
"No: you can have a pleasanter call with no ladies present, and Mrs. Keller needs me. I'll be back in time for your medicine."
Once or twice some one, more intimate or free than usual, would run up unannounced and catch her there. Her acceptation of the situation was, he thought, perfect. Without a shadow of embarrassment she acknowledged the introduction, "My wife," did the honors of the occasion, said a few words regarding his state, and with some such words as "I will be back in an hour or so, Ross," would leave the room.
Thus he was utterly unaware of what her abilities were. Whether she was capable of holding a conversation, or could hold her own in society, he could not opine; and it annoyed him keenly, for he was, like most society-men, very punctilious regarding the manners of the particular woman who belonged to him. That she was, in fact, an elegant conversationalist, quick and brilliant at repartee, a fine linguist and an intelligent thinker for a woman, he did not dream.
Nevertheless, the mere having her about him day after day, with her dainty little ways, grew to be a pleasure to him: the making her grave little face, with its haunting look of sorrow, break into smiles, the light come into her soft gray eyes, became a real delight to him. Then the color flushed over her cheek at his lightest word, and he found a real interest in watching it glow and fade from her pale face.
"She's the sort of brune that colors well," he thought. "Old Sir John's fancy of—
'Her cheek was like a Cathrine pear, The side that's next the sun'—
suits her exactly. And her hair, with the glint of gold in the chestnut hue, would be a glory in a beautiful woman. Every motion of her heart shows in her face. She'd never make a woman of the world: she cannot hide her feelings, but lets one read them like an open book." Which was all he knew about it, since, spite of her treacherous color, those years of hard duty had trained her into the most perfect self-control on all needful and great occasions and matters.
How he missed her light step! how he had wanted her all these two days! for, though it was scarcely past noon, and she had gone late the day before, he was sure it was that—"And seems like six, by George!" But, as he lay feverish and famished for a drink, a very ill-used man, she opened the door, and the air seemed lightened of its troubles at once.
"Shall we go to Niagara for our wedding-trip?" Mr. Norval asked when the doctor had taken his last fee, pronouncing his patient cured.
"Unless you care particularly about it, I would rather go straight to New York. I have canceled all my school-engagements by letter, having taken a new service"—and she bowed to him—"and Mrs. Keller promised to see to my little rooms and their belongings; but I should like to see Harry before he sails."
"Want to make him promise to be a good boy while he's away?" said he with a smile.
"Something like it," she answered, laughingly. "But Harry's not a bad fellow, at all."
"Well, then, let's start for home to-morrow;" and they made their arrangements to that effect, though he was disappointed, for in an unwonted moment of confidence she had told him of the pictures of travel to be taken, the glories to be first seen together, never apart, both in Europe and America, that had been among the happiest dreams and made up a large part of the talks between herself and her lost friend, Esther Hooper. He felt that her indifference to seeing the glories of Niagara and the sublimities of the White Mountains was caused by his companionship not being her heart's choice (which was all he knew about it!), and the idea gave him angry pain and a passionate desire to win her in spite of all.
As they stood the next morning ready equipped for their journey, he put his arm around her, saying, "I've been very happy, little wife, here with you. Are you glad you happened to be here that August day, and that I saw you?"
"I have had no cause to regret it," she said quietly.
"But you are not glad," he said, taking his arm away.
"As glad, Ross, as I can be for anything—more glad than I am for most things."
He looked at her with a sigh. "My father—and I am like him—loved only once." Her words came constantly into his mind. "I came too late," he thought; and it seemed to him this little plain woman, looking wan and pale in the early morning light, was better worth winning than any other earthly thing he had ever known. He had left her side, and was standing looking with a frown out of the window as they awaited the summons to breakfast. After a while she came and stood beside him, leaning her head against his arm. He turned slightly toward her, but took no further notice of the action. She stayed so for a while, then said, softly stealing her hand in his as it lay upon the window-ledge, "Dear Ross, I am glad: I am happier than I ever dreamed it possible for me to be. I would not undo the deed we have done so long as you are content. I like being with you dearly, and I like to think that so long as I live I shall be your wife—your little girl to whom you are so very tender and good."
"My Preciosa"—and he drew her into his arms—"so long as we both shall live, you mean. I want no life without you now." Then turning her, face up, he scanned it hastily: "You are so white, my pet, so deathly pale! Are you ill, my Percy?"
"No, no," she said quickly. "I think I need my breakfast: I have been up a couple of hours, and I did not sleep very much all night."
"My poor little girl; when I get you safely home in those famous rooms of ours, perhaps you'll get some rest. But you talk in this strange way of dying: just now you did, and once before in your letter. What makes you do it? Is there anything the matter of which you have not told me?"
"Nothing—only my life seemed ended, Ross, as if all my places were filled and I was no more needed, so that I had got in the way of hoping for death as a boon which God would send me soon."
"But you do not now?—you don't want to die and leave me desolate?"
"No, dear! indeed, no! though I don't think you'd care really." He clasped her in a closer embrace and kissed her reproachfully. "Well, yes, just at first, perhaps. Yet so long as you want me, I want to stay and be your willing, working wife. I've got a new reason and aim now: I have you, dear old Ross."
"Oh, Percy, I do care. God knows even the thought of it gives me a bitter agony, I know you cannot trust me yet, because I married you so carelessly, and because you think I can't be true to one woman with my battered old heart. But that's because you judge me by what my long, unloved life has made me. No good woman ever made me love her before. I never knew how beautiful a pure life was, my darling, until I knew it through watching yours. When I think of all you have saved me from, which would have caused my undying gratitude had I learned to hate you—as if I ever could!" and he paused to kiss her—"when I think of all the new and better hopes you have awakened in my heart, I feel—God knows I do—as if He had sent my angel, and let her drag me out of a hell into which I was plunged, and year after year sinking deeper. Stay with me, dear: I will be true. I never cared for any woman in the way—in the deep, absorbing way—I do for you. I wish you would believe me."
"I do, Ross—you are so good to me, so good! Oh, Ross, Ross!" and she held up her face to his, "you are so good to me!" She clung to him one moment, then suddenly, as soon as she could trust her voice, said gayly, "But it's breakfast-time, and your wife is so unromantically hungry;" and with a sigh that nothing more ever came of their talks he took her down.
When they reached New York the next afternoon, they drove at once to the rooms they had engaged. Percy's cousin, Harry Barton, was there to welcome them, having come round from his hotel for the purpose.
"Why, Norval," said he—they were old acquaintances—"you've won our bone of contention, after all. I wonder what we shall do, now that Percy's safely landed out of our reach? You're a brave man to dare our rage."
"Don't, Harry!" said Percy, putting her hand on his arm.
"I won't, dear, if you say not;" and he covered her hand with his own. "I always did do your lightest bidding, little girl, didn't I?"
"Yes, you're a dear old cousin. Ross knows how much I appreciate your kindness to me always. Why, I gave up what he calls my 'bridal tour,' partly because I wanted to come back and say 'good-bye' to you."
His face flushed crimson at her words, and, all his careless, fashionable manner gone, he said, "Did you, Percy? You always were good."
"That, and because—because I shall be so sorry if you join this African expedition."
"Don't ask me not to, Percy—don't ask me to stay now you have broken my hope for ever. I shall go to the dogs, dear, if I stay here now."
"I don't want you to, Harry. Only your mother is so delicate and getting old, and she loves you beyond all the rest of the world, though you think she don't because she has been cruel to me. It will break her heart if you join this dangerous enterprise. Stay in Europe, go to Heidelberg and finish the course you so foolishly broke up. They'll blame me, Harry, for all the evil that comes to you."
"Well, I'll think about it, dear." Then to Ross; "Does she kiss you, Norval?"
"Well, I can't say she does," said that gentleman, who had been a surprised listener to their talk, and it annoyed him to have to confess she did not.
"Nor let you kiss her, either?"
"Well, yes," with a laugh. "She can't very well help that, you know."
"Don't you believe it: if she didn't want you to, you'd never kiss her, I know. Why, we three cousins, Sheldon, Mac and I, have tried every way to get her to kiss us for years, and never succeeded. You're a lucky dog!"
"He's my husband, Harry;" and she laid her head down on Ross's arm.
"Don't, Percy!" said her cousin with a quick motion of his hand: "I'll be gone soon;" then hurriedly and gayly: "Let me do the honors of your new domains. And, Norval, I have a great favor to ask of you. My little cousin's amour propre won't be touched, or herself involved now she's a married woman, by taking an honest gift from me, and all brides take bridal gifts, you know. I want you to let me give her all the traps I've left in the rooms. It isn't much grace to ask, old fellow, seeing you're to have her always and I not at all."
"Why, certainly, Barton, I have no objections if she has none."
"Percy, you've never let me give you anything all these years, you proud little soul, nor any of the rest of us: you've come scot-free from all our endeavors to snare you through all your hard-working life. You won't go quite empty-handed to your husband's arms, just to plague me, will you?"
"No, indeed! I'm delighted to have all your pretty things. I saw them once, you know, when you gave your mother her birth-night party;" and they began their round of inspection. "But, Harry, you've refurnished the whole suite!"
"You didn't think I was going to make you and Norval (I can't call you Cousin Ross yet, old fellow—I hate you too bad, you know) cast your lines among my smoke-and-wine-scented traps, did you?"
As she saw how exquisitely he had chosen everything, how delicately he had regarded every one of her tastes in his selection, and thought how little reason he had to be good to her, she turned quickly and put her arms about him. With a shuddering sob he held his own out as if to clasp her, saying, "May I, Ross?" The answering nod was scarcely given ere he had gathered her to his breast, murmuring, "Percy! Percy! my lost darling!"
As he held her thus, she said softly, "Promise me, Harry—dear old Hal—promise me this!"
"Anything, everything, Percy," he said.
"That you will give up Africa and go to Heidelberg."
"I will, I will, since you wish it."
She drew his face down and kissed him on his mouth, two long, sweet kisses, saying, "Good-bye, and God bless you, cousin!"
He stood like a blind man as she gently drew herself from his embrace, then wringing Ross's hand in a grasp that made him wince, he strode out of the house without a word.
Percy, going to where her husband sat, said humbly, "I was so sorry for him, I could not help it. You do not care—very much?"
"Harry Barton loved you and wanted to marry you?"
"Yes, Ross. I've been very unhappy about it for years, he's wasted his life so, and angered his family. Indeed, it was not my fault: I never gave him reason."
"Yet you married me without a pretence of love, and he's richer and handsomer and a better man than I, every way? I don't understand it, child."
"Yes, I married you, knowing you did not love me." His arms almost crushed her at that truth. "He may be richer: he is no better, I think, and"—holding his face between her hands with a quizzical survey for an instant—"it's barefaced scandal to assert that he is as handsome, by one half. Poor, handsome Ross, to think that all your manifold charms should have purchased you only ugly little me!" and she laughed a merry, mocking laugh at his protesting hug. "It's true, though—it's the very climax of opposites, a perfection of contrasts." Then, her light manner gone, she added: "You are very, very good to me, Ross. He would never have been so patient of my old griefs and lost loves. I told you my masculine cousins were always crying for the grapes that hung out of their reach, you know." Then suddenly growing grave: "Oh, Ross, it was not my fault: I could not help it. I think the boys got to pitying me because they thought my life was hard, and because their sisters treated me very cruelly sometimes. Then my uncles very foolishly ordained that I should teach their sons their Latin and help them with their studies. So out of school-hours my time was mostly spent with one or the other, or all of them. Sheldon Wilber and I are of the same age, and having been my father's constant companion, I was better up in all his studies than he was himself; so I used to do his college lessons with him, until he got to thinking, as he used to say, I was his very breath. Then afterward I gave the other two the benefit of what we had studied, got them out of scrapes, and indeed, being with them so much, kept them out. Don't let's talk about them any more, Ross: I have 'fessed' all now."
"Not all, my sweet: you have not told me who it is that has shut your heart from us all."
"Don't, Ross!" and she shrank away from him as if he had struck her a blow.
"Ah, well, my wife, keep your secret: I'll not touch your sacred past. I'll try to learn to be content with my little sister, thankful I have so much."
"Oh, Ross, my good, kind Ross!" and she clasped her arms around his neck in passionate, longing regret, "if I might tell you all—if I might!"
"Tell me nothing, dear, you would rather keep. I am infinitely content to even have you thus, and know you love me somewhat. Yes, I know, sweet," he said with a sad smile as she kissed his hand in passionate regret—"the very best you can, with all the heart you have. I know, I know!"
Quite late in the evening, Sheldon Wilber came. After sitting an hour or so, talking gayly, he rose to go. When they were standing he said, "Percy, I had just left the Flemmings before I came in here."
"Had you? I hope they are all well, especially Miss Lizzie, who is so pretty."
"They're all well enough. She—Miss Lizzie the pretty—is going to be married."
"To be married!—to whom?" she asked.
"To my honorable self: don't you congratulate her?"—with a bitter laugh. "I asked her to-night if she'd have me, and she said 'Yes.'"
"I am so glad, Sheldon—so very glad!" and she held out her hand.
"Are you? It's more than anyone else is but my mother. Well, no—I suppose the Flemmings are, to get another daughter off their hands, and she to have a safe man to pay her bills. And of course all our cousins and sisters will be glad to have another house to dance the German in; so it is rather a jubilee occasion, taking it all in all."
"Oh, Sheldon, how hard and bitter you are! She loves you, I know, and the rest think you will be happier with a good wife to care for."
"Yes, the wife I cared for would have made me supremely happy, but vive la bagatelle! I want to know when I am to tie this knot?"
"Whenever she wishes, of course," she answered.
"By the Lord, no! If she gets me, she's got to take me when I choose."
Percy went up to him and put her hands in his: "She'll be a good wife, and, dear Sheldon, you'll be a good husband to her."
He looked at her curiously, then answered, "I'll try: I'll begin by letting her set the hanging—no, I mean the wedding—day. Norval, I know you'll be good to our little girl—better, likely as not, than the rest of us would have been had we got possession of her. Only remember, old fellow, the shadows must never come to her through you, or some of us will make a shadow of you. Would you mind my coming around sometimes to see the little woman? If you'll let me come and spend an evening now and then with you both, it will keep me from getting utterly down-hearted, and maybe will make me a better husband to the future Mrs. Sheldon Wilber. I'll never come without sending word to know if I may." And the poor fellow took himself away.
"How they love you, dear! It's strange you took me, and I thought I was conferring a favor on you! I'm ashamed to remember it now, but it was so."
"Yes, I know"—and she laughed—"but it's not strange, Ross. Any woman would have chosen you: I have always heard of your successes with women. And you know it was take or lose when you gave me my chance. I had but one choice; it was not likely you would drop your handkerchief before me a second time; so I took you quick, before some other woman caught you."
She kept a light, gay tone thus far, standing the other side of the grate from him, but when he came near as if to draw her toward him, she said hurriedly, "These boys have been too much for me, and tried me terribly. If you will not care, Ross, I think I'll say 'Good-night,' though it's early. Don't stay in, if you would like to go to your club or anywhere, because it is our first evening. You see, I am going to desert you first. It's part of the compact, you know, that I am never to be in your way."
"Oh, Percy," he said, in a very boyishly aggrieved tone, "I don't want to go anywhere where you are not."
"You will soon get tired of that, Ross. But I'm glad you don't want to go to-night: I doubt your being quite able to walk much in the evening. Yet I feel as if I must say 'Good-night' and get myself in the dark. Why? I'm unstrung. The newness of my life with you, the traveling, this coming home with you to a place where I am to know either joy or woe, and all this talk with Harry and Sheldon, have been almost more than I could bear;" and her lip quivered. "It's all I have been able to do this last hour to keep from crying, and I do hate to cry before people." The long-suppressed emotion of all these weeks had broken bounds and she shook with sobs, while every nerve seemed quivering, and all she said was, "Ross, Ross! please forgive me! I am so sorry to be so foolish!" And though he strove by every tender method to comfort and soothe her, it was in vain; and at length, really frightened, he carried her to the little room she had appropriated for herself, and as tenderly as a mother, though as shyly as a girl, put his poor little done-out wife in her bed, too weak to resist his kind services, indeed, scarcely noticing them.
The next day, when he returned from what he and his friends, by an agreeable fiction, called an "office," where he generally spent as many hours as served to give him a flavor of business and a figurative title as a businessman—where were to be found the best cigars and choicest wines, and generally a pleasant circle of good fellows congregated—he found Percy with the most charming little dinner awaiting him; the table exquisite in the finest, whitest napery, gleaming with silver, sparkling in glass, and every dish cooked and served in quite Parisian style, and the little lady herself in the brightest toilette, with such a matronly air that he could hardly realize the scene of the last night's misery.
"Tears all gone, Ross, tragedy played out, and the little woman who keeps house for you is herself again, and has been as busy as a nailer. Are nailers busier than other men, I wonder? All your boxes came. Such bliss as it was to us poor women to feast our eyes upon all that heritage of linen and silver, and china and glass! Your mother must have been a famous manager, Ross, to leave you such a store. I'm so glad we've got that old place on the Harlem stored with all this beautiful array. Do you know, Ross, I think I've discovered my especial calling to-day? It's housekeeping, and I elect myself to go some time to that lovely old mansion and expend myself in hospitality. I'll invite you to come and visit me."
Flying about the room, then making him seat himself in the cozy chair which was placed for him at the table—"the side that's next the fire," she said—rattling gayly on of all her day's employment, she caught the look upon his face and came to his side. "What were you thinking of, Ross?" she asked, anxiously.
"What a little tornado you were, for the first thing, and how I liked seeing you busy among our household gods; also and moreover, that you had not given me a chance to say a word; and worst of all, that you had never given me my kiss of welcome, my rightful perquisite." Instantly she held up her face. "Ah, pet, you are always submissive; but never aggressive: still, this is sweet. And I was wondering what had become of the weeping willow I left."
"Wasn't I a silly goose, Ross?" she said, a little breathlessly.
"Well, no, dear: you were very nervous and worn-out."
"I hate nervous, fidgety women so: they're detestable with their whims."
"I did not find you so, but I'm glad you're over it, all the same."
"And so am I. You could not make me cry like that again, Ross, if you were to pinch me."
"But I did not make you cry."
"Yes you did, though. In truth, I was unstrung, and you were so kind and unlike what any one had ever been to me before, so different from what I had expected when we were married "—and her lips quivered—"that it touched me to the quick."
"Why, darling, did you think I was going to be a brute to you?"
"I thought you would be nothing to me, one way or the other—simply forget me, and be utterly indifferent so long as I kept your clothes made and mended, and did not bother you about my wants or tastes or opinions."
A flush came over his face at the truth of her words. It would have been just so had he found her what he expected her to be; but he said, "I don't think any one could treat you like that, little girl." Then, while they ate their dinner, he told her of his day's doings and of his determination for the future: "I have a good opening—no man better. I mean to attend to my practice hereafter, make a name and fortune for my sweetheart, and in a few years we'll go to Europe and see the sights. Ah, Percy, such a vista, such a new life, such a bright future, as I see opening before me! But, first of all, I am going shopping with you, young lady, to-morrow. I have ordered a carriage at eleven, and we'll buy all those pretty fixings you women doat on. Do you know, little bride, I think all my vanity is going to take the form of having you more prettily dressed than your cousins, mine ancient flames when I was a bad boy?"
"Oh, Ross," with a little laugh, "you can't do it: you can't make a rival specimen out of your bad bargain. Nothing will make me a beauty."
"Don't, Percy! I do like beauty. I have run after and made a fool of myself for years over pretty women, but I like your face, just as it is, better than any other woman's face I ever knew. If I could change you any way, I would not do it. Your face is beautiful to me, though I know it is not a pretty one: you are like sunlight to me." His voice shook, and he strained her slight form to him with a clasp that was positive pain. "I said I would not change you, but I would if I might put that old love out of your heart for ever. Why, in those far-off years when we were childish friends, did I not know my truest life lay in winning you? It is strange! I have never failed to gain the love I wanted until now, when I want the only one that would complete my life. Dear Percy, love me all you can. If there are things in me—and I know there are many—which turn you from me, tell me of them and I will change them if I can."
"Oh, Ross, don't, don't! I am not worthy of such words."
"Oh, little Preciosa, I am glad to have even a little of your heart: the half of your love has come to be more to me than the love of all the world besides."
Do you think it was not agony for her to hear such words as these and make no response to them, fearing lest with assurance should come satiety? And yet the knowledge of his growing love was very sweet to her, and worth the agony.
They settled down in their new home, and were purposely "out" to all callers during the next month—then returned the cards that had been left for them. As they grew accustomed to their new life, she thought to see his pleasure and interest in it wane as the novelty wore away, but it was not so. That love of home which is, after all, the truest test of a really manly nature, seemed to grow upon him. It was always so bright and cheery by their cozy fire, the glare of public rooms, the noise and glitter of theatres and concert-rooms, struck him with a feeling akin to disgust, after the soft, subdued light of his home, and his wife's merry, breezy voice. He sang and played for her, never giving a thought to her having any musical ability, since she never touched the instrument. He read to her hour after hour, having at last discovered her taste and ability to understand the kind of books he relished, perfectly content if she would favor him by sitting near enough to him to let him pull down that wealth of "tresses brown," a glossy cloud about her.
Of course this Arcadian life could not continue in the very heart of Sodom. Society was not going to lose Ross Norval if he had made a fool of himself and married a little nobody. So callers flowed in upon them, and Ross, having in boyish glee arrayed himself in purple and fine linen, took her in state to see his friends.
Of course her cousins and their friends hated her: she had won their bonne louche, and the crimson of her plainness and poverty, of the having to "have Percy always around to please Uncle Rufus," was pink to the enormity of her being Ross Norval's wife. And "why he married her," and "of course he's dead tired of her by this time," were their politest surmises.
One morning they paid a cousinly visit—a triple call. "And, by Jove!" thought Ross as he watched her haughty little face and nonchalant manner, "she's no milk-and-water nature, though she's always so sweet-tempered with me. She's got all the temper a true nature ought to have."
"To think of your ever getting married, Percy, and to Mr. Norval, of all men!" said Miss Leta Wilber. "Why, we thought him engaged to the beauty and belle of last winter, Miss Agnes Lorton."
"Well, yes, Leta, old girls like you and I are rather off the cards: we don't expect to catch the prizes generally—we leave that for these younger ones, like Jennie and Lucille," said Percy, coolly.
"A Roland for your Oliver, Leta!" laughed Jennie Wayne. "I never venture to break a lance with Percy: she always has an arrow in reserve to pierce you with. I suppose you've found that out, Mr. Norval?"
"Found what out? I fear I don't follow you, Miss Jennie," said he.
"That she's very able to take her own part, this little cousin of ours," said she, her beautiful face scarlet at his manner.
"Is she, though? Well, I like that amazingly, do you know?"
"Like ill-tempered people?" said Miss Leta, snappishly. "Is it possible?"
"Ill-tempered people?" with a wellbred stare. (Is there such a thing?) "No, indeed! Why, birdie"—and he leaned over, and, taking her hand, raised it to his lips—"to think of any one calling you ill-tempered!"
"You silly boy!" laughed she. "I'll take my hand if you please, and don't you believe but what you've married a termagant."
The girls said afterward, in recounting the scene, it was simply disgusting. Leta vowed, "The little baggage must be a witch and throw spells over people. Look what fools she's made of our boys for years, and Ross Norval, with all his splendid endowments, is just as bad."
"And he did use to admire your form, Leta," said Jennie, maliciously. "I've seen him waltz you until it was hard to tell which face that long blonde moustache belonged to."
"Ditto, cousin, and worse, if gossips speak the truth. But don't let's say ugly things to each other. We both hoped to win him once, and we have both lost him. The little wretch will watch him like a hawk, and never let him come near a body."
"Oh dear!" said her sister Laura, "if I only knew I was to do a German with him to-night, I'd be happy: he holds one better than any man I know; and if Percy will let him dance with a body occasionally, I'd as leave she should have him as the rest of you."
"Unless he'd chosen yourself, Laura, I suppose?"
"Well, yes, that would have made a difference, even to my laziness, especially if she'd have made dear old Harry stay at home by marrying him."
That's the way they talked, yet in a couple of weeks after each house had sent her an invitation to a large party—"for you and Mr. Norval, dear Percy"—and the invitation-cards stated the fact.
"It's my Viking they want," laughed she: "they take his mouse in for the sake of securing him. He's such a credit to the family!"
"Well, it's your Viking they won't get," said he.
"Now, Ross, don't be a bother, dear, and complicate matters. They will say—and be glad of the chance—that it's my fault. You've such a passion for dancing, they will say I prevented your coming. And besides, as I dance so little, you'll ask them as much as ever?"
"How do you know I am so fond of it, Percy?"
"I've watched you too many years not to know that. You forget that, though a flower unnoticed and unseen—a very wall-flower in fact—I have been a looker-on in Vienna. I might have made a point of that, Ross, if I'd thought in time, and 'hung i' the walls of Venice, a sightly flower.' You were the bright particular star, or sun, in whose light all the fairest flowers disported themselves. Why, I could tell you every woman—that is, of your own set—you've been what Jennie calls 'bad about,' for years." He held up his hand deprecatingly: she laughed gayly. "Never fear. I don't intend to name them: I have not time to go over such a thing of shreds and patches. Ah! the hopes I've watched you raise to heaven and then dash to earth!"
"Oh, Percy, I don't wonder that you are afraid to trust me now: I am paying the penalty of my years of folly."
"That's nonsense, Ross. I don't believe in fashionable women's hearts. You were too good for them, and they led you on always," she said, almost passionately.
"That's my good darling trying to excuse her sinner. But how was it you never danced at any of those parties? Harry and Mac are both good dancers, and Sheldon's the best waltzer I ever saw. How is it you never danced with them?"
"With them, indeed! Why, that would have been an aggravation past enduring to my rich relations. Sheldon had actually the insolence to tell his sister Leta that I was the best waltzer in society. Think of the prize you've got, young man!"
"I do always, sweetheart," he said, answering her gay tone with a grave one. "Did you waltz much with Sheldon and the others?"
"I never waltzed with any of them in my life. Why, Ross, I never let them speak to me at parties, except by turns to take me out to supper and home."
"But how have you managed to keep up your waltzing then?"
"Oh, Mr. Vanity, men are not all. Esther and I waltzed constantly: then I used to help Lucille, who is my favorite cousin, 'along in her paces;' and the children at our school-parties doat on me as a partner. Would you like to know who was the last man, and indeed almost the only one, I ever went round a room with?" and her face turned crimson, though she laughed.
"Indeed I should—curse him!" he said under his breath.
"Your honorable self, at Madame's school-party;" and she sprang away from his outstretched hands with a mocking laugh.
The day of the party she wrote a few little violet-perfumed notes, and sent them off. This is a specimen:
"DEAR DOCTOR: You have so often wanted to know your 'nebulous child,' and been indignant that she hid her face from you behind her veil of clouds, you will be pleased to know that the sunshine has dispelled the clouds, and made her at last able to meet the starry train of which you are the sun. Will you greet Ross Norval's bride at the Wilber party to-night as the child you have trained and been so good to in the past, and who, ever honoring you, is still your loving child for the future? If you'll ask me prettily to-night, I'll sing the foolish words I made for the sweet, tripping Languedoc air you sent me last year. I am, now and ever,
In consequence of these notes, when Ross led his wife into the room, arrayed in a crimson cloud of his choosing, which made even her brown face a picture, all her bronze hair, her husband's glory, floating round her far below her waist, confined lightly here and there by diamond clusters, which sparkled like stars amidst its creped luxuriance—"Daring to dress in the very height of the fashion," said Leta, "and all those diamonds on her—his mother's, of course;" and of course they were—the consequence, I say, was, that first one distinguished man and then another met her with a warm greeting—"deucedly warm," thought the jealous fellow, who was so uncertain of her yet, and wanted all of her—and were introduced to "my husband." Taking for granted that "my husband" was glad to get her off his hands, they took possession of her, to his infinite disgust.
These were the men with whom she could talk, whose minds struck diamond flashes from her own, whose thoughts she had followed for years, and who looked upon her as their peer, and deferred to her opinion on many things. And she, knowing Ross was her amazed listener, was stirred to do her best before him—glad her triumph over her relatives should be in his presence and brought to her through his means. It may not have been a lovely thing in her to desire or enjoy a victory, but ah! it is so natural, and my little heroine had had hard lines meted out to her for years. Besides, no woman is free, you know, from vanity: only men are that.
She stood near the door of the dancing-room. Ross came to her after every dance, but it was always, "Not me yet, Ross—Leta, or Jennie," or whoever stood nearest her. Even the girl to whom report had given him (with reason) the year before was, at her open entreaty, which he could not evade, his partner; but half the time he stood beside her, forgetful of the dance in listening to the conversation in which she bore so large a part.
A lull in the music after supper announced the suspension of dancing hostilities for a time, that due strength might be gathered for the last waltz, and then the German. The time was occupied by a very weak tenor, who came to an ignominious end in the middle of "Spirito Gentil." Miss Jennie Barton and her cousin Laura gave a sweet duo, in rather a tearing style, Jennie being a fast young lady everyhow; another lady sang a Scottish ballad as if it had been manipulated by Verdi; then one of the gentlemen said, "Mr. Norval, I hope you will lay your commands on your wife to sing for us."
"I hope that will not be needed," he said, bowing (thinking with a pang, "They all know her better than I do"). "I am sure she will do equally well if we all beg the favor of her."
"She has promised me to sing," said Dr. B——, "my pretty Languedoc air, which she has—"
"Now that's enough, you foolish old doctor!" and she went to the piano. "Foolish old doctor!" He was the great gun of the scientific world: the people about looked aghast at such impertinence, but the "great gun" only laughed and said, "I am mute if you command."
How her hands trembled as she began! This was her last and greatest card: by it she had always felt she must hold him to her for ever, or lose her husband's love in time. She had never touched the piano before him or sung a note, but much of her leisure since their return to New York had been taken up, when he was out, in keeping herself in practice against the time when she should have a chance to play for him and sing to him. She played the sweet air, with its Mozart-like, mournful cadences, entirely through ere she felt nerved enough to begin. Then she sang in such a voice as made the most indifferent pause—a voice that was like purple velvet for richness, as sweet as the breath of an heliotrope to which the sun had just said adieu, as clear as the notes of an English skylark—this little song:
"See, love! the rosy radiance gleams Athwart the sunset sky: List, love! and hear the bird's sweet notes In lingering cadence die. Clasp, love, thy clinging hands in mine, And, holding fast by me, Trust, love! I will be true, my dove, Be ever true to thee— So true, sweetheart, I'll be, Sweetheart, to thee!
"Come, love! I waiting pine so long, And weary watch for thee: Dear love! amidst my darkest night Thy star-like face I see. Heart's love! ah, come thou close to me: I'll shelter thee from harms, From every foe or secret woe, Close clasped within my arms: Lie safe from all alarms, Sweetheart, with me."
While they listened to her, those careless men and women, they thought they began to understand why this little, plain girl had won Ross Norval. While everybody praised her, he stood utterly silent, too moved for words she saw, and refusing to sing again, she went up to him as the band began to play. "My waltz, Ross," she said. He put his arm around her with a loving gesture that made those about them smile, and whirled her off.
"He's the hardest hit man I've seen for years," said one.
"And that such a thing should come to pass, as Ross Norval in love with his own wife, is beyond belief—after making love to everybody else's!"
"That's it! He was always the darling of fortune: the choicest fruit always dropped his side the wall."
But Ross, as he held her in that "tight hold" which was so much admired by his partners, said only, "Percy! Percy! I do not know you at all. How cruel you are to me! Everybody knows you and your gifts but me."
When the German had commenced he came to her and whispered, "Do you care for it?"
"The German, Ross? Indeed no: I am tired too, and was just coming to ask you if I might let old Mr. L—— take me home: he says it will be no trouble."
"And you would not have asked me to take you?" he said, reproachfully.
"Take you away from the German, Ross! Such an unheard-of thing as that! You must think me very selfish. Indeed; I am not where your pleasure is concerned: I only want you to enjoy yourself."
"Then, for Charity's sake, let's go home," he said.
"With all my heart if you really wish it!" and she started; then pausing: "Are you going because you think I want to go? I do not indeed: I will stay gladly."
"I am going because I want to—because I am dead tired, and long, with a perfect passion, for our cozy room, the dim firelight, and my darling toasting her pretty slippers."
"You dear, foolish Ross!" and she was gone like the wind. On their way out, Sheldon Wilber met them in the hall, and, handing her something, said, "To-night, little girl: if you have ever doubted, doubt no more. And remember, a trusting heart is a priceless one;" and he was gone.
When they were home and comfortable, Ross said, "My wife, it was cruel to let me learn your wonderful gifts through strangers: it has hurt me cruelly."
"Oh, Ross, don't say so! Hurt you! I hurt you, my love, my love! I had hoped no pang of the lightest sort would ever reach you through me, and now I've grieved you sorely! It's all due to my morbid fancies, dear. I could not ask to sing to you lest you should not like my singing: I think I should have gone mad if you had not liked my voice, Ross I have so hoped it would be pleasant to your ear! Do you like it, Ross? Is my voice sweet to you?" and she held his face between her hands and looked eagerly and steadfastly into his eyes.
"The sweetest thing I ever heard. It thrills my blood yet, that love-song you sang."
She gave a little cooing laugh: "That is your love-song, dear—your very own." Then she said, gravely, "I must tell you all about myself now, Ross, so you shall never be able to reproach me with having given you pain. No matter, dear: it was, true," she said in answer to his caressing protest, "and I feel the hurt through you. I am your wife. The reason those gentlemen are so fond of me is because—Wait;" and she slid from his embrace and brought a pile of books: "this and this are mine; these two I translated from the German, others from the old Provencal tongue, with which my father made me familiar." Then she told him how lovingly she did this work, how kind scholarly men had been to her, and how eagerly they had sought to know her otherwise than by letter—"Until, to-night, I bade them find Ross Norval's wife, and know the little girl who, shielded by his name, feared nothing any more."
"Percy," he said, quite humbly, "you must bear with me, dear. I lose all hope of winning you when I learn these things of you."
"But you are not sorry, Ross? I will not write any more if you dislike literary women."
But he stopped her: "Dislike it! I am proud as a king of all your endowments. But, sweetheart, you said a word just now that is worth all else that you have told me—a word, I know, you said only half meaning it. Oh, my little girl, will there ever come a time when, meaning it and out of a full heart, you will say, My love! my love!"