A Romance of To-day
Book I: The Broken Chrysalis:
I. THE METAMORPHOSIS II. THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN THE WORLD III. THE HORNETS' NEST IV. THE GODDESS AND THE MOB V. A HIGH-CLASS CONCERT
Book II: The Birth of the Butterfly:
I. THE PSYCHOLOGICAL MOMENT II. A SUNDAY-SCHOOL LESSON III. THE QUEST OF KNOWLEDGE IV. GIRL BACHELOR AND BIOLOGIST V. THE FINDING OF THE BACILLUS VI. THE GREAT CHANGE VII. THE COMING OF THE LOVER
Book III: The Joy of the Sunshine:
I. CHRISTMAS II. A LOOKING OVER BY THE PACK III. SNARLING AT THE COUNCIL ROCK IV. IN THE INTERESTS OF MUSIC V. A PLAGUE OF REPORTERS VI. LOVE IS NOTHING VII. LOVE IS ALL VIII. A LITTLE BELATED EARL
BOOK IV: The Bruising of the Wings:
I. THE KISS THAT LIED II. THE IRONY OF LIFE III. THE SUDDENNESS OF DEATH IV. SOME REMARKS ABOUT CATS V. THE LOVE OF LORD STRATHAY VI. LITTLE BROWN PARTRIDGES VII. LETTERS AND SCIENCE VIII. A CHAPERON ON A CATTLE TRAIN IX. A BURST OF SUNLIGHT X. PLIGHTED TROTH
BOOK V: The End of the Beginning:
I. THE DEEDS OF THE FARM II. CADGE'S ASSIGNMENT III. "P.P.C."
THE BROKEN CHRYSALIS.
(From the Shorthand Notes of John Burke.)
THE BACILLUS OF BEAUTY
NEW YORK, Sunday, Dec. 16.
I am going to set down as calmly and fully as I can a plain statement of all that has happened since I came to New York.
I shall not trim details, nor soften the facts to humour my own amazement, nor try to explain the marvel that I do not pretend to understand.
I begin at the beginning—at the plunge into fairy tale and miracle that I made, after living twenty-five years of baldest prose, when I met Helen Winship here.
Why, I had dragged her to school on a sled when she was a child. I watched her grow up. For years I saw her nearly every day at the State University in the West that already seems so unreal, so far away, I loved her.
Man, I knew her face better than I knew my own! Yet when I met her here— when I saw my promised wife, who had kissed me good-by only last June—I did not recognise her. I looked full into her great eyes and thought she was a stranger; hesitated even when she called my name. It's a miracle! Or a lie, or a wild dream; or I am going crazy. The thing will not be believed. And yet it's true.
This is my calmness! If I could but think it might be a tremendous blunder out of which I would sometime wake into verity! But there has been no mistake; I have not been dreaming unless I am dreaming now.
As distinctly as I see the ugly street below, I remember everything that has befallen me since my train pulled into Jersey City last Thursday morning. I remember as one does who is served by sharpened senses. Only once in a fellow's lifetime can he look upon New York for the first time— and to me New York meant Helen. Everything was vividly impressed upon my mind.
I crossed the Cortlandt Street ferry and walked up Broadway, wondering what Helen would say if I called before breakfast. I could scarcely wait. I stopped in front of St. Paul's Church, gaping up at a twenty-six story building opposite; a monstrous shaft with a gouge out of its south side as if lightning had rived off a sliver. I went over to it and saw that I had come to Ann Street, where Barnum's museum used to stand. The Post Office, the City Hall, the restaurant where I ate breakfast, studying upon the wall the bible texts and signs bidding me watch my hat and overcoat; the Tribune building, just as it looks on the almanac cover—all these made an instant, deep impression. Not in the least like a dream.
By the statue of Horace Greeley I stood a moment irresolute. I knew that, before I could reach her, Helen would have left her rooms for Barnard College; breakfast had been a mistake. Then I noticed that Nassau Street was just opposite; and, in spite of my impatience to be at her door, I constrained myself to look up Judge Baker.
Between its Babel towers narrow Nassau Street was like a canyon. The pavements were wet, for folks had just finished washing windows, though it was eight o'clock in the forenoon. Bicycles zipped past and from somewhere north a freshet of people flooded the sidewalk and roadway.
Down a steep little hill and up another—both thronged past belief—and in a great marble maze of lawyers' offices I found the sign of Baker & Magoun.
The boy who alone represented the firm said that I might have to wait some minutes, and turned me loose to browse in the big, high-ceiled outer room or library of the place where I am to work. After the dim corridors it was a blaze of light. On all sides were massive bookshelves; the doorways gave glimpses of other rooms, fine with rugs and pictures and heavy desks, different enough from the plain fittings of the country lawyers' workshops I had known. The carpet sank under my feet as I went to the window.
I stood looking at the Jersey hills, blue and fair in the distance, and dreaming of Helen, who was to bless and crown my good fortune, when I heard a step at the door and a young man came in—a tall, blonde, supple fellow not much older than I. Then the Judge appeared, ponderous, slow of tread, immaculate of dress; the same, unless his iron-gray locks have retreated yet farther from his wall of a brow, that I have remembered him from boyhood.
"Burke!" he said, "I am glad to see you. Welcome to New York and to this office, my boy!"
The grasp of his big warm hand was as good as the words and the eyes beneath his heavy gray brows were full of kindness as, holding both my hands in his, he drew me toward the young man who had preceded him. With a winning smile the latter turned.
"Hynes," said the Judge, with a heartiness that made one forget his formal manner, "you have heard me speak of Burke's father, the boyhood companion with whom, when the finny tribes were eager, I sometimes strayed from the strait and narrow path that led to school. Burke, Hynes is the sportsman here—our tiger-slayer. He beards in their lairs those Tammany ornaments of the bench whom the flippant term 'necessity Judges,' because of their slender acquaintance with the law."
"Glad to see you, Burke," said Hynes, as dutifully we laughed together at the time-honoured jest.
I knew from the look of him that he was a good fellow, and he had an honest grip; though out where I come from we might call him a dude. All New Yorkers seem to dress pretty well.
Presently Managing Clerk Crosby came, and Mr. Magoun, as lean, brusque and mosquito-like as his partner is elephantine; and after a few words with them I was called into the Judge's private room, where a great lump rose in my throat when I tried, and miserably failed, to thank him for all his great kindness.
"Consider, if it pleases you," he said, to put me quite at my ease, "that I have proposed our arrangement, not so much on your own account as because I loved your father and must rely upon his son. It brings back my youth to speak his name—your name, Johnny Burke!"
Yes, I remember the words, I remember the tremour in the kind voice and the mist of unshed tears through which he looked at me. I'm not dreaming; sometimes I wish I were, almost.
When I left the Judge, of course I pasted right up to Union Square, though I felt sure that Helen would be at college. No. 2 proved to be a dingy brick building with wigs and armour and old uniforms and grimy pictures in the windows, and above them the signs of a "dental parlour" and a school for theatrical dancing.
It seemed an odd place in which to look for Nelly, but I pounded up the worn stairs—dressmakers' advertisements on every riser—until I reached the top floor, where a meal-bag of a woman whose head was tied up in a coloured handkerchief confronted me with dustpan and broom.
"I'm the new leddy scrubwoman, and not afther knowin' th' names av th' tinants," she said, "but av ut's a gir-rul ye're seekin', sure they's two av thim in there, an' both out, I'm thinkin'."
I pushed a note for Nelly under the door she indicated—it bore the cards of "Miss Helen Winship" and "Miss Kathryn Reid"—and hurried away to look up this gem of a hall bedroom where I am writing; you could wear it on a watch chain, but I pay $3 a week for it. The landlady would board me for $8, but regular dinners at restaurants are only twenty-five cents; good, too. And anybody can breakfast for fifteen.
Then I went back to Union Square, where I hung about, looking at the statues. Once I walked as far as Tammany Hall and rushed back again to watch Helen's door. Finally I sat down on a bench from which I could see her windows; and there in the brief December sunlight, with the little oasis around me green even in winter, and the roar of Dead Man's Curve just far enough away, I suppose I spent almost the happiest moments of my life.
I was looking at Nelly's picture, taken in cap and gown just before she graduated last June. My Nelly! Nelly as she used to be before this strange thing happened; eager-eyed, thin with over-study and rapid growth. Nelly, whose bright face, swept by so many lights and shadows of expression, sensitive to so many shifting moods, I loved and yearned for. Nearly six months we'd been apart, but at last I had followed to New York to claim her. As I sat smiling at the dream pictures the dear face evoked, my brain was busy with thoughts of the new home we would together build. I'd hoard every penny, I planned; I'd walk to save car-fare, practice all economies—
Wasn't that a face at her window?
I reached the top landing again, three steps at a time; but the voice that said "Come!" was not Helen's and the figure that turned from pulling at the shades was short and rolypoly and crowned by flaming red hair.
"Miss Winship?" said the voice, as its owner seated herself at a big table. "Can't imagine what's, keeping her. Are you the John Burke I've heard so much about? And—perhaps Helen has written to you of Kitty Reid?"
Without waiting for a reply, she bent over the table, scratching with a knife at a sheet of bold drawings of bears.
"You won't mind my keeping right on?" she queried briskly, lifting a rosy, freckled face. "This is the animal page of the Sunday Star and Cadge is in a hurry for it, to do the obbligato."
I suppose I must have looked the puzzlement I felt, for she added hastily:—
"The text, you know; a little cool rill of it to trickle down through the page like a fine, thin strain of music that—that helps out the song—tee- e-e-um; tee-e-e-um—" She lifted her arm, sawing with a long ruler at a violin of air,—"but you don't have to listen unless you wish—to the obbligato, you know."
"Doesn't the writer think the pictures the unobtrusive embroidery of the violin, and the writing the magic melody one cannot choose but hear?"
I thought that rather neat for my first day in New York, but the shrewd blue eyes opened wide at the heresy.
"Why, no; of course Cadge knows it's the pictures that count; everybody knows that."
A writing-table jutted into the room from a second window, backing against Miss Reid's. On its flap lay German volumes on biology and a little treatise in English about "Advanced Methods of Imbedding, Sectioning and Staining." The window ledge held a vase of willow and alder twigs, whose buds appeared to be swelling. Beside it was a glass of water in which seeds were sprouting on a floating island of cotton wool.
"Admiring Helen's forest?" came the voice from the desk. "I'm afraid there's only second growth timber left; she carried away the great redwoods and all the giants of the wilderness this morning. Are you interested in zoology? Sometimes, since I have been living with Helen, I have wished more than anything else to find out, What is protoplasm? Do you happen to know?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Neither does Helen—nor any one else."
Miss Reid's merry ways are infectious. I'm glad Helen is rooming with a nice girl.
The place was shabby enough, with cracked and broken ceiling, marred woodwork and stained wall paper; but etchings, foreign photographs, sketches put up with thumb tacks and bright hangings made it odd and attractive. On a low couch piled with cushions lay Helen's mandolin and a banjo. A plaster cast of some queer animal roosted on the mantel, craning its neck down towards the fireplace.
"That's the Notre Dame devil," Miss Reid said, following my glance; "the other is the Lincoln Cathedral devil." She nodded at a wide-mouthed imp, clawing at a door-top. "Don't you just adore gargoyles?"
"Yes; that is—very much," I stammered, wandering back to Helen's desk. And then!
And then I heard quick steps outside. They reached the door and paused. I looked up eagerly. "There's Helen now," said Miss Reid; "or else Cadge."
A tall girl burst into the room, dropping an armful of books, and sprang to Miss Reid.
"Kitty! Kitty!" she cried, in a voice of wonderful music. "Two camera fiends! One in front of the college, the other by the elevated station; waiting for me to pass, I do believe! And such crowds! They followed me! Look! Look! Down in the Square!"
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN THE WORLD.
Both girls ran to the window. Miss Reid laughed teasingly. "I see nobody— or all the world; it's much the same," she said; "but you have a caller."
I rose from behind the desk with some confused, trivial thought that I ought to have spent part of the afternoon getting my hair cut.
I had had but a glimpse of the new comer in her flight across the floor; I knew she had scarlet lips and shining eyes; that youth and joy and unimagined beauty had entered with her like a burst of sunlight and flooded the room. I felt, rather than saw, that she had turned from the window and was looking at me, curiously at first, then smiling. Her smile had bewildered me when she opened the door; it was a soft, flashing light that shone from her face and blessed the air. She seemed surrounded by an aureole.
But she—how could this wonderful girl know me?—she surely was smiling! She was coming towards me. She was putting out her hands. That glorious voice was speaking.
"John! Is it you? I'm so glad!" it said.
Had I read about her? Had I seen her picture? Had Helen described her in a letter? Was she Cadge? No; not altogether a stranger; somewhere before I had seen—or dreamed—
"John," she persisted. "Why didn't you write? I thought you were coming next week. Did you plan to surprise me?"
Miss Reid must have made a mistake, I felt; I must explain that I was waiting for Helen. But I could not speak; I could only gape, choking and giddy. I did not speak when the bright vision seemed to take the hands I had not offered. I could feel the blood beat in my neck. I could not think; and yet I knew that a real woman stood before me, albeit unlike all the other women that ever lived in the world; and that something surprised and perplexed her. The smile still curved her lips; I felt myself grin in idiotic imitation.
"What is the matter?" the radiant stranger persisted. "You act as if—"
The smile grew sunnier; it rippled to a laugh that was merriment set to music.
"John! John Burke!" she said, giving my hands a little, impatient shake, just as Nelly used to do. "It isn't possible! Don't you—why, you goose! Don't you know me?"
Of course! I had known her from the beginning! A man couldn't be in the same room with Nelly Winship and feel just as if she were any other girl. But she was not Helen at all—that radiant impossibility! And yet she was. Or she said so, and my heart agreed. But when I would have drawn her to me, she stepped back in lovely confusion, with a fluttered question:—
"How long have you been here, John?"
That voice! Sweet, fresh; full of exquisite cadences such as one might hear in dreams and ever after yearn for—from the first it had baffled me more than the beautiful face. It was not Helen's. What a blunder!
I gazed at her, still giddy. Who was she? I could not trust the astounding recognition. She returned the look, bending towards me, seeking as eagerly, I saw with confused wonderment, to read my thought as I to fathom hers. Then, as some half knowledge grew to certainty, the light of her beauty became a glory; she seemed transfigured by a mighty joy such as no other woman could ever have felt.
An instant she stood motionless, the sunshine of her eyes still on me. Then, drawing a long breath, she turned away, pulling the pins out of her feathered hat with hands that trembled.
I watched the process with the strained attention one gives at crucial moments to nothings. I laughed out of sheer inanity; every pulse in my body was throbbing. She lifted the hat from her shining head. She put it down. She unfastened her coat. In a minute she would turn again, and I should once more see that face imbued with light and fire. I waited for her voice.
"I'm sure of it!" she cried, wheeling about of a sudden, with a laugh like caressing music, and confronting me again. "You didn't know me, John; did you?"
"Why didn't I know you?" I gasped. "Why are you glad I don't know you? What does it all mean, Helen?"
Instead of answering she laughed again. It was the happiest joy-song in the world. A mirthful goddess might have trilled it—a laugh like sunshine and flowers and chasing cloud shadows on waving grass.
"Helen Winship, stop it! Stop this masquerade!" I shouted, not knowing what I did.
"But I—I'm afraid I can't, John."
The glorious face brimmed with mischief. In vain the Woman Perfect struggled to subdue her mirth to penitence.
"I—I'm so glad to see you, John. Won't you—won't you sit down and let Kitty give you some tea?"
Tea! At that moment!
Clattering little blue and white cups and saucers, Miss Reid recalled herself to my remembrance. I had forgotten that she was in the room. I suspect that she dared not lift her head for fear I might see the laughter in her eyes.
"I've made it extra strong, Mr. Burke," she managed to say, "because I'm starting for the Star office to find the photo-engravers routing the noses and toeses off all my best beastesses."
"Kitty thinks all photo-engravers the embodiment of original sin," said the Shining One. "They clip her bears' claws."
"Well," returned Miss Reid, making a flat parcel of her drawings, "this is the den of Beauty and the beasts, and the beasts must be worthy of Beauty. Mr. Burke, don't you know from what county of fairyland Helen hails? Is she the Maiden Snow-white—but no; see her blush—or the Princess Marvel? And if she's Cinderella, can't we have a peep at the fairy godmother? Cadge will call her nothing but 'H. the M.'—short for 'Helen the Magnificent.' And—and—oh, isn't she!"
Before that grieved organ-tone of reproach, Kitty's eyes filled. I could have wept at the greatness and the beauty of it, but the little artist laughed through her tears.
"Helen Eliza, I repent," she said. "Time to be good, Mr. Burke, when she says 'Kathryn.'"
Adjusting her hat before a glass, Kitty hummed with a voice that tried not quaver:—
"Mirror, mirror on the wall, Am I most beautiful of all?
"Queen, thou art not the fairest now; Snow-white over the mountain's brow A thousand times fairer is than thou.
"Poor Queen; poor all of us. I'm good, Helen," she repeated, whisking out of the room.
"Such a chatterbox!" the goddess said. "But, John, am I really so much altered? Is it true that—just at first, you know, of course—you didn't know me?"
She bent on me the breathless look I had seen before. In her eagerness, it was as if the halo of joy that surrounded her were quivering.
"I know you now; you are my Helen!"
Again I would have caught her in my arms; but she moved uneasily.
"Wait—I—you haven't told me," she stammered; "I—I want to talk to you, John."
She put out a hand as if to fend me off, then let it fall. A sudden heart sickness came upon me. It was not her words, not the movement that chilled me, but the paling of the wonderful light of her face, the look that crept over it, as if I had startled a nymph to flight. I was angry with my clumsy self that I should have caused that look, and yet—from my own Helen, not this lovely, poising creature that hardly seemed to touch the earth—I should have had a different greeting!
I gazed at her from where I stood, then I turned to the window. The rattle of street cars came up from below. A child was sitting on the bench where I had sat and feasted my eyes upon the flutter of Helen's curtains. My numb brain vaguely speculated whether that child could see me. The sun had gone, the square was wintry.
After a long minute Helen followed me.
"John," she said, "I am so glad to see you; but I—I want to tell you. Everything here is so new, I—I don't—"
It must all be true; I remember her exact words. They came slowly, hesitated, stopped.
"Are you—what do you mean, Helen?"
"Let me tell you; let me think. Don't—please don't be angry."
Through the fog that enveloped me I felt her distress and smarted from the wrong I did so beautiful a creature.
"I—I didn't expect you so soon," the music sighed pleadingly. "I—we mustn't hurry about—what we used to talk of. New York is so different!— Oh, but it isn't that! How shall I make you understand?"
"I understand enough," I said dully; "or rather—Great Heavens!—I understand nothing; nothing but that—you are taking back your promise, aren't you? Or Helen's promise; whose was it?"
I could not feel as if I were speaking to my sweetheart. The figure before me wore her pearl-set Kappa key—the badge of her college fraternity; it wore, too, a trim, dark blue dress—Helen's favourite colour and mine—but there resemblance seemed to stop.
Confused as I still was by the glory I gazed on, I began painfully comparing the Nelly I remembered and the Helen I had found. My Helen was not quite so tall, but at twenty girls grow. She did not sway with the yielding grace of a young white birch; but she was slim and straight, and girlish angles round easily to curves. Though I felt a subtle and wondrous change, I could not trace or track the miracle.
My Helen had blue-gray eyes; this Helen's eyes might, in some lights, be blue-gray; they seemed of as many tints as the sea. They were dark, luminous and velvet soft as they watched my struggle. A few minutes earlier they had been of extraordinary brilliancy.
My Helen had soft brown hair, like and how unlike these fragrant locks that lay in glinting waves with life and sparkle in every thread!
My Helen's face was expressive, piquantly irregular. The face into which I looked lured me at moments with a haunting resemblance; but the brow was lower and wider, the nose straighter, the mouth more subtly modelled. It was a face Greek in its perfection, brightened by western force and softened by some flitting touch of sensuousness and mysticism.
My Helen blushed easily, but otherwise had little colour. This Helen had a baby's delicate skin, with rose-flushed cheeks and red, red lips. When she spoke or smiled, she seemed to glow with an inner radiance that had nothing to do with colour. And, oh, how beautiful! How beautiful!
I don't know how long I gazed.
I was trying to study the girl before me as if she had been merely a fact—a statue, a picture. But here was none of the calm certainty of art; I was in the grip of a power, a living charm as mighty as elusive, no more to be fixed in words than are the splendours of sunset. Yet I saw the vital harmonies of her figure, the grace of every exquisite curve—the firm, strong line of her white throat, the gracious poise of her head, her sweeping lashes.
I looked down at her hands; they were of marvellous shape and tint, but I missed a little sickle-shaped scar from the joint of the left thumb. I knew the story of that scar. I had seen the child Nelly run to her mother when the knife slipped while she was paring a piece of cocoanut for the Saturday pie-baking. That scar was part of Helen; I loved it. I felt a sudden revolt against this goddess who usurped little Nelly's place, and said that she had changed. Why was she looking at me? What did she want?
"You are the most beautiful woman in the world," said a choked voice that I hardly recognised as my own.
Instantly the joy light shone again from her face, bathing me in its sunshine, and the world was fair. She started forward impulsively, holding out her hands.
"Then it's true! Oh, it's true!" she cried. "How can I believe it? I— Nelly Winship—am I really—"
"Ah—you are Nelly! My Nelly!"
What happened is past telling!
With that jubilant outburst, as naive as a child's, she was my own love again, but dearer a thousand times. Would I have given her up if her hair were blanched by pain or sorrow, her cheeks furrowed, her face grown pale in illness? Need I look upon her coldly because she had become radiant, compellingly lovely? Why, she was enchanting!
And she was Helen. A miracle had been worked, but Helen's self was looking at me out of that goddess-like face as unmistakably as from an unfamiliar dress. It was seeing her in a marvellous new garb of flesh.
"Oh, I'm so happy! I'm the happiest girl on earth; I'm—am I really beautiful?"
The rich, low, brooding, wondering voice was not Helen's, but in every sentence some note or inflection was as familiar as were her tricks of manner, her impulsive gestures. Yes, she was Helen; warm-breathing, flushed with joy of her own loveliness, her perfect womanhood—the girl I adored, the loveliest thing alive!
I seized the hands she gave me; I drew her nearer.
"Helen," I cried, "you are indeed the most beautiful being God ever created, and—last June you kissed me—"
"—Or I kissed you, which is the same thing—after the Commencement reception, by the maple trees, in front of the chapter house; and——"
"And thence in an east-southeasterly direction; with all the hereditaments and appurtenances—Oh, you funny Old Preciseness!"
"And now I'm going to——" The words were brave, but there was something in the pose and poise of her—the wonder of her beauty, the majesty— perhaps the slightest withdrawal, the start of surprise—that awed me. Lamely enough the sentence ended:
"Helen, kiss me!" I begged, hoarsely.
For just a fraction of a second she hesitated. Then the merriment of coquetry again sparkled in her smile.
"Ah, but I'm afraid—" she mocked.
Her eyes danced with mischief as she drew away from me.
"I'm afraid of a man who's going to be a great city lawyer. And then—oh, listen!"
Hurried, ostentatiously heavy footsteps sounded in the hall. They stopped at the door, and some one fumbled noisily at the knob. There was a stage cough, and Kitty plunged into the room, carefully unnoticing.
"Such an idea for—a hippopotamus comic," she panted; "a darling! Sent drawings down—messenger—rushed back to sketch—"
Here she paused to take breath.
"—lest I forget."
Snatching off her gloves she resumed her place at the big table, and began making wild strokes with a crayon on a great sheet of cardboard.
"I just had to do it," said she apologetically over her shoulder; "but—don't mind me."
THE HORNETS' NEST.
It was dusk when I left Helen. My head was buzzing.
Out of her presence what I had seen was unthinkable, unbelievable. I could do nothing but walk, walk—a man in a dream.
I rushed ahead, jostling people in silly haste; I dawdled. I carefully set my feet across the joinings of paving blocks; I zigzagged; I turned corners aimlessly. Once a policeman touched me as I blinked into the roaring torches of a street-repairing gang. Once I found myself on Brooklyn Bridge, looking down at big boats shaped like pumpkin seeds, with lights streaking from every window. Once I woke behind a noisy group under the coloured lights of a Bowery museum.
It rained, for horses were rubber-blanketed, and umbrellas dripped on me as I passed. I was hungry, for I smelled the coffee a sodden woman drank at the side of a night lunch wagon. But how could I believe myself awake or sane?
Again and again I found my way back to the bench on Union Square, from which I could gaze at Helen's window, now dark and forbidding. Across an open space was a garish saloon. When the door swung open, I saw the towels hanging from the bar. Two men reeled across the street and sat down by me.
"Oo-oo!" one gurgled.
"Dan's goin' t' kill 'imself 'cause 'is wife's gone," blubbered the other. "Tell 'm not ter, can't ye, matey? Tell 'im' t's 'nough fer one t' die!"
"Oo-oo!" bellowed Dan.
I walked away in the darkness, but I felt better. Drunkenness was no miracle: I was awake and sane, sane and awake in a homely world of sorrow and folly and love and mystery.
I went to bed thinking of Cleopatra, "brow-bound with burning gold"; of Fair Rosamond; Vivien, who won Merlin's secret; of Lilith and strange, shining women—not one of them like the goddess the glory of whose smile had dazzled me. At last I slept, late and heavily.
Next morning I was again first at the office; and by daylight in the bustling city, things took a different complexion. I had gone to my sweetheart tired by a long journey, and I felt sure, or tried to feel sure, that my impressions of change in her were fantastic and exaggerated.
Judge Baker, on his arrival, installed me in Hynes's room, behind the library, between the corridor and one of the courts that light the inner offices. In his own room, to the left, he detained me for some business talk, after which he said, carefully rubbing his glasses:
"I trust that you will not find yourself altogether a stranger in the city. My wife will wish to see you, and my sister, Miss Baker, cherishes pleasant recollections of your mother. I believe you are already acquainted with Mrs. Baker's young cousin, Miss Winship. You know that, since graduation, she has come to New York for the purpose of pursuing post-graduate studies in Barnard?"
I drew a breath of relief. There was nothing in the Judge's manner to give significance to his mention of Helen. I must have deceived myself.
"A most charming young lady."
He glanced at the letters on his desk and methodically cut open an envelope. Then he dropped the paper knife, raising his bushy brows, a gesture that indicates his most genial humour, as he continued with more than usual deliberateness:—
"You knew her, no doubt, as an intelligent student; you may be surprised to learn that she has developed extraordinary—the word is not too strong—extraordinary beauty."
"Always a lovely girl," I muttered.
"From her childhood Nelly has been a favourite with me;" the Judge leaned back in his big chair, seeming to commit himself to an utterance; "but her attractions were rather those of mind and heart, I should have said, than of personal appearance. The change to which I have alluded is more than the not uncommon budding of a plain girl into the evanescent beauty of early womanhood; it is the most remarkable thing that has ever come under my observation. I am getting to be an elderly man, Burke, and I have been a respectful admirer of many, many fair women, but I have never seen a girl like Miss Winship; she is phenomenal."
"You—you think so?"
It was true, then!
"I have ceased to think; I am nonplussed. Witchcraft, though not in the older sense of the word, is still no doubt exercised by young ladies, and there are certain improvement commissions that undertake, for a suitable consideration, the—ah—redecoration of feminine architecture, or even the partial restoration of human antiques. But this is a different matter."
"I saw Miss Winship yesterday."
"You will not then accuse me of overstatement?"
"She is indeed beautiful."
The restraint with which I spoke evidently puzzled him. He continued to look at me curiously, as he said slowly:—
"From a young man I should have expected more enthusiasm. At times I suspect that the youth of today are less susceptible than were those of twenty-five years ago. But this affair has perhaps occupied my thoughts more than otherwise it might, because Helen is in a measure my ward during her stay in the East, and because of my daughters' affection—"
"Judge, I had supposed you aware of an engagement between Helen and myself."
"Ah, that accounts for much. To you, no doubt, she is little altered. Your eyes have seen the budding of that beauty which but now becomes visible to those less partial. I believe Mrs. Baker did hint at something between you, but it had escaped my mind."
The Judge's bright eyes that contradict so pleasantly the heavy cast of his features began to twinkle. Little lines of geniality formed at their corners and rayed out over his cheeks. He beamed kindliness, as he continued:—
"Accept my congratulations. A most excellent family. Mrs. Winship is Mrs. Baker's cousin. Ah, time flies; time flies! It seems but yesterday that my little girls were running about with Nelly, pigtailed, during their visits in the West."
"Does Mrs. Baker also think Nelly—changed?"
"Only on Tuesday my wife returned from nursing an ailing relative. She has not seen Helen in some time. I believe we are to have her with us at Christmas. We must have you also. But I cannot altogether admit that the change is a matter of my opinion. It has been commented upon by my daughters in terms of utmost emphasis."
"She is the most beautiful woman in the world!"
"There we shall not disagree. To Nelly herself the riddle of nature that we seek to read is doubtless also a mystery, but one for whose unraveling she is happy to wait. My daughters have a picture of her, taken at the age, possibly, of six, which gives inartistic prominence to 'Grandpa Winship's ears'—the left larger than the right. You know the family peculiarity owned by the eldest child in each generation? The loss of this inheritance may not be, to a young lady, matter for regret; but as a mark of identification and descent, the Winship ears might have entitled her to rank among the Revolutionary Daughters. However, she is a poor woman who has not a club to spare."
"Judge, how long is it since this—transformation took place? You speak of it as recent."
"Nelly comes to me," said the Judge, "with—ah—natural punctuality for monthly remittances from her father. In November I was struck with the fact that New York agreed with her; yet even then I did not miss the family nose—a compromise of pug and Roman. But ten days ago, when I saw her last, I recognised her with difficulty. For more precise information you must ask my daughters."
"Then it was only ten days ago that you saw anything wrong—?"
"Wrong! My dear young friend, if Nelly's case obtained publicity, would not the world, which loves beauty, be divided between a howling New York and a wilderness?"
The Judge glanced up at me, slipping his paper knife end over end through his fingers.
"I have spoken of myself as nonplussed," he said more seriously, "and I am. I was never more so; but I see no occasion for anxiety. Since when has it been thought necessary to call priest or physician because of a young lady's growing charm? Confronted by an ugly duckling, we must congratulate the swan."
"Judge, how much money does one need to marry on in New York?"
"All that a man has; all that he can get; often more. But—ah—is the question imminent? Nelly is in school; you have come out of the West, as I understand it, to attack New York. Conquer it, Sir; conquer New York before you speak of marriage to a New York woman."
"Helen is not a New York woman."
"We naturalize them at the docks and stations."
"But you—" I repressed a movement of impatience. "Didn't you marry young?"
"Mrs. Baker and I began our married life in one room; cooked over the gas jet, in tin pails. And if little Nelly is the equal of other women of her family—but that is practice versus principle, my young friend; practice versus principle."
He turned again to his letters, and I understood that the interview was closed.
Right after lunch I started for Barnard. Helen has written so much about the college that as soon as I struck the Boulevard I knew the solid brick building with its trimmings of stone fasces. I turned into the cloistered court on One Hundred and Nineteenth Street and paused a minute, looking up at its Ionic porticoes and high window lettered "Millbank Hall."
Then I entered, and a page, small, meek and blue-uniformed, trotted ahead of me through a beautiful hall, white with marble columns and mosaics, sumptuous with golden ceiling, dazzling with light and green with palms, to the curtained entrance of a dainty reception room.
"Stop a minute, Mercury," I said as he turned to leave; "where is Miss Winship?"
He reappeared from an office beyond, replying:—
"Biol'gy lab'r'tory. What name?"
Instead of waiting until Nelly could be summoned, I followed the mildly disapproving boy up a great, white stairway, past groups of girls, some in bright silk waists and some in college gowns. Even in the farthest corner remote from the hubbub, a musical echo blent of gay talk and laughter filled the air; a light body of sound that the walls held and gave out as a continuous murmur.
A second time piping, "What name, Sir?" Mercury opened the door of a large room with many windows. At the far corner my eyes sought out Helen in conversation with a keen-eyed, weazened little man, at sight of whom the boy took to his heels.
Three women besides Helen were in the room, bunched at a table that ran along two sides under the windows. They wore big checked aprons, and one of them squinted into her microscope under a fur cap. Wide-mouthed jars, empty or holding dirty water, stood on other tables ranged up and down the middle of the room, and there was a litter of porcelain-lined trays, test tubes, pipettes, glass stirring-rods and racks for microscope slides.
Against the wall to the left were cabinets with sliding doors, showing retorts, apparatus, bottles of drugs, jars of specimens and large, coloured models of flowers and of the lower marine forms. Against the right hand wall were sinks, an incubator and, beyond, a door leading into a drug closet. There was the usual laboratory smell, in which the penetrating fume of alcohol, the smokiness of creosote and carbolic acid, the pungency of oil of clove and the aroma of Canada balsam struggled for the mastery.
In her college gown Helen looked more like herself than the day before and less so, the familiar dress accentuating every difference. Against the flowing black her loveliness shone fair and delicate as a cameo, I thought of the Princess Ida,
Liker to the inhabitant Of some far planet close upon the sun Than our man's earth; such eyes were in her head, And so much grace and power— Lived through her to the tips of her long hands And to her feet.
She had not noticed my entrance, but as I stepped forward, she turned, and I was again lost in wonder at her marvellous grace. Her beauty seemed a harmony so vitally perfect that the sight of it was a joy approaching pain.
I had not been mistaken! She was the rarest thing in human form on this earth. I was awed and frightened anew at her perfection.
"Why, how did you find your way out here?" she asked with girlish directness. "I'm not quite ready to go; I must finish my sections for Prof. Darmstetter."
The Professor—I had guessed his identity—joined us, glancing at me inquisitively. His spare figure seemed restless as a squirrel's, but around the pupils of his eyes appeared the faint, white rim of age.
"You are friendt of Mees Veensheep?" he asked. "Looks she not vell? New York has agreed vit' her; not so?"
At my awkward, guarded assent, I thought that something of the same surprise Judge Baker had voiced at my moderation flitted over the old man's face.
"I find you kvite right; kvite right," he said, "New York has done Mees Veensheep goot; she looks fery vell."
He whisked into the drug closet, and Helen seated herself before a microscope next that of the fur-capped woman.
"Do you care for slides?" she said. "I'll get another microscope and while I draw you may look at any on my rack. But be careful; most of the things are only temporarily mounted—just in glycerine. Here is the sweetest longitudinal section of the tentacle of an Actinia, and here—look at these lovely transverse sections of the plumule of a pea; you can see the primary groups of spiral vessels. They've taken the carmine stain wonderfully! But my work is not advanced; I wish you could see that of the other girls."
"I mustn't interfere with your task; I'll look about until you are ready."
Her shining head was already bent over the microscope; her pencil was moving, glad to respond to the touch of that lovely hand.
I picked up a book, the same little volume I had noticed the day before, on "Imbedding, Sectioning and Staining." Near it lay a treatise on histology. I opened to the first chapter, on "Protoplasm and the Cell," but I couldn't fix my thoughts on Bathybius or the Protomoeba. I walked toward an aquarium, flanking which stood a jar half-filled with water in which floated what seemed a big cup-shaped flower of bright brown jelly with waving petals of white and rose colour.
While I looked, thinking only of the curve of Helen's lips and the dancing light in her eyes, and the glowing colour of her soft flesh, Prof. Darmstetter's thin, high-pitched voice grated almost at my ear.
"T'at is Actinia—sea anemone."
"I come from the West; I have never seen the sea forms living," I answered with an effort, fearing that he meant to show me about the laboratory.
"It is fery goot sea anemone; fery strong, fery perfect; a goot organism."
He bent over the jar, rubbing his hands. His parchment face crackled with an almost tender complacency. For a full minute he seemed to gloat over the flower-like animal.
"Very pretty," I said, carelessly.
"Fery pretty, you call it? T'e prettiness is t'e sign of t'e gootness, t'e strengt', t'e perfection. You know t'at?"
To his challenging question, in which I saw the manner of a teacher with his pupils, I replied:
"In your estimation goodness and beauty go together?"
"T'ey are t'e same; how not? See t'is way."
He shook his lean, reproving forefinger at a shapeless, melting mass that lay at the bottom of a second jar, exuding an ooze of viscid strings.
"T'at,"—he spat the word out—"is also sea anemone. It is diseased; it is an ugly animal."
"The poor thing's dying," said Helen, coming to his side. "There ought to have been some of the green seaweed, Ulva, in the water. Wouldn't that have saved it?"
"Ugliness,"—Darmstetter disregarded the question—"is disease; it is bat organism; t'e von makes t'e ot'er. T'e ugly plant or animal is diseased, or else it is botched, inferior plant or animal. It is t'e same vit' man and voman; t'ey are animals. T'e ugly man or voman is veak, diseased or inferior. On t'e ot'er hand,"—I felt what was coming by the sudden oiling of his squeak—"t'e goot man or voman, t'e goot human organism, mus' haf beauty. Not so?" Again he rubbed his hands.
Helen glanced mischievously at me, as a half-repressed snort interrupted his dissertation.
The woman in the fur cap, who might have been a teacher improving odd hours, had knocked up the barrel of her microscope; she gazed through the window at the dazzling Hudson. Next her a thin, sallow girl, whose dark complexion contrasted almost weirdly with her yellow hair, slashed at a cake of paraffine, her deep-set eyes emitting a spark at every fall of the razor. The other student, a young woman with the heavy figure of middle age, went steadily on, dropping paraffine shavings into some fluid in a watch crystal. With a long-handled pin she fished out minute somethings left by the dissolving substance, dropping these upon other crystals—some holding coloured fluids—and finally upon glass slides. She worked as if for dear life, but every quiver of her back told that she was listening.
"You agree vit' me?"
"It seems reasonable; the subject is one that you have deeply studied."
"Ach so! T'e perfect organism must haf t'e perfect beauty. T'e vorld has nefer seen a perfectly beautiful man or voman. Vat vould it say to von, t'ink you? But perfection, you vill tell me, is far to seek," he went on, without waiting for a reply. "Yet people haf learned t'at many diseases are crimes. By-and-by, we may teach t'em t'at bat organism is t'e vorst of crimes; beautiful organism t'e first duty. V'at do you say?"
The fur-capped girl pushed back her chair.
"Prof. Darmstetter," she said, "will you be good enough to look at my sections?"
"He's stirred up the hornets' nest," whispered Helen. "But come; perhaps they will show us. Those girls are so clever; they're sure to have something interesting."
THE GODDESS AND THE MOB.
As we descended the stairway and passed groups of students in front of the bulletin boards in the hall, Helen said:—
"I am afraid you shouldn't have called for me. It isn't usual here."
"We'll introduce the custom. How could I help coming—after yesterday? Helen—"
"Have you seen Grant's tomb?" she inquired hastily. "It's just beyond the college buildings, hidden by them. You mustn't miss it, after coming so far."
We had issued on the Boulevard, and a few steps brought us in view of the stately white shrine on Claremont Heights. But I looked instead at her brilliant face against the velvety background of black hat and feather boa.
The sun's rays, striking across the river, played hide-and-seek in her shimmering hair, warming it to gold and touching the rose of her cheeks to a clear radiance. Her eyes were scintillant with changing, flashing lights.
"Well?" she challenged at last, half daring, half afraid. "You know me to-day?"
"You are a sun goddess. Helen, what does it mean?"
"New York agrees vit' me," Her laugh was irresistible—low and sweet, a laugh that made the glad day brighter. "How not? It is vun fine large city."
We laughed together to the memory of Actinia.
"I am a goot organism. T'e bat organisms vish to scratch me; but t'ey are not so fery bat. In time ve may teach t'em gootness."
"If Darmstetter doesn't think you a perfect organism, he must be hard to satisfy. He's a peculiar organism himself. Has he true loves among sand stars or jelly fish, or does he confine his affections to sea anemones?"
"Prof. Darmstetter is a great biologist. It's a shame he has to teach. Don't you think such a man should be free to devote himself to original work? He might in England, you know, if he were a fellow of a University. But we're proud of him at Barnard; and the laboratory—oh, it's the most fascinating place!"
We came slowly down the Boulevard, looking out at the sweep of the Hudson, while she talked of her studies and her college mates, trying, I thought, to keep me from other topics.
I scarcely noticed her words; her voice was in my ears, fresh and musical. The new grace of her shining head and wondrous, swaying figure, the beauty and spirit of her carriage, filled my consciousness. A schooner with a deck load of wood drifted with the tide, her sails flapping; I saw her in a blur. When I turned from the sheen of the river, the bicyclists whizzing past left streaks of light. A man cutting brush in a vacant lot leaned on his axe to look after us. The sudden stopping of his "chop, chop"—he too was staring at the vision of beauty before his eyes—brought me out of my revery.
"Nelly," I said, "your father will expect a letter from me. What shall I say?"
"Tell him I am studying hard and like the city."
"But about us—about you and me?"
"Must we talk of that here—on the street?"
She spoke almost pleadingly, with the same soft clouding of her loveliness that I had seen the day before?
"But I must speak," I said. "You were right yesterday, I won't ask anything of you until I have made a start; but I must know that you still love me; that will be enough. I can wait. I won't hurry you. That is all, Helen. Everything shall be as you wish; but—you do love me?"
"Oh, you great tease! Why, I suppose I do; but—so much has happened, I don't know myself now; you didn't know me when you first saw me here. Why can't you wait and—don't you hope New York vill agree vit' you?"
She laughed with tantalizing roguery. "You do love me!" I cried. "And we shall be so happy with all our dreams come true—happy to be together and here! If you knew how I have looked forward to coming, and now—yesterday I thought myself insane, but I wasn't! You are the most marvellous—"
"Am I? Oh, I'm glad! So glad!"
I was confused, overjoyed at her sudden sparkle; the soft, flashing light of her was fire and dew. She made visible nature sympathize with her moods. The sky smiled and was pensive with her.
"But see," she cried with another of her bewildering changes; "we're at Columbia."
We had left the Boulevard, and were approaching the white-domed library.
"Look at the inscription," Helen said, as students carrying notebooks began to pass us. "'KING'S COLLEGE FOUNDED UNDER GEORGE II.' Doesn't that seem old after the State University? Ours, I mean."
Our inspection was brief. Before the open admiration of the students Helen seemed, like a poising creature of air and sunshine, fairly to take wing for flight.
"Tell me about yourself," she commanded, when we were beyond the flights of terraced steps. "You are really in Judge Baker's office? You—you won't say anything more?"
"You—darling! You have almost said you love me; do you know that? Well, I'll be considerate. I will work and I will wait and I will believe—no, I'll be certain that some day a woman more beautiful than the Greeks imagined when they dreamed of goddesses who loved mortal men will come to me and, because it is true, will quite say 'I love you.' But I may not always be patient; for you do. After all, you are Nelly!"
I was almost faint with love of her and wonder; I adored her the more for the earnestness with which she lifted her flushed, smiling, innocent face to say:
"But tell me about the office, please. You wouldn't want me to say—would you, if I wasn't sure? Isn't the Judge the most delightful man? So—not pompous, you know; but so good. Don't you like Judge Baker?"
"I love you! Oh, yes, the Judge says, 'if we are confronted with an ugly duckling we must congratulate the swan.' Were you ever an ugly duckling? I'm sure you love me, Helen."
"Did he say that? Well, even when I last saw him why that was nearly two weeks ago—I—oh, I was an ugly duckling!"
We laughed like children. In the sunshine of her joy-lit eyes I forgot the miracle of it, forgot everything except that I had reached New York and Nelly, and that the world was beautiful when she looked upon it.
We came down from Cathedral Heights; and as we boarded a train on the elevated, eyes peered around newspapers. An old gentleman wiped his glasses and readjusted them, his lips forming the words, "most extraordinary," and again, "most extraordinary!" A thin, transparent- looking woman followed the direction of his glance and querulously touched his elbow. Two slender girls looked and whispered.
I thought at first that city folks had no manners, but presently began to wonder that Helen escaped so easily. She had drawn down a scrap of a veil that scarcely obscured her glow and colour and, as the train gathered headway, our neighbours settled in their places almost as unconcernedly as if no marvel of beauty and youth were present. Indeed, most of them had never looked up. The two young girls continued to eye Helen with envy; and I was conscious of an absurd feeling of resentment that they were the only ones. I wanted to get up and cry out: "Don't you people know that this car contains a miracle?"
Why, when Helen lifted to her knee a child that tugged at the skirts of the stout German hausfrau in the next seat, the mother vouchsafed hardly a glance.
"How old are you?" asked Helen.
"Sechs yahre," was the shy answer.
"Such a big girl for six!"
"So grosse! So grosse!"
The little thing measured her height by touching her forehead.
"Shump down," admonished the mother stolidly, while Helen bent over the child, wasting upon her the most wonderful smile of the everlasting years.
"It was long ago, wasn't it," Nelly asked, when the child had slid from her lap, "that Uncle promised to take you into his office?"
"Yes," I said. "When Father died, the Judge told me that when I had practised three years—long enough to admit me to the New York bar—he'd have a place for me. It was because the three years were nearly up, you know, that I dared last June to ask you—"
"You'd dare anything," she interrupted hastily. "Remember how, when I was a Freshman, you raced a theologue down the church aisle one Sunday night after service, and slammed the door from the outside? 'Miss Winship,' you said—I had sat near the door and was already in the entry—'may I see you home?'—"
"The theologue and the congregation didn't get out till you said yes, I remember! They howled and hammered at the door in most unchristian rage?"
"I had to say yes; why, I had to walk with you even when we quarrelled; it would have made talk for either of us to be seen alone."
She breathed a sigh that ended in rippling laughter.
"You'll have to say yes again."
But at that she changed the subject, and we talked about her work at Barnard until we left the train at Fourteenth Street, where we met the flood tide of Christmas surging into the shops and piling up against gaily decked show windows.
Street hawkers jingled toy harnesses, shouted the prices of bright truck for tree ornaments, and pushed through the crowd, offering holly and mistletoe. Circles formed around men exhibiting mechanical turtles or boxing monkeys. From a furry sledge above a shop door, Santa Claus bowed and gesticulated, shaking the lines above his prancing reindeer. I had never seen such a spectacle.
"What a jam!" cried Helen, her cheeks flooded with colour. "Come, let's hurry!"
Indeed, as we threaded our way in and out among the throng, her beauty made an instant impression.
"There she goes!"
"Where? Where? I don't see her."
"There! The tall one, with the veil—walking with that jay!"
Not only did I hear such comments; I felt them. Yet even here there were many who did not notice; and again I sensed that odd displeasure that people could pass without seeing my darling.
It was a relief to leave the neighbourhood of Sixth Avenue and cross to the open space of Union Square.
The east side of the little park was quiet.
"All right?" I asked.
Her breath came quickly as if she had been frightened.
"But see," she said a moment later, "there comes Kitty trundling her bicycle down Madison Avenue. You'd better come in, and be on your best behaviour; yesterday Kitty thought we were quarrelling."
"Sorry I'm wanted only to vindicate—is it your character or mine that would stand clearing? And will you tell me——"
A little old Frenchman, with a wooden leg, who was singing the "Marseillaise" from door to door, approached, holding out his hat.
"Merci, M'sieu', Madame," he said, carelessly pocketing a nickel; then, as he fairly caught sight of the face that Helen of old might have envied, he started back in amazement, slowly whispering:—
"Pardon! Mon dieu! Une Ange!"
We left him muttering and staring after us.
"I'll really have to get a thicker veil," said Helen hastily; "stuffy thing! I like to breathe and see. At first it was—oh, delightful to be looked at like that—or almost delightful; for if no had one noticed, how was I to be sure that—that New York was agreeing vit' me? But now they begin to——"
"Then New York hasn't always agreed vit' you? Aren't you going to tell me——"
"Oh, I've been well," she interrupted, "ever since I came. But here's Kitty. Any adventures, Goldilocks?"
"A minute ago a tandem cuffed my back wheel," said Miss Reid, coming up. "My heart jumped into my mouth and—and I'm nibbling little scallops out of it right now."
And then we trooped upstairs together.
A HIGH-CLASS CONCERT.
I stayed for supper, over which Kitty's big Angora cat presided; Kitty herself, her red curls in disorder, whimsical, shrewd, dipping from jest to earnest, teased Helen and waited on her, wholly affectionate and, I guessed, half afraid.
The little den was cosy by the light of an open fire—for it seemed to be one function of the tall, pink-petticoated lamp to make much darkness visible; and Nelly was almost like the Nelly I had known, with her eager talk of home folks and familiar scenes.
She asked about my mother's illness and death that had held me so long in the West, and her great eyes grew dim and soft with tears, and she looked at me like a Goddess grieving; until, sweet as was her sympathy, I forced myself to speak of other topics. And then we grew merry again, talking of college mates and the days when I first knew her, when I was a Sophomore teaching in Hannibal and she was my best scholar—only twelve years old, but she spelled down all the big, husky boys.
"I didn't know what I was doing, did I," I said, "when your father used to say: 'Bright gal, ain't she? I never see the beat of Helen Lizy;' and I would tell him you ought to go to the State University?"
"Think of it!" cried Helen. "If I hadn't gone to college, I shouldn't have come to New York, and, oh, if—but how you must have worked, teaching and doubling college and law school! Why, you were already through two years of law when I entered, only three years later."
"Well, it's been easy enough since, even with tutoring and shorthanding; six lawyers to every case—"
"Wasn't tutoring Helen your main occupation?" asked Kitty Reid audaciously. "I have somehow inferred that—"
But there was a sound of hurrying feet on the stairs, and she sprang to the door, crying:—
"Cadge and Pros.! They said they were coming."
On the threshold appeared a lank girl with shining black hair and quick, keen, good-humoured eyes.
"Howdy?" she asked with brisk cordiality; "angel children, hope I see you well."
In her wake was a tall, quiet-looking young man with a reddish-brown beard.
"Salute; salaam," he said; "all serene, Kitty? And you, Miss Winship?"
Then as the two became accustomed to the light, I saw what I had nervously expected. There was a little start, an odd moment of embarrassment. They gazed at Helen with quick wonder at her loveliness, then turned away to hide their surprise.
It was as if in the few days since they had seen her—for the new comers were Kitty's brother and the Miss Bryant of whom everyone speaks as "Cadge"—Helen's beauty had so blossomed that at fresh sight of her they struggled with incredulous amazement almost as a stranger might have done.
Talking rapidly to mask embarrassment, they joined us round the fire, Reid dropped a slouch hat and an overcoat that seemed all pockets bulging with papers, while Miss Bryant and Kitty began a rapid fire of talk about "copy," "cuts," "the black," "the colour" and other mysteries.
"Wish you could have got me a proof of the animal page," said Kitty finally; "if they hurry the etching again, before my poor dear little bears have been half an hour on the presses, they'll fill with ink and print gray. I'll—I'll leave money in my will to prosecute photo- engravers."
"Oh, don't fret," said Miss Bryant. "Magazine'll look well this week. Big Tom's the greatest Sunday editor that ever happened; and I've got in some good stuff, too."
"Of course your obbligato'll be all right," Kitty sighed; "but—oh, those etchers and——Yes, Big Tom'll do; I never see him fretting the Art Department, like the editor before last, to sketch a one-column earthquake curdling a cup of cream."
"How could anybody do that?" cried Helen.
"Just what the artist said."
Miss Bryant looked slightly older than Helen; in spite of her brusque, careless sentences, I suspected that she was a girl of some knowledge, vast energy and strength of will. And suspicion grew to certainty that she and Reid were lovers.
I might have read it in his tone when in the course of the evening he asked her to sing.
"Then give me a baton," she responded, springing to her feet.
Rolling up a newspaper and seizing a bit of charcoal from the drawing table, she beat time with both hands, launching suddenly into an air which she rendered with dramatic expression as rare as her abandon.
"Applaud! Applaud!" she cried, clapping her own hands at the end of a brilliant passage, her colourless, irregular face alive with enthusiasm, her black eyes snapping. "If you don't applaud, how do you expect me to sing? Vos plaudite!"
"I'll applaud when you've surely stopped," said Kitty Reid demurely; "but before we begin an evening of grand opera, I want you to hear the Princess. Helen, you know you promised."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Helen, colouring at the title, "I can't sing before Cadge; but if you like, I'll play for you. See if I'm not improving in my tremolo."
Helen did not sing in the old days, so that I was not surprised at her refusal. Taking her mandolin, she tinkled an air that I have often heard her play, but neither I nor any one else had ears for it, so absorbed was the sense of sight.
Her long lashes swept her cheeks as she bent forward in the firelight, her vivid colouring subdued by the soft, playing glow to an elusive charm. At one moment, as the flames flickered into stronger life, her beauty seemed to grow fuller and to have an oriental softness and warmth; the next, the light would die away, and in the cooler, grayer, fainter radiance, her perfect grace of classic outline made her seem a statue—Galatea just coming to life, more beautiful than the daughters of men, her great loveliness delicately spiritualized.
If I were a beautiful woman, I'd learn to play a mandolin.
"Sing, Helen," begged Kitty in a whisper.
In a voice that began tremulously, low and faltering, and slowly gained courage, she sang the ballad she had been playing. It was easy to see that she was not a musician; but, as she forgot her listeners, we forgot everything but her.
Miss Bryant put down the compasses and scale rule she had been restlessly fingering, and her keen eyes softened and dilated. Kitty dropped on the floor at Helen's feet; the hush in the room was breathless. Reid sat in the dark, still as a statue; I clenched my hands and held silence.
The words were as simple as the air. But the voice, so clear, so sweet, so joyous, like Helen's own loveliness—to hear it was an ecstasy. We were listening to the rarest notes that ever had fallen on human ears—unless the tale of the sirens be history.
As the last note died, the fire leaped, dropped and left us in dusk and silence. Kitty buried her face against Helen's dress. My heart was pounding until in my own ears it sounded like an anvil chorus. I don't know whether I was very happy or very miserable. I would have died to hear that voice again. It is the truth!
With a sudden sob and a sniffing that told of tears unashamed, Miss Bryant found frivolous words to veil our emotion.
"Ladies and gentlemen," she quavered, "this is a high-class concert; three dollars each for tickets, please. Helen, you don't know how to sing, but— don't learn! Come Pros."—the big drops ran down her cheeks; "I've got to look up a story in the morning."
"Wait a minute," said Reid, his long, delicately shaped fingers trembling. "Let me recover on something."
Picking up Kitty's banjo, he smote the strings uncertainly and half sang, half declaimed:—
"'With my Hya! Heeya! Heeya! Hullah! Haul! Oh, the green that thunders aft along the deck! Are you sick of towns and men? You must sign and sail again, For it's Johnny Bowlegs, pack your kit and trek!'
"By Jove! Kipling's right; nothing like a banjo, is there? Now then, Young Person, I'm with you. Good night; good night!"
While his voice was still echoing down the stairway, Miss Bryant came running up again.
"Say, got a photograph of yourself, Helen?" she asked.
She had apparently quite recovered from her emotion, and her tone expressed an odd mixture of business and affection.
"I believe if I showed Big Tom a picture of you," she explained, "he'd run a story—there's your science, you know, and your music—on the Society page, maybe."
"But I haven't any picture; at least, any that you'd want—only a few taken months ago, for my father."
"Show me those; why won't they do?"
"Oh, they aren't good; they—they don't look like me. Besides, I really couldn't let you print my picture, Cadge."
"All right. Good night, then; good night, Kitty."
"Perhaps I was just the least bit homesick; I'm glad you've come," Helen said to me at good-by.
She did not withdraw the hand I pressed. She was still under the excitement of the music; the song had left on her face a dreamy tenderness.
"Don't you like Cadge?" she asked, checking with shy evasiveness the words I would have spoken. "She can do anything—sing, talk modern Greek and Chinese—Cadge is wonderful."
"I know some one more wonderful. Helen, when did you begin to sing?"
"I don't sing; to-night was the first time I ever tried before any one but Kitty. Did I sing well?"
"I can't believe you're real! I can't—"
"Don't! Don't!" she laughed. "Remember your promise."
And with that she ran away from the door where I stood, and I came directly home. Home, to set down these notes; to wonder; to doubt; to pinch myself and try to believe that I am alive.
I am alive. This that I have written is the truth! This is what I have seen and heard since a common, puffing railroad train brought me from the West and set me down in the land of miracles.
It is the truth; but out of that magic presence I cannot—I am as powerless to believe as I am powerless to doubt.
God help me—it is the truth!
THE BIRTH OF THE BUTTERFLY.
(From the Autobiography of Helen Winship.)
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL MOMENT
No. 2 Union Square, December 14.
I am the most beautiful woman in the world!
I feel like a daughter of the gods. Bewildered, amazed, at times incredulous of my good fortune—but happy, happy, happy!
There is no joy in heaven or earth like the joy of being beautiful— incomparably beautiful! It's such a never-ending surprise and delight that I come out of my musings with a start, a dozen times a day, and shudder to think: "What if it were only a dream!"
Happy? I have no faith in the old wives' fables that we are most miserable when we get what we want. It isn't true that the weak and poor are to be envied beyond the powerful. Ask the fortunate if they would change! I wouldn't; not for the Klondike?
I'm so happy! I want to take into my confidence the whole world of women. I want them to know how the gift was gained that they are some day to share. I want them to know that there are still good fairies in the world; and how I was fated to meet one, how he waved his wand over me and how my imperfections fled. Every woman will read the story of my life with rapt attention because of the Secret. I shall tell that last of all. Now it's my own.
Is it true that I have longed for beauty more passionately than most women; or is it only that I know myself, not the others? I can remember the time, away back, when the longing began—when I was——
Incredible! Was I ever an ugly little girl, careless of my appearance, happiest in a torn and dirty dress; and homely, homely, homely? Oh, miracle! The miracle!
They say all girls begin life thus heedless of beauty; but none get far along the road before they meet the need of it. So it was with me; and now I love to recall every pitiful detail of the beginning of the Quest of Beauty, the funny little tragedy of childhood that changed the current of my life—and of your lives, all you women who read.
It was one day after school, in the old life that has closed forever— after the prairie school, dull, sordid, uninspiring, away in the West— that a playmate, Billy Reynolds, was testing upon me his powers of teasing. I remember the grin of pleasure in his cruelty that wrinkled his round, red face when at last he found the dart that stung. His words—ah, they are no dream! They were the awakening, the prelude of to-day.
"Janey's prettier'n what you be," he said; and of a sudden I knew that it was true, and felt that the knowledge nearly broke my heart.
But could there be any doubt of the proper reply?
"Huh!" I said, shrugging my lean shoulders. "I don't care!"
The day before it would have been true, but that day it was a lie. I did care; the brave words blistered my throat, sudden tears burned my eyeballs, and to hide them I turned my back upon my tormentor.
It was not that I was jealous. I cared no more for Billy than for a dozen other playmates. It was just the fact that hurt. I was homely! Not that the idea was new to me, either. Dear me, no! Why, from my earliest years I had been accustomed to think of myself as plain, and had not cared. My earliest recollection, almost, is of two women who one day talked about me in my presence, not thinking that I would understand.
"Ain't she humbly?" said one.
"Dretful! It's a pity. Looks means so much more to a gal."
"But she's smart."
By these words—you can see that I was young—I was exalted, not cast down. And for five years, remembering them, I had been proud of being "smart." But now, in the moment of revelation, the law of sex was laid upon me, and the thought failed to bring its accustomed comfort. Smart? Perhaps. But—homely!
With feet as light as my heart was heavy because of Billy's taunt, I flew home and ran up to my room. I had there a tiny mirror, about two-thirds of which had fallen from its frame. I may before that day have taken in it brief, uncritical glimpses at my face, but they had not led to self- analysis. Now, with beating heart and solemn earnestness, I balanced a chair against the door—there was no lock—and looked long and unlovingly at my reflected image.
I saw many freckles, a nose too small, ears too big, honest eyes, hair which was an undecided brown; in short, an ordinary wind-blown little prairie girl. Perhaps I was not so ill-looking, nor Janey so pretty, as Billy affected to think, but no such comforting conclusion then came to me. Sorrow fronted me in the glass.
The broken mirror gave no hint of my figure, but I know that I was lean and angular, with long legs forever thrusting themselves below the hem of my dress; the kind of girl for whose growth careful mothers provide skirts with tucks that can be let out to keep pace with their increasing stature.
Yes, I was homely! I could not dispute the evidence of the bit of shivered glass.
My heart was swelling with grief as I slowly went down stairs, where my mother was getting supper for the hired men. I think it must have been early spring, for prairie schools need not expect boy pupils in seeding time; I know that the door was open and the weather warm.
"Ma," I said as I entered the dining room, "will I ever be pretty?"
"Sakes alive! What will the child think of next?"
"But will I, Ma?"
"'Han'some is as han'some does,' you know, Nelly," my mother responded, as she set on the table two big plates piled high with slices of bread. Then she went into the buttery and brought out a loaf of temperance cake, a plate of doughnuts and a great dish of butter.
"Oh, come now, Ma; please tell me," I wheedled, not content with a proverb.
"Why, Nelly, I don't know; the' ain't nobody does know. I was well- favoured at your age, but your pa wan't much on looks. But Pa had a sister who was reel good-lookin', an' some says you've got her eyes. Maybe you'll take after her. But land! You can't never tell. I've seen some of the prettiest babies grow up peaked and pindlin' an' plain as a potato; whilst, on the other hand, reel homely children sometimes come up an' fill out rosy-cheeked an' bright-eyed as you please. There was my half-sister Rachel, now, eight years younger'n me. I remember well how folks said she was the homeliest baby they ever see; an' she grew up homely, too, just a lean critter with big eyes an' tousled hair; but she got to be reel pretty 'fore she died. Then there's my own Cousin Francie, she that married Tim'thy Baker an' went to New York to live. She's a bright, nice-lookin' woman, almost han'some; an' her little girls are, too; about your age they be. An'—"
I suppose the lonely prairie life had made Ma fond of talking, without much regard for her audience. Often have I heard her for an hour at a time steadily whispering away to herself. Now she had forgotten her only auditor, a wide-eyed little girl, and was fairly launched upon monologue, the subject answering as well as another her imperious need.
"Which of Pa's sisters, Ma?" I asked, interrupting.
"W'ich of his sisters—w'at? Wat you talkin' 'bout now?"
"Which is the good-looking one?"
"Oh, your Aunt Em'ly, o' course. Nobody ain't ever accused S'renie or Keren-Happuch o' bein' sinfully beautiful, fur's I know."
My Aunt Em'ly was invested for me with a new interest. Perhaps some day I might take after her and grow equally well-favoured. I did not remember having noticed that she was beautiful, and resolved to study her at the first opportunity.
A SUNDAY-SCHOOL LESSON.
Going to church was a good old New England custom that in our family had borne transplanting to the West. Sunday was almost the pleasantest day in the week to me—not elbowing school-less Saturday from its throne; not of course even comparing with the bliss of Friday just after school, but easily surpassing the procession of four dull, dreaded, droning days the ogre Monday led.
The beauty and fragrance of the summer Sabbath began in the early morning, when I went out into the garden, before putting on my Sunday frock, and picked a quantity of the old-fashioned flowers that grew there. I arranged them in two flat bouquets, with tall gladiolus stalks behind and smaller growths ranging down in front so that they might see and be seen, peeping over each other's heads, when placed against the wall in church.
Then after the great toilet-making of the week we were off. The drive over the prairie in the democrat wagon behind our smartest pair of plough horses was a pleasure that never grew tame from repetition. Arriving at the church, I would give my bouquets to the old stoop-shouldered sexton and watch him anxiously as he ambled down the aisle with them. Perhaps my flowers—yes, the very flowers that I had dashed the dew from that morning—would be placed on the pulpit itself, not on the table below, nor yet about the gallery where sat the choir. Then indeed I felt honoured. But wherever they might be, I could watch them all through the services, perhaps catch their fragrance from some favouring breeze, and feel that they were own folks from home.
Even sermon time did not seem long. After I had noted the text to prepare for catechism at home, I was free to dream as I chose until the rustle of relief at the close of the speaking. And the droning of bees and buzzing of flies, or the sudden clamour of a hen somewhere near would come floating in through the open window, and the odour of the flowers and the twigs of the "ellum" tree tapping at the pane helped to make the little church a haven of restfulness.
But on the Sunday following my awakening I had no care for sounds outside, no eyes for my bouquets, though they stood at either hand of the pulpit; I got permission to sit in Aunt Keren's pew, where I could see Aunt Em'ly's face; and all through the sermon I studied it with big, round eyes.
Yes, and with sorrow growing leaden in my heart.
For I was not old enough to see in her face what it had been, nor to appreciate the fine profile that remained. Hers was not the pink-and-white of rosy girlhood, the only beauty I could understand; and wherein her toil-set features differed from those of the other drudging farmers' wives or the shut-in women of the little village, I could not see.
A lump rose in my throat; this wrinkled and aging person was the beautiful woman I might take after!
I'm afraid I returned from church that day without the consolations of religion.
There followed an anxious time of experimenting. Some one had told me that lemon juice would exorcise freckles, and surreptitiously I tried it. How my face smarted after the heroic treatment, and how red and inflamed it looked! But then in a little while back came the freckles again and they stayed, too, until—but how they went, I am to tell you.
I wheedled from mother the privilege of daily wearing my coral beads—the ones my cousins Milly and Ethel Baker had sent me from New York—and had an angry fit of crying when one day, while we children were racing for the schoolhouse door at the end of recess, the string broke and they were nearly all trampled upon before I could pick them up.
Youth is buoyant. Next I begged the sheet lead linings of tea chests from the man who kept the general store, and cut them into little strips that I folded into hair-curlers, covering them with paper so that the edges should not cut. I would go to sleep at night with my short, dampened hair twisted around these contrivances, and in the morning comb it out and admire it as it stood about my head in a bushy mass, like the Circassian girl's at the circus.
Thus beautified, I happened one day to meet our white-headed old pastor! How he stared!
"Stand still a minute, Nelly, child, and let's look at you," he commanded. "Why, what have you been doing to yourself?"
The good man's accent wasn't admiring; sadly I realised the failure of my attempt to compel beauty. When I reached home I sternly soaked the curl out of my hair, brushed it flat and braided it into two exceedingly tight pig-tails. Ah, me! It's easy—afterwards—to laugh at the silent sorrows of childhood, bravely endured alone. At least, it's easy for me, now!
I began to worry Ma about my clothes. I grew ashamed of red-and-black, pin-checked woollen frocks, and sighed for prettier things. One of the girls wore at a Sunday school concert a gray and blue dress with many small ruffles, that seemed to me as elegant as a duchess could want. The children whispered that it had cost $20, and I wondered if I should ever again see raiment so wonderful. I knew that it was useless to ask for such a dress for myself; I should be told that I was not old enough for fine feathers.
It was our Sabbath day custom to pass directly from the church services to those of Sunday school, and drive home after these. One stormy day I was the only scholar in my class, and when we had finished the Bible Lesson Leaflets and I was watching the long rows of bobbing heads, flaxen and dark, in the pews full of restless, wriggling children, I turned to the teacher with a question that I had long been meditating.
"Miss Coleman," I began desperately, "ain't there any way to get pretty?"
"I wish there were a way and I knew it," she responded with a smile. "But you should say 'isn't,' you know."
"Oh, but you are pretty," I cried, not with the intent of compliment, but as merely stating a fact.
I do not now think that it was a fact. Miss Coleman's features were irregular, her nose prominent, her forehead too high; but she had a fair, pure complexion and fine eyes, and somehow reminded me of the calla lilly that Ma was always fussing about in our sitting room.
And she was good and wise. I have often thought how different my life might have been if her orbit had not briefly threaded mine. If I had asked that question of some simpering girl a few years older than I—the average Sunday school teacher—she would have replied, from under the flower- burdened hat that had cost her so much thought, that all flesh was grass and beauty vain; and I should have known that she didn't believe it.
"For that matter," said Miss Coleman, after a little pause in which she seemed considering her words with more than usual care, "there are ways of growing beautiful; and, so far as she can, it is a woman's duty to seek them; would you like to know how?"
A duty to be beautiful! Here was novel doctrine.
I gazed with eyes and mouth wide open as she continued: "For one with good lungs and a sound body, the first law of beauty is to be healthy; and health is not just luck. To get it and keep it seek constant exercise in the open air. Middle-aged women lose their looks because they stay in too constantly; when they were girls and played out-of-doors they had roses in their cheeks. Most handsome women of sixty are those who go among people and keep their interest in what is going on.
"And the second law is intelligence. For thinking gives the eyes expression. A foolish girl may be fair and rosy, yet far from beautiful. Many of the world's famous beauties have suffered serious blemishes; but they have all had wit or spirit to give their faces charm. You have planted flowers?"
"I guess so; yes'm." I didn't see the connection.
"You know then that if you kept digging them to see if they had sprouted, they never would sprout. So it is not well to think too much about growth in beauty. Don't be impatient. It is a work of years. But the method is certain, within limits. I should think that by exercise for the body and study for the mind you might easily become a beautiful woman. Another thing; don't slouch."
I sat up straight as a grenadier, my shoulders absurdly stiff.
"No, nevermind your shoulders," said Miss Coleman, smiling; "they'll take care of themselves if you keep your head right. Practise sitting and standing erect. And never wear a corset. If the Almighty had meant woman to be corset-shaped, He'd have made her so."
The superintendent's bell, tinkling for the closing hymn, and the rustle of the leaves of singing books broke in upon our talk; for the first time I failed to welcome the interruption.
"Why, I've delivered quite a lecture upon beauty," Miss Coleman said. "Now just a word more. Try to remember that by making yourself a good and wise woman you will also make yourself more beautiful."
"Oh, I'll remember; I will!" I cried.
And I have done so! Every word! And if Miss Coleman could only see me now! How could I forget?
I was silent all the way home. At the dinner table, as my father was tucking his napkin under his chin, he said: "Well, Nelly, w'at was Mr. Stoddard's text?"
"I—I guess it was something about the children of Israel."
"Yes, prob'ly it was something about 'em," Pa assented with a chuckle.
But Ma spoke more sharply: "I guess you won't get let to set in Aunt Keren-Happuch's pew again right away, Helen 'Lizy." For before my lesson I had once more been studying Aunt Em'ly's face.
I didn't mind the prohibition the least bit. I had a new idea and a new hope. The idea was exaggerated, the hope vain.—Was vain? Ah, it has been more than realised, as you shall hear; realised in a way that amazes me the more, the more I think upon it. Realised as yours shall be, some day, through me!
Realised! Great Heavens! It is a miracle!
THE QUEST OF KNOWLEDGE.
Our district schoolhouse was a shadeless, unpainted box. Within, whittled desks, staring windows and broken plastering made it a fit prison for the boys, whose rough ways were proof of the refining influence of their daily intercourse with the hired men. I wonder such places are tolerated. What a contrast to Barnard's white and gold!
John Burke was our teacher the following winter. He was only seventeen then, but already tall and well grown, in appearance quite a man. He was a student working his way to an education, and his example was a help to me. For I no longer hated lessons. Miss Coleman's talk had filled me with such zeal for knowledge that I became, before the term was over, the phenomenon of the school. Mr. Burke boarded at our house and he would bring home shining tales of my prowess, and often I would listen open-mouthed as we sat about the table at night and he told stories of the State University and the students and the merry life they led.
Every one was amazed at my industry. I played as heartily as I worked, but I studied with a will, too, and passed a score of mates. That was easy enough, for home study was never dreamed of by most of them, and leisure hours in school were passed in marking "tit-tat-to" upon slates or eating apples under the friendly shelter of the desks.
At the end of the term I received a prize—a highly coloured print of "Washington Crossing the Delaware," which Pa and Ma used long after to bring out and exhibit with pride. It is still somewhere in the old house— hung up in Ma's bedroom, I think, along with the blue-and-tinseled crown, marked "Charity" in gilt letters across the front, which I wore in the exciting dialogue of "Faith, Hope and Charity" at a Sunday school exhibition.
But more than any prize I valued the help and friendship of John Burke and the consciousness that he considered me his most promising pupil. Upborne by new ideals, I resolved to study through the vacation that followed, and to my surprise this was not an infliction but a pleasure, now that I was my own task-mistress.
Next term the "girl teacher"—for economy's sake we had them in summer when there were no big boys to thrash—was astonished at my industry and wisdom, and as I could see, a little afraid of them. At the end of the first week I went home bursting with an idea that in secret I had long cherished. Aunt Keren was at tea, I remember, and the talk fell upon my work in school, giving me my opportunity.
"Who'd a thought a mischeevious little tyke like her would ha' turned out a first-rate learner, after all?" queried Auntie, beaming upon me good- naturedly from behind her gold-bowed spectacles. "I al'ays tol' ye, Ezry, ye'd be proud o' her some day."
"I guess Sue Arkwright's a famous good teacher; that's one thing," said Ma, amiably. "Sis never done near so well before; at least, not till last term."
"I never thought Sue was anythin' remarkable," Pa broke in. "How is that, Sis? Is she a good teacher?"
"No, she ain't," I responded, with quickened beating of the heart. Criticism of teachers was admissible in my code of ethics, but justification must follow; there must be proof—or reproof.
"What's that?" said Pa, looking at me curiously. "Ever ketch her in a mistake?"
"Bring the book."
I ran and fetched a well-thumbed book from the sewing machine and turned to the definitions of familiar foreign words.
"There," said I, spreading the speller flat on the table and pointing with my finger. "French word for 'Mister.' Teacher called it 'Monshure,' just as they all do. But that's wrong. To-day I showed her how it is. See, the book says it's pronounced 'm-o-s-s-e-r' and that little mark means an accent on the last syllable and it's 'long e.' 'Mosseer' is right. But when I showed it to teacher, she looked at it awhile, and then she wrinkled up her eye-brows, and whispered it once or twice and said: 'Oh, yes; "mosser."' And she made us call it 'mosser' all the rest of the day, too," I ended triumphantly.
"Why, o' course that ain't right; 'mosser' ain't it!" volunteered one of the hired men, who had lingered to hear the discussion. "I've heerd that word a thousan' times; right way seems like 'M'shoo.' Shucks! Can't get my tongue 'round it, nohow."