THE OLD GRAY HOMESTEAD
BY FRANCES PARKINSON KEYES
To the farmers, and their mothers, wives, and daughters, who have been my nearest neighbors and my best friends for the last fifteen years, and who have taught me to love the country and the people in it, this quiet story of a farm is affectionately and gratefully dedicated.
THE OLD GRAY HOMESTEAD
"For Heaven's sake, Sally, don't say, 'Isn't it hot?' or, 'Did you ever know such weather for April?' or, 'Doesn't it seem as if the mud was just as bad as it used to be before we had the State Road?' again. It is hot. I never did see such weather. The mud is worse if anything. I've said all this several times, and if you can't think of anything more interesting to talk about, I wish you'd keep still."
Sally Gray pushed back the lock of crinkly brown hair that was always getting in her eyes, puckered her lips a little, and glanced at her brother Austin without replying, but with a slight ripple of concern disturbing her usual calm. She was plain and plump and placid, as sweet and wholesome as clover, and as nerveless as a cow, and she secretly envied her brother's lean, dark handsomeness; but she was conscious of a little pang of regret that the young, eager face beside her was already becoming furrowed with lines of discontent and bitterness, and that the expression of the fine mouth was rapidly growing more and more hard and sullen. Austin had been all the way from Hamstead to White Water that day, stopping on his way back at Wallacetown, to bring Sally, who taught school there, home for over Sunday; his little old horse, never either strong or swift, was tired and hot and muddy, and hung its unkempt head dejectedly, apparently having lost all willingness to drag the dilapidated top-buggy and its two occupants another step. Austin's manner, Sally reflected, was not much more cheerful than that of his horse; while his clothes were certainly as dirty, as shabby, and as out-of-date as the rest of his equipage.
"It's a shame," she thought, "that Austin takes everything so hard. The rest of us don't mind half so much. If he could only have a little bit of encouragement and help—something that would make him really happy! If he could earn some money—or find out that, after all, money isn't everything—or fall in love with some nice girl—" She checked herself, blushing and sighing. The blush was occasioned by her own quiet happiness in that direction; but the sigh was because Austin, though he was well known to have been "rather wild," never paid any "nice girl" the slightest attention, and jeered cynically at the mere suggestion that he should do so.
"How lovely the valley is!" she said aloud at last; "I don't believe there's a prettier stretch of road in the whole world than this between Wallacetown and Hamstead, especially in the spring, when the river is so high, and everything is looking so fresh and green."
"Fortunate it is pretty; probably it's the only thing we'll have to look at as long as we live—and certainly it's about all we've seen so far! If there'd been only you and I, Sally, we could have gone off to school, and maybe to college, too, but with eight of us to feed and clothe, it's no wonder that father is dead sunk in debt! Certainly I shan't travel much," he added, laughing bitterly, "when he thinks we can't have even one hired man in the future—and certainly you won't either, if you're fool enough to marry Fred, and go straight from the frying-pan of one poverty-stricken home to the fire of another!"
"Oh, Austin, it's wrong of you to talk so! I'm going to be ever so happy!"
"Wrong! How else do you expect me to talk?—if I talk at all! Doesn't it mean anything to you that the farm's mortgaged to the very last cent, and that it doesn't begin to produce what it ought to because we can't beg, borrow, or steal the money that ought to be put into it? Can you just shut your eyes to the fact that the house—the finest in the county when Grandfather Gray built it—is falling to pieces for want of necessary repairs? And look at our barns and sheds—or don't look at them if you can help it! Doesn't it gall you to dress as you do, because you have to turn over most of what you can earn teaching to the family—of course, you never can earn much, because you haven't had a good enough education yourself to get a first-class position—so that the younger girls can go to school at all, instead of going out as hired help? Can't you feel the injustice of being poor, and dirty, and ignorant, when thousands of other people are just rotten with money?"
"I've heard of such people, but I've never met any of them around here," returned his sister quietly. "We're no worse off than lots of people, better off than some. I think we've got a good deal to be thankful for, living where we can see green things growing, and being well, and having a mother like ours. I wish you could come to feel that way. Perhaps you will some day."
"Why don't you marry Fred's cousin, instead of Fred?" asked her brother, changing the subject abruptly. "You could get him just as easy as not—I could see that when he was here last summer. Then you could go to Boston to live, get something out of life yourself, and help your family, too."
"No one in the family but you would want help from me—at that price," returned Sally, still speaking quietly, but betraying by the slight unevenness of her voice that her quiet spirit was at last disturbed more than she cared to show. "Why, Austin, you know how I lo—care for Fred, and that I gave him my word more than two years ago! Besides, I heard you say yourself, before you knew he fancied me, that Hugh Elliott drank—and did all sorts of other dreadful things—he wouldn't be considered respectable in Hamstead."
Austin laughed again. "All right. I won't bring up the subject again. Ten years from now you may be sorry you wouldn't put up with an occasional spree, and sacrifice a silly little love-affair, for the sake of everything else you'd get. But suit yourself. Cook and wash and iron and scrub, lose your color and your figure and your disposition, and bring half-a-dozen children into the world with no better heritage than that, if it's your idea of bliss—and it seems to be!"
"I didn't mean to be cross, Sally," he said, after they had driven along in heavy silence for some minutes. "I've been trying to do a little business for father in White Water to-day, and met with my usual run of luck—none at all. Here comes one of the livery-stable teams ploughing towards us through the mud. Who's in it, do you suppose? Doesn't look familiar, some way."
As the livery-stable in Hamstead boasted only four turn-outs, it was not strange that Austin recognized one of them at sight, and as strangers were few and far between, they were objects of considerable interest.
Sally leaned forward.
"No, she doesn't. She's all in black—and my! isn't she pretty? She seems to be stopping and looking around—why don't you ask her if you could be of any help?"
Austin nodded, and pulled in his reins. "I wonder if I could—" he began, but stopped abruptly, realizing that the lady in the buggy coming towards them had also stopped, and spoken the very same words. Inevitably they all smiled, and the stranger began again.
"I wonder if you could tell me how to get to Mr. Howard Gray's house," she said. "I was told at the hotel to drive along this road as far as a large white house—the first one I came to—and then turn to the right. But I don't see any road."
"There isn't any, at this time of year," said Sally, laughing,—"nothing but mud. You have to wallow through that field, and go up a hill, and down a hill, and along a little farther, and then you come to the house. Just follow us—we're going there. I'm Howard Gray's eldest daughter Sally, and this is my brother Austin."
"Oh! then perhaps you can tell me—before I intrude—if it would be any use—whether you think that possibly—whether under any circumstances —well, if your mother would be good enough to let me come and live at her house a little while?"
By this time Sally and Austin had both realized two things: first, that the person with whom they were talking belonged to quite a different world from their own—the fact was written large in her clothing, in her manner, in the very tones of her voice; and, second, that in spite of her pale face and widow's veil, she was even younger than they were, a girl hardly out of her teens.
"I'm not very well," she went on rapidly, before they could answer, "and my doctor told me to go away to some quiet place in the country until I could get—get rested a little. I spent a summer here with my mother when I was a little girl, and I remembered how lovely it was, and so I came back. But the hotel has run down so that I don't think I can possibly stay there; and yet I can't bear to go away from this beautiful, peaceful river-valley—it's just what I've been longing to find. I happened to overhear some one talking about Mrs. Gray, and saying that she might consider taking me in. So I hired this buggy and started out to find her and ask. Oh, don't you think she would?"
Sally and Austin exchanged glances. "Mother never has taken any boarders, she's always been too busy," began the former; then, seeing the swift look of disappointment on the sad little face, "but she might. It wouldn't do any harm to ask, anyway. We'll drive ahead, and show you how to get there."
The Gray family had been one of local prominence ever since Colonial days, and James Gray, who built the dignified, spacious homestead now occupied by his grandson's family, had been a man of some education and wealth. His son Thomas inherited the house, but only a fourth of the fortune, as he had three sisters. Thomas had but one child, Howard, whose prospects for prosperity seemed excellent; but he grew up a dreamy, irresolute, studious chap, a striking contrast to the sturdy yeoman type from which he had sprung—one of those freaks of heredity that are hard to explain. He went to Dartmouth College, travelled a little, showed a disposition to read—and even to write—verses. As a teacher he probably would have been successful; but his father was determined that he should become a farmer, and Howard had neither the energy nor the disposition to oppose him; he proved a complete failure. He married young, and, it was generally considered, beneath him; for Mary Austin, with a heart of gold and a disposition like sunshine, had little wealth or breeding and less education to commend her; and she was herself too easy-going and contented to prove the prod that Howard sadly needed in his wife. Children came thick and fast; the eldest, James, had now gone South; the second daughter, Ruth, was already married to a struggling storekeeper living in White Water; Sally taught school; but the others were all still at home, and all, except Austin, too young to be self-supporting—Thomas, Molly, Katherine, and Edith. They had all caught their father's facility for correct speech, rare in northern New England; most of them his love of books, his formless and unfulfilled ambitions; more than one the shiftlessness and incompetence that come partly from natural bent and partly from hopelessness; while Sally and Thomas alone possessed the sunny disposition and the ability to see the bright side of everything and the good in everybody which was their mother's legacy to them.
The old house, set well back from the main road and near the river, with elms and maples and clumps of lilac bushes about it, was almost bare of the cheerful white paint that had once adorned it, and the green blinds were faded and broken; the barns never had been painted, and were huddled close to the house, hiding its fine Colonial lines, black, ungainly, and half fallen to pieces; all kinds of farm implements, rusty from age and neglect, were scattered about, and two dogs and several cats lay on the kitchen porch amidst the general litter of milk-pails, half-broken chairs, and rush mats. There was no one in sight as the two muddy buggies pulled up at the little-used front door. Howard Gray and Thomas were milking, both somewhat out-of-sorts because of the non-appearance of Austin, for there were too many cows for them to manage alone—a long row of dirty, lean animals of uncertain age and breed. Molly was helping her mother to "get supper," and the red tablecloth and heavy white china, never removed from the kitchen table except to be washed, were beginning to be heaped with pickles, doughnuts, pie, and cake, and there were potatoes and pork frying on the stove. Katherine was studying, and Edith had gone to hastily "spread up" the beds that had not been made that morning.
On the whole, however, the inside of the house was more tidy than the outside, and the girl in black was aware of the homely comfort and good cheer of the living-room into which she was ushered (since there was no time to open up the cold "parlor") more than she was of its shabbiness.
"Come right in an' set down," said Mrs. Gray cheerfully, leading the way; "awful tryin' weather we're havin', ain't it? An' the mud—my, it's somethin' fierce! The men-folks track it in so, there's no keepin' it swept up, an' there's so many of us here! But there's nothin' like a large family for keepin' things hummin' just the same, now, is there?" Mrs. Gray had had scant time to prepare her mind either for her unexpected visitor or the object of her visit; but her mother-wit was ready, for all that; one glance at the slight, black-robed little figure, and the thin white face, with its tired, dark-ringed eyes, was enough for her. Here was need of help; and therefore help of some sort she must certainly give. "Now, then," she went on quickly, "you look just plum tuckered out; set down an' rest a spell, an' tell me what I can do for you."
"My name is Sylvia Cary—Mrs. Mortimer Cary, I mean." She shivered, paused, and went on. "I live in New York—that is, I always have—I'm never going to any more, if I can help it. My husband died two months ago, my baby—just before that. I've felt so—so—tired ever since, I just had to get away somewhere—away from the noise, and the hurry, and the crowds of people I know. I was in Hamstead once, ten years ago, and I remembered it, and came back. I want most dreadfully to stay—could you possibly make room for me here?"
"Oh, you poor lamb! I'd do anything I could for you—but this ain't the sort of home you've been used to—" began Mrs. Gray; but she was interrupted.
"No, no, of course it isn't! Don't you understand—I can't bear what I've been used to another minute! And I'll honestly try not to be a bit of trouble if you'll only let me stay!"
Mrs. Gray twisted in her chair, fingering her apron. "Well, now, I don't know! You've come so sudden-like—if I'd only had a little notice! There's no place fit for a lady like you; but there are two rooms we never use—the northeast parlor and the parlor-chamber off it. You could have one of them—after I got it cleaned up a mite—an' try it here for a while."
"Couldn't I have them both? I'd like a sitting-room as well as a bedroom."
"Land! You ain't even seen 'em yet! maybe they won't suit you at all! But, come, I'll show 'em to you an' if you want to stay, you shan't go back to that filthy hotel. I'll get the bedroom so's you can sleep in it to-night—just a lick an' a promise; an' to-morrow I'll house-clean 'em both thorough, if 't is the Sabbath—the 'better the day, the better the deed,' I've heard some say, an' I believe that's true, don't you, Mrs. Cary?" She bustled ahead, pulling up the shades, and flinging open the windows in the unused rooms. "My, but the dust is thick! Don't you touch a thing—just see if you think they'll do."
Sylvia Cary glanced quickly about the two great square rooms, with their white wainscotting, and shutters, their large, stopped-up fireplaces, dingy wall-paper, and beautiful, neglected furniture. "Indeed they will!" she exclaimed; "they'll be lovely when we get them fixed. And may I truly stay—right now? I brought my hand-bag with me, you see, hoping that I might, and my trunks are still at the station—wait, I'll give you the checks, and perhaps your son will get them after supper."
She put the bag on a chair, and began to open it, hurriedly, as if unwilling to wait a minute longer before making sure of remaining. Mrs. Gray, who was standing near her, drew back with a gasp of surprise. The bag was lined with heavy purple silk, and elaborately fitted with toilet articles of shining gold. Mrs. Cary plunged her hands in and tossed out an embroidered white satin negligee, a pair of white satin bed-slippers, and a nightgown that was a mere wisp of sheer silk and lace; then drew forth three trunk-checks, and a bundle an inch thick of crisp, new bank-notes, and pulled one out, blushing and hesitating.
"I don't know how to thank you for taking me in to-night," she said; "some day I'll tell you all about myself, and why it means so much to me to have a—a refuge like this; but I'm afraid I can't until—I've got rested a little. Soon we must talk about arrangements and terms and all that—oh, I'm awfully businesslike! But just let me give you this to-night, to show you how grateful I am, and pay for the first two weeks or so."
And she folded the bill into a tiny square, and crushed it into Mrs. Gray's reluctant hand.
Fifteen minutes later, when Howard Gray and Thomas came into the kitchen for their supper, bringing the last full milk-pails with them, they found the pork and potatoes burnt to a frazzle, the girls all talking at once, and Austin bending over his mother, who sat in the big rocker with the tears rolling down her cheeks, and a hundred-dollar bill spread out on her lap.
For several weeks the Grays did not see much of Mrs. Cary. She appeared at dinner and supper, eating little and saying less. She rose very late, having a cup of coffee in bed about ten; the afternoons she spent rambling through the fields and along the river-bank, but never going near the highroad on her long walks. She generally read until nearly midnight, and the book-hungry Grays pounced like tigers on the newspapers and magazines with which she heaped her scrap-baskets, and longed for the time to come when she would offer to lend them some of the books piled high all around her rooms.
Some years before, when vacationists demanded less in the way of amusement, Hamstead had flourished in a mild way as a summer-resort; but its brief day of prosperity in this respect had passed, and the advent of a wealthy and mysterious stranger, whose mail was larger than that of all the rest of the population put together, but who never appeared in public, or even spoke, apparently, in private, threw the entire village into a ferment of excitement. Fred Elliott, who, in his role of prospective son-in-law, might be expected to know much that was going on at the Grays', was "pumped" in vain; he was obliged to confess his entire ignorance concerning the history, occupations, and future intentions of the young widow. Mrs. Gray had to "house-clean" her parlor a month earlier than she had intended, because she had so many callers who came hoping to catch a glimpse of Mrs. Cary, and hear all about her, besides; but they did not see her at all, and Mrs. Gray could tell them but little.
"She ain't a mite of trouble," the good woman declared to every one, "an' the simplest, gentlest creature I ever see in my life. The girls are all just crazy over her. No, she ain't told me yet anything about herself, an' I don't like to press her none. Poor lamb, with her heart buried in the grave, at her age! No, I don't know how long she means to stay, neither, but 'twould be a good while, if I had my way."
To Mrs. Elliott, her best friend and Fred's mother, she was slightly more communicative, though she disclosed no vital statistics.
"Edith helped her unpack an' she said she never even imagined anything equal to what come out of them three great trunks; she said it made her just long to be a widow. The dresses was all black, of course, but they had an awful expensive look, some way, just the same. An' underclothes! Edith said there was at least a dozen of everything, an' two dozen of most, lace an' handwork an' silk, from one end of 'em to the other. She has a leather box most as big as a suitcase heaped with jewelry—it was open one morning when I went in with her breakfast, an' I give you my word, Eliza, that just the little glimpse I got of it was worth walkin' miles to see! An' yet she never wears so much as the simplest ring or pin. She has enough flowers for an elegant funeral sent to her three times a week by express, an' throws 'em away before they're half-faded—says she likes the little wild ones that are beginnin' to come up around here better, anyway. Yes, I don't deny she has some real queer notions—for instance, she puts all them flowers in plain green glass vases, an' wouldn't so much as look at the elegant cut-glass ones they keep up to Wallacetown. She don't eat a particle of breakfast, an' she streaks off for a long walk every day, rain or shine, an' wants the old tin tub carried in so's she can have a hot bath every single night, besides takin' what she calls a 'cold sponge' when she gets up in the mornin'—which ain't till nearly noon."
"Well, now, ain't all that strange! An' wouldn't I admire to see all them elegant things! What board did you say she paid?"
"Twenty-five dollars a week for board an' washin' an' mendin'—just think of it, Eliza! I feel like a robber, but she wouldn't hear of a cent less. Howard wants I should save every penny, so's at least one of the younger children can have more of an education than James an' Sally an' Austin an' Ruth. I don't look at it that way—seems to me it ain't fair to give one child more than another. I want to spruce up this place a little, an' lay by to raise the mortgage if we can."
"Which way 've you decided?"
"We've kinder compromised. The house is goin' to be painted outside, an' the kitchen done over. I've had the piano tuned for Molly already—the poor child is plum crazy over music, but it's a long time since I've seen the three dollars that I could hand over to a strange man just for comin' an' makin' a lot of screechin' noises on it all day; an' we're goin' to have a new carry-all to go to meetin' in—the old one is fair fallin' to pieces. The rest of the money we're goin' to lay by, an' if it keeps on comin' in, Thomas can go to the State Agricultural College in, the fall, for a spell, anyway. We've told Sally that she can keep all she earns for her weddin' things, too, as long as Mrs. Cary stays."
"My, she's a reg'lar goose layin' a golden egg for you, ain't she? Well, I must be goin'; I'll be over again as soon as spring-cleanin' eases up a little, but I'm terrible druv just now. Maybe next time I can see her."
"You an' Joe an' Fred all come to dinner on Sunday—then you will."
Mrs. Elliott accepted with alacrity; but alas, for the eager guests! when Sunday came, Mrs. Cary had a severe headache and remained in bed all day.
She was so "simple and gentle," as Mrs. Gray said, that it came as a distinct shock when it was discovered that little as she talked, she observed a great deal. Austin was the first member of the family to find this out. All the others had gone to church, and he was lounging on the porch one Sunday morning, when she came out of the house, supposing that she was quite alone. On finding him there, she hesitated for a minute, and then sat quietly down on the steps, made one or two pleasant, commonplace remarks, and lapsed into silence, her chin resting on her hands, looking out towards the barns. Her expression was non-committal; but Austin's antagonistic spirit was quick to judge it to be critical.
"I suppose you've travelled a good deal, besides living in New York," he said, in the bitter tone that was fast becoming his usual one.
"Yes, to a certain extent. I've been around the world once, and to Europe several times, and I spent part of last winter South."
"How miserable and shabby this poverty-stricken place must look to you!"
She raised her head and leaned back against a post, looking fixedly at him for a minute. He was conscious, for the first time, that the pale face was extremely lovely, that the great dark eyes were not gray, as he had supposed, but a very deep blue, and that the slim throat and neck, left bare by the V-cut dress, were the color of a white rose. A swift current of feeling that he had never known before passed through him like an electric shock, bringing him involuntarily to his feet, in time to hear her say:
"It's shabby, but it isn't miserable. I don't believe any place is that, where there's a family, and enough food to eat and wood to burn—if the family is happy in itself. Besides, with two hours' work, and without spending one cent, you could make it much less shabby than it is; and by saving what you already have, you could stave off spending in the future."
She pointed, as she spoke, to the cluttered yard before them, to the unwashed wagons and rusty tools that had not been put away, to the shed-door half off its hinges, and the unpiled wood tossed carelessly inside the shed. He reddened, as much at the scorn in her gesture as at the words themselves, and answered angrily, as many persons do when they are ashamed:
"That's very true; but when you work just as hard as you can, anyway, you haven't much spirit left over for the frills."
"Excuse me; I didn't realize they were frills. No business man would have his office in an untidy condition, because it wouldn't pay; I shouldn't think it would pay on a farm either. Just as it seems to me—though, of course, I'm not in a position to judge—that if you sold all those tubercular grade cows, and bought a few good cattle, and kept them clean and fed them well, you'd get more milk, pay less for grain, and not have to work so hard looking after more animals than you can really handle well."
As she spoke, she began to unfasten her long, frilled, black sleeves, and rose with a smile so winning that it entirely robbed her speech of sharpness.
"Let's go to work," she said, "and see how much we could do in the way of making things look better before the others get home from church. We'll start here. Hand me that broom and I'll sweep while you stack up the milk-pails—don't stop to reason with me about it—that'll only use up time. If there's any hot water on the kitchen stove and you know where the mop is, I'll wash this porch as well as sweep it; put on some more water to heat if you take all there is."
When the Grays returned from church, their astonished eyes were met with the spectacle of their boarder, her cheeks glowing, her hair half down her back, and her silk dress irretrievably ruined, helping Austin to wash and oil the one wagon which still stood in the yard. She fled at their approach, leaving Austin to retail her conversation and explain her conduct as best he could, and to ponder over both all the afternoon himself.
"She's dead right about the cows," declared Thomas; "but what would be the use of getting good stock and putting it in these barns? It would sicken in no time. We need new buildings, with proper ventilation, and concrete floors, and a silo."
"Why don't you say we need a million dollars, and be done with it? You might just as well," retorted his brother.
"Because we don't—but we need about ten thousand; half of it for buildings, and the rest for stock and utensils and fertilizers, and for what it would cost to clean up our stumpy old pastures, and make them worth something again."
At that moment Mrs. Cary entered the room for dinner, and the discussion of unpossessed resources came to an abrupt end. Her color was still high, and she ate her first hearty meal since her arrival; but her dress and her hair were irreproachably demure again, and she talked even less than usual.
That evening Molly begged off from doing her share with the dishes, and went to play on her newly tuned piano. She loved music dearly, and had genuine talent; but it seemed as if she had never realized half so keenly before how little she knew about it, and how much she needed help and instruction. A particularly unsuccessful struggle with a difficult passage finally proved too much for her courage, and shutting the piano with a bang, she leaned her head on it and burst out crying.
A moment later she sat up with a sudden jerk, realizing that the parlor door had opened and closed, and tried to wipe away the tears before any one saw them; then a hot blush of embarrassment and shame flooded her wet cheeks, as she realized that the intruder was not one of her sisters, but Mrs. Cary.
"What a good touch you have!" she said, sitting down by the piano, and apparently quite unaware of the storm. "I love music dearly, and I thought perhaps you'd let me come and listen to your playing for a little while. The fingering of that 'Serenade' is awfully hard, isn't it? I thought I should never get it, myself—never did, really well, in fact! Do you like your teacher?"
"I never had a lesson in my life," replied Molly, the sobs rising in her throat again; "there are two good ones in Wallacetown, but, you see, we never could af—"
"Well, some teachers do more harm than good," interrupted her visitor, "probably you've escaped a great deal. Play something else, won't you? Do you mind this dim light? I like it so much."
So Molly opened the piano and began again, doing her very best. She chose the simple things she knew by heart, and put all her will-power as well as all her skill into playing them well. It was only when she stopped, confessing that she knew no more, that Mrs. Gary stirred.
"I used to play a good deal myself," she said, speaking very low; "perhaps I could take it up again. Do you think you could help me, Molly?"
"I! help you! However in the world—"
"By letting me be your teacher! I'm getting rested now, and I find I've a lot of superfluous energy at my disposal—your brother had a dose of it this morning! I want something to do—something to keep me busy—something to keep me from thinking. I haven't half as much talent as you, but I've had more chances to learn. Listen! This is the way that 'Serenade' ought to go"—and Mrs. Cary began to play. The dusk turned to moonlight around them, and the Grays sat in the dining-room, hesitating to intrude, and listening with all their ears; and still she sat, talking, explaining, illustrating to Molly, and finally ended by playing, one after another, the old familiar hymns which they all loved.
"It's settled, then—I'll give you your first real lesson to-morrow, and send to New York at once for music. You'll have to do lots of scales and finger-exercises, I warn you! Now come into my parlor—there's something else I wanted to talk to you about."
"Do you see that great trunk?" she went on, after she had drawn Molly in after her and lighted the lamp; "I sent for it a week ago, but it only got here yesterday. It's full of all my—all the clothes I had to stop wearing a little while ago."
Molly's heart began to thump with excitement.
"You and Edith are little, like me," whispered Mrs. Cary. "If you would take the dresses and use them, it would be—be such a favor to me! Some of them are brand-new! Some of them wouldn't be useful or suitable for you, but there are firms in every big city that buy such things, so you could sell those, if you care to; and, besides the made-up clothes there are several dress-lengths—a piece of pink silk that would be sweet for Sally, and some embroidered linens, and—and so on. I'm going to bed now—I've had so much exercise to-day, and you've given me such a pleasant evening that I shan't have to read myself to sleep to-night, and when I've shut my bedroom door, if you truly would like the trunk, have your brothers come in and carry it off, and promise me never—never to speak about it again."
Monday and Tuesday passed by without further excitement; but Wednesday morning, while Mr. Gray was planting his newly ploughed vegetable-garden, Mrs. Cary sauntered out, and sat down beside the place where he was working, apparently oblivious of the fact that damp ground is supposed to be as detrimental to feminine wearing apparel as it is to feminine constitutions.
"I've been watching you from the window as long as I could stand it," she said, "now I've come to beg. I want a garden, too, a flower-garden. Do you mind if I dig up your front yard?"
He laughed, supposing that she was joking. "Dig all you want to," he said; "I don't believe you'll do much harm."
"Thanks. I'll try not to. Have I your full permission to try my hand and see?"
"You certainly have."
"Is there some boy in the village I could hire to do the first heavy work and the mowing, and pull up the weeds from time to time if they get ahead of me?"
Howard Gray leaned on his hoe. "You don't need to hire a boy," he said gravely; "we'll be only too glad to help you all you need."
"Thank you. But, you see, you've got too much to do already, and I can't add to your burdens, or feel free to ask favors, unless you'll let me do it in a business way."
Mr. Gray turned his hoe over, and began to hack at the ground. "I see how you feel," he began, "but—"
"If Thomas could do it evenings, at whatever the rate is around here by the hour, I should be very glad. If not, please find me a boy."
"She has a way of saying things," explained Howard Gray, who had faltered along in a state of dreary indecision for nearly sixty years, in telling his wife about it afterwards,—"as if they were all settled already. What could I say, but 'Yes, Mrs. Cary'? And then she went on, as cool as a cucumber, 'As long as you've got an extra stall, may I send for one of my horses? The usual board around here is five dollars a week, isn't it?' And what could I say again but 'Yes, Mrs. Cary'? though you may believe I fairly itched to ask, 'Send where?' and, 'For the love of Heaven, how many horses have you?'"
"I could stand her actin' as if things was all settled," replied his wife; "I like to see folks up an' comin', even if I ain't made that way myself, an' it's a satisfaction to me to see the poor child kinder pickin' up an' takin' notice again; but what beats me is, she acts as if all these things were special favors to her! The garden an' the horse is all very well, but what do you think she lit into me to-day for? 'You'll let me stay all summer, won't you, Mrs. Gray?' she said, comin' into the kitchen, where I was ironin' away for dear life, liftin' a pile of sheets off a chair, an' settlin' down, comfortable-like. 'Bless your heart, you can stay forever, as far as I'm concerned,' says I. 'Well, perhaps I will,' says she, leanin' back an' laughin'—she's got a sweet-pretty laugh, hev you noticed, Howard?—'and so you won't think I'm fault-findin' or discontented if I suggest a few little changes I'd like to make around, will you? I know it's awfully bold, in another person's house—an' such a lovely house, too, but—'"
"Well?" demanded her husband, as she paused for breath.
"Well, Howard Gray, the first of them little changes is to be a great big piazza, to go across the whole front of the house! 'The kitchen porch is so small an' crowded,' says she, 'an' you can't see the river from there; I want a place to sit out evenings. Can't I have the fireplaces in my rooms unbricked,' she went on, 'an' the rooms re-papered an' painted? An', oh,—I've never lived in a house where there wasn't a bathroom before, an' I want to make that big closet with a window off my bedroom into one. We'll have a door cut through it into the hall, too,' says she, 'an' isn't there a closet just like it overhead? If we can get a plumber here—they're such slippery customers—he might as well put in two bathrooms as one, while he's about it, an' you shan't do my great washin's any more without some good set-tubs. An' Mrs. Gray, kerosene lamps do heat up the rooms so in summer,—if there's an electrician anywhere around here—' 'Mrs. Cary,' says I, 'you're an angel right out of Heaven, but we can't accept all this from you. It means two thousand dollars, straight.' 'About what I should pay in two months for my living expenses anywhere else,' says she. 'Favors! It's you who are kind to let me stay here, an' not mind my tearin' your house all to pieces. Thomas is goin' to drive me up to Wallacetown this evenin' to see if we can find some mechanics'; an' she got up, an' kissed me, an' strolled off."
"Thomas thinks she's the eighth wonder of the world," said his father; "she can just wind him around her little finger."
"She's windin' us all," replied his wife, "an' we're standin' grateful-like, waitin' to be wound."
"That's so—all except Austin. Austin's mad as a hatter at what she got him to do Sunday morning; he doesn't like her, Mary."
"Humph!" said his wife.
"Good-bye, Mrs. Gray, I'm going for a ride."
"Good-bye, dearie; sure it ain't too hot?"
"Not a bit; it's rained so hard all this week that I haven't had a bit of exercise, and I'm getting cross."
"Cross! I'd like to see you once! It still looks kinder thunderous to me off in the West, so don't go far."
"I won't, I promise; I'll be back by supper-time. There's Austin, just up from the hayfield—I'll get him to saddle for me." And Sylvia ran quickly towards the barn.
"You don't mean to say you're going out this torrid day?" he demanded, lifting his head from the tin bucket in which he had submerged it as she voiced her request, and eyeing her black linen habit with disfavor.
"It's no hotter on the highroad than in the hayfield."
"Very true; but I have to go, and you don't. Being one of the favored few of this earth, there's no reason why you shouldn't sit on a shady porch all day, dressed in cool, pale-green muslin, and sipping iced drinks."
"Did you ever see me in a green muslin? I'll saddle Dolly myself, if you don't feel like it."
She spoke very quietly, but the immediate consciousness of his stupid break did not improve Austin's bad temper.
"Oh, I'll saddle for you, but the heat aside, I think you ought to understand that it isn't best for a woman to ride about on these lonely roads by herself. It was different a few years ago; but now, with all these Italian and Portuguese laborers around, it's a different story. I think you'd better stay at home."
The unwarranted and dictatorial tone of the last sentence spoiled the speech, which might otherwise, in spite of the surly manner in which it was uttered, have passed for an expression of solicitude. Sylvia, who was as headstrong as she was amiable, gathered up her reins quickly.
"By what right do you consider yourself in a position to dictate to me?" she demanded.
"By none at all; but it's only decent to tell you the risk you're running; now if you come to grief, I certainly shan't feel sorry."
"From your usual behavior, I shouldn't have supposed you would, anyway. Good-bye, Austin."
"Good-bye, Mrs. Cary."
"Why don't you call me Sylvia, as all the rest do?"
"It's not fitting."
"More dictation as to propriety! Well, as you please."
He watched her ride up the hill, almost with a feeling of satisfaction at having antagonized and hurt her, then turned to unharness and water his horses. He knew very well that his own behavior was the only blot on a summer, which but for that would have been almost perfect for every other member of the family, and yet he made no effort to alter it. In fact, only a few days before, his sullen resentment of the manner in which their long-prayed-for change of fortune had come had very nearly resulted disastrously for them all, and the more he brooded over it, the more sore and bitter he became.
* * * * *
By the first of August, the "Gray Homestead" had regained the proud distinction, which it had enjoyed in the days of its builder, of being one of the finest in the county. The house, with its wide and hospitable piazza, shone with white paint; the disorderly yard had become a smooth lawn; a flower-garden, riotous with color, stretched out towards the river, and the "back porch" was concealed with growing vines. Only the barns, which afforded Sylvia no reasonable excuse for meddling, remained as before, unsightly and dilapidated. Thomas, the practical farmer, had lamented this as he and Austin sat smoking their pipes one sultry evening after supper.
"Perhaps our credit has improved enough now so that we could borrow some money at the Wallacetown Bank," he said earnestly, "and if you and father weren't so averse to taking that good offer Weston made you last week for the south meadow, we'd have almost enough to rebuild, anyway. It's all very well to have this pride in 'keeping the whole farm just as grandfather left it to us,' but if we could sell part and take care of the rest properly, it would be a darned sight better business."
"Why don't you ask your precious Mrs. Cary for the money? She'd probably give it to you outright, same as she has for the house, and save you all that bother."
"Look here!" Thomas swung around sharply, laying a heavy hand on his brother's arm; "when you talk about her, you won't use that tone, if I know it."
Austin shrugged his shoulders. "Why shouldn't I? What do you know about her that justifies you in resenting it? Nothing, absolutely nothing! She's been here four months, and none of us have any idea to this day where she comes from, or where all this money comes from. Ask her, if you dare to."
He got no further, for Thomas, always the mildest of lads, struck him on the mouth so violently that he tottered backwards, and in doing so, fell straight under the feet of Sylvia, who stood in the doorway watching them, as if rooted to the spot, her blue eyes full of tears, and her face as white as when she had first come to them.
"Thomas, how could you?" she cried. "Can't you understand Austin at all, and make allowances? And, oh, Austin, how could you? Both of you? please forgive me for overhearing—I couldn't help it!" And she was gone.
Thomas was on his feet and after her in a second, but the was too quick for him; her sitting-room door was locked before he reached it, and repeated knocking and calling brought no answer. Mr. and Mrs. Gray, who slept in the chamber opening from the dining-room, and back of Sylvia's, reported the next morning that something must be troubling the "blessed girl," for they had heard soft sobbing far into the night; but, after all, that had happened before, and was to be expected from one "whose heart was buried in the grave." Their sons made no comment, but both were immeasurably relieved when, after an entire day spent in her room, during which each, in his own way, had suffered intensely, she reappeared at supper as if nothing had happened. It was a glorious night, and she suggested, as she left the table, that Thomas might take her for a short paddle, a canoe being among the many things which had been gradually arriving for her all summer. Molly and Edith went with them, and Austin smoked alone with his bitter reflections.
* * * * *
The thunder was rumbling in good earnest when Howard Gray and Thomas came clattering up with their last load of hay for the night, and the three men pitched it hastily into place together, and hurried into the house. Mrs. Gray was bustling about slamming windows, and the girls were bringing in the red-cushioned hammocks and piazza, chairs, but the first great drops began to fall before they had finished, and the wind, seldom roused in the quiet valley, was blowing violently; Edith, stopping too long for a last pillow and a precious book, was drenched to the skin in an instant; the house was pitch dark before there was time to grope for lights, but was almost immediately illumined by a brilliant flash of lightning, followed by a loud report.
"My, but this storm is near! Usually, I don't mind 'em a bit, but, I declare, this is a regular rip-snorter! Edith, bring me—"
But Mrs. Gray was interrupted by the elements, and for fifteen minutes no one made any further effort to talk; the rain fell in sheets, the wind gathered greater and greater force, the lightning became constant and blinding, while each clap of thunder seemed nearer and more terrific than the one before it, when finally a deafening roar brought them all suddenly together, shouting frantically, "That certainly has struck here!"
It was true; before they could even reach it, the great north barn was in flames. There was no way of summoning outside help, even if any one could have reached them in such a storm, and the wind was blowing the fire straight in the direction of the house; in less than an hour, most of the old and rotten outbuildings had burnt like tinder, and the rest had collapsed under the fury of the sweeping gale; but by eight o'clock the stricken Grays, almost too exhausted and overcome to speak, were beginning to realize that though all their hay and most of their stock were destroyed, a change of wind, combined with their own mighty efforts, had saved the beloved old house; its window-panes were shattered, and its blinds were torn off, and its fresh paint smoked and defaced with wind-blown sand; but it was essentially unharmed. The hurricane changed to a steady downpour, the lightning grew dimmer and more distant, and vanished altogether; and Mrs. Gray, with a firm expression of countenance, in spite of the tears rolling down her cheeks, set about to finish the preparations for supper which the storm had so rudely interrupted three hours earlier.
"Eat an' keep up your strength, an' that'll help to keep up your courage," she said, patting her husband on the shoulder as she passed him. "Here, Katherine, take them biscuits out of the oven; an' Molly, go an' call the boys in; there ain't a mite of use in their stayin' out there any longer."
Austin was the last to appear; he opened the kitchen door, and stood for a moment leaning against the frame, a huge, gaunt figure, blackened with dirt and smoke, and so wet that the water dropped in little pools all about him. He glanced up and down the room, and gave a sharp exclamation.
"What's the matter, Austin?" asked his mother, stopping in the act of pouring out a steaming cup of tea. "Come an' get some supper; you'll feel better directly. It ain't so bad but what it might be a sight worse."
"Come and get some supper!" he cried, striding towards her, and once more looking wildly around. "The thunderstorm has been over nearly two hours, plenty of time for her to get home—she never minds rain—or to telephone if she had taken shelter anywhere; and can any one tell me—has any one even thought—I didn't, till five minutes ago—where is Sylvia?"
"Sylvia! Sylvia! Sylvia!"
The musical name echoed and reechoed through the silent woods, but there was no other answer. Austin lighted a match, shielded it from the rain with his hand, and looked at his watch; it was just past midnight.
"Oh," he groaned, "where can she be? What has happened to her? If I only knew she was found, and unharmed, and safe at home again, I'd never ask for anything else as long as I lived."
He had knocked his lantern against a tree some time before, and broken it, and there was nothing to do but stumble blindly along in the darkness, hoping against hope. Howard Gray had gone north, Thomas east, and Austin south; before starting out, they had endeavored to telephone, but the storm had destroyed the wires in every direction. After travelling almost ten miles, Austin went home, thinking that by that time either his father or his brother must have been successful in his search, to be met only by the anxious despair of his mother and sisters.
"Don't you worry," he forced himself to say with a cheerfulness he was very far from feeling; "she may have gone down that old wood-road that leads out of the Elliotts' pasture. I heard her telling Thomas once that she loved to explore, that they must walk down there some Sunday afternoon; maybe she decided to go alone. I'll stop at the house, and see if Fred happened to see her pass."
Fred had not; but Mrs. Elliott had; there was little that escaped her eager eyes.
"My, yes, I see her go tearin' past before the storm so much as begun; she's sure the queerest actin' widow-woman I ever heard of; Sally says she goes swimmin' in a bathin'-suit just like a boy's, an' floats an' dives like a fish—nice actions for a grievin' lady, if you ask me! Do set a moment, Austin; set down an' tell me about the fire; I ain't had no details at all, an' I'm feelin' real bad—" But the door had already slammed behind Austin's hurrying figure.
"Sylvia, Sylvia, where are you?"
He ploughed along for what seemed like endless miles, calling as he went, and hearing his own voice come back to him, over and over again, like a mocking spirit. The wind, the rain, and the darkness conspired together to make what was rough travelling in the daytime almost impassable; strong as he was, Austin sank down more than once for a few minutes on some fallen log over which he stumbled. At these times the vision of Sylvia standing in the midst of the still-smoking ruins of the buildings, which had been, in spite of their wretched condition, dear to him because they were almost all he had in the world, seemed to rise before him with horrible reality: Sylvia, dressed in her black, black clothes, with her soft dark hair, and her deep-blue eyes, and her vivid red lips which so seldom either drooped or smiled but lay tightly closed together, a crimson line in her white face, which was no more sorrowful than it was mask-like. The expression was as pure and as sad and as gentle as that of a Mater Dolorosa he had chanced to see in a collection of prints at the Wallacetown Library, and yet—and yet—Austin knew instinctively that the dead husband, whoever he might have been, and his own brother Thomas were not the only men besides himself who had found it irresistibly alluring.
"I'm poorer than ever now," he groaned to himself, "and ignorant, and mean, and dirty, and a beast in every sense of the word; I can't ever atone for the way I've treated her—for the way I've—but if I could only find her and try, oh, I've got to! Sylvia, Sylvia, Sylvia—"
The rain struck about by the wind, which had risen again, lashed against the leaves of the trees, and the wet, swaying boughs struck against his face as he started on again; but the storm and his own footsteps were the only sounds he could hear.
It was growing rapidly colder, and he felt more than once in his pocket to make sure that the little flask of brandy he had brought with him was still safe, and tried to fasten his drenched coat more tightly about him. His teeth chattered, and he shivered; but this, he realized, was more with nervousness than with chill.
"If I'm cold, what must she be, in that linen habit? And she's so little and frail—" He pulled himself together. "I must stop worrying like this—of course, I'll find her,—alive and unharmed. Some things are too dreadful—they just can't happen. I've got to have a chance to beg her forgiveness for all I've said and done and thought; I've got to have something to give me courage to start all over again, and make a man of myself yet—to cleanse myself of ingratitude—and bitterness—and evil passions. Sylvia—Sylvia—Sylvia!"
It seemed as if he had called it a thousand times; suddenly he stopped short, listening, his heart beating like a hammer, then standing still in his breast. It couldn't be—but, oh, it was, it was—
"Austin! Is that you?"
"Yes, yes, yes, where are you?"
"I don't know, I'm sure—what a question!" And instantly a feeling of relief swept through him—she was all right—able to see the absurdity of his question more than he could have done! "But wherever I am, we can't be far apart; keep on calling, follow my voice—Austin—Austin—Austin—"
"All right—coming—tell me—are you hurt?"
"No—that is, not much."
"Dolly was frightened by the storm, bolted, and threw me off; I must have been stunned for a few minutes. I'm afraid I've sprained my ankle in falling, for I can't walk; and, oh, Austin, I'm awfully cold—and wet—and tired!"
"I know; it's—it's been just hellish for you. Keep on speaking to me, I'm getting nearer."
"I'll put out my hands, and then, when you get here, you won't stumble over me. I'm sure you're very near; your footsteps sound so."
"How long have you been here, should you think?"
"Oh, hours and hours. I was riding on the main road, when just what you predicted happened. It served me right—I ought to have listened to you. And so—oh, here you are—I knew, all the time, you'd come."
He grasped the little cold, outstretched hands, and sank down beside her, chafing them in his own.
"Thank God, I've found you," he said huskily, and gulped hard, pressing his lips together; then forcing himself to speak quietly, he went on, "Sylvia—tell me exactly what happened—if you feel able; but first, you must drink some brandy—I've got some for you—"
"I don't believe I can. I was all right until a moment ago—but now everything seems to be going around—"
Austin put his arm around her, and forced the flask to her lips; then the soft head sank on his shoulder, and he realized that she had fainted. Very gently he laid her on the ground, and fumbled in the dark for the fastenings of her habit; when it was loosened, he pulled off his coat and flannel shirt, putting the coat over her, and the shirt under her head for a pillow; then listening anxiously for her breathing, felt again for her mouth, and poured more brandy between her lips. There were a few moments of anxious waiting; then she sighed, moved restlessly, and tried to sit up.
"Lie still, Sylvia; you fainted; you've got to keep very quiet for a few minutes."
"How stupid of me! But I'm all right now."
"I said, lie still."
"All right, all right, I will; but you'll frighten me out of my wits if you use that tone of voice."
"I didn't mean to frighten you; but you've got to keep quiet, for your own sake, Sylvia."
"I thought you said you wouldn't call me Sylvia."
"I've said a good many foolish things in the course of my life, and changed my mind about them afterwards."
"Or feel sorry if I came to grief—"
"And a good many untrue and wicked ones for which I have repented afterwards."
"Well, I did come to grief—or pretty nearly. I met three Polish workmen on the road. I think they were—intoxicated. Anyway, they tried to stop me. I was lucky in managing to turn in here—so quickly they didn't realize what I was going to do. If I hadn't been near the entrance to this wood-road—Austin, what makes you grip my hand so? You hurt."
"Promise me you'll never ride alone again," he said, his voice shaking.
"I certainly never shall."
"And could you possibly promise me, too, that you'll forgive the absolutely unforgivable way I've acted all summer, and give me a chance to show that I can do better—Sylvia?"
"Oh, yes, yes! Please don't feel badly about that. I—I—never misunderstood at all. I know you've had an awfully hard row to hoe, and that's made you bitter, and—any man hates to have a woman help—financially. Besides"—she hesitated, and went on with a humility very different from her usual sweet imperiousness—"I've been pretty unhappy myself, and it's made me self-willed and obstinate and dictatorial."
"You! You're—more like an angel than I ever dreamed any woman could be."
"Oh, I'm not, I'm not—please don't think so for a minute. Because, if you do, we'll start out on a false basis, and not be real friends, the way I hope we're going to be now—"
"And, please, may I sit up now? And really, my hands are warm"—he dropped them instantly—"and I would like to hear about the storm—whether it has done much damage, if you know."
"It has destroyed every building we owned except the house itself."
"Austin! You're not in earnest!"
"I never was more so."
"Oh, I'm sorry—more sorry than I can tell you!" One of the little hands that had been withdrawn a moment earlier groped for his in the darkness, and pressed it gently; she did not speak for some minutes, but finally she went on: "It seems a dreadful thing to say, but perhaps it may prove a blessing in disguise. I believe Thomas is right in thinking that a smaller farm, which you could manage easily and well without hiring help, would be more profitable; and now it will seem the most natural thing in the world to sell that great southern meadow to Mr. Weston."
"Yes, I suppose so; he offered us three thousand dollars for it; he doesn't care to buy the little brick cottage that goes with it—which isn't strange, for it has only five rooms, and is horribly out of repair. Grandfather used it for his foreman; but, of course, we've never needed it and never shall, so I wish he did want it."
"Oh, Austin—could I buy it? I've been dying for it ever since I first saw it! It could be made perfectly charming, and it's plenty big enough for me! I've sold my Fifth Avenue house, and I'm going to sell the one on Long Island too—great, hideous, barnlike places! Your mother won't want me forever, and I want a little place of my very own, and I love Hamstead—and the river—and the valley—I didn't dare suggest this—you all, except Thomas, seemed so averse to disposing of any of the property, but—'
"If we sell the meadow to Weston, I am sure you can have the cottage and as much land as you want around it; but the trouble is—"
"You need a great deal more money; of course, I know that. Have you any insurance?"
For some moments she sat turning things over in her mind, and was quiet for so long that Austin began to fear that she was more badly hurt than she had admitted, and found it an effort to talk.
"Is anything the matter?" he asked at last, anxiously. "Are you in pain?"
"No—only thinking. Austin—if you cannot secure a loan at some local bank, would you be very averse to borrowing the money from me—whatever the sum is that you need? I am investing all the time, and I will ask the regular rates of interest. Are you offended with me for making such a suggestion?"
"I am not. I was too much moved to answer for a minute, that is all. It is beyond my comprehension how you could bring yourself to do it, after overhearing what you heard me say the other evening."
"Then you'll accept?"
"If father and Thomas think best, I will; and thank you, too, for not calling it a gift."
"Are you likely to be offended if I go on, and suggest something further?"
"No; but I am likely to be so overwhelmed that I shall not be of much practical use to you."
"Well, then, I'd like you to take a thousand dollars more than you need for building, and spend it in travelling."
"Yes; Thomas is a born farmer, and the four years that he is going to have at the State Agricultural College are going to be exactly what he wants and needs. He isn't sensitive enough so that he'll mind being a little older than most of the fellows in his class. But, of course, for you, anything like that is entirely out of the question. How old are you, anyway?"
"Well, if you could get away from here for a time, and see other people, how they do things, how they make a little money go a long way, and a little land go still farther, how they work hard, and fail many times, and succeed in the end—not the science of farming that Thomas is going to learn, but the accomplished fact—I believe it would be the making of you. My Uncle Mat was one of the first importers of Holstein cattle in this country, and I'd like to have you do just what he did when he got through college. Of course, you can buy all the cows you want in the United States now, of every kind, sort, and description, and just as good as there are anywhere in the world; but I want you to go to Europe, nevertheless. Start right off while Thomas is still at home to help your father; take a steamer that goes direct to Holland; get into the interior with an interpreter. Then cross over to the Channel Islands. By that time you'll be in a position to decide whether you want to stock your farm with Holsteins, which have the strongest constitutions and give the most milk, or Jerseys, which give the richest. While you're over there, go to Paris and London for a few days—and see something besides cows. Come home by Liverpool. I know the United States Minister to the Netherlands very well, and no end of people in Paris. I'll give you some letters of introduction, and you'll have a good time besides getting a practical education. The whole trip needn't take you more than eight weeks. Then next spring visit a few of the big farms in New York and the Middle West, and go to one of those big cattle auctions they hold in Syracuse in July. Then—"
"For Heaven's sake, Sylvia! Where did you pick up all this information about farming?"
"From Uncle Mat—but I'll tell you all about that some other time. The question is now, 'Will you go?'"
"God bless you, yes!"
"That's settled, then," she cried happily. "I was fairly trembling with fear that you'd refuse. Why is it so hard for you to accept things?"
"I don't know. I've been bitter all my life because I've had to go without so much, and this summer I've been equally bitter because things were changing. It must be just natural cussedness—but I'm honestly going to try to do better."
"We've got to stay here until morning, haven't we?"
"I'm afraid we have. You can't walk, and even if you could, the chances are ten to one against our finding the highroad in this Egyptian darkness! When the sun comes up, I can pick my own way along through the underbrush all right, and carry you at the same time. You must weigh about ninety pounds."
"I weigh one hundred and ten! The idea!—There's really no chance, then, of our moving for several hours?"
"I'm sorry—but you must see there is not. Does it seem as if you couldn't bear being so dreadfully uncomfortable that much longer?"
"Not in the least. I'm all right. But—"
"Do you mind being here—alone with me?"
"No, no, no! Why on earth should I? Let me finish my sentence. I was only wondering if it might not help to pass the time if I told you a story? It's not a very pleasant one, but I think it might help you over some hard places yourself, if you heard it; and if you would tell part of it—as much as you think best—to your family after we get home, I should be very grateful. Some of it should, in all justice, have been told to you all long ago, since you were so good as to receive me when you knew nothing whatever about me, and the rest is—just for you."
"Is the telling going to be hard for you?"
"I don't think so—this way—in the dark—and alone. It has all seemed too unspeakably dreadful to talk about until just lately; but I've been growing so much happier—I think it may be a relief to tell some one now."
"Then do, by all means. I feel—"
"More honored than I can tell you by your—confidence."
"Austin—when it's in you to say such nice things as you have several times to-night, why do you waste time saying disagreeable ones—the way you usually do to everybody?"
"I've just told you, I don't know, but I'm going to do better."
"Well—there was once a girl, whose father had died when she was a baby and who lived with her mother and a maid in a tiny flat in New York City. It was a pretty little flat, and they had plenty to eat and to wear, and a good many pleasant friends and acquaintances; but they didn't have much money—that is, compared to the other people they knew. This girl went to a school where all her mates had ten times as much spending money as she did, who possessed hundreds of things which she coveted, and who were constantly showering favors upon her which she had no way of returning. So, from the earliest time that she could remember, she felt discontented and dissatisfied, and regarded herself as having been picked out by Providence for unusual misfortunes; and her mother agreed with her.
"I fancy it is never very pleasant to be poor. But if one can be frankly poor, in calico and overalls, the way you've been, I don't believe it's quite so hard as it is to be poor and try 'to keep up appearances'; as the saying is. This girl learned very early the meaning of that convenient phrase. She gave parties, and went without proper food for a week afterwards; she had pretty dresses to wear to dances, and wore shabby finery about the house; she bought theatre tickets and candy, but never had a cent to give to charity; she usually stayed in the sweltering city all summer, because there was not enough money to go away for the summer, and still have some left for the next winter's season; and she spent two years at miserable little second-rate 'pensions' in Europe—that pet economy of fashionable Americans who would not for one moment, in their own country, put up with the bad food, and the unsanitary quarters, and the vulgar associates which they endure there.
"Before she was sixteen years old this girl began to be 'attractive to men,' as another stock phrase goes. I may be mistaken, and I'll never have a chance now to find out whether I am or not, but I believe if I had a daughter like that, it would be my earnest wish to bring her up in some quiet country place where she could dress simply, and spend much time outdoors, and not see too many people until she was nineteen or twenty. But the mother I have been talking about didn't feel that way. She taught her daughter to make the most of her looks—her eyes and her mouth, and her figure; she showed her how to arrange her dress in a way which should seem simple—and really be alluring; she drilled her in the art of being flippant without being pert, of appearing gentle when she was only sly, of saying the right thing at the right time, and—what is much more important—keeping still at the right time. The pupil was docile because she was eager to learn and she was clever. She made very few mistakes, and she never made the same one twice.
"Of course, all this education had one aim and end—a rich husband. 'I hope I've brought you up too sensibly,' the mother used to say, 'for you to even think of throwing yourself away on the first attractive boy that proposes to you. Your type is just the kind to appeal to some big, heavy, oversated millionaire. Keep your eyes open for him.' The daughter was as obedient in listening to this counsel as she had been in regard to the others, for it fell in exactly with her own wishes; she was tired of being poor, of scrimping and saving and 'keeping up appearances.' The innumerable young bank clerks and journalists and teachers and college students who fluttered about her burnt their moth-wings to no avail. But that rara avis, a really rich man, found her very kind to him.
"Well, you can guess the result. When she was not quite eighteen, a man who was beyond question a millionaire proposed to her, and she accepted him. He was nearly twenty years older than she was, and was certainly big, heavy, and oversated. Her uncle—her father's brother—came to her mother, and told her certain plain facts about this man, and his father and grandfather before him, and charged her to tell the child what she would be doing if she married him. Perhaps if the uncle had gone to the girl herself, it might have done some good—perhaps it wouldn't have—you see she was so tired of being poor that she thought nothing else mattered. Anyway, he felt a woman could break these ugly facts to a young girl better than a man, and he was right. Only, you see, the mother never told at all; not that she really feared that her daughter would be foolish and play false to her excellent training—but, still, it was just as well to be on the safe side. The millionaire was quite mad about his little fiancee; he was perfectly willing to pay—in advance—all the expenses for a big, fashionable wedding, with twelve bridesmaids and a wedding-breakfast at Sherry's; he was eager to load her with jewels, and settle a large sum of money upon her, and take her around the world for her honeymoon journey; he loved her little soft tricks of speech, the shy way in which she dropped her eyes, the curve of the simple white dress that fell away from her neck when she leaned towards him; and though she saw him drink—and drank with him more than once before her marriage—he took excellent care that it was not until several nights afterwards that she found him—really drunk; and they must have been married two months before she began to—really comprehend what she had done.
"There isn't much more to tell—that can be told. The woman who sells herself—with or without a wedding ring—has probably always existed, and probably always will; but I doubt whether any one of them ever has told—or ever will—the full price which she pays in her turn. She deserves all the censure she gets, and more—but, oh! she does deserve a little pity with it! When this girl had been married nearly a year, she heard her husband coming upstairs one night long after midnight, in a condition she had learned to recognize—and fear. She locked her bedroom door. When he discovered that, he was furiously angry; as I said before, he was a big man, and he was very strong. He knocked out a panel, put his hand through, and turned the key. When he reached her, he reminded her that she had been perfectly willing to marry him—that she was his wife, his property, anything you choose to call it; he struck her. The next day she was very ill, and the child which should have been born three months later came—and went—before evening. The next year she was not so fortunate; her second baby was born at the right time—her husband was away with another woman when it happened—a horrible, diseased little creature with staring, sightless eyes. Thank God! it lived only two weeks, and its mother, after a long period of suffering and agony during which she felt like a leper, recovered again, in time to see her husband die—after three nights, during which she got no sleep—of delirium tremens, leaving her with over two million dollars to spend as she chose—and the degradation of her body and the ruin of her soul to think of all the rest of her life!"
"Sylvia!"—the cry with which Austin broke his long silence came from the innermost depths of his being—"Sylvia, Sylvia, you shan't say such things—they're not true. Don't throw yourself on the ground and cry that way." He bent over her, vainly trying to keep his own voice from trembling. "If I could have guessed what—telling this—this hideous story would mean to you, I never should have let you do it. And it's all my fault that you felt you ought to do it—partly because of those vile speeches I made the other evening, partly because I've let you see how wickedly discontented I've been myself, partly because you must have heard me urging my own sister to make practically this same kind of a marriage. Oh, if it's any comfort to you to know it, you haven't told me in vain! Sylvia, do speak to me, and tell me that you believe me, and that you forgive me!"
She managed to give him the assurance he sought, her desperate, passionate voice grown gentle and quiet again. But she was too tired and spent to be comforted. For a long time she lay so still that he became alarmed, thinking she must have fainted again, and drew closer to her to listen to her breathing; at first there was a little catch in it, betraying sobs not yet wholly controlled, then gradually it grew calm and even; she had fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion.
Austin, sitting motionless beside her, found the night one of purification and dedication. To men of Thomas's type, slow of wit, steady and stolid and unemotional, the soil gives much of her own peaceful wholesomeness. But those like Austin, with finer intellects, higher ambitions, and stronger passions, often fare ill at her hands. Their struggles towards education and the refinements of life are balked by poverty and the utter fatigue which comes from overwork; while their search for pleasure often ends in a knowledge and experience of vices so crude and tawdry that men of greater wealth and more happy experience would turn from them in disgust, not because they were more moral, but because they could afford to be more fastidious. Between Broadway and the "main street" of Wallacetown, and other places of its type—small railroad or manufacturing centres, standing alone in an otherwise purely agricultural community—the odds in favor of virtue, not to say decency, are all in favor of Broadway; and Wallacetown, to the average youth of Hamstead, represents the one opportunity for a "show," "something to drink," and "life" in general. Sylvia had unlocked the door of material opportunity for Austin; but she had done far more than this. She had given him the vision of the higher things that lay beyond that, and the desire to attain them. Further than that, neither she nor any other woman could help him. The future, to make or mar, lay now within his own hands. And in the same spirit of consecration with which the knights of old prayed that they might attain true chivalry during the long vigil before their accolade, Austin kept his watch that night, and made his vow that the future, in spite of the discouragements and mistakes and failures which it must inevitably contain, should be undaunted by obstacles, and clean of lust and high of purpose.
The wind and rain ceased, the clouds grew less heavy, and at last, just before dawn, a few stars shone faintly in the clearing sky; then the sun rose in a blaze of glory. Sylvia had not moved, and lay with one arm under her dark head, the undried tears still on her cheeks. Austin lifted her gently, and started towards the highroad with her in his arms. She stirred slightly, opened her eyes and smiled, then lifted her hands and clasped them around his neck.
"It'll be easier to carry me that way," she murmured drowsily. "Austin—you're awfully good to me."
Her eyes closed again. A sheet of white fire, like that of which he had been conscious on the afternoon when they straightened out the yard together, only a thousand times more powerful, seemed to envelop him again. He looked down at the lovely, sleeping face, at the dark lashes curling over the white cheeks and the red, sweet lips. If he kissed her, what harm would be done—she would never even know—
Then he flung back his head. Sylvia was as far above him as those pale stars of the early dawn. It was clear to him that no one must ever guess how dearly he loved her; but he knew that it was far, far more essential that he, in his unworthiness, should not profane his own ideal. She was not for his touch, scarcely for his thoughts. The kiss which did not reach her lips burned into his soul instead, and cleansed it with its healing flame.
Sylvia's sprain, as Austin had suspected, proved much more serious than she had admitted, but when the village doctor came about noon to dress her ankle, she insisted that she was none the worse for her long exposure, and that if she must lie still on a lounge for two weeks, the least the family could do would be to humor her in everything, and spend as much time as possible with her, or she would certainly die of boredom. She passed the entire day in making and unfolding plans, looking up the sailing dates of steamships, and writing letters of introduction for Austin. By night she had the satisfaction of knowing that Weston's offer for the south meadow had been accepted, that the Wallacetown Bank and the insurance money would furnish part of the needed funds, and that she was to be allowed to loan the rest, and that the little brick cottage belonged to her. The fact that Austin had had a long talk with his father and brother, and that his passage for Holland had been engaged by telegraph, seemed scarcely less of an achievement to her; but Mrs. Gray noticed, as she kissed her little benefactress after seeing her comfortably settled for the night, that her usually pale cheeks were very red and her eyes unnaturally bright, and worried over her all night long.
The next morning there could be no doubt of the fact that Sylvia was really ill, and two days later Dr. Wells shook his head with dissatisfaction after using his thermometer and stethoscope. He was a conscientious man who lacked self-confidence, and the look of things was disquieting to him.
"I think you ought to get a nurse," he said in the hall to Mrs. Gray as he went out, "and probably she would like to have her own doctor from the city in consultation, and some member of her family come to her. It looks to me very much as if we were in for bronchial pneumonia, and she's a delicate little thing at best."
Sylvia was laughing when Mrs. Gray, bent on being both firm and tactful, reentered her room. "Tell Dr. Wells he must make his stage-whispers softer if he doesn't want me to overhear him," she said, "and don't think of ordering the funeral flowers just yet. I'm not delicate—I'm strong as an ox—if I weren't I shouldn't be alive at all. Get a nurse by all means if it will make things easier for you—that's the only reason I need one. They're usually more bother than they're worth, but I know of two or three who might do fairly well, if any one of them is free. My doctor is an old fogey, and I won't have him around. As for family, I'm not as greatly blessed—numerically or otherwise—in that respect as the Grays, but my Uncle Mat would love to come, I feel sure, as he's rather hurt at my runaway conduct." She gave the necessary addresses, and still persisting that they were making a great fuss about nothing, turned over on her pillow in a violent fit of coughing.
Sylvia was right in one thing: she was much stronger than Dr. Wells guessed, and though the next week proved an anxious one for every member of the household except herself, it was not a dismal one. Even if she were flat on her back, her spirit and her vitality remained contagious. Thomas, whose state of mind was by this time quite apparent to the family, though he imagined it to be a well-concealed secret, hung about outside her door, positive that she was going to die, and brought offerings in the shape of flowers, early apples, and pet animals which he thought might distract her. Austin, who shared his room, insisted that he could not sleep because Thomas groaned and sighed so all night; Molly pertly asked him why he did not try rabbits, as kittens did not seem to appeal to Sylvia, and his mother bantered him half-seriously for thinking of "any one so far above him" whose heart, moreover, was buried "in the grave." Austin's somewhat expurgated version of Sylvia's story put an end to the latter part of the protest, but sent his hearers into a new ferment of excitement and sympathy. Sally, who was all ready to start for a "ball" in Wallacetown with Fred when she heard it, declared she couldn't go one step, it made her feel "that low in her spirits," and Fred replied, by gosh, he didn't blame her one mite; whereat they wandered off and spent the evening at a very comfortable distance from the house, but fairly close together, revelling in a wealth of gruesome facts and suppositions. Katherine said she certainly never would marry at all, men were such dreadful creatures, and Molly said, yes, indeed, but what else could a girl marry?—while Edith determined to devote the rest of her life to attending and adoring the lovely, sad, drooping widow, whose existence was to be one long poem of beautiful seclusion; and she was so pleased with her own ideas, and her manner of expressing them, that she wept scalding tears into the broth she was making for Sylvia as she stirred it over the stove.
The presence of "Uncle Mat," greatly dreaded beforehand, proved an unexpected source of solace and delight. He was a quiet, shrewd little man, not unlike Sylvia in many ways, but with a merry twinkle in his eye, and a brisk manner of speech which she did not possess. He sized up the Gray family quickly, and apparently with satisfaction, for he talked quite freely of his niece to them, and they saw that they were not alone in their estimate of her.
"It certainly was a great stroke of luck all round—for her as well as for you—when she blew in here," he said, "but if you knew what an awful hole we think she's left behind her in New York you'd think yourselves doubly lucky to have her all to yourselves. There's more than one young man, I can tell you"—with a sly look at Thomas—"watching out for her return. You should have seen her at a party I gave for her three years ago or more, dressed in a pink frock looped up with roses, and with cheeks to match! She wasn't always this pale little shadow, I can tell you. Well, the boys were around her that night like bees round a honeysuckle bush—no denying there's something almighty irresistible about these little, soft-looking girls, now, is there? Ah! her roses didn't last long, poor child. Now you've given her a good, healthful place to live in, and something to think about and do—she'd have lost her reason without them, after all she's been through. But when you're tired of her, I want her. I'm a poor, forlorn lonely old bachelor, and I need her a great deal more than any of you. What do you say to a little walk, Mr. Gray, before we turn in? I want to have a look at your fine farm. I have a farm myself—no such grand old place as this, of course, but a neat little toy not far from the city, where I can run down Sundays. Sylvia used to be very fond of going down with me. It's from my foreman, a queer, scientific chap—Jenkins his name is—that she's picked up all these notions she's been unloading on you. Pretty good, most of them, aren't they, though? You must run down there some time, boys, and look things over—it's well to go about a bit when one's thinking of building and branching out—Sylvia's idea, exactly, isn't it?"
Mr. Gray and Thomas did "run down," seizing the opportunity while Austin was still at home, and while there was practically no farm-work to be done. Jenkins did the honors of Mr. Stevens's little place handsomely, and they returned with magnificent plans, from the erection of silos and the laying of concrete floors to the proper feeding of poultry. When "Uncle Mat" was obliged to return to his business, after staying over two weeks with the Grays, Austin went with him, for he suggested that he would be glad to have the boy as his guest in New York for a few days before he sailed.
"You better have a glimpse of the 'neat little toy,' too," he said, "and perhaps see something of a rather neat little city, too! You'll want to do a little shopping and so on, and I might be of assistance in that way."
"I don't see how you can go," said Thomas to Austin the night before he left, as they were undressing, "while Sylvia is still in bed, and won't be around for another week at least. She's responsible for all your tremendous good fortune, and you'll leave without even saying thank you and good-bye. You're a darned queer ungrateful cuss, and always were."
"I know it," said Austin, "and such being the 'nature of the beast,' don't bother trying to make me over. You can be grateful and devoted enough for both of us. Now, do shut up and let me go to sleep—I sure will be thankful to get a room to myself, if I'm not for anything else."
"I don't see how any one can help being crazy over her," continued Thomas, thumping his pillow as if he would like to pummel any one who disagreed with him.
"Don't you?" asked Austin.
The next night he was in New York with Mr. Stevens, trying hard to feel natural in a tiny flat which was only one of fifty in the same great house. A colored butler served an elaborate dinner at eight o'clock in the evening, and brought black coffee, liqueurs, and cigars into the living-room afterwards, and, worst of all, unpacked all his scanty belongings and laid them about his room. Austin really suffered, and the cold perspiration ran down his back, but he watched his host carefully and waited from one moment to another to see what would be expected of him next; he managed, too, before he went to bed, to ask a question which had been on his mind for some time.
"Would you mind telling me, sir, where Sylvia's mother is?"
Uncle Mat shot one of his keen little glances in Austin's direction. "Why, no, not at all, as nearly as I can," he said. "My brother, Austin, made a most unfortunate match; his wife was a mean, mercenary, greedy woman, as hard as nails, and as tough as leather—but handsome, oh, very handsome, as a girl, and clever, I assure you. I have often been almost glad that my brother did not live long enough to see her in her real colors. She married, very soon after Sylvia herself, a worthless Englishman—discharged from the army, I believe, who had probably been her lover for some time. Cary gave her a check for a hundred thousand to get rid of her the day after his wedding to Sylvia, and the pair are probably living in great comfort on that at some second-rate French resort."
"Thank you for telling me; but it's rather awful, isn't it, that any one should have to think of her mother as Sylvia must? Why, my mother—" He stopped, flushing as he thought of how commonplace, how homely and ordinary, his mother had often seemed to him, how he had brooded over his father's "unfortunate match." "My mother has worked her fingers to the bone for all of us, and I believe she'd let herself be chopped in pieces to help us gladly any day."
"Yes," assented Mr. Stevens, "I know she would. There are—several different kinds of mothers in the world. It's a thousand pities Sylvia did not have a fair show at a job of that sort. She would have been one of the successful kind, I fancy."
"It would seem so," said Austin.
New York City August 25
DEAR MOTHER AND FATHER:
I'm going to lay in a stock of picture post-cards to send you, for if things move at the same rate in Europe that they do in New York, I certainly shan't have time to write many letters. But I'll send a good long one to-night, anyhow. I always thought I'd like to live in the city, as you know, but a few days of this has already given me a sort of breathless feeling that I ought always to be on the move, whether there's anything special to do or not. The noise never stops for one minute, night or day, and the streets are perfect miracles of light and dirt and hurry. This whole flat could be put right into our dining-room, and we'd hardly notice it at that, and hot! Mr. Stevens says in the winter he nearly freezes to death, but I can't believe it.
All day Friday he kept me tearing from shop to shop, buying more clothes than I can wear out in a lifetime, I believe, lots of them things I'd never even seen or heard of before. Some of the suits had to be altered a little, so in the afternoon we went back to the same places we'd been to in the morning, and tried the blamed things on again. How women can like that sort of thing is beyond me—I'd rather dig potatoes all day. By five o'clock I was so tired that I was ready to lie right down on Fifth Avenue, and let the passing crowds walk over me, if they liked. But Mr. Stevens hustled me into a huge hotel called the Waldorf for a hair-cut and "tea" (which isn't a good square meal, but a little something to drink along with a piece of bread-and-butter as thick through as tissue-paper) and then out again to see a few sights before we went home to dress for "an early dinner" (seven o'clock!) and go to the theatre in the evening. "Dressing" meant struggling into my new dress-suit. I hoped it wouldn't arrive in time, but Mr. Stevens had had it marked "rush," and it did. I felt like a fool when I got it on, and a pretty hot, uncomfortable fool to boot. Mr. Stevens apologized for the show, saying there was really nothing in town at this time of year, but you can imagine what it seemed like to me! I'd be almost willing to wear pink tights—same as a good many of the actresses did!—if it meant having such a glorious time.
It was almost ten o'clock Saturday morning when I waked up, and of course I felt like a fool again. But that is getting to be such a habitual state with me, that I don't need to keep wasting paper by mentioning it. By the time I was washed and shaved and dressed, Mr. Stevens had been to his office, transacted all the business necessary for the day, and was ready to see sights again. "It doesn't take long to do things when you get the hang of hustling," he said, referring to his own transactions; "come along. We've got a couple of hours before lunch, and then we'll take the 2.14 train down to my farm." So we shot downstairs about forty flights to the second in the elevator, hailed a passing taxicab, jumped in, and were tearing out Riverside Drive—much too fast to see anything—in no time. We had "lunch" at a big restaurant called Delmonico's, a great deal to eat and not half enough time to eat it in, then took another taxi and made our train by catching on to the last car.
I don't need to tell you about the farm, because you know all about that already. I never left Jenkins's heels one second, and he said I was much more of a nuisance than Thomas, because Thomas caught on to things naturally, and I asked questions all the time. I don't believe I'll see anything in Europe to beat that place. When we get to milking our cows, and separating our cream, and doing our cleaning by electricity, it'll be something like, won't it?
We took a seven o'clock train back to New York this morning, so that Mr. Stevens could get to his office by nine, and he had me go with him and wait around until he was at leisure again. I certainly thought the stenographers' fingers would fly off, and all the office boys moved with a hop, skip, and jump; really, the slowest things in the rooms were the electric fans whizzing around. By half-past eleven Mr. Stevens had dictated about two hundred and fifty letters, sold several million dollars' worth of property (he's a real-estate broker), and was all ready to go out with me to buy more socks, neckties, handkerchiefs, etc., having decided that I didn't have enough. We had "lunch" at Sherry's—another swell restaurant—and took a trip up the Hudson in the afternoon, getting back at half-past ten—"Just in time," said Mr. Stevens, "to look in at a roof-garden before we go to bed." So we "looked," and it sure was worth a passing glance, and then some. It's one o'clock in the morning now, and I sail at nine, so I'm writing at this hour in desperation, or you won't get any letter at all.
Much love to everybody. I picture you all peacefully sleeping—except Thomas, of course—with no such word as "hurry" in your minds.
* * * * *
S.S. Amsterdam September 4
It doesn't seem possible that I'm going to land to-morrow! The first two days out were pretty dreadful, and I'll leave them to your imagination—there certainly wasn't much left of me except imagination! But by the third day I was beginning to sit up and take notice again, and by the fourth I was enjoying myself more than I ever did in all my life before.
There's a fellow on board named Arthur Brown, who has his sister Emily with him; they're both unmarried, and well over thirty, teachers in a small Western college, and are starting out on their "Sabbatical year." Seeing them together has made me think a lot about you, and wish you were along; they've very little money, and have never been to Europe before, and almost every night they sit down and figure out how they're going to get the most out of their trip, trying new plans and itineraries all the time. They get into such gales of laughter over it that you'd think being poor was the greatest fun in the world, and the tales they've told about working their way through high school and college, and saving up to come to Europe, would be pathetic if they weren't so screamingly funny. I haven't been gone very long yet, I know, but it's been long enough for me to decide that Sylvia sent me off, not primarily to buy cows and study agriculture, but to learn a few things that will be a darned sight better worth knowing than that even, and—to have a good time! In the hope, of course, that I'll come home, not only less green, but less cussedly disagreeable.
Mr. Stevens has crossed on this boat twice, and introduced me to both the captain and the chief engineer before I started; they've both been awfully kind to me, and I've seen the "inwards and outwards" of the ship from garret to cellar, so to speak, and learned enough about navigation and machinery to make me want to learn a lot more. But even without all this, there would have been plenty to do. This isn't a "fashionable line," so they say, but it's a good deal more fashionable than anything we ever saw in Hamstead, Vermont! There's dancing every evening—not a bit like what we have at home, and it really made me gasp a little at first—you thought I was hard to shock, too, didn't you? Well, believe me, I blushed the first time I discovered that I was expected to hold my partner so tight that you couldn't get a sheet of paper between us. However, I soon stopped blushing, and bent all my energies to the agreeable task of learning instead, and the girls are all so friendly and jolly, that I believe I'm getting the hang of the new ways pretty well. There are no square dances at all and very few waltzes or two-steps, but two newer ones, the one-step and fox-trot, hold the floor, literally and figuratively! I wish I could describe the girls' dresses to you, they're so, pretty, but I can't a bit, except to say that they rather startled me at first, too; they appear to be made out of about one yard of material, and none of that yard goes to sleeves, and not much to waist. A very lively young lady sits next to me at the table, and I worried incessantly at first as to what would happen if her shoulder-straps should break: but apparently they are stronger than they look. When they—the girls, I mean—feel a little chilly on deck, they put on scarves of tulle—a gauzy stuff about half as thick as mosquito netting. I don't quite see why they're not all dead of pneumonia, but they seem to thrive.
I've also learned—or am trying to learn—to play a game of cards called "bridge"; it's along the same lines as good old bid-whist, but considerably dressed up. I like that, too, but feel pretty stupid at it, as most of the players can remember every two-spot for six hands back, and hold dreadful post-mortems of their opponents' mistakes at the end of the game. I've brought along the old French grammar I had in high school, as well as some new phrase-books that Mr. Stevens gave me, and take them to bed with me to study every night, for he told me that you could get along 'most anywhere if you knew French. There's a library aboard, too, so I've read several novels, and I'm getting used to my clothes—I don't believe I've got too many after all—and to taking a cold bath every morning and shaving at least once a day.
Make Fred toe the mark while I'm not there to look after you, but remember he's a good sort just the same; I was an awful fool ever to advise you not to stick to him, he's worth a dozen of his cousin. Tell Molly she'll have to do some practising to come up to the way some of the girls on this ship play, but I believe she's got more talent than all of them put together, if she'll only work hard enough to develop it. There's going to be an extra good time to-night, as it's the last one, and I'm looking forward to dancing my heels off. Love to you all, especially mother, and tell her I haven't seen a doughnut since I left home.
Affectionately your brother
* * * * *
Paris, October 1
I got here last night, and found the cable from father saying that the cattle and Dutch Peter had reached New York all right, and that he had met them there. I know you'll like Peter, and I hope we can keep him indefinitely, though I only hired him to take the cows over, and stay until those Holstein aristocrats were properly acclimated to the Homestead. I'm glad they've got there. And, gosh! I'm glad I've got here! I realize I've been a pretty poor correspondent, sending just picture post-cards, and now and then a note to mother, but, you see, I've crowded every minute so darned full, and then I've never had much practice. So before I start out to "do" Paris, I'll practice a little on you.
I landed at Rotterdam, had twenty-four hours there with Emily and Arthur Brown—that brother and sister I met on shipboard—then we separated, they going to Antwerp, and I heading straight for The Hague to present Sylvia's letter of introduction to Mr. Little, the American Minister, shaking in my shoes, and cold perspiration running down my back, of course. But I needn't "have shook and sweat," as our friend Mrs. Elliott says, for he was expecting me and was kindness itself. He found an interpreter to go through the farming district with me, and then he invited me to come and stay at his house for a few days before I started for the interior. He has a son about my age, who I imagine has suffered from the same form of heart disease with which you are afflicted at present, as he seemed to be somewhat affected every time Sylvia's name was mentioned; and a daughter Flora, an awfully friendly, jolly, pink-and-white creature. Fortunately she informed me promptly that she was engaged to a fellow in Paris, or I might have got heart disease, too. They kept me on the jump every minute—sight-seeing and parties, and excursions of all sorts, and one night we went to see a play of Shakespeare's, "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," given in Dutch. (I find that all Continentals admire him immensely, and give frequent performances of his works.) Get out our old copy and re-read it some rainy day; you're probably rusty on it, same as I was, but it's an interesting tale, and there's a song in it that can't help appealing to you. Here's the first verse:
"Who is Sylvia? What is she That all the swains commend her? Holy, fair, and wise is she, The heavens such grace did lend her That she might admired be."
I advise you to invest in doublet, hose, plumed hat, and guitar, and try the effect of a serenade under our Sylvia's—beg pardon, your Sylvia's window. The fellow in the play made a great hit, so there's no telling what you might accomplish.