Part 5 out of 6
"I don't know where you picked up your manners," said I, reflectively,
"but it must have been in devilish low company. I would cut your
acquaintance, Peter, if I could afford it." Then I fell to pacing up and
down the floor. "I incline, as you have somewhat grossly suggested, to a
certain favouritism among the digits. And why the deuce shouldn't I? A
fortune is the only thing I need. I have good looks, you know, of a
sort; ah, I'm not vain, but both my glass and a number of women have
been kind enough to reassure me on this particular point. And that I
have a fair amount of wits my creditors will attest, who have lived
promise-crammed for the last year or two, feeding upon air like
chameleons. Then I have birth,--not that good birth ensures anything but
bad habits though, for you will observe that, by some curious freak of
nature, an old family-tree very seldom produces anything but wild oats.
And, finally, I have position. I can introduce my wife into the best
society; ah, yes, you may depend upon it, Peter, she will have the
privilege of meeting the very worst and stupidest and silliest people in
the country on perfectly equal terms. You will perceive, then, that the
one desirable thing I lack is wealth. And this I shall naturally expect
my wife to furnish. So, the point is settled, and you may give me a
Peter handed me the case, with a snort. "You are a hopelessly conceited
ass," Mr. Blagden was pleased to observe, "for otherwise you would have
learned, by this, that you'll, most likely, never have the luck of
Charteris, and land a woman who will take it as a favour that you let
her pay your bills. God knows you've angled for enough of 'em!"
"You are painfully coarse, Peter," I pointed out, with a sigh. "Indeed,
your general lack of refinement might easily lead one to think you owed
your millions to your own thrifty industry, or some equally unpleasant
attribute, rather than to your uncle's very commendable and lucrative
innovation in the line of--well, I remember it was something extremely
indigestible, but, for the moment, I forget whether it was steam-reapers
or a new sort of pickle. Yes, in a great many respects, you are
hopelessly parvenuish. This cigarette-case, for instance--studded with
diamonds and engraved with a monogram big enough for a coach-door! Why,
Peter, it simply reeks with the ostentation of honestly acquired
wealth,--and with very good tobacco, too, by the way. I shall take it,
for I am going for a walk, and I haven't any of my own. And some day I
shall pawn this jewelled abortion, Peter,--pawn it for much fine gold;
and upon the proceeds I shall make merriment for myself and for my
friends." And I pocketed the case.
"That's all very well," Peter growled, "but you needn't try to change
the subject. You know you _have_ angled after any number of rich women
who have had sense enough, thank God, to refuse you. You didn't use to
be--but now you're quite notoriously good-for-nothing."
"It is the one blemish," said I, sweetly, "upon an otherwise perfect
character. And it is true," I continued, after an interval of
meditation, "that I have, in my time, encountered some very foolish
women. There was, for instance, Elena Barry-Smith, who threw me over for
Warwick Risby; and Celia Reindan, who had the bad taste to prefer Teddy
Anstruther; and Rosalind Jemmett, who is, very inconsiderately, going to
marry Tom Gelwix, instead of me. These were staggeringly foolish women,
Peter, but while their taste is bad, their dinners are good, so I have
remained upon the best of terms with them. They have trodden me under
their feet, but I am the long worm that has no turning. Moreover, you
are doubtless aware of the axiomatic equality between the fish in the
sea and those out of it. I hope before long to better my position in
life. I hope--Ah, well, that would scarcely interest you. Good morning,
Peter. And I trust, when I return," I added, with chastening dignity,
"that you will evince a somewhat more Christian spirit toward the world
in general, and that your language will be rather less reminiscent of
the blood-stained buccaneer of historical fiction."
"You're a grinning buffoon," said Peter. "You're a fat Jack-pudding.
You're an ass. Where are you going, anyway?"
"I am going," said I, "to the extreme end of Gridlington. Afterward I am
going to climb the wall that stands between Gridlington and Selwoode."
"And after that?" said Peter.
I gave a gesture. "Why, after that," said I, "fortune will favour the
brave. And I, Peter, am very, very brave."
Then I departed, whistling. In view of all my memories it had been
strangely droll to worry Peter Blagden into an abuse of marrying for
money. For this was on the twenty-eighth of April, the anniversary of
the day that Stella had died, you may remember....
And a half-hour subsequently, true to my word, I was scaling a ten-foot
stone wall, thickly overgrown with ivy. At the top of it I paused, and
sat down to take breath and to meditate, my legs meanwhile bedangling
over an as flourishing Italian garden as you would wish to see.
"Now, I wonder," I queried, of my soul, "what will be next? There is a
very cheerful uncertainty about what will be next. It may be a
spring-gun, and it may be a bull-dog, and it may be a susceptible
heiress. But it is apt to be--No, it isn't," I amended, promptly; "it is
going to be an angel. Or perhaps it is going to be a dream. She can't be
real, you know--I am probably just dreaming her. I would be quite
certain I was just dreaming her, if this wall were not so humpy and
uncomfortable. For it stands to reason, I would not be fool enough to
dream of such unsympathetic iron spikes as I am sitting on."
"Perhaps you are not aware," hazarded a soprano voice, "that this is
"Why, no," said I, very placidly; "on the contrary I was just thinking
it must be heaven. And I am tolerably certain," I commented further, in
my soul, "that you are one of the more influential seraphim."
The girl had lifted her brows. She sat upon a semi-circular stone bench,
some twenty feet from the wall, and had apparently been reading, for a
book lay open in her lap. She now inspected me, with a sort of languid
wonder in her eyes, and I returned the scrutiny with unqualified
approval in mine.
And in this I had reason. The heiress of Selwoode was eminently good to
_He Reconciles Sentiment and Reason_
So I regarded her for a rather lengthy interval, considering meanwhile,
with an immeasurable content how utterly and entirely impossible it
would always be to describe her.
Clearly, it would be out of the question to trust to words, however
choicely picked, for, upon inspection, there was a delightful ambiguity
about every one of this girl's features that defied such idiotic
makeshifts. Her eyes, for example, I noted with a faint thrill of
surprise, just escaped being brown by virtue of an amber glow they had;
what colour, then, was I conscientiously to call them?
And her hair I found a bewildering, though pleasing, mesh of shadow and
sunlight, all made up of multitudinous graduations of some anonymous
colour that seemed to vary with the light you chanced to see it in,
through the whole gamut of bronze and chestnut and gold; and where,
pray, in the bulkiest lexicon, in the very weightiest thesaurus, was I
to find the adjective which could, if but in desperation, be applied to
hair like that without trenching on sacrilege? ... For it was spring,
you must remember, and I was twenty-five.
So that in my appraisal, you may depend upon it, her lips were quickly
passed over as a dangerous topic, and were dismissed with the mental
statement that they were red and not altogether unattractive. Whereas
her cheeks baffled me for a time,--but always with a haunting sense of
familiarity--till I had, at last, discovered they reminded me of those
little tatters of cloud that sometimes float about the setting
sun,--those irresolute wisps which cannot quite decide whether to be
pink or white, and waver through their tiny lives between the
To this effect, then, I discoursed with my soul, what time I sat upon
the wall-top and smiled and kicked my heels to and fro among the ivy. By
and by, though, the girl sighed.
"You are placing me in an extremely unpleasant position," she
complained, as if wearily. "Would you mind returning to your sanatorium
and allowing me to go on reading? For I am interested in my book, and I
can't possibly go on in any comfort so long as you elect to perch up
there like Humpty-Dumpty, and grin like seven dozen Cheshire cats."
"Now, that," I spoke, in absent wise, "is but another instance of the
widely prevalent desire to have me serve as scapegoat for the sins of
all humanity. I am being blamed now for sitting on top of this wall. One
would think I wanted to sit here. One would actually think," I cried,
and raised my eyes to heaven, "that sitting on the very humpiest kind of
iron spikes was my favorite form of recreation! No,--in the interests of
justice," I continued, and fell into a milder tone, "I must ask you to
place the blame where it more rightfully belongs. The injuries which are
within the moment being inflicted on my sensitive nature, and,
incidentally, upon my not overstocked wardrobe, I am willing to pass
over. But the claims of justice are everywhere paramount. Miss Hugonin,
and Miss Hugonin alone, is responsible for my present emulation of
Mohammed's coffin, and upon that responsibility I am compelled
"May one suggest," she queried gently, "that you are
I sketched a bow. "Recognising your present point of view," said I,
gallantly, "I thank you for the kindly euphemism. But may one allowably
demonstrate the fallacy of this same point of view? I thank you: for
silence, I am told, is proverbially equal to assent. I am, then, one
Robert Townsend, by birth a gentleman, by courtesy an author, by
inclination an idler, and by lucky chance a guest of Mr. Peter Blagden,
whose flourishing estate extends indefinitely yonder to the rear of my
coat-tails. My hobby chances to be gardening. I am a connoisseur, an
admirer, a devotee of gardens. It is, indeed, hereditary among the
Townsends; a love for gardens runs in our family just as a love for gin
runs in less favoured races. It is with us an irresistible passion. The
very founder of our family--one Adam, whom you may have heard of,--was a
gardener. Owing to the unfortunate loss of his position, the family
since then has sunken somewhat in the world; but time and poverty alike
have proven powerless against our horticultural tastes and botanical
inclinations. And then," cried I, with a flourish, "and then, what
"Why, if you are not more careful," she languidly made answer, "I am
afraid that, owing to the laws of gravitation, a broken neck is what
"You are a rogue," I commented, in my soul, "and I like you all the
better for it."
Aloud, I stated: "What follows is that we can no more keep away from a
creditable sort of garden than a moth can from a lighted candle.
Consider, then, my position. Here am I on one side of the wall, and with
my peach-tree, to be sure--but on the other side is one of the most
famous masterpieces of formal gardening in the whole country. Am I to
blame if I succumb to the temptation? Surely not," I argued; "for surely
to any fair-minded person it will be at once apparent that I am brought
to my present very uncomfortable position upon the points of these very
humpy iron spikes by a simple combination of atavism and
injustice,--atavism because hereditary inclination draws me irresistibly
to the top of the wall, and injustice because Miss Hugonin's perfectly
unreasonable refusal to admit visitors prevents my coming any farther.
Surely, that is at once apparent?"
But now the girl yielded to my grave face, and broke into a clear,
rippling carol of mirth. She laughed from the chest, this woman. And
perched in insecure discomfort on my wall, I found time to rejoice that
I had finally discovered that rarity of rarities, a woman who neither
giggles nor cackles, but has found the happy mean between these two
abominations, and knows how to laugh.
"I have heard of you, Mr. Townsend," she said at last. "Oh, yes, I have
heard a deal of you. And I remember now that I never heard you were
suspected of sanity."
"Common-sense," I informed her, from my pedestal, "is confined to that
decorous class of people who never lose either their tempers or their
umbrellas. Now, I haven't any temper to speak of--or not at least in the
presence of ladies,--and, so far, I have managed to avoid laying aside
anything whatever for a rainy day; so that it stands to reason I must
possess uncommon sense."
"If that is the case," said the girl "you will kindly come down from
that wall and attempt to behave like a rational being."
I was down--as the phrase runs,--in the twinkling of a bed-post. On
which side of the wall, I leave you to imagine.
"--For I am sure," the girl continued, "that I--that Margaret, I should
say,--would not object in the least to your seeing the gardens, since
they interest you so tremendously. I'm Avis Beechinor, you know,--Miss
Hugonin's cousin. So, if you like, we will consider that a proper
introduction, Mr. Townsend, and I will show you the gardens, if--if you
really care to see them."
My face, I must confess, had fallen slightly. Up to this moment, I had
not a suspicion but that it was Miss Hugonin I was talking to: and I now
reconsidered, with celerity, the information Byam had brought me
"For, when I come to think of it," I reflected, "he simply said she was
older than Miss Hugonin. I embroidered the tale so glibly for Peter's
benefit that I was deceived by my own ornamentations. I had looked for
corkscrew ringlets and false teeth a-gleam like a new bath-tub in Miss
Hugonin's cousin,--not an absolutely, supremely, inexpressibly
unthinkable beauty like this!" I cried, in my soul. "Older! Why, good
Lord, Miss Hugonin must be an infant in arms!"
But my audible discourse was prefaced with an eloquent gesture. "If I'd
care!" I said. "Haven't I already told you I was a connoisseur in
gardens? Why, simply look, Miss Beechinor!" I exhorted her, and threw
out my hands in a large pose of admiration. "Simply regard those
yew-hedges, and parterres, and grassy amphitheatres, and palisades, and
statues, and cascades, and everything--_everything_ that goes to make a
formal garden the most delectable sight in the world! Simply feast your
eyes upon those orderly clipped trees and the fantastic patterns those
flowers are laid out in! Why, upon my word, it looks as if all four
books of Euclid had suddenly burst into blossom! And you ask me if I
would _care_! Ah, it is evident _you_ are not a connoisseur in gardens,
And I had started on my way into this one, when the girl stopped me.
"This must be yours," she said. "You must have spilled it coming over
the wall, Mr. Townsend."
It was Peter's cigarette-case.
"Why, dear me, yes!" I assented, affably. "Do you know, now, I would
have been tremendously sorry to lose that? It is a sort of present--an
unbirthday present from a quite old friend."
She turned it over in her hand.
"It's very handsome," she marvelled. "Such a pretty monogram! Does it
stand for Poor Idiot Boy?"
"Eh?" said I. "P.I.B., you mean? No, that stands for Perfectly
Immaculate Behaviour. My friend gave it to me because, he said, I was so
good. And--oh, well, he added a few things to that,--partial sort of a
friend, you know,--and, really--Why, really, Miss Beechinor, it would
embarrass me to tell you what he added," I protested, and modestly waved
the subject aside.
"Now that," my meditations ran, "is the absolute truth. Peter did tell
me I was good. And it really would embarrass me to tell her he added
'for-nothing.' So, this far, I have been a model of veracity."
Then I took the case,--gaining thereby the bliss of momentary contact
with a velvet-soft trifle that seemed, somehow, to set my own grosser
hand a-tingle--and I cried: "Now, Miss Beechinor, you must show me the
pergola. I am excessively partial to pergolas."
And in my soul, I wondered what a pergola looked like, and why on earth
I had been fool enough to waste the last three days in bedeviling Peter,
and how under the broad canopy of heaven I could ever have suffered from
the delusion that I had seen a really adorable woman before to-day.
But, "She is entirely too adorable," I reasoned with myself, some
three-quarters of an hour later. "In fact, I regard it as positively
inconsiderate in any impecunious young person to venture to upset me in
the way she has done. Why, my heart is pounding away inside me like a
trip-hammer, and I am absolutely light-headed with good-will and charity
and benevolent intentions toward the entire universe! Oh, Avis, Avis,
you know you hadn't any right to put me in this insane state of mind!"
I was, at this moment, retracing my steps toward the spot where I had
climbed the wall between Gridlington and Selwoode, but I paused now to
outline a reproachful gesture in the direction from which I came.
"What do you mean by having such a name?" I queried, sadly. "Avis! Why,
it is the very soul of music, clear, and sweet and as insistent as a
bird-call, an unforgettable lyric in four letters! It is just the sort
of name a fellow cannot possibly forget. Why couldn't you have been
named Polly or Lena or Margaret, or something commonplace like that,
And the juxtaposition of these words appealing to my sense of euphony, I
repeated it, again and again, each time with a more relishing gusto.
"Avis dear! dear Avis! dear, _dear_ Avis!" I experimented. "Why, each
one is more hopelessly unforgettable than the other! Oh, Avis dear, why
are you so absolutely and entirely unforgettable all around? Why do you
ripple all your words together in that quaint fashion till it sounds
like a brook discoursing? Why did you crinkle up your eyes when I told
you that as yet unbotanised flower was a _Calycanthus arithmelicus_? And
why did you pout at me, Avis dear? A fellow finds it entirely too hard
to forget things like that. And, oh, dear Avis, if you only knew what
nearly happened when you pouted!"
I had come to the wall by this, but again I paused to lament.
"It is very inconsiderate of her, very thoughtless indeed. She might at
least have asked my permission, before upsetting my plans in life. I had
firmly intended to marry a rich woman, and now I am forming all sorts of
Then, on the bench where I had first seen her, I perceived a book. It
was the iron-gray book she had been reading when I interrupted her, and
I now picked it up with a sort of reverence. I regarded it as an
extremely lucky book.
Subsequently, "Good Lord!" said I, aloud, "what luck!"
For between the pages of Justus Miles Forman's _Journey's End_--serving
as a book-mark, according to a not infrequent shiftless feminine
fashion,--lay a handkerchief. It was a flimsy, inadequate trifle,
fringed with a tiny scallopy black border; and in one corner the letters
M. E. A. H., all askew, contorted themselves into any number of
flourishes and irrelevant tendrils.
"Now M. E. A. H. does not stand by any stretch of the imagination for
Avis Beechinor. Whereas it fits Margaret Elizabeth Anstruther Hugonin
uncommonly well. I wonder now--?"
I wondered for a rather lengthy interval.
"So Byam was right, after all. And Peter was right, too. Oh, Robert
Etheridge Townsend, your reputation must truly be malodorous, when at
your approach timid heiresses seek shelter under an alias! 'I have heard
a deal of you, Mr. Townsend'--ah, yes, she had heard. She thought I
would make love to her out of hand, I suppose, because she was
I presently flung back my head and laughed.
"Eh, well! I will let no sordid considerations stand in the way of my
true interests. I will marry this Margaret Hugonin even though she is
rich. You have begun the comedy, my lady, and I will play it to the end.
Yes, I fell honestly in love with you when I thought you were nobody in
particular. So I am going to marry this Margaret Hugonin if she will
have me; and if she won't, I am going to commit suicide on her
door-step, with a pathetic little note in my vest-pocket forgiving her
in the most noble and wholesale manner for irrevocably blighting a
future so rich in promise. Yes, that is exactly what I am going to do if
she does not appreciate her wonderful good fortune. And if she'll have
me--why, I wouldn't change places with the Pope of Rome or the Czar of
all the Russias! Ah, no, not I! for I prefer, upon the whole, to be
immeasurably, and insanely, and unreasonably, and unadulteratedly happy.
Why, but just to think of an adorable girl like that having so
All in all, my meditations were incoherent but very pleasurable.
_He Advances in the Attack on Selwoode_
"Well?" said Peter.
"Well?" said I.
"What's the latest quotation on heiresses?" Mr. Blagden demanded. "Was
she cruel, my boy, or was she kind? Did she set the dog on you or have
you thrashed by her father? I fancy both, for your present hilarity is
suggestive of a gentleman in the act of attendance on his own funeral."
And Peter laughed, unctuously, for his gout slumbered.
"His attempts at wit," I reflectively confided to my wine-glass, "while
doubtless amiably intended, are, to his well-wishers, painful. I
daresay, though, he doesn't know it. We must, then, smile indulgently
upon the elephantine gambols of what he is pleased to describe as his
"Now, that," Peter pointed out, "is not what I would term a courteous
method of discussing a man at his own table. You are damn disagreeable
this morning, Bob. So I know, of course, that you have come another
cropper in your fortune-hunting."
"Peter," said I, in admiration, "your sagacity at times is almost human!
I have spent a most enjoyable day, though," I continued, idly. "I have
been communing with Nature, Peter. She is about her spring-cleaning in
the woods yonder, and everywhere I have seen traces of her getting
things fixed for the summer. I have seen the sky, which was washed
overnight, and the sun, which has evidently been freshly enamelled. I
have seen the new leaves as they swayed and whispered over your
extensive domains, with the fret of spring alert in every sap cell. I
have seen the little birds as they hopped among said leaves and
commented upon the scarcity of worms. I have seen the buxom flowers as
they curtsied and danced above your flower-beds like a miniature
comic-opera chorus. And besides that--"
"Yes?" said Peter, with a grin, "and besides that?"
"And besides that," said I, firmly, "I have seen nothing."
And internally I appraised this bloated Peter Blagden, and reflected
that this was the man whom Stella had loved; and I appraised myself, and
remembered that this had been the boy who once loved Stella. For, as I
have said, it was the twenty-eighth of April, the day that Stella had
died, two years ago.
The next morning I discoursed with my soul, what time I sat upon the
wall-top and smiled and kicked my heels to and fro among the ivy.
"For, in spite of appearances," I debated with myself, "it is barely
possible that the handkerchief was not hers. She may have borrowed it or
have got it by mistake, somehow. In which case, it is only reasonable to
suppose that she will miss it, and ask me if I saw it; on the contrary,
if the handkerchief is hers, she will naturally understand, when I
return the book without it, that I have feloniously detained this airy
gewgaw as a souvenir, as, so to speak, a _gage d'amour_. And, in that
event, she ought to be very much pleased and a bit embarrassed; and she
will preserve upon the topic of handkerchiefs a maidenly silence. Do you
know, Robert Etheridge Townsend, there is about you the making of a very
Then I consulted my watch, and subsequently grimaced. "It is also barely
possible," said I, "that Margaret may not come at all. In which
case--Margaret! Now, isn't that a sweet name? Isn't it the very sweetest
name in the world? Now, really, you know, it is queer her being named
Margaret--extraordinarily queer,--because Margaret has always been my
favourite woman's name. I daresay, unbeknownst to myself, I am a bit of
But she did come. She was very much surprised to see me.
"You!" she said, with a gesture which was practically tantamount to
disbelief. "Why, how extraordinary!"
"You rogue!" I commented, internally: "you know it is the most natural
thing in the world." Aloud I stated: "Why, yes, I happened to notice you
forgot your book yesterday, so I dropped in--or, to be more accurate,
climbed up,--to return it."
She reached for it. Our hands touched, with the usual result to my
pulses. Also, there were the customary manual tinglings.
"You are very kind," was her observation, "for I am wondering which one
of the two he will marry."
"Forman tells me he has no notion, himself."
"Oh, then you know Justus Miles Forman! How nice! I think his stories
are just splendid, especially the way his heroes talk to photographs and
handkerchiefs and dead flowers--"
Afterward she opened the book, and turned over its pages expectantly,
and flushed a proper shade of pink, and said nothing.
And then, and not till then, my heart consented to resume its normal
functions. And then, also, "These iron spikes--" said its owner.
"Yes?" she queried, innocently.
"--so humpy," I complained.
"Are they?" said she. "Why, then, how silly of you to continue to sit on
The result of this comment was that we were both late for luncheon.
By a peculiar coincidence, at twelve o'clock the following day, I
happened to be sitting on the same wall at the same spot. Peter said at
luncheon it was a queer thing that some people never could manage to be
on time for their meals.
I fancy we can all form a tolerably accurate idea of what took place
during the next day or so.
It is scarcely necessary to retail our conversations. We gossiped of
simple things. We talked very little; and, when we did talk, the most
ambitiously preambled sentences were apt to result in nothing more
prodigious than a wave of the hand, and a pause, and, not infrequently,
a heightened complexion. Altogether, then, it was not oppressively wise
or witty talk, but it was eminently satisfactory to its makers.
As when, on the third morning, I wished to sit by Margaret on the bench,
and she declined to invite me to descend from the wall.
"On the whole," said she, "I prefer you where you are; like all
picturesque ruins, you are most admirable at a little distance."
"Ruins!"--and, indeed, I was not yet twenty-six,--"I am a comparatively
As a concession, "In consideration of your past, you are tolerably well
"--and I am not a new brand of marmalade, either."
"No, for that comes in glass jars; whereas, Mr. Townsend, I have heard,
is more apt to figure in family ones."
"A pun, Miss Beechinor, is the base coinage of conversation tendered
only by the mentally dishonest."
"--Besides, one can never have enough of marmalade."
"I trust they give you a sufficiency of it in the nursery?"
"Dear me, you have no idea how admirably that paternal tone sits upon
you! You would make an excellent father, Mr. Townsend. You really ought
to adopt someone. I wish you would adopt _me_, Mr. Townsend."
I said I had other plans for her. Discreetly, she forbore to ask what
"You must not call me that."
"Why not? It's your name, isn't it"
"Yes,--to my friends."
"Aren't we friends--Avis?"
"We! We have not known each other long enough, Mr. Townsend."
"Oh, what's the difference? We are going to be friends, aren't
"Why--why, I am sure I don't know."
"Gracious gravy, what an admirable colour you have, Avis! Well,--I know.
And I can inform you, quite confidentially, Avis, that we are not going
to be--. friends. We are going to be--"
"We are going to be late for luncheon," said she, in haste.
"Good-morning, Mr. Townsend."
Yet, the very next day, paradoxically enough, she told me:
"I shall always think of you as a very, very dear friend. But it is
quite impossible we should ever be anything else."
"And why, Avis?"
"That"--after an interval--"strikes me as rather a poor reason. So,
suppose we say this June?"
"Dear me, aren't those roses pretty? I wish you would get me one, Mr.
"Avis, we are not discussing roses."
"Well, they _are_ pretty."
Still another interval.
"I--I hardly know."
"I--I almost think so,--and the horrid man looks as if he thought so,
There was a fourth interval, during which the girl made a complete and
careful survey of her shoes.
Then, all in a breath, "It could not possibly be June, of course, and
you must give me until to-morrow to think about November," and a sudden
flutter of skirts.
I returned to Gridlington treading on air.
For I was, by this time, as thoroughly in love as Amadis of Gaul or
Aucassin of Beaucaire or any other hero of romance you may elect
Some two weeks earlier I would have scoffed at the notion of such a
thing coming to pass; and I could have demonstrated, logically enough,
that it was impossible for Robert Etheridge Townsend, with his keen
knowledge of the world and of the innumerable vanities and whims of
womankind, ever again to go the way of all flesh. But the problem, like
the puzzle of the Eleatic philosophers, had solved itself. "Achilles
cannot catch the tortoise," but he does. It was impossible for me to
fall uncomfortably deep in love--but I had done so.
And it pricked my conscience, too, that Margaret should not know I was
aware of her identity. But she had chosen to play the comedy to the end,
and in common with the greater part of trousered humanity, I had, after
all, no insuperable objection to a rich wife; though, to do me justice,
I rarely thought of her, now, as Margaret Hugonin the heiress, but
considered her, in a more comprehensive fashion, as the one woman in the
universe whose perfections triumphantly overpeered the skyiest heights
_He Assists in the Diversion of Birds_
We met, then, in the clear May morning, with what occult trepidations I
cannot say. You may depend upon it, though, we had our emotions.
And about us, spring was marshaling her pageant, and from divers nooks,
the weather-stained nymphs and fauns regarded us in candid, if
preoccupied, appraisement; and above us, the clipped ilex trees were
about a knowing conference. As for the birds, they were discussing us
without any reticence whatever, for, more favoured of chance than
imperial Solomon, they have been the confidants in any number of such
affairs, and regard the way of a man with a maid as one of the most
matter-of-fact occurrences in the world.
"Here is he! here is she!" they shrilled. "See how they meet, see how
they greet! Ah, sweet, sweet, sweet, to meet in the spring!" And that we
two would immediately set to nest-building, they considered a foregone
I had taken both her firm, warm hands in salutation, and held them, for
a breathing-space, between my own. And my own hands seemed to me two
very gross, and hulking, and raw, and red monstrosities, in contrast
with their dimpled captives, and my hands appeared, also, to shake
"Now, in a moment," said I, "I am going to ask you something very
important. But, first, I have a confession to make."
And her glad, shamed eyes bemocked me. "My lord of Burleigh!" she softly
breathed. "My liege Cophetua! _My_ king Cophetua! And did you think,
then, I was blind?"
"Eh?" said I.
"As if I hadn't known from the first!" the girl pouted; "as if I hadn't
known from the very first day when you dropped your cigarette case! Ah,
I had heard of you before, Peter!--of Peter, the misogynist, who was
ashamed to go a-wooing in his proper guise! Was it because you were
afraid I'd marry you for your money, Peter?--poor, timid Peter! But, oh,
Peter, Peter, what possessed you to take the name of that notorious
Robert Townsend?" she demanded, with uplifted forefinger. "Couldn't you
think of a better one, Peter?--of a more respectable one, Peter? It
really is a great relief to call you Peter at last. I've had to try so
hard to keep from doing it before, Peter."
And in answer, I made an inarticulate sound.
"But you were so grave about it," the girl went on, happily, "that I
almost thought you were telling the truth, Peter. Then my maid told
me--I mean, she happened to mention casually that Mr. Townsend's valet
had described his master to her as an extraordinarily handsome man. So,
then, of course, I knew you were Peter Blagden."
"I perceive," said I, reflectively, "that Byam has been somewhat too
zealous. I begin to suspect, also, that kitchen-gossip is a mischancy
petard, and rather more than apt to hoist the engineer who employs it.
So, you thought I was Peter Blagden,--the rich Peter Blagden? Ah, yes!"
Now the birds were caroling on a wager. "Ah, sweet! what is sweeter?"
they sang. "Ah, sweet, sweet, sweet, to meet in the spring."
But the girl gave a wordless cry at sight of the change in my face. "Oh,
how dear of you to care so much! I didn't mean that you were _ugly_,
Peter. I just meant you are so big and--and so like the baby that they
probably have on the talcum-powder boxes in Brobdingnag--"
"Because I happen to be really Robert Townsend--the notorious Robert
Etheridge Townsend," I continued, with a smile. "I am sorry you were
deceived by the cigarette-case. I remember now; I borrowed it from
Peter. What I meant to confess was that I have known all along you were
"But I'm not," the girl said, in bewilderment. "Why--Why I _told_ you I
was Avis Beechinor."
"This handkerchief?" I queried, and took it from my pocket. I had been
absurd enough to carry it next to my heart.
"Oh--!" And now the tension broke, and her voice leapt to high, shrill,
"I am Avis Beechinor. I am a poor relation, a penniless cousin, a
dependent, a hanger-on, do you understand? And you--Ah, how--how funny!
Why, Margaret _always_ gives me her cast-off finery, the scraps, the
remnants, the clothes she is tired of, the misfit things,--so that she
won't be ashamed of me, so that I may be fairly presentable. She gave me
eight of those handkerchiefs. I meant to pick the monograms out with a
needle, you understand, because I haven't any money to buy such
handkerchiefs for myself. I remember now,--she gave them to me on that
day--that first day, and I missed one of them a little later on. Ah,
how--how funny!" she cried, again; "ah, how very, very funny! No, Mr.
Townsend, I am not an heiress,--I'm a pauper, a poor relation. No, you
have failed again, just as you did with Mrs. Barry-Smith and with Miss
Jemmett, Mr. Townsend. I--I wish you better luck the next time."
I must have raised one hand as though in warding off a physical blow.
"Don't!" I said.
And all the woman in her leapt to defend me. "Ah no, ah no!" she
pleaded, and her hands fell caressingly upon my shoulder; and she raised
a penitent, tear-stained face toward mine; "ah no, forgive me! I didn't
mean that altogether. It is different with a man. Of course, you must
marry sensibly,--of course you must, Mr. Townsend. It is I who am to
blame--why, of _course_ it's only I who am to blame. I have encouraged
you, I know--"
"You haven't! you haven't" I barked.
"But, yes,--for I came back that second day because I thought you were
the rich Mr. Blagden. I was so tired of being poor, so tired of being
dependent, that it simply seemed to me I could not stand it for a moment
longer. Ah, I tell you, I was tired, tired, tired! I was tired and sick
and worn out with it all!"
I did not interrupt her. I was nobly moved; but even then at the back of
my mind some being that was not I was taking notes as to this girl, so
young and desirable, and now so like a plaintive child who has been
punished and does not understand exactly why.
"Mr. Townsend, you don't know what it means to a girl to be poor!--you
can't ever know, because you are only a man. My mother--ah, you don't
know the life I have led! You don't know how I have been hawked about,
and set up for inspection by the men who could afford to pay my price,
and made to show off my little accomplishments for them, and put through
my paces before them like any horse in the market! For we are poor, Mr.
Townsend,--we are bleakly, hopelessly poor. We are only hangers-on, you
see. And ever since I can remember, she has been telling me I must make
a rich marriage--_must_ make a rich marriage--"
And the girl's voice trailed off into silence, and her eyes closed for a
moment, and she swayed a little on her feet, so that I caught her by
But, presently, she opened her eyes, with a wearied sigh, and presently
the two fortune-hunters stared each other in the face.
"Ah, sweet! what is sweeter?" sang the birds. "Can you see, can you see,
can you see? It is sweet, sweet, sweet!" They were extremely gay over
it, were the birds.
After a little, though, I opened my lips, and moistened them two or
three times before I spoke. "Yes," said I, "I think I understand. We
have both been hangers-on. But that seems, somehow, a long while ago.
Yes, it was a knave who scaled that wall the first time,--one who needed
and had earned a kicking from here to Aldebaran. But I think that I
loved you from the very moment I saw you. Will you marry me, Avis?"
And in her face there was a wonderful and tender change. "You care for
me--just me?" she breathed.
"Just you," I answered, gravely.
And I saw the start, and the merest ghost of a shiver which shook her
body, as she leaned toward me a little, almost in surrender; but,
quickly, she laughed.
"That was very gentlemanly in you," she said; "but, of course, I
understand. Let us part friends, then,--Robert. Even if--if you really
cared, we couldn't marry. We are too poor."
"Too poor!" I scoffed,--and my voice was joyous, for I knew now that it
was I she loved and not just Peter Blagden's money; "too _poor_, Avis! I
am to the contrary, an inordinately rich man, I tell you, for I have
your love. Oh you needn't try to deny it. You are heels over head in
love with me. And we have made, no doubt, an unsavoury mess of the past;
but the future remains to us. We are the earthen pots, you and I, who
wanted to swim with the brazen ones. Well! they haven't quite smashed
us, these big, stupid, brazen pots, but they have shown us that they
have the power to do it. And so we are going back where we belong--to
the poor man's country, Avis,--or, in any event, to the country of those
God-fearing, sober and honest folk who earn their bread and, just
occasionally, a pat of butter to season it."
The world was very beautiful. I knew that I was excellent throughout and
unconquerable. So I moved more near to her.
"For you will come with me, won't you, dear? Oh, you won't have quite so
many gowns in this new country, Avis, and, may be, not even a horse and
surrey of your own; but you will have love, and you will have happiness,
and, best of all, Avis, you will give a certain very undeserving man his
chance--his one sole chance--to lead a real man's life. Are you going
to deny him that chance, Avis?"
Her gaze read me through and through; and I bore myself a bit proudly
under it; and it seemed to me that my heart was filled with love of her,
and that some sort of new-born manhood in Robert Etheridge Townsend was
enabling me to meet her big brown eyes unflinchingly.
"It wouldn't be sensible," she wavered.
I laughed at that. "Sensible! If there is one thing more absurd than
another in this very absurd world, it is common-sense. Be sensible and
you will be miserable, Avis, not to mention being disliked. Sensible!
Why, of course, it is not sensible. It is stark, rank, staring idiocy
for us two not to make a profitable investment of, we will say, our
natural endowments, when we come to marry. For what will Mrs. Grundy say
if we don't? Ah, what will she say, indeed? Avis, just between you and
me, I do not care a double-blank domino what Mrs. Grundy says. You will
obligingly remember that the car for the Hesperides is in the rear, and
that this is the third and last call. And in consequence--will you
marry me, Avis?"
She gave me her hand frankly, as a man might have done. "Yes, Robert,"
said Miss Beechinor, "and God helping us, we will make something better
of the future than we have of the past."
In the silence that fell, one might hear the birds. "Sweet, sweet,
sweet!" they twittered. "Can you see, can you see, can you see? Their
lips meet. It is sweet, sweet, sweet!"
But, by and by, she questioned me. "Are you sure--quite sure," she
queried, wistfully, "that you wouldn't rather have me Margaret Hugonin,
I raised a deprecatory hand. "Avis!" I reproached her; "Avis, Avis, how
little you know me! That was the solitary fly in the amber,--that I
thought I was to marry a woman named Margaret. For I am something of a
connoisseur in nomenclature, and Margaret has always--_always_--been my
pet detestation in the way of names."
"Oh, what a child you are!" she said.
_He Calls, and Counsels, and Considers_
"I am now" said I, in my soul, "quite immeasurably, and insanely, and
unreasonably, and unadulteratedly happy. Why, of course I am."
This statement was advanced just two weeks later than the events
previously recorded. And the origin of it was the fact that I was now
engaged to Avis Beechinor though it was not as yet to be "announced";
just this concession alone had Mrs. Beechinor wrested from an indignant
and, latterly, a tearful interview.... For I had called at Selwoode, in
due form; and after leaving Mrs. Beechinor had been pounced upon by an
excited and comely little person in black.
"Don't you mind a word she said," this lady had exhorted, "because she
is _the_ Gadarene swine, and Avis has told me everything! Of course you
are to be married at once, and I only wish _I_ could find the only man
in the world who can keep me interested for four hours on a stretch and
send my pulse up to a hundred and make me feel those thrilly thrills
I've always longed for."
"But surely--" said I.
"No, I'm beginning to be afraid not, beautiful, though of course I used
to be crazy about Billy Woods; and then once I was engaged to another
man for a long time, and I was perfectly devoted to him, but he _never_
made me feel a single thrilly thrill. And would you believe it, Mr.
Townsend?--after a while he came back, precisely as though he had been a
bad penny or a cat. He had been in the Boer War and came home just a
night before I left, wounded and promoted several times and completely
covered with glory and brass buttons. He came seven miles to see me, and
I thoroughly enjoyed seeing him, for I had on my best dress and was
feeling rather talkative. Well! at ten I was quite struck on him. At
eleven perfectly willing to part friends, and at twelve _crazy_ for him
to go. He stayed till half-past, and I didn't want to think of him for
days. And, by the way, I am Miss Hugonin, and I hope you and Avis will
be very happy. _Good-bye!_"
"Good-bye!" said I.
And that, oddly enough, was the one private talk I ever had with the
Margaret Hugonin whom, for some two weeks, I had believed myself to be
upon the verge of marrying; for the next time I conversed with her alone
she was Mrs. William Woods.
"Oh, go away, Billy!" she then said, impatiently "How often will I have
to tell you it isn't decent to be always hanging around your wife? Oh,
you dear little crooked-necktied darling!"--and she remedied the fault
on tiptoe,--"_please_ run away and make love to somebody else, and be
sure to get her name right, so that I shan't assassinate the wrong
person,--because I want to tell this very attractive child all about
Avis, and not be bothered." And subsequently she did.
But I must not forestall her confidences, lest I get my cart even
further in advance of my nominal Pegasus than the loosely-made
conveyance is at present lumbering.
And meanwhile Peter Blagden and I had called at Selwoode once or twice
in unison and due estate. And Peter considered "Miss Beechinor a damn
fine girl, and Miss Hugonin too, only--"
"Only," I prompted, between puffs, "Miss Hugonin keeps everybody, as my
old Mammy used to say, 'in a perpetual swivet.' I never understood what
the phrase meant, precisely, but I somehow always knew that it was
"Just so," said Peter. "You prefer--ah--a certain amount of
tranquillity. I haven't been abroad for a long while," said Mr. Blagden;
and then, after another meditative pause: "Now Stella--well, Stella was
a damn sight too good for me, of course--"
"She was," I affably assented.
"--and I'd be the very last man in the world to deny it. But still you
_do_ prefer--" Then Peter broke off short and said: "My God, Bob! what's
So I think I must have had the ill-taste to have laughed a little over
Mr. Blagden's magnanimity in regard to Stella's foibles. But I only
said: "Oh, nothing, Peter! I was just going to tell you that travelling
_does_ broaden the mind, and that you will find an overcoat
indispensable in Switzerland, and that during the voyage you ought to
keep in the open air as much as possible, and that you should give the
steward who waits on you at table at least ten shillings,--I was just
going to tell you, in fine, that you would be a fool to squander any
money on a guide-book, when I am here to give you all the necessary
"But I didn't mean to go to Europe exactly," said Mr. Blagden; "--I just
meant to go abroad in a general sense. Any place would be abroad, you
know, where people weren't always remembering how rich you were, and
weren't scrambling to marry you out of hand, but really cared, you know,
like she does. Oh, may be it _is_ bad form to mention it, but I couldn't
help seeing how she looked at you, Bob. And it waked something--Oh, I
don't know what I mean," said Peter--"it's just damn foolishness,
"It's very far from that," I said; and I was honestly moved, just as I
always am when pathos, preferably grotesque, has caught me unprepared.
This millionaire was lonely, because of his millions, and Stella was
dead; and somehow I understood, and laid one hand upon his shoulder.
"Oh, _you_ can't help it, I suppose, if all women love by ordinary
because he is so like another person, where as men love because she is
so different. My poor caliph, I would sincerely advise you to play the
fool just as you plan to do,--oh, anywhere,--and without even a Mesrour.
In fine go Bunburying at once. For very frankly, First Cousin of the
Moon, it is the one thing worth while in life."
"I half believe I will," said Peter.... So he was packing in the interim
during which I pretended to be writing, and was in reality fretting to
think that, whilst Avis was in England by this, I could not decently
leave America until those last five chapters were finished. So, in part
as an excuse for not scrawling the dullest of nonsense and subsequently
tearing it up, I fell to considering the unquestionable fact that I was
in love with Avis, and upon the verge of marrying her, and was in
consequence, as a matter of plain logic, deliriously happy.
"For when you are in love with a woman you, of course, want to marry her
more than you want anything else. In nature, it is a serious and--well,
an almost irretrievable business. And I shall have to cultivate the
domestic virtues and smoke cheaper cigarettes and all that, but I shall
be glad to do every one of these things, for her sake--after a while. I
shall probably enjoy doing them."
And I read Bettie Hamlyn's letter for the seventeenth time....
For Bettie had answered the wild rhapsody which I wrote to tell her how
much in love I was with Elena Barry-Smith. And in the nature of things I
had not written Bettie again to tell her I was, and by a deal the more,
in love with Avis Beechinor. The task was delicate, the reasons for my
not unnatural change were such as you must transmit in a personal
interview during which you are particularly boyish and talk very fast.
Besides, I do not like writing letters; and moreover, there was no real
need to write. I was going to Gridlington; what more natural than to
ride over to Fairhaven some clear morning and tell Bettie everything? I
pictured her surprise and her delight at seeing me, and reflected it
would be unfair to her to render an inaccurate account of matters, such
as any letter must necessarily give.
Only, first, there was the garden of Peter's aunt,--which sounds like
an introductory French exercise,--and then Avis came. And, somehow, I
had not, in consequence, traversed the scant nine miles that lay as yet
between me and Bettie Hamlyn. I kept on meaning to do it the next day.
And the next day after this I really did.
"For I ought to tell Bettie about everything," I reflected. "No matter
if the engagement is a secret, I ought to tell Bettie about it."
When I had done so, Bettie shook her head. "Oh, Robin, Robin!" she said,
"how did I ever come to raise a child that doesn't know his own mind for
as much as two minutes? And how dared that Barry-Smith person to slap
you, I would like to know."
"Now you're jealous, Bettie. You are thinking she infringed upon an
entirely personal privilege, and you resent it."
"Well,--but I've the right to, you see, and she hadn't. I consider her
to be a bold-faced jig. And I don't approve of this Avis person either,
you understand; but we poor mothers are always being annoyed by slushy,
mushy Avises. I suppose there's a reason for it. She'll throw you over,
you know, as soon as _her_ mother has had an inning or two. That's why
she took her to Europe," Bettie explained, with a fine confusion of
personalities. "Only she just wanted any quiet place where she could
take aromatic spirits of ammonia and point out between doses that she
has given up her entire life to her child and has never made any demands
on her and hasn't the strength to argue with her, because her heart is
simply broken. We mothers always say that; and the funny part is that if
you say it often enough it invariably works far better than any possible
I told her she was talking nonsense, and she said, irrelevantly enough:
"Setebos, and Setebos, and Setebos! I don't think very highly of Setebos
sometimes, because He muddles things so. Oh, well, I shan't cry Willow.
Besides there _aren't_ any sycamore-trees in the garden. So let's go
into the garden, dear. That sounds as if I ate in the back pantry,
doesn't it? Of course you aren't of any account any more, and you never
will be, but at least you don't look at people as though they were a new
sort of bug whenever they have just thought a sentence or two and then
gone on, without bothering to say it."
So we went into Bettie's garden. It had not changed....
Nothing had changed. It was as though I had somehow managed, after all,
to push back the hands of the clock. Fairhaven accepted me incuriously.
I was only "an old student." In addition, I was vaguely rumoured to
write "pieces" for the magazines. Probably I did; "old students" were
often prone to vagaries after leaving King's College; for instance, they
told me, Ralph Means was a professional gambler, and Ox Selwyn had
lately gone to Shanghai and had settled there,--and Shanghai, in common
with most other places, Fairhaven accorded the negative tribute of just
not absolutely disbelieving in its existence.
Nothing had changed. The Finals were over; and with the noisy exodus of
the college-boys, Fairhaven had sunk contentedly into an even deeper
stupor, as Fairhaven always does in summer. And, for the rest, the
unpaved sidewalks were just as dusty, the same deep ruts and the puddles
which never dry, not even in mid-August, adorned Fairhaven's single
street; the comfortable moss upon Fairhaven's roofs had not varied by a
shade; and George Washington or Benjamin Franklin might have stepped out
of any one of those brass-knockered doorways without incongruity and
without finding any noticeable innovation to marvel at.
Nothing had changed. In the precise middle of the campus Lord Penniston,
our Governor in Colonial days, still posed, in dingy marble; and the
fracture of the finger I had inadvertently broken off, the night that
Billy Woods and I painted the statue all over, in six colours, was white
and new-looking. Kathleen Eppes had married her Spaniard and had left
Fairhaven; otherwise the same girls were already planning their toilets
for the Y.M.C.A. reception in October, which formally presents the "new
students" to society at large; and presently these girls would be going
to the germans or the Opera House with the younger brother of the boy
who used to take them thither....
Nothing had changed; not even I was changed. For I had soon discovered
that Bettie Hamlyn did not care a pin for me in myself. She was simply
very fond of me because, at times, I reminded her of a boy who had gone
to King's College; and her reception of me, for the first two days, was
"Very well!" I said.
And I did it. For I knew how difficult it was to deceive Bettie, and in
consequence all my faculties rose to the challenge. I did not merely
mimic my former self, I was compelled, almost, to believe I was indeed
that former self, because not otherwise could I get Bettie Hamlyn's
toleration. Had I paused even momentarily to reflect upon the excellence
of my acting, she would have known. So I resolutely believed I was being
perfectly candid; and with constant use those older tricks of speech and
gesture and almost of thought, at first laborious mimicry, became
In fine, we could not wipe away five years, but with practice we found
that you would very often forget them, and for quite a while....
I had explained to Bettie's father I was going to board with them that
summer. Had I not been so haphazard in the progress of this narrative, I
would have earlier announced that Bettie's father was the Latin
professor at King's College. He was very old and vague, and his general
attitude toward the universe was that of remote recollection of having
noticed something of the sort before. Professor Hamlyn, therefore, told
me he was glad to hear of my intended stay beneath his roof; hazarded
the speculation that I had written a book which he meant to read upon
the very first opportunity; blinked once or twice; and forthwith lapsed
into consideration of some Pliocene occurrence which, if you were to
judge by the expression of his mild old countenance, he did not find
So I spent three months in Fairhaven; and Bettie and I read all the old
books over again, and were perfectly happy.
And what I wrote in those last five chapters of my book was so good that
in common decency I was compelled to alter the preceding twenty-nine and
bring them a bit nearer to Bettie's standard. For I was utilising
Bettie's ideas. She did not have the knack of putting them on paper;
that was my trivial part, as I now recognised with a sort of scared
"Of course, though, you had to meddle," I would scold at her. "I had
meant the infernal thing to be a salable book. To-day it is just a
stenographic report of how these people elected to behave. I haven't
anything to do with it. I wash my hands of it. I consider you, in fine,
a cormorant, a conscienceless marauder, a meddlesome Mattie, _and_ a
"But, it's _much_ better than anything you've ever done, Robin--"
"That is what I'm grumbling about. I consider it very unfeeling of you
to write better novels than I do," I retorted. "But, oh, how good that
scene is!" I said, a little later.
"Let's see--'For you, dear clean-souled girl, were born to be the wife
of a strong man, and the mother of his dirty children'--no, it's
'sturdy', but then you hardly ever cross your T's. And where he goes on
to tell her he can't marry her, because he is artistic, and she is too
practical for them to be real mates, and all that other
feeble-mindedness? Dear me, did I forget to tell you we were going to
cut that out?"
"But I particularly like that part--"
"Do you?" said Bettie, as her pen scrunched vicious lines through it.
Then she said: "I only hope she had the civility and self-control not to
laugh until you had gone away. And 'We irrelevant folk that design all
useless and beautiful things,' indeed! No, I couldn't have blamed her if
she laughed right out. I wonder if you will never understand that what
you take to be your love for beautiful things is really just a dislike
of ugly ones? Oh, I've no patience with you! And wanting to print it in
a book, too, instead of being content to make yourself ridiculous in
tete-a-tetes with minxes that don't especially matter!"
"Well--! Anyhow, I agree with you that, thanks to your editing and
carping and general scurrility, this book is going to be," I meekly
stated, "a little better than _The Apostates_ and not just 'pretty much
like any other book'."
"Do you know that's just what I was thinking," said Bettie, dolefully.
She clasped both hands behind her crinkly small black head, and in that
queer habitual pose appraised me, from between her elbows, in that way
which always made me feel I had better be careful. "Damn you!" was
"Whence this unmaidenliness?" I queried, with due horror.
"You are trying to prove to me that it has been worth while. This nasty
book is coming alive, here in our own eight-cornered room, with a horrid
crawly life of its own that it would never have had if you hadn't been
learning things my boy knew nothing about. That's what you are crowing
in my face, when you keep quiet and smirk. Oh, but I know you!"
"You do think, then, that, between you and me, it is really coming
"Yes,--if that greatly matters to the fat literary gent that I don't
care for greatly. Yes, the infernal thing will be a Book, with quite a
sizable B. I am feeding its maw with more important things than a few
ideas, though. The thing is a monster that isn't worth its keep. For my
boy was worth more than a Book," she said, forlornly,--"oh,
All in all, we were a deal more than happy during these three very hot
months. It was a sort of Lotus Eaters' existence, shared by just us two,
with Josiah Clarriker intruding occasionally, and with echoes from the
outer world, when heard at all, resounding very dimly and unimportantly.
I began almost to assume, as Fairhaven tacitly assumed, that there was
really no outer world, or none at least to be considered seriously....
For instance: Marian Winwood had come to Lichfield, and wrote me from
there, "hoping that we would renew an acquaintance which she remembered
so pleasurably." It did not seem worth while, of course, to answer the
minx; I decided, at a pinch, to say that the Fairhaven mail-service was
abominable, and that her letter had never reached me. But the young
fellow who two years ago had wandered about the Green Chalybeate with
her had become, now, as unreal as she. I glimpsed the couple, with
immeasurable aloofness, as phantoms flickering about the mirage of a
brook, throwing ghostly bread crumbs to Lethean minnows.
And then, too, when the police caught Ned Lethbury that summer, it
hardly seemed worth while to wonder about his wife. For she was,
inexplicably, with him, all through the trial at Chiswick, you may
remember, though you were probably more interested at the time by the
Humbert trial in Paris. In any event, no rumor came to me in Fairhaven
to connect Amelia Lethbury with Nadine Neroni, but, instead, a deal of
journalistic pity and sympathy for her, the faithful, much-enduring
wife. Still quite a handsome woman, they said, for all her suffering and
poverty.... And when he went to the penitentiary, Amelia Lethbury
disappeared, nobody knew whither, except that I suspected Anton von
Anspach knew. I could not explain the mystery. I did not greatly care
to, for to me it did not seem important, now....
Meantime, I meditated.
"I am in love with Avis--oh, granted! I am not the least bit in love
with--we will euphemistically say 'anyone else.' But confound it! I am
coming to the conclusion that marrying a woman because you happen to be
in love with her is about as logical a proceeding as throwing the cat
out of the window because the rhododendrons are in bloom. Why, if I
marry Avis I shall probably have to live with her the rest of my life!
"What if that obsolete notion of Schopenhauer's were true after
all,--that love is a blind instinct which looks no whit toward the
welfare of the man and woman it dominates, but only to the equipment a
child born of them would inherit? What if, after all, love tends,
without variation, to yoke the most incompatible in order that the
average type of humanity may be preserved? Then the one passion we
esteem as sacred would be simply the deranged condition of any other
beast in rutting-time. Then we, with the pigs and sparrows, would be
just so many pieces on the chess-board, and our evolutions would be just
a friendly trial of skill between what we call life and death.
"I love Avis Beechinor. But I have loved, in all sincerity, many other
women, and I rejoice to-day, unfeignedly, that I never married any of
them. For marriage means a life-long companionship, a long, long journey
wherein must be adjusted, one by one, each tiniest discrepancy between
the fellow-wayfarers; and always a pebble if near enough to the eye will
obscure a mountain.
"Why, Avis cannot attempt a word of four syllables without coming at
least once to grief! It is a trifle of course, but in a life-long
companionship there are exactly fourteen thousand trifles to one event
of importance. And deuce take it! the world is populated by men and
women, not demi-gods; the poets are specious and abandoned rhetoricians;
for it never was, and never will be, possible to love anybody 'to the
level of every-day's Most quiet need by sun or candlelight.'
"Or not to me at least.
"In a sentence, when it comes to a life-long companionship, I prefer not
the woman who would make me absolutely happy for a twelvemonth, but
rather the woman with whom I could chat contentedly for twenty years,
and who would keep me to the mark. I am rather tired of being futile;
and not for any moral reason, but because it is not worthy of _me_. In
fine, I do not want to die entirely. I want to leave behind some not
inadequate expression of Robert Etheridge Townsend, and I do not care at
all what people say of it, so that it is here when I am gone. Oh, Stella
understood! 'I want my life to count, I want to leave something in the
world that wasn't there before I came.'
I arose resolutely. "I had much better go for a long, and tedious, and
jolting, and universally damnable walk. Bettie would make something
vital of me--if I could afford her the material--"
And I grinned a little. "'Go, therefore, now, and work; for there shall
no straw be given you, yet shall ye deliver the tale of bricks.' Yes,
you would certainly have need of a miracle, dear Bettie--"
I started for that walk I was to take. But Dr. Jeal and Colonel Snawley
were seated in armchairs in front of Clarriker's Emporium, just as they
had been used to sit there in my college days, enjoying, as the Colonel
mentioned, "the cool of the evening," although to the casual observer
the real provider of their pleasure would have appeared to be an
unlimited supply of chewing-tobacco.
So I lingered here, and garnered, to an accompaniment of leisurely
expectorations, much knowledge as to the fall crops and the carryings-on
of the wife of a celebrated general, upon whose staff the Colonel had
served during the War,--and there has never been in the world's history
but one war, so far as Fairhaven is concerned,--and how the Colonel
walked right in on them, and how it was hushed up.
Then we discussed the illness of Pope Leo and what everybody knew about
those derned cardinals, and the riots in Evansville, and the Panama
Canal business, and the squally look of things at Port Arthur, and
attributed all these imbroglios, I think, to the Republican
administration. Even at our bitterest, though, we conceded that
"Teddy's" mother was a Bulloch, and that his uncle fired the last shot
before the Alabama went down. And that inclined us to forgive him
everything, except of course, the Booker Washington luncheon.
Then half a block farther on, Mrs. Rabbet wanted to know if I had ever
seen such weather, and to tell me exactly what Adrian, Junior--no longer
little Adey, no indeed, sir, but ready to start right in at the College
session after next, and as she often said to Mr. Rabbet you could hardly
believe it,--had observed the other day, and quick as a flash too,
because it would make such a funny story. Only she could never quite
decide whether it happened on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, so that, after
precisely seven digressions on this delicate point, the denouement of
the tale, I must confess, fell rather flat.
And then Mab Spessifer demanded that I come up on the porch and draw
some pictures for her. The child was waiting with three sheets of paper
and a chewed pencil all ready, just on the chance that I might pass; and
you cannot very well refuse a cripple who adores you and is not able to
play with the other brats. You get instead into a kind of habit of
calling every day and trying to make her laugh, because she is such a
helpless little nuisance.
And tousled mothers weep over you in passageways and tell you how good
you are, and altogether the entire affair is tedious; but having started
it, you keep it up, somehow.
In fine, it is a symbol that I never took the walk which was to dust the
cobwebs from my brain and make me just like all the other persons, thick
about me, who grow up, and mate, and beget, and die, in the incurious
fashion of oxen, without ever wondering if there is any plausible reason
for doing it; and my brief progress was upon the surface very like that
of the bedeviled fellow in _Les Facheux_. Yet I enjoyed it somehow.
Never to be hurried, and always to stop and talk with every person whom
you meet, upon topics in which no conceivable human being could possibly
be interested, may not sound attractive, but in Fairhaven it is the
rule; and, oddly enough, it breeds, in practice, a sort of family
feeling,--if only by entitling everybody to the condoned and
matter-of-course stupidity of aunts and uncles,--which is not really all
So I went home at half-past seven, to supper and to Bettie, in a quite
contented frame of mind. It did not seem conceivable that any world so
beautiful and stupid and well-meaning could have either the heart or the
wit to thwart my getting anything I really wanted; and the thought
Only I did not know, precisely, what I wanted.
_He Participates in Sundry Confidences_
I was in the act of writing to Avis when the letter came; and I put it
aside unopened, until after supper, for I had never found the letters of
Avis particularly interesting reading.
"It will be what they call a newsy letter, of course. I do wish that
Avis would not write to me as if she were under oath to tell the entire
truth. She communicates so many things which actually happened that it
reads like a 'special correspondent' in some country town writing for a
Sunday morning's paper,--and with, to a moral certainty, the word
'separate' lurking somewhere spelt with three E's, and an 'always' with
two L's, and at least one 'alright.' No, my dear, I am at present too
busy expressing my adoration for you to be exposed to such
Then I wrote my dithyrambs and sealed them. Subsequently I poised the
unopened letter between my fingers.
"But remember that if she were here to _say_ all this to you, your
pulses would be pounding like the pistons of an excited locomotive!
Nature, you are a jade! I console myself with the reflection that it is
frequently the gift of facile writing which makes the co-respondent,
--but I _do_ wish you were not such a hazardous matchmaker. Oh, well!
there was no pleasant way of getting out of it, and that particular
Rubicon is miles behind."
I slit the envelope.
I read the letter through again, with redoubling interest, and presently
began to laugh. "So she begins to fear we have been somewhat hasty, asks
a little time for reconsideration of her precise sentiment toward me,
and feels meanwhile in honour bound to release me from our engagement!
Yet if upon mature deliberation--eh, oh, yes! twaddle! _and_
commonplace! and dashed, of course, with a jigger of Scriptural
I paused to whistle. "There is strange milk in this cocoanut, could I
but discern its nature."
I did, some four weeks later, when with a deal of mail I received the
last letter I was ever to receive from Avis Beechinor.
Thank you very much for returning my letters and for the beautiful
letter you wrote me. No I believe it better you should not come on to
see me now and talk the matter over as you suggest because it would
probably only make you unhappy. And then too I am sure some day you will
be friends with me and a very good and true one. I return the last
letter you sent me in a seperate envelope, and I hope it will reach you
alright, but as I destroy all my mail as soon as I have read it I cannot
send you the others. I have promised to marry Mr. Blagden and we are
going to be married on the fifteenth of this month very quietly with no
outsiders. So good bye Robert. I wish you every success and happiness
that you may desire and with all my heart I pray you to be true to your
better self. God bless you allways. Your sincere friend,
AVIS M. BEECHINOR
I indulged in a low and melodious whistle. "The little slut!"
Then I said: "Peter Blagden again! I _do_ wish that life would try to be
a trifle more plausible. Why, but, of course! Peter meant to go chasing
after her the minute my back was turned, and that was why he salved his
conscience by presenting me with that thousand 'to get married on,' Even
at the time it seemed peculiarly un-Petrine. Well, anyhow, in simple
decency, he cannot combine the part of Shylock with that of Judas, and
expect to have back his sordid lucre, so I am that much to the good,
apart from everything else. Yes, I can see how it all happened,--and I
can foresee what is going to happen, too, thank heaven!"
For, as drowning men are said to recollect the unrecallable, I had
vividly seen in that instant the two months' action just overpast, and
its three participants,--the thin-lipped mother, the besotted
millionaire, and the girl shakily hesitant between ideals and the habits
of a life-time.
"But I might have known the mother would win," I reflected: "Why, didn't
Bettie say she would?"
I refolded the letter I had just read, to keep it as a salutary relic;
"Dear Avis!" said I; "now heaven bless your common-sense! and I don't
especially mind if heaven blesses your horrific painted hag of a mother,
also, if they've a divine favor or two to spare."
And I saw there was a letter from Peter Blagden, too. It said, in part:
I am everything that you think me, Bob. My one defence is that I could
not help it. I loved her from the moment I saw her ... You did not
appreciate her, you know. You take, if you will forgive my saying it,
too light a view of life to value the love of a good woman properly, and
Avis noticed it of course. Now I do understand what the unselfish love
of woman means, because my first wife was an angel, as you know ... It
is a comfort to think that my dear saint in heaven knows I am not quite
so lonely now, and is gladdened by that knowledge. I know she would have
I read no further. "Oh, Stella! they have all forgotten. They all insist
to-day that you were an angel, and they have come almost to believe that
you habitually flew about the world in a night-gown, with an Easter lily
in your hand--But I remember, dear. I know you'd scratch her eyes out. I
know you'd do it now, if only you were able, because you loved this
Thereafter I must have wasted a full quarter of an hour in recalling all
sorts of bygone unimportant happenings, and I was not bothering one way
or the other about Avis ...
In the moonlighted garden I found Bettie. But with her was Josiah
Clarriker, Fairhaven's leading business-man. He shook hands, and
whatever delight he may have felt at seeing me was admirably controlled.
"Now don't let me interfere with your eloquence," I urged, "but go right
on with the declamation."
"I make no pretension to eloquence, Mr. Townsend. I was merely recalling
to Miss Hamlyn's attention the beautiful lines of our immortal poet,
Owen Meredith, which run, as I remember them:
"'I thought of the dress she wore that time
That we stood under the cypress-tree together,
In that land, in that clime,
And I turned and looked, and she was sitting there
In the box next to the stage, and dressed
In that muslin dress, with that full soft hair
And that jessamine blossom at her breast.'"
"But I am not permitted to wear flowers when Mr. Townsend is about,"
said Bettie. "Did you know, Jo, that he is crazy about that too?"
"Well--! Anyhow, Meredith is full of very beautiful sentiments," said
Mr. Clarriker, "and I have always been particularly fond of that piece.
It is called _'Ox Italians.'_"
"Yes, I have been previously affected by it," said I, "and very deeply
"And so--as I was about to observe, Miss Hamlyn,--you will notice that
the poet Meredith gowned one of the most beautiful characters he ever
created in white, and laid great stress upon the fact that her beauty
was immeasurably enhanced by the dainty simplicity of her muslin dress.
This fabric, indeed, suits all types of faces and figures, and is
Economical too, especially the present popular mercerised waistings and
vestings that are fast invading the realm of silks. We show at our
Emporium an immense quantity of these beautiful goods, in more than a
hundred styles, elaborate enough for the most formal occasions, at fifty
and seventy-five cents a yard; and--as I was about to observe, Miss
Hamlyn,--I would indeed esteem it a favour should you permit me to send
up a few samples to-morrow, from which to make a selection at, I need
not add, my personal expense.
"You see, Mr. Townsend," he continued, more inclusively, "we have no
florists in Fairhaven, and I have heard that candy--" He talked on,
"And that," said I, when Mr. Clarriker had gone, "is what you are
actually considering! I have always believed Dickens invented that man
to go into one of the latter chapters of _Edwin Drood_. It is the
solitary way of explaining certain people,--that they were invented by
some fagged novelist who unfortunately died before he finished the book
they were to be locked up in. As it was, they got loose, to annoy you by
their incredibility. No actual human being, you know, would suggest a
white shirtwaist as a substitute for a box of candy."
"Oh, I have seen worse," said Bettie, as in meditation. "It's just Jo's
way of expressing the fact that I am stupendously beautiful in white.
Poor dear, my loveliness went to his head, I suppose, and got tangled
with next week's advertisement for the _Gazette_. Anyhow, he is a deal
more considerate than you. For instance, I was crazy to go to the show
on Tuesday night, and Josiah Clarriker was the only person who thought
to ask me, even though he is one of those little fireside companions who
always get so syrupy whenever they take you anywhere that you simply
can't stand it. The combination both prevented my acceptance and
accentuated his devotion; and quite frankly, Robin, I am thinking of
him, for at bottom Jo is a dear."
I laid one hand on each of Bettie's shoulders; and it was in my mind at
the time that this was the gesture of a comrade, and had not any sexual
tinge at all. I wished that Bettie had better teeth, of course, but that
could not be helped.
"You are to marry me as soon as may be possible," said I, "and
preferably to-morrow afternoon. Avis has thrown me over, God bless her,
and I am free,--until of course you take charge of me. There was a
clever woman once who told me I was not fit to be the captain of my
soul, though I would make an admirable lieutenant. She was right. It is
understood you are to henpeck me to your heart's content and to my
"I shall assuredly not marry you," observed Miss Hamlyn, "until you have
at least asked me to do so. And besides, how dared she throw
"But I don't intend to ask you, for I have not a single bribe to offer.
I merely intend to marry you. I am a ne'er-do-well, a debauchee, a
tippler, a compendium of all the vices you care to mention. I am not a
bit in love with you, and as any woman will forewarn you, I am sure to
make you a vile husband. Your solitary chance is to bully me into
temperance and propriety and common-sense, with precisely seven million
probabilities against you, because I am a seasoned and accomplished
liar. Can you do that bullying, Bettie,--and keep it up, I mean?"
And she was silent for a while. "Robin," she said, at last, "you'll
never understand why women like you. You will always think it is because
they admire you for some quality or another. It is really because they
pity you. You are such a baby, riding for a fall--No, I don't mean the
boyishness you trade upon. I have known for a long while all that was
just put on. And, oh, how hard you've tried to be a boy of late!"
"And I thought I had fooled you, Bettie! Well, I never could. I am
sorry, though, if I have been annoyingly clumsy--"
"But you were doing it for me," she said. "You were doing it because you
thought I'd like it. Oh, can't you understand that I _know_ you are
worthless, and that you have never loved any human being in all your
life except that flibbertigibbet Stella Blagden, and that I know, too,
you have so rarely failed me! If you were an admirable person, or a
person with commendable instincts, or an unselfish person, or if you
were even in love with me, it wouldn't count of course. It is because
you are none of these things that it counts for so much to see you
honest with me--sometimes,--and even to see you scheming and
play-acting--and so transparently!--just to bring about a little
pleasure for me. Oh, Robin, I am afraid that nowadays I love you
_because_ of your vices!"
"And I you because of your virtues," said I; "so that there is no
possible apprehension of either affection ever going into bankruptcy.
Therefore the affair is settled; and we will be married in November."
"Well," Bettie said, "I suppose that somebody has to break you of this
habit of getting married next November--"
Then, and only then, my hands were lifted from her shoulders. And we
began to talk composedly of more impersonal matters.
It was two days later that John Charteris came to Fairhaven; and I met
him the same afternoon upon Cambridge street. The little man stopped
short and in full view of the public achieved what, had he been a child,
were most properly describable as making a face at me.
"That," he explained, "expresses the involuntary confusion of Belial on
re-encountering the anchorite who escaped his diabolical machinations.
But, oh, dear me! haven't you been translated yet? Why, I thought the
carriage would have called long ago, just as it did for Elijah."
"Now, don't be an ass, John. I _was_ rather idiotic, I suppose--"
"Of course you were," he said, as we shook hands. "It is your unfailing
charm. You silly boy, I came from the pleasantest sort of house-party at
Matocton because I heard you were here, and I have been foolish enough
to miss you. Anne and the others don't arrive until October. Oh, you
adorable child, I have read the last book, and every one of the short
stories as well, and I want to tell you that in their own peculiar line
the two volumes are masterpieces. Anne wept and chuckled over them, and
so did I, with an equal lack of restraint; only it was over the noble
and self-sacrificing portions that Anne wept, and she laughed at the
places where you were droll intentionally. Whereas I--!! Well, we will
let the aposiopesis stand."
"Of course," I sulkily observed, "if you have simply come to Fairhaven
to make fun of me, I can only pity your limitations."
He spoke in quite another voice. "You silly boy, it was not at all for
that. I think you must know I have read what you have published thus far
with something more than interest; but I wanted to tell you this in so
many words. _Afield_ is not perhaps an impeccable masterwork, if one may
be thus brutally frank; but the woman--modeled after discretion will not
inquire whom,--is distinctly good. And what, with you only twenty-five,
does _A field_ not promise! Child, you have found your metier. Now I
shall look forward to the accomplishment of what I have always felt sure
that you could do. I am very, very glad. More so than I can say. And I
had thought you must know this without my saying it."
The man was sincere. And I was very much pleased, and remembered what
invaluable help he could give me on my unfinished book, and what fun it
would be to go over the manuscript with him. And, in fine, we became
again, upon the spot as it were, the very best of friends.
It was excellent to have Charteris to talk against. The little man had
many tales to tell me of those dissolute gay people we had known and
frolicked with; indeed, I think that he was trying to allure me back to
the old circles, for he preoccupied his life by scheming to bring about
by underhand methods some perfectly unimportant consummation, which very
often a plain word would have secured at once. But now he swore he was
not "making tea."
That had always been a byword between us, by the way, since I applied to
him the phrase first used of Alexander Pope--"that he could not make tea
without a conspiracy." And it may be that in this case Charteris spoke
the truth, and had come to Fairhaven just for the pleasure of seeing me,
for certainly he must have had some reason for leaving the Musgraves'
house-party so abruptly.
"You are very well rid of the Hardresses," he adjudged. "Did I tell you
of the male one's exhibition of jealousy last year! I can assure you
that the fellow now entertains for me precisely the same affection I
have always borne toward cold lamb. It is the real tragedy of my life
that Anne is ethically incapable of letting a week pass without
partaking of a leg of mutton. She is not particularly fond of it, and
indeed I never encountered anybody who was; she has simply been reared
with the notion that 'people' always have mutton once a week. What, have
you never noticed that with 'people,' to eat mutton once a week is a
sort of guarantee of respectability? I do not refer to chops of course,
which are not wholly inconsistent with depravity. But the ability to eat
mutton in its roasted form, by some odd law of nature, connotes the
habit of paying your pew-rent regularly and of changing your flannels on
the proper date. However, I was telling you about Jasper Hardress--" And
Charteris repeated the story of their imbroglio in such a fashion that
it sounded farcical.
"But, after all, John, you _did_ make love to her."
"I have forgotten what was exactly the last observation of the lamented
Julius Caesar," Mr. Charteris leisurely observed,--"though I remember
that at the time it impressed me as being uncommonly appropriate--But to
get back: do you not see that this clause ought to come here, at the end
of the sentence? And, child, on all my ancient bended knees, I implore
you to remember that 'genuine' does not mean the same thing as
Meanwhile he and Bettie got on together a deal better than I had ever
Charteris, though, received my confidence far too lightly. "You are
going to marry her! Why, naturally! Ever since I encountered you, you
have been 'going to marry' somebody or other. It is odd I should have
written about the Foolish Prince so long before I knew you. But then,
_I_ helped to mould you--a little--"
And resolutely Bettie said the most complimentary things about him. But
I trapped her once.
"Still," I observed, when he had gone, and she had finished telling me
how delightful Mr. Charteris was, "still he shan't ever come to _our_
house, shall he?"
"Why, of course not!" said Bettie, who was meditating upon some cosmic
question which required immediate attention. And then she grew very
angry and said, "Oh, you _dog!_" and threw a sofa-cushion at me.
"I hate that wizened man," she presently volunteered, "more bitterly
than I do any person on earth. For it was he who taught you to adopt
infancy as a profession. He robbed me. And Setebos permitted it. And now
you are just a man I am going to marry--Oh, well!" said Bettie, more
sprightlily, "I was getting on, and you are rather a dear even in that
capacity. Only I wonder what _becomes_ of all the first choices?"
"They must keep them for us somewhere, Bettie dear. And that is probably
the explanation of everything."
And a hand had snuggled into mine. "You do understand without having to
have it all spelt out for you. And that's a comfort, too. But, oh," said
Bettie, "what a wasteful Setebos it is!"
_He Allows the Merits of Imperfection_
I was quite contented now and assured as to the future. I foreknew the
future would be tranquil and lacking in any particular excitement, and I
had already ceded, in anticipation, the last tittle of mastery over my
own actions; but Bettie would keep me to the mark, would wring--not
painlessly perhaps--from Robert Townsend the very best there was in him;
and it would be this best which, unalloyed, would endure, in what I
wrote. I had never imagined that, for the ore, smelting was an agreeable
process; so I shrugged, and faced my future contentedly.
One day I said, "To-morrow I must have holiday. There are certain things
that need burying, Bettie dear, and--it is just the funeral of my youth
I want to go to."
"So it is to-morrow that we go for an admiring walk around our
emotions!" Bettie said. She knew well enough of what event to-morrow was
the anniversary, and it is to her credit she added: "Well, for this
once--!" For of all the women whom I had loved, there was but one that
Bettie Hamlyn had ever bothered about. And to-morrow was Stella's
birthday, as I had very unconcernedly mentioned a few moments earlier,
when I was looking for the Austin Dobson book, and had my back turned
Next day, in Cedarwood, a woman in mourning--in mourning fluffed and
jetted and furbelowed in such pleasing fashion that it seemed
flamboyantly to demand immediate consolation of all marriageable
males,--viewed me with a roving eye as I heaped daffodils on Stella's
grave. They had cost me a pretty penny, too, for this was in September.
But then I must have daffodils, much as I loathe the wet, limp feel o.
them, because she would have chosen daffodils.... Well! I fancied this
woman thought me sanctioned by both church and law in what I did,--and
viewed me in my supposedly recent bereavement and gauged my
potentialities,--viewed me, in short, with the glance of adventurous
My faith (I meditated) if she knew!--if I could but speak my thought to
"Madam,"--let us imagine me, my hat raised, my voice grave,--"the woman
who lies here was a stranger to me. I did not know her. I knew that her
eyes were blue, that her hair was sunlight, that her voice had pleasing
modulations; but I did not know the woman. And she cared nothing for me.
That is why my voice shakes as I tell you of it. And I have brought her
daffodils, because of all flowers she loved them chiefly, and because
there is no one else who remembers this. It is the flower of spring, and
Stella--for that was her name, madam,--died in the spring of the year,
in the spring of her life; and Stella would have been just twenty-six
to-day. Oh, and daffodils, madam, are all white and gold, even as that
handful of dust beneath us was all white and gold when we buried it with
a flourish of crepe and lamentation, some two years and five months ago.
Yet the dust there was tender flesh at one time, and it clad a brave
heart; but we thought of it--and I among the rest,--as a plaything with
which some lucky man might while away his leisure hours. I believe now
that it was something more. I believe--ah, well, my _credo_ is of little
consequence. But whatever this woman may have been, I did not know her.
And she cared nothing for me."
I reflected I would like to do it. I could imagine the stare, the
squawk, the rustling furbelows, as madam fled from this grave madman.
She would probably have me arrested.
You see I had come to think differently of Stella. At times I remembered
her childish vanity, her childish, morbid views, her childish gusts of
petulance and anger and mirth; and I smiled,--oh, very tenderly, yet
Then would awake the memory of Stella and myself in that ancient
moonlight and of our first talk of death--two infants peering into
infinity, somewhat afraid, and puzzled; of Stella making tea in the
firelight, and prattling of her heart's secrets, half-seriously, half in
fun; and of Stella striving to lift a very worthless man to a higher
level and succeeding--yes, for the time, succeeding; and of Stella dying
with a light heart, elate with dreams of Peter Blagden's future and of
"a life that counted"; and of what she told me at the very last. And,
irrationally perhaps, there would seem to be a sequence in it all, and I
could not smile over it, not even tenderly.
And I would depicture her, a foiled and wistful little wraith, very
lonely in eternity, and a bit regretful of the world she loved and of
its blundering men, and unhappy,--for she could never be entirely happy
without Peter,--and I feared, indignant. For Stella desired very
heartily to be remembered--she was vain, you know,--and they have all
forgotten. Yes, I am sure that even as a wraith, Stella would be
indignant, for she had a fine sense of her own merits.
"But I am just a little butterfly-woman," she would say, sadly; then,
with a quick smile, "Aren't I?" And her eyes would be like stars--like
big, blue stars,--and afterward her teeth would glint of a sudden, and
innumerable dimples would come into being, and I would know she was
never meant to be taken seriously....
But we must avoid all sickly sentiment.
You see the world had advanced since Stella died,--twice around the sun,
from solstice to solstice, from spring to winter and back again,
travelling through I forget how many millions of miles; and there had
been wars and scandals and a host of debutantes and any number of
dinners; and, after all, the world is for the living.
So we of Lichfield agreed unanimously that it was very sad, and spoke of
her for a while, punctiliously, as "poor dear Stella"; and the next week
Emily Van Orden ran away with Tom Whately; and a few days later Alicia
Wade's husband died, and we debated whether Teddy Anstrother would do
the proper thing or sensibly marry Celia Reindan: and so, a little by a
little, we forgot our poor, dear Stella in precisely the decorous
graduations of regret with which our poor dear Stella would have
forgotten any one of us.
Yes, even those who loved her most deeply have forgotten Stella. They
remember only an imaginary being who was entirely perfect, and of whom
they were not worthy. It is this fictitious woman who has usurped the
real Stella's place in the heart of the real Stella's own mother, and
whom even Lizzie d'Arlanges believes to have been once her sister, and
over whom Peter Blagden is always ready to grow maudlin; and it is this
immaculate woman--who never existed,--that will be until the end of
Avis' matrimonial existence the standard by which Avis is measured and
found wanting. And thus again the whirligig of time, by an odd turn,
brings in his revenges.
And I? Well, I was very fond of Stella. And the woman they speak of
to-day, in that hushed, hateful, sanctimonious voice, I must confess I
never knew. And of all persons I chiefly rage against that faultless
angel, that "poor dear Stella," who has pilfered even the paltry tribute
of being remembered from the Stella that to-day is mine alone. For it is
to this fictitious person that the people whom my Stella loved, as she
did not love me, now bring their flowers; and it was to this person they
erected their pompous monument,--nay, more, it was for this atrocious
woman they ordered the very coffin in which my Stella lay when I last
saw her. And it is not fair.
And I? Well, I was very fond of Stella. It would be good to have her
back,--to have her back to jeer at me, to make me feel red and
uncomfortable and ridiculous, to say rude things about my waist, and
indeed to fluster me just by being there. Yes, it would be good. But,
upon the whole, I am not sorry that Stella is gone.
For there is Peter Blagden to be considered. We can all agree to-day
that Peter is a good fellow, that he is making the most of his Uncle
Larry's money, and that he is nobody's enemy but his own; and we have
smugly forgotten the time when we expected him to become a great lawyer.
We do not expect that of Peter now; instead, we are content
enough--particularly since Peter has so admirably dressed his part by
taking to longish hair and gruffness and a cane,--to point him out to
strangers in Lichfield as "one of our wealthiest men," and to elect him
to all civic committees, and to discuss his semi-annual sprees and his
monetary relations with various women whom one does not "know." And the
present Mrs. Blagden, too, appears content enough.
And as Stella loved him--
Well, as it was, Peter was then off on his honeymoon, and there was only
I to bring the daffodils to Stella. She was always vain, was Stella; it
would have grieved her had no one remembered.
Then I caught the afternoon train for Fairhaven, and went back to my
But I walked over to Willoughby Hall that night and found Charteris
alone in his queer library, among the serried queer books and the
portraits of his "literary creditors." When I came into the apartment he
was mending a broken tea-cup, for he peculiarly delighted in such
infinitesimal task-work; but the vexed countenance at once took on the
fond young look my coming would invariably provoke, and he shoved aside
We talked of trifles; apropos of nothing, Charteris said, "Yes,--but,
then, I devoted the morning to drawing up my will." And I laughed over
The man rose and with clenched fist struck upon the littered table. "It
is in the air. I swear to you that, somehow, _I_ have been warned. But
always I have been favoured--Why, man, I protest that never in my life
have I encountered any person in associating with whom I did not
condescend, with reason to back me! Yet today Death stands within arm's
reach, and I have accomplished--some three or four little books! And
yet--why, _Ashtaroth's Lackey_, now--Yes, by God! it is perfected speech
such as few other men have ever written. I know it, and I do not care at
all even though you piteous dullards should always lack the wit to
recognise and revere perfected speech when it confronts you. But
presently I die! and there is nothing left of me save the inefficient
testimony of those three or four little books!"
I patted his shoulder and protested he had over-worked himself.
"Eh, well," he said, and with that easy laugh I knew of old; "in any