A BICYCLE OF CATHAY
By Frank R. Stockton
Author of “The Great Stone of Sardis,” “The Associate Hermits” etc.
Illustrated by Orson Lowell
[Illustration: The doctor’s daughter]
I. THE DOCTOR’S DAUGHTER
II. A BAD TWIST
III. THE DUKE’S DRESSING-GOWN
IV. A BIT OF ADVICE
V. THE LADY AND THE CAVALIER
VI. THE HOLLY SPRIG INN
VII. MRS. CHESTER IS TROUBLED
IX. A RUNAWAY
X. THE LARRAMIE FAMILY
XI. THE THREE MCKENNAS
XII. BACK TO THE HOLLY SPRIG
XIII. A MAN WITH A LETTER
XIV. MISS EDITH IS DISAPPOINTED
XV. MISS WILLOUGHBY
XVI. AN ICICLE
XVII. A FORECASTER OF HUMAN PROBABILITIES
XVIII. REPENTANCE AVAILS NOT
XIX. BEAUTY, PURITY, AND PEACE
XX. BACK FROM CATHAY
THE DOCTOR’S DAUGHTER
“I PUT ON MY COAT”
“THE RAIN WAS COMING DOWN HARD”
“ON MY RIGHT A LIGHTED DOORWAY”
A FEW THOUGHTS
“THE BEAUTY OF HER TEETH”
“I KICKED OFF MY EMBROIDERED SLIPPERS”
“IT WOULD BE WELL FOR ME TO SWALLOW A CAPSULE”
“AS SOON AS I HAD SPOKEN THESE WORDS”
“I DISMOUNTED AND APPROACHED THE WALL”
“I THOUGHT FOR A FEW MOMENTS”
“I WENT OUT FOR A WALK”
“SHE BEGAN TO TALK ABOUT WALFORD”
“BUT WE WERE NOT ALONE”
“TO MY LEFT I SAW A LINE OF TREES”
“HE WAS RUNNING AWAY”
“HE SOON FELT THAT HE WAS UNDER CONTROL”
“A LITTLE ARMY HAD THROWN ITSELF UPON ME”
“‘WOULD IT BE EASIER TO MANAGE A BOY OR A BEAR?'”
“I TAPPED MY LEFT PALM”
“THERE WAS A SUDDEN FLUSH UPON HER FACE”
“THE SCENE VIVIDLY RECURRED TO MY MIND”
DECIPHERING THE DAGO’S LETTER
“‘I DON’T THINK YOU OUGHT TO TAKE THIS LETTER'”
“‘DO YOU THINK YOU COULD HIT IT WITH AN APPLE?'”
“TALKING ABOUT BABY BEARS”
“I HELD THAT PICTURE A GOOD WHILE”
“‘NO, SIR,’ SHE SAID”
“CUT LIKE THAT”
THE DOCTOR’S DAUGHTER
It was a beautiful summer morning when slowly I wheeled my way along the principal street of the village of Walford. A little valise was strapped in front of my bicycle; my coat, rolled into a small compass, was securely tied under the seat, and I was starting out to spend my vacation.
I was the teacher of the village school, which useful institution had been closed for the season the day before, much to the gratification of pedagogue and scholars. This position was not at all the summit of my youthful ambition. In fact, I had been very much disappointed when I found myself obliged to accept it, but when I left college my financial condition made it desirable for me to do something to support myself while engaged in some of the studies preparatory to a professional career.
I have never considered myself a sentimental person, but I must admit that I did not feel very happy that morning, and this state of mind was occasioned entirely by the feeling that there was no one who seemed to be in the least sorry that I was going away. My boys were so delighted to give up their studies that they were entirely satisfied to give up their teacher, and I am sure that my vacation would have been a very long one if they had had the ordering of it. My landlady might have been pleased to have me stay, but if I had agreed to pay my board during my absence I do not doubt that my empty room would have occasioned her no pangs of regret. I had friends in the village, but as they knew it was a matter of course that I should go away during the vacation, they seemed to be perfectly reconciled to the fact.
As I passed a small house which was the abode of my laundress, my mental depression was increased by the action of her oldest son. This little fellow, probably five years of age, and the condition of whose countenance indicated that his mother’s art was seldom exercised upon it, was playing on the sidewalk with his sister, somewhat younger and much dirtier.
As I passed the little chap he looked up and in a sharp, clear voice, he cried: “Good-bye! Come back soon!” These words cut into my soul. Was it possible that this little ragamuffin was the only one in that village who was sorry to see me depart and who desired my return? And the acuteness of this cut was not decreased by the remembrance that on several occasions when he had accompanied his mother to my lodging I had given him small coins.
I was beginning to move more rapidly along the little path, well worn by many rubber tires, which edged the broad roadway, when I perceived the doctor’s daughter standing at the gate of her father’s front yard. As I knew her very well, and she happened to be standing there and looking in my direction, I felt that it would be the proper thing for me to stop and speak to her, and so I dismounted and proceeded to roll my bicycle up to the gate.
As the doctor’s daughter stood looking over the gate, her hands clasped the tops of the two central pickets.
“Good-morning,” said she. “I suppose, from your carrying baggage, that you are starting off for your vacation. How far do you expect to go on your wheel, and do you travel alone?”
“My only plan,” I answered, “is to ride over the hills and far away! How far I really do not know; and I shall be alone except for this good companion.” And as I said this I patted the handle-bar of my bicycle.
“Your wheel does seem to be a sort of a companion,” she said; “not so good as a horse, but better than nothing. I should think, travelling all by yourself in this way, you would have quite a friendly feeling for it. Did you ever think of giving it a name?”
“Oh yes,” said I. “I have named it. I call it a ‘Bicycle of Cathay.'”
“Is there any sense in such a name?” she asked. “It is like part of a quotation from Tennyson, isn’t it? I forget the first of it.”
“You are right,” I said. “‘Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.’ I cannot tell you exactly why, but that seems to suggest a good name for a bicycle.”
“But your machine has two wheels,” said she. “Therefore you ought to say, ‘Better one hundred years of Europe than two cycles of Cathay.'”
“I bow to custom,” said I. “Every one speaks of a bicycle as a wheel, and I shall not introduce the plural into the name of my good steed.”
“And you don’t know where your Cathay is to be?” she asked.
I smiled and shook my head. “No,” I answered, “but I hope my cycle will carry me safely through it.”
The doctor’s daughter looked past me across the road. “I wish I were a man,” said she, “and could go off as I pleased, as you do! It must be delightfully independent.”
I was about to remark that too much independence is not altogether delightful, but she suddenly spoke:
“You carry very little with you for a long journey,” and as she said this she grasped the pickets of the gate more tightly. I could see the contraction of the muscles of her white hands. It seemed as if she were restraining something.
“Oh, this isn’t all my baggage,” I replied. “I sent on a large bag to Waterton. I suppose I shall be there in a couple of days, and then I shall forward the bag to some other place.”
“I do not suppose you have packed up any medicine among your other things?” she asked. “You don’t look as if you very often needed medicine.”
I laughed as I replied that in the course of my life I had taken but little.
“But if your cycle starts off rolling early in the morning,” she said, “or keeps on late in the evening, you ought to be able to defend yourself against malaria. I do not know what sort of a country Cathay may be, but I should not be a bit surprised if you found it full of mists and morning vapors. Malaria has a fancy for strong people, you know. Just wait here a minute, please,” and with that she turned and ran into the house.
I had liked the doctor’s daughter ever since I had begun to know her, although at first I had found it a little hard to become acquainted with her.
She was the treasurer of the literary society of the village, and I was its secretary. We had to work together sometimes, and I found her a very straightforward girl in her accounts and in every other way.
In about a minute she returned, carrying a little pasteboard box.
“Here are some one-grain quinine capsules,” she said. “They have no taste, and I am quite sure that if you get into a low country it would be a good thing for you to take at least one of them every morning. People may have given you all sorts of things for your journey, but I do not believe any one has given you this.” And she handed me the box over the top of the gate.
I did not say that her practical little present was the only thing that anybody had given me, but I thanked her very heartily, and assured her that I would take one every time I thought I needed it. Then, as it seemed proper to do so, I straightened up my bicycle as if I would mount it. Again her fingers clutched the top of the two palings.
“When father comes home,” she said, “he will be sorry to find that he had not a chance to bid you good-bye. And, by-the-way,” she added, quickly, “you know there will be one more meeting of the society. Did you write out any minutes for the last evening, and would you like me to read them for you?”
“Upon my word!” I exclaimed. “I have forgotten all about it. I made some rough notes, but I have written nothing.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter in the least,” said she, quickly. “I remember everything that happened, and I will write the minutes and read them for you; that is, if you want me to.”
I assured her that nothing would please me better, and we talked a little about the minutes, after which I thought I ought not to keep her standing at the gate any longer. So I took leave of her, and we shook hands over the gate. This was the first time I had ever shaken hands with the doctor’s daughter, for she was a reserved girl, and hitherto I had merely bowed to her.
As I sped away down the street and out into the open country my heart was a good deal lighter than it had been when I began my journey. It was certainly pleasant to leave that village, which had been my home for the greater part of a year, without the feeling that there was no one in it who cared for me, even to the extent of a little box of quinine capsules.
A BAD TWIST
It was about the middle of the afternoon that I found myself bowling along a smooth highway, bordered by trees and stretching itself almost upon a level far away into the distance. Had I been a scorcher, here would have been a chance to do a little record-breaking, for I was a powerful and practised wheelman. But I had no desire to be extravagant with my energies, and so contented myself with rolling steadily on at a speed moderate enough to allow me to observe the country I was passing through.
There were not many people on the road, but at some distance ahead of me I saw a woman on a wheel. She was not going rapidly, and I was gaining on her. Suddenly, with no reason whatever that I could see, her machine gave a twist, and, although she put out her foot to save herself, she fell to the ground. Instantly I pushed forward to assist her, but before I could reach her she was on her feet. She made a step towards her bicycle, which lay in the middle of the road, and then she stopped and stood still. I saw that she was hurt, but I could not help a sort of inward smile. “It is the old way of the world,” I thought. “Would the Fates have made that young woman fall from her bicycle if there had been two men coming along on their wheels?”
As I jumped from my machine and approached her she turned her head and looked at me. She was a pale girl, and her face was troubled. When I asked her if she had hurt herself, she spoke to me without the slightest embarrassment or hesitation.
“I twisted my foot in some way,” she said, “and I do not know what I am going to do. It hurts me to make a step, and I am sure I cannot work my wheel.”
“Have you far to go?” I asked.
“I live about two miles from here,” she answered. “I do not think I have sprained my ankle, but it hurts. Perhaps, however, if I rest for a little while I may be able to walk.”
“I would not try to do that,” said I. “Whatever has happened to your foot or ankle, you would certainly make it very much worse by walking such a distance. Perhaps I can ride on and get you a conveyance?”
“You would have to go a long way to get one,” she answered. “We do not keep a horse and I really–“
“Don’t trouble yourself in the least,” I said. “I can take you to your home without any difficulty whatever. If you will mount your machine I can push you along very easily.”
“But then you would have to walk yourself,” she said, quickly, “and push your wheel too.”
Of course it would not have been necessary for me to walk, for I could have ridden my bicycle and have pushed her along on her own, but under the circumstances I did not think it wise to risk this. So I accepted her suggestion of walking as if nothing else could be done.
“Oh, I do not mind walking a bit,” said I. “I am used to it, and as I have been riding for a long time, it would be a relief to me.”
She stood perfectly still, apparently afraid to move lest she should hurt her foot, but she raised her head and fixed a pair of very large blue eyes upon me. “It is too kind in you to offer to do this! But I do not see what else is to be done. But who is going to hold up my wheel while you help me to get on it?”
“Oh, I will attend to all that,” said I, and picking up her bicycle, I brought it to her. She made a little step towards it, and then stopped.
“You mustn’t do that,” said I. “I will put you on.” And holding her bicycle upright with my left hand, I put my right arm around her and lifted her to the seat. She was such a childlike, sensible young person that I did not think it necessary to ask any permission for this action, nor even to allude to its necessity.
“Now you might guide yourself with the handle-bar,” I said. “Please steer over to that tree where I have left my machine.” I easily pushed her over to the tree, and when I had laid hold of my bicycle with my left hand, we slowly proceeded along the smooth road.
“I think you would better take your feet from the pedals,” said I, “and put them on the coasters–the motion must hurt you. It is better to have your injured foot raised, anyway, as that will keep the blood from running down into it and giving you more pain.”
She instantly adopted my suggestion, and presently said, “That is a great deal more pleasant, and I am sure it is better for my foot to keep it still. I do hope I haven’t sprained my ankle! It is possible to give a foot a bad twist without spraining it, isn’t it?”
I assented, and as I did so I thought it would not be difficult to give a bad twist to any part of this slenderly framed young creature.
“How did you happen to fall?” I asked–not that I needed to inquire, for my own knowledge of wheelcraft assured me that she had tumbled simply because she did not know how to ride.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” she answered. “The first thing I knew I was going over, and I wish I had not tried to save myself. It would have been better to go down bodily.”
As we went on she told me that she had not had much practice, as it had been but a few weeks since she had become the possessor of a wheel, and that this was the first trip she had ever taken by herself. She had always gone in company with some one, but to-day she had thought she was able to take care of herself, like other girls. Finding her so entirely free from conventional embarrassment, I made bold to give her a little advice on the subject of wheeling in general, and she seemed entirely willing to be instructed. In fact, as I went on with my little discourse I began to think that I would much rather teach girls than boys. At first sight the young person under my charge might have been taken for a school-girl, but her conversation would have soon removed that illusion.
We had not proceeded more than a mile when suddenly I felt a very gentle tap on the end of my nose, and at the same moment the young lady turned her head towards me and exclaimed: “It’s going to rain! I felt a drop!”
“I will walk faster,” I said, “and no doubt I will get you to your house before the shower is upon us. At any rate, I hope you won’t be much wet.”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter about me in the least,” she said. “I shall be at home and can put on dry clothes, but you will be soaked through and have to go on. You haven’t any coat on!”
If I had known there was any probability of rain I should have put on my coat before I started out on this somewhat unusual method of travelling, but there was no help for it now, and all I could do was to hurry on. From walking fast I began to trot. The drops were coming down quite frequently.
“Won’t that tire you dreadfully?” she said.
“Not at all,” I replied. “I could run like this for a long distance.”
[Illustration: “I PUT ON MY COAT”]
She looked up at me with a little smile. I think she must have forgotten the pain in her foot.
“It must be nice to be strong like that,” she said.
Now the rain came down faster, and my companion declared that I ought to stop and put on my coat. I agreed to this, and when I came to a suitable tree by the road-side, I carefully leaned her against it and detached my coat from my bicycle. But just as I was about to put it on I glanced at the young girl. She had on a thin shirt-waist, and I could see that the shoulders of it were already wet. I advanced towards her, holding out my coat. “I must lay this over you,” I said. “I am afraid now that I shall not get you to your home before it begins to rain hard.”
She turned to me so suddenly that I made ready to catch her if her unguarded movement should overturn her machine. “You mustn’t do that at all!” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether I am wet or not. I do not have to travel in wet clothes, and you do. Please put on your coat and let us hurry!”
I obeyed her, and away we went again, the rain now coming down hard and fast. For some minutes she did not say anything; but I did not wonder at this, for circumstances were not favorable to conversation. But presently, in spite of the rain and our haste, she spoke:
“It must seem dreadfully ungrateful and hard-hearted in me to say to you, after all you have done for me, that you must go on in the rain. Anybody would think that I ought to ask you to come into our house and wait until the storm is over. But, really, I do not see how I can do it.”
I urged her not for a moment to think of me. I was hardy, and did not mind rain, and when I was mounted upon my wheel the exercise would keep me warm enough until I reached a place of shelter.
“I do not like it,” she said. “It is cruel and inhuman, and nothing you can say will make it any better. But the fact is that I find myself in a very–Well, I do not know what to say about it. You are the school-teacher at Walford, are you not?”
This question surprised me, and I assented quickly, wondering what would come next.
“I thought so,” she said. “I have seen you on the road on your wheel, and some one told me who you were. And now, since you have been so kind to me, I am going to tell you exactly why I cannot ask you to stop at our house. Everything is all wrong there to-day, and if I don’t explain what has happened, you might think that things are worse than they really are, and I wouldn’t want anybody to think that.”
[Illustration: “THE RAIN WAS COMING DOWN HARD”]
I listened with great attention, for I saw that she was anxious to free herself of the imputation of being inhospitable, and although the heavy rain and my rapid pace made it sometimes difficult to catch her words, I lost very little of her story.
“You see,” said she, “my father is very fond of gardening, and he takes great pride in his vegetables, especially the early ones. He has peas this year ahead of everybody else in the neighborhood, and it was only day before yesterday that he took me out to look at them. He has been watching them ever since they first came up out of the ground, and when he showed me the nice big pods and told me they would be ready to pick in a day or two, he looked so proud and happy that you might have thought his peas were little living people. I truly believe that even at prayer-time he could not help thinking how good those peas would taste.
“But this morning when he came in from the garden and told mother that he was going to pick our first peas, so as to have them perfectly fresh for dinner, she said that he would better not pick them to-day, because the vegetable man had been along just after breakfast, and he had had such nice green peas that she had bought some, and therefore he had better keep his peas for some other day.
“Now, I don’t want you to think that mother isn’t just as good as gold, for she is. But she doesn’t take such interest in garden things as father does, and to her all peas are peas, provided they are good ones. But when father heard what she had done I know that he felt exactly as if he had been stabbed in one of his tenderest places. He did not say one word, and he walked right out of the house, and since that they haven’t spoken to each other. It was dreadful to sit at dinner, neither of them saying a word to the other, and only speaking to me. It was all so different from the way things generally are that I can scarcely bear it.
“And I went out this afternoon for no other reason than to give them a chance to make it up between them. I thought perhaps they would do it better if they were alone with each other. But of course I do not know what has happened, and things may be worse than they were. I could not take a stranger into the house at such a time–they would not like to be found not speaking to each other–and, besides, I do not know–“
Here I interrupted her, and begged her not to give another thought to the subject. I wanted very much to go on, and in every way it was the best thing I could do.
As I finished speaking she pointed out a pretty house standing back from the road, and told me that was where she lived. In a very few minutes after that I had run her up to the steps of her piazza and was assisting her to dismount from her wheel.
“It is awful!” she said. “This rain is coming down like a cataract!”
“You must hurry in-doors,” I answered. “Let me help you up the steps.” And with this I took hold of her under the arms, and in a second I had set her down in front of the closed front door. I then ran down and brought up her wheel. “Do you think you can manage to walk in?” said I.
“Oh yes!” she said. “If I can’t do anything else, I can hop. My mother will soon have me all right. She knows all about such things.”
She looked at me with an anxious expression, and then said, “How do you think it would do for you to wait on the piazza until the rain is over?”
“Good-bye,” I said, with a laugh, and bounding down to the front gate, where I had left my bicycle, I mounted and rode away.
The rain came down harder and harder. The road was full of little running streams, and liquid mud flew from under my whirling wheels. It was not late in the afternoon, but it was actually getting dark, and I seemed to be the only living creature out in this tremendous storm. I looked from side to side for some place into which I could run for shelter, but here the road ran between broad open fields. My coat had ceased to protect me, and I could feel the water upon my skin.
But in spite of my discomforts and violent exertions I found myself under the influence of some very pleasurable emotions, occasioned by the incident of the slender girl. Her childlike frankness was charming to me. There was not another girl in a thousand who would have told me that story of the peas. I felt glad that she had known who I was when she was talking to me, and that her simple confidences had been given to me personally, and not to an entire stranger who had happened along. I wondered if she resembled her father or her mother, and I had no doubt that to possess such a daughter they must both be excellent people.
THE DUKE’S DRESSING-GOWN
Thinking thus, I almost forgot the storm, but coming to a slight descent where the road was very smooth I became conscious that my wheel was inclined to slip, and if I were not careful I might come to grief. But no sooner had I reached the bottom of the declivity than I beheld on my right a lighted doorway. Without the slightest hesitation I turned through the wide gateway, the posts of which I could scarcely see, and stopped in front of a small house by the side of a driveway. Waiting for no permission, I carried my bicycle into a little covered porch. I then approached the door, for I was now seeking not only shelter but an opportunity to dry myself. I do not believe a sponge could have been more thoroughly soaked than I was.
At the very entrance I was met by a little man in short jacket and top-boots.
“I heard your step,” said he. “Been caught in the rain, eh? Well, this is a storm! And now what’re we going to do? You must come in. But you’re in a pretty mess, I must say! Hi, Maria!”
At these words a large, fresh-looking woman came into the little hall.
“Maria,” said the man, “here’s a gentleman that’s pretty nigh drowned, and he’s dripping puddles big enough to swim in.”
The woman smiled. “Really, sir,” said she, “you’ve had a hard time. Wheeling, I suppose. It’s an awful time to be out. It’s so dark that I lighted a lamp to make things look a little cheery. But you must come in until the rain is over, and try and dry yourself.”
“But how about the hall, Maria?” said the man. “There’ll be a dreadful slop!”
“Oh, I’ll make that all right,” she said. She disappeared, and quickly returned with a couple of rugs, which she laid, wrong side up, on the polished floor of the hallway. “Now you can step on those, sir, and come into the kitchen. There’s a fire there.”
I thanked her, and presently found myself before a large stove, on which it was evident, from the odors, that supper was preparing. In a certain way the heat was grateful, but in less than a minute I was bound to admit to myself that I felt as if I were enveloped in a vast warm poultice. The little man and his wife–if wife she were, for she looked big enough to be his mother, and young enough to be his daughter–stood talking in the hall, and I could hear every word they said.
[Illustration: “ON MY RIGHT A LIGHTED DOORWAY”]
“It’s of no use for him to try to dry himself,” she said, “for he’s wet to the bone. He must change his clothes, and hang those he’s got on before the fire.”
“Change his clothes!” exclaimed the man. “How ever can he do that? I’ve nothing that’ll fit him, and of course he has brought nothing along with him.”
“Never you mind,” said she. “Something’s got to be got. Take him into the little chamber. And don’t consider the floor; that can be wiped up.”
She came into the kitchen and spoke to me. “You must come and change your clothes,” she said. “You’ll catch your death of cold, else. You’re the school-master from Walford, I think, sir? Indeed, I’m sure of it, for I’ve seen you on your wheel.”
Smiling at the idea that through the instrumentality of my bicycle I had been making myself known to the people of the surrounding country, I followed the man into a small bed-chamber on the ground-floor.
“Now,” said he, “the quicker you get off your wet clothes and give yourself a good rub-down the better it will be for you. And I’ll go and see what I can do in the way of something for you to put on.”
I asked him to bring me the bag from my bicycle, and after doing so he left me.
Very soon I heard talking outside of my door, and as both my entertainers had clear, high voices, I could hear distinctly what they said.
“Go get him the corduroys,” said she. “He’s a well-made man, but he’s no bigger than your father was.”
“The corduroys?” he said, somewhat doubtfully, I thought.
“Yes,” she replied. “Go get them! I should be glad to have them put to some use.”
“But what for a coat?” said he. “There’s nothing in the house that he could get on.”
“That’s true,” said she. “But he must have something. You can get him the Duke’s dressing-gown.”
“What!” exclaimed the man. “You don’t mean–“
“Yes, I do mean,” said she. “It’s big enough for anybody, and it’ll keep him from ketching cold. Go fetch it!”
In a short time there was a knock at my door, and the little man handed me in a pair of yellow corduroy trousers and a large and gaudy dressing-gown. “There!” said he. “They’ll keep you warm until your own clothes dry.”
With a change of linen from my bag, which had fortunately kept its contents dry, the yellow trousers, and a wonderful dressing-gown, made of some blue stuff embroidered with gold and lined throughout with crimson satin, I made a truly gorgeous appearance. But it struck me that it would be rather startling to a beholder were I to appear barefooted in such raiment, for my shoes and stockings were as wet as the rest of my clothes. I had not finished dressing before the little man knocked again, this time with some gray socks and a pair of embroidered slippers.
“These’ll fit you, I think,” said he, “for I’ll lay you ten shillings that I’m as big in the feet as you are.”
I would have been glad to gaze at myself in a full-length mirror, but there was no opportunity for the indulgence of such vanity; and before leaving the room I sat down for a moment to give a few thoughts to the situation. My mind first reverted to the soaked condition of my garments and the difficulty of getting them dry enough for me to put them on and continue my journey. Then I found that I had dropped the subject and was thinking of the slender girl, wondering if she had really hurt herself very much, congratulating myself that I had been fortunate enough to be on hand to help her in her need, and considering what a plight she would have been in if she had been caught in that terrible rain and utterly unable to get herself to shelter.
Suddenly I stopped short in my thinking, and going to my bag I took from it the little box of quinine capsules which had been given to me by the doctor’s daughter, and promptly proceeded to swallow one of them.
“It may be of service to me,” I said to myself.
When I made my appearance in the hallway I met the little man, who immediately burst into a roar of laughter.
“Lord, sir!” said he. “You must excuse me, but you look like a king on a lark! Walk into the parlor, sir, and sit down and make yourself comfortable. She’s hurrying up supper to give you something warm after your wettin’. Would you like a little nip of whiskey, sir, to keep the damp out?”
[Illustration: A Few Thoughts]
I declined the whiskey, and seated myself in the neatly-furnished parlor. It was wonderful, I thought, to fall into such a hospitable household, and then I began to ask myself whether or not it would be the proper thing to offer to pay for my entertainment. I thought I had quite properly divined the position in life of the little man. This small house, so handsomely built and neatly kept, must be a lodge upon some fine country place, and the man was probably the head gardener, or something of the kind.
It was not long before my hostess came into the room, but she did not laugh at my appearance. She was a handsome woman, erect and broad, with a free and powerful step. She smiled as she spoke to me.
“You may think that that’s an over-handsome gown for such as us to be owning. It was given to my man by the Duke of Radford. That was before we were married, and he was an undergardener then. The Duchess wouldn’t let the Duke wear it, because it was so gay, and there wasn’t none of the servants that would care to take it, for fear they’d be laughed at, until they offered it to John. And John, you must know, he’d take anything! But I came in to tell you supper’s ready; and, if you like, I’ll bring you something in here, and you can eat it on that table, or–“
Here I interrupted my good hostess, and declared that, while I should be glad to have some supper, I would not eat any unless I might sit down with her husband and herself; and, as this proposition seemed to please her, the three of us were soon seated around a very tastefully furnished table in a dining-room looking out upon a pretty lawn. The rain had now almost ceased, and from the window I could see beautiful stretches of grass, interspersed with ornamental trees and flower-beds.
The meal was plain but abundant, with an appetizing smell pervading it which is seldom noticed in connection with the tables of the rich. When we had finished supper I found that the skies had nearly cleared and that it was growing quite light again. I asked permission to step out upon a little piazza which opened from the dining-room and smoke a pipe, and while I was sitting there enjoying the beauty of the sunlight on the sparkling grass and trees I again heard the little man and his wife talking to each other.
“It can’t be done,” said he, speaking very positively. “I’ve orders about that, and there’s no getting round them.”
“It’s got to be done!” said she, “and there’s an end of it! The clothes won’t be dry until morning, and it won’t do to put them too near the stove, or they’ll shrink so he can’t get them on. And he can’t go away to hunt up lodgings wearing the Duke’s dressing-gown and them yellow breeches!”
“Orders is orders,” said the man, “and unless I get special leave, it can’t be done.”
“Well, then, go and get special leave,” said she, “and don’t stand there talking about it!”
There was no doubt that my lodging that night was the subject of this conversation, but I had no desire to interfere with the good intentions of my hostess. I must stay somewhere until my clothes were dry, and I should be glad to stop in my present comfortable quarters.
So I sat still and smoked, and very soon I heard the big shoes of the little man grating upon the gravel as he walked rapidly away from the house. Now came the good woman out upon the piazza to ask me if I had found my tobacco dry. “Because if it’s damp,” said she, “my man has some very good ‘baccy in his jar.”
I assured her that my pouch had kept dry; and then, as she seemed inclined to talk, I begged her to sit down if she did not mind the pipe. Down she sat, and steadily she talked. She congratulated herself on her happy thought to light the hall lamp, or I might never have noticed the house in the darkness, and she would have been sorry enough if I had had to keep on the road for another half-hour in that dreadful rain.
On she talked in the most cheerful and communicative way, until suddenly she rose with a start. “He’s coming himself, sir!” she said, “with Miss Putney.”
“Who is ‘he’?” I asked.
“It’s the master, sir Mr. Putney, and his daughter. Just stay here where you are, sir, and make yourself comfortable. I’ll go and speak to them.”
Left to myself, I knocked out my pipe and sat wondering what would happen next. A thing happened which surprised me very much. Upon a path which ran in front of the little piazza there appeared two persons–one, an elderly gentleman, with gray side-whiskers and a pale face, attired in clothes with such an appearance of newness that it might well have been supposed this was the first time he had worn them; the other, a young lady, rather small in stature, but extremely pleasant to look upon. She had dark hair and large blue eyes; her complexion was rich, and her dress of light silk was wonderfully well shaped.
[Illustration: “The beauty of her teeth”]
All this I saw at a glance, and immediately afterwards I also perceived that she had most beautiful teeth; for when she beheld me as I rose from my chair and stood in my elevated position before her she could not restrain a laugh; but for this apparent impoliteness I did not blame her at all.
But not so much as a smile came upon the countenance of the elderly gentleman. He, too, was small, but he had a deep voice. “Good-evening, sir,” said he. “I am told that you are the school-master at Walford, and that you were overtaken by the storm.”
I assured him that these were the facts, and stood waiting to hear what he would say next.
“It was very proper indeed, sir, that my gardener and his wife should take you under the protection of this roof, but as I hear that it is proposed that you should spend the night here, I have come down to speak about it. I will tell you at once, sir, that I have given my man the most positive orders that he is not to allow any one to spend a night in this house. It is so conveniently near to the road that I should not know what sort of persons were being entertained here if I allowed him any such privilege.”
As he spoke the young lady stood silently gazing at me. There was a remnant of a smile upon her face, but I could also see that she was a little annoyed. I was about to make some sort of an independent answer to the gentleman’s remarks, but he anticipated me.
“I do not want you to think, sir, on account of what I have said, that I intend to drive you off my property at this hour of the evening, and in your inappropriate clothing. I have heard of you, sir, and you occupy a position of trust and, to a certain degree, of honor, in your village. Therefore, while I cannot depart from my rule–for I wish to make no precedent of that kind–I will ask you to spend the night at my house. You need not be annoyed by the peculiarity of your attire. If you desire to avoid observation you can remain here until it grows darker, and then you can walk up to the mansion. I shall have a bed-room prepared for you, and whenever you choose you can occupy it. I have been informed that you have had something to eat, and it is as well, for perhaps your dress would prevent you from accepting an invitation to our evening meal.”
I still held my brier-wood pipe in my hand, and I felt inclined to hurl it at the dapper head of the consequential little gentleman, but with such a girl standing by it would have been impossible to treat him with any disrespect, and as I looked at him I felt sure that his apparent superciliousness was probably the result of too much money and too little breeding.
The young lady said nothing, but she turned and looked steadily at her father. Her countenance was probably in the habit of very promptly expressing the state of her mind, and it now seemed to say to her father, “I hope that what you have said will not make him decline what you offer!”
My irritation quickly disappeared. I had now entered into my Cathay, and I must take things as I found them there. As I could not stay where I was, and could not continue my journey, it would be a sensible thing to overlook the man’s manner and accept his offer, and I accordingly did so. I think he was pleased more than he cared to express.
“Very good, sir!” said he. “As soon as it grows a little darker I shall be glad to have you walk up to my house. As I said before, I am sure you would not care to do so now, as you might provoke remarks even from the servants. Good-evening, sir, until I see you again.”
During all this time the young lady had not spoken, but as the two disappeared around the corner of the house I heard her voice. She spoke very clearly and distinctly, and she said, “It would have been a great deal more gracious if you had asked him to come at once, without all that—-” The rest of her remarks were lost to me.
The little man and his wife presently came out on the porch. Her countenance expressed a sort of resignation to thwarted hospitality.
“It’s the way of the world, sir!” she said. “The ups are always up and the downs are always down! I expect they will be glad to have company at the house, for it must be dreadfully lonely up there–which might be said of this house as well.”
It soon became dark enough for me to walk through the grounds without hurting the sensibilities of their proprietor, and as I arose to go the good wife of the gardener brought me my cap.
“I dried that out for you, sir, for I knew you would want it, and to-morrow morning my man will take your clothes up to the house.”
I thanked her for her thoughtful kindness, and was about to depart, but the little man was not quite ready for me to go.
“If you don’t mind, sir,” said he, “and would step back there in the light just for one minute, I would like to take another look at you. I don’t suppose I’ll ever see anybody again wearing the Duke’s dressing-gown. By George, sir, you do look real royal!”
His wife looked at me admiringly. “Yes, sir,” said she, “and I wish it was the fashion for gentlemen to dress something like that every day. But I will say, sir, that if you don’t want people to be staring at you, and will just wrap that gown round you so that the lining won’t be seen, you won’t look so much out of the way.”
As I walked along the smooth, hard driveway I adopted the suggestion of the gardener’s wife; but as I approached the house, and saw that even the broad piazza was lighted by electric lamps, I was seized with the fancy to appear in all my glory, and I allowed my capacious robe to float out on each side of me in crimson brightness.
The gentleman stood at the top of the steps. “I have been waiting for you, sir,” said he. He looked as if he were about to offer me his hand, but probably considered this an unnecessary ceremony under the circumstances. “Would you like to retire to your room, sir, or would you prefer–prefer sitting out here to enjoy the cool of the evening? Here are chairs and seats, sir, of all variety of comfort. My family and I frequently sit out here in the evenings, but to-night the air is a little damp.”
I assured the gentleman that the air suited me very well, and that I would prefer not to retire so early; and so, not caring any longer to stand in front of the lighted doorway, I walked to one end of the piazza and took a seat.
“We haven’t yet–that is to say, we are still at the table,” he remarked, as he followed me; “but if there is anything that you would like to have, I should be–“
I interrupted him by declaring that I had supped heartily and did not want for anything in the world, and then, with some sort of an inarticulate excuse, he left me. I knew very well that this nervously correct personage had jumped up from his dinner in order that he might meet me at the door and thus prevent my unconventional attire from shocking any of the servants.
It was very quiet and pleasant on the piazza, but, although I could hear that a great deal of talking was going on inside, no words came to me. In a short time, however, a man-servant in livery came out upon the piazza and approached me with a tray on which were a cup of coffee and some cigars. I could not refrain from smiling as I saw the man.
“The old fellow has been forced to conquer his prejudices,” I said to myself, “and to submit to the mortification of allowing me to be seen by his butler!”
I think, however, that even had the master been regarding us he would have seen no reason for mortification in the manner of his servant. The man was extremely polite and attentive, suggesting various refreshments, such as wine and biscuits, and I never was treated by a lackey with more respect.
Leaning back in a comfortable chair, I sipped my coffee and puffed away at a perfectly delightful Havana cigar. “Cathay is not a bad place,” said I, to myself. “Its hospitality is a little queer, but as to gorgeousness, luxury, and—-” I was about to add another quality when my mind was diverted by a light step on the piazza, and, turning my head, I beheld the young lady I had seen before. Instantly I rose and laid aside my cigar.
“Please do not disturb yourself,” she said. “I simply came out to give a little message from my father. Sit down again, and I will take this seat for a moment. My father’s health is delicate,” she said, “and we do not like him to be out in the night air, especially after a rain. So I came in his stead to tell you that if you would like to come into the house you must do so without the slightest hesitation, because my mother and I do not mind that dressing-gown any more than if it were an ordinary coat. We are very glad to have the opportunity of entertaining you, for we know some people in Walford–not very many, but some–and we have heard you and your school spoken of very highly. So we want you to make yourself perfectly at home, and come in or sit out here, just as your own feelings in regard to extraordinary fine clothes shall prompt you.”
At this she reassured me as to the beauty of her teeth. “As long as you will sit out here,” said I, to myself, “there will be no in-doors for me.”
She seemed to read my thoughts, and said: “If you will go on with your smoking, I will wait and ask you some things about Walford. I dearly love the smell of a good cigar, and father never smokes. He always keeps them, however, in case of gentlemen visitors.”
She then went on to talk about some Walford people, and asked me if I knew Mary Talbot. I replied in the affirmative, for Miss Talbot was a member of our literary society, and the young lady informed me that Mary Talbot had a brother in my school–a fact of which I was aware to my sorrow–and it was on account of this brother that she had first happened to see me.
“See me!” I exclaimed, with surprise.
“Yes,” said she. “I drove over to the village one day this spring, and Mary and I were walking past your school-house, and the door was wide open, for it was so warm, and we stopped so that Mary might point out her brother to me; and so, as we were looking in, of course I saw you.”
“And you recognized me,” I said, “when you saw me at the gardener’s house?”
“We call that the lodge,” said she. “Not that I care in the least what name you give it. And while we are on a personal subject, I want to ask you to excuse me for laughing at you when I first saw you in that astounding garb. It was very improper, I know, but the apparition was so sudden I could not help it.”
I had never met a young lady so thoroughly self-contained as this one. None of the formalities of society had been observed in regard to our acquaintance with each other, but she talked with me with such an easy grace and with such a gentle assurance that there was no need of introduction or presentation; I felt acquainted with her on the spot. I had no doubt that her exceptionally gracious demeanor was due to the fact that nobody else in the house seemed inclined to be gracious, and she felt hospitality demanded that something of the kind should be offered me by some one of the family.
We talked together for some minutes longer, and then, apparently hearing something in the house which I did not notice, she rose rather abruptly.
“I must go in,” she said; “but don’t you stay out here a second longer than you want to.”
She had left me but a very short time when her father came out on the piazza, his coat buttoned up nearly to his chin. “I have been detained, sir,” he said, “by a man who came to see me on business. I cannot remain with you out here, for the air affects me; but if you will come in, sir, I shall be glad to have you do so, without regard to your appearance. My wife is not strong and she has retired, and if it pleases you I shall be very glad to have you tell me something of your duties and success in Walford. Or, if you are fatigued, your room is ready for you, and my man will show you to it.”
I snatched at the relief held out to me. To sit in the company of that condescending prig, to bore him and to be bored by him, was a doleful grievance I did not wish to inflict upon myself, and I eagerly answered that the day had been a long and hard one, and that I would be glad to go to bed.
This was an assertion which was doubly false, for I was not in the least tired or sleepy; and just as I had made the statement and was entering the hall I saw that the young lady was standing at the parlor door; but it was too late now for me to change my mind.
“Brownster,” said Mr. Putney to his butler, “will you give this gentleman a candle and show him to his room?”
Brownster quietly bowed, and stepping to a table in the corner, on which stood some brass bed-room candlesticks, he lighted one of the candles and stood waiting.
The gentleman moved towards his daughter, and then he stopped and turned to me. “We have breakfast,” he said, “at half-past eight But if that is too late for you,” he added, with a certain hesitation, “you can have–“
At this moment I distinctly saw his daughter punch him with her elbow, and as I had no desire to make an early start, and wished very much to enjoy a good breakfast in Cathay, I quickly declared that I was in no hurry, and that the family breakfast hour would suit me perfectly.
The young lady disappeared into the parlor, and I moved towards the butler; but my host, probably thinking that he had not been quite as attentive to me as his station demanded, or wishing to let me see what a fine house he possessed, stepped up to me and asked me to look into the billiard-room, the door of which I was about to pass. After some remarks of deprecatory ostentation, in which he informed me that in building his house he thought only of comfort and convenience, and nothing of show, he carelessly invited my attention to the drawing-room, the library, the music-room, and the little sitting-room, all of which were furnished with as much stiffness and hardness and inharmonious coloring as money could command.
When we had finished the round of these rooms he made me a bow as stiff as one of his white and gold chairs, and I followed the butler up the staircase. The man with the light preceded me into a room on the second floor, and just as I was about to enter after him I saw the young lady come around a corner of the hall with a lighted candle in her hand.
[Illustration: “I kicked off my embroidered slippers”]
“Good-night,” she said, with a smile so charming that I wanted to stop and tell her something about Mary Talbot’s brother; but she passed on, and I went into my room.
It seemed perfectly ridiculous to me that people should carry around bed-room candles in a house lighted from top to bottom by electricity, but I had no doubt that this was one of the ultra-conventional customs from which the dapper gentleman would not allow his family to depart. I did not believe for a moment that his daughter would conform to such nonsense except to please her parent.
The softly moving and attentive Brownster put the candle on the table, blew it out, and touched a button, thereby lighting up a very handsomely furnished room. Then, after performing every possible service for me, with a bow he left me. Throwing myself into a great easy chair, I kicked off my embroidered slippers and put my feet upon another chair gay with satin stripes. Raising my eyes, I saw in front of me a handsome mirror extending from the floor nearly to the ceiling, and at the magnificent personage which therein met my gaze I could not help laughing aloud.
I rose, stood before the mirror, folded my gorgeous gown around me, spread it out, contrasting the crimson glory of its lining with the golden yellow of my trousers, and wondered in my soul how that exceedingly handsome girl with the bright eyes could have controlled her risibilities as she sat with me on the piazza. I could see that she had a wonderful command of herself, but this exercise of it seemed superhuman.
I walked around the sumptuously furnished chamber, looking at the pictures and bric-a-brac; I wondered that the master of the house was willing to put me in a room like this–I had expected a hall bed-room, at the best; I sat down by an open window, for it was very early yet and I did not want to go to bed, but I had scarcely seated myself when I heard a tap at the door. I could not have explained it, but this tap made me jump, and I went to the door and opened it instead of calling out. There stood the butler, with a tray in his hand on which was a decanter of wine, biscuits, cheese, and some cigars.
“It’s so early, sir,” said Brownster, “that she said–I mean, sir, I thought that you might like something to eat, and if you want to enjoy a cigar before retiring, as many gentlemen do, you need not mind smoking here. These rooms are so well ventilated, sir, that every particle of odor will be out in no time.” Placing the tray upon a table, he retired.
[Illustration: “IT WOULD BE WELL FOR ME TO SWALLOW A CAPSULE”]
For an hour or more I sat sipping my wine, puffing smoke into rings, and allowing my mind to dwell pleasingly upon the situation, the most prominent feature of which seemed to me to be a young lady with bright eyes and white teeth, and dressed in a perfectly-fitting gown.
When at last I thought I ought to go to bed, I stood and gazed at my little valise. I had left it on the porch and had totally forgotten it, but here it was upon a table, where it had been placed, no doubt, by the thoughtful Brownster. I opened it and took out the box of capsules. I did not feel that I had taken cold in the night air; this was not a time to protect myself against morning mists; but still I thought it would be well for me to swallow a capsule, and I did so.
A BIT OF ADVICE
The next morning I awoke about seven o’clock. My clothes, neatly brushed and folded, were on a chair near the bed, with my brightly-blackened shoes near by. I rose, quickly dressed myself, and went forth into the morning air. I met no one in the house, and the hall door was open. For an hour or more I walked about the beautiful grounds. Sometimes I wandered near the house, among the flower-beds and shrubs; sometimes I followed the winding path to a considerable distance; occasionally I sat down in a covered arbor; and then I sought the shade of a little grove, in which there were hammocks and rustic chairs. But I met no one, and I saw no one except some men working near the stables. I would have been glad to go down to the lodge and say “Good-morning” to my kind entertainers there, but for some reason or other it struck me that that neat little house was too much out of the way.
When I had had enough walking I retired to the piazza and sat there, until Brownster, with a bow, came and informed me that breakfast was served.
The young lady, in the freshest of summer costumes, met me at the door and bade me “Good-morning,” but the greeting of her father was not by any means cordial, although his manner had lost some of the stiff condescension which had sat so badly upon him the evening before. The mother was a very pleasant little lady of few words and a general air which indicated an intimate acquaintance with back seats.
The breakfast was a remarkably good one. When the meal was over, Mr. Putney walked with me into the hall. “I must now ask you to excuse me, sir,” said he, “as this is the hour when I receive my manager and arrange with him for the varied business of the day. Good-morning, sir. I wish you a very pleasant journey.” And, barely giving me a chance to thank him for his entertainment, he disappeared into the back part of the house.
The young lady was standing at the front of the hall. “Won’t you please come in,” she said, “and see mother? She wants to talk to you about Walford.”
I found the little lady in a small room opening from the parlor, and also, to my great surprise, I found her extremely talkative and chatty. She asked me so many questions that I had little chance to answer them, and she told me a great deal more about Walford and its people and citizens than I had learned during my nine months’ residence in the village. I was very glad to give her an opportunity of talking, which was a pleasure, I imagined, she did not often enjoy; but as I saw no signs of her stopping, I was obliged to rise and take leave of her.
The young lady accompanied me into the hall. “I must get my valise,” I said, “and then I must be off. And I assure you–“
“No, do not trouble yourself about your valise,” she interrupted. “Brownster will attend to that–he will take it down to the lodge. And as to your gorgeous raiment, he will see that that is all properly returned to its owners.”
I picked up my cap, and she walked with me out upon the piazza. “I suppose you saw everything on our place,” she asked, “when you were walking about this morning?”
A little surprised, I answered that I had seen a good deal, but I did not add that I had not found what I was looking for.
“We have all sorts of hot-houses and green-houses,” she said, “but they are not very interesting at this time of the year, otherwise I would ask you to walk through them before you go.” She then went on to tell me that a little building which she pointed out was a mushroom-house. “And you will think it strange that it should be there when I tell you that not one of our family likes mushrooms or ever tastes one. But the manager thinks that we ought to grow mushrooms, and so we do it.”
As she was talking, the thought came to me that there were some people who might consider this young lady a little forward in her method of entertaining a comparative stranger, but I dismissed this idea. With such a peculiarly constituted family it was perhaps necessary for her to put herself forward, in regard, at least, to the expression of hospitality.
“One thing I must show you,” she said, suddenly, “and that is the orchid-house! Are you fond of orchids?”
“Under certain circumstances,” I said, unguardedly, “I could be fond of apple-cores.” As soon as I had spoken these words I would have been glad to recall them, but they seemed to make no impression whatever on her.
We walked to the orchid-house, we went through it, and she explained all its beauties, its singularities, and its rarities. When we came out again, I asked myself: “Is she in the habit of doing all this to chance visitors? Would she treat a Brown or a Robinson in the way she is treating me?” I could not answer my question, but if Brown and Robinson had appeared at that moment I should have been glad to knock their heads together.
I did not want to go; I would have been glad to examine every building on the place, but I knew I must depart; and as I was beginning to express my sense of the kindness with which I had been treated, she interrupted by asking me if I expected to come back this way.
“No,” said I, “that is not my plan. I expect to ride on to Waterton, and there I shall stop for a day or two and decide what section of the country I shall explore next.”
“And to-day?” she said. “Where have you planned to spend the night?”
“I have been recommended to stop at a little inn called the ‘Holly Sprig,'” I replied. “It is a leisurely day’s journey from Walford, and I have been told that it is a pleasant place and a pretty country. I do not care to travel all the time, and I want to stop a little when I find interesting scenery.”
[Illustration: “As soon as I had spoken these words”]
“Oh, I know the Holly Sprig Inn,” said she, speaking very quickly, “and I would advise you not to stop there. We have lunched there two or three times when we were out on long drives. There is a much better house about five miles the other side of the Holly Sprig. It is really a large, handsome hotel, with good service and everything you want–where people go to spend the summer.”
I thanked her for her information and bade her good-bye. She shook my hand very cordially and I walked away. I had gone but a very few steps when I wanted to turn around and look back, but I did not.
Before I had reached the lodge, where I had left my bicycle, I met Brownster, and when I saw him I put my hand into my pocket. He had certainly been very attentive.
“I carried your valise, sir,” he said, “to the lodge, and I took the liberty of strapping it to your handle-bar. You will find everything all right, sir, and the–other clothes will be properly attended to.”
I thanked him, and then handed him some money. To my surprise, he did not offer to take it. He smiled a little and bowed.
“Would you mind, sir,” he said, “if you did not give me anything? I assure you, sir, that I’d very much rather that you wouldn’t give me anything.” And with this he bowed and rapidly disappeared.
“Well,” said I, to myself, as I put my money back into my pocket, “it is a queer country, this Cathay.”
As I approached the lodge, I felt that perhaps I had received a lesson, but I was not sure. I would wait and let circumstances decide. The gardener was away attending to his duties; but his wife was there, and when she came forward, with a frank, cheery greeting, I instantly decided that I had had a lesson. I thanked her, as earnestly as I knew how, for what she had done for me, and then I added:
“You and your husband have treated me with such kind hospitality that I am not going to offer you anything in return for what you have done.”
“You would have hurt us, sir, if you had,” said she.
Then, in order to change the subject, I spoke of the honor which had been bestowed upon me by being allowed to wear the Duke’s dressing-gown. She smiled, and replied:
“Honors would always be easy for you, sir, if you only chose to take them.”
As I rode away I thought that the last remark of the gardener’s wife seemed to show a mental brightness above her station, although I did not know exactly what she meant. “Can it be,” I asked myself, “that she fancies that good family, six feet of athletic muscle, and no money would be considered sufficient to make matrimonial honors easy on that estate?” If such an idea had come into her head, it certainly was a very foolish one, and I determined to drive it from my mind by thinking of something else.
Suddenly I slackened my speed. I stopped and put one foot to the ground. What a hard-hearted wretch I thought myself to be! Here I was thinking of all sorts of nonsense and speeding away without a thought of the young girl who had hurt herself the day before and who had been helped by me to her home! She lived but a few miles back, and I had determined, the evening before, to run down and see how she was getting on before starting on my day’s journey.
I turned and went bowling back over the road on which I had been so terribly drenched the previous afternoon. In a very little while my bicycle was leaning against the fence of the pretty house by the road-side, and I had entered the front yard. The slender girl was sitting on the piazza behind some vines. When she saw me she quickly closed the book she was reading, drew one foot from a little stool, and rose to meet me. There was more color on her face than I had supposed would be likely to find its way there, and her bright eyes showed that she was not only surprised but glad to see me.
“I thought you were ever so far on your journey!” she said. “And how did you get through that awful storm?”
“I want to know first about your foot,” I said–“how is that?”
“My own opinion is,” she answered, “that it is nearly well. Mother knew exactly what to do for it; she wrapped it in wet cloths and dry cloths, and this morning I scarcely think of it. But there is one thing I want to tell you before you meet father and mother–for they want to see you, I know. We talked a great deal about you last night. You may have thought it strange I told you about the peas, but I had to do it to explain why I could not ask you to stop. Now I want to tell you that this accident made everything all right. As soon as father and mother knew that I was hurt they forgot everything else, and neither of them remembered that there was such a thing as a pea-vine in the world. It really seems as if my tumble was a most lucky thing. And now you must come in. They will never forgive me if I let you go away without seeing them.”
The mother, a pleasant little woman, full of cheerful gratitude to me for having done so much for her daughter, and the father, tall and slender, hurrying in from the garden, his face beaming with a friendly enthusiasm, apologizing for the mud on his clothes, and almost in the same breath telling me of the obligations under which I had placed him, both seemed to me at the first glance to be such kind, simple-hearted, simple-mannered people that I could not help contrasting this family with the one under whose roof I had passed the night.
I spent half an hour with these good people, patiently listening to their gratitude and to their deep regrets that I had been allowed to go on in the storm; but I succeeded in allaying their friendly regrets by assuring them that it would have been impossible to keep me from going on, so certain had I been that I could reach the little town of Vernon before the storm grew violent. Then I was obliged to tell them that I did not reach Vernon, and how I had spent the night.
“With the Putneys!” exclaimed the mother. “I am sure you could not have been entertained in a finer house!”
They asked me many questions and I told them many things, and I soon discovered that they took a generous interest in the lives of other people. They spoke of the good this rich family had done in the neighborhood during the building of their great house and the improvement of their estate, and not a word did I hear of ridicule or scandalous comment, although in good truth there was opportunity enough for it.
The young lady asked me if I had seen Miss Putney, and when I replied that I had, she inquired if I did not think that she was a very pretty girl. “I do not know her,” she said, “but I have often seen her when she was out driving. I do not believe there is any one in this part of the country who dresses better than she does.”
I laughed, and told her that I thought I knew somebody who dressed much finer even than Miss Putney, and then I described the incident of the Duke’s dressing-gown. This delighted them all, and before I left I was obliged to give every detail of my gorgeous attire.
It was about eleven o’clock when at last I tore myself away from this most attractive little family. To live as they lived, to be interested in the things that interested them–for the house seemed filled with books and pictures–to love nature, to love each other, and to think well of their fellow-beings, even of the super-rich–seemed to me to be an object for which a man of my temperament should be willing to strive and thankful to win. After meeting her parents I did not wonder that I had thought the slender girl so honest-hearted and so lovable. It was true that I had thought that.
THE LADY AND THE CAVALIER
The day was fine, and the landscape lay clean and sharply defined under the blue sky and white clouds. I sped along in a cheerful mood, well pleased with what my good cycle had so far done for me. Again I passed the open gate of the Putney estate, and glanced through it at the lodge. I saw no one, and was glad of it–better pleased, perhaps, than I could have given good reason for. When I had gone on a few hundred yards I was suddenly startled by a voice–a female voice.
“Well! well!” cried some one on my right, and turning, I saw, above a low wall, the head and shoulders of the young lady with the dark eyes with whom I had parted an hour or so before. A broad hat shaded her face, her eyes were very dark and very wide open, and I saw some of her beautiful teeth, although she was not smiling or laughing. It was plain that she had not come down there to see me pass; she was genuinely astonished; I dismounted and approached the wall.
[Illustration: “I dismounted and approached the wall”]
“I thought you were miles and miles on your way!” said she. It occurred to me that I had recently heard a remark very like this, and yet the words, as they came from the slender girl and from this one, seemed to have entirely different meanings. She was desirous, earnestly desirous, to know how I came to be passing this place at this time, when I had left their gate so long before, and, as I was not unwilling to gratify her curiosity, I told her the whole story of the accident the day before, and of everything which had followed it.
“And you went all the way back,” she said, “to inquire after that Burton girl?”
“Do you know her?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “I do not know her; but I have seen her often, and I know all about her family. They seem to be of such little consequence, one way or the other, that I can scarcely understand how things could so twist themselves that you should consider it necessary to go back there this morning before you really started on your day’s journey.”
I do not remember what I said, but it was something commonplace, no doubt, but I imagined I perceived a little pique in the young lady. Of course I did not object to this, for nothing could be more flattering to a young man than the exhibition of such a feeling on an occasion such as this.
But if she felt any pique she quickly brushed it out of sight, for, as I have said before, she was a young woman who had great command of herself. Of course I said to her that I was very glad to have this chance of seeing her again, and she answered, with a laugh:
“If you really are glad, you ought to thank the Burton girl. This is one of my favorite walks. The path runs along inside the wall for a considerable distance and then turns around the little hill over there, and so leads back to the house. When I happened to look over the wall and saw you I was truly surprised.”
The ground was lower on the outside of the wall than on the inside, and as I stood and looked almost into the eyes of this girl, as she leaned with her arms upon the smooth top of the wall, the idea which the gardener’s wife put into my head came into it again. This was a beautiful face, and the expression upon it was different from anything I had seen there before. Her surprise had disappeared, her pique had gone, but a very great interest in the incident of my passing this spot at the moment of her being there was plainly evident. As I gazed at her my blood ran warmer through my veins, and there came upon me a feeling of the olden time–of the days when the brave cavalier rode up to the spot where, waiting for him, his lady sat upon her impatient jennet.
Without the least hesitation, I asked:
“Do you ride a wheel?”
She looked wonderingly at me for a moment, and then broke into a laugh.
“Why on earth do you ask such a question as that? I have a bicycle, but I am not a very good rider, and I never venture out upon the public road by myself.”
“You shouldn’t think of such a thing,” said I; and then I stood silent, and my mind showed me two young people, each mounted, not upon a swift steed, but upon a far swifter pair of wheels, skimming onward through the summer air, still rolling on, on, on, through country lanes and woodland roads, laughing at pursuit if they heard the trampling of eager hoofs behind them, with never a telegraph wire to stretch menacingly above them, and so on, on, on, their eyes sparkling, their hearts beating high with youthful hope.
Again, through the tender mists of the afternoon, I saw them returning from some secluded Gretna Green to bend their knees and bow their heads before the lord of the fair bride’s home.
When all this had passed through my brain, I wondered how such a pair would be received. I knew the gardener and his wife would welcome them, to begin with; Brownster would be very glad to see them; and I believe the mother would stand with tears of joy and open arms, in whatever quiet room she might feel free to await them. Moreover, when the sterner parent heard my tale and read my pedigree, might he not consider good name on the one side an equivalent for good money on the other?
I looked up at her; she did not ask me what I had been thinking about nor remark upon my silence. She, too, had been wrapped in revery; her face was grave. She raised her arms from the wall and stood up.
It was plainly time for me to do something, and she decided the point for me by slightly moving away from the wall. “Some time, when you are riding out from Walford,” she said, “we should be glad to have you stop and take luncheon. Father likes to have people at luncheon.”
“I should be delighted to do so,” said I; and if she had asked me to delay my journey and take luncheon with them that day I think I should have accepted the invitation. But she did not do that, and she was not a young lady who would stand too long by a public road talking to a young man. She smiled very sweetly and held out her hand over the wall. “Good-bye again,” she said. As I took her hand I felt very much inclined to press it warmly, but I refrained. Her grasp was firm and friendly, and I would have liked very much to know whether or not it was more so than was her custom.
I was mounting my wheel when she called to me again. “Now, I suppose,” she said, “you are going straight on?”
“Oh yes,” I replied, with emphasis, “straight on.”
“And the name of the hotel where you will stay to-night,” said she, “it is the Cheltenham. I forgot it when I spoke to you before. I do not believe, really, it is more than three miles beyond the other little place where you thought of stopping.”
Then she walked away from the wall and I mounted. I moved very slowly onward, and as I turned my head I saw that a row of straggling bushes which grew close to the wall were now between her and me. But I also saw, or thought I saw, between the leaves and boughs, that her face was towards me, and that she was waving her handkerchief. If I had been sure of that, I think I should have jumped over the wall, pushed through the bushes, and should have asked her to give me that handkerchief, that I might fasten it on the front of my cap as, in olden days, a knight going forth to his adventures bound upon his helmet the glove of his lady-love.
But I was not sure of it, and, seized by a sudden energetic excitement, I started off at a tremendous rate of speed. The ground flew backward beneath me as if I had been standing on the platform of a railroad car. Not far ahead of me there came from a side road into the main avenue on which I was travelling a Scorcher, scorching. As he spun away in front of me, his body bent forward until his back was nearly horizontal, and his green-stockinged legs striking out behind him with the furious rapidity of a great frog trying to push his head into the mud, he turned back his little face with a leer of triumphant derision at every moving thing which might happen to be behind him.
[Illustration: “I THOUGHT FOR A FEW MOMENTS”]
At the sight of this green-legged Scorcher my blood rose, and it was with me as if I had heard the clang of trumpets and the clash of arms. I leaned slightly forward; I struck out powerfully, swiftly, and steadily; I gained upon the Scorcher; I sent into his emerald legs a thrill of startled fear, as if he had been a terrified hare bounding madly away from a pursuing foe, and I passed him as if I had been a swift falcon swooping by a quarry unworthy of his talons.
On, on I sped, not deigning even to look back. The same spirit possessed me as that which fired the hearts of the olden knights. I would have been glad to meet with another Scorcher, and yet another, that for the sake of my fair lady I might engage with each and humble his pride in the dust.
“It is true,” I said to myself, with an inward laugh, “I carry no glove or delicate handkerchief bound upon my visor–” but at this point my mind wandered. I went more slowly, and at last I stopped and sat down under the shade of a way-side tree. I thought for a few minutes, and then I said to myself, “It seems to me this would be a good time to take one of those capsules,” and I took one. I then fancied that perhaps I ought to take two, but I contented myself with one.
THE HOLLY SPRIG INN
In the middle of the day I stopped at Vernon, and the afternoon was well advanced when I came in sight of a little way-side house with a broad unfenced green in front of it, and a swinging sign which told the traveller that this was the “Holly Sprig Inn.”
I dismounted on the opposite side of the road and gazed upon the smoothly shaven greensward in front of the little inn; upon the pretty upper windows peeping out from their frames of leaves; upon the queerly-shaped projections of the building; upon the low portico which shaded the doorway; and upon the gentle stream of blue smoke which rose from the great gray chimney.
Then I turned and looked over the surrounding country. There were broad meadows slightly descending to a long line of trees, between which I could see the glimmering of water. On the other side of the road, and extending back of the inn, there were low, forest-crowned hills. Then my eyes, returning to nearer objects, fell upon an old-fashioned garden, with bright flowers and rows of box, which lay beyond the house.
“Why on earth,” I thought, “should I pass such a place as this and go on to the Cheltenham, with its waiters in coat tails, its nurse-maids, and its rows of people on piazzas? She could not know my tastes, and perhaps she had thought but little on the subject, and had taken her ideas from her father. He is just the man to be contented with nothing else than a vast sprawling hotel, with disdainful menials expecting tips.”
I rolled my bicycle along the little path which ran around the green, and knocked upon the open door of Holly Sprig Inn.
In a few moments a boy came into the hall. He was not dressed like an ordinary hotel attendant, but his appearance was decent, and he might have been a sub-clerk or a head hall-boy.
“Can I obtain lodging here for the night?” I asked.
The boy looked at me from head to foot, and an expression such as might be produced by too much lemon juice came upon his face.
“No,” said he; “we don’t take cyclers.”
This reception was something novel to me, who had cycled over thousands of miles, and I was not at all inclined to accept it at the hands of the boy. I stepped into the hall. “Can I see the master of this house?” said I.
“There ain’t none,” he answered, gruffly.
“Well, then, I want to see whoever is in charge.”
He looked as if he were about to say that he was in charge, but he had no opportunity for such impertinence. A female figure came into the hall and advanced towards me. She stopped in an attitude of interrogation.
“I was just inquiring,” I said, with a bow–for I saw that the new-comer was not a servant–“if I could be accommodated here for the night, but the boy informed me that cyclers are not received here.”
“What!” she exclaimed, and turned as if she would speak to the boy, but he had vanished. “That is a mistake, sir,” she said to me. “Very few wheelmen do stop here, as they prefer a hotel farther on, but we are glad to entertain them when they come.”
It was not very light in the hall in which we stood, but I could see that this lady was young, that she was of medium size, and good-looking.
“Will you walk in, sir, and register?” she said. “I will have your wheel taken around to the back.”
I followed her into a large apartment to the right of the hall–evidently a room of general assembly. Near the window was a desk with a great book on it. As I stood before this desk and she handed me a pen, her face was in the full light of the window, and glancing at it, the thought struck me that I now knew why Miss Putney did not wish me to stop at the Holly Sprig Inn. I almost laughed as I turned away my head to write my name. I was amused, and at the same time I could not help feeling highly complimented. It cannot but be grateful to the feelings of a young man to find that a very handsome woman objects to his making the acquaintance of an extremely pretty one.
When I laid down the pen she stepped up and looked at my name and address.
“Oh,” said she, “you are the schoolmaster at Walford?” She seemed to be pleased by this discovery, and smiled in a very engaging way as she said, “I am much interested in that school, for I received a great part of my education there.” “Indeed!” said I, very much surprised. “But I do not exactly understand. It is a boys’ school.”
“I know that,” she answered, “but both boys and girls used to go there. Now the girls have a school of their own.”
As she spoke I could not help contrasting in my mind what the school must have been with what it was now.
She stepped to the door and told a woman who was just entering the room to show me No. 2. The woman said something which I did not hear, although her tones indicated surprise, and then conducted me to my room.
This was an exceedingly pleasant chamber on the first floor at the back of the house. It was furnished far better than the quarters generally allotted to me in country inns, or, in fact, in hostelries of any kind. There was great comfort and even simple elegance in its appointments.
I would have liked to ask the maid some questions, but she was an elderly woman, who looked as if she might be the mother of the lemon-juice boy, and as she said not a word to me while she made a few arrangements in the room, I did not feel emboldened to say anything to her.
When I left my room and went out on the little porch, I soon came to the conclusion that this was not a house of great resort. I saw nobody in front and I heard nobody within. There seemed to be an air of quiet greenness about the surroundings, and the little porch was a charming place in which to sit and look upon the evening landscape.
After a time the boy came to tell me that supper was ready. He did so as if he were informing me that it was time to take medicine and he had just taken his.
Supper awaited me in a very pleasant room, through the open windows of which there came a gentle breeze which made me know that there was a flower-garden not far away. The table was a small one, round, and on it there was supper for one person. I seated myself, and the elderly woman waited on me. I was so grateful that the boy was not my attendant that my heart warmed towards her, and I thought she might not consider it much out of the way if I said something.
“Did I arrive after the regular supper-time?” I asked. “I am sorry if I put the establishment to any inconvenience.”
“What’s inconvenience in your own house isn’t anything of the kind in a tavern,” she said. “We’re used to that. But it doesn’t matter to-day. You’re the only transient; that is, that eats here,” she added.
I wanted very much to ask something about the lady who had gone to school in Walford, but I thought it would be well to approach that subject by degrees.
“Apparently,” said I, “your house is not full.”
“No,” said she, “not at this precise moment of time. Do you want some more tea?”
The tone in which she said this made me feel sure she was the mother of the boy, and when she had given me the tea, and looked around in a general way to see that I was provided with what else I needed, she left the room.
After supper I looked into the large room where I had registered; it was lighted, and was very comfortably furnished with easy-chairs and a lounge, but it was an extremely lonely place, and, lighting a cigar, I went out for a walk. It was truly a beautiful country, and, illumined by the sunset sky, with all its forms and colors softened by the growing dusk, it was more charming to me than it had been by daylight.
As I returned to the inn I noticed a man standing at the entrance of a driveway which appeared to lead back to the stable-yards. “Here is some one who may talk,” I thought, and I stopped.
[Illustration: “WENT OUT FOR A WALK”]
“This ought to be a good country for sport,” I said–“fishing, and that sort of thing.”
“You’re stoppin’ here for the night?” he asked. I presumed from his voice and appearance that he was a stable-man, and from his tone that he was disappointed that I had not brought a horse with me.
I assented to his question, and he said:
“I never heard of no fishin’. When people want to fish, they go to a lake about ten miles furder on.”
“Oh, I do not care particularly about fishing,” I said, “but there must be a good many pleasant roads about here.”
“There’s this one,” said he. “The people on wheels keep to it.” With this he turned and walked slowly towards the back of the house.
“A lemon-loving lot!” thought I, and as I approached the porch I saw that the lady who had gone to school at Walford was standing there. I did not believe she had been eating lemons, and I stepped forward quickly for fear that she should depart before I reached her.
“Been taking a walk?” she said, pleasantly. There was something in the general air of this young woman which indicated that she should have worn a little apron with pockets, and that her hands should have been jauntily thrust into those pockets; but her dress included nothing of the sort.
The hall lamp was now lighted, and I could see that her attire was extremely neat and becoming. Her face was in shadow, but she had beautiful hair of a ruddy brown. I asked myself if she were the “lady clerk” of the establishment, or the daughter of the keeper of the inn. She was evidently a person in some authority, and one with whom it would be proper for me to converse, and as she had given me a very good opportunity to open conversation, I lost no time in doing so.
“And so you used to live in Walford?” I said.
“Oh yes,” she replied, and then she began to speak of the pleasant days she had spent in that village. As she talked I endeavored to discover from her words who she was and what was her position. I did not care to discuss Walford. I wanted to talk about the Holly Sprig Inn, but I could not devise a courteous question which would serve my purpose.
Presently our attention was attracted by the sound of singing at the corner of the little lawn most distant from the house. It was growing dark, and the form of the singer could barely be discerned upon a bench under a great oak. The voice was that of a man, and his song was an Italian air from one of Verdi’s operas. He sang in a low tone, as if he were simply amusing himself and did not wish to disturb the rest of the world.
[Illustration: MRS. CHESTER]
“That must be the Italian who is stopping here for the night,” she said. “We do not generally take such people; but he spoke so civilly, and said it was so hard to get lodging for his bear–“
“His bear!” I exclaimed.
“Oh yes,” she answered, with a little laugh, “he has a bear with him. I suppose it dances, and so makes a living for its master. Anyway, I said he might stay and lodge with our stable-man. He would sing very well if he had a better voice–don’t you think so?”
“We do not generally accommodate,” “I said he might stay”–these were phrases which I turned over in my mind. If she were the lady clerk she might say “we”–even the boy said “we”–but “I said he might stay” was different. A daughter of a landlord or a landlady might say that.
I made a remark about the difficulty of finding lodging for man and beast, if the beast happened to be a bear, and I had scarcely finished it when from the house there came a shrill voice, flavored with lemon without any sugar, and it said, “Mrs. Chester!”
“Excuse me,” said the young lady, and immediately she went in-doors.
Here was a revelation! Mrs. Chester! Strange to say, I had not thought of her as a married woman; and yet, now that I recalled her manner of perfect self-possession, she did suggest the idea of a satisfied young wife. And Mr. Chester–what of him? Could it be possible? Hardly. There was nothing about her to suggest a widow.
MRS. CHESTER IS TROUBLED
I sat on that porch a good while, but she did not come out again. Why should she? Nobody came out, and within I could hear no sound of voices. I might certainly recommend this inn as a quiet place. The Italian and the crickets continued singing and chirping, but they only seemed to make the scene more lonely.
I went in-doors. On the left hand of the hall was a door which I had not noticed before, but which was now open. There was a light within, and I saw a prettily-furnished parlor. There was a table with a lamp on it, and by the table sat the lady, Mrs. Chester. I involuntarily stopped, and, looking up, she invited me to come in. Instantly I accepted the invitation, but with a sort of an apology for the intrusion.
“Oh, this is the public parlor,” she said, “although everything about this house seems private at present. We generally have families staying with us in the summer, but last week nearly all of them went away to the sea-shore. In a few days, however, we expect to be full again.”
She immediately began to talk about Walford, for evidently the subject interested her, and I answered all her questions as well as I could.
“You may know that my husband taught that school. I was his scholar before I became his wife.”
I had heard of a Mr. Chester who, before me, had taught the school, but, although the information had not interested me at the time, now it did. I wished very much to ask what Mr. Chester was doing at present, but I waited.
“I went to boarding-school after I left Walford,” said she, “and so for a time lost sight of the village, although I have often visited it since.”
“How long is it since Mr. Chester gave up the school there?” I asked.
This proved to be a very good question indeed. “About six years,” she said. “He gave it up just before we were married. He did not like teaching school, and as the death of his father put him into the possession of some money, he was able to change his mode of life. It was by accident that we settled here as innkeepers. We happened to pass the place, and Mr. Chester was struck by its beauty. It was not an inn then, but he thought it would make a charming one, and he also thought that this sort of life would suit him exactly. He was a student, a great reader, and a lover of rural sports–such as fishing and all that.”
[Illustration: “SHE BEGAN TO TALK ABOUT WALFORD”]
“Was.” Here was a dim light. “Was” must mean that Mr. Chester had been. If he were living, he would still be a reader and a student.
“Did he find the new life all that he expected?” I said, hesitating a little at the word did, as it was not impossible that I might be mistaken.
“Oh yes, and more. I think the two years he spent here were the happiest of his life.”
I was not yet quite sure about the state of affairs; he might be in an insane asylum, or he might be a hopeless invalid up-stairs.
“If he had lived,” she continued, “I suppose this would have been a wonderfully beautiful place, for he was always making improvements. But it is four years now since his death, and in that time there has been very little change in the inn.”