glancing down on the boys around him with the eye of a general, watching the teacher’s eye, meanwhile, as a dog watches for his master’s signal.
And the orderly yet alert and joyously eager expression of the whole school,–it had so much the look of a miracle to Sandy Bruce’s eye, that, not having been for years accustomed to the restraint and dignity of school visitors, of technical official, he was on the point of giving a loud whistle of astonishment Luckily recollecting himself in time, he smothered the whistle and the “Whew! what’s all this?” which had been on his tongue’s end, in a vigorous and unnecessary blowing of his nose. And before that was over, and his eyes well wiped, there stood the whole school on its feet before him, and the room ringing with such a chorus as was never heard in a Prince Edward Island school-room before. This completed his bewilderment, and swallowed it up in delight. If Sandy Bruce had an overmastering passion in his rugged nature, it was for music. To the sound of the bag-pipes he had often said he would march to death and “not know it for dyin’.” The drum and the fife could draw him as quickly now as when he was a boy, and the sweet singing of a woman’s voice was all the token he wanted of the certainty of heaven and the existence of angels.
When Little Bel’s clear, flute-like soprano notes rang out, carrying along the fifty young voices she led, Sandy jumped up on his feet, waving his hand, in a sudden heat of excitement, right and left; and looking swiftly all about him on the platform, he said: “It’s not sittin’ we’es take such welcome as this, my neebors!” Each man and woman there, catching the quick contagion, rose; and it was a tumultuous crowd of glowing faces that pressed forward around the piano as the singing went on,–fathers, mothers, rustics, all; and the children, pleased and astonished, sang better than ever, and when the chorus was ended it was some minutes before all was quiet.
Many things had been settled in that few minutes. John McDonald’s heart was at rest. “The music’ll carry a’ before it, no matter if they do make a failure here ‘n’ there,” he thought. “The bairn is a’ right.” The mother’s heart was at rest also.
“She’s done wonders wi’ ’em,–wonders! I doubt not but it’ll go through as it’s begun. Her face’s a picture to look on. Bless her!” Isabella was saying behind her placid smile.
“Eh, but she’s won her guineas out o’ us,” thought old Dalgetty, ungrudgingly, “and won ’em well.”
“I don’t see why everybody is so afraid of Sandy Bruce,” thought Little Bel. “He looks as kind and as pleased as my own father. I don’t believe he’ll ask any o’ his botherin’ questions.”
What Sandy Bruce thought it would be hard to tell; nearer the truth, probably, to say that his head was in too much of a whirl to think anything. Certain it is that he did not ask any botherin’ questions, but sat, leaning forward on his stout oaken staff, held firmly between his knees, and did not move for the next hour, his eyes resting alternately on the school and on the young teacher, who, now that her first fright was over, was conducting her entertainment with the composure and dignity of an experienced instructor.
The exercises were simple,–declamations, reading of selected compositions, examinations of the principal classes. At short intervals came songs to break the monotony. The first one after the opening chorus was “Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon.” At the first bars of this Sandy Bruce could not keep silence, but broke into a lone accompaniment in a deep bass voice, untrained but sweet.
“Ah,” thought Little Bel, “what’ll he say to the last one, I wonder?”
When the time came she found out. If she had chosen the arrangement of her music with full knowledge of Sandy Bruce’s preferences, and with the express determination to rouse him to a climax of enthusiasm, she could not have done better.
When the end of the simple programme of recitations and exhibition had been reached, she came forward to the edge of the platform–her cheeks were deep pink now, and her eyes shone with excitement–and said, turning to the trustees and spectators: “We have finished, now, all we have to show for our year’s work, and we will close our entertainment by singing ‘Scots wha ha’ wi’ Wallace bled!'”
“Ay, ay! that wi’ we!” shouted Sandy Bruce, again leaping to his feet; and as the first of the grand chords of that grand old tune rang out full and loud under Little Bel’s firm touch, he strode forward to the piano, and with a kindly nod to her struck in.
With the full force of his deep, bass-like, violoncello notes, gathering up all the others and fusing them into a pealing strain, it was electin’. Everybody sang. Old voices, that had not sung for a quarter of a century or more, joined in. It was a furor: Dalgetty swung his tartan cap, Sandy his hat; handkerchiefs were waved, staves rang on the floor. The children, half frightened in spite of their pleasure, were quieter than their elders.
“Eh, but it was good fun to see the old folks gone crazy for once!” said Archie McLeod, in recounting the scene. “Now, if they’d get that way oftener they’d not be so hard down on us youngsters.”
At the conclusion of the song the first thing Little Bel heard was Dalgetty’s piping voice behind her,–
“And guineas it is, Miss McDonald. Ye’ve won it fair an’ square. Guineas it is!”
“Eh, what? Guineas! What is ‘t ye’re sayin’?” asked Sandy Bruce; his eyes, steady glowing like coals, gazing at Little Bel.
“The supplement, sir,” answered Little Bel, lifting her eyes roguishly to his. “Mr. Dalgetty thought I was too young for the school, an’ he’d promise me no supplement till he saw if I’d be equal to ‘t.”
This was the sly Bel’s little revenge on Dalgetty, who began confusedly to explain that it was not he any more than the other trustees, and he only wished that they had all been here to see, as he had seen, how finely the school had been managed; but nobody heard what he said, for above all the humming and buzzing and laughing there came up from the centre of the school-room a reiterated call of “Sirs!” “Trustees!” “Mr. Trustee!” “Board!”
It was Archie McLeod, standing up on the backs of two seats, waving a white paper, and trying frantically to make himself heard. The face of a man galloping for life and death, coming up at the last second with a reprieve for one about to be shot, could hardly be fuller of intense anxiety than was Archie’s as he waved his paper and shouted.
Little Bel gazed bewilderingly at him. This was not down on her programme of the exercises. What could it be?
As soon as partial silence enabled him to speak, Archie proceeded to read a petition, setting forth, to the respected Board of Trustees, that the undersigned, boys and girls of the Wissan Bridge School, did hereby unanimously request that they might have no other teacher than Miss McDonald, “as long as she lives.”
This last clause had been the cause of bitter disputing between Archie and Sandy,–Sandy insisting upon having it in; Archie insisting that it was absurd, because they would not go to school as long as Miss McDonald lived. “But there’s the little ones and the babies that’ll be growin’ up,” retorted Sandy, “an’ there’ll never be another like her: I say, ‘as long as she lives'”; and “as long as she lives” it was. And when Archie, with an unnecessary emphasis, delivered this closing clause of the petition, it was received with a roar of laughter from the platform, which made him flush angrily, and say, with a vicious punch in Sandy’s ribs: “There, I told ye, it spoiled it a’. They’re fit to die over it; an’ sma’ blame to ’em, ye silly!”
But he was reassured when he heard Sandy Bruce’s voice overtopping the tumult with: “A vary sensible request, my lad; an’ I, for one, am o’ yer way o’ thinkin’.”
In which speech was a deeper significance than anybody at the time dreamed. In that hurly-burly and hilarious confusion no one had time to weigh words or note meanings; but there were some who recalled it a few months later when they were bidden to a wedding at the house of John McDonald,–a wedding at which Sandy Bruce was groom, and Little Bel the brightest, most winsome of brides.
It was an odd way that Sandy went to work to win her: his ways had been odd all his life,–so odd that it had long ago been accepted in the minds of the Charlottetown people that he would never find a woman to wed him; only now and then an unusually perspicacious person divined that the reason of his bachelorhood was not at all that women did not wish to wed him, spite of his odd ways, but that he himself found no woman exactly to his taste.
True it was that Sandy Bruce, aged forty, had never yet desired any woman for his wife till he looked into the face of Little Bel in the Wissan Bridge school-house. And equally true was it that before the last strains of “Scots wha ha’ wi’ Wallace bled” had died away on that memorable afternoon of her exhibition of her school, he had determined that his wife she should be.
This was the way he took to win her. No one can deny that it was odd.
There was some talk between him and his temporary colleague on the School Board, old Dalgetty, as they drove home together behind the brisk Norwegian ponies; and the result of this conversation was that the next morning early–in fact, before Little Bel was dressed, so late had she been indulged, for once, in sleeping, after her hard labors in the exhibition the day before–the Norwegian ponies were jingling their bells at John McDonald’s door; and John himself might have been seen, with a seriously puzzled face, listening to words earnestly spoken by Sandy, as he shook off the snow and blanketed the ponies.
As the talk progressed, John glanced up involuntarily at Little Bel’s window. Could it be that he sighed? At any rate, there was no regret in his heart as he shook Sandy’s hand warmly, and said: “Ye’ve my free consent to try; but I doubt she’s not easy won. She’s her head now, an’ her ain way; but she’s a good lass, an’ a sweet one.”
“An’ I need no man to tell me that,” said the dauntless Sandy, as he gave back the hearty hand-grip of his friend; “an’ she’ll never repent it, the longest day o’ her life, if she’ll ha’ me for her man.” And he strode into the house, bearing in his hand the five golden guineas which his friend Dalgetty had, at his request, commissioned him to pay.
“Into her own hand, mind ye, mon,” chuckled Dalgetty, mischievously. “Ye’ll not be leavin’ it wi’ the mither.” To which sly satire Sandy’s only reply was a soft laugh and nod of his head.
As soon as Little Bel crossed the threshold of the room where Sandy Bruce stood waiting for her, she knew the errand on which he had come. It was written in his face. Neither could it be truthfully said to be a surprise to Little Bel; for she had not been woman, had she failed to recognize on the previous day that the rugged Scotchman’s whole nature had gone out toward her in a sudden and overmastering attraction.
Sandy looked at her keenly. “Eh, ye know’t a’ready,” he said,–“the thing I came to say t’ ye.” And he paused, still eying her more like a judge than a lover.
Little Bel turned scarlet. This was not her ideal of a wooer. “Know what, Mr. Bruce?” she said resentfully. “How should I know what ye came to say?”
“Tush! tush, lass! do na prevaricate,” Sandy began, his eyes gloating on her lovely confusion; “do na preteend–” But the sweet blue eyes were too much for him. Breaking down utterly, he tossed the guineas to one side on the table, and stretching out both hands toward Bel, he exclaimed,–“Ye’re the sweetest thing the eyes o’ a mon ever rested on, lass, an’ I’m goin’ to win ye if ye’ll let me.” And as Bel opened her mouth to speak, he laid one hand, quietly as a mother might, across her lips, and continued: “Na! na! I’ll not let ye speak yet. I’m not a silly to look for ye to be ready to say me yes at this quick askin’; but I’ll not let ye say me nay neither. Ye’ll not refuse me the only thing I’m askin’ the day, an’ that’s that ye’ll let me try to make ye love me. Ye’ll not say nay to that, lass. I’ll gie my life to it.” And now he waited for an answer.
None came. Tears were in Bel’s eyes as she looked up in his face. Twice she opened her lips to speak, and twice her heart and the words failed her. The tears became drops and rolled down the cheeks. Sandy was dismayed.
“Ye’re not afraid o’ me, ye sweet thing, are ye?” he gasped out. “I’d not vex ye for the world. If ye bid me to go, I’d go.”
“No, I’m not afraid o’ ye, Mr. Bruce,” sobbed Bel. “I don’t know what it is makes me so silly. I’m not afraid o’ ye, though. But I was for a few minutes yesterday,” she added archly, with a little glint of a roguish smile, which broke through the tears like an April sun through rain, and turned Sandy’s head in the twinkling of an eye.
“Ay, ay,” he said; “I minded it weel, an’ I said to myself then, in that first sight I had o’ yer face, that I’d not harm a hair o’ yer head. Oh, my little lass, would ye gie me a kiss,–just one, to show ye’re not afraid, and to gie me leave to try to win ye out o’ likin’ into lovin’?” he continued, drawing closer and bending toward her.
And then a wonderful thing happened. Little Bel, who, although she was twenty years old, and had by no means been without her admirers, had never yet kissed any man but her father and brothers, put up her rosy lips, as confidingly as a little child, to be kissed by this strange wooer, who wooed only for leave to woo.
“An’ if he’d only known it, he might ha’ asked a’ he wanted then as well as later,” said Little Bel, honestly avowing the whole to her mother. “As soon as he put his hands on me the very heart in me said he was my man for a’ my life. An’ there’s no shame in it that I can see. If a man may love that way in the lighting of an eye, why may not a girl do the same? There’s not one kind o’ heart i’ the breast of a man an’ another kind i’ the breast of a woman, as ever I heard.” In which Little Bel, in her innocence, was wiser than people wiser than she.
And after this there is no need of telling more,–only a picture or two which are perhaps worth sketching in few words. One is the expression which was seen on Sandy Bruce’s face one day, not many weeks after his first interview with Little Bel, when, in reply to his question, “An’ now, my own lass, what’ll ye have for your weddin’ gift from me? Tell me the thing ye want most i’ a’ the earth, an’ if it’s in my means ye shall have it the day ye gie me the thing I want maist i’ the whole earth.”
“I’ve got it a’ready, Sandy,” said Little Bel, taking his face in her hands, and making a feint of kissing him; then withdrawing coquettishly. Wise, innocent Bel! Sandy understood.
“Ay, my lass; but next to me. What’s the next thing ye’d have?”
Bel hesitated. Even to her wooer’s generosity it might seem a daring request,–the thing she craved.
“Tell me, lass,” said Sandy, sternly. “I’ve mair money than ye think. There’s no lady in a’ Charlottetown can go finer than ye if ye’ve a mind.”
“For shame, Sandy!” cried Bel. “An’ you to think it was fine apparel I’d be askin’! It’s a–a”–the word refused to leave her tongue–“a–piano, Sandy;” and she gazed anxiously at him. “I’ll never ask ye for another thing till the day o’ my death, Sandy, if ye’ll gie me that.”
Sandy shouted in delight. For a brief space a fear had seized him–of which he now felt shame indeed–that his sweet lassie might be about to ask for jewels or rich attire; and it would have sorely hurt Sandy’s pride in her had this been so.
“A piano!” he shouted. “An’ did ye not think I’d that a’ready in my mind? O’ coorse, a piano, an’ every other instrument under the skies that ye’ll wish, my lass, ye shall have. The more music ye make, the gladder the house’ll be. Is there nothin’ else ye want, lass,–nothin’?”
“Nothing in all this world, Sandy, but you and a piano,” replied Little Bel.
The other picture was on a New Year’s Day, just a twelvemonth from the day of Little Bel’s exhibition in the Wissan Bridge school-house. It is a bright day; the sleighing is superb all over the island, and the Charlottetown streets are full of gay sleighs and jingling bells,–none so gay, however, as Sandy Bruce’s, and no bells so merry as the silver ones on his fierce little Norwegian ponies, that curvet and prance, and are all their driver can hold. Rolled up in furs to her chin, how rosy and handsome looks Little Bel by her husband’s side, and how full of proud content is his face as he sees the people all turning to look at her beauty! And who is this driving the Norwegian ponies? Who but Archie,–Archie McLeod, who has followed his young teacher to her new home, and is to grow up, under Sandy Bruce’s teachings, into a sharp and successful man of the shipping business.
And as they turn a corner they come near running into another fur-piled, swift-gliding sleigh, with a grizzled old head looking out of a tartan hood, and eyes like hawks’,–Dalgetty himself; and as they pass the head nods and the eyes laugh, and a sharp voice cries, “Guineas it is!”
“Better than guineas!” answered back Mrs. Sandy Bruce, quick as a flash; and in the same second cries Archie, from the front seat, with a saucy laugh, “And as long as she lives, Mr. Dalgetty!”
The Captain of the “Heather Bell”.
You might have known he was a Scotchman by the name of his little steamer; and if you had not known it by that, you would have known it as soon as you looked at him. Scotch, pure, unmitigated, unmistakable Scotch, was Donald Mackintosh, from the crown of his auburn head down to the soles of his big awkward feet. Six feet two inches in his stockings he stood, and so straight that he looked taller even than that; blue-gray eyes full of a canny twinkle; freckles,–yes, freckles that were really past the bounds of belief, for up into his hair they ran, and to the rims of his eyes,–no pale, dull, equivocal freckles, such as might be mistaken for dingy spots of anything else, but brilliant, golden-brown freckles, almost auburn like his hair. Once seen, never to be forgotten were Donald Mackintosh’s freckles. All this does not sound like the description of a handsome man; but we are not through yet with what is to be said about Donald Mackintosh’s looks. We have said nothing of his straight massive nose, his tawny curling beard, which shaded up to yellow around a broad and laughing mouth, where were perpetually flashing teeth of an even ivory whiteness a woman might have coveted. No, not handsome, but better than handsome, was Donald Mackintosh; he was superb. Everybody said so: nobody could have been found to dispute it,–nobody but Donald himself; he thought, honestly thought, he was hideous. All that he could see on the rare occasions when he looked in a glass was an expanse of fiery red freckles, topped off with what he would have called a shock of red hair. Uglier than anything he had ever seen in his life, he said to himself many a time, and grew shyer and shyer and more afraid of women each time he said it; and all this while there was not a girl in Charlottetown that did not know him in her thoughts, if indeed she did not openly speak of him, as that “splendid Donald Mackintosh,” or “the handsome ‘Heather Bell’ captain.”
But nothing could have made Donald believe this, which was in one way a pity, though in another way not. If he had known how women admired him, he would have inevitably been more or less spoiled by it, wasted his time, and not have been so good a sailor. On the other hand, it was a pity to see him,–forty years old, and alone in the world,–not a chick nor a child of his own, nor any home except such miserable makeshifts as a sailor finds in inns or boarding-houses.
It was a wonder that the warm-hearted fellow had kept a cheery nature and face all these years living thus. But the “Heather Bell” stood to him in place of wife, children, home. There is no passion in life so like the passion of a man for a woman as the passion of a sailor for his craft; and this passion Donald had to the full. It was odd how he came to be a born sailor. His father and his father’s fathers, as far back as they knew, had been farmers–three generations of them–on the Prince Edward Island farm where Donald was born; and still more generations of them in old Scotland. Pure Scotch on both sides of the house for hundreds of years were the Mackintoshes, and the Gaelic tongue was to-day freer spoken in their houses than English.
The Mackintosh farm on Prince Edward Island was in the parish of Orwell Head, and Donald’s earliest transgressions and earliest pleasures were runaway excursions to the wharves of that sleepy shore. To him Spruce Wharf was a centre of glorious maritime adventure. The small sloops that plied up and down the coast of the island, running in at the inlets, and stopping to gather up the farmers’ produce and take it to Charlottetown markets, seemed to him as grand as Indiamen; and when, in his twelfth year, he found himself launched in life as a boy-of-all-work on one of these sloops, whose captain was a friend of his father’s, he felt that his fortune was made. And so it was. He was in the line of promotion by virtue of his own enthusiasm. No plank too small for the born sailor to swim by. Before Donald was twenty-five he himself commanded one of these little coasting-vessels. From this he took a great stride forward, and became first officer on the iron-clad steamer plying between Charlottetown and the mainland. The winter service on this boat was terrible,–ploughing and cutting through nearly solid ice for long days and nights of storm. Donald did not like it. He felt himself lost out in the wild channel. His love was for the water near shore,–for the bays, inlets, and river-mouths he had known since he was a child.
He began to think he was not so much of a sailor as he had supposed,–so great a shrinking grew up in him winter after winter from the perils and hardships of the mail-steamer’s route. But he persevered and bided his time, and in ten years had the luck to become owner and master of a trim little coasting-steamer which had been known for years as the “Sally Wright,” making two trips a week from Charlottetown to Orwell Head,–known as the “Sally Wright” no longer, however; for the first thing Donald did was to repaint her, from stem to stern, white, with green and pink stripes, on her prow a cluster of pink heather blossoms, and “Heather Bell” in big letters on the side.
When he was asked where he got this fancy name, he said, lightly, he did not know; it was a good Scotch name. This was not true. Donald knew very well. On the window-sill in his mother’s kitchen had stood always a pot of pink heather. Come summer, come winter, the place was never without a young heather growing; and the dainty pink bells were still to Donald the man, as they had been to Donald the child, the loveliest flowers in the world. But he would not for the profits of many a trip have told his comrade captains why he had named his boat the “Heather Bell.” He had a sentiment about the name which he himself hardly understood. It seemed out of all proportion to the occasion; but a day was coming when it would seem more like a prophecy than a mere sentiment. He had builded better than he knew when he chose that name for the thing nearest his heart.
Charlottetown is not a gay place; its standards and methods of amusement are simple and primitive. Among the summer pleasures of the young people picnics still rank high, and picnic excursions by steamboat or sloop highest of all. Through June and July hardly a daily newspaper can be found which does not contain the advertisement of one or more of these excursions. After Donald made his little boat so fresh and gay with the pink and green colors, and gave her the winning new name, she came to be in great demand for these occasions.
How much the captain’s good looks had to do with the “Heather Bell’s” popularity as a pleasure-boat it would not do to ask; but there was reason enough for her being liked aside from that. Sweet and fresh in and out, with white deck, the chairs and settees all painted green, and a gay streamer flying,–white, with three green bars,–and “Donald Mackintosh, Captain,” in green letters, and below these a spray of pink heather, she looked more like a craft for festive sailing than for cruising about from one farm-landing to another, picking up odds and ends of farm produce,–eggs and butter, and oats and wool,–with now and then a passenger. Donald liked this slow cruising and the market-work best; but the picnic parties were profitable, and he took them whenever he could. He kept apart, however, from the merry-makers as much as possible, and was always glad at night when he had landed his noisy cargo safe back at the Charlottetown piers.
This disposition on his part to hold himself aloof was greatly irritating to the Charlottetown girls, and to no one of them so much as to pretty Katie McCloud, who, because she was his second cousin and had known him all her life, felt, and not without reason, that he ought to pay her something in the shape or semblance of attention when she was on board his boat, even if she were a member of a large and gay party, most of whom were strangers to him. There was another reason, too; but Katie had kept it so long locked in the bottom of her heart that she hardly realized its force and cogency, and, if she had, would have laughed, and put it as far from her thoughts as she could.
The truth was, Katie had been in love with Donald ever since she was ten years old and he was twenty,–a long time, seeing that she was now thirty and he forty; and never once, either in their youth or their middle age, had there been a word of love-making between them. All the same, deep in her heart the good little Katie had kept the image of Donald in sacred tenderness by itself. No other man’s love-making, however earnest,–and Katie had been by no means without lovers,–had so much as touched this sentiment. She judged them all by this secret standard, and found them all wanting. She did not pine, neither did she take a step of forwardness, or even coquettish advance, to Donald. She was too full of Scotch reticence for that. The only step she did take, in hope of bringing him nearer to her, was the going to Charlottetown to learn the milliner’s trade.
Poor Katie! if she had but known she threw away her last chance when she did it. She reasoned that Donald was in Charlottetown far more than he was anywhere else; that if she stayed at home on the farm she could see him only by glimpses, when the “Heather Bell” ran in at their landing,–in and out and off again in an hour. What was that? And maybe a Sunday once or twice a year, and at a Christmas gathering. No wonder Katie thought that in the town where his business lay and he slept three nights a week she would have a far better chance; that he would be glad to come and see her in her tidy little shop. But when Donald heard what she had done, he said gruffly: “Just like the rest; all for ribbons and laces and silly gear. I thought Katie’d more sense. Why didn’t she stay at home on the farm?” And he said as much to her when he first saw her in her new quarters. She tried to explain to him that she wanted to support herself, and she could not do it on the farm.
“No need,–no need,” said her relentless cousin; “there was plenty for all on the farm.” And all the while he stood glowering at the counter spread with gay ribbons and artificial flowers, and Katie was ready to cry. This was in the first year of her life in Charlottetown. She was only twenty-two then. In the eight years since then matters had quieted down with Katie. It seemed certain that Donald would never marry. Everybody said so. And if a man had lived till forty without it, what else could be expected? If Katie had seen him seeking other women, her quiet and unrewarded devotion would no doubt have flamed up in jealous pain. But she knew that he gave to her as much as he gave to any,–occasional and kindly courtesy, no less, no more.
So the years slipped by, and in her patient industry Katie forgot how old she was growing, until suddenly, on her thirtieth birthday, something–the sight of a deepened line on her face, perhaps, or a pang of memory of the old childish past, such as birthdays always bring–something smote her with a sudden consciousness that life itself was slipping away, and she was alone. No husband, no child, no home, except as she earned each month, by fashioning bonnets and caps for the Charlottetown women, money enough to pay the rent of the two small rooms in which she slept, cooked, and plied her trade. Some tears rolled down Katie’s face as she sat before her looking-glass thinking these unwelcome thoughts.
“I’ll go to the Orwell Head picnic to-morrow,” she said to herself. “It’s so near the old place perhaps Donald’ll walk over home with me. It’s long since he’s seen the farm, I’ll be bound.”
Now, Katie did not say to herself in so many words, “It will be like old times when we were young, and it may be something will stir in Donald’s heart for me at the sight of the fields.” Not only did she not say this; she did not know that she thought it; but it was there, all the same, a lurking, newly revived, vague, despairing sort of hope. And because it was there she spent half the day retrimming a bonnet and washing and ironing a gown to wear to the picnic; and after long and anxious pondering of the matter, she deliberately took out of her best box of artificial flowers a bunch of white heather, and added it to the bonnet trimming. It did not look overmuch like heather, and it did not suit the bonnet, of which Katie was dimly aware; but she wanted to say to Donald, “See, I put a sprig of heather in my bonnet in honor of your boat to-day.” Simple little Katie!
It was a large and noisy picnic, of the very sort Donald most disliked, and he kept himself out of sight until the last moment, just before they swung round at Spruce Wharf. Then, as he stood on the upper deck giving orders about the flinging out of the ropes, Katie looked up at him from below, and called, in a half-whisper: “Oh, Donald, I was thinking I’d walk over home instead of staying here to the dance. Wouldn’t ye be goin’ with me, Donald? They’d be glad to see ye.”
“Ay, Katie,” answered Donald; “that will I, and be glad to be out of this.” And as soon as the boat was safely moored, he gave his orders to his mate for the day, and leaping down joined the glad Katie; and before the picnickers had even missed them they were well out of sight, walking away briskly over the brown fields.
Katie was full of happiness. As she glanced up into Donald’s face she found it handsomer and kinder than she had seen it, she thought, for many years.
“It was for this I came, Donald,” she said merrily. “When I heard the dance was to be in the Spruce Grove I made up my mind to come and surprise the folks. It’s nigh six months since I’ve been home.”
“Pity ye ever left it, my girl,” said Donald, gravely. “The home’s the place for women.” But he said it in a pleasant tone, and his eyes rested affectionately on Katie’s face.
“Eh, but ye’re bonny to-day, Katie; do ye know it?” he continued, his glance lingering on her fresh color and her smiling face. In his heart he was saying: “An’ what is it makes her so young-looking to-day? It was an old face she had on the last time I saw her.”
Happiness, Donald, happiness! Even those few minutes of it had worked the change.
Encouraged by this praise, Katie said, pointing to the flowers in her bonnet, “It’s the heather ye’re meanin’, maybe, Donald, an’ not me?”
“An’ it’s not,” he replied earnestly, almost angrily, with a scornful glance at the flowers. “Ye’ll not be callin’ that heather. Did ye never see true heather, Katie? It’s no more like the stalks ye’ve on yer head than a barrow’s like my boat yonder.”
Which was not true: the flowers were of the very best ever imported into Charlottetown, and were a better representation of heather than most artificial flowers are of the blossoms whose names they bear. Donald was not a judge; and if he had been, it was a cruel thing to say. Katie’s eyes drooped: she had made a serious sacrifice in putting so dear a bunch of flowers on her bonnet,–a bunch that she had, in her own mind, been sure Lady Gownas, of Gownas House, would buy for her summer bonnet. She had made this sacrifice purely to please Donald, and this was what had come of it. Poor Katie! However, nothing could trouble her long to-day, with Donald by her side in the sunny, bright fields; and she would have him to herself till four in the afternoon.
As they drew near the farm-house a strange sound fell on their ears; it was as if a million of beehives were in full blast of buzzing in the air. At the same second both Donald and Katie paused, listening. “What can that be, now?” exclaimed Donald. Before the words had left his lips, Katie cried, “It’s a bee!–Elspie’s spinning-bee.”
The spinning-bees are great fetes among the industrious maidens of Prince Edward Island. After the spring shearings are over, the wool washed and carded and made into rolls, there begin to circulate invitations to spinning-bees at the different farm-houses. Each girl carries her spinning-wheel on her shoulder. By eight o’clock in the morning all are gathered and at work: some of them have walked ten miles or more, and barefoot too, their shoes slung over the shoulder with the wheel. Once arrived, they waste no time. The rolls of wool are piled high in the corners of the rooms, and it is the ambition of each one to spin all she can before dark. At ten o’clock cakes and lemonade are served; at twelve, the dinner,–thick soup, roast meat, vegetables, coffee and tea, and a pudding. All are seated at a long table, and the hostesses serve; at six o’clock comes supper, and then the day’s work is done; after that a little chat or a ramble over the farm, and at eight o’clock all are off for home. No young men, no games, no dances; yet the girls look forward to the bees as their greatest spring pleasures, and no one grudges the time or the strength they take.
It was, indeed, a big bee that Elspie McCloud was having this June morning. Twenty young girls, all in long white aprons, were spinning away as if on a wager when Donald and Katie appeared at the door. The door opened directly into the large room where they were. Katie went first, Donald hanging back behind. “I think I’ll not go in,” he was shamefacedly saying, and halting on the step, when above all the wheel-whirring and yarn-singing came a glad cry,–
“Why, there’s Katie–Katie McCloud! and Donald Mackintosh! For pity’s sake!” (the Prince Edward Islander’s strongest ejaculation.) “Come in! come in!” And in a second more a vision, it seemed to the dazed Donald,–but it was not a vision at all, only a buxom young girl in a blue homespun gown,–had seized him with one hand and Katie with the other, and drawn them both into the room, into the general whir and _melee_ of wheels, merry faces, and still merrier voices.
It was Elspie, Katie’s youngest sister,–Katie’s special charge and care when she was a baby, and now her special pet. The greatest desire of Katie’s heart was to have Elspie with her in Charlottetown, but the father and mother would not consent.
Donald stood like a man in a dream. He did not know it; but from the moment his eyes first fell on Elspie’s face they had followed it as iron follows the magnet. Were there ever such sweet gray eyes in the world? and such a pink and white skin? and hair yellow as gold? And what, oh, what did she wear tucked in at the belt of her white apron but a sprig of heather! Pink heather,–true, genuine, actual pink heather, such as Donald had not seen for many a year. No wonder the eyes of the captain of the “Heather Bell” followed that spray of pink heather wherever it went flitting about from place to place, never long in one,–for it was now time for dinner, and Donald and the old people were soon seated at a small table by themselves, not to embarrass the young girls, and Elspie and Katie together served the dinner; and though Elspie never once came to the small table, yet did Donald see every motion she made and hear every note of her lark’s voice. He did not mistake what had happened to him. Middle-aged, inexperienced, sober-souled man as he was, he knew that at last he had got a wound,–a life wound, if it were not healed,–and the consciousness of it struck him more and more dumb, till his presence was like a damper on the festivities; so much so, that when at three in the afternoon he and Katie took their departure, the door had no more than closed on them before Elspie exclaimed pettishly: “An’ indeed I wish Katie’d left Cousin Donald behind. I don’t know what it is she thinks so much of him for. She’s always sayin’ there’s none like him; an’ it’s lucky it’s true. The great glowerin’ steeple o’ a man, with no word in his mouth!” And the young maidens all agreed with her. It was a strange thing for a man to come and go like that, with nothing to say for himself, they said, and he so handsome too.
“Handsome!” cried Elspie; “is it handsome,–the face all a spatter with the color of the hair? He’s nice eyes of his own, but his skin’s deesgustin’.” Which speech, if Donald had overheard it, would have caused that there should never have been this story to tell. But luckily Donald did not. All that he bore away from the McCloud farm-house that June morning was a picture of a face and flitting figure, and the sound in his ears of a voice,–a picture and a sound which he was destined to see and hear all his life.
He scarcely spoke on his way back to the boat, and Katie perplexed herself vainly trying to account for his silence. It must be, she thought, that he had been vexed by the sight of so many girls and the sound of their idle chatter. He would have liked it better if nobody but the family had been at home. What a shame for a man to live alone as he did, and get into such unsocial ways! He grew more and more averse to society each year. Now, if he were only married, and had a bright home, where people came and went, with a bit of a tea now and then, how good it would be for him,–take the stiffness out of his ways, and make him more as he used to be fifteen, or even ten years ago! And so the good Katie went on in her placid mind, trotting along silently by his side, waiting for him to speak.
“Where did she get the heather?”
“What!” exclaimed Katie. The irrelevant question sounded like the speech of one talking in his sleep. “Oh,” she continued, “ye mean Elspie!”
“Ay,” said Donald. “She’d a bit of heather in her belt,–the true heather, not sticks like yon,” pointing a contemptuous finger toward Katie’s bonnet. “Where did she get it?”
“Mother’s always the heather growing in the house,” answered Katie. “She says she’s homesick unless she sees it. It was grandmother brought it over in the first, and it’s never been let die out.”
“My mother the same,” said Donald. “It’s the first blossom I remember, an’ I’m thinking it will be the last,” he continued, gazing at Katie absently; but his face did not look as if it were absently he gazed. There was a glow on his cheeks, and an intense expression in his eyes which Katie had never seen there. They warmed her heart.
“Yes,” she said, “one can never forget what one has loved in the youth.”
“True, Katie, true. There’s nothing like one’s own and earliest,” replied Donald, full of his new and thrilling emotion; and as he said it he reached out his hand and took hold of Katie’s, as if they were boy and girl together. “Many’s the time I’ve raced wi’ ye this way, Katie,” he said affectionately.
“Ay, when I was a wee thing; an’ ye always let go my hand at last, and pretended I could outrin ye,” laughed Katie, blissful tears filling her eyes.
What a happy day was this! Had it not been an inspiration to bring Donald back to the old farm-house? Katie was sure it had. She was filled with sweet reveries; and so silent on the way home that her merry friends joked her unmercifully about her long walk inland with the Captain.
It was late in the night, or rather it was early the next morning, when the “Heather Bell” reached her wharf.
“I’ll go up with ye, Katie,” said Donald. “It’s not decent for ye to go alone.”
And when he bade her good-night he looked half-wistfully in her face, and said: “But it’s a lonely house for ye to come to, Katie, an’ not a soul but yourself in it.” And he held her hand in his affectionately, as a cousin might.
Katie’s heart beat like a hammer in her bosom at these words, but she answered gravely: “Yes, it was sorely lonely at first, an’ I wearied myself out to get them to give me Elspie to learn the business wi’ me; but I’m more used to it now.”
“That is what I was thinkin’,” said Donald, “that if the two o’ ye were here together, ye’d not be so lonely. Would she not like to come?”
“Ay, that would she,” replied the unconscious Katie; “she pines to be with me. I’m more her mother than the mother herself; but they’ll never consent.”
“She’s bonny,” said Donald. I’d not seen her since she was little.”
“She’s as good as she is bonny,” said Katie, warmly; and that was the last word between Katie and Donald that night.
“As good as she is bonny.” It rang in Donald’s ears like a refrain of heavenly music as he strode away. “As good as she is bonny;” and how good must that be? She could not be as good as she was bonny, for she was the bonniest lass that ever drew breath. Gray eyes and golden hair and pink cheeks and pink heather all mingled in Donald’s dreams that night in fantastic and impossible combinations; and more than once he waked in terror, with the sweat standing on his forehead from some nightmare fancy of danger to the “Heather Bell” and to Elspie, both being inextricably entangled together in his vision.
The visions did not fade with the day. They pursued Donald, and haunted his down-sitting and his uprising. He tried to shake them off, drive them away; for when he came to think the thing over soberly, he called himself an old fool to be thus going daft about a child like Elspie.
“Barely twenty at the most, and me forty. She’d not look at an old fellow like me, and maybe’t would be like a sin if she did,” said Donald to himself over and over again. But it did no good. “As good as she is bonny, bonny, bonny,” rang in his ears, and the blue eyes and golden hair and merry smile floated before his eyes. There was no help for it. Since the world began there have been but two roads out of this sort of mystic maze in which Donald now found himself lost,–but two roads, one bright with joy, one dark with sorrow. And which road should it be Donald’s fate to travel must be for the child Elspie to say. After a few days of bootless striving with himself, during which time he had spent more hours with Katie than he had for a year before,–it was such a comfort to him to see in her face the subtle likeness to Elspie, and to hear her talk about plans of bringing her to Charlottetown for a visit if nothing more,–after a few days of this, Captain Donald, one Saturday afternoon, sailing past Orwell Head, suddenly ran into the inlet where he had taken the picnic party, and, mooring the “Heather Bell” at Spruce Wharf, announced to his astonished mate that he should lie by there till Monday.
It was a bold step of Captain Donald’s. But he was not a man for half-and-half ways in anything; and he had said grimly to himself that this matter must be ended one way or the other,–either he would win the child or lose her. He would know which. Girls had loved men twenty years older than themselves, and girls might again.
The Sunday passed off better than his utmost hopes. Everybody except Elspie was cordially glad to see him. Visitors were not so common at the Orwell Head farm-houses that they could fail of welcome. The McCloud boys were thankful to hear all that Donald had to tell, and with the old father and mother he had always been a prime favorite. It had been a sore disappointment to them, as year after year went by, to see that there seemed no likelihood of his becoming Katie’s husband. As the day wore on, even Elspie relaxed a little from her indifferent attention to him, and began to perceive that, spite of the odious freckles, he was, as the girls had said, a handsome man.
Partly because of this, and partly from innate coquetry, she said, when he was taking leave, “Ye’ll not be comin’ again for another year, maybe?”
“Ye’ll see, then!” laughed Donald, with a sudden wise impulse to refrain from giving the reply which sprang to his lips,–“To-morrow, if ye’d ask me!”
And from the same wise, strangely wise impulse he curbed his desire to go again the next Sunday and the next. Not until three weeks had passed did he go; and then Elspie was clearly and unmistakably glad to see him. This was all Donald wanted. “I’ll win her, the bonny thing!” he said to himself. “An’ I’ll not be long, either.”
And he was right. A girl would have been hard indeed that would not have been touched by the beaming, tender face which Donald wore, now that hope lighted it up. His masterful bearing, too, was a pleasure to the spirited Elspie, who had no liking for milksops, and had sent off more than one lover because he came crawling too humbly to her feet. Elspie had none of the gentle, quiet blood which ran in Katie’s veins. She had even been called Firebrand in her younger, childish days, so hot was her temper, so hasty her tongue. But the firm rule of the Scottish household and the pressure of the stern Scotch Calvinism preached in their kirk had brought her well under her own control.
“Eh, but the bonny lass has hersel’ well in hand,” thought the admiring Donald more than once, as he saw her in some family discussion or controversy keep silence, with flushing cheeks, when sharp words rose to her tongue.
All this time Katie was plodding away at her millinery, inexpressibly cheered by Donald’s new friendliness. He came often to see her, and told her with the greatest frankness of his visits at the farm. He would take her some day, he said; the trouble was, he could never be sure beforehand when it would answer for him to stop there. Katie sunned herself in this new familiar intercourse, and the thought of Donald running up to the old farm of a Sunday as if he were one of the brothers going home. In the contentment of these thoughts she grew younger and prettier,–began to look as she did at twenty. And Donald, gazing scrutinizingly in her face one day, seeking, as he was always doing, for stray glimpses of resemblance to Elspie, saw this change, and impulsively told her of it.
“But ye’re growin’ young, Katie–d’ye know it?–young and bonny, my girl.”
And Katie listened to the words with such sweet joy she feared her face would tell too much, and put up her hands to hide it, crying: “Ah, ye’re tryin’ to make me silly, you Donald, with such flatterin’. We’re gettin’ old, Donald, you an’ me,” she added, with a guilty little undercurrent of thought in her mind. “D’ye mind that I was thirty last month?”
“Ay,” replied Donald, gloomily, his face darkening,–“ay; I mind, by the same token, I’m forty. It’s no need ye have to be callin’ yersel’ old. But I’m old, an’ no mistake.” The thought, as Katie had put it, had been gall and wormwood to him. If Katie thought him old, what must he seem to Elspie!
It was early in June that Elspie had had the spinning-bee to which Katie had brought the unwelcome Donald. The summer sped past, but a faster summer than any reckoned on the calendar of months and days was speeding in Elspie’s heart. Such great love as Donald’s reaches and warms its object as inevitably as the heat of a fire warms those near it. Early in June the spinning-bee, and before the last flax was pulled, early in September, Elspie knew that she was restless till Donald came, glad when he was by her side, and strangely sorry when he went away. Still, she was not ready to admit to herself that it was anything more than her natural liking for any pleasant friend who broke in on the lonely monotony of the farm life.
The final drying of the flax, which is an important crop on most of the Prince Edward Island farms, is put off until autumn. After its first drying in the fields where it grew, it is stored in bundles under cover till all the other summer work is done, and autumn brings leisure. Then the flax camp, as it is called, is built,–a big house of spruce boughs; walls, flat roof, all of the green spruce boughs, thick enough to keep out rain. This is usually in the heart of a spruce grove. Thither the bundles of flax are carried and stacked in piles. In the centre of the inclosure a slow fire is lighted, and above this on a frame of slats the stalks of flax are laid for their last drying. It is a difficult and dangerous process to keep the fire hot enough and not too hot, to shift and turn and lift the flax at the right moment. Sometimes only a sudden flinging of moist earth upon the fire saves it from blazing up into the flax, and sometimes one careless second’s oversight loses the whole,–flax, spruce-bough house, all, in a light blaze, and gone in a breath.
The McClouds’ flax camp had been built in the edge of the spruce grove where the picnickers had held their dance and merry-making on that June day, memorable to Donald and Elspie and Katie. It was well filled with flax, in the drying of which nobody was more interested than Elspie. She had big schemes for spinning and weaving in the coming winter. A whole piece of linen she had promised to Katie, and a piece for herself, and, as Elspie thought it over, maybe a good many more pieces than one she might require for herself before spring. Who knew?
It was October now, and many a Sunday evening had Elspie walked with Donald alone down to Spruce Wharf, and lingered there watching the last curl of steam from the “Heather Bell” as she rounded the point, bearing Donald away. Elspie could not doubt why Donald came. Soon she would wonder why he came and went so many times silent; that is, silent in words, eloquent of eye and hand,–even the touch of his hand was like a promise.
No one was defter and more successful in this handling of the flax over the fire than Elspie. It had sometimes happened that she, with the help of one brother, had dried the whole crop. It was not thought safe for one person to work at it alone for fear of accident with the fire. But it fell out on this October afternoon, a Saturday, that Elspie, feeling sure of Donald’s being on his way to spend the Sunday with her, had walked down to the wharf to meet him. Seeing no signs of the boat, she went back to the flax camp, lighted the fire, and began to spread the flax on the slats. There was not much more left to be dried,–“not more than three hours’ work in all,” she said to herself. “Eh, but I’d like to have done with it before the Sabbath!” And she fell to work with a will, so briskly to work that she did not realize how time was flying,–did not, strangest of all, hear the letting off of steam when the “Heather Bell” moored at the wharf; and she was still busily turning and lifting and separating the stalks of flax, bending low over the frame, heated, hurrying, her whole heart in her work, when Donald came striding up the field from the wharf,–striding at his greatest pace, for he was disturbed at not finding Elspie at the landing to meet him. He turned his head toward the spruce grove, thinking vaguely of the June picnic, and what had come of his walking away from the dance that morning, when suddenly a great column of smoke and fire rolled up from the grove, and in the same second came piercing shrieks in Elspie’s voice. The grove was only a few rods away, but it seemed to Donald an eternity before he reached the spot, to see not only the spruce boughs and flax on fire, but Elspie tossing up her arms like one crazed, her gown all ablaze. The brave, foolish girl, at the first blazing of the stalks on the slats, had darted into the corner of the house and snatched an armful of the piled flax there to save it; but as she passed the flaming centre the whole sheaf she carried had caught fire also, and in a twinkling of an eye had blazed up around her head, and when she dropped it, had blazed up again fiercer than ever around her feet.
With a groan Donald seized her. The flames leaped on him, too, as if to wrestle with him; his brown beard crackled, his hair, but he fought through it all. Throwing Elspie on the ground, he rolled her over and over, crying aloud, “Oh, my darlin’, if I break your sweet bones, it is better than the fire!” And indeed it seemed as if it must break her bones, so fiercely he rolled her over and over, tearing off his woollen coat to smother the fire; beating it with his tartan cap, stamping it with his knees and feet “Oh, my darlin’! make yourself easy. I’ll save ye! I’ll save ye if I die for it,” he cried.
And through the smoke and the fire and the terror Elspie answered back: “I’ll not leave ye, my Donald. We’re gettin’ it under.” And with her own scorched hands she pulled the coat-flaps down over the smouldering bits of flax, and tore off her burning garments.
Not a coward thread in her whole body had little Elspie, and in less time than the story could ever be told, all was over, and safely; and there they sat on the ground, the two, locked in each other’s arms,–Donald’s beard gone, and much of his hair; Elspie’s pretty golden hair also blackened, burned. It was the first thing Donald saw after he made sure danger was past. Laying his hand on her head, he said, with a half-sob,–he was hysterical now there was nothing more to be done: “Oh, your bonny hair, my darlin’! It’s all scorched away.”
“It’ll grow!” said Elspie, looking up in his eyes archly. Her head was on his shoulder, and she nestled closer; then she burst into tears and laughter together, crying: “Oh, Donald, it was for you I was callin’. Did ye hear me? I said to myself when the fire took hold, ‘O God, send Donald to save me!'”
“An’ he sent me, my darlin’,” answered Donald. “Ye are my own darlin’; say it, Elspie, say it!” he continued. “Oh, ye bonny bairn, but I’ve loved ye like death since the first day I set eyes on your bonny face! Say ye’re my darlin’!”
But he knew it without her saying a word; and the whispered “Yes, Donald, I’m your darlin’ if you want me,” did not make him any surer.
There was a great outcrying and trembling of hearts at the farm-house when Donald and Elspie appeared in this sorry plight of torn and burned clothes, blackened faces, scorched and singed hair. But thankfulness soon swept away all other emotions,–thankfulness and a great joy, too; for Donald’s second word was, turning to the old father: “An’ it is my own that I’ve saved; she’s gien hersel’ to me for all time, an’ we’ll ask for your blessin’ on us without any waitin’!” Tears filled the mother’s eyes. She thought of another daughter. A dire instinct smote her of woe to Katie.
“Ay, Donald,” she said, “it’s a good day to us to see ye enter the house as a son; but I never thought o’–” She stopped.
Donald’s quick consciousness imagined part of what she had on her mind. “No,” he said, half sad in the midst of his joy, “o’ course ye didn’t; an’ I wonder at mysel’. It’s like winter weddin’ wi’ spring, ye’ll be sayin’. But I’ll keep young for her sake. Ye’ll see she’s no old man for a husband. There’s nothing in a’ the world I’ll not do for the bairn. It’s no light love I bear her.”
“Ye’ll be tellin’ Katie on the morrow?” said the unconscious Elspie.
“Ay, ay,” replied the equally unconscious Donald; “an’ she’ll be main glad o’ ‘t. It’s a hundred times in the summer that she’s been sayin’ how she longed to have you in the town wi’ her. An’ now ye’re comin’, comin’ soon, oh, my bonny. I’ll make a good home for ye both. Katie’s the same’s my own, too, for always.”
The mother gazed earnestly at Donald. Could it be that he was so unaware of Katie’s heart? “Donald,” she said suddenly, “I’ll go down wi’ ye if ye’ll take me. I’ve been wantin’ to go. There’s a many things I’ve to do in the town.”
It had suddenly occurred to her that she might thus save Katie the shock of hearing the news first from Donald’s lips.
It was well she did. When, with stammering lips and she hardly knew in what words, she finally broke it to Katie that Donald had asked Elspie to be his wife, and that Elspie loved him, and they would soon be married, Katie stared into her face for a moment with wide, vacant eyes, as if paralyzed by some vision of terror. Then, turning white, she gasped out, “Mother!” No word more. None was necessary.
“Ay, my bairn, I know,” said the mother, with a trembling voice; “an’ I came mysel’ that no other should tell ye.”
A long silence followed, broken only by an occasional shuddering sigh from Katie; not a tear in her eyes, and her cheeks as scarlet as they had been white a few moments before. The look on her face was terrifying.
“Will it kill ye, bairn?” sobbed the mother at last. “Don’t look so. It must be borne, my bairn; it must be borne.”
It was a shrill voice, unlike Katie’s, which replied: “Ay, I’ll bear it; it must be borne. There’s none knows it but you, mother,” she added, with a shade of relief in the tone.
“An’ never will if ye’re brave, bairn,” answered the mother.
“It was the day of the picnic,” cried Katie; “was’t not? I remember he said she was bonny.”
“Ay, ’twas then,” replied the mother, so sorely torn between her love for the two daughters, between whom had fallen this terrible sword. “Ay, it was then. He says she has not been out of his mind by the night or by the day since it.”
Katie shivered. “And it was I brought him,” she said, with a tearless sob bitterer than any loud weeping. “Ye’ll be goin’ back the night?” she added drearily.
“I’ll bide if ye want me,” said the mother.
“I’m better alone, mother,” said Katie, her voice for the first time faltering. “I’ll bear it. Never fear me, mother; but I’m best alone for a bit. Ye’ll give my warm love to Elspie, an’ send her down here to me to stay till she’s married. I’ll help her best if she’s here. There’ll be much to be done. I’ll do ‘t, mother; never fear me.”
“Are ye countin’ too much on yer strength, bairn?” asked the now weeping mother. “I’d rather see ye give way like.”
“No, no,” cried Katie, impatiently. “Each one has his own way, mother; let me have mine. I’ll work for Donald and Elspie all I can. Ye know she was always like my own bairn more than a sister. The quicker she comes the better for me, mother. It’ll be all over then. Eh, but she’ll be a bonny bride!” And at these words Katie’s tears at last flowed.
“There, there, bairn! Have out the tears; they’re healin’ to grief,” exclaimed her mother, folding her arms tight around her and drawing her head down on her shoulder as she had done in her babyhood.
Katie was right. When she had Elspie by her side, and was busily at work in helping on all the preparations for the wedding, the worst was over. There was a strange blending of pang and pleasure in the work. Katie wondered at herself; but it grew clearer and clearer to her each day that since Donald could not be hers she was glad he was Elspie’s. “If he’d married a stranger it would ha’ broke my heart far worse, far worse,” she said many a time to herself as she sat patiently stitching, stitching, on Elspie’s bridal clothes. “He’s my own in a way, after a’, so long’s he’s my brother. There’s nobody can rob me o’ that.” And the sweet light of unselfish devotion beamed more and more in her countenance, till even the mother that bore her was deceived, and said in her heart that Katie could not have been so very much in love with Donald after all.
There was one incident which for a few moments sorely tested Katie’s self-control. The spray of white heather blossom which she had worn to the June picnic she had on the next day put back in her box of flowers for sale, hoping that she might yet find a customer for it. The delicate bells were not injured either in shape or color. It was a shame to lose it for one day’s wear, thought the thrifty Katie; and most surely she herself would never wear it again. She could not even see it without a flush of mortification as she recalled Donald’s contempt for it. The privileged Elspie, rummaging among all Katie’s stores, old and new, spied this white heather cluster one day, and snatching it up exclaimed: “The very thing for my weddin’ bonnet, Katie! I’ll have it in. The bride o’ the master o’ the ‘Heather Bell’ should be wed with the heather bloom on her.”
Katie’s face flushed. “It’s been worn, Elspie,” she said; “I had it in a bonnet o’ my own. Don’t ye remember I wore it to the picnic? an’ then it didna suit, an’ I put it back in the box. It’s not fit for ye. I’ve a bunch o’ lilies o’ the valley, better.”
“No; I’ll have this,” pursued Elspie. “It’s as white’s the driven snow, an’ not hurt at all. I’m sure Donald’ll like it better than all the other flowers i’ the town.”
“Indeed, then, he won’t,” said Katie, sharply; on which Elspie turned upon her with a flashing eye, and said,–
“An’ which ‘ll be knowin’ best, do ye think? What is it ye mean?”
“Nothing,” said Katie, meekly; “only he said, that day I’d the bonnet on, it was no more than sticks, an’ not like the true heather at all.”
“All he knows, then! Ye’ll see he’ll not say it looks like sticks when it’s on the bonnet I’m goin’ to church in,” retorted Elspie, dancing to the looking-glass, and holding the white heather bells high up against her golden curls. “It’s the only flower in all yer boxes I want, Katie, and ye’ll not grudge it to me, will ye, dear?” And the sparkling Elspie threw herself on the floor by Katie, and flung her arms across her knees, looking up into her face with a wilful, loving smile.
“No wonder Donald loves her so,–the bonny thing!” thought Katie. “God knows I’d grudge ye nothing on earth, Elspie,” she said, in a voice so earnest that Elspie looked wonderingly at her.
“Is it a very dear flower, sister?” she said penitently. “Does it cost too much money for Elspie?”
“No, bairn, it’s not too dear,” said Katie, herself again. “The lilies were dearer. But ye’ll have the heather an’ welcome, if ye will; an’ I doubt not it’ll look all right in Donald’s eyes when he sees it this time.”
It was indeed a good home that Donald made for his wife and her sister. He was better to do in worldly goods than they had supposed. His long years of seclusion from society had been years of thrift and prosperity. No more milliner-work for Katie. Donald would not hear of it. So she was driven to busy herself with the house, keeping from Elspie’s willing and eager hands all the harder tasks, and laying up stores of fine-spun linen and wool for future use in the family. It was a marvel how content Katie found herself as the winter flew by. The wedding had taken place at Christmas, and the two sisters and Donald had gone together from the church to Donald’s new house, where, in a day or two, everything had settled into peaceful grooves of simple, industrious habit, as if they had been there all their lives.
Donald’s happiness was of the deep and silent kind. Elspie did not realize the extent of it. A freer-spoken, more demonstrative lover would have found heartier response and more appreciation from her. But she was a loyal, loving, contented little wife, and there could not have been found in all Charlottetown a happier household, to the eye, than was Donald’s for the first three months after his marriage.
Then a cloud settled on it. For some inexplicable reason the blooming Elspie, who had never had a day’s illness in her life, drooped in the first approach of the burden of motherhood. A strange presentiment also seized her. After the first brief gladness at the thought of holding a child of her own in her arms, she became overwhelmed with a melancholy certainty of her own death.
“I’ll never live to see it, Katie,” she said again and again. “It’ll be your bairn, an’ not mine. Ye’ll never give it up, Katie?–promise me. Ye’ll take care of it all your life?–promise.” And Katie, terrified by her earnestness, promised everything she asked, all the while striving to reassure her that her fears were needless.
No medicines did Elspie good; mind and body alike reacted on each other; she failed hour by hour till the last; and when her time of trial came, the sad presentiment fulfilled itself, and she died in giving birth to her babe.
When Katie brought the child to the stunned and stricken Donald, saying, “Will ye not look at him, Donald? it is as fine a man-child’s was ever seen,” he pushed her away, saying in a hoarse whisper,–
“Never let me see its face. She said it was to be your bairn and not hers. Take it and go. I’ll never look on it.”
Donald was out of his reason when he spoke these words, and for long after. They bore with him tenderly and patiently, and did as they could for the best; Katie, the wan and grief-stricken Katie, being the chief adviser and planner of all.
Elspie’s body was carried home and buried near the spruce grove, in a little copse of young spruces which Donald pointed out. This was the only wish he expressed about anything. Katie took the baby with her to the old homestead. She dared not try to rear it without her mothers help.
It was many months before Donald came to the farm. This seemed strange to all except Katie. To her it seemed the most natural thing, and she grew impatient with all who thought otherwise.
“I’d feel that way mysel’,” she repeated again and again. “He’ll come when he can, but it’ll be long first. Ye none of ye know what a love it was he’d in his heart for Elspie.”
When at last Donald came, the child, the little Donald, was just able to creep,–a chubby, blue-eyed, golden-haired little creature, already bearing the stamp and likeness of his mother’s beauty.
At the first sight of his face Donald staggered, buried his head in his hands, and turned away. Then, looking again, he stretched out his arms, took the baby in them, and kissed him convulsively over and over. Katie stood by, looking on, silently weeping. “He’s like her,” she said.
“Ay,” said Donald.
The healing had begun. “A little child shall lead them,” is of all the Bible prophecies the one oftenest fulfilled. It soon grew to be Donald’s chiefest pleasure to be with his boy, and he found more and more irksome the bonds of business which permitted him so few intervals of leisure to visit the farm. At last one day he said to Katie,–
“Katie, couldn’t ye make your mind up to come up to Charlottetown? I’d get ye a good house, an’ ye could have who ye’d like to live wi’ ye. I’m like one hungry all the time I’m out o’ reach o’ the little lad.”
Katie’s eyes fell. She did not know what to reply.
“I do not know, Donald,” she faltered. “It’s hard for you having him away, but this is my home now, Donald. I’ve a dread o’ leavin’ it. And there is nobody I know who could come to live with me.”
A strange thought shot through Donald’s brain. “Katie,” he said, then paused. Something in the tone startled Katie. She lifted her eyes; read in his the thought which had made the tone so significant to her ear.
Unconsciously she cried out at the sight, “Oh, Donald!”
“Ay, Katie,” he said slowly, with a grave tenderness, “why might not I come and live wi’ ye? Are ye not the mother o’ my child? Did she not give him to ye with her own lips? An’ how could ye have him without me? I think she must ha’ meant it so. Let me come, Katie.”
It was an unimpassioned wooing; but any other would have repelled Katie’s sense of loyalty and truth.
“Have ye love for me, Donald?” she said searchingly.
“All the love left in me is for the little lad and for you, Katie,” answered Donald. “I’ll not deceive you, Katie. It’s but a broken man I am; but I’ve always loved ye, Katie. I’ll be a good man t’ ye, lass. Come and be the little lad’s mother, and let me live wi’ my own once more. Will ye come?” As he said these words, he stretched out his arms toward Katie; and she, trembling, afraid to be glad, shadowed by the sad past, yet trusting in the future, crept into them, and was folded close to the heart she had so faithfully loved all her life.
“I promised Elspie,” she whispered, “that I’d never, never give him to another.”
“Ay,” said Donald, as he kissed her. “He’s your bairn, my Katie. Ye’ll be content wi’ me, Katie?”
“Yes, Donald, if I make you content,” she replied; and a look of heavenly peace spread over her face.
The next morning Katie went alone to Elspie’s grave. It seemed to her that only there could she venture to look her new future in the face. As she knelt by the low mound, her tears falling fast, she murmured,–
“Eh, my bonny Elspie, ye’d the best o’ his love. But it’s me that’ll be doin’ for him till I die, an’ that’s better than a’ the love.”
Everything in this world is relative, and nothing more so than the significance of the same word in different localities. If Dandy Steve had walked Broadway in the same clothes which he habitually wore in the Adirondack wilderness, not only would nobody have called him a dandy, but every one would have smiled sarcastically at the suggestion of that epithet’s being applied to him. Nevertheless, “Dandy Steve” was the name by which he was familiarly known all through the Saranac region; and judging by the wilderness standard, the adjective was not undeserved. No such flannel shirts, no such jaunty felt hats, no such neckties, had ever been worn by Adirondack guides as Dandy Steve habitually wore. And as for his buck-skin trousers, they would not have disgraced a Sioux chief,–always of the softest and yellowest skins, always daintily made, the seams set full of leather fringes, and sometimes marked by lines of delicate embroidery in white quills. There were those who said that Dandy Steve had an Indian wife somewhere on the Upper Saranac, but nobody knew; and it would have been a bold man who asked an intrusive question of Dandy Steve, or ventured on any impertinent jesting about his private affairs. Certain it was that none but Indian hands embroidered the fine buckskins he wore; but, then, there were such buckskins for sale,–perhaps he bought them. A man who would spend the money he did for neckties and fine flannel shirts would not stop at any extravagance in the price of trousers. The buckskins, however, were not the only evidence in this case. There was a well-authenticated tale of a brilliant red shawl–a woman’s shawl–and a pair of silver bangles once seen in Dandy Steve’s cabin. A man had gone in upon him suddenly one evening without the formality of knocking. Such foolish conventionalities were not in vogue on the Saranac; this was before Steve took to guiding. It was in the first year after he appeared in that region, while he was living like a hermit alone, or supposed to be alone, in a tiny log cabin on an island not much bigger than his cabin.
This man–old Ben, the oldest guide there–having been hindered at some of the portages, and finding himself too late to reach his destination that night, seeing the glimmer of light from Steve’s cabin, had rowed to the island, landed, and, with the thoughtless freedom of the country, walked in at the half-open door.
He was fond of telling the story of his reception; and as he told it, it had a suspicious sound, and no mistake. Steve was sitting in a big arm-chair before his table; over the arm of the chair was flung the red shawl. On the table lay an open book and the silver bangles in it, as if some one had just thrown them off. At sound of entering footsteps Steve sprang up, with an angry oath, and hastily closing the book threw it and the bangles into the chair from which he had risen, then crowded the shawl down upon them into as small a compass as possible.
“His eyes blazed like lightnin’, or sharper,” said old Ben, “an’ I declare t’ ye I was skeered. Fur a minut I thought he was a loonatic, sure’s death. But in a minut more he was all right, an’ there couldn’t nobody treat a feller handsomer than he did me that night an’ the next mornin’; but I took notice that the fust thing he done was to heave a big blanket kind o’ careless like into the chair, an’ cover the things clean up; an’ then in a little while he says, a-sweepin’ the whole bundle up in his arms, ‘I’ll just clear up this little mess, an’ give ye a comfortable chair to sit in;’ an’ he carried it all–blanket, book, bracelets, shawl, an’ all–into the next room, an’ throwed ’em on the floor in a pile in one corner. There wa’n’t but them two rooms to the cabin, so that wa’n’t any place for her to be hid, if so be ‘s there was any woman ’round; an’ he said he was livin’ alone, an’ had been ever since he come. An’ it was nigh a year then since he come, so I never know’d what to make on ‘t, an’ I don’t suppose there’s anybody doos know any more ‘n I do; but if them wa’n’t women’s gear he had out there that night I hain’t never seen any women’s gear, that’s all! Whose’omeever they was, I hain’t no idea, nor how they got there; but they was women’s gear. Dandy’s Steve is he couldn’t ha’ had any use for sech a shawl’s that, let alone sayin’ what he’d wanted o’ bracelets on his arms!”
“That’s so,” was the universal ejaculation of Ben’s audience when he reached this point in his narrative, and there seemed to be little more to be said on either side. This was all there was of the story. It must stand in each man’s mind for what it was worth, according to his individual bias of interpretation. But it had become an old story long before the time at which our later narrative of Dandy Steve’s history began; so old, in fact, that it had not been mentioned for years, until the events now about to be chronicled revived it in the minds of Steve’s associates and fellow-guides.
Before the end of Steve’s first year in his wilderness retreat he had become as conversant with every nook and corner of its labyrinthian recesses as the oldest guides in the region. Not a portage, not a short cut unfamiliar to him; not a narrow winding brook wide enough for a canoe to float in that he did not know. He had spent all his days and many of his nights in these solitary wanderings. Visitors to the region grew wonted to the sight of the comely figure in the slight birch canoe, shooting suddenly athwart their track, or found lying idly in some dark and shaded stream-bed. On the approach of strangers he would instantly away, lifting his hat courteously if there were ladies in the boats he passed, otherwise taking no more note of the presence of human beings than of that of the deer, or the wild fowl on the water. He was not a handsome man, but there was a something in his face at which all looked twice,–men as well as women. It was an unfathomable look,–partly of pain, partly of antagonism. His eyes habitually sought the sky, yet they did not seem to perceive what they gazed upon; it was as if they would pierce beyond it.
“What a strange face!” was a common ejaculation on the part of those thus catching glimpses of his upturned countenance. More than once efforts were made by hunters who encountered him to form his acquaintance; but they were always courteously repelled. Finally he came to be spoken of as the “hermit;” and it was with astonishment, almost incredulity, that, in the spring of his third year in the Adirondacks, he was found at “Paul Smith’s” offering his services as guide to a party of gentlemen who, their guide having fallen suddenly ill, were in sore straits for some one to take them down again through the lakes.
Whether it was that he had grown suddenly weary of his isolation and solitude, or whether need had driven him to this means of earning money, no one knew, and he did not say. But once having entered on the life of a guide, he threw himself into it as heartily as if it had been his life-long avocation, and speedily became one of the best guides in the region. It was observed, however, that whenever he could do so he avoided taking parties in which there were ladies. Sometimes for a whole season it would happen that he had not once been seen in charge of such a party. Sometimes, when it was difficult, in fact impossible, for him to assign any reason for refusing to go with parties containing members of the obnoxious sex, he would at the last moment privately entreat some other guide to take his place, and, voluntarily relinquishing all the profits of the engagement, disappear and be lost for several days. During these absences it was often said, “Steve’s gone to see his wife,” or, “Off with that Indian wife o’ his up North;” and these vague, idle, gossiping conjectures slowly crystallized into a positive rumor which no one could either trace or gainsay.
And so the years went on,–one, two, three, four,–and Dandy Steve had become one of the most popular and best-known guides in the Adirondack country. His seeming effeminacy of attire had been long proved to mark no effeminacy of nature, no lack of strength. There was not a better shot, a stronger rower, on the list of summer guides; nor a better cook and provider. Every party which went out under his care returned with warm praise for Steve, with a friendly feeling also, which would in many instances have warmed into familiar acquaintance if Steve would have permitted it. But with all his cheerfulness and obliging good-will he never lost a certain quantity of reserve. Even the men whose servant he was for the time being were insensibly constrained to respect this, and to keep the distance he, not they, determined. There remained always something they could not, as the phrase was, “make out” about him. His aversion to women was well known; so much so that it had come to be a tacitly understood thing that parties of which women were members need not waste their time trying to induce Dandy Steve to take them in charge.
But fate had not lost sight of Steve yet. He had had his period of solitary independence, of apparent absolute control of his own destinies. His seven years were up. If he had supposed that he was serving them, like Jacob of old, for that best-beloved mistress, Freedom, he was mistaken. The seven years were up. How little he dreamed what the eighth would bring him!
It was midsummer, and one of Steve’s best patrons, Richard Cravath, of Philadelphia, had not yet appeared. For three summers Mr. Cravath and two or three of his friends had spent a month in the Adirondacks hunting, fishing, camping under Steve’s guidance. They were all rich men, and generous, and, what was to Steve of far more worth than the liberal pay, considerate of his feelings, tolerant of his reticence; not a man of them but respected their queer, silent guide’s individuality as much as if he had been a man of their own sphere of life. Steve had learned, by some unpleasant experience, that this delicate consideration did not always obtain between employers and employed. It takes an organization finer than the ordinary to perceive, and live up to the perception, that the fact that you have hired a man for a certain sum of money per month to cook your food or drive your horses gives you no right to ask him in regard to his private, personal affairs prying questions which you would not dare to put to common acquaintances in society.
As week after week went by and no news came from Mr. Cravath, Steve found himself really saddened at the thought of not seeing him. He had not realized how large a part of his summer’s pleasure, as well as profit, came from the month’s sport with this Philadelphia party. Wistfully he scrutinized the lists of arrivals at the different houses day after day, for the familiar names; but they were not to be found. At last, after he had given over looking for them, he was electrified, one evening in September, by having his name called from the piazza of one of the hotels,–“Steve, is that you? You’re just the man I want; I was afraid we were too late to get you!”
It was Mr. Cravath, and with him the two friends whom Steve had liked best of all who had been in Mr. Cravath’s parties. It was the joy of the sudden surprise which prevented Steve’s giving his customary close attention to Mr. Cravath’s somewhat vague description of the party he had brought this time.
“You must arrange for eight, Steve,” he said. “There may not be quite so many. One or two of the fellows I hoped for have not arrived, and it is too late to wait long for any one. If they are not here by day after to-morrow we will start.–And oh, Steve,” he continued, with an affected careless ease, but all the while eying Steve’s face anxiously, “I forgot to mention that I have brought my wife along this time. She positively refused to let me off. She said she was tired of hearing so much about the Adirondacks! She was coming this time to see for herself. You needn’t have the least fear about having her along! She’s as good a traveller as I am, every bit; I’ve had her in training at it for thirty years, and I tell her, old as we are, we are better campers than most of the young people.”
“That’s so, Mr. Cravath,” replied Steve, his countenance clouded and his voice less joyous, “I’ll answer for it with you; but do you think, sir, any lady could go where we went last year?”
In his heart Steve was saying to himself: “The idea of bringing an old woman out here! I wouldn’t do it for anybody in the world but Mr. Cravath.”
“My wife can go anywhere and do anything that I can, Steve,” said Mr. Cravath. “You need not begin to look blue, Steve; and if you back out, or serve us any of your woman-hating tricks, such as I’ve heard of, I’ll never speak to you again,–never.”
“I wouldn’t serve you any trick, Mr. Cravath, you know that,” replied Steve, proudly; “and I haven’t the least idea of backing out. But I am afraid Mrs. Cravath will be disappointed,” he added, as he went down the steps, and luckily did not turn his head to see Mr. Cravath’s face covered with the laughter he had been restraining during the last few moments.
“Caught him, by Jove!” he said, turning to his companion, a tall dark-faced man,–“caught him, by Jove, Randall! He never once thought to ask of what sex the other members of the party might be. He took it for granted my wife was to be the only woman.”
“Do you think that was quite fair, Cravath?” replied Mr. Randall. “He would never have taken us in the world if he had known there were three women in the party.”
“Pshaw!” laughed Mr. Cravath. “Good enough for him for having such a crotchet in his head. We’ll take it out of him this trip.”
“Or set it stronger than ever,” said Mr. Randall. “My mind misgives me. We shall wish we had not done it. He may turn sulky and unmanageable on our hands when he finds himself trapped.”
“I’ll risk it,” said Mr. Cravath, confidently. “If I can’t bring him around, Helen Wingate will. I never saw the man, woman, child, or dumb beast yet that could resist her.”
Mr. Randall sighed. “Poor child!” he said. “Isn’t her gayety something wonderful? One would not think to look at her that she had ever had an hour’s sorrow; but my wife tells me that she cannot speak of that husband of hers yet without the most passionate weeping!”
“I know it! It’s a shame,” replied Mr. Cravath, “to see a glorious woman like that throwing her life away on a memory. I did have a hope at one time that she would marry again; but I’ve given it up. If she would have married any one, it would have been George Walton last winter. No one has ever come so near her as he did; but she sent him off at last, like all the rest.”
The “two fellows” on whom Mr. Cravath was counting to make up his party of eight did not appear; and on the second morning after the above conversations Steve received orders to have his boats in readiness at ten o’clock to start with the Cravath party, only six in number.
Old Ben was on the wharf as Steve was making his final arrangements.
“Wall, Steve,” he said, shifting his quid of tobacco in a leisurely manner from one side of his mouth to the other, “you’ve got a soft thing again. You’re a damned lucky fellow, Steve; dunno whether you know it or not.”
“No, I don’t know it,” replied Steve, curtly; “and what’s more, I don’t believe in luck.”
“Don’t yer?” said Ben, reflectively. “Wall, I do; an’ Lord knows ‘t ain’t because I’ve seen so much of it. Say, Steve,” he added, “how’d ye come to take on such a lot o’ women folks, this trip?”
“Lot o’ women folks! what d’ ye mean?” shouted Steve. “There’s no womenkind going except one,–Mr. Cravath’s wife; and I wish to thunder he’d left her behind.”
“Oh, is that all?” said Ben, half innocently, half mischievously,–he was not quite sure of his ground; “be the rest on ’em goin’ to stay here? There’s three women in the party. Mr. Randall he’s got his wife, and there’s a widder along, too; mighty fine-lookin’ she is; aren’t nothin’ old about her, I can tell yer!”
A flash shot from Steve’s eyes. A half-smothered ejaculation came from his lips as he turned fiercely towards Ben.
“There they be, now, all a-comin’ down the steps,” continued Ben, chuckling. “I reckon ye got took in for onst; but it’s too late now.”
“Yes,” thought Steve, angrily, as he looked at the smiling party coming towards the landing,–three men and three women.
“It’s too late now. If it had been a half-hour sooner ‘twould have been early enough. But it’s the last time I’m caught in any such way. What a blamed fool I was not to ask who they were! Never thought of the Cravath set lumbering themselves up with women!” And a very unpromising sternness settled down on Steve’s expressive features as he stooped down to readjust some of the smaller packages in the boat.
Meantime the members of the approaching party were not wholly at ease in their minds. Mr. Cravath had confessed his suppression of the truth, and Mr. Randall’s evident misgiving as to the success of the experiment had proved contagious. “If he’s as queer as you say,” murmured Mrs. Cravath, “he can make it awfully disagreeable for us. I am almost afraid to go.”
“Nonsense!” cried Helen Wingate, merrily. “I’ll take that out of him before night. Who ever heard of a man’s really disliking women! It is only some particular woman he’s disliked. He won’t dislike us! He sha’n’t dislike me! I’m going to take him by storm! Let me run ahead and jump in first.” And she danced on in advance of the rest.
“Wait, Mrs. Wingate!” cried Mr. Cravath, hurrying after her. “Let me come with you.”
But he was too late; she ran on, and as she reached the shore, sprang lightly on the plank, calling out: “Oh, there are all our things in already! Guide, guide, please give me your hand, quick! I want to be the first one in the boat.”
Steve rose slowly,–turned. At the first glimpse of his face Helen Wingate uttered a shriek which rang in the air, and fell backwards on the sand insensible.
“Good God! she lost her footing!” exclaimed Mr. Cravath.
“She is killed!” cried the others, as they hurried breathlessly to the spot. But when they reached it, there knelt Dandy Steve on the ground by her side, his face whiter than hers, his eyes streaming with tears, his arms around her, calling, “Helen! Helen!”
At the sound of footsteps and voices he looked up, and, instantly seeking Mr. Cravath’s face, gasped: “She is my wife, Mr. Cravath!”
The dumbness of unutterable astonishment fell on the whole party at these words; but in another second, rallying from the shock; they knelt around the seemingly lifeless woman, trying to arouse her. Presently she opened her eyes, and, seeing Mrs. Randall’s face bending above her, said faintly: “It’s Stephen! I always knew I should find him somewhere.” Then she sank away again into unconsciousness.
The party for the lakes must be postponed; that was evident. Neither would it go out under the guidance of Dandy Steve, nor would Mrs. Wingate go with it; those two things were equally evident.
Which facts, revolving slowly in Old Ben’s brain, led him to seat himself on the shore and abide the course of events. When, about noon, Mr. Cravath appeared, coming to look after their hastily abandoned effects, Old Ben touched his hat civilly, and said: “Good-day, sir; I thought maybe I’d get this job o’ guidin’ now. Leastways, I’d stay by yer truck here till somebody come to look it up.”
Old Ben was the guide of all others Mr. Cravath would have chosen, next to Dandy Steve.
“By Jove, Ben,” he said, “this is luck! Can you go off with us at once? Steve has got other business on hand. That lady is his wife, from whom he has been separated many years.”
“So I heerd him say, sir, when he was a-pickin’ her up,” answered Ben, composedly, as if such things were a daily occurrence in the Adirondacks.
“Can you go with us at once?” continued Mr. Cravath.
“In an hour, sir,” said Ben.
And in an hour they were off, a bewildered but on the whole a relieved and happier party than they had been in the morning. Helen Wingate’s long sorrow in the mysterious disappearance of her husband had ennobled and purified her character, and greatly endeared her to her friends; but that which had seemed to them to be explainable only by the fact of his death or his unworthiness she knew was explainable by her own folly and pride.
The end of the story is best told in Old Ben’s words. He was never tired of telling it.
“I never heered exactly the hull partikelers,” he said, “for they’d gone long before we got back, and the folks she was with wa’n’t the kind that talks much; but I could see they set a store by her. They’d always liked Steve, too, up here’s a guide. They niver know’d him while he was a-livin’ with her, else they’d ha’ know’d him here; but he hadn’t lived with her but a mighty little while’s near’s I could make out. Yer see, she was powerful rich, an’ he hadn’t but little; ‘n’ for all she was so much in love with him, she couldn’t help a-throwin’ it up to him, sort o’, an’ he couldn’t stan’ it. So he jest lit out; an’ he’d never ha’ gone back to her,–never under the shining sun. He’d got jest that grit in him. She’d been a-huntin’ everywhere, they said,–all over Europe, ‘n’ Azhay, ‘n’ Africa, till she’d given up huntin’; an’ he was right close tu hum all the time. He was a first-rate feller, ‘n’ we was all glad when his luck come ter him ‘t last. I wished I could ha’ seen him to ‘ve asked him if he didn’t b’leeve in luck now! Me ‘n’ him was talkin’ about luck that very mornin’ while she was a-steppin’ down the landin’ towards him’s fast ‘s ever she could go! My eyes! how that woman did come a runnin’, an’ a-callin’, ‘Guide! guide!’ I sha’n’t never forgit it. I asked some o’ the fellers how she looked when they went off, an’ they said her eyes was shinin’ like stars; but there wasn’t any more of her face to be seen, for she was rolled up in a big red shawl, It gits hoppin’ cold here in September. I’ve always thought’t was that same red shawl he had in his cabin; but I dunno’s ’twas.”
“Wall, I bet they had a fust-rate time on that weddin’ journey o’ theirn,” said one of Ben’s rougher cronies one day at the end of the narrative; “‘t ain’t every feller gets the chance o’ two honeymoons with the same woman.”
Old Ben looked at him attentively. “Youngster,” said he, “‘t ain’t strange, I suppose, young’s you be, th’t ye should look at it that way; but ye’re off, crony. Ye don’t seem ter recolleck ’bout all them years they’d lost out of their lives. I tell ye, it’s kind o’ harrowin’ ter me. Old’s I am, and hain’t never felt no call ter be married nuther, it’s kind o’ harrowin’ ter me yit ter think o’ that woman’s yell she giv’ when she seed Steve’s face. If thar warn’t jest a hull lifetime o’ misery in’t, ‘sides the joy o’ findin’ him, I ain’t no jedge. I haven’t never felt no call ter marry, ‘s I sed; but if I had I wouldn’t ha’ been caught cuttin’ up no sech didos’s that,–a-throwin’ away years o’ time they might ha’ hed together ‘z well’s not! Ther’ ain’t any too much o’ this life, anyhow; ‘t kinder looks ter you youngsters’s ef ‘t ‘d last forever. I know how ’tis. I hain’t forgot nothin’, old’s I am. But I tell you, when ye’re old’s I am, ‘n’ look back on ‘t, ye’ll be s’prised ter see how short ’tis, an’ ye’ll reelize more what a fool a man is, or a woman too,–an’ I do s’pose they’re the foolishest o’ ther two,–ter waste a minnit out on ‘t on querrils, or any other kind o’ foolin’.”
The Prince’s Little Sweetheart.
She was very young. No man had ever made love to her before. She belonged to the people,–the common people. Her parents were poor, and could not buy any wedding trousseau for her. But that did not make any difference. A carriage was sent from the Court for her, and she was carried away “just as she was,” in her stuff gown,–the gown the Prince first saw her in. He liked her best in that, he said; and, moreover, what odds did it make about clothes? Were there not rooms upon rooms in the palace, full of the most superb clothes for Princes’ Sweethearts?
It was into one of these rooms that she was taken first. On all sides of it were high glass cases reaching up to the ceiling, and filled with gowns and mantles and laces and jewels; everything a woman could wear was there, and all of the very finest. What satins, what velvets, what feathers and flowers! Even down to shoes and stockings,–every shade and color of stockings of the daintiest silk. The Little Sweetheart gazed breathless at them all. But she did not have time to wonder, for in a moment more she was met by attendants, some young, some old, all dressed gayly. She did not dream at first that they were servants, till they began, all together, asking her what she would like to put on. Would she have a lace gown, or a satin? Would she like feathers or flowers? And one ran this way, and one that; and among them all, the Little Sweetheart was so flustered she did not know if she were really alive and on the earth, or had been transported to some fairy land. And before she fairly realized what was being done, they had her clad in the most beautiful gown that was ever seen,–white satin with gold butterflies on it, and a white lace mantle embroidered in gold butterflies. All white and gold she was, from top to toe, all but one foot; and there was something very odd about that. She heard one of the women whispering to the other, behind her back: “It is too bad there isn’t any mate to this slipper! Well, she will have to wear this pink one. It is too big; but if we pin it up at the heel she can keep it on. The Prince really must get some more slippers.”
And then they put on her left foot a pink satin slipper, which was so much too big it had to be pinned up in plaits at each side, and the pearl buckle on the top hid her foot quite out of sight. But the Little Sweetheart did not care. In fact, she had no time to think, for the Queen came sailing in and spoke to her, and crowds of ladies in dresses so bright and beautiful that they dazzled her eyes; and the Prince was there kissing her, and in a minute they were married, and went floating off in a dance, which was so swift it did not feel so much like dancing as it did like being carried through the air by a gentle wind.
Through room after room,–there seemed no end to the rooms, and each one more beautiful than the last,–from garden to garden,–some full of trees, some with beautiful lakes in them, some full of solid beds of flowers,–they went, sometimes dancing, sometimes walking, sometimes, it seemed to the Little Sweetheart, floating. Every hour there was some new beautiful thing to see, some new beautiful thing to do. And the Prince never left her for more than a few minutes; and when he came back he brought her gifts and kissed her. Gifts upon gifts he kept bringing, till the Little Sweetheart’s hands were so full she had to lay the things down on tables or window-sills, wherever she could find place for them,–which was not easy, for all the rooms were so full of beautiful things that it was difficult to move about without knocking something down.
The hours flew by like minutes. The sun came up high in the heavens, but nobody seemed tired; nobody stopped,–dance, dance, whirl, whirl, song and laughter and ceaseless motion. That was all that was to be seen or heard in this wonderful Court to which the Little Sweetheart had been brought.
Noon came, but nothing stopped. Nobody left off dancing, and the musicians played faster than ever.
And so it was all the long afternoon and through the twilight; and as soon as it was really dark, all the rooms and the gardens and the lakes blazed out with millions of lamps, till it was lighter far than day; and the ladies’ dresses, as they danced back and forth, shone and sparkled like butterflies’ wings.
At last the lamps began, one by one, to go out, and by degrees a soft sort of light, like moonlight, settled down on the whole place; and the fine-dressed servants that had robed the Little Sweetheart in her white satin gown took it off, and put her to bed in a gold bedstead, with golden silk sheets.
“Oh,” thought the Little Sweetheart, “I shall never go to sleep in the world, and I’m sure I don’t want to! I shall just keep my eyes open all night, and see what happens next.”
All the beautiful clothes she had taken off were laid on a sofa near the bed,–the white satin dress at top, and the big pink satin slipper, with its huge pearl buckle, on the floor in plain sight. “Where is the other?” thought the Little Sweetheart. “I do believe I lost it off. That’s the way they come to have so many odd ones. But how queer! I lost off the tight one! But the big one was pinned to my foot,” she said, speaking out loud before she thought; “that was what kept it on.”
“You are talking in your sleep, my love,” said the Prince, who was close by her side, kissing her.
“Indeed, I am not asleep at all! I haven’t shut my eyes,” said the Little Sweetheart.
And the next thing she knew it was broad daylight, the sun streaming into her room, and the air resounding in all directions with music and laughter, and flying steps of dancers, just as it had been yesterday.
The Little Sweetheart sat up in bed and looked around her. She thought it very strange that she was all alone! the Prince gone,–no one there to attend to her. In a few moments more she noticed that all her clothes were gone, too.
“Oh,” she thought, “I suppose one never wears the same clothes twice in this Court, and they will bring me others! I hope there will be two slippers alike, to-day.”
Presently she began to grow impatient; but, being a timid little creature, and having never before seen the inside of a Court or been a Prince’s sweetheart, she did not venture to stir, or to make any sound,–only sat still in her bed, waiting to see what would happen. At last she could not bear the sounds of the dancing and laughing and playing and singing any longer. So she jumped up, and, rolling one of the golden silk sheets around her, looked out of the window. There they all were, the crowds of gay people, just as they had been the day before when she was among them, whirling, dancing, laughing, singing. The tears came into the Little Sweetheart’s eyes as she gazed. What could it mean that she was deserted in this way,–not even her clothes left for her? She was as much a prisoner in her room as if the door had been locked.
As hour after hour passed, a new misery began to oppress her. She was hungry,–seriously, distressingly hungry. She had been too happy to eat the day before! Though she had sipped and tasted many delicious beverages and viands, which the Prince had pressed upon her, she had not taken any substantial food, and now she began to feel faint for the want of it. As noon drew near,–the time at which she was accustomed in her father’s house to eat dinner,–the pangs of her hunger grew unbearable.
“I can’t bear it another minute,” she said to herself. “I must, and I will, have something to eat! I will slip down by some back way to the kitchen. There must be a kitchen, I suppose.”
So saying, she opened one of the doors, and timidly peered into the next room. It chanced to be the room with the great glass cases, full of fine gowns and laces, where she had been dressed by the obsequious attendants on the previous day. No one was in the room. Glancing fearfully in all directions, she rolled the golden silk sheet tightly around her, and flew, rather than ran, across the floor, and took hold of the handle of one of the glass doors. Alas! it was locked. She tried another,–another; all were locked. In despair she turned to fly back to her bedroom, when suddenly she spied on the floor, in a corner close by the case where hung her beautiful white satin dress, a little heap of what looked like brown rags. She darted toward it, snatched it from the floor, and in a second more was safe back in her room; it was her own old stuff gown.
“What luck!” said the Little Sweetheart; “nobody will ever know me in this. I’ll put it on, and creep down the back stairs, and beg a mouthful of food from some of the servants, and they’ll never know who I am; and then I’ll go back to bed, and stay there till the Prince comes to fetch me. Of course, he will come before long; and if he comes and finds me gone, I hope he will be frightened half to death, and think I have been carried off by robbers!”
Poor foolish Little Sweetheart! It did not take her many seconds to slip into the ragged old stuff gown; then she crept out, keeping close to the walls, so that she could hide behind the furniture if any one saw her.
She listened cautiously at each door before she opened it, and turned away from some where she heard sounds of merry talking and laughing. In the third room that she entered she saw a sight that arrested her instantly and made her cry out in astonishment,–a girl who looked so much like her that she might have been her own sister, and, what was stranger, wore a brown stuff gown exactly like her own, was busily at work in this room with a big broom killing spiders! As the Little Sweetheart appeared in the doorway, this girl looked up, and said: “Oh, ho! there you are, are you? I thought you’d be out before long.” And then she laughed unpleasantly.
“Who are you?” said the Little Sweetheart, beginning to tremble all over.
“Oh, I’m a Prince’s Sweetheart!” said the girl, laughing still more unpleasantly; and, leaning on her broom, she stared at the Little Sweetheart from top to toe.
“But–” began the Little Sweetheart.
“Oh, we’re all Princes’ Sweethearts!” interrupted several voices, coming all at once from different corners of the big room; and, before the Little Sweetheart could get out another word, she found herself surrounded by half a dozen or more girls and women, all carrying brooms, and all laughing unpleasantly as they looked at her.
“What!” she gasped, as she gazed at their stuff gowns and their brooms. “You were all of you Princes’ Sweethearts? Is it only for one day, then?”
“Only for one day,” they all replied.
“And always after that do you have to kill spiders?” she cried.
“Yes; that or nothing,” they said. “You see it is a great deal of work to keep all the rooms in this Court clean.”
“Isn’t it very dull work to kill spiders?” said the Little Sweetheart.
“Yes, very,” they said, all speaking at once. “But it’s better than sitting still, doing nothing.”
“Don’t the Princes ever speak to you?” sobbed the Little Sweetheart.
“Yes, sometimes,” they answered.
Just then the Little Sweetheart’s own Prince came hurrying by, all in armor from head to foot,–splendid shining armor, that clinked as he walked.
“Oh, there he is!” cried the Little Sweetheart, springing forward; then suddenly she recollected her stuff gown, and shrunk back into the group. But the Prince had seen her.
“Oh, how d’ do!” he said kindly. “I was wondering what had become of you. Good-bye! I’m off for the grand review to-day. Don’t tire yourself out over the spiders. Good-bye!” And he was gone.
“I hate him!” cried the Little Sweetheart, her eyes flashing, and her cheeks scarlet.
“Oh no, you don’t!” exclaimed all the spider-sweepers. “That’s the worst of it. You may think you do; but you don’t. You love him all the time after you’ve once begun.”
“I’ll go home!” said the Little Sweetheart.
“You can’t,” said the others. “It is not permitted.”
“Is it always just like this in this Court?” she asked.
“Yes; always the same. One day just like another,–all whirl and dance from morning till night, and new people coming and going all the time, and spiders most of all. You can’t think how fast brooms wear out in this Court!”
“I’ll die!” said the Little Sweetheart.
“Oh no, you won’t!” they said. “There are some of us, in some of the rooms here, that are wrinkled and gray-haired. The most of the Sweethearts live to be old.”
“Do they?” said the Little Sweetheart, and burst into tears.
“Heavens!” cried I, “what a dream!” as I opened my eyes. There stood the Little Sweetheart in my room, vanishing away, so vivid had been the dream. “A most extraordinary dream!” said I. “I will write it out. Some of the Princes may read it!”