"Look, Aunt Pen! what lovely shells and moss I've got! Such a splendid scramble over the rocks as I've had with Mrs. Duncan's boys! It seemed so like home to run and sing with a troop of topsy-turvy children that it did me good; and I wish you had all been there to see," cried Debby, running into the drawing room, one day, where Mrs. Carroll and a circle of ladies sat enjoying a dish of highly flavored scandal, as they exercised their eyesight over fancy-work.
"My dear Dora, spare my nerves; and if you have any regard for the proprieties of life, don't go romping in the sun with a parcel of noisy boys. If you could see what an object you are, I think you would try to imitate Miss Clara, who is always a model of elegant repose."
Miss West primmed up her lips, and settled a fold in her ninth flounce, as Mrs. Carroll spoke, while the whole group fixed their eyes with dignified disapproval on the invader of their refined society. Debby had come like a fresh wind into a sultry room; but no one welcomed the healthful visitant, no one saw a pleasant picture in the bright-faced girl with wind-tossed hair and rustic hat heaped with moss and many-tinted shells; they only saw that her gown was wet, her gloves forgotten, and her scarf trailing at her waist in a manner no well-bred lady could approve. The sunshine faded out of Debby's face, and there was a touch of bitterness in her tone, as she glanced at the circle of fashion-plates, saying with an earnestness which caused Miss West to open her pale eyes to their widest extent,--
"Aunt Pen, don't freeze me yet,--don't take away my faith in simple things, but let me be a child a little longer,--let me play and sing and keep my spirit blithe among the dandelions and the robins while I can; for trouble comes soon enough, and all my life will be the richer and the better for a happy youth.
Mrs. Carroll had nothing at hand to offer in reply to this appeal, and four ladies dropped their work to stare; but Frank Evan looked in from the piazza, saying, as he beckoned like a boy,--
"I'll play with you, Miss Dora; come and make sand pies upon the shore. Please let her, Mrs. Carroll; we'll be very good, and not wet our pinafores or feet."
Without waiting for permission, Debby poured her treasures in the lap of a certain lame Freddy, and went away to a kind of play she had never known before. Quiet as a chidden child, she walked beside her companion, who looked down at the little figure, longing to take it on his knee and call the sunshine back again. That he dared not do; but accident, the lover's friend, performed the work, and did him a good turn beside. The old Frenchman was slowly approaching, when a frolicsome wind whisked off his hat and sent it skimming along the beach. In spite of her late lecture, away went Debby, and caught the truant chapeau just as a wave was hurrying up to claim it. This restored her cheerfulness, and when she returned, she was herself again.
"A thousand thanks; but does Mademoiselle remember the forfeit I might demand to add to the favor she has already done me?" asked the gallant old gentleman, as Debby took the hat off her own head, and presented it with a martial salute.
"Ah, I had forgotten that; but you may claim it, Sir,--indeed, you may; I only wish I could do something more to give you pleasure"; and Debby looked up into the withered face which had grown familiar to her, with kind eyes, full of pity and respect.
Her manner touched the old man very much; he bent his gray head before her, saying, gratefully,--
"My child, I am not good enough to salute these blooming cheeks; but I shall pray the Virgin to reward you for the compassion you bestow on the poor exile, and I shall keep your memory very green through all my life."
He kissed her hand, as if it were a queen's, and went on his way, thinking of the little daughter whose death left him childless in a foreign land.
Debby softly began to sing, "Oh, come unto the yellow sands!" but stopped in the middle of a line, to say,--
"Shall I tell you why I did what Aunt Pen would call a very unladylike and improper thing, Mr. Evan?"
"If you will be so kind"; and her companion looked delighted at the confidence about to be reposed in him.
"Somewhere across this great wide sea I hope I have a brother," Debby said, with softened voice and a wistful look into the dim horizon. "Five years ago he left us, and we have never heard from him since, except to know that he landed safely in Australia. People tell us he is dead; but I believe he will yet come home; and so I love to help and pity any man who needs it, rich or poor, young or old, hoping that as I do by them some tender-hearted woman far away will do by Brother Will."
As Debby spoke, across Frank Evan's face there passed the look that seldom comes but once to any young man's countenance; for suddenly the moment dawned when love asserted its supremacy, and putting pride, doubt, and fear underneath its feet, ruled the strong heart royally and bent it to its will. Debby's thoughts had floated across the sea; but they came swiftly back when her companion spoke again, steadily and slow, but with a subtile change in tone and manner which arrested them at once.
"Miss Dora, if you should meet a man who had known a laborious youth, a solitary manhood, who had no sweet domestic ties to make home beautiful and keep his nature warm, who longed most ardently to be so blessed, and made it the aim of his life to grow more worthy the good gift, should it ever come,--if you should learn that you possessed the power to make this fellow-creature's happiness, could you find it in your gentle heart to take compassion on him for the love of 'Brother Will'?"
Debby was silent, wondering why heart and nerves and brain were stirred by such a sudden thrill, why she dared not look up, and why, when she desired so much to speak, she could only answer, in a voice that sounded strange to her own ears,--
"I cannot tell."
Still, steadily and slow, with strong emotion deepening and softening his voice, the lover at her side went on,--
"Will you ask yourself this question in some quiet hour? For such a man has lived in the sunshine of your presence for eight happy weeks, and now, when his holiday is done, he finds that the old solitude will be more sorrowful than ever, unless he can discover whether his summer dream will change into a beautiful reality. Miss Dora, I have very little to offer you; a faithful heart to cherish you, a strong arm to work for you, and honest name to give into your keeping,--these are all; but if they have any worth in your eyes, they are most truly yours forever."
Debby was steadying her voice to reply, when a troop of bathers came shouting down the bank, and she took flight into her dressing-room, there to sit staring at the wall, till the advent of Aunt Pen forced her to resume the business of the hour by assuming her aquatic attire and stealing shyly down into the surf.
Frank Evan, still pacing in the footprints they had lately made, watched the lithe figure tripping to and fro, and, as he looked, murmured to himself the last line of a ballad Debby sometimes sang,--
"Dance light! for my heart it lies under your feet, love!"
Presently a great wave swept Debby up, and stranded her very near him, much to her confusion and his satisfaction. Shaking the spray out her eyes, she was hurrying away, when Frank said,--
"You will trip, Miss Dora; let me tie these strings for you"; and, suiting the action to the word, he knelt down and began to fasten the cords of her bathing shoe.
Debby stood looking down at the tall head bent before her, with a curious sense of wonder that a look from her could make a strong man flush and pale, as he had done and she was trying to concoct some friendly speech, when Frank, still fumbling at the knots, said very earnestly and low,--
"Forgive me, if I am selfish in pressing for an answer; but I must go tomorrow, and a single word will change my whole future for the better or the worse. Won't you speak it, Dora?"
If they had been alone, Debby would have put her arms about his neck, and said it with all her heart; but she had a presentiment that she should cry, if her love found vent; and here forty pairs of eyes were on them, and salt water seemed superfluous. Besides, Debby had not breathed the air of coquetry so long without a touch of the infection; and the love of power, that lies dormant in the meekest woman's breast, suddenly awoke and tempted her.
"If you catch me before I reach that rock, perhaps I will say 'Yes,'" was her unexpected answer; and before her lover caught her meaning, she was floating leisurely away.
Frank was not in bathing-costume, and Debby never dreamed that he would take her at her word; but she did not know the man she had to deal with; for, taking no second though, he flung hat and coat away, and dashed into the sea. This gave a serious aspect to Debby's foolish jest. A feeling of dismay seized her, when she saw a resolute face dividing the waves behind her, and thought of the rash challenge she had given; but she had a spirit of her own, and had profited well by Mr. Joe's instructions; so she drew a long breath, and swam as if for life, instead of love. Evan was incumbered by his clothing, and Debby had much the start of him; but, like a second Leander, he hoped to win his Hero, and, lending every muscle to the work, gained rapidly upon the little hat which was his beacon through the foam. Debby heard the deep breathing drawing nearer and nearer, as her pursuer's strong arms cleft the water and sent it rippling past her lips. Something like terror took possession of her for the strength seemed going out of her limbs, and the rock appeared to recede before her; but the unconquerable blood of the Pilgrims was in her veins and "Nil desperandum" her motto; so, setting her teeth, she muttered, defiantly,--
"I'll not be beaten, if I go to the bottom!"
A great splashing arose, and when Evan recovered the use of his eyes, the pagoda-hat had taken a sudden turn, and seemed making for the farthest point of the goal. "I am sure of her now," thought Frank; and, like a gallant sea-god, he bore down upon his prize, clutching it with a shout of triumph. But the hat was empty, and like a mocking echo came Debby's laugh, as she climbed, exhausted, to a cranny in the rock.
"A very neat thing, by Jove! Deuse take me if you a'n't 'an honor to your teacher, and terror to the foe,' Miss Wilder," cried Mr. Joe, as he came up from a solitary cruise and dropped anchor at her side. "Here, bring along the hat, Evan; I'm going to crown the victor with appropriate what-d'-ye-call-'ems," he continued, pulling a handful of sea-weed that looked like well-boiled greens.
Frank came up, smiling; but his lips were white, and in his eye a look Debby could not meet; so, being full of remorse, she naturally assumed an air of gayety, and began to sing the merriest air she knew, merely because she longed to throw herself upon the stones and cry violently.
"It was 'most as exciting as a regatta, and you pulled well, Evan; but you had too much ballast aboard, and Miss Wilder ran up false colors just in time to save her ship. What was the wager?" asked the lively Joseph complacently surveying his marine millinery, which would have scandalized a fashionable mermaid.
"Only a trifle," answered Debby, knotting up her braids with a revengeful jerk.
"It's taken the wind out of your sails, I fancy, Evan, for you look immensely Byronic with the starch minus in you collar and your hair in a poetic toss. Come, I'll try a race with you; and Miss Wilder will dance all the evening with the winner. Bless the man, what's he doing down there? Burying sunfish, hey?"
Frank had been sitting below them on a narrow strip of sand, absently piling up a little mound that bore some likeness to a grave. As his companion spoke, he looked at it, an a sudden flush of feeling swept across his face, as he replied,--
"No, only a dead hope."
"Deuse take it, yes, a good many of that sort of craft founder in these waters as I know to my sorrow"; and, sighing tragically, Mr. Joe turned to help Debby from her perch, but she had glided silently into the sea and was gone.
For the next four hours the poor girl suffered the sharpest pain she had ever known; for now she clearly saw the strait her folly had betrayed her into. Frank Evan was a proud man, and would not ask her love again, believing she had tacitly refused it; and how could she tell him that she had trifled with the heart she wholly loved and longed to make her own? She could not confide in Aunt Pen, for that worldly lady would have no sympathy to bestow. She longed for her mother; but there was no time to write, for Frank was going on the morrow,--might even then be gone; and as this fear came over her, she covered up her face and wished that she were dead. Poor Debby? her last mistake was sadder than her first, and she was reaping a bitter harvest from her summer's sowing. She sat and thought till her cheeks burned and her temples throbbed; but she dared not ease her pain with tears. The gong sounded like a Judgment-Day trump of doom, and she trembled at the idea of confronting many eyes with such a telltale face; but she could not stay behind, for Aunt Pen must know the cause. She tried to play her hard part well; but wherever she looked, some fresh anxiety appeared, as if every fault and folly of those months had blossomed suddenly within the hour. She saw Frank Evan more sombre and more solitary than when she met him first, and cried regretfully within herself, "How could I so forget the truth I owed him?" She saw Clara West watching with eager eyes for the coming of young Leavenworth, and sighed, "This is the fruit of my wicked vanity!" She saw Aunt Pen regarding her with an anxious face, and longed to say, "Forgive me, for I have not been sincere!" At last, as her trouble grew, she resolved to go away and have a quiet "think,"--a remedy which had served her in many a lesser perplexity; so, stealing out, she went to a grove of cedars usually deserted at that hour. But in ten minutes Joe Leavenworth appeared at the door of the summer-house, and, looking in, said, with a well-acted start of pleasure and surprise,--
"Beg pardon, I thought there was no one here. My dear Miss Wilder, you look contemplative; but I fancy it wouldn't do to ask the subject of your meditations, would it?"
He paused with such an evident intention of remaining that Debby resolved to make use of the moment, and ease her conscience of one care that burdened it; therefore she answered his questions with her usual directness,--
"My meditations were partly about you."
Mr. Joe was guilty of the weakness of blushing violently and looking immensely gratified; but his rapture was of short duration, for Debby went on very earnestly,--
"I believe I am going to do what you may consider a very impertinent thing; but I would rather be unmannerly than unjust to others or untrue to my own sense of right. Mr. Leavenworth, if you were an older man, I should not dare to say this to you; but I have brothers of my own, and, remembering how many unkind things they do for want of thought, I venture to remind you that a woman's heart is a perilous plaything, and too tender to be used for a selfish purpose or an hour's pleasure. I know this kind of amusement is not considered wrong; but it is wrong, and I cannot shut my eyes to the fact, or sit silent while another woman is allowed to deceive herself and wound the heart that trusts her. Oh if you love your own sisters, be generous, be just, and do not destroy that poor girl's happiness, but go away before your sport becomes a bitter pain to her!"
Joe Leavenworth had stood staring at Debby with a troubled countenance, feeling as if all the misdemeanors of his life were about to be paraded before him; but, as he listened to her plea, the womanly spirit that prompted it appealed more loudly than her words, and in his really generous heart he felt regret for what had never seemed a fault before. Shallow as he was, nature was stronger than education, and he admired and accepted what many a wiser, worldlier man would have resented with anger or contempt. He loved Debby with all his little might; he meant to tell her so, and graciously present his fortune and himself for her acceptance; but now, when the moment came, the well-turned speech he had prepared vanished from his memory, and with the better eloquence of feeling he blundered out his passion like a very boy.
"Miss Dora, I never meant to make trouble between Clara and her lover ;upon my soul I didn't, and with Seguin had not put the notion into my head, since it has given you pain. I only tried to pique you into showing some regret when I neglected you; but you didn't and then I got desperate and didn't care what became of any one. Oh, Dora, if you knew how much I loved you, I am sure you'd forgive it, and let me prove my repentance by giving up everything that you dislike. I mean what I say; upon my life I do; and I'll keep my word, if you will only let me hope."
If Debby had wanted a proof of her love for Frank Evan, she might have found it in the fact that she had words enough at her command now, and no difficulty in being sisterly pitiful toward her second suitor.
"Please get up," she said; for Mr. Joe, feeling very humble and very earnest, had gone down upon his knees, and sat there entirely regardless of his personal appearance.
He obeyed; and Debby stood looking up at him with her kindest aspect, as she said, more tenderly than she had ever spoken to him before,--
"Thank you for the affection you offer me, but I cannot accept it, for I have nothing to give you in return but the friendliest regard, the most sincere good-will. I know you will forgive me, and do for your own sake the good things you would have done for mine, that I may add to my esteem a real respect for one who has been very kind to me."
"I'll try,--indeed, I will, Miss Dora, though it will be powerful hard without yourself for a help and a reward."
Poor Joe choked a little, but called up an unexpected manliness, and added, stoutly,--
"Don't think I shall be offended at your speaking so, or saying 'No' to me,--not a bit; it's all right, and I'm much obliged to you. I might have known you couldn't care for such a fellow as I am, and don't blame you, for nobody in the world is good enough for you. I'll go away at once, I'll try to keep my promise, and I hope you'll be very happy all your life."
He shook Debby's hands heartily, and hurried down the steps, but at the bottom paused and looked back. Debby stood upon the threshold with sunshine dancing on her winsome face, and kind words trembling on her lips; for the moment it seemed impossible to part, and, with an impetuous gesture, he cried to her,--
"Oh, Dora, let me stay and try to win you! for everything is possible to love, and I never knew how dear you were to me till now!"
There were sudden tears in the young man's eyes, the flush of a genuine emotion on his cheek the tremor of an ardent longing in his voice, and, for the first time, a very true affection strengthened his whole countenance. Debby's heart was full of penitence; she had given so much pain to more than one that she longed to atone for it,--longed to do some very friendly thing, and soothe some trouble such as she herself had known. She looked into the eager face uplifted to her own and thought of Will, then stooped and touched her lover's forehead with the lips that softly whispered, "No."
If she had cared for him, she never would have done it; poor Joe knew that, and murmuring an incoherent "Thank you!" he rushed away, feeling very much as he remembered to have felt when his baby sister died and he wept his grief away upon his mother's neck. He began his preparations for departure at once, in a burst of virtuous energy quite refreshing to behold, thinking within himself, as he flung his cigar-case into the grate, kicked a billiard-ball into a corner, and suppressed his favorite allusion to the Devil,--
"This is a new sort of thing to me, but I can bear it, and upon my life I think I feel the better for it already."
And so he did; for though he was no Augustine to turn in an hour from worldly hopes and climb to sainthood through long years of inward strife, yet in aftertimes no one knew how many false steps had been saved, how many small sins repented of, through the power of the memory that far away a generous woman waited to respect him, and in his secret soul he owned that one of the best moments of his life was that in which little Debby Wilder whispered "No," and kissed him.
As he passed from sight, the girl leaned her head upon her hand, thinking sorrowfully to herself,--
"What right had I to censure him, when my own actions are so far from true? I have done a wicked thing, and as an honest girl I should undo it, if I can. I have broken through the rules of a false propriety for Clara's sake; can I not do as much for Frank's? I will. I'll find him, if I search the house,--and tell him all, though I never dare to look him in the face again, and Aunt Pen sends me home to-morrow."
Full of zeal and courage, Debby caught up her hat and ran down the steps, but, as she saw Frank Evan coming up the path, a sudden panic fell upon her, and she could only stand mutely waiting his approach.
It is asserted that Love is blind; and on the strength of that popular delusion novel heroes and heroines go blundering through three volumes of despair with the plain truth directly under their absurd noses: but in real life this theory is not supported; for to a living man the countenance of a loving woman is more eloquent than any language, more trustworthy than a world of proverbs, more beautiful than the sweetest love-lay ever sung.
Frank looked at Debby, and "all her heart stood up in her eyes," as she stretched her hands to him, though her lips only whispered very low,--
"Forgive me, and let me say the 'Yes' I should have said so long ago."
Had she required any assurance of her lover's truth, or any reward for her own, she would have found it in the change that dawned so swiftly in his face, smoothing the lines upon his forehead, lighting the gloom of his eye, stirring his firm lips with a sudden tremor and making his touch as soft as it was strong. For a moment both stood very still, while Debby's tears streamed down like summer rain; then Frank drew her into the green shadow of the grove, and its peace soothed her like a mother's voice, till she looked up smiling with a shy delight her glance had never known before. The slant sunbeams dropped a benediction on their heads, the robins peeped, and the cedars whispered, but no rumor of what further passed ever went beyond the precincts of the wood; for such hours are sacred, and Nature guards the first blossoms of a human love as tenderly as she nurses May-flowers underneath the leaves.
Mrs. Carroll had retired to her bed with a nervous headache, leaving Debby to the watch and ward of friendly Mrs. Earle, who performed her office finely by letting her charge entirely alone. In her dreams Aunt Pen was just imbibing a copious draught of Champagne at the wedding-breakfast of her niece, "Mrs. Joseph Leavenworth," when she was roused by the bride elect, who passed through the room with a lamp and a shawl in her hand.
"What time is it, and where are you going, dear?" she asked, dozily wondering if the carriage for the wedding-tour was at the door so soon.
"It's only nine, and I am going for a sail, Aunt Pen."
As Debby spoke, the light flashed full into her face, and a sudden thought into Mrs. Carroll's mind. She rose up from her pillow, looking as stately in her nightcap as Maria Theresa is said to have done in like unassuming head-gear.
"Something has happened, Dora! What have you done? What have you said? I insist upon knowing immediately," she demanded, with somewhat startling brevity.
"I have said 'No' to Mr. Leavenworth and 'Yes' to Mr. Evan; and I should like to go home to-morrow, if you please," was the equally concise reply.
Mrs. Carroll fell flat in her bed, and lay there stiff and rigid as Morlena Kenwigs. Debby gently drew the curtains, and stole away, leaving Aunt Pen's wrath to effervesce before morning.
The moon was hanging luminous and large on the horizon's edge, sending shafts of light before her till the melancholy ocean seemed to smile, and along that shining pathway happy Debby and her lover floated into that new world where all things seem divine.