The Lady From Maine: In Two Parts
I HAVE spent four or five summers of my life at a place called Castle Rock, not far from the sea. It is neither a rock nor a castle, by the way, but a large, rambling hotel, whose likeness to a private residence is attributable to its having been originally built for one.
The owner — a man of more taste than prudence — died poor, as rich men have a way of doing, and his beautiful villa fell into the hands of an enterprising body of gentlemen, who, without playing the vandal, altered it to suit its new purposes, and threw it open to the traveling public.
I was one of the first to visit the spot. Its winding paths and arbors, the little balconies and jutting windows of the house, lent it an air of rustic privacy which charmed my soul. I soon discovered this to be a very deceptive air, but other and more enduring impressions took its place. The table was excellent, the service assiduous; I was allowed to have my cockatoo with me, and found only a trifling difficulty in securing a room with four closets. It also became a pleasure to meet, year after year, familiar faces there, and to feel, as time went on, that I was becoming an object of friendly regard to many frequenters of the resort.
But it was not my intention to speak so much of myself, as I am not the heroine of this tale.
I was lying in a hammock on the piazza, one afternoon, irritated by the heat, displeased with my new novel, feeling for the moment at odds with everything, when half a dozen of the younger boarders, who had been simmering away at tennis ever since lunch, came up the steps and seated themselves near me.
They were talking of their game, and Miss Bixbee was saying, in her child-like treble (she is not a child, however), “I do wish we had a match for Mr. Balfour. He plays so aggravatingly well. Oh, I wonder if the lady from Maine plays tennis! ”
“ She has never even heard of it,” replied a mocking voice which I recognized as Balfour’s. “ In her infancy she played mumble-peg on the shores of the Mollychunkemunk. Possibly, in after - life, faint rumors from the outer world of a wild and demoralizing amusement known as croquet may have reached her. But tennis ? Never ! She is as innocent as the immortal Lucy.
Beside the springs of Dove ;
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.’ ”
“ For mercy’s sake ! ” said I, rising up in my hammock, “ whom are you speaking of ? ”
“ The lady from Maine.”
“ And who is she, pray ? ”
“A mystery as yet,” said Miss Bixbee, laughing. “I believe we are to know to-night. Our host informs us that the blue parlor has been engaged by such a person, and is consequently no longer available for a green-room when we have charades. They are hanging new curtains, and furbishing up generally, — all for a lady from Maine. Now what does that phrase convey to your mind ? You have seen the image it has conjured up in Mr. Balfour’s imagination. Mr. Mercer’s fancy has painted her an elderly person, with the lumbago. Colonel Waller — sentimental man ! — inclines toward a blonde widow (blonde, was it not, Colonel?), with a large bank account.”
“ Ah, now, Miss Bixbee ! I said nothing about a bank account,” put in the poor Colonel, smiling fatly upon his fair tormentor.
“ She is probably some commonplace little matron, who has come away for a rest from home cares,” I hazarded.
“ Her name is Cornelia,” said Balfour lazily, from the depths of a huge wicker chair. “ She has six jewels, all of whom will accompany her.”
“Mr. Balfour! You spoil everything,” interrupted Miss Bixbee. “ Have you no ideality ? ”
“ In my youth it enveloped me as a garment, but, like all garments, in time it wore out. It was too flimsy for everyday wear. I go about now in the chainarmor of realism.”
“ Oh ! chain-armor, is it ? ” said Miss Bixbee, laughing in rather a high key. “ I always thought you had a dreadfully triple-plated air.”
It was not the first time I had noticed her flash out at him like this. Her eyes would sparkle for an instant, and then pale, as though all their light had gone in one look. I could never see that he provoked her to sarcasm. It is true, he sometimes had an aggravating way of saying nothing when one expected him to say a great deal. He did not reply now to Miss Bixbee, and shortly after we broke up.
The half hour preceding dinner always found the piazzas dotted with sitting and strolling figures. Feminine muslin floated airily against masculine broadcloth. There was a waving of fans, a trailing of draperies ; often the notes of a piano, accompanying some stringed instrument, sounded pleasantly through the open windows ; everywhere one caught snatches of laughter and conversation.
I came down rather late that night, and Balfour, who descended at the same time, walked with me through the hall. Just as we reached the door, the Castle landau, which had gone as usual to meet the evening train, rolled up, and halted at the front steps. This was an uncommon proceeding on the part of that respectable conveyance, time - honored custom having ordained that it should stop at the side entrance, where a porte cochère shielded the new arrivals from public scrutiny.
To-night the carriage had but one occupant.
“ The lady from Maine! ” said Balfour in a swift undertone.
I looked, and saw that every one else was looking, at a slight, trim figure sitting erect on the back seat. It was that of a young and very pretty girl. Her attitude was distinctly conscious ; her eyes were bent down to the handle of the door, and the expression on her face conveyed the idea that she thought herself kept waiting an unpardonably long time for the door to be opened.
Opposite her, as bolt upright as his mistress, was a pug dog in a brass collar which sparkled bravely.
But where was this young person’s mother, her father, her aunt, or even her uncle ? Did she travel with no protection save that afforded by a pug dog ?
While I busied myself with this thought, the coachman was opening the carriage door.
I shall never forget my emotions on seeing the child alight before that hotel piazza. If she had been my own I could hardly have felt more shame. I think a sort of tender feeling for her began to grow in my heart at that moment. It seemed to me she could not be aware of the enormity of what she was doing. Instinctively I took up arms for her against all those curious, staring people.
The coachman lowered the step, and she descended lightly. A more composed and at the same time a more ridiculous little creature I never saw. She was dressed after an ultra-fashionable style not usually affected by wellbred young ladies. Her bearing would have done for an Amazonian queen, but was rather out of character in a dot of a girl, stepping down from a landau with a pug dog in her arms.
I noticed an amused light in Balfour’s eyes, and perhaps the small personage noticed it, too, for as she swept by us her mien was especially lofty. Many astonished eyes followed her, and she had hardly disappeared when a subdued murmur of criticism ran through the company.
“ Dear me ! I wonder if she dispenses with a chaperone,” tittered Mrs. De Land’s youngest hopeful, who had been brought away from home because it was discovered that she had been meditating a matrimonial alliance with the butler.
“ What audacity! Do you suppose she told him to stop at the front entrance ? ” said another.
“ A most singular proceeding ! ” observed Mrs. Bixbee, in a frigid tone. But Mrs. Bixbee’s daughter, who took an ironical rather than a moral view of most things, said sweetly to Balfour, tapping him with her fan, —
“ Where is your Mollychunkemunk theory now, Mr. Balfour ? ”
“ It is stronger than ever.” he said.
“ Who but a Lady of the Lake would go about in that artless way ? ”
“ And the blonde widow, and the bank account, and the lumbago,” Miss Bixbee went on, laughing, — “ where are they all ? Cornelia with a pug dog ! Oh, Mr. Balfour, you must acknowledge you were wrong ! ”
Miss Bixbee made quite merry over the matter, and I left her laughing in her highest key, and wandered aimlessly back through the hotel corridors. I could not rid myself of an uncomfortable feeling about the little lady from Maine.
What would she do about coming down to dinner ? My venerable locks fairly stood on end at the thought of her entering that crowded dining-hall alone. In imagination I saw the whole scene : the scarcely veiled looks of curiosity and disapproval, the cold stare of those at whose table she should seat herself ; her own conscious, impertinent little air giving way to shame and confusion.
While I was solemnly pondering in this wise, Mrs. Briggs, the housekeeper, came along the hall. I asked her if she had seen the new arrival.
Yes. She was much surprised, she said, to see her alone; it was quite an unexpected turn of affairs. They had inferred that the rooms were for a married lady ; single ladies did not usually order rooms for themselves in that way.
Mrs. Briggs and I were on very good terms, and she did not try to conceal from me that she was annoyed.
“ Has she no friends here ? ” I asked.
“ I don’t understand that she has. When I ventured to ask her that question, she replied cheerfully, ‘ Oh, I shall soon make friends.’ It appears she has a grandfather, who knows she is here. I must say, I think if he were not in his dotage he would have come with her. She seems an innocent sort of person. I’ve no doubt it’s all right. Of course you will not mention this. Perhaps I ought not to speak so freely.” The good soul looked quite worried.
“ Never mind,” said I. “ Arrange it so that she sits at my table. I will try and smooth a path for her.”
Mrs. Briggs thanked me profusely, and I went down to dinner feeling much relieved.
The object of our solicitude did not make her appearance as early as I had hoped. She came in just late enough to attract the attention of every one in the room. Her costume of itself was sufficiently striking. The details have escaped my memory, but I know there was a great deal of it, and all in the worst possible taste. Despite this grave disadvantage, however, she looked extremely pretty, and I divined that many worthy matrons there were thinking her reprehensibly so.
I was wondering what was the most graceful and gracious remark that one could launch at a young lady who did not look at all inclined toward conversation, when she quite took my breath away by breaking into a smile, and asking if she might speak to me.
“ Certainly, I should be delighted to have you,” I said. “ I was about to speak to you.”
“Well, perhaps it would have been more proper if I had allowed you to take the initiative,” she rejoined.
I should not have credited her with any reflections whatsoever on the subject of propriety, but it was evident she had her own little code.
The ice being broken, we were soon talking easily, I learned that her name was Amy Roberts ; that her home was in Maine ; that she had come to New York with her grandfather, and, finding it dull and hot in August, had decided to leave him there, and spend a few weeks at the seaside. I did not, of course, venture to inquire why it was that she had not brought her venerable relative with her.
The mingled innocence and worldliness of her mainner puzzled me. I was at one moment surprised by her ignorance, at the next by her knowledge; she was now naive, now impertinent; now vapid, now as spicy in her talk as a society woman of thirty-five. A sort of intellectual vertigo seized me. I have always been deeply interested in the study of character, and have credited myself with a good deal of discernment, but she confused me at the outset, and reduced my reasoning faculties to chaos.
As we rose to leave the table I thought I saw a shade of anxiety on her face. She looked about the brilliantly lighted apartment, at the people passing into the hall, on their way to the parlor, billiardroom, or piazza, the gliding servants, and those languid diners who still lingered, chatting over their coffee.
“ What do they do here in the evening ? ” she asked, trailing along beside me.
“ We sit in the moonlight a great deal; that is, when we have a moon. If you like, we will go out on the piazza now.”
“ Oh, thank you ! ” she said quickly, the anxious look fading. “ I should like that very much. Shall I trouble you?”
“Not in the least. It will be a pleasure,” I said, quite taken with her appealing air and the perfect good-breeding of her reply.
We were much observed as we went along the hall. I was glad that Miss Roberts did not betray any consciousness of this fact, but walked demurely at my elbow, quite as though I were her acknowledged chaperone.
Without vanity I may say that my tutelage on this occasion was of more benefit to the little lady from Maine than she, perhaps, ever dreamed of. I am afraid she would have fared badly without it in the select and not too charitable clique which made up society at Castle Rock. Even as it was, her reception may be said to have lacked warmth. I did not take it upon myself to present my friends to her ; that would have been assuming a responsibility which I had the shrewdness to fear might afterward prove an unpleasant one. I felt a twinge of reproach when I met the girl’s clear eyes, and my prudence seemed very selfish to me.
“ Wretched creature, smothered in egotism and conventionality ! ”— thus I apostrophized myself, — “ here are you, with an assured position, your reputation established, afraid to hold out a helping hand to a poor little girl from Maine, who has known no better than to come to a watering-place alone.”
The poor little girl, however, did not seem to feel the need of a helping hand. She looked about her with great freedom, manifested the frankest possible interest in her surroundings, and commented thereon unreservedly.
We had been sitting some tune in the twilight, when I saw Morris Balfour strolling along one of the graveled paths which led from the shrubbery. Seeing me, he threw away his cigar, and came up to where we sat in a corner of the piazza. The low balustrade was between us.
As he lifted his hat, the thought occurred to me (was it a presentiment?) that here was a man whom my protégée might as well not know. But when we had spoken a few words, it was impossible that I should not introduce him to her. You will think, from my speaking of him in this wise, that he was not in my good graces. In reality we were the best of friends.
Miss Roberts seemed amiably disposed toward her new acquaintance, and chattered volubly. She asked him a great many questions, to very few of which she paused for a reply.
“ When I was in New York it was so warm ! I did nothing but order up iced lemonade for grandfather. I don’t think it is prudent for old people to drink ice, do you ? I don’t know what grandfather would do without me. I take care of him. But he won’t listen to me.”
“ He must be a very perverse person,” said Balfour, smiling.
“ Well, yes, he is. But he is all I have. I wish he had come with me.”
“ Does n’t he like the sea ? ”
“ Oh, no ! He does n’t like anything that I like. He did n’t like Rome, and I thought it was lovely. Only I had the fever there ; that is the reason I have short hair. Did you notice I had short hair ? Were you ever in Rome ? ” (So the lady from Maine had been abroad. More confusion in my ideas of her.)
“ Yes, several years ago. You must have been there recently, as your hair is still short.”
I am just home, two or three months; it seems an age. But sometimes I wear a wig, you know. I think this is a pretty place. Do you like it ? ”
“ As well as most places of the sort. I dare say I shall become one of its ardent admirers in time, like Miss Lecky,” glancing over at me.
“ Do you become attached to things simply because you have seen a great deal of them ? ” Miss Roberts inquired. “ I did n’t think men ever cared for anything.”
“ You have a rather gloomy opinion of us, I’m afraid. I don’t know what to say to such a grave impeachment.”
“ Oh, you need n’t say anything. I shall find out if you have any capabilities of affection.”
“ Undoubtedly,” said Balfour, illuminating, as it were, his brief response with a smile of sinister gallantry.
Miss Roberts’ speech was certainly unfortunate. I did not characterize it by a harsher name, but found myself wondering if, after all, innocence and foolishness were not synonymous terms.
Balfour’s pregnant reply seemed to have fallen on inattentive ears. The girl’s eyes wandered about the garden, now bathed in a silvery flood of light, and rested at length, with an expression of pleased surprise, on a little white temple or pagoda glimmering among the trees. It was one of the late owner’s costly toys, built to drowse away a summer’s day in, with a novel and a palmleaf fan, but since his exit given over to nurse-maids, babies, and French dolls.
Miss Roberts thought it very pretty, very picturesque. Could she not see it ?
“ In the morning,” said I, conscious of looking grim. “ The grass must be damp.”
“ ‘ If thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight,’ ”
said Balfour, casting a wicked glance at me.
“ Yes, indeed.” said Miss Roberts, with a bright laugh. “ I prefer everything and everybody by moonlight. If I can’t see that pavilion now, I shall not care to see it at all.”
“ Sooner than reduce her to that despairing state, had we not better take her there immediately ? ” Balfour inquired of me.
I don’t know what I might not have done, in my anxiety to guard this perverse young lady, had I not at that moment been spoken to by my friend Mrs. Brown, who was sitting near me. I turned to reply to her, and we had several minutes’ conversation together. When I turned back again, my attention drawn by a slight rustle beside me, it was to see my charge walking calmly down the steps to join Balfour. They crossed the lawn, in full view of every one on the piazza, and disappeared among the trees.
“ Is she a friend of yours ? ” asked Mrs. Brown, breaking an awkward pause with her gentle voice.
“No, hardly. She sat at my table to-night. She seems an unsophisticated little thing. It is a great pity her grandfather did not come with her.”
I tried to speak kindly, but my heart was full of wrath and doubt.
Miss Bixbee came sauntering along with the Colonel, and stopped to speak to me, but she did not mention the new arrival. Miss Bixbee’s mamma, with less tact, queried of Mrs. De Land in an audible voice, “ Who is that person who has gone off with Mr. Balfour ? ”
No one seemed able to tell her, and she retired behind a huge black fan, as though withdrawing from the world.
Miss Roberts tarried some time at the pavilion. I was trying to make up my mind to leave her to her fate and go to my room, when she reappeared on the scene, all smiles, with the delight of a child in her eyes. She was so full of pretty enthusiasm, and appeared so unconscious of having done anything wrong, that my resentment weakened. Balfour was not as easily forgiven. He could not err through ignorance, and I had thought him above encouraging the imprudences of a silly young girl. This was the latest phase of my mind in regard to Miss Roberts : she was young and silly. Time would certainly make away with her youth ; and it might reasonably be supposed that her follies would be mown by the same sickle. I have not, however, always found this to be the case.
After seating Miss Roberts, and wrapping her mantle about her, Balfour withdrew. The child had evidently expected him to linger at her side all the evening. There was a flicker in the eyes which she lifted to his as he said goodnight, something strained and confused in her smile, which told of surprise and disappointment, and of inability to conceal these unworldly emotions. I was provoked with her for the simplicity with which she gazed at his retreating figure till it was lost to view, directly thereafter lapsing into a state of limp silence, with her cheek on her hand, and her vision apparently turned inward. We spent the remainder of the evening in the music-room. Miss Bixbee played in her usual excellent manner, and sang a duet with the Colonel, all about hearts, and anguish, and eternal separation.
Amy Roberts continued distrait, and received very coolly the amiable advances of several married ladies of my acquaintance. When, at ten o’clock, I rose to retire, she asked to go with me, and we left the room together. As we approached the staircase, Balfour, in close attendance on a dark and very distinguished-looking lady, was coming down. He smiled as we met; the dark lady, who was not unknown to me, bowed affably, with a great sparkle of diamonds. Then they passed on toward the billiardroom. Miss Roberts did not once speak during our ascent. Had the idea not been preposterous, I should really have thought that our meeting with Balfour had given her reflections a gloomy bias. There was a tradition that many of his lady friends were given to reveries of a cheerless nature, but I was not disposed to believe it in his power to exert so blighting an influence in so short a time. After leaving the stairs we walked along the hall to our rooms, which were not far apart, and now Miss Roberts said, in an ingenuous tone, “ Who was that lady with Mr. Balfour ? She is very stylish.”
“ Yes. Her name is Vincent.”
“ Mrs. Vincent ? ”
“ Yes.” I did not add that the divorce court had relieved Mrs. Vincent of the uncongenial society of her lord. I do not know what prompted my reticence, unless it was a natural dislike to chatter of other people’s affairs.
“ Do you think her handsome ? ” went on Amy Roberts.
“ Hardly; but she is effective, and her teeth and complexion are perfect.”
“ So are her diamonds. I have a horrible suspicion that they are finer than mine ; ” an inimitable little drawl succeeding the ingenuous tone.
“ You are young to wear diamonds.”
“ I am eighteen, nearly nineteen. Don’t you think that that is quite old for a girl ? Good-night. You have been very kind to me to-night, and I don’t know how to thank you.”
We were at her room now. She stood a moment with her hand on the doorknob ; her eyes met mine with a gentle, serious look, and I thought I had never beheld a sweeter face.
I did not see her again till toward noon of the following day. It was the bathing hour, and men, women, and children were flocking to the tanks. We did not bathe in the sea at Castle Rock ; it was not considered quite safe, though occasionally some very skillful swimmer would venture out, watched with bated breath by those on shore. The authorities, fearful of accidents, discouraged such exhibitions of daring. I was sitting on the beach, under my largest umbrella, drinking in the salty breeze, when I saw, coming toward me, a trim little figure in a bathing suit. It was only after a moment that I recognized this figure as Amy Roberts, so great was the change wrought by the jaunty costume she wore. The most captious critic could not have denied that it was becoming. A pair of lovely rounded arms were visible to the shoulder, and below the short trousers and skirt her sailorblue silk hose and little sandals twinkled as she walked. The short hair curling about her face lent her an air of cherubic roguery which was irresistible. We exchanged morning greetings, and I asked if she had been to the tanks.
“ Yes,” she said, briskly. “ Is n’t it stuffy ? And they say the water is warmed. I am going in here.”
“ Oh, you can’t! ” I cried. “ No one goes in here ; it is very dangerous.”
“ Is it ? ” eying the great breakers coolly. “ I don’t mind that. I swim very well.”
“ But even people who swim very well don’t go in here.”
“ They are very foolish, then. The idea of swimming around in warm water ! Just watch me take that breaker! ”
“ But I don’t wish to see you take it,” I said, with some asperity. “ If Mr. Walker” (our host of the Castle) “ should see you going in here, he would be horrified. He advises no one to swim except in the tanks.”
“ Does he ? I’m sure it’s very kind of him to take such an interest in us, but I don’t believe he knows how nicely I swim.”
As she spoke she made a little rush toward the water.
“ Miss Roberts ! Indeed, you must not! ” I protested, in distress, catching her hand ; and at that moment Mr. Balfour came up.
He, also, was in bathing dress, a strictly correct costume, whose severe outlines displayed to great advantage a handsome and powerful figure.
“ May I ask the reason of this charming tableau ? ” he inquired.
I was sure he knew quite well what it meant, and had come to aid me. I stated my case very earnestly, Miss Roberts, meanwhile, watching his face with half-mischievous, half-obstinate eyes.
“ Now don’t take part with Miss Lecky,” she said. “ Just sit here with her under that umbrella, and see how beautifully I shall do it.”
“ Sit quietly beneath an umbrella and see you swallowed up in the under-tow ? ”
“ Is there one ? Oh. how nice ! I love a spice of adventure. Good-by! I’m off ! ”
“ Really, Miss Roberts, it is n’t safe. You must n’t think of venturing it.” he said, more seriously.
“ If you only knew how well I swim ! But you don’t. I will show you.”
“ Please show me in the tank. You can’t think it will be a pleasure to me to see you risking your life out there.”
“ Then you may go away,” she answered, laughing, and moving nearer the water. “ Only I must say you will lose a great deal.”
“ I should certainly lose the opportunity of seeing you drown,” remarked Balfour. “ Don’t go. I am very much in earnest.”
“ So am I.”
“ But you are in the wrong.”
“Yes? Well, I don’t know as you have a mission to right me.”
This impudent little speech was made as she moved still farther seaward. I stood in mute despair. The perversity of the child was enough to make one shake her.
“ So you are going ? ” asked Balfour.
“ Then I shall go with you.”
A moment of silence succeeded this announcement. I was struck by the expression of Amy Roberts’s face. It was fairly tremulous with anger; her eyes were flashing, and two little spots of color burned like flame in her cheeks.
“ I don’t wish you to go with me,” she said, with a grand air, drawing herself up.
“ I am very sorry.”
“ And — and you will oblige me by not going,” she went on.
“ It is impossible that I should allow you to go out there alone. You would never come back.”
“ That is a matter which does not concern you. I prefer to go alone.”
Balfour made no reply, and I was too much amazed to speak.
With a stony air she turned again to the water. He followed.
“ Mr. Balfour, you are very ungentlemanly.”
“ Miss Roberts, you are very unreasonable.”
“ If you were an old friend, this would be more pardonable.”
“ How can I ever hope to become an old friend, if you will persist in drowning yourself on the second day of our acquaintance ? ”
“ The inducement to live is not very great.”
“ I must acknowledge that. But you in your turn will understand that the inducement for me to make you live is tremendous.”
“ Spare me your irony and your kind regard for my welfare.”
There they stood, face to face: one with anger and disdain in her eyes; the other smiling a little, but with a rather bored expression. I could only gaze at them helplessly, and dig the point of my umbrella in the sand. Would either yield ?
“ Mr. Balfour,” said Miss Roberts again, and now with an altered voice, " I shall go back to the hotel, and you may congratulate yourself that you have spoiled my morning’s pleasure. I prefer not swimming at all to swimming with yon. But some day I shall come here alone, and go out in the breakers.”
Her tone frightened me. One can never be quite sure what such a girl may not do. Balfour, however, did not look in the least impressed.
“ Very well,” he remarked. “ I can’t say I am sorry for having spoiled your pleasure, because it was such a very foolish kind of pleasure. But I will make this good wish: that when you go out alone you may return.”
Miss Roberts said no more, and in a moment Balfour and I were left together on the sands.
“ She is very angry,” said I. “ Do you suppose she will really carry out that threat? ”
“ Oh, I dare say,” he rejoined carelessly. Then, with a laugh, as he moved away, “ I pity her grandfather.”
I never knew how her anger came to be appeased. I presume it died out naturally, or her pride smothered it, she feeling how indifferent he was as to what her mood might be. She seemed to avoid me, and I noticed that she had attached herself to some people by the name of Banks, with whom she went driving a great deal. I supposed she had included me in her displeasure, and it was no part of my plan to sue for a reconciliation.
On the third day I saw her playing tennis with Balfour ; later he taught her billiards, and that night he dined at our table. But in the evening he was off
for a moonlight ride with the Bixbees and Mrs. Vincent. We were sitting on the piazza when the horses were brought round, fine creatures, impatient of restraint. Both Mrs. Vincent and Miss Bixbee looked exceedingly well in their trim English habits. There were others of the party, and they were all laughing and chatting as they came down the steps. Amy Roberts had the forced air of cheerfulness which people wear who feel hurt and forlorn, and do not wish to betray their weakness. I was sorry for her. It was the left-out feeling, which I myself had experienced in my youth, in common with all young, sensitive souls. Something in her face that night made me long to speak to her of Balfour and his ways, but was it any affair of mine ? And what were his ways to a girl who had known him not quite a week ? One dreads being ridiculous, and then there is one’s horror of being thought meddlesome as well.
The next morning Miss Roberts and I met him in the hall.
“ Did you have a pleasant time last night ? ” she asked.
“Very pleasant. One can’t ask for better roads. Do you ride ? ”
“ Oh, yes,” she answered, smiling and brightening.
Balfour’s gaze sought the smokingroom. “ That is what every lady should do,” he said approvingly, and walked away.
An hour or two before dinner I met her on the stairs, dressed for the saddle ; she held a gold-handled whip, with which she softly thrashed the folds of her skirt.
“ Yes, I am off for a ride,” she observed, in what I thought was a hard tone.
“ With Mr. Balfour ? ” I asked, never dreaming it could be with any one else.
“ Oh. no ! ” she returned, with an admirable flute note of surprise. “ With Mr. Banks. We shall have just time for a nice gallop before dinner.”
I went down with her, and who should cross the lawn from the croquet-ground, just as she was starting, but Mr. Balfour and Mrs. Vincent.
“ Your horse is very fresh,” said Balfour, drawing his companion out of reach of the lively beast’s hoofs.
“ I like a fresh horse,” said Miss Roberts, and, without another word, she rode off with her escort.
Gerald Banks, Jr., was a florid, stout gentleman, considerably past the heyday of youth. He was said to play billiards skillfully, and to have an excellent judgment in the matter of buying and selling wheat. Such talents might have won him an enviable place in society, had it not been for certain unhappy peculiarities of speech, manner, and morals which even that lax power could not tolerate. His morals it might condone ; his grammar never!
Before Amy Roberts’s return, that night, I overheard a conversation which gave me great uneasiness for her. With all her strange ways, I liked the child, and wished that no evil should befall her.
“ She says she has a grandfather.” said one voice, “ but I must confess I think he’s a mythical personage. A real grandfather would be likely to come down here and put a stop to her flirtation with Gerald Banks.”
“ Miss Lecky knows her,” remarked a second voice.
“ Oh no, she does n’t. She thinks she does,” contradicted the first. “ She’s such a dear old visionary soul, always taking paste for diamonds.”
I felt myself blush. Was it true, what this caustic tongue was saying ? A third voice began: —
“ The Banks women have picked her up just to please Gerald. Mamma Banks stands in mortal awe of him just because, long ago, he bought something when it was low and sold it when it was high, and made enough money to send them all to Europe. I’ve no doubt that if he wished to marry this girl his mother would n’t offer any objections.”
“ Oh, he does n’t wish to marry her any more than Mr. Balfour does,” replied the second voice. “ They say she is very amusing, because she says everything that most girls leave unsaid. That’s what Jack De Land told his sister. The other day, in croqueting a ball she hit her foot instead, and said, ‘ Oh, damn !’ Jack thought it was funny, but Mrs. De Land said that if he could n’t tell prettier stories than that before Nettie he might return to the bar-room, where they were more appropriate.”
“ I’m sure I don’t think Jack’s stories can hurt Nettie,” said the first voice ; and then they fell upon Miss Annette, and I left them in full enjoyment of the topic.
The equestrians were late in coming home. They dismounted at a private entrance, and it was whispered about that an accident had occurred ; some one ran for brandy; it was all done very quietly, but in half an hour every one knew that Amy Roberts had been thrown from her horse. I happened to be at hand, and did everything in my power. She was really not much hurt, but her nerves were thoroughly unstrung, and through her sobs she wildly upbraided poor Gerald Banks, who hung over her in an agony of apprehension.
“You did it! You made me ride that dreadful horse ! ” she cried.
“ Made you! ” cried Gerald in distraction. “ You said you liked him, and he’s gentle as a kitten. I’m sorry. I can never forgive myself.” Then he fairly tore his hair, and out of pure pity for him I sent him to bring Dr. Travers, who was in the house. The doctor soon had Miss Roberts quieted; he said she was not in the least injured, only very much shaken up.
After dinner I sat with her a longtime. She was lying on the bed, wideeyed and flushed, when I went in ; her hair, on which the distracted Banks had poured a liberal quantity of cologne, still curled in damp rings about her face.
“ My dear,” said I, “ I ‘m afraid you are not following the doctor’s direction to keep quiet.”
“ I can’t be quiet,” she answered, with a long breath ; then suddenly she began to laugh in such an infectious way that I had to laugh too, without knowing why. “ It was so funny ! ” she said at last. “ My habit is all torn, is n’t it ? I can’t wear it again ; but perhaps it ’$> just as well. I never could ride.”
“ Then why did you go, child ? ” I asked in surprise.
“Oh, don’t ask me! ” she said, half pettishly, half drearily. “I never know why I do anything.” A moment later she crept toward the edge of the bed, and put her head on my arm. “ You are so good ! ” she said. “ When you are thrown from your horse I will come and nurse you.”
“Poor whimsical, motherless thing! ” I said to myself, an hour after, as I leaned over the bed to take a farewell look at her before I went away.
She did not appear at breakfast the following day. We had our coffee together in my room, and in the afternoon I took her for a drive. As we came out on the avenue, Balfour rode up beside the phaeton. He made polite but not effusive inquiries after Amy’s welfare, and remarked to me affably, if not originally, that we had the queen’s weather for our drive. I told him we had thought of driving up Stoke Hill, but some one had said it was private property, and that there were a great many gates. He offered to see to the gates, if we would allow him the pleasure of being our outrider.
Only the most formal courtesy was expressed in his words, but Amy Roberts was soon all animation, and showed quite plainly in her transparent way that she considered his escort a direct tribute to her own charms.
Balfour did not keep the phaeton at very close range ; he rode slowly in the rear, or abreast of us, over the smooth green turf, at an unsocial distance. His horse, a fine creature, had a powerful, even gait, and was admirably ridden.
“ Does Mr. Balfour do everything well ? ” queried Amy, breaking a long pause. She spoke dreamily, as though following out a train of thought.
“ He does a great many things well,” I replied, with due caution.
Despite the girl’s transparency she was keen enough, for now she said, laughing, “ I know what you are thinking : that he does a great many things too well.”
As we approached the summit of Stoke Hill, the woods grew denser and the road narrower. Overhanging branches brushed the top of the phaeton, and struck against our faces. “ This is the old road,” said Balfour, riding up. “ If you have an eye left when we reach the summit, you will see all Stoke Valley below you. I propose that we tie our horses here, and walk the rest of the way ; it is only a step.”
We were glad to comply with his suggestion. He gave me his arm, while Amy, looking spirit-like in her white dress, ran on before us up the steep path, with a thousand exclamations and gestures of delight. A carpet of pine needles mixed with damp and rotting leaves sent up a woody fragrance. There was a deep silence in the place, except for our voices and the strident, sociable call of a blue-jay from some high limb.
“ See here, wood-nymph ! ” cried Balfour to the flitting white figure above. “ That is the wrong path. You are misleading us.”
“ Well, then, don’t follow me.”
“ Do you always mislead those who follow you ? ”
“Yes, your honor.”
Witchery was in her eye, as she looked at him. She had paused, and now, as we came up with her, Balfour said, “ That is very unfortunate, for you will never be without followers.”
“ And if I follow you, won’t you mislead ? ” she asked simply, coming a step toward him. There was the innocent gravity of a child in her face. The swift, inexplicable ways of the girl fascinated even me, an unemotional woman who had left youth behind her ; how then must they strike Balfour ? Not that he was over-young, or at all given to sentiment, but I have noticed that an appreciative eye often carries a man further than a tender heart. He looked at her now with his darkest glance.
“ No,” he said, answering her question with a faint smile. “ Give me your hand.”
She gave it to him wonderingly, and he led her with mock seriousness up the narrow lane at our right. I followed, and there, a vision of beauty, lay the whole Stoke Valley, like a new world, at our feet. Amy Roberts gazed in silence ; she seemed unconscious that her hand was still being held, and it was not until I spoke, breaking the spell, as it were, that she drew it away, quickly, quietly, and with a heightened color.
“ This is Stoke idealized,” observed Balfour. “ When we get down we shall feel that we have suffered a disenchantment. There is old Aunt ‘ Johnsing’s ’ cabin, poetry itself from here; the row of wash-tubs and the ash-barrel are on the other side.”
“ Oh, that the wash-tubs and ash-barrels of life could always be on the other side!” said Amy pensively. “I know what you think,” she added, with real or affected irritation. “You think I have n’t any thoughts about life ; that I just live like a — like a lamb, or something.”
Both Balfour and I burst out laughing. “ Bless her heart! ” he exclaimed. “ It has never occurred to me that she was like a lamb. Miss Lecky, have you noticed the resemblance ? ”
“ Well, I think you are very unkind,” said the girl, pouting ; and she withdrew a little and sat down on the grass, throwing aside her hat, and rumpling up her short blonde hair.
“ I will tell you what I do think,” Balfour went on. “ That no better gift could be given you than just that thoughtless, vacant happiness which you despise in the lamb.”
“ And why a vacant happiness ? Why not an intelligent, reasoning enjoyment of everything good ? ”
“ Because you will never either enjoy or suffer with reason.”
“But”—began Amy, in expostulation.
“No ‘ buts,’” he interrupted. “No more introspection, or we shall come to blows. Miss Lecky, shall we go on and see King Cole? Not the ‘ merry old soul’ himself, but a large black rock named in honor of him. Miss Roberts, your hand, please. There ! Now your hat; and take my other arm. We shall have to climb for it.”
The dusk was deepening in Stoke Wood as we drove home. Balfour rode close at our wheel now. I could see that our little expedition had given an impetus to his acquaintance with Amy Roberts, and a circumstance which occurred on our arrival at the hotel strengthened it still more. Alas ! a dire calamity had befallen her most precious possession, in her absence. One of a party of little boys, riding their bicycles along the driveway, had encountered the pug, Gyp, out for an airing, and boy, bicycle, and dog had gone down together. The boy and the bicycle escaped without injury, but poor Gyp lay quite still on the gravel, with blood trickling from his shoulder. This tragic sight met our view as we drove up the avenue and halted at the door. With one bound Amy was out of the phaeton and at the side of her unfortunate pet. I never beheld such a display of rage and grief. She upbraided the wretched little boys; she clasped Gyp in her arms, and sobbed and rocked herself in despair.
Balfour reached her first. “ My dear child,” he said, “ this is too bad! ” (I happened to know that if he had a hatred in the world it was of pug dogs.) “ Give him to me, won’t you? Perhaps he is not dead. If you hug him so tight, you will certainly kill him.”
“ Oh, he is dead! he is dead ! ” screamed Amy. “ You will hurt him ! ”
“If he is dead I can’t hurt him,” observed Balfour, with gentle logic, “ and if he is alive I may be able to do something for him. There, that is right,” as with an agonized sob she resigned the limp little body. “ Now we will take him over to the fountain, and try the effect of cold water. It may be only a faint.”
I grieve to say that he accompanied these solicitous phrases with a wicked side glance at me. Amy, however, was too much in earnest herself to doubt his sincerity.
A mournful procession wended its way to the stone basin; even the guilty little boys came, too, herding together, after the manner of criminals, and eying their unholy work with awe.
The cold water did indeed prove beneficial. After a few minutes Gyp winked, sighed, and turned a languid gaze on Balfour’s face, bent tenderly above him. There was a shriek of rapture from Amy.
“ Don’t touch him yet, please,” said Balfour, keeping her back with one arm. “ The slightest indiscretion at such a critical moment — There ! I will bind up his leg,” whipping out a spotless handkerchief. “ It is n’t broken, only a little cut. He was stunned, that’s all. Now don’t cry. He will be as good as new in the morning. There is no internal injury that I can discover.”
Here the wretch rose, showing a serious, sympathetic countenance, and laid Gyp, miraculously restored as one from the grave, in his mistress’s arms.
“ I never, never can thank you enough! ” she sobbed.
“ Tut, tut,” he replied ; and quite as though I had been as inanimate an observer as the old stone griffin in the basin, he patted her tear-stained cheek.
In the trivial and ridiculous events of that afternoon lay the beginning of the marked influence which Balfour exerted on the fortunes of Amy Roberts. With all the girl’s flashes of arrogance, her airs, her haughty graces and assumption of superiority, she was a veritable child at heart. The daily distractions and incidents of her little life filled all her mind. She hardly looked beyond to-day. She played as carelessly with her toys (those trifling schemes and intrigues which are the playthings of grown-up children) as the two-year-old in the nursery might play with his, and as loudly lamented when they were broken. At once selfish, generous, unsympathetic, tyrannical, disobedient, and docile, she compelled one’s affection while she tried one’s patience, and was by turns intolerable and charming. A nature such as this, in itself weak, instinctively seeks support; like the child just learning to walk, it refuses guidance with a little independent air, but is quick to grasp and cling when its fancied powers give out.
With some such childish reaching for direction and protection the girl turned to Balfour. She paid as little heed to the conventional aspect of the case as do drowning people who feel strange arms about them. While it was in her disposition to cling, it was hardly in his to refuse to be clung to. I could never quite make out in what spirit he responded to the appeal, —whether it was mere friendly regard, gratified vanity, or a still warmer feeling. Knowing him as I did, the latter hypothesis seemed rather feeble. He would listen with a sympathetic face to the recital of her little grievances: how grandfather had not written, or had written, but not as she wished; how the hotel clerk had said Gyp was a nuisance ; how Mrs. De Land had not spoken at breakfast, or Mrs. Van Poulter had worn a particularly aggravating smile at lunch.
To everything—joys and griefs, complaints and praises — he gave the readiest attention. Was it cold ?—he wrapped a shawl about her. Was it warm ? — he brought a fan. Trifles, these, but significant. Such, at least, was the opinion of the critics, who did not stick at uncharitable constructions. Evil rumors, like pestiferous insects, have a fearful power of increase. Amy Roberts had not been a fortnight at Castle Rock when the place hummed with gossip of her. She was first pronounced foolish, then artful, then designing. Numerous were the stories of her indiscretions; many and severe were the comments thereon. It was part of the poor young thing’s deception about herself that whatever she did gained a peculiar grace and propriety from her happy manner of doing it, — a dangerous conceit for a pretty and reckless girl, whose only guardian was an invisible grandfather.
“ Mr. Balfour has three claims on my gratitude,” she announced one morning at breakfast.
“ Only three ? ” asked Balfour, with mock reproach.
“ He saved Gyp’s life,” went on Amy, ignoring the interruption, “ and taught me billiards, and now he is going to take me to drive in a four-in-hand, — with a party, you know,” addressing Mrs. De Land, who simply glared in reply.
The prospect seemed to afford Miss Roberts the liveliest satisfaction; all through breakfast she chattered of it, asking a great many questions, and whenever she did for a moment lapse into silence showing quite plainly that it was of this delightful subject she was thinking.
“ And I shall be ever so high up ? I shall sit in front with you, shall I not ? ” she asked Balfour.
“ Very high up, and with me, of course. Did you think I would banish to a back seat the great first cause of the occasion ? ”
The departure of the four-in-hand occasioned quite a stir. It was a style of equipage seldom seen at Castle Rock, and the beauty of the turn-out would have attracted attention anywhere. Everything was perfect, from the highbred horses, glittering harness, and lustrous vehicle to the coachman-like skill with which Balfour handled his long English whip, and started the four gallant beasts all together down the avenue, with a movement as smooth as clockwork. Amy, on the box, looking very cool and sweet in blue, was one smile of ecstasy; the company on the back seats had been through it all before, and rolled away with a delight tempered by repetition.
“ So our lady from Maine has the post of honor,” said Dick Brown, watching the carriage out of sight with a lazy smile. Dicky was a thorough gossip. From him one might hear all the current scandals. Among his most intimate enemies he was known as “ the Daily News, with double-page supplement.” “ By Jove! ” he went on, warming to his subject, “ is n’t she a little rattler ? ”
“ She is very lively,” I affirmed, in my most frigid tone.
“ Well. I should say so ! Rather too lively for the conventional standard they have set up here. Paris is the place for her ; only she ’s too crude. It’s a pity she ’s taken such a header in this slow hole. Every one ’s down on her.”
“ I’m sure I hope not.”
“ Oh. ’pon my honor, it’s true. All the ladies, I mean. Of course the men like her dash. Banks was saying last night in the bar-room ” —
“ Excuse me,” said I, rising, “ did not some one call me ? ” I went indoors, and left the odious little wretch sitting there, with what Banks had said trembling on his lips. I did not care to know what it was. My heart was sick with thinking of it all.