A Browning Courtship
MAY 25. I am twenty years old to-day! I used to think that the first fresh bloom of one’s youth was over at twenty ; but I have reached that advanced period without even beginning to have any fun. I don’t see what use there is in my being young and pretty, when there is nobody any more exciting than Miss Niles to tell me that I am so. I wish I knew some young men! I am fully aware how heterodox this sentiment is considered, but I repeat it boldly, and even underline it, — I should like to know some interesting men !
Just at this point mamma called to me from below, “ May, dear, don’t you want to cut the asparagus for me ? ” In order to live up to the standard of truth that my mother advocates. I should have replied promptly, “ No, dear, I don’t; ” but I have all my life disguised my real sentiments beneath a veil of apparent cheerfulness and amiability ; so I took the basket and knife, and descended to the garden. Mamma little knows how rebellious I am at heart, and how I hate this dull, quiet life. I should like to know whether the society in all small New England towns consists chiefly of maiden ladies, of all varieties and ages. The Northbridge maiden ladies are very nice, but they all have a more or less resigned expression. I wonder at what period they definitely gave up the hope of knowing any interesting men.
Miss Niles was in her garden cutting asparagus, too. She bobbed her long pale face forward, so that she could see me through the hole in the hedge. She looks queerer than ever since she has taken to wearing that green sun-bonnet; but she is so good that I ought not to make fun of her.
“ Good-morning, May,” she said in her slow, sentimental way. “ How fresh and beautiful you look, and like the sweet month for which you are named ! Do you remember those lines of Browning ? ” and she began a quotation, brandishing the asparagus knife in the air.
I never by any chance remember any poetry, and Browning is my especial aversion, but I smiled and said, “ How lovely ! ” in the proper places.
“ I am glad you care so intensely for Browning, dearest May,” Miss Niles said; “you are a great satisfaction to my soul. You too feel the charm and depth of meaning in his lightest words. I recollect how deeply you enjoyed Childe Roland and Paracelsus, and I am going to read you The Red Cotton Night-Cap Country.”
I contrived to hide the feelings caused by this announcement, and said politely, “ You are very kind, and I shall be glad to hear anything that you choose to read, only — I don’t think I wholly understand Browning yet.”
“No one comprehends him at first, dear; the knowledge comes later, after much hard work and perseverance, like — like — the love of olives.”
Miss Niles never knows how she is going to end a sentence when she begins it, and the result is sometimes startling.
There was a pause, during which we both cut asparagus assiduously, and then she began again : —
“You have such a true appreciation of the spirit of Browning’s poetry that we have voted you into our club, although you are so much younger than the other members. Think what an honor! ”
Just then I could not but admit that there was something to be said on the side of those persons who advocate perfect truth in all the relations of life, but it was too late to retreat. Had n’t I sat for the whole of a long spring afternoon in apparent rapt contemplation, as she read me page after page, each more incomprehensible than the last; while my thoughts refused to conform to any effort of my will, but flew vaguely from one inappropriate theme to another ? And all because I could not bear to hurt her feelings.
“ I suppose you have heard of our wonderful good fortune,” said Miss Niles, leaning forward, and once more peeping at me through the hedge. “ Paul Brown, the distinguished P. K. Brown, who is such a great Browning scholar, is coming to spend the summer here, and we hope to persuade him to conduct our study class.”
“ Indeed ! ” I exclaimed. “ How delightful ! ” and my unworthy mind immediately busied itself in conjectures as to the age of Mr. P. K. Brown.
“ He is a young man of great talent,” Miss Niles continued. " They say the amount of knowledge that he has on the subject is really wonderful, considering that he is n’t more than four or five and twenty. There comes the butter-man; how provoking ! But we will talk this matter over another time.”
Miss Niles kissed her hand to me and departed, trailing her black wrapper along the gravel path, and making the transition from Browning to butter with preternatural dignity.
I was left to my own reflections, which were of a mixed nature.
When the gods grant the requests of mortals, do they always hamper the fulfillment with some condition that sends leanness into their souls ? I asked myself. Only ten minutes before I had been wishing that I knew some young men, and now this P. K. Brown, of four or five and twenty, was about to descend among us, but, as if by the irony of fate, devoted to his odious Browning, and consequently talking and thinking in a jargon with which I have not the smallest sympathy.
May 30. I have seen him go by the house, and he has one of the most charming faces imaginable : not handsome, precisely, but intellectual, with dark eyes full of expression, and an adorable brown mustache. I have decided to join the Browning Class.
June 3. Heaven forgive me for my sins! I have told Mr. P. K. Brown that I am an enthusiast over Browning ! It would be possible to extenuate my conduct by saying that I was driven into it, but I scorn to take refuge in such subterfuges. I will at least be wholly sincere with myself. This is how it happened: —
Miss Niles had an evening reception for Piquet (I can’t resist calling him so, and making one word of it), and all the aristocracy of Northbridge was present, numbering fifty ladies and six gentlemen. Miss Niles was so busy that she forgot to introduce Mr. Brown to me, and he was immediately seized upon by Mrs. Jansen. I could catch a glimpse of his poetical face over her broad shoulders, and I wondered whether she would keep him to herself all the evening.
I don’t like receptions. The wrong people always stick to you like burs, and the right ones have only time to say a word in passing. For instance, I really love Annie Fairchild, but she would hardly speak to me, for she was bent upon a missionary tour, as usual, and so departed to make herself agreeable to some forlorn person. By the way, why is n’t it just as untruthful to pretend to enjoy stupid people as it is to appear to care for poetry that you dislike ? I told Annie that I thought her very insincere, but she only laughed and went her mistaken way, not minding in the least that she left me to the tender mercies of Colonel Parminter, who is without exception the greatest bore I know. There is a limit to endurance, and this limit was reached when the colonel began to tell me for the fiftieth time his tale about the narrow escape he had at the battle of Bull Run.
“ I am afraid I have perhaps told you this story before, my dear young friend,” he observed, “ but you are so sympathetic.”
“ A good story is always worth hearing a second time,” I said, blandly;
“ but if you will pardon me, I suppose I ought to go and help Miss Niles pass the cake and lemonade.”
“ Certainly, certainly, my dear young friend,” said the colonel, nodding his silvery head with antiquated courtesy.
I went the rounds of the room. Most of the people selected their cake with as much deliberation as if it were a solemn duty. Annie took some caraway-seed cookies, for fear there would not be enough cake to go around. Colonel Parminter, on the contrary, picked out some cocoanut cakes and macaroons, with consequential gravity. I prefer his plan to Annie’s, for I do not believe that you will benefit the world any more than yourself by being self-sacrificing. For it is quite probable that after fasting virtuously on caraway-seed cookies, you will discover that your neighbor has been secretly longing to feast on them, whereas, owing to your unnecessary self-immolation, there are none left. As with caraway-seed cookies, so with life.
Annie might avoid Mr. P. K. Brown as much as she liked, but I was not made in that mould. I proceeded to pass him the cake. He was very animated, and apparently much interested in talking with Miss Anderson. He put out his hand to make some explanatory motion, and hit the cake-basket, sending three cookies flying in different directions. Then he looked up. Our eyes met. I shall never forget how his face changed when he saw me. He glanced at me first with glad surprise, probably because I was the youngest person in the room, but afterwards he gave me a curious, satisfied look, as if he had been expecting me always, and found me at last. I flushed under his keen scrutiny. The mutual embarrassment lasted only a moment, for he almost instantly stooped to pick up the cookies.
“What shall I do with them?” he asked helplessly.
“ We will eat them,” I replied audaciously. “ Miss Niles’s floor is always as clean as a plate. Won’t you have one, Miss Anderson ? ” I added wickedly.
“ No, thank you,” she said, seeming greatly shocked. “ To return to the Old Pictures in Florence, Mr. Brown. I shall be pleased to have you come and inspect my collection, and select those that are necessary for the illustration and elucidation of our first study lesson.”
Miss Anderson always talks like a dictionary. I really cannot do her justice.
She surveyed me critically. I was sure she noticed that my bang did not curl as well as usual, and that my pink cashmere gown was my old white one dyed. I smiled back at her in my sweetest manner, yet in my heart I thought how gladly she would give her maroon satin in exchange for my dyed cashmere, if only she could throw her extra fifteen years in to balance the account. I don’t like Harriet Anderson. Just then Miss Niles came up. “Talking about the Florentine pictures ? How delightful ! ” she said. “ Mr. Brown, have you been presented to my dear young friend, Miss Cheney ? She is one of the most hopeful and promising of our Browning enthusiasts.” At this point Miss Anderson raised her eyebrows. She looked at me coldly and most disagreeably. Her glance decided me.
“ Yes,” I said, “ I am very fond of Browning’s poetry, only I do not pretend to know much about him.”
“ No ? ” said Miss Anderson. “ I am glad you make no pretenses.”
This insulting speech roused me to fresh untruths. “ I know very little about him,” I reiterated, “ but I care so much for some few of his things that I am anxious to read as much of him as possible.”
I felt so virtuous while I was saying this, so truthful and innocent, and as if I really were the appreciative youngperson that I knew Mr. Brown thought me, my words were so modest and my tones so truly convincing, that even Miss Anderson looked baffled.
“ Do you belong to the BrowningClass, Miss Cheney ? ” asked the hero.
What a pleasant voice he has ! I thought. He will be sure to read well. Perhaps I shall really get to like Browning.
“ Yes,” I replied with enthusiasm, for Miss Anderson’s eye was still upon me, “ I am happy to say that I have just had the good fortune to be chosen a member.”
Now I have told the whole disgraceful truth, and I have no doubt that Mr. Brown will begin the study lessons cheered by the thought that there is one congenial spirit in the class, who is as wildly devoted to Browning as he is himself. Well, it’s too late for regrets. I am in for it now.
June 7. The Browning Club met for the first time last night. Subject, Old Pictures in Florence, but we only got through the first verse.
Mr. Brown began : —
The eel in the pond gives a leap, they say’ ” —
but at this point he was interrupted by Colonel Parminter, who wanted to know the reason why. He was very serious about it, and to look at him you would have said that the fate of nations depended upon the correct solution of the problem.
“ That is n’t what I call poetry,” said little Miss Perkins in her highpitched voice. “ The lines are very unmusical, and then who cares to know whether the eel leaps in the pond or not ? ” But she was instantly frowned down.
“My dear madam, it is a matter of the utmost importance that we understand each line perfectly before we proceed to the next,” observed the colonel.
“ Yes,” assented Miss Niles. “ Do you consider that passage allegorical, Mr. Brown? Does the leaping of the eel in the pond symbolize the struggles of Italy for liberty ? ”
“ I will get the encyclopædia and look up eels,” said Mrs. Ellis. “I should like to know whether all eels leap in all ponds when it first thunders, or whether this habit is peculiar to Italy.”
“ Don’t you think it is just a local superstition,” suggested Annie mildly, “ and had n’t we better go on to the more important part of the poem ? ”
“ It is all equally important,” said Colonel Parminter gravely. “ Each word that Browning ever wrote is of equal importance with every other word.”
Just then Mrs. Ellis came back with the encyclopædia, opened at Ichthyology.
“ My dear friends,” she exclaimed enthusiastically, “ I had no idea that fishes were so interesting! Come and look at this picture of a trigger fish, and at this queer creature with a fluted collar. See, Grace, its eyes are stilted out from its head on a cartilaginous stem! How convenient it would be to have that arrangement of eyes when we are driving with your father, and he wants us to look at all the things that are just behind us! ” and Mrs. Ellis laughed gayly.
We all joined in ; it was a relief to find something that we were expected to laugh at.
Then Grace asked, “ Had n’t you better skip the cuttle fishes and their relations, mother, and proceed to eels ? It is very interesting, but we did n’t form the class to study fishes.”
Mrs. Ellis followed her suggestion obediently.
“ See here, girls,” she said, looking abstractedly at Colonel Parminter : “ the town of Ely, in England, is said to be so named from the rents having been formerly paid in eels, and Elmore ” —
“ Does it say anything about the eel leaping in the pond, Mrs. Ellis ? ” asked the colonel. He spoke with that severe air of superiority which even the least wise of the opposite sex feels it incumbent upon him to assume over ours, if we chance to wander from the subject when he would like the floor himself.
“ Electrical eels ! ” began Mrs. Ellis. " They are so interesting. Listen to this: ' These eels are captured by driving horses and mules into the water, the electric powers of the fish being first exhausted and ’ ” —
“ I have it!” cried Miss Niles suddenly. " The explanation of the eel leaping in the thunder-storm has come to me in an electric flash. They are electric eels, and so when there is electricity in the air they rise to meet it, as the magnet seeks the iron. Is n’t this conformable with the laws of electricity, Mr. Brown ? ”
Piquet kept a straight face. “It is a very ingenious explanation,” he said politely, “but, unfortunately, I believe the electric eels are found only in South America.”
“ Supposing we proceed to the next line,” suggested Colonel Parminter (even his patience was giving way, it seemed), “ and appoint a committee to look up the subject of eels for our next meeting.”
His motion was cheerfully carried, and Mr. Brown began again : —
The eel in the pond gives a leap, they say.
As I leaned and looked over the aloed arch
Of the villa gate this warm March day,
No flash snapt, no dum thunder rolled ’ ” —
“ What on earth is dumb thunder ? ” broke in Miss Perkins, who had n’t seen the spelling of the word. " Of all outlandish expressions, that is the queerest. I should think even Browning would have more sense than that. Dumb thunder ! Dumb lightning might be allowed, although peculiar ; but dumb thunder! ”
Mrs. Ellis flew to the dictionary, only to find that " d-u-m ” was not in it, and Colonel Parminter began a vivid description of a battle, telling us how the roar of the artillery sounded like a severe thunder - storm. This reminded Miss Niles of a time in her youth when the house next to her own was struck by lightning. At this point Mrs. Jansen pounded on the table to call us to order, as Mr. Brown was too polite to interfere with us.
The last line of the first verse of our choice poem is : —
and so we were put through a series of tedious photographs, and made familiar with the map of Florence. I begin to wish that I had not joined the Browning Class.
June 15. Last night the club met again. After the lesson was over, Mr. Brown came up to me, while I was putting on my things, and asked if he might have the pleasure of walking home with me.
“You may,” I replied, smiling. " It is the one object of my life to give pleasure.”
“ Then you certainly attain your ideal, which is more than most of us can say.”
As he spoke he gave me a grave, flattering glance of approval.
The moon was shining brightly, and the scent of roses was in the air as we passed through Mrs. Jansen’s porch. We could hear the sound of loud voices and laughter from the house behind us, where the club were putting on their wraps and overshoes; but in front of us was quite a different world, silver, and mysterious in its perfumed beauty. Even I was impressed by it.
“ What a night! ” exclaimed Mr. Brown, as if sure of my sympathy.
We had barely reached the gate when we heard voices behind us, and presently Miss Niles’s slow soprano. “ Where is May Cheney?” she inquired. “I promised I would see her home, and I can’t find her, and I am afraid to go alone.”
“ I had forgotten all about Miss Niles,” I said, pausing, consciencestricken. “I must go back for her.”
I was full of apologies, and Mr. Brown offered his arm to her with the same quiet charm of manner that he had shown me.
“ Exquisite moon ! ” exclaimed Miss Niles. “ I am glad the rain is over. A truly poetic moon, is it not, Mr. Brown ? I should n’t have been so long, only I couldn’t find one of my rubbers.”
Poor Miss Niles ! In spite of my long acquaintance with her, I never cease to be surprised by her abrupt changes of subject.
July 5. We have Browning two evenings a week, now. The more frivolous members of the club have begged for some of the lighter selections ; so there is the study class, which is still upon Old Pictures, every Tuesday night, and on Thursday evening Piquet gives us what he chooses. Annie enjoys everything he reads, intensely, and does not show it; and I don’t enjoy everything, and don’t show it. Voilà the difference. We are each deceitful after our own fashion. If Mr. Brown knew what was good for him, he would fall in love with her, even although she is twenty-seven, and he only twenty-four; but he has been indiscreet enough to — I am not sure of it, so I won’t write it down, but it is pleasant. Not that I especially care about him, for he is too serious and conscientious to suit my taste, and then Browning will always be his absorbing passion.
July 25. Miss Niles is indefatigable. She proposes that we shall act Colombe’s Birthday, I to be Colombe. I should die of it, there is so much to learn ; and I never could commit poetry, even when at school. Besides, there are seven men in the play, and we can muster only Mr. Brown, Colonel Parminter, and Mr. Seabury.
August 5. The hot wave has mercifully come, and we are all too limp to think of acting, but are to read Colombe’s Birthday, instead.
September 1. It is very provoking. I am never at home when Mr. Brown calls ; this is the third time I have missed him. On the contrary, I am invariably in when Miss Niles or the colonel appears. Such is the contrariness of fate !
To-night, after the class, Piquet complained that he never sees me now.
“ You have that pleasure every Tuesday and Thursday evening. I should think that was enough for any reasonable being,” I observed.
“ Perhaps I am not a reasonable being,” he said in a low tone.
“ Well, I am,” I returned lightly.
“ Then, what satisfaction is there in seeing you among a crowd of people ? ” he asked.
But as might have been expected, just then two of the crowd interrupted us. They were full of Sordello, which Miss Anderson is determined we shall study next.
October 1. Mr. P. K. Brown is going into uncle John’s office, so he will stay here indefinitely ; certainly all winter, and longer if they like each other.
October 5. I have begun to make a Browning Calendar for a Christmas present for Mr. Brown. I think there could not be a greater proof of friendly regard than that, and he seems to want proofs. Of course I like him! If I did n’t, would I write out three hundred and sixty-five deep quotations, each more stupid than the last ? I wish he did not like Browning so well; but he shall have a portion of him for every day in the year.
December 25. Paul Kent Brown has given me a whole set of Browning bound in white vellum ! What reckless extravagance ! And for the same amount of money he might have given me a gold bangle and a silver-headed umbrella, and ever so many other things I want!
January 8. It has come at last. I do not understand why men are such fools ! Why could not Paul Brown have gone on quietly with our pleasant, peaceful friendship ? For it was pleasant, a very, very pleasant — flirtation ? Well, malevolent beings like Miss Anderson may say that I flirted, if they choose. I wonder just what a flirtation is. I should like to fly to Mrs. Ellis’s encyclopædia and look it up. I do not see why they never put interesting articles in the encyclopædia. The dictionary says, “ Playing at courtship,” and I certainly never did “ play at courtship,” — never, never ! I defy Miss Anderson, and Mrs. Jansen, and all the rest of them to say that I did. If I made Paul Brown think I liked him better than I really did, as he says, why, one never expects to be taken so seriously. Of course I liked him, and do now, in spite of his having been such an idiot, only — But I will write out the whole scene, that I may see clearly how I have not been in the least to blame. If Miss Anderson had not told him that I was a flirt, it would not have happened ; and her accusation was absurd, as I have never had any one to flirt with.
I was skating with Annie, and we were trying to teach Miss Niles, who used to skate a little when she was a girl, which was so long ago that she has forgotten how. Miss Niles looks more gaunt and grim on the ice than anywhere else, poor dear. Paul Brown soon joined us, and asked us if we did not want to go up the river a mile or two, and see the huge fire that the boys had made on the ice. Miss Niles could n’t, and Annie, with her mistaken idea of self-sacrifice, stayed with her, although I was dying to have her come with me, and cast beseeching glances at her.
Paul and I skated on for some moments in silence. Paul skates delightfully, and his fine figure shows off to especial advantage on the ice. At last he said abruptly, “ I cannot stand this .sort of thing any longer.”
“ Can’t you ? ” I asked, instantly turning and facing the other way. “ Then we will go back to Miss Niles.”
“ May,” he said, in a certain masculine fashion of Ins own that is not to be withstood, “ I won’t be played with any longer. You must know that I, at least, am in earnest.”
My heart beat very fast, and I did not reply at first. Then I answered,“ I don’t know what more you want. I’m sure I like you very much, almost as well as I like Annie Fairchild ; and I, at least, am in earnest,” I added, imitating his tones and skating rapidly on.
He caught up with me in a moment. I should think he might have taken these hints, and been satisfied to let the matter pass off lightly; but he was n’t, and there was not the slightest use in trying to stop him.
“ I wish you would skate on as fast as you can,” I said, “ for I want to get to the fire. I am cold.”
“You never spoke a truer word,” he rejoined; “ you are cold,” and then he began to quote Browning.
I have verified the quotation in my white-vellumed edition, and although it is not especially flattering, I will put it in: —
Though we prayed you,
Paid you, brayed you in a mortar,
For you could not, sweet.’ ”
He said this verse between his teeth, in rather a savage fashion; and then — oh, dear ! I can’t remember all that happened, and if I could I would not write it down ; only he was not satisfied, even after I had turned serious and talked sensibly.
I don’t see why men want to have things so definite ! It is one thing to have a man nice to you, and quite another thing to promise to marry him. Why, I don’t want to be married for ten years, at least. I don’t know that I ever want to be married. I merely wished to know some interesting men, and now . — now — Of course we shall he just as good friends as ever.
January 15. Paul Brown never seems to see me at the Browning Class. When he reads, he looks over in the corner where Annie Fairchild and Grace Ellis are sitting, and when I bow to him and try to say something pleasant, he merely nods coldly. I don’t see why a man need be rude to a girl, just because she does not want to be engaged to him! There are plenty of men in the world a great deal nicer than Mr. Paul Kent Brown, and some day I shall know them.
January 28. I do not pretend to understand men. I am sure, if I had been as foolishly in love as Paul Brown gave me to understand that he was, I should n’t get all over it in three weeks, and really be so uncivil that the whole club notice it. Not that he does anything; he just does n’t do anything. Only he used to look at me as if— and now he looks at me as IF — that’s all ; but there is sometimes a vast difference in an “if.” Well, I’m glad I don’t care about him.
February 1. Paul Brown is just as nice to Annie as he can be, and lovely to Grace, perfectly devoted to her. To be sure, she is thirty-three, but one sometimes hears of such marriages. Oh, dear ! not that I care; only I wish there were somebody that I could be devoted to, — I should like to see how he would enjoy that; but there is nobody except Colonel Parminter, and as he is sixty years old, he does n’t count.
March 1. I wish Miss Anderson would not say such hateful things. She was talking to Mr. Brown at the postoffice, the other day, when I went to get my mail, and as I passed she stopped me.
“ Goodmorning, May,” she said. “ How are you ? I was sorry that you were unable to attend the BrowningClass, the other night. You are looking wretchedly ; you ’ve lost all your roses.”
This speech was meant for Paul Brown’s ears, and he showed such sudden interest that it brought all my roses back. It vexes me that I have not got over my school-girl trick of blushing.
I turned and faced the two. “ I am very well, thank you. I stayed away entirely out of consideration for the class, and not on my own account, for I had such a troublesome cought that I knew it would annoy you all.”
Miss Anderson looked at me as if she believed that my cough was a fiction, but it was n’t. I don’t see why she is always suspecting me of being untruthful. I should think Paul Brown might have walked home with me, but he did n’t. I do not like “ interesting men.”
March 9. I wonder, if my cough were to get very much worse, and I should go into consumption, whether Paul Brown would be a little sorry. I think the whole Browning Club would feel just a trifle sad. They would undoubtedly erect a beautiful marble monument over my grave, with the inscription : —
Earth have dominion, body, o’er thee.”
There is a little poem of Browning’s that persistently haunts me. This verse keeps running in my head: —
Vexed him ? was it touch of hand,
Turn of head ?
Strange ! that very way
I as little understand love’s decay.”
March 25. I cannot stand this sort of thing any longer. I am going to aunt Ruth’s to make a visit. Is it possible that Paul felt as I do, when he used those same words, and I laughed at him ?
I told them at the club that I should be absent from five meetings, and every one seemed to be very sorry except Mr. Brown. After the class was over, he said coldly that he regretted to hear that I was going away, for he should probably leave Northbridge before my return.
March 26. I did not know that the cocks crowed at such an unearthly hour. They begin at three o’clock, and keep it up steadily until daylight. There are only three hours in the night when there is absolute silence. I never stayed awake all night before.
I am glad that I was so frigid and icy to Mr. Brown yesterday, so that he will never suspect how much I care; for I do care, — there is no use in trying to disguise the fact from myself. What a fool I have been !
March 30. That very afternoon, as I was sitting by the window, who should drive up to the door but Paul Brown ! He had a little colloquy with mamma, who was just going out of the house; and she came back and told me to put on my fur-lined circular, as it would be so cold in driving, — as if it were a matter of course that I should drive about the country with Paul, when I have never done such a thing in my life. I opened the window.
“ I am very busy,” I said, “ and I don’t see how I can go.”
“ What are you so busy about ? ” he asked.
I held up a doll’s dress that I was making for little Ruth.
“ It is of the utmost importance that I should finish this garment to take away with me,” I said gravely.
“ Won’t you come ? ” he asked beseechingly. “ I may not see you for such a very long time.”
Of course I “ came.” I had in fact meant to come, all along. He said nothing at first, and then he began to quote softly to himself from The Last Ride Together: —
Only a memory of the same,
And this beside, if you will not blame,
Your leave for one more last ride with me.’ ”
“ Drive,” I corrected, as flippantly as I could; but my heart was heavy with a foreboding that he considered everything at an end between us.
He did not quote any more, and for some time we talked on indifferent subjects. At last he said, “ I wanted to see you this once, Miss Cheney, to tell you of my plans, and how I happen to be leaving Northbridge in this sudden fashion. I have had a good business opening offered me in Texas ”—
“ In Texas ! ” I exclaimed involuntarily.
“ Yes. Under the circumstances, I prefer to make an entire change, and I expect to start in a week.”
I had a choking sensation, and felt the tears coming to my eyes. I never was in such physical misery in my life. I was determined that my face should show nothing, and so I resolutely drove back the tears, all but a little one, which might have passed for a raindrop ; for as if in sympathy with the general dreariness, it was beginning to rain. I said nothing. I could not speak. At last Paul broke the silence.
“ I wanted to say good-by to you alone, and not in the presence of Miss Niles and her phalanx,” he said, with the suggestion of a smile.
“ Good-by is a very little word ; it does not take long to say it,” I observed, as carelessly as I could. “ Do you mean that you are never coming back ? ”
I tried so hard not to show what I felt that I could hear my own words sounding strangely cold and formal, and as if it were a matter of entire indifference to me whether he came back or not.
“Yes, that is what I mean,” he answered.
Then a sudden sense of desolation swept over me. I turned my face and looked at the big raindrops. The strain had been too much for me, and I began to shiver and tremble like an aspen leaf.
“ Are you cold ? ” Paul asked. “ You ought to have worn that fur-lined circular, ’ and taking off his overcoat he enveloped me in it.
“ Will he have no mercy ? ” I thought; for his kindness was harder to bear than his coldness had been.
“ Yes, I am cold,” I replied. " You yourself have told me so. Please take me home.”
We had come to a dreary stretch through the leafless woods, and the desolate picture was completed by pools of dark water on either side of the road, and mounds of smirched and watersoaked snow.
“ There is just one thing more that I want to say to you,” Paul began. “I am going away ; you know very well why. Well, there is nothing more to be said, only — only that I have loved you, and cannot help loving you.” These words he uttered in quite a matter-of-fact tone. “ I did not mean to tell you this when I brought you here,” he continued abruptly, after a moment’s pause. “ I meant merely to bid you good-by. I have always vowed that I would never annoy a woman in this way but once, and — Why, May, dear May ! ”
I was crying. I could not help it. The tears that I had struggled against before came now, at the first suggestion of happiness, in an overwhelming, uncontrollable rush.
... I am very, very happy. Too happy to write, too happy to eat, too happy to sleep. As might have been expected, Miss Niles saw us driving back, and we looked so radiant that she spread the news of our engagement at once. So all Northbridge knows it, and they all say they are not surprised, which is n’t possible, and all are pleased except Miss Anderson. It is a pleasure to make so many people happy.
May 5. My bliss would be complete if it were not for one little black cloud. Paul himself is so sincere that he will never be able to understand how I could pretend to care for Browning when I did not. I ought to confess the whole thing, but I have not the moral courage. If I could deceive him on such a vital point, won’t he naturally conclude that I may deceive him in everything ? Still, I am not wholly insincere, for I do want to like what he likes.
When Paul and I are driving, or walking, or sitting together, suddenly this apparition of Browning will pop up in my mind like a Jack-in-the-box. How easy it ought to be to make a confession ! It could be done in five words, — “I do not like Browning; ” or even in three, — “I detest Browning.” Then I try to say this sentence aloud, but when I picture the pained look on Paul’s face I have not the strength to utter it. I stay awake at night constructing little scenes, in which he is angry and grieved at first, but always forgiving in the end. I must be in a very nervous condition, or I should not make a serious matter out of such a trifle. But is it a trifle ? I have let Paul think that I share his greatest enthusiasm. He still believes a love of Browning to be the strongest bond of sympathy between us. Then, in addition, I am haunted by the thought that if I had not been such a hypocrite he might have cared for Annie, in spite of her twenty-seven years, for she really loves Browning. I am a wretch. The full enormity of my transgression never came to me until now.
“ I detest Browning,” — nothing easier to say in theory, nothing more difficult in practice.
May 20. I have spent such a wakeful night! Yesterday, at last, I screwed up my courage to speak of my secret. It was one of the first warm days, and we were in the orchard. Paul had taken out my little sewing-chair for me, and we sat under the apple blossoms, which every gust of wind sent in a pink shower all over my hair and my pale blue gown. Paul was very happy, and unusually pleased with me.
“ Yes, I will be brave and tell him,”I resolved.
But just then he began to quote : —
Leans to the field, and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dew-drops at the bent spray’s
“ I cannot tell him now,” I thought. He had thrown himself on the grass by my side, and was lazily watching me with half-closed eyes, as I drew my needle swiftly in and out of my work.
I don’t remember just how it began, but somehow or other he chose to talk of affectation, and how much he disliked it, and what a comfort it was that I was so absolutely genuine, so simple, and so unlike other women. I felt the color stealing into my cheeks at this undeserved praise.
“ Paul,” I began pleadingly, “supposing — supposing that you found that I was not as genuine as I seemed; supposing — supposing, in fact, that I were so like other women : would you still care for me, do you think ? ”
“I don’t know,” he answered, fixing his eyes on me with such an expression of love and confidence that I felt at once triumphant and humbled. “ Why should we talk of what does not concern us ? You are what you are, the sweetest, the truest ” —
“ But, Paul,” I persisted, “ I am really a different person from what you think, not as good, not as simple. There is a secret that I could tell you ; and yet I am afraid, for you are so absolutely truthful, so thoroughly honest" —
“ I! — good heavens ! ” “ Paul, what do you mean ? ’’ I cried, frightened by his tones.
“Nothing,” he returned, vainly trying to reassure me; “ only you cannot have the monopoly of secrets. I too have one.”
But alas! at this critical moment Miss Niles, in her green sun-bonnet, indiscreetly came through the gap in the hedge, and, settling herself in the hammock, began to ask one question after another about Browning, and quoted him until she drove me into the house. For a thoroughly kind woman, Miss Niles is the most inconsiderate person that I know.
I have not seen Paul alone since, and I stayed awake half the night torturing myself with theories about his secret.
May 21. Paul and I took a long drive this afternoon, — it is the only way in which we are sure to be free from interruptions, — and I tried unsuccessfully to worm his secret out of him.
“ Paul,” I began, “ I think I know what it is that you are concealing from me. I feel sure that you have been in love with some charming but insincere girl, and are afraid to confess it to me. But that will make no difference; it won’t trouble me if you have loved twenty girls, if only you care last and most for me.”
Paul laughed softly to himself.
“ You can set your mind at ease upon that point,” he said. “My secret is something quite different. It has nothing to do with any woman.”
“ Has it to do with a man ? ” I inquired.
“ Yes, it has to do with a man.”
“ I suppose it is some money difficulty,” I suggested. “ Dearest, I beg you to tell me all about it.”
“ No.” said Paul, “ it is nothing of that sort; it is not anything that will affect your happiness, if you do not know it. It will only make life a little harder for me, which is a just retribution. Do not think of it again. I ought never to have mentioned it.”
It is very mysterious. However, I mean to put it out of my head, and go on as if nothing had happened ; but if Paul will not tell me his secret, he certainly shall not learn mine ; that is quite fair.
July 1. Uncle John, bless him, has decided to go abroad in the autumn for a year, and so Paul is to take all his practice, or clients, or whatever the proper term is. I shall have to study up legal phrases now, and there is a dear little house to be rented, just big enough for two people to begin housekeeping in. So we are to be married in November. I suppose we shall furnish our house chiefly with our wedding presents, for it is so many years since there has been a wedding among the élite of Northbridge that I am sure everybody will give us nice things.
August 15. Our presents have begun to flow in. There are two boxes waiting in the hall now, because I won’t open them until Paul comes. One is from Mrs. Jansen, and I think it contains a silver tea-service, like the one she gave Anna Fuller, because years ago she jokingly promised me one.
Evening. We have unpacked Mrs. Jansen’s box. I saw almost immediately that it was full of books, exquisitely bound in white vellum. “ Probably a set of Shakespeare,” I thought; “they will be a great ornament to the bookcase.’ I took up one volume, and found to my horror that the title was The Red Cotton Night-Cap Country.
“ Paid,” I gasped, " it is a set of Browning, almost exactly like the one you gave me. Don’t you suppose we can exchange Mrs. Jansen’s present for silver ? ”
Paul opened one of the books, and found my name inscribed on the fly-leaf ; and alas ! each volume had an appropriate quotation written in it, in Mrs. Jansen’s exquisitely neat hand.
The other present was from Grace.
“ This will be something worth having, I thought, as I eagerly opened it. It contained Colombe’s Birthday, illustrated with sketches that she made herself, the dear girl. It is lovely to have it, only — I wish I liked Browning better. Paul is very much pleased. He has a soul above spoons, and forks, and tea-pots.
September 5. It is very provoking. The whole Browning Class have run riot on the subject of their master, and each member has vied with the others in trying to find a delicate and original expression of her regard.
Miss Niles has had a picture painted on purpose for us. by a New York artist of sixth-rate ability. The subject is a scene from In a Balcony. Constance and Norbert, in purple and green costumes, stand haranguing each other, and exchanging most sentimental glances; while just behind them is the queen in funereal black, stiff, stern, and implacable. Phe motto is, “I love once, as I live but once.”
Dear Miss Niles ! her intentions were good, but it is such a hideous picture that we shall have to banish it to the spare-room.
Miss Anderson has given us two of her Old Pictures in Florence, handsomely framed. I am glad Paul likes them so much. I think them hideous. They are photographs taken from the original paintings, and show all the imperfections. I can’t see any beauty in a Madonna with a crack directly across her eyes, as if she wore spectacles. However, I bear up for Paul’s sake. I am careful not to let him suspect my disappointment.
September 23. Colonel Parminter is a trump ! He has sent us a huge square box. It is too big to contain Browning’s works, and besides, I have taken pains to show Mrs. Jansen’s edition to every one. Dear old Colonel Parminter! I begin to feel very remorseful for ever having made fun of him.
September 24. When Paul came he opened the box for me, while I stood by, indulging in speculations concerning the delightful contents.
“ Do you know, Paul, I think it is one of those beautiful bronze lamps like Mrs. Ellis’s ! ” I exclaimed eagerly, haying caught a glimpse of something bronze.
“ It is too heavy for a lamp,” he returned. “ I think it is — Why, it s a bust! ” and pushing away the excelsior, he raised it on end, and the countenance gazed at me with a genial, kindly expression, and yet with a merry twinkle in the eye, as much as to say, “Well, my dear young lady, how do you feel now ? ”
It is needless to add that it was a lifesized bust of Robert Browning. I could have cried with vexation, if Paul had not been there.
I have gone back to my former opinion of Colonel Parminter.
October 15. It is the same old story repeated in different forms. Even the beautiful clock that Annie Fairchild has given us has a Browning motto engraved upon it: —
Potter and clay endure.”
Time’s wheel won’t stop long enough for me to tell of all the ingenious devices the club have resorted to, to vary their gifts, and yet have them connected with R. B.
Little Miss Perkins is the only member who has given me a wholly commonplace present. She handed me some silver sugar-tongs, with a somewhat abject air. “My dear,” she said, “ you know how I dislike Browning. I felt it would be an affectation in me to give you a present associated with him, so I’ve brought these sugar-tongs, and I hope you won’t mind very much.” I embraced her on the spot. The tongs are lovely, and just what I wanted.
October 25. It seems that Mrs. Ellis is going to send us a china tea - set. So “ there is some light on the dark river.”
October 26. The tea-set has come, and each cup and saucer has a Browning quotation around the edge! The way of the transgressor is hard !
We have just received a huge box from Paul’s brother in England. I am very much excited about it, for as his family, it is undoubtedly something debrother Philip is the rich member of the lightful. . . .
My curiosity was so great that I could not possibly wait until Paul came, so Bridget and I together managed to open the box. I saw it was something marble, and fancied all sorts of things. In another moment I discovered that it was merely a bust. This was disappointing, as I have never been fond of busts ; but I rather like the head of Clytie, and hoped it might be that.
Bridget, with great difficulty, raised it and set it on the floor.
. “ Slmre and it looks enough like that other gintleman to be his twin brother,” she said, “ barring that one is as black as the ace of spades, and tire other white as the driven snow.”
I looked at it with a sickening feeling at my heart. It was (there was no mistake about it; by this time the master’s features were well imprinted upon my mind), — it was — a bust of Robert Browning!
I had been trying on gowns all day and was tired out; so as soon as Bridget had left the room, I threw myself down on the floor, and, leaning against R. B. for support, I wept bitterly. I laid my head against his marble head, and my tears coursed down his face. They might have melted a heart of stone, but produced no impression upon the unsympathetic countenance of Robert Browning.
Presently I heard a distressed voice say, “Why, May, darling, what is the matter ? ”
I sprang up, and faced Paul. The hour had come, and I no longer faltered.
“ That is the matter,” I said, with the gesture of a tragedy queen. “ Look at your brother’s present.”
“ But I do not understand,” Paul said, bewildered. “ I thought you could not have too much Browning.”
“ I have never liked Browning, never from the first moment that I saw you, never through all these long months.”
I did not dare to look at, Paul to see how he bore this announcement, but I heard him exclaim under his breath, “ Is it possible ! ”
“ Yes,” I said, “ it is, unfortunately, too true. I have been a hypocrite, and willfully deceived you. You know my secret now. Break our engagement, if you choose. Whatever happens, I can endure this life of deceit no longer. I shall die of too much Browning.”
I was terribly excited, and flung myself, trembling, on the sofa.
In a moment Paul was at my side. “ Dearest May ” — he entreated. I pushed his hand away.
“ I am not worthy to touch you,” I cried, — “ you who care so much for Browning ; you who ” —
“ May,” said Paul contritely, “ I once told you that I had concealed something from you. I also have had ‘ too much Browning : ’ that is my secret.” . . .
October 27. This morning a note came from Paul’s brother Philip for me. I will copy it here : —
MY DEAR NEW SISTER, — I am delighted to learn, through Paul, that you are as great an admirer of Browning as I am myself. I am glad, too. to hear that you have been a sufficiently powerful advocate to convert him. He used to be only a half-hearted admirer, in the old days, but he tells me that he has been thriving on my reputation, and conducting a Browning Class for your sweet sake. I have been trying to think what I could give you for a wedding present that you will not have a score of already, and I have decided to send you a bust of Browning, to put as a genial household god above your hearthstone.
Your affectionate brother,
PHILIP KENT BROWN.
I looked at Paul, and he looked at. me, and then we both laughed.
“ I can’t get, over my surprise that you should carry on this long course of deceit,” I observed.
“ Really, I was not so much to blame as you think,” he said, “ for I told Miss Niles squarely, in the beginning, that it was my brother who was the distinguished P. K. Brown. I did not mean to join the class at first, but after I had seen you — well, it was all over with me then, for I fell in love with you at first sight. I felt, it was my best chance of pleasing you,” he added, with a smile; “ and I liked Browning well enough to begin with, but Miss Niles and the colonel were too many for me.”
“ Paul,” I said pensively, after a moment given to retrospection, “we can never tell our kind friends what hypocrites we have been ; it would give them too much pain. We shall have to bear the consequences of our deceit for all time. Do you know that even our wedding is to be different from other people’s ? Miss Niles revealed to me, in a burst of confidence, that the organist is to play, what do you suppose, as we come out of church ? A Toccata, by Galuppi! Miss Niles says she hopes that we shall march through life to Browning music.”
“ Heaven forbid ! ” said Paul.
Eliza Orne White,.