I CLOSE MY BOOK.
BY the rarest good fortune my grandmother started that afternoon for a visit to an old friend at the seashore, and, in the mild excitement of her departure, I do not think she noticed anything unusual in my demeanor.
“ And so your amanuensis has left you?” she remarked, as she was eating a hasty luncheon. “ Sister Sarah stopped for a moment and told me so. She said there was another one ready to take the place, if you wanted her.”
I tried to suppress my feelings, but I must have spoken sharply.
“ Want her ! ” I exclaimed. “ I want none of her ! ”
My grandmother looked at me for a moment.
“I shall be sorry, Horace,” she said, “ if you find that the sisters do not work to suit you. I hoped that you might continue to employ them, because the House of Martha is at such a convenient distance, and offers you such a variety of assistance to choose from, and also because you would contribute to a most worthy cause. You know that all the money they may make is to go to hospitals and that sort of thing.”
“ I was a little afraid, however,” she continued, after a pause, “ that the sister you engaged might not suit you. She was so much younger than the others that I feared that, away from the restraints of the institution, she might be a little frivolous. Was she ever frivolous ? ”
“ Not in the least,” I answered ; “ not for an instant.”
“ I am very glad to hear that,” she remarked, — “ very glad indeed. I take an interest in that sister. Years ago I knew her family, but that was before she was born. I remember that I was intending to speak to you about her, but in some way I was interrupted.”
“ Well,” I asked, “tell me now, who is she ? ”
“ She is,” said my grandmother, “ Sister Hagar, of the House of Martha. She was Sylvia Raynor, of New Haven. I think that in some way her life has been darkened. Mother Anastasia takes a great interest in her, and favors her a good deal. I know there was opposition to her entering the House, but she was determined to do it. You say you are not going to engage another sister ? Who is to be your amanuensis? ”
“ No one,” I answered. “ I shall stop writing for the present. This is a very good time. I ‘ve nearly reached the end of — a sort of division of the book.”
“ An excellent idea,” said my grandmother, with animation. “You ought to go to the sea or the mountains. You have been working very hard. You are not looking well.”
“I shall go, I shall go,” I answered quickly ; “ fishing, probably, but I can’t say where. I ’ll write to you as soon as I decide.”
“ Now that is very pleasant,” said my grandmother, as she rose from the table, “ very pleasant indeed ; and if you write that you will be away fishing for a week or two, I shall stay at the Bromleys’ longer than I intended, — perhaps until you return.”
“ A week or two ! ” I muttered to myself.
Walkirk had sharper eyes than those of my grandmother. I am sure that when he came that evening he saw immediately that something was the matter with me, — something of moment. He was a man of too much tact to allude to my state of mind ; but in a very short time I saved him all the trouble of circumspection, for I growled out that I could not talk about travels at present, and then told him that I could not write about them, either, for I had lost my secretary. His countenance exhibited much concern.
“ But you can get another of the sisters,” he said.
What I replied to this I do not remember, but I know I expressed myself so freely, so explicitly, and with such force that Walkirk understood very well that I wanted the secretary I had lost, that I wanted none other, and that I wanted her very much indeed. In fact, he comprehended the situation perfectly.
I was not sorry. I wanted somebody to whom I could talk about the matter, in whom I could confide. In ten minutes I was speaking to Walkirk in perfect confidence.
“ But you can’t do anything.” said he, when there came a pause. “ This is a case in which there is nothing to do. My advice is that you go away for a time, and try to get over it.”
“ I am going away,” I replied.
“You could do nothing better,” Walkirk remarked. “ I am altogether in favor of that, although of course such counsel is against my own interests.”
“ Not at all,” said I, catching his meaning, “ for I shall take you with me.”
After a considerable pause in the conversation Walkirk inquired if I had decided where I would go.
“ No,” I answered, “ that is your affair. My desire is to get away from every place where there is any chance of seeing a woman. I wish to obliterate from my mind all idea of the female human being. In fact, I think I should like to take lodgings near a monastery, and have the monks come and write for me, — a different one every day.”
Walkirk smiled. “ Since you wish me to select your retreat,” he said, “ I am bound to have an opinion regarding it. I might advise a visit to the Trappists of Kentucky, or to some remote fishing and hunting region ; but it strikes me that a background made up of exclusive association with men would be very apt to bring out in strong relief any particular female image which you might have in your mind. I should say that the best way of getting rid of such an image would be to merge it in a lot of other female images.”
“ Away with the idea ! ” I cried. “ Walkirk, I will neither merge nor relieve. I will go with you to some place where we shall see neither men nor women ; where we can hunt, fish, sail, sleep, read, smoke, and banish the world. I don’t wish you to take a servant. We can do without service, and if necessary I can cook. I put the whole matter in your hands, Walkirk, and when you have decided on our destination let me know.”
The next afternoon Walkirk found me at my club in the city, and informed me that he had selected a place which he thought would suit my purposes.
“ No people ? ” I asked.
“ None but ourselves,” replied he.
“Very good,” said I. “When can we start ? ”
“ I shall be ready to-morrow afternoon,” he answered, “ and will call for you at your house.”
We traveled all night, and early in the morning alighted at a small station, on the shore of a broad bay. Here we found moored a cat-rigged sailboat, of which Walkirk took possession, and we stowed therein the valises, guns, and fishing tackle which we had brought with us. 1 examined the craft with considerable interest. It was about twenty feet long, had a small cabin divided into two compartments, and appeared to be well stocked with provisions and other necessaries.
“ Is it to be a long cruise ? ” I said to Walkirk ; “ and do you know how to sail a boat? ”
“ With this wind,” he answered, “ we should reach our destination in a couple of hours, and I consider myself a very fair skipper.”
“ Up sail, then.” I cried, “ and I am not in the least hurry to know where I am going.”
Walkirk sailed a boat very well, but he did it in rather an odd way, as if he had learned it all out of a book, and never had handled a tiller before. I am not a bad amateur sailor myself, but I gave no consideration to the management of our craft. Walkirk had said that he knew where he was going, and was able to sail there, and I left the matter entirely to him; and whether or not this were his first essay in sailing, in due time we ran upon a low beach, and he exclaimed : —
“ Here we are ! ”
I rose to my feet and looked about me. “ Now, then,”said I, “ I shall ask you, where are we ?”
“ This is Racket Island,” he replied, “ and as soon as we get the boat pulled up and the sail down I will tell you about it.”
“ Racket Island,” said Walkirk, a short time afterwards, as we stood together on a little sandy bluff, “ was discovered two years ago by me and a friend, as we were sailing about in this bay. I suppose other people may have discovered it before, but as I have seen no proof of this I am not bound to believe it. We named it Racket Island, having found on the beach an old tennis racket, which had been washed there by the waves from no one knows where. The island is not more than half a mile long, with a very irregular coast. The other end of it, you see, is pretty well wooded. We stayed here for three days, sleeping in our boat; and so far as solitude is concerned, we might as well have been on a desert island in the midst of the Pacific. Now I propose that we do the same thing, and stay for three days, or three weeks, or as long as you please. This is the finest season of the year for camping out, and we can moor the boat securely, and cook and sleep on board of it. There is plenty of sand and there is plenty of shade, and I hope you will like it.”
“ I do ! ” I cried. “ On Racket Island let us settle ! ”
For two days I experienced a sort of negative enjoyment. If I could not be at home dictating to my late secretary, or, better still, looking at her, as she sat close to the grating, reading to me, this was the next best thing I could do. I could walk over the island ; I could sail around it; I could watch Walkirk fish ; I could lie on the sand, and look at the sky ; and I could picture Sylvia with her hair properly arranged, and attired in apparel suited to her. In my fancy I totally discarded the gray garb of the sisters of the House of Martha, and dressed my nun sometimes in a light summer robe, with a broad hat shading her face, and again in the richest costumes of silks and furs. Sometimes Walkirk interrupted these pleasant reveries, but that, of course, was to be expected.
In several directions we could see points of land, but it did not interest me to know what these were, or how far away they were. Walkirk and I had Racket Island to ourselves. My grandmother was happy with her friends, and where the rest of the world happened to stow themselves I did not care. Several times I said this to myself, but it was a mistake. I cared very much where Sylvia stowed herself. Philosophize as I might, I thought of her continually in that doleful House of Martha ; and as I thought of her there I cried out against the shortcomings of civilization.
We had pitched a small tent in the shelter of a clump of trees on the higher part of the island ; and near this, on the morning of our third day, I was sitting, smoking, and trying the effect of Sylvia’s face under a wide black hat heavy with ostrich plumes, when Walkirk approached me, carrying a string of freshly caught fish.
“ I am sorry to say,” said he, “that in coming here to escape the society of women we have made a failure, for one of them is sitting on the beach, on the other side of the island.”
I sprang to my feet with an abrupt exclamation.
“ How did the woman get here ? ” I cried. “ I thought this place was deserted.”
“ It is; I know every inch of it. No one lives here, but this female person came in a small sailboat. I saw it tied up, not far from where she is sitting.”
“ If women come here,” I said, “ I want to go, and you may as well get ready to leave.”
“ I think,” remarked Walkirk, “ that it would be well not to be in too great a hurry to leave. I know of no place where we are less likely to be disturbed, and so long as these dry nights continue there can be no pleasanter camping place. She may now be sailing away, and the chances are we shall never see her again.”
“ I ’ll go and look into the matter,” said I.
I walked over the ridge of the little island, and soon caught sight of a female figure sitting on the sandy beach. Near by was the boat which Walkirk had mentioned. As soon as I saw her I stopped; but she must have heard my approach, for she turned toward me. I had come merely to make an observation of her, but now I must go on. As I approached her I turned as if I were about to walk along the shore, and as I passed her I raised my hat. She was a lady of middle age, of a reddish blonde complexion, and her hair was negligently put up under a plain straw hat. Her large blue eyes, her slightly uplifted brows, and the general expression of her rather thin face gave me the idea that she was a pleasantly disposed woman, who was either very tired or not in good health.
“ Good-morning, sir,” she said. “ On desert islands, you know, people speak to each other without ceremony.”
I stopped, and returned her salutation. “Excuse me,”I remarked, “ but this does not seem to be a desert island. May I be permitted to ask if it is a place of much resort? ”
“ Of course you may,” she answered. “ People sometimes come here; but would you like it better if they did not? You need not answer; I know you would.”
This was a very free and easy lady, but if she liked that mood it suited me very well.
“ Since you will have it,” I replied, “ I will admit I came here because I thought my companion and I would have the island to ourselves.”
“And now you are disappointed,” she said, with a smile.
She was surely a person of very pleasant humor.
“Good lady,” said I, “you must not corner me. I came here because I thought it would be a good place in which to stop awhile and grumble undisturbed ; and as you say it is proper to be unceremonious, may I ask how you happen to be here, and if you sail your boat yourself ? ”
“I am here,” she answered, “because I like this island. I take an interest in it for two reasons: one is that it is a good island, and the other is that I own it.”
“ Really! ” I exclaimed, in sudden embarrassment, “ you must pardon me ! I assure you I did not know that.”
“ Don’t apologize,” she said, raising her hand. “ Scarcely any one knows, or at least remembers, that I own this island. I bought it a good many years ago, intending to build upon it; but it was considered too remote from the mainland, and I have established a summer home on the island which you can just see, over there to the west; so this island is perfectly free to respectable seekers after solitude or fish. I may add that I do not sail my boat, but came here this morning with my brother and another gentleman. They have now gone up the beach to look for shells.”
“ Madam,” said I, “ I feel that I am an intruder ; but to assure you that I am a respectable one, allow me to introduce myself,” and I presented my card.
“ No, thank you,” she replied, with a smile, as she gently waved back my card ; “ we don’t do that sort of thing here; as far as possible we omit all ordinary social customs. We come here to rid ourselves, for a time, of manners and customs. My other island is called the ‘ Tangent,’ because there we fly off from our accustomed routine of life. We dress as we please, and we live as we please. We drop all connection with society and its conventions. We even drop the names by which society knows us. I am known as the ‘ Lady Who Sits on the Sand,’ commonly condensed to the ‘ Sand Lady.’ My brother, who spends most of his time in his boat, is the ‘ Middle-Aged Man of the Sea,’and his scientific friend is the ‘Shell Man.' When we have stayed on the Tangent as long as the weather and our pleasure induce us, we return to our ordinary routine of life. Now, if you have any title which is characteristic of you, I shall be glad to hear it, as well as that of your companion. We consider ourselves capable of forming unbiased opinions in regard to what is generally known as respectability.”
It struck me as a very satisfactory thing to look upon this pleasant lady solely and simply as a human being. It is so seldom that we meet any one who can be looked upon in that light.
“ Madam,” I said, “ I greatly like your plan for putting yourselves out of the world for a time, but I find it difficult properly to designate myself.”
“ Oh, anything will do,” she said; “ for instance, your reason for desiring to seclude yourself.”
“Very well, then,” said I, “you may call me a ‘ Lover in Check.’ ”
“ Excellent! ” she exclaimed, — “ just the sort of person for this place ; and what is the other one ? ”
“ Oh, he is an Understudy,” I replied.
“ Delightful,” she said ; “ I never saw one. And here come my brother and the Shell Man.”
I was now introduced formally by my new title to the Middle-Aged Man of the Sea, a hearty personage, with a curling beard, and to the Shell Man, who was tall, and wore spectacles.
When my presence was explained, the brother was as cordial as the lady had been, and proffered any assistance which I might need during my sojourn on the island. When they took their leave, the Sand Lady urged me to inhabit her island as long as I pleased, and hoped that I and the Understudy would sometimes sail over to them, and see what it was to be on a Tangent. At this I shook my head, and they all laughed at me; but it was easy to see that they were people of very friendly dispositions.
When I reported my interview to Walkirk, he remarked, “ It is impossible to get away from people, but in all probability these folks will not come here again.”
“ Perhaps not,” I answered, and dropped the subject.
“ They did not seem in the least surprised to find us here,” I said to Walkirk, as we were eating our dinner.
“ Who ? ” he asked. “ Oh, the people who came over this morning ? Quite likely they saw us when we were sailing this way. We passed their island at no great distance. There is no reason why they should object. Your soft hat and flannel shirt would not prevent them from seeing that you were a gentleman.”
I nodded, and sat silent for a time.
“ Walkirk,” said I, “suppose we sail over to those people this afternoon ? It might be interesting.”
“Very good,” he answered, turning suddenly to watch a sea gull, which had made a great swoop toward us, as if attracted by the odors of our meal; “ that will be an excellent thing to do.”
In making our way, that afternoon, in the direction of the Tangent, our course was not mathematically correct, for the wind did not favor us, and it was impossible to sail in a right line ; but the sun was still high when we reached the larger island, and made the boat fast to a little pier.
This island was much more attractive than the one on which we were camping. The ground receded from the beach in rolling slopes covered with short grass, and here and there were handsome spreading trees. On a bluff, a few hundred yards from the pier, stood a low, picturesque house, almost surrounded by a grove. The path to the house was plainly marked, and led us along the face of a little hill to a jutting point, where it seemed to make an abrupt turn upward. As we rounded this point, we saw on a rocky ledge not far ahead of us a lady dressed in white. She was standing on the ledge, looking out over the water, and apparently very much engaged with her own thoughts, for she had not yet perceived our approach.
At the first glance I saw that the figure before us was not the Sand Lady. This was a tall and graceful woman, carrying no weight of years. She held her hat in her hand, and her dark hair was slightly blown back from a face which, seen in profile against the clear blue sky, appeared to me to be perfect in its outline. We stopped involuntarily, and at that moment she turned toward us. Her face was one of noble beauty, with great dark eyes, and a complexion of that fine glow which comes to women who are not quite brunettes.
Walkirk started, and seized my arm. “ Good heavens,” he whispered, “ it is Mother Anastasia!”
As we now advanced toward the lady, I could scarcely believe what I had heard ; certainly I could not comprehend it. Here was one of the most beautiful women I had ever beheld, dressed in a robe of soft white flannel, which, though simple, was tasteful and elegant. She had a bunch of wild flowers in her belt, and at her neck a bow of dark yellow ribbon. I particularly noticed these points, in my amazement at hearing Walkirk say that this was the Mother Superior of the House of Martha.
As we approached, she greeted us pleasantly, very much as if she had expected our coming, and then, addressing Walkirk, she said, with a smile : —
“ I see, sir, that you recognize me, and I suppose you are somewhat surprised to find me here, and thus,” glancing at her dress.
“ Surprised, madam ! ” exclaimed Walkirk. “ I am astounded.”
“ Well,” said she, “ that sort of thing will happen occasionally. The people on this island have been expecting a visit from you gentlemen, but I really do not know where any of them are. It is not always easy to find them, but I will go and see if the Sand Lady is in the house, and if so I will tell her of your arrival. Of course,” she continued, now turning to me, “ you both will remember that in this place we put ourselves outside of a good many of the ordinary conventions, and are known by our characteristics instead of our names.”
I assured her we understood this, and considered it an admirable idea.
“ As you, sir,” turning to Walkirk, “ have met me before, I will immediately state that I am known on this island only as the ‘ Interpolation.’ ”
She turned to walk toward the house, but stopped. “ We are all here to enjoy ourselves, and it is against the rules to worry each other with puzzles. I therefore will at once say, in explanation of my name, that I have briefly thrust myself into the life of my friends; and of my appearance, that the Middle-Aged Man of the Sea, who is a very self-willed person, caused the costume which I ordinarily wear, and in which I arrived, to be abstracted and hidden, so that I am obliged, while here, to wear clothes belonging to others. Now, you see, Mr. Understudy, everything is as plain as daylight.”
“ They have been talking about us,” I remarked, as the lady rapidly walked away, “ and of course, having recognized you, she must know who I am.”
“ Know you ? There is no doubt of it,” he answered. “ She must have seen you often in the village, although you may never have noticed her.”
“ I certainly never have,” said I; “ in fact, I make it a point not to look under the bonnets of those gray-garbed women.”
“ When you meet them in the street ? ” he asked.
“ Yes,” I replied.
“ She knows us both,” said Walkirk, “ and she has now gone to the house to tell the people who we are; and yet I am surprised that she met us so serenely. She could not possibly have known that the two men on that little island were her neighbors in the village of Arden.”
I made no answer. I was strangely excited. I had flown to an uninhabited island to get away from Sylvia, and, if my conscience could be made to work properly, to get away from all thoughts of her; and here I had met, most unexpectedly and suddenly, with one who was probably the most intimate connection of the girl from whom I was flying. I was amazed; my emotion thrilled me from head to foot.
“It is just like women,” remarked Walkirk, as we slowly walked toward the house, “ to put on disguises to conceal their identities, but they have no respect for our identities. Without doubt, at this moment Mother Anastasia is telling the lady of the house all about you and your grandmother, your position in society, and the manner in which you were furnished with a secretary from the House of Martha.”
Still I did not reply. “ Mother Anastasia ! ” I said to myself. “ Here is a gray-garbed sister transformed into a lovely woman. Why should not another sister be so transformed ? Why should not Sylvia be here, in soft white raiment, with flowers and a broad hat ? If one can be thus, why not the other ? ” The possibility fevered me.
We found the mistress of the house — her who was called the Sand Lady — upon a broad piazza. Her demeanor had been pleasant enough when we had seen her before, but now she greeted us as cordially as if we had been old friends. It was plain enough that Mother Anastasia had told her all about us. Her brother and the Shell Man were also there, and the first was friendly and the latter polite. The Mother Superior was on the piazza, but keeping a little in the background, as if she felt that she had had her turn.
“And now, Mr. Lover in Check and Mr. Understudy,” said the Sand Lady, “ I present you with the freedom of this island, as I have already presented you with the freedom of the other. If what we happen to be doing interests you, join us. If it does not, interest yourselves as you please. That is our custom here.”
The mention of the name which I had applied to myself gave me a little shock. Under the circumstances I did not like it. It was possible that the Mother Superior of the House of Martha might know what it meant; and whether she knew it now, or ever should come to know it, I did not wish the knowledge to come to her in that way.
“ There is still another one of our family,” said the Sand Lady; “ but she is very independent, and may not care for me to present you just now. I will go and ask her.”
She stepped off the piazza, and went to a lady who was reading in a hammock, under a tree near by. In a minute or two this lady arose, and, with her book in her hand, came toward us. She was a woman of good figure, and with a certain air of loftiness. Her dress was extremely simple, and she may have been thirty years old. Approaching us, she said: —
“ I wish to introduce myself. I am a ‘ Person.’ In this place that is all I am. It is my name. It denotes my characteristics. Your titles have been mentioned to me. The ceremony is over,” and, with a little nod, she returned to her hammock.
“ Now,” said the Man of the Sea, “ who could prune away conventionalities better than that ? ” He then announced that in half an hour the tide would serve for fishing, — that he was going out in his boat, and would take any one who cared to accompany him ; and this announcement having been made, he settled himself upon the piazza to talk to us. The conversation was interesting and lively. The people at this house were well worth knowing.
The Sand Lady and Walkirk went in the boat to fish. The latter had been very prompt to accept the invitation. I do not know whether the Shell Man went with them or not. At all events, he disappeared, and Mother Anastasia and myself were left upon the piazza. It surprised me that events had so (quickly shaped themselves to my advantage.
“ Do you insist,” I said, when we were left alone, “ on being called an Interpolation ? ”
“ Of course I do,” she answered; “that is what I am.”
“You like plain speech.”
“ I am very fond of it,” was her reply.
During the general conversation I had determined that as soon as an opportunity offered I would speak very plainly to this lady. I looked about me. The occupant of the hammock was not far away. I surmised that she could readily hear me if I spoke in my ordinary tone.
“ Plain speech appears difficult to you.” remarked my companion.
I still looked about me. “ It strikes me,” said I, “that beyond the other side of the house there is a bluff from which one might get a view of the mainland. Would you like to go and find out whether that is so or not ? ”
“ I have seen that view several times,” she answered ; and then, after a little pause, she added, “ But I don’t mind in the least seeing it again.” Together we walked to the bluff. There we found two rude seats which had been made for the convenience of viewers, and on one of these she seated herself.
“ Now,” said she, “ please sit down, and you may immediately begin to ask me about Sister Ha— ”
“ Oh, do not call her by that name ! ” I cried.
She laughed. “Very well, then,” said she, “ what shall I call her ? ”
“ Sylvia,” I replied.
She opened her eyes. “ Upon my word,” she exclaimed, “ this is progress ! How did you come to know that her name is Sylvia ? ”
“ She told me,” I answered. “ But why do you think I want to ask you about Sylvia ? ”
“ I knew there was no other reason for your wishing to have a private talk with me; but I must admit that I would not have felt warranted to act upon my assumptions had you not announced yourself in this place as a Lover in Check.”
“ But could not some one else have held me in check ? ” I asked.
“ No, sir,” said she. “ I have heard of the manner in which you parted from your late secretary.”
This conversation was getting to be plainer than I desired it to be. I was willing to declare my position, but I did not care to have it declared for me. I was silent for a minute.
“ I did not suppose,” I then said, “ that you were so well informed. You think that I am a lover held in cheek by the circumstances surrounding the lady you designated my late secretary ? ”
“ I do.”
“ May I ask,” I continued, with a little agitation, “ if Sylvia considers me in this light, and if she has — expressed any opinion on the subject ? ”
“ Those are pretty questions,” said the lady, fixing her dark eyes upon me. “ She has said nothing about the light in which she considers you. In fact, all she has told me about you has been in answer to questions I have put to her; but had she spoken of you as a lover, checked or unchecked, of course you would have been none the wiser for me. Sylvia is a simple-hearted, frank girl, and I have thought that she might not have suspected the nature of your very decided liking for her ; but now that I have found out that she let you know her as Sylvia I am afraid she is deeper than I thought her. I should not be surprised if you two had flirted dreadfully.”
“ I never flirt,” I answered emphatically.
“That is right,” said she. “Never do it.”
“ But why,” I asked, “ did you allow her to continue to come to me, if you thought I had a decided liking for her, and all that ? ”
“ Because I chose to do it,” she replied, with not the ripple of a smile nor the furrow of a frown upon her face.
I looked at her in amazement.
“ Madam,” said I, “ Interpolation, Mother Anastasia, or whatever name you give yourself, begin now and tell me about Sylvia, and speak to me freely, as I speak to you. I love her with all my heart. If I can, I intend to marry her, Martha or no Martha. I care not what may be the odds against me. Now you see exactly where I stand, and as far as I am concerned you may speak without restraint.”
“You are certainly very clear and explicit,” she said, “ and I shall be glad to tell you about Sylvia.”
“ Before I begin,” continued my companion, slanting her hat so as to prevent the sun from meddling with the perfect tones of her complexion, “tell me what you already know about this young lady. I do not wish to waste any information.”
“ All I know,” said I, “ is that her family name is Raynor, — my grandmother told me that, — that she is absolutely, utterly, and even wickedly out of place in the House of Martha, and that I want her for my wife.”
“ Very good,”said my companion, with a smile. “ Now I know what not to tell you. I am very fond of Sylvia. In fact, I believe I love her better than any other woman in the world” —
“ So do I,” I interrupted.
She laughed. “ For a lover in check you are entirely too ready to move. For years I have looked upon her as a younger sister, and there is no good thing which I would not have lavished upon her had I been able, but instead of that I did her an injury. At times I have thought it a terrible injury.”
“You mean,” I asked, “that you have allowed her to enter the House of Martha ? ”
“ Your quickness is wonderful,” she said, “ but you do not put the case quite correctly. Had it been possible for me to prohibit her joining our sisterhood, I should have done so; but she was perfectly free to do as she pleased, and my advice against it was of no avail. It was my example which induced her to enter the House of Martha. She had had trouble. She wished to retire from the world, and devote herself to good works which should banish her trouble. I had so devoted myself. She loved me, and she followed me. I talked to her until I made her unhappy, and then I let her go her way. But the great object of my life for nearly a year has been to make that girl feel that her true way is out of the House of Martha.”
“ Then she is not bound by vows or promises ? ” I asked, with some excitement.
“ Not in the least,” said she. “ She can leave us when she pleases. I do not think she likes her life or her duties, unless, indeed, they lead her in the direction of dictated literature; but she has a firm will, and, having joined us, has never shown the slightest sign of a desire to leave us. She always asserts that, when the proper time arrives, she shall vow herself a permanent member of our sisterhood.”
“ What preposterous absurdity ! ” I exclaimed. “ She will never conform to your rules. She hates nursing. She has too much good sense to insult her fine womanly nature by degrading and unnecessary sacrifices.”
“ How delightfully confidential she must have been ! — but I assure you, sir, that she never said that sort of thing to me. There were things she liked and things she did not like, but she showed no signs of rebellion.”
“ Which was wise,” I said, “ knowing that you thought she ought not to be there, any way.”
“ Oh, but she is a little serpent,” exclaimed my companion, “ and so wise to confide in you, and without flirting! It must have been charming to see.”
I did not reply to this remark, which I considered flippant, and my mind was not inclined to flippancy.
“ It may appear strange to you,” she continued, “ and would probably appear strange to any one who did not understand the case, that I should have allowed her to become your amanuensis, but this whole affair is a very peculiar one. In the first place, it is absolutely necessary that Sylvia should work. It is not only her duty as a sister, but without it she would fall into a morbid mental condition. She is not fitted in any way for the ordinary labors of our House, so I was glad to find something which would not only suit her, but would so interest her that it would help to draw her away from us, and back into the world, to which she rightfully belongs. This must appear an odd desire for a mother superior of a religious body, but it is founded on an earnest and conscientious regard for the true welfare of my young friend.
“ And then there was another reason for my allowing her to come to you. You would smile if you could picture to yourself the mental image I had formed of you, which was founded entirely on your grandmother’s remarks when she came to see me about engaging one of our sisters as your secretary. Before this matter was discussed I may have seen you in the village, but I never had known you even by sight, and from what that good lady said of you I supposed that you were decidedly middleaged in feeling, if not in years ; that you were extremely grave and studious, and wished, when engaged upon literary composition, to be entirely oblivious of your surroundings ; and that you desired an amanuensis who should be simply a writing - machine, — who would in no way annoy you by intruding upon you any evidence that she possessed a personality. A sister from our House, your grandmother urged, would be the very person you needed, and infinitely better suited to the position than the somewhat frivolous young women who very often occupy positions as amanuenses.
“ It was for these reasons that I sent Sylvia to write at the dictation of the sedate author of the forthcoming book on European travel. Even when I heard that a love-story had been introduced into the descriptions of countries, I concluded, after consideration, not to interfere. I did not think that it would be of any disadvantage to Sylvia if she should become a little interested in love affairs ; but that you should become interested in a love affair, such as that you have mentioned to me, I did not imagine in the remotest degree.”
“I am sure,” said I, “ that your motives as far as Sylvia was concerned, and your action as far as I am concerned, were heaven-born. And now, as we are speaking plainly here together, let me ask you if you do not think you would be fulfilling what you consider your duty to Sylvia by aiding me to make her my wife ! There can surely be no better way for her to fill her proper place in the world than to marry a man who loves her with his whole heart. I know that I love her above all the world ; I believe that I am worthy of her.”
She answered me in a tone which was grave, but gentle. “ Do you not know you are asking me to do something which is entirely impossible ? In the first place, my official position precludes me from taking part in affairs of this nature ; and although I am willing to admit that I see no reason why you might not be a suitable partner for Sylvia, I must also admit that, on the other hand, I have no reason to believe that Sylvia would be inclined to accept you as such a partner. I have no doubt that she has made herself very agreeable to you, — that is her nature; I know that she used to make herself very agreeable to people. You must remember that, even should Sylvia leave us, your chances may be no better than they are now.”
“Madam,” I said, leaning toward her, and speaking with great earnestness, “ I will take all possible chances ! What I ask and implore of you is, that if you should ever be able to do the least little thing which would give me the opportunity to plead my own suit before Sylvia, you would do it. I can give her position and fortune. I think I am suited to her, and if love can make me better suited, I have love enough. Now tell me, will you not do this thing ? If you have the opportunity, and see no reason against it, will you not help me ? ”
“ This is a hard position for me,” she said, after a pause, “ and all I can promise you is this : I love Sylvia, and I am going to do whatever I think will be of the greatest advantage to her.”
“ Then,” I asserted with continued earnestness, “ it shall be my labor to prove that to love the man who loves her as I do will be her greatest good ! If I do that, will you be on my side ? ”
She smiled, looked at me a few moments, and then answered, “ Yes.”
“ Your hand upon it! ” I cried, leaning still farther forward. She laughed at the enthusiastic warmth of my manner, and gave me her hand.
“ It is a promise ! ” I exclaimed, and was about to raise her fingers to my lips when she quickly drew them away.
“ I declare,” she said, rising as she spoke, “ I did not suppose that you would forget that I am the Mother Superior of the House of Martha.”
“ Excuse me,” I replied, “ but you are not that; with your own mouth you have assured me that you are an Interpolation, and there is nothing in a social or moral law which forbids a suitable expression of gratitude to an Interpolation.”
“ Sir,” said she, “ I think I have seen quite as much as is necessary of the view which you asked me here to look upon.”
Frank R. Stockton.