IN THREE PARTS. PART ONE.
THE old street, keeping its New England Sabbath afternoon so decently under its majestic elms, was as goodly an example of its sort as the late seventies of the century just gone could show. It lay along a north-and-south ridge, between a number of aged and unsmiling cottages, fronting on cinder sidewalks, and alternating irregularly with about as many larger homesteads that sat back in their well-shaded gardens with kindlier dignity and not so grim a self-assertion. Behind, on the west, these gardens dropped swiftly out of sight to a hidden brook, from the farther shore of which rose the great wooded hill whose shelter from the bitter northwest had invited the old Puritan founders to choose the spot for their farming village of one street, with a Byington and a Winslow for their first town officers. In front, eastward, the land declined gently for a half mile or so, covered, by modern prosperity, with a small, stanch town, and bordered by a pretty river winding among meadows of hay and grain. At the northern end, instead of this gentle decline, was a precipitous cliff side, close to whose brow a wooden bench that ran halfway round a vast sidewalk tree commanded a view of the valley embracing nearly three quarters of the compass.
In civilian’s dress, and with only his sea-bronzed face and the polished air of a pivot gun to tell that he was of the navy, Lieutenant Godfrey Winslow was slowly crossing the rural way with Ruth Byington at his side. He had the look of, say, twenty-eight, and she was some four years his junior. From her father’s front gate they were passing toward the large grove garden of the young man’s own home, on the side next the hill and the sunset. On the front porch, where the two had just left him, sat the war-crippled father of the girl, taking pride in the placidity of the face she once or twice turned to him in profile, and in the buoyancy of her movements and pose.
His fond, unspoken thought went after her, that she was hiding some care again, — her old, sweet trick, and her mother’s before her. He looked on to Godfrey.
“There’s endurance,” he thought on. “You ought to have taken him long ago, my good girl, if you want him at all.” And here his reflections faded into the unworded belief that she would have done so but for his, her own father’s, being in the way.
The pair stopped and turned half about to enjoy the green-arched vista of the street, and Godfrey said, in a tone that left his companion no room to overlook its personal intent, “How often, in my long absences, I see this spot! ”
“You would n’t dare confess you didn’t,” was her blithe reply.
“Oh yes, I should. I ’ve tried not to see it, many a time.”
“Godfrey Winslow! ” she laughed. “That was very wrong! ”
“It was very useless, ” said the wanderer, “for there was always the same one girl in the midst of the picture; and that ’s the sort a man can never shut out, you know. I don’t try to shut it out any more, Ruth.”
The girl laughed more softly. “I wish I could know where Leonard is,” she mused aloud.
“Did you hear me, Ruth? I say I don’t try any more, now.”
“Well, that’s right! I wonder where that brother of mine is ? ”
The baffled lover had to call up his patience. “Well, that’s right, too,” he laughed ; “ and I wonder where that brother of mine is ? I wonder if they ’re together ? ”
They moved on, but at the stately entrance of the Winslow garden they paused again. The girl gave her companion a look of distress, and the young man’s brow darkened. “Say it,” he said. “I see what it is.”
“ You speak of Arthur ” — she began.
“ What did you make out of his sermon this morning ? ”
“Why, Ruth, I— What did you make out of it ? ”
“I made out that the poor boy is very, very unhappy.”
“Did you? Well, he is; and in a certain way I ’m to blame for it.”
The girl’s smile was tender. “Was there ever anything the matter with Arthur, and you didn’t think you were in some way to blame for it ? ”
“Oh, now, don’t confuse me with Leonard. Anyhow, I ’m to blame this time! Has Isabel told you anything, Ruth?”
“Yes, Isabel has told me! ”
“ Told you they are engaged ? ”
“ Told me they are engaged! ”
“Well,” said the young man, “Arthur told me last night; and I took an elder brother’s liberty to tell him he had played Leonard a vile trick.”
“That would make a much happier nature than Arthur’s unhappy, would n’t it? ”
Ruth was too much pained to reply, but she turned and called cheerily, “Father, do you know where Leonard is? ”
The father gathered his voice and answered huskily, laying one hand upon his chest, and with the other gesturing up by the Winslow elm to the grove behind it.
She nodded. “Yes! . . . With Arthur, you say? . . . Yes! . . . Thank you! . . . Yes! ” She passed with Godfrey through the wide gate.
“That’s like Leonard,” said the lover. “He ’ll tell Arthur he hasn’t done a thing he hadn’t a perfect right to do.”
“And Arthur has not, Godfrey. He has only been less chivalrous than we should have liked him to be. If he had been first in the field, and Leonard had come in and carried her off, you would have counted it a perfect mercy all round.”
“ Ho-oh! it would have been! Leonard would have made her happy. Arthur never can, and she can never make him so. But what he has done is not all: look how he did it! Leonard was his beloved and best friend ” —
“Except his brother Godfrey ”—
“Except no one, Ruth, unless it ’s you. I ’m neither persuasive nor kind, nor often with him. Proud of him I was, and never prouder than when I knew him to be furiously in love with her, while yet, for pure, sweet friendship’s sake, He kept standing off, standing off.”
“I wish you might have seen it, Godfrey. It was so beautiful — and so pitiful ! ”
“It was manly,— gentlemanly; and that was enough. Then all at once he ’s taken aback! All control of himself gone, all self-suppression, all conscience ” —
“The conscience has returned, ” said the girl.
“Oh, not to guide him! Only to goad him! Fifty consciences can’t honorably undo the mischief now! ”
“Did I not write you that there was already a coolness between her and Leonard ? ”
“Yes; but the whole bigness and littleness of Arthur’s small, bad deed lies in the fact that, though he knew that coolness was but a momentary tiff, with Isabel in the wrong, he took advantage of it to push his suit in between and spoil as sweet a match as two hearts were ever making.”
“It was more than a tiff, Godfrey; it ” —
“Not a bit more! not — a — bit! ”
“ Yes! — yes — it was a problem ! a problem how to harmonize two fine natures keyed utterly unlike. Leonard saw that. That is why he moved so slowly.”
“Hmm! ” The lover stared away grimly. “I know something about slowness. I suppose it’s a virtue— sometimes. ”
“I think so,” said the girl, caressing a flower.
“Ah, well!” responded the other. “ She has chosen a nature now that — Oh me! . . . Ruth, I shall speak to her mother! I am the only one who can. I ’ll see Mrs. Morris some time this evening, and lay the whole thing out to her as we four see it who have known one another almost from the one cradle.”
Ruth smiled sadly. “You will fail. I think the matter will have to go on as it is going. And if it does, you must remember, Godfrey, we do not really know but they may work out the happiest union. At any rate, we must help them to try. ”
“If they insist on trying, yes; and that will be the best for Leonard.”
“The very best. One thing we do know, Godfrey: Arthur will always be a passionate lover, and dear Isabel is as honest and loyal as the day is long.”
“The day is not long; this one is not — to me. It’s most lamentably short, and to-morrow I must be gone again. I have something to say to you, Ruth, that ” —
The maiden gave him a look of sweet protest, which suddenly grew remote as she murmured, “Isabel and her mother are coming out of their front door.”
There were two dwellings in the Winslow garden, — one as far across at the right of the Byington house as the other was at the left. The one on the right may have contained six or eight bedchambers; the other had but three. The larger stood withdrawn from the public way, a well-preserved and very attractive example of colonial architecture, refined to the point of delicacy in the grace and harmony of its details. Here dwelt Arthur Winslow, barely six weeks a clergyman, alone but for two or three domestics and the rare visits of Godfrey, his only living relation. The other and older house, in the garden’s southern front corner, was a gray gambrel-roofed cottage, with its threshold at the edge of the sidewalk; and it was from this cottage that Isabel and her mother stepped, gratefully answering the affectionate wave of Ruth’s hand, — Mrs. Morris with the dignity of her forty-odd years, and Isabel with a sudden eager fondness. The next moment the two couples were hidden from each other by the umbrageous garden and by the tall white fence, in which was repeated the architectural grace of the larger house.
Mother and daughter conversed quietly, but very busily, as they came along this inclosure; but presently they dropped their subject to bow cordially across to the father of Ruth, and when he endeavored to say something to them Mrs. Morris moved toward him. Isabel took a step or two more in the direction of the Winslow elm and its inviting bench, but then she also turned. She was of a moderate feminine stature and perfect outline, her step elastic, her mien self-contained, and her face so young that a certain mature tone in her mellow voice was often the cause of Ruth’s fond laughter. As winsome, too, she was, as she was beautiful, and “as pink as a rose,” said the old-time soldier to himself, as he came down his short front walk, throwing half his glances forward to her, quite unaware that he was equally the object of her admiration.
Though white-haired and somewhat bent he was still slender and handsome, a most worthy figure against the background of the red brick house, whose weathered walls contrasted happily with the blossoming shrubs about their base, and with the green of lawn and trees.
“ Good - afternoon, Isabel. I was saying to your mother, I hope such days as this are some offset for the Southern weather and scenery you have had to give up.”
“You should n’t tempt our Southern boastfulness, General,” Isabel replied, with an air of meek chiding. She had a pretty way of skirmishing with men which always brought an apologetic laugh from her mother, but which the General had discovered she never used in a company of less than three.
“Oh! ho, ho!” laughed Mrs. Morris, who was just short, plump, and pretty enough to laugh to advantage. “Why, General, ”— she sobered abruptly, and she was just pretty and plump and short enough to do this well, also, — “ my recovered health is offset enough for me.”
“For us, my dear,” said the daughter. “My mother’s restored health is offset enough for us, General. Indeed, for me ” — addressing the distant view — “there is no call for offset; any landscape or climate is perfect that has such friends in it as — as this one has. ”
“Oh! ho, ho! ” laughed the mother again. Nobody ever told the Morrises they had a delicious Southern accent, and their words are given here exactly as they thought they spoke them.
“My dear,” persisted Isabel rebukingly, “I mean such friends as Ruth Byington.”
Mrs. Morris let go her little Southern laugh once more. “Don’t you believe her, General, —don’t you believe her. She means you every bit as much as she means Ruth. She means everybody on Bylow Hill.”
“I’m at the mercy of my interpreter, ” said Isabel. “But I thought ” — her eyes went out upon the skyline again—“I thought that men — that men — I thought that men — My dear, you’ve made me forget what I thought! ”
They laughed, all three. Isabel, with a playful sigh, clutched her mother’s hand, and the pair drew off and moved away to the bench.
“He puts you in good spirits,” said the mother, breaking a silence.
“ Good spirits! He puts me in pure heartache. Oh, why did you tell him ? ”
“Tell him? My child ! I have not told him! ”
“Oh, mother, do you not see you’ve told him point-blank that it’s all settled ? ”
“No, dearie, no! I only see that your distress is making you fanciful. But why should he not be told, Isabel ? ”
“I’m not ready! Oh, I’m not ready! It may suit him well enough to hear it, for he knows Leonard is too fine and great for me; but I ’m not ready to tell him.”
“ My darling, he knows you are good enough for any Leonard he can bring.”
“Oh yes, on the plane of the Ten Commandments.” The girl smiled unhappily.
“But, precious, he loves Arthur deeply, and thinks the world of him.”
“Mother, what is it like, to love deeply ? ”
The query was ignored. “And the old gentleman is fond of you, sweetheart.”
“Oh, he likes me. What a tame old invalid that word ‘ fond ’ has grown to be! You can be fond of two or three persons at once, nowadays. My soul! I wish I were fond of Arthur Winslow in the old mad way the word meant when it was young! ”
“Pshaw, dearie! you’ll be fond enough of him, once you ’re his. He ’s brilliant, upright, loving and lovable. You see, and say, he is so, and I know your fondness will grow with every day and every experience, happy or bitter.”
“Yes. . . . Yes, I could not endure not to give my love bountifully wherever it rightly belongs. But oh, I wish I had it ready to-day, — a fondness to match his! ”
“Now, Isabel! Why, pet, thousands of happy and loving wives will tell you ” —
“ Oh, I know what they will tell me. ”
“They ’ll not tell you they get along without love, dearie. But ten years from now, my daughter, not how fond you were when you first joined hands, but what you have ” —
“ Oh yes, — been to each other, done for each other, borne from each other, will be the true measure. Oh, of course it will; but there’s so much in the right start! ”
“Beyond doubt! Understand me, precious: if you have the least ground to fear ” —
“Mother! mother! No! no! What! afraid I may love some one else ? Never! never! Oh, without boasting, and knowing what I am as well as Leonard Byington knows ” —
“Oh, pshaw! Leonard Byington! ”
“He knows me, mother, —as if he lived at a higher window that looked down into my back yard.” The speaker smiled.
“Then he knows,” exclaimed the mother, “you ’re true gold! ”
“Yes, but a light coin.”
“My pet! He knows you’re the tenderest, gentlest dear he ever saw.”
“But neither brave nor strong.”
“Oh, you not brave! you not strong! You ’re the lovingest, truest ” —
“Only inclined to be a bit too hungry after sympathy, dear.”
“You never bid for it, love, never.”
“Well, no matter; I shall never love any one but myself too much. I think I shall some day love Arthur as I wish I could love him now. I never did really love Leonard,— I couldn’t; I haven’t the stature. That was my trouble, dearie: I had n’t the stature. I never shall have; and if it’s he you are thinking of, you are wasting your dear, sweet care. But he ’s going to be our best and nearest friend, mother, — he and Ruth and Godfrey, together and alike. We ’ve so agreed, Arthur and I. Oh, I ’m not going to come in here and turn the sweet old nickname of this happy spot into a sneer.”
“Then why are you not happy, precious ? ”
“ Happy ? Why, my dear, I am happy! ”
“With touches of heartache? ”
“ Oh, with big wrenches of heartache! Why not? Were you never so? ”
“I ’m so right now, dearie. For after all is said ” —
“And thought that can’t be said ” — murmured Isabel.
“Yes,” replied the mother, “after all is said and thought, I should rather give you to Arthur than to any other man I know. Leonard will have a shining career, but it will be in politics.”
“ I tried to dissuade him, ” broke in the daughter, “till I was ashamed.”
“In politics,” continued Mrs. Morris, — “and Northern politics, Isabel. Arthur’s will be in the church! ”
“Yes,” said the other, but her whole attention was within the fence at their side, where a rough stile, made in boyhood days by the two brothers and Leonard, led over into the garden. She sprang up. “Let’s go, mother; he ’s coming! ”
“Who, my child? ”
“ Both ! Come, dear, come quickly ! Oh, I don’t know why we ever came out at all! ”
“My dear, it was you proposed it, lest some one should come in! ”
The daughter had moved some steps down the road, but now turned again; for Ruth and Godfrey came out through the garden’s high gateway. However, they were giving all their smiles to the greetings which the General sent them from his piazza.
“Come over,mother! ” called Isabel, in a stifled voice. “Cross to the hill path ! ” But before they could reach it Arthur and Leonard came into full view on the stile. Isabel motioned her mother despairingly toward them, wheeled once more, and with a gay call for Ruth’s notice hurried to meet her in the middle of the way.
Godfrey passed over to the General, who had walked down to his gate on his way to the great elm. Out from behind the great elm came the other two men, Arthur leading and talking briskly: —
“The sooner the better, Leonard. Now while my work is new and taking shape— Ah! here’s Mrs. Morris.”
Both men were handsome. Arthur, not much older than Ruth, was of medium height, slender, restless, dark, and eager of glance and speech. Leonard was nearer the age of Godfrey ; fairer than Arthur, of a quieter eye, tall, broad-shouldered, powerful, lithe, and almost tamely placid. Mrs. Morris met them with animation.
“ Have our churchwarden and our rector been having another of their long talks ? ”
The joint reply was cut short by Godfrey’s imperative hail: “Leonard! ”
As Byington turned that way, Arthur said quickly to Mrs. Morris, “He ’s promised to retain charge ” — and nodded toward Isabel. The nod meant Isabel’s financial investments.
“And mine?” murmured the wellpleased lady.
The two gave heed again to Godfrey, who was loudly asking Leonard, “Why did n’t you tell us the news? ”
“Oh,” drawled Leonard smilingly, “I knew father would.”
“I haven’t talked with Godfrey since he came,” said Mrs. Morris; and as she left Arthur she asked his brother : “ What news ? Has the governor truly made him ” —
“District attorney, yes,” said Godfrey, “Ruth, I think you might have told me.”
“Godfrey, I think you might have asked me, ” laughed the girl, drawing Isabel toward Arthur and Leonard, in order to leave Mrs. Morris to Godfrey.
Arthur moved to meet them, but Ruth engaged him with a question, and Isabel turned to Leonard, offering her felicitations with a sweetness that gave Arthur tearing pangs to overhear.
“But when people speak to us of your high office, ” he could hear her saying, “we will speak to them of your high fitness for it. And still, Leonard, you must let us offer you our congratulations, for it is a high office.”
“ Thank you, ” replied Leonard: “ let me save them for the day I lay it down. Do you, then, really think it high and honorable ?”
“Ah,” she rejoined, in a tone of reproach and defense that tortured Arthur, “you know I honor the pursuit of the law.”
Leonard showed a glimmer of drollery. “Pursuit of the law, yes,” he said; “but the pursuit of the lawbreaker ” —
“Even that,” replied Isabel, “has its frowning honors.”
“But I ’m much afraid it seems to you,” he said, “a sort of blindman’s buff played with a club. It often looks so to the pursued, they say.”
Isabel gave her chin a little lift, and raised her tone for those behind her: “We shall try not to be among the pursued, Ruth and Arthur and I.”
The young lawyer’s smile broadened. “My mind is relieved,” he said.
“Relieved! ” exclaimed Isabel, with a rosy toss. “Ruth, dear, here is your brother in distress lest Arthur or we should embarrass him in his new office by breaking the laws ! Mr. Byington, you should not confess such anxieties, even if you are justified in them!”
His response came with meditative slowness and with playful eyes: “ Whenever I am justified in having such anxieties, they shall go unconfessed.”
“ That relieves my fears, ” laughed Isabel, and caught a quick hint of trouble on Arthur’s brow, though he too managed to laugh. Whereupon, half sighing, half singing, she twined an arm in one of Ruth’s, swung round her, waved to the General as he took a seat on the elm-tree bench, and so changed partners.
“Let us go in,” whispered Leonard to his sister, with a sudden pained look, and instantly resumed his genial air.
But the uneasy Arthur saw his moving lips and both changes of countenance. He saw also the look which Ruth threw, followed by a second one, toward Mrs. Morris, where that lady and Godfrey moved slowly in conversation,—he ever so sedate, she ever so sprightly. And he saw Isabel glance as anxiously in the same direction. But then her eyes came to his, and under her voice, though with a brow all sunshine, she said, “Don’t look so perplexed.”
“Perplexed! ” he gasped. “Isabel, you ’re giving me anguish!”
She gleamed an injured amazement, but promptly threw it off, and when she turned to see if Leonard or Ruth had observed it they were moving to meet Godfrey. Mrs. Morris was joining the General under the elm.
“How have I given you pain, dear heart ? ” asked Isabel, as she and Arthur took two or three slow steps apart from the rest, so turning her face that they should see its tender kindness.
“Ah! don’t ask me, my beloved!” he warily exclaimed. “It is all gone! Oh, the heavenly wonder to hear you, Isabel Morris, — you, give me loving names! You might have answered me so differently; but your voice, your eyes, work miracles of healing, and I am whole again.”
Isabel gave again the laugh whose blithe, final sigh was always its most winning note. Then, with tremendous gravity, she said, “You are very indiscreet, dear, to let me know my power.”
His face clouded an instant, as if the thought startled him with its truth and value. But when she added, with yet deeper seriousness of brow, “That ’s no way to tame a shrew, my love,” he laughed aloud, and peace came again with Isabel’s smile.
Then — because woman must always insist on seeing the wrong side of the goods — she murmured, “Tell me, Arthur, what disturbed you.”
“Words, Isabel, mere words of yours, which I see now were meant in purest play. You told Leonard ” —
“Leonard! What did I tell Leonard, dear ? ”
“You told him not to confess certain anxieties, even if they were justified.”
“Oh, Arthur! ”
“I see my folly, dearest. But, Isabel, he ought not to have answered that the more they were justified, the more they should go unconfessed! ”
“ Oh, Arthur! the merest, idlest prattle ! What meaning could you ” —
“None, Isabel, none! Only, my good angel, I so ill deserve you that with every breath I draw I have a desperate fright of losing you, and a hideous resentment against whoever could so much as think to rob me of you.”
“ Why, dear heart, don’t you know that couldn’t be done? ”
“ Oh, I know it, you being what you are, even though I am only what I am. But, Isabel, you know he loves you. No human soul is strong enough to blow out the flame of the love you kindle, Isabel Morris, as one would blow out his bedroom candle and go to sleep at the stroke of a clock.”
“Arthur, I believe Leonard — and I do not say it in his praise — I believe Leonard can do that! ”
“No, not so, not so! Leonard is strong, but the fire of a strong man’s love, however smothered, burns on without mercy, my beautiful, and you cannot go in and out of that burning house as though it were not on fire.”
“And shall Leonard, then, not be our nearest and best friend, as we had planned ? ”
“He shall, Isabel. Ah yes; not one smallest part of your sweet friendship will I take from him, nor of his from you. For, Isabel, though he were as weak as I ” —
“As weak as I, you should say, dear. You are not weak, Arthur, are you? ”
“Weak as the bending grass, Isabel, under this load of love. But though he, I say, were as weak as I, you— ah, you! — are as wise as you are bewitching ; and if I should speak to you from my most craven fear, I could find but one word of warning.”
“Oh, you dear, blind flatterer! And what word would that be ? ”
“That you are most bewitching when you are wisest.”
As Isabel softly laughed she cast a dreaming glance behind, and noticed that she and Arthur were quite hidden in the flowery undergrowth of the hill path. They kissed.
“Beloved,” said her worshiper, with a clouded smile, as he let her down from her tiptoes, “do you know you took that as though you were thinking of something else ? ”
“Did I? Oh, I didn’t mean to.”
Such a reply only darkened the cloud. “Of whom were you thinking, Isabel? ”
She blushed. “ I was think— thinking — why, I was — I — I was think— thinking ” — she went redder and redder as he went pale —“ thinking of everybody on By low Hill. Why — why, dear heart, don’t you see? When you ” —
“Oh, enough, enough, my angel! I take the question back! ”
“You made me think of everybody, Arthur, you were so sudden. Just suppose I had done so to you! ” They both thought that worthy of a good laugh. “Next time, dear,” added Isabel,— “no, no, no, but — next time, you mustn’t be so sudden. There’s no need, you know, ” — she blushed again, — “and I promise you I ’ll give my whole mind to it. Get me some of that hawthorn bloom yonder, and let’s go back.”
This “hill path ” was a narrowed continuance of the street, that led gradually down along the hill’s steep face to reach the town and the river meadows. Godfrey, halting before Ruth and her brother, watched the blooming hawthorn, over there, bend and shake and straighten and bend again, above Arthur’s unseen hands. Then, glancing furtively back toward Mrs. Morris, he muttered to Ruth, while Leonard gravely looked out across the landscape, “I live and learn.”
“So we learn to live,” was Ruth’s playful reply. To her it was painfully clear that Mrs. Morris, very sweetly no doubt, had eluded Godfrey’s endeavors to inform her of anything not to his brother’s unqualified praise. In the Bylow Hill group, Ruth had a way of smiling abstractedly which was very dear to Godfrey, even when it meant he had best say no more; and this smile had just said this to him when Isabel and Arthur came into view again. As the two and the three drifted toward each other, Ruth let Leonard outstep her, and joined Godfrey with a light in her face that quickened his pulse.
After a word or two of slight import she said, as they slowly walked, “Godfrey.”
“Yes,” eagerly responded the lover.
“Down in the garden, awhile ago
— did I — promise something ? ”
“You most certainly did! ” She
had promised that if he would let a certain subject drop she would bring it up again, herself, before he must take his leave.
“And must you go very soon, now ? ” she asked.
“I’ve only a few minutes left,” said the lover, with a lover’s license.
“Well, I ’m ready to speak. Of course, Godfrey, I know my heart.”
The young man smiled ruefully. “I’ve known mine till I’m dead tired of the acquaintance.”
Other words passed, her eyes on the ground as they loitered, and after a pause she returned from a digression: “But I’ve known my heart as long as you’ve known yours.”
“You’ve known — What do you — Oh, Ruth, look at me! ”
She looked, very tenderly, although she said, “You forget we are observed.”
“Oh, observed! Do you mean hope
— for me — after all ? ”
“I mean that if you will only wait until we can get a clear light on this matter of Isabel’s — which will most likely be by the next time you come ” —
“Oh, Ruth, Ruth, my own Ruth at last! ”
“Please don’t speak so. I’m not engaging myself to you now.”
“Oh yes, you are! Yes, you are! Yes — you — are! ”
“No — no — no — listen! Listen to me, Godfrey. I think that now, among us all, we shall manage Isabel’s affair well enough, and that the very next time — you — come ” — She began absently to pick her steps.
“What — what then? ”
“Then you may ask me.”
The response of the overjoyed lover was but one or two passionate words, and her sufficient reply, as they halted among their fellows, was to look across the valley with her meditative smile. Isabel took note, but kindly gave a long sigh of admiration, and with an exalted sweep of the hand drew the gaze of the five to the beauties of the scene below. The day was near its end. The long shadow of the great cliff behind Bylow Hill hung over the roofs of the town and over the hither meadows. The sun’s rays were laying their last touches upon the winding river, and upon the grainfields that extended from its farther shore. In the upper blue rested a few peaceful clouds, changing from silver to pink, from pink to pearly gray, and on the skyline crouched in a purpling haze the round-backed mountains of another county.
To Mrs. Morris and the General the sight, from the old elm-tree seat, was even fairer than to the youthful group whose forms stood out against the sky, the floral colors of the girls’ draperies heightened by the western light. For a while the two sitters gave the perfect scene the tribute of a perfect silence, and then the General asked, as he cautiously straightened his impaired frame, “Has not Isabel been making some — eh — news for herself — and us ? ”
The lady’s lips parted for their peculiar laugh of embarrassment, but the questioner’s smile was so serious that she forced her sweetest gravity. “ Why, General, according to our Southern ways, ” she said, — every word mellowed by her Southern way of saying it, — “that’s for Isabel to tell you.”
“Then why does she not do it, Mrs. Morris ? ” asked the veteran, who had been district attorney himself once upon a time, and was clever with witnesses.
“Why, really, General, Isabel has n’t had a cha— Oh! ho, ho! I ought n’t to have said that! ” Mrs. Morris had a killing dimple, but never used it.
“I suppose — of course ” — said the General, “she will say it’s — eh — Arthur ? ”
“Now you ’re making me tell,” she laughed, “and I mustn’t! General, Godfrey seems to be going.”
In fact, Godfrey was shaking hands with Ruth and Leonard. Now he took the hands of Arthur and Isabel together, and Mrs. Morris laughed more sweetly and with more oh’s and ho’s than ever; for Isabel sedately kissed Arthur’s brother. Ruth made signs to her father, who answered them in kind. “What does she say, Mrs. Morris? Can you hear ? ”
“She says they ’re singing ' your hymn ’ down in a church under the hill.”
“Ah yes.” He beamed and nodded to Ruth; but when Mrs. Morris once more laughed, his brow clouded a trifle. “Your daughter, Mrs. Morris” —
The lady broke in with a note of bright surprise, rose, and took an unconscious step forward. The five young friends were advancing in a compact cluster, with measured pace. Ruth and Isabel, in front abreast, and making happy show of the hawthorn sprays, were just enough apart to conceal, except for their superior height, the three lovers, and in lowered tones, but with kindling eyes, the five, incited by Ruth, were singing the song they had caught up from the valley, —the old man’s favorite from the days of his own songtime. The General got himself hurriedly to his feet; the shade passed from his brow. The group came close; he stepped out, and Isabel, meeting him, laid her two hands in his, while the halting cluster ceased their song suspensively on a line that pledged loves and friendships too ethereal to clash.
“ Isabel, ” •— he turned up a broadened palm, — “here ’s my amen to that line; where ’s yours? ”
With blushing alacrity she laid her hand on his.
“Arthur! ” he called, and the lively lover added his to the two. “Now, Ruth! ”
“Father! ” laughed the daughter, “is n’t this rather youngish?” But she laid her hand promptly upon Arthur’s, and the lines of the General’s face deepened playfully, and Mrs. Morris’s dimple did the same, as Godfrey thrust his hand in upon Ruth’s, unasked. The matron laughed very tenderly on the key of O while she added her hand, and received Leonard’s heavy palm above it. Then Arthur clapped a second hand upon Leonard’s, and Leonard was about to lay a second quietly upon Arthur’s, when Isabel, rose-red from brow to throat, gayly broke the heap and embraced Ruth.
“Well, honey - girlie, ” said Mrs. Morris, as she and Isabel reëntered their cottage, “was n’t it sweet of them all, that ‘ laying on of hands,’ as Arthur called it ? ”
“Yes,” replied the Southern girl, starting up the cramped old New England stairway to her room. “It was child’s play, but it was very sweet of them, and especially of the General.”
The mother detained her fondly. “And still, my child, you ’re not satisfied ? ”
“Ah, mother, are you blind, stone blind, or do you only hope I am ? ”
“My dearie! ”
“Why, mother, excepting Leonard, we haven’t had one word of true consent from one of them.”
“Oh, now, Isabel! They ’ll all be glad enough by and by.”
“Yes,” said the daughter from the landing above, “I’ve no doubt of that.”
She passed into her room, closed the door, and standing in the middle of the floor, with her temples in her palms, said, “O merciful God! Oh, Leonard Byington, if only that second hand of yours had hung back! ”
G. W. Cable.
(To be continued.)
- Copyright, 1902, by G. W. CABLE.↩