Our Lady of the Beeches

II.

“ GOOD-MORNING, Dr. Saxe!”

Saxe started up from the pine needles on which he had been lying flat on his back. She stood at a little distance, slim and cool-looking in a violet linen dress, with a sailor hat that cast a shadow on her face, leaving in the light only her beautiful mouth and rosy, cleft chin.

“ I was afraid you were asleep, and it would have been a pity to waken you.”

Not a trace of embarrassment about her. He remembered the hesitancy in his voice the night before, and wondered.

“ I was not asleep. I was merely dreaming ” —

He touched her proffered hand lightly, and joined her as she took the way to the camp.

“ Dreaming ? ” She was n’t even afraid to ask him that, it appeared.

“ Yes. Dreaming about a half invented anæsthetic that occupies my thoughts most of the time, even here in the woods.”

“ If I were a man I should be a doctor,” she answered, picking up a pine cone and sniffing at it.

“ I have not practiced for years, however.”

“ No ? What a strange thing! I should think — However, no doubt you do more real good in your laboratory.”

Saxe turned and looked at her. “ How do you know I have a laboratory ? ” he asked.

“ Every one has heard of Richard Saxe and his discoveries.” Her momentary hesitation was hardly noticeable, and she went on with the leisurely calm of the clever woman of the world. “ I read the other day that your new book is the success of the year. That must be very gratifying ? ”

“ It is gratifying. You have not read it?”

She turned her clear brown eyes full on him, as devoid of expression as two pools of woodland water.

“ No, I fear I should understand very little of it. Ah, here we are. I wonder whether you could give me a glass of water ? ”

Saxe took a dipper and a cup and went to the spring. So that was how it was to be. Very good. If she could keep it up, — and she evidently could, — he would be able to, also. It would be very amusing. He dipped up the cool water and filled the cup. It annoyed him to remember his agitation of the night before. It always annoys a man to find a woman unembarrassed in a situation that he himself is unable to carry off with ease. So be it. Not a word or a hint to recall any former acquaintance. He frowned savagely as he went back to the mossy path. It had been more than an acquaintance, it had been a friendship, but as she chose to ignore it, it should be ignored.

She drank the water with a delightful childlike graciousness, holding out the cup to be refilled.

“ I have n’t seen a tin dipper since I was a small child,” she said, watching it flash in the sun as he shook it free of the last drops of water.

“ You are an American, are you not ? ”

“ Yes. But I have lived in Europe for many years. As a matter of fact this is my first visit since I married ! ”

She said it as she would have to an utter stranger. Then, with a change of tone : “ What a perfectly beautiful place you have chosen for your camp ! Have you been here long ? ”

“ Just a week. I was at Bar Harbor, but it grew too gay to suit me, so I wired Leduc, with whom I have camped before, and came on at a day’s notice. He is a charming old scamp, and will amuse you.”

“ He was always a scamp, and always charming. I remember as a wee child having a decided and unabashed preference for him, somewhat to Annette’s disgust.”

Annette appeared in the doorway of the cabin as she spoke, a pair of brown velveteen trousers over her arm.

“ Lucien ! ” she called.

“ Leduc is skulking behind the bushes there by the lake,” said Saxe in an undertone, “ but he might as well give up ; his day of reckoning has come.”

“ Lucien ! Mademoiselle, have you seen him ? ”

The young woman turned. “ Yes, I have seen him, but I am not going to betray him.”

“ Betray him ! His clothes are in a state, — and the key of his chest is not in the pocket as he said. I can at least darn his socks if I can get at them.”

She called again, and then went reluctantly back into the cabin.

“ I confess to an unregenerate feeling of sympathy for Leduc,” remarked Saxe, looking toward the place where the old man had disappeared.

“ So do I! Oh, so do I! If he does n’t want his socks darned, why darn them ? By the way, Dr. Saxe, are you going to ask us to stay to breakfast, — I mean dinner ? ”

“ It had not occurred to me to ask, ‘ Mademoiselle,’ — I had taken it for granted. Leduc has a fine menu arranged, — fried fish as chief attraction, I believe, only — By Jove, I was to catch the fish ! ” He looked at his watch. “ After eleven. Dinner is at twelve. Would you care to go with me ? The boat is perfectly dry, and it will not be very warm.”

She rose. “ Of course I care to go, and I shall also fish.”

“ I doubt it. I bait with worms.”

“ Do you ? Then I, too, bait with worms.”

He laughed. “ I don’t believe you ever baited a hook in your life. Now did you ? — ‘ cross your heart.’ ”

“ No. But to - day I bait — with worms.”

They walked to the lake, and found Leduc busily digging, a tin box beside him on a fallen log.

“ Worms ? ”

“ Oui, M’sieu.”

“ What’s in the bundle ? ” asked Saxe curiously, poking with his foot an uncouth newspaper package that lay near the hole. The old man looked up, his face quivering with laughter.

“ M’sieu will not betray me ? Nor Mademoiselle ? ”

“ No,” she answered for them both.

Leduc unrolled the paper and displayed a collection of brown and gray knitted socks, heelless and toeless for the most part, as well as faded and shabby.

“ I’ve had holes in my socks for twenty years and more,” he explained in French; “ I’m used to ’em, I like ’em, and I mean to have ’em. She’s a good woman, Annette, and I’m very fond of her, but she is as obstinate as a mule, and ” — He broke off, finishing his sentence by rolling the bundle together again, and driving it with a kick firmly into the end of a hollow log.

Still laughing, Saxe and his companion got into the boat and pushed off.

“ She is the gentlest and tenderest of women as a rule ; this is an entirely new phase to me.”

“ The effect of Leduc’s ‘ shadow ’ on her,” commented Saxe absently, rowing out into the brilliant water.

She looked at him sharply, and then set to work disentangling her fishing line. She had long white hands with rather square-tipped fingers, and supple wrists. He noticed that she wore only one ring, a ruby, besides her weddingring. She baited her hook without flinching, or any offer of help from him, and silence fell as the fish began to bite. Saxe, absent-minded, lost several big fellows, but she pulled in one after the other with childish delight, expressed only by a heightened color and a trembling of pleasure on her lips.

At length Leduc came down to the shore and hailed them. “ Time to come back if you want to eat them fish today,” he called. “ Especially if all their heads has to be cut off first.”

“ What does he mean?” she asked, as Saxe obediently pulled up the big stone that served as anchor.

“ He is laughing at me, the cheeky old beggar. I cleaned one for my supper last night ” —

“ The one that burnt ? ”

“ The one that burnt. And I cut off its head, — a great mistake, it seems. How many are there ? ”

She bent over, poking the gasping things with one finger. “ Two — three — five — seven ! ”

The scent of the pines was strong in the noon sun as they landed ; the darkness of the thick boughs pleasant and cool. Leduc put the fish in a net, and went up to the cabin by a short cut.

Saxe took off his hat. “It is very warm ; are you tired ? ”

“ Not a bit. I live a good deal in the country, and often am hours tramping about in much rougher places than this.”

“ Ah! Then you will rather enjoy a few days spent in this way.”

“ Yes. But Annette and Lucien will be off to-morrow, and I shall bore myself to death on the veranda of the Windsor House.”

“ That must be rather bad. Are your fellow victims quite impossible, or can you amuse yourself with any of them ? ”

“ There are only two. One an old lady from Dover, who is perfectly deaf, the other a young man of the shop-keeping class, — very ill, poor boy. He told me, with pride, that one of his lungs is entirely gone.”

“ Then let us hope that the grave of Le Mioche is not too far. Leduc is such a slow-moving creature that but for fear of being de trop, I should go with them to urge him on, that your martyrdom may not be too long.”

She looked at him, a smile twitching the corners of her mouth. “ What have I done ? ”

“ What have you done ? ” He stared back relentlessly.

“ I am not a bit afraid of you, you know ! Come, don’t be cross any more.”

With a sudden access of perfectly frank coquetry, she held out her hand to him. “ Are you nice again ? Remember you have sworn allegiance to ” —

He smiled as he took her hand, but his eyes were grave.

“ To Our Lady of the Beeches.”

III.

Leduc, pressed by his wife for information as to the whereabouts of the little grave, was vague. “ It was off to the northwest,” he said. “The trees he had planted around it were big now.”

Then, urged to greater explicitness, he subsided into a ruminating silence, which Annette apparently knew of old, for she made no effort to break it, but sat with folded hands watching the afternoon sun on the trees. She was a handsome old woman, with a fine aquiline profile and a velvety brown mole on one cheek. Saxe liked her face, and decided, looking at it with the thoughtful eye of the student, that after all she had done well in leaving her husband, so much her inferior, and developing her character in her own way.

The two women had stayed on at the camp all day with a matter-of-factness that he knew must have originated in the younger of them. She chose to stay, and chose to stay in her own way, without discussion, without fuss. It was she who had, without any mention of the missing socks, persuaded Annette that her husband’s habits, fixed for over twenty years, need not be disturbed, and the old woman had followed her back to the fire without protest.

They sat for two hours, Saxe and the women, talking little, drowsy with the aroma of the woods, and full each of his or her own thoughts. Saxe would not have offered to move till night. All initiation he had determined, perhaps with a touch of malice, should come from her. His malice, however, failed, for toward sundown she turned to him, and in the sweetest voice in the world, asked whether there was no place near from which they might see the sunset.

“ Yes, if you are good for a rather rough tramp of a quarter of an hour.”

“ I am. Will you take me ? 舠

He rose. “ With pleasure.”

She gave a few directions to the old woman, and then, joining him, they went in silence through the trees. After a few minutes the ground, slippery with dead leaves and rough with hidden stones, rose abruptly. She looked down suddenly, and up, and then, still without speaking, into Saxe’s face, which remained perfectly stolid. The trees were beeches.

“ Beeches are my favorite trees,” she said calmly, pausing and breaking off a tuft of the fresh green leaves.

“ Are they ? We are just on the edge of a rather large tract of them. Be careful, the ruts are very deep. There used to be a logging-camp about a mile ahead of us, and this is the old road to it.”

“ I shall not stumble.”

The silence, half resentful, senseless as he felt such resentment to be, on his side, was apparently that of great interest on hers. She moved deliberately, with the grace of considerable, well distributed strength, pausing now and then to look at some particular tree, once to pick a long fern which she carried like a wand. When they had reached the height and come out on the narrow ledge, below which a clearing, stretching to the horizon, gave them a full view of the sinking sun, she uttered a little cry of pleasure, and then, sitting down on a stump, was again still.

Just below the ledge ran a thread of a brook in a wide rocky bed ; beyond it a broad strip of silver beeches swayed in the light, dying wind, and then came the plain, the stumps of the trees already half covered with a growth of rough grass, young trees, and bracken. Saxe was fond of the place, and, though sunsets made him vaguely unhappy, had often walked up there at that hour.

He leaned against a tree and watched the scene. It was very beautiful, now that the sky was a glare of crimson and gold, but he had seen it before, and for the first time he could study in safety the face of the woman. Her profile, outlined against a wall of rough rock, was clear-cut and strong; her head, bare in the light, a glow of warm gold divided by a narrow parting from the forehead to the knot at the crown. It was a wellshaped head, and well placed on the broad, sloping shoulders. Her mouth, red and curved, was a little set, the deepdented corners giving it a look of weary determination. In spite of the radiance of her hair, she looked her full age.

Suddenly she turned and caught his eyes fixed on her.

“ A penny ” — she said carelessly.

He swooped down on his glasses and took them off. “I was wondering — you must n’t be offended — whether or no your hair was dyed.”

“ And what did you decide ? ”

“ I hadn’t decided at all. You interrupted me.”

She laughed the little laugh that made her both younger and older: “I am so sorry. Pray — go on considering.” And she turned again to the sky.

Her perfect unconcern made him feel like a snubbed schoolboy, but his face only hardened a little as he sat down in the grass near by, and directed his eyes to the banks of purpling clouds that hung, gold-edged, over the horizon.

At last it was over ; the light died away ; the moon, nearly full, became visible ; night had come.

“ I think we’d better go down,” Saxe observed, rising, and putting on his hat. “ It will be dark under the trees, and supper will be ready. I hope you ’re hungry ? ”

“ I am ravenous. And — thanks, so much, for bringing me up here. It has been the delightful finish to a delightful day.” There was a little tone of finality in her voice that hurt him.

“ I hope it is n’t the last time,” he said politely, as they reached the rough road and began the descent.

“ I fear it must be, Dr. Saxe. Ledue — I mean Lucien — will surely take her to-morrow, and I can hardly roam about in the woods after nightfall with you, without even their nominal chaperonage, can I ? ” She smiled at him, as if amused by the absurdity of her own question.

“ I suppose not,” he returned. “ It is a pity, though, for the sunsets are always good, and you seem really to care for such things.”

“ Yes. I really care for such things.”

They neither of them spoke again until they reached the camp, fragrant with the odors of coffee and frying ham.

To Saxe the day had been one of disappointments, he did not quite know why nor how.

It was not that she had kept him at a distance, for he had expected that, and had several times taken a sort of pleasure in doing as much to her. It was not that he was disappointed in her herself ; she was beautiful, well-bred, all that he had known she must be. And yet he was dissatisfied and a little sore. He remembered a phrase in one of her letters : “ If your eyes happened to be blue instead of brown, or brown instead of gray, I should be disappointed. More — if you had a certain kind of mouth I should be quite unable to like you.” He shrugged his shoulders hopelessly as he combed his hair in his tent. “ That must be it. She does not like me. She is ‘ unable to like me.’ ”

He went back to the fire resolved not to care. During supper he was very gay, almost brilliant, with the brilliance mental pain sometimes gives; he talked of many things, skillfully ignoring any subject that could spoil the mood to which he was grateful. Leduc, never shy, had his full share of the conversation, and also of the whiskey punch which, as the evening was cool, Saxe insisted on making, and made very well. Old Annette, sad and absent, spoke little.

“ The boy is coming with the wagon at nine,” the young woman said at last, bending to the firelight to look at her watch. “ It is a quarter before, now.”

She rose and put on her hat.

“ Thank you again,” she said, holding out her hand to Saxe, “ for a most enchanting day. I shall never forget it.”

“ You are very kind. The pleasure was mine.” Then turning to Leduc, he went on, “ You will want a few days’ leave, I understand, beginning with tomorrow? How far is the — place you are going to ? ”

The old man, taken by surprise, hesitated. “ Non, non, not to-morrow, M’sieu. It is not so far.”

“ Then why not to-morrow ? Mademoiselle and your wife cannot have much time to devote to you and your caprices. Allons ! ”

“ It is not so far, — but also it is not so near. I — have a very bad knee. A knee to make pity, could you see it, Mademoiselle. Rheumatism, and — a fall I got this morning. I am a lame man.”

“ He lies, M’sieu,” interrupted Annette, her lips shaking. “ I know his face when he lies.”

“ So do I. I ’ll arrange it for you, Annette. Ah, there is the wagon.”

He helped them to it, and saw them off without asking about their plans for the next day. Then he went back to Leduc, whom he found rummaging busily in a box for a bottle of arnica.

“ Very foolish of M’sieu to take sides with her. She is a silly old woman. And then, when we go, M’sieu will be all alone” he observed, as Saxe approached.

“ Shut up, Leduc. And either you go to-morrow, or you get no dog. Compris ? ” Then he went into his tent and let down the flap.

IV.

The next morning Leduc, bringing an armful of wood to the cabin, slipped, fell, and twisted his ankle. Saxe, missing him, and led by his groans, bent over him with a skeptical smile that disappeared as he saw the old man’s face.

“ It is a judgment on you,” he could not resist saying, when he had half dragged, half carried, the much more helpless than necessary invalid into the cabin and cut off his boot.

Leduc grinned in the midst of his pain. “ Bien — how you will, M’sieu. Leduc badly hurt. Leduc lame man. Maintenant il ne s’agira plus des pélerinages.”

Unable to guess the reason for the old man’s objections to conducting his wife to the child’s grave, and unwilling to gratify him by questions, Saxe dressed the foot in silence, and then set off himself to the village to do certain errands and fetch the mail. Mrs. Lounsberry, the postmistress, with whom he was rather a favorite, questioned him, with the delighted curiosity of a lonely woman, about the mysterious guest at the hotel.

“ Henry says he drives ’em every day over to your place, and fetches ’em again after sundown. Any relations ? ”

“ Yes. The young lady is my cousin, the elder one the wife of — a friend of mine. Have I no newspapers?”

“ Did n’t I give ’em to you? Oh, here they are. Well, as the lady’s your cousin, I presume you know how to pronounce her name. It does beat all, that name. More than I can make out. There’s a couple of letters for her, if you happen to be going that way.”

“ I ’ll take them,” he returned, with a sudden resolve, “ but there’s no use my telling you how to pronounce her name, — I can hardly manage it myself. Goodmorning.”

He put the letters in his pocket and went down the straggling village street to the “ hotel,” a large white house, girdled by a slanting veranda.

“ If she is in sight I’ll go up. If not, I ’ll send for Annette. I ’ll have to tell her about Leduc, anyway,” he decided.

When he turned the corner of the building he saw a small group of rocking-chairs in a shady corner of the veranda, and over the back of one of them a mass of gold-brown hair that he knew. The other chairs were occupied by Annette and a fiddle-headed young man drinking a glass of milk. Annette saw him first, and rose, with a resumption of manner that she had not found it necessary to use toward the milk-drinking youth.

“ Bonjour, M’sieu.”

“ Bonjour, Annette. — Good - morning.”

The younger woman looked up from her embroidery and held out her hand. “ Good-morning. How kind of you to come.”

“ I have letters for you” — He handed them to her without a word of explanation or assurance, and she took them as unconcernedly. “ Thanks.”

She wore a pink gown of a kind that convinced him of her intention of staying at home that day, and rocked her chair slowly with deliberate pattings of a foot in a high-heeled shoe adorned with a large square buckle. Saxe sat down in the chair vacated by the youth, and took off his hat.

“ I have bad news for you,” he began presently, as she finished reading her letters. “ Leduc has hurt his foot and — and cannot possibly go — anywhere — for three or four days.”

Annette clasped her hands. “ Mon Dieu, mon Dieu! Is it true, M’sieu, or is it only one of his tricks ? ”

“ It is true, Annette.”

“ Annette, fetch the book that’s lying on my table, — and put these letters in my writing-case.”

The old woman obeyed, leaving them alone.

“ Has Leduc really hurt his foot, Dr. Saxe ? ”

There was no trace of insolence in her tone, but he understood, and the question brought the blood to his face.

“ Did you not hear me tell Annette that he has?” he answered, his brows knitting.

“ Yes, I heard you.”

“ Then why — tell me why should I take the trouble to lie about such a trifle ? ”

She bit her lip. “ I thought you might possibly let him keep up the pretense of being unable to go ” —

“ That I might have the pleasure of detaining you here for a few days longer ? Believe me, dear lady, I have no fancy for unwilling companionship, even yours.”

He had gone farther than he had intended, and stopped, a trifle ashamed of his vehemence. Another second, and he would probably have lost his point by apologizing, when she said, with such unexpected gentleness that he almost gasped : “ But you are so wrong ! My companionship, such as it is, is anything but unwilling, Dr. Saxe. I enjoyed yesterday so much, and had hoped ” —

“ You had hoped” — he repeated.

“ That you would let us come over to the camp this afternoon again, — in case Leduc was obstinate and refused to go.”

Saxe walked to the edge of the veranda and stood looking down at a bed of sprawling nasturtiums at his feet. When he turned, his eyeglasses were in his hand.

“ I don’t understand you,” he said bluntly, “ and I might as well own that I don’t. Tell me what it is you want, and Heaven knows I ’ll give it to you if I can.”

“ Very well. I will be perfectly frank : I like you, I like the camp, and I wish you ’d be nice, and just ‘ begin over,’ as you promised the night before last.”

“ You ask a good deal.”

“ I know it. But it’s the only way. Don’t you see, we are strangers, yet we know each other embarrassingly well; I have told you things that no one else knows, — shown you a side no one else ever saw ” — She said it bravely, her face full to the noon sun.

“ And now you regret it ? ” he asked gently.

She paused. “ No, I do not regret it, only you are not my Pessimist, and I am not your — your Lady of the Beeches.”

“ But that is just what you are. My Lady of the Beeches. You are that, and neither you nor I can help it! You told me in those letters not a word that you should not have told, there was not a word of harm in them, and I can’t see why you won’t have me, Richard Saxe, for the friend you yourself declared the Pessimist to be to you. If you would let me, I would be to you the best friend a woman ever had.”

She shook her head. “ No, no.”

“ You mean that you don’t believe in such friendships ? Good ! no more do I. But — I love you. You know that. You knew it long ago, yet you let me keep on being your friend. Is not that so ? ”

She acknowledged his statement with a slow nod, and he went on.

“ That can’t hurt you. You know who I am; you know all about me. Surely you can trust me never to make love to you ?”

“ Yes.”

“ And — even if I were a fool and a cad, and a man would have to be both to dare to make love to you — you must know that you are perfectly capable of — keeping me in order.”

She smiled meditatively. “Yes, I think I could.”

“ Well, then, don’t you see, — what is the use of trying to pretend that the last year has not existed, — that we do not know each other ? What I propose is unconventional, but you surely are not afraid of that — at least up here in the wilderness. Give me your hand and let us be friends until you go away, or until you choose to send me away. ' Et puis, bonsoir ! ’ I do not know your name ; you know I will never learn it against your will. Trust me.”

“ My name is Winifred Zerdahélyi,” she answered, giving him her hand, “ and I do trust you.”

“ Thanks.”

He dropped her hand as some one came up the board walk toward them. It was Henry Cobb, the boy who drove the two women to and from the camp. He had come for orders.

“ We are going in half an hour, Henry,” Winifred said, “ if you can be ready.”

Then she turned in a matter-of-fact way to Saxe. “ I must go and put on another gown. Will you wait and drive over with us ? ”

V.

He noticed when she and old Annette came down a few minutes later that she carried a little green bag with satin strings. It was very warm, and the first part of the drive being through bare fields, she wore a big hat with a wreath of hop-flowers on it, a charming hat that he liked. He sat in front with Cobb, but arranged himself sideways that he might both see and hear her. She was in a merry mood, rattling on carelessly about the scenery, the hotel, and a thousand different things, rather to help him, he realized. For he himself found talking an effort; even thinking bothered him, and his mind hovered aimlessly between the hop-flowers on her hat and the green bag.

For a man of his age and character, the declaration he had made was a very momentous one, and curiously enough it seemed the more momentous in that it must of itself prove absolutely without results of any kind. He knew that she did not care for him, and was glad of it; but the fact of his having blurted out in that bold way that he loved her had momentarily dazed him. The memory of his one other declaration of the kind came back to him as they jogged over the rough road : the moonlight, the long gravel walk leading up between fragrant rosebushes to the white house, the garden gate on which she had leaned while he talked. Of course he had not been a saint, and like other men he had had his experiences with women, but he had loved twice in his life, and he knew it.

He also felt, his eyes resting on her hands as they held the green bag, that he was not so old as he had fancied himself to be.

“ We had a college professor up here once,” Cobb was saying, “ but we never had no countesses before.”

“ Countesses are very common in Europe, though,” she answered, laughing, “ thousands of us.”

They had reached the edge of the wood, and leaving the road, drove across a broad tract of hummocky land, the hummocks treacherously hidden by a thick low growth of blueberries and scrub oaks.

“ There’s a bad bit of broken road down yonder that we avoid, comm’ ’Taound this way,” explained Cobb, urging his horse to a rather reckless gait.

Saxe wondered vaguely whether they would upset.

They reached the camp to find Leduc busy with the fire.

“ M’sieu can live on letters, perhaps, but Leduc not. Mon Dieu, les dames ! ”

He swept off his hat with an ironical smile at his wife. “ Desolated to be unable to rise, but my foot is very bad — very bad, as M’sieu will tell you.”

Saxe laughed with sudden gayety. “ Not very bad, old sinner. Just bad enough, that is all.”

There was nothing to eat, and they were hungry. Annette, touched by the look of pain in her husband’s face, helped him to a tree, arranged him comfortably, and with a peremptory gesture forbade his moving. Then she set to work to prepare the dinner. Luckily, Saxe had brought meat and a fresh loaf of bread from the village, so by two o’clock they were eating a very appetizing little meal.

“M’sieu objected very much last year to being so near the village,” Leduc, most graceful of invalids, explained in French, as he drank his third cup of coffee; “ but Leduc has lived in the woods long enough to know the advantages of civilization and butcher’s meat. Leduc’s teeth, too, are old for dog-biscuits, such as the young swells from New York eat when out hunting.”

“ Why do you speak of yourself in the third person ? And why do you call yourself Leduc ? ”

The Countess fixed her direct gaze on him as she asked her questions.

He laughed. “ I lived for years with French half-breeds up in the north, — they always use the third person. As to Leduc — they called me ‘ le due ’ because I had a manner. You will admit, Mademoiselle, that the name is prettier than Bonnet, va ! ”

Saxe tried to reason away his own senseless happiness that expressed itself in what he felt to be a boundless grin. “ It will be over in a few days ; she will be gone; she will never think of me again,” he told himself. But it was in vain. She was there; she knew that he loved her, and she still was there; he could hear her voice, see the sun on her hair; she met his eyes fearlessly, if also indifferently, and life was one great heart-throb of joy.

After dinner he helped Annette carry the dishes into the cabin, and coming back found Leduc stretched out on his face, sound asleep, the Countess, the bag open beside her, working placidly on the big square of embroidery he had seen that morning at the hotel. Saxe’s head swam. She looked so comfortable, so much at home. She pointed smilingly at the old man as Saxe sat down. “No one ever so enjoyed the advantages of a sprained foot before. Just look at him ! ”

“Ill-mannered old wretch! What are you making ? ”

He stretched out his hand, and taking the linen by one corner spread it over his knees.

“ It is a tea-cloth, of course. Do you like it ? ”

The design was a conventional one, done in different shades of yellow. Saxe could not honestly say he admired it, and she laughed at his hesitation.

“ Would n’t — well — flowers be prettier ? ” he ventured.

“ What kind of flowers ? ”

“ M — m — m. I always liked wild roses — pink ones.”

She paused while she re-threaded her needle, and then answered gayly, “ Would you like a tea-cloth with pink wild roses all over it ? ”

“ Would I like one ! ”

“ I will make you one. Only I am sure that you never drink tea, now do you ?”

“ No, hang it, I don’t! I never drink anything but an occasional whiskey and soda.” He passed his brown, slim hand gently over the silks and drew back.

“ We’ll call it a ‘ whiskey and soda cloth,’ then,” she returned.

“ Tell me,” he began, after a long pause, during which she worked busily, “ did you ever get even with that — that beast in London ? ”

She flushed. “ Yes. That is — I told my husband, and he convinced him of his — mistake.”

“ How, with a bullet ? ”

“ Oh, dear, no ! It was n’t worth that, was it? I don’t quite know what Bela said to him, but it answered the purpose.”

“ ‘ Bela.’ It is a pretty name. Tell me about him.”

“ What shall I tell you ? He is thirtyfour, tall, handsome, — what men call a good sort.”

Saxe lay down and tilted his hat over his eyes.

“ You don’t mind my asking about him ? It interests me.”

“ No, I don’t mind.”

“ He must be very proud of you.”

She laughed quietly. “ Proud ? I don’t know. He is very fond of me.”

“ That of course. I meant proud.”

But she shook her head. “No, poor fellow, I think he is somewhat ashamed of me, at times. You see, Hungarian women are very brilliant, — very amusing, — and I am rather dull.”

“ Dull ! ” Saxe sat up, and took off his eyeglasses. “ You ! ”

“ Yes, I. You remember I wrote you of my unfortunate passion for trees, and that kind of thing. Things that other women like bore me to death, and when I am bored I am ” —

“ Horrid ! ”

They both laughed. “ Then,” she went on, laying down her work and leaning against the tree, “ I don’t know anything about horses, and every one else there is mad about them. Bela runs all over Europe, and I won’t go with him. It is not nice of me, but it does bore me so ! ”

“ Tell me more,” said Saxe greedily.

“ But it is n’t interesting! And I don’t know what you want to know.”

“ I want to know all you will tell me,” he answered, his voice falling suddenly.

She took up her work and went on without looking at him. “ Last year we went to Russia for some bear-hunting. I stayed in St. Petersburg with his uncle, who is Austrian Minister ” —

“ That was when you supped with an Emperor! ”

“ Yes. I did n’t mean that I sat at his right hand, you know ! ”

“ I know. Tell me, — where is the beech forest ? ”

“ It is in Hungary, about two hours from Budapest. Bela hates the place; it is lonely, so I usually go there alone.”

“ That is one reason why ” — he began, and stopped short.

She looked up inquiringly ; then her eyes changed, and she went on. “ One reason why I love it so. Yes. You are right. I do love to be alone sometimes.”

“ If you are awake, Leduc, why don’t you say so ? ” cried Saxe suddenly, with a fierce frown.

Leduc rolled over, blinking helplessly. “ Oui, oui, M’sieu, — what time is it ? Leduc — Sacristi, mon pied ! ”

In spite of his anger, Saxe could not refuse to re-dress the swollen ankle, and to his surprise the Countess put away her work, and helped him with something more than mere handiness. He realized, however, with a grim amusement at his own folly, that the bandage would have been better had he done it alone.

VI.

“ You will laugh at me, — think me an old fool, — but I am going to tell you anyway,” Saxe began, as they left the camp and made their way up the hill toward Sunset Ledge.

She looked at him in silent inquiry, in a way he liked, for her eyes met his with perfect confidence, and he could see the light in their clear depths.

“ This tree here,” he went on, pausing and laying his hand on a patch of moss on the trunk, “ is the Dream Tree.”

“ Oh ! ”

“ Yes. Yonder, in the little clearing, you can see the Butterfly Tree. The Wisdom Tree, alas, I have not yet found, — and, candidly, I cannot say I am in a fair way of finding it.”

She laughed. “ I fear you are not. But — do you really love them? You used, to laugh at me and call me a dreamer. How you did snub me at first ! ”

“ I was a brute. I do really love them, though, and they, through you, have taught me much. Last year, as I wrote you, I was restless and unhappy here ; the solitude got on my nerves ; I could n’t sleep. This year the beauty of it all came home to me ; the quiet quieted me ; I lived on from day to day in a sort of dream, — and then you came.”

“ We interrupted! A charming interruption, of course, but still we are one. How small the world is, that we should have come here !

“ How good the gods are ! ”

She stood still, leaning against a tree to rest. “ Are they ? Are you sure ? I mean, we have met, and it has been a pleasure to us both, but we have also lost much.” Her face was serious, she spoke slowly.

“ What have we lost ? ”

“ I can’t just explain, but I feel it. I shall miss the Pessimist! ”

“ But why not keep him ? ”

She looked at him absently. “ Oh, no. That is over and gone. We never could find each other again, — as we were. Surely you understand that as well as I.”

“ You mean because of what I told you this morning? But you knew it before I told you.”

“ Yes, I knew it; it is different now.”

Saxe protested. “ I don’t see why ! I’m no boy to lose his head and make scenes. You can trust me, and you know it, or you would n’t be here.”

She shrugged her shoulders gently, and went on up the difficult way.

“ But, when you go away, — you will surely let me write to you, and you will answer ? ” he insisted, as he followed.

“ No.”

“ But why?”

“ Because it is to be bonsoir.”

“ That is not a sufficient reason.” His voice was dogged, and she turned.

“ But it is ! I am the most obstinate woman in the world. I always do as I like.”

“ And what you ‘ like ’ is to throw me over when ” —

She turned again, her eyes cold this time. “ There is no question of ‘ throwing over,’ Dr. Saxe, I have given way to you in the matter of staying on here and taking up our — acquaintance where it ended in the letters, but I have not bound myself in any way to write you, or see you again. We will say no more about it, please.”

Saxe was silent for a few minutes, then he said briskly, as she stopped again to draw breath : “ You are right, Countess, and I beg your pardon. I have grown so used to the pleasure your letters have given me that I shall miss them tremendously at first, but of course I shall get used to it, and I am very grateful to you for giving me these few days.”

“ I shall miss the letters, too,” she returned, with one of the sudden softenings that perplexed him. “ I’m not saying I shall be glad to — to lose you altogether.”

“ Thanks, you are kind.”

They reached the ledge of rock, and sat down. It was early, and they discussed for some time the possibility of Leduc’s being able to start off on the pilgrimage in three days, before the spectacle that they had come to see began.

“ If the old ruffian would tell me how far the place is, I could judge better, but I can’t get a word out of him,” Saxe avowed. “ He says ‘ it is n’t so far, but then it is n’t so near ! ’ ”

“ It is not charitable of me, but I am inclined to believe that he has himself forgotten where it is ! ”

“ No — no. You wrong him there. He does know.” Saxe hesitated for a minute and then told her the story of the thirty-one white stones.

Her eyes filled with tears. “ Poor old man! thirty-one years is a long time.”

“ Yes. Thirty-one years ago I was eleven years old, and you — did not exist ! When you were born, I was already a big boy of thirteen. When is your birthday ? ”

“ The 6th of December.”

She sat with one arm around the silvery trunk of a young birch, her cheek pressed to it. Saxe realized that he would be sure to invent a fantastic name for that tree.

She asked him some questions about his new book, and he launched into an attempted explanation of it, she listening with earnest eyes and what he called, quoting himself with a smile, her “ intelligent ignorance.” The first shafts of the sunset found him deep in metaphysics, and he broke off short when her upraised hand led his eyes to the sky.

As they went back to the camp, a squirrel darted down a tree and across their way, not two feet in front of them. The Countess gave a little cry of delight, and laid her hand on his arm.

“ Look! ”

But Saxe looked at her flushed face, and felt suddenly very old and tired. She was so young! He determined never to talk to her of “ metaphysics and such stuff ” again. He would show her things that made her look like that. He wondered whether there were no late-nesting birds, as there are late-bearing fruit trees. He knew she would love a bird’s nest with eggs in it. And then, as the sight of the smoke rising among the trees told them that they were within a stone’s throw of the camp, she said suddenly, —

“ But all that is materialistic, and you are an idealist! ”

Saxe stood still. “ I an idealist! ”

“ Yes. And you have strong principles, which you have no business to have, if you believe all that.”

“ Then a materialist has no principles ? ”

“ According to Hobbes, no,” she answered demurely.

He burst out laughing. “ Oh, if you have read Hobbes, I give up. But after all you are wrong ; Hobbes says ‘ a materialist can have no morals.’ He does n’t mention principles. And then, how many men’s principles agree with their actions, Fair Lady ? Not many. I mean men who have passed their lives trying to think ? Do you know anything of Spinoza’s life ? ”

“ No ; only that he was a good man.”

“ He was a good man. We must go to supper, but first let me tell you that his opinions, his avowed principles, were such that he was excommunicated for blasphemy.”

She nodded, going slowly down the path, her head bent. “ I know, I remember.”

“ So, while God knows I am no idealist, admit that I may have principles and be a decent sort of fellow, and yet fully believe in my book ! ”

She smiled at him in the charming way some women have of smiling at a man they like, — as though she knew him much better than he knew himself, — and they went on without speaking.

Bettina von Hutten.

(To be continued.)