Hatless, short - skirted, with brave, swinging step, two girls were walking over the wide upland of the Wahonet golf course, clubs in hand, intent on the game. Ahead, the long grassy slopes were broken here and there by the sharp outlines of slim cedar trees, giving, in the way the dull green cut the blue, a suggestion of Italy’s cypresses standing against a sky of deeper tone. Far and near they grew, trooping in long lines up the side of a hill, or standing by crumbling stone fences, and they lent a certain poignant charm to all the landscape. One of the least cedars of all grew invitingly near a great flat gray rock, half buried under running blackberry vines and low fern. The temptation was too much for Frances Wilmot, and she sank down on the stone in happy weariness, leaning gratefully against the little tree.
“Do you think anything bad will happen if we rest a few minutes?” she demanded, and by way of answer, Alice Bevanne followed through the fern tangle and sat down by her side. Frances noted with delight that the girl’s fair hair and faintly flushed cheeks looked somewhat demoralized by fresh air and exercise.
“Why is it,” Alice asked shyly, “that you always bring an atmosphere of your own to everything ? It seems to me that you live apart in a world of wonder and mystery, where the beautiful things come true.”
“I live in the same world you live in,” said Frances Wilmot, laughing, and placing on the pale hair a poet wreath of green fern leaves; but the crowned head shook in slow dissent.
“You have some enchanted sense of things, and you would be just like the princess of the fairy stories if” —
“You are too wise. You look like the princess, but I am more like her inside, for I can only feel, and you can think, too. And then you change too much for the princess, for she always wears the same sweet smile, while you are never quite the same twice.”
“Perhaps I have a touch of the dragon and a dash of the old witch,” suggested Frances.
“You are different with different people,” said Alice sagely. “With me you are always sweet and serious and real, but when other people are near you keep saying little keen, humorous things as if you were n’t in earnest, and I always wonder why.”
“Nature, little Alice,” said the Southern girl, bending to kiss the parted hair, “has given to each animal some protective armor: to the tortoise, its shell; to the porcupine, its quills; why should woman be left defenseless?”
“There!” cried Alice triumphantly, “that is just the look I mean. It is the expression you have, well, when you talk to Alec, for instance.”
“I did not know it,” said Frances Wilmot gravely; and even as she spoke she saw him far off on the green slope, coming slowly toward them. They waited in silence on the rocks, watching.
To Alice Bevanne the sojourn of this Southern girl at the Emerson Inn was like a dream come true. She had lived the twenty years of her life in an old yellow house on a crossroad, set, with a row of locust trees at one side, at the end of a driveway of broken poplars. Year after year the paint had worn away from the house, and the branches had fallen from the scraggly trees. Prosperity had long deserted the Bevanne homestead; what little money there was had to be devoted to Alec’s education, and there was not enough to send the fair-haired daughter of the house even to boarding-school. All that was left her the invalid mother bestowed upon her child: the training of a gentlewoman, and her hardly acquired sense of the peace of letting go.
Frances Wilmot, one of the rare women on whom the gift of happiness and the gift of sympathy have been bestowed at the same time, had divined the whole story after one quick glance at the worn carpets and the pale faces of mother and daughter, and Alice was brought to share, so far as was possible, the Southern girl’s free life of wood and shore. Frances must have some one to ride with her; would Alice mind learning ? The woodland roads were surpassingly beautiful, and Mr. Phipps happened to have in his stable one horse that would be just right for a beginner. Alice made merry with the guests who danced in gowns of pink or white or green at the Inn under the dull rafters in the evening, or tossed out over the waves in white-sailed boats, following the flight of the gulls, or drove through long mornings by hidden roads where ferns dipped their pale green fronds into tiny brooks trickling over the wayside rocks. No motion that her hostess made escaped her; the young girl’s eyes followed her with a look that enveloped her as with sunshine. Whether she wakened the place to music, or arranged flowers in just the right places, — great bowls of yellow roses against deep blue or dull green portières, or clusters of fern against the yellow wall, — Alice Bevanne watched and understood. Color and fragrance and beauty flooded the starved little life.
“Who owns all this?” asked Frances Wilmot, as the young man strolled up, fresh and smiling in his well-cut golf suit of gray cheviot.
“Oh, our friends the Warrens,” he answered, throwing himself upon the grass near by. “Nearly half the county belongs to them. I used to call the estate ‘ Bare-acres,’ after Thackeray, you know, only I spelled it B-e-a-r. To tell the truth, the elder Mr. Warren was something of a bear. And speaking of the Warrens, it is a great pleasure to us to think that such friendly relations have been established; I cannot help feeling that it is in some way partly due to you. They are old enemies of ours, hereditary, you know; it’s a sort of a Montague and Capulet affair.”
“If you go on like this,” said Frances, with the sudden flash of her smile across a face alive with mischief, “ I shall have to bring a book of ‘One Hundred Useful Literary Allusions ’ in order to understand you. I have n’t a doubt I could find one at the Inn.”
Then she was sorry, not because the young man’s face changed, but because she caught Alice Bevanne’s eyes, which always gave her a look of knowing more than she ought of hidden human motive.
“I did not know that there had been enmity,” she said hastily. “What caused it ? Did some very early wicked Warren lay hands on his neighbors’ barns?”
Alec Bevanne shook his head.
“Nobody knows the whole story, but from early days there has been outspoken enmity, and as boys young Warren and I struck out, like many warriors of larger growth, in a quarrel which we did not understand. It has always been more or less of a mystery, though I believe it began with something akin to murder, certainly with blood-shedding.”
“I think it was some dispute about land,” suggested Alice Bevanne.
“It is really very nice of them to be so friendly,” said the young man. “And are n’t they interesting as a family ? Mrs. Warren is charming.”
“I won’t tell him that the impression is mutual, because he ought n’t to be talking about them,” mused Frances Wilmot.
“ I find Uncle Peter a perpetual delight as a study, and I marvel at their patience with him. Young Warren is a fine fellow. I like that touch of the ancestral bear in him, don’t you ? though it is rather a pity that he has cut himself off from all social life.”
“ I really had not thought about it,” said the girl coldly. “I’m not very well acquainted with Mr. Warren. He seems to belong to a type of man that is fast dying out; and personally I like it better than the kind that plays the guitar and reads Ouida. He is a very quiet person.”
“He’s tremendous down under,” said Alice Bevanne, “like some smothered elemental force, — perhaps a tidal wave that has n’t got started.”
Frances looked quickly at her with puzzled eyes.
“Pshaw!” said Alec Bevanne, “that’s just what he is n’t! He’s a man who has worn all the elemental forces out of himself, studying. Dresses oddly, does n’t he ?”
Frances Wilmot looked lazily across the sunlit field and yawned.
“Mr. Warren looks as if his ancestors had been well enough dressed to allow him to be a bit oblivious in regard to his clothes. Let’s change the subject: don’t you like these old, rocky, fern-haunted New England fields, with their ‘ gadding vines ’ and their silences ? There is nothing like them anywhere.”
A tiny wild rabbit crept round the edge of a rock not far away, and stood, all a-quiver, with front paws slightly lifted, gazing with eyes that begged to know if danger were near. Catching those of Alice Bevanne, it stood, transfixed, and then came softly forward as if it had found there an invitation too sweet to be withstood. The beckoning motion of the girl’s white hand, however, startled the little wild creature, and it ran a few steps, looking back over its shoulder with a glance that she could not resist, and she was off, halfway across the field, following the gay feet of her new friend as they leaped capriciously here and there.
“Alice was always like that,” said her brother, as the two watched her. “She can tame anything under heaven. I fancy she will come back with bunny riding on her shoulder.”
“I don’t wonder,” said the girl. “I should go to her if I were wild.”
“Miss Wilmot,” said the young man abruptly, “may I consult you on a personal matter ? I know I ought not to intrude, and yet I trust your insight completely.”
“Do you ?” said the girl, surprised, and off her guard.
“More than you know,” he answered warmly. “You know how matters are with me: I’m in a small place where I have n’t half a chance, but where I’ve taken a certain hold, have got a sort of influence, you know.”
He looked inquiringly at her; she nodded, and moved the slightest bit farther away upon the stone.
“Now a good chance has come for me to go to a larger place. It means everything, from the point of view of ambition, you know: more money, wider scope, and, something for which I care very much, charming social life. But the mud-stricken little town down in Alabama haunts me; I mean something there, and a few hungry souls have been good enough to say that I mean food to them. Now, what shall I do ?”
The bright blue eyes were full of eloquent appeal; the whole face quivered, perhaps partly with a sense of the moment’s dramatic value.
“I think, Mr. Bevanne,” she said slowly, “that the question is one which you ought to ask your own soul and not mine.”
“But a woman sees so much more clearly the spiritual values of things,” he answered, wondering at finding a feminine conscience which refused to act as leader to the man in a moral crisis.
“I think, from the very way you have told me, that you see the spiritual values here very clearly.”
“Perhaps I need a little moral impetus,” he answered. “And I thought you might be interested; it is the South, you know.”
“ I should be sorry to bring undue influence to bear on a man in making him decide the right,” said the girl, smiling. “It is a pity to deprive anybody of a chance to show what strength is in him.”
It was Alice Bevanne, coming back without the gray rabbit, who rescued him from the embarrassment caused by the girl’s refusal to take a personal attitude toward his predicament; and the rescue was no less grateful to Frances than to him. She rose, holding out both hands to her friend.
“You have saved us from abstractions; now let’s use our muscles.”
The caddy rose from the ground where he had been lying at a discreet distance, shouldered his burden, and led them to pastures new.
Lazily Paul Warren paced the garden paths, his hands loosely clasped behind him, warm sunshine on his untroubled face. To the young recluse these summer days were like the coming in of sudden light on life, for it was as if, from mazes and tangles of the mind, he had chanced suddenly upon a world of beauty, where unseen paths lay clear. The rare sunlight of a yet undiscovered youth dawned for him on sea and distant mountain toward the north and the dear green meadows between; and he sniffed the roses about the old porch with the feeling that a new sense had been granted him. Slowly he was learning to understand all things that live: the old dog, stretched out on the sun-warmed step; the cows, wandering over fresh green grass, or standing kneedeep in placid water; the wood thrushes calling to one another in the cool of late afternoon. There was an amazing simplicity, after all, about the great lesson of beauty; and the old, old, elemental truths, which had been true all the time he had been thinking, were his at last.
The woman who had roused him from his old melancholy was naturally much in his mind; and when he met her by the box border of one of the ancestral flower beds he was hardly conscious that the picture in his mind had changed to that of actual vision.
“I am afraid that I am intruding,” she said as she faced him. “Some one told me that you were not at home to-day.”
“Certainly you are not intruding,” he answered.
“The Lady from Boston wanted to make a polite call, and I came with her. I’ve escaped for a few minutes to see about a fern that Andrew promised me. I am very fond of the garden, you know.”
“ Women and gardens,” he observed, “ have always had a peculiar affinity, from the dawn of time.”
She did not deign to answer him for a moment, but stood, silently fingering the petals of a great tiger lily, which grew erect and tawny among its fellows.
“That reproach,” she said at length, “ comes badly from either man or the serpent. Which part are you playing?”
By way of answer he merely laughed, and side by side they wandered down the long path in silence. It was a hazy July afternoon, a day for the weaving of dreams or the casting of spells. Through the warm air came the murmur of bees, and the wind that touched the eyelids was fresh and sweet from the sea.
“What are you thinking?” asked the girl at length.
“I was merely wondering,” he answered, stopping by a row of sweet peas that fluttered like butterflies pausing on wings of purple or rose color or white by the dull cedar hedge, “if Adam saw the flowers of the Garden before Eve was created.”
“Perhaps the apple blossoms,” said Frances mischievously; and with that they came to an old apple tree, gray-green against the soft blue sky, its branches alive with the murmur of wind and of sea.
“Did it ever occur to you, Thinker,” she demanded, “that the tree of knowledge was not the tree of life ? Did you know that there were two in the Garden of Eden?”
“No,” he admitted. “I was taught but one.”
“I thought so! ” she cried triumphantly. “That partly accounts for you. But they were distinct and separate, and, so far as I can tell, our forefathers and foremothers might have gone on forever eating of the tree of life if they had not eaten of the tree of knowledge first. Oh, I can forgive them for eating, but I cannot forgive them for choosing the wrong tree.”
He plucked a little hard green apple and gave it to her.
“Serpent!” she said, as she turned it over and over in the palm of her white hand. “Knotty,and hard,and sour, from the tree of knowledge. If they had only known enough to nibble one wee bit from the leaves of the tree of life!”
“Living forever in a garden would have been a bit wearisome, would n’t it?” he ventured.
“Living, no!” she said with a little stamp. “Thinking, groping about, yes. Please shut your eyes.”
He did so.
“What do you hear?”
“Bees, and soft waves, and a voice that is like music.”
“What do you see? Keep your eyes shut.”
“A shimmer of blue and of green, with the flowers of the garden resting against it; and what else I see I shall not tell.”
The girl nodded with satisfaction.
“You are coming to your senses, Ghost,” she said. “I mean, in the real, not the usual, acceptance of the term.”
Not far from the apple tree, in a quiet corner where a few straggling scarlet poppies burned on the summer air, was an old wooden rustic seat, and Frances Wilmot dropped into it with a sigh of pleasure.
“ The Lady from Boston has n’t finished looking over the old punch bowls yet: do you think she has ?”
“I am sure she has not,” said Paul Warren, sitting down on the grass, with a like sense of weariness and of delight. “Did it ever occur to you that your wisdom is based too much on mere temperament ?”
“And what is your philosophy,” she retorted, “but temperament — in a formula ?”
He laughed, the sudden laugh of sheer pleasure that nothing but this girl’s sauciness had ever won from him.
“It is a story-book day,” said Frances Wilmot, following with her eyes the motion of the slow white clouds on the horizon. “It is the kind of a day that makes you feel that beautiful things will happen: the giant will forget his plan of having little boys and girls for supper, and the dragon will dream instead of going a-hunting.”
“Tell me a story,” said the man,from the grass.
“I did not know you cared for them.”
“You evidently do not know me,” he answered.
Leaning back she pondered, the flickering light and shadow of a slim young locust falling on her bare head, and after a few minutes began: —
“Once upon a time there was a land beautiful beyond the power of the tongue to say, with soft green meadows where deep grass waved all day long in summer, and straggling fences where slim poplars stood, white, with a shower of pale green leaves against the blue sky. It had a long coast line, curving beach of yellow sand and high-piled, dull red rocks or gray between the blue of the water and the green of the meadows by the sea. Somewhere there were mountains all softly wooded, and there were loveliest pasture lands green and gray. Over it all blossomed flowers, crocus and violet and mayflower in the spring, and pink wild roses and scarlet poppies in summer, and golden-rod with the coming of fall.
“Now, it was a land on which there was a spell. Some old irony of the gods lay across it like a mocking smile, and its beauty of color and of sound when the sea sang round it and the wind murmured in the trees — beauty to the breaking of the heart — was holden from the people who lived there. The fates which preside over the puzzles of men’s hearts had set their folk to weaving little webs all out of their own brains: little gray gossamer webs which they kept tying, tying across their eyes; fine little webs of brown which they kept weaving, weaving across their ears; heavy webs of slaty drab with which they covered their fingers, so that eyes and ears and finger tips were blinded. Day after day and year after year they sat in their houses and spun and spun and wove and wove, all in the dark; and they moved along the sweet green leafy lanes with groping hands, and the bobolinks went mad on the meadow grasses because they could not make men hear, and the little winds sighed and wailed because men were deaf to the music that they made in the leaves, and the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea met in sorrow because men were blind. Then the fates which preside over the puzzles of men’s hearts leaned back and chuckled, for of all the games that they could play they liked the Tantalus game the best.”
As the girl’s voice ceased, a great bumble-bee took the story up and noisily added a few remarks; a tiny yellow warbler chirped a few notes, and the little breeze in the locust whispered a few bits of story, until the man sitting on the grass continued the tale.
“So it lasted until one day a wise enchantress came wandering up the shore. She was a lazy enchantress who neither toiled nor spun, but walked idly through the meadows while all good maids and matrons were busy with their webs.”
“Why did she come?” asked Frances. “I like to have everything definite in my stories.”
“For mischief,” he answered, “to break up the gray color and to upset the old order which was so comfortable and so even.”
“Which way did she come?” There was a touch of defiance in the voice that asked the question.
“She came from the South, trailing her long robes after her; and, though she was all in white, there was always about her an iridescence of color as if her beauty broke the white light a thousand ways, to gold and violet and crimson and blue.”
“I should never have supposed that you could tell a fairy story so well,” said Frances, yawning.
“I am quite susceptible to influences of style,” he answered, and took up the tale again.
“They called her the Opener of Doors, for every moment spent with her was like the throwing wide of doors and windows looking out on life and beauty. And her voice worked mischief with the hearts of men, for the melody of summer days had got into it: of the wind running through the deep meadow grass and making it wave in great ripples; of bees and dragonflies humming in the warm air; of leaves on poplar tree and locust, vibrating to unseen touches; and at the sound, thoughts and feelings that had been safely shut up for years ran out through door and window, nor could any one tell that it was not wind and bee and dragon-fly that called. Then she began with her white fingers to untie the webs: the gray webs across the eyes, the brown webs across the ears, and the slaty-drab webs wound about the fingers; and the sight of the eyes and the hearing of the ears followed the untying. There was trouble enough in the land when the old ways were undone and this woman had set her touch of wildness there; for there was pain in waking to see the color of the world and to hear its music.”
“I think I don’t care to hear about her,” said Frances. “She was a troublesome old witch, who meddled too much with other people’s affairs.”
“ It is not polite to get tired before the story is done,” said the story-teller, watching her from the shadow of the locust on the grass; “and this one is not done, it is only begun.”
“Oh, dear!” sighed the girl. “I never did like my fairy tales too long.”
“ Yes, she made trouble,” the man went on, “for wherever she went she wakened hunger in men’s hearts: hunger for joy, for the gold light on the edge of things, for escape from the conscience-haunted, dim, gray, cobwebby, world, to a land where the heart would not ache with sorrow, and where tears would not come to the eyes.”
“Then she was a poor, ignorant enchantress,” said the girl softly, “for it is good for tears to come to the eyes: they make the vision of beauty more clear.”
Robin Hood was hunting for his master. There were certain lanes and far fields where John Warren had loved to walk, which his dog now patrolled faithfully, at irregular intervals, hoping to surprise his master there at sunrise or in the late afternoon. He spent only part of his time at the house, sitting always when there at one corner of the great veranda, or lying in the grass near by, where he could watch the long driveway under the overarching elms. Very wistfully he gazed at every carriage that drew near and at the figures that alighted; never the right one came. The old dog slept lightly, starting up nervously from his dreams if a footfall sounded that had in it any echo of his master’s step, and flinging himself to fuller length on ground or floor when a second echo showed him that he was mistaken, — watching, watching, with half opened eyes. He admitted no one to his friendship, the experience through which he was passing seeming to justify his worst suspicions of mankind; and he gave but uncertain obedience to the people who issued orders to him, for the voice which he knew was right was silenced forever, and he listened to these new, unauthorized commands with a certain skeptical lifting of the ears.
One day Robin whimpered long at the door of the library, scratching with eager paws and begging to be admitted. Paul, who was inside, presently opened the door to him, and the old dog rushed joyfully in, sniffing at chair and table, and at the papers lying on the desk in the corner.
“Poor old fellow,” said Paul, patting his head; but the dog shrank away suspiciously from the caress; not until John Warren’s absence was accounted for should they place cajoling hands on him! He lay down under the desk wdiere Paul was busy with his father’s papers, giving a little whimper now and then as the unfolding of one after another brought back to his dog-sense his master’s very presence. One yellow folded paper fluttered to the floor as a bundle of letters from the farthest pigeon-hole was untied. Robin laid his paws lovingly upon it, and, stretching out his head, half fell asleep, dreaming of happier days.
Paul was going slowly through his father’s papers, shrinking often from the touch, which brought with it a new sense of hurt. He could not bear the sight of the fine, soft dust already gathered there, wearing, he half fancied, a certain symbolic expression which made it differ from the dust gathered on the possessions of the living. Everything was in good order: important mortgages and deeds were in the safe built into the wall behind a swinging bookcase. Here in the desk were only old letters and documents that showed the interests and the pleasures of scores of years ago: faded programmes from Washington theatres of plays given there when John Warren had been congressman; memoranda of articles to be bought, — a copy of Moore’s poems, for instance, and a diamond ring. Paul smiled as he read the latter item, little likely to be forgotten, and written there probably only for the lover’s pleasure in putting down the words. That ring was on his mother’s hand to-day. The young man found a thousand hints and suggestions that connected his father’s experience with his own: bits of verse that recalled the manuscripts kept under lock and key in his own room; keen hints of criticism of books lately read, and here and there a faded flower. The look in Robin Hood’s blinking eyes and that in his master’s were very near akin in tenderness as the work went on; to John Warren’s son it seemed as if he himself had traveled all that long way and were only now remembering.
He tied up the bundles neatly, as he had found them, and in doing so for the first time noticed the letter that had fallen to the floor and was lying under the paws of Robin Hood, who whimpered over it mournfully. The old dog growled as it was drawn away; would they take from him even this last bit of paper that bore his master’s touch ? As he carelessly opened it the young man quickened to sudden interest and read it, half protesting with himself against his own act. He looked at the signature, and re-read it, then sat gazing at it with the expression of a man on whom light had fallen where he had been groping in the dark.
It was an impassioned love-letter, — apparently a first avowal, for the words came thick and fast as if they had long been choked back, — from the father of Alec Bevanne to Mrs. Warren. It bore the date of the year of her marriage, and must have been written when she was a bride, and when Frederick Bevanne was still a bachelor.
“Whatever you may say of right and wrong,” the hot words ran, “and I know by the look of your sweet face that you will have much to say of them, I know only this: I cannot live without you, I cannot, I cannot. If I may not be near you, always, while I breathe, I shall fling myself into the ocean. If you will come to me and escape the prison in which you are shut, I will make your life a long dream of beauty.”
Paul turned the letter over and over in his hands, and caught sight of a brief memorandum on the back, written there in faded ink: “ Brought me by my wife.”
John Warren’s son started as if smitten by a blow, and a thrill of fear ran along his nerves. What might have been, what had been, the effect of this insult upon his father, whose sense of honor had been keen to morbidness, whose anger, when roused, had been unappeasable ? Robin’s vague sense of trouble, stimulated by the look on his young master’s face, broke out into a mournful howl whose echoes sounded full of memories of old quarrels, fierce and never ended. The very clock in the corner seemed touched by the mystery, and ticked away in solemn questions, to which no answer came. Paul searched pigeon-hole and corner for further records which might throw light upon this one, and, finding nothing, almost groaned in relief, glad not to know what had befallen. At last he half understood the look upon his dying father’s face, and knew that this had been placed among offenses not to be forgiven.
He picked up the letter in gingerly fashion and flung it into the fireplace, then touched it with a match and watched it turn to black tinder, marveling as he did so at that hot Gallic blood to which love had been as a quick flash in the pan, dangerous, but probably soon over; then he shrugged his shoulders with a gesture of relief. What had he to do with the Bevannes, with old quarrels and old mistakes? Nothing, and less than nothing. All this had gone away into oblivion, and he would keep no record of refuse bits of experience which were fit for nothing save to be cast out and thrown away. Why must the shadow of the past fall so persistently on present days, he asked himself with a touch of irritation ? What could burn away from his memory, as the flame had burned the letter, the needless and meaningless pain of all his life ? To the awakened soul within him it seemed as if brave days and kindly deeds and long sunlit spaces might be his portion if but the impossible could happen and he could forget.
Outside it was full summer, with all its splendor of deep leafage, of wide fields of golden, ripening grain, and of wild red August lilies blooming in the wayside grass; but in the heart, of the man it was earliest spring, when the first flush of color comes to the topmost twigs, and a ripple of pale green runs along old boughs. He dimly remembered, as one recalls something observed but not understood, how April came to the old house, stealing in sweet odors down long passage-ways, and flinging her banners of pink blossom from the decaying peach trees in the garden. A sense came to him of green springing about the feet along worn pathways, of new flickering shadows on tender grass, of the beat of bluer wings against the blue. An April mood came knocking at the doorways of his soul, crying out that the past should be but the rich soil in which delicate things might bloom for him, while life became as sudden song from the old eaves at dawn.
He roused himself from his reverie with an apprehension of danger. Must he not bar window and doorway to shut the intruder out before it was too late? He paused, in his hand a faded flower that had fallen from his father’s papers, and something thrilled through him as the wind thrills through poplar leaves, making music there. His father had been free to love; why not he ? Ah, no, he was apart from other men and must abide his fate! What had he to offer that radiant creature, whose voice was as earth’s hidden music made audible, and whose dusky hair made a dark glory against the blue of the sky, save the gloom of these old walls, a moody and discouraged lover, and Uncle Peter ? The race was run out, Paul told himself, leaning back in his great leather chair, the old unreasonable habit of accepting the past as final in his life being too strong to break. They had never in their best days made happy homes, these Warrens; now he — the last of all, on whom the blighting melancholy of the family had descended, he who was impotent to achieve or to care greatly about achievement —would never ask where he could never give.
Would young Bevanne win there, he asked himself — for he had long ago divined the secret all too easily betrayed by the ardor of his young neighbor’s eyes. Paid grew hot at the thought, then reflected, not without satisfaction, that a comparatively obscure young college professor would have little chance of winning the Southern beauty. Why was it, he impatiently asked himself, clasping his hands behind his head and thrusting an ottoman away with his foot, that when he fancied himself ready to go out with the olive branch to his father’s old enemies, this persistent distrust of the present representative of the family waxed and grew ? The very thought of his young neighbor roused dislike. He objected to the blue eyes, the over-ready smile, the professional vocabulary of long words, the slightly exaggerated courtesy. Paul smiled at himself, becoming for the moment a disinterested spectator of the workings of his own mind. Was his father’s fiery indignation against the Bevannes descending upon him, who had all his life long watched it with a feeling of amused pity ?
Again he came back to his own problem, resolved to reason the matter out once for all with his own soul. Of his morbidness in shrinking from the full measure of human existence his intellect was fully aware, yet this did not keep him from a resolve to withhold his hand lest in touching sacred things he should too greatly fail. It was no renunciation of a meagre nature, but of one rich and full, smitten now with a man’s hunger and thirst. Aware of the folly of scruples in an age when greatness of success seems proportioned to lack of scruple, and cursing himself as a Puritan born out of his time, he faced his inner fear, — fear of bringing misery where most he loved, of handing the terrors of the past down to unborn generations to whom life might come as a curse. Wearily he trod his old circle back to his starting-point, wondering again at the deep irony that from those to whom the doing of the right was the one supreme thing the right should be veiled beyond human ken.
“Give us more insight, O Lord, or less,” he groaned aloud, and Robin Hood blinked in understanding.
Yes, he would retire to the innermost recesses of his soul: drawbridge and moat and barricade should be made ready to repel this foe. Then, after fleeing thither, manlike, he courted danger, and came out for parley and for conference, yearning to feel the thrill of peril, and dauntlessly brooding over the quiver of Frances Wilmot’s mouth, the rustle of her gown. Think! he could not think! Reason and will had departed together; young tendrils seemed touching eye and ear; unseen blossoms opening just beyond his vision; and all along the trodden paths of thought hid violets in sudden bloom.
There was an almost paternal solicitude in the feeling of Paul Warren toward Alec Bevanne, after reading the letter which had betrayed the tragedy of almost thirty years ago. Sympathy with his own father, whose heart’s core had been eaten for so long a time by hidden hatred, mingled with anxiety for this young neighbor, with his inheritance of weakness and of treachery; and the measure of his pity for the son was the measure of his contempt for the father. For one with a taint like that in his blood the fight toward high standards of honor must be hard indeed: a keener anxiety than he was wont to feel regarding the inner problems of other people possessed him in the presence of this man.
It was a day of a long sail and of a picnic on a white sand beach a dozen miles away. Mrs. Warren had begged for it; there were peculiar shells to be found there, and the breakers were fine; did not Paul think that everybody would like it ? Mr. Bevanne had said that it would be charming. Paul, inwardly groaning, made ready with a cheerful face: it was not for him to check, even by a look, the gayety of fifty years. Thus it happened that he found himself piling sticks in company with the son of his father’s old enemy, and peacefully boiling water in a copper saucepan over the flame that leaped high from the level sand, flickering against the blue; and he smiled grimly as he took his turn in stirring up the fire with a long oaken staff.
“This is what Christianity and civilization have brought us to,” he said to himself, humorously watching the handsome pink face and the smiling blue eyes. “Instead of my steel at his throat he finds my sandwich in his hand, and munches with the happy abandon of six years.”
Gentle pleasure beamed from Mrs. Warren’s sweet blue eyes as she watched her son; she had never learned to discriminate between his smiles. The new tenderness in his manner toward her lent warmth to the sunshine, and she thrilled with the thought that he and she were making these people happy, — happy in the old way of her girlhood. Unhesitatingly she bade them spread her dainty damask on the white sea sand, and she recklessly placed upon it fragile cups of white and gold taken from an old-fashioned wicker basket. The thin, rosy, flaky ham, the firm, white chicken, the great plums with violet bloom, the early, ruddy peaches, and, above all, the fragrant coffee, satisfied the standard of her earlier days as to what a picnic should be. A rare flush of excited pleasure stained her cheeks: she was glad that Mr. Bevanne was having such a good time in devoting himself to Miss Wilmot, whom Paul was treating with marked neglect. A girl like that ought always to have young men at her feet.
It was Uncle Peter, however, to whom the occasion brought the greatest intoxication of delight; he enjoyed himself even enough to talk with Alice Bevanne.
“You — are n’t interested in heredity, I believe,” he said, as he nibbled the last crumbs of his luncheon from his fringed napkin, and looked up at her as she sat above him on a throne of sand.
“Oh yes, indeed I am,” she answered.
“I’ve never heard you speak of these matters.”
“I’m interested in many things that I don’t speak of,” she said, laughing.
“Now, I’m not,” asserted Uncle Peter stoutly. “ I believe in opening out to your kind, in giving all you have. Well, you have some splendid bits of history in your family. There’s French blood there, as of course you know. You are naturally acquainted with the story of your ancestress who played so heroic a part during the Revolutionary war?”
“Yes,” said the girl.
“Tell it,” begged Frances Wilmot from her pile of sand, but Alice Bevanne shook her head.
“Mr. Warren must tell it; I should only spoil it.”
Uncle Peter was only too ready.
“Why, one of the ancestresses of this young lady — let me see, it must have been her great-great-grandmother — defended a house for a couple of hours against the redcoats and fired again and again with her husband’s old shooting rifle. Came out of it with her hair partly burned off and her face all smoked, and fell on her husband’s neck with her baby in her arms when the rescuing party came; then she fainted. Touching story, is n’t it?” Uncle Peter passed a silk handkerchief across his eyes. “I — I feel these things very much myself.”
“That’s a beautiful story!” cried the Southern girl.
“What did that woman look like ?” asked Paul, glancing at Alice Bevanne as she sat with her fine profile and smooth, parted hair silhouetted against the blue water.
“How should I know ?” answered Uncle Peter, indignantly. “I was n’t alive. You youngsters all think your elders were witnesses of what happened before Methuselah was born!”
“There are pictures, you know,” suggested Paul apologetically.
“Oh, that is what you mean! Well, I cannot tell you, but I fancy that she did not look much like this young lady.”
“I fancy that she did,” said Frances.
“Imagine her firing a gun!” jeered Uncle Peter, looking at the girl’s slender hands that hung loosely in her lap.
“I can fancy her firing a gun, or a powder mine, if it were necessary,” said the Southern girl saucily; “not that she would do it for pleasure.”
Uncle Peter shook his head as he rose.
“I am afraid that you have not a very deep insight into character; one would hardly expect it of a young lady with so many charms;” and he made a deep bow. “Now the reading of character is one of my strong points, and I can see in Miss Bevanne a most devoted domestic personage, but hardly a warrior.”
The girl was looking at them with her humorous little smile, aloof, as if she were the last person to be concerned in this discussion of herself, in which she claimed no place, even by the quiver of an eyelid.
They turned and went their several ways, to walk on the firm sea sand or to climb the heights beyond the beach. It was a brilliant day, clearest, bluest of all, and the crisp air stung freshly on brow and cheek, while out and out, far as the eye could reach, the great, even breakers came rolling in, falling into white foam, — the nearer ones translucent green, the farther purple-tinged. As close to the ripple of the waves as she could safely step went Frances Wilmot, gathering, from wet sand or dry, frail white wave-beaten shells, and holding them in her hands with a fine sense of their symbolism. Her sea treasures she heaped at the feet of Mrs. Warren, who sat shading her eyes as she looked out over the great water, wondering why it seemed so much more beautiful and more friendly than of old.
Meanwhile, wilted and wan, to the top of the grass-grown promontory at the left wearily climbed Uncle Peter, for the gay mood was gone, and the droop of the wrinkles at the corners of his mouth betrayed the inward man. Always black melancholy sat croaking near, ready to flap her raven wings at slight provocation about Uncle Peter’s head, for a time, at least, and she was flapping them lustily now, because of Paul’s careless question. Paul had broken in upon a mood that was all compact of youth with an inquiry which suggested in him remote age, and this in the presence of Miss Wilmot! It was not all resentment against Paul, however, which filled his thought: this momentary conviction of age always brought with it a sense of a life spent without its proper dues.
It was at the top of the cliff that he met Alec Bevanne, who was having a brief run for exercise, and who stopped, panting, a vivid red coming and going in his cheeks.
“Are n’t you feeling well?” asked the young man, halting as he saw the other’s face.
“As well,” answered Uncle Peter, out of the gloom, “as a victim of both God and man could be supposed to feel. ”
“Now, Mr. Warren, what have you got against God and man ? ” asked Alec Bevanne good-naturedly. He liked Uncle Peter, and always found any kindness shown him more than repaid in amusement.
The old man folded his arms, unconsciously taking the attitude which he had more than once seen assumed by the villain on the stage.
“God has given me an undeserved inheritance of — of tendencies,” he remarked, “and man has taken from me the possessions that were mine by hereditary right.”
Alec Bevanne slipped his hand through the misanthrope’s arm.
“ Great-great-grandfather Warren troubling you to-day ?” he asked jocosely.
“He is always troubling me,” said Uncle Peter. “In my soul of souls I feel him crouching, ready to spring.”
“Well, what about your other trouble ? Pour it all out, and you will feel better.”
The words were comforting, and the wavering mind of Uncle Peter wavered assent.
“It is something I would not tell everybody, but you have a face to be trusted. I should confide in that face if I met it disembodied in the Desert of Sahara!”
“All right! Go ahead!”
“ It is about my property,” said the old man in a whisper, “wrested, wrested away.”
“ How’s that ? ” said Alec, drawing him into a brisk walk.
“Simply defrauded of my birthright, that is all, Mr. Bevanne! I was the elder son, and yet Paul’s father, my younger brother John, got it all, except an annuity to me. When John died, I naturally expected some readjustment of affairs, but no! The same annuity comes, and Paul, it seems, steps into his father’s whole estate. There has been fraud somewhere; now tell me, whose was the fraud ?”
“Oh no! You take too dark a view of it. If I were comfortable I should not worry about might-have-beens, though I admit that it looks queer.”
Uncle Peter shook his head and dragged his companion into a slower walk.
“There’s a mystery somewhere,” he said simply; “ I’ve suspected it all my life. Little hints out of my childhood come back: for instance, I remember, when my brother John was born, — an occasion which naturally made a great impression upon me, — going into the library and finding my father there with a tall man in black. They had some papers with them, and they stopped talking when I came in. I can remember as distinctly as if it were yesterday how my father put his hand on my head and said something about its being hard on somebody; I presume the experience through which I was passing made me extraordinarily sensitive to receive and to retain impressions.
“‘Is he bright ?’ the man said. My father shook his head. Until then I had thought that they were talking about me, and lately I have begun to suspect, in thinking it all over, that my first impression was right. The answer that that man made is still vivid in my mind, though it has puzzled me from that day to this: ‘Then you will have less difficulty in carrying out your plan.’ Now, Mr. Bevanne, what do you think of all this ?”
The young man was whistling, and his eyes were filled with amused wonder. Was this some of Uncle Peter’s romancing, or had it really happened ?
“I think,” he answered, “that the whole thing is extraordinary, and some time I should like very much to hear more of it. But this is not a picnic mood. Down there I see Mrs. Warren and Miss Wilmot literally wasting their sweetness on the desert sand. Shall we join them ?”
“Yes, by all means,” assented Uncle Peter, with his wrinkled smile. “That’s a charming girl! Now, if I were you!”
“If you were I,” said Alec Bevanne, in sudden dejection, “you would probably be as big a fool as I am; but you are not I, so congratulate yourself.”
It was while this conversation was going on that Paul Warren had climbed the high white sand dune guarding the beach, and had come full upon the tidal river that flowed here between sand-bound banks, blue toward a bluer sea. Long reeds and grasses, washed by tide waters, grew at its edge, and drooping willows dipped their pale green fronds into its intense color. There were ripples on its surface, and the reeds and grasses swayed; it was a day of strong breeze, and mighty waves, and heroic moods. Idly following the motion of the water, Paul became suddenly aware that Alice Bevanne was leaning against the golden-brown bark of one of the willows not far away, and with the sight of her he suddenly remembered one of the shadows that lay for him across the sun. Unobtrusively he watched her, full of a wistful desire to atone to her, through some finer shade of courtesy, for having had a father like that. To him she was as perfect an enigma as he had ever found: aloof, silent when he was near, she often watched him with those wonderful eyes which seemed to make her face all vision, yet persistently avoided him, probably because she could not so soon forget the family hate. Now, leaning as with the sudden abandon of utter weariness against the tree, with her hands clasped about the bark, she was looking down into the river. Soft gleams of brown and of gold came from its pebbled depths; green reflections from the feathery leaves above quivered there, where the blue of the sky was mirrored back in softer, tenderer blue. So intent was the gaze of the girl’s eyes that Paul could almost have believed her to be holding communication with some water spirit of the stream. The whole slender figure wore a curious expression, like the look he had more than once seen in her eyes, as of one who asked nothing and expected nothing, not even to understand. She had the face of one whom no fate could find unprepared.
“I must beg your pardon for disturbing you,” he said, going near her. She looked up at him, unsmiling.
“You do not disturb me,” she answered.
Something in the deep light of her eyes, which had failed to change so quickly the expression they had worn in gazing into the water, arrested him, and he paused on the bank.
“Miss Bevanne,” he said, and then stopped abruptly.
“Yes?” asked the girl.
“ There is something that I have wanted for a long time to say to you, and it has been difficult,for we are both a little shy,” he said, with a boldness which dumbfounded himself. She did not answer him, but waited.
“You know something of the old enmity between your family and mine.”
She bent her head in assent, and the strange, pale gold of her hair seemed to make a light about her.
“I hope,” he added hesitatingly, “that for you, as for me, it is over. I hope that you do not share the old feeling, or connect it with me ? ”
The ghost of a little smile flitted across Alice Bevanne’s pale face.
“Why do you ask that ?” she said quietly. “Do I act like an enemy?”
He was puzzled for a minute, and colored in embarrassment.
“No,” he answered, and was silent. Then, as they looked at each other, the girl’s eyes wore the look of one about to smile, but she did not. It was he who smiled.
“I have sometimes been afraid that I annoyed you,” he said frankly. “ It has seemed to me that you avoid me, and I have been wondering what I could do to make myself not entirely obnoxious. To me it seems best to let old grudges die, and I should like to be friends.”
She did not change color, and yet so transparent here was the veil of flesh, that her swift change of mood seemed to leave a physical record in her face.
“I have not thought of you as an enemy, Mr. Warren,” she said, holding out her hand.
He took it gladly.
“It may be an absurd fancy of mine; possibly it is a guilty conscience, or an ancestral guilty conscience, but I had imagined that you rather withdrew from any matter in hand, golf or tennis,or whatever it might be, if I was one of the players.”
She smiled for the first time now.
“I think that you must forget your earliest acquaintance with me. Was I not always the little sister who watched, but did not play the game ?”
(To be continued.)
- Copyright, 1905, by MARGARET SHERWOOD.↩