The Choice of Circumstance

“THERE are no two ways about it, Emma,” said her cousin, “you ought to have a change. You ’re moped to death.”

Miss Hinsdale looked with kind eyes at the girl, who was sacrificing a day to her suburban seclusion, and smiled,

“I’m in no danger of being moped to death during your visits, at any rate,” she returned affectionately.

And indeed, there was so much exuberant youth about this cousin, — such an amount of irresponsible, light-hearted mischief and vitality, that the stuffy, draughty little wooden house itself, sitting hunched in the snow under the fir trees, seemed to expand its lungs, and breathe in the spicy scents of spring when she was in it.

“You cheer one up very much,” continued Emma.

“Oh, for a few hours, perhaps,” answered the other, fitting her fingers into her gloves, “but that’s not what I mean. Now that you are free from — from responsibility, you know” (thus delicately alluding to the somewhat recent demise of Emma’s irascible old invalid of a father), “now that you have nothing to tie you down here, you ought to get away. You ought to travel. Why don’t you ?”

“I lack the energy to carry me very far, I ’m afraid,” confessed Miss Hinsdale, sighing, “to say nofliing of the fortune.”

“Energy! nonsense! Go as far as you can, and trust to luck to bring you back,” exclaimed the girl. “I’d rather be stranded anywhere than here. Shut up in the country — in winter — with three doddering old servants — and no company but the rector’s once in two weeks or so— Gracious! I’d go mad — or marry! I’m not sure which.”

“Marriage would be a resource,” replied Emma, gravely humorous. “I might advertise in the papers: ‘Wanted, a husband, — even a bad one,—by a lady in the country.’ And I think I’d add ‘Musician preferred.’

“Why ? You ’re not musical.”

“No, but it might solace his leisure hours to have a wonderful old violin to play upon. And I happen to have one. I don’t know how it came into the family, but papa, who was learned in such matters, said it was a Stradivari us.”

“Then if I were in your place I’d sell it, and go abroad.”

“ If you were in my place you’d feel as I do, — that it’s a lonely thing to travel about the world by one’s self. I do need a change. Sometimes I long for it unspeakably, but I don’t, seem to have the spirit to go out and hunt for it. It must come to me.”

“You are n’t the kind of person to attract adventure, I’m afraid,” cried the pretty cousin, shaking her head and flashing her brilliant eyes. “Now if it were in my hands” —

She kissed Emma, and departed, leaving tHe sentence unfinished.

Miss Hinsdale’s ridiculous old horse, carryall, and coachman conveyed her away, and Miss Hinsdale stood at the window, and watched them out of sight.

But some unsettling influence remained behind. The spice of youth yet lingered in the atmosphere. She suddenly felt rebellious against her own life, — her surroundings,— her age, — her looks, — her neat, prim, orderly ways. She wanted with vague passion to be something she had never been, to do many things she had never done, to escape in any way out of the rut into which circumstances had forced her. Looking back, she seemed always to see herself managing the house adjusting means to sudden emergencies, waiting upon her father. She had been used to spend her time, her care, her every thought, upon others, — but now there was no one who needed her. She was free, and she told herself that there was nothing to prevent her shutting up her inconvenient little house, boarding her exacting old servants, and creeping a few paces out into the world with her income in her pocket, and her thirty-nine respectable years about her eyes, but in her heart she knew that she lacked the initiative for such a step.

As she had said to her cousin, the change must come to her; she had not the energy to go and seek it.

And indeed, it needed not only energy, but a physical force which Emma did not possess, to seek anything abroad for the next few days. Bitter winds and many feet of frozen snow kept the inhabitants of the cottage weather-bound, and their seclusion was invaded by nobody more exciting than the reluctant and somewhat frost-bitten tradesmen who served them. Then a sudden thaw made the roads even more impassable, and it was not until the end of as dismal a week as she had ever spent that Emma, opening her window one morning, found herself greeted by soft airs and sunshine such as would not have disgraced the month of May.

It was good to be alive on such a day. She went about her small household tasks with a light heart, humming a little tune to herself as she dusted the time-honored ornaments in the drawing-room. This was a lengthy operation, and she was still in the midst of it when the doorbell sounded a weak, wiry alarm through the house, surprising her to such an extent, that she involuntarily stood still, a cup in one hand and a fine cloth in the other, listening to the result of so unusual a summons. She was caught in this attitude as the curtains parted to admit a visitor.

He was a delicate-featured young man, with curly brown hair, and gray eyes that seemed to look past one into a distance peopled, apparently, by angels. He was dressed in exceedingly well-cut, if rather shabby clothes, and carried himself like a gentleman. Emma, being at a loss to account for his presence, hesitated for a second or two over the best method of address, but he saved her further trouble by beginning the conversation himself.

“Not hearing from you. Miss Hinsdale,” he said, in a voice of engaging softness, “I ventured, as you see, to present myself.”

“Not hearing from me?” echoed Emma in surprise.

“ Why,” remarked the gentleman, with explanatory gentleness, “I said in my letter that if I did not hear from you I should come.”

“You wrote to me, then ? ” said Emma.

“Naturally,” returned the young man, bowing.

“May I ask what it was about?” she continued. “ I am sorry to say that I have been getting my mail most irregularly of late. For several days my old coachman has found it impossible to get to the post office. This morning he went, but has not yet returned. I am expecting him at any minute. Have you lost anything?” she continued, with interest, as her visitor began a sudden and hurried search through all his pockets.

“I trust not,” he answered, in some perturbation. “No, here it is,” and he produced a slip of newspaper-cutting which he held out to her. “I took the precaution of writing, because I feared to trust absolutely the genuineness of this advertisement, — which is my only excuse for troubling you.”

Emma took the clipping and read it with stupefied astonishment: —

“EXCHANGE WHAT YOIJ DON’T WANT FOR WHAT YOU DO.

“A genuine Stradivarius, for a Congenial Traveling Companion. Address Miss Emma Hinsdale, Sand Lane, Midvale, S. I.”

“You found this in the newspaper?” she gasped.

“It appeared for several succeeding days in the Evening Telegram,'” he replied. “At first I did not credit it, but gradually — reading it again and again, you know — I began to think it might mean something. I accordingly wrote to ‘Miss Emma Hinsdale,’ requesting an interview — or a line to intimate that it would not be agreeable to her. I imagined that the letter would have reached you before yesterday. I regret extremely to have troubled you, Miss Hinsdale, if you are already suited.”

“Suited!” cried Emma. “You don’t understand. I never put that advertisement in the paper. It’s a — a joke, I suppose. An absurd, preposterous, insufferably impertinent joke.”

Her eyes blazed as she pinched and tore the paper between her fingers. She had no difficulty in guessing who had perpetrated the outrage.

The young man looked exceedingly unhappy.

“Then there is no Stradivarius?” he said blankly.

“Oh, that,” said Emma, moved to sudden half-amused compassion, “is genuine enough, I believe.”

“You really own such a priceless possession ?”

“I really own it; and have no thought,” she added gently, “of parting with it at present.”

He smiled, a faint, despairing sort of smile.

“Of course not,” he said, shaking his head. “I knew it could n’t be true.”

His tone was so tragic that Emma began to feel distinctly apologetic.

“I am very sorry that you should have been brought all the way down here on such a wild-goose chase,” she said, “but I am quite guiltless of blame in the matter. We are both the victims of a most illadvised, not to say insolent, jest, and we have, I’m afraid, no redress.”

He gazed at her for a moment in silence, and then began, hesitating uncomfortably, “You could n’t — that is, I suppose you would n’t — let me look — just look — you know ” —

“At the violin? Surely; if it would give you any satisfaction,” she responded kindly, and went to fetch it.

He handled it with the jealous care and loving tenderness of a childless woman for some indifferent mother’s delicate offspring. Then, returning it to its case, he heaved a long sigh, and straightened himself to take leave.

“Thank you,” he said simply. “That was worth a much longer journey.”

“You do not want to” —

“No, no,” he interrupted, his long, taper-fingered hands fluttering in deprecation of her impending suggestion. “No, if I tuned it, if I once drew the bow across it, I should never leave it.” He buttoned his coat and turned resolutely to the door. “Is there a train starting soon?” he inquired. “I forgot to get a time-table at the station.”

Emma glanced at the clock. “There should be one leaving in about ten minutes,” she said. “You can just catch it if you hurry. Take the carriage,” she added, as it drew up before the door. " My man will drive you to the station.”

It seemed to her that he was gone almost before she had finished speaking, and yet she had a vision of a head bowed over her hand, and the sound of a hardly articulated “good-by” lingering in her ears.

Poor young man! His embarrassment appeared far greater than her own — and yet surely to have answered such an advertisemenl at all argued a certain amount of callousness—even effrontery! He was probably a hardened character. He might even be a dangerous one.

She walked to the hall door, and, opening it, stepped out upon the piazza with the intention of convincing herself that the stranger had really quitted her premises. To her dismay she beheld the carryall returning at full speed from the gate. She stood still. Perhaps he had left something behind. His gloves — his stick ? Of course; that must be it. Reassured, she came forward as the carriage approached.

“Have you forgotten anything?” she called.

“Oh — ah— Yes. Yes, indeed,” he cried. He bad opened the door and was standing on the step prepared to leap off. “It just came over me— I hope you did n’t think that I ” —

But the words were cut short. Whether the old coachman, shaken out of his accustomed calm, misjudged the distance,

— or whether the old horse, hustled out of his, became suddenly unmanageable,

— cannot be known. Whichever was the case, the wheel of the carryall struck the bottom stair with a shock that all but overturned the vehicle, and dashed the young man with frightful force against one of the heavy wooden pillars that supported the portico.

The thing took place at Emma’s feet, almost, and yet she did not seem to have the least idea how it happened.

She could never remember, afterward, quite how she reached him, nor how she became aware that he was not dead, nor how she managed, with the aid of her servants, to get him conveyed into the house. It took the united efforts of them all to accomplish this move, and Emma was by no means sure that it had not been injurious to the patient. She felt, as she observed his perfect unconsciousness and awful pallor, that there was but too much reason for serious alarm. She flew to the telephone, and fortunately was answered by the doctor himself, but the moments during which she waited for his coming were among the most trying of her life.

She was so infinitely relieved at his verdict that she forgot to be dismayed at the further responsibility it entailed upon her. The young man was not marked out for immediate death, — that much she ascertained with thanksgiving, — but concussion of the brain was feared, and, for the next ten days at least, his removal from her house was inadvisable. So, with the help of tier two women, Emma undertook the charge of him. She was old-fashioned enough to be prejudiced against trained nurses, and shy of having a strange, authoritative young woman rustling about her house. She felt, moreover, unwilling to commit her unfortunate guest to any unnecessary extravagance. But as she stood by his bedside that evening, she could not help thinking that if this were the “change” which she had challenged Fate to send her, it partook a good deal of the nature of that history which repeats itself. How many times she had stood there looking down at her father, and wondering whether she had done everything possible to secure him a comfortable night! How many times had she moved about this very room, — the most convenient she had to offer her unexpected guest, — mending the fire, arranging the curtains, shading the light, settling herself to watch patiently till morning! Heavens, how many times, and how this brought them all back!

Ah, well, the situation was, at least, less complicated than she had at first feared. The young man would not long trespass upon her hospitality. In the meanwhile, during a brief return to consciousness, he had vehemently disclaimed the possession of any relations or friends who would be anxious if not communicated with, — a thing very comforting to a lady who dreaded explanations.

She gazed at her patient curiously. He looked so young, and yet so oddly faded, so simple, and yet so strangely acute, irresponsible, but shrewd, and, as she could not but consider he had proved, bold to the point of impudence. At this instant he opened his eyes wide, and, meeting hers, which she had not had time to turn away, he smiled, and made an effort to speak. She threw out a quick hand of protest.

“You must not talk.”

He frowned impatiently.

“You have something you want to say before you sleep?”

He signed assent, evidently relieved at her quick understanding.

“Say it as briefly as possible, then,” she warned him. “ It must be very important to your night’s rest to justify my letting you make the exertion, What is it ?”

Slie leaned over him, and he looked up at her gratefully.

“Only that — it wasn’t myself I was offering as your companion to-day — honestly. Not such a goat,” he said.

There was something so pathetically humorous in this endeavor to set himself straight with her before he would close his eyes under her roof, that Emma could not help smiling.

“I suppose this is what you nearly killed yourself hurrying back to tell me,” she observed, with a sudden flash of remembrance and comprehension.

He absolutely grinned in response, and she went on hurriedly,—

“You had some one in your mind who you thought might fill the position ? A cousin, perhaps,—you indicated,I think, that you had no near relations, — some girl who longed to travel; and you imagined you were perhaps putting her ambitions within her reach when you answered that advertisement?”

It was extraordinary how his probable good motives grew and multiplied in her ready brain. She perceived all at once that she had wanted to think well of him.

His expression became suddenly quizzical.

“I wanted the situation for my wife,” lie said, and then allowed the lids to droop over his eyes, as if, having disembarrassed his conscience of something that might, by some straight-laced people, be considered a burden, he had now earned the right to that perfect repose which is the reward of all well-doers in this vale of tears.

Emma did not find her night’s rest any more assured for this remarkable piece of confidence; and she speculated so much about her strange guest, his past and future history, and the silly joke that had led to her being mixed up in it, that the ghostly light of early morning came stealing between the curtains before she was prepared for it.

The next day and the day following brought about decided improvements in the condition of her patient, and as soon as he was permitted to talk freely, he regaled her with the story of his life.

“I suppose,” he began, “you’ve been wondering why, since I’ve got a wife, I wouldn’t let you send her word where I was.”

“I thought perhaps she was away,” said Miss Hinsdale amiably.

“ Away,” echoed the young man. “ Yes. You’re perfectly right. She is away — in South Dakota, getting a divorce from me. We— well, we did n’t get on. She couldn’t Stand my vagaries — I don’t blame her.”

He gave this information with a regretful candor that was delightful.

Emma’s knitting, which she had taken up when she settled herself as a listener, dropped into her lap, and her face stiffened.

“No,” he went on. “ I don’t blame her entirely. I meant to be a decent sort of a chap, but somehow I’m afraid it did n’t turn out like that. Anyhow, I soon realized that I was not designed for a good husband. It did n’t interest me near so much as my profession. I wanted to be a good violinist, all right, but I did n’t seem to be able to put much energy into the other, — after the first rush, you understand, — and you ’ve got to put a fearful lot of energy into it if you want to keep some women contented.”

He looked so determinedly at his hostess that she felt, herself obliged to express a faint acquiescence in this sentiment.

“I was chucked on the world suddenly at sixteen, with no particular brains, and a taste for music,” he continued, “and somebody sent me abroad to study. She says — my wife, you know — that she fell in love with me at the first concert I gave in New York. I suspect she’s often wished she had n’t gone, but I was what you call the fashion, just at first, and so she could n’t miss it — the concert, L mean.”

“I understand,” said Emma gravely, as he paused.

“Well, I never did,” he frankly admitted. “Why Fate took her to that concert— yes, perhaps, — for it was largely advertised, and she and her aunt were on from the West, staying at the Waldorf, not knowing many people, and not having much to do. But why she liked me, or why the old lady (who ought to have known better) let us meet and marry, that I never can understand.”

“I suppose she saw you were in love with one another.”

“In love,” he cried impatiently. “I was always in love with every pretty woman who was willing to be nice to me; and my wife says she does n’t know what she was in love with, — something she invented that wasn’t me at all. Anyhow, things soon began to go badly with me, and people did n’t seem to care to hear me any more. Finally I joined an orchestra.” He broke out into a sudden chuckle. “It was the finest thing in the country, but she thought it was an awful disgrace. Then I met with an accident and was laid up for six months — almost got the morphine habit, and then took, mildly, to drink. It affected me so queerly, too, — sometimes I played like an archangel, they said, and sometimes I would n’t play at all, so, naturally, I couldn’t hold a position for any time worth mentioning. Oh, I can’t go all through it. I think perhaps if she’d been patient a little longer I’d have pulled myself together for the sake of what she’d thought me — I know as soon as she left me I did pull myself together after a fashion, but that was for spite.”

The listener made a murmur of dissent.

“Yes, for spite. I just would n’t go under, because she said I would, and that she’d be glad when I did.”

“She could n’t have said that. No woman who had once loved a man could say that to him,” cried Emma.

“Oh, she never really loved me,” answered her candid patient easily. “She was just in love with me for a little while, which is different. But even if she had begun by loving me, she might easily have said such a tiling when she’d grown to hate me. It was my own fault. I know that, and that’s why I wondered whether she’d forgive me if I got her the position I was fool enough to think you offered. I’d an idea you might be an old lady, a kind, eccentric old lady, who wanted a gay, cheerful young woman to go abroad with her. I’m always chasing after some impossible position these days. And I must say the violin part of it attracted me.”

“But if she’s in Dakota ” — suggested Emma, puzzled.

“Why, the papers will be signed in a few days,” he returned, “and then she won’t want to stay out there. And she does n’t care to go back to her aunt, and I don’t want her to be wandering about the world alone.”

“I’m afraid I’m not very likely to be wandering about the world at all,” said Emma, with reserve.

“And if you were, you’d not need to advertise for a companion,” he remarked, smiling. “Oh, don’t think I thought of it after I saw you and spoke to you. I’m only explaining what I had imagined before. Well, I suppose now I’ve explained too much, — more than I’d any right to do. You see, I have not had anybody I could speak to about it, and it just seemed as if I had to tell some one or die. Thank you for listening. You have been uncommonly land.”

Miss Hinsdale was not by any means sure that she felt kind. His revelations had somewhat shocked her, and she knew it was going to take some hours before she could readjust her mind to a sympathetic understanding of the case. There were many such cases, she supposed, only she had not been brought into contact with them. She got up and began to roll up her knitting.

“You have not explained at all too much, if in any way the explanation has been a comfort to you,” she said. “I am glad that you felt able to tell me but I’m afraid I must not let you talk any more now. It is time for your soup, and after that I hope you will rest.”

The young man made a grimace of mingled amusement and concern as she left the room, but did not attempt to detain her.

Their subsequent conversations bore more relation to the present tastes and feelings of each than to any past episodes in the career of either. Indeed, as Emma’s life had been a tame succession of nights and days, down which she had moved like a pawn on a checkerboard, the word “episode” hardly applied to her at all.

“I can’t understand your being willing to go on like this, week after week for the rest of your days,” he observed one afternoon some days later, when she had been betrayed into a slight allusion to the extreme solitude of her life.

“I don’t seem to be very well able to help it,” said Emma.

“Nobody seems to be able to make life just as they want it,” he replied, with a sigh. “Look at me! And yet my desires seemed simple and laudable enough to begin with. Music, as an ambition, was not in any way unworthy.”

“I should think not,” cried Emma. “And that reminds me — Why did n’t I think of it before ? You must be starved without it. You shall have the violin to play upon every day.”

“You spoil me loo much,” he said; but his eyes were eager.

Now that he was allowed to solace his convalescent hours with music, the violin was seldom out of his reach, and the sounds he managed to call forth were so ravishing that even Emma’s tuneless ear was touched. As for her patient, from the first moment the instrument was put into his hands he seemed to receive new strength, courage, and contentment.

It was now more than ten days since he had come to her house, and Emma was beginning to feel as if he had been there always. It became the most natural thing in the world for her to consult his opinions and wishes about all the little intimate affairs of daily life; and when the rector, who had heard (as all the neighborhood had gradually heard) of the late untoward incident, came to extol what he called her “noble and Christian endurance of an exceedingly trying situation,” she found herself distinctly offended. Any commiseration he had to spare, she told him, had better be directed toward her unfortunate visitor. She had had long consultations with the doctor, and knew that he considered his patient fairly on the way to recovery. “Only.” he said, “we must get him away. I rather suggest California.”

“The heights of Olympus would be about as feasible,” remarked the impatient patient, when this was broached to him. “ What does he think I am to travel to California and Jive upon when I get there — my looks ? ”

“ But if it ’s necessary ” — began Emma.

“Necessary? Fiddlesticks! Nothing is ‘necessary’that you can’t afford to do,” he replied. “I shall get on all right here wdien once I get my strength back. You ’ll see. Listen to this. Some people call it ‘Consolation.’ It represents all that you have been to me. Do you like it ?”

“It seemed very sad,” said Emma, as he put down the violin. “Not as if the consolation had brought much hope. It sounded more as if it should be called ‘Resignation.’”

“There ! there ! there ! ” he cried. “That’s your character all over. To take whatever comes, bad or good, and make the best of it! However, I ought to be the last person to complain, for if you had not taken me in — resignedly” —

“I shall not turn you out resignedly, unless I can induce you to follow the doctor’s directions,” she observed gravely.

“But under those circumstances you would pack me off as quickly as possible and return to your life of peace, — resume the even tenor of your ways ? I have invaded your ‘happy solitude’ an unconscionable time, poor lady, and disturbed your contentment.”

“ I was not contented,” said Emma briefly. “And I am very lonely.”

There was a pause, and then, suddenly beginning to smile a little, she added, “ Indeed, it was because of some half-serious complaints I made on the subject that my cousin put that abominable advertisement in the paper.”

“You did want to get away from here, then?” he inquired.

“I should be glad if my lines had fallen in pleasanter places.”

“ But you won’t step out to find them ? ”

She shook her head, “I’m afraid there’s no chance for your wife,” she said gayly, for she had taught herself to treat his original proposition lightly, as the least embarrassing way of treating it at all.

“My wife ? ” he repeated slowly. “ My wife has written to me that now that she’s got her divorce, she’s going to be married to the doctor out there. Devilish attractive fellows, these doctors! This one’s a six-footer. I’ve suffered all my life from being undersized. It’s size that tells with some women.”

Emma looked up, startled.

“How long have you known this?”

“Since early in the week, when you brought me the letters I wrote to town for.”

“And it hurt you?”

“Why should it hurt me ? I don’t think that it did. It just took me a little while to get used to the idea. It’s not so bad as seeing another man playing upon your violin, you know,” he ended whimsically.

“My violin?” cried Emma. “Oh, it’s not my violin. It is yours from henceforth. You shall have it always. I give it to you.”

“To console me because another man has married my wife ?” he inquired, with a little grin.

“To restore to you, as far as I may, the one real enjoyment you have in the world,” she answered readily.

“Ah, that,” he said, “is so like you, you kind woman. I cannot take it from you, — but I thank you, believe me, so from my heart that words would choke me.”

Emma did not insist, but the day he had settled upon for departure she had the case brought down and placed with his meagre possessions on the piazza, to be in readiness for the village hack that was to take him to the station. She had received a stab of pain as she passed his room, now being what the servants called “turned out of the windows,” and her heart ached incomprehensibly as she looked at his white, drawn face in the brilliant sunlight.

He held out his hand.

“God bless you,” he said, “every day for the rest, of your life.”

“And you,” she answered.

“That won’t require too much attention, I hope,” he responded lightly. “Good-by.”

She did not attempt to withdraw her hand.

“You will take the violin ? ” she begged.

He shook his head.

“Is there no way in which I can show you how much I want you to have it ?”

The words seemed to come without her will,

“There is a way,” he said, suddenly looking full at her, “but you know I must not think of it.”

“That is the way I meant,” she said simply. “Will you take it on those terms ? And will you let me take you to California, — for my own sake ? I cannot face my life if you throw yours away.”

“Well, I see you disapprove with all your might and main,” said the pretty cousin, encountering the rector on the road. (She had been joyously pardoned, and was returning from a farewell visit to Emma.)

“ A divorced man, and, if I am not mistaken, a good-for-nothing person! I should think so!” cried the indignant gentleman, swelling with injured feelings.

“I find him rather charming,” declared the young lady, “ and after all what Emma wanted was something to spend herself upon. She has got it, and she is perfectly happy.”