Not very remarkable was this courtship: there was nothing very strange about it, or more romantic than is apt to be the case with such things. I doubt not that since the daughters of the children of men were wooed, there have been many millions of such May-time passages of greater interest, and that countless Pauls and Virginias have plucked the sweet spring flowers together amid more picturesque surroundings. Every matron–and some maids, if they will, though we deprecate the omen–can recall at least one wooing which she can vouch as a thousand million times more extraordinary than that of my commonplace hero and heroine. That is so: but for that very reason let her read of this one, and taking off the cover of her own potpourri savor some faint scent of the dewy roses of the past springtime.
It had its origin in the 12:10 down train from Euston to Holyhead, which carried, among other passengers, Charles Maitland of the Temple, barrister by theory and idler by, or for want of, practice. He traveled first-class. When you come to know him better you will understand how superfluous was this last piece of information. Ten minutes before the train was due out, he arrived at the station in a hansom. A silk hat, a well-fitting light overcoat–the weather, for March, was mild–gray trousers, and brown gaiters over his patent-leather boots were the most salient details of a costume of which the chief characteristic was an air of perfect correctness. At the bookstall he did not linger, culling with loving eyes the backs of many books, and reveling in his choice with florin in hand, as do second-class passengers, but without hesitation he purchased a Saturday Review and a Cornhill Magazine. After he had taken his seat a Smith’s boy invited him to select from a tray, upon which glowed half a dozen novels; but he gazed sublimely into vacancy over the boy’s head; who soon left him, and prompted by a vengeful spirit only inferior to his precocious knowledge of passenger nature, directed upon him the attacks of two kindred sprites with Banbury cakes and British sherry. The window was slight protection against their shrill voices, but soon the train started and freed him from them. He changed his hat for a brown deer-stalker, and having the compartment to himself, had recourse to his own thoughts. It was not unlikely, he told himself, that he had been precipitate in undertaking this journey. An Easter, coming somewhat early, seemed to have forestalled his wonted invitations for that season: and, to stay in London being out of the question, he had accepted Tom Quaritch’s offer. He began to have doubts of the wisdom of this course now, but it was too late. He was bound for Tom Quaritch’s. He had known something of Tom at college; and recently he had done him a slight service in town. No more genial soul than the latter existed, and he did not rest satisfied until he had won from Maitland a half promise to come and see his beagles at Easter. At the time our traveler had but the remotest idea of doing so. He did not know enough of Tom’s people, while to have the acquaintance of the right people and of no one else was part of his creed. But now he was between the horns of a dilemma. These people, of whom he knew nothing, might not be the right people; that was one horn. The other consisted in the fact that to spend a vacation in town was not the thing. When we have chosen our horn it is natural it should seem the sharper of the two. Mr. Charles Maitland frowned as he cut the pages of his Cornhill. And then he made up his mind to two things. Firstly, to bring his stay at Blore Manor within the smallest possible limits, and secondly, to comport himself while there with such a formal courtesy as should encourage only the barest familiarity.
At Stafford he had to change into another train, which he did, even as he cut his magazine, with characteristic precision and coolness. And so he reached Blore Station about half-past five, still neat and unsullied, with all the aroma of the street of scents about him.
He let down the window and put out his head. The country thereabouts was flat and uninteresting, the farming untidy, the fences low, yet straggling. A short distance away a few roofs peeping forth from a clump of trees, above which the smoke gently curled, marked the village. The station consisted of a mere shed and a long, bare platform. There were but five persons visible, and of these one was a porter, and one a man servant in a quiet, countrified livery. The latter walked quickly toward him, but was forestalled by three girls, the other occupants of the platform, who, at sight of the stranger, came tearing from the far end of it at a headlong pace.
“Here he is! Here he is!” cried the foremost, her shrill voice drawing a dozen heads to the windows of the train. She owed her success to an extempore tug in the form of an excited bull terrier, which, dragging violently at a strap attached to her wrist, jerked her after him much as if she had been a kettle tied to his tail. She might be anything between twenty and five-and-twenty–a tiny little creature of almost fairylike proportions. Her color was high and her hair brown; she had curiously opaque brown eyes, bright as well as opaque. Gloves she had none, and her hair was disordered by her struggles with the dog. But, after all, the main impression she made upon Maitland was that she was excessively small. He had no eyes for the others at present. But one, owing to the reckless method of her progression, gave him a dim notion of being all legs.
“You are Mr. Maitland, are you not?” the first comer began volubly, though loss of breath interfered a little with the symmetry of her sentences. “Tom had to attend a meeting of the fox committee at Annerley. I’m Maggie Quaritch, and this is Dubs–I beg your pardon, how silly of me–Joan, I mean, and this is Agnes. Why, child, what have you done with your hat? Pick it up at once! What wild things Mr. Maitland will think us!”
The youngest girl, whose hat was lying upon the platform some distance away, hung her head in a very pretty attitude of shy gaucherie. She was about fifteen–rising sixteen in her brother’s phrase–and taller than the elder girls, with a peculiarly pale complexion, greenish-gray eyes, and a mass of brownish-red hair. Her loosely made dress was more in consonance with her style than Maitland, staggering under the shock of such a reception, had time or mind to observe. He formally acknowledged the introductions, but words did not come easily to him. He was dumfounded. He was so unaccustomed to this, or to people like these.
“And we must not forget Bill,” resumed Miss Quaritch, if possible, faster than before. “Isn’t he a beauty now, Mr. Maitland? Look at his chest, look at his head, look at his eyes. Yes, he lost that one in a fight with Jack Madeley’s retriever, and I’m afraid the sight of the other is going, but he’s the most beautiful, loveliest, faithfullest dog in the whole world for all that, and his mother loves him, she does!” All in a shrill tone, rising a note perhaps with the final words.
The train was moving out. The last that the twelve faces, still glued to the carriage windows, beheld of the scene was Miss Quaritch rapturously kissing and hugging the bull terrier, while the Londoner looked on sheepishly. He was horribly conscious of the presence of those grinning faces and suffered as much until the train left as if the onlookers had been a dozen of his club comrades. Whereas the fact was that they found whatever amusement the scene afforded them not in the girl’s enthusiasm–she was young enough to gush prettily–but in the strange gentleman’s awkward consciousness.
“Now, Mr. Maitland, shall Abiah drive you up in the dog cart, or will you walk with us? Agnes!” this suddenly in a loud scream to the youngest girl, who had moved away, “you can let out the dogs! Down, Juno! Go down, Jack o’ Pack! Roy, you ill-conditioned little dog, you are always quarreling! I’m afraid they will make you in a dreadful pickle.”
Indeed it seemed to Maitland that they would. An avalanche of scurrying dogs descended upon him from some receptacle where they had been penned. He had a vision of a red Irish setter with soft brown eyes, not unlike to, but far finer than Miss Maggie’s, with its paws momentarily upon the breast of his overcoat; of a couple of wiry fox terriers skirmishing and snarling round his trousers, and of a shy, lop-eared beagle puppy casting miserable glances at them from an outside place. And then the party got under way in some sort of order. At first Maitland had much ado to answer yes and no.
He was still bewildered by these things, crushed, confounded.
He could have groaned as he sedately explained at what time he left Euston, and where he changed. He was conscious that when their attention was not demanded by the pack of dogs, the girls were covertly scrutinizing him; but in his present state of mind, it mattered not a straw to him whether they were calling him a prig, and a “stick,” and affected, and supercilious, or were admiring half in scorn the fit of his clothes and boots, and his lordly air. All these remarks were in fact made by some one or other of them before the day was over. But he was, and would have been, supremely indifferent to their criticisms.
The weight of the conversation did not fall heavily upon him: indeed, when Miss Quaritch had a share in it, no one else was overburdened. And from time to time they met upon the road old women or children to whom the girls had always something to say. It was, “Well, Mrs. Marjoram, and so the donkey is better,” or, “Now, Johnny, get along home to your mother,” or, “How are you, daddy?” in the high-pitched key so trying to the cockney’s ear.
In these parleys Joan, the second girl, was foremost. Maitland glanced at her. A young man may be very fastidious, but neck-ribbons awry and brown hair in rich disorder do not entirely close his eyes to a maiden’s comeliness. It would be strange if they did, were she such an one as Joan Quaritch. Not tall, yet tall enough, with a full, rounded figure, to which her dress hardly did, hardly could do, justice, she moved with the grace and freedom of perfect health. Her fair complexion could afford to have its clearness marred by a freckle or two, such as hers, mere clots in cream; and if her features were not perfect, yet a nose too straight and a chin too heavy were more than redeemed by great gray eyes that, sunny or tearful, could be nothing but true–eyes whose frankness and good fellowship aggravated the wounds they inflicted. Why she was called “Dubs” I cannot tell. Perhaps no one can. But, in her good nature and her truth, her simple pride and independence, it suited her.
He had just, to quote the language of this cynic’s thoughts, catalogued the last of the Graces, when the party reached the house, which stood some way back from the road. Tom Quaritch had just returned, and welcomed the guest warmly; his mother met Maitland at the drawing-room door. She was a singularly comely woman, stately and somewhat formal. Her greeting so differed from that of her daughters that the visitor found himself speculating upon the extraordinary flightiness of the late Mr. Quaritch. Wherein I doubt not he did him injustice.
At dinner our hero had in some degree recovered himself, and he told them the latest news of the theaters, the clubs, and the book world, and while their ignorance filled him with a wonder he did not hide, their attention propitiated him. He talked well, and if he was inclined to lord it a little, a shrewd word from Mrs. Quaritch, or a demure glance from Miss Joan’s eyes, would lower his didactic tone. The youngest girl promised to be an especial thorn in his side.
“Does everyone in London wear shiny boots in the daytime, Mr. Maitland?” she asked suddenly, à propos des bottes, and nothing else.
“A considerable number do, Miss Agnes.”
“What sort of people? No, I’m not being rude, mother.”
“Well, I hardly know how to answer that. The idle people, perhaps.” He smiled indulgently, which aggravated the young lady. She replied, crumbling her bread the while in an absent, meditative way, her eyes innocently fixed on his face:
“Then you are one of the idle people, Mr. Maitland? I don’t think I like idle people.”
“How singularly unselfish of you, my dear Agnes!” put in Joan vigorously–more vigorously than politely.
Maitland’s last reflection as he got into bed was that he was quite out of place here. These might be very nice people in their way, but not in his way. He must make his visit as short as possible, and forget all about it as quickly as he could. The girls would be insufferable when they came to know him familiarly. Good gracious! fancy young ladies who had never heard of “John Inglesant,” or of W. D. Howells’ books, and confused the Grosvenor Gallery with the Water Color Exhibition! and read Longfellow! and had but vague ideas of the æsthetic! Miss Joan was pretty too, yes, really pretty, and had fine eyes and a pleasant voice, and fine eyes–yes, fine eyes. And with this thought he fell comfortably asleep.
He came down next morning to find her alone in the breakfast room. A short-skirted beagling costume of scarlet and blue allowed him a glimpse of neat ankles in scarlet hose. She was kneeling before the fire playing with Roy. Her brown wavy hair fell in a heavy loose loop upon her neck, and there was something wonderfully bright and fresh in her whole appearance.
“How quickly you have fallen in with our barbarous ways!” she said with a smile, as she rose. “I did not expect you to be up for hours yet.”
“I generally breakfast at nine, and it is nearly that now,” he answered, annoyed by some hint of raillery in her tone, and yet unable to conceal a glance of admiration. “I think I must adopt the Blore breakfast hour; it seems, Miss Joan, to agree with you all so well.”
“Yes,” was the indifferent reply; “we get the first of the three rewards for early rising. The other two we leave for our betters.”
And she turned away with a little nod as the others came in. In five minutes a noisy, cheerful breakfast was in progress, and the chances of finding a hare formed the all-engrossing subject of conversation.
On this calm gray morning, warm rather than cold, the little pack, to the great delight of the household, found quickly, and found well. No October leveret was before them, but a good, stout old hare, who gave them a ringing run of two hours, the pleasure of which was not materially diminished when she baffled them at last in the mysterious way these old hares affect and huntsmen fail to fathom. The visitor performed creditably, though in indifferent training. At Oxford he had been something of a crack, and could still upon occasion forget to keep his boots clean and his clothes intact.
Returning home, Maitland found himself again with Joan. The heat and pleasure of the chase had for the time melted his reserve and thawed his resolution. He talked well and freely to her of a great London hospital over which one of the house surgeons had recently taken him; of the quiet and orderliness of the lone, still wards; of the feeling that came over him there that life was all suffering and death; and how quickly in the bustle of the London streets, where the little world of the hospital seemed distant and unreal, this impression faded away. She listened eagerly, and he, tasting a stealthy and stolen pleasure in seeing how deep and pitiful the gray eyes could grow, prolonged his tale.
“I have enjoyed hearing about it so much,” she said gratefully, as they entered the village. And indeed she had passed several people upon the road without a word of greeting. “I hope to be a nurse soon. The dear mother does not think me old enough yet.”
“You are going to be a nurse!” he said in tones of such incredulous surprise that the amusement which first appeared in her face changed to annoyance.
“Why not? One does not need a knowledge of art and the newest books for that,” she sharply answered.
“Perhaps not,” he said feebly. “But after such a life as this, it–the change I mean–would be so complete.”
She looked at him, an angry gleam in her eyes, and the color high in her cheeks.
“Do you think, Mr. Maitland, that because we run wild–oh, no, you have not said so–and seem to do nothing but enjoy ourselves, we are incapable of anything beyond hunting and playing tennis, and feeding the dogs and the hens and the chickens? That we cannot have a thought beyond pleasure, or a wish to do good like other people–people in London? That we can never look beyond Blore–though Blore, I can tell you, would manage ill without some of us!–nor have an aspiration above the kennels and the–and the stables? If you do think so, I trust you are wrong.”
He would have answered humbly, but she was gone into the house in huge indignation, leaving our friend strangely uncomfortable. It was just twenty-four hours since his arrival: the opinion of one at least of the madcaps had ceased to be a matter of indifference to him. The change occurred to himself as he mounted the stairs, so that he laughed when alone in his room and resolved to keep away from that girl for the future. How handsome she had looked when she was flying out at him, and how generous seemed her anger even at the time! Somehow the prospect of the four days he had still to spend at Blore was not so depressing as at first. Certainly the vista was shortened by one day, and that may have been the reason.
Meanwhile Maggie, in her sister’s bedroom, had much to say of the day’s doings. “Didn’t he go well? My word! he is not half so stiff as I thought him. I believe he’d be a very good fellow if he had some of the conceit taken out of him.”
“I think he’s insufferable,” was the chilling answer from Joan; “he considers us savages, and treats us as such.”
“He may consider us fit for the Zoo, if he likes; it won’t hurt us,” quoth Maggie indifferently. With which Joan expressed neither assent nor dissent, but brushed her hair a little faster.
Maitland did not for a moment abandon his fresh resolution. Still he thought he owed it to himself to set the matter right with the young lady before he stiffened anew. As he descended he met her running up two steps at a time.
“Miss Joan, I am afraid I vexed you just now,” he said, with grave humility. “Will you believe it unintentional–stupid, on my part, and grant me your pardon?”
“Oh, dear!” she cried gayly. “We are not used to this here. It is quite King Cophetua and the beggar maid.” She dropped him a mock courtesy, and held out her hand in token of amity, when the full signification of what she had said rushed into her mind and flooded her face with crimson. Without another word or look she fled upstairs, and he heard her door bang behind her.
Mr. Charles Maitland, after this rencontre, went down smiling grimly. In the hall he stood for a moment in deep thought; then sagely shook his head several times at a stuffed fox and joined the party in the drawing room.
The next day and the next passed with surprising quickness, as the latter days of a visit always do. In another forty-eight hours Maitland’s would be over. Yet singularly enough his spirits did not rise, as he expected they would, at the near prospect of release. As he closed his bedroom door he had a vision of a pair of gray eyes smiling into his, and his palm seemed still to tingle with the touch of a soft, warm hand. He had kept his resolution well–small credit to him. Joan had seemed to avoid him since her unlucky speech upon the stairs; when she did speak to him her words, or more often her tone, stung him, and he smarted under a sense that she repaid with interest the small account in which he was inclined to hold the family generally. He resented her veiled contempt with strange bitterness, so that Agnes remarked with her usual candor that he and Joan never spoke to one another save to “jangle.” Afterward, walking on the lawn, some line about “sweet bells jangled out of tune,” ran in his head. The girl was a vixen, he said to himself, yet he tried to imagine how tender and glorious the great gray eyes, that he only knew as cold or saucy or defiant, could be when their depths were stirred by love. But his imagination failing to satisfy even himself, he went to put on his beagling dress in the worst of humors.
Possibly this made him a trifle reckless, for a promising run ended in ten minutes so far as he was concerned, in a sprained ankle. In jumping over a low fence into a lane his one foot came down sideways on a large stone upon which some pauper had scamped his work, and the mischief was done. The ominous little circle that hunting men know so well soon gathered round him, and he was helped to his feet, or rather foot. Then Agnes fetched the carriage, and he was driven back to Blore. Now, under the circumstances, what could Mrs. Quaritch, without an arrière pensée in the world, do but press him to stay until at least he could put the foot to the ground? Nothing. And what could he do but consent? At any rate, that is what he did.
So he was established in the drawing room, a pretty, cozy room, and told himself it was a terrible nuisance. But, for a cripple confined to a couple of rooms, and surrounded by uncongenial people, without a single new magazine or a word of the world’s gossip, he kept up his spirits wonderfully well. The ways of the three girls, and the calm approval of their sedate mother, could not fail to amuse him. Lying there and seeing and hearing many things which would not have come to his knowledge as a mere visitor, he found them not quite what he had judged them to be. He missed Joan one morning, and when with an unconscious fretfulness he inquired the reason, learned that she had been sitting up through the night with an old servant who was ill in the village. He said some word about it to her–very diffidently, for she took his compliments but ill at all times; now she flamed out at him with twice her ordinary bitterness and disdain, and punished him by taking herself out of the room at once.
“Confound it!” he cried, beating up his pillow fiercely, “I believe the girl hates me.”
Did he? and did she?
Then he fell into a fit of musing such as men approaching thirty, who have lived in London, are very apt to indulge in. A club was not everything, be it as good as it might be. And life was not a lounge in Bond Street and Pall Mall, and nothing more. He thought how dull a week spent on his sofa in the Adelphi would have been, even with the newest magazines and the fifth and special Globes. In three days was his birthday–his twenty-ninth. And did the girl really hate him? It was a nice name, Joan; Dubs, umph! Dubs? Joan? And so he fell asleep.
How long he slept and whether he carried something of his dreams into his waking he could only guess, but he was aroused by a singular sensation–singular in that, though once familiar enough, it was now as strange to him as the sight of his dead mother’s face. If his half-recalled senses did not deceive him, if he was not still dreaming of Joan, the warm touch of a pair of soft lips was yet lingering upon his forehead, the rustle of a dress very near his ear yet sounded crisply in it. And then someone glided from him, and he heard a hasty exclamation and opened his eyes dreamily. By the screen which concealed the door and sheltered him from its draughts was standing Joan, a-tiptoe, poised as in expectation, something between flight and amusement in her face, her attitude full of unconscious grace. He was still bewildered, and hardly returned from a dreamland even less conventional than Blore. Without as much surprise as if he had thought the matter out–it seemed then almost a natural thing–he said:
“You shall have the gloves, Dubs, with pleasure.”
The girl’s expression, as he spoke, changed to startled astonishment. She became crimson from her hair to her throat. She stepped toward him, checked herself, then made a quick movement with her hand as if about to say something, and finally covered her face with her hands and fled from the room. Before he was wide awake he was alone.
At first he smiled pleasantly at the fire, and patted Roy, Joan’s terrier, who was lying beside him, curled up snugly in an angle of the sofa. Afterward he became grave and thoughtful, and finally shook his head very much as he had at the stuffed fox in the hall. And so he fidgeted till Roy, who was in a restful mood, retired to the hearthrug.
It would be hard to describe Joan’s feelings that afternoon. She was proud, and had begun by resenting for all of them the ill-concealed contempt of Tom’s London friend–this man of clubs and chit-chat. She was quite prepared to grant that he was different from them, but not superior. A kind of contempt for the veneer and polish which were his pride was natural to her, and she showed this, not rudely nor coquettishly, but with a hearty sincerity. Still, it is seldom a girl is unaware of admiration, and rare that she does not in secret respect self-assertion in the male creature. This man knew much too, and could tell it well, that was strange and new and delightful to the country maiden. If he had any heart at all–and since he was from London town she supposed he had not, though she granted him eyes and fine perceptions of the beautiful–she might have, almost, some day, promised herself to like him, had he been of her world–not reflecting that this very fact that he was out of her world formed the charm by which he evoked her interest. As things were, she more than doubted of his heart, and had no doubt at all that between their worlds lay a great, impassable, unbridgeable abyss.
But this afternoon the dislike, which had been fading day by day along with those feelings in another which had caused it, was revived in its old strength upon the matter of the kiss. Alone in her own room the thought made her turn crimson with vexation, and she stamped the floor with annoyance. He had made certain overtures to her–slender and meaningless in all probability. Still, if he could believe her capable after such looks and words as he had used–if after these he thought her capable of this, then indeed, were there no abyss at all, he could be nothing to her. Oh, it was too bad, too intolerable! She would never forgive him. How indeed could she be anything to him, if she could do such a thing, as dreadful, as unmaidenly to her as to the proudest beauty among his London friends. She told herself again that he was insufferable; and determined to slap Roy well, upon the first opportunity, if that mistaken little pearl of price would persist in favoring the stranger’s sofa.
Until this was cleared up she felt her position the very worst in the world, and yet would not for a fortune give him an opportunity of freeing her from it. The very fact that he addressed her with, as it seemed, a greater show of respect, chafed her. Agnes, with a precocious cleverness, a penetration quite her own, kept herself and her dog, Jack o’ Pack alias Johnny Sprawn, out of her sister’s way, and teased her only before company.
But at last Maitland caught Miss Joan unprotected.
“I hope that these are the right size, Miss Joan–they are six and a quarter,” he said boldly, yet with, for a person of his disposition and breeding, a strange amount of shamefacedness; producing at the same time a pair of gloves, Courvoisier’s best, many-buttoned, fit for a goddess.
“I beg your pardon?” she said, breathing quickly. But she guessed what he meant.
“Let me get out of your debt.”
“Out of my debt, Mr. Maitland?” taking the gloves mechanically.
“Please. Did you think I had forgotten? I should find it hard to do that,” he continued, encouraged and relieved by having got rid of the gloves, and inattentive at the moment to her face. Yet she looked long at him searchingly.
“I have found it hard to understand you,” she said at last, with repressed anger in voice and eye; “very hard, Mr. Maitland; but I think I do so now. Do you believe that it was I who kissed you when you were asleep on Wednesday afternoon? Can you think so? You force me to presume it is so. Your estimate of my modesty and of your own deserts must differ considerably. I had not the honor. Your gloves”–and she dropped them upon the floor as if the touch contaminated her, the act humiliating the young gentleman at least as much as her words–“you had better give to Agnes, if you wish to observe a silly custom. They are due to her, not to me. I thank you, Mr. Maitland, for having compelled me to give this pleasant explanation.”
She turned away with a gesture of such queenly contempt that our poor hero–now most unheroic, and dumb as Carlyle would have had his, only with mortification and intense disgust at his stupidity–amazed that he could ever have thought meanly of this girl, “who moved most certainly a goddess,” had not a word to express his sorrow. A hero utterly crestfallen! But at the door she looked back, for some strange reason known perchance to female readers. The gloves were on the floor, just beyond his reach–poor, forlorn, sprawling objects, their fingers and palms spread as in ridiculous appeal. As for him, he was lying back on the sofa, in appearance so crushed and helpless that the woman’s pity ever near her eyes moved her. She went slowly back, and picked up the gloves, and put them on the table where he could take them.
“Miss Joan,” he said, in a tone of persistence that claimed a hearing, and, starting far from the immediate trouble, was apt to arouse curiosity; “we are always, as Agnes says, jangling–on my side, of course, is the false note. Can we not accord better, and be better friends?”
“Not until we learn to know one another better,” she said coldly, looking down at him, “or become more discerning judges.”
“I was a fool, an idiot, an imbecile!” She nodded gravely, still regarding him from a great height. “I was mad to believe it possible!”
“I think we may be better friends,” she responded, smiling faintly, yet with sudden good humor. “We are beginning to know–one another.”
“And ourselves,” almost under his breath. Then, “Miss Joan, will you ever forgive me? I shall never err again in that direction,” he pleaded. “I am humiliated in my own eyes until you tell me it is forgotten.”
She nodded, and this time with her own frank smile.
Then she turned away and did leave the room, this time taking Roy with her. Her joyous laughter and his wild, excited barking proclaimed through the length and breadth of Blore that he was enjoying the rare indulgence of a good romp on the back lawn. It was Roy’s day.
And can a dog ever hope for a better day than that upon which his mistress becomes aware that she is also another’s mistress: becomes aware that another is thinking of her and for her, nay, that she is the very center of that other’s thoughts? What a charming, pleasantly bewildering discovery it is, this learning that for him when she is in the room it is full, and wanting her it is empty, be it never so crowded; that all beside, though they be witty or famous, or what they will, or can or would, are but lay figures, umbræ, shadow guests in his estimation. She learns with strange thrills, that in moments of meditation will flash to eye and cheek, that her slightest glance and every change of color, every tone and smile, are marked with jealous care; that pleasure which she does not share is tasteless, and a dinner of herbs, if she be but at a far corner, is a feast for princes. That is her dog’s day, or it may be his dog’s day. It is a pleasant discovery for a man, mutatis mutandis; but for a girl, a sweet, half fearful consciousness, the brightest part of love’s young dream–even when the kindred soul is of another world, and an abyss, wide, impassable, unbridgeable lies between.
But these things come to sudden ends sometimes. Sprains, however severe, have an awkward knack of getting well. Swellings subside from inanition, and doctors insist for their credit’s sake that the stick or ready arm be relinquished. Certainly a respite or a relapse–call it which you will–is not impossible with care, but it is brief. A singular shooting pain, not easily located with exactness, but somewhere in the neighborhood of the calf, has been found useful; and a strange rigidity of the tendon Achilles in certain positions may gain a day or two. But at last not even these will avail, and the doubly injured one must out and away from among the rose leaves. Twice Maitland fixed his departure for the following morning, and each time when pressed to stay gave way, after so feeble, so ludicrous a resistance, if it deserved the name, that Agnes scarcely concealed her grimace, and Joan looked another way. She did not add anything to the others’ hospitable entreaties. If she guessed what made Maggie’s good-night kiss so fervent and clinging, she made no sign and offered no opening.
In the garden next morning, Maitland taxed her with her neutrality. It was wonderful how his sense of humor had become developed at Blore.
“I thought that you did not need so much pressure as to necessitate more than four people’s powers of persuasion being used,” she answered, in the same playful spirit. “And besides, now you are well enough, must you not leave?”
“Indeed, Miss Joan?”
“And go back to your own way of life? It is a month since you saw the latest telegrams, and there is a French company at the Gaiety, I learn from the Standard. We have interests and duties, though you were so hard of belief about them, at Blore, but you have none.”
She shook her head. “No duties, at any rate.”
“And so you think,” he asked, his eyes fixed upon her changing features, “that I should go back to my old way of life–of a century ago?”
“Of course you must!” But she was not so rude as to tell him what a very foolish question this was. Still it was, was it not?
“So I will, or to something like it, and yet very unlike. But not alone. Joan, will you come with me? If I have known you but a month, I have learned to love your truth and goodness and you, Joan, so that if I go away alone, to return to the old life would be bitterly impossible. You have spoiled that; you must make for me a fresh life in its place. Do you remember you told me that when we knew one another we might be better friends? I have come to know you better, but we cannot be friends. We must be something more, more even than lovers, Joan–husband and wife, if you can like me enough.”
It was not an unmanly way of putting it, and he was in earnest. But so quiet, so self-restrained was his manner that it savored of coldness. The girl whose hand he held while he spoke had no such thought. Her face was turned from him. She was gazing over the wall across the paddock where Maggie’s mare was peaceably and audibly feeding, and so at the Blore Ash on its mimic hill, every bough and drooping branchlet dark against the sunset sky; and this radiant in her eyes with a beauty its deepest glow had never held for her before. The sweetest joy was in her heart, and grief in her face. He had been worthy of himself and her love. While he spoke she told herself, not that some time she might love him, but that she had given him all her true heart already. And yet as he was worthy, so she must be worthy and do her part.
“You have done me a great honor,” she said at last, drawing away her hand from his grasp, though she did not turn her face, “but it cannot be, Mr. Maitland. I am very grateful to you–I am indeed, and sorry.”
“Why can it not be?” he said shortly; startled, I am bound to say, and mortified.
“Because of–of many things. One is that I should not make you happy, nor you me. I am not suited to your way of life. I am of the country, and I love to be free and unconstrained, while you are of the town. Oh, we should not get on at all! Perhaps you would not be ashamed of me as your wife, but you might be, and I could not endure the chance even of it. There,” she added, with a laugh in which a woman’s ear might have detected the suppression of a sob, “is one sober reason where none can be needed.”
“Is that your only reason?”
She was picking the mortar out of the wall. “Oh, dear me, no! I have a hundred, but that is a sufficient one,” she answered almost carelessly, flirting a scrap of lime from the wall with her forefinger.
“And you have been playing with me all this time!” cried he, obtusely enraged by her flippancy.
“Not knowingly, not knowingly, indeed!”
“Can you tell me that you were not aware that I loved you?”
“Well, I thought–the fact is, I thought that you were amusing yourself–in West End fashion.”
“Mr. Maitland!” she cried vehemently, “how dare you? There is proof, if any were needed, that I am right. You would not have dared to say that to any of your town acquaintances. I am no coquette. If I have given you pain, I am very sorry. And–I beg that we may part friends.”
She had begun fiercely, with all her old spirit. He turned away, and she ended with a sudden, anxious, pitiful lameness, that yet, so angry and dull of understanding was he, taught him nothing.
“Friends!” he cried impatiently. “I told you that it was impossible. Oh, Joan, think again! Have I been too hasty? Have I given you no time to weigh it? Have I just offended you in some little thing? Then let me come to you again in three months, after I have been back among my old friends?”
“No, don’t do that, Mr. Maitland. It will be of no use and will but give us pain.”
“And yet I will come,” he replied firmly, endeavoring by the very eager longing of his own gaze to draw from her fair, downcast face some sign of hope. “I will come, if you forbid me a hundred times. And if you have been playing with me–true, I am in no mood for soft words now–it shall be your punishment to say me nay, again. I shall be here, Joan, to ask you in three months from to-day.”
“I cannot prevent you,” she said. “Believe me, I shall only have the same answer for you.”
“I shall come,” he said doggedly, and looked at her with eyes reluctant to quit her drooping lashes lest they should miss some glance bidding his heart take courage. But none came, only the color fluttered uncertainly in her face. So he slowly turned away from her at last and walked across the garden, and out of sight by the gate into the road. He saw nothing of the long, dusty track, and straggling hedges bathed in the last glows of sunset. Those big gray eyes, so frank and true, came again and again between him and the prospect, and blinded his own with a hot mist of sorrow and anger. Ah, Blore, thou wast mightily avenged!
It is a hot afternoon in August, laden with the hum of dozing life. The sun has driven the less energetic members of the Quaritch family into the cool gloom of the drawing room, where the open windows are shaded by the great cedar. Mrs. Quaritch, upon the sofa, is nodding over a book. Joan, in a low wicker seat, may be doing the same; while Agnes, pursuing a favorite employment upon the hearthrug, is now and again betrayed by a half stifled growl from one or other of the dogs as they rise and turn themselves reproachfully, and flop down again with a sigh in a cool place.
“Agnes,” cries her mother, upon some more distinct demonstration of misery being made, “for goodness’ sake leave the dogs alone. They have not had a moment’s peace since lunch.”
“A dog’s life isn’t peace, mamma,” she answers, with the simple air of a discoverer of truth. But, nevertheless, she looks about for fresh worlds to conquer.
“Even Mr. Maitland was better than this,” she announces, after a long yawn of discontent, “though he was dull enough, I wonder why he did not come in July. Do you know, Joan?”
“Oh, Agnes, do let us have a moment’s peace for once! We are not dogs,” cried Joan fretfully.
Wonder! she was always wondering. This very minute, while her eyes were on the page, it was in her mind. Through all those three months passing hour by hour and day by day, she could assure herself that when he had come and gone, she would be at rest again; things would be as before with her. Let him come and go! But when July arrived, and he did not, a sharper pain made itself felt. Bravely as she strove to beat it down, well as she might hide it from others, the certainty that it had needed no second repulse to balk his love sorely hurt her pride. Just her pride, she told herself; nothing else. That he had not stood the test he had himself proposed; that any unacknowledged faintest hope she might have cherished, deep down in her heart, that he might master her by noble persistence, must now be utterly quenched; these things of course had no bitterness for her through the hot August days; had nothing to do with the wearied look that sometimes dulled the gray eyes, nor with the sudden indifference or as sudden enthusiasms for lawn tennis and dogs and pigeons, that marked her daily moods.
Agnes’ teasing, by putting her meditations into words, has disturbed her. She gets up and moves restlessly about, touching this thing and that, and at last leaves the room and stands in the hall, thinking. Here, too, it is dark and cool, and made to seem more so–the door into the garden being open–by the hot glare of sunshine falling upon the spotless doorstep. She glances at this listlessly. The house is still, the servants are at the back; the dogs all worn out by the heat. Then, as she hesitates, a slight crunching of footsteps upon the gravel comes to her ear, breaking the silence. A sudden black shadow falls upon the sunny step and tells of a visitor. Someone chases away his shadow, and steps upon the stone, and raises his gloved hand to the bell. Charles Maitland at last!
Coming straight in from the sunshine he cannot see the swift welcome that springs to eye and cheek, a flash of light and color, quick to come and go. He is too much moved himself to mark how her hand shakes. He sees no difference in her. But she sees a change in him. She detects some subtle difference that eludes her attempt to define its nature and only fills her with a vague sense that this is not the Charles Maitland from whom she parted.
It is a meeting she has pictured often, but not at all like this. He signs to her to take him into the dining room, the door of which stands open.
“I have come back, Miss Joan.”
“Yes?” she answers, sitting down with an attempt to still the tumult within, with such success that she brings herself for the moment nearly to the frame of mind in which they parted, and there is the same weary sufferance in her tone.
“I have come back as I said I would. I have overstepped the three months, but I had a good reason for my delay. Indeed I have been in doubt whether I ought to see you again at all, only I could not bear you to think what you naturally would. I felt that I must see you, even if it cost us both pain.” There is a new awkwardness in his tone and pose.
“I told you that it was–quite unnecessary–and useless,” she answers, with a strange tightening in her throat.
“Then it can do you no harm,” he assents quietly. “I have come back not to repeat my petition, but to tell you why I do not and cannot.”
“I think,” she puts in coldly, “that upon the whole you had better spare yourself the unpleasantness of explaining anything to me. Don’t you think so? I asked you for no proof, and held out no hope. Why do you trouble me? Why have you come back?”
“You have not changed!”
For the first time a ring of contempt in her voice takes the place of cold indifference. “I do not change in three months, Mr. Maitland. But there! my mother will wish to see you, and so will Agnes, who is hankering after something to happen. They are in the drawing room.”
“But, Miss Joan, grant me one moment! You have not heard my reasons.”
“Your reasons! Is it absolutely necessary?” she asks, half fretfully, half scornfully; her uppermost thought an intense desire to be by herself in her own room, with the door safely locked.
“I think so, at any rate. Why, I see! By Jove! of course you must be thinking the worst of me now! Oh, no! if you could not love me, Joan–pray pardon me, I had no right to call you by your name–you need not despise me. I cannot again ask you to be my wife, because,” he laughs uneasily, “fortune has put it out of my power to take a wife. My trustee has made ducks and drakes of my property, or rather bulls and bears. I have but a trifle left to begin the world upon, and far too little to marry upon.”
“I read of it in the papers. I saw that a Mr. Maitland was the chief sufferer, but I did not connect him with you,” she says, in a low voice.
“No, of course not. How should you?” he answers lightly. But nevertheless her coldness is dreadful to him. He had thought she would express some sympathy. And gayly as he talks of it, he feels something of the importance of a ruined man and something of his claim to pity.
“And what are you going to do?”
“Do? We’ve arranged all that. They say there is a living to be made at the Bar in New Zealand, if one does not object to riding boots and spurs as part of the professional costume. Of course it will be a different sort of life, and Agnes’ favorite patent leathers will be left behind in every sense. This would have been a bad blow to me”–there is a slight catch in his voice, and he gets up, and looks out of one of the windows with his back to her–“now I have learned from you that life should not be all lounging round the table and looking over other people’s cards. It has been a sharp lesson, but very opportune as things have turned out. I am ready to take a hand myself now–even without a partner.”
He does not at once turn round. He had not fancied she would take it like this, and he listens for a word to tell him that at any rate she is sorry–is grieved as for a stranger. Then he feels a sudden light, timid touch upon his arm. Joan is standing quite close to him, and does not move or take away her hand as he turns. Only she looks down at the floor when she speaks:
“I think I should be better than–than dummy–if you will take me to New Zealand.”
Half laughing, half crying, and wholly confused, she looks up into his astonished face with eyes so brimful of love and tenderness that they tell all her story. For just an instant his eyes meet hers. Then, with a smothered exclamation, he draws her to him–and–in fact smothers the exclamation.
“I am so glad you’ve lost your money,” she sobs, hiding her face, as soon as she can, upon his shoulder. “I should not have done at all–for you–in London, Charley.”
There let us leave her. But no, another is less merciful. Neither of them hears the door open or sees Agnes’ face appear at it. But she both sees and hears, and says very distinctly and clearly:
But even Agnes is happy and satisfied. Something has happened.