A White Rose
IT had been agreed between them that Lucy should be in the parlor with Eunice when Rex McAllister arrived, as Eunice felt she would like the support of Lucy's presence in the first encounter. Afterward Lucy was to withdraw on some pretext. So the first few minutes of McAllister's call, save for his distant and ceremonious greeting to Eunice, were as unconstrained and comfortable as possible. The pretext came without any effort on Lucy's part, and rather sooner than she had intended.
Up-stairs in "mother's room," just over the parlor, there arose a tremendous racket. It had been threatening for some time: the noise of shrill singing mingling with shouts and the scuffling of feet, and an occasional sound as of a fall, shaking the ceiling. But now the din waxed louder. The falls were frequent and heavy, making the globes on the chandelier rattle and threatening destruction to the frail glass.
"Oh, those boys!" exclaimed Lucy. "Father and mother are out, Cousin Rex, and I am mother of the family. Will you excuse me while I investigate this disturbance?"
"Certainly, Cousin Lucy,", said Rex, promptly; "and call on me if you find you need any assistance."
The sights and sounds that met Lucy as she opened the door of her mother's room might have appalled her if she had not often encountered them before. In the middle of the room Henry Sidney and George Edgar were engaged in a "wrastle," and at this moment were rolling over on the floor vigorously pommelling each other, while hanging over them, delight beaming from every pore of his shining black face, was Charles Cook, junior, who was restrained from taking a hand in the scrimmage himself by no respect for color, but because, as he would have put it, "Two on one's no fair." At sight of Lucy he fled ignominiously to the lower regions, and the two boys sprang to their feet, for their wrestling had begun to be tinged with earnest, and, like the two little gentlemen they were, they were heartily ashamed of the temper and quite ready to shake hands, while Lucy turned her attention to the rest of the din, which had been going uninterruptedly on through the fracas of the Big Boys, and its adjustment.
In the crib, a wide old-fashioned one on rockers that had soothed the slumbers of every baby in the family from Lucy down, were the four younger members of the family and Cindie. On one side sat Charles Ernest and Cindie, and on the other Millie and "Dorie," as the little four-year-old was called, a loving abbreviation for Theodore. He would sometime arrive at the distinction of being called by his full name, Theodore Howard, but for the present he was only "Dorie." The four pairs of short, chubby legs were stuck through the wide spaces in the railing of the crib, and as they rocked they were singing at the top of their voices, to a monotonous tune of their own composing pitched in a high key:
"Bye, Baby bunting;Between them lay little Baby Ned, his golden curls lying in a tangled mass on the pillow, one little fist doubled up under the dimpled chin, the long dark lashes lying on the pink cheeks, and the dewy lips half parted. He rolled from side to side with the violent rocking, but he seemed to be sleeping, except as a more vigorous swing of the crib flung him roughly against its sides, when through the parted lips would come a sleepy gurgle of laughter like the soft ripple of a tiny brook, and the children, perceiving that he was not yet "sound," would redouble their exertions, singing louder and rocking harder, as if to compel the attendance of the drowsy god.
There may be sceptics who will say it is impossible for any baby to be soothed to sleep by such vigorous methods, but the history of the Charlton babies, or, at least, the four younger ones, goes to prove that they are sometimes quite as efficacious as softer ways.
The combat of the Big Boys had not at all disturbed the singing or the rocking, except that once or twice Millie's tender little heart had been stirred with anxiety for George Edgar, whose cries, she was sure, sounded as if he were getting hurt. But four-year-old Dorie reassured her:
"Ho! that's nuffin, only fun! big boys always play like that. I will, too, when I'm big."
Now Lucy hurried to the cribful of children and spoke to them gently.
"Hush, children, you are making too much noise. Miss Eunice has a caller in the parlor; I don't know what she will think of you!"
That name had already begun to be a talisman with them, and they were instantly silent. Then perceiving that Baby Ned, the moment there had been a cessation in his stormy rocking, had dropped off into a sound sleep, Lucy told the children to get out of the crib softly, so as not to waken Baby, sent Cindie down-stairs to her mother, set Charles Ernest and Dorie to pulling out their low trundle-bed from beneath the high four-poster, where it was concealed during the day by the white valance, and with Millie's aid she soon had the two little fellows tucked snugly in their soft white bed.
In the meantime there had been a few moments of embarrassing silence in the parlor after Lucy's departure. In a straight, high-backed chair near the center of the room, Eunice sat primly erect, save that her head was a little bent, her curls falling forward from above her ears in straight lines on either side of her face, half concealing it. Her attitude was due to the fact that she held in her hand a little shuttle on whose swift flying back and forth her eyes, with their dropped lids, were conveniently intent.
The Charlton family had already discovered that Eunice and her shuttle were inseparable. She had been bred in the good old New England way of never allowing herself to sit with idle hands. She carried in her pocket the little shuttle with its spool and neat ball of finished tatting, and between breakfast prayers it came out, or when sitting in Mrs. Charlton's room for a little talk. Lucy had not been surprised to see it produced while they were awaiting McAllister's arrival in the parlor, but she had experienced a little shock when, the moment the first greetings were over, Eunice had calmly resumed her work. Lucy innocently supposed that it required all one's attention to entertain a caller properly; and to see Eunice sit there so calmly, with no feeling of responsibility as to the entertainment of her guest, was not only surprising–it was a little irritating.
Rex found it a little irritating also, after Lucy had gone, to find himself sitting opposite that unresponsive figure without the least chance of producing any effect with those delicate shades of acting he had counted upon, as long as her eyes were so pertinaciously fixed on her work. He felt his temper rising and an almost irresistible impulse to say, "Confound that tatting, Miss Harlowe! Will you be kind enough to pay a little attention to a guest who feels that he has already been sufficiently snubbed?"
But he did not say it, and there was something in the quaint figure, with its drooping face, that attracted him powerfully in spite of his irritation. He could not know, of course, what a struggle was going on under that calm exterior, and how Eunice was screwing up her courage to make that dreaded apology; nor did he guess the effort with which she finally raised her head and said quite calmly:
"I owe you an apology, Mr. McAllister, for my rudeness to you at choir rehearsal. I have no explanation to offer; I cannot quite understand it myself. It was a sudden impulse, but I regret it exceedingly, and am very much ashamed of it."
Rex had his line of action all laid out, and so he resisted a more manly impulse to accept her apology at once and heartily. It helped him to resist it also that her eyes had again dropped upon her work, and her shuttle was flying swiftly back and forth. He said coldly:
"Thank you, Miss Harlowe, for deigning to bestow a moment's notice upon me. I will take it as an additional kindness on your part–if you can reconcile it with your conscience to spare me a few moments more from your work–if you will endeavor to explain to me what I had done that should have caused you even a momentary impulse to treat me so unkindly."
Eunice could not conceive that Rex should think he had grounds for another grievance because she had occupied herself with her tatting–a very proper and becoming employment for a young lady receiving a call, she thought, and a comfortable refuge for her eyes in case of embarrassment. But she dropped her bands in her lap and looked up at him, her clear look a little troubled at the coldness of his tone. She had felt very much both the embarrassment and the humiliation of putting herself in an apologetic attitude toward this young man so shortly after their first acquaintance, but she had unconsciously comforted herself with the thought of the delicate kindliness with which her apology would be received, and the instant return to their former pleasant footing. Now when she met the cold, hard look in the black eyes fastened on her, mingled with her disappointment in the way he had received her apology was a little sense of injustice. It stirred her quiet soul, and she said courageously:
"Mr. McAllister, I have but one explanation to make. I came here from a quiet New England village, where I had known nothing of young gentlemen and the fashion of their conversation. You will remember, perhaps, the tone you took toward me from the first–such, I suppose, as you are in the habit of employing toward the young ladies you meet. I probably did not understand you perfectly, and thought you were presuming on my ignorance of the world; and I foolishly resolved to show you on Saturday night, by seeming to be very indifferent to you, that I was not so unsophisticated as you had taken me to be. I see now that it was the surest proof of my ignorance; but I have said that I am sorry, and I do not know that I can do anything further."
As Eunice spoke her courage rose steadily, and it seemed to Rex there was a defiant ring in her last words. Her eyes met his calmly, but with a little spark of an unusual fire in their cool gray depths. This was not quite what he had intended. He had thought to melt her and bring her very humbly to his feet, when he would turn magnanimous and restore her to her former elevation. But he could not help admiring her in this new phase, and mingled with his admiration was just a little awe of a woman who seemed so meek and simple, and yet did not succumb at once to his all-conquering wiles. He saw that it behooved him to change his tactics, and he did so quickly and gracefully.
"Miss Harlowe," he said, as he bent upon her his softest look and his most winning smile, "you have been very frank and very generous, and I feel now that it is I who have the apology to make for forcing you to an explanation when you had already made the amende honorable. But I cannot be entirely sorry, since it gives me the opportunity of vindicating myself to you. I have never presumed upon your ignorance. I recognized at once your rare charms of mind and heart and person, and perhaps yielded to them more readily because they were of a kind new to me in their manifestation. But it is my Southern ardor that is to blame for betraying that interest, to you, and I do not wonder that you have considered me presuming and punished me accordingly. If you will restore me to your confidence and esteem, I will promise to do my best not to offend again."
It was all said with such apparent sincerity and humility, accompanied by the most pleading look in the eyes, that were now as soft as they had been bard, that Eunice would have had to be made of sterner stuff to resist him; and she forgave him with a smile that lost for once the constraint that usually characterized it, and was wholly sweet and natural.
But Eunice had never fully recovered from the headache of the morning, and the little excitement, through which she had just passed, combined with the heat of the evening, made still more oppressive by the brightly burning gas, brought it back in full force. She grew very white when the excitement of the explanation was all over, and Rex, who had been exerting himself to entertain her and put her perfectly at her ease, noticed it at once.
"You are not well, Miss Harlowe," he said; "it is the heat of the room. Let me take you out on the veranda, where it is cooler. It is insufferably hot in here."
He rose as he spoke, and held out his hand as if to persuade her to come with him; and she meekly rose, too, and followed him through the low windows on to the veranda.
There was a roof over the front door which formed a square four-pillared porch, and at the end toward the campus a close lattice covered with honeysuckle screened from all observation on that side. A low wooden seat ran along this lattice, and in the corner made by the turn of the railing and one of the pillars, Rex found a comfortable seat for Eunice, where the light from the open hall door fell full on her face. He himself sat on the same seat, but with his back to the light and he congratulated himself on the pleasure he should find in watching her changing expression without himself being observed. The air was sultry, there was evidently a thunder-storm brewing, and indeed there were flickering gleams of distant lightning and low, almost inaudible rumblings of thunder; but there was sufficient, air stirring upon the veranda to make it a welcome relief from the hot parlor, and Rex insisted that Eunice should not try to talk if her head ached. He himself talked on in low tones telling her of life on a Southern plantation and describing his own home just out of Columbia, where the air was pure and invigorating. He described the big plantation house, with its wide galleries and lawn shaded by palmettos and fig-trees. He told her of his handsome old father, and dwelt lovingly on the sweetness and beauty of his mother, and how they both united to spoil their only child until he sometimes thought he deserved a good deal of credit for being no worse than he was. Rex could talk well, and he was talking with a purpose now. He wanted to impress the simple New England maiden with an idea of his own magnificence at home, and perhaps excite in her some little longing for the life of luxurious ease he depicted his mother as leading, waited upon by troops of devoted servants.
Eunice would have said she was an abolitionist if she had ever been questioned on the subject, for she knew her father was one; and when she thought on the question at all, she felt keenly the horror and wickedness of slavery. But Rex had painted life in the South so artistically and so artfully that it could not but look very tempting to her just now, with her head aching and the thought of to-morrow's work and another hot day before her. She was resting her head against the pillar, turned a little away from Rex, but listening to him with a half-smile hovering about her lips, while a delicious feeling of languor and rest stole over her. For almost the first time in her remembrance, she felt a longing for a life without work, where she could do only the things she wanted to do, and might have a perfect right to be lazy. She still held her tatting loosely clasped in her hands resting on her lap. There had been a moment's silence: Rex had been watching her face, and did not fail to read in it the half-longing for a life like the one he had been describing. He lightly touched the tatting that lay in her lap, and the hand that held it.
"Do you know, Miss Harlowe," he said, "I do not like to see you doing this stuff. It makes me feel that you are always at work, and there is never any rest for you; and those dainty little hands were surely made to lie idle sometimes, just as they are now."
"But it is not work," said Eunice, rousing herself a little; "and I like to do it. I greatly prefer it to sitting with my hands folded."
"But it makes you seem so dreadfully industrious," said Rex. "Don't do it, please, when I come to see you, will you?"
He wanted to clasp the hand that held the obnoxious tatting, but he did not quite dare. Eunice answered him simply, but with a slight blush, "Certainly not, if you do not like it"; and then Rex rose to his feet.
"I know it is very inconsiderate of me to keep you here when your head aches; you must forgive me. I will not stay a minute longer. We are good friends now, are we not?" he continued, as Eunice also rose, "and you will not again refuse to shake hands with me?"–putting out his hand. "I am sorry for the poor head," he said, half tenderly, as Eunice put her hand in his; "but I hope it will be better tomorrow." Rex knew exactly the right degree of pressure to express a respectful admiration just bordering on tenderness, and he was careful not to overstep the limit.
"Now," he said, as she gently withdrew her hand, "go right up-stairs, please. I can see you are suffering, and I will step into the parlor and turn down the gas and close the windows; that is the way Mrs. Charlton has trained me. And then I shall stop outside on the veranda and light my cigar, and if you will come to your window and give me some sign that you have reached your room all right, it will be a great relief to my anxiety. You look so white and weak, I feel as though there were danger of your fainting on the way."
"Oh, no," said Eunice, a little embarrassed by his empressement, but determined to treat it lightly; "I am perfectly well, except for a little remnant of a headache. Please do not feel any anxiety on my account."
"But I do," he persisted, trying to take her hand again, but Eunice evaded him. "That little white rose you are wearing in your hair–drop it down to me from your window, and I shall know you are not suffering, and it will be an immense relief, I assure you."
"Oh, no, Mr. McAllister," said Eunice, hastily; "I tell you I am perfectly well, and it would be a foolish thing to do."
"Perhaps my anxiety is foolish," he returned gravely, with a sudden change of tone; "but drop the rose, then, as a sign that our compact of friendship shall never be broken."
"Mr. McAllister," said Eunice, feeling that she must stop what she had begun to think was a very foolish contention, "I am not quite sure that we have made any 'compact of friendship'; but if we have, I am sure it does not need a rose to ratify it. And now I must say good night." And she entered the door.
"And you will not do it?"
Eunice shook her head, but tempered her severity with a smile and turned away.
He called after her softly: "I shall wait here for it. I am sure you cannot be so hard-hearted."
Eunice heard him closing the parlor windows as she went up-stairs. She stopped a moment at Lucy's room to say good night and to tell her that she was going to bed immediately, as her head still ached. To Lucy's look of inquiry she added: "It is all right. Mr. McAllister has accepted my apology, and we are very good friends." Then she went to her own room, but before turning up the gas she stole softly to the window and looked down through the bowed shutters. It was too dark to distinguish a figure at first, but there was a little red low that she recognized must be Rex's cigar, and gradually she thought she could make out a dim outline leaning against one of the pillars. She felt that he was looking up at her window and waiting. She thought she would watch him a few minutes, and see how long he would stand there; but as she watched there seemed so much patience and faith expressed in that motionless figure that it began to move her strangely. Slowly she lifted her hand to her hair and unfastened the rose. Yet she did not intend to throw it down; she thought that would be unutterably silly. But the longer she watched that motionless figure the more compelling grew her impulse to drop it, until finally she held it over the open space in an agony of shame and hesitation. She had just fully resolved not to drop it when it fell–she was never quite sure whether of her own volition or not. She heard the soft thud on the floor of the veranda, saw the red spark dart quickly forward and then heard a low but distinct and joyful: "Thank you, Eunice!"
She covered her face with her hands and turned away quickly, almost moaning, "What have I done! what have I done!"
As for Rex, he had tried to believe that he was sure it would come if he only waited long enough for it; but he knew, by the joyful emotion of surprise that he experienced when he heard that soft thud, that he had not really expected it. It was a greater triumph to him because it had come after such long waiting, for he knew that she must have been watching him all that time, and he could guess through what agonies of indecision before at last she had been almost compelled to throw it down. It was on the joyful spur of the moment that he had whispered, "Thank you, Eunice!"–boldly using her name. He half trembled at his audacity, but he was determined to tremble at nothing, now that he had gained so signal a triumph, and it elated him, strangely enough, more than greater ones had sometimes done. He pressed the little flower to his lips, and then put it carefully away in an inner pocket and threw himself down in the seat Eunice had occupied, and which commanded a view of her window. He did not expect to see or hear anything further from her, but he liked to watch it, and he took it as an omen of good that the light was not turned up. He knew that there are thoughts that do not harmonize with gas-light, and he hoped she was thinking them.
He sat buried in such deep thought that his cigar soon died out and he flung it away. The fact was that Rex was relenting a little from his scheme of vengeance. Eunice's apology had been so sweetly made, it ought to have more than satisfied any man of generous impulses. But Rex's self-love had been so carefully nurtured by his friends and family that it had become an overweening passion, and it was difficult for him ever to forgive an injury inflicted upon it. Yet there was a charm in Eunice's quaint simplicity and in the truth and earnestness of her nature that was beginning to affect him strangely. Had she been the most accomplished coquette, she could not have used more powerful devices to draw him to her than her formal little turns of speech, combined with the fluctuating color that leaped so suddenly to her cheek and died so suddenly away, and the rare lifting of the shy eyes to meet his. It had not been all acting when he had seized the rose and pressed it to his lips; and if his long waiting for it had made it a greater triumph when it came, it had also made it all the more powerful to set his heart beating in quick throbs and the color rising in his dark cheek.
He was beginning to relent now, and for half an hour he had been trying to decide whether he should abandon this hot pursuit before the little Puritan's heart should really be engaged, or whether he should go on recklessly, regardless of consequences. The sweetness of the pursuit lured him to go on with his plan; it was the stirring of a better nature than he gave himself credit for that made him hesitate. At the end of a half hour of hard thinking he was no nearer a decision than at the beginning. He could only promise himself that for a few days at least he would keep away from the little schoolmistress, and perhaps then he would be better able to decide upon an ultimate line of action.
Bethinking himself at last of the time, he rose, and softly whistling a bar of "The Soldier's Farewell," which he hoped might reach the ears for which it was intended, he descended the steps, passed through the tiny gate in the hedge, and on his way to West College met Dr. and Mrs. Charlton.