A Morning Walk
"MY dear," said the doctor, thoughtfully, as he closed the door behind him and began the slow pacing up and down the length of the room that was a sure sign with him of perplexed cogitations, "do you think it is quite right for Mr. McAllister to stay so late when we are both out?"
"I hardly think he has been here at all," answered his wife. While you stopped to lock up and put out the lights, I ran up-stairs, and both Lucy and Eunice seemed to be in bed and asleep. He may have been simply passing through the yard."
"Possibly," said the doctor, "and I hope so. I would not like him to begin any marked attentions to Miss Harlowe, and I think he has seen a good deal of her in the few days that she has been here. He is an agreeable young man, and to a young woman who has seen as little of the world as Miss Harlowe he would no doubt be very captivating. But he is not the kind of fellow to make her happy, even if he should be serious in his attentions, and I hardly think he is likely to be permanently attracted by any one so unlike himself."
"No," said Mrs. Charlton; "I hardly think she is the kind of girl to attract Rex McAllister; but I almost wish she was–she would do him a world of good."
"Oh, no, my dear," said the doctor, stopping suddenly in his walk and frowning slightly; "I know Rex is a favorite with you, and you can do him good; but a young and inexperienced girl like Miss Harlowe could not help him. You will have to look out for her a little, my dear; for I fancy she knows nothing of young men, and I should be sorry to have her suffer any hurt in her affections through such a reckless fellow as Rex. If I read her aright, she will be slow to allow herself to become interested in any one; but it will be a serious matter with her if she once permits her affections to become engaged. And you know how it is with Rex. He likes to amuse himself, and a flirtation seems a harmless pastime with him."
Mrs. Charlton was inclined to think her husband a little hard on Rex, who was a prime favorite with her; but before they had finished their conference she had promised that if there seemed to be any danger she would do her best to save Eunice from possible entanglement.
Through the week that followed, Mrs. Charlton was convinced that her husband's anxieties were groundless, for nothing was seen of Rex at the house. As for Eunice, for the first few days it was a relief not to see him; she was overwhelmed with an intolerable sense of shame whenever she remembered the dropping of the rose, and dreaded seeing in his eyes when she should meet him, a recognition of her foolishness. But as the days went on, and she saw nothing of him, she began to feel still more keenly that she probably had so far lost ground by her silly little act and too ready yielding to his request as to destroy the regard for her and interest in her which had seemed to be both lively and genuine. She now longed to meet him, that she might discover whether he held her in any altered estimation. She felt quite sure that she should meet him at choir rehearsal on Saturday evening, and even had a hardly confessed hope that he might make an engagement with her as escort for that event. This hope was crushed, however, on Friday morning, by the receipt of one of those tiny white envelops inclosing a request from Mr. Rogers for that honor. Of course she could do nothing but accept his invitation; and although she realized that it would be an intense disappointment if one should come later from McAllister, she also rejoiced a little in the feeling that he would recognize she was sufficiently in demand to require urgency on his part if he desired to be first.
But no little white note came from Rex. And, still worse, he did not appear at choir rehearsal. Her chagrin was the more acute when she overheard Willie Dayton say, in reply to Miss Allen's inquiry as to his whereabouts, that he was at a little card-party at Miss McNair's. Eunice remembered very distinctly what Lucy had told her about Miss McNair and Rex McAllister, and she had a very vivid recollection also of the air of rightful appropriation with which Miss McNair had carried him off on the night of the patronee party. There was something shocking also to her Puritan ideas in the sound of "card-party," and she began to take herself roundly to task for allowing her thoughts to dwell on one who was, no doubt, committed elsewhere, and whose "walk and conversation," she felt sure, were not such as her father would approve, or she ought to desire, in a friend. She determined on the spot to banish him resolutely from her thoughts, while her cheek burned with the remembrance of her folly.
She saw him on Sunday, however. He was in his old seat, and she could see, without appearing to, that, as on the Sunday before, he kept his eyes fixed upon her most of the time. He was at the foot of the gallery stairs–waiting for her, no doubt–when she came down; but Mr. Rogers was beside her, and she devoted herself to him assiduously, only letting her glance rest for a moment upon Rex as she vouchsafed him a frigid bow. But in that brief moment her eyes met his, and saw in them nothing liut the friendliest feeling mingled with disappointment at not being permitted to walk home with her; and in spite of her effort at self-control, tongues of vivid color leaped into her cheeks, and her eyelids dropped quickly to escape his glance.
Rex was disappointed in not being able to walk home with her, and the frigid bow was hardly what be had been looking forward to; but he was not entirely displeased with her attitude. The signs of confusion did not escape his keen glance, and flaming cheeks and dropped eyelids did not betoken calm indifference. He had congratulated himself on his selfrestraint in keeping away for a week, trying to convince himself that he was acting solely from a generous consideration for her. But he was secretly conscious of a feeling that to give her a chance to miss his presence and desire it was as potent a means as he could use to increase her interest in him. So long had he been accustomed to use the wiles of a flirt that they had become second nature to him; and even when he was most resolving to be honest and manly in his intercourse with the little Puritan, he was unconsciously calculating the effect of his line of action. He had half thought that he would make an engagement with her for church that evening; he decided now not to do so, congratulating himself upon practising still further self-denial.
He repented of his self-denial, however, when he met Rogers going toward the doctor's about churchtime and divined that he had an engagement with Eunice. There was no love lost between the two men. They belonged to different college fraternities, but there were stronger reasons for their latent antagonism in radical differences of temperament and character. Mr. Rogers was grave–almost stern–of temper, with fine old Quaker blood in his veins that could make little allowance for the youthful follies of the hotheaded Southerner, who, in his turn, looked down upon Rogers as a pragmatical, self-righteous fellow, bigoted and narrow. Rex could not conceive that such a man could stand any chance with a woman, compared with an accomplished man of the world, as he considered himself; but a little twinge of jealousy when he saw Rogers pass through the gate in the hedge, warned him that it was not well to allow a possible rival too many chances.
He spent part of the evening pacing up and down Middle Path, its heavily shaded gloom lighted only by the tiny glow of his cigar. He was dreamily trying to decide for himself the question that had been lying in the background of his thoughts all the week. Should he permit himself the idle pleasure of a vigorous flirtation with this semi-rustic maiden or not? He was half tired of Lydia McNair's dashing ways. The fumes of the wine that had been served around the card-tables the night before were still lingering in his brain, and left him in a state of feverish unrest, which made the image of the cool, calm Puritan maiden particularly attractive.
He felt himself in no way pledged to Lydia, although he was conscious of having often said what might mean much or little, according to the humor in which it was taken, but he believed that, in spite of her careless, offhand ways and her reputation for coquetry, Lydia McNair really liked him, and that it would take but a little more earnestness on his part to make the matter serious between them. He liked Lydia, too, and sometimes had thoughts of "going in in earnest," as he phrased it; but though he enjoyed her bold, pleasant ways, she was not, after all, his ideal of womanhood. This little Puritan, prim and unsophisticated though she was, came in many respects much nearer the dainty ideal he secretly cherished. Not in every respect; her prim and formal ways amused him; his ideal woman was to have the gracious ease of a woman of the world, while retaining the dainty and delicate bloom of exquisite femininity. He had no compunctions as to the manliness of saying as much as he had said to Lydia McNair, and saying no more. It had been Greek to Greek through all their intercourse, and he very well knew that she was keeping Lieutenant Watson on the tenter hooks as a reserve until she should be sure of his intentions.
The lieutenant was a manly young fellow, honestly infatuated with Miss Lydia, and Rex had a sincere liking for him, and was not sure but the greatest kindness he could do Miss Lydia was to leave the field free for the lieutenant.
The result of his cogitations as, tired of walking, he threw himself down on Rock Steps to rest while he came to a decision, was that he would let matters drift. He would no longer shun Eunice, and if Rogers had any intentions in that direction, he must look to his spurs, for an invincible chevalier des dames was about to enter the lists against him. And then he drew from an inner pocket a little white rose pressed between the leaves of a note-book, and assured himself that he possessed a guerdon that proved him already high in favor, and Rogers or another would find it difficult to oust him from his position of advantage.
Eunice awoke the next morning with a pleasant consciousness that it was Monday and a week's work lay before her. Monday always seemed to her like the beginning of a new life; and, always the most energetic of little women, she felt herself endowed with a double portion of energy on Monday mornings. It added to her satisfaction that she had neither regrets nor self-reproaches to torment her; nothing but the calm remembrance of a mildly pleasant evening spent with Mr. Rogers, and she liked calm, and was more than ever resolved that she should permit nothing hereafter to disturb it.
Breakfast at the Charltons' was an early meal. By half-past seven it and morning prayers were both over and Eunice decided that instead of waiting for Lucy, as was her usual custom, she would go over to her school-room at once and finish correcting some papers before the hour for the opening of school.
It was a beautiful morning, and she felt the fine air tingling in her veins as she walked down the winding path that led to Lovers' Lane. She had just passed through the little gate that opened into that beautiful overarched pathway, when she discovered Rex McAllister coming toward the upper end of it along a narrow, shaded footpath running by the southern side of the campus at right angles with Lovers' Lane. His head was bent over a book he was apparently studying, and Eunice half stopped a moment, meditating a retreat, for she thought he had not seen her, and she dreaded meeting him.
But as she hesitated be looked up from his book, waved his hand to her from a distance, and began to walk quickly toward her. She was still inclined, to turn and run, but a sense of her own dignity forbade her yielding to her inclination; there was nothing for her to do but to go on and meet him. Her veins, which had been tingling with joy, were now throbbing heavily with dread, and her step, that had been free and spirited, was slow and constrained. She could think of nothing but the white rose and, the whispered "Thank you, Eunice!" and the face that she would have liked to keep so calm and impassive she felt was suffused with blushes.
He met her half-way down the path, with hand extended and a joyous greeting.
"How is Miss Eunice this beautiful morning?"
Eunice could not refuse her hand, but she managed barely to touch his with the tips of her fingers, while she answered formally:
"Quite nicely, I thank you, sir."
Rex smiled as he turned to walk beside her without asking her leave. The smile was partly for the quaint New England expression, but it was still more for the determined frigidity of her manner. He did not mind it; he promised himself much pleasure in watching it gradually thaw under his skilful direction.
"It seems a long time since I last saw you," he said softly, with a look that might have been effective if she had seen it, but was thrown away on her dropped eyelids. Eunice did not answer; she would not have known how to reply to a little speech of that kind, even if she had been in a less unbending mood, but she was now absorbed in trying to devise a means of escape.
Rex was not discouraged, but went on boldly:
"This has been a very long week to me. I purposely kept away, fearing my too frequent coming would annoy you; but I was sustaining myself with the hope of seeing you at choir rehearsal, when I received an invitation that I could not decline and which destroyed that hope."
Eunice knew what that invitation was, and she guessed there had been no desire to decline it, and she was filled with a sterner determination to resist his advances. She was recovering her equanimity and she lifted her eyes calmly to his as she answered:
"It has been a very pleasant, week to me. You remember that I told you how little I had seen of young society. I think I have seen more of it in this week than in all the rest of my life; there have been so many party calls at Mrs. Charlton's, and I have found it very agreeable."
Rex shot a quick glance at her from the corner of his eye. Was she developing into a coquette? Was this said with the idea of rousing his jealousy or punishing him for his absence? There was no hint of coquetry in her manner, but he determined to assume the role of injured lover.
"That is the worst of it," he said reproachfully; "while I have been lonely and discontented, with only my dreams and my memories to comfort me, others have been basking in your presence, sunning themselves in your smiles and listening to your sweet voice.
Eunice was disturbed. Her one glance at him had shown him even handsomer than she remembered him, and there seemed a ring of true feeling in his voice; and though she knew he had no right to talk to her in that way, yet when she remembered the rose, she felt that she had only herself to blame for his audacity. Yet the more she felt the fascination and danger of his presence, the more determined she was to put an end to their present false relations. She answered him, therefore, severely:
"Mr. McAllister, I thought you promised me not to offend in that way again. Indeed, I believe it was agreed that if there was to exist any friendship between us, it was to be on the condition that you were to dispense with the little gallantries to which I am not accustomed."
They had reached the Iron Gate, and Rex was holding it open for her to pass through. She added coldly:
"Our ways separate here, I believe; I wish you good morning."
"Oh, no," said Rex, quickly; "you are on your way to school, are you not? I will promise not to offend again if you will permit me to accompany you."
Eunice would have preferred it otherwise, but she did not see her way to refuse so simple a request without rudeness; and in the short walk to St. John's Church, where her school-room was, Rex made himself exceedingly entertaining, not once referring to any personal matter.
They passed around the front of the church to a gate opening from Portland Street into a yard inclosed by a high fence. A small door opened from this yard into the rear of the Sunday-school room, through which it was necessary to pass to reach Eunice's school-room. Eunice had the key of this door, and Rex took it from her and unlocked it, and then she turned to him to say good-by.
There were no houses opposite the church on Portland, and Rex's quick eye noted that there were no passers on the street as they entered the yard.
"Will you not show me your school-room?" he said persuasively. "It is early, and I promise not to bother you more than a few moments."
Eunice hesitated. It did not seem to her quite the "proper" thing to do, but she was not very sure of the proprieties, and Rex had made himself so agreeable to her through their short walk that he was already beginning to undermine her stern resolutions. He accompanied his request with such a winning smile of friendly beseeching that she had not the heart to refuse, and she walked primly before him through the big, silent room to her school-room door.
The school room had been shut up since Friday, andwas close and stuffy. Eunice went at once toward the windows to open them, but Rex quickly interposed. They were high Gothic windows, befitting a church, and it took some effort and some little time on Rex's part to open them,–an interval which Eunice employed in removing her bonnet and putting it away. The balmy morning air, soon filled the room with sweetness. The windows looked toward the south and east, and the young maples bordering the pavement tempered the sunshine that came filtering through the leaves, casting cool shadows on the floor and desks.
"This is my school-room," said Eunice, as Rex turned from his task; "and, as you see, there is little to show you. But I think it a pleasant room."
"Very pleasant, indeed," answered Rex; "but I shall not know quite how it looks unless I see the teacher in her chair."
"Very well," she said; "you shall see the teacher in all the terrors of her authority, and then I shall expect you to depart at once;" and she mounted the little platform, and sat down in her chair with a little air of constraint inseparable from her when she felt herself under observation.
By the side of her chair stood a table on which were neatly arranged pencils, and ink, a ruler, a globe, and a few books. Eunice rested her right arm on the table, and took the ruler in her hand, while her other hand dropped in her lap. You might have thought she was sitting for a picture of the typical teacher, such a pedagogical air had she assumed her slim figure, rigidly erect, holding the symbol of stern authority in her hand. But it was a pretty picture, too; her gray dress fitted her slender figure perfectly and harmonized with the pale tints of her brown hair, blue-gray eyes, and delicately tinted cheeks. It was brightened at the throat by a soft lace collar fastened with a scarlet ribbon, and from beneath the folds of the hoopless skirt peeped a tiny pointed shoe.
There was no mistaking, the admiration in Rex's glance as, resting his foot on the platform and leaning one arm on a supporting knee in almost the exact attitude in which Eunice had first seen him, he brought himself nearer her and his eyes on a level with hers.
"Most dread and august pedagogue," he said gaily, "you inspire me with a mighty awe; but behold me meekly ready to receive any castigation you may inflict or any penance you may impose, if you will only show me wherein I have offended since last Monday night."
Eunice, who had smiled at the beginning of the speech, grew very rigid at its close.
"Mr. McAllister," she said, "I thought you promised not to return to that."
"I promised that I would not on my walk. I made no promises for the school-room;" and then, quickly changing his tone to a more serious one, he said: "Miss Harlowe, I wear near my heart a little flower that I have been cherishing all this week as a pledge of our friendship; and now the first time I meet you since receiving that pledge, I find you changed. There is no longer any friendliness in your manner. You try in every way to avoid me or to snub me. I think it is only right you should tell me what I have done to incur your evident displeasure."
His eyes had lost their smiling look; he was gazing directly and earnestly into hers. Eunice turned away. She was suffering intense mortification, and embarrassment, betrayed by the nervous playing with the ruler and the painful color that slowly and steadily deepened in her face. But the clenching of the small hand that lay in her lap betrayed also that she was nerving herself for some unpleasant task.
"Mr. McAllister," she said in a low tone as Rex paused for a reply, "it is mortifying to me to be compelled to express my regret and humiliation that I should have ever been led into so silly an act as to drop that rose."
"No, no," said Rex, interrupting her eagerly; "do not call it silly: it was the sweetest and most womanly of actions, and I cherish the rose as a most sacred and precious pledge of our friendship."
Eunice went on coldly:
"I am sorry you should attach any importance to it at all. Please do not consider it a pledge of friendship or anything but a worthless flower, whose dropping was the combined result of a foolish impulse and accident. And I wish to say further, Mr. McAllister, that I do not feel that I am ready to enter into any compact of friendship with you. My aequaintance with you is very brief, and although I have found it pleasant, I do not believe we have any common ground on which to base a friendship." She went on with still more effort: "We have been very differently reared. Many things that seem to you but harmless amusements shock me inexpressibly. I believe there are very few vital points on which we feel or think or believe alike. There can be no natural or permanent growth of friendship between two people so totally unlike in every respect; I do not believe it is wise to try to force a temporary one. It is better that we should remain simply on the footing of pleasant acquaintance. "
Rex had not changed his attitude, nor had his eyes left Eunice's face, and it made it all the more difficult to speak steadily under their intense gaze. He answered now in a tone as low and restrained as her own:
"I feel the force of much you have said, Miss Harlowe; I know I am not worthy of your friendship, and if you knew me better you might be still more shocked by what would seem to you my ungodly ways. But in the few days I have known you I have had more impulses toward higher and better living than I have had in years. Do you not think it a woman's mission to make the world better? Can there be no friendship between a lovely and noble woman and a man who has some longings for a nobler life? I have a mother who is as sweet and true a Christian as I am sure you are. Nothing could make her happier than to know her wayward boy had found a pure, sweet, lovely Christian friend who could persuade him to renounce the wrong and follow the right."
Eunice was much moved. She knew that this might be very specious pleading, but she could not believe it was. There was genuine feeling in his voice, and she shrank sensitively from assuming the rôle of the Pharisee; while one sentence from her morning reading kept ringing in her ears, "Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"
Rex waited for her answer, but while she hesitated, perplexed by conflicting emotions, there came through the open window the sound of merry voices from the pavement below. Eunice started up nervously.
"Please go, Mr. McAllister, at once," she exclaimed. "My pupils are coming. They will be here in a moment."
"I will go, Miss Harlowe, and I shall manage not to be seen by them. I would not have you annoyed for worlds," said Rex, as he drew himself erect. "But you must promise me one thing–that you will give me an opportunity to finish this conversation."
"Oh, yes, yes!" said Eunice, hardly knowing what she said in her anxiety lest her pupils should come in and surprise McAllister there.
Rex grasped the hand that lay in her lap with a quick pressure. "Good-by," he said; "you must not worry. No one shall know I have been here."
Eunice saw him disappear somewhere in the depths of the big, empty church, and then hastily drew from her table drawer a bundle of papers. When, a moment later, two of the older girls entered the schoolroom, Miss Harlowe was calmly engaged in correcting compositions.