A Soirée Musicale
"THE Misses Perkins present their compliments to Miss Harlowe, and will be honored by her presence at a Soirée Musicale on Friday evening at eight o'clock.
"R. S. V. P.Eunice's invitation was one of three left at Mrs. Charlton's by a colored boy in white gloves carrying a silver salver on which lay a multitude of tiny pink envelops that he was distributing in town and through the college.
There was added to Mrs. Charlton's invitation a more informal note, begging that she would persuade Miss Harlowe and Lucy to honor them with some songs that evening. Lucy demurred at once.
"I should be frightened to death," she asserted. "You have no idea, Eunice, what a formidable thing one of the Misses Perkins's soirées is. Miss Perkins herself announces you, just as if it were a concert, and then you are formally handed to the piano, and not a whisper is permitted while you are performing. If any one so far forgets himself as to utter a word, Miss Caroline fixes him with a stern eye, or Miss Phoebe looks toward him (she never looks at anybody) and holds up a warning finger. You can imagine the painful and rigid attention. It would frighten every atom of voice right out of me."
Neither could Eunice be persuaded to go through such an ordeal as Lucy described; but finally Mrs. Charlton prevailed upon them to attempt a duet. She "would be so extremely sorry not to oblige her very old and very dear friend, Miss Perkins" was her final plea, and Lucy confided to Eunice that she believed mother was afraid not to do anything Miss Perkins asked her, she stood in such awe of her.
They had hard work to decide which it should be of the three duets which composed their combined repertoire. They settled finally on "Music and Her Sister Song" as the most dignified of the three, and spent all their spare moments until Friday in practice. Cindie, a devout lover of music, was deeply impressed, and soon catching the refrain, went about singing in her shrill soprano, "Swee–eet Mew–oo–sic, swee–eet Mew–oo–sic, Mewsic and her sis–ter Song, her sis–ter Song, her Sis–ter Song." The boys thoroughly enjoyed her unconscious caricature of the style and emphasis Lucy and Eunice were trying to put into their song, but it became so annoying to the principal performers that Mrs. Charlton had to be appealed to at last to silence Cindie.
Lucy might say what she pleased about the Perkins soirées musicales, but they were functions held in high esteem in Bellaire society. They were given at regular intervals during the season, and were justly considered by the Misses Perkins as most efficient aids in the polishing process to which their young ladies were subjected.
A big, old-fashioned "double" house on South Harcourt was the home of the Misses Perkins's "Seminary for Young Ladies." A broad flight of white stone steps guarded by iron railings led to the massive front door, also white, and flanked on either side by narrow side-lights, curtained in green, while a semicircular window over the door was screened with a marvelously fluted arrangement of green nun's cloth that, to my childish eyes, when I had the honor of being a day scholar at that celebrated seat of learning, was a wonderfully correct copy of the rising sun as depicted in my geography.
But the day-scholars were not admitted through that ponderous front door into the dim and stately hall beyond. Like all Bellaire houses, a little side alley with a brick archway closed by a high green door, as carefully locked at night as the front door itself, admitted to the garden and the rear premises; and it was through the alley and through a side door opening from the yard that the day-scholars found their way to the pleasant school-room.
Such delightful old gardens as those Bellaire gardens were! Such pleasant, odorous places, deep and narrow, running back often two or three hundred feet and rarely more than fifty or sixty broad. You would never guess what bowers of bloom lay behind those plain brick walls where each house elbowed its neighbor in unbroken phalanx up and down the long blocks of the streets: gardens that rioted in bloom, with their high walls draped in roses and honeysuckles, and bordered with neatly kept beds where every flower bloomed in its season, from the early crocuses and daffodils and hyacinths to the latest fall flowers. A straight walk between neatly trimmed box hedges ran down the middle of Miss Perkins's garden until it reached the center, where it divided in two curves to make room for a circular arbor or kiosk covered with clematis and sweet yellow jessamine; and beyond the arbor it went straight on again to the clump of fruit-trees that overhung the lower wall. The grassplots on either side were dotted with clusters of flowering shrubs, stately purple lilacs, and pink and white altheas and fragrant, creamy syringas; and on one side of the arbor was a venerable maple-tree, around whose gnarled trunk twined the trumpet-creeper, festooning the hoary branches with long wreaths of scarlet flowers.
In June these Old Bellaire gardens were a wilderness of roses: the fragrant but humble pink cabbage-rose, from which I suspect our florists have developed that rose marvel, the haughty American Beauty; their beautiful but odorless white sisters and the deep red of the unprized Mehecca, which for aught I know, was the forerunner of the lovely Jacqueminot. In September there were no longer any fragrant blooms; the roses bore only crimson haws, and the sweet flowers of early spring in the borders had given place to stiff rows of heavy-headed orange and red dahlias, and scarlet spikes of salvia and lowly asters in all the shades of purple, from the lightest lavender of the ribbons on Miss Caroline's head-dress, sacred to such festal occasions as soirees, to the deep purple of those reserved for more ordinary occasions. Miss Caroline was at this moment receiving with stately bows the salutations of her guests, while she held rigidly erect in her left hand a "pineapple" bouquet of these very blossoms,–that ingenious arrangement by which flowers were divested of every particle of grace and welded into a solid pyramid which, save for color and fragrance, had as little claim to beauty as a cabbage. By Miss Caroline's side stood Miss Phoebe, and they were flanked to the right and left by a semicircle of bright-eyed girls, stately brunettes and petite blondes, in rich silks or dainty muslins, who were formally presented to each new arrival. They were most of them Southern girls, many of them sisters or cousins of the young Tomlinsonians, and carrying themselves with the haughty grace natural to the Southern belle.
These annual presentations of their young ladies to Bellaire society were always occasions of great pride to the Misses Perkins. They did not confine themselves to the college circle in their invitations: there was a goodly sprinkling of lawyers and doctors and judges, with their wives and daughters, and a few array officers, before whose brilliant uniforms the glories of the students, brave in flowered waistcoats and long-skirted coats, paled.
And never had they had such a brilliant array of beauty to present as was drawn up beneath the wide arch between the double parlors on this evening; and little did the proud Misses Perkins dream that it was the last time they should ever marshal such an array of youth and beauty in the stately parlors; that the storm brewing in the South, whose angry murmurings were audible through the wildly raging tumults of the fall elections, should burst before the spring and send those white birds fluttering in terror toward their Southern homes. Never again would their little school know the prosperous days of "before the War. " In more modest quarters and with greatly diminished numbers were they destined for another decade to mold blushing beauty on the model of half a century ago, though still receiving from old Bellairians the homage without which life would have been well-nigh insupportable to them.
On a landing half-way up the broad, winding stairs Lucy and Eunice met their escorts. Neither Willie Dayton nor Rex McAllister was on duty in that capacity; somebody had got ahead of them, and Rex uttered a hasty malediction when he found that it was Mr. Rogers who had robbed him of the anticipated pleasure. On the arms of their attendants the girls descended the long flight of stairs, crossed the wide hall between double lines of young men, and went through the ordeal of the presentation. To Lucy, who had been through it often before, it was not quite so much of an ordeal as to Eunice, who felt herself growing more rigid and constrained with every successive bow, which etiquette required should be as low and sweeping as possible, and accomplished without relinquishing the arm of her escort. It added to her discomfiture that she felt positive Rex's dark eyes were upon her, watching every movement; for she had seen him, as she entered, leaning with negligent grace against the mantel, and though she had not dared to life her eyes in his direction, she felt his keen scrutiny, and imagined a smile of half-pitying amusement. It was with heightened color she made her last and most embarrassed bow, and Mr. Rogers, divining her discomfort, sought for her at once a quiet nook in the back parlor where she might recover her composure. There they were joined a few moments later by Lucy and Willie, and, others coming up, she was soon the center of a gay circle. Just as the clock on the mantel chimed the half-hour which was the signal for the reception to end and the music to begin, Rex made his bow, and at that moment Miss Perkins's voice was heard announcing the first number on the program. Every sound was hushed, and the little circle widened out and faced the piano, placed between the windows in the front parlor.
Through the long program that followed, guiltless of the names of Beethoven or Wagner, but bristling with Thalberg and Gottschalk, prime favorites at that day, Rex stood by the side of Eunice, who shared a comfortable little sofa in the corner with Lucy. He had solicited the honor of handing her to the piano when her turn should come, and Eunice had acceded hesitatingly, not sure but that the honor rightfully belonged to Mr. Rogers as her escort.
Their duet had been placed last on the program and for some time Eunice had been growing more and more nervous. It was not a state of mind usual with her. She had sung to much larger assemblies at the concerts at Mount Holyoke without a tremor, but there was something alarming to her in the stately ceremony Miss Perkins insisted upon, and in the exclusiveness of the audience, where every one either knew her or knew of her, and all considered themselves entitled to first rank as critics.
She was hardly conscious of her own movements when she heard their song announced by Miss Perkins with an especial flourish of compliments on the "pleasure they all felt in having with them a gifted young lady from a Northern clime, who had kindly consented to entertain them in a vocal duet, assisted by our dear young friend, Miss Lucy Charlton." Then Rex offered her his hand and led her in stately fashion through the space cleared for her to the piano, where she was joined by Lucy, who had been conducted thither in the same manner; and together they made the low and sweeping curtsey that Miss Perkins insisted upon as a preliminary ceremony, and which they had been diligently practising during the week as they practised their music. Eunice seated herself at the piano, but from the moment she struck the first note she was conscious that their duet would be a failure.
It was not nearly so bad as Eunice's exaggerated sensitiveness fancied it. There were one or two discords in the accompaniment, and Eunice sang a little flat, owing to her extreme nervousness, but more than half of her audience probably did not detect either of these faults. To Eunice, who felt that, both a stranger and as the new teacher who aspired also to have music-pupils, she was no doubt being subjected to the severest criticism, it was a frightful ordeal. She knew she was singing flat, and could in no way help herself; but, worse than that, her voice sounded in her ears like Cindie's shrill squeal, and the whole song seemed like a caricature, with that constant repetition of the unmusical "Music," which, as they sang it, sounded in her ears like Cindie's three-syllabled "Mew–oo–sic." She wondered how they ever could have selected such a song, and was sure everybody was either laughing or only restrained from doing so by courtesy. She would gladly have stopped in the very middle of the performance and fled from the piano, and it was only a grim determination that carried her through to the very last "sis-ter Song."
Mr. Rogers was standing at a little distance from her, and his sensitive ear felt keenly the shortcomings of the music. Rex, not so musical, saw no faults in the rendering, but simply did not think it "a pretty piece." He did see, however, that Eunice was nervous, and that the pallor, which had been extreme when she sat down to the piano, had given way to a painful color. So, as soon as he had murmured the few necessary compliments, and while the applause which was a matter of course and did not in any way reassure Eunice though she would have been still more miserable without it–had not yet ceased, he whispered, "It is warm here; let us go out into the garden," and Eunice was glad to escape from, the blazing lights and the crowded rooms.
Like most Bellaire houses, a low French window in the back parlor led on to a veranda, and from there, by a short flight of steps, into the garden. The garden was hung with lanterns, seats and tables were placed invitingly in every cozy nook, and the young people had barely waited for the end of the program to seek its cooler air and softer lights. They were thronging the veranda, promenading up and down the long walk, or had filled the arbor and all the available seats. Rex sought a nook at the very farthest corner of the garden, where he knew there were seats under a spreading apple-tree, only to find them all occupied. He was annoyed, and showed it by an impatient exclamation; but a sudden thought struck him.
"Never mind, Miss Harlowe; if you will come with me, it is only a step to the Hetzgar garden, and I know we can find seats there."
Eunice demurred. She did not want to be again led into committing any impropriety, but Rex was eager and persistent.
"It is only three steps from here, and I assure you I would not ask you to go if it were not perfectly proper. Besides, we can go through the alley gate, and no one will ever know that we have been anywhere but in the garden." And then he bent over her and whispered, "I must finish the conversation that was interrupted on Monday, and it is impossible here."
Sure that she was doing what she would regret later, and yet feeling herself powerless against his impetuosity, Eunice yielded and let herself be led through the dark alleyway and into the street beyond.
It was, as Rex said, only a few, steps to the Hetzgar garden. Harcourt Street here takes a sharp bend to the left and a sudden decline to the old Sulphur Springs Road, so that from a little distance the garden seemed to close the street. That rambling old garden was the joy and delight of Bellairians, crowning the summit of the hill and descending its slopes in terraces, where winding paths bordered by beds of old-fashioned flowers led to vine-covered arbors or grassy slopes where rustic seats were placed invitingly under spreading lindens and maples. The generous owner, a bachelor, had given tacit permission to the citizens to enjoy his garden freely, and it had come to be considered almost in the light of a public park.
At the gate, standing invitingly open, Eunice hesitated again. It looked dark under the trees that arched the entrance and the avenue leading from it, but Rex gave her no opportunity to change her mind. He was well acquainted with its arrangement, apparently; and leaving the main avenue immediately, he turned to the right into a little path that ran parallel to the street, and a few steps brought them to a noble old elm, under whose drooping branches was a rustic seat. A low hedge screened them perfectly from the street, and yet did not intercept the rays from a neighboring gas-lamp, which threw a fantastic carpet of mottled light and shade over the soft, thick turf. They were so near the street that the voices of the passers-by were plainly audible, and that gave Rex an excuse for adopting a low and guarded tone, and gave him also the advantage of seeming to hold his conference on extremely confidential terms. He plunged at once into the heart of the subject.
"You have never answered my question, Miss Harlowe. Can there be no friendship between a noble woman and a man who has better impulses than the world gives him credit for, and who needs such a friendship?"
Rex's question had hardly been out of Eunice's mind since that Monday morning. Away from the influence of his soft tones and dark eyes, she could decide there was little sincerity in his pleading. She had even tried to persuade herself that it was only another of his many arts employed in an idle flirtation. She had never been quite ready to believe that, but she had come to the decision that he was not the kind of man that she was willing to call friend, and that as she had said before, there was no common ground of either character or training on which they could base a friendship. She intended to say this to him now more plainly and more firmly than she had ever done before, and a little sense of pique that he should consider her such an easy dupe added to her resolution. So, in her coldest, primmest, and what Rex would have denominated her most "Yankeeish" manner, she said all this to him.
Her tone sent the angry blood coursing through Rex's veins. For a moment the old desire for revenge, which had almost been forgotten since the incident of the rose, returned with twofold power. He would like to humble this obstinate little Northerner. Was he, a proud and haughty South Carolinian, to confess himself foiled by a meek little Yankee? It was quite light enough for Eunice to see the flashing eye and scornful smile with which he listened to her, and, determined though she was, it half frightened and half moved her from her purpose. When she finished, Rex said quickly:
"I will not sue for your friendship any longer, Miss Harlowe. I see that it is a boon you consider me utterly unworthy to receive. It is reserved, no doubt for some pious Phi Kap who is not only more congenial, but has convinced you that he is without spot and without blemish."
It was an utterly unmanly speech, and that a momentary but fierce jealousy stung him to make it was no excuse, and Rex was thoroughly ashamed, of it almost before it was uttered. There was no mistaking whom he meant. Mr. Rogers was Eunice's only Phi Kappa Sigma acquaintance, and while she shrank sensitively from the unmanly thrust, she answered with a hauteur quite equaling his own:
"If you refer to Mr. Rogers, Mr. McAllister, I admit that our tastes and views are sufficiently similar to offer no obstacle to a friendship, should either of us desire it; but I question your right to introduce any one else into this discussion, and if I am to infer that these are the manners of a Southern gentleman then I am still more convinced that we have nothing in common."
Rex was in an agony of shame.
"Miss Harlowe, I beg you, I entreat you, to forgive me. I am utterly ashamed before you. You cannot be more sensible than I how unmanly, how cowardly, my speech was, and I assure you it was bitterly regretted almost before it left my lips. I feel most poignantly how unworthy I am of your friendship, and that I have given you a convincing proof of the truth of all you have said."
Rex's contrition was so genuine that Eunice was softened in a moment, and it was extremely distasteful to her to seem to be playing the part of a self-righteous Pharisee toward this self-accusing publican. She wanted to express her forgiveness freely and say something kind to him, but freedom of speech was difficult to Eunice, especially if there was to be any softness with it. It was much easier for her to utter a haughty reproof than now to express her forgiveness. There was little embarrassment in her manner, therefore, when she said:
"Please, Mr. McAllister, do not say anything more. I can understand that you spoke hastily and regret it, and I shall try to forget that you ever made a speech that I am sure was not worthy of you; and I must have been very unhappy in my choice of words if I conveyed to you any idea that I thought you unworthy of my friendship. It was only that I thought we were unwise to enter hastily into such a compact, and I feared it would bring happiness to neither of us."
Rex leaned eagerly toward her as she finished, and spoke quickly:
"Miss Harlowe, I am not going to ask you for your friendship now, but I cannot think of that little rose that lies so near my heart, nor remember the night you flung it down to me, without making one more effort to win it. Will you be my confessor, and when I have finished my confession, if you still believe me unworthy of your friendship, you have only to say so. But if you think I need such a good, true friend as you could be to me, and you are not afraid to be that friend, will you not say that as freely?"
He waited for Eunice's answer, which came slowly
"I will be glad to hear you, and if I can, I will be your friend."
"Thank you, " said Rex. Then he was silent a moment. For once in his life he was going to be thoroughly honest and sincere, and he was taking his courage in his hand. He bent a little nearer and began to speak in a lower tone. Rapidly and skilfully he pictured the boy, the spoiled idol of a Southern home, whose word was law to a hundred slaves, but growing up at a mother's knee who taught him to pray and to love her Bible and her God. He pictured the brave, handsome father who was his boyish ideal, and whose very faults the boy, as he grew older, learned to admire and longed to imitate; and how he gradually grew away from the mother's influence, following his father to all the county races and great political gatherings, proud to be able to smoke his cigar or clink his glass with men who were old enough to know better than to encourage a youngster in such practice,–until finally his father, who was proud of his boy and loved to have him with him, began to realize that he was rapidly coming to no good, and hustled him off to a Northern college, his own Alma Mater. And with what tears and prayers his mother had let him go! The memory of them had returned to him often in the midst of his wildest hours. Since coming to college he had done many things that he was ashamed of, but never without a protest of the conscience his mother had so carefully trained in boyhood. Never had he done what he knew would give her pain without suffering agonies of regret afterward.
He had found a good friend in Mrs. Charlton, who had not hesitated to counsel, encourage, and scold him when it was necessary; and many a time had he fled to the refuge of her kind and motherly presence from his reckless associates bent on some wild orgy. But he had not always sought to escape, and sometimes he had been himself the most reckless leader of them all.
"And when I was at home this last summer," he continued, "it almost broke my mother's heart to find that I was only growing more confirmed in my wild ways. She was not willing that I should return to college; but it was my last year, and my father was anxious that I should graduate, and I promised that I would try to break away from old habits and wild associates. Almost from the moment I first saw you I have felt that you were sent as my delivering angel, and you will understand me when I say that I never look at you without thinking of my mother. You have inspired me with a longing for something nobler and better, and I think that with you for my friend I may attain to it. I know my own weakness and the strength of old habits; but I believe that could feel my wrong-doing was going to grieve you, it would be the strongest safeguard I could have. Are you willing to help me? If you knew how I loathe my past and long to cut free from it, and yet how helpless I feel in the toils I have woven for myself!"
Eunice had listened with mingled feelings. She was shocked at the picture Rex presented; for while in a vague way feeling that he was "worldly" and "ungodly," she had not fancied him as black as he had painted himself. But, like all good women, she loved a reprobate, and was flattered by the thought that she might be able to save him. And, no doubt, Rex was counting a little on that amiable weakness when he dared to draw so dark a picture. She was not so blinded, however, by the fascinations of the sinner as not to recognize that his mother ought to be a greater inspiration to him to do right than a young woman who was almost a stranger, and that where Mrs. Charlton, with her charms and her wise counsel, had failed, she could hardly hope to succeed. But the rôle of guardian angel he offered her was peculiarly tempting to Eunice's religious temperament. There was a moment of silence after he finished, while she was trying to frame a reply. Rex dropped the fan with which he had been playing all through his long recital, while his dark eyes bent on her a look of pleading.
"Is it to be my friend?" he said in a low voice intense with feeling.
Eunice tried to answer calmly:
"I am willing and glad to be your friend, Mr. McAllister, and to help you if I can; but I have little faith that I can be of any real assistance where your mother and Mrs. Charlton have failed, and I do not believe that any reformation will be permanent that is not based on principle–love of the right and hatred of the wrong. Your truest mentors are your conscience and your Bible, and your strongest weapon of defense should be prayer."
Eunice glowed with gentle enthusiasm. Her calm eyes, lifted fearlessly to his, were filled with a tender, holy light. Rex's dark eyes drooped abashed before them. He had been honest in his confession and in his desire for her help; but he had so long been accustomed to calculate the impression he was making, that, half unconsciously to himself, he had been posing a little in his attitude of humility and repentance. He realized this now in the clear light of Eunice's earnest words, and was ashamed. When he lifted his eyes again there was deep and genuine feeling in them and in his voice as he said:
"God helping me, Eunice, I will be a better and a truer man from this hour."
"And God will help you," answered Eunice softly.
He only replied by a quick grasp of her hand, then he rose to his feet.
"I do not want to leave this spot, that will always be sacred to me; but I know that I ought not to keep you here longer."
Eunice rose quickly, too, with an exclamation of alarm. Time and place had been annihilated to her, so deeply had she been interested in Rex's confession, and a sudden terror seized her that she should find the soirée over and the guests gone. She hurried Rex along, but when they reached the alley gate, to her dismay it was locked.
"What shall I do?" she asked in a terrified whisper.
For a moment Rex was as dismayed as herself at this unlooked-for calamity, but Eunice was looking appealingly to him for help, and he answered:
"There is nothing to do but to go boldly through the hall door. I am sorry you should have this annoyance, and it is my fault for keeping you so long; but there is no help for it now. And remember," he whispered as they mounted the steps, "the bolder, the better."
The hall was filled with the bustle of departing guests, and they probably would have escaped unnoticed but that Mr. Rogers stood near the door and saw them as they entered. He cast a quick, suspicious glance at Rex, and then said coldly to Eunice:
"Miss Lucy has been looking for you, Miss Harlowe; and she desired me, if I saw you, to ask you whether you are ready to go home."
"Yes, I am quite ready," murmured Eunice, sure that she looked like the culprit she felt.
Rex spoke boldly: "Then I shall have to relinquish you to Mr. Rogers, Miss Harlowe, and I must thank you for a very pleasant walk." His manner expressed nothing that the most suspicious observer could have interpreted as more than polite courtesy.
Eunice did not find Mr. Rogers an altogether agreeable companion on her way home. He was courteous, but made no effort to be especially entertaining, and the burden of the conversation fell on her. She made strenuous efforts to sustain it, but with indifferent success. She was not very well satisfied with the evening when she reviewed it alone in her room. She was still mortified over what she termed the "failure" of their duet, and she fancied that she had suffered in some way in Mr. Rogers's esteem by her long absence with Rex; and she liked him and respected him too much not to feel it keenly.
She was inclined to be a little bitter toward Rex because he was so constantly putting her in a false position and causing her vexatious regrets. Yet her last waking thoughts were of the look and tone that had accompanied his earnest words, "God helping me, Eunice, I will be a better and a truer man from this hour."