Of the Same Opinion
EUNICE and Rex walked silently down Lovers' Lane, their thoughts on the' same subject, but Eunice at least not caring to give them utterance. Suddenly Rex spoke:
"Wasn't she splendid! I can hardly tell whether I liked her most in her scornful or in her repentant mood, she was so grand in one and so lovable in the other. I have always thought her the most delightful woman in the world, and now I think she is adorable. What a happy man Dr. Charlton must be to possess the heart of such a superb creature! He is one of the best of men, but no man can be worthy of such a woman's love!"
Rex spoke with glowing enthusiasm and with the extravagance natural to him; but his admiration was sincere,-there was no mistaking that,-and Eunice marveled.
She had been much troubled for Mrs. Charlton. She also admired her greatly, but the impetuous little scene through which they had just passed was almost incomprehensible to her colder nature. There had been a tinge of the theatrical about it to her, and her sympathies had been all with Dr. Charlton, while had felt only the keenest mortification for Mrs. Charlton. She had, indeed, admired her for the quick repentance she had shown, but she felt so sure that she must have lost caste with all those people whom she was accustomed to rule regally that her admiration was much tinged with pity. To find that she had gained instead of losing, with Rex at least, and probably with them all, was both a relief and an annoyance. It was a relief because she loved and admired Mrs. Charlton, but inbred instinct and lifelong training had taught her that all display of emotion in public was at least in questionable taste; and it was distinctly annoying to find that here one not only did not suffer the proper penalty for such a sin against good taste, but seemed to gain by it a further apotheosis.
It is barely possible, too, that Eunice's annoyance was not entirely impersonal. In the scene through which they had just passed there had been in the background of her consciousness a comfortable sense that a calm and self-controlled woman, to whom such a display of emotion would be impossible, must appear to immense advantage in the eyes of an interested witness. This little fabric of self-esteem that she had so unconsciously built up, Rex's speech rudely shattered, and she did not find the act of demolition a pleasant one.
She often wondered why she wished to stand so well in the estimation of Rex McAllister. She had been sure, almost from the beginning of their acquaintance, that he was not the kind of man who could ever be to her-she put it blushingly-more than pleasant friend. There were certain qualities she demanded in a man that seemed to be preëminently absent in Rex. Chief among them was moral strength. Thorough respect and admiration for a man's moral nature must with her, she felt sure, precede any softer emotion. Rex had apparently made a thorough reformation, or was making it; and while his appeals to her for help touched her and she was more than willing to extend a helping hand toward him, she assured herself, with a touch of scorn when some occasional word or look of his seemed to ask for something more than mere friendliness, that she would never be a moral crutch for the man she loved.
Yet she had to confess that there was no one to whose opinion she was so supremely sensitive. She trembled lest she should ever appear to him less of an angel of light than he had called her in the Hetzgar garden. The fear gave her more of constraint with him than with any one else, and in hours of morbid self-dissection, which were not infrequent with Eunice, she accused herself of posing before him, mentally and morally.
That he should so ardently admire in Mrs. Charlton the very characteristics which seemed to Eunice least admirable, and which she knew were impossible to herself, caused her a keen thrill of mortified vanity. She could perceive now that of course an impulsive, frank, and generous nature like Mrs. Charlton's was the very kind to appeal most powerfully to a bold, impetuous, hot-headed Southerner, and that he could never feel more than a passing attraction to a temperament so utterly antipodal as her own; and the perception did not give her the pleasure that she felt it ought.
All these shades of feeling tinged a little Eunice's formal response to Rex's panegyric:
"I admire Mrs. Charlton extremely," she said, "and love her very much. No mother could have been kinder and more tender than she has been to me since I have been in her house; but I confess the scene through which we have just passed was very painful to me, and I am not sure I admire all of Mrs. Charlton's part in it. What I did admire most thoroughly was the perfect self-control Dr. Charlton exhibited, and the masterful way in which he brought Mrs. Charlton to a consciousness of the fact that she had gone too far. There is nothing so fine as moral sublimity! And there was something of it in Dr. Charlton's look and tone when he said, 'Millicent!' "
It was Rex's turn now to feel nettled, but he conceded at once:
"Oh, yes; the doctor was fine. He quite thrilled me." And then he added a little bitterly, "Although there is no moral sublimity about me,-hardly moral mediocrity, I fear you think,-I can appreciate it in others, and I quite agree with you that there is nothing so fine or so worthy of admiration in a man."
The touch of bitterness in Rex's speech was rather pleasing than otherwise to Eunice, but she had no special answer to make, and they turned to other topics. But for some reason conversation languished. They neither of them seemed inclined to talk, and Rex particularly was fast lapsing into one of the moods Eunice had noticed in him frequently of late; she was never quite sure whether they were tinged with sullenness or melancholy, but in either case they made him silent and abstracted.
Choir rehearsal had been held in the church for the last few weeks, because the weather was still pleasant enough to require no special heating of the edifice, and it saved the trouble of conveying all the books and music to the private house where the rehearsal might be held, and then getting them back again in time for service the next morning. It was not quite such a pleasant social arrangement, and the young folks would be rather glad when the cold weather should drive them back to the cozy parlors again.
Rex escorted Eunice to the choir-gallery, and then betook himself to the lower part of the house, where, seeking a cushioned pew (they were not all cushioned-only those belonging to the faculty and a few of the wealthier families), he threw himself in a half-reclining attitude on the seat and gave himself up to a moody reverie. There was no gas lighted, except in the choir, and the twilight gloom in this part of the church was particularly favorable to that pastime. From his position, with his head resting on the, high center railing that divided the pews, he could see Eunice very distinctly, and even watch the changing expression of her face, thrown into strong relief by a blazing gas-jet beside her. He himself was invisible or nearly so,-only an indistinct blur, if one shaded his eyes in the choir, revealing his location.
His mood was more one of irritability than melancholy. He was almost getting tired of his reform attitude; he began to think it didn't pay. Some of the boys of his fraternity were going off on an especial lark that very night, and had besought him to join them, and he half wished now that he had not held out so firmly against them. He had had a note from Miss Lydia, too, inviting him to a card-party at her house for that evening, and he had sent regrets, pleading a previous engagement. He had not seen Miss Lydia for several weeks. He knew that the sudden ceasing of his attentions must have at least aroused her curiosity-perhaps, he thought half regretfully, given her some pain.
In declining both these offers of amusement for the evening, he had felt more than compensated in the thought of the walk to and from rehearsal with Eunice; but somehow he had not altogether enjoyed the walk as he had expected. There was certainly something antagonistic in their natures. He had felt it this evening; he believed he had half felt it once or twice before. It was not that she was so good; he liked goodness in a woman, and he was trying very hard to be "good" himself now,-but it was that she expected too much of a man; nothing would ever satisfy her, but some saint like Dr. Charlton. Life with such a woman, he believed, would be a constant strain; there would be no rest, no moral undress, no lounging in dressing-gown and slippers, but always, morally speaking, arrayed in shiniest black broadcloth, high collars, and tight boots. He was inclined to think there was more real, every-day comfort in a girl like Lydia McNair, who did not require you to live up to some high ideal, and was quite willing to allow you a moderate indulgence in your small vices so long as they were gentlemanly ones.
At this point in his reverie he saw Mr. Rogers turn to Eunice and say something, and as she looked up at him to reply it seemed to Rex that there was a wonderful sweetness in her smile that for the moment quite transfigured her. He saw it with quick pain. Could it be possible she loved Rogers? She never smiled so sweetly and so frankly on him. He had often noticed and been a little annoyed by her constrained way of smiling. Of course Rogers was the very man for such a woman as Eunice. He could see it, now that his old dislike of him had given place to friendliness. He wondered he had not thought of it before. Yes, Rogers came as near being morally grand and morally strong as any young man he knew. Well, was he not willing? He had never quite decided in his own mind that Eunice was the kind of woman he wanted for a wife, though the attraction she had had for him had been greater than any woman had ever had before. He stopped at this point to think it out, and then he suddenly sat erect, and bringing one clenched hand down violently but noiselessly on the cushioned seat, he said through his set teeth:
"No, I am not willing!"
The words had actually passed his lips, and at the sound he smiled at his own vehemence, and then congratulated himself that there was no one to hear them.
To his astonishment, a woman's voice just behind him said:
"Not willing to do what, Mr. McAllister?"
He sprang to his feet and turned to meet Lydia McNair. His eyes had been so steadfastly fixed on the brightly lighted gallery, and one illuminated face there, that it had prevented his seeing her entrance, and the choir, singing with full voice and great energy the triumphant pæan, "On cherubim and seraphim full royally he rode," had effectually drowned the sound of approaching footsteps. Miss Lydia, being extremely High-church, and a little bigoted withal, was the last person he would have expected to see at a Presbyterian choir rehearsal. The card-party to which he had been invited occurred to him also, and he could not understand how Miss Lydia could be absent from it; but he had such entire faith in her always doing the unaccountable thing that he was not quite free from a suspicion that she had come to compel his attendance at it.
Miss Lydia said in answer to his expression of surprise at meeting her there:
"Your defection spoiled our card-party, and it was such a beautiful evening Lieutenant Watson proposed a walk. We heard the music as we passed the church, and stepped in to listen to it. I thought I recognized you, though I was not absolutely sure, it was so dark; and I told the lieutenant I was coming to talk to you, and he could go up-stairs and listen to the music and visit with the young ladies, and I would send for him when I was ready to go."
Rex knew Miss Lydia was quite capable of giving one cavalier a furlough when she felt like talking to another. He glanced up at the gallery and saw the lieutenant in a back seat patiently listening to the singing and not looking particularly happy. He felt sorry for him, and also felt rather uncomfortable for himself.
"I'm in for it now," he thought; and he did not doubt for a moment that Miss Lydia intended to call him to account for his desertion of her. His conscience told him that his devotion had been too marked and too distinctly expressed not to give her a right to demand an explanation. It was with some embarrassment, therefore, that he asked her to sit down, and seated himself in the pew in front of her, where he could lean on the back and be comfortably vis-à-vis.
He expected her to plunge at once into the subject, for Miss Lydia was not given to using gloves in handling a delicate question; but, to his relief, she did not touch upon any personal topic, but entered into a lively discussion of several subjects of mutual interest, until he found himself enjoying her frank comments and keen repartee with quite the old relish. His fears were fast being lulled when she suddenly turned to him and said in a low tone and with an entirely different manner:
"Mr. McAllister, I hope you are not flirting with the little school-ma'am."
Rex had used the epithet "little school-ma'am" quite freely himself in the beginning of his acquaintance with Eunice, but it struck harshly on his ears now. Neither did he like the term "flirting" as applied to his relations with her. So he said quite stiffly: "Certainly not, Miss Lydia," and then, with an effort at lightness, "Did you ever know me to be guilty of flirting with any one?"
"Yes, certainly," said Miss Lydia, quickly; "but there has been some excuse for you when you indulged in it with those who were supposed to be quite able to protect themselves and were not principled against the pastime. You know it is different with Miss Harlowe. She is a sweet, good, true little woman-and lovely, I think. I am quite taken with her. But she is perfectly unsophisticated, and is the kind of woman that I should suppose would appeal to a man's best nature to protect her from himself. I have been thinking about her and worrying about her for weeks. Of course I have known why you have deserted your old friends, and at last I made up my mind I would see you and make an appeal to you in her behalf."
She had spoken rapidly, and Rex was bewildered by her accusation and by the genuine feeling in her tones. Still he thought it was hardly a matter Miss Lydia had a right to concern herself with, and he said in his coldest way-and it could be quite freezing when he chose:
"You do me great honor Miss Lydia, when you suggest that I am able to disturb the peace of mind of any young lady. I shall begin to consider myself quite a dangerous fellow."
There was a moment of silence before Miss Lydia answered in a voice that trembled in spite of herself:
"You are a dangerous fellow, Rex McAllister, and you know it."
There was a time when Rex might have secretly rejoiced at this evidence of his power, and would probably have taken advantage of it by responding with some tender nonsense. Now he was shocked to find that there seemed to be more seriousness in Miss Lydia's feeling toward him than he had dreamed, and it kept him silent for a few moments. When he spoke again, his coldness and his flippancy were both gone, and he said earnestly:
"Miss Lydia, I am afraid I deserve your poor opinion of me. I have not always shown myself to you as the honest and honorable gentleman I should like to be and should like you to think me. Shall we let bygones be bygones and begin all over again? I should like to have a chance to prove myself a friend you could thoroughly respect and trust."
He waited so long for the reply that he began to be troubled. Could it be possible she was crying? It was too dark to see, but he fancied he distinguished suspicious little movements and sounds. Miss Lydia in tears! It was inconceivable, and the thought filled him with amazement as much as pity, and almost with more embarrassment than either. What should he do?
But Miss Lydia did not leave him long in perplexity. With a briskness of tone and a lightness of manner that the occasion hardly seemed to demand, she answered:
"I have always liked you very well as you were, Mr. McAllister, but I shall not object to a revised edition of our friendship if you desire it,-especially since I hope your new attitude argues well for the little school-mistress. "
Rex was irritated by her flippancy, and he replied with an approach to severity:
"You need not fear for Miss Harlowe; if either of us suffers in the affections through our acquaintance, it will not be she."
There was another perceptible pause on Miss Lydia's part, and then she said softly and with a sweetness that surprised Rex:
"I am quite sure of that, Mr. McAllister. And now, would you mind calling the lieutenant? I must be going."
Rex was certain once more that Miss Lydia had been strongly moved, and he believed he understood why. It was because she had recognized the finality in what he had said: the end of all their old relations. It filled him with the keenest regret and tenderest sympathy, but he could express neither without still further wounding her.
He looked up at the gallery and found a little stir and commotion there; rehearsal was over and the choir were about to go home. Rex's quick wits took in the awkwardness of the situation. If, as he believed, there were traces of tears in Miss Lydia's eyes, it would greatly embarrass her to meet the members of the choir in the brightly lighted vestibule. With quick decision he called up to Lieutenant Watson:
"Lieutenant, will you bring Miss Harlowe downstairs? We will meet you at the outside door."
Then to Miss Lydia: "Come, we must be quick if we would get down ahead of them."
He drew her hand through his arm, and hurried her through the dark church. In the bright vestibule he would not even glance at her lest he might see the traces of her tears, but, hearing the descending voices, hurried her down the steps, and they were outside in the dark when the others met them.
There was the usual noisy interchange of greetings and farewells on the pavement, in which Miss Lydia bore her part gaily; and then Rex said, releasing her arm and taking her hand:
"Good-night, Miss Lydia; I hope you have enjoyed the music so much that you will come to our rehearsal again sometime."
And she answered: "Thank you I have enjoyed it extremely; perhaps I will, if Lieutenant Watson will bring me." But both of them knew she never would.
Naturally enough, it had seemed a little strange to Eunice that Lieutenant Watson should sit up-stairs and leave Rex and Miss Lydia to a tête-à-tête, and then that Rex should not at least have met her at the foot of the gallery stairs, instead of waiting for her with Miss Lydia outside. She did not understand it, and there was just a little shade more of coldness and reserve in her manner as they walked home.
Rex hardly noticed it, he was so full of his own thoughts, so sorry for Miss Lydia, but so glad to have had this understanding with her and to feel that it was all over with and that he was free from any entanglement there, if there had ever been any. Then he was happy in the mere feeling of that little hand on his arm. There had come to him a kind of revelation of his own heart, and with it a settled determination, when he had said audibly, "No, I am not willing," that filled him with a feeling of strength and happiness. So he did not notice that Eunice was a little more constrained and a little colder than usual.
They had returned to the topic of the Southern difficulties, and he had been saying that his last letter from home was full of forebodings. His father thought there was trouble ahead. He believed that if the Republicans won in the next election, there would be war; the South would never stand an abolitionist President. The feeling was at fever-heat in South Carolina, and he was glad Rex was out of it. He hoped it would all quiet down, but be was sometimes afraid the South would do something rash. Rex added that his father would deprecate anything rash; but whatever his State did or the South did, he would stand by it, for he was heart and soul a Southerner.
The Iron Gate had just clanged behind them, and they were entering Lovers' Lane. Rex held Eunice back a little.
"You are not in a hurry, are you? I want to ask you something-about Mrs. Charlton," be added quickly, noting at once the slight signs of panic in Eunice. "You know she was born and bred a Southern woman. Do you think it was quite right in her to give up her views; to say, 'I am no longer a Southerner'; to say in effect, though not in words, 'I am whatever my husband is'? "
Eunice thought a moment before she answered, and then she spoke slowly:
"Yes, I think she was right. When a woman marries she leaves father and mother-all-for her husband; and she should give up everything that could create dissension between them. Of course I do not mean that she should yield any question of right or conscience; but when it is a matter where two people might hold different views, and both be right, I believe she should give up hers."
When Eunice spoke she thought Rex would disagree with her and probably maintain vehemently that, born and bred a Southerner, it would be traitorous to yield her convictions. To her surprise, he answered quickly:
"Thank you; I agree with you perfectly. I think a man's first duty is to the land of his birth, be he born in the North or in the South, but I believe that a woman's country should be her husband's."
Nor did she understand the slight, involuntary pressure of her arm as he spoke, and the glad ring in his voice.