A New England Conscience
IN the confusion of many tongues that followed the colonel's toast Dr. Charlton took occasion to say to him:
"It gave me more pleasure than I can express to you Colonel, to find that you are so strongly on the right side. In the troubles that are threatening our beloved country, I have been building my hopes upon you, if worse comes to worse; and I have been eager to hear from your own lips that, whatever betides, you are for the Union."
The colonel looked troubled, and it was a long moment before he spoke. When he did it was with the air of having made a difficult resolve.
"My dear doctor, " he said, "I am about to say to you something that I would say to very few. But I know that you will not misunderstand me, and I know that you will regard it as a confidence and not to be repeated. The strongest, desire of my heart at this moment is that the Union. may stand forever as it is to-day–unalterable, indissoluble. No greater sorrow could come into my life than to see the Southern States carry out their threat of secession. But my own course, should they do so, is as yet uncertain. I shall be guided entirely by the action my State takes. If Virginia secedes, I go with her–my highest fealty is to my native State. But God forbid that day shall ever come!"
He spoke slowly and sadly, with no air of bravado, but rather of keen regret, and Dr. Charlton looked at him with sorrowing eyes, as one who understood too well and pitied too deeply to feel any anger.
Greatly to Eunice's distress, she found, very soon after the tables had been removed, that this was to be a dancing-party.
The lawns and verandas were brilliantly lighted by gaily colored lanterns, and now the moon had begun to pour upon them a flood of soft, golden light that paled the lanterns. The band, which had continued to play at intervals during supper, had gone off to find its own supper while the tables were being cleared away. Now it returned and took up its station nearer the commandant's house and began to play the "Invitation to the Waltz." It was a signal the young people seemed to understand, and Rex, who had been talking to a group of girls at a little distance, hastily excused himself and hurried over to the corner of the veranda where Eunice was one of a little circle gathered around Uncle Robert.
"May I have the first dance?" he asked in a low voice as he bent over the back of her chair.
Eunice straightened up quickly, as if electrified, and Rex could easily see, by the combined light of moon and lanterns, the horrified look in her gray eyes. She might have declined very sweetly, and been just as firm, but this seemed to Eunice an occasion in which her disapprobation should be expressed by the manner of her refusal.
"I do not dance," she said severely.
Rex was amused at the manner of his rebuff, but he was not easily discouraged.
"Oh, not a waltz or a polka, perhaps; but you would not mind walking through a quadrille with me, would you? This first one is to be a quadrille."
Eunice had very hazy notions as to what a quadrille might be, and to know that it was called a dance was sufficient. But by this time she had recovered from her first shock sufficiently to drop the severity, and she replied quite amiably:
"I shall have to decline, Mr. McAllister. I really know nothing about it, and I should only be an, embarrassment to you."
Rex bowed his regrets and hurried away. He was in time to secure Miss Lydia, who had been skillfully, avoiding the lieutenant, hoping that some chance might give her Rex instead; and whether it was by Rex's management or by accident, they took their places in the quadrille forming on the lawn just below Eunice's seat on the veranda.
Now Eunice had never so much as seen a dance of any kind, and try as she might to keep her attention fixed on what the colonel and Dr. Charlton were saying, her eyes would wander to the gay picture on the lawn below her. Rex danced the quadrille as he might have danced the minuet, with stately grace and punctilliously "taking the steps," while Lydia, with her ruffles and laces gathered in one hand and the other held high in Rex's, curtseyed and pirouetted and romped through the dance with a saucy grace that fairly bewitched Eunice. And then, to her amazement, she discovered that the couple facing Rex and Lydia was Lucy and Willie, and Lucy's little feet were twinkling rhythmically to the music and her eyes were sparkling and her cheeks glowing while she went through the intricate movements of the figures with an ease and a fairylike grace that astonished Eunice. Where had a clergyman's daughter learned such an ungodly accomplishment! And so difficult did it look to Eunice that it seemed to her not the least of its sins was the valuable time that must have been wasted in acquiring it. None the less did she find that it was with difficulty she could turn away her eyes from so bewitching a sight.
But Eunice's conscience was of the consistent type that made watching a sinful amusement almost as great a sin as engaging in it, and as soon as she recalled herself to this fact she resolutely shut her eyes and ears to the bewitching sights and sounds. Only once, just before the end of the dance, did she almost unconsciously lift her eyes as the increased sounds of merriment forced themselves upon her unwilling ears; and there just below her, was Rex's handsome face turned up toward her as he circled by in the merry "all hands' round." He nodded gaily as he caught her eye, and his glance seemed to say saucily, "Now aren't you sorry that you wouldn't dance with me?"
Eunice turned quickly away and did not look again, but she was not surprised, as soon as he could decently leave his partner after the quadrille was over, to find Rex by her side. He was begging her to try the next dance with him,–a waltz,–and here Eunice had not only her principles to sustain her in her firm refusal, her sense of maidenly propriety was so shocked at the mere suggestion of dancing a round dance with Rex that she was covered with confusion. And Rex, seeing her distress, good-humoredly desisted from annoying her. He sat down beside her, and before long had drawn her off into a secluded corner where the vines hung heavier and no obtrusive lanterns revealed them to passers-by and only faint gleams from the moon between the leaves shed a soft light; and there, in those congenial surroundings, he set to work, with an art against which Eunice's simplicity was defenseless, to awaken her interest in him and win her liking,– audaciously challenging her views and rousing her to their defense, showing deference to her intellectual superiority (the weak point in Eunice's armor, since pride of intellect was her besetting sin), and mingling with it all the subtle admiration dear to every woman and so new to Eunice as to be dangerously dear.
He took her back at last to Dr. and Mrs. Charlton and the little group of older people surrounding the colonel,
"I must resign Miss Harlowe to you, Mrs. Charlton,," he said, "until the next dance is over. Will you take charge of her?"
"Let me take charge of Miss Harlowe," interposed the colonel, springing to his feet gallantly and offering Eunice his chair.
"Thank you, Uncle Robert," answered Rex; "and please see if you can't remove her last feeble scruples on the subject of the Virginia reel before I get back. The dancing is to wind up with one, and Miss Harlowe has half promised to dance it with me–but only half."
"The Virginia reel!" exclaimed the colonel. "You surely have no scruples against that innocent romp, Miss Harlowe. I would not mind dancing it myself if I had Miss Harlowe to dance it with me. What do you say, Rex–will you resign in my favor?"
"No, sir–not even to you, Uncle Robert," answered Rex, deferentially, and with a glance at Eunice so ardently expressive of the joy he was anticipating in this dance, half real and half assumed, that Eunice was overwhelmed with confusion at what seemed to her such open wooing. Mrs. Charlton came to her relief :
"I really think, Eunice, you need not feel any hesitation about dancing a Virginia reel. Ask Mr. Charlton if it would be wrong. I defy any conscience to be more sensitive than his."
"It's exactly as Miss Harlowe feels about it," said the doctor, gently; "we are each his own mentor. My own feeling is that a Virginia reel is only a graceful and well-ordered kind of game; but it is not for me to decide." And then he smiled upon with such kindness and wise judiciousness in his blue eyes that Eunice yielded at once. If Dr. Charlton, whom she already began to regard as one of the saints of the earth, considered it no harm, who was she to set up her opinion against his? And she sent Rex off extravagantly joyful–in manner at least–at her primly yielded assent.
When she found herself one of the long line of girls drawn up on the moonlighted grass, facing the long, line of men, with Rex directly opposite, her first sensation was a dreadful sinking of the heart. Why had she consented? She was only nineteen, but she felt herself years older than these gay girls beside her, some of whom were half a dozen years her senior, and she did not know how to descend to their youthful level. Then she knew nothing of the dance, and although Rex had assured her she would only have to watch the others and follow them exactly, the thought that she might make a blunder filled her with horror. Eunice took her dignity very seriously; and making herself ridiculous before these gay society people of the army set seemed to her nothing less than the deepest ignominy. But she was no craven; she had a sturdy Puritan courage that would not let her falter in a course once finally undertaken.
Rex, standing opposite, watched with amused interest the grim determination expressed in the rigid set of the slim figure and the dauntless glance of the gray eyes. He saw that she was following with painstaking scrutiny every movement of the dance; she had no eyes for him. When it came time for her to take part in it, she made no blunders. She went through it with the precision of an automaton. There was no joyous abandon, no gay romping as with the other dancers, and Rex found himself smiling covertly at her seriousness and earnestness. He took every opportunity, as they came together in the figures, to murmur in her ear words of encouragement and praise for her success; but she hardly dared to smile up at him her grateful appreciation, so fearful was she that if she withdrew her attention one moment from the serious business of the dance she would make some false move or mortifying mistake.
Smile as he might to himself, Rex rather liked her seriousness and earnestness, and once when he caught on the face of Marcia Morris a half-sneering glance toward Eunice at one of her particularly formal movements, accompanying a little speech to her partner that he knew from the answering glance and smile must have been one of ridicule of Eunice, he felt an angry resentment. With all his faults, Rex was a gentleman to the heart's core, and he wished from his soul that Marcia Morris had dared to make that speech to him, that he might have resented it properly.
But creditably as Eunice had acquitted herself in the dance, it was no sooner over than the reaction set in and her troublesome conscience began to upbraid her. Twice had she violated it that evening: once when she had lifted the wine-glass to her lips and now in the dance, and it made the upbraiding of conscience but so much the acuter that she was painfully aware of the contrast her rigidity and formality had made with the grace and abandon of the others. Rex's compliments had not reassured her. She had suspected him of discerning that she needed reassuring, and had been grateful to him for his intention while she had doubted his sincerity.
She had been trained in a religious school that teaches confession is good for the soul. She could not feel a consciousness of guilt without making confession of it. It seemed to her that it would but increase her sin to allow McAllister to believe that her conduct that evening met with her own approval, and no repentance could be genuine that did not begin with a confession of her fault.
They walked home along an avenue of maples and lindens, that met over their heads in so close a leafy arch that the moonbeams could not filter through, and along a grassy path that led beside a dancing brook sparkling in the moonlight; and thence across the stone arch of a little bridge crossing the brook; and so on into the lower town where the old German settlers had built, solidly, cottages of stone and brick that were more like the cottages in their native Rhine provinces than those belonging to a new and timber-growing country; and where saloons and beer-gardens adorned every other corner, with soldiers drinking and shouting and clashing sabers in some, and students drinking and shouting and singing in others; where Eunice walked closer to Rex and trembled and shuddered at such open lawlessness, and Rex, feeling the trembling of the little hand on his arm (for those were the days of that obsolete and happy custom of young people walking together arm in arm), drew it closer and strutted a little more, and felt all the joy of the strong protecting the weak. And all along this homeward way Eunice was struggling with her courage, or rather her lack of it. It was not until they had turned westward on old Langdon Street, with its stately homes shaded by venerable trees that had defied the storms of a hundred years, that she ventured, under their friendly shade, to say:
"Mr. McAllister, I shall not feel at peace with myself until I have said to you that I am very sorry for two things that occurred this evening."
Rex stiffened perceptibly, thinking he was to be taken to task for some shortcomings in attentions to Eunice, since that was quite Miss Lydia's way if she thought she had not received all the attentions due her.
"I cannot recall, Miss Harlowe," he began stiffly, "any respect in which I have failed–"
"Failed!" interrupted Eunice, puzzled, "I do not understand you." But she was not to be swerved from the path of duty now that she was well started in it, and for fear that she might be turned aside, she hastened on:
"It is not you that have failed–it is I. I have failed to be true to my own standards. Mr. McAllister, I am very sorry that I danced that Virginia reel, and I am sorry that I lifted that wine-glass to my lips–I did not taste it."
"Why, Miss Harlowe," remonstrated Rex, "I thought you were quite convinced there was no harm in a Virginia reel since even Dr. Charlton said there was none; and as for the wine, you could not have refused to drink that toast–why, they would have been arresting you for a traitor!"
Rex spoke with a little good-natured ridicule. Miss Harlowe's scruples seemed to him over-fine. Perhaps Eunice perceived the ridicule and resented it. Her tone was a shade colder, and if Rex could only have seen the tilt of her oval chin he might have called it obstinate.
"I presume, Mr. McAllister, we look at such things very differently," she said. "I consider that for me it was distinctly wrong to have proved traitor to my principles against wine-drinking even at the expense of seeming disloyal to my country. I could have proved my patriotism in other ways. And as for the dancing, I had not for that even the shade of excuse I seemed to have for the other."
Rex was irritated. "Such a pragmatic, dogmatic little Yankee!" he fumed inwardly. "She is impossible!" Outwardly he only put on his grand air and said with elaborate politeness:
"Would you object, Miss Harlowe, to telling how you would have proved your loyalty?"
"Oh, I don't know"–Eunice hesitated, beginning to feel troubled and less sure of herself before Rex's stately manner. "I suppose," she added brightly, "I might have made a little speech and said I approved the sentiment but disapproved the wine."
Rex lacked the quality that was often Eunice's salvation–a sense of humor. He did not for a moment suppose that she was speaking humorously now, and he was trying to adjust to his Southern ideas the idea of a pretty young lady making a response of any kind to a toast and in such company. It appalled him for a moment, and then there slowly began to dawn in him a new-born appreciation and admiration of a moral courage beyond his own power of attaining and especially inconceivable in any young woman of his acquaintance. He had been silent so long that Eunice was feeling still more troubled, saying to herself that talking to a young man was certainly not one of her accomplishments and probably this arrogant Southerner was despising her as a prim little prude. She was almost startled, therefore, at the earnestness and sweetness of Rex's tones when at last he broke his silence.
"Miss Harlowe," he said, "I cannot share your views about either wine or dancing, but I can admire very greatly one who has such courage of her convictions, as you have shown. It would seem to, me a difficult thing for any one; it seems wonderful in a young and beautiful lady."
Rex could no more have helped his little concluding compliment than he could have helped being a South Carolinian. But whereas the Southern girl might have taken it lightly and answered it saucily, Eunice knew not how to take it, and was silent. Indeed, there was very little more conversation of any kind between them. Eunice was feeling a tremulous kind of pleasure quite new to her and that kept her silent, and Rex was thinking seriously–an unusual occupation for him. And as they came in sight of the stone wall with its overhanging trees inclosing the college campus, Willie and Lucy caught up with them, and they all four walked up the broad pavement outside the wall, over whose red bricks the moonlight and the branches had thrown a witchery of lacework for them to walk on, talking merrily of the incidents of the evening and giving Rex no chance to make the one more speech of appreciation he had been seriously pondering.
But he found a chance, as he left Eunice at Dr. Chariton's door under the vine-wreathed porch, to hold her hand for a moment longer than was necessary and to say in a voice so low as to be almost tender:
"Good night, Miss Eunice."
No one could accuse Rex of ever missing an opportunity of expressing a real or assumed devotion when he desired it.