by Henry James
"ARRIVE half past eight. Sick. Meet me."
The telegrammatic brevity of my step-brother's missive gave that
melancholy turn to my thoughts which was the usual result of his
communications. He was to have come on the Friday; what had made him
start off on Wednesday? The terms on which we stood were a perpetual
source of irritation. We were utterly unlike in temper and taste and
opinions, and yet, having a number of common interests, we were
obliged, after a fashion, to compromise with each other's
idiosyncrasies. In fact, the concessions were all on my side. He was
altogether too much my superior in all that makes the man who counts in
the world for me not to feel it, and it cost me less to let him take
his way than to make a stand for my dignity. What I did through
indolence and in some degree, I confess, through pusillanimity, I had a
fancy to make it appear (by dint of much whistling, as it were, and
easy thrusting of my hands into my pockets) that I did through a sort
of generous condescension. Edgar cared little enough upon what recipe I
compounded a salve for my vanity, so long as he held his own course;
and I am afraid I played the slumbering giant to altogether empty
benches. There had been, indeed, a vague tacit understanding that he
was to treat me, in form, as a man with a mind of his own, and there
was occasionally something most incisively sarcastic in his observance
of the treaty. What made matters the worse for me, and the better for
him, was an absurd physical disparity; for Musgrave was like nothing so
much as Falstaff's description of Shallow,—a man made after supper of
a cheese-paring. He was a miserable invalid, and was perpetually
concerned with his stomach, his lungs, and his liver, and as he was
both doctor and patient in one, they kept him very busy. His head was
grotesquely large for his diminutive figure, his eye fixed and salient,
and his complexion liable to flush with an air of indignation and
suspicion. He practised a most resolute little strut on a most
attenuated pair of little legs. For myself, I was tall, happily; for I
was broad enough, if I had been shorter, to have perhaps incurred that
invidious monosyllabic epithet which haunted Lord Byron. As compared
with Edgar, I was at least fairly good-looking; a stoutish, blondish,
indolent, amiable, rather gorgeous young fellow might have served as my
personal formula. My patrimony, being double that of my stepbrother
(for we were related by my mother), was largely lavished on the
adornment of this fine person. I dressed in fact, as I recollect, with
a sort of barbaric splendor, and I may very well have passed for one of
the social pillars of a small watering-place.
L—- was in those days just struggling into fame, and but that it
savored overmuch of the fresh paint lately lavished upon the various
wooden barracks in which visitors were to be accommodated, it yielded a
pleasant mixture of rurality and society. The vile taste and the
sovereign virtue of the spring were fairly established, and Edgar was
not the man to forego the chance of trying the waters and abusing them.
Having heard that the hotel was crowded, he wished to secure a room at
least a week beforehand; the upshot of which was, that I came down on
the 19th of July with the mission to retain and occupy his apartment
till the 26th. I passed, with people in general, and with Edgar in
particular, for so very idle a person that it seemed almost a duty to
saddle me with some wholesome errand. Edgar had, first and always, his
health to attend to, and then that neat little property and those
everlasting accounts, which he was never weary of contemplating,
verifying, and overhauling. I had made up my mind to make over his room
to him, remain a day or two for civility's sake and then leave him to
his cups. Meanwhile, on the 24th, it occurred to me that I ought really
to see something of the place. The weather had been too hot for going
about, and, as yet, I had hardly left the piazza of the hotel. Towards
afternoon the clouds gathered, the sun was obscured, and it seemed
possible even for a large, lazy man to take a walk. I went along beside
the river, under the trees, rejoicing much in the midsummer prettiness
of all the land and in the sultry afternoon stillness. I was
discomposed and irritated, and all for no better reason than that Edgar
was coming. What was Edgar that his comings and goings should affect
me? Was I, after all, so excessively his younger brother? I would turn
over a new leaf! I almost wished things would come to a crisis between
us, and that in the glow of exasperation I might say or do something
unpardonable. But there was small chance of my quarrelling with Edgar
for vanity's sake. Somehow, I didn't believe in my own egotism, but I
had an indefeasible respect for his. I was fatally good-natured, and I
should continue to do his desire until I began to do that of some one
else. If I might only fall in love and exchange my master for a
mistress, for some charming goddess of unreason who would declare that
Mr. Musgrave was simply intolerable and that was an end of it!
So, meditating vaguely, I arrived at the little Episcopal chapel,
which stands on the margin of the village where the latter begins to
melt away into the large river-side landscape. The door was slightly
ajar: there came through it into the hot outer stillness the low sound
of an organ,—the rehearsal, evidently, of the organist or of some
gentle amateur. I was warm with walking, and this glimpse of the cool
musical dimness within prompted me to enter and rest and listen. The
body of the church was empty; but a feeble glow of color was diffused
through the little yellow and crimson windows upon the pews and the
cushioned pulpit. The organ was erected in a small gallery facing the
chancel, into which the ascent was by a short stairway directly from
the church. The sound of my tread was apparently covered by the
music, for the player continued without heeding me, hidden as she
was behind a little blue silk curtain on the edge of the gallery.
Yes, that gentle, tentative, unprofessional touch came from a feminine
hand. Uncertain as it was, however, it wrought upon my musical
sensibilities with a sort of provoking force. The air was familiar,
and, before I knew it, I had begun to furnish the vocal
accompaniment,—first gently, then boldly. Standing with my face to
the organ, I awaited the effect of my venture. The only perceptible
result was that, for a moment, the music faltered and the curtains
were stirred. I saw nothing, but I had been seen, and, reassured
apparently by my aspect, the organist resumed the chant. Slightly
mystified, I felt urged to sing my best, the more so that, as I
continued, the player seemed to borrow confidence and emulation from
my voice. The notes rolled out bravely, and the little vault
resounded. Suddenly there seemed to come to the musician, in the
ardor of success, a full accession of vigor and skill. The last chords
were struck with a kind of triumphant intensity, and their cadence
was marked by a clear soprano voice. Just at the close, however,
voice and music mere swallowed up in the roll of a huge thunder-clap.
At the same instant, the storm-drops began to strike the
chapel-windows, and we were sheeted in a summer rain. The rain was a
bore; but, at least, I should have a look at the organist, concerning
whom my curiosity had suddenly grown great. The thunder-claps
followed each other with such violence that it was vain to continue
to play. I waited, in the confident belief that that charming
voice—half a dozen notes had betrayed it—denoted a charming woman.
After the lapse of some moments, which seemed to indicate a graceful
and appealing hesitancy, a female figure appeared at the top of the
little stairway and began to descend. I walked slowly down the aisle.
The stormy darkness had rapidly increased, and at this moment, with a
huge burst of thunder, following a blinding flash, a momentary
midnight fell upon our refuge. When things had become visible again, I
beheld the fair musician at the foot of the steps, gazing at me with
all the frankness of agitation. The little chapel was rattling to its
"Do you think there is any danger?" asked my companion.
I made haste to assure her there was none. "The chapel has nothing
in the nature of a spire, and even if it had, the fact of our being in
a holy place ought to insure us against injury."
She looked at me wonderingly, as if to see whether I was in jest.
To satisfy her, I smiled as graciously as I might. Whereupon, gathering
confidence, "I think we have each of us,'' she said, "so little right
to be here that we can hardly claim the benefit of sanctuary."
"Are you too an interloper?'' I asked.
She hesitated a moment. "I'm not an Episcopalian," she replied;
"I'm a good Unitarian."
"Well, I'm a poor Episcopalian. It's six of one and half a dozen of
the other." There came another long, many-sheeted flash and an
immediate wild reverberation. My companion. as she stood before me, was
vividly illumined from head to foot. It was as if some fierce natural
power had designed to interpose her image on my soul forever, in this
merciless electric glare. As I saw her then, I have never ceased to see
her since. I have called her fair, but the word needs explanation.
Singularly pleasing as she was, it was with a charm that was all her
own. Not the charm of beauty, but of a certain intense expressiveness,
which seems to have given beauty the go-by in the very interest of
grace. Slender, meagre, without redundancy of outline or brilliancy of
color, she was a person you might never have noticed, but would
certainly never forget. What there was was so charming, what there
might be so interesting! There was none of the idleness of conscious
beauty in her clear gray eyes; they seemed charged with the impatience
of a restless mind. Her glance and smile, her step and gesture, were as
light and distinct as a whispered secret. She was nervous, curious,
zealous, slightly imperious, and delicately elegant withal; without
which, possibly, she might have seemed a trifle too positive. There is
a certain sweet unreason in a picturesque toilet. She was dressed in a
modish adjustment of muslins and lace, which denoted the woman who may
have fancied that even less beauty might yet please. While I drew my
conclusions,—they were eminently flattering,—my companion was
buttoning her gloves and looking anxiously at the dripping windows.
Wishing, as far as I might, to beguile her impatience, I proceeded to
apologize for the liberty I had taken in singing to her music. "My best
excuse," I said, "is your admirable playing, and my own most sensitive
"You might have frightened me away," she answered. "But you sang
too well for that, better than I played. In fact, I was afraid to stop,
I thought you might be one of the—the hierarchy."
"A bishop,—a dean,—a deacon, or something of that sort."
"The sexton, perhaps."
"Before the sexton I should have succumbed. I take it his business
would have been to eject me as a meddlesome heretic. I came in for no
better reason than that the church door was ajar."
"As a church door ought always to be."
She looked at me a moment. "No; see what comes of it."
"No great harm, it seems to me."
"O, that's very well for us! But a church shouldn't be made a place
I wished, in the interest of our growing intimacy, to make a point.
"If it is not a place of convenience," I ventured to propound,
deprecating offence with a smile, "what is it?"
It was an observation I afterwards made, that in cases when many
women drop their eyes and look prettily silly or prudishly alarmed,
this young lady's lucid glance would become more unaffectedly direct
and searching. "Indeed," she answered, "you are but an
indifferent Episcopalian! I came in because the door was open, because
I was warm with my walk, and because, I confess, I have an especial
fondness for going into churches on week-days. One does it in Europe,
you know; and it reminds me of Europe."
I cast a glance over the naked tabernacle, with the counterfeit
graining scarcely dry on its beams and planks, and a strong aroma of
turpentine and putty representing the odor of sanctity. She followed my
glance; our eyes met, and we laughed. From this moment we talked with a
freedom tempered less by the sanctity of the spot than by a certain
luxury of deference with which I felt prompted to anticipate possible
mistrust. The rain continued to descend with such steady good-will that
it seemed needful to accept our situation frankly and conjure away the
spirit of awkwardness. We spoke of L—-, of the people there, of the
hot weather, of music. She had as yet seen little of the place, having
been confined to her apartments by domestic reasons. I wondered what
her domestic reasons were. She had come forth at last to call upon a
friend at one of the boarding-houses which adorned this suburb of the
village. Her friend being out, but likely soon to return, she had
sought entertainment in a stroll along the road, and so had wandered
into the chapel. Our interview lasted half an hour. As it drew to a
close, I fancied there had grown up between us some delicate bond,
begotten of our mutual urbanity. I might have been indiscreet; as it
was, I took my pleasure in tracing the gradual evanescence of my
companion's sense of peril. As the moments elapsed, she sat down on the
bench with an air of perfect equanimity, and looked patiently at the
trickling windows. The still small voice of some familiar spirit of the
Lord, haunting the dedicated vault, seemed to have audibly blessed our
meeting. At last the rain abated and suddenly stopped, and through a
great rift in the clouds there leaped a giant sunbeam and smote the
trickling windows. Through little gaudy lozenges the chapel was flooded
with prismatic light. "The storm is over," said my companion. She spoke
without rising, as if she had been cheated of the sense of haste. Was
it calculated civility, or was it momentary self-oblivion? Whatever it
was, it lasted but a moment. We were on our feet and moving toward the
door. As we stood in the porch, honest gallantry demanded its rights.
"I never knew before," I said, "the possible blessings of a summer
She proceeded a few steps before she answered. Then glancing at the
shing sky, already blue and free, "In ten minutes," she said, "there
will be no trace of it!"
"Does that mean," I frankly demanded, "that we are not to meet
again as friends?"
"Are we to meet again at all?"
"I count upon it."
"Certainly, then, not as enemies!" As she walked away, I imprecated
those restrictions of modern civilization which forbade me to stand and
gaze at her.
Who was she? What was she?—questions the more intense as, in the
absence of any further evidence than my rapid personal impression, they
were so provokingly vain. They occupied me, however, during the couple
of hours which were to elapse before my step-brother's arrival. When
his train became due, I went through the form, as usual, of feeling
desperately like treating myself to the luxury of neglecting his
summons and leaving him to shift for himself; as if I had not the most
distinct prevision of the inevitable event,—of my being at the station
half an hour too early, of my calling his hack and making his bargain
and taking charge of his precious little hand-bag, full of
medicine-bottles, and his ridiculous bundle of umbrellas and canes.
Somehow, this evening, I felt unwontedly loath and indocile; but I
contented myself with this bold flight of the imagination.
It is hard to describe fairly my poor step-brother's peculiar turn
of mind, to give an adequate impression of his want of social charm, to
put it mildly, without accusing him of wilful malevolence. He was
simply the most consistent and incorruptible of egotists. He was
perpetually affirming and defining and insuring himself, insisting upon
a personal right or righting a personal wrong. And above all, he was a
man of conscience. He asked no odds, and he gave none. He made honesty
something unlovely, but he was rigidly honest. He demanded simply his
dues, and he collected them to the last farthing. These things gave him
a portentous solemnity. He smiled perhaps once a month, and made a joke
once in six. There are jokes of his making which, to this day, give me
a shiver when I think of them. But I soon perceived, as he descended
from the train, that there would be no joke that evening. Something had
happened. His face was hard and sombre, and his eye bright and fierce.
"A carriage," he said, giving me his hand stiffly. And when we were
seated and driving away, "First of all," he demanded, "are there any
mosquitoes? A single mosquito would finish me. And is my room
habitable, on the shady side, away from the stairs, with a view, with a
hair-mattress?" I assured him that mosquitoes were unknown, and that
his room was the best, and his mattress the softest in the house. Was
he tired? how had he been?
"Don't ask me. I'm in an extremely critical state. Tired? Tired is
a word for well people! When I'm tired I shall go to bed and die. Thank
God, so long as I have any work to do, I can hold up my head! I haven't
slept in a week. It's singular, but I'm never so well disposed for my
duties as when I haven't slept! But be so good, for the present, as to
ask me no questions. I shall immediately take a bath and drink some
arrow-root; I have brought a package in my bag, I suppose I can get
them to make it. I'll speak about it at the office. No, I think, on the
whole, I'll make it in my room; I have a little machine for boiling
water. I think I shall drink half a glass of the spring to-night, just
to make a beginning."
All this was said with as profound a gravity as if he were
dictating his will. But I saw that he was at a sort of white-heat
exasperation, and I knew that in time I should learn where the shoe
pinched. Meanwhile, I attempted to say something cheerful and
frivolous, and offered some information as to who was at the hotel and
who was expected; "No one you know or care about, I think."
"Very likely not. I'm in no mood for gossip."
"You seem nervous," I ventured to say.
"Nervous? Call it frantic! I'm not blessed with your apathetic
temperament, nor with your elegant indifference to money-matters. Do
you know what's the matter with me? I've lost twenty thousand dollars."
I, of course, demanded particulars; but, for the present, I had to
content myself with the naked fact. "It's a mighty serious matter,"
said Edgar. "I can't talk of it further till I have bathed and changed
my linen. The thermometer has been at ninety-one in my rooms in town.
I've had this pretty piece of news to keep me cool."
I left him to his bath, his toilet, and his arrow-root and strolled
about pondering the mystery of his disaster. Truly, if Edgar had lost
money, shrewdness was out of tune. Destiny must have got up early to
outwit my step-brother. And yet his misfortune gave him a sort of
unwonted grace, and I believe I wondered for five minutes whether there
was a chance of his being relaxed and softened by it. I had, indeed, a
momentary vision of lending him money, and taking a handsome revenge as
a good-natured creditor. But Edgar would never borrow. He would either
recover his money or grimly do without it. On going back to his room I
found him dressed and refreshed, screwing a little portable kettle upon
"You can never get them to bring you water that really boils," he
said. "They don't know what it means. You're altogether wrong about the
mosquitoes; I'm sure I heard one, and by the sound, he's a monster. But
I have a net folded up in my trunk, and a hook and ring which I mean to
drive into the ceiling."
"I'll put up your net. Meanwhile, tell me about your twenty
He was silent awhile, but at last he spoke in a voice forcibly
attuned to composure. "You're immensely tickled, I suppose, to find me
losing money! That comes of worrying too much and handling my funds too
often. Yes, I have worried too much." He paused, and then,
suddenly, he broke out into a kind of fury. "I hate waste, I hate
shiftlessness, I hate nasty mismanagement! I hate to see money bring in
less than it may. My imagination loves a good investment. I respect my
property, I respect other people's. But your own honesty is all you'll
find in this world, and it will go no farther than you're there to
carry it. You've always thought me hard and suspicious and grasping.
No, you never said so; should I have cared if you had? With your means,
it's all very well to be a fine gentleman, to skip the items and glance
at the total. But, being poor and sick, I have to be close. I wasn't
close enough. What do you think of my having been cheated?—cheated
under my very nose? I hope I'm genteel enough now!"
"I should like to see the man!" I cried.
"You shall see him. All the world shall see him. I've been looking
into the matter. It has been beautifully done. If I were to be a
rascal, I should like to be just such a one."
"Who is your rascal?"
"His name is John Guest."
I had heard the name, but had never seen the man.
"No, you don't know him," Edgar went on. "No one knows him but I.
But I know him well. He had things in his hands for a week, while I was
debating a transfer of my New Jersey property. In a week this is how he
"Perhaps, if you had given him time," I suggested, "he meant to get
them straight again."
"O, I shall give him time. I mean he shall get 'em straight, or I
shall twist him so crooked his best friend won't know him."
"Did you never suspect his honesty?"
"Do you suspect mine?"
"But you have legal redress?"
"It's no thanks to him. He had fixed things to a charm, he had done
his best to cut me off and cover his escape. But I've got him, and he
I hardly know why it was; but the implacable firmness of my
brother's position produced in my mind a sort of fantastic reaction in
favor of Mr. John Guest. I felt a sudden gush of the most inconsequent
pity. "Poor man!" I exclaimed. But to repair my weakness, I plunged
into a series of sympathetic questions and listened attentively to
Edgar's statement of his wrongs. As he set forth the case, I found
myself taking a whimsical interest in Mr. Guest's own side of it,
wondering whether he suspected suspicion, whether he dreaded
conviction, whether he had an easy conscience, and how he was getting
through the hot weather. I asked Edgar how lately he had discovered his
loss and whether he had since communicated with the criminal.
"Three days ago, three nights ago, rather; for I haven't slept a
wink since. I have spoken of the matter to no one; for the present I
need no one's help, I can help myself. I haven't seen the man more than
three or four times; our dealings have generally been by letter. The
last person you'd suspect. He's as great a dandy as you yourself, and
in better taste, too. I was told ten days ago, at his office, that he
had gone out of town. I suppose I'm paying for his champagne at
On my proposing, half an hour later, to relieve him of my society
and allow him to prepare for rest, Edgar declared that our talk had put
an end to sleep and that he must take a turn in the open air. On
descending to the piazza, we found it in the deserted condition into
which it usually lapsed about ten o'clock; either from a wholesome
desire on the part of our fellow-lodgers to keep classic country hours,
or from the soporific influences of excessive leisure. Here and there
the warm darkness was relieved by the red tip of a cigar in suggestive
proximity to a light corsage. I observed, as we strolled along, a lady
of striking appearance, seated in the zone of light projected from a
window, in conversation with a gentleman. "Really, I'm afraid you'll
take cold," I heard her say as we passed. "Let me tie my handkerchief
round your neck." And she gave it a playful twist. She was a pretty
woman, of middle age, with great freshness of toilet and complexion,
and a picturesque abundance of blond hair, upon which was coquettishly
poised a fantastic little hat, decorated with an immense pink rose. Her
companion was a seemingly affable man, with a bald head, a white
waistcoat, and a rather florid air of distinction. When we passed them
a second time, they had risen and the lady was preparing to enter the
house. Her companion went with her to the door; she left him with a
great deal of coquettish by-play, and he turned back to the piazza. At
this moment his glance fell upon my step-brother. He started, I
thought, and then, replacing his hat with an odd, nervous decision,
came towards him with a smile. "Mr. Musgrave!" he said.
Edgar stopped short, and for a moment seemed to lack words to
reply. At last he uttered a deep, harsh note: "Mr. Guest!"
In an instant I felt that I was in the presence of a "situation."
Edgar's words had the sound of the "click" upon the limb of the
entrapped fox. A scene was imminent; the actors were only awaiting
their cues. Mr. Guest made a half-offer of his hand, but, perceiving no
response in Edgar's, he gracefully dipped it into his pocket. "You must
have just come!" he murmured.
"A couple of hours ago."
Mr. Guest glanced at me, as if to include me in the operation of
his urbanity, and his glance stirred in my soul an impulse of that
kindness which we feel for a man about to be executed. It's no more
than human to wish to shake hands with him. "Introduce me, Edgar," I
"My step-brother," said Edgar, curtly. "This is Mr. Guest, of whom
we have been talking."
I put out my hand; he took it with cordiality. "Really," he
declared, "this is a most unexpected—a—circumstance."
"Altogether so to me," said Edgar.
"You've come for the waters, I suppose," our friend went on. "I'm
sorry your health continues—a—unsatisfactory."
Edgar, I perceived, was in a state of extreme nervous exacerbation,
the result partly of mere surprise and partly of keen disappointment.
His plans had been checked. He had determined to do thus and so, and he
must now extemporize a policy. Well, as poor, pompous Mr. Guest wished
it, so he should have it! "I shall never be strong," said Edgar.
"Well, well," responded Mr. Guest, "a man of your parts may make a
little strength serve a great purpose."
My step-brother was silent a moment, relishing secretly, I think,
the beautiful pertinence of this observation. "I suppose I can defend
my rights," he rejoined.
"Exactly! What more does a man need?" and he appealed to me with an
insinuating smile. His smile was singularly frank and agreeable, and
his glance full of a sort of conciliating gallantry. I noted in his
face, however, by the gaslight, a haggard, jaded look which lent force
to what he went on to say. "I have been feeling lately as if I hadn't
even strength for that. The hot weather, an overdose of this abominable
water, one thing and another, the inevitable premonitions
of—a—mortality, have quite pulled me down. Since my arrival here, ten
days ago, I have really been quite—a—the invalid. I've actually been
in bed. A most unprecedented occurrence!"
"I hope you're better," I ventured to say.
"Yes, I think I'm myself again,—thanks to capital nursing. I think
I'm myself again!" He repeated his words mechanically, with a sort of
exaggerated gayety, and began to wipe his forehead with his
handkerchief. Edgar was watching him narrowly, with an eye whose
keenness it was impossible to veil; and I think Edgar's eye partly
caused his disquiet. "The last thing I did, by the way, before my
indisposition, was to write you ten lines, Mr. Musgrave, on—a little
matter of business."
"I got your letter," said Edgar, grimly.
Mr. Guest was silent a moment. "And I hope my arrangements have met
"We shall talk of that," said Edgar.
At this point, I confess, my interest in the situation had become
painful. I felt sick. I'm not a man of ready-made resolution, as my
story will abundantly prove. I am discountenanced and bullied by
disagreeable things. Poor Mr. Guest was so infallibly booked for
exposure that I instinctively retreated. Taking advantage of his
allusion to business, I turned away and walked to the other end of the
piazza. This genial gentleman, then, was embodied fraud! this sayer of
civil things was a doer of monstrously shabby ones! that irreproachable
white waistcoat carried so sadly spotted a conscience! Whom had he
involved in his dishonor? Had he a wife, children, friends? Who was
that so prosperously pretty woman, with her flattering solicitude for
his health? I stood for some time reflecting how guilt is not the
vulgar bugaboo we fancy it,—that it has organs, senses, affections,
passions, for all the world like those of innocence. Indeed, from my
cursory observation of my friend, I had rarely seen innocence so
handsomely featured. Where, then, was the line which severed rectitude
from error? Was manhood a baser thing than I had fancied, or was sin a
thing less base? As I mused thus, my disgust ebbed away, and the return
of the wave brought an immense curiosity to see what it had come to
betwixt guilt and justice. Had Edgar launched his thunder? I retraced
my steps and rejoined my companions. Edgar's thunder was apparently
still in the clouds; but there had been a premonitory flash of
lightning. Guest stood before him, paler than before, staring
defiantly, and stammering out some fierce denial. "I don't understand
you," he said. "If you mean what you seem to mean, you mean rank
"I mean the truth," said Edgar. "It's a pity the truth should be
Guest glared a moment, like a man intently taking thought for
self-defence. But he was piteously unmasked. His genial smile had taken
flight and left mere vulgar confusion. "This is between ourselves,
sir," he cried, angrily turning to me.
"A thousand pardons," I said, and passed along. I began to be
doubtful as to the issue of the quarrel. Edgar had right on his side,
but, under the circumstances, he might not have force. Guest was
altogether the stouter, bigger, weightier person. I turned and observed
them from a distance. Edgar's thunderbolt had fallen and his victim
stood stunned. He was leaning against the balustrade of the piazza,
with his chin on his breast and his eyes sullenly fixed on his
adversary, demoralized and convicted. His hat had dropped upon the
floor. Edgar seemed to have made a proposal; with a passionate gesture
he repeated it. Guest slowly stooped and picked up his hat, and Edgar
led the way toward the house. A series of small sitting-rooms opened by
long windows upon the piazza. These were for the most part lighted and
empty. Edgar selected one of them, and, stopping before the window,
beckoned to me to come to him. Guest, as I advanced, bestowed upon me a
scowl of concentrated protest. I felt, for my own part, as if I were
horribly indelicate. Between Edgar and him it was a question of morals,
but between him and myself it was, of course, but one of manners. "Be
so good as to walk in," said Edgar, turning to me with a smile of
unprecedented suavity. I might have resisted his dictation; I couldn't
"In God's name, what do you mean to do?" demanded Guest.
"My duty!" said Edgar. "Go in."
We passed into the room. The door of the corridor was open; Guest
closed it with a passionate kick. Edgar shut the long window and
dropped the curtain. In the same fury of mortification, Guest turned
out one of the two burners of the chandelier. There was still light
enough, however, for me to see him more distinctly than on the piazza.
He was tallish and stoutish, and yet sleek and jaunty. His fine blue
eye was a trifle weak, perhaps, and his handsome grizzled beard was
something too foppishly trimmed; but, on the whole, he was a most
comely man. He was dressed with the punctilious elegance of a man who
loved luxury and appreciated his own good points. A little moss-rosebud
figured in the lappet of his dark-blue coat. His whole person seemed
redolent of what are called the "feelings of a gentleman." Confronted
and contrasted with him under the lamp, my step-brother seemed wofully
mean and grotesque; though for a conflict of forces that lay beneath
the surface, he was visibly the better equipped of the two. He seemed
to tremble and quiver with inexorable purpose. I felt that he would
heed no admonitory word of mine, that I could not in the least hope to
blunt the edge of his resentment, and that I must on the instant decide
either to stand by him or leave him. But while I stood thus
ungraciously gazing at poor Guest, the instant passed. Curiosity and a
mingled sympathy with each—to say nothing of a touch of that relish
for a fight inherent in the truly masculine bosom—sealed my lips and
arrested my steps. And yet my heart paid this graceful culprit the
compliment of beating very violently on his behalf.
"I wish you to repeat before my brother," said Edgar, "the three
succinct denials to which you have just treated me."
Guest looked at the ceiling with a trembling lip. Then dropping
upon the sofa, he bean to inspect his handsome finger-nails
mechanically, in the manner of one who hears in some horrible hush of
all nature the nearing footsteps of doom. "Come, repeat them!" cried
Edgar. "It's really delicious. You never wrote to Stevens that you had
my assent in writing to the sale of the bonds. You never showed Stevens
my telegram from Boston, and assured him that my `Do as you think best'
was a permission to raise money on them. If it's not forgery sir, it's
next door to it, and a very flimsy partition between."
Guest leaned back on the sofa, with his hands grasping his knees.
"You might have let things stand a week or so," he said, with unnatural
mildness. "You might have had common patience. Good God, there's a
gentlemanly way of doing things! A man doesn't begin to roar for a
pinch. I would have got things square again."
"O, it would have been a pity to spoil them! It was such a pretty
piece of knavery! Give the devil his due!"
"I would have rearranged matters," Guest went on. "It was just a
temporary convenience. I supposed I was dealing with a man of common
courtesy. But what are you to say to a gentleman who says, 'Sir, I
trust you,' and then looks through the keyhole?"
"Upon my word, when I hear you scuttling through the window," cried
Edgar, "I think it's time I should break down the door. For God's sake,
don't nauseate me with any more lies! You know as well as you sit
there, that you had neither chance nor means nor desire to redeem your
fraud. You'd cut the bridge behind you! You thought you'd been knowing
enough to eat your cake and have it, to lose your virtue and keep your
reputation, to sink half my property through a trap-door and then stand
whistling and looking t' other way while I scratched my head and
wondered what the devil was in it! Sit down there and write me your
note for twenty thousand dollars at twenty days."
Guest was silent a moment. "Propose something reasonable," he said,
with the same tragic gentleness.
"I shall let the law reason about it."
Guest gave a little start and fixed his eyes on the ground. "The
law wouldn't help you," he answered, without looking up.
"Indeed! do you think it would help
you? Stoddard and Hale
will help me. I spoke to them this morning."
Guest sprang to his feet. "Good heavens! I hope you mentioned no
"Only one!" said Edgar.
Guest wiped his forehead and actually tried to smile. "That was
your own, of course! Well, sir, I hope they advised you to—a—temper
justice with mercy."
"They are not parsons, Mr. Guest; they are lawyers. They accept the
Guest dropped on the sofa, buried his face in his hands, and burst
into tears. "0 my soul!" he cried. His soul, poor man! was a rough term
for name and fame and comfort and all that made his universe. It was a
"Look here, Edgar," I said. "Don't press things too hard. I'm not a
"No, you've not that excuse for your sentimentality!" Edgar broke
out. "Here it is, of course! Here come folly and fear and ignorance
maundering against the primary laws of life! Is rascality alone of all
things in the world to be handled without gloves? Didn't he press me
hard? He's danced his dance,—let him pay the piper! Am I a child, a
woman, a fool, to stand and haggle with a swindler? Am I to go to the
wall to make room for impudent fraud? Not while I have eyes to know
black from white! I'm a decent man. I'm this or I'm nothing. For twenty
years I've done my best for order and thrift and honesty. I've never
yielded an inch to the detestable sharp practice that meets one
nowadays at every turn. I've hated fraud as I hate all bad economy;
I've no more patience with it than a bull with a red rag. Fraud is
fraud; it's waste, it's wantonness, it's chaos; and I shall never give
it the go-by. When I catch it, I shall hold it fast, and call all
honest men to see how vile and drivelling a thing it is!"
Guest sat rigidly fixed, with his eyes on the carpet. "Do you
expect to get your money?" he finally demanded.
"My money be hanged! I expect to let people know how they may be
served if they intrust their affairs to you! A man's property, sir, is
a man's person. It's as if you had given me a blow in the chest!"
Guest came towards him and took him by the button-hole. "Now see
here," he said, with the same desperate calmness. "You call yourself a
practical man. Don't go on like one of those d—d long-haired
reformers. You're off the track. Don't attempt too much. Don't make me
confoundedly uncomfortable out of pure fantasticality. Come, sir,
you're a man of the world." And he patted him gently on the shoulder.
"Give me a chance. I confess to not having been quite square. There! My
very dear sir, let me get on my legs again."
"0, you confess!" cried Edgar. "That's a vast comfort. You'll never
do it again! Not if I know it. But other people, eh? Suppose I had been
a decent widow with six children, and not a penny but that! You'd
confess again, I suppose. Would your confession butter their bread! Let
your confession be public!"
is public!" and Guest, with averted eyes,
jerked his head towards me.
"0, my step-brother! Why, he's the most private creature in the
world. Cheat him and he'll thank you! David, I retain you as a witness
that Mr. Guest has confessed."
"Nothing will serve you then? You mean to prosecute?"
"I mean to prosecute."
The poor man's face flushed crimson, and the great sweat-drops
trickled from his temples. "0 you blundering brute!" he cried. "Do you
know what you mean when you say that? Do we live in a civilized world?"
"Not altogether," said Edgar. "But I shall help it along."
"Have you lived among decent people? Have you known women whom it
was an honor to please? Have you cared for name and fame and love? Have
you had a dear daughter?"
"If I had a dear daughter," cried Edgar, flinching the least bit at
this outbreak, "I trust my dear daughter would have kept me honest! Not
the sin, then, but the detection unfits a man for ladies' society!—Did
you kiss your daughter the day you juggled away my bonds?"
"If it will avail with you, I didn't. Consider her feelings. My
fault has been that I have been too tender a father,—that I have loved
the poor girl better than my own literal integrity. I became
embarrassed because I hadn't the heart to tell her that she must spend
less money. As if to the wisest, sweetest girl in the world a whisper
wouldn't have sufficed! As if five minutes of her divine advice
wouldn't have set me straight again! But the stress of my embarrassment
"Embarrassment!" Edgar broke in. "That may mean anything. In the
case of an honest man it may be a motive for leniency; in that of a
knave it's a ground for increased suspicion."
Guest, I felt, was a good-natured sinner. Just as he lacked
rectitude of purpose, he lacked rigidity of temper, and he found in the
mysteries of his own heart no clew to my step-brother's monstrous
implacability. Looking at him from head to foot with a certain
dignity,— a reminiscence of his former pomposity,—"I do you the
honor, sir," he said, "to believe you are insane."
"Stuff and nonsense! you believe nothing of the sort," cried Edgar.
I saw that Guest's opposition was acting upon him as a lively
irritant. "Isn't it possible," I asked, "to adopt some compromise?
You're not as forgiving a man under the circumstances as I should be."
"In these things," retorted Edgar, without ceremony, "a forgiving
man is a fool."
"Well, take a fool's suggestion. You can perhaps get satisfaction
without taking your victim into court.—Let Mr. Guest write his
Guest had not directly looked at me since we entered the room. At
these words he slowly turned and gave me a sombre stare by which the
brilliancy of my suggestion seemed somewhat obscured. But my
interference was kindly meant, and his reception of it seemed rather
ungrateful. At best, however, I could be but a thorn in his side. I had
done nothing to earn my sport. Edgar hereupon flourished his hand as if
to indicate the superfluity of my advice. "All in good time, if you
please. If I'm insane, there's a method in my madness!" He paused, and
his eyes glittered with an intensity which might indeed, for the
moment, have seemed to be that of a disordered brain. I wondered what
was coming. "Do me the favor to get down on your knees." Guest jerked
himself up as if he had received a galvanic shock. "Yes, I know what I
say,—on your knees. Did you never say your prayers? You can't get out
of a tight place without being squeezed. I won't take less. I sha'n't
[sic] feel like an honest man till I've seen you there at my feet."
There was in the contrast between the inflated self-complacency of
Edgar's face as he made this speech, and the blank horror of the
other's as he received it, something so poignantly grotesque that it
acted upon my nerves like a mistimed joke, and I burst into
irrepressible laughter. Guest walked away to the window with some
muttered imprecation, pushed aside the curtain, and stood looking out.
Then, with a sudden turn, he marched back and stood before my brother.
He was drenched with perspiration. "A moment," said Edgar. "You're very
hot. Take off your coat." Guest, to my amazement, took it off and flung
it upon the floor. "Your shirt-sleeves will serve as a kind of
sackcloth and ashes. Fold your hands, so. Now, beg my pardon."
It was a revolting sight,—this man of ripe maturity and massive
comeliness on his two knees, his pale face bent upon his breast, his
body trembling with the effort to keep his shameful balance; and above
him Edgar, with his hands behind his back, solemn and ugly as a
miniature idol, with his glittering eyes fixed in a sort of rapture on
the opposite wall. I walked away to the window. There was a perfect
stillness, broken only by Guest's hard breathing. I have no notion how
long it lasted; when I turned back into the room he was still
speechless and fixed, as if he were ashamed to rise. Edgar pointed to a
blotting-book and inkstand which stood on a small table against the
wall. "See if there is pen and paper!" I obeyed and made a clatter at
the table, to cover our companion's retreat. When I had laid out a
sheet of paper he was on his feet again. "Sit down and write," Edgar
went on. Guest picked up his coat and busied himself mechanically with
brushing off the particles of dust. Then he put it on and sat down at
"I dictate," Edgar began. "I hereby, at the command of Edgar
Musgrave, Esq., whom I have grossly wronged, declare myself a
swindler." At these words, Guest laid down the pen and sank back in his
chair, emitting long groans, like a man with a violent toothache. But
he had taken that first step which costs, and after a moment's rest he
started afresh. "I have on my bended knees, in the presence of Mr.
Musgrave and his step-brother, expressed my contrition; in
consideration of which Mr. Musgrave forfeits his incontestable right to
publish his injury in a court of justice. Furthermore, I solemnly
declare myself his debtor in the sum of twenty thousand dollars; which,
on his remission of the interest, and under pain of exposure in a
contrary event, I pledge myself to repay at the earliest possible
moment. I thank Mr. Musgrave for his generosity."
Edgar spoke very slowly, and the scratching of Guest's pen kept
pace with his words. "Now sign and date," he said; and the other, with
a great heroic dash, consummated this amazing document. He then pushed
it away, and rose and bestowed upon us a look which I long remembered.
An outraged human soul was abroad in the world, with which henceforth I
felt I should have somehow to reckon.
Edgar possessed himself of the paper and read it coolly to the end,
without blushing. Happy Edgar! Guest watched him fold it and put it
into his great morocco pocket-book. "I suppose," said Guest, "that this
is the end of your generosity."
"I have nothing further to remark," said Edgar.
"Have you, by chance, anything to remark, Mr. Step-brother?"
Guest demanded, turning to me, with a fierceness which showed how my
presence galled him.
I had been, to my own sense, so abjectly passive during the whole
scene that, to reinstate myself as a responsible creature, I attempted
to utter an original sentiment. "I pity you," I said.
But I had not been happy in my choice. "Faugh, you great hulking
brute!" Guest roared, for an answer.
The scene at this point might have passed into another phase, had
it not been interrupted by the opening of the door from the corridor.
"A lady!" announced a servant, flinging it back.
The lady revealed herself as the friend with whom Guest had been in
conversation on the piazza. She was apparently, of his nature, not a
person to mind the trifle of her friend's being accompanied by two
unknown gentlemen, and she advanced, shawled as if for departure, and
smiling reproachfully. "Ah, you ungrateful creature," she cried,
"you've lost my rosebud!"
Guest came up smiling, as they say. "Your own hands fastened
it!—Where is my daughter?"
"She's coming. We've been looking for you, high and low. What on
earth have you been doing here? Business? You've no business with
business. You came here to rest. Excuse me, gentlemen! My carriage has
been waiting this ten minutes. Give me your arm."
It seemed to me time we should disembarrass the poor man of our
presence. I opened the window and stepped out upon the piazza. Just as
Edgar had followed me, a young lady hastily entered the room.
"My dearest father!" she exclaimed.
Looking at her unseen from without, I recognized with amazement my
charming friend of the Episcopal chapel, the woman to whom—I felt it
now with a sort of convulsion—I had dedicated a sentiment.
My discovery gave me that night much to think of, and I thought of
it more than I slept. My foremost feeling was one of blank dismay as if
Misfortune, whom I had been used to regard as a good-natured sort of
goddess, who came on with an easy stride, letting off signals of
warning to those who stood in her path, should have blinded her lantern
and muffled her steps in order to steal a march on poor me,—of all
men in the world! It seemed a hideous practical joke. "If I had
known,—if I had only known!" I kept restlessly repeating. But towards
morning, "Say I had known," I asked myself, "could I have acted
otherwise? I might have protested by my absence; but would I not thus
have surrendered poor Guest to the vengeance of a very Shylock? Had not
that suggestion of mine divested [sic] the current of Edgar's wrath and
saved his adversary from the last dishonor? Without it, Edgar would
have held his course and demanded his pound of flesh!" Say what I
would, however, I stood confronted with this acutely uncomfortable
fact, that by lending a hand at that revolting interview, I had struck
a roundabout blow at the woman to whom I owed a signally sweet
impression. Well, my blow would never reach her, and I would devise
some kindness that should! So I consoled myself, and in the midst of my
regret I found a still further compensation in the thought that chance,
rough-handed though it had been, had forged between us a stouter bond
than any I had ventured to dream of as I walked sentimental a few hours
before. Her father's being a rascal threw her image into more eloquent
relief. If she suspected it, she had all the interest of sorrow; if
not, she wore the tender grace of danger.
The result of my meditations was that I determined to defer
indefinitely my departure from L—-. Edgar informed me, in the course
of the following day, that Guest had gone by the early train to New
York, and that his daughter had left the hotel (where my not having met
her before was apparently the result of her constant attendance on her
father during his illness) and taken up her residence with the lady in
whose company we had seen her. Mrs. Beck, Edgar had learned this lady's
name to be; and I fancied it was upon her that Miss Guest had made her
morning call. To begin with, therefore, I knew where to look for her,
"That's the charming girl," I said to Edgar, "whom you might have
plunged into disgrace."
"How do you know she's charming?" he asked.
"I judge by her face."
"Humph! Judge her father by his face and
I was on the point of assuring my step-brother that no such thing
could be said of him; but in fact he had suddenly assumed a singularly
fresh and jovial air. "I don't know what it is," he said, "but I feel
like a trump; I haven't stood so firm on my legs in a twelvemonth. I
wonder whether the waters have already begun to act. Really, I'm
elated. Suppose, in the afternoon of my life, I were to turn out a
sound man. It winds me up, sir. I shall take another glass before
To do Miss Guest a kindness, I reflected, I must see her again. How
to compass an interview and irradiate my benevolence, it was not easy
to determine. Sooner or later, of course, the chances of watering-place
life would serve me. Meanwhile, I felt most agreeably that here was
something more finely romantic than that feverish dream of my youth,
treating Edgar some fine day to the snub direct. Assuredly, I was not
in love; I had cherished a youthful passion, and I knew the signs and
symptoms; but I was in a state of mind that really gave something of
the same zest to consciousness. For a couple of days I watched and
waited for my friend in those few public resorts in which the little
world of L—- used most to congregate,—the drive, the walk, the
post-office, and the vicinage of the spring. At last, as she was
nowhere visible, I betook myself to the little Episcopal chapel, and
strolled along the road, past a scattered cluster of decent
boarding-houses, in one of which I imagined her hidden. But most of
them had a shady strip of garden stretching toward the river, and
thitherward, of course, rather than upon the public road, their inmates
were likely to turn their faces. A happy accident at last came to my
aid. After three or four days at the hotel, Edgar began to complain
that the music in the evening kept him awake and to wonder whether he
might find tolerable private lodgings. He was more and more interested
in the waters. I offered, with alacrity, to make inquiries for him, and
as a first step, I returned to the little colony of riverside
boarding-houses. I began with one I had made especial note of,—the
smallest, neatest, and most secluded. The mistress of the establishment
was at a neighbor's, and I was requested to await her return. I stepped
out of the long parlor window, and began hopefully to explore the
garden. My hopes were brightly rewarded. In a shady summer-house, on a
sort of rustic embankment, overlooking the stream, I encountered Miss
Guest and her coquettish duenna. She looked at me for a moment with a
dubious air, as if to satisfy herself that she was distinctly expected
to recognize me, and then, as I stood proclaiming my hopes in an
appealing smile, she bade me a frank good-morning. We talked, I
lingered, and at last, when the proper moment came for my going my way
again, I sat down and paid a call.in form.
"I see you know my name," Miss Guest said, with the peculiar—the
almost boyish—directness which seemed to be her most striking feature;
"I can't imagine how you learned it, but if you'll be so good as to
tell me your own, I'll introduce you to Mrs. Beck. You must learn that
she's my deputed chaperon, my she-dragon, and that I'm not to know you
unless she knows you first and approves."
Mrs. Beck poised a gold eye-glass upon her pretty
nose,— not sorry, I think, to hold it there a moment with a plump
white hand and acquit herself of one of her most effective
manoeuvres,—and glanced at me with mock severity. "He's a
harmless-looking young man, my dear," she declared, "and I don't think
your father would object." And with this odd sanction I became intimate
with Miss Guest,—intimate as, by the soft operation of summer and
rural juxtaposition, an American youth is free to become with an
American maid. I had told my friends, of course, the purpose of my
visit, and learned, with complete satisfaction, that there was no
chance for Mr. Musgrave, as they occupied the only three comfortable
rooms in the house,—two as bedrooms, the third as a common parlor.
Heaven forbid that I should introduce Edgar dans cette galere. I
inquired elsewhere, but saw nothing I could recommend, and, on making
my report to him, found him quite out of conceit of his project. A lady
had just been telling him horrors of the local dietary and making him
feel that he was vastly well off with the heavy bread and cold gravy of
the hotel. It was then too, I think, he first mentioned the symptoms of
that relapse which subsequently occurred. He would run no risks.
I had prepared Miss Guest, I fancy, to regard another visit as a
matter of course. I paid several in rapid succession; for, under the
circumstances, it would have been a pity to be shy. Her father, she
told me, expected to be occupied for three or four weeks in New York,
so that for the present I was at ease on that score. If I was to
please, I must go bravely to work. So I burned my ships behind me, and
blundered into gallantry with an ardor over which, in my absence, the
two ladies must have mingled their smiles. I don't suppose I passed for
an especially knowing fellow; but I kept my friends from wearying of
each other (for such other chance acquaintances as the place afforded
they seemed to have little inclination), and by my services as a
retailer of the local gossip, a reader of light literature, an explorer
and suggester of drives and strolls, and, more particularly, as an
oarsman in certain happy rowing-parties on the placid river whose slow,
safe current made such a pretty affectation of Mrs. Beck's little
shrieks and shudders, I very fairly earned my welcome. That detestable
scene at the hotel used to seem a sort of horrid fable as I sat in the
sacred rural stillness, in that peaceful streamside nook, learning
what a divinely honest girl she was, this daughter of the man whose
dishonesty I had so complacently attested. I wasted many an hour in
wondering on what terms she stood with her father's rankling secret,
with his poor pompous peccability in general, if not with Edgar's
particular grievance. I used to fancy that certain momentary snatches
of revery in the midst of our gayety, and even more, certain effusions
of wilful and excessive gayety at our duller moments, portended some
vague torment in her filial heart. She would quit her place and wander
apart for a while, leaving me to gossip it out with Mrs. Beck, as if
she were oppressed by the constant need of seeming interested in us.
But she would come back with a face that told so few tales that I
always ended by keeping my compassion in the case for myself, and being
reminded afresh, by my lively indisposition to be thus grossly lumped,
as it were, with the duenna, of how much I was interested in the
damsel. In truth, the romance of the matter apart, Miss Guest was a
lovely girl. I had read her dimly in the little chapel, but I had read
her aright. Felicity in freedom, that was her great charm. I have never
known a woman so simply and sincerely original, so finely framed to
enlist the imagination and hold expectation in suspense, and yet leave
the judgment in such blissful quietude. She had a genius for frankness;
this was her only coquetry and her only cleverness, and a woman could
not have acquitted herself more naturally of the trying and ungracious role of being expected to be startling. It was the pure personal
accent of Miss Guest's walk and conversation that gave them this charm;
everything she did and said was gilded by a ray of conviction; and to a
respectful admirer who had not penetrated to the sources of spiritual
motive in her being, this sweet, natural, various emphasis of conduct
was ineffably provoking. Her creed, as I guessed it, might have been
resumed in the simple notion that a man should do his best; and nature
had treated her, I fancied, to some brighter vision of uttermost
manhood than illumined most honest fellows' consciences. Frank as she
was, I imagined she had a remote reserve of holiest contempt. She made
me feel deplorably ignorant and idle and unambitious, a foolish, boyish
spendthrift of time and strength and means; and I speedily came to
believe that to win her perfect favor was a matter of something more
than undoing a stupid wrong,—doing, namely, some very pretty piece of
right. And she was poor Mr. Guest's daughter, withal! Truly, fate was a
master of irony.
I ought in justice to say that I had Mrs. Beck more particularly to
thank for my welcome, and for the easy terms on which I had become an habitue of the little summer-house by the river. How could I know
how much or how little the younger lady meant by her smiles and
hand-shakes, by laughing at my jokes and consenting to be rowed about
in my boat? Mrs. Beck made no secret of her relish for the society of a
decently agreeable man, or of her deeming some such pastime the
indispensable spice of life; and in Mr. Guest's absence, I was
graciously admitted to competition. The precise nature of their mutual
sentiments—Mr. Guest's and hers —I was slightly puzzled to divine,
and in so far as my conjectures seemed plausible, I confess they served
as but a scanty offset to my knowledge of the gentleman's foibles. This
lady was, to my sense, a very artificial charmer, and I think that a
goodly portion of my admiration for Miss Guest rested upon a little
private theory that for her father's sake she thus heroically accepted
a companion whom she must have relished but little. Mrs. Beck's great
point was her "preservation." It was rather too great a point for my
taste, and partook too much of the nature of a physiological curiosity.
Her age really mattered little, for with as many years as you pleased
one way or the other, she was still a triumph of juvenility. Plump,
rosy, dimpled, frizzled, with rings on her fingers and rosettes on her
toes, she used to seem to me a sort of fantastic vagary or humorous
experiment of time. Or, she might have been fancied a strayed
shepherdess from some rococo Arcadia, which had melted into tradition
during some profane excursion of her own, so that she found herself
saddled in our prosy modern world with this absurdly perpetual prime.
All this was true, at least of her pretty face and figure; but there
was another Mrs. Beck, visible chiefly to the moral eye, who seemed to
me excessively wrinkled and faded and world-wise, and whom I used to
fancy I could hear shaking about in this enamelled envelope, like a
dried nut in its shell. Mrs. Beck's morality was not Arcadian; or if it
was, it was that of a shepherdess with a keen eye to the state of the
wool and the mutton market, and a lively perception of the possible
advantages of judicious partnership. She had no design, I suppose, of
proposing to me a consolidation of our sentimental and pecuniary
interests, but she performed her duties of duenna with such
conscientious precision that she shared my society most impartially
with Miss Guest. I never had the good fortune of finding myself alone
with this young lady. She might have managed it, I fancied, if she had
wished, and the little care she took about it was a sign of that
indifference which stirs the susceptible heart to effort. "It's really
detestable," I at last ventured to seize the chance to declare, "that
you and I should never be alone."
Miss Guest looked at me with an air of surprise. "Your remark is
startling," she said, "unless you have some excellent reason for
demanding this interesting seclusion."
My reason was not ready just yet, but it speedily ripened. A happy
incident combined at once to bring it to maturity and to operate a
diversion for Mrs. Beck. One morning there appeared a certain Mr.
Crawford out of the West, a worthy bachelor who introduced himself to
Mrs. Beck and claimed cousinship. I was present at the moment, and I
could not but admire the skill with which the lady gauged her aspiring
kinsman before saying yea or nay to his claims. I think the large
diamond in his shirt-front decided her; what he may have lacked in
elegant culture was supplied by this massive ornament. Better and
brighter than his diamond, however, was his frank Western bonhomie
, his simple friendliness, and a certain half-boyish modesty which made
him give a humorous twist to any expression of the finer sentiments. He
was a tall, lean gentleman, on the right side of forty, yellow-haired,
with a somewhat arid complexion, an irrepressible tendency to cock back
his hat and chew his toothpick, and a spasmodic liability,
spasmodically repressed when in a sedentary posture, to a centrifugal
movement of the heels. He had a clear blue eye, in which simplicity and
shrewdness contended and mingled in so lively a fashion that his glance
was the oddest dramatic twinkle. He was a genial sceptic. If he
disbelieved much that he saw, he believed everything he fancied, and
for a man who had seen much of the rougher and baser side of life, he
was able to fancy some very gracious things of men, to say nothing of
women. He took his place as a very convenient fourth in our little
party, and without obtruding his eccentricities, or being too often
reminded of a story, like many cooler humorists, he treated us to a
hundred anecdotes of his adventurous ascent of the ladder of fortune.
The upshot of his history was that he was now owner of a silver mine in
Arizona, and that he proposed in his own words to "lay off and choose."
Of the nature of his choice he modestly waived specification; it of
course had reference to the sex of which Mrs. Beck was an ornament. He
lounged about meanwhile with his hands in his pockets, watching the
flies buzz with that air of ecstatically suspended resolve proper to a
man who has sunk a shaft deep into the very stuff that dreams are made
of. But in spite of shyness he exhaled an atmosphere of regretful
celibacy which might have relaxed the conjugal piety of a more tenderly
mourning widow than Mrs. Beck. His bachelor days were evidently
numbered, and unless I was vastly mistaken, it lay in this lady's
discretion to determine the residuary figure. The two were just nearly
enough akin to save a deal of time in courtship.
Crawford had never beheld so finished a piece of ladyhood, and it
pleased and puzzled him and quickened his honest grin very much as a
remarkably neat mechanical toy might have done. Plain people who have
lived close to frank nature often think more of a fine crisp muslin
rose than of a group of dewy petals of garden growth. Before ten days
were past, he had begun to fumble tenderly with the stem of this
unfading flower. Mr. Crawford's petits soins had something too
much of the ring of the small change of the Arizona silver-mine,
consisting largely as they did of rather rudimentary nosegays
compounded by amateur florists from the local front-yards, of huge
bundles of "New York candy" from the village store, and of an infinite
variety of birch-bark and bead-work trinkets. He was no simpleton, and
it occurred to me, indeed, that if these offerings were not the tokens
and pledges of a sentiment, they were the offset and substitute of a
sentiment; but if they were profuse for that, they were scanty for
this. Mrs. Beck, for her part, seemed minded to spin the thread of
decision excessively fine. A silver-mine was all very well, but a lover
fresh from the diggings was to be put on probation. Crawford lodged at
the hotel, and our comings and goings were often made together. He
indulged in many a dry compliment to his cousin, and, indeed, declared
that she was a magnificent little woman. It was with surprise,
therefore, that I learned that his admiration was divided. "I've never
seen one just like her," he said; "one so out and out a woman,—smiles
and tears and everything else! But Clara comes out with her notions,
and a man may know what to expect. I guess I can afford a wife with a
notion or so! Short of the moon, I can give her what she wants." And I
seemed to hear his hands producing in his pockets that Arizonian tinkle
which served with him as the prelude to renewed utterance. He went on,
"And tells me I mustn't make love to my grandmother. That's a very
pretty way of confessing to thirty-five. She's a bit of coquette, is
Clara!" I handled the honest fellow's illusions as tenderly as I could,
and at last he eyed me askance with a knowing air. "You praise my
cousin," he said, "because you think I want you to. On the contrary, I
want you to say something against her. If there is anything, I want to
know it." I declared I knew nothing in the world; whereupon Crawford,
after a silence, heaved an impatient sigh.
"Really," said I, laughing, "one would think you were disappointed."
"I wanted to draw you out," he cried; "but you're too confoundedly
polite. I suppose Mrs. Beck's to be my fate; it's borne in on me. I'm
being roped in fast. But I only want a little backing to hang off
awhile. Look here," he added suddenly, "let's be frank!" and he stopped
and laid his hand on my arm. "That other young lady isn't so pretty as
Mrs. Beck, but it seems to me I'd kind of trust her further. You didn't
know I'd noticed her. Well, I've taken her in little by little, just as
she gives herself out. Jerusalem! there's a woman. But you know it,
sir, if I'm not mistaken; and that's where the shoe pinches. First
come, first served. I want to act on the square. Before I settle down
to Mrs. Beck, I want to know distinctly whether you put in a claim to
The question was unexpected and found me but half prepared. "A
claim?" I said. "Well, yes, call it a claim!"
"Any way," he rejoined, "I've no chance. She'd never look at me.
But I want to have her put out of my own head, so that I can
concentrate on Mrs. B. If you're not in love with her, my boy, let me
tell you you ought to be! If you are, I've nothing to do but to wish
you success. If you're not, upon my word, I don't know but what I would
go in! She could but refuse me. Modesty is all very well; but after
all, it's the handsomest thing you can do by a woman to offer yourself.
As a compliment alone, it would serve. And really, a compliment with a
round million isn't so bad as gallantry goes hereabouts. You're young
and smart and good-looking, and Mrs. Beck tells me you're rich. If you
succeed, you'll have more than your share of good things. But Fortune
has her favorites, and they're not always such nice young men. If
you're in love, well and good! If you're not,—by Jove, I am!"
This admonition was peremptory. My companion's face in the clear
starlight betrayed his sagacious sincerity. I felt a sudden
satisfaction in being summoned to take my stand. I performed a rapid
operation in sentimental arithmetic, combined my factors, and
established my total. It exceeded expectation. "Your frankness does you
honor," I said, "and I'm sorry I can't make a kinder return. But I'm
madly in love!"
MY situation, as I defined it to Crawford, was not purely
delightful. Close upon my perception of the state of my heart followed
an oppressive sense of the vanity of my pretensions. I had cut the
ground from under my feet; to offer myself to Miss Guest, would be to
add insult to injury. I may truly say, therefore, that, for a couple of
days, this manifest passion of mine rather saddened than exalted me.
For a dismal forty-eight hours I left the two ladies unvisited. I even
thought of paying a supreme tribute to delicacy and taking a summary
departure. Some day, possibly, Miss Guest would learn with grief and
scorn what her father had to thank me for; and then later, as
resentment melted into milder conjecture, she would read the riddle of
my present conduct and do me justice,—guess that I had loved her, and
that, to punish myself, I had renounced her forever. This fantastic
magnanimity was followed by a wholesome reaction. I was punished
enough, surely, in my regret and shame; and I wished now not to suffer,
but to act. Viewing the matter reasonably, she need never learn my
secret; if by some cruel accident she should, the favor I had earned
would cover that I had forfeited. I stayed, then, and tried to earn
this precious favor; but I encountered an obstacle more serious, I
fancied, than even her passionate contempt would have been,—her serene
and benevolent indifference. Looking back at these momentous days, I
get an impression of a period of vague sentimental ferment and trouble,
rather than of definite utterance and action; though I believe that by
a singular law governing human conduct in certain cases, the very
modesty and humility of my passion expressed itself in a sort of
florid and hyperbolical gallantry; so that, in so far as my claims
were inadmissible, they might pass, partly as a kind of compensatory
homage, and partly as a jest. Miss Guest refused to pay me the
compliment of even being discomposed, and pretended to accept my
addresses as an elaborate device for her amusement. There was a
perpetual assurance in her tone of her not regarding me as a serious,
much less as a dangerous, man. She could not have contrived a more
effective irritant to my resolution; and I confess there were certain
impatient moods when I took a brutal glee in the thought that it was
not so very long since, on a notable occasion, my presence had told.
In so far as I was serious, Miss Guest frankly offered to
accept me as a friend, and laughingly intimated, indeed, that with a
little matronly tuition of her dispensing, I might put myself into
condition to please some simple maiden in her flower. I was an
excellent, honest fellow; but I was excessively young and—as she
really wished to befriend me, she would risk the admonition—I was
decidedly frivolous. I lacked "character." I was fairly clever, but I
was more clever than wise. I liked overmuch to listen to my own
tongue. I had done nothing; I was idle; I had, by my own confession,
never made an effort; I was too rich and too indolent; in my very
good- nature there was nothing moral, no hint of principle; in short,
I was—boyish. I must forgive a woman upon whom life had forced the
fatal habit of discrimination. I suffered this genial scepticism to
expend itself freely, for her candor was an enchantment. It was all
true enough. I had been indolent and unambitious; I had made no
effort; I had lived in vulgar ignorance and ease; I had in a certain
frivolous fashion tried life at first hand, but my shallow gains had
been in proportion to my small hazards. But I was neither so young nor
so idle as she chose to fancy, and I could at any rate prove I was
constant. Like a legendary suitor of old, I might even slay my dragon.
A monstrous accident stood between us, and to dissipate its evil
influence would be a fairly heroic feat.
Mr. Guest's absence was prolonged from day to day, and Laura's tone
of allusion to her father tended indeed to make a sort of invincible
chimera of her possible discovery of the truth. This fond filial
reference only brought out the more brightly her unlikeness to him. I
could as little fancy her doing an act she would need to conceal as I
could fancy her arresting exposure by a concession to dishonor. If I
was a friend, I insisted on being a familiar one; and while Mrs. Beck
and her cousin floated away on perilous waters, we dabbled in the
placid shallows of disinterested sentiment. For myself, I sent many a.
longing glance toward the open sea, but Laura remained firm in her
preference for the shore. I encouraged her to speak of her father, for
I wished to hear all the good that could be told of him. It sometimes
seemed to me that she talked of him with a kind of vehement tenderness
designed to obscure, as it were, her inner vision. Better—had she said
to herself?— that she should talk fond nonsense about him than that
she should harbor untender suspicions. I could easily believe that the
poor man was a most lovable fellow, and could imagine how, as Laura
judged him in spite of herself, the sweet allowances of a mother had
grown up within the daughter. One afternoon Mrs. Beck brought forth her
photograph-book, to show to her cousin. Suddenly, as he was turning it
over, she stayed his hand and snatched one of the pictures from its
place. He tried to recover it and a little tussle followed, in the
course of which she escaped, ran to Miss Guest, and thrust the
photograph into her hand. "You keep it," she cried; "he's not to see
it." There was a great crying out from Crawford about Mrs. Beck's
inconstancy and his right to see the picture, which was cut
short by Laura's saying with some gravity that it was too childish a
romp for a man of forty and a woman of—thirty! Mrs. Beck allowed us no
time to relish the irony of this attributive figure; she caused herself
to be pursued to the other end of the garden, where the amorous frolic
was resumed over the following pages of the album. "Who is it?" I
asked. Miss Guest, after a pause, handed me the card.
"Your father!" I cried precipitately.
"Ah, you've seen him?" she asked.
"I know him by his likeness to you."
"You prevent my asking you, as I meant, if he doesn't look like a
dear good man. I do wish he'd drop his stupid business and come back."
I took occasion hereupon to ascertain whether she suspected his
embarrassments. She confessed to a painful impression that something
was wrong. He had been out of spirits for many days before his return
to town; nothing indeed but mental distress could have affected his
health, for he had a perfect constitution. "If it comes to that," she
went on, after a long silence, and looking at me with an almost
intimate confidence, "I wish he would give up business altogether. All
the business in the world, for a man of his open, joyous temper,
doesn't pay for an hour's depression. I can't bear to sit by and see
him imbittered and spoiled by this muddle of stocks and shares. Nature
made him a happy man; I insist on keeping him so. We are quite rich
enough, and we need nothing more. He tries to persuade me that I have
expensive tastes, but I've never spent money but to please him. I have
a lovely little dream which I mean to lay before him when he comes
back; it's very cheap, like all dreams, and more practicable than most.
He's to give up business and take me abroad. We're to settle down
quietly somewhere in Germany, in Italy, I don't care where, and I'm to
study music seriously. I'm never to marry; but as he grows to be an old
man, he's to sit by a window, with his cigar, looking out on the Arno
or the Rhine, while I play Beethoven and Rossini."
"It's a very pretty programme," I answered, "though I can't
subscribe to certain details. But do you know," I added, touched by a
forcible appeal to sympathy in her tone, "although you refuse to
believe me anything better than an ingenuous fool, this liberal
concession to my interest in your situation is almost a proof of
She blushed a little, to my great satisfaction. "I surely respect
you," she said, "if you come to that! Otherwise we should hardly be
sitting here so simply. And I think, too," she went on, "that I speak
to you of my father with peculiar freedom, because—because, somehow,
you remind me of him." She looked at me as she spoke with such
penetrating candor that it was my turn to blush. "You are genial, and
gentle, and essentially honest, like him; and like him," she added with
a half-smile, "you're addicted to saying a little more than it would be
fair to expect you to stand to. You ought to be very good friends.
You'll find he has your own jeunesse de coeur."
I murmured what I might about the happiness of making his
acquaintance; and then, to give the conversation a turn, and really to
test the force of this sympathetic movement of hers, I boldly mentioned
my fancy that he was an admirer of Mrs. Beck. She gave me a silent
glance, almost of gratitude, as if she needed to unburden her heart.
But she did so in few words. "He does admire her," she said. "It's my
duty, it's my pleasure, to respect his illusions. But I confess to you
that I hope this one will fade." She rose from her seat and we joined
our companions; but I fancied, for a week afterwards, that she treated
me with a certain gracious implication of deference. Had I ceased to
seem boyish? I struck a truce with urgency and almost relished the idea
of being patient.
A day or two later, Mr. Guest's "illusions" were put before me in a
pathetic light. It was a Sunday; the ladies were at church, and
Crawford and I sat smoking on the piazza. "I don't know how things are
going with you," he said; "you're either perfectly successful or
desperately resigned. But unless it's rather plainer sailing than in my
case, I don't envy you. I don't know where I am, anyway! She will and
she won't. She may take back her word once too often, I can tell her
that! You see, she has two strings to her bow. She likes my money, but
she doesn't like me. Now, it's all very well for a woman to
relish a fortune, but I'm not prepared to have my wife despise—my person!" said Crawford with feeling. "The alternative, you know, is
Mr. Guest, that girl's father. I suppose he's handsome, and a wit, and
a dandy; though I must say an old dandy, to my taste, is an old fool.
She tells me a dozen times an hour that he's a fascinating man. I
suppose if I were to leave her alone for a week, I might seem a
fascinating man. I wish to heaven she wasn't so confoundedly taking. I
can't give her up; she amuses me too much. There was once a little
actress in Galveston, but Clara beats that girl! If I could only have
gone in for some simple wholesome girl who doesn't need to count on her
fingers to know the state of her heart!"
That evening as we were gathered in the garden, poor Crawford
approached Laura Guest with an air of desperate gallantry, as if from a
desire to rest from the petty torment of Mrs. Beck's sentimental
mutations. Laura liked him, and her manner to him had always been
admirable in its almost sisterly frankness and absence of provoking
arts; yet I found myself almost wondering, as they now strolled about
the garden together, whether there was any danger of this sturdy
architect of his own fortunes putting out my pipe. Mrs. Beck, however,
left me no chance for selfish meditation. Her artless and pointless
prattle never lacked a purpose; before you knew it she was, in vulgar
parlance, "pumping" you, trying to pick your pocket of your poor little
receipt for prosperity. She took an intense delight in imaginatively
bettering her condition, and one was forced to carry bricks for her
castles in the air.
"You needn't be afraid of my cousin," she said, laughing, as I
followed his red cigar-tip along the garden-paths. "He admires Laura
altogether too much to make love to her. There's modesty! Don't you
think it's rather touching in a man with a million of dollars? I don't
mind telling you that he has made love to me, that being no case for
modesty. I suppose you'll say that my speaking of it is. But what's the
use of being an aged widow, if one can't tell the truth?"
"There's comfort in being an aged widow," I answered gallantly,
"when one has two offers a month."
"I don't know what you know about my offers; but even two swallows
don't make a summer! However, since you've mentioned the subject, tell
me frankly what you think of poor Crawford. Is he at all presentable?
You see I like him, I esteem him, and I'm afraid of being blinded by my
feelings. Is he so dreadfully rough? You see I like downright simple
manliness and all that; but a little polish does no harm, even on fine
gold. I do wish you'd take hold of my poor cousin and teach him a few
of the amenities of life. I'm very fond of the amenities of life; it's
very frivolous and wicked, I suppose, but I can't help it. I have the
misfortune to be sensitive to ugly things. Can one really accept a man
who wears a green cravat? Of course you can make him take it off; but
you'll be knowing all the while that he pines for it, that he would put
it on if he could. Now that's a symbol of that dear, kind, simple
fellow,— a heart of gold, but a green cravat! I've never heard a word
of wisdom about that matter yet. People talk about the sympathy of
souls being the foundation of happiness in marriage. It's pure
nonsense. It's not the great things, but the little, that we dispute
about, and the chances are terribly against the people who have a
different taste in colors."
It seemed to me that, thus ardently invoked, I might hazard the
observation, "Mr. Guest would never wear a green cravat."
"What do you know about Mr. Guest's cravats?"
"I've seen his photograph, you know."
"Well, you do him justice. You should see him in the life. He looks
like a duke. I never saw a duke, but that's my notion of a duke.
Distinction, you know; perfect manners and tact and wit. If I'm right
about it's [sic] being perfection in small things that assures one's
happiness, I might—well, in two words, I might be very happy with Mr.
"It's Crawford and soul, then," I proposed, smiling, "or Guest and
She looked at me a moment, and then with a toss of her head and a
tap of her fan, "You wretch!" she cried, "you want to make me say
something very ridiculous. I'll not pretend I'm not worldly. I'm
excessively worldly. I always make a point of letting people know it.
Of course I know very well my cousin's rich, and that so long as he's
good he's none the worse for that. But in my quiet little way I'm a
critic, and I look at things from a high ground. I compare a rich man
who is simply a good fellow to a perfect gentleman who has simply a
nice little fortune. Mr. Guest has a nice property, a very nice
property. I shouldn't have to make over my old bonnets. You may ask me
if I'm not afraid of Laura. But you'll marry Laura and carry her off!"
I found nothing to reply for some moments to this little essay in
"criticism"; and suddenly Mrs. Beck, fancying perhaps that she was
indiscreetly committing herself, put an end to our interview. "I'm
really very kind," she cried, "to be talking so graciously about a
lover who leaves me alone for a month and never even drops me a line.
It's not such good manners after all. If you're not jealous of Mr.
Crawford, I am of Miss Guest. We'll go down and separate them."
Miss Guest's repose and dignity were decidedly overshadowed. I
brought her the next afternoon a letter from the post-office,
superscribed in a hand I knew, and wandered away while she sat in the
garden and read it. When I came back she looked strangely sad. I sat
down near her and drew figures in the ground with the end of her
parasol, hoping that she would do me the honor to communicate her
trouble. At last she rose in silence, as if to return to the house. I
begged her to remain. "You're in distress," I said, speaking as calmly
and coldly as I could, "and I hoped it might occur to you that there is
infinite sympathy close at hand. Instead of going to your own room to
cry, why not stay here and talk of it with me?"
She gave me a brilliant, searching gaze; I met it steadily and felt
that I was turning pale with the effort not to obey the passionate
impulse of self-denunciation. She began slowly to walk away from the
house, and I felt that a point was gained. "It's your father, of
course," I said. It was all I could say. She silently handed me his
unfolded letter. It ran as follows:— MY DEAREST DAUGHTER:—I have
sold the house and everything in it, except your piano and books, of
course at a painful sacrifice. But I needed ready money. Forgive your
poor blundering, cruel father. My old luck has left me; but only trust me, and we shall be happy again."
Her eyes, fortunately, were wandering while I read; for I felt
myself blushing to my ears.
"It's not the loss of the house," she said at last; "though of
course we were fond of it. I grew up there,—my mother died there. It's
the trouble it indicates. Poor dear father! Why does he talk of `luck'?
I detest the word! Why does he talk of forgiving him and trusting him?
There's a wretched tone about it all. If he would only come back and
let me look at him!"
"Nothing is more common in business," I answered, "than a temporary
embarrassment demanding ready money. Of course it must be met at a
sacrifice. One throws a little something overboard to lighten the ship,
and the ship sails ahead. As for the loss of the house, nothing could
be better for going to Italy, you know. You've no excuse left for
staying here. If your father will forgive me the interest I take in his
affairs, I strongly recommend his leaving business and its sordid
cares. Let him go abroad and forget it all."
Laura walked along in silence, and I led the way out of the garden
into the road. We followed it slowly till we reached the little chapel.
The sexton was just leaving it, shouldering the broom with which he had
been sweeping it for the morrow's services. I hailed him and gained his
permission to go in and try the organ, assuring him that we were
experts. Laura said that she felt in no mood for music; but she entered
and sat down in one of the pews. I climbed into the gallery and
attacked the little instrument. We had had no music since our first
meeting, and I felt an irresistible need to recall the circumstances of
that meeting. I played in a simple fashion, respectably enough, and
fancied, at all events, that by my harmonious fingers I could best
express myself. I played for an hour, in silence, choosing what I
would, without comment or response from my companion. The summer
twilight overtook us; when it was getting too dark to see the keys, I
rejoined Miss Guest. She rose and came into the aisle. "You play very
well," she said, simply; "better than I supposed."
Her praise was sweet; but sweeter still was a fancy of mine that I
perceived in the light gloom just the glimmer of a tear. "In this
place," I said, "your playing once moved me greatly. Try and remember
the scene distinctly."
"It's easily remembered," she answered, with an air of surprise.
"Believe, then, that when we parted, I was already in love with
She turned away abruptly. "Ah, my poor music!"
The next day, on my arrival, I was met by Mrs. Beck, whose pretty
forehead seemed clouded with annoyance. With her own fair hand she
button-holed me. "You apparently," she said, "have the happiness to be
in Miss Guest's confidence. What on earth is going on in New York?
Laura received an hour ago a letter from her father. I found her
sitting with it in her hand as cheerful as a Quakeress in meeting.
'Something's wrong, my dear,' I said; `I don't know what. In any case,
be assured of my sympathy.' She gave me the most extraordinary stare.
'You'll be interested to know,' she said, 'that my father has lost half
his property.' Interested to know! I verily believe the child meant an
impertinence. What is Mr. Guest's property to me? Has he been
speculating? Stupid man!" she cried, with vehemence.
I made a brief answer. I discovered Miss Guest sitting by the
river, in pale contemplation of household disaster. I asked no
questions. She told me of her own accord that her father was to return
immediately, "to make up a month's sleep," she added, glancing at his
letter. We spoke of other matters, but before I left her, I returned to
this one. "I wish you to tell your father this," I said. "That there is
a certain gentleman here, who is idle, indolent, ignorant, frivolous,
selfish. That he has certain funds for which he is without present use.
That he places them at Mr. Guest's absolute disposal in the hope that
they may partially relieve his embarrassment." I looked at Laura as I
spoke and watched her startled blush deepen to crimson. She was about
to reply; but before she could speak, "Don't forget to add," I went on,
"that he hopes his personal faults will not prejudice Mr. Guest's
acceptance of his offer, for it is prompted by the love he bears his
"You must excuse me," Laura said, after a pause. "I had rather not
tell him this. He would not accept your offer."
"Are you sure of that?"
"I shouldn't allow him."
"And why not, pray? Don't you, after all, like me well enough to
suffer me to do you so small a service?"
She hesitated; then gave me her hand with magnificent frankness. "I
like you too well to suffer you to do me just that service. We take
that from les indifferents."
Before the month was out, Edgar had quarrelled with the healing
waters of L—-. His improvement had been most illusory; his old
symptoms had returned in force, and though he now railed bitterly at
the perfidious spring and roundly denounced the place, he was too ill
to be moved away. He was altogether confined to his room. I made a
conscience of offering him my company and assistance, but he would
accept no nursing of mine. He would be tended by no one whom he could
not pay for his trouble and enjoy a legal right to grumble at. "I
expect a nurse to be a nurse," he said, "and not a fine
gentleman, waiting on me in gloves. It would be fine work for me,
lying here, to have to think twice whether I might bid you not to
breathe so hard." Nothing had passed between us about John Guest,
though the motive for silence was different on each side. For Edgar, I
fancied, our interview with him was a matter too solemn for frequent
allusion; for me it was a detestable thought. But wishing now to
assure myself that, as I supposed, he had paid his ugly debt, I asked
Edgar, on the evening I had extorted from Miss Guest those last
recorded words of happy omen, whether he had heard from our friend in
New York. It was a very hot night; poor Edgar lay sweltering under a
sheet, with open windows. He looked pitifully ill, and yet somehow more
intensely himself than ever. He drew a letter from under his pillow.
"This came to-day," he said. "Stevens writes me that Guest yesterday
paid down the twenty thousand dollars in full. It's quick work. I hope
he's not robbed Peter to pay Paul."
"Mr. Guest has a conscience," I said; and I thought bitterly of the
reverse of the picture. "I'm afraid he has half ruined himself to do
"Well, ruin for ruin, I prefer his. I've no doubt his affairs have
gone to the dogs. The affairs of such a man must, sooner or later! I
believe, by the way, you've been cultivating the young lady. What does
the papa say to that?"
"Of course," I said, without heeding his question, "you've already
enclosed him the—the little paper."
Edgar turned in his bed. "Of course I've done no such thing!"
"You mean to keep it?" I cried.
"Of course I mean to keep it. Where else would be his punishment?"
There was something vastly grotesque in the sight of this sickly
little mortal erecting himself among his pillows as a dispenser of
justice, an appraiser of the wages of sin; but I confess that his
attitude struck me as more cruel even than ludicrous. I was
disappointed. I had certainly not expected Edgar to be generous, but I
had expected him to be just, and in the heat of his present irritation
he was neither. He was angry with Guest for his excessive promptitude,
which had given a sinister twist to his own conduct. "Upon my word," I
cried, "you're a veritable Shylock!"
"And you're a veritable fool! Is it set down in the bond that I'm
to give it up to him? The thing's mine, to have and to hold forever.
The scoundrel would be easily let off indeed! This bit of paper in my
hands is to keep him in order and prevent his being too happy. The
thought will be wholesome company,—a memento mori to his vanity"
"He's to go through life, then, with possible exposure staring him
in the face?"
Edgar's great protuberant eyes expanded without blinking. "He has
committed his fate to Providence."
I was revolted. "You may have the providential qualities, but you
have not the gentlemanly ones, I formally protest. But, after a decent
delay, he'll of course demand the document."
"Demand it? He shall have it then, with a vengeance!"
"Well, I wash my hands of further complicity! I shall inform Mr.
Guest that I count for nothing in this base negation of his right."
Edgar paused a moment to stare at me in my unprecedented wrath.
Then making me a little ironical gesture of congratulation, "Inform him
of what you please. I hope you'll have a pleasant talk over it! You
made rather a bad beginning, but who knows, if you put your heads
together to abuse me, you may end as bosom friends! I've watched you,
sir!" he suddenly added, propping himself forward among his pillows;
"you're in love!" I may wrong the poor fellow, but it seemed to me that
in these words he discharged the bitterness of a lifetime. He too would
have hoped to please, and he had lived in acrid assent to the instinct
which told him such hope was vain. In one way or another a man pays his
tax to manhood. "Yes, sir, you're grossly in love! What do I know about
love, you ask? I know a drivelling lover when I see him. You've made a
clever choice. Do you expect John Guest to give the girl away? He's a
good-natured man, I know; but really, considering your high standard
of gentlemanly conduct, you ask a good deal."
Edgar had been guilty on this occasion of a kind of reckless moral
self-exposure, which seemed to betray a sense that he should never need
his reputation again. I felt as if I were standing by something very
like a death-bed, and forbearingly, without rejoinder, I withdrew. He
had simply expressed more brutally, however, my own oppressive belief
that the father's aversion stood darkly massed in the rear of the
daughter's indifference. I had, indeed, for the present, the
consolation of believing that with Laura the day of pure indifference
was over; and I tried hard to flatter myself that my position was
tenable in spite of Mr. Guest. The next day as I was wandering on the
hotel piazza, communing thus sadly with my hopes, I met Crawford, who,
with his hands in his pockets and his hat on the bridge of his nose,
seemed equally a sullen probationer of fate.
"I'm going down to join our friends," I said; "I expected to find
you with them."
He gave a gloomy grin. "My nose is out of joint," he said; "Mr.
Guest has come back." I turned pale, but he was too much engaged with
his own trouble to observe it. "What do you suppose my cousin is up to?
She had agreed to drive with me and I had determined to come home, once
for all, engaged or rejected. As soon as she heard of Guest's arrival,
she threw me overboard and tripped off to her room, to touch up her
curls. Go down there now and you'll find her shaking them at Mr. Guest.
By the Lord, sir, she can whistle for me now! If there was a decently
good-looking woman in this house, I'd march straight up to her and
offer myself. You're a happy man, my boy, not to have a d—d fool to
interfere with you, and not to be in love with a d—d fool either."
I had no present leisure to smooth the turbid waters of poor
Crawford's passion; but I remembered a clever remark in a French book,
to the effect that even the best men—and Crawford was one of the
best—are subject to a momentary need not to respect what they love. I
repaired alone to the house by the river, and found Laura in the little
parlor which she shared with Mrs. Beck. The room was flooded with the
glow of a crimson sunset, and she was looking out of the long window at
two persons in the garden. In my great desire to obtain some firm
assurance from her before her father's interference should become a
certainty, I lost no time. "I've been able to think of nothing," I
said, "but your reply to that poor offer of mine. I've been flattering
myself that it really means something,—means, possibly, that if I were
to speak—here—now— all that I long to speak, you would listen to me
more kindly. Laura," I cried, passionately, "I repent of all my follies
and I love you!"
She looked at me from head to foot with a gaze almost strange in
its intensity. It betrayed trouble, but, I fancied, a grateful trouble.
Then, with a smile, "My father has come," she said. The words set my
heart a beating, and I had a horrible fancy that they were maliciously
uttered. But as she went on I was reassured. "I want him to see you,
though he knows nothing of your offer."
Somehow, by her tone, my mind was suddenly illumined with a
delicious apprehension of her motive. She had heard the early murmur of
that sentiment whose tender essence resents compulsion. "Let me feel
then," I said, "that I am not to stand or fall by his choice."
"He's sure to like you," she answered; "don't you remember my
telling you so? He judges better of men than of women," she added
sadly, turning away from the window.
Mr. Guest had been advancing toward the house, side by side with
Mrs. Beck. Before they reached it the latter was met by two ladies who
had been ushered into the garden from the front gate, and with whom,
with an air of smothered petulance, perceptible even at a distance,
she retraced her steps toward the summer-house. Her companion entered
our little parlor alone from the piazza. He stepped jauntily and looked
surprisingly little altered by his month's ordeal. Mrs. Beck might
still have taken him for a duke, or, at least, for an earl. His
daughter immediately introduced me. "Happy to make your acquaintance,
sir," he exclaimed, in a voice which I was almost shocked to find how
well I knew. He offered his hand. I met it with my own, and the next
moment we were fairly face to face. I was prepared for anything.
Recognition faltered for a mere instant in his eyes; then I felt it
suddenly leap forth in the tremendous wrench of his hand, "Ah, you—
"Why, you know him!" exclaimed Laura.
Guest continued to wring my hand, and I felt to my cost that he was
shocked. He panted a moment for breath, and then burst into a monstrous
laugh. I looked askance at Laura; her eyes were filled with wonder. I
felt that for the moment anger had made her father reckless, and
anything was better than that between us the edge of our secret should
peep out. "We have been introduced," I said, trying to smile. Guest
dropped my hand as if it burned him, and walked the length of the room.
"You should have told me!" Laura added, in a tone of almost
"Miss Guest," I answered, hardly knowing what I said, "the world is
"Upon my soul, I think it's damnably narrow!" cried Guest, who had
turned very pale.
I determined then that he should know the worst. "I'm here with a
purpose, Mr. Guest," I said; "I love your daughter."
He stopped short, fairly glaring at me. Laura stepped toward him
and laid her two hands on his arm. "Something is wrong," she said,
"very wrong! It's your horrible money-matters! Weren't you really then
so generous?" and she turned to me.
Guest laid his other hand on hers as they rested on his arm and
patted them gently. "My daughter," he said solemnly, "do your poor
father a favor. Dismiss him forever. Turn him out of the house," he
"You wrong your daughter," I cried, "by asking her to act so
blindly and cruelly."
"My child," Guest went on, "I expect you to obey!"
There was a silence. At last Laura turned to me, excessively pale.
"Will you do me the very great favor," she said, with a trembling
voice, "to leave us?"
I reflected a moment. "I appreciate your generosity; but in the
interest of your own happiness, I beg you not to listen to your father
until I have had a word with him alone."
She hesitated and looked, as if for assent, at her father. "Great
heavens, girl!" he cried, "you don't mean you love him!" She blushed to
her hair and rapidly left the room.
Guest took up his hat and removed a speck of dust from the ribbon
by a fillip of his finger-nail. "Young man," he said, "you waste
"Not, I hope, when, with my hand on my heart, I beg your pardon."
"Now that you have something to gain. If you respect me, you should
have protested before. If you don't, you've nothing to do with me or
"I allow for your natural resentment, but you might keep it within
bounds. I religiously forget, ignore, efface the past. Meet me
half-way! When we met a month ago, I already loved your daughter. If I
had dreamed of your being ever so remotely connected with her, I would
have arrested that detestable scene even by force, brother of mine
though your adversary was!"
Guest put on his hat with a gesture of implacable contempt. "That's
all very well! You don't know me, sir, or you'd not waste your breath
on ifs! The thing's done. Such as I stand here, I've been dishonored!" And two hot tears sprang into his eyes. "Such as I
stand here, I carry in my poor, sore heart the vision of your great,
brutal, staring, cruel presence. And now you ask me to accept that
presence as perpetual! Upon my soul, I'm a precious fool to talk about
I made an immense effort to remain calm and courteous. "Is there
nothing I can do to secure your good-will? I'll make any sacrifice."
"Nothing but to leave me at once and forever. Fancy my living with
you for an hour! Fancy, whenever I met your eyes, my seeing in them the
reflection of—of that piece of business! And your walking about
looking wise and chuckling! My precious young man," he went on with a
scorching smile, "if you knew how I hated you, you'd give me a wide
I was silent for some moments, teaching myself the great patience
which I foresaw I should need. "This is after all but the question of
our personal relations, which we might fairly leave to time. Not only
am I willing to pledge myself to the most explicit respect—"
"Explicit respect!" he broke out. "I should relish that vastly!
Heaven deliver me from your explicit respect!"
"I can quite believe," I quietly continued, "that I should get to
like you. Your daughter has done me the honor to say that she believed
you would like me."
"Perfect! You've talked it all over with her?"
"At any rate," I declared roundly, "I love her, and I have reason
to hope that I may render myself acceptable to her. I can only add, Mr.
Guest, that much as I should value your approval of my suit, if you
withhold it I shall try my fortune without it!"
"Gently, impetuous youth!" And Guest laid his hand on my arm and
lowered his voice. "Do you dream that if my daughter ever so faintly
suspected the truth, she would even look at you again?"
"The truth? Heaven forbid she should dream of it! I wonder that in
your position you should allude to it so freely."
"I was prudent once; I shall treat myself to a little freedom now.
Give it up, I advise you. She may have thought you a pretty young
fellow; I took you for one myself at first; but she'll keep her
affection for a man with the bowels of compassion. She'll never love a
coward, sir. Upon my soul, I'd sooner she married your beautiful
brother. He, at least, had a grievance. Don't talk to me about
my own child. She and I have an older love than yours; and if she were
to learn that I've been weak—Heaven help me!—she would only love me
the more. She would feel only that I've been outraged."
I confess that privately I flinched, but I stood to it bravely.
"Miss Guest, doubtless, is as perfect a daughter as she would be a
wife. But allow me to say that a woman's heart is not so simple a
mechanism. Your daughter is a person of a very fine sense of honor, and
I can imagine nothing that would give her greater pain than to be
reduced to an attitude of mere compassion for her father. She likes to
believe that men are strong. The sense of respect is necessary to her
happiness. We both wish to assure that happiness. Let us join hands to
preserve her illusions."
I saw in his eye no concession except to angry perplexity. "I don't
know what you mean," he cried, "and I don't want to know. If you wish
to intimate that my daughter is so very superior a person that she'll
despise me, you're mistaken! She's beyond any compliment you can pay
her. You can't frighten me now; I don't care for things." He walked
away a moment and then turned about with flushed face and trembling
lip. "I'm broken, I'm ruined! I don't want my daughter's respect, nor
any other woman's. It's a burden, a mockery, a snare! What's a woman
worth who can be kind only while she believes? Ah, ah!" and he began
to rub his hands with a sudden air of helpless senility, "I should
never be so kissed and coddled and nursed. I can tell her what I
please; I sha' n't [sic] mind what I say now. I've ceased to care,—all
in a month! Reputation's a farce; a pair of tight boots, worn for
vanity. I used to have a good foot, but I shall end my days in my
slippers. I don't care for anything!"
This mood was piteous, but it was also formidable, for I was
scantily disposed to face the imputation of having reduced an amiable
gentleman, in however strictly just a cause, to this state of plaintive
cynicism. I could only hope that time would repair both his vanity and
his charity, seriously damaged as they were. "Well," I said, taking my
hat, "a man in love, you know, is obstinate. Confess, yourself, that
you'd not think the better of me for accepting dismissal
philosophically. A single word of caution, keep cool; don't lose your
head; don't speak recklessly to Laura. I protest that, for myself, I'd
rather my mistress shouldn't doubt of her father."
Guest had seated himself on the sofa with his hat on, and remained
staring absently at the carpet, as if he were deaf to my words. As I
turned away, Mrs. Beck crossed the piazza and stood on the threshold of
the long window. Her shadow fell at Mr. Guest's feet; she sent a
searching glance from his face to mine. He started, stared, rose,
stiffened himself up, and removed his hat. Suddenly he colored to the
temples, and after a second's delay there issued from behind this ruby
curtain a wondrous imitation of a smile. I turned away, reassured. "My
case is not hopeless," I said to myself. "You do care for
something, yet." Even had I deemed it hopeless, I might have made my
farewell. Laura met me near the gate, and I remember thinking that
trouble was vastly becoming to her.
"Is your quarrel too bad to speak of?" she asked.
"Allow me to make an urgent request. Your father forbids me to
think of you, and you, of course, to think of me. You see," I said,
mustering a smile, "we're in a delightfully romantic position,
persecuted by a stern parent. He will say hard things of me; I say
nothing about your believing them, I leave that to your own discretion.
But don't contradict them. Let him call me cruel, pusillanimous, false,
whatever he will. Ask no questions; they will bring you no comfort. Be
patient, be a good daughter, and—wait!"
Her brow contracted painfully over her intensely lucid eyes, and
she shook her head impatiently. "Let me understand. Have you really
I felt that it was but a slender sacrifice to generosity to say
Yes, and to add that I had repented. I even felt gratefully that
whatever it might be to have a crime to confess to, it was not "boyish."
For a moment, I think, Laura was on the point of asking me a
supreme question about her father, but she suppressed it and abruptly
My step-brother's feeble remnant of health was now so cruelly
reduced that the end of his troubles seemed near. He was in constant
pain, and was kept alive only by stupefying drugs. As his last hour
might strike at any moment, I was careful to remain within call, and
for several days saw nothing of father or daughter. I learned from
Crawford that they had determined to prolong their stay into the
autumn, for Mr. Guest's "health." "I don't know what's the matter with
his health," Crawford grumbled. "For a sick man he seems uncommonly
hearty, able to sit out of doors till midnight with Mrs. B., and always
as spick and span as a bridegroom. I'm the invalid of the lot," he
declared; "the climate don't agree with me." Mrs. Beck, it appeared,
was too fickle for patience; he would be made a fool of no more. If she
wanted him, she must come and fetch him; and if she valued her chance,
she must do it without delay. He departed for New York to try the
virtue of missing and being missed.
On the evening he left us, the doctor told me that Edgar could not
outlast the night. At midnight, I relieved the watcher and took my
place by his bed. Edgar's soundless and motionless sleep was horribly
like death. Sitting watchful by his pillow, I passed an oppressively
solemn night. It seemed to me that a part of myself was dying, and that
I was sitting in cold survival of youthful innocence and of the lavish
self-surrender of youth. There is a certain comfort in an ancient
grievance, and as I thought of having heard for the last time the
strenuous quaver of Edgar's voice, I could have wept as for the
effacement of some revered horizon-line of life. I heard his voice
again, however; he was not even to die without approving the matter.
With the first flash of dawn and the earliest broken bird-note, he
opened his eyes and began to murmur disconnectedly. At length he
recognized me, and, with me, his situation. "Don't go on tiptoe, and
hold your breath, and pull a long face," he said; "speak up like a man.
I'm doing the biggest job I ever did yet, you'll not interrupt me; I'm
dying. One—two, three—four; I can almost count the ebbing waves. And
to think that all these years they've been breaking on the strand of
the universe! It's only when the world's din is shut out, at the last,
that we hear them. I'll not pretend to say I'm not sorry; I've been a
man of this world. It's a great one; there's a vast deal to do in it,
for a man of sense. I've not been a fool, either. Write that for my
epitaph, He was no fool!—except when he went to L—-. I'm not
satisfied yet. I might have got better, and richer. I wanted to try
galvanism, and to transfer that Pennsylvania stock. Well, I'm to be
transferred myself. If dying's the end of it all, it's as well to die
worse as to die better. At any rate, while time was mine, I didn't
waste it. I went over my will, pen in hand, for the last time, only a
week ago, crossed the t's and dotted the i's. I've left
you—nothing. You need nothing for comfort, and of course you expect
nothing for sentiment. I've left twenty thousand dollars to found an
infirmary for twenty indigent persons suffering from tumor in the
stomach. There's sentiment! There will be no trouble about it,
for my affairs are in perfect shape. Twenty snug little beds in my own
little house in Philadelphia. They can get five into the dining-room."
He was silent awhile, as if with a kind of ecstatic vision of the five
little beds in a row. "I don't know that there is anything else," he
said, at last, "except a few old papers to be burned. I hate leaving
rubbish behind me; it's enough to leave one's mouldering carcass!"
At his direction I brought a large tin box from a closet and placed
it on a chair by his bedside, where I drew from it a dozen useless
papers and burned them one. by one in the candle. At last, when but
three or four were left, I laid my hand on a small sealed document
labelled Guest's Confession. My hand trembled as I held it up to
him, and as he recognized it a faint flush overspread his cadaverous
pallor. He frowned, as if painfully confused. "How did it come there? I
sent it back, I sent it back," he said. Then suddenly with a strangely
erroneous recollection of our recent dispute, "I told you so the other
day, you remember; and you said I was too generous. And what did you
tell me about the daughter? You're in love with her? Ah yes! What a
I respected his confusion. "You say you've left me nothing," I
answered. "Leave me this."
For all reply, he turned over with a groan, and relapsed into
stupor. The nurse shortly afterwards came to relieve me; but though I
lay down, I was unable to sleep. The personal possession of that little
scrap of paper acted altogether too potently on my nerves and my
imagination. In due contravention of the doctor, Edgar outlasted the
night and lived into another day. But as high noon was clashing out
from the village church, and I stood with the doctor by his bedside,
the latter, who had lifted his wrist a little to test his pulse,
released it, not with the tenderness we render to suffering, but with a
more summary reverence. Suffering was over.
By the close of the day I had finished my preparations for
attending my step-brother's remains to burial in Philadelphia, among
those of his own people; but before my departure, I measured once more
that well-trodden road to the house by the river, and requested a
moment's conversation with Mr. Guest. In spite of my attention being
otherwise engaged, I had felt strangely all day that I carried a sort
of magic talisman, a mystic key to fortune. I was constantly fumbling
in my waistcoat-pocket to see whether the talisman was really there. I
wondered that, as yet, Guest should not have demanded a surrender of
his note; but I attributed his silence to shame, scorn, and defiance,
and promised myself a sort of golden advantage by anticipating his
claim with the cogent frankness of justice. But as soon as he entered
the room I foresaw that Justice must show her sword as well as her
scales. His resentment had deepened into a kind of preposterous
arrogance, of a temper quite insensible to logic. He had more than
recovered his native buoyancy and splendor; there was an air of
feverish impudence in his stare, his light swagger, in the very hue and
fashion of his crimson necktie. He had an evil genius with blond curls
and innumerable flounces.
"I feel it to be a sort of duty," I said, "to inform you that my
brother died this morning."
"Your brother? What's your brother to me? He's been dead to me
these three days. Is that all you have to say?"
I was irritated by the man's stupid implacability, and my purpose
received a check. "No," I answered, "I've several things more to touch
"In so far as they concern my daughter, you may leave them unsaid.
She tells me of your offer to—to buy off my opposition. Am I to
understand that it was seriously made? You're a coarser young man than
"She told you of my offer?" I cried.
"O, you needn't build upon that! She hasn't mentioned your name
I was silent, thinking my own thoughts. I won't answer for it,
that, in spite of his caution, I did not lay an immaterial brick
or two. "You're still irreconcilable?" I contented myself with asking.
He assumed an expression of absolutely jovial contempt. "My dear
sir, I detest the sight of you!"
"Have you no question to ask, no demand to make?"
He looked at me a moment in silence, with just the least little
twitch and tremor of mouth and eye. His vanity, I guessed on the
instant, was determined stoutly to ignore that I held him at an
advantage and to refuse me the satisfaction of extorting from him the
least allusion to the evidence of his disgrace. He had known bitter
compulsion once; he would not do it the honor to concede that it had
not spent itself. "No demand but that you will excuse my further
My own vanity took a hand in the game. Justice herself was bound to
go no more than half-way. If he was not afraid of his little paper, he
might try a week or two more of bravery. I bowed to him in silence and
let him depart. As I turned to go I found myself face to face with Mrs.
Beck, whose pretty visage was flushed with curiosity. "You and Mr.
Guest have quarrelled," she said roundly.
"As you see, madam."
"As I see, madam! But what is it all about?"
"His daughter and his ducats! You're a very deep young man, in
spite of those boyish looks of yours. Why did you never tell me you
knew him? You've quarrelled about money matters."
"As you say," I answered, "I'm very deep. Don't tempt me to further
"He has lost money, I know. Is it much? Tell me that."
"It's an enormous sum!" I said, with mock solemnity.
"Provoking man!" And she gave a little stamp of disgust.
"He's in trouble," I said. "To a woman of your tender sympathies he
ought to be more interesting than ever."
She mused a moment, fixing me with her keen blue eye. "It's a sad
responsibility to have a heart!" she murmured.
"In that," I said, "we perfectly agree."
It was a singular fact that Edgar's affairs turned out to be in by
no means the exemplary order in which he had flattered himself he
placed them. They were very much at sixes and sevens. The discovery, to
me, was almost a shock. I might have drawn from it a pertinent lesson
on the fallacy of human pretensions. The gentleman whom Edgar had
supremely honored (as he seemed to assume in his will) by appointing
his executor, responded to my innocent surprise by tapping his forehead
with a peculiar smile. It was partly from curiosity as to the value of
this explanation, that I helped him to look into the dense confusion
which prevailed in my step-brother's estate. It revealed certainly an
odd compound of madness and method. I learned with real regret that the
twenty eleemosynary beds at Philadelphia must remain a superb
conception. I was horrified at every step by the broad license with
which his will had to be interpreted. All profitless as I was in the
case, when I thought of the comfortable credit in which he had died, I
felt like some greedy kinsman of tragedy making impious havoc with a
sacred bequest. These matters detained me for a week in New York, where
I had joined my brother's executor. At my earliest moment of leisure, I
called upon Crawford at the office of a friend to whom he had addressed
me, and learned that after three or four dismally restless days in
town, he had taken a summary departure for L. [sic] A couple of days
later, I was struck with a certain dramatic connection between his
return and the following note from Mr. Guest, which I give verbally, in
its pregnant brevity: —
SIR: — I possess a claim on your late brother's estate which it is
needless to specify. You will either satisfy it by return of mail or
forfeit forever the common respect of gentlemen.
Things had happened with the poor man rather as I hoped than as I
expected. He had borrowed his recent exaggerated defiance from the
transient smiles of Mrs. Beck. They had gone to his head like the fumes
of wine, and he had dreamed for a day that he could afford to snap his
fingers at the past. What he really desired and hoped of Mrs. Beck I
was puzzled to say. In this woful disrepair of his fortunes he could
hardly have meant to hold her to a pledge of matrimony extorted in
brighter hours. He was infatuated, I believed, partly by a weak,
spasmodic optimism which represented his troubles as momentary, and
enjoined him to hold firm till something turned up, and partly by a
reckless and frivolous susceptibility to the lady's unscrupulous
blandishments. While they prevailed, he lost all notion of the
wholesome truth of things, and would have been capable of any egregious
folly. Mrs. Beck was in love with him, in so far as she was capable of
being in love; his gallantry, of all gallantries, suited her to a
charm; but she reproached herself angrily with this amiable weakness,
and prudence every day won back an inch of ground. Poor Guest indeed
had clumsily snuffed out his candle. He had slept in the arms of
Delilah, and he had waked to find that Delilah had guessed, if not his
secret, something uncomfortably like it. Crawford's return had found
Mrs. Beck with but a scanty remnant of sentiment and a large accession
of prudence, which was graciously placed at his service. Guest,
hereupon, as I conjectured, utterly disillusioned by the cynical
frankness of her defection, had seen his horizon grow ominously dark,
and begun to fancy, as I remained silent, that there was thunder in the
air. His pompous waiving, in his note, of allusion both to our last
meeting and to my own present claim, seemed to me equally
characteristic of his weakness and of his distress. The bitter
after-taste of Mrs. Beck's coquetry had, at all events, brought him
back to reality. For myself, the real fact in the matter was the image
of Laura Guest, sitting pensive, like an exiled princess.
I sent him nothing by return of mail. On my arrival in New York, I
had enclosed the precious document in an envelope, addressed it, and
stamped it, and put it back in my pocket. I could not rid myself of a
belief that by that sign I should conquer. Several times I drew it
forth and laid it on the table before me, reflecting that I had but a
word to say to have it dropped into the post. Cowardly, was it, to keep
it? But what was it to give up one's mistress without a battle? Which
was the uglier, my harshness or Guest's? In a holy cause,—and holy,
you may be sure, I had dubbed mine,—were not all arms sanctified?
Possession meant peril, and peril to a manly sense, of soul and
conscience, as much as of person and fortune. Mine, at any rate, should
share the danger. It was a sinister-looking talisman certainly; but
when it had failed, it would be time enough to give it up.
In these thoughts I went back to L. [sic] I had taken the morning
train; I arrived at noon, and with small delay proceeded to the quiet
little house which harbored such world-vexed spirits. It was one of the
first days of September, and the breath of autumn was in the air.
Summer still met the casual glance; but the infinite light of summer
had found its term; it was as if there were a leak in the crystal vault
of the firmament through which the luminous ether of June was slowly
Mr. Guest, I learned from the servant, had started on a walk,—to
the mill, she thought, three miles away. I sent in my card to Laura,
and went into the garden to await her appearance—or her answer. At the
end of five minutes, I saw her descend from the piazza and advance down
the long path. Her light black dress swept the little box-borders, and
over her head she balanced a white parasol. I met her, and she stopped,
silent and grave. "I've come to learn," I said, "that absence has not
been fatal to me."
"You've hardly been absent. You left a—an influence behind,—a
very painful one. In Heaven's name!" she cried, with vehemence, "what
horrible wrong have you done?"
"I have done no horrible wrong. Do you believe me?" She scanned my
face searchingly for a moment; then she gave a long, gentle,
irrepressible sigh of relief. "Do you fancy that if I had, I could meet
your eyes, feel the folds of your dress? I've done that which I have
bitterly wished undone; I did it in ignorance, weakness, and folly;
I've repented in passion and truth. Can a man do more?"
"I never was afraid of the truth," she answered slowly; "I don't
see that I need fear it now. I'm not a child. Tell me the absolute
"The absolute truth," I said, "is that your father once saw me in a
very undignified position. It made such an impression on him that he's
unable to think of me in any other. You see I was rather cynically
indifferent to his observation, for I didn't know him then as your
She gazed at me with the same adventurous candor, and blushed a
little as I became silent, then turned away and strolled along the
path. "It seems a miserable thing," she said, "that two gentle spirits
like yours should have an irreparable difference. When good men hate
each other, what are they to do to the bad men? You must excuse my want
of romance, but I cannot listen to a suitor of whom my father
complains. Make peace!"
"Shall peace with him be peace with you?"
"Let me see you frankly shake hands," she said, not directly
answering. "Be very kind! You don't know what he has suffered here
lately." She paused, as if to conceal a tremor in her voice.
Had she read between the lines of that brilliant improvisation of
mine, or was she moved chiefly with pity for his recent sentimental
tribulations,—pitying them the more that she respected them the less?
"He has walked to the mill," I said; "I shall meet him, and we'll come
back arm in arm." I turned away, so that I might not see her face
pleading for a clemency which would make me too delicate. I went down
beside the river and followed the old towing-path, now grassy with
disuse. Reaching the shabby wooden bridge below the mill, I stopped
midway across it and leaned against the railing. Below, the yellow
water swirled past the crooked piers. I took my little sealed paper out
of my pocket-book and held it over the stream, almost courting the
temptation to drop it; but the temptation never came. I had just put it
back in my pocket when I heard a footstep on the planks behind me.
Turning round, I beheld Mr. Guest. He looked tired and dusty with his
walk, and had the air of a man who had been trying by violent exercise
to shake off a moral incubus. Judging by his haggard brow and heavy
eyes, he had hardly succeeded. As he recognized me, he started just
perceptibly, as if he were too weary to be irritated. He was about to
pass on without speaking, but I intercepted him. My movement provoked a
flash in his sullen pupil. "I came on purpose to meet you," I said. "I
have just left your daughter, and I feel more than ever how
passionately I love her. Once more, I demand that you withdraw your
"Is that your answer to my letter?" he asked, eying me from under
"Your letter puts me in a position to make my demand with force. I
refuse to submit to this absurd verdict of accident. I have just seen
your daughter, and I have authority to bring you to reason."
"My daughter has received you?" he cried, flushing.
"Gently, gently. Shake hands with me here where we stand, and let
me keep my promise to Laura of our coming back to her arm in arm, at
peace, reconciled, mutually forgiving and forgetting, or I walk
straight back and put a certain little paper into her hands."
He turned deadly pale, and a fierce oath broke from his lips. He
had been beguiled, I think, by my neglect of his letter, into the
belief that Edgar had not died without destroying his signature,—a
belief rendered possible by an indefeasible faith he must have had in
my step-brother's probity. "You've kept that thing!" he cried. "The
Lord be praised! I'm as honest a man as either of you!"
"Say but two words,—'Take her!'—and we shall be honest together
again. The paper's yours." He turned away and leaned against the
railing of the bridge, with his head in his hands, watching the river.
"Take your time," I continued; "I give you two hours. Go home, look
at your daughter, and choose. An hour hence I'll join you. If I find
you've removed your veto, I undertake to make you forget you ever
offered it: if I find you've maintained it, I expose you."
"In either case you lose your mistress. Whatever Laura may think of
me, there can be no doubt as to what she will think of you."
"I shall be forgiven. Leave that to me! That's my last word. In a
couple of hours I shall take the liberty of coming to learn yours."
"O Laura, Laura!" cried the poor man in his bitter trouble. But I
left him and walked away. I turned as I reached the farther end of the
bridge, and saw him slowly resume his course. I marched along the road
to the mill, so excited with having uttered this brave ultimatum
that I hardly knew whither I went. But at last I bethought me of a
certain shady stream-side nook just hereabouts, which a little
exploration soon discovered. A shallow cove, screened from the road by
dense clumps of willows, stayed the current a moment in its grassy
bend. I had noted it while boating, as a spot where a couple of lovers
might aptly disembark and moor their idle skiff; and I was now tempted
to try its influence in ardent solitude. I flung myself on the ground,
and as I listened to the light gurgle of the tarrying stream and to the
softer rustle of the cool gray leafage around me, I suddenly felt that
I was exhausted and sickened. I lay motionless, watching the sky and
resting from my anger. Little by little it melted away and left me
horribly ashamed. How long I lay there I know not, nor what was the
logic of my meditations, but an ineffable change stole over my spirit.
There are fathomless depths in spiritual mood and motive. Opposite me,
on the farther side of the stream, winding along a path through the
bushes, three or four cows had come down to drink. I sat up and watched
them. A young man followed them, in a red shirt, with his trousers in
his boots. While they were comfortably nosing the water into ripples,
he sat down on a stone and began to light his pipe. In a moment I
fancied I saw the little blue thread of smoke curl up from the bowl.
From beyond, just droning through the air, came the liquid rumble of
the mill. There seemed to me something in this vision ineffably
pastoral, peaceful, and innocent; it smote me to my heart of hearts. I
felt a nameless wave of impulse start somewhere in the innermost vitals
of conscience and fill me with passionate shame. I fell back on the
grass and burst into tears.
The sun was low and the breeze had risen when I rose to my feet. I
scrambled back to the road, crossed the bridge, and hurried home by the
towing-path. My heart, however, beat faster than my footfalls. I passed
into the garden and advanced to the house; as I stepped upon the
piazza, I was met by Mrs. Beck. "Answer me a simple question," she
cried, laying her hand on my arm.
"I should like to hear you ask one!" I retorted, impatiently.
"Has Mr. Guest lost his mind?"
"For an hour! I've brought it back to him."
"You've a pretty quarrel between you. He comes up an hour ago, as I
was sitting in the garden with—with Mr. Crawford, requests a moment's
interview, leads me apart and—offers himself. `If you'll have me, take
me now; you won't an hour hence,' he cried. `Neither now nor an hour
hence, thank you,' said I. `My affections are fixed—elsewhere.' "
"You've not lost your head, at any rate," said I; and, releasing
myself, I went into the parlor. I had a horrible fear of being too
late. The candles stood lighted on the piano, and tea had been brought
in, but the kettle was singing unheeded. On the divan facing the window
sat Guest, lounging back on the cushions; his hat and stick flung down
beside him, his hands grasping his knees, his head thrown back, and his
eyes closed. That he should have remained so for an hour, unbrushed and
unfurbished, spoke volumes as to his mental state. Near him sat Laura,
looking at him askance in mute anxiety. What had passed between them?
Laura's urgent glance as I entered was full of trouble, but I fancied
without reproach. He had apparently chosen neither way; he had simply
fallen there, weary, desperate, and dumb.
"I'm disappointed!" Laura said to me gravely.
Her father opened his eyes, stared at me a moment, and then closed
them. I answered nothing; but after a moment's hesitation went and took
my seat beside Guest. I laid my hand on his own with a grasp of which
he felt, first the force, then, I think, the kindness; for, after a
momentary spasm of repulsion, he remained coldly passive. He must have
begun to wonder. "Be so good," I said to Laura, "as to bring me one of
the candles." She looked surprised; but she complied and came toward
me, holding the taper, like some pale priestess expecting a portent. I
drew out the note and held it to the flame. "Your father and I have had
a secret," I said, "which has been a burden to both of us. Here it
goes." Laura's hand trembled as she held the candle, and mine as I held
the paper; but between us the vile thing blazed and was consumed. I
glanced askance at Guest; he was staring wide-eyed at the dropping
cinders. When the last had dropped, I took the candle, rose, and
carried it back to the piano. Laura dropped on her knees before her
father, and, while my back was turned, something passed between them
with which I was concerned only in its consequences.
When I looked round, Guest had risen and was passing his fingers
through his hair. "Daughter," he said, "when I came in, what was it I
said to you?"
She stood for an instant with her eyes on the floor. Then, "I've
forgotten!" she said, simply.
Mrs. Beck had passed in by the window in time to hear these last
words. "Do you know what you said to me when you came in?" she cried,
mirthfully shaking a finger at Guest. He laughed nervously, picked up
his hat, and stood looking, with an air of odd solemnity, at his boots.
Suddenly it seemed to occur to him that he was dusty and dishevelled.
He settled his shirt-collar and levelled a glance at the mirror, in
which he caught my eye. He tried hard to look insensible; but it was
the glance of a man who felt more comfortable than he had done in a
month. He marched stiffly to the door.
"Are you going to dress?" said Mrs. Beck.
"From head to foot!" he cried, with violence.
"Be so good, then, if you see Mr. Crawford in the hall, as to ask
him to come in and have a cup of tea."
Laura had passed out to the piazza, where I immediately joined her.
"Your father accepts me," I said; "there is nothing left but for you—"
Five minutes later, I looked back through the window to see if we
were being observed. But Mrs. Beck was busy adding another lump of
sugar to Crawford's cup of tea. His eye met mine, however, and I
fancied he looked sheepish.