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Holding Hands by Gouverneur Morris

 

At first nobody knew him; then the Hotchkisses knew him, and then it seemed as if everybody had always known him. He had run the gauntlet of gossip and come through without a scratch. He was first noticed sitting in the warm corner made by Willcox's annex and the covered passage that leads to the main building. Pairs or trios of people, bareheaded, their tennis clothes (it was a tennis year) mostly covered from view by clumsy coonskin coats, passing Willcox's in dilapidated runabouts drawn by uncurried horses, a nigger boy sitting in the back of each, his thin legs dangling, had glimpses of him through the driveway gap in the tall Amor privet hedge that is between Willcox's and the road. These pairs or trios having seen would break in upon whatever else they may have been saying to make such remarks as: “He can't be, or he wouldn't be at Willcox's”; or, contradictorily: “He must be, or he'd do something besides sit in the sun”; or, “Don't they always have to drink lots of milk?” or, “Anyway, they're quite positive that it's not catching”; or, “Poor boy, what nice hair he's got.”

With the old-timers the new-comer, whose case was otherwise so doubtful, had one thing in common: a coonskin coat. It was handsome of its kind, unusually long, voluminous, and black. The upturned collar came above his ears, and in the opening his face showed thin and white, and his eyes, always intent upon the book in his lap, had a look of being closed. Two things distinguished him from other men: his great length of limb and the color and close-cropped, almost moulded, effect of his hair. It was the color of old Domingo mahogany, and showed off the contour of his fine round head with excellent effect.

The suspicion that this interesting young man was a consumptive was set aside by Willcox himself. He told Mrs. Bainbridge, who asked (on account of her little children who, et cetera, et cetera), that Mr. Masters was recuperating from a very stubborn attack of typhoid. But was Mr. Willcox quite sure? Yes, Mr. Willcox had to be sure of just such things. So Mrs. Bainbridge drove out to Miss Langrais' tea at the golf club, and passed on the glad tidings with an addition of circumstantial detail. Mister Masters (people found that it was quite good fun to say this, with assorted intonations) had been sick for many months at—she thought—the New York Hospital. Sometimes his temperature had touched a hundred and fifteen degrees and sometimes he had not had any temperature at all. There was quite a romance involved, “his trained nurse, my dear, not one of the ordinary creatures, but a born lady in impoverished circumstances,” et cetera, et cetera. And later, when even Mister Masters himself had contradicted these brightly colored statements, Mrs. Bainbridge continued to believe them. Even among wealthy and idle women she was remarkable for the number of impossible things she could believe before breakfast, and after. But she never made these things seem even half plausible to others, and so she wasn't dangerous.

Mister Masters never remembered to have passed so lonely and dreary a February. The sunny South was a medicine that had been prescribed and that had to be swallowed. Aiken on the label had looked inviting enough, but he found the contents of the bottle distasteful in the extreme. “The South is sunny,” he wrote to his mother, “but oh, my great jumping grandmother, how seldom! And it's cold, mummy, like being beaten with whips. And it rains—well, if it rained cats and dogs a fellow wouldn't mind. Maybe they'd speak to him, but it rains solid cold water, and it hits the windows the way waves hit the port-holes at sea; and the only thing that stops the rain is a wind that comes all the way from Alaska for the purpose. In protected corners the sun has a certain warmth. But the other morning the waiter put my milk on the wrong side of my chair, in the shade, namely, and when I went to drink it it was frozen solid. You were right about the people here all being kind; they are all the same kind. I know them all now—by sight; but not by name, except, of course, some who are stopping at Willcox's. We have had three ice storms—'Kennst du das Land wo die Citronen blühen?' I am getting to kennst it very well. But Willcox, who keeps a record of such things, says that this is the coldest winter Aiken has known since last winter!

“But in spite of all this there is a truth that must be spoken. I feel a thousand times better and stronger than when I came. And yesterday, exercising in the privacy of my room, I discovered that there are once more calves upon my legs. This is truth, too. I have no one to talk to but your letters. So don't stint me. Stint me with money if you can (here I defy you), but for the love of Heaven keep me posted. If you will promise to write every day I will tell you the name of the prettiest girl in Aiken. She goes by eight times every day, and she looks my way out of the corner of her eye. And I pretend to be reading and try very hard to look handsome and interesting.... Mother! ... just now I rested my hand on the arm of my chair and the wood felt hot to the touch! It's high noon and the sun's been on it since eight o'clock, but still it seems very wonderful. Willcox says that the winter is practically over; but I begged him not to hurry....”

Such was the usual trend of his letters. But that one dated March 7 began with the following astonishing statement:

“I love Aiken ...” and went on to explain why.

But Mister Masters was not allowed to love Aiken until he had come through the whole gauntlet of gossip. It had first been suggested that he was a consumptive and a menace (“though of course one feels terribly sorry for them, my dear"). This had been disproved. Then it was spread about that he belonged to a wealthy family of Masters from the upper West Side (“very well in their way, no doubt, and the backbone of the country, my dear, but one doesn't seem to get on with them, and I shouldn't think they'd come to Aiken of all places"). But a gentleman who knew the West Side Masters, root and branch, shook his head to this, and went so far as to say, “Not much, he isn't”; and went further and shuddered. Then it got about that Mister Masters was poor (and that made people suspicious of him). Then it got about that he was rich (and that made them even more so). Then that he wrote for a living (and that was nearly as bad as to say that he cheated at cards—or at least it was the kind of thing that they didn't do). And then, finally, the real truth about him, or something like it, got out; and the hatchet of suspicion was buried, and there was peace in Aiken. In that Aiken of whose peace the judge, referring to a pock-marked mulatto girl, had thundered that it should not be disturbed for any woman—“no—not even were she Helen of Troy.”

This was the truth that got out about Mister Masters. He was a nephew of the late Bishop Masters. His mother, on whom he was dependent, was very rich; she had once been prominent in society. He was thirty, and was good at games. He did not work at anything.

So he was something that Aiken could understand and appreciate: a young man who was well-born, who didn't have to work—and who didn't want to.

But old Mrs. Hotchkiss did not know of these things when, one bright day in passing Willcox's (she was on one good foot, one rheumatic foot, and a long black cane with a gold handle), she noticed the young man pale and rather sad-looking in his fur coat and steamer-rug, his eyes on his book, and stopped abruptly and spoke to him through the gap in the hedge.

“I hope you'll forgive an old woman for scraping an acquaintance,” she piped in her brisk, cheerful voice, “but I want to know if you're getting better, and I thought the best way to find out was to stop and ask.”

Mister Masters's steamer-rug fell from about his long legs and his face became rosy, for he was very shy.

“Indeed I am,” he said, “ever so much. And thank you for asking.”

“I'm tired,” said the old lady, “of seeing you always sitting by yourself, dead tired of it. I shall come for you this afternoon at four in my carriage, and take you for a drive....”

“It was abrupt,” Mister Masters wrote to his mother, “but it was kind. When I had done blushing and scraping with my feet and pulling my forelock, we had the nicest little talk. And she remembered you in the old days at Lenox, and said why hadn't I told her before. And then she asked if I liked Aiken, and, seeing how the land lay, I lied and said I loved it. And she said that that was her nice, sensible young fellow, or words to that effect. And then she asked me why, and I said because it has such a fine climate; and then she laughed in my face, and said that I was without reverence for her age—not a man—a scalawag.

“And do you know, Mrs. Hotchkiss is like one of those magic keys in fairy stories? All doors open to her. Between you and me I have been thinking Aiken's floating population snobbish, purse-proud, and generally absurd. And instead, the place seems to exist so that kindness and hospitality may not fail on earth. Of course I'm not up to genuine sprees, such as dining out and sitting up till half-past ten or eleven. But I can go to luncheons, and watch other people play tennis, and poke about gardens with old ladies, and guess when particular flowers will be out, and learn the names of birds and of hostile bushes that prick and of friendly bushes that don't.

“All the cold weather has gone to glory; and it's really spring because the roosters crow all night. Mrs. Hotchkiss says it's because they are roosters and immoral. But I think they're crowing because they've survived the winter. I am....”

Aiken took a great fancy to Mister Masters. First because Aiken was giving him a good time; and second because he was really good company when you got him well cornered and his habitual fright had worn off. He was the shyest, most frightened six-footer in the memory of Aiken. If you spoke to him suddenly he blushed, and if you prepared him by first clearing your throat he blushed just the same. And he had a crooked, embarrassed smile that was a delight to see.

But gradually he became almost at ease with nearly everybody; and in the shyest, gentlest way enjoyed himself hugely. But the prettiest girl in Aiken had very hard work with him.

As a stag fights when brought to bay, so Mister Masters when driven into a corner could talk as well and as freely as the next man; but on his own initiative there was, as we Americans say, “nothing doing.” Whether or not the prettiest girl in Aiken ever rolled off a log is unknown; but such an act would have been no more difficult for her than to corner Mister Masters. The man courted cornering, especially by her. But given the desired situation, neither could make anything of it. Mister Masters's tongue became forthwith as helpless as a man tied hand and foot and gagged. He had nothing with which to pay for the delight of being cornered but his rosiest, steadiest blush and his crookedest and most embarrassed smile. But he retained a certain activity of mind and within himself was positively voluble with what he would say if he only could.

I don't mean that the pair sat or stood or walked in absolute silence. Indeed, little Miss Blythe could never be silent for a long period nor permit it in others, but I mean that with the lines and the machinery of a North Atlantic liner, their craft of propinquity made about as much progress as a scow. Nevertheless, though neither was really aware of this, each kept saying things, that cannot be put into words, to the other; otherwise the very first cornering of Mister Masters by little Miss Blythe must have been the last. But even as it was way back at the beginning of things, and always will be, Beauty spoke to Handsome and Handsome up and spoke back.

“No,” said little Miss Blythe, upon being sharply cross-questioned by Mrs. Hotchkiss, “he practically never does say anything.”

Mrs. Hotchkiss dug a little round hole in the sand with her long black cane, and made an insulting face at little Miss Blythe.

“Some men,” said she, “can't say 'Boo' to a goose.”

If other countries produce girls like little Miss Blythe, I have never met a specimen; and I feel very sure that foreign young ladies do not become personages at the age of seventeen. When she met Mister Masters she had been a personage for six years, and it was time for her to yield her high place to another; to marry, to bear children, and to prove that all the little matters for which she was celebrated were merely passing phases and glitterings of a character which fundamentally was composed of simple and noble traits.

Little Miss Blythe had many brothers and sisters; no money, as we reckon money; and only such prospects as she herself might choose from innumerable offers. She was little; her figure looked best in athletic clothes (low neck didn't do well with her, because her face was tanned so brown) and she was strong and quick as a pony. All the year round she kept herself in the pink of condition (“overkept herself” some said) dancing, walking, running, swimming, playing all games and eating to match. She had a beautiful, clean-cut face, not delicate and to be hidden and coaxed by veils and soft things, but a face that looked beautiful above a severe Eton collar, and at any distance. She had the bright, wide eyes of a collected athlete, unbelievably blue, and the whites of them were only matched for whiteness by her teeth (the deep tan of her skin heightened this effect, perhaps); and it was said by one admirer that if she were to be in a dark room and were to press the button of a kodak and to smile at one and the same instant, there would be a picture taken.

She had friends in almost every country-clubbed city in America. Whenever, and almost wherever, a horse show was held she was there to show the horses of some magnate or other to the best advantage. Between times she won tennis tournaments and swimming matches, or tried her hand at hunting or polo (these things in secret because her father had forbidden them), and the people who continually pressed hospitality upon her said that they were repaid a thousand-fold. In the first place, it was a distinction to have her. “Who are the Ebers?” “Why, don't you know? They are the people Miss Blythe is stopping with.”

She was always good-natured; she never kept anybody waiting; and she must have known five thousand people well enough to call them by their first names. But what really distinguished her most from other young women was that her success in inspiring others with admiration and affection was not confined to men; she had the same effect upon all women, old and young, and all children.

Foolish people said that she had no heart, merely because no one had as yet touched it. Wise people said that when she did fall in love sparks would fly. Hitherto her friendships with men, whatever the men in question may have wished, had existed upon a basis of good-natured banter and prowess in games. Men were absolutely necessary to Miss Blythe to play games with, because women who could “give her a game” were rare as ivory-billed woodpeckers. It was even thought by some, as an instance, that little Miss Blythe could beat the famous Miss May Sutton once out of three times at lawn-tennis. But Miss Sutton, with the good-natured and indomitable aggression of her genius, set this supposition at rest. Little Miss Blythe could not beat Miss Sutton once out of three or three hundred times. But for all that, little Miss Blythe was a splendid player and a master of strokes and strategy.

Nothing would have astonished her world more than to learn that little Miss Blythe had a secret, darkly hidden quality of which she was dreadfully ashamed. At heart she was nothing if not sentimental and romantic. And often when she was thought to be sleeping the dreamless sleep of the trained athlete who stores up energy for the morrow's contest, she was sitting at the windows in her night-gown, looking at the moon (in hers) and weaving all sorts of absurd adventures about herself and her particular fancy of the moment.

It would be a surprise and pleasure to some men, a tragedy perhaps to others, if they should learn that little Miss Blythe had fancied them all at different times, almost to the boiling point, and that in her own deeply concealed imagination Jim had rescued her from pirates and Jack from a burning hotel, or that just as her family were selling her to a rich widower, John had appeared on his favorite hunter and carried her off. The truth is that little Miss Blythe had engaged in a hundred love affairs concerning which no one but herself was the wiser.

And at twenty-three it was high time for her to marry and settle down. First because she couldn't go on playing games and showing horses forever, and second because she wanted to. But with whom she wanted to marry and settle down she could not for the life of her have said. Sometimes she thought that it would be with Mr. Blagdon. He was rich and he was a widower; but wherever she went he managed to go, and he had some of the finest horses in the world, and he wouldn't take no for an answer. Sometimes she said to the moon:

“I'll give myself a year, and if at the end of that time I don't like anybody better than Bob, why....” Or, in a different mood, “I'm tired of everything I do; if he happens to ask me to-morrow I'll say yes.” Or, “I've ridden his horses, and broken his golf clubs, and borrowed his guns (and he won't lend them to anybody else), and I suppose I've got to pay him back.” Or, “I really do like him a lot,” or “I really don't like him at all.”

Then there came into this young woman's life Mister Masters. And he blushed his blush and smiled his crooked smile and looked at her when she wasn't looking at him (and she knew that he was looking) and was unable to say as much as “Boo” to her; and in the hidden springs of her nature that which she had always longed for happened, and became, and was. And one night she said to the moon: “I know it isn't proper for me to be so attentive to him, and I know everybody is talking about it, but—” and she rested her beautiful brown chin on her shapely, strong, brown hands, and a tear like a diamond stood in each of her unbelievably blue eyes, and she looked at the moon, and said: “But it's Harry Masters or—bust!”

Mr. Bob Blagdon, the rich widower, had been content to play a waiting game; for he knew very well that beneath her good-nature little Miss Blythe had a proud temper and was to be won rather by the man who should make himself indispensable to her than by him who should be forever pestering her with speaking and pleading his cause. She is an honest girl, he told himself, and without thinking of consequences she is always putting herself under obligations to me. Let her ride down lover's lane with young Blank or young Dash, she will not be able to forget that she is on my favorite mare. In his soul he felt a certain proprietorship in little Miss Blythe; but to this his ruddy, dark-mustached face and slow-moving eyes were a screen.

Mr. Blagdon had always gone after what he wanted in a kind of slow, indifferent way that begot confidence in himself and in the beholder; and (in the case of Miss Blythe) a kind of panic in the object sought. She liked him because she was used to him, and because he could and would talk sense upon subjects which interested her. But she was afraid of him because she knew that he expected her to marry him some day, and because she knew that other people, including her own family, expected this of her. Sometimes she felt ready to take unto herself all the horses and country places and automobiles and yachts, and in a life lived regardless of expense to bury and forget her better self. But more often, like a fly caught in a spider's web, she wished by one desperate effort (even should it cost her a wing, to carry out the figure) to free herself once and forever from the entanglement.

It was pleasant enough in the web. The strands were soft and silky; they held rather by persuasion than by force. And had it not been for the spider she could have lived out her life in the web without any very desperate regrets. But it was never quite possible to forget the spider; and that in his own time he would approach slowly and deliberately, sure of himself and of little Miss Fly....

But, after all, the spider in the case was not such a terrible fellow. Just because a man wants a girl that doesn't want him, and means to have her, he hasn't necessarily earned a hard name. Such a man as often as not becomes one-half of a very happy marriage. And Mr. Bob Blagdon was considered an exceptionally good fellow. In his heart, though I have never heard him say so openly, I think he actually looked down on people who gambled and drank to excess, and who were uneducated and had acquired (whatever they may have been born with) perfectly empty heads. I think that he had a sound and sensible virtue; one ear for one side of an argument, and one for the other.

There is no reason to doubt that he was a good husband to his first wife, and wished to replace her with little Miss Blythe, not to supplant her. To his three young children he was more of a grandfather than a father; though strong-willed and even stubborn, he was unable half the time to say no to them. And I have seen him going on all-fours with the youngest child perched on his back kicking him in the ribs and urging him to canter. So if he intended by the strength of his will and of his riches to compel little Miss Blythe to marry (and to be happy with him; he thought he could manage that, too), it is only one blot on a decent and upright character. And it is unjust to have called him spider.

But when Mister Masters entered (so timidly to the eye, but really so masterfully) into little Miss Blythe's life, she could no longer tolerate the idea of marrying Mr. Blagdon. All in a twinkle she knew that horses and yachts and great riches could never make up to her for the loss of a long, bashful youth with a crooked smile. You can't be really happy if you are shivering with cold; you can't be really happy if you are dripping with heat. And she knew that without Mister Masters she must always be one thing or the other—too cold or too hot, never quite comfortable.

Her own mind was made up from the first; even to going through any number of awful scenes with Blagdon. But as time passed and her attentions (I shall have to call it that) to Mister Masters made no visible progress, there were times when she was obliged to think that she would never marry anybody at all. But in her heart she knew that Masters was attracted by her, and to this strand of knowledge she clung so as not to be drowned in a sea of despair.

Her position was one of extreme difficulty and delicacy. Sometimes Mister Masters came near her of his own accord, and remained in bashful silence; but more often she was obliged to have recourse to “accidents” in order to bring about propinquity. And even when propinquity had been established there was never any progress made that could be favorably noted. Behind her back, for instance, when she was playing tennis and he was looking on, he was quite bold in his admiration of her. And whereas most people's eyes when they are watching tennis follow the flight of the ball, Mister Masters's faithful eyes never left the person of his favorite player.

One reason for his awful bashfulness and silence was that certain people, who seemed to know, had told him in the very beginning that it was only a question of time before little Miss Blythe would become Mrs. Bob Blagdon. “She's always been fond of him,” they said, “and of course he can give her everything worth having.” So when he was with her he felt as if he was with an engaged girl, and his real feelings not being proper to express in any way under such circumstances, and his nature being single and without deceit, he was put in a quandary that defied solution.

But what was hidden from Mister Masters was presently obvious to Mr. Blagdon and to others. So the spider, sleepily watching the automatic enmeshment of the fly, may spring into alert and formidable action at seeing a powerful beetle blunder into the web and threaten by his stupid, aimless struggles to set the fly at liberty and to destroy the whole fabric spun with care and toil.

To a man in love there is no redder danger signal than a sight of the object of his affections standing or sitting contentedly with another man and neither of them saying as much as “Boo” to the other. He may, with more equanimity, regard and countenance a genuine flirtation, full of laughter and eye-making. The first time Mr. Blagdon saw them together he thought; the second time he felt; the third time he came forward graciously smiling. The web might be in danger from the beetle; the fly at the point of kicking up her heels and flying gayly away; but it may be in the power of the spider to spin enough fresh threads on the spur of the moment to rebind the fly, and even to make prisoner the doughty beetle.

“Don't you ride, Mister Masters?” said Mr. Blagdon.

“Of course,” said the shy one, blushing. “But I'm not to do anything violent before June.”

“Sorry,” said Mr. Blagdon, “because I've a string of ponies that are eating their heads off. I'd be delighted to mount you.”

But Mister Masters smiled with unusual crookedness and stammered his thanks and his regrets. And so that thread came to nothing.

The spider attempted three more threads; but little Miss Blythe looked serenely up.

“I never saw such a fellow as you, Bob,” said she, “for putting other people under obligations. When I think of the weight of my personal ones I shudder.” She smiled innocently and looked up into his face. “When people can't pay their debts they have to go through bankruptcy, don't they? And then their debts all have to be forgiven.”

Mr. Blagdon felt as if an icy cold hand had been suddenly laid upon the most sensitive part of his back; but his expression underwent no change. His slow eyes continued to look into the beautiful, brightly colored face that was turned up to him.

“Very honorable bankrupts,” said he carelessly, “always pay what they can on the dollar.”

Presently he strolled away, easy and nonchalant; but inwardly he carried a load of dread and he saw clearly that he must learn where he stood with little Miss Blythe, or not know the feeling of easiness from one day to the next. Better, he thought, to be the recipient of a painful and undeserved ultimatum, than to breakfast, lunch, and dine with uncertainty.

The next day, there being some dozens of people almost in earshot, Mr. Blagdon had an opportunity to speak to little Miss Blythe. Under the circumstances, the last thing she expected was a declaration; they were in full view of everybody; anybody might stroll up and interrupt. So what Mr. Blagdon had to say came to her with something the effect of sudden thunder from a clear sky.

“Phyllis,” said he, “you have been looking about you since you were seventeen. Will I do?”

“Oh, Bob!” she protested.

“I have tried to do,” said he, not without a fine ring of manliness. “Have I made good?”

She smiled bravely and looked as nonchalant as possible; but her heart was beating heavily.

“I've liked being good friends—so much,” she said. “Don't spoil it.”

“I tell her,” said he, “that in all the world there is only the one girl—only the one. And she says—Don't spoil it.'”

“Bob——”

“I will make you happy,” he said.... “Has it never entered your dear head that some time you must give me an answer?”

She nodded her dear head, for she was very honest.

“I suppose so,” she said.

“Well,” said he.

“In my mind,” she said, “I have never been able to give you the same answer twice....”

“A decision is expected from us,” said he. “People are growing tired of our long backing and filling.”

“People! Do they matter?”

“They matter a great deal. And you know it.”

“Yes. I suppose they do. Let me off for now, Bob. People are looking at us....”

“I want an answer.”

But she would not be coerced.

“You shall have one, but not now. I'm not sure what it will be.”

“If you can't be sure now, can you ever be sure?”

“Yes. Give me two weeks. I shall think about nothing else.”

“Thank you,” he said. “Two weeks.... That will be full moon.... I shall ask all Aiken to a picnic in the woods, weather permitting ... and—and if your answer is to be my happiness, why, you shall come up to me, and say, 'Bob—drive me home, will you?'”

“And if it's the other answer, Bob?”

He smiled in his usual bantering way.

“If it's the other, Phyllis—why—you—you can walk home.”

She laughed joyously, and he laughed, just as if nothing but what was light and amusing was in question between them.

Along the Whiskey Road nearly the whole floating population of Aiken moved on horseback or on wheels. Every fourth or fifth runabout carried a lantern; but the presence in the long, wide-gapped procession of other vehicles or equestrians was denoted only by the sounds of voices. Half a dozen family squabbles, half a dozen flirtations (which would result in family squabbles), and half a dozen genuine romances were moving through the sweet-smelling dark to Mr. Bob Blagdon's picnic in Red Oak Hollow. Only three of the guests knew where Red Oak Hollow was, and two of these were sure that they could only find it by daylight; but the third, a noted hunter and pigeon shot, rode at the head of the procession, and pretended (he was forty-five with the heart of a child) that he was Buffalo Bill leading a lost wagon-train to water. And though nobody could see him for the darkness, he played his part with minute attention to detail, listening, pulling up short, scowling to right and left, wetting a finger and holding it up to see from which direction the air was moving. He was so intent upon bringing his convoy safely through a hostile country that the sounds of laughter or of people in one runabout calling gayly to people in another were a genuine annoyance to him.

Mr. Bob Blagdon had preceded his guests by half an hour, and was already at the scene of the picnic. Fate, or perhaps the weather bureau at Washington, had favored him with just the conditions he would have wished for. The night was hot without heaviness; in the forenoon of that day there had been a shower, just wet enough to keep the surfaces of roads from rising in dust. It was now clear and bestarred, and perhaps a shade less dark than when he had started. Furthermore, it was so still that candles burned without flickering. He surveyed his preparations with satisfaction. And because he was fastidious in entertainment this meant a great deal.

A table thirty feet long, and low to the ground so that people sitting on rugs or cushions could eat from it with comfort, stood beneath the giant red oak that gave a name to the hollow. The white damask with which it was laid and the silver and cut glass gleamed in the light of dozens of candles. The flowers were Maréchal Niel roses in a long bank of molten gold.

Except for the lanterns at the serving tables, dimly to be seen through a dense hedgelike growth of Kalmia latifolia, there were no other lights in the hollow; so that the dinner-table had the effect of standing in a cave; for where the gleam of the candles ended, the surrounding darkness appeared solid like a wall.

It might have been a secret meeting of smugglers or pirates, the Georgian silver on the table representing years of daring theft; it seemed as if blood must have been spilled for the wonderful glass and linen and porcelain. Even those guests most hardened in luxury and extravagance looked twice at Mr. Bob Blagdon's picnic preparations before they could find words with which to compliment him upon them; and the less experienced were beside themselves with enthusiasm and delight. But Mr. Bob Blagdon was wondering what little Miss Blythe would think and say, and he thought it unkind of her, under the circumstances, to be the last to arrive. Unkind, because her doing so was either a good omen or an evil one, and he could not make up his mind which.

The guests were not homogeneously dressed. Some of the men were in dinner clothes; some were in full evening dress; some wore dinner coats above riding breeches and boots; some had come bareheaded, some with hats which they did not propose to remove. Half the women were in low neck and short sleeves; one with short curly hair was breeched and booted like a man; others wore what I suppose may be called theatre gowns; and a few who were pretty enough to stand it wore clothes suited to the hazards of a picnic in the woods.

Mr. Blagdon's servants wore his racing colors, blue and silver, knee-breeches, black silk stockings, pumps with silver buckles, and powdered hair. They were men picked for their height, wooden faces, and well-turned calves. They moved and behaved as if utterly untouched and uninterested in their unusual and romantic surroundings; they were like jinns summoned for the occasion by the rubbing of a magic lamp.

At the last moment, when to have been any later would have been either rude or accidental, little Miss Blythe's voice was heard calling from the darkness and asking which of two roads she should take. Half a dozen men rushed off to guide her, and presently she came blinking into the circle of light, followed by Mister Masters, who smiled his crookedest smile and stumbled on a root so that he was cruelly embarrassed.

Little Miss Blythe blinked at the lights and looked very beautiful. She was all in white and wore no hat. She had a red rose at her throat. She was grave for her—and silent.

The truth was that she had during the last ten minutes made up her mind to ask Mr. Bob Blagdon to drive her home when the picnic should be over. She had asked Mister Masters to drive out with her; and how much that had delighted him nobody knew (alas!) except Mister Masters himself. She had during the last few weeks given him every opportunity which her somewhat unconventional soul could sanction. In a hundred ways she had showed him that she liked him immensely; and well—if he liked her in the same way, he would have managed to show it, in spite of his shyness. The drive out had been a failure. They had gotten no further in conversation than the beauty and the sweet smells of the night. And finally, but God alone knows with what reluctance, she had given him up as a bad job.

The long table with its dozens of candles looked like a huge altar, and she was Iphigenia come to the sacrifice. She had never heard of Iphigenia, but that doesn't matter. At Mister Masters, now seated near the other end of the table, she lifted shy eyes; but he was looking at his plate and crumbling a piece of bread. It was like saying good-by. She was silent for a moment; then, smiling with a kind of reckless gayety, she lifted her glass of champagne and turned to the host.

“To you!” she said.

Delight swelled in the breast of Mr. Bob Blagdon. He raised his hand, and from a neighboring thicket there rose abruptly the music of banjos and guitars and the loud, sweet singing of negroes.

Aiken will always remember that dinner in the woods for its beauty and for its gayety. Two or three men, funny by gift and habit, were at their very best; and fortune adapted the wits of others to the occasion. So that the most unexpected persons became humorous for once in their lives, and said things worth remembering. People gather together for one of three reasons: to make laws, to break them, or to laugh. The first sort of gathering is nearly always funny, and if the last isn't, why then, to be sure, it is a failure. Mr. Bob Blagdon's picnic was an uproarious success. Now and then somebody's whole soul seemed to go into a laugh, in which others could not help joining, until uncontrollable snorts resounded in the hollow and eyes became blinded with tears.

And then suddenly, toward dessert, laughter died away and nothing was to be heard but such exclamations as: “For Heaven's sake, look at the moon!” “Did you ever see anything like it?”

Mr. Blagdon had paid money to the owner of Red Oak Hollow for permission to remove certain trees and thickets that would otherwise have obstructed his guests' view of the moonrise. At the end of the vista thus obtained the upper rim of the moon now appeared, as in a frame. And, watching in silence, Mr. Blagdon's guests saw the amazing luminary emerge, as it were, from the earth like a bright and blameless soul from the grave, and sail clear, presently, and upward into untroubled space; a glory, serene, smiling, and unanswerable.

No one remembered to have seen the moon so large or so bright. Atomized silver poured like tides of light into the surrounding woods; and at the same time heavenly odors of flowers began to move hither and thither, to change places, to return, and pass, like disembodied spirits engaged in some tranquil and celestial dance.

And it became cooler, so that women called for light wraps and men tied sweaters round their necks by the arms. Then at a long distance from the dinner-table a bonfire began to flicker, and then grow bright and red. And it was discovered that rugs and cushions had been placed (not too near the fire) for people to sit on while they drank their coffee and liquors, and that there were logs to lean against, and boxes of cigars and cigarettes where they could most easily be reached.

It was only a question now of how long the guests would care to stay. As a gathering the picnic was over. Some did not use the rugs and cushions that had been provided for them, but strolled away into the woods. A number of slightly intoxicated gentlemen felt it their duty to gather about their host and entertain him. Two married couples brought candles from the dinner-table and began a best two out of three at bridge. Sometimes two men and one woman would sit together with their backs against a log; but always after a few minutes one of the men would go away “to get something” and would not return.

It was not wholly by accident that Mister Masters found himself alone with little Miss Blythe. Emboldened by the gayety of the dinner, and then by the wonder of the moon, he had had the courage to hurry to her side; and though there his courage had failed utterly, his action had been such as to deter others from joining her. So, for there was nothing else to do, they found a thick rug and sat upon it, and leaned their backs against a log.

Little Miss Blythe had not yet asked Mr. Blagdon to drive her home. Though she had made up her mind to do so, it would only be at the last possible moment of the twelfth hour. It was now that eleventh hour in which heroines are rescued by bold lovers. But Mister Masters was no bolder than a mouse. And the moon sailed higher and higher in the heavens.

“Isn't it wonderful?” said little Miss Blythe.

“Wonderful!”

“Just smell it!”

“Umm.”

Her sad, rather frightened eyes wandered over to the noisy group of which Mr. Bob Blagdon was the grave and silent centre. He knew that little Miss Blythe would keep her promise. He believed in his heart that her decision would be favorable to him; but he was watching her where she sat with Masters and knew that his belief in what she would decide was not strong enough to make him altogether happy.

And he was old enough to be her father!” repeated the gentleman in the Scotch deer-stalker who had been gossiping. Mr. Blagdon smiled, but the words hurt—“old enough to be her father.” “My God,” he thought, “I am old enough—just!” But then he comforted himself with “Why not? It's how old a man feels, not how old he is.”

Then his eyes caught little Miss Blythe's, but she turned hers instantly away.

“This will be the end of the season,” she said.

Mister Masters assented. He wanted to tell her how beautiful she looked.

“Do you see old Mr. Black over there?” she said. “He's pretending not to watch us, but he's watching us like a lynx.... Did you ever start a piece of news?”

“Never,” said Mister Masters.

“It would be rather fun,” said little Miss Blythe. “For instance, if we held hands for a moment Mr. Black would see it, and five minutes later everybody would know about it.”

Mister Masters screwed his courage up to the sticking point, and took her hand in his. Both looked toward Mr. Black as if inviting him to notice them. Mr. Black was seen almost instantly to whisper to the nearest gentleman.

“There,” said little Miss Blythe, and was for withdrawing her hand. But Masters's fingers tightened upon it, and she could feel the pulses beating in their tips. She knew that people were looking, but she felt brazen, unabashed, and happy. Mister Masters's grip tightened; it said: “My master has a dozen hearts, and they are all beating—for you.” To return that pressure was not an act of little Miss Blythe's will. She could not help herself. Her hand said to Masters: “With the heart—with the soul.” Then she was frightened and ashamed, and had a rush of color to the face.

“Let go,” she whispered.

But Masters leaned toward her, and though he was trembling with fear and awe and wonder, he found a certain courage and his voice was wonderfully gentle and tender, and he smiled and he whispered: “Boo!”

Only then did he set her hand free. For one reason there was no need now of so slight a bondage; for another, Mr. Bob Blagdon was approaching them, a little pale but smiling. He held out his hand to little Miss Blythe, and she took it.

“Phyllis,” said he, “I know your face so well that there is no need for me to ask, and for you—to deny.” He smiled upon her gently, though it cost him an effort. “I wanted her for myself,” he turned to Masters with charming frankness, “but even an old man's selfish desires are not proof against the eloquence of youth, and I find a certain happiness in saying from the bottom of my heart—bless you, my children....”

The two young people stood before him with bowed heads.

“I am going to send you the silver and glass from the table,” said he, “for a wedding present to remind you of my picnic....” He looked upward at the moon. “If I could,” said he, “I would give you that.”

Then the three stood in silence and looked upward at the moon.

 
 
 

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