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In the Interests of Christopher by May Harris

 

Mrs. Manstey's big country-house was temporarily empty of the guests she had gathered for a week-end in June when the two Eversley girls reached it, Saturday at noon. Their hostess met them at the door when the carriage wheels crunched on the gravelled curve of the drive before the house—a charming gray-haired woman of sixty, with a youthful face and a delicate girlish color.

“I've sent everybody away to explore—to ravage the country,” she gayly explained the emptiness of the large hall, where the grouped chairs seemed recently vacated and pleasantly suggestive of suspended tete-a-tete. “I've had Rose before,” Mrs. Manstey pursued, taking them up the stairs to their rooms, “but not you!” She gave Edith's shoulder an affectionate little pat. She thought the younger girl extremely beautiful—which she was, with a vivid, piquant face and charming eyes.

“I've had my day,” Rose Eversley acknowledged, with her usual air of jesting gravity, that, almost ironic, made one always a little unsure of her. “Dear Mrs. Manstey, you perfectly see—don't you?—that Edith is papa's image, and—”

“And he was my old sweetheart!” Mrs. Manstey completed, with humorous appreciation of her own repetition of an old story.

“Was he, really?” Edith wondered. “Mamma says you were her friend.”

Mrs. Manstey laughed. “Couldn't I have been—both?” she gayly put it. “Friends are better than sweethearts—they last longer. Though of course you won't agree, at your age, to such heresy.”

“Sweethearts?” the girl pondered as she lifted her hands to take off her hat. “I—don't know. It's such a pretty word, but it doesn't mean much these days—there aren't any!” She shrugged her shoulders with a petulant pessimism her youth made amusing. “Papa was the last of the kind—he's a love!—and you let mamma have him!”

“I didn't 'let.'“ Mrs. Manstey enjoyed it. “When he met your mother he forgot all about me. Think of it! I haven't seen either him or your mother in years, years, years!”

My years!” Edith said. “I was a baby, mamma says, when she saw you last.”

“So you were.”

A servant knocked, with a note for Mrs. Manstey. As she took it and turned to leave the room, her smile, caressingly including Rose, went past her and lingered a thought longer—as people's smiles had a way of doing—with Edith.

“I know you're tired,” she added to her smile. “Five hours of train—Get into something cool and rest. Luncheon isn't until two.”

She disappeared, and Rose looked at her sister, who, with her hat in her hand, was going into her room.

“Well—?” Rose lifted her voice in its faint drawl of interrogation.

Edith looked at her absently. “I don't know,” she said, drawing her straight brows into a puzzled frown. “I'm as far away as ever—I'm so perplexed.”

“Well—you'll have to decide, you know.”

Edith shook her head impatiently and went into her room, closing the door. She hurried out of her dusty travelling things into cool freshness, and, settled in the most comfortable chair, gave herself up to an apparently endless fit of musing. She was so physically content that her mind refused to respond with any vigorous effort; to think at all was a crumpled rose-leaf.

From the lower hall the clock chimed one with musical vibrations. Edith leaned forward with her chin on her hand, driving her thoughts into a definite path. The curtains stirred in a breeze from the out-of-doors whose domain swept with country greenness and adventitious care away from the window under the high brilliance of the sun.

Close to the window a writing-table, with blotter, pens, and ink, made a focal-point for her gaze. At first a mere detail in her line of vision, it attained by degrees, it seemed, a definite relevancy to her train of thought. She looked in her portmanteau for her desk, and getting out some note-paper, went to the table and began to write a letter.

What she had to say seemed difficult to decide. She wrote a line, stared out of the window with fixity, and then wrote again—a flurry of quick, decisive strokes as if at determinate pressure. But a sigh struck across her mood, and almost against her will the puzzled crinkle returned to her brow. The curtain blew against her face, disarranging her hair, and as she lifted her hand to put back a straggling lock, the wind tossed the sheet of the letter she was writing out of the window. Her eyes, as she sprang up, followed its flight, but it whirled around the corner of the house and was lost to her desperate gaze.

Neglige, even of the most-becoming description, was not to be thought of in pursuing the loss, for the silence of the house had stirred to the sound of gay voices, the movement of feet.

Rose, also in neglige, opened the door between them and found her madly tearing off her pale-blue kimono. “What's the matter?” She paused, staring.

“Heavens! My shoes—please!—there by the table.” She kicked off her ridiculous blue slippers and pulled on the small colonials her sister in open wonder handed her. “If you had only been dressed,” she almost wailed, “you might have been able to get it.”

“Get what?”

“My letter!” Tragic, in spite of a mouthful of pins—which is a woman's undoubted preference, no matter how many befrilled pincushions entreat a division of spoils,—she turned her face with its import of sudden things to her sister in explanation. “I was writing a letter and it blew out of the window!”

“Well, if it did—”

“But, don't you see?—I was writing to Christopher! I had been thinking and thinking, and at last I screwed up my courage to answer his letter. I had all but signed my name!”

Rose Eversley began to laugh helplessly; heartlessly, her sister thought.

“If you hadn't signed it—” she at last comforted her sister's indignant face that was reflected from the mirror, where she stood as she fastened the white stock at her throat and snapped the clasp of her belt.

“Signed it!” She was almost in tears. “What difference will that make when I claim the letter? I must find it! But of course some one who knows me will be sure to find it. And that letter, of all letters!”

“If I were you, Edith,” Rose advised, calmly, “I shouldn't—”

“Well?”—with her hand on the door-knob.

“—try to find it. It will be impossible to trace it to you, in that case.”

“But don't you see—”

“Wait!” Rose caught and pulled her back. “How could they know? You'll get in much deeper. What had you written?”

“I said, 'Dear Christopher'—”

Rose laughed. “I'm glad you didn't say 'Dear Mr. Brander.' In that case you'd have given him away. But 'Christopher' is such an unusual name, they might—Sherlock Holmes could trace him by it alone.”

“You are a Job's comforter—a perfect Eliphaz the Temanite! Oh, oh!” Her soft crescendo was again tragic.

“In effect you said: 'Dear Christopher, as you have so often entreated, I have at last decided to be thine. The tinkle of thy shekels, now that I am so nearly shekelless myself, has done its fatal worst. I am thine—'“

“Oh, let me go!” Edith cried, in a fury close to tears. “You haven't any feeling. You are not going to sacrifice your_self!”

“To a good-looking young man who loves me exceedingly, and to something over a million? No, I am not!” Rose said, dryly.

“Oh, it's dreadful! Perfectly!” Edith cried, and on her indecision Rose hung another bit of wisdom:

“Why don't you go down in a leisurely way and investigate? You know the direction it blew away; follow it. If you meet any one, be admiring the scenery!”

Again Edith's look deserved the foot-lights, but Rose shrugged her shoulders and withdrew her detaining hand. Edith caught up her parasol and ran down the stairs. The big hall was empty. From a room on the right came a click of billiard-balls.

“Perhaps they are all in the house!” she thought, and drew a small breath of relief.

On the door-step she paused, with her parasol open, and considered. The house faced the west; her room was to the south, and the letter had disappeared to the east. She chose her line of advance carefully careless.

The lawn on the eastern side of the house sloped to an artificial pond, and near it a vine-covered summer-house made a dim retreat from the June sun. Look as she would, though, no faintest glimpse of white paper rewarded her gaze.

She strolled on—daunted, but still persistent, with the wind blowing her hair out of order—to the door of the summer-house. Within it a young man was standing, reading her letter. He looked up and took off his hat hastily, crumpling the letter in his hand. She saw he was quite ugly, with determined-looking eyes, and the redemption of a pleasant mouth.

She hesitated, the words “That is my letter!” absolutely frozen on her lips. He had been reading it! It seemed impossible for her to claim it, and so for a moment's silence she stood, with the green vines of the doorway—

  Half light, half shade—

framing herself and her white umbrella.

“You are looking for a cool spot?”—he deprecatingly took the initiative. “This is a good choice. There's a wind—”

“Horrid!” she interrupted, so vehemently that she caught his involuntary surprise. “I don't like the wind,” she added.

“'It's an ill wind,' you know, 'that doesn't blow some one good.'“

“I assure you this is an ill wind! It has blown me all of the ill it could.”

“Do come out of it,” he begged. “The vines keep it off. It's a half-hour until luncheon,” he added, “unless they've changed since I was here last.” He put up his watch. “We're fellow guests. You came this morning, didn't you?—while we were out. I came last night.”

She seated herself provisionally on the little bench by the door, and dug the point of her umbrella into the ground. Her mind was busy. He still held the letter. She had had a forlorn hope that he would throw down the sheet; but he did not. Was there any strategy, she wondered. But none suggested itself; and indeed, as if divining her thought, he put the crumpled sheet in his pocket. Her eyes followed despairingly the “Dear Christopher,” in her clear and, she felt, unfortunately individual writing, as it disappeared in his capacious blue serge pocket.

Different ideas wildly presented themselves, but none would do. Could she ask him to climb a tree? Of course in that case he would have to take off his coat and put it down, and give her the opportunity to recover the horrible letter from his pocket. But one cannot ask a stranger to climb a tree simply to exhibit his acrobatic powers. And trees!—there were none save saplings in a radius of fifty yards! Could she tumble in the pond? It would be even less desirable, and he would simply wade in and pull her out, with no need to remove his coat.

“Mrs. Manstey,” he was saying, a little tentatively, upholding the burden of conversation, “sent some of us out riding this morning, and Ralph Manstey raced us home by a short cut cross country. That is, he took the short cut. We gave it the cut direct and looked for gaps.”

“If I had been out, I'd have taken every fence,” she said, boastfully, and then laughed. He laughed too.

“If I—if you were my sister, I shouldn't let you follow Ralph Manstey on horseback. He's utterly reckless.”

“So am I,” she came in, with spirit. “At home I ride anything and jump everything.”

“Well, you shouldn't if you were my sister,” he repeated, decisively.

“I'm sorry for your sister,” she declared.

“Well, you see, I haven't one,” he said, gayly, and smiled down at her lifted face. Remembering the letter, she corrected her expression to colder lines.

“There's no one to introduce us,”—he broke the pause. “Mayn't I—“ He colored and put his hand into his pocket, and taking out her letter, folded the blank sheet out and produced a pencil. “It's hard to call one's own name,” he continued. “Suppose we write our names?”

As he was clumsy in finesse, she understood his idea, and her eyes flashed. But she said nothing as he scribbled and handed the paper to her. She read, “C.K. Farringdon,” and played with the pencil.

“Mr. Farringdon,”—she said it over meditatively. “How plainly you write! My name's Edith Eversley,” she added, tranquilly, and, because she must, per force, returned the sheet to him. She had a wicked delight in the defeat of his strategy which she could cleverly conceal.

“I wish,” he deprecated, gently, but with persistence, “that you would write your name here—won't you, as a souvenir?”

But she shook her head and rose—angry, which she hid, but also amused at his pertinacity.

“I can't write decently with a pencil,” she said, carelessly, and her eyes followed his hand putting the letter back into his pocket. That she should have actually had the letter in her hand, and had to give it back! But no quick-witted pretext had occurred to help her. Rose would think her stupid—utterly lacking in expedients.

She left the summer-house, unfurling her umbrella, and Farringdon followed instantly, his failure apparently forgotten.

They passed the tennis-court on their way to the house, and—

“Do you play?” he asked.

“A little.” Her intonation mocked the formula.

“Might we, then, this afternoon—”

She gave him a side glance. “If you don't mind losing,” she suggested.

“But I play to win,” he modestly met it, and again they laughed.

Rose Eversley looked with curiosity at her sister when she entered the dining-room for luncheon, followed by Farringdon, but Edith's face was non-committal. She was bright and vivacious, and made herself very pleasant to Farringdon, who sat by her. After luncheon they went to the tennis-court together.

“A delightful young man,” Mrs. St. Cleve commented, putting up her lorgnette as she stood at the window with Rose, watching their disappearing figures, “but so far as money is concerned, a hopeless detrimental. Don't let your pretty sister get interested in him. He hasn't a cent except what he makes—he's an architect.”

“Edith is to be depended upon,” Rose said, enigmatically. She was five years older than her sister, and had drawn the inference of her own plainness, comparatively, ever since Edith had put on long dresses.

“Have you written to Christopher?” she asked, that night, invading Edith's room with her hair-brushes.

“No, I haven't,” Edith said, thoughtfully. “I tried just now. It seems—I don't know how, exactly, but I just can't write it over again! If I had the letter I wrote this morning, I suppose I would send it; but to write it all over again—it's too horrible!”

“'Horrible'!” Rose repeated. “Very few people would think it that! He's rich, thoroughly good, and devoted to you.”

“You put the least last,” Edith said, slowly, “and you're right. I'm not sure Christopher is so devoted to me, after all. He may only fancy that I like him, and from his high estate—”

“Nonsense!” Rose said, warmly. “He isn't, as you know, that sort of a man. I've known him for years—” She paused.

Edith said nothing; she brushed her hair with careful slowness.

“He is so sincere—so straight-forward,” Rose went on, in an impersonal tone; “and as papa has had so much ill luck and our circumstances have changed—they are changed, you know, though we are still able to keep up a certain appearance—he has been unchanged. You ought to consider—”

“You consider Christopher's interests altogether,” Edith said. “I've some, too.”

“Oh no! You needn't think of them with Christopher,” Rose said, seriously. “That's just it! He would so completely look after yours! It's his, in this regard, that need consideration.”

“Well—I'll consider Christopher's interests,” Edith said, quietly.

She remembered perfectly the letter she had written—which was in an ugly young man's pocket! It had been

“DEAR CHRISTOPHER,—Do you think you really want me? If you are very sure, I am willing. I don't care for anybody else, so perhaps I can learn to care for you.

“The only thing is, you will spoil me, and they've done that at home already! and Rose says I need a strong hand! So in your interests—“ and then it had blown away!

When Rose, after some desultory talk, went back to her room, Edith wrote another letter:

“DEAR CHRISTOPHER,—I know you have made a mistake. I don't care for you—to marry you—a bit, but I like you, oh, a quantity! We have always been such friends, and we always will be, won't we? but not that way.

“Some day you will be very happy with some one else who will suit you better. Then you will know how right I am.

With kindest wishes,

EDITH EVERSLEY.”

She took this letter down the next morning to put in the bag, but the postman had come and gone. As she stood in the hall holding the letter, Farringdon came up.

“Good morning,” he said. “You've missed the postman? I will be very happy to post it for you on my way to church.”

“Thank you. But if it's on the way to church, I'm going myself, so I needn't trouble you.”

Farringdon merely bowed, without saying anything banal about the absence of trouble. She was demurely conscious beneath his courtesy of the effort he was making to see her handwriting, and she wondered if he thought her refusal rude and a confirmation of his suspicion, or simply casual.

Whatever he thought, it did not prevent the steps as she came out a few hours later in the freshness of white muslin, with her umbrella, prayer-book, and an unobtrusive white envelope in her hands.

They were going together down then drive—under his umbrella—before she quite grasped the situation.

“We seem to be the only ones,” she hazarded.

“We are,” he nodded.

“Mrs. Manstey has a headache,” Edith said, “but the others—”

“The sun is too hot!”—he smiled.

“But you—I shouldn't have thought—” She paused, a little embarrassed.

“Yes?” he helped her. “That I was one of those who go to church, you mean?”

“Oh no!” she protested; but it was what she had meant.

“You are right,” he said, without heeding the protest, and his ugly but compellingly attractive face was turned to hers. “I'm not in the least a scoffer, though; pray believe that. It's just that I—” he hesitated. “Do you remember a little verse:

  'Although I enter not,
  Yet round about the spot
    Sometimes I hover,
  And at the sacred gate
  With longing eyes I wait,
    Expectant of her.'“

Her face flushed. “But,” she reverted, with naivete, “you said you were going to church—”

“But because I knew you were one of the women who would be sure to go!” he said, positively.

She rebelled. “I don't look devotional at all!”

“But your eyes do,” he declared. “They're suggestive of cathedrals and beautiful dimness, and a voice going up and up, like the 'Lark' song of Schubert's, don't you know!”

“No, I don't!” she said, wilfully; but she was conscious of his eyes on her face, and angry that her cheeks flushed.

They both were silent for a little, and when they left Mrs. Manstey's grounds for the uneven country road, that became shortly, by courtesy, the village street, they had a view of the little church with its tiny tower.

“The post-office,” Farringdon explained, “is at the other end of the street. Service is beginning, I dare say. Shall we wait until it is over, or post the letter now?”

“No; after service,” she agreed, and inopportunely the letter slipped from her hand and fell, with the address down, on the grass. She stooped hurriedly, but he was before her, and picking it up, returned it scrupulously, with the right side down, as it had fallen. She slipped it quickly, almost guiltily, into her prayer-book.

The church was small, the congregation smaller, and the clergyman a little weary of the empty benches. But the two faces in the Manstey pew were so bright, so vivid with the vigor of youth, that his jaded mind freshened to meet the interest of new hearers.

But neither Edith nor Farringdon listened attentively to the sermon, for their minds were busy with other things. He was thinking of the girl beside him, whose hymnal he was sharing, and whose voice, very sweet and clear, if of no great compass, blended with his own fine tenor. Her thoughts could not stray far from the letter and—from other things!

The benediction sent them from the cool dimness into the sunlight, and she looked down the street toward the post-office.

“It's quite at the other end of the street,” Farringdon said, opening his umbrella and tentatively discouraging the effort. “By the way, your letter won't leave, I remember, until the seven-o'clock train. The Brathwaites are leaving by that train; you can send your letter down then.”

She found herself accepting this proposition, for the blaze of the sun on the length of the dusty street was deterring. They walked back almost in silence the way they had come; but with his hand on Mrs. Manstey's gate and the house less than two hundred yards away, Farringdon paused.

“You have been writing to 'Christopher,'“ he said, quietly. “I don't want you to send the letter.” He was quite pale, but she did not notice it or the tensity of his face; his audacity made her for the moment dumb.

“You don't want me to—!” She positively gasped. “I never heard of such—”

“Impertinence,” he supplied, gravely. “It looks that way, I know, but it isn't. I can't stand on conventions—I've too much at stake. I don't mean to lose you—as you lost your letter!”

She thought she was furious. “You knew it was my letter!” she accused.

They had paused just within the gate, in the shade of a great mulberry-tree that stood sentinel.

“Forgive me,” he said. “Not at first—but I guessed it. My name,” he added, “is Christopher, too.”

He took a crumpled sheet, that had been smoothed and folded carefully, from his pocket. “Do you remember what you wrote?” he asked, in a low voice.

Her face was crimson.

“It blew to me. Such things don't happen every day.” He had taken off his hat, and, bareheaded, he bent and looked questioningly into her eyes. “My name is Christopher,” he repeated. “I can't—it isn't possible—that I can let another Christopher have that letter.”

Her eyes fell before his.

“I”—he paused—“I play tennis very well, you said. I play to win! What I give to the interest of a game—”

“Is nothing to what you give to the interests of Christopher!”

As she mockingly spoke, Farringdon caught a glimpse of one or two people strolling down from the house. “That letter,” he hastily said,—“you can't take it from me! Do you remember that wind? It blew you to me! Dearest, darling, don't be angry. You can't take yourself away.”

A little smile touched her lips—mutinous, but tremulous, too, and something in her look made his heart beat fast.

“I didn't—The last letter wasn't like the first,” she said, incoherently, but it seemed he understood.

“I knew you were you as soon as I saw you,” he said, idiotically.

“And,” she murmured, as they walked perforce to meet the people coming toward them down the drive, “after all, you were Christopher!”