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Our Jook by Henrietta H. Holdich

"Königin," said I, as I poked the fire, "what do you think of the people in the house?"

On second thoughts it was not "Königin" that I said, for it was only that night that she received the title. It is of no consequence what I did call her, however, for from that time she was never anything but Königin to me.

We began to "talk things over," as we had a way of doing; and very good fun it was and quite harmless, provided the ventilator was not open. That had happened once or twice, and got us into quite serious scrapes. People have such an utterly irrational objection to your amusing yourself in the most innocent way at what they consider their expense.

Königin and I had come to the boarding-house that very day. We were by ourselves, for our male protectors were off "a-hunting the wild deer and following the roe"—or its Florida equivalent, whatever that may be—and we did not fancy staying at a hotel under the circumstances. Now, we had taken our observations, and were prepared to pronounce our opinions on our fellow-boarders. One after another was canvassed and dismissed. Mr. A. had eccentric table-manners; Miss B. wriggled and squirmed when she talked; Mrs. C. was much too lavish of inappropriate epithets; Mr. X.'s conversation, on the contrary, was quite bald and bare from the utter lack of those parts of speech; Miss Y. had a nice face, and Mrs. Z. a pretty hand.

Just here Königin suddenly burst out laughing. "Really," she said, "we go about the world criticising people as if we were King Solomon and the queen of Sheba."

"'Die Königin von Seba,'" said I. "That, I suppose, is you and our motto should be, 'Wir sind das Volk und die Weisheit stirbt mit uns.'"

I was not at all sure of the accuracy of my translation, but its appropriateness was unquestionable.

"What do you think of the Englishman, Königin?" I asked, giving the fire another poke, not from shamefacedness, but because it really needed it, for the evening was damp and chilly.

"I like him," said Königin decidedly.

Königin and I were always prepared with decided opinions, whether we knew anything about the subject in hand or not.

"He has a fine head," Königin went on, "quite a ducal contour, according to our republican ideas of what a duke ought to be. I like the steady intense light of his eyes under those straight dark brows, and that little frown only increases the effect. Then his laugh is so frank and boyish. Yes, I like him very much."

"He has a nice gentlemanly voice," I suggested—"rather on the 'gobble-gobble' order, but that is the fault of his English birth."

This is enough of that conversation, for, after all, neither of us is the heroine of this tale. It is well that this should be distinctly understood at the start. Somehow, "the Jook" (as we generally called him, in memory of Jeames Yellowplush) and I became very intimate after that, but it was never anything more than a sort of camaraderie. Königin knew all about it, and she pronounced it the most remarkable instance of a purely intellectual flirtation which she had ever seen; which was all quite correct, except for the term "flirtation," of which it never had a spice.

One of the Jook's most striking peculiarities, though by no means an uncommon one among his countrymen, was a profound distrust of new acquaintances and an utter incapacity of falling into the free and easy ways which prevail more strongly perhaps in Florida than in any other part of America. There really was some excuse for him, though, for, not to put it too strongly, society is a little mixed in Florida, and it is hard for a foreigner to discriminate closely enough to avoid being drawn into unpleasant complications if he relaxes in the slightest degree his rules of reserve. Besides which, the Jook was a man of the most morbid and ultra refinement. "Refinement" was the word he preferred, but I should have called it an absurd squeamishness. He could make no allowance for personal or local peculiarities, and eccentricities in our neighbors which delighted Königin and me and sent us into fits of laughter excited in his mind only the most profound disgust. Therefore, partly in the fear of having his sensibilities unpleasantly jarred upon, partly from the fear of making objectionable acquaintances whom he might afterward be unable to shake off, and partly from an inherent and ineradicable shyness, he went about clad in a mantle of gloomy reserve, speaking to no one, looking at no one—"grand, gloomy and peculiar." It was currently reported that previous to our arrival he had never spoken to a creature in the boarding-house, though he had been an inmate of it for six weeks. For the rest, he was clever and intelligent, with frank, honest, boyish ways, which I liked, even though they were sometimes rather exasperating.

It was not quite pleasant, for instance, to hear him speak of Americans in the frank and unconstrained manner which he adopted when talking to us. We could hardly wonder at it when we looked at the promiscuous crowd which formed his idea of American society. Refined and well-bred people there certainly were, but these were precisely the ones who never forced themselves upon his notice, leaving him to be struck and stunned by fast and hoydenish young ladies, ungrammatical and ill-bred old ones, and men of all shades of boorishness and swagger, such as make themselves conspicuous in every crowd. Unluckily, both Königin and I have English blood in our veins, and the Jook could not be convinced that we did not eagerly snatch at the chance thus presented of claiming the title of British subjects. It is quite hopeless to attempt to convince Englishmen that any American would not be British if he could. Pride in American citizenship is an idea utterly monstrous and inconceivable to them, and they can look on the profession of it in no other light than that of a laudable attempt at making the best of a bad case. Therefore, the Jook persisted in ignoring our protestations of patriotic ardor, and in paying us the delicate compliment of considering us English and expressing his views on America with a beautiful frankness which kept us in a frame of mind verging on delirium.

What was to be done with such a man? Clearly, but one thing, and I sighed for one of our American belles who should come and see and conquer this impracticable Englishman. At present, things seemed quite hopeless. There was no one within reach who would have the slightest chance of success in such an undertaking. Though outsiders gave me the credit of his subjugation, I knew quite well that there not only was not, but never could be, the necessary tinge of sentimentality in our intercourse. We were much too free and easy for that, and we laughed and talked, rambled and boated together, "like two babes in the woods," as Königin was fond of remarking.

It was in Florida that all this took place—in shabby, fascinating Jacksonville, where one meets everybody and does nothing in particular except lounge about and be happy. So the Jook and I lounged and were happy with a placid, unexciting sort of happiness, until the day when Kitty Grey descended upon us with the suddenness of a meteor, and very like one in her bewildering brightness.

Kitty was by no means pretty, but, though women recognized this fact, the man who could be convinced of it remains yet to be discovered. You might force them to confess that Kitty's nose was flat, her eyes not well shaped, her teeth crooked, her mouth slightly awry, but it always came back to the same point: "Curious that with all these defects she should still be so exquisitely pretty!"

Really, I did not so much wonder at it myself sometimes when I saw Kitty's pale cheeks flush with that delicious pink, her wide hazel eyes deepen and glow, her little face light up with elfish mirth, and her round, childish figure poise itself in some coquettish attitude. Then she had such absurd little hands, with short fingers and babyish dimples, such tiny feet, and such a wealth of crinkled dark-brown hair—such bewitching little helpless ways, too, a fashion of throwing herself appealingly on your compassion which no man on earth could resist! At bottom she was a self-reliant, independent little soul, but no mortal man ever found that out: Kitty was far too wise.

Of course, as soon as I saw Kitty I thought of the Jook. Would he or wouldn't he? On the whole, I was rather afraid he wouldn't, for Kitty's laugh sometimes rang out a little too loud, and Kitty's spirits sometimes got the better of her and set her frisking like a kitten, and I was afraid the modest sense of propriety which was one of the Jook's strong points would not survive it. However, I concluded to risk it, but just here a sudden and unforeseen obstacle checked my triumphant course.

"Mr. Warriner," I said sweetly (I was always horribly afraid I should call him Mr. Jook, but I never did), "I want to introduce you to my friend, Miss Grey."

The Jook looked at me with his most placid smile, and replied blandly, "Thank you very much, but I'd rather not."

Did any one ever hear of such a man? I understood his reasons well enough, though he did not take the trouble to explain them: it was only exclusiveness gone mad. And he prided himself upon his race and breeding, and considered our American men boors!

After that I nearly gave up his case as hopeless, and devoted myself to Kitty, whom I really believe the Jook did not know by sight after having been for nearly a week in the same house with her.

Kitty once or twice mildly insinuated her desire to know him. "He has such a nice face," she said plaintively, "and such lovely little curly brown whiskers! He is the only man in the house worth looking at, but if I happen to come up when he is talking to you, he instantly disappears. He must think me very ugly."

It was really very embarrassing to me, for of course I could not tell her that the Jook had declined the honor of an introduction. I knew, as well as if she had told me so, that Kitty in her secret heart accused me of a mean and selfish desire to keep him all to myself, but I was obliged meekly to endure the obloquy, undeserved as it was. Königin used to go into fits of laughter at my dilemma, and just at this period my admiration of the Jook went down to the lowest ebb. "He is a selfish, conceited creature!" I exclaimed in my wrath. "I really believe he thinks that bewitching little Kitty would fall in love with him forthwith if he submitted to an introduction. Oh, I do wish he knew what we thought of him! Why doesn't he listen outside of ventilators?"

"My dear," said Königin, still laughing, though sympathetic, "it strikes me that we began by making rather a demi-god of the man, and are ending by stripping him of even the good qualities which he probably does possess."

Well! things went on in this exasperating way for a week or so longer. Of course I washed my hands of the Jook, for I was too much exasperated to be even civil to him. Kitty was as bright and good-natured as ever, ready to enjoy all the little pleasures that came in her way, though now and then I fancied that I detected a stealthy, wistful look at the Jook's impassive face.

It was lovely that day, but fearfully hot. The sun showered down its burning rays upon the white Florida sands, the sky was one arch of cloudless blue, and the water-oaks swung their moss-wreaths languidly over the deserted streets. We had been dreaming and drowsing away the morning, Königin, Kitty and I, in the jelly-fish-like state into which one naturally falls in Florida.

Suddenly Kitty sprang to her feet. "I can't stand this any longer," she said: "I shall turn into an oyster if I vegetate here. Please, do you see any shells sprouting on my back yet?"

"What do you want to do?" I asked drowsily. "You can't walk in this heat, and if you go on the river the sun will take the skin off your face, and where are you then, Miss Kitty?"

"I can't help that," retorted Kitty in a tone of desperation. "I don't exactly know where I shall go, but I think in pursuit of some yellow jessamine."

I sat straight up and gazed at her: "Are you mad, Kitty? Has the heat addled your brain already? You would have to walk at least a mile before you could find any; and what's the good of it, after all? It would all be withered before you could get home."

"Can't help that," repeated Kitty: "I shall have had it, at all events. Any way, I'm going, and you two can finish your dreams in peace."

It was useless to argue with Kitty when she was in that mood, so I contented myself with giving her directions for reaching the nearest copse where she would be likely to find the fragrant beauty.

Two hours later Königin sat at the window gazing down the long sandy street. Suddenly her face changed, an expression of interest and surprise came into her dreamy eyes: she put up her glass, and then broke into a laugh. "Come and look at this," she exclaimed; and I came.

What I saw was only Kitty and the Jook, but Kitty and the Jook walking side by side in the most amicable manner—Kitty sparkling, bewitching, helpless, appealing by turns or altogether as only she could be; the Jook watching her with an expression of amusement and delight on his handsome face. And both were laden with great wreaths and trails of yellow jessamine, golden chalices of fragrance, drooping sprays of green glistening leaves, until they looked like walking bowers.

"How on earth—" I exclaimed, and could get no further: my feelings choked me.

Kitty came in radiant and smiling as the morning, bearing her treasures. Of course we both pounced upon her: "Kitty, where did you meet the Jook? How did it happen? What did you do?"

"Cows!" said Kitty solemnly, with grave lips and twinkling eyes.

"Cows? Cows in Florida? Kitty, what do you mean?"

"A cow ran at me, and I was frightened and ran at Mr. Warriner. He drove the cow off. That's all. Then he walked home with me. Any harm in that?"

"Now, Kitty, the idea! A Florida cow run at you? If you had said a pig, there might be some sense in it, for the pigs here do have some life about them; but a cow! Why, the creatures have not strength enough to stand up: they are all starving by inches."

"Can't help that," said Kitty. "Must have thought I was good to eat, then, I suppose. I thought she was going to toss me, but I don't think it would be much more agreeable to be eaten. Mr. Warriner is my preserver, anyhow, and I shall treat him 'as sich.'"

Kitty looked so mischievous and so mutinous that there was evidently no use in trying to get anything more out of her, and after standing there a few minutes fingering her blossoms and smiling to herself, she danced off to dress for tea.

"Selfish little thing, not to offer us one of those lovely sprays!" I exclaimed, but Königin laughed: "My dear, they are hallowed. Our touch would profane them."

Königin always saw further than I did, and I gasped: "Königin! you don't think—"

"Oh no, dear, not yet. Kitty is piqued, and wants to fascinate the Jook a little—just a little as yet, but she may burn her fingers before she gets through. Looks are contagious, and—did you see her face?"

Such a brilliant little figure as slipped softly into the dining-room that evening, all wreathed and twisted and garlanded about with the shining green vines, gemmed with their golden stars. Head and throat and waist and round white arms were all twined with them, and blossoming sprays and knots of the delicately carved blossoms drooped or clung here and there amid her floating hair and gauzy black drapery. How did the child ever make them stick? How had she managed to decorate herself so elaborately in the short time that had elapsed since her return? But Kitty had ways of doing things unknown to duller mortals.

Not a word had Kitty for me that evening, but for her father such clinging, coaxing, wheedling ways, and for the Jook such coy, sparkling, artfully-accidental glances, such shy turns of the little head, such dainty capricious airs, that it was delicious to watch her. Königin and I sat in a dark corner for the express purpose of admiring her delicate little manœuvres. As for her father, good stolid man! he was well used to Kitty's freaks, and went on reading his newspaper in such a matter-of-fact way that she might as well have wheedled the Pyramid of Cheops. The Jook, however, was all that could be desired. The shyest of men—shy and proud as only an Englishman can be—he could not make up his mind to walk directly up to Kitty, as an American would do, as all the young Americans in the room would have done if Kitty had let them. But Kitty, flighty little butterfly as she seemed, had stores of tact and finesse in that little brain of hers, and the power of developing a fine reserve which had already wilted more than one of the young men of the house. For Kitty was none of your arrant and promiscuous flirts who count "all fish that come to their net." She was choice and dainty in her flirtations, but, possibly, none the less dangerous for that.

The Jook hovered about the room from chair to sofa, from sofa to window-seat, finding himself at each remove one degree nearer to Kitty.

"He is like a tame canary-bird," whispered Königin. "Let it alone and it will come up to you after a while, but speak to it and you frighten it off at once."

And when at length he reached Kitty's side, how beautiful was the look of slight surprise, not too strongly marked, and the half-shy pleasure in the eyes which she raised to him; and then the coy little gesture with which she swept aside her draperies and made room for him. Half the power of Kitty's witcheries lay in her frank, childish manner, just dashed with womanly reserve.

Well! the Jook was thoroughly in the vortex now: there was no doubt about that. Kitty might laugh as loud as she pleased, and he only looked charmed. Kitty might frisk like a will-o'-the wisp, and he only admired her innocent vivacity. Even the bits of slang and the Americanisms which occasionally slipped from her only struck him as original and piquant. How would it all end? That neither Königin nor I could divine, for Kitty was not one to wear her heart upon her sleeve. It was very little that we saw of Kitty in these days, for she was always wandering off somewhere, boating on the broad placid river or lounging about "Greenleaf's" or driving—always with the Jook for cavalier, and, if the excursions were long, with her father to play propriety. When she did come into our room, she was not our own Kitty, with her childish airs and merry laughter. This was a brilliant and volatile little woman of the world, who rattled on in the most amusing manner about everything—except the Jook. About him her lips never opened, and the most distant allusion to him on our part was sufficient to send her fluttering off on some pressing and suddenly remembered errand. Yet this reserve hardly seemed like the shyness of conscious but unacknowledged love. On the contrary, we both fancied—Königin and I—that Kitty began to look worried, and somehow, in watching her and the Jook, we began to be conscious that a sort of constraint had crept into her manner toward him. It could be no doubt of his feelings that caused it, for no woman could desire a bolder or more ardent lover than he had developed into, infected, no doubt, by the American atmosphere. Sometimes, too, we caught shy, wistful glances at the Jook from Kitty's eyes, hastily averted with an almost guilty look if he turned toward her.

"What can it mean, Königin?" I said. "She looks as if she wanted to confess some sin, and was afraid to."

"Some childish peccadillo," said Königin. "In spite of all her woman-of-the-world-ishness the child has a morbidly sensitive conscience, and is troubled about some nonsense that nobody else would think of twice."

"Can it be that she has only been flirting, and is frightened to find how desperately in earnest he is?"

"Possibly," replied Königin. "But I fancy that she is too well used to that phase of affairs to let it worry her. Wait a while and we shall see."

We couldn't make anything of it, but even the Jook became worried at last by Kitty's queer behavior, and I suppose he thought he had better settle the matter. For one evening, when I was keeping my room with a headache, I was awakened from a light sleep by a sound of voices on the piazza outside of my window. It was some time before I was sufficiently wide awake to realize that the speakers were Kitty and the Jook, and when I did I was in a dilemma. To let them know that I was there would be to overwhelm them both with confusion and interrupt their conversation at a most interesting point, for the Jook had evidently just made his declaration. It was impossible for me to leave the room, for I was by no means in a costume to make my appearance in the public halls. On the whole, I concluded that the best thing I could do would be to keep still and never, by word or look, to let either of them know of my most involuntary eavesdropping.

Kitty was speaking when I heard them first, talking in a broken, hesitating voice, which was very queer from our bright, fluent little Kitty: "Mr. Warriner, you don't know what a humbug you make me feel when you talk of 'my innocence' and 'unconsciousness' and 'lack of vanity,' and all the rest of it. I have been feeling more and more what a vain, deceitful, hypocritical little wretch I am ever since I knew you. I have been expecting you to find me out every day, and I almost hoped you would."

"What do you mean, Miss Grey?" asked the Jook in tones of utter amazement, as well he might.

"Oh dear! how shall I tell you?" sighed poor Kitty; and I could feel her blushes burning through her words. Then, with a sudden rush: "Can't you see? I feel as if I had stolen your love, for it was all gained under false pretences. You never would have cared for me if you had known what a miserable hypocrite I really was. Why, that very first day I wasn't afraid of the cow—she didn't even look at me—but I saw you coming, and—and—Helen wouldn't introduce you to me—and it just struck me it would be a good chance, and so I rushed up to you and—Oh! what will you think of me?"

"Think?" said the Jook: "why, I think that while ninety-nine women out of a hundred are hypocrites, not one in a thousand has the courage to atone for it by an avowal like yours. Not that it was exactly hypocrisy, either."

The poor blundering Jook! Always saying the most maddening things under the firm conviction that it was the most delicate compliment.

Kitty was too much in earnest to mind it now, though. "Do you know," she went on, "that from the very first day I came into the house I was determined to captivate you?—that every word and every look was directed to that end? I have been nothing but an actress all through. I have done it before, hundreds and hundreds of times, but I never felt the shame of it until now—because—because—"

"Because you never loved any one before? Is that it, Kitty?" said the Jook tenderly.

"Oh, I don't know," said Kitty desperately. "How can I tell? But it's all Helen's fault. If she had introduced you to me in a rational way, I should never have gone on so. But she wouldn't, and I was piqued—"

"I must exonerate Miss Helen," interrupted the Jook. "She wanted to introduce me, and I declined. I am sure I don't know why—English reserve, I suppose. I had not seen you then, you know, and some of the people here are such a queer lot that I rather dreaded new acquaintances."

"Not Helen's fault?" wailed Kitty. "Oh, this is stolen—oh, poor Helen!"

Naturally, the Jook was utterly bewildered, but as for me I sprang up into a sitting posture, for the meaning of Kitty's behavior had just flashed upon me. Absolutely, the poor little goose thought that in accepting the Jook, as she was evidently dying to do, she would be robbing me of my lover. And she never guessed at my own little romance, tucked away safely in the most secret corner of my heart, which put any man save one quite out of the question for me. If I had stopped to think, I suppose I should not have done what I did, but in my surprise the words came out before I thought: "Good gracious, Kitty my dear! do take the Jook if you want him! I don't."

I could not help laughing when I realized what I had done. A little shriek from Kitty and a very British exclamation from the Jook, a slight scuffle of chairs and a sense, rather than sound, of confusion, announced the effect of my words.

I waited for their reply, but dead silence prevailed, so I was obliged to speak again. "You needn't be alarmed," I said, peering cautiously through the chinks in the blinds, for I had approached the window by this time. "I didn't mean to listen, but I couldn't get out of the way, and I never intended to let you or any one else know that I had heard your conversation. I'm awfully sorry that I have disturbed you, but, as I am in for it now, I might as well go on."

There I stopped, for I didn't exactly know what to say, and I hoped that one of them would "give me a lead." I could just catch a glimpse of their faces in the moonlight. The Jook was staring straight at the window-shutter behind which I lurked, and the wrath and disgust expressed in his handsome features set me off into a silent chuckle. I was sorry for Kitty, though. Her face drooped as if it were weighed down by its own blushes, and the long lashes quivered upon the hot cheeks.

"Ah, really, Miss Helen," spoke the Jook at last, "this is a most unexpected pleasure. Ah, really, you know, I mean—"

It was not very lucid, but it was all I needed, and I replied suavely, "Oh yes, I understand. You never asked me, and never had the faintest idea of doing so. Otherwise, we should not have been such good friends. All I want is to enforce the fact on Kitty's mind.—And now, Kitty, my dear, if you are quite satisfied on this point, I will dress and go down stairs.—Don't disturb yourselves, pray!" for both of them showed signs of moving. "You can finish your conversation to much better advantage where you are, and this little excitement has quite cured my headache."

I wonder how in the world they ever took up the dropped stitches in that conversation? They did it somehow, though, for when they reappeared Kitty was the prettiest possible picture of shy, blushing, shamefaced happiness, while the Jook was fairly beaming with pride and delight. It was a case of true love at last: there was no doubt about that—such love as few would have believed that a flighty little creature like Kitty was capable of feeling. It was wonderful to see how quickly all her little wiles and coquetries fell off under its influence, just as the rosy, fluttering leaves of the spring fall off when the fruit pushes its way. I don't believe it had ever struck her before that there was anything degrading in this playing fast and loose with men's hearts which had been her favorite pastime, or in beguiling them by feigning a passion of which she had never felt one thrill. It was not until Love the magician had touched her heart that the honest and loyal little Kitty that lay at the bottom of all her whims and follies was developed. The very sense of unworthiness which she felt in view of the Jook's straightforward and manly ardor was the surest guarantee for the perfection of her cure.

A truce to moralizing. Kitty does not need it, nor the Jook either. If he is not proud of the bright little American bride he is to take back with him to the "tight little isle" of our forefathers, why, appearances are "deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked."