The speed of the train slackened; a broad tidal river flashed into sight below the trestle, spreading away on either hand through yellowing level meadows. And now, above the roaring undertone of the cars, from far ahead floated back the treble bell-notes of the locomotive; there came a gritting vibration of brakes; slowly, more slowly the cars glided to a creaking standstill beside a sun-scorched platform gay with the bright flutter of sunshades and summer gowns.
“Shotover! Shotover!” rang the far cry along the cars; and an absent- minded young man in the Pullman pocketed the uncut magazine he had been dreaming over and, picking up gun case and valise, followed a line of fellow-passengers to the open air, where one by one they were engulfed and lost to view amid the gay confusion on the platform.
The absent-minded young man, however, did not seem to know exactly where he was bound for. He stood hesitating, leisurely inspecting the flashing ranks of vehicles—depot wagons, omnibusses, and motor cars already eddying around a dusty gravel drive centred by the conventional railroad flower bed and fountain.
Sunshine blazed on foliage plants arranged geometrically, on scarlet stars composed of geraniums, on thickets of tall flame-tinted cannas. And around this triumph of landscape gardening, phaeton, Tilbury, Mercedes, and Toledo backed, circled, tooted; gaily gowned women, whips aslant, horses dancing, greeted expected guests; laughing young men climbed into dog-carts and took the reins from nimble grooms; young girls, extravagantly veiled, made room in comfortable touring-cars for feminine guests whose extravagant veils were yet to be unpacked; slim young men in leather trappings, caps adorned with elaborate masks or goggles, manipulated rakish steering-gears; preoccupied machinists were fussing with valve and radiator or were cranking up; and, through the jolly tumult, the melancholy bell of the locomotive sounded, and the long train moved out through the September sunshine amid clouds of snowy steam.
And all this time the young man, gun case in one hand, suit case in the other, looked about him in his good-humoured, leisurely manner for anybody or any vehicle which might be waiting for him. His amiable inspection presently brought a bustling baggage-master within range of vision; and he spoke to this official, mentioning his host’s name.
“Lookin’ for Mr. Ferrall?” repeated the baggage-master, spinning a trunk dexterously into rank with its fellows. “Say, one of Mr. Ferrall’s men was here just now—there he is, over there uncrating that there bird- dog!”
The young man’s eyes followed the direction indicated by the grimy thumb; a red-faced groom in familiar livery was kneeling beside a dog’s travelling crate, attempting to unlock it, while behind the bars an excited white setter whined and thrust forth first one silky paw then the other.
The young man watched the scene for a moment, then:
“Are you one of Mr. Ferrall’s men?” he asked in his agreeable voice.
The groom looked up, then stood up:
“Take these; I’m Mr. Siward—for Shotover House. I dare say you have room for me and the dog, too.”
The groom opened his mouth to speak, but Siward took the crate key from his fingers, knelt, and tried the lock. It resisted. From the depths of the crate a beseeching paw fell upon his cuff.
“Certainly, old fellow,” he said soothingly, “I know how you feel about it; I know you’re in a hurry—and we’ll have you out in a second—steady, boy!—something’s jammed, you see! Only one moment now! There you are!”
The dog attempted to bolt as the crate door opened, but the young man caught him by the leather collar and the groom snapped on a leash.
“Beg pardon, Sorr,” began the groom, carried almost off his feet by the frantic circling of the dog—“beg pardon, Sorr, but I’ll be afther seem’ if anny of Mr. Ferrall’s men drove over for you—”
“Oh! Are you not one of Mr. Ferrall’s men?”
“Yis, Sorr, but I hadn’t anny orders to meet anny wan—”
“Haven’t you anything here to drive me in?”
“Yis, Sorr—I’ll look to see—”
The raw groom, much embarrassed, and keeping his feet with difficulty against the plunging dog, turned toward the gravel drive where now only a steam motor and a depot-wagon remained. As they looked the motor steamed out, honking hoarsely; the depot-wagon followed, leaving the circle at the end of the station empty of vehicles.
“Didn’t Mr. Ferrall expect me?” asked Siward.
“Aw, yis, Sorr; but the gintlemen for Shotover House does ginerally allways coom by Black Fells, Sorr—”
“Oh, Lord!” said the young man, “I remember now. I should have gone on to Black Fells Crossing; Mr. Ferrall wrote me!” Then, amused: “I suppose you have only a baggage-wagon here?”
“No, Sorr—a phayton”—he hesitated.
“Well? Isn’t a phaeton all right?”
“Yis, Sorr—if th’ yoong lady says so—beg pardon, Sorr, Miss Landis is driving.”
“Oh—h! I see. … Is Miss Landis a guest at Shotover House?”
“Yis, Sorr. An’ if ye would joost ask her—the phayton do be coming now, Sorr!”
The phaeton was coming; the horse, a showy animal, executed side-steps; blue ribbons fluttered from the glittering head-stall; a young girl in white was driving.
Siward advanced to the platform’s edge as the phaeton drew up; the young lady looked inquiringly at the groom, at the dog, and leisurely at him.
So he took off his hat, naming himself in that well-bred and agreeable manner characteristic of men of his sort,—and even his smile appeared to be part and parcel of a conventional ensemble so harmonious as to remain inconspicuous.
“You should have gone on to Black Fells Crossing,” observed Miss Landis, coolly controlling the nervous horse. “Didn’t you know it?”
He said he remembered now that such were the directions given him.
The girl glanced at him incuriously, and with more curiosity at the dog. “Is that the Sagamore pup, Flynn?” she asked.
“It is, Miss.”
“Can’t you take him on the rumble with you?” And, to Siward: “There is room for your gun and suit case.”
“And for me?” he asked, smiling.
“I think so. Be careful of that Sagamore pup, Flynn. Hold him between your knees. Are you ready, Mr. Siward?”
So he climbed in; the groom hoisted the dog to the rumble and sprang up behind; the horse danced and misbehaved, making a spectacle of himself and an agreeable picture of his driver; then the pretty little phaeton swung northward out of the gravel drive and went whirling along a road all misty with puffs of yellow dust which the afternoon sun turned to floating golden powder.
“Did you send my telegram, Flynn?” she asked without turning her head.
“I did, Miss.”
It being the most important telegram she had ever sent in all her life, Miss Landis became preoccupied,—quite oblivious to extraneous details, including Siward, until the horse began acting badly again. Her slightly disdainful and perfect control of the reins interested the young man. He might have said something civil and conventional about that, but did not make the effort to invade a reserve which appeared to embarrass nobody.
A stacatto note from the dog, prolonged infinitely in hysterical crescendo, demanded comment from somebody.
“What is the matter with him, Flynn?” she asked.
Siward said: “You should let him run, Miss Landis.”
She nodded, smiling, inattentive, absorbed in her own affairs, still theorising concerning her telegram. She drove on for a while, and might have forgotten the dog entirely had he not once more lifted his voice in melancholy.
“You say he ought to run for a mile or two? Do you think he’ll bolt, Mr. Siward?”
“Is he a new dog?”
“Yes, fresh from the kennels; supposed to be house-and wagon-broken, steady to shot and wing—” She shrugged her pretty shoulders. “You see how he’s acting already!”
“Do you mind if I try him?” suggested Siward.
“You mean that you are going to let him run?”
“I think so.”
“And if he bolts?”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“Yes, but please consider my chances, Mr. Siward. The dog doesn’t belong to me.”
“But he ought to run—”
“But suppose he runs away? He’s a horridly expensive creature—if you care to take the risk.”
“I’ll take the risk,” said Siward, smiling as she drew rein. “Now Flynn, give me the leash. Quiet! Quiet, puppy! Everything is coming your way; that’s the beauty of patience; great thing, patience!” He took the leader; the dog sprang from the rumble. “Now, my friend, look at me! No, don’t twist and squirm and scramble; look me square in the eye; so! … Now we know each ether and we respect each other—because you are going to be a good puppy … and obey … Down charge!”
The dog, trembling with eager comprehension, dropped like a shot, muzzle laid flat between his paws. Siward unleashed him, looked down at him for a second, stooped and caressed the silky head, then with a laugh swung himself into the phaeton beside the driver, who, pretty head turned, had been looking on intently.
“Your dog is yard-broken,” he said. “Look at him.”
“I see. Do you think he will follow us?”
“I think so.”
The horse started, Miss Landis looking back over her shoulder at the dog who lay motionless, crouched flat in the road.
Then Siward turned. “Come on, Sagamore!” he said gaily; and the dog sprang forward, circled about the moving phaeton, splitting the air with yelps of ecstasy, then tore ahead, mad with the delight of stretching cramped muscles amid the long rank grass and shrubbery of the roadside.
The girl watched him doubtfully; when he disappeared far away up the road she turned the blue inquiry of her eyes on Siward.
“He’ll be back,” said the young fellow, laughing; and presently the dog reappeared on a tearing gallop, white flag tossing, glorious in his new liberty, enchanted with the confidence this tall young man had reposed in him—this adorable young man, this wonderful friend who had suddenly appeared to release him from an undignified and abominable situation in a crate.
“A good dog,” said Siward; and the girl looked around at him, partly because his voice was pleasant, partly because a vague memory was beginning to stir within her, coupling something unpleasant with the name of Siward.
She had been conscious of it when he first named himself, but, absorbed in the overwhelming importance of her telegram, had left the analysis of the matter for the future.
She thought again of her telegram, theorised a little, came to no conclusion except to let the matter rest for the present, and mentally turned to the next and far less important problem—the question of this rather attractive young man at her side, and why the name of Siward should be linked in her mind with anything disagreeable.
Tentatively following the elusive mental dews that might awaken something definite concerning her hazy impression of the man beside her, she spoke pleasantly, conventionally, touching idly any topic that might have a bearing; and, under a self-possession so detached as to give an impression of indifference, eyes, ears, and intelligence admitted that he was agreeable to look at, pleasant of voice, and difficult to reconcile with anything unpleasant.
Which gradually aroused her interest—the incongruous usually interesting girls of her age—for he had wit enough to amuse her, sufficient inconsequence to please her, and something listless, at times almost absent-minded, almost inattentive, that might have piqued her had it not inoculated her, as it always does any woman, with the nascent germ of curiosity. Besides, there was, in the hint of his momentary preoccupation, a certain charm.
They discussed shooting and the opening of the season; dogs and the training of dogs; and why some go gun-shy and why some ace blinkers. From sport and its justification, they became inconsequential; and she was beginning to enjoy the freshness of their chance acquaintance, his nice attitude toward things, his irrelevancy, his gaiety.
Laughter thawed her; for notwithstanding the fearless confidence she had been taught for men of her own kind, self-possession and reserve, if not inherent, had also been drilled into her, and she required a great deal in a man before she paid him the tribute of one of her pretty laughs.
Apparently they were advancing rather rapidly.
“Don’t you think we ought to call the dog in, Mr. Siward?”
“Yes; he’s had enough!”
She drew rein; he sprang out and whistled; and the Sagamore pup, dusty and happy came romping back. Siward motioned him to the rumble, but the dog leaped to the front.
“I don’t mind,” said the girl. “Let him sit here between us. And you might occupy yourself by pulling some of those burrs from his ears—if you will?”
“Of course I will. Look up here, puppy! No! Don’t try to lick my face, for that is bad manners. Demonstrations are odious, as the poet says.”
“It’s always bad manners, isn’t it?” asked Miss Landis.
“What? Being affectionate?”
“Yes, and admitting it.”
“I believe it is. Do you hear that—Sagamore? But never mind; I’ll break the rules some day when we’re alone.”
The dog laid one paw on Siward’s knee, looking him wistfully in the eyes.
“More demonstrations,” observed the girl. “Mr. Siward! You are hugging him! This amounts to a dual conspiracy in bad manners.”
“Awfully glad to admit you to the conspiracy,” he said. “There’s one vacancy—if you are eligible.”
“I am; I was discovered recently kissing my saddle-mare.”
“That settles it! Sagamore, give the young lady the grip.”
Sylvia Landis glanced at the dog, then impulsively shifting the whip to her left hand, held out the right. And very gravely the Sagamore pup laid one paw in her dainty white gloved palm.
“You darling!” murmured the girl, resuming her whip.
“I notice,” observed Siward, “that you are perfectly qualified for membership in our association for the promotion of bad manners. In fact I should suggest you for the presidency—”
“I suppose you think all sorts of things because I gushed over that dog.”
“Of course I do.”
“Well you need not,” she rejoined, delicate nose up-tilted. “I never kissed a baby in all my life—and never mean to. Which is probably more than you can say.”
“Yes, its more than I can say.
“That admission elects you president,” she concluded. But after a moment’s silent driving she turned partly toward him with mock seriousness: “Is it not horridly unnatural in me to feel that way about babies? And about people, too; I simply cannot endure demonstrations. As for dogs and horses—well, I’ve admitted how I behave; and, being so shamelessly affectionate by disposition, why can’t I be nice to babies? I’ve a hazy but dreadful notion that there’s something wrong about me, Mr. Siward.”
He scrutinised the pretty features, anxiously; “I can’t see it,” he said.
“But I mean it—almost seriously. I don’t want to be so aloof, but—I don’t like to touch other people. It is rather horrid of me I suppose to be like those silky, plumy, luxurious Angora cats who never are civil to you and who always jump out of your arms at the first opportunity.”
He laughed—and there was malice in his eyes, but he did not know her well enough to pursue the subject through so easy an opening.
It had occurred to her, too, that her simile might invite elaboration, and she sensed the laugh in his silence, and liked him for remaining silent where he might easily have been wittily otherwise.
This set her so much at ease, left her so confident, that they were on terms of gayest understanding presently, she gossiping about the guests at Shotover House, outlining the diversions planned for the two weeks before them.
“But we shall see little of one another; you will be shooting most of the time,” she said—with the very faintest hint of challenge—too delicate, too impersonal to savour of coquetry. But the germ of it was there.
“Do you shoot?”
“I am reconciled to the shooting, then.”
“Oh, that is awfully civil of you. Sometimes I’d rather play Bridge.”
“So should I—sometimes.”
“I’ll remember that, Mr. Siward; and when all the men are waiting for you to start out after grouse perhaps I may take that moment to whisper: ‘May I play?’”
“You mean that you really would stay and play double dummy when every other living man will be off to the coverts? Double dummy—to improve my game?”
“Certainly! I need improvement.”
“Then there is something wrong with you, too, Mr. Siward.”
She laughed and started to flick her whip, but at her first motion the horse gave trouble.
“The bit doesn’t fit,” observed Siward.
“You are perfectly right,” she returned, surprised. “I ought to have remembered; it is shameful to drive a horse improperly bitted.” And, after a moment: “You are considerate toward animals; it is good in a man.”
“Oh, it’s no merit. When animals are uncomfortable it worries me. It’s one sort of selfishness, you see.”
“What nonsense,” she said; and her smile was very friendly. “Why doesn’t a nice man ever admit he’s nice when told so?”
It seems they had advanced that far. For she was beginning to find this young man not only safe but promising; she had met nobody recently half as amusing, and the outlook at Shotover House had been unpromising with only the overgrateful Page twins to practise on—the other men collectively and individually boring her. And suddenly, welcome as manna from the sky, behold this highly agreeable boy to play with—until Quarrier arrived. Her telegram had been addressed to Mr. Quarrier.
“What was it you were saying about selfishness?” she asked. “Oh, I remember. It was nonsense.”
She laughed, adding: “Selfishness is so simply defined you know.”
“Is it? How.”
“A refusal to renounce. That covers everything,” she concluded.
“Sometimes renunciation is weakness—isn’t it?” he suggested.
“In what case for example?”
“Well, suppose we take love.”
“Very well, you may take it if you like it.”
“Suppose you loved a man!” he insisted.
“Let him beware! What then?”
“—And, suppose it would distress your family if you married him?”
“I’d give him up.”
“If you loved him?”
“Love? That is the poorest excuse for selfishness, Mr. Siward.”
“So you would ruin your happiness and his—”
“A girl ought to find more happiness in renouncing a selfish love than in love itself,” announced Miss Landis with that serious conviction characteristic of her years.
“Of course,” assented Siward with a touch of malice, “if you really do find more happiness in renouncing love than in love itself, it would be foolish not to do it—”
“Mr. Siward! You are derisive. Besides, you are not acute. A woman is always an opportunist. When the event takes place I shall know what to do.”
“You mean when you want to marry the man you mustn’t?
“Exactly. I probably shall.”
“I see. But you won’t, of course.”
She drew rein, bringing the horse to a walk at the foot of a long hill.
“We are going much too fast,” said Miss Landis, smiling.
“Driving too fast for—”
“No, not driving, going—you and I.”
“Oh, you mean—”
“Yes I do. We are on all sorts of terms, already.”
“In the country, you know, people—”
“Yes I know all about it, and what old and valued friends one makes at a week’s end. But it has been a matter of half-hours with us, Mr. Siward.”
“Let us sit very still and think it over,” he suggested. And they both laughed.
It was perhaps the reaction of her gaiety that recalled to her mind her telegram. The telegram had been her promised answer after she had had time to consider a suggestion made to her by a Mr. Howard Quarrier. The last week at Shotover permitted reflection; and while her telegram was no complete answer to the suggestion he had made, it contained material of interest in the eight words: “I will consider your request when you arrive.
“I wonder if you know Howard Quarrier?” she said.
After a second’s hesitation he replied: “Yes—a little. Everybody does.”
“You do know him?”
“Only at—the club.”
“Oh, the Lenox?”
“The Lenox—and the Patroons.”
Preoccupied, driving with careless, almost inattentive perfection, she thought idly of her twenty-three years, wondering how life could have passed so quickly leaving her already stranded on the shoals of an engagement to marry Howard Quarrier. Then her thoughts, errant, wandered half the world over before they returned to Siward; and when at length they did, and meaning to be civil, she spoke again of his acquaintance with Quarrier at the Patroons Club—the club itself being sufficient to settle Siward’s status in every community.
“I’m trying to remember what it is I have heard about you,” she continued amiably; “you are—”
An odd expression in his eyes arrested her—long enough to note their colour and expression—and she continued, pleasantly; “—you are Stephen Siward, are you not? You see I know your name perfectly well—” Her straight brows contracted a trifle; she drove on, lips compressed, following an elusive train of thought which vaguely, persistently, coupled his name with something indefinitely unpleasant. And she could not reconcile this with his appearance. However, the train of unlinked ideas which she pursued began to form the semblance of a chain. Coupling his name with Quarrier’s, and with a club, aroused memory; vague uneasiness stirred her to a glimmering comprehension. Siward? Stephen Siward? One of the New York Siwards then;—one of that race—
Suddenly the truth flashed upon her,—the crude truth lacking definite detail, lacking circumstance and colour and atmosphere,—merely the raw and ugly truth.
Had he looked at her—and he did, once—he could have seen only the unruffled and very sweet profile of a young girl. Composure was one of the masks she had learned to wear—when she chose.
And she was thinking very hard all the while; “So this is the man? I might have known his name. Where were my five wits? Siward!—Stephen Siward! … He is very young, too … much too young to be so horrid. … Yet—it wasn’t so dreadful, after all; only the publicity! Dear me! I knew we were going too fast.”
“Miss Landis,” he said.
“Mr. Siward?”—very gently. It was her way to be gentle when generous.
“I think,” he said, “that you are beginning to remember where you may have heard my name.”
“Yes—a little—” She looked at him with the direct gaze of a child, but the lovely eyes were troubled. His smile was not very genuine, but he met her gaze steadily enough.
“It was rather nice of Mrs. Ferrall to ask me,” he said, “after the mess I made of things last spring.”
“Grace Ferrall is a dear,” she replied.
After a moment he ventured: “I suppose you saw it in the papers.”
“I think so; I had completely forgotten it; your name seemed to—”
“I see.” Then, listlessly: “I couldn’t have ventured to remind you that—that perhaps you might not care to be so amiable—”
“Mr. Siward,” she said impulsively, “you are nice to me! Why shouldn’t I be amiable? It was—it was—I’ve forgotten just how dreadfully you did behave—”
“They say so.”
“And what is your opinion Mr. Siward?”
“Oh, I ought to have known better.” Something about him reminded her of a bad small boy; and suddenly in spite of her better sense, in spite of her instinctive caution, she found herself on the very verge of laughter. What was it in the man that disarmed and invited a confidence—scarcely justified it appeared? What was it now that moved her to overlook what few overlook—not the fault, but its publicity? Was it his agreeable bearing, his pleasant badinage, his amiably listless moments of preoccupation, his youth that appealed to her—aroused her charity, her generosity, her curiosity?
And had other people continued to accept him, too? What would Quarrier think of his presence at Shotover? She began to realise that she was a little afraid of Quarrier’s opinions. And his opinions were always judgments. However Grace Ferrall had thought it proper to ask him, and that meant social absolution. As far as that went she also was perfectly ready to absolve him if he needed it. But perhaps he didn’t care!—She looked at him, furtively. He seemed to be tranquil enough in his abstraction. Trouble appeared to slide very easily from his broad young shoulders. Perhaps he was already taking much for granted in her gentleness with him. And gradually speculation became interest and interest a young girl’s innocent curiosity to learn something of a man whose record it seemed almost impossible to reconcile with his personality.
“I was wondering,” he said looking up to encounter her clear eyes, “whose house that is over there?”
“Beverly Plank’s shooting-box; Black Fells,” she replied nodding toward the vast pile of blackish rocks against the sky, upon which sprawled a heavy stone house infested with chimneys.
“Plank? Oh yes.”
He smiled to remember the battering blows rained upon the ramparts of society by the master of Black Fells.
But the smile faded; and, glancing at him, the girl was surprised to see the subtle change in his face—the white worn look, then the old listless apathy which, all at once to her, hinted of something graver than preoccupation.
“Are we near the sea?” he asked.
“Very near. Only a moment to the top of this hill. … Now look!”
There lay the sea—the same grey-blue crawling void that had ever fascinated and repelled him—always wrinkled, always in flat monotonous motion, spreading away, away to the sad world’s ends.
“Full of menace—always,” he said, unconscious that he had spoken aloud.
He spoke without turning: “The sea is a relentless thing for a man to fight. … There are other tides more persistent than the sea, but like it—like it in its menace.”
His face seemed thinner, older; she noticed his cheek bones for the first time. Then, meeting her eyes, youth returned with a laugh and a touch of colour; and, without understanding exactly how, she was aware, presently, that they had insensibly slipped back to their light badinage and gay inconsequences—back to a footing which, strangely, seemed to be already an old footing, familiar, pleasant, and natural to return to.
“Is that Shotover House?” he asked as they came to the crest of the last hillock between them and the sea.
“At last, Mr. Siward,” she said mockingly; “and now your troubles are nearly ended.”
“And yours, Miss Landis?”
“I don’t know,” she murmured to herself, thinking of the telegram with the faintest misgiving.
For she was very young, and she had not had half enough out of life as yet; and besides, her theories and preconceived plans for the safe and sound ordering of her life appeared to lack weight—nay, they were dwindling already into insignificance.
Theory had almost decided her to answer Mr. Quarrier’s suggestion with a ‘Yes.’ However, he was coming from the Lakes in a day or two. She could decide definitely when she had discussed the matter with him.
“I wish that I owned this dog,” observed Siward, as the phaeton entered the macadamised drive.
“I wish so, too,” she said, “but he belongs to Mr. Quarrier.”