That year the spring burst over Chicago in a prolonged scintillation of pallid green. For weeks continually the sun shone. The Lake, after persistently cherishing the greys and bitter greens of the winter months, and the rugged white-caps of the northeast gales, mellowed at length, turned to a softened azure blue, and lapsed by degrees to an unruffled calmness, incrusted with innumerable coruscations.
In the parks, first of all, the buds and earliest shoots asserted themselves. The horse-chestnut bourgeons burst their sheaths to spread into trefoils and flame-shaped leaves. The elms, maples, and cottonwoods followed. The sooty, blackened snow upon the grass plats, in the residence quarters, had long since subsided, softening the turf, filling the gutters with rivulets. On all sides one saw men at work laying down the new sod in rectangular patches.
There was a delicious smell of ripening in the air, a smell of sap once more on the move, of humid earths disintegrating from the winter rigidity, of twigs and slender branches stretching themselves under the returning warmth, elastic once more, straining in their bark.
On the North Side, in Washington Square, along the Lake-shore Drive, all up and down the Lincoln Park Boulevard, and all through Erie, Huron, and Superior streets, through North State Street, North Clarke Street, and La Salle Avenue, the minute sparkling of green flashed from tree top to tree top, like the first kindling of dry twigs. One could almost fancy that the click of igniting branch tips was audible as whole beds of yellow-green sparks defined themselves within certain elms and cottonwoods.
Every morning the sun invaded earlier the east windows of Laura Dearborn's bedroom. Every day at noon it stood more nearly overhead above her home. Every afternoon the checkered shadows of the leaves thickened upon the drawn curtains of the library. Within doors the bottle-green flies came out of their lethargy and droned and bumped on the panes. The double windows were removed, screens and awnings took their places; the summer pieces were put into the fireplaces.
All of a sudden vans invaded the streets, piled high with mattresses, rocking-chairs, and bird cages; the inevitable "spring moving" took place. And these furniture vans alternated with great trucks laden with huge elm trees on their way from nursery to lawn. Families and trees alike submitted to the impulse of transplanting, abandoning the winter quarters, migrating with the spring to newer environments, taking root in other soils. Sparrows wrangled on the sidewalks and built ragged nests in the interstices of cornice and coping. In the parks one heard the liquid modulations of robins. The florists' wagons appeared, and from house to house, from lawn to lawn, iron urns and window boxes filled up with pansies, geraniums, fuchsias, and trailing vines. The flower beds, stripped of straw and manure, bloomed again, and at length the great cottonwoods shed their berries, like clusters of tiny grapes, over street and sidewalk.
At length came three days of steady rain, followed by cloudless sunshine and full-bodied, vigorous winds straight from out the south.
Instantly the living embers in tree top and grass plat were fanned to flame. Like veritable fire, the leaves blazed up. Branch after branch caught and crackled; even the dryest, the deadest, were enfolded in the resistless swirl of green. Tree top ignited tree top; the parks and boulevards were one smother of radiance. From end to end and from side to side of the city, fed by the rains, urged by the south winds, spread billowing and surging the superb conflagration of the coming summer.
Then, abruptly, everything hung poised; the leaves, the flowers, the grass, all at fullest stretch, stood motionless, arrested, while the heat, distilled, as it were, from all this seething green, rose like a vast pillar over the city, and stood balanced there in the iridescence of the sky, moveless and immeasurable.
From time to time it appeared as if this pillar broke in the guise of summer storms, and came toppling down upon the city in tremendous detonations of thunder and weltering avalanches of rain. But it broke only to reform, and no sooner had the thunder ceased, the rain intermitted, and the sun again come forth, than one received the vague impression of the swift rebuilding of the vast, invisible column that smothered the city under its bases, towering higher and higher into the rain-washed, crystal-clear atmosphere.
Then the aroma of wet dust, of drenched pavements, musty, acute—the unforgettable exhalation of the city's streets after a shower—pervaded all the air, and the little out-door activities resumed again under the dripping elms and upon the steaming sidewalks.
The evenings were delicious. It was yet too early for the exodus northward to the Wisconsin lakes, but to stay indoors after nightfall was not to be thought of. After six o'clock, all through the streets in the neighbourhood of the Dearborns' home, one could see the family groups "sitting out" upon the front "stoop." Chairs were brought forth, carpets and rugs unrolled upon the steps. From within, through the opened windows of drawing-room and parlour, came the brisk gaiety of pianos. The sidewalks were filled with children clamouring at "tag," "I-spy," or "run-sheep-run." Girls in shirt-waists and young men in flannel suits promenaded to and fro. Visits were exchanged from "stoop" to "stoop," lemonade was served, and claret punch. In their armchairs on the top step, elderly men, householders, capitalists, well-to-do, their large stomachs covered with white waistcoats, their straw hats upon their knees, smoked very fragrant cigars in silent enjoyment, digesting their dinners, taking the air after the grime and hurry of the business districts.
It was on such an evening as this, well on towards the last days of the spring, that Laura Dearborn and Page joined the Cresslers and their party, sitting out like other residents of the neighbourhood on the front steps of their house. Almost every evening nowadays the Dearborn girls came thus to visit with the Cresslers. Sometimes Page brought her mandolin.
Every day of the warm weather seemed only to increase the beauty of the two sisters. Page's brown hair was never more luxuriant, the exquisite colouring of her cheeks never more charming, the boyish outlines of her small, straight figure—immature and a little angular as yet—never more delightful. The seriousness of her straight-browed, grave, grey-blue eyes was still present, but the eyes themselves were, in some indefinable way, deepening, and all the maturity that as yet was withheld from her undeveloped little form looked out from beneath her long lashes.
But Laura was veritably regal. Very slender as yet, no trace of fulness to be seen over hip or breast, the curves all low and flat, she yet carried her extreme height with tranquil confidence, the unperturbed assurance of a chatelaine of the days of feudalism.
Her coal-black hair, high-piled, she wore as if it were a coronet. The warmth of the exuberant spring days had just perceptibly mellowed the even paleness of her face, but to compensate for this all the splendour of coming midsummer nights flashed from her deep-brown eyes.
On this occasion she had put on her coat over her shirt-waist, and a great bunch of violets was tucked into her belt. But no sooner had she exchanged greetings with the others and settled herself in her place than she slipped her coat from her shoulders.
It was while she was doing this that she noted, for the first time, Landry Court standing half in and half out of the shadow of the vestibule behind Mr. Cressler's chair.
"This is the first time he has been here since—since that night," Mrs. Cressler hastened to whisper in Laura's ear. "He told me about—well, he told me what occurred, you know. He came to dinner to-night, and afterwards the poor boy nearly wept in my arms. You never saw such penitence."
Laura put her chin in the air with a little movement of incredulity. But her anger had long since been a thing of the past. Good-tempered, she could not cherish resentment very long. But as yet she had greeted Landry only by the briefest of nods.
"Such a warm night!" she murmured, fanning herself with part of Mr. Cressler's evening paper. "And I never was so thirsty."
"Why, of course," exclaimed Mrs. Cressler. "Isabel," she called, addressing Miss Gretry, who sat on the opposite side of the steps, "isn't the lemonade near you? Fill a couple of glasses for Laura and Page."
Page murmured her thanks, but Laura declined.
"No; just plain water for me," she said. "Isn't there some inside? Mr. Court can get it for me, can't he?" Landry brought the pitcher back, running at top speed and spilling half of it in his eagerness. Laura thanked him with a smile, addressing him, however, by his last name. She somehow managed to convey to him in her manner the information that though his offence was forgotten, their old-time relations were not, for one instant, to be resumed.
Later on, while Page was thrumming her mandolin, Landry whistling a "second," Mrs. Cressler took occasion to remark to Laura:
"I was reading the Paris letter in the 'Inter-Ocean' to-day, and I saw Mr. Corthell's name on the list of American arrivals at the Continental. I guess," she added, "he's going to be gone a long time. I wonder sometimes if he will ever come back. A fellow with his talent, I should imagine would find Chicago—well, less congenial, anyhow, than Paris. But, just the same, I do think it was mean of him to break up our play by going. I'll bet a cookie that he wouldn't take part any more just because you wouldn't. He was just crazy to do that love scene in the fourth act with you. And when you wouldn't play, of course he wouldn't; and then everybody seemed to lose interest with you two out. 'J.' took it all very decently though, don't you think?"
Laura made a murmur of mild assent.
"He was disappointed, too," continued Mrs. Cressler. "I could see that. He thought the play was going to interest a lot of our church people in his Sunday-school. But he never said a word when it fizzled out. Is he coming to-night?"
"Well I declare," said Laura. "How should I know, if you don't?"
Jadwin was an almost regular visitor at the Cresslers' during the first warm evenings. He lived on the South Side, and the distance between his home and that of the Cresslers was very considerable. It was seldom, however, that Jadwin did not drive over. He came in his double-seated buggy, his negro coachman beside him the two coach dogs, "Rex" and "Rox," trotting under the rear axle. His horses were not showy, nor were they made conspicuous by elaborate boots, bandages, and all the other solemn paraphernalia of the stable, yet men upon the sidewalks, amateurs, breeders, and the like—men who understood good stock—never failed to stop to watch the team go by, heads up, the check rein swinging loose, ears all alert, eyes all alight, the breath deep, strong, and slow, and the stride, machine-like, even as the swing of a metronome, thrown out from the shoulder to knee, snapped on from knee to fetlock, from fetlock to pastern, finishing squarely, beautifully, with the thrust of the hoof, planted an instant, then, as it were, flinging the roadway behind it, snatched up again, and again cast forward.
On these occasions Jadwin himself inevitably wore a black "slouch" hat, suggestive of the general of the Civil War, a grey "dust overcoat" with a black velvet collar, and tan gloves, discoloured with the moisture of his palms and all twisted and crumpled with the strain of holding the thoroughbreds to their work.
He always called the time of the trip from the buggy at the Cresslers' horse block, his stop watch in his hand, and, as he joined the groups upon the steps, he was almost sure to remark: "Tugs were loose all the way from the river. They pulled the whole rig by the reins. My hands are about dislocated."
"Page plays very well," murmured Mrs. Cressler as the young girl laid down her mandolin. "I hope J. does come to-night," she added. "I love to have him 'round. He's so hearty and whole-souled."
Laura did not reply. She seemed a little preoccupied this evening, and conversation in the group died away. The night was very beautiful, serene, quiet; and, at this particular hour of the end of the twilight, no one cared to talk much. Cressler lit another cigar, and the filaments of delicate blue smoke hung suspended about his head in the moveless air. Far off, from the direction of the mouth of the river, a lake steamer whistled a prolonged tenor note. Somewhere from an open window in one of the neighbouring houses a violin, accompanied by a piano, began to elaborate the sustained phrases of "Schubert's Serenade." Theatrical as was the theme, the twilight and the muffled hum of the city, lapsing to quiet after the febrile activities of the day, combined to lend it a dignity, a persuasiveness. The children were still playing along the sidewalks, and their staccato gaiety was part of the quiet note to which all sounds of the moment seemed chorded.
After a while Mrs. Cressler began to talk to Laura in a low voice. She and Charlie were going to spend a part of June at Oconomowoc, in Wisconsin. Why could not Laura make up her mind to come with them? She had asked Laura a dozen times already, but couldn't get a yes or no answer from her. What was the reason she could not decide? Didn't she think she would have a good time?
"Page can go," said Laura. "I would like to have you take her. But as for me, I don't know. My plans are so unsettled this summer." She broke off suddenly. "Oh, now, that I think of it, I want to borrow your 'Idylls of the King.' May I take it for a day or two? I'll run in and get it now," she added as she rose. "I know just where to find it. No, please sit still, Mr. Cressler. I'll go."
And with the words she disappeared in doors, leaving Mrs. Cressler to murmur to her husband:
"Strange girl. Sometimes I think I don't know Laura at all. She's so inconsistent. How funny she acts about going to Oconomowoc with us!"
Mr. Cressler permitted himself an amiable grunt of protest.
"Pshaw! Laura's all right. The handsomest girl in Cook County."
"Well, that's not much to do with it, Charlie," sighed Mrs. Cressler. "Oh, dear," she added vaguely. "I don't know."
"Don't know what?"
"I hope Laura's life will be happy."
"Oh, for God's sake, Carrie!"
"There's something about that girl," continued Mrs. Cressler, "that makes my heart bleed for her."
Cressler frowned, puzzled and astonished.
"Hey—what!" he exclaimed. "You're crazy, Carrie!"
"Just the same," persisted Mrs. Cressler, "I just yearn towards her sometimes like a mother. Some people are born to trouble, Charlie; born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward. And you mark my words, Charlie Cressler, Laura is that sort. There's all the pathos in the world in just the way she looks at you from under all that black, black hair, and out of her eyes the saddest eyes sometimes, great, sad, mournful eyes."
"Fiddlesticks!" said Mr. Cressler, resuming his paper.
"I'm positive that Sheldon Corthell asked her to marry him," mused Mrs. Cressler after a moment's silence. "I'm sure that's why he left so suddenly."
Her husband grunted grimly as he turned his paper so as to catch the reflection of the vestibule light.
"Don't you think so, Charlie?"
"Uh! I don't know. I never had much use for that fellow, anyhow."
"He's wonderfully talented," she commented, "and so refined. He always had the most beautiful manners. Did you ever notice his hands?"
"I thought they were like a barber's. Put him in 'J.'s' rig there, behind those horses of his, and how long do you suppose he'd hold those trotters with that pair of hands? Why," he blustered, suddenly, "they'd pull him right over the dashboard."
"Poor little Landry Court!" murmured his wife, lowering her voice. "He's just about heart-broken. He wanted to marry her too. My goodness, she must have brought him up with a round turn. I can see Laura when she is really angry. Poor fellow!"
"If you women would let that boy alone, he might amount to something."
"He told me his life was ruined."
Cressler threw his cigar from him with vast impatience.
"Oh, rot!" he muttered.
"He took it terribly, seriously, Charlie, just the same."
"I'd like to take that young boy in hand and shake some of the nonsense out of him that you women have filled him with. He's got a level head. On the floor every day, and never yet bought a hatful of wheat on his own account. Don't know the meaning of speculation and don't want to. There's a boy with some sense."
"It's just as well," persisted Mrs. Cressler reflectively, "that Laura wouldn't have him. Of course they're not made for each other. But I thought that Corthell would have made her happy. But she won't ever marry 'J.' He asked her to; she didn't tell me, but I know he did. And she's refused him flatly. She won't marry anybody, she says. Said she didn't love anybody, and never would. I'd have loved to have seen her married to 'J.,' but I can see now that they wouldn't have been congenial; and if Laura wouldn't have Sheldon Corthell, who was just made for her, I guess it was no use to expect she'd have 'J.' Laura's got a temperament, and she's artistic, and loves paintings, and poetry, and Shakespeare, and all that, and Curtis don't care for those things at all. They wouldn't have had anything in common. But Corthell—that was different. And Laura did care for him, in a way. He interested her immensely. When he'd get started on art subjects Laura would just hang on every word. My lands, I wouldn't have gone away if I'd been in his boots. You mark my words, Charlie, there was the man for Laura Dearborn, and she'll marry him yet, or I'll miss my guess."
"That's just like you, Carrie—you and the rest of the women," exclaimed Cressler, "always scheming to marry each other off. Why don't you let the girl alone? Laura's all right. She minds her own business, and she's perfectly happy. But you'd go to work and get up a sensation about her, and say that your 'heart bleeds for her,' and that she's born to trouble, and has sad eyes. If she gets into trouble it'll be because some one else makes it for her. You take my advice, and let her paddle her own canoe. She's got the head to do it; don't you worry about that. By the way—" Cressler interrupted himself, seizing the opportunity to change the subject. "By the way, Carrie, Curtis has been speculating again. I'm sure of it."
"Too bad," she murmured.
"So it is," Cressler went on. "He and Gretry are thick as thieves these days. Gretry, I understand, has been selling September wheat for him all last week, and only this morning they closed out another scheme—some corn game. It was all over the Floor just about closing time. They tell me that Curtis landed between eight and ten thousand. Always seems to win. I'd give a lot to keep him out of it; but since his deal in May wheat he's been getting into it more and more."
"Did he sell that property on Washington Street?" she inquired.
"Oh," exclaimed her husband, "I'd forgot. I meant to tell you. No, he didn't sell it. But he did better. He wouldn't sell, and those department store people took a lease. Guess what they pay him. Three hundred thousand a year. 'J.' is getting richer all the time, and why he can't be satisfied with his own business instead of monkeying 'round La Salle Street is a mystery to me."
But, as Mrs. Cressler was about to reply, Laura came to the open window of the parlour.
"Oh, Mrs. Cressler," she called, "I don't seem to find your 'Idylls' after all. I thought they were in the little book-case."
"Wait. I'll find them for you," exclaimed Mrs. Cressler.
"Would you mind?" answered Laura, as Mrs. Cressler rose.
Inside, the gas had not been lighted. The library was dark and cool, and when Mrs. Cressler had found the book for Laura the girl pleaded a headache as an excuse for remaining within. The two sat down by the raised sash of a window at the side of the house, that overlooked the "side yard," where the morning-glories and nasturtiums were in full bloom.
"The house is cooler, isn't it?" observed Mrs. Cressler.
Laura settled herself in her wicker chair, and with a gesture that of late had become habitual with her pushed her heavy coils of hair to one side and patted them softly to place.
"It is getting warmer, I do believe," she said, rather listlessly. "I understand it is to be a very hot summer." Then she added, "I'm to be married in July, Mrs. Cressler."
Mrs. Cressler gasped, and sitting bolt upright stared for one breathless instant at Laura's face, dimly visible in the darkness. Then, stupefied, she managed to vociferate:
"What! Laura! Married? My darling girl!"
"Yes," answered Laura calmly. "In July—or maybe sooner."
"Why, I thought you had rejected Mr. Corthell. I thought that's why he went away."
"Went away? He never went away. I mean it's not Mr. Corthell. It's Mr. Jadwin."
"Thank God!" declared Mrs. Cressler fervently, and with the words kissed Laura on both cheeks. "My dear, dear child, you can't tell how glad I am. From the very first I've said you were made for one another. And I thought all the time that you'd told him you wouldn't have him."
"I did," said Laura. Her manner was quiet. She seemed a little grave. "I told him I did not love him. Only last week I told him so."
"Well, then, why did you promise?"
"My goodness!" exclaimed Laura, with a show of animation. "You don't realize what it's been. Do you suppose you can say 'no' to that man?"
"Of course not, of course not," declared Mrs. Cressler joyfully. "That's 'J.' all over. I might have known he'd have you if he set out to do it."
"Morning, noon, and night," Laura continued. "He seemed willing to wait as long as I wasn't definite; but one day I wrote to him and gave him a square 'No,' so as he couldn't mistake, and just as soon as I'd said that he—he—began. I didn't have any peace until I'd promised him, and the moment I had promised he had a ring on my finger. He'd had it ready in his pocket for weeks it seems. No," she explained, as Mrs. Cressler laid her fingers upon her left hand, "That I would not have—yet."
"Oh, it was like 'J.' to be persistent," repeated Mrs. Cressler.
"Persistent!" murmured Laura. "He simply wouldn't talk of anything else. It was making him sick, he said. And he did have a fever—often. But he would come out to see me just the same. One night, when it was pouring rain—Well, I'll tell you. He had been to dinner with us, and afterwards, in the drawing-room, I told him 'no' for the hundredth time just as plainly as I could, and he went away early—it wasn't eight. I thought that now at last he had given up. But he was back again before ten the same evening. He said he had come back to return a copy of a book I had loaned him—'Jane Eyre' it was. Raining! I never saw it rain as it did that night. He was drenched, and even at dinner he had had a low fever. And then I was sorry for him. I told him he could come to see me again. I didn't propose to have him come down with pneumonia, or typhoid, or something. And so it all began over again."
"But you loved him, Laura?" demanded Mrs. Cressler. "You love him now?"
Laura was silent. Then at length:
"I don't know," she answered.
"Why, of course you love him, Laura," insisted Mrs. Cressler. "You wouldn't have promised him if you hadn't. Of course you love him, don't you?"
"Yes, I—I suppose I must love him, or—as you say—I wouldn't have promised to marry him. He does everything, every little thing I say. He just seems to think of nothing else but to please me from morning until night. And when I finally said I would marry him, why, Mrs. Cressler, he choked all up, and the tears ran down his face, and all he could say was, 'May God bless you! May God bless you!' over and over again, and his hand shook so that—Oh, well," she broke off abruptly. Then added, "Somehow it makes tears come to my eyes to think of it."
"But, Laura," urged Mrs. Cressler, "you love Curtis, don't you? You—you're such a strange girl sometimes. Dear child, talk to me as though I were your mother. There's no one in the world loves you more than I do. You love Curtis, don't you?"
Laura hesitated a long moment.
"Yes," she said, slowly at length. "I think I love him very much—sometimes. And then sometimes I think I don't. I can't tell. There are days when I'm sure of it, and there are others when I wonder if I want to be married, after all. I thought when love came it was to be—oh, uplifting, something glorious like Juliet's love or Marguerite's. Something that would—" Suddenly she struck her hand to her breast, her fingers shut tight, closing to a fist. "Oh, something that would shake me all to pieces. I thought that was the only kind of love there was."
"Oh, that's what you read about in trashy novels," Mrs. Cressler assured her, "or the kind you see at the matinees. I wouldn't let that bother me, Laura. There's no doubt that 'J.' loves you."
Laura brightened a little. "Oh, no," she answered, "there's no doubt about that. It's splendid, that part of it. He seems to think there's nothing in the world too good for me. Just imagine, only yesterday I was saying something about my gloves, I really forget what—something about how hard it was for me to get the kind of gloves I liked. Would you believe it, he got me to give him my measure, and when I saw him in the evening he told me he had cabled to Brussels to some famous glovemaker and had ordered I don't know how many pairs."
"Just like him, just like him!" cried Mrs. Cressler. "I know you will be happy, Laura, dear. You can't help but be with a man who loves you as 'J.' does."
"I think I shall be happy," answered Laura, suddenly grave. "Oh, Mrs. Cressler, I want to be. I hope that I won't come to myself some day, after it is too late, and find that it was all a mistake." Her voice shook a little. "You don't know how nervous I am these days. One minute I am one kind of girl, and the next another kind. I'm so nervous and—oh, I don't know. Oh, I guess it will be all right." She wiped her eyes, and laughed a note. "I don't see why I should cry about it," she murmured.
"Well, Laura," answered Mrs. Cressler, "if you don't love Curtis, don't marry him. That's very simple."
"It's like this, Mrs. Cressler," Laura explained. "I suppose I am very uncharitable and unchristian, but I like the people that like me, and I hate those that don't like me. I can't help it. I know it's wrong, but that's the way I am. And I love to be loved. The man that would love me the most would make me love him. And when Mr. Jadwin seems to care so much, and do so much, and—you know how I mean; it does make a difference of course. I suppose I care as much for Mr. Jadwin as I ever will care for any man. I suppose I must be cold and unemotional."
Mrs. Cressler could not restrain a movement of surprise.
"You unemotional? Why, I thought you just said, Laura, that you had imagined love would be like Juliet and like that girl in 'Faust'—that it was going to shake you all to pieces."
"Did I say that? Well, I told you I was one girl one minute and another another. I don't know myself these days. Oh, hark," she said, abruptly, as the cadence of hoofs began to make itself audible from the end of the side street. "That's the team now. I could recognise those horses' trot as far as I could hear it. Let's go out. I know he would like to have me there when he drives up. And you know"—she put her hand on Mrs. Cressler's arm as the two moved towards the front door—"this is all absolutely a secret as yet."
"Why, of course, Laura dear. But tell me just one thing more," Mrs. Cressler asked, in a whisper, "are you going to have a church wedding?"
"Hey, Carrie," called Mr. Cressler from the stoop, "here's J."
Laura shook her head.
"No, I want it to be very quiet—at our house. We'll go to Geneva Lake for the summer. That's why, you see, I couldn't promise to go to Oconomowoc with you."
They came out upon the front steps, Mrs. Cressler's arm around Laura's waist. It was dark by now, and the air was perceptibly warmer.
The team was swinging down the street close at hand, the hoof beats exactly timed, as if there were but one instead of two horses.
"Well, what's the record to-night J.?" cried Cressler, as Jadwin brought the bays to a stand at the horse block. Jadwin did not respond until he had passed the reins to the coachman, and taking the stop watch from the latter's hand, he drew on his cigar, and held the glowing tip to the dial.
"Eleven minutes and a quarter," he announced, "and we had to wait for the bridge at that."
He came up the steps, fanning himself with his slouch hat, and dropped into the chair that Landry had brought for him.
"Upon my word," he exclaimed, gingerly drawing off his driving gloves, "I've no feeling in my fingers at all. Those fellows will pull my hands clean off some day."
But he was hardly settled in his place before he proposed to send the coachman home, and to take Laura for a drive towards Lincoln Park, and even a little way into the park itself. He promised to have her back within an hour.
"I haven't any hat," objected Laura. "I should love to go, but I ran over here to-night without any hat."
"Well, I wouldn't let that stand in my way, Laura," protested Mrs. Cressler. "It will be simply heavenly in the Park on such a night as this."
In the end Laura borrowed Page's hat, and Jadwin took her away. In the light of the street lamps Mrs. Cressler and the others watched them drive off, sitting side by side behind the fine horses. Jadwin, broad-shouldered, a fresh cigar in his teeth, each rein in a double turn about his large, hard hands; Laura, slim, erect, pale, her black, thick hair throwing a tragic shadow low upon her forehead.
"A fine-looking couple," commented Mr. Cressler as they disappeared.
The hoof beats died away, the team vanished. Landry Court, who stood behind the others, watching, turned to Mrs. Cressler. She thought she detected a little unsteadiness in his voice, but he repeated bravely:
"Yes, yes, that's right. They are a fine, a—a fine-looking couple together, aren't they? A fine-looking couple, to say the least."
A week went by, then two, soon May had passed. On the fifteenth of that month Laura's engagement to Curtis Jadwin was formally announced. The day of the wedding was set for the first week in June.
During this time Laura was never more changeable, more puzzling. Her vivacity seemed suddenly to have been trebled, but it was invaded frequently by strange reactions and perversities that drove her friends and family to distraction.
About a week after her talk with Mrs. Cressler, Laura broke the news to Page. It was a Monday morning. She had spent the time since breakfast in putting her bureau drawers to rights, scattering sachet powders in them, then leaving them open so as to perfume the room. At last she came into the front "upstairs sitting-room," a heap of gloves, stockings, collarettes—the odds and ends of a wildly disordered wardrobe—in her lap. She tumbled all these upon the hearth rug, and sat down upon the floor to sort them carefully. At her little desk near by, Page, in a blue and white shirt waist and golf skirt, her slim little ankles demurely crossed, a cone of foolscap over her forearm to guard against ink spots, was writing in her journal. This was an interminable affair, voluminous, complex, that the young girl had kept ever since she was fifteen. She wrote in it—she hardly knew what—the small doings of the previous day, her comings and goings, accounts of dances, estimates of new acquaintances. But besides this she filled page after page with "impressions," "outpourings," queer little speculations about her soul, quotations from poets, solemn criticisms of new novels, or as often as not mere purposeless meanderings of words, exclamatory, rhapsodic—involved lucubrations quite meaningless and futile, but which at times she re-read with vague thrills of emotion and mystery.
On this occasion Page wrote rapidly and steadily for a few moments after Laura's entrance into the room. Then she paused, her eyes growing wide and thoughtful. She wrote another line and paused again. Seated on the floor, her hands full of gloves, Laura was murmuring to herself.
"Those are good … and those, and the black suedes make eight… . And if I could only find the mate to this white one… . Ah, here it is. That makes nine, nine pair."
She put the gloves aside, and turning to the stockings drew one of the silk ones over her arm, and spread out her fingers in the foot.
"Oh, dear," she whispered, "there's a thread started, and now it will simply run the whole length… ."
Page's scratching paused again.
"Laura," she asked dreamily, "Laura, how do you spell 'abysmal'?"
"With a y, honey," answered Laura, careful not to smile.
"Oh, Laura," asked Page, "do you ever get very, very sad without knowing why?"
"No, indeed," answered her sister, as she peeled the stocking from her arm. "When I'm sad I know just the reason, you may be sure."
Page sighed again.
"Oh, I don't know," she murmured indefinitely. "I lie awake at night sometimes and wish I were dead."
"You mustn't get morbid, honey," answered her older sister calmly. "It isn't natural for a young healthy little body like you to have such gloomy notions."
"Last night," continued Page, "I got up out of bed and sat by the window a long time. And everything was so still and beautiful, and the moonlight and all—and I said right out loud to myself,
"My breath to Heaven in vapour goes—
You know those lines from Tennyson:
"My breath to Heaven in vapour goes, May my soul follow soon."
I said it right out loud just like that, and it was just as though something in me had spoken. I got my journal and wrote down, 'Yet in a few days, and thee, the all-beholding sun shall see no more.' It's from Thanatopsis, you know, and I thought how beautiful it would be to leave all this world, and soar and soar, right up to higher planes and be at peace. Laura, dearest, do you think I ever ought to marry?"
"Why not, girlie? Why shouldn't you marry. Of course you'll marry some day, if you find—"
"I should like to be a nun," Page interrupted, shaking her head, mournfully.
"—if you find the man who loves you," continued Laura, "and whom you—you admire and respect—whom you love. What would you say, honey, if—if your sister, if I should be married some of these days?"
Page wheeled about in her chair.
"Oh, Laura, tell me," she cried, "are you joking? Are you going to be married? Who to? I hadn't an idea, but I thought—I suspected."
"Well," observed Laura, slowly, "I might as well tell you—some one will if I don't—Mr. Jadwin wants me to marry him."
"And what did you say? What did you say? Oh, I'll never tell. Oh, Laura, tell me all about it."
"Well, why shouldn't I marry him? Yes—I promised. I said yes. Why shouldn't I? He loves me, and he is rich. Isn't that enough?"
"Oh, no. It isn't. You must love—you do love him?"
"I? Love? Pooh!" cried Laura. "Indeed not. I love nobody."
"Oh, Laura," protested Page earnestly. "Don't, don't talk that way. You mustn't. It's wicked."
Laura put her head in the air.
"I wouldn't give any man that much satisfaction. I think that is the way it ought to be. A man ought to love a woman more than she loves him. It ought to be enough for him if she lets him give her everything she wants in the world. He ought to serve her like the old knights—give up his whole life to satisfy some whim of hers; and it's her part, if she likes, to be cold and distant. That's my idea of love."
"Yes, but they weren't cold and proud to their knights after they'd promised to marry them," urged Page. "They loved them in the end, and married them for love."
"Oh, 'love'!" mocked Laura. "I don't believe in love. You only get your ideas of it from trashy novels and matinees. Girlie," cried Laura, "I am going to have the most beautiful gowns. They're the last things that Miss Dearborn shall buy for herself, and"—she fetched a long breath—"I tell you they are going to be creations."
When at length the lunch bell rang Laura jumped to her feet, adjusting her coiffure with thrusts of her long, white hands, the fingers extended, and ran from the room exclaiming that the whole morning had gone and that half her bureau drawers were still in disarray.
Page, left alone, sat for a long time lost in thought, sighing deeply at intervals, then at last she wrote in her journal:
"A world without Love—oh, what an awful thing that would be. Oh, love is so beautiful—so beautiful, that it makes me sad. When I think of love in all its beauty I am sad, sad like Romola in George Eliot's well-known novel of the same name."
She locked up her journal in the desk drawer, and wiped her pen point until it shone, upon a little square of chamois skin. Her writing-desk was a miracle of neatness, everything in its precise place, the writing-paper in geometrical parallelograms, the pen tray neatly polished.
On the hearth rug, where Laura had sat, Page's searching eye discovered traces of her occupancy—a glove button, a white thread, a hairpin. Page was at great pains to gather them up carefully and drop them into the waste basket.
"Laura is so fly-away," she observed, soberly.
When Laura told the news to Aunt Wess' the little old lady showed no surprise.
"I've been expecting it of late," she remarked. "Well, Laura, Mr. Jadwin is a man of parts. Though, to tell the truth, I thought at first it was to be that Mr. Corthell. He always seemed so distinguished-looking and elegant. I suppose now that that young Mr. Court will have a regular conniption fit."
"Oh, Landry," murmured Laura.
"Where are you going to live, Laura? Here? My word, child, don't be afraid to tell me I must pack. Why, bless you."
"No, no," exclaimed Laura, energetically, "you are to stay right here. We'll talk it all over just as soon as I know more decidedly what our plans are to be. No, we won't live here. Mr. Jadwin is going to buy a new house—on the corner of North Avenue and State Street. It faces Lincoln Park—you know it, the Farnsworth place."
"Why, my word, Laura," cried Aunt Wess' amazed, "why, it's a palace! Of course I know it. Why, it takes in the whole block, child, and there's a conservatory pretty near as big as this house. Well!"
"Yes, I know," answered Laura, shaking her head. "It takes my breath away sometimes. Mr. Jadwin tells me there's an art gallery, too, with an organ in it—a full-sized church organ. Think of it. Isn't it beautiful, beautiful? Isn't it a happiness? And I'll have my own carriage and coupe, and oh, Aunt Wess', a saddle horse if I want to, and a box at the opera, and a country place—that is to be bought day after to-morrow. It's at Geneva Lake. We're to go there after we are married, and Mr. Jadwin has bought the dearest, loveliest, daintiest little steam yacht. He showed the photograph of her yesterday. Oh, honey, honey! It all comes over me sometimes. Think, only a year ago, less than that, I was vegetating there at Barrington, among those wretched old blue-noses, helping Martha with the preserves and all and all; and now"—she threw her arms wide—"I'm just going to live. Think of it, that beautiful house, and servants, and carriages, and paintings, and, oh, honey, how I will dress the part!"
"But I wouldn't think of those things so much, Laura," answered Aunt Wess', rather seriously. "Child, you are not marrying him for carriages and organs and saddle horses and such. You're marrying this Mr. Jadwin because you love him. Aren't you?"
"Oh," cried Laura, "I would marry a ragamuffin if he gave me all these things—gave them to me because he loved me."
Aunt Wess' stared. "I wouldn't talk that way, Laura," she remarked. "Even in fun. At least not before Page."
That same evening Jadwin came to dinner with the two sisters and their aunt. The usual evening drive with Laura was foregone for this occasion. Jadwin had stayed very late at his office, and from there was to come direct to the Dearborns. Besides that, Nip—the trotters were named Nip and Tuck—was lame.
As early as four o'clock in the afternoon Laura, suddenly moved by an unreasoning caprice, began to prepare an elaborate toilet. Not since the opera night had she given so much attention to her appearance. She sent out for an extraordinary quantity of flowers; flowers for the table, flowers for Page and Aunt Wess', great "American beauties" for her corsage, and a huge bunch of violets for the bowl in the library. She insisted that Page should wear her smartest frock, and Mrs. Wessels her grenadine of great occasions. As for herself, she decided upon a dinner gown of black, decollete, with sleeves of lace. Her hair she dressed higher than ever. She resolved upon wearing all her jewelry, and to that end put on all her rings, secured the roses in place with an amethyst brooch, caught up the little locks at the back of her head with a heart-shaped pin of tiny diamonds, and even fastened the ribbon of satin that girdled her waist, with a clasp of flawed turquoises.
Until five in the afternoon she was in the gayest spirits, and went down to the dining-room to supervise the setting of the table, singing to herself.
Then, almost at the very last, when Jadwin might be expected at any moment, her humour changed again, and again, for no discoverable reason.
Page, who came into her sister's room after dressing, to ask how she looked, found her harassed and out of sorts. She was moody, spoke in monosyllables, and suddenly declared that the wearing anxiety of house-keeping was driving her to distraction. Of all days in the week, why had Jadwin chosen this particular one to come to dinner. Men had no sense, could not appreciate a woman's difficulties. Oh, she would be glad when the evening was over.
Then, as an ultimate disaster, she declared that she herself looked "Dutchy." There was no style, no smartness to her dress; her hair was arranged unbecomingly; she was growing thin, peaked. In a word, she looked "Dutchy."
All at once she flung off her roses and dropped into a chair.
"I will not go down to-night," she cried. "You and Aunt Wess' must make out to receive Mr. Jadwin. I simply will not see any one to-night, Mr. Jadwin least of all. Tell him I'm gone to bed sick—which is the truth, I am going to bed, my head is splitting."
All persuasion, entreaty, or cajolery availed nothing. Neither Page nor Aunt Wess' could shake her decision. At last Page hazarded a remonstrance to the effect that if she had known that Laura was not going to be at dinner she would not have taken such pains with her own toilet.
Promptly thereat Laura lost her temper.
"I do declare, Page," she exclaimed, "it seems to me that I get very little thanks for ever taking any interest in your personal appearance. There is not a girl in Chicago—no millionaire's daughter—has any prettier gowns than you. I plan and plan, and go to the most expensive dressmakers so that you will be well dressed, and just as soon as I dare to express the desire to see you appear like a gentlewoman, I get it thrown in my face. And why do I do it? I'm sure I don't know. It's because I'm a poor weak, foolish, indulgent sister. I've given up the idea of ever being loved by you; but I do insist on being respected." Laura rose, stately, severe. It was the "grand manner" now, unequivocally, unmistakably. "I do insist upon being respected," she repeated. "It would be wrong and wicked of me to allow you to ignore and neglect my every wish. I'll not have it, I'll not tolerate it."
Page, aroused, indignant, disdained an answer, but drew in her breath and held it hard, her lips tight pressed.
"It's all very well for you to pose, miss," Laura went on; "to pose as injured innocence. But you understand very well what I mean. If you don't love me, at least I shall not allow you to flout me—deliberately, defiantly. And it does seem strange," she added, her voice beginning to break, "that when we two are all alone in the world, when there's no father or mother—and you are all I have, and when I love you as I do, that there might be on your part—a little consideration—when I only want to be loved for my own sake, and not—and not—when I want to be, oh, loved—loved—loved—"
The two sisters were in each other's arms by now, and Page was crying no less than Laura.
"Oh, little sister," exclaimed Laura, "I know you love me. I know you do. I didn't mean to say that. You must forgive me and be very kind to me these days. I know I'm cross, but sometimes these days I'm so excited and nervous I can't help it, and you must try to bear with me. Hark, there's the bell."
Listening, they heard the servant open the door, and then the sound of Jadwin's voice and the clank of his cane in the porcelain cane rack. But still Laura could not be persuaded to go down. No, she was going to bed; she had neuralgia; she was too nervous to so much as think. Her gown was "Dutchy." And in the end, so unshakable was her resolve, that Page and her aunt had to sit through the dinner with Jadwin and entertain him as best they could.
But as the coffee was being served the three received a genuine surprise. Laura appeared. All her finery was laid off. She wore the simplest, the most veritably monastic, of her dresses, plain to the point of severity. Her hands were bare of rings. Not a single jewel, not even the most modest ornament relieved her sober appearance. She was very quiet, spoke in a low voice and declared she had come down only to drink a glass of mineral water and then to return at once to her room.
As a matter of fact, she did nothing of the kind. The others prevailed upon her to take a cup of coffee. Then the dessert was recalled, and, forgetting herself in an animated discussion with Jadwin as to the name of their steam yacht, she ate two plates of wine jelly before she was aware. She expressed a doubt as to whether a little salad would do her good, and after a vehement exhortation from Jadwin, allowed herself to be persuaded into accepting a sufficiently generous amount.
"I think a classical name would be best for the boat," she declared. "Something like 'Arethusa' or 'The Nereid.'"
They rose from the table and passed into the library. The evening was sultry, threatening a rain-storm, and they preferred not to sit on the "stoop." Jadwin lit a cigar; he still wore his business clothes—the inevitable "cutaway," white waistcoat, and grey trousers of the middle-aged man of affairs.
"Oh, call her the 'Artemis,'" suggested Page.
"Well now, to tell the truth," observed Jadwin, "those names look pretty in print; but somehow I don't fancy them. They're hard to read, and they sound somehow frilled up and fancy. But if you're satisfied, Laura—"
"I knew a young man once," began Aunt Wess', "who had a boat—that was when we lived at Kenwood and Mr. Wessels belonged to the 'Farragut'—and this young man had a boat he called 'Fanchon.' He got tipped over in her one day, he and the three daughters of a lady I knew well, and two days afterward they found them at the bottom of the lake, all holding on to each other; and they fetched them up just like that in one piece. The mother of those girls never smiled once since that day, and her hair turned snow white. That was in 'seventy-nine. I remember it perfectly. The boat's name was 'Fanchon.'"
"But that was a sail boat, Aunt Wess'," objected Laura. "Ours is a steam yacht. There's all the difference in the world."
"I guess they're all pretty risky, those pleasure boats," answered Aunt Wess'. "My word, you couldn't get me to set foot on one."
Jadwin nodded his head at Laura, his eyes twinkling.
"Well, we'll leave 'em all at home, Laura, when we go," he said.
A little later one of Page's "young men" called to see her, and Page took him off into the drawing-room across the hall. Mrs. Wessels seized upon the occasion to slip away unobserved, and Laura and Jadwin were left alone.
"Well, my girl," began Jadwin, "how's the day gone with you?"
She had been seated at the centre table, by the drop light—the only light in the room—turning over the leaves of "The Age of Fable," looking for graceful and appropriate names for the yacht. Jadwin leaned over her and put his hand upon her shoulder.
"Oh, about the same as usual," she answered. "I told Page and Aunt Wess' this morning."
"What did they have to say?" Jadwin laid a soft but clumsy hand upon Laura's head, adding, "Laura, you have the most wonderful hair I ever saw."
"Oh, they were not surprised. Curtis, don't, you are mussing me." She moved her head impatiently; but then smiling, as if to mitigate her abruptness, said, "It always makes me nervous to have my hair touched. No, they were not surprised; unless it was that we were to be married so soon. They were surprised at that. You know I always said it was too soon. Why not put it off, Curtis—until the winter?"
But he scouted this, and then, as she returned to the subject again, interrupted her, drawing some papers from his pocket.
"Oh, by the way," he said, "here are the sketch plans for the alterations of the house at Geneva. The contractor brought them to the office to-day. He's made that change about the dining-room."
"Oh," exclaimed Laura, interested at once, "you mean about building on the conservatory?"
"Hum—no," answered Jadwin a little slowly. "You see, Laura, the difficulty is in getting the thing done this summer. When we go up there we want everything finished, don't we? We don't want a lot of workmen clattering around. I thought maybe we could wait about that conservatory till next year, if you didn't mind."
Laura acquiesced readily enough, but Jadwin could see that she was a little disappointed. Thoughtful, he tugged his mustache in silence for a moment. Perhaps, after all, it could be arranged. Then an idea presented itself to him. Smiling a little awkwardly, he said:
"Laura, I tell you what. I'll make a bargain with you."
She looked up as he hesitated. Jadwin sat down at the table opposite her and leaned forward upon his folded arms.
"Do you know," he began, "I happened to think—Well, here's what I mean," he suddenly declared decisively. "Do you know, Laura, that ever since we've been engaged you've never—Well, you've never—never kissed me of your own accord. It's foolish to talk that way now, isn't it? But, by George! That would be—would be such a wonderful thing for me. I know," he hastened to add, "I know, Laura, you aren't demonstrative. I ought not to expect, maybe, that you— Well, maybe it isn't much. But I was thinking a while ago that there wouldn't be a sweeter thing imaginable for me than if my own girl would come up to me some time—when I wasn't thinking—and of her own accord put her two arms around me and kiss me. And—well, I was thinking about it, and—" He hesitated again, then finished abruptly with, "And it occurred to me that you never had."
Laura made no answer, but smiled rather indefinitely, as she continued to search the pages of the book, her head to one side.
"We'll call it a bargain. Some day—before very long, mind you—you are going to kiss me—that way, understand, of your own accord, when I'm not thinking of it; and I'll get that conservatory in for you. I'll manage it somehow. I'll start those fellows at it to-morrow—twenty of 'em if it's necessary. How about it? Is it a bargain? Some day before long. What do you say?"
Laura hesitated, singularly embarrassed, unable to find the right words.
"Is it a bargain?" persisted Jadwin.
"Oh, if you put it that way," she murmured, "I suppose so—yes."
"You won't forget, because I shan't speak about it again. Promise you won't forget."
"No, I won't forget. Why not call her the 'Thetis'?"
"I was going to suggest the 'Dart,' or the 'Swallow,' or the 'Arrow.' Something like that—to give a notion of speed."
"No. I like the 'Thetis' best."
"That settles it then. She's your steam yacht, Laura."
Later on, when Jadwin was preparing to depart, they stood for a moment in the hallway, while he drew on his gloves and took a fresh cigar from his case.
"I'll call for you here at about ten," he said. "Will that do?"
He spoke of the following morning. He had planned to take Page, Mrs. Wessels, and Laura on a day's excursion to Geneva Lake to see how work was progressing on the country house. Jadwin had set his mind upon passing the summer months after the marriage at the lake, and as the early date of the ceremony made it impossible to erect a new building, he had bought, and was now causing to be remodelled, an old but very well constructed house just outside of the town and once occupied by a local magistrate. The grounds were ample, filled with shade and fruit trees, and fronted upon the lake. Laura had never seen her future country home. But for the past month Jadwin had had a small army of workmen and mechanics busy about the place, and had managed to galvanise the contractors with some of his own energy and persistence. There was every probability that the house and grounds would be finished in time.
"Very well," said Laura, in answer to his question, "at ten we'll be ready. Good-night." She held out her hand. But Jadwin put it quickly aside, and took her swiftly and strongly into his arms, and turning her face to his, kissed her cheek again and again.
Laura submitted, protesting:
"Curtis! Such foolishness. Oh, dear; can't you love me without crumpling me so? Curtis! Please. You are so rough with me, dear."
She pulled away from him, and looked up into his face, surprised to find it suddenly flushed; his eyes were flashing.
"My God," he murmured, with a quick intake of breath, "my God, how I love you, my girl! Just the touch of your hand, the smell of your hair. Oh, sweetheart. It is wonderful! Wonderful!" Then abruptly he was master of himself again.
"Good-night," he said. "Good-night. God bless you," and with the words was gone.
They were married on the last day of June of that summer at eleven o'clock in the morning in the church opposite Laura's house—the Episcopalian church of which she was a member. The wedding was very quiet. Only the Cresslers, Miss Gretry, Page, and Aunt Wess' were present. Immediately afterward the couple were to take the train for Geneva Lake—Jadwin having chartered a car for the occasion.
But the weather on the wedding day was abominable. A warm drizzle, which had set in early in the morning, developed by eleven o'clock into a steady downpour, accompanied by sullen grumblings of very distant thunder.
About an hour before the appointed time Laura insisted that her aunt and sister should leave her. She would allow only Mrs. Cressler to help her. The time passed. The rain continued to fall. At last it wanted but fifteen minutes to eleven.
Page and Aunt Wess', who presented themselves at the church in advance of the others, found the interior cool, dark, and damp. They sat down in a front pew, talking in whispers, looking about them. Druggeting shrouded the reader's stand, the baptismal font, and bishop's chair. Every footfall and every minute sound echoed noisily from the dark vaulting of the nave and chancel. The janitor or sexton, a severe old fellow, who wore a skull cap and loose slippers, was making a great to-do with a pile of pew cushions in a remote corner. The rain drummed with incessant monotony upon the slates overhead, and upon the stained windows on either hand. Page, who attended the church regularly every Sunday morning, now found it all strangely unfamiliar. The saints in the windows looked odd and unecclesiastical; the whole suggestion of the place was uncanonical. In the organ loft a tuner was at work upon the organ, and from time to time the distant mumbling of the thunder was mingled with a sonorous, prolonged note from the pipes.
"My word, how it is raining," whispered Aunt Wess', as the pour upon the roof suddenly swelled in volume.
But Page had taken a prayer book from the rack, and kneeling upon a hassock was repeating the Litany to herself.
It annoyed Aunt Wess'. Excited, aroused, the little old lady was never more in need of a listener. Would Page never be through?
"And Laura's new frock," she whispered, vaguely. "It's going to be ruined."
Page, her lips forming the words, "Good Lord deliver us," fixed her aunt with a reproving glance. To pass the time Aunt Wess' began counting the pews, missing a number here and there, confusing herself, always obliged to begin over again. From the direction of the vestry room came the sound of a closing door. Then all fell silent again. Even the shuffling of the janitor ceased for an instant.
"Isn't it still?" murmured Aunt Wess', her head in the air. "I wonder if that was them. I heard a door slam. They tell me that the rector has been married three times." Page, unheeding and demure, turned a leaf, and began with "All those who travel by land or water." Mr. Cressler and young Miss Gretry appeared. They took their seats behind Page and Aunt Wess', and the party exchanged greetings in low voices. Page reluctantly laid down her prayer book.
"Laura will be over soon," whispered Mr. Cressler. "Carrie is with her. I'm going into the vestry room. J. has just come." He took himself off, walking upon his tiptoes.
Aunt Wess' turned to Page, repeating:
"Do you know they say this rector has been married three times?"
But Page was once more deep in her prayer book, so the little old lady addressed her remark to the Gretry girl.
This other, however, her lips tightly compressed, made a despairing gesture with her hand, and at length managed to say:
"Why, heavens, child, whatever is the matter?"
"Makes them worse—when I open my mouth—I've got the hiccoughs."
Aunt Wess' flounced back in her seat, exasperated, out of sorts.
"Well, my word," she murmured to herself, "I never saw such girls."
"Preserve to our use the kindly fruits of the earth," continued Page.
Isabel Gretry's hiccoughs drove Aunt Wess' into "the fidgets." They "got on her nerves." What with them and Page's uninterrupted murmur, she was at length obliged to sit in the far end of the pew, and just as she had settled herself a second time the door of the vestry room opened and the wedding party came out; first Mrs. Cressler, then Laura, then Jadwin and Cressler, and then, robed in billowing white, venerable, his prayer book in his hand, the bishop of the diocese himself. Last of all came the clerk, osseous, perfumed, a gardenia in the lapel of his frock coat, terribly excited, and hurrying about on tiptoe, saying "Sh! Sh!" as a matter of principle.
Jadwin wore a new frock coat and a resplendent Ascot scarf, which Mr. Cressler had bought for him and Page knew at a glance that he was agitated beyond all measure, and was keeping himself in hand only by a tremendous effort. She could guess that his teeth were clenched. He stood by Cressler's side, his head bent forward, his hands—the fingers incessantly twisting and untwisting—clasped behind his back. Never for once did his eyes leave Laura's face.
She herself was absolutely calm, only a little paler perhaps than usual; but never more beautiful, never more charming. Abandoning for this once her accustomed black, she wore a tan travelling dress, tailor made, very smart, a picture hat with heavy plumes set off with a clasp of rhinestones, while into her belt was thrust a great bunch of violets. She drew off her gloves and handed them to Mrs. Cressler. At the same moment Page began to cry softly to herself.
"There's the last of Laura," she whimpered. "There's the last of my dear sister for me."
Aunt Wess' fixed her with a distressful gaze. She sniffed once or twice, and then began fumbling in her reticule for her handkerchief.
"If only her dear father were here," she whispered huskily. "And to think that's the same little girl I used to rap on the head with my thimble for annoying the cat! Oh, if Jonas could be here this day."
"She'll never be the same to me after now," sobbed Page, and as she spoke the Gretry girl, hypnotised with emotion and taken all unawares, gave vent to a shrill hiccough, a veritable yelp, that woke an explosive echo in every corner of the building.
Page could not restrain a giggle, and the giggle strangled with the sobs in her throat, so that the little girl was not far from hysterics.
And just then a sonorous voice, magnificent, orotund, began suddenly from the chancel with the words:
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this company to join together this Man and this Woman in holy matrimony."
Promptly a spirit of reverence, not to say solemnity, pervaded the entire surroundings. The building no longer appeared secular, unecclesiastical. Not in the midst of all the pomp and ceremonial of the Easter service had the chancel and high altar disengaged a more compelling influence. All other intrusive noises died away; the organ was hushed; the fussy janitor was nowhere in sight; the outside clamour of the city seemed dwindling to the faintest, most distant vibration; the whole world was suddenly removed, while the great moment in the lives of the Man and the Woman began.
Page held her breath; the intensity of the situation seemed to her, almost physically, straining tighter and tighter with every passing instant. She was awed, stricken; and Laura appeared to her to be all at once a woman transfigured, semi-angelic, unknowable, exalted. The solemnity of those prolonged, canorous syllables: "I require and charge you both, as ye shall answer at the dreadful day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed," weighed down upon her spirits with an almost intolerable majesty. Oh, it was all very well to speak lightly of marriage, to consider it in a vein of mirth. It was a pretty solemn affair, after all; and she herself, Page Dearborn, was a wicked, wicked girl, full of sins, full of deceits and frivolities, meriting of punishment—on "that dreadful day of judgment." Only last week she had deceived Aunt Wess' in the matter of one of her "young men." It was time she stopped. To-day would mark a change. Henceforward, she resolved, she would lead a new life.
"God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost … "
To Page's mind the venerable bishop's voice was filling all the church, as on the day of Pentecost, when the apostles received the Holy Ghost, the building was filled with a "mighty rushing wind."
She knelt down again, but could not bring herself to close her eyes completely. From under her lids she still watched her sister and Jadwin. How Laura must be feeling now! She was, in fact, very pale. There was emotion in Jadwin's eyes. Page could see them plainly. It seemed beautiful that even he, the strong, modern man-of-affairs, should be so moved. How he must love Laura. He was fine, he was noble; and all at once this fineness and nobility of his so affected her that she began to cry again. Then suddenly came the words:
"… That in the world to come ye may have life everlasting. Amen."
There was a moment's silence, then the group about the altar rail broke up.
"Come," said Aunt Wess', getting to her feet, "it's all over, Page. Come, and kiss your sister—Mrs. Jadwin."
In the vestry room Laura stood for a moment, while one after another of the wedding party—even Mr. Cressler—kissed her. When Page's turn came, the two sisters held each other in a close embrace a long moment, but Laura's eyes were always dry. Of all present she was the least excited.
"Here's something," vociferated the ubiquitous clerk, pushing his way forward. "It was on the table when we came out just now. The sexton says a messenger boy brought it. It's for Mrs. Jadwin."
He handed her a large box. Laura opened it. Inside was a great sheaf of Jacqueminot roses and a card, on which was written:
"May that same happiness which you have always inspired in the lives and memories of all who know you be with you always. "Yrs. S. C."
The party, emerging from the church, hurried across the street to the Dearborns' home, where Laura and Jadwin were to get their valises and hand bags. Jadwin's carriage was already at the door.
They all assembled in the parlor, every one talking at once, while the servants, bare-headed, carried the baggage down to the carriage.
"Oh, wait—wait a minute, I'd forgotten something," cried Laura.
"What is it? Here, I'll get it for you," cried Jadwin and Cressler as she started toward the door. But she waved them off, crying:
"No, no. It's nothing. You wouldn't know where to look."
Alone she ran up the stairs, and gained the second story; then paused a moment on the landing to get her breath and to listen. The rooms near by were quiet, deserted. From below she could hear the voices of the others—their laughter and gaiety. She turned about, and went from room to room, looking long into each; first Aunt Wess's bedroom, then Page's, then the "front sitting-room," then, lastly, her own room. It was still in the disorder caused by that eventful morning; many of the ornaments—her own cherished knick-knacks—were gone, packed and shipped to her new home the day before. Her writing-desk and bureau were bare. On the backs of chairs, and across the footboard of the bed, were the odds and ends of dress she was never to wear again.
For a long time Laura stood looking silently at the empty room. Here she had lived the happiest period of her life; not an object there, however small, that was not hallowed by association. Now she was leaving it forever. Now the new life, the Untried, was to begin. Forever the old days, the old life were gone. Girlhood was gone; the Laura Dearborn that only last night had pressed the pillows of that bed, where was she now? Where was the little black-haired girl of Barrington?
And what was this new life to which she was going forth, under these leaden skies, under this warm mist of rain? The tears—at last—were in her eyes, and the sob in her throat, and she found herself, as she leaned an arm upon the lintel of the door, whispering:
"Good-by. Good-by. Good-by."
Then suddenly Laura, reckless of her wedding finery, forgetful of trivialities, crossed the room and knelt down at the side of the bed. Her head in her folded arms, she prayed—prayed in the little unstudied words of her childhood, prayed that God would take care of her and make her a good girl; prayed that she might be happy; prayed to God to help her in the new life, and that she should be a good and loyal wife.
And then as she knelt there, all at once she felt an arm, strong, heavy even, laid upon her. She raised her head and looked—for the first time—direct into her husband's eyes.
"I knew—" began Jadwin. "I thought—Dear, I understand, I understand."
He said no more than that. But suddenly Laura knew that he, Jadwin, her husband, did "understand," and she discovered, too, in that moment just what it meant to be completely, thoroughly understood—understood without chance of misapprehension, without shadow of doubt; understood to her heart's heart. And with the knowledge a new feeling was born within her. No woman, not her dearest friend; not even Page had ever seemed so close to her as did her husband now. How could she be unhappy henceforward? The future was already brightening.
Suddenly she threw both arms around his neck, and drawing his face down to her, kissed him again and again, and pressed her wet cheek to his—tear-stained like her own.
"It's going to be all right, dear," he said, as she stood from him, though still holding his hand. "It's going to be all right."
"Yes, yes, all right, all right," she assented. "I never seemed to realise it till this minute. From the first I must have loved you without knowing it. And I've been cold and hard to you, and now I'm sorry, sorry. You were wrong, remember that time in the library, when you said I was undemonstrative. I'm not. I love you dearly, dearly, and never for once, for one little moment, am I ever going to allow you to forget it."
Suddenly, as Jadwin recalled the incident of which she spoke, an idea occurred to him.
"Oh, our bargain—remember? You didn't forget after all."
"I did. I did," she cried. "I did forget it. That's the very sweetest thing about it."