The Pursuit Of The Piano
Hamilton Gaites sat breakfasting by the window of a restaurant looking out on Park Square, in Boston, at a table which he had chosen after rejecting one on the Boylston Street side of the place because it was too noisy, and another in the little open space, among evergreens in tubs, between the front and rear, because it was too chilly. The wind was east, but at his Park Square window it tempered the summer morning air without being a draught; and he poured out his coffee with a content in his circumstance and provision which he was apt to feel when he had taken all the possible pains, even though the result was not perfect. But now, he had real French bread, as good as he could have got in New York, and the coffee was clear and bright. A growth of crisp green watercress embowered a juicy steak, and in its shade, as it were, lay two long slices of bacon, not stupidly broiled to a crisp, but delicately pink, and exemplarily lean. Gaites had already had a cantaloupe, whose spicy fragrance lingered in the air and mingled with the robuster odors of the coffee, the steak, and the bacon.
He owned to being a fuss, but he contended that he was a cheerful fuss, and when things went reasonably well with him, he was so. They were going well with him now, not only in the small but in the large way. He was sitting there before that capital breakfast in less than half an hour after leaving the sleeping-car, where he had passed a very good night, and he was setting out on his vacation, after very successful work in the June term of court. He was in prime health; he had a good conscience in leaving no interests behind him that could suffer in his absence; and the smile that he bent upon the Italian waiter as he retired, after putting down the breakfast, had some elements of a benediction.
There was a good deal of Gaites's smile, when it was all on: he had a generous mouth, full of handsome teeth, very white and even, which all showed in his smile. His whole face took part in the smile, and it was a charming face, long and rather quaintly narrow, of an amiable aquilinity, and clean-shaven. His figure, tall and thin, comported well with his style of visage, and at a given moment, when he suddenly rose and leaned from the window, eagerly following something outside with his eye, he had an alert movement that was very pleasant.
The thing outside which had caught, and which now kept, his eye as long as he could see it, was a case in the shape of an upright piano, on the end of a long, heavy-laden truck, making its way with a slow, jolting progress among the carts, carriages, and street cars, out of the square round the corner toward Boylston Street. On the sloping front of the case was inscribed an address, which seemed to gaze at Gaites with the eyes of the girl whom it named and placed, and to whom in the young man's willing fancy it attributed a charming quality. Nothing, he felt, could be more suggestive, more expressive of something shy, something proud, something pure, something pastoral yet patrician, something unaffected and yet _chic_, in an unknown personality, than the legend:
Miss Phyllis Desmond,
Via S. B. & H. C. R. R.
Like most lawyers, he had a vein of romance, and this now opened in pleasing conjectures concerning the girl. He knew just where Lower Merritt was, and so well what it was like that a vision of its white paint against the dark green curtain of the wooded heights around it filled his sense as agreeably as so much white marble. There was the cottage of some summer people well above the village level, among pines and birches, and overlooking the foamiest rush of the Saco, to which he instantly destined the piano of Phyllis Desmond. He had never known that these people's name was Desmond, and he had certainly never supposed that they had a daughter called Phyllis; but he divined these facts in losing sight of the truck; and he imagined with as logical probability that one of the little girls whom he used to see playing on the hill-slope before the cottage had grown up into the young lady whose name the piano bore. There was quite time enough for this transformation; it was seven years since Gaites had run up into the White Mountains for a month's rest after his last term in the Harvard Law School, and before beginning work in the office of the law firm in New York where he had got a clerkship, and where he had now a junior partnership. The little girl was then just ten years old, and now, of course, the young lady was seventeen, or would be when the piano reached Lower Merritt, for it was clearly meant to arrive on her birthday; it was a birthday-present and a surprise. He had always liked the way those nice people let their children play about barefoot; it would be in character with them to do a fond, pretty thing like that; and Gaites smiled for pleasure in it, and then rather blushed in relating the brown legs of the little girl, as he remembered seeing them in her races over her father's lawn, to the dignified young lady she had now become.
He amused himself in mentally following the piano on its way to the Sea Board & Hill Country R. R. freight-depot, which he was quite able to do from a habit of Boston formed during his four years in the academic course and his three years in the law-school at Harvard. He knew that it would cross Boylston into Charles Street, and keep along that level to Cambridge; then it would turn into McLane Street, and again into Lynde, by this means avoiding the grades as much as possible, and arriving through Causeway Street at the long, low freight-depot of the S. B. & H. C., where it would be the first thing unloaded from the truck. It would stand indefinitely on the outer platform; and then, when the men in flat, narrow-peaked silk caps and grease-splotched overalls got round to it, with an air of as much personal indifference as if they were mere mechanical agencies, it would be pulled and pushed into the dimness of the interior, cool, and pleasantly smelling of pine, and hemp, and flour, and dried fruit, and coffee, and tar, and leather, and fish. There it would abide, indefinitely again, till in the same large impersonal way it was pulled and pushed out on the platform beside the track, where a freight-car marked for the Hill Country division of the road, with devices intelligible to the train-men, had been shunted down by a pony engine in obedience to mystical semaphoric gesticulations, from the brakeman risking his life for the purpose among the rails, addressed to the engineer keeping his hand on the pulse of the locomotive, and his head out of the cab window to see how near he could come to killing the brakeman without doing it.
Gaites witnessed the whole drama with an interest that held him suspended between the gulps and morsels of his breakfast, and at times quite arrested the processes of mastication and deglutition. That pretty girl's name on the slope of the piano-case continued to look at him from the end of the truck; it smiled at him from the outer platform of the freight-house; it entreated him with a charming trepidation from the dim interior; again it smiled on the inner platform; and then, from the safety of the car, where the case found itself ensconced among freight of a neat and agreeable character, the name had the effect of intrepidly blowing him a kiss as the train-man slid the car doors together and fastened them. He drew a long breath when the train had backed and bumped down to the car, and the couplers had clashed together, and the maniac, who had not been mashed in dropping the coupling-pin into its socket, scrambled out from the wheels, and frantically worked his arms to the potential homicide in the locomotive cab, and the train had jolted forward on the beginning of its run.
That was the last of the piano, and Gaites threw it off his mind, and finished his breakfast at his leisure. He was going to spend his vacation at Kent Harbor, where he knew some agreeable people, and where he knew that a young man had many chances of a good time, even if he were not the youngest kind of young man. He had spent two of his Harvard vacations there, and he knew this at first hand. He could not and did not expect to do so much two-ing on the rocks and up the river as he used; the zest of that sort of thing was past, rather; but he had brought his golf stockings with him, and a quiverful of the utensils of the game, in obedience to a lady who had said there were golf-links at Kent, and she knew a young lady who would teach him to play.
He was going to stop off at Burymouth, to see a friend, an old Harvard man, and a mighty good fellow, who had rather surprised people by giving up New York, and settling in the gentle old town on the Piscatamac. They accounted for it as well as they could by his having married a Burymouth girl; and since he had begun, most unexpectedly, to come forward in literature, such of his friends as had seen him there said it was just the place for him. Gaites had not yet seen him there, and he had a romantic curiosity, the survival of an intensified friendship of their Senior year, to do so. He got to thinking of this good fellow rather vividly, when he had cleared his mind of Miss Desmond's piano, and he did not see why he should not take an earlier train to Burymouth than he had intended to take; and so he had them call him a coupe from the restaurant, and he got into it as soon as he left the breakfast-table.
He gave the driver the authoritative address, "Sea Board Depot," and left him to take his own way, after resisting a rather silly impulse to bid him go through Charles Street.
The man drove up Beacon, and down Temple through Staniford, and naturally Gaites saw nothing of Miss Desmond's piano, which had come into his mind again in starting. He did not know the colonnaded structure, with its stately _porte-cochere_, where his driver proposed to leave him, instead of the formless brick box which he remembered as the Sea Board Depot, and he insisted upon that when the fellow got down to open the door.
"Ain't no Sibbod Dippo, now," the driver explained, contemptuously. "Guess Union Dippo'll do, though;" and Gaites, a little overcome with its splendor, found that it would. He faltered a moment in passing the conductor and porter at the end of the Pullman car on his train, and then decided that it would be ridiculous to take a seat in it for the short run to Burymouth. In the common coach he got a very good seat on the shady side, where he put down his hand-bag. Then he looked at his watch, and as it was still fifteen minutes before train-time, he indulged a fantastic impulse. He left the car and hurried back through the station and out through the electrics, hacks, herdics, carts, and string-teams of Causeway Street, and up the sidewalk of the street opening into it, as far as the S. B. & H. C. freight-depot. On the way he bet himself five dollars that Miss Desmond's piano would not be there, and lost; for at the moment he came up it was unloading from the end of the truck which he had seen carrying it past the window of his restaurant.
The fact amused him quite beyond the measure of anything intrinsically humorous in it, and he staid watching the exertions of the heated truckman and two silk-capped, sarcastic-faced freight-men, till the piano was well on the platform. He was so intent upon it that his interest seemed to communicate itself to a young girl coming from the other quarter, with a suburban, cloth-sided, crewel-initialed bag in her hand, as if she were going to a train. She paused in the stare she gave the piano-case, and then slowed her pace with a look over her shoulder after she got by. In this her eyes met his, and she blushed and hurried on; but not so soon that he had not time to see she had a thin face of a pathetic prettiness, gentle brown eyes with wistful brows, under ordinary brown hair. She was rather little, and was dressed with a sort of unaccented propriety, which was as far from distinction as it was from pretension.
When Gaites got back to his car, a few minutes before the train was to start, he found the seat where he had left his hand-bag and light overcoat more than half full of a bulky lady, who looked stupidly up at him, and did not move or attempt any excuse for crowding him from his place. He had to walk the whole length of the car before he came to a vacant seat. It was the last of the transverse seats, and at the moment he dropped into it, the girl who had watched the unloading of the piano with him passed him, and took the sidewise seat next the door.
She took it with a weary resignation which somehow made Gaites ashamed of the haste with which he had pushed forward to the only good place, and he felt as guilty of keeping her out of it as if he had known she was following him. He kept a remorseful eye upon her as she arranged her bag and umbrella about her, with some paper parcels which she must have had sent to her at the station. She breathed quickly, as if from final hurry, but somewhat also as if she were delicate; and tried to look as if she did not know he was watching her. She had taken off one of her gloves, and her hand, though little enough, showed an unexpected vigor with reference to her face, and had a curious air of education.
When the train pulled out of the station into the clearer light, she turned her face from him toward the forward window, and the corner of her mouth, which her half-averted profile gave him, had a kind of piteous droop which smote him to keener regret. Once it lifted in an upward curve, and a gay light came into the corner of her eye; then the mouth drooped again, and the light went out.
Gaites could bear it no longer; he rose and said, with a respectful bow: "Won't you take my seat? That seems such a very inconvenient place for you, with the door opening and shutting."
The girl turned her face promptly round and up, and answered, with a flush in her thin cheek, but no embarrassment in her tone, "No, I thank you. This will do quite well," and then she turned her face away as before.
He had not meant his politeness for an overture to her acquaintance, but he felt as justly snubbed as if he had; and he sank back into his seat in some disorder. He tried to hide his confusion behind the newspaper he opened between them; but from time to time he had a glimpse of her round the side of it, and he saw that the hand which clutched her bag all the while tightened upon it and then loosened nervously.
"Ah, I see what you mean," said Gaites, with a kind of finality, as his friend Birkwall walked him homeward through the loveliest of the lovely old Burymouth streets. Something equivalent had been in his mind and on his tongue at every dramatic instant of the afternoon; and, in fact, ever since he had arrived from the station at Birkwall's door, where Mrs. Birkwall met them and welcomed him. He had been sufficiently impressed with the aristocratic quiet of the vast square white old wooden house, standing behind a high white board fence, in two acres of gardened ground; but the fine hallway with its broad low stairway, the stately drawing-room with its carving, the library with its panelling and portraits, and the dining-room with its tall wainscoting, united to give him a sense of the pride of life in old Burymouth such as the raw splendors of the millionaire houses in New York had never imparted to him.
"They knew how to do it, they knew how to do it!" he exclaimed, meaning the people who had such houses built; and he said the same thing of the other Burymouth houses which Birkwall showed him, by grace of their owners, after the mid-day dinner, which Gaites kept calling luncheon.
"Be sure you get back in good time for _tea_," said Mrs. Birkwall for a parting charge to her husband; and she bade Gaites, "Remember that it _is_ tea, please; _not_ dinner;" and he was tempted to kiss his hand to her with as much courtly gallantry as he could; for, standing under the transom of the slender-pillared portal to watch them away, she looked most distinctly descended from ancestors, and not merely the daughter of a father and mother, as most women do. Gaites said as much to Birkwall, and when they got home Birkwall repeated it to his wife, without injuring Gaites with her. If he saw what Birkwall had meant in marrying her, and settling down to his literary life with her in the atmosphere of such a quiet place as Burymouth, when he might have chosen money and unrest in New York, she on her side saw what her husband meant in liking the shrewd, able fellow who had such a vein of gay romance in his practicality, and such an intelligent and respectful sympathy with her tradition and environment.
She sent and asked several of her friends to meet him at tea; and if in that New England disproportion of the sexes which at Burymouth is intensified almost to a pure gynocracy these friends were nearly all women, he found them even more agreeable than if they had been nearly all men. It seemed to him that he had never heard better talk than that of these sequestered ladies, who were so well bred and so well read, so humorous and so dignified, who loved to laugh and who loved to think. It was all like something in a pleasant book, and Gaites was not altogether to blame if it went to his head, and after the talk had been of Burymouth, in which he professed so acceptable an interest, and then of novels, of which he had read about as many as they, he confided to the whole table his experience with Miss Phyllis Desmond's piano. He managed the psychology of the little incident so well that he imparted the very quality he meant them to feel in it.
"How perfectly charming!" said one of the ladies. "I don't wonder you fell in love with the name. It's fit for a shepherdess of high degree."
"If _I_ were a man," said the girl across the table who was not less sweetly a girl because she would never see thirty-nine again, "I should simply drop everything and follow that piano to Phyllis Desmond's door."
"It's quite what I should like to do," Gaites responded, with a well-affected air of passionate regret. "But I'm promised at Kent Harbor--"
She did not wait for him to say more, but submitted, "Oh, well, if you're going to Kent _Harbor_, of course!" as if that would excuse and explain any sort of dereliction; and then the talk went on about Kent Harbor till Mrs. Birkwall asked, generally, as if it were part of the Kent Harbor inquiry, "Didn't I hear that the Ashwoods were going to their place at Upper Merritt, this year?"
Then there arose a dispute, which divided the company into nearly equal parties; as to whether the Ashwoods had got home from Europe yet. But it all ended in bringing the talk back to Phyllis Desmond's piano again, and in urging its pursuit upon Gaites, as something he owed to romance; at least he ought to do it for their sake, for now they should all be upon pins and needles till they knew who she was, and what she _could_ be doing at Lower Merritt, N. H.
At one time he had it on his tongue to say that there seemed to be something like infection in his interest in that piano, and he was going to speak of the young girl who seemed to share it, simply because she saw him staring at it, and who faltered so long with him before the freight-depot that she came near getting no seat in the train for Burymouth. But just at that moment the dispute about the Ashwoods renewed itself upon some fresh evidence which one of the ladies recollected and offered; and Gaites's chance passed. When it came again he had no longer the wish to seize it. A lingering soreness from his experience with that young girl made itself felt in his nether consciousness. He forbore the more easily because, mixed with this pain, was a certain insecurity as to her quality which he was afraid might impart itself to those patrician presences at the table. They would be nice, and they would be appreciative,--but would they feel that she was a lady, exactly, when he owned to the somewhat poverty-stricken simplicity of her dress in some details, more especially her thread gloves, which he could not consistently make kid? He was all the more bound to keep her from slight because he felt a little, a very little ashamed of her.
He woke next morning in a wide, low, square chamber to the singing of robins in the garden, from which at breakfast he had luscious strawberries, and heaped bowls of June roses. When he started for his train, he parted with Mrs. Birkwall as old friends as he was with her husband; and he completed her conquest by running back to her from the gate, and asking, with a great air of secrecy, but loud enough for Birkwall to hear, whether she thought she could find him another girl in Burymouth, with just such a house and garden, and exactly like herself in every way.
"Hundreds!" she shouted, and stood a graceful figure between the fluted pillars of the portal, waving her hand to them till they were out of sight behind the corner of the high board fence, over which the garden trees hung caressingly, and brushed Gaites's shoulder in a shy, fond farewell.
It had all been as nice as it could be, and he said so again and again to Birkwall, who _would_ go to the train with him, and who would _not_ let him carry his own hand-bag. The good fellow clung hospitably to it, after Gaites had rechecked his trunk for Kent Harbor, and insisted upon carrying it as they walked up and down the platform together at the station. It seemed that the train from Boston which the Kent Harbor train was to connect with was ten minutes late, and after some turns they prolonged their promenade northward as far as the freight-depot, Birkwall in the abstraction of a plot for a novel which he was seizing these last moments to outline to his friend, and Gaites with a secret shame for the hope which was springing in his breast.
On a side track stood a freight-car, from which the customary men in silk caps were pulling the freight, and standing it about loosely on the platform. The car was detached from the parent train, which had left it not only orphaned on this siding, but apparently disabled; for Gaites heard the men talking about not having cut it out a minute too soon. One of them called, in at the broad low door, to some one inside, "All out?" and a voice from far within responded, "Case here, yet; _I_ can't handle it alone."
The others went into the car, and then, with an interval for some heavy bumping and some strong language, they reappeared at the door with the case, which Gaites was by this time not surprised to find inscribed with the name and address of Miss Phyllis Desmond. He remained watching it, while the men got it on the platform, so wholly inattentive to Birkwall's plot that the most besotted young author could not have failed to feel his want of interest. Birkwall then turned his vision outward upon the object which engrossed his friend, and started with an "Oh, hello!" and slapped him on the back.
Gaites nodded in proud assent, and Birkwall went on: "I thought you were faking the name last night; but I didn't want to give you away. It was the real thing, wasn't it, after all."
"The real thing," said Gaites, with his most toothful smile, and he laughed for pleasure in his friend's astonishment.
"Well," Birkwall resumed, "she seems to be following _you_ up, old fellow. This will be great for Polly, and for Miss Seaward, who wanted you to follow _her_ up; and for all Burymouth, for that matter. Why, Gaites, you'll be the tea-table talk for a week; you'll be married to that girl before you know it. What is the use of flying in the face of Providence? Come! There's time enough to get a ticket, and have your check changed from Kent Harbor to Lower Merritt, and the Hill Country express will be along here at nine o'clock. You can't let that poor thing start off on her travels alone again!"
Gaites flushed in a joyful confusion, and put the joke by as well as he could. But he was beginning to feel it not altogether a joke; it had acquired an element of mystery, of fatality, which flattered while it awed him; and he could not be easy till he had asked one of the freight-handlers what had happened to the car. He got an answer--flung over the man's shoulder--which seemed willing enough, but was wholly unintelligible in the clang and clatter of a passenger-train which came pulling in from the southward.
"Here's the Hill Country express now!" said Birkwall. "You won't change your mind? Well, your Kent Harbor train backs down after this goes out. Don't worry about the piano. I'll find out what's happened to the car it was in, and I'll see that it's put into a good strong one, next time."
"Do! That's a good fellow!" said Gaites, and in repeated promises, demanded and given, to come again, they passed the time till the Hill Country train pulled out and the Kent Harbor train backed down.
Gaites was going to stay a week with a friend out on the Point; and after the first day he was so engrossed with the goings-on at Kent Harbor that he pretty well forgot about Burymouth, and the piano of Miss Phyllis Desmond lingered in his mind like the memory of a love one has outlived. He went to the golf links every morning in a red coat, and in plaid stockings which, if they did not show legs of all the desired fulness, attested a length of limb which was perhaps all the more remarkable for that reason. Then he came back to the beach and bathed; at half past one o'clock he dined at somebody's cottage, and afterwards sat smoking seaward in its glazed or canopied veranda till it was time to go to afternoon tea at somebody else's cottage, where he chatted about until he was carried off by his hostess to put on a black coat for seven or eight o'clock supper at the cottage of yet another lady.
There was a great deal more society than there had been in his old college-vacation days, when the Kent Harbor House reigned sole in a perhaps somewhat fabled despotism; but the society was of not less simple instincts, and the black coat which Gaites put on for supper was never of the evening-dress convention. Once when he had been out canoeing on the river very late, his hostess made him go "just as he was," and he was consoled on meeting their bachelor host to find that he had had the inspiration to wear a flannel shirt of much more outing type than Gaites himself had on.
The thing that he had to guard against was not to praise the river sunsets too much at any cottage on the Point; and in cottages on the river, not to say a great deal of the surf on the rocks. But it was easy to respect the amiable local susceptibilities, and Gaites got on so well that he told people he was never going away.
He had arrived at this extreme before he received the note from Mrs. Birkwall, which she made his prompt bread-and-butter letter the excuse of writing him. She wrote mainly to remind him of his promise to stay another day with her husband on his way home through Burymouth; and she alleged an additional claim upon him because of what she said she had made Birkwall do for him. She had made him go down to the freight-depot every day, and see what had become of Phyllis Desmond's piano; and she had not dared write before, because it had been most unaccountably delayed there for the three days that had now passed. Only that morning, however, she had gone down herself with Birkwall; and it showed what a woman could do when she took anything in hand. Without knowing of her approach except by telepathy, the railroad people had bestirred themselves, and she had seen them with her own eyes put the piano-case into a car, and had waited till the train had bumped and jolted off with it towards Mewers Junction. All the ladies of her supper party, she declared, had been keenly distressed at the delay of the piano in Burymouth, and she was now offering him the relief which she had shared already with them.
He laughed aloud in reading this letter at breakfast, and he could not do less than read it to his hostess, who said it was charming, and at once took a vivid interest in the affair of the piano. She accepted in its entirety his theory of its being a birthday-present for the young girl with that pretty name; and she professed to be in a quiver of anxiety at its retarded progress.
"And, by-the-way," she added, with the logic of her sex, "I'm just going to the station to see what's become of a trunk myself that I ordered expressed from Chicago a week ago. If you're not doing anything this morning--the tide isn't in till noon, and there'll be little or no bathing to look at before that--you'd better drive down with me. Or perhaps you're canoeing up the river with somebody?"
Gaites said he was not, and if he were he would plead a providential indisposition rather than miss driving with her to the station.
"Well, anyway," she said, tangentially, "I can get June Alber to go too, and you can take her canoeing afterwards."
But Miss Alber was already engaged for canoeing, and Gaites was obliged to drive off with his hostess alone. She said she did pity him, but she pitied him no longer than it took to get at the express agent. Then she began to pity herself, and much more energetically if not more sincerely, for it seemed that the agent had not been able to learn anything about her trunk, and was unwilling even to prophesy concerning it. Gaites left him to question at her hands, which struck him as combining all the searching effects of a Roentgen-ray examination and the earlier procedure with the rack; and he wandered off, in a habit which he seemed to have formed, toward the freight-house.
He amused himself thinking what he should do if he found Phyllis Desmond's piano there, but he was wholly unprepared to do anything when he actually found it standing on the platform, as if it had just been put out of the freight-car which was still on the siding at the door. He passed instantly from the mood of gay conjecture in which he was playing with the improbable notion of its presence to a violent indignation.
"Why, look here!" he almost shouted to a man in a silk cap and greased overalls who was contemplating the inscription on the slope of its cover, "what's that piano doing _here_?"
The man seemed to accept him as one having authority to make this demand, and responded mildly, "Well, that's just what I was thinking myself."
"That piano," Gaites went on with unabated violence, "started from Boston at the beginning of the week; and I happen to know that it's been lying two or three days at Burymouth, instead of going on to Lower Merritt, as it ought to have done at once. It ought to have been in Lower Merritt Wednesday afternoon at the latest, and here it is at Kent Harbor Saturday morning!"
The man in the silk cap scanned Gaites's figure warily, as if it might be that of some official whale in disguise, and answered in a tone of dreamy suggestion: "Must have got shifted into the wrong car at Mewers Junction, somehow. Or maybe they started it wrong from Burymouth."
Mrs. Maze was coming rapidly down the platform toward them, leaving the express agent to crawl flaccidly into his den at the end of the passenger-station, with the air of having had all his joints started.
"Just look at this, Mrs. Maze," said Gaites when she drew near enough to read the address on the piano-case. She did look at it; then she looked at Gaites's face, into which he had thrown a sort of stony calm; and then she looked back at the piano-case.
"No!" she exclaimed and questioned in one.
Gaites nodded confirmation.
"Then it won't be there in time for the poor thing's birthday?"
He nodded again.
Mrs. Maze was a woman who never measured her terms, perhaps because there was nothing large enough to measure them with, and perhaps because in their utmost expansion they were a tight fit for her emotions.
"Well, it's an abominable outrage!" she began. She added: "It's a burning shame! They'll never get over it in the world; and when it comes lagging along after everything's over, she won't care a pin for it! How did it happen?"
Gaites mutely referred her, with a shrug, to the man in the silk cap, and he again hazarded his dreamy conjecture.
"Well, it doesn't matter!" she said, with a bitterness that was a great comfort to Gaites. "What are you going to do about it?" she asked him.
"I don't know what _can_ be done about it," he answered, referring himself to the man in the silk cap.
The man said, "No freight out, now, till Monday."
Mrs. Maze burst forth again: "If I had the least confidence in the world in any human express company, I would send it by express and pay the expressage myself."
"Oh, I couldn't let you do that, Mrs. Maze," Gaites protested. "Besides, I don't suppose they'd allow us to take it out of the freight, here, unless we had the bill of lading."
"Well," cried Mrs. Maze, passionately, "I can't bear to think of that child's suspense. It's perfectly heart-sickening. Why shouldn't they telegraph? They ought to telegraph! If they let things go wandering round the earth at this rate, the least they can do is to telegraph and relieve people's minds. We'll go and make the station-master telegraph!"
But even when the station-master was found, and made to understand the case, and to feel its hardship, he had his scruples. "I don't think I've got any right to do that," he said.
"Of coarse I'll pay for the telegram," Mrs. Maze interpolated.
"It ain't that exactly," said the station-master. "It might look as if I was meddling myself. I rather not, Mrs. Maze."
She took fire. "Then _I'll_ meddle myself!" she blazed. "There's nothing to hinder my telegraphing, I suppose!"
"_I_ can't hinder you," the station-master admitted.
"Well, then!" She pulled a bunch of yellow telegraph blanks toward her, and consumed three of them in her comprehensive despatch:
Miss Phyllis Desmond,
Lower Merritt, N. H.
Piano left Boston Monday P. M. Broke down on way to
Burymouth, where delayed four days. Sent by mistake
to Kent Harbor from Mewers Junction. Forwarded to
Lower Merritt Monday.
"There! How will that do?" she asked Gaites, submitting the telegram to him.
"That seems to cover the ground," he said, not so wholly hiding the misgiving he began to feel but that she demanded,
"It explains everything, doesn't it?"
"Very well; sign it, then!"
"Certainly. She doesn't know me."
"She doesn't know me, either," said Gaites. He added: "And a man's name--"
"To be sure! Why didn't I think of that?" and she affixed a signature in which the baptismal name gave away her romantic and impulsive generation--Elaine W. Maze. "_Now_," she triumphed, as Gaites helped her into her trap--"_now_ I shall have a little peace of my life!"
Mrs. Maze had no great trouble in making Gaites stay over Sunday. The argument she used was, "No freight out till Monday, you know." The inducement was June Alber, whom she said she had already engaged to go canoeing with Gaites Sunday afternoon.
That afternoon was exquisite. The sky was cloudless, and of one blue with the river and the girl's eyes, as Gaites noted while she sat facing him from the bow of the canoe. But the day was of the treacherous serenity of a weather-breeder, and the next morning brought a storm of such violence that Mrs. Maze declared it would be a foolhardy risk of his life for Gaites to go; and again she enforced her logic with Miss Alber, whom she said she had asked to one-o'clock dinner, with a few other friends.
Gaites stayed, of course, but he atoned for his weakness by starting early Tuesday morning, so as to get the first Hill Country train from Boston at Burymouth. He had decided that to get in as much change of air as possible he had better go to Craybrooks for the rest of his vacation.
His course lay through Lower Merritt, and perhaps he would have time to run out from the train and ask the station-master (known to him from his former sojourn) who Miss Phyllis Desmond was. His mind was not so full of Miss June Alber but that he wished to know.
It was still raining heavily, and on the first cut beyond Porchester Junction his train was stopped by a flagman, sent back from a freight-train. There was a wash-out just ahead, and the way would be blocked for several hours yet, if not longer. The express backed down to Porchester, and there seemed no choice for Gaites, if he insisted upon going to Craybrooks, but to take the first train up the old Boston and Montreal line to Wells River and across by the Wing Road through Fabyans; and this was what he did, arriving very late, but quite in time for all he had to do at Craybrooks.
The next day the weather cleared up cold, after the storm, and the fat old ladies, who outnumber everybody but the thin young girls at summer hotels, made the landlord put the steam on in the corridors, and toasted themselves before the log fires on the spectacular hall hearth. Gaites walked all day, and at night he lounged by the lamp, trying to read, and wished himself at Kent Harbor. The blue eyes of June Alber made themselves one with the sky and the river again, and all three laughed at him for his folly in leaving the certain delight they embodied for the vague good of a whim fulfilled. Was this the change he had come to the mountains for? He could throw his hat into the clouds that hung so low in the defile where the hotel lurked, and that was something; but it was not so much to the purpose, now that he had it, as June Alber and the sky and the river, which he had no longer. As he drowsed by the fire in a break of the semicircle of old ladies before it, he suddenly ceased to think of June Alber and the Kent sky and river, and found himself as it were visually confronted with that pale, delicate girl in thread gloves; she was facing him from the bow of a canoe in the train at Boston, where he had first met her, and some one was saying, "Oh, she's a Desmond, through and through."
He woke to the sound of a quick snort, in which he suspected a terminal character when he glanced round the semicircle of old ladies and found them all staring at him. From the pain in his neck he knew that his head had been hanging forward on his breast, and, in the strong belief that he had been publicly disgracing himself, he left the place, and went out on the piazza till his shame should be forgotten. Of course, the sound of the name Desmond had been as much a part of his dream as the sight of that pale girl's face; but he felt, while he paced the veranda, the pull of a strong curiosity to make sure of the fact. From time to time he looked in through the window, without courage to return. At last, when the semicircle was reduced to the bulks of the two ladies who had sat nearest him, he went in, and took a place with a newspaper at the lamp just behind them.
They stopped their talk and recognized him with an exchange of consciousness. Then, as if compelled by an irresistible importance in their topic, they began again; that is, one of them began to talk again, and the other to listen, and Gaites from almost the first word joined the listener with all his might, though he diligently held up his paper between himself and the speaker and pretended to be reading.
"Yes," she said, "they must have had their summer home there nearly twenty years. Lower Merritt was one of the first places opened up in that part of the mountains, and I guess the Desmonds built the first cottage there."
The date given would make the young lady whom he remembered from her childhood romps on her father's lawn somewhat older than he imagined, but not too old for the purposes of his romance.
The speaker began to collect her needlework into the handkerchief on her lap as she went on, and he listened with an intensified abandon.
"I guess," she continued, "that they pass most of the year there. After he lost his money, he had to give up his house in town, and I believe they have no other home now. They did use to travel some, winters, but I guess they don't much any more; if they don't stay there the whole winter through, I don't believe they get much farther now than Portland, or Burymouth, at the furthest. It seems to me as if I heard that one of the girls was going to Boston last winter to take piano lessons at the Conservatory, so as to teach; but--"
She stopped with a definite air, and rolled her knitting up into her handkerchief. Gaites made a merit to himself of rising abruptly and closing his paper with a clash, as if he had been trying to read and had not been able for the talking near him. The ladies looked round conscience-stricken; when they saw who it was, they looked indignant.
In the necessity, which we all feel, of making practical excuses to ourselves for a foolish action, he pretended that he had been at Craybrooks long enough, and that now, since he had derived all the benefit to be got from the west-side air, it was best to begin his homestretch on the other slope of the hills. His real reason was that he wished to stop at Lower Merritt and experience whatever fortuities might happen to him from doing so. He wished, in other words, to see Phyllis Desmond, or, failing this, to find out whether her piano had reached her.
It had now a pathos for him which had been wanting earlier in his romance. It was no longer a gay surprise for a young girl's birthday; it was the sober means of living to a woman who must work for her living. But he found it not the less charming for that; he had even a more romantic interest in it, mingled with the sense of patronage, of protection, which is so agreeable to a successful man.
He began to long for some new occasion of promoting the arrival of the piano in Lower Merritt, and he was so far from regretting his former interventions that at the first junction where his train stopped he employed the time in exploring the freight-house in the vain hope of finding it there, and urging the road to greater speed in its delivery to Miss Desmond. He was now not at all ashamed of the stand he had taken in the matter at former opportunities, and he was not abashed when a man in a silk cap demanded, across the twilight of the freight-house, in accents of the semi-sarcasm appropriate in addressing a person apparently not minding his own business, "Lost something?"
"Yes, I have," answered Gaites with just effrontery. "I've lost an upright piano. I started with it from Boston ten days or a fortnight ago, and I've found it everywhere I've stopped, and sometimes where I didn't stop. How long, in the course of nature, ought an upright piano to take in getting to this point from Boston, anyway?"
The man obviously tasted the sarcasm in Gaites's tone, and dropped it from his own, but he was sulkier if more respectful than before in answering: "'D ought a come right through in a couple of days. 'D ought a been here a week ago."
"Why isn't it here now, then?"
"Might 'a' got off on some branch road, by mistake, and waited there till it was looked up. You see," the man continued, resting an elbow on the tall casing of a chest of drawers, and dropping to a more confidential level in his manner, "an upright piano ain't like a passenger. It don't kick if it's shunted off on the wrong line. As a gene'l rule, freight don't complain of the route it travels by, and it ain't in a hurry to arrive."
"Oh!" said Gaites, with a sympathetic sneer.
"But it ain't likely," said the man, who now pushed his hat far back on his head, in the interest of self-possession, "that it's gone wrong. With all these wash-outs and devilments, the last fo't-night, it might a' been travellin' straight and not got the'a, yet. What d'you say was the address?"
"Lower Merritt," said Gaites, beginning to feel a little uncomfortable.
"Name?" persisted the man.
"Miss Phyllis Desmond," Gaites answered, now feeling really silly, but unable to get away without answering.
"That ain't your name?" the man suggested, with reviving sarcasm.
"No, it isn't!" Gaites retorted, angrily, aware that he was giving himself away in fine shape.
"Oh, I see," the man mocked. "Friend o' the family. Well, I guess you'll find your piano at Lower Merritt, all right, in two-three weeks." He was now openly offensive, as with a sense of having Gaites in his power.
A locomotive-bell rang, and Gaites started toward the doorway. "Is that my train?"
The man openly laughed. "Guess it is, if you're goin' to Lower Merritt." As Gaites shot through the doorway toward his train, he added, in an insolent drawl, "Miss--Des--mond!"
Gaites was so furious when he got back to the smoking-room of the parlor-car that he was sorry for several miles that he had not turned back and kicked the man, even if it lost him his train. But this was only while he was under the impression that he was furious with the man. When he discovered that he was furious with himself, for having been all imaginable kinds of an ass, he perceived that he had done the wisest thing he could in leaving the man to himself, and taking up the line of his journey again. What remained mortifying was that he had bought his ticket and checked his bag to Lower Merritt, which he wished never to hear of again, much less see.
He rang for the porter and consulted him as to what could be done toward changing the check on his bag from Lower Merritt to Middlemount Junction; and as it appeared that this was quite feasible, since his ticket would have carried him two stations beyond the Junction, he had done it. He knew the hotel at Middlemount, and he decided to pass the night there, and the next day to go back to Kent Harbor and June Alber, and let Lower Merritt and Phyllis Desmond take care of themselves from that time forward.
While the driver of the Middlemount House barge was helping the station-master-and-baggage-man (they were one) put the arriving passengers' trunks into the wagon for the Middlemount House, Gaites paced up and down the long platform in the remnant of his excitement, and vowed himself to have nothing more to do with Miss Desmond's piano, even if it should turn up then and there and personally appeal to him for help. In this humor he was not prepared to have anything of the kind happen, and he stood aghast, in looking absently into a freight-car standing on the track, to read, "Miss Phyllis Desmond, Lower Merritt, N. H.," on the slope of the now familiar case just within the open doorway. It was as if the poor girl were personally there pleading for his help with the eyes whose tenderness he remembered.
The united station-master-and-baggage-man, who appeared also to be the freight agent, came lounging down the platform toward him. He was so exactly of the rustic railroad type that he confused Gaites with a doubt as to which functionary, of the many he now knew, this was.
"Go'n' to walk over to the hotel?" he asked.
"Yes," Gaites faltered, and the man abruptly turned, and made the gesture for starting a locomotive to the driver of the Middlemount stage.
"All right, Jim!" he shouted, and the stage drove off.
"What time can I get a train for Lower Merritt this afternoon?" asked Gaites.
"Four o'clock," said the man. "This freight goes out first;" and now Gaites noticed that up on a siding beyond the station an engine with a train of freight-cars was fretfully fizzing. The engineer put a silk-capped head out of the cab window and looked back at the station-master, who began to work his arms like a semaphore telegraph. Then the locomotive tooted, the bell rang, and the freight-train ran forward on the switch to the main track, and commenced backing down to where they stood. Evidently it was going to pick up the car with Phyllis Desmond's piano in it.
"When does this freight go out?" Gaites palpitated.
"'Bout ten minutes," said the station-master.
"Does it stop at Lower Merritt?"
"Leaves this cah the'a," said the man, as if surprised into the admission.
"Can I go on her?" Gaites pursued, breathlessly.
"Well, I guess you'll have to talk to this man about that," and the station-master indicated, with a nod of his head, the freight conductor, who was swinging himself down from the caboose, now come abreast of them on the track. A brakeman had also jumped down, and the train fastened on to the waiting car, under his manipulation, with a final cluck and jolt.
The conductor and station-master exchanged large oblong Manila-paper envelopes, and the station-master said, casually, "Here's a man wants to go to Lower Merritt with you, Bill."
The conductor looked amused and interested. "Eva travel in a caboose?"
"Well, I guess you can stand it fo' five miles, anyway."
He turned and left Gaites, who understood this for permission, and clambered into the car, where he found himself in a rude but far from comfortless interior. There was a sort of table or desk in the middle, with a heavy chair or two before it; round the side of the car were some leather-covered benches, suitable for the hard naps which seemed to be taken on them, if he could guess from the man in overalls asleep on one.
The conductor came in, after the train started, and seemed disposed to be sociable. He had apparently gathered from the station-master so much of Gaites's personal history as had accumulated since he left the express train at Middlemount.
"Thought you'd try a caboose for a little change from a pahla-cah," he suggested, humorously.
"Well, yes," Gaites partially admitted. "I did intend to stay over at Middlemount when I left the express there, but I changed my mind and decided to go on. It's very good of you to let me come with you."
"'Tain't but a little way to Lowa Merritt," the conductor explained, defensively. "Eva been the'a?"
"Oh, yes; I passed a week or so there once, after I left college. Are you acquainted there?"
"I'm _from_ the'a. Used to wo'k fo' the Desmonds--got that summa place up the side of the mountain--before I took to the ro-ad."
"Oh, yes! Have they still got it?"
"Yes. Or it's got _them_. Be glad to sell it, I guess, since the old man lost his money. But Lowa Merritt's kind o' gone down as a summa roso't. Tryin' ha'd to bring it up, though. Know the Desmonds?"
"No, not personally."
"Nice fo-aks," said the conductor, providing himself for conversational purposes with a splinter from the floor. He put it between his teeth and continued: "I took ca' thei' hosses, one while, as long's they _had_ any, before I went on the ro-ad. Old gentleman kep' up a show till he died; then the fam'ly found out that they hadn't much of anything but the place left. Girls had to do something, and one of 'em got a place in a school out West--smaht, _all_ of 'em; the second one kind o' runs the fahm; and the youngest, here, 's been fittin' for a music-teacha. Why, I've got a piano for her in this cah that we picked up at Middlemount, _now_. Been two wintas at the Conservatory in Boston. Got talent enough, they tell _me_. Undastand 't she means to go to Pohtland in the fall and try to get pupils, _the'a_."
"Not if _I_ can help it!" thought Gaites, with a swelling heart; and then he blushed for his folly.
Gaites found some notable changes in the hotel at Lower Merritt since he had last sojourned there. It no longer called itself a Hotel, but an Inn, and it had a brand-new old-fashioned swinging sign before its door; its front had been cut up into several gables, and shingled to the ground with shingles artificially antiquated, so that it looked much grayer than it naturally ought. Within it was equipped for electric lighting; and there was a low-browed aesthetic parlor, where, when Gaites arrived and passed to a belated dinner in the dining-room, an orchestra, consisting of a lady pianist and a lady violinist, was giving the closing piece of the afternoon concert. The dining-room was painted a self-righteous olive-green; it was thoroughly netted against the flies, which used to roost in myriads on the cut-paper around the tops of the pillars, and a college-student head waiter ushered Gaites through the gloom to his place with a warning and hushing hand which made him feel as if he were being shown to a pew during prayers.
He escaped as soon as possible from the refection which, from the soup to the ice-cream, had hardly grown lukewarm, and went out to walk by a way that he knew well, and which had for him now a romantically pathetic interest. It was, of course, the way past the Desmond cottage, which, when he came in sight of it round the shoulder of upland where it stood, was curiously strange, curiously familiar. It needed painting badly, and the grounds had a sadly neglected air. The naked legs of little girls no longer twinkled over the lawn, which was grown neglectedly up to low-bush blackberries.
Gaites hurried past with a lump in his throat, and returned by another road to the Inn, where his long ramble ended just as the dining-room doors were opened behind their nettings for supper. At this cheerfuler moment he found the head waiter much more conversible than at the hour of his retarded dinner, and Gaites made talk with him, as the young follow lingered beside his chair, with one eye on the door for the behoof of other guests.
Gaites said he had found great changes in Lower Merritt since he had been there some years before, and he artfully led the talk up to the Desmonds. The head waiter was rather vague about their past; but he was distinct enough about their present, and said the young ladies happened all to be at home. "I don't know," he added, "whether you noticed our lady orchestra when you came in to dinner to-day?"
"Yes, I did," said Gaites. "I was very much interested. I thought they played charmingly, and I was sorry that I got in only for the close of the last piece."
"Well," the head waiter consoled him, "you'll have a chance to hear them again to-night; they're going to play for the hop. I don't know," he added again, "whether you noticed the lady at the piano."
"I noticed that she had a pretty head, which she carried gracefully, but it was against the window, and I couldn't make out the face."
"That," said the head waiter, with pride either in the fact or for the effect it must produce, "was Miss Phyllis Desmond."
Gaites started as satisfactorily as could be wished. "Indeed?"
"Yes; she's engaged to play here the whole summer." The head waiter fumbled with the knife and fork at the place opposite, and blushed. "But you'll hear her to-night yourself," he ended incoherently, and hurried away, to show another guest to his, or rather her, place.
Gaites wondered why he felt suddenly angry; why he resented the head waiter's blush as an impertinence and a liberty. After all, the fellow was a student and probably a gentleman; and if he chose to help himself through college by taking that menial role during the summer, rather than come upon the charity of his friends or the hard-earned savings of a poor old father, what had any one to say against it? Gaites had nothing to say against it; and yet that blush, that embarrassment of a man who had pulled out his chair for him, in relation to such a girl as Miss Phyllis Desmond, incensed him so much that he could not enjoy his supper. He did not bow to the head waiter when he held the netting-door open for him to go out, and he felt the necessity of taking the evening air in another stroll to cool himself off.
Of course, if the poor girl was reduced to playing in the hotel orchestra for the money it would give her, she had come down to the level of the head waiter, and they must meet as equals. But the thought was no less intolerable for that, and Gaites set out with the notion of walking away from it. At the station, however, which was in friendly proximity to the Inn, his steps were stayed by the sound of girlish voices, rising like sweetly varied pipes from beyond the freight-depot. Their youth invited his own to look them up, and he followed round to the back of the depot, where he came upon a sight which had, perhaps from the waning light, a heightened charm. Against the curtain of low pines which had been gradually creeping back upon the depot ever since the woods were cut away to make room for it, four girls were posed in attitudes instinctively dramatic and vividly eager, while as many men were employed in getting what Gaites at once saw to be Miss Phyllis Desmond's piano into the wagon backed up to the platform of the depot. Their work was nearly accomplished, but at every moment of what still remained to be done the girls emitted little shrieks, laughs, and moans of intense interest, and fluttered in their light summer dresses against the background of the dark evergreens like anxious birds.
At last the piano was got into the middle of the wagon, the inclined planks withdrawn and loaded into it, and the tail-board snapped to. Three of the men stepped aside, and one of them jumped into the front of the wagon and gathered up the reins from the horses' backs. He called with mocking challenge to the group of girls, "Nobody goin' to git up here and keep this piano from tippin' out?"
A wild clamor rose from the girls, settling at last into staccato cries.
"You've got to _do_ it, Phyl!"
"Yes, Phyllis, you _must_ get in!"
"It's _your_ piano, Phyl. You've got to keep it from tipping out!"
"No, no! I won't! I can't! I'm not going to!" one voice answered to all, but apparently without a single reference to the event; for in the end the speaker gave her hand to the man in the wagon, and with many small laughs and squeaks was pulled up over the hub and tire of a front wheel, and then stood staying herself against the piano-case, with a final lamentation of "Oh, it's a shame! I'll never speak to any of you again! How perfectly mean! _Oh!_" The last exclamation signalized the start of the horses at a brisk mountain trot, which the driver presently sobered to a walk. The three remaining girls followed, mocking and cheering, and after them lounged the three remaining men, at a respectful distance, marking the social interval between them, which was to be bridged only in some such moment of supreme excitement as the present.
It was no question with Gaites whether he should bring up the end of the procession; he could not think of any consideration that would have stayed him. He scarcely troubled himself to keep at a fit remove from the rest; and as he followed in the deepening twilight he felt a sweet, unselfish gladness of heart that the poor girl whom he had seen so wan and sad in Boston should be the gay soul of this pretty triumph.
The wagon drove into the grounds of the Desmond cottage, and backed up to the edge of the veranda. Lights appeared, and voices came from within. One of the men, despatched to the barn for a hatchet, came flickering back with a lantern also; lamps brought out of the house were extinguished by the evening breeze (in spite of luminous hands held near the chimney to shelter them), amidst the joyful applause of all the girls and the laughter of the men. A sound of hammering rose, and then a sound of boards rending from the clutch of nails, and then a sound of pieces thrown loosely into a pile. There was a continual flutter of women's dresses and emotions, and this did not end even when the piano, disclosed from its casing and all its wraps, was pushed indoors, and placed against the parlor wall, where a flash of lamp-light revealed it to Gaites in final position.
He lingered still, in the shelter of some barberry-bushes at the cottage gate, and not till the last cry of gratitude had been answered by the unanimous disclaimer of the men rattling away in the wagon did he feel that his pursuit of the piano had ended.
"Can you tell me, madam," asked Gaites of an obviously approachable tabby next the chimney-corner, "which of the musicians is Miss Desmond?"
He had hurried back to the Inn, and got himself early into a dress suit that proved wholly inessential, and was down among the first at the hop. This function, it seemed, was going on in the parlor, which summed in itself the character of ball-room as well as drawing-room. The hop had now begun, and two young girl couples were doing what they could to rebuke the sparse youth of Lower Merritt Inn for their lack of eagerness in the evening's pleasure by dancing alone. Gaites did not even notice them, he was so intent upon the ladies of the orchestra, concerning whom he was beginning to have a troubled mind, not to say a dark misgiving.
"Oh," the approachable tabby answered, "it's the one at the piano. The violinist is Miss Axewright, of South Newton. They were at the Conservatory together in Boston, and they are such friends! Miss Desmond would never have played here--intends to take pupils in Portland in the winter--if Miss Axewright hadn't come," and the pleasant old tabby purred on, with a velvety pat here, and a delicate scratch there. But Gaites heard with one ear only; the other was more devotedly given to the orchestra, which also claimed both his eyes. While he learned, as with the mind of some one else, that the Desmonds had been very much opposed to Phyllis's playing at the Inn, but had consented partly with their poverty, because they needed everything they could rake and scrape together, and partly with their will, because Miss Axewright was such a nice girl, he was painfully adjusting his consciousness to the fact that the girl at the piano was not the girl whom he had seen at Boston and whom he had so rashly and romantically decided to be Miss Phyllis Desmond. The pianist was indeed Miss Desmond, but to no purpose, if the violinist was some one else; it availed as little that the violinist was the illusion that had lured him to Lower Merritt in pursuit of Miss Desmond's piano, if she were really Miss Axewright of South Newton.
What remained for him to do was to arrange for his departure by the first train in the morning; and he was subjectively accounting to the landlord for his abrupt change of mind after he had engaged his room for a week, while he was intent with all his upper faculties upon the graceful poses and movements of Miss Axewright. There was something so appealing in the pressure of her soft chin as it held the violin in place against her round, girlish throat that Gaites felt a lump in his own larger than his Adam's-apple would account for to the spectator; the delicately arched wrist of the hand that held the bow, and the rhythmical curve and flow of her arm in playing, were means of the spell which wove itself about him, and left him, as it were, bound hand and foot. It was in this helpless condition that he rose at the urgence of a friendly young fellow who had chosen himself master of ceremonies, and took part in the dancing; and at the end of the first half of the programme, while the other dancers streamed out on the verandas and thronged the stairways, he was aware of dangling his chains as he lounged toward the ladies of the orchestra. The volunteer master of ceremonies had half shut himself across the piano in his eager talk with Miss Desmond, and he readily relinquished Miss Axewright to Gaites, who willingly devoted himself to her, after Miss Desmond had risen in acknowledgment of his bow. He had then perceived that she was not nearly so tall as she had seemed when seated; and a woman who sat tall and stood low was as much his aversion as if his own abnormally long legs did not render him guilty of the opposite offence.
Miss Desmond must have had other qualities and characteristics, but in his absorption with Miss Axewright's he did not notice them. He saw again the pretty, pathetic face, the gentle brown eyes, the ordinary brown hair, the sentient hands, the slight, graceful figure, the whole undistinguished, unpretentious presence, which had taken his fancy at Boston, and which he now perceived had kept it, under whatever erring impressions, ever since.
"I think we have met before, Miss Axewright," he said boldly, and he had the pleasure of seeing her pensive little visage light up with a responsive humor.
"I think we have," she replied; and Miss Desmond, whose habitual state seemed to be intense inattention to whatever directly addressed itself to her, cut in with the cry:
"You have met _before_!"
"Yes. Two weeks ago, in Boston," said Gaites. "Miss Axewright and I stopped at the S. B. & H. C. freight-depot to see that your piano started off all right."
He explained himself further, and, "Well, I don't see what you did to it," Miss Desmond pouted. "It just got here this afternoon."
"Probably they 'throwed a spell' on it, as the country people say," suggested the master of ceremonies. "But all's well that end's well. The great thing is to have your piano, Miss Phyllis. I'm coming up to-morrow morning to see if it's got here in good condition."
"That's _some_ compensation," said the girl ironically; and she added, with the kind of repellent lure with which women know how to leave men the responsibility of any reciprocal approach, "I don't know whether it won't need tuning first."
"Well, I'm a piano-tunist myself," the young fellow retorted, and their banter took a course that left Miss Axewright and Gaites to themselves. The dancers began to stray in again from the stairways and verandas.
"Dear me!" said Miss Desmond, "it's time already;" and as she dropped upon the piano-stool she called to Miss Axewright with an authority of tone which Gaites thought augured well for her success as a teacher, "Millicent!"
The next morning when Gaites came down to breakfast he had a question which solved itself contrary to his preference as he entered the dining-room. He was so early that the head waiter had to jump from his own unfinished meal, and run to pull out his chair; and Gaites saw that he left at his table the landlord's family, the clerk, the housekeeper, and Miss Axewright. It appeared that she was not only staying in the hotel, but was there on terms which indeed held her above the servants, but separated her from the guests.
He hardly knew how to dissemble the feeling of humiliation mixed with indignation which flashed up in him, and which, he was afterwards afraid, must have made him seem rather curt in his response to the head waiter's civilities. Miss Axewright left the dining-room first, and he hurried out to look her up as soon as he had despatched the coffee and steak which formed his breakfast, with a wholly unreasoned impulse to offer her some sort of reparation for the slight the conditions put upon her. He found her sitting on the veranda beside the friendly tabby of his last night's acquaintance, and far, apparently, from feeling the need of reparation through him. She was very nice, though, and after chatting a little while she rose, and excused herself to the tabby, with a politeness that included Gaites, upon the ground of a promise to Miss Desmond that she would come up, the first thing after breakfast, and see how the piano was getting along.
When she reappeared, in her hat, at the front of the Inn, Gaites happened to be there, and he asked her if he might walk with her and make his inquiries too about the piano, in which, he urged, they were mutually interested. He had a notion to tell her all about his pursuit of Miss Desmond's piano, as something that would peculiarly interest Miss Desmond's friend; but though she admitted the force of his reasoning as to their common concern in the fate of the piano, and had allowed him to go with her to rejoice over its installation, some subtle instinct kept him from the confidence he had intended, and they walked on in talk (very agreeable talk, Gaites found it) which left the subject of the piano altogether intact.
This was fortunate for Miss Desmond, who wished to talk of nothing else. The piano had arrived in perfect condition. "But I don't know where the poor thing _hasn't_ been, on the way," said the girl. "It left Boston fully two weeks ago, and it seems to have been wandering round to the ends of the earth ever since. The first of last week, I heard from it at Kent Harbor, of all places! I got a long despatch from there, from some unknown female, telling me it had broken down on the way to Burymouth, and been sent by mistake to Kent Harbor from Mewers Junction. Have you ever been at Kent Harbor, Mr. Gaites?"
"Oh, yes," said Gaites. This was the moment to come out with the history of his relation to the piano; but he waited.
"And can you tell me whether they happen to have a female freight agent there?"
"Not to my knowledge," said Gaites, with a mystical smile.
"Then _do_ you know anybody there by the name of Elaine W. Maze?"
"Mrs. Maze? Yes, I know Mrs. Maze. She has a cottage, there."
"And can you tell me _why_ Mrs. Maze should be telegraphing me about my piano?"
There was a note of resentment in Miss Desmond's voice, and it silenced the laughing explanation which Gaites had almost upon his tongue. He fell very grave in answering, "I can't, indeed, Miss Desmond."
"Perhaps she found out that it had been a long time on the way, and did it out of pure good-nature, to relieve your anxiety."
This was what Miss Axewright conjectured, but it seemed to confirm Miss Desmond's worst suspicions.
"That is what I should like to be _sure_ of," she said.
Gaites thought of all his own anxieties and interferences in behalf of the piano of this ungrateful girl, and in her presence he resolved that his lips should be forever sealed concerning them. She never would take them in the right way. But he experimented with one suggestion. "Perhaps she was taken with the beautiful name on the piano-case, and couldn't help telegraphing just for the pleasure of writing it."
"Beautiful?" cried Miss Desmond. "It was my grandmother's name; and I wonder they didn't call me for my great-grandmother, Daphne, and be done with it."
The young man who had chosen himself master of ceremonies at the hop the night before now proposed from the social background where he had hitherto kept himself, "_I_ will call you Daphne."
"_You_ will call me Miss Desmond, if you please, Mr. Ellett." The owner of the name had been facing her visitors from the piano-stool with her back to the instrument. She now wheeled upon the stool, and struck some chords. "I wish you'd thought to bring your fiddle, Millicent. I should like to try this piece." The piece lay on the music-rest before her.
"I will go and get it for her," said the ex-master of ceremonies.
"Do," said Miss Desmond.
"No, no," Gaites protested. "I brought Miss Axewright, and I have the first claim to bring her fiddle."
"I'm afraid you couldn't either of you find it," Miss Axewright began.
"We'll both try," said the ex-master of ceremonies. "Where do you think it is?"
"Well, it's in the case on the piano."
"That doesn't sound very intricate," said Gaites, and they all laughed.
As soon as the two men were out of the house, the ex-master of ceremonies confided: "That name is a very tender spot with Miss Desmond. She's always hated it since I knew her, and I can't remember when I _didn't_ know her."
"Yes, I could see that--too late," said Gaites. "But what I can't understand is, Miss Axewright seemed to hate it, too."
Mr. Ellett appeared greatly edified. "Did _you_ notice that?"
"I think I did."
"Well, now I'll tell you just what I think. There aren't any two girls in the world that like each other better than those two. But that shows just how it is. Girls are terribly jealous, the best of them. There isn't a girl living that really likes to have another girl praised by a man, or anything about her, I don't care who the man is. It's a fact, whether you believe it or not, or whether you respect it. I don't respect it myself. It's narrow-minded. I don't deny it: they _are_ narrow-minded. All the same, we can't _help_ ourselves. At least, _I_ can't."
Mr. Ellett broke into a laugh of exhaustive intelligence and clapped Gaites on the back.
Gaites, if he did not wholly accept Ellett's philosophy of the female nature, acted in the light it cast upon the present situation. From that time till the end of his stay at Lower Merritt, which proved to be coeval with the close of the Inn for the season, and with the retirement of the orchestra from duty, he said nothing more of Miss Phyllis Desmond's beautiful name. He went further, and altogether silenced himself concerning his pursuit of her piano; he even sought occasions of being silent concerning her piano in every way, or so it seemed to him, in his anxious avoidance of the topic. In all this matter he was governed a good deal by the advice of Mr. Ellett, to whom he had confessed his pursuit of Miss Desmond's piano in all its particulars, and who showed a highly humorous appreciation of the facts. He was a sort of second (he preferred to say second-hand) cousin of Miss Desmond, and, so far as he could make out, had been born engaged to her; and he showed an intuition in the gingerly handling of her rather uncertain temper which augured well for his future happiness. His future happiness seemed to be otherwise taken care of, for though he was a young man of no particular prospects, and no profession whatever, he had a generous willingness to liberate his affianced to an artistic career; or, at least, there was no talk of her giving up her scheme of teaching the piano-forte because she was engaged to be married, he was exactly fitted to become the husband of a wage-earning wife, and was so far from being offensive in this quality that everybody (including Miss Desmond, rather fitfully) liked him; and he was universally known as Charley Ellett.
After he had quite converted Gaites to his theory of silence concerning his outlived romance, he liked to indulge himself, when he got Gaites alone with the young ladies, in speculations as to the wanderings of Miss Desmond's piano. He could always get a rise out of Miss Desmond by referring to the impertinent person who had telegraphed her about it from Kent Harbor, and he could put Gaites into a quiver of anxiety by asking him whether he had heard Mrs. Maze speak of the piano when he was at Kent Harbor, or whether he had happened to see anything of it at any of the junctions on his way to Lower Merritt. To these questions Gaites felt himself obliged to respond with lies point-blank, though there were times when he was tempted to come out with the truth, Miss Axewright seemed so amiably indifferent, or so sympathetically interested, when Ellett was airing his conjectures or pushing his investigations.
Still Gaites clung to the refuge of his lies, and upon the whole it served him well, or at least enabled him to temporize in safety, while he was making the progress in Miss Axewright's affections which, if he had not been her lover, he never would have imagined difficult. They went every day, between the afternoon and evening concerts, to walk in the Cloister, a colonnade of pines not far from the Inn, which differed from some other cloisters in being so much devoted to love-making. She was in love with him, as he was with her; but in her proud maiden soul she did not dream of bringing him to the confession she longed for. This came the afternoon of the last day they walked in the Cloister, when it seemed as if they might go on walking there forever, and never emerge from their fond, delicious, tremulous, trusting doubt of each other.
She cried upon his shoulder, with her arms round his neck, and owned that she had loved him from the first moment she had seen him in front of the S. B. & H. C. freight-depot in Boston; and Gaites tried to make his passion antedate this moment. To do so, he had to fall back upon the notion of pre-existence, but she gladly admitted his hypothesis.
The next morning brought another mood, a mood of sweet defiance, in which she was still more enrapturing. By this time the engagement was known to their two friends, and Miss Desmond came to the cars with Charley Ellett to see her off. As Gaites was going to Boston on the same train, they made it the occasion of seeing him off, too. Millicent openly declared that they two were going together, that in fact she was taking him home to show him to her family in South Newton and see whether they liked him.
Ellett put this aspect of the affair aside. "Well, then," he said, "if you're going to be in Boston together, I think you ought to see the S. B. & H. C. traffic-manager, and find out all about what kept Phyl's piano so long on the road. _I_ think they owe her an explanation, and Gaites is a lawyer, and he's just the man to get it, with damages."
Gaites saw in Ellett's impudent, amusing face that he divined Millicent's continued ignorance of his romance, and was bent on mischief. But the girl paid no heed to his talk, and Gaites could not help laughing. He liked the fellow; he even liked Miss Desmond, who was so much softened by the occasion that she had all the thorny allure of a ripened barberry in his fancy. They both hung about the seat, where he stood ready to take his place beside Millicent, till the conductor shouted, "All aboard!" Then they ran out, and waved to the lovers through the window till the car started.
When they could be seen no longer, Millicent let Gaites arrange their hand-baggage together on the seat in front of them. It was a warm day, and she said she did believe she would take her hat off; and she gave it to him, odorous of her pretty hair, to put in the rack overhead. After he had done this, and sat down definitively, she shrank unconsciously closer to him, knitting her fingers in those of his hand on the seat between them.
"Now," she said, "tell me all about yourself."
"Yes. About Phyllis Desmond's piano, and why you were so interested in it."