BY ARTHUR STANWOOD PIER
SITTING in the loggia, Mrs. Averill heard the whistle of the train which was bringing her husband home from his day's work in the city. She put down her book with a sigh of relief; a few minutes more and she would be able to communicate to him the perplexity and doubt which had been distressing her. So eager was she to unburden her mind that, although her husband could not possibly arrive for at least five minutes, she rose and stood looking down the avenue expectantly.
Then, as if she had bethought herself of something almost forgotten, she stepped into the pergola, which led from the loggia to the garden. It was overrun with climbing red roses; she lifted the blossoms of several before she found one perfect enough for her purpose. With the flower in her hand she returned to the loggia and waited.
Her kind eyes were troubled; an unwonted frown had established itself between them, and her lips were pursed thoughtfully. She was a pretty woman still, though there was more of gray than brown in her hair and none of the warm tint of youth in her face.
Gazing down the empty avenue, she was gazing also toward the sea. The house was on the summit of a knoll, a little way inland; it commanded an ocean vista which embraced a rocky island, whereon three twisted and torn-looking oaks had reared themselves. The sea was now palpitating quietly under a soft southwestern breeze, which came up the knoll, purring inquisitively among the pines. Here and there in the groves surrounding the knoll were to be seen gabled roofs or white plaster fronts of houses in prosperous retirement. Mrs. Averill's eyes roved over them all, out to sea and back to the avenue again; and she twirled the rose in her fingers nervously.
Two horses in shining harness broke round the bend and came trotting up the slope. As the victoria drew near, the portly man on the back seat waved a paper parcel at Mrs. Averill; she smiled and showed him her rose. He had merry blue eyes, a clean-shaven, rubicund face, a shrewd and genial mouth. He stepped from his carriage and came toward her, waving his paper parcel and exclaiming: "A prize, Mary! A prize!" Then he took off his hat, rubbed his face hard with his handkerchief, and gave his wife, who had been observing him humorously, a substantial kiss. She requited him for it by putting the rose in his buttonhole.
"And now sit down till I show you my prize," he said, eagerly.
There was no use in trying to unburden her mind to him until after he had unburdened his to her. She had learned that long ago. So she drew up a chair and watched him while he slipped the string over the corners of the package. Paper followed string to the floor; a thin, flat book was revealed, with a paper label on the back.
"Endymion!" cried Mr. Averill.
"The first edition, Mary! And look inside it, will you? Now, won't old Max turn green with envy!"
She took the book and opened it. "Why, the leaves aren't cut!" she said.
"Exactly! It's a treasure—perhaps the only one of its kind in existence."
"But I've heard Max speak of his first edition of Endymion as uncut."
"Uncut—yes. That means simply with its pages not trimmed—not smoothed off, you understand. But the beauty of this is that its leaves have never even been opened!"
"Does that make it much more valuable?"
"How much more?" She looked at him with quizzical eyes.
"Well," he said, slowly, "Max paid three hundred dollars for his copy; and this was a bargain at five hundred and ten."
"My goodness! This copy has appreciated two hundred and ten dollars in value because nobody was ever interested enough in it to cut its pages!"
"To open its pages, Mary," her husband corrected her.
"I shall never master the lingo of the collector. How did you happen to secure this copy?"
"Max was so irritating with his brag about his Endymmion that I told Warnsley to try to pick up a copy for me. My collection of nineteenth-century poets has always been better than Max's—more complete. Warnsley went on a still-hunt for several months. This copy came to light in the auction sale of the library of a Devonshire country house. It had been resting on the top shelf probably ever since its purchase in 1818. I dare say the purchaser read the scurrilous review of it in Blackwood's—the one that told Keats to go back to his gallipots—and chucked it aside in disgust; and none of the subsequent inhabitants of the house had a taste for poetry. Anyway, Warnsley's agent was at the auction and bid it in over half a dozen others. And now it's come to me." He fingered it with pride.
"Well, as I have said before, it's an incomprehensible mania," observed Mrs. Averill, "as well as frightfully expensive."
But her husband was too absorbed with a delighted thought to defend himself. He was chuckling quietly.
"Where's Max, Mary?"
Mrs. Averill's lips primmed. "He and Helen went to walk some time ago."
"I'm going to put this book on the table in the sitting-room where Max can't help seeing it; I'll let him find it for himself. And when he picks it up and opens it!—" Averill rubbed his leg and chuckled. "It will be as good as a play, to watch his face and hear him try to get away with it. I'll put it on the table now." He disappeared through the French window.
"Roderick!" Mrs. Averill stepped to the window. "When you have placed Endymion in exactly the right spot, I want to talk with you."
Her husband returned, seated himself, and relighted his cigar. "What's up?" he asked.
"It's about Max. I suppose I shouldn't have invited him here, for I suspected it before he came."
"Good heavens, what has Max done?"
"Has it never crossed your mind that he might be in love with your daughter?"
"Max!" Roderick Averill turned and looked at her incredulously. "How preposterous! Why, he's my age—the most settled, comfortable old bachelor I know—my class in college—Max for a son-in-law!"
"If that strikes you as absurd, think how I am affected by the prospect."
Averill gave her a humorous glance. "Well, yes. Tell me all about it, Mary."
"Of course when Helen came out, two years ago, she seemed to Max a little girl, just as she had always been; and he was kind to her, like an uncle, for—for—"
"For your sake; yes."
"When he gave dinners for her and looked out for her at parties and played about with her, I didn't think anything of it. I encouraged it all I could; I was grateful to Max; I still am."
"When did you first begin to suspect it was anything more than friendly interest?"
"This last winter. Have you—did you ever hear people say that Helen looks as I did at her age?"
"I've noticed it myself. It's one reason that I'm partial to Helen."
"Thank you, my dear. And you've heard our contemporaries comment on the resemblance?"
"Well— Something flashed upon me one day when I saw him looking at Helen. Since then I've watched him closely—I've watched him when he wasn't aware. Roderick"—a soft flush colored Mrs. Averill's pale cheeks—"don't you suppose a woman knows when a man who has once had love in his eyes for her shows it again for another—for her daughter?"
Averill stirred uneasily. "You—you don't seem to have tried to check it, if you noticed it," he protested.
"Should I have tried—would you have had me try? If Max really loves her—we know Max!"
"The best fellow in the world. If only he were about twenty years younger."
"But he's young really—in spirit."
"What do you think is Helen's attitude?"
"The child hasn't had a suspicion of his intentions."
"Until this afternoon. I dare say that she has been enlightened by this time."
"Why do you think that?"
"I heard him yesterday making this engagement to walk with her; I could see it was important to him. In some ways poor Max was always so ingenuous—so transparent!"
"Yet you think Helen didn't suspect any such serious purpose?"
"Oh, I'm sure she didn't."
"Then we needn't fear that she'll give him any hope,"
"What a cold way of putting it, Roderick!"
"But you did fear just that, didn't you?"
Mrs. Averill evaded an answer.
"I'm not at all sure that you're right. She'll undoubtedly be startled—but she can't help being pleased. And Max has always been so good to her—and he is attractive and clever and he doesn't look old and he can be so appealing. Roderick, it might perfectly well happen, even though until now it has never crossed her thoughts."
"I'm very much in the dark about my daughter," said Averill. "What other men are there?"
"I imagine that Dick Redfield thinks about her a good deal, for one. He has invited himself over for dinner to-night."
"Dick Redfield and Max as rival suitors—how grotesque! Dick Redfield—do they think of marrying at that age?"
"He graduates from the law school next year."
"Max would certainly be much more comfortable to have about the house. That Redfield boy always seemed to me a fresh, assertive youth—"
"He'll be successful."
"Max has been successful, too—and without ever pushing himself. He's too diffident, Max is."
"That's part of his charm. It's partly because of that that he may be dangerous."
"You're wrong there. The man who's very diffident wins the liking of all women—and hardly ever the love of one."
"But if Max should be able this time! I did feel he'd be a good husband—if Helen loved him! I did feel that if he could be made happy, I'd be glad! But this afternoon, when I felt that the crisis for Helen was actually at hand, a sudden panic seized me; I don't know— If he should be so—so eloquent, and convince her—she's impressionable, you know—he might wake her suddenly, kindle her all at once—and then if she realized too late—found herself tied to one with whom she couldn't grow old—found that the youth in her was crying out to the youth in some one else—oh, what ought I to have done, Roderick?"
"Left it to Helen—just as you have done," he answered.
She gave a sigh of relief. "I suppose I shall be disappointed, whatever she does!"
She rested her chin on one hand disconsolately; with the other she caressed her husband's sturdy paw. He sat with his cigar between his teeth, a pucker between his eyes, gazing down the long avenue.
"They're coming," he said at last.
For a man of his years, who had argued so many cases before the Supreme Court, to hesitate and be silent with a twittering heart before a young girl was, Max Duval assured himself, unworthy. He was aware that he had appropriated one of Helen's golden afternoons, when she might have been playing tennis in a tennis tournament or sailing in a yacht race; he reflected with whimsical pessimism that the least he could do was to reward her with the excitement of a proposal. But they had strolled on and on, and he had found it impossible to make a beginning; this constant motion, however leisurely and tranquil, was not conducive to such elemental speech—speech which was hardly to be entered upon until the universe itself had settled to a favoring stillness. So for some time past Duval had been casting an anxious eye in search of a spot sufficiently withdrawn, peaceful, agreeable, where while they rested the fountain of his thoughts might flow.
Meanwhile those whom they passed had thought them a very pretty sight—a father and daughter strolling together so harmoniously, laughing so gayly, talking so eagerly. People wondered who the gentleman of such distinguished appearance might be—with the fresh color in his face, the gray mustache, the smooth gray hair; with blue eyes that twinkled down at the girl by his side and a smile of such humorous affection. He was tall and straight and most correctly dressed—a gentleman obviously equal to any social emergency. And no one, and surely least of all the girl by his side, would have suspected his twittering heart.
She was a sun-browned young woman in a white duck suit; from under a straw hat with a broad brim and a bow of black velvet ribbon gleamed a pair of dark and lively eyes. She chatted with briskness and decision; she was an imperious young person; she broke off every now and then to summon the erratic Irish terrier, who would go nosing off through brambles and digging under stone walls. "Naughty Bobby!" she would cry. "To heel, sir! To heel!" So he would follow for a little way behind, bumping now and then against Duval's legs, until some taking scent lured him again from his obedience.
Beyond a brook, a forest path led them into a grove of tall pines, and under one of these trees they sat down.
"Now what's become of Bobby?" demanded Helen. "Bobby! Bobby!"
There was no response.
"Oh, he's not lost," Duval assured her. "He'll turn up."
"Yes, I suppose he will. Still, he's a naughty dog. Have you brought a nice little first edition of some poet to read to me from, Mr. Duval?"
He admitted that he had not. "I had a mild hope that my company would be sufficient."
"Oh, of course. But the last time I was in those woods, the young man pulled a book of poetry out of his pocket and began to read to me; that was why I thought of it." The agreeable memory produced a smile. "He was really awfully fresh; it was quite funny."
"How was that?" Duval looked at her with comfortable pleasure: her face dimpled and twinkled delightfully when she was amused.
"Oh, we'd been walking for quite a while, and at last he suggested that we sit down—as you did just now. While we had been walking, he had proposed to me—that's a horrid expression, but it does well enough for him. It was about the tenth time in two weeks that he had done it; he had got so that he could propose just as well walking as sitting down." She indulged in a humorous chuckle. Duval studied her with an impassive face and decided that it was a chance shot; she was quite unconscious. "About half the time, I guess, he didn't mean it, and about half the time he did. So we sat down; and pretty soon he heaved a sigh and pulled a book out of his pocket. 'I will read you Endymion.' he said, and he read the first line—‘"A thing of beauty is a joy forever."’ Then he stopped and looked at me—one of those languishing looks."
"I can imagine."
"It got on my nerves at last, so I told him to continue with his reading. But without moving his eyes he repeated: ‘"A thing of beauty is a joy forever." How true! How true!' So then I just turned and let him have my back."
"An entirely proper retort."
"I sat that way for quite a while, and he didn't speak, and of course I wasn't going to, and it got to be awfully dull. At last I just glanced round—to see what he was doing. And he was lying flat on his back, with his hat over his eyes, pretending to be asleep."
"Hum!" said Duval, disapprovingly. "What did you do then?"
"I got up and walked away. I thought pretty soon he'd come after me. But I walked until he was out of sight, and he didn't come—although I waited. Then I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to walk home all by myself. So I went back to where I could see him and sauntered round, pretending to be interested in plant life and fungi, and still he never stirred. And then I crept up near him very softly and sat down just where I had been before—but with my back to him. I thought that when he looked up, that would be sufficiently dignified. But he didn't stir, and it got to be awfully dull. I thought if I could get the book he'd been reading, I could amuse myself; so I looked round. The end of it was just sticking out of his pocket. So I put out my hand and began to pull it ever so gently, and all of a sudden his hand made a grab and caught my wrist. 'Who's picking my pocket?' he said, in what was meant to be a sleepy voice. Then he pushed his hat off his face and looked at me. 'Why, I must have fallen asleep while you were talking,' he said. 'You couldn't have been very interesting.' I just said, 'Oh, how mean you are!' and tried to pull my wrist away. But he wouldn't let it go, and while he held it he proposed to me again."
"You know, I rather liked it."
"That I cannot understand."
"Oh yes. I suppose, if he keeps it up long enough, I'll say yes to him some time."
She looked off through the aisles of trees, a smile of tender reminiscence on her lips, a wistful sweetness in her eyes. Duval gazed at her for a moment with an expression which she never saw; in another moment he had corrected it; Heaven forbid now that he should ever betray to her one of those languishing looks!
"The methods of young men in wooing must be rather different in these days from what they were in my time," he observed.
"Haven't there always been all kinds? Petruchio and Benedick, as well as Romeo and Orlando, weren't born yesterday."
"True enough. Perhaps I was thinking of you as more like Juliet than Katherine."
"Oh, I hope not! You see, I often give him as good as he sends. And then he's always so good-natured about it; he has quite a sense of humor."
Duval acquiesced moodily in the possibility of his possessing that. She illustrated for him.
"To-day he wanted me to sail with him in the race. He telephoned over, quite commandingly, and told me to be on hand at two o'clock. So I said I thought I would take a walk instead—with some one who didn't fall asleep and who had a wider range of topics for conversation. Don't you think that was one on him?"
"And I suppose I should feel complimented. What answer did he make?"
"He wanted to know who it was, and I wouldn't tell him. He guessed three or four names, and when I said no each time, he said at last: 'Oh, well, I guess it's safe enough to let you go. I'm rather glad to have you out of the way, anyhow; Molly Roberts is much better than you at handling a boat. I asked you first, because I supposed you'd feel hurt if I didn't.' And then he told me to invite him over for dinner to-night."
"And did you invite him?"
"Why, yes.—Oh!" A shocked expression came into her eyes. "Now I've done it! Now you'll know who he is! And the things I've said to you!" Her cheeks grew crimson.
Duval laughed, not very merrily.
"My dear, you can trust me, can't you, not to betray your confidence?"
"Oh yes—but—but I've given you such a wrong impression of Dick! He isn't altogether the sort of person that I've made him out, Mr. Duval; really you mustn't think that. That was just my silly, flippant way of talking. Of course he did all those things I told you, and a lot more like them—only it's the way he does them. And he has real feeling and character and—everything a man should have; and—well, I've as much as told you—I do care for him." Her eyelids drooped.
"Then, Helen—why don't you tell him so—if you're sure?"
She looked up with a flashing smile. "I want him to be so very sure. Besides, he is rather self-confident about a good many things; I don't mean that he shall be about this. As soon as I see that his self-confidence is wavering a little and his sensitiveness is a little hurt—then I'll tell him. Don't you think that's fair and wise?"
"Your reading of human nature quite amazes me."
"Don't make fun of me, Mr. Duval."
"I wasn't; I was sincere.—But somehow I had fancied you marrying some comfortable, middle-aged or elderly person—like myself."
They laughed together at such a quaint conceit.
"Now, why on earth should you have thought that of me?"
"I don't know, unless it was because you always give us old men such a good time."
"Oh, not all older men. You, perhaps. I always get on well with you. I've known you so well and so long—I've often thought I'd like to call you Uncle Max."
"It seems as if you ought to be at least an uncle, since I've told you such an intimate thing about myself. I wouldn't breathe a word of it to mother or father yet. I'm afraid they disapprove of Dick."
"Perhaps they have the same view that I had—a similar preference for the middle-aged—"
"Oh no. Why, who could there be?"
"Well," Duval fished hastily for a name—"John Beecher, perhaps."
"My goodness! He's old enough to be my grandfather."
"He's just my age," said Duval, stiffly. "He's fifty-one."
"He seems much older, anyway. You and father are different; you can do things about as well as a good many young men. But I don't approve of such a difference of age in marriages. It's all very well for a few years maybe—but just think! Why, Uncle Max—when I'm fifty-one, you'll be eighty-two! Isn't that a horrid idea; wasn't it mean of me!"
"It is an aging thought," he conceded.
"Oh, you're young enough. You ought to find some nice girl of about thirty-five."
"One gets into a habit of life," he replied, slowly.
They were silent for a few moments. The sun, sinking, blazed suddenly at them through an opening in the pines, and as suddenly birds began to sing.
"It must be late," said Helen. "Where's Bobby?"
Dick Redfield arrived at the house and found that no one had come down. But he was a young man who made himself readily at home; he sauntered about the room, played a few chords on the piano, and then seated himself in an easy chair by a table. He was a good-looking, florid-faced youth with a taste for picturesque effect; he had arrayed himself in a dinner coat and a very neat pleated shirt and a pair of handsome white flannel trousers; his silk socks and his pumps finished him off quite beautifully. Whistling a light air between his teeth, he reached out and began examining the books on the table.
He was not much given to reading, but when he took up a volume of which the leaves were not cut and saw an ivory paper-knife lying convenient to his hand, there was but one thing to do. He always found an idle pleasure in cutting the leaves of a book. He was just completing the task when Helen entered.
"Hello, Helen," he said, running the knife between the last two pages. "I'll get up just as soon as I've finished doing this little job for you."
"What little job?"
"‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever.' Once more." He grinned and held up Endymion. " I thought I'd awakened your interest in this poem. But I see you let it lie round uncut; you evidently don't appreciate it."
"I've never seen this copy before." She took it from his hands and opened it. "Oh. Dick! You've cut all the leaves?"
"Yes. Why?" He rose in some alarm; she was looking at him in such a startled way.
"It's a first edition. Look—London, Taylor & Hessey, 1818. Papa must have brought it home only to-day; I never saw it before."
"Has it hurt it to cut the pages?" Dick looked at her and at the book, with frightened eyes. One person of whom he stood much in awe was her father.
"Oh, I'm afraid so."
"You're sure it's a first edition?"
"I know it is. Papa already has Lamia—dated 1820, published by this same house."
"And you think he wanted to keep this always with its leaves uncut?"
"I think probably; collectors have such queer ideas."
"Then I've done something I can't make good!" The young man stood looking at her with a rueful face. "And your father will be frightfully angry with me, won't he?"
She could not reassure him. "But don't say anything about it till after dinner," she urged. He looked so miserable that she added, sympathetically, "I'll try to help you out, Dick."
"I have a perfect mania for cutting the pages of books—I can do it by the hour," he explained. "And I've always felt that what is such fun for me is a bother for everybody else—and that people are always glad to have me do it for them. But I'll never monkey with other people's things again."
Throughout dinner Dick Redfield was unusually subdued. Duval, too, was quiet; Helen said little; Mrs. Averill and her husband exchanged perplexed glances. After dinner Dick smoked one cigarette with the older men, and then slipped out to join the ladies.
"Attractive young fellow," said Duval. "I think Helen rather fancies him."
"No, nothing serious," protested her father.
"Why not? Good-looking, good fellow, good prospects.—I wish I had them." He blew out a cloud of smoke with a sigh. "We're getting old, Roderick, aren't we? I was just thinking this afternoon, looking at your little girl; she and I don't seem to me so far apart now, but when she's my age I'll be eighty-two. If I'm still in the flesh—which Heaven forbid!"
He knocked the ash from his cigar; his friend looked at him sympathetically.
"I have a letter to write; do you mind?" Duval asked. "I want to get it off to-night."
When Duval had gone into the small writing-room, which opened off the sitting-room, Averill went to his wife.
"The young people?" He made the inquiry in a hushed voice.
"Outside." Mrs. Averill pointed toward the loggia.
"Poor old Max."
"So—that was her answer?"
Averill nodded. "He's pretty hard hit; he couldn't go on disguising it. Oh, he's said nothing definite, but I can see."
"Ah, I'm sorry—sorry he should be hurt." Mrs. Averill spoke in a low voice and looked toward the door of the writing-room with sympathetic eyes. "But I think—I'm sure it's better so."
There was silence; Roderick Averill's glance fell upon the copy of Endymion. He took it up from the table.
"I guess I won't leave it here for him to see, after all," he murmured. "On top of his disappointment it would be rubbing it in—turning the knife round."
He stepped across the room and put the book on the topmost shelf. His wife watched him with an amused, affectionate smile.
Helen and Dick Redfield came in a few minutes later, Helen with her eyes dancing and her face alight. Dick looking flushed, excited, and happy.
"Father," said Helen, coaxingly, "Dick didn't realize what he was doing; he doesn't know much about books, and his only thought was to help me—to take a little work off my hands."
"I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about," said her father.
"But what's become of it?" Helen looked at the table. "The copy of Endymion?"
"I put it on the shelf. Why?"
Dick Redfield spoke up, anxiously yet eagerly. "I amused myself cutting its leaves—I didn't realize I—"
He stopped; Mr. Averill had taken a hasty step to the bookcase, and was already examining Endymion.
"You must forgive him," pleaded Helen. "He didn't understand—he thought he was saving me trouble—"
"It was awfully fresh of me," broke in Dick. "The paper-knife was lying there handy, and I just went ahead. If you'd let me stand for whatever the depreciation in the volume amounts to—"
"He'll be very careful always after this," said Helen. "Won't you, Dick?—Even—even of the books that you know are mine?"
"Always," declared Dick.
"So say it's all right, father."
Roderick Averill surveyed them with a rather grudging smile. "All right," he said, good-naturedly. "A first edition is a first edition still. We won't figure up any depreciation, Dick."
"Thank you, father." Helen kissed him; then, for some unexplained reason, went over and kissed her mother; then, with Dick following her, went again out-of-doors.
Averill looked at his wife, who in turn was smiling at him, though her eyes were bright with unsubdued tears.
"Well!" he said, in a bluff and blustering voice. "Well! Spoiled, my book! Oh, well!" His voice dropped tenderly. He walked up and down and glanced into the room where Duval was at work upon his letter.
"Mary," he said, pausing by his wife, "I'm going to cheer poor old Max up—give him something to crow over." She looked at him with surprised questioning; his eyes twinkled. Then he went to the door and called: "Max! Hurry up with that letter. I've got a first edition I want to show you."
That brought Duval to him.
"Endymion." Averill held out the book. Duval took it and examined it with grave deliberation.
"Yes," he admitted. "In good condition, too. Not quite so good as mine, but still—it has the paper label on the back. Got it through Warnsley, I suppose. How much did you pay for it, Roderick?"
"Five hundred and ten dollars." He said it without wincing. Duval looked at him compassionately.
"Did you really? Mine cost me three hundred. I'm afraid you were bitten, old man."
"It would seem so; I guess that when it comes to bargaining, I'm an amateur compared with you, Max."
"Recognition at last!" Duval turned gayly to Mrs. Averill. "You heard him, Mary—recognition at last!"
She nodded, smiling. "Yes; it ought to be a lesson to him. I wish hereafter, when he hunts for first editions, he would ask your advice."
"I might be the means of saving him a little money now and then," said Duval, with modest pride. "Still, it's a good copy, Roderick—in almost as good condition as mine."
Averill bore it in silence. Afterward he felt that he was receiving no more than he deserved when his wife said to him:
"That was magnanimous, dear; you are a good fellow, Roderick."