Mrs. Peyton Interferes
by Neith Boyce
Author of "The Blue Pearly" etc.
Illustrations by Robert Edwards
PERRY MAXWELL read Mrs. Peyton's letter with astonishment and reread it with wrath. After the second reading he bolted for a telephone and called up her suburban house. The usual delays exasperated him, and finally the butler's suave voice, informing him that Mrs. Peyton had just stepped out, but might be in again at any moment, provoked a full-bodied swear. Perry confided to the tingling wires a message that he was coming out to luncheon, slammed down the receiver, and hurried for a train—which he just missed. Then he had half an hour in which to pace the platform, and each moment added fuel to his righteous anger. He had been obliged to telegraph, breaking a pleasant luncheon engagement in town; but, with this unheard-of thing on his mind, he felt he couldn't have met anybody. Mrs. Peyton was his very good friend; but by the time his train started he had thought up a number of unpleasant things to say to her. What the deuce did she mean, anyhow, by interfering? What business of hers was it to call him to account, even if he had done what she alleged? After a friendship of ten years, to be as good as told that she considered him a dishonorable person and a bounder—without even waiting to find out that her information was mistaken! But he would show her! She was an incorrigible meddler, and he would tell her so.
Suddenly a thought struck him cold. Perhaps Harriet Bisbee was still at the house. That would be most awkward. Harriet must have fibbed outrageously about him, and he wished to say so, but not to her face. However, the place was big enough to avoid her in, and she probably didn't want to see him, either. If she was there he wouldn't stay to lunch. A nice way she had behaved! He didn't like women, anyhow. What was the use in trying to be friends with them? You never knew when they were going to round on you. They didn't want friends. He arrived at the pretty snow-covered suburban station with his resentment still hot.
Mrs. Peyton's house was the largest in the Park. It began at one end as an Italian villa and ended at the other in a Queen Anne effect. It had thirteen bath-rooms and a suite of drawing-rooms furnished with palms and plush divans, and an entrance-hall with columns and a marble floor. The Park was divided in opinion as to whether it more resembled a hotel or a railway station. Mr. Leary said he never went there without an impulse to push a button and order a drink. "Resist it," advised his wife. "It isn't Liberty Hall—or, if it is, the liberty is all on Mrs. Peyton's side."
This was assuredly true, Mrs. Peyton being a benevolent tyrant whom it was not well to cross in her occupation of doing good. The house constantly sheltered from two to half a dozen hangers-on, male or female—poor relations of her own or of other people. Them she bullied charitably until she had bullied her friends into giving them positions which they were generally incompetent to fill. She had always a governess or a companion or a secretary on hand, whom nobody wanted but somebody had to take. Or it was a wife who had quarreled with her husband or got bored with her household, and Mrs. Peyton never rested till she had scolded them together again. She lectured her dependents and her friends alike. She was as prodigal of advice as of money. She saw her friends' faults, and frankly spoke of them. If she thought you drank too much at dinner, or treated your wife badly, or lived beyond your means, she would tell you so. She was her brother's and her sister's keeper; and if, after being shown the light, they did not mend their ways, so much the worse for them! She was indignant and washed her hands of them. Of course she blundered inexhaustibly, as Providence always does; but if anybody showed her her mistake, she would be honestly, charmingly penitent. She was without guile, and without false pride.
Perry had to wait for her half an hour after he reached the house, and he did not spend the time reflecting on her good qualities. She came breezily in about one o'clock, dressed in one of those wonderful garments that she seemed to have extracted from some one else's rag-bag. She was a big woman who looked magnificent in evening dress, when it fitted, and generally dowdy at other times. Clothes bored her. She kept an impecunious second cousin to do her shopping for her, and heedlessly wore the results. To-day she had on a black-and-tan striped costume and a fur hat which made her look like a pursy dowager. She greeted Perry coolly, and his internal fire leaped to a blaze.
"You got my letter?" she asked.
"Yes, indeed, I got it," said Perry. "And very much surprised I was to get it, too."
Mrs. Peyton took off her coat and sat down judicially before the fire. Perry remained standing in the dock.
"Surprised? Perhaps you think it was none of my business," proceeded Mrs. Peyton calmly. "But you knew Harriet was under my care—you couldn't expect me not to feel responsible."
"Responsible for what?" demanded Perry hotly.
"Why, for your making her in love with you, and then coolly telling her that you're going off to Tangier indefinitely."
"I haven't done anything of the kind!" cried Perry.
"Yes, indeed, you have. And you ought to be ashamed of yourself."
"But I—I tell you, I haven't! I never had an idea of making her in love with me. It's nonsense—you imagined it! What on earth would I want to do that for—even supposing I could? She isn't in love with me."
"Oh, nonsense! Did she tell you so?"
"Yes, she did. She feels she'll never get over it."
"Oh, come! Harriet? That cool little piece of egotism? I don't believe it for a minute. She was kidding you."
"No, Perry Maxwell, she wasn't! The girl is terribly unhappy."
"Well, I can't help it," cried Perry. "I haven't made love to her. Did she say I had?"
"She—well, you see, Harriet is a girl who doesn't get a great deal of attention. She's rather cold and egotistic, as you say, and she isn't as popular as girls with half her beauty and cleverness. So, when you kept coming out here and showing an interest in her, of course she thought——"
"But, see here, didn't you ask me to? Didn't you ask me to try and make it pleasant for her here, as a favor to you? You did! I don't see why I should be expected to fall in love with her, though, by Jove! But perhaps you did expect it?"
Mrs. Peyton looked a little guilty.
"I thought it would be nice if you did," she confessed.
"Well, I didn't! I think she's interesting, and I was sorry for her, and I tried to amuse her, and I enjoyed it. But I didn't fall in love with her, or make love to her. I never even kissed her. From your letter, one would think I was a Don Juan. Fellows don't do that kind of thing, you know."
"Oh, yes, they do," said Mrs. Peyton cynically.
"Well, I don't. I give you my word of honor, I never thought of such a thing. I was dumfounded by your letter. And I still believe you've been taken in by Harriet. She's got the histrionic temperament, you know, and she just wanted a little excitement. It's a pose. She isn't any more in love with me than I am with her."
Mrs. Peyton looked up at the young man's ruddy face and clear, steady blue eyes, across which the brows met, frowning and earnest.
"That's just like you men," she said after a moment, shifting her ground remorselessly. "You think that a woman can't possibly permit herself to love you unless you request her to. You go on being as charming to her as you can, without the slightest responsibility; and then, if she does lose her heart unasked, you're indignant."
Perry looked bewildered, then laughed painfully.
"'Sweet, thou hast trod on a heart,'" he quoted, with a ghastly cackle. "Oh, come, this is a little too ridiculous. I ain't such a charmer as all that."
"Well, I don't know," said Mrs. Peyton. "All I know is, Harriet is broken-hearted, and I certainly understood that she had been led to expect——"
"It's all a game," declared Perry. "Must be. She doesn't want me—she's just amusing herself. Why, I bet if I faced her with it she'd back down quicker than—" A sudden look of horror overspread his face. "I wouldn't see her for a thousand dollars!" he gasped. "Is she—is she in the house?"
"Of course she is," said Mrs. Peyton. "And luncheon is just ready."
The butler appeared in the doorway as she spoke. Perry made a dive for his coat and hat.
"This looks like guilt," said Mrs. Peyton, rising majestically.
"No—only fright," murmured Perry palely. "Does she know you wrote to me?"
"I didn't tell her I should. I don't know what she expected. But I hardly think she would have said what she did if she hadn't expected something."
"Well, I don't know what it could have been. I'm off. It's a muddle—if it isn't a plant. I can't help it! I don't believe a word of it, anyhow. I can't. Good-by."
"I shall write you again," said Mrs. Peyton, looking very dissatisfied. "Do you still mean to go to Tangier next week?"
"Why, yes," stammered Perry. "Good-by. Can I get out?"
He looked apprehensively into the hall; and, finding it clear of Harriet, fled.
He traveled back to town, having missed his luncheon, in a proportionately bad temper. He felt himself a much-injured man. Never again, he declared to himself, would he try to be kind and friendly to any woman. He would fly to the East, home of wisdom and of men who banished the female element to seclusion, where it belonged. He set himself to recall his last walk with Harriet, when he had babbled to her of his pleasure in being free at last to go back to Tangier; of the appeal to him of that calm, remote life; of the desire he had felt to turn his back forever on the struggling West, even to the point of wreathing his philosophic brow with the turban. Yes, he recollected, she had been very quiet as he talked; and then suddenly she had said she was tired, and they had gone back. But there was nothing unusual about that. She was usually quiet; she was always saying she was tired, and her face often wore the pinched look that had spoiled her beauty as he bade her goodby. She was anemic and stayed indoors too much; and for months he had tried to get her to walk and to eat more. He had made her get a pair of high, stout boots, and had urged her to take a tonic. There was nothing romantic about these attentions, or about his attitude toward her. He had laughed at her constitutional Weltschmerz:—tried to jolly her out of her cynicism, which he pronounced a youthful pose; striven to reconcile her to the world that she condemned without knowing it. And—yes, he had enjoyed it. And many a time his heart had softened to the poor, pale, sorrowful beauty—purely platonically, you understand. That she had no good reason to be sorrowful had not made him less sorry for her. And now this was his reward—this discomfort, this feeling of guilt, quite undeserved!
It was no use just swearing at the situation as a wanton feminine tangle, and resolving to dismiss it from his mind. It wouldn't be dismissed. The thought that Harriet could possibly think that he had treated her unfairly haunted and hurt him during two busy days, while he continued his preparations for going to Tangier. Mrs. Peyton had asked him calmly if he still meant to go to Tangier. Well, rather! He was free and his own master, he hoped! If a man could live to thirty and keep out of matrimony and other serious entanglements, he certainly deserved to spend his hard-earned leisure as he chose. What good could he do by not going to Tangier?—even supposing—and Perry, having the usual amount of masculine modesty, was finally brought reluctantly to suppose it—that a girl imagined herself in love with him? Needless to say, he couldn't marry her. For one thing, no decent girl, much less Harriet, would take him on such terms. For another, he assuredly wouldn't offer himself. He was no worldly prize, whatever he might be in other respects. Happily, nobody could wish to marry him for a home, and certainly he would never marry for one, nor for any other reason than that he jolly well wanted to; and that contingency was as remote as ever—quite beyond the horizon.
On the third day came Mrs. Peyton's letter:
Harriet has left me abruptly—gone to the Wilshires. I wash my hands of her—she is certainly the most unreasonable person I ever knew. Will you believe that she assumed to be indignant with me because I had—she said—betrayed her confidence to you? As if she hadn't meant that I should tell you! When I reproached her for misleading me about your attitude to her, she denied the whole thing—said she had never said you had made love to her. Now, she knew that I so understood it, and she must have known that I would do something about it. I am at least active, though I may not be capable of reading the mazes of such a mind as hers—and, goodness knows, I don't want to! You are right about her—she is one mass of pose. The best thing you can do is just to drop the whole thing, and let her get over it. I feel now you were not to blame, and I apologize for my letter to you. But almost any one might be taken in by Harriet, much more single, straightforward people like you and me. I'm glad you weren't taken in. I would like to shake her!
Just drop the whole thing! Yes, that was easy, wasn't it?
If Perry had been uncomfortable before, he now became positively unhappy. He thought Mrs. Peyton extremely unfeeling. What right had she to condemn Harriet as "one mass of pose"? Supposing he had said it himself? A woman ought to understand a woman better than that. But, of course, you could hardly expect a blunt person like Lucia Peyton to comprehend a girl like Harriet. Perry himself was very conscious that he didn't understand her. But evidently his first impression had been a sorely mistaken one. Harriet hadn't fibbed about him; Mrs. Peyton had misunderstood. Harriet hadn't meant him to know—she had been overcome at finding that Mrs. Peyton had betrayed her. That looked sadly like genuine feeling—poor little girl! And Mrs. Peyton thought he could "just drop it" and go off carefree to his holiday. She had spoiled it for him. If she had only held her tongue! And yet, he didn't wish that she had, somehow, after all—for perhaps Harriet had misunderstood him, and he wanted to set that right. He went on half-heartedly making ready to go; but Harriet haunted him. If she cared for him, he knew just how it had come about. He had been a sort of window into life for her. His joy of living had warmed her. She would miss him. He had been a live interest to her—and she had not many. And, meaning only to cheer her a little, irresponsibly, he had hurt her, harmed her. It only showed that one couldn't mix up with human beings at all, unless one were willing to be responsible for unmeant harm. It came to this, that.he couldn't go without writing to her or seeing her. But what, in heaven's name, could he say? Impossible to write—he tried it. He must see her. He hadn't the least notion what he could say, but he resolved to go out unannounced to the Wilshires, and trust to the moment.
They were a jolly household—a pair of permanently juvenile parents and three strapping, athletic girls. It was pathetic to think of Harriet fleeing to them for shelter; but, if she wanted to be unnoticed and let alone, it was not a bad place. The house was always full of people, gaiety, and noise. Visitors were expected to make their own choice of the variety of sports provided and to entertain themselves. Beyond seeing that they had abundance to eat and drink, the family paid little attention to them.
It was a bitter cold day when Perry set forth again into the country. He found no vehicle at the station, and had to walk half a mile to the house, where he was given a whisky-and-soda and told that the family was skating on the lake. Even Harriet was out. He walked another half mile, and discovered the three girls and two young men, in sweaters as red as their cheeks, executing fancy figures on the ice. They greeted him with shouts, and said that Harriet was somewhere about. He found the parent Wilshires sitting by a bonfire and roasting marshmallows; and there was Harriet, too, huddled up on a log, a bundle of brown furs. She saw him, and her face went scarlet, then white. Mr. Wilshire, a portly gentleman in knickerbockers, made Perry boisterously welcome, and handed over to him a sharpened stick with a half-toasted marshmallow on the end.
"Mightily glad you've come—you must stay a couple of days. We wanted somebody to amuse this little girl here!" he shouted. "The others are a bit too lively for her, and she rather mopes—don't you, Harry? Where are my skates? I'm off—see you at lunch in half an hour. Mother, you'd better come along with me, and let the young folks move on. Harry wants to get some color into those cheeks of hers."
In an appallingly short time Perry and Harriet were left alone. Harriet looked up.
"Did you know I was here?" she asked chillingly.
"Yes; I came to see you," he answered.
"Then you ought not to have come."
Perry threw the stick and the marshmallow into the fire. "I wanted to see you again," he stammered.
"You said good-by to me a week ago. You didn't expect to see me again then."
He was silent. Well, he had not expected it to be pleasant!
"Won't you get up and walk with me a bit?" he asked. "You look half frozen."
"Yes; I'll go back to the house."
She rose—a tall, slim, straight shape, with a small face that looked dead-white against the brown fur.
"I suppose Lucia Peyton told you I was here," she said, in the same cold voice.
"She's a fool."
"And I'm another, I suppose?"
Harriet was silent.
She could certainly be very disagreeable, Perry reflected, as they walked side by side through the wintry woods. Her delicate profile wore its most repellent look. Her long eyelids drooped with an expression of ineffable weariness. He was used to think that that expression hid a complete lack of feeling; but now——
"Harriet, don't be rough on me," he begged. "Perhaps I'm an idiot, as you say; but we've been such good friends!"
Harriet stopped short and turned suddenly blazing eyes on him.
"I hate you!" she said. "I hate Lucia Peyton, and I hate myself. She misunderstood horridly what I was fool enough to say to her. If you believed what she told you, you ought never to have come near me. But now you have come,—I'm sure I don't know why, unless it was to make me more miserable than I was before,—I wish you'd please go away again."
"I will," said Perry. "Good-by. I'll cut through here to the station."
"Of course I don't mean that. You must come back with me and stay to luncheon. Otherwise I shall have the whole family at me with questions and suspicions."
"Oh, very well—as you say," he said grimly.
They walked on again.
Harriet certainly was an egotist, Perry thought angrily. She didn't think of him—of how deucedly uncomfortable it was for him—for a moment. He did not speak until the house loomed up white through the leafless trees. Then he said hurriedly:
"What I wanted to tell you was that, of course, I understood. I mean, whatever Mrs. Peyton imagined, I knew well enough that you—that it was a mistake, about you. I don't want you to think that I thought for a moment it was true. And it has been so pleasant to me—our friendship—that I felt I couldn't go without knowing that you understood—that you wouldn't let whatever Mrs. Peyton said bother you. It was just a mistake of hers. Why should we let it spoil our feeling for each other? Why should you say you hate me? You don't hate me, do you?"
She did not answer, and, looking earnestly at her, Perry saw a tear slide down her cheek. She hid it instantly with her muff, and then said:
"No, I didn't mean it. You've been very good to me."
Perry was so overcome by the tears, the unheard-of gentleness of her voice and words, that he could only follow her in silence into the house. There was no one in the big hall with its blazing log fire. Harriet slipped away up the stairs, and did not come down again until the whole party were assembled and luncheon announced. She sat opposite him, but the length of the table away, and, if she had talked, he could not have heard her low voice in the robust babble of the others. With mighty appetites the Wilshires and their other guests assailed the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Perry watched Harriet covertly. She did not once look at him. Her long eyelids drooped, with a chastened look of dusky hair and eyes were the same color. She looked, as she often did, remote, pathetic, somehow suggesting Maeterlinck's frail, intangible women—a being out of tune with life, helpless, with idle, empty hands.
Perry saw her refuse, with a shudder, the red, succulent beef. She seemed to lunch on biscuits and milk. He felt a desire to shake her, to lecture her, to—well, to kiss her! But, alas! the time had gone by,for the harmless two of those occupations; and for the third it was certainly no time to begin.
Or was it?
Perry pulled himself up with a start, and for the rest of the meal devoted himself to hearty Phyllis Wilshire on his left.
His visit was unsatisfactory, of course. It left him just where he had been before. No, not quite. He had a new picture of Harriet, with tears on her cheeks, speaking gently from behind a muff. This picture stayed in his mind, which was a new thing. He had before recognized Harriet's beauty; but it had not touched him, appealed to him, lingered with him.
Now he could not get her out of his mind—and he did not want to. He realized shamefacedly that it was pleasant to think of her. It was low to be flattered by the idea of her feeling for him, and yet he was. He was touched by it, and began to feel very tenderly toward Harriet. Mrs. Peyton telegraphed, asking him to go out for dinner before he sailed; but he replied, regretting that he was too rushed. He did not want to talk about Harriet. He omitted to say that he had just put off his sailing for two weeks.
He telephoned to the Wilshires because of something he had forgotten to say to Harriet, only to find that she had left there and gone to an aunt who lived in a small Connecticut town. This place was the nearest thing to a home that Harriet possessed. She was an orphan, and traveled about a good deal, on a tiny income of her own. Between-times she stayed with the aunt, who was distinctly queer. Perry was much vexed that she should have gone there now. He wrote to her, making the request he had forgotten before, which was that she would write to him frequently, beginning with telling him her plans for the next few months. He hoped she didn't mean to stay where she was, said he should miss her very much, and asked an immediate reply. Not receiving one, he telegraphed. Harriet responded by wire:
Shall stay here till spring. Will write sometimes, but not much to write about. Bon voyage.
He was much put out. Of all possible ways of spending the next few months, Harriet had chosen the worst for herself. He recalled one visit he had made at that house—the chill eeriness of it, the wasted, brilliant-eyed woman whose obvious crack in the brain let in strange fancies out of the dark. It was intolerable to think of Harriet staying there. He telegraphed, asking what afternoon he could run out for a couple of hours. Harriet replied: "Don't bother. Am resting. Prefer you should not come." Perry spent ten minutes in considering whether she meant "don't bother me" or "don't bother yourself." Then he set his jaw grimly and looked up the trains.
"I simply will not have you stay here!" he cried to Harriet, when he had haled her forth from the house. "If you do, you'll be as dotty as your aunt by spring! That kind of thing is catching—indeed, it is; and you're—well, I won't say you're exactly predisposed to it, but you're very impressionable—oh, hang it, that's not what I meant! But you can't stay, that's all."
"But, really, I haven't any other place to stay," Harriet explained. "And I rather like it. She doesn't talk to me when I don't want to be talked to. She doesn't bother me."
"But what you need is to be bothered," snorted Perry. "Why don't you go abroad? You've got friends in England and Italy; go and visit them."
"They haven't asked me."
"Well, go anyway, on your own hook. You've done it before. See here, why don't you come to Tangier? Girls travel everywhere alone nowadays, and I'd look after you. You'd enjoy it—it's novel, picturesque. Why not come, Harriet? I'd like it awfully."
She smiled dreamily. "It would be nice; but I can't go abroad this year."
By dint of hammering, Perry discovered that she had not money enough to go. She was very gentle that day—seemed gratified by his interest in her, and apologized for appearing such a forlorn person. It was a new Harriet—polite, composed, quite resolute. He was not to worry about her any more. It was none of his business, she hinted mildly. And he knew that Lucia Peyton, who by now had started for Florida, had invited Harriet to go with her there. Before their break it had been all arranged. He hazarded a question here. Harriet flushed and said sharply: "Oh, of course I couldn't sponge on Lucia Peyton now."
Ruffled, she put an end to the discussion, declared she had a headache, and insisted on going back to the house. She did not ask him to stay to dinner, and, when he requested an invitation, explained that they did not dine.
"You know, two women together—all we want is tea and toast," she smiled.
"Then come out and eat a beefsteak with me somewhere," said Perry savagely. "I suppose we can find one in this forsaken town."
"I doubt it. And, anyhow, I don't feel like talking any more." And she looked her very weariest.
"Oh, very well. Forgive me for boring you. Of course I know when I'm frozen out—though perhaps you think I don't. I'll say this, anyhow, Harriet: you could give pointers to a cold-storage plant for hospitality. But never mind. Of course, if you want to make me thoroughly uncomfortable, you know how to do it."
"Don't bully," said Harriet.
Having totally lost his temper and gained nothing. Perry returned to town.
He now discovered that it is misery to be pre-occupied with a person whom you can't bully. If you could bully that person, naturally you wouldn't be preoccupied with her; you would just tell her what she had to do, and she would do it, and your mind would be free to consider more important things. Why, oh, why had the West turned its back on the immemorial wisdom of the East? Out there Harriets were not permitted to become a problem. Tucked away safely behind a curtain, a Harriet might be an agreeable companion. Of course the curtain needn't hide any one but Harriet; she would be a whole harem in herself, he reflected. It would be pleasant to have coffee with her in the garden—he supposed she might be permitted to come as far as the garden. She would be veiled, and her veil would be lifted only to him. She would have nothing to do but to think of him. Perhaps she would like that,—if she really liked him she would,—and he thought he would like if, too. Should he propose it to her?
He smoked a great many meditative pipes over the proposition, regarding himself as a fascinatingly free agent, and not sensible for a moment of a hook in the jaw. Harriet was not like some girls; she would not expect him to make money or a social position for her. She would understand that he wanted to possess his soul in peace, and that a man who had once sunk deep into that calm life, with its four times daily reminder of eternal things, couldn't get back into the trivial hustle of the West. He knew a spot of land high up on a cliff-side overlooking the blue strait; he would build a white four-square house there, and Harriet might live in it, if she would be good and not bother him, but only offer incense at due times.... In something soft and blue, with a veil over her dusky hair, and her eyes glowing and softening as he had never yet seen them.... (The hook was pretty fast by this time.)
A week later Perry had thrown the handkerchief; and it had been handed back to him, promptly and firmly. Instead of coming to his arms, all softness and joy, Harriet had frozen into a statue of ice with an icicle for a tongue. She had even laughed at him. He had never heard of a girl not being commonly polite to a man who asked her to marry him! Tradition informed him that a proposal of marriage should be taken as a compliment, and, if declined, declined gently. But Harriet had been positively rude.
"I'm not quite so badly off as that!" she had said. "There isn't anything I wouldn't rather do than marry you," she had added. "So you did believe it, after all!" she had taunted him. "You've been thinking it all this time, and racking your brains to arrange my future for me. And this is all you can think of!"
There was enough truth in this to deprive him of speech to protest; there was enough falsehood to make him thoroughly conscious, at last, of the barb.
Instead of a kind-hearted, affectionate person conferring a benefit, he had been made to look like a fool. Oh, yes, he had felt like a fool, all right. Why hadn't he taken Lucia Peyton's advice and "just dropped it"? Why, why had he taken it for granted that Harriet was pining for him? Yes, he had believed it. Of course she laughed at him. But now, not for all the Lucia Peytons in the world would he drop it. His vanity had been rent from him. It was a superficial drapery, and he let it go. He sat humbly down to think things over. By Jove, she had said it once, and he would make her say it again! If it took all winter, he would; and he wouldn't go without her.
He soon discovered that kissing a girl, even with conviction, is not the way to make her own her love. Not a girl like Harriet, at least. She seemed stonily resolved not to admit even that he cared for her, much less that she cared for him. Apparently she was prepared to stand a siege—and a siege it became. It really seemed that it would take all winter. He reminded her mournfully, now and then, that time was passing, that they were missing the blue and white and golden days out yonder; and she always said it was a pity, and urged him to lose no more. He thought she enjoyed tormenting him; and yet, she did not seem to flourish on it. She grew thinner and paler and more irritable. They quarreled almost as often as they met.
By now Perry's first fond picture, of Harriet offering incense, had become badly dented and dimmed. But another, more vivid, came and abode with him, and grew more aggravatingly clear each day: just Harriet—there, or here, or anywhere. Just Harriet! The conviction that she needed him was gone—kicked out of sight—didn't matter. The point was that he needed her. To make her see that point took, day after day, all his energy and life. And he thought he had never met so dense a female. Usually they were ready enough to believe it, if you told them so day after day, and proved it by giving up your most cherished pleasures. But Harriet had her answer always:, "No, you don't. I don't believe it. You're only saying it to be kind."
"Oh, kind!" he howled, with a mad desire to beat her. "Do you suppose a man marries a woman to be kind to her?"
She was like the wintry earth iron-bound in frost. Day by day he tried to melt her, and failed.
One evening, when the suddenly warm air touched the cold earth and the snow was vanishing in mist, they sat together on the steps of the house. They had been talking—or Perry had, and he was very tired. He had just told her bitterly that he had given up going to Tangier.
"Not my fault," she said.
"Yes, yours," he said sullenly.
Then they sat in silence for some time, Perry looking sadly at the vague red sunset beyond the skeleton trees. The air was soft and damply sweet; he turned his cheek to it as to a caress. In the stillness he heard the dropping of the mist on the leaves, the stirring of the wet earth under the snow patches. It was the turn of the year—a newly stirring spirit. ...
He became conscious that Harriet was looking at him, and averted his face impatiently. He was tired, and he had caught a confounded cold. Yes, there might be tears in his eyes, but hanged if she should see them! An arm went round his neck, a palm firmly pressed his cheek. Reluctantly he turned his head.
"You're—you're crying for Tangier!" Harriet taunted quaveringly.
"No—for the moon," he said grimly.
"You only want it because you can't get it."
"Yes, of course. Your perspicacity is amazing."
"If you got it you would not want it."
"You wouldn't risk that, on the chance—of course not!"
"Well, it's a good deal to risk, isn't it?"
"I risk it, too, don't I? And I'm willing."
"Oh, well, if that's all," said Harriet tremulously, "so am I."
From Tangier, in the first quarter of the moon of honey, Harriet wrote secretly to Mrs. Peyton, and sent her a piece of native embroidery in purple and silver.
When Mrs. Peyton's answer came, two months later,—sweet, warm, and rejoicing with them,—Perry read it, out in the garden, and smiled.
"Good old girl!" he said. "But what did you write her, Harriet?"
"I thanked her," said Harriet demurely.
"Oh, I say! It would have happened anyhow, you know—bound to," said the bridegroom loftily.
But, now, would it?