The Fair Lavinia
The spring was wonderful that year: a year long ago; it was late, there had been many northeast storms, and frosts, but it was at last fairly triumphant. The trees were forth all together in a silently hustling crowd, and it seemed as if many of them, instead of taking their turns for flowering, and leafing as usual, were pushing to the front, regardless of all the laws of the vernal season. One looking from his window saw leaves of maples deepening from rose to green against the fixed green of others which had more direct sunlight. The dark limbs of oaks having dropped their last year's shag of russet, which had endured so long at their knotty knees, to be pierced by violets and spring beauties, showed tufts of gold. Between the greens, ranging in all tones, were the cherry boughs, so aërial with white blooms that it seemed as if they might float away into space, and the slowly deepening gray and rose and white of the apple-trees. The lilacs were tipped with brownish pink; the snowball-bushes bore faint green spheres; the birches were clad as lightly as nymphs, revealing their graceful limbs, white with the passion of the spring, through dim clouds of amber green; the willows wept with tears of liquid gold, and everywhere were the gold bosses of the dandelions upon the green shield of spring.
Young Harry Fielding, pacing up and down before the house of Parson Samuel Greene, where he was being fitted for Harvard, could not keep his mind upon the learned book in his hand. He too was affected by the mad, sweet turmoil of the spring. Greek imagery became real to him, and he was one to whom the real became always most fully evident through the lens of fancy. It was as if he had come suddenly upon a dance of nymphs led by the god Pan under the green arch of the trees. Wild music filled his brain: that music which the first man had heard and followed. His own feet almost followed it. This music began and ended in the earth and the joy of life, but that in itself seemed eternal. The earth seemed no longer a passing and vain show, but an endless pageant of rapture. Harry felt that his state of mind must be sinful. He had always worn his New England conscience as a species of stay for his moral back, as the women of that day wore busks at their innocent bosoms. Now it swayed like a birch branch, bearing him along with it in a dizzy arc of delight. Had he been a Catholic, he would have crossed himself; as it was, his soul sent up a petition to the stern Divinity of whom he had been taught. But that stern God suddenly assumed a smiling face. He looked upon him through the eyes of countless flowers; He breathed love and reassurance through all the soft voices of the spring. Harry was gazing up with great black eyes, as full of wondering delight as a child's, at the blue crystal of the sky, against which tossed the gold feathers of the trees, when another young man, emerging from the parson's gate, purposely collided with him. Harry's hand which did not hold the book clinched involuntarily, and he frowned; for although destined for the ministry, he had fighting blood in his veins. Then he laughed, for it was only John Brooks, who was always playing off a jest upon some one whenever he was able.
John Brooks was tall and loose-jointed and clumsy. His blond, streaky hair fell in straight lines over his high stock, which cut his double chin and forced his head back into a pose of obstinacy which well expressed him, in spite of the humorous twinkle in his prominent blue eyes. He clapped a heavy hand upon the other's shoulder. “What are you mooning about, sir?” he asked.
“I am not mooning.”
“Not mooning? You are walking on the moon instead of the earth, and the wool which the moon-calves shed is clinging to you. The spring fever has got in your blood, brother. Purges both for the body and mind you need. I will prescribe —”
Henry gave the other young man an impatient shove. “Enough of this nonsense!” he cried, angrily.
“Nay, but wait a bit, sir. You have not heard my prescription. 'Tis no bitter pill, but the sweetest morsel that ever was. 'Tis my cousin Lavinia Creevy, otherwise known as the ‘fair Lavinia,’ and well she deserves to be so known. She comes by stage this afternoon with my aunt Elizabeth, to be present at the closing exercises. So look your best, Harry, and be on the alert, for the fair Lavinia is well versed in book-lore. She has some knowledge of Latin even; and yet she is a notable housewife. Shall I tell you how she is favored, Harry?”
Fielding looked at his book. “I have no time,” he replied, in a curious, wavering, fascinated voice.
The other laughed. “That is what time is for in the spring,” he said. “The fair Lavinia is tall and slender, but not too slender, and she has the way of a gentle and good woman; and yet she can laugh, when the matter be worth laughter, not giggling at naught, as is the way with some maids. She is discreet and modest, and she is not shamefaced, since she knows well her own worth, though she is not puffed up by it. She has no megrims, nor need to dose with salts, and the like, for swooning, like most of her sex. For the rest, she is as fair as a lily, and it seems as if her veins ran silver; and her eyes are like violets, and her throat is long and white, and drooping in the swath of lace which veils its fairness; and her hair is long, with curls over the ears, and caught up with a high comb, and shining like gold. And her cheeks and lips are like blushing roses. She is the belle of all Whitfield, and indeed of the whole country; and yet she has seen no one to whom her heart inclined, although she is so gentle to all, and so pitying that she has not love to give them. Sometimes it seems to me that the maid will wed without loving, so sorrowful she is for lack of love to return for love, and so willing to bestow her sweetness and kindness upon all.”
“Nay, that she must not do,” cried Fielding. Then his face flushed angrily at the other's laugh.
“Caught you are already at the mere tale of a maid's charms,” cried John Brooks, with an elfish twinkle, “and what will you be at the sight of her? Your mouth is all ready for sweets, Harry. Make ready yourself in your best before the Whitfield stage arrives. Is any of your own family coming, Harry?”
“My father and Isabel Done.”
“Isabel Done is a distant cousin, an orphan, who has lived with us since my mother died, and keeps house for my father.”
“A year younger than I.”
“Is she fair to see?”
“I know not.”
“You know not? Why, have you not seen her, man?”
“As often as the face of the clock.”
“And you know not how she looks? Then she is not fair.”
“Who said she was not overfair? She is as fair as any. None ever said Isabel was not fair.”
“And I dare say she has a disposition of the best.”
“Who said she had not would need to reckon with me,” cried Harry, hotly.
Brooks laughed. “Well, Harry,” he said, “put on that flowered waistcoat of yours before the Whitfield stage comes in, bringing the fair Lavinia.” Brooks laughed again mockingly at the eager look in Harry's eyes, but the boy was too possessed by the fair image which his friend had conjured up to notice the mockery. A strong imagination had Harry Fielding, and was given to writing poetry upon the sly, and his mental vision projected itself towards the future and the unseen to such an extent that he had a species of mental short-sightedness, but knew it not. Dreams were to him more real than verities, and a verity to become substantial to him must needs be transposed into a dream. All this John Brooks, who had a wit and understanding beyond his years, knew, and regaled himself upon, although his friend knew nothing of it. Being of such a serious and enthusiastic nature, he had little sense of humor.
After John Brooks had left him, he continued to pace up and down before the parson's house, with its hip-roof and projecting second story, and its garden bordered by box, which was coming forth bravely. Harry smelled the strange acrid odor of the box, wrought into a bouquet of perfume with musk and clove-pinks and the almond of fruit blossoms and the vital breath of new grass, and now he could also realize emanating from his own soul a fragrance which accorded well with that of the spring. The fair Lavinia was what he had so innocently and wonderingly missed. Now he had her image close to his heart, as close as the maid herself could ever be — perhaps closer. He saw her: that gentle, pitying creature of ivory and rose and silver, fashioned like some sweet idol of the emotions. He saw her before him with the eyes of his spirit; he noted the radiant droop of her golden curls, the mottled shell of the comb which crowned them, the wonderful soft radiance of her blue eyes, and her tender smile, which withheld nothing and offered nothing, but was wholly maidenly, and he smiled at her with his whole soul, and loved her with his whole soul.
The Whitfield stage was half an hour late that afternoon, on account of one of the leaders casting a shoe and having to delay at a smithy. The Boston stage, which was properly due some time later, arrived first. Harry, in a brave-flowered waistcoat, was at the gate with John Brooks and some other of his fellows. Harry's face fell when the stage came fully into sight, for he had thought it would come from Whitfield, but he stepped forward to welcome his father and Isabel Done. However, only Isabel, clad in dove gray, with a little gray mantle and a bonnet with a gray plume, alighted to greet him. His father had been detained in Boston by a stress of business. Isabel paled a little when she first saw Harry, although she had but little color to lose in any case, but she greeted him with a gentle dignity and kindness, as was her wont, and pointed prettily her little satin-shod foot as she advanced up the box-bordered path to the parson's house, with Harry by her side and the admiring glances of all the young men upon her. She saw these glances without seeming to see them, but she would have given them all for one such glance from Harry Fielding's eyes. She was a beauty, albeit of a singular type. Not a trace of rose was there in her smoothly curved cheek, which had instead a warm ivory-color, perhaps obtained through some Spanish ancestor whose blood had mixed with the Anglo-Saxon years ago. Her eyes were blue, with thick fair brows and lashes, and her hair rippling in great ripples so matched her ivory-toned skin that she might have been a statue for her whole coloring, except the faint rose of her lips. She was no sooner in her bedroom removing the dust of travel than John Brooks had Harry Fielding by the velvet collar and was shaking him. “And you knew not how that beauty looked,” cried he. “Fie! man, hast no eyes in thine head?”
Fielding shook himself free. “Isabel is well enough to see,” he replied, “but I have always seen her, and, to tell the truth, she looks to me as like other girls as one of those pinks in the bed yonder looks like all the other pinks.” With that Fielding pointed to a bed of pinks which were bursting from their calyxes with excess of bloom and exhaling a breath of honey and cloves.
Brooks looked at him contemptuously. “As much like other girls as one of the pinks like the others!” mocked he. “She is a rose among common blooms, or a lily. You are thinking but of the fair Lavinia. How near is the cousin-ship between you and that beauty?”
“Not near,” replied Harry, absently, staring down the road, from which columns of golden dust were slowly rising in the light of the setting sun. “I hear the Whitfield stage.”
“Yes, so do I,” mocked Brooks; “and now for the fair Lavinia, to whom without even one glimpse of her you have fallen captive!” Then the great stage rolled up with tramp of hoof and toot of horn and crack of whip, and the passengers swarmed forth. There were many, for a number of the young men who attended Parson Greene's school came from that section of the country. Fielding watched with his heart thumping. He saw his friend John Brooks step forward and greet with a kiss a small maiden who resembled him closely. Then he watched for the fair Lavinia; but after John Brooks's sister descended a monstrous stout lady, perspiring in a purple shot silk, with a long, black wrought-lace veil to her bonnet, which the wind caught and so enveloped her that she was a long time in getting untangled and being able to alight at all. Then came two gentlemen, with columnar necks stiffly set in high stocks, and a little girl with tight braids of flaxen hair tied with blue ribbons standing out at right angles, and dragged at the hand of her mother, then an elderly and thin woman in black who greeted a young man with a burst of soft tears, and divers others. At last the stage was emptied, the driver gathered up his reins and drove away, and there was no fair Lavinia. Brooks's sister had entered the house with the rest, and Harry approached him hesitatingly. Brooks shot a queer sidewise glance at him. He was switching with his slender cane a clump of heartsease which grew beside the path.
“Your sister came alone,” said Harry, and he also switched with his cane at the heartsease.
“Yes, Harry; the fair Lavinia has, what one so fair should be exempt from, an attack of the quinsy, and the doctor thought it not safe for her to take the journey.”
Harry's face fell. He did not look at his friend, whose face was full of high enjoyment.
The two presently began pacing up and down before the house, and again Brooks descanted upon the charms of Lavinia Creevy, and poor Harry's face lengthened more and more because she had not arrived. Then appeared Eliza Brooks, gayly arrayed in a shot silk of olive green, wearing a fine gold chain with a locket, and a high shell comb. Although so much like her brother, she was so fair a copy of him that she almost seemed a beauty beside him. She courtesied prettily to Harry, and there being yet some time before supper, she strolled down the road with him, while Brooks went back to the house. John Brooks's sister Eliza echoed to the full her brother's praise of Lavinia Creevy. She said even more, were it possible, and enlarged greatly upon her accomplishments and sweetness of disposition.
“And there she lies at home suffering with a quinsy, the sweetheart, while I am junketing abroad,” said she. “I would not have come had she not so sweetly urged it upon me, and had not dear Aunt Elizabeth, who is so good a nurse, been with her and also urged it. Dear Lavinia, she even wept at the thought that I might lose my pleasure upon her account. Never was such a darling and such a beauty.”
When Harry Fielding seated himself at the supper-table by the side of Eliza, he had no thought for the light biscuits and preserves and cakes and tea, and cream in silver jugs. He had no thought for any one or any thing except that fair Lavinia Creevy, although now and then he looked with a kindly glance of good-fellowship at Isabel Done, and saw to it that she was well served.
Isabel looked to the mind of John Brooks, and the minds of many others, wonderfully fair in a gown of canary-colored silk, cut low enough to reveal the beautiful nape of her neck. After supper she was surrounded, and especially when it was discovered that she had a sweet voice, and could sing many a song like “Mary of Argyle” and “Sweet Afton,” accompanying herself upon the little piano inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Harry sat in a window-seat with Eliza Brooks and listened, and talked between the songs, and always the talk turned upon the fair Lavinia Creevy, although at last Eliza spoke of Isabel Done. “How the young men cluster about her! It is like bees around a cherry blossom,” said she.
Harry gave a start and a quick frown, and looked at the cousin whose fair head gleamed dully among her swarm of admiring swains. Then his face relaxed as Eliza spoke again of the fair Lavinia. “Rather, I should say, as young men flock around Lavinia Creevy,” said she, and was upon her favorite topic again, while Harry listened with intense interest, although now and then his eyes wandered towards Isabel in her window with her cluster of admirers around her.
After Isabel had played and sung again, Harry turned to Eliza. “Can Miss Creevy play music?” asked he.
“She plays the harp like an angel,” replied Eliza, fervently, but she shrugged her shoulders a little and her eyes wandered towards the other young men. Presently she slipped away — although Harry gazed ruefully after her, for he wished to hear more of the fair Lavinia — and sought her brother. He was about to seek Isabel Done, but he turned at his sister's touch on his arm. “John, John,” whispered Eliza, “find me some one save that youth, some one who has not so much fancy and sharper eyes. I have not worn my best gown for nothing, nor my gold chain. I will not be looked past for Lavinia.”
John laughed again, and stayed, with a touch on the elbow, a youth who was on his way to Isabel. “William Preston,” said he, and the young man stopped, although with a passing annoyance. However, when John presented him to his sister, and Eliza made a pretty courtesy, and flashed her shrewd bright eyes at him, and smiled, he was not at all ill content, and followed her to another window-seat, and quitted her not during the whole evening, nor indeed for long for his whole life, since they were affianced soon after, and married when he had completed his college course.
Harry Fielding, being left by Eliza, sat a moment by himself hesitating, then he also sauntered over to his cousin, and sat down upon the outskirts of the throng. He could barely see the dull yellow gleam of her head, and occasionally the soft flash of her blue eyes, and the turn of her cheek as she spoke in answer to some question.
John Brooks came and sat beside him, but gradually pushed his way into the inner circle. Harry looked after him with a frown. For some reason he did not like it that John Brooks should so openly admire his cousin. Presently, therefore, he, too, almost rudely, forced his own way to Isabel, and spoke to her with almost harsh authority. “Isabel,” said he, “pray come with me. I have something to say to you.”
But Isabel looked at him gently and pleasantly, and answered in her sweet, low voice with a question. “What is it, Harry?” said she. “Cannot the matter wait until to-morrow?”
“No, it must be to-night,” replied Harry. He felt his face flushing before the half-indignant, half-wondering eyes of his mates, but Isabel rose without another word and followed him amid the crestfallen young men.
“Whither would you take me, Harry?” asked she, and there was a slight reproach in her tone, but at the same time a tender cadence.
“Come out and walk up and down before the house with me; 'tis pleasant moonlight,” replied Harry.
“No, that I cannot do,” said Isabel, firmly, “for it would make talk, and I am here alone with no older woman.”
“But you are as my sister, Isabel.”
“I am not your sister,” said she, curtly. “Come and sit with me in yonder window-seat, and say what you have to say if you cannot wait until to-morrow.”
So saying, Isabel settled herself with a soft flirt of canary-colored skirts in a window-seat, and Harry sat beside her, but was silent for a moment. Isabel looked away from him, and spoke first. “Well, what is this so important matter, Harry?” said she, and her ivory cheeks were flushed with the faintest rose.
Then Harry spoke, not even looking at her, and began asking, with a fine assumption of anxiety, as to the cause of his father's not coming.
Isabel tapped the carpet with her little foot, the rose faded from her cheeks, and she answered with veiled impatience. “Why, Harry, I have told you,” said she. “The Lone Star from the Indies has but just come on, and your father had reason to think something wrong with the cargo and could not leave. Was that why you brought me over here, with such an assumption of high authority before your friends? I will not have it so again.”
“Nay, but, sister,” said Harry, catching at a fold of her canary skirt, which she immediately released gently but firmly, “I think it not entirely proper for a young woman to be so beset with young men.”
“More proper than to be beset by one,” replied she, with a toss of her head; “but you can remain and protect me, Harry, for, faith! I see them all coming this way again.”
As a matter of fact, the whole bevy of admirers were nearing her with straggling steps. Harry frowned, but he remained and listened to what he esteemed the most foolish speeches from his friends. However, he could find no fault with Isabel, for she bore herself with such modesty that it would have seemed prudery had it not been for her gentleness and kindness. Still, Harry was annoyed, for he had wished to have her to himself, that he might confide in her concerning the fair Lavinia Creevy. Isabel had a power of grave understanding and sympathy, and he anticipated much comfort and encouragement from her. He had no thought of confiding in his father until all was settled. A stern man was Harry's father, Deacon Cyrus Fielding, and withal had a vein of whimsical humor and sarcasm which further intimidated. But Isabel was different. He could look to her, he was confident, although she seemed somewhat contrary that night, for the fullest sympathy and assistance when once he should confide his secret to her.
Harry sat beside the girl, with the soft canary-colored folds of her gown touching his velvet knee, and thought of the fair Lavinia, and his thought was like a sacred song. His whole being was filled with such a rapture of bliss that he became glorified in his own realization of himself. He knew himself as the lover and worshipper of that marvellous Lavinia, and it was as if he had never known himself before. He held his head high. He listened with contempt to the talk of his mates. He thought how differently he would talk to Her. But when Isabel spoke he considered that no doubt the fair Lavinia had a voice to the full as sweet and low, and as full of maidenly dignity as hers, He glanced at Isabel's delicate little hands, and knew for certain that Lavinia's would not be one whit less delicate and taper-fingered, and he thought that Lavinia, who doubtless had a fine taste for the adorning of such a lovely person as hers, must of a surety possess a canary-colored silk gown. It seemed to him that he could not wait until he returned to Boston to confide in Isabel; he hoped for an opportunity to do so the next day. But not one moment could he secure until the morning after their return, when his father, who was an importer of East India goods, had gone to his place of business, and Isabel was about her usual morning tasks, one of which was the cutting of a loaf of sugar into regular blocks. This was never intrusted to the black servants, lest they be tempted to purloin the precious sweet. Isabel that morning was cutting the sugar in an arbor in the great garden behind the house upon the bank of the Charles. Harry had inveigled her there, for the sake of privacy, carrying the sugar and the implement for cutting. There was a table in the arbor, and a bench running around the sides. Harry sat beside Isabel on this bench, and she began her task, and the shadows of rose-leaves, so young that they turned silvery in the wind, were over them, and the sweetest odors of flowers were all about, and the singing of birds, and beneath all the racing ripples of the Charles, which gleamed in the distance like a silver ribbon studded with diamonds. Harry hesitated. Isabel cut the sugar, and it was long before Harry could make up his mind to speak. Finally he did, looking away from Isabel.
“I have something which I have long wished to say to you,” he began, and Isabel's cheeks flamed and her firm hands cutting the sugar trembled. “It is about a wonderful lady of whom John Brooks told me,” he continued, and Isabel's cheeks assumed their wonted hue and her hands were as steady as ever.
“Yes?” she said, with the loveliest and sweetest tone of interrogation, just as Harry had known that she would speak.
Then Harry began with his mad raving about the fair Lavinia: that maid whom he had never seen except through another man's account of her. He poured out his love for this unencountered divinity with no restraint. Not a muscle of Isabel Done's beautiful mouth twitched. If her eyes twinkled with the absurdity of this headlong male of her species he could not see, for her lids concealed them, so intent she was upon her sugar-cutting.
Harry raved on and on. His cheeks burned, his blue eyes gleamed. He made gestures with his nervous hands. “How shall I get to see her? For, oh, Isabel, I think I shall die if I see her not soon!” finally stammered out this foolish youth. And with that down on his knees he went and hid his face in the creamy folds of the girl's gown.
Isabel put forth one of her hands and pushed gently but firmly his head away. “Rise, Harry,” said she. “It is over-familiarity, and I like it not.”
“But, Isabel, you are as a sister to me.”
“I am not your sister, Harry.”
“But you seem like one; and, Isabel dear, the fondest wish of my heart is that my fair Lavinia may speak like you, and be like you in character; and, Isabel, you must always dwell with us, for I could never bear to live apart from you, in such brotherly affection I hold you.” With that down went Harry's head on her lap again and he was half weeping.
Isabel started and looked at the head in her lap with a curious expression of mirth, of bewilderment, and anger. “But, Harry,” said she, “it does not seem to come into your mind that the poor Isabel Done may also have her chance to wed and have her own home.”
Then it was Harry's turn to start. He raised his head and stared at her with such consternation that it was all she could do to avoid downright laughter. “But — Isabel,” stammered Harry, “how can I keep house without you?”
“But you will have your fair Lavinia, Harry.”
“But I have always had you, Isabel!”
“That is the very reason why you should have me not. Why should I be debarred from wedding, and remain a spinster all my life? Am I so monstrous to see?”
“No! For, oh, Isabel, I hope — nay, I am sure — that Lavinia will have a look like you, from what John said. But her hair shines like gold and her cheeks are as rosy as if painted; and, oh, Isabel, you must live with us! But, oh, I have never seen her yet; and, oh, Isabel, how shall I see her? — for I shall die if I do not soon. Such a longing is in my soul that you dream not what it is.”
“Remove your head, Harry.”
“Why? For you are like a sister, and the hunger for Lavinia is less sore when I am near you.”
“For all that, remove your head, for I like it not, and it is simple enough for you to see her.”
Harry raised his head and gazed eagerly at Isabel. “How?”
“Miss Eliza Brooks invited me to spend a week with her in Whitfield this summer, and she said, moreover, that her brother would invite you, Harry.”
“Oh, Isabel!” panted Harry.
“I declined,” said Isabel. “Still —”
“Oh, Isabel, write and tell her that you will go, for my sake,” pleaded Harry, “for I shall die if I see her not soon.”
Isabel made a little impatient movement of her shoulders as she cut the sugar. “People do not die so easily,” said she; “but if your heart is so set upon it, I will write to Miss Eliza Brooks and say to her that upon reflection I accept her kind invitation if she sees fit to renew it.”
That very afternoon Harry Fielding took a letter folded and sealed to the tavern whence the Whitfield stage started. Then in due time came a letter from Miss Eliza Brooks, and also one from John, and it was settled that in mid-summer Harry and Isabel should spend a week in Whitfield.
Such a store of flowered waistcoats and fine shirts he had that his little hair trunk could scarcely be closed. Isabel had made many shirts for him and daintily hemstitched linen handkerchiefs.
One day Deacon Fielding came upon the girl as she sat sewing for Harry in the arbor; the young man himself, who had been mooning about the fair Lavinia, had retreated down a box-alley towards the Charles at the sight of his approaching father.
“Why not take a few stitches for yourself, Isabel?” said Deacon Fielding.
Isabel smiled and took another dainty stitch. “I have all I require, thanks to your generosity, and all my needle-work was finished in the spring,” she said.
“Even if it be so, better stitch for yourself, or for some man who has eyes in his head,” said Deacon Fielding.
Isabel tried to laugh gayly. “Indeed, sir, your son has eyes,” she said.
“Eyes which see not,” returned Deacon Fielding, with a glance at the slender form of the dreamer disappearing down the alley, and another of acuteness at the girl, who looked exceedingly fair to him, as she sat sewing with the leaf-shadows playing over her. “There are those who see and yet know not that they see, and those who only come to know the real through dreams,” he added. “Maybe my son is of that kind.”
Isabel blushed until the soft red tinted all the ivory of her face and neck. She bent her head low, but there was a mischievous tilt to her mouth.
The next day she and Harry started for Whitfield. Harry sat beside Isabel in the stage and dreamed all the way; but once he gazed admiringly at his cousin, who looked wondrous fair in her travelling-gown, and whispered in her ear. “I am sure that my Lavinia will resemble you, Isabel,” he said, and Isabel laughed, although a little sadly.
A grievous disappointment was before Harry Fielding, for when they reached Whitfield, John Brooks drew him aside and whispered that Lavinia Creevy was not at home. “I know it will be a sad disappointment to you, Harry,” John said, “but it was only this morning that she went by stage to Sharon to nurse an aged great-aunt who lies ill of a fever and lives alone.”
“When will she return?” asked Harry, pitifully.
“Not while you are here, and for much longer,” replied John, “for her aunt has a slow fever.”
When Harry sat down to the well-spread supper-table he glanced at Isabel, and knew that she had heard the sad news. He received in return a look of the sweetest commiseration, and as soon as she could draw him apart after the meal, a consoling word. “'Tis too bad, Harry,” said she, in a whisper.
“I had so counted upon it, Isabel.”
“Do not despair, for I will invite Eliza and her brother and your Lavinia to visit us.”
“Oh, will you do that, Isabel, and before I go to college?” cried Harry.
“Hush!” said she. “That I will. Take heart, Harry.”
But even that fine plan miscarried, for Eliza and John indeed paid the promised visit to Boston, but the fair Lavinia did not come; she was so wearied, they said, with the nursing of her great-aunt, who had died of the fever, and left her only two silver teaspoons and a mourning-ring, that she was unable to take the journey. So Harry missed yet again seeing his fair Lavinia, and in his distress he did not notice John Brooks's infatuation for Isabel. Indeed, Eliza helped to conceal the fact, for she was ever at Harry's elbow talking about Lavinia and increasing his mad imagination and desire for her, that her brother might have his chance to talk alone with Isabel. The afternoon of the day before they returned to Whitfield, John Brooks, coming upon Isabel in the arbor, spoke his mind, and went down on his knees before her and asked her to marry him. But to his astonishment she answered not even courteously, but turned upon him in a sudden anger strange to see in her.
“Think you I see not through your wiles, Master John Brooks?” she cried, her face flaming.
John Brooks stammered in reply that he knew not what she meant.
“Well you know what I mean, you and your sister Eliza,” cried Isabel. “I would not be discourteous to a guest, nor treat with ungraciousness an honest man who does me the honor to ask me to be his wife, but well you know what I mean, and Isabel Done weds with no man who stoops to subterfuge to win her.”
“What mean — you?” stammered John again.
“'Tis an idle question you ask, since you know, but if you will have it, here it is: there is no fair Lavinia Creevy, and you but invented the tale for a jest, and also — and also —” Here Isabel herself stopped short and paled, and tears stood in her eyes.
But John Brooks gazed at her, and there was nothing save honesty in his prominent eyes. “You wrong me, Mistress Done,” he said, fervently, “for as I live there is a Lavinia Creevy, and she lives with us, as I have said.”
Isabel's pale face grew rigid as the dead. “Are you speaking the truth, Master Brooks?”
“I am speaking the truth,” declared John Brooks, “and Lavinia Creevy lives, and I have not made a jest of Harry by pretending her existence, and —”
“But you cannot deny that you have so descanted upon her fairness for — a purpose,” said Isabel; but she stammered again, and again the color stained her face.
Brooks regarded her curiously. His face fell. “I descanted upon the fairness of Lavinia before I had ever seen you, Mistress Done,” he said, “and you have but to ask Harry.”
“I need not ask Harry,” replied Isabel, in a lifeless tone, and again she was pale. “I have no interest in your fair Lavinia, except, of course, pleasure that aught so wondrous fair should grace the earth. Your word as to her existence is sufficient, Master Brooks; but as to the other which you asked of me, I crave your pardon if I have done you an injustice, and thank you humbly for the honor, but your wife I cannot be. I have no wish to wed. I am more content with a single life and shall be more content.”
“Then it is —” began John Brooks, rising and staring at her with a sort of repressed fury. But she stopped him.
“Not another word,” said she. “'Tis naught to you nor any other man why I remain unwed, but thee I should wed not in any case.” Then she was on her feet and moving away with a stately tread.
Harry wondered why John Brooks was so silent that night and unlike himself; but when they met a few weeks later at Harvard, fair even then, he was the same as ever, ready with a jest and a quibble and singing still the praises of the fair Lavinia. Harry stood well in his class, in spite of the ever-present and ever-ungratified romance of his heart. He graduated with high honors, but even his graduation was marred of its glory, because of the absence of the fair Lavinia, on whose appearance he had counted most confidently, having been disappointed in meeting her through all his college years.
He was so sadly taken aback by his disappointment that on his return home Isabel Done was at her wit's end to comfort him. So distraught was he, sighing and sleepless and composing poetry, which had but small merit, and threatening to relinquish his chosen profession of the ministry and go to the world's end, shipping before the mast if his father forbade him to go on business, that poor Isabel herself was almost distracted.
One night, after Harry had gone to his room and could be heard pacing overhead, Deacon Fielding spoke to Isabel. “I doubt if my son has a call,” he said; “so restless and so ill at ease he seems that I doubt it much.”
“Oh, sir,” Isabel cried, eagerly, “I doubt it not at all.”
“I have questioned him well concerning his belief in the doctrines,” pursued Deacon Fielding, “and so has Parson Ackley at my request, and we doubt. He seemeth exceedingly weak and even of a rebellious spirit concerning some points. He has too many romantic imaginings and too little of the steadfastness of faith which regards not itself. I question whether it be not wise to give up the dearest wish of my heart — to see my son standing in the pulpit preaching the Word to the ungodly — and send him to the Indies for sugar and molasses.”
But Isabel pleaded hard, saying that she had no doubt whatever of Harry's calling, and Deacon Fielding agreed to wait a few days before making a decision.
The next morning Isabel proposed to Harry that she should paint a miniature of the fair Lavinia according to his and her conception of her, and Harry snatched at the suggestion as eagerly as a child. “Think you that you can do it, Isabel?” he asked. “I know you have a pretty skill at painting — as pretty, perhaps, as Lavinia herself — but think you that you can do it?”
Isabel replied that she could but try: that she had heard the fair maiden described so often that it seemed verily to her as if she were before her very face.
“And so it seemeth to me!” cried Harry, wildly, and his blue eyes blazed wistfully at Isabel's face, which was strangely and palely beautiful as ever.
So it happened that in some three days' time Isabel came to Harry with a miniature, and she mentioned not how she had painted it standing before her looking-glass, and her heart beat wildly as she showed it to him. But Harry snatched at it. “'Tis she herself!” he cried, and gazed with rapture. It was the miniature of a great beauty, rosily tinted as to cheeks and lips, with a color as of rose on pearl on tip of chin, and eyes like blue gems, and hair shining like gold. “'Tis wonderful!” cried Harry, and he kissed the miniature in a transport, while Isabel's face was at once distressed and triumphant.
The miniature was painted on a small oval of ivory, and Harry had it set in gold and wore it always around his neck, concealed by his linen, which Isabel had stitched, and it was such a comfort as never was to the childlike man. Straightway, in spite of another disappointment as to seeing in verity the fair Lavinia — for it had been arranged that he and Isabel were to visit Whitfield during the summer, and John wrote of a disastrous fire which had destroyed part of the house, and the spare bedrooms being flooded with water and all the plaster and paper off — he said no more about the Indies. He began his theological course in the autumn with zealous spirit. The possession of the miniature had seemed to assure him of the ultimate possession of his dream. “Sure am I now that my prayers will be answered, and that I shall at last see in the flesh my fair Lavinia,” he said to Isabel on his first homecoming. Harry's faith remained intact, although he was always disappointed in his plans for seeing the fair Lavinia during his stay at the theological school. Always something happened to prevent it. Still, he was not unhappy, and he stood foremost in his class. It seemed finally as if his whole soul became beautified and purified by the non-possession of that which he adored, and he was kept free from all the temptations which might have beset his youth by his fine imaginings. He obtained a fine pastorate in Boston, upon the strength of a trial sermon full of doctrines and yet redolent of angelic love and faith and patience.
When he received his call to the Boston church and had accepted, he came to Isabel with a determined expression upon his face.
“Wilt pack my portmanteau for me, Isabel?” he said.
Isabel looked up at him and paled. She was sitting at work in the south parlor of the Fielding house. There were two windows facing the street, and between them stood a great century-plant.
“Where are you going?” asked Isabel. As she spoke she looked past Harry at the great century-plant, and it seemed to her that there was something unusual about it. Even in the midst of her sudden pain and distress she wondered if it were going to blossom.
Harry answered with a firm voice. “I am going to Whitfield,” said he. “I am going to Whitfield to see Lavinia Creevy.”
“Very well, Harry, I will pack your portmanteau,” said Isabel, in a quiet voice. “God grant that you find her this time, and find her all you have wished for so long.”
Harry stared at her. “What is the matter, Isabel?” he said, anxiously.
“Nothing; but I think the century-plant is going to blossom,” said Isabel, folding her work. Then she went swiftly out of the room to pack Harry's portmanteau, and it was not half an hour before she bade him farewell at the front door.
Harry took her hand, which was soft and cold, and then he looked at her suddenly with a look which she had never seen before in his eyes. “After all,” he said —
“After all, I have a mind not to go, Isabel.”
“Nay, go you must, Harry,” said Isabel, “and may God speed you.”
When she told Deacon Fielding upon his return that night whither Harry had gone, he frowned, and laughed, and frowned again. He had overheard Harry in some of his wild ravings, and had long since guessed at the truth. “When he returns from his wild-goose chase perhaps he will chase swans,” said he.
Isabel blushed. “He may find the lady, and find her all that has been said,” she replied.
“It is time the boy grappled with truth instead of cobwebs,” said Deacon Fielding, sternly. “He has his call, and to a fine pastorate, and this vaporing —”
“It may not be vaporing.”
“God grant it may be, for I would have —” Deacon Fielding stopped his speech and held out his Canton-china cup to be refilled.
Harry returned the next night from Whitfield. Isabel, sitting with her work at the window, saw him coming. She looked strangely changed, for with a few slight touches she had altered the whole character of her own rare beauty, making it of quite another type. A faint touch of rouge was on her cheeks and lips, her thick, fair eyebrows were pencilled, and she had dusted her hair with gold-powder so that it glittered in the sunlight. Before her stood the century-plant, and upon it was now quite evident a bud ready to burst into blossom. Isabel gave a great start at sight of Harry coming up the street. He walked briskly and his head was up and he did not look downcast. Isabel rose and went out of the room into the front hall, with its beautiful spiral of stair, and opened the front door and stood waiting. She realized a faintness as of death itself, but she stood still, framed in the doorway, knowing that the happiness of her whole life hung upon the chance of the next moment.
Harry approached the door and saw the girl standing there, and a great wave of amazement overspread his face.
“Well,” said Isabel, “did you find the fair Lavinia, Harry?”
“Yes,” replied Harry, still staring at her as if in a dream, “I found her.”
“And is she so fair?” asked Isabel. She trembled in all her limbs, but her voice was quiet and firm.
“Yes, she was fair,” replied Harry. “She is a great beauty, Isabel, and she is as John said.”
“Then it was not a jest?”
“A jest at first, for John sought to amuse himself with me, knowing how easily my heart might be turned by my imagination, but afterwards no jest, for — for John loves you, Isabel, and he would fain have had me turn to Lavinia, for he — he feared —”
“Never mind what he feared,” said Isabel, in a dull voice. “So you found her fair, and all the miscarryings of plans to meet her were true?”
“Yes, they were true, and — Miss Creevy is a great beauty, such as the world has seldom seen, but — Isabel —”
“But what, Harry?”
“She is not the Lavinia of whom I have thought all these years. I could love her not, Isabel, even if she could love me.” Harry again stared at Isabel, and now upon his face was a strange look as of one who awakens. He followed her into the parlor like a man in a dream. He drew the miniature from his breast and gazed at it, then at Isabel. “It is your face,” he whispered, breathlessly. “You are the fair Lavinia, Isabel.”
Isabel gave a short gasp. She was trembling from head to foot. “Wait, wait, Harry!” she panted, and ran out of the room. When she returned the rouge was washed from her fair cheeks and the gold-dust was shaken from her hair. Then she stood before her cousin, her head hanging. “There was paint on my cheeks and there was gold on my hair, and I am not the fair Lavinia,” she said, pitifully, and yet with a certain dignity.
Harry stood regarding her. “Oh, Isabel,” he said, “it was your miniature, and it was you whom I loved and I knew it not. I sought her afar, and all the time she sat on my own hearthstone, so near that I saw her not. Can you ever forgive me, Isabel, and can you ever love a man who has been so blind?”
“I would that I were the fair Lavinia,” said Isabel.
Then Harry caught her in his arms. “You are the fair Lavinia,” said he. “You are forever until death do us part, and after if such be the will of God, my fair Lavinia.”