Open main menu
 

PETRONELLA

"If you loved a man, and knew that he loved you, and he wouldn't ask you to marry him, what would you do?"

The Admiral surveyed his grand-niece thoughtfully. "What do you expect to do, my dear?"

Petronella stopped on the snowy top step and looked down at him. "Who said I had anything to do with it?" she demanded.

The Admiral's old eyes twinkled. "Let me come in, and tell me about it."

Petronella smiled at him over her big muff. "If you'll promise not to stay after five, I'll give you a cup of tea."

"Who's coming at five?"

The color flamed into Petronella's cheeks. In her white coat and white furs, with her wind-blown brown hair, her beauty satisfied even the Admiral's critical survey, and he hastened to follow his question by the assertion, "Of course I'll come in."

Petronella, with her coat off, showed a slenderness which was enhanced by the straight lines of her white wool gown, with the long sleeves fur-edged, and with fur at the top of the high, transparent collar. She wore her hair curled over her ears and low on her forehead, which made of her face a small and delicate oval. In the big hall, with a roaring fire in the wide fireplace, she dispensed comforting hospitality to the adoring Admiral. And when she had given him his tea she sat on a stool at his feet. "Oh, wise great-uncle," she said, "I am going to tell you about the Man!"

"Have I ever seen him?"

"No. I met him in London last year, and—well, you know what a trip home on shipboard means, with all the women shut up in their cabins, and with moonlight nights, and nobody on deck——"

"So it was an affair of moonlight and propinquity?"

After a pause: "No, it was an affair of the only man in the world for me."

"My dear child——!"

Out of a long silence she went on: "He thought I was poor. You know how quietly I traveled with Miss Danvers. And he didn't associate Nell Hewlett with Petronella Hewlett of New York and Great Rock. And so—well, you know, uncle, he let himself go, and I let myself go, and then——"

She drew a long breath. "When we landed, things stopped. He had found out who I was, and he wrote me a little note, and said he would never forget our friendship—and that's—all."

She finished drearily, and the bluff old Admiral cleared his throat. There was something wrong with the scheme of things when his Petronella couldn't have the moon if she wanted it!

"And what can I do—what can any woman do?" Petronella demanded, turning on him. "I can't go to him and say, 'Please marry me.' I can't even think it"; her cheeks burned. "And he'd die before he'd say another word, and I suppose that now we'll go on growing old, and I'll get thinner and thinner, and he'll get fatter and fatter, and I'll be an old maid, and he'll marry some woman who's poor enough to satisfy his pride, and—well, that will be the end of it, uncle."

"The end of it?" said the gentleman who had once commanded a squadron. "Well, I guess not, Petronella, if you want him. Oh, the man's a fool!"

"He's not a fool, uncle." The sparks in Petronella's eyes matched the sparks in the Admiral's.

"Well, if he's worthy of you——"

Petronella laid her cheek against his hand. "The question is not," she said, faintly, "of his worthiness, but of mine, dear uncle."

Dumbly the Admiral gazed down at that drooping head. Could this be Petronella—confident, imperious, the daughter of a confident and imperious race?

He took refuge in the question, "But who is coming at five?"

"He is coming. He is passing through Boston on his way to visit his mother in Maine. I asked him to come. I told him I was down here by the sea, and intended to spend Christmas at Great Rock because you were here, and because this was the house I lived in when I was a little girl, and that I wanted him to see it; and—I told him the truth, uncle."

"The truth?"

"That I missed him. That was all I dared say, and I wish you had read his note of assent. Such a stiff little thing. It threw me back upon myself, and I wished that I hadn't written him—I wished that he wouldn't come. Oh, uncle, if I were a man, I'd give a woman the right to choose. That's the reason there are so many unhappy marriages. Nine wrong men ask a woman, and the tenth right one won't. And finally she gets tired of waiting for the tenth right one, and marries one of the nine wrong ones."

"There are women to-day," said the Admiral, "who are preaching a woman's right to propose."

Petronella gazed at him, thoughtfully. "I could preach a doctrine like that—but I couldn't practice it. It's easy enough to say to some other woman, 'Ask him,' but it's different when you are the woman."

"Yet if he asked you," suggested the Admiral, "the world might say that he wanted your money."

"Why should we care what the world would say?" Petronella was on her feet now, defending her cause vigorously. "Why should we care? Why, it's our love against the world, uncle! Why should we care?"

The Admiral stood up, too, and paced the rug as in former days he had paced the decks. "There must be some way out," he said at last, and stopped short. "Suppose I speak to him——"

"And spoil it all! Oh, uncle!" Petronella shook him by the lapels of his blue coat. "A man never knows how a woman feels about such things. Even you don't, you old darling. And now will you please go; and take this because I love you," and she kissed him on one cheek, "and this because it is a quarter to five and you'll have to hurry," and she kissed him on the other cheek.

The Admiral, being helped into his big cape in the hall, called back, "I forgot to give you your Christmas present," and he produced a small package.

"Come here and let me open it," Petronella insisted. And the Admiral, without a glance at the accusing clock, went back. And thus it happened that he was there to meet the Man.

It must be confessed that the Admiral suffered a distinct shock as he was presented to the hero of Petronella's romance. Here was no courtly youth of the type of the military male line of Petronella's family, but a muscular young giant of masterful bearing. The Hewlett men had commanded men; one could see at a glance that Justin Hare had also commanded women. This, the wise old Admiral decided at once, was the thing which had attracted Petronella—Petronella, who had held her own against all masculine encroachments, and who was heart-free at twenty-five!

"Look what this dearest dear of an uncle has given me," said Petronella, and held up for the young surgeon's admiration a string of pearls with a sapphire clasp. "They belonged to my great-aunt. I was named for her, and uncle says I look like her."

"You have her eyes, my dear, and some of her ways. But she was less independent. In her time women leaned more, as it were, on man's strength."

Justin Hare looked at them with interest—at the slender girl in her white gown, at the tall, straight old man with his air of command.

"Women in these days do not lean," he said, with decision; "they lead."

A spark came into Petronella's eyes. "And do you like the modern type best?" she challenged. He answered with smiling directness, "I like you."

The Admiral was pleased with that, though he was still troubled by this man's difference from the men of his own race. Yet if back of that honest bluntness there was a heart which would enshrine her—well, that was all he would ask for this dearest of girls.

He glanced at the clock, and spoke hurriedly: "I must be going, my dear; it is long after five."

"Must you really go?" asked the mendacious Petronella.

An hour later she was alone. The visit had been a failure. She admitted that, as she gazed with a sort of agonized dismay through the wide window to where the sea was churned by the wildness of the northeast gale. Snow had come with the wind, shutting out the view of the great empty hotels on the Point, shutting out, too, the golden star of hope which gleamed from the top of the lighthouse.

Petronella turned away from the blank scene with a little shudder. Thus had Justin Hare shut her out of his life. He had talked of his mother in Maine, of his hospital plans for the winter, but not a word had he said of those moonlight nights when he had masterfully swayed her by the force of his own passion, had wooed her, won her.

And now there was nothing that she could do. There was never anything that a woman could do! And so she must bear it. Oh, if she could bear it!

A little later, when a maid slipped in to light the candles, Petronella said out of the shadows, "When Jenkins goes to the post-office, I have a parcel for the mail."

"He's been, miss, and there won't be any train out to-night; the snow has stopped the trains."

"Not any train!" At first the remark held little significance, but finally the fact beat against her brain. If the one evening train could not leave, then Justin Hare must stay in town, and he would have to stay until Christmas morning!

Petronella went at once to the telephone, and called up the only hotel which was open at that season. Presently she had Hare at the other end of the line.

"You must come to my house to dinner," she said. "Jenkins has told me about your train. Please don't dress—there'll be only Miss Danvers and uncle; and you shall help me trim my little tree."

Although she told him not to dress, she changed her gown for one of dull green velvet, built on the simple lines of the white wool she had worn in the afternoon. The square neck was framed by a collar of Venetian point, and there was a queer old pin of pearls.

The Admiral, arriving early, demanded: "My dear, what is this? I was just sitting down to bread and milk and a handful of raisins, and now I must dine in six courses, and drink coffee, which will keep me awake."

She laid her cheek against his arm. "Mr. Hare's train couldn't get out of town on account of the snow."

"And he's coming?"

"Yes."

"But what of this afternoon, my dear?"

She slipped her hand into his, and they stood gazing into the fire. "It was dreadful, uncle. I had a feeling that I had compelled him to come—against his will."

"Yet you have asked him to come again to-night?"

She shivered a little, and her hand was cold. "Perhaps I shall regret it—but oh, uncle, can't I have for this one evening the joy of his presence? And if to-morrow my heart dies——"

"Nella, my dear child——"

The Admiral's own Petronella had never drawn in this way upon his emotions. She had been gentle, perhaps a little cold. But then he had always worshiped at her shrine. Perhaps a woman denied the lore she yearns for learns the value of it. At any rate, here in his arms was the dearest thing in his lonely life, sobbing as if her heart would break.

When Justin came, a half-hour later, he found them still in front of the fire in the great hall, and as she rose to welcome him he saw that Petronella had been sitting on a stool at her uncle's feet.

"When I was a little girl," she explained, when Hare had taken a chair on the hearth and she had chosen another with, a high, carved back, in which she sat with her silken ankles crossed and the tips of her slipper toes resting on a leopard-skin which the Admiral had brought back from India—"when I was a little girl we always spent Christmas Eve in this house by the sea instead of in town. We were all here then—mother and dad and dear Aunt Pet, and we hung our stockings at this very fireplace—and now there is no one but Miss Danvers and me, and uncle, who lives up aloft in his big house across the way, where he has a lookout tower. I always feel like calling up to him when I go there, 'Oh, Anne, Sister Anne, do you see anybody coming?'"

She was talking nervously, with her cheeks as white as a lily, but with her eyes shining. The Admiral glanced at Hare. The young man was drinking in her beauty. But suddenly he frowned and turned away his eyes.

"It was very good of you to ask me over," he said, formally.

That steadied Petronella. Her nervous self-consciousness fled, and she was at once the gracious, impersonal hostess.

The Admiral glowed with pride of her. "She'll carry it off," he said to himself; "it's in her blood."

"Dinner is served," announced Jenkins from the doorway, and then Miss Danvers came down and greeted Justin, and they all went out together.

There was holly for a centerpiece, and four red candles in silver holders. The table was of richly carved mahogany, and the Admiral, following an old custom, served the soup from a silver tureen, upheld by four fat cupids. From the wide arch which led into the great hall was hung a bunch of mistletoe; beyond the arch, the roaring fire made a background of gleaming, golden light.

To the young surgeon it seemed a fairy scene flaming with the color and glow of a life which he had never known. He had lived so long surrounded by the bare, blank walls of a hospital. Even Petronella's soft green gown seemed made of some mystical stuff which had nothing in common with the cool white or blue starchiness of the uniforms of nurses.

They talked of many things, covering with, their commonplaces the tenseness of the situation. Then suddenly the conversation took a significant turn.

"I love these stormy nights," Petronella had said, "with the snow blowing, and the wind, and the house all warm and bright."

"Think of the poor sailors at sea," Hare had reminded her.

"Please—I don't want to think of them. We have done our best for them, uncle and I. We have opened a reading-room down by the docks, so that all who are ashore can have soup and coffee and sandwiches, and there's a big stove, and newspapers and magazines."

"You dispense charity?"

"Why not?" she asked him, confidently. "We have plenty—why shouldn't we give?"

"Because it takes away from their manhood to receive."

The Admiral spoke bluntly. "The men don't feel it that way. This charity, as you call it, is a memorial to my wife. The grandfathers of these boys used to see her light in the window of the old house on stormy nights, and they knew that it was an invitation to good cheer. More than one crew coming in half frozen were glad of the soup and coffee which were sent down to them in cans with baskets of bread. And this little coffee-room has been the outgrowth of just such hospitality. There are too many of the men to have in my house. I simply entertain them elsewhere, and I like to go and talk to them, and sometimes Petronella goes."

"There's a picture of dear Aunt Pet hanging there," said Petronella, "and you can't imagine how it softens the manners of the men. It is as if her spirit brooded over the place. They have made it into a sort of shrine, and they bring shells and queer carved things to put on the shelf below it."

"In the city we are beginning to think that such methods weaken self-respect."

"That's because," said the wise old Admiral, "in the city there isn't any real democracy. You give your friend a cup of coffee and think nothing of it, yet when I give a cup of coffee to a sailor whose grandfather and mine fished together on the banks, you warn me that my methods tend to pauperize. In the city the poor are never your friends—in this little town no man would admit that he is less than I. They like my coffee and they drink it."

Petronella, seeing her chance, took it. "I think people are horrid to let money make a difference."

"You say that," said Hare, "because you have never had to accept favors—you have, in other words, never been on the other side."

The Admiral, taking up cudgels for his niece, answered, "If she had been on the other side, she would have taken life as she takes it now—like a gentleman and a soldier," and he smiled at Petronella.

Hare had a baffled sense that the Admiral was right—that Petronella's fineness and delicacy would never go down in defeat or despair. She would hold her head high though the heavens fell. But could any man make such demands upon her? For himself, he would not.

So he answered, doggedly, "We shall hope she need never be tested." And Petronella's heart sank like lead.

But presently she began to talk about the little tree. "We have always had it in uncle's lookout tower. That was another of dear Aunt Pet's thoughts for the sailors. On clear nights they looked through their glasses for the little colored lights, and on stormy nights they knew that back of all the snow was the Christmas brightness."

"I never had a tree," said Justin. "When I was a kiddie we had pretty hard times, and the best Christmas I remember was one when mother made us boys put up a shelf for our books, and she started our collection with 'Treasure Island' and 'Huckleberry Finn.'"

In the adjoining room, volumes reached from floor to ceiling, from end to end. Petronella had a vision of this vivid young giant gloating over his two books on a rude shelf. And all her life she had had the things she wanted! Somehow the thought took the bitterness out of her attitude toward him. How strong he must be to deny himself now the one great thing that he craved when his life had held so little.

"How lovely to begin with just those two books," she said, softly, and the radiance of her smile was dazzling.

When she showed him her presents she was still radiant. There was a queer opera-bag of Chinese needlework, with handles of jade, a Damascus bowl of pierced brass, a tea-caddy in quaint Dutch repoussé; there was a silver-embroidered altar-cloth for a cushion, a bit of Copenhagen faience, all the sophisticated artistry which is sent to those who have no need for the commonplace. There were jewels, too: a bracelet of topazes surrounded by brilliants, a pair of slipper buckles of turquoises set in silver, a sapphire circlet for her little finger, a pendant of seed pearls.

As she opened the parcels and displayed her riches Justin felt bewildered. His gifts to his mother had included usually gloves and a generous check; if he had ventured to choose anything for Petronella he would not have dared go beyond a box of candy or a book; he had given his nurses pocketbooks and handkerchiefs. And the men of Petronella's world bestowed on her brass bowls and tea-caddies!

Miss Danvers vanished up-stairs. The Admiral, having admired, slipped away to the library, encouraged by Petronella's whispered: "Oh, uncle dear, leave us alone for just a little minute. I've found a way!"

Then Petronella, with that radiance still upon her, sat down on her little stool in front of the fire, and looked at Justin on the other side of the hearth.

"You haven't given me anything," she began, reproachfully.

"What could I give that would compare with these?" His hand swept toward the exquisite display. "What could I give——"

"There's one thing," softly.

"What?"

"That copy of 'Treasure Island' that your mother gave you long ago."

Dead silence. Then, unsteadily: "Why should you want that?"

"Because your mother—loved you."

Again dead silence. Hare did not look at her. His hand clenched the arm of his chair. His face was white. Then, very low, "Why do you—make it hard for me?"

"Because I want—the book"; she was smiling at him with her eyes like stars. "I want to read it with the eyes of the little boy—with the eyes of the little boy who looked into the future and saw life as a great adventure; who looked into the future—and dreamed."

He had a vision, too, of that little boy, reading, in the old house in the Maine woods, by the light of an oil-lamp, on Christmas Eve, with the snow blowing outside as it blew to-night.

"And your mother loved you because she loved your father," the girl's voice went on, "and you were all very happy up there in the forest. Do you remember that you told me about it on the ship?—you were happy, although you were poor, and hadn't any books but 'Treasure Island' and 'Huckleberry Finn.' But your mother was happy—because she—loved your father."

As she repeated it, she leaned forward. "Could you think of your mother as having been happy with any one else but your father?" she asked. "Could you think of her as having never married him, of having gone through the rest of her days a half-woman, because he would not—take her—into his life? Can you think that all the money in the world—all the money in the whole world—would—would have made up——"

The room seemed to darken. Hare was conscious that her face was hidden in her hands, that he stumbled toward her, that he knelt beside her—that she was in his arms.

"Hush," he was saying in that beating darkness of emotion. "Hush, don't cry—I—I will never let you go——"

When the storm had spent itself and when at last she met his long gaze, he whispered, "I'm not sure now that it is right——"

"You will be sure as the years go on," she whispered back; then, tremulously: "but I—I could never have—talked that way if I had thought of you as the man. I had to think of you as the little boy—who dreamed."