The Lightning Conductor/Chapter 21


January 28, Hotel San Domenico,

I'm going to write it all down just as it happened, and see how it looks in black and white. Then perhaps I can judge better whether I've been very weak and undignified, and a lot of other things which I've always been sure I never would be, under any provocation; or whether I've done what no normal girl could help doing.

It's the sort of thing one couldn't possibly tell anybody, not even one's dearest school-friend. I did promise Elise Astley that if I ever got engaged, she should be told exactly what He said, and what I said, but then I didn't know how differently one would feel about it afterwards; besides, I'm not engaged, I only—no, this isn't the way I meant to begin, I am afraid I'm getting a good deal mixed. I must be—more concise.

Note 1. If I think when I come to read this over that I have not demeaned myself like a self-respecting, patriotic American girl, I will tear this up and write a letter to a—Certain Person.

Note 2. If, on the contrary, I decide, on mature deliberation, that I could not have acted otherwise, I will keep this always in the secret drawer of my writing-desk, where I can take it out and look at it at least once every year until I am an old woman—ever so much older than Aunt Mary.

When Jimmy Payne suddenly hurled himself at me out of a cab (just as Aunt Mary and I and a donkey were trailing disconsolately down from Mola) and exploded into fireworks calculated to blow my poor Lightning Conductor into fragments, I threw cold water on his Roman candles and rockets.

All the same, though, I felt as if I had been dipped first into boiling hot, then freezing cold water myself. I couldn't, wouldn't and shouldn't believe any of Jimmy's sensational accusations of Brown, and I defended him whenever Jimmy would let me get in a word edgewise. But when he told me that Dad had come half across the world from New York to Sicily on the strength of his statements, I was wild—partly with anger and partly with anxiety to see my dear old Angel "immediately if not sooner."

I don't remember a word Jimmy said to me, driving down to Sir Edward Haines', where Dad had gone expecting to find me. I've just a hazy recollection of being hurried through a beautiful garden; I knew that poor Lady Brighthelmston (piteously worried about her son) and a rather common girl and her father, whom we'd stumbled across in Blois, were with us. Their cab had come behind ours. I saw Dad in the distance, talking to Brown, who looked less like a hired chauffeur than ever, and then—then came the thunderbolt.

It was almost as difficult to believe at first that he had tricked me by pretending to be Brown, when he was really Mr. Winston, as it would have been to believe Jimmy Payne's penny-dreadful stories. But you can't go on doubting when a virtuous old lady claims a man as her own son. I had to accept the fact that he was Jack Winston.

For an instant I felt as if it were a play, and I were some one in the audience, looking on. It didn't seem real, or to have anything to do with me. Then I caught his eyes. They were saying, "Do forgive me"; and with that I realized how much there was to forgive. He had made me behave like a perfect little fool, giving him good advice and tips—actually tips!—telling him (or very nearly) that he was "quite like a gentleman," and hundreds of other outrageous things which all rushed into my mind, as they say your whole past life does when you are drowning.

I gave him a glance—quite a short one, because I could hardly look him in the face, thinking of those tips and other things.

Then I turned away, and began talking to Dad; but very likely I talked great nonsense, for I hadn't the least idea what I was saying, except that I kept exclaiming the same five words over and over, like a phonograph doll: "I am glad to see you! I am glad to see you!"

Perhaps I had presence of mind enough to invite the dear thing to take a stroll with me, for the sake of escaping from Brown; for, anyway, I woke up from a sort of dream, to find myself walking into a summer-house alone with Dad.

"Don't you think," he was saying, "that you treated Mr. Winston rather rudely?"

"Rudely?" I repeated. "How has he treated me, I should like to know?"

"If you really would like to know," returned Dad, in that nice, calming way he has which, even when you are ruffled up, makes you feel like a kitty-cat being stroked, "I don't see, girlie dear, that you have so very much to complain of. I've been having a chat with him, and if he tells the truth, he appears to have served you pretty well. But perhaps you will say he doesn't tell the truth as to that?"

"Oh, he served me well enough—too well." said I. "But let's not speak of him. I want to talk about you,"

"There's plenty of time for that," said Dad. "I've come to stay—for a while. Before we begin on me, let's thrash out this matter of Mr. Winston."

"It deserves to be thrashed," I remarked, trying to laugh. But I've heard things that sounded more like laughs than that. I hoped Dad didn't notice it was wobbly.

"He's told me the whole story," went on Dad, "so perhaps I'm in a position to judge better than you. Women are supposed to have no abstract sense of justice, but I thought my girl was different. You hear what Winston has got to say first, and then you can send him to the right-about if you please."

"I don't see anything abstract in that. It's purely personal," said I. "Mr. Winston can't expect me to hear him, or even to see him, again."

"He hopes, not expects, as a chap feels about going to heaven," said Dad. "I'll fetch him, and you can get it over."

"Do nothing of the kind!" I exclaimed. "Let him stay with his mother."

"I guess I'm competent to entertain bis mother for a few minutes," suggested Dad. "She's a very pleasant-looking lady."

I would have stopped him if I could; but when I saw he was determined, I just shut my lips tight, and let him go. What I meant to do was to whisk out as soon as his back was turned, so that when Mr. Winston should come, he would find me gone. There was no danger he wouldn't understand why; and a decided action like that on my part would settle everything for the future.

But as I got to the door I saw him, not six feet distant. He must either have been on the way to the summer-house when Dad left me, or else he'd been waiting close by. Anyhow, evidently he and Dad couldn't have said two words to each other; there hadn't been time; and there was Dad marching off as if to find and "entertain" Lady Brighthelmston. I should almost have had to push past Mr. Winston, if I'd persisted in escaping, which would have looked childish, so quickly I resolved to stand my ground—in the summer-house—and face it out. My heart was beating so fast I could hardly think, and I had to tell myself crossly, with a sort of mental shake, that after all he was the guilty one, not I, before I could catch at even a decent amount of savoir faire.

Naturally, as it was the only thing to be said, his lips asked the same question his eyes had asked before. "Can you forgive me?"

I always thought Brown's voice one of the nicest things about him, unless perhaps his eyes; and both were at their very nicest now. I hadn't realized, till he came to me, how much I should want to forgive him. I did want to, awfully, but I felt it would never do; and I think I must have been commendably dignified as I answered: "The hardest possible thing for a woman to forgive a man is making her ridiculous."

"But then," he cut in, quite boldly, "I don't ask you to forgive me for a sin I haven't committed, only for those I have."

"You have made me ridiculous," I insisted.

"I fancied it was myself; but I didn't mind that, or anything else which gave me a chance of being near you, even under false pretences. It is for deceiving you that I ask to be forgiven. I lived a good many lies as Brown, but honestly, I believe I never told one. Do forgive me. I sha'n't be able to bear my life if you don't."

"I can't forgive you," I said again.

"Then punish me first and forgive me afterwards—very soon. I deserve that you should do both."

"I think you do deserve the first, but I don't quite see how or why you deserve the second."

"Because I worship you, and would rather be your servant than be king of a country in which you didn't live."

"Oh!" I couldn't say another word, for thinking of Brown being in love with me, and there being no reason why I shouldn't let myself love him too—except, of course, one's self-respect after all that had happened. But just for an instant I didn't think about that last part; and I was so surprised, and so happy—or so shocked and so unhappy (I couldn't be sure which; only, whatever the sensation was, it was very violent), that I was speechless.

Brown took advantage of that, and talked a great deal more. I tried to look away from him, but I simply couldn't. He held my eyes, and after he had told me whole chapters about his thoughts and feelings since the very first day of our meeting, it occurred to me that he was holding my hands too—both of them, I am not sure he hadn't been doing it for some time before I found out, but it was his kissing the hands which brought me to myself.

It seemed too extraordinary that Brown should be doing that—almost as if I were dreaming. And to be perfectly frank with myself, it was an exquisite dream; because such strange things can happen in dreams, and you don't seem to mind a bit. Luckily, he didn't know this; and I snatched my hands away, exclaiming: "Mr. Winston!"

"Don't call me that," he begged. "Call me Brown."

"But you are not Brown."

"I love you just as much as when I was Brown, and more. If you only knew what thousands of times I have longed to tell you, and the heavenly relief it is to do it at last!"

"You have no more right now. Less, even; for Brown seemed honest."

"If Brown had forgotten himself, and—and kissed the hem of your dress, what would you have done?"

"I—don't know," was my feeble answer.

"You would have sent him away."

"No—I don't think I could have done that. I—I depended on Brown so much. I used—to wonder how I should ever get on without him."

"Don't get on without him. I'll be your chauffeur all my days, if those are the only terms on which you'll take me back. But are there no other terms? What I want is—"

"What?" I couldn't resist asking when he paused.


Something in his face, his eyes, his voice—his whole self, I suppose—carried me off my feet into deep water. I just let myself go, I was so frightfully happy. I knew now that I had been in love with Brown for months and had been miserable and restless because he was—only Brown.

I heard myself saying: "I do forgive you."

"And love me—a little?"

"No; not a little."

Then he caught me in his arms, though at any moment some one might have passed the summer-house door and seen us. He didn't think of that, apparently, and neither did I at the time. I thought only of Brown—Brown—Brown. There was nobody in the world but Brown.

I don't think I precisely said in so many words that I would be engaged to him, though he may have taken that for granted in the end; and if I did give a wrong impression, I had no time to correct it, for it seemed that we had been talking about the future and such things no more than a minute, when Dad came sauntering by with Lady Brighthelmston.

They both looked at us as if they expected to hear something "extra special," as the newsboys say; and I gave a glance at Brown, or Jack, or whatever I ought to call him, which said, "If you dare!"

Having been forgiven once, I suppose he thought it would be wiser not to tempt Providence, so he held his peace, and we all talked about the weather and what a nice garden-party it was.

That is the reason why I still have the thing in my own hands. If I read this over, as I am now going to do, and disapprove of myself, it is not too late to change my mind.

P.S. I have read it. And I have thought things over.

Molly Randolph, if you hadn't forgiven Brown, you would have been a detestable little wretch, and you would never have forgiven yourself, for he is the best ever—except Dad.

It will be delicious to let myself love him as much as ever I like, at last—my Lightning Conductor!