Chapter V - At The Pasture Bars: Elder-bushes May Have Stings
The street upon which the Palace Hotel fronted formed the south side of the Square and ran west to the edge of the town, where it turned to the south for a quarter of a mile or more, then bent to the west again. Some distance from this second turn, there stood, fronting close on the road, a large brick house, the most pretentious mansion in Carlow County. And yet it was a homelike place, with its red-brick walls embowered in masses of cool Virginia creeper, and a comfortable veranda crossing the broad front, while half a hundred stalwart sentinels of elm and beech and poplar stood guard around it. The front walk was bordered by geraniums and hollyhocks; and honeysuckle climbed the pillars of the porch. Behind the house there was a shady little orchard; and, back of the orchard, an old-fashioned, very fragrant rose-garden, divided by a long grape arbor, extended to the shallow waters of a wandering creek; and on the bank a rustic seat was placed, beneath the sycamores.
From the first bend of the road, where it left the town and became (after some indecision) a country highway--called the pike--rather than a proud city boulevard, a pathway led through the fields to end at some pasture bars opposite the brick house.
John Harkless was leaning on the pasture bars. The stars were wan, and the full moon shone over the fields. Meadows and woodlands lay quiet under the old, sweet marvel of a June night. In the wide monotony of the flat lands, there sometimes comes a feeling that the whole earth is stretched out before one. To-night it seemed to lie so, in the pathos of silent beauty, all passive and still; yet breathing an antique message, sad, mysterious, reassuring. But there had come a divine melody adrift on the air. Through the open windows it floated. Indoors some one struck a peal of silver chords, like a harp touched by a lover, and a woman's voice was lifted. John Harkless leaned on the pasture bars and listened with upraised head and parted lips.
"To thy chamber window roving, love hath led my feet."
The Lord sent manna to the children of Israel in the wilderness. Harkless had been five years in Plattville, and a woman's voice singing Schubert's serenade came to him at last as he stood by the pasture bars of Jones's field and listened and rested his dazzled eyes on the big, white face of the moon.
How long had it been since he had heard a song, or any discourse of music other than that furnished by the Plattville Band--not that he had not taste for a brass band! But music that he loved always gave him an ache of delight and the twinge of reminiscences of old, gay days gone forever. To-night his memory leaped to the last day of a June gone seven years; to a morning when the little estuary waves twinkled in the bright sun about the boat in which he sat, the trim launch that brought a cheery party ashore from their schooner to the Casino landing at Winter Harbor, far up on the Maine coast.
It was the happiest of those last irresponsible days before he struck into his work in the world and became a failure. To-night he saw the picture as plainly as if it were yesterday; no reminiscence had risen so keenly before his eyes for years: pretty Mrs. Van Skuyt sitting beside him-- pretty Mrs. Van Skuyt and her roses! What had become of her? He saw the crowd of friends waiting on the pier for their arrival, and the dozen or so emblazoned classmates (it was in the time of brilliant flannels) who suddenly sent up a volley of college cheers in his honor--how plainly the dear, old, young faces rose up before him to-night, the men from whose lives he had slipped! Dearest and jolliest of the faces was that of Tom Meredith, clubmate, classmate, his closest friend, the thin, red-headed third baseman; he could see Tom's mouth opened at least a yard, it seemed, such was his frantic vociferousness. Again and again the cheers rang out, "Harkless! Harkless!" on the end of them. In those days everybody (particularly his classmates) thought he would be minister to England in a few years, and the orchestra on the Casino porch was playing "The Conquering Hero," in his honor, and at the behest of Tom Meredith, he knew.
There were other pretty ladies besides Mrs. Van Skuyt in the launch-load from the yacht, but, as they touched the pier, pretty girls, or pretty women, or jovial gentlemen, all were overlooked in the wild scramble the college men made for their hero. They haled him forth, set him on high, bore him on their shoulders, shouting "Skal to the Viking!" and carried him up the wooded bluff to the Casino. He heard Mrs. Van Skuyt say, "Oh, we're used to it; we've put in at several other places where he had friends!" He struggled manfully to be set down, but his triumphal procession swept on. He heard bystanders telling each other, "It's that young Harkless, 'the Great Harkless,' they're all so mad about"; and while it pleased him a little to hear such things, they always made him laugh a great deal. He had never understood his popularity: he had been chief editor of the university daily, and he had done a little in athletics, and the rest of his distinction lay in college offices his mates had heaped upon him without his being able to comprehend why they did it. And yet, somehow, and in spite of himself, they had convinced him that the world was his oyster; that it would open for him at a touch. He could not help seeing how the Freshmen looked at him, how the Sophomores jumped off the narrow campus walks to let him pass; he could not help knowing that he was the great man of his time, so that "The Great Harkless" came to be one of the traditions of the university. He remembered the wild progress they made for him up the slope that morning at Winter Harbor, how the people baked on, and laughed, and clapped their hands. But at the veranda edge he had noticed a little form disappearing around a corner of the building; a young girl running away as fast as she could.
"See there!" he said, as the tribe set him down, "You have frightened the populace." And Tom Meredith stopped shouting long enough to answer, "It's my little cousin, overcome with emotion. She's been counting the hours till you came--been hearing of you from me and others for a good while; and hasn't been able to talk or think of anything else. She's only fifteen, and the crucial moment is too much for her--the Great Harkless has arrived, and she has fled."
He remembered other incidents of his greatness, of the glory that now struck him as rarely comical; be hoped he hadn't taken it too seriously then, in the flush of his youth. Maybe, after all, he had been a, bigheaded boy, but he must have bottled up his conceit tightly enough, or the other boys would have detected it and abhorred him. He was inclined to believe that he had not been very much set up by the pomp they made for him. At all events, that day at Winter Harbor had been beautiful, full of the laughter of friends and music; for there was a musicale at the Casino in the afternoon.
But the present hour grew on him as he leaned on the pasture bars, and suddenly his memories sped; and the voice that was singing Schubert's serenade across the way touched him with the urgent, personal appeal that a present beauty always had for him. It was a soprano; and without tremolo, yet came to his ear with a certain tremulous sweetness; it was soft and slender, but the listener knew it could be lifted with fullness and power if the singer would. It spoke only of the song, yet the listener thought of the singer. Under the moon thoughts run into dreams, and he dreamed that the owner of the voice, she who quoted "The Walrus and the Carpenter" on Fisbee's notes, was one to laugh with you and weep with you; yet her laughter would be tempered with sorrow, and her tears with laughter.
When the song was ended, he struck the rail he leaned upon a sharp blow with his open hand. There swept over him a feeling that he had stood precisely where he stood now, on such a night, a thousand years ago, had heard that voice and that song, had listened and been moved by the song, and the night, just as he was moved now.
He had long known himself for a sentimentalist; he had almost given up trying to cure himself. And he knew himself for a born lover; he had always been in love with some one. In his earlier youth his affections had been so constantly inconstant that he finally came to settle with his self-respect by recognizing in himself a fine constancy that worshipped one woman always--it was only the shifting image of her that changed! Somewhere (he dreamed, whimsically indulgent of the fancy; yet mocking himself for it) there was a girl whom he had never seen, who waited till he should come. She was Everything. Until he found her, he could not help adoring others who possessed little pieces and suggestions of her--her brilliancy, her courage, her short upper lip, "like a curled roseleaf," or her dear voice, or her pure profile. He had no recollection of any lady who had quite her eyes.
He had never passed a lovely stranger on the street, in the old days, without a thrill of delight and warmth. If he never saw her again, and the vision only lasted the time it takes a lady to cross the sidewalk from a shop door to a carriage, he was always a little in love with her, because she bore about her, somewhere, as did every pretty girl he ever saw, a suggestion of the far-away divinity. One does not pass lovely strangers in the streets of Plattville. Miss Briscoe was pretty, but not at all in the way that Harkless dreamed. For five years the lover in him that had loved so often had been starved of all but dreams. Only at twilight and dusk in the summer, when, strolling, he caught sight of a woman's skirt, far up the village street--half-outlined in the darkness under the cathedral arch of meeting branches--this romancer of petticoats could sigh a true lover's sigh, and, if he kept enough distance between, fly a yearning fancy that his lady wandered there.
Ever since his university days the image of her had been growing more and more distinct. He had completely settled his mind as to her appearance and her voice. She was tall, almost too tall, he was sure of that; and out of his consciousness there had grown a sweet and vivacious young face that he knew was hers. Her hair was light-brown with gold lustres (he reveled in the gold lustres, on the proper theory that when your fancy is painting a picture you may as well go in for the whole thing and make it sumptuous), and her eyes were gray. They were very earnest, and yet they sparkled and laughed to him companionably; and sometimes he had smiled back upon her. The Undine danced before him through the lonely years, on fair nights in his walks, and came to sit by his fire on winter evenings when he stared alone at the embers.
And to-night, here in Plattville, he heard a voice he had waited for long, one that his fickle memory told him he had never heard before. But, listening, he knew better--he had heard it long ago, though when and how, he did not know, as rich and true, and ineffably tender as now. He threw a sop to his common sense. "Miss Sherwood is a little thing" (the image was so surely tall) "with a bumpy forehead and spectacles," he said to himself, "or else a provincial young lady with big eyes to pose at you." Then he felt the ridiculousness of looking after his common sense on a moonlight night in June; also, he knew that he lied.
The song had ceased, but the musician lingered, and the keys were touched to plaintive harmonies new to him. He had come to Plattville before "Cavalleria Rusticana" was sung at Rome, and now, entranced, he heard the "Intermezzo" for the first time. Listening to this, he feared to move lest he should wake from a summer-night's dream.
A ragged little shadow flitted down the path behind him, and from a solitary apple-tree, standing like a lonely ghost in the middle of the field, came the woo of a screech owl--twice. It was answered--twice-- from a clump of elder-bushes that grew in a fence-corner fifty yards west of the pasture bars. Then the barrel of a squirrel rifle issued, lifted out of the white elder-blossoms, and lay along the fence. The music in the house across the way ceased, and Harkless saw two white dresses come out through the long parlor windows to the veranda.
"It will be cooler out here," came the voice of the singer clearly through the quiet. "What a night!"
John vaulted the bars and started to cross the road. They saw him from the veranda, and Miss Briscoe called to him in welcome. As his tall figure stood out plainly in the bright light against the white dust, a streak of fire leaped from the elder-blossoms and there rang out the sharp report of a rifle. There were two screams from the veranda. One white figure ran into the house. The other, a little one with a gauzy wrap streaming behind, came flying out into the moonlight--straight to Harkless. There was a second report; the rifle-shot was answered by a revolver. William Todd had risen up, apparently from nowhere, and, kneeling by the pasture bars, fired at the flash of the rifle.
"Jump fer the shadder, Mr. Harkless," he shouted; "he's in them elders," and then: "Fer God's sake, comeback!"
Empty-handed as he was, the editor dashed for the treacherous elder-bush as fast as his long legs could carry him; but, before he had taken six strides, a hand clutched his sleeve, and a girl's voice quavered from close behind him:
"Don't run like that, Mr. Harkless; I can't keep up!" He wheeled about, and confronted a vision, a dainty little figure about five feet high, a flushed and lovely face, hair and draperies disarranged and flying. He stamped his foot with rage. "Get back in the house!" he cried.
"You mustn't go," she panted. "It's the only way to stop you."
"Go back to the house!" he shouted, savagely.
"Will you come?"
"Fer God's sake," cried William Todd, "come back! Keep out of the road." He was emptying his revolver at the clump of elder, the uproar of his firing blasting the night. Some one screamed from the house:
John seized the girl's wrists roughly; her gray eyes flashed into his defiantly. "Will you go?" he roared.
He dropped her wrists, caught her up in his arms as if she had been a kitten, and leaped into the shadow of the trees that leaned over the road from the yard. The rifle rang out again, and the little ball whistled venomously overhead. Harkless ran along the fence and turned in at the gate.
A loose strand of the girl's hair blew across his cheek, and in the moon her head shone with gold. She had light-brown hair and gray eyes and a short upper lip like a curled rose-leaf. He set her down on the veranda steps. Both of them laughed wildly.
"But you came with me!" she gasped triumphantly.
"I always thought you were tall," he answered; and there was afterward a time when he had to agree that this was a somewhat vague reply.