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Dennis passed out of the heavy, massive entrance to the wealthy brewer's mansion with a sense of relief as if escaping from prison. The duskiness and solitude of the street seemed a grateful refuge, and the night wind was to his flushed face like a cool hand laid on a feverish brow. He was indeed glad to be alone, for his was one of those deep, earnest natures that cannot rush to the world in garrulous confidence when disturbed and perplexed. There are many sincere but shallow people who must tell of and talk away every passing emotion. Not of the abundance of their hearts, for abundance there is not, but of the uppermost thing in their hearts their mouths must speak, even though the subjects be of the delicate nature that would naturally be hidden. Such mental constitutions are at least healthful. Concealed trouble never preys upon them like the canker in the bud. Everything comes to the surface and is thrown off.
But at first Dennis scarcely dared to recognize the truth himself, and the thought of telling even his mother was repugnant. For half an hour he walked the streets in a sort of stupor. He was conscious only of a heavy, aching heart and a wearied, confused brain. All the time, however, he knew an event had occurred that must for good or evil affect his entire existence; but he shrank with nervous dread from grappling with the problem. As the cold air refreshed and revived him, his strong, practical mind took up the question almost without volition, and by reason of his morbid, wearied state, only the dark and discouraging side was presented. The awakening to his love was a very different thing to Dennis, and to the majority in this troubled world, from the blissful consciousness of Adam when for the first time he saw the fair being whom he might woo at his leisure, amid embowering roses, without fear or thought of a rival.
To Dennis the fact of his love, so far from promising to be the source of delightful romance and enchantment, clearly showed itself to be the hardest and most practical question of a life full of such questions. In his strong and growing excitement he spoke to himself as to a second person: "Oh, I see it all now. Poor, blind fool that I was, to think that by coveting and securing every possible moment in her presence I was only learning to love art! As I saw her to-night, so radiant and beautiful, and yet in the embrace of another man, and that man evidently an ardent admirer, what was art to me? As well might a starving man seek to satisfy himself by wandering through an old Greek temple as for me to turn to art alone. One crumb of warm, manifested love from her would be worth more than all the cold, abstract beauty in the universe. And yet what chance have I? What can I hope for more than a passing thought and a little kindly, condescending interest? Clerk and man-of-all-work in a store, poor and heavily burdened, the idea of my loving one of the most wealthy, admired, and aristocratic ladies in Chicago! It is all very well in story-books for peasants to fall in love with princesses, but in practical Chicago the fact of my attachment to Miss Ludolph would be regarded as one of the richest jokes of the season, and by Mr. Ludolph as such a proof of rusticity and folly as would at once secure my return to pastoral life."
Then hope whispered, "But you can achieve position and wealth as others have done, and then can speak your mind from the standpoint of equality."
But Dennis was in a mood to see only the hopeless side that night, and exclaimed almost aloud: "Nonsense! Can it be even imagined that she, besieged by the most gifted and rich of the city, will wait for a poor unknown admirer? Mr. Mellen, I understand, approaches her from every vantage-ground save that of a noble character; but in the fashionable world how little thought is given to this draw back!" and in his perturbation he strode rapidly and aimlessly on, finding some relief in mere physical activity.
Suddenly his hasty steps ceased, and even in the dusk of the street his face gleamed out distinctly, so great was its pallor. Like a ray of light, a passage from the Word of God revealed to him his situation in a new aspect. It seemed to him almost that some one had whispered the words in his ear, so distinctly did they present themselves--"Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers."
Slowly and painfully he said to himself, as if recognizing the most hopeless barrier that had yet been dwelt upon, "Christine Ludolph is an infidel."
Not only the voice of reason, and of the practical world, but also the voice of God seemed to forbid his love; and the conviction that he must give it all up became a clear as it was painful. The poor fellow leaned his head against the shaggy bark of an elm in a shadowy square which the street-lamps could but faintly penetrate. The night wind swayed the budding branches of the great tree, and they sighed over him as if in sympathy.
The struggle within his soul was indeed bitter, for, though thus far he had spoken hopelessly, he had not been altogether hopeless; but now that conscience raised its impassable wall high as heaven, which he must not break through, his pain was so great as to almost unman him, and such tears as only men can weep fell from his eyes. In anguish he exclaimed, "That which might have been the chief blessing of life has become my greatest misfortune."
Above him the gale caused two fraying limbs to appear to moan in echo of the suffering beneath.
"This then must be the end of my prayers in her behalf--my ardent hope and purpose to lead her to the truth--she to walk through honored, sunny paths to everlasting shame and night, and I through dark and painful ways to light and peace, if in this bitter test I remain faithful. Surely there is much to try one's faith. And yet it must be so as far as human foresight can judge."
Then a great pity for her swelled his heart, for he felt that her case was the saddest after all, and his tears flowed faster than ever.
Human voices now startled him--some late revellers passing homeward. The tears and emotion, of which we never think of being ashamed when alone with Nature and its Author, he dreaded to have seen by his fellows, and hastily wiping his eyes, he slunk into the deeper shadow of the tree, and they passed on. Then, an old trait asserting itself, he condemned his own weakness. Stepping from the sheltering trunk against which he was leaning, he stood strong and erect.
The winds were hushed as if expectant in the branches above.
"Dennis Fleet," he said, "you must put your foot on this folly here and now."
He bared his head and looked upward.
"O God," he said, solemnly, "if this is contrary to Thy will--Thy will be done."
He paused a moment reverently, and then turned on his heel and strode resolutely homeward.
A gust of wind crashed the branches overhead together like the clash of cymbals in victory.
The early spring dawn was tingeing the eastern horizon before the gay revel ceased and the mansion of the rich brewer was darkened. All the long night, light, airy music had caused late passers-by to pause a moment to listen, and to pity or envy the throng within, as disposition dictated. Mr. Brown was a man who prided himself on lavish and rather coarse hospitality. A table groaning under costly dishes and every variety of liquor was the crowning feature, the blissful climax of all his entertainments; and society from its highest circles furnished an abundance of anxious candidates for his suppers, who ate and criticised, drank to and disparaged, their plebeian host.
Mrs. Brown was heavy in every sense of the word, and with her huge person draped with acres of silk, and festooned with miles of point-lace, she waddled about and smiled and nodded good-naturedly at everybody and everything.
It was just the place for a fashionable revel, where the gross, repulsive features of coarse excess are veiled and masked somewhat by the glamour of outward courtesy and good-breeding.
At first Christine entered into the dance with great zest and a decided sense of relief. She was disappointed and out of sorts with herself. Again she had failed in the object of her intense ambition, and though conscious that, through the excitement of the occasion, she had sung better than ever before, yet she plainly saw in the different results of her singing and that of Dennis Fleet that there was a depth in the human heart which she could not reach. She could secure only admiration, superficial applause. The sphere of the true artist who can touch and sway the popular heart seemed beyond her ability. By voice or pencil she had never yet attained it. She had too much mind to mistake the character of the admiration she excited, and was far too ambitious to be satisfied with the mere praise bestowed on a highly accomplished girl. She aspired, determined, to be among the first, and to be a second-rate imitator in the world of art was to her the agony of a disappointed life. And yet to imitate with accuracy and skill, not with sympathy, was the only power she had as yet developed. She saw the limitations of her success more clearly than did any one else, and chafed bitterly at the invisible bounds she could not pass.
The excitement of the dance enabled her to banish thoughts that were both painful and humiliating. Moreover, to a nature so active and full of physical vigor, the swift, grace motion was a source of keen enjoyment.
But when after supper many of the ladies were silly, and the gentlemen were either stupid or excited, according to the action of the "invisible spirit of wine" upon their several constitutions--when after many glasses of champagne Mr. Mellen began to effervesce in frothy sentimentality and a style of love-making simply nauseating to one of Christine's nature--she looked around for her father in order to escape from the scenes that were becoming revolting.
Though of earth only in all the sources of her life and hopes, she was not earthy. If her spirit could not soar and sing in the sky, it also could not grovel in the mire of gross materiality. Some little time, therefore, before the company broke up, on the plea of not feeling well she lured her father away from his wine and cigars and a knot of gentlemen who were beginning to talk a little incoherently. Making their adieux amid many protestations against their early departure, they drove homeward.
"How did you enjoy yourself?" asked her father.
"Very much in the early part of the evening, not at all in the latter part. To sum up, I am disgusted with Mr. Mellen and these Browns in general, and myself in particular."
"What is the matter with Mr. Mellen? I understand that the intriguing mammas consider him the largest game in the city."
"When hunting degenerates into the chase and capture of insects, you may style him game. Between his champagne and silly love-making, he was as bad as a dose of ipecac."
Christine spoke freely to her father of her admirers, usually making them the themes of satire and jest.
"And what is the trouble with our entertainers?"
"I am sorry to speak so of any one whose hospitality I have accepted, but unless it is your wish I hope never to accept it again. They all smell of their beer. Everything is so coarse, lavish, and ostentatious. They tell you as through a brazen trumpet on every side, 'We are rich.'" "They give magnificent suppers," said Mr. Ludolph, in apology.
"More correctly, the French cook they employ gives them. I do not object to the nicest of suppers, but prefer that the Browns be not on the carte de menu. From the moment our artistic programme ended, and the entertainment fell into their hands, it began to degenerate into an orgy. Nothing but the instinctive restraints of good-breeding prevents such occasions from ending in a drunken revel."
"You are severe. Mr. Brown's social effort is not a bad type of the entertainments that prevail in fashionable life."
"Well, it may be true, but they never seemed to me so lacking in good taste and refinement before. Wait till we dispense choice viands and wines to choicer spirits in our own land, and I will guarantee a marvellously wide difference. Then the eye, the ear, the mind, shall be feasted, as well as the lower sense."
"Well, I do not see why you should be disgusted with yourself. I am sure that you covered yourself with glory, and were the belle of the occasion."
"That is no great honor, considering the occasion. Father, strange as it may seem to you, I envied your man-of-all-work to-night. Did you not mark the effect of his singing?"
"Yes, and felt it in a way that I cannot explain to myself. His tones seemed to thrill, and stir my very heart. I have not been so affected by music for years. At first I thought it was surprise at hearing him sing at all, but I soon found that it was something in the music itself."
"And that something I fear I can never grasp--never attain."
"Why, my dear, they applauded you to the echo."
"I would rather see one moist eye as the tribute to my singing than to be deafened by noisy applause. I fear I shall never reach high art. Men's hearts sleep when I do my best."
"I think you are slightly mistaken there, judging from your train of admirers," said Mr. Ludolph, turning off a disagreeable subject with a jest. The shrewd man of the world guessed the secret of her failure. She herself must feel, before she could touch feeling. But he had systematically sought to chill and benumb her nature, meaning it to awake at just the time, and under just the circumstances, that should accord with his controlling ambition. Then reverting to Dennis, he continued: "It won't answer for Fleet to sweep the store any longer after the part he played to-night. Indeed, I doubt if he would be willing to. Not only he, but the world will know that he is capable of better things. What has occurred will awaken inquiry, and may soon secure him good business offers. I do not intend to part readily with so capable a young fellow. He does well whatever is required, and therefore I shall promote him as fast as is prudent. I think I can make him of great use to me."
"That is another thing that provokes me," said Christine. "Only yesterday morning he seemed such a useful, humble creature, and last evening through my own folly he developed into a fine gentleman; and I shall have to say, 'By your leave, sir'; 'Will you please do this'?--If I dare ask anything at all."
"I am not so sure of that," said her father. "My impression is that Fleet has too much good sense to put on airs in the store. But I will give him more congenial work; and as one of the young gentleman clerks, we can ask him up now and then to sing with us. I should much enjoy trying some of our German music with him."
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