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Here's metal more attractive.
The Gay Lady had gone away for a week and a day. Although four of us remained, the gap in our number appeared prodigious. The first dinner without her seemed as slow and dull as a dance without music, in spite of the fact that we did our best, each one of us, not to act as if anything were wrong.
When we had escaped from the dining-room to the porch, Lad was the first to voice his sentiments upon the subject of our drooping spirits. "I didn't know her being here made such a lot of difference--till she got away," he said dismally. "There's nobody to laugh, now, when I make a joke."
"Don't the rest of us laugh at your jokes, son?" inquired the Philosopher, laying a friendly hand upon the Lad's arm as the boy stood on the porch step below him.
"You do--if she does," replied Lad. "Lots of times you'd never notice what I say if she didn't look at you and laugh. Then you burst out and laugh too--to please her, I suppose," he added.
The Philosopher glanced at me over the boy's head. "Here's a pretty sharp observer," said he, "with a gift at analysis. I didn't know before that I take my cue from the Gay Lady--or from any one else--when it comes to laughing at jokes. Try me with one now, Lad, and see if I don't laugh--all by myself."
Lad shook his head. "That wouldn't be any good. I'd know you didn't mean it. She always means it. Besides--she thinks things are funny that you don't. She's 'most as good as a boy--and I don't see how she can be, either," he reflected, "because she isn't the least bit like one."
"You're right enough about that," observed the Philosopher. "She's essentially feminine, if ever a girl was."
"Girl!" repeated the Lad. "She isn't a girl. That is--I thought she was, till she told me herself she wasn't. She's twenty-seven."
The Philosopher grinned. The Skeptic, who had lit his pipe and was puffing away at it, sitting on the settle with his back to the sunset--which was unusually fine that evening--gave utterance to a deep note of derision at the Lad's point of view. I smiled, myself. If ever there was an irresistible combination of the girlish and the womanly it was to be found in our Gay Lady. As to her looks--even the blooming youth of Althea, and the more cultivated charms of Camellia, had not made the Gay Lady less lovely in our eyes, although she was by no means what is known as a "beauty."
"She's a whole lot nicer than any of those girls we've had here this summer," the Lad went on. He seemed to have the floor. There could be no doubt that the subject of his musings was of interest to all his hearers. "And they weren't so bad, either--except Dahlia. I can't stand her," he added resentfully.
The Philosopher shook his head slightly as one who would have said "Who could?" if it had been allowable. The Skeptic removed his pipe from his mouth and gazed intently into its bowl. I felt it my duty to stand by Dahlia, for the sake of the Lad, who must not learn to sneer at women behind their backs.
"There are a great many nice things about Dahlia," I said. "And she has surely given you many good times, Lad. Think how often she has gone out on the river with you--and helped you make kites, and rigged little ships for you----"
"Oh, yes," cried the Lad scornfully, "she'll take me--when she can't get a man!"
The Skeptic's shoulders heaved as he turned away to cough violently. Evidently he had swallowed a pipeful of smoke. The Philosopher abruptly removed his hand from the Lad's shoulder and dropped down on the porch step, where his face was hidden from the bright young eyes above him. I shook my head at Lad. Presently he ran off to the red barn to look after some small puppies down there in the hay.
* * * * * * *
We three left behind settled down for the evening. At least I did, and the others made a show of doing so. But the Skeptic was both restless and moody, the Philosopher unsociable. Finally the Skeptic flung an invitation to the Philosopher to go off for a walk. The Philosopher consented with a nod, and they strolled away, taking leave of me with formal politeness. I understood them, and I did not mind. A wise woman lets a man go--that he may return.
They came back just as twilight darkened into night, and sat down at my feet on the step, shoulder to shoulder, like the good comrades that they were. I wondered if they had been discussing the subject which the Lad had introduced.
"How much," inquired the Philosopher quite suddenly, "do you suppose it would cost to dress a girl like Miss Camellia?"
"I've really no idea," I answered, since the question seemed directed at me. "It depends on a number of things. There are girls so clever with their needles that they can produce very remarkable effects for a comparatively small amount of money."
"Is she one of them?"
"I don't know."
"I fancy you do," was his comment. Presently he went on again. "You see, I don't know much about all this," he declared. "So I've had rather an observant eye on--on these young ladies you've had here from time to time this summer, and I confess I'm filled with curiosity. Would you mind telling me what you think the average girl of good family, and well brought up, has in her mind's eye as a desirable future--I mean for the next few years after school?--I don't know that I make myself clear. What I want to get at is--You see, the great thing a young chap thinks about is what he is going to make of himself--and how to do it. It struck me as rather odd that not one of those girls seemed to have any particular end in view--at least, that ever came out in her conversation."
I couldn't help smiling, his tone was so serious.
The Skeptic chuckled. He had put up his pipe, and was sitting with his hands clasped behind his head, as he leaned against one of the great pillars of the porch. "They have one, just the same," he vouchsafed. "He who runs may read."
The Philosopher regarded him thoughtfully, through the half-light from the hall lamp. "I noticed you did a good deal of running, first and last," he observed. "I suppose you read before you ran--unless you have eyes in the back of your head. Well," he continued, "you can't make me believe that all girls are so anxious to make a good impression, or they wouldn't do some of the things they do."
"For instance?" I suggested, having become curious myself. Never before, in an acquaintance dating far back, had I heard the Philosopher hold forth upon this subject.
"They make themselves conspicuous," said he promptly--to my great surprise. "As nearly as I can get at it, that's the cardinal fault of the girl of to-day. Everywhere I go I notice it--in public--in private. Wherever she is she holds the floor, occupies the centre of the stage. If you'll pardon my saying it, every last girl you had here this summer did that thing, each in her own way."
I thought about them--one after another. It was true. Each had, in her own way, occupied the centre of the stage. And the Gay Lady, than whom nobody has a better right to keep fast hold of her position in the foreground of all our thoughts, had allowed each one to do it. And somehow, in every case, after all, the real focus for all our eyes, quite without her being able to help it, had been wherever the Gay Lady had happened to be.
We all went to bed early that night. The Philosopher's observations, though highly interesting, did not keep us from becoming very sleepy at an untimely hour. It was the same way next evening. And the next. In fact, up to the very night before the Gay Lady's expected return, we continued to cut short our days of waiting by as much as we could venture to do without exciting the suspicion that we were weary of one another.
On that last evening the Skeptic fastened himself to me. He insisted on my walking with him in the garden.
"So she comes back to-morrow," said he, as we paced down the path, quite as if he had just learned of the prospect of her return.
"I can hardly wait," said I.
"Neither can I," he agreed solemnly. "I knew I should miss her, but--smoke and ashes!--I didn't dream the week would be a period of time long enough for a ray of light to travel from Sirius to the earth and back again."
"If she could only hear that!" said I.
"She's going to hear it," he declared with great earnestness. "She's kept me quiet all summer, but--by a man's impatience!--she can't keep me quiet any longer. Do you blame me?" he inquired, wheeling to look intently at me through the September twilight.
"Not a bit," said I. "I've only wished she could stand still until Lad grows up."
"You must think well of her, to say that," said he delightedly. "And, on my word, I don't know but she will continue to stand still, as far as looks go. But in mind--and heart--well, the only thing is, I'm so far below her I don't dare to hope. All I know is that, for sheer womanly sweetness and strength, there's nobody her equal. And yet, when I try to put my finger on what makes her what she is--I can't tell."
"One can't analyze her charm," said I, "except as you've just done it--womanly sweetness and strength. Hepatica is--Hepatica. And being that, we love her."
"We do," said he, half under his breath, and caught my hand and gave it a grip which stung.
* * * * * * *
The next morning the Gay Lady came home. We had not expected her until evening, and when we heard a light footstep approaching through the hall as we sat at breakfast, we looked at one another in dumb astonishment and disbelief. But the next instant she stood smiling at us from the doorway.
She was glad to see us, too. From Lad's ecstatic embrace she came into mine, and I heard her eager whisper--"I'm so glad to get back to you!" The Skeptic and the Philosopher wrung her hand until I know her little fingers ached, and they stared at her, the one like a brother, the other like--well, she must have seen for herself. No, they were not rivals. The Philosopher had seen the Skeptic's case, I think, from the first, and being not only a philosopher but a man, and the Skeptic's best friend, had never allowed himself to enter the race at all. I had detected a wistful light in his eyes now and then, and had my own notion of what might have happened if he had let it, but--there was only a very warm brotherliness in the greeting he gave the Gay Lady, and she looked back into his eyes too frankly for me to think he had ever let her see anything else.
She sat down at the table with us for a little, while we finished, and you should have seen the difference in the look of the room. It was another place. She ran upstairs to her own room, and I followed her, and from being a deserted bedroom with a lonely aspect it became a human habitation with an atmosphere of home. She took off her travelling dress, talking gayly to me all the while, and brushed her bright locks, and put on one of the charming white frocks which her own hands had made, and then came and held me tight, and laughed, and was very near crying, and said there was never such another place as this.
"There certainly never is when you are in it, dear," I agreed, and received such a reward for that as only the Gay Lady knows how to give.
All day she stayed by me, wherever I might be. The Skeptic watched and waited--he got not the ghost of an opportunity. When I was upon the porch with the others she was there--and not a minute after.
* * * * * * *
When evening fell it found the Gay Lady on a cushion close by my knee. Presently the Philosopher went off with the Lad down to the river. The Skeptic accompanied them part of the distance, then returned quite unexpectedly by way of the shrubbery, and swung up over the porch rail at the end at a moment when the Gay Lady, feeling safe in his absence, had gone to that end to see the moonlight upon the river.
"'All's fair in love and war,'" exulted the Skeptic, somewhat breathlessly. It seemed to be a favourite maxim with him. I recalled his having excused himself for eluding Dahlia by that same well-worn proverb. "No--don't run! Have I become suddenly so terrifying?"
"Why should you be terrifying?" asked Hepatica. "Come and sit down and tell us what you've all been doing while I was away."
Her back was toward me. There was a long window open close beside me. My sympathy was with the Skeptic. I slipped through it.
An hour later I went out upon the porch again. Nobody was there. I sat down alone, feeling half excited and half depressed, and wholly anxious to know the outcome of the Skeptic's tactics. I waited a long time, as it seemed to me. Then, without warning, a voice spoke. I could hardly recognize it for the Skeptic's voice, it was strung so tense--with joy.
"Don't shoot," it said. "We'll come down."
I looked toward the end of the porch, where the vines cast a deep shadow. I could not see them, but they must have been there all the time. And the shadow cast by the vines was not a wide shadow at all.
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