Chapter 3




ESMÉ


Hal saw her first, vivid against the lifeless gray of the cement wall, as he turned away from the Pierce car. A little apart from the human current she stood, still and expectant. As if to point her out as the chosen of gods and men, the questing sun, bursting in triumph through a cloud-rift, sent a long shaft of gold to encompass and irradiate her. To the end, whether with aching heart or glad, Hal was to see her thus, in flashing, recurrent visions; a slight, poised figure, all gracious curves and tender consonances, with a cluster of the trailing arbutus, that first-love of the springtide, clinging at her breast. The breeze bore to him the faint, wild, appealing fragrance which is the very breath and soul of the blossom's fairy-pink.

Half-turning, she had leaned a little, as a flower leans, to the warmth of the sunlight, uplifting her face for its kiss. She was not beautiful in any sense of regularity of outline or perfection of feature, so much as lovely, with the lustrous loveliness which defiantly overrides the lapse of line and proportion, and imperiously demands the homage of every man born of woman. Chill analysis might have judged the mouth, with its delicate, humorous quirk at the corners, too large; the chin too broad, for all its adorable baby dimple; the line of the nose too abrupt, the wider contours lacking something of classic exactitude. But the chillest analysis must have warmed to enthusiasm at the eyes; wide-set, level, and of a tawny hazel, with strange, wine-brown lights in their depths, to match the brownish-golden sheen of the hair, where the sun glinted from it. As it were a higher power of her physical splendor, there emanated from the girl an intensity and radiance of joy in being alive and lovely.

Involuntarily Hal Surtaine paused as he approached her. Her glance fell upon him, not with the impersonal regard bestowed upon a casual passer-by, but with an intent and brightening interest,--the thrill of the chase, had he but known it,--and passed beyond him again. But in that brief moment, the conviction was borne in upon him that sometime, somewhere, he had looked into those eyes before. Puzzled and eager he still stared, until, with a slight flush, she moved forward and passed him. At the head of the stairs he saw her greet a strongly built, grizzled man; and then became aware of his father beckoning to him from the automobile.

"Bewitched, Hal?" said Dr. Surtaine as his son came to him.

"Was I staring very outrageously, sir?"

"Why, you certainly looked interested," returned the older man, laughing. "But I don't think you need apologize to the young lady. She's used to attention. Rather lives on it, I guess."

The tone jarred on Hal. "I had a queer, momentary feeling that I'd seen her before," he said.

"Don't you recall where?"

"No," said Hal, startled. "Do I know her?"

"Apparently not," taunted the other good-humoredly. "You should know. Hers is generally considered a face not difficult to remember."

"Impossible to forget!"

"In that case it must be that you haven't seen her before. But you will again. And, then look out, Boy-ee. Danger ahead!"

"How's that, sir?"

"You'll see for yourself when you meet her. Half of the boys in town are crazy over her. She eats 'em alive. Can't you tell the man-killer type when you see it?"

"Oh, that's all in the game, isn't it?" returned Hal lightly. "So long as she plays fair. And she looks like a girl of breeding and standards."

"All of that. Esmé Elliot is a lady, so far as that goes. But--well, I'm not going to prejudice you. Here she comes now."

"Who is it with her?"

"Her uncle, Dr. Elliot. He doesn't altogether approve of us--me, I mean."

Uncle and niece were coming directly toward them now, and Hal watched her approach with a thrill of delight in her motion. It was a study in harmonies. She moved like a cloud before the wind; like a ship upon the high seas; like the swirl of swift waters above hidden depths. As the pair passed to their car, which stood next to Dr. Surtaine's, the girl glanced up and nodded, with a brilliant smile, to the doctor, who returned to the salutation an extra-gallant bow.

"You seem to be friends," commented Hal, somewhat amused.

"That was more for you than for me. But the fair Esmé can always spare one of those smiles for anything that wears trousers."

Hal moved uneasily. He felt a sense of discord. As he cast about for a topic to shift to, the Elliot car rolled ahead slowly, and once more he caught the woodsy perfume of the pink bloom. Strangely and satisfyingly to his quickened perceptions, it seemed to express the quality of the wearer. Despite her bearing of worldly self-assurance, despite the atmosphere of modishness about her, there was in her charm something wild and vivid, vernal and remote, like the arbutus which, alone among flowers, keeps its life-secret virgin and inviolate, resisting all endeavors to make it bloom except in its own way and in its own chosen places.




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