Chapter 9




Towards the close of his second year with Mr. Slocum, Richard was assigned a work-room by himself, and relieved of his accountant's duties. His undivided energies were demanded by the carving department, which had proved a lucrative success.

The rear of the lot on which Mr. Slocum's house stood was shut off from the marble yard by a high brick wall pierced with a private door for Mr. Slocum's convenience. Over the kitchen in the extension, which reached within a few feet of the wall, was a disused chamber, approachable on the outside by a flight of steps leading to a veranda. To this room Richard and his traps were removed. With a round table standing in the center, with the plaster models arranged on shelves and sketches in pencil and crayon tacked against the whitewashed walls, the apartment was transformed into a delightful atelier. An open fire-place, with a brace of antiquated iron-dogs straddling the red brick hearth, gave the finishing touch. The occupant was in easy communication with the yard, from which the busy din of clinking chisels came u musically to his ear, and was still beyond the reach of unnecessary interruption. Richard saw clearly all the advantages of this transfer, but he was far form having any intimation that he had made the most important move of his life.

The room had two doors: one opened on the veranda, and the other into a narrow hall connecting the extension with the main building. Frequently, that first week after taking possession, Richard detected the sweep of a broom and the rustle of drapery in this passage-way, the sound sometimes hushing itself quite close to the door, as if some one had paused a moment just outside. He wondered whether it was the servant-maid or Margaret Slocum, whom he knew very well by sight. It was, in fact, Margaret, who was dying with the curiosity of fourteen to peep into the studio, so carefully locked whenever the young man left it,--dying with curiosity to see the workshop, and standing in rather great awe of the workman.

In the home circle her father had a habit of speaking with deep respect of young Shackford's ability, and once she had seen him at their table,--at a Thanksgiving. On this occasion Richard had appalled her by the solemnity of his shyness,--poor Richard, who was so unused to the amenities of a handsomely served dinner, that the chill which came over him cooled the Thanksgiving turkey on his palate.

When it had been decided that he was to have the spare room for his workshop, Margaret, with womanly officiousness, had swept it and dusted it and demolished the cobwebs; but since then she had not been able to obtain so much as a glimpse of the interior. A ten minutes' sweeping had sufficed for the chamber, but the passage-way seemed in quite an irreclaimable state, judging by the number of times it was necessary to sweep it in the course of a few days. Now Margaret was not an unusual mixture of timidity and daring; so one morning, about a week after Richard was settled, she walked with quaking heart up to the door of the studio, and knocked as bold as brass.

Richard opened the door, and smiled pleasantly at Margaret standing on the threshold with an expression of demure defiance in her face. Did Mr. Shackford want anything more in the way of pans and pails for his plaster? No, Mr. Shackford had everything he required of the kind. But would not Miss Margaret walk in? Yes, she would step in for a moment, but with a good deal of indifference, though, giving an air of chance to her settled determination to examine that room from top to bottom.

Richard showed her his drawings and casts, and enlightened her on all the simple mysteries of the craft. Margaret, of whom he was a trifle afraid at first, amused him with her candor and sedateness, seeming now a mere child, and now an elderly person gravely inspecting matters. The frankness and simplicity were hers by nature, and the oldish ways--notably her self-possession, so quick to assert itself after an instant's forgetfulness--came perhaps of losing her mother in early childhood, and the premature duties which that misfortune entailed. She amused him, for she was only fourteen; but she impressed him also, for she was Mr. Slocum's daughter. Yet it was not her lightness, but her gravity, that made Richard smile to himself.

"I am not interrupting you?" she asked presently.

"Not in the least," said Richard. "I am waiting for these molds to harden. I cannot do anything until then."

"Papa says you are very clever," remarked Margaret, turning her wide black eyes full upon him. "Are you?"

"Far from it," replied Richard, laughing to veil his confusion, "but I am glad your father thinks so."

"You should not be glad to have him think so," returned Margaret reprovingly, "if you are not clever. I suppose you are, though. Tell the truth, now."

"It is not fair to force a fellow into praising himself."

"You are trying to creep out!"

"Well, then, there are many cleverer persons than I in the world, and a few not so clever."

"That won't do," said Margaret positively.

"I don't understand what you mean by cleverness, Miss Margaret. There are a great many kinds and degrees. I can make fairly honest patterns for the men to work by; but I am not an artist, if you mean that."

"You are not an artist?"

"No; an artist creates, and I only copy, and that in a small way. Any one can learn to prepare casts; but to create a bust or a statue--that is to say, a fine one--a man must have genius."

"You have no genius?"

"Not a grain."

"I am sorry to hear that," said Margaret, with a disappointed look. "But perhaps it will come," she added encouragingly. "I have read that nearly all great artists and poets are almost always modest. They know better than anybody else how far they fall short of what they intend, and so they don't put on airs. You don't, either. I like that in you. May be you have genius without knowing it, Mr. Shackford."

"It is quite without knowing it, I assure you!" protested Richard, with suppressed merriment. "What an odd girl!" he thought. "She is actually talking to me like a mother!"

The twinkling light in the young man's eyes, or something that jarred in his manner, caused Margaret at once to withdraw into herself. She went silently about the room, examining the tools and patterns; then, nearing the door, suddenly dropped Richard a quaint little courtesy, and was gone.

This was the colorless beginning of a friendship that was destined speedily to be full of tender lights and shadows, and to flow on with unsuspected depth. For several days Richard saw nothing more of Margaret, and scarcely thought of her. The strangle little figure was fading out of his mind, when, one afternoon, it again appeared at his door. This time Margaret had left something of her sedateness behind; she struck Richard as being both less ripe and less immature than he had fancied; she interested rather than amused him. Perhaps he had been partially insulated by his own shyness on the first occasion, and had caught only a confused and inaccurate impression of Margaret's personality. She remained half an hour in the workshop, and at her departure omitted the formal courtesy.

After this, Margaret seldom let a week slip without tapping once or twice at the studio, at first with some pretext or other, and then with no pretense whatever. When Margaret had disburdened herself of excuses for dropping in to watch Richard mold his leaves and flowers, she came oftener, and Richard insensibly drifted into the habit of expecting her on certain days, and was disappointed when she failed to appear. His industry had saved him, until now, from discovering how solitary his life really was; for his life was as solitary--as solitary as that of Margaret, who lived in the great house with only her father, the two servants, and an episodical aunt. The mother was long ago dead; Margaret could not recollect when that gray headstone, with blotches of rusty-green moss breaking out over the lettering, was not in the churchyard; and there never had been any brothers or sisters.

To Margaret Richard's installation in the empty room, where as a child she had always been afraid to go, was the single important break she could remember in the monotony of her existence; and now a vague yearning for companionship, the blind sense of the plant reaching towards the sunshine, drew her there. The tacitly prescribed half hour often lengthened to an hour. Sometimes Margaret brought a book with her, or a piece of embroidery, and the two spoke scarcely ten words, Richard giving her a smile now and then, and she returning a sympathetic nod as the cast came out successfully.

Margaret at fifteen--she was fifteen now--was not a beauty. There is the loveliness of the bud and the loveliness of the full-blown flower; but Margaret as a blossom was not pretty. She was awkward and angular, with prominent shoulder-blades, and no soft curves anywhere in her slimness; only her black hair, growing low on the forehead, and her eyes were fine. Her profile, indeed, with the narrow forehead and the sensitive upper lip, might fairly have suggested the mask of Clytie which Richard had bought of an itinerant image-dealer, and fixed on a bracket over the mantel-shelf. But her eyes were her specialty, if one may say that. They were fringed with such heavy lashes that the girl seemed always to be in half-mourning. Her smile was singularly sweet and bright, perhaps because it broke through so much somber coloring.

If there was a latent spark of sentiment between Richard and Margaret in those earlier days, neither was conscious of it; they had seemingly begun where happy lovers generally end,--by being dear comrades. He liked to have Margaret sitting there, with her needle flashing in the sunlight, or her eyelashes making a rich gloom above the book as she read aloud. It was so agreeable to look up from his work, and not be alone. He had been alone so much. And Margaret found nothing in the world pleasanter than to sit there and watch Richard making his winter garden, as she called it. By and by it became her custom to pass every Saturday afternoon in that employment.

Margaret was not content to be merely a visitor; she took a housewifely care of the workshop, resolutely straightening out its chronic disorder at unexpected moments, and fighting the white dust that settled upon everything. The green-paper shade, which did not roll up very well, at the west window was of her devising. An empty camphor vial on Richard's desk had always a clove pink, or a pansy, or a rose, stuck into it, according to the season. She hid herself away and peeped out in a hundred feminine things in the room. Sometimes she was a bit of crochet-work left on a chair, and sometimes she was only a hair-pin, which Richard gravely picked up and put on the mantel-piece.

Mr. Slocum threw no obstacles in the path of this idyllic friendship; possibly he did not observe it. In his eyes Margaret was still a child,--a point of view that necessarily excluded any consideration of Richard. Perhaps, however, if Mr. Slocum could have assisted invisibly at a pretty little scene which took place in the studio, one day, some twelve or eighteen months after Margaret's first visit to it, he might have found food for reflection.

It was a Saturday afternoon. Margaret had come into the workshop with her sewing, as usual. The papers on the round table had been neatly cleared away, and Richard was standing by the window, indolently drumming on the glass with a palette-knife.

"Not at work this afternoon?"

"I was waiting for you."

"That is no excuse at all," said Margaret, sweeping across the room with a curious air of self-consciousness, and arranging her drapery with infinite pains as she seated herself.

Richard looked puzzled for a moment, and then exclaimed, "Margaret, you have got on a long dress!"

"Yes," said Margaret, with dignity. "Do you like it,--the train?"

"That's a train?"

"Yes," said Margaret, standing up and glancing over her left shoulder at the soft folds of maroon-colored stuff, which, with a mysterious feminine movement of the foot, she caused to untwist itself and flow out gracefully behind her. There was really something very pretty in the hesitating lines of the tall, slender figure, as she leaned back that way. Certain unsuspected points emphasized themselves so cunningly.

"I never saw anything finer," declared Richard. "It was worth waiting for."

"But you shouldn't have waited," said Margaret, with a gratified flush, settling herself into the chair again. "It was understood that you were never to let me interfere with your work."

"You see you have, by being twenty minutes late. I've finished that acorn border for Stevens's capitals, and there's nothing more to do for the yard. I am going to make something for myself, and I want you to lend me a hand."

"How can I help you, Richard?" Margaret asked, promptly stopping the needle in the hem.

"I need a paper-weight to keep my sketches from being blown about, and I wish you literally to lend me a hand,--a hand to take a cast of."

"Really?"

"I think that little white claw would make a very neat paper-weight," said Richard.

Margaret gravely rolled up her sleeve to the elbow, and contemplated the hand and wrist critically.

"It is like a claw, isn't it. I think you can find something better than that."

"No; that is what I want, and nothing else. That, or no paper-weight for me."

"Very well, just as you choose. It will be a fright."

"The other hand, please."

"I gave you the left because I've a ring on this one."

"You can take off the ring, I suppose."

"Of course I can take it off."

"Well, then, do."

"Richard," said Margaret severely, "I hope you are not a fidget."

"A what?"

"A fuss, then,--a person who always wants everything some other way, and makes just twice as much trouble as anybody else."

"No, Margaret, I am not that. I prefer your right hand because the left is next to the heart, and the evaporation of the water in the plaster turns it as cold as snow. Your arm will be chilled to the shoulder. We don't want to do anything to hurt the good little heart, you know."

"Certainly not," said Margaret. "There!" and she rested her right arm on the table, while Richard placed the hand in the desired position on a fresh napkin which he had folded for the purpose.

"Let your hand lie flexible, please. Hold it naturally. Why do you stiffen the fingers so?"

"I don't; they stiffen themselves, Richard. They know they are going to have their photograph taken, and can't look natural. Who ever does?"

After a minute the fingers relaxed, and settled of their own accord into an easy pose. Richard laid his hand softly on her wrist.

"Don't move now."

"I'll be as quiet as a mouse," said Margaret giving a sudden queer little glance at his face.

Richard emptied a paper of white powder into a great yellow bowl half filled with water and fell to stirring it vigorously, like a pastry-cook beating eggs. When the plaster was of the proper consistency he began building it up around the hand, pouring on a spoonful at a time, here and there, carefully. In a minute or two the inert white fingers were completely buried. Margaret made a comical grimace.

"Is it cold?"

"Ice," said Margaret, shutting her eyes involuntarily.

"If it is too disagreeable we can give it up," suggested Richard.

"No, don't touch it!" she cried, waving him back with her free arm. "I don't mind; but it's as cold as so much snow. How curious! What does it?"

"I suppose a scientific fellow could explain the matter to you easily enough. When the water evaporates a kind of congealing process sets in,--a sort of atmospheric change, don't you know? The sudden precipitation of the--the"--

"You're as good as Tyndall on Heat," said Margaret demurely.

"Oh, Tyndall is well enough in his way," returned Richard, "but of course he doesn't go into things so deeply as I do."

"The idea of telling me that 'a congealing process set in,' when I am nearly frozen to death!" cried Margaret, bowing her head over the imprisoned arm.

"Your unseemly levity, Margaret, makes it necessary for me to defer my remarks on natural phenomena until some more fitting occasion."

"Oh, Richard, don't let an atmospherical change come over you!"

"When you knocked at my door, months ago," said Richard, "I didn't dream you were such a satirical little piece, or may be you wouldn't have got in. You stood there as meek as Moses, with your frock reaching only to the tops of your boots. You were a deception, Margaret."

"I was dreadfully afraid of you, Richard."

"You are not afraid of me nowadays."

"Not a bit."

"You are showing your true colors. That long dress, too! I believe the train has turned your head."

"But just now you said you admired it."

"So I did, and do. It makes you look quite like a woman, though."

"I want to be a woman. I would like to be as old--as old as Mrs. Methuselah. Was there a Mrs. Methuselah?"

"I really forget," replied Richard, considering. "But there must have been. The old gentleman had time enough to have several. I believe, however, that history is rather silent about his domestic affairs."

"Well, then," said Margaret, after thinking it over, "I would like to be as old as the youngest Mrs. Methuselah."

"That was probably the last one," remarked Richard, with great profundity. "She was probably some giddy young thing of seventy or eighty. Those old widowers never take a wife of their own age. I shouldn't want you to be seventy, Margaret,--or even eighty."

"On the whole, perhaps, I shouldn't fancy it myself. Do you approve of persons marrying twice?"

"N--o, not at the same time."

"Of course I didn't mean that," said Margaret, with asperity. "How provoking you can be!"

"But they used to,--in the olden time, don't you know?"

"No, I don't."

Richard burst out laughing. "Imagine him," he cried,--"imagine Methuselah in his eight or nine hundredth year, dressed in his customary bridal suit, with a sprig of century-plant stuck in his button-hole!"

"Richard," said Margaret solemnly, "you shouldn't speak jestingly of a scriptural character."

At this Richard broke out again. "But gracious me!" he exclaimed, suddenly checking himself. "I am forgetting you all this while!"

Richard hurriedly reversed the mass of plaster on the table, and released Margaret's half-petrified fingers. They were shriveled and colorless with the cold.

"There isn't any feeling in it whatever," said Margaret, holding up her hand helplessly, like a wounded wing.

Richard took the fingers between his palms, and chafed them smartly for a moment or two to restore the suspended circulation.

"There, that will do," said Margaret, withdrawing her hand.

"Are you all right now?"

"Yes, thanks;" and then she added, smiling, "I suppose a scientific fellow could explain why my fingers seem to be full of hot pins and needles shooting in every direction."

"Tyndall's your man--Tyndall on Heat," answered Richard, with a laugh, turning to examine the result of his work. "The mold is perfect, Margaret. You were a good girl to keep so still."

Richard then proceeded to make the cast, which was soon placed on the window ledgde to harden in the sun. When the plaster was set, he cautiously chipped off the shell with a chisel, Margaret leaning over his shoulder to watch the operation,--and there was the little white claw, which ever after took such dainty care of his papers, and ultimately became so precious to him as a part of Margaret's very self that he would not have exchanged it for the Venus of Milo.

But as yet Richard was far enough from all that.




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