"A dancing shape, an image gay, To haunt, to startle, and waylay."
The town of Oakdale is at the present time a flourishing place, inhabited principally by "suburbanites," for it lies not very far from New York; but the Reverend Austin Davis, who was the spiritual guardian of most of them, had come to Oakdale some twenty and more years ago, when it was only a little village, with a struggling church which it was the task of the young clergyman to keep alive. Perhaps the growth of the town had as much to do with his success as his own efforts; but however that might have been he had received his temporal reward some ten years later, in the shape of a fine stone church, with a little parsonage beside it. He had lived there ever since, alone with his one child,--for just after coming to Oakdale he had married a daughter of one of the wealthy families of the neighborhood, and been left a widower a year or two later.
A more unromantic and thoroughly busy man than Mr. Davis at the age of forty-five, when this story begins, it would not have been easy to find; but nevertheless people spoke of no less than two romances that had been connected with his life. One of them had been his early marriage, which had created a mild sensation, while the other had come into his life even sooner, in fact on the very first day of his arrival at Oakdale.
Mr. Davis could still bring back to his mind with perfect clearness the first night he had spent in the little wooden cottage which he had hired for his residence; how while busily unpacking his trunk and trying to bring the disordered place into shape, he had opened the door in answer to a knock and beheld a woman stagger in out of the storm. She was a young girl, surely not yet out of her teens, her pale and sunken face showing marks of refinement and of former beauty. She carried in her arms a child of about a year's age, and she dropped it upon the sofa and sank down beside it, half fainting from exhaustion. The young clergyman's anxious inquiries having succeeded in eliciting but incoherent replies, he had left the room to procure some nourishment for the exhausted woman; it was upon his return that the discovery of the romance alluded to was made, for the woman had disappeared in the darkness and storm, and the baby was still lying upon the sofa.
It was not altogether a pleasant romance, as is probably the case with a good many romances in reality. Mr. Davis was destined to retain for a long time a vivid recollection of the first night which he spent in alternately feeding that baby with a spoon, and in walking the floor with it; and also to remember the sly glances which his parishioners only half hid from him when his unpleasant plight was made known.
It happened that the poorhouse at Hilltown near by, to which the infant would have gone if he had left it to the care of the county, was at that time being "investigated," with all that the name implies when referring to public matters; the clergy of the neighborhood being active in pushing the charges, Mr. Davis felt that at present it would look best for him to provide for the child himself. As the investigation came to nothing, the inducement was made a permanent one; perhaps also the memory of the mother's wan face had something to do with the matter. At any rate the young clergyman, tho but scantily provided for himself, managed to spare enough to engage a woman in the town to take care of the young charge. Subsequently when Mr. Davis' wife died the woman became Helen's nurse, and so it was that Arthur, as the baby boy had been christened, became permanently adopted into the clergyman's little family.
It had not been possible to keep from Arthur the secret of his parentage, and the fact that it was known to all served to keep him aloof from the other children of the town, and to drive him still more to the confidence of Helen. One of the phrases which Mr. Davis had caught from the mother's lips had been that the boy was a "gentleman's son;" and Helen was wont to solace him by that reminder. Perhaps the phrase, constantly repeated, had much to do with the proud sensitiveness and the resolute independence which soon manifested itself in the lad's character. He had scarcely passed the age of twelve before, tho treated by Mr. Davis with the love and kindness of a father, he astonished the good man by declaring that he was old enough to take care of himself; and tho Mr. Davis was better situated financially by that time, nothing that he could say could alter the boy's quiet determination to leave school and be independent, a resolution in which he was seconded by Helen, a little miss of some nine years. The two children had talked it over for months, as it appeared, and concluded that it was best to sacrifice in the cause of honor the privilege of going to school together, and of spending the long holidays roaming about the country.
So the lad had served with childish dignity, first as an errand boy, and then as a store clerk, always contributing his mite of "board" to Mr. Davis' household expenses; meanwhile, possibly because he was really "a gentleman's son," and had inherited a taste for study, he had made by himself about as much progress as if he had been at school. Some years later, to the delight of Helen and Mr. Davis, he had carried off a prize scholarship above the heads of the graduates of the Hilltown High School, and still refusing all help, had gone away to college, to support himself there while studying by such work as he could find, knowing well that a true gentleman's son is ashamed of nothing honest.
He spent his vacations at home, where he and Helen studied together,--or such rather had been his hope; it was realized only for the first year.
Helen had an aunt upon her mother's side, a woman of wealth and social position, who owned a large country home near Oakdale, and who was by no means inclined to view with the complacency of Mr. Davis the idyllic friendship of the two young people. Mrs. Roberts, or "Aunt Polly" as she was known to the family, had plans of her own concerning the future of the beauty which she saw unfolding itself at the Oakdale parsonage. She said nothing to Mr. Davis, for he, being busy with theological works and charitable organizations, was not considered a man from whom one might hope for proper ideas about life. But with her own more practical husband she had frequently discussed the danger, and the possible methods of warding it off.
To send Helen to a boarding school would have been of no use, for the vacations were the times of danger; so it was that the trip abroad was finally decided upon. Aunt Polly, having traveled herself, had a wholesome regard for German culture, believing that music and things of that sort were paying investments. It chanced, also, that her own eldest daughter, who was a year older than Helen, was about through with all that American teachers had to impart; and so after much argument with Mr. Davis, it was finally arranged that she and Helen should study in Germany together. Just when poor Arthur was returning home with the sublime title of junior, his dream of all things divine was carried off by Aunt Polly, and after a summer spent in "doing" Europe, was installed in a girl's school in Leipzig.
And now, three years having passed, Helen has left her cousin for another year of travel, and returned home in all the glory of her own springtime and of Nature's; which brings us to where we left her, hurrying away to pay a duty call in the little settlement on the hillside.
The visit had not been entirely a subterfuge, for Helen's father had mentioned to her that the elderly person whom she had named to Arthur was expecting to see her when she returned, and Helen had been troubled by the thought that she would never have any peace until she had paid that visit. It was by no means an agreeable one, for old Mrs. Woodward was exceedingly dull, and Helen felt that she was called upon to make war upon dullness. However, it had occurred to her to get her task out of the way at once, while she felt that she ought to leave Arthur.
The visit proved to be quite as depressing as she had expected, for it is sad to have to record that Helen, however sensitive to the streamlet and the flowers, had not the least sympathy in the world for an old woman who had a very sharp chin, who stared at one through two pairs of spectacles, and whose conversation was about her own health and the dampness of the springtime, besides the dreariest gossip about Oakdale's least interesting people. Perhaps it might have occurred to the girl that it is very forlorn to have nothing else to talk about, and that even old Mrs. Woodward might have liked to hear about some of the things in the forest, or to have been offered the lily and the marigold. Unfortunately, however, Helen did not think about any of that, but only moved restlessly about in her chair and gazed around the ugly room. Finally when she could stand it no more, she sprang up between two of Mrs. Woodward's longest sentences and remarked that it was very late and a long way home, and that she would come again some time.
Then at last when she was out in the open air, she drew a deep breath and fled away to the woods, wondering what could be God's reason for such things. It was not until she was half way up the hillside that she could feel that the wind, which blew now upon her forehead, had quite swept away the depression which had settled upon her. She drank in the odors which blew from the woods, and began singing to herself again, and looking out for Arthur.
She was rather surprised not to see him at once, and still more surprised when she came nearer and raised her voice to call him; for she reached the forest and came to the place where she had left him without a reply having come. She shouted his name again and again, until at last, not without a half secret chagrin to have been so quickly forgotten, she was obliged to set out for home alone.
"Perhaps he's gone on ahead," she thought, quickening her pace.
For a time she watched anxiously, expecting to see his darkly clad figure; but she soon wearied of continued failure, and because it was her birthday, and because the brook was still at her side and the beautiful forest still about her, she took to singing again, and was quickly as happy and glorious as before, ceasing her caroling and moderating her woodland pace only when she neared the town. She passed down the main street of Oakdale, not quite without an exulting consciousness that her walk had crowned her beauty and that no one whom she saw was thinking about anything else; and so she came to her home, to the dear old parsonage, with its spreading ivy vines, and its two great elms.
When she had hurried up the steps and shut the door behind her, Helen felt privileged again to be just as merry as she chose, for she was even more at home here than in the woods; it seemed as if everything were stretching out its arms to her to welcome her, and to invite her to carry out her declared purpose of taking the reins of government in her own hands.
Upon one side of the hallway was a parlor, and on the other side two rooms, which Mr. Davis had used as a reception room and a study. The parlor had never been opened, and Helen promised herself a jolly time superintending the fixing up of that; on the other side she had already taken possession of the front room, symbolically at any rate, by having her piano moved in and her music unpacked, and a case emptied for the books she had brought from Germany. To be sure, on the other side was still a dreary wall of theological treatises in funereal black, but Helen was not without hopes that continued doses of cheerfulness might cure her father of such incomprehensible habits, and obtain for her the permission to move the books to the attic.
To start things in that direction the girl now danced gaily into the study where her father was in the act of writing "thirdly, brethren," for his next day's sermon; and crying out merrily,
"Up, up my friend, and quit your books, Or surely you'll grow double!"she saluted her reverend father with the sweetest of kisses, and then seated herself on the arm of his chair and gravely took his pen out of his hand, and closed his inkstand. She turned over the "thirdly, brethren," without blotting it, and recited solemnly:
"One impulse from a vernal wood May teach you more of man, Of moral evil and of good. Than all the sages can!"And then she laughed the merriest of merry laughs and added, "Daddy, dear, I am an impulse! And I want you to spare some time for me."
"Yes, my love," said Mr. Davis, smiling upon her, though groaning inwardly for his lost ideas. "You are beautiful this morning, Helen. What have you been doing?"
"I've had a glorious walk," replied the girl, "and all kinds of wonderful adventures; I've had a dance with the morning wind, and a race of a mile or two with a brook, and I've sung duets with all the flowers,--and here you are writing uninteresting things!"
"It's my sermon, Helen," said Mr. Davis.
"I know it," said Helen, gravely.
"But it must be done for to-morrow," protested the other.
"Half your congregation is going to be so excited about two tallow candles that it won't know what you preach about," answered the girl, swinging herself on the arm of the chair; "and I'm going to sing for the other half, and so they won't care either. And besides, Daddy, I've got news to tell you; you've no idea what a good girl I've been."
"How, my love?"
"I went to see Mrs. Woodward."
"Yes; and it was just to show you how dutiful I'm going to be. Daddy, I felt so sorry for the poor old lady; it is so beautiful to know that one is doing good and bringing happiness into other people's lives! I think I'll go and see her often, and carry her something nice if you'll let me."
Helen said all that as gravely as a judge; but Mr. Davis was agreeing so delightedly that she feared she was carrying the joke too far. She changed the subject quickly.
"Oh, Daddy!" she cried, "I forgot to tell you--I met a genius to-day!"
"A genius?" inquired the other.
"Yes," said Helen, "and I've been walking around with him all morning out in the woods! Did you never hear that every place like that has a genius?"
"Yes," assented Mr. Davis, "but I don't understand your joke."
"This was the genius of Hilltown High School," laughed Helen.
"Yes; will you believe it, the dear boy had walked all the way from there to see me; and he waited out by the old seat at the spring!"
"But where is he now?"
"I don't know," said Helen. "It's very queer; I left him to go see Mrs. Woodward. He didn't go with me," she added, "I don't believe he felt inclined to charity."
"That is not like Arthur," said the other.
"I'm going to take him in hand, as becomes a clergyman's daughter," said Helen demurely; "I'm going to be a model daughter, Daddy--just you wait and see! I'll visit all your parishioners' lawn-parties and five o'clock teas for you, and I'll play Handel's Largo and Siegfried's Funeral March whenever you want to write sermons. Won't you like that?"
"Perhaps," said Mr. Davis, dubiously.
"Only I know you'll make blots when I come to the cymbals," said Helen; and she doubled up her fists and hummed the passage, and gave so realistic an imitation of the cymbal-clashes in the great dirge that it almost upset the chair. Afterwards she laughed one of her merriest laughs and kissed her father on the forehead.
"I heard it at Baireuth," she said, "and it was just fine! It made your flesh creep all over you. And oh, Daddy, I brought home a souvenir of Wagner's grave!"
"Did you?" asked Mr. Davis, who knew very little about Wagner.
"Yes," said Helen, "just a pebble I picked up near it; and you ought to have seen the custom-house officer at the dock yesterday when he was going through my trunks. 'What's this, Miss?' he asked; I guess he thought it was a diamond in the rough. 'Oh, that's from Wagner's grave,' I said. And what do you think the wretch did?"
"I'm sure I don't know, my love."
"He threw it back, saying it wasn't worth anything; I think he must have been a Brahmsite."
"It took the longest time going through all my treasures," Helen prattled on, after laughing at her own joke; "you know Aunt Polly let us have everything we wanted, bless her heart!"
"I'm afraid Aunt Polly must have spoiled you," said the other.
"She has," laughed Helen; "I really think she must mean to make me marry a rich husband, or else she'd never have left me at that great rich school; Lucy and I were the 'star-boarders' you know, and we just had everybody to spoil us. How in the world could you ever manage to spare so much money, Daddy?"
"Oh, it was not so much," said Mr. Davis; "things are cheaper abroad." (As a matter of fact, the grimly resolute Aunt Polly had paid two-thirds of her niece's expenses secretly, besides distributing pocket money with lavish generosity.)
"And you should see the wonderful dresses I've brought from Paris," Helen went on. "Oh, Daddy, I tell you I shall be glorious! Aunt Polly's going to invite a lot of people at her house next week to meet me, and I'm going to wear the reddest of red, red dresses, and just shine like a lighthouse!"
"I'm afraid," said the clergyman, surveying her with more pride than was perhaps orthodox, "I'm afraid you'll find it hard to be satisfied in this poor little home of ours."
"Oh, that's all right," said Helen; "I'll soon get used to it; and besides, I've got plenty of things to fix it up with--if you'll only get those dreadful theological works out of the front room! Daddy dear, you can't imagine how hard it is to bring the Valkyries and Niebelungs into a theological library."
"I'll see what I can do, my love," said Mr. Davis.
He was silent for a few moments, perhaps wondering vaguely whether it was well that this commanding young lady should have everything in the world she desired; Helen, who had her share of penetration, probably divined the thought, for she made haste to change the subject.
"By the way," she laughed, "we got so interested in our chattering that we forgot all about Arthur."
"Sure enough," exclaimed the other. "Pray where can he have gone?"
"I don't know," Helen said; "it's strange. But poets are such queer creatures!"
"Arthur is a very splendid creature," said Mr. Davis. "You have no idea, Helen, how hard he has labored since you have been away. He carried off all the honors at college, and they say he has written some good poetry. I don't know much about that, but the people who know tell me so."
"It would be gloriously romantic to know a great poet," said Helen, "and perhaps have him write poetry about you,--'Helen, thy beauty is to me,' and 'Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss,' and all sorts of things like that! He's coming to live with us this summer as usual, isn't he, Daddy?"
"I don't know," said the other; "I presume he will. But where can he have gone to-day?"
"He acted very queerly," said the girl; and then suddenly a delighted smile lit up her face. "Oh, Daddy," she added, "do you know, I think Arthur is in love!"
"In love!" gasped Mr. Davis.
"Yes, in love!"
"Pray, with whom?"
"I'm sure I can't imagine," said Helen gravely; "but he seemed so abstracted, and he seemed to have something to tell me. And then he ran away!"
"That is very strange indeed," remarked the other. "I shall have to speak to him about it."
"If he doesn't come back soon, I'll go to look for him," said the girl; "I'm not going to let the water nixies run off with my Arthur; there are such things in that stream, because the song I was singing about it says so." And then she chanted as merrily as ever:
"Why speak I of a murmur? No murmur can it be; The Nixies they are singing 'Neath the wave their melody!""I will tell you what," said Mr. Davis, rising from his chair as he realized that the sermon had entirely vanished for the present. "You may go part of the way with me, and we'll stop in to see the Vails."
"The Vails!" gasped Helen. (Mr. Vail was the village dairyman, whose farm lay on the outskirts of the town; the village dairyman's family was not one that Helen cared to visit.)
"My love," said Mr. Davis, "poor Mrs. Vail has been very ill, and she has three little children, you know. You told me that you liked to bring joy wherever you could."
"Yes, but, Daddy," protested Helen, "_those_ children are _dirty!_ Ugh! I saw them as I came by."
"My love," answered the other, "they are God's children none the less; and we cannot always help such things."
"But we _can_, Daddy; there is plenty of water in the world."
"Yes, of course; but when the mother is ill, and the father in trouble! For poor Mr. Vail has had no end of misfortune; he has no resource but the little dairy, and three of his cows have been ill this spring."
And Helen's incorrigible mirth lighted up her face again. "Oh!" she cried. "Is _that_ it! I saw him struggling away at the pump as I came by; but I had no idea it was anything so serious!"
Mr. Davis looked grieved; Helen, when her first burst of glee had passed, noticed it and changed her mood. She put her arms around her father's neck and pressed her cheek against his.
"Daddy, dear," she said coaxingly, "haven't I done charity enough for one day? You will surfeit me at the start, and then I'll be just as little fond of it as I was before. When I must let dirty children climb all over me, I can dress for the occasion."
"My dear," pleaded Mr. Davis, "Godliness is placed before Cleanliness."
"Yes," admitted Helen, "and of course it is right for you to inculcate the greater virtue; but I'm only a girl, and you mustn't expect sublimity from me. You don't want to turn me into a president of sewing societies, like that dreadful Mrs. Dale!"
"Helen," protested the other, helplessly, "I wish you would not always refer to Mrs. Dale with that adjective; she is the best helper I have."
"Yes, Daddy," said Helen, with the utmost solemnity; "when I have a dreadful eagle nose like hers, perhaps I can preside over meetings too. But I can't now."
"I do not want you to, my love; but--"
"And if I have to cling by the weaker virtue of cleanliness just for a little while, Daddy, you must not mind. I'll visit all your clean parishioners for you,--parishioners like Aunt Polly!"
And before Mr. Davis could make another remark, the girl had skipped into the other room to the piano; as her father went slowly out the door, the echoes of the old house were laughing with the happy melody of Purcell's--
Nymphs and shepherds, come a-way, come a-way, Nymphs and shepherds, come a-way, come a-way, Come, come, come, come a-way!