"If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me, Without my stir."
Most of the people whom Helen met upon her arrival were of her own sex, so that she did not feel called upon to make special exertions to please them; but she was naturally cheerful and happy with everyone, and the other matters of which Mrs. Roberts had talked took on such vast proportions before her mind that it was a relief to her to put them aside and enjoy herself for a while in her usual way. Helen was glad that most of the men were to arrive later, so that she might make her appearance before them under the most favorable circumstances. When she heard the distant whistle of the afternoon train a couple of hours later, it was with that thought that she retired to her room to rest before dressing.
Aunt Polly, following her plan of accustoming the girl to a proper style of living, had engaged a maid to attend her during her stay; and Helen found therefore that her trunks were unpacked and everything in order. It was a great relief to her to be rid of all care, and she took off her dress and flung herself down upon the bed to think.
Helen had imbided during her Sunday-school days the usual formulas of dogmatic religion, but upon matters of morality her ideas were of the vaguest possible description. The guide of her life had always been her instinct for happiness, her "genial sense of youth." She had never formulated any rule of life to herself, but that which she sought was joy, primarily for herself, and incidentally for other people, because unhappy people were disturbing (unless it were possible to avoid them). In debating within herself the arguments which her aunt had brought before her mind, it was that principle chiefly by which she tested them.
To the girl's eager nature, keenly sensitive to pleasure and greedy for it, the prospect so suddenly flung wide before her eyes was so intoxicating that again and again as she thought of it it made her tremble and burn. So far as Helen could see at that moment, a marriage with this Mr. Harrison would mean the command of every source of happiness; and upon a scale so magnificent, so belittling of everything she had known before, that she shrank from it as something impossible and unnatural. Again and again she buried her heated brow in her hands and muttered: "I ought to have known it before! I ought to have had time to realize it."
That which restrained the girl from welcoming such an opportunity, from clasping it to her in ecstasy and flinging herself madly into the whirl of pleasure it held out, was not so much her conscience and the ideals which she had formed more or less vaguely from the novels and poems she had read, as the instinct of her maidenhood, which made her shrink from the thought of marriage with a man whom she did not love. So strong was this feeling in her that at first she felt that she could not even bear to be introduced to him with such an idea in her mind.
It was Aunt Polly's wisdom and diplomacy which finally overcame her scruples enough to persuade her to that first step; Helen kept thinking of her aunt's words--that no one wanted to compel her to marry the man, that she might do just as she chose. She argued that it was foolish to worry herself, or to be ill at ease. She might see what sort of a man he was; if he fell in love with her it would do no harm,--Helen was not long in discovering by the increased pace of her pulses that she would find it exciting to have everyone know that a multimillionaire was in love with her. "As for the rest," she said to herself, "we'll see when the time comes," and knew not that one who goes to front his life's temptation with that resolution is a mariner who leaves the steering of his vessel to the tempest.
She had stilled her objection by such arguments, and was just beginning to feel the excitement of the prospect once more, when the maid knocked at the door and asked to know if mademoiselle were ready to dress for dinner. And mademoiselle arose and bathed her face and arms and was once more her old refreshed and rejoicing self, ready for that mysterious and wonderful process which was to send her out an hour or two later a vision of perfectness, compounded of the hues of the rose and the odors of evening, with the new and unutterable magic that is all the woman's own. Besides the prospects her aunt had spoken of, there were reasons enough why Helen should be radiant, for it was her first recognized appearance in high society; and so she sat in front of the tall mirror and criticised every detail of the coiffure which the maid prepared, and eyed by turns her gleaming neck and shoulders and the wonderful dress, as yet unworn, which shone from the bed through its covering of tissue paper; and was all the time so filled with joy and delight that it was a pleasure to be near her. Soon Aunt Polly, clad in plain black as a sign that she retired in favor of Helen, came in to assist and superintend the toilet. So serious at the task, and so filled with a sense of its importance and the issues that were staked upon it was she and the maid also, that one would not dare think of the humor of the situation if Helen herself had not broken the spell by declaring that she felt like an Ashantee warrior being decked out for battle with plumes and war paint, or like Rinaldo, or Amadis donning his armor.
And Helen was in fact going to war, a war for which nature has been training woman since the first fig-tree grew. She carried a bow strong as the one of Ulysses, which no man could draw, and an arrow sharp as the sunbeam and armed with a barb; for a helmet, beside her treasure of golden hair, she wore one rose, set there with the art that conceals art, so that it was no longer a red rose, but one more bright perfection that had come to ripeness about the glowing maiden. Her dress was of the same color, a color which when worn upon a woman is a challenge, crying abroad that here is perfection beyond envy and beyond praise.
When the last touch was finished and Helen gazed upon herself, with her bare shoulders and arms and her throat so soft and white, she knew that she was, compared to all about her, a vision from another world. Chiefest of all, she knew that neither arms and shoulders, nor robe, nor gleaming hair, would ever be thought of when once the face that smiled upon her with its serene perfectness had caught the eye; she knew that as usual, men must start when they saw her, and never take their eyes from her. The thought filled her with an exulting consciousness of power, and reared her form with a new dignity, and made her chest heave and her cheeks burn with yet a new beauty.
When everything was ready, Aunt Polly's husband was called in to gaze upon her. A little man was Aunt Polly's husband, with black side whiskers and a head partly bald; a most quiet and unobtrusive person, looking just what he had been represented,--a "plain, sensible man," who attended to his half of the family affairs, and left the other half to his wife. He gazed upon Helen and blinked once or twice, as if blinded by so much beauty, and then took the end of her fingers very lightly in his and pronounced her "absolutely perfect." "And, my dear," he added, "it's after seven, so perhaps we'd best descend."
So he led the girl down to her triumph, to the handsome parlors of the house where eight or ten men were strolling about. It was quite exciting to Helen to meet them, for they were all strangers, and Aunt Polly had apparently considered Mr. Harrison of so much importance that she had said nothing about the others, leaving her niece at liberty to make what speculations she pleased.
It was a brilliant company which was seated in the dining room a short while later. As it was assembled in Helen's honor, Aunt Polly had taken care to bring those who would please the girl, and represent high life and luxury at its best; all of the guests were young, and therefore perfect. The members of the "smart set," when they have passed the third decade, are apt to show signs of weariness; a little of their beauty and health is gone, and some of their animation, and all of their joy,--so that one may be led to ask himself if there be not really something wrong about their views and ways of living. When they are young, however, they represent the possibilities of the human animal in all things external. In some wonderful way known only to themselves they have managed to manipulate the laws of men so as to make men do for them all the hard and painful tasks of life, so that they have no care but to make themselves as beautiful and as clever and as generally excellent as selfishness can be. Helen, of course, was not in the least troubled about the selfishness, and she was quite satisfied with externals. She saw about her perfect toilets and perfect manners; she saw everyone as happy as she liked everyone to be; and the result was that her spirits took fire, and she was clever and fascinating beyond even herself. She carried everything before her, and performed the real feat of dominating the table by her beauty and cleveness, without being either presumptuous or vain. Aunt Polly replied to the delighted looks of her husband at the other end of the table, and the two only wished that Mr. Harrison had been there then.
As a matter of fact, Helen had forgotten Mr. Harrison entirely, and he did not come back to her mind until the dinner was almost over, when suddenly she heard the bell ring. It was just the time that he was due to arrive, and so she knew that she would see him in another half hour. In the exultation of the present moment all of her hesitation was gone, and she was as ready to meet him as her aunt could have wished.
When the party rose a few minutes later and went into the parlors again, Helen was the first to enter, upon the arm of her neighbor. She was thinking of Mr. Harrison; and as she glanced about her, she could not keep from giving a slight start. Far down at the other end of the room she had caught sight of the figure of a man, and her first thought had been that it must be the millionaire. His frail, slender form was more than half concealed by the cushions of the sofa upon which he was seated, but even so, Helen could discover that he was a slight cripple.
The man rose as the party entered, and Aunt Polly went towards him; she apparently expected her niece to follow and be introduced to the stranger, but in the meantime the truth had occurred to Helen, that it must be the Mr. Howard she had been told of; she turned to one side with her partner, and began remarking the pictures in the room.
When she found opportunity, she glanced over and saw that the man had seated himself on the sofa and was talking to Mrs. Roberts. He looked, as Helen thought, all the invalid her aunt had described him to be, for his face was white and very wan, so that it made her shudder. "Dear me!" she exclaimed to herself, "I don't think such a man ought to go into public." And she turned resolutely away, and set herself to the task of forgetting him, which she very easily did.
A merry party was soon gathered about her, rejoicing in the glory of her presence, and listening to the stories which she told of her adventures in Europe. Helen kept the circle well in hand that way, and was equally ready when one of the young ladies turned the conversation off upon French poetry in the hope of eclipsing her. Thus her animation continued without rest until Mrs. Roberts escorted one of the guests to the piano to sing for them.
"She's keeping me for Mr. Harrison," thought Helen, laughing mischievously to herself; "and I suppose she's picked out the worst musician first, so as to build up a climax."
It seemed as if that might have been the plan for a fact; the performer sang part of Gluck's "J'ai perdu mon Eurydice," in strange French, and in a mournful voice which served very well to display the incompatibility of the melody and the words. As it happened, however, Mistress Helen heard not a word of the song, for it had scarcely begun before she turned her eyes towards the doorway and caught sight of a figure that drove all other ideas from her mind. Mr. Harrison had come at last.
He was a tall, dignified man, and Helen's first feeling was of relief to discover that he was neither coarse-looking, nor even plain. He had rather too bright a complexion, and rather too large a sandy mustache, but his clothes fitted him, and he seemed to be at ease as he glanced about him and waited in the doorway for the young lady at the piano to finish. While the faint applause was still sounding he entered with Mrs. Roberts, moving slowly across the room. "And now!" thought Helen, "now for it!"
As she expected, the two came towards her, and Mr. Harrison was presented; Helen, who was on the watch with all her faculties, decided that he bore that trial tolerably, for while his admiration of course showed itself, he did not stare, and he was not embarrassed.
"I am a little late, I fear," he said; "have I missed much of the music?"
"No," said Helen, "that was the first selection."
"I am glad of that," said the other.
According to the laws which regulate the drifting of conversation, it was next due that Helen should ask if he were fond of singing; and then that he should answer that he was very fond of it, which he did.
"Mrs. Roberts tells me you are a skillful musician," he added; "I trust that I shall hear you?"
Helen of course meant to play, and had devoted some thought to the selection of her program; therefore she answered: "Possibly; we shall see by and by."
"I am told that you have been studying in Germany," was the next observation. "Do you like Germany?"
"Very much," said Helen. "Only they made me work very hard at music, and at everything else."
"That is perhaps why you are a good player," said Mr. Harrison.
"You ought to wait until you hear me," the girl replied, following his example of choosing the most obvious thing to say.
"I fear I am not much of a critic," said the other.
And so the conversation drifted on for several minutes, Mr. Harrison's remarks being so very uninspiring that his companion could find no way to change the subject to anything worth talking about.
"Evidently," the girl thought, during a momentary lull, "he has learned all the rules of talking, and that's why he's at ease. But dear me, what an awful prospect! It would kill me to have to do this often. But then, to be sure I shan't see him in the day time, and in the evenings we should not be at home. One doesn't have to be too intimate with one's husband, I suppose. And then--"
"I think," said Mr. Harrison, "that your aunt is coming to ask you to play."
That was Aunt Polly's mission, for a fact, and Helen was much relieved, for she had found herself quite helpless to lift the conversation out of the slough of despond into which it had fallen; she wanted a little time to collect her faculties and think of something clever to start with again. When in answer to the request of Aunt Polly she arose and went to the piano, the crushed feeling of course left her, and her serenity returned; for Helen was at home at the piano, knowing that she could do whatever she chose, and do it without effort. It was a stimulus to her faculties to perceive that a general hush had fallen upon the room, and that every eye was upon her; as she sat down, therefore, all her old exultation was back.
She paused a moment to collect herself, and gave one easy glance down the room at the groups of people. She caught a glimpse as she did so of Mr. Howard, who was still seated upon the sofa, leaning forward and resting his chin in his hand and fixing his eyes upon her. At another time the sight of his wan face might perhaps have annoyed the girl, but she was carried beyond that just then by the excitement of the moment; her glance came back to the piano, and feeling that everyone was attentive and expectant, she began.
Helen numbered in her repertoire a good many pieces that were hopelessly beyond the technic of the average salon pianist, and she had chosen the most formidable with which to astonish her hearers that evening. She had her full share of that pleasure which people get from concerning themselves with great things: a pleasure which is responsible for much of the reading, and especially the discussing, of the world's great poets, and which brings forth many lofty sentiments from the numerous class of persons who combine idealism with vanity. Helen's selection was the first movement of the "Sonata Appassionata," and she was filled with a pleasing sense of majesty and importance as she began. She liked the first theme especially because it was striking and dignified and never failed to attract attention; and in what followed there was room for every shading of tone, from delicate softness that showed much feeling and sympathy, to stunning fortissimos that made everyone stare. The girl was relieved of any possible fear by the certainty that the composition was completely beyond her hearers' understanding, and so she soon lost herself in her task, and, as her excitement mounted, played with splendid spirit and abandon. Her calculations proved entirely well made, for when she stopped she received a real ovation, having genuinely astonished her hearers; and she crossed the room, beaming radiantly upon everyone and acknowledging their compliments, more assured of triumph than ever before. To cap the climax, when she reached her seat she found Mr. Harrison betraying completely his profound admiration, his gaze being riveted upon the glowing girl as she sat down beside him.
"Miss Davis," he said, with evident sincerity, "that was really wonderful!"
"Thank you very much," said Helen, radiantly.
"It was the most splendid piano playing I have ever heard in my life," the other went on. "Pray what was it that you played--something new?"
"Oh, no," was the answer, "it is very old indeed."
"Ah," said Mr. Harrison, "those old composers were very great men."
"Yes," said Helen, demurely.
"I was astonished to see with what ease you played," the other continued, "and yet so marvelously fast! That must be a fearfully hard piece of music to play."
"Yes, it is," said Helen; "but it is quite exciting," she added, fanning herself and laughing.
Helen was at the top of her being just then, and in perfect command of things; she had no idea of letting herself be dragged down into the commonplace again. "I think it's about time I was fascinating him," she said to herself, and she started in, full of merriment and life. Taking her last remark as a cue, she told him funny stories about the eccentricities of the sonata's great composer, how he would storm and rage up and down his room like a madman, and how he hired a boy to pump water over his head by the hour, in case of emergency.
Mr. Harrison remarked that it was funny how all musicians were such queer chaps, but even that did not discourage Helen. She rattled on, quite as supremely captivating as she had been at the dinner table, and as she saw that her companion was yielding to her spell, the color mounted to her cheeks and her blood flowed faster yet.
It is of the nature of such flame to feed itself, and Helen grew the more exulting as she perceived her success,--and consequently all the more irresistible. The eyes of the man were soon riveted upon the gorgeous vision of loveliness before him, and the contagion of the girl's animation showed itself even in him, for he brightened a little, and was clever enough to startle himself. It was a new delight and stimulus to Helen to perceive it, and she was soon swept away in much the same kind of nervous delight as her phantasy with the thunderstorm. The sofa upon which the two were seated had been somewhat apart from the rest, and so they had nothing to disturb them. A short half hour fled by, during which Helen's daring animation ruled everything, and at the end of which Mr. Harrison was quite oblivious to everything about him.
There were others, however, who were watching the affair; the keen-eyed Aunt Polly was comprehending all with joy, but she was as ever calculating and prudent, and she knew that Helen's monopoly of Mr. Harrison would soon become unpleasantly conspicuous, especially as she had so far introduced him to no one else. She felt that little would he lost by breaking the spell, for what the girl was doing then she might do any time she chose; and so after waiting a while longer she made her way unobtrusively over to them and joined their conversation.
Helen of course understood her aunt's meaning, and acquiesced; she kept on laughing and talking for a minute or two more, and then at a lull in the conversation she exclaimed: "But I've been keeping Mr. Harrison here talking to me, and nobody else has seen anything of him." And so Mr. Harrison, inwardly anathematizing the rest of the company, was compelled to go through a long series of handshakings, and finally to be drawn into a group of young persons whose conversation seemed to him the most inane he had ever heard in his life.
In the meantime someone else was giving a piano selection, one which Helen had never heard, but which sounded to every one like a finger exercise after her own meteoric flight; the girl sat half listening to it and half waiting for her aunt to return, which Mrs. Roberts finally did, beaming with gratitude.
"My love," she whispered, "you are an angel; you have done better than I ever dreamed of!"
And Helen felt her blood give a sudden leap that was not quite pleasant; the surging thoughts that were in her mind at that moment brought back the nervous trembling she had felt in the carriage, so that she leaned against the sofa for support.
"Now listen, my dear," the other went swiftly on, perhaps divining the girl's state, "I want you to do a great favor for me."
"Was not that for you, Auntie?" asked Helen, weakly.
"No, my dear, that was for yourself. But this--"
"What is it?"
"I want you to come and talk to my David Howard a little while."
The girl gave a start, and turned a little paler. "Aunt Polly," she exclaimed, "not now! He looks so ill, it makes me nervous even to see him."
"But, Helen, my dear, that is nonsense," was the reply. "Mr. Howard is one of the most interesting men you ever met. He knows more than all the people in this room together, and you will forget he is an invalid when you have talked to him a while."
Helen was, or wished to think herself, upon the heights of happiness just then, and she shrunk more than ever from anything that was wretched. "Not now, Aunt Polly," she said, faintly. "Please wait until--"
"But, my dear," said Aunt Polly, "now is the very time; you will wish to be with Mr. Harrison again soon. And you must meet Mr. Howard, for that is what he came for."
"I suppose then I'll have to," said Helen, knitting her brows; "I'll stroll over in a minute or two."
"All right," said the other; "and please try to get acquainted with him, Helen, for I want you to like him."
"I will do my best," said the girl. "He won't talk about his ailments, will he?"
"No," said the other, laughing, "I fancy not. Talk to him about music--he's a great musician, you know."
And as her aunt left the room, Helen stole a side glance at the man, who was alone upon the sofa just then. His chin was still resting in his hand, and he was looking at Helen as before. As she glanced at him thus he seemed to be all head, or rather all forehead, for his brow was very high and white, and was set off by heavy black hair.
"He does look interesting," the girl thought, as she forced a smile and walked across the room; her aunt entered at the same time, as if by accident, and the two approached Mr. Howard. As he saw them coming he rose, with some effort as Helen noticed, and with a very slight look of pain; it cost her some resolution to give the man her hand. In a minute or two more, however, they were seated alone upon the sofa, Aunt Polly having gone off with the remark to Helen that she had made Mr. Howard promise to talk to her about music, and that they both knew too much about it for her. "You must tell Helen all about her playing," she added to him, laughingly.
And then Helen, to carry on the conversation, added, "I should be very much pleased if you would."
"I am afraid it is an ungracious task Mrs. Roberts has chosen me," the man answered, smiling. "Critics are not a popular race."
"It depends upon the critics," said Helen. "They must be sincere."
"That is just where they get into trouble," was the response.
"It looks as if he were going to be chary with his praise," thought Helen, feeling just the least bit uncomfortable. She thought for a moment, and then said, not without truth, "You pique my curiosity, Mr. Howard."
"My criticism could not be technical," said the other, smiling, again, "for I am not a pianist."
"You play some other instrument?" asked Helen; afterwards she added, mischievously, "or are you just a critic?"
"I play the violin," the man answered.
"You are going to play for us this evening?"
"No," said the other, "I fear I shall not."
"Why not?" Helen inquired.
"I have not been feeling very well to-day," was the response. "But I have promised your aunt to play some evening; we had quite a long dispute."
"You do not like to play in public?" asked Helen.
The question was a perfectly natural one, but it happened unfortunately that as the girl asked it her glance rested upon the figure of her companion. The man chanced to look at her at the same instant, and she saw in a flash that her thought had been misread. Helen colored with the most painful mortification; but Mr. Howard gave, to her surprise, no sign of offense.
"No, not in general," he said, with simple dignity. "I believe that I am much better equipped as a listener."
Helen had never seen more perfect self-possession than that, and she felt quite humbled.
It would have been difficult to guess the age of the man beside her, but Helen noticed that his hair was slightly gray. A closer view had only served to strengthen her first impression of him, that he was all head, and she found herself thinking that if that had been all of him he might have been handsome, tho in a strange, uncomfortable way. The broad forehead seemed more prominent than ever, and the dark eyes seemed fairly to shine from beneath it. The rest of the face, tho wan, was as powerful and massive as the brow, and seemed to Helen, little used as she was to think of such things, to indicate character as well as suffering.
"It looks a little like Arthur's," she thought.
This she had been noticing in the course of the conversation; then, because her curiosity had really been piqued, she brought back the original topic again. "You have not told me about my playing," she smiled, "and I wish for your opinion. I am very vain, you know." (There is wisdom in avowing a weakness which you wish others to think you do not possess.)
"It gave me great pleasure to watch you," said the man, after a moment.
"To watch me!" thought Helen. "That is a palpable evasion. That is not criticising my music itself," she said aloud, not showing that she was a trifle annoyed.
"You have evidently been very well taught," said the other,--"unusually well; and you have a very considerable technic." And Helen was only more uncomfortable than ever; evidently the man would have liked to add a "but" to that sentence, and the girl felt as if she had come near an icicle in the course of her evening's triumph. However, she was now still more curious to hear the rest of his opinion. Half convinced yet that it must be favorable in the end, she said:
"I should not in the least mind your speaking plainly; the admiration of people who do not understand music I really do not care for." And then as Mr. Howard fixed his deep, clear eyes upon her, Helen involuntarily lowered hers a little.
"If you really want my opinion," said the other, "you shall have it. But you must remember that it is yourself who leads me to the bad taste of being serious in company."
That last remark was in Helen's own style, and she looked interested. For the rest, she felt that she had gotten into grave trouble by her question; but it was too late to retreat now.
"I will excuse you," she said. "I wish to know."
"Very well, then," said Mr. Howard; "the truth is that I did not care for your selection."
Helen gave a slight start. "If that is all the trouble, I need not worry," she thought; and she added easily, "The sonata is usually considered one of Beethoven's very greatest works, Mr. Howard."
"I am aware of that," said the other; "but do you know how Beethoven came to compose it?"
Helen had the happy feeling of a person of moderate resources when the conversation turns to one of his specialties. "Yes," she said; "I have read how he said 'So pocht das Schicksal auf die Pforte.' [Footnote: "So knocks Fate upon the door."] Do you understand that, Mr. Howard?"
"Only partly," said the other, very gently; "do you?" And Helen felt just then that she had made a very awkward blunder indeed.
"Fate is a very dreadful thing to understand, Miss Davis," the other continued, slowly. "When one has heard the knock, he does not forget it, and even the echo of it makes him tremble."
"I suppose then," said Helen, glibly, trying to save herself, "that you think the sonata is too serious to be played in public?"
"Not exactly," was the answer; "it depends upon the circumstances. There are always three persons concerned, you know. In this case, as you have pardoned me for being serious, there is in the first place the great genius with his sacred message; you know how he learned that his life work was to be ruined by deafness, and how he poured his agony and despair into his greatest symphony, and into this sonata. That is the first person, Miss Davis."
He paused for a moment; and Helen took a deep breath, thinking that it was the strangest conversation she had ever been called upon to listen to during an evening's merriment. Yet she did not smile, for the man's deep, resonant voice fascinated her.
"And the second?" she asked.
"The second," said Mr. Howard, turning his dark, sunken eyes full upon the girl, "is another man, not a genius, but one who has suffered, I fear, nearly as much as one; a man who is very hungry for beauty, and very impatient of insincerity, and who is accustomed to look to the great masters of art for all his help and courage."
Helen felt very uncomfortable indeed.
"Evidently," she said, "I am the third."
"Yes," said Mr. Howard, "the pianist is the third. It is the pianist's place to take the great work and live it, and study it until he knows all that it means; and then--"
"I don't think I took it quite so seriously as that," said Helen, with a poor attempt at humility.
"No," said Mr. Howard, gravely; "it was made evident to me that you did not by every note you played; for you treated it as if it had been a Liszt show-piece."
Helen was of course exceedingly angry at those last blunt words; but she was too proud to let her vexation be observed. She felt that she had gotten herself into the difficulty by asking for serious criticism, for deep in her heart she knew that it was true, and that she would never have dared to play the sonata had she known that a musician was present. Helen felt completely humiliated, her few minutes' conversation having been enough to put her out of humor with herself and all of her surroundings. There was a long silence, in which she had time to think of what she had heard; she felt in spite of herself the folly of what she had done, and her whole triumph had suddenly come to look very small indeed; yet, as was natural, she felt only anger against the man who had broken the spell and destroyed her illusion. She was only the more irritated because she could not find any ground upon which to blame him.
It would have been very difficult for her to have carried on the conversation after that. Fortunately a diversion occurred, the young person who had last played having gone to the piano again, this time with a young man and a violin.
"Aunt Polly has found someone to take your place," said Helen, forcing a smile.
"Yes," said the other, "she told me we had another violinist."
The violinist played Raff's Cavatina, a thing with which fiddlers all love to exhibit themselves; he played it just a little off the key at times, as Helen might have told by watching her companion's eyebrows. She in the meantime was trying to recover her equanimity, and to think what else she could say. "He's the most uncomfortable man I ever met," she thought with vexation. "I wish I'd insisted upon keeping away from him!"
However, Helen was again relieved from her plight by the fact that as the fiddler stopped and the faint applause died out, she saw Mr. Harrison coming towards her. Mr. Harrison had somehow succeeded in extricating himself from the difficulty in which his hostess had placed him, and had no doubt guessed that Helen was no better pleased with her new companion.
"May I join you?" he asked, as he neared the sofa.
"Certainly," said Helen, smiling; she introduced the two men, and Mr. Harrison sat down upon the other side of the girl. Somehow or other he seemed less endurable than he had just before, for his voice was not as soft as Mr. Howard's, and now that Helen's animation was gone she was again aware of the millionaire's very limited attainments.
"That was a very interesting thing we just heard," he said. "What was it? Do you know?"
Helen answered that it was Raff's Cavatina.
"Cavatina?" said Mr. Harrison. "The name sounds familiar; I may have heard it before."
Helen glanced nervously at Mr. Howard; but the latter gave no sign.
"Mr. Howard is himself a violinist," she said. "We must be careful what criticisms we make."
"Oh, I do not make any--I do not know enough about it," said the other, with heartiness which somehow seemed to Helen to fail of deserving the palliating epithet of "bluff."
"Mr. Howard has just been telling me about my own playing," Helen went on, growing a little desperate.
"I hope he admired it as much as I did," said the unfortunate railroad-president.
"I'm afraid he didn't," said Helen, trying to turn the matter into a laugh.
"He didn't!" exclaimed Mr. Harrison, in surprise. "Pray, why not?"
He asked the question of Mr. Howard, and Helen shuddered, for fear he might begin with that dreadful "There are always three persons concerned, you know." But the man merely said, very quietly, "My criticism was of rather a technical nature, Mr. Harrison."
"I'm sure, for my part I thought her playing wonderful," said the gentleman from Cincinnati, to which the other did not reply.
Helen felt herself between two fires and her vexation was increasing every moment; yet, try as she might, she could not think of anything to change the subject, and it was fortunate that the watchful Aunt Polly was on hand to save her. Mrs. Roberts was too diplomatic a person not to see the unwisdom of putting Mr. Harrison in a position where his deficiencies must be so very apparent, and so she came over, determined to carry one of the two men away. She was relieved of the trouble by the fact that, as she came near, Mr. Howard rose, again with some pain as it seemed to Helen, and asked the girl to excuse him. "I have been feeling quite ill today," he explained.
Helen, as she saw him walk away with Mrs. Roberts, sank back with a sigh which was only half restrained. "A very peculiar person," said Mr. Harrison, who was clever enough to divine her vexation."
"Yes," said the girl, "very, indeed."
"He seemed to be lecturing you about something, from what I saw," added the other. The remark was far from being in the best taste, but it pleased Helen, because it went to justify her to herself, and at the same time offered her an opportunity to vent her feelings.
"Yes," she said. "It was about music; he was very much displeased with me."
"So!" exclaimed Mr. Harrison. "I hope you do not let that disturb you?"
"No," said the girl, laughing,--"or at any rate, I shall soon recover my equanimity. It is very hard to please a man who plays himself, you know."
"Or who says he plays," observed Mr. Harrison. "He _didn't_ play, you notice."
Helen was pleased to fancy that there might be wisdom in the remark. "Let us change the subject," she said more cheerfully. "It is best to forget things that make one feel uncomfortable."
"I'll leave the finding of a new topic to you," replied the other, with graciousness which did a little more to restore Helen's self-esteem. "I have a very humble opinion of my own conversation."
"Do you like mine?" the girl asked with a laugh.
"I do, indeed," said Mr. Harrison with equally pleasing frankness. "I was as interested as could be in the story that you were telling me when we were stopped."
"Well, we'll begin where we left off!" exclaimed Helen, and felt as if she had suddenly discovered a doorway leading from a prison. She found it easy to forget the recent events after that, and Mr. Harrison grew more tolerable to her every moment now that the other was gone; her self-possession came back to her quickly as she read his admiration in his eyes. Besides that, it was impossible to forget for very long that Mr. Harrison was a multi-millionaire, and the object of the envious glances of every other girl in the room; and so when Aunt Polly returned a while later she found the conversation between the two progressing very well, and in fact almost as much enjoyed by both as it had been the first time. After waiting a few minutes she came to ask Helen to sing for the company, a treat which she had reserved until the last.
Helen's buoyant nature had by that time flung all her doubts behind her, and this last excitement was all that was needed to sweep her away entirely again. She went to the piano as exulting as ever in her command of it and in the homage which it brought her. She sang an arrangement of the "Preislied," and she sang it with all the energy and enthusiasm she possessed; partly because she had a really good voice and enjoyed the song, and partly because an audience appreciates singing more easily than any other kind of music. She really scored the success of the evening. Everybody was as enthusiastic as the limits of good taste allowed, and Helen was compelled, not in the least against her will, to sing again and again. While she was laughing with happiness and triumph, something brought, back "Wohin" to her mind, and she sang it again, quite as gaily as she had sung it by the streamlet with Arthur. It was enough to delight even the dullest, and perhaps if Mr. Howard had been there even he would have applauded a little.
At any rate, as Helen rose from the piano she received a complete ovation, everyone coming to her to thank her and to praise her, and to share in the joy of her beauty; she herself had never been more radiant and more exulting in all her exulting life, drinking in even Mr. Harrison's rapturous compliments and finding nothing exaggerated in them. And in the meantime, Aunt Polly having suggested a waltz to close the festivities, the furniture was rapidly moved to one side, and the hostess herself took her seat at the piano and struck up the "Invitation to the Dance;" Mr. Harrison, who had been at Helen's side since her singing had ceased, was of course her partner, and the girl, flushed and excited by all the homage she had received, was soon waltzing delightedly in his arms. The man danced well, fortunately for him, and that he was the beautiful girl's ardent admirer was by this time evident, not only to Helen, but to everyone else.
In the mood that she was then, the fact was as welcome to her as it could possibly have been, and when, therefore, Mr. Harrison kept her arm and begged for the next dance, and the next in turn, Helen was sufficiently carried away to have no wish to refuse him; when after the third dance she was tired out and sat down to rest, Mr. Harrison was still her companion.
Helen was at the very height of her happiness then, every trace of her former vexation gone, and likewise every trace of her objections to the man beside her. The music was still sounding merrily, and everyone else was dancing, so that her animation did not seem at all out of taste; and so brilliant and fascinating had she become, and so completely enraptured was Mr. Harrison, that he would probably have capitulated then and there if the dancing had not ceased and the company separated when it did. The end of all the excitement was a great disappointment to Helen; she was completely happy just then, and would have gone just as far as the stream had carried her. It being her first social experience was probably the reason that she was less easily wearied than the rest; and besides, when one has thus yielded to the sway of the senses, he dreads instinctively the subsiding of the excitement and the awakening of reason.
The awakening, however, is one that must always come; Helen, having sent away the maid, suddenly found herself standing alone in the middle of her own room gazing at herself in the glass, and seeing a frightened look in her eyes. The merry laughter of the guests ceased gradually, and silence settled about the halls of the great house; but even then Helen did not move. She was standing there still when her aunt came into the room.
Mrs. Roberts was about as excited as was possible in a matron of her age and dignity; she flung her arms rapturously around Helen, and clasped her to her. "My dear," she cried, "it was a triumph!"
"Yes, Auntie," said Helen, weakly.
"You dear child, you!" went on the other, laughing; "I don't believe you realize it yet! Do you know, Helen, that Mr. Harrison is madly in love with you? You ought to be the happiest girl in the land tonight!"
"Yes, Auntie," said Helen again, still more weakly.
"Come here, my dear," said Mrs. Roberts, drawing her gently over to the bed and sitting down beside her; "you are a little dazed, I fancy, and I do not blame you. I should have been beside myself at your age if such a thing had happened to me; do you realize, child, what a fortune like Mr. Harrison's is?"
"No," said Helen, "it is very hard, Aunt Polly. I'm afraid about it; I must have some time to think."
"Think!" laughed the other. "You queer child! My dear, do you actually mean that you could think of refusing this chance of your lifetime?"
"I don't know," said Helen, trembling; "I don't--"
"Everybody'd think you were crazy, child! I know I should, for one." And she added, coaxingly, "Let me tell you what Mr. Roberts said."
"He sent you in this message; he's a great person for doing generous things, when he takes it into his head. He told me to tell you that if you'd accept Mr. Harrison's offer he would give you the finest trousseau that he could buy. Wasn't that splendid of him?"
"Yes," said Helen, "thank him for me;" and she shuddered. "Don't talk to me any more about it now, tho," she pleaded. "Please don't, Aunt Polly. I was so excited, and it was all like a dream, and I'm half dazed now; I can't think about it, and I must think, somehow! It's too dreadful!"
"You shan't think about it tonight, child," laughed the other, "for I want you to sleep and be beautiful tomorrow. See," she added, beginning to unfasten Helen's dress, "I'm going to be your little mother tonight, and put you to bed."
And so, soothing the girl and kissing her burning forehead and trying to laugh away her fears, her delighted protectress undressed her, and did not leave her until she had seen her in bed and kissed her again. "And promise me, child," she said, "that you won't worry yourself tonight. Go to sleep, and you'll have time to think tomorrow."
Helen promised that she would; but she did not keep her promise. She heard the great clock in the hallway strike many times, and when the darkest hours of the night had passed she was sitting up in bed and gazing about her at the gray shadows in the room, holding the covering tightly about her, because she was very cold; she was muttering nervously to herself, half deliriously: "No, no, I will not do it! They shall not _make_ me do it! I must have time to think."
And when at last she fell into a restless slumber, that thought was still in her mind, and those words upon her lips: "I will not do it; I must have time to think!"
[Music: The opening passage of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata.]