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Chapter 15

In the edge of the woods and the open spaces among the trees the blueberries grew larger and sweeter in the late Northern summer than a more southern sun seems to make them. They hung dense upon the low bushes, and gave them their tint through the soft grey bloom that veiled their blue. Sweet-fern in patches broke their mass here and there, and exhaled its wild perfume to the foot or skirt brushing through it.

"I don't think there's anything much prettier than these clusters; do you, Miss Pasmer?" asked Mavering, as he lifted a bunch pendent from the little tree before he stripped it into the bowl he carried. "And see! it spoils the bloom to gather them." He held out a handful, and then tossed them away. "It ought to be managed more aesthetically for an occasion like this. I'll tell you what, Miss Pasmer: are you used to blueberrying?"

"No," she said; "I don't know that I ever went blueberrying before. Why?" she asked.

"Because, if you haven't, you wouldn't be very efficient perhaps, and so you might resign yourself to sitting on that log and holding the berries in your lap, while I pick them."

"But what about the bowls, then?"

"Oh, never mind them. I've got an idea. See here!" He clipped off a bunch with his knife, and held it up before her, tilting it this way and that. "Could anything be more graceful! My idea is to serve the blueberry on its native stem at this picnic. What do you think? Sugar would profane it, and of course they've only got milk enough for the coffee."

"Delightful!" Alice arranged herself on the log, and made a lap for the bunch. He would not allow that the arrangement was perfect till he had cushioned the seat and carpeted the ground for her feet with sweet-fern.

"Now you're something like a wood-nymph," he laughed. "Only, wouldn't a real wood-nymph have an apron?" he asked, looking down at her dress.

"Oh, it won't hurt the dress. You must begin now, or they'll be calling us."

He was standing and gazing at her with a distracted enjoyment of her pose. "Oh yes, yes," he answered, coming to himself, and he set about his work.

He might have got on faster if he had not come to her with nearly every bunch he cut at first, and when he began to deny himself this pleasure he stopped to admire an idea of hers.

"Well, that's charming—making them into bouquets."

"Yes, isn't it?" she cried delightedly, holding a bunch of the berries up at arm's-length to get the effect.

"Ah, but you must have some of this fern and this tall grass to go with it. Why, it's sweet-grass—the sweet-grass of the Indian baskets!"

"Is it?" She looked up at him. "And do you think that the mixture would be better than the modest simplicity of the berries, with a few leaves of the same?"

"No; you're right; it wouldn't," he said, throwing away his ferns. "But you'll want something to tie the stems with; you must use the grass." He left that with her, and went back to his bushes. He added, from beyond a little thicket, as if what he said were part of the subject, "I was afraid you wouldn't like my skipping about there on the rocks, doing the coloured uncle."

"Like it?"

"I mean—I—you thought it undignified—trivial—"

She said, after a moment: "It was very funny; and people do all sorts of things at picnics. That's the pleasure of it, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is; but I know you don't always like that kind of thing."

"Do I seem so very severe?" she asked.

"Oh no, not severe. I should be afraid of you if you were. I shouldn't have dared to come to Campobello."

He looked at her across the blueberry bushes. His gay speech meant everything or nothing. She could parry it with a jest, and then it would mean nothing. She let her head droop over her work, and made no answer.

"I wish you could have seen those fellows on the boat," said Mavering.

"Hello, Mavering!" called the voice of John Munt, from another part of the woods.

"Alice!—Miss Pasmer!" came that of Miss Anderson.

He was going to answer, when he looked at Alice. "We'll let them see if they can find us," he said, and smiled.

Alice said nothing at first; she smiled too. "You know more about the woods than I do. I suppose if they keep looking—"

"Oh yes." He came toward her with a mass of clusters which he had clipped. "How fast you do them!" he said, standing and looking down at her. "I wish you'd let me come and make up the withes for you when you need them."

"No, I couldn't allow that on any account," she answered, twisting some stems of the grass together.

"Well, will you let me hold the bunches while you tie them; or tie them when you hold them?"

"No."

"This once, then?"

"This once, perhaps."

"How little you let me do for you!" he sighed.

"That gives you a chance to do more for other people," she answered; and then she dropped her eyes, as if she had been surprised into that answer. She made haste to add: "That's what makes you so popular with—everybody!"

"Ah, but I'd rather be popular with somebody!"

He laughed, and then they both laughed together consciously; and still nothing or everything had been said. A little silly silence followed, and he said, for escape from it, "I never saw such berries before, even in September, on the top of Ponkwasset."

"Why, is it a mountain?" she asked. "I thought it was a—falls."

"It's both," he said.

"I suppose it's very beautiful, isn't it! All America seems so lovely, so large."

"It's pretty in the summer. I don't know that I shall like it there in the winter if I conclude to—Did your—did Mrs. Pasmer tell you what my father wants me to do?"

"About going there to—manufacture?"

Mavering nodded. "He's given me three weeks to decide whether I would like to do that or go in for law. That's what I came up here for."

There was a little pause. She bent her head down over the clusters she was grouping. "Is the light of Campobello particularly good on such questions?" she asked.

"I don't mean that exactly, but I wish you could help me to some conclusion."

"Yes; why not?"

"It's the first time I've ever had a business question referred to me."

"Well, then, you can bring a perfectly fresh mind to it."

"Let me see," she said, affecting to consider. "It's really a very important matter?"

"It is to me."

After a moment she looked up at him. "I should think that you wouldn't mind living there if your business was there. I suppose it's being idle in places that makes them dull. I thought it was dull in London. One ought to be glad—oughtn't he?—to live in any place where there's something to do."

"Well, that isn't the way people usually feel," said Mavering. "That's the kind of a place most of them fight shy of."

Alice laughed with an undercurrent of protest, perhaps because she had seen her parents' whole life, so far as she knew it, passed in this sort of struggle. "I mean that I hate my own life because there seems nothing for me to do with it. I like to have people do something."

"Do you really?" asked Mavering soberly, as if struck by the novelty of the idea.

"Yes!" she said, with exaltation. "If I were a man—"

He burst into a ringing laugh. "Oh no; don't!"

"Why?" she demanded, with provisional indignation.

"Because then there wouldn't be any Miss Pasmer."

It seemed to Alice that this joking was rather an unwarranted liberty. Again she could not help joining in his light-heartedness; but she checked herself so abruptly, and put on a look so austere, that he was quelled by it.

"I mean," he began—"that is to say—I mean that I don't understand why ladies are always saying that. I am sure they can do what they like, as it is."

"Do you mean that everything is open to them now?" she asked, disentangling a cluster of the berries from those in her lap, and beginning a fresh bunch.

"Yes," said Mavering. "Something like that—yes. They can do anything they like. Lots of them do."

"Oh yes, I know," said the girl. "But people don't like them to."

"Why, what would you like to be?" he asked.

She did not answer, but sorted over the clusters in her lap. "We've got enough now, haven't we?" she said.

"Oh, not half," he said. "But if you're tired you must let me make up some of the bunches."

"No, no! I want to do them all myself," she said, gesturing his offered hands away, with a little nether appeal in her laughing refusal.

"So as to feel that you've been of some use in the world?" he said, dropping contentedly on the ground near her, and watching her industry.

"Do you think that would be very wrong?" she asked. "What made that friend of yours—Mr. Boardman—go into journalism?"

"Oh, virtuous poverty. You're not thinking of becoming a newspaper woman, Miss Pasmer!"

"Why not?" She put the final cluster into the bunch in hand, and began to wind a withe of sweet-grass around the stems. He dropped forward on his knees to help her, and together they managed the knot. They were both flushed a little when it was tied, and were serious.

"Why shouldn't one be a newspaper woman, if Harvard graduates are to be journalists?"

"Well, you know, only a certain kind are."

"What kind?"

"Well, not exactly what you'd call the gentlemanly sort."

"I thought Mr. Boardman was a great friend of yours?"

"He is. He is one of the best fellows in the world. But you must have seen that he wasn't a swell."

"I should think he'd be glad he was doing something at once. If I were a—" She stopped, and they laughed together. "I mean that I should hate to be so long getting ready to do something as men are."

"Then you'd rather begin making wall-paper at once than studying law?"

"Oh, I don't say that. I'm not competent to advise. But I should like to feel that I was doing something. I suppose it's hereditary." Mavering stared a little. "One of my father's sisters has gone into a sisterhood. She's in England."

"Is she a—Catholic?" asked Mavering.

"She isn't a Roman Catholic."

"Oh yes!" He dropped forward on his knees again to help her tie the bunch she had finished. It was not so easy as the first.

"Oh, thank you!" she said, with unnecessary fervour.

"But you shouldn't like to go into a sisterhood, I suppose?" said Mavering, ready to laugh.

"Oh, I don't know. Why not?" She looked at him with a flying glance, and dropped her eyes.

"Oh, no reason, if you have a fancy for that kind of thing."

"That kind of thing?" repeated Alice severely.

"Oh, I don't mean anything disrespectful to it," said Mavering, throwing his anxiety off in the laugh he had been holding back. "And I beg your pardon. But I don't suppose you're in earnest."

"Oh no, I'm not in earnest," said the girl, letting her wrists fall upon her knees, and the clusters drop from her hands. "I'm not in earnest about anything; that's the truth—that's the shame. Wouldn't you like," she broke off, "to be a priest, and go round among these people up here on their frozen islands in the winter?"

"No," shouted Mavering, "I certainly shouldn't. I don't see how anybody stands it. Ponkwasset Falls is bad enough in the winter, and compared to this region Ponkwasset Falls is a metropolis. I believe in getting all the good you can out of the world you were born in—of course without hurting anybody else." He stretched his legs out on the bed of sweet-fern, where he had thrown himself, and rested his head on his hand lifted on his elbow. "I think this is what this place is fit for—a picnic; and I wish every one well out of it for nine months of the year."

"I don't," said the girl, with a passionate regret in her voice. "It would be heavenly here with—But you—no, you're different. You always want to share your happiness."

"I shouldn't call that happiness. But don't you?" asked Mavering.

"No. I'm selfish."

"You don't expect me to be believe that, I suppose."

"Yes," she went on, "it must be selfishness. You don't believe I'm so, because you can't imagine it. But it's true. If I were to be happy, I should be very greedy about it; I couldn't endure to let any one else have a part in it. So it's best for me to be wretched, don't you see—to give myself up entirely to doing for others, and not expect any one to do anything for me; then I can be of some use in the world. That's why I should like to go into a sisterhood."

Mavering treated it as the best kind of joke, and he was confirmed in this view of it by her laughing with him, after a first glance of what he thought mock piteousness.

William Dean Howells