The Mystery of Choice
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"Jack," cried Clifford, leaning in the window, "God bless you! God bless you both!"
Elliott touched her hand and wrung mine, and Rowden risked his neck to give us both one last cordial grasp.
"Count on me – on us," cried Clifford, speaking in English, "if you are – troubled!"
By what, my poor Clifford? Can you, with all your gay courage, turn back the hands of the dials? Can you, with all your warm devotion, add one second to the magic second and make it two? The shadows we cast are white.
The train stole out into the night, and I saw them grouped on the platform, silhouettes in the glare of the yellow signals. I drew in my head and shut the window. Sweetheart's face had grown very serious, but now she smiled across from her corner.
"Aren't you coming over by me, Jack?"
We must have been moving very swiftly, for the car rocked and trembled, and it was probably that which awoke me. I looked across at Sweetheart. She was lying on her side, one cheek resting on her gloved hand, her travelling cap pushed back, her eyes shut. I smoothed away the curly strands of hair which straggled across her cheeks, and tucked another rug well about her feet. Her feet were small as a child's. I speak as if she were not a child. She was eighteen then.
The next time I awoke we lay in a long gaslit station. Some soldiers were disembarking from the forward carriages, and a gendarme stalked up and down the platform.
I looked sleepily about for the name of the station. It was painted in blue over the buffet – "Petit St. Yves." "Is it possible we are in Brittany?" I thought. Then the voices of the station hands, who were hoisting a small boat upon the forward carriage, settled my doubts. "Allons! tire hardiment, Jean Louis! mets le cannotte deboutte."
"Arr?te toi Yves! doucement! doucement! Sacr?e garce!"
Somewhere in the darkness a mellow bell tolled. I settled back to slumber, my eyes on Sweetheart.
I awoke in a flood of brightest sunshine. From our window I could look into the centre of a most enchanting little town, all built of white limestone and granite. The June sunshine slanted on thatched roof and painted gable, and fairly blazed on the little river slipping by under the stone bridge in the square.
The streets and the square were alive with rosy-faced women in white head-dresses. Everywhere the constant motion of blue skirts and spotless coiffes, the twinkle of varnished socks, the clump! clump! of sabots.
Like a black shadow a priest stole across the square. Above him the cross on the church glowed like a live cinder, flashing its reflection along the purple-slated roof from the eaves of which a cloud of ash-gray pigeons drifted into the gutter below. I turned from the window to encounter Sweetheart's eyes. Her lips moved a little, her long lashes heavy with slumber drooped lower, then with a little sigh she sat bolt upright.When I laughed, as I always did, she smiled, a little confused, a little ashamed, murmuring: "Bonjour, mon ch?ri! Quelle heure est-il?" That was always the way Sweetheart awoke.
"O dear, I am so rumpled!" she said. "Jack, get me the satchel this minute, and don't look at me until I ask you to."
I unlocked the satchel, and then turning to the window again threw it wide open. Oh, how sweet came the morning air from the meadows! Some young fellows below on the bank of the stream were poking long cane fishing-rods under the arches of the bridge.
"Sweetheart," I said over my shoulder, "I believe there are trout in this stream."
"Mr. Elliott says that whenever you see a puddle you always say that," she replied.
"What does he know about it?" I answered, for I am touchy on the subject; "he doesn't know a catfish from a – a dogfish."
"Neither do I, Jack dear, but I'm going to learn. Don't be cross."
She had finished her toilet and came over to the window, leaning out over my shoulder.
"Where are we?" she cried in startled wonder at the little white town and the acres of swaying clover. "Oh, Jack, is – is this the country?"
A man in uniform passing under our window looked up surprised.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded; then, seeing Sweetheart, he took off his gold-laced cap, and added, with a bow: "This carriage goes no farther, monsieur – madame – "
"Merci!" exclaimed Sweetheart, "we wish to go to Quimperl?!"
"And we have tickets for Quimperl?," I insisted.
"But," smiled the official, "this is Quimperl?."
It was true. There was the name written over the end of the station; and, looking ahead, I saw that our car had been detached and was standing in stately seclusion under the freight shed. How long it had been standing so Heaven alone knows; but they evidently had neglected to call us, and there we were inhabiting a detached carriage in the heart of Quimperl?. I managed to get a couple of porters, and presently we found all our traps piled up on the platform, and a lumbering vehicle with a Breton driver waiting to convey us to the hotel.
"Which," said I to the docile Breton, "is the best hotel in Quimperl??"
"The H?tel Lion d'Or," he replied.
"How do you know?" I demanded.
"Because," said he mildly, "it is the only hotel in Quimperl?."
Sweetheart observed that this ought to be convincing, even to me, and she tormented me all the way to the square, where I got even by pretending to be horrified at her dishevelled condition incident to a night's railway ride in a stuffy compartment.
"Don't, Jack! people will look at us."
"Oh, this is cruel! Oh, I'll pay you for this!"
And they did look at us – or rather at her; for from the time Sweetheart and I had cast our lots together, I noticed that I seemed to escape the observation of passers-by. When I lived alone in Paris I attracted a fair share of observation from the world as it wagged on its Parisian way. It was pleasant to meet a pretty girl's eyes now and then in the throng which flowed through the park and boulevard. I really never flattered myself that it was because of my personal beauty; but in Paris, any young fellow who is dressed in the manner of Albion, hatted and gloved in the same style, is not entirely a cipher. But now it was not the same, by a long shot.
Sweetheart's beauty simply put me in my place as an unnoticed but perhaps correct supplement to her.
She knew she was a beauty, and was delighted when she looked into her mirror. Nothing escaped her. The soft hair threaded with sunshine, which, when loosened, curled to her knees; the clear white forehead and straight brows; the nose delicate and a trifle upturned; the scarlet lips and fine cut chin – she knew the value of each of these. She was pleased with the soft, full curve of her throat, the little ears, and the colour which came and went in her cheeks.
But her eyes were the first thing one noticed. They were the most beautiful gray eyes that ever opened under silken lashes. She approved of my telling her this, which duty I fulfilled daily. Perhaps it may be superfluous to say that we were very much in love. Did I say were?
I think that, as I am chanting the graces of Sweetheart, it might not be amiss to say that she is just an inch shorter than I am, and that no Parisienne carried a pretty gown with more perfection than she did. I have seen gowns that looked like the devil on the manikin, but when Sweetheart wore them they were the astonishment and admiration of myself. And I do know when a woman is well dressed, though I am an art critic.
Sweetheart regarded her beauty as an intimate affair between ourselves, a precious gift for our mutual benefit, to be carefully treasured and petted. Her attitude toward the world was unmistakable. The world might look – she was indifferent. With our intimate friends she was above being flattered. Clifford said to me once: "She carries her beauty as a princess would carry the Koh-i-noor – she knows she is worthy of it, and hopes it is worthy of her."
"We ought to be so happy that I am beautiful!" she would say to me. "Just think, supposing I were not!"
I used to try to make her believe that it would have made no difference.
"Oh, not now," she would say gravely. "I know that if I lost it it would be the same to us both, now; but you can't make me believe that, at first, when you used to lean over the terrace of the Luxembourg and wait patiently for hours just to see me walk out of the Odeon."
"I didn't," I would always explain; "I was there by accident."
"Oh, what a funny accident to happen every day for two months!"
"Stop teasing! Of course, after the first week – "
"And what a funny accident that I should pass the same way every day for two months, when before I always went by the Rue de Seine!"
There was once such an accident, and such a girl. I never knew her; she is dead. I wondered sometimes that Sweetheart knew, and believed it was she herself. Yet the other woman's shadow was black.
Sweetheart had a most peculiar and unworldly habit of not embellishing facts. She presently displayed it when we arrived at the H?tel Lion d'Or.
"Jack," said she nervously, "the cinders have made your face unpleasant. I am ashamed. They may not believe you are my husband."
"As monsieur and madame," I said, "we may have dirty faces and be honest."
"Do you suppose they – they will believe it? These queer people – "
"They'd better!" I said fiercely.
"I – I hadn't thought of that," she said. "You see, in our own little place in Paris everybody knew it, but here – "
I said, "Dearest, what nonsense!" and we marched unceremoniously up to the register, where I wrote our names. Then, with a hasty little squeeze of her gloved hand, she turned to the maid and tripped off to inspect our quarters. While I was pumping the fat-headed old proprietor about the trout fishing in the vicinity, the maid returned with the request that I mount to the room above. I followed her along the tiled passages and found Sweetheart sitting on a trunk.
"It's charming! charming!" she said. "Just look at the roses outside, and the square, and the river! and oh, Jack, the funny little Breton cattle, and the old man with knee-breeches! It's charming! and" – here she caught sight of the enraptured and fascinated maid – "and you are charming, with your red cheeks and white coiffe," she said. "Oh, how pretty!"
"Oh, madame!" murmured the servant in dire confusion.
I said, "Dearest, that will do. Nobody speaks of my peculiar charms, and I wish to be noticed."
The presence of the maid prevented Sweetheart from making amends, so we told her we were satisfied, and we would spare her life if she prepared breakfast in seventeen seconds.
She accepted the gift of existence with a dazed courtsey, and vanished.
It was refreshing to get hold of a sponge and cold water after fourteen hours in a cramped compartment. Hunger drove us to hurry – a thing we rarely did in the morning – and the way we splashed cold water about would have been fatal to any but a tiled floor.
"Dear," I said, "you have not yet seen me in my Tyrolese knickerbockers and beautiful shooting jacket. You have never beheld my legs clothed in Tyrolese stockings, at twenty francs a pair."
"The legs?" she inquired from the depths of a bath robe.
I ignored the question, and parted my hair with care. Then I sat down on the window and whistled.
Of course I was ready first. Sweetheart's hair had got into a tangle and needed to be all combed out.
"Oh, I know you are impatient, because you're whistling the Chant du D?part," she said from the door of her toilet room.
"As usual," I said, "I am ready first."
"If you say that again – " she threatened.
I said it, and dodged a sponge. Presently I was requested to open the trunk and select a gown for her. Dear little Sweetheart! she loved to pretend that she had so many it needed long consultation to decide which.
"The dark blue?" I inquired.
"Don't you think it is too warm?"
"The pale blue, then – or the pink and white?"
"Why not the white, with the cuffs ? l'Anglaise, and the canoe hat?"
I hauled it out.
Then, of course, she changed her mind.
"I think the gray is better for the morning; then I can wear the big chip hat."
I fished up the gray. It was light, almost silvery, and had white spots on it.
"Jack, dear," she said, coming out with her hair tucked up in a knot, drawing the bath robe up to her chin with both hands, "I think that the white cloth would be better, and that I can wear the b?ret."
By this time the trunk was in a pretty mess, which amused her; but at last I ferreted out the white cloth dress, and, refusing to listen to further discussion, sat down on the window seat. Sweetheart enjoyed it.
"Stop telling me to hurry," she said; "I can't, if you keep saying it all the time."
After a while she called me to fasten her corsage, which hooked with about ten hundred hooks along the side and collar. I hated to do it, and my finger ends stung for hours after, but, as Sweetheart very rightly says, "When we are rich enough to have a maid you needn't," I submitted with an air which delighted her. Her tormenting "Thank you, Jack," was the last straw, so I calmly picked her up and carried her out, and almost to the dining room, where I set her down just in time to avoid the proprietor and three domestics issuing from the office.
Sweetheart was half inclined to laugh, half indignant, and wholly scandalized. But she did not dare say anything, for we were at the dining-room door.
There were some people there, but except for a slight inclination we did not notice each other. We had a small table to ourselves by the rose-bowered window.
We were very hungry. Breakfast began with fresh sardines just caught, and ended with little Breton cakes and a demi-tasse. I finished first; I always do, because the wretched habit of bolting my food, contracted while studying under Bouguereau at Julian's, clings to me yet. Oh, I shall have a merry time paying for it when I am forty! I began, as usual, to tease Sweetheart.
"If you continue to eat like this, dear, you will never be able to wear your new frocks. This one seems a trifle too tight now."
Sweetheart, who prided herself as much on her figure as on her lovely face, repelled the insult with disdain and nibbled her Breton biscuit defiantly. When at last she condescended to rise, we strolled out under the trees in front of the hotel, and sat down on the low stone wall surrounding the garden. The noon sun hung in the zenith, flooding the town with a dazzling downpour. Sunbeams glanced and danced on the water; sunbeams filtered through the foliage; sunbeams stole under Sweetheart's big straw hat, searching the depths of the gray eyes. Sunbeams played merry mischief with my ears and neck, which were beginning to sting in the first sunburn of the year. Through the square the white-coiffed women passed and repassed; small urchins with silver-buckled hatbands roamed about the bridge and market-place until collected and trooped off to school by a black-robed Jesuit fr?re; and in the shade of the trees a dozen sprawling men in Breton costume smoked their microscopical pipes and watched the water.
"They are an industrious race," said I with fine irony, watching a happy inebriate pursuing a serpentine course toward the caf? opposite.
Sweetheart, who was as patriotic a little girl as ever hummed the Marseillaise, and adopted France as long as she lived in it, was up in arms in an instant.
"I have read," she said with conviction, "that the Bretons are a brave, industrious race. They are French."
"They speak a different language," I said – "not a word of French in it."
"They are French," repeated Sweetheart, with an inflection which decided me to shun the subject until I could unpack my guide-book.
We sat a little while longer under the trees, until we both began nodding and mutually accused each other. Then Sweetheart went up to the room to take a nap, and I, scorning such weakness, lay down in a steamer chair under our window and fell fast asleep in no time.
I was aroused by a big pink rose which hit me squarely on the mouth. Sweetheart was perched in the window seat above, and as I looked up she sent a shower of blossoms down upon me.
"Jack, you lazy creature, it's five o'clock, and I'm dressed and ready for a walk!"
"So am I," I said, jumping up.
"But not like that. You must come up and make yourself nice for dinner."
"Nice? What's the matter with these tweeds? Aren't these new stockings presentable?"
"Look at your hair!" she said evasively. "Come up this minute and brush it."
I went, and was compelled to climb into a white collar and shirt, and trousers of an English cut. But before we had gone far along the great military road that climbed the heights above the little river, I took Sweetheart's hand in mine and imparted to her my views and intentions upon the subject of my costume for the future.
"You see, dearest, we are here in Brittany for three reasons. The first is, that I should paint outdoors. The second is, that we should economize like the deuce. The third is, our shadows – "
"I know," she interrupted faintly. "Never mind, Jack, dear."
We walked silently for a while, hand clasping hand very tightly, for we were both thinking of the third reason.
I broke the silence first, speaking cheerfully, and she looked up with a quick smile while the shadow fell from her brow.
"You see, dear, in this place, where we are going, there are no people but peasants. Your frocks are all right for a place like this; we must both wear our free-and-easy togs – I for painting, and you for scrambling about after your wild flowers or fishing with me. If you get tired of seeing me in corduroys or tweeds, I'll dress for you when you think you can't stand it any longer."
"Oh, Jack, I do like your knickerbockers – "
"And you shall wear your most gorgeous gown for me – "
"Indeed I won't," she laughed, adding impulsively, "indeed I will – every day, if you wish it!"
At the top of the hill stood an ancient Ursuline convent surrounded by a high wall, which also inclosed the broad acres of the wealthy sisterhood. We sat down by the roadside hedge and looked across the valley, where the hurrying river had ceased to hasten and now lingered in placid pools and long, deep reaches. The sun had set behind the forest, and the sky threw a purple light over woods and meadow. The grassy pools below were swept by flocks of whistling martins and swallows. One or two white gulls flapped slowly toward the tide water below, and a young curlew, speeding high overhead, uttered a lonesome cry. The grass – the brilliant green grass of Brittany – had turned a deep metallic blue in the twilight. A pale primrose light grew and died in the sky, and the forest changed from rose to ashes. Then a dull red bar shot across the parting clouds in the west, the forest smouldered an instant, and the pools glowed crimson. Slowly the red bar melted away, the light died out among the branches, the pools turned sombre. Looking up, we saw the new moon flashing in the sky above our heads. Sweetheart sighed in perfect contentment.
"It's beautiful!" I said, with another sigh.
"Ah, yes," she murmured, "beautiful to you, and to me – to me, Jack, who have never before seen this land of Morbihan."
After a while she said, "And the ocean – oh, how I long to see it! Is it near us, Jack?"
"The river runs into it twenty kilometres below. We feel the tide at Quimperl?." I did not add, "Baedeker."
"I wonder," I said presently, "what are the feelings of a little American who sees this country – the real country – for the first time?"
"I suppose you mean me," she said. "I don't know – I don't think I understand it yet, but I know I shall love it, and never want to go back."
"Perhaps we never shall," I said. "The magic second may stretch into years that end at last as all ends."
Then our hands met in that sudden nervous clasp which seemed to help and steady us when we were thinking of the real world, so long, so long forgotten.
I was awakened next morning by a spongeful of cold water in the face, which I hate. I started up to wreak vengeance upon Sweetheart, but she fled to the toilet room and locked herself in. From this retreat she taunted me until further sleep was out of the question, and I bowed to the inevitable – indignantly, when I saw my watch pointed to five o'clock.
Sweetheart was perfectly possessed to row; so when I had bolted my coffee and sat watching her placidly sip hers, we decided to go down to the bank of the little stream and hire a boat. The boat was a wretched, shapeless affair, with two enormous oars and the remnants of rowlocks. It was the best boat in town, so we took it. I managed to get away from the bank, and, conscious of Sweetheart's open admiration, pulled boldly down the stream. It was easy work, for the tide was ebbing. The river up to the bridge was tidal, but above the bridge it leaped and flowed, a regular salmon stream. Sweetheart was so impatient to take the oars that I relinquished them and picked up my rod. The boat swung down the stream and under the high stone viaduct, where I insisted on anchoring and whipping the promising-looking water. The water was likely enough, and the sudden splash of a leaping grilse added to its likelihood. I was in hopes a grilse might become entangled with one of the flies, but though a big one shot up out of the water within five feet of Sweetheart, causing her to utter a suppressed scream, neither grilse nor trout rose to the beautiful lures I trailed about, and I only hooked two or three enormous dace, which came up like logs and covered the bottom of the boat with their coarse scales.
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