Ariel had worked all the afternoon over her mother’s wedding-gown, and two hours were required by her toilet for the dance. She curled her hair frizzily, burning it here and there, with a slate-pencil heated over a lamp-chimney, and she placed above one ear three or four large artificial roses, taken from an old hat of her mother’s, which she had found in a trunk in the store-room. Possessing no slippers, she carefully blacked and polished her shoes, which had been clumsily resoled, and fastened into the strings of each small rosettes of red ribbon; after which she practised swinging the train of her skirt until she was proud of her manipulation of it.
She had no powder, but found in her grandfather’s room a lump of magnesia, which he was in the habit of taking for heartburn, and passed it over and over her brown face and hands. Then a lingering gaze into her small mirror gave her joy at last; she yearned so hard to see herself charming that she did see herself so. Admiration came, and she told herself that she was more attractive to look at than she had ever been in her life, and that, perhaps, at last she might begin to be sought for like other girls. The little glass showed a sort of prettiness in her thin, unmatured young face; tripping dance-tunes ran through her head, her feet keeping the time—ah, she did so hope to dance often that night! Perhaps—perhaps she might be asked for every number. And so, wrapping an old water-proof cloak about her, she took her grandfather’s arm and sallied forth, with high hopes in her beating heart.
It was in the dressing-room that the change began to come. Alone, at home in her own ugly little room, she had thought herself almost beautiful; but here in the brightly lighted chamber crowded with the other girls it was different. There was a big cheval-glass at one end of the room, and she faced it, when her turn came—for the mirror was popular—with a sinking spirit. There was the contrast, like a picture painted and framed. The other girls all wore their hair after the fashion introduced to Canaan by Mamie Pike the week before, on her return from a visit to Chicago. None of them had “crimped” and none had bedecked their tresses with artificial flowers. Her alterations of the wedding-dress had not been successful; the skirt was too short in front and higher on one side than on the other, showing too plainly the heavy-soled shoes, which had lost most of their polish in the walk through the snow. The ribbon rosettes were fully revealed, and as she glanced at their reflection, she heard the words, “Look at that train and those rosettes!” whispered behind her, and saw in the mirror two pretty young women turn away with their handkerchiefs over their mouths and retreat hurriedly to an alcove. All the feet in the room except Ariel’s were in dainty kid or satin slippers of the color of the dresses from which they glimmered out, and only Ariel wore a train.
She went away from the mirror and pretended to be busy with a hanging thread in her sleeve.
She was singularly an alien in the chattering room, although she had been born and had lived all her life in the town. Perhaps her position among the young ladies may be best defined by the remark, generally current among them that evening, to the effect that it was “very sweet of Mamie to invite her.” Ariel was not like the others; she was not of them, and never had been. Indeed, she did not know them very well. Some of them nodded to her and gave her a word of greeting pleasantly; all of them whispered about her with wonder and suppressed amusement, but none talked to her. They were not unkindly, but they were young and eager and excited over their own interests,—which were then in the “gentlemen’s dressing-room.”
Each of the other girls had been escorted by a youth of the place, and, one by one, joining these escorts in the hall outside the door, they descended the stairs, until only Ariel was left. She came down alone after the first dance had begun, and greeted her young hostess’s mother timidly. Mrs. Pike—a small, frightened-looking woman with a ruby necklace—answered her absently, and hurried away to see that the imported waiters did not steal anything.
Ariel sat in one of the chairs against the wall and watched the dancers with a smile of eager and benevolent interest. In Canaan no parents, no guardians or aunts were haled forth o’ nights to duenna the junketings of youth; Mrs. Pike did not reappear, and Ariel sat conspicuously alone; there was nothing else for her to do, but it was not an easy matter.
When the first dance reached an end, Mamie Pike came to her for a moment with a cheery welcome, and was immediately surrounded by a circle of young men and women, flushed with dancing, shouting as was their wont, laughing inexplicably over words and phrases and unintelligible monosyllables, as if they all belonged to a secret society and these cries were symbols of things exquisitely humorous, which only they understood. Ariel laughed with them more heartily than any other, so that she might seem to be of them and as merry as they were; but almost immediately she found herself outside of the circle, and presently they all whirled away into another dance, and she was left alone again.
So she sat, no one coming near her, through several dances, trying to maintain the smile of delighted interest upon her face, though she felt the muscles of her face beginning to ache with their fixedness, her eyes growing hot and glazed. All the other girls were provided with partners for every dance, with several young men left over, these latter lounging hilariously together in the doorways. Ariel was careful not to glance toward them, but she could not help hating them. Once or twice between the dances she saw Miss Pike speak appealingly to one of the superfluous, glancing, at the same time, in her own direction, and Ariel could see, too, that the appeal proved unsuccessful, until at last Mamie approached her, leading Norbert Flitcroft, partly by the hand, partly by will power. Norbert was an excessively fat boy, and at the present moment looked as patient as the blind. But he asked Ariel if she was “engaged for the next dance,” and, Mamie, having flitted away, stood disconsolately beside her, waiting for the music to begin. Ariel was grateful for him.
“I think you must be very good-natured, Mr. Flitcroft,” she said, with an air of vraillery.
“No, I’m not,” he replied, plaintively. “Everybody thinks I am, because I’m fat, and they expect me to do things they never dream of asking anybody else to do. I’d like to see ’em even ask ’Gene Bantry to go and do some of the things they get me to do! A person isn’t good-natured just because he’s fat,” he concluded, morbidly, “but he might as well be!”
“Oh, I meant good-natured,” she returned, with a sprightly laugh, “because you’re willing to waltz with me.”
“Oh, well,” he returned, sighing, “that’s all right.”
The orchestra flourished into “La Paloma”; he put his arm mournfully about her, and taking her right hand with his left, carried her arm out to a rigid right angle, beginning to pump and balance for time. They made three false starts and then got away. Ariel danced badly; she hopped and lost the step, but they persevered, bumping against other couples continually. Circling breathlessly into the next room, they passed close to a long mirror, in which Ariel saw herself, although in a flash, more bitterly contrasted to the others than in the cheval-glass of the dressing-room. The clump of roses was flopping about her neck, her crimped hair looked frowzy, and there was something terribly wrong about her dress. Suddenly she felt her train to be vgrotesque, as a thing following her in a nightmare.
A moment later she caught her partner making a burlesque face of suffering over her shoulder, and, turning her head quickly, saw for whose benefit he had constructed it. Eugene Bantry, flying expertly by with Mamie, was bestowing upon Mr. Flitcroft a commiserative wink. The next instant she tripped in her train and fell to the floor at Eugene’s feet, carrying her partner with her.
There was a shout of laughter. The young hostess stopped Eugene, who would have gone on, and he had no choice but to stoop to Ariel’s assistance.
“It seems to be a habit of mine,” she said, laughing loudly.
She did not appear to see the hand he offered, but got on her feet without help and walked quickly away with Norbert, who proceeded to live up to the character he had given himself.
“Perhaps we had better not try it again,” she laughed.
“Well, I should think not,” he returned with the frankest gloom. With the air of conducting her home, he took her to the chair against the wall whence he had brought her. There his responsibility for her seemed to cease. “Will you excuse me?” he asked, and there was no doubt he felt that he had been given more than his share that evening, even though he was fat.
“Yes, indeed.” Her laughter was continuous. “I should think you would be glad to get rid of me after that. Ha, ha, ha! Poor Mr. Flitcroft, you know you are!”
It was the deadly truth, and the fat one, saying, “Well, if you’ll excuse me now,” hurried away with a step which grew lighter as the distance from her increased. Arrived at the haven of a far doorway, he mopped his brow and shook his head grimly in response to frequent rallyings.
Ariel sat through more dances, interminable dances and intermissions, in that same chair, in which it began to seem she was to live out the rest of her life. Now and then, if she thought people were looking at her as they passed, she broke into a laugh and nodded slightly, as if still amused over her mishap.
After a long time she rose, and laughing cheerfully to Mr. Flitcroft, who was standing in the doorway and replied with a wan smile, stepped out quickly into the hall, where she almost ran into her great-uncle, Jonas Tabor. He was going toward the big front doors with Judge Pike, having just come out of the latter’s library, down the hall.
Jonas was breathing heavily and was shockingly pale, though his eyes were very bright. He turned his back upon his grandniece sharply and went out of the door. Ariel reëntered the room whence she had come. She laughed again to her fat friend as she passed him, went to the window and looked out. The porch seemed deserted and was faintly illuminated by a few Japanese lanterns. She sprang out, dropped upon the divan, and burying her face in her hands, cried heart-brokenly.
Presently she felt something alive touch her foot, and, her breath catching with alarm, she started to rise. A thin hand, issuing from a shabby sleeve, had stolen out between two of the green tubs and was pressing upon one of her shoes.
“Sh!” warned a voice. “Don’t make a noise!”
The warning was not needed; she had recognized the hand and sleeve instantly. It was her playmate and lifelong friend, Joe Louden.
“What were you going on about?” he asked angrily.
“Nothing,” she answered. “I wasn’t. You must go away; you know the Judge doesn’t like you.”
“What were you crying about?” interrupted the uninvited guest.
“Nothing, I tell you!” she repeated, the tears not ceasing to gather in her eyes. “I wasn’t.”
“I want to know what it was,” he insisted. “Didn’t the fools ask you to dance! Ah! You needn’t tell me. That’s it. I’ve been here, watching, for the last three dances and you weren’t in sight till you came to the window. Well, what do you care about that for!”
“I don’t,” she answered. “I don’t!” Then suddenly, without being able to prevent it, she sobbed.
“No,” he said, gently, “I see you don’t. And you let yourself be a fool because there are a lot of fools in there.”
She gave way, all at once, to a gust of sorrow and bitterness; she bent far over and caught his hand and laid it against her wet cheek. “Oh, Joe,” she whispered, brokenly, “I think we have such hard lives, you and I! It doesn’t seem right—while we’re so young! Why can’t we be like the others? Why can’t we have some of the fun?”
He withdrew his hand, with the embarrassment and shame he would have felt had she been a boy.
“Get out!” he said, feebly.
She did not seem to notice, but, still stooping, rested her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands. “I try so hard to have some fun, to be like the rest—and it’s always a mistake, always, always, always!” She rocked herself slightly from side to side. “I’m a fool, it’s the truth, or I wouldn’t have come to-night. I want to be attractive—I want to be in things. I want to laugh as they do—”
“To laugh, just to laugh, and not because there’s something funny?”
“Yes, I do, I do! And to know how to dress and to wear my hair—there must be some place where you can learn those things. I’ve never had any one to show me! It’s only lately I’ve cared, but I’m seventeen, Joe—” She faltered, came to a stop, and her whole body was shaken with sobs. “I hate myself so for crying—for everything!”
Just then a colored waiter, smiling graciously, came out upon the porch, bearing a tray of salad, hot oysters, and coffee. At his approach, Joe had fallen prone on the floor in the shadow. Ariel shook her head to the proffer of refreshments.
“I don’t want any,” she murmured.
The waiter turned away in pity and was reëntering the window when a passionate whisper fell upon his ear as well as upon Ariel’s.
“Ma’am?” said the waiter.
“I’ve changed my mind,” she replied quickly. The waiter, his elation restored, gave of his viands with the superfluous bounty loved by his race when distributing the product of the wealthy.
When he had gone, “Give me everything that’s hot,” said Joe. “You can keep the salad.”
“I couldn’t eat it or anything else,” she answered, thrusting the plate between the palms.
For a time there was silence. From within the house came the continuous babble of voices and laughter, the clink of vcutlery on china. The young people spent a long time over their supper. By and by the waiter returned to the veranda, deposited a plate of colored ices upon Ariel’s knees with a noble gesture, and departed.
“No ice for me,” said Joe.
“Won’t you please go now?” she entreated.
“It wouldn’t be good manners,” he joked. “They might think I only came for the supper.”
“Give me the dish and coffee-cup,” she whispered, impatiently. “Suppose the waiter came and had to look for them? Quick!”
A bottle-shaped figure appeared in the window, and she had no time to take the plate and cup which were being pushed through the palm-leaves. She whispered a word of warning, and the dishes were hurriedly withdrawn as Norbert Flitcroft, wearing a solemn expression of injury, came out upon the veranda.
“They want you. Some one’s come for you.”
“Oh, is grandfather waiting?” She rose.
“It isn’t your grandfather that has come for you,” answered the fat one, slowly. “It is Eskew Arp. Something’s happened.”
She looked at him for a moment, beginning to tremble violently, her eyes growing wide with fright.
“Is my grandfather—is he sick?”
“You’d better go and see. Old Eskew’s waiting in the hall. He’ll tell you.”
She was by him and through the window instantly. Mr. Arp was waiting in the hall, talking in a low voice to Mrs. Pike.
“Your grandfather’s all right,” he told the frightened girl quickly. “He sent me for you. Just hurry and get your things.”
She was with him again in a moment, and seizing the old man’s arm, hurried him down the steps and toward the street almost at a run.
“You’re not telling me the truth,” she said. “You’re not telling me the truth!”
“Nothing has happened to Roger Tabor,” panted Mr. Arp. “We’re going this way, not that.” They had come to the gate, and as she turned to the right he pulled her sharply to the left.
“Where are we going?” she demanded.
“To your Uncle Jonas’s.”
“Why?” she cried, in supreme astonishment. “What do you want to take me there for? Don’t you know that he doesn’t like me—that he has stopped speaking to me?”
“Yes,” said the old man, grimly; “he has stopped speaking to everybody.”
These startling words told Ariel that her uncle was dead. They did not tell her what she was soon to learn—that he had died rich, and that, failing other heirs, she and her grandfather had inherited his fortune.
It was Sunday in Canaan—Sunday some years later. Joe Louden was sitting in the shade of Main Street bridge, smoking a cigar. He was alone; he was always alone, for he had been away a long time, and had made few friends since his return.
A breeze wandered up the river and touched the leaves and grass to life. The young corn, deep green in the bottom-land, moved with a vstaccato flurry; the stirring air brought a smell of blossoms; the distance took on faint lavender hazes which blended the outlines of the fields, lying like square coverlets on the long slope of rising ground beyond the bottom-land, and empurpled the blue woodland shadows of the groves.
For the first time it struck Joe that it was a beautiful day. He opened his eyes and looked about him whimsically. Then he shook his head again. A lady had just emerged from the bridge and was coming toward him.
It would be hard to get at Joe’s first impressions of her. We can find conveyance for only the broadest and heaviest. At first sight of her, there was preëminently the shock of seeing anything so exquisite in his accustomed world. For she was exquisite; she was that, and much more, from the ivory vferrule of the parasol she carried, to the light and slender foot-print she left in the dust of the road. Joe knew at once that nothing like her had ever before been seen in Canaan.
He had little knowledge of the millinery arts, and he needed none to see the harmony of the things she wore. Her dress and hat and gloves and parasol showed a pale lavender overtint like that which he had seen overspreading the western slope. Under the summer hat her very dark hair swept back over the temples with something near trimness in the extent to which it was withheld from being fluffy. It may be that this approach to trimness, after all, was the true key to the mystery of the lady who appeared to Joe.
She was to pass him—so he thought—and as she drew nearer, his breath came faster. And then he realized that something wonderful was happening to him.
She had stopped directly in front of him; stopped and stood looking at him with her clear eyes. He did not lift his own to her; a great and unaccountable shyness beset him. He had risen and removed his hat, trying not to clear his throat—his everyday sense urging upon him that she was a stranger in Canaan who had lost her way.
“Can I—can I—” he stammered, blushing, meaning to finish with “direct you,” or “show you the way.”
Then he looked at her again and saw what seemed to him the strangest sight of life. The lady’s eyes had filled with tears—filled and overfilled.
“I’ll sit here on the log with you,” she said. “You don’t need to dust it!” she went on, tremulously. And even then he did not know who she was.
There was a silence, for if the dazzled young man could have spoken at all, he could have found nothing to say; and, perhaps, the lady would not trust her own voice just then. His eyes had fallen again; he was too dazed, and, in truth, too panic-stricken now, to look at her. She was seated beside him and had handed him her parasol in a little way which seemed to imply that, of course, he had reached for it, so that it was to be seen how used she was to have all such things done for her. He saw that he was expected to furl the dainty thing; he pressed the catch and let down the top timidly, as if fearing to break or tear it; and, as it closed, held near his face, he caught a very faint, sweet, spicy emanation from it like wild roses and cinnamon.
“Do you know me?” asked the lady at last.
For answer he could only stare at her, dumfounded; he lifted an unsteady hand toward her appealingly. Her manner underwent an April change. She drew back lightly; he was favored with the most delicious low laugh he had ever heard.
“I’m glad you’re the same, Joe!” she said. “I’m glad you’re the same, and I’m glad I’ve changed, though that isn’t why you have forgotten me.”
He arose uncertainly and took three or four backward steps from her. She sat before him, radiant with laughter, the loveliest creature he had ever seen; but between him and this charming vision there swept, through the warm, scented June air, the dim picture of a veranda all in darkness and the faint music of violins.
“Isn’t it about time you were recognizing me?” she said.
. . . . . .
Sensations were rare in staid, dull, commonplace Canaan, but this fine Sunday morning the town was treated to one of the most memorable sensations in its history. The town, all except Joe Louden, had known for weeks that Ariel Tabor was coming home from abroad, but it had not seen her. And when she walked along the street with Joe, past the Sunday church-returning crowds, it is not quite truth to say that all except the children came to a dead halt, but it is not very far from it. The air was thick with subdued exclamations and whisperings.
Joe had not known her. The women recognized her, infallibly, at first sight; even those who had quite forgotten her. And the women told their men. Hence the un-Sunday-like demeanor of the procession, for few towns held it more unseemly to stand and stare at passers-by, especially on the Sabbath. But Ariel Tabor had returned.
A low but increasing murmur followed the two as they proceeded. It ran up the street ahead of them; people turned to look back and paused, so that Ariel and Joe had to walk round one or two groups. They had, also, to walk round Norbert Flitcroft, which was very like walking round a group. Mr. Flitcroft was one of the few (he was waddling home alone) who did not identify Miss Tabor, and her effect upon him was extraordinary. His mouth opened and he gazed stodgily, his widening eyes like sun-dogs coming out of a fog. Mr. Flitcroft experienced a few moments of trance; came out of it stricken through and through; felt nervously of his tie; resolutely fell in behind, and followed, at a distance of some forty paces, determined to learn what household this heavenly visitor honored, and thrilling with the intention to please that same household with his own presence as soon and as often as possible.
Ariel flushed a little when she perceived the extent of their conspicuousness; but it was not the blush that Joe remembered had reddened the tanned skin of old; for her brownness had gone long ago, though it had not left her merely pink and white. There was a delicate rosiness rising from her cheeks to her temples, as the earliest dawn rises.
Joe kept trying to realize that this lady of wonder was Ariel Tabor, but he could not; he could not connect the shabby Ariel, whom he had treated as one boy treats another, with this young woman of the world. Although he had only a dim perception of the staring and whispering which greeted and followed them, Ariel, of course, was thoroughly aware of it, though the only sign she gave was the slight blush, which very soon disappeared.
Ariel paused before the impressive front of Judge Pike’s large mansion. Joe’s face expressed surprise.
“Don’t you know?” she said. “I’m staying here. Judge Pike has charge of all my property. Come to see me this afternoon.”
With a last charming smile, Ariel turned and left the dazed young man on the sidewalk.
That walk was but the beginning of her triumph. Judge Pike’s of a summer afternoon was the swirling social center of Canaan, but on that particular Sunday afternoon every unattached male in the town who possessed the privilege of calling at the big house appeared. They filled the chairs in the wide old-fashioned hall where Ariel received them, and overpoured on the broad steps of the old-fashioned spiral staircase, where Mr. Flitcroft, on account of his size, occupied two steps and a portion of a third. And Ariel was the center of it all!