About half-past eight on the morning of the day set for the postponed picnic, Henry knocked at Widow Brand's door. He had by no means forgotten Madeline's consent to allow him to carry her basket, although two weeks had intervened.
She came to the door herself. He had never seen her in anything that set off her dark eyes and olive complexion more richly than the simple picnic dress of white, trimmed with a little crimson braid about the neck and sleeves, which she wore to-day. It was gathered up at the bottom for wandering in the woods, just enough to show the little boots. She looked surprised at seeing him, and exclaimed--
"You haven't come to tell me that the picnic is put off again, or Laura's sick?"
"The picnic is all right, and Laura too. I've come to carry your basket for you."
"Why, you're really very kind," said she, as if she thought him slightly officious.
"Don't you remember you told me I might do so?" he said, getting a little red under her cool inspection.
"When did I?"
"Two weeks ago, that evening poor George spoke in meeting."
"Oh!" she answered, smiling, "so long ago as that? What a terrible memory you have! Come in just a moment, please; I'm nearly ready."
Whether she merely took his word for it, or whether she had remembered her promise perfectly well all the time, and only wanted to make him ask twice for the favour, lest he should feel too presumptuous, I don't pretend to know. Mrs. Brand set a chair for him with much cordiality. She was a gentle, mild-mannered little lady, such a contrast in style and character to Madeline that there was a certain amusing fitness in the latter's habit of calling her "My baby."
"You have a very pleasant day for your picnic, Mr. Burr," said she.
"Yes, we are very lucky," replied Henry, his eyes following Madeline's movements as she stood before the glass, putting on her hat, which had a red feather in it.
To have her thus add the last touches to her toilet in his presence was a suggestion of familiarity, of domesticity, that was very intoxicating to his imagination.
"Is your father well?" inquired Mrs. Brand, affably.
"Very well, thank you, very well indeed," he replied
"There; now I'm ready," said Madeline. "Here's the basket, Henry. Good-bye, mother."
They were a well-matched pair, the stalwart young man and the tall, graceful girl, and it is no wonder the girl's mother stood in the door looking after them with a thoughtful smile.
Hemlock Hollow was a glen between wooded bluffs, about a mile up the beautiful river on which Newville was situated, and boats had been collected at the rendezvous on the river-bank to convey the picnickers thither. On arriving, Madeline and Henry found all the party assembled and in capital spirits; There was still just enough shadow on their merriment to leave the disposition to laugh slightly in excess of its indulgence, than which no condition of mind more favourable to a good time can be imagined.
Laura was there, and to her Will Taylor had attached himself. He was a dapper little black-eyed fellow, a clerk in the dry-goods store, full of fun and good-nature, and a general favourite, but it was certainly rather absurd that Henry should be apprehensive of him as a rival. There also was Fanny Miller, who had the prettiest arm in Newville, a fact discovered once when she wore a Martha Washington toilet at a masquerade sociable, and since circulated from mouth to mouth among the young men. And there, too, was Emily Hunt, who had shocked the girls and thrown the youth into a pleasing panic by appearing at a young people's party the previous winter in low neck and short sleeves. It is to be remarked in extenuation that she had then but recently come from the city, and was not familiar with Newville etiquette. Nor must I forget to mention Ida Lewis, the minister's daughter, a little girl with poor complexion and beautiful brown eyes, who cherished a hopeless passion for Henry. Among the young men was Harry Tuttle, the clerk in the confectionery and fancy goods store, a young man whose father had once sent him for a term to a neighbouring seminary, as a result of which classical experience he still retained a certain jaunty student air verging on the rakish, that was admired by the girls and envied by the young men.
And there, above all, was Tom Longman. Tom was a big, hulking fellow, good-natured and simple-hearted in the extreme. He was the victim of an intense susceptibility to the girls' charms, joined with an intolerable shyness and self-consciousness when in their presence. From this consuming embarrassment he would seek relief by working like a horse whenever there was anything to do. With his hands occupied he had an excuse for not talking to the girls or being addressed by them, and, thus shielded from the, direct rays of their society, basked with inexpressible emotions in the general atmosphere of sweetness and light which they diffused. He liked picnics because there was much work to do, and never attended indoor parties because there was none. This inordinate taste for industry in connection with social enjoyment on Tom's part was strongly encouraged by the other young men, and they were the ones who always stipulated that he should be of the party when there was likely to be any call for rowing, taking care of horses, carrying of loads, putting out of croquet sets, or other manual exertion. He was generally an odd one in such companies. It would be no kindness to provide him a partner, and, besides, everybody made so many jokes about him that none of the girls quite cared to have their names coupled with his, although they all had a compassionate liking for him.
On the present occasion this poor slave of the petticoat had been at work preparing the boats all the morning.
"Why, how nicely you have arranged everything!" said Madeline kindly, as she stood on the sand waiting for Henry to bring up a boat.
"What?" replied Tom, laughing in a flustered way.
He always laughed just so and said "what?" when any of the girls spoke to him, being too much confused by the fact of being addressed to catch what was said the first time.
"It's very good of you to arrange the boats for us, Madeline repeated.
"Oh, 'tain't anything, 'tain't anything at all," he blurted out, with a very red face.
"You are going up in our boat, ain't you, Longman?" said Harry Tuttle.
"No, Tom, you're going with us," cried another young man.
"He's going with us, like a sensible fellow," said Will Taylor, who, with Laura Burr, was sitting on the forward thwart of the boat, into the stern of which Henry was now assisting Madeline.
"Tom, these lazy young men are just wanting you to do their rowing for them," said she. "Get into our boat, and I'll make Henry row you."
"What do you say to that, Henry?" said Tom, snickering.
"It isn't for me to say anything after Madeline has spoken," replied the young man.
"She has him in good subjection," remarked Ida Lewis, not over-sweetly.
"All right, I'll come in your boat, Miss Brand, if you'll take care of me," said Tom, with a sudden spasm of boldness, followed by violent blushes at the thought that perhaps be had said something too free. The boat was pushed off. Nobody took the oars.
"I thought you were going to row?" said Madeline, turning to Henry, who sat beside her in the stern.
"Certainly," said he, making as if he would rise. "Tom, you just sit here while I row."
"Oh no, I'd just as lief row," said Tom, seizing the oars with feverish haste.
"So would I, Tom; I want a little exercise," urged Henry with a hypocritical grin, as he stood up in an attitude of readiness.
"Oh, I like to row. 'I'd a great deal rather. Honestly," asseverated Tom, as he made the water foam with the violence of his strokes, compelling Henry to resume his seat to preserve his equilibrium.
"It's perfectly plain that you don't want to sit by me, Tom. That hurts my feelings," said Madeline, pretending to pout.
"Oh no, it isn't that," protested Tom. "Only I'd rather row; that is, I mean, you know, it's such fun rowing."
"Very well, then," said Madeline, "I sha'n't help you any more; and here they all are tying their boats on to ours."
Sure enough, one of the other boats had fastened its chain to the stern of theirs, and the others had fastened to that; their oarsmen were lying off and Tom was propelling the entire flotilla.
"Oh, I can row 'em all just as easy's not," gasped the devoted youth, the perspiration rolling down his forehead.
But this was a little too bad, and Henry soon cast off the other boats, in spite of the protests of their occupants, who regarded Tom's brawn and muscle as the common stock of the entire party, which no one boat had a right to appropriate.
On reaching Hemlock Hollow, Madeline asked the poor young man for his hat, and returned it to him adorned with evergreens, which nearly distracted him with bashfulness and delight, and drove him to seek a safety-valve for his excitement in superhuman activity all the rest of the morning, arranging croquet sets, hanging swings, breaking ice, squeezing lemons, and fetching water.
"Oh, how thirsty I am!" sighed Madeline, throwing down her croquet mallet.
"The ice-water is not yet ready, but I know a spring a little way off where the water is cold as ice," said Henry.
"Show it to me this instant," she cried, and they walked off together, followed by Ida Lewis's unhappy eyes.
The distance to the spring was not great, but the way was rough, and once or twice he had to help her over fallen trees and steep banks. Once she slipped a little, and for, a single supreme moment he held her whole weight in his arms. Before, they had been talking and laughing gaily, but that made a sudden silence. He dared not look at her for some moments, and when he did there was a slight flush tingeing her usually colourless cheek.
His pulses were already bounding wildly, and, at this betrayal that she had shared his consciousness at that moment, his agitation was tenfold increased. It was the first time she had ever shown a sign of confusion in his presence. The sensation of mastery, of power over her, which it gave, was so utterly new that it put a sort of madness in his blood. Without a word they came to the spring and pretended to drink. As she turned to go back, he lightly caught her fingers in a detaining clasp, and said, in a voice rendered harsh by suppressed emotion--
"Don't be in such a hurry. Where will you find a cooler spot?"
"Oh, it's cool enough anywhere! Let's go back," she replied, starting to return as she spoke. She saw his excitement, and, being herself a little confused, had no idea of allowing a scene to be precipitated just then. She flitted on before with so light a foot that he did not overtake her until she came to a bank too steep for her to surmount without aid. He sprang up and extended her his hand. Assuming an expression as if she were unconscious who was helping her, she took it, and he drew her up to his side. Then with a sudden, audacious impulse, half hoping she would not be angry, half reckless if she were, he clasped her closely in his arms, and kissed her lips. She gasped, and freed herself.
"How dared you do such a thing to me?" she cried.
The big fellow stood before her, sheepish, dogged, contrite, desperate, all in one.
"I couldn't help it," he blurted out. The plea was somehow absurdly simple, and yet rather unanswerable. Angry as she was, she really couldn't think of anything to say, except--
"You'd better help it," with which rather ineffective rebuke she turned away and walked toward the picnic ground. Henry followed in a demoralized frame. His mind was in a ferment. He could not realize what had happened. He could scarcely believe that he had actually done it. He could not conceive how he had dared it. And now what penalty would she inflict? What if she should not forgive him? His soul was dissolved in fears. But, sooth to say, the young lady's actual state of mind was by no means so implacable as he apprehended. She had been ready to be very angry, but the suddenness and depth of his contrition had disarmed her. It took all the force out of her indignation to see that he actually seemed to have a deeper sense of the enormity of his act than she herself had. And when, after they had rejoined the party, she saw that, instead of taking part in the sports, he kept aloof, wandering aimless and disconsolate by himself among the pines, she took compassion on him and sent some one to tell him she wanted him to come and push her in the swing. People had kissed her before. She was not going to leave the first person who had seemed to fully realize the importance of the proceeding to suffer unduly from a susceptibility which did him so much credit. As for Henry, he hardly believed his ears when he heard the summons to attend her. At that the kiss which her rebuke had turned cold on his lips began to glow afresh, and for the first time he tasted its exceeding sweetness; for her calling to him seemed to ratify and consent to it. There were others standing about as he came up to where Madeline sat in the swing, and he was silent, for he could not talk of indifferent things.
With what a fresh charm, with what new sweet suggestions of complaisance that kiss had invested every line and curve of her, from hat-plume to boot-tip! A delicious tremulous sense of proprietorship tinged his every thought of her. He touched the swing-rope as fondly as if it were an electric chain that could communicate the caress to her. Tom Longman, having done all the work that offered itself, had been wandering about in a state of acute embarrassment, not daring to join himself to any of the groups, much less accost a young lady who might be alone. As he drifted near the swing, Madeline said to Henry--
"You may stop swinging me now. I think I'd like to go out rowing." The young man's cup seemed running over. He could scarcely command his voice for delight as he said--
"It will be jolly rowing just now. I'm sure we can get some pond-lilies."
"Really," she replied, airily, "you take too much for granted. I was going to ask Tom Longman to take me out."
She called to Tom, and as he came up, grinning and shambling, she indicated to him her pleasure that he should row her upon the river. The idea of being alone in a small boat for perhaps fifteen minutes with the belle of Newville, and the object of his own secret and distant adoration, paralysed Tom's faculties with an agony of embarrassment. He grew very red, and there was such a buzzing in his ears that he could not feel sure he heard aright, and Madeline had to repeat herself several times before he seemed to fully realize the appalling nature of the proposition. As they walked down to the shore she chatted with him, but he only responded with a profusion of vacant laughs. When he had pulled out on the river, his rowing, from his desire to make an excuse for not talking, was so tremendous that they cheered him from the shore, at the same time shouting--
"Keep her straight! You're going into the bank!"
The truth was, that Tom could not guide the boat because he did not dare to look astern for fear of meeting Madeline's eyes, which, to judge from the space his eyes left around her, he must have supposed to fill at least a quarter of the horizon, like an aurora, in fact. But, all the same, he was having an awfully good time, although perhaps it would be more proper to say he would have a good time when he came to think it over afterward. It was an experience which would prove a mine of gold in his memory, rich enough to furnish for years the gilding to his modest day-dreams. Beauty, like wealth, should make its owners generous. It is a gracious thing in fair women at times to make largesse of their beauty, bestowing its light more freely on tongue-tied, timid adorers than on their bolder suitors, giving to them who dare not ask. Their beauty never can seem more precious to women than when for charity's sake they brighten with its lustre the eyes of shy and retiring admirers.
As Henry was ruefully meditating upon the uncertainty of the sex, and debating the probability that Madeline had called him to swing her for the express purpose of getting a chance to snub him, Ida Lewis came to him, and said--
"Mr. Burr, we're getting up a game of croquet. Won't you play?"
"If I can be on your side," he answered, civilly.
He knew the girl's liking for him, and was always kind to her. At his answer her face flushed with pleasure, and she replied shyly--
"If you'd like to, you may."
Henry was not in the least a conceited fellow, but it was impossible that he should not understand the reason why Ida, who all the morning had looked forlorn enough, was now the life of the croquet-ground, and full of smiles and flushes. She was a good player, and had a corresponding interest in beating, but her equanimity on the present occasion was not in the least disturbed by the disgraceful defeat which Henry's awkwardness and absence of mind entailed on their aide.
But her portion of sunshine for that day was brief enough, for Madeline soon returned from her boat-ride, and Henry found an excuse for leaving the game and joining her where she sat on the ground between the knees of a gigantic oak sorting pond-lilies, which the girls were admiring. As he came up, she did not appear to notice him. As soon as he had a chance to speak without being overheard, he said, soberly--
"Tom ought to thank me for that boat-ride, I suppose."
"I don't know what you mean," she answered, with assumed carelessness.
"I mean that you went to punish me."
"You're sufficiently conceited," she replied. "Laura, come here; your brother is teasing me."
"And do you think I want to be teased to?" replied that young lady, pertly, as she walked off.
Madeline would have risen and left Henry, but she was too proud to let him think that she was afraid of him.. Neither was she afraid, but she was confused, and momentarily without her usual self-confidence. One reason for her running off with Tom had been to get a chance to think. No girl, however coolly her blood may flow, can be pressed to a man's breast, wildly throbbing with love for her, and not experience some agitation in consequence. Whatever may be the state of her sentiments, there is a magnetism in such a contact which she cannot at once throw off. That kiss had brought her relations with Henry to a crisis. It had precipitated the necessity of some decision. She could no longer hold him off, and play with him. By that bold dash he had gained a vantage-ground, a certain masterful attitude which he had never held before. Yet, after all, I am not sure that she was not just a little afraid of him, and, moreover, that she did not like him all the better for it. It was such a novel feeling that it began to make some things, thought of in connection with him, seem more possible to her mind than they had ever seemed before. As she peeped furtively at this young man, so suddenly grown formidable, as he reclined carelessly on the ground at her feet, she admitted to herself that there was something very manly in the sturdy figure and square forehead, with the curly black locks hanging over it. She looked at him with a new interest, half shrinking, half attracted, as one who might come into a very close relation with herself. She scarcely knew whether the thought was agreeable or not.
"Give me your hat," she said, "and I'll put some lilies in it."
"You are very good," said he, handing it to her.
"Does it strike you so?" she replied, hesitatingly. "Then I won't do it. I don't want to appear particularly good to you. I didn't know just how it would seem."
"Oh, it won't seem very good; only about middling," he urged, upon which representation she took the hat.
He watched her admiringly as she deftly wreathed the lilies around it, holding it up, now this way and now that, while she critically inspected the effect.
Then her caprice changed. "I've half a mind to drop it into the river. Would you jump after it?" she said, twirling it by the brim, and looking over the steep bank, near which she sat, into the deep, dark water almost perpendicularly below.
"If it were anything of yours instead of mine, I would jump quickly enough," he replied.
She looked at him with a reckless gleam in her eyes.
"You mustn't talk chaff to me, sir; we'll see," and, snatching a glove from her pocket, she held it out over the water. They were both of them in that state of suppressed excitement which made such an experiment on each other's nerve dangerous. Their eyes met, and neither flinched. If she had dropped it, he would have gone after it.
"After all," she said, suddenly, "that would be taking a good deal of trouble to get a mitten. If you are so anxious for it, I will give it to you now;" and she held out the glove to him with an inscrutable face.
He sprang up from the ground. "Madeline, do you mean it?" he asked, scarcely audibly, his face grown white and pinched. She crumpled the obnoxious glove into her pocket.
"Why, you poor fellow!" she exclaimed, the wildfire in her eyes quenched in a moment with the dew of pity. "Do you care so much?"
"I care everything," he said, huskily.
But, as luck would have it, just at that instant Will Taylor came running up, pursued by Laura, and threw himself upon Madeline's protection. It appeared that he had confessed to the possession of a secret, and on being requested by Laura to impart it had flatly refused to do so.
"I can't really interfere to protect any young man who refuses to tell a secret to a young lady," said Madeline, gravely. "Neglect to tell her the secret, without being particularly asked to do so, would be bad enough, but to refuse after being requested is an offence which calls for the sharpest correction."
"And that isn't all, either," said Laura, vindictively flirting the switch with which she had pursued him. "He used offensive language."
"What did he say?" demanded Madeline, judicially.
"I asked him if he was sure it was a secret that I didn't know already, and he said he was; and I asked him what made him sure, and he said because if I knew it everybody else would. As much as to say I couldn't keep a secret."
"This looks worse and worse, young man," said the judge, severely. "The only course left for you is to make a clean breast of the affair, and throw yourself on the mercy of the court. If the secret turns out to be a good one, I'll let you off as easily as I can."
"It's about the new drug-clerk, the one who is going to take George Bayley's place," said Will, laughing.
"Oh, do tell, quick!" exclaimed Laura.
"I don't care who it is. I sha'n't like him," said Madeline. "Poor George! and here we are forgetting all about him this beautiful day!"
"What's the new clerk's name?" said Laura, impatiently.
"Rather an odd name," said Laura. "I never heard it."
"No," said Will; "he comes all the way from Boston."
"Is he handsome?" inquired Laura.
"I really don't know," replied Will. "I presume Parker failed to make that a condition, although really he ought to, for the looks of the clerk is the principal element in the sale of soda-water, seeing girls are the only ones who drink it."
"Of course it is," said Laura, frankly. "I didn't drink any all last summer, because poor George's sad face took away my disposition. Never mind," she added, "we shall all have a chance to see how he looks at church to-morrow;" and with that the two girls went off together to help set the table for lunch.
The picnickers did not row home till sunset, but Henry found no opportunity to resume the conversation with Madeline which had been broken off at such an interesting point.