The advent of a stranger was an event of importance in the small social world of Newville. Mr. Harrison Cordis, the new clerk in the drug-store, might well have been flattered by the attention which he excited at church the next day, especially from the fairer half of the congregation. Far, however, from appearing discomposed thereby, he returned it with such interest that at least half the girls thought they had captivated him by the end of the morning service. They all agreed that he was awfully handsome, though Laura maintained that he was rather too pretty for a man. He was certainly very pretty. His figure was tall, slight, and elegant. He had delicate hands and feet, a white forehead, deep blue, smiling eyes, short, curly, yellow, hair, and a small moustache, drooping over lips as enticing as a girl's. But the ladies voted his manners yet more pleasing than his appearance. They were charmed by his easy self-possession, and constant alertness as to details of courtesy. The village beaus scornfully called him "cityfied," and secretly longed to be like him. A shrewder criticism than that to which he was exposed would, however, have found the fault with Cordis's manners that, under a show of superior ease and affability, he was disposed to take liberties with his new acquaintances, and exploit their simplicity for his own entertainment. Evidently he felt that he was in the country.
That very first Sunday, after evening meeting, he induced Fanny Miller, at whose father's house he boarded, to introduce him to Madeline, and afterward walked home with her, making himself very agreeable, and crowning his audacity by asking permission to call. Fanny, who went along with them, tattled of this, and it produced a considerable sensation among the girls, for it was the wont of Newville wooers to make very gradual approaches. Laura warmly expressed to Madeline her indignation at the impudence of the proceeding, but that young lady was sure she did not see any harm in it; whereupon Laura lost her temper a little, and hinted that it might be more to her credit if she did. Madeline replied pointedly, and the result was a little spat, from which Laura issued second best, as people generally did who provoked a verbal strife with Madeline. Meanwhile it was rumoured that Cordis had availed himself of the permission that he had asked, and that he had, moreover, been seen talking with her in the post-office several times.
The drug-store being next door to the post-office, it was easy for him, under pretence of calling for the mail, to waylay there any one he might wish to meet. The last of the week Fanny Miller gave a little tea-party, to make Cordis more generally acquainted. On that occasion he singled out Madeline with his attentions in such a pronounced manner that the other girls were somewhat piqued. Laura, having her brother's interest at heart, had much more serious reasons for being uneasy at the look of things. They all remarked how queerly Madeline acted that evening. She was so subdued and quiet, not a bit like herself. When the party broke up, Cordis walked home with Madeline and Laura, whose paths lay together.
"I'm extremely fortunate," said he, as he was walking on with Laura, after leaving Madeline at her house, "to have a chance to escort the two belles of Newville at once."
"I'm not so foolish as I look, Mr. Cordis," said she, rather sharply. She was not going to let him think he could turn the head of every Newville girl as he had Madeline's with his city airs and compliments.
"You might be, and not mind owning it," he replied, making an excuse of her words to scrutinise her face with a frank admiration that sent the colour to her cheeks, though she was more vexed than pleased.
"I mean that I don't like flattery."
"Are you sure?" he asked, with apparent surprise.
"Of course I am. What a question!"
"Excuse me; I only asked because I never met any one before who didn't."
"Never met anybody who didn't like to be told things about themselves which they knew weren't true, and were just said because somebody thought they were foolish enough to believe 'em?"
"I don't expect you to believe 'em yourself," he replied; "only vain people believe the good things people say about them; but I wouldn't give a cent for friends who didn't think better of me than I think of myself, and tell me so occasionally, too."
They stood a moment at Laura's gate, and just then Henry, coming home from the gun-shop of which he was foreman, passed them, and entered the house. "Is that your brother?" asked Cordis.
"It does one's eyes good to see such a powerful looking young man. Is your brother married, may I ask?"
"He is not."
"In coming into a new circle as I have done, you understand, Miss Burr, I often feel a certain awkwardness on account of not knowing the relations between the persons I meet," he said, apologizing for his questions.
Laura saw her opportunity, and promptly improved it.
"My brother has been attentive to Miss Brand for a long time. They are about as good as engaged. Good-evening, Mr. Cordis."
It so happened that several days after this conversation, as Madeline was walking home one afternoon, she glanced back at a crossing of the street, and saw Harrison Cordis coming behind her on his way to tea. At the rate she was walking she would reach home before he overtook her, but, if she walked a very little slower, he would overtake her. Her pace slackened. She blushed at her conduct, but she did not hurry.
The most dangerous lovers women have are men of Cordis's feminine temperament. Such men, by the delicacy and sensitiveness of their own organizations, read women as easily and accurately as women read each other. They are alert to detect and interpret those smallest trifles in tone, expression, and bearing, which betray the real mood far more unmistakably than more obvious signs. Cordis had seen her backward glance, and noted her steps grow slower with a complacent smile. It was this which emboldened him, in spite of the short acquaintance, to venture on the line he did.
"Good-evening, Miss Brand," he said, as he over took her. "I don't really think it's fair to begin to hurry when you hear somebody trying to overtake you.
"I'm sure I didn't mean to," she replied, glad to have a chance to tell the truth, without suspecting, poor girl, that he knew very well she was telling it.
"It isn't safe to," he said, laughing. "You can't tell who it may be. Now, it might have been Mr. Burr, instead of only me."
She understood instantly. Somebody had been telling him about Henry's attentions to her. A bitter anger, a feeling of which a moment before she would have deemed herself utterly incapable, surged up in her heart against the person, whoever it was, who had told him this. For several seconds she could not control herself to speak. Finally, she said--
"I don't understand you. Why do you speak of Mr. Burr to me?"
"I beg pardon. I should not have done so."
"Please explain what you mean.
"You'll excuse me, I hope," he said, as if quite distressed to have displeased her. "It was an unpardonable indiscretion on my part, but somebody told me, or at least I understood, that you were engaged to him."
"Somebody has told you a falsehood, then," she replied, and, with a bow of rather strained dignity turned in at the gate of a house where a moment before she had not had the remotest intention of stopping. If she had been in a boat with him, she would have jumped into the water sooner than protract the inter-view a moment after she had said that. Mechanically she walked up the path and knocked at the door. Until the lady of the house opened it, she did not notice where she had stopped.
Good-afternoon, Madeline. I'm glad to see you. You haven't made me a call this ever so long."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Tuttle, but I haven't time to stop to-day. Ha--have you got a--a pattern of a working apron? I'd like to borrow it."