Rose Wiley had the brightest eyes in Edgewood. It was impossible to look at her without realizing that her physical sight was perfect. What mysterious species of blindness is it that descends, now and then, upon human creatures, and renders them incapable of judgment or discrimination?
Claude Merrill was a glove salesman in a Boston fancy-goods store. The calling itself is undoubtedly respectable, and it is quite conceivable that a man can sell gloves and still be a man; but Claude Merrill was a manikin. He inhabited a very narrow space behind a very short counter, but to him it seemed the earth and the fullness thereof.
When, irreproachably neat and even exquisite in dress, he gave a Napoleonic glance at his array of glove-boxes to see if the female assistant had put them in proper order for the day; when, with that wonderful eye for detail that had wafted him to his present height of power, he pounced upon the powder-sprinklers and found them, as he expected, empty; when, with masterly judgment, he had made up and ticketed a basket of misfits and odd sizes to attract the eyes of women who were their human counterparts, he felt himself bursting with the pride and pomp of circumstance. His cambric handkerchief adjusted in his coat with the monogram corner well displayed, a last touch to the carefully trained lock on his forehead, and he was ready for his customers.
"Six, did you say, miss? I should have thought five and three quarters--Attend to that gentleman, Miss Dir, please; I am very busy.
"Six-and-a-half gray suede? Here they are, an exquisite shade. Shall I try them on? The right hand, if you will. Perhaps you'd better remove your elegant ring; I shouldn't like to have anything catch in the setting."
"Miss Dir! Six-and-a-half black glace--upper shelf, third box --for this lady. She's in a hurry. We shall see you often after this, I hope, madam."
"No; we don't keep silk or lisle gloves. We have no call for them; our customers prefer kid."
Oh, but he was in his element, was Claude Merrill; though the glamour that surrounded him in the minds of the Edgewood girls did not emanate wholly from his finicky little person: something of it was the glamour that belonged to Boston,--remote, fashionable, gay, rich, almost inaccessible Boston, which none could see without the expenditure of five or six dollars in railway fare, with the added extravagance of a night in a hotel, if one would explore it thoroughly and come home possessed of all its illimitable treasures of wisdom and experience.
When Claude came to Edgewood for a Sunday, or to spend a vacation with his aunt, he brought with him something of the magic of a metropolis. Suddenly, to Rose's eye, Stephen looked larger and clumsier, his shoes were not the proper sort, his clothes were ordinary, his neckties were years behind the fashion. Stephen's dancing, compared with Claude's, was as the deliberate motion of an ox to the hopping of a neat little robin. When Claude took a girl's hand in the "grand right-and-left," it was as if he were about to try on a delicate glove; the manner in which he "held his lady" in the polka or schottische made her seem a queen. Mite Shapley was so affected by it that when Rufus attempted to encircle her for the mazurka she exclaimed, "Don't act as if you were spearing logs, Rufus!"
Of the two men, Stephen had more to say, but Claude said more. He was thought brilliant in conversation; but what wonder, when one considered his advantages and his dazzling experiences! He had customers who were worth their thousands; ladies whose fingers never touched dish-water; ladies who wouldn't buy a glove of anybody else if they went bare-handed to the grave. He lived with his sister Maude Arthurlena in a house where there were twenty-two other boarders who could be seated at meals all at the same time, so immense was the dining-room. He ate his dinner at a restaurant daily, and expended twenty-five cents for it without blenching. He went to the theatre once a week, and was often accompanied by "lady friends" who were "elegant dressers."
In a moment of wrath Stephen had called him a "counter-jumper," but it was a libel. So short and rough a means of exit from his place of power was wholly beneath Claude's dignity. It was with a "Pardon me, Miss Dir," that, the noon hour having arrived, he squeezed by that slave and victim, and raising the hinged board that separated his kingdom from that of the ribbon department, passed out of the store, hat in hand, serene in the consciousness that though other clerks might nibble luncheon from a brown paper bag, he would speedily be indulging in an expensive repast; and Miss Dir knew it, and it was a part of his almost invincible attraction for her.
It seemed flying in the face of Providence to decline the attentions of such a gorgeous butterfly of fashion simply because one was engaged to marry another man at some distant day.
All Edgewood femininity united in saying that there never was such a perfect gentleman as Claude Merrill; and during the time when his popularity was at its height Rose lost sight of the fact that Stephen could have furnished the stuff for a dozen Claudes and have had enough left for an ordinary man besides.
April gave place to May, and a veil hung between the lovers,-- an intangible, gossamer-like thing, not to be seen with the naked eye, but, oh! so plainly to be felt. Rose hid herself thankfully behind it, while Stephen had not courage to lift a corner. She had twice been seen driving with Claude Merrill--that Stephen knew; but she had explained that there were errands to be done, that her grandfather had taken the horse, and that Mr. Merrill's escort had been both opportune and convenient for these practical reasons. Claude was everywhere present, the centre of attraction, the observed of all observers. He was irresistible, contagious, almost epidemic. Rose was now gay, now silent; now affectionate, now distant, now coquettish; in fine, everything that was capricious, mysterious, agitating, incomprehensible.
One morning Alcestis Crambry went to the post-office for Stephen and brought him back the newspapers and letters. He had hung about the River Farm so much that Stephen finally gave him bed and food in exchange for numberless small errands. Rufus was temporarily confined in a dark room with some strange pain and trouble in his eyes, and Alcestis proved of use in many ways. He had always been Rose's slave, and had often brought messages and notes from the Brier Neighborhood, so that when Stephen saw a folded note among the papers his heart gave a throb of anticipation.
The note was brief, and when he had glanced through it he said: "This is not mine, Alcestis; it belongs to Miss Rose. Go straight back and give it to her as you were told; and another time keep your wits about you, or I'll send you back to Killick."
Alcestis Crambry's ideas on all subjects were extremely vague. Claude Merrill had given him a letter for Rose, but his notion was that anything that belonged to her belonged to Stephen, and the Waterman place was much nea'rer than the Wileys', particularly at dinner-time!
When the boy had slouched away, Stephen sat under the apple tree, now a mass of roseate bloom, and buried his face in his hands.
It was not precisely a love-letter that he had read, nevertheless it blackened the light of the sun for him. Claude asked Rose to meet him anywhere on the road to the station and to take a little walk, as he was leaving that afternoon and could not bear to say good-by to her in the presence of her grandmother. "Under the circumstances," he wrote, deeply underlining the words, "I cannot remain a moment longer in Edgewood, where I have been so happy and so miserable!" He did not refer to the fact that the time limit on his return-ticket expired that day, for his dramatic instinct told him that such sordid matters have no place in heroics.
Stephen sat motionless under the tree for an hour, deciding on some plan of action.
He had work at the little house, but he did not dare go there lest he should see the face of dead Love looking from the windows of the pink bedroom; dead Love, cold, sad, merciless. His cheeks burned as he thought of the marriage license and the gold ring hidden away upstairs in the drawer of his shaving stand. What a romantic fool he had been, to think he could hasten the glad day by a single moment! What a piece of boyish folly it had been, and how it shamed him in his own eyes! When train time drew near he took his boat and paddled down stream. If for the Finland lover's reindeer there was but one path in all the world, and that the one that led to Her, so it was for Stephen's canoe, which, had it been set free on the river by day or by night, might have floated straight to Rose.
He landed at the usual place, a bit of sandy shore near the Wiley house, and walked drearily up the bank through the woods. Under the shade of the pines the white stars of the hepatica glistened and the pale anemones were coming into bloom. Partridge-berries glowed red under their glossy leaves, and clumps of violets sweetened the air. Squirrels chattered, woodpeckers tapped, thrushes sang; but Stephen was blind and deaf to all the sweet harbingers of spring.
Just then he heard voices, realizing with a throb of delight that, at any rate, Rose had not left home to meet Claude, as he had asked her to do. Looking through the branches, he saw the two standing together, Mrs. Brooks's horse; with the offensive trunk in the back of the wagon, being hitched to a tree near by. There was nothing in the tableau to stir Stephen to fury, but he read between the lines and suffered as he read--suffered and determined to sacrifice himself if he must, so that Rose could have what she wanted, this miserable apology for a man. He had never been the husband for Rose; she must take her place in a larger community, worthy of her beauty and charm.
Claude was talking and gesticulating ardently. Rose's head was bent and the tears were rolling down her cheeks. Suddenly Claude raised his hat, and with a passionate gesture of renunciation walked swiftly to the wagon, and looking back once, drove off with the utmost speed of which the Brooks's horse was capable,-- Rose waving him a farewell with one hand and wiping her eyes with the other.