by Louisa May Alcott

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A picture for the book Moods


"I never did understand you, Sylvia; and this last month you have been a perfect enigma to me."

With rocking-chair in full action, suspended needle and thoughtful expression, Miss Yule had watched her sister for ten minutes as she sat with her work at her feet, her hands folded on her lap, and her eyes dreamily fixed on vacancy.

"I always was to myself, Prue, and am more so than ever now," answered Sylvia, waking out of her reverie with a smile that proved it had been a pleasant one.

"There must be some reason for this great change in you. Come, tell me, dear."

With a motherly gesture Miss Yule drew the girl to her knee, brushed back the bright hair, and looked into the face so freely turned to hers. Through all the years they had been together, the elder sister had never seen before the expression which the younger's face now wore. A vague expectancy sat in her eyes, some nameless content sweetened her smile, a beautiful repose replaced the varying enthusiasm, listlessness, and melancholy that used to haunt her countenance and make it such a study. Miss Yule could not read the secret of the change, yet felt its novel charm; Sylvia could not explain it, though penetrated by its power; and for a moment the sisters looked into each other's faces, wondering why each seemed altered. Then Prue, who never wasted much time in speculations of any kind, shook her head, and repeated--

"I don't understand it, but it must be right, because you are so improved in every way. Ever since that wild trip up the river you have been growing quiet, lovable, and cheerful, and I really begin to hope that you will become like other people."

"I only know that I am happy, Prue. Why it is so I cannot tell; but now I seldom have the old dissatisfied and restless feeling. Everything looks pleasant to me, every one seems kind, and life begins to be both sweet and earnest. It is only one of my moods, I suppose; but I am grateful for it, and pray that it may last."

So earnestly she spoke, so cheerfully she smiled, that Miss Yule blessed the mood and echoed Sylvia's wish, exclaiming in the next breath, with a sudden inspiration--

"My, dear, I've got it! You are growing up."

"I think I am. You tried to make a woman of me at sixteen, but it was impossible until the right time came. That wild trip up the river, as you call it, did more for me than I can ever tell, and when I seemed most like a child I was learning to be a woman."

"Well, my dear, go on as you've begun, and I shall be more than satisfied. What merry-making is on foot to-night? Mark and these friends of his keep you in constant motion with their riding, rowing, and rambling excursions, and if it did not agree with you so excellently, I really should like a little quiet after a month of bustle."

"They are only coming up as usual, and that reminds me that I must go and dress."

"There is another new change, Sylvia. You never used to care what you wore or how you looked, no matter how much time and trouble I expended on you and your wardrobe. Now you do care, and it does my heart good to see you always charmingly dressed, and looking your prettiest," said Miss Yule, with the satisfaction of a woman who heartily believed in costume as well as all the other elegances and proprieties of fashionable life.

"Am I ever that, Prue?" asked Sylvia, pausing on the threshold with a shy yet wistful glance.

"Ever what, dear?"


"Always so to me; and now I think every one finds you very attractive because you try to please, and seem to succeed delightfully."

Sylvia had never asked that question before, had never seemed to know or care, and could not have chosen a more auspicious moment for her frank inquiry than the present. The answer seemed to satisfy her, and smiling at some blithe anticipation of her own, she went away to make a lampless toilet in the dusk, which proved how slight a hold the feminine passion for making one's self pretty had yet taken upon her.

The September moon was up and shining clearly over garden, lawn, and sea, when the sound of voices called her down. At the stair-foot she paused with a disappointed air, for only one hat lay on the hall table, and a glance showed her only one guest with Mark and Prue. She strolled irresolutely through the breezy hall, looked out at either open door, sung a little to herself, but broke off in the middle of a line, and, as if following a sudden impulse, went out into the mellow moonlight, forgetful of uncovered head or dewy damage to the white hem of her gown. Half way down the avenue she paused before a shady nook, and looked in. The evergreens that enclosed it made the seat doubly dark to eyes inured to the outer light, and seeing a familiar seeming figure sitting with its head upon its hand, Sylvia leaned in, saying, with a daughterly caress--

"Why, what is my romantic father doing here?"

The sense of touch was quicker than that of sight, and with an exclamation of surprise she had drawn back before Warwick replied--

"It is not the old man, but the young one, who is romancing here."

"I beg your pardon! We have been waiting for you; what thought is so charming that you forgot us all?"

Sylvia was a little startled, else she would scarcely have asked so plain a question. But Warwick often asked much blunter ones, always told the naked truth without prevarication or delay, and straightway answered--

"The thought of the woman whom I hope to make my wife."

Sylvia stood silent for a moment as if intent on fastening in her hair the delicate spray of hop-bells just gathered from the vine that formed a leafy frame for the graceful picture which she made standing, with uplifted arms, behind the arch. When she spoke it was to say, as she moved on toward the house--

"It is too beautiful a night to stay in doors, but Prue is waiting for me, and Mark wants to plan with you about our ride to-morrow. Shall we go together?"

She beckoned, and he came out of the shadow showing her an expression which she had never seen before. His face was flushed, his eye unquiet, his manner eager yet restrained. She had seen him intellectually excited many times; never emotionally till now. Something wayward, yet warm, in this new mood attracted her, because so like her own. But with a tact as native as her sympathy she showed no sign of this, except in the attentive look she fixed upon him as the moonlight bathed him in its splendor. He met the glance, seemed to interpret it aright, but did not answer its unconscious inquiry; for pausing, he asked abruptly--

"Should a rash promise be considered binding when it threatens to destroy one's peace?"

Sylvia pondered an instant before she answered slowly--

"If the promise was freely given, no sin committed in its keeping, and no peace troubled but one's own, I should say yes."

Still pausing, he looked down at her with that unquiet glance as she looked up with her steady one, and with the same anxiety he asked--

"Would you keep such a promise inviolate, even though it might cost you the sacrifice of something dearer to you than your life?"

She thought again, and again looked up, answering with the sincerity that he had taught her--

"It might be unwise, but if the sacrifice was not one of principle or something that I ought to love more than life, I think I should keep the promise as religiously as an Indian keeps a vow of vengeance."

As she spoke, some recollection seemed to strike Warwick like a sudden stab. The flush died out of his face, the fire from his eyes, and an almost grim composure fell upon him as he said low to himself, with a forward step as if eager to leave some pain behind him--

"It is better so; for his sake I will leave all to time."

Sylvia saw his lips move, but caught no sound till he said with a gravity that was almost gloom--

"I think you would; therefore, beware how you bind yourself with such verbal bonds. Let us go in."

They went; Warwick to the drawing-room, but Sylvia ran up stairs for the Berlin wools, which in spite of heat and the sure staining of fingers were to be wound that night according to contract, for she kept a small promise as sacredly as she would have done a greater one.

"What have you been doing to give yourself such an uplifted expression, Sylvia?" said Mark, as she came in.

"Feasting my eyes on lovely colors. Does not that look like a folded rainbow?" she answered, laying her brilliant burden on the table where Warwick sat examining a broken reel, and Prue was absorbed in getting a carriage blanket under way.

"Come, Sylvia, I shall soon be ready for the first shade," she said, clashing her formidable needles. "Is that past mending, Mr. Warwick?"

"Yes, without better tools than a knife, two pins, and a bodkin."

"Then you must put the skeins on a chair, Sylvia. Try not to tangle them, and spread your handkerchief in your lap, for that maroon color will stain sadly. Now don't speak to me, for I must count my stitches."

Sylvia began to wind the wools with a swift dexterity as natural to her hands as certain little graces of gesture which made their motions pleasant to watch. Warwick never rummaged work-baskets, gossipped, or paid compliments for want of something to do. If no little task appeared for them, he kept his hands out of mischief, and if nothing occurred to make words agreeable or necessary, he proved that he understood the art of silence, and sat with those vigilant eyes of his fixed upon whatever object attracted them. Just then the object was a bright band slipping round the chair-back, with a rapidity that soon produced a snarl, but no help till patient fingers had smoothed and wound it up. Then, with the look of one who says to himself, "I will!" he turned, planted himself squarely before Sylvia, and held out his hands.

"Here is a reel that will neither tangle nor break your skeins, will you use it?"

"Yes, thank you, and in return I'll wind your color first."

"Which is my color?"

"This fine scarlet, strong, enduring, and martial, like yourself."

"You are right."

"I thought so; Mr. Moor prefers blue, and I violet."

"Blue and red make violet," called Mark from his corner, catching the word "color," though busy with a sketch for a certain fair Jessie Hope.

Moor was with Mr. Yule in his study, Prue mentally wrapped in her blanket, and when Sylvia was drawn into an artistic controversy with her brother, Warwick fell into deep thought.

With the pride of a proud man once deceived, he had barred his heart against womankind, resolving that no second defeat should oppress him with that distrust of self and others, which is harder for a generous nature to bear, than the pain of its own wound. He had yet to learn that the shadow of love suggests its light, and that they who have been cheated of the food, without which none can truly live, long for it with redoubled hunger. Of late he had been discovering this, for a craving, stronger than his own strong will, possessed him. He tried to disbelieve and silence it; attacked it with reason, starved it with neglect, and chilled it with contempt. But when he fancied it was dead, the longing rose again, and with a clamorous cry, undid his work. For the first time, this free spirit felt the master's hand, confessed a need its own power could not supply, and saw that no man can live alone on even the highest aspirations without suffering for the vital warmth of the affections. A month ago he would have disdained the hope that now was so dear to him. But imperceptibly the influences of domestic life had tamed and won him. Solitude looked barren, vagrancy had lost its charm; his life seemed cold and bare, for, though devoted to noble aims, it was wanting in the social sacrifices, cares, and joys, that foster charity, and sweeten character. An impetuous desire to enjoy the rich experience which did so much for others, came over him to-night as it had often done while sharing the delights of this home, where he had made so long a pause. But with the desire came a memory that restrained him better than his promise. He saw what others had not yet discovered, and obeying the code of honor which governs a true gentleman, loved his friend better than himself and held his peace.

The last skein came, and as she wound it, Sylvia's glance involuntarily rose from the strong hands to the face above them, and lingered there, for the penetrating gaze was averted, and an unwonted mildness inspired confidence as its usual expression of power commanded respect. His silence troubled her, and with curious yet respectful scrutiny, she studied his face as she had never done before. She found it full of a noble gravity and kindliness; candor and courage spoke in the lines of the mouth, benevolence and intellect in the broad arch of the forehead, ardor and energy in the fire of the eye, and on every lineament the stamp of that genuine manhood, which no art can counterfeit. Intent upon discovering the secret of the mastery he exerted over all who approached him, Sylvia had quite forgotten herself, when suddenly Warwick's eyes were fixed full upon her own. What spell lay in them she could not tell, for human eye had never shed such sudden summer over her. Admiration was not in it, for it did not agitate; nor audacity, for it did not abash; but something that thrilled warm through blood and nerves, that filled her with a glad submission to some power, absolute yet tender, and caused her to turn her innocent face freely to his gaze, letting him read therein a sentiment for which she had not yet found a name.

It lasted but a moment; yet in that moment, each saw the other's heart, and each turned a new page in the romance of their lives. Sylvia's eyes fell first, but no blush followed, no sign of anger or perplexity, only a thoughtful silence, which continued till the last violet thread dropped from his hands, and she said almost regretfully--

"This is the end."

"Yes, this is the end."

As he echoed the words Warwick rose suddenly and went to talk with Mark, whose sketch was done. Sylvia sat a moment as if quite forgetful where she was, so absorbing was some thought or emotion. Presently she seemed to glow and kindle with an inward fire; over face and forehead rushed an impetuous color, her eyes shone, and her lips trembled with the fluttering of her breath. Then a panic appeared to seize her, for, stealing noiselessly away, she hurried to her room, and covering up her face as if to hide it even from herself, whispered to that full heart of hers, with quick coming tears that belied the words--

"Now I know why I am happy!"

How long she lay there weeping and smiling in the moonlight she never knew. Her sister's call broke in upon the first love dream she had ever woven for herself, and she went down to bid the friends good night. The hall was only lighted by the moon, and in the dimness of the shadow where she stood, no one saw traces of that midsummer shower on her cheeks, or detected the soft trouble in her eye, but for the first time Moor felt her hand tremble in his own and welcomed the propitious omen.

Being an old-fashioned gentleman, Mr. Yule preserved in his family the pleasant custom of hand-shaking, which gives such heartiness to the morning and evening greetings of a household. Moor liked and adopted it; Warwick had never done so, but that night he gave a hand to Prue and Mark with his most cordial expression, and Sylvia felt both her own taken in a warm lingering grasp, although he only said "good by!" Then they went; but while the three paused at the door held by the beauty of the night, back to them on the wings of the wind came Warwick's voice singing the song that Sylvia loved. All down the avenue, and far along the winding road they traced his progress, till the strain died in the distance leaving only the echo of the song to link them to the singer.

When evening came again Sylvia waited on the lawn to have the meeting over in the dark, for love made her very shy. But Moor came alone, and his first words were,

"Comfort me, Sylvia, Adam is gone. He went as unexpectedly as he came, and when I woke this morning a note lay at my door, but my friend was not there."

She murmured some stereotyped regret, but there was a sharp pain at her heart till there came to her the remembrance of Warwick's question, uttered on the spot where she was standing. Some solace she must have, and clinging to this one thought hopefully within herself--

"He has made some promise, has gone to get released from it, and will come back to say what he looked last night. He is so true I will believe in him and wait."

She did wait, but week after week went by and Warwick did not come.

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