A FIRESIDE FETE.
"No cousin Faith to-night. The rain has prevented her from taking this boat, and she is not likely to come later as she comes alone," said Moor, returning from a fruitless drive to meet his expected guest one October evening.
"It always rains when I want anything very much. I seem to have a great deal of bad weather in my life," answered Sylvia, despondingly.
"Never mind the rain; let us make sunshine for ourselves, and forget it as children do."
"I wish I was a child again, they are always happy."
"Let us play at being children, then. Let us sit down upon the rug, parch corn, crack nuts, roast apples, and be merry in spite of wind or weather."
Sylvia's face brightened, for the fancy pleased her, and she wanted something new and pleasant to divert her thoughts from herself. Glancing at her dress, which was unusually matronly in honor of the occasion, she said smiling--
"I don't look much like a child, but I should like to try and feel like one again if I can."
"Let us both look and feel so as much as possible. You like masquerading; go make a little girl of yourself, while I turn boy, and prepare for our merry making."
No lad could have spoken with a blither face, for Moor had preserved much of the boy in spite of his thirty years. His cheerfulness was so infectious, that Sylvia already began to forget her gloom, and hurried away to do her part. Putting on a short, girlish gown, kept for scrambles among the rocks, she improvised a pinafore, and braided her long hair a la Morlena Kenwigs, with butterfly bows at the ends. When she went down, she found her husband in garden jacket, collar turned over a ribbon, hair in a curly tumble, and jackknife in hand, seated on the rug before a roaring fire, and a semicircle of apples, whittling and whistling like a very boy. They examined one another with mirthful commendations, and Moor began his part by saying--
"Isn't this jolly? Now come and cuddle down here beside me, and see which will keep it up the longest."
"What would Prue say? and who would recognize the elegant Mr. Moor in this big boy? Putting dignity and broadcloth aside makes you look about eighteen, and very charming I find you," said Sylvia, looking about twelve herself, and also very charming.
"Here is a wooden fork for you to tend the roast with, while I see to the corn laws and prepare a vegetable snowstorm. What will you have, little girl, you look as if you wanted something?"
"I was only thinking that I should have a doll to match your knife. I feel as if I should enjoy trotting a staring fright on my knee, and singing Hush-a-by. But I fancy even your magic cannot produce such a thing,--can it, my lad?"
"In exactly five minutes a lovely doll will appear, though such a thing has not been seen in my bachelor establishment for years."
With which mysterious announcement Moor ran off, blundering over the ottomans and slamming the doors as a true boy should. Sylvia pricked chestnuts, and began to forget her bosom trouble as she wondered what would appear with the impatient curiosity appropriate to the character she had assumed. Presently her husband reappeared with much breeziness of aspect, rain drops in his hair, and a squirming bundle in his arms. Triumphantly unfolding many wraps, he displayed little Tilly in her night-gown.
"There is sorcery for you, and a doll worth having; being one of the sort that can shut its eyes; it was going to bed, but its mamma relented and lends it to us for the night. I told Mrs. Dodd you wanted her, and couldn't wait, so she sent her clothes; but the room is so warm let the dear play in her pretty bed-gown."
Sylvia received her lovely plaything with enthusiasm, and Tilly felt herself suddenly transported to a baby's Paradise, where beds were unknown and fruit and freedom were her welcome portion. Merrily popped the corn, nimbly danced the nuts upon the shovel, lustily remonstrated the rosy martyrs on the hearth, and cheerfully the minutes slipped away. Sylvia sung every jubilant air she knew, Moor whistled astonishing accompaniments, and Tilly danced over the carpet with nut-shells on her toes, and tried to fill her little gown with "pitty flowers" from its garlands and bouquets. Without the wind lamented, the sky wept, and the sea thundered on the shore; but within, youth, innocence, and love held their blithe revel undisturbed.
"How are the spirits now?" asked one playmate of the other.
"Quite merry, thank you; and I should think I was little Sylvia again but for the sight of this."
She held up the hand that wore a single ornament; but the hand had grown so slender since it was first put on, that the ring would have fallen had she not caught it at her finger-tip. There was nothing of the boy in her companion's face, as he said, with an anxious look--
"If you go on thinning so fast I shall begin to fear that the little wife is not happy with her old husband. Is she, dear?"
"She would be a most ungrateful woman if she were not. I always get thin as winter comes on, but I'm so careless I'll find a guard for my ring to-morrow."
"No need to wait till then; wear this to please me, and let Marion's cipher signify that you are _mine_."
With a gravity that touched her more than the bestowal of so dear a relic, Moor unslung a signet ring from his watchguard, and with some difficulty pressed it to its place on Sylvia's finger, a most effectual keeper for that other ring whose tenure seemed so slight. She shrunk a little and glanced up at him, because his touch was more firm than tender, and his face wore a masterful expression seldom seen there; for instinct, subtler than perception, prompted both act and aspect. Then her eye fell and fixed upon the dark stone with the single letter engraved upon its tiny oval, and to her it took a double significance as her husband held it there, claiming her again, with that emphatic "Mine." She did not speak, but something in her manner caused the fold between his brows to smooth itself away as he regarded the small hand lying passively in his, and said, half playfully, half earnestly--
"Forgive me if I hurt you, but you know my wooing is not over yet; and till you love me with a perfect love I cannot feel that my wife is wholly mine."
"I am so young, you know; when I am a woman grown I can give you a woman's love; now it is a girl's, you say. Wait for me, Geoffrey, a little longer, for indeed I do my best to be all you would have me."
Something brought tears into her eyes and made her lips tremble, but in a breath the smile came back, and she added gayly--
"How can I help being grave sometimes, and getting thin, with so many housekeeping cares upon my shoulders, and such an exacting, tyrannical husband to wear upon my nerves. Don't I look like the most miserable of wives?"
She did not certainly as she shook the popper laughingly, and looked over her shoulder at him, with the bloom of fire-light on her cheeks, its cheerfulness in her eyes.
"Keep that expression for every day wear, and I am satisfied. I want no tame Griselda, but the little girl who once said she was always happy with me. Assure me of that, and, having won my Leah, I can work and wait still longer for my Rachel. Bless the baby! what has she done to herself now?"
Tilly had retired behind the sofa, after she had swarmed over every chair and couch, examined everything within her reach, on _étagère_ and table, embraced the Hebe in the corner, played a fantasia on the piano, and choked herself with the stopper of the odor bottle. A doleful wail betrayed her hiding place, and she now emerged with a pair of nutcrackers, ditto of pinched fingers, and an expression of great mental and bodily distress. Her woes vanished instantaneously, however, when the feast was announced, and she performed an unsteady _pas seul_ about the banquet, varied by skirmishes with her long night-gown and darts at any unguarded viand that tempted her.
No ordinary table service would suit the holders of this fireside _fête_. The corn was heaped in a bronze urn, the nuts in a graceful basket, the apples lay on a plate of curiously ancient china, and the water turned to wine through the medium of a purple flagon of Bohemian glass. The refection was spread upon the rug as on a flowery table, and all the lustres were lighted, filling the room with a festal glow. Prue would have held up her hands in dismay, like the benighted piece of excellence she was, but Mark would have enjoyed the picturesque group and sketched a mate to the Golden Wedding. For Moor, armed with the wooden fork, did the honors; Sylvia, leaning on her arm, dropped corn after corn into a baby mouth that bird-like always gaped for more; and Tilly lay luxuriously between them, warming her little feet as she ate and babbled to the flames.
The clock was on the stroke of eight, the revel at its height, when the door opened and a servant announced--
"Miss Dane and Mr. Warwick."
An impressive pause followed, broken by a crow from Tilly, who seized this propitious moment to bury one hand in the nuts and with the other capture the big red apple which had been denied her. The sound seemed to dissipate the blank surprise that had fallen on all parties, and brought both host and hostess to their feet, the former exclaiming, heartily--
"Welcome, friends, to a modern saturnalia and the bosom of the Happy Family!"
"I fear you did not expect me so late," said Miss Dane. "I was detained at the time fixed upon and gave it up, but Mr. Warwick came, and we set off together. Pray don't disturb yourselves, but let us enjoy the game with you."
"You and Adam are guests who never come too early or too late. We are playing children to-night, so just put yourselves back a dozen years and let us all be merry together. Sylvia, this our cousin, Faith here is your new kinswoman. Please love one another as little people are commanded to do."
A short stir ensued while hands were shaken, wraps put off, and some degree of order restored to the room, then they all sat down and began to talk. With well bred oblivion of the short gown and long braids of her bashful-looking hostess, Miss Dane suggested and discussed various subjects of mutual interest, while Sylvia tried to keep her eyes from wandering to the mirror opposite, which reflected the figures of her husband and his friend.
Warwick sat erect in the easy-chair, for he never lounged; and Moor, still supporting his character, was perched upon the arm, talking with boyish vivacity. Every sense being unwontedly alert, Sylvia found herself listening to both guests at once, and bearing her own part in one conversation so well that occasional lapses were only attributed to natural embarrassment. What she and Miss Dane said she never remembered; what the other pair talked of she never forgot. The first words she caught were her husband's.
"You see I have begun to live for myself, Adam."
"I also see that it agrees with you excellently."
"Better than with you, for you are not looking like your old self, though June made you happy, I hope?"
"If freedom is happiness it did."
"Are you still alone?"
"More so than ever."
Sylvia lost the next words, for a look showed her Moor's hand on Adam's shoulder, and that for the first time within her memory Warwick did not meet his friend's glance with one as open, but bent his eyes upon the ground, while his hand went to and fro across his lips as if to steady them. It was a gesture she remembered well, for though self-control could keep the eye clear, the voice firm, that half-hidden mouth of his sometimes rebelled and grew tremulous as a woman's. The sight and the answer set her heart beating with the thought, "Why has he come?" The repetition of a question by Miss Dane recalled her from a dangerous memory, and when that friendly lady entered upon another long sentence to relieve her young hostess, she heard Moor say--
"You have had too much solitude, Adam; I am sure of it, for no man can live long alone and not get the uncanny look you have. What have you been at?"
"Fighting the old fight with this unruly self of mine, and getting ready for another tussle with the Adversary, in whatever shape he may appear."
"And now you are come to your friend for the social solace which the haughtiest heart hungers for when most alone. You shall have it. Stay with us, Adam, and remember that whatever changes come to me my home is always yours."
"I know it, Geoffrey. I wanted to see your happiness before I go away again, and should like to stay with you a day or so if you are sure that--that she would like it."
Moor laughed and pulled a lock of the brown mane, as if to tease the lion into a display of the spirit he seemed to have lost.
"How shy you are of speaking the new name! 'She' will like it, I assure you, for she makes my friends hers. Sylvia, come here, and tell Adam he is welcome; he dares to doubt it. Come and talk over old times, while I do the same with Faith."
She went, trembling inwardly, but outwardly composed, for she took refuge in one of those commonplace acts which in such moments we gladly perform, and bless in our secret souls. She had often wondered where they would next meet, and how she should comport herself at such a trying time. She had never imagined that he would come in this way, or that a hearth-brush would save her from the betrayal of emotion. So it was, however, and an involuntary smile passed over her face as she managed to say quite naturally, while brushing the nutshells tidily out of sight--
"You know you are always welcome, Mr. Warwick. 'Adam's Room,' as we call it, is always ready, and Geoffrey was wishing for you only yesterday."
"I am sure of his satisfaction at my coming, can I be equally sure of yours. May I, ought I to stay?"
He leaned forward as he spoke, with an eager yet submissive look, that Sylvia dared not meet, and in her anxiety to preserve her self-possession, she forgot that to this listener every uttered word became a truth, because his own were always so.
"Why not, if you can bear our quiet life, for we are a Darby and Joan already, though we do not look so to-night, I acknowledge."
Men seldom understand the subterfuges women instinctively use to conceal many a natural emotion which they are not strong enough to control, not brave enough to confess. To Warwick, Sylvia seemed almost careless, her words a frivolous answer to the real meaning of his question, her smile one of tranquil welcome. Her manner wrought an instant change in him, and when he spoke again he was the Warwick of a year ago.
"I hesitated, Mrs. Moor, because I have sometimes heard young wives complain that their husbands' friends were marplots, and I have no desire to be one."
This speech, delivered with frosty gravity, made Sylvia as cool and quiet as itself. She put her ally down, looked full at Warwick, and said with a blending of dignity and cordiality which even the pinafore could not destroy--
"Please to consider yourself a specially invited guest, now and always. Never hesitate, but come and go as freely as you used to do, for nothing need be changed between us three because two of us have one home to offer you."
"Thanks; and now that the hearth is scrupulously clean may I offer you a chair?"
The old keenness was in his eye, the old firmness about the mouth, the old satirical smile on his lips as Warwick presented the seat, with an inclination that to her seemed ironical. She sat down, but when she cast about her mind for some safe and easy topic to introduce, every idea had fled; even memory and fancy turned traitors; not a lively sally could be found, not a pleasant remembrance returned to help her, and she sat dumb. Before the dreadful pause grew awkward, however, rescue came in the form of Tilly. Nothing daunted by the severe simplicity of her attire she planted herself before Warwick, and shaking her hair out of her eyes stared at him with an inquiring glance and cheeks as red as her apple. She seemed satisfied in a moment, and climbing to his knee established herself there, coolly taking possession of his watch, and examining the brown beard curiously as it parted with the white flash of teeth, when Warwick smiled his warmest smile.
"This recalls the night you fed the sparrow in your hand. Do you remember, Adam?" and Sylvia looked and spoke like her old self again.
"I seldom forget anything. But pleasant as that hour was this is more to me, for the bird flew away, the baby stays and gives me what I need."
He wrapt the child closer in his arms, leaned his dark head on the bright one, and took the little feet into his hand with a fatherly look that caused Tilly to pat his cheek and begin an animated recital of some nursery legend, which ended in a sudden gape, reminding Sylvia that one of her guests was keeping late hours.
"What comes next?" asked Warwick.
"Now I lay me and byelow in the trib," answered Tilly, stretching herself over his arm with a great yawn.
Warwick kissed the rosy half-open mouth and seemed loth to part with the pious baby, for he took the shawl Sylvia brought and did up the drowsy bundle himself. While so busied she stole a furtive glance at him, having looked without seeing before. Thinner and browner, but stronger than ever was the familiar face she saw, yet neither sad nor stern, for the grave gentleness which had been a fugitive expression before now seemed habitual. This, with the hand at the lips and the slow dropping of the eyes, were the only tokens of the sharp experience he had been passing through. Born for conflict and endurance, he seemed to have manfully accepted the sweet uses of adversity and grown the richer for his loss.
Those who themselves are quick to suffer, are also quick to see the marks of suffering in others; that hasty scrutiny assured Sylvia of all she had yearned to know, yet wrung her heart with a pity the deeper for its impotence. Tilly's heavy head drooped between her bearer and the light as they left the room, but in the dusky hall a few hot tears fell on the baby's hair, and her new nurse lingered long after the lullaby was done. When she reappeared the girlish dress was gone, and she was Madam Moor again, as her husband called her when she assumed her stately air. All smiled at the change, but he alone spoke of it.
"I win the applause, Sylvia; for I sustain my character to the end, while you give up before the curtain falls. You are not so good an actress as I thought you."
Sylvia's smile was sadder than her tears as she briefly answered--
"No, I find I cannot be a child again."