Towns, like persons, have individuality, some distinct, others indistinct. By the individuality of some we are attracted, by that of others we are repelled. There are some that are sour, selfish, intent only upon themselves, that give us a scowl of suspicion for greeting and turn their shoulder as one who would say “I don’t know you and I don’t want to. I am very busy; keep out of my way.” Then there are towns that shout us a laughing “Hello,” that shake our hand and pat our back, merry, care-free, pleasure-pursuing towns these that make us welcome so long as we laugh and sing with them, but have no love for us when we frown or weep.
There are frankly mercenary towns whose greetings are shrewd and sober and whose eyes seek our pocket-book even as the door closes behind us. In such towns our welcome is likely to be just as long as our bank account, but, at least, we will find no hypocrisy. And then there are towns that are like—well, like a genial, kindly-faced fellow who sits on a bench in the sunlight whittling a stick, gives us a neighborly nod and moves along that we may sit beside him. He doesn’t take our hand, he doesn’t look askance at our frayed cuffs and battered valise, but, after awhile, if he likes us he offers us a stick that we, too, may whittle, or, maybe, he shoves his tobacco along to us. Perhaps as we sit there in the sunlight and watch him we wonder why he doesn’t work; after we have stayed awhile we cease wondering and find ourself content to whittle and smoke in the sunshine and let the world wag along.
And there are many other sorts of towns, just as many as there are sorts of personality; hard, cross-grained towns; fretful, grumpy towns; alert, busy, inhospitable towns; lazy, dirty towns; nervous, hysterical towns, and mean, rapacious towns. It takes all sorts to make a world, and even in the worst of them, if we know them intimately enough, we may find virtues large enough to atone for the faults. And all this sermonizing merely as an introduction to a little country town that is barely on the ordinary map and that not one person in fifty—no, not one in a hundred, perhaps—has ever heard of.
Belle Harbour is a town that whittles in the sunshine. It is a sleepy, good-natured, courteous old town with a picturesque past and a dubious future.
I would much rather not venture upon exact dates, but Belle Harbour was something of a place when the British marched on Washington, and a house that does not lay claim to having served as a Hessian barracks, a British hospital, or a general’s residence, is so indecently modern that good citizens view it askance. Belle Harbour dozed quietly until the Civil War disturbed it. Even then it bore excitement with a sort of calm dignity. When the war was over it relapsed into slumber once more and now nothing save the last trump will ever fully awaken it.
But it’s a fine old town, a town with a dignified past, with substantial red brick mansions set just back from its broad streets, with oaks and chestnuts shading the crumbling brick sidewalks, and magnolias leaning over the mossy walls and rusted fences. Belle Harbour’s streets are wide, not because traffic demands width, but because when the town was laid out there was a great deal of room and it seemed a pity not to make use of as much of it as was possible. So on Belle Harbour’s main streets ten vehicles could very easily pass side by side. Not that they ever have or ever will; the sound of one mud-splashed buggy rattling over the paving stones is an event that causes great interest, while the simultaneous appearance of two vehicles produces a condition of mild panic up and down the streets. Next to the low curbstones the worn, irregular paving stones show signs of travel; but for the rest, the streets are wild wastes of weeds and grass, wherein here and there a splash of color tells where an adventurous garden flower, aided by bird or breeze, is striving to colonize the wilderness.
Life flows very evenly, very quietly, and, I think, very happily in Belle Harbour. Children are born, grow up, marry, and die without moving out of sight of old Christ Church, save, perhaps, for a brief but adventurous journey to Washington, Richmond or the coast. Business sometimes takes the Belle Harbour citizen to Washington; sometimes social obligations render a trip to the capital necessary; honeymoons are always spent at Virginia Beach. But for the most part the resident of King’s Street lives his life between the post-office and the Seminary, respectively the Northern and Southern limits of his world. When he penetrates beyond the Seminary it is to drive into the country, perhaps to some decaying plantation. When he goes North of the post-office it is to enter the shabby, care-free negro quarter. He clings very closely to the old traditions, the old customs, the old thoughts. There are no telephones in Belle Harbour, and I doubt if you could find a phonograph in any of the dim, white-walled drawing-rooms. Belle Harbour still shudders when it recalls how, a few years ago, it was threatened with the advent of an electric car line. On that occasion the old town, if it did not absolutely awake, at least turned and muttered in its sleep, disturbed by monstrous visions.
The residents of King’s Street, observing him from behind latticed windows or meeting him on the oak-shaded sidewalk of that grass-grown thoroughfare, wondered who Burton was and why he elected to take up quarters in the town when Washington was less than twenty miles away across the Potomac. The citizens of Belle Harbour entertained no illusions regarding the desirability of their town as a place of sojourn, especially after May; they realized that an elevation of five feet above tide-level does not constitute an ideal situation, and that, judged as a health resort, Belle Harbour was far from being a success. Even admitting the idiosyncrasies of the Northerner, Burton’s presence was inexplicable. Belle Harbour knew something about the Northern traveller, for the town was a Mecca towards which Washington visitors frequently turned their steps. But they seldom tarried; having viewed the old church in which Revolutionary heroes had worshipped, and paid their dimes and quarters for sections of crumbling bricks supposed to have been detached from the edifice walls, but in reality pried out of neighboring sidewalks by enterprising boys, they literally as well as metaphorically shook the dust of the old town from their feet and hurried to the steamboat. Even the commercial traveller took pains to insure the completion of his business before the last boat returned to Washington. The only hostelry in the town confined its ministrations entirely to the citizens, and they seldom penetrated farther than the little, low-raftered bar-room. And so Belle Harbour viewed Burton with extreme but courteous interest.
The information afforded by Mrs. Phillips, of whom the visitor had rented two second-floor rooms for an indefinite period, was limited and unsatisfactory. He was a New York man, she confided, and an architect; he had his meals sent to his rooms and ate three eggs every morning; he found Belle Harbour very picturesque and interesting, and wore pink and blue pajamas; he made strange drawings in books and did much writing; he smoked cigarettes or pipes all day long and dropped the ashes on the floor. King’s Street heard these facts with avidity and reiterated “Why?” And Mrs. Phillips only shook her head and murmured in tones of finality,—
“Well, you must remember he’s a No’therner!”
Burton’s conduct on the afternoon of the day which had given him his first glimpse of the girl in the rose-garden did nothing to dispel the growing conviction that there was something strange and mysterious about his presence in Belle Harbour. Armed with a sketch-book, he wandered aimlessly the length of King’s Street, smoked four cigarettes in the shade of the church-yard chestnuts, and subsequently wandered aimlessly home again without once having set pencil to paper or, apparently, having seen aught but the end of his well-made nose. King’s Street whispered behind its sun-repelling jalousies. And yet Mrs. Phillips’s information, as far as it went, was quite correct, and the mystery was apparent rather than real.
Stephen Burton was an architect. A commission for a costly church edifice for a wealthy congregation in a New Jersey residential village had sent him South in search of details of pure Colonial architecture. He had found more to interest him in Belle Harbour than he had anticipated or than its citizens knew of. The old church was a veritable mine of valuable material, and certain old doorways and gables and porches scattered through the town and over the adjacent country were far too interesting to allow of neglect. Being a man of comfortable means, Burton’s profession was a passion rather than a trade; he could and did afford to accept only those commissions that appealed to him, but having once taken them he put his very best into each, with the result that he was already known, at thirty-eight years of age, as the foremost man in the line of his selection—church and public edifices. He had already spent a week in Belle Harbour; there was no hurry; if he liked, there was another week at his disposal. With an office force that could be entirely depended upon there was no good reason for returning North until it suited his pleasure. This afternoon New York seemed utterly repellent to him; a hot, noisy, dusty city in which were no rose-gardens and no girls in white gowns gathered at the waist with lavender ribbons. Deuce take New York!
When he gained his room, the rear apartment that overlooked the side yard, his first action was to go to the window and survey the prospect. He found it disappointing. The roses were there, to be sure, and the hammock; but roses and hammocks do not always in themselves satisfy. He lighted a pipe and wondered a trifle impatiently why the denizens of the house beyond the box-hedged garden kept indoors when there was a cool and shady porch and a comfortable hammock awaiting them. He felt somewhat aggrieved over it. When Bob—the general factotum of the establishment—brought up his supper and set the frayed white cloth over the table Burton contemplated making inquiries as to the occupants of the house at whose blank windows he had been gazing for the better part of an hour. But on second thought he refrained; there was something alluring in the thought of nursing his ignorance; he could give his fancy full swing and make of the rose-filled space beyond the iron fence an Enchanted Garden and of the girl in white an imprisoned Princess. The idea appealed to him, and he recalled with satisfaction that the voice he had heard calling from the house—that is to say, Castle—had sounded Blue Beardish to a degree. So he merely sent Bob for a fresh syphon of soda and uncorked the bottle of Scotch whiskey with a thrill of something approaching excitement.
Burton frequently wondered, when he gazed about his apartments, why he had thought it necessary to rent two rooms from Mrs. Phillips. So far as space went one would have been quite enough. The front room overlooked King’s Street, or would have done so had the trees which grew close to the windows allowed, and was broad and long and high, with white walls and ceiling against which three old yellow-stained steel engravings looked lamentably inadequate. Even the big four-poster bed seemed lost in the immensity of the apartment. The rear room was more cheerful. It was no smaller and there were the same glaringly white walls, but the furnishings were more numerous and the adornments more ambitious. Here he was the proud possessor of six pictures, a framed sampler, three advertising calendars, and two lithographed mottoes. He never tired of studying the sampler; its artistic effects fascinated him even though the information conveyed was but slight:
A b c d e f g H i j k l m n O p q r s t u V w x y z &
Elizabeth R. Warren
It was the border of purple, green, and yellow roses that awakened his enthusiasm, and the queer little something—which might have been an hourglass and might have been a dressmaker’s form—which divided the dates at the bottom. As for the mottoes he found less in them to care for. “Give Us this Day our Daily Bread” was hackneyed and incomplete, while “Dare to do Right” had so many violent comparisons of color that none would have thought of paying heed to its advice. The pictures were uninteresting, a few depressing, a few inexcusable, even when their period was taken into consideration. Aside from the sampler, the most artistic of the wall-decorations, Burton decided, were the three calendars.
The furniture was all of it good, if somewhat out of repair. The big lounge was of mahogany veneer with a high, straight back of such delightfully simple lines as to atone for the slippery, inhospitable horsehair with which it was upholstered. There were some good chairs, a folding card-table, a swell-front, claw-footed lowboy, and a solid mahogany desk, beautiful enough to drive a man to theft. The floor was polished until it shone, and over it were scattered four rag rugs whose tones of gray and brown or gray and blue were a delight. After a week of practice Burton was able to step upon these rugs without having them slide from under him. But he never became proud and careless, and this evening as he carried the bottle of Scotch across to the table he held his breath and only felt quite safe when he had lowered himself carefully into his fiddle-back, rush-bottomed chair.
The table was placed by the window commanding the Castle, and during supper he studied speculatively the pregnability of the place. What he saw delighted him. The rose-vines made it possible to attain the second-story balcony with a minimum of exertion. With the Princess once in his arms—— He paused suddenly just there and closed his eyes, striving with a pleasant warmth under the pocket of his negligee shirt to imagine the situation thoroughly. With the Princess in his arms! With those wide brown eyes just under his own and the pearl-like cheek within reach—— He shook his head and opened his own eyes, which, by the way, were steel-colored and not brown, and looked across the two gardens to the Castle.
“If I had you there, Princess,” he murmured, “I very much fear we would never escape from the Ogre. We should be caught like rats in a trap—I think that’s the correct term, though hardly complimentary to you—up there on the balcony. Personally, I wouldn’t much care; with those lips of yours where I could reach them, my dear, the Ogre might do his worst and be hanged to him; but then there’s you to think of. On the whole, perhaps it would be best if I had you rescued by proxy. There’s Bob, for instance!”
He smiled broadly at the thought and refilled his glass.
“Once down from the balcony, the rest would be simple. A wild flight through the rose-garden, a perilous surmounting of the iron fence, a swift rush down the side yard here, and then a trusty steed in waiting,—you see, my dear, an automobile would be out of the question on these funny roads of yours,—and the wide world before us!”
He lighted a cigarette and leaned out over the casement. The evening shadows were blurring the rose-blooms, and high overhead a half moon was sailing out of a bank of fleecy clouds. The Castle showed a solitary light in the window beyond the balcony. He blew a puff of smoke towards it.
“Kitty—Kitty of the Roses,” he murmured, “do you want to be rescued, dear?”
From the house came the sound of a girl’s voice in song, sweet, caressing; he could not distinguish the words, and in a moment the voice was stilled.
He waited and listened, but the silence held. With a little laugh at himself, Burton arose and lighted his lamp.
“I’m afraid you don’t, my dear,” he said. “You’re too happy. Don’t you know that real Princesses are never happy?”
He lowered the shade with a last look into the darkened garden and resolutely took up his papers.