The person whose self-possession fails him miserably at ordinary junctures may rise superior at a soul-disturbing crisis. Burton, red-faced, perspiring, conscious of the sorry figure he presented, arose from his hands and knees with brilliant composure. A glistening drop was tickling the side of his nose, yet he inclined his head politely towards the pickets; innumerable other drops were creeping disturbingly down the middle of his back, yet he smiled almost blandly.
“Thank you, if you will be so kind,” he said, and held forth his hand.
She bent gracefully and picked up the spray. Then,—
“I fear they are rather wilted,” she said with polite regret. “There are fresher ones on your side of the fence, are there not?”
Her accent was delicious, Burton thought; soft, creamy,—like her cheeks,—filled with odd little drawls and slurs. He hoped she would go on. But she didn’t; she only paused and looked questioningly from the withered spray of roses to his face. Her expression was merely one of courteous indifference, of polite interest tinctured with reserve; yet in the farther depths of her brown eyes a little imp of mischief danced into sight and out again.
“The roses on my side are charmingly fresh,” responded Burton, “but the fact is I have a desire for that especial spray.”
“Perhaps because stolen fruit is sweetest?” she asked maliciously.
“Not altogether for that reason,” he smiled. “There are certain associations connected with it that endear it.”
“Indeed?” She held it gingerly by the extreme tip of the stem and reached towards the fence. He accepted it gravely and thanked her.
“Please don’t,” she said; “I’m not sure that I am not compounding a felony.”
“I’m convinced that you are needlessly alarmed,” he answered. “You have only presented me with what was yours to give.”
But she shook her head. “Oh, no, not at all! I discovered you stealing”—this with awful emphasis—“my roses, and I came to your aid merely because I feared that if I did not you would have a sunstroke.”
“Stealing is an unpleasant word,” he said tentatively. “Couldn’t you substitute borrowing?”
“Borrowing?” The brown eyes opened very wide. “But I don’t believe it would be true.”
“I give you my word,” he answered earnestly, “that I will return these to you as soon as I am done with them.”
She leaned forward and plucked a withered leaf from a bush to hide the smile that trembled about her lips.
“Have you—have you any idea when that will be?” she asked.
“Indeed, yes, I can tell you to a minute!”
“You shall have them back the very instant you give me some fresh ones.”
“Oh!” She was still hunting for withered leaves. “Are you going to press them, then?”
Burton acknowledged the touché with a smile.
“I had entertained hopes that you, with such a fabulous wealth of blossoms, would be charitable to one who has none,” he replied gravely.
“Charity is only for the deserving.” She gave up her search and faced him again. “Thieves are not worthy subjects.”
“But a little charity might have the effect of reforming them. For example, if you were to present me each morning with a rose, there would remain no necessity for stealing.”
She shook her head again. “Reform should come through repentance; that would be merely bribery.”
“But in extreme cases,” he pleaded, “shouldn’t we consider the end rather than the means? Now, with such a hardened, desperate criminal as myself——”
“Perhaps you are right,” she acknowledged. “And so you have permission to help yourself to a cluster of roses every day. You can reach them, you see, without trouble.”
“Oh!” he said disappointedly. “But I shouldn’t want to do that; I fear I would damage the bushes.”
“Not if you used scissors.”
He made a pretence of searching his pockets.
“I’m afraid I haven’t such a thing,” he said despondently.
“I’m sure Mrs. Phillips will lend you a pair.”
“You are taking an entirely wrong course with me,” he said sadly. “I feel that I shall never reform without some assistance; I haven’t enough moral courage. Now, if you would take a little interest in my case—to the extent of one rose, just a single, solitary rose now and then, you know—I’m sure I could lead a better life. Don’t you think that—er—you could?”
A sheet of paper danced out to the path at her feet and she stooped and picked it up, crumpling it in her hand.
“I’m afraid not,” she said.
She dropped the crumpled paper into her basket and moved off up the path. Then she paused and turned.
“Good-morning.” She gave a polite little inclination of her head and Burton removed his hat.
“Good-morning,” he answered dejectedly.
She went on towards the house, humming softly. He watched until the door had closed behind her; then he threw himself in his chair again and looked smilingly at the faded, bedraggled cluster of tiny crimson roses in his hand.
“She’s wonderful,” he said under his breath. “She’s a real Princess, after all, a little five-foot-two Princess, with the most beautiful eyes in the world and the dearest red lips and the pearliest, softest cheeks ever woman had! She’s older than I thought; she must be twenty-one or two. I wonder—but, no, she’s not married; she’s just a girl—a sweet, womanly girl.”
He placed a cigarette between his lips but forgot to light it.
“Kitty,” he murmured, “Kitty, Kitty of the Roses! Never was there a name that fitted as that does; she could have had no other name! Maud—Alice—Mary—Lilian—Florence—none would have suited her; Kitty was made for her! It never struck me before as being a beautiful name—Kitty. I wonder why? It’s absolutely musical! It’s a poem, a love-song! It’s——”
He sat up very straight and scowled at the littered table.
“Great Scott! this won’t do! These Enchanted Gardens are dangerous places; they evidently affect the brain.”
He rescued his pen from the grass and dipped it into the ink.
“Or maybe the heart!”
He drew his sheets before him and smoothed and arranged them. Then he frowned intently. Presently he began to write:
“The crowning of these columns with the Roman Doric abacus is quite unjustifiable and altogether incongruous to the purist. Yet the effect in the eye of the layman is not unpleasing. It is difficult if not impossible to account——”
He looked up from the sheet before him with exultant eyes, the pen poised motionless in mid-air.
“I’ll swear there were dimples when she smiled!” he murmured joyously.