“They are looking well after the rain,” he suggested interrogatively. She had shown no disposition to avoid him, in fact, her rather distant inclination of the head had preceded his own bow by a flattering fraction of a second.
“Yes,” she agreed, without, however, pausing in her task of filling her basket with great long-stemmed blooms. Burton left the table and leaned over the fence.
“On a day like yesterday one rather wishes oneself a rose-bush or tree or something equally inanimate, don’t you think?”
“I don’t think I ever have,” she answered. “Why should one?”
“Perhaps you are one of those unnaturally cheerful persons who like rainy days,” he said. “For my part, I can’t bear them. Yesterday, for instance, I was awfully bored. I think I must have stood at my window up there for all of an hour looking down here and wishing for the sight of”—he suddenly recollected his resolve to be on his good behavior—“of a human being. It was a beast of a day!”
“You didn’t look happy, that is true,” she said, bending to rescue a fallen clump of flaring red Luxembourgs.
“Then you saw me?” he asked eagerly.
“Why not? You stood in full sight at your window.”
“But—but I didn’t see you,” he answered aggrievedly. She shook her head.
“You couldn’t; I was in the kitchen making cake.”
“Really?” From his tone one would have thought the making of cake a wonderful and quite unprecedented performance.
“Really,” she mocked smilingly.
“What—what kind?” He sought desperately in his mind for knowledge on the subject. “Gingerbread?”
“Chocolate layer cake,” she answered.
“Oh!” he sighed ecstatically.
“Do you like it?” she asked, touched, perchance, by the pathos of his tone.
“Worship it!” he assured her. “I suppose you—er—I suppose you haven’t any left?”
“I think there is some,” she answered, striving to control the quivering corners of her delicious mouth. “Are you hungry?”
“Awfully,” he sighed. “Will you take pity on me?”
“I think you want a great deal. Yesterday it was roses, to-day cake. I wonder what it will be to-morrow?”
It was hard work keeping back the “You!” that rushed to his lips. But she had acknowledged the possibility of their meeting again on the morrow, nay, had practically suggested it as though it were a matter of course, and he took heart from that.
“I’ll say no more about the cake,” he said insinuatingly, “if you’ll give me the roses.”
“But I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather give you the cake,” she replied thoughtfully. “You see, the roses mean more to me.” Her eyes ranged slowly, lovingly over the garden. The shadow of her hat cast a warmer tone over one clear, creamy cheek, and Burton’s heart thumped immoderately.
“They would mean more, much more, to me, too,” he said softly, and his voice was not quite even. Perhaps she caught his meaning; at least the shadowed cheek found new color, and she made a little movement as though to go on her way up the path towards the house. But—and perhaps, after all, she was not altogether displeased—she only bent her warm face over a tempting spray of golden blossoms, and Burton, who had noted the impulse toward flight, went on hurriedly:
“One hears so much, and rightly, of Southern hospitality,” he said, “that certainly I am not mistaken in thinking you will give me, out of your vast wealth, one little rose a day?”
“You wouldn’t rather have the cake?” she asked, raising her head and viewing him quite calmly.
“No, the rose, if you please.”
“But it was delicious cake,” she went on musingly. “It was really the best I ever made, and Aunt Amanda says I make very good cake.”
“I could never doubt that,” he answered gallantly.
“It was very high, and it had four layers of lovely chocolate cream filling and lots and lots of chocolate icing on top. Don’t you like chocolate icing?”
“Awfully, but I like roses—some roses—far more.”
“Oh! But—every day? Don’t you think that’s rather often? Fresh roses will easily last three days without wilting, and if I gave you one this morning it ought to do until—let me see”—she counted the tips of three gloved fingers—“why, until Thursday!”
But he shook his head with decision.
“It must be one a day.”
“Must?” she repeated with a tinge of emphasis and a slight lifting of her brows.
“Pardon me, should was what I meant to say. I shall soon begin to think you a miser. Perhaps if I look out into the garden some moonlight night I shall see you here counting your roses, as a miser counts his gold.”
She smiled at the picture he drew. Then, tossing some loose petals from her hand with a gesture of surrender,—
“Very well,” she said, “you shall have your one rose a day while you’re here. I reckon it won’t impoverish me, for no one never stays in Belle Harbour very long at a time—unless one lives here.”
He thought there was just a suggestion of interrogation in the remark.
“Don’t be too sure of that,” he replied. “I came down here for a fortnight, but I shan’t promise to go at the end of that period. You see, in New York I am not presented each day with a rose.”
“You must be very fortunate to be able to make your business affairs secondary to your whims,” she said a little unkindly.
“I am very fortunate,” he answered simply.
“But to stay here in our poor little shabby town just for a handful of roses?” she persisted. “It sounds rather silly, doesn’t it?”
“Have I said,” he asked gently, a smile hovering under his moustache, “that it was altogether the roses? When you are tired of having me come a-begging to your garden fence send—send Aunt Amanda out with my rose.”
She laughed softly and caught up the skirt of her white gown in the hand that held the scissors.
“I will remember,” she said. “Good morning.”
“But my rose?” he cried in dismay.
“To-morrow,” she answered mockingly, “if Aunt Amanda is not too busy.”
She nodded and moved away towards the house.
Burton gazed ruefully after her until the door had hidden her from his sight. Then he went back to his chair under the Daphne-tree, clasped his hands behind his head, tilted back and sighed ecstatically.
Five minutes passed; ten; twenty. A lark high up in the magnolia-tree sang his shrill and florid melody to unheeding ears. The sun crept higher and higher until the shadow of the Daphne-tree reached the edge of the grass-plot. The bees rose and fell above the blossoms on invisible wings and humming-birds darted and poised along the tangle of honey-flowers.
Suddenly Burton’s chair came down with a thud and he sat erect, a frown on his brow.
“Were there,” he murmured, “or were there not dimples?”
“I think I must be repentant,” he said the next morning. “I’ve been feeling strangely happy of late—in fact, ever since I saw you coming out of the house.”
“Your repentance is not of very long standing,” she scoffed.
“Don’t discourage me, please! Five minutes of time may be of little consequence, but five minutes of happiness is so uncommon as to be priceless.”
“You are unfortunate,” she answered gravely. “I should be thankful, I suppose, that my happiness is not reckoned by minutes.”
“Unberufen!” he cried.
“Unberufen!” she echoed. Then their glances met and they laughed together. He saw with relief that the dimples were not mere creations of his imagination; they were there, appearing and disappearing on the clear, soft cheeks. He held a withered spray of roses across the fence.
“You are prepared to fulfil your promise?” he asked.
“Are you sure I promised?”
“I said perhaps.”
“Impossible! Do you imagine that I would have got out of bed at six o’clock this morning, bolted my breakfast, and waited here under this absurd tree for nearly an hour and a half unless I had been certain of the reward?”
“Really? But you don’t look hungry.”
“I’m starved—for roses; absolutely famishing!”
“How awful!” she exclaimed in awe-struck tones. “Wait, then.”
She turned and looked about her over the laden branches.
“Does your hunger demand any especial kind or color of rose?”
“It does; it cries aloud for a large pink rose with one or two crushed petals.”
“What a strange appetite you have! I’m afraid I can’t see one just filling those requirements.” She creased her forehead and looked the garden over.
“May I help you?” he asked.
“I wish you would.”
“Then I will respectfully suggest that the rose you wear exactly fits the description. In fact, strange as it may seem, it appears to have been fashioned with that end in view.”
He met her glance with one of serene and self-satisfied composure. Her eyes dropped to the blossom in question and she lifted it and examined it carefully.
“It is strange,” she mused. “Here are the crushed petals and all.” He held out his hand. “But, then, there are larger roses and pinker ones, beyond doubt, and as for crushed petals—why, they are easily made.” She moved towards a bush of immense cabbage-roses and put forth her scissors.
“One moment!” he cried. She turned, mutely questioning.
“Appetites,” he went on plausibly, “are capricious things—mine especially. Having once set itself upon a certain thing it rejects all others, no matter how similar in outward appearance they may be. My hunger craves the rose you wear. I throw myself—and my hunger—upon your mercy! Be generous! You see before you a starving man!”
She turned back with a little gesture of despair and slowly, hesitatingly, detached the blossom from her gown.
“Of course I can’t refuse a starving man,” she said.
“It would be quite impossible,” he answered.
“And so”—she stretched the pink blossom out to him and he seized it greedily across the fence—“I shall take credit to myself for having saved your life,” she said soberly.
“Please do so every minute of the day,” he begged. “And now——” He held forth the withered spray he had received the day before. But she shook her head.
“I have so many fresh ones, you see.”
“But it was a part of the bargain!” he pleaded.
“Was it?” She accepted the limp cluster of faded blooms, viewed it carelessly, and dropped it to the path, where it lay, a pathetic symbol of Beauty’s perishableness.
“Kitty,” he said to himself, “you’re a minx, a dear, charming little minx!”
“Please tell me,” he said aloud, “what you do with yourself all the rest of the time?”
She looked across questioningly.
“After you leave the garden, I mean. I see you for a minute or two and then you utterly disappear and never come back—until the next morning. Do you live in a real house? Is there a front door to it? Or is it an enchanted palace? If I searched, could I find it, or would folks merely look at me compassionately and shake their heads if I asked them to direct me to the Castle of the Roses?”
“Oh, I’m sure they’d shake their heads,” she laughed, “if you asked for that. But there is a front door.”
“And if I were to come to it and ask—ask for the Princess——”
“Aunt Amanda would send you away in short order. You see, she doesn’t consider me exactly as a princess.”
“Then whom would you advise me to ask for?”
“Oh! But—if I should get someone to bring me?”
“That might be different, I reckon. Perhaps then Aunt Amanda would let you in.”
“And the Ogre? I would not be eaten alive?”
“The Ogre?” she asked, puzzled.
“Yes; I heard him calling you one morning.”
“Oh,” she laughed, “the Ogre! Well, now as for the Ogre—— But you’d have to risk the Ogre.”
“I will!” he exclaimed with decision. “Only—— Perhaps you know a Colonel Barrett here in Belle Harbour?”
“Barrett?” She shot a sudden glance of surprise. “What is his first name?”
“I—really, I don’t remember. A friend in Baltimore insisted upon giving me a letter of introduction to him. I don’t fancy them much, you see, and so I’ve never presented it. But now—if you think—that is, you know, if Colonel Barrett knows the Ogre—or Aunt Amanda—” He paused suggestively.
“There is a Colonel Robert Barrett here,” she said, “and I’ve met him. And I think”—she was smiling as though the mention of the Colonel’s name evoked humorous recollections—“I think he knows the Ogre.”
“Really?” he cried. “Then I must find him out. When you come to think of it now, a letter of introduction is something that shouldn’t be neglected, should it?”
“I never had one,” she replied demurely. Then, catching sight of the neglected basket of roses, “Oh, just see,” she exclaimed remorsefully, “they’re all withering!”
“Not enough to hurt,” he said. “Besides, there are lots more.”
But she shook her head and, with the basket over one arm and scissors and skirts in hand, turned towards the house.
“Good-morning,” she said.
“Oh, but wait.”
He searched desperately for something to say, anything to keep her there. Finally,—
“They’re looking well, aren’t they, the roses?”
“But—er—perhaps they need rain? Roses require a good bit of moisture, don’t they? I think I’ve read somewhere that—er—that——”
“Good-morning.” She turned away again, smiling deliciously when her back was towards him, and went quickly up the path.
“Good-morning,” he called regretfully. Then:
“Confound it, I did read something about roses and moisture somewhere! Now, what was it? Just like my silly memory to go back on me when most needed! I shall read up on roses; everyone ought to know about flowers.”
He gathered up his papers and writing utensils and went up to his room. There he placed the pink rose in a goblet of water and, in the manner of one performing a sacred rite, pressed his lips to the crushed petals.
“This afternoon,” he said, “I will present my letter to the worthy Colonel.”
But he didn’t, for with the afternoon came a telegram from New York calling him back. For a few moments he railed eloquently at fate: in the end he accepted her command with ill grace: “I am leaving my trunk, Mrs. Phillips,” he explained to his landlady, “in order that I may return and get it later. Meanwhile I shall be glad to retain the rooms. I shall be back in a week or ten days, I fancy.”
During the operation of packing a suit-case he made trips to the window overlooking the rose-garden at frequent intervals, but without reward. The back of the Castle presented a sleepy, undisturbed aspect, and the garden was empty of all life save birds and bees and butterflies. Just before it was time to leave for his train he went down to the iron fence and looked mournfully across.
“Kitty,” he whispered to the drowsing leaves and blossoms, “Kitty of the Roses, I’m coming back to you, dear, just as soon as the Lord will let me.”
Suddenly he remembered the withered spray of roses that she had dropped to the path, and a desire to repossess it took hold of him. His cane was in his hand and he knew just where they had fallen. He leaned over the tops of the pickets and reached forward. Then he stopped.
The roses were gone.