Nevertheless, he always spoke of her with a respect and even a reverence that seemed incompatible with their relative positions. It gave rise to surmises more or less ingenious and conflicting: Miss Trotter had a secret interest in the hotel, and represented a San Francisco syndicate; Miss Trotter was a woman of independent property, and had advanced large sums to Bilson; Miss Trotter was a woman of no property, but she was the only daughter of—variously—a late distinguished nobleman, a ruined millionaire, and a foreign statesman, bent on making her own living.
Alas, for romance! Miss Euphemia Trotter, or “Miss E. Trotter,” as she preferred to sign herself, loathing her sentimental prefix, was really a poor girl who had been educated in an Eastern seminary, where she eventually became a teacher. She had survived her parents and a neglected childhood, and had worked hard for her living since she was fourteen. She had been a nurse in a hospital, an assistant in a reformatory, had observed men and women under conditions of pain and weakness, and had known the body only as a tabernacle of helplessness and suffering; yet had brought out of her experience a hard philosophy which she used equally to herself as to others. That she had ever indulged in any romance of human existence, I greatly doubt; the lanky girl teacher at the Vermont academy had enough to do to push herself forward without entangling girl friendships or confidences, and so became a prematurely hard duenna, paid to look out for, restrain, and report, if necessary, any vagrant flirtation or small intrigue of her companions. A pronounced “old maid” at fifteen, she had nothing to forget or forgive in others, and still less to learn from them.
It was spring, and down the long slopes of Buckeye Hill the flowers were already effacing the last dented footprints of the winter rains, and the winds no longer brought their monotonous patter. In the pine woods there were the song and flash of birds, and the quickening stimulus of the stirring aromatic sap. Miners and tunnelmen were already forsaking the direct road for a ramble through the woodland trail and its sylvan charms, and occasionally breaking into shouts and horseplay like great boys. The schoolchildren were disporting there; there were some older couples sentimentally gathering flowers side by side. Miss Trotter was also there, but making a short cut from the bank and express office, and by no means disturbed by any gentle reminiscence of her girlhood or any other instinctive participation in the wanton season. Spring came, she knew, regularly every year, and brought “spring cleaning” and other necessary changes and rehabilitations. This year it had brought also a considerable increase in the sum she was putting by, and she was, perhaps, satisfied in a practical way, if not with the blind instinctiveness of others. She was walking leisurely, holding her gray skirt well over her slim ankles and smartly booted feet, and clear of the brushing of daisies and buttercups, when suddenly she stopped. A few paces before her, partly concealed by a myrtle, a young woman, startled at her approach, had just withdrawn herself from the embrace of a young man and slipped into the shadow. Nevertheless, in that moment, Miss Trotter’s keen eyes had recognized her as a very pretty Swedish girl, one of her chambermaids at the hotel. Miss Trotter passed without a word, but gravely. She was not shocked nor surprised, but it struck her practical mind at once that if this were an affair with impending matrimony, it meant the loss of a valuable and attractive servant; if otherwise, a serious disturbance of that servant’s duties. She must look out for another girl to take the place of Frida Pauline Jansen, that was all. It is possible, therefore, that Miss Jansen’s criticism of Miss Trotter to her companion as a “spying, jealous old cat” was unfair. This companion Miss Trotter had noticed, only to observe that his face and figure were unfamiliar to her. His red shirt and heavy boots gave no indication of his social condition in that locality. He seemed more startled and disturbed at her intrusion than the girl had been, but that was more a condition of sex than of degree, she also knew. In such circumstances it is the woman always who is the most composed and self-possessed.
A few days after this, Miss Trotter was summoned in some haste to the office. Chris Calton, a young man of twenty-six, partner in the Roanoke Ledge, had fractured his arm and collar-bone by a fall, and had been brought to the hotel for that rest and attention, under medical advice, which he could not procure in the Roanoke company’s cabin. She had a retired, quiet room made ready. When he was installed there by the doctor she went to see him, and found a good-looking, curly headed young fellow, even boyish in appearance and manner, who received her with that air of deference and timidity which she was accustomed to excite in the masculine breast—when it was not accompanied with distrust. It struck her that he was somewhat emotional, and had the expression of one who had been spoiled and petted by women, a rather unusual circumstance among the men of the locality. Perhaps it would be unfair to her to say that a disposition to show him that he could expect no such “nonsense” there sprang up in her heart at that moment, for she never had understood any tolerance of such weakness, but a certain precision and dryness of manner was the only result of her observation. She adjusted his pillow, asked him if there was anything that he wanted, but took her directions from the doctor, rather than from himself, with a practical insight and minuteness that was as appalling to the patient as it was an unexpected delight to Dr. Duchesne. “I see you quite understand me, Miss Trotter,” he said, with great relief.
“I ought to,” responded the lady dryly. “I had a dozen such cases, some of them with complications, while I was assistant at the Sacramento Hospital.”
“Ah, then!” returned the doctor, dropping gladly into purely professional detail, “you’ll see this is very simple, not a comminuted fracture; constitution and blood healthy; all you’ve to do is to see that he eats properly, keeps free from excitement and worry, but does not get despondent; a little company; his partners and some of the boys from the Ledge will drop in occasionally; not too much of them, you know; and of course, absolute immobility of the injured parts.” The lady nodded; the patient lifted his blue eyes for an instant to hers with a look of tentative appeal, but it slipped off Miss Trotter’s dark pupils—which were as abstractedly critical as the doctor’s—without being absorbed by them. When the door closed behind her, the doctor exclaimed: “By Jove! you’re in luck, Chris! That’s a splendid woman! Just the one to look after you!” The patient groaned slightly. “Do what she says, and we’ll pull you through in no time. Why! she’s able to adjust those bandages herself!”
This, indeed, she did a week later, when the surgeon had failed to call, unveiling his neck and arm with professional coolness, and supporting him in her slim arms against her stiff, erect buckramed breast, while she replaced the splints with masculine firmness of touch and serene and sexless indifference. His stammered embarrassed thanks at the relief—for he had been in considerable pain—she accepted with a certain pride as a tribute to her skill, a tribute which Dr. Duchesne himself afterward fully indorsed.
On re-entering his room the third or fourth morning after his advent at the Summit House, she noticed with some concern that there was a slight flush on his cheek and a certain exaltation which she at first thought presaged fever. But an examination of his pulse and temperature dispelled that fear, and his talkativeness and good spirits convinced her that it was only his youthful vigor at last overcoming his despondency. A few days later, this cheerfulness not being continued, Dr. Duchesne followed Miss Trotter into the hall. “We must try to keep our patient from moping in his confinement, you know,” he began, with a slight smile, “and he seems to be somewhat of an emotional nature, accustomed to be amused and—er—er—petted.”
“His friends were here yesterday,” returned Miss Trotter dryly, “but I did not interfere with them until I thought they had stayed long enough to suit your wishes.”
“I am not referring to them,” said the doctor, still smiling; “but you know a woman’s sympathy and presence in a sickroom is often the best of tonics or sedatives.”
Miss Trotter raised her eyes to the speaker with a half critical impatience.
“The fact is,” the doctor went on,” I have a favor to ask of you for our patient. It seems that the other morning a new chambermaid waited upon him, whom he found much more gentle and sympathetic in her manner than the others, and more submissive and quiet in her ways—possibly because she is a foreigner, and accustomed to servitude. I suppose you have no objection to her taking charge of his room?”
Miss Trotter’s cheek slightly flushed. Not from wounded vanity, but from the consciousness of some want of acumen that had made her make a mistake. She had really believed, from her knowledge of the patient’s character and the doctor’s preamble, that he wished HER to show some more kindness and personal sympathy to the young man, and had even been prepared to question its utility! She saw her blunder quickly, and at once remembering that the pretty Swedish girl had one morning taken the place of an absent fellow servant, in the rebound from her error, she said quietly: “You mean Frida! Certainly! she can look after his room, if he prefers her.” But for her blunder she might have added conscientiously that she thought the girl would prove inefficient, but she did not. She remembered the incident of the wood; yet if the girl had a lover in the wood, she could not urge it as a proof of incapacity. She gave the necessary orders, and the incident passed.
Visiting the patient a few days afterward, she could not help noticing a certain shy gratitude in Mr. Calton’s greeting of her, which she quietly ignored. This forced the ingenuous Chris to more positive speech. He dwelt with great simplicity and enthusiasm on the Swedish girl’s gentleness and sympathy. “You have no idea of—her—natural tenderness, Miss Trotter,” he stammered naively. Miss Trotter, remembering the wood, thought to herself that she had some faint idea of it, but did not impart what it was. He spoke also of her beauty, not being clever enough to affect an indifference or ignorance of it, which made Miss Trotter respect him and smile an unqualified acquiescence. Frida certainly was pretty! But when he spoke of her as “Miss Jansen,” and said she was so much more “ladylike and refined than the other servants,” she replied by asking him if his bandages hurt him, and, receiving a negative answer, graciously withdrew.
Indeed, his bandages gave him little trouble now, and his improvement was so marked and sustained that the doctor was greatly gratified, and, indeed, expressed as much to Miss Trotter, with the conscientious addition that he believed the greater part of it was due to her capable nursing! “Yes, ma’am, he has to thank you for it, and no one else!”
Miss Trotter raised her dark eyes and looked steadily at him. Accustomed as he was to men and women, the look strongly held him. He saw in her eyes an intelligence equal to his own, a knowledge of good and evil, and a toleration and philosophy, equal to his own, but a something else that was as distinct and different as their sex. And therein lay its charm, for it merely translated itself in his mind that she had very pretty eyes, which he had never noticed before, without any aggressive intellectual quality. And with this, alas! came the man’s propensity to reason. It meant of course but one thing; he saw it all now! If he, in his preoccupation and coolness, had noticed her eyes, so also had the younger and emotional Chris. The young fellow was in love with her! It was that which had stimulated his recovery, and she was wondering if he, the doctor, had observed it. He smiled back the superior smile of our sex in moments of great inanity, and poor Miss Trotter believed he understood her. A few days after this, she noticed that Frida Jansen was wearing a pearl ring and a somewhat ostentatious locket. She remembered now that Mr. Bilson had told her that the Roanoke Ledge was very rich, and that Calton was likely to prove a profitable guest. But it was not her business.
It became her business, however, some days later, when Mr. Calton was so much better that he could sit in a chair, or even lounge listlessly in the hall and corridor. It so chanced that she was passing along the upper hall when she saw Frida’s pink cotton skirt disappear in an adjacent room, and heard her light laugh as the door closed. But the room happened to be a card-room reserved exclusively for gentlemen’s poker or euchre parties, and the chambermaids had no business there. Miss Trotter had no doubt that Mr. Calton was there, and that Frida knew it; but as this was an indiscretion so open, flagrant, and likely to be discovered by the first passing guest, she called to her sharply. She was astonished, however, at the same moment to see Mr. Calton walking in the corridor at some distance from the room in question. Indeed, she was so confounded that when Frida appeared from the room a little flurried, but with a certain audacity new to her, Miss Trotter withheld her rebuke, and sent her off on an imaginary errand, while she herself opened the card-room door. It contained simply Mr. Bilson, her employer; his explanation was glaringly embarrassed and unreal! Miss Trotter affected obliviousness, but was silent; perhaps she thought her employer was better able to take care of himself than Mr. Calton.
A week later this tension terminated by the return of Calton to Roanoke Ledge, a convalescent man. A very pretty watch and chain afterward were received by Miss Trotter, with a few lines expressing the gratitude of the ex-patient. Mr. Bilson was highly delighted, and frequently borrowed the watch to show to his guests as an advertisement of the healing powers of the Summit Hotel. What Mr. Calton sent to the more attractive and flirtatious Frida did not as publicly appear, and possibly Mr. Bilson did not know it. The incident of the cardroom was forgotten. Since that discovery, Miss Trotter had felt herself debarred from taking the girl’s conduct into serious account, and it did not interfere with her work.
One afternoon Miss Trotter received a message that Mr. Calton desired a few moments’ private conversation with her. A little curious, she had him shown into one of the sitting-rooms, but was surprised on entering to find that she was in the presence of an utter stranger! This was explained by the visitor saying briefly that he was Chris’s elder brother, and that he presumed the name would be sufficient introduction. Miss Trotter smiled doubtfully, for a more distinct opposite to Chris could not be conceived. The stranger was apparently strong, practical, and masterful in all those qualities in which his brother was charmingly weak. Miss Trotter, for no reason whatever, felt herself inclined to resent them.
“I reckon, Miss Trotter,” he said bluntly, “that you don’t know anything of this business that brings me here. At least,” he hesitated, with a certain rough courtesy, “I should judge from your general style and gait that you wouldn’t have let it go on so far if you had, but the fact is, that darned fool brother of mine—beg your pardon!—has gone and got himself engaged to one of the girls that help here,—a yellow-haired foreigner, called Frida Jansen.”
“I was not aware that it had gone so far as that,” said Miss Trotter quietly, “although his admiration for her was well known, especially to his doctor, at whose request I selected her to especially attend to your brother.”
“The doctor is a fool,” broke in Mr. Calton abruptly. “He only thought of keeping Chris quiet while he finished his job.”
“And really, Mr. Calton,” continued Miss Trotter, ignoring the interruption, “I do not see what right I have to interfere with the matrimonial intentions of any guest in this house, even though or—as you seem to put it—because the object of his attentions is in its employ.”
Mr. Calton stared—angrily at first, and then with a kind of wondering amazement that any woman—above all a housekeeper—should take such a view. “But,” he stammered, “I thought you—you—looked after the conduct of those girls.”
“I’m afraid you’ve assumed too much,” said Miss Trotter placidly. “My business is to see that they attend to their duties here. Frida Jansen’s duty was—as I have just told you—to look after your brother’s room. And as far as I understand you, you are not here to complain of her inattention to that duty, but of its resulting in an attachment on your brother’s part, and, as you tell me, an intention as to her future, which is really the one thing that would make my ‘looking after her conduct’ an impertinence and interference! If you had come to tell me that he did not intend to marry her, but was hurting her reputation, I could have understood and respected your motives.”
Mr. Calton felt his face grow red and himself discomfited. He had come there with the firm belief that he would convict Miss Trotter of a grave fault, and that in her penitence she would be glad to assist him in breaking off the match. On the contrary, to find himself arraigned and put on his defense by this tall, slim woman, erect and smartly buckramed in logic and whalebone, was preposterous! But it had the effect of subduing his tone.
“You don’t understand,” he said awkwardly yet pleadingly. “My brother is a fool, and any woman could wind him round her finger. She knows it. She knows he is rich and a partner in the Roanoke Ledge. That’s all she wants. She is not a fit match for him. I’ve said he was a fool—but, hang it all! that’s no reason why he should marry an ignorant girl—a foreigner and a servant—when he could do better elsewhere.”
“This would seem to be a matter between you and your brother, and not between myself and my servant,” said Miss Trotter coldly. “If you cannot convince him, your own brother, I do not see how you expect me to convince her, a servant, over whom I have no control except as a mistress of her work, when, on your own showing, she has everything to gain by the marriage. If you wish Mr. Bilson, the proprietor, to threaten her with dismissal unless she gives up your brother,”—Miss Trotter smiled inwardly at the thought of the card-room incident,—“it seems to me you might only precipitate the marriage.”
Mr. Calton looked utterly blank and hopeless. His reason told him that she was right. More than that, a certain admiration for her clear-sightedness began to possess him, with the feeling that he would like to have “shown up” a little better than he had in this interview. If Chris had fallen in love with her—but Chris was a fool and wouldn’t have appreciated her!
“But you might talk with her, Miss Trotter,” he said, now completely subdued. “Even if you could not reason her out of it, you might find out what she expects from this marriage. If you would talk to her as sensibly as you have to me”—
“It is not likely that she will seek my assistance as you have,” said Miss Trotter, with a faint smile which Mr. Calton thought quite pretty, “but I will see about it.”
Whatever Miss Trotter intended to do did not transpire. She certainly was in no hurry about it, as she did not say anything to Frida that day, and the next afternoon it so chanced that business took her to the bank and post-office. Her way home again lay through the Summit woods. It recalled to her the memorable occasion when she was first a witness to Frida’s flirtations. Neither that nor Mr. Bilson’s presumed gallantries, however, seemed inconsistent, in Miss Trotter’s knowledge of the world, with a serious engagement with young Calton. She was neither shocked nor horrified by it, and for that reason she had not thought it necessary to speak of it to the elder Mr. Calton.
Her path wound through a thicket fragrant with syringa and southernwood; the faint perfume was reminiscent of Atlantic hillsides, where, long ago, a girl teacher, she had walked with the girl pupils of the Vermont academy, and kept them from the shy advances of the local swains. She smiled—a little sadly—as the thought occurred to her that after this interval of years it was again her business to restrain the callow affections. Should she never have the matchmaking instincts of her sex; never become the trusted confidante of youthful passion? Young Calton had not confessed his passion to her, nor had Frida revealed her secret. Only the elder brother had appealed to her hard, practical common sense against such sentiment. Was there something in her manner that forbade it? She wondered if it was some uneasy consciousness of this quality which had impelled her to snub the elder Calton, and rebelled against it.
It was quite warm; she had been walking a little faster than her usual deliberate gait, and checked herself, halting in the warm breath of the syringas. Here she heard her name called in a voice that she recognized, but in tones so faint and subdued that it seemed to her part of her thoughts. She turned quickly and beheld Chris Calton a few feet from her, panting, partly from running and partly from some nervous embarrassment. His handsome but weak mouth was expanded in an apologetic smile; his blue eyes shone with a kind of youthful appeal so inconsistent with his long brown mustache and broad shoulders that she was divided between a laugh and serious concern.
“I saw you—go into the wood—but I lost you,” he said, breathing quickly, “and then when I did see you again—you were walking so fast I had to run after you. I wanted—to speak—to you—if you’ll let me. I won’t detain you—I can walk your way.”
Miss Trotter was a little softened, but not so much as to help him out with his explanation. She drew her neat skirts aside, and made way for him on the path beside her.
“You see,” he went on nervously, taking long strides to her shorter ones, and occasionally changing sides in his embarrassment, “my brother Jim has been talking to you about my engagement to Frida, and trying to put you against her and me. He said as much to me, and added you half promised to help him! But I didn’t believe him—Miss Trotter!—I know you wouldn’t do it—you haven’t got it in your heart to hurt a poor girl! He says he has every confidence in you—that you’re worth a dozen such girls as she is, and that I’m a big fool or I’d see it. I don’t say you’re not all he says, Miss Trotter; but I’m not such a fool as he thinks, for I know your goodness too. I know how you tended me when I was ill, and how you sent Frida to comfort me. You know, too,—for you’re a woman yourself,—that all you could say, or anybody could, wouldn’t separate two people who loved each other.”
Miss Trotter for the first time felt embarrassed, and this made her a little angry. “I don’t think I gave your brother any right to speak for me or of me in this matter,” she said icily; “and if you are quite satisfied, as you say you are, of your own affection and Frida’s, I do not see why you should care for anybody’sinterference.”
“Now you are angry with me,” he said in a doleful voice which at any other time would have excited her mirth; “and I’ve just done it. Oh, Miss Trotter, don’t! Please forgive me! I didn’t mean to say your talk was no good. I didn’t mean to say you couldn’t help us. Please don’t be mad at me!”
He reached out his hand, grasped her slim fingers in his own, and pressed them, holding them and even arresting her passage. The act was without familiarity or boldness, and she felt that to snatch her hand away would be an imputation of that meaning, instead of the boyish impulse that prompted it. She gently withdrew her hand as if to continue her walk, and said, with a smile:—
“Then you confess you need help—in what way?”
Miss Trotter stared. “With her!” she repeated. This was a new idea. Was it possible that this common, ignorant girl was playing and trifling with her golden opportunity? “Then you are not quite sure of her?” she said a little coldly.
“She’s so high spirited, you know,” he said humbly, “and so attractive, and if she thought my friends objected and were saying unkind things of her,—well!”—he threw out his hands with a suggestion of hopeless despair—“there’s no knowing what she might do.”
Miss Trotter’s obvious thought was that Frida knew on which side her bread was buttered; but remembering that the proprietor was a widower, it occurred to her that the young woman might also have it buttered on both sides. Her momentary fancy of uniting two lovers somehow weakened at this suggestion, and there was a hardening of her face as she said, “Well, if you can’t trust her, perhaps your brother may be right.”
“I don’t say that, Miss Trotter,” said Chris pleadingly, yet with a slight wincing at her words; “You could convince her, if you would only try. Only let her see that she has some other friends beside myself. Look! Miss Trotter, I’ll leave it all to you—there! If you will only help me, I will promise not to see her—not to go near her again—until you have talked with her. There! Even my brother would not object to that. And if he has every confidence in you, I’m showing you I’ve more—don’t you see? Come, now, promise—won’t you, dear Miss Trotter?” He again took her hand, and this time pressed a kiss upon her slim fingers. And this time she did not withdraw them. Indeed, it seemed to her, in the quick recurrence of her previous sympathy, as if a hand had been put into her loveless past, grasping and seeking hers in its loneliness. None of her school friends had ever appealed to her like this simple, weak, and loving young man. Perhaps it was because they were of her own sex, and she distrusted them.
Nevertheless, this momentary weakness did not disturb her good common sense. She looked at him fixedly for a moment, and then said, with a faint smile, “Perhaps she does not trust you. Perhaps you cannot trust yourself.”
He felt himself reddening with a strange embarrassment. It was not so much the question that disturbed him as the eyes of Miss Trotter; eyes that he had never before noticed as being so beautiful in their color, clearness, and half tender insight. He dropped her hand with a new-found timidity, and yet with a feeling that he would like to hold it longer.
“I mean,” she said, stopping short in the trail at a point where a fringe of almost impenetrable “buckeyes” marked the extreme edge of the woods,—“I mean that you are still very young, and as Frida is nearly your own age,”—she could not resist this peculiarly feminine innuendo,—“she may doubt your ability to marry her in the face of opposition; she may even think my interference is a proof of it; but,” she added quickly, to relieve his embarrassment and a certain abstracted look with which he was beginning to regard her, “I will speak to her, and,” she concluded playfully, “you must take the consequences.”
He said “Thank you,” but not so earnestly as his previous appeal might have suggested, and with the same awkward abstraction in his eyes. Miss Trotter did not notice it, as her own eyes were at that moment fixed upon a point on the trail a few rods away. “Look,” she said in a lower voice, “I may have the opportunity now for there is Frida herself passing.” Chris turned in the direction of her glance. It was indeed the young girl walking leisurely ahead of them. There was no mistaking the smart pink calico gown in which Frida was wont to array her rather generous figure, nor the long yellow braids that hung Marguerite-wise down her back. With the consciousness of good looks which she always carried, there was, in spite of her affected ease, a slight furtiveness in the occasional swift turn of her head, as if evading or seeking observation.
“I will overtake her and speak to her now,” continued Miss Trotter. “I may not have so good a chance again to see her alone. You can wait here for my return, if you like.”
Chris started out of his abstraction. “Stay!” he stammered, with a faint, tentative smile. “Perhaps—don’t you think?—I had better go first and tell her you want to see her. I can send her here. You see, she might”— He stopped.
Miss Trotter smiled. “It was part of your promise, you know, that you were not to see her again until I had spoken. But no matter! Have it as you wish. I will wait here. Only be quick. She has just gone into the grove.”
Without another word the young man turned away, and she presently saw him walking toward the pine grove into which Frida had disappeared. Then she cleared a space among the matted moss and chickweed, and, gathering her skirts about her, sat down to wait. The unwonted attitude, the whole situation, and the part that she seemed destined to take in this sentimental comedy affected her like some quaint child’s play out of her lost youth, and she smiled, albeit with a little heightening of color and lively brightening of her eyes. Indeed, as she sat there listlessly probing the roots of the mosses with the point of her parasol, the casual passer-by might have taken herself for the heroine of some love tryst. She had a faint consciousness of this as she glanced to the right and left, wondering what any one from the hotel who saw her would think of her sylvan rendezvous; and as the recollection of Chris kissing her hand suddenly came back to her, her smile became a nervous laugh, and she found herself actually blushing!
But she was recalled to herself as suddenly. Chris was returning. He was walking directly towards her with slow, determined steps, quite different from his previous nervous agitation, and as he drew nearer she saw with some concern an equally strange change in his appearance: his colorful face was pale, his eyes fixed, and he looked ten years older. She rose quickly.
“I came back to tell you,” he said, in a voice from which all trace of his former agitation had passed, “that I relieve you of your promise. It won’t be necessary for you to see—Frida. I thank you all the same, Miss Trotter,” he said, avoiding her eyes with a slight return to his boyish manner. “It was kind of you to promise to undertake a foolish errand for me, and to wait here, and the best thing I can do is to take myself off now and keep you no longer. Please don’t ask me why. Sometime I may tell you, but not now.”
“Then you have seen her?” asked Miss Trotter quickly, premising Frida’s refusal from his face.
He hesitated a moment, then he said gravely, “Yes. Don’t ask me any more, Miss Trotter, please. Good-by!” He paused, and then, with a slight, uneasy glance toward the pine grove, “Don’t let me keep you waiting here any longer.” He took her hand, held it lightly for a moment, and said, “Go, now.”
Miss Trotter, slightly bewildered and unsatisfied, nevertheless passed obediently out into the trail. He gazed after her for a moment, and then turned and began rapidly to ascend the slope where he had first overtaken her, and was soon out of sight. Miss Trotter continued her way home; but when she had reached the confines of the wood she turned, as if taking some sudden resolution, and began slowly to retrace her steps in the direction of the pine grove. What she expected to see there, possibly she could not have explained; what she actually saw after a moment’s waiting were the figures of Frida and Mr. Bilson issuing from the shade! Her respected employer wore an air of somewhat ostentatious importance mingled with rustic gallantry. Frida’s manner was also conscious with gratified vanity; and although they believed themselves alone, her voice was already pitched into a high key of nervous affectation, indicative of the peasant. But there was nothing to suggest that Chris had disturbed them in their privacy and confidences. Yet he had evidently seen enough to satisfy himself of her faithlessness. Had he ever suspected it before?
Miss Trotter waited only until they had well preceded her, and then took a shorter cut home. She was quite prepared that evening for an interview which Mr. Bilson requested. She found him awkward and embarrassed in her cool, self-possessed presence. He said he deemed it his duty to inform her of his approaching marriage with Miss Jansen; but it was because he wished distinctly to assure her that it would make no difference in Miss Trotter’s position in the hotel, except to promote her to the entire control of the establishment. He was to be married in San Francisco at once, and he and his wife were to go abroad for a year or two; indeed, he contemplated eventually retiring from business. If Mr. Bilson was uneasily conscious during this interview that he had once paid attentions to Miss Trotter, which she had ignored, she never betrayed the least recollection of it. She thanked him for his confidence and wished him happiness.
Sudden as was this good fortune to Miss Trotter, an independence she had so often deservedly looked forward to, she was, nevertheless, keenly alive to the fact that she had attained it partly through Chris’s disappointment and unhappiness. Her sane mind taught her that it was better for him; that he had been saved an ill-assorted marriage; that the girl had virtually rejected him for Bilson before he had asked her mediation that morning. Yet these reasons failed to satisfy her feelings. It seemed cruel to her that the interest which she had suddenly taken in poor Chris should end so ironically in disaster to her sentiment and success to her material prosperity. She thought of his boyish appeal to her; of what must have been his utter discomfiture in the discovery of Frida’s relations to Mr. Bilson that afternoon, but more particularly of the singular change it had effected in him. How nobly and gently he had taken his loss! How much more like a man he looked in his defeat than in his passion! The element of respect which had been wanting in her previous interest in him was now present in her thoughts. It prevented her seeking him with perfunctory sympathy and worldly counsel; it made her feel strangely and unaccountably shy of any other expression.
As Mr. Bilson evidently desired to avoid local gossip until after his marriage, he had enjoined secrecy upon her, and she was also debarred from any news of Chris through his brother, who, had he known of Frida’s engagement, would have naturally come to her for explanation. It also convinced her that Chris himself had not revealed anything to his brother.
When the news of the marriage reached Buckeye Hill, it did not, however, make much scandal, owing, possibly, to the scant number of the sex who are apt to disseminate it, and to many the name of Miss Jansen was unknown. The intelligence that Mr. Bilson would be absent for a year, and that the superior control of the Summit Hotel would devolve upon Miss Trotter, did, however, create a stir in that practical business community. No one doubted the wisdom of the selection. Every one knew that to Miss Trotter’s tact and intellect the success of the hotel had been mainly due. Possibly, the satisfaction of Buckeye Hill was due to something else. Slowly and insensibly Miss Trotter had achieved a social distinction; the wives and daughters of the banker, the lawyer, and the pastor had made much of her, and now, as an independent woman of means, she stood first in the district. Guests deemed it an honor to have a personal interview with her. The governor of the State and the Supreme Court judges treated her like a private hostess; middle-aged Miss Trotter was considered as eligible a match as the proudest heiress in California. The old romantic fiction of her past was revived again,—they had known she was a “real lady” from the first! She received these attentions, as became her sane intellect and cool temperament, without pride, affectation, or hesitation. Only her dark eyes brightened on the day when Mr. Bilson’s marriage was made known, and she was called upon by James Calton.
“I did you a great injustice,” he said, with a smile.
“I don’t understand you,” she replied a little coldly.
“Why, this woman and her marriage,” he said; “you must have known something of it all the time, and perhaps helped it along to save Chris.”
“You are mistaken,” returned Miss Trotter truthfully. “I knew nothing of Mr. Bilson’s intentions.”
“Then I have wronged you still more,” he said briskly, “for I thought at first that you were inclined to help Chris in his foolishness. Now I see it was your persuasions that changed him.”
“Let me tell you once for all, Mr. Calton,” she returned with an impulsive heat which she regretted, “that I did not interfere in any way with your brother’s suit. He spoke to me of it, and I promised to see Frida, but he afterwards asked me not to. I know nothing of the matter.”
“Well,” laughed Mr. Calton, “Whatever you did, it was most efficacious, and you did it so graciously and tactfully that it has not altered his high opinion of you, if, indeed, he hasn’t really transferred his affections to you.”
Luckily Miss Trotter had her face turned from him at the beginning of the sentence, or he would have noticed the quick flush that suddenly came to her cheek and eyes. Yet for an instant this calm, collected woman trembled, not at what Mr. Calton might have noticed, but at what she had noticed in herself. Mr. Calton, construing her silence and averted head into some resentment of his familiar speech, continued hurriedly:—
“I mean, don’t you see, that I believe no other woman could have influenced my brother as you have.”
“You mean, I think, that he has taken his broken heart very lightly,” said Miss Trotter, with a bitter little laugh, so unlike herself that Mr. Calton was quite concerned at it.
“No,” he said gravely. “I can’t say that! He’s regularly cut up, you know! And changed; you’d hardly know him. More like a gloomy crank than the easy fool he used to be,” he went on, with brotherly directness. “It wouldn’t be a bad thing, you know, if you could manage to see him, Miss Trotter! In fact, as he’s off his feed, and has some trouble with his arm again, owing to all this, I reckon, I’ve been thinking of advising him to come up to the hotel once more till he’s better. So long as she’s gone it would be all right, you know!”
By this time Miss Trotter was herself again. She reasoned, or thought she did, that this was a question of the business of the hotel, and it was clearly her duty to assent to Chris’s coming. The strange yet pleasurable timidity which possessed her at the thought she ignored completely.
He came the next day. Luckily, she was so much shocked by the change in his appearance that it left no room for any other embarrassment in the meeting. His face had lost its fresh color and round outline; the lines of his mouth were drawn with pain and accented by his drooping mustache; his eyes, which had sought hers with a singular seriousness, no longer wore the look of sympathetic appeal which had once so exasperated her, but were filled with an older experience. Indeed, he seemed to have approximated so near to her own age that, by one of those paradoxes of the emotions, she felt herself much younger, and in smile and eye showed it; at which he colored faintly. But she kept her sympathy and inquiries limited to his physical health, and made no allusion to his past experiences; indeed, ignoring any connection between the two. He had been shockingly careless in his convalescence, had had a relapse in consequence, and deserved a good scolding! His relapse was a reflection upon the efficacy of the hotel as a perfect cure! She should treat him more severely now, and allow him no indulgences! I do not know that Miss Trotter intended anything covert, but their eyes met and he colored again. Ignoring this also, and promising to look after him occasionally, she quietly withdrew.
But about this time it was noticed that a change took place in Miss Trotter. Always scrupulously correct, and even severe in her dress, she allowed herself certain privileges of color, style, and material. She, who had always affected dark shades and stiff white cuffs and collars, came out in delicate tints and laces, which lent a brilliancy to her dark eyes and short crisp black curls, slightly tinged with gray. One warm summer evening she startled every one by appearing in white, possibly a reminiscence of her youth at the Vermont academy. The masculine guests thought it pretty and attractive; even the women forgave her what they believed a natural expression of her prosperity and new condition, but regretted a taste so inconsistent with her age. For all that, Miss Trotter had never looked so charming, and the faint autumnal glow in her face made no one regret her passing summer.
One evening she found Chris so much better that he was sitting on the balcony, but still so depressed that she was compelled so far to overcome the singular timidity she had felt in his presence as to ask him to come into her own little drawing-room, ostensibly to avoid the cool night air. It was the former “card-room” of the hotel, but now fitted with feminine taste and prettiness. She arranged a seat for him on the sofa, which he took with a certain brusque boyish surliness, the last vestige of his youth.
“It’s very kind of you to invite me in here,” he began bitterly, “when you are so run after by every one, and to leave Judge Fletcher just now to talk to me, but I suppose you are simply pitying me for being a fool!”
“I thought you were imprudent in exposing yourself to the night air on the balcony, and I think Judge Fletcher is old enough to take care of himself,” she returned, with the faintest touch of coquetry, and a smile which was quite as much an amused recognition of that quality in herself as anything else.
“And I’m a baby who can’t,” he said angrily. After a pause he burst out abruptly: “Miss Trotter, will you answer me one question?”
“Go on,” she said smilingly.
“Did you know—that—woman was engaged to Bilson when I spoke to you in the wood?”
“No!” she answered quickly, but without the sharp resentment she had shown at his brother’s suggestion. “I only knew it when Mr. Bilson told me the same evening.”
“And I only knew it when news came of their marriage,” he said bitterly.
“But you must have suspected something when you saw them together in the wood,” she responded.
“When I saw them together in the wood?” he repeated dazedly.
Miss Trotter was startled, and stopped short. Was it possible he had not seen them together? She was shocked that she had spoken; but it was too late to withdraw her words. “Yes,” she went on hurriedly, “I thought that was why you came back to say that I was not to speak to her.”
He looked at her fixedly, and said slowly: “You thought that? Well, listen to me. I saw no one! I knew nothing of this! I suspected nothing! I returned before I had reached the wood—because—because—I had changed my mind!”
“Changed your mind!” she repeated wonderingly.
“Yes! Changed my mind! I couldn’t stand it any longer! I did not love the girl—I never loved her—I was sick of my folly. Sick of deceiving you and myself any longer. Now you know why I didn’t go into the wood, and why I didn’t care where she was nor who was with her!”
“I don’t understand,” she said, lifting her clear eyes to his coldly.
“Of course you don’t,” he said bitterly. “I didn’t understand myself! And when you do understand you will hate and despise me—if you do not laugh at me for a conceited fool! Hear me out, Miss Trotter, for I am speaking the truth to you now, if I never spoke it before. I never asked the girl to marry me! I never said to her half what I told to you, and when I asked you to intercede with her, I never wanted you to do it—and never expected you would.”
“May I ask why you did it then?” said Miss Trotter, with an acerbity which she put on to hide a vague, tantalizing consciousness.
“You would not believe me if I told you, and you would hate me if you did.” He stopped, and, locking his fingers together, threw his hands over the back of the sofa and leaned toward her. “You never liked me, Miss Trotter,” he said more quietly; “not from the first! From the day that I was brought to the hotel, when you came to see me, I could see that you looked upon me as a foolish, petted boy. When I tried to catch your eye, you looked at the doctor, and took your speech from him. And yet I thought I had never seen a woman so great and perfect as you were, and whose sympathy I longed so much to have. You may not believe me, but I thought you were a queen, for you were the first lady I had ever seen, and you were so different from the other girls I knew, or the women who had been kind to me. You may laugh, but it’s the truth I’m telling you, Miss Trotter!”
He had relapsed completely into his old pleading, boyish way—it had struck her even as he had pleaded to her for Frida!
“I knew you didn’t like me that day you came to change the bandages. Although every touch of your hands seemed to ease my pain, you did it so coldly and precisely; and although I longed to keep you there with me, you scarcely waited to take my thanks, but left me as if you had only done your duty to a stranger. And worst of all,” he went on more bitterly, “the doctor knew it too—guessed how I felt toward you, and laughed at me for my hopelessness! That made me desperate, and put me up to act the fool. I did! Yes, Miss Trotter; I thought it mighty clever to appear to be in love with Frida, and to get him to ask to have her attend me regularly. And when you simply consented, without a word or thought about it and me, I knew I was nothing to you.”
Miss Trotter felt a sudden thrill. The recollection of Dr. Duchesne’s strange scrutiny of her, of her own mistake, which she now knew might have been the truth—flashed across her confused consciousness in swift corroboration of his words. It was a double revelation to her; for what else was the meaning of this subtle, insidious, benumbing sweetness that was now creeping over her sense and spirit and holding her fast. She felt she ought to listen no longer—to speak—to say something—to get up—to turn and confront him coldly—but she was powerless. Her reason told her that she had been the victim of a trick—that having deceived her once, he might be doing so again; but she could not break the spell that was upon her, nor did she want to. She must know the culmination of this confession, whose preamble thrilled her so strangely.
“The girl was kind and sympathetic,” he went on, “but I was not so great a fool as not to know that she was a flirt and accustomed to attention. I suppose it was in my desperation that I told my brother, thinking he would tell you, as he did. He would not tell me what you said to him, except that you seemed to be indignant at the thought that I was only flirting with Frida. Then I resolved to speak with you myself—and I did. I know it was a stupid, clumsy contrivance. It never seemed so stupid before I spoke to you. It never seemed so wicked as when you promised to help me, and your eyes shone on me for the first time with kindness. And it never seemed so hopeless as when I found you touched with my love for another. You wonder why I kept up this deceit until you promised. Well, I had prepared the bitter cup myself—I thought I ought to drink it to the dregs.”
She turned quietly, passionately, and, standing up, faced him with a little cry. “Why are you telling me this now?”
He rose too, and catching her hands in his, said, with a white face, “Because I love you.”
When the news of Mr. Calton’s departure became known the next day, some lady guests regretted the loss of this most eligible young bachelor. Miss Trotter agreed with them, with the consoling suggestion that he might return for a day or two. He did return for a day; it was thought that the change to San Francisco had greatly benefited him, though some believed he would be an invalid all his life.
Meantime Miss Trotter attended regularly to her duties, with the difference, perhaps, that she became daily more socially popular and perhaps less severe in her reception of the attentions of the masculine guests. It was finally whispered that the great Judge Boompointer was a serious rival of Judge Fletcher for her hand. When, three months later, some excitement was caused by the intelligence that Mr. Bilson was returning to take charge of his hotel, owing to the resignation of Miss Trotter, who needed a complete change, everybody knew what that meant. A few were ready to name the day when she would become Mrs. Boompointer; others had seen the engagement ring of Judge Fletcher on her slim finger.
Nevertheless Miss Trotter married neither, and by the time Mr. and Mrs. Bilson had returned she had taken her holiday, and the Summit House knew her no more.
Three years later, and at a foreign Spa, thousands of miles distant from the scene of her former triumphs, Miss Trotter reappeared as a handsome, stately, gray-haired stranger, whose aristocratic bearing deeply impressed a few of her own countrymen who witnessed her arrival, and believed her to be a grand duchess at the least. They were still more convinced of her superiority when they saw her welcomed by the well-known Baroness X., and afterwards engaged in a very confidential conversation with that lady. But they would have been still more surprised had they known the tenor of that conversation.
“I am afraid you will find the Spa very empty just now,” said the baroness critically. “But there are a few of your compatriots here, however, and they are always amusing. You see that somewhat faded blonde sitting quite alone in that arbor? That is her position day after day, while her husband openly flirts or is flirted with by half the women here. Quite the opposite experience one has of American women, where it’s all the other way, is it not? And there is an odd story about her which may account for, if it does not excuse, her husband’s neglect. They’re very rich, but they say she was originally a mere servant in a hotel.”
“You forget that I told you I was once only a housekeeper in one,” said Miss Trotter, smiling.
“Nonsense. I mean that this woman was a mere peasant, and frightfully ignorant at that!”
Miss Trotter put up her eyeglass, and, after a moment’s scrutiny, said gently, “I think you are a little severe. I know her; it’s a Mrs. Bilson.”
“No, my dear. You are quite wrong. That was the name of her first husband. I am told she was a widow who married again—quite a fascinating young man, and evidently her superior—that is what is so funny. She is a Mrs. Calton—‘Mrs. Chris Calton,’ as she calls herself.”
“Is her husband—Mr. Calton—here?” said Miss Trotter after a pause, in a still gentler voice.
“Naturally not. He has gone on an excursion with a party of ladies to the Schwartzberg. He returns to-morrow. You will find her very stupid, but he is very jolly, though a little spoiled by women. Why do we always spoil them?”
Miss Trotter smiled, and presently turned the subject. But the baroness was greatly disappointed to find the next day that an unexpected telegram had obliged Miss Trotter to leave the Spa without meeting the Caltons.