Chapter IX: A Summons North
 

"PORTIA. A quarrel, ho, already? What's the matter?
"GRATIANO. About a hoop of gold, a paltry ring."
- "Merchant of Venice."

The events just narrated took place on the 15th of August, and as Harley's time to fulfil his contract with Messrs. Herring, Beemer, & Chadwick was growing very short--two weeks is short shrift for an author with a book to write for waiting presses, even with a willing and helpful cast of characters--so I resolved not to intrude upon him until he himself should summon me. I knew myself, from bitter experience, how unwelcome the most welcome of one's friends can be at busy hours, having had many a beautiful sketch absolutely ruined by the untimely intrusion of those who wished me well, so I resolutely kept myself away from his den, although I was burning with curiosity to know how he was getting on.

On occasions my curiosity would get the better of my judgment, and I would endeavor, with the aid of my own muses, to hold a moment's chat with Miss Andrews; but she eluded me. I couldn't find her at all-- as, indeed, how should I, since Harley had not taken me into his confidence as to his intentions in the new story? He might have laid the scene of it in Singapore, for aught I knew, and, wander where I would in my fancy, I was utterly unable to discover her whereabouts, until one evening a very weird thing happened--a thing so weird that I have been pinching myself with great assiduity ever since in order to reassure myself of my own existence. I had come home from a hard day's editorial work, had dined alone and comfortably, and was stretched out at full length upon the low divan that stands at the end of my workshop--the delight of my weary bones and the envy of my friends, who have never been able to find anywhere another exactly like it. My cigar was between my lips, and above my head, rising in a curling cloud to the ceiling, was a mass of smoke. I am sure I was not dreaming, although how else to account for it I do not know. What happened, to put it briefly, was my sudden transportation to a little mountain hotel not far from Lake George, where I found myself sitting and talking to the woman I had so futilely sought.

"How do you do?" said she, pleasantly, as I materialized at her side.

"I am as well as a person can be," I replied, rubbing my eyes in confusion, "who suddenly finds himself two hundred and fifty miles away from the spot where, a half-hour before, he had lain down to rest."

Miss Andrews laughed. "You see how it is yourself," she said.

"See how what is myself?" I queried.

"To be the puppet of a person who--writes," she answered.

"And have I become that?" I asked.

"You have," she smiled. "That's why you are here."

The idea made me nervous, and I pinched my arm to see whether I was there or not. The result was not altogether reassuring. I never felt the pinch, and, try as I would, I couldn't make myself feel it.

"Excuse me," I said, "for deviating a moment from the matter in hand, but have you a hat-pin?"

"No," she answered; "but I have a brooch, if that will serve your purpose. What do you want it for?"

"I wish to run it into my arm for a moment," I explained.

"It won't help you any," she answered, smiling divinely. "I must have a word with you; all the hat-pins in the world shall not prevent me, now that you are here."

"Well, wait a minute, I beg of you," I implored. "You intimated a moment ago that I was a puppet in the hands of some author. Whose? I've a reputation to sustain, and shall not give myself up willingly, unless I am sure that that person will not trifle with my character."

"Exactly my position," said she. "As I said, you can now understand how it is yourself. But I will tell you in whose hands you are now-- you are in mine. Surely if you had the right to send me tearing down Bellevue Avenue at Newport behind a runaway horse, and then pursue me in spirit to the Profile House, I have the right to bring you here, and I have accordingly done so."

For a woman's, her logic was surprisingly convincing. She certainly had as much right to trifle with my comfort as I had to trifle with hers.

"You are right, Miss Andrews," I murmured, meekly. "Pray command me as you will--and deal gently with the erring."

"I will treat you far better than you treated me," she said. "So have no fear--although I have been half minded at times to revenge myself upon you for that runaway. I could make you dreadfully uncomfortable, for when I take my pen in hand my imagination in the direction of the horrible is something awful. I shall be merciful, however, for I believe in the realistic idea, and I will merely make use of the power my pen possesses over you to have you act precisely as you would if you were actually here."

"Then I am not here?" I queried.

"What do you think?' she asked, archly.

I was about to say that if I weren't, I wished most heartily that I were; but I remembered fortunately that it would never do for me to flirt with Stuart Harley's heroine, so I contented myself with saying, boldly, "I don't know what to think."

Miss Andrews looked at me for a moment, and then, reaching out her hand, took mine, pressed it, and relinquished it, saying, "You are a loyal friend indeed."

There was nothing flirtatious about the act; it was a simple and highly pleasing acknowledgment of my forbearance, and it made me somewhat more comfortable than I had been at any time since my sudden transportation through the air.

"You remember what I said to you?" she resumed. "That I would cease to rebel, whatsoever Mr. Harley asked me to do, unless he insisted upon marrying me to a man I did not love?"

"I do," I replied. "And, as far as I am aware, you have stuck by your agreement. Stuart, I doubt not, has by this time got ready for his finishing-touches."

"Your surmise is correct," she answered, sadly; and then, with some spirit, she added: "And they are finishing-touches with a vengeance. I have been loyal to my word, in spite of much discomfort. I have travelled from pillar to post as meekly as a lamb, because it fitted in with Stuart Harley's convenience that I should do so. He has taken me and my friend Mrs. Willard to and through five different summer resorts, where I have cut the figure he wished me to cut without regard to my own feelings. I have discussed all sorts of topics, of which in reality I know nothing, to lend depth to his book. I have snubbed men I really liked, and appeared to like men I profoundly hated, for his sake. I have wittingly endured peril for his sake, knowing of course that ultimately he would get me out of danger; but peril is peril just the same, and to that extent distracting to the nerves. I have been upset in a canoe at Bar Harbor, and lost on a mountain in Vermont. I have sprained my ankle at Saratoga, and fainted at a dance at Lenox; but no complaint have I uttered--not even the suggestion of a rebellion have I given. Once, I admit, I was disposed to resent his desire that I should wear a certain costume, which he, man as he is, could not see would be wofully unbecoming. Authors have no business to touch on such things. But I overcame the temptation to rebel, and to please him wore a blue and pink shirt-waist with a floral silk skirt at a garden-party--I suppose he thought floral silk was appropriate to the garden; nor did I even show my mortification to those about me. Nothing was said in the book about its being Stuart Harley's taste; it must needs be set down as mine; and while the pages of Harley's book contain no criticism of my costume, I know well enough what all the other women thought about it. Still, I stood it. I endured also without a murmur the courtship and declaration of love of a perfect booby of a man; that is to say, he was a booby in the eyes of a woman--men might like him. I presume that as Mr. Harley has chosen him to stand for the hero of his book, he must admire him; but I don't, and haven't, and sha'n't. Yet I have pretended to do so; and finally, when he proposed marriage to me I meekly answered 'yes,' weeping in the bitterness of my spirit that my promise bound me to do so; and Stuart Harley, noting those tears, calls them tears of joy!"

"You needn't have accepted him," I said, softly. "That wasn't part of the bargain."

"Yes, it was," she returned, positively; "that is, I regarded it so, and I must act according to my views of things. What I promised was to follow his wishes in all things save in marriage to a man I didn't love. Getting engaged is not getting married, and as he wished me to get engaged, so I did, expecting of course that the book would end there, as it ought to have done, and that therefore no marriage would ever come of the engagement."

"Certainly the book should end there, then," said I. "You have kept to the letter of your agreement, and nobly," I added, with enthusiasm, for I now saw what the poor girl must have suffered. "Harley didn't try to go further, did he?"

"He did," she said, her voice trembling with emotion. "He set the time and place for the wedding, issued the cards, provided me with a trousseau--a trousseau based upon his intuitions of what a trousseau ought to be, and therefore about as satisfactory to a woman of taste as that floral silk costume of the garden-party; he engaged the organist, chose my bridesmaids--girls I detested--and finally assembled the guests. The groom was there at the chancel rail; Mr. Willard, whom he had selected to give me away, was waiting outside in the lobby, clad in his frock-coat, a flower in his button-hole, and his arm ready for the bride to lean on; the minister was behind the rail; the wedding-march was sounding--"

"And you?" I cried, utterly unable to contain myself longer.

"I was speeding past Yonkers on the three-o'clock Saratoga express-- bound hither," she answered, with a significant toss of her head. "No one but yourself knows where I am, and I have summoned you to explain my action before you hear of it from him. I do not wish to be misjudged. Stuart Harley had his warning, but he chose to ignore it, and he can get out of the difficulty he has brought upon himself in his own way--possibly he will destroy the whole book; but I wanted you to know that while he did not keep the faith, I did."

I suddenly realized the appalling truth. My own weakness was responsible for it all. I had not told Harley of my interview and her promise, feeling that it was not necessary, and fearing its effect upon his pride.

"I may add," she said, quietly, "that I am bitterly disappointed in your friend. I was interested in him, and believed in him. Most of my acts of rebellion--if you can call me rebellious--were prompted by my desire to keep him true to his creed; and I will tell you what I have never told to another: I regarded Stuart Harley almost as an ideal man, but this has changed it all. If he was what I thought him, he could not have acted with so little conscience as to try to force this match upon me, when he must have known that I did not love Henry Dunning."

"He didn't know," I said.

"He should have been sure before providing for the ceremony, after hearing what I had promised you I would and would not do," said Marguerite.

"But--I never told him anything about your promise!" I shouted, desperately. "He has done all this unwittingly."

"Is that true? Didn't you tell him?" she cried, eagerly grasping my hand.

Her manner left no doubt in my mind as to who the hero of her choice would be--and again I sighed to think that it was not I.

"As true as that I stand here," I said. "I never told him."

She shrugged her shoulders.

"Oh, well, you know what I mean!" I said, excitedly. "Wherever I do stand, it's as true as that I stand there."

The phrase was awkward, but it fulfilled its purpose.

"Why didn't you tell him?" she asked.

"Because I didn't think it necessary. Fact is," I added, "I had a sort of notion that if you married anybody in one of Harley's books, if Harley had his own way it would be to the man who--who tells the sto--"

A loud noise interrupted my remark and I started up in alarm, and in an instant I found myself back in my rooms in town once more. The little mountain house near Lake George, with its interesting and beautiful guest, had faded from sight, and I realized that somebody was hammering with a stick upon my door.

"Hello there!" I cried. "What's wanted?"

"It's I--Harley," came Stuart's voice. "Let me in."

I unlocked the door and he entered. The brown of Barnegat had gone, and he was his broken self again.

"Well," I said, trying to ignore his appearance, which really shocked me, "how's the book? Got it done?"

He sank into a chair with a groan.

"Hang the book!--it's all up with that; I'm going to Chadwick to- morrow and call the thing off," he said. "She won't work--two weeks' steady application gone for nothing."

"Oh, come!" I said; "not as bad as that."

"Precisely as bad as that," he retorted. "What can a fellow do if his heroine disappears as completely as if the earth had opened and swallowed her up?"

"Gone?" I cried, with difficulty repressing my desire to laugh.

"Completely--searched high and low for her--no earthly use," he answered. "I can't even imagine where she is."

"All of which, my dear Stuart," I said, adopting a superior tone for the moment, "shows that an imagination that is worth something wouldn't be a bad possession for a realist, after all. I know where your heroine is. She is at a little mountain house near Lake George, and she has fled there to escape your booby of a hero, whom you should have known better than to force upon a girl like Marguerite Andrews. You're getting inartistic, my dear boy. Sacrifice something to the American girl, but don't sacrifice your art. Just because the aforesaid girl likes her stories to end up with a wedding is no reason why you should try to condemn your heroine to life-long misery."

Stuart looked at me with a puzzled expression for a full minute.

"How the deuce do you know anything about it?" he asked.

I immediately enlightened him. I told him every circumstance--even my suspicion as to the hero of her heart, and it seemed to please him.

"Won't the story go if you stop it with the engagement?" I asked, after it was all over.

"Yes," he said, thoughtfully. "But I shall not publish it. If it was all so distasteful to her as you say, I'd rather destroy it."

"Don't do that," I said. "Change the heroine's name, and nobody but ourselves will ever be the wiser."

"I never thought of that," said he.

"That's because you've no imagination," I retorted.

Stuart smiled. "It's a good idea, and I'll do it; it won't be the truest realism, but I think I am entitled to the leeway on one lapse," he said.

"You are," I rejoined. "Lapse for the sake of realism. The man who never lapses is not real. There never was such a man. You might change that garden-party costume too. If you can't think of a better combination than that, leave it to me. I'll write to my sister and ask her to design a decent dress for that occasion."

"Thanks," said Stuart, with a laugh. "I accept your offer; but, I say, what was the name of the little mountain house where you found her?"

"I don't know," I replied. "You made such an infernal row battering down my door that I came away in a hurry and forgot to ask."

"That is unfortunate," said Stuart. "I should have liked to go up there for a while--she might help me correct the proofs, you know."

That's what he said, but he didn't deceive me. He loved her, and I began again to hope to gracious that Harley had not deceived himself and me, and that Marguerite Andrews was a bit of real life, and not a work of the imagination.

At any rate, Harley had an abiding faith in her existence, for the following Monday night he packed his case and set out for Lake George. He was going to explore, he said.