XVIII. Undine

"It's almost as good as new!" cried Araminta, gleefully. She was clad in a sombre calico Mother Hubbard, of Miss Mehitable's painstaking manufacture, and hopping back and forth on the bare floor of her room at Miss Evelina's.

"Yes," answered Doctor Ralph, "I think it's quite as good as new." He was filled with professional pride at the satisfactory outcome of his first case, and yet was not at all pleased with the idea of Araminta's returning to Miss Mehitable's, as, perforce, she soon must do.

"Don't walk any more just now," he said "Come here and sit down. I want to talk to you."

Araminta obeyed him unquestioningly. He settled her comfortably in the haircloth easy-chair and drew his own chair closer. There was a pause, then she looked up at him, smiling with childish wistfulness.

"Are you sorry it's well?" he asked.

"I--I think I am," she answered, shyly, the deep crimson dyeing her face.

"I can't see you any more, you know," said Ralph, watching her intently.

The sweet face saddened in an instant and Araminta tapped her foot restlessly upon the floor. "Perhaps," she returned, slowly, "Aunt Hitty will be taken sick. Oh, I do hope she will!"

"You miserable little sinner," laughed Ralph, "do you suppose for a moment that Aunt Hitty would send for me if she were ill? Why, I believe she'd die first!"

"Maybe Mr. Thorpe might be taken sick," suggested Araminta, hopefully. "He's old, and sometimes I think he isn't very strong."

"He'd insist on having my father. You know they're old friends."

"Mr. Thorpe is old and your father is old," corrected Araminta, precisely, "but they haven't been friends long. Aunt Hitty says you must always say what you mean."

"That is what I meant. Each is old and both are friends. See?"

"It must be nice to be men," sighed Araminta, "and have friends. I've never had anybody but Aunt Hitty--and you," she added, in a lower tone,

"'No money, no friends, nothing but relatives,'" quoted Ralph, cynically. "It's hard lines, little maid--hard lines." He walked back and forth across the small room, his hands clasped behind his back--a favourite attitude, Araminta had noted, during the month of her illness.

He pictured his probable reception should he venture to call upon her. Personally, as it was, he stood none too high in the favour of the dragon, as he was wont to term Miss Mehitable in his unflattering thoughts. Moreover, he was a man, which counted heavily against him. Since he had taken up his father's practice, he had heard a great deal about Miss Mehitable's view of marriage, and her determination to shield Araminta from such an unhappy fate.

And Araminta had not been intended, by Dame Nature, for such shielding. Every line of her body, rounding into womanhood, defied Aunt Hitty's well-meant efforts. The soft curve of her cheek, the dimples that lurked unsuspected in the comers of her mouth, the grave, sweet eyes--all these marked Araminta for love. She had, too, a wistful, appealing childishness.

"Did you like the story book?" asked Ralph.

"Oh, so much!"

"I thought you would. What part of it did you like best?"

"It was all lovely," replied Araminta, thoughtfully, "but I think the best part of it was when she went back to him after she had made him go away. It made him so glad to know that they were to talk together again."

Ralph looked keenly at Araminta, the love of man and woman was so evidently outside her ken. The sleeping princess in the tower had been no more set apart. But, as he remembered; the sleeping princess had been wakened by a kiss--when the right man came.

A lump came into his throat and he swallowed hard. Blindly, he went over to her chair. The girl's flower-like face was lifted questioningly to his. He bent over and kissed her, full upon the lips.

Araminta shrank from him a little, and the colour surged into her face, but her eyes, still trustful, still tender, never wavered from his.

"I suppose I'm a brute," Ralph said, huskily, "but God knows I haven't meant to be."

Araminta smiled--a sweet, uncomprehending smile. Ralph possessed himself of her hand. It was warm and steady--his own was cold and tremulous.

"Child," he said, "did any one ever kiss you before?"

"No," replied Araminta; "only Aunt Hitty. It was when I was a baby and she thought I was lost. She kissed me--here." Araminta pointed to her soft cheek. "Did you kiss me because I was well?"

Ralph shook his head despairingly. "The man in the book kissed the lady," went on Araminta, happily, "because he was so glad they were to talk together again, but we--why, I shall never see you any more," she concluded, sadly.

His fingers tightened upon hers. "Yes," he said, in a strange voice, "we shall see each other again."

"They both seem very well," sighed Araminta, referring to Aunt Hitty and Mr. Thorpe, "and even if I fell off of a ladder again, it might not hurt me at all. I have fallen from lots of places and only got black and blue. I never broke before."

"Listen, child," said Ralph. "Would you rather live with Aunt Hitty, or with me?"

"Why, Doctor Ralph! Of course I'd rather live with you, but Aunt Hitty would never let me!"

"We're not talking about Aunt Hitty now. Is there anyone in the world whom you like better than you do me?"

"No," said Araminta, softly, her eyes shining. "How could there be?"

"Do you love me, Araminta?"

"Yes," she answered, sweetly, "of course I do! You've been so good to me!"

The tone made the words meaningless. "Child," said Ralph, "you break my heart."

He walked back and forth again, restlessly, and Araminta watched him, vaguely troubled. What in the world had she done?

Meanwhile, he was meditating. He could not bear to have her go back to her prison, even for a little while. Had he found her only to lose her, because she had no soul?

Presently he came back to her and stood by her chair. "Listen, dear," he said, tenderly. "You told me there was no one in the world for whom you cared more than you care for me. You said you loved me, and I love you--God knows I do. If you'll trust me, Araminta, you'll never be sorry, never for one single minute as long as you live. Would you like to live with me in a little house with roses climbing over it, just us two alone?"

"Yes," returned Araminta, dreamily, "and I could keep the little cat."

"You can have a million cats, if you like, but all I want is you. Just you, sweetheart, to love me, with all the love you can give me. Will you come?"

"Oh," cried Araminta, "if Aunt Hitty would only let me, but she never would!"

"We won't ask her," returned Ralph. "We'll go away to-night, and be married."

At the word, Araminta started out of her chair. Her face was white and her eyes wide with fear. "I couldn't," she said, with difficulty. "You shouldn't ask me to do what you know is wrong. Just because my mother was married, because she was wicked--you must not think that I would be wicked, too."

Hot words were struggling for utterance, but Ralph choked them back. The fog was thick before him and he saw Araminta as through a heavy veil. "Undine," he said, moistening his parched lips, "some day you will find your soul. And when you do, come to me. I shall be waiting."

He went out of the room unsteadily, and closed the door. He stood at the head of the stairs for a long time before he went down. Apparently there was no one in the house. He went into the parlour and sat down, wiping the cold sweat from his forehead, and trying to regain his self-control.

He saw, clearly, that Araminta was not in the least to blame; that almost ever since her birth, she had been under the thumb of a domineering woman who persistently inculcated her own warped ideas. Since her earliest childhood, Araminta had been taught that marriage was wrong--that her own mother was wicked, because she had been married. And of the love between man and woman, the child knew absolutely nothing.

"Good God!" muttered Ralph. "My little girl, oh, my little girl!" Man-like, he loved her more than ever because she had denied him; man-like, he wanted her now as he had never wanted her before. Through the weeks that he had seen her every day, he had grown to feel his need of her, to hunger for the sweetness of her absolute dependence upon him. Yet, until now, he had not guessed how deeply he cared, nor guessed that such caring was possible.

He sat there for the better part of an hour, slowly regaining command of himself. Miss Evelina came through the hall and paused just outside the door, feeling intuitively that some one was in the house. She drew down her veil and went in.

"I thought you had gone," she said. "Did you wish to see me?"

"No," returned Ralph, wearily; "not especially."

She sat down opposite him silently. All her movements were quiet, for she had never been the noisy sort of woman. There was something soothing in the veiled presence.

"I hope I'm not intruding," ventured Ralph, at length. "I'll go, presently. I've just had a--well, a blow. That little saint upstairs has been taught that marriage is wicked."

"I know," returned Miss Evelina, instantly comprehending. "Mehitable has very strange ideas. I'm sorry," she added, in a tone she might have used in speaking to Anthony Dexter, years before.

Her sympathy touched the right chord. It was not obtrusive, it had no hint of pity; it was simply that one who had been hurt fully understood the hurt of another. Ralph felt a mysterious kinship.

"I've wanted for some time to ask you," he began awkwardly, "if there was not something I could do for you. The--the veil, you know--" He stopped, at a loss for further words.

"Yes?" Miss Evelina's voice was politely inquiring. She thought it odd for Anthony Dexter's son to be concerned about her veil. She wondered whether he meditated giving her a box of chiffon, as Piper Tom had done.

"Believe me," he said, impetuously, "I only want to help. I want to make it possible for you to take that--to take that thing off."

"It is not possible," returned Miss Evelina, after a painful interval. "I shall always wear my veil."

"You don't understand," explained Ralph. It seemed to him that he had spent the day telling women they did not understand. "I know, of course, that there was some dreadful accident, and that it happened a long time ago. Since then, wonderful advances have been made in surgery--there is a great deal possible now that was not dreamed of then. Of course I should not think of attempting it myself, but I would find the man who could do it, take you to him, and stand by you until it was over."

The clock ticked loudly and a little bird sang outside, but there was no other sound.

"I want to help you," said Ralph, humbly, as he rose to his feet; "believe me, I want to help you."

Miss Evelina said nothing, but she followed him to the door. At the threshold, Ralph turned back. "Won't you let me help you?" he asked. "Won't you even let me try?"

"I thank you," said Miss Evelina, coldly, "but nothing can be done."

The door closed behind him with a portentous suggestion of finality. As he went down the path, Ralph felt himself shut out from love and from all human service. He did not look back to the upper window, where Araminta was watching, her face stained with tears.

As he went out of the gate, she, too, felt shut out from something strangely new and sweet, but her conscience rigidly approved, none the less. Against Aunt Hitty's moral precepts, Araminta leaned securely, and she was sure that she had done right.

The Maltese kitten was purring upon a cushion, the loved story book lay on the table nearby. Doctor Ralph was going down the road, his head bowed. They would never see each other again--never in all the world.

She would not tell Aunt Hitty that Doctor Ralph had asked her to marry him; she would shield him, even though he had insulted her. She would not tell Aunt Hitty that Doctor Ralph had kissed her, as the man in the story book had kissed the lady who came back to him. She would not tell anybody. "Never in all the world," thought Araminta. "We shall never see each other again."

Doctor Ralph was out of sight, now, and she could never watch for him any more. He had gone away forever, and she had broken his heart. For the moment, Araminta straightened herself proudly, for she had been taught that it did not matter whether one's heart broke or not--one must always do what was right. And Aunt Hitty knew what was right.

Suddenly, she sank on her knees beside her bed, burying her face in the pillow, for her heart was breaking, too. "Oh, Lord," she prayed, sobbing wildly, "keep me from the contamination of marriage, for Thy sake. Amen."

The door opened silently, a soft, slow step came near. The pillow was drawn away and a cool hand was laid upon Araminta's burning cheek. "Child," said Miss Evelina, "what is wrong?"

Araminta had not meant to tell, but she did. She sobbed out, in disjointed fragments, all the sorry tale. Wisely, Miss Evelina waited until the storm had spent itself, secretly wishing that she, too, might know the relief of tears.

"I knew," said Miss Evelina, her cool, quiet hand still upon Araminta's face. "Doctor Ralph told me before he went home."

"Oh," cried Araminta, "does he hate me?"

"Hate you?" repeated Miss Evelina. "Dear child, no. He loves you. Would you believe me, Araminta, if I told you that it was not wrong to be married--that there was no reason in the world why you should not marry the man who loves you?"

"Not wrong!" exclaimed Araminta, incredulously. "Aunt Hitty says it is. My mother was married!"

"Yes," said Miss Evelina, "and so was mine. Aunt Hitty's mother was married, too."

"Are you sure?" demanded Araminta. "She never told me so. If her mother was married, why didn't she tell me?"

"I don't know, dear," returned Miss Evelina, truthfully. "Mehitable's ways are strange." Had she been asked to choose, at the moment, between Araminta's dense ignorance and all of her own knowledge, embracing, as it did, a world of pain, she would have chosen gladly, the fuller life.

The door-bell below rang loudly, defiantly. It was the kind of a ring which might impel the dead to answer it. Miss Evelina fairly ran downstairs.

Outside stood Miss Mehitable. Unwillingly, in her wake, had come the Reverend Austin Thorpe. Under Miss Mehitable's capable and constant direction, he had made a stretcher out of the clothes poles and a sheet. He was jaded in spirit beyond all words to express, but he had come, as Roman captives came, chained to the chariot wheels of the conqueror.

"Me and the minister," announced Miss Mehitable, imperiously, "have come to take Minty home!"