What Dreams May Come by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Part I. The Melody.
He found her the next day in a pretty morning-room, dressed in a long white gown, with a single great yellow rose at her throat. She had a piece of tapestry in her hand, and as she rose to greet him, the plain, heavy folds of her gown clinging about her, and her dark hair bound closely around her head with a simplicity that was almost severe, Dartmouth again felt a humorous sense of having suddenly stepped into a page of a past century.
"What are you doing?" he said, as he took a chair opposite her. "Women never make tapestry--real tapestry--in these days. You remind me of Lady Jane Grey. Shall I get a volume of Greek and read it to you?"
She laughed. "I fear it would literally be Greek to me. Latin and I had a fierce and desperate war, but I conquered in the end. With the Greek, however, the war was extremely brief, and he marched off with colors flying, and never condescended to renew the engagement."
"For all mercies make us duly thankful. A woman who knows Greek is like a hot-house grape; a mathematically perfect thing, but scentless and flavorless."
"You are consoling; and, indeed, I cannot see that it would have done me much good; it certainly would not have increased my popularity among your exacting sex. You are the first man to whom I have dared acknowledge I know Latin. Lady Langdon was kind enough to give me elaborate warnings and instructions before she launched me into society. Among other things, she constantly reiterated, 'Never let a man suspect that you know anything, my dear. He will fly from you as a hare to cover. I want you to be a belle, and you must help me.' I naturally asked her what I was to talk about, and she promptly replied 'Nothing. Study the American girl, they have the most brilliant way of jabbering meaningless recitativos of any tribe on the face of the earth. Every sentence is an epigram with the point left out. They are like the effervescent part of a bottle of soda-water.' This was while we were still in Wales, and she sent for six books by two of those American novelists who are supposed to be the expounders-in-chief of the American girl at home and abroad, and made me read them. It nearly killed me, but I did it, and I learned a valuable lesson. I hated the American girl, but I felt as if I had been boiled in soda-water and every pore of my body had absorbed it. I felt ecstatically frivolous, and commonplace, and flashing, and sizzling. And--I assure you this is a fact, although you may not give me credit for such grim determination and concentration of purpose--but I never eat my breakfast before I have read an entire chapter from one of those two authors, it adjusts my mental tone for the day and keeps me in proper condition."
Dartmouth threw back his head and gave vent to the heartiest burst of laughter he had indulged in for years. "Upon my word, you are original," he exclaimed, delightedly, "and for heaven's sake, don't try to be anything else. You could not be an American girl if you tried for a century, for the reason that you have too many centuries behind you. The American girl is charming, exquisite, a perfect flower--but thin. She is like the first fruit of a new tree planted in new soil. Her flavor is as subtle and vanishing as pistachio, but there is no richness, no depth, no mellowness, no suggestion of generations of grafting, or of orchards whose very sites are forgotten. The soda-water simile is good, but the American girl, in her actual existence--not in her verbal photographs, I grant you--is worthy of a better. She is more like one glass of champagne-frappe, momentarily stimulating, but quickly forgotten. When I was in America, I met the most charming women in New York--I did not spend two weeks, all told, in Washington--and New York is the concentrated essence, the pinnacle of American civilization and achievement. But although I frequently talked to one or another of those women for five hours at a time without a suggestion of fatigue, I always had the same sensation in regard to them that I had in regard to their waists while dancing--they were unsatisfactory, intangible. I never could be sure I really held a woman in my arms, and I never could remember a word I had exchanged with them. But they are charming--that word describes them 'down to the ground.'"
"That word 'thin' is good, too," she replied; "and I think it describes their literature better than any other. They write beautifully those Americans, they are witty, they are amusing, they are entertaining, they delineate character with a master hand; they give us an exact idea of their peculiar environment and conditions; and the way they handle dialect is a marvel; but--they are thin; they ring hollow; they are like sketches in pen-and-ink; there is no color, no warmth, and above all, no perspective. I don't know that they are even done in sharp black-and-white; to me the pervading tone is gray. The American author depresses me; he makes me feel commonplace and new and unballasted. I always feel as if I were the 'millionth woman in superfluous herds'; and when one of those terrible American authors attacks my type, and carves me up for the delectation of the public, I shall go back to Wales, nor ever emerge from my towers again. And they are so cool and calm and deliberate, and so horribly exact, even the lesser lights. They always remind me of a medical student watching the workings of the exposed nervous system of a chloroformed hare."
Dartmouth looked at her with some intensity in his gaze. "I am glad your ideas are so singularly like my own," he said. "It is rather remarkable they should be, but so it is. You have even a way of putting your thoughts that strikes me as familiar, and which, out of my natural egotism, I find attractive. But I wish you would go back to your old castle; the world will spoil you."
"I shall return in a month or two now; my father is lonely without me."
"I suppose he spoils you," said Dartmouth, smiling. "I imagine you were an abominable infant. Tell me of some of the outrageous things you used to do. I was called the worst child in three counties; but, I doubt not, your exploits discounted mine, as the Americans say."
"Oh, mine are too bad to relate," she exclaimed, with a nervous laugh, and coloring swiftly, as she had done the night before. "But you were ill for a whole week, were you not? Was it anything serious?"
Dartmouth felt a sudden impulse to tell her of his strange experience. He was not given to making confidences, but he felt en rapport with this girl as he had never felt with man or woman before. He had a singular feeling, when talking with or listening to her, of losing his sense of separateness. It was not that he felt de-individualized, but that he had an accession of personality. It was pleasant because it was novel, but at the same time it was uncomfortable because it was a trifle unnatural. He smiled a little to himself. Was it a case of affinity after all? But he had no time to analyze. She was waiting for an answer, and in a moment he found himself yielding to his impulse and giving her a graphic account of his peculiar visitation.
At first she merely dropped her tapestry and listened attentively, smiling and blushing a little when he told her what had immediately preceded the impulse to write. But gradually the delicate pink left her face, and she began to move in the spasmodic, uncontrollable way of a person handling an electric battery. She clasped the arms of her chair with such force that her arms looked twisted and rigid, and finally she bent slowly forward, gazing up into his face with eyes expanded to twice their natural size and not a vestige of color in her cheek or lips: she looked like a corpse still engaged in the mechanical act of gazing on the scene of agony which had preceded its death. Suddenly she sprang to her feet and threw out her hands. "Stop!" she cried; "stop!"
"What is it?" he demanded, rising to his feet in amazement; he had been watching her with more or less surprise for some time. "I am afraid I have frightened you and made you nervous. I had better have kept my confidence to myself."
"No, no," she cried, throwing back her head and clasping her hands about it; "it is not that I am frightened--only--it was so strange! While you were talking it seemed--oh! I cannot describe it!--as if you were telling me something which I knew as well as yourself. When you spoke it seemed to me that I knew and could put into words the wonderful verse-music which was battling upward to reach your brain. They were, they were--I know them so well. I have known them always; but I cannot--I cannot catch their meaning!" Suddenly she stepped backward, dropped her hands, and colored painfully. "It is all purest nonsense, of course," she said, in her ordinary tone and manner, except for its painful embarrasment. "It is only your strong, picturesque way of telling it which presented it as vividly to my mind as if it were an experience of my own. I never so much as dreamed of it before you began to speak."
Dartmouth did not answer her for a moment. His own mind was in something of a tumult. In telling the story he had felt, not a recurrence of its conditions, but a certain sense of their influence; and the girl's manner and words were extraordinary. It could hardly be possible, even in cold blood, to understand their meaning. She was indisputably not acting. What she had said was very strange and unconventional, but from whatever source the words had sprung, they had not been uttered with the intention premeditated or spontaneous of making an impression upon him. They carried conviction of their sincerity with them, and Dartmouth was sensible that they produced a somewhat uncanny but strangely responsive effect upon himself. But what did it mean? That in some occult way she had been granted a glimpse into the depths of his nature was unthinkable. He was not averse to indulging a belief in affinity; and that this girl was his was not a disagreeable idea; but his belief by no means embraced a second, to the effect that the soul of one's antitype is as an open book to the other. Could her mind be affected? But no. She was a very unusual girl, possibly an eccentric one; but he flattered himself that he knew a lunatic when he saw one. There was left then but the conclusion that she possessed a strongly and remarkably sympathetic nature, as yet unbridled and unblunted by the world, and that he had made a dangerous imprint upon it. He was not unduly vain, but he was willing to believe that she would not vibrate so violently to every man's touch.
This point settled to the best of his capabilities, he allowed a second consciousness, which had been held under for the moment, during the exercisings of his analytical instinct, to claim his consideration. He was sensible that he was attracted as he had never been attracted by woman before. He had felt something of this on the night he had met her, and he had felt it more strongly on the occasion of their second interview; but now he was aware that it had suddenly taken the form of an overmastering desire for possession. He was by nature an impulsive man, but he was a man of the world as well, and he had his impulses pretty well subordinated to interest and common-sense; nevertheless he felt very much like doing a rash and impulsive thing at the present moment. He was a man of rapid thought, and these reflections chased each other through his mind much more quickly than I have been able to take them down, and Miss Penrhyn had averted her gaze and was playing nervously with some flowers in a basket on a pedestal beside her. She was acutely aware that she had made a fool of herself, and imagined that his hesitation was due to a polite desire to arrange his reply in such wise as not to make his appreciation of the fact too crudely apparent. At the same time she was a little exhausted under the reaction of a short but very severe mental strain. As for Dartmouth, he hesitated a moment longer. He was balancing several pros and cons very rapidly. He was aware that if he asked this girl to marry him and she consented, he must, as a man of honor, abide by the contract, no matter how much she might disappoint him hereafter. At the same time the knowledge that he was in love with her was growing more distinct every second. Doubtless the wisest course would be to go away for the present and postpone any decisive step until he knew her better. But he was not a patient man, and he was not in the habit of putting off until to-morrow what he could do to-day. (He considered that certain of the precepts instilled during childhood were of admirable practical value). The best thing in life was its morning: he did not like evening shadows and autumn twilights. There was nothing that could compare with the sweetness and fineness of the flavor of novelty. When it was practicable to take advantage of one's impulses one had a brief draught of true philosopher's happiness. And, at all events, this girl was a lady, high-born, high-bred, intellectual, and unique. She was also plastic, and if she had a somewhat too high-strung nature, love had been known to work wonders before. He had mastered the difficult art of controlling himself; he was not afraid of not being able to control any woman who loved him. He went over to her and took her hands in his strong clasp.
"I have known you a very short--" he began, and then paused abruptly.
He had meant to speak calmly and not frighten her by the suddenness of his love-making, but her touch fired him and sent the blood to his head. He flung down her hands, and throwing his arms about her, kissed her full on the mouth. The girl turned very white and tried to free herself, but his arms were too strong, and in a moment she ceased to resist. She made no attempt to define her feelings as Dartmouth had done. She had felt the young man's remarkable magnetism the moment she had met him: she had been aware of a certain prophetic instinct of it some hours before, when he had stood in the window of a crowded cafe above a crowded thoroughfare and speculatively returned her gaze. And the night before, she had gone home with a very sharply outlined consciousness that she would never again meet a man who would interest her so deeply. To-day, this feeling had developed into one of strong reciprocal sympathy, and he had exerted a psychological influence over her as vaguely delightful as it was curious and painful. But all this was no preparation for the sudden tumult of feeling which possessed her under his kiss. She knew that it was love; and, that it had come to her without warning, made the knowledge no less keen and sure. Her first impulse was to resist, but purely out of that pride which forbids a woman to yield too soon; and when his physical strength made her powerless, she was glad that it should be so.
"Will you marry me?" he asked.
"Yes" she said; "I will marry you."