Chapter XXII. Roberta Wakes Early
 

Midsummer Day! Roberta woke with the thought in her mind, as it had been the last in her mind when she had gone to sleep. She had lain awake for a long time the night before, watching a strip of moonlight which lay like flickering silver across her wall. Who would have found it easy to sleep, with the consciousness beating at her brain that on the morrow something momentous was as surely going to happen as that the sun would rise? Did she want it to happen? Would she rather not run away and prevent its happening? There was no doubt that, being a woman, she wanted to run away. At the same time--being a woman--she knew that she would not run. Something would stay her feet.

With wide-open eyes on this Midsummer morning she lay, as she had lain the night before, regarding without attention the early sunlight flooding the room where moonlight had lain a few hours ago. Her bare, round arms, from which picturesque apologies for sleeves fell back, were thrown wide upon her pillows, her white throat and shoulders gleamed below the loose masses of her hair, her heart was beating a trifle more rapidly than was natural after a night of repose.

It was very early, as a little clock upon a desk announced--half after five. Yet some one in the house was up, for Roberta heard a light footfall outside her door. There followed a soft sound which drew her eyes that way; she saw something white appear beneath the door--in the old house the sills were not tight. The white rectangle was obviously a letter.

Her curiosity alive, she lay looking at this apparition for some time, unwilling to be heard to move even by a maidservant. But at length she arose, stole across the floor, picked up the missive, and went back to her bed. She examined the envelope--it was of a heavy plain paper; the address--it was in a hand she had seen but once, on the day when she had copied many pages of material upon the typewriter for her Uncle Calvin--a rather compact, very regular and positive hand, unmistakably that of a person of education and character.

She opened the letter with fingers that hesitated. Midsummer Day was at hand; it had begun early! Two closely written sheets appeared. Sitting among her pillows, her curly, dusky locks tumbling all about her face, her pulses beating now so fast they shook the paper in her fingers, she read his letter:

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My Roberta: I can't begin any other way, for, even though you should never let me use the words again, you have become such a part of me, both of the man I am and of the man I want and mean to become, that in some degree you will always belong to me in spite of yourself.

Why do I write to you to-day? Because there are things I want to say to you which I could never wait to say when I see you, but which I want you to know before you answer me. I don't want to tell you "the story of my life," but I do feel that you must understand a few of my thoughts, for only so can I be sure that you know me at all.

Before I came to your home, one night last October, I had unconsciously settled into a way of living which as a rule seemed to me all-sufficient. My friends, my clubs, my books--yes, I care for my books more than you have ever discovered--my plans for travel, made up a life which satisfied me--a part of the time. Deep down somewhere was a sense of unrest, a knowledge that I was neither getting nor giving all that I was meant to. But this I was accustomed to stifle--except at unhappy hours when stifling would not work, and then I was frankly miserable. Mostly, however, my time was so filled with diversion of one sort or another that I managed to keep such hours from over-whelming me; I worried through them somehow and forgot them as soon as I could.

From the first day that I came through your door my point of view was gradually and strangely altered. I saw for the first time in my life what a home might be. It attracted me; more, it showed me how empty my own life was, that I had thought so full. The sight of your mother, of your brothers, of your sisters, of your brother's little children--each of these had its effect on me. As for yourself--Roberta, I don't know how to tell you that; at least I don't know how to tell you on paper. I can imagine finding words to tell you, if--you were very much nearer to me than you are now. I hardly dare think of that!

Yet I must try, for it's part of the story; it's all of it. With my first sight of you, I realized that here was what I had dreamed of but never hoped to find: beauty and charm and--character. I had seen many women who possessed two of these attributes; it seemed impossible to discover one who had all three. Many women I had admired--and despised; many I had respected--and disliked. I am not good at analysis, but perhaps you can guess at what I mean. I may have been unfortunate; I don't know. There may be many women who are both beautiful and good. No, that is not what I mean! The combination I am trying to describe as impossibly desirable is that not only of beauty and goodness--I suppose there are really many who have those; but--goodness and fascination! That's what a man wants. Can you possibly understand?

I wonder if I had better stop writing? I am showing myself up as hopelessly awkward at expression; probably because my heart is pounding so as I write that it is taking the blood from my brain. But--I'll make one more try at it.

I had no special purpose in life last October. I meant to do a little good in the world if I could--without too much trouble. Some time or other I supposed I should marry--intended to put it off as long as I could. I saw no reason why I shouldn't travel all I wanted to; it was the one thing I really cared for with enthusiasm. I didn't appreciate much what a selfish life I was leading, how I was neglecting the one person in the world who loved me and was anxious about me. Your little sister, Ruth, opened my eyes to that, by the way. I shall always thank her for it. I hadn't known what I was missing.

I don't know how the change came about. You charmed me, yet you made me realize every time I was with you that I was not the sort of man you either admired or respected. I felt it whenever I looked at any of the people in your home. Every one of them was busy and happy; every one of them was leading a life worth while. Slowly I waked up. I believe I'm wide awake now. What's more, nothing could ever tempt me to go to sleep again. I've learned to like being awake!

You decreed that I should keep away from you all these months. I agreed, and I have kept my word. All the while has been the fear bothering me beyond endurance that you did it to be rid of me. I said some bold words to you--to make you remember me. Roberta, I am humbler to-day than I was then. I shouldn't dare say them to you now. I was madly in love with you then; I dared say anything. I am not less in love now--great heavens! not less--but I have grown to worship you so that I have become afraid. When I saw you in my room before my mother's portrait I could have knelt at your feet. From the beginning I have felt that I was not worthy of you, but I feel it so much more deeply now that I don't know how to offer myself to you. I have written as if I wanted to persuade you that I am more of a man than when you knew me first, and therefore more worthy of you. I am more of a man, but by just so much more do I realize my own unworthiness.

And yet--it is Midsummer Day; this is the twenty-fourth of June--and I am on fire with love and longing for you, and I must know whether you care. If I were strong enough I would offer to wait longer before asking you to tell me--but I'm not strong enough for that.

I have a plan which I am hoping you will let me carry out, whatever answer you are going to give me. If you will allow it I will ask Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Gray to go with us on a long horseback ride this afternoon, to have supper at a place I know. I could take you all in my car if you prefer, but I hope you will not prefer it. You have never seemed like a motoring girl to me every other one I know is--and ever since I saw you on Colonel last November I've been hoping to have a ride with you. If I can have it to-day--Midsummer--it will be a dream fulfilled. If only I dared hope my other--and dearer--dream were to come true! Roberta, are we really so different? I have thought a thousand times of your "stout little cabin on the hilltop," where you would like to spend "the worst night of the winter." All alone? "Well, with a fire for company, and--perhaps--a dog." But not with a good comrade? "There are so few good comrades--who can be tolerant of one's every mood." You were right; there are few. And--this one might not be so clever as to understand every mood of yours, but--Roberta, Roberta--he would love you so much that you wouldn't mind if he didn't always understand. That is--you wouldn't mind if, in return, you--But I dare not say it--I can only hope--hope!

Unless you send me word to the contrary by ten o'clock, I will then ask Mr. and Mrs. Stephen, and arrange to come for you at four this afternoon. You are committed to nothing by agreeing to this arrangement. But I--am committed to everything for as long as I live. RICHARD.

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It was well that it was not yet six o'clock in the morning and that Roberta had two long hours to herself before she need come forth from her room. She needed them, every minute of them, to get herself in hand.

It was a good letter, no doubt of that. It was neither clever nor eloquent, but it was better: it was manly and sincere. It showed self-respect; it showed also humility, a proud humility which rejoiced that it could feel its own unworthiness and know thereby that it would strive to be more fit. And it showed--oh, unquestionably it showed!--the depth of his feeling. Quite clearly he had restrained a pen that longed to pour forth his heart, yet there were phrases in which his tenderness had been more than he could hold back, and it was those phrases which made the recipient hold her breath a little as she read them, wondering how, if the written words were almost more than she could bear, she could face the spoken ones.

And now she really wanted to run away! If she could have had a week, a month, between the reading of this letter and the meeting of its writer, it seemed to her that it would have been the happiest month of her life. To take the letter with her into exile, to read it every day, but to wait--wait--for the real crisis till she could quiet her racing emotions. One sweet at a time--not an armful of them. But the man--true to his nature--the man wanted the armful, and at once. And she had made him wait all these months; she could not, knowing her own heart, put him off longer now. The cool composure with which, last winter, she had answered his first declaration that he loved her was all gone; the months, of waiting had done more than show him whether his love was real: they had shown her that she wanted it to be real.

The day was a hard one to get through. The hours lagged--yet they flew. At eight o'clock she went down, feeling as if it were all in her face; but apparently nobody saw anything beyond the undoubted fact that in her white frock she looked as fresh and as vivid as a flower. At half after ten Rosamond came to her to know if she had received an invitation from Richard Kendrick to go for a horseback ride, adding that she herself was delighted at the thought and had telephoned Stephen, to find that he also was pleased and would be up in time.

"I wonder where he's going to take us," speculated Rosamond, in a flutter of anticipation. "Without doubt it will be somewhere that's perfectly charming; he knows how to do such things. Of course it's all for you, but I shall love to play chaperon, and Stevie and I shall have a lovely time out of it. I haven't been on a horse since Dorothy came; I hope I haven't grown too stout for my habit. What are you going to wear, Rob? The blue cloth? You are perfectly irresistible in that! Do wear that rakish-looking soft hat with the scarf; it's wonderfully becoming, if it isn't quite so correct; and I'm sure Richard Kendrick won't take us to any stupid fashionable hotel. He'll arrange an outdoor affair, I'm confident, with the Kendrick chef to prepare it and the Kendrick servants to see that it is served. Oh, it's such a glorious June day! Aren't you happy, Rob?"

"If I weren't it would make me happy to look at you, you dear married child," and Roberta kissed her pretty sister-in-law, who could be as womanly as she was girlish, and whose companionship, with that of Stephen's, she felt to be the most discriminating choice of chaperonage Richard could have made. Stephen and Rosamond, off upon a holiday like this, would be celebrating a little honeymoon anniversary of their own, she knew, for they had been married in June and could never get over congratulating themselves on their own happiness.