Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Old Valentines, Page 2

Munson Aldrich Havens


  "Doesn't it seem to you that the windows let in more sunlight of late,ma'am?" asked a housemaid. She had just finished cleaning those in theoctagonal dining-room. Burbage inspected the windows.

  "There is no change in the windows that I can see," she replied. "Butthere's more sunlight in the house than in many a year."

  This comment of his old housekeeper, six weeks after Sir Peter broughtPhyllis home, might be accepted as the epitome of her life there for tenlong years. Sir Peter was as grim as ever to the servants; but, blessyour heart, hadn't they caught him at his pranks on the floor? Hadn'tthey seen his haggard face when the doctor pronounced it diphtheria?Hadn't they seen him carry her downstairs in his own arms on the firstday it was allowed? Hadn't they seen him helping her with her lessons,at night,--solving her complex problems in his head while she struggledover columns of figures, and waiting at the end of that tortuous roadwith a smile on his gaunt face, and the right answer, to prove hersright or wrong? But in languages, Sir Peter was left at the post. Hermaster in French was astonished until he learned her mother's name,--byaccident, for it was rarely spoken in that house. The dead languageswere alive to her, too. The shelves in her study-room, upstairs,contained Sir Peter's old "classics," prettily rebound. The commissionwent to Mr. Rowlandson; the execution was Riviere's. Sir Peter hadscarcely looked into them since the old days at Cambridge.

  Sunlight in the house, indeed. Her sweet voice, in sudden song, might beheard at any moment of the day; or the ripple of her piano; or her gaylaughter, musical as the joyous notes of a bird.

  She had her intent of them all. Even the determined mind of Burbage,stern-featured and steel-spectacled, she moulded to a plasticacquiescence with her own sweet will. In extreme urgency, when Burbagewas very firm, indeed, Phyllis had a way of referring to dearFarquharson. Burbage learned to anticipate this by yielding in the nickof time.

  By the way, they had not found a trace of Farquharson.

  Several short, sharp battles she had with Sir Peter; the cause, in eachinstance, the same. He did not try to disguise his desire that sheshould forget her mother. The first encounter between them took placewithin a year of her home-coming.

  "If I cannot remember my darling, darling mamma in your house, UnclePeter, I shall not stay here," she declared. "I will go away and never,never come back any more. And then you would be sorry."

  Sir Peter compromised with irrelevant sweets. But he saw she wasterribly in earnest, for such a little girl.

  From time to time a similar incident disturbed the loving relationshipbetween them; a relationship that was perfect otherwise, in confidence,sincerity and affection.

  When she was eighteen, some one told her she began to look like hermother.

  "God forbid!" said Sir Peter, when she told him.

  Phyllis went white.

  "Uncle Peter, my mother was an angel. She was my father's----"

  "Ruin," interposed Sir Peter, his brows darkening.

  "She was his dream of Heaven. I heard him tell her so. She was a dear,sweet woman."

  Sir Peter growled; but Phyllis always had the last word on theseoccasions.

  "I love her memory and I always shall, as I should have dearly loved herif--if she could have stayed with me. You must never speak or even thinkunkindly of her if you want me to love you, or if you want me to livewith you. She was my mother and----" Then she fled to her room. Burbagecould have been heard murmuring, "There, there, my pretty."

  It was true. As she grew older it became apparent she had inherited hermother's marvelous beauty. She was a tall girl; a mass of golden coilssurmounted the proud head, set so well on her neck and shoulders; hereyes were the deepest blue; you might have thought her expression sad,but her sensitive mouth was mirthful as well as tender; in merrimenther eyes danced. When she talked earnestly she caught her breath in theprettiest way; she had indescribable charm. Her hands were long andslender, unadorned with rings; she simply didn't care for them. Sheusually wore white, and the larger the hat the better she liked it.

  By the time Phyllis was twenty, she had read all that was good for her,and was ready to look at life itself with frankness, and judge it bystandards of her own. The windows of the Carlton Club knew Sir Peter nomore. She led him everywhere. You might have seen them at the Abbey oneday; on another in the Temple Gardens or looking up at Dr. Johnson'shouse, in Gough Square. Sir Peter gloomed in the doorways of shops whileshe made leisurely purchases within. He pointed out the best pictures inthe National Gallery; and could tell her why they were the best. Theymotored through England and France; Sir Peter absorbed in oldfortifications, Phyllis regardful of the babies tumbling through cottagedoorways. In London one often saw them walking in the park, her faceaglow with animation, her movements as free from constraint as a youngdeer; her flow of conversation never failing. Sir Peter, keeping step,regarded her, idolatrous. Unconsciously she showed him her soul, andlooking therein he found his eyes blurred with unexpected tears.

  Soft but imperious Phyllis! The theater bored Sir Peter beyondexpression. But on First Nights you might be certain he would have abox. Radiant Phyllis, in white silk, leaning forward eagerly to catchevery word, was tremulous with excitement at the end of the play. Duringthe drive homeward Sir Peter endeavored, artfully, to conceal that hehad slept through half an act.

  You may be sure that mothers with eligible sons invited him to dine;grumbling, but facing the inevitable, he accepted. His hawk's eyesglowered at the young men: from Cambridge and Oxford, but he invitedthem to his house. Coaxed by their mothers they called the first time,and thereafter were with difficulty restrained. Phyllis was kind toeach, and interested in all; but Sir Peter observed with satisfactionthat she was most pleased when they came in pairs. He chuckled over hismagazine, under a reading-lamp, at the far end of the library manytimes, while Phyllis entertained her admirers; but at times he scowled."Too fast, too fast, you young fool," he muttered to his white mustache.

  They were thoroughly agreeable young men, and Phyllis enjoyed it allhugely. She approached the consideration of the sex from a perfectlyfresh and candid point of view. Sir Peter had the benefit of herimpressions each morning with his egg and toast and tea. "The Times" hadlong since been banished from breakfast.

  One morning she was spiritless.

  "Uncle Peter, I have something very, very important to tell you."

  "I am listening most attentively, my dear."

  "Uncle Peter, you know Mr. Holroyd,--Mr. Mark Holroyd, I mean, not hisbrother Dick."

  "I can't say I know him very well, my dear. He has called several times,to be sure, and dined with us once. We have dined at General Holroyd'stwice, I think, when Mark was present. I believe he has made threeremarks to me: first, that Cambridge was slow; second, that he liked aDoherty racket best,--I think it was a Doherty he preferred; and third,that the Halls, this month, were--'rather.'"

  Phyllis's smile comprehended and confirmed

  "But he is very nice, Uncle Peter."

  "I have no doubt of it," said Sir Peter. "His father is one of thefinest men I have ever known; his mother was a Churchill. Is Mark toread for the Bar?"

  "Y-e-es," said Phyllis doubtfully. "I hope so. Oh! Uncle Peter, lastnight, in the hall----"

  "In the hall, eh?" interrupted Sir Peter.

  "Yes, dear, in the hall. He--he proposed to me. I told him I had neverthought of him in that way at all. And----"

  "I should hope not," said Sir Peter. He liked Mark well enough, butthere was plenty of time. And he made a mental memorandum to keep hiseye on the hall thereafter.

  "And, oh! Uncle Peter, he said the light had gone out of his life, andthat he could never get over such a crushing blow, and that he wished hewas--Uncle Peter, they--they always do get over it, don't they?"

  "In no time at all," replied Sir Peter briskly, and helped himself totoast. There was a pause.

  "Still, I doubt if Mr. Holroyd will get over it as quickly as that,"said Phyllis thoughtfully.

rdashers are a very present help in time of trouble," Sir Peterassured her. "They are a great comfort to young men in Mark'ssituation."

  When she kissed him good-bye for the day, he said:--

  "My little girl must wait a long while and meet many young men beforeshe finally--er--finally--you know,--eh?"

  But on that very afternoon she went with her friend, the Hon. MargaretNeville, to visit Saint Ruth's Social Settlement, in Whitechapel. Andthere she met John Landless. The Honorable Margaret introduced them.

  "Hullo, Mr. Landless--oh! Miss Oglebay--Mr. Landless. It's her firsttime here. Show her about a bit like a good chap, will you, while I lookfor to see what my angel children's sewing-class is doing so blithely,blithely?"

  John Landless looked at Phyllis, and Phyllis looked at John. If there isever love at first sight! Perhaps it never happens in this prosy oldtwentieth century. But, if it ever does, then--there you are.

  "It will be a pleasure to show you through the house," said John. "Iwish Dr. Thorpe, the warden, were here, though? you should meet him;he's great. That is Mrs. Thorpe--over there, talking to the woman who iscrying. She will have her straightened out before you can say JackRobinson,--and no nonsense either."

  It took a little longer than that, but in a few minutes the woman wentaway smiling; and then Phyllis met Mrs. Thorpe, who won her at once.

  "I leave you in good hands, Miss Oglebay," she said, when she was calledaway. "You will hear Saint Ruth's praises sung. We shall hope to see youhere often."

  "I am so glad I came," said Phyllis, "and you are very kind, Mr.Landless, to explain things to me. Are you certain I am not taking toomuch of your time?"

  "Oh, we will glance at my boys as we go along," replied John. "Theafternoons are not especially busy. The evenings are full, though, withclasses, and clubs, and games, and all that,--you know."

  They walked through the rooms devoted to social amelioration; to themental, physical and spiritual redemption of sordid lives. To theserooms men from the universities, impelled by a new conscience, bringtheir learning and their refinement. In these rooms men from thedocks--the flotsam and jetsam of humanity--receive their first glimpseof

  "Plato and the swing of Pleiades."

  While John explained the theory and practice of such social settlementsas Toynbee Hall, and Mansfield House, and Saint Ruth's, Phyllis foundtime to study his face. His black hair was cut short, but it curled forall that; his dark eyes were fine, the eyebrows very thick. His mouthclosed tightly, a little too tightly, perhaps. But his chin! "He willhave his way," thought Phyllis. She noticed that he stood very straight,that his shoulders were broad, and that his light gray suit became himwell.

  In the room to which the Hon. Margaret Neville consecrated ten hours aweek were a number of very small girls, trying to use needles withoutpricking their fingers, and not succeeding very well. John and Phyllisstood just outside the door, waiting for the dismissal of the class.

  Now, John Landless had a test for new acquaintances, a test evolved oftrying experience If she laughed now!--or said, "How odd!"

  "I find this work tremendously absorbing" said John, "and I hope I amhelpful, a little, you know. But besides all that I think the work helpsme in my profession."

  "Your profession," repeated Phyllis, turning toward him the sweet,interested face he was watching so intently. "May I ask what is yourprofession?"

  "I am a poet," said John simply, and awaited results.

  "That is a noble profession," said Phyllis "I am glad you have chosenit. I hope you will succeed in it." She colored. "And I believe youwill," she added. She was looking at his chin.

  Then, for the first time, Phyllis saw John's smile. He had a wonderfulsmile; the most winning; he should have smiled oftener; but life is aserious business to poets, especially at twenty-four.

  "It is good of you to say that," said John. "Almost every one roars.That is--the men. The girls giggle, or say, 'How curious!' I think youare the first girl who has ever taken it quite as a matter of coursethat a man might make poetry his profession. I am prepared to defend theprofession of poetry against the world, if need be; but I don't like tobe stared at while I am doing it."

  "I understand," replied Phyllis warmly. "If you said the Army, or theChurch, or Engineering, no one would be surprised or unsympathetic. Butthey think one should be a little ashamed of owning himself a poet. Somuch the worse for them," she concluded, nodding her pretty head andcatching her breath in that quick way of hers.

  "You're very kind to say so, but----" John was about to ask her if shewas sure she meant it. Looking into Phyllis's candid eyes he thoughtbetter of it.

  "Are any of your--that is--have you----?" she stammered, partly becausethe form of her question puzzled her; partly because she was aware ofJohn's ardent eyes.

  "Yes, I have been in the magazines three or four times," he replied. Heknew that question. "But I hope to bring out a little book of poems inthe spring."

  "I shall be eager to see it," said Phyllis.

  "Really?" asked John.

  "Of course," she replied, coloring again. Mark Holroyd had looked at herlike that; but how different it had been.

  "You shall have one of the first copies off the press," said John, in alow voice, "because you were one of the first to encourage me in allthis great London. And I shall write that in the book, if you will letme."

  Phyllis looked at him earnestly.

  "You must never be discouraged," she said slowly. "There will bedifficulties, of course, and obstacles, and--and hard places to getover. All the poets I have read about had a hard time at first. Butthere will be friends to believe in you, many of them, who will wish yousuccess in your profession."

  "If I could know there was one, at least," said John, his dark eyesglowing.

  Phyllis smiled at him. "There will be many," she repeated.

  The Honorable Margaret joined them, having delivered her closing remarksto her class; remarks somewhat pointed on the subject of noses andhandkerchiefs, but inclusive of cleanliness and godliness generally.

  "Splendid place, isn't it, Phil?" she remarked with enthusiasm. "Did yousee the dispensary, and the nursery, and the gymnasium and the laundry,and all around the shop?"

  "Yes, I think we saw everything," replied Phyllis. "Mr. Landless hasexplained it all in the most interesting way."

  "Will you come again?" asked John, as he stood at the curb, while theystepped into the Neville motor.

  "She's sure to," replied the Honorable Margaret promptly. "Saint Ruth'seats 'em alive. I came to scoff and remained to thread needles myself.Phyllis will be minding the babies in a month,--eh, Phil?"

  "I should love to come again," said Phyllis.

  "To-morrow?" asked John.

  "No," said the Honorable Margaret. "To-morrow's not my day. I come onThursday next."

  "I think it _would_ be convenient for me to come to-morrow," saidPhyllis. "Perhaps that nice Mrs. Thorpe, to whom you introduced me,could find something for me to do. I am afraid I shall have to be taughthow myself first, though."

  "Great Scott!" cried the Honorable Margaret, leaning back in the car."Saint Ruth has made one mouthful of you."

  "Good-bye, Mr. Landless. Thank you again," said Phyllis, extending acordial hand.

  "Until to-morrow," said John.

  He stood at the curb watching the receding car. When he reentered thehouse, his smile lighted his face wonderfully.

  "What do you think, Phyllis!" whispered the Honorable Margaret, her eyeon the chauffeur. "Mark Holroyd telephoned me at the Settlement. He toldme he needed bucking up a bit, and was coming to me to be comforted.He's to be at the house at nine. Isn't he the dearest fellow?"

  Phyllis opened her eyes wide; and then half closed them.

  "He is one of the dearest, Peggy," she said softly.