A Newport Aquarelle/Chapter 8
Mr. Larkington stood looking anxiously from his window, on the morning of the all-important day of Mr. Gray's picnic. That gentleman himself, passing by and catching a glimpse of Larkington's rather gloomy face, nodded reassuringly to him, as if to say that the little cloud which had just floated before the face of the sun did not mean anything. The weather would not think of doing so ill-judged a thing as to interfere with one of Mr. Gray Grosvenor's fêtes. So on passed the great man, wrapped in a mysterious vision of the new mode of cooking macaroni with madeira sauce, and the effect it would have upon the experienced palates of Mr. Belhomme and Mrs. Fallow-Deer.
Larkington's anxiety had no reference to the weather, or to the prospects of the picnic, but was centred in the small and dainty billet which his quick eye already detected in the hand of Stirrups, who appeared on the horizon, bearing down for the hotel.
Stirrups, a hideous little gnome of a groom, was dressed in a neat and precise livery, and walked gravely and composedly up to the side entrance of the hotel, giving a glance at the small window in the third story where he had rightly expected to see Larkington's face.
He passed through the hall and up the first flight of stairs with the slow and condescending step which these gentlemen of the rumble affect when they are obliged to touch the vulgar earth with their feet, being used to be carried by the swiftest steeds and driven by the fairest of ladies. In the upper corridor he saw no one, nor on the stairs above or below, and at once, losing the grand air and his slow step, he ran up the next two flights, taking three steps at a time, and rushed, without knocking, into his master's apartment. Breathless he thrust the letter into his hand, and stood panting, his eyes fixed on Larkington's face.
The master, without noticing the unceremonious entrance of the man, tore open the note, glanced at its contents, and, flushing with what he read, cried aloud,—
"It's all right, Stirrups! By Jove! I was nervous, though. What the —— kept you such a time?" Without waiting for an answer, Larkington continued: "Now we have n't more than time. I must be there at twelve o'clock. Bring the trap up and look sharp. Remember you are to be missing when the break-up comes. I shall stay till the last."
Stirrups did "look sharp," and at twelve o'clock precisely the wheels of Mr. Larkington's dogcart crunched along the gravel driveway which led to Mrs. Fallow-Deer's house. Gladys heard the sound and it made her shiver.
" 'Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to ——.'
Not a very pretty place to talk about," she cried, as she rose slowly from her seat in Mrs. Fallow-Deer's morning-room.
"What an odd girl you are, Gladys! Well, good-by. I shall be out, tell Gray Grosvenor, by half-past one. Make him wait luncheon till I come. Don't forget your dish of croquettes, nor the champagne; they are all packed in a basket in the hall. Are you warmly enough dressed, child? How pale you look! Give your cheeks a little rub, so! That's better. Now trot along, and remember what I said to you at breakfast."
Gladys did look pale, and listless too, as she stepped into the dogcart, steadied by Mr. Larkington's hand; but he thought she never before had looked so lovely. There was a shadow in the eyes, which were usually so open and clear, without dissimulation or consciousness.
Larkington was not quite himself either, and the two people, who usually chatted like magpies on the hundred light topics which are the straws on which society conversations are kept afloat, hardly spoke during the drive to the picnic ground.
Stirrups, sitting behind with folded arms and stony face, seemed to feel the constraint of his betters, which he himself shared.
At the entrance of the Glen, the spot chosen for the picnic, they encountered Mr. Gray Grosvenor, who welcomed them cordially but hurriedly. He was one of those hosts who cannot give themselves time to welcome quietly the guests who have arrived, but whose eyes and thoughts are forever wandering to the next comers, who may be of more importance than the ones whom he is at that moment greeting.
"Ah, how de doo, Miss Gladys? Ah, um, um, Larkington, delighted to see you. Basket? oh yes, um, yes, thanks, yes; give it to the waiter. Good of you, I'm sure. Yes, yes, you 'll find my sister in the Glen. Wait for Mrs. Fallow-Deer? oh, um, yes, yes, of course, of course." And he turned to speak to some later arrivals.
Larkington drove down the picturesque road which hangs over a miniature precipice, with a miniature stream at the bottom, and a large mill and mill-wheel, "as romantic in its appearance as the one used in Sonnambula at Her Majesty's," so Larkington said.
The road leads into a wide, open space, with enough shade trees to insure coolness, but without a trace of dampness. Long tables were spread beneath the tall oaks, and dainties of every kind loaded the boards.
The little brook ran babbling merrily by on one side, but its melody was quickly drowned in the loud strains of an orchestra, hidden by a group of thick palm-trees, brought out from town for the occasion. A dancing pavilion with a smooth floor had been built up during the previous day and night, and was gayly decorated with flags, Japanese lanterns, fans, and umbrellas.
The Glen was in holiday dress, tricked out with every art of the decorator and florist. The lovely green turf, with its sprinkling of fragrant pine-needles, might not touch the silken-clad feet of the ladies, though, and rich rugs were spread about to keep the delicate shoes from contact with mother earth's fairest carpet. The very stems of the dignified oak-trees were garlanded with colored streamers. They looked abashed at all these trappings, the poor country trees, and rustled uncomfortably at the incongruity of their appearance.
Two great elm-trees stand side by side at the lower part of the Glen, fair enough to be the scene of the revels of the fairy queen, and between their straight trunks one can look out and see the river, or arm of the sea, which washes the pebbly shore. But the simplicity of the view and its quiet beauty had evidently annoyed the perverted taste of Mr. Gray Grosvenor or his assistants, and an arch of sunflowers spanned the distance which intervened between the two great trees, so that even that view was spoiled to the few among the company who knew and loved the Glen in its wild and natural beauty.
Among those few persons who were not so loud in praises of the "beautiful decorations" as the rest of the company were Mrs. Craig and Count Clawski! How they came there, what power had been brought to bear on Gray Grosvenor to induce him at the eleventh hour to revoke his decision to leave out the pretty little Baltimorean, Gladys was not able to discover. But there she was, all smiles and roses and dimples, as pretty a creature in her rainbow draperies as was to be seen on that bright summer morning.
The Count, who was something of an artist, was really a good deal disturbed by the sunflowers and Japanese decorative knick-knacks, which he affirmed would spoil his appetite.
Mrs. Craig, who in heart had loved the whole Jardin Mabille appearance of the place, quickly took the cue from him, and said, sotto voce, to Gladys,—
"Shocking bad taste; don't you think so, dear?"
"I had not thought about it," said Gladys, frankly. "There is perhaps a little too much of it, but you know I am rather barbaric in my taste and like all sorts of gay-colored things."
The majority of the guests were of Gladys's opinion, and on the arrival of Mrs. Fallow-Deer the whole company—some sixty souls—sat down to meat in high spirits and with excellent appetites. Meat, did I say? Ay, and to fish of every sort, and game,—all that there was in or out of season,—shell fish, too, from the beatific little neck clam to the rubicund lobster, pâtés and game pies, galantines and roast fowls, Mayonnaises, Lyonnaises, fry'on'aiseys, mushrooms, jellies, ices, blanc-manges, fruits, cakes, wines, cordials, and finally, by way of a saving grace, coffee.
"I notice that the Americans have the largest appetites and the worst digestions of any people in the world," said Count Clawski to his left-hand neighbor, Gladys Carleton.
The Count's appetite was missing on this festive occasion, and it was owing to this fact that he spoke so bitterly, and thought so bitterly too, of the dinner last night at Mrs. Craig's, where he had overeaten himself. However, his ill temper was too small a drop of gall in the cup of jollity of the company to have any noticeable effect, and the luncheon went off as gayly as possible.
Mr. Belhomme and Mr. Gray Grosvenor toasted each other, and were more friendly than they had been since their memorable dispute over the best method of serving chicken livers, which had interrupted for two years a friendship of a lifetime. Society agreed that it was better that they did make the matter up, for it would be difficult to decide which of the two gourmets was the better authority on chicken livers, as they both had every reason to consider themselves connoisseurs in this particular dish.
Mrs. Fallow-Deer tasted of nearly every dish, and grew rosier and jollier at every course.
Of all the guests there gathered, two only seemed a little out of the general tone of mirth and jollity, and these two were the very ones in whom we have the most interest. Gladys Carleton was inclined to be quiet and distraite, eating little, and that little with nervous haste. Larkington's appetite was not so voracious as it might have been, considering the fact that for the last week he had breakfasted on a roll from the bake-shop brought in surreptitiously by Stirrups, and a cup of tea made over the gas-burner by that same devoted individual, who, as financial affairs grew darker for his master, became more and more familiar with him, and comforted by a touching devotion the man to whom he was loyally attached.
The very rolls for the morning's scanty meal were bought with the gratuities which Stirrups had received from various of his master's friends, in compensation for some slight services. The cigar which Larkington had smoked on the morning of the picnic had been given to Stirrups by Mr. Belhomme, a week before, when he had taken a stone from the hoof of that gentleman's horse. The groom, foreseeing the not unprecedented state of affairs which was approaching, had put by the fragrant Havana, and on the morning of the memorable picnic had it beside Larkington's plate at his frugal breakfast.
If the master did not make a good luncheon, the man, with glistening eyes, surveyed the luxuriously spread tables, and chose the various dishes which he would attack vigorously, when the time should come for him and his fellows to gather up the fragments of the feast.
At last—it seemed to the hungry Stirrups a very long luncheon—Mr. Gray Grosvenor rose from his chair, and the worshipful company of the elect had finished their mid-day repast, whose chief and greatest charm had been that it had been eaten beneath the canopy of God's blue sky, between the walls of living green, and in the pure air, sweet with the stacks of new-mown grass and clover in the field hard by.
The sunflowers in stiff florist's garlands, the colored paper gewgaws, were, to an over-sensitive mind, a discord; but few among the guests detected the inharmoniousness of trimming, with art intended to be decorative, one of the most beautiful bits of nature in the idyllic island. And there was not one among them who was not made the better, the more kindly, by that day passed among the ferns and sweet-briers of Glen Anna.
The dance in the pavilion was rather a failure. Somehow, the incongruity of the little stiff town bouquets and the flimsy favors seemed to strike most of the company, and the cotillon only included the army of veteran waltzers, grown old in the practice of their favorite step, of whom Gray Grosvenor was the major-general.
The young people wandered off in groups, some of them climbing the hill to get a wider view. Others explored the damp and mildewed granaries of the old mill, while all to whom the seaboard was native were drawn to the beach, where the wavelets gently lapped the stony shore.
At the back of the narrow beach rises a bank on which some charitable person has placed a bench beneath the shadow of a group of heavy shade trees. On this bench Gladys and Larkington seated themselves, and the girl, collecting a heap of flat pebbles at her feet, tried to skip them across the water.
Larkington watched her as she rose and stood, intent on making her pebbles skip three times; she was so willowy and graceful, standing just beside him, touching him with her dress, quite within his reach, that he longed to stretch out his arms and clasp the round waist, the graceful shoulders, the charms which every line of the dark blue dress outlined or concealed.
It would be so much easier, so much more natural, to ask her then the question which he knew he must that day ask her, when she could guess, from the beating of his heart, the meaning of the words which might come incoherently; if he could but once touch her lips with his own, the frosty spell that held him silent would be broken and he could give words to the feelings which troubled him. If he only dared—they were alone—why not? Why should he not woo her as he had the flaxen-haired German girl who now loved him as she had ever since the day when they had first kissed in the shadow of the Black Forest. Poor Frieda! why should he remember her, so long since deserted, on this splendid day, when he sat at the feet of another woman whom he loved with the full force of his being?
The chill of the reminiscence, the cool look in the eyes of Gladys Carleton as she stooped to pick up another pebble, arrested his arms stretched impulsively toward her. He altered his attitude rather clumsily, and sprang to his feet as if the gesture which she had seen had been only an effort to steady himself in rising.
But Gladys had both seen and understood it, and after making a last and most successful toss of her biggest stone, she said,—
"I think we had better go back now; don't you?"
As they rejoined the party, the band was striking up the music for a Virginia reel. The long lines were formed upon the greensward, and were headed by Mrs. Fallow-Deer and Mr. Gray Grosvenor.
"Stand at the foot, Miss Gladys and Larkington!" cried the light-footed and lighter-witted host. "Now then, off we go!"
And off they did go at a great pace, Mrs. Fallow-Deer dancing to Larkington, and Mr. Gray Grosvenor bowing to Gladys. Down the long row of dancers that intervened between the head and the foot, tripped the young-hearted matron and bobbed a courtesy, back again, and down once more to turn, giving the right hand, then to favor Larkington with the left. Then both pudgy hands were offered to the long-limbed Englishman, who could shake a foot in the reel with the best of them. Her rotund back contrasted with his sinewy outline in the dos-à-dos, and then began the turning of the gentlemen. First came the breathless dowager to Count Clawski, who with a grave court bow turned her slowly and sedately about, and returned her to Gray Grosvenor, waiting for his partner after having squeezed the pretty hand of Mrs. Craig until her ring cut her finger. Mr. Belhomme next hopped briskly about her portly form, doing all the turning himself, and again she returned to the charge of Gray Grosvenor, who, after another turn, relinquished her to her son, a graceless youth, who clasped his mother's waist and whirled her off her feet. At last after many adventures she reached the foot, exhausted but cheerful, and the next couple had their turn.
It was a grand dance, everybody said when it was over, and Mrs. Fallow- Deer received many congratulations on her brisk dancing.
Larkington's spirits had been raised to a very high point by the dance, and a parting bottle of champagne cracked with Count Clawski failed to lower them. When the time came for him to lift Gladys into the dogcart, he felt equal to any feat of prowess, even that of asking this tall proud girl if she would be his wife, and accept the endowment of all his worldly goods, which at that moment might easily have been packed in his large portmanteau, in exchange for the millions which he supposed to be her dower.
Gladys, too, seemed less like a statue than she had been half an hour before by the seashore. Her pale cheeks were a little flushed from the long fatiguing reel, her dark heavy hair had become somewhat loosened, and one perfumed mesh had escaped from the comb which fastened it.
As Larkington helped her into the carriage, the wind blew the soft tress against his lips; it felt like a caress, and he sprang after her, taking the reins from the strange groom who held them.
"I have lost my man; it's a most extraordinary thing; he is usually the most steady, punctual creature. I am afraid that Mr. Gray Grosvenor treated the coachmen too well, and that Stirrups did not show himself because he knew it would be better for him not to be seen," said Larkington.
"I suppose you can manage the horses for once without the moral support of your groom, and, as a consoling thought, remember that I am an excellent whip."
"If you can manage horses half as well as you manage men, Miss Gladys, I would back your driving against the field."
"I suppose you mean that for a compliment, Mr. Larkington, but, upon my word, I do not consider it such. I have never before been told that 'managing' was one of my characteristics."
"I did not mean that; you are perverse, but it does not matter. You look just as lovely when you play at being cross as when you are smiling. I wish you would always wear that wreath of oak leaves on your hat; it makes you look so much more like the girls at home, and so much less of a great lady."
Gladys did not quite understand this speech. How could she fancy that Larkington, moved by a real feeling, had half forgotten himself, and told her frankly what was in his mind? At the nutting parties in the village where he had grown up, the girls used all to wear these pretty chaplets on their uncovered heads, when they came home together, their tin pails filled with fruit, their hands stained with the juices of the nuts.
A look of surprise in the girl's face showed him what he had said, and, remembering the business he had in hand, he determined to plunge in medias res, and so, gathering all his forces together, he said with a voice that was not quite natural,—
"Of course you must have seen how much I am in love with you, Gladys, and I cannot stand the uncertainty any longer; will you marry me?"
Gladys thought, of all the proposals she had ever listened to,—they had been in number exactly twenty-five, an average of one a year for her whole life,—this one certainly was the most abrupt. But she had been prepared for it, and with a sense of thankfulness for the form in which the fatal question had been asked, she said quietly, her eyes fixed on the rumble of Mrs. Fallow-Deer's carriage in front of them,—
"Yes, I will."
For he had not asked her if she loved him, and she had been spared the lie, which her proud lips could hardly have spoken.