The Heart of Miranda (Collection)/The Heart of Miranda
The Heart of Miranda
I. The Popinjay
Miranda came forth into the garden and looked about her. The sun shone through deeps of blue, the spring flowers were blowing, the young breezes of the morning fluttered her bright hair. Her white gown trembled and wavered. In her large eyes the light gleamed as on the surface of deep pools. Merrily sang the birds as they flitted among the trees. Her gaze wandered abroad, from the garden, fresh with its early dews, to the rolling hills and distant valleys, shrouded in the golden haze of the morning. She smiled at the landscape. Something knocked at Miranda's heart. Miranda felt the world was full of charm; it held something in keeping for her, something unknown and wonderful and fair. Of what does a young maid dream in the fresh morning? Soft and blooming from her sleep, she surveyed the world and its bountiful contents. All things lovely came to lie at Miranda's feet. She could have danced for gaiety; she could have sung for happiness. What enchanting avenues of pleasure opened out before her eyes! Something was waiting for her; she wondered what. Its nature and its quality evaded her; but she had a vague vision of a great glory near by, ready for her discovery. Her pulse beat fast. Something mysterious was creeping into her heart. She was but a child in years. How could she know? Within the phantasmagoria of her dreams she wandered in innocence. The air that breathed about her forehead she smiled at for pleasure; the sun that shone so warmly on her cheeks she laughed at for sheer delight; the flowers that nodded on their stalks she kissed for very happiness. Youth, spring, and loveliness blossomed in Miranda's heart.
Miranda looked down the pathway and wondered. She could not rest within doors. The mystery in her heart turned her steps away into the garden and the world, to seek, to seek—she wondered what. Her soul went out among the flowers and rejoiced, and then crept back and nestled in its home, marvelling. She yearned for something other than the flowers and the sunshine, something in harmony with them. Would she find it at the end of the pathway, or in the wide world? She tripped down the steps and set forth.
At the corner of the garden, where the stile led into the lane, Miranda paused. A pretty youth peeped over the hedge and gazed upon her. Before the admiration in his glance Miranda's eyes fell. She fingered the daffodils at her breast until he should be gone, but when she looked up again he was still there. Miranda stamped her little foot.
"When you have stared your fill, Sir," said she, "perhaps I shall have leave to pass."
He plucked off his hat and asked her pardon, and his hair hung in curls.
"You shall have all the liberty I can give you, fair maid," said he, "if I, too, may pass with you."
"But why?" asked Miranda, smoothing her flowers, with downcast eyes.
He smiled a pretty smile. "Oh," says he, "but you know you are beautiful. The pretty must always have full knowledge of their own prettiness." And he preened his bare head with an elegant white hand and smiled to himself.
Miranda looked up. He was quite the most ravishing creature she had seen. She wondered. Miranda looked down, and the scent of the garden passed into her soul. He put out his hand to help her over the stile, but she kept her eyelids lowered.
"Will you not trust me?" he lisped. She shook her head, and mounted the first stage.
"Of what age?" he asked sweetly. She climbed the steps one by one.
"Eighteen," she answered shyly.
"Jump," he cried, "and I will catch you."
He opened his arms; she looked and hesitated. She put her face aside and crept down the steps demurely.
"Cruel!" he murmured, using his soft eyes upon her. He sighed and turned away. Miranda surveyed the valley mistily.
"'Tis a sweet age for a maid," said he at length.
Miranda laughed. She clapped her hands in the glory of the springtide.
"And mine own can match it," he went on. "Betwixt yours and mine are but a summer or two."
"'Tis a fine age for a man," says Miranda, slyly.
He turned swiftly and took her hand. Miranda's heart stopped dead.
"Think you so, sweet?" he asked softly. "I have long looked for such a maid as you. We should make a pretty pair."
Miranda's heart beat slowly.
"What does it mean?" said Miranda.
"It means," said he, "my sweet, that the world is ours before us, that time and space are browbeat out of reckoning, that life is love and love is life, my darling."
"What is love?" asked Miranda.
"Look in my face," he said, "and, faith, sweetheart, you shall see it there. It is engraven on my heart for you; it is imprinted in my eyes. Every negotiation of this body is but for you. Come, let me gaze into your soul, and see what you have sight of in this soul of mine."
"I see it not," said Miranda.
He seized her fingers. "Let me kiss your hand," said he.
"No, no!" said Miranda.
"Your lips!" he cried.
"Hush! hush!" said Miranda.
Her face blew red; she snatched her hand away, and turned aside. With a light step, he followed after, pleading in her ears.
"You love me, dear; I know you love me," he whispered. It is but your innocence that keeps you from the knowledge. Have I not seen the light in other eyes, and shall I not judge? Faith, dear, hundreds have pined for these blue eyes of mine."
Miranda's heart went to and fro about its business.
"You are mistaken," said she, sedately; "the light in my eyes, if so there be a light, is the dancing of the sun. As for this love, I know it not. And you," she cried, looking upon him with a little scorn, "whatever you may see in your own, as you bow and caper before your mirror, pray pause and question if it be not merely the reflection of a very precious vanity, the admiration of your own fine person. You are a pretty fellow," says she, surveying him.
He smirked and bowed.
"I vowed you would see it soon," said he, complacently.
"But for my own taste," quoth Miranda, cocking her head upon one side, "you smack overmuch of the toilet-table. You are composed too daintily as a waxen image; you are prepared too fragrantly as with my lady's powder. You are too tricked with all the fashions at your service."
"Madame," says he in astonishment, "your tongue is awry to-day. It is some bitterness, surely, makes you so reckless of your words."
"Nay," said Miranda, soberly; "but I am cool enough. I but survey you as you are in all your maiden vanity. You offer me love, and what do I that know not the foolish term make out this love to be? Why, forsooth, yourself is all it comes to; yourself, or as much as goes to make yourself, of all the tricks and elegances of the hour. I would take no love at such an estimate. It comes with the hour, and with the hour it goes. Sir, 'tis not worth the time of a 'pish' or a 'tush.'"
"You have a vile temper," he rejoined, crossly; "I have never met a maid with such a shrewish wit as yours—no, not among the thousands that have loved me. What have I done to offend you? But I know the way of a maid's tongue," he said, wagging his head; "if she be crossed even by the slipping of an epithet, she will straightway fall into a very tempest of rage and deny the dearest idol of her heart. Lord, how perverse she will be! Come, sweet my love, and tell me how I have offended, for it is not in reason but you must love me."
"Love you!" cried Miranda, and laughed to the sky. She looked him up and down. "I like not your nose," quoth she, "'tis too straight for my taste—'tis wonderful how monotonous a nose maybe. And your eyes," she exclaimed, "Heavens! of what pale China blue, as the eyes of an idol grinning on his thousand worshippers! There is less colour in a kind of blue I know than in any honest puddle of mud. And, oh! my pretty sir, to find the petulance of a maid pouting on the lips of a youth! 'Tis so unseemly. Those curling locks, too, I cannot abide. On my soul, they are more lady-like and bewitching than mine own, and no woman would forgive such an affront upon her vanity. Love you, sweet sir! I love not a mannikin, designed by Mother Nature as fit company for the lapdog on my lady's knee. Give me a man," says Miranda, blazing into anger; "give me a man with a soul and body fashioned for manhood."
He stamped his foot, and made as though to seize her by the wrist, but stopped.
"Pooh!" he sneered, as he turned away; "'tis a comfort fair women fade so fast."
II. The Bells Of Folly
Miranda ran into the meadow laughing. The grassy slope shelved down into the valley, where the wood lay black and still. Daffodils nodded and cowslips bowed as she passed upon her way. A lark got up and rose singing to heaven. She sped out of the shadow and into the sunlight, and the sound of her young laughter floated down the valley; echoes joined it there, and the little ravine gurgled with merriment. Miranda stopped, with her chin in the air, and listened. Was it all the echo of her own delight, or was it something more? The peal of her mockery died into the sombre copse, and out of it, fresh and clear, a voice trilled merrily on its upward way. Miranda stood and waited.
He came up the bank of wild flowers, his face bright with the love of life and laughter, and at the sight of her he paused. The two faced each other for a while in silence, and then a smile ran round Miranda's lips, and the young man's eyes sparkled with merriment.
"I took your laughter for a signal," said he, making his beaming salutations; "but I reckoned little upon so charming an assignation."
"It was but a signal of the spring, Sir," says she, with a dainty bow.
"Nay," he replied; "I make no such distinctions between the seasons. I laugh the whole year through; it is the manner of the wise. You will perceive my jocund humour, fair mistress. Believe me, 'tis not the whim of an hour contrived by the guiles of a spring morning; but a very settled disposition of the mind. I am broad-based upon gaiety."
"Ah! to be gay!" cried Miranda; "to be gay is to live."
"Life is at our feet," said the merry youth. "I take an infinite pleasure in its complexities. Believe me, nothing should matter, save the twinkling of an eye or the dimpling of a cheek."
"You are right," said Miranda, smiling. "How can one have enough of laughter?"
"We are of one mind," he answered pleasantly. "Let us go into our corner and be merry together."
"Why not?" says Miranda. "Why not?"
"There are ten thousand pleasures in this silly world," he went on; "and, for myself, I have not yet exhausted the tenth part of them. Count my years, then, and make three-score-and-ten the dividend, and what remains? Pack them into the hours never so neatly, and you will not exhaust the store. And that is why I am a spendthrift of pleasures. I eke not out my delights. I would burn twenty in a straw hat out of sheer caprice, and toss a dozen to the ducks upon the lake for pity."
"Yes, yes," agreed Miranda.
"Time—" he continued, with fine scorn. "Time has discovered us a conspiracy of the ages to enthrone this Melancholy. But we are no traitors to our rightful king, you and I; and we will clap a crown upon the head of Laughter, and lay the usurper by the heels in his proper dungeon."
"He were better there," replied Miranda, thoughtfully.
"There is never a care," he resumed, "upon which we may not trample, not a trouble which we may not forget. What a fool is he who would nurse his sorrow and not bury it in the deepest grave!"
"What a fool!" murmured Miranda, dreamily.
"Should one lose a friend, a fig for friendship!" quoth he. "Does one cast a lover, a snap for a hundred lovers! What has been remains, and what is shall be."
Miranda said nothing.
"Subtract love from life," said the young man, "and life remains. I would have the world know that love is a pleasant cipher, an amiable and entertaining mood, and that life is left when love is lost. There is no Love. It were more truly writ in the plural and spelled with a small letter."
Miranda turned upon him swiftly. "Fie! fie!" said she, and the light flashed in her eyes. "I know nothing of this Love, but I dare swear there be things that matter. Take these from life, and what will rest over? Is there not Sorrow, and is there not Pain? Is there not Remorse, and is there not the thing called Sin? I know nothing of these; I am too young to the world. But there they stand, Sir, importuning at our doors with outstretched arms, and one has only to lift the latch to let them in. You would deny the very pulse of human nature when you ignore these evils. You would forswear the very weaknesses which have composed for you your sentiments."
In the excitement of her retort Miranda's face flushed and grew bright. Wide-eyed, the young man stared at her and forgot to laugh, and when she had done his head dropped and he sighed.
"Ah," she said, "you sigh. You yourself have felt and suffered. You have belied yourself! You sigh. There are facts in life even for sighs."
"'Tis true," he answered softly, "yet I sighed for pleasure."
"What pleasure?" she asked curiously.
"Or it may be hope," he added.
He looked at her, and his gaze was mild and wistful. She regarded him in perplexity, and then a wild flush took her in the cheek and throat.
"Pooh! pooh!" she cried, and turned off, plucking at the hawthorn bush. The white may smelled rank, but strange and soothing; the petals shivered and fell. Miranda's heart beat on, wondering. Something clapped at its doors again and again. Would she open? What was this impatient visitor that pleaded so for entrance? She had so little knowledge; she was but newly arrived upon the world. Her emotions were still strangers to her; she was a pilgrim still among her new sensations. Ought she to open? Nay, to stay so and wonder was surely pleasantest. One day she would throw wide the doors and look. But now it was sweet to feel that hand upon the knocker, that clutching at the latch, and lie trembling within in feigned insecurity. She turned and faced him. Straightway the clamour ceased, and in her heart was silence. She looked him coldly in the face.
"You smile for love?" she asked.
"Yes, dear," said he, "and for the thought of you."
"Oh, you take me too lightly," she broke out. "You do not guess what a solemn thing this Love may be. You flutter into a thousand follies on the scantest reflection. You will dance, and you will play, and you will jingle-jangle through your holiday world without a thought for anything but pirouettes and jigs and whirligigs of laughter. The most sonorous of sacred sorrows may sound in your ears, and wake no echo but a jape within your heart. And you would put me upon that dead plane of ribald merriment with yourself? I will laugh with you. Yes; I will go beg of you for jests in my jocund seasons. I am willing to shriek over your whimsicalities at my own pleasure. In my serene, unthinking moments I will be content to exchange humours with you, and to vow life were void and dull were not such as you at my beck. But when I have opened my chamber and fastened the door upon myself my soul and I shall be alone together; and I will weep, and pity, and repent, and ache out my heart with sorrow in which you can have no lot. I am young, but I have an inkling of what the world may mean."
"The world," said he, "means happiness."
"The world," she retorted, "means tears, and bitter wringing of the hands. Have I not heard of Death? And have I not seen Pain? You think me gay, yet how long shall I keep this gaiety in my heart? I go round upon the wheel. It turns and changes. What shall befall to-morrow that I should not weep to-day? You would pluck me with no greater consideration than you would pick a flower from its stalk wherewith to deck your coat. Should it wither or fall adust, another will serve until the coming of the wine. Look you, you will sigh and weep for love, and your sighs will be smiles, and your tears will be laughter. Forthright your heart is singing like a lark. Yours! yours is the shallowest of paltry passions."
"I would do much for you," said he.
"Give up your dimples," cried Miranda, "and so to the churchyard with a wry face."
"Even that," he answered, nodding.
"Pah!" said she, "you will not contain your face lugubriously for five minutes by the clock. Though you shall remember to be sober for two sentences, at the third you will be whistling, and the fourth will find you holding your sides."
He moved a step towards her.
"And if I should die for you?" he asked pleadingly.
Miranda gasped. She contemplated his face with uncertainty. His eyes shone with the dew of tears; his hands trembled; it was the corner of his mouth betrayed him. Miranda burst into laughter.
"You!" she cried. "You! Why, you would forget my coffin as it passed, and the colour of my face ere my back was upon you. See here," she said; "I will give you to the hedge for misery; but I swear you will take the lane as jauntily as an hour since. Get you gone, my merry man, and come again to dispute with me in an idle humour. Fie! fie! to think on you and Death in the same company!"
He sighed and turned away.
"You have the smallest heart of any maid I know," he said, shaking his head.
"The better for my laughter," laughed Miranda.
He moved across the meadow, his head hanging, his eyes downcast, his stick dragging among the daisies. Miranda stared after him, her lips parted in amusement. He climbed the stile, and, stopping on the topmost step, turned to her again.
"I have at least one solace," he called across the meadow. "I shall forget your fickle face by night."
Miranda's laughter touched the skies and ceased. Her face fell thoughtful; she sighed and shrugged her dainty shoulders.
III. The Philosophy of Love
"Is there such a thing as Love?" asked Miranda.
Overhead the larks sung, about her the blackbirds carolled; finch called to finch in the hedgerows. Wrinkled with her thoughts, Miranda walked down the slope into the field of young green corn, and, pausing on the verge of the wheat, looked across the valley.
"Is there such a thing as Love?" she asked.
She shaded her eyes to the East. The morning still lay like a golden shroud upon the horizon, and through that veil she could not pierce. She wondered what reached beyond that remote, mysterious brightness. If the sun would but disperse those aureoles of the East, she would, perhaps, see clearly what she guessed at vaguely. The valley was her own, informed and animated by her own fancy, free to her wandering feet, charged full of sweet beatitudes, smiling with flowers, and lovely with the serene possession of life and happiness. But Miranda had, somehow, a dim sense of confinement within those golden mists. Her life was beautiful and fortunate, but the walls of the world came so close upon her. She wanted the key of the wicket to pass out upon the mountains. Was there nothing beyond the birds and the flowers and the waving fields of wheat? Something troubled Miranda!
There was none to guide her. What passed beyond the mists and what fell across the mountains? She was sure she should know some day, but she wanted to know now. So many mysteries flitted through Miranda's mind.
"If there is no Love," said Miranda, "what is ringing at my heart? Is it Love, is it Death, or is it merely the desire and delight of life? Oh, for an interpreter!" she sighed.
In the little pathway through the corn a bird lay dead. Miranda stooped and smoothed its ruffled feathers.
"Is it Pity?" she asked. "Perhaps it is Pity," she said.
She could not dissever her emotions; they ran together in confusion. The one faded into the other. How fast the blood fled through Miranda's body! How full was Miranda's soul!
"He must be very tender," thought Miranda, stroking the poor dead creature. "He must be very kind and true. How shall I know him? What does it mean?"
The wind sang through the wheat, and seemed to bear snatches from over the mountains to her ears. They stirred her strangely. She threw her arms up in despair.
"Oh, I shall never love!" sighed Miranda, "for love is all a figment."
"So young a maid, and yet so harsh a creed," said a voice behind her.
Miranda started, and hung her head for shame.
"If I have trespassed upon your thoughts," said the voice, "it was through the inadvertence of an impulse. Forgive me. I should have passed and left you to your trouble."
"I am in no trouble," said Miranda, glancing shyly at the stranger. "I was but wondering."
"The most of our life is wonder, and the rest regret," said he.
"Mine is all wonder, Sir," she answered.
He nodded his head kindly.
"Yes," he sighed. "The garden still encloses you. You are not yet upon the road. And the garden is full of flowers, and the road winds through hot and arid tracts to death."
Miranda looked at him timidly, and he was watching the valley with a gentle smile. Hope danced through Miranda's heart. Was this then her interpreter, who would put a meaning upon her unknown wonders and solve the mysteries that beset her?
"Yet those in the garden may dream of the road," she said; "and I am perplexed with many things."
"This Love," he answered, smiling, "most of all."
Miranda blushed. "'Tis true," she murmured.
"Love, poor child," said the stranger, "is a tyrannous enemy, but a decent friend. It were better in chains than above an altar."
"Is it not good?" she asked in surprise.
He leaned upon the gate. "It is easily mistook," he said slowly. "Who am I to convince you? But my years in the world have taught me to regard it at the best as a very tender tie of friendship."
"But, oh!" says Miranda.
"Child," said he, "you will cry your heart out for it, and once it is gained will cry out your heart because of it. Believe me, Love is a steady flame, and neither leaps nor splutters."
"How may one tell it?" whispered Miranda.
"Shall one say by the voice?" he answered. "Shall one speak of the touch, or the look? Maybe, a little breathlessness will mark it."
"I have that now," says she.
"Well, well," he replied; "but 'tis of a long growth and very gentle."
"And may not one love at sight?" asked Miranda.
He laughed. "My child, 'twould be the veriest folly and bitterly repented. Never yet came true love but by slow years of wont. A face—a face is a shadow that passes. Eyes—eyes flicker and fade. Lips—lips are for food and laughter. The hair decays; the body dwindles and withers; the comely limbs grow shrunken and hollow. If you would hold by these, my dear, you would put your trust in the flying hour."
Miranda's eyes opened large and wide. She stared at him. Her underlip quivered. She gave a little sob, and at the sound he turned to her. For the first time her face came full into the sunlight, and her eyes met his. He took her hand; she hid her face.
"Why, child——" said he.
"Is it so?" she whispered, "and is it really so? Will all this come to me?"
He looked in her eyes again, and drew a sharp breath.
"Dear," he answered, "it is the way of mortal clay."
"But, ah!" he cried, "surely the gods will spare such sweetness till the end."
He held her hand still. She wondered.
"And must one wait so long?" she asked.
He shook his head. "I believe," said he, fiercely, "that upon occasion Love may come at sight."
"Why," said she, opening her eyes in wonder, "a little ago it was the veriest folly!"
"Ah, dear," he answered, "forgive me. I was blind, and saw not. Philosophy and I rolled into the ditch." Miranda stared at him. He smiled and sighed. "But when it comes," said he, "it comes indeed. The skies open, the flowers blow sweetly, every shred of green corn is fragrant. Love, believe me, is a very comfortable possession."
"Is it not gentle?" asked Miranda.
"Ah, so gentle!" he replied. "It wraps you round like a soft fur; it soothes you; you may sit and dine and sleep with easy thoughts if Love but guard you. Love is like a good wine, that mellows the heart and quickens the understanding."
He moved a little closer to her.
"Were one to love like this," said Miranda, "would the heart be then at rest? Would it throb less loudly in one's side? Would such a love fulfil the most exigent desires of human nature? What part would so smooth a sentiment fill in one's life?"
"Passion," he answered, "is the bubble that we blow in youth. It is the creature of our own imagination, fails with our pulse, and expires upon the indrawing of a breath. How many have I seen wrecked upon passion, incredulous that it would be gone with the fall of the sun or the waking of the birds! Love, child, is no passion, but the sweetest of contentments. Served in a daily fare, it will preserve Peace and Health and Wisdom. What would you have beyond these? For, behold! the greatest of all is Peace."
"Peace!" sighed Miranda.
He went towards her. "Ah, sweet," he murmured, "Peace should be our fortune should we go through life together. Come, place your hand in mine, and we will dispel these rebel wildings from your heart. Look round and see the spring. All things keep serene and quiet holiday. Pluck out distrust; forget these treacherous longings! A happy childhood shall surely preface a comfortable career of ease."
Miranda hesitated; her pretty brows were puckered with doubt. At his bidding she looked around. Nature smiled at her. The face of the world shone with gaiety. Somewhere in the elms a throstle sang of Love and mystery. She turned and gazed into the stranger's face, and his kindly eyes seemed dull and old. Spring and the sunshine and the song of birds lay not therein. She shook her head.
"I want not comfortable ease," she answered sadly; "I would not take it at so great a sacrifice. See, there are other things in Nature save peace. What of this dead bird, callow from the nest? Is it nought but peace I hear in yonder singing in the trees? Hark! what secret is the young corn breathing to itself? Nay, what is even this poor ignorant heart of mine faltering within me? All around I see witnesses to some greater glory than this ease of which you speak. The strokes of my pulse beat folly, you will say. Well, I will pursue their folly until wisdom comes. Do not let me from my own. I can but follow where myself am leader."
"Nay," he said; "follow rather where I lead—I who have years of wisdom. You are very sweet to me. Your eyes are soft and beautiful."
"Eyes flicker and fade," said Miranda with a smile.
"Your form is young and lissom."
"The body dwindles, "quoth she, pouting.
"Your lips——" he began.
"Are for food and laughter," laughed Miranda. "I pray you will not hold by these, else will you put your trust in the flying hour."
"You mock me," said he sadly.
"Nay," she replied; "I give you back the echo of your own philosophy. Is it not true? Yourself have seen it. They shrink, they wither, they fade, they decay—oh, it were wanton vanity to admire them! Sir, you have a very wise head, and will do well not to go back upon its counsels. Nay, you shall have your comfort, and you shall take it at the lips of any of a hundred maids. There is no choice for you. Why, no mysteries may trouble you. You have but a straight course to saunter by, without so much as blinking at the sun. Marry your maid then, and take your comfort in God's name. And in my mind's eye I shall see you lolling in your purple chair, and sucking in the comfort of your admirable room, smoking your comfortable pipe, and directing comfortable glances at the flight of rooks outside your window. And beside you one, I shall see, to tender anticipations to your wants, plump and brown and gentle, the mother of your sturdy children and the custodian of your ease. Oh, you shall have a comfortable life, I do assure you."
"That," he said tenderly, "is how I would paint the picture for myself and—you. Come, think upon it. What better prospect than this home you have upheld to mockery? Indeed, what you have framed in derision shall surely come to be your heart's desire. Forego your yearnings: they are idle dreams. Why, then, dream them at night if you will, so be you are complacently mine by day. I exact not much, but a warm affection and a tender friendship."
"Oh, we may be friends! we may be friends!" cried Miranda. "I will be a dozen friends to you a day. I love the friendliness of friends, as I love the light and warmth of the sun. I will dance with you, if you be not too staid; I will sing with you, if you have but the voice; I will read my books in tears with you, if you can weep. But then you shall march home to your comfortable wife, embrace her serenely, and, free from the distractions of your friend's emotions, serenely take comfort in her serene comfortableness."
"Ah!" he cried.
"But as for me," she went on, with an imperious gesture of her hand, "I like not comfort. I can buy a rushlight for a farthing, bread for a penny, and the whole world for sixpence. I would think shame to sell the mysteries of life for the petty possession of a bland prosperity."
Without a word, he turned on his heel and went his way, and Miranda, following him with her eyes, smiled to herself and her heart. She was flushed and beautiful; her bosom quickened with excitement, and to the door of her heart the hand came clutching, clutching at the latch.
IV. The Man of Sentiment
A sound of hurrying feet struck on Miranda's ear. She turned in time to confront two eager eyes that were bent upon her brightly. He was a little breathless with his haste, and his smooth cheeks were flushed with excitement. Panting, he began, pointing his finger across the waving corn—
"I have watched him go," said he. "I have long waited for his exit. Time has crept on such tardy legs. I know him well," he remarked with a pitying smile; "as dull a dog as ever kept tame kennel. You are well rid of the fellow with his meek philosophy and his unblinking eyes. Faith, I would not have him trouble the ears of a maid for all the wealth of Prester John. A clucking barn-door cock, with emotions fit to scratch all day upon a dung-heap, and not skill enough to discern the twinkling of a diamond from the sad yellows of a wheat-ear, wherewith to fill his stomach!"
Miranda stared at him, and burst into tinkling laughter.
"Good," says he, complacently, "I see you take him at his proper value. Pearls have another destiny than to go for buttons on his sober sides. Such as he should keep company with cold-visaged age. What said the lover? Had he not arguments?"
"Oh, he had arguments to spare," she laughed. "Life was a deadly fustian-coated thing to him. He pleaded for repose."
"Repose!" he echoed. "I pray I may die when I come to think on repose with any feeling but distaste. Repose! Oh, yes; let them repose that love it; but they shall not solicit into their stagnation aught that is comely and vivacious. I know well enough what life may be," he said, wagging his head. "I have sounded all its mysteries. Take me for a pilot. I have tasted the sweet and the bitter"; and he sighed.
Miranda looked at him with pity. He was so young to have this sorrow in his heart. She sighed with him.
"But there are compensations," he went on presently. "One dies and the light goes out, but there remains still the beautiful world."
Miranda gazed round the valley.
"Will that suffice?" she asked softly.
"Ah, no!" he cried; "a thousand noes. There is nothing will suffice save death. But life is laid upon us. What may we do? We take our pains and our pleasures; there is no rest. To rest were death in life. I could not sink into the moral worm that withdraws its blind head and wriggles into cover on the passage of a pain. Nay, I take life with my eyes open, though my back be bowed and my body bent, and though the ice encrust my soul. The grace of the day passes, but we are surely the happier even for that ephemeral sweetness."
'Yes; surely we are happier," assented Miranda, wondering at his fine words.
"And even when we think it not, there comes," said he, "some mitigation to Sorrow. There is the joy of Resignation; there is the delight of Sacrifice; and there is the sweetness of Remembered Pain; and beyond all lies the gladness of Despair."
Miranda looked puzzled. She gazed at him inquiringly.
"You will think me absurd," said he; "but I talk out of my knowledge. I speak in sober words, as one upon whose hopes the grave has closed. Sorrow is a fire that refines; pain is a scourge that purifies. You are young, child, and go yet unscathed; but some day maybe—and that in but a little while—you may watch the sky grow black upon you, and feel the foundations of the earth totter, and your whole being will reel and burn and moan aloud to God within you. In such an hour you will remember and believe; and when you are crept into some insecure and windy refuge, trembling till the storm may pass, you will know that the blight of mortality is upon you. And you will finger your scars, and put your hands upon your wounds, realising that out of pain have you purchased knowledge, peace out of suffering, and out of despair hope."
The tears stood in Miranda's eyes. She laid a timid hand upon his arm. "Ah, how you have suffered!" she murmured.
He raised his sad gaze to hers and sighed. "I have wept out these eyes for want of such a one as you to succour me. Had but your tenderness and loving kindness been with me, the storm had surely, passed in vain."
"Is it long gone?" she asked gently.
"Some three months since," he answered; "and still is my heart sore within me. I dare not fancy how it will all end. The sun rises and I see it not; the air grows warm and I feel it not; the stars blink down upon me and I regard them not. Day passes after day, and night succeeds to night; yet is my long pain still with me, and I heed not the rolling years."
"'Tis but three months," she suggested.
"Three months are many years," he sighed.
Miranda looked at his misty blue eyes, and a thrill of pity pierced her soul.
"But you will be strong," she said; "you will pluck out the thorns from your heart, and it shall yet blossom again as the rose. You will not bow your head to trouble. I know so little, but surely again in the springtime you will find a fair flush upon your world."
The young man put out his hand and took hers. He pressed it gently.
"'Tis true," he said, "for others. They, indeed, may die with the waning moon, and be born again when she shows her new horns. With each fresh week they may start anew into life. Nay, even the hours are the measure of their fortunes. But for me the spring is over and gone; out of the dead heart of the summer shall I snatch aught but withered leaves? And shall I permit my own dead heart to take the dews and sunlight of an unavailing spring? Child, child, you know not, you cannot judge," and he patted softly on the hand he held between his fingers.
Miranda bent her head, and wept gently. He put his arm upon her shoulder, and looked into her eyes.
"Yes, there are other springs," said he, "but they are for you, and not for me. And still—and still your sweet voice comforts me, your dear tears console me. There is so much between us I would fain retain."
Miranda stayed, reluctant, under his touch, and then, gently moving, would have withdrawn herself beyond him. But his hand held her fast; he tightened his clasp; a gulp of tears rolled into his throat.
"Nay," he murmured; "do not leave me so. Bear with me till this sorrow passes. 'Twill be gone in a little. See, the sky is clearing, and only on the horizon do the clouds lie black. Come, let me have your hand, and we will talk of what we know is true and beautiful of life and love and the loveliness of life; for in you, dear child, all these are surely implicit."
The red hung in Miranda's cheeks, and then went out slowly.
"I love life," she answered in low tones, "and I love the loveliness of life, but I know not why I love them."
"Because," said he, smiling, "you yourself are informed with Love. Think you God made a maid so lovely and not for love? No; your arms were designed for a lover's necklace; your bosom was conceived for a lover's pillow; your lips for the sweet resting-place of tired eyes, and you yourself for the delectation of many hapless wooers."
Miranda blushed, and stirred uncomfortably. Something in his rapturous fancy irked her, and yet it was surely right that one so buried in his distant sorrow should adjudge her thus. She conceived his kindly eyes upon her in a melancholy gaze, as of a brother who would fain reassure her out of his own troubled past. And then, she was sure, they passed away from her and across the valley where the golden mists were scattering, and lit upon the hill-tops somewhere far off, amid the kindly haze, and dwelt alone there with his sacred grief, as in a silent and inaccessible temple. She looked up in some awe, and found them fastened upon her with an ardent wistfulness. Her hand had fallen from his; he reached out, and seized it again.
"We have so much in common," he murmured. "My dear, the sweetness of those tremulous eyes!"
Miranda sharply pulled her fingers from him.
"Ah, sweet, be not so cruel," he pleaded; "you were not fashioned for disdain. Let me look. Yes, in those lamps of light I can behold my own face, drowned as in a pool. It shines therefrom, as starlight from a blue sky. Would God——" He ended with a sigh.
"I will bid you good-day, Sir," says she; "the morning grows late."
"No, no!" he cried, catching at her hand.
Miranda stopped in wonder.
"And do you love me, then?" he asked in a cooing voice.
Miranda opened her mouth and stared.
"No," said she, shortly, after a pause.
He sighed musically, and his sigh ran like cold water down Miranda's back. He sighed again. Miranda turned, and in an instant, ere he was aware, flashed out upon him.
"And do you love me, then?" she mimicked, scorn in her cooing.
"Dear!" said he, and bent to kiss her hand. Miranda laughed.
"You love me, then?" she cried.
He made a motion of his hand, as though to banish an irrelevant thought.
"Why ply so bluntly?" he remarked, with some sad displeasure; "and why blow so coarsely? Love 'twixt man and maid—forgive me—should be as gentle as the breath of the zephyr, as light as the touch of warm sun upon the rose. There is no need of terms. Heart looks to heart and holds communion silently. Nay, but the fault was mine. I ask your pardon. I put too gross a question to you. Let us rather linger in this delicious incertitude all day. The morning is young; we have the fields before us; let us wander there, and you shall pluck the flowers and idly weave a garland for your head, while I look on and smile, a bird singing in my heart, unquestioned, standing alone within a maze of ways, yet undismayed, knowing this only, that the full glory of love is not to know, and the full flower of life is expectation."
"You talk great nonsense, sir," says she.
"Ah, no," he broke in. "Believe me——" But before the flash in her eyes he paused.
"Ere you put tongue to further follies," says she, "listen. Out of my ignorance shall I instruct your wisdom. You have too soft a heart for this rude world. I pity you. Your soul is like a flying bird, ever at the rough mercy of the fowler. Boom! goes the gun, and down it falls, winged and whimpering at her feet. Why, she has never so much as to put her finger on the lock, but you will fall fluttering at the mere glint of it. You have whole seas of sentiment within your eyes. Lord! how you would weep! You would drown out this valley in a week, and flood my garden for a fallen sparrow. Tears! Tears are your finery. You bedeck yourself with them, and strut among your acquaintances the proudest wight of all. You cull posies of sentiment by every wayside. Not a day but you will have a fresh desire, own a fresh sorrow, and crown a fresh conquest. Victor and victim! I salute your immortal youth. Other men have died for love, but to you alone has it been vouchsafed to live for it. So, as you may cry and mourn and sigh and go forlorn, touch delicate hands, and interchange the soft felicities of affection, you will walk in a whirl of gaiety to your grave. Sir, you would bury a thousand loves with delirious delight. Oh, you are too fastidious; you exact too much. It were surely wiser to fill your hours more economically with griefs. They will not outlast you. Sorrow abides but for a night. Have you never laughed? Did joy never wear any face for you save that of bereavement? Did ever your pulse flow faster save at the prospect of sepulture? I beseech you to adventure more. Believe me, there are fields of sweet emotion as yet untrodden of your feet. Come, for an experiment, stay a whole week with your heart's delight; I can foresee for you new and strange sensations. You shall decay beautifully. This rare and lovely sentiment of yours will turn all manner of raw colours. It will shine rank, and smell stale; it will take on all the hues of swift corruption. But think on them, and should they fall and you exhaust the universe, why, there is always the river, and the rain of tears upon self-contemplated suicide. You shall stand over the brink, and pause, and murmur to the trees, and roll your eyes to heaven, and look down with compassion upon your elegant limbs, so soon to toss among the graceless weeds. And I, if you will, shall bear you witness, and copy your fair sentences into some white book, and send them down the ages, engraven above a golden heart. Oh, I will frame you an admirable, a most pitiful epitaph. Nay, but I mistake, for surely it were meeter writ from your own dictation."
She paused for want of breath, and the young man raised his hand in a manner of deprecation.
"It is enough," he said, and sighed, "I have mistaken. Forgive me the lack of judgment. Had I regarded sufficiently the tip of your nose, indeed I had not blundered." Miranda's fingers went to her face. "I had thought you endowed with the qualities of sympathy. But," he shrugged his shoulders, "one blunders still. Indeed, one blunders after many blunders. You are too pert and young. You put life to the coarse edge of fact. Believe me, you were better living in ideals. One buys facts by the gross, and at so many pence. The ideal we snatch from the empyrean. You shall go your way, and I mine." Miranda curtsied. "I bear you no malice for your wanton tongue. Child, you will learn wisdom, and come to regard affection."
With that, he made her a great bow, and, turning slowly, made off with a heavy appearance of sorrow. At the corner of the hedge he stopped, glanced over his shoulder, raised his hat, and sighed loudly.
Miranda stood watching his receding figure with something between a smile and a frown upon her dainty face.
V. Lack-Lustre Virtue
Miranda put a finger to the tip of her nose and frowned.
"'Tis false," she murmured querulously; "it is straight enough in all conscience. Oh, I abhor spite," and, shrugging her shoulders angrily, she ran lightly through the green corn down upon the little wood below.
Here a pleasant brook fretted over tiny falls, and curled in eddies round large, smooth pebbles. The morning sun struck a slant through the willows, and patches of blue sky beamed up from the depths of the shallow water. Miranda stepped upon the frail bridge and leaned over the handrail. The mirror below her was full of wavering shadows and grey light. The stream trickled coolly in that secluded dell, and Miranda's face was flushed and hot with her haste. The breeze went softly through the tresses of her hair. Miranda glanced along the shelving banks to where a grassy knoll jutted forth upon a corner of the brook. She left the bridge, and walking to the spot, looked down upon the water. The dell was silent.
Her eyes flew swiftly this way and that, in furtive diffidence, and then, fast as a flash, she slipped her shoes from under her feet, and flung her hosen down, and, dropping upon the knoll, dabbled her white feet in the current. The water washed about her ankles gently, and she watched the curves in her high arches dissolve and change and waver in the eddies. How translucent was the stream! How still and sweet the air! She bent forward and regarded her face in the deep pool. Suddenly, and with a little gasp of terror, she found the earth slipping from her. She threw herself back and clutched wildly at the grass. She felt the water creeping above her ankles. A cry escaped her, and on the next instant two hands were clasped beneath her arms, and she was swiftly drawn into safety, and lay high upon the grass upon her back. Miranda sat up, and looking round met the bashful eyes of a youth. At once his gaze dropped, and he fumbled his hands together, shifting from foot to foot.
"I beg your pardon," said he, "but you——"
"Oh, you are very kind," said Miranda earnestly. "I thank you, Sir. Another moment and I had been lost."
"It is but shallow," he mumbled smiling, and bit his nail.
Miranda laughed awkwardly. "Oh, but thank you, Sir," she said, "you are very good."
"'Twas but my duty," he stammered, and looked away, frowning at the trees; "anyone would have done more for you," he added, blushing.
Miranda's gaze went down her gown, and hastily she plucked her bare feet under her skirt. There fell a long silence, during which he fidgeted with the stalks of the bracken, and Miranda beat her fingers impatiently upon her knee.
"Heavens! will the man never speak or go?" thought Miranda. 'The sun shines bright, and the birds sing sweet," says she; "we shall soon be in full spring."
"Very bright," said he, starting; "very sweet," he added, and "'twill rain by nightfall," he ventured, cocking his eye at the sky.
"Ah!" said Miranda, fanning herself with her hat.
Again a pause ensued. The young man shuffled on his feet; he whistled gently. Miranda yawned and drummed her fingers faster on her knee. She gave a little cough.
"I fear," he stuttered, "you will grow cold upon the moist slope. The sun has little power upon the dews within this shade. If I might beg——"
Approaching, he held out a vague hand. Miranda shut her mouth with a snap.
"I thank you," she said, with scorn, "but the dew delights me. I am never content save upon damp grass."
"I—I crave your pardon," he besought her. "I—I fancied——"
"I hate a fool!" quoth Miranda to herself, in anger.
His eyes wandered to the stream. "Why, there are your shoes," says he, brightening, "and your hosen. Pray——"
He made a hasty movement forward.
"I beg you will be at no trouble for me," cried Miranda, flaming. "Suffer me, at least, I pray you, the liberty to dispose of my own apparel. I am no child at nurse."
He drew back, red and frightened, and Miranda, breathless, curled her feet closer beneath her gown. He watched her face askance. She bit her lips.
"He is only a fool; but I hate a fool," said she.
Miranda sighed. He glanced at her anxiously.
"And you think it will rain?" she asked.
"I'll swear it will," he cried eagerly, and waited, open-mouthed, upon her condescension.
"I wonder," said Miranda thoughtfully.
"But the sky is red," he panted.
"I have my doubts," said Miranda sagely, shaking her head. "The wood obscures the heaven. How is it possible to tell?"
"Indeed——" he began.
"Nay," she interrupted; "but from the cornfield yonder you could descry with certainty, and I should be reassured."
"I can see the cornfield through the trees," he answered, "and the sun shines red above the hedges."
Miranda shrugged her shoulders petulantly.
"What sound was that?" she said. "Surely some animal. I hate a cow!" she exclaimed. "Oh, Sir, pray run and see!"
"'Tis no cow," he replied stolidly. "I know the fields by heart, and there is never a cow within two miles."
"There is many a fool," said Miranda bitterly.
"Aye, to be sure," he assented easily; "and many a sinner, moreover," he added thoughtfully.
"I think I prefer a sinner," said Miranda vehemently.
"The sinner for me, too," he agreed cheerfully.
Miranda put out her tongue at the grass. Idly he broke the bark of a silver birch. Miranda uttered an exclamation of anger. He turned.
"I beg your pardon," said he. "I did not catch your words, but I do assure you that if there is aught I can do will——"
Miranda's temper burst its bonds. "Nothing in the world," she said, in sarcasm; "nothing in life for me, save only that you will leave me to enjoy my solitude."
He started, stammered half a sentence, took off his hat, mopped his face, and, tumbling over a creeper, set off. Miranda's heart pricked her pride. He looked forlorn, and he had done his best in honest stupidity.
"Stay!" she called impetuously. He tarried in wonder. "I meant no unkindness, Sir." He came stumbling back. "I have an intermittent trick of petulance." The light beamed in a broad grin upon his face.
Miranda shivered. He sat down squat upon the bracken. Miranda groaned.
"I wondered at your cruel words," he began slowly. "Somehow they fitted ill your face, which is"—he blushed—"the sweetest I have seen."
"Oh, you are rash," said Miranda scornfully; "I dare swear that one with so much knowledge as yourself has weltered among scores of pretty faces."
"Indeed——" he cried, but she broke in upon his protest.
"For myself, I lay no claim to beauty; let others flaunt their titles as they will. I am well enough, no doubt. I have the face of youth, and my eyes have no squint in them. But I am assured you have seen many pretty maidens."
"That is so," he cried eagerly, "and this the prettiest."
Miranda smiled. "You do your friends a harsh injustice," she answered. "I have my years to my credit, and no more, which is a virtue through which each must passage. And what, indeed, is beauty, if all be told?"
"Beauty? It is a pearl," he gasped, and suddenly swallowed his emotion with a gulp.
"I set no value upon pearls," said Miranda sedately. "Let others if they will. While the world swings on, folly will ring her bells, fools gape, and gossips chatter."
He watched her ardently, and sidling a step nearer, resumed his argument.
"You cannot tell," he said, "with how full a heart a man regards beauty. The tears start in his eyes at the sight, his breath catches, and his legs fall to trembling."
"Ah! is it so?" asked Miranda indifferently.
He rolled himself upon his stomach, and looked up into her face.
"It is with me," he said earnestly. His gaze embarrassed her. She turned her head away. "I have long wondered about this love," he stammered, "and now I know."
Miranda looked round at him quickly.
"What is it like?" she asked, with some interest.
Abashed, he thrust his fingers through his hair. "I—I beg your pardon," he stuttered; "but I have scarce the wherewithal to clothe my feelings. It makes me—'tis like a—oh, I feel—indeed, and I would do anything in your behalf," he concluded bravely.
Miranda stared at him a second, and then smiled softly. He sprawled so ungainly; he lay a huge hulk of ineptitudes; his large blue eyes were watered with affection.
"You are very good," she murmured.
"'Tis no goodness," he averred stoutly, "but out of the very bottom of indulgent selfishness. I would sacrifice worlds for you."
Miranda glanced at him slyly. "Would you drown?" she asked.
"Would you surrender me forever?"
"Would you sell your soul for me?"
He knit his brows into a frown of puzzlement.
"Why," cried she, "you would never surely steal to set me smiling?"
He shook his head thoughtfully. "No," he replied. "'Twould be a wrong you would not ask of me."
"And if I did?" she insisted.
He searched her face, and then, "I would hire someone else for the job," he declared, with a sigh.
Miranda lay back on the turf, and shook with laughter. Suddenly she sat up; in a flash the laughter ceased, and red and white in turn she tucked her bare feet beneath her gown again.
"I trust," said he anxiously, "that you have not hurt yourself."
"Oh, no," she replied coldly. "Pray continue. Your philosophy was most entertaining. You make a scruple of theft, I understand. But you could love me to distraction. Oh, yes. You will pull down the world for me, an you do it not by your own hand. You will meet lions, an you can find another to replace you. You will swear and forswear, and break through the, if you can do all these things by substitute. Yours is a wonderful sense of passion, so new, so strange, so masterful."
The young man nodded his head sagely. "'Tis marvellous what change Love will bring to a man, but," he added doubtfully, "I would not break through the decalogue. I dare not have another's blood upon me. Oh, there are many things one dare not do, nor would you ask them. Why do I talk so wildly? I am content to love you, if you will suffer me."
He leaned forward and took her hand awkwardly, looking the while into her face with bashful affection. She snapped her hand away, and laughed impatiently.
"Oh, you are too good, fair Sir," she cried. "I am not worthy of your devout devotion. I? I have sins enough upon my head, God wot, but none so great as this unequal partnership would be. You are too virtuous for such as I. You are too much composed of discreet renunciations. Renounce once more, and save your soul alive. Mine is the waywardness of the wild cat; I have the passions of the desperado. I break through a commandment daily. I am right to my hair in sins. Should I repent I should need an acre of sackcloth and gallons of ashes. But I do not; thank the Lord, I shall not. I am stark in my vices. I complete them with exultation; I plan them with rebellious joys. I am a fiend in a fair wig, a ghoul in a white gown. To love me is to love perdition."
He stared at her dumbly, and withdrew a pace.
"Indeed," said she, "you have every reason for your fears. I fear myself. O' nights I lie awake and think of devilments; they float through my dreams. I pinch myself in wonder if I be really human. There is no audacity I could not dare, no shame to cause me blink."
He shuffled a little further away.
"Come, come," she cried, "begone ere I break out upon you. I have the very deuce of a temper. For you and yours I see the happy valleys open; for me is the rude path among the mountains. Get you gone, then, Sir, to your happiness and the sweet maid that awaits you. Mine is the bitter, narrow road to Hell!"
She rose to her feet and pointed at him mockingly with her finger. The young man turned, and casting back one glance across his shoulder, scampered heavily through the undergrowth without a word, and disappeared into the wood.
Miranda stopped, breathless. "I believe he took me for the Devil," she said, and laughed. "But oh, the prickles!" she cried, drawing in her breath and grimacing. She flung herself upon the ground and rubbed her pretty feet.
Miranda reached for her hose. "'Twas difficult," she murmured; "'twas very difficult; but at last—at last!"
VI. The Roses
Miranda crossed the bridge and struck into the little copse.
"To think," said she, "that Love is that! To think that I should be loved like that! She smiled at the recollection, and then sighed. "Oh, for my garden!" she exclaimed wearily. "There is no such thing as Love. There are only the flowers, and the spring, and the sunshine."
The thicket was close-set with trees; the way was rough and thorny.
"I will break through," cried Miranda angrily, and tore the briers viciously from her gown. As she was bent thus lowly, and ere she raised her head, she was aware of someone standing by. A little shadow of fear sailed across her heart. She started, and looking up met the eyes of a young man.
Miranda looked down: her heart throbbed fast; the fragrance of the wild roses stole through her senses. Miranda looked up: the sunlight flashed and sparkled on the green thicket.
"Pray give me leave," said the stranger, and dropped upon his knees.
Miranda's bosom rose and fell as he disentangled her frock from the thorns.
"I thank you, Sir," she said timidly, when he was got upon his feet again.
He laughed, and looked at her with smiling eyes. Their glances met, and both fell on the instant. In the silence upon that the stream wimpled loud behind them. Miranda took her gown in hand and moved gently away. The young man raised his face and watched her go. She reached a little bend in the pathway, and he stirred.
"I pray you," he called, "pardon my interruption, but the brake is grown thick and the passage narrow. You were better upon the roadway."
"I have no fears," said she, "and the road is adust and dreary."
She vanished round the point. He sped after her to the corner.
"I pray you," he called, "forgive my foolish importunity, but the hill beyond is steep and crowned with thorns."
"I have climbed it often," she responded, "and in the spring daffodils grow upon the slopes."
He bit his finger meditatively as he watched her. Suddenly——
"Let me help you, then," he cried.
"Help?" she echoed, and hesitated.
He pushed aside the branches of the nut-tree. "See," he said, "they would close against a girlish arm. They are in a sworn conspiracy against maidens. 'Tis only the strong hand of the woodman bends them to his will."
"Are you a woodman?" she asked demurely.
He shook his head, laughing. "Nay, but I have learned a trick to teach the surly louts civility." A branch leapt forth and struck him on the cheek. A stain of red sprang up to meet it.
"Oh!" cried Miranda, in distress.
"'Tis spite—they rankle," said he, with a merry smile; "see, how they would entreat you. But they shall know their master, and bow to a lady." He swept them back with a movement of his long arm. "Pass, pass," he said; "they cringe, and dare not."
Miranda looked, and bent her head. "'Tis closer than I had thought," she murmured, as she disappeared beneath the archway of his arms.
He followed, and she turned to him in despair.
"I was a little, wanton fool," she said plaintively. "How is it possible to pierce this thicket?"
With a laugh he threw himself against the brushwood, and a passage slowly opened.
"I thank you, Sir," she said softly. "You are too kind to a wilful maid."
"'Tis worse and worse," he said, surveying the tangle breathlessly. "But the hill slopes lie beyond. Come." He took her hand. Miranda breathed hard. She fluttered after him beneath the coppice.
"My hair!" she cried suddenly, in a sharp note of pain.
He stopped in a moment and begged a thousand pardons. A brown tress glimmered in the clutch of an alder. He put up his hand and pulled.
"I pray you, Sir, be gentle," she murmured distressfully.
He invoked a thousand murrains on himself. "I must come closer," said he.
"I think," she murmured, "that I myself"—she shrank from him and gave her head a shake, stopping with a little gasp.
"I fear 'tis too secure," said he, and drew gently nearer.
He peered into the tangle; his breath moved in her hair; his fingers were entwined in the brown tresses. Miranda's heart beat quickly. With a deft twist of his hand she was free.
"I thank you, Sir," again quoth she. She sped along the pathway into the open, where the track ran lazily up the slope.
"I thank you," she repeated, and put out her hand, with a bow. He took it, bowing in answer, and his face fell.
"But there is the hill," he said dolefully. "I may not leave you yet."
"An excellent hill to climb upon a soft morning," says she. "Good-bye."
"Were you to stumble——" he began anxiously.
"I should pick myself up and laugh," she concluded promptly.
He sighed, and looked back at the copse. She moved away a pace or two, and pausing, glanced at him. Before his gaze her own sank, and again her heart swung faster.
"'Tis a rough way," he said sadly.
"'Tis true," she murmured, "there is the quarry."
He climbed towards her. "I will see you past it," he said firmly.
Miranda answered nothing, but went slowly onwards. He leapt above her, and, leaning back, gave her his hand. "There is a huge boulder here," he explained.
"I had forgot," she murmured.
He pulled her over the obstruction.
"Good Heavens!" he cried, "the gorse! We had forgot also the gorse."
She surveyed the gorse with dismay. The bushes rose waist high.
"How stupid!" said Miranda pettishly. "They should have been cut down."
"There's never a path runs through them," he said triumphantly.
"We must go back," said Miranda with a sigh.
"There is the thicket again," he cried with jubilation.
"True," she murmured.
There was a moment's pause, and then:
"I must carry you through the gorse!" he exclaimed, with ill-repressed exultation.
Miranda flushed. "Indeed, I can walk," said she coldly. She took a step into the midst, and the thorns pierced her ankles. Miranda kept her lips close, and took another step. The thorns crept higher.
"Oh!" cried Miranda in the dismay of pain.
"Let me have your arm," he said, "and we shall help each other."
"No, no," said Miranda dolefully; "it hurts, it hurts; I will go back."
"You cannot," said he.
Miranda frowned. "I will sit down."
"You dare not," said he joyfully.
Miranda's head sank; the tears came into her eyes.
"Lean upon me," he whispered.
Miranda leant. He put his arms beneath her, and, disengaging the thorns from her skirt, lifted her from her feet.
"Oh," she exclaimed. "How dare you?"
"Hush," he whispered, "'twill be over soon. Shut your eyes and hold your breath, so shall you never set eyes upon my horrid face. 'Tis but a horse, an ass, an elephant that carries you over a difficult crossing."
Miranda said not a word. He jogged heavily along amid the gorse. He stumbled. Miranda clutched his shoulder tightly. He stopped and bent over her.
"Put me down," she said imperiously, shutting her eyes.
He set her down. Miranda smoothed her gown. She turned her pink face from him.
"I am much in your debt, Sir," she said, "and now I will wish you good-day."
"There is yet the quarry," he objected.
Miranda winced. He walked by her side, and in silence they clambered into the quarry and out upon the further side. In silence they reached the garden. Miranda turned and thrust out her hand for the third time. His eyes were fastened upon her throat.
"And now," says she primly, "'tis really good-day. I do not know how I may repay you for your goodness. But——"
"With a rose," he stammered.
Miranda glanced demurely around.
"There is none by," she answered.
"'Tis at your throat," he said, "if I may make so bold——"
"Oh, if you will," said she with indifference. "I was about to have discarded it."
She plucked it from her neck and held it forth. He stuck it in the lapel of his coat. She opened the little gate and entered the garden. The first turning of the pathway hid the stranger from her view. She lingered and stooped over a rose-bush. A flood of new fragrance rushed through her senses. Something sang in her blood. A loud knock sounded in her heart. Miranda started, and the young man stood before her.
"I crave your indulgence, "he stammered, "but I have forgot the hour, and it is now late, and I must needs be thinking of my destination."
Miranda crossed to the sun-dial on the lawn.
"'Tis only noon," she said. "'Tis very late," she added quickly.
"Ah, noon," he responded; "yes, noon, of course. How foolish!" and walked back slowly towards the gate.
Miranda bent over the roses, and the perfume filled her with an ecstasy till now unknown. The garden was ringing with song, and her body thrilled with a passionate sympathy till now unfelt. Again at her heart a loud noise sounded, and again she started.
"'Tis very stupid in me," laughed the stranger, in embarrassment. "My wits have wandered. But is it Tuesday or surely Wednesday to-day?"
Miranda reflected. "'Twas Monday yesterday," she answered thoughtfully.
"Ah, then," said he sagely, "'tis Tuesday to-day, and 'twill be Wednesday to-morrow." He moved away again reluctantly. "A fine shining day," he called, "and admirable weather for the flowers."
"'Twill rain, maybe," said Miranda, glancing at the sky.
"No doubt," he said, and lingered.
Miranda stooped over the roses. He melted slowly round the bend in the pathway. The sunlight flashed upon the lilac, and Miranda's heart danced up and down tumultuously. A shadow fell across the bed.
"If you said noon," said the stranger, "I could reach the Vale ere one?"
"Why, yes," she answered, "if you should start at once."
"'Tis time, indeed, to go," said he absently.
"'Tis certainly time," said Miranda. A cloud blew over the sunlight, and the roses blurred before her eyes.
There was a long silence. Miranda sighed, and turning, moved slowly up the pathway. At the distance of ten steps she stopped and glanced down at her shoe. The latchet trailed upon the ground, and, with a pout, she bent to lace it up. But the young man was before her, and, kneeling upon the ground, looked up in her face.
"'Tis my last privilege ere I go," he pleaded.
Miranda looked away, but, for all she saw, the garden was a desert. It seemed he was a long time at her shoe, but the garden was so large and beautiful that she had forgot the minutes. And all the time her heart was thumping in her side, and the door was creaking on its latch. He rose and stood before her.
"The Vale," said he, "is far distant."
"'Tis very far," she answered gently.
"And the sun is past noon," he continued.
"'Tis late," she assented.
"'Twere better I should wait and take refreshment ere I go," said he.
"No doubt, 'twere wiser," she murmured, looking down.
"I shall be very lonely," said he.
"'Tis lonely to be alone," she whispered.
He put out his arm. She stared at the roses. How they blew. How red they grew. How their hearts fluttered. How sweet and fragrant smelled the garden.
"I were not alone with Love," he said in low tones.
"With Love!" she murmured to the roses.
The clouds drifted from the face of the sun, and the light streamed down upon them. Larks sprang warbling to Heaven. The garden awoke into light and music. In the pause something drew Miranda's eyes to his face; his eyes were deep in dew. Miranda felt her own grow misty. A surge of tears rose up from her heart; the swing-gates of her soul flew open, and through the portals, ere she was aware, there passed swiftly—Something—Something—she knew not what.
She gave a little sob. The young man put his arms about her.