Read CHAPTER IX of Their Pilgrimage , free online book, by Charles Dudley Warner, on ReadCentral.com.

OLD SWEET AND WHITE SULFUR

The days went by at the White Sulphur on the wings of incessant gayety. Literally the nights were filled with music, and the only cares that infested the day appeared in the anxious faces of the mothers as the campaign became more intricate and uncertain. King watched this with the double interest of spectator and player. The artist threw himself into the melee with abandon, and pacified his conscience by an occasional letter to Miss Lamont, in which he confessed just as many of his conquests and defeats as he thought it would be good for her to know.

The colored people, who are a conspicuous part of the establishment, are a source of never-failing interest and amusement. Every morning the mammies and nurses with their charges were seated in a long, shining row on a part of the veranda where there was most passing and repassing, holding a sort of baby show, the social consequence of each one depending upon the rank of the family who employed her, and the dress of the children in her charge. High-toned conversation on these topics occupied these dignified and faithful mammies, upon whom seemed to rest to a considerable extent the maintenance of the aristocratic social traditions. Forbes had heard that while the colored people of the South had suspended several of the ten commandments, the eighth was especially regarded as nonapplicable in the present state of society. But he was compelled to revise this opinion as to the White Sulphur. Nobody ever locked a door or closed a window. Cottages most remote were left for hours open and without guard, miscellaneous articles of the toilet were left about, trunks were not locked, waiters, chambermaids, porters, washerwomen, were constantly coming and going, having access to the rooms at all hours, and yet no guest ever lost so much as a hairpin or a cigar. This fashion of trust and of honesty so impressed the artist that he said he should make an attempt to have it introduced elsewhere. This sort of esprit de corps among the colored people was unexpected, and he wondered if they are not generally misunderstood by writers who attribute to them qualities of various kinds that they do not possess. The negro is not witty or consciously humorous, or epigrammatic. The humor of his actions and sayings lies very much in a certain primitive simplicity. Forbes couldn’t tell, for instance, why he was amused at a remark he heard one morning in the store. A colored girl sauntered in, looking about vacantly. “You ain’t got no cotton, is you?” “Why, of course we have cotton.” “Well” (the girl only wanted an excuse to say something), “I only ast, is you?”

Sports of a colonial and old English flavor that have fallen into disuse elsewhere varied the life at the White. One day the gentlemen rode in a mule-race, the slowest mule to win, and this feat was followed by an exhibition of negro agility in climbing the greased pole and catching the greased pig; another day the cavaliers contended on the green field surrounded by a brilliant array of beauty and costume, as two Amazon baseball nines, the one nine arrayed in yellow cambric frocks and sun-bonnets, and the other in bright red gowns the whiskers and big boots and trousers adding nothing whatever to the illusion of the female battle.

The two tables, King’s and the Benson’s, united in an expedition to the Old Sweet, a drive of eighteen miles. Mrs. Farquhar arranged the affair, and assigned the seats in the carriages. It is a very picturesque drive, as are all the drives in this region, and if King did not enjoy it, it was not because Mrs. Farquhar was not even more entertaining than usual. The truth is that a young man in love is poor company for himself and for everybody else. Even the object of his passion could not tolerate him unless she returned it. Irene and Mr. Meigs rode in the carriage in advance of his, and King thought the scenery about the tamest he had ever seen, the roads bad, the horses slow. His ill-humor, however, was concentrated on one spot; that was Mr. Meigs’s back; he thought he had never seen a more disagreeable back, a more conceited back. It ought to have been a delightful day; in his imagination it was to be an eventful day. Indeed, why shouldn’t the opportunity come at the Old Sweet, at the end of the drive? there was something promising in the name. Mrs. Farquhar was in a mocking mood all the way. She liked to go to the Old Sweet, she said, because it was so intolerably dull; it was a sensation. She thought, too, that it might please Miss Benson, there was such a fitness in the thing the old sweet to the Old Sweet. “And he is not so very old either,” she added; “just the age young girls like. I should think Miss Benson in danger seriously, now if she were three or four years younger.”

The Old Sweet is, in fact, a delightful old-fashioned resort, respectable and dull, with a pretty park, and a crystal pond that stimulates the bather like a glass of champagne, and perhaps has the property of restoring youth. King tried the spring, which he heard Mrs. Farquhar soberly commending to Mr. Meigs; and after dinner he manoeuvred for a half-hour alone with Irene. But the fates and the women were against him. He had the mortification to see her stroll away with Mr. Meigs to a distant part of the grounds, where they remained in confidential discourse until it was time to return.

In the rearrangement of seats Mrs. Farquhar exchanged with Irene. Mrs. Farquhar said that it was very much like going to a funeral each way. As for Irene, she was in high, even feverish spirits, and rattled away in a manner that convinced King that she was almost too happy to contain herself.

Notwithstanding the general chaff, the singing, and the gayety of Irene, the drive seemed to him intolerably long. At the half-way house, where in the moonlight the horses drank from a shallow stream, Mr. Meigs came forward to the carriage and inquired if Miss Benson was sufficiently protected against the chilliness of the night. King had an impulse to offer to change seats with him; but no, he would not surrender in the face of the enemy. It would be more dignified to quietly leave the Springs the next day.

It was late at night when the party returned. The carriage drove to the Benson cottage; King helped Irene to alight, coolly bade her good-night, and went to his barracks. But it was not a good night to sleep. He tossed about, he counted every step of the late night birds on his gallery; he got up and lighted a cigar, and tried dispassionately to think the matter over. But thinking was of no use. He took pen and paper; he would write a chill letter of farewell; he would write a manly avowal of his passion; he would make such an appeal that no woman could resist it. She must know, she did know what was the use of writing? He sat staring at the blank prospect. Great heavens! what would become of his life if he lost the only woman in the world? Probably the world would go on much the same. Why, listen to it! The band was playing on the lawn at four o’clock in the morning. A party was breaking up after a night of german and a supper, and the revelers were dispersing. The lively tunes of “Dixie,” “Marching through Georgia,” and “Home, Sweet Home,” awoke the echoes in all the galleries and corridors, and filled the whole encampment with a sad gayety. Dawn was approaching. Good-nights and farewells and laughter were heard, and the voice of a wanderer explaining to the trees, with more or less broken melody, his fixed purpose not to go home till morning.

Stanhope King might have had a better though still a sleepless night if he had known that Mr. Meigs was packing his trunks at that hour to the tune of “Home, Sweet Home,” and if he had been aware of the scene at the Benson cottage after he bade Irene good-night. Mrs. Benson had a light burning, and the noise of the carriage awakened her. Irene entered the room, saw that her mother was awake, shut the door carefully, sat down on the foot of the bed, said, “It’s all over, mother,” and burst into the tears of a long-repressed nervous excitement.

“What’s over, child?” cried Mrs. Benson, sitting bolt-upright in bed.

“Mr. Meigs. I had to tell him that it couldn’t be. And he is one of the best men I ever knew.”

“You don’t tell me you’ve gone and refused him, Irene?”

“Please don’t scold me. It was no use. He ought to have seen that I did not care for him, except as a friend. I’m so sorry!”

“You are the strangest girl I ever saw.” And Mrs. Benson dropped back on the pillow again, crying herself now, and muttering, “I’m sure I don’t know what you do want.”

When King came out to breakfast he encountered Mr. Benson, who told him that their friend Mr. Meigs had gone off that morning had a sudden business call to Boston. Mr. Benson did not seem to be depressed about it. Irene did not appear, and King idled away the hours with his equally industrious companion under the trees. There was no german that morning, and the hotel band was going through its repertoire for the benefit of a champagne party on the lawn. There was nothing melancholy about this party; and King couldn’t help saying to Mrs. Farquhar that it hardly represented his idea of the destitution and depression resulting from the war; but she replied that they must do something to keep up their spirits.

“And I think,” said the artist, who had been watching, from the little distance at which they sat, the table of the revelers, “that they will succeed. Twenty-six bottles of champagne, and not many more guests! What a happy people, to be able to enjoy champagne before twelve o’clock!”

“Oh, you never will understand us!” said Mrs. Farquhar; “there is nothing spontaneous in you.”

“We do not begin to be spontaneous till after dinner,” said King.

“And then it is all calculated. Think of Mr. Forbes counting the bottles! Such a dreadfully mercenary spirit! Oh, I have been North. Because you are not so open as we are, you set up for being more virtuous.”

“And you mean,” said King, “that frankness and impulse cover a multitude of

“I don’t mean anything of the sort. I just mean that conventionality isn’t virtue. You yourself confessed that you like the Southern openness right much, and you like to come here, and you like the Southern people as they are at home.”

“Well?”

“And now will you tell me, Mr. Prim, why it is that almost all Northern people who come South to live become more Southern than the Southerners themselves; and that almost all Southern people who go North to live remain just as Southern as ever?”

“No. Nor do I understand any more than Dr. Johnson did why the Scotch, who couldn’t scratch a living at home, and came up to London, always kept on bragging about their native land and abused the metropolis.”

This sort of sparring went on daily, with the result of increasing friendship between the representatives of the two geographical sections, and commonly ended with the declaration on Mrs. Farquhar’s part that she should never know that King was not born in the South except for his accent; and on his part that if Mrs. Farquhar would conceal her delightful Virginia inflection she would pass everywhere at the North for a Northern woman.

“I hear,” she said, later, as they sat alone, “that Mr. Meigs has beat a retreat, saving nothing but his personal baggage. I think Miss Benson is a great goose. Such a chance for an establishment and a position! You didn’t half appreciate him.”

“I’m afraid I did not.”

“Well, it is none of my business; but I hope you understand the responsibility of the situation. If you do not, I want to warn you about one thing: don’t go strolling off before sunset in the Lovers’ Walk. It is the most dangerous place. It is a fatal place. I suppose every turn in it, every tree that has a knoll at the foot where two persons can sit, has witnessed a tragedy, or, what is worse, a comedy. There are legends enough about it to fill a book. Maybe there is not a Southern woman living who has not been engaged there once at least. I’ll tell you a little story for a warning. Some years ago there was a famous belle here who had the Springs at her feet, and half a dozen determined suitors. One of them, who had been unable to make the least impression on her heart, resolved to win her by a stratagem. Walking one evening on the hill with her, the two stopped just at a turn in the walk I can show you the exact spot, with a chaperon and he fell into earnest discourse with her. She was as cool and repellant as usual. Just then he heard a party approaching; his chance had come. The moment the party came in sight he suddenly kissed her. Everybody saw it. The witnesses discreetly turned back. The girl was indignant. But the deed was done. In half an hour the whole Springs would know it. She was compromised. No explanations could do away with the fact that she had been kissed in Lovers’ Walk. But the girl was game, and that evening the engagement was announced in the drawing-room. Isn’t that a pretty story?”

However much Stanhope might have been alarmed at this recital, he betrayed nothing of his fear that evening when, after walking to the spring with Irene, the two sauntered along and unconsciously, as it seemed, turned up the hill into that winding path which has been trodden by generations of lovers with loitering steps steps easy to take and so hard to retrace! It is a delightful forest, the walk winding about on the edge of the hill, and giving charming prospects of intervales, stream, and mountains. To one in the mood for a quiet hour with nature, no scene could be more attractive.

The couple walked on, attempting little conversation, both apparently prepossessed and constrained. The sunset was spoken of, and when Irene at length suggested turning back, that was declared to be King’s object in ascending the hill to a particular point; but whether either of them saw the sunset, or would have known it from a sunrise, I cannot say. The drive to the Old Sweet was pleasant. Yes, but rather tiresome. Mr. Meigs had gone away suddenly. Yes; Irene was sorry his business should have called him away. Was she very sorry? She wouldn’t lie awake at night over it, but he was a good friend. The time passed very quickly here. Yes; one couldn’t tell how it went; the days just melted away; the two weeks seemed like a day. They were going away the next day. King said he was going also.

“And,” he added, as if with an effort, “when the season is over, Miss Benson, I am going to settle down to work.”

“I’m glad of that,” she said, turning upon him a face glowing with approval.

“Yes, I have arranged to go on with practice in my uncle’s office. I remember what you said about a dilettante life.”

“Why, I never said anything of the kind.”

“But you looked it. It is all the same.”

They had come to the crown of the hill, and stood looking over the intervales to the purple mountains. Irene was deeply occupied in tying up with grass a bunch of wild flowers. Suddenly he seized her hand.

“Irene!”

“No, no,” she cried, turning away. The flowers dropped from her hand.

“You must listen, Irene. I love you I love you.”

She turned her face towards him; her lips trembled; her eyes were full of tears; there was a great look of wonder and tenderness in her face.

“Is it all true?”

She was in his arms. He kissed her hair, her eyes ah me! it is the old story. It had always been true. He loved her from the first, at Fortress Monroe, every minute since. And she well, perhaps she could learn to love him in time, if he was very good; yes, maybe she had loved him a little at Fortress Monroe. How could he? what was there in her to attract him? What a wonder it was that she could tolerate him! What could she see in him?

So this impossible thing, this miracle, was explained? No, indeed! It had to be inquired into and explained over and over again, this absolutely new experience of two people loving each other.

She could speak now of herself, of her doubt that he could know his own heart and be stronger than the social traditions, and would not mind, as she thought he did at Newport just a little bit the opinions of other people. I do not by any means imply that she said all this bluntly, or that she took at all the tone of apology; but she contrived, as a woman can without saying much, to let him see why she had distrusted, not the sincerity, but the perseverance of his love. There would never be any more doubt now. What a wonder it all is.

The two parted alas! alas! till supper-time!

I don’t know why scoffers make so light of these partings at the foot of the main stairs of the hotel gallery, just as Mrs. Farquhar was descending. Irene’s face was radiant as she ran away from Mrs. Farquhar.

“Bless you, my children! I see my warning was in vain, Mr. King. It is a fatal walk. It always was in our family. Oh, youth! youth!” A shade of melancholy came over her charming face as she turned alone towards the spring.