Chapter 9 - New Year's Calls
"Now I'm going to turn over a new leaf, as I promised. I wonder what I shall find on the next page?" said Rose, coming down on New Year's morning with a serious face and a thick letter in her hand.
"Tired of frivolity, my dear?" asked her uncle, pausing in his walk up and down the hall to glance at her with a quick, bright look she liked to bring into his eyes.
"No, sir, and that's the sad part of it, but I've made up my mind to stop while I can because I'm sure it is not good for me. I've had some very sober thoughts lately, for since my Phebe went away I've had no heart for gaiety, so it is a good place to stop and make a fresh start," answered Rose, taking his arm and walking on with him.
"An excellent time! Now, how are you going to fill the aching void?" he asked, well pleased.
"By trying to be as unselfish, brave, and good as she is." And Rose held the letter against her bosom with a tender touch, for Phebe's strength had inspired her with a desire to be as self-reliant. "I'm going to set about living in earnest, as she has; though I think it will be harder for me than for her, because she stands alone and has a career marked out for her. I'm nothing but a commonplace sort of girl, with no end of relations to be consulted every time I wink and a dreadful fortune hanging like a millstone round my neck to weigh me down if I try to fly. It is a hard case, Uncle, and I get low in my mind when I think about it," sighed Rose, oppressed with her blessings.
"Afflicted child! How can I relieve you?" And there was amusement as well as sympathy in Dr. Alec's face as he patted the hand upon his arm.
"Please don't laugh, for I really am trying to be good. In the first place, help me to wean myself from foolish pleasures and show me how to occupy my thoughts and time so that I may not idle about and dream instead of doing great things."
"Good! We'll begin at once. Come to town with me this morning and see your houses. They are all ready, and Mrs. Gardner has half a dozen poor souls waiting to go in as soon as you give the word," answered the doctor promptly, glad to get his girl back again, though not surprised that she still looked with regretful eyes at the Vanity Fair, always so enticing when we are young.
"I'll give it today, and make the new year a happy one to those poor souls at least. I'm so sorry that it's impossible for me to go with you, but you know I must help Aunty Plen receive. We haven't been here for so long that she had set her heart on having a grand time today, and I particularly want to please her because I have not been as amiable as I ought lately. I really couldn't forgive her for siding against Phebe."
"She did what she thought was right, so we must not blame her. I am going to make my New Year's calls today and, as my friends live down that way, I'll get the list of names from Mrs. G. and tell the poor ladies, with Miss Campbell's compliments, that their new home is ready. Shall I?"
"Yes, Uncle, but take all the credit to yourself, for I never should have thought of it if you had not proposed the plan."
"Bless your heart! I'm only your agent, and suggest now and then. I've nothing to offer but advice, so I lavish that on all occasions."
"You have nothing because you've given your substance all away as generously as you do your advice. Never mind you shall never come to want while I live. I'll save enough for us two, though I do make 'ducks and drakes of my fortune.'"
Dr. Alec laughed at the toss of the head with which she quoted Charlie's offensive words, then offered to take the letter, saying, as he looked at his watch: "I'll post that for you in time for the early mail. I like a run before breakfast."
But Rose held her letter fast, dimpling with sudden smiles, half merry and half shy.
"No thank you, sir. Archie likes to do that, and never fails to call for all I write. He gets a peep at Phebe's in return and I cheer him up a bit, for, though he says nothing, he has a hard time of it, poor fellow."
"How many letters in five days?"
"Four, sir, to me. She doesn't write to him, Uncle."
"As yet. Well, you show hers, so it's all right and you are a set of sentimental youngsters." And the doctor walked away, looking as if he enjoyed the sentiment as much as any of them.
Old Miss Campbell was nearly as great a favorite as young Miss Campbell, so a succession of black coats and white gloves flowed in and out of the hospitable mansion pretty steadily all day. The clan was out in great force, and came by in installments to pay their duty to Aunt Plenty and wish the compliments of the season to "our cousin." Archie appeared first, looking sad but steadfast, and went away with Phebe's letter in his left breast pocket feeling that life was still endurable, though his love was torn from him, for Rose had many comfortable things to say and read him delicious bits from the voluminous correspondence lately begun.
Hardly was he gone when Will and Geordie came marching in, looking as fine as gray uniforms with much scarlet piping could make them and feeling peculiarly important, as this was their first essay in New Year's call-making. Brief was their stay, for they planned to visit every friend they had, and Rose could not help laughing at the droll mixture of manly dignity and boyish delight with which they drove off in their own carriage, both as erect as ramrods, arms folded, and caps stuck at exactly the same angle on each blond head.
"Here comes the other couple Steve, in full feather, with a big bouquet for Kitty, and poor Mac, looking like a gentleman and feeling like a martyr, I'm sure," said Rose, watching one carriage turn in as the other turned out of the great gate, with its arch of holly, ivy, and evergreen.
"Here he is. I've got him in tow for the day and want you to cheer him up with a word of praise, for he came without a struggle though planning to bolt somewhere with Uncle," cried Steve, falling back to display his brother, who came in looking remarkably well in his state and festival array, for polishing had begun to tell.
"A happy New Year, Aunty, same to you, Cousin, and best wishes for as many more as you deserve," said Mac, heeding Steve no more than if he had been a fly as he gave the old lady a hearty kiss and offered Rose a quaint little nosegay of pansies.
"Heart's-ease do you think I need it?" she asked, looking up with sudden sobriety.
"We all do. Could I give you anything better on a day like this?"
"No thank you very much." And a sudden dew came to Rose's eyes, for, though often blunt in speech, when Mac did do a tender thing, it always touched her because he seemed to understand her moods so well.
"Has Archie been here? He said he shouldn't go anywhere else, but I hope you talked that nonsense out of his head," said Steve, settling his tie before the mirror.
"Yes, dear, he came but looked so out of spirits I really felt reproached. Rose cheered him up a little, but I don't believe he will feel equal to making calls and I hope he won't, for his face tells the whole story much too plainly," answered Aunty Plenty, rustling about her bountiful table in her richest black silk with all her old lace on.
"Oh, he'll get over it in a month or two, and Phebe will soon find another lover, so don't be worried about him, Aunty," said Steve, with the air of a man who knew all about that sort of thing.
"If Archie does forget, I shall despise him, and I know Phebe won't try to find another lover, though she'll probably have them she is so sweet and good!" cried Rose indignantly, for, having taken the pair under her protection, she defended them valiantly.
"Then you'd have Arch hope against hope and never give up, would you?" asked Mac, putting on his glasses to survey the thin boots which were his especial abomination.
"Yes, I would, for a lover is not worth having if he's not in earnest!"
"Exactly. So you'd like them to wait and work and keep on loving till they made you relent or plainly proved that it was no use."
"If they were good as well as constant, I think I should relent in time."
"I'll mention that to Pemberton, for he seemed to be hit the hardest, and a ray of hope will do him good, whether he is equal to the ten years' wait or not," put in Steve, who liked to rally Rose about her lovers.
"I'll never forgive you if you say a word to anyone. It is only Mac's odd way of asking questions, and I ought not to answer them. You will talk about such things and I can't stop you, but I don't like it," said Rose, much annoyed.
"Poor little Penelope! She shall not be teased about her suitors but left in peace till her Ulysses comes home," said Mac, sitting down to read the mottoes sticking out of certain fanciful bonbons on the table.
"It is this fuss about Archie which has demoralized us all. Even the owl waked up and hasn't got over the excitement yet, you see. He's had no experience, poor fellow, so he doesn't know how to behave," observed Steve, regarding his bouquet with tender interest.
"That's true, and I asked for information because I may be in love myself someday and all this will be useful, don't you see?"
"You in love!" And Steve could not restrain a laugh at the idea of the bookworm a slave to the tender passion.
Quite unruffled, Mac leaned his chin in both hands, regarding them with a meditative eye as he answered in his whimsical way: "Why not? I intend to study love as well as medicine, for it is one of the most mysterious and remarkable diseases that afflict mankind, and the best way to understand it is to have it. I may catch it someday, and then I should like to know how to treat and cure it."
"If you take it as badly as you did measles and whooping cough, it will go hard with you, old fellow," said Steve, much amused with the fancy.
"I want it to. No great experience comes or goes easily, and this is the greatest we can know, I believe, except death."
Something in Mac's quiet tone and thoughtful eyes made Rose look at him in surprise, for she had never heard him speak in that way before. Steve also stared for an instant, equally amazed, then said below his breath, with an air of mock anxiety: "He's been catching something at the hospital, typhoid probably, and is beginning to wander. I'll take him quietly away before he gets any wilder. Come, old lunatic, we must be off."
"Don't be alarmed. I'm all right and much obliged for your advice, for I fancy I shall be a desperate lover when my time comes, if it ever does. You don't think it impossible, do you?" And Mac put the question so soberly that there was a general smile.
"Certainly not you'll be a regular Douglas, tender and true," answered Rose, wondering what queer question would come next.
"Thank you. The fact is, I've been with Archie so much in his trouble lately that I've gotten interested in this matter and very naturally want to investigate the subject as every rational man must, sooner or later, that's all. Now, Steve, I'm ready." And Mac got up as if the lesson was over.
"My dear, that boy is either a fool or a genius, and I'm sure I should be glad to know which," said Aunt Plenty, putting her bonbons to rights with a puzzled shake of her best cap.
"Time will show, but I incline to think that he is not a fool by any means," answered the girl, pulling a cluster of white roses out of her bosom to make room for the pansies, though they did not suit the blue gown half so well.
Just then Aunt Jessie came in to help them receive, with Jamie to make himself generally useful, which he proceeded to do by hovering around the table like a fly about a honey pot when not flattening his nose against the windowpanes to announce excitedly, "Here's another man coming up the drive!"
Charlie arrived next in his most sunshiny humor, for anything social and festive was his delight, and when in this mood the Prince was quite irresistible. He brought a pretty bracelet for Rose and was graciously allowed to put it on while she chid him gently for his extravagance.
"I am only following your example, for you know 'nothing is too good for those we love, and giving away is the best thing one can do,'" he retorted, quoting words of her own.
"I wish you would follow my example in some other things as well as you do in this," said Rose soberly as Aunt Plenty called him to come and see if the punch was right.
"Must conform to the customs of society. Aunty's heart would be broken if we did not drink her health in the good old fashion. But don't be alarmed I've a strong head of my own, and that's lucky, for I shall need it before I get through," laughed Charlie, showing a long list as he turned away to gratify the old lady with all sorts of merry and affectionate compliments as the glasses touched.
Rose did feel rather alarmed, for if he drank the health of all the owners of those names, she felt sure that Charlie would need a very strong head indeed. It was hard to say anything then and there without seeming disrespect to Aunt Plenty, yet she longed to remind her cousin of the example she tried to set him in this respect, for Rose never touched wine, and the boys knew it. She was thoughtfully turning the bracelet, with its pretty device of turquoise forget-me-nots, when the giver came back to her, still bubbling over with good spirits.
"Dear little saint, you look as if you'd like to smash all the punch bowls in the city, and save us jolly young fellows from tomorrow's headache."
"I should, for such headaches sometimes end in heartaches, I'm afraid. Dear Charlie, don't be angry, but you know better than I that this is a dangerous day for such as you so do be careful for my sake," she added, with an unwonted touch of tenderness in her voice, for, looking at the gallant figure before her, it was impossible to repress the womanly longing to keep it always as brave and blithe as now.
Charlie saw that new softness in the eyes that never looked unkindly on him, fancied that it meant more than it did, and, with a sudden fervor in his own voice, answered quickly: "My darling, I will!"
The glow which had risen to his face was reflected in hers, for at that moment it seemed as if it would be possible to love this cousin who was so willing to be led by her and so much needed some helpful influence to make a noble man of him. The thought came and went like a flash, but gave her a quick heartthrob, as if the old affection was trembling on the verge of some warmer sentiment, and left her with a sense of responsibility never felt before. Obeying the impulse, she said, with a pretty blending of earnestness and playfulness, "If I wear the bracelet to remember you by, you must wear this to remind you of your promise."
"And you," whispered Charlie, bending his head to kiss the hands that put a little white rose in his buttonhole.
Just at that most interesting moment they became aware of an arrival in the front drawing room, whither Aunt Plenty had discreetly retired. Rose felt grateful for the interruption, because, not being at all sure of the state of her heart as yet, she was afraid of letting a sudden impulse lead her too far. But Charlie, conscious that a very propitious instant had been spoiled, regarded the newcomer with anything but a benignant expression of countenance and, whispering, "Good-bye, my Rose, I shall look in this evening to see how you are after the fatigues of the day," he went away, with such a cool nod to poor Fun See that the amiable Asiatic thought he must have mortally offended him.
Rose had little leisure to analyze the new emotions of which she was conscious, for Mr. Tokio came up at once to make his compliments with a comical mingling of Chinese courtesy and American awkwardness, and before he had got his hat on Jamie shouted with admiring energy: "Here's another! Oh, such a swell!"
They now came thick and fast for many hours, and the ladies stood bravely at their posts till late into the evening. Then Aunt Jessie went home, escorted by a very sleepy little son, and Aunt Plenty retired to bed, used up. Dr. Alec had returned in good season, for his friends were not fashionable ones, but Aunt Myra had sent up for him in hot haste and he had good-naturedly obeyed the summons. In fact, he was quite used to them now, for Mrs. Myra, having tried a variety of dangerous diseases, had finally decided upon heart complaint as the one most likely to keep her friends in a chronic state of anxiety and was continually sending word that she was dying. One gets used to palpitations as well as everything else, so the doctor felt no alarm but always went and prescribed some harmless remedy with the most amiable sobriety and patience.
Rose was tired but not sleepy and wanted to think over several things, so instead of going to bed she sat down before the open fire in the study to wait for her uncle and perhaps Charlie, though she did not expect him so late.
Aunt Myra's palpitations must have been unusually severe, for the clock struck twelve before Dr. Alec came, and Rose was preparing to end her reverie when the sound of someone fumbling at the hall door made her jump up, saying to herself: "Poor man! His hands are so cold he can't get his latchkey in. Is that you, Uncle?" she added, running to admit him, for Jane was slow and the night as bitter as it was brilliant.
A voice answered, "Yes." And as the door swung open, in walked, not Dr. Alec, but Charlie, who immediately took one of the hall chairs and sat there with his hat on, rubbing his gloveless hands and blinking as if the light dazzled him, as he said in a rapid, abrupt sort of tone, "I told you I'd come left the fellows keeping it up gloriously going to see the old year out, you know. But I promised never break my word and here I am. Angel in blue, did you slay your thousands?"
"Hush! The waiters are still about. Come to the study fire and warm yourself, you must be frozen," said Rose, going before to roll up the easy chair.
"Not at all never warmer looks very comfortable, though. Where's Uncle?" asked Charlie, following with his hat still on, his hands in his pockets, and his eye fixed steadily on the bright head in front of him.
"Aunt Myra sent for him, and I was waiting up to see how she was," answered Rose, busily mending the fire.
Charlie laughed and sat down upon a corner of the library table. "Poor old soul! What a pity she doesn't die before he is quite worn out. A little too much ether some of these times would send her off quite comfortably, you know."
"Don't speak in that way. Uncle says imaginary troubles are often as hard to bear as real ones," said Rose, turning around displeased.
Till now she had not fairly looked at him, for recollections of the morning made her a little shy. His attitude and appearance surprised her as much as his words, and the quick change in her face seemed to remind him of his manners. Getting up, he hastily took off his hat and stood looking at her with a curiously fixed yet absent look as he said in the same rapid, abrupt way, as if, when once started, he found it hard to stop, "I beg pardon only joking very bad taste I know, and won't do it again. The heat of the room makes me a little dizzy, and I think I got a chill coming out. It is cold I am frozen, I daresay though I drove like the devil."
"Not that bad horse of yours, I hope? I know it is dangerous, so late and alone," said Rose, shrinking behind the big chair as Charlie approached the fire, carefully avoiding a footstool in his way.
"Danger is exciting that's why I like it. No man ever called me a coward let him try it once. I never give in and that horse shall not conquer me. I'll break his neck, if he breaks my spirit doing it. No I don't mean that never mind it's all right," and Charlie laughed in a way that troubled her, because there was no mirth in it.
"Have you had a pleasant day?" asked Rose, looking at him intently as he stood pondering over the cigar and match which he held, as if doubtful which to strike and which to smoke.
"Day? Oh, yes, capital. About two thousand calls, and a nice little supper at the Club. Randal can't sing any more than a crow, but I left him with a glass of champagne upside down, trying to give them my old favorite:
"'Tis better to laugh than be sighing,"
and Charlie burst forth in that bacchanalian melody at the top of his voice, waving an allumette holder over his head to represent Randal's inverted wineglass.
"Hush! You'll wake Aunty," cried Rose in a tone so commanding that he broke off in the middle of a roulade to stare at her with a blank look as he said apologetically, "I was merely showing how it should be done. Don't be angry, dearest look at me as you did this morning, and I'll swear never to sing another note if you say so. I'm only a little gay we drank your health handsomely, and they all congratulated me. Told 'em it wasn't out yet. Stop, though I didn't mean to mention that. No matter I'm always in a scrape, but you always forgive me in the sweetest way. Do it now, and don't be angry, little darling." And, dropping the vase, he went toward her with a sudden excitement that made her shrink behind the chair.
She was not angry, but shocked and frightened, for she knew now what the matter was and grew so pale, he saw it and asked pardon before she could utter a rebuke.
"We'll talk of that tomorrow. It is very late. Go home now, please, before Uncle comes," she said, trying to speak naturally yet betraying her distress by the tremor of her voice and the sad anxiety in her eyes.
"Yes, yes, I will go you are tired I'll make it all right tomorrow." And as if the sound of his uncle's name steadied him for an instant, Charlie made for the door with an unevenness of gait which would have told the shameful truth if his words had not already done so. Before he reached it, however, the sound of wheels arrested him and, leaning against the wall, he listened with a look of dismay mingled with amusement creeping over his face. "Brutus has bolted now I am in a fix. Can't walk home with this horrid dizziness in my head. It's the cold, Rose, nothing else, I do assure you, and a chill yes, a chill. See here! Let one of those fellows there lend me an arm no use to go after that brute. Won't Mother be frightened though when he gets home?" And with that empty laugh again, he fumbled for the door handle.
"No, no don't let them see you! Don't let anyone know! Stay here till Uncle comes, and he'll take care of you. Oh, Charlie! How could you do it! How could you when you promised?" And, forgetting fear in the sudden sense of shame and anguish that came over her, Rose ran to him, caught his hand from the lock, and turned the key; then, as if she could not bear to see him standing there with that vacant smile on his lips, she dropped into a chair and covered up her face.
The cry, the act, and, more than all, the sight of the bowed head would have sobered poor Charlie if it had not been too late. He looked about the room with a vague, despairing look, as if to find reason fast slipping from his control, but heat and cold, excitement and reckless pledging of many healths had done their work too well to make instant sobriety possible, and owning his defeat with a groan, he turned away and threw himself face-downward on the sofa, one of the saddest sights the new year looked upon as it came in.
As she sat there with hidden eyes, Rose felt that something dear to her was dead forever. The ideal, which all women cherish, look for, and too often think they have found when love glorifies a mortal man, is hard to give up, especially when it comes in the likeness of the first lover who touches a young girl's heart. Rose had just begun to feel that perhaps this cousin, despite his faults, might yet become the hero that he sometimes looked, and the thought that she might be his inspiration was growing sweet to her, although she had not entertained it until very lately. Alas, how short the tender dream had been, how rude the awakening! How impossible it would be ever again to surround that fallen figure with all the romance of an innocent fancy or gift it with the high attributes beloved by a noble nature!
Breathing heavily in the sudden sleep that kindly brought a brief oblivion of himself, he lay with flushed cheeks, disordered hair, and at his feet the little rose that never would be fresh and fair again a pitiful contrast now to the brave, blithe young man who went so gaily out that morning to be so ignominiously overthrown at night.
Many girls would have made light of a trespass so readily forgiven by the world, but Rose had not yet learned to offer temptation with a smile and shut her eyes to the weakness that makes a man a brute. It always grieved or disgusted her to see it in others, and now it was very terrible to have it brought so near not in its worst form, by any means, but bad enough to wring her heart with shame and sorrow and fill her mind with dark forebodings for the future. So she could only sit mourning for the Charlie that might have been while watching the Charlie that was with an ache in her heart which found no relief till, putting her hands there as if to ease the pain, they touched the pansies, faded but still showing gold among the somber purple, and then two great tears dropped on them as she sighed: "Ah, me! I do need heart's-ease sooner than I thought!"
Her uncle's step made her spring up and unlock the door, showing him such an altered face that he stopped short, ejaculating in dismay, "Good heavens, child! What's the matter?" adding, as she pointed to the sofa in pathetic silence, "Is he hurt? ill? dead?"
"No, Uncle, he is - " She could not utter the ugly word but whispered with a sob in her throat, "Be kind to him," and fled away to her own room, feeling as if a great disgrace had fallen on the house.