It was well along in the forenoon of a bitter winter′s day. The town of Eastport, in the state of Maine, lay buried under a deep snow that was newly fallen. The customary bustle in the streets was wanting. One could look long distances down them and see nothing but a dead-white emptiness, with silence to match. Of course I do not mean that you could see the silence—no, you could only hear it. The sidewalks were merely long, deep ditches, with steep snow walls on either side. Here and there you might hear the faint, far scrape of a wooden shovel, and if you were quick enough you might catch a glimpse of a distant black figure stooping and disappearing in one of those ditches, and reappearing the next moment with a motion which you would know meant the heaving out of a shovelful of snow. But you needed to be quick, for that black figure would not linger, but would soon drop that shovel and scud for the house, thrashing itself with its arms to warm them. Yes, it was too venomously cold for snow-shovelers or anybody else to stay out long.
Presently the sky darkened; then the wind rose and began to blow in fitful, vigorous gusts, which sent clouds of powdery snow aloft, and straight ahead, and everywhere. Under the impulse of one of these gusts, great white drifts banked themselves like graves across the streets; a moment later another gust shifted them around the other way, driving a fine spray of snow from their sharp crests, as the gale drives the spume flakes from wave-crests at sea; a third gust swept that place as clean as your hand, if it saw fit. This was fooling, this was play; but each and all of the gusts dumped some snow into the sidewalk ditches, for that was business.
Alonzo Fitz Clarence was sitting in his snug and elegant little parlor, in a lovely blue silk dressing-gown, with cuffs and facings of crimson satin, elaborately quilted. The remains of his breakfast were before him, and the dainty and costly little table service added a harmonious charm to the grace, beauty, and richness of the fixed appointments of the room. A cheery fire was blazing on the hearth.
A furious gust of wind shook the windows, and a great wave of snow washed against them with a drenching sound, so to speak. The handsome young bachelor murmured:
"That means, no going out to-day. Well, I am content. But what to do for company? Mother is well enough, Aunt Susan is well enough; but these, like the poor, I have with me always. On so grim a day as this, one needs a new interest, a fresh element, to whet the dull edge of captivity. That was very neatly said, but it doesn′t mean anything. One doesn′t want the edge of captivity sharpened up, you know, but just the reverse."
He glanced at his pretty French mantel-clock.
"That clock′s wrong again. That clock hardly ever knows what time it is; and when it does know, it lies about it—which amounts to the same thing. Alfred!"
There was no answer.
"Alfred! . . . Good servant, but as uncertain as the clock."
Alonzo touched an electric bell button in the wall. He waited a moment, then touched it again; waited a few moments more, and said:
"Battery out of order, no doubt. But now that I have started, I will find out what time it is." He stepped to a speaking-tube in the wall, blew its whistle, and called, "Mother!" and repeated it twice.
"Well, that′s no use. Mother′s battery is out of order, too. Can′t raise anybody down-stairs—that is plain."
He sat down at a rosewood desk, leaned his chin on the left-hand edge of it and spoke, as if to the floor: "Aunt Susan!"
A low, pleasant voice answered, "Is that you, Alonzo?′
"Yes. I′m too lazy and comfortable to go downstairs; I am in extremity, and I can′t seem to scare up any help."
"Dear me, what is the matter?"
"Matter enough, I can tell you!"
"Oh, don′t keep me in suspense, dear! What is it?"
"I want to know what time it is."
"You abominable boy, what a turn you did give me! Is that all?"
"All—on my honor. Calm yourself. Tell me the time, and receive my blessing."
"Just five minutes after nine. No charge—keep your blessing."
"Thanks. It wouldn′t have impoverished me, aunty, nor so enriched you that you could live without other means."
He got up, murmuring, "Just five minutes after nine," and faced his clock. "Ah," said he, "you are doing better than usual. You are only thirty-four minutes wrong. Let me see . . . let me see. . . . Thirty-three and twenty-one are fifty-four; four times fifty-four are two hundred and thirty-six. One off, leaves two hundred and thirty-five. That′s right."
He turned the hands of his clock forward till they marked twenty-five minutes to one, and said, "Now see if you can′t keep right for a while —else I′ll raffle you!"
He sat down at the desk again, and said, "Aunt Susan!"
"Yes, indeed, an hour ago."
"No—except sewing. Why?"
"Got any company?"
"No, but I expect some at half past nine."
"I wish I did. I′m lonesome. I want to talk to somebody."
"Very well, talk to me."
"But this is very private."
"Don′t be afraid—talk right along, there′s nobody here but me."
"I hardly know whether to venture or not, but—"
"But what? Oh, don′t stop there! You know you can trust me, Alonzo—you know, you can."
"I feel it, aunt, but this is very serious. It affects me deeply—me, and all the family—-even the whole community."
"Oh, Alonzo, tell me! I will never breathe a word of it. What is it?"
"Aunt, if I might dare—"
"Oh, please go on! I love you, and feel for you. Tell me all. Confide in me. What is it?"
"Plague take the weather! I don′t see how you can have the heart to serve me so, Lon."
"There, there, aunty dear, I′m sorry; I am, on my honor. I won′t do it again. Do you forgive me?"
"Yes, since you seem so sincere about it, though I know I oughtn′t to. You will fool me again as soon as I have forgotten this time."
"No, I won′t, honor bright. But such weather, oh, such weather! You′ve got to keep your spirits up artificially. It is snowy, and blowy, and gusty, and bitter cold! How is the weather with you?"
"Warm and rainy and melancholy. The mourners go about the streets with their umbrellas running streams from the end of every whalebone. There′s an elevated double pavement of umbrellas, stretching down the sides of the streets as far as I can see. I′ve got a fire for cheerfulness, and the windows open to keep cool. But it is vain, it is useless: nothing comes in but the balmy breath of December, with its burden of mocking odors from the flowers that possess the realm outside, and rejoice in their lawless profusion whilst the spirit of man is low, and flaunt their gaudy splendors in his face while his soul is clothed in sackcloth and ashes and his heart breaketh."
Alonzo opened his lips to say, "You ought to print that, and get it framed," but checked himself, for he heard his aunt speaking to some one else. He went and stood at the window and looked out upon the wintry prospect. The storm was driving the snow before it more furiously than ever; window-shutters were slamming and banging; a forlorn dog, with bowed head and tail withdrawn from service, was pressing his quaking body against a windward wall for shelter and protection; a young girl was plowing knee-deep through the drifts, with her face turned from the blast, and the cape of her waterproof blowing straight rearward over her head. Alonzo shuddered, and said with a sigh, "Better the slop, and the sultry rain, and even the insolent flowers, than this!"
He turned from the window, moved a step, and stopped in a listening attitude. The faint, sweet notes of a familiar song caught his ear. He remained there, with his head unconsciously bent forward, drinking in the melody, stirring neither hand nor foot, hardly breathing. There was a blemish in the execution of the song, but to Alonzo it seemed an added charm instead of a defect. This blemish consisted of a marked flatting of the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh notes of the refrain or chorus of the piece. When the music ended, Alonzo drew a deep breath, and said, "Ah, I never have heard ′In the Sweet By-and-by′ sung like that before!"
He stepped quickly to the desk, listened a moment, and said in a guarded, confidential voice, "Aunty, who is this divine singer?"
"She is the company I was expecting. Stays with me a month or two. I will introduce you. Miss—"
"For goodness′ sake, wait a moment, Aunt Susan! You never stop to think what you are about!"
He flew to his bedchamber, and returned in a moment perceptibly changed in his outward appearance, and remarking, snappishly:
"Hang it, she would have introduced me to this angel in that sky-blue dressing-gown with red-hot lapels! Women never think, when they get a-going."
He hastened and stood by the desk, and said eagerly, "Now, Aunty, I am ready," and fell to smiling and bowing with all the persuasiveness and elegance that were in him.
"Very well. Miss Rosannah Ethelton, let me introduce to you my favorite nephew, Mr. Alonzo Fitz Clarence. There! You are both good people, and I like you; so I am going to trust you together while I attend to a few household affairs. Sit down, Rosannah; sit down, Alonzo. Good-by; I sha′n′t be gone long."
Alonzo had been bowing and smiling all the while, and motioning imaginary young ladies to sit down in imaginary chairs, but now he took a seat himself, mentally saying, "Oh, this is luck! Let the winds blow now, and the snow drive, and the heavens frown! Little I care!"
While these young people chat themselves into an acquaintanceship, let us take the liberty of inspecting the sweeter and fairer of the two. She sat alone, at her graceful ease, in a richly furnished apartment which was manifestly the private parlor of a refined and sensible lady, if signs and symbols may go for anything. For instance, by a low, comfortable chair stood a dainty, top-heavy workstand, whose summit was a fancifully embroidered shallow basket, with varicolored crewels, and other strings and odds and ends protruding from under the gaping lid and hanging down in negligent profusion. On the floor lay bright shreds of Turkey red, Prussian blue, and kindred fabrics, bits of ribbon, a spool or two, a pair of scissors, and a roll or so of tinted silken stuffs. On a luxurious sofa, upholstered with some sort of soft Indian goods wrought in black and gold threads interwebbed with other threads not so pronounced in color, lay a great square of coarse white stuff, upon whose surface a rich bouquet of flowers was growing, under the deft cultivation of the crochet-needle. The household cat was asleep on this work of art. In a bay-window stood an easel with an unfinished picture on it, and a palette and brushes on a chair beside it. There were books everywhere: Robertson′s Sermons, Tennyson, Moody and Sankey, Hawthorne, Rab and His Friends, cook-books, prayer-books, pattern-books—and books about all kinds of odious and exasperating pottery, of course. There was a piano, with a deck-load of music, and more in a tender. There was a great plenty of pictures on the walls, on the shelves of the mantelpiece, and around generally; where coigns of vantage offered were statuettes, and quaint and pretty gimcracks, and rare and costly specimens of peculiarly devilish china. The bay-window gave upon a garden that was ablaze with foreign and domestic flowers and flowering shrubs.
But the sweet young girl was the daintiest thing these premises, within or without, could offer for contemplation: delicately chiseled features, of Grecian cast; her complexion the pure snow of a japonica that is receiving a faint reflected enrichment from some scarlet neighbor of the garden; great, soft blue eyes fringed with long, curving lashes; an expression made up of the trustfulness of a child and the gentleness of a fawn; a beautiful head crowned with its own prodigal gold; a lithe and rounded figure, whose every attitude and movement was instinct with native grace.
Her dress and adornment were marked by that exquisite harmony that can come only of a fine natural taste perfected by culture. Her gown was of a simple magenta tulle, cut bias, traversed by three rows of light-blue flounces, with the selvage edges turned up with ashes-of-roses chenille; overdress of dark bay tarlatan with scarlet satin lambrequins; corn-colored polonaise, en zanier, looped with mother-of-pearl buttons and silver cord, and hauled aft and made fast by buff velvet lashings; basque of lavender reps, picked out with valenciennes; low neck, short sleeves; maroon velvet necktie edged with delicate pink silk; inside handkerchief of some simple three-ply ingrain fabric of a soft saffron tint; coral bracelets and locket-chain; coiffure of forget-me-nots and lilies-of-the-valley massed around a noble calla.
This was all; yet even in this subdued attire she was divinely beautiful. Then what must she have been when adorned for the festival or the ball?
All this time she had been busily chatting with Alonzo, unconscious of our inspection. The minutes still sped, and still she talked. But by and by she happened to look up, and saw the clock. A crimson blush sent its rich flood through her cheeks, and she exclaimed:
"There, good-by, Mr. Fitz Clarence; I must go now!"
She sprang from her chair with such haste that she hardly heard the young man′s answering good-by. She stood radiant, graceful, beautiful, and gazed, wondering, upon the accusing clock. Presently her pouting lips parted, and she said:
"Five minutes after eleven! Nearly two hours, and it did not seem twenty minutes! Oh, dear, what will he think of me!"
At the self-same moment Alonzo was staring at his clock. And presently he said:
"Twenty-five minutes to three! Nearly two hours, and I didn′t believe it was two minutes! Is it possible that this clock is humbugging again? Miss Ethelton! Just one moment, please. Are you there yet?"
"Yes, but be quick; I′m going right away."
"Would you be so kind as to tell me what time it is?"
The girl blushed again, murmured to herself, "It′s right down cruel of him to ask me!" and then spoke up and answered with admirably counterfeited unconcern, "Five minutes after eleven."
"Oh, thank you! You have to go, now, have you?"
"You you′re there yet, ain′t you?"
"Yes; but please hurry. What did you want to say?"
"Well, I—well, nothing in particular. It′s very lonesome here. It′s asking a great deal, I know, but would you mind talking with me again by and by—that is, if it will not trouble you too much?"
"I don′t know but I′ll think about it. I′ll try."
"Oh, thanks! Miss Ethelton! . . . Ah, me, she′s gone, and here are the black clouds and the whirling snow and the raging winds come again! But she said good-by. She didn′t say good morning, she said good-by! . . . The clock was right, after all. What a lightning-winged two hours it was!"
He sat down, and gazed dreamily into his fire for a while, then heaved a sigh and said:
"How wonderful it is! Two little hours ago I was a free man, and now my heart′s in San Francisco!"
About that time Rosannah Ethelton, propped in the window-seat of her bedchamber, book in hand, was gazing vacantly out over the rainy seas that washed the Golden Gate, and whispering to herself, "How different he is from poor Burley, with his empty head and his single little antic talent of mimicry!"