FROM the front verandah of the summer boarding house the scene was just varied enough to avoid being exciting. On the stretch of sand, ladies with extensive hats and white parasols coquetted with the sun, but dodged its tan. Figures in bathing suits rolled about on the beach, or occasionally caused a flutter of interest by taking a dip in the lake, only to crawl out and he prone where the sun could dry them and scorch blisters on their arms. Dozens of children were running about, starting to go nowhere and then hurrying back again, greatly to their own glee.
How better could a lazy man enjoy his holiday than gazing for hours at these young people between momentary efforts to read? I was at the seventeenth page in my book, which would almost fly open at that spot, so long had it been spread out, for as I became more familiar with the actors in the pantomime on the sand I lost interest in my story.
Yet there came an hour on that hot summer afternoon when I felt that I would be forced to read it in self-defence. Mrs. Carlton-Heward liked the verandah as well as I did, but not as a spot where one could lounge and smoke. Mrs. Carlton-Heward wanted always—to talk. It was less than a week since we first met,
and I already knew more of her family history than would have been required by her biographer. Still I found that her home affairs were as a bottomless mine.
Mrs. Carlton-Heward was pink and white and fifty, but she intended to blossom into a second youth. She had been telling me about it all afternoon. Mr. Carlton-Heward and she had made their minds up about this point years ago. They took life seriously and planned things out—it was the best way. When you marry—this to me at fifty—be resolved to settle down and become domestic while the children are growing up. Then when the last one goes—wedded, she meant, not dead—enjoy a second honeymoon. Be as frivolous as when in your teens.
The working out of this splendid scheme had almost been upset in the case of the Carlton-Heward by Miriam, their youngest daughter. I had heard the story five times already, but could not say so. It was not lack of suitors—oh, dear no— Miriam had them lined up at the door like the fans at the ball game,—but she was an extraordinary child. She possessed most astonishing notions of duty, just like her father. Any characteristic that Mrs. Carlton-Heward looked upon as peculiar, but praiseworthy, she ascribed to
her husband. Miriam’s idea of duty was that she should stay at home and smooth the path of parential old age, and it almost required brute force to turn her from her purpose.
“Ah, well,” said Mrs. Carlton-Heward, “I cannot now be giddy without setting a bad example.”
“I hope, my dear madam, that we are not carrying on a flirtation,” I said, with an attempt at sarcasm.
“Oh, dear no,” she chirruped gaily, “a man who does not know whether or not he is flirting may feel sure that he is safe. No, I want to be a chaperone and keep the nice boys around me. I can tell you all this because I feel sure that you wTere always old.”
This nettled me. There was a girl—I recall her stiffly combed hair still—whom I could have wooed with perfect confidence. She comforted my vanity many times, but w.hy should I tell Mrs. CarltonHeward? Nevertheless, her remark made me feel rude so I replied, “Well, when there is so much in the world to read, why should one take time to get married?”
“You are hinting that I am keeping you from your novel!” she exclaimed.
Mrs. Carlton-Heward was amiability itself and I felt half inclined to call her back and sacrifice myself to her conversational gifts for the afternoon.
I had just picked up my book again with the intention of reading at least one paragraph when Sidney Herbert came up the walk, spotless and immaculate as usual. I covered up my annoyance as well as possible while I offered him a chair. Ide was a callow creature, who affected a candid superiority towards everyone. He always described me as an unsympathetic listener, and yet I had truly heard all that I desired to hear of his vanities and vaporings during the few months since our acquaintance had commenced in a business transaction.
“I did not know you were staying here,” he said as he lighted his cigar and stretched out so that a glimpse of dainty sock showed above his trim shoes.
“No !” I said, indifferent.
“I havn’t been here for years,” he went on. “I thought I’d run down and renew old acquaintances. I am at the hotel, in the very room I used years ago
during one glorious holiday. But strange to say, this house is the place I best remember.”
There was no need to ask why. I knew perfectly well what he would reply.
“There was a girl spending the summer here, a charming little creature, so pink and white, like a great wax doll,” he said, “Mamie Bright, that was her name. It just suited her.”
“That is one I have never heard you speak about,” I remarked.
“Perhaps not. Yet I had not forgotten ner. All the fellows talked about her, but I said nothing, sly dog that I was, though I intended that they should all play second fiddle,” said Herbert.
“Succeeded!” My partner leaned forward and slowly knocked the first accumulation of ash from his cigar. “I just studied her and played my cards to suit. She was a sentimental little creature; so I merely talked. Oh, but I had the gift. I should have lived in the days of romance. When we sat on the beach we did not hear the waves; it was the sight of the craving hearts in the city out of whom toil had crushed the power to love. I marvel now at the way I used to be able to talk, but Mamie was like the rest. She revelled in it.”
“Did you spend a whole summer talking that way?” I inquired.
. “Oh no, we discussed our own personalities,” he replied, “at least Mamie thought we did, but in reality we only discussed hers. Of course she was misunderstood by those who should have known her best. She liked to talk about the way they wounded her, and, of course, I drew her out. There was a seat beneath a tree near the beach. Let me see. No, it is gone. We would sit there for hours and talk about feelings. And the other fellows! Well, first they were annoyed and then they contented themselves with frecklefaced summer girls.” Llerbert threw himself back in silent laughter at the recollection.
“I suppose you both got tired of it,” I ventured.
“Tired of it, why Mamie lost her fluttering little heart completely. They told me she had been like a little butterfly. Well, she began to take things seriously.”
“How did you know?”
“Oh, well, I had a little vanity. I suppose it was natural. A fellow soon gets to know his powers. I liked to watch her Hutter, so to speak. In the evening I used tc stand down there in the darkness under the trees just to see her come out again and again to peer up the road anxiously for my coming.”
“Then you engaged yourself, and both went home and that was the end of it,” I remarked, as cynically as I could.
“I am not the cad you appear to think, my friend,” said Herbert, cheerfully, “Í saw it was serious with Mamie. Why, I could have taken her in my hand and crushed her like a Hower, but at least 1 was a gentleman. I let her know casually that I could not marry till my education was completed. That was my way of letting her down easily.”
“What became of her?” I inquired.
“I did not come back here next year. That was the summer I became engaged to Alice Martin, you have heard of her, But I really had not the heart to ask about Mamie. She was the sort of girl who never forgets, so I feared the impression might have been too deep.” Then Herbert added, in his patronizing way, “You do not understand that, do you? Well, that is why you have always lived such a humdrum existence. You are the sort of fellow who would have gone back and after seeing the desolation caused, it is probable that you might have had a long and troublesome time with your conscience.”
“Perhaps,” I said, without feeling that he had been very uncomplimentary.
Our conversation died because my partner lacked fuel. He was satisfied to sit back with smiling recollections of his own irresistible youth chasing one another through his mind. I devoted my time to wondering how long he intended to stay and how many visits he would pay me before returning to the city. The rustle of Mrs. Carlton-Heward’s skirt came as a welcome relief. She had a habit of appearing by accident whenever some one came to the house who looked worth knowing. There was a little drama in which we had to take part—it was customary on such occasions. Mrs. CarltonHeward pretended to beat a retreat, but
not too quickly. I rose hurriedly, though, of course, I might have taken my time, and urged her to meet my friend. I did not tell her my thoughts, but it seemed to me a great opportunity for the newfound freedom to be exercised, and I felt sure that Sydney Herbert would be a willing victim.
Herbert did not take the introduction formally. He started forward with great effusion. “Why,” he exclaimed, “I think Mrs. Carlton-Heward and I are old friends.”
The lady looked blank.
“Were you not Mamie Bright?” he asked. “Surely I am not mistaken.”
“Yes,” she exclaimed, brightening, “you are right.”
“Of course, it is some years since we met,” he went on, with what seemed to me great audacity, “but by a strange coincidence we—we—have just been talking about you.”
“Really, you will have to pardon me,” said Mrs. Carlton-Heward, “but is your name Mr. Herbert. I am trying to place you. I have such a wretched memory for names and faces.
“I met you here one summer—” suggested Herbert, as though his statement would settle the matter.
“But I came here every summer until I was married,” replied the lady, laughing.
“I was staying at the hotel—”
“Oh,” she went on. “Oh, yes. Of (•ourse. There were always such nice boys at the hotel. Nicer every year, I think, for they culminated in my husband,” she paused. “I really must seem awfully stupid, but when I come across old friends I do want to place them. Let us talk over old times and then, perhaps, I shall be able to remember the summer and who all were down here that year. I suppose that you can recollect some of our doings.”
I climbed out of my reclining position to get an extra chair.
“Oh, yes,” I said, “Mr. Herbert can tell you a great deal that happened that summer. I am sure he will be delighted to freshen your memory.”
The remark was spiteful, but I could not resist it. I began again on the seventeenth page.
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