The porter had placed the bag, which I noticed was marked with the letters B. L., beside the vacant chair across the aisle; and as the ladies were grouped in very close quarters I delicately left my seat, with the hope that one of them would occupy it until the departure of the train. At this moment I observed Emily, under whose demure air a spice of mischief lurked, whisper something to her friend, who blushed and tittered slightly.
The speaker pressed her face against the window-pane, as if she expected to catch a glimpse of some one outside. Blanche stood at her elbow, and tried, by giggling protestations, to interrupt this action, though I fancied she was far from displeased thereby.
Alighting from the car, I began to walk up and down with my hands behind my back. A few minutes must still elapse before the departure of the train. Just then I saw a window open and Emilys delicate face peep out expectantly. I could almost feel the sympathetic squeeze of the hand she doubtless gave Blanche, who leaned upon her shoulder. They plainly were beginning to fear that the tardy admirer was not coming. But I was by no means of their opinion. I felt certain he would arrive. In all probability the florist had disappointed him, and he was ransacking the town for roses.
The gate through which passengers obtained admission to the train was in the rear of the last car, and practically out of range from the Pullman. I sauntered thither. A queue of people filed past me with movements of haste. It lacked but two minutes of the hour. I stepped beyond the wicket into the area of the depot. All was confusion. Passengers were scurrying hither and thither, for there were several other trains in process of arrival and departure. I looked searchingly among the crowd, but there was no sign of the missing youth.
A bell in the office struck warningly. I stood with my watch in hand. Blanche was right. He was not coming. And yet such deliberate desertion struck me as so inartistic as to render me incredulous even at this late moment.
As I replaced my watch in my fob I perceived a figure describing a rapid course through the crowd in the station. By the fashionable cut of his clothes and the green pasteboard box he carried, I recognized the tardy lover. I started toward him with some impetuosity and we came into collision.
The young man, who was almost breathless with hurry, looked as if he could have strangled me on the spot, but with the self-control of good breeding swallowed his wrath, and somewhat fiercely demanded which was the New York train.
He sped like a deer in the direction indicated, and I just had time to pass through the wicket before it closed sharply. I ran forward and caught the railing of my car, which was already in motion. The buxom Blanche stood upon the platform waving her handkerchief to her two friends, who followed the advancing train with similar snowy signals of farewell. There was a rueful expression upon the face of Miss Emily, as if she harbored sympathy for the others disappointment. The victim looked back smilingly, however.
I took my seat, and for nearly an hour interested myself by looking out at the scenery. The fortunate course of events had swathed my soul in a sort of glamour, so that the houses and fields and hills and valleys flying past in swift succession served as a background for the play of my imagination. I found an exquisite pleasure in giving the rein to fancy, and indulging in that adulation of feminality frequent with me even when propinquity furnished no cause; for I had ever cherished an ideal in regard to the gentler sex. I had a limitless faith in woman, and yearned to encounter the spirit in whose companionship my every aspiration would find content.
Here she was perhaps close at hand. I stole a glance at my neighbor across the aisle, who was sitting twirling the fringe of her sack with a thoughtful air. The memory of her sibilant giggle haunted my ear as the rhythm of a cool mountain brook recalled in the passages of a fever. She was a splendid piece of flesh and blood, whom a pensive brow no more became than a dull sky the laughing stream. A wealth of curling tow-colored hair flowed from under the arch of her bonnet, and dimples nestled in the curves of her fresh-hued cheeks. Instinct told me that the life which even now bubbled upon the margin of those red lips would soon reassert itself and dissipate her disappointment. Take vitality and pique together, and you will have the material for a runaway.
I was in the course of transferring this epigram to my note-book when the news-agent passed through the car with a collection of the literature of the day. I stealthily took note that the two novels he placed upon the lap of my fair companion bore severally the titles of True to the Last and A Lass of Spirit. She examined the first of these with a pensive interest, but, though she sighed once or twice in the course of turning the pages, she ended by selecting the other.
There is an old adage in regard to the danger of letting a hot iron cool, which came to my mind at this juncture. I felt the necessity of bestirring myself instantly. The delicacy of my nature had prompted me to leave Blanche to her own reflections until now, but I must confess I began to fear that in my consideration for her feelings I might have prejudiced my own interests. Her recovery from her discomfiture had been more rapid than my estimate of feminine character gave me reason to expect. The wound not only had time to smart, but to begin to heal.
An opportunity was not long lacking. The volume purchased proved to be one the pages of which wore uncut, and as she was wavering between the alternative of employing her index finger and laying the book aside, I hastened to offer her an ivory paper-cutter which belonged to my travelling-bag. It was a plain but tasteful affair, with my monogram blazoned upon the handle.
A quarter of an hour later I aided her to raise a window which resisted her (as I decided) half-hearted pressure, and when the train stopped ten minutes for refreshments, asked her to permit me to get her something to eat. Her refusal was expected, for I felt morally certain that her reticule contained a supply of sandwiches; but the opportunity was not one to be neglected.
Nor was I mistaken, for when we emerged from the dimness of the way-station she produced a packet of chicken and bread wrapped in a snowy doily. I was not conscious of hinting, by any expression of countenance, a desire to share her repast, but perhaps it was my having no luncheon of my own that led her to ask timidly if I would not take a sandwich. After proper hesitation I accepted her offer, and the opportune removal to the smoking-car of a gentleman who occupied the chair next to hers gave me a chance to establish myself at her side and venture a few remarks.
Our conversation was necessarily very formal for the first few minutes, but the discovery of mutual friends in both New York and Boston broke the ice and established a bond of sympathy between us. The enthusiasm of her manner completely charmed me, and she made use of very extravagant adjectives to express satisfaction regarding trivial matters.
I was altogether happy. She appeared to me the most fascinating person I had ever met. Her fresh beauty filled me with admiration, for under the influence of excitement her eyes seemed lakes of liquid blue. I tried my best to be agreeable, and having come to the conclusion that she preferred to laugh, drew largely on my stock of stories and witticisms. Whenever I essayed any topic of a more serious nature a sort of embarrassment clothed her strict attention, as if implying that my quasipedantry was alarming. In response to queries regarding her opinions on the Irish question and a recent publication, she responded, Oh, yes, and became unnaturally grave. Clearly she would consider me very uninteresting were I to continue in this fashion.
So, when I had come to the end of the tales and conundrums at my command, I showed her one or two tricks with coins that could be performed without attracting too much attention in the car. She was sure she could imitate them, and her fruitless efforts at success kept us in continuous mirth. I propounded to her that venerable query the answer to which is the little boy lied, and was amply rewarded for my pains, since it appealed extraordinarily to her risibility, though she declared with a shake of her shoulders, by way of feigned anger, that I was awfully unkind to make sport of her. The innocent device of knotting my handkerchief until it bore some resemblance to a rabbit, and causing it to jump spasmodically in imitation of that creature, fairly convulsed my lovely companion, and strengthened our friendship. The strictly impersonal, however, does not long satisfy any woman. So my natural instinct warned me, and I turned by degrees the course of conversation into a more interesting channel. A few direct and simple questions were necessary for the acquirement of one or two facts in regard to herself, but I avoided abandoning more than momentarily the jesters part. Anything in the nature of abstract discussion, which I knew to be an artistic and convenient veil for sentiment, would, in the case of Blanche, be out of place. Badinage was the only available method of paying tribute to her fascinations or interesting her in ones own.
I found that compliments, when couched in a not too serious tone of voice, pleased her greatly. The more delicate ones were not so effective as those easily understood. She pretended to think these laudatory speeches very ridiculous, and accused me of being foolish. Leaning slightly over the back of her chair, I would whisper some still more extravagant bit of flattery as a reply, to be greeted very likely with a declaration that she would have nothing more to do with me. By way of carrying out her threat she would look fixedly in the opposite direction.
But it is true, Miss Lombard. I am only speaking the truth. If you do not believe me, judge for yourself. Here is the opportunity. So saying, I drew from my pocket one of those round, flat pin-cushions carried by men, the back of which contained a mirror.
We had formed an agreement not five minutes before that whoever of us should first receive anything from the hand of the other should pay a forfeit. In the event of my losing, her prize was to be five pounds of bonbons. If I won, she was to make me a tobacco-pouch.
The excitement of her manner, which found a partial vent in the intensity of these expressions, caused me a thrill of sweet satisfaction. She seemed to me positively an angel, and I was conscious that the epithet, you horrid thing, embodied the highest note in her gamut. The quintessence of enraptured vitality was condensed therein, and I was the fortunate being who had evoked it.
From this culmination of the climax the conversation gradually declined in interest, and I shortly had the tact to withdraw and leave my companion to her own meditations. I sought the smoking-car, and, lighting another cigarette, gave myself up to a revery which would have been wholly delicious but for the lurking doubt as to my chances for success. I did not question that I had made an impression on my fellow-traveller; but would she regard me as other than a mere incident of the journey, a transient influence, which would cease to operate upon the morrow? Was she still free, or were there a score of lovers at her feet? What was the true footing upon which the swain stood whose flowers I had so lately anticipated? He might, for aught I could tell, be on the eve of conquest, and I the plaything of an hour. I lovedI realized the condition welldeeply and passionately, and all the tortures of a doubting spirit were mine. In the fulness of my infatuation I drew out my note-book once more and wrote as follows:
As I completed the last word, I perceived that we had almost reached our destination. I returned to Miss Lombards side in time to take charge of her wraps, and before consigning her to the care of her father, a florid, full-faced man with mutton-chop whiskers, who was waiting her arrival at the depot, I had obtained her permission to call. In truth, she declared she would never forgive me if I did not.