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Strahan strove in vain to suppress; "I will leave you to more
congenial society. I have paid you the highest compliment in my
power, and have been ill-requited."

As if stung, the young girl took a step towards him, and said,
indignantly: "What was the nature of your compliment? What have you
asked but that I should sell myself for money? I may have appeared
to you a mere society girl, but I was never capable of that.
Good-evening, sir."

Mr. Lanniere departed with tingling ears, and a dawning consciousness
that he had over-rated his million, and that he had made a fool of
himself generally.

All trace of mirth passed from Strahan's expression, as he looked
at the young girl's stern, flushed face and the angry sheen of her
eyes.

"By Jove!" he exclaimed, "that's magnificent. I've seen a girl now
to whom I can take off my hat, not as a mere form. Half the girls
in our set would have given their eyes for the chance of capturing
such a man. Think what a vista of new bonnets he suggests!"

"You are probably mistaken. One girl has proved how she regarded
the vista, and I don't believe you had any better opinion of me
than of the others. Come now, own up. Be honest. Didn't you regard
me as one of the girls 'in our set' as you phrase it, that would
jump at the chance?"

"Oh, nonsense, Miss Marian. The idea - "

She checked him by a gesture. "I wish downright sincerity, and I
shall detect the least false note in your words."

Strahan looked into her resolute, earnest eyes a moment, and
then revealed a new trait. He discarded the slight affectation
that characterized his manner, stood erect, and returned her gaze
steadily. "You ask for downright sincerity?" he said.

"Yes; I will take nothing less."

"You have no right to ask it unless you will be equally sincere
with me."

"Oh, indeed; you are in a mood for bargains, as well as Mr.
Lanniere."

"Not at all. You have stepped out of the role of the mere society
girl. In that guise I shall be all deference and compliments. On
the basis of downright sincerity I have my rights, and you have
no right to compel me to give an honest opinion so personal in its
nature without giving one in return."

"I agree," she said, after a moment's thought.

"Well, then, while I was by no means sure, I thought it was possible,
even probable, that you would accept a man like Lanniere. I have
known society girls to do such things, haven't you?"

"And I tell you, Mr. Strahan, that you misjudge a great many society
girls."

"Oh, you must tell me a great deal more than that. Have I not just
discovered that I misjudged one? Now pitch into Arthur Strahan."

"I am inclined to think that I have misjudged you, also; but
I will keep my compact, and give you the impression you made, and
you won't like it."

"I don't expect to; but I shall expect downright sincerity."

"Very well. I'll test you. You are not simple and manly, even in
your dress and manner; you are an anomaly in the country; you are
inclined to gossip; and it's my belief that a young man should do
more in life than amuse himself."

Strahan flushed, but burst out laughing as he exclaimed, "My
photograph, by Jupiter!"

"Photographs give mere surface. Come, what's beneath it?"

"In one respect, at least, I think I am on a par with yourself. I
have enough honest good-nature to listen to the truth with thanks."

"Is that all?"

"Come, Miss Marian, what is the use of words when I have had such
an example of deeds? I have caught you, red-handed, in the act of
giving a millionnaire his conge. In the face of this stern fact
do you suppose I am going to try to fish up some germs of manhood
for your inspection? As you have suggested, I must do something,
or I'm out of the race with you. I honestly believe, though, I am
not such a fool as I have seemed. I shall always be something of
a rattle-brain, I suppose, and if I were dying I could not help
seeing the comical side of things." He hesitated a moment, and then
asked, abruptly, "Miss Marian, have you read to-day's paper?"

"Yes, I have," with a tinge of sadness in her tone.

"Well, so have I. Think of thousands of fine young fellows lying
stiff and stark in those accursed swamps!"

"Yes," she cried, with a rush of tears, "I WILL think of them.
I will try to see them, horrible as the sight is, even in fancy.
When they died so heroically, shame on me if I turn away in weak,
dainty disgust! Oh, the burning shame that Northern girls don't
think more of such men and their self-sacrifice!"

"You're a trump, Miss Marian; that's evident. Well, one little bit
of gossip about myself, and then I must go. I have another engagement
this evening. Old Lanniere was right. I'm young, and I've been
very young. Of late I've made deliberate effort to remain a fool;
but a man has got to be a fool or a coward down to the very hard-pan
of his soul if the logic of recent events has no effect on him. I
don't think I am exactly a coward, but the restraint of army-life,
and especially roughing it, is very distasteful. I kept thinking
it would all soon be over, that more men were in now than were
needed, and that it was a confounded disagreeable business, and
all that. But my mind wasn't at rest; I wasn't satisfied with the
ambitions of my callow youth; and, as usual when one is in trouble
and in doubt about a step, I exaggerated my old folly to disguise
my feelings. But this Richmond campaign, and the way Stonewall
Jackson has been whacking our fellows in the Shenandoah, made me
feel that I was standing back too long, and the battle described
in to-day's paper brought me to a decision. I'm in for it, Miss
Marian. You may think I'm not worth the powder required to blow me
up, but I'm going to Virginia as soon as I can learn enough not to
be more dangerous to those around me than to the enemy."

She darted to his side, and took his hand, exclaiming, "Mr. Strahan!
forgive me; I've done you a hundred-fold more injustice than you
have me!"

He was visibly embarrassed, a thing unusual with him, and he
said, brusquely: "Oh, come now, don't let us have any pro patria
exaltation. I don't resemble a hero any more than I do a doctor of
divinity. I'm just like lots of other young fellows who have gone,
only I have been slower in going, and my ardor won't set the river
on fire. But the times are waking up all who have any wake-up in
them, and the exhibition of the latest English cut in coats and
trousers is taking on a rather inglorious aspect. How ridiculous
it all seems in the light of the last battle! Jove! but I HAVE been
young!"

He did look young indeed, with his blond mustache and flushed face,
that was almost as fair as a girl's. She regarded him wonderingly,
thinking how strangely events were applying the touchstone to one
and another. But the purpose of this boyish-appearing exquisite
was the most unexpected thing in the era of change that had begun.
She could scarcely believe it, and exclaimed, "You face a cannon?"

"I don't look like it, do I? I fancy I would. I should be too
big a coward to run away, for then I should have to come back to
face you, which would be worse, you know. I'm not going to do any
bragging, however. Deeds, deeds. Not till I have laid out a Johnny,
or he has laid me out, can I take rank with you after your rout of
the man of millions. I don't ask you to believe in me yet."

"Well, I do believe in you. You are making an odd yet vivid
impression on me. I believe you will face danger just as you did
Mr. Lanniere, in a half-nonchalant and a half-satirical mood, while
all the time there will be an undercurrent of downright earnestness
and heroism in you, which you will hide as if you were ashamed of
it."

He flushed with pleasure, but only laughed, "We'll see." Then after
a moment he added, "Since we are down to the bed-rock in our talk
I'll say out the rest of my say, then follow Lanniere, and give
him something more to digest before he sleeps."

"Halt, sir - military jargon already - how can you continue your
quarrel with Mr. Lanniere without involving my name?"

Strahan looked blank for a second, then exclaimed: "Another evidence,
of extreme youth! Lanniere may go to thunder before I risk annoying
you."

"Yes, thank you; please let him go to thunder. He won't talk of
the affair, and so can do you no harm."

"Supposing he could, that would be no excuse for annoying you."

"I think you punished him sufficiently before he went, and without
ceasing to be a gentleman, too. If you carry out your brave purpose
you need not fear for your reputation."

"Well, Miss Marian, I shall carry it out. Society girl as I believed
you to be, I like you better than the others. Don't imagine I'm
going to be sentimental. I should stand as good a chance of winning
a major-general's stars as you. I've seen better fellows raising
the siege and disappearing, you know. Well, the story I thought
would be short is becoming long. I wanted to tell you first what
I proposed; for, hang it all! I've read it in your eyes that you
thought I was little better than a popinjay, and I wished to prove
to you that I could be a man after my fashion."

"I like your fashion, and am grateful for your confidence. What's
more, you won't be able to deceive me a bit hereafter. I shall
persist in admiring you as a brave man, and shall stand up for you
through thick and thin."

"You always had a kind of loyalty to us fellows that we recognized
and appreciated."

"I feel now as if I had not been very loyal to any one, not even
myself. As with you, however, I must let the future tell a different
story."

"If I make good my words, will you be my friend?"

"Yes, yes indeed, and a proud one. But oh!" - she clasped her hand
over her eyes, - "what is all this tending to? When I think of the
danger and suffering to which you may - "

"Oh, come now," he interrupted, laughing, but with a little
suspicious moisture in eyes as blue as her own; "it will be harder
for you to stay and think of absent friends than for them to go.
I foresee how it will turn out. You will be imagining high tragedy
on stormy nights when we shall be having a jolly game of poker.
Good-night. I shall be absent for a time, - going to West Point to
be coached a little by my friend Captain Varrum."

He drew himself up, saluted her a la militaire, right-about-faced
with the stiffness of a ramrod, and was departing, when a light
hand touched his arm, and Marian said, with a look so kind and
sympathetic that his eyes fell before it: "Report to me occasionally,
Captain Strahan. There are my colors;" and she gave him a white
rose from her belt.

His mouth quivered slightly, but with a rather faltering laugh
he replied, as he put the rose to his lips, "Never let the color
suggest that I will show the white feather;" and then he began his
military career with a precipitate retreat.






CHAPTER VIII.

CHARMED BY A CRITIC.





"WHAT next?" was Marian's wondering query after Mr. Strahan's
departure. The change of motive which already had had no slight
influence on her own action and feeling had apparently ushered in
a new era in her experience; but the sense of novelty in personal
affairs was quite lost as she contemplated the transformation in
the mercurial Strahan, who had apparently been an irredeemable fop.
That the fastidious exquisite should tramp through Virginia mud,
and face a battery of hostile cannon, appeared to her the most
marvellous of human paradoxes. An hour before she would have declared
the idea preposterous. Now she was certain he would do all that he
had said, and would do it in the manner satirical and deprecatory
towards himself which she had suggested.

Radical as the change seemed, she saw that it was a natural one
as he had explained it. If there was any manhood in him the times
would evoke it. After all, his chief faults had been youth and
a nature keenly sensitive to certain social influences. Belonging
to a wealthy and fashionable clique in the city, he had early been
impressed by the estimated importance of dress and gossip. To excel
in these, therefore, was to become pre-eminent. As time passed,
however, the truth, never learned by some, that his clique was not
the world, began to dawn on him. He was foolish, but not a fool;
and when he saw young fellows no older than himself going to the
front, when he read of their achievements and sufferings, he drew
comparisons. The result was that he became more and more dissatisfied.
He felt that he was anomalous, in respect not only to the rural
scenery of his summer home, but to the times, and the conviction
was growing that the only way to right himself was to follow the
host of American youth who had gone southward. It was a conviction to
which he could not readily yield, and which he sought to disguise
by exaggerating his well-known characteristics. People of his
temperament often shrink from revealing their deeper feelings,
believing that these would seem to others so incongruous as to call
forth incredulous smiles. Strahan was not a coward, except in the
presence of ridicule. This had more terrors for him than all the
guns of the Confederacy; and he knew that every one, from his own
family down, would laugh at the thought of his going to the war.
In a way that puzzled him a little he felt that he would not care
so much if Marian Vosburgh did not laugh. The battle of which he
had read to-day had at last decided him; he must go; but if Marian
would give him credit for a brave, manly impulse, and not think of
him as a ludicrous spectacle when he donned the uniform, he would
march away with a light heart. He did not analyze her influence
over him, but only knew that she had a peculiar fascination which
it was not in his impressionable nature to resist.

Thus it may be seen that he only gave an example of the truth that
great apparent changes are the result of causes that have long been
secretly active.

Marian, like many others, did not sufficiently take this fact into
account, and was on the qui vive for other remarkable manifestations.
They did not occur. As her father had predicted, life, in its
outward conditions, resumed its normal aspects. Her mother laughed
a little, sighed a little, when she heard the story of Mr. Lanniere's
final exit; the coquettish kitchen-maid continued her career with
undisturbed complacency; and Marian to her own surprise found that,
after the first days of her enthusiasm had passed, it required the
exertion of no little will-power to refrain from her old motives
and tactics. But she was loyal to herself and to her implied promise
to her father. She knew that he was watching her, - that he had set
his heart on the development, in a natural way, of her best traits.
She also knew that if she faltered she must face his disappointment
and her own contempt.

She had a horror, however, of putting on what she called "goody-goody
airs," and under the influence of this feeling acted much like
her old self. Not one of her callers could have charged her with
manifesting a certain kind of misleading favor, but her little salon
appeared as free from restraint as ever, and her manner as genial
and lively. It began to be observed by some, however, that while
she participated unhesitatingly in the light talk of others, she
herself would occasionally broach topics of more weight, especially
such as related to the progress of the war; and more than once she
gave such direction to her conversation with the artist as made
his eyes kindle.

Her father was satisfied. He usually came home late on Saturday,
and some of her gentleman friends who were in the habit of dropping
in of a Sunday evening, were soon taught that these hours were
engaged.

"You need not excuse yourself on my account," her father had said
to her.

"But I shall," was her prompt response. "After all you have done
and are doing for me, it's a pity if I can't give you one evening
in the week. You are looking after other people in New York;
I'm going to look after you; and you shall find that I am a sharp
inquisitor. You must reveal enough of the secrets of that mysterious
office of yours to satisfy me that you are not in danger."

He soon began to look forward with glad anticipation to his ramble
by her side in the summer twilight. He saw that what he had done
and what he had thought during the week interested her deeply, and
to a girl of her intelligence he had plenty to tell that was far
from commonplace. She saw the great drama of her country's history
unfolding, and not only witnessed the events that were presented
to the world, but was taken behind the scenes and shown many of
the strange and secret causes that were producing them. Moreover
expectation of something larger and greater was constantly raised.
After their walk they would return to the house, and she would sing
or read to him until she saw his eyes heavy with the sleep that
steals gradually and refreshingly into a weary man's brain.

Mrs. Vosburgh observed this new companionship with but little surprise
and no jealousy. "It was time," she said, "that Marian should begin
to do something for her father, and not leave everything to me."

One thing puzzled Marian: weeks were passing and she neither saw
nor heard anything of Lane or Strahan. This fact, in view of what
had been said at parting, troubled her. She was not on calling
terms with the latter's family, and therefore was unable to learn
anything from them. Even his male friends in the neighborhood did
not know where he was or what he was doing. Her father had taken
the pains to inform himself that Lane was apparently at work in
his law-office as usual. These two incipient subjects of the power
she hoped to wield seemed to have dropped her utterly, and she was
discouraged.

On the last day of June she was taking a ramble in a somewhat
wild and secluded place not far from her home, and thinking rather
disconsolately that her father had overrated her influence, - that
after all she was but a pretty and ordinary girl, like millions
of others, - a fact that Lane and Strahan had at last discovered.
Suddenly she came upon the artist, sketching at a short distance
from her. As she turned to retreat a twig snapped under her foot,
revealing her presence. He immediately arose and exclaimed, "Miss
Vosburgh, is it I that you fear, or a glimpse of my picture?"

"Neither, of course. I feared I might dispel an inspired mood.
Why should I intrude, when you have nature before you and the muse
looking over your shoulder?"

"Over my left shoulder, then, with a mocking smile. You are
mistaken if you fancy you can harm any of my moods. Won't you stay
and criticise my picture for me?"

"Why, Mr. Blauvelt, I'm not an art critic."

"Yes, you are, - one of the class I paint for. Our best critics are
our patrons, cultivated people."

"I should never think of patronizing you."

"Perhaps you might entertain the thought of encouraging me a little,
if you felt that I was worth it."

"Now, Mr. Blauvelt, notwithstanding the rural surroundings, you
must remember that I was bred in the city. I know the sovereign
contempt that you artists have for the opinions of the people. When
it comes to art, I'm only people."

"No such generalization will answer in your case. You have as
distinct an individuality as any flower blooming on this hillside."

"There are flowers and flowers. Some are quite common."

"None are commonplace to me, for there is a genuine bit of nature
in every one. Still you are right: I was conscious of the fragrance
from this eglantine-bush here, until you came."

"Oh, then let me go at once."

"I beg that you will not. You are the eglantine in human form, and
often quite as briery."

"Then you should prefer the bush there, which gives you its beauty
and fragrance without a scratch. But truly your comparison is too
far-fetched, even for an artist or a poet, for I suppose they are
near of kin. To sensible, matter-of-fact girls, nothing is more
absurd than your idealization of us. See how quickly and honestly
I can disenchant you. In the presence of both nature and art I
am conscious that it is nearly lunch-time. You are far from your
boarding-place, so come and take your luck with us. Mamma will be
glad to see you, and after lunch I may be a more amiable critic."

"As a critic, I do not wish you to be amiable, but honest severity
itself. That you stumbled upon me accidentally in your present
mood is my good fortune. Tell me the faults in my picture in the
plainest English, and I will gratefully accept your invitation; for
the hospitality at your cottage is so genial that bread and cheese
would be a banquet. I have a strong fancy for seeing my work through
your eyes, and so much faith in you that I know you will tell me
what you think, since I ask you to do so."

"Why have you faith in me?" she asked, with a quick, searching
glance.

"I belong somewhat to the impressionist school, and my impression
of you leads to my words."

"If you compel me to be honest, I must say I'm not capable of
criticising your picture. I know little of art, and nothing of its
TECHNIQUE."

"Eyes like yours should be able to see a great deal, and, as I said,
I am possessed by the wish to know just what they do see. There is
the scene I was sketching, and here the canvas. Please, Miss Marian."

"It will be your own fault, now, if you don't like what I say,"
laughed the young girl, with ready tact, for a quick glance or two
had already satisfied her that the picture was not to her taste.
"My only remark is this, Mr. Blauvelt, - Nature does not make the
same impression on me that it does on you. There is the scene, as
you say. How can I make you understand what I feel? Nature always
looks so natural to me! It awakens within me various emotions, but
never surprise, - I mean that kind of surprise one has when seeing
a lady dressed in colors that do not harmonize. To my eye, even in
gaudy October, Nature appears to blend her effects so that there
is nothing startling or incongruous."

"Is there anything startling and incongruous in my picture?"

"I have not said that. You see you have brought me into perplexity, you
have taken me beyond my depth, by insisting on having my opinion.
I have read a good many art criticisms first and last. Art is gabbled
about a good deal in society, you know, and we have to keep a set
of phrases on hand, whether we understand them or not. But since
you believe in impressions, and will have mine, it is this as nearly
as I can express it. You are under the influence of a school or
a fashion in art, and perhaps unconsciously you are controlled by
this when looking at the scene there. It seems to me that if I were
an artist I should try to get on my canvas the same effects that
nature produces, and I would do it after my own fashion and not
after some received method just then prevailing. Let me illustrate
what I mean by a phase of life that I know more about. There are
some girls in society whose ambition it is to dress in the latest
style. They are so devoted to fashion that they appear to forget
themselves, and are happy if their costume reflects the mode of the
hour, even though it makes them look hideous. My aim would be to
suggest the style rather unobtrusively, and clothe myself becomingly.
I'm too egotistical to be ultra-fashionable. Since I, who am in
love chiefly with myself, can so modify style, much more should
you, who are devoted to nature, make fashion in art subservient to
nature."

"You are right. I have worked too much in studios and not enough
out of doors. Ever since I have been sketching this summer, I have
had a growing dissatisfaction, and a sense of being trammelled. I
do believe, as you say, that a certain received method or fashion
of treatment has been uppermost in my mind, and I have been trying
to torture - nature into conformity. I'll paint this thing all out
and begin again."

"No, don't do that. Are not pictures like people a little? If
I wanted to improve in some things, it wouldn't do for me to be
painted all out. Cannot changes for the better come by softening
features here and bringing out others there, by colorings a little
more like those before us, and - pardon me - by not leaving so much
to the imagination? You artists can see more between the lines than
we people can."

"Let me try;" and with eager eyes he sat down before his easel
again. "Now see if I succeed a little," he added, after a moment.

His whole nature appeared kindled and animated by hope. He worked
rapidly and boldly. His drawing had been good before, and, as time
passed, nature's sweet, true face began to smile upon him from



Online LibraryEdward Payson RoeAn Original Belle → online text (page 6 of 37)