The Invisible Match, a Victorian Romance By Frank M. Bicknell 1854-1916
The Invisible Match
A Victorian Romance
By Frank M. Bicknell
It was a beautiful August morning. The huge white "floating palace," after having ploughed the calm waters of Long Island Sound all night, was swinging majestically up to her berth in North River. She was a popular boat of a favorite line and carried her full complement of passengers. Of these a part, in haste--or believing themselves to be in haste--to land, had gathered in an uncomfortable jam about the point of egress, and with tickets gripped in hand ready for instant surrender, awaited the approaching moment of their liberation by way of the gang-plank; others, scattered over the promenade-deck, were either facing pierward to watch the operation of docking the steamer, or gazing back upon the broad river, animate with craft of all sizes plying in every direction; some dozens sat at table in the dining-room, enjoying a more or less substantial breakfast, while a not inconsiderable proportion still kept in their rooms, it might be to steal a final dose, it might be for the purpose of making a comfortable and leisurely toilet. Slowly and with a dignity becoming her bulk, yet as easily as if she had been the lightest skiff that ever floated, the stately steamer glided alongside the pier and was finally made fast. The gang-plank was run quickly aboard, and the pushing, eager throng surged ashore as fast as the two gold-braided officials, stationed at the temporary gate, could take their tickets.
The first grand rush was over, the departures were becoming intermittent, the baggage had been trundled off and the freight had begun to follow it, when Anne Farleigh stood for a last moment before the glass in her room, putting on her hat as the crowning and completing touch to her preparations for quitting the boat. Anne possessed the rare ability to hasten slowly. She never dawdled, nor was she ever known to be in a hurry. She took her own time, as why should not she, since it was her own to use as she pleased? Without wasting a single one of her minutes, she never forgot that the rest of her lifetime lay before her.
When the hat had been settled in place and pinned there to her satisfaction, Anne cast a deliberate glance around the little cabin to make sure she had forgotten none of her belongings. No, she had overlooked nothing--yet, stay! what was that small, shining object lying on the carpet under the head of the lower berth? Certainly it could be no property of hers. She stopped and picked it up. It proved to be a match-box such as smokers carry in their pockets, a handsome and costly affair, apparently of foreign workmanship. It was made of hammered silver and was elaborately ornamented. A small space on one side had been left smooth and was delicately inlaid. The letters must have been engraved in the silver, after which gold thread had been laid in the cuttings and the whole then burnished down to a perfectly even and highly polished surface. The work reminded Anne of specimens she had seen for sale in Persian bazaars. Although the material was silver, she was sure it had cost somebody its weight in gold. She examined the inscription more closely. The letters were at first sight Arabic, but she presently made them out to be only clever imitations, and in reality familiar members of the Roman alphabet masquerading under another form. The name she read, and which she presumed to be that of the owner, was simply "Blim."
What an odd name! It did not seem to fit at all such a person as would be likely to carry so expensive a trinket, Anne thought. After having regarded the exterior of the match-box attentively for several moments, she proceeded at length to open it. It was nearly filled with wax vestas. The sight of these suggested to her a whimsical idea. Naturally enough she was wondering what sort of person Mr. Blim, the supposed owner of the box, might be. Why not let the matches tell her the story? With a smile at her own folly, she emptied the contents of the box into her hand for the purpose of counting them. Their number, she told herself, she would take to be equal to the years of his age, and according as it was odd or even, it should denote that he was single or married.
With the forefinger of her right hand, she separated the matches as they lay across her palm, turning them over one by one. She was surprised and almost vexed at the unnecessary interest she felt in the result. There were thirty-two of them. Why should she be the least little bit disappointed at not finding the count either one less or one more? She repeated her enumeration to assure herself that her arithmetic had not been at fault, but she could not change the sum total. Then Mr. Blim was thirty-two years old and a married man. Strange that she should have cared to have him turn out a bachelor! With an impatient exclamation at her foolishness she returned the matches to the box and closed it with a snap. However, before giving up the property to the purser and dismissing further thought of it from her mind, there was one little formality to be observed. She put her hand into her pocket--whatever might be the fashion, Anne always had at least one serviceable pocket in her gown--and took therefrom a notebook, morocco-covered, with leaves of very thin, strong paper, and proceeded to make an entry. The page opposite that on which she was writing contained the following:
"Reikiavlk, Iceland, July 7. -- A gilt breast-pin, probably worth about ten cents in our money, in the street when returning from a visit to the College. Curiously enough, found the owner almost immediately on getting back to Mrs. L----s' -- her little Eskimo maid, Thekia, who was as much delighted over the recovery of her trinket as if it had been of solid gold."
Almost from the time when she had begun her travels as a child, Anne had made it a rule to record the names and descriptions of articles that she happened to find in the course of her numerous peregrinations. She had picked up a good many odd things, first and last, and as she frequently had been unable to restore them to their proper owners, she had amassed rather an interesting collection, each with a story of its own, in a special cabinet at home. So now she set down in her notebook a brief account of her finding the match-box in her state-room; then she surrendered the property to the purser of the boat with directions for having it forwarded to her in case it remained unclaimed at the end of a certain length of time.
Miss Anne Farleigh sometimes called herself an old maid, but no one else ever thought of her as being anything of the kind. Had she been ugly, dried-up--or in process of drying up--ill-tempered and dyspeptic, even at twenty-seven her acquaintances might have so catalogued her; but with a handsome, prepossessing face, the physique of a Diana, the most radiant health and a never-failing amiability, she remained, and would remain for years yet, simply a very charming young unmarried woman. Only the rich can afford to dress shabbily, and only the spinster who has admirers by the score, and might have offers by the dozen, if she chose, may serenely pursue the even tenor of her way, unfearing the pit so often bestowed upon less favored members of her sex who are supposed to remain unmarried from bitter necessity.
Although Anne had not formally devoted herself to a life of single blessedness, she felt tolerably sure that the man did not exist who could make it worth her while to give up the freedom which she had enjoyed from her earliest girlhood, and confidently expected to enjoy for many years to come. Since passing her twentieth birthday she had tactfully arranged so as to keep men at such a well-regulated distance as to prevent even the most ardent of her countless admirers from assuming a lover-like attitude; but before that epoch she had received several urgent offers of marriage. When she was scarce seventeen a young Chicagoan laid his heart at her feet. He was as handsome as Adonis, as rich as Croesus--in fact, he combined the perfections reputed to some dozen mythological celebrities, and furthermore, she felt most kindly disposed toward him, as a girl will toward her first professed lover, whether he has gained her heart or not; but, fatal blemish, his name was Hogg. Without fully acknowledging it to herself, Anne had considerable pride of birth, and she was sure nothing could reconcile her, as one of the Philadelphia Farleighs, to becoming Mrs. Hogg, even though her would-be husband were descended from the Ettrick Shepherd himself, to which honor he made no claim. Accordingly, she resolutely stifled her growing partiality for poor Hogg, and without giving her true reasons for the act, sent him away hopeless. He was followed by numerous others who fared no better than he. Anne was far from being a flirt, but for one reason and another none of her worshippers had succeeded in finding the way very far into her affections. She experienced some trouble and annoyance with the first half-dozen in making them believe she really meant her refusals to be final, but after that, having grown wiser as she grew older, she adopted the practice of warding off proposals by nipping in the bud the hopes of every suitor, probable or possible, who might present himself.
Anne seemed to have found her vocation in life to be traveling. While her father lived she visited with him many foreign countries, and acquired a taste for roving which, since his death, she had been indulging extensively. Beside putting several girdles around the earth's rotund waist, she had added numerous shoulder-straps and other braces reaching out in various directions. Traveling had become almost a passion with her, or at least it was now so far a habit that she could never be content to remain long in one place. Like many another tourist, she had begun by visiting distant lands to the almost entire neglect of her own. This omission she was now engaged in repairing, and she had determined to see not only all that was worth seeing in the United states, but every accessible place of interest on the Western Hemisphere. It was just after returning from her latest trip, to Greenland and Iceland, that she had occasion to go from Boston to New York by one of the Sound lines, and was led, through the pointing of fate's unseen finger, to the finding of Blim's match-box.
If an inveterate rambler, who is more or less at home anywhere, can be said to have a particular home, then that of Anne Farleigh was in a quaint old house in a quiet old street of West Philadelphia. Built by her grandfather, Colonel Farleigh, it had been originally an elegant mansion; naturally it had since grown old-fashioned, although its present owner liked it none the less on that account. It was still apparently untouched by time, as substantial as a feudal castle; it was eminently respectable, and it was home--what more could she want? Two old and trusty servants, Mr. and Mrs. Spooner, sufficed for the needs of her modest establishment, the man acting as gardener and coachman, while the woman attended to the indoor work. The house was kept open the year round, and thus whenever the wanderer chose to return to the city of her birth, she felt assured of a homely welcome and a pleasant abiding place.
The early fall of the year of her excursion to the Arctic regions found Anne quietly sojourning in the Quaker City. One evening she chanced to go to the theatre alone, as was not unusual with her. She had taken care of herself too long to feel the need of an escort on such occasions, and as for fear for her personal safety during her necessarily late return home, no thought of that ever entered her mind. She did not often require the attendance of her man with the carriage at such an hour, for Thomas was growing old and somewhat infirm, and she saw no good reason why she should not take the short ride home in a street car. On this particular occasion, after the close of the performance, she walked slowly down Market Street to meet the car which would leave her within a few steps of her house. Presently she chanced to draw her handkerchief from her pocket, and, in doing so, inadvertently pulled out something else which fell to the pavement with a metallic ring. At this she stopped short with a little cry of vexation, whereupon a man who had been walking behind her halted also. Almost as a matter of course he begged pardon for what had seemed a narrow escape from a collision, and then, noticing her perplexity, he asked if he could be of any service.
She darted a look at him. One was sufficient; evidently he was a gentleman, as she had already guessed from the sound of his voice.
"Thank you," she said. "I have been so careless as to drop my latch-key. I don't know that I ought to trouble you, but--"
"Certainly you ought; why not?" he exclaimed. "Two pairs of eyes are better than one. Allow me the pleasure of restoring it to you."
Thus speaking, he bent forward and subjected the brick pavement in the immediate vicinity to a careful scrutiny, which, however, proved unsuccessful.
"Your streets here in Philadelphia are not too well lighted," he murmured. "I'll just provide an illumination of my own," and thrusting his hand into his waistcoat pocket, he brought out a match-box.
While the miniature wax-taper which he rubbed on the bricks sputtered and flashed up into flame, Anne, by force of a habit somewhat recently acquired, cast an inquiring glance at the box. As she did so she could scarce restrain a start of surprise. Surely it had a familiar look. She was well-nigh certain that she had seen it before. Meanwhile, the searcher had been moving about over a considerable area, still without finding the key.
"It may have bounded away over the curbing," she suggested, as he dropped the first match, burnt out, and ignited a second. This time she took occasion to eye the match-box sharply, and her suspicion in regard to it became a certainty. On one side of it unmistakably appeared the mock Arabic inscription which she had formerly studied out to be simply the unpoetic monosyllable "Blim." She had not recovered from the first little shock of surprise at her discovery when the proprietor of the box exclaimed that he had found the key, and rising from his half recumbent posture, placed it in her hand.
"You have done me a real service," she said in acknowledgment," and have saved me no little annoyance. You may be sure I appreciate the trouble you have taken, Mr. --Mr. Blim."
"You know me?" he ejaculated in a tone sufficiently marking his astonishment.
"Perhaps I can hardly go so far as to say that," she returned, "but I have taken the liberty to recognize your match-box, which I think you left behind you in one of the rooms of a Sound steamer last August."
"Yes; on my way to Boston. And you found it thereon the return trip to New York. Then it is you to whom I am indebted for its recovery?"
"If there was any indebtedness, surely it is cancelled now. In reality, when I helped to restore the box to its rightful owner, I was merely doing myself a service without suspecting it. Had I kept it in my possession, I certainly should not have had it with me here--it would have been at home among my collection of articles found--and so perhaps you would have been unable to produce and light the match that helped you to find my key."
"Exactly so," he rejoined with a laugh. "A new version of casting one's bread upon the waters."
During the search for the key one car had already passed, and now another was approaching. There being no good reason why she should linger, Anne took a step forward as a preliminary to intercepting the vehicle. Her new acquaintance, immediately divining her purpose, raised his hand as a signal to the driver, and accompanied her out into the street. A moment his hand rested lightly against her elbow to steady her as she stepped aboard, then, wishing her a polite "good evening," he lifted his hat and became a memory of the past.
A somewhat haunting and persistent memory he proved to be, too, for during the days that followed this trivial yet curious incident, Anne thought a deal about the owner of Blim's match-box. In fact, as she herself acknowledged, she allowed him to occupy her mind to the exclusion of matters which should have been more important. It seemed hardly right though, that an acquaintance begun under circumstances so unusual could not have amounted to something more. She lamented this, or so tried to persuade herself, in an impersonal way, as if the episode had been a romance which had promised well at the opening, but had ended unsatisfactorily. If she could have contrived some pretext for continuing their intercourse! To be sure, trifling services such as she had rendered him and he had done for her did not generally form the foundation of life-long friendships, still she thought she might venture to flatter herself that he would not be unwilling to know more of her.
Despite the insufficiently lighted streets, on which he had remarked, Anne had retained a very fair mental photograph of Mr. Blim, and the likeness pleased her. He was tall, broad-shouldered, strong-looking, while at the same time not lacking in the grace and elegance of build which go to make up the finest specimens of physical manhood. That he was a gentleman by birth and breeding, she could not for a moment doubt. Such being the case, how he came by the plebian name of Blim was a puzzle for which she was at a loss to find a solution. Her interest in him--she called it interest--went so far as to cause her to do that for which she blushed, even although no one beside herself suspected the depth of her folly. She invented all sorts of errands for being out upon the streets during the busy hours of the day, or she went with no excuse whatever, unless it were that she needed the exercise. She visited various likely and unlikely places with the hope that she might chance to meet him there. She even said to herself that should fortune again favor her with a sight of him, she would not let him escape without giving him her address and an invitation to call. Under what pretense she could contrive to do this she had not decided, and perhaps at the critical moment her courage might fail, but at least, if the thing were possible, she must have one more look at him.
She had promptly decided that he was not a Philadelphian; his reference to "Your streets here in Philadelphia," while hunting for the key, had settled that point beyond a doubt. Since, however, he had been in the city once, she hoped he might repeat the visit. Suppose he were to come for the avowed purpose of looking her up, would there be anything so very preposterous about that? When you are deeply interested in a certain person, it is an agreeable fallacy to infer that that person is equally interested in you.
In all her restless, roving life, Anne Farleigh never had been so restless before, although on this particular occasion she did not rove very far beyond the limits of her native borough. And never before had she so thoroughly lost patience with herself, had she had occasion to take herself to task with such severity. At length, in a fit of anger at her own folly--and under the conviction that all her chances of encountering Mr. Blim again had passed--she determined upon an entire change of scene and the consignment of the owner of the match-box to everlasting oblivion.
One day, early in December, she bade Mr. and Mrs. Spooner good-bye and set out for sunny Florida, intending to spend the entire winter in the South. She purposed taking the journey by easy stages, believing that when one travels for pleasure, one should travel as pleasantly as possible. For the first day she planned to cover no more than the distance lying between Philadelphia and Washington. Her train rolled out of the Broad Street Station at half-past one in the afternoon and arrived at Baltimore two hours later. During the short wait there while she was gazing from the window at the hurrying crowds surging in and out of the gates, she heard behind her a high-pitched voice, in which the deferential and the consequential were ludicrously mingled, exclaiming:
"Yes, sah; step right along dis way, sah, right yere. Best seat in de kyar, on de shadies' side, all nice an' comf'ble, sah."
A moment later the speaker, a negro porter, passed her, laden with the impedimenta of a gentleman whom he was ushering to the vacant chair just in front of her own. Beyond noting the fact that the newcomer was tall, straight and very broad-shouldered, she did not pay any particular attention to him at first. Indeed, it was too dark in the station for her to see anything inside the car distinctly, and soon after the train started it plunged into one of the series of tunnels which hid from view the approaches to the Monumental City. But when finally it emerged into the open air, something in the general appearance of her neighbor led her to scrutinize him as narrowly as the back view he presented would allow. Was it possible? Could it be? She waited eagerly and anxiously for him to turn. At length he gratified her by doing so--slightly, yet enough to assure her that he was indeed her acquaintance of the match-box.
Of course she was glad to meet him again, but why should she be so unreasonably, absurdly glad? She was annoyed to find her heart-beats quickening and her cheeks flushing as if she had been the veriest school girl instead of a mature woman well on her way toward the thirties. She angrily scolded herself for her weakness, and her face grew yet rosier. If he were to turn and see her now! No danger of that, however. Was he never going to change his position and discover her presence? Minute after minute went by. He was absorbed in the perusal of a newspaper, and the thought did not seem once to enter his mind to look about him and see what manner of people his fellow passengers might be. Anne glanced at her watch. Quarter past four. They were due at Washington in fifteen minutes. There she intended to leave the train. He would go on, and the chances of her meeting him again would be infinitesimally small. He must be made aware of her presence before they arrived at her journey's end. In her desperation she used a subterfuge of which she was ashamed, but she could think of nothing better on the spur of the moment. She laid the book she had been pretending to read on her lap and turned to look out of the window. The volume slid off her knees and fell to the floor. As she had hoped and expected, he heard the slight noise, and swinging about in his chair, bent and picked it up. She stretched forth her hand to take it. A joyful light came into her eyes, and then died quickly out again, for--oh, mortifying disappointment!--he utterly failed to recognize her. With a little conventional bow he restored her property and resumed his own reading without according her a second look.
Anne was furiously angry both with the obtuse Mr. Blim and with her own humiliated self--with him for not knowing her again, and with herself because the lack of recognition hurt so. Once again the hot blood dyed her cheeks crimson, as she bent low over the recovered novel to hide her confusion and to call herself, in her own mind, by all the abusive epithets known to her polite vocabulary.
Presently the unconscious cause of her discomposure arose from his seat and went forward to the smoking-compartment. He had not returned when the train entered the station at Washington, but as his bag, topcoat and umbrella remained undisturbed, it seemed safe to infer that he was going farther. Anne's resentment at his perverse blindness did not prevent her from taking a sudden resolve. She called the porter to her side.
"I took my place only as far as Washington," she said, "but I have since decided to go on to Richmond. Will you see if I can keep this seat, and if I cannot, will you secure another for me?"
"Suttenly, lady; all right, lady," returned the man, his ebony face all alight with affability and ivories.
"By the way," she remarked carelessly, as he was setting out to execute the commission, "perhaps I could have this one," and she indicated the chair Mr. Blim had been occupying.
The negro shook his head. She tried to wrinkle her brows, as if in disappointment, though she would have been not a little vexed had he assented to her proposition.
"Oh, no, lady," he said, "de gen'leman what's be'n a-setting' dar, he's gwine on furder. He's took de chair as fur's Richmond shore, but I reckin I kin do somef'n fur ye. You jes wait right still hyar, lady, an' I'll go 'long an' see."
In the course of ten minutes the porter returned with the information that Anne must vacate her present seat, but was at liberty to take the second beyond it. This would bring her just in front of Mr. Blim, a change which could not but afford her considerable satisfaction. It would be far better, she reasoned, to be before than behind that strangely short-sighted and forgetful person, who would not know her when she gave him the chance. Now she would be where he must look at her occasionally, and she intended that he should have enough cause to stir his sluggish memory if the frequent sight of her face could in any way bring it about.
While the train was passing through Alexandria, Mr. Blim returned to his seat without appearing to notice or care what changes had taken place during his absence in the little company assembled in the car. He had scarce settled himself in his chair before he became absorbed in the contents of a book, apparently something rather solid, which he had pulled out of his portmanteau. Anne noted this from the corner of her eye, having turned in his direction so far as to present almost a profile view to his gaze, had he but chosen to look. He read studiously until half-past six, then laid down his book and went to the buffet-car for supper.
After allowing a decent interval to elapse, Anne followed him thither, having previously engaged a seat through the agency of the porter. Her position was such that she could command a view of the entire compartment and its occupants, including a Mr. Blim, three tables removed from her, with his broad back in her direction. He seemed to be eating with an excellent appetite and to be quite as much engrossed in his book. Since long ago Anne had followed the rule of never letting anything not of the most extraordinary nature interfere with the regularity of her meals, and now, despite the attention she was bestowing on Mr. Blim, she did not in any way neglect the dishes that were set before her.
He seemed inclined to linger over his repast--as was quite natural since there was enough time and to spare, for him to take it leisurely--and for certain reasons, she imitated his example. In the course of three-quarters of an hour he rose and went back; as soon as she could reckon on his having had time fairly to install himself in his old place, she brought her meal to a close and returned also. She purposely made a deliberate entrance, walking slowly down the aisle to give him all possible chance for observing her closely, in the hope of rousing his dormant recollection. All her pains went for nothing. He was facing toward her, to be sure, but he did not once raise his eyes for so much as a passing glance at her. He was again buried leagues out of sight in that excessively entertaining book of his. She compressed her lips and flashed a look at him which it would have puzzled him to account for had he chanced to intercept it; then she sat down and turned her back upon him as squarely and aggressively as she knew how.
"What a very stupid proceeding!" she said to herself petulantly. "Pray, doesn't the man know better than to read immediately after eating a hearty dinner--in a rapidly moving car, and by a flickering gaslight, too? If he persists in such folly he will ruin his eyes, though they are as strong as an eagle's."
She was aware, from the few fleeting glimpses she had had of them, that they were particularly fine eyes, and she felt sure he might have been putting them to better use than straining them over the print of a book that appeared to be solid enough to have disagreed with an ostrich.
Naturally Mr. Blim did not profit in the least by the little lecture delivered for his especial benefit, but all unknown and unsuspected by him. He continued to read until the train arrived at Richmond, shortly after half-past nine. Anne, meanwhile, had been revolving in her mind several vague plans for forcing him to speak to her, but unless she had been guilty almost of a rudeness, she could not have carried one of them out. And to think that there should be any need of her thus plotting and scheming! The whole affair was getting to be too ridiculous, beside being excessively annoying. She was little used to being so persistently ignored. Other people looked at her, even though they were entire strangers, when she appeared in public and gave them the chance. They were glad to do so, for Anne Farleigh of Philadelphia was well worth the trouble of a second glance. Mr. Blim did not appear to realize that fact, however. Her vexation at him was near to getting the better of her amiability. She was divided between an impulse to laugh at and another to get angry with him for his exasperating behavior. Yet she finally brought herself about to view the matter with philosophical calm, and when she lost sight of him through the car door she mentally bade him a definite farewell.
On the morrow when Anne entered the dining-room of the hotel, she saw at a glance that the tables were nearly all well filled. Indeed, she noticed but one, in a far corner, that was entirely unoccupied; certainly she did not care to be put out of the way over there.
"I will sit at one of the tables by the windows, if you please," she suggested to the head-waiter, as he paused a moment to reconnoiter his available resources in the matter of placing additional guests. "That near the third window seems to have rather more room than any of the others," she added with carefully assumed nonchalance.
Somewhat more complaisant than many of the brotherhood, my lord of the dining-hall conducted her to the table indicated and seated her just where she had planned to be put, face to face with Mr. Blim. By a not too remarkable coincidence they had come to lodge at the same hotel.
Evidently he had been down for fifteen minutes or more. His paper was propped up before him and he was reading the morning news and eating an egg at the same time, quite as if his eyes and his digestion were not even distantly related. She settled herself in place, putting perhaps a trifle more of elaboration into the act than was strictly necessary. The table was not so small as to give them the appearance of being tete-a-tete, neither was it so large that he could wholly ignore her proximity. As she picked up the menu card he pushed aside his paper, though whether this was from consideration for her or because he had finished the scanty assortment of news and wished to give his undivided attention to his steak, she could not be entirely certain.
While she was dictating her order she guessed, rather than saw, that she had attracted a share of his notice. When the waiter moved off she raised her eyes and met his fixed full upon her. Now, if ever, her opportunity had come. She fortified herself with a deep breath and took the oft-meditated plunge.
"You don't remember me, Mr. Blim?" she said.
"On the contrary I do," was the prompt reply. "We traveled together--that is, we were in the same car--yesterday.
"Phenomenal memory! Was that the extent of his recollections?" she asked herself, with a sudden sense of humiliation. But she did him injustice.
"And as soon as I heard your voice," he pursued, "I was reminded that we had met before that."
"Oh, were you?" she exclaimed; then, with the least touch of defiance in her tone, she added, "But I'll wager you don't know where."
"Then you will lose," he responded composedly. "It was in Philadelphia about two months ago; I can give you the exact date if necessary. You are the lady who found my match-box for me on the boat last summer."
Had he known this all the while, or had he recalled the fact only in the nick of time? In either case he had managed to save his credit, even though rather tardily. After a short silence he asked, as she thought, for the sake of saying something, and not because he felt any great interest in her plans:
"Are you traveling far south?"
"Why, yes; before I bring my peregrinations to an end I probably shall get below the thirtieth parallel. For the immediate present I think of taking the afternoon train to Charleston."
"Indeed!" said he, showing some interest she fancied; "that is precisely what I have arranged to do."
"Yes?"--raising her eyebrows, and essaying the complicated task of causing to appear politely feigned the pleasure she really felt at his announcement--"I don't particularly enjoy night travel myself, but the hotel accommodations on the line between here and Charleston leave something to be desired, so of two evils I have tried to choose the least."
"If you think of staying in Charleston I could say a good word for you to Mr. J-----, of the Southern," he volunteered. "I am somewhat intimately acquainted with him--although, for that matter, you would be well served at the Southern without my poor recommendation."
"You are very thoughtful," she returned, unable to conceal an amused smile, "and I am quite as grateful to you for the offered good word as if Mrs. J----- were not an old school friend of mine who always insists on making a favored guest of me when I visit Charleston. If you had not been beforehand with me I might have recommended you to her consideration."
"You are extremely kind, I am sure," he said, joining in her laugh. "Do you propose remaining long in Charleston?"
"No; I am going to Savannah tomorrow, and on to Jacksonville the next day. I shall stay there until Saturday, I think, and then go down to St. Augustine, where I may spend a good part of the winter. However, my plans are not fully formed yet and are subject to any change I may care to make."
"Our courses will run together for some little distance farther then," he remarked. "I expect to pass through Jacksonville on my way to Tampa, whence I shall go by steamer to Key West and Havana. I am due on the island of Cuba Saturday morning."
Although she had paved the way to doing so by what she had told him already, Anne did not dare to add that as she was traveling entirely for pleasure she would have been quite willing to pursue her journeying as far south as Havana--or even to Patagonia if need be--for the sake of having an agreeable compagnon de voyage. It was not unlikely that he was on a business trip which would have rendered responsibilities of a social nature an unwelcome burden to him. Yet she flattered herself he was beginning to "take notice," for during their short stay in Richmond he was politely attentive and was able to be of service in arranging for the ride to Charleston, which, for the greater part, was to take place in the night.
Shortly before five o'clock the next morning the train made a halt of a few moments in a cypress swamp. Such of the passengers as were traveling south for the sake of escaping the inclemencies of a New England winter were pleasantly reminded here by the voices of the frogs that they had arrived in a latitude where snow and ice were the exception rather than the rule of the season. Anne was awakened by this lively batrachian concert, and half an hour later, as fresh and bright as if she had not just passed a night in a sleeping car, she left the station in Charleston and proceeded to the Southern Hotel. Contrary to her expectations she did not meet Mr. Blim there. It seemed that he had other friends in the city who imperatively demanded the pleasure of entertaining him. She did not fail to inquire about him of Mr. and Mrs. J-----, but much to her surprise, they could not be brought to understand who it was that she referred to. No such person as Mr. Blim was numbered among their list of acquaintances, and his having represented himself as a personal friend of Mr. J----- seemed most mysterious and inexplicable. Quite at a loss to know what to think, Anne could only hope that Mr. Blim would call at the Southern during her stay and thus bring about an explanation, but his time was so much occupied with his more intimate friends that she did not again see him until they met in the railway station soon after three that afternoon. After they were seated in the train she could not muster resolution enough to introduce the subject of his acquaintance--apparently so one-sided--with Mr. J-----, and as he did not again refer to it her curiosity remained perforce unsatisfied.
The three and a quarter hours run to Savannah was uneventful, as was the somewhat longer one taken the next day to Jacksonville, where they arrived at half past one o'clock. He took leave of her at the station, having first put her into the carriage which was to convey her to her hotel.
"Mr. Blim, I want to thank you for your many kindnesses during the past few days," she said, as the driver climbed upon the box and gathered up his reins.
He replied to this set little speech by another, perhaps, like hers, prepared beforehand. "Pray don't mention such trifles. I owe you thanks for your company, which has helped me to while away hours that otherwise must have proved very dull. One is not always so lucky as I have been in forming agreeable traveling acquaintances, you know."
Was this said for the sake of pleasing her with a pretty speech, or had his words come from the heart? She hoped he was sincere, and the hope tended greatly toward inducing a belief. At any rate she felt encouraged to venture on a remark which could not but be suggestive. "And the pity of it is we gain valued friends only to lose them in a few days, or weeks, perhaps forever."
"Indeed I trust our friendship will not meet with so untimely a fate," he said earnestly. "The world is small; we must encounter each other again somewhere in it."
"That is not impossible," she returned, and after a moment's hesitation, she added with the consciousness of heightened color, "I shall be in Jacksonville early in April for a week or more, preparatory to beginning my journey home."
It was a broad hint and she would have regretted bitterly having let it drop had he not immediately caught it up with what she thought to be real eagerness.
"Since I have been so fortunate as to learn that, I certainly shall make it a point to time my northward flight so that I may have a chance of meeting you here. I intend to take a little tour of Cuba and afterward to visit New Orleans. I shall arrange my journey north via Jacksonville, instead of Atlanta, in the hope of seeing you."
"I trust the change of route will not greatly inconvenience you," she murmured.
"Far from it," he replied, releasing her hand, for the not too energetic colored driver was becoming a trifle restive under their prolonged leave-taking; "I am sure I shall not find the detour in the slightest degree inconvenient. Good-bye."
As soon as she was comfortably ensconced in her rooms at the hotel, Anne began to subject herself to a rigid course of questioning--questioning which had been by some days too long delayed. What was the precise nature of her feelings toward her recent traveling companion? What was she to infer from the disquieting fact that his image remained insistently before her mind's eye to thee exclusion of all else? She must acknowledge that he had come to occupy a greater share of her thoughts than had ever any living man before; but how was she to decide whether her feeling toward him was more than a liking that might naturally result from fortuitous propinquity? Was she falling in love with him, or still more alarming thought, had the fall been already accomplished? She tried to gauge the strength of inclination toward him by recalling some of the half-forgotten love affairs of her younger days. She found such a standard of measurement almost useless. She had been scarce more than a child then, whereas she was now a fully developed woman and capable of a depth of feeling quite impossible in former years. Compared with her young maiden fancies the emotion which swayed her now differed in kind no less than in degree. If only he had a more euphonious name than Blim? When she caught herself reasoning that Blim was a long way preferable to Hogg she began to get frightened.
But if worse should come to worst and her "interest" in Mr. Blim should develop into something deeper, how about his sentiments? When that side of the matter came up for consideration doubts and fears assailed her in an overwhelming throng. After so many luckless ones had signed for her in vain, was she destined to lavish her affections upon a callous and unappreciative object? Well, that might be poetical justice, although she could not believe that she deserved so severe a punishment for inflicting disappointments which were far less her fault than the misfortunes of her unsuccessful suitors. If she was uncertain about the nature of her own feelings, how much more so must she be when his were in question! She reviewed the events of the past few days as regarded their intercourse. No; beyond her hope that it might be so there were absolutely no grounds for looking upon him in the light of a would-be lover. Decidedly she was cruising about over an uncertain course and there remained for her nothing to do but to drift along and allow herself to be borne to whatever port fate should will.
After a somewhat restless fortnight in Jacksonville Anne went to St. Augustine in which quaint old town she spent the months of January and February. During the month of March she moved about among the popular resorts on the St. John's River, tarrying a little in each; then directed her wanderings northward so as to reestablish herself at Jacksonville on the first of April. She was at the place of rendezvous--as she considered it-- even before the date named, for of late she had grown curiously restless and had been haunted by fears that some unforeseen accident might cause her to miss it altogether.
As it proved she need not have been at all anxious on that score; he did not come--and he had not come ten days later. As she had named the hotel at which she should stay she felt sure he would hardly have failed to find her had he cared to do so; but to make doubly sure, she sent about to all the principal hostelries of the city for information regarding him, and learned that he had not been a guest at any of them.
It seemed only too evident that he had not thought it worth his while to keep the appointment which he himself had made, and now she realized with bitterness largely mixed with shame how deep was her disappointment at his neglect to do so.
"I love him! I love him! I love him!" she cried, "and he cares not one straw for me. Yes, I, who was once so proud of my blue blood and ancient name--I, Anne Farleigh of Philadelphia, am actually willing to become Mrs. Blim, of Heaven knows where, without even the formality of being asked. Oh, that I should have lived to come to this!"
These reproaches she hurled at herself in a sort of frenzied defiance, pacing up and down her room and repeating them again and again, telling herself that since she had forever lost her own self-respect it mattered not what she said or did now. In a little while, however, there came a revulsion; she determined upon heroic treatment and was fiercely impelled to start for home on the next train, or better still, to rush away toward some remote quarter of the globe where she might be sure never to see or hear of the fickle Blim again. But, alas! between a resolve and its accomplishment there may be indefinite delay. At the last moment, her firmness weakened; the next train and many following it departed without her. The usual exodus of the season had begun long before. Visitors and residents were going northward earlier this year than was generally the case. Rumors of yellow fever, if not its germs, were floating in the air; if threatened to become epidemic in Havana and more than likely, would soon break out in Florida. There was much uneasiness, which might later develop into a panic among those who were forced to remain in the south; under ordinary circumstances Anne would have taken flight with the rest, but as it was she lingered among the hot sand and sun-rays of Jacksonville until she was almost the only guest left at her hotel. Every day, and many times during the day, she roundly upbraided herself for her weakness, sternly ordering herself off the premises early next morning, yet, when morning dawned she invariably said, "Not today, tomorrow--surely tomorrow." And on the morrow it was the same story of indecision and delay over again.
One afternoon she was sitting on the shady side of the broad veranda, trying to get a breath or two of cool air and pretending to read a novel that was proving singularly uninteresting, when her attention was aroused by the sound of quick foot-steps behind her. She turned with a start and saw coming eagerly toward her the man who had been occupying her thoughts so persistently during the last few weeks. She rose with forced deliberation and tried to receive him coolly.
"Miss Anne! Miss Farleigh! he cried, taking her hand in a firm, cordial clasp. "I am in unhoped-for luck to find you here."
"Your luck, as you term it, would not have befriended you much longer," she returned, somewhat hastily withdrawing her hand; "I was thinking of starting for Savannah tomorrow." This statement was true if misleading; she did not consider it necessary to add that she had been thinking the same thing for at least ten days past.
"I am much later than I had anticipated," he said, apologetically, "but it was through no fault of my own. On account of the yellow fever in Cuba I found it next to impossible to get off the island. The quarantine regulations of the Untied States are so strict that I almost gave up hope of being taken back as a citizen of my native country. As it was I missed my visit to New Orleans, merely landing and pushing on for Jacksonville as soon as the red tape, formalities and fumigation of the health department would allow."
Under the light of this simple explanation her resentment against him for his fancied neglect melted entirely away. "I am glad you have come at last," she said frankly.
"Would it have been--would you have been disappointed if I had not come at all?" he asked in a lowered voice, and at the same time venturing to take her hand lightly in his.
"Yes," she answered, simply; and this time she made no attempt to draw the hand away, although she kept her face persistently averted.
His grasp tightened. "Anne," he whispered tenderly, "I love you."
"I know it," she replied, rather illogically, "because I love you."
So it was to be Mrs. Blim, and she would not have snapped her finger to transform it into the most high-sounding cognomen in the land. Had he been another Hogg it would have been just the same; she was willing to marry him, let his name be what it would.
She sat down again and he drew a chair to her side. They naturally had much to say to each other, yet probably the burden of their conversation would be as little worth repeating as if instead of being mature and sedate they had been the youngest pair of turtle-doves that ever mated. No one in the well--nigh deserted hotel thought of coming to disturb or spy upon them; they were left entirely to themselves to talk over their newly found happiness as long and as freely as they chose. The friendly shadow on the veranda became a protecting duskiness and night well ere it occurred to either of them to remember that there was in the world such an institution as dinner. At length she made a motion to rise.
"It is high time for us--for me to go in, Mr. Blim," she suggested.
"Don't call me Mr. Blim," he begged.
"Why not?" she queried.
""Well, for one reason, because it is not my name," was his unexpected answer.
"Not your name!" she cried, with a start of surprise.
"No--or at least not a name to which I have any legal right."
"Why, I thought--" she began, in bewilderment.
"Yes, I suppose the match-box you picked up on the boat was accountable for your mistaken inference that my name was Blim."
"It most certainly was. Have you it with you now?"
"Have I it with me!" he exclaimed, with something of a reproach in his tone. "Can you ask? Since parting from you here last December I have guarded that match-box as if it were my heart's blood." He reached into some remote interior pocket and with as much reverence as if it had been the Kohinoor, brought forth the little article in question. "I always valued it highly," he continued, "but since it has passed through these dear hands it has become a treasure beyond price."
She momentarily released one of the "dear hands" to give his palm a playful rap. "Don't be extravagant," she whispered, but she laughed, well pleased at what she pretended to rebuke.
"The box was given me by my friend, Dr. Parton Wilkes," he went on, "while we were sojourning at Ispahan several years ago."
"You don't mean the Dr. Parton Wilkes who has been associated with Professor Herman Blair, the distinguished Orientalist, do you?" she asked, with a respect nearly amounting to awe. "I had no idea you knew him."
"Why, yes; he is the man. We were chums at college and have been more or less chummy ever since. He saw this at one of the bazaars, it took his fancy, and he gave it to me as a birthday remembrance."
"Oh! then the inscription which I took for Blim was on the box when Dr. Wilkes bought it?"
"No; the inscription which you took for Blim was intended for Blim, and was engraved there to the Doctor's order by the metal-worker who offered it for sale. A very clever reproduction of the old zerneshan process which flourished in the time-----"
"What does Blim mean?" she interposed. "It is not an Arabic word, is it?"
"Well, hardly, " he replied; "its origin is of the most commonplace. Let me explain. I am called an abominably illegible writer--a sort of second Rufus Choate--and the scrawl which I usually substitute for my signature so nearly resembles the word Blim that I was nicknamed Blim in my college days and the nickname has clung to me among some of my more intimate friends ever since."
"You have not yet divulged your real name," she reminded him when he paused.
"My parents call me Herman Blair."
"Oh!" Anne cried, astonished beyond measure at this revelation, "then you--you are Professor Blair."
"Y-e-s," he replied, with a comic assumption of reluctance; "after the complimentary manner in which you have just referred to me I blush to own that I am that over-praised individual."
"Now tell me why you did not undeceive me sooner," she commanded presently.
"Well, I hardly know. I thought it rather a good joke to let you go on addressing me by that ridiculous nickname--"
"Pray do you think it polite or--or gallant, Mr.--Mr. Blair, to make a woman the subject of a joke?" she asked, feigning severity.
"Really, I regarded the joke as being at my own expense. I can most solemnly affirm that I never dreamed of showing the slightest lack of respect for you. Please forgive me, Anne, and don't call me either Blair or Blim any more, but Herman."
"Very well, I promise to do the first thing and I'll try to do the second. Now I want to ask you an impertinent question. May I?"
"You may ask the question. I take the liberty of doubting its impertinence."
"Don't be too sure about that. How old are you?"
"Thirty-three and--let me think--three quarters years," he answered, not a little surprised at the nature of the query.
"Ah! then my oracle came within one of telling the truth."
"Of what oracle are you speaking?" he asked, much mystified.
"Why, of Blim's match-box, to be sure," she replied; and then she told him how she had counted the matches to learn the years of his age and whether he was married or single. "There were thirty-two," she concluded, "which was an approximation to your correct age, though not at all the truth about the other thing."
"Wait a bit," he said gaily; "I think I can prove that your oracle was infallible on both points. There were thirty-three matches in the box according to my way of counting."
"I don't see how you make that out," she exclaimed.
"Easily enough; you forget the most important match of all--the match which was invisible--"
"Oh!" she interjected, comprehending at last, "you refer to the match between--"
"Between Anne Farleigh and Herman Blair."
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