I enjoy the fruits of my wickedness, but am confronted with a difficult choice.
It was not paradise, but it was as close to paradise as I had come in my short life. “Oh, dear sir—thank heaven!” Miss Goode exclaimed, looking intently into my eyes. I might have happily gazed into hers forever if I had been offered the opportunity. “You were hurt,” she continued after some time, having evidently decided that I was capable of understanding her now. “We brought you here—I hope you’ll forgive the presumption, but we didn’t know your name, and the alternative was the Sisters of Mercy. I owe you such an incalculable debt that I insisted we must care for you ourselves. Can you speak yet?”
I tried the experiment: “Yack,” I said. I cleared my throat and tried again: “Yes.”
“Forgive my not having introduced myself. My name is Amelia Goode.”
“Galahad Newman Bousted,” I responded, using up most of my breath. If I had not been so breathless, I should certainly have continued, “but I go by Newman Bousted,”—but I did not.
“Galahad!” she repeated. “What a wonderfully apt name! Are you a knight-errant in the service of every lady in dire distress?”
“Am I?” I asked, doubtless looking like a wandering idiot let loose from the asylum.
“You poor man!” Her voice was full of concern and compassion. “My rescue has cost you so dearly!”
Rescue! In my disoriented state, I had not yet put together what had happened to me. I had beaten off another pirate intent on seizing my prize—so much I remembered now. But in Amelia’s eyes I had rescued her from a fate worse than death! The extent of her misapprehension was so great it made my mind whirl. And even as it was whirling, my mind was telling me that here was a turn of events which must redound to my advantage.
“Any man in similar circumstances would have done the same,” I said weakly. In a manner of speaking it was true: any man who had plotted to have his way with a divine beauty, only to see the prize nearly snatched out of his hands at the very last moment, would have attacked the confounded interloper in a blind fury. I know that Miss Goode, however, took another meaning.
“Few would be so bold as to beat off a man twice their size,” Miss Goode replied. “If there is any small way—nay, any great way—I can be of any service to you, I hope you will not hesitate to make me aware of it.”
I began to sit up. “I should hate to put you to any——”
But suddenly sitting up lost its attraction, and my head fell back on the pillow.
“Pray do not exert yourself,” Miss Goode said. “Let me inform your wife that you are here, and then you really must stay with us until you have sufficiently recovered.”
“Oh, I have no wife,” I told her, and I noticed a subtle change in her physiognomy that I interpreted as a favorable omen. Then I thought of my family, and added, “But I do have a father who may be wondering where I am.”
“Tell me where he is, and Sheridan will be dispatched at once to inform him.”
I gave her our address on Beech-street, and with a promise to return shortly she went off to do her dispatching.
Meanwhile, I was left alone with my thoughts, which were beginning to order themselves in a more rational manner. First, I was growing aware of a beating pain in my skull. I cautiously felt my forehead, and discovered that a bandage was wrapped around my head; the pain inclined me to believe that the bandage was the only thing holding my skull together. As long as I was gazing on the divine face of Miss Goode, the pain had not obtruded upon my perception; but now that it had the field to itself, it made the most of its opportunity.
In order to distract myself from the pain, I made a careful examination of the room, which was nearly the size of two of the bed-rooms in our Beech-street house put together. It was furnished in the style of the antebellum age, though with concessions to the more artistic modern taste in its hangings and wallpaper. From the lack of obvious personal belongings I deduced that it must have been a guest-room; doubtless the house that could accommodate such a room as this must have a multitude of guest-rooms. I had begun to speculate on the size of the establishment when the door opened again to admit, not the radiant Miss Goode, but an old man who must, I decided at once, have been her father, old Colonel Goode of the Monongahela Glass fortune.
“Well,” he said with a surprisingly hearty voice for one who looked so fragile, “you’re with us now! You gave us a little fright, my boy, with all that blood. Amelia’s been taking good care of you, has she? Splendid. If there’s anything at all you need, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Thank you, sir,” I replied weakly. The weakness was not altogether feigned, but I was also beginning to decide on weakness as a matter of policy. It might prolong my stay if I gave the impression that I was too weak to go, and if I had a chance of spending any more time near the divine Miss Goode, I was willing to exaggerate my weakness. I did not yet know what use I might make of this opportunity, but I did know that it was not to be squandered.
Since old Colonel Goode will have something to do with the rest of my story, I suppose I ought to describe him. Of course everyone knows something about Pittsburgh’s first millionaire;—the first of many, and perhaps the most beloved by the ordinary people of Pittsburgh and Allegheny. No scandal has ever sullied his fame, and I could honestly believe that the man’s mind had never formed an impure thought. —But these things will come later. As for what I saw from my bed in the guest-room that night, he was an unusually small man, frail in construction, but quick and lively in his movements, with an admirably straight posture. His face showed no especial intelligence; a wispy beard adorned but did not conceal his chin, and his eyes sparkled under neat brows, but sparkled only with a native vivacity, and not with any unusual perception. He had lost most of the hair on his head, and what remained was snowy white. Not a thing was out of place on him: his collar was exactly right, his jacket exactly symmetrical, his watch-chain draped with apparently unconscious precision. He was the picture of prosperous virtue.
I am sorry to sweep him off the stage so soon after introducing him, but Colonel Goode hurried off to his next duty after only a few more pleasant words of gratitude. He will return more than once in these pages, however; we shall not miss him long.
For a short time I was left alone again, but I had scarcely had time to ponder my stratagem for making use of my presence in the Goode household when Amelia reappeared and drew a side chair up to my bed.
“I have sent Sheridan to your father, Mr. Bousted,” she told me, “and now I shall not leave your side until the danger is past.”
“Dr. Andick was very particular that you should not be moved for at least four hours after you regained consciousness. After that, he said, the danger would be past, and you might be permitted to walk with caution—with caution, he stressed. He thought you should not leave this house until at least to-morrow morning.”
“I do hate to be an invader, Miss Goode.” I did not hate it at all if it brought me so close to this incomparable beauty, but I believed that conventional politeness would conduce to my advantage.
“My champion will never be an invader in this household!” she replied with a radiant smile. O! reader, you may suppose that you have seen a radiant smile;—you may speak of the smiles that adorn the faces of the most celebrated beauties of your own age;—yet you have seen nothing worthy of that description, for you have not seen the smile of Amelia Goode!
For an hour or so more, Miss Goode spoke of inconsequential things—as though any word that dropped from such perfect lips could possibly be inconsequential—and I remember every word. I also remember that even then I felt a vague sense that Miss Goode was leaving something unsaid. I shall not burden you with the rest of the conversation, however; you, dear reader, who are most likely myself at a later age, would probably lose patience with me, though I confess it still gives me considerable pleasure to recall that first evening with Amelia.
It gave me no pleasure at all to have it interrupted by my own father, who burst so suddenly through the door that, had I been a man of weaker constitution, I might well have succumbed to some sort of nervous fit. He was followed closely by my sister Viola, and at only slightly less distance by old Colonel Goode. My father made the most appalling show of concern for my welfare; and Viola attempted, if possible, to outdo him, as if she really did prefer that I should live rather than die.
This ugly display of sentimentality made me wish I could slip back into that unconscious state from which I now regretted awakening—especially when old Colonel Goode very graciously introduced himself to my father, and my father, having ascertained that this was indeed the same Colonel Goode of whom all Pittsburgh and Allegheny spoke in reverent whispers, replied with the most oafish forthrightness, “You know, I’m a businessman myself.”
I must, however, confess that I felt a secret thrill when Amelia immediately asked whether he was the Bousted of Bousted’s Graded Stationery, and my father, in the full flush of his ridiculous paternal pride, told her that it had been entirely my invention. She knew my Graded Stationery—nay more, she used the Grade 8 every day, or so she said. Every day, those impossibly delicate fingers swept over the smooth, perfectly sized surface I myself had specified. It was almost as if she had been touching me for months without my knowing it. What bliss it would have been just to be a single sheet of paper!
I shall not weary myself with recounting every fatuous word that dribbled from my father’s lips. Miss Goode was very gracious to him, telling him that the father of such a son must be something of a hero himself; my father at least had the sense to blush at that remark. My sister Viola was mostly mute, which is certainly the way I prefer her; I believe she was overawed by her surroundings, since she had never before been in a building as large as the Goode house unless it was holding a temperance meeting.
My father and Viola stayed far too long, and my father was far too profuse in his gratitude to the Goodes when Amelia made it clear that she would not allow me to be moved until the morning. At last, however, my father took Viola away with him, and (old Colonel Goode having retired) I was left alone with my nurse.
By this time, but for the roaring pain in my head (which a bit of Colonel Goode’s excellent brandy had blunted somewhat), I had recovered most of my vigor, and I was far from ready to go back to sleep. Miss Goode was also invigorated by the excitement of the evening’s events. She was ready to talk, and I was more than ready to hear her voice. Yet as she spoke of this and that, I was more and more certain that there was something she wished to say beyond the inconsequential trivialities that made up our conversation. I believe that the weather has never been more thoroughly observed, catalogued, and subjected to the minutest analysis than it was during the hour after my father and hers left us alone. But at last we had exhausted even the endless conversational possibilities of temperature and precipitation, and we both fell silent for some time.
“Mr. Bousted,” Miss Goode said at last, “I believe I owe you—a confession is what perhaps I ought to call it. I feel a certain—a certain responsibility for your injuries.”
“Certainly any decent man who happened to see what I saw—an innocent woman assaulted by the basest ruffian—would have reacted the way I did. It was mere chance that I happened to be the one who——”
“But it was not mere chance,” she declared with a sudden rush of feeling. “I was responsible—more responsible than you know. It was not chance that placed you in harm’s way. It was my own—my own folly.”
I made no answer; I simply gazed at her with incomprehension.
“I was imprudent,” she continued. “I exposed myself to more danger than—than a young lady ought to be exposed to.”
“Surely a young lady has a right to take a drive through the park without molestation,” I said. How wonderfully sincere I sounded!
“But it is not prudent for her to drive after dark, except that—except that—Oh, Mr. Bousted, I have been such a fool! I ought to have listened to my father’s gentle admonishments, but I—but I wanted to see you.”
These last few words were spoken so softly that at first I was not at all sure I had heard them correctly. “But, Miss Goode, what could you mean by that? Until to-night——”
“Oh, doubtless you do not remember it, but you have seen me before. We passed in the street and I saw your face. Such a kind face! I remembered your face, though I saw you only a moment. And then I saw you again, and—and then I began to see you walking in the park. So then—and, oh, I know it was unpardonable folly—I came back the next evening at the same time, and you were there again. And I went back again, and again, and I began to discover your habits. You were as regular as clockwork, Mr. Bousted! I began—oh, I am sorry, Mr. Bousted!—I began to keep a note-book, and I recorded the times when I had seen you; and then I would go back at those times to see you again. So, Mr. Bousted, you would not have been exposed to danger had it not been for my folly, and I cannot expiate my sin except—except by asking you to forgive me.”
Twice in my short life up to that moment, the world had turned upside-down: the thing I had always thought was the floor had turned out to be the ceiling. And, marvelous to tell, both times had been in the same night. I had supposed myself to be an abductor, a defiler of innocence, and found myself a hero; I had supposed myself to be the hunter, and had found myself the prey. I am sure that Miss Goode had an unobstructed view of my tonsils as I recovered from the shock of her revelation. For some time, there was silence in the room; then, when she spoke again, she was on the verge of tears.
“Oh, Mr. Bousted, what have I done? I can see that——”
“Nothing could be more flattering”—I hastily interrupted her before she could say anything I might regret—“Nothing could be more flattering, or—or more gratifying, and if I hesitated to forgive you, it was because I could find nothing to forgive. How could any man with blood in his veins be displeased to find—to find that—well, I mean to say, Miss Goode, I am not displeased.”
She smiled slightly, although she would not look at me directly. I had succeeded in putting her a little more at her ease, and now it was time to turn this astonishing development to my advantage. My brain was whirling, and all thoughts of the pain in my head had vanished. Opportunity was here for the grasping.
“Indeed,” I continued, “I do recall having seen you on more than one occasion. You do yourself an injustice if you suppose you could pass by a man with eyes in his head, however briefly, and make no impression upon his memory.”
At this she did turn to face me, and her smile is impressed so deeply on my recollection that I can even now close my eyes and bring up the picture of it like a magic-lantern show.
How I should love to linger over this first encounter,—to savor each subtle change in Amelia’s expression, each musical syllable of her delightful conversation! Yet I could fill a book with this night, and still not be done with it. I must therefore reduce my narration to a brief epitome. I talked with Amelia until two in the morning, at which the striking of a little clock on the mantel reminded us both that it was very late. Bidding me good-night with a fondness that would, to an uninformed observer, have suggested a longer acquaintance, Amelia promised to see me in the morning, and turned down the gas as she left the room. In the darkness I made some attempt to order my thoughts; but sleep overcame me almost immediately, and I slept a sound and blissful sleep until just before eight in the morning.
When I woke, it took me some time to recollect where I was. Not being in the habit of paying overnight visits to millionaires, I had no previous experience of waking in such a luxurious chamber as this one, which bore a very different aspect with the morning sun streaming in through the tall windows. I began to recall the events of the night before, and the sweet face of Amelia Goode rose up in my mind’s eye. But then I was suddenly seized with an irrational terror that I must have been found out: that somehow, as I slept, the true motive for my presence in the park must have become apparent. I tried to use my reason to reassure myself, but my reason was not responding well to my commands. In fact my mind was trying to find its way through a fog of pain, the worst head-ache I had ever suffered. I could only imagine the fury of the Goodes; perhaps even now they had summoned the constabulary, or an angry mob with torches (why they should require torches in bright daylight I cannot say, but in every novel with an angry mob torches were an indispensable part of the equipment). I very nearly leaped straight up from the bed when the door to the hall swung open, and I fully expected to be either taken into custody or beaten to death with sticks.
“Good morning, sir,” said the voice from the doorway. It was not the voice of one who intended to bludgeon me. An older man, impeccably dressed, with another suit of clothing draped over his arm, was observing me benevolently. When he could see that he had my attention, he continued. “Miss Goode hopes you will pardon the liberty, but we have pressed your trousers and coat. There are one or two spots that will require the attention of your tailor, but you should be quite presentable in the mean time.”
“Thank you,” I said a bit uncertainly, as I adjusted my mind to the thought that I was not to be haled away to the gallows.
“If you feel well enough to rise, Miss Goode has held breakfast.”
“I’m certainly well enough to rise,” I said with more good cheer than I felt. No head-ache, however severe, would induce me to miss breakfast with the angel of Allegheny.
“Very good, sir,” the old man replied. He stayed there, almost but not quite smiling, and it gradually became clear to me that he intended to remain while I rose and dressed. And so he did. He was an active participant in the dressing: for the first time since I had learned to dress myself, I allowed myself to be dressed by someone else. This was what it was like to be truly rich: to have someone to attend to one’s most inconsequential needs—not even to have to dress oneself. I was even more certain now that I must have that life for my own.
Breakfast confirmed me in that opinion. The most delightful part was the presence of Amelia, of course, but I was not immune to the other pleasures of a table laden with what I then considered luxurious delicacies. Nor was I dead to the delight of being conveyed back to our little house in a carriage nearly the size of our parlor.
“Such a grand house,” Viola said a little later on, as we sat in the dining-room for luncheon. My father had left Bradley entirely in charge of the store, which was not a comforting thought; but I resolved to put off my worries for the day and enjoy, for once, the favorable attention of my sister, who insisted that she must nurse me until I had recovered.
“Yes,” I agreed, “it is an elegant place.”
“And what an impression you made on Miss Goode!” she continued. “It’s obvious she thinks the world of you.”
“She is merely grateful for what, after all, any gentleman of spirit would have done.” I suppose I hoped she would disagree and insist that I had been heroically brave: by now I had really begun to think of myself as Amelia’s rescuer, rather than the man from whom, but for the timely intervention of fate, she would have prayed to be rescued. But Viola would not give me the satisfaction of contradicting me.
“Oh, she is very grateful,” Viola continued. “The way she looked at you, I should have said she was a good bit more than grateful. Oh, dear, what will your poor Gertrude think?”
I give you my word, dear reader (though you must know by now that my word is worth nothing), that, until that moment, I had not thought of Gertrude since I set out on my fateful expedition the night before. What, indeed, would Gertrude think? And what was I going to do about her?