Gertrude or Amelia?
The choice that faced me was difficult, but only because so much of the knowledge I wanted for making my decision was unknowable. I had to choose between Gertrude and Amelia; and, put that way, the choice must obviously be Amelia. Gertrude was pretty and pleasant, but Amelia was both the most beautiful girl in Allegheny and the richest. In my foolish youth I found her face more attractive than her money;—but I was not insensible to the attraction of her money.
Gertrude, however, was a bird in the hand. Was it reasonable to abandon the near certainty of Gertrude for the distant possibility of Amelia? It was certainly true that Amelia had said some very encouraging things to me; but was not the difference in our position an insuperable barrier to any hope of marriage? And, now that I was definitely known to her, the alternative to marriage that I had proposed to myself was clearly impossible. It was marriage or nothing. (Here the alert reader may have noticed that I did not consider the possibility of seduction. So little did I know of the ways of women in those youthful days that I supposed what I desired would never be willingly given, and must be taken either as a duty of marriage or by force.)
Yet, as I retired that evening, visions of Amelia’s beautiful face crowded every other thought out of my mind. I tried to summon up Gertrude to give her defense in the court of my imagination, but she refused my summons. Amelia was all I saw; Amelia was my only thought. In the darkness I was certain that my choice must be Amelia; and if perhaps it could have remained dark, I might have made my choice. But daylight brought back rational thought, and rational thought brought back doubts. Or perhaps the truth was simply that I had not yet given my soul completely over to darkness.
Daylight also brought an end to my brief respite from responsibility for the store. It was bad enough to have left it momentarily in Bradley’s hands, but I was certainly not such a fool as to leave him holding the reins two days running.
But in fact my worries were groundless.
I greeted him with my usual “Good morning, Mr. Bradley,” and he greeted me with his usual glassy gaze and inarticulate grunt. But then I turned immediately to the ledger, and I discovered that the receipts from the day before were not a whit diminished. In fact, we had done better than usually.
“We did very well yesterday,” I said to Bradley.
He looked at me, and then at the ledger, and nodded, or perhaps merely twitched his head.
“I ought to say, you did very well, Mr. Bradley,” I added, trying to encourage him to say something. But there was no sound from him.
“Well, I’m very pleased,” I continued. “Father, look at this. The store did quite well with Bradley in charge.”
“First-rate!” my father opined, without really looking at the numbers on the page at all.
So I began to discover one more facet of this Bradley: he was very much less of a fool when I was not near by. In fact, as the day wore on, two regular patrons stopped in to tell me how well “the new man” had done in serving them yesterday. The thing puzzled me a little at first, but I suppose I had no reason to be puzzled. I had taken care that he should fear me at our first meeting. The stratagem was perfectly justified under the circumstances, but I ought not to wonder that the impression I had made on him then had lingered. At any rate, I resolved to experiment a little more with my brother-in-law. He might prove more useful than I had anticipated.
As for Gertrude, it astonishes me now to relate that I actually lost sleep over her. I even felt some remorse—I blush to recall it now, but I did—at the thought of rejecting her after having given her every indication that I intended to marry her. In extenuation I can only plead my extreme youth. I had assumed the responsibilities of a life devoted to wickedness at a time of life when the temptations to good are multifarious and incessant.
All day in the store, my mind revolved the one great question: Gertrude or Amelia? —I do not mean to say that I was negligent: none of the clerks’ wives and superannuated spinsters who came to have their writing classified would have surmised that my mind was elsewhere. I gave them the service they expected, looking directly into their eyes as I explained to them where their writing fitted on the Bousted scale. Yet still I was plagued by that dreadful indecision. Gertrude or Amelia? Amelia the perfect beauty, or Gertrude the delightful companion? Amelia the rich and far above me, or Gertrude the poor but within my grasp?
I continued my inward battle as my father and I rode the horse-car back to Allegheny, and I had nearly reached the conclusion that it must be Gertrude. In my young and inexperienced mind it seemed the more reasonable choice. Taking into account my own more and more urgent desires, a speedy union appeared to be almost a necessity; it could very probably be effected with Gertrude, but with Amelia I had only begun an acquaintance which, reason told me, could not be very likely to terminate in marriage, so insuperable did the gap between us seem.
Such were my thoughts when I returned to our house to find a letter from Amelia. I knew at once that it had come because Viola accosted me as I was still taking off my coat.
“A letter came for you,” she announced with that artificial lilt that I verily believe can be produced only by an older sister, “from your friend Miss Goode.” She pronounced the word friend as though it could carry a heavier load of innuendo than any other word in the English language.
“Probably inquiring after my health,” I replied; and I took the letter with a great show of indifference, nor did I open it until well after supper, when I was alone in my own room.
She did inquire after my health, but there was more to the letter than that. I have kept the letter, and I will insert it here at length, so that, in my own future perusal of this chapter in my life, I may feel yet again the thrill of reading Amelia’s own words.
Dear Mr. Bousted,——
In a moment of weakness, I made a confession which I ought perhaps not to have made; but since I have already laid indiscretion upon imprudence, it would be futile to pretend I had said nothing. Nor would I be showing reasonable gratitude to one to whom I owe so much—perhaps my very life—if I were at all dishonest with you.
I write to express that gratitude to you once again, but also in the hope of continuing that acquaintance which my imprudence has so happily purchased for me, though at such a painful cost to yourself.
Oh! Mr. Bousted, you must think me the most selfish creature in the world, but I am glad that such a ruffian accosted me—I dare even to say that I am glad that you were injured, if it gained for me the privilege of tending to your injuries. Of course I hope you are well now, and I could never truly wish you harm; but I struggle to express how much I hope for another visit from you. If you can find it in your heart to forgive my folly, and now my impertinence as well, I pray you write to me, and tell me that, somehow, you will see me again.
This marvelous, this astonishing letter was written on two sheets of Bousted’s Grade 8 and signed simply “Amelia Goode.” The No. 8 is a very good match for her careful, yet confident, writing, showing that the sales clerk at Boggs & Buhl (where she must have bought it, since I should certainly have remembered if she had come to my store) had indeed mastered the elements of my system.
Until I read Amelia’s letter, I had been very nearly certain that the victory must go to Gertrude; now it was quite clear that Amelia must be my choice. If she was of such a mind as to write such a letter as this, surely my battle was already half-won; the walls were breached which a moment before had seemed impregnable.
I did not hesitate, therefore, but immediately took pen in hand and dashed off a reply. I have not a copy by me, for in my haste I took no time to copy it out; but I recall telling her that I was as glad of our meeting as she was, and that I had not ceased to be astonished by the singular good fortune which had brought us together; and, having subjoined such words of flattery as came most naturally to my unskilled pen, I closed with a wish to see her at the earliest possible moment.
After that letter, I composed another, this one addressed to Gertrude Snyder. This second letter was very short: I said nothing but that I should like to see her the next evening, as I had something particular to say to her.
In these transactions it is very possible that my youth and inexperience served me well. If I were doing the same thing to-day, I should not have let go of the bird in the hand until I had definitely captured the one in the bush. I should have kept Gertrude supposing that I was within days of asking for her hand. My eagerness to pursue a connection with Amelia, however, led me to cast Gertrude aside; she was now an encumbrance of which I wished to rid myself at the earliest opportunity. How fortunate it seemed now that I had not made any definite proposal to her!
Yet it was not a pleasant prospect to me, this meeting with Gertrude. I received a note from her the next day agreeing that we must speak, and suggesting a walk in the park as suitable to that purpose; and it was, if you can credit the assertion, only as I read her note that I realized she must be expecting me to propose marriage at last! “I had something particular to say to her,” I had told her in my letter. What else could such words indicate to a young lady?
It was therefore my mission to dash Gertrude’s hopes just when I had raised them to the highest peak. That seemed very hard—very hard indeed. Only a fortifying dose of Baucher gave me the courage to keep our appointment.
It was an unseasonably warm afternoon in October, and the park was more than usually filled with strollers and promenaders. Gertrude was waiting for me at our usual meeting-place on the south end of the bridge. I could not help seeing that she was a beautiful girl; if there had been no Amelia, I might have considered myself uncommonly fortunate to have Gertrude. But there was an Amelia;—I reminded myself of that.
“It’s a very fine afternoon,” Gertrude remarked as we began strolling together.
“Very fine indeed,” I agreed.
“I think it’s uncommonly warm for so late in the season,” she added.
“It is,” I said; and then, feeling as though I ought to say something more, I added, “but it might well be the last warm day before the cold weather sets in.”
These observations are exceedingly dull to record, but the weather furnished us with the theme for our discourse over the next quarter-hour or so; and to talk about the weather with a beautiful girl on a fine October afternoon, with the colored leaves tumbling through the air all around, is as great a pleasure as any I can think of at the moment,—if only the sword of Damocles is not hanging over your conversation.
At last we came to the base of the monument, which, from its situation away from the main-traveled paths and somewhat below the bridge, afforded us a little measure of privacy; and here I had determined to make my speech, which I had prepared and rehearsed beforehand.
“Gertrude,” I began, “when I wrote to you yesterday, I said that I had——”
“Newman, please,” she said suddenly, quite uncharacteristically cutting me off. “I know already what you intend to say to me.”
“I really don’t think——”
“I do, Newman.” Her words began to pour out in a torrent; she was more animated than I had ever seen her, and there was simply no possibility of interrupting her. “Did you think I hadn’t seen you working up your courage—thinking over what you would say to me? Oh, Newman, I have seen how you look at me, and heard how your voice changes when you speak to me, and though you may think your heart has secrets, I know them all, my poor man! And I knew that this moment would come, and I struggled with myself—what would I say? how would I answer?—and, oh, how I wished, how I prayed that I could make you happy, for I never met a man more deserving, more worthy, but oh!—Newman, I cannot marry you! I ought to marry you, I ought to love you with my whole heart, but—but I love another!” At this her tears began to flow, but she went on with hardly a pause for breath. “I love another! I have been false to you all these months, hoping and praying that my heart would change, that I could give you the answer you deserve, and the answer all reason tells me I ought to give you, but no,—my heart will not obey reason, and it must love one who I am sure is infinitely less worthy, but,—but he is a good man, Newman, and I do love him!”
At this her tears overcame her completely, and she hid her face in her hands, leaving me standing at sixes and sevens for the moment, wondering what the passers-by must be thinking of me.
But on the whole the conversation had been completely satisfactory from my point of view. Instead of cruelly dashing a young girl’s hopes, I was now in a position to show grace and nobility in the face of rejection.
“My dear Gertrude,” I said gently and quietly, as though my heart were breaking but I had determined to suppress my feelings, “no man worthy of that name could ever wish anything before your happiness. I don’t deny—it would be futile to deny—my own feelings of disappointment. But that same strong regard for you which causes my disappointment compels me always to put your happiness before my own. If you are happy, I am happy; and if my happiness is admittedly imperfect, still it is genuine for all that.”
This was a very pretty speech, don’t you think? I was quite proud of it. It had its desired effect on Gertrude, who wept all the more and declared that I must be some sort of angel, and perhaps she ought to——but here I cut her off, lest she be tempted to reconsider. I told her frankly that she must follow her heart, and that, if she had any regard for my happiness as well as hers, she must not allow any mistaken sympathy for me to cloud her judgment; for surely I could never be happy in possession of a heart that could never be truly mine, and it was better for me in the long run to endure disappointment now, however it might sting, than to live a life of misery.
When at last we parted, she had recovered marvelously, and was actually smiling that rare and beautiful smile of hers, which for a moment almost made me regret that I had got rid of her so easily. She promised that she would ever be a true friend to me, and of course I promised her the same. Then she turned and left me.
I did not walk home with her as I usually did; but I did stand and watch as she walked away, calculating that it might be better to be seen gazing after her with regret if she should happen to look backward. In the event, however, she did not look backward.
Thus did I rid myself of Gertrude, and I was free to turn my attention completely to the conquest of Amelia. And so I did;—or, rather, nearly completely. I was distracted for some little time by a scheme for disposing of my elder sister.