A consummation devoutly to be wished.
Amelia was a perfect hostess for the rest of the evening, which meant that I saw very little of her except from a distance. She took special care of Viola, so that she always had a dance partner; I suppose she thought it would please me. And so it did, but only because it showed Amelia herself in such an attractive light. Otherwise, nothing would have pleased me more than to see Viola perfectly miserable. I danced with a number of fine ladies, not one of whom made the slightest impression upon me, although I was told later that my good humor and scrupulous courtesy made quite an impression upon them. To Amelia I spoke only once more, briefly, as we were departing, and with her father beside me, she could not communicate anything particular to me other than a secret glimmer in her eye;—but that was enough to make my heart beat faster and my breath come shorter.
The brief carriage-ride home afforded Viola the opportunity of a monologue on her great success as a member of proper society. I remember nothing of it except a few of her remarks about Amelia herself. Viola thought that “she was very charming, to be sure. But that gown!” (Here she looked rather pointedly at me, probably recalling what she had read in Amelia’s letter.) “I suppose even a fortune like the Goodes’ is no guarantee of correct taste. No bustle at all! And the—well, I won’t say it was indecent, but my word! I wouldn’t be seen in public that way.” Although I had a very different opinion of the gown in question, I was in such good spirits that I could not even bring myself to feel offended by Viola’s malicious babbling. After all, whatever else might be said about the relative merits of one style or another, there could be no question that a gown with Amelia in it was worth a great deal more than a gown with Viola in it. I sat and smiled the whole time Viola was babbling, and even though she did not shut her flapping jaw until we arrived at our house on Beech-street, for probably the first time in my life I was not annoyed by my sister’s incessant chatter. Even the considerable effort required to extract her from the carriage did not put me out of temper; and when my father paid the coachman, I added a considerable gratuity from my own pocket—not, I hasten to explain, from foolish notions of generosity, but because I thought it behooved us, as a family worthy to mix with such as the Goodes, to keep up the appearance of prosperity.
It was absolutely necessary for my purposes that I should keep the flame of love burning bright in Amelia’s breast. In spite of the late hour, therefore, I sat at my desk to compose a love-letter before retiring, so that it should be ready to go out with the morning post. I put some considerable effort into this composition, although it was by no means an unwelcome labor. Under the influence of the lingering memory of Amelia’s lips, her touch, her gown—all things that are even now so fresh in my memory that hardly a day seems to have passed between then and now—the words poured out of my pen. Nevertheless, I wrote three drafts before I was satisfied with the result. In particular, I wavered over the greeting, before deciding at last that Amelia’s conduct had given me ample license to dare all.
When I had finished the letter, I took care to copy it in a rapid but elegant hand, so that it should appear to be a work of haste rather than deliberation, an outpouring of my passion rather than a carefully considered essay. Since I took that precaution, I have the original here before me now, which does not differ in more than two or three words from the letter that Amelia read:
Ma chère Belle Anglaise,——
I cannot sleep. The memory of your touch, of your lips on mine, will give me no rest. I did not know that it was possible for love to grasp a man’s whole being and leave no room even for thoughts of sleep, but I find that it is so. And to know that my love is returned with equal intensity is almost more than my heart can bear! I close my eyes and feel the impression of your lips on mine, and my heart beats so wildly that I imagine it must wake the whole household. I know that you have heard your beauty praised often enough, if indeed perfection can ever be praised often enough; but beauty alone could never have left such a mark upon my heart. It is, after all, the soul in which beauty resides;—and yet I must confess that I find myself wishing that Boucher were alive today to paint you. What a masterpiece he would create! He could never capture the essence of your true beauty,—but I should very much like to see what he could capture.
And now, my dearest, my love, my own Amelia, one question consumes me:—When shall I see you again? To you, perhaps, it is merely a question of the clock or the calendar; but to me it is life or death. I live if I see you; I die if I do not. Remember, then, when you reply, that you hold my life in your hands, and be merciful to
Your devoted servant,
I signed the letter with that ridiculous name my father had given me because Amelia seemed to enjoy thinking of me as her Galahad, her invincible knight and protector; and I was not such a fool as to allow my distaste for the name to stand in the way of my winning the greatest prize I had ever fought for.
I copied the letter, as I mentioned before, and I do recall making at least one change: I changed “wishing that Boucher were alive today” to “wishing that Boucher were here today,” because I could not say with absolute conviction that I knew Boucher to be dead. Then I sealed the letter, confident that it was as perfect as I could have made it. How assiduously I applied myself to my work in those days! To-day I have a secretary to attend to my correspondence, and a messenger-boy waiting to carry it off if it is urgent; but in those days I had only myself—slender enough resources, it seems to me.
The next day was Sunday, but I was not willing to allow the superstitious indolence of the postal service to delay my letter to Amelia. I went straight out after church and took the letter over to the Goodes’ house myself, handing it to the boy who answered the door along with a very fresh-looking dollar, and giving him strict instructions to deliver the letter only to Miss Goode. The magical gleam of silver made him my eager co-conspirator; and it was not more than two hours later that the same boy appeared at our door with a note for me, which Viola peevishly but wordlessly delivered, since Mrs. Ott took Sundays off. I wish I could describe to you the delightful expression of haughty disapproval on my dear sister’s face as she handed me that letter: her eyebrows rose to such a peak that I thought they might fly off her forehead. Yet she still said nothing, dropping the letter into my lap as if it were some particularly unpleasant insect and turning with a slight snort to leave me alone in the parlor.
Of course I did not delay a moment after her departure: recognizing Amelia’s hasty but tidy hand, I broke the seal at once. Here is the letter itself in the box with the rest of them, and what sweet joy it is even now to read it!
My valiant knight,——
It is not possible to express the joy I felt last night when we were able to snatch a few precious moments in the gallery; but I too am consumed with the longing to see you again. A day has not yet passed, but an hour apart is too long—oh, that you were with me now! I must be content for the moment with your letter. But if you will come to-morrow evening to the meeting of the Workingmen’s Improvement Society, I am speaking there, and I shall certainly find a way to spend a few moments alone with you afterward. —Oh, Galahad, how I wish we never had to part again! But I know I shall dream of you to-night; and we shall not truly be apart if you will also dream of me, perhaps even as
Your passionately devoted
With this letter, which I read over three times, she had enclosed a program for the meeting of the Workingmen’s Improvement Society, which was to be held at the parish hall of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, and at which the principal event was a speech by Miss Amelia Goode on the Condition of the Working Poor in the Cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny. Now, the Working Poor had ceased to hold any interest for me the moment I ceased to be one of their number; but merely for the opportunity of gazing on Amelia I was willing to endure any number of pious platitudes about the duty of Christian charity toward our most useless citizens. I would certainly attend the meeting.
In the evening I retired with my thoughts of Amelia. I lay awake for quite some time after I had turned down the gas, forming lovely images of Amelia as Boucher might have painted her. I remember hearing the hideous clock in the front parlor striking eleven, and then half past. I did not, however, dream of Amelia. For some reason I dreamt of legions of shopkeepers’ wives filling the store on Wood-street.
My dream was not far from the reality. The next day was an extraordinarily busy one, and but for the invaluable assistance of Bradley, I think I might have given in to despair. I took the trouble to congratulate Bradley on his performance, because I had good reason to hope that a few words of praise might serve as an inducement to even more dedicated work on future occasions. I did not, however, make use of the word “invaluable,” since I feared that it might provoke him to ask why, if he was truly so invaluable, we persisted in valuing him at only a dollar and a half per diem.
I had no time for proper supper in the evening. I informed my father that I had an appointment; he asked no questions, and Viola implied by her supercilious silence that she knew all the answers. A crust of bread from the kitchen was sustenance enough—that and a quarter of an apple pie.
Marching through the chilly darkness, I found my way to the hall where Amelia would be speaking. This was the old St. Andrew’s, not the much more elaborate Gothic edifice that has since replaced it; but it was even then a good step above the humble Methodist meeting-house my father had attended since we removed to Allegheny. Crowds were gathering already, though I was early by a quarter-hour. They were crowds of the sort of people I had seen at the Goodes’ ball—indeed, quite probably many of the same people. No workingmen were to be seen: clearly they were not expected, and I wonder what reception one of them might have met had he wandered in fresh from the mill, with his face black and his coat reeking of coal-smoke. Indeed, I almost felt out of place myself. I had to remind myself that my newfound prosperity had elevated my social position to a level that placed me on an equal footing with many of the other gentlemen in attendance. And how many of them had kissed the divine Amelia Goode?
I dropped a dollar into the donation box at the door, for which I seemed to be regarded as a prodigy of generosity; but I considered it well worth the expense to establish my credentials as a man to whom money was of no importance. Exchanging a few polite greetings with random strangers, I found myself a seat in the hall about a third of the way from the front to the back—close enough, I reasoned, for Amelia to see me there, but not conspicuously close. I spent the remaining few minutes examining the program, which promised a positively excruciating evening to everyone who was not fortunate enough to have one of the speakers in love with him. Invocation by the Rev’d Egbert Wheeze—Preliminary Remarks by the General Secretary, Mrs. Henry W. Prattle—Report on the Moral Questions Raised by Public Bathhouses by Mrs. E. F. Prigge (if you expected something a bit sensational from this report, you were very much mistaken). Then, at last, The Condition of the Working Poor, by Miss Amelia Goode. I sat through all the edifying preliminaries with a fixed expression of rapt attention, though I am sure I could not have repeated a single word from any of those speeches five minutes later. But at last Amelia appeared, and then my attention was no longer feigned.
She wore blue, which suited her very well; she was modestly and decorously attired, but there was no concealing the beauty of her form. What did she say? You may be surprised to know that I listened as well as looked. She spoke of the duty of employers to provide a living wage, and told some very affecting tales of the difficulties faced by those of the laboring classes whose wages did not permit them even the bare subsistence that was their natural right. And even the clerks in stores—why, many of them earned no more than a dollar and a half a day! It was enough for the needs of a single man, perhaps, but hardly sufficient for a family. How can we expect to suppress vice in the poorer neighborhoods if we make the state of marriage positively prohibitive for the ordinary workingman? Nay more, the inability of even the most diligent hired hand—and she laid especial stress upon the diligence, for she would not have us think that she spoke of idlers and wastrels—his inability to provide for his family is productive of a veritable cascade of evils, a cataract of vices. The sons turn to crime, and the daughters to infamy; the mother wastes away heartbroken, and the father finds his only consolation in drink. Oh, the affecting pictures she painted of gloom and ruin among the poor! It was enough to bring a tear of sympathy to every eye in the hall—for when Amelia speaks, she is invariably persuasive, and even I could almost find pity in my heart for the imaginary families her words conjured up so vividly before us. Yet though she warmed to her subject and gave it her all, when her gaze, wandering over the audience, rested on me, her eyes lit up with a secret joy, invisible perhaps to everyone else, but filling me with a warmth and ardor that made every word she spoke a golden treasure. This Amelia was the object of every man’s longing, of every female’s envy—and I possessed her heart! Oh, what rewards evil has in store for the patient!
When Amelia had concluded her oration and received much applause, the meeting was ended, as if it were impossible that anyone should command any attention after the divine Miss Goode had left the podium. I made my way forthwith to the front of the hall, where Amelia received me with decent and friendly warmth, introducing me to certain other members of the Society as “Mr. Bousted, of Bousted’s stationery,” and allowing me the infinite satisfaction of discovering that the Bousted name was by now well-nigh universally known among the better class of citizens in Allegheny. We made some inconsequential conversation on the subject of the workingman, and how fortunate he was to have such friends as we were; the others drifted away one by one, but I stayed, until at last it was impossible to stay any longer without inconveniencing the man who was waiting to lock up the hall. Then there was no one but the coachman to take note of my leaving the hall in Amelia’s carriage.
It was a closed winter carriage, and it was a dark night, and as soon as the thing began to move, Amelia’s lips were pressed to mine; nor do I believe she disengaged them for at least a quarter-mile.
“Galahad!” she sighed at last when her lips were free for sighing; and that sufficed for another quarter-mile’s conversation. Her head resting on my shoulder told me more than a volume of extemporaneous remarks might have done.
At last she spoke again. “I told Henry to take the long way, because I have—things to say to you, Galahad. But first, I must tell you that I love you, with burning passion, and—and whatever else I tell you, please hear it in the light of this——”
She kissed me again, and there was another quarter-mile gone.
“I love you, Amelia,” I said at last, “more than I thought it was possible to love. Nothing you say will change my love. If your father is an obstacle, let me prove myself to him—let him give me twelve labors, dragons to slay—what do I care, if you love me?”
“Oh, Galahad, I believe you, and I do love you. If you were any other sort of man, I’d never tell you what I feel I must tell you—but if you were any other sort of man, I shouldn’t love you as I do, for I feel instinctively that you love honesty above all, and to a man like you I cannot lie.”
She was silent for a moment, and of course my mind worked like a locomotive, trying to imagine what this revelation would be. It was only a moment, however; when she spoke again, it was in a lower voice, tinged with something that sounded like shame.
“Galahad,” she said haltingly, “I am not worthy of you. A valiant knight’s fair lady should be pure as snow, but—oh, Galahad, I am not pure!”
“Pure?” I repeated idiotically.
“I am not—not—unspotted,” she explained. “You are a—a man of the world, I am sure. You know that there are men—men not at all like you—who seduce young ladies with false promises. I knew such a man,—I knew him, and—and—he took from me what can never be returned.”
Well, that at least explained how she knew so much more about kissing than I did. That was my first thought. Almost at once, however, it was followed by the realization that Amelia expected me to be thinking something else. She feared rejection; she hoped for forgiveness; but she was certainly not expecting me to say, “Well, if he taught you to kiss like that, then bully for him!”
“Darling Amelia,” I began in my softest and most love-besotted voice, “do you really suppose that any past indiscretion could diminish my love for you? I own that I should be very angry if I met the cad who dared to deceive you;—but angry for the pain he caused you, my love, for I can never bear to see you hurt. But, Amelia, do not class me with him! It is your heart I love, and I am sure there is no purer heart in the world.”
“Oh, Galahad!” I had evidently said the right thing, because we lost another quarter-mile. I am not altogether sure that Henry did not take us by way of Beaver Falls; the man certainly took his business seriously when you told him to go the long way.
“Galahad,” Amelia said when at last her lips were free to speak, “you’re the only man I’ve ever known whom I could trust completely. And how I love you for believing that my heart is pure! But, nevertheless, I’m—I am a woman of the world now. I have lost my girlish innocence, and I can never get it back, and so—so I think perhaps it is not necessary for us to be over-scrupulous.” She kissed me again, and then spoke just above a whisper. “My father has retired for the evening, as he always does promptly at half past nine; his bedroom is at the opposite end of the house from mine; and Henry is discreet to a fault.”
I suppose it was quite obvious what she meant me to infer; but my mind was so entirely unwilling to believe my good fortune that I actually asked her, “What are you saying, Amelia?”
Again she pressed her lips to mine for a moment, and then she continued in an even lower voice, her lips almost touching my ear, “I mean that there is nothing to prevent you from spending to-night in my bed.”
An indescribable thrill passed through me from the pit of my stomach up into my chest. I kissed her passionately. Here at last was the thing I had longed for since I first saw Amelia walking past me on Federal-street, the crown of all my schemes and the fulfillment of all my desires—a night of rapture with the most beautiful girl in Allegheny. And yet—and yet—while I kissed her I was thinking furiously. When I first began my pursuit of Amelia, I could imagine nothing beyond having my way with her; but now, with her lips on mine, and the experience of the past few days in my memory, I realized that I desired infinitely more than that. I could never be content with one night in Amelia’s arms; I wanted her to have and to hold so long as I lived. I had also seen a glimpse of the wealth of the Goodes, and do not suppose that it had failed to make an impression on me. But of course the possibility of possessing Amelia and her fortune depended upon Colonel Goode’s having a high opinion of me. He thought highly of me now. Would I risk that for one night’s enjoyment?
What would Baucher do under like circumstances? Surely the truly evil thing to do, the enlightened course of action, would be to consider my own advantage in the long term, and not merely the present pleasure. It would be difficult; it would require discipline and self-control; but evil is not always easy. One must have faith that it will produce good results in the end;—and by “good,” I mean (of course) redounding to one’s own advantage.
“Amelia,” I breathed in a half-vocal whisper, “my darling, my love, there is nothing I could possibly desire more than a night in your arms,—except a thousand nights, ten thousand nights in your arms. Beloved, hear me out. I am tempted—oh! how I am tempted!—but I feel I must control my passion, not because I don’t desire you, but because I desire you infinitely more than that.” As I spoke, I was aware of a change in Amelia, a hardening, some tightening of the muscles that suggested she might push away from me; so I very suddenly decided that I must dare all at once. “What I mean is this: I know that our acquaintance has been short, but I can no longer imagine a life without you. My darling Amelia, my one true love, will you be my wife?”
For a moment that seemed like an eternity, there was a silence like death in the carriage; then there was an explosion of emotion.
“Yes!” Amelia half-sobbed, half-shouted into my ear. “Oh, Galahad, yes!—a thousand times yes!”
My joy and relief actually made me laugh. “I think one time will suffice,” I said, and Amelia laughed and sobbed at the same time and covered my face with kisses.
“I didn’t dare hope—Well, I did hope, but—Oh! Galahad, my dearest love, I’ll make you the best, most loving, most faithful wife there ever was!”
And that was the last we spoke—we were otherwise occupied—until Henry finally managed to bring the carriage into the porte cochere of the Goodes’ mansion. The stop surprised both of us; we had paid no attention at all to the world outside the carriage.
“I suppose we must say good-night now,” I said with unfeigned regret.
“I’ll have Henry take you home,” Amelia responded.
“No, I’ll walk—I’m too happy to ride. Soon we’ll never have to part again.”
“It must be very soon,” Amelia agreed. “I won’t be content until I rest in your arms…You must speak to Father to-morrow!”
Yes—her father. There was still that difficulty to get over. We agreed that I should come after dinner the next day to see Colonel Goode, and I cannot say that I was completely confident of myself. The triumph of Amelia’s acceptance counted for nothing unless I could persuade her father that I was the right man to marry his daughter. I believe Amelia might have run away with me if he had refused, but that would mean running away from the Goode millions.
As I walked back through the cold and silent streets of Allegheny, I cannot tell you how many times I reminded myself that, but for my own scruple, I might have been lying in bed at that moment with the most beautiful girl in the city. How I wished I might turn back and tell Amelia that I had changed my mind! But I must not risk anything that would turn old Colonel Goode against me. The Goode fortune was at stake! I must keep that fact constantly in mind, although my mind insisted that the only thing it wanted to think about right now was Amelia.
I left my hat, coat, and stick in the hall when I came home, and then went into the front parlor, where I found Viola sitting, reading one of her dreadful three-volume novels. She looked up at me, and her eyebrows rose considerably, while her physiognomy contorted into a scowl of disapproval. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror above the mantel, and I was a wreck. My collar was detached and all askew; my hair looked as if it had been trying to escape my head; the left lapel of my jacket was turned under. I looked like a man who had been with a lover. How delightful it was to see my sister wallowing in indignation! I turned to face her and gave her a knowing smile—and then I winked at her. She slumped lower in her chair and buried her nose in her book.