THE Oliphants’ high white iron fence was a hundred and fifty feet long on National Avenue, a proud frontage, but the next yard to the north had one even prouder: it was of a hundred and eighty feet, and the big house that stood in this yard was almost that far back from the street. Built of brick and painted white, it reached a palatial climax in a facing of smooth white stone under a mansard roof, and the polished black walnut front doors opened upon a stone veranda. From the veranda a broad stone path led through the lawn and passed a stone fountain on its way to the elaborate cast-iron front gate, which was a congenial neighbour to the Oliphants’ cast-iron gate to the south. The stone fountain culminated in a bronze swan, usually well supplied with ejectory water in the summertime but somewhat bleak of aspect in winter, when the swan’s open beak, perpetually vacant, suggested to an observer the painful strain of unending effort absolutely wasted. It was a relief, after a snowstorm, to see the too-conscientious cavity partially choked.
A little snow remained there, like a cupful of salt that the dutiful bird had firmly refused to swallow, and snow glistened also along its dark green back, one February afternoon, when a lady on her way from the house to the gate paused by the fountain and regarded the swan with apparent thoughtfulness. She was twenty-three or perhaps twenty-four, tall and robust, a large young woman, handsome, and in a state of exuberant good health—her hearty complexion and the brightness of her clear hazel eyes were proof enough of that—and though a powdery new snow, just fallen, lay upon the ground and the air was frosty, she wore her fur coat thrown as far open as possible. And that her thoughtfulness about the bronze swan was only an appearance of thoughtfulness, and not actual, was denoted by the fact that her halt at the fountain coincided with a sound from a short distance to the south of her. This sound was the opening and closing of a heavy door;—it was in fact the Oliphants’ front door, one of the ponderous double doors of black walnut, like other front doors of the stately row. The lady looked at the swan only until the young man who had just closed that door behind him emerged from the deep vestibule and came down the steps.
He was a stalwart, dark-haired, blue-eyed young man, comely in feature and of an honest, friendly expression; and although the robust young lady was as familiar with his appearance as one could be who had lived all her life next door, yet when her gaze swept from the swan to him, she looked a little startled, also a little amused. What thus surprised and amused her was the unusual magnificence of his attire. Upon occasion she had seen a high hat upon him and likewise a full-skirted long coat and a puffed scarf, but never spats until now; and never before had she seen him carry a cane. This was of shining ebony, with a gold top, and swung from a hand in a dove-coloured glove. Dove was the exquisite tint, too, of his spats.
“Dan Oliphant!” she cried. “Why, my goodness!”
At the sound of her voice his eye brightened;—he turned at once, left the cement path that led to his own gate and came across the frozen lawn to the partition fence not far from her. Still exclaiming, she went there to meet him.
“My goodness gracious, Dan!” she cried, and shook hands with him between two rods of the iron fence.
“What’s the matter, Martha?” he inquired. “I’m mighty glad to see you. I just got home from New York yesterday.”
“I know you did,” she said. “I mean I see you did. I should say so!”
“What’s all the excitement?”
She proved unable to reply otherwise than by continuing her exclamations. “Why, Dan!” she cried. “Dan Oliphant!”
At that he seemed to feel there would be no readier way to solve the puzzle of her behaviour than to adopt her style himself. “Martha!” he exclaimed then, in amiable mockery of her. “Martha Shelby! Well, good gracious me!”
“It’s the royal robes,” she explained. “I’m overcome. Your mother and father have been worrying about your staying so long in New York, but certainly they understand now what detained you.”
“What do you think it was, Martha?” he asked, his colour heightening a little.
“Why, you were learning to wear spats, of course, and how to carry a gold-headed cane. Is the President passing through town this afternoon?”
“I thought you might be one of a committee to meet him at the station and give him the keys of the city,” said Miss Shelby. “Or are you going to make a speech somewhere?”
“No. I’m going to call on my grandmother.”
“I hope dear old Mrs. Savage will be up to it. Would you like to have me walk with you as far as her gate? I’m going that way.”
“You bet I’d like it!” Dan said heartily, and without exaggeration; for since this friendly next-door neighbour and he were children there had never been a time when he was not glad to see her or to be with her, walking or otherwise. She had always teased him mildly, now and then, but he bore it equably, not by any means displeased. Nor was he anything but pleased to-day, as they walked down the broad and quiet avenue together, rather slowly, and she resumed her mockery of his metropolitan splendours.
“I suppose your mother had to give up getting you to wear an ulster this afternoon,” she said. “It might have hidden that wonderful frock coat.”
“You know as well as I do I never wear an overcoat unless it’s a lot colder than this,” he returned; and he added: “You’re a funny girl, Martha Shelby.”
“Well, don’t you consider you’re an old friend of mine? Anyway, I do, and here I haven’t seen you since way back last fall, and you haven’t said you’re glad I’m back, or anything! The truth is, I was kind of lookin’ forward to your sayin’ something like that.”
He spoke lightly, yet there was a hint of genuine grievance in his voice, and she was obviously pleased with it, for she gave him a quick side glance so fond it seemed almost a confession. But she laughed, perhaps to cover the confession, and said cheerfully: “There’s one thing neither college nor New York has changed about you, Dan. You’ll never learn to sound the final G in a participle; you’ll always say ‘lookin’ ’ and ‘sayin’ ’ and ‘goin’ ’ and ‘comin’.’ Doesn’t it worry Harlan?”
“Changin’ the subject, aren’t you?” he inquired. “Why didn’t you tell me you’re glad I’m back home again?”
“I am glad,” she said obediently. “Are you glad, yourself?”
“To see you? You know it.”
“No, I meant: Are you glad to be home?”
He looked thoughtful. “Well, I like New York; there isn’t any place else where you can see as much or do as much when you want to; it’s always a mighty fine show. And, besides, I like some people that live there.” He hesitated, continuing: “I—well, I do like some of the people in New York, but after all I’m glad to get home; I’m mighty glad.” Then he added, as a second thought: “In a way, that is.”
“In what way particularly, Dan?”
“Well, I do like some New York people,” he insisted, a little consciously;—“and I’m sorry to be away from them, but it’s pretty nice to get back here where you know ’most everybody you’re liable to meet. When you see a dog, for instance, you know who he belongs to and probably even his name—anyhow you probably do, if he belongs in your own part of town—and most likely the dog’ll know you, too, and stop and take some interest in you. Of course, I mean here you know everybody that is anybody;—naturally no one knows every soul in a town this big—and growin’ bigger every day.”
“Hurrah for you!” she cried, laughing at him again. “Why, you already talk like a member of the Chamber of Commerce, Dan.”
“Oh, you know the speeches they make: ‘A city of prosperity, a city of homes, a city that produces more wooden butter-dishes than all the rest of the country combined! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the finest city with the biggest future in the whole extent of these United States!’ ”
Dan laughed, but there came into his eyes a glint of enthusiasm that was wholly serious. “Well, I believe they’re not so far wrong, at that. In some ways I think myself it is about the finest city in the country. It kind of came over me when I got off the train yesterday and drove up home through these broad old streets with the big trees and big houses. It’s when you’ve been away a good while that you find out how you appreciate it when you get back. Harlan’s just the other way; he says when he’s been away and gets back, the place looks squalid to him. ‘Squalid’ was what he said. He makes me tired!”
“Yes; when he talks like that, he does,” Dan answered. “Why, the people you see on the streets here, they’ve all got time enough and interest enough in each other to stop and shake hands and ask about each other’s families, and they’re mighty nice, intelligent-looking people, too. In New York everybody hurries by; they don’t know each other anyway, of course; and if you get off Broadway and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue, and one or two other streets, you’re liable to see about as many foreigners as you will Americans; but here they’re pretty near all Americans. It’s kind of a satisfaction to see the good, old-fashioned faces people have in this city.”
“I like to hear you praising old-fashioned things,” Martha Shelby said slyly. “You must have something dreadfully important to say to your grandmother, Dan.”
“Well, don’t people put on their robes of state for tremendous occasions? Or did you just get so in the habit of it in New York that you can’t give it up?”
“Maybe that’s it,” he laughed. “But I expect it’ll wear off pretty soon if I stay here; and anyhow I am glad to get back. The fact is I’m a lot gladder than I expected to be. The minute I got off the train I had a kind of feeling—a pretty strong feeling—that this is where I honestly belong. It was home, and the people and the streets and the yards and trees and even the air—they all felt homelike to me. And when I went into our good old house—why, I felt as if I hadn’t been in a house, not a real house, all the time I was away. But most of all, it’s the people.”
“Your father and mother?”
“Yes,” he said;—“but I mean everybody else, too. I mean you can seem to breathe easier with ’em and let out your voice to a natural tone without gettin’ scared you’re goin’ to break a vase or something. For instance, I mean the way I feel with you, Martha. You see, with some New York people—I don’t mean anything against ’em of course; but sometimes, when a person’s with ’em, he almost feels as if he ought to be artificial or unnatural or something; but nobody could ever feel anything like that with you, Martha.”
“No?” she said, and looked at him with a gravity in which there was a slight apprehension. “Perhaps you might like a little artificiality, though, just for a change. A moment ago you said you thought your New York habits would wear off, and you’d get more natural, if you stay here. What did you mean?”
“Me not natural?” he asked, surprised. “Why, don’t I seem natural?”
“Yes, of course. You wouldn’t know how not to be. You meant about your clothes. You said you’d probably get over wearing so much finery as a daily habit, if you stay here. Aren’t you going to stay here, Dan?”
Her sidelong glance at him took note of a change in his expression, a perplexity that was faintly troubled, whereupon the hint of apprehension in her own look deepened. “Don’t tell me you’re not!” she exclaimed suddenly, and as he failed to respond at once, she repeated this with emphasis so increased that it seemed a little outcry: “Don’t tell me you’re not!”
“I certainly hope to stay here,” he said seriously. “I didn’t realize how much I hoped to until I got back. I certainly would hate to leave this good old place where I grew up.”
“But why should you leave it? Your mother told me the other day you expected to go into business here as soon as you get your grandfather’s estate settled.”
“Yes, I know,” he returned, and she observed that his seriousness and his perplexity both increased. “It’s always been my idea to do that,” he went on, “and I still hope to carry it out. At any rate I’m goin’ to try to.”
“Then why don’t you? What on earth could prevent you?”
Upon this, he seemed to take a sudden resolution. “Martha,” he said, “I’ve got a notion to tell you about something;—it’s something beautiful that’s happened to me. I haven’t told anybody yet. I wanted to tell my father and mother last night; but Harlan kept sittin’ around where they were, until they went to bed; and somehow I didn’t like to talk about it before him—anyway not at first. And to-day I haven’t had a chance to tell ’em; father’s been down at his office and mother had two charity board meetings. So you’ll be the first person to know it.”
“Will I?” Martha said in a low voice.
But he did not notice its altered quality; he was too much preoccupied with what he was saying; and he still looked forward into the perplexing distance. His companion’s gaze, on the contrary, was turned steadily upon him; and the sunniness that had been in her eyes had vanished, the colour of her cheeks was not so brave in the cold air. “I’m a little afraid to hear it, Dan,” she said. “I’m afraid you’re going to say you got engaged to someone in New York. You are?”
“Yes,” he answered gravely. “That’s what I’m just on the way to tell my grandmother.”
“I guessed it,” Martha said quietly; and was silent for a moment;—then she laughed. “I might have guessed it from your clothes, Dan. You got all dressed up like this just to talk about her! And to your grandmother!”
A little hurt by her laughter, he turned his head to look at her and saw that there were sudden bright lines along her eyelids. “Why, Martha!” he cried. “Why, what——”
“Isn’t it natural?” she asked, smiling at him to contradict the testimony offered by her tears. “I’ve always had you for a next-door neighbour; you’ve always been my best friend among the boys I grew up with;—I’m afraid I’ll lose you if you get married. Everybody likes you, Dan; I think everybody’ll feel the same way. We’ll all be afraid we’ll lose you.”
“Why, Martha!” he exclaimed again, but he had difficulty in misrepresenting a catch in his throat as a cough. “I didn’t—I didn’t expect you’d think of it like this. I do hope it doesn’t mean that I’ll have to live in New York. I still hope to get her to come here. I—I’d certainly hate to lose you more than you would to lose me. I’ve always thought of you as my best friend, too, and I couldn’t imagine anything making that different. I’d hoped—I do hope——”
“I hope you—I hope you’ll like her, if we come home to live. I hope you’ll be her friend, too.”
“Indeed I will!” she promised so earnestly that her utterance was but a husky whisper. “I’m glad I’m the first you told, Dan. Thank you.”
“No, no,” he said awkwardly. “It just happened that way.”
“Well, at least I’m glad it did,” she returned, and brushing her eyes lightly with the back of a shapely hand, showed him a cheerful countenance. “See! you had just time to tell me.”