The Hermit of ——— Street, by Anna Katharine Green

Chapter ii.

A Strange Wedding Breakfast.

Mr. Allison, who had never before been known to leave his books and papers, not only called the next day to express his gratitude for what he was pleased to style my invaluable warning, but came every day after, till not only my heart but my reason told me that the great house in the rear might ultimately be my home, if the passion which had now become my life should prove greater than the dread which had not yet entirely left me.

Mr. Allison loved me — oh, what pride in the thought! — but Mr. Allison had a secret, or why did he so often break off abruptly in some telltale speech and drop his eyes, which were otherwise always upon me. Something not easy to understand lay between us — something which he alternately defied and succumbed to, something which kept him from being quite the good man I had pictured myself as marrying. Why I was so certain of this latter fact, I cannot say. Perhaps my instinct was keen; perhaps the signs of goodness are so unmistakable that even a child feels their want where her heart leans hardest.

Yet everything I heard of him only tended to raise him in my estimation. After he became an habitué of the house, Mrs. Vandyke grew more communicative in regard to him. He was eccentric, of course, but his eccentricities were such as did him credit. One thing she told me made a lasting impression on me. Mrs. Ransome, the lady in whose house he lived, had left her home very suddenly. He anticipated a like return; so, ever since her departure, it had been his invariable custom to have the table set for three, so that he might never be surprised by her arrival. It had become a monomania with him. Never did he sit down without there being enough before him for a small family, and as his food was all brought in cooked from a neighboring restaurant, this eccentricity of his was well known, and gave an added éclat to his otherwise hermit-like habits. To my mind, it added an element of pathos to his seclusion, and so affected me that one day I dared to remark to him:

“You must have liked Mrs. Ransome very much you are so faithful in your remembrance of her.”

I never presumed again to attack any of his foibles. He gave me first a hard look, then an indulgent one, and finally managed to say, after a moment of quiet hesitation:

“You allude to my custom of setting two chairs at the table to which they may return at any minute? Miss Hunter, what I do in the loneliness of that great house is not worth the gossip of those who surround you.”

Flushing till I wished my curls would fall down and hide my cheeks, I tried to stammer out some apology. But he drove it back with a passionate word:

“Delight, idol of my heart, come and see what a lonely place that old house is. Come and live in that house — at least for a little time, till I can arrange for you a brighter and a happier home — come and be my wife.”

It was sudden, it was all but unlooked-for, and like all his expressions of feeling, frenzied rather than resolute. But it was a declaration that met my most passionate longings, and in the elation it brought I forgot for the moment the doubts it called up. Otherwise I had been a woman rather than a girl, and this tale had never been written.

“You love me, Delight” (he was already pressing me in his arms), “you love me or you would never have rushed so impetuously to warn me of my danger that night. Make me the maddest, happiest man in all the world by saying you will not wait; that you will not ask counsel of anybody or anything but your affection, but marry me at once; marry me while my heart yearns for you so deeply; marry me before I go away ——”

“Go away?”

“Yes, I am going away. Mrs. Ransome and her daughter are coming back and I am going away. Will you go with me?”

With what intensity he spoke, yet with what hardness. I quivered while I listened, yet I made no move to withdraw from him. Had he asked me to step with him from the housetop I should hardly have refused while his heart throbbed so wildly against mine and his eyes lured me on with such a promise of ecstasy.

“You will?” How peremptory he could be. “You will?” How triumphant, also.

I hardly realized what I had done till I stood abashed before Mrs. Vandyke, and told her I had engaged myself to marry Mr. Allison before he went to Europe. Then it seemed I had done a very good thing. She congratulated me heartily, and, seeing I had a certain fear of taking my aunt into my confidence, promised to sit down and write to her herself, using every encomium she could think of to make this sudden marriage, on my part, seem like the result of reason and wise forethought.

“Such an estimable man! such an old neighbor! so domestic in his tastes! and, oh! so wise to find out and make his own the slyest and most bewildering little beauty that has come into New York this many a season!” These were some of her words, and, though pleasing at the time, they made me think deeply — much more deeply than I wished to, after I went upstairs to my room.

“Estimable! an old neighbor! domestic in his tastes!” Had she said: “Handsome! masterful in his air and spirit! a man to make a girl forget the real end of life and think only of present pleasure!” I should not have had such a fierce reaction. But estimable! Was he estimable? I tried to cry out yes! I tried to keep down the memory of that moment when, with a dozen passions suddenly let loose (one of them fear), he strode by me and locked the door against all help, under an impetus he had tried in vain to explain. Nothing would quiet the still, small voice speaking in my breast, or give to the moment that unalloyed joy which belongs to a young girl’s betrothal. I was afraid. Why?

Mr. Allison never came in the evening, another of his peculiarities. Other men did, but what were other men to me now? This night I pleaded weariness (Mrs. Vandyke understood me), and remained in my room. I wanted to study the face of my lover under the new conditions. Was he in his old seat? Yes. And would he read, as usual, or study? No. He had thoughts of his own to-night, engrossing enough to hold him enthralled without the aid of his ordinary occupations; thoughts, thoughts of me, thoughts which should have cleared his brow and made his face a study of delight to me. But was it so? Alas! I had never seen it so troubled; lit with gleams of hope or happiness by spells, but mostly sunk in depths of profoundest contemplation, which gave to it a melancholy from which I shrank, and not the melancholy one longs to comfort and allay. What was on his mind? What was in his heart? Something he feared to have noted, for suddenly he rose with a start, and, for the first time since my eyes had sought that window, pulled down the shades and thus shut himself out from my view altogether. Was it a rebuke to my insistent watchfulness? or the confession of a reticent nature fearing to be surprised in its moment of weakness? I ought to know — I would know. To-morrow I would ask him if there was any sorrow in his life which a confiding girl ought to be made acquainted with before she yielded him her freedom. But the pang which pierced me at the thought, proved that I feared his answer too much to ever question him.

I am thus explicit in regard to my thoughts and feelings at this time, that I may more fully account to you for what I did later. I had not, what every one else seemed to have, full confidence in this man, and yet the thrall in which I was held by the dominating power of his passion, kept me from seeking that advice even from my own intuitions, which might have led to my preservation. I was blind and knew I was blind, yet rushed on headlong. I asked him no questions till our wedding day.

My aunt, who seemed quite satisfied with Mrs. Vandyke’s explanations, promised to be present at the ceremony, which was set at an alarmingly near day. My lovers on the contrary — by whom I mean the half dozen men who had been attentive to me — refused to attend, so I had one care less; for the lack of time — perhaps I should say my lack of means — precluded me from obtaining a very elaborate wedding dress, and I did not choose to have them see me appear on such an occasion in any less charming guise than I had been accustomed to wear at party or play. He did not care what I wore. When I murmured something about the haste with which he had hurried things forward, and how it was likely to interfere with what most brides considered necessary to the proper celebration of such an event, he caught me to his breast with a feverish gesture and vowed that if he could have his way, there would be no preparation at all, but just a ceremony before a minister which would make me his without the least delay.

Men may enjoy such precipitation, but women do not. I was so troubled by what seemed the meagerness of my wardrobe and the lack of everything I had been accustomed to see brides bring their husbands, that I asked Mrs. Vandyke one day if Mr. Allison was a rich man. She answered, with a smile: “No, my dear, not as we New–Yorkers count riches. Having the power of attorney for Mrs. Ransome, he handles a good deal of money; but very little of it is his own, though to you his five-thousand-a-year salary may seem a fortune.”

This was so much Greek to me, though I did understand he was not considered wealthy.

“Then my fawn-colored cloth will not be so very inappropriate for a wedding dress?” I asked.

“I wish you could see yourself in it,” she said, and that satisfied me.

We were married simply, but to the sound of wonderful music, in a certain little church not far from ——— Street. My aunt was there and my four lovers, though they had said, one and all, they would not come. But I saw nothing, realized nothing, save the feverish anxiety of my bridegroom, who, up to the minute the final vows were uttered, seemed to be on a strain of mingled emotions, among which I seemed to detect that old one of fear. A pitiful outlook for an adoring bride, you will think, who, without real friends to interest themselves in her, allows herself to be pushed to a brink she is wise enough to see, but not strong enough to recoil from. Yes, but its full pathos did not strike me then. I only felt anxious to have the ceremony over, to know that the die was cast beyond my own powers of retraction; and when the words of the benediction at last fell upon my ears, it was with real joy I turned to see if they brought him as much rapture as they did me. Happily for that moment’s satisfaction they did, and if a friend had been there with eyes to see and heart to feel, there would have been nothing in the air of open triumph with which Mr. Allison led me down the aisle to awaken aught but hope and confidence. My own hopes rose at the sight, and when at the carriage door he turned to give me a smile before he helped me in, nothing but the obstinacy of my nature prevented me from accepting the verdict of my acquaintances, “That for a little country girl, with nothing but her good looks to recommend her, Delight Hunter had done remarkably well in the one short month she had been in the city.”

Mr. Allison had told me that it would be impossible for him to take me out of the city at present. It was therefore to the house on ——— Street we were driven. On the way he attempted to reconcile me to what he feared might strike me as dreary in the prospect.

“The house is partially closed,” said he, “and many of the rooms are locked. Even the great drawing-rooms have an uninhabited look, which will make them anything but attractive to a lover of sunshine and comfort; but the library is cheerful, and in that you can sit and imagine yourself at home till lean wind up my business affairs and make possible the trip upon which I have set my heart.”

“Does that mean,” I faintly ventured, “that you will leave me to spend much of my time alone in that great echoing house?”

“No,” was his quick response, “you shall spend no time there alone. When I go out you shall go too, and if business takes me where you cannot accompany me I will give you money to shop with, which will keep you pleasantly occupied till I can rejoin you. Oh, we will make it a happy honeymoon, in spite of all obstacles, my darling. I should be a wretch if I did not make it happy for you.”

Here was my opportunity. I trembled as I thought of it, and stammered quite like a foolish child as I softly suggested:

“For me? Is it not likely to be a happy one for you?

I will not give his answer; it was a passionate one, but it was not convincing. Pondering it and trying to persuade myself he alluded only to business cares and anxieties, I let the minute slip by and entered the house with doubts unsolved, but with no further effort to understand him. Remember, he was thirty-five and I but a chit of eighteen.

In the hall stood the old serving-man with whose appearance I was already so familiar. He had a smile on his face, which formed my only welcome. He also had a napkin over his arm.

“Luncheon is served,” he announced, with great formality; and then I saw through an open door the glitter of china and glass, and realized I was about to take my first meal with my husband.

Mr. Allison had already told me that he intended to make no changes in his domestic arrangements for the few days we were likely to occupy this house. I had therefore expected that our meals would be served from the restaurant, and that Ambrose (the waiting-man) would continue to be the only other occupant of the house. But I was not sure whether the table would be still set for four, or whether he would waive this old custom now that he had a wife to keep him company at the once lonely board. I was eager to know, and as soon as I could lay aside my hat in the little reception-room, I turned my face towards the dining-room door, where my husband stood awaiting me with a bunch of great white roses in his hand.

“Sweets to the sweet,” said he, with a smile that sunk down deep into my heart and made my eyes moisten with joy. In the hackneyed expression there rang nothing false. He was proud and he was glad to see me enter that dining-room as his wife.

The next moment I was before the board, which had been made as beautiful as possible with flowers and the finest of dinner services. But the table was set for four, two of whom could only be present in spirit.

I wondered if I were glad or sorry to see it — if I were more pleased with his loyalty to his absent employer, or disappointed that my presence had not made everybody else forgotten. To be consistent, I should have rejoiced at this evidence of sterling worth on his part; but girls are not consistent — at least, brides of an hour are not — and I may have pouted the least bit in the world as I pointed to the two places set as elaborately as our own, and said with the daring which comes with the rights of a wife:

“It would be a startling coincidence if Mrs. Ransome and her daughter should return today. I fear I would not like it.”

I was looking directly at him as I spoke, with a smile on my lips and my hand on the back of my chair. But the jest I had expected in reply did not come. Something in my tone or choice of topic jarred upon him, and his answer was a simple wave of his hand towards Ambrose, who at once relieved me of my bouquet, placing it in a tall glass at the side of my plate.

“Now we will sit,” said he.

I do not know how the meal would have passed had Ambrose not been present. As it was, it was a rather formal affair, and would have been slightly depressing, if I had not caught, now and then, flashing glances from my husband’s eye which assured me that he found as much to enchain him in my presence as I did in his. What we ate I have no idea of. I only remember that in every course there was enough for four.

As we rose, I was visited by a daring impulse. Ambrose had poured me out a glass of wine, which stood beside my plate undisturbed. As I stooped to recover my flowers again, I saw this glass, and at once lifted it towards him, crying:

“To Mrs. Ransome and her daughter, who did not return to enjoy our wedding-breakfast.”

He recoiled. Yes, I am sure he gave a start back, though he recovered himself immediately and responded with grave formality to my toast.

“Does he not like Mrs. Ransome?” I thought. “Is the somewhat onerous custom he maintains here the result of a sense of duty rather than of liking?”

My curiosity was secretly whetted by the thought. But with a girl’s lightness I began to talk of other things, and first of the house, which I now for the first time looked at with anything like seeing eyes.

He was patient with me, but I perceived he did not enjoy this topic any more than the former one. “It is not ours,” he kept saying; “remember that none of these old splendors are ours.”

“They are more ours than they are Mrs. Ransome’s, just now,” I at last retorted, with one of my girlhood’s saucy looks. “At all events, I am going to play that it is ours tonight,” I added, dancing away from him towards the long drawing-rooms where I hoped to come upon a picture of the absent lady of the house.

“Delight “— he was quite peremptory now —

“I must ask you not to enter those rooms, however invitingly the doors may stand open. It is a notion, a whim of mine, that you do not lend your beauty to light up that ghostly collection of old pictures and ugly upholstery, and if you feel like respecting my wishes ——”

“But may I not stand in the doorway?” I asked, satisfied at having been able to catch a glimpse of a full-length portrait of a lady who could be no other than Mrs. Ransome. “See! my shadow does not even fall across the carpet. I won’t do the room any harm, and I am sure that Mrs. Ransome’s picture won’t do me any.”

“Come! come away!” he cried; and humoring his wishes, I darted away, this time in the direction of the dining-room and Ambrose. “My dear,” remonstrated my husband, quickly following me, “what has brought you back here?”

“I want to see,” said I, “what Ambrose does with the food we did not eat. Such a lot of it!”

It was childish, but then I was a child and a nervous one, too. Perhaps he considered this, for, while he was angry enough to turn pale, he did not attempt any rebuke, but left it to Ambrose to say:

“Mr. Allison is very good, ma’am. This food, which is very nice, is given each day to a poor girl who comes for it, and takes it home to her parents. I put it in this basket, and Mr. Allison gives it to the girl when she calls for it in the evening.”

“You are good,” I cried, turning to my husband with a fond look. Did he think the em-phasis misplaced, or did he consider it time for me to begin to put on more womanly ways, for drawing me again into the library, he made me sit beside him on the big lounge, and after a kiss or two, demanded quietly, but oh, how peremptorily:

“Delight, why do you so often speak of Mrs. Ransome? Have you any reason for it? Has any one talked to you about her, that her name seems to be almost the only one on your lips in the few, short minutes we have been married?”

I did not know why this was so, myself, so I only shook my head and sighed, repentingly. Then, seeing that he would have some reply, I answered with what naiveté I could summon up at the moment:

“I think it was because you seem so ashamed of your devotion to them. I love to see your embarrassment, founded as it is upon the most generous instincts.”

His hand closed over mine with a fierceness that hurt me.

“Let us talk of love,” he whispered. “Delight, this is our wedding-day.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55