by Louisa May Alcott
“Handsome is that handsome does.”
Once upon a time there raged in a certain city one of those fashionable epidemics which occasionally attack our youthful population. It wasn’t the music mania, nor gymnastic convulsions, nor that wide-spread malady, croquet. Neither was it one of the new dances which, like a tarantula-bite, set every one a twirling, nor stage madness, nor yet that American lecturing influenza which yearly sweeps over the land. No, it was a new disease called the Art fever, and it attacked the young women of the community with great violence.
Nothing but time could cure it, and it ran its course to the dismay, amusement, or edification of the beholders, for its victims did all manner of queer things in their delirium. They begged potteries for clay, drove Italian plaster-corkers out of their wits with unexecutable orders got neuralgia and rheumatism sketching perched on fences and trees like artistic hens, and caused a rise in the price of bread, paper, and charcoal, by their ardor in crayoning. They covered canvas with the expedition of scene-painters, had classes, lectures, receptions, and exhibitions, made models of each other, and rendered their walls hideous with bad likenesses of all their friends. Their conversation ceased to be intelligible to the uninitiated, and they prattled prettily of “chiaro oscuro, French sauce, refraction of the angle of the eye, seventh spinus process, depth and juiciness of color, tender touch, and a good tone.” Even in dress the artistic disorder was visible; some cast aside crinoline altogether, and stalked about with a severe simplicity of outline worthy of Flaxman. Others flushed themselves with scarlet, that no landscape which they adorned should be without some touch of Turner’s favorite tint. Some were blue in every sense of the word, and the heads of all were adorned with classic braids, curls tied Hebe-wise, or hair dressed a la hurricane.
It was found impossible to keep them safe at home, and, as the fever grew, these harmless maniacs invaded the sacred retreats where artists of the other sex did congregate, startling those anchorites with visions of large-eyed damsels bearing portfolios in hands delicately begrimed with crayon, chalk, and clay, gliding through the corridors hitherto haunted only by shabby paletots, shadowy hats, and cigar smoke. This irruption was borne with manly fortitude, not to say cheerfulness, for studio doors stood hospitably open as the fair invaders passed, and studies from life were generously offered them in glimpses of picturesque gentlemen posed before easels, brooding over master-pieces in “a divine despair,” or attitudinizing upon couches as if exhausted by the soarings of genius.
An atmosphere of romance began to pervade the old buildings when the girls came, and nature and art took turns. There were peepings and whisperings, much stifled laughter and whisking in and out; not to mention the accidental rencontres, small services, and eye telegrams, which somewhat lightened the severe studies of all parties.
Half a dozen young victims of this malady met daily in one of the cells of a great art beehive called “Raphael’s Rooms,” and devoted their shining hours to modelling fancy heads, gossiping the while; for the poor things found the road to fame rather dull and dusty without such verbal sprinklings.
“Psyche Dean, you’ve had an adventure! I see it in your face; so tell it at once, for we are stupid as owls here to-day,” cried one of the sisterhood, as a bright-eyed girl entered with some precipitation.
“I dropped my portfolio, and a man picked it up, that’s all.” replied Psyche, hurrying on her gray linen pinafore.
“That won’t do; I know something interesting happened, for you’ve been blushing, and you look brisker than usual this morning,” said the first speaker, polishing off the massive nose of her Homer.
“It wasn’t anything,” began Psyche a little reluctantly. “I was coming up in a hurry when I ran against a man coming down in a hurry. My portfolio slipped, and my papers went flying all about the landing. Of course we both laughed and begged pardon, and I began to pick them up, but he wouldn’t let me; so I held the book while he collected the sketches. I saw him glance at them as he did so, and that made me blush, for they are wretched things, you know.”
“Not a bit of it; they are capital, and you are a regular genius, as we all agree,” cut in the Homeric Miss Cutter.
“Never tell people they are geniuses unless you wish to spoil them,” returned Psyche severely. “Well, when the portfolio was put to rights I was going on, but he fell to picking up a little bunch of violets I had dropped; you know I always wear a posy into town to give me inspiration. I didn’t care for the dusty flowers, and told him so, and hurried away before any one came. At the top of the stairs I peeped over the railing, and there he was, gathering up every one of those half-dead violets as carefully as if they had been tea-roses.”
“Psyche Dean, you have met your fate this day!” exclaimed a third damsel, with straw-colored tresses, and a good deal of weedy shrubbery in her hat, which gave an Ophelia-like expression to her sentimental countenance.
Psyche frowned and shook her head, as if half sorry she had told her little story.
“Was he handsome?” asked Miss Larkins, the believer in fate.
“I didn’t particularly observe.”
“It was the red-headed man, whom we call Titian: he’s always on the stairs.”
“No, it wasn’t; his hair was brown and curly,” cried Psyche, innocently falling into the trap.
“Like Peerybingle’s baby when its cap was taken off,” quoted Miss Dickenson, who pined to drop the last two letters of her name.
“Was it Murillo, the black-eyed one?” asked the fair Cutter, for the girls had a name for all the attitudinizers and promenaders whom they oftenest met.
“No, he had gray eyes, and very fine ones they were too,” answered Psyche, adding, as if to herself, “he looked as I imagine Michael Angelo might have looked when young.”
“Had he a broken nose, like the great Mike?” asked an irreverent damsel.
“If he had, no one would mind it, for his head is splendid; he took his hat off, so I had a fine view. He isn’t handsome, but he’ll do something,” said Psyche, prophetically, as she recalled the strong, ambitious face which she had often observed, but never mentioned before.
“Well, dear, considering that you didn’t ‘particularly look’ at the man, you’ve given us a very good idea of his appearance. We’ll call him Michael Angelo, and he shall be your idol. I prefer stout old Rembrandt myself, and Larkie adores that dandified Raphael,” said the lively Cutter, slapping away at Homer’s bald pate energetically, as she spoke.
“Raphael is a dear, but Rubens is more to my taste now,” returned Miss Larkins. “He was in the hall yesterday talking with Sir Joshua, who had his inevitable umbrella, like a true Englishman. Just as I came up, the umbrella fell right before me. I started back; Sir Joshua laughed, but Rubens said, ‘Deuce take it!’ and caught up the umbrella, giving me a never-to-be-forgotten look. It was perfectly thrilling.”
“Which,–the umbrella, the speech, or the look?” asked Psyche, who was not sentimental.
“Ah, you have no soul for art in nature, and nature in art,” sighed the amber-tressed Larkins. “I have, for I feed upon a glance, a tint, a curve, with exquisite delight. Rubens is adorable (as a study); that lustrous eye, that night of hair, that sumptuous cheek, are perfect. He only needs a cloak, lace collar, and slouching hat to be the genuine thing.”
“This isn’t the genuine thing by any means. What does it need?” said Psyche, looking with a despondent air at the head on her stand.
Many would have pronounced it a clever thing; the nose was strictly Greek, the chin curved upward gracefully, the mouth was sweetly haughty, the brow classically smooth and low, and the breezy hair well done. But something was wanting; Psyche felt that, and could have taken her Venus by the dimpled shoulders, and given her a hearty shake, if that would have put strength and spirit into the lifeless face.
“Now I am perfectly satisfied with my Apollo, though you all insist that it is the image of Theodore Smythe. He says so himself, and assures me it will make a sensation when we exhibit,” remarked Miss Larkins, complacently caressing the ambrosial locks of her Smythified Phebus.
“What shall you do if it does not?” asked Miss Cutter, with elegance.
“I shall feel that I have mistaken my sphere, shall drop my tools, veil my bust, and cast myself into the arms of Nature, since Art rejects me;” replied Miss Larkins, with a tragic gesture and an expression which strongly suggested that in her eyes nature meant Theodore.
“She must have capacious arms if she is to receive all Art’s rejected admirers. Shall I be one of them?”
Psyche put the question to herself as she turned to work, but somehow ambitious aspirations were not in a flourishing condition that morning; her heart was not in tune, and head and hands sympathized. Nothing went well, for certain neglected home-duties had dogged her into town, and now worried her more than dust, or heat, or the ceaseless clatter of tongues. Tom, Dick, and Harry’s unmended hose persisted in dancing a spectral jig before her mental eye, mother’s querulous complaints spoilt the song she hummed to cheer herself, and little May’s wistful face put the goddess of beauty entirely out of countenance.
“It’s no use; I can’t work till the clay is wet again. Where is Giovanni?” she asked, throwing down her tools with a petulant gesture and a dejected air.
“He is probably playing truant in the empty upper rooms, as usual. I can’t wait for him any longer, so I’m doing his work myself,” answered Miss Dickenson, who was tenderly winding a wet bandage round her Juno’s face, one side of which was so much plumper than the other that it looked as if the Queen of Olympus was being hydropathically treated for a severe fit of ague.
“I’ll go and find the little scamp; a run will do me good; so will a breath of air and a view of the park from the upper windows.”
Doffing her apron, Psyche strolled away up an unfrequented staircase to the empty apartments, which seemed to be too high even for the lovers of High Art. On the western side they were shady and cool, and, leaning from one of the windows, Psyche watched the feathery tree-tops ruffled by the balmy wind, that brought spring odors from the hills, lying green and sunny far away. Silence and solitude were such pleasant companions that the girl forgot herself, till a shrill whistle disturbed her day-dreams, and reminded her what she came for. Following the sound she found the little Italian errand-boy busily uncovering a clay model which stood in the middle of a scantily furnished room near by.
“He is not here; come and look; it is greatly beautiful,” cried Giovanni, beckoning with an air of importance.
Psyche did look and speedily forgot both her errand and herself. It was the figure of a man, standing erect, and looking straight before him with a wonderfully lifelike expression. It was neither a mythological nor a historical character, Psyche thought, and was glad of it, being tired to death of gods and heroes. She soon ceased to wonder what it was, feeling only the indescribable charm of something higher than beauty. Small as her knowledge was, she could see and enjoy the power visible in every part of it; the accurate anatomy of the vigorous limbs, the grace of the pose, the strength and spirit in the countenance, clay though it was. A majestic figure, but the spell lay in the face, which, while it suggested the divine, was full of human truth and tenderness, for pain and passion seemed to have passed over it, and a humility half pathetic, a courage half heroic seemed to have been born from some great loss or woe.
How long she stood there Psyche did not know. Giovanni went away unseen, to fill his water-pail, and in the silence she just stood and looked. Her eyes kindled, her color rose, despondency and discontent vanished, and her soul was in her face, for she loved beauty passionately, and all that was best and truest in her did honor to the genius of the unknown worker.
“If I could do a thing like that, I’d die happy!” she exclaimed impetuously, as a feeling of despair came over her at the thought of her own poor attempts.
“Who did it, Giovanni?” she asked, still looking up at the grand face with unsatisfied eyes.
It was not the boy’s voice, and, with a start, Psyche turned to see her Michael Angelo, standing in the doorway, attentively observing her. Being too full of artless admiration to think of herself just yet, she neither blushed nor apologized, but looked straight at him, saying heartily,–
“You have done a wonderful piece of work, and I envy you more than I can tell!”
The enthusiasm in her face, the frankness of her manner, seemed to please him, for there was no affectation about either. He gave her a keen, kind glance out of the “fine gray eyes,” a little bow, and a grateful smile, saying quietly,–“Then my Adam is not a failure in spite of his fall?”
Psyche turned from the sculptor to his model with increased admiration in her face, and earnestness in her voice, as she exclaimed delighted,–
“Adam! I might have known it was he. O sir, you have indeed succeeded, for you have given that figure the power and pathos of the first man who sinned and suffered, and began again.”
“Then I am satisfied.” That was all he said, but the look he gave his work was a very eloquent one, for it betrayed that he had paid the price of success in patience and privation, labor and hope.
“What can one do to learn your secret?” asked the girl wistfully, for there was nothing in the man’s manner to disturb her self-forgetful mood, but much to foster it, because to the solitary worker this confiding guest was as welcome as the doves who often hopped in at his window.
“Work and wait, and meantime feed heart, soul, and imagination with the best food one can get,” he answered slowly, finding it impossible to give a receipt for genius.
“I can work and wait a long time to gain my end; but I don’t know where to find the food you speak of?” she answered, looking at him like a hungry child.
“I wish I could tell you, but each needs different fare, and each must look for it in different places.”
The kindly tone and the sympathizing look, as well as the lines in his forehead, and a few gray hairs among the brown, gave Psyche courage to say more.
“I love beauty so much that I not only want to possess it myself, but to gain the power of seeing it in all things, and the art of reproducing it with truth. I have tried very hard to do it, but something is wanting; and in spite of my intense desire I never get on.”
As she spoke the girl’s eyes filled and fell in spite of herself, and turning a little with sudden shamefacedness she saw, lying on the table beside her among other scraps in manuscript and print, the well-known lines,–
“I slept, and dreamed that life was beauty;
I woke, and found that life was duty.
Was thy dream then a shadowy lie?
Toil on, sad heart, courageously,
And thou shall find thy dream to be
A noonday light and truth to thee.”
She knew them at a glance, had read them many times, but now they came home to her with sudden force, and, seeing that his eye had followed hers, she said in her impulsive fashion.–
“Is doing one’s duty a good way to feed heart, soul, and imagination?”
As if he had caught a glimpse of what was going on in her mind, Paul answered emphatically,–
“Excellent; for if one is good, one is happy, and if happy, one can work well. Moulding character is the highest sort of sculpture, and all of us should learn that art before we touch clay or marble.”
He spoke with the energy of a man who believed what he said, and did his best to be worthy of the rich gift bestowed upon him. The sight of her violets in a glass of water, and Giovanni staring at her with round eyes, suddenly recalled Psyche to a sense of the proprieties which she had been innocently outraging for the last ten minutes. A sort of panic seized her; she blushed deeply, retreated precipitately to the door, and vanished, murmuring thanks and apologies as she went.
“Did you find him? I thought you had forgotten,” said Miss Dickenson, now hard at work.
“Yes, I found him. No, I shall not forget,” returned Psyche, thinking of Gage, not Giovanni.
She stood before her work eying it intently for several minutes; then, with an expression of great contempt for the whole thing, she suddenly tilted her cherished Venus on to the floor, gave the classical face a finishing crunch, and put on her hat in a decisive manner, saying briefly to the dismayed damsels,–
“Good-by, girls; I shan’t come any more, for I’m going to work at home hereafter.”
The prospect of pursuing artistic studies at home was not brilliant, as one may imagine when I mention that Psyche’s father was a painfully prosaic man, wrapt in flannel, so to speak; for his woollen mills left him no time for anything but sleep, food, and newspapers. Mrs. Dean was one of those exasperating women who pervade their mansions like a domestic steam-engine one week and take to their sofas the next, absorbed by fidgets and foot-stoves, shawls and lamentations. There were three riotous and robust young brothers, whom it is unnecessary to describe except by stating that they were boys in the broadest sense of that delightful word. There was a feeble little sister, whose patient, suffering face demanded constant love and care to mitigate the weariness of a life of pain. And last, but not least by any means, there were two Irish ladies, who, with the best intentions imaginable, produced a universal state of topsy-turviness when left to themselves for a moment.
But being very much in earnest about doing her duty, not because it was her duty, but as a means toward an end, Psyche fell to work with a will, hoping to serve both masters at once. So she might have done, perhaps, if flesh and blood had been as plastic as clay, but the live models were so exacting in their demands upon her time and strength, that the poor statues went to the wall. Sculpture and sewing, calls and crayons, Ruskin and receipt-books, didn’t work well together, and poor Psyche found duties and desires desperately antagonistic. Take a day as a sample.
“The washing and ironing are well over, thank goodness, mother quiet, the boys out of the way, and May comfortable, so I’ll indulge myself in a blissful day after my own heart,” Psyche said, as she shut herself into her little studio, and prepared to enjoy a few hours of hard study and happy day-dreams.
With a book on her lap, and her own round white arm going through all manner of queer evolutions, she was placidly repeating, “Deltoides, Biceps, Triceps, Pronator, Supinator, Palmanis, Flexor carpi ulnaris–”
“Here’s Flexis what-you-call-ums for you,” interrupted a voice, which began in a shrill falsetto and ended in a gruff bass, as a flushed, dusty, long-legged boy burst in, with a bleeding hand obligingly extended for inspection.
“Mercy on us, Harry! what have you done to yourself now? Split your fingers with a cricket-ball again?” cried Psyche, as her arms went up and her book went down.
“I just thrashed one of the fellows because he got mad and said father was going to fail.”
“O Harry, is he?”
“Of course he isn’t! It’s hard times for every one, but father will pull through all right. No use to try and explain it all; girls can’t understand business; so you just tie me up, and don’t worry,” was the characteristic reply of the young man, who, being three years her junior, of course treated the weaker vessel with lordly condescension.
“What a dreadful wound! I hope nothing is broken, for I haven’t studied the hand much yet, and may do mischief doing it up,” said Psyche, examining the great grimy paw with tender solicitude.
“Much good your biceps, and deltoids, and things do you, if you can’t right up a little cut like that,” squeaked the ungrateful hero.
“I’m not going to be a surgeon, thank heaven; I intend to make perfect hands and arms, not mend damaged ones,” retorted Psyche, in a dignified tone, somewhat marred by a great piece of court-plaster on her tongue.
“I should say a surgeon could improve that perfect thing, if he didn’t die a-laughing before he began,” growled Harry, pointing with a scornful grin at a clay arm humpy with muscles, all carefully developed in the wrong places.
“Don’t sneer, Hal, for you don’t know anything about it. Wait a few years and see if you’re not proud of me.”
“Sculp away and do something, then I’ll hurrah for your mud-pies like a good one;” with which cheering promise the youth left, having effectually disturbed his sister’s peaceful mood.
Anxious thoughts of her father rendered “biceps, deltoids, and things” uninteresting, and hoping to compose her mind, she took up The Old Painters and went on with the story of Claude Lorraine. She had just reached the tender scene where,–
“Calista gazed with enthusiasm, while she looked like a being of heaven rather than earth. ‘My friend,’ she cried, ‘I read in thy picture thy immortality!’ As she spoke, her head sunk upon his bosom, and it was several moments before Claude perceived that he supported a lifeless form.”
“How sweet!” said Psyche, with a romantic sigh.
“Faith, and swate it is, thin!” echoed Katy, whose red head had just appeared round the half opened door. “It’s gingy-bread I’m making the day, miss, and will I be puttin’ purlash or sallyrathis into it, if ye plase?”
“Purlash, by all means,” returned the girl, keeping her countenance, fearing to enrage Katy by a laugh; for the angry passions of the red-haired one rose more quickly than her bread.
As she departed with alacrity to add a spoonful of starch and a pinch of whiting to her cake, Psyche, feeling better for her story and her smile, put on her bib and paper cap and fell to work on the deformed arm. An hour of bliss, then came a ring at the door-bell, followed by Biddy to announce callers, and add that as “the mistress was in her bed, miss must go and take care of ’em.” Whereat “miss” cast down her tools in despair, threw her cap one way, her bib another, and went in to her guests with anything but a rapturous welcome.
Dinner being accomplished after much rushing up and down stairs with trays and messages for Mrs. Dean, Psyche fled again to her studio, ordering no one to approach under pain of a scolding. All went well till, going in search of something, she found her little sister sitting on the floor with her cheek against the studio door.
“I didn’t mean to be naughty, Sy, but mother is asleep, and the boys all gone, so I just came to be near you; it’s so lonely everywhere,” she said, apologetically, as she lifted up the heavy head that always ached.
“The boys are very thoughtless. Come in and stay with me; you are such a mouse you won’t disturb me. Wouldn’t you like to play be a model and let me draw your arm, and tell you all about the nice little bones and muscles?” asked Psyche, who had the fever very strong upon her just then.
May didn’t look as if the proposed amusement overwhelmed her with delight, but meekly consented to be perched upon a high stool with one arm propped up by a dropsical plaster cherub, while Psyche drew busily, feeling that duty and pleasure were being delightfully combined.
“Can’t you hold your arm still, child? It shakes so I can’t get it right,” she said, rather impatiently.
“No, it will tremble ’cause it’s weak. I try hard, Sy, but there doesn’t seem to be much strongness in me lately.”
“That’s better; keep it so a few minutes and I’ll be done,” cried the artist, forgetting that a few minutes may seem ages.
“My arm is so thin you can see the bunches nicely,–can’t you?”
Psyche glanced up at the wasted limb, and when she drew again there was a blur before her eyes for a minute.
“I wish I was as fat as this white boy; but I get thinner every day somehow, and pretty soon there won’t be any of me left but my little bones,” said the child, looking at the winged cherub with sorrowful envy.
“Don’t, my darling; don’t say that,” cried Psyche, dropping her work with a sudden pang at her heart. “I’m a sinful, selfish girl to keep you here! you’re weak for want of air; come out and see the chickens, and pick dandelions, and have a good romp with the boys.”
The weak arms were strong enough to clasp Psyche’s neck, and the tired face brightened beautifully as the child exclaimed, with grateful delight,–
“Oh, I’d like it very much! I wanted to go dreadfully; but everybody is so busy all the time. I don’t want to play, Sy; but just to lie on the grass with my head in your lap while you tell stories and draw me pretty things as you used to.”
The studio was deserted all that afternoon, for Psyche sat in the orchard drawing squirrels on the wall, pert robins hopping by, buttercups and mosses, elves and angels; while May lay contentedly enjoying sun and air, sisterly care, and the “pretty things” she loved so well. Psyche did not find the task a hard one; for this time her heart was in it, and if she needed any reward she surely found it; for the little face on her knee lost its weary look, and the peace and beauty of nature soothed her own troubled spirit, cheered her heart, and did her more good than hours of solitary study.
Finding, much to her own surprise, that her fancy was teeming with lovely conceits, she did hope for a quiet evening. But mother wanted a bit of gossip, father must have his papers read to him, the boys had lessons and rips and grievances to be attended to, May’s lullaby could not be forgotten, and the maids had to be looked after, lest burly “cousins” should be hidden in the boiler, or lucifer matches among the shavings. So Psyche’s day ended, leaving her very tired, rather discouraged, and almost heart-sick with the shadow of a coming sorrow.
All summer she did her best, but accomplished very little, as she thought; yet this was the teaching she most needed, and in time she came to see it. In the autumn May died, whispering, with her arms about her sister’s neck,–
“You make me so happy, Sy, I wouldn’t mind the pain if I could stay a little longer. But if I can’t, good-by, dear, good-by.”
Her last look and word and kiss were all for Psyche, who felt then with grateful tears that her summer had not been wasted; for the smile upon the little dead face was more to her than any marble perfection her hands could have carved.
In the solemn pause which death makes in every family, Psyche said, with the sweet self-forgetfulness of a strong yet tender nature,–
“I must not think of myself, but try to comfort them;” and with this resolution she gave herself heart and soul to duty, never thinking of reward.
A busy, anxious, humdrum winter, for, as Harry said, “it was hard times for every one.” Mr. Dean grew gray with the weight of business cares about which he never spoke; Mrs. Dean, laboring under the delusion that an invalid was a necessary appendage to the family, installed herself in the place the child’s death left vacant, and the boys needed much comforting, for the poor lads never knew how much they loved “the baby” till the little chair stood empty. All turned to Sy for help and consolation, and her strength seemed to increase with the demand upon it. Patience and cheerfulness, courage and skill came at her call like good fairies who had bided their time. Housekeeping ceased to be hateful, and peace reigned in parlor and kitchen while Mrs. Dean, shrouded in shawls, read Hahnemann’s Lesser Writings on her sofa. Mr. Dean sometimes forgot his mills when a bright face came to meet him, a gentle hand smoothed the wrinkles out of his anxious forehead, and a daughterly heart sympathized with all his cares. The boys found home very pleasant with Sy always there ready to “lend a hand,” whether it was to make fancy ties, help conjugate “a confounded verb,” pull candy, or sing sweetly in the twilight when all thought of little May and grew quiet.
The studio door remained locked till her brothers begged Psyche to open it and make a bust of the child. A flush of joy swept over her face at the request, and her patient eyes grew bright and eager, as a thirsty traveller’s might at the sight or sound of water. Then it faded as she shook her head, saying with a regretful sigh, “I’m afraid I’ve lost the little skill I ever had.”
But she tried, and with great wonder and delight discovered that she could work as she had never done before. She thought the newly found power lay in her longing to see the little face again; for it grew like magic under her loving hands, while every tender memory, sweet thought, and devout hope she had ever cherished, seemed to lend their aid. But when it was done and welcomed with tears and smiles, and praise more precious than any the world could give, then Psyche said within herself, like one who saw light at last,–
“He was right; doing one’s duty is the way to feed heart, soul, and imagination; for if one is good, one is happy, and if happy, one can work well.”
“She broke her head and went home to come no more,” was Giovanni’s somewhat startling answer when Paul asked about Psyche, finding that he no longer met her on the stairs or in the halls. He understood what the boy meant, and with an approving nod turned to his work again, saying, “I like that! If there is any power in her, she has taken the right way to find it out, I suspect.”
How she prospered he never asked; for, though he met her more than once that year, the interviews were brief ones in street, concert-room, or picture-gallery, and she carefully avoided speaking of herself. But, possessing the gifted eyes which can look below the surface of things, he detected in the girl’s face something better than beauty, though each time he saw it, it looked older and more thoughtful, often anxious and sad.
“She is getting on,” he said to himself with a cordial satisfaction which gave his manner a friendliness as grateful to Psyche as his wise reticence.
Adam was finished at last, proved a genuine success, and Paul heartily enjoyed the well-earned reward for years of honest work. One blithe May morning, he slipped early into the art-gallery, where the statue now stood, to look at his creation with paternal pride. He was quite alone with the stately figure that shone white against the purple draperies and seemed to offer him a voiceless welcome from its marble lips. He gave it one loving look, and then forgot it, for at the feet of his Adam lay a handful of wild violets, with the dew still on them. A sudden smile broke over his face as he took them up, with the thought, “She has been here and found my work good.”
For several moments he stood thoughtfully turning the flowers to and fro in his hands; then, as if deciding some question within himself, he said, still smiling,–
“It is just a year since she went home; she must have accomplished something in that time; I’ll take the violets as a sign that I may go and ask her what.”
He knew she lived just out of the city, between the river and the mills, and as he left the streets behind him, he found more violets blooming all along the way like flowery guides to lead him right. Greener grew the road, balmier blew the wind, and blither sang the birds, as he went on, enjoying his holiday with the zest of a boy, until he reached a most attractive little path winding away across the fields. The gate swung invitingly open, and all the ground before it was blue with violets. Still following their guidance he took the narrow path, till, coming to a mossy stone beside a brook, he sat down to listen to the blackbirds singing deliciously in the willows over head. Close by the stone, half hidden in the grass lay a little book, and, taking it up he found it was a pocket-diary. No name appeared on the fly-leaf, and, turning the pages to find some clue to its owner, he read here and there enough to give him glimpses into an innocent and earnest heart which seemed to be learning some hard lesson patiently. Only near the end did he find the clue in words of his own, spoken long ago, and a name. Then, though longing intensely to know more, he shut the little book and went on, showing by his altered face that the simple record of a girl’s life had touched him deeply.
Soon an old house appeared nestling to the hillside with the river shining in the low green meadows just before it.
“She lives there,” he said, with as much certainty as if the pansies by the door-stone spelt her name, and, knocking, he asked for Psyche.
“She’s gone to town, but I expect her home every minute. Ask the gentleman to walk in and wait, Katy,” cried a voice from above, where the whisk of skirts was followed by the appearance of an inquiring eye over the banisters.
The gentleman did walk in, and while he waited looked about him. The room, though very simply furnished, had a good deal of beauty in it, for the pictures were few and well chosen, the books such as never grow old, the music lying on the well-worn piano of the sort which is never out of fashion, and standing somewhat apart was one small statue in a recess full of flowers. Lovely in its simple grace and truth was the figure of a child looking upward as if watching the airy flight of some butterfly which had evidently escaped from the chrysalis still lying in the little hand.
Paul was looking at it with approving eyes when Mrs. Dean appeared with his card in her hand, three shawls on her shoulders, and in her face a somewhat startled expression, as if she expected some novel demonstration from the man whose genius her daughter so much admired.
“I hope Miss Psyche is well,” began Paul, with great discrimination if not originality.
The delightfully commonplace remark tranquillized Mrs. Dean at once, and, taking off the upper shawl with a fussy gesture, she settled herself for a chat.
“Yes, thank heaven, Sy is well. I don’t know what would become of us if she wasn’t. It has been a hard and sorrowful year for us with Mr. Dean’s business embarrassments, my feeble health, and May’s death. I don’t know that you were aware of our loss, sir;” and unaffected maternal grief gave sudden dignity to the faded, fretful face of the speaker.
Paul murmured his regrets, understanding better now the pathetic words on a certain tear-stained page of the little book still in his pocket.
“Poor dear, she suffered everything, and it came very hard upon Sy, for the child wasn’t happy with any one else, and almost lived in her arms,” continued Mrs. Dean, dropping the second shawl to get her handkerchief.
“Miss Psyche has not had much time for art-studies this year, I suppose?” said Paul, hoping to arrest the shower, natural as it was.
“How could she with two invalids, the housekeeping, her father and the boys to attend to? No, she gave that up last spring, and though it was a great disappointment to her at the time, she has got over it now, I hope,” added her mother, remembering as she spoke that Psyche even now went about the house sometimes pale and silent, with a hungry look in her eyes.
“I am glad to hear it,” though a little shadow passed over his face as Paul spoke, for he was too true an artist to believe that any work could be as happy as that which he loved and lived for. “I thought there was much promise in Miss Psyche, and I sincerely believe that time will prove me a true prophet,” he said, with mingled regret and hope in his voice, as he glanced about the room, which betrayed the tastes still cherished by the girl.
“I’m afraid ambition isn’t good for women; I mean the sort that makes them known by coming before the public in any way. But Sy deserves some reward, I’m sure, and I know she’ll have it, for a better daughter never lived.”
Here the third shawl was cast off, as if the thought of Psyche, or the presence of a genial guest had touched Mrs. Dean’s chilly nature with a comfortable warmth.
Further conversation was interrupted by the avalanche of boys which came tumbling down the front stairs, as Tom, Dick, and Harry shouted in a sort of chorus,–
“Sy, my balloon has got away; lend us a hand at catching him!”
“Sy, I want a lot of paste made, right off.”
“Sy, I’ve split my jacket down the back; come sew me up, there’s a dear!”
On beholding a stranger the young gentlemen suddenly lost their voices, found their manners, and with nods and grins took themselves away as quietly as could be expected of six clumping boots and an unlimited quantity of animal spirits in a high state of effervescence. As they trooped off, an unmistakable odor of burnt milk pervaded the air, and the crash of china, followed by an Irish wail, caused Mrs. Dean to clap on her three shawls again and excuse herself in visible trepidation.
Paul laughed quietly to himself, then turned sober and said, “Poor Psyche!” with a sympathetic sigh. He roamed about the room impatiently till the sound of voices drew him to the window to behold the girl coming up the walk with her tired old father leaning on one arm, the other loaded with baskets and bundles, and her hands occupied by a remarkably ugly turtle.
“Here we are!” cried a cheery voice, as they entered without observing the new-comer. “I’ve done all my errands and had a lovely time. There is Tom’s gunpowder, Dick’s fishhooks, and one of Professor Gazzy’s famous turtles for Harry. Here are your bundles, mother dear, and, best of all, here’s father home in time for a good rest before dinner. I went to the mill and got him.”
Psyche spoke as if she had brought a treasure; and so she had, for though Mr. Dean’s face usually was about as expressive as the turtle’s, it woke and warmed with the affection which his daughter had fostered till no amount of flannel could extinguish it. His big hand patted her cheek very gently as he said, in a tone of fatherly love and pride,–
“My little Sy never forgets old father, does she?”
“Good gracious me, my dear, there’s such a mess in the kitchen! Katy’s burnt up the pudding, put castor-oil instead of olive in the salad, smashed the best meat-dish, and here’s Mr. Gage come to dinner,” cried Mrs. Dean in accents of despair as she tied up her head in a fourth shawl.
“Oh, I’m so glad; I’ll go in and see him a few minutes, and then I’ll come and attend to everything; so don’t worry, mother.”
“How did you find me out?” asked Psyche as she shook hands with her guest and stood looking up at him with all the old confiding frankness in her face and manner.
“The violets showed me the way.”
She glanced at the posy in his button-hole and smiled.
“Yes, I gave them to Adam, but I didn’t think you would guess. I enjoyed your work for an hour to-day, and I have no words strong enough to express my admiration.”
“There is no need of any. Tell me about yourself: what have you been doing all this year?” he asked, watching with genuine satisfaction the serene and sunny face before him, for discontent, anxiety, and sadness were no longer visible there.
“I’ve been working and waiting,” she began.
“And succeeding, if I may believe what I see and hear and read,” he said, with an expressive little wave of the book as he laid it down before her.
“My diary! I didn’t know I had lost it. Where did you find it?”
“By the brook where I stopped to rest. The moment I saw your name I shut it up. Forgive me, but I can’t ask pardon for reading a few pages of that little gospel of patience, love, and self-denial.”
She gave him a reproachful look, and hurried the telltale book out of sight as she said, with a momentary shadow on her face,–
“It has been a hard task; but I think I have learned it, and am just beginning to find that my dream is ‘a noonday light and truth,’ to me.”
“Then you do not relinquish your hopes, and lay down your tools?” he asked, with some eagerness.
“Never! I thought at first that I could not serve two masters, but in trying to be faithful to one I find I am nearer and dearer to the other. My cares and duties are growing lighter every day (or I have learned to bear them better), and when my leisure does come I shall know how to use it, for my head is full of ambitious plans, and I feel that I can do something now.”
All the old enthusiasm shone in her eyes, and a sense of power betrayed itself in voice and gesture as she spoke.
“I believe it,” he said heartily. “You have learned the secret, as that proves.”
Psyche looked at the childish image as he pointed to it, and into her face there came a motherly expression that made it very sweet.
“That little sister was so dear to me I could not fail to make her lovely, for I put my heart into my work. The year has gone, but I don’t regret it, though this is all I have done.”
“You forget your three wishes; I think the year has granted them.”
“What were they?”
“To possess beauty in yourself, the power of seeing it in all things, and the art of reproducing it with truth.”
She colored deeply under the glance which accompanied the threefold compliment, and answered with grateful humility,–
“You are very kind to say so; I wish I could believe it.” Then, as if anxious to forget herself, she added rather abruptly,–
“I hear you think of giving your Adam a mate,–have you begun yet?”
“Yes, my design is finished, all but the face.”
“I should think you could image Eve’s beauty, since you have succeeded so well with Adam’s.”
“The features perhaps, but not the expression. That is the charm of feminine faces, a charm so subtile that few can catch and keep it. I want a truly womanly face, one that shall be sweet and strong without being either weak or hard. A hopeful, loving, earnest face with a tender touch of motherliness in it, and perhaps the shadow of a grief that has softened but not saddened it.”
“It will be hard to find a face like that.”
“I don’t expect to find it in perfection; but one sometimes sees faces which suggest all this, and in rare moments give glimpses of a lovely possibility.”
“I sincerely hope you will find one then,” said Psyche, thinking of the dinner.
“Thank you; I think I have.”
Now, in order that every one may be suited, we will stop here, and leave our readers to finish the story as they like. Those who prefer the good old fashion may believe that the hero and heroine fell in love, were married, and lived happily ever afterward. But those who can conceive of a world outside of a wedding-ring may believe that the friends remained faithful friends all their lives, while Paul won fame and fortune, and Psyche grew beautiful with the beauty of a serene and sunny nature, happy in duties which became pleasures, rich in the art which made life lovely to herself and others, and brought rewards in time.