Chapter 4 - Thorns Among The Roses
For a time everything went smoothly, and Rose was a happy girl. The world seemed a beautiful and friendly place, and fulfillment of her brightest dreams appeared to be a possibility. Of course this could not last, and disappointment was inevitable, because young eyes look for a Paradise and weep when they find a workaday world which seems full of care and trouble till one learns to gladden and glorify it with high thoughts and holy living.
Those who loved her waited anxiously for the disillusion which must come in spite of all their cherishing, for till now Rose had been so busy with her studies, travels, and home duties that she knew very little of the triumphs, trials, and temptations of fashionable life. Birth and fortune placed her where she could not well escape some of them, and Dr. Alec, knowing that experience is the best teacher, wisely left her to learn this lesson as she must many another, devoutly hoping that it would not be a hard one.
October and November passed rapidly, and Christmas was at hand, with all its merry mysteries, home gatherings, and good wishes.
Rose sat in her own little sanctum, opening from the parlor, busily preparing gifts for the dear five hundred friends who seemed to grow fonder and fonder as the holidays drew near. The drawers of her commode stood open, giving glimpses of dainty trifles, which she was tying up with bright ribbons.
A young girl's face at such moments is apt to be a happy one, but Rose's was very grave as she worked, and now and then she threw a parcel into the drawer with a careless toss, as if no love made the gift precious. So unusual was this expression that it struck Dr. Alec as he came in and brought an anxious look to his eyes, for any cloud on that other countenance dropped its shadow over his.
"Can you spare a minute from your pretty work to take a stitch in my old glove?" he asked, coming up to the table strewn with ribbon, lace, and colored papers.
"Yes, Uncle, as many as you please."
The face brightened with sudden sunshine; both hands were put out to receive the shabby driving glove, and the voice was full of that affectionate alacrity which makes the smallest service sweet.
"My Lady Bountiful is hard at work, I see. Can I help in any way?" he asked, glancing at the display before him.
"No, thank you, unless you can make me as full of interest and pleasure in these things as I used to be. Don't you think preparing presents a great bore, except for those you love and who love you?" she added in a tone which had a slight tremor in it as she uttered the last words.
"I don't give to people whom I care nothing for. Can't do it, especially at Christmas, when goodwill should go into everything one does. If all these 'pretties' are for dear friends, you must have a great many."
"I thought they were friends, but I find many of them are not, and that's the trouble, sir."
"Tell me all about it, dear, and let the old glove go," he said, sitting down beside her with his most sympathetic air.
But she held the glove fast, saying eagerly, "No, no, I love to do this! I don't feel as if I could look at you while I tell what a bad, suspicious girl I am," she added, keeping her eyes on her work.
"Very well, I'm ready for confessions of any iniquity and glad to get them, for sometimes lately I've seen a cloud in my girl's eyes and caught a worried tone in her voice. Is there a bitter drop in the cup that promised to be so sweet, Rose?"
"Yes, Uncle. I've tried to think there was not, but it is there, and I don't like it. I'm ashamed to tell, and yet I want to, because you will show me how to make it sweet or assure me that I shall be the better for it, as you used to do when I took medicine."
She paused a minute, sewing swiftly; then out came the trouble all in one burst of girlish grief and chagrin.
"Uncle, half the people who are so kind to me don't care a bit for me, but for what I can give them, and that makes me unhappy, because I was so glad and proud to be liked. I do wish I hadn't a penny in the world, then I should know who my true friends were."
"Poor little lass! She has found out that all that glitters is not gold, and the disillusion has begun," said the doctor to himself, adding aloud, smiling yet pitiful, "And so all the pleasure is gone out of the pretty gifts and Christmas is a failure?"
"Oh, no not for those whom nothing can make me doubt! It is sweeter than ever to make these things, because my heart is in every stitch and I know that, poor as they are, they will be dear to you, Aunty Plen, Aunt Jessie, Phebe, and the boys."
She opened a drawer where lay a pile of pretty gifts, wrought with loving care by her own hands, touching them tenderly as she spoke and patting the sailor's knot of blue ribbon on one fat parcel with a smile that told how unshakable her faith in someone was. "But these," she said, pulling open another drawer and tossing over its gay contents with an air half sad, half scornful, "these I bought and give because they are expected. These people care only for a rich gift, not one bit for the giver, whom they will secretly abuse if she is not as generous as they expect. How can I enjoy that sort of thing, Uncle?"
"You cannot, but perhaps you do some of them injustice, my dear. Don't let the envy or selfishness of a few poison your faith in all. Are you sure that none of these girls care for you?" he asked, reading a name here and there on the parcels scattered about.
"I'm afraid I am. You see I heard several talking together the other evening at Annabel's, only a few words, but it hurt me very much, for nearly everyone was speculating on what I would give them and hoping it would be something fine. 'She's so rich she ought to be generous,' said one. 'I've been perfectly devoted to her for weeks and hope she won't forget it,' said another. 'If she doesn't give me some of her gloves, I shall think she's very mean, for she has heaps, and I tried on a pair in fun so she could see they fitted and take a hint,' added a third. I did take the hint, you see." And Rose opened a handsome box in which lay several pairs of her best gloves, with buttons enough to satisfy the heart of the most covetous.
"Plenty of silver paper and perfume, but not much love went into that bundle, I fancy?" And Dr. Alec could not help smiling at the disdainful little gesture with which Rose pushed away the box.
"Not a particle, nor in most of these. I have given them what they wanted and taken back the confidence and respect they didn't care for. It is wrong, I know, but I can't bear to think all the seeming goodwill and friendliness I've been enjoying was insincere and for a purpose. That's not the way I treat people."
"I am sure of it. Take things for what they are worth, dear, and try to find the wheat among the tares, for there is plenty if one knows how to look. Is that all the trouble?"
"No, sir, that is the lightest part of it. I shall soon get over my disappointment in those girls and take them for what they are worth as you advise, but being deceived in them makes me suspicious of others, and that is hateful. If I cannot trust people I'd rather keep by myself and be happy. I do detest maneuvering and underhanded plots and plans!"
Rose spoke petulantly and twitched her silk till it broke, while regret seemed to give place to anger as she spoke.
"There is evidently another thorn pricking. Let us have it out, and then I'll kiss the place to make it well as I used to do when I took the splinters from the fingers you are pricking so unmercifully," said the doctor, anxious to relieve his pet patient as soon as possible.
Rose laughed, but the color deepened in her cheeks as she answered with a pretty mixture of maidenly shyness and natural candor.
"Aunt Clara worries me by warning me against half the young men I meet and insisting that they want only my money. Now that is dreadful, and I won't listen, but I can't help thinking of it sometimes, for they are very kind to me and I'm not vain enough to think it is my beauty. I suppose I am foolish, but I do like to feel that I am something besides an heiress."
The little quiver was in Rose's voice again as she ended, and Dr. Alec gave a quick sigh as he looked at the downcast face so full of the perplexity ingenuous spirits feel when doubt first mars their faith and dims the innocent beliefs still left from childhood. He had been expecting this and knew that what the girl just began to perceive and try modestly to tell had long ago been plain to worldlier eyes. The heiress was the attraction to most of the young men whom she met. Good fellows enough, but educated, as nearly all are nowadays, to believe that girls with beauty or money are brought to market to sell or buy as the case may be.
Rose could purchase anything she liked, as she combined both advantages, and was soon surrounded by many admirers, each striving to secure the prize. Not being trained to believe that the only end and aim of a woman's life was a good match, she was a little disturbed, when the first pleasing excitement was over, to discover that her fortune was her chief attraction.
It was impossible for her to help seeing, hearing, guessing this from a significant glance, a stray word, a slight hint here and there, and the quick instinct of a woman felt even before it understood the self-interest which chilled for her so many opening friendships. In her eyes love was a very sacred thing, hardly to be thought of till it came, reverently received and cherished faithfully to the end. Therefore, it is not strange that she shrank from hearing it flippantly discussed and marriage treated as a bargain to be haggled over, with little thought of its high duties, great responsibilities, and tender joys. Many things perplexed her, and sometimes a doubt of all that till now she had believed and trusted made her feel as if at sea without a compass, for the new world was so unlike the one she had been living in that it bewildered while it charmed the novice.
Dr. Alec understood the mood in which he found her and did his best to warn without saddening by too much worldly wisdom.
"You are something besides an heiress to those who know and love you, so take heart, my girl, and hold fast to the faith that is in you. There is a touchstone for all these things, and whatever does not ring true, doubt and avoid. Test and try men and women as they come along, and I am sure conscience, instinct, and experience will keep you from any dire mistake," he said, with a protecting arm about her and a trustful look that was very comforting.
After a moment's pause she answered, while a sudden smile dimpled around her mouth and the big glove went up to hide her telltale cheeks: "Uncle, if I must have lovers, I do wish they'd be more interesting. How can I like or respect men who go on as some of them do and then imagine women can feel honored by the offer of their hands? Hearts are out of fashion, so they don't say much about them."
"Ah, ha! That is the trouble, is it? And we begin to have delicate distresses, do we?" said Dr. Alec, glad to see her brightening and full of interest in the new topic, for he was a romantic old fellow, as he had confessed to his brother.
Rose put down the glove and looked up with a droll mixture of amusement and disgust in her face. "Uncle, it is perfectly disgraceful! I've wanted to tell you, but I was ashamed, because I never could boast of such things as some girls do, and they were so absurd I couldn't feel as if they were worth repeating even to you. Perhaps I ought, though, for you may think it proper to command me to make a good match, and of course I should have to obey," she added, trying to look meek.
"Tell, by all means. Don't I always keep your secrets and give you the best advice, like a model guardian? You must have a confidant, and where find a better one than here?" he asked, tapping his waistcoat with an inviting gesture.
"Nowhere so I'll tell all but the names. I'd best be prudent, for I'm afraid you may get a little fierce you do sometimes when people vex me," began Rose, rather liking the prospect of a confidential chat with Uncle, for he had kept himself a good deal in the background lately.
"You know our ideas are old-fashioned, so I was not prepared to have men propose at all times and places with no warning but a few smiles and soft speeches. I expected things of that sort would be very interesting and proper, not to say thrilling, on my part but they are not, and I find myself laughing instead of crying, feeling angry instead of glad, and forgetting all about it very soon. Why, Uncle, one absurd boy proposed when we'd met only half a dozen times. But he was dreadfully in debt, so that accounted for it perhaps." And Rose dusted her fingers, as if she had soiled them.
"I know him, and I thought he'd do it," observed the doctor with a shrug.
"You see and know everything, so there's no need of going on, is there?"
"Do, do! Who else? I won't even guess."
"Well, another went down upon his knees in Mrs. Van's greenhouse and poured forth his passion manfully, with a great cactus pricking his poor legs all the while. Kitty found him there, and it was impossible to keep sober, so he has hated me ever since."
The doctor's "Ha! Ha!" was good to hear, and Rose joined him, for it was impossible to regard these episodes seriously, since no true sentiment redeemed them from absurdity.
"Another sent me reams of poetry and went on so Byronically that I began to wish I had red hair and my name was Betsy Ann. I burnt all the verses, so don't expect to see them, and he, poor fellow, is consoling himself with Emma. But the worst of all was the one who would make love in public and insisted on proposing in the middle of a dance. I seldom dance round dances except with our boys, but that night I did because the girls laughed at me for being so 'prudish,' as they called it. I don't mind them now, for I found I was right, and felt that I deserved my fate."
"Is that all?" asked her uncle, looking "fierce," as she predicted, at the idea of his beloved girl obliged to listen to a declaration, twirling on the arm of a lover.
"One more but him I shall not tell about, for I know he was in earnest and really suffered, though I was as kind as I knew how to be. I'm young in these things yet, so I grieved for him, and treat his love with the tenderest respect."
Rose's voice sank almost to a whisper as she ended, and Dr. Alec bent his head, as if involuntarily saluting a comrade in misfortune. Then he got up, saying with a keen look into the face he lifted by a finger under the chin: "Do you want another three months of this?"
"I'll tell you on New Year's Day, Uncle."
"Very well. Try to keep a straight course, my little captain, and if you see dirty weather ahead, call on your first mate."
"Aye, aye, sir. I'll remember."