Fourth and final part of a four-part short story, entitled only “Episodes” written by Sibyl (Croly) (Hanchett) (Schneller), probably during her late teens or early twenties. Unpublished.
They sat on the front porch. If that front porch could only speak! Just now the poor old thing shivered, for the atmosphere was decidely chilly. Conversation wandered aimlessly about, as if seeking a safe and comfortable resting place for its weary old bones. Finally it stopped and gazed helplessly from one to the other of the inhospitable pair.
The boy broke the silence. “What is the matter, girl?” he asked. “We were such good friends when I went away — at least I thought so. Anyhow, I expected more than a careles ‘Good evening’ and a cool handshake after I hadn’t seen you for months. I never thought you would forget an old friend like that.
“I don’t forget old friends.” She emphasized the “I”.
“You don’t mean to imply that I do,” he said hotly.
“I am sure I don’t know whether you do or not,” this in the tone of one willing to be convinced.
“Why, I thought of you all summer,” was the reply.
The girl thought of the long summer, of the long, long waiting for the letter which had not come, and laughed softly, jeeringly. “How did I know you were thinking of me?” she demanded.
“Well, I didn’t have time to write many letters,” he pleaded.
The hot blood rose from her heart and obscured her traditions of a lady’s serene dignity. “You had time to write to her!” she said bitterly, which was a mistake. Most of the bitterness was already swift contempt for her own petty recrimination, but how should he know that? For once he found no answer ready, and realizing that she gained nothing from his discomfiture, she came to the rescue of her forlorn dignity and the situation. With her outer voice she said, “I am sorry I said that. Of course it is your privilege to write to whomever you please. Anyhow, I’ll take your word for it that you didn’t forget me, and we wont quarrel about it now,” and she gave a frank laugh. In her heart an inner voice was saying, “He thought I cared for him, and he didn’t want to encourage me. That is why he wrote to her and not to me.”
Speaking one thing and thinking another may be handy at times, but it has its disadvantages. One is that, though the upper words may sound genuine, the sub-conscious effect upon the listener is of the thought under those words. So her well-meant attempt to ease the situation failed lamely, and both were uneasily conscious of the fact. Never before had there been any constraint in their talking together, and his uneasy silence hurt her. The actress in her rose to the occasion and her next words rang true.
“Oh, I want to tell you the truth!” she cried passionately, and the inner voice became silent.
“Well, I wish you would,” he said in a tone which told of his perlexity.
“This is the way of it,” she began, like a child, “You know, last spring you and I were very good friends. I have a foolish habit, quite like a school-girl, of gushing more or less about people I admire. I made no secret of my genuine liking for you, and the girls, most of whom are incapable of understading Platonics, entirely mistook its nature. They all thought I cared — the other way, and they knew you didn’t care for me, and of course I have been the object of friendly pity ___.”
“Oh!” he ejaculated, and the real contrition he felt for having been the innocent cause of such annoyance to her showed in his voice, and stung her through her acting. But she had begun and there was no drawing back now.
“So,” she continued, “that coolness I assumed when I first saw you tonight was largely for the benefit of the girls who were here, and incidentally for your own benefit in case you should have any such ideas as they had. I am sorry if I overdid it.”
“Well, if I ever had had such an idea your behavior tonight would certainly have shown me its fallacy,” he answered a trifle coolly, “but it was hardly necessary.”
The inner voice mused, “I wonder if he is acting, too.”
After an hour more of clever and friendly acting he arose to go. The inner voice had been behaving tolerably well, but now it rose imperative, “He must not go like this! He must not go like this!” The girl stood silent.
He was saying, “I mustn’t keep you out in the cold any longer, much as I would like to stay.” She appreciated his consideration for her but wished it would take some other form than his leaving her.
“He must not go like this!” Then in a whisper, “The summerhouse.”
Perhaps in tense moments the whisper of the inner voice makes itself heard. However that may be, a little miracle happened. “I had hoped,” he ventured tentatively, “to see that historic summerhouse that I’ve heard so much about. I’m sorry it’s too cold for you…”
“It’s a good old world after all,” sang the little voice gladly (poor little voice, it takes so little to make you sing) and she silently led the way to the summerhouse.
Now the summerhouse is a vine-clad, lattice-walled affair and the moonlight falls in flecks on the floor. Therein are two rocking chairs and it is a suitable situation for confidences. Not quite without reason had he called it historic. It is redolent of associations. Perhaps it was the atmosphere of the place which colored his next remark.
“Girl, tell me this one thing. Why do you twist boys around your little finger and then toss them away?”
The girl broke a twig from the honeysuckle vine, carefully stripped it of leaves, broke it to pieces, and parried the question. “I don’t do it. You see, a girl can’t tell at first whether anyone she meets is going to be — the one. So she has to experiment a little — just to find out. Then if, after experimenting, she discovers that he isn’t the one, is it her fault? And then people call her a flirt!” All this in an injured and pathetic tone, which evoked his rare, low laugh.
The sudden laugh left him serious. “Do you know, girl,” he said, “that it was that very reputation you had of playing with fellows and throwing them away that kept me from — oh, I was nearer it than you will ever know.”
For once the inner voice leaped out from her lips. “Oh, I wish you had!” she cried, but had presence of mind enough to endeaver to nullify the incautious remark by a laugh.
“How well you say it!” he exclaimed, in mock admiration, which, if he understood, was very kind.
The inner voice wailed, “I wish he would go! I want to be alone now.”
She had a dim hurt recollection afterward of having made clever remarks and of hearing him laugh and of wondering to hear her own laugh. He did not stay long — perhaps he did, though. The inner voice drowned the passing of the minutes.
After he had gone, she went into the house. There was a vague surprise at finding it the same as it had been long ago — before he said, “I was nearer to it than you will ever know.” There was numbness, there was the beginning of a long ache, but there was yet no stinging pain — that was to come.