[Editor’s Note: Every so often you come across stories that really want to be shared. Often they’re still under copyright, which means sharing can cost money … but sometimes you luck into stories that are old enough to have passed into the public domain. This is one of those stories.]
From STORIES THAT END WELL, By Octave Thanet, NEW YORK, GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS, Originally copyright © 1911, The Bobbs-Merrill Company (now Public Domain)
The Stout Miss Hopkins’ Bicycle
There was a skeleton in Mrs. Margaret Ellis’ closet; the same skeleton abode also in the closet of Miss Lorania Hopkins.
The skeleton—which really does not seem a proper word—was the dread of growing stout. They were more afraid of flesh than of sin. Yet they were both good women. Mrs. Ellis regularly attended church, and could always be depended on to show hospitality to convention delegates, whether clerical or lay; she was a liberal subscriber to every good work; she was almost the only woman in the church aid society that never lost her temper at the soul-vexing time of the church fair; and she had a larger clientele of regular pensioners than any one in town, unless it were her friend, Miss Hopkins, who was “so good to the poor” that never a tramp slighted her kitchen. Miss Hopkins was as amiable as Mrs. Ellis, and always put her name under that of Mrs. Ellis, with exactly the same amount, on the subscription papers. She could have given more, for she had the larger income; but she had no desire to outshine her friend, whom she admired as the most charming of women.
Mrs. Ellis, indeed, was agreeable as well as good, and a pretty woman to the bargain, if she did not choose to be weighed before people. Miss Hopkins often told her that she was not really stout; she merely was a plump, trim little figure. Miss Hopkins, alas! was really stout. The two waged a warfare against the flesh equal to the apostle’s in vigor, although so much less deserving of praise.
Mrs. Ellis drove her cook to distraction with divers dieting systems, from Banting’s and Doctor Salisbury’s to the latest exhortations of some unknown newspaper prophet. She bought elaborate gymnastic appliances, and swung dumbbells and rode imaginary horses and propelled imaginary boats. She ran races with a professional trainer, and she studied the principles of Delsarte, and solemnly whirled on one foot and swayed her body and rolled her head and hopped and kicked and genuflected in company with eleven other stout and earnest matrons and one slim and giggling girl who almost choked at every lesson. In all these exercises Miss Hopkins faithfully kept her company, which was the easier, as Miss Hopkins lived in the next house, a conscientious Colonial mansion with all the modern conveniences hidden beneath the old-fashioned pomp.
And yet, despite these struggles and self-denials, it must be told that Margaret Ellis and Lorania Hopkins were little thinner for their warfare. Still, as Shuey Cardigan, the trainer, told Mrs. Ellis, there was no knowing what they might have weighed had they not struggled.
“It ain’t only the fat that’s on ye, moind ye,” says Shuey, with a confidential sympathy of mien; ‘”it’s what ye’d naturally be getting in addition. And first ye’ve got to peel off that, and then ye come down to the other.”
Shuey was so much the most successful of Mrs. Ellis’ reducers that his words were weighty. And when at last Shuey said, “I got what you need,” Mrs. Ellis listened. “You need a bike, no less,” says Shuey.
“But I never could ride one!” said Margaret, opening her pretty brown eyes and wrinkling her Grecian forehead.
“You’d ride in six lessons,” pronounced Shuey.
“But how would I look, Cardigan?”
“You’d look noble, ma’am!”
“What do you consider the best wheel, Cardigan?”
Fear of being accused of advertising prevents my giving Cardigan’s answer; it is enough that the wheel glittered at Mrs. Ellis’ door the very next day, and that a large pasteboard box was delivered by the expressman the very next week. He went on to Miss Hopkins’, and delivered the twin of the box, with a similar yellow printed card bearing the impress of the same great firm on the inside of the box cover. For Margaret had hied her to Lorania Hopkins the instant Shuey was gone. She presented herself breathless, a little to the embarrassment of Lorania, who was sitting with her niece before a large box of cracker-jack.
“It’s a new kind of candy; I was just tasting it, Maggie,” faltered she, while the niece, a girl of nineteen, with the inhuman spirits of her age, laughed aloud.
“You needn’t mind me,” said Mrs. Ellis cheerfully; “I’m eating potatoes now!”
“Oh, Maggie!” Miss Hopkins breathed the words between envy and disapproval.
Mrs. Ellis tossed her brown head airily, not a whit abashed. “And I had beer for luncheon, and I’m going to have champagne for dinner.”
“Maggie, how do you dare? Did they—did they taste good?”
“They tasted heavenly, Lorania. Pass me the candy. I am going to try something new—the thinningest thing there is. I read in the paper of one woman who lost forty pounds in three months, and is losing still!”
“If it is obesity pills, I—”
“It isn’t; it’s a bicycle. Lorania, you and I must ride! Sibyl Hopkins, you heartless child, what are you laughing at?”
Lorania rose; in the glass over the mantel her figure returned her gaze. There was no mistake (except that, as is often the case with stout people, that glass always increased her size), she was a stout lady. She was taller than the average of women, and well proportioned, and still light on her feet; but she could not blink away the records; she was heavy on the scales. Did she stand looking at herself squarely, her form was shapely enough, although larger than she could wish; but the full force of the revelation fell when she allowed herself a profile view, she having what is called “a round waist,” and being almost as large one way as another. Yet Lorania was only thirty-three years old, and was of no mind to retire from society, and have a special phaeton built for her use, and hear from her mother’s friends how much her mother weighed before her death.
“How should I look on a wheel?” she asked, even as Mrs. Ellis had asked before; and Mrs. Ellis stoutly answered, “You’d look noble!”
“Shuey will teach us,” she went on, “and we can have a track made in your pasture, where nobody can see us learning. Lorania, there’s nothing like it. Let me bring you the bicycle edition of Harper’s Bazar.”
Miss Hopkins capitulated at once, and sat down to order her costume, while Sibyl, the niece, revelled silently in visions of a new bicycle which should presently revert to her. “For it’s ridiculous, auntie’s thinking of riding!” Miss Sibyl considered. “She would be a figure of fun on a wheel; besides, she can never learn in this world!”
Yet Sibyl was attached to her aunt, and enjoyed visiting Hopkins Manor, as Lorania had named her new house, into which she moved on the same day that she joined the Colonial Dames, by right of her ancestor the great and good divine commemorated by Mrs. Stowe. Lorania’s friends were all fond of her, she was so good-natured and tolerant, with a touch of dry humor in her vision of things, and not the least a Puritan in her frank enjoyment of ease and luxury. Nevertheless, Lorania had a good, able-bodied New England conscience, capable of staying awake nights without flinching; and perhaps from her stanch old Puritan forefathers she inherited her simple integrity, so that she neither lied nor cheated—even in the small whitewashed manner of her sex—and valued loyalty above most of the virtues. She had an innocent pride in her godly and martial ancestry, which was quite on the surface, and led people who did not know her to consider her haughty.
For fifteen years she had been an orphan, the mistress of a very large estate. No doubt she had been sought often in marriage, but never until lately had Lorania seriously thought of marrying. Sibyl said that she was too unsentimental to marry. Really she was too romantic. She had a longing to be loved, not in the quiet, matter-of-fact manner of her suitors, but with the passion of the poets. Therefore the presence of another skeleton in Mrs. Ellis’ closet, because she knew about a certain handsome Italian marquis who at this period was conducting an impassioned wooing by mail. Margaret did not fancy the marquis. He was not an American. He would take Lorania away. She thought his very virtue florid, and suspected that he had learned his love-making in a bad school. She dropped dark hints that frightened Lorania, who would sometimes piteously demand, “Don’t you think he could care for me—for—for myself?”
Margaret knew that she had an overweening distrust of her own appearance. How many tears she had shed first and last over her unhappy plumpness it would be hard to reckon. She made no account of her satin skin, or her glossy black hair, or her lustrous violet eyes with their long black lashes, or her flashing white teeth; she glanced dismally at her shape and scornfully at her features, good, honest, irregular American features, that might not satisfy a Greek critic, but suited each other and pleased her countrymen. And then she would sigh heavily over her figure. Her friend had not the heart to impute the marquis’ beautiful, artless compliments to mercenary motives. After all, the Italian was a good fellow, according to the point of view of his own race, if he did intend to live on his wife’s money, and had a very varied assortment of memories of women.
But Margaret dreaded and disliked him all the more for his good qualities. To-day this secret apprehension flung a cloud over the bicycle enthusiasm. She could not help wondering whether at this moment Lorania was not thinking of the marquis, who rode a wheel and a horse admirably.
“Aunt Lorania,” said Sibyl, “there comes Mr. Winslow. Shall I run out and ask him about those cloth-of-gold roses? The aphides are eating them all up.”
“Yes, to be sure, dear; but don’t let Ferguson suspect what you are talking of; he might feel hurt.”
Ferguson was the gardener. Miss Hopkins left her note to go to the window. Below she saw a mettled horse, with tossing head and silken skin, restlessly fretting on his bit and pawing the dust in front of the fence, while his rider, hat in hand, talked with the young girl. He was a little man, a very little man, in a gray business suit of the best cut and material. An air of careful and dainty neatness was diffused about both horse and rider. He bent toward Miss Sibyl’s charming person a thin, alert, fair face. His head was finely shaped, the brown hair worn away a little on the temples. He smiled gravely at intervals; the smile told that he had a dimple in his cheek.
“I wonder,” said Mrs. Ellis, “whether Mr. Winslow can have a penchant for Sibyl?”
Lorania opened her eyes. At this moment Mr. Winslow had caught sight of her at the window, and he bowed almost to his saddle-bow; Sibyl was saying something at which she laughed, and he visibly reddened. It was a peculiarity of his that his color turned easily. In a second his hat was on his head and his horse bounded half across the road.
“Hardly, I think,” said Lorania. “How well he rides! I never knew any one ride better—in this country.”
“I suppose Sibyl would ridicule such a thing,” said Mrs. Ellis, continuing her own train of thought, and yet vaguely disturbed by the last sentence.
“Why should she?”
“Well, he is so little, for one thing, and she is so tall. And then Sibyl thinks a great deal of social position.”
“He is a Winslow,” said Lorania, arching her neck unconsciously—”a lineal descendant from Kenelm Winslow, who came over in the May—”
“But his mother—”
“I don’t know anything about his mother before she came here. Oh, of course I know the gossip that she was a niece of the overseer at a village poorhouse, and that her husband quarrelled with all his family and married her in the poorhouse, and I know that when he died here she would not take a cent from the Winslows, nor let them have the boy. She is the meekest-looking little woman, but she must have an iron streak in her somewhere, for she was left without enough money to pay the funeral expenses, and she educated the boy and accumulated enough money to pay for this place they have.
“She used to run a laundry, and made money; but when Cyril got a place in the bank she sold out the laundry and went into chickens and vegetables; she told somebody that it wasn’t so profitable as the laundry, but it was more genteel, and Cyril being now in a position of trust at the bank, she must consider him. Cyril swept out the bank. People laughed about it, but, do you know, I rather liked Mrs. Winslow for it. She isn’t in the least an assertive woman. How long have we been up here, Maggie? Isn’t it four years? And they have been our next-door neighbors, and she has never been inside the house. Nor he either, for that matter, except once when it took fire, you know, and he came in with that funny little chemical engine tucked under his arm, and took off his hat in the same prim, polite way that he takes it off when he talks to Sibyl, and said, ‘If you’ll excuse me offering advice, Miss Hopkins, it is not necessary to move anything; it mars furniture very much to move it at a fire. I think, if you will allow me, I can extinguish this.’ And he did, too, didn’t he, as neatly and as coolly as if it were only adding up a column of figures. And offered me the engine as a souvenir of the occasion afterward.”
“Lorania, you never told me that!”
“It seemed like making fun of him, when he had been so kind. I declined as civilly as I could. I hope I didn’t hurt his feelings. I meant to pay a visit to his mother and ask them to dinner, but you know I went to England that week, and somehow when I came back it was difficult. It seems a little odd we never have seen more of the Winslows, but I fancy they don’t want either to intrude or to be intruded on. But he is certainly very obliging about the garden. Think of all the slips and flowers he has given us, and the advice—”
“All passed over the fence. It is funny our neighborly good offices which we render at arm’s-length. How long have you known him?”
“Oh, a long time. He is cashier of my bank, you know. First he was teller, then assistant cashier, and now for five years he has been cashier. The president wants to resign and let him be president, but he hardly has enough stock for that. But Oliver says” (Oliver was Miss Hopkins’ brother) “that there isn’t a shrewder or straighter banker in the state. Oliver likes him. He says he is a sandy little fellow.”
“Well, he is,” assented Mrs. Ellis. “It isn’t many cashiers would let robbers stab them and shoot them and leave them for dead rather than give up the combination of the safe!”
“He wouldn’t take a cent for it, either, and he saved ever so many thousand dollars. Yes, he is brave. I went to the same school with him once, and saw him fight a big boy twice his size—such a nasty boy, who called me ‘Fatty,’ and made a kissing noise with his lips just to scare me—and poor little Cyril Winslow got awfully beaten, and when I saw him on the ground, with his nose bleeding and that big brute pounding him, I ran to the water-bucket, and poured the whole bucket on that big bullying boy and stopped the fight, just as the teacher got on the scene. I cried over little Cyril Winslow. He was crying himself. ‘I ain’t crying because he hurt me,’ he sobbed; ‘I’m crying because I’m so mad I didn’t lick him!’ I wonder if he remembers that episode?”
“Perhaps,” said Mrs. Ellis.
“Maggie, what makes you think he is falling in love with Sibyl?”
Mrs. Ellis laughed. “I dare say he isn’t in love with Sibyl,” said she. “I think the main reason was his always riding by here instead of taking the shorter road down the other street.”
“Does he always ride by here? I hadn’t noticed.”
“Always!” said Mrs. Ellis. “I had noticed.”
“I am sorry for him,” said Lorania, musingly. “I think Sibyl is very much taken with that young Captain Carr at the Arsenal. Young girls always affect the army. He is a nice fellow, but I don’t think he is the man Winslow is. Now, Maggie, advise me about the suit. I don’t want to look like the escaped fat lady of a museum.”
Lorania thought no more of Sibyl’s love affairs. If she thought of the Winslows, it was to wish that Mrs. Winslow would sell or rent her pasture, which, in addition to her own and Mrs. Ellis’ pastures thrown into one, would make such a delightful bicycle track.
The Winslow house was very different from the two villas that were the pride of Fairport. A little story and a half cottage peeped out on the road behind the tall maples that were planted when Winslow was a boy. But there was a wonderful green velvet lawn, and the tulips and sweet peas and pansies that blazed softly nearer the house were as beautiful as those over which Miss Lorania’s gardener toiled and worried.
Mrs. Winslow was a little woman who showed the fierce struggle of her early life only in the deeper lines between her delicate eyebrows and the expression of melancholy patience in her brown eyes.
She always wore a widow’s cap and a black gown. In the mornings she donned a blue figured apron of stout and serviceable stuff; in the afternoon, an apron of that sheer white lawn used by bishops and smart young waitresses. Of an afternoon, in warm weather, she was accustomed to sit on the eastern piazza, next to the Hopkins place, and rock as she sewed. She was thus sitting and sewing when she beheld an extraordinary procession cross the Hopkins lawn. First marched the tall trainer, Shuey Cardigan, who worked by day in the Lossing furniture factory, and gave bicycle lessons at the armory evenings. He was clad in a white sweater and buff leggings, and was wheeling a lady’s bicycle. Behind him walked Miss Hopkins in a gray suit, the skirt of which only came to her ankles—she, always so dignified in her toilets.
“Land’s sakes!” gasped Mrs. Winslow, “if she ain’t going to ride a bike! Well, what next?”
What really happened next was the sneaking (for no other word does justice to the cautious and circuitous movements of her) of Mrs. Winslow to the stable, which had one window facing the Hopkins pasture. No cows were grazing in the pasture. All around the grassy plateau twinkled a broad brownish-yellow track. At one side of this track a bench had been placed, and a table, pleasing to the eye, with jugs and glasses. Mrs. Ellis, in a suit of the same undignified brevity and ease as Miss Hopkins’, sat on the bench supporting her own wheel. Shuey Cardigan was drawn up to his full six feet of strength, and, one arm in the air, was explaining the theory of the balance of power. It was an uncanny moment to Lorania. She eyed the glistening, restless thing that slipped beneath her hand, and her fingers trembled. If she could have fled in secret she would. But since flight was not possible, she assumed a firm expression. Mrs. Ellis wore a smile of studied and sickly cheerfulness.
“Don’t you think it is very high?” said Lorania. “I can never get up on it!”
“It will be by the block at first,” said Shuey, in the soothing tones of a jockey to a nervous horse; “it’s easy by the block. And I’ll be steadying it, of course.”
“Don’t they have any with larger saddles? It is a very small saddle.”
“They’re all of a size. It wouldn’t look sporty larger; it would look like a special make. Yous wouldn’t want a special make.”
Lorania thought that she would be thankful for a special make, but she suppressed the unsportsmanlike thought. “The pedals are very small, too, Cardigan. Are you sure they can hold me?”
“They could hold two of ye, Miss Hopkins. Now sit aisy and graceful as ye would on your chair at home, hold the shoulders back, and toe in a bit on the pedals—ye won’t be skinning your ankles so much then—and hold your foot up ready to get the other pedal. Hold light on the steering-bar. Push off hard. Now!”
“Will you hold me? I’m going—Oh, it’s like riding an earthquake!”
Here Shuey made a run, letting the wheel have its own wild way—to teach the balance. “Keep the front wheel under you!” he cried cheerfully. “Niver mind where you go. Keep a-pedalling; whatever you do, keep a-pedalling!”
“But I haven’t got but one pedal!” gasped the rider.
“Ye lost it?”
“No; I never had but one! Oh, don’t let me fall!”
“Oh, ye lost it in the beginning; now, then, I’ll hold it steady, and you get both feet right. Here we go!”
Swaying frightfully from side to side, and wrenched from capsizing the wheel by the full exercise of Shuey’s great muscles, Miss Hopkins reeled over the track. At short intervals she lost her pedals, and her feet, for some strange reason, instead of seeking the lost, simply curled up as if afraid of being hit. She gripped the steering-handles with an iron grasp, and her turns were such as an engine makes. Nevertheless Shuey got her up the track for some hundred feet, and then by a herculean sweep turned her round and rolled her back to the block. It was at this painful moment, when her whole being was concentrated on the effort to keep from toppling against Shuey, and even more to keep from toppling away from him, that Lorania’s strained gaze suddenly fell on the frightened and sympathetic face of Mrs. Winslow. The good woman saw no fun in the spectacle, but rather an awful risk to life and limb. Their eyes met. Not a change passed over Miss Hopkins’ features; but she looked up as soon as she was safe on the ground, and smiled. In a moment, before Mrs. Winslow could decide whether to run or to stand her ground, she saw the cyclist approaching—on foot.
“Won’t you come in and sit down?” she said, smiling. “We are trying our new wheels.”
And because she did not know how to refuse, Mrs. Winslow suffered herself to be handed over the fence. She sat on the bench beside Miss Hopkins in the prim attitude which had pertained to gentility in her youth, her hands loosely clasping each other, her feet crossed at the ankles.
“It’s an awful sight, ain’t it?” she breathed, “those little shiny things; I don’t see how you ever git on them.”
“I don’t,” said Miss Hopkins. “The only way I shall ever learn to start off is to start without the pedals. Does your son ride, Mrs. Winslow?”
“No, ma’am,” said Mrs. Winslow; “but he knows how. When he was a boy nothing would do but he must have a bicycle, one of those things most as big as a mill wheel, and if you fell off you broke yourself somewhere, sure. I always expected he’d be brought home in pieces. So I don’t think he’d have any manner of difficulty. Why, look at your friend; she’s most riding alone!”
“She could always do everything better than I,” cried Lorania, with ungrudging admiration. “See how she jumps off! Now I can’t jump off any more than I can jump on. It seems so ridiculous to be told to press hard on the pedal on the side where you want to jump, and swing your further leg over first, and cut a kind of figure eight with your legs, and turn your wheel the way you don’t want to go—all at once. While I’m trying to think of all those directions I always fall off. I got that wheel only yesterday, and fell before I even got away from the block. One of my arms looks like a Persian ribbon.”
Mrs. Winslow cried out in unfeigned sympathy. She wished Miss Hopkins would use her linament that she used for Cyril when he was hurt by the burglars at the bank; he was bruised “terrible.”
“That must have been an awful time to you,” said Lorania, looking with more interest than she had ever felt on the meek little woman; and she noticed the tremble in the decorously clasped hands.
“Yes, ma’am,” was all she said.
“I’ve often looked over at you on the piazza, and thought how cozy you looked. Mr. Winslow always seems to be home evenings.”
“Yes, ma’am. We sit a great deal on the piazza. Cyril’s a good boy; he wa’n’t nine when his father died; and he’s been like a man helping me. There never was a boy had such willing little feet. And he’d set right there on the steps and pat my slipper and say what he’d git me when he got to earning money; and he’s got me every last thing, foolish and all, that he said. There’s that black satin gown, a sin and a shame for a plain body like me, but he would git it. Cyril’s got a beautiful disposition, too, jest like his pa’s, and he’s a handy man about the house, and prompt at his meals. I wonder sometimes if Cyril was to git married if his wife would mind his running over now and then and setting with me awhile.”
She was speaking more rapidly, and her eyes strayed wistfully over to the Hopkins piazza, where Sibyl was sitting with the young soldier. Lorania looked at her pityingly.
“Why, surely,” said she.
“Mothers have kinder selfish feelings,” said Mrs. Winslow, moistening her lips and drawing a quick breath, still watching the girl on the piazza. “It’s so sweet and peaceful for them, they forget their sons may want something more. But it’s kinder hard giving all your little comforts up at once when you’ve had him right with you so long, and could cook just what he liked, and go right into his room nights if he coughed. It’s all right, all right, but it’s kinder hard. And beautiful young ladies that have had everything all their lives might—might not understand that a homespun old mother isn’t wanting to force herself on them at all when they have company, and they have no call to fear it.”
There was no doubt, however obscure the words seemed, that Mrs. Winslow had a clear purpose in her mind, nor that she was tremendously in earnest. Little blotches of red dabbled her cheeks, her breath came more quickly, and she swallowed between her words. Lorania could see the quiver in the muscles of her throat. She clasped her hands tight lest they should shake. “He is in love with Sibyl,” thought Lorania. “The poor woman!” She felt sorry for her, and she spoke gently and reassuringly:
“No girl with a good heart can help feeling tenderly toward her husband’s mother.”
Mrs. Winslow nodded. “You’re real comforting,” said she. She was silent a moment, and then said, in a different tone: “You ain’t got a large enough track. Wouldn’t you like to have our pasture too?”
Lorania expressed her gratitude, and invited the Winslows to see the practice.
“My niece will come out to-morrow,” she said, graciously.
“Yes? She is a real fine-appearing young lady,” said Mrs. Winslow.
Both the cyclists exulted. Neither of them, however, was prepared to behold the track made and the fence down the very next morning when they came out, about ten o’clock, to the west side of Miss Hopkins’ boundaries.
“As sure as you live, Maggie,” exclaimed Lorania, eagerly, “he’s got it all done! Now, that is something like a lover. I only hope his heart won’t be bruised as black and blue as I am with the wheel!”
“Shuey says the only harm your falls do you is to take away your confidence,” said Mrs. Ellis.
“He wouldn’t say so if he could see my knees!” retorted Miss Hopkins.
Mrs. Ellis, it will be observed, sheered away from the love affairs of Mr. Cyril Winslow. She had not yet made up her mind. And Mrs. Ellis, who had been married, did not jump at conclusions regarding the heart of man so readily as her spinster friend. She preferred to talk of the bicycle. Nor did Miss Hopkins refuse the subject. To her at this moment the most important object on the globe was the shining machine which she would allow no hand but hers to oil and dust. Both Mrs. Ellis and she were simply prostrated (as to their mental powers) by this new sport. They could not think nor talk nor read of anything but the wheel.
Between their accidents, they obtained glimpses of an exquisite exhilaration. And there was also to be counted the approval of their consciences, for they felt that no Turkish bath could wring out moisture from their systems like half an hour’s pumping at the bicycle treadles. Lorania during the month had ridden through one bottle of liniment and two of witch hazel, and by the end of the second bottle could ride a short distance alone. But Lorania could not yet dismount unassisted, and several times she had felled poor Winslow to the earth when he rashly adventured to stop her. Captain Carr had a peculiar, graceful fling of the arm, catching the saddle bar with one hand while he steadied the handles with the other. He did not hesitate in the least to grab Lorania’s belt if necessary. But poor modest Winslow, who fell upon the wheel and dared not touch the hem of a lady’s bicycle skirt, was as one in the path of a cyclone, and appeared daily in a fresh pair of white trousers.
“Yous have now,” Shuey remarked impressively, one day—”yous have now arrived at the most difficult and dangerous period in learning the wheel. It’s similar to a baby when it’s first learned to walk but ain’t yet got sense in walking. When it was little it would stay put wherever ye put it, and it didn’t know enough to go by itself, which is similar to you. When I was holding ye you couldn’t fall, but now you’re off alone depindent on yourself, object-struck by every tree, taking most of the pasture to turn in, and not able to git off save by falling—”
“Oh, couldn’t you go with her somehow?” exclaimed Mrs. Winslow, appalled at the picture. “Wouldn’t a rope round her be some help? I used to put it round Cyril when he was learning to walk.”
“Well, no, ma’am,” said Shuey, patiently. “Don’t you be scared; the riding will come; she’s getting on grandly. And ye should see Mr. Winslow. ‘Tis a pleasure to teach him. He rode in one lesson. I ain’t learning him nothing but tricks now.”
“But, Mr. Winslow, why don’t you ride here—with us?” said Sibyl, with her coquettish and flattering smile. “We’re always hearing of your beautiful riding. Are we never to see it?”
“I think Mr. Winslow is waiting for that swell English cycle suit that I hear about,” said the captain, grinning; and Winslow grew red to his eyelids.
Lorania gave an indignant side glance at Sibyl. Why need the girl make game of an honest man who loved her? Sibyl was biting her lips and darting side glances at the captain. She called the pasture practice slow, but she seemed, nevertheless, to enjoy herself sitting on the bench, the captain on one side and Winslow on the other, rattling off her girlish jokes, while her aunt and Mrs. Ellis, with the anxious, set faces of the beginner, were pedalling frantically after Cardigan. Lorania began to pity Winslow, for it was growing plain to her that Sibyl and the captain understood each other. She thought that even if Sibyl did care for the soldier, she need not be so careless of Winslow’s feelings. She talked with the cashier herself, trying to make amends for Sibyl’s absorption in the other man, and she admired the fortitude that concealed the pain that he must feel. It became quite the expected thing for the Winslows to be present at the practice; but Winslow had not yet appeared on his wheel. He used to bring a box of candy with him, or rather three boxes—one for each lady, he said—and a box of peppermints for his mother. He was always very attentive to his mother.
“And fancy, Aunt Margaret,” laughed Sibyl, “he has asked both auntie and me to the theater. He is not going to compromise himself by singling one of us out. He’s a careful soul. By the way, Aunt Margaret, Mrs. Winslow was telling me yesterday that I am the image of auntie at my age. Am I? Do I look like her? Was she as slender as I?”
“Almost,” said Mrs. Ellis, who was not so inflexibly truthful as her friend.
“No, Sibyl,” said Lorania, with a deep, deep sigh, “I was always plump; I was a chubby child! And oh, what do you think I heard in the crowd at Manly’s once? One woman said to another, ‘Miss Hopkins has got a wheel.’ ‘Miss Sibyl?’ said the other. ‘No; the stout Miss Hopkins,’ said the first creature; and the second—” Lorania groaned.
“What did she say to make you feel that way?”
“She said—she said, ‘Oh, my!'” answered Lorania, with a dying look.
“Well, she was horrid,” said Mrs. Ellis; “but you know you have grown thin. Come on; let’s ride!”
“I never shall be able to ride,” said Lorania, gloomily. “I can get on, but I can’t get off. And they’ve taken off the brake, so I can’t stop. And I’m object-struck by everything I look at. Some day I shall look down hill. Well, my will’s in the lower drawer of the mahogany desk.”
Perhaps Lorania had an occult inkling of the future. For this is what happened: That evening Winslow rode on to the track in his new English bicycle suit, which had just come. He hoped that he didn’t look like a fool in those queer clothes. But the instant he entered the pasture he saw something that drove everything else out of his head, and made him bend over the steering-bar and race madly across the green; Miss Hopkins’ bicycle was running away down hill! Cardigan, on foot, was pelting obliquely, in the hopeless thought to intercept her, while Mrs. Ellis, who was reeling over the ground with her own bicycle, wheeled as rapidly as she could to the brow of the hill, where she tumbled off, and, abandoning the wheel, rushed on foot to her friend’s rescue.
She was only in time to see a flash of silver and ebony and a streak of brown dart before her vision and swim down the hill like a bird. Lorania was still in the saddle, pedalling from sheer force of habit, and clinging to the handle-bars. Below the hill was a stone wall, and farther was the creek. There was a narrow opening in the wall where the cattle went down to drink; if she could steer through that she would have nothing worse than soft water and mud; but there was not one chance in a thousand that she could pass that narrow space. Mrs. Winslow, horror-stricken, watched the rescuer, who evidently was cutting across to catch the bicycle.
“He’s riding out of sight!” thought Shuey, in the rear. He himself did not slacken his speed, although he could not be in time for the catastrophe. Suddenly he stiffened; Winslow was close to the runaway wheel.
“Grab her!” yelled Shuey. “Grab her by the belt! Oh, Lord!”
The exclamation exploded like the groan of a shell. For while Winslow’s bicycling was all that could be wished, and he flung himself in the path of the on-coming wheel with marvelous celerity and precision, he had not the power to withstand the never yet revealed number of pounds carried by Miss Lorania, impelled by the rapid descent and gathering momentum at every whirl. They met; he caught her; but instantly he was rolling down the steep incline and she was doubled up on the grass. He crashed sickeningly against the stone wall; she lay stunned and still on the sod; and their friends, with beating hearts, slid down to them. Mrs. Winslow was on the brow of the hill. She blesses Shuey to this day for the shout he sent up, “Nobody killed, and I guess no bones broken.”
When Margaret went home that evening, having seen her friend safely in bed, not much the worse for her fall, she was told that Cardigan wished to see her. Shuey produced something from his pocket, saying: “I picked this up on the hill, ma’am, after the accident. It maybe belongs to him, or it maybe belongs to her; I’m thinking the safest way is to just give it to you.” He handed Mrs. Ellis a tiny gold-framed miniature of Lorania in a red leather case.
The morning was a sparkling June morning, dewy and fragrant, and the sunlight burnished the handles and pedals of the friends’ bicycles standing on the piazza unheeded. It was the hour for morning practice, but Miss Hopkins slept in her chamber, and Mrs. Ellis sat in the little parlor adjoining, and thought.
She did not look surprised at the maid’s announcement that Mrs. Winslow begged to see her for a few moments. Mrs. Winslow was pale. She was a good sketch of discomfort on the very edge of her chair, clad in the black silk which she wore Sundays, her head crowned with her bonnet of state, and her hands stiff in a pair of new gloves.
“I hope you’ll excuse me not sending up a card,” she began. “Cyril got me some going on a year ago, and I thought I could lay my hand right on ’em, but I’m so nervous this morning I hunted all over, and they wasn’t anywhere. I won’t keep you. I jest wanted to ask if you picked up anything—a little red Russia-leather case—”
“Was it a miniature—a miniature of my friend Miss Hopkins?”
“I thought it all over, and I came to explain. You no doubt think it strange; and I can assure you that my son never let any human being look at that picture. I never knew about it myself till it was lost and he got up out of his bed—he ain’t hardly able to walk—and staggered over here to look for it, and I followed him; and so he had to tell me. He had it painted from a picture that came out in the papers. He felt it was an awful liberty. But—you don’t know how my boy feels, Mrs. Ellis; he has worshipped that woman for years. He ain’t never had a thought of anybody but her since they was children in school; and yet’s he’s been so modest and so shy of pushing himself forward that he didn’t do a thing until I put him on to help you with this bicycle.”
Margaret Ellis did not know what to say. She thought of the marquis; and Mrs. Winslow poured out her story: “He ain’t never said a word to me till this morning. But don’t I know? Don’t I know who looked out so careful for her investments? Don’t I know who was always looking out for her interest—silent, and always keeping himself in the background? Why, she couldn’t even buy a cow that he wa’n’t looking round to see that she got a good one! ‘Twas him saw the gardener, and kept him from buying that cow with tuberculosis, ’cause he knew about the herd. He knew by finding out. He worshipped the very cows she owned, you may say, and I’ve seen him patting and feeding up her dogs; it’s to our house that big mastiff always goes every night. Mrs. Ellis, it ain’t often that a woman gits love such as my son is offering, only he da’sn’t offer it, and it ain’t often a woman is loved by such a good man as my son. He ain’t got any bad habits; he’ll die before he wrongs anybody; and he has got the sweetest temper you ever see; and he’s the tidiest man about a house you could ask, and the promptest about meals.”
Mrs. Ellis looked at her flushed face, and sent another flood of color into it, for she said, “Mrs. Winslow, I don’t know how much good I may be able to do, but I am on your side.”
Her eyes followed the little black figure when it crossed the lawn. She wondered whether her advice was good, for she had counseled that Winslow come over in the evening.
“Maggie,” said a voice. Lorania was in the doorway. “Maggie,” she said, “I ought to tell you that I heard every word.”
“Then I can tell you,” cried Mrs. Ellis, “that he is fifty times more of a man than the marquis, and loves you fifty thousand times better!”
Lorania made no answer, not even by a look. What she felt Mrs. Ellis could not guess. Nor was she any wiser when Winslow appeared at her gate, just as the sun was setting.
“I didn’t think I would better intrude on Miss Hopkins,” said he, “but perhaps you could tell me how she is this evening. My mother told me how kind you were, and perhaps you—you would advise me if I might venture to send Miss Hopkins some flowers.”
Out of the kindness of her heart Mrs. Ellis averted her eyes from his face; thus she was able to perceive Lorania saunter out of the Hopkins gate. So changed was she by the bicycle practice that, wrapped in her niece’s shawl, she made Margaret think of the girl. An inspiration flashed to her; she knew the cashier’s dependence on his eye-glasses, and he was not wearing them.
“If you want to know how Miss Hopkins is, why not speak to her niece now?” she said.
He started. He saw Miss Sibyl, as he supposed, and he went swiftly down the street. “Miss Sibyl,” he began, “may I ask how is your aunt?”—and then she turned.
She blushed, then she laughed aloud. “Has the bicycle done so much for me?” said she.
“The bicycle didn’t need to do anything for you!” he cried, warmly.
Mrs. Ellis, a little distance in the rear, heard, turned, and walked thoughtfully away. “They’re off,” said she—she had acquired a sporting tinge of thought from Shuey Cardigan. “If with that start he can’t make the running, it’s a wonder.”
“I have invited Mr. Winslow and his mother to dinner,” said Miss Hopkins, in the morning. “Will you come too, Maggie?”
“I’ll back him against the marquis,” thought Margaret, gleefully.
A week later Lorania said: “I really think I must be getting thinner. Fancy Mr. Winslow, who is so clear-sighted, mistaking me for Sibyl! He says—I told him how I had suffered from my figure—he says it can’t be what he has suffered from his. Do you think him so very short, Maggie? Of course he isn’t tall, but he has an elegant figure, I think, and I never saw anywhere such a rider!”
Mrs. Ellis answered, heartily: “He isn’t very small, and he is a beautiful figure on the wheel!” And added to herself, “I know what was in that letter she sent yesterday to the marquis! But to think of its all being due to the bicycle!”