Away up in the very heart of Maine there is a mighty lake among the mountains. It is reached after a journey of many hours from the place where you “go in.” That is the phrase of the country, and when you have once “gone in,” you know why it is not correct to say that you have gone through the woods, or, simply, to your destination. You find that you have plunged into a new world—a world that has nothing in common with the world that you live in; a world of wild, solemn, desolate grandeur, a world of space and silence; a world that oppresses your soul—and charms you irresistibly. And after you have once “come out” of that world, there will be times, to the day of your death, when you will be homesick for it, and will long with a childlike longing to go back to it.
This is a story of romance and privilege and sisterly rivalry by H.C. Bunner — a descendant of Angelica Schuyler, whose sister Elizabeth married Alexander Hamilton and that’s probably where Bunner got the idea for this one.
“A Sisterly Scheme” and several sibling stories like it appear in Bunner’s collection of short fiction “Short Sixes”: Stories to be Read While the Candle Burns, available at Project Gutenberg.
Up in this wild region you will find a fashionable Summer-hotel, with electric bells and seven-course dinners, and “guests” who dress three times a day. It is perched on a little flat point, shut off from the rest of the mainland by a huge rocky cliff. It is an impertinence in that majestic wilderness, and Leather-Stocking would doubtless have had a hankering to burn such an affront to Nature; but it is a good hotel, and people go to it and breathe the generous air of the great woods.
On the beach near this hotel, where the canoes were drawn up in line, there stood one Summer morning a curly-haired, fair young man—not so very young, either—whose cheeks were uncomfortably red as he looked first at his own canoe, high and dry, loaded with rods and landing-net and luncheon-basket, and then at another canoe, fast disappearing down the lake, wherein sat a young man and a young woman.
“Dropped again, Mr. Morpeth?”
The young man looked up and saw a saucy face laughing at him. A girl was sitting on the string-piece of the dock. It was the face of a girl between childhood and womanhood. By the face and the figure, it was a woman grown. By the dress, you would have judged it a girl.
And you would have been confirmed in the latter opinion by the fact that the young person was doing something unpardonable for a young lady, but not inexcusable in the case of a youthful tomboy. She had taken off her canvas shoe, and was shaking some small stones out of it. There was a tiny hole in her black stocking, and a glimpse of her pink toe was visible. The girl was sunburnt, but the toe was prettily pink.
“Your sister,” replied the young man with dignity, “was to have gone fishing with me; but she remembered at the last moment that she had a prior engagement with Mr. Brown.”
“She hadn’t,” said the girl. “I heard them make it up last evening, after you went upstairs.”
The young man clean forgot himself.
“She’s the most heartless coquette in the world!” he cried, and clinched his hands.
“She is all that,” said the young person on the string-piece of the dock, “and more too. And yet, I suppose, you want her all the same?”
“I’m afraid I do,” said the young man, miserably.
“Well,” said the girl, putting her shoe on again, and beginning to tie it up, “I’ll tell you what it is, Mr. Morpeth. You’ve been hanging around Pauline for a year, and you are the only one of the men she keeps on a string who hasn’t snubbed me. Now, if you want me to, I’ll give you a lift.”
“A lift. You’re wasting your time. Pauline has no use for devotion. It’s a drug in the market with her—has been for five seasons. There’s only one way to get her worked up. Two fellows tried it, and they nearly got there; but they weren’t game enough to stay to the bitter end. I think you’re game, and I’ll tell you. You’ve got to make her jealous .”
“Make her jealous of me?”
“No!” said his friend, with infinite scorn; “make her jealous of the other girl. Oh! but you men are stupid!”
The young man pondered a moment.
“Well, Flossy,” he began, and then he became conscious of a sudden change in the atmosphere, and perceived that the young lady was regarding him with a look that might have chilled his soul.
“Miss Flossy—Miss Belton—” he hastily corrected himself. Winter promptly changed to Summer in Miss Flossy Belton’s expressive face.
“Your scheme,” he went on, “is a good one. Only—it involves the discovery of another girl.”
“Yes,” assented Miss Flossy, cheerfully.
“Well,” said the young man, “doesn’t it strike you that if I were to develop a sudden admiration for any one of these other young ladies whose charms I have hitherto neglected, it would come tardy off—lack artistic verisimilitude, so to speak?”
“Rather,” was Miss Flossy’s prompt and frank response; “especially as there isn’t one of them fit to flirt with.”
“Well, then, where am I to discover the girl?”
Miss Flossy untied and retied her shoe. Then she said, calmly:
“What’s the matter with—” a hardly perceptible hesitation—”me?”
“With you?” Mr. Morpeth was startled out of his manners.
Mr. Morpeth simply stared.
“Perhaps,” suggested Miss Flossy, “I’m not good-looking enough?”
“You are good-looking enough,” replied Mr. Morpeth, recovering himself, “for anything—” and he threw a convincing emphasis into the last word as he took what was probably his first real inspection of his adored one’s junior—”but—aren’t you a trifle—young?”
“How old do you suppose I am?”
“I know. Your sister told me. You are sixteen.”
“Sixteen!” repeated Miss Flossy, with an infinite and uncontrollable scorn, “yes, and I’m the kind of sixteen that stays sixteen till your elder sister’s married. I was eighteen years old on the third of last December—unless they began to double on me before I was old enough to know the difference—it would be just like Mama to play it on me in some such way,” she concluded, reflectively.
“Eighteen years old!” said the young man. “The deuce!” Do not think that he was an ill-bred young man. He was merely astonished, and he had much more astonishment ahead of him. He mused for a moment.
“Well,” he said, “what’s your plan of campaign? I am to—to discover you.”
“Yes,” said Miss Flossy, calmly, “and to flirt with me like fun.”
“And may I ask what attitude you are to take when you are—discovered ?”
“Certainly,” replied the imperturbable Flossy. “I am going to dangle you.”
“To—to dangle me?”
“As a conquest, don’t you know. Let you hang round and laugh at you.”
“There, don’t be wounded in your masculine pride. You might as well face the situation. You don’t think that Pauline’s in love with you, do you?”
“No!” groaned the young man.
“But you’ve got lots of money. Mr. Brown has got lots more. You’re eager. Brown is coy. That’s the reason that Brown is in the boat and you are on the cold, cold shore, talking to Little Sister. Now if Little Sister jumps at you, why, she’s simply taking Big Sister’s leavings; it’s all in the family, any way, and there’s no jealousy, and Pauline can devote her whole mind to Brown. There, don’t look so limp. You men are simply childish. Now, after you’ve asked me to marry you—”
“Oh, I’m to ask you to marry me?”
“Certainly. You needn’t look frightened, now. I won’t accept you. But then you are to go around like a wet cat, and mope, and hang on worse then ever. Then Big Sister will see that she can’t afford to take that sort of thing from Little Sister, and then—there’s your chance.”
“Oh, there’s my chance, is it?” said Mr. Morpeth. He seemed to have fallen into the habit of repetition.
“There’s your only chance,” said Miss Flossy, with decision.
Mr. Morpeth meditated. He looked at the lake, where there was no longer sign or sound of the canoe, and he looked at Miss Flossy, who sat calm, self-confident and careless, on the string-piece of the dock.
“I don’t know how feasible—” he began.
“It’s feasible,” said Miss Flossy, with decision. “Of course Pauline will write to Mama, and of course Mama will write and scold me. But she’s got to stay in New York, and nurse Papa’s gout; and the Miss Redingtons are all the chaperons we’ve got up here, and they don’t amount to any thing—so I don’t care.”
“But why,” inquired the young man; and his tone suggested a complete abandonment to Miss Flossy’s idea: “why should you take so much trouble for me?”
“Mr. Morpeth,” said Miss Flossy, solemnly, “I’m two years behind the time-table, and I’ve got to make a strike for liberty, or die. And besides,” she added, “if you are nice, it needn’t be such an awful trouble.”
Mr. Morpeth laughed.
“I’ll try to make it as little of a bore as possible,” he said, extending his hand. The girl did not take it.
“Don’t make any mistake,” she cautioned him, searching his face with her eyes; “this isn’t to be any little-girl affair. Little Sister doesn’t want any kind, elegant, supercilious encouragement from Big Sister’s young man. It’s got to be a real flirtation—devotion no end, and ten times as much as ever Pauline could get out of you—and you’ve got to keep your end ‘way—’—’way up!”
The young man smiled.
“I’ll keep my end up,” he said; “but are you certain that you can keep yours up?”
“Well, I think so,” replied Miss Flossy. “Pauline will raise an awful row; but if she goes too far, I’ll tell my age, and hers, too.”
Mr. Morpeth looked in Miss Flossy’s calm face. Then he extended his hand once more.
“It’s a bargain, so far as I’m concerned,” he said.
This time a soft and small hand met his with a firm, friendly, honest pressure.
“And I’ll refuse you,” said Miss Flossy.
Within two weeks, Mr. Morpeth found himself entangled in a flirtation such as he had never dreamed of. Miss Flossy’s scheme had succeeded only too brilliantly. The whole hotel was talking about the outrageous behavior of “that little Belton girl” and Mr. Morpeth, who certainly ought to know better.
Mr. Morpeth had carried out his instructions. Before the week was out, he found himself giving the most life-like imitation of an infatuated lover that ever delighted the old gossips of a Summer-resort. And yet he had only done what Flossy told him to do.
He got his first lesson just about the time that Flossy, in the privacy of their apartments, informed her elder sister that if she, Flossy, found Mr. Morpeth’s society agreeable, it was nobody’s concern but her own, and that she was prepared to make some interesting additions to the census statistics if any one thought differently.
The lesson opened his eyes.
“Do you know,” she said, “that it wouldn’t be a bit of a bad idea to telegraph to New York for some real nice candy and humbly present it for my acceptance? I might take it—if the bonbonnière was pretty enough.”
He telegraphed to New York and received, in the course of four or five days, certain marvels of sweets in a miracle of an upholstered box. The next day he found her on the verandah, flinging the bonbons on the lawn for the children to scramble for.
“Awfully nice of you to send me these things,” she said languidly, but loud enough for the men around her to hear—she had men around her already: she had been discovered—”but I never eat sweets, you know. Here, you little mite in the blue sash, don’t you want this pretty box to put your doll’s clothes in?”
And Maillard’s finest bonbonnière went to a yellow-haired brat of three.
But this was the slightest and lightest of her caprices. She made him send for his dog-cart and his horses, all the way from New York, only that he might drive her over the ridiculous little mile-and-a-half of road that bounded the tiny peninsula. And she christened him “Muffets,” a nickname presumably suggested by “Morpeth”; and she called him “Muffets” in the hearing of all the hotel people.
And did such conduct pass unchallenged? No. Pauline scolded, raged, raved. She wrote to Mama. Mama wrote back and reproved Flossy. But Mama could not leave Papa. His gout was worse. The Miss Redingtons must act. The Miss Redingtons merely wept, and nothing more. Pauline scolded; the flirtation went on; and the people at the big hotel enjoyed it immensely.
And there was more to come. Four weeks had passed. Mr. Morpeth was hardly on speaking terms with the elder Miss Belton; and with the younger Miss Belton he was on terms which the hotel gossips characterized as “simply scandalous.” Brown glared at him when they met, and he glared at Brown. Brown was having a hard time. Miss Belton the elder was not pleasant of temper in those trying days.
“And now,” said Miss Flossy to Mr. Morpeth, “it’s time you proposed to me, Muffets.”
They were sitting on the hotel verandah, in the evening darkness. No one was near them, except an old lady in a Shaker chair.
“There’s Mrs. Melby. She’s pretending to be asleep, but she isn’t. She’s just waiting for us. Now walk me up and down and ask me to marry you so that she can hear it. It’ll be all over the hotel inside of half an hour. Pauline will just rage.”
With this pleasant prospect before him, Mr. Morpeth marched Miss Flossy Belton up and down the long verandah. He had passed Mrs. Melby three times before he was able to say, in a choking, husky, uncertain voice:
“Flossy—I—I—I love you!”
Flossy’s voice was not choking nor uncertain. It rang out clear and silvery in a peal of laughter.
“Why, of course you do, Muffets, and I wish you didn’t. That’s what makes you so stupid half the time.”
“But—” said Mr. Morpeth, vaguely; “but I—”
“But you’re a silly boy,” returned Miss Flossy; and she added in a swift aside: “You haven’t asked me to marry you!”
“W-W-W-Will you be my wife?” stammered Mr. Morpeth.
“No!” said Miss Flossy, emphatically, “I will not. You are too utterly ridiculous. The idea of it! No, Muffets, you are charming in your present capacity; but you aren’t to be considered seriously.”
They strolled on into the gloom at the end of the great verandah.
“That’s the first time,” he said, with a feeling of having only the ghost of a breath left in his lungs, “that I ever asked a woman to marry me.”
“I should think so,” said Miss Flossy, “from the way you did it. And you were beautifully rejected, weren’t you. Now—look at Mrs. Melby, will you? She’s scudding off to spread the news.”
And before Mr. Morpeth went to bed, he was aware of the fact that every man and woman in the hotel knew that he had “proposed” to Flossy Belton, and had been “beautifully rejected.”
Two sulky men, one sulky woman, and one girl radiant with triumphant happiness started out in two canoes, reached certain fishing-grounds known only to the elect, and began to cast for trout. They had indifferent luck. Miss Belton and Mr. Brown caught a dozen trout; Miss Flossy Belton and Mr. Morpeth caught eighteen or nineteen, and the day was wearing to a close. Miss Flossy made the last cast of the day, just as her escort had taken the paddle. A big trout rose—just touched the fly—and disappeared.
“It’s this wretched rod!” cried Miss Flossy; and she rapped it on the gunwale of the canoe so sharply that the beautiful split-bamboo broke sharp off in the middle of the second-joint. Then she tumbled it overboard, reel and all.
“I was tired of that rod, any way, Muffets,” she said; “row me home, now; I’ve got to dress for dinner.”
Miss Flossy’s elder sister, in the other boat, saw and heard this exhibition of tyranny; and she was so much moved that she stamped her small foot, and endangered the bottom of the canoe. She resolved that Mama should come back, whether Papa had the gout or not.
Mr. Morpeth, wearing a grave expression, was paddling Miss Flossy toward the hotel. He had said nothing whatever, and it was a noticeable silence that Miss Flossy finally broke.
“You’ve done pretty much everything that I wanted you to do, Muffets,” she said; “but you haven’t saved my life yet, and I’m going to give you a chance.”
It is not difficult to overturn a canoe. One twist of Flossie’s supple body did it, and before he knew just what had happened, Morpeth was swimming toward the shore, holding up Flossy Belton with one arm, and fighting for life in the icy water of a Maine lake.
The people were running down, bearing blankets and brandy, as he touched bottom in his last desperate struggle to keep the two of them above water. One yard further, and there would have been no strength left in him.
He struggled up on shore with her, and when he got breath enough, he burst out:
“Why did you do it? It was wicked! It was cruel!”
“There!” she said, as she reclined composedly in his arms, “that will do, Muffets. I don’t want to be scolded.”
A delegation came along, bringing blankets and brandy, and took her from him.
At five o’clock of that afternoon, Mr. Morpeth presented himself at the door of the parlor attached to the apartments of the Belton sisters. Miss Belton, senior, was just coming out of the room. She received his inquiry after her sister’s health with a white face and a quivering lip.
“I should think, Mr. Morpeth,” she began, “that you had gone far enough in playing with the feelings of a m-m-mere child, and that—oh! I have no words to express my contempt for you!”
And in a most unladylike rage Miss Pauline Belton swept down the hotel corridor.
She had left the door open behind her. Morpeth heard a voice, weak, but cheery, addressing him from the far end of the parlor.
“You’ve got her!” it said. “She’s crazy mad. She’ll make up to you to-night—see if she don’t.”
Mr. Morpeth looked up and down the long corridor. It was empty. He pushed the door open, and entered. Flossy was lying on the sofa, pale, but bright-eyed.
“You can get her,” she whispered, as he knelt down beside her.
“Flossy,” he said, “don’t you know that that is all ended? Don’t you know that I love you and you only? Don’t you know that I haven’t thought about any one else since—since—oh, Flossy, don’t you—is it possible that you don’t understand ?”
Flossy stretched out two weak arms, and put them around Mr. Morpeth’s neck.
“Why have I had you in training all Summer?” said she. “Did you think it was for Pauline?”