Ice In June by Fred M. White

A Playwright's Story

"That," said Ethel Marsh judicially, "is the least stupid remark you have made during our five weeks' acquaintance."

"Which means that I am improving," John Chesney murmured. "There is hope even for me. You cannot possibly understand how greatly I appreciate——"

The sentence trailed off incoherently as if the effort had been all too much. It was hard to live up to the mental brilliance of Ethel Marsh. She had had the advantage, too, of a couple of seasons in town, whilst Chesney was of the country palpably. She also had the advantage of being distractingly pretty.

Really, she had hoped to make something of Chesney. It seemed to her that he was fitted for better things than tennis-playing and riding and the like. It seemed strange that he should prefer his little cottage to the broader delights of surveying mankind from China to Peru.

The man had possibilities, too. For instance, he knew how to dress. There was an air about his flannels, a suggestion in his Norfolk suits. He had the knack of the tie so that it sat just right, and his boots.... A clean-cut face, very tanned; deep, clear gray eyes, very steady. He was like a dog attached very much to a careless master. The thing had been going on for five weeks.

Ethel was staying with the Frodshams. They were poor for their position, albeit given to hospitality—at a price. Most people call this kind of thing taking in paying guests. It was a subject delicately veiled. Ethel had come down for a fortnight, and she had stayed five weeks. Verily the education of John Chesney was a slow process. Chesney was a visitor in the neighborhood, too; he had a little furnished cottage just by the Goldney Park lodge gates, where a house-keeper did for him. As for the rest he was silent. He was a very silent man.

It was too hot for tennis, so the two had wandered into the woods. A tiny trout stream bubbled by, the oak and beech ferns were wet with the spray of it. Between the trees lances of light fell, shafts of sunshine on Ethel's hair and face. It was at this point that Chesney made the original remark. It slipped from him as naturally as if he had been accustomed to that kind of thing.

"I am afraid you got that from Mr. John Kennedy," Ethel said. "I am sure that you have seen Mr. Kennedy's comedy 'Flies in Ointment.' Confess now!"

"Well, I have," Chesney confessed accordingly. "I—I saw it the night it was produced. On the whole it struck me as rather a feeble thing."

"Oh, really? We are getting on, Mr. Chesney. Let me tell you that I think it is the cleverest modern comedy I have ever seen."

"Yes! In that case you like the part of 'Dorothy Kent?'"

Ethel's dainty color deepened slightly. She glanced suspiciously at the speaker. But he was gazing solidly, stolidly, into space—like a man who had just dined on beef. The idea was too preposterous. The idea of John Chesney chaffing her, chaffing anybody.

"I thought perhaps you did," Chesney went on. "Mr. Kent is a bit of a butterfly, a good sort at the bottom, but decidedly of the species lepidopteræ——"

"Stop!" Ethel cried. "Where did you get that word from? Whence comes it in the vocabulary of a youth—a youth? Oh, you know what I mean."

"I believe it is a general name for insects," Chesney said humbly. "Mrs. Kent is a good sort, but a little conceited. Apt to fancy herself, you know. Young widows of her type often do. She is tired of the artificial existence of town, and goes off into the country, where she leads the simple life. She meets a young man there, who, well, 'pon my word, is rather like me. He was a bit of an ass——"

"He was nothing of the kind," Ethel cried indignantly. "He was splendid. And he made that woman love him, he made her acknowledge that she had met her match at last. And he turned out to be one of the most brilliant——"

"My dear Miss Ethel, after all it was only a play. You remind me of 'Mrs. Kent,' and you say that I remind you of the hero of the play who——"

"I didn't, Mr. Chesney. I said nothing of the kind. It is unfair of you——"

"When the likeness is plain enough," Chesney said stubbornly. "You are 'Mrs. Kent,' and I am the hero of the comedy. Do you think that there is any possibility that some day you and—of course not yet, but——"

Miss Marsh sat there questioning the evidence of her coral-pink ears. She knew that she was furiously angry because she felt so cool about it. She knew that the more furious one was, the more calm and self-contained the senses become. The man meant nothing, either—one could see that by the respectful expression of his eye. Still——

"You are quite wrong," Ethel said. "You have altogether misunderstood the motif of the play. I presume you know what a motif is?"

"I think so," Chesney said humbly. "It is a word they apply in music when you don't happen to understand what the composer—especially the modern composer—is driving at."

"Oh, let it pass," Ethel said hopelessly. "You have misunderstood the gist of the play, then! 'Walter Severn' in the comedy is a man of singular points. He is a great author. Instead of being that woman's plaything, he is her merciless analyst. The great scene in the play comes when she finds this out. Now, you do not for a moment presume to put yourself on a level with 'Walter Severn,' do you?"

Chesney was bound to admit the height of his audacity. His eyes were fixed humbly on his Minerva; he was Telemachus seated at the feet of the goddess. And even yet he did not seem really cognizant of the enormity of his offence. He saw the sunlight on that sweetly serious face, he saw the beams playing with the golden meshes of her hair. No doubt he was fully conscious of his own inferiority, for he did not speak again. It was for him to wait. The silence deepened; in the heart of the wood a blackbird was piping madly on a blackthorn.

"Before you go away," Chesney hazarded, "I should very much like——"

"But I am not going away, at least not yet. Besides, I have a purpose to serve. I am waiting until those impossible people leave Goldney Park. I understand that they have already gone, but on that head I am not sure. I want to go over the house. The late owner, Mr. Mainbrace, was a great friend of my family. Before he died he was so good as to express a wish that the heir to the property should come and see us and—but that part is altogether too ridiculous. And as an only daughter——"

"I see," Chesney said reflectively. "The heir and yourself. It sounds ridiculous. Now, if you had been in the least like the romantic type of young woman, perhaps——"

"How do you know that I am not? Am I like Byron's woman: 'Seek roses in December, ice in June'? Well, perhaps you are right. After all, one doesn't find ice in June. However, the heir to the Goldney Park estate and myself never met. He let the place to those awful Gosway people for three years and went abroad. There was not even the suspicion of a romance. But I am curious to see the house, all the same."

"Nothing easier, Miss Marsh. Let us go and see it after luncheon. The Gosways have gone, you may take my word for that, and only a caretaker is in possession. Will you come with me this afternoon?"

The prospect was not displeasing. Miss Marsh poised it in her mind for a few moments. There was Chesney's education to be thought of as well. On the whole, she decided that there might be less pleasant ways of spending a hot August afternoon.

"I think I'll come," she said. "I want to see the old furniture and the pictures. I love old furniture. Perhaps if the heir to the property had gone on his knees whilst I was seated on a priceless Chippendale settee, I might——"

"You might, but I don't think you would," Chesney interrupted. "Whatever your faults may be I am sure you are not mercenary."

"Really! How good of you! The thing that we are apt to call depravity——"

"Is often another name for the promptings of poor human nature."

Miss Marsh turned and stared at the speaker. Really, his education was progressing at a most amazing rate. Without the least sign of mental distress he had delivered himself of an epigram. There was quite a flavor of Piccadilly about it. And Chesney did not appear in the least conscious of his achievement. Ethel rose and shook out the folds of her dainty muslin dress.

"Isn't it getting late?" she asked. "I'm sure it is lunch time. You can walk as far as the gate with me, and I will meet you here at three o'clock."

She passed thoughtfully across the lawn to the house, her pretty brows knitted in a thoughtful frown. Was she giving her pupil too much latitude? Certainly he had begun to show symptoms of an audacious presumption, which in the earlier days had been conspicuous by its absence. Whereupon Miss Marsh sighed three times without being in the least aware of the painful fact.

"This," said Chesney, "is the Norman Tower, built by John Mainbrace, who was the original founder of the family. The first two trees in the avenue of oaks that leads up to the house were planted by Queen Elizabeth. She also slept on several occasions in the house; indeed, the bedroom she occupied is intact to this day. The Virgin Queen seemed to pass most of her time, apart from affairs of state, in occupying bedrooms, so that the descendants of her courtiers might be able to boast about it afterward. Those who could not give the royal lady a shakedown had special bedrooms fitted up and lied about them. It was an innocent deception."

Miss Marsh eyed her pupil distrustfully. The educational progress was flattering, and at the same time a little disturbing. She had never seen Chesney in this gay and frivolous, not to say excited, mood before. The man was positively glib. There were distinct flashes of wit in his discourse, too. And where did he get so close and intimate a knowledge of the old house from?

He knew every nook and corner. He took her through the grand old park where the herd of fallow deer were grazing; he showed her the Dutch and Italian gardens; he knew even the history of the sundial on the terrace. And yet they had not been within the house, though the great hall door stood hospitably open. They moved at length out of the glare of the sunshine into the grateful shadows. Glint of armor and gleam of canvas were all there. Ethel walked along in an ecstasy of quiet enjoyment. Rumor had not lied as to the artistic beauties of Goldney Park. The Mainbraces must have been a tasteful family. They had it all here, from the oaken carvings of the wandering monks down through Grinling Gibbons and Pugin, and away to Chippendale and Adam, and other masters of the Georgian era. They came at length to the chamber sacred to the Virgin Queen; they contemplated the glorious view from the window in silent appreciation tinged with rapture.

"It's exquisite," Ethel said in a low voice. "If this were my house I should be very much tempted to commit an act of sacrilege. I should want this for my own room. I'm afraid I could not resist such an opportunity."

"Easily done," said Chesney. "No trouble to discover from the family archives that a mistake had been made, and that Elizabeth of blessed memory had not slept in this room. Being strong-minded she preferred a north aspect, and this is due south. You would get a reputation for sound historical knowledge as well."

Certainly the education was progressing. But Ethel let it pass. She was leaning out of the latticed windows with the creamy roses about her hair; she was falling unconsciously under the glamour of the place.

"It is exquisite," she sighed. "If this were only mine!"

"Well, it is not too late. The heir will be here before long, probably. You have only to introduce the name of Mr. Mainbrace and say who you are, and then——"

"Oh, no. If I happened to be in love with a man—what am I saying? Of course, no girl who respects herself could possibly marry a man for the sake of his position. Even 'Mrs. Dorothy Kent,' to whom you compared me this morning, was above that kind of thing. She married the man she loved after all, you know. But I forget—you did not think much of the comedy."

"I didn't. I thought it was vague and incomplete. I am certain of it now. This is the real thing; the other was merely artificial. And when the hero brought 'Dorothy Kent' to the home of his ancestors he already knew that she loved him. And I am glad to know that you would never marry a man like that because it gives me courage——"

"Gives you courage! Whatever for?"

"Why, to make a confession. You laughed at me just now when I presumed to criticize your favorite modern comedy. As a matter of fact, I have every right to criticize it. You see, I happen to be the author. I am 'John Kennedy'! I have been writing for the stage, or trying to write for the stage, for years. I got my new idea from that old wish of my uncle's that you and I should come together. It struck me as a pretty suggestion for a comedy."

"Stop, stop," Ethel cried. "One thing at a time, if you please. Positively you overwhelm me with surprise. In one breath you tell me you are 'John Kennedy,' and then, without giving a poor girl a chance, you say you are the owner of Goldney Park."

"But I didn't," Chesney protested. "I never said anything of the kind."

"No, but you inferred it. You say you got the idea from your uncle—I mean the suggestion that you and I—oh, I really cannot say it."

"I'm afraid I'm but a poor dramatist after all," Chesney said lamely. "I intended to keep that confession till after I had—but no matter. At any rate, there is no getting away from the fact that my pen name is 'John Kennedy.'"

"And you wrote 'Flies in Ointment'? And you have been laughing at me all this time? You were amused because I took you for a simple countryman, you whom men call the Sheridan of to-day! After all the pains I took with your education."

Ethel's voice rose hysterically. Points of flame stood out from the level of her memory of the past five weeks and scorched her. How this man must have been amused, how consumedly he must have laughed at her! And she had never guessed it, never once had she had an inkling of the truth.

"You have behaved disgracefully, cruelly," she said unsteadily.

"I don't think so," Chesney said coolly. "After all is said and done, we were both posing, you know. You were playing 'Mrs. Kent' to my hero. It seemed a pity to disturb so pleasant a pastoral. And no harm has been done."

Ethel was not quite so sure of that. But then for the nonce she was regarding the matter from a strictly personal point of view.

"I hardly think you were playing the game," she said.

"Why not? I come down here where nobody knows me. It is my whim to keep quiet the fact that Goldney Park belongs to me. As to my dramatic tastes, they don't concern anybody but myself. I take a cottage down here until those tenants of mine are ready to go. They are such utter bounders that I have no desire to disclose my identity to them. And so it falls about that I meet you. Then I recollect all that my uncle has said about you. I cultivate your acquaintance. It wasn't my fault that you took me for a countryman with no idea beyond riding a horse and shooting a pheasant. Your patronage was very pretty and pleasing, and I am one of those men who always laugh or cry inside. It is perhaps a misfortune that I can always joke with a grave face. But don't forget that the man who laughs inside is also the man who bleeds inside, and these feel the worst. Come, Ethel, you are not going to be angry because you have lost the game playing with your own weapons."

The education was finished, the schoolmaster was abroad—very much abroad. In his cool, masterful way Chesney had taken matters into his own hands. He was none the less handsome because he looked so stern, so sure of his ground.

"You are a man and I am a woman," she faltered.

"Of course. How could the comedy proceed otherwise? Now where shall we move these Elizabethan relics? After what you said just now they could not possibly remain here. Among the family archives I dare say——"

Chesney paused; he was conscious of the fact that two large diamond drops were stealing down Ethel's cheeks. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to cross over and take her hands in his.

"My dear child, what have I said to pain you," he said. "I am truly sorry."

"You—you take too much for granted," Ethel sobbed. "You make me feel so small and silly. And you have no right to assume that I—I could care for anybody simply because he happens to possess a p—p—place like Goldney Park."

"But, my darling, I didn't. I was delighted when you said just now that you would never marry a man you did not care for, even if he could give you Chippendale for breakfast, so to speak. I watched your face then. I am sure that you were speaking from the bottom of your heart. I have been watching you for the last five weeks, my sweetheart. And they have been the happiest weeks in my life.

"Laughing at me, I suppose! It's all the same if you do laugh inside."

"No, I don't think I laughed," Chesney said thoughtfully. "I only know that I have been very much charmed. And besides, see how useful it has been to me to be in a position to hear all the weak points in my literary armor. When I come to write my next comedy, it will be far in advance of 'Flies in Ointment.' I have learned so much of human nature, you see."

Ethel winked the tears from her lids; her eyes were all the brighter for the passing shower, like a sky in April, Chesney thought. A smile was on her face, her lips were parted. As a lover Chesney was charming. She wondered how she was playing her part. But she need not have had any anxiety. There was nothing wanting in the eyes of the man opposite, and his face said so.

"You are going to put me into it?" she asked.

"Why, of course. There is no other woman so far as I can see. Why are you pulling my roses to pieces like that? Do you know that that rose tree was planted a hundred years ago by Thomas à Becket after the battle of Agincourt? My dear, I am so happy that I could talk nonsense all day. And I say, Ethel——"

The girl broke off one of the creamy roses and handed it shyly to Chesney.

"Væ victis," she said with a flushing smile. "It is yours. You have conquered."

"Yes, but I want all the fruits of victory. I ask for a hand and you give me—a rose. Am I not going to have the hand as well as the rose, dear?"

He had the hand and the rose and the slender waist; he drew her toward him in his strong, masterful way, and his lips lay on hers in a lingering pressure. It was a long time before the girl looked up; then her eyes were full of shy happiness.