46 Looking Backward: Chapter XXIII

That evening, as I sat with Edith in the music room, listening to some pieces in the programme of that day which had attracted my notice, I took advantage of an interval in the music to say, “I have a question to ask you which I fear is rather indiscreet.”

“I am quite sure it is not that,” she replied, encouragingly.

“I am in the position of an eavesdropper,” I continued, “who, having overheard a little of a matter not intended for him, though seeming to concern him, has the impudence to come to the speaker for the rest.”

“An eavesdropper!” she repeated, looking puzzled.

“Yes,” I said, “but an excusable one, as I think you will admit.”

“This is very mysterious,” she replied.

“Yes,” said I, “so mysterious that often I have doubted whether I really overheard at all what I am going to ask you about, or only dreamed it. I want you to tell me. The matter is this: When I was coming out of that sleep of a century, the first impression of which I was conscious was of voices talking around me, voices that afterwards I recognized as your father’s, your mother’s, and your own. First, I remember your father’s voice saying, “He is going to open his eyes. He had better see but one person at first.” Then you said, if I did not dream it all, “Promise me, then, that you will not tell him.” Your father seemed to hesitate about promising, but you insisted, and your mother interposing, he finally promised, and when I opened my eyes I saw only him.”

I had been quite serious when I said that I was not sure that I had not dreamed the conversation I fancied I had overheard, so incomprehensible was it that these people should know anything of me, a contemporary of their great-grandparents, which I did not know myself. But when I saw the effect of my words upon Edith, I knew that it was no dream, but another mystery, and a more puzzling one than any I had before encountered. For from the moment that the drift of my question became apparent, she showed indications of the most acute embarrassment. Her eyes, always so frank and direct in expression, had dropped in a panic before mine, while her face crimsoned from neck to forehead.

“Pardon me,” I said, as soon as I had recovered from bewilderment at the extraordinary effect of my words. “It seems, then, that I was not dreaming. There is some secret, something about me, which you are withholding from me. Really, doesn’t it seem a little hard that a person in my position should not be given all the information possible concerning himself?”

“It does not concern you—that is, not directly. It is not about you exactly,” she replied, scarcely audibly.

“But it concerns me in some way,” I persisted. “It must be something that would interest me.”

“I don’t know even that,” she replied, venturing a momentary glance at my face, furiously blushing, and yet with a quaint smile flickering about her lips which betrayed a certain perception of humor in the situation despite its embarrassment,—”I am not sure that it would even interest you.”

“Your father would have told me,” I insisted, with an accent of reproach. “It was you who forbade him. He thought I ought to know.”

She did not reply. She was so entirely charming in her confusion that I was now prompted, as much by the desire to prolong the situation as by my original curiosity, to importune her further.

“Am I never to know? Will you never tell me?” I said.

“It depends,” she answered, after a long pause.

“On what?” I persisted.

“Ah, you ask too much,” she replied. Then, raising to mine a face which inscrutable eyes, flushed cheeks, and smiling lips combined to render perfectly bewitching, she added, “What should you think if I said that it depended on—yourself?”

“On myself?” I echoed. “How can that possibly be?”

“Mr. West, we are losing some charming music,” was her only reply to this, and turning to the telephone, at a touch of her finger she set the air to swaying to the rhythm of an adagio. After that she took good care that the music should leave no opportunity for conversation. She kept her face averted from me, and pretended to be absorbed in the airs, but that it was a mere pretense the crimson tide standing at flood in her cheeks sufficiently betrayed.

When at length she suggested that I might have heard all I cared to, for that time, and we rose to leave the room, she came straight up to me and said, without raising her eyes, “Mr. West, you say I have been good to you. I have not been particularly so, but if you think I have, I want you to promise me that you will not try again to make me tell you this thing you have asked to-night, and that you will not try to find it out from any one else,—my father or mother, for instance.”

To such an appeal there was but one reply possible. “Forgive me for distressing you. Of course I will promise,” I said. “I would never have asked you if I had fancied it could distress you. But do you blame me for being curious?”

“I do not blame you at all.”

“And some time,” I added, “if I do not tease you, you may tell me of your own accord. May I not hope so?”

“Perhaps,” she murmured.

“Only perhaps?”

Looking up, she read my face with a quick, deep glance. “Yes,” she said, “I think I may tell you—some time”: and so our conversation ended, for she gave me no chance to say anything more.

That night I don’t think even Dr. Pillsbury could have put me to sleep, till toward morning at least. Mysteries had been my accustomed food for days now, but none had before confronted me at once so mysterious and so fascinating as this, the solution of which Edith Leete had forbidden me even to seek. It was a double mystery. How, in the first place, was it conceivable that she should know any secret about me, a stranger from a strange age? In the second place, even if she should know such a secret, how account for the agitating effect which the knowledge of it seemed to have upon her? There are puzzles so difficult that one cannot even get so far as a conjecture as to the solution, and this seemed one of them. I am usually of too practical a turn to waste time on such conundrums; but the difficulty of a riddle embodied in a beautiful young girl does not detract from its fascination. In general, no doubt, maidens’ blushes may be safely assumed to tell the same tale to young men in all ages and races, but to give that interpretation to Edith’s crimson cheeks would, considering my position and the length of time I had known her, and still more the fact that this mystery dated from before I had known her at all, be a piece of utter fatuity. And yet she was an angel, and I should not have been a young man if reason and common sense had been able quite to banish a roseate tinge from my dreams that night.

Original File From Project Gutenberg


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