"OH. YES! I remember her very distinctly. She was a red-headed little girl and she played with toads. Dressed them in doll's clothes and kissed them." The Rev. J. Winthrop Smythe laughed at the recollection, and the girl in the other end of the boat laughed too–a clear, ringing laugh that brought back an echo from the wooded shore of the lake. It was so impossible to imagine the stately Miss Weldon, with her beautiful, flowerlike face and her crown of Titian hair, kissing a toad.
"I was fearfully jealous of those toads," the young minister confessed. "Once I killed one of them, and she flew at me like a tiger. I still bear on my forehead the marks of her finger nails." He took off his hat and pushed back the dark curls from his forehead, revealing two small scars. "Fortunately they are quite hidden by my hair," and he smoothed the dark curls in place carefully.
"How long is it since you have seen her?" the girl inquired.
"More than twelve years."
"You will not know her then. She is tall–almost as tall as yourself, and most divinely fair. Her face is oval and small and flower-tinted, and her hair is a crown of red-gold glory."
I hope she is not altogether changed," the Rev. Smythe replied. "Some of her characteristics were very pleasing. I will always remember the day she tattooed her initials on my arm," he added musingly. "It was a much more painful process than I had anticipated, but as I had already put my initials on her arm, and she bore it without flinching, I felt that I could do no less. That was the outward symbol and sign of our vows of eternal constancy," the young minister laughed again, but for some reason the girl was silent. "She was certainly a brave little thing," he said, "I used to tell her in those days that I admired most in her was her grit."
It was on the first evening of the Rev. J. Winthrop Smythe's vacation that this conversation had taken place. Now on the last evening he was drifting along the same wooded shore through the scenery that he told himself would always be to him like a memory of Paradise, and this time the girl sitting opposite him was Augusta Weldon.
Before the first week of his vacation had passed he had felt that she was the one woman, but a sullen something within him had struggled against this conviction. Perhaps she was not a fitting helpmate, he told himself. She was beautiful, of that there could be no question, and she "as always gowned in exquisite taste; here, in this out-of-the-Way summer resort she reigned like a queen. But, after all, she was country bred, and though by no means penniless, she was not rich. Would it be the part of wisdom for a young man to tie himself to her? A young man with nothing but his talents and his ambitions? How he had wished during those first restless weeks for some of his fastidious friends, some of his parishioners on whom his future depended. If he could only know their verdict.
And so when Mrs. Van der Heiden and her daughter had arrived two days ago his cup of happiness had been filled to overflowing by the discovery that Miss Van der Heiden and Miss Weldon had been college chums and were most cordial, even enthusiastic, friends. If the Van der Heidens were for her, who could be against her? She would be another round in the ladder he was struggling to climb. No, he did not express it thus vulgarly in bald prose. She will be a fitting helpmate, he said.
But this evening, to do him justice, he had forgotten all those doubts and questions as he watched her flowertinted face, the purity of her deep gray eyes, the whiteness of her throat and the glory of her hair against the leafy background of the wood.
They had been speaking of the parting on the morrow and then a silence had fallen between them. He reached down to pull a water-lily for her and wiped the stem on his handkerchief slowly, trying to think of the best words to use. But when she put out her hand to take the flower he saw in her eyes the look he had longed for and seized her hand in both his own, crushing it and the lily together.
"Augusta," he said, and knelt down at her feet and laid his face against her hand. "Augusta"–and then language was blotted out with the rest of earth and the lake and sky as he felt her other hand laid on his head and raised his face to hers.
"I oughtn't to let you," she whispered after a moment; "it isn't right. I ought to have told you."
He drew back instantly.
"You are not–Oh! Augusta, you are not promised to another?"
She shook her head, smiling back into his stern eyes. "There never was another," she said simply. "I always loved you. No–wait–I must tell you–"
"There is nothing you can tell me that can separate us."
"Perhaps not; perhaps you'll love me just as much, but–I'm not at all suitable for a minister's wife. I am an Agnostic."
"Ah! if that is all–" he was half relieved, half amused, by her confession. "If that is all– I am an Agnostic too."
She looked at him in silence for a moment.
"You surely do not mean that." Her voice was very low, but there was a flash in her eyes he had never seen there before. "You–an orthodox minister!"
He flushed a sudden vivid crimson that spread to the roots of the curling dark hair that she loved.
"I was a minister before I became an Agnostic," he said. "I have no talent but my eloquence, no training that would enable me to use it in any other career, and–I am ambitious. As for your Agnosticism," he paused, "it will make no difference between us, not even if you publish it on the housetops. I love you. I will marry you in spite of that."
Then the girl threw up her head and he saw the narrowed eyelids and drawn lips he had seen once, long ago, when she sprang at him like a tiger.
"But I," she said clearly, "will never marry a coward."
He looked at her in a dazed, uncomprehending way, then arose and went back to his seat staggering like an old man.
"Please take me home," she commanded, and he bent to the oars without replying.
At the landing he held out his hand to help her from the boat and tried to keep her's for a moment in his clasp, but she withdrew it quickly.
"Is this the end?" he asked.
"I hope not," she replied. "Whenever you can come to me an honest man, I will put my hand in yours even though it is horn-hard with the hardest, most menial toil. But now–" she could not keep from her voice the scorn she felt for him.
"Goodbye," he said, and stepped into the beat. She stood still for one instant trying to realize that he was gone. It seemed impossible that he was rowing away from her. Then she turned to the cottage with a smiling face, for her aunt's eyes were always observant.
"He is not the man I thought," she said sternly to her torn heart. "He is not the man I loved."
But in her own room she knelt at the open window watching the boat until it reached the other side of the lake and its black-coated occupant mingled with the gay groups in the hotel grounds.
"I never can see him again," she whispered. "Never."
She bowed her head on the window-seat and knelt there, motionless, so long that one looking at her would have said she was sleeping.