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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe House Of Martha - Chapter 24. The Interpolation
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The House Of Martha - Chapter 24. The Interpolation Post by :sbeard Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :2696

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The House Of Martha - Chapter 24. The Interpolation

XXIV. THE INTERPOLATION

"They did not seem in the least surprised to find us here," I said to Walkirk, as we were eating our dinner.

"Who?" he asked. "Oh, the people who came over this morning? Quite likely they saw us when we were sailing this way. We passed their island at no great distance. There is no reason why they should object. Your soft hat and flannel shirt would not prevent them from seeing that you were a gentleman."

I nodded, and sat silent for a time.

"Walkirk," said I, "suppose we sail over to those people this afternoon? It might be interesting."

"Very good," he answered, turning suddenly to watch a sea gull, which had made a great swoop toward us, as if attracted by the odors of our meal; "that will be an excellent thing to do."

In making our way, that afternoon, in the direction of the Tangent, our course was not mathematically correct, for the wind did not favor us, and it was impossible to sail in a right line; but the sun was still high when we reached the larger island, and made the boat fast to a little pier.

This island was much more attractive than the one on which we were camping. The ground receded from the beach in rolling slopes covered with short grass, and here and there were handsome spreading trees. On a bluff, a few hundred yards from the pier, stood a low, picturesque house, almost surrounded by a grove. The path to the house was plainly marked, and led us along the face of a little hill to a jutting point, where it seemed to make an abrupt turn upward. As we rounded this point, we saw on a rocky ledge not far ahead of us a lady dressed in white. She was standing on the ledge, looking out over the water, and apparently very much engaged with her own thoughts, for she had not yet perceived our approach.

At the first glance I saw that the figure before us was not the Sand Lady. This was a tall and graceful woman, carrying no weight of years. She held her hat in her hand, and her dark hair was slightly blown back from a face which, seen in profile against the clear blue sky, appeared to me to be perfect in its outline. We stopped involuntarily, and at that moment she turned toward us. Her face was one of noble beauty, with great dark eyes, and a complexion of that fine glow which comes to women who are not quite brunettes.

Walkirk started, and seized my arm. "Good heavens," he whispered, "it is Mother Anastasia!"

As we now advanced toward the lady, I could scarcely believe what I had heard; certainly I could not comprehend it. Here was one of the most beautiful women I had ever beheld, dressed in a robe of soft white flannel, which, though simple, was tasteful and elegant. She had a bunch of wild flowers in her belt, and at her neck a bow of dark yellow ribbon. I particularly noticed these points, in my amazement at hearing Walkirk say that this was the Mother Superior of the House of Martha.

As we approached, she greeted us pleasantly, very much as if she had expected our coming, and then, addressing Walkirk, she said, with a smile:

"I see, sir, that you recognize me, and I suppose you are somewhat surprised to find me here, and thus," glancing at her dress.

"Surprised, madam!" exclaimed Walkirk. "I am astounded."

"Well," said she, "that sort of thing will happen occasionally. The people on this island have been expecting a visit from you gentlemen, but I really do not know where any of them are. It is not always easy to find them, but I will go and see if the Sand Lady is in the house, and if so I will tell her of your arrival. Of course," she continued, now turning to me, "you both will remember that in this place we put ourselves outside of a good many of the ordinary conventions, and are known by our characteristics instead of our names."

I assured her we understood this, and considered it an admirable idea.

"As you, sir," turning to Walkirk, "have met me before, I will immediately state that I am known on this island only as the 'Interpolation.'"

She turned to walk toward the house, but stopped. "We are all here to enjoy ourselves, and it is against the rules to worry each other with puzzles. I therefore will at once say, in explanation of my name, that I have briefly thrust myself into the life of my friends; and of my appearance, that the Middle-Aged Man of the Sea, who is a very self-willed person, caused the costume which I ordinarily wear, and in which I arrived, to be abstracted and hidden, so that I am obliged, while here, to wear clothes belonging to others. Now, you see, Mr. Understudy, everything is as plain as daylight."

"They have been talking about us," I remarked, as the lady rapidly walked away, "and of course, having recognized you, she must know who I am."

"Know you? There is no doubt of it," he answered. "She must have seen you often in the village, although you may never have noticed her."

"I certainly never have," said I; "in fact, I make it a point not to look under the bonnets of those gray-garbed women."

"When you meet them in the street?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied.

"She knows us both," said Walkirk, "and she has now gone to the house to tell the people who we are; and yet I am surprised that she met us so serenely. She could not possibly have known that the two men on that little island were her neighbors in the village of Arden."

I made no answer. I was strangely excited. I had flown to an uninhabited island to get away from Sylvia, and, if my conscience could be made to work properly, to get away from all thoughts of her; and here I had met, most unexpectedly and suddenly, with one who was probably the most intimate connection of the girl from whom I was flying. I was amazed; my emotion thrilled me from head to foot.

"It is just like women," remarked Walkirk, as we slowly walked toward the house, "to put on disguises to conceal their identities, but they have no respect for our identities. Without doubt, at this moment Mother Anastasia is telling the lady of the house all about you and your grandmother, your position in society, and the manner in which you were furnished with a secretary from the House of Martha."

Still I did not reply. "Mother Anastasia!" I said to myself. "Here is a gray-garbed sister transformed into a lovely woman. Why should not another sister be so transformed? Why should not Sylvia be here, in soft white raiment, with flowers and a broad hat? If one can be thus, why not the other?" The possibility fevered me.

We found the mistress of the house--the same who was called the Sand Lady--upon a piazza. Her demeanor had been pleasant enough when we had seen her before, but now she greeted us as cordially as if we had been old friends. It was plain enough that Mother Anastasia had told her all about us. Her brother and the Shell Man were also there, and the first was friendly and the latter polite. The Mother Superior was on the piazza, but keeping a little in the background, as if she felt that she had had her turn.

"And now, Mr. Lover in Check and Mr. Understudy," said the Sand Lady, "I present you with the freedom of this island, as I have already presented you with the freedom of the other. If what we happen to be doing interests you, join us. If it does not, interest yourselves as you please. That is our custom here."

The mention of the name which I had applied to myself gave me a little shock. Under the circumstances I did not like it. It was possible that the Mother Superior of the House of Martha might know what it meant; and whether she knew it now, or ever should come to know it, I did not wish the knowledge to come to her in that way.

"There is still another one of our family," said the Sand Lady; "but she is very independent, and may not care for me to present you just now. I will go and ask her."

She stepped off the piazza, and went to a lady who was reading in a hammock, under a tree near by. In a minute or two this lady arose, and, with her book in her hand, came toward us. She was a woman of good figure, and with a certain air of loftiness. Her dress was extremely simple, and she may have been thirty years old. Approaching us, she said:--

"I wish to introduce myself. I am a 'Person.' In this place that is all I am. It is my name. It denotes my characteristics. Your titles have been mentioned to me. The ceremony is over," and, with a little nod, she returned to her hammock.

"Now," said the Man of the Sea, "who could prune away conventionalities better than that?" He then announced that in half an hour the tide would serve for fishing,--that he was going out in his boat, and would take any one who cared to accompany him; and this announcement having been made, he settled himself upon the piazza to talk to us. The conversation was interesting and lively. The people at this house were well worth knowing.

The Sand Lady and Walkirk went in the boat to fish. The latter had been very prompt to accept the invitation. I do not know whether the Shell Man went with them or not. At all events, he disappeared, and Mother Anastasia and myself were left upon the piazza. It surprised me that events had so quickly shaped themselves to my advantage.

"Do you insist," I said, when we were left alone, "on being called an Interpolation?"

"Of course I do," she answered; "that is what I am."

"You like plain speech."

"I am very fond of it," was her reply.

During the general conversation I had determined that as soon as an opportunity offered I would speak very plainly to this lady. I looked about me. The occupant of the hammock was not far away. I surmised that she could readily hear me if I spoke in my ordinary tone.

"Plain speech appears difficult to you," remarked my companion.

I still looked about me. "It strikes me," said I, "that beyond the other side of the house there is a bluff from which one might get a view of the mainland. Would you like to go and find out whether that is so or not?"

"I have seen that view several times," she answered; and then, after a little pause, she added, "But I don't mind in the least seeing it again." Together we walked to the bluff. There we found two rude seats which had been made for the convenience of viewers, and on one of these she seated herself.

"Now," said she, "please sit down, and you may immediately begin to ask me about Sister Ha--"

"Oh, do not call her by that name!" I cried.

She laughed. "Very well, then," said she, "what shall I call her?"

"Sylvia," I replied.

She opened her eyes. "Upon my word," she exclaimed, "this is progress! How did you come to know that her name is Sylvia?"

"She told me," I answered. "But why do you think I want to ask you about Sylvia?"

"I knew there was no other reason for your wishing to have a private talk with me; but I must admit that I would not have felt warranted to act upon my assumptions had you not announced yourself in this place as a Lover in Check."

"But could not some one else have held me in check?" I asked.

"No, sir," said she. "I have heard of the manner in which you parted from your late secretary."

This conversation was getting to be plainer than I desired it to be. I was willing to declare my position, but I did not care to have it declared for me. I was silent for a minute.

"I did not suppose," I then said, "that you were so well informed. You think that I am a lover held in check by the circumstances surrounding the lady you designated my late secretary?"

"I do."

"May I ask," I continued, with a little agitation, "if Sylvia considers me in this light, and if she has--expressed any opinion on the subject?"

"Those are pretty questions," said the lady, fixing her dark eyes upon me. "She has said nothing about the light in which she considers you. In fact, all she has told me about you has been in answer to questions I have put to her; but had she spoken of you as a lover, checked or unchecked, of course you would have been none the wiser for me. Sylvia is a simple-hearted, frank girl, and I have thought that she might not have suspected the nature of your very decided liking for her; but now that I have found out that she let you know her as Sylvia I am afraid she is deeper than I thought her. I should not be surprised if you two had flirted dreadfully."

"I never flirt," I answered emphatically.

"That is right," said she. "Never do it."

"But why," I asked, "did you allow her to continue to come to me, if you thought I had a decided liking for her, and all that?"

"Because I chose to do it," she replied, with not the ripple of a smile nor the furrow of a frown upon her face.

I looked at her in amazement.

"Madam," said I, "Interpolation, Mother Anastasia, or whatever name you give yourself, begin now and tell me about Sylvia, and speak to me freely, as I speak to you. I love her with all my heart. If I can, I intend to marry her, Martha or no Martha. I care not what may be the odds against me. Now you see exactly where I stand, and as far as I am concerned you may speak without restraint."

"You are certainly very clear and explicit," she said, "and I shall be glad to tell you about Sylvia."

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