“I thought it was just a fairy sort of thing.”
“Yes, but when a great poet sets his hand to a fairy sort of thing, you get—well, you get poor Titania.”
“She fell in love with a jackass,” he remarked. “Puck bewitched her.”
“Precisely. A lovely woman with her arms around a jackass. Does that never happen in Kings Port?”
He began smiling to himself. “I’m afraid Puck isn’t all dead yet.”
I was now in a position to begin dropping my bitters. “Shakespeare was probably too gallant to put it the other way, and make Oberon fall in love with a female jackass. But what an allegory!”
“Yes,” he muttered. “Yes.”
I followed with another drop. “Titania got out of it. It is not always solved so easily.”
“No,” he muttered. “No.” It was quite evident that the flavor of my bitters reached him.
He was walking slowly, with his head down, and frowning hard. We had now come to the steps of my boarding-house, and I dropped my last drop. “But a disenchanted woman has the best of it—before marriage, at least.”
He looked up quickly. “How?”
I evinced surprise. “Why, she can always break off honorably, and we never can, I suppose.”
For the third time this day he made me an astonishing rejoinder: “Would you like to take orders from a negro?”
It reduced me to stammering. “I have never—such a juncture has never—”
“Of course you wouldn’t. Even a Northerner!”
His face, as he said this, was a single glittering piece of fierceness. I was still so much taken aback that I said rather flatly: “But who has to?”
“I have to.” With this he abruptly turned on his heel and left me standing on the steps. For a moment I stared after him; and then, as I rang the bell, he was back again; and with that formality which at times overtook him he began: “I will ask you to excuse my hasty—”
“Oh, John Mayrant! What a notion!”
But he was by no means to be put off, and he proceeded with stiffer formality: “I feel that I have not acted politely just now, and I beg to assure you that I intended no slight.”
My first impulse was to lay a hand upon his shoulder and say to him: “My dear fellow, stuff and nonsense!” Thus I should have treated any Northern friend; but here was no Northerner. I am glad that I had the sense to feel that any careless, good-natured putting away of his deliberate and definitely tendered apology would seem to him a “slight” on my part. His punctilious value for certain observances between man and man reached me suddenly and deeply, and took me far from the familiarity which breeds contempt.
“Why, John Mayrant,” I said, “you could never offend me unless I thought that you wished to, and how should I possibly think that?”
“Thank you,” he replied very simply.
I rang the bell a second time. “If we can get into the house,” I suggested, “won’t you stop and dine with me?”