“Will you come?” asked the soft voice, and he stammered an amazed and awkward assent.
On the Saturday after the day upon which Nicholas had pledged himself to attend Sunday-school Juliet Burwell asked him to come into Kingsborough and talk over the lesson for the following morning. At five o’clock in the afternoon he dressed himself with trembling hands and a perturbed heart; and for the first time in his life turned to look at his reflection in the small, cracked mirror hanging above the washstand in his stepmother’s room.
As a finishing touch Marthy Burr tied a flaming plaid cravat beneath his collar.
“You ain’t much on looks,” she remarked as she drew back to survey him, “but you’ve got as peart a face as I ever seed. I reckon you’ll be plenty handsome for a man. I was al’ays kind of set against one of these pink an’ white men, somehow. They’re pretty enough to look at when you’re feelin’ first-rate, but when you git the neuralgy they sort of turns yo’ stomach. I’ve a taste for sober colours in men and caliky.”
“I think he looks beautiful,” said Sairy Jane, her eyes on the cravat, and Nicholas felt a sudden glow of gratitude, and silently resolved to save up until he had enough money to buy her a hair ribbon.
“I ain’t sayin’ he don’t,” returned Marthy Burr with a severe glance in the direction of her eldest daughter, who was minding Jubal in the kitchen doorway. “Thar’s red heads an’ red heads, an’ his ain’t no redder than the reddest. But he came honestly by it, which is more than some folks can say as is got yellow. His father had it befo’ him, an’ thar’s one good thing about it, you’ve got to be born with it or you ain’t goin’ to come by it no other way. I never seed a dyer that could set hair that thar colour ‘cep’n the Lord Himself—an’ I ain’t one to deny that the Lord has got good taste in His own line.”
Then, as Nicholas took up his hat, she added: “If they ask after me, Nick, be sure an’ say I’m jes’ po’ly.”
Nicholas nodded and went out, followed to the road by Sairy Jane and Jubal, while his stepmother called after him to walk in the grass and try to keep his feet clean.
When he reached Kingsborough and crossed the green to the Burwell’s house, which was in the lane called “Back Street,” he fell to a creeping pace, held back by the fluttering of his pulses. Not until he saw Juliet standing at the little whitewashed gate did he brace himself to the full courage of approaching. When he spoke her name she opened the gate and gave him her hand, while all sense of diffidence fell from him.
“I’ve been looking at you for a long ways,” he said boldly, “an’ you were just like one of them tall lilies bordering the walk.”