CHAPTER I THE WORLD AND THE FLESH
"A beautiful woman is intended to create a heaven on earth and she has no business wasting herself making imaginary excursions into any future paradise. The present is her time for action; and again, Charlotte, I ask you to name the day upon which you intend to marry me," said Nickols Powers, as he stood lounging in the broad window of Aunt Clara's music room and gazing down into the subdued traffic of upper Madison Avenue.
"I wish you had never taken me across that ferry and into that room crowded with redolent humanity to hear an absurd little man string together vivid, gross words about religion, words that made me tingle all over," I answered as I threw my coat on a chair, lifted my hat from my head and sat down on the seat before the dark old piano. "I think religion is the most awful thing in the world and I am as afraid of it as I am of—of death. I'm going home to my father."
"Oh, don't be afraid of it. Religion is the most potent form of intoxication known to the human race. That's why I took you over to hear the little baseball player. I wanted you to get a sip. But don't let it go to your head." And Nickols mocked me with soft tenderness in his smile.
"Well, it frightened me, and I don't like it. I'm going home to my father and forget it," I reiterated with a kind of numbness upon me, the like of which I had never before experienced.
"I'll protect you from any religious danger just as effectively as Judge Powers. I'm younger—slightly—than he, but I know just as many of the wiles of the world and the flesh as he does and maybe a few more," Nickols assured me, with a flash in his dark eyes that was both wicked and humorous, as well as very delightful.
"And the devil, too! But you don't understand. I must go home to my father," I answered still again.
"You don't understand yourself," returned Nickols. "There are strange hieroglyphics imprinted on every woman's heart and a man can read only an unconnected word here and there when he can get his flashlight thrown into the depths—if he dares adventure into her life at all. I feel that I take my own life in my hands when I allow you to talk to me as I am allowing you to-night."
"How do you know that those hieroglyphics might not mean the salvation of the world if she could spell them out herself, or some great and good person took a steady lamp and went down into her heart and—"
"It takes a very wicked man to read a woman; good men are blinded by them and stumble," Nickols assured me as he came over, stood beside me and ran his long, slender, artist's fingers up and down the keys of the piano, which evoked a strange, diabolical sort of harmony from them. "I understand about it all, so please come tell me you'll marry me." This time his arms almost encircled me, but I slipped between them as he laughed at me with his adorable pagan charm.
"No, Nickols, that would be an easy—and—and delightful way out, but I am really frightened down in some queer part of my anatomy that lies between my breast bone and my spinal column. Something is stirring in my heart and I'm afraid of it. I've got to get out in a wilderness and fight with it."
"Take it out on me," offered Nickols, with a laugh that was both wistful and provoking.
"No, I've got a home panic and I must go."
"Then when do I get my answer from what is left of you after the battle?"
"I'll let you know when to come and get it—under the roof of the Poplars," I answered him from the doorway.
And the very next morning I went down into the Harpeth Valley, driven I knew not by what, nor to what. I only knew that I felt full of a living, smothered flame and I was sure that it was best to let it burst forth in my ancestral abiding place....