An Unknown Romance, by O.Henry

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Thursday, 24th November 2011

The first pale star peeped down the gorge. Above, to illimitable heights reached the Alps, snow-white above, shadowy around, and black in the depths of the gorge.

Young and stalwart man, clad in the garb of a chamois hunter, pased up the path. His face was bronzed, with sun and wind, his eye was frank and clear, his step agile and firm. He was singing fragments of a Bavarian hunting song, and in his hand he held a white blossom of the edelweiss he had plucked from the cliff. Suddenly, he paused, and the song broke, and dropped from his lips. A girl, costumed as the Swiss peasants are, crossed the path along one that bisected his, carrying a small stone pitcher full of water. Her hair was of the lightest gold and hung far below her trim waist in a heavy braid. Her eyes shone through the gathering twilight, and her lips, slightly parted, showed a faint gleam of the whitest teeth.

As if impelled by a common impulse, the hunter and the maiden paused, each with their eyes fixed upon the other. Then the man advanced, and doffing his feathered hat, bowed low and spake some words in the German language. The maiden answered, speaking haltingly and low.

Then a door opened in a cottage almost hidden among the trees, and a babble of voices was heard. The maiden's cheeks turned crimson, and she started to go, but as she went, she turned her eyes and looked at the hunter still. He took a step after her, and stretched out his hand as if to stay her. She tore a bunch of blue gentians, from her bosom and threw them toward him. He caught them as they fell, then ran lightly and gave into her hand the edelweiss bloom that he carried. She thrust it into her bosom, then ran like a mountain sprite into the cottage, where the voices were.

The hunter stopped for a while, then went his way more slowly up the mountain path, and he sang no more. As he went he pressed the flowers frequently to his lips.

* * *

The wedding was to be one of the showiest, and the society of the metropolis was almost begging for invitations.

The groom-elect brought the ancient lineage of the Van Winklers and a position at the top notch of society for his portion. The bride brought a beauty that was flawless, and five million dollars. The arrangement had been made in a business-like manner. There had been no question of love. He had been courteous, and politely attentive, and she had acquiesced listlessly. They had first met at a fashionable summer resort. The family of the Van Winklers and the money of the Vances were about to unite.

The wedding was to be at high noon.

Pelham Van Winkler had had a fire built in the ancient tiled fireplace of one of his rooms, although the weather was warm. He sat on the edge of a writing table, and tossed handfuls of square-shaped letters, some tied with ribbons, into the fire. He smiled a little ironically as they flamed up, or as here and there among them he would find a withered flower, a sceneted glove or a lock of be-ribboned hair.

The last sacrifice to the flames was a dried and pressed cluster of blue gentians.

Van Winkler sighed, and the smile left his face. He recalled the twilight scene among the Alps mountains, where he was wandering with three or four companions on a summer tour, gay and careless, and dressed in the picturesque garb of chamois hunters. He recalled the picture of a lovely peasant girl with eyes that help [sic] him with a charm of power, crossing the mountain road, and pausing for a moment to toss him the bunch of gentian flowers. Had he not been a Van Winkler and owed a duty to the name, he would have sought her out and married her, for her image had never left his eyes or his heart since that twilight ever. But society and the family name claimed him, and today, at high noon, he was to marry Miss Vance, the daughter of the millionaire iron founder.

Pelham Van Winkler tossed the bunch of blue gentians into the fire and rang for his valet.

* * *

Miss Augusta Vance had flown from the irritating presence of fussy female friends and hysterical relatives to her boudoir for a few moments' quiet. she had no letters to burn; no past to bury. Her mother was in an ecstacy of delight, for the family millions had brought them places in the front row of Vanity Fair.

Her marriage to Pelham Van Winkler was to be at high noon. Miss Vance fell suddenly into a dreamy reverie. She recalled a trip she had taken with her family a year before, to Europe, and her mind dwelt lingeringly upon a week they had spent among the foothills of the Alps in the cottage of a Swiss mountaineer. One evening at twilight she had gone with a pitcher across the road and filled from a spring. She had fancied to put on that day the peasant consume of Babette, the daughter of their host. It had become her well, with her long braid of light golden hair and blue eyes. A hunter had crossed the road as she was returning -- an Alpine chamois hunter, strong, stalwart, bronzed and free. She had looked up and caught his eyes and his held hers. She went on, and still those magnetic eyes claimed her own. The door of the cottage had opened and voices called. She started and obeyed the impulse to tear a bunch of gentians from her bosom and throw them to him. He had caught them, and springing forward gave her an edelweiss flower. Not since that evening had the image of the chamois hunter left her. Surely fate had led him to her, and he seemed a man among men. But Miss Augusta Vance, with a dowry of five millions, could not commit the folly of thinking of a common hunter of the Alps mountains.

Miss Vance arose and opened a gold locket that lay upon her dressing case. She took from it a faded edelweiss flower and slowly crumpled it to dust between her fingers. Then she rang for her maid, and the church bells began to chime outside for the marriage.