In the same room sat a pauper who had once been an actress of considerable repute, but was compelled to give up her profession by a softening of the brain. The disease seemed to have stolen the continuity out of her life, and disturbed all healthy relationship between the thoughts within her and the world without. On our first entrance, she looked cheerfully at us, and showed herself ready to engage in conversation; but suddenly, while we were talking with the century-old crone, the poor actress began to weep, contorting her face with extravagant stage-grimaces, and wringing her hands for some inscrutable sorrow. It might have been a reminiscence of actual calamity in her past life, or, quite as probably, it was but a dramatic woe, beneath which she had staggered and shrieked and wrung her hands with hundreds of repetitions in the sight of crowded theatres, and been as often comforted by thunders of applause. But my idea of the mystery was, that she had a sense of wrong in seeing the aged woman (whose empty vivacity was like the rattling of dry peas in a bladder) chosen as the central object of interest to the visitors, while she herself, who had agitated thousands of hearts with a breath, sat starving for the admiration that was her natural food. I appeal to the whole society of artists of the Beautiful and the Imaginative,—poets, romancers, painters, sculptors, actors,—whether or no this is a grief that may be felt even amid the torpor of a dissolving brain!
We looked into a good many sleeping-chambers, where were rows of beds, mostly calculated for two occupants, and provided with sheets and pillow-cases that resembled sackcloth. It appeared to me that the sense of beauty was insufficiently regarded in all the arrangements of the almshouse; a little cheap luxury for the eye, at least, might do the poor folks a substantial good. But, at all events, there was the beauty of perfect neatness and orderliness, which, being heretofore known to few of them, was perhaps as much as they could well digest in the remnant of their lives. We were invited into the laundry, where a great washing and drying were in process, the whole atmosphere being hot and vaporous with the steam of wet garments and bedclothes. This atmosphere was the pauper-life of the past week or fortnight resolved into a gaseous state, and breathing it, however fastidiously, we were forced to inhale the strange element into our inmost being. Had the Queen been there, I know not how she could have escaped the necessity. What an intimate brotherhood is this in which we dwell, do what we may to put an artificial remoteness between the high creature and the low one! A poor man's breath, borne on the vehicle of tobacco-smoke, floats into a palace-window and reaches the nostrils of a monarch. It is but an example, obvious to the sense, of the innumerable and secret channels by which, at every moment of our lives, the flow and reflux of a common humanity pervade us all. How superficial are the niceties of such as pretend to keep aloof! Let the whole world be cleansed, or not a man or woman of us all can be clean.
By-and-by we came to the ward where the children were kept, on entering which, we saw, in the first place, several unlovely and unwholesome little people lazily playing together in a court-yard. And here a singular incommodity befell one member of our party. Among the children was a wretched, pale, half-torpid little thing, (about six years old, perhaps, but I know not whether a girl or a boy,) with a humor in its eyes and face, which the governor said was the scurvy, and which appeared to bedim its powers of vision, so that it toddled about gropingly, as if in quest of it did not precisely know what. This child—this sickly, wretched, humor-eaten infant, the offspring of unspeakable sin and sorrow, whom it must have required several generations of guilty progenitors to render so pitiable an object as we beheld it—immediately took an unaccountable fancy to the gentleman just hinted at. It prowled about him like a pet kitten, rubbing against his legs, following everywhere at his heels, pulling at his coat-tails, and, at last, exerting all the speed that its poor limbs were capable of, got directly before him and held forth its arms, mutely insisting on being taken up. It said not a word, being perhaps underwitted and incapable of prattle. But it smiled up in his face,—a sort of woful gleam was that smile, through the sickly blotches that covered its features,—and found means to express such a perfect confidence that it was going to be fondled and made much of, that there was no possibility in a human heart of balking its expectation. It was as if God had promised the poor child this favor on behalf of that individual, and he was bound to fulfil the contract, or else no longer call himself a man among men. Nevertheless, it could be no easy thing for him to do, he being a person burdened with more than an Englishman's customary reserve, shy of actual contact with human beings, afflicted with a peculiar distaste for whatever was ugly, and, furthermore, accustomed to that habit of observation from an insulated stand-point which is said (but, I hope, erroneously) to have the tendency of putting ice into the blood.
So I watched the struggle in his mind with a good deal of interest, and am seriously of opinion that he did an heroic act, and effected more than he dreamed of towards his final salvation, when he took up the loathsome child and caressed it as tenderly as if he had been its father. To be sure, we all smiled at him, at the time, but doubtless would have acted pretty much the same in a similar stress of circumstances. The child, at any rate, appeared to be satisfied with his behavior; for when he had held it a considerable time, and set it down, it still favored him with its company, keeping fast hold of his forefinger till we reached the confines of the place. And on our return through the court-yard, after visiting another part of the establishment, here again was this same little Wretchedness waiting for its victim, with a smile of joyful, and yet dull recognition about its scabby mouth and in its rheumy eyes. No doubt, the child's mission in reference to our friend was to remind him that he was responsible, in his degree, for all the sufferings and misdemeanors of the world in which he lived, and was not entitled to look upon a particle of its dark calamity as if it were none of his concern: the offspring of a brother's iniquity being his own blood-relation, and the guilt, likewise, a burden on him, unless he expiated it by better deeds.
All the children in this ward seemed to be invalids, and, going up-stairs, we found more of them in the same or a worse condition than the little creature just described, with their mothers (or more probably other women, for the infants were mostly foundlings) in attendance as nurses. The matron of the ward, a middle-aged woman, remarkably kind and motherly in aspect, was walking to and fro across the chamber—on that weary journey in which careful mothers and nurses travel so continually and so far, and gain never a step of progress—with an unquiet baby in her arms. She assured us that she enjoyed her occupation, being exceedingly fond of children; and, in fact, the absence of timidity in all the little people was a sufficient proof that they could have had no experience of harsh treatment, though, on the other hand, none of them appeared to be attracted to one individual more than another. In this point they differed widely from the poor child below-stairs. They seemed to recognize a universal motherhood in womankind, and cared not which individual might be the mother of the moment. I found their tameness as shocking as did Alexander Selkirk that of the brute subjects of his else solitary kingdom. It was a sort of tame familiarity, a perfect indifference to the approach of strangers, such as I never noticed in other children. I accounted for it partly by their nerveless, unstrung state of body, incapable of the quick thrills of delight and fear which play upon the lively harp-strings of a healthy child's nature, and partly by their woful lack of acquaintance with a private home, and their being therefore destitute of the sweet homebred shyness, which is like the sanctity of heaven about a mother-petted child. Their condition was like that of chickens hatched in an oven, and growing up without the especial guardianship of a matron-hen: both the chicken and the child, methinks, must needs want something that is essential to their respective characters.
In this chamber (which was spacious, containing a large number of beds) there was a clear fire burning on the hearth, as in all the other occupied rooms; and directly in front of the blaze sat a woman holding a baby, which, beyond all reach of comparison, was the most horrible object that ever afflicted my sight. Days afterwards—nay, even now, when I bring it up vividly before my mind's eye—it seemed to lie upon the floor of my heart, polluting my moral being with the sense of something grievously amiss in the entire conditions of humanity. The holiest man could not be otherwise than full of wickedness, the chastest virgin seemed impure, in a world where such a babe was possible. The governor whispered me, apart, that, like nearly all the rest of them, it was the child of unhealthy parents. Ah, yes! There was the mischief. This spectral infant, a hideous mockery of the visible link which Love creates between man and woman, was born of disease and sin. Diseased Sin was its father, and Sinful Disease its mother, and their offspring lay in the woman's arms like a nursing Pestilence, which, could it live to grow up, would make the world a more accursed abode than ever heretofore. Thank Heaven, it could not live! This baby, if we must give it that sweet name, seemed to be three or four months old, but, being such an unthrifty changeling, might have been considerably older. It was all covered with blotches, and preternaturally dark and discolored; it was withered away, quite shrunken and fleshless; it breathed only amid pantings and gaspings, and moaned painfully at every gasp. The only comfort in reference to it was the evident impossibility of its surviving to draw many more of those miserable, moaning breaths; and it would have been infinitely less heart-depressing to see it die, right before my eyes, than to depart and carry it alive in my remembrance, still suffering the incalculable torture of its little life. I can by no means express how horrible this infant was, neither ought I to attempt it. And yet I must add one final touch. Young as the poor little creature was, its pain and misery had endowed it with a premature intelligence, insomuch that its eyes seemed to stare at the by-standers out of their sunken sockets knowingly and appealingly, as if summoning us one and all to witness the deadly wrong of its existence. At least, I so interpreted its look, when it positively met and responded to my own awe-stricken gaze, and therefore I lay the case, as far as I am able, before mankind, on whom God has imposed the necessity to suffer in soul and body till this dark and dreadful wrong be righted.
Thence we went to the school-rooms, which were underneath the chapel. The pupils, like the children whom we had just seen, were, in large proportion, foundlings. Almost without exception, they looked sickly, with marks of eruptive trouble in their doltish faces, and a general tendency to diseases of the eye. Moreover, the poor little wretches appeared to be uneasy within their skins, and screwed themselves about on the benches in a disagreeably suggestive way, as if they had inherited the evil habits of their parents as an innermost garment of the same texture and material as the shirt of Nessus, and must wear it with unspeakable discomfort as long as they lived. I saw only a single child that looked healthy; and on my pointing him out, the governor informed me that this little boy, the sole exception to the miserable aspect of his school-fellows, was not a foundling, nor properly a workhouse child, being born of respectable parentage, and his father one of the officers of the institution. As for the remainder,—the hundred pale abortions to be counted against one rosy-cheeked boy,—what shall we say or do? Depressed by the sight of so much misery, and uninventive of remedies for the evils that force themselves on my perception, I can do little more than recur to the idea already hinted at in the early part of this article, regarding the speedy necessity of a new deluge. So far as these children are concerned, at any rate, it would be a blessing to the human race, which they will contribute to enervate and corrupt,—a greater blessing to themselves, who inherit no patrimony but disease and vice, and in whose souls if there be a spark of God's life, this seems the only possible mode of keeping it aglow,—if every one of them could be drowned to-night, by their best friends, instead of being put tenderly to bed. This heroic method of treating human maladies, moral and material, is certainly beyond the scope of man's discretionary rights, and probably will not be adopted by Divine Providence until the opportunity of milder reformation shall have been offered us, again and again, through a series of future ages.
It may be fair to acknowledge that the humane and excellent governor, as well as other persons better acquainted with the subject than myself, took a less gloomy view of it, though still so dark a one as to involve scanty consolation. They remarked that individuals of the male sex, picked up in the streets and nurtured in the work-house, sometimes succeed tolerably well in life, because they are taught trades before being turned into the world, and, by dint of immaculate behavior and good luck, are not unlikely to get employment and earn a livelihood. The case is different with the girls. They can only go to service, and are invariably rejected by families of respectability on account of their origin, and for the better reason of their unfitness to fill satisfactorily even the meanest situations in a well-ordered English household. Their resource is to take service with people only a step or two above the poorest class, with whom they fare scantily, endure harsh treatment, lead shifting and precarious lives, and finally drop into the slough of evil, through which, in their best estate, they do but pick their slimy way on stepping-stones.
From the schools we went to the bakehouse, and the brew-house, (for such cruelty is not harbored in the heart of a true Englishman as to deny a pauper his daily allowance of beer,) and through the kitchens, where we beheld an immense pot over the fire, surging and walloping with some kind of a savory stew that filled it up to its brim. We also visited a tailor's shop and a shoemaker's shop, in both of which a number of men, and pale, diminutive apprentices, were at work, diligently enough, though seemingly with small heart in the business. Finally, the governor ushered us into a shed, inside of which was piled up an immense quantity of new coffins. They were of the plainest description, made of pine boards, probably of American growth, not very nicely smoothed by the plane, neither painted nor stained with black, but provided with a loop of rope at either end for the convenience of lifting the rude box and its inmate into the cart that shall carry them to the burial-ground. There, in holes ten feet deep, the paupers are buried one above another, mingling their relics indistinguishably. In another world may they resume their individuality, and find it a happier one than here!
As we departed, a character came under our notice which I have met with in all almshouses, whether of the city or village, or in England or America. It was the familiar simpleton, who shuffled across the court-yard, clattering his wooden-soled shoes, to greet us with a howl or a laugh, I hardly know which, holding out his hand for a penny, and chuckling grossly when it was given him. All underwitted persons, so far as my experience goes, have this craving for copper coin, and appear to estimate its value by a miraculous instinct, which is one of the earliest gleams of human intelligence while the nobler faculties are yet in abeyance. There may come a time, even in this world, when we shall all understand that our tendency to the individual appropriation of gold and broad acres, fine houses, and such good and beautiful things as are equally enjoyable by a multitude, is but a trait of imperfectly developed intelligence, like the simpleton's cupidity of a penny. When that day dawns,—and probably not till then,—I imagine that there will be no more poor streets nor need of almshouses.
I was once present at the wedding of some poor English people, and was deeply impressed by the spectacle, though by no means with such proud and delightful emotions as seem to have affected all England on the recent occasion of the marriage of its Prince. It was in the Cathedral at Manchester, a particularly black and grim old structure, into which I had stepped to examine some ancient and curious wood-carvings within the choir. The woman in attendance greeted me with a smile, (which always glimmers forth on the feminine visage, I know not why, when a wedding is in question,) and asked me to take a seat in the nave till some poor parties were married, it being the Easter holidays, and a good time for them to marry, because no fees would be demanded by the clergyman. I sat down accordingly, and soon the parson and his clerk appeared at the altar, and a considerable crowd of people made their entrance at a side-door, and ranged themselves in a long, huddled line across the chancel. They were my acquaintances of the poor streets, or persons in a precisely similar condition of life, and were now come to their marriage-ceremony in just such garbs as I had always seen them wear: the men in their loafers' coats, out at elbows, or their laborers' jackets, defaced with grimy toil; the women drawing their shabby shawls tighter about their shoulders, to hide the raggedness beneath; all of them unbrushed, unshaven, unwashed, uncombed, and wrinkled with penury and care; nothing virgin-like in the brides, nor hopeful or energetic in the bridegrooms;—they were, in short, the mere rags and tatters of the human race, whom some east-wind of evil omen, howling along the streets, had chanced to sweep together into an unfragrant heap. Each and all of them, conscious of his or her individual misery, had blundered into the strange miscalculation of supposing that they could lessen the sum of it by multiplying it into the misery of another person. All the couples (and it was difficult, in such a confused crowd, to compute exactly their number) stood up at once, and had execution done upon them in the lump, the clergyman addressing only small parts of the service to each individual pair, but so managing the larger portion as to include the whole company without the trouble of repetition. By this compendious contrivance, one would apprehend, he came dangerously near making every man and woman the husband or wife of every other; nor, perhaps, would he have perpetrated much additional mischief by the mistake; but, after receiving a benediction in common, they assorted themselves in their own fashion, as they only knew how, and departed to the garrets, or the cellars, or the unsheltered street-corners, where their honeymoon and subsequent lives were to be spent. The parson smiled decorously, the clerk and the sexton grinned broadly, the female attendant tittered almost aloud, and even the married parties seemed to see something exceedingly funny in the affair; but for my part, though generally apt enough to be tickled by a joke, I laid it away in my memory as one of the saddest sights I ever looked upon.
Not very long afterwards, I happened to be passing the same venerable Cathedral, and heard a clang of joyful bells, and beheld a bridal party coming down the steps towards a carriage and four horses, with a portly coachman and two postilions, that waited at the gate. The bridegroom's mien had a sort of careless and kindly English pride; the bride floated along in her white drapery, a creature so nice and delicate that it was a luxury to see her, and a pity that her silk slippers should touch anything so grimy as the old stones of the church-yard avenue. The crowd of ragged people, who always cluster to witness what they may of an aristocratic wedding, broke into audible admiration of the bride's beauty and the bridegroom's manliness, and uttered prayers and ejaculations (possibly paid for in alms) for the happiness of both. If the most favorable of earthly conditions could make them happy, they had every prospect of it. They were going to live on their abundance in one of those stately and delightful English homes, such as no other people ever created or inherited, a hall set far and safe within its own private grounds, and surrounded with venerable trees, shaven lawns, rich shrubbery, and trimmest pathways, the whole so artfully contrived and tended that summer rendered it a paradise, and even winter would hardly disrobe it of its beauty; and all this fair property seemed more exclusively and inalienably their own, because of its descent through many forefathers, each of whom had added an improvement or a charm, and thus transmitted it with a stronger stamp of rightful possession to his heir. And is it possible, after all, that there may be a flaw in the title-deeds? Is, or is not, the system wrong that gives one married pair so immense a superfluity of luxurious home, and shuts out a million others from any home whatever? One day or another, safe as they deem themselves, and safe as the hereditary temper of the people really tends to make them, the gentlemen of England will be compelled to face this question.
* * * * *
"Skin cool, damp. Pha! pha! I thought that camphor and morphine last night would cure you. Always good for sudden attacks."
The little woman's stumpy white fingers were very motherly, touching Grey's forehead.
"I promised Doctor Blecker you would see him in half an hour."
"It is not best," the girl said, standing up, leaning against the mantel-shelf.
"It is best. Yes. You say you will not consent to the marriage: are going with me to-night. So, so. I ask no questions. No, child. Hush!"—with a certain dignity. "I want no explanations. Sarah Sheppard's rough, maybe; but she keeps her own privacy, and regards that of others. But you must see him. He is your best friend, if nothing more. A woman cannot be wrong, when she acts in that way from the inherent truth of things. That was my mother's rule. In half an hour,"—putting her forefinger on Grey's temple, and pursing her mouth. "Pulse low. Sharp seven the train goes. I'll bring a bottle of nitre in my bag,"—and she bustled out.
Grey looked after her. Strong, useful, stable: how contented and happy she had been since she was born! Love, wealth, coming to her as matters of course. The girl looked out of the dingy window into the wearisome gray sky. Well, what was the difference between them? What crime had she committed, that God should have so set His face against her from the first,—from the very first? She had trusted Him more than this woman whom He seemed glad to bless. There were two or three creamy wild-lilies in a broken glass on the sill. The girl always loved the flower, because Jesus had touched it once: it brought her near to him, she fancied. She thought of him now, seeing them, and put her hand to her head: remembering the nameless agony he had chosen to bear to show her what a true life should be; loving him with that desperate hope with which only a woman undone clings to him upon the cross. And yet—
"It's hard," she said, turning sullenly away from the window.
Whatever the hours of this past day and night had been to her, they had left one curious mark on her face,—a hollow sinking of the lines about the mouth, as though years of pain had slowly crept over her. Suffering had not ennobled her. It is only heroic, large-brained women, with a great natural grasp of charity, that severe pain lifts out of themselves: weak souls, like Grey, who starve without daily food of personal love, contract under God's great judgments, sour into pettish discontent, or grow maudlin as blind devotees, knowing but two things in eternity,—their own idea of God, and their own salvation. Nunneries are full of them. Grey had no vital pith of self-reliance to keep her erect, now that the storm came. What strength she had was outside: her childlike grip on the hand of the Man gone before.
"In half an hour." She tried to put that thought out, and look at the chamber they had given her last night: odd enough for a woman; a bare-floored, low-ceiled room, the upper story of the fire-engine house: the same which they had used as a guard-house; but they had no prisoners now. From this window where she stood John Brown had defended himself; the marks of bullets were in the walls. She tried to think of all that had followed that defence, of the four millions of slaves for whom he died, whose friends in the North would convert their masters into their deadly foes, and be slothful in helping them themselves. She tried to fill up the half-hour thinking of this, but it seemed to her she was more to be pitied than they. Chained to a man she hated. Why, more than four millions of women had married as she had done: society drove them into it. "In half an hour." He was coming then. She would be calm about it, would bid him good-bye without crying. He would suffer less then,—poor Paul! She had his likeness: she would give that back. She drew it from its hiding-place and laid it down: the eyes looked at hers with a half-laugh: she turned away quickly to the window, holding herself up by her shaking hands. If she could keep it to look at,—at night, sometimes! She would grow old soon, and in all her life if she had this one little pleasure!
"I will not," she said, pushing it from her. "I will go to God pure."
She heard a man's step on the clay path outside. Only the sentry's. Paul's was heavier, more nervous. Pen came to her to button his coat.
"To-day are we going home, Sis?"
God forgive her, if for a moment she loathed the home!
"Pen, will you love me always?"—holding him tight to her breast. "I won't have anybody but you."
Pen kissed her, the kiss meaning little, and ran out to the sentry, who made a pet of him. But what the kiss meant was all the future held for her: she knew that.
Now came the strange change which no logician can believe in or disprove. While she stood there, holding her hands over her eyes, trying to accept her fate, it grew too heavy and dark for her to bear. What Helper she sought then, and how, only those who have found Him know. I only can tell you that presently she bared her face, her nerves trembling, for the half-hour was nearly over, but with a brave, still light in her hazel eyes. The change had come of which every soul is susceptible. Very bitter tears may have come after that; her life was but a tawdry remnant, she might still think, for that foul lie of hers long ago; but she would take up the days cheerfully, and do God's will with them.
There was another step: not the sentry's now. She bathed her red eyes, and hastily drew her hair back plain. Paul liked the curls falling about her throat. She must never try to please him again. Never! She must bid him good-bye now. It meant forever. Maybe when she was dead—He was coming: she heard his foot on the stairs, his hand on the latch. God help her to be a true woman!
He touched the hand covering her eyes.
"It is so cold! You mean to leave me, Grey?"
She drew back, sitting down on a camp-chest, and looked up at him. He had not come there to tempt her by passionate evil: she saw that. This pain he had fought with in his soul all night, trying to see what God meant by it, had left his face subdued, earnest, sorrowful. Perhaps since Paul Blecker left his mother's knee he had never been so like a child as now.
"Yes, I must go. He will not claim me. I am glad I was spared that. I'm going to try and do right with the rest of my life, Paul."
Blecker said nothing, paced the floor of the room, his head sunk on his breast.
"Let us go out of this," at last. "I'm choked. I think in the free air we will know what is right, better."
She put on her hood, and they went out, the girl drawing back on the steps, lest he should offer to assist her.
"I will not touch you, Grey," he said, gravely, "unless you give me leave."
Somehow, as she followed him down the deserted street, she felt how puny her trouble was, after all, to his. She had time to notice the drops of sweat wrung out on his forehead, and wish she dared to wipe them away; but he strode on in silence, forgetting even her, facing this inscrutable fate that mastered them, with a strong man's desperation. They came to the river, out of sight of the town. She stopped.
"We must wait here. I must stay where I can hear the train coming."
"The train,—yes. You are going in it? Yet, Grey, you love me?"
She wrung her hands with a frightened cry.
"Paul, don't tempt me. I'm weak: you know that. Don't make me fouler than I am. There 's something in the world better for us than love: to try to be pure and true. You'll help me to be that, dear Paul?"—laying her hand on his arm, beseechingly. "You'll not keep me back? It's hard, you know,"—trying to smile, her lips only growing colorless.
"I'll help you, Grey,"—his face distorted, touching her fingers for an instant with an unutterable tenderness. "I knew this man was here from the first. If there was crime in our marriage, I took it on myself. I was not afraid to face hell for you, child. But, Grey," meeting her eye, "I love you. I will not risk your soul for my selfish pleasure. If it be a crime for you to stay with me, I will bid you go, and never attempt to see your face again."
"If it be a crime? You cannot doubt that, Paul!"
"I do doubt it. You can obtain a divorce,"—looking at her, with his color changing.
She pushed back the hair from her forehead. Her brain ached. Where was all the clear reasoning she had meant to meet him with?
"No, I will not do that. I know the law says it is right; but Christ forbade it. I can't argue. I only know his words."
He walked to and fro: he could not be still a minute, when in pain.
"Will you sit there?"—motioning her to a flat rock. "I want to speak to you."
She sat down,—looked at the river. If she saw that look on his face longer, she would go to him, though God's own arm stretched between them. She clenched her little hands together, something in her soul crying out, "I'm trying to do right," fiercely, to God. Martyrs for every religion have said the same, when the heat crept closer over the fagots. They were true to the best they could discover, and He asks no more of any man.
"I want you to hear me patiently," he said, standing near her, and looking down. "You said there was something better for us in the world than love. There is nothing for me. I've not been taught much about God or His ways. I thought I'd learn them through you. I've lived a coarse, selfish life. You took me out of it. I am not very selfish, loving you, little Grey,"—with a sad smile,—"for I will give you up sooner than hurt you. But if I had married you, I think it would have redeemed me. I want you," passing his hand over his forehead, uncertainly, "to look at this thing calmly. We'll put feeling aside. Because—because it matters more than life or death to me."
He was silent a moment.
"All night I have been trying to face it dispassionately, with reason. I have succeeded now."
It is a pitiful thing to see a man choke down such weakness. Grey would not see it: her eyes were fastened on her hands. He controlled himself, going on rapidly.
"I say nothing of myself. I'm only a weak, passionate man; but I mean to let your soul be pure. Yet I believe you judge wrongly in this. You think of marriage, as women in your State and in the South are taught to think, as a thing irrevocable. There are men in New England who hold other views,—pure, good men, Grey. I've tried to put you from my mind, and look at society as it is, with its corrupt, mercenary marriages, and I believe their theory is the only feasible and just,—that only those bound by secret affinity to each other are truly married."
Grey's face flushed.
"I have heard the theory, and its results,"—low.
"Because it has been seized upon as a cloak by false men. Use your reason, Grey. Do not be blinded by popular prejudice. Your fate and mine rest on this question."
"I will try to understand."
She faced him gravely.
"Whom God hath joined together no man shall put asunder. Somewhere, when our souls were made, I think, He joined us, Grey. You know that."
"I do know it."
She stood up, not shrinking from his eye now,—her womanly nature, clear and brave, looking out from hers.
"I will not speak of love: you know what that is. You know you need me: you have moulded your very thought and life in mine. It is right it should be so. God meant it. He made them male and female: taught them by that instinct of nearness to know when the two souls mated in eternity had found each other. Then the only true marriage comes,—pure, helpful, resting on God, stretching out strong, healthy aid to His humanity. The true souls, lovers, have found each other now, Grey."
He came to her,—took her hands in his.
"I know that,"—her pale face still lifted.
"Then,"—all the passion of a life in his voice,—"what shall come between us? If, in God's eye, who is Love, you love me purely, have given me the life of your life to keep, is a foul, lying vow, uttered to a man scarce made in God's image, to keep us apart? I tell you, your soul's health and mine depend on this."
She did not speak: her breath came labored and thick.
"You will come with me, Grey. You shall not go back to the slavery yonder, dragging out the bit of time God gave you, in which to develop your soul, in coddling selfish brats, and kitchen-work. There are homes where men and women enfranchise themselves from the cursed laws of society,—Phalansteries,—where each soul develops itself out of the inner centre of eternal truth and love according to its primal bent, free to yield to its instincts and affinities. I learned their theory long ago, but I never believed in it until now. We will go there, Grey. We will be governed by the laws of our own nature. It will be a free, beautiful life, my own. Music and Art and Nature shall surround us with an eternal harmony. We will have work, true work, such as suits our native power; these talents smothered in your brain and mine shall come to life in vigorous growth. Here in the world, struggling meanly for food, this cannot be. That shall be the true Utopia, Grey. Some day all mankind shall so live. We, now. "Will you come?"—drawing her softly towards him. "You do not yield?"—looking in her face. "I am sincere. I see the truth of the life-scheme of these people through my love for you. No human soul can reach its full stature, unless it be free and happy. There is no chain on women such as marriages like yours."
"I say that there are slaveries in society, and false marriages are the worst; and until you and all women are free from them, you never can become what God meant you to be. Do I speak truth?"
"It is true."
"You will come with me, then?"—his face growing red.
For one moment her head rested against the rock, languid and nerveless. Then she stood erect.
"I will not go, Paul."
He caught her arm; but she shook him off, and held her hand to her side to keep down an actual physical pain that some women suffer when their hearts are tried. Her eyes, it may be, were wakened into a new resolve. It was useless for him now to appeal to feeling or passion: he had left the decision to her reason,—to her faith. They were stronger than he.
"I will not go, Paul."
"I have no words like you,"—raising her hands to her head,—"but I feel you are wrong in what you say."
She tried to collect herself, then went on.
"It is true that women sell themselves. I did it,—to escape. I was taught wrong, as girls are. It's true, Paul, that women are cramped and unhappy through false marriages, and that there are cursed laws in society that defraud the poor and the slave."
She stopped, pale and frightened, struggling to find utterance, not being used to put her thought into words. He watched her keenly.
"But it is not true, Paul,"—with choked eagerness,—"that this life was given to us only to develop our souls, to be free and happy. That will come after,—in heaven. It is given here only to those who pray for it. There's something better here."
"To submit. It seems to me there are some great laws—for the good of all. When we break them, we must submit. Let them go over us, and try to help others,—what is that text?" holding her head a minute,—"'even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.'"
"You mean to submit?"
"I do. I married that man of my own free will: driven, maybe, by mean fears,—but—I did it. I will not forswear myself."
She gained courage as she went on.
"I believe that God Himself, and that our Lord, taught the meaning of a true marriage as you do,—that without that affinity it is none. The curse comes to every woman who disregards it. It has come to me. I'll bear it."
"Throw it off. Come out of the foul lie."
"I will live no lie, Paul. I never would have gone with John Gurney as his wife, if he had claimed me."
"Then you are free to be mine,"—coming a step nearer.
She drew back.
"I don't think He taught that. I cannot go behind His words."
"Grey, I will not drag you one step where your free will does not lead you. Last night I said, 'I love this woman so well that I will leave her sooner than drag her into crime.' You shall do what you think right. I will be silent."
"Good bye, then, Paul."
Yet he did not take the offered hand: stood moodily looking down into the water, crushing back something in his heart,—the only thing in his life dear or pleasant, it may be.
"Oh, if women knew what it is to sell themselves! They will marry more purely, maybe, soon. I believe that Christ made the marriage-vow binding, Paul, because, though some might break it with pure intent, yet, if it were of no avail, as it is in those Homes you talk of, and in Indiana, women would become more degraded by brutal men, live falser lives, than even now. I'm afraid, Paul,"—with a sorrowful smile,—"men will have to educate the inner law of their natures more, before they can live out from it: until then we'll have to obey an outer law. You know how your Phalansteries have ended."
While she spoke, she gathered her mantle about her. It was a good thing to talk, fast and lightly, so that he would leave her without more pain. God had helped her do right. It was bravest, most Christ-like, for her to bear the loss she had brought on herself, and to renounce a happiness she had made guilty. But, if women knew—Sitting on the rock by the water's edge, she thrust her fingers into the damp mould with a thought of the time when she could lie under it,—grow clean, through the strange processes of death, from all impurity. If she could but creep down there now, a false-sworn, unloving wife, out of this man's sight, out of God's sight!
"Will you go?"—looking up with blanched cheek. "You were never so noble as now, Paul Blecker, when you left me to myself to judge. If you had only touched my love"—
"You would have yielded. I know. I'm not utterly base, Grey. I am glad," his face growing red, "you think I have been honorable. I tried to be. I want to act as a man of gentle blood and a Christian would do,—though I'm not either."
It was a chivalric face that looked down on her, though nervous and haggard. She saw that. How bare and mean her life yawned before her that moment! how all quiet and joy waited for her in the arms hanging listlessly by his side, as if their work in life were done! Must she sacrifice her life to an eternal law of God? Was this Free Love so vile a thing?
"Will you go?"—rising suddenly. "While you stand there, the Devil comes very near me, Paul." She held out her hand. "You would despise me, if I yielded now."
"I might, but I would love you all the same, Grey,"—with a miserable attempt at a smile. He took the hand, holding it in his a moment. "Good bye,"—all feeling frozen out of his voice. "You've done right, Grey. It will be better for us some day. We'll think of that,—always."
"You suffer. I have made your life wretched,"—clinging suddenly to him,
"No."—turning his head away. "Never mind. I am not a child, Grey. Men do not die of grief. They take up hard work, and that strengthens them. And my little girl will be happy. Her God will bless her; for she is a true, good girl. Yes, true. You judged rightly."
For Blecker had taken up the alien Socialist dogma that day sincerely, but driven to it by passion: now he swayed back to his old-fashioned faith in marriage, as one comes to solid land after a plunge in the upheaving surf.
"Good bye, Paul."
The sunlight fell on their faces with a white brilliance, as they stood, their hands clasped, for a moment. The girl never saw it afterwards without a sudden feeling of hate, as though it had jeered at her mortal pain. Then Paul Blecker stood alone by the river-side, with only a dull sense that the day was bright and unfeeling, and that something was gone from the world, never to come back. The life before he had known her offered itself to him again in a bare remembrance: the heat to get on,—the keen bargains,—friendships with fellows that shook him off when they married, not caring that it hurt him,—he, without a home or religion, keeping out of vice only from an inborn choice to be clean. That was all. Pah! God help us! What was this life worth, after all? He glanced at the town, laid in ashes. The war was foul indeed, yet in it there was room for high chivalric purpose. Could he so end his life? She would know it, and love him more that he died an honorable death. Shame! and cowardly too!—was there nothing worth finding in the world besides a woman's love?—he was no puling boy. If there were, what was it—for him?
He looked down at the dull sweep of the valley, heard the whistle of the train that was carrying her away, and saw the black trail of smoke against the sky,—stood silently watching it until the last bit of smoke even had disappeared. A woman would have worked off in tears or hysteric cries what pain came then; but the man only swallowed once or twice, lighted his cigar, and with a grim smile went down the road.
* * * * *
My story is nearly ended. I have no time nor wish, these war-days, to study dramatic effects, or to shift large and cautiously painted scenes or the actors, for the mere tickling of your eyes and ears. One or two facts in the history of these people are enough to give for my purpose: they are for women,—nervous, greedy, discontented women: to learn from them (if I could put the truth into forcible enough English) that truth of Christ's teaching, which has unaccountably been let slip out of our modern theology, that his help is temporal as well as spiritual, deals with coarsest, most practical needs, and is sworn to her who struggles to be true to her best self, that what she asks, believing, she shall receive. That is the point,—believing. "Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them."
How many tragedies of life besides finespun novels would suddenly be brought to an end, if the heroine were only a common-sense, believing Christian of the old-fashioned pattern! Doctor Blecker, going into the war after the day he parted from the girl at Harper's Ferry, with a sense of as many fighting influences in his life as there were in the army, had no under-sight of the clear mapping-out of the years for him, controlled by the simple request of the woman yonder who loved him. She dared not repeat that prayer now; but it had gone up once out of a childish trust, and was safely written down above.
Let us pass over five or six months, and follow Paul Blecker to Fredericksburg, the night after that bloodiest day for the Federal forces, in December. It was the fourth battle in which he had taken part. Now a man grows blase, in a manner, even of wholesale slaughter; he plodded his way quietly, indifferently almost, therefore, over the plateau below the first range of hills, his instrument-case in hand, drinking from his brandy-flask now and then, to keep down nausea. The night was clear,—a low, wan moon peering from the west, a warm wind from the river drifting the heavy billows of smoke away from the battle-field. He picked his steps with difficulty, unwilling to tread upon even the dead: they lay in heaps here, thrown aside by the men who were removing the wounded. The day was lost: he fancied he could read on even the white upturned faces a bitter defeat. Firing had ceased an hour ago; only at long intervals on the far left a dull throb was heard, as though the heart of the Night pulsed heavily and feverishly in her sleep: no other sound, save the constant, deadening roll of ambulances going out from this Valley of Death. The field where he stood was below the ridge on which were placed Lee's batteries; for ten hours the grand division of Sumner had charged the heights here, the fog shutting out from them all but the impregnable foe in front, and the bit of blue sky above, the last glimpse of life they were to see,—charging with the slow, cumulative energy of an ocean-surf upon a rock, and ebbing back at last, spent, leaving behind the drift of a horrible wetness on the grass, and uncounted murdered souls to go back to God.
The night now was bright and colorless, as I said, except where a burning house down by the canal made a faded saffron glare. The Doctor had entered a small thicket of locust-trees; the moonlight penetrated clearly through their thin trunks, but the dead on the grass lay in shadow. He carried a lantern, therefore, as he gently turned them over, searching for some one. It was a Pennsylvania regiment which had held that wood longest,—McKinstry's. Half a dozen other men were employed like the Doctor,—Irish, generally: they don't forget the fellows that messed with them as quickly as our countrymen do.
"We're in luck, Dan Reilly," said one. "Here's the Docthor himself. Av we hed the b'ys now, we'd be complate,"—turning over one face after another, unmistakably Dutch or Puritan.
"Ev it's Pat O'Shaughnessy yez want," said another, "he'd be afther gittin' ayont the McManuses, an' here they are. They're Fardowners on'y. Pat's Corkonian, he is; he'll be nearer th' inemy by a fut, I'll ingage yez."
"He's my cousin,"—hard tugging at the dead bodies with one arm;—the other hung powerless. "I can't face Mary an' her childher agin an' say I lift her man widout Christian burial.—Howld yer sowl! Dan Reilly, give us a lift; here he is. Are ye dead, Pat?"
One eye in the blackened face opened.
"On'y my leg. 'O'Shaughnessy agin th' warld, an' the warld agin th' Divil!'"—which was received with a cheer from the Corkonians.
"Av yer Honor," insinuated Dan, "wud attind to this poor man, we'd be proud to diskiver the frind you're in sarch of."
Blecker glanced at the stout Irishmen about him, with kind faces under all the whiskey, and stronger arms than his own."
"I will, boys. You know him,—he's in your regiment,—Captain McKinstry. He fell in this wood, they tell me."
"I think I know him,"—his head to one side. "Woodenish-looking chap, all run up into shoulders, with yellow hair?"
Blecker nodded, and motioned them to carry O'Shaughnessy into a low tool-house near, a mere shed, half tumbling down from a shell that had shattered its side. There was a bench there, where they could lay the wounded man, however. He stooped over the big mangled body, joking with him,—it was the best comfort to Pat to give him a chance to show how little he cared for the surgeon's knife,—glancing now and then at the pearly embankment of clouds in the south, or at the delicate locust-boughs in black and shivering tracery against the moonlight, trying to shut his ears to the unceasing under-current of moans that reached him in the silence.
Seeing him there with his lantern and instruments, they brought him one wounded man after another, to whom he gave what aid he could, and then despatched them in the army-wagons, looking impatiently after Dan, in his search for the Captain. He had not known before how much he cared for McKinstry, with a curious protecting care. Other men in the army were more his chums than Mac, but they were coarse, able to take care of themselves. Mac was like that simple-hearted old Israelite in whom there was no guile. In the camp he had been perpetually imposed on by his men,—giving them treats of fresh beef and bread, and tracts at the same time. They laughed at him, but were oddly fond of him; he was a sharp disciplinarian, but was too quiet, they always had thought, to have much pluck.
Blecker, glancing at his watch, saw that it was eleven; the moon was sinking fast, her level rays fainter and bluer, as from some farther depth of rest and quiet than before. His keenly set ears distinguished just then an even tramp among the abrupt sounds without,—the feet of two or three men carrying weight.
"He's here, Zur," said Dan, who held the feet, tenderly enough. "Aisy now, b'ys. It's not bar'ls ye're liftin'." They laid him down. "Fur up th' ridge he was: not many blue-coats furder an. That's true,"—in a loud, hearty tone. "I'm doubtin'," in an aside, "it's all over wid him. I'll howld the lantern, Zur."
"You, Blecker?" McKinstry muttered, as he opened his eyes with his usual pleased smile. "We've lost the day?"
"Yes. No matter now, Mac. Quiet one moment,"—cutting the boot from his leg.
"Not fifty of my boys escaped,"—a sort of spasm passing over his face. "Tell them at home they fought nobly,—nobly."
His voice died down. Blecker finished his examination,—it needed but a minute,—then softly replaced the leg, and, coming up, stood quiet, only wiping the dampness off his forehead. Dan set down the lantern.
"I'll go, Zur," he whispered. "Ther' 's work outside, belike."
The Doctor nodded. McKinstry opened his eyes.
"Good bye, my friend,"—stretching out his hand to Dan. "My brother couldn't have been kinder to me than you were to-night."
"Good bye, Zur." The rough thrust out his great fist eagerly. "God open the gate wide for yer Honor, the night,"—clearing his voice, as he went out.
"I'm going, then, Blecker?"
Paul could not meet the womanish blue eyes turned towards him: he turned abruptly away.
"Why! why! Tut! I did not think you cared, Paul,"—tightening his grasp of the hand in his. Then, closing his eyes, he covered his face with his left hand, and was silent awhile.
"Go, Doctor," he said, at last. "I forgot that others need you. Go at once. I'm very comfortable here."
"I will not go. Do you see this?"—pointing to the stream of bright arterial blood. "It was madness to throw your life away thus; a handkerchief tightened here would have sufficed until they carried you off the field."
"Yes, yes, I knew. But the wound came just as we were charging. Sabre-cut, it was. If I had said I was wounded, the men would have fallen back. I thought we could take that battery; but we did not. No matter. All right. You ought to go?"
"No. Have you no message for home?"—pushing back the yellow hair as gently as a woman. The mild face grew distorted again and pale.
"I've a letter,—in my carpet-sack, in our tent. I wrote it last night. It's to Lizzy,—you will deliver it, Doctor?"
"I will. Yes."
"It may be lost now,—there is such confusion in the camp. The key is in my right pocket,—inside the spectacle-case: have you got it?"
Blecker could hardly keep back a smile: even the pocket-furniture was neatly ordered in the hour of death.
"If it is lost,"—turning his head restlessly,—"light your lantern, Blecker, it is so dark,—if it is,—tell her"—his voice was gone. "Tell her," lifting himself suddenly, with the force of death, "to be pure and true. My loving little girl, Lizzy,—wife." Blecker drew his head on his shoulder. "I thought—the holidays were coming,"—closing his eyes again wearily,—"for us. But God knows. All right!"
His lips moved, but the sound was inaudible; he smiled cheerfully, held Paul's hand closer, and then his head grew heavy as lead, being nothing but clay. For the true knight and loyal gentleman was gone to the Master of all honor, to learn a broader manhood and deeds of higher emprise.
Paul Blecker stood silent a moment, and then covered the homely, kind face reverently.
"I would as lief have seen a woman die," he said, and turned away.
Two or three men came up, carrying others on a broken door and on a fence-board.
"Hyur's th' Doctor,"—laying them on a hillock of grass. "Uh wish ye'd see toh these pore chaps, Doctor,"—with a strong Maryland accent. "One o' them's t' other side, but"—and so left them.
One of them was a burly Western boatman, with mop-like red hair and beard. Blecker looked at him, shook his head, and went on.
"No use?"—gritting his heavy jaw. "Well!"—swallowing, as if he accepted death in that terrible breath. "Eh, Doctor? Do you hear? Wait a bit,"—fumbling at his jacket. "I can't—There's a V in my pocket. I wish you'd send it to the old woman,—mother,—Mrs. Jane Carr, Cincinnati,—with my love."
The Doctor stopped to speak to him, and then passed to the next,—a fair-haired boy, with three bullet-holes in his coat, one in his breast.
"Will I die?"—trying to keep his lips firm.
"Tut! tut! No. Only a flesh-wound. Drink that, and you'll be able to go back to the hospital,—be well in a week or two."
"I did not want to die, though I was not afraid,"—looking up anxiously; "but"—
"But the Doctor had left him, and, kneeling down in the mud, was turning the wounded Confederate over on his back, that he might see his face.
The boy saw him catch up his lantern and peer eagerly at him with shortened breath.
"What is it? Is he dead?"
"No, not dead,"—putting down the lantern.
But very near it, this man, John Gurney,—so near that it needed no deed of Blecker's to make him pass the bound. Only a few moments' neglect. A bandage, a skilful touch or two, care in the hospitals, might save him.
But what claim had he on Paul that he should do this? For a moment the hot blood in the little Doctor's veins throbbed fiercely, as he rose slowly, and, taking his lantern, stood looking down.
"In an hour," glancing critically at him, "he will be dead."
Something within him coolly added, "And Paul Blecker a murderer."
But he choked it down, and picked his steps through scorched winter stubble, dead horses, men, wagon-wheels, across the field; thinking, as he went, of Grey free, his child-love, true, coaxing, coming to his tired arms once more; of the home on the farm yonder, he meant to buy,—he, the rough, jolly farmer, and she, busy Grey, bustling Grey, with her loving, fussing ways. Why, it came like a flash to him! Yet, as it came, tugging at his heart with the whole strength of his blood, he turned, this poor, thwarted, passionate little Doctor, and began jogging back to the locust-woods,—passing many wounded men of his own kith and spirit, and going back to Gurney.
Because—he was his enemy.
"Thank God, I am not utterly debased!"—grinding the tobacco vehemently in his teeth.
He walked faster, seeing that the moon was going down, leaving the battle-field in shadow. Overhead, the sinking light, striking upward from the horizon, had worked the black dome into depths of fretted silver. Blecker saw it, though passion made his step unsteady and his eye dim. No man could do a mean, foul deed while God stretched out such a temple-roof as that for his soul to live in, was the thought that dully touched his outer consciousness. But little Grey! If he could go home to her to-morrow, and, lifting her thin, tired face from the machine, hold it to his breast, and say, "You're free now, forever!" O God!
He stopped, pulling his coat across his breast in his clenched hands,—then, after a moment, went on, his arms falling powerless.
"I'm a child! It is of no use to think of it! Never!"—his hard, black eyes, that in these last few months had grown sad and questioning as a child's, looking to the north hill, as he strode along, as though he were bidding some one good-bye. And when he came to the hillock and knelt down again beside Gurney, there was no malice in them. He was faithful in every touch and draught and probe. With the wish in his heart to thrust the knife into the heart of the unconscious man lying before him, he touched him as though he had been his brother.
Gurney, opening his eyes at last, saw the yellow, haggard face, in its fringe of black beard, as rigid as if cut out of stone, very near his own. The grave, hopeless eyes subdued him.
"Take me out of this," he moaned.
"You are going—to the hospital,"—helping some men lift him into an ambulance.
"Slowly, my good fellows. I will follow you."
He did follow them. Let us give the man credit for every step of that following, the more that the evil in his blood struggled so fiercely with such a mortal pain as he went. In Fredericksburg, one of the old family-homesteads had been taken for a camp-hospital. As they laid Gurney on a heap of straw in the library, a surgeon passed through the room.
"Story," said Paul, catching his arm, "see to that man: this is your post, I believe. I have dressed his wound. I cannot do more."
Story did not know the meaning of that. He stuck his eye-glasses over his hook-nose, and stooped down, being nearsighted.
"Hardly worth while to put him under my care, or anybody's. The fellow will not live until morning."
"I don't know. I did what I could."
"Nothing more to be done.—Parr's out of lint, did you know? He's enough to provoke Job, that fellow! I warned him especially about lint and supporters.—Why, Blecker, you are worn out,"—looking at him closer. "It has been a hard fight."
"Yes, I am tired; it was a hard fight."
"I must find Parr about that lint, and"—
Paul walked to the window, breathing heavy draughts of the fresh morning air. The man would not die, he thought. Grey would never be free. No. Yet, since he was a child, before he began to grapple his way through the world, he had never known such a cheerful quiet as that which filled his eyes with tears now; for, if the fight had been hard, Paul Blecker had won the victory.
Sunday morning dawned cold and windy. Now and then, volleys of musketry, or a repulse from the Southern batteries on the heights, filled the blue morning sky with belching scarlet flame and smoke: through all, however, the long train of army-wagons passed over the pontoon-bridge, bearing the wounded. About six o'clock some men came out from the camp-hospital. Doctor Blecker stood on the outside of the door: all night he had been there, like some lean, unquiet ghost. Story, the surgeon, met the men. They carried something on a board, covered with an old patchwork quilt. Story lifted the corner of the quilt to see what lay beneath. Doctor Blecker stood in their way, but neither moved nor spoke to them.
"Take it to the trenches," said the surgeon, shortly nodding to them.—"Your Rebel friend, Blecker."
"Story, I did what I could?"
"Of course. Past help.—When are we to be taken out of this trap, eh?"—going on.
"I did what I could."
As the Doctor's parched lips moved, he looked up. How deep the blue was! how the cold air blew his hair about, fresh and boisterous! He went down the field with a light, springing step, as he used, when a boy, long ago, to run to the hay-field. The earth was so full of health, life, beauty, he could have cried or laughed out loud. He stopped on the bridge, seeing only the bright, rushing clouds, the broad river, the sunlight,—a little way from him in the world, little Grey.
"I thank Thee," baring his head and bending it,—the words died in an awestruck whisper in his heart,—"for Thy great glory, O Lord!"
* * * * *
"Will you come a little farther? Let a few months slip by, and let us see what a March day is in the old Pennsylvania hills. The horrors of the war have not crept hither yet, into these hill-homesteads. Never were crops richer than those of '61 and '62, nor prices better. So the barns were full to bursting through the autumn of those years, and the fires were big enough to warm you to your very marrow in winter.
Even now, if young Corporal Simpson, or Joe Hainer, or any other of the neighbors' boys come home wounded, it only spices the gossip for the apple-butter-parings or spelling-matches. Then the men, being Democrats, are reconciled to the ruin of the country, because it has been done by the Republicans; and the women can construct secret hiding-places in the meat-cellar for the dozen silver teaspoons and tea-pot, in dread of Stuart's cavalry. Altogether, the war gives quite a zest to life up here. Then, in these low-hill valleys of the Alleghanies the sun pours its hottest, most life-breeding glow, and even the wintry wind puts all its vigor into the blast, knowing that there are no lachrymose, whey-skinned city-dyspeptics to inhale it, but full-breasted, strong-muscled women and men,—with narrow brains, maybe, but big, healthy hearts, and physique to match. Very much the same type of animal and moral organization, as well as natural, you would have found before the war began, ran through the valley of Pennsylvania and Virginia.
One farm, eight or ten miles from the village where the Gurneys lived, might be taken as a specimen of these old homesteads. It lay in a sort of meadow-cove, fenced in with low, rolling hills that were wooded with oaks on the summits,—sheep-cots, barns, well-to-do plum and peach orchards creeping up the sides,—a creek binding it in with a broad, flashing band. The water was frozen on this March evening: it had plenty of time to freeze, and stay there altogether, in fact, it moved so slowly, knowing it had got into comfortable quarters. There was just enough cold crispiness in the air to-night to make the two fat cows move faster into the stable, with smoking breath, to bring out a crow of defiance from the chickens huddling together on the roost; it spread, too, a white rime over the windows, shining red in the sinking sun. When the sun was down, the nipping northeaster grew sharper, swept about the little valley, rattled the bare-limbed trees, blew boards off the corn-crib that Doctor Blecker had built only last week, tweaked his nose and made his eyes water as he came across the field clapping his hands to make the blood move faster, and, in short, acted as if the whole of that nook in the hills belonged to it in perpetuity. But the house, square, brick, solid-seated, began to glow red and warm out of every window,—not with the pale rose-glow of your anthracite, but fitful, flashing, hearty, holding out all its hands to you like a Western farmer. That's the way our fires burn. The very smoke went out of no stove-pipe valve, but rushed from great mouths of chimneys, brown, hot, glowing, full of spicy smiles of supper below. Down in the kitchen, by a great log-fire, where irons were heating, sat Oth, feebly knitting, and overseeing a red-armed Dutch girl cooking venison-steaks and buttermilk-biscuit on the coal-stove beside him.
"Put jelly on de table, you, mind! Strangers here fur tea. Anyhow it ort to go down. Nuffin but de best ob currant Miss Grey 'ud use in her father's house. Lord save us!"—in an underbreath. "But it's fur de honor ob de family,"—in a mutter.
"Miss Grey" waited within. Not patiently: sure pleasure was too new for her. She smoothed her crimson dress, pushed back the sleeves that the white dimpled arms might show, and then bustled about the room, to tidy it for the hundredth time. A bright winter's room: its owner had a Southern taste for hot, heartsome colors, you could be sure, and would bring heat and flavor into his life, too. There were soft astral lamps, and a charred red fire, a warm, unstingy glow, wasting itself even in long streams of light through the cold windows. There were bright bits of Turnerish pictures on the gray walls, a mass of gorgeous autumn-leaves in the soft wool of the carpet, a dainty white-spread table in the middle of the room, jars of flowers everywhere, flowers that had caught most passion and delight from the sun,—scarlet and purple fuchsias, heavy-breathed heliotrope. Yet Grey bent longest over her own flower, that every childlike soul loves best,—mignonette. She chose some of its brown sprigs to fasten in her hair, the fragrance was so clean and caressing. Paul Blecker, even at the other end of the field, and in the gathering twilight, caught a glimpse of his wife's face pressed against the pane. It was altered: the contour more emphatic, the skin paler, the hazel eyes darker, lighted from farther depths. No glow of color, only in the meaning lips and the fine reddish hair.
Doctor Blecker stopped to help a stout little lady out of a buggy at the stile, then sent the boy to the stable with it: it was his own, with saddle-bags under the seat. But there was a better-paced horse in the shafts than suited a heavy country-practice. The lady looked at it with one eye shut.
"A Morgan-Cottrell, eh? I know by the jaw,"—jogging up the stubble-field beside him, her fat little satchel rattling as she walked. Doctor Blecker, a trifle graver and more assured than when we saw him last, sheltered her with his overcoat from the wind, taking it off for that purpose by the stile. You could see that this woman was one of the few for whom he had respect.
"Your wife understands horses, Doctor. And dogs. I did not expect it of Grey. No. There's more outcome in her than you give her credit for,"—turning sharply on him.
He smiled quietly, taking her satchel to carry.
"When we came to Pittsburg, I said to Pratt, 'I'll follow you to New York in a day or two, but I'm going now to see Paul Blecker's little wife. She's sound, into the marrow.' And I'll tell you, too, what I said to Pratt. 'That is a true marriage, heart and soul and ways of thinking. God fitted those two into one another.' Some matches, Doctor Blecker, put me in mind of my man Kellar, making ready the axes for winter's work, little head on big heft, misjoined always: in consequence, thing breaks apart with no provocation whatever. "When God wants work done down here, He makes His axes better,—eh?"
There was a slight pause.
"Maybe, now, you'll think I take His name in vain, using it so often. But I like to get at the gist of a matter, and I generally find God has somewhat to do with everything,—down to the pleasement, to me, of my bonnet: or the Devil,—which means the same, for he acts by leave.—Where did you get that Cottrell, Doctor? From Faris? Pha! pha! Grey showed me the look in his face this morning, innocent, naif, as all well-blooded horses' eyes are. Like her own, eh? I says to Pratt, long ago,—twenty he was then,—'When you want a wife, find one who laughs out from her heart, and see if dogs and horses kinsfolk with her: that's your woman to marry, if they do.'"
They had stopped by the front-steps for her to finish her soliloquy. Grey tapped on the window-pane.
"Yes, yes, I see. You want to go in. But first,"—lowering her voice,—"I was at the Gurney house this evening."
"You were?" laughed the Doctor, "And what did you do there?"
"Eh? What? Something is needed to be done, and I—Yes, I know my reputation,"—her face flushing.
"You strike the nails where they are needed,—what few women do, Mrs. Sheppard," said the Doctor, trying to keep his face grave. "Strike them on the head, too."
No woman likes to be classed properly,—no matter where she belongs.
"I never interfere, Doctor Blecker; I may advise. But, as I was going to say, that father of Grey's seemed to me such a tadpole of a man, rooting after tracks of lizards that crept ages ago, while the country is going to mash, and his own children next door to starvation, I thought a little plain talk would try if it was blood or water in his veins. So I went over to spend the day there on purpose to give it to him."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"I see. Then you tried Joseph?"
"No, he is in able hands. That Loo is a thorough-pacer,—after my own heart.—Talking of your family, my dear," as Grey opened the door. "Loo will do better for them than you. Pardon me, but a lot of selfish men in a family need to be treated like Pen here, when his stomach is sour. Give them a little wholesome alkali: honey won't answer."
Grey only laughed. Some day, she thought, when her father had completed his survey of the coal-formation, and Joseph had induced Congress to stop the war, people would appreciate them. So she took off Mrs. Sheppard's furs and bonnet, and smoothed the two black shiny puffs of hair, passing her husband with only a smile, as a stranger was there, but his dressing-gown and slippers waited by the fire.
"Paul may be at home before you," she said, nodding to them.
Grey had dropped easily through that indefinable change between a young girl and a married woman: her step was firmer, her smile freer, her head more quietly poised. Some other change, too, in her look, showed that her affections had grown truer and wider of range than before. Meaner women's hearts contract after marriage about their husband and children, like an India-rubber ball thrown into the fire. Hers would enter into his nature as a widening and strengthening power. Whatever deficiency there might be in her brain, she would infuse energy into his care for people about him,—into his sympathy for his patients; in a year or two you might be sure he would think less of Paul Blecker per se, and hate or love fewer men for their opinions than he did before.
The supper, a solid meal always in these houses, was brought in. Grey took her place with a blush and a little conscious smile, to which Mrs. Sheppard called Doctor Blecker's attention by a pursing of her lips, and then, tucking her napkin under her chin, prepared to do justice to venison and biscuits. She sipped her coffee with an approving nod, dear to a young housekeeper's soul.
"Good! Grey begins sound, at the foundations, in cooking, Doctor. No shams, child. Don't tolerate them in housekeeping. If not white sugar, then no cake. If not silver, then not albata. So you're coming with me to New York, my dear?"
Grey's face flushed.
"Paul says we will go."
"Sister there? Teaching, did you say?"
Doctor Blecker's moustache worked nervously. Lizzy Gurney was not of his kind; now, more than ever, he would have cut every tie between her and Grey, if he could. But his wife looked up with a smile.
"She is on the stage,—Lizzy. The opera,—singing;—in choruses only, now,—but it will be better soon."
Mrs. Sheppard let her bit of bread fall, then ate it with a gulp. Why, every drop of the Shelby blood was clean and respectable; it was not easy to have an emissary of hell, a tawdry actress, brought on the carpet before her, with even this mild flourish of trumpets.
The silence grew painful. Grey glanced around quickly, then her Welsh blood made her eyelids shake a little, and her lips shut. But she said gently,—
"My sister is not albata ware,—that you hate, Mrs. Sheppard. She is no sham. When God said to her, 'Do this thing,' she did not ask the neighbors to measure it by their rule of right and wrong."
"Well, well, little Grey,"—with a forbearing smile,—"she is your sister,—you're a clannish body. Your heart's all right, my dear,"—patting the hard nervous hand that lay on the table,—"but you never studied theology, that's clear."
"I don't know."
Mrs. Blecker's face grew hot; but that might have been the steam of the coffee-urn.
"We'll be just to Lizzy," said her husband, gravely. "She had a hurt lately. I don't think she values her life for much now. It is a hungry family, the Gurneys,"—with a quizzical smile. "My wife, here, kept the wolf from the door almost single-handed, though she don't understand theology. You are quite right about that. When I came home here two months ago, she would not be my wife; there was no one to take her place, she said. So, one day, when I was in my office alone, Lizzy came to me, looking like a dead body out of which the soul had been crushed. She had been hurt, I told you:—she came to me with an open letter in her hand. It was from the manager of one of the second-rate opera-troupes. The girl can sing, and has a curious dramatic talent, her only one.
"'It is all I am capable of doing,' she said. 'If I go, Grey can marry. The family will have a sure support.'
"Then she folded the letter into odd shapes, with an idiotic look.
"'Do you want me to answer it?' I asked.
"'Yes, I do. Tell him I'll go. Grey can be happy then, and the others will have enough to eat. I never was of any use before.'
"I knew that well enough. I sat down to write the letter.
"'You will be turned out of church for this,' I said.
"She stood by the window, her finger tracing the rain-drops on the pane, for it was a rainy night. She said,—
"'They won't understand. God knows.'
"So I wrote on a bit, and then I said,—for I felt sorry for the girl, though she was doing it for Grey,—I said,—
'"Lizzy, I'll be plain with you. There never was but one human being loved you, perhaps. When he was dying, he said, "Tell my wife to be true and pure." There is a bare possibility that you can be both as an opera-singer, but he never would believe it. If you met him in heaven, he would turn his back on you, if you should do this thing.'
"I could not see her face,—her back was towards me,—but the hand on the window-pane lay there for a long while motionless, the blood settling blue about the nails. I did not speak to her. There are some women with whom a physician, if he knows his business, will never meddle when they grow nervous; they come terribly close to God and the Devil then, I think. I tell you, Mrs. Sheppard, now and then one of your sex has the vitality and pain and affection of a thousand souls in one. I hate such women," vehemently.
"Men like you always do," quietly. "But I am not one of them."
"No, nor Grey, thank God! Whoever contrived that allegory of Eve and the apple, though, did it well. If the Devil came to Lizzy Gurney, he would offer no meaner temptation than 'Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.'"
"'Allegory'—eh? You forget your story, I think, Doctor Blecker,"—with a frown.
The Doctor stopped to help her to jelly, with a serious face, and then went on. "She turned round at last. I did not look up at her, only said,—
"'I will not write the letter.'
"'Go on,' she said.
"I wrote it, then; but when I went to give it to her, my heart failed me.
"'Lizzy,' I said, 'you shall not do this thing.'
"She looked so childish and pitiful, standing there!
"'You think you are cutting yourself off from your chance of love through all time by it,—just for Grey and the others.'
"Her eyes filled at that; she could not bear the kind word, you see.
"'Yes, I do, Doctor Blecker,' she said. 'Nobody ever loved me but Uncle Dan. Since he went away, I have gone every day to his house, coming nearer to him that way, growing purer, more like other women. There's a picture of his mother there, and his sister. They are dead now, but I think their souls looked at me out of those pictures and loved me.'
"She came up, her head hardly reaching to the top of the chair I sat on, half smiling, those strange gray eyes of hers.
"'I thought they said,—"This is Lizzy: this is the little girl Daniel loves." Every day I'd kneel down by that dead lady's chair, and pray to God to make me fit to be her son's wife. But he's dead now,' drawing suddenly back, 'and I am going to be—an opera-singer.'
"'Not unless by your own free will,' I said.
"She did not hear me, I think, pulling at the fastening about her throat.
"'Daniel would say it was the Devil's calling. Daniel was all I had. But he don't know. I know. God means it. I might have lived on here, keeping myself true to his notions of right: then, when I went yonder, he would have been kind to me, he would have loved me,'—looking out through the rain, in a dazed way.
"'The truth is, Lizzy,' I said, 'you have a power within you, and you want to give it vent; it's like a hungry devil tearing you. So you give up your love-dream, and are going to be an opera-singer. That's the common-sense of the matter.'
"I sealed the letter, and gave it to her.
"'You think that?'
"That was all she answered. But I'm sorry I said it; I don't know whether it was true or not. There,—that is the whole story. I never told it to Grey before. You can judge for yourselves."
"My dear," said Mrs. Sheppard, "let me go with you to see your sister in New York. Some more coffee, please. My cup is cold."
* * * * *
A clear, healthy April night: one of those bright, mountain-winded nights of early spring, when the air is full of electric vigor,—starlight, when the whole earth seems wakening slowly and grandly into a new life.
Grey, going with her husband and Mrs. Sheppard down Broadway, from their hotel, had a fancy that the world was so cheerfully, heartily at work, that the night was no longer needed. Overhead, the wind from the yet frozen hills swept in such strong currents, the great city throbbed with such infinite kinds of motion, and down in the harbor yonder the rush of couriers came and went incessantly from the busy world without. Grey was a country-girl: in this throbbing centre of human life she felt suddenly lost, atom-like,—drew her breath quickly, as she clung to Paul's arm. The world was so vast, was hurrying on so fast. She must get to work in earnest: why, one must justify her right to live, here.
Mrs. Sheppard, as she plodded solidly along, took in the whole blue air and outgoing ocean, and the city, with its white palaces and gleaming lights.
"People look happy here," she said. "Even Grey laughs more, going down the streets. Nothing talks of the war here."
Paul looked down into the brown depths of the eyes that were turned towards him.
"It is a good, cheery world, ours, after all. More laughing than crying in it,—when people find out their right place, and get into it."
Mrs. Sheppard said, "Umph?" Kentuckians don't like abstract propositions.
They stopped before a wide-open door, in a by-street. Not an opera-house; one of the haunts of the "legitimate drama," Yet the posters assured the public in every color, that La petite Elise, the beautiful debutante, etc., etc., would sing, etc., etc. Grey's hand tightened on her husband's arm.
"This is the place,"—her face burning scarlet.
A pretty little theatre: softly lighted, well and quietly filled. Quietly toned, too, the dresses of the women in the boxes,—of that neutral, subdued caste that showed they belonged to the grade above fashion. People of rank tastes did not often go there. The little Kentuckian, with her emphatic, sham-hating face, and Grey, whose simple, calm outlook on the world made her last year's bonnet and cloak dwindle into such irrelevant trifles, did not misbecome the place. Others might go there to fever out ennui, or with fouler fancies. Grey did not know. The play was a simple little thing; its meaning was pure as a child's song; there was a good deal of fun in it. Grey laughed with everybody else; she would ask God to bless her to-night none the worse for that. It had some touches of pathos in it, and she cried, and saw some men about her with the smug New-York-city face doing the very same,—not just as she did, but glowering at the footlights, and softly blowing their noses. Then the music came, and La petite Elise. Grey drew back where she could not see her. Blecker peered through his glass at every line and motion, as she came out from the eternal castle in the back scene. Any gnawing power or gift she had had found vent, certainly, now. Every poise and inflection said, "Here I am what I am,—fully what God made me, at last: no more, no less." God had made her an actress. Why, He knows. The Great Spirit of Love says to the toad in your gutter,—"Thou, too, art my servant, in whom, fulfilling the work I give, I am well pleased."
La petite Elise had only a narrow and peculiar scope of power, suited to vaudevilles: she could not represent her own character,—an actress's talent and heart being as widely separated, in general, as yours are. She could bring upon the stage in her body the presentment of a naive, innocent, pathetic nature, and use the influence such nature might have on the people outside the orchestra-chairs there. It was not her own nature, we know. She dressed and looked it. A timid little thing, in her fluttering white slip, her light hair cut close to her head, in short curls. So much for the actress and her power.
She sang at last. She sang ballads generally, (her voice wanting cultivation,) such as agreed with her role. But it was Lizzy Gurney who sang, not la petite Elise.
"Of course," a society-mother said to me, one day, "I do not wish my Rosa should have a great sorrow, but—how it would develop her voice!" The bonnet-worshipper stumbled on a great truth.
So with Lizzy: life had taught her; and the one bitter truth of self-renunciation she had wrung out of it must tell itself somehow. No man's history is dumb. It came out vaguely, an inarticulate cry to God and man, in the songs she sang, I think. That very night, as she stood there with her gray eyes very sparkling and happy, (they were dramatic eyes, and belonged to her brain,) and her baby-hands crossed archly before her, her voice made those who listened quite forget her: la petite Elise took them up to the places where men's souls struggle with the Evil One and conquer. A few, perhaps, understood that full meaning of her song: if there was one, it was well she was an actress and sang it.
"I'm damned," growled a fellow in the pit, "if she a'n't a good little thing!" when the song was ended. There was not a soul in the house that did not think the same. Yet the girl turned fiercely towards the side-scenes, hearing it, and pitied herself at that,—that she, a woman, should stand before the public for them to examine and chatter over her soul and her history, and her very dress and shoes. But that was gone in a moment, and Lizzy laughed,—naturally now. Why, they were real friends, heart-warm to her there: when they laughed and cried with her, she knew it. Many of their faces she knew well: that pale lady's in the third box, who brought her boys so often, and gave them a bouquet to throw to Lizzy,—always white flowers; and the old grandfather yonder, with the pretty, chubby-faced girls. The girl's thought now was earnest and healthful, as everybody's grows, who succeeds in discovering his real work. They encored her song: when she began, she looked up and balked suddenly, her very neck turning crimson. She had seen Doctor Blecker. "A tawdry actress!" She could have torn her stage-dress in rags from her. Then her tone grew low and clear.
There was a young couple just facing her with a little child, a dainty baby-thing in cap and plume. Neither of them listened to Lizzy: the mother was tying the little fellow's shoe as he hoisted it on the seat, and the father was looking at her. "I missed my chance," said Lizzy Gurney, in her heart. "Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight!" A tawdry actress. She might have stayed at home yonder, quiet and useless: that might have been. Then she thought of Grey, well beloved,—of the other house, full of hungry mouths she was feeding. Looking more sharply at Doctor Blecker while she sang, she saw Grey beside him, drawn back behind a pillar. Presently she saw her take the glass from her husband and lean forward. There was a red heat under her eyes: she had been crying. They applauded Lizzy just then, and Grey looked around frightened, and then laughed nervously.
"How beautiful she is! Do you see? Oh, Paul! Mrs. Sheppard, do you see?"—tearing her fan, and drawing heavy breaths, moving on her seat constantly.
"She never loved me heartily before," thought Lizzy, as she sang. "I never deserved it. I was a heartless dog. I"—
People applauded again, the old grandfather this time nodding to the girls. There was something so cheery and healthy and triumphant in the low tones. Even the young mother looked up suddenly from her boy, listening, and glanced at her husband. It was like a Christmas-song.
"She never loved me before. I deserve it."
That was what she said in it. But they did not know.
Doctor Blecker looked at her, unsmiling, critical. She could see, too, a strange face beside him,—a motherly, but a keen, harsh-judging face.
"Grey," said Mrs. Sheppard, "I wish we could go behind the scenes. Can we? I want to talk to Lizzy this minute."