"Yes, so am I," the boy replied, but his voice shook with emotion. Maria thought again how ridiculous it was. Then suddenly she reflected that this might not be on her account but Evelyn's. She thought that the boy might be trying to ingratiate himself with her on her sister's account. She felt at once indignation and a sense of pity. She was sure that Evelyn had never thought of him. She glanced at the boy's handsome, manly face, which, although manly, wore still an expression of ingenuousness like a child's. She reflected that if Evelyn were to marry when she were older, that perhaps this was a good husband for her. The boy came of one of the best families in Amity. She turned towards him smiling.
"Evelyn was very much disappointed that she could not come to-night," she said.
The boy brightened visibly at her tone.
"She has a very severe cold," Maria added.
"I am sorry," said the boy. Then he said in a low tone whose boldness and ardor were unmistakable, that it did not make any difference to him who was there as long as she was. Maria could scarcely believe her ears. She gave the boy a keen, incredulous glance, but he was not daunted. "I mean it," he said.
"Nonsense," said Maria. She looked out of the window again. She told herself that it was annoying but too idiotic to concern herself with. She made up her mind that when they changed trolleys she would try to find a seat with some one else. But when they changed she found the boy again beside her. She was quite angry then, and made no effort to disguise it. She sat quite still, gazing out of the window, shrugged against it as closely as she was able to sit, and said nothing. However, her face resumed its happy smile when she thought again of Wollaston, and the boy thought the smile meant for him. He leaned over her tenderly.
"I wish I could have a picture of you as you look to-night," he said.
"Well, I am afraid that you will have to do without it," Maria said shortly. Still the boy remained insensible to rebuff.
"What are you carrying, Miss Edgham?" he asked, looking at her roses enveloped in tissue paper.
"Some roses which a friend sent me," Maria replied.
Then the boy colored and paled a little. He jumped at once to the conclusion that the friend was a man. "I suppose you are going to wear them," he said pitifully.
"Yes, I am," replied Maria.
The boy in his turn sat as far away as possible in his corner of the seat, and gazed ahead with a gloomy air.
When they reached the academy grounds he quite deserted Maria, who walked to the chapel with one of the other teachers, who entered at the same time. She was a young lady who lived in Westbridge. Maria caught the pale glimmer of an evening gown under her long, red cloak trimmed with white fur, and reflected that possibly she also had adorned herself especially for Wollaston's benefit, and again she felt that unworthy sense of pride and amusement. The girl herself echoed her thoughts, for she said soon after Maria had greeted her:
"I saw Mr. Lee and his mother starting."
"Did you?" returned Maria.
"Don't you think he is very handsome?" asked the girl in a sentimental tone which irritated.
"No," said Maria sharply, although she lied. "I don't think he is handsome at all. He looks intelligent and sensible, but as for handsome—"
"Oh, don't you think so?" cried the other. Then she caught herself short, for Wollaston Lee, with his mother on his arm, came up. They said good-evening, and all four passed in.
The platform of the chapel was occupied by a great Christmas-tree. The chapel itself was trimmed with evergreens and holly. The moment Maria entered, after she had removed her hat in a room which was utilized as a dressing-room, and pinned her roses on her shoulder, she became sensible of a peculiar intoxication as of some new happiness and festivity, of a cup of joy which she had hitherto not tasted. The spicy odor of the evergreens, even the odor of oyster-stew from a room beyond where supper was to be served, that, and cake, and the sweetness of her own roses, raised her to a sense of elation which she had never before had. She sat with the other teachers well towards the front. Wollaston was with his mother on the right. Maria saw with a feeling of relief the people with whom the Lees had formerly boarded presently enter and sit with them. She thought that Wollaston would be free to walk to the trolley with her if he so wished. She felt surer and surer that he did so wish. Once she caught him looking at her, and when she answered his smile she felt her own lips stiff, and realized how her heart pounded against her side. She experienced something like a great pain which was still a great joy. Suddenly everything seemed unreal to her. When the presents were distributed, it was still so unreal that she did not feel as pleased as she would have done with the number for poor little Evelyn at home. She hardly knew what she received herself. They were the usual useless and undesirable tokens from her class, and others more desirable from the other lady teachers. Wollaston Lee's name was often called. Again Maria experienced that unworthy sensation of malicious glee that all this was lavished upon him when he was in reality hers and beyond the reach of any of these smiling girls with eyes of covert wistfulness upon the handsome young principal.
After the festivities were over, Maria adjusted her hat in the dressing-room and fastened her long, blue cloak. She wrapped her roses again in the tissue-paper. They were very precious to her. The teacher whom she had met on entering the academy was fastening her cloak, and she gazed at Maria with a sort of envious admiration.
"You look like a princess, all in blue, Miss Edgham," said she. Her words were sweet, but her voice rang false.
"Thank you," said Maria, and went out swiftly. She feared lest the other teacher attach herself to her, and the other teacher lived on the road towards the trolley. When Maria went out of the academy, that which she had almost feared to hope for happened. Wollaston stepped beside her, and she heard him ask if he might walk with her to the trolley.
Maria took his arm.
"Mother is with the Gleasons," said Wollaston. His voice trembled.
Just then the boy who had sat with Maria on the car coming over walked with a defiant stride to her other side.
"Good-evening, Mr. Lee," he said, lifting his hat. "Good-evening, Miss Edgham," as if that was the first time that evening he had seen her. Then he walked on with her and Wollaston, and nothing was to be done but accept the situation. The young fellow was fairly belligerent with jealous rage. He had lost his young head over his teacher, and was doing something for which he would scorn himself later on.
Wollaston pressed Maria's hand closely under his arm, and she felt her very soul thrill, but they all talked of the tree and the festivities of the evening, with an apparent disregard of the terrible undercurrent of human emotions which had them all in its grasp. Wollaston carried Maria's presents and Evelyn's. When they reached the trolley-line, and he gave them to her, she managed to whisper a thank you for his beautiful roses, and he pressed her hand and said good-night. The boy asked with a mixture of humility and defiance if he could not carry her parcels (he himself had nothing but three neckties and a great silk muffler, which he did not value highly, as he was well stocked already, and he had thrust them into his pockets). "No, thank you," said Maria, "I prefer to carry them myself." She was curt, but she was so lit up with rapture that she could not help smiling at him as she spoke, and he again sat in the same car-seat. She hardly spoke a word all the way to Amity, but he walked to her door with her, alighting from the car at the same time she did, although he lived half a mile farther on.
"You will have to walk a half mile," Maria observed, when he handed her off and let the car go on.
"I like to walk," the boy said, fervently.
Maria had her latch-key. She opened the door hurriedly and ran in. She was half afraid that this irrepressible young man might offer to kiss her. "Good-night," she said, and almost slammed the door in his face.
Aunt Maria had left a light burning low on the hall table. Maria took it and went up-stairs. She gathered up the skirt of her gown into a bag to hold the presents, hers and Evelyn's.
When she entered her own room and set the lamp on the dresser, she was aware of a little, nestling movement in the bed, and Evelyn's dark head and lovely face raised itself from the pillow.
"I came in here," said Evelyn, "because I wanted to see you after you came home. Do you mind?"
"No, darling, of course I don't mind," replied Maria.
She displayed Evelyn's presents, and the girl examined them eagerly. Maria thought she seemed disappointed even with her own gift of the brooch which she had expected would so delight her.
"Is that all?" Evelyn said.
"All?" laughed Maria. "Why, you little, greedy thing, what do you expect?"
To her astonishment Evelyn began suddenly to cry. She sobbed as if her heart would break, and would not tell her sister why she was so grieved. Finally, Maria having undressed and got into bed, her sister clung closely to her, still sobbing.
"Evelyn, darling, what is it?" whispered Maria.
"You'll laugh at me."
"No, I won't, honest, precious."
"Yes, honest, dear."
"Were those all the presents I had?"
"Yes, of course, I brought you all you had, dear."
Evelyn murmured something inarticulate against Maria's breast.
"What is it, dear, sister didn't hear?"
"I hung a book on the tree for him," choked Evelyn, "and I thought maybe—I thought—"
"I thought maybe he would—"
"I thought maybe Mr. Lee would give me something," sobbed Evelyn.
Maria lay still.
Evelyn nestled closer. "Oh," she whispered, "I love him so! I can't help it. I can't. I love him so, sister!"
There was a second's hush after Evelyn had said that. It seemed to Maria that her heart stood still. A sort of incredulity, as of the monstrous and the super-human seized her. She felt as one who had survived a railroad accident might feel looking down upon his own dismembered body in which life still quivered. She could not seem to actually sense what Evelyn had said, although the words still rang in her ears. Presently, Evelyn spoke again in her smothered, weeping voice. "Do you think I am so very dreadful, so—immodest, to care so much about a man who has never said he cared about me?"
"He has never said anything?" asked Maria, and her voice sounded strange in her own ears.
"No, never one word that I could make anything of, but he has looked at me, he has, honest, sister." Evelyn burst into fresh sobs.
Then Maria roused herself. She patted the little, soft, dark head.
"Why, Evelyn, precious," she said, "you are imagining all this. You can't care so much about a man whom you have seen so little. You have let your mind dwell on it, and you imagine it. You don't care. You can't, really. You wait, and by-and-by you will find out that you care a good deal more for somebody else."
But then Evelyn raised herself and looked down at her sister in the dark, and there was a ring in her voice which Maria had never before heard. "Not care," she said—"not care! I will stand everything but that. Maria, don't you dare tell me I don't care!"
"But you don't know him at all, dear."
"I know him better than anybody else in the whole world," said Evelyn, still in the same strained voice. "The very minute I saw him I loved him, and then it seemed as if a great bright light made him plain to me. I do love him, Maria. Don't you ever dare say I don't. That is the only thing that makes me feel that I am not ashamed to live, the knowing that I do love him. I should be dreadful if I didn't love him—really love him, I mean, with the love that lasts. Do you suppose that if I only felt about him as some of the other girls do, that I would have told you? I do love him!"
"What makes you so sure?"
"What makes me so sure? Why, everything. I know there is not another man in the whole world for me that can possibly equal him, and then—I feel as if my whole life were full of him. I can't seem to remember much before he came. When I look back, it is like looking into the dark, and I can't imagine the world being at all without him."
"Would you be willing to be very poor, to go without pretty things if you—married him, to live in a house like the Ramsey's on the other side of the river, not to have enough to eat and drink and wear?"
"I would have enough to eat and drink and wear. I would have as much as a queen if I had him," cried Evelyn. "What do you think I care about pretty things, or even food and life itself, when it comes to anything like this? Live in a house like the Ramsey's! I would live in a cave. I would live on the street, and I should never know it was not a palace. Maria, you do know that I love him, don't you?"
"Yes, I know that you think you do."
"No, say I do."
"Yes, I know you do," Maria said.
Then Evelyn lay down again, and wept quietly.
"Yes, I love him," she moaned, "but he does not love me. You don't think he does, do you? I know you don't."
Maria said nothing. She was sure that he did not.
"No, he does not. I see you know it," Evelyn sobbed, "and all I cared about going to the Christmas-tree and wearing my new gown was on account of him, and I sent a beautiful book. I thought I could do that. All the girls in the senior class gave him something, and I have been saving up every cent, and he never gave me anything, not even a box of candy or flowers. Do you think he gave any of the other girls anything, Maria?"
"I don't think so."
"I can't help hoping he did not. And I don't believe it is so very wicked, because I know that none of the other girls can possibly love him as much as I do. But, Maria—"
"I do love him enough not to complain if he really loved some other girl, and she was good, and would make him happy. I would go down on my knees to her to love him. I would, Maria, honest." Evelyn was almost hysterical. Maria soothed her, and evaded as well as she was able her repeated little, piteous questions as to whether she thought Mr. Lee could ever care for her. "I know I am pretty," Evelyn said naively. "I really think I must be prettier than any other girl in school. I have heard so, and I really think so myself, but being pretty means so little when it comes to anything like this with a man like him. He might love Addie Hemingway instead of me, so far as looks were concerned, but I don't think Addie would make him very happy—do you, Maria?"
"No, dear. I am quite sure he will never think of her. Now try and be quiet and go to sleep."
"I cannot go to sleep," moaned Evelyn, but it was not very long before she was drawing long, even breaths. Her youth had asserted itself. Then, too, she had got certain comfort from this baring of her soul before the soothing love of her sister.
As soon as Maria became sure that Evelyn was soundly asleep she gently unwound the slender, clinging arms and got out of bed, and stole noiselessly into Evelyn's own room, which adjoined hers. She did not get into bed, but took a silk comfortable off, and wrapped it around her, then sat down in a low chair beside the window. It seemed to her that if she could not have a little while to think by herself that she should go mad. The utterly inconceivable to her had happened, and the utterly inconceivable fairly dazzles the brain when it comes to pass. Maria felt as if she were outside all hitherto known tracks of life, almost as if she were in the fourth dimension. The possibility that her own sister might fall in love with the man whom she had married had never entered her mind before. She had checked Evelyn's wonder concerning him, but she had thought no more of it than of the usual foolish exuberance of a young girl. Now she believed that her sister really loved Wollaston. She recalled the fears which she had had with regard to her strenuous nature. She did not believe it to be a passing fancy of an ordinary young girl. She recalled word for word what Evelyn had said, and she believed. Maria sat awhile gazing out of the window at the starlit sky in a sort of blank of realization, of adjustment. She could not at first formulate any plan of action. She could only, as it were, state the problem. She gazed up at the northern constellations, at the mysterious polar star, and it seemed to steady her mind and give it power to deal with her petty problem of life by its far-away and everlasting guiding light. The window was partly open, and the same pungent odor of death and life in one which had endured all day came in her nostrils. She seemed to sense heaven and earth and herself as an atom, but an atom racked with infinite pain between the two.
"There is the great polar star," she said to herself, "there are all the suns and stars, here is the earth, and here am I, Maria Edgham, who am on the earth, but must some day give up my mortal life and become a part of it, and part of the material universe and perhaps also of the spiritual. I am as nothing, and yet this pain in my heart, this love in my heart, makes me shine with my own fire as much as the star. I could not be unless the earth existed, but it is of such as myself that the earth is made up, and without such as myself it could not shine in its place in the heavens."
Maria began to attach a certain importance to her individual existence even while she realized the pettiness of it, comparatively speaking. She was an infinitesimal part, but the whole could not be without that part. Suddenly the religious instruction which she had drank in with her mother's milk took possession of her, but she had a breadth of outlook which would have terrified her mother. Maria said to herself that she believed in God, but that His need of her was as much as her need of Him. She said to herself that without her tiny faith in Him, her tiny speck of love for Him, He would lack something of Himself. Then all at once, in a perfect flood of rapture, something which she had never before known came into her heart: the consciousness of the love of God for herself, of the need of God for herself, poor little Maria Edgham, whose ways of life had been so untoward and so absurd that she almost seemed to herself something to be laughed at rather than pitied, much less loved. But all at once the knowledge of the love of God was over her. She gazed up again at the great polar star overlooking with its eternal light the mysteries of the north, and for the first time in her whole life the primitive instinct of worship asserted itself within her. Maria rose, and fell on her knees, and continued to gaze up at the star which seemed to her like an eye of God Himself, and love seemed to pervade her whole being. She thought now almost lightly of Wollaston Lee. What was any earthly love to love like this, which took hold of the beginning and end of things, of the eternal? A resolution which this sense of love seemed to inspire came over her. It was a resolution almost grotesque, but it was sacred because her heart of hearts was in it, and she made it because of this love of God for her and her new sense of worship for something beyond the earth and all earthly affections which had taken possession of her. She rose, undressed herself, and went to bed. She did not say any prayer as usual. She seemed an incarnate prayer which made formulas unnecessary. Why was it essential to say anything when she was? At last she fell asleep, and did not wake until the dawn light was in the room. She did not wake as usual to a reunion with herself, but to a reunion with another self. She did not feel altogether happy. The resolution of the night before remained, but the ecstasy had vanished. She was not yet an angel, only a poor, human girl with the longings of her kind, which would not be entirely stifled as long as her human heart beat. But she did what she had planned. Maria had an unusually high forehead. It might have given evidence of intellect, of goodness, but it was not beautiful. She had always fluffed her blond hair over it, concealing it with pretty waves. This morning she brushed all her hair as tightly back as possible, and made a hard twist at an ugly angle at the back of her head. By doing this she did not actually destroy her beauty, for her regular features and delicate tints remained, but nobody looking at her would have called her even pretty. Her delicate features became pronounced and hardened, her nose seemed sharpened and elongated, her lips thinner. This display of her forehead hardened and made bold all her face and made her look years older than she was. Maria looked at herself in the glass with a sort of horror. She had always been fond of herself in the glass. She had loved that double of herself which had come and gone at her bidding, but now it was different. She was actually afraid of the stern, thin visage which confronted her, which was herself, yet not herself. When she was fully dressed it was worse still. She put on a gray gown which had never been becoming. It was not properly fitted. It was short-waisted, and gave her figure a short, chunky appearance. This chunky aspect, with her sharp face and strained back hair, made her seem fairly hideous to herself. But she remained firm. Her firmness, in reality, was one cause of the tightening and thinning of her lips. She hesitated when about to go down-stairs. She had not heard Evelyn go down. She wondered whether she had better wait until she went, or go into her room. She finally decided upon the latter course. Evelyn was standing in front of her dresser brushing her hair. When Maria entered she threw with a quick motion the whole curly, fluffy mass over her face, which glowed through it with an intensity of shame. Evelyn, when she awoke that morning, felt as if she had revealed some nakedness of her very soul. The girl was fairly ill. She could not believe that she had said what she remembered herself to have said.
"Good-morning, dear," said Maria.
Evelyn did not notice her changed appearance at all. She continued to brush away at the mist of hair over her face. "Oh, sister!" she murmured.
"Never mind, precious, we won't say anything more about it," said Maria, and her voice had maternal inflections.
"I ought not," stammered Evelyn, but Maria interrupted her.
"I have forgotten all about it, dear," she said. "Now you had better hurry or you will be late."
"When I woke up this morning and remembered, I felt as if I should die," Evelyn said, in a choked voice.
"Nonsense," said Maria. "You won't die, and it will all come out right. Don't worry anything about it or think anything more about it. Why don't you wear your red dress to school to-day? It is pleasant."
"Well, perhaps I had better," Evelyn said. She threw back her hair then, but still she did not look at Maria.
She arranged her hair and removed her little dressing-sack before she looked at Maria, who had seated herself in a rocking-chair beside the window. Aunt Maria always insisted upon getting breakfast without any assistance. The odor of coffee and baking muffins stole into the room. Evelyn got her red dress from the closet and put it on, still avoiding Maria's eyes. But at last she turned towards her.
"I am all ready to go down," she said, in a weak little voice; then she gave a great start, and stared at Maria.
Maria bore the stare calmly, and rose.
"All right, dear," she replied.
But Evelyn continued standing before her, staring incredulously. It was almost as if she doubted Maria's identity.
"Why, Maria Edgham!" she said, finally. "What is the matter?"
"What do you mean, dear?"
"What have you done to yourself to make you look so queer? Oh, I see what it is! It's your hair. Maria, dear, what have you strained it off your forehead in that way for? It makes you look—why—"
Then Maria lied. "My hair has been growing farther and farther off my forehead lately," said she, "and I thought possibly the reason was because I covered it. I thought if I brushed my hair back it would be better for it. Then, too, my head has ached some, and it seemed to me the pain in my forehead would be better if I kept it cooler."
"But, Maria," said Evelyn, "you don't look so pretty. You don't, dear, honest. I hate to say so, but you don't."
"Well I am afraid the pretty part of it will have to go," said Maria, going towards the door.
"Oh, Maria, please pull your hair over your forehead just a little."
"No, dear, I have it all fixed for the day, and it must stay as it is."
Evelyn followed Maria down-stairs. She had a puzzled expression. Maria's hair was diverting her from her own troubles. She could not understand why any girl should deliberately make herself homely. She felt worried. It even occurred to wonder if anything could be the matter with Maria's mind.
When the two girls went into the little dining-room, where breakfast was ready for them, Aunt Maria began to say something about the weather, then she cut herself short when she saw Maria.
"Maria Edgham," said she, "what on earth—"
Maria took her place at the table. "Those gems look delicious," she observed. But Aunt Maria was not to be diverted.
"I don't want to hear anything about gems," said she. "They are good enough, I guess. I always could make gems, but what I want to know is if you have gone clean daft."
"I don't think so," replied Maria, laughing.
But Aunt Maria continued to stare at her with an expression of almost horror.
"What under the sun have you got your hair done up that way for?" said she.
Maria repeated what she had told Evelyn.
"Stuff!" said Aunt Maria. "It will make the hair grow farther back straining it off your forehead that way, I can tell you that. You don't use common-sense, and as for your headache, I guess the hair didn't make it ache. It's the first I've heard of it. You look like a fright, I can tell you that."
"Well, I can't help it," said Maria. "I shall have to behave well to make up."
"Maria Edgham, you don't mean to say you are going to school looking as you do now!"
Maria laughed, and buttered a gem.
"You look old enough to be your own grandmother. You have spoiled your looks."
"Looks don't amount to much," said Maria.
"Maria Edgham, are you crazy?"
"I hope not."
"I told sister she didn't look so pretty," said Evelyn.
"Look so pretty? She looks like a homely old maid. Your nose looks a yard long and your chin looks peaked and your mouth looks as if you were as ugly as sin. Your forehead is too high; it always was, and you ought to thank the Lord that he gave you pretty hair, and enough of it to cover up your forehead, and now you've gone and strained it back just as tight as you can and made a knot like a tough doughnut at the back of your head. You look like a crazy thing, I can tell you that."
Maria said nothing. She ate her breakfast, while Aunt Maria and Evelyn could not eat much and were all the time furtively watching her.
Aunt Maria took Evelyn aside before the sisters left for school, and asked her in a whisper if she thought anything was wrong with Maria, if she had noticed anything, but Evelyn said she had not. But she and Aunt Maria looked at each other with eyes of frightened surmise.
When Maria had her hat on she looked, if anything, worse.
"Good land!" said Aunt Maria, when she saw her. "Well, if you are set on making a spectacle of yourself, I suppose you are."
After the girls had gone she went into the other side of the house and told Eunice. "There she has gone and made herself look like a perfect scarecrow," she said. "I wonder if there is any insanity in her father's family?"
"Did she look so bad?" asked Eunice, with a stare of terror at her sister-in-law.
"Look so bad! She looked as old and homely as you and I every bit."
Maria made as much of a sensation on the trolley as she had done at home. The boy who had persecuted her the night before with his attentions bowed to Evelyn, and glanced at her evidently with no recognition. After a while he came to Evelyn and asked where her sister was that morning. Maria laughed, and he looked at her, then he fairly turned pale, and lifted his hat. He mumbled something and returned to his seat. Maria was conscious of his astonished and puzzled gaze at her all the way. When she reached the academy the other teachers—that is, the women—assailed her openly. One even attempted to loosen by force Maria's tightly strained locks.
"Why, Miss Edgham, you fairly frighten me," she said, when Maria resisted.
Maria realized the amazement of the pupils when they entered her class-room, the amazement of incredulity and almost disgust. Everybody seemed amazed and almost disgusted except Wollaston Lee. He did, indeed, give one slightly surprised glance at her, then he seemed to notice nothing different in her appearance. The man's sense of duty and honor was so strong that in reality his sense of externals was blunted. He had a sort of sublime short-sightedness to everything that was not of the spirit. He had been convinced the night previous that Maria was beginning to regard him with favor, and being convinced of that made him insensible to any mere outward change in her. She looked to him, on the whole, prettier than usual because he seemed to see in her love for himself.
When the noon intermission came he walked into her class-room, and invited Maria and Evelyn to go with him to a near-by restaurant and lunch.
"I would ask you to go home with me," he said, apologetically, to Maria, "but mother has a cold."
Maria turned pale. She wondered if he had possibly told his mother. Then she remembered how he had promised her not to tell without her permission, and was reassured. Evelyn blushed and smiled and dimpled, and cast one of her sweet, dark glances at him, which he did not notice at all. His attention was fixed upon Maria, who hesitated, regarding him with her pale, pinched face. Evelyn took it for granted that Mr. Lee's invitation was only on her account, and that Maria was asked simply as a chaperon, and because, indeed, he could not very well avoid it. She jumped up and got her hat.
"It will be perfectly lovely," she said, and faced them both, her charming face one glow of delight.
But Maria did not rise. She looked at the basket of luncheon which she had begun to unpack, and replied, coldly, "Thank you, Mr. Lee, but we have our luncheon with us."
Wollaston looked at her in a puzzled way.
"But you could have something hot at the restaurant," he said. The words were not much, but in reality he meant, and Maria so understood him, "Why, what do you mean, after last night? You know how I feel about you. Why do you refuse?"
Maria took another sandwich from her basket. "Thank you for asking us, Mr. Lee," she said, "but we have our luncheon."
Her tone was fairly hostile. The hostility was not directed towards him, but towards the weakness in herself. But that he could not understand.
"Very well," he said, in a hurt manner. "Of course I will not urge you, Miss Edgham." Then he walked out of the room, hollowing his back and holding his head very straight in a way he had had from a boy when he was offended.
Evelyn pulled off her hat with a jerk. She looked at Maria with her eyes brilliant with tears. "I think you were mean, sister," she whispered, "awful mean; so there!"
"I thought it was better not to go," Maria replied. Her tone was at once stern and pitiful. Evelyn noticed only her sternness. She began to weep softly.
"There, he wanted me, too," she said, "and of course he had to ask you, and you knew—I think you might have, sister."
"I thought it was better not," repeated Maria. "Now, dear, you had better eat your luncheon."
"I don't want any luncheon."
Maria began to eat a sandwich herself. There was an odd meekness and dejectedness in her manner. Presently she laid the half-eaten sandwich on the table and took out her handkerchief, and shook all over with helpless and silent sobs.
Then Evelyn looked at her, her pouting expression relaxed gradually. She looked bewildered.
"Why, what are you crying for?" she asked, in a low voice.
Maria did not answer.
Presently Evelyn rose and went over to her sister, and laid her cheek alongside hers and kissed her.
"Don't, sister," she whispered. "I am sorry. I didn't mean to be cross. I suppose you were right not to go, only I did want to." Evelyn snivelled a little. "I know he was hurt, too," she said.
Maria raised her head and wiped her eyes. "I did not think it was best," she said yet again. Then she looked at Evelyn and tried to smile. "Don't worry, precious," she said. "Everything will come out all right."
Evelyn gazed wonderingly at her sister's tear-stained face. "I don't see what you cried for, and I don't see why you wouldn't go," she said. "The scholars will see you have been crying, and he will see, too. I don't see why you feel badly. I should think I was the one to feel badly."
"Everything will come out all right," repeated Maria. "Don't worry, sister's own darling."
"Everybody will see that you have been crying," said Evelyn, who was in the greatest bewilderment. "What did make you cry, Maria?"
"Nothing, dear. Don't think any more about it," said Maria rising. She took a tumbler from the lunch-basket. "Go and fill this with water for me, that is a dear," she said. "Then I will bathe my eyes. Nobody would know that you have been crying."
"That is because I am not so fair-skinned," said Evelyn; "but I don't see."
She went out with the tumbler, shaking her head in a puzzled way. When she returned, Maria had the luncheon all spread out on the table, and looked quite cheerful in spite of her swollen eyes. The sisters ate together, and Evelyn was very sweet in spite of her disappointment. She was in reality very sweet and docile before all her negatives of life, and always would be. Her heart was always in leading-strings of love. She looked affectionately at Maria as they ate the luncheon.
"I am so sorry I was cross," she said. "I suppose you thought that it would look particular if we went out to lunch with Mr. Lee."
"Yes, I think it might have," replied Maria.
"Well, I suppose it would," said Evelyn with a sigh, "and I know all the other girls are simply dying for him, but he asked us, after all." Evelyn said the last with an indescribable air of sweet triumph. It was quite evident that she regarded the invitation as meant for herself alone, and that she took ineffable delight in it in spite of the fact that it had been refused. She kept glancing out of the window as she ate. Presently she looked at her sister and laughed. "There he is coming now," she said, "and he is all alone. He didn't take anybody else to luncheon."
Wollaston Lee, approaching the academy on his return from his solitary lunch, was quite conscious of being commanded by the windows of Maria's class-room. He was so conscious that his stately walk became almost a strut. He felt resentment at Maria. He could not help it. He had not been, in fact, so much in love with her, as in that attitude of receptivity which invites love. He felt that she ought to be in love, and he wooed not only the girl but love itself. Therefore resentment came more readily than if he had actually loved. He had been saying to himself, while he was eating his luncheon which mortified pride had rendered tasteless, that if it had not been for the fact of his absurd alliance with Maria she was the last girl in the world to whom he would have voluntarily turned, now that he was fully grown, and capable of estimating his own character and hers. He said to himself that she was pretty, attractive, and of undeniable strength of character, and yet that very strength of character would have repelled him. He was not a man who needed a wife of great strength of character, of consistent will. He himself had sufficient. His chances of happiness would have been greater with a wife in whom the affections and emotions were predominant; there would have been less danger of friction. Then, too, his wife would necessarily have to live with his mother, and his mother was very like himself. He said to himself that there would certainly be friction, and yet he also said that he could not abandon his attitude of readiness to reciprocate should Maria wish for his allegiance.
Now, for the first time, Wollaston had Evelyn in his mind. Of course he had noticed her beauty, and admired her. The contrary would not have been possible, but now he was conscious of a distinct sensation of soothed pride, when he remembered how she had smiled and dimpled at his invitation, and jumped up to get her hat.
"That pretty little thing wanted to come, anyhow. It is a shame," he thought. Then insensibly he fell to wondering how he should feel if it were Evelyn to whom he were bound instead of her sister. It did not seem possible to him that the younger sister, with her ready gratitude and her evident ardor of temperament, could smile upon him at night and frown the next morning as Maria had done. He considered, also, how Evelyn would get on better with his mother. Then he resolutely put the thought out of his mind.
"It is not Evelyn, but Maria," he said to himself, and shut his mouth hard. He resumed his attitude of obedience to duty, but one who is driven by duty alone almost involuntarily balks in spirit.
Wollaston was conscious of balking, although he would not retreat. When he saw Maria again after the exercises of the day were closed, and he encountered her as she was leaving the academy, she looked distinctly homely to him, and yet such was the honor of the man that he did not in the least realize that the homeliness was an exterior thing. It seemed to him that he saw her encompassed with the stiffness of her New England antecedents, as with an armor, and that he got a new and unlovely view of her character. On the contrary, Evelyn's charming, half-smiling, half-piteous face turned towards him seemed to afford glimpses of sweetest affections and womanly gentleness and devotion. Evelyn wished to say that she was sorry that they were obliged to refuse his invitation, but she did not dare. Instead, she gave him that little, half-smiling, half-piteous glance, to which he responded with a lighting up of his whole face and lift of his hat. Then Evelyn smiled entirely, and her backward glance at him was wonderfully alluring, yet maidenly, almost childish. Wollaston, on his way home, thought again how different it would be if Evelyn, instead of Maria, were his wife. Then he put it out of his head resolutely.
The next morning Maria arranged her hair as usual. She had comprehended that something more than mere externals were needful to change the mind of a man like Wollaston, and she gave up the attempt, it must be acknowledged, with a little pleasure. Feminine vanity was inherent in Maria. Nobody knew what the making herself hideous the day before had cost her.
"Oh, I am so glad you have done up your hair the old way," Evelyn cried, when she saw her, and Aunt Maria remarked that she was glad to see that she had not quite lost her common-sense.
Maria began herself to think that she had not evinced much sense in her procedure of the day before. She had underestimated the character of the man whom she had married, and had made herself ridiculous for nothing. The boy who was infatuated with her, when he saw her on the trolley that morning, made a movement to go forward and speak to her, then he sat still with frequent puzzled glances at her. He was repelled if Wollaston was not. This changing of the face of a woman in a day's time filled him with suspicion. He looked hard at Maria's soft puff of hair, and reflected that it might be a wig; that anyway he was not so much in love as he had thought, with a girl who could look as Maria had done the day before.
When Maria reached the academy, the teachers greeted her with enthusiasm. One who was given to exuberance fairly embraced her.
"Now you are my own beautiful Miss Edgham again," said she.
Wollaston, during the opening exercises, only glanced once at her, then he saw no difference. But he did look at Evelyn, and when she turned her lovely face away before his gaze and a soft blush rose over her round cheeks he felt his pulses quicken. But he did not speak a word to Maria or Evelyn all day.
When Evelyn went home that night she was very sober. She would not eat her supper, and Maria was sure that she heard her sobbing in the night. The next morning the child looked pale and wan, and Aunt Maria asked harshly if she were sick. Evelyn replied no quickly. When she and Maria were outside waiting for the trolley, Evelyn said, half catching her breath with a sob even then:
"Mr. Lee didn't speak a word to me all day yesterday. I know he did not like it because we didn't go to lunch with him."
"Nonsense, dear," said Maria. Then she added, with an odd, secretive meaning in her voice: "Don't worry, precious."
"I can't help it," said Evelyn.
When the term was about half finished it became evident to Maria that she and Evelyn must call upon Mrs. Lee, Wollaston's mother. She had put it off as long as she could, although all the other teachers had called, and Aunt Maria had kept urging her to do so.
"She is going to think it is awful funny if you don't call," she said, "when you used to live in the same place, too."
In reality, Aunt Maria, now that George Ramsey had married, was thinking that Wollaston might be a good match for Maria, and she wished to prevent her marriage with Professor Lane should he return from Colorado cured.
At last Maria felt that she was fairly obliged to go, and one Saturday afternoon she and Evelyn went to Westbridge for the purpose. Wollaston and his mother lived in an exceedingly pretty house. Mrs. Lee had artistic taste, and the rooms were unusual though simple. Maria looking about, felt a sort of homesick longing. She realized how perfectly a home like this would have suited her. As for Evelyn, she looked about with quick, bright glances, and she treated Mrs. Lee as if she were in love with her. She was all the time wondering if Wollaston would possibly come in, and in lieu of him, she played off her innocent graces with no reserve upon his mother. Wollaston did not come in. He had gone to the city, but when he came home his mother told him of the call.
"Those Edgham girls who used to live in Edgham, the one who teaches in your school, and her sister, called this afternoon," said she.
"Did they?" responded Wollaston. He turned a page of the evening paper. It was after dinner, and the mother and son were sitting in a tiny room off the parlor, from which it was separated by some eastern portieres. There was a fire on the hearth. The two windows, which were close together, were filled up with red and white geraniums. There was a red rug, and the walls were lined with books. Outside it had begun to snow, and the flakes drifted past the windows filled with red and white blossoms like a silvery veil of the storm.
"Yes," said Mrs. Lee. Then she added, with a keen although covert glance at her son: "I like the younger sister."
"She is considered quite a beauty, I believe," said Wollaston.
"Quite a beauty; she is a perfect beauty," said his mother with emphasis. "It seemed to me I never had seen such a perfectly beautiful, sweet girl. I declare, I actually wanted to take her in my arms. Anybody could live with that girl. As for her sister, I don't like her at all."
Mrs. Lee was very like her son. She had the same square jaw and handsome face, which had little of the truly feminine in it. Her clear blue eyes surveyed every new person with whom she came in contact in her new dwelling place, with impartial and pitiless scrutiny. When she liked people she said so. When she did not she also said so, and, as far as she could, let them alone. When she spoke now, she looked as if Maria's face was actually before her. She did not frown, but her expression was one of complete hostility and unsparing judgment.
"Why don't you like her?" asked her son, with his eyes upon his paper.
"Why don't I like her? She is New England to the backbone, and one who is New England to the backbone is insufferable. She is stiff and set in her ways. She would go to the stake for a fad, or send her nearest and dearest there."
"She is a very good teacher, and the pupils like her," said Wollaston. He kept his voice quite steady.
"She may be a very good teacher," said his mother. "I dare say she is. I can't imagine anybody not learning a task which she set them, but I don't like her."
"She is pretty—at least, she is called so," said Wollaston. Then he added, with an impulse of loyalty: "I think myself that she is very pretty."
"I don't call her at all pretty," said his mother. "She has a nose which looks as if it could pierce fate, and she sets her mouth as though she was deciding the laws of the universe. It is all very well in a man, that kind of a face, but I can't call it pretty in a woman."
Wollaston glanced at his mother, and an expression of covert amusement was on his face as he reflected that his mother herself answered her own description of poor Maria, and did not dream of it. In fact, the two, although one was partly of New England heritage, and the other of a wholly different, more southern State, they were typically alike. They could meet only to love or quarrel; there could never be neutrality between them. Wollaston said no more, but continued reading his paper. He did not in reality sense one word which he read. He acknowledged to himself that he was very unhappy. He was caught in a labyrinth from which he saw no way of escape into the open. He realized that love for Maria had become almost impossible—that is, spontaneous love—even if she should change her attitude towards him. He realized a lurking sense of guilt as to his sentiments towards Evelyn, and he realized also that his mother and Maria could never live together in peace. Once Mrs. Lee took a dislike, her very soul fastened upon it as with a grip of iron jaws. Doubtless if she knew that her son was in honor bound to Maria she would try to make the best of it, but the best of it would be bad enough. He wondered while he sat with the paper before his face what Maria's real attitude towards him was. He could not understand such apparent inconsistencies in a woman of his mother's type, and he had been almost sure that one night that Maria loved him.
Maria, after that call, faced her future course more fully than ever. She had disliked Mrs. Lee as much as Mrs. Lee had disliked her. Only the fact that she was Wollaston's mother made her endurable to her.
"Isn't Mrs. Lee perfectly lovely?" said Evelyn, when she and Maria were on their way home.
"Yes," Maria answered, but she did not think so. Mrs. Lee shone for her only with reflected glory.
"I wonder where Mr. Lee was?" Evelyn murmured, timidly.
"I don't know," Maria said with an absent air. "We did not go to call on him."
"Of course we didn't," said Evelyn. "Don't be cross, sister."
"I am not in the least cross," Maria answered with perfect truth.
"I didn't know but you were, you spoke so," said Evelyn. She leaned wearily against her sister, and looked ahead with a hollow, wistful expression.
Evelyn had grown thin and lost much of her color. Aunt Maria and Eunice talked about it when they were alone.
"I wonder if there is any consumption in her mother's family?" Aunt Maria said.
"I wonder," said Eunice. "I don't like the way she looks."
"Well, don't say anything about it to Maria, for she will worry herself sick," said Aunt Maria. "She sets her eyes by Evelyn."
"Don't you think she notices?"
"No, she hasn't said a word about it."
But Aunt Maria was wrong. Maria had noticed. That afternoon, returning from Westbridge, she looked anxiously down at her sister.
"Don't you feel well, dear?" she asked.
"Perfectly well," Evelyn replied languidly, "only I am a little tired."
"Perhaps it is the spring weather," said Maria.
Evelyn nodded. It was the beginning of the spring term, and spring came like a flood that year. The trees fairly seemed to burst forth in green-and-rosy flames, and the shrubs in the door-yards bloomed so boldly that they shocked rather than pleased.
"I like the spring to come slowly, so one does not feel choked with it," Evelyn said after a little, as she gazed out of the window. "There are actually daisies in that field. They have come too soon." Evelyn spoke with an absurd petulance which was unusual with her.
Maria laughed. "Well, dear, we can't help it," she said.
"If this world is for people, and not the people for this world, it seems to me we ought to be able to help a little," said Evelyn with perfectly unconscious heresy. "There it rained too much last week, and this week it is too hot, and the apple blossoms have come too soon after the cherry blossoms. It is like eating all your candy in one big pill."
Maria laughed again, but Evelyn sighed wearily. The car was very hot and close.
"I shall be thankful when we get home," Evelyn said.
"Yes, you will feel better when you get home and have some supper," said Maria.
"I don't want any supper," said Evelyn.
"If you don't eat any supper you cannot study this evening."
"I must study," said Evelyn with a feverish light in her eyes.
"You can't unless you eat."
"Well, I will drink some milk," said Evelyn. She was studying very hard. She was very ambitious, both naturally and because of her feeling for Wollaston Lee. It seemed to her that she should die if she did not stand well in her class. Evelyn had received so little notice from Wollaston that she had made up her mind that he did not care for her, and the conviction was breaking her heart, but she said to herself that she would graduate with honors that she might have that much, that she must.
The graduating with honors would have been easy to the girl, for she had naturally a quick grasp of knowledge, but her failing health and her almost unconquerable languor made it hard for her to work as usual. However, she persisted. It became evident that she would stand first among the girls of her class, and only second to one boy, who had a large brain and little emotion, and was so rendered almost impregnable. Ida sent Evelyn a graduating costume from Paris, and the girl brightened a little after she had tried it on. She could not quite give up all hope of being loved when she saw herself in that fluffy white robe, and looked over her slender shoulder at her graceful train, and reflected how she would not only look pretty but acquit herself with credit. She said to herself that if she were a man she should love herself. There was about Evelyn an almost comical naivete and truthfulness.
Ida also sent Maria a gown for the graduating exercises. Hers was a pale blue, very pretty, but not as pretty as Evelyn's. The night after the gowns came Maria was startled by a sudden rush into her room when she was almost asleep, and Evelyn nestling into her arms and sobbing out that she was sorry, she was sorry, but she could not help it.
"Can't help what, darling?" said Maria.
"Can't help being glad that my dress is so much prettier than yours," wept Evelyn. "I am sorry, sister, but I can't help it, and I am so ashamed I had to come in and tell you."
Maria laughed and kissed her. "Sister is very glad yours is the prettiest," she said.
"Oh, I am so sorry I am so selfish," sobbed Evelyn. Then she added, in a tiny whisper, "I know now he won't ever think of me, but I can't help being glad I shall look nice for him to see, anyway."
Evelyn was asleep long before her sister. Maria lay awake, with the little, frail body in her arms, realizing with horror how very frail and thin it was. Evelyn was of the sort whom emotion can kill. She was being consumed like a lamp which needed oil. Love was for the girl not only a need but a condition of life. Maria was realizing it. At the same time she said to herself that possibly after school was over and Evelyn could rest she might regain her strength. There seemed to be no organic trouble. The local physician had been consulted, and said that nothing whatever was the matter, yet had gone away with a grave face after prescribing a simple tonic. The fact was that life was flickering low, as it sometimes does, with no ostensible reason which science could grasp. Evelyn was beyond science. She was assailed in that citadel of spirit which overlooks science from the heights of eternity. No physician but fate itself could help her.
All this time, while Maria was suffering as keenly as her sister, her suffering left no evidence. She had inherited from her mother a tremendous strength of will, which sustained her. She said to herself that she had her work to do, that her health must not fail. She said that probably Wollaston did not care for her, although she could not help thinking that she had the power to make him care, and that she would be lacking in all that meant her true and best self should she give way to her unhappiness and let it master her. She therefore mastered it. In those days to Maria, who had a ready imagination, her unhappiness seemed sometimes to assume a material shape like the fabulous dragon. She seemed to be fighting something with tooth and claw, a monstrous verity; but she fought, and she kept the upper hand. Maria did not lose flesh. She ate as usual, she retained her interest in her work, and all the time whenever a moment of solitude came she renewed the conflict. She thought as little as possible of Wollaston; she avoided even looking at him. He thought that he really was an object of aversion to her. He began to question the advisability of his retaining his position another year. He told himself that it was hardly fair to Maria to subject her to such annoyance, that it was much easier for him to obtain another position than it was for her. He wanted to ask her with regard to it, but in the days before commencement she so manifestly shrank from even looking at him that he hardly liked to approach her even with a question which concerned her own happiness.
Wollaston in those days used sometimes to glance at Evelyn, and notice how very thin and delicate she looked, and an anxiety which was almost paternal was over him. He used almost to wish that she was not so proficient in her studies. One day, meeting her in the vestibule when no one was in sight, he could not resist the impulse which led him to pat her little, dark, curly head and say, in a voice broken with tenderness:
"Don't study too hard, little one."
Evelyn gave an upward glance at him and ran away. Wollaston stood still a moment, dazed. He was not naturally a conceited man. Then, too, he had always regarded himself as so outside the pale that he doubted the evidence of his own senses. If he had not been tied to Evelyn's sister he would have said to himself, in a rapture, that that look of the young girl's meant, could mean, only one thing: that all her innocent heart was centred upon himself. It would have savored no more of conceit that the seeing his face in a mirror. He would simply have thought it the truth. But now, since he was always forgetting that other women did not know the one woman's secret, and looked upon him as an unmarried man, and therefore a fit target for their innocent wiles, the preening of their dainty dove plumage, he said to himself that he must have been mistaken. That Evelyn had looked at him as she had done only because she was nervous and overwrought, and the least thing was sufficient to disturb her equilibrium.
However, he was very careful not to address Evelyn particularly again, but that one little episode had been sufficient for the girl to build another air castle upon. That night when she went home she was radiant with happiness. Her color had returned, smiles lit her whole face. Ineffable depths of delight sparkled in her eyes. It seemed almost a sacrilege to look at the young girl, whose heart was so plainly evident in her face. Maria looked at her, and felt a chill in her own heart.
"Something must have happened," she said to herself. She thought that Evelyn would tell her, but she did not; she ate her supper with more appetite than she had shown for many a week. Her gayety in the evening, when some neighbors came in, was so unrestrained and childlike that it was fairly infectious. They sat out on the front door-step. It had been a warm day, and the evening cool was welcome and laughter floated out into the street. It was laughter over nothing, but irresistible, induced because of the girl's exuberant mood. She felt that night as if there was no meaning in the world except happiness and fun. George Ramsey, going home about nine o'clock, heard the laughter, and shrugged his shoulders rather bitterly. Lily had made him such a good wife, according to the tenets of wifehood, that he had apparently no reason to complain. She was always perfectly amiable and affectionate, not violently affectionate, but with the sort of affection which does not ruffle laces nor disarrange hair, and that he had always considered the most desirable sort of affection in the long-run. She and his mother got on very well also—that is, apparently. Lily, it was true, always had her way, but she had it so gently and unobtrusively that one really doubted if she were not herself the conceder. She always looked the same, she dressed daintily, and arranged her fair hair beautifully. George did not own to himself that sameness irritated him when it was such charming sameness. However, he did sometimes realize, and sternly put it away from him, a little sting when he happened to meet Maria. He had a feeling as if he had gone from a waxwork show and met a real woman.
To-night when he heard the peals of laughter from the front door of the Stillman house he felt the sting again, and an unwarrantable childish indignation as if he had been left out of something and slighted. He was conscious of wishing when he reached home that his wife would greet him with a frown and reproaches; in fact, with something new, instead of her sweet, gentle smile of admiration, looking up from her everlasting embroidering, from where she sat beside the sitting-room lamp. George felt furious with her for admiring him. He sat down moodily and took up the evening paper. His mother was not there. She had gone to her room early with a headache.
Finally, Lily remarked that it was a beautiful night, and it was as exactly what might have been expected from her flower-like lips as the squeaking call for mamma of a talking doll. George almost grunted a response, and rattled his paper loudly. Lily looked at him with a little surprise, but with unfailing love and admiration. George had sometimes a feeling that if he were to beat her she would continue to admire him and think it lovely of him. Lily had, in fact, the soul of an Oriental woman in the midst of New England. She would have figured admirably in a harem. George, being Occidental to his heart's core, felt an exasperation the worse because it was needfully dumb, on account of this adoration. He thought less of himself because his wife thought he could do no wrong. The power of doing wrong is, after all, a power, and George had a feeling of having lost that power and of being in a negative way wronged. Finally he spoke crossly to Lily over his newspaper.
"Why do you stick so to that everlasting fancy-work?" said he. "Why on earth don't you sometimes run out of an evening? You never go into the next house nowadays."
Lily arose directly.
"We will go over there now if you wish," said she. She laid down her work and smoothed her hair with her doll-like gesture, which never varied.
George looked at her surlily and irresolutely.
"No, I guess we had better not to-night," he said.
"I had just as lief, dear."
George rose, letting his paper slide to the floor.
"Well," he said, "they are all out on the front door-step, and I think some of the neighbors are there, too. We might run over a moment. It is too hot to stay in the house, anyway."
But when George and Lily came alongside the Stillman house the laughter was hushed, and there was a light in Aunt Maria's bedroom, and lights also in the chambers behind the drawn curtains.
"We are too late," said George. "They have gone to bed."
"I think they have," replied Lily, looking up at the lighted bedroom windows. Then she added, "I will go over there any evening you wish, dear," and looked at him with that unfailing devotion which unreasonably angered him.
He answered her quite roughly, and was ashamed of himself afterwards.
"It is a frightfully monotonous life we lead anyhow," said he, as if she, Lily, were responsible for it.
"Suppose we go away a week somewhere next month," said Lily.
"Well, I'll think of it," said he, striding along by her side. Even that suggestion, which was entirely reasonable, angered him, and he felt furious and ashamed of himself for being so angered.
Lily was constantly making him ashamed of himself for not being a god and for feeling unreasonable anger when she did nothing to provoke it. Once in a while a man likes to have a reasonable cause for resentment in order to prove himself in the right.
"Well, I am ready to go whenever you wish to do so, dear," said Lily. "My wardrobe is in order."
"Well, we'll see," George grunted again, as he and Lily retraced their steps.
They sat down again in the sitting-room, and Lily took up her embroidery, and he read a murder case in his paper.
Meanwhile, Maria, after putting out her lamp, was lying awake in bed thinking that Evelyn would come in and make some confidence to her, but she did not come. Maria felt horribly uneasy. She could not understand her sister's sudden change of mood, and yet she did not for a moment doubt Wollaston. She said to herself that as far as she was concerned she would brave the publicity if Wollaston loved Evelyn, but she recalled as exactly as if she had committed them to heart what Evelyn had said with regard to divorce and the horror which she had expressed of a divorced man or woman remarrying. Then she further considered how much worse it would be if the divorced man married her own sister. That course seemed to her impossible. She imagined the horrible details, the surmises, the newspaper articles, and she said to herself that even if she herself were willing to face the ordeal it would be still more of an ordeal for Wollaston and Evelyn. She said to herself that it was impossible; then she also said to herself, with no bitterness, but with an acquiescence in the logic of it, that it would be much better for them all if she, Maria, should die.
Evelyn's return of appetite and spirits endured only a few days. Then she seemed worse than she had been before. In fact, Wollaston, thinking that he had done wrong in yielding for only a second to his impulse of tender protection and admiration for the young girl, went too far in the opposite direction. In order to make amends to Maria, himself, and Evelyn, he was actually rude, almost brutal. He scarcely spoke to Evelyn. On one occasion he even reprimanded her severely in a class for a slight mistake. Evelyn turned pale, and gave him a glance like that of some pretty, little, harmless animal which has nothing except love and devotion in its heart, and whose very mistakes are those of love and over-anxiety to please. Wollaston was struck to the heart by the look, but he did not relax one muscle of his stern face.
"I think Mr. Lee treated you mean, so there," Addie Hemingway said to Evelyn when they had left the room.
Evelyn said nothing. Her face continued pale and shocked. It was inconceivable to her that anybody, least of all Mr. Lee, could have spoken so to her.
"He's treating you like a child," Addie Hemingway continued. "Mr. Lee has no right to speak so to seniors." Addie's words were in themselves sympathetic, but there was an undertone of delight at the other girl's discomfiture in her voice which she could not eliminate. In reality she was saying to herself that Evelyn Edgham, in spite of her being so pretty, had had to meet a rebuff, and she exulted in it.
Evelyn still said nothing. She left Addie abruptly and joined Maria in her class-room. It was the noon-hour. Maria glanced anxiously at her sister as she entered.
"Why, darling, what is the matter?" she cried.
"Nothing," replied Evelyn. An impulse of loyalty seized her. She would not repeat, not even to Maria, the unkind words which Mr. Lee had used towards her.
"But you look so pale, dear," said Maria.
"It was warm in there," said Evelyn, with a quiet, dejected air unusual to her.
Maria could not get any admission that anything was wrong from her. Evelyn tried to eat her luncheon, making more of an effort than usual, but she could not. At last she laid her head down on her sister's table and wept with the utter abandon of a child, but she still would not tell what caused her tears.
After that Evelyn lost flesh so rapidly that it became alarming. Maria and her aunt wondered if they ought to allow her to go through the strain of the graduation exercises, but neither dared say anything about it to her. Evelyn's whole mind seemed fastened upon her graduation and the acquitting of herself with credit. She studied assiduously. She often used to go into the spare chamber and gaze at her graduating dress, which was spread out on the bed there covered with a sheet.
"She's so set on that graduation and wearing that dress," Aunt Maria said to Eunice Stillman, her sister-in-law, one day when she was alone with her in her parlor and heard Evelyn's light step overhead. "She goes in there almost every day and looks at it."
Eunice sighed. "Well, I wish she looked better," said she.
"So do I. It seems to me that she loses every day."
"Did you ever think—" began Eunice. Then she stopped and hesitated.
"If—anything happened to her, that that dress—"
"Oh, for the land sake, stop, Eunice!" cried Aunt Maria, impatiently. "Ain't I had it on my mind the whole time. And that dress looks just as if it was laid out there."
"Do you think Maria notices?"
"Yes, she's just as worried as I am. But what can we do? Maybe if Evelyn gets through the graduation she will be better. I shall be thankful when it's over, for my part."
"How that child's mother could have gone off and left her all this time I don't see," Eunice said. "If I were in her place and anything happened to her, I should never forgive myself."
"Trust Ida Slome to forgive herself for most anything," Aunt Maria returned, bitterly. "But as far as that goes, I guess the child has had full as good care here as she would have had with her ma."
"I guess so, too," said Eunice; "better—only I should never forgive myself."
That was only a week before the graduation day, which was on a Wednesday. It was a clear June day, with a sky of blue, veiled here and there with wing-shaped clouds. It was quite warm. Evelyn dressed herself very early. She was ready long before it was time to take the car. Evelyn, in her white graduating dress, was fairly angelic. Although she had lost so much flesh, it had not affected her beauty, only made it more touching. Her articulations and bones were so fairy-like and delicate that even with her transparent sleeved and necked dress there were no unseemly protuberances. Her slenderness, moreover, was not so apparent in her fluffy gown. Above her necklace of pink corals her lovely face showed. It was full of a gentle and uncomplaining melancholy, yet that day there was a tinge of hope in it. The faintest and most appealing smile curved her lips. She looked at everybody with a sort of wistful challenge. It was as if she said: "After all, am I not pretty, and worthy of being loved? Am I not worthy of being loved, even if I am not, and I have all my books in my head, too?"
Maria had given her a bouquet of red roses. When Evelyn in her turn came forward to read her essay, holding her red roses, with red roses of excitement burning on her delicate cheeks, there was a low murmur of admiration. Then it was that Maria, in her blue gown, seated among the other teachers, caught the look on Wollaston Lee's face. It was unmistakable. It was a look of the utmost love and longing and admiration, the soul of the man, for the minute, was plainly to be read. In a second, the look was gone, but Maria had seen. "He is in love with her," she told herself, "only he is so honorable that he chokes the love back." Maria turned very pale, but she listened with smiling lips to Evelyn's essay. It was very good, but not much beyond the usual rate of such productions. Evelyn had nothing creative about her, although she was even a brilliant scholar. But the charm of that little flutelike voice, coming from that slight, white-clad beauty, made even platitudes seem like something higher than wisdom.
When Evelyn had finished there was a great round of applause and a shower of flowers. She returned again and again, and bowed, smiling delightedly. She was flushed with her triumph. She thought that even Mr. Lee must be pleased with her, if he did not love her, and be proud to have such a pupil.
That evening there was to be a reception for the teachers, and the graduating-class, at Mr. Lee's house. Evelyn and Maria had planned to go to one of the other teacher's, who lived in Westbridge, have supper, and go from there to the reception. But when the exercises were over, and they had reached the teacher's home, Evelyn's strength gave way. She had a slight fainting fit. The teacher, an elderly woman who lived alone, gave her home-made wine and made her take off her dress, put on one of her own wrappers, and lie down and rest until the last minute, in the hope that she would be able to go to the reception. But it became evident that the girl was too exhausted. When Maria and the teacher were fastening her dress again, she fainted the second time. The teacher, who was a decisive woman, spoke.
"There is no sense whatever in this child's leaving this house to-night," said she. "Maria, you go to the reception, and I will stay and take care of her."
"No," said Maria. "If Evelyn is not able to go, I think we had better take the trolley at once for home." Maria was as decided as the other teacher. When the white-clad graduates and the teachers were gathering at Wollaston Lee's, she and Evelyn boarded the trolley for Amity. Evelyn still held fast to her bouquet of red roses, and Maria was laden with baskets and bouquets which had been strewn at her shrine. Evelyn leaned back in her seat, with her head resting against the window, and did not speak. All her animation of the morning had vanished. She looked ghastly. Maria kept glancing furtively at her. She herself looked nearly as pale as Evelyn. She realized that she was face to face with a great wall of problem. She was as unhappy as Evelyn, but she was stronger to bear unhappiness. She had philosophy, and logic, and her young sister was a creature of pure emotion, and at the same time she was so innocent and ignorant that she was completely helpless before it. Evelyn closed her eyes as she leaned against the window-frame, and a chill crept over her sister as she thought that she could not look much different if she were dead. Then came to Maria the conviction that this sister's life meant more than anything else in the world to her. That she could bear the loss of everything rather than that, and when she too would not be able to avoid the sense of responsibility for it. If she had not been so headlong and absurdly impetuous years ago, Evelyn might easily have been happy and lived.
When they reached home, Aunt Maria, who had come on an earlier car, was already in her bedroom and the front-door was fastened and the sitting-room windows were dark. Maria knocked on the door, and presently she heard footsteps, then Aunt Maria's voice, asking, with an assumption of masculine harshness, who were there.
"It is only I and Evelyn," replied Maria.
Then the door was opened, and Aunt Maria, in her ruffled night-gown and cap, holding a streaming lamp, stood back hastily lest somebody see her. "Come in and shut the door quick, for goodness sake!" said she. "I am all undressed."
Maria and Evelyn went in, and Maria closed and locked the door.
"What have you come home for?" asked Aunt Maria. "Why didn't you go to the reception, and stay at Miss Thomas's, the way you said you were going to, I'd like to know?"
"Evelyn didn't feel very well, and I thought we'd better come home," replied Maria, with a little note of evasion in her voice.
Aunt Maria turned and looked sharply at Evelyn, who was leaning against the wall. She was faint again, and she looked, in her white dress with her slender curves, like a bas-relief. "What on earth is the matter with her?" asked Aunt Maria in her angry voice, which was still full of the most loving concern. She caught hold of Evelyn's slight arm. "You are all tired out, just as I expected," she said. "I call the whole thing pure tomfoolery. If girls want to get educated, let them, but when it comes to making such a parade when they are all worn out with education there is no sense in it. Maria, you get her up-stairs to bed."
Evelyn was too exhausted to make any resistance. She allowed Maria to assist her up-stairs and undress her. When her sister bent over her to kiss her good-night, she said, soothingly, "There now, darling; go to sleep. You will feel better now school is done and you will have a chance to rest."
But Evelyn responded with the weakest and most hopeless little sob.
"Don't cry, precious," said Maria.
"Won't you tell if I tell you something?" said Evelyn, raising herself on one slender arm.
"Well—he does—care a good deal about me. I know now. I—I met him out in the grove after the exercises were over, and—there was nobody there, and he—he caught hold of my arms, and, Maria, he looked at me, but—" Evelyn burst into a weak little wail.
"What is it, dear?"
"Oh, I don't know what it is, but for some reason he thinks he can't tell me. He did not say so, but he made me know, and—and oh, Maria, he is going away! He is not coming back to Westbridge at all. He is going to get another place!"
"Yes, it is so. He said so. Oh, Maria! you will think I am dreadful, and I do love you and Aunt Maria and Uncle Henry and Aunt Eunice, but I can't help minding his going away where I can never see him, more than anything else in the world. I can't help loving him most. I do feel so very badly, sister, that I think I shall die."
"Yes, I shall. And I am not ashamed now. I was ashamed because I thought so much about a man who did not care anything about me, but now I am not ashamed. I am just killed. A person is not to blame for being killed. I am not ashamed. I am killed. He is going away, and I shall never see him again. The sight of him was something; I shall not even have that. You don't know, sister. I don't love him for my own self, but for himself. Just the knowing he is near is something, and I shall not even have that." Evelyn was too weak to cry tumultuously, but she made little, futile moans, and clung to Maria's hand. Maria tried to soothe her, and finally the child, worn out, seemed to be either asleep or in the coma of exhaustion.
Then Maria went into her own room. She undressed, and sat down beside the window with a wrapper over her night-gown. Now she had to solve her problem. She began as she might have done with a problem in higher algebra, this problem of the human heart and its emotions. She said to herself that there were three people. Evelyn, Wollaston and herself, three known quantities, and an unknown quantity of happiness, and perhaps life itself, which must be evolved from them. She eliminated herself and her own happiness not with any particular realization of self-sacrifice. She came of a race of women to whom self-sacrifice was more natural than self-gratification. She was unhappy, but there was no struggle for happiness to render the unhappiness keener. She thought first of Evelyn. She loved Wollaston. Maria reasoned, of course, that she was very young. This first love might not be her only one, but the girl's health might break under the strain, and she took into consideration, as she had often done, the fairly abnormal strength of Evelyn's emotional nature in a slight and frail young body. Evelyn was easily one who might die because of a thwarted love. Then Maria thought of Wollaston, and, loving him as she did, she acknowledged to herself coolly that he was the first to be considered, his happiness and well being. Even if Evelyn did break her heart, the man must have the first consideration. She tried to judge fairly as to whether she or Evelyn would on the whole be the best for him. She estimated herself, and she estimated Evelyn, and she estimated the man. Wollaston Lee was a man of a strong nature, she told herself. He was capable of self-restraint, of holding his head up from his own weaknesses forever. Maria reasoned that if he had been a weaker man she would have loved him just the same, and in that case Evelyn would have been the one to be sacrificed. She thought that a girl like Evelyn would not have been such a good wife for a weak man as she herself, who was stronger. But Wollaston did not need any extraneous strength. On the contrary, some one who was weaker than he might easily strengthen his strength. It seemed to her that Evelyn was distinctly better for the man than she. Then she remembered the look which she had seen on his face when Evelyn began her essay that day.
"If he does not love her now it is because he is bound to me," she thought. "He would most certainly love her if it were not for me."
Again it seemed to Maria distinctly better that she should die, better—that is, for Evelyn and the man. But she had the thought, with no morbid desire for suicide or any bitterness. It simply seemed to her as if her elimination would produce that desirable unknown quantity of happiness.
Elimination and not suicide seemed to her the only course for her to pursue. She sat far into the night thinking it over. She had great imagination and great daring. Things were possible to her which would not have been possible to many—that is, she considered things as possibilities which would have seemed to many simply vagaries. She thought of them seriously, with a belief in their fulfilment. It was almost morning, the birds had just begun to sing in scattering flute-like notes, when she crept into bed.
She hardly slept at all. She heard the gathering chorus of the birds, in a half doze, until seven o'clock. Then she got up and dressed herself. She peeped cautiously into Evelyn's room. The girl was sleeping, her long, dark lashes curled upon her wan cheeks. She looked ghastly, yet still lovely. Maria looked at her, and her mouth compressed. Then she turned away. She crept noiselessly down the stairs and into the kitchen where Aunt Maria was preparing breakfast. The stove smoked a little and the air was blue.
"How is she?" asked Aunt Maria, in a hushed voice.
"She is fast asleep."
"Better let her sleep just as long as she will," said Aunt Maria. "These exhibitions are pure tomfoolery. She is just tuckered out."
"Yes, I think she is," said Maria.
Aunt Maria looked keenly at her, and her face paled and lengthened.
"Maria Edgham, what on earth is the matter with you?" she said. "You look as bad as she does. Between both of you I am at my wit's end."
"Nothing ails me," said Maria.
"Nothing ails you? Look at yourself in the glass there."
Maria stole a look at herself in a glass which hung over the kitchen-table, and she hardly knew her own face, it had gathered such a strange fixedness of secret purpose. That had altered it more than her pallor. Maria tried to smile and say again that nothing ailed her, but she could not. Suddenly a tremendous pity for her aunt came over her. She had not thought so much about that. But now she looked at things from her aunt's point of view, and she saw the pain to which the poor old woman must be put. She saw no way of avoiding the giving her the pain, but she suffered it herself. She went up to Aunt Maria and kissed her.
Aunt Maria started back, and rubbed her face violently. "What did you do that for?" said she, in a frightened voice. Then she noticed Maria's dress, which was one which she seldom wore unless she was going out. "What have you got on your brown suit for this morning?" said she.
"I thought I would go down to the store after breakfast and get some embroidery silk for that centre-piece," replied Maria.
As she spoke she seemed to realize what a little thing a lie was, and how odd it was that she should realize it, who had been brought up to speak the truth.
"Your gingham would have been enough sight better to have worn this hot morning," said Aunt Maria, still with that air of terror and suspicion.
"Oh, this dress is light," replied Maria, going out.
"Where are you going now?"
"Into the parlor."
Aunt Maria stood still, listening, until she heard the parlor door open. She was still filled with vague suspicion. She did not hear quite as acutely as formerly, and Maria had no difficulty about leaving the parlor unheard the second after she entered it, and getting her hat and coat and a small satchel which she had brought down-stairs with her from the hat-tree in the entry. Then she opened the front door noiselessly and stole out. She went rapidly down the street in the direction of the bridge, which she had been accustomed to cross when she taught school in Amity. She met Jessy Ramsey, now grown to be as tall as herself, and pretty with a half-starved, pathetic prettiness. Jessy was on her way to work. She went out by the day, doing washings. She stopped when she met Maria, and gave a little, shy look—her old little-girl look—at her. Maria also stopped. "Good-morning, Jessy," said she. Then she asked how she was, if her cough was better, and where she was going to work. Then, suddenly, to Jessy's utter amazement and rapture, she kissed her. "I never forget what a good little girl you were," said she, and was gone. Jessy stood for a moment staring after her. Then she wiped her eyes and proceed to her scene of labor.