"I can't," persisted Johnny, "they are sour."
"Don't tell me that," was the next remark, in warning accents. "I'm as good a judge as you are, I reckon. I say they ain't sour. Be they, Miss Graystone?"
If she had expected an affirmative reply to this question, she was doomed to disappointment. Disgusted with such paltry meanness, Clemence, who had pushed her plate away, unable to partake of the stale food, replied quietly, "I should say they were decidedly sour."
There was a moment's disagreeable silence, during which Mr. and Mrs. Brier exchanged meaning glances across the table. Then he hastened to say, "Of course, then, they must be, though I never detected it. Wife, how came you to put them on the table? I should think twenty bushels ought to last a family of three persons quite a while, especially with all the new ones we have had."
"Of course," she answered snappishly, "I didn't know it, or I wouldn't have used them. Thank goodness! though, I ain't so dainty as some I could mention. If there's anything I despise, it's a person that's so poor they can't but just exist, putting on style over folks that can buy and sell them."
"Just hear that, now," said Mr. Brier, in a conciliatory tone, "you've got a sharp tongue in your head, Marthy; you don't let anybody put you in your place, and keep you there easy, without they get a piece of your mind. For my part, I like to see a woman independent."
"It don't matter much to me, Brier, what you do like and what you don't," said his lady, with a toss of her head, "I'm boss of my own house, and no man shall dictate to me, not if I know it. You needn't sneak, like any miserable cur, nor put on that smirk to cover up your own acts, though I ain't afraid but what I can come out ahead, and fight my own battles, if you do show the white feather. Where would you be to-day, I'd like to know, if I'd let you gone on with that overgrown tribe of your'n? You know you'd never been worth a cent durin' the whole of your natural life!"
"You're right there, Marthy," he answered again, meekly enough.
"Do you know, Miss Graystone, that I'd never had this two thousand dollars, that I've managed to scrape together, if that smart, managing woman of mine hadn't scrimped and saved beyond everything you ever saw. 'Taint every man that's got a treasure like mine, I can tell you."
And truly they had not, for it does not often fall to the lot of mortal man to find in one little, insignificant figure, dwarfish alike in soul and body, such a compound of selfishness, duplicity, meanness, and vulgarity, as was centered in the object of that gentleman's affection.
Of the many conjugal scenes to which Clemence was an unwilling witness, varying from light skirmishes over the breakfast-table, to hysterics and a doctor, with the neighbors called in, in the evening, it would be impossible to speak at length. It has been affirmed, that, in time, one will get accustomed to anything, and Clemence had attained to such a proficiency in maintaining a non-committal air, that these little diversions would not have disturbed her equanimity, as she solaced herself with the reflection that, "after a storm comes a calm," but for the fact that this belligerent couple had an unhappy faculty of making up their differences at the expense of a third party, and it became her unhappy fate, as the last new comer, to stand in the place Johnny had formerly been devoted to, as the unfortunate third. Happily, however, for her nerves, her stay was short with these inhospitable entertainers.
"Where are you going when you leave here, Miss Graystone," asked Mrs. Brier, on the last morning of her stay.
"To Mrs. Hardyng's," said Clemence, with a sigh of relief.
"Possible!" was the exclamation, "seems to me your one of the favored ones. No other teacher ever went there before. She don't patronize the school, and keeps herself to herself pretty much. I hear she's took quite a notion to you. Is it true?"
"I believe we are very good friends," said Clemence.
"Do you know anything about her," was the next query. "Strikes me, I'd want to find out who I'd struck up an intimacy with, if I was in your place, and if you have learned anything about that singular woman, your smarter than the whole town of Waveland put together. It looks suspicious to me to see anybody so close mouthed about their affairs; looks as if they wouldn't stand investigation, and they're afraid to let 'em see daylight. I like things all fair and above-board, myself.
"Brier, come to breakfast. It's getting stone-cold. Never mind that young'un, he's gone to take the cow to pasture, and I can give him a piece when he comes back."
Obedient to the summons, the gentleman in question laid down a damp copy of the Weekly Clarion, and seated himself at the table. After glibly repeating a few words, of which Clemence could only distinguish "food spread before us," and "duly thankful," he asked, pausing and balancing a saucer of coffee with great dexterity on the palm of his right hand,
"Did you read that criticism on the lady lecturer? I tell you, that same Philemon W. Strain has a peculiar genius for that sort of an article."
"What did you say, Brier?" asked his better half, glancing at Clemence, as if she was the offending party, "you don't mean that a woman's got brass enough to mount a rostrum and harangue an audience?"
"You've just said the very thing now, Marthy. I knew you would be down on that sort of business. Nothing masculine about you, thank goodness! I've often felt thankful that I was spared the infliction of a strong-minded woman. That's one thing I couldn't stand."
"Well, I guess we are agreed on that subject," said the lady, bridling at the compliment, and allowing her thin lips to relax into the faintest possible shadow of a smile, "for if there's one thing I absolutely abhor, it's these so-called intellectual women. To my mind, a woman that pushes her way along to a profession, or aspires to address the public, either through the medium of the pen, or on the rostrum, ought to be banished from good society, and frowned upon by all respectable married women. It's disgraceful, outrageous, scandalous!" and, as she uttered, vehemently, these ejaculations, the greenish gray eyes flashed upon Clemence a look so malicious and spiteful, as to have a totally opposite effect from what it was intended, for she returned it with one of quiet amusement, and burst out laughing. She saw at once that the conversation had been introduced solely for her own benefit, and wondered how they should surmise that she could possibly be interested in it. This was the oddest couple she had met in all her peregrinations. Mr. Brier was naturally greatly superior to his wife, as Mrs. Wynn had said, but was biased in his opinions by that lady, who ruled him with no gentle sway. With another woman, whose society would have had a tendency to elevate him, there is no telling what this man might have become. But having been entrapped into an early marriage, with a woman of inferior intellect and but little ambition, he had sunk down several grades lower than nature intended him.
He felt this, too, even after all these years had drifted aimlessly away, and the knowledge did not make him better. He grew morose and cynical, hating everybody who did not move in his own narrow circle. As one might suppose, he had not many friends, and his life was not a happy one.
"How much misery there is in the world," thought Clemence, as she walked towards the school-house. It seems as if almost every one had some secret sorrow of their own—and what a singular and deplorable effect grief has upon some people, rendering them selfish, and closing the heart to pity, instead of remembering their own sorrows, only to commiserate and alleviate those of others.
That evening, as Clemence sat alone with her friend, she asked her the question which had perplexed herself, and which she had never been able to solve: "Ulrica, why are so many people unhappy?"
"Child, I cannot tell you," replied the elder woman, mournfully; "for myself, I know that I have for many years considered life a burden to me, instead of the glorious boon our Creator designed it. You have never asked me anything of my former life, but, to-night, the feeling is strong upon me to speak of the past, for I feel strangely in need of sympathy."
She bowed her head upon her hands, and great tears coursed down her pale cheeks, while Clemence sat in wondering silence; then, recovering herself, she began in a low tone:
"I was the only child of wealthy and indulgent parents. From my infancy every want was eagerly anticipated by loving friends, who made my will and pleasure paramount to everything, and who were ever subjected to my imperious rule. At eighteen, I was a spoiled child, without the least knowledge of the world, or of the duties and responsibilities of life. Then my parents died, and left me to the guardianship of a vain and worldly-minded aunt, who became fond of me, in her way, because of my beauty and great wealth.
"I mingled a good deal in society, and of course, being an heiress had many opportunities for marriage. However I was very fond of admiration, and soon succeeded in establishing a reputation for being a thorough coquette. At heart, I felt a supreme contempt for those who sought me on account of those 'golden attractions,' without caring to look beyond. Had I been differently brought up, I believe I would not have been what I am to day, a lonely and heart-broken woman, for, though passionate and somewhat overbearing, I had many good impulses, which, if rightly trained, might have made me wiser and better. But I was left solely to the guidance of my own will, and every idle caprice and foolish whim were always indulged to the utmost. Among all the gentlemen whom I met at this season, there were only two in whom I felt the least interest. For one of them, Wainwright Angier, I had a profound regard. I knew that he was my true friend. It was my nature to despise those whom I could bend to my will. He had too much manly independence for this, and conscientiously abstained from flattery. When I did wrong, he remonstrated earnestly, and when I told him that his advice was not solicited, looked grieved and reproachful. He was far from my ideal of perfection, however. It is commonly supposed that people are attracted towards their opposites, but though Wainwright Angier's character and personal appearance differed widely from mine, yet I never dreamed, in those days, of loving him. He was pale and intellectual looking, with clear, penetrating eyes, and a firm, determined mouth. But his voice was, I think, his greatest attraction for me, for I am one of the few who take as much pleasure in an agreeable voice, as in gazing at a beautiful face.
"The other, Geoffrey Westbourne—how shall I describe him? Tall and commanding in figure, with glossy purple-black hair, and the midnight eyes that matched it, he was eminently handsome, and, as everybody agreed, a splendid conversationalist. Notwithstanding his acknowledged superiority to all others, and the fact that he was petted and caressed by every one, I felt an instinctive repugnance to him, that for a long time I tried in vain to overcome. Perhaps it was because I had heard him so highly spoken of, that I was ready to find fault. However that maybe, I felt a secret antipathy to this man. Would I had been allowed to follow the warning conveyed in these first impressions, what a world of misery I had then escaped!
"'Well, how did you like him?' queried my aunt, after our first meeting. 'Isn't he splendid?'
"'Not to my taste,' was my reply. 'To tell the truth, I was not very agreeably impressed by your Mr. Westbourne.'
"'Shocking!' exclaimed the astonished lady, with upraised hands. 'That girl will surely be an old maid. She has no taste. Not like him, when he is already deep in love with you? Ulrica, this is arrant coquetry.'
"She had reason to think so afterwards, for the subject of our conversation soon became a constant visitor at the house. He was handsome, talented and agreeable, besides, all my lady friends were dying with envy. I felt flattered by his preference, and in time forgot my early dislike, or remembered it only to wonder and laugh at my foolish, school-girl fancies. Yet, at times, when I was alone, and had time for thought, a strange, undefined feeling would steal over me, amounting to a dread of impending evil, which I could not easily shake off. Another thing troubled me. Aunt Emily annoyed me, by ceaseless inquiries as to the result of my acquaintance with Mr. Westbourne. I saw that to secure him for me was the one object of her ambition. I remonstrated at this feeling, pained at her want of delicacy.
"One day, when she had been questioning me as usual, I replied, indignantly; 'Why, any one would think you were tired of me, and wanted me out of your way, you seem so anxious about my having an establishment of my own. I am very well contented as I am, and neither expect nor desire a change.'
"'Now, do listen to reason, child,' she rejoined. 'You must know that it is my great anxiety for your welfare that induces me to take upon myself all this care and trouble. Tell me how old you are, Ulrica?'
"'Twenty-one,' I said sullenly.
"'And you have been out three seasons, and people are beginning to talk. They say it is because you don't wear well, and the men only flirt with you and leave you.'
"'As if I cared what they say!' I burst forth in my exasperation. 'Thank heaven, I am independent of everybody's opinion.'
"'Yes, in a measure,' pursued Aunt Emily's calm voice, 'but not wholly. Society has claims upon you which you cannot disregard. I wish you were more willing to consult my wishes, and would pay some little attention to my advice,' she added, plaintively.
"'What do you want of me?' I demanded imperiously; 'tell me, in heaven's name, and have done with it.'
"'Now you are sensible. I want you to find out just how you are situated in regard to the gentleman we have been remarking upon, and, to be plain, I've set my heart on your marrying him.'
"'Mr. Angier,' announced a servant in the doorway. We had been so busily engaged in our discussion that we had not heard the bell. My aunt rose and retreated. 'It's only Angier, excuse me to him,' and she glided though a side door.
"I rose to welcome the visitor, with a clouded brow, and eyes that sparkled ominously. I was thoroughly out of humor. It was an unlucky morning. Before he left, Wainwright Angier made me an offer of his heart and hand. I refused him at once, coldly and decidedly.
"'Is it because you prefer another?' he asked, agitatedly.
"'No, that is not the reason,' I replied, proudly. 'I value you highly as a friend, but nothing more. I am very sorry this has occurred, but you at least will exculpate me from the charge of coquetry. I never dreamed of this.'
"'I know,' he answered, sadly enough. 'It is as I feared. And now let me ask you, as one whose happiness has long been dearer to me than my own, do you ever expect to be happy with such a man as Geoffrey Westbourne? Do not ascribe my motive to jealousy, for, believe me, I am incapable of a base action. It is only out of the deepest solicitude for your welfare that I ask this question, for I fear for your future happiness, and that you may be fatally mistaken in this man.'
"'You are impertinent, sir,' I said, rising. 'Geoffrey Westbourne is nothing to me, and you need not fear that my affections will be misplaced. I must respect the man I love, and look up to him as my superior.' My pride was hurt, now, and I was thoroughly angry.
"'Pardon me,' he said, also rising, then added brokenly—'Remember that my heart is always open to you. I am sadly afraid that you do not understand your own feelings. Farewell, we may never meet again, but my last prayer will be for your happiness.'
"As he went into the hall, the figure of a man stopped him, and Geoffrey Westbourne called out cheerily;
"'Well met, Angier! What! how pale you look; you are ill. Let me go with you to your lodgings. I will excuse myself to the ladies.'
"'Thank you, I am quite well,' said Angier, in a low voice. 'I will not detain you. Good bye.'
"I never saw a face so radiant as was that of Geoffrey Westbourne, as he entered the room where I stood, hardly knowing whether to withdraw and ignore these embarrassing circumstances, or meet him in as collected a manner as possible.
"I had no choice. As was always the case, in this man's presence, I seemed to have no will of my own. I feared him, and when he repeated the same question, in almost the very words his friend had uttered, I gave a far different reply. But, if not dictated by inclination, I knew that it was expected of me by every one. It almost seemed as if circumstances had forced me to choose this alternative, and I accepted my fate in complete indifference.
"In three months we were married, and went abroad. We travelled over Europe at our leisure, visiting its gay capitals and fashionable resorts, its different objects of interest famed in history and romance, and, after an extended tour, returned again to our native land, taking up a stylish residence in a fashionable quarter of the city, that had been my former home. My means seemed inexhaustible, but, somewhat to my astonishment, I found, after marriage, that Geoffrey Westbourne's sole dependence was upon expectations, which were extremely liable to remain forever unfulfilled. I knew now that he had married me for my fortune, for he had told me so with his own lips. He had a double motive in this, for aside from a feeling of relief in throwing aside the mask of devotion, was a petty spite on account of my former indifference to him. I do not think he ever loved me, nor was he capable, in my opinion, of a pure, unselfish affection for any human being. All he cared for was the gratification of self. I mourned bitterly, in secret, over this ruin of my hopes. I had no one to sympathize with me now. Aunt Emily was no more, and she had been my one true friend, for her affection, if misguided, was at least sincere.
"I thought often in those days, of the love of my girlhood, for I knew now that it had been sinful in me to turn from the path that had opened before me into perfect trust and peace, and walk blindly over withered hopes to a loveless future. Time had shown me that I esteemed Wainwright Angier more highly in those days than the man who was now my husband. But I never spoke of him, and I dared not ask his fate, for I knew my husband hated his memory. But one sad day, when, with Geoffrey, I walked down the long winding avenues of the cemetery, and read among these stranger's graves the name I sought, I think reason must have for a time deserted me. I had only one memory, and the words 'my last prayer will be for your happiness,' rang again and again in my ear. I knelt down at the grave and poured out my grief in all the eloquence of despair, regardless of him who looked coldly on. I was wild with mournful agony. After that day I never knew one hour of happiness. My husband turned from me to strangers. He had never cared for me, and now I was hated and shunned. His one desire became to relieve himself of my unwholesome presence.
"In the first year of our marriage, I had, on learning of his impoverished condition, placed my entire property at his disposal. It had been a free gift, for I wanted him to see that I trusted him implicitly. I was now completely at his mercy. I had always been lavish of my means, for whatever faults I may have preserved, avarice and parsimony were not of their number. I learned now that I had committed a very foolish act. I had nothing with which to help myself, and was completely under his control.
"Suddenly, at a great commercial crisis, everything was swept from us. 'We are now,' said my husband, 'for the first time on an equal footing. The fortune, which you brought me, has been lost from no carelessness upon my part. We are engulfed in one common ruin with others who have before stood steadfast through similar trials. We shall both suffer in common, for I have lost that for which I sacrificed myself, and have now nothing to console me. I presume you have learned that fact before this, Mrs. Westbourne, and know that I married you for the glittering prize which has just slipped from my grasp.'
"'Oh! Geoffrey,' I exclaimed, 'do not be so cruel.'
"'You call it cruelty,' he replied, 'but I say it is a terrible fact. I never cared for but but one woman on earth, and I broke her heart when I told her that I had forever placed a barrier between us by my own act. She died soon after our marriage.'
"'Why have I not known of this before?' I asked. 'Why tell me after so long a time, when there can be no reparation for the crime? It was a double wrong you committed when you broke one woman's heart and made another's whole life desolate. I never dreamed you cared for another.'
"'There I had the advantage of you, my dear,' he said coolly. 'I knew you were a little too fond of young Angier for my interest. If I had cared enough about you I should have been furiously jealous, but merely having an eye to the pecuniary advantage, I let the little dream go on until I was pleased to put an end to it. Could I have forseen this hour I would have acted far differently.'
"A week after he came in with a face pale with excitement. 'Such glorious news,' he exclaimed. 'By the luckiest train of accidents I have come into possession of a clear hundred thousand, and I don't think I shall very deeply deplore the demise of the venerable individual who departed this life just at the right moment.'
"I was nearly happy at this announcement. I thought now I could rely on his magnanimity. I reflected that I had bestowed everything upon him in my prosperity, and I hoped that now he would, at least, be more considerate of my feelings.
"But I was unhappily disappointed. 'The tables are turned now, my dear,' he said, triumphantly. 'Instead of my house and furniture, my servants, and my money, it is quite another story, and henceforth I shall have a word to say as to the manner in which my means shall be invested.'
"He was true to his word. I was left absolutely penniless. If my wardrobe needed replenishing I had to tell him the exact amount it would take for each article. I had, too, nothing to bestow upon charitable objects, for he had always condemned my efforts to relieve others as indiscriminate charity, that did more harm than good. He bought everything that was consumed in the house, and hired and paid the servants himself. This was something new for him to do. My domestics had been well trained, and wholly under my control, having been long in my aunt's family, and accustomed to my ways. My husband had often heard me say that it would be impossible to keep house without these faithful attendants, for I was totally inexperienced in such matters.
"Now, however, he dismissed them all, and surrounded me with strangers. My remonstrances were unheeded. 'This is my house, Mrs. Westbourne,' he would say. 'Henceforth everything shall go as I wish, and if not agreeable to you, I can gladly dispense with your company altogether.'
"I soon found that this was the one object dear to him. My presence grew, every day, seemingly more intolerable. This new trouble nearly overwhelmed me. I learned now that the means that were denied me, was daily lavished upon others among whom my name was a by-word. One day the postman brought me a letter, in an unknown hand. It ran thus:
MADAM:—Why do you look so frightfully ill? Every one is remarking upon your altered appearance. You have everything to make you happy. Your husband is handsome, and generous as a prince. To prove it: yesterday he gave me five hundred dollars, and to-day I clasped upon my arm a splendid bracelet, flashing with beautiful gems, also his gift. The wheel of fortune turns, and those who were poor and obscure but yesterday, are rich to-day. Your day of power is over. Do not be the last to see it. Show some spirit. Be up and doing. Your society has lost its charm for your husband, and he finds his only happiness in the love of another who can appreciate him better than you have ever done. Very well! seek your own affinity, and find a new Eden. Don't fret and cry till your eyes are red and swollen, and your whole appearance hideous. It will only recoil on your own head. Nobody will pity you, and the world will pass on and forget you. Live while you live, and leave to-morrow to take care of to-morrow. Remember, "It is a folly to no other second, to wish to correct the world.—CAROLINE."
"This was followed by others of the same nature. It finally became an understood thing that Geoffrey should pass nearly all of the time he could snatch from business, with women of this class. If I questioned him, he would laugh rudely, and ask me how I was going to help myself.
"There was, indeed, but one way, either to bear all this quietly, without murmur or reproach, or else obtain a legal separation. I knew that this was his sole object, and would have complied with it, for my soul sickened of this life; but, I had a child, a delicate girl, and he forbade me to take her away. I could not part with my baby daughter; better even this wretched existence, and so I continued to watch and wait, and pray God not to forget me in my dire extremity. As time passed, and my husband saw that he could not move me, he grew impatient, and took still harsher measures.
"I have every reason to believe that Geoffrey Westbourne, about this time, made attempts upon my life. He was, however, very careful of his reputation, and had to be exceedingly circumspect in his movements. But I foiled him on every occasion. Then I fell sick, and lay for weeks unconscious. I had the cruelest treatment during my entire illness, and it was only God's mercy that at length restored me again to something like health, in opposition to every effort of my enemy's. It left me almost a confirmed invalid. Before strangers, I had every care and attention, and when I was ready to sit up, many friends called to inquire about my health. As soon as I became convalescent, I had resolved to appeal to my friends for aid and sympathy, but I now saw that it would be impossible. Had I opened my lips upon the subject, my nearest friends would have at once been convinced that my sickness had alienated my reason. My husband was apparently filled with the deepest anxiety and solicitude for my recovery, and appearences I felt to be against me. I hoped, though, that there would be a cessation from all persecution, at least for a time. But this was not to be.
"'You are evidently a great deal better, Mrs. Westbourne!' my husband said to me, one evening, when we were alone together.
"'Yes, thank God!' I exclaimed fervently, 'I am now nearly restored to health again.'
"'You do well to thank God, and not me,' he said with a withering sneer, 'you owe me no gratitude for the same.'
"'How you must hate me!' I said, trembling at his tones.
"'Hate you!' he replied, with his face to the very lips livid with passion, 'if I could strike you out of existence this moment, as you sit there, I would be almost willing to serve a score of years for the privilege, and even submit to bear the felon's brand upon my person, through the remainder of my life. You are a clog and an impediment in the way of my happiness, the one encumbrance to be got rid of at any sacrifice. It shall be done! I swear it shall be done, if the heavens fall and the earth rocks to its foundations!'
"'What shall I do?' Oh, what shall I do?' I cried helplessly.
"'Do!' he hissed, 'listen to me. A short time ago I was so weary of you, that, with hardly a reason I sought to rid myself of your presence. I then proposed a separation upon any terms that pleased you, not thinking it likely that I should ever marry again. I would have been generous then, had you yielded to my wishes. Since then the aspect of affairs have changed. I have met the woman whom I have willed shall rule over this house in your place. She is gloriously beautiful, proud as a queen and as rich. I desire to appear to the best advantage before her, and I shall not scruple at the means. I want all the world to think that I am an injured husband.'
"'Perhaps you have forgotten your old friend Halleck. He called often during your illness, to inquire after you, and manifested much interest in your case. I learned that he was quite attentive to you during my absence last summer. You see you have been thoughtless enough to give me just the advantage I wanted, Mrs. Westbourne, and I can bring a dozen witnesses to prove your infidelity, when I want them.
"'You may have guessed from what I have said thus far, that I propose to apply for a bill of divorce at no distant day.'
"I was perfectly stupefied at this announcement. 'You surely will not commit this great wrong, Geoffrey,' I exclaimed. 'You do not wish, nor need me to tell you that I am innocent of the charge.'
"'No,' he said slowly, in a more softened tone, though the hard lines around the firm mouth never relaxed, and the cold eyes regarded me with a fixed, relentless gaze. 'No, I do not. Here, with none to overhear us, I will tell you truly that I do not believe you guilty of this crime which I am about to charge against you, and to prove before the world. You were a spoiled, capricious beauty when I met with you, and I, merely a fortune hunter. Our marriage was a fatal mistake. But you have discharged your duties faithfully, and I know it will be a satisfaction in the future to have this to reflect upon.
"'Do not think, though, that you can swerve me from my purpose. We are best apart. Your life will pass quietly and happily in some grateful retreat, all the happier for this storm that now threatens your peace. You will have nothing to regret. The world will make the most of the nine day's wonder, and then it will be forgotten. As for me my lot is chosen. Wealth and power are essential to my happiness. I must be looked up to as a person of position and influence, and I prefer to be feared rather than loved. The wealth I shall gain with the hand of this woman, whom fate has destined to be your successor, will place me upon the very pinnacle of prosperity. It is a temptation too strong to be resisted.'
"'Of course you, as the victim, will cry out against the cruelty of the act, but it will be of no avail. I grant that I am doing you an injustice, and you will assail me with tears and entreaties, but, when my stoical indifference renders them useless, you will threaten me with future retribution, and cry out that God will never permit such injustice; but I shall not pause, nor relent. I am no better, nor yet worse, than others. Here, in a Christian community, deeds similar to mine are perpetrated every day, and strong-handed might, reeking with crime, flaunts its purple and fine linen in the high places of the earth, while persecuted and down-trodden innocence creeps away to hide its sorrows in the grave. It is the way of the world, and I choose to follow no other leader.'
"'But the child, Geoffrey,' I gasped, 'my precious child; only let me take her with me, give me her company in my exile, and I will do all you would have me.'
"'No,' he insisted, sternly. 'She is my daughter, and I prefer to have her brought up under my own immediate supervision. I wish to make a lady of Miss Westbourne, and I do not consider you a proper person to be entrusted with the charge.'
"'And you would rob a mother of her only child? God has forgotten me, or he would surely punish such iniquity!'
"I could say no more; my strength failed me; the room grew dark, and I fell forward at the feet of my enemy.
"It was weeks before I was again able to leave my room. During this time I pondered deeply upon the course which it was best to pursue. I was without money or friends, and, therefore, utterly unable to help myself. I had always been a proud, independent girl, generally more envied and admired than loved. I had not cared to make many friends, and now I had none to turn to in this emergency. I felt completely crushed and heart-broken. Meanwhile, my husband took care to inform me that his feelings remained unchanged, and that he was still firm in his resolution to rid himself of me. I now learned that he had employed legal advice in the matter. As he had said, he would not scruple at the means to accomplish his object.
"I thought of all this till my brain grew dizzy, and my heart ached with its weight of woe. At last I determined to leave the place where I had endured so much misery. I made a few preparations; knelt and asked God to forgive me if I was doing wrong, and turned upon the threshold of my chamber to give it a last look upon earth.
"Everything looked quiet and peaceful, as if this was the abode of contentment. I could not repress a sigh, and my eyes were blinded with tears, as I turned to go into the nursery.
"'Jane, go to your supper,' I said, authoritatively, to the servant, who sat rocking the child's cradle. The girl looked up sullenly, and I think she suspected at once my design. My heart sank within me as I moved forward to the side of the unconscious little one.
"'Shure,' said the girl, eyeing me narrowly, 'you'll be after finding it warm here with that great shawl around you. It looks better for travelin' than a lady's parlor, and would be more becoming to the likes of me, than your own illegant shoulders.'
"It was true. I was detected. Was there no hope?
"I grew desperate, for I knew this would all be repeated to her master in the morning. This girl was nothing but a well-paid spy upon his wife's actions.
"I became indignant as hope fled. 'Did you hear me?' I commanded. 'Go down stairs to your supper, immediately. I wish to be left alone with my daughter.'
"Instantly the expression of her face changed to one of cringing submission, and she rose and dropped a little deprecatory curtesy.
"'Indeed, ma'am, I've had me tay. Ann brought it up, for I takes me meals here now, accordin' to the masters' orders. Please, ma'am, shall I take away the shawl, and fetch you the one you always wear?'
"'No, stay where you are,' I said, sinking into a chair, and dropping my head into my hands to hide my disappointment from the keen eyes that watched me.
"Presently there was a kind of gasping, strangling sound from the cradle. The girl sprang forward with a sudden cry of fear.
"I was beside her in an instant. The child was in convulsions.
"Then followed a scene of wild confusion. Every thing was immediately done for the little sufferer that could be thought of, in the moment of terror, and the best medical advice called in.
"But our efforts were unavailing. When the gray morning light stole in at the window, little Lina lay like a waxen lily, and her spirit had returned to Him who gave it. While I, her unhappy mother, could not grieve now that this was so, but rather felt thankful that she was sheltered in the loving arms of the Good Shepherd. For her there was no more sorrow, nor crying, neither was there any more pain.
"When the funeral rites were over, and I could think calmly, continued the lady, I realized how this child's loss would affect my future. I had now no object to strive for. Had my little Lina lived, God only knows how all this would have ended. I could never have given her up to the father who did not love her. I would have struggled desperately for my child while life lasted. For myself, I cared not. I had thought that night, when my innocent darling was so suddenly taken from me, of fleeing away with her to some place of safety, until this storm had passed, but now that she was no more, I had no fears.
"I knew, though, that a change must come soon. My husband was resolute and never abandoned a purpose once formed. I was fully aware that I need not expect any mercy at his hands, neither that our mutual loss would soften his heart. It had, indeed, quite a contrary effect.
"'There is now no obstacle to a separation,' he said, once, speaking of our differences. 'We have now no longer any interest in common. If you will go your way, quietly and peaceably, I will provide for your wants, by settling a life-long annuity upon you. Of course this sum would not be large, for you will not require a great deal to sustain you in comparative comfort. Now, that you have no means of your own, of course you must expect to live in a different manner from that to which you have been accustomed. And a divorced woman will not be expected to make a very lavish display either. I trust that your own good sense will teach you the necessity of living in as retired a manner as possible. Furthermore, I shall expressly stipulate that you remove to a considerable distance from your former home. I do not wish any fresh scandal to give the gossips a continual feast. If you submit to my conditions we can effect this quietly. If not, then it is war between us.'
"'And a court of justice to decide for the right,' I added.
"'Justice!' he sneered. 'You are old enough to realize that it is but an empty name. What could a defenceless woman, without means to help herself, do against a man of my wealth and standing. You can effect nothing by braving me. Look at this proposition, as coolly as possible, and reflect well before you decide upon anything permanently. It can not be that you have more affection for me than I for you, for I am sensible that my course has not been such as would be naturally expected to win a woman's regard. However, I do not value your opinion in the least, so that fact does not annoy as much as you might think. It is true, I might be more polite in stating the case, but you will agree with me that I put the facts plainly enough for your understanding.'
"'I would further advise you to proceed as I have proposed, simply from a wish to spare your feelings. I believe you to be an honest woman, and I should dislike to be obliged to attack your character in public. If you were to go away, of your own accord, to some quiet place, I think you would find the change agreeable. You would, of course, resume your maiden name, and nobody, unless you chose to inform them, could, by any possibility, become aware of your former history. I would then place in the hands of my lawyer, and subject to your disposal, a sum which I would set aside for your own use, giving you a yearly income of five hundred dollars. You could live plainly, but comfortably on this sum.'
"'Hush!' I commanded. 'Geoffrey Westbourne, how dare you add insult to injury? You have spent, to your own knowledge, a large fortune of mine. I blush to think that I have ever called you husband, when you offer this last indignity to the daughter of Wilbour Hardyng. You have already said more than enough upon this subject. We will dismiss it if you please.'
"'Very well,' he replied, 'I will leave you to think over it at your leisure. Good-bye for the present. I leave, to-day, for a neighboring city, where I shall remain a week, at least.'
"The good-bye, thus carelessly spoken, was destined to be a final one. When Geoffrey Westbourne again returned to his home, I was not there to receive him. I never looked upon his face but once again. I took with me all of my clothing, and the Hardyng plate and jewels, which were my own exclusive property. I had also a small sum of money to bear my expenses.
"My husband never sought to learn my whereabouts, content that I should have given him the advantage he desired. After a sufficient length of time had elapsed, he obtained a divorce on the ground of desertion, and married the woman he had determined should be his. They seemed happy to all outward appearances, and lived in absolute splendor, such as their united wealth enabled them.
"I had removed to a distant city, where none recognized in the sable clad widow, the former brilliant belle and heiress. I once visited my old home and saw them together; and he, the false one, smiled fondly upon the usurper of my rights. Then I crept away, weary of life, to this secluded spot, to pass the remainder of my days, where there was nothing to remind me of what I once had been.'
"My darling, have I saddened you with my melancholy story?" she asked, looking down fondly into the tear wet eyes of the young girl who had come and knelt beside her. Clemence could not trust her voice to speak, and the proud woman clasped her closer, as they mingled their tears together. "How meet," said the girl at last, softly rising, "should we, who have suffered, be united by a bond of affection and sympathy!"
When the hour of separation came, Clemence regretted that she must again leave her friend's hospitable roof for that of strangers. She thought, ruefully, of Mrs. Brier, and hoped that these new people might not be of their order.
Her wish was destined to be fulfilled. The plain, simple little woman, who came forward to welcome her, when she stopped at farmer Owen's, certainly did not look very formidable or repulsive.
"Come in," she said, apparently not a little disconcerted, as Clemence's figure appeared in the doorway. "You'll find everything at sixes and sevens. I tried to get cleaned up a little before you got here, but the baby was so cross, I had to sit down and hold him most of the afternoon. He's just gone to sleep, and left me with all this work, and supper to get for half a dozen hands, beside."
"Now, that is really unfortunate," said Clemence, kindly. "Can't I help you in some way?"
"You," said Mrs. Owen, stepping backwards, and surveying the dainty figure in the utmost consternation, "I guess not, why, what in earth could you do in the housework line?"
"Oh, a good deal, I dare say, if I were to try," said Clemence laughing. "You know, 'where there's a will there's a way,' and if you will tell me how, I am sure I will gladly assist you."
"No," was the reply. "You just sit still and I'll fly round and kinder hoe out some of this dirt. You don't look as if you had been accustomed to this sort of thing. Why, of the two, now I suppose, if the truth should be known, you are more tired with your work than I am with mine, cross baby and all; just think of it, when I was a girl, a day's work like this was nothing at all to do, and I was always ready to go to a dance, or something of that sort, to pass away time. There's a great difference in folks about that."
"I believe you," said Clemence, watching her with interest, as she moved around, bringing literally 'order out of chaos.' "It seems to me, that no amount of practice could fit me for such work as this. I suppose, of course, I could learn in time, by giving strict attention to it, to be a fair housekeeper; but my experience in boarding round has proved that I do not belong to the class of persons whom they denominate here as 'handy.' I have seen women enter a neighbor's house in time of trouble, and move about as if accustomed to everything, and always know the very place to go and find an article when wanted, without asking tiresome questions, or put an article in its appropriate receptacle when not needed, without being told. But, for myself, though always willing, I am generally apt, like to-day, to sit still and wish I could be of use to somebody, instead of being always in the way."
"That's because you were born to be waited on, and not to serve," said the little woman, good-naturedly.
"Then I am sadly out of place," replied Clemence, with a sigh. "I am inclined to think, however, that you are more liberal in your views than the rest of our sex. Most of them would tell me that the reason of my lack of capacity, was because I did not cultivate my faculties properly, or, in plain terms, that I was lazy."
"I don't see that either," responded the other. "A man works just so many hours a day, and comes home feeling that his duty is done, and lies down, if he feels inclined, or swears at the children for being noisy and troublesome, and walks off to amuse himself, leaving his tired wife at home, to go on with her work till midnight, if she can't get it done before. Nobody thinks of calling him anything but a poor hard working body, slaving himself to death, for the good of his family. But a woman—just mark the difference. I suppose, though, I need not follow out that side of the picture?" she added shrewdly.
"Surely, no," said Clemence, "I know too well by sad experience. Why, Mrs. Owen, I never feel the privilege of sitting down after the labors of the day have wearied mind and body, without offering my services, ignorant as I am of housekeeping, and awkward as I know I must be. What would be said of me, if I did not assist in getting tea, or washing the dishes, and even helping through with the Saturday's work, to say nothing of the Sunday dinner, with its numberless guests to be waited upon and entertained, upon the one day appointed for rest."
"Poor little thing! It's a hard life for such a delicate body as you. I've heard you was rich once; was it true?" she asked inquisitively.
"Yes, madam," said Clemence, "this is a new experience for me."
"Well, it's hard," she said again. "I can't help but pity people that's always been used to having everything they wanted, and suddenly find themselves poor, and without anything to help themselves with. I know some folks are glad when the proud are brought down to their own level, and say that a little humiliation will do them good, but I ain't so.
"Amos and me started poor enough, I can tell you. All we had in the world was a little outfit of beddin' and dishes that father gave me, and Amos made the furniture himself. But we was both strong and active, and what was better willing, and we soon got a start and have kept goin' ahead ever since. There ain't anybody around here that's better off now. There's only one drawback, I think my man's too savin. He's had to deny himself so long, that now, although we are in pretty easy circumstances, he thinks he can't afford a good many things that other people, poorer than we are, call the very necessaries of life. For instance, I dress poorer than any woman in the place; Amos even limits the number of calico dresses that I have; I get three a year, and one I have to put away to sort o' slick up in. I hain't got a delaine one to my name.
"Sometimes I get my temper up, and tell him I will have something to wear as well as other folks, but he says he goes without as well as I, and there ain't no use of our laying out everything for finery.
"Don't you think its about time for me to strike for something that people, that call themselves decent, have to wear?"
"Why," said Clemence, truthfully, seeing she was expected to make some reply, "don't that seem a little like injustice? It can't be right to deny yourself everything, and indulge in no relaxation after such laborious employment. You owe something to yourself as well as others. Of course it is wise in you to look forward to the future, and it is perfectly natural and commendable to wish to lay up something for your children, that their life may be easier than your own; but, have you never thought that, after all, you may not be working for their best interests. Supposing you should sink underneath the burden you have assumed, and death should find you all unprepared, would you not regret that you had spent your days thus? It does not seem as if any mother was called upon for such sacrifices. No woman, or at least, no American woman, can endure such severe, unremitting toil."
Her hearer looked startled.
"I had never taken this view of the case," she said, "but you are right. My strength cannot always hold out, and if I should be taken away, what would become of my little children?"
Here the baby awoke with a scream, and the mother had enough to keep tongue and hands busy in the effort to pacify him, and finish her labors. As it was, tea was delayed.
The group of tired, sun-burned men, who came up from the field, lingered around the kitchen door, furtively watching the pretty young schoolmistress, but not venturing to speak above a whisper, until supper was announced, when they came in awkwardly, and took their seats.
Clemence was duly presented to them and her host, a quiet, good-natured looking man, and during the conversation which followed, they made some progress towards a further acquaintance. She was pleased, too, to observe that she had made quite a favorable impression, having formed a plan in her mind which she now thought might be easy of accomplishment.
Clemence Graystone was both young and enthusiastic, and she thought here was an opportunity of benefiting one of her own sex in a quiet, unassuming way. She took care to observe closely, much that she would have otherwise passed unnoticed.
"Thank heaven!" said Farmer Owen, as he came in and seated himself wearily, on Saturday evening, "that to-morrow is a day of rest. Miss," (turning abruptly to Clemence,) "you ought to be absolutely happy with only a handful of young ones around you for six hours a day, and the rest of the time to do nothing. I am beginning to think it pays to get learning."
The girl regarded him with a mingled expression of surprise and amusement struggling in her face, as she replied:
"Perhaps my life does seem an easy one to others. At least, I do not complain."
"No," said the farmer, "but you've foolishly added to your burdens, taking that young one of Lynn's. Whatever induced you to do it?"
"Nothing," she replied, quietly, "but the thought that it was my duty. There was none other to assume the responsibility, so it rested upon me."
"That's sheer nonsense," he said contemptuously. "What do you suppose would become of you now, if you should fall sick, or the child either? In that case, it would not be much of a kindness you have done her, filling her head with grand ideas, as I hear, about being a lady, and all that. She'd go to the poor house all the same, and you would have nothing to help yourself with, unless," he added, curiously, "you are independent of your position."
"Nothing of the kind," said Clemence. "I depend solely upon my own efforts for support, as I have repeatedly declared in answer to similar enquiries."
"Then you've done an unheard of thing, that's all that I can say, and if you expect to be thought better for it, you are mistaken, for people will only call you a fool for your pains, and I doubt if the girl herself will ever repay one half your efforts, or feel any gratitude for them."
"As to that," she said abstractedly, looking off into the gathering twilight, "I have not expected payment and shall not be disappointed in that case. However, I do not regret the step. On the contrary, I am thankful for the privilege."
"Where's the young 'un now?" he asked. "To Swan's yet?"
Clemence nodded in the affirmative.
"How much do you pay a week for her board?"
"Two dollars," she said coolly.
"And you earn how much?"
"Five dollars per week and board."
"And have had to clothe her besides buying what books and other articles a child needs? Well, you are green. They say, too, you dress pretty well yourself. Can't see how you manage it on them wages," he added, eyeing her with a shrewd, penetrating glance.
Clemence blushed under the close scrutiny.
"Do you call calico expensive?" she asked, calling his attention to her own daintily fitting one.
"No," he answered, shifting uneasily in his seat, "of course it's the cheapest and best thing a woman can wear, in my opinion."
"Of course," echoed Mrs. Owen, at his elbow, "but what does a man know about such things? But I'll tell you one thing, Amos, if calico is the cheapest and best thing a woman can wear, I am going to have enough of it after this."
"Well, have enough," he said impatiently, "though you will never look pretty nor lady-like in anything. So don't flatter yourself, nor aspire to imitate others who can. I suppose now, Miss Graystone," turning to Clemence, "you think I don't want my wife to dress as well as others on account of the expense; but, although I commenced poor, and have been obliged to save pretty close, yet I never saw the time when I have not done for my family to the extent my means afforded. Times are getting a little easier with me now, though I ain't rich, far from it. Besides there's another point to be considered. Now if you get an article of dress, you have some taste in making and wearing it," and he looked admiringly at the trim figure before him; "but Susan here, completely spoils everything she undertakes."
"There, Amos Owen," put in the aforementioned Susan, "don't try to lay your stinginess on my shoulders, for, goodness knows, they have burden enough already. And that ain't so, either, you know as well as I do that you're only saying it to be contrary."
"Well, have it so," he said, crossly, and Clemence, to turn the subject, asked if they were going to attend morning service on the coming Sabbath.
"Not I," said Mr. Owen, "it's asking altogether too much of a hard working man like me to get up and start off as regular as the Sunday comes, without any rest whatever. I don't feel called upon to do it, for one. Wife, here, can answer for herself."
"Why don't you say at once that she has not a decent dress to go in, and you prefer to have her stay home and look after the children, while you sleep away your time. I've no patience with you, Amos."
"So you are boarding at Owen's?" said Mrs. Swan, when Clemence stopped for little Ruth, on her way to meeting.
"Yes," said Clemence, "they are an odd couple."
"They are all of that, and more," she replied with a smile. "I should not think you would fancy staying there much, she has the name of being a miserable housekeeper, and a shiftless sort of body at the best."
"Why," said the young teacher, generously, "I have not found her so. I think she is one of the most industrious women in the place."
"Then," said Mrs. Swan, looking with an air of pride around her own neat little dwelling, "how is it she always has such a dirty looking house, that you can't bear to eat a mouthful in it, and those ill-kempt, noisy children, to say nothing of her own slovenly appearance?"
"Because," returned Clemence, in her defence, "she has more work put upon her than two women ought to do, and with so much expected of her, it is not to be wondered at that she sometimes fails to achieve everything."
"But what a figure the woman does make of herself," said Mrs. Swan, smoothing her own satin hair. "She spoils everything in the making up. I never saw her in a well made garment, nor her children, either."
"I grant," conceded Clemence, "that she has no taste, but she has little time for its indulgence, so, perhaps, she is as well off without it. The poor woman is a perfect drudge. She never has a pitying word, or a sympathetic look, even from her husband. He seems to think that she is only filling her appropriate sphere. Yet, I do not think he means to be cruel. He, works hard himself, and expects every one around him to do the same."
"I'll tell you what I think about it," said Mrs. Swan, energetically, "she never was the wife for him. With a woman who had the least ambition, their home would present a far different aspect. As it is, you know, Miss Graystone, it does look enough to disgust a neat man like him. No one can say, either, but what he furnishes liberally everything necessary for the household, and she is as close and saving as he is, for all she denies it."
"That is all very true," responded Clemence, "but for all that, I can't help but pity her. It seems as if their home might be rendered pleasanter. There is enough material there to bring out, and it only wants somebody to give them a friendly hint."
"And you think you are just the one to do it, and that it is your obvious duty, and all that?" said Mrs. Swan. "Now, just take my advice, and don't burn your fingers meddling with other people's affairs, nor do any such foolish thing for conscience sake."
"But if I think I ought, 'to do unto others,' you know," said Clemence, doubtingly.
"But you had not ought. Just leave matters as they are, and they will come right of themselves, and if they don't, why, it's no fault of yours."
"That strikes me as a selfish policy," she said. "I can't reconcile it with my ideas of what is right."
"It's a safe one, for all that," was the reply. "Take heed to my words, and let the Owen's affairs alone. You don't expect to revolutionize the family by one effort."
"Still, I can't help but feel sorry for this overworked woman," said Clemence, "and what is more, I think as one of my own sex, I may be able to do her some kindness without injury to any one. She has neither grace nor refinement, such as most women have in common with each other, whatever may be their position in life. I don't think that she is naturally lazy, as you say. At the foundation, her house is always clean. It needs somebody to keep it in order, and have a place for everything and everything in its place,' for the lack of which it presents this disordered appearance. I believe I can be of some use to her, and shall try faithfully to do my whole duty in that respect."
"You dear child," said Mrs. Swan, kindly, "you shame me by your disinterestedness. Remember, though, if you get into any difficulty, I have warned you solemnly, as I thought my duty."
"I will remember," said Clemence, laughing, "and in that event I shall expect, and doubtless receive your warmest sympathy."
After that, she went to work with a will, and was so far successful in her praiseworthy labors, that the home of the Owen's began to wear a look hitherto a stranger to it. With her own hands, Clemence assisted in establishing a new order of things, and when praised by the smiling Mr. Owen, would triumphantly bring forward some work of his wife's, which had been executed under her own supervision, as a proof that she had been kept down, and was not so totally deficient in taste as had been affirmed.
These little subterfuges, however, did not always have the desired effect, and more than once Clemence was annoyed by an unmistakable glance of admiration and a remark to the effect that after she left, things would resume their former dilapidated appearance.
"What coarse manners this person has," she would think on these occasions, "and how much his poor wife must suffer in his boorish society."
She was pleased, though, and somewhat astonished, to see how readily Farmer Owen's purse opened at her demands.
"Amos never was so liberal to me before," said his wife, and the whole village echoed it.
"Mrs. Owen ought to pay you for staying there with her life-long gratitude," said Mrs. Swan. "Let me congratulate you on your unparalleled success in that quarter."
"Oh," said Clemence, ingenuously, "as to that, I claim no merit for myself. I told you it was more from a lack of knowledge upon the subject than from intentional wrong, that this poor woman was made to suffer. It only needed some one to point out the error."
"You are a good girl, any way," said Mrs. Swan, by way of conclusion. "Who but you would ever have thought of it, I should like to know?"
It very soon became the fashion to patronize and "bring out" little Mrs. Owen in Waveland. People awoke to a knowledge of their duty, and regularly now, every Sabbath, she came to meeting under the care of two or more of the prim-looking matrons.
Clemence was pleased that they had, as she thought, at last begun to appreciate her many excellent qualities, but she could not understand exactly why these kind people should be at such pains to flaunt their good deeds. After much bewilderment, she came to the conclusion that they must have thought her presuming, and considered that she ought to be put in her place, instead of aspiring to teach them their duty.
"As if," she thought sadly, "I could be guilty of harboring such a thought. I am afraid I shall never make many friends in Waveland."
She was glad when Monday morning came again, and she could resume her school duties. At least, here was a legitimate object of interest to occupy her mind. When the lessons were over for the day, she went back with little Sammy Owen pattering along beside her. She seated herself, and went to work industriously, on some sewing of Mrs. Owen's, and applied herself so closely, that she completed the garment just as she was called to supper.
"Well, I have finished your dress," she said, as she came to the table.
"And you are nearly tired to death," said Mr. Owen. "Susan, you ought not to have allowed Miss Graystone to overwork herself."
Clemence protested it was nothing, and that a cup of their good tea would rest her, and the worthy couple immediately set about loading her plate with food enough to have satisfied the appetite of a plough-boy. And as soon as she could slip away, she left the table.
Her hostess soon followed her, to try on the new dress. It was a pretty, soft-tinted muslin, and made the round, plump figure look more nearly approaching to attractiveness than it had ever done before.
"Well, I declare," said the farmer, surveying her with satisfaction, "that does look nice and tidy. Now, if we could always have you, Miss Graystone, to select my wife's dresses, and cut and fit them, and afterwards tell her how to put them on, she would look, positively, respectable."
"Here is a collar that I brought for you," said Clemence, pretending not to have heard this doubtful compliment, and the delighted little woman forthwith burst forth into a profusion of exaggerated acknowledgements of her kindness and generosity.
"There, Amos Owen," she exclaimed, blushing with pleasure, "what do you think of your wife, now? You can see by this time that she ain't the one to be kept down forever, and drudge her life away. She was born for better things." And stepping backwards, with a self-complacent smile and toss of her head, the little creature, unfortunately unused to fineries of any kind, planted her foot, which was by no means a small one, upon the delicate fabric and made an awkward rent.
Clemence was ready to cry with vexation. Plainly, here was, at least, another half hour's work for her tired fingers.
Mr. Owen gave a long, low whistle, and then a shout of derisive laughter, as he turned and went out of the house. Clemence feared that her cause was being irreparably ruined, instead of helped along, as she so ardently desired, by this untoward event.
"Deary me!" said Mrs. Owen, "what shall I do? I wish I'd never tried to dress up at all. Just think how much that cost, and it's only a stringy thing after all, and a great big rent in it before its ever worn at all. I wish now, I'd got that calico that I wanted to. I should, if you hadn't persuaded me not to."
If a few tears fell among the pale, pink rosebuds, with which the condemned article was dotted as plentifully as May blossoms, it is hardly to be wondered at. Tired, overworked, and a good deal discouraged, the pale young teacher might be pardoned for any signs of weakness, though she needed to gather up all her sinking courage for the future, that lay before her lost in shadow.
Somewhat apart from, and forming the western boundary of Waveland, was a lovely inland lake, by the margin of which Clemence had been accustomed to spend many sad hours, since she had become a resident of the little village. A narrow foot-path, that led through the sombre woods, brought her to a sheltered spot upon the sloping shore, where she often came alone to pass an idle hour. She had come to regard this place as her own peculiar property, for no one had ever come here to interrupt her, or claim any portion of its solitude.
It was a safe retreat from prying eyes, and it became to the girl, at length, the one sacred spot where she could pour out her griefs to that One, who looks upon His stricken children only to pity and forgive.
She sat, now, idly watching the sun sink in the western sky, behind the far-off hills. She thought, as she noted the sunset, that she had never seen anything more beautiful—
Amber, and purple, and crimson, and blue, Glittering shades of every hue. Fleecy cloudlets of silver-gray, And shroud-like white, for the dying day.
She remembered, as her eye dwelt in admiration of the scene, of the beautiful passages in Revelation, and of the gates of pearl and jasper, "which shall not be shut at all by day, for there shall be no night there." It almost seemed as if she could drift through these cloud portals into the peace and rest beyond. Her heart yearned for the loving clasp of the sweet pilgrim, who had gone before, and who had entered into "the joy of her Lord." The thought comforted her. She rose up absently to find two curious eyes fastened upon her, while Mr. Owen's voice said at her elbow:
"You find this scene more congenial, it appears, than our well ordered household, and dreaming away the hours, a much more agreeable task than trying to make a lady of my homespun wife?"
"Why," said Clemence, nervously, not replying to this singular speech, "how you startled me. Who would have thought of your being here? How did you find me? Have you any message from your wife?"
"None, whatever," he said, regarding her strangely, and replying to her last remark. "Do not go, just yet. Miss Graystone; I am tired, and would like to rest."
"In that case," returned Clemence, "I will leave you to yourself, and walk on, and you can come at your leisure."
"But I want to talk to you," he rejoined, detaining her, "I came here particularly for that purpose."
His look said more than his words, and set the girl's heart beating with sudden fear, as she thought of the strip of silent forest that lay between them and the town.
"I am in haste," she said, starting hurriedly forward, "and will listen to you when we get back to the house."
"And that is the very last thing I intend you shall do," he rejoined, springing from the grass, where he had thrown himself, and coming close to her, "I tell you, I want to talk to you."
"Well, if you have anything to say to me," she continued, hastening on, "you can proceed as we go along, for I cannot linger. I was not aware of its being so late, until you aroused me."
"There, I did not think of that," he added; "Susan will miss me, and, beside, some one might have been watching me follow you."
"Did you follow me?" questioned Clemence, thrown, for the moment, completely off her guard.
"Of course," he replied, studying her face intently; "how else did you suppose I could find you in that hiding-place?"
"I was not aware that a hard-working farmer was given to such school-boy tricks," she said again, in tones of marked displeasure. "If you wished to recall me, one of the children would have done the errand equally as well."
He laughed sarcastically. "All very proper and correct, Miss Graystone. Perhaps I did run the risk of discovery, in my anxiety to find you, but one cannot be always upon their guard and remember everything. You are a 'cute one, now, with that artless face. I studied for weeks before I really made up my mind whether it was real or only put on for the occasion."
"Did you ever observe me before?" asked Clemence as cooly as possible, resolved to cultivate obtuseness, and not apply his words personally, "I suppose, now, in a quiet place like this, any stranger is subjected to the comments and surmises of nearly all the inhabitants. By the way, how many do you suppose the place numbers?"
"Really, I don't know," he answered dryly, "never having the curiosity to inquire. Perhaps the Editor could tell you. Suppose you ask him, when you meet again, as you seem to be tolerably well acquainted."
"Oh, I don't care so much as that about it," said Clemence, indifferently, "and I am not sufficiently well acquainted with the gentleman in question, to catechise him in any way."
"Then you were not writing those verses to him, that I saw you put away when I spoke to you?"
The red blood flashed indignantly into Clemence's cheeks, at this impertinence, but she had a motive in checking any manifestations of her fear and anger, so she answered lightly:
"Of course not, it was merely for my own amusement."
"Ah, what an agreeable thing," he said, after a moment, "to have such resources of pleasure. How you must despise an ignorant fellow like me."
"There, you wrong me," she said generously, "I am incapable of such littleness. Here, in America, where so many of our most distinguished men have come from contact with the field or workshop, it would be folly in me to despise any one on account of their calling."
"But I have thought it mean, and my whole life has grown distasteful since I met you," he said, turning suddenly and confronting her.
They were in a tangled pathway, overgrown with clinging vines, that interlaced themselves above and upon every side. It was impossible to proceed with this man directly in her way, so she could only stand immovably, trying to repress all feeling of apprehension.
He went on rapidly—"I have wanted to go away somewhere, out of this, and grow into something above this peasant's life; and all this only since I have known you."
"Well," said Clemence, giving him a glance of cold contempt, "What has this to do with me? Such aspirations would be more appropriate for your wife's ear, than mine, and, do you know, your present appearance is rather more ludicrous than sensational? I could respect you at your own fireside, or attending to your homely labors, for you were then occupying your proper sphere; but, at present, you impress me in a totally different manner.
"Go back to your wife, who, if, as you declare, is not a lady, is, at least, your equal, for you will never be a gentleman; and you can both, if you try to do right, become happy and contented in that calling which your parents have followed faithfully and well before you.
"When people, who have never in the course of a long life been remarkable for ambition, suddenly come to have aspirations, you may be quite sure that the 'arch enemy of mankind,' who is said to be indefatigable in providing work 'for idle hands to do,' is plotting their certain destruction."
She broke off abruptly, absolutely appalled by the gleam of murderous hate that leaped into the man's fierce dark eye, as the meaning of her words dawned upon his dulled perception. He opened his lips, which had grown white with rage, but no sound came from them.
The next moment a childish voice, near them, called, "Papa! where are you?" and Clemence drew a sigh of relief, as little Sammy Owen bounded through the bushes to her side.
Five minutes later, she was walking alone, disconsolately, thinking of this new trouble that threatened her peace, for she felt instinctively that, in the last hour, she had made an enemy, to be shunned and dreaded during the rest of her stay in Waveland.
"Well, thank God!" she said fervently, "that I am at least safe. I am innocent of any wrong intent, and I know that I shall be upheld, now, as in every other trouble that has come to me, and in the end, find justification."
There was no one visible when she reached the house, but Mrs. Owen, who sat with her dumpling of a baby, on the door-steps.
"La!" she ejaculated, as Clemence came in sight, walking wearily enough, "what's the matter—be you sick?"
"No," said Clemence, sinking down beside her, "only tired."
"Well, you look as though you had seen a ghost, at the very least. There ain't much to you, any way, you give out the easiest of anybody I ever see. A good night's rest will help you, and you will be all right in the morning."
"I have got to walk another mile before I obtain it, though," said Clemence, rising. "I am going to spend to-morrow and Sunday with Mrs. Hardyng."
"No, be you?" reiterated Mrs. Owen. "Sakes alive you'll never stand it to walk way down there, and feeling tired out before you start. It will be dark too, before you get there. I wish Amos was here, and I'd send him along, too, but he went off somewhere, I don't know in what direction, and ain't even been in to his supper. That makes me think, you ain't had your's, neither. Better stay and let me get you a cup of tea?"
Clemence thanked her languidly, said her friends would probably have some waiting for her when she arrived, and bidding her good evening, passed out of the gate, and the slight form was soon lost to view in the deepening shadows of the night.
The young teacher's forebodings were soon to be realized. She was right. She had made an enemy of Mr. Owen, and he determined to make her feel it henceforward, by every means in his power. In his petty way, he was as particular about keeping up an outside appearance of respectability, as any aristocratic member of a rich city church might be to cover up their own glaring deficiencies. It would have ruined him as completely in his little circle, to have been found out in his underhand tricks, as though he had been of the consequence in other people's estimation that he was in his own. He had never, in all his life, been accustomed to mingle with but one class of women, and that the ignorant, ill-bred gossip-mongers of his own village. Consequently, he was in momentary fear of having his recent escapade brought to light, and becoming the laughing stock of the place, for having fallen in love with, and been snubbed by the pretty young school mistress.
He was possessed of a sufficient share of low cunning to enable him, finally, to hit upon a plan by which he hoped this catastrophe might be averted. There upon he proceeded to unfold to the astonished partner of his joys and sorrows, that he was glad Miss Graystone had left the house, for he considered her a dangerous person to enter any family circle; that she had sought, with great assiduity, while she had been an inmate of his house, to bring misery and disgrace beneath that peaceful roof, by beguiling away the affections of the fond husband and father, and that, like a second Joseph, he had come through the trial manfully. This was enough, and more than enough, for a woman like the one who listened in open-mouthed wonder to every word.
Before a week rolled away, every one knew the story of Farmer Owen's struggles and triumph. Not that any one, even to his own injured wife, for a moment, believed the assertion. Not she. Even with her obtuse intellect, she was a woman, and consequently her wits were too sharp to allow her to be imposed upon by that palpable fiction. She knew, as well as she wanted to, that her dear Amos had been indignantly put in his place by Clemence, if he had made the slightest impudent advance.
She knew, too, by intuition, that even had Clemence been of the class her husband, governed by his malevolent feelings, wished to have her appear, she would look higher than these boorish, homespun farmers. In short, she fully realized that the girl despised her husband so utterly that she barely treated him with politeness.
But all this did not affect her in regard to the feeling she had for Clemence now, and only a woman can understand how the knowledge of the girl's innocence only made her hate her the more. She knew that her husband was considered too much an object of contempt to be feared at all in regard to what he could either say or do.
One would have thought, too, that any one with the least generosity of sentiment, might have remembered her praiseworthy efforts in her own behalf, and the long hours the young teacher had spent in the vain attempt to make her more presentable in the eyes of her friends, and argued that this did not seem compatible with such a grave accusation as was laid upon her.
But all this was forgotten, or, if for a moment thought of, was put away with a malicious feeling of triumph, that the little, plain, down-trodden Mrs. Owen had now got into notice as an injured wife, and by virtue of that notoriety, could, in the future, firmly maintain her position, and refuse to be again consigned to oblivion or the kitchen.
From this time forward, there ruled, alternately, in the little village, two rival factions, viz:—those who supported the young school mistress, and those who denounced her. The former were few in number, but of the more enlightened portion of the community; the latter swarmed and buzzed over this precious bit of gossip, like flies around molasses.
Mrs. Wynn early declared herself in favor of injured innocence, particularly as the dashing bewhiskered Mr. Philemon W. Strain had just deserted Rose, after a desperate flirtation, that had engaged the tongues and eyes of those self-same gossips, and might, possibly, at some future day, furnish a fresh supply for their delectation. Therefore, as a parent who had the interests of a blooming maiden to look after and defend, the good lady took pains to array herself at once upon the side where it was very apparent that her interests lay. While Mrs. Dr. Little, Mrs. Brier, and other respected matrons of the place, came out strong on the side of virtue and appearances.
The better to further this project, a Ladies' Charitable Society was started in Waveland, of which the Dr's. lady was chosen President, a certain Mrs. Caroline Newcomer, Vice President, and Miss Betsey Pryor, Secretary and Treasurer. That it soon attained to an astonishing popularity was known from the fact that the newly appointed Secretary and Treasurer appeared now, for the first time in years, in a stylish new bonnet, which her detractors did not hesitate to declare (though doubtless actuated by the basest motives of envy and jealousy) had been paid for out of the funds of the said Society; and which, notwithstanding such malicious assertions, waxed stronger as it grew. There was one noticeable feature of affairs at this juncture, that the uninitiated were at a loss to account for, and that was the studied neutrality maintained by the oracle of the village, who had been wont to utter his momentous decisions, upon the current topics of the day, through the medium of that "valuable" and popular paper the "Clarion."
Now, however, it maintained a decorous silence upon local affairs, and if, by any inadvertence, it was betrayed into its natural play of wit, so that, for a moment, it might seem to hinge upon the absorbing topic of public interest, and to favor any one side in particular, it was immediately observed to lean heavily the other way, to draw off the attention of its numerous and discriminating readers. The cause for this unusual state of things had not, as yet, transpired, but was soon to be made known to those more immediately concerned.
In a small place like Waveland, the inhabitants, as every one knows, are very liable to go to extremes in almost everything they undertake. Thus, if a new comer excites their favorable notice, they have nothing to do but to ride at once, upon the very topmost wave of popular favor.
If, on the contrary, they decide against them, there is no crime within the knowledge of man, of which they are not severally accused and considered guilty, without any extenuating circumstances.
So it was not so much to be wondered at, that when Clemence once fell into disfavor, she had lost the good graces of the majority at once and forever. Within a short space of time, every house was closed against her, with the exception of a few staunch friends' hospitable abodes, and she received a polite but cold request from the school committee to resign her situation.
"What can it mean?" she asked in despair. "I surely have done nothing to offend these people?"
"As if the miserable, pusillanimous reprobates did not know it as well as you!" spluttered Mrs. Wynn, with her apron to her eyes. Clemence's white face, with its appealing look, had gone straight to her motherly heart. "The unfeeling creatures, to take away a girl's character, like that! There had ought to be a place of everlasting punishment for such wretches, and I know they'll get it, sure as the Lord reigns. But I told you so! I knew how it would be when you went to pickin' that lazy, idle, shiftless, good-for-nothing thing of a Mis' Owen out of the dirt, and settin' her up to be somebody. I knew there wasn't no ambition in her no how, and she didn't want to be anybody herself. She's only mad now, because you showed yourself so far above her, and she hates you for your pains. You never asked my advice, though, and I thought I'd keep my fingers out of the mess, for once in my life. That gossipping, old Mother Wynn made up her mind to let 'em have their fling for once, but they've gone and dragged me into it after all, and I mean to let the whole lot see that I'm enough for them, single-handed.
"I believe that I'll put on my bonnet and start out. I feel too excited to accomplish anything this morning, so, if you'll just help Rose through with the bakin', I guess I'll make one or two short calls, here and there, to see what's going on."
Only too glad to get rid of her own thoughts, Clemence assented, and was soon so busily engrossed in her occupation, that she did not hear when there came a rap at the outer door.
"Mr. Strain," said Rose, coming in suddenly, with a singular expression of countenance, "and, if you'll believe it, he asked to see you alone."
"What for, I wonder?" said Clemence, nervously, pressing her hand to her aching forehead, "I cannot imagine what he wants."
"Nor I," said Rose, "of you." And when Clemence asked her to follow immediately, declared, with a toss of the head, "she couldn't see it, two's a company and three's a crowd, you know. I wasn't called for, and I never go where I ain't wanted. Hurry up, too, and get rid of him, for there's all this work to be done before mother comes home."
Thus adjured, Clemence, with an effort to recover herself, entered quietly the room where the gentleman awaited her. After a little desultory conversation, he came at once to the object of his visit.
It was as Clemence had feared, and she felt pained to reject the offer which was now made her in a straightforward, business-like manner.
She thanked him gratefully, speaking of her present isolated and unhappy position.
"Yes," said Mr. Strain, complacently stroking his moustache, and seeming in no wise disconcerted by his rejection, "I had heard of your little difficulty, and it was with that in view that I called to offer you my protection. I thought if you were once my wife, that these gossipping tongues could be effectually silenced."
"Indeed, I thank you sincerely for your generosity and magnanimity," said Clemence, "and I shall ever remember you with a sense of deep obligation."
"Oh, you owe me no thanks," said the gentleman, gazing upon her disturbed face, admiringly, "even if I believed the fabrications of your enemies, it would not have altered my resolution. I am not, as you may have observed, exactly one of these people. I have moved amid far different scenes in my time, and my views of life are of the most liberal sort imaginable. I consider that I, too, have my weaknesses and foibles, in common with the rest of mankind, and I do not look for exalted virtues in any one. I admired you from the first, and resolved to make an effort to win you. Of my success, you are the best judge, but that, I am happy to say, does not alter our mutual regard and esteem.
"Furthermore, I can say from personal knowledge, (confidentially, of course) that not one of these worthy ladies who have denounced you, would dare to utter or whisper a word against you as my wife, for I am already too deeply in their confidence not to render the attempt dangerous, as well as disagreeable.
"My dear girl," he added lightly, "this is no place for an angel like you, now that you have repulsed the only man who might have befriended you. In losing me, you lose everything, for you must be aware that it would be sheer folly in me to detract from my own popularity, by defending one who denies me even the right to do so. And since I cannot trust myself to enjoy the dangerous privilege of your friendship, I shall find consolation in the ambition that has engrossed me in the past, and rendered me, until the present moment, invulnerable to the charms of the fairer portion of creation."
Clemence felt a hysterical inclination to laugh and cry too, when she found herself alone, and was only certain of one fact, that this morning's work had added to her troubles, not lightened them.
"Such a day as I have had!" said Mrs. Wynn, coming in about tea-time. "You are the talk of the town. That little nobody of an Owen has managed to stir up one muss, I can tell you. I s'pose, though, if it hadn't been her, some of the rest would have made up something on their own hook. You see, the women have all been jealous of you from the first, and they meant to put you down if they could, and have only been waiting for a good chance.
"Why, I heard to day a dozen different accounts of your life before you came here; how your father was hung or sent to the States Prison, and your mother was no better than she should be, and a lot more that I can't remember. Do tell me, for I never heard really how it was anyway. I want to put them down when they say such things again."
"Never mind, dear Mrs. Wynn," said Clemence, "I do not. These people, like the rest of their class, must have something to occupy their minds, and, if their animadversions do fall on my devoted head, it will only keep them busy, and do me no real harm."
"But I want to know, child," said the elder lady, giving her a glance of motherly tenderness, "for I am interested both in your past and future, and I am anxious to learn just what your former life has been." And Clemence told her the simple truth of the happy years that were now vanished forever.
"What shall I do now?" asked Clemence of her friend, Mrs. Hardyng, as they sat together in the parlor of the latter's residence. "My income has stopped entirely, and I shall have but a small sum after settling Ruth's board, which I must do soon, for I cannot leave her any longer with Mrs. Swan."
"Why!" questioned her friend, "has she, too, gone over to the enemy?"
"Oh, no," replied Clemence; "she is still a staunch adherent. It was not that I had in my mind, but I have been looking into my affairs lately, and have decided that, as I can plainly do nothing here, I had better go back to the city at once."
"And what will you do there?" queried the listener. "Excuse the liberty, but I would like to ask, from no motive of idle curiosity, you may feel sure, if you have any friends there?"
"None but good Mrs. Linden, and I have no claim upon her, although she bade me come to her as to a mother, when I was weary of this 'experiment,' as she called it. I only thought she might help me to obtain employment, and give me some advice and assistance about Ruth."
"And cannot I do both?" asked Ulrica Hardyng, sorrowfully. "Clemence, you must surely think more of this former friend than you can of me, since you will intrust her alone with the privilege I would give so much to share. You have told me that this Mrs. Linden is a self-absorbed woman, sufficient unto herself, while I am only a heart-broken creature, isolated completely from those who were once dear to me. Shall I tell you how I have watched and waited for this hour, when I could be of some assistance to you, and thus bind you closer to me? Oh, I have dreamed too long of this happiness, to have it elude my grasp. You cannot deny me the boon of having some one again to love."
"But is it my duty, dear friend, to lay my burden upon you? Since I have voluntarily taken it upon myself, ought I not to bear it cheerfully, having faith that all things will work together for my good, if I only trust Him, 'who seeth in secret?'"
"It cannot be wrong," said the elder woman. "Henceforth we will share it together."
So it was arranged, and Clemence and little Ruth went to live beneath the cottage roof of Ulrica Hardyng.
Meanwhile, busy tongues were rife over this new fact. Waveland had expected an exodus from among them, of the young schoolmistress and her little charge, and hardly, as yet, knew what to make of her remaining quietly among them, and living down these slanderous reports. But, at length, after this came to be an established fact, the little village had another excitement to create a stir among its most exclusive circles, and this was no less an event than the marriage of the bachelor editor of the "Clarion," with a lady of no inconsiderable literary ability, whose home was in a distant city. And, when the curiosity of every one was roused to the highest pitch of expectancy, the lady made her entree into the little town with great eclat.
Immediately thereafter, there was a succession of short poems, all running upon whispering zephyrs, murmuring rivulets, and the like, and each signed, "Euphrasia Anastasia Strain."
The newly-made bride was welcomed with a cordiality, that was astonishing, considering the boast that her husband had once uttered in regard to the former vows of eternal fidelity from these same ladies. However, time works wonders, and it was evident, from the energetic manner in which the matrons of Waveland denounced the least apparent departure from the narrow path of virtue, that a thorough reformation had lately taken place in their midst.
Mrs. Strain was also speedily elected to a prominent position in the Ladies' Charitable Society, which had now got to be a regular institution of the town, by, virtue of having now thrown upon its tender mercies, one paralytic old woman, two little orphans, a poor young woman out of a situation, and a reformed drunkard, who had spent a fortune in his time, and had also the reputation of having been a "ladies' man," which considerably heightened their generous interest in him. The Society had now got upon a firm foundation, and had proved itself no scheme from the visionary brain of an enthusiast, but of a thorough, practical character, that won for it the respect and veneration of everybody who knew of its existence.
There was one thing to be considered, it gave its members plenty to do, and, meanwhile, Clemence had a short respite. She had ample time, now, to give to little Ruth, and her love for the child became stronger each day, as always happens when we deny ourselves for others.