Diana was a little uncertain between laughing and crying, and thought best not to trust her voice. So they went up to their rooms and separated for the night. But all inclination to tears was shut out with the shutting of her door. Was not the moonlight streaming full and broad over all the fields, filling the whole world with quiet radiance? So came down the clear, quiet illumination of her happiness upon all Diana's soul. There was no disturbance; there was no shadow; there was no wavering of that full flood of still ecstasy. All things not in harmony with it were hidden by it. That's the way with moonlight.
And the daylight was sweeter. Early, Diana always saw it; in those prime hours of day when strength, and freshness, and promise, and bright hope are the speech and the eye-glance of nature. How much help the people lose who lose all that! When the sun's first look at the mountains breaks into a smile; when morning softly draws off the veil from the work there is to do; when the stir of the breeze speaks courage or breathes kisses of sympathy; and the clear blue sky seems waiting for the rounded and perfected day to finish its hours, now just beginning. Diana often saw it so; she did not often stop so long at her window to look and listen as she did this morning. It was a clear, calm, crisp morning, without a touch of frost, promising one of those mellow, golden, delicious days of September that are the very ripeness of the year; just yet six o'clock held only the promise of it. Like her life! But the daylight brought all the vigour of reality; and last night was moonshine. Diana sat at her window a few minutes drinking it all in, and then went to her dairy.
Alas! one's head may be in rare ether, and one's feet find bad walking spots at the same time. It was Diana's experience at breakfast.
"How are those pigs getting along, Josiah?" Mrs. Starling demanded.
"Wall, I don' know," was the somewhat unsatisfactory response. "Guess likely the little one's gettin' ahead lately."
"He hadn't ought to!" said Mrs. Starling. "What's the reason the others ain't gettin' ahead as fast as him?"
"He's a different critter—that's all," said Josiah stolidly. "He'll be the biggest."
"They're all fed alike?"
"Fur's my part goes," said Josiah; "but when it comes to the eatin'—tell you! that little feller'll put away consid'able more'n his share. That's how he's growd so."
"They are not any of 'em the size they ought to be, Josiah."
"We ain't feedin' 'em corn yet."
"But they are not as big as they were last year this time."
"Don't see how you'll help it," said Josiah. "I ain't done nothin' to 'em."
With which conclusion Mrs. Starling's 'help' finished his breakfast and went off.
"There ain't the hay there had ought to be in the mows, neither," Mrs. Starling went on to her daughter. "I know there ain't; not by tons. And there's no sort o' a crop o' rye. I wish to mercy, Diana, you'd do somethin'."
"Do what, mother?" Diana said gaily. "You mean, you wish Josiah would do something."
"I know what I mean," said Mrs. Starling, "and I commonly say it. That is, when I say anything. I don't wish anything about Josiah. I've given up wishin'. He's an unaccountable boy. There's no dependin' on him. And the thing is, he don't care. All he thinks on is his own victuals; and so long's he has 'em, he don't care whether the rest of the world turns round or no."
"I suppose it's the way with most people, mother; to care most for their own."
"But if I had hired myself to take care of other folks' things, I'd do it," said Mrs. Starling. "That ain't my way. Just see what I haven't done this morning already! and he's made out to eat his breakfast and fodder his cattle. I've been out to the barn and had a good look at the hay mow and calculated the grain in the bins; and seen to the pigs; and that was after I'd made my fire and ground my coffee and set the potatoes on to boil and got the table ready and the rooms swept out. Is that cream going to get churned to-day, Diana?"
"It's old enough."
"It is not ready, though."
"It ought to be. I tell you what, Diana, you must set your cream pot in here o' nights; the dairy's too cold."
"Warm enough yet, mother. Makes better butter."
"You don't get nigh so much, though. That last buttermilk was all thick with floatin' bits of butter; and that's what I call wasteful."
"I call it good, though."
"There's where you make a mistake, Diana Starling; and if you ever want to be anything but a poor woman, you've got to mend. It's just those little holes in your pocket that let out the money; a penny at a time, to be sure; but by and by when you come to look for the dollars, you won't find 'em; and you'll not know where they're gone. And you'll want 'em."
"Mother," said Diana, laughing, "I can't feel afraid. We have never wanted 'em yet."
"You've been young, child. You will want 'em as you grow older. Marry Will Flandin, and you'll have 'em; and you may churn your cream how you like. I tell you what, Diana; when your arm ain't as strong as it used to be, and your back gets to aching, and you feel as if you'd like to sit down and be quiet instead of delvin' and delvin', then you'll feel as if 't would be handy to put your hand in your pocket and find cash somewhere. My! I wish I had all the money your father spent for books. Books just makes some folks crazy. Do you know it's the afternoon for Society meeting, Diana?"
"I had forgotten it. I shall not go."
"One of us must," said Mrs. Starling. "I don't see how in the world I can; but I suppose I'll have to. You'll have to make the bread then, Diana. Yesterday's put me all out. And what are you going to do with all those blackberries? They're too ripe to keep."
"I'll do them up this afternoon, mother. I'll take care of them."
The morning went in this way, with little intermission. Mrs. Starling was perhaps uneasy from an undefined fear that something was going not right with Diana's affairs. She could lay hold on no clue, but perhaps the secret fear or doubt was the reason why she brought up, as if by sheer force of affinity, every small and great source of annoyance that she knew of. All the morning Diana had to hear and answer a string of suggestions and complainings like the foregoing. She was not unaccustomed to this sort of thing, perhaps; and doubtless she had her own hidden antidote to annoyance: yet it belonged still more to the large sweet nature of the girl, that though annoyed she was never irritated. Wrinkles never lined themselves on the fair smooth brow; proper token of the depth and calm of the character within.
Dinner was over, and talk ceased, for Mrs. Starling went to dress herself for the sewing society, and presently drove off with Prince. Diana's motions then became as swift as they were noiseless. Her kitchen was in a state of perfected order and propriety. She went to dress herself then; a modest dressing, for business, and kitchen business, too, must claim her all the afternoon; but it is possible to combine two effects in one's toilet; and if you had seen Diana that day, you would have comprehended the proposition. A common print gown, clean and summery-looking, showed her soft outlines at least as well as a more modish affair would; and the sleeves rolled up to the elbows revealed Diana's beautiful arms. I am bound to confess she had chosen a white apron in defiance of possible fruit stains; and the dark hair tucked away behind her ears gave the whole fair cheek and temple to view; fair and delicate in contour, and coloured with the very hues of a perfect physical condition. I think no man but would like to see his future wife present such a picture of womanly beauty and housewifely efficiency as Diana was that day. And the best was, she did not know it.
She went about her work. Doubtless she had a sense that interruptions might come that afternoon; however, that changed nothing. She had moulded her bread and put it in the pans and got it out of the way; and now the berries were brought out of the pantry, and the preserving kettle went on the fire, and Diana's fingers were soon red with the ripe wine of the fruit. All the time she had her ears open for the sound of a horse's hoofs upon the road; it had not come, so that a quick step outside startled her, and then the figure of Mr. Knowlton in the doorway took her by surprise. Certainly she had been expecting him all the afternoon; but now, whether it were the surprise or somewhat else, Diana's face flushed to the most lovely rose. Yet she went to meet him with simple frankness.
"I've not a hand to give you!" she said.
"Not a hand!" he echoed. "What a mercy it is that I am independent of hands. Yesterday I should have been in despair;—to-day"—
"You must not abuse your privileges," said Diana, trying to free herself. "And O, Mr. Knowlton, I have a great deal of work to do."
"So have I," said he, holding her fast; and indeed she was too pretty a possession to be easily let go. "Whole loads of talking, and no end of arrangements.—Di, I never saw you with such a charming colour. My beauty! Do you know what a beauty you are?"
"I am glad you think so!" she said.
"Think so? Wait till you are my wife, and I can dress you to please myself. I think you will be a very princess of loveliness."
"In the meantime, Mr. Knowlton, what do you think of letting me finish my berries?"
"Berries?" he said, laughing. "Tell me first, Di, what do you think of me?"
"Inconvenient," said Diana. "And I think, presuming. I must finish my berries, Mr. Knowlton."
"Evan," he said.
"Well; but let me do my work."
"Do your work?—My darling! How am I going to talk to you, if you are going into your work? However, in consideration of yesterday—you may."
"What made you come to this door?" Diana asked.
"I knew you were here."
"You would have been much more likely to find mother, most days."
"Ah, but I met Prince, as I came along, with Mrs. Starling behind him; and then I thought"—
"I remembered," said Knowlton, laughing, "that the same person cannot be in two places at once!"
The comfort of this fact being upon them, the two took advantage of it. Mr. Knowlton drew his chair close to the table over which Diana's fingers were so busy; and a talk began, which in the range and variety and arbitrary introduction of its topics, it would be in vain to try to follow. Through it all Diana's work went on, except now and then when her fingers made an involuntary pause. The berries were picked over, and weighed, and put over the fire, and watched and tended there; while the tall form of the young officer stood beside Diana as she handled her skimmer, and went back and forth as she went, helping her to carry her jars of sweetmeat.
"Have you told your mother?" Mr. Knowlton asked.
"Why not?" he asked quickly.
"I did not think it was a good time, last night or this morning."
"Does she not like me?"
"I think she wants to put some one else in your place, Evan."
"Who?" he asked instantly.
"Nobody you need fear," said Diana, laughing. "Nobody I like."
"Is there anybody you do like?"
"Plenty of people—that I like a little."
"How much do you like me, Diana?"
She lifted her eyes and looked at him; calm, large, grey eyes, into which there had come a new depth since yesterday and an added light. She looked at him a moment, and dropped them in silence.
"Well?" said he eagerly. "Why don't you speak?"
"I cannot," said Diana.
"Why? I can speak to you."
"I suppose people are different," said Diana. "And I am a woman."
"Well, what then?"
She turned away, with the shyest, sweetest grace of reserve; turned away to her fruit, quite naturally; there was no shadow of affectation, nor even of consciousness. But her eyes did not look up again; and Mr. Knowlton's eyes had no interruption.
"Di, where do you think we shall go when we are married?"
"I don't know," she said simply; and the tone of her voice said that she did not care. It was as quiet as the harebells when no wind is blowing.
"And I don't know!" Knowlton echoed with a half-sigh. "I don't know where I am going myself. But I shall know in a day or two. Can you be ready in a week, do you think, Diana?"
"Shall you have to go so soon as that?" she asked with a startled look up.
"Pretty near. What of that? You are going with me. It may be to some rough out-of-the-way place; we never can tell; you know we are a sort of football for Uncle Sam to toss about as he pleases; but you are not afraid of being a soldier's wife, Di?"
She looked at him without speaking; a look clear and quiet and glad, like her voice when she spoke. So full of the thought of the reality he suggested, evidently, that she never perceived the occasion for a blush. Her eyes went through him, to the rough country or the frontier post where she could share—and annul—all his harsh experiences.
"What sort of places are those where you might go, Evan?"
"Nearly all sorts on the face of the earth, my beauty. I might be sent to the neighbourhood of one of the great cities; we should have a good time then, Di! I would wait for nothing; I could come and fetch you just as soon as I could get a furlough of a day or two. But they are apt to send us, the young officers, to the hardest places; posts beyond civilisation, out west to the frontier, or south to Texas, or across to the Pacific coast."
"California!" Diana cried.
"California; or Oregon; or Arizona. Yes; why?"
"California is very far off."
"Rather," said Knowlton, with a half sigh again. "It don't make any difference, if we were once there, Diana."
Diana looked thoughtful. It had never occurred to her, before this time, to wish that the country were not so extended; and certainly not to fancy that California and she had any interest in common. Lo, now it might be. "How soon must you go, Evan?" she asked, as thoughts of longitude and latitude began to deepen the cloud shadow which had just touched her.
"A few days—a week or two more."
"Is that all?"
"Can you go with me?" he whispered, bending forward to pick up a few of her berries, for the taste of which he certainly did not care at that moment.
And she whispered, "No."
"You know it's impossible, Evan."
"Then I must go by myself," he said, in the same half breath, stooping his head still so near that a half breath could be heard; and his hair, quite emancipated from the regulation cut, touched Diana's cheek. "I don't know how I can! But, Di—if I can get a furlough at Christmas and come for you—will you be ready then?"
She whispered, "Yes."
"That is, supposing I am in any place that I can take you to," he went on, after a hearty endorsement of the contract just made. "It is quite possible I may not be! But I won't borrow trouble. This is the first trouble I ever had in my life, Di, leaving you."
"They say prosperity makes people proud," she said, with an arch glance at him.
"'Proud?" echoed Knowlton. "Yes, I am proud. I have a right to be proud. I do not think, Diana, there is such a pearl in all the waters of Arabia as I shall wear on my hand. I do not believe there is a rose to equal you in all the gardens of the world. Look up, my beauty, and let me see you. I sha'n't have the chance pretty soon."
And yielding to the light touch of his fingers under her chin, caressing and persuading, Diana's face was lifted to view. It was like a pearl, for the childlike purity of all its lines; it was like enough a rose, too; like an opening rose, for the matter of that. Her thoughts went back to the elegance of Mrs. Reverdy and Gertrude Masters, and she wondered in herself at Mr. Knowlton's judgment of her; but there was too much of Diana ever to depreciate herself unworthily. She said nothing.
"I wonder what will become you best?" said Evan in a very satisfied tone.
"Become me?" said Diana lifting her eyes.
"Yes. What's your colour?"
"I am sure I don't know," said Diana, laughing. "No one in particular, I guess."
"Wear everything, can you? I shouldn't wonder! But I think I should like you in white. That's cold for winter—in some regions. I think I should like you in—let me see—show me your eyes again, Diana. If you wear so much rose in your cheeks, my darling," said he, kissing first one and then the other, "I should be safe to get you green. You will be lovely in blue. But of all, except white, I think I should like you, Diana, in royal red."
"I thought purple was the colour of kings and queens," Diana remarked, trying to get back to her berries.
"Purple is poetical. I am certain a dark, rich red would be magnificent on you; for it is you who will beautify the colour, not the colour you. I shall get you the first stuff of that colour I see that is of the right hue."
"Pray don't, Evan. Wait," said Diana, flushing more and more.
"Wait? I'll not wait a minute longer than till I see it. My beauty! what a delight to get things for you—and with you! Officers' quarters are sorry places sometimes, Diana; but won't it be fun for you and me to work transformations, and make our own world; that is our own home? What does Mrs. Starling think of me?"
"I have told her nothing, Evan, yet. She was so busy this morning, I had not a good chance."
"I'll confront her when she comes home this evening."
"O no, Evan; leave it to me; I want to take a good time. She will not like it much anyhow."
"I don't see really how she should. I have sympathy—no, I haven't! I haven't a bit. I am so full of my own side of the question, it is sheer hypocrisy to pretend I have any feeling for anybody else. When will you come down to Elmfield?"
"To Elmfield?" said Diana.
"To begin to learn to know them all. I want them to know you."
"You have not spoken to them about me?"
"No," said he, laughing; "but I mean to."
"Evan, don't say anything to anybody till mother has been told. Promise me! That would not do."
"All's safe yet, Di. But make haste with your revelations; for I shall be here to-morrow night and every night now, and astonish her; and it isn't healthy for some people to be astonished. Besides, Di, my orders will be here in a week or two; and then I must go."
"Do you like being under orders?" said Diana innocently.
Knowlton's grave face changed again; and laughing, he asked if she did not like it? and how she would do when she would be a soldier's wife, and so under double orders? And he got into such a game of merriment, at her and with her, that Diana did not know what to do with herself or her berries either. How the berries got attended to is a mystery; but it shows that the action of the mind can grow mechanical where it has been very much exercised. It can scarce be said that Diana thought of the blackberries; and yet, the jam was made and the wine prepared for in a most regular and faultless manner; the jars were filled duly, and nothing was burned, and all was done and cleared away before Mrs. Starling came home. Literally; for Mr. Knowlton had been sent away, and Diana had gone up to the sanctuary of her own room. She did not wish to encounter her mother that night. While the dew was not yet off her flowers, she would smell their sweetness alone.
A STORM IN SEPTEMBER.
Diana was not put to the trial next day of venturing her precious things to harsh handling. A very uncommon thing happened. Mrs. Starling was not well, and kept her bed.
She had caught cold, she confessed, by some imprudence the day before; and symptoms of pleurisy made it impossible that she should fight sickness as she liked to fight it, on foot. The doctor was not to be thought of; Mrs. Starling gave her best and only confidence to her own skill; but even that bade her lie by and "give up."
Diana had the whole house on her hands, as well as the nursing. Truth to tell, this last was not much. Mrs. Starling would have very little of her daughter's presence; still less of her ministrations. To be "let alone" was her principal demand, and that Diana should "keep things straight below." Diana did that. The house went on as well as ever; and even the farm affairs received the needful supervision. Josiah Davis was duly ordered, fed, and dismissed; and when evening came, Diana was dressed in order, bright, and ready for company. Company it pleased her to receive in the lean-to kitchen; the sound of voices and laughter beneath her would have roused Mrs. Starling to a degree of excitement from which it would have been impossible to keep back anything; and probably to a degree of consequent indignation which would have been capable of very informal measures of ejectment regarding the intruder. No; Diana could not risk that. She must wait till her mother's nerves and temper were at least in their ordinary state of wholesome calm, before she would shock them by the disclosures she had to make. And almost by their preciousness to herself, Diana gauged their unwelcomeness to her mother. It was always so. The two natures were so unlike, that not even the long habit of years could draw them into sympathy. They thought alike about nothing except the housewifely matters of practical life. So these evenings when Mrs. Starling was ill, Diana had her lamp and her fire in the lean-to kitchen; and there were held the long talks with Mr. Knowlton which made all the days of September so golden,—days when Diana's hands were too busy to let her see him, and he was told he must not come except at night; but through all the business streamed the radiant glow of the last night's talk, like the September sunlight through the misty air.
So the days went by; and Mrs. Starling was kept a prisoner; pain and weakness warning her she must not dare try anything else. And in their engrossment the two young people hardly noticed how the time flew. People in Pleasant Valley were not in the habit of paying visits to one another in the evenings, unless specially invited; so nobody discovered that Evan came nightly to Mrs. Starling's house; and if his own people wondered at his absence from home, they could do no more. Suspicion had no ground to go upon in any particular direction.
The month had been glorious with golden leaves and golden sunshine, until the middle was more than past. Then came a September storm; an equinoctial, the people said; as furious as the preceding days had been gentle. Whirlwinds of tempest, and floods of rain; legions of clouds, rank after rank, bringing the winds in their folds; or did the winds bring them? All one day and night and all the next day, the storm continued; and night darkened early upon Pleasant Valley with no prospect of a change. Diana had watched for it a little eagerly; Evan's visit was lost the night before, of course; it was much to lose, when September days were growing few; and now another night he could not come. Diana stood at the lean-to door after supper, looking and making her conclusions sorrowfully. It was darkening fast; very dark it would be, for there was no moon. The rain came down in streams, thick and grey. The branches of the elm trees swung and swayed pitilessly in the wind, beating against each other; while the wind whistled and shouted its intention of keeping on so all night. "He can't come," sighed Diana for the fifth or sixth time to herself; and she shut the door. It could be borne, however, to lose two evenings, when they had enjoyed so many together, and had so many more to look forward to; and with that mixture in her heart of content and longing, which everybody knows, Diana trimmed her lamp and sat down to sew. How the wind roared! She must trim her fire too, or the room would be full of smoke. She made the fire up; and then the snare of its leaping flames and glowing coal bed drew her from her work; she sat looking and thinking, in a fulness of happiness to which all the roar of the storm only served for a foil. She heard the drip, drip of the rain; the fast-running stream from the overcharged eaves trough; then the thunder of the wind sweeping over the house in a great gust; and the whistle of the elm branches as they swung through the air like tremendous lithe switches, beating and writhing and straining in the fury of the blast. Looking into the clear, glowing flames, Diana heard it all, with a certain sense of enjoyment; when in the midst of it she heard another sound, a little thing, but distinguishable from all the rest; the sound of a foot upon the little stone before the door. Only one foot it could be in the world; Diana started up, and was standing with lips apart, facing the door, when it opened, and a man came in enveloped in a huge cloak, dripping at every point.
"Evan!" Diana's exclamation was, with an utterance between joy and dread.
"Yes," said he as he came forward into the room,—"I've got orders."
Without another word she helped relieve him of his cloak and went with it to the outer kitchen, where she hung it carefully to dry. As she came back, Evan was standing in front of the fire, looking gravely into it. The light danced and gleamed upon the gold buttons on his breast, and touched the gold bands on his shoulders; it was a very stately and graceful figure to Diana's eyes. He turned a little, took her into his arms, and then they both stood silent and still.
"I've got my orders," Knowlton repeated in a low tone.
"To go soon, Evan?"
"I knew it, when I heard your foot at the door."
They were both still again, while the storm swept over the house in a fresh burst, the wind rushing by as if it was glad he was going and meant he should. Perhaps the two did not hear it; but I think Diana did. The rain poured down in a kind of fury.
"How could you get here, Evan?" she asked, looking up at him.
"I must, I had only to-night."
"You are not wet?"
"No, darling! Rain is nothing to me. How are you? and how is your mother?"
"She is better. She is getting well."
"And you? You are most like a magnolia tree, full of its white magnificent blossoms; sweet in a kind of wealth of sweetness and bountiful beauty. One blossom would do for a comparison for ordinary women; but you are like the whole tree."
"Suppose I were to find comparisons for you?"
"Ay, suppose you did. What would you liken me to?" said he with a sparkle of the eyes, which quite indisposed Diana from giving any more fuel to the fire that supplied it.
"What, Di? You might as well give me all the comfort you can to take away with me. I shall need it. And it will be long before I can come back for more. What am I like?"
"Would you feel any better for thinking yourself like a pine tree? or a green hemlock? one of those up in our ravine of the brook?"
"Ah, our ravine of the brook! Those days are all gone. I wish I were a green hemlock anywhere, with you a magnolia beside me; or better, a climbing rose hanging upon me! If I could take you, Di!"
The pang of the wish was very keen in her; the leap of the will towards impossibilities; but she said nothing and stood quite motionless.
"I cannot come back for you at Christmas, Di."
"Where are you going, Evan."
"Where I would not take you, anyhow. I am under orders to report myself at a post away off on the Indian frontier, a long journey from here; and a rough, wild place never fit for such as you. Of course we young officers are the ones to be sent to such places; unless we happen to have influence at headquarters, which I haven't. But I shall not stay there for ever."
"Must you go just where they send you?"
"Yes," he said with a laugh. "A soldier cannot choose."
"Must you stay as long as they keep you there?"
"Yes, of course. But there is no use in looking at it gloomily, Di. The months will pass, give them time; and years are made of months. The good time will come at last. I'm not the first who has had to bear this sort of thing."
"Will you have to stay years there?"
"Can't tell. I may. It depends on what is doing, and how much I am wanted. Probably I may have to stay two years at least; perhaps three."
"But you can get a furlough and come for a little while, Evan?" said Diana; her voice sounded frightened.
"That's the worst of it!" said Knowlton. "I don't know whether I can or not."
"Why, Evan? don't they always?"
"Generally it can be done if the distance is not too great, and you are not too useful. You see, there are seldom too many officers on hand, at those out-of-the-way posts."
"Is there so much to do?" said Diana, half mechanically. Her thoughts were going farther; for grant the facts, what did the reasons matter?
"There's a good deal to do sometimes," Evan answered in the same way, thinking of more than he chose to speak. They stood silent again awhile. Diana was clasped in Knowlton's arms; her cheek rested on his shoulder; they both looked to the fire for consolation. Snapping, sparkling, glowing, as it has done in the face of so many of our sorrows, small and great, is there no consolation or suggestion to be got out of it? Perhaps from it came the suggestion at last that they should sit down. Evan brought a chair for Diana and placed one for himself close beside it, and they sat down, holding fast each other's hands.
Was it also the counsel of the fire that they should sit there all night? For it was what they did. The fire burned gloriously; the lamp went out; the red lights leaped and flickered all over floor and ceiling; and in front of the blaze sat the two, and talked; enough to last two years, you and I might say; but alas! to them it was but a whetting of the appetite that was to undergo such famine.
"If I could only take you with me, my darling!" Evan said for the twentieth time. And Diana was silent at first; then she said,
"It would be pleasant to go through hardships together."
"No, it wouldn't!" said Evan. "Not hardships for you, my beauty! They are all very well for me; in a soldier's line; but not for you!"
"A soldier's wife ought not to be altogether unworthy of him," Diana answered.
"Nor he of her. So I wouldn't take you if I could where I am going. A soldier's wife will have hardships enough, first and last, no fear; but some places are not fit for women anyhow. I wish I could have seen Mrs. Starling, though, and had it out with her."
"Had it out!" repeated Diana.
"Yes. I should have a little bit of a fight, shouldn't I? She don't like me much. I wonder why?"
"Evan," said Diana after a minute's thought, "if you are to be so long away, there is no need to speak to anybody about our affair just now. It is our affair; let it stay so. It is our secret. I should like it much better to keep it a secret. I don't want to hear people's talk. Will you?"
"But our letters, my dear; they will tell your mother."
"Mother will not see mine. And she is not likely to see yours; I shall go to the post office myself. If she did, and found it out, I could keep her quiet easily enough. She would not want to speak, any more than I."
Evan combated this resolution for some time. He wished to have Diana friends with his sisters and at home at Elmfield. But Diana had her own views, and desired so strongly to keep her secret to herself, during the first part at least of what threatened to be a long engagement, that at last he yielded. It did not matter much to him, he said, away off in the wilds.
So that subject was dismissed; and before the fantasia of the flames they sat and composed a fantasia of life for themselves; as bright, as various, as bewitching, as evanishing; the visions of which were mingled with the leaping and changing purple and flame tints, the sparkle and the flash of the fire. Diana could never stand before a fire of hickory logs and fail to see her life-story reappear as she had seen it that night.
The hours went by.
"It's too bad to keep you up so, my darling!" Evan remarked. "I am selfish."
"No indeed! But you must want something, Evan! I had forgotten all about it."
He said he wanted nothing, but her; however, Diana's energies were roused. She ran into the back kitchen, and came from thence with the tea-kettle in her hands, filled. She was not allowed to set it down, to be sure, but under her directions it was bestowed in front of the glowing coals. Then, with noiseless, rapid movements, she brought a little table to the hearth and fetched cups and plates. And then she spread the board. There was a cold ham on the big table; and round white slices of bread, such as cities never see; and cake, light and fruity; and yellow butter; and a cream pie, another dainty that confectioners are innocent of; and presently the fragrance of coffee filled the old lean-to to the very roof. Evan laughed at her, but confessed himself hungry, and Diana had it all her own way. For once, this rare once, she would have the pleasure, she and Evan alone; many a day would come and go before she might have it again. So she thought as she poured coffee upon the cream in his cup. And whether the pleasure or the pain were the keenest even then, I cannot tell; but it was one of those minutes when one chooses the pleasure, and will have it and will taste it, whatever lies at the bottom of the draught. The small hours of night, the fire-lit kitchen, the daintily-spread table, she and Evan at opposite sides of it; the pleasure of ministering, such as every woman knows; the beauty of her bread, the magnificence of her coffee, the perfection of her cookery, the exultation of seeing him enjoy it; while her heart was storing up its treasure of sorrow for the unfolding by and by, and knew it, and covered it up, and went on enjoying the minute. The criticism is sometimes made upon a writer here and there, that he talks too much about eating; and in a high-finished and artificial state of society it is indeed true that eating is eating, and nothing more. Servants prepare the viands, and servants bring them; and the result is more or less agreeable and satisfactory, but can hardly be said to have much of poetry or sentiment about it. The case is not so with humbler livers on the earth's surface. Sympathy and affection and tender ministry are wrought into the very pie-crust, and glow in the brown loaves as they come out of the oven; and are specially seen in the shortcake for tea, and the favourite dish at dinner, and the unexpected dumpling. Among the working classes, too,—it is true only of them?—the meals are the breathing spaces of humanity, the resting spots, where the members of the household come together to see each other's faces for a moment at leisure, and to confer over matters of common interest that have no chance in the rush and the whirl of the hours of toil. At any rate, I know there was much more than the mere taste of the coffee in the cups that Diana filled and Knowlton emptied; much more than the supply of bodily want in the bread they eat.
The repast was prolonged and varied with very much talk; but it was done at last. The kettle was set on one side, the table pushed back, and Evan looked at his watch. Still talk went on quietly for a good while longer.
"At what hour does your chief of staff open his barn doors?" said Evan, looking at his watch again.
"Early," said Diana, not showing the heart-thrust the question had given her. "Not till it is light, though."
"It will be desirable that I should get off before light, then. It is not best to astonish him on this occasion."
"It is not near light yet, Evan?"
He laughed, and looked at her. "Do you know, I don't know when that moment comes? I have not seen it once since I have been at Elmfield. It shows how little truth there is in the theories of education."
Diana did not ask what he meant. She went to the door and looked out. It was profoundly dark yet. It was also still. The rain was not falling; the wind had ceased; hush and darkness were abroad. She came back to the fire and asked what o'clock it was. Evan looked. They had an hour yet; but it was an hour they could make little use of. The night was gone. They stood side by side on the hearth, Evan's arm round her; now and then repeating something which had been already spoken of; really endeavouring to make the most of the mere fact of being together. But the minutes went too fast. Again and again Diana went to the window; the second time saw, with that nameless pang at her heart, that the eastern horizon was taking the grey, grave light of coming dawn. Mr. Knowlton went out then presently, saddled his horse, and brought him out to the fence, all ready. For a few minutes they waited yet, and watched the grey light creeping up; then, before anything was clearly discernible through the dusky gloom, the last farewell was taken; Evan mounted and walked his horse softly away from the door.
THE ASHES OF THE FIRE.
Diana sat down with her face in her hands, and was still. She felt like a person stunned. It was very still all around her. The fire gently breathed and snapped; the living presence that had been there was gone. A great feeling of loneliness smote her. But there was leisure for few tears just then; and too high-wrought a state of the nerves to seek much indulgence in them. A little while, and Josiah would be there with his pails of milk; there was something to be done first.
And quick, as another look from the window assured her. Things were becoming visible out of doors. Diana roused herself, though every movement had to be with pain, and went about her work. It was hard to move the chair in which Evan had been sitting; it was hard to move the table around which they had been so happy; even that little trace of last night could not be kept. Evan's cup, Evan's plate, the bit of bread he had left on it, Diana's fingers were dilatory and unwilling in dealing with them. But then she roused herself and dallied no longer. Table and cups and eatables were safely removed; the kitchen brushed up, and the table set for breakfast: the fire made in the outer stove, and the kettle put on; though the touch of the kettle hurt her fingers, remembering when she had touched it last. Every tell-tale circumstance was put out of the way, and the night of watching locked up among the most precious stores of Diana's memory. She opened the lean-to door then.
The morning was rising fair. Clouds and wind had wearied themselves out, as it might be; and nature was in a great hush. Racks of vapour were scattered overhead, slowly moving away in some current of air that carried them; but below there was not a breath stirring. A little drip, drip from the leaves only told how heavily they had been surcharged; the long pendent branches of the elm hung moveless, as if they were resting after last night's thrashing about. And as Diana looked, the touches of gold began to come upon the hills and then on the tree-tops. It was lovely and fair as ever; but to Diana it was a changed world. She was not the same, and nothing would ever be just the same as yesterday it had been. She felt that, as she looked. She had lost and she had gained. Just now the loss came keenest. The world seemed singularly empty. The noise of entering feet behind her brought her back to common life. It was Josiah and the milk pails.
"Hain't set up all night, hev' ye?" was Josiah's startling remark. "I vow! you get the start of the old lady herself. I b'ain't ready for breakfast yet, if you be."
"It will be ready soon, Josiah."
"Mornin's is gettin' short," Josiah went on. "One o' them pesky barn doors got loose in the night, and it's beat itself 'most off the hinges, I guess. I must see and get it fixed afore Mis' Starlin's round, or she'll be hoppin'. The wind was enough to take the ruff off, but how it could lift that 'ere heavy latch, I don't see."
Diana went to the dairy without any discussion of the subject. Coming back to the kitchen, she was equally startled and dismayed to see her mother entering by the inner door. If there was one thing Diana longed for this morning, it was, to be alone. Josiah and the farm boys were hardly a hindrance. She had thought her mother could not be.
"Are you fit to be down-stairs, mother?" she exclaimed.
"Might as well be down as up," said Mrs. Starling. "Can't get well lying in bed. I'm tired to death with it all these days; and last night I couldn't sleep half the night; seemed to me I heard all sorts of noises. If I'd had a light I'd ha' got up then. I thought the house was coming down about my ears; and if it was, I'd rather be up to see."
"The wind blew so."
"You heard it too, did you? When did you come down, Diana? I hain't heard the first sound of your door. 'Twarn't light, was it?"
"I have been up a good while. But you are not fit to do the least thing, mother. I was going to bring you your breakfast."
"If there's a thing I hate, it's to have my meals in bed. I don't want anything, to begin with; and I can take it better here. What have you got, Diana? You may make me a cup of tea. I don't feel as though I could touch coffee. What's the use o' your gettin' up so early?"
"I've all to do, you know, mother."
"No use in burning wood and lights half the night, though. The day's long enough. When did you bake?"
Diana answered this and several other similar household questions, and got her mother a cup of tea. But though it was accompanied with a nice bit of toast, Mrs. Starling looked with a dissatisfied air at the more substantial breakfast her daughter was setting on the table.
"I never could eat slops. Diana, you may give me some o' that pork. And a potato."
"Mother, I do not believe it is good for you."
"Good for me? And I have eat it all my life."
"But when you were well."
"I'm well enough. Put some of the gravy on, Diana. I'll never get my strength back on toasted chips."
The men came in, and Mrs. Starling held an animated dialogue with her factotum about farm affairs; while Diana sat behind her big coffee-pot—not the one she had used last night, and wondered if that was all a dream; more sadly, if she should ever dream again. And why her mother could not have staid in her room one day more. One day more!—
"He hain't begun to get his ploughing ahead," said Mrs. Starling, as the door closed on the delinquent.
"What, mother?" Diana asked, starting.
"Ploughing. You haven't kept things a-going, as I see," returned her mother. "Josiah's all behind, as usual. If I could be a man half the time, I could get on. He ought to have had the whole west field ploughed, while I've been sick."
"I don't know so much about it as you do, mother."
"I know you don't. You have too much readin' to do. There's a pane of glass broken in that window, Diana."
"Yes, mother. I know it."
"How did it come?"
"I don't know."
"You'll never get along, Diana, till you know everything that happens in your house. You aren't fit anyhow to be a poor woman. If you're rich, why you can get a new pane of glass, and there's the end of it. I'm not so rich as all that comes to."
"Getting a pane of glass, mother?"
"Without knowing what for."
"But how does it help the matter to know what for? The glass must be got anyway."
"If you know what for, it won't be to do another time. You'll find a way to stop it. I'll warrant, now, Diana, you haven't had the ashes cleared out of that stove for a week."
"It smokes. It always does smoke when it gets full of ashes; and it never smokes when it ain't."
"There is no smoke here, surely."
"I smell it. I can smell anything there is about. I don't know whatever there was in the house last night that smelled like coffee; but I a'most thought there was somebody makin' it down-stairs. I smelled it as plain as could be. If I could ha' got into my shoes, I believe I would ha' come down to see, just to get rid of the notion, it worried me so. It beats me now, what it could ha' been."
Diana turned away with the cups she had been wiping, that she might not show her face.
"Don't you never have your ashes took up, Diana?" cried Mrs. Starling, who, when much exercised on household matters, sometimes forgot her grammar.
"When did you have 'em took up in this chimney?"
"I do not remember—yesterday, I guess," said Diana vaguely.
"You never burnt all the ashes there is there since yesterday morning. You'd have had to sit up all night to do it; and burn a good lot o' wood on your fire, too."
"Mother," exclaimed Diana in desperation, "I don't suppose everything is just as it would be if you'd been round all these days."
"I guess it ain't," said Mrs. Starling. "There's where you are wanting, Diana. Your hands are good enough, but I wouldn't give much for your eyes. There's where you'd grow poor, if you weren't poor a'ready. Now you didn't know when that pane o' glass was broke. You'd go round and round, and a pane o' glass'd knock out here, and a quart of oil 'ud leak out there, and you'd lose a pound of flour between the sieve and the barrel, and you'd never know how or where."
"Mother," said Diana, "you know I never spill flour or anything else; no more than you do."
"No, but it would go, I mean, and you never the wiser. It ain't the way to get along, unless you mean to marry a rich man. Now look at that heap o' ashes! I declare, it beats me to know what you have been doing to burn so much wood here; and mild weather, too. Who has been here to see you, since I've been laid up?"
"Several people came to ask about you."
"Who did? and who didn't? that came at all."
"Joe Bartlett—and Mr. Masters—and Mrs. Delamater,—I can't tell you all, mother; there's been a good many."
"Tell me the men that have been here.
"Well, those I said; and Will Flandin, and Nick, and Mr. Knowlton."
"Was he here more than once?"
"How much more?"
"Mother, how do I know? I didn't keep count."
"Didn't keep count, eh?" Mrs. Starling repeated. "Must have been frequent company, I judge. Diana, you mind what I told you?"
Diana made no answer.
"You shall have nothing to do with him," Mrs. Starling went on. "You never shall. You sha'n't take up with any one that holds himself above me. I'll be glad when his time's up; and I hope it'll be long before he'll have another. Once he gets away, he'll think no more of you, that's one comfort."
Diana knew that was not true; but it hurt her to have it said. She could stand no more of her mother's talk; she left her and went off to the dairy, till Mrs. Starling crept up-stairs again. Then Diana came and opened the lean-to door and looked out for a breath of refreshment. The morning was going on its way in beauty. Little clouds drifted over the deep blue sky; the mellow September light lay on fields and hills; the long branches of the elm swayed gently to and fro in the gentle air that drove the clouds. But oh for the wind and the storm of last night, and the figure that stood beside her before the chimney fire! The gladsome light seemed to mock her, and the soft breeze gave her touches of pain. She shut the door and went back to her work.
FROM THE POST OFFICE.
Mrs. Starling's room was like her; for use, and not for show, with some points of pride, and a general air of humble thrift. A patchwork quilt on the bed; curtains and valance of chintz; a rag carpet covering only part of the floor, the rest scrubbed clean; rush-bottomed chairs; and with those a secretary bureau of old mahogany, a dressing-glass in a dark carved frame, and a large oaken press. There were corner cupboards; a table holding work and work-basket; a spinning-wheel in a corner; a little iron stove, but no fire. Mrs. Starling lay down on her bed, simply because she was not able to sit up any longer; but she was scarcely less busy, in truth, than she had been down-stairs. Her eyes roamed restlessly from the door to the window, though with never a thought of the sweet September sunlight on the brilliant blue sky.
"Diana's queer this morning," she mused. "Yes, she was queer. What made her so mum? She was not like herself. Sailing round with her head in the clouds. And a little bit blue, too; what Diana never is; but she was to-day. What's up? I've been lying here long enough for plenty of things to happen; and she's had the house to herself. Knowlton has been here—she owned that; well, either he has been here too often, or not often enough. I'll find out which. She's thinkin' about him. Then that coffee—was it coffee, last night? I could have sworn to it; just the smell of fresh, steaming coffee. I didn't dream it. She wasn't surprised, either; she had nothing to say about it. She would have laughed at it once. And the ashes in the chimney! There's been a sight o' wood burned there, and just burned, too; they lay light, and hadn't been swep' up. There's mischief! but Diana never shall go off with that young feller; never; never! Maybe she won't have Will Flandin; but she sha'n't have him."
Mrs. Starling lay thinking and staring out of her window, till she felt she could go down-stairs again. And then she watched. But Diana had put every possible tell-tale circumstance out of the way. The very ashes were no longer where her mother could speculate upon them; pies and cakes showed no more suspiciously-cut halves or quarters; she had even been out to the barn, and found that Josiah, for reasons of his own, was making the door-latch and hinges firm and fast. It was no time now, to tell her mother her secret. Her heart was too sore to brave the rasping speech she would be certain to provoke. And with a widely different feeling, it was too rich in its prize to drag the treasure forth before scornful eyes. For this was part of Diana's experience, she found; and the feeling grew, the feeling of being rich in her secret possession; rich as she never had been before; perhaps the richer for the secresy. It was all hers, this beautiful, wonderful love that had come to her; this share in another person's heart and life; her own wholly; no one might intermeddle with her joy; she treasured it and gloated over it in the depths of her glad consciousness.
And so, as the days went by, there was no change that her mother could see in the sweet lines of her daughter's face. Nothing less sweet than usual; nothing less bright and free; if the eyes had a deeper depth at times, it was not for Mrs. Starling to penetrate; and if the childlike play of the mouth had a curve of beauty that had never until then belonged to it, the archetype of such a sign did not lie in Mrs. Starling's nature. Yet once or twice a jealous movement of suspicion did rise in her, only because Diana seemed so happy. She reasoned with herself immediately that Evan's absence could never have such an effect, if her fears were true; and that the happiness must therefore be referred to some purely innocent cause. Nevertheless, Mrs. Starling watched. For she was pretty sure that the young soldier had pushed his advances while he had been in Pleasant Valley; and he might push them still, though there no longer. She would guard what could be guarded. She watched both Diana and other people, and kept an especial eye upon all that came from the post office.
Evan had gone to a distant frontier post; the journey would take some time; and it would be several days more still, in the natural course of things, before Diana could have a letter. Diana reasoned out all that, and was not anxious. For the present, the pleasure of expecting was enough. A letter from him; it was a fairylandish, weird, wonderful pleasure, to come to her. She took to studying the newspaper, and, covertly, the map. From the map she gained a little knowledge; but the columns of the paper were barren of all allusion to the matter which was her world, and Evan's. Newspapers are very partial sometimes. She was afraid to let her mother see how eagerly she scanned them. The map and Diana had secret and more satisfactory consultations. Measuring the probable route of Evan's journey by the scale of miles; calculating the rate of progress by different modes of travel; counting the nights, and places where he might spend them; she reckoned up over and over again the days that were probably necessary to enable him to reach his post. Then she allowed margins for what she did not know, and accounted for the blanks she could not fill up; and reasoned with herself about the engrossments which might on his first arrival hinder Evan from writing—for a few hours, or a night. So at last she had constructed a scheme by which she proved to herself the earliest day at which it would do to look for a letter, and the latest to which a letter might reasonably be delayed. Women do such things. How many men are worthy of it?
That farthest limit was reached, and no letter yet.
About that time, one morning the family at Elmfield were gathered at breakfast. It was not exactly like any other breakfast table in Pleasant Valley, for a certain drift from the great waves of the world had reached it; whereas the others were clean from any such contact. The first and the third generation were represented at the table; the second was wanting; the old gentleman, the head of the family, was surrounded by only his grand-daughters. Now old Mr. Bowdoin was as simple and plain-hearted a man as all his country neighbours, if somewhat richer than most of them; he had wrought at the same labour, and grown up with the same associations. He was not more respectable than respected; generous, honest, and kindly. But the young ladies, his grandchildren, Evan's sisters, were different. They came to spend the summer with him, and they brought fancies and notions from their far-away city life, which made a somewhat incongruous mixture with the elemental simplicity of their grandfather's house. All this appeared now. The old farmer's plain strong features, his homespun dress and his bowl of milk, were at one end of the table, where he presided heartily over the fried ham and eggs. Look where you would beside, and you saw ruffled chintzes and little fly-away breakfast-caps, and fingers with jewels on them. Miss Euphemia had her tresses of long hair unbound and unbraided, hanging down her back in a style that to her grandfather savoured of barbarism; he could not be made to understand that it was a token of the highest elegance. For these ladies there was some attempt at elaborate and dainty cookery, signified by sweetbreads and a puffed omelette; and Mrs. Reverdy presided over a coffee-pot that was the wonder of the Elmfield household, and even a little matter of pride to the old squire himself; though he covered it with laughing at her mimic fires and doubtful steam engines. Gertrude Masters was still at Elmfield, the only one left of a tribe of visitors who had made the old place gay through the summer.
"I have had an invitation," said Mrs. Reverdy as she sent her grandfather his cup of coffee. And she laughed. I wish I could give the impression of this little laugh of hers, which, in company, was the attendant of most of her speeches. A little gracious laugh, with a funny air as if she were condescending, either to her subject or herself, and amused at it.
"What is it, Vevay? what invitation?" inquired her sister; while Gertrude tossed her mass of tresses from her neck, and looked as if nothing at Pleasant Valley concerned her.
"An invitation to the sewing society!" said Mrs. Reverdy. "We are all asked." And the laugh grew very amused indeed.
"What do they do?" inquired Gertrude absently.
"O, they bring their knitting at two or three o'clock,—and have a good time to tell all the news till five or six; and then they have supper, and then they put up their knitting and go home."
"What news can they have to tell at Pleasant Valley?"
"Whose hay is in first, and whose orchard will yield the most cider," said Euphemia.
"Yes; and how all their children are, and how many eggs go in a pudding."
"I don't believe they make puddings with eggs very often," said the other sister again. "Their puddings are more like hasty puddings, I fancy."
"Some of 'em make pretty good things," said old Mr. Bowdoin. "Things you can't beat, Phemie. There's Mrs. Mansfield—she's a capital housekeeper; and Mrs. Starling. She can cook."
"What do they expect you to do at the sewing meeting, Vevay?"
"Show myself, I suppose," said Mrs. Reverdy.
"Well, I guess I'd go," said her grandfather, looking at her. "It would be as good a thing as you could do."
"Go, grandpa? O, how ridiculous!" exclaimed Mrs. Reverdy, with her pretty face all wrinkled up with amusement.
"Go? yes. Why not?"
"I don't know how to knit; and I shouldn't know how to talk orchards and puddings."
"I think you had better go. It is not a knitting society, as I understand it; and I am sure you can be useful."
"Useful!" echoed Mrs. Reverdy. "It's the last thing I know how to be. And I don't belong to the society, grandpa."
"I shouldn't like them to think that," said the old gentleman. "You belong to me; and I belong to them, my dear."
"Isn't it dreadful!" said Mrs. Reverdy in a low aside. "Now he's got this in his head—whatever am I going to do?—Suppose I invite them all to Elmfield; how would you like that, sir?" she added aloud.
"Yes, my dear, yes," said the old gentleman, pushing back his chair; for the cup of coffee was the last part of his breakfast; "it would be well done, and I should be glad of it. Ask 'em all."
"You are in for it now, Vevay," said Gertrude, when the ladies were left. "How will you manage?"
"O, I'll give them a grand entertainment and send them away delighted," said Mrs. Reverdy. "You see, grandpa wishes it; and I think it'll be fun."
"Do you suppose Evan really paid attentions to that pretty girl we saw at the blackberrying?"
"I don't know," Mrs. Reverdy answered. "He told me nothing about it. I should think Evan was crazy to do it; but men do crazy things. However, I don't believe it of him, Gerty. What nonsense!"
"I can find out, if she comes," said Miss Masters. "You'll ask her, Genevieve?"
So it fell out that an invitation to hold the next meeting of the sewing society at Elmfield was sent to the ladies accustomed to be at such meetings; and a great stir of expectation in consequence went through all Pleasant Valley. For Elmfield, whether they acknowledged it or not, was at the top of their social tree. The invitation came in due course to Mrs. Starling's house.
It came not alone. Josiah brought it one evening on his return from the Corners, where the store and the post office were, and Mrs. Reverdy's messenger had fallen in with him and intrusted to him the note for Mrs. Starling. He handed it out now, and with it a letter of more bulk and pretensions, having a double stamp and an unknown postmark. Mrs. Starling received both and Josiah's explanations in silence, for her mind was very busy. Curious as she was to know upon what subject Mrs. Reverdy could possibly have written to her, she lingered yet with her eyes upon this other letter. It was directed to "Miss D. Starling."
"That's a man's hand," said Mrs. Starling to herself. "He's had the assurance to go and write to her, I do believe!"
She stood looking at it, doubtful, suspicious, uneasy; then turned into the dairy for fear Diana might surprise her, while she opened Mrs. Reverdy's note. She had a vague idea that both epistles might relate to the same subject. But this one was innocent enough, at least. Hiding the large letter in her bosom, she came back and gave the invitation to Diana, whose foot she had heard.
"At Elmfield! What an odd thing! Will you go, mother?"
"I always go, don't I? What's the reason I shouldn't go now?"
"I didn't know whether you would like to go there."
"What if I don't? No, I don't care particularly about goin' to Elmfield; they're a kind o' stuck up folks; but I'll go to let them see that I ain't."
There was silence for a little; then Mrs. Starling broke it by inquiring if Diana had finished her chintz gown. Diana had.
"I'd wear it, if I was you."
"Let 'em see that other folks can dress as well as them."
"O, mother, my dresses are nothing alongside of theirs."
"What's the reason they ain't?" inquired Mrs. Starling, looking incredulous.
"Their things are beautiful, mother; more costly a great deal; and fashionable. We can't make things so in Pleasant Valley. We don't know how."
"I don't see any sense in that," rejoined Mrs. Starling. "One fashion's as good as another. Anyhow, there's better-lookin' folks in Pleasant Valley than ever called themselves Bowdoin, or Knowlton either. So be as smart as you can, Diana. I guess you needn't be ashamed of yourself."
Diana thought of nothing less. Indeed she thought little about her appearance. While she was putting on her bright chintz dress, there was perhaps a movement of desire that she might seem pleasant in the eyes of Evan's people—something that he need not be ashamed of; but her heart was too full of richer thoughts to have much room for such as these. For Evan had chosen her; Evan loved her; the secret bond between them nothing on earth could undo; and any day now that first letter of his might arrive, which her eyes were bright only to think of looking upon. Poor Diana! that letter was jammed up within the bones of Mrs. Starling's stays.
A MEETING AT ELMFIELD.
It was one of the royal days of a New England autumn; the air clear and bracing and spicy; the light golden and glowing, and yet softened to the dreamiest, richest, most bounteous aureole of hope, by a slight impalpable haze; too slight to veil anything, but giving its tender flattery to the landscape nevertheless. And through that to the mind. Who can help but receive it? Suggestions of waveless peace, of endless delight, of a world-full glory that must fill one's life with riches, come through such a light and under such a sky. Diana's life was full already; but she took the promise for all the years that stretched out in the future. The soft autumn sky where the clouds were at rest, having done their work, bore no symbol of the storms that might come beneath the firmament; the purple and gold and crimson of nature's gala dress seemed to fling their soft luxury around the beholder, enfolding him, as it were, from all the dust and the dimness and the dullness of this world's working days for evermore. So it was to Diana; and all the miles of that long drive, joggingly pulled along by Prince, she rode in a chariot of the imagination, traversing fields of thought and of space, now to Evan and now with him; and in her engrossment spoke never a word from the time she mounted into the waggon till they came in sight of Elmfield. And Mrs. Starling had her own subjects for thought, and was as silent on her part. She was thinking all the way what she should do with that letter. Suppose things had gone too far to be stopped? But Diana had told her nothing; she was not bound to know by guess-work. And if this were the beginning of serious proposals, then it were better known to but herself only. She resolved finally to watch Diana and the Elmfield people this afternoon; she could find out, she thought, whether there were any matter of common interest between them. With all this, Mrs. Starling's temper was not sweetened.
Elmfield was a rare place. Not by the work of art or the craft of the gardener at all; for a cunning workman had never touched its turf or its plantations. Indeed it had no plantations, other than such as were intended for pure use and profit; great fields of Indian corn, and acres of wheat and rye, and a plot of garden cabbages. Mrs. Reverdy's power of reform had reached only the household affairs. But the corn and the rye and the cabbages were out of sight from the immediate home field; and there the grace of nature had been so great that one almost forgot to wish that anything had been added to it. A little river swept, curving in sweet leisure, through a large level tract of greenest meadows. In front of one of these large curves the house stood, but well back, so that the meadow served instead of a lawn. It had no foreign beauties of tree growth to adorn it, nor needed them; for along the bank of the river, from space to space, irregularly, rose a huge New England elm, giving the shelter of its canopy of branches to a wide spot of turf. The house added nothing to the scene, beyond the human interest; it was just a large old farmhouse, nothing more; draped, however, and half covered up by other elms and a few fir trees. But in front of it lay this wide, sunny, level meadow, with the wilful little stream meandering through, with the stately old trees spotting it and breaking its monotony; and in the distance a soft outline of hills, not too far away, and varied enough to be picturesque, rounded in the whole picture. A picture one would stand long to look at; thoroughly New England and characteristic; gentle, homelike, lovely, with just a touch of wildness, intimating that you were beyond the rules of conventionality. Being New England folk themselves, Mrs. Starling and Diana of course would not read some of these features. They only thought it was a "fine place."
Long before they got there this afternoon, before anybody got there, the ladies of the family gathered upon the wide old piazza.
"It's as a good as a play," said Gertrude Masters. "I never saw such society in my life, and I am curious to know what they will be like."
"You have seen them in church," said Euphemia.
"Yes, but they all feel poky there. I can't tell anything by that. Besides, I don't hear them talk. There's somebody now!"
"Too fast for any of our good sewing friends," said Mrs. Reverdy; "and there is no waggon. It's Mr. Masters, Gerty! How he does ride; and yet he sits as if he was upon a rocking-horse."
"I don't think he'd sit very quiet upon a rocking-horse," said Gerty. And then she lifted up her voice and shouted musically a salutation to the approaching rider.
He alighted presently at the foot of the steps, and throwing the bridle over his horse's head, joined the party.
"So delighted!" said Mrs. Reverdy graciously. "You are come just in time to help us take care of the people."
"Are you going to entertain the nation?" asked Mr Masters.
"Only Pleasant Valley," Mrs. Reverdy answered with her little laugh; which might mean amusement at herself or condescension to Pleasant Valley. "Do you think they will be hard to entertain?"
"I can answer for one," said the minister. "And looking at what there is to see from here, I could almost answer for them all." He was considering the wide sunlit meadow, where the green and the gold, yea, and the very elm shadows, as well as the distant hills, were spiritualized by the slight soft haze.
"Why, what is there to see, Basil?" inquired his cousin Gertrude.
"You don't think that is entertaining, I hope? If you were a polite man, you would have said something else."
She was something to see herself, in one sense, and the something was pretty, too; but very self-conscious. From her flow of curly tresses down to the rosettes on her slippers, every inch of her showed it. Now the best dressing surely avoids this effect; while there is some, and not bad dressing either, which proclaims it in every detail. The crinkles of Gertrude's hair were crisp with it; her French print dress, beautiful in itself, was made with French daintiness and worn with at least equal coquettishness; her wrists bore two or three bracelets both valuable and delicate; and Gertrude's eyes, pretty eyes too, were audacious with the knowledge of all this. Audacious in a sweet, secret way, understand; they were not bold eyes, openly. Her cousin looked her over, with a glance quite recognisant of all I have described, yet destitute of a shade of compliment or even of admiration; very clear and very cool.
"Basil, you don't say all you think!" exclaimed the young lady.
"Not always," said her cousin. "We have it on Solomon's authority, that a 'fool uttereth all his mind. A wise man keepeth it till afterwards.'"
"What are you keeping?"
But the answer was interrupted by Mrs. Reverdy.
"Where shall we put them, do you think, Mr. Masters? I'm quite anxious. Here, on the verandah, do you think?—or on the green, where we mean to have supper? or would it be better to go into the house?"
"As a general principle, Mrs. Reverdy, I object to houses. When you can, keep out of them. So I say. And there comes one of your guests. I will take my horse out of the road."
Mrs. Reverdy objected and protested and ran to summon a servant, but the minister had his way and led his horse off to the stable. While he was gone, the little old green waggon which brought Miss Barry came at a soft jog up the drive and stopped before the door. Mrs. Reverdy came flying out and then down the steps to help her alight.
"It's a long ways to your place, Mis' Reverdy; I declare, I'm kind o' stiff," said the old lady as she mounted to the piazza. There she stood still and surveyed the prospect. And her conclusion burst forth in an unequivocal, "Ain't it elegant!"
"I am delighted you like it," said Mrs. Reverdy with her running laugh. "Won't you sit down?"
"I hain't got straightened out yet, after drivin' the horse so long. It does put me in a kind o' cramp, somehow, to drive,—'most allays."
"Is the horse so hard-mouthed?"
"La! bless you, I never felt of his mouth. He don't do nothin'; I don't expect he would do nothin'; but I allays think he's a horse, and there's no tellin'."
"That's very true," said Mrs. Reverdy, the laugh of condescending acquiescence mingled with a little sense of fun now. "But do sit down; you'll be tired standing."
"There's Mrs. Flandin's waggin, I guess, comin'; she was 'most ready when I come by. Is this your sister?"—looking at Gertrude.
"No, the other is my sister. This is Miss Masters; a cousin of your minister."
"I thought she was, maybe,—your sister, I mean,—because she had her hair the same way. Ain't it very uncomfortable?" This to Gertrude.
"It is very comfortable," said the young lady; "except in hot weather."
"Don't say it is!" quoth Miss Barry, looking at the astonishing hair while she got out her needles. "Seems to me I should feel as if my hair never was combed."
"Not if it was combed, would you?" said Gertrude gravely.
"Well, yes; seems to me I should. I allays liked to have my hair sleeked up as tight as I could get it; and then I knowed there warn't none of it flyin'. But la! it's a long time since I was young, and there's new fashions. Is the minister your cousin?"
"Yes. How do you like him?"
"I hain't got accustomed to him yet," said the little old lady, clicking her needles with a considerate air. "He ain't like Mr. Hardenburgh, you see; and Mr. Hardenburgh was the minister afore him."
"What was the difference?"
"Well—Mr. Hardenburgh, you could tell he was a minister as fur as you could see him; he had that look. Now Mr. Masters hain't; he's just like other folks; only he's more pleasant than most."
"Oh, he is more pleasant, is he?"
"Well, seems to me he is," said the little old lady. "It allays makes me feel kind o' good when he comes alongside. He's cheerful. Mr. Hardenburgh was a good man, but he made me afeard of him; he was sort o' fierce, in the pulpit and out o' the pulpit. Mr. Masters ain't nary one."
"Do you think he's a good preacher, then?" said Gertrude demurely, bending over to look at Miss Barry's knitting.
"Well, I do!" said the old lady. "There! I ain't no judge; but I love to sit and hear him. 'Tain't a bit like a minister, nother, though it's in church; he just speaks like as I am speakin' to you; but he makes the Bible kind o' interestin'."
It was very well for Gertrude that Mrs. Carpenter now came to take her seat on the piazza, and the conversation changed. She had got about as much as she could bear. And after Mrs. Carpenter came a crowd; Mrs. Flandin, and Mrs. Mansfield, and Miss Gunn, and all the rest, with short interval, driving up and unloading and joining the circle on the piazza; which grew a very wide circle indeed, and at last broke up into divisions. Gertrude was obliged to suspend operations for a while, and use her eyes instead of her tongue. Most of the rest were inclined to do the same; and curious glances went about in every direction, not missing Miss Masters herself. Some people were absolutely tongue-tied; others used their opportunity.
"Don't the wind come drefful cold over them flats in winter?" asked one good lady who had never been at Elmfield before. Mrs. Reverdy's running little laugh was ready with her answer.
"I believe it does; but we are never here in winter. It's too cold."
"Your gran'ther's here, ain't he?" queried Mrs. Salter.
"Yes, O yes; grandpa is here, of course. I don't suppose anything would draw him away from the old place."
"How big is the farm?" went on the first speaker.
Mrs. Reverdy did not know; three or four hundred acres, she believed. Or it might be five. She did not know the difference!
"I guess your father misses you when you all go away," remarked Mrs. Flandin, who had hardly spoken, at least aloud.
The reply was prevented, for Mrs. Starling's waggon drew up at the foot of the steps, and Mrs. Reverdy hastened down to give her assistance to the ladies in alighting. Gertrude also suspended what she was saying, and gave her undivided attention to the view of Diana.
She was only a country girl, Miss Masters said to herself. Yet what a lovely figure, as she stood there before the waggon; perfectly proportioned, light and firm in action or attitude, with the grace of absolute health and strength and faultless make. More; there always is more to it; and Gertrude felt that without in the least having power to reason about it; felt in the quiet pose and soft motion those spirit indications of calm and strength and gracious dignity, which belonged to the fair proportions and wholesome soundness of the inward character. The face said the same thing when it was turned, and Diana came up the steps; though it was seen under a white sun-bonnet only; the straight brows, the large quiet eyes, the soft creamy colour of the skin, all testified to the fine physical and mental conditions of this creature. And Gertrude felt as she looked that it would not have been very surprising if Evan Knowlton or any other young officer had lost his heart to her. But she isn't dressed, thought Gertrude; and the next moment a shadow crossed her heart as Diana's sun-bonnet came off, and a wealth of dark hair was revealed, knotted into a crown of nature's devising, which art could never outdo. "I'll find out about Evan," said Miss Masters to herself.
She had to wait. The company was large now, and the buzz of tongues considerable; though nothing like what had been in Mrs. Starling's parlour. So soon as the two new-comers were fairly seated and at work, Mrs. Flandin took up the broken thread of her discourse.
"Ain't your father kind o' lonesome here in the winters, all by himself?"
"My grandfather, you mean?" said Mrs. Reverdy,
"I mean your grandfather. I forget you ain't his own; but it makes no difference. Don't he want you to hum all the year round?"
"I daresay he would like it."
"He's gettin' on in years now. How old is Squire Bowdoin?"
"I don't know," said Mrs. Reverdy. "He's between seventy and eighty, somewhere."
"You won't have him long with you."
"O, I hope so!" said Mrs. Reverdy lightly, and with the unfailing laugh which went with everything; "I think grandpa is stronger than I am. I shouldn't wonder if he'd outlive me."
"Still, don't you think it is your duty to stay with him?"
Mrs. Reverdy laughed again. "I suppose we don't always do our duty," she said. "It's too cold here in the winter—after October or September—for me."
"Then it is not your duty to be here," said her sister Euphemia, somewhat distinctly. But Mrs. Flandin was bound to "free her mind" of what was upon it.
"I should think the Squire'd want Evan to hum," she went on.
"It would be very nice if Evan could be in two places at once," Mrs. Reverdy owned conciliatingly.
"Where is Captain Knowlton now?" asked Mrs. Boddington.
"O, he is not a captain yet," said Mrs. Reverdy. "He is only a lieutenant. I don't know when he'll get any higher than that. He's a great way off—on the frontier—watching the Indians."
"I should think it was pleasanter work to watch sheep," said Mrs. Flandin "Don't it make you feel bad to have him away so fur?"
"O, we're accustomed to having him away, you know; Evan has never been at home; we really don't know him as well as strangers do. We have just got a letter from him at his new post."
They had got a letter from him! Two bounds Diana's heart made: the first with a pang of pain that they should have the earliest word; the next with a pang of joy, at the certainty that hers must be lying in the post office for her. The blood flowed and ebbed in her veins with the violent action of extreme excitement. Yet nature did for this girl what only the practice and training of society do for others; she gave no outward sign. Her head was not lifted from her work; the colour of her cheek did not change; and when a moment after she found Miss Masters at her side, and heard her speaking, Diana looked and answered with the utmost seeming composure.
"I've been trying ever since you came to get round to you," Gertrude whispered. "I'm so glad to see you again."
But here Mrs. Flandin broke in. She was seated near.
"Ain't your hair a great trouble to you?"
Gertrude gave it a little toss and looked up.
"How do you get it all flying like that?"
"Everybody's hair is a trouble," said Gertrude. "This is as little as any."
"Do you sleep with it all round your shoulders? I should think you'd be in a net by morning."
"I suppose you would," said Gertrude.
"Is that the fashion now?"
"It is one fashion," Miss Masters responded.
"If it warn't, I reckon you'd do it up pretty quick. Dear me! what a thing it is to be in the fashion, I do suppose."
"Don't you like it yourself, ma'am?" queried Gertrude.
"Never try. I've something else to do in life."
"Well, but there's no harm in being in the fashion, Mis' Flandin," said Miss Gunn. "The minister said he thought there warn't."
"The minister had better take care of himself," Mrs. Flandin retorted.
Whereupon they all opened upon her. And it could be seen that for the few months during which he had been among them, the minister had made swift progress in the regards of the people. Scarce a tongue now but spoke in his praise or his justification, or called Mrs. Flandin to account for her hasty remark.
"When you're all done, I'll speak," said that lady coolly. "I'm not a man-worshipper—never was; and nobody's fit to be worshipped. I should like to see the dominie put down that grey horse of his."
"Are grey horses fashionable?" inquired Mrs. Reverdy, with her little laugh.
"What would he do without his horse?" said Mrs. Boddington. "How could he fly round Pleasant Valley as he does?"
"He ain't bound to fly," said Mrs. Flandin.
"How's he to get round to folks, then?" said Mrs. Salter. "The houses are pretty scattering in these parts; he'd be a spry man if he could walk it."
"Seems to me, that 'ere grey hoss is real handy," said quiet Miss Barry, who never contradicted anybody. "When Meliny was sick, Mr. Masters'd be there, to our house, early in the mornin' and late at night; and he allays had comfort with him. There! I got to set as much by the sight o' that grey hoss, you wouldn't think; just to hear him come gallopin' down the road did me good."
"Yes; and so it was to our house, when Liz was overturned," said Mary Delamater. "He'd be there every day, just as punctual as could be; and he could never have walked over. It's a cruel piece of road between our house and his'n."
"I don't want him to walk," said Mrs. Flandin; "there's more ways than one o' doin' most things; but I do say, all the ministers ever I see druv a team; and it looks more religious. To see the minister flyin' over the hills like a racer is altogether too gay for my likin's."
"But he ain't gay," said Miss Gunn, looking appalled.
"He's mighty spry, for anybody that gets up into a pulpit on the Sabbath and tells his fellow-creaturs what they ought to be doin'."
"But he does do that, Mrs. Flandin," said Diana. "He speaks plain enough, too."
"I do love to hear him!" said Miss Barry. "There, his words seem to go all through me, and clear up my want of understandin'; for I never was smart, you know; but seems to me I see things as well agin when he's been talkin' to me. I say, it was a good day when he come to Pleasant Valley."
"He ain't what you call an eloquent man," said Miss Babbage, the schoolmaster's sister.
"What is an 'eloquent man,' Lottie Babbage?" Mrs. Boddington asked. "It's a word, I know; but what is the thing the word means? Come, you ought to be good at definitions."
"Mr. Masters don't pretend to be an eloquent man!" cried Mrs. Carpenter.
"Well, tell; come! what do you mean by it? I'd like to know," said Mrs. Boddington. "I admire to get my idees straight. What is it he don't pretend to be?"
"I don't think he pretends to be anything," said Diana.
"Only to have his own way wherever he goes," added Diana's mother.
"I'd be content to let him have his own way," said Mrs. Carpenter. "It's pretty sure to be a good way; that's what I think. I wisht he had it, for my part."
"And yet he isn't eloquent?" said Mrs. Boddington.
"Well," said Miss Babbage with some difficulty, "he just says what he has got to say, and takes the handiest words he can find; but I've heard men that eloquent that they'd keep you wonderin' at 'em from the beginning of their sermon to the end; and you'd got to be smart to know what they were sayin'. A child can tell what Mr. Masters means."
"So kin I," said Miss Barry. "I'm thankful I kin. And I don't want a man more eloquent than he is, for my preachin'."
"It ain't movin' preachin'," said Mrs. Flandin.
"It moves the folks," said Mrs. Carpenter. "I don't know what you'd hev', Mis' Flandin; there's Liz Delamater, and Florry Mason, jined the church lately; and old Lupton; and my Jim," she added with softened voice; "and there's several more serious."
No more could be said, for the minister himself came upon the scene at this instant. There was not an eye that did not brighten at the sight of him, with the exception of Mrs. Starling and Diana; there was not a lady there who was not manifestly glad to have him come near and speak to her; even Mrs. Flandin herself, beside whom the minister presently sat down and entered into conversation respecting some new movement in parish matters, for which he wished to enlist her help. General conversation returned to its usual channels.
"I can't stand this," whispered Gertrude to Diana; "I am tired to death. Do come down and walk over to the river with me. Do! you can work another day."
Diana hesitated; glanced around her. It was manifest that this was an exceptional meeting of the society, and not for the purposes of work chiefly. Here and there needles were suspended in lingering fingers, while their owners made subdued comments to each other or used their eyes for purposes of information getting. One or two had even left work, and were going to the back of the house, through the hall, to see the garden. Diana not very unwillingly dropped her sewing, and followed her conductor down the steps and over the meadow.
"The sun isn't hot, through all this cloud," said Gertrude, "so I don't mind it. We'll get into the shade under the elm yonder."
"There is no cloud," said Diana.
"No cloud? What is it then? Something has come over the sun."
"No, it's haze."
"What is haze?"
"I don't know. We have it in Indian summer, and sometimes in October, like this."
"Isn't it hot?" said Gertrude; "and last week we were having big fires. It's such queer weather. Now this shade is nice."
Under one or two of the elm canopies along the verge of the little river some rustic seats had been fixed. Gertrude sat down. Diana stood, looking about her. The dreamy beauty through which she had ridden that afternoon was all round her still; and the meadow and the scattered elms, with the distant softly-rounded hills, were one of New England's combinations, in which the gentlest beauty and the most characteristic strength meet and mingle. But what was more yet to Diana, she was among Evan's haunts. Here he was at home. There seemed to her fancy to be a consciousness of him in the silent trees and river; as if they would say if they could,—as if they were saying mutely,—"We know him—we know him; and we are old friends of his. We could tell you a great deal about him."
"Elmfield is a pretty place," said Gertrude. She had been eyeing her companion while Diana was receiving the confidences of the trees.
"If it didn't grow so cold in winter," said the young lady, shrugging her airy shoulders.
"I like the cold."
"I should like to have it always hot enough to wear muslin dresses. Come, sit down. Evan put these seats here."
But Diana continued standing.
"Did you hear that woman scolding because he don't stay here and give up his army life?"
"She takes her own view of it," said Diana.
"Do you think he ought to give up everything to take care of his grandfather?"
"I daresay his grandfather likes to have him do as he is doing."
"But it must be awfully hard, mustn't it, for them to have him so far away, and fighting the Indians?"