"Is he fighting the Indians?" Diana asked quietly; though she made the words quiet, she knew, by sheer force of necessity. But quiet they were; slow, and showing no eagerness; while her pulse had made one mad jump, and then seemed to stand still.
"O, the Indians are always making trouble, you know, on the frontier; that's what our men are there for, to watch them. I didn't mean that Evan was fighting just at this minute; but he might be, any minute. Shouldn't you feel bad if he was your brother?"
"Mrs. Reverdy doesn't seem to be uneasy."
"She? no," said Gertrude with a laugh; "nothing makes her uneasy. Except thinking that Evan has fallen in love with somebody."
"She must expect that sooner or later," said Diana, with a calmness which told her companion nothing.
"Ah, but she would rather have it later. She don't want to lose Evan. She is very proud of him."
"Would she lose him in such a case?" Diana asked, smiling, though she wished the talk ended.
"Why, you know brothers are good for nothing to sisters after they are married—worse! they are tantalizing. You are obliged to see what you used to have in somebody else's possession—and much more than ever you used to have; and it's tiresome. I'm glad I've no brothers. Basil is a good deal like a brother, and I am jealous of him."
"It must be very uncomfortable to be jealous," said Diana,
"Horrid! You saw a good deal of Evan, didn't you?"
A question that might have embarrassed Diana if she had not had an instant perception of the intent of it. She answered thereupon with absolute self-possession,
"I don't know what you would call a 'good deal.' I saw what I call a good deal of him that day in the blackberry field."
"Don't you think he is charming?"
Diana laughed, and was vexed to feel her cheeks grow warm.
"That's a word that belongs to women."
"Not to many of 'em!" said Gertrude, with a slight turning up of her pretty nose. Then, struck with the fine, pure face and very lovely figure before her, she suddenly added, "Didn't he think you charming?"
"Are you laughing at me?" said Diana.
"No, indeed I am not. Didn't he?" said Gertrude caressingly.
Amusement almost carried off the temptation to be provoked. Diana laughed merrily as she answered, "Do you think a person of so good taste would?"
"Yes, I do," said Gertrude, half sulkily, for she was baffled, and besides, her words spoke the truth. "I am sure he did. Isn't life very stupid up here in the mountains, when visitors are all gone away?"
"I don't think so. We never depend upon visitors."
"It has been awfully slow at Elmfield since Mr. Knowlton went away. We sha'n't stay much longer. I can't live where I can't dance."
"What is that?" said a voice close at hand—a peculiarly clear, silvery voice.
"Cousin Basil!" cried Gertrude, starting. "What did you come here for? I brought Miss Starling here to have a good talk with her."
"Have you had it?"
"I haven't had time. I was just beginning."
"What! about dancing?"
"I was not speaking for you to hear. I was relieving myself by the confession that I can't live—happily, I mean—without it."
"Choice of partners immaterial?"
"I couldn't bear a dull life!"
He looked as if he certainly did not know what dulness was, Diana thought. She listened, much amused.
"But you think it is wrong to dance, don't you?" Gertrude went on.
"'Better not' is wrong to a Christian," he replied.
"It must be dreadful to be a Christian!"
"Because—?" he said, with a quiet and good-humoured glance and tone of inquiry.
"O, because it is slavery. So many things you cannot do, and dresses you cannot wear."
"By what rule?" Mr. Masters asked.
"O, people think you are dreadful if you do those things; the Church, and all that. So I think it is a great deal better to keep out of it, and make no pretensions."
"Better to keep out of what? let me understand," said the minister. "You are getting my ideas in a very involved state."
"No, I am not! I say, it is better to make no profession."
"Better than what? What is the alternative?"
"O, you know. Now you are catechizing me. It is better to make no profession, than to make it and not live up to it."
"I understand. That is to say, it is wicked to pay your debts with counterfeit notes, so it is better not to pay them at all."
"Nonsense, Basil! I am not talking of paying debts."
"But I am."
"What have debts got to do with it?"
"I beg your pardon. I understood you to declare your disapprobation of false money, and your preference for another sort of dishonesty."
"Dishonest, Basil! there is no dishonesty."
"By what name do you call it?"
He was speaking gravely, though with a surface pleasantry; both gravity and pleasantry were of a very winning kind. Diana looked on and listened, much interested, as well as amused; Gertrude puzzled and impatient, though unable to resist the attraction. She hesitated, and surveyed him.
"There can't be dishonesty unless where one owes something."
"Precisely"—he said, glancing at her. His hands were busy at the time with a supple twig he had cut from one of the trees, which he was trimming of its leaves and buds.
"What do I owe?" said the beauty, throwing her tresses of hair off from her shoulders.
He waited a bit, the one lady looking defiant, the other curious; and then he said, with a sort of gentle simplicity that was at the same time uncompromising,
"'The Lord hath made all things for himself.'"
Gertrude's foot patted the turf; after a minute she answered,
"Of course you say that because you are a clergyman."
"No, I don't. I am stating a fact, which I thought it likely you had forgotten."
Gertrude stood up, as if she had got enough of the conversation. Diana wished for another word.
"It is a fact," she said; "but what have we to do with it?"
"Only to let the Lord have his own," said the minister with a full look at her.
"How do you mean, Mr. Masters? I don't understand."
Gertrude was marching over the grass, leading to the house. The other two followed.
"When you have contrived and made a thing, you reckon it is your own, don't you? and when you have bought something, you think it is at your disposal?"
"'You were bought with a price.'"
"Of course, God has a right to dispose of us," Diana assented in an "of course" way.
"Does he?" said the minister. Then, seeing her puzzled expression, he went on—"He cannot dispose of you as he wishes, without your consent."
Diana stopped short, midway in the meadow. "I do not in the least understand, Mr. Masters," she said. "How does He wish to dispose of me?"
"When you are his own, he will let you know," said the minister, beginning to stroll onward again; and no more words passed till they were nearing the house, when he said suddenly, "Whom do you think you belong to now?"
Diana's thought made an instant leap at the words, a leap over hundreds of miles of intervening space, and alighted beside a fine officer-like figure in a dark blue military coat with straps on the shoulders. That was where she "belonged," she thought; and a soft rose colour mantled on her cheek, and deepened, half with happiness, halt with pride. The question that had provoked it was forgotten; and the neighbourhood of the house was now too near to allow of the inquiry being pressed or repeated. The minister, indeed, was aware that for some time he and his companion had been facing a battery; but Diana was in happy unconsciousness; it was the thought of nothing present or near which made her eyes droop and her cheeks take on such a bloom of loveliness.
Among the eyes that beheld, Mrs. Starling's had not been the least keen, though she watched without seeming to watch. She saw how the minister and her daughter came slowly over the meadow, engaged with each other's conversation, while Miss Masters tripped on before them. She noticed the pause in their walk, Diana's slow, thoughtful step; and then, as they came near, her flush and her downcast eye.
"The minister's talk's very interestin'," whispered Mrs. Carpenter in her ear.
"Not to me," said Mrs. Starling, wilfully misunderstanding. "Some folks thinks so, I know. I can't somehow never get along with him."
"And Diana sha'n't," was her inward resolve; "but she can't be thinkin' of the other feller."
As if to try the question, at the moment, Mrs. Reverdy appeared at the top of the steps, just as the minister and Diana got to the foot of them. She was in high glee, for her party was going off nicely, and the tables were just preparing for supper.
"We want nothing now but Evan," she said with her unfailing laugh. "Miss Starling, don't you think he might have come for this afternoon, just to see so many friends?"
Diana never knew where she got the coolness to answer, "How long a journey is it, Mrs. Reverdy?"
"O, I don't know! How far is it, Mr. Masters?—a thousand miles?—or two thousand? I declare I have no idea. But love laughs at distances, they say."
"Is Cupid a contractor on this road?" inquired the minister gravely.
"A contractor!" exclaimed Mrs. Reverdy, laughing, "oh, dear, what a funny idea! I never thought of putting it so. But I didn't know but Miss Starling could tell us."
"Do you know anything about it, Miss Diana?" asked the minister.
"Why Lieutenant Knowlton is not here this afternoon?"
Diana knew that several pairs of eyes were upon her. It was a dangerous minute. But she had failed to discern in Mrs. Reverdy or in Gertrude any symptom of more than curiosity; and curiosity she felt she could meet and baffle. It was impertinent, and it was unkind. So, though her mind was at a point which made it close steering, she managed to sheer off from embarrassment and look amused. She laughed in the eyes that were watching her, and answered carelessly enough to Mr. Masters' question that she "dared say Mr. Knowlton would have come if he could." Mrs. Starling put up her work with a sigh of relief; and the rest of the persons concerned felt free to dismiss the subject from their minds and pay attention to the supper.
It was a great success, Mrs. Reverdy's sewing party. The excellent entertainment provided was heartily enjoyed, all the more for the little stimulus of curiosity which hung about every article and each detail of the tea-table. Old Mr. Bowdoin delighted himself in hospitable attentions to his old neighbours, and was full of genial and gratified talk with them. The stiffness of the afternoon departed before the tea and coffee; and when at last the assembly broke up, and a little file of country waggons drove away, one after another, from the door, it was with highly gratified loads of people.
Diana may be quoted as a single exception. In the tremor of her spirits which followed the bit of social navigation noticed above, she had hardly known how anything tasted at the supper; and the talk she had heard without hearing. There was nothing but relief in getting away.
The drive home was as silent between her and her mother as the drive out had been. Mrs. Starling was full of her own cogitations. Diana's thoughts were not like that,—hard-twisted and hard-knotted lines of argument, growing harder and more twisted towards their end; but wide flowing and soft changing visions, flowing sweet and free as the clouds borne on the air-currents of heaven; catching such colours, and drifting as insensibly from one form into another. The evening kept up the dreamy character of the afternoon, the haze growing duskier as the light waned; till the tender gleam of a full moon began to supply here and there the glory of the lost sunlight. It was a colder gleam, though; and so far, more practical than that flush of living promise which a little while ago had filled the sky and the world. Diana's thoughts centred on Evan's letter. Where was it? When should she get it? Josiah, she knew, had been to the post office that morning, and brought home nothing! She wished she could go to the post office herself; she sometimes had done so; but she would not like to take Evan's letter, either, from the knowing hands of the postmaster. She might not be able to command her looks perfectly.
"They don't know how to make soda biscuit down yonder," Mrs. Starling broke out abruptly, just as their drive was near ended.
"Don't they?" said Diana absently.
"All yellow!" said Mrs. Starling disdainfully. "Nobody would ever know there was any salaratus in my biscuit—or in yours either."
"Except from the lightness, mother."
"The lightness wouldn't tell what made 'em light," said Mrs. Starling logically. "They had salaratus in their pickles too."
"How could you tell?"
"Tell? As if I couldn't tell! Tell by the colour."
"Ours are green too."
"Not green like that. I would despise to make my pickles green that way. I'd as soon paint 'em."
"It was very handsome, mother, the supper altogether."
"Hm! It was a little too handsome," said Mrs. Starling, "and that was what they liked about it. I'd like to know what is the use o' having great clumsy forks of make-believe silver"—
"O, they were real, mother."
"Well, the more fools if they were. I'd like to know what is the use of having great clumsy forks of silver, real or make-believe, when you can have nice, sharp, handy steel ones, and for half or a quarter the price?"
Diana liked the silver forks, and was silent.
"I could hardly eat my pickles with 'em. I couldn't, if they had been mine; but Genevieve's cucumbers were spongy."
To Diana's relief, their own door was gained at this moment. She did not know what her mother's discourse might end in, and was glad to have it stopped. Yet the drive had been pretty!
The men had had their supper, which had been left ready for them; and Josiah's care had kept up a blazing fire in the lean-to kitchen. Diana went up-stairs to change her dress, for she had the dishes now to wash up; and Mrs. Starling stood in front of the fire-place, pondering. She had been pondering all the time of the drive home, as well as much of the time spent at Elmfield; she believed she had come to a conclusion; and yet she delayed her purpose. It was clear, she said to herself, that Diana did not care for Lieut. Knowlton; at least not much; her fancy might have been stirred. But what is a girl's fancy? Nothing worth considering. Letters, if allowed, might nourish the fancy up into something else. She would destroy this first one. She had determined on that. Yet she lingered. Conscience spoke uneasily. What if she were misled by appearances, and Diana had more than a fancy for this young fellow? Then she would crush it! Nobody would be the wiser, and nobody would die of grief; those things were done in stories only. Mrs. Starling hesitated nevertheless, with her hand on the letter, till the sound of Diana's step in the house decided her action. She was afraid to wait; some accident might overthrow all her arrangements; and with a hasty movement she drew the packet from her bosom and tucked it under the fofestick, where a bed of glowing nutwood coals lay ready. Quick the fire caught the light tindery edges, made a little jet of excitement about the large wax seal, fought its way through the thick folds of paper, and in a moment had left only a mock sheet of cinder, with mock marks of writing still traceable vividly upon it. A letter still, manifestly, sharp-edged and square; it glowed at Mrs. Starling from its bed of coals, with the curious impassiveness of material things; as if the happiness of two lives had not shrivelled within it. Mrs. Starling stood looking. What had been written upon that fiery scroll? It was vain to ask now; and hearing Diana coming down-stairs, she took the tongs and punched the square cinder that kept its form too well. Little bits of paper, grey cinder with red edges, fluttered in the draught, and flew up in the smoke.
"What are you burning there, mother?" said Diana.
And Mrs. Starling answered a guilty "Nothing," and walked away. Diana looked at the little fluttering cinders, and an uneasy sensation came over her, that yet took no form of suspicion; and passed, for the thing was impossible. So near she came to it.
Why had Mrs. Starling not at least read the letter before destroying it? The answer lies in some of the strange, hidden involutions of feeling and consciousness, which are hard to trace out even by the person who knows them best. After the thing was done, she wished she had read it. It may be she feared to find what would stay her hand, or make her action difficult. It may be that certain stirrings of conscience warned her that delay might defeat her whole purpose. She was an obstinate woman, by nature; obstinate to the point of wilful blindness when necessary; and to do her justice, she was perfectly incapable of estimating the gain or the loss of such an affection as Diana's, or of sympathizing with the suffering such a nature may know. It was not in her; she had no key to it; grant the utmost mischief that she supposed it even possible she might be doing, and it was as a summer gale to the cyclone of the Indian seas.
So her conscience troubled her little, and that little was soon silenced. Perhaps not quite forgotten; for it had the effect, not to make her more than usual tender of her daughter and indulgent towards her, as one would expect, but stern, carping and exacting beyond all her wont. She drove household matters with a tighter rein than ever, and gave Diana as little time for private thought or musing as the constant and engrossing occupation of her hands could leave free. But, however, thoughts are not chained to fingers. Alas! what troubled calculations Diana worked into her butter, those weeks; and how many heavy possibilities she shook down from her fingers along with the drops of water she scattered upon the clothes for the ironing. Her very nights at last became filled with the anxious cogitations that never ceased all the day; and Diana awoke morning after morning unrefreshed and weary from her burdened sleep, and from dreams that reproduced in fantastic combinations the perplexities of her waking life. Her face began to grow shadowed and anxious, and her tongue was still. Mrs. Starling had generally done most of the talking; she did it all now.
Days passed on, and weeks. Mrs. Starling did not find out that anything was the matter with Diana; partly because she was determined that nothing should be the matter; and partly because young Flandin came about the house a good deal, and Mrs. Starling thought Diana to be vexed, or perhaps in a state of vexed indecision about him. And in addition, she was a little anxious herself, lest another letter should come and somehow reach the hands it was meant for. Having gone so far already, Mrs. Starling did not mean to spoil or lose her work for want of a few finishing touches. She watched the post office as never in her life, for any cause, she had watched it before.
IS IT WELL WITH THEE?
Diana would have written to Mr. Knowlton to get her mystery solved; she was far too simple and true to stand upon needless punctilio; but she did not know how to address to him a letter. Evan himself had not known when he parted from her; the information came in that epistle that never reached her hands, that first letter. Names and directions had all perished in the flames, and for want of them Diana could do nothing. Meanwhile, what would Evan think? He would expect an answer, and a quick answer, to his letter; he was looking for it now, no doubt; wondering why it did not come, and disappointed, and fearing something wrong. That trouble, of fearing something wrong, Diana was spared; for she knew the family at Elmfield had heard, and all was well; but sometimes her other troublesome thoughts made her powerless hands come together with a clasp of wild pain. How long must she wait now? how long would Evan wait, before in desperation he wrote again? And where was her letter? for it had been written and sent; that she knew;—was it lost? was it stolen? Had somebody's curiosity prevailed so far, and was her precious secret town property by this time? Every day became harder to bear; every week made the suspense more intolerable. Mrs. Starling was far out in one of her suppositions. Will Flandin came a good deal about the house, it is true; but Diana hardly knew he was there. If she thought about it at all, she was half glad, because his presence might serve to mask her silence and abstraction. She was conscious of both, and the effort to cover the one and hide the other was very painful sometimes.
October glories were passed away, and November days grew shorter and shorter, colder and more dreary. It seemed now and then to Diana that summer had gone to a distance from which it would never revisit her. And after those days of constant communication with Evan, the blank cessation of it, the ignorance of all that had befallen or was befalling him, the want of a word of remembrance or affection, grew almost to a blank of despair.
It was late in the month.
"What waggon's that stopping?" exclaimed Mrs. Starling one afternoon. Mother and daughter were in the lean-to. Diana looked out, and saw with a pang of various feelings what waggon it was.
"Ain't that the Elmfield folks?"
"I think so."
"I know so. I thought Mrs. Reverdy and the rest had run away from the cold."
"Didn't you know Miss Masters had been sick?"
"How should I know it?"
"I heard so. I didn't know but you had heard it."
"I can't hear things without somebody tells me. Go along up-stairs, Diana, and put on something."
Diana obeyed, but she was very quick about it; she was nervously afraid lest while she was absent some word should be said that she would not have lost for the whole world. What had they come for, these people? Was the secret out, perhaps, and had they come to bring her a letter? Or to say why Evan had not written? Could he have been sick? A feverish whirlwind of thoughts rushed through Diana's head while she was fastening her dress; and she went down and came into the parlour with two beautiful spots of rose colour upon her cheeks. They were fever-spots. Diana had been pale of late; but she looked gloriously handsome as she entered the room. Bad for her. A common-looking woman might have heard news from Evan; the instant resolve in the hearts of the two ladies who had come to visit her was, that this girl should hear none.
They were, however, exceedingly gracious and agreeable. Mrs. Reverdy entered with flattering interest into all the matters of household and farm detail respecting which Mrs. Starling chose to be communicative; responded with details of her own. How it was impossible to get good butter made, unless you made it yourself. How servants were unsatisfactory, even in Pleasant Valley; and how delightful it was to be able to do without them, as Mrs. Starling did and Diana.
"I should like it of all things," said Mrs. Reverdy with her unfailing laugh; a little, well-bred, low murmur of a laugh. "It must be so delightful to have your biscuits always light and never tasting of soda; and your butter always as if it was made of cowslips; and your eggs always fresh. We never have fresh eggs," continued Mrs. Reverdy, shaking her head solemnly;—"never. I never dare to have them boiled."
"What becomes of them?" said a new voice; and Mr. Masters entered the field—in other words, the room. Diana's heart contracted with a pang; was this another hindrance in the way of her hearing what she wanted? But the rest of the ladies welcomed him.
"Charming!" said Mrs. Reverdy; "now you will go home with us."
"I don't see just on what you found your conclusion."
"O, you will have made your visit to Mrs. Starling, you know; and then you will have nothing else to do."
"There spoke a woman of business!" said the minister.
"Yes, why not?" said the lady. "I was just telling Mrs. Starling how I should delight to do as she does, without servants, and how pleasant I should find it; only, you know, I shouldn't know how to do anything if I tried." Mrs. Reverdy seemed to find the idea very entertaining.
"You wouldn't like to get up in the morning to make your biscuits," said Gertrude.
"O yes, I would! I needn't have breakfast very early, you know."
"The good butter wouldn't be on the table if you didn't," said Mrs. Starling.
"Wouldn't it? Why? Does it matter when butter is made, if it is only made right?"
"No; but the trouble is, it cannot be made right after the sun is an hour or two high."
"An hour or two!" Mrs. Reverdy uttered a little scream.
"Not at this time of year, mother," interposed Diana.
"Do you get up at these fearful times?" inquired Miss Masters languidly, turning her eyes full upon the latter speaker.
Diana scarce answered. Would all the minutes of their visit pass in these platitudes? could nothing else be talked of? The next instant she blessed Mr. Masters.
"Have you heard from the soldier lately?" he asked.
"O yes! we hear frequently," Mrs. Reverdy said.
"He likes his post?"
"I really don't know," said her sister, laughing; "a soldier can't choose, you know; I fancy they have some rough times out there; but they manage to get a good deal of fun too. Evan's last letter told of buffalo hunting, and said they had some very good society too. You wouldn't expect it, on the outskirts of everything; but the officers' families are very pleasant. There are young ladies, sometimes; and every one is made a great deal of."
"Where is Mr. Knowlton?" Diana asked. She had been working up her courage to dare the question; it was hazardous; she was afraid to trust her voice; but the daring of desperation was on her, and the words came out with sufficiently cool utterance. A keen observer might note a change in Mrs. Reverdy's look and tone.
"O, he's in one of those dreadful posts out on the frontier; too near the Indians; but I suppose if there weren't Indians there wouldn't be forts, and they wouldn't want officers or soldiers to be in them," she added, looking at Mr. Masters, as if she had found a happy final cause for the existence of the aborigines of the country.
"What is the name of the place?" Diana asked.
"I declare I've forgotten. Fort——,I can't think of any name but Vancouver, and it isn't that. Gertrude, what is the name of that place? Do you know, I can't tell whether it is in Arizona or Wisconsin!" And Mrs. Reverdy laughed at her geographical innocence.
Gertrude "didn't remember."
"He is not so far off as Vancouver, I think," said Mr. Masters.
"No,—O no, not so far as that; but he might just as well. When you get to a certain distance, it don't signify whether it is more or less; you can't get at people, and they can't get at you. You have seemed to be at that distance lately, Basil. What a dreadful name! How came you to be called such a name?"
"Be thankful it is no worse," said the minister gravely. "I might have been called Lactantius."
"Lactantius! Impossible. Was there ever a man named Lactantius?"
"'Tain't any worse than Ichabod," remarked Mrs. Starling.
"Nothing can be worse than Ichabod," said Mr. Masters in the same dry way. "It means, 'The glory is departed.'"
"The Ichabods I knew, never had any glory to begin with," said Mrs. Starling.
But the minister laughed at this, and so gaily that it was infectious. Mrs. Starling joined in, without well knowing why; the lady visitors seemed to be very much amused. Diana tried to laugh, with lips that felt rigid as steel. The minister's eye came to hers too, she knew, to see how the fun went with her. And then the ladies rose, took a very flattering leave, and departed, carrying Mr. Masters off with them.
"I am coming to look at those books of yours soon," he said, as he shook hands with Diana. "May I?"
Diana made her answer as civil as she could, with those stiff lips; how she bade good-bye to the others she never knew. As her mother attended them to the garden gate, she went up the stairs to her room, feeling now it was the first time that the pain could not be borne. Seeing these people had brought Evan so near, and hearing them talk had put him at such an impossible distance. Diana pressed both hands on her heart, and stood looking out of her window at the departing carriage. What could she do? Nothing that she could think of, and to do nothing was the intolerable part of it. Any, the most tedious and lingering action, yes, even the least hopeful, anything that would have been action, would have made the pain supportable; she could have drawn breath then, enough for life's purposes; now she was stifling. There was some mystery; there was something wrong; some mistake, or misapprehension, or malpractice; something, which if she could put her hand on, all would be right. And it was hidden from her; dark; it might be near or far, she could not touch it, for she could not find it. There was even no place for suspicion to take hold, unless the curiosity of the post office, or of some prying neighbour; she did not suspect Evan; and yet there was a great throb at her heart with the thought that in Evan's place she would never have let things rest. Nothing should have kept the silence so long unbroken; if the first letter got no answer, she would have written another. So would Diana have done now, without being in Evan's place, if only she had had his address. And that cruel woman to-day! did she know, or did she guess, anything? or was it another of the untoward circumstances attending the whole matter?
It came to her now, a thought of regret that she had not ventured the disagreeableness and told her mother long ago of her interest in Evan. Mrs. Starling could take measures that her daughter could not take. If she pleased, that is; and the doubt also recurred, whether she would please. It was by no means certain; and at any rate now, in her mortification and pain, Diana could not invite her mother into her counsels. She felt that as from her window she watched the receding waggon, and saw Mrs. Starling turn from the gate and walk in. Uncompromising, unsympathizing, even her gait and the set of her head and shoulders proclaimed her to be. Diana was alone with her trouble.
An hour afterwards she came down as usual, strained the milk, skimmed her cream, went through the whole little routine of the household evening; her hands were steady, her eye was true, her memory lost nothing. But she did not speak one word, unless, which was seldom, a word was spoken to her. So went on the next day, and the next. November's days were trailing along, December's would follow; there was no change from one to another; no variety. Less than ever before; for, with morbid sensitiveness, Diana shrank from visitors and visiting. Every contact gave her pain.
Meanwhile, where was Evan's second letter? On its way, and in the post office.
It was late in November; Diana was sitting at the door of the lean-to, where she had been sitting on that June day when our story began. She was alone this time, and her look and attitude were sadly at variance with that former time. The November day was not without a charm of its own which might even challenge comparison with the June glory; for it was Indian summer time, and the wonder of soft spiritual beauty which had settled down upon the landscape, brown and bare though that was, left no room to regret the full verdure and radiant sunlight of high summer. The indescribable loveliness of the haze and hush, the winning tender colouring that was through the air and wrapped round everything, softening, mellowing, harmonizing somehow even the most unsightly; hiding where it could not beautify, and beautifying where it could not hide, like Christian charity; gave a most exquisite lesson to the world, of how much more mighty is spirit than matter. Diana did not see it, as she had seen the June day; her arms were folded, lying one upon another in idle fashion; her face was grave and fixed, the eyes aimless and visionless, looking at nothing and seeing nothing; cheeks pale, and the mouth parted with pain and questioning, its delicious childlike curves just now all gone. So sitting, and so abstracted in her own thoughts, she never knew that anybody was near till the little gate opened, and then with a start she saw Mr. Masters coming up the walk. Diana rose and stood in the doorway; all traces of country-girl manners, if she had ever had any, had disappeared before the dignity of a great and engrossing trouble.
"Good evening!" she said quietly, as they shook hands. "Mother's gone out."
"Gone out, is she?" said Mr. Masters, but not with a tone of particular disappointment.
"Yes. I believe she has gone to the Corner—to the post office."
"The Corner is a good way off. And how do you do?"
Diana thought he looked at her a little meaningly. She answered in the customary form, that she was well.
"That says a great deal—or nothing at all," the minister remarked.
"What?" said Diana, not comprehending him.
"That form of words,—'I am well'."
"It is very apt to mean nothing at all," said Diana, "for people say it without thinking."
"As you did just now?"
"Perhaps—but I am well."
"Altogether?" said the minister. "Soul and mind and body?"
The word read dry enough; his manner, his tone, half gentle, half bold, with a curious inoffensive kind of boldness, took from them their dryness and gave them a certain sweet acceptableness that most persons knew who knew Mr. Masters. Diana never dreamed that he was intrusive, even though she recognised the fact that he was about his work. Nevertheless she waived the question.
"Can anybody say that he is well so?" she asked.
"I hope he can. Do you know the old lady who is called Mother Bartlett?"
"Do you think she would hesitate about answering that question? or be mistaken in the answer?"
"But what do you mean by it exactly?" said Diana.
"Don't you know?"
"I suppose I do. I know what it means to be well in body. I have been well all my life."
"How would you characterize that happy condition?"
"Why," said Diana, unused to definitions of abstractions, but following Mr. Masters' lead as people always did, gentle or simple,—"I mean, or it means, sound, and comfortable, and fit for what one has to do."
"Excellent," said the minister. "I see you understand the subject. Cannot those things be true of soul and mind, as well as of body?"
"What is the difference between soul and mind?" said Diana.
"A clear departure!" said the minister, laughing; then gravely, "Do you read philosophy?"
"I don't know"—said Diana. "I read, or I used to read, a good many sorts of books. I haven't read much lately."
The minister gave her another keen look while she was attending to something else, and when he spoke again it was with a change of tone.
"I had a promise once that I should see those books."
"Any time," said Diana eagerly; "any time!" For it would be an easy way of entertaining him, or of getting rid of him. Either would do.
"I think I proposed a plan of exchange, which might be to the advantage of us both."
"To mine, I am sure," said Diana. "I don't know whether there can be anything you would care for among the books up-stairs; but if there should be— Would you like to go up and look at them?"
"I should,—if it would not give you too much trouble."
It would be no trouble just to run up-stairs and show him where they were; and this Diana did, leaving him to overhaul the stock at his leisure. She came down and went on with her work.
Diana's heart was too sound and her head too clear to allow her to be more than to a certain degree distressed at not hearing from Evan. She did not doubt him more than she doubted herself; and not doubting him, things must come out all right by and by. She was restive under the present pain; at times wild with the desire to find and remove the something, whatever it was, which had come between Evan and her; for this girl's was no calm, easy-going nature, but one with depths of passionate reserve and terrible possibilities of suffering or enjoying. She had been calm all her life until now, because these powers and susceptibilities had been in an absolute poise; an equilibrium that nothing had shaken. Now the depths were stirred, and at times she was in a storm of impatient pain; but there came revulsions of hope and quiet lulls, when the sun almost shone again under the clearance made by faith and hope. One of these revulsions came now, after she had set the minister to work upon her books. Perhaps it was simple reaction; perhaps it was something caught from the quiet sunshiny manner and spirit of her visitor; but at her work in the kitchen Diana grew quite calm-hearted. She fancied she had discerned somewhat of more than usual earnestness in the minister's observation of her, and she began to question whether her looks or behaviour had furnished occasion. Perhaps she had not been ready enough to talk; poor Diana knew it was often the case now; she resolved she would try to mend that when he came down. And there was, besides, a certain lurking impatience of the bearing of his words; they had probed a little too deep, and after the manner of some morbid conditions, the probing irritated her. So by and by, when Mr. Masters came down with a brown volume in his hand, and offered to borrow it if she would let him lend her another of different colour, Diana met him and answered quite like herself, and went on—
"Mr. Masters, how can people be always well in body, mind, and spirit, as you say? I am sure people's bodies get sick without any fault of their own; and there are accidents; and just so there are troubles. People can't help troubles, and they can't be 'well' in mind, I suppose, when they are in pain?"
"Are you sure of that?" the minister answered quietly, while he turned to the window to look at something in the volume he had brought down with him.
"Why, yes; and so are you, Mr. Masters; are you not?"
"You need to know a great deal to be sure of anything," he answered in the same tone.
"But you are certain of this, Mr. Masters?"
"I shouldn't like to expose myself to your criticism. Let us look at facts. It seems to me that David was 'well' when he could say, 'Thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.' Also the man described in another place—'He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.'"
There came a slight quiver across Diana's face, but her words were moved by another feeling.
"Those were people of the old times; I don't know anything about them. I mean people of to-day."
"I think Paul was 'well' when he could say, 'I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.'"
"O, but that is nonsense, Mr. Masters!"
"It was Paul's experience."
"Yes, but it cannot be the experience of other people. Paul was inspired."
"To write what was true,—not what was false," said the minister, looking at her. "You don't think peace and content come by inspiration, do you?"
"I did not think about it," said Diana. "But I am sure it is impossible to be as he said."
"I never heard Paul's truth questioned before," said the minister, with a dry sort of comicality.
"No, but, Mr. Masters," said Diana, half by way of apology, "I spoke from my own experience."
"And he spoke from his."
"But, sir,—Mr. Masters,—seriously, do you think it is possible to be contented when one is in trouble?"
"Miss Diana, One greater than David or Paul said this, 'If a man love me, he will keep my words; and my Father will love him; and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.' Where there is that indwelling, believe me, there is no trouble that can overthrow content."
"Content and pain together?" said Diana.
"Sometimes pain and very great joy."
"You are speaking of what I do not understand in the least," said Diana. And her face looked half incredulous, half sad.
"I wish you did know it," he said. No more; only those few words had a simplicity, a truth, an accent of sympathy and affection, that reached the very depth of the heart he was speaking to; as the same things from his lips had often reached other hearts. He promised to take care of the book in his hand, and presently went away, with one of the warm, frank, lingering grasps of the hand, that were also a characteristic of Basil Masters. Diana stood at the door watching him ride away. It cannot be said she was soothed by his words, and perhaps he did not mean she should be. She stood with a weary feeling of want in her heart; but she thought only of the want of Evan.
THE USE OF LIVING.
It was quite according to Diana's nature, that as the winter went on, though still without news of Evan, her tumult and agony of mind quieted down into a calm and steadfast waiting. Her spirit was too healthy for suspicion, too true for doubt; and put away doubt and suspicion, what was left but the assurance that there had been some accident or mistake; from the consequences of which she was suffering, no doubt, but which would all be made right, and come out clear so soon as there could be an opportunity for explanation. For that there was nothing to do but to wait a little; with the returning mild weather, Evan would be able to procure a furlough, he would be at her side, and then—nothing then but union and joy. She could wait; and even in the waiting, her healthy spirit as it were sloughed off care, and came back again to its usual placid, strong, bright condition.
So the winter went; a winter which was ever after a blank in Diana's remembrance; and the cold weather broke up into the frosts and thaws that sugar-makers love; and in such a March day it was, the word came to Mrs. Starling's house that old Squire Bowdoin was dead. The like weather never failed in after years to bring back to Diana that one day and its tidings and the strange shock they gave her.
"'Twas kind o' sudden," said the news-bringer, who was Joe Bartlett; "he was took all to once and jes' dropped—like a ripe chestnut."
"Why, like a ripe chestnut?" said Mrs. Starling sharply.
"Wall, I had to say suthin', and that come first. The Scripter doos speak of a shock o' corn in his season, don't it, Mis' Starling?"
"What's the likeness between a shock o' corn and a chestnut, Joe? I can't abide to hear folks talk nonsense. Who's at Elmfield?"
"Ain't nary one there that had ought to be there; nary one but the help."
"But they're comin'?" said Mrs. Starling, lifting up her head for the answer.
"Wall, I can't say. Evan, he's too fur; and I guess men in his place hain't their ch'ice. And his folks is flourishy kind o' bodies; I don't set no count on 'em, for my part."
"Well, everybody else'll be there, and shame 'em if they ain't," said Mrs. Starling. "How's your mother, Joe?"
"Wall, I guess she's ripe," said Joe with a slow intonation, loving and reverent; "but she's goin' to hold on to this state o' things yet awhile. Good day t'ye!"
Diana went to the old man's funeral with her mother; in a sort of tremble of spirits, looking forward to what she might possibly see or hear. But no one was there; no one in whom she had any interest; none of Mr. Bowdoin's grandchildren could make it convenient to come to his funeral. The large gathering of friends and neighbours and distant relations were but an unmeaning crowd to Diana's perceptions.
What difference would this change at Elmfield make in her own prospects? Would Mrs. Reverdy and her set come to Elmfield as usual, and so draw Evan as a matter of course? They might not, perhaps. But what difference could it be to Diana? Evan would come, at all events, and under any circumstances; even if his coming let the secret out; he would come, and nothing would keep him from it; the necessity of seeing her would be above all other except military necessities. Diana thought she wished the old gentlemen had not died. But it could make no difference. As soon as he could, Evan would be there.
She returned to her quiet waiting. But now nature began to be noisy about her. It seemed that everything had a voice. Spring winds said, "He is coming;" the perfume of opening buds was sweet with his far-off presence; the very gales that chased the clouds, to her fancy chased the minutes as well; the waking up of the household and farm activities, said that now Diana's inner life would come back to its wonted course and arrangements.
The spring winds blew themselves out; spring buds opened into full leafage; spring activities gradually merged into the steady routine of summer; and still Diana saw nothing, and still she heard nothing of Evan.
She was patient now by force of will; doggedly trusting. She would not doubt. None of the family came to Elmfield; so there was no news by the way that could reach her. Mrs. Starling watched the success of her experiment, and was satisfied. Will began to come about the house more and more.
It was near the end of summer, more than a year since her first introduction to Evan, that Diana found herself again one day at Mother Bartlett's cottage. She always made visits there from time to time; to-day she had come for no special reason, but a restlessness which possessed her at home. The old lady was in her usual chimney corner, knitting, as a year ago; and Diana, having prepared the mid-day repast and cleared away after it, was sitting on the doorstep at the open door; whence her eye went out to the hillside pasture and followed the two cows which were slowly moving about there. It was as quiet a bit of nature as could be found anywhere; and Diana was very quiet looking at it. But Mrs. Bartlett's eye was upon her much more than upon her work; which, indeed, could go on quite well without such supervision. She broke silence at last, speaking with an imperceptible little sigh.
"And so, dear, the minister preached his sermon about the fashions last Sabbath?"
"About fashion," said Diana. "He had promised it long ago."
"And what did he say, dear?"
"He said, 'The fashion of this world passeth away.'"
"But he said something more, I suppose? I could have said that."
"He said a great deal more," replied Diana. "It was a very curious sermon."
"As I hain't heard it, and you hev', perhaps you'll oblige me with some more of it."
"It was a very curious sermon," Diana repeated. "Not in the least like what you would have expected. There wasn't much about fashion in it; and yet, somehow it seemed to be all that."
"What was his text?"
"I can't tell; something about 'the grace of the fashion of it.' I don't remember how the words went."
"I know, I guess," said the old lady. "'Twas in James, warn't it? Something like this—'The sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat.'"
"Yes, yes, that was it."
"'—but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth.'"
"That was it," assented Diana.
"So he preached about the shortness of life?"
"No, not at all. He began with those words, and just a sentence or two—and it was beautiful, too, mother—explaining them; and then he said the Bible hadn't much in it directly speaking of our fashions; he would give us what there was, and let us make what we could of it; so he did."
"You can make a good deal of it if you try," said Mrs. Bartlett. "And then, dear?"
"Then he went off, you'd never think where—to the last chapter of Proverbs; and he described the woman described there; and he made her out so beautiful and good and clever and wise, that somehow, without saying a word about fashion, he made us feel how she would never have had any concern about it; how she was above it, and five times more beautiful without, than she would have been with, the foolish ways of people now-a-days. But he didn't say that; you only felt it. I don't much believe there are any such women, mother."
"I hope and believe you'll make just such a one, Diana."
"I?" said the girl, with a curious intonation; then subsiding again immediately, she sat as she had sat at her own door a year ago, with arms folded, gazing out upon the summery hill pasture where the cows were leisurely feeding. But now her eyes had a steady, hard look, not busy with the sunshiny turf or the deep blue sky against which the line of the hill cut so soft and clear. Then the vision had been all outward.
"And that was his sermon?" said the old lady with a dash of disappointment.
"No! O no," said Diana, rousing herself. "He went on then—how shall I tell you? Do you remember a verse in the Revelation about the Church coming down as a bride adorned for her husband?"
"Ay!" said the old lady with a gratified change of voice. "Well?"
"He went on to describe that adornment. I can't tell you how he did it; I can't repeat what he said; but it was inner adornment, you know; 'all glorious within,' I remember he said; and without a word more about what he started with, he made one feel that there is no real adornment but that kind, nor any other worth a thought. I heard Kate Boddington telling mother, as we came out of church, that she felt as cheap as dirt, with all her silk dress and new bonnet; and Mrs. Carpenter, who was close by, said she felt there wasn't a bit of her that would bear looking at."
"What did your mother say?"
"Nothing. She didn't understand it, she said."
"And, Di, how did you feel?"
"I don't think I felt anything, mother."
"How come that about?"
"I don't know. I believe it seems to me as if the fashion of this world never passed away; it's the same thing, year in and year out."
"What ails you, Diana?" her old friend asked after a pause.
"Nothing. I'm sort o' tired. I don't see how folks stand it, to live a long life."
"But life has not been very hard to you, honey."
"It needn't be hard for that," Diana answered, with a kind of choke in her voice. "Perhaps the hardest of all would be to go on an unvarying jog-trot, and to know it would always be so all one's life."
"What makes life all of a sudden so tiresome to you, Di?"
"Something I haven't got, I suppose," said the girl drearily. "I have enough to eat and drink."
"You ain't as bright as you used to be a year ago."
"I have grown older, and have got more experience."
"If life is good for nothin' else, Di, it's good to make ready for what comes after."
"I don't believe that doctrine, mother," said Diana energetically. "Life is meant to be life, and not getting ready to live. 'Tisn't meant to be all brown and sawdusty here, that people may have it more fresh and pleasant by and by."
"No; but to drive them out o' this pasture, maybe. If the cows found always the grass long in the meadow, when do you think they'd go up the hill?"
A quick, restless change of position was the only answer to this; an answer most unlike the natural calm grace of Diana's movements. The old lady looked at her wistfully, doubtfully, two or three times up and down from her knitting, before speaking again. And then speaking was prevented, for the other door opened and the minister came in.
Basil was always welcome, whatever house or company he entered; he could fall in with any mood, take up any subject, sympathize in anybody's concerns. That was part of his secret of power, but that was not all. There was about him an aura of happiness, so to speak; a steadfastness of the inner nature, which gave a sense of calm to others almost by the force of sympathy; and the strength of a quiet will, which was, however, inflexible. All that was restless, uncertain, and unsatisfied in men's hearts and lives, found something in him to which they clung as if it had been an anchor of hope; and so his popularity had a very wide, and at first sight very perplexing range.
The two women in Mrs. Bartlett's cottage were glad to see him; and they had reason. Perhaps, for he was very quick, he discerned that the social atmosphere had been somewhat hazy when he came in; for through all his stay his talk was so bright and strong that it met the needs of both hearers. Even Diana laughed with him and listened to him; and when he rose to take leave, she asked if he came on horseback to-day?
"No, I am ease-loving. I borrowed Mr. Chalmers' buggy."
"Which way are you going now, sir, if you please?"
He hesitated an instant, looked at her, and answered quite demurely, "I think, your way."
"Would you be so kind as to take me so far as home with you, then?"
"I don't see any objection to that," said Basil in the same cool manner. And Diana hastily took her bonnet and kissed her old friend, and in another minute or two she was in the buggy, and they were driving off.
If the minister suspected somewhat, he would spoil nothing by being in a hurry. He drove leisurely, saying that it was too hot weather to ask much exertion even from a horse; and making little slight remarks, in a manner so gentle and quiet as to be very reassuring. But if that was what Diana wanted, she wanted a great deal of it; for she sat looking straight between the edges of her sun-bonnet, absolutely silent, hardly even making the replies her companion's words called for. At last he was silent too. The good grey horse went very soberly on, not urged at all; but yet even a slow rate of motion will take you to the end of anything, given the time; and every minute saw the rods of Diana's road getting behind her. I suppose she felt that, and spoke at last in the desperate sense of it. When a person is under that urgency, he does not always choose his words.
"Mr. Masters, is there any way of making life anything but a miserable failure?"
The lowered cadences of Diana's voice, a thread of bitterness in her utterance, quite turned the minister's thought from anything like a light or a gay answer. He said very gravely,
"Nobody's life need be that."
"How are you to get rid of it?"
"Of that result, you mean?"
"Will you state the difficulty, as it appears to you?"
"Why, look at it," said Diana, more hesitatingly; "what do most people's lives amount to?—what does mine? To dress oneself, and eat and drink, and go through a round of things, which only mean that you will dress yourself and eat and drink again and do the same things to-morrow, and the next day;—what does it all amount to in the end?"
"Is life no more than that to you?"
Diana hesitated, but then, with a tone still lowered, said, "No."
The minister was silent now, and presently Diana went on again.
"The whole world seems to me just so. People live, and die; and they might just as well not have lived, for all that their being in the world has done. And yet they have lived—and suffered."
More than she knew was told in the utterance of that last word. The minister was still not in a hurry to speak. When he did, his question came as a surprise.
"You believe the first chapter of Genesis, Miss Diana?"
"Certainly," she said, feeling with downcast heart, "O, now a sermon!"
"You believe that God made the earth, and made man to occupy it?"
"What do you think he made him for?"
"I know what the catechism says," Diana began slowly.
"No, no; my question has nothing to do with the catechism. Do you believe that the Creator's intention was that men should live purposeless lives, like what you describe?"
"I can't believe it."
"Then what purpose are we here for? Why am I, and why are you, on the earth?"
"I don't know," said Diana faintly. The talk was not turning out well for her wish, she thought.
"To find that out,—and to get in harmony with the answer,—is the great secret of life."
"Will you help me, Mr. Masters?" said Diana humbly. "It is all dark and wild to me,—I see no comfort in anything. If there were nothing better than this, one would rather not be on the earth."
Mr. Masters might have pondered with a little surprise on the strength of the currents that flow sometimes where the water looks calm; but he had no time, and in truth was in no mood for moralizing just then. His answer was somewhat abrupt, though gentle as possible.
"What do you want, Miss Diana?"
But the answer to that was a choked sob, and then, breaking all bounds of her habit and intention, a passionate storm of tears. Diana was frightened at herself; but, nevertheless, the sudden probe of the question, with the sympathetic gentleness of it, and the too great contrast between the speaker's happy, calm, strong content and her own disordered, distracted life, suddenly broke her down. Neither, if you open the sluice-gates to such a current, can you immediately get them shut again. This she found, though greatly afraid of the conclusions her companion might draw. For a few minutes her passion was utterly uncontrolled.
If Basil drew conclusions, he was not in a hurry to make them known. He did not at that time follow the conversation any further; only remarking cheerfully, and sympathetically too, "We must have some more talk about this, Miss Diana; but we'll take another opportunity," and so presently left her at her own door, with the warm, strong grasp of the hand that many a one in trouble had learned to know. There is strange intelligence, somehow, in our fingers. They can say what lips fail to say. Diana went into the house feeling that her minister was a tower of strength and a treasury of kindness.
She found company. Mrs. Flandin and her mother were sitting together.
"Hev' you come home to stay, Diana?" was her mother's sarcastic salutation.
"How come you and the Dominie to be a ridin' together?" was the other lady's blunter question.
"I had the chance," said Diana, "and I asked him to bring me. It's too hot for walking."
"And how come he to be in a buggy, so convenient? He always goes tearin' round on the back of that 'ere grey horse, I thought. I never see a minister ride so afore; and I don't think, Mis' Starling, it's suitable. What if he was to break his neck, on the way to visit some sick man?"
"Jim Treadwell broke his neck out of a waggon," responded Mrs. Starling.
"Ah, well! there ain't no security, no place; but don't it strike you, now, Mis' Starling, that a minister had ought to set an example of steady goin', and not turn the heads of the young men, and young women, with his capers?"
"He is a young man himself, Mrs. Flandin," Diana was bold to say.
"Wall—I know he is," said the lady in a disapproving way. "I know he is; and he can't help it; but if I had my way, I'd allays have a minister as much as fifty year old. It looks better," said Mrs. Flandin complacently; "and it is better."
"What is he to do all the first fifty years of his life then?"
"Wall, my dear, I hain't got the arrangement of things; I don't know. I know Will would hitch up and carry you anywheres you want to go—if it's a waggon you want any time."
After that, Will made good his mother's promise, so far as intentions went. He was generally on hand when anything was to be done in which himself and his smart buggy could be useful. Indeed, he was very often on hand at other times; dropping in after supper, and appearing with baskets, which were found to contain some of the Flandin pears or the fine red apples that grew in a corner of the lot, and were famous. Some of his own bees' honey Will brought another time, and a bushel of uncommonly fine nuts. Of course this was in the fall, to which the weary weeks of Diana's summer had at length dragged themselves out. But if Will hoped that honey would sweeten Diana's reception of him and his attentions, as yet it did not seem to have the desired effect. In truth, though Will could never suspect it, her brain was so heavy with other thoughts that she was only in a vague and general way conscious of his presence; and of his officious gallantries scarcely aware. So little aware, indeed, of their bearing, that on two or three occasions she suffered herself to be conveyed in Will's buggy to or from some gathering of the neighbours; Mrs. Starling or Mrs. Flandin had arranged it, and Diana had quite blindly fallen into the trap. And then the young man, not unreasonably elated and inspirited, began to make his visits to Mrs. Starling's house more frequent than ever. It was little he did to recommend himself when he was there; he generally sat watching Diana, carrying on a spasmodic and interrupted conversation with Mrs. Starling about farm affairs, and seizing the opportunity of a dropped spool or an unwound skein of yarn to draw near Diana and venture some word to her. Poor Diana felt in those days so much like a person whose earthly ties are all broken, that it did not come into her head in what a different light she stood to other eyes.
As the weeks of September rolled away, they brought by the necessary force of associations a sharp waking up to Diana's torpor. These, last year, had been the weeks of her happiness; happiness had come to her dressed in these robes of autumn light and colour; and now every breath of the soft atmosphere, every gleam from the changing foliage, the light's peculiar tone, and the soft indolence of the hazy days, stole into the recesses of Diana's heart, and smote on the nerves that answered every touch with vibrations of pain. The AEolian harp that had sounded such soft harmonies a year ago, when the notes rose and fell in breathings of joy, clanged now with sharp and keen discords that Diana could scarcely bear. The time of blackberries passed without her joining the yearly party which went as usual; she escaped that; but there was no escaping September. And when in due course the time for the equinoctial storms came, and the storms did not fail, though coming this year somewhat later than the last, Diana felt like a person wakened up to life to die the second time. Her mood all changed. From a dull, miserable apathy, which yet had somewhat of the numbness of death in it, she woke up to the intense life of pain, and to a corresponding, but in her most unwonted, irritability of feeling. All of a sudden, as it were, she grew sensitive to whatever in her life and surroundings was untoward or trying. She read through Will Flandin's devotion; she saw what her mother was "driving at," as she would have expressed it. And the whole reality of her relations to Evan and his relations to her stood in colours as distinct as those of the red and green maple leaves, and unsoftened by the least haze of self-delusion. In the dash of the rain and the roar of the wind, in the familiar swirl of the elm branches, she read as it were her sentence of death. Before this she had not been dead, only stunned; now she was wakened up to die. Nature herself, which had been so kind a year ago, brought her now the irrevocable message. A whole year had gone by, a year of silence; it was merely impossible that Evan could be true to her. If he had been true, he would have overleaped all barriers, rather than let this silence last; but indeed he had no barriers to overleap; he had only to write; and he had plenty of time for it. She might have overleaped barriers, earlier in the year, if she could have known the case was so desperate; and yet, Diana reflected, she could not and would not, even so. It was well she had not tried. For if Evan needed to be held, she would not put out a finger to hold him.
Of this change in Diana's mood it is safe to say that nothing was visible. Feeling as if every nerve and sense were become an avenue of living pain, dying mentally a slow death, she showed nothing of it to others. Mind and body were so sound and strong, and the poise of her nature was matched with such a sweet dignity, that she was able to go through her usual round of duties in quite her usual way; "die and make no sign." Nothing was neglected in any wise, nothing was slurred or hurried over; thoroughly, diligently, punctually, she did the work from which all heart was gone out, and even Mrs. Starling, keen enough to see anything if only she had a clue to it, watched and saw nothing. For Diana's cheek had been pale for a good while now, and she had never been a talkative person, lately less than ever; so the fact that in these days she never talked at all did not strike her mother. But such power of self-containing is a dangerous gift for a woman.
No doubt the extreme bustle and variety of the autumn and early winter work helped Mrs. Starling to shut her eyes to what she did not want to see; helped Diana too. Fall ploughing and sowing were to be attended to; laying down the winter's butter, storing the vegetables, disposing of the grain, fatting cattle, wood cutting and hauling, and repairing of fences, which Mrs. Starling always had done punctually in the fall as soon as the ploughs were put up. For nothing under Mrs. Starling's care was ever left at loose ends; there was not a better farmer in Pleasant Valley than she. Then the winter closed in, early in those rather high latitudes; and pork-killing time came, when for some time nothing was even thought of in the house but pork in its various forms,—lard, sausage, bacon, and hams, with extras of souse and headcheese. Snow had fallen already; and winter was setting in betimes, the knowing ones said.
So came one Sunday a little before Christmas. It brought a lull in the midst of the pork business. Hands were washed finally for the whole day, and the kitchen "redd up." The weariness of Diana's nerves welcomed the respite; for business, which oftimes is a help to bearing pain, in some moods aggravates it at every touch; and Diana was glad to think that she might go into her own room and lock the door and be alone with her misery. The day was cloudy and threatening, and Mrs. Starling had avowed her purpose not to go to church. She was "tuckered out," she said. "And I am sure the Sabbath was given us for rest." Diana made no answer; she was washing up the breakfast things.
"I guess we ain't early, neither," Mrs. Starling went on. "Well—one day in seven, folks must sleep; and I didn't get that headcheese out of my hands till 'most eleven o'clock. I guess it's first-rate, Diana; we'll try a bit this noon. Who's that stoppin'?—Will Flandin, if I see straight; that's thoughtful of him; now he'll take you to church, Di."
Will he? thought Diana. Flandin came in. Dressed in his Sunday best he always seemed to Diana specially lumbering and awkward; and to-day his hair was massed into smoothness by means of I know not what bountiful lubrication, which looked very greasy and smelt very strong of cloves. His necktie was blue with yellow spots; about the right thing, Will thought; it was strange what a disgust it gave Diana. What's in a necktie?
"Goin' to snow, Will?" asked Mrs. Starling.
"Wall—guess likely. Not jes' yet, though."
"Your mother got through with her pork?"
"Wall—I guess not. Seems to me, ef she was through, there wouldn't be so many pickle tubs round."
"Our'n's better than that. Tell you what, Will, your pigs don't get the sunshine enough."
"Don't reckon they know the difference," said Will, smiling and glancing over towards Diana; but Diana was gone. "Were you calculatin' to go to meetin' to-day, Mis' Starling?"
"Guess not to-day, Will. I'm gettin' too old to work seven days in a week—in pork-killin' time, anyhow. I'm calculatin' to stay home. Diana's always for goin', though; she's gone to get ready, I guess. She ain't tired."
Silence. Diana's room was too far off for them to hear her moving about, and Mrs. Starling sat down and stretched out her feet towards the fire. Both parties meditating.
"You and she hain't come to any understanding yet?" the lady began. Will shifted his position uneasily and spoke not.
"I wouldn't wait too long, if I was you. She might take a notion to somebody else, you know, and then you and me'd be nowhere."
"Has she, Mis' Starling?" Will asked, terrified.
"She hain't told me nothing of it, if she has; and I hain't seen her look sweet on anybody; but she might, you know, Will, if anybody came along that she fancied. I always like to get the halter over my horse's head, and then I know I've got him."
The image suggested nothing but difficulty to Will's imagination. A halter over Diana's stately neck!
"I allays catch a horse by cornerin' him," he said sheepishly, and again moving restlessly in his chair.
"That won't answer in this chase," said Mrs. Starling. "Diana'll walk up to you of her own accord, if she comes at all; but you must hold out your hand, Will."
"Ain't I a-doin' that all the while, Mis' Starling?" said Will, whom every one of his friend's utterances seemed to put farther and farther away from his goal.
"I reckon she'll come, all right," said Mrs. Starling reassuringly; "but, you know, girls ain't obliged to see anybody's hand till they have to. You all like 'em better for bein' skittish. I don't. She ain't skittish with me, neither; and she won't be with you, when you've caught her once. Take your time, only I wouldn't be too long about it, as I said."
Poor Will! The sweat stood upon his brow with the prospect of what was before him, perhaps that very day; for what time could be better for "holding out his hand" to Diana than a solitary sleigh ride? Then, if he held out his hand and she wouldn't see it!
Meanwhile.—Diana had, as stated, left the kitchen, and mounted the stairs with a peculiarly quick, light tread which meant business; for the fact was that she did discern the holding out of Will's hand, and was taking a sudden sheer. Nothing but the sheer was quite distinct to her mind as she set her foot upon the stair; but before she reached the top landing-place, she knew what she would do. Her mother was not going to church; Will Flandin was; and the plan, she saw, was fixed, that he should drive herself. Her mother would oblige her to go; or else, if she made a determined stand, Will on the other hand would not go; and she would have to endure him, platitudes, blue necktie, cloves, and all, for the remainder of the morning. Only one escape was left her. With the swiftness and accuracy of movement which is possible in a moment of excitement to senses and faculties habitually deft and true, Diana changed her dress, put on the grey, thick, coarse wrappings which were very necessary for any one going sleigh-riding in Pleasant Valley, took her hood in her hand, and slipped down the stairs as noiselessly as she had gone up. It was not needful that she should go through the kitchen, where her mother and her visitor were; there was a side door, happily; and without being seen or heard, Diana reached the barn.
The rest was easy. Prince was fast by his halter, instead of wandering at will over the sunny meadow; and without any delay or difficulty, Diana got his harness on and hitched him to the small cutter which was wont to convey herself and her mother to church and wherever else they wanted to go in winter time. Only Diana carefully took the precaution to remove the sleigh bells from the rest of Prince's harness; then she led him out of the barn where she had harnessed him, closed the barn doors securely, remembering how they had been left on another occasion, mounted, and drove slowly away. It had been a dreamy piece of work to her; for it had so fallen out that she had never once harnessed Prince again since that June day, when she, indeed, did not harness him, but had been about it, when somebody else had taken the work out of her hand. It was very bitter to Diana to handle the bridle and the traces that he had handled that day; she did it with fingers that seemed to sting with pain at every touch; her brain got into a whirl; and when she finally drove off, it was rather instinctively that she went slowly and made no sound, for Will and his hopes and his wooing and his presence had faded out of her imagination. She went slowly, until she, also instinctively, knew that she was safe, and then still she went slowly. Prince chose his own gait. Diana, with the reins slack in her hand, sat still and thought. There was no need for hurry; it was not near church time, not yet even church-going time; Will would be quiet for a while yet, before it would be necessary to make any hue-and-cry after the runaway; and she and Prince would be far beyond ken by that time. And meanwhile there was something soothing in the mere being alone under the wide grey sky. Nobody to watch her, nothing to exert herself about; for a few moments in her life, Diana could be still and drift.
Whither? She was beginning to feel that the chafing of home, her mother's driving and Will's courting, were becoming intolerable. Heart and brain were strained and sore; if she could be still till she died, Diana felt it to be the utmost limit of desirableness. She knew she was not likely to die soon; brain and nerve might be strained, but they were sound and whole; the full capacity for suffering, the unimpaired energy for doing, were hers yet. And stillness was not likely to be granted her. It was inexpressibly suitable to Diana's mood to sit quiet in the sleigh and let Prince walk, and feel alone, and know that no one could disturb her. A few small flakes of snow were beginning to flit aimlessly about; their soft, wavering motion suggested nothing ruder than that same purposeless drift towards which Diana's whole soul was going out in yearning. If she had been in a German fairy tale, the snow-flakes would have seemed to her spirits of peace. She welcomed them. She put out her hand and caught two or three, and then brought them close to look at them. The little fair crystals lay still on her glove; it was too cold for them to melt. O to be like that!—thought Diana,—cold and alone! But she was in no wise like that, but a living human creature, warm at heart and quick in brain; in the midst of humanity, obliged to fight out or watch through the life-battle, and take blows and wounds as they came. Ah, she would not have minded the blows or the wounds; she would have girded herself joyfully for the struggle, were it twice as long or hard; but now,—there was nothing left to fight for. The fight looked dreary. She longed to creep into a corner, under some cover, and get rid of it all. No cover was in sight. Diana knew, with the subtle instinct of power, that she was one of those who must stand in the front ranks and take the responsibility of her own and probably of others' destinies. She could not creep into a corner and be still; there was work to do. And Diana never shirked work. Vaguely, even now, as Prince walked along and she was revelling, so to speak, in the loveliness and the peace of momentary immunity, she began to look at the question, how and where her stand must be and her work be done. Not as Will Flandin's wife, she thought! No, she could never be that. But her mother would urge and press it; how much worry of that sort could she stand, when she was longing for rest? Would her mother's persistence conquer in the end, just because her own spirit was gone for contending? No; never! Not Will Flandin, if she died for it. Anything else.
The truth was, the girl's life-hope was so dead within her, that for the time she looked upon all things in the universe through a veil of unreality. What did it matter, one thing or the other? what did it signify any longer which way she took through the wilderness of this world? Diana's senses were benumbed; she no longer recognised the forms of things, nor their possible hard edges, nor the perspectives of time. Life seemed unending, long, it is true, to look forward to; but she saw it, not in perspective, but as if in a nightmare it were all in mass pressing upon her and taking away her breath. So what did points here and there amount to? What did it matter? any more than this snow which was beginning to come down so fast.
Fast and thick; the aimless scattering crystals, which had come fluttering about as if uncertain about reaching earth at all, had given place to a dense, swift, driving storm. Without much wind perceptible yet, the snowfall came with a steady straight drift which spoke of an impelling force somewhere, might it be only the weight of the cloud reservoirs from which it came. It came in a way that could no longer be ignored. The crystals struck Diana's face and hands with the force of small missiles. But just now she had been going through a grey and brown lonely landscape; it was covered up, and nothing to see but this white downfall. Even the nearest outlines were hidden; she could barely distinguish the fences on either hand of her road; nothing further; trees and hills were all swallowed up, and the road itself was not discernible at a very few paces' distance. Indeed, it was not too easy to keep her eyes open to see anything, so beat the crystals, sharp and fast, into her face. Diana smiled to herself, to think that she was safe now from even distant pursuit; no fear that Flandin would by and by come up with her, or even make his appearance at the church at all that day; the storm was violent enough to keep any one from venturing out of doors, or to make any one turn back to his house who had already left it. Diana had no thought of turning back; the more impossible the storm made other people's travelling, the better it was for hers. Prince knew the way well enough, and could go to church like a Christian; she left the way to him, and enjoyed the strange joy of being alone, beyond vision or pursuit, set aside as it were from her life and life surroundings for a time. What did she care how hard the storm beat? To the rough treatment of life this was as the touch of a soft feather. Diana welcomed it; loved the storm; bent her head to shield her from the blast of it, and went on. The wind began to make itself known as one of the forces abroad, but she did not mind that either. Gusts came by turns, sweeping the snow in what seemed a solid mass upon her shoulder and side face; and then, in a little time more, there was no question of gusts, but a steady wild fury which knew no intermission. The storm grew tremendous, and everybody in Pleasant Valley was well aware that such storms in those regions did not go as soon as they came. Diana herself began to feel glad that she must be near her stopping-place. No landmarks whatever were visible, but she thought she had been travelling long enough, even at Prince's slow rate, to put most of the three miles behind her; and she grew a little afraid lest in the white darkness she might miss the little church; once past it, though never so little, and looking back would be in vain. It was a question if she would not pass it even with her best endeavour. In her preoccupation it had never once occurred to Diana to speculate on what she would find at the church, if she reached it; and now she had but one thought, not to miss reaching it. She had some anxious minutes of watching, for her rate of travelling had been slower than she knew, and there was a good piece of a mile still between her and the place when she began to look for it. Now she eyed with greatest care the road and the fences, when she could see the latter, and indeed it is poetical to speak of her seeing the road, for the tracks were all covered up. But at last Diana recognised a break in the fence at her left; checked Prince, turned his head carefully in that direction, found he seemed to think it all right, and presently saw just before her the long low shed in which the country people were wont to tie their horses for the time of divine service. Prince went straight to his accustomed place.
Diana got out. There was no need to tie Prince to-day. The usual equine sense of expediency would be quite sufficient to keep any horse under cover. She left the sleigh, and groped her way—truly it was not easy to keep on her feet, the wind blew so—till she saw the little white church just before her. There was not a foot-track on the snow which covered the steps leading to the door. But the wind and the snow would cover up or blow away any such tracks in very short time, she reflected;—yet,—what if the door were locked and nobody there! One moment her heart stood still. No; things were better than that; the door yielded to her hand. Diana went in, welcomed by the warm atmosphere, which contrasted so pleasantly with the wind and the snow-flakes, shut the door, shook herself, and opened one of the inner doors which led into the audience room of the building.
OUT OF HUMDRUM.
Warm, how good and warm! but empty. Perfectly empty. Perfectly still. Empty pews, and empty pulpit; nobody, not a head visible anywhere. Not a breath to be heard. The place was awful; it was like the ghost of a church; all the life out of it. But how, then, came it to be warm? Somebody must have made the fires; where was somebody gone? And had none of all the congregation come to church that day? was it too bad for everybody? Diana began to wake up to facts, as she heard the blast drive against the windows, and listened to the swirl of it round the house. And how was she going to get home, if it was so bad as that? At any rate, here was still solitude and quiet and freedom; she could get warm and enjoy it for awhile, and let Prince rest; she would not be in a hurry. She turned to go to one of the corners of the room, where the stoves were screened off by high screens in the interest of the neighbouring pews; and then, just at the corner of the screen, from where he had been watching her, she saw Mr. Masters. Diana did not know whether to be sorry or glad. On the whole, she rather thought she was glad; the church was eerie all alone.
"Mr. Masters!—I thought nobody was here."
"I thought nobody was going to be here. Good morning! Who else is coming?"
"Who else? Nobody, I guess."
"How am I to understand that?"
"Just so,"—said Diana, coming up to the stove and putting her fingers out towards the warmth.
"Where is the other half of your family?"
"I left mother at home."
"You came alone?"
"Yes, I came alone." Diana began to wonder a little at the situation in which she found herself, and to revolve in her mind how she could make use of it.
"Miss Diana, you have dared what no one else has dared."
"It was not daring," said the girl. "I did not think much of the storm, till I was so far on the way that it was as easy to come on as to go back."
A light rejoinder, which would have been given to anybody else, was checked on Mr. Masters' lips by the abstracted, apart air with which these words were spoken. He gave one or two inquisitive glances at the speaker, and was silent. Diana roused herself.
"Has nobody at all come to church?"
"Nobody but Mr. St. Clair"—(he was the old sexton.) "And he has such a bad cold that I took pity on him and sent him home. I promised him I would shut up the church for him—when it was necessary to leave it. He was in no condition to be preached to."
He half expected Diana would propose the shutting up of the church at once, and the ensuing return home of the two people there; but instead of that, she drew up a stool and sat down.
"You will not be able to preach to-day," she remarked.
"Not to much of a congregation," said the minister. "I will do my best with what I have."
"Are you going to preach to me?" said Diana, with a ghost of a smile.
"If you demand it! You have an undoubted right."
Diana sat silent. The warmth of the room was very pleasant. Also the security. Not from the storm, which howled and dashed upon the windows and raged round the building and the world generally; but from that other storm and whirl of life. Diana did not want just yet to be at home. Furthermore, she had a dim notion of using her opportunity. She thought how she could do it; and the minister, standing by, watched her, with some secret anxiety but an extremely calm exterior.
"You must give me the text, Miss Diana," he ventured presently.
Diana sat still, musing. "Mr. Masters," she said at last, very slowly, in order that the composure of it might be perfect,—"will you tell me what is the good of life?"
"To yourself, you mean?"
"Yes. For me—or for anybody."
"I should say briefly, that God makes all His creatures to be happy."
"Happy!" echoed Diana, with more sharpness of accent than she knew.
"But, Mr. Masters, suppose—suppose that is impossible?"
"It never is impossible."
"That sounds—like—mockery," said Diana. "Only you never do say mocking things."
"I do not about this."
"But, Mr. Masters!—surely there are a great many people in the world that are not happy?"
"A sorrowful truth. How comes Diana Starling to be one of them?"
And saying this, the minister himself drew up a chair and sat down. The question was daring, but the whole way and manner of the man were so quiet and gentle, so sympathizing and firm at once, that it would have lured a bird off its nest; much more the brooding reserve from a heart it is not nursing but killing. Diana looked at him, met the wise, kind, grave eye she had learned long ago to trust,—and broke down. All of a sudden; she had not dreamed she was in any danger; she was as much surprised as he was; but that helped nothing. Diana buried her face in her hands and burst into tears.
He looked very much concerned. Wisely, however, he kept perfectly quiet and let the storm pass; the little inner storm which caused the outer violence of winds and clouds to be for the time forgotten. Diana sobbed bitterly. When after a few minutes she checked herself, the minister went off and brought her a glass of water. Diana lifted her flushed face and drank it, making no word of excuse or apology. As he took the glass back, Mr. Masters spoke in the tone of mixed sympathy and authority—it was a winning kind of authority—which was peculiar to him.
"Now, Miss Diana, what is it?"
But there was a long pause. Diana was regaining self-command and searching for words. The minister was patient, and waited.
"There seems to be nothing left in life," she said at last.
"Except duty, you mean?"
"There is enough of that; common sort of duties. But duty is very cold and bare if it is all alone, Mr. Masters."
"Undoubtedly true. But who has told you that your life must be filled with only common sorts of duties?"
"It has nothing else," said Diana despondently. "And I look forward and see nothing else. And when I think of living on and on so—my brain almost turns, and I wonder why I was made."
"Not to live so. Our Maker meant none of us to live a humdrum life; don't you know, we were intended for 'glory, honour, and immortality'?"
"How can one get out of humdrum?" Diana asked disconsolately.
"By living to God."
"I don't understand you."
"You understand how a woman can live to a beloved human creature, doing everything in the thought and the joy of her affection."
Was he probing her secret? Diana's breath came short; she sat with eyes cast down and a feeling of oppression; growing pale with her pain. But she said, "Well?"
"Let it be God, instead of a fellow-creature. Your life will have no humdrum then."
"But—one can only love what one knows," said Diana, speaking carefully.
"Precisely. And the Bible cry to men is, that they would 'know the Lord.' For want of that knowledge, all goes wild."
"Do you mean that that will take the place of everything else?" said Diana, lifting her weary eyes to him. They were strong, beautiful eyes too, but the light of hope was gone, and all sparkle of pleasure, out of them. The look struck to the minister's heart. He answered, however, with no change of tone.
"I mean, that it more than takes the place of everything else."
"Not replace what is lost," said Diana sadly.
"More than replace it, even when one has lost all."
"That can't be!—that must be impossible, sometimes," said Diana. "I don't believe you know."
"Yes, I do," said the minister gravely.
"People would not be human."
"Very human—tenderly human. Do you really think, Miss Diana, that he who made our hearts, made them larger than he himself can fill?"
Diana sat silent a while, and the minister stood considering her; his heart strained with sympathy and longing to give her help, and at the same time doubting how far he might or dared venture. Diana on her part fearing to show too much, but remembering also that this chance might never repeat itself. The fear of losing it began to overtop all other fear. So she began again.
"But, Mr Masters—this, that you speak of—I haven't got it; and I don't understand it. What shall I do?"
"Seek it in the appointed way."
"What is that?"
"Jesus said, 'He that hath my commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me; and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father; and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.'"
"But I do not love him."
"Then pray as Moses prayed,—'I beseech thee, show me thy glory.'"
Diana's head sank a little. "I have no heart to give to anything!" she confessed.
"What has become of it?" asked the minister daringly.
"Don't people sometimes lose heart without any particular reason?"
"I have reason, though," said Diana.
"I see that."
"You do not know—?" said Diana, facing him with a startled movement.
"No. I know nothing, Miss Diana. I guess."
She sat with her face turned from him for a while; then, perhaps reminded by the blast of wind and snow which at the moment came round the house furiously and beat on the windows, she went on hastily:
"You wonder to see me here; but I ran away from home; and I can't bear to go back."
"Mr. Masters, mother wants me to"—Diana hesitated—"marry a rich man."
The minister was silent.
"He is there all the while—I mean, very often; he has not spoken out yet, but mother has; and she favours him all she can."
"You do not?"
"I wish I could never see him again!" sighed Diana.
"You can send him away, I should think."
"I can't, till he asks my leave to stay. And I am so tired. He came to take me to church this morning; and I ran away before it was time to go."
"You cannot be disposed of against your will, Miss Diana."
"I seem to have so little will now. Sometimes I am almost ready to be afraid mother and he together will tire me out. Nothing seems to matter any more."
"That would be a great mistake."
"Yes!"—said Diana, getting up from her chair and looking out towards the storm with a despairing face;—"people make mistakes sometimes. Mr. Masters, you must think me very strange—but I trust you—and I wanted help so much"—
"And I have not given you any."
"You would if you could."
"And I will if I can. I have thought of more than I have spoken. When can I see you again, to consult further? It must be alone."
"I don't know. This is my chance. Tell me now. What have you thought of?"
"I never speak about business on Sunday," said the minister, meeting Diana's frank eyes with a slight smile which was very far from merriment.
"Is this business?"
"Partly of that character."
"I don't know, then," said Diana. "We must take our chance. Thank you, Mr. Masters."
"May I ask what for?"
"For your kindness."
"I should like to be kind to you," said he. "Now the present practical question, which cannot be put off, Miss Diana, is—how are you going to get home?"
"That is a secondary matter and easily disposed of. I live comparatively near by. It is out of the question that you should drive three miles in this storm."
Both stood and listened to the blast for a few minutes. There was no denying the truth of his words. In fact, it would be a doubtful thing for a strong man to venture himself and his beast out in the fury of the whirling wind and snow; for a woman, it was not to be thought of. Mr. Masters considered. For him to take Diana, supposing the storm would let him, to the house of some near neighbour, would be awkward enough, and give rise to endless and boundless town talk. To carry her home, three miles, was, as he had said, out of the question. To wait, both of them, in the church, for the storm's abating, was again not a desirable measure, and would furnish even richer food for the tongues of the parish than the other alternatives would. To leave her, or for her to leave him, were alike impossible. Mr. Masters was not a man who usually hesitated long about any course of action, but he was puzzled to-day. He walked up and down in one of the aisles, thinking; while Diana resumed her seat by the stove. Her simplicity and independence of character did not allow her to greatly care about the matter; though she, too, knew very well what disagreeable things would be said, at home and elsewhere, and what a handle would be made of the affair, both against her and against the minister. For his sake, she was sorry; for herself, what did anything much matter? This storm was an exceptional one; such as comes once in a year perhaps, or perhaps not in several years. The wind had risen to a tempest; the snow drove thick before it, whirling in the eddies of the gust, so as to come in every possible direction, and seemingly caught up again before it could reach a resting-place. The fury of its assault upon the church windows made one thing at least certain; it would be a mad proceeding now to venture out into it, for a woman or a man either. And it was very cold; though happily the stoves had been so effectually fired up, that the little meeting-house was still quite comfortable. Yet the minister walked and walked. Diana almost forgot him; she sat lost in her own thoughts. The lull was soothing. The solitude was comforting. The storm which put a barrier between her and all the rest of the world, was a temporary friend. Diana could find it in her heart to wish it were more than temporary. To be out of the old grooves of pain is something, until the new ones are worn. To forsake scenes and surroundings which know all our secrets is sometimes to escape beneficially their persistent reminders of everything one would like to forget. Diana felt like a child that has run away from school, and so for the present got rid of its lessons; and sat in a quiet sort of dull content, listening now and then to the roar of the blast, and hugging herself that she had run away in time. Half an hour more, and it would have been too late, and Will and her mother would have been her companions for all day. How about to-morrow? Diana shuddered. And how about all the to-morrows that stretched along in dreary perspective before her? Would they also, all of them, hold nothing but those same two persons? Nothing but an endless vista of butter-making and pork-killing on one hand, and hair-oil scented with cloves on the other? It would be better far to die, if she could die; but Diana knew she could not.
"Well!" said the voice of the minister suddenly beside her, "what do you think of the prospect?"
Diana's eyes, as they were lifted to his face, were full of so blank a life-prospect, that his own face changed, and a cloud came over its brightness.
"We can't get away," he said. "Not at present, unless we were gulls; and gulls never fly in these regions. Do you mind waiting?"
"I do not mind it at all," said Diana; "except for you. I am sorry for you to have to stay here with me."
"There isn't anybody I would rather stay with," said the minister, half humourously. "Now, can you return the compliment?"