"Well," said Mrs. Starling, when some time had passed,—"how do you get along with your husband?"
Diana's eyes opened slightly. "It would be a very strange person that could not get on with Mr. Masters," she answered.
"Easy, is he? I hate easy men! The best of 'em are helpless enough; but when you get one of the easy soft, they are consented if every door hangs on one hinge."
Diana made no answer.
"How does your girl get along?"
"Very well. Pretty well."
"What you want with a girl, I don't see."
"I didn't either. But Mr. Masters wants me to do other things."
"Set you up to be a lady! Well, the world's full o' fools."
"I am as busy, mother, as ever I was in my life."
"Depends on what you call business. Making yourself unfit for business, I should say. Call it what you like. I suppose he is your humble servant, and just gives you your own way."
"He is not that sort of man at all, mother. He is as kind as he can be; but he is nobody's humble servant."
"Then I suppose you are his. There is somebody now, Diana; it's Kate Boddington. Do go in and take care of her,—you can do so much,—and keep her from coming out here where I am."
"Well, Di!" exclaimed her relative as Diana met her. "Ain't it a sight to see you at the sewin' meetin'! Why haven't you been before? Seems to me, you make an uncommon long honeymoon of it."
Diana's natural sweetness and dignity, and furthermore, the great ballast of old pain and new gladness which lay deep down in her heart, kept her quite steady and unruffled under all such breezes. She had many of the like to meet that day; and the sweet calm and poise of her manner through them all would have done honour to the most practised woman of the world. Most of her friends and neighbours here collected had scarce seen her since her marriage, unless in church; and they were curious to know how she would carry herself, and curious in general about many things. It was a sort of battery that Diana had to face, and sometimes a masked battery; but it was impossible to tell whether a shot hit.
"What I want to know," said Mrs. Boddington, "is, where the minister and you made it up, Di. You were awful sly about it!"
"Ain't that so?" chimed in Mrs. Carpenter. "I never had no notion o' what was goin' on—not the smallest idee; and I was jest a sayin' one day to Miss Gunn, or somebody—I declare I don't know now who 'twas, I was so dumbfounded when the news come, it took all my memory away;—but I was jes' a sayin' to somebody, and I remember it because I'd jes' been after dandelion greens and couldn't find none; they was jest about past by then, and bitter; and we was a settin' with our empty baskets; and I was jes' tellin' somebody, I don't know who 'twas, who I thought would make a good wife for the minister; when up comes Mrs. Starling's Josiah and reaches me the invitation. 'There!' says I; 'if he ain't a goin' to have Diana Starling!' I was beat."
"I daresay you could have fitted him just as well," remarked Mrs. Starling.
"Wall, I don't know. I was thinkin',—but I guess it's as well not to say now what I was thinkin'."
"That's so!" assented Miss Barry. "I don't believe he thinks nobody could ha' chosen for him no better than he has chosen for himself."
"Men never do know what is good for them," Mrs. Salter remarked, but not ill-naturedly; on the contrary, there was a gleam of fun in her face.
"I'm thankful, anyway, he hain't done worse," said another lady. "I used to be afraid he would go and get himself hitched to a fly-away."
"Euphemie Knowlton?" said Mrs. Salter. "Yes, I used to wonder if we shouldn't get our minister's wife from Elmfield. It looked likely at one time."
"Those two wouldn't ha' pulled well together, ne—ver," said another.
"I should like to know how he and Di's goin' to pull together?" said Mrs. Flandin acidly. "He goin' one way, and she another."
"Do you think so, Mrs. Flandin?" asked the lady thus in a very uncomplimentary manner referred to.
"Wall—ain't it true?" said Mrs. Flandin judicially.
"I do not think it is true."
"Wall, I'm glad to hear it, I'm sure," said the other; "but there's a word in the Scriptur' about two walking together when they ain't agreed."
"Mr. Masters and I are agreed," said Diana, while her lips parted in a very slight smile, and a lovely tinge of rose-colour came over her cheeks.
"But not in everything, I reckon?"
"In everything I know," said Diana steadily, while a considerable breeze of laughter went round the room. Mrs. Flandin was getting the worst of it.
"Then it'll be the worse for him!" she remarked with a jerk at her sewing. Diana was silent now, but Mrs. Boddington took it up.
"Do you mean to say, Mis' Flandin, you approve of quarrels between man and wife? and quarrels in high places, too?"
"High places!" echoed Mrs. Flandin. "When it says that a minister is to be the servant of all!"
"And ain't he?" said Mrs. Carpenter. "Is there a place or a thing our minister don't go to if he's wanted? and does he mind whether it's night or day, or rough or smooth? and does he care how fur it is, or how long he goes without his victuals? I will say, I never did see a no more self-forgetful man than is Mr. Masters; and I've a good right to know, and I say it with feelin's of gratitude."
"That's jes' so," said Miss Barry, her eyes glistening over her knitting, which they did not need to watch. And there was a hum of assent through the room.
"I'm not sayin' nothin' agin him," said Mrs. Flandin in an injured manner; "but what I was hintin', I warn't sayin' nothin', is that he's married a"—
"A beauty"—said Mrs. Boddington.
"I don't set no count on beauty," said the other. "I allays think, ef a minister is a servant of the Lord, and I hope Mr. Masters is, it's a pity his wife shouldn't be too. That's all."
"But I am, Mrs. Flandin," said Diana quietly.
"A servant of the Lord."
"Since when?" demanded the other incredulously.
"Does it matter, since when?" said Diana, with a calm gentleness which spoke for her. "I was not always so, but I am now."
"Hev' you met with a change?" the other asked, again judicially, and critically.
"Ain't that good news, now!" said Miss Barry, dropping her knitting and fairly wiping her eyes.
"I hope your evidence is clear," said the other lady.
"Do you want to hear what they are?" said Diana. "I have come to know the Lord Jesus—I have come to believe in him—I have given myself to be his servant. As truly his servant, though not so good a one, as my husband is. But what he bids me, I'll do."
The little assembly was silent, silent all round. Both the news and the manner of the teller of it were imposing. Decided, clear, calm, sweet, Diana's grey eyes as well as her lips gave her testimony; they did not shrink from other eyes, nor droop in hesitation or difficulty; as little was there a line of daring or self-assertion about them. The dignity of the woman struck and hushed her companions.
"Our minister'll be a happy man, I'm thinkin'," said good Mrs. Carpenter, speaking out what was the secret thought of many present.
"You haven't joined the church, Diana," said Mrs. Starling harshly.
"I will do that the first opportunity, mother."
"That's your husband's doing. I allays knew he'd wile a bird off a bush!"
"I am very thankful to him," said Diana calmly.
That calm of hers was unapproachable. It would neither take offence nor give it; although, it is true, it did irritate some of her neighbours and companions by the very distance it put between them and her. Diana was different from them, and growing more different; yet it was hard to find fault. She was so handsome, too; that helped the effect of superiority. And her dress; what was there about her dress? It was a pale lilac muslin, no way remarkable in itself; but it fell around lines so soft and noble, and about so queenly a carriage, it waved with so quiet and graceful motions, there was a temptation to think Diana must have called in dressmaking aid that was not lawful—for the minister's wife. As the like often happens, Diana was set apart by a life-long sorrow from all their world of experience,—and they thought she was proud.
"What did you pay for that muslin, Diana?" Mrs. Flandin asked.
"Du tell! well I should ha' thought it was more," remarked Miss Gunn. "It's made so elegant."
"I made it myself," said Diana, smiling.
"Du tell!" said Miss Gunn again, reviewing the gown. For, as I hinted, its draperies were graceful, their lovely lines being unbroken by furbelows and flummery; and the sleeves were open and half long, with a full ruffle which fell away from Diana's beautiful arms.
"How Phemie Knowlton used to dress!" Miss Gunn went on, moved by some hidden association of ideas.
"I wonder is nobody ever comin' back to Elmfield?" said Mrs. Boddington. "They don't do nothin' with the place, and it's just waste."
The talk wandered on; but Diana's thoughts remained fixed. They had flown back over the two years since Evan and she had their explanation in the blackberry field, and for a little while she sat in a dream, feeling the stings of pain, that seemed, she thought, to grow more lively now instead of less. The coming in of Mr. Masters roused her, and with a sort of start she put away the thought of Evan, and of days and joys past for ever, and forcibly swung herself back to present things. People were very well-behaved after her husband came, and she did her part, she knew, satisfactorily; for she saw his eye now and then resting on her or meeting hers with the hidden smile in it she had learned to know. And besides, nothing was ever dull or commonplace where he was; so even in Mrs. Starling's house and Mrs. Flandin's presence, the rest of the evening went brightly off. And then, driving home, through the light of a young moon and over the quiet country, Diana watched the wonderful calm line where the hill-tops met the sky; and thought, surely, with the talisman she had just found of heavenly love and sympathy and strength, she could walk the rest of her way through life and bear it till the end. Then, by and by, beyond that dividing line of eternity, there would be bright heaven, instead of the dusky earth. If only she could prevent Basil from knowing how she felt, and so losing all peace in life himself. But his peace was so fixed in heaven, she wondered if anything on earth could destroy it? She would not try that question.
MISS COLLINS' WORK.
It was well for Diana that she had got a talisman of better power than the world can manufacture. It was well for her, too, that she followed up earnestly the clue to life which had been given her. If you have a treasure-house of supplies, and are going to have to get to it in the dark by and by, it is good to learn the way very well while the light is there. For weeks Diana gave herself before all other things to the study of her Bible, and to better understanding of faith's duties and privileges. In all this, Basil was a great help; and daily his wife learned more and more to admire and revere the mind and temper of the man she had married. Reverence would have led surely to love, in such a nature as Diana's; but Diana's heart was preoccupied. What love could not do, however, conscience and gratitude did as far as possible. Nothing that concerned Basil's comfort or honour was uncared for by his wife. So, among other things, she never intrusted the care of his meals entirely to Miss Collins; and quite to that lady's discomfiture, would often come into the kitchen and prepare some nice dish herself, or superintend the preparation of it. Miss Collins resented this. She shared the opinion of some of the ladies of the Sewing Society, that Mrs. Masters was quite proud and needed to be "taken down" a bit; and if she got a good chance, she had it in her mind to do a little of the "taking down" herself.
It was one evening late in September. Frosts had hardly set in yet, and every change in the light and colour carried Diana's mind back to Evan and two years ago, and mornings and evenings of that time which were so filled with nameless joys and hopes. Diana did not give herself to these thoughts nor encourage them; they came with the suddenness and the start of lightning. Merely the colour of a hill at sunset was enough to flash back her thoughts to an hour when she was looking for Evan; or a certain sort of starlight night would recall a particular walk along the meadow fence; or a gust and whiff of the wind would bring with it the thrill that belonged to one certain stormy September night that never faded in her remembrance. Or the smell of coffee sometimes, when it was just at a certain stage of preparation, would turn her heart-sick. These associations and remembrances were countless and incessant always under the reminders of the September light and atmosphere; and Diana could not escape from them, though as soon as they came she put them resolutely away.
This evening Mr. Masters was out. Diana knew he had gone a long ride and would be tired,—that is, if he ever could be tired,—and would be certainly ready for his supper when he came in. So she went out to make ready a certain dish of eggs which she knew he liked. Such service as this she could do, and she did. There was no thoughtful care, no smallest observance, which could have been rendered by the most devoted affection, which Diana did not give to her husband. Except,—she never offered a kiss, or laid her hand in his or upon his shoulder. Happily for her, Basil was not a particularly demonstrative man; for every caress from him was "as vinegar upon nitre;" she did not show repulsion, that was all.
"I guess I kin do that, Mis' Masters," said her handmaid, who always preferred to keep the kitchen for her own domain. Diana made no answer. She was slowly and delicately peeling her eggs, and probably did not notice the remark. Miss Collins, however, resented the neglect.
"Mr. Masters is gone a great deal. It's sort o' lonesome up here on the hill. Dreadfully quiet, don't you think it is?"
"I like quiet," Diana answered absently.
"Du, hey? Wall, I allays liked life. I never could git too much o' that. I should like a soldier's life uncommon,—if I was a man."
Diana had finished peeling her eggs, and now began to wash a bunch of green parsley which she had fetched from the garden, daintily dipping it up and down in a bowl of spring-water.
"It was kind o' lively down to the post office," Miss Collins remarked again, eyeing the beautiful half-bared arm and the whole figure, which in its calm elegance was both imposing and irritating to her. Miss Collins, indeed, had a very undefined sense of the beautiful; yet she vaguely knew that nobody else in Pleasant Valley looked so or carried herself so; no other woman's dress adorned her so, or was so set off by the wearer; although Diana's present attire was a very simply-made print gown, not even the stylish ladies of Elmfield produced an equal effect with their French dresses. And was not Diana "Mis' Starling's daughter?" And Diana seemed not to hear or care what she had to say!
"Everybody comes to the post office," she went on grimly; "you hev' only to watch, and you see all the folks; and you know all that is goin' on. An' that suits me 'xactly."
"But you had nothing to do with the post office," said Diana. "How could you see everybody?"
"You keep your eyes open, and you'll see things, most places," said Miss Collins. "La! I used to be in and out; why shouldn't I? And now and then I'd say to Miss Gunn—'You're jest fagged out with standin' upon your feet; you jes' go in there and sit down by the fire, and don't let the pot bile over and put it out; and I'll see to the letters and the folks.' And so she did, and so I did. It was as good as a play."
"How?" said Diana, feeling a vague pain at the thought of the post office; that place where her hopes had died. Somehow there was a vague dread in her heart also, without any reason.
"Wall—you git at folks' secrets—if they have any," Miss Collins answered, suddenly checking her flow of words. Diana did not ask again; the subject was disagreeable. She began to cut up her parsley deftly with a sharp knife; and her handmaid stood and looked at her.
"Some folks thought, you know, at one time, that Mr. Masters was courtin' Phemie Knowlton. I didn't let on, but la! I knowed it warn't so. Why, there warn't never a letter come from her to him, nor went from him to her."
"She was here herself," said Diana; "why should they write? You could tell nothing by that."
"She warn't here after she had gone away," said Miss Collins; "and that was jes' the time when I knowed all about it. I knowed about other people too."
That was also the time after Evan had quitted Pleasant Valley. Yet Diana did not know why she could not keep herself from trembling. If Evan had written, then, this Jemima Collins and her employer, Miss Gunn, would have known it and drawn their conclusions. Well, they had no data to go upon now.
"Bring me a little saucepan, Jemima, will you?"
Jemima brought it. Now her mistress (but she never called her so) would be away and off in a minute or two more, and leave her to watch the saucepan, she knew, and her opportunity would be over. Still she waited to choose her words.
"You ain't so fond o' life as I be," she observed.
"Perhaps not," said Diana. "I do not think I should like a situation in the post office."
"But I should ha' thought you'd ha' liked to go all over the world and see everything. Now Pleasant Valley seems to me something like a corner. Why didn't you?"
"Why didn't I what?" said Diana, standing up. She had been stooping down over her saucepan, which now sat upon a little bed of coals.
"La! you needn't look at me like that," said Miss Collins, chuckling. "It's no harm. You had your ch'ice, and you chose it; only I would have took the other."
"The other what? What would you have taken?"
"Wall, I don' know," said Miss Collins; "to be sure, one never doos know till one is tried, they say; but if I had, I think I should ha' took 'tother one."
"I do not understand you," said Diana, walking off to the table, where she began to gather up the wrecks of the parsley stems. She felt an odd sensation of cold about the region of her heart, physically very disagreeable.
"You are hard to make understand, then," said Miss Collins. "I suppose you know you had two sweethearts, don't you? And sure enough you had the pick of the lot. 'Tain't likely you've forgotten."
"How dare you speak so?" asked Diana, not passionately, but with a sort of cold despair, eying her handmaiden.
"Dare?" said the latter. "Dare what? I ain't saying nothin'. 'Tain't no harm to have two beaux; you chose your ch'ice, and he hain't no cause to be uncontented, anyhow. About the 'tother one I don't say nothin'. I should think he was, but that's nat'ral. I s'pose he's got over it by now. You needn't stand and look. He's fur enough off, too. Your husband won't be jealous. You knowed you had two men after you."
"I cannot imagine why you say that," Diana repeated, standing as it were at bay.
"How I come to know? That's easy. Didn't I tell you I was in the post office? La, I know, I see the letters."
"Letters!" cried Diana, in a tone which forthwith made Miss Collins open all the eyes she had. It was not a scream; it was not even very loud; yet Miss Collins went into a swift calculation to find out what was in it. Beyond her ken, happily; it was a heart's death-cry.
"Yes," she said stolidly; "I said letters. Ain't much else goin' at the post office, 'cept letters and papers; and I ain't one o' them as sets no count by the papers. La, what do I care for the news at Washington? I don't know the folks; they may all die or get married for what I care; but in Pleasant Valley I know where I be, and I know who the folks be. And that's what made me allays like to get a chance to sort the letters, or hand 'em out."
"You never saw many letters of mine," said Diana, turning away to hide her lips, which she felt were growing strange. But she must speak; she must know more.
"N—o," said Miss Collins; "not letters o' your writin,'—ef you mean that."
"Letters of mine of any sort. I don't get many letters."
"Some of 'em's big ones, when they come, My! didn't I use to wonder what was in 'em! Two stamps, and three stamps. I s'pose feelin's makes heavy weight." Miss Collins laughed a little.
"Two stamps and three stamps?" said Diana fiercely;—"how many were there?"
"I guess I knowed of three. Two I handed out o' the box myself; and Miss Gunn, she said there was another. There was no mistakin' them big letters. They was on soft paper, and lots o' stamps, as I said."
"You gave them out? Who to?"
"To Mis' Starlin' herself. I mind partic'lerly. She come for 'em herself, and she got 'em. You don't mean she lost 'em on her way hum? They was postmarked some queer name, but they come from Californy; I know that. You hain't never forgotten 'em? I've heerd it's good to be off with the old love before you are on with the new; but I never heerd o' folks forgettin' their love-letters. La, 'tain't no harm to have love-letters. Nobody can cast that up to ye. You have chosen your ch'ice, and it's all right. I reckon most folks would be proud to have somebody else thrown over for them."
Diana heard nothing of this. She was standing, deaf and blind, seeming to look out of the window; then slowly, moved by some instinct, not reason, she went out of the kitchen and crept up-stairs to her own room and laid herself upon her bed. Deaf and blind; she could neither think nor feel; she only thought she knew that she was dead. The consciousness of the truth pressed upon her to benumbing; but she was utterly unable to separate points or look at the connection of them. She had lived and suffered before; now she was crushed and dead; that was all she knew. She could not even measure the full weight of her misery; she lay too prostrate beneath it.
So things were, when very shortly after the minister came in. He had put up his horse, and came in with his day's work behind him. Diana's little parlour was bright, for a smart fire was blazing; the evenings and mornings were cool now in Pleasant Valley; and the small table stood ready for supper, as Diana had left it. She was up-stairs, probably; and up-stairs he went, to wash his hands and get ready for the evening; for the minister was the neatest man living. There he found Diana laid upon her bed, where nobody ever saw her in the day-time; and furthermore, lying with that nameless something in all the lines of her figure which is the expression not of pain but of despair; and those who have never seen it before, read it at first sight. How it should be despair, of course, the minister had no clue to guess; so, although it struck him with a sort of strange chill, he supposed she must be suffering from some bodily ailment, in spite of the fact that nobody had ever known Diana to have so much as a headache in her life until now. Her face was hid. Basil went up softly and laid his hand on her shoulder, and felt so the slight convulsive shiver that ran over her. But his inquiries could get nothing but monosyllables in return; hardly that; rather inarticulate utterances of assent or dissent to his questions or proposals. Was she suffering?
Yes. What was the cause? No intelligible answer. Would she not come down to tea? No. Would she have anything? No. Could he do anything for her? No.
"Diana," said her husband tenderly, "is it bad news?"
There was a pause, and he waited.
"Just go down," she managed with great difficulty to say. "There is nothing the matter with me. I'll come by and by. I'll just lie still a little."
She had not shown her face, and the minister quietly withdrew, feeling that here was more than appeared on the surface. There was enough appearing on the surface to make him uneasy; and he paid no attention to Miss Collins, who brought in the supper and bustled about rather more than was necessary.
"Don't ring the bell, Jemima," Mr. Masters said. "Mrs. Masters is not coming down."
Miss Collins went on to make the tea. That was always Diana's business.
"What ails her?" she asked abruptly.
"You ought to know," said the minister. "What did she complain of."
"Complain!" echoed the handmaiden. "She was as well as you be, not five minutes afore you come in."
"How do you know?"
"Guess I had ought to! Why, she was in the kitchen talkin' and fiddle-faddlin' with them eggs; she thinks I ain't up to 'em. There warn't nothin' on earth the matter with her then. She had sot the table in here and fixed up the fire, and then she come in to the kitchen and went to work at the supper. There ain't never nothin' the matter with her."
The minister made no sort of remark, nor put any further inquiry, nor looked even curious, Miss Collins, however, did. Her brain got into a sudden confusion of possibilities. Pouring out the tea, she stood by the table reflecting what she should say next.
"I guess she's mad at me," she began slowly. "Or maybe she's afeard you'll be mad with her. La! 'tain't nothin'. I told her, you'd never be jealous. 'Tain't no harm for a girl to have two beaus, is it?"
The minister gave her a quick look from under his brows, and replied calmly that he "supposed not."
"Wall, I told her so; and now she's put out 'cause I knowed o' them letters. La, folks that has the post office can't help but know more o' what concerns their fellow-creatures than other folks doos. I handled them myself, you see, and handed them out; leastways two o' them; that warn't no fault o' mine nor of anybody's. La, she needn't to mind!"
"How much tea did you put in, Jemima?"
"I don't know, Mr. Masters. I put in a pinch. Mrs. Masters had ought to ha' been here to make it herself. She knows how you like it."
"I like more than such a pinch as this was. If you will empty the tea-pot, I will make a cup for myself. That will do, thank you."
Left alone, Mr. Masters sat for a little while with his head on his hand, neglecting the supper. Then he roused himself and went on to make some fresh tea. And very carefully and nicely he made it, poured out a cup and prepared it, put it on a little tray then, and carried it steaming and fragrant up to his wife's room. Diana was lying just as he had left her. Mr. Masters shut the door, and came to the bedside.
"Di," said he gently, "I have brought you a cup of tea."
There was neither answer nor movement. He repeated his words. She murmured an unintelligible rejection of the proposal, keeping her face carefully covered.
"No," said he, "I think you had better take it. Lift up your head, Di, and try. It is good."
The tone was tender and quiet, nevertheless Diana had known Mr. Masters long enough to be assured that when he had made up his mind to a thing, there was no bringing him off it. She would have to take the tea; and as he put his hand under her head to lift her up, she suffered him to do it. Then he saw her face. Only by the light of a candle, it is true; but that revealed more than enough. So wan, so deathly pale, so dark in the lines round the eyes, and those indescribable shadows which mental pain brings into a face, that her husband's heart sank down. No small matter, easy to blow away, had brought his strong beautiful Diana to look like that. But his face showed nothing, though indeed she never looked at it; and his voice was clear and gentle just as usual in the few words he said. He held the cup to her lips, and after she had drank the tea and lay down again, he passed his hand once or twice with a tender touch over her brow and the disordered hair. Then, with no more questions or remarks, he took away the candle and the empty cup, and Diana saw him no more that night.
The mischief-maker slept peacefully till morning. Nobody else. Diana did not keep awake, it is true; she was at that dull stage of misery when something like stupor comes over the brain; she slumbered heavily from time to time. Nature does claim such a privilege sometimes. It was Basil who watched the night through; watched and prayed. There was no stupor in his thoughts; he had a very full, though vague, realization of great evil that had come upon them both. He was very near the truth, too, after an hour or two of pondering. Putting Miss Collins' hints, Diana's own former confessions, and her present condition together, he saw, clearer than it was good to see, the probable state of affairs. And yet he was glad to see it; if any help or bettering was ever to come, it was desirable that his vision should be true, and his wisdom have at least firm data to act upon. But what action could touch the case?—the most difficult that a man can have to deal with. Through the night Basil alternately walked the floor and knelt down, sometimes at his study table, sometimes before the open window, where it seemed almost as if he could read signs of that invisible sympathy he was seeking. The air was a little frosty, but very still; he kept up a fire in his chimney, and Basil was not one of those ministers who live in perpetual terror about draughts; it was a comfort to him to-night to look off and away from earth, even though he could not see into heaven. The stars were witnesses to him and for him, in their eternal calmness. "He calleth them all by their names; for that he is strong in power, not one faileth. Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from my God?"—And in answer to the unspoken cry of appeal that burst forth as he knelt there by the window—"O Lord, my strength, my fortress, and my refuge in the day of affliction!"—came the unspoken promise: "The mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee." The minister had something such a night of it as Jacob had before his meeting with Esau; with the difference that there was no lameness left the next morning. Before the dawn came up, when the stars were fading, Basil threw himself on the lounge in his study, and went into a sleep as deep and peaceful as his sleeps were wont to be. And when he rose up, after some hours, he was entirely himself again; refreshed and restored and ready for duty. Neither could anybody, that day or afterwards, see the slightest change in him from what he had been before.
He went out and attended to his horse; the minister always did that himself. Then came in and changed his dress, and went through his morning toilet with the usual dainty care. Then he went in to see Diana.
She had awaked at last out of her slumberous stupor, sorry to see the light and know that it was day again. Another day! Why should there be another day for her? what use? why could she not die and be out of her trouble? Another day! and now would come, had come, the duties of it; how was she to meet them? how could she do them? life energy was gone. She was dead; how was she to play the part of the living, and among the living? What mockery! And Basil, what would become of him? As for Evan, Diana dared not so much in her thoughts as even to glance his way. She had risen half up in bed—she had not undressed at all—and was sitting with her arms slung round her knees, gazing at the daylight and wondering vaguely about all these things, when the door between the rooms swung lightly open. If she had dared, Diana would have crouched down and hid her face again; she was afraid to do that; she sat stolidly still, gazing out at the window. Look at Basil she could not. His approach filled her with so great a feeling of repulsion that she would have liked to spring from the bed and flee,—anywhere, away and away, where she would see him no more. No such flight was possible. She sat motionless and stared at the window, keeping down the internal shiver which ran over her.
Basil came with his light quick step and stood beside her; took her hand and felt her pulse.
"You are not feeling very well, Di," he said gravely.
"Well enough,"—said Diana. "I will get up and be down presently."
"Will you?" said he. "Now I think you had better not. The best thing you can do will be to lie still here and keep quiet all day. May I prescribe for you?"
"Yes. I will do what you please," said Diana. She never looked at him, and he knew it.
"Then this is what I think you had better do. Get up and take a bath; then put on your dressing-gown and lie down again. You shall have your breakfast up here—and I will let nobody come up to disturb you."
"I'm not hungry. I don't want anything."
"You are a little feverish—but you will be better for taking something. Now you get your bath—and I'll attend to the breakfast."
He kissed her brow gravely, guessing that she would rather he did not, but knowing nevertheless that he might and must; for he was her husband, and however gladly she, and unselfishly he, would have broken the relation between them, it subsisted and could not be broken. And then he went down-stairs.
"Where's Mis' Masters?" demanded Jemima when she brought in the breakfast-tray, standing attention.
"Not coming down."
"Ain't anything ails her, is there?"
"Yes. But I don't know how serious. Give me the kettle, Jemima; I told her to lie still, and that I would bring her a cup of tea."
"I'll take it up, Mr. Masters; and you can eat your breakfast."
"Thank you. I always like to keep my promises. Fetch in the kettle, Jemima."
Jemima dared not but obey. So when Diana, between dead and alive, had done as she was bid, taken her bath, and wrapped in her dressing-gown was laid upon her bed again, her husband made his appearance with a little tray and the tea. There had been a certain bodily refreshment about the bath and the change of dress, but with that little touch of the everyday work of life there had come such a rebellion against life in general and all that it held, that Diana was nearly desperate. In place of dull despair, had come a wild repulsion against everything that was left her in the world; and yet the girl knew that she would neither die nor go mad, but must just live and bear. She looked at Basil and his tray with a sort of impatient horror.
"I don't want anything!" she said. "I don't want anything!"
"Try the tea. It is out of the green chest."
Diana had learned, as I said, to know her husband pretty well; and she knew that though the tone in which he spoke was very quiet, and for all a certain sweet insistence in it could scarcely be said to be urging, nevertheless there was under it something to which she must yield. His will never had clashed with hers once; nevertheless Diana had seen and known that whatever Basil wanted to do with anybody, he did. Everybody granted it to him, somehow. So did she now. She raised herself up and tasted the tea.
"Eat a biscuit—."
"I don't want it. I don't want anything, Basil."
"You must eat something, though," said he. "It is bad enough for me to have to carry along with me all day the thought of you lying here; I cannot bear in addition the thought of you starving."
"O no, I am not starving," Diana answered; and unable to endure to look at him or talk to him, she covered her face with her hands, leaning it down upon her knees. Basil did not say anything, nor did he go away; he stood beside her, with an outflow of compassion in his heart, but waiting patiently. At last touched her smooth hair with his hand.
"Di," said he gently, "look up and take something."
She hastily removed her hands, raised her head, swallowed the tea, and managed to swallow the biscuit with it. He leaned forward and kissed her brow as he had done last night.
"Now lie down and rest," said he. "I must ride over to Blackberry Hill again—and I do not know how long I may be kept there. I will tell Jemima to let no visitors come up to bother you. Lie still and rest. I will give you a pillow for your thoughts, Di.—'Under the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast.'"
He went away; and Diana covered her face again. She could not bear the light. Her whole nature was in uproar. The bath and dressing, the tea, her husband's presence and words, his last words especially, had roused her from her stupor, and given her as it were a scale with which to measure the full burden of her misery. There was no item wanting, Diana thought, to make it utterly immeasurable and unbearable. If she had married a less good man, it would have been less hard to spoil all his hopes of happiness; if he had been a weaker man, she would not have cared about him at all. If any hand but her own mother's had dashed her cup of happiness out of her hand, she would have had there a refuge to go to. Most girls have their mothers. If Evan had not been sent to so distant a post—but when her thoughts dared turn to Evan, Diana writhed upon her bed in tearless agony. Evan, writing in all the freshness and strength of his love and his trust in her, those letters;—waiting and looking for her answer;—writing again and again; disappointed all the while; and at last obliged to conclude that there was no faith in her, and that her love had been a sham or a fancy. What had he not suffered on her account! even as she had suffered for him. But that he should think so of her was not to be borne; she would write. Might she write? From hiding her head on her pillow, Diana sat bolt upright now and stared at the light as if it could tell her. Might she write to Evan, just once, this once, to tell him how it had been? Would that be any wrong against her husband? Would Basil have any right to forbid her? The uneasy sense of doubt here was met by a furious rebellion against any authority that would interfere with her doing herself—as she said—so much justice, and giving herself and Evan so much miserable comfort. Could there be a right to hinder her? Suppose she were to ask Basil?—But what disclosures that would involve! Would he bear them, or could she? Better write without his knowledge. Then, on the other hand, Basil was so upright himself, so true and faithful, and trusted her so completely. No, she never could deceive his trust, not if she died. O that she could die! But Diana knew that she was not going to die. Suppose she charged her mother with what she had done, and get her to write and confess it? A likely thing, that Mrs. Starling would be wrought upon to make such a humiliation of herself! She was forced to give up that thought. And indeed she was not clear about the essential distinction between communicating directly herself with Evan, and getting another to do it for her. And what had been Mrs. Starling's motive in keeping back the letters? But Diana knew her mother, and that problem did not detain her long.
For hours and hours Diana's mind was like a stormy sea, where the thunder and the lightning were not wanting any more than the wind. Once in a while, like the faint blink of a sun-ray through the clouds, came an echo of the words Basil had quoted—"In the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge"—but they hurt her so that she fled from them. The contrast of their peace with her turmoil, of their intense sweetness with the bitter passion which was wasting her heart; the hint of that harbour for the storm-tossed vessel, which could only be entered, she knew, by striking sail; all that was unbearable. I suppose there was a whisper of conscience, too, which said, "Strike sail, and go in!"—while passion would not take down an inch of canvas. Could not, she said to herself. Could she submit to have things be as they were? submit, and be quiet, and accept them, and go her way accepting them, and put the thought of Evan away, and live the rest of her life as though he had no existence? That was the counsel Basil would give, she had an unrecognised consciousness; and for the present, pain was easier to bear than that. And now memory flew back over the years, and took up again the thread of her relations with Evan, and traced them to their beginning; and went over all the ground, going back and forward, recalling every meeting, and reviewing every one of those too scanty hours. For a long while she had not been able to do this, because Evan, she thought, had been faithless, and in that case she really never had had what she thought she had in him. Now she knew he was not faithless, and she had got the time and him back again, and she in a sort revelled in the consciousness. And with that came then the thought, "Too late!"—She had got him again only to see an impassable barrier set between which must keep them apart for ever. And that barrier was her husband. What the thought of Basil, or rather what his image was to Diana that day, it is difficult to tell; she shunned it whenever it appeared, with an intolerable mingling of contradictory feelings. Her fate,—and yet more like a good angel to her than anybody that had ever crossed the line of her path; the destroyer of her hope and joy for ever,—and yet one to whom she was bound, and to whom she owed all possible duty and affection; she wished it were possible never to see him again in the world, and at the same time there was not another in the world of whom she believed all the good she believed of him. His image was dreadful to her. Basil was the very centre-point of her agonized struggles that day. To be parted from Evan she could have borne, if she might have devoted herself to the memory of him and lived in quiet sorrow; but to put this man in his place!—to belong to him, to be his wife—
In proportion to the strength and health of Diana's nature was the power of her realization and the force of her will. But also the possibility of endurance. The internal fight would have broken down a less pure and sound bodily organization. It was characteristic of this natural soundness and sweetness, which was mental as well as physical, that her mother's part in the events which had destroyed her happiness had very little of her attention that day. She thought of it with a kind of sore wonder and astonishment, in which resentment had almost no share. "O, mother, mother!"—she said in her heart; but she said no more.
Miss Collins came up once or twice to see her, but Diana lay quiet, and was able to baffle curiosity.
"Are ye goin' to git up and come down to supper?" the handmaid asked in the second visit, which occurred late in the afternoon.
"I don't know. I shall do what Mr. Masters says."
"You don't look as ef there was much ailin' you;—and yet you look kind o' queer, too. I shouldn't wonder a bit ef you was a gettin' a fever. There's a red spot on one of your cheeks that's like fire. T'other one's pale enough. You must be in a fever, I guess, or you couldn't lie here with the window open."
"Leave it open—and just let me be quiet."
Miss Collins went down, marvelling to herself. But when Basil came home he found the flush spread to both cheeks, and a look in Diana's eyes that he did not like.
"How has the day been?" he asked, passing his hand over the flushed cheek and the disordered hair. Diana shrank and shivered and did not answer. He felt her pulse.
"Diana," said he, "what is the matter with you?"
She stared at him, in the utter difficulty of answering. "Basil"—she began, and stopped, not finding another word to add. For prevarication was an accomplishment Diana knew nothing of. She closed her eyes, that they might not see the figure standing there.
"Would you like me to fetch your mother to you?"
"No," she said, starting. "O no! Don't bring her, Basil."
"I will not," said he kindly. "Why should she not come?"
"Mother? never. Never, never! Not mother. I can't bear her"—said Diana strangely.
Mr. Masters went down-stairs looking very grave. He took his supper, for he needed it; and then he carried up a cup of tea, fresh made, to Diana. She drank it this time eagerly; but there was no lightening of his grave brow when he carried the cup down again. Something was very much the matter, he knew now, as he had feared it last night. He debated with himself whether he had better try to find out just what it was. Miss Collins, by a judicious system of suggestion and inquiry, might be led perhaps to reveal something without knowing that she revealed anything; but the minister disliked that way of getting information when it could be dispensed with. He had enough knowledge to act upon; for the rest he was patient, and could wait.
That night he knew Diana did not sleep. He himself passed the night again in his study, though not in the struggles of the night before. He was very calm, stedfast, diligent; that is, his usual self entirely. And, watching her without her knowing he watched, he knew by her breathing and her changes of position that it was a night of no rest on her part. Once he saw she was sitting up in the bed; once he saw that she had left it and was sitting by the window.
The next day the minister did not leave home. He had no more urgent business anywhere, he thought, than there. And he found Diana did not make up by day what she had lost by night; she was always staring wide awake whenever he went into the room; and he went whenever there was a cup of tea or a cup of broth to be taken to her, for he prepared it and carried it to her himself.
It happened in the course of the afternoon that Prince and the old little green waggon came jogging along and landed Mrs. Starling at the minister's door. This was a very rare event; Mrs. Starling came at long intervals to see her daughter, and made then a call which nobody enjoyed. To-day Miss Collins hailed the sight of her. Indeed, if the distance had not been too much, Miss Collins would have walked down to carry the tidings of Diana's indisposition; for, like a true gossip, she scented mischief where she could see none. The minister would let her have nothing to do with his wife; and if he were out of the house and she got a chance, she could make nothing of Diana. Nothing certain; but nothing either that lulled her suspicions. Now, with Mrs. Starling, there was no telling what she might get at. The lady dismounted and came into the kitchen, looking about her, as always, with sharp eyes.
"How d'ye do," said she. "Where is Diana?"
"I'm glad to see ye, Mis' Starling, and that's a fact," said the handmaid. "I was 'most a mind to walk down to your place to-day."
"What's the matter? Where's Diana?"
"Wall, she's up-stairs. She hain't been down now for two days."
"What's the reason?"
"Wall—sun'thin' ain't right; and I don't think the minister's clear what it is; and I ain't. She was took as sudden—you never see nothin' suddener—she come in here to fix a dish o' eggs for supper that she's mighty particler about, and don't think no one can cook eggs but herself; and I was talkin' and tellin' her about my old experiences in the post office—and she went up-stairs and took to her bed; and she hain't left it sen. Now ain't that queer? 'Cause she didn't say nothin' ailed her; not a word; only she went up and took to her bed; and she doos look queer at you, that I will say. Mebbe it's fever a comin' on."
There was a minute or two's silence. Mrs. Starling did not immediately find her tongue.
"What have the post office and your stories got to do with it?" she asked harshly. "I should like to know."
"Yes,—" said Miss Collins, drawing out the word with affable intonation,—"that's what beats me. What should they? But la! the post office is queer; that's what I always said. Everybody gits into it; and ef you're there, o' course you can't help knowin' things."
"You weren't in the post office!" said Mrs. Starling. "It was none of your business."
"Warn't I?" said Miss Collins. "Don't you mind better'n that, Mis' Starling? I mind you comin', and I mind givin' you your letters too; I mind some 'ticlar big ones, that had stamps enough on to set up a shop. La, 'tain't no harm. Miss Gunn, she used to feel a sort o' sameness about allays takin' in and givin' out, and then she'd come into the kitchen and make cake mebbe, and send me to 'tend the letters and the folks. And then it was as good as a play to me. Don't you never git tired o' trottin' a mile in a bushel, Mis' Starlin'? So I was jest a tellin' Diany"—
"Where's the minister?"
"Most likely he's where she is—up-stairs. He won't let nobody else do a hand's turn for her. He takes up every cup of tea, and he spreads every bit of bread and butter; and he tastes the broths; you'd think he was anythin' in the world but a minister; he tastes the broth, and he calls for the salt and pepper, and he stirs and he tastes; and then—you never see a man make such a fuss, leastways I never did—he'll have a white napkin and spread over a tray, and the cup on it, and saucer too, for he won't have the cup 'thout the saucer, and then carry it off.—Was your husband like that, Mis' Starling? He was a minister, I've heerd tell."
Mrs. Starling turned short about without answering and went up-stairs.
She found the minister there, as Miss Collins had opined she would; but she paid little attention to him. He was just drawing the curtains over a window where the sunlight came in too glaringly. As he had done this, and turned, he was a spectator of the meeting between mother and child. It was peculiar. Mrs. Starling advanced to the foot of the bed, came no nearer, but stood there looking down at her daughter. And Diana's eyes fastened on hers with a look of calm, cold intelligence. It was intense enough, yet there was no passion in it; I suppose there was too much despair; however, it was, as I said, keen and intent, and it held Mrs. Starling's eye, like a vice. Those Mr. Masters could not see; the lady's back was towards him; but he saw how Diana's eyes pinioned her, and how strangely still Mrs. Starling stood.
"What's the matter with you?" she said harshly at last.
"You ought to know,"—said Diana, not moving her eyes.
"I ain't a conjuror," Mrs. Starling returned with a sort of snort. "What makes you look at me like that?"
Diana gave a short, sharp laugh. "How can you look at me?" she said. "I know all about it, mother."
Mrs. Starling with a sudden determination went round to the head of the bed and put out her hand to feel Diana's pulse. Diana shrank away from her.
"Keep off!" she cried. "Basil, Basil, don't let her touch me."
"She is out of her head," said Mrs. Starling, turning to her son-in-law, and speaking half loud. "I had better stay and sit up with her."
"No," cried Diana. "I don't want you. Basil, don't let her stay. Basil, Basil!"—
The cry was urgent and pitiful. Her husband came near, arranged the pillows, for she had started half up; and putting her gently back upon them, said in his calm tones,—"Be quiet, Di; you command here. Mrs. Starling, shall we go down-stairs?"
Mrs. Starling this time complied without making any objection; but as she reached the bottom she gave vent to her opinion.
"You are spoiling her!"
"Really—I should like to have the chance."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Just the words. I should like to spoil Di. She has never had much of that sort of bad influence."
"That sounds very weak, to me," said Mrs. Starling.
"To whom should a man show himself weak, if not toward his wife?" said Basil carelessly.
"Your wife will not thank you for it."
"I will endeavour to retain her respect," said Basil in the same way; which aggravated Mrs. Starling, beyond bounds. Something about him always did try her temper, she said to herself.
"Diana is going to have a fever," she spoke abruptly.
"I am afraid of it."
"What's brought it on?"
"I came home two evenings ago and found her on the bed."
"You don't want me, you say. Who do you expect is going to sit up with her and take care of her?"
"I will try what I can do, for the present."
"You can't manage that and your out-door work too."
"I will manage that"—said Basil significantly.
"And let your parish work go? Well, I always thought a minister was bound to attend to his people."
"Yes. Isn't my wife more one of my people than anybody else? Will you stay and take a cup of tea, Mrs. Starling?"
"No; if you don't want me, I am going. What will you do if Diana gets delirious? I think she's out of her head now."
"I'll attend to her," said Basil composedly.
Half suspecting a double meaning in his words, Mrs. Starling took short leave, and drove off. Not quite easy in her mind, if the truth be told, and glad to be out of all patience with the minister. Yes, if she had known how things would turn—if she had known—perhaps, she would not have thrown that first letter into the fire; which had drawn her on to throw the second in, and the third. Could any son-in-law, could Evan Knowlton, at least, have been more untoward for her wishes than the one she had got? More unmanageable he could not have been; nor more likely to be spooney about Diana. And now what if Diana really should have a fever? People talk out in delirium. Well—the minister would keep his own counsel; she did not care, she said. But all the same, she did care; and she would fain have been the only one to receive Diana's revelations, if she could have managed it. And by what devil's conjuration had the truth come to be revealed, when only the fire and she knew anything about it. Mrs. Starling chewed the cud of no sweet fancy on her road home.
Diana did become ill. A few days of such brain work as she had endured that first twenty-four hours were too much even for her perfect organization. She fell into a low fever, which at times threatened to become violent, yet never did. She was delirious often; and Basil heard quite enough of her unconscious revelations to put him in full possession of the situation. In different portions, Diana went over the whole ground. He knew sometimes that she was walking with Evan, taking leave of him; perhaps taking counsel with him, and forming plans for life; then wondering at his silence, speculating about ways and distances, tracing his letters out of the post office into the wrong hand. And when she was upon that strain, Diana would break out into a cry of "O, mother, mother, mother!"—repeating the word with an accent of such plaintive despair that it tore the heart of the one who heard it.
There was only one. As long as this state of things lasted, Basil gave himself up to the single task of watching and nursing his wife. And amid the many varieties of heart-suffering which people know in this world, that which he tasted these weeks was one of refined bitterness. He came to know just how things were, and just how they had been all along. He knew what Diana's patient or reticent calm covered. He heard sometimes her fond moanings over another name; sometimes her passionate outcries the owner of that name to come and deliver her; sometimes—she revealed that too—even the repulsion with which she regarded himself. "O, not this man!" she said one night, when he had been sitting by her and hoping that she was more quiet. "O, not this man! It was a mistake. It was all a mistake. People ought to take better care at the post office. Tell Evan I didn't know; but I'll come to him now just as soon as I can."
Another time she burst out more violently. "Don't kiss me!" she exclaimed. "Don't touch me. I won't bear it. Never again. I belong to somebody else, don't you know? You have no business to be here." Basil was not near her, indeed she would not have recognised him if he had been; he was sitting by the fire at a distance; but he knew whom she was addressing in her mournful ravings, and his heart and courage almost gave way. It was very bitter; and many an hour of those nights the minister spent on his knees at the bed's foot, seeking for strength and wisdom, seeking to keep his heart from being quite broken, striving to know what to do. Should he do as she said, and never kiss her again? Should he behave to her in the future as a mere stranger? What was best for him and for her? Basil would have done that unflinchingly, though it had led him to the stake, if he could know what the best was. But he did not quite give up all hope, desperate as the case looked; his own strong cheerful nature and his faith in God kept him up. And he resolutely concluded that it would not be the best way nor the hopefulest, for him and Diana, bound to each other as they were, to try to live as strangers. The bond could not be broken; it had better be acknowledged by them both. But if Basil could have broken it and set her free, he would have done it at any cost to himself. So, week after week, he kept his post as nurse at Diana's side. He was a capital nurse. Untireable as a man, and tender as a woman; quick as a woman, too, to read signs and answer unspoken wishes; thoughtful as many women are not; patient with an unending patience. Diana was herself at times, and recognised all this. And by degrees, as the slow days wore away, her disorder wore away too, or wore itself out, and she came back to her normal condition in all except strength. That was very failing, even after the fever was gone. And still Basil kept his post. He began now, it is true, to attend to some pressing outside duties, for which in the weeks just past he had provided a substitute; but morning, noon, and night he was at Diana's side. No hand but his own might ever carry to her the meals which his own hand had no inconsiderable share in preparing. He knew how to serve an invalid's breakfast with a refinement of care which Diana herself before that would not have known how to give another, though she appreciated it and took her lesson. Then nobody could so nicely and deftly prop up pillows and cushions so as to make her rest comfortably for the taking of the meal; no one had such skilful strength to enable a weak person to change his position. For all other things, Diana saw no difference in him; nothing told her that she had betrayed herself, and she betrayed herself no more. Dull and listless she might be; that was natural enough in her weak state of convalescence; and Diana had never been demonstrative towards her husband; it was no new thing that she was not demonstrative now. Neither did he betray that he knew all she was trying, poor child, to hide from him. He was just as usual. Only, in Diana's present helpless condition, he had opportunity to show tenderness and care in a thousand services which in her well days she would have dispensed with. And he did it, as I said, with the strength of a man and the delicacy of a woman. He let nobody else do anything for her.
Did he guess how gladly she would have escaped from all his ministrations? did he knew what they were to Diana? Probably not; for with all his fineness of perception he was yet a man; and I suppose, reverse the conditions, there never was a man yet who would object to have one woman wait upon him because he loved another. Yet Basil did know partly and partly guess; and he went patiently on in the way he had marked out for himself, upheld by principle and by a great tenacity of purpose which was part of his character. Nevertheless, those were days of pain, great and terrible even for him; what they were to Diana he could but partially divine. As health slowly came back, and she looked at herself and her life again with eyes unveiled by disease, with the pitiless clearness of sound reason, Diana wished she could die. She knew she could not; she could come no nearer to it than a passing thought; her pulses were retaking their sweet regularity; her nerves were strung again, fine and true; only muscular strength seemed to tarry. Lying there on her bed and looking out over the snow-covered fields, for it was mid-winter by this time, Diana sometimes felt a terrible impulse to fly to Evan; as if she could wait only till she had the power to move The feeling was wild, impetuous; it came like a hurricane wind, sweeping everything before it. And then Diana would feel her chains, and writhe, knowing that she could not and would not break them. But how ever was life to be endured? life with this other man? And how dreadful it was that he was so good, and so good to her! Yes, it would be easier if he did not care for her so well, far easier; easier even if he were not himself so good. The power of his goodness fettered Diana; it was a spell upon her. Yes, and she wanted to be good too; she would not forfeit heaven because she had lost earth; no, and not to gain earth back again. But how was she to live? And what if she should be unable always to hide her feeling, and Basil should come to know it? how would he live? What if she had said strange things in her days and nights of illness? They were all like a confused misty landscape to her; nothing taking shape; she could not tell how it might have been. Restless and weary, she was going over all these and a thousand other things one day, as she did every day, when Basil came in. He brought a tray in his hand. He set it down, and came to the bedside.
"Is it supper-time already?" she asked.
"Are you hungry?"
"I ought not to be hungry. I don't think I am."
"Why ought you not to be hungry?"
"I am doing nothing, lying here."
"I find that is what the people say who are doing too much. Extremes meet,—as usual."
He lifted Diana up, and piled pillows and cushions at her back till she was well supported. Nobody could do this so well as Basil. Then he brought the tray and arranged it before her. There was a bit of cold partridge, and toast; and Basil filled Diana's cup from a little teapot he had set by the fire. The last degree of nicety was observable in all these preparations. Diana ate her supper. She must live, and she must eat, and she could not help being hungry; though she wondered at herself that she could be so unnatural.
"Where could you get this bird?" she asked at length, to break the silence which grew painful.
"I caught it."
"Caught it? You! Shot it, do you mean?"
"No. I had not time to go after it with a gun. But I set snares."
"I never knew partridges were so good," said Diana, though something in her tone said, unconsciously to her, that she cared not what was good or bad.
"You did not use your advantages. That often happens."
"I had not the advantage of being able to get partridges," said Diana languidly.
"The woods are full of them."
"Don't you think it is a pity to catch them?"
"For you?" said Basil. He was removing her empty plate, and putting before her another with an orange upon it, so accurately prepared that it stirred her admiration.
"Oranges!" cried Diana. "How did you learn to do everything, Basil?"
"Don't be too curious," said he. As he spoke, he softly put back off her ear a stray lock of the beautiful brown hair, which fell behind her like a cloud of wavy brightness. Even from that touch she inwardly shrank; outwardly she was impassive enough.
"Basil," said Diana suddenly, "didn't I talk foolishly sometimes?—when I was sick, I mean."
"Don't you ever do it when you are well?"
"What do you think?" said he, laughing, albeit his heart was not merry at the moment; but Diana's question was naive.
"I did not think I was in the habit of talking foolishly."
"Your thoughts are true and just, as usual. It is so far from being in your habit, that it is hardly in your power," he said tenderly.
Diana ate her orange, for she was very fond of the fruit, and it gave occupation to hands and eyes while Basil was standing by. She did not like his evasion of her question, and pondered how she could bring it up again, between wish and fear. Before she was ready to speak the chance was gone. As Basil took away her plate, he remarked that he had to go down to see old Mrs. Barstow; and arranging her pillows anew, he stooped down and kissed her.
Left alone, Diana sat still propped up in bed and stared into the fire, which grew brighter as the light without waned. How she rebelled against that kiss! "No, he has no right to me!" she cried in her passionate thoughts; "he has no right to me! I am Evan's; every bit of me is Evan's, and nobody's else. O, how came I to marry this man? and what shall I do? I wonder if I shall go mad?—for I am not going to die. But how is it possible that I can live so?"
She was slow in regaining strength. Yet little by little it came back, like a monarch entering a country that has rebelled against him. By and by she was able to sit up. Her husband had a luxurious easy-chair sent from Boston for her and placed in her room; and one evening, it was in February now, Diana got up and put herself in it. She had never known such a luxurious piece of furniture in her life; she was dressed in a warm wrapper also provided by her husband, and which seemed to her of extravagant daintiness; and she sank into the depths of the one and the folds of the other with a helpless feeling of Basil's power over her, symbolized and emphasized by these things. Presently came Basil himself, again bringing her supper. He placed a small table by her side and set the tray there; put the teapot down by the fire; and taking a view of his wife, gave a slight smile at the picture. He might well, having so good a conscience as this man had. Diana was one of those magnificent women who look well always and anywhere; with a kitchen apron on and hands in flour, or in the dishabille of careless undress; but as her husband saw her then, she was lovely in an exquisite degree. She was wrapped in a quilted dressing-gown of soft grey stuff, with a warm shawl about her shoulders; her beautiful abundant hair, which she had been too weak of hand, and of heart too, to dress elaborately, lay piled about her head in loose, bright, wavy masses, much more picturesque than Diana would have known how to make them by design. I think there is apt, too, to be about such women a natural grace of motion or of repose; it was her case. To think of herself or the appearance she might at any time be making, was foreign to Diana; the noble grace of unconsciousness, united to her perfectness of build, made her always faultless in action or attitude. If she moved or if she sat, it might have been a duchess, for the beautiful unconscious ease with which she did it. Nature's high breeding; there is such a thing, and there is such an effect of it when the constitution of mind and body are alike noble.
Basil poured out her cup of tea, and divided her quail, and then sat down. It was hard for her to bear.
"You are too good to me," said Diana humbly.
"I should like to see you prove that."
"I am not sure but you are too good to everybody."
"Why? how can one be too good?"
"You won't get paid for it."
"I think I shall," said Basil, in a quiet confident way he had, which was provoking if you were arguing with him. But Diana was not arguing with him.
"Basil, I can never pay you," she said, with a voice that faltered a little.
"You are sure of that in your own mind?"
"I am a man of a hopeful turn of nature. Shall I divide that joint for you?"
"My hands cannot manage a quail!" said Diana, yielding her knife and fork to him. "What can make me so weak?"
"You have had fever."
"But I have no fever now, and I do not seem to get my strength back."
"After the unnatural tension, Nature takes her revenge."
"It is very hard on you!"
Diana did not answer. She had spoken that last word with almost a break in her voice; she gave her attention now diligently to picking the quail bones. But when her supper was done, and the tray delivered over to Miss Collins, Basil did not, as sometimes he did, go away and leave her, but sat down again and trimmed the fire. Diana lay back in her chair, looking at him.
"Basil," she said at last after a long silence,—"do you think mistakes, I mean life-mistakes, can ever be mended in this world?"
"You must define what you mean by mistakes," he said without looking at her. "There are no mistakes, love, but those which we make by our own fault."
"O but yes there are, Basil!"
"Not what I mean by mistakes."
"Then what do you call them? When people's lives are all spoiled by something they have had nothing to do with—by death, or sickness, or accident, or misfortune."
"I call it," said Basil slowly, and still without looking at her,—"I call it, when it touches me or you, or other of the Lord's children,—God's good hand."
"O no, Basil! people's wickedness cannot be his hand."
"People's wickedness is their own. And other evil I believe is wrought by the prince of this world. But God will use people's wickedness, and even Satan's mischief, to his children's best good; and so it becomes, in so far, his blessed hand. Don't you know he has promised, 'There shall no evil happen to the just'? And that 'all things shall work together for good to them that love God?' His promise does not fail, my child."
"But, Basil,—loads of things do happen to them which cannot work for their good."
"Then what becomes of the Lord's promise?"
"He cannot have made it, I think."
"He has made it, and you and I believe it."
"But, Basil, it is impossible. I do not see how some things can ever turn to people's good."
"If any of the Lord's children were in doubt upon that point, I should recommend him to ask the Lord to enlighten him. For the heavens may fall, Diana, but 'the word of our God shall stand for ever.'"
Diana felt her lips quivering, and drew back into the shadow to hide them.
"But there can be no kindness in some of these things that I am thinking about," she said as soon as she could control her voice; and it sounded harsh even then.
"There is nothing but kindness. When I would not give you strong coffee a while ago, in your fever, do you think I was influenced by cruel motives?"
"I could never believe anything but good of you, Basil."
"Thank you. Do you mean, that of Christ you could?"
"No—" said Diana, hesitating; "but I thought, perhaps, he might not care."
"He had need to be long-suffering!" said Basil; "for we do try his patience, the best of us. 'He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,' Diana; down into humiliation and death; that he might so earn the right to lift them off our shoulders and hearts; and one of his children doubts if he cares!"
"But he does not lift them off, Basil," said Diana; and her voice trembled with the unshed tears.
"He will"—said her husband.
"As soon as we let him."
"What must I do to let him?"
"Trust him wholly. And follow him like a child."
The tears came, Diana could not hinder them; she laid her face against the side of her chair where Basil could not see it.
Slowly from this time Diana regained strength, and by degrees took again her former place in the household. To Miss Collins' vision she was "the same as ever." Basil felt she was not.
Yet Diana did every duty of her station with all the care and diligence she had ever given to it. She neglected nothing. Basil's wardrobe was kept in perfect order; his linen was exquisitely got up; his meals were looked after, and served with all the nice attention that was possible. Diana did not in the least lose her head, or sit brooding when there was something to do. She did not sit brooding at any time, unless at rare intervals. Yet her husband's heart was very heavy with the weight which rested on hers, and truly with his own share as well. There was a line in the corners of Diana's sweet mouth which told him, nobody else, that she was turning to stone; and the light of her eye was, as it were, turned inward upon itself. Without stopping to brood over things, which she did not, her mind was constantly abiding in a different sphere away from him, dwelling afar off, or apart in a region by itself; he had her physical presence, but not her spiritual; and who cares for a body without a soul? All this time there was no confidence between them. Basil knew, indeed, the whole facts of the case, but Diana did not know he knew. He wished she would speak, but believed now she never would; and he could not ask her. Truly he had his own part to bear; and withal his sorrow and yearning tenderness for her. Sometimes his heart was nigh to break. But Diana's heart was broken.
Was it comfort, or was it not comfort, when near the end of spring a little daughter was born to them? Diana in any circumstances was too true a woman not to enter upon a mother's riches and responsibilities with a full heart, not to enter thoroughly into a mother's joy and dignity; it was a beautiful something that had come into her life, so far as itself was concerned; and no young mother's hands ever touched more tenderly the little pink bundle committed to them, nor ever any mother's eyes hung more intently over her wonderful new possession. But lift the burden from Diana's heart her baby did not. There was something awful about it, too, for it was another bond that bound her to a man she did not love. When Diana was strong enough, she sometimes shed floods of tears over the little unconscious face, the only human confident she dared trust with her secret. Before this time her tears had been few; something in the baby took the hardness from her, or else gave one of those inexplicable touches to the spring of tears which we can neither resist nor account for. But the baby's father was as fond of her as her mother, and had a right to be, Diana knew; and that tried her. She grudged Basil the right. On the whole, I think, however, the baby did Diana good As for Basil, it did him good. He thanked God, and took courage.
The summer had begun when Diana was able to come down-stairs again. One afternoon she was there, in her little parlour, come down for a change. The windows were open, and she sat thinking of many things. Her easy-chair had been moved down to this room; and Diana, in white, as Basil liked to see her, was lying back in it, close beside the window. June was on the hills and in the air, and in the garden; for a bunch of red roses stood in a glass on the table, and one was fastened at Diana's belt and another stuck in her beautiful hair. Not by her own hands, truly; Basil had brought in the roses a little while ago and held them to her nose, and then put one in her hair and one in her belt. Diana suffered it, all careless and unknowing of the exquisite effect, which her husband smiled at, and then went off; for his work called him. She had heard his horse's hoof-beats, going away at a gallop; and the sound carried her thoughts back, away, as a little thing will, to a time when Mr. Masters used to come to her old home to visit her mother and her, and then ride off so. Yes, and in those clays another came too; and June days were sweet then as now; and roses bloomed; and the robins were whistling then also, she remembered; did their fates and life courses never change? was it all June to them, every year? How the robins whistled their answer!—"all June to them, every year!" And the smell of roses did not change, nor the colour of the light; and the fresh green of the young foliage was deep and bright and glittering to-day as ever it was. Just the same! and a human life could have all sweet scents and bright tints and glad sounds fall out of it, and not to come back! There is nothing but duty left, thought Diana; and duty with all the sap gone out of it. Duty was left a dry tree; and more, a tree so full of thorns that she could not touch it without being stung and pierced. Yet even so; to this stake of duty she was bound.
Diana sat cheerlessly gazing out into the June sunlight, which laughed at her with no power to gain a smile in return; when a step came along the narrow entry, and the doorway was filled with Mrs. Starling's presence. Mother and daughter looked at each other in a peculiar way they had now; Diana's face cold, Mrs. Starling's face hard.
"Well!" said the latter,—"how are you getting along?"
"You see, I am down-stairs."
"I see you're doing nothing."
"Mr. Masters wont let me."
"Humph! When I had a baby four weeks old, I had my own way. And so would you, if you wanted to have it."
"My husband will not let me have it."
"That's fool's nonsense, Diana. If you are the girl I take you for, you can do whatever you like with your husband. No man that ever lived would make me sit with my hands before me. Who's got the baby?"
"How's Jemima to do her work and your work too? She can't do it."
"No, but Mr. Masters is going to get another person to help take care of baby."
"A nurse!" cried Mrs. Starling aghast.
"No, not exactly; but somebody to help me."
"Are you turned weak and sickly, Diana?"
"Then you don't want another girl, any more than a frog wants an umbrella. Put your baby in the crib and teach her to lie there, when you are busy. That's the way you were brought up."
"You must talk to Mr. Masters, mother."
"I don't want to talk to Mr. Masters—I've got something else to do. But you can talk to him, Diana, and he'll do what you say."
"It's the other way, mother. I must do what he says." Diana's tone was peculiar.
"Then you're turned soft."
"I think I am turned hard."
"Your husband is easy to manage—for you."
"Is he?" said Diana. "I am glad it isn't true. I despise men that are easy to manage. I am glad I can respect him, at any rate."
Mrs. Starling looked at her daughter with an odd expression. It was curious and uncertain; but she asked no question. She seemed to change the subject; though perhaps the connection was close.
"Did you hear the family are coming to Elmfield again this summer?"
Diana's lips formed the word "no;" the breath of it hardly got out.
"Yes, they're coming, sure enough. Phemie will be here next week; and her sister, what's her name?—Mrs. Reverdy—is here now."
"I suppose they'll fill the house with company, as they did last time, and cut up their shines as usual. Well! they don't come in my way. But you'll have to see 'em, I guess."
"You know they make a great to do about your husband in that family. And Genevieve Reverdy seems uncommonly fond of you. She asked me no end of questions about you on Sabbath."
There flushed a hot colour into Diana's cheeks, which faded away and left them very pale.
"She hasn't grown old a bit," Mrs. Starling went on, talking rather uneasily; "nor she hain't grown wise, neither. She can't ask you how you do without a giggle. And she had dressed herself to come to church as if the church was a fair and she was something for sale. Flowers, and feathers, and laces, and ribbons, a little there and a little here; bows on her gloves, and bows on her shoes, and bows on her gown. I believed she would have tucked some into the corners of her mouth, if they would have stayed."
Diana made no reply. She was looking out into the sunlit hillside in view from her window, and had grown visibly whiter since her mother came in. Mrs. Starling reviewed her for that instant with a keen, anxious, searching gaze, which changed before Diana turned her head.
"I can't make out, for my part, what such folks are in the world for," she went on. "They don't do no good, to themselves nor to nobody else. And fools mostly contrive to do harm. Well—she's coming to see you;—she'll be along one of these days."
"To see me!" Diana echoed.
"So she says. Maybe it's all flummery. I daresay it is; but she talked a lot of it. You'd ha' thought there warn't any one else in the world she cared about seeing."
Mrs. Starling went up-stairs at this point to see the baby, and Diana sat looking out of the window with her thoughts in a wild confusion of pain. Pain and fright, I might say. And yet her senses took the most delicate notice of all there was in the world outside to attract them. Could it be June, once so fair and laughing, that smote her now with such blows of memory's hammer? or was it Memory using June? She saw the bright glisten of the leaves upon the hillside, the rich growth of the grass, the fair beams of the summer sun; she noticed minutely the stage of development which the chestnut blossoms had reached; one or two dandelion heads; a robin redbreast that was making himself exceedingly at home on the little spread of greensward behind the house. I don't know if Diana's senses were trying to cheat her heart; but from one item to another her eye went and her mind followed, in a maze of pain that was not cheated at all, till she heard her mother's steps forsake the house. Then Diana's head sank. And then, even at the moment, as if the robin's whistle had brought them, the words came to her—"Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me." An absolute promise of the Lord to his people. Could it be true, when trouble was beyond deliverance? And then came Basil's faith to her help; she knew how he believed every word, no matter how difficult or impossible; and Diana fell on her knees and hid her face, and fled to the one only last refuge of earth's despairing children. How even God could deliver her, Diana did not see, for the ground seemed giving away beneath her feet; but it is the man who cannot swim who clutches the rope for life and death; and it is when we are hopeless of our own strength that we throw ourselves utterly upon the one hand that is strong. Diana was conscious of little else but of doing that; to form a connected prayer was beyond her; she rather held up the promise, as it were with both hands, and pleaded it mutely and with the intensity of one hovering between life and death. The house was still, she feared no disturbance; and she remained motionless, without change of posture either of mind or body, for some length of time. Gradually the "I will deliver thee"—"I will deliver thee"—began to emphasize itself to her consciousness, like a whisper in the storm, and Diana burst into a terrible flood of tears. That touch of divine sympathy broke her heart. She sobbed for minutes, only keeping her sobs too noiseless to reach and alarm Miss Collins' ears; till her agony was softened and changed at last into something more like a child's exhausted and humble tears, while her breast rose and fell so, pitifully. With that came also a vague floating thought or two. "My duty—I'll do my duty—I'll do my duty."
It was over, and she had risen and was resting in her chair, feeling weaker and yet much stronger than before; waiting till she could dare show her face to Miss Collins; when a little low tap was heard at the front door. Company? But Diana had noticed no step and heard no wheels. However, there was no escape for her if it were company. She waited, and the tap was repeated. I don't know what about it this second time sent a thrill all down Diana's nerves. The doors were open, and seeing that Miss Collins did not stir, Diana uttered a soft "Come!" She was hardly surprised at what followed; she seemed to know by instinct what it would be.
"Where shall I come?" asked a voice, and a pair of brisk high-heeled shoes tripped into the house, and a little trilling laugh, equally light and meaningless, followed the words. "Where shall I come? It's an enchanted castle—I see nobody."
But the next instant she could not say that, for Diana showed herself at the door of her room, and Mrs. Reverdy hastened forward. Diana was calm now, with a possession of herself which she marvelled at even then. Bringing her visitor into the little parlour, she placed herself again in her chair, with her face turned from the light.
"And here I find you! O you beautiful creature!" Mrs. Reverdy burst out. "I declare, I don't wonder at—anything!" and she laughed. The laugh grated terribly on Diana. "I wonder if you know what a beauty you are?" she went on;—"I declare!—I didn't know you were half so handsome. Have you changed, since three years ago?"
"I think I must," Diana said quietly.
"But where have you been? Living here in Pleasant Valley?" was the next not very polite question.
"People do live in Pleasant Valley. Did you think not?" Diana answered.
"O yes. No. Not what we call life, you know. And you were always handsome; but three years ago you were just Diana Starling, and now—you might be anybody!"
"I am Mr. Masters' wife," said Diana, setting her teeth as it were upon the words.
"Yes, I heard. How happened it? Do you know, I am afraid you have done a great deal of mischief? O, you handsome women!—you have a great deal to account for. Did you never think you had another admirer?—in those days long ago, you know?"
"What if I had?" Diana said almost fiercely.
"O, of course," said Mrs. Reverdy with her laugh again,—"of course it is nothing to you now; girls are hard-hearted towards their old lovers, I know that. But weren't you a little tender towards him once? He hasn't forgotten his part, I can tell you. You mustn't be too hard-hearted, Diana."