"I think folks is always happier," he continued, "when they forgit to please themselves and try to suit others, even if they can't see any sense in it."
Andy did not exactly mean this as a rebuke, but it had the effect of one and set Ethelyn thinking. Such genuine simplicity and frankness could not be lost upon her, and long after Andy had left her and gone to his room, where he sought in his prayer-book for something just suited to her case, she sat pondering all he had said, and upon the faith which could make even simple Andy so lovable and good.
"He has improved his one talent far more than I have my five or ten," she said, while regrets for her own past misdeeds began to fill her bosom, with a wish that she might in some degree atone for them.
Perhaps it was the resolution formed that night, and perhaps it was the answer to Andy's prayer that God would have mercy upon Ethie and incline her and his mother to pull together better, which sent Ethelyn down to breakfast the next morning and kept her below stairs a good portion of the day, and made her accept James' invitation to ride with him in the afternoon. Then when it was night again, and she saw Eunice carrying through the hall a smoking firebrand, which she knew was designed for the parlor fire, she changed her mind about staying alone upstairs with the books she had commenced to read, but brought instead the white, fleecy cloud she was knitting, and sat with the family, who had never seen her more gracious or amiable, and wondered what had happened. Andy thought he knew; he had prayed for Ethie, not only the previous night, but that morning before he left his room, and also during the day—once in the barn upon a rick of hay and once behind the smoke-house.
Andy always looked for direct answers to his prayers, and believing he had received one his face was radiant with content and satisfaction, when after supper he brushed and wet his hair and plastered it down upon his forehead, and changed his boots for a lighter pair of Richard's, and then sat down before the parlor fire with the yarn sock he was knitting for himself. Ethelyn had never seen him engaged in this feminine employment before, and she felt a strong disposition to laugh, but fearing to wound him, repressed her smiles and seemed not to look at him as he worked industriously on the heel, turning and shaping it better than she could have done. It was not often that Ethelyn had favored the family with music, but she did so that night, playing and singing pieces which she knew were familiar to them, and only feeling a momentary pang of resentment when, at the close of "Yankee Doodle," with variations, quiet John remarked that Melinda herself could not go ahead of that! Melinda's style of music was evidently preferable to her own, but she swallowed the insult and sang "Lily Dale," at the request of Andy, who, thinking the while of dear little Daisy, wiped his eyes with the leg of his sock, while a tear trickled down his mother's cheek and dropped into her lap.
"I thought Melinda Jones wanted to practice on the pianner," Eunice said, after Ethelyn was done playing; "I heard her saying so one day and wondering if Miss Markham would be willin'."
Ethelyn was in a mood then to assent to most anything, and she expressed her entire approbation, saying even that she would gladly give Melinda any assistance in her power. Ethelyn had been hard and cold and proud so long that she scarcely knew herself in this new phase of character, and the family did not know her, either. But they appreciated it fully, and James' eyes were very bright and sparkling when, in imitation of Andy, he bade his sister good-night, thinking, as she left the room how beautiful she was and how pleased Melinda would be, and hoping she would find it convenient to practice there evenings, as that would render an escort home absolutely necessary, unless "Terrible Tim" came for her.
Ethelyn had not changed her mind when Melinda came home next day, and as a matter of course called at the Markhams' in the evening. But Ethelyn's offer had come a little too late—Melinda was going to Washington to spend the winter! A bachelor brother of her mother's, living among the mountains of Vermont, had been elected Member of Congress in the place of the regular member, who had resigned, and as the uncle was wealthy and generous, and had certain pleasant reminiscences of a visit to Iowa when a little black-eyed girl had been so agreeable to him, he had written for her to join him in Washington, promising to defray all expenses and sending on a draft for two hundred dollars, with which she was to procure whatever she deemed necessary for her winter's outfit. Melinda's star was in the ascendant, and Ethelyn felt a pang of something like envy as she thought how differently Melinda's winter would pass from her own, while James trembled for the effect Washington might have upon the girl who walked so slowly with him along the beaten path between his house and her father's, and whose eyes, as she bade him good-night, were little less bright than the stars shining down upon her. Would she come back like Ethelyn? He hoped not, for there would then be an end to all fond dreams he had been dreaming. She would despise his homely ways and look for somebody higher than plain Jim Markham in his cowhide boots. James was sorry to have Melinda go, and Ethelyn was sorry, too. It seemed as if she was to be left alone, for two days after Melinda's return, Marcia Fenton and Ella Backus came out from Camden to call, and communicated the news that they, too, were going on to Washington, together with Mrs. Judge Miller, whose father was a United States Senator. It was terrible to be thus left behind, and Ethelyn's heart grew harder against her husband for dooming her to such a fate. Every week James, or John, or Andy brought from the post a letter in Richard's handwriting, directed to Mrs. Richard Markham, and once in two weeks Andy carried a letter to the post directed in Ethelyn's handwriting to "Richard Markham, M.C.," but Andy never suspected that the dainty little envelope, with a Boston mark upon it, inclosed only a blank sheet of paper! Ethelyn had affirmed so solemnly that she would not write to her husband that she half feared to break her vow; and, besides that, she could not forgive him for having left her behind, while Marcia, Ella, and Melinda were enjoying themselves so much. She knew she was doing wrong, and not a night of her life did she go to her lonely bed that there did not creep over her a sensation of fear as she thought, "What if I should die while I am so bad?"
At home, in Chicopee, she used always to go through with a form of prayer, but she could not do that now for the something which rose up between her and Heaven, smothering the words upon her lips, and so in this dreadful condition she lived on day after day, growing more, and more desolately and lonely, and wondering sadly if life would always be as dreary and aimless as it was now. And while she pondered thus, Andy prayed on and practiced his lessons in good manners, provoking the mirth of the whole family by his ludicrous attempts to be polite, and feeling sometimes tempted to give the matter up. Andy was everything to Ethelyn, and once when her conscience was smiting her more than usual with regard to the blanks, she said to him abruptly: "if you had made a wicked vow, which would you do—keep it or break it, and so tell a falsehood?"
Andy was not much of a lawyer, he said, but "he thought he knew some scripter right to the pint," and taking his well-worn Bible he found and read the parable of the two sons commanded to work in their father's vineyard.
"If the Saviour commended the one who said he wouldn't and then went and did it, I think there can be no harm in your breaking a wicked vow: leastways I should do it."
This was Andy's advice, and that night, long after the family were in bed, a light was shining in Ethelyn's chamber, where she sat writing to her husband, and as if Andy's spirit were pervading hers, she softened, as she wrote and asked forgiveness for all the past which she had made so wretched. She was going to do better, she said, and when her husband came home she would try to make him happy.
"But, oh, Richard," she wrote, "please take me away from here to Camden, or Olney, or anywhere—so I can begin anew to be the wife I ought to be. I was never worthy of you, Richard. I deceived you from the first, and if I could summon the courage I would tell you about it."
This letter which would have done so much good, was never finished, for when the morning came there were troubled faces at the prairie farmhouse—Mrs. Markham looking very anxious and Eunice very scared, James going for the doctor and Andy for Mrs. Jones, while up in Ethie's room, where the curtains were drawn so closely before the windows, life and death were struggling for the mastery, and each in a measure coming off triumphant.
Richard had not been very happy in Washington. He led too quiet and secluded a life, his companions said, advising him to go out more, and jocosely telling him that he was pining for his young wife and growing quite an old man. When Melinda Jones came, Richard brightened a little, for there was always a sense of comfort and rest in Melinda's presence, and Richard spent much of his leisure in her society, accompanying her to concerts and occasionally to a levee, and taking pains to show her whatever he thought would interest her. It was pleasant to have a lady with him sometimes, and he wished so much it had been practicable for Ethelyn to have come. "Poor Ethie," he called her to himself, pitying her because, vain man that he was, he thought her so lonely without him. This was at first, and before he had received in reply to his letter that dreadful blank, which sent such a chill to his heart, making him cold, and faint, and sick, as he began to realize what it was in a woman's power to do. He had occasionally thought of Ethelyn's threat, not to write him a line, and felt very uncomfortable as he recalled the expression of her eyes when she made it. But he did not believe she was in earnest. She surely could not hold out against the letter he wrote, telling how he missed her every moment, and how, if it had been at all advisable, he would have taken her with him. He did not know Ethelyn, and so was not prepared for the bitter disappointment in store for him when the dainty little envelope was put into his hand. It was her handwriting—so much he knew; and there lingered about the missive faint traces of the sweet perfume he remembered as pervading everything she wore or used. Ethelyn had not kept her vow; and with a throb of joy Richard tore open the envelope and removed the delicate tinted sheet inside. But the hand of the strong man shook and his heart grew heavy as lead when he turned the sheet thrice over, seeking in vain for some line or word, or syllable or sign. But there was none. Ethelyn had kept her vow, and Richard felt for a moment as if all the world were as completely a blank as that bit of gilt-edged paper he crumpled so helplessly in his hand. Anon, however, hope whispered that she would write next time; she could not hold out thus all winter; and so Richard wrote again with the same success, until at last he expected nothing, and people said of him that he was growing old, while even Melinda noticed his altered appearance, and how fast his brown hair was turning gray. Melinda was in one sense his good angel. She brought him news from home and Ethelyn, telling for one thing of Ethie's offer to teach her music during the winter; and for another, of Ethie's long drives upon the prairie, sometimes with James, sometimes with John, but oftenest with Andy, to whom she seemed to cling as to a very dear brother.
This news did Richard good, showing a better side of Ethie's character than the one presented to him. She was not cold and proud to the family at home; even his mother, who wrote to him once or twice, spoke kindly of her, while James warmly applauded her, and Andy wrote a letter, wonderful in composition, and full of nothing but Ethelyn, who made their home so pleasant with her music, and songs, and pretty face. There was some comfort in this^ and so Richard bore his burden in silence, and no one ever dreamed that the letters he received with tolerable regularity were only blank, fulfillments of a hasty vow.
With Christmas came the Van Buren set from Boston—Aunt Sophia, with Frank, and his girlish bride, who soon became a belle, flirting with every man who offered his attentions, while Frank was in no way behind in his flirtations with the other sex. Plain, matter-of-fact Melinda Jones was among the first to claim his notice after he learned that she was niece of the man who drove such splendid blacks and kept so handsome a suite of rooms at Willard's; but Melinda was more than his match, and snubbed him so unmercifully that he gave her up, and sneered at her as "that old-maidish girl from the West." Mrs. Dr. Van Buren had been profuse in her inquiries after Ethelyn, and loud in her regrets at her absence. She had also tried to patronize both Richard and Melinda, taking the latter with her to the theater and to a reception, and trying to cultivate her for the sake of poor Ethie, who was obliged to associate with her and people like her. Melinda, however, did not need Mrs. Van Buren's patronage. Her uncle was a man of wealth and mark, who stood high in Washington, where he had been before. His niece could not lack attention, and ere the season was over the two rival belles at Washington were Mrs. Frank Van Buren, from Boston, and Miss Melinda Jones, from Iowa.
But prosperity did not spoil Melinda, and James Markham's chances were quite as good when, dressed in pink silk, with camelias in her hair, she entertained some half-dozen judges and M.C.'s as when in brown delaine and magenta ribbons she danced a quadrille at some "quilting bee out West." She saw the difference, however, between men of cultivation and those who had none, and began to understand the cause of Ethelyn's cold, proud looks when surrounded by Richard's family. She began also silently to watch and criticise Richard, comparing him with other men of equal brain, and thinking how, if she were his wife, she would go to work to correct his manners. Possibly, too, thoughts of James, in his blue frock and cowhide boots, occasionally intruded themselves upon her mind; but if so, they did not greatly disturb her equanimity, for, let what might happen, Melinda felt herself equal to the emergency—whether it were to put down Frank Van Buren and the whole race of impudent puppies like him, or polish rough James Markham if need be. How she hated Frank Van Buren when she saw his neglect of his young wife, whose money was all he seemed to care for; and how utterly she loathed and despised him after the night, when, at a party given by one of Washington's magnates, he stood beside her for half an hour and talked confidently to her of Ethelyn, whom, he hinted, he could have married if he would.
"Why didn't you, then?" and Melinda turned sharply upon him, with a look in her black eyes which made him wince as he replied: "Family interference—must have money, you know! But, zounds! don't I pity her!—tied to that clown, whom—"
Frank did not finish the sentence, for Melinda's eyes fairly blazed with anger as she cut him short with "Excuse me, Mr. Van Buren; I can't listen to such abuse of one whom I esteem as highly as I do Judge Markham. Why, sir, he is head and shoulders above you, in sense and intellect and everything which makes a man," and with a haughty bow, Melinda swept away, leaving the shamefaced Frank alone in his discomfiture.
"I'd like to kick myself if I could, though I told nothing but the truth. Ethie did want me confoundedly, and I would have married her if she hadn't been poor as a church mouse," Frank muttered to himself, standing in the deep recess of the window, and all unconscious that just outside upon the balcony was a silent, motionless form, which had heard every word of his conversation with Melinda, and his soliloquy afterward.
Richard Markham had come to this party just to please Melinda, but he did not enjoy it. If Ethie had been there he might; but he could not forget the blank that day received, or the letter from James, which said that Ethelyn was not looking as well as usual, and had the morning previously asked him to turn back before they had ridden more than two miles. He could not be happy with that upon his mind, and so he stole from the gay scene out upon the balcony, where he stood watching the quiet stars and thinking of Ethelyn, when his ear had caught by the mention of her name.
He had not thought before who the couple were standing so near to him, but he knew now it was Melinda and Frank Van Buren, and became an involuntary listener to the conversation which ensued. There was a clenching of his fist, a shutting together of his teeth, and an impulse to knock the boasting Frank Van Buren down; and then, as the past flashed before him, with the thought that possibly Frank spoke the truth and Ethelyn had loved him, there swept over him such a sense of anguish and desolation that he forgot all else in his own wretchedness. It had never occurred to him that Ethelyn married him while all the time she loved another—that perhaps she loved that other still—and the very possibility of it drove him nearly wild.
He was missed from the party, but no one could tell when he left, for no one saw him as he sprang down into the garden, and taking refuge in the paths where the shades were the deepest, escaped unobserved into the street, and so back to his own room, where he went over all the past and recalled every little act of affection on Ethelyn's part, weighed it in the balance with proofs that she did not care for him and never had. So much did Richard love his wife and so anxious was he to find her guiltless that he magnified every virtue and excused every error until the verdict rendered was in her favor, and Frank alone was the delinquent—Frank, the vain, conceited coxcomb, who thought because a woman was civil to him that she must needs wish to marry him; Frank, the wretch who had presumed to pity his cousin, and called her husband a clown! How Richard's fingers tingled with a desire to thrash the insulting rascal; and how, in spite of the verdict, his heart ached with a dull, heavy fear lest it might be true in part, that Ethie had once felt for Frank something deeper than what girls usually feel for their first cousins.
"And supposing she has?" Richard's generous nature asked. "Supposing she did love this Frank once on a time well enough to marry him? She surely was all over that love before she promised to be my wife, else she had not promised; and so the only point where she is at fault was in concealing from me the fact that she had loved another first. I was honest with her. I told her of Abigail, and it was very hard to do it, for I felt that the proud girl's spirit rebelled against such as Abigail was years ago. It would have been so easy, then, for Ethelyn to have confessed to me, if she had a confession to make; though how she could ever care for such a jackanapes as that baboon of a Frank is more than I can tell."
Richard was waxing warm against Frank Van Buren, whom he despised so heartily that he put upon his shoulders all the blame concerning Ethelyn, if blame there were. He would so like to think her innocent, and he tried so hard to do it, that he succeeded in part, though frequently as the days passed on, and he sat at his post in the House, listening to some tiresome speech, or took his solitary walk toward Arlington Heights, a pang of something like jealousy and dread that all had not been open and fair between himself and his wife cut like a knife through his heart, and almost stopped his breath. The short session was wearing to a close, and he was glad of it, for he longed to be home again with Ethelyn, even if he were doomed to meet the same coldness which those terrible blanks had brought him. Anything was preferable to the life he led, and though he grew pale as ashes and his limbs quivered like a reed when, toward the latter part of February, he received a telegram to come home at once, as Ethelyn was very sick, he hailed the news as a message of deliverance, whereby he could escape from hated Washington a few days sooner. He hardly knew when or how the idea occurred to him that Aunt Barbara's presence would be more acceptable in that house, where he guessed what had happened; but occur to him it did; and Aunt Barbara, sitting by her winter fire and thinking of Ethelyn, was startled terribly by the missive which bade her join Richard Markham at Albany, on the morrow, and go with him to Iowa, where Ethie lay so ill. A pilgrimage to Mecca would scarcely have looked more formidable to the good woman than this sudden trip to Iowa; but where her duty was concerned she did not hesitate, and when at noon of the next day the New York train came up the river, the first thing Richard saw as he walked rapidly toward the Central Depot at Albany was Aunt Barbara's bonnet protruding from the car window and Aunt Barbara's hand making frantic passes and gestures to attract his notice.
For one whole week the windows of Ethelyn's room were darkened as dark as Mrs. Markham's heavy shawl and a patchwork quilt could make them. The doctor rode to and from the farmhouse, looking more and more concerned each time he came from the sick-room. Mrs. Jones was over almost every hour, or if she did not come Tim was sent to inquire, his voice very low and subdued as he asked, "How is she now?" while James' voice was lower and sadder still as he answered, "There is no change." Up and down the stairs Mrs. Markham trod softly, wishing that she had never harbored an unkind thought against the pale-faced girl lying so unconscious of all they were doing for her. In the kitchen below, with a scared look upon her face, Eunice washed and wiped her dishes, and wondered if Richard would get home in time for the funeral, and if he would order from Camden a metallic coffin such as Minnie Dayton had been buried in; and Eunice's tears fell like rain as she thought how terrible it was to die so young, and unprepared, too, as she heard Mrs. Markham say to the Methodist clergyman when he came over to offer consolation.
Yes, Ethelyn was unprepared for the fearful change which seemed so near, and of all the household none felt this more keenly than Andy, whose tears soaked through and through the leaf of the prayer-book, where was printed the petition for the sick, and who improvised many a touching prayer himself, kneeling by the wooden chair where God had so often met and blessed him.
"Don't let Ethie die, Good Father, don't let her die; at least not till she is ready, and Dick is here to see her—poor old Dick, who loves her so much. Please spare her for him, and take me in her place. I'm good for nothing, only I do hope I'm ready, and Ethie ain't; so spare her and take me in her place."
This was one of Andy's prayers—generous, unselfish Andy—who would have died for Ethelyn, and who had been in such exquisite distress since the night when Eunice first found Ethelyn moaning in her room, with her letter to Richard lying unfinished before her. No one had read that letter—the Markhams were too honorable for that—and it had been put away in the portfolio, while undivided attention was given to Ethelyn. She had been unconscious nearly all the time, saying once when Mrs. Markham asked, "Shall we send for Richard?" "Send for Aunt Barbara; please send for Aunt Barbara."
This was the third day of Ethelyn's danger, and on the sixth there came a change. The shawl was pinned back from the window, admitting light enough for the watchers by the bedside to see if the sufferer still breathed. Life was not extinct, and Mrs. Markham's lips moved with a prayer of thanksgiving when Mrs. Jones pointed to a tiny drop of moisture beneath the tangled hair. Ethelyn would live, the doctor said, but down in the parlor on the sofa where Daisy had lain was a little lifeless form with a troubled look upon its face, showing that it had fought for its life. Prone upon the floor beside it sat Andy, whispering to the little one and weeping for "poor old Dick, who would mourn for his lost boy."
Andy was very sorry, and to one who saw him that day, and, ignorant of the circumstances, asked what was the matter that he looked so solemn, he answered sadly, "I have just lost my little uncle that I wanted to stand sponsor for. He only lived a day," and Andy's tears flowed afresh as he thought of all he had lost with the child whose life numbered scarcely twenty-four hours in all. But that was enough to warrant its being now among the spirits of the Redeemed, and heaven seemed fairer, more desirable to Andy than it had done before. His father was there with Daisy and his baby uncle, as he persisted in calling Ethelyn's dead boy until James told him better, and pointed out the ludicrousness of the mistake. To Ethelyn Andy was tender as a mother, when at last they let him see her, and his lips left marks upon her forehead and cheek. She was perfectly conscious now, and when told they had sent for Richard, manifested a good deal of interest, and asked when he would probably be there. They were expecting him every train; but ere he came the fever, which seemed for a time to have abated, returned with double force and Ethelyn knew nothing of the kisses Richard pressed upon her lips, or the tears Aunt Barbara shed over her poor darling.
There were anxious hearts and troubled faces in the farmhouse that day, for Death was brooding there again, and they who watched his shadow darkening around them spoke only in whispers, as they obeyed the physician's orders. When Richard first came in Mrs. Markham wound her arm around his neck, and said, "I am so sorry for you, my poor boy," while the three sons, one after another, had grasped their brother's hand in token of sympathy, and that was all that had passed between them of greeting. For the rest of the day, Richard had sat constantly by Ethelyn, watching the changes of her face, and listening to her as she raved in snatches, now of himself, and the time he saved her from the maddened cow, and now of Frank and the huckleberries, which she said were ripening on the Chicopee hills. When she talked of this Richard held his breath, and once, as he leaned forward so as not to lose a word, he caught Aunt Barbara regarding him intently, her wrinkled cheek flushing as she met his eye and guessed what was in his mind. If Richard had needed any confirmation of his suspicions, that look on transparent Aunt Barbara's face would have confirmed them. There had been something between Ethelyn and Frank Van Buren more than a cousinly liking, and Richard's heart throbbed powerfully as he sat by the tossing, restless Ethelyn, moaning on about the huckleberry hills, and the ledge of rocks where the wild laurels grew. This pain he did not try to analyze; he only said to himself that he felt no bitterness toward Ethelyn. She was too near to death's dark tide for that. She was Ethie—his darling—the mother of the child that had been buried from sight before he came. Perhaps she did not love him, and never would; but he had loved her, oh! so much, and if he lost her he would be wretched indeed. And so, forgiving all the past of which he knew, and trying to forgive all he did not know, he sat by her till the sun went down, and his mother came for the twentieth time, urging him to eat. He had not tasted food that day, and faint for the want of it he followed her to where the table had been set, and supper prepared with a direct reference to his particular taste.
He felt better and stronger when supper was over, and listened eagerly while Andy and Eunice, who had been the last with Ethelyn before her sudden illness, recounted every incident as minutely and reverently as if speaking of the dead. Especially did he hang on what Andy said with reference to her questioning him about the breaking of a wicked vow, and when Eunice added her mite to the effect that, getting up for some camphor for an aching tooth, she had heard a groan from Ethelyn's room, and had found her mistress bending over a half-finished letter, which she "reckoned" was to him, and had laid away in the portfolio, he waited for no more, but hurried upstairs to the little bookcase where Eunice had put the treasure—for it was a countless treasure, that unfinished letter, which he read with the great tears rolling down his cheeks, and his heart growing tenfold softer and warmer toward the writer, who confessed to having wronged him, and wished so much that she dare tell him all. What was it she had to tell? Would he ever know? he asked himself, as he put the letter back where he found it. Yes, she would surely tell him, if she lived, as live she must. She was dearer to him now than she had ever been, and the lips unused to prayer, save as a form, prayed most earnestly that Ethie might be spared. Then, as there flashed upon him a sense of the inconsistency there was in keeping aloof from God all his life, and going to him only when danger threatened, he bowed his head in very shame, and the prayer died on his lips. But Andy always prayed—at least he had for many years; and so the wise strong brother sought the simple weaker one, and asked him to do what he had not power to do.
Andy's swollen eyes and haggard face bore testimony to his sorrow, and his voice was very low and earnest, as he replied: "Brother Dick, I'm prayin' all the time. I've said that prayer for the sick until I've worn it threadbare, and now every breath I draw has in it the petition, 'We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord.' There's nothing in that about Ethie, it's true; but God knows I mean her, and will hear me all the same."
There was a touching simplicity in Andy's faith, which went to the heart of Richard, making him feel of how little avail was knowledge or wisdom or position if there was lacking the one thing needful, which Andy so surely possessed. That night was a long, wearisome one at the farmhouse; but when the morning broke hope and joy came with it, for Ethelyn was better, and in the brown eyes, which unclosed so languidly, there was a look of consciousness, which deepened into a look of surprise and joyful recognition as they rested upon Aunt Barbara.
"Is this Chicopee? Am I home? Oh, Aunt Barbara, I am so glad! you can't guess how glad, or know how tired and sorry your poor Ethie has been," came brokenly from the pale lips, as Ethelyn moved nearer to Aunt Barbara and laid her head upon the motherly bosom, where it had so often lain in the dear old Chicopee days.
She did not notice Richard, or seem to know that she was elsewhere than in Chicopee, back in the old home, and Richard's pulse throbbed quickly as he saw the flush come over Ethie's face, and the look of pain creep into her eyes, when a voice broke the illusion and told her she was still in Olney, with him and the mother-in-law leaning over the bed-rail saying, "Speak to her, Richard."
"Ethie, don't you know me, too?—I came with Aunt Barbara."
That was what he said, as he bent over her, seeking to take in his own one of the feverish little hands locked so fast in those of Aunt Barbara. She did know then, and remember, and her lip quivered in a grieved, disappointed way as she said, "Yes, Richard, I know now. I am not at home, I'm here;" and the intonation of the voice as it uttered the word "here," spoke volumes, and told Aunt Barbara just how homesick and weary and wretched her darling had been here. She must not talk much, the physician said, and so with one hand in Richard's and one in Aunt Barbara's she fell away to sleep again, while the family stole out to their usual avocations, Mrs. Markham and Eunice to their baking, James and John to their work upon the farm, and Andy to his Bethel in the wood-house chamber, where he repeated: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel who has visited and redeemed his people," and added at the conclusion the Gloria Patri, which he thought suitable for the occasion.
DAYS OF CONVALESCENCE
They were very pleasant to Ethelyn, for with Aunt Barbara anticipating every want, and talking of Chicopee; she could not be very weary. It was pleasant, too, having Richard home again, and Ethie was very soft and kind and amiable toward him; but she did not tell him of the letter she had commenced, or hint at the confession he longed to hear. It would have been comparatively easy to write it, but with him there where she could look into his face and watch the dark expression which was sure to come into his eyes, it was hard to tell him that Frank Van Buren had held the first place in her affections, if indeed he did not hold it now. She was not certain yet, though she hoped and tried to believe that Frank was nothing more than cousin now. He surely ought not to be, with Nettie calling him her husband, while she too was a wife. But so subtle was the poison which that unfortunate attachment had infused into her veins that she could not tell whether her nature was cleared of it or not, and so, though she asked forgiveness for having so literally kept her vow, and said that she did commence a letter to him, she kept back the most important part of all. It was better to wait, she thought, until she could truly say, "I loved Frank Van Buren once, but now I love you far better than ever I did him."
Had she guessed how much Richard knew, and how the knowledge was rankling in his bosom, she might have done differently. But she took the course she thought the best, and the perfect understanding Richard had so ardently hoped for was not then arrived at. For a time, however, there seemed to be perfect peace between them, and could Richard have forgotten Frank Van Buren's words or even those of Ethie herself when her fever was on, he would have been supremely happy. But to forget was impossible, and he often found himself wondering how much of Frank's assertion was true, and if Ethelyn would ever be as open and honest with him as he had tried to be with her. She did not get well very fast, and the color came slowly back into her lips and cheeks. She was far happier than she had been before since she first came to Olney. She could not say that she loved her husband as a true wife ought to love a man like Richard Markham, but she found a pleasure in his society which she had never experienced before, while Aunt Barbara's presence was a constant source of joy. That good woman had prolonged her stay far beyond what she had thought it possible when she left Chicopee. She could not tear herself away, when Ethie pleaded so earnestly for her to remain a little longer, and so, wholly impervious to the hints which Mrs. Markham occasionally threw out, that her services were no longer needed as nurse to Ethelyn, she stayed on week after week, seeing far more than she seemed to see, and making up her mind pretty accurately with regard to the prospect of Ethie's happiness, if she remained an inmate of her husband's family.
Aunt Barbara and Mrs. Markham did not harmonize at all. At first, when Ethie was so sick, everything had been merged in the one absorbing thought of her danger, and even the knowledge accidentally obtained that Richard had paid Miss Bigelow's fare out there and would pay it back, had failed to produce more than a passing pang in the bosom of the close, calculating, economical Mrs. Markham; but when the danger was past, it kept recurring again and again, with very unpleasant distinctness, that Aunt Barbara was an expense they could well do without. Nobody could quarrel with Aunt Barbara—she was so mild, and gentle, and peaceable—and Mrs. Markham did not quarrel with her, but she thought about her all the time, and fretted over her, and remembered the letter she had written about her ways and her being good to Ethie, and wondered what she was there for, and why she did not go home, and asked her what time they generally cleaned house in Chicopee, and if she dared trust her cleaning with Betty. Aunt Barbara was a great annoyance, and she complained to Eunice and Mrs. Jones, and Melinda, who had returned from Washington, that she was spoiling Ethelyn, babying her so, and making her think herself so much weaker than she was.
"Mercy knew," she said, that in her day, when she was young and having children, she did not hug the bed forever. She had something else to do, and was up and around in a fortnight at the most. Her table wasn't loaded down with oranges and figs, and the things they called banannys, which fairly made her sick at her stomach. Nobody was carryin' her up glasses of milk-punch, and lemonade, and cups of tea, at all hours of the day. She was glad of anything, and got well the faster for it. Needn't tell her!—it would do Ethelyn good to stir around and take the air, instead of staying cooped up in her room, complaining that it is hot and close there in the bedroom. "It's airy enough out doors," and with a most aggrieved look on her face, Mrs. Markham put into the oven the pan of soda biscuit she had been making, and then proceeded to lay the cloth for tea.
Eunice had been home for a day or two with a felon on her thumb, and thus a greater proportion of the work had fallen upon Mrs. Markham, which to some degree accounted for her ill-humor. Mrs. Jones and Melinda were spending the afternoon with her, but the latter was up in Ethie's room. Melinda had always a good many ideas of her own, and she had brought with her several new ones from Washington and New York, where she had stayed for four weeks at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. But Melinda, though greatly improved in appearance, was not one whit spoiled. In manner, and the fit of her dress, she was more like Ethelyn and Mrs. Judge Miller, of Camden, than she once had been, and at first James was a little afraid of her, she puffed her hair so high, and wore her gowns so long, while his mother, looking at the stylish hat and fashionable sack which she brought back from Gotham, said her head was turned, and she was altogether too fine for Olney. But when, on the next rainy Sunday, she rode to church in her father's lumber wagon, holding the blue cotton umbrella over her last year's straw and waterproof—and when arrived at the church she suffered James to help her to alight, jumping over the muddy wheel, and then going straight to her accustomed seat in the choir, which had missed her strong voice so much—the son changed his mind, and said she was the same as ever; while after the day when she found Mrs. Markham making soap out behind the corn-house, and good-humoredly offered to watch it and stir it while that lady went into the house to see to the corn pudding, which Eunice was sure to spoil if left to her own ingenuity, the mother, too, changed her mind, and wished Richard had been so lucky as to have fixed his choice on Melinda. But James was far from wishing a thing which would so seriously have interfered with his hopes and wishes. He was very glad that Richard's preference had fallen where it did, and his cheery whistle was heard almost constantly, and after Tim Jones told, in his blunt way, how "Melind was tryin' to train him, and make him more like them dandies at the big tavern in New York," he, too, began to amend, and taking Richard for his pattern, imitated him, until he found that simple, loving Andy, in his anxiety to please Ethelyn, had seized upon more points of etiquette than Richard ever knew existed, and then he copied Andy, having this in his favor: that whatever he did himself was done with a certain grace inherent in his nature, whereas Andy's attempts were awkward in the extreme.
Melinda saw the visible improvement in James, and imputing it rather to Ethelyn's influence than her own, was thus saved from any embarrassment she might have experienced had she known to a certainty how large a share of James Markham's thoughts and affections she possessed. She was frequently at the farmhouse; but had not made what her mother called a visit until the afternoon when Mrs. Markham gave her opinion so freely of Aunt Barbara's petting and its effect on Ethelyn.
From the first introduction Aunt Barbara had liked the practical, straightforward Melinda, in whom she found a powerful ally whenever any new idea was suggested with regard to Ethelyn. To her Aunt Barbara had confided her belief that it was not well for Ethelyn to stay there any longer—that she and Richard both would be better by themselves; an opinion which Melinda heartily indorsed, and straightway set herself at work to form some plan whereby Aunt Barbara's idea might be carried out.
Melinda was not a meddlesome girl, but she did like to help manage other people's business, doing it so well, and evincing so little selfishness in her consideration for others, that when once she had taken charge of a person's affairs she was pretty sure to have the privilege again. When Richard ran for justice of the peace, and she was a little girl, she had refused to speak to three other little girls who flaunted the colors of the opposition candidate; and when he was nominated first for Judge and then as member for the district, she had worked for him quite as zealously as Tim himself, and through her more than one vote, which otherwise might have been lost, was cast in his favor. As she had worked for him, so she now worked for Ethelyn, approaching Richard very adroitly and managing so skillfully that when at last, on the occasion of her visit to his mother's, Aunt Barbara asked him, in her presence and Ethelyn's, if he had never thought it would be well both for himself and wife to live somewhere else than there at home, he never dreamed that he was echoing the very ideas Melinda had instilled into his mind by promptly replying that "he had recently thought seriously of a change," and then asked Ethie where she would like to live—in Olney or in Camden.
"Not Olney—no, not Olney!" Ethelyn gasped, thinking how near that was to her mother-in-law, and shrinking from the espionage to which she would surely be subjected.
Her preference was Davenport, but to this Richard would not listen. Indeed, he began to feel sorry that he had admitted a willingness to change at all, for the old home was very dear to him, and he thought he would never leave it. But he stood committed now, and Melinda followed him up so dexterously, that in less than half an hour it was arranged that early in June Ethelyn should have a home in Camden—either a house of her own, or a suite of rooms at the Stafford House, just which she preferred. She chose the latter, and, womanlike, began at once in fancy to furnish and arrange the handsome apartments which looked out upon Camden Park, and which Melinda said were at present unoccupied. Melinda knew, for only two days before she had been to Camden with her brother Tim and dined at the Stafford House, and heard her neighbor on her right inquire of his vis-a-vis how long since General Martin left the second floor of the new wing, and who occupied it now. This was a mere happen so, but Melinda was one of those to whom the right thing was always happening, the desired information always coming; and if she did contrive to ascertain the price charged for the rooms, it was only because she understood that one of the Markham peculiarities was being a little close, and wished to be armed at every point.
Richard had no idea that Melinda was managing him, or that anyone was managing him. He thought himself that Camden might be a pleasant place to live; as an ex-Judge and M.C. he could get business anywhere; and though he preferred Olney, inasmuch as it was home, he would, if Ethelyn liked, try Camden for a while. It is true the price of the rooms, which Melinda casually named, was enormous, but, then, Ethelyn's health and happiness were above any moneyed consideration; and so, while Mrs. Markham below made and molded the soda biscuit, and talked about dreading the hot weather if "Ethelyn was going to be weakly," Aunt Barbara, and Melinda, and Richard settled a matter which made her eyes open wide with astonishment when, after the exit of the Joneses and the doing up of her work, it was revealed to her. Of course, she charged it all to Aunt Barbara, wishing that good woman as many miles away as intervened between Olney and Chicopee. Had the young people been going to keep house, she would have been more reconciled, for in that case much of what they consumed would have been the product of the farm; but to board, to take rooms at the Stafford House where Ethelyn would have nothing in the world to do but to dress and gossip, was abominable. Then when she heard of the price she opposed the plan with so much energy that, but for Aunt Barbara and Melinda Jones, Richard might have succumbed; but the majority ruled, and Ethelyn's eyes grew brighter, and her thin cheeks rounder, with the sure hope of leaving a place where she had been so unhappy. She should miss Melinda Jones; and though she would be near Mrs. Miller, and Marcia Fenton, and Ella Backus, they could not be to her all Melinda had been, while Andy—Ethelyn felt the lumps rising in her throat whenever she thought of him and the burst of tears with which he had heard that she was going away.
"I can't help thinkin' it's for the wuss," he said, wiping his smooth face with the cuff of his coat-sleeve. "Something will happen as the result of your goin' there. I feel it in my bones."
Were Andy's words prophetic? Would something happen, if they went to Camden, which would not have happened had they remained in Olney? Ethelyn did not ask herself the question. She was too supremely happy, and if she thought at all, it was of how she could best accelerate her departure from the lonely farmhouse.
When Mrs. Markham found that they were really going, that nothing she could say would be of any avail, she gave up the contest, and, mother-like, set herself at work planning for their comfort, or rather for Richard's comfort. It was for him that the best and newest featherbed, weighing thirty pounds and a half to a feather, was aired and sunned three days upon the kitchen roof, the good woman little dreaming that if the thirty-pounder was used at all, it would do duty under the hair mattress Ethelyn meant to have. They were to furnish their own rooms, and whatever expense Mrs. Markham could save her boy she meant to do. There was the carpet in their chamber—they could have that; for after they were gone it was not likely the room would be used, and the old rag one would answer. They could have the curtains, too, if they liked, with the table and the chairs. Left to himself and his mother's guidance, Richard would undoubtedly have taken to Camden such a promiscuous outfit as would have made even a truckman smile; but there were three women leagued against him, and so draft after draft was drawn from his funds in the Camden bank until the rooms were furnished; and one bright morning in early June, a week after Aunt Barbara started for Chicopee, Ethie bid her husband's family good-by, and turning her back upon Olney, turned also the first leaf of her life's history in the West.
COMING TO A CRISIS
Richard was not happy in his new home; it did not fit him like the old. He missed his mother's petting; he missed the society of his plain, outspoken brothers; he missed his freedom from restraint, and he missed the deference so universally paid to him in Olney, where he was the only lion. In Camden there were many to divide the honors with him; and though he was perhaps unconscious of it, he had been first so long that to be one of many firsts was not altogether agreeable. With the new home and new associates more like those to which she had been accustomed, Ethelyn had resumed her training process, which was not now borne as patiently as in the halcyon days of the honeymoon, when most things wore the couleur de rose and were right because they came from the pretty young bride. Richard chafed under the criticisms to which he was so frequently subjected, and if he improved on them in the least it was not perceptible to Ethlyn, who had just cause to blush for the careless habits of her husband—habits which even Melinda observed, when in August she spent a week with Ethelyn, and then formed one of a party which went for a pleasure trip to St. Paul and Minnehaha. From this excursion, which lasted for two weeks, Richard returned to Camden in anything but an amiable frame of mind. Ethelyn had not pleased him at all, notwithstanding that she had been unquestionably the reigning belle of the party—the one whose hand was claimed in every dance, and whose company was sought in every ride and picnic. Marcia Fenton and Ella Backus faded into nothingness when she was near, and they laughingly complained to Richard that his wife had stolen all their beaux away, and they wished he would make her do better.
"I wish I could," was his reply, spoken not playfully, but moodily, just as he felt at the time.
He was not an adept in concealing his feelings, which generally showed themselves upon his face, or were betrayed in the tones of his voice, and when he spoke as he did of his wife the two young girls glanced curiously at each other, wondering if it where possible that the grave Judge was jealous. If charged with jealousy Richard would have denied it, though he did not care to have Ethelyn so much in Harry Clifford's society. Richard knew nothing definite against Harry, except that he would occasionally drink more than was wholly in accordance with a steady and safe locomotion of his body; and once since they had been at the Stafford House, where he also boarded, the young lawyer had been invisible for three entire days. "Sick with a cold" was his excuse when he appeared again at the table, with haggard face and bloodshot eyes; but in the parlor, and halls, and private rooms, there where whispers of soiled clothes and jammed hats, and the servants bribed to keep the secret that young lawyer Clifford's boots were carried dangling up to No. 94 at a very late hour of the night on which he professed to have taken his cold. After this, pretty Marcia Fenton, who, before Ethelyn came to town, had ridden oftenest after the black horses owned by Harry, tossed her curls when he came near, and arched her eyebrows in a manner rather distasteful to the young man; while Ella Backus turned her back upon him, and in his hearing gave frequent lectures on intemperance and its loathsomeness. Ethelyn, on the contrary, made no difference in her demeanor toward him. She cared nothing for him either way, except that his polite attentions and delicate deference to her tastes and opinions were complimentary and flattering, and so she saw no reason why she should shun him because he had fallen once. It might make him worse, and she should stand by him as an act of philanthropy, she said to Richard when he asked her what she saw to admire in that drunken Clifford.
Richard had no idea that Ethelyn cared in the least for Harry Clifford; he knew she did not, though she sometimes singled him out as one whose manners in society her husband would do well to imitate. Of the two young men, Harry Clifford and Frank Van Buren, who had been suggested to him as copies, Richard preferred the former, and wished he could feel as easy with regard to Frank as he was with regard to Harry. He had never forgotten that fragment of conversation overheard in Washington, and as time went on it haunted him more and more. He had given up expecting any confession from Ethelyn, though at first he was constantly expecting it, and laying little snares by way of hints and reminders; but Ethelyn had evidently changed her mind, and if there was a past which Richard ought to have known, he would now probably remain in ignorance of it, unless some chance revealed it. It would have been far better if Richard had tried to banish all thoughts of Frank Van Buren from his mind and taken Ethelyn as he found her; but Richard was a man, and so, manlike, he hugged the skeleton which he in part had dragged into his home, and petted it, and kept it constantly in sight, instead of thrusting it out from the chamber of his heart, and barring the door against it. Frank's name was never mentioned between them, but Richard fancied that always after the receipt of Mrs. Dr. Van Buren's letters Ethelyn was a little sad, and more disposed to find fault with him, and he sometimes wished Mrs. Dr. Van Buren might never write to them again. There was one of her letters awaiting Ethelyn after her return from Minnesota, and she read it standing under the chandelier, with Richard lying upon the couch near by, watching her curiously. There was something in the letter which disturbed her evidently, for her face flushed, and her lips shut firmly together, as they usually did when she was agitated. Richard already read Aunt Barbara's letters, and heretofore he had been welcome to Mrs. Van Buren's, a privilege of which he seldom availed himself, for he found nothing interesting in her talk of parties, and operas and fashions, and the last new color of dress goods, and style of wearing the hair.
"It was too much twaddle for him," he had said in reply to Ethelyn's questions as to whether he would like to see what Aunt Van Buren had written.
Now, however, she did not offer to show him the letter, but crumpled it nervously in her pocket, and going to her piano, began to play dashingly, rapidly, as was her custom when excited. She did not know that Richard was listening to her, much less watching her, as he lay in the shadow, wondering what that letter contained, and wishing so much that he knew. Ethelyn was tired that night, and after the first heat of her excitement had been thrown off in a spirited schottische, she closed her piano, and coming to the couch where Richard was lying, sat down by his side, and after waiting a moment in silence, asked "of what he was thinking."
There was something peculiar in the tone of her voice—something almost beseeching, as if she either wanted sympathy, or encouragement for the performance of some good act. But Richard did not so understand her. He was, to tell the truth, a very little cross, as men, and women, too, are apt to be when tired with sight-seeing and dissipation. He had been away from his business three whole weeks, traveling with a party for not one member of which, with the exception of his wife, Melinda, Marcia, and Ella, did he care a straw.
Hotel life at St. Paul he regarded as a bore, second only to life at Saratoga. The falls of Minnehaha "was a very pretty little stream," he thought, but what people could see about it go into such ecstasies as Ethelyn, and even Melinda did, he could not tell. Perhaps if Harry Clifford had not formed a part of every scene where Ethelyn was the prominent figure, he might have judged differently. But Harry had been greatly in his way, and Richard did not like it any more than he liked Ethelyn's flirting so much with him, and leaving him, her husband, to look about for himself. He had shown, too, that he did not like it to Marcia Fenton and Ella Backus who probably thought him a bear, as perhaps he was. On the whole, Richard was very uncomfortable in his mind, and Aunt Van Buren's letter did not tend in the least to improve his temper; so when Ethelyn asked him of what he was thinking, and accompanied her question with a stroke of her hand upon his hair, he answered her, "Nothing much, except that I am tired and sleepy."
The touch upon his hair he had felt to his finger tips, for Ethelyn seldom caressed him even as much as this; but he was in too moody a frame of mind to respond as he would once have done. His manner was not very encouraging, but, as if she had nerved herself to some painful duty, Ethelyn persisted, and said to him next: "You have not seen Aunt Van Buren's letter. Shall I read you what she says?"
Every nerve in Richard's body had been quivering with curiosity to see that letter, but now, when the coveted privilege was within his reach, he refused it; and, little dreaming of all he was throwing aside, answered indifferently: "No, I don't know that I care to hear it. I hardly think it will pay. Where are they now?"
"At Saratoga," Ethelyn replied; but her voice was not the same which had addressed Richard first; there was a coldness, a constraint in it now, as if her good resolution had been thrown back upon her and frozen up the impulse prompting her to the right.
Richard had had his chance with Ethelyn and lost it. But he did not know it, or guess how sorry and disappointed she was when at last she left him and retired to her sleeping-room. There was a window open in the parlor, and as the wind was rising with a sound of rain, Richard went to close it ere following his wife. The window was near to the piano and as he shut it something rattled at his feet. It was the crumpled letter, which Ethelyn had accidentally drawn from her dress pocket with the handkerchief she held in her hand when she sat down by Richard. He knew it was that letter, and his first thought was to carry it to Ethelyn; then, as he remembered her offer to read it to him, he said, "Surely there can be no harm in reading it for myself. A man has a right to know what is in a letter to his wife."
Thus reasoning, he sat down by the side light as far away from the bedroom door as possible and commenced Mrs. Dr. Van Buren's letter. They were stopping at the United States, and there was nothing particular at first, except her usual remarks of the people and what they wore; but on the third page Richard's eye caught Frank's name, and skipping all else, leaped eagerly forward to what the writer was saying of her son. His conduct evidently did not please his mother; neither did the conduct of Nettie, who was too insipid for anything, the lady wrote, adding that she was not half so bright and pretty as when she was first married, but had the headache and kept her own room most of the time, and was looking so faded and worn that Frank was really ashamed of her.
"You know how he likes brilliant, sparkling girls," she wrote, "and of course he has no patience with Nettie's fancied ailments. I can't say that I altogether sympathize with her myself; and, dear Ethie, I must acknowledge that it has more than once occurred to me that I did very wrong to meddle with Frank's first love affair. He would be far happier now if it had been suffered to go on, for I suspect he has never entirely gotten over it; but it is too late now for regrets. Nettie is his wife, and he must make the best of it."
Then followed what seemed the secret of the Van Buren discomfort. The bank in which most of Nettie's fortune was deposited had failed, leaving her with only the scanty income of five hundred dollars a year, a sum not sufficient to buy clothes, Mrs. Van Buren said. But Richard did not notice this—his mind was only intent upon Frank's first love affair, which ought to have gone on. He did not ask himself whether, in case it had gone on, Ethelyn would have been there, so near to him that her soft breathing came distinctly to his ear. He knew she would not; there had been something between her and Frank Van Buren, he was convinced beyond a doubt, and the fiercest pang he had ever known was that which came to him when he sat with Mrs. Dr. Van Buren's letter in his hand, wondering why Ethie had withheld the knowledge of it from him, and if she had outlived the love which her aunt regretted as having come to naught. Then, as the more generous part of his nature began to seek excuses for her, he asked himself why she offered to read the letter if she had really been concerned in Frank's first love affair, and hope whispered that possibly she was not the heroine of that romance. There was comfort in that thought: and Richard would have been comforted if jealousy had not suggested how easy it was for her to skip the part relating to Nettie and Frank, and thus leave him as much in the dark as ever. Yes, that was undoubtedly her intention. While seeming to be so open and honest, she would have deceived him all the more. This was what Richard decided, and his heart grew very hard against the young wife, who looked so innocent and pretty in her quiet sleep, when at last he sought his pillow and lay down by her side.
He was very moody and silent for days after that, and even his clients detected an irritability in his manner which they had never seen before. "There was nothing ailed him," he said to Ethelyn, when she asked what was the matter, and accused him of being positively cross. She was very gay; Camden society suited her; and as the season advanced, and the festivities grew more and more frequent, she was seldom at home more than one or two evenings in the week, while the day was given either to the arrangement of dress or taking of necessary rest, so that her husband saw comparatively little of her, except for the moment when she always came to him with hood and white cloak in hand to ask him how she looked, before going to the carriage waiting at the door. Never in her girlish days had she been so beautiful as she was now, but Richard seldom told her so, though he felt the magic influence of her brilliant beauty, and did not wonder that she was the reigning belle. He seldom accompanied her himself. Parties, and receptions, and concerts, were bores, he said; and at first he had raised objections to her going without him. But after motherly Mrs. Harris, who boarded in the next block, and was never happier than when chaperoning someone, offered to see to her and take her under the same wing which had sheltered six fine and now well-married daughters, Richard made no further objections. He did not wish to be thought a domestic tyrant; he did not wish to seem jealous, and so he would wrap Ethie's cloak around her, and taking her himself to Mrs. Harris' carriage, would give that lady sundry charges concerning her, bidding her see that she did not dance till wholly wearied out, and asking her to bring her home earlier than the previous night. Then, returning to his solitary rooms, he would sit nursing the demon which might so easily have been thrust aside. Ethie was not insensible to his kindness in allowing her to follow the bent of her own inclinations, even when it was so contrary to his own, and for his sake she did many things she might not otherwise have done. She snubbed Harry Clifford and the whole set of dandies like him, so that, though they danced, and talked, and laughed with her, they never crossed a certain line of propriety which she had drawn between them. She was very circumspect; she tried at first in various ways to atone to Richard for her long absence from him, telling him whatever she thought would interest him, and sometimes, when she found him waiting for her, and looking so tired and sleepy, playfully chiding him for sitting up for her, and telling him that though it was kind in him to do so, she preferred that he should not. This was early in the season; but after the day when Mrs. Markham, senior, came over from Olney to spend the day, and "blow Richard's wife up," as she expressed it, everything was changed, and Ethelyn stayed out as late as she liked without any concessions to Richard. Mrs. Markham, senior, had heard strange stories of Ethelyn's proceedings—"going to parties night after night, with her dress shamefully low, and going to plays and concerts bareheaded, with flowers and streamers in her hair, besides wearing a mask, and pretending she was Queen Hortense."
"A pretty critter to be," Mrs. Markham had said to the kind neighbor who had returned from Camden and was giving her the particulars in full of Ethelyn's misdoings. "Yes, a pretty critter to be! If I was goin' to turn myself into somebody else I'd take a decent woman. I wonder at Richard's lettin' her; but, law! he is so blind and she so headstrong!"
And the good woman groaned over this proof of depravity as she questioned her visitor further with regard to Ethie's departures from duty.
"And he don't go with her much, you say," she continued, feeling more aggrieved than ever when she heard that on the occasion of Ethie's personating Hortense, Richard had also appeared as a knight of the sixteenth century, and borne his part so well that Ethelyn herself did not recognize him until the mask was removed.
Mrs. Markham could not suffer such high-handed wickedness to go unrebuked, and taking as a peace offering, in case matters assumed a serious aspect, a pot of gooseberry jam and a ball of head cheese, she started for Camden the very next day.
Ethelyn did not expect her, but she received her kindly, and knowing how she hated a public table, had dinner served in her own room, and then, without showing the least impatience, waited a full hour for Richard to come in from the court-house, where an important suit was pending. Mrs. Markham was to return to Olney that night, and as there was no time to lose, she brought the conversation round to the "stories" she had heard, and little by little laid on the lash till Ethelyn's temper was roused, and she asked her mother-in-law to say out what she had to say at once, and not skirt round it so long. Then came the whole list of misdemeanors which Mrs. Markham thought "perfectly ridiculous," asking her son how he "could put up with such work."
Richard wisely forbore taking either side; nor was it necessary that he should speak for Ethie. She was fully competent to fight her own battle, and she fought it with a will, telling her mother-in-law that she should attend as many parties as she pleased and wear as many masks. She did not give up her liberty of action when she married. She was young yet, and should enjoy herself if she chose, and in her own way.
This was all the satisfaction Mrs. Markham could get, and supremely pitying "her poor boy," whom she mentally decided was "henpecked," she took the cars back to Olney, saying to Richard, who accompanied her to the train, "I am sorry for you from the bottom of my heart. It would be better if you had stayed with me."
Richard liked his mother's good opinion, but as he walked back to the hotel he could not help feeling that a mother's interference between man and wife was never very discreet, and he wished the good woman had stayed at home. If he had said so to Ethelyn, when on his return to his rooms he found her weeping passionately, there might have come a better understanding between them, and she probably would have stayed with him that evening instead of attending the whist party given by Mrs. Miller. But he had fully determined to keep silent, and when Ethelyn asked if she was often to be subjected to such insults, he did not reply. He went with her, however, to Mrs. Miller's, and knowing nothing of cards, almost fell asleep while waiting for her, and playing backgammon with another fellow-sufferer, who had married a young wife and was there on duty.
Mrs. Markham, senior, did not go to Camden again, and when Christmas came, and with it an invitation for Richard and his wife to dine at the farmhouse on the turkey Andy had fattened for the occasion, Ethelyn peremptorily declined; and as Richard would not go without her, Mrs. Jones and Melinda had their seats at table, and Mrs. Markham wished for the hundredth time that Richard's preference had fallen on the latter young lady instead of "that headstrong piece who would be his ruin."
It was the Tuesday before Lent. The gay season was drawing to a close, for Mrs. Howard and Mrs. Miller, who led the fashionable world of Camden before Ethelyn's introduction to it, were the highest kind of church-women, and while neglecting the weightier matters of the law were strict to bring their tithes of mint, and anise, and cummin. They were going to wear sackcloth and ashes for forty days and stay at home, unless, as Mrs. Miller said to Ethelyn, they met occasionally in each other's house for a quiet game of whist or euchre. There could be no harm in that, particularly if they abstained on Fridays, as of course they should. Mr. Bartow himself could not find fault with so simple a recreation, even if he did try so hard to show what his views were with regard to keeping the Lenten fast. Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Howard intended to be very regular at the morning service, hoping that the odor of sanctity with which they would thus be permeated would in some way atone for the absence of genuine heart-religion and last them for the remainder of the year. First, however, and as a means of helping her in her intended seclusion from the world, Mrs. Howard was to give the largest party of the season—a sort of carnival, from which the revelers were expected to retire the moment the silvery-voiced clock on her mantel struck the hour of twelve and ushered in the dawn of Lent. It was to be a masquerade, for the Camdenites had almost gone mad on that fashion which Ethelyn had the credit of introducing into their midst; that is, she was the first to propose a masquerade early in the season, telling what she had seen and giving the benefit of her larger experience in such matters.
It was a fashion which took wonderfully with the people, for the curiosity and interest attaching to the characters was just suited to the restless, eager temperament of the Camdenites, and they entered into it with heart and soul, ransacking boxes and barrels and worm-eaten chests, scouring the country far and near and even sending as far as Davenport and Rock Island for the necessary costumes. Andy himself had been asked by Harry Clifford to lend his Sunday suit, that young scamp intending to personate some raw New England Yankee; and that was how Mrs. Markham, senior, first came to hear of the proceedings which, to one of her rigid views, savored strongly of the pit, especially after she heard one of the parties described by an eye-witness, who mentioned among other characters his Satanic Majesty, as enacted by Harry Clifford, who would fain have appeared next in Andy's clothes! No wonder the good woman was enraged and took the next train for Camden, giving her son and daughter a piece of her mind and winding up her discourse with: "And they say you have the very de'il himself, with hoofs and horns. I think you might have left him alone, for I reckon he was there fast enough if you could not see him."
Ethelyn had not approved of Harry Clifford's choice, and with others had denounced his taste as bad; but she enjoyed the masquerades generally, and for this last and most elaborate of all she had made great preparations. Richard had not opposed her joining it, but he did wince a little when he found she was to personate Mary, Queen of Scots, wishing that she would not always select persons of questionable character, like Hortense and Scotland's ill-fated queen. But Ethie had decided upon her role without consulting him, and so he walked over piles of ancient-looking finery and got his boots tangled in the golden wig which Ethie had hunted up, and told her he should be glad when it was over, and wished mentally that it might be Lent the year around, and was persuaded into saying he would go to the party himself, not as a masker, but in his own proper person as Richard Markham, the grave and dignified Judge whom the people respected so highly. Ethie was glad he was going. She would always rather have him with her, if possible; and the genuine satisfaction she evinced when he said he would accompany her did much toward reconciling him to the affair about which so much was being said in Camden. When, however, he came in to supper on Tuesday night complaining of a severe headache, and saying he wished he could remain quietly at home, inasmuch as he was to start early the next morning for St. Louis, where he had business to transact, Ethelyn said to him: "If you are sick, of course I will not compel you to go. Mr. and Mrs. Miller will look after me."
She meant this kindly, for she saw that he was looking pale and haggard, and Richard took it so then; but afterward her words became so many scorpions stinging him into fury. It would seem as if every box, and drawer, and bag, had been overturned, and the contents brought to light, for ribbons, and flowers, and laces were scattered about in wild confusion, while on the carpet, near the drawer where Ethie's little mother-of-pearl box was kept, lay a tiny note, which had inadvertently been dropped from its hiding-place when Ethie opened the box in quest of something which was wanted for Queen Mary's outfit. Richard saw the note just as he saw the other litter, but paid no attention to it then, and after supper was over went out as usual for his evening paper.
Gathered about the door of the office was a group of young men, all his acquaintances, and all talking together upon some theme which seemed to excite them greatly.
"Too bad to make such a fool of himself," one said, while another added, "He ought to have known better than to order champagne, when he knows what a beast a few drops will make of him, and he had a first-class character for to-night, too."
Richard was never greatly interested in gossip of any kind, but something impelled him now to ask of whom they were talking.
"Of Hal Clifford," was the reply. "A friend of his came last night to Moore's Hotel, where Hal boards, and wishing to do the generous host Hal ordered champagne and claret for supper, in his room, and got drunker than a fool. It always lasts him a day or two, so he is gone up for to-night."
Richard had no time to waste in words upon Harry Clifford, and after hearing the story started for his boarding-place. His route lay past the Moore House and as he reached it the door opened and Harry came reeling down the steps. He was just drunk enough to be sociable, and spying Richard by the light of the lamppost he hurried to his side, and taking his arm in the confidential manner he always assumed when intoxicated, he began talking in a half-foolish, half-rational way, very disgusting to Richard, who tried vainly to shake him off. Harry was not to be baffled, and with a stammer and a hiccough he began: "I say—a—now, old chap, don't be so fast to get rid of a cove. Wife waiting for you, I suppose. Deuced fine woman. Envy you; I do, 'pon honor, and so does somebody else. D'ye know her old beau that she used to be engaged to, is here?"
"Who? What do you mean?" Richard asked, turning sharply upon his companion, who continued:
"Why, Frank Van Buren. Cousin, you know; was chum with me in college, so I know all about it. Don't you remember my putting it to her that first time I met her at Mrs. Miller's? Mistrusted by her blushing there was more than I supposed; and so there was. He told me all about it last night."
Richard did not try now to shake off his comrade. There seemed to be a spell upon him, and although he longed to thrash the impudent young man, saying such things of Ethelyn, he held his peace, with the exception of the single question:
"Frank Van Buren in town? Where is he stopping?"
"Up at Moore's. Came last night; and between you and me, Judge, I took a little too much. Makes my head feel like a tub. Sorry for Frank. He and his wife ain't congenial, besides she's lost her money that Frank married her for. Serves him right for being so mean to Mrs. Markham, and I told him so when he opened his heart clear to the breast-bone and told me all about it; how his mother broke it up about the time you were down there; and, Markham, you don't mind my telling you, as an old friend, how he said she went to the altar with a heavier heart than she would have carried to her coffin. Quite a hifalutin speech for Frank, who used to be at the foot of his class."
Richard grew faint and cold as death, feeling one moment an impulse to knock young Clifford down, and the next a burning desire to hear the worst, if, indeed, he had not already heard it. He would not question Harry; but he would listen to all he had to say, and so kept quiet, waiting for the rest. Harry was just enough beside himself to take a malicious kind of satisfaction in inflicting pain upon Richard, as he was sure he was doing. He knew Judge Markham despised him, and though, when sober, he would have shrunk from so mean a revenge, he could say anything now, and so went on:
"She has not seen him yet, but will to-night, for he is going. I got him invited as my friend. She knows he is here. He sent her a note this morning. Pity I can't go, too; but I can't, for you see, I know how drunk I am. Here we part, do we?" and Harry loosed his hold of Richard's arm as they reached the corner of the street.
Wholly stunned by what he had heard, Richard kept on his way, but not toward the Stafford House. He could not face Ethelyn yet. He was not determined what course to pursue, and so he wandered on in the darkness, through street after street, while the wintry wind blew cold and chill about him; but he did not heed it, or feel the keen, cutting blast. His blood was at a boiling heat, and the great drops of sweat were rolling down his face, as, with head and shoulders bent like an aged man, he walked rapidly on, revolving all he had heard, and occasionally whispering to himself, "She carried a heavier heart to the altar than she would have taken to her coffin."
"Yes, I believe it now. I remember how white she was, and how her hand trembled when I took it in mine. Oh! Ethie, Ethie, I did not deserve this from you."
Resentment—hard, unrelenting resentment—was beginning to take the place of the deep pain he had at first experienced, and it needed but the sight of Mrs. Miller's windows, blazing with light, to change the usually quiet, undemonstrative man into a demon.
"She is to meet him here to-night, it seems, and perhaps talk over her blighted life. Never, no, never, so long as bolts and bars have the power to hold her. She shall not disgrace herself, for with all her faults she is my wife, and I have loved her so much. Oh, Ethie, I love you still," and the wretched man leaned against a post as he sent forth this despairing cry for the Ethie who he felt was lost forever.
Every little incident which could tend to prove that what Harry had said was true came to his mind; the conversation overheard in Washington between Frank and Melinda, Ethelyn's unfinished letter, to which she had never referred, and the clause in Aunt Van Buren's letter relating to Frank's first love affair. He could not any longer put the truth aside with specious arguments, for it stood out in all its naked deformity, making him cower and shrink before it. It was a very different man who went up the stairs of the Stafford House to room No—from the man who two hours before had gone down them, and Ethelyn would hardly have known him for her husband had she been there to meet him. Wondering much at his long absence, she had at last gone on with her dressing, and then, as he still did not appear, she had stepped for a moment to the room of a friend, who was sick, and had asked to see her when she was ready. Richard saw that she was out, and sinking into the first chair, his eyes fell upon the note lying near the bureau drawer. The room had partially been put to rights, but this had escaped Ethie's notice, and Richard picked it up, glowering with rage, and almost foaming at the mouth when, in the single word, "Ethie," on the back, he recognized Frank Van Buren's writing!
He had it then—the note which his rival had sent, apprising his wife of his presence in town, and he would read it, too. He had no scruples about that, and his fingers tingled to his elbows as he opened the note, never observing how yellow and worn it looked, or that it was not dated. He had no doubt of its identity, and his face grew purple with passion as he read:
"MY OWN DARLING ETHIE: Don't fail to be there to-night, and, if possible, leave the 'old maid' at home, and come alone. We shall have so much better time. Your devoted,
Words could not express Richard's emotions as he held that note in his shaking hand, and gazed at the words, "My own darling Ethie." Quiet men like Richard Markham are terrible when roused; and Richard was terrible in his anger, as he sat like a block of stone, contemplating the proof of his wife's unfaithfulness. He called it by that hard name, grating his teeth together as he thought of her going by appointment to meet Frank Van Buren, who had called him an "old maid," and planned to have him left behind if possible. Then, as he recalled what Ethelyn had said about his remaining at home if he were ill, he leaped to his feet, and an oath quivered on his lips at her duplicity.
"False in every respect," he muttered, "and I trusted her so much."
It never occurred to him that the note was a strange one for what he imagined it to portend, Frank merely charging Ethelyn to be present at the party, without even announcing his arrival or giving any explanation for his sudden appearance in Camden. Richard was too much excited to reason upon anything, and stood leaning upon the piano, with his livid face turned toward the door, when Ethie made her appearance, looking very pretty and piquant in her Mary Stuart guise. She held her mask in her hand, but when she caught a glimpse of him she hastily adjusted it, and springing forward, "Where were you so long? I began to think you were never coming. We shall be among the very last. How do I look as Mary? Am I pretty enough to make an old maid like Elizabeth jealous of me?"
Had anything been wanting to perfect Richard's wrath, that allusion to an "old maid" would have done it. It was the drop in the brimming bucket, and Richard exploded at once, hurling such language at Ethelyn's head that, white and scared, and panting for breath, she put up both her hands to ward off the storm, and asked what it all meant. Richard had locked the door, the only entrance to their room, and stooping over Ethelyn he hissed into her ear his meaning, telling her all he had heard from Harry Clifford, and asking if it were true. Ere Ethelyn could reply there was a knock at the door, and a servant's voice called out, "Carriage waiting for Mrs. Markham."
It was the carriage sent by Mrs. Miller for Ethelyn, and quick as thought Richard stepped to the door, and unlocking it, said hastily, "Give Mrs. Miller Mrs. Markham's compliments, and say she cannot be present to-night. Tell her she regrets it exceedingly"; and Richard's voice was very bitter and sarcastic in its tone as he closed the door upon the astonished waiter; and relocking it, he returned again to Ethelyn, who had risen to her feet, and with a different expression upon her face from the white, scared look it had worn at first, stood confronting him fearlessly now, and even defiantly, for this bold step had roused her from her apathy; and in a fierce whisper, which, nevertheless, was as clear and distinct as the loudest tones could have been; she asked, "Am I to understand that I am a prisoner here in my own room? It is your intention to keep me from the party?"
"It is," and with his back against the door, as if doubly to bar her egress, Richard regarded her gloomily, while he charged her with the special reason why she wished to go. "It was to meet Frank Van Buren, your former lover," he said, asking if she could deny it.
For a moment Ethelyn stood irresolute, mentally going over all that would be said if she stayed from Mrs. Miller's, where she was to be the prominent one, and calculating her strength to stem the tide of wonder and conjecture as to her absence which was sure to follow. She could not meet it, she decided; she must go, at all hazards, even if, to achieve her purpose, she made some concessions to the man who had denounced her so harshly, and used such language as is not easily forgotten.
"Richard," she began, and her eyes had a strange glittering light in them, "with regard to the past I shall say nothing now, but that Frank was here in Camden I had not the slightest knowledge till I heard it from you. Believe me, Richard, and let me go. My absence will seem very strange, and cause a great deal of remark. Another time I may explain what would best have been explained before."
The light in her eyes was softer now, and her voice full of entreaty; for Ethie felt almost as if pleading for her life. But she might as well have talked to the wall for any good results it produced. Richard was moved from his lofty height of wrath and vindictiveness, but he did not believe her. How could he, with the fatal note in his hand, and the memory of the degrading epithet it contained, and which Ethie, too, had used against him, still ringing in his ears? The virgin queen of England was never more stony and inexorable with regard to the unfortunate Mary than was Richard toward his wife, and the expression of his face froze all the better emotions rising in Ethie's heart, as she felt that in a measure she was reaping a just retribution for her long deception.
"I do not believe you, madam," Richard said; "and if I were inclined to do so, this note, which Harry said was sent to you, and which I found upon the floor, would tell me better," and tossing into her lap the soiled bit of paper, accomplishing so much harm, he continued: "There is my proof; that in conjunction with the name of opprobrium, which you remember you insinuatingly used, asking if you were pretty enough to make the old maid, Elizabeth, jealous. You are pretty enough, madam; but it is an accursed beauty which would attract to itself men of Frank Van Buren's stamp."
Richard could not get over that epithet. He would have forgiven the other sin almost as soon as this, and his face was very dark and stern as he watched Ethelyn reading the little note. She knew in a moment what it was, and the suddenness of its appearance before her turned her white and faint. It brought back so vividly the day when she received it—six or seven years ago, the lazy September day, when the Chicopee hills wore the purplish light of early autumn, and the air was full of golden sunshine. It was a few weeks after the childish betrothal among the huckleberry hills, and Frank had come up to spend a week with a boy friend of his, who lived across the river. There was to be an exhibition in the white schoolhouse, in the river district, and Frank had written, urging her to come, and asking that Aunt Barbara should be left behind—"the old maid," he sometimes called her to his cousin, thinking it sounded smart and manlike. Aunt Barbara had stayed at home from choice, sending her niece in charge of Susie Granger's mother; but the long walk home, after the exercises were over, the lingering, loitering walk across the causeway, where the fog was riding so damply, the stopping on the bridge, and looking down into the deep, dark water, where the stars were reflected so brightly, the slow climbing of the depot hill, and the long talk by the gate beneath the elms, whose long arms began to drop great drops of dew on Ethie's head ere the interview was ended—all this had been experienced with Frank, whose arm was around the young girl's waist, and whose hand was clasping hers, as with boyish pride and a laughable effort to seem manly, he talked of "our engagement," and even leaped forward in fancy to the time "when we are married."
All this came back to Ethelyn, and she seemed to feel again the breath of the September night, and see through the clustering branches the flashing light waiting for her in the dear old room in Chicopee. She forgot for a moment the stern, dark face watching her so jealously, and so hardening toward her as he saw how pale she grew, and heard her exclamation of surprise when she first recognized the note, and remembered that in turning over the contents of the ebony box she must have dropped it upon the floor.
"Do you still deny all knowledge of Frank's presence in town?" Richard asked, and his voice recalled Ethelyn from the long ago back to the present time.
He was waiting for her answer; but Ethie had none to give. Her hot, imperious temper was in the ascendant now. She was a prisoner for the night; her own husband was the jailer, who she felt was unjust to her, and she would make no explanations, at least not then. He might think what he liked or draw any inference he pleased from her silence. And so she made him no reply, except to crush into her pocket the paper which she should have burned on that morning when, crouching on the hearthstone at home, she destroyed all other traces of a past which ought never to have been. He could not make her speak, and his words of reproach might as well have been given to the winds as to that cold, statue-like woman, who mechanically laid aside the fanciful costume in which she was arrayed, doing everything with a deliberation and coolness more exasperating to Richard than open defiance would have been. A second knock at the door, and another servant appeared, saying, apologetically, that the note he held in his hand had been left at the office for Mrs. Markham early in the morning, but forgotten till now.
"Give it to me, if you please. It is mine," Ethelyn said, and something in her voice and manner kept Richard quiet while she took the offered note and went back to the chandelier where, with a compressed lip and burning cheek, she read the genuine note sent by Frank.
* * * * *
"Dear cousin," he wrote, "business for a Boston firm has brought me to Camden, where they have had debt standing out. Through the influence of Harry Clifford, who was a college chum of mine, I have an invitation to Mrs. Miller's, where I hope to meet yourself and husband. I should call to-day, but I know just how busy you must be with your costume, which I suppose you wish to keep incog., even from me. I shall know you, though, at once. See if I do not. Wishing to be remembered to the Judge, I am, yours truly,
"FRANK VAN BUREN."
* * * * *
This is what Ethelyn read, knowing, as she read, that it would make matters right between herself and husband—at least so far as an appointment was concerned; but she would not show it to him then. She was too angry, too much aggrieved, to admit of any attempts on her part for a reconciliation; so she put that note with the other, and then went quietly on arranging her things in their proper places. Then, when this was done, she sat down by the window and peering out into the wintry darkness watched the many lights and moving figures in Mrs. Miller's house, which could be distinctly seen from the hotel. Richard still intended to take the early train for St. Louis, and so he retired at last, but Ethelyn sat where she was until the carriages taking the revelers home had passed, and the lights were out in Mrs. Miller's windows, and the bell of St. John's had ushered in the second hour of the fast. Not then did she join her husband, but lay down upon the sofa, where he found her when at six o'clock he came from his broken, feverish sleep, to say his parting words. He had contemplated the propriety of giving up his trip and remaining at home while Frank Van Buren was in town, but this he could not very well do.
"I will leave her to herself," he thought, "trusting that what has passed will deter her from any further improprieties."
Something like this he said to her when, in the gray dawn, he stood before her, equipped for his journey; but Ethelyn did not respond, and with her cold, dead silence weighing more upon him than bitter reproaches would have done, Richard left her and took his way through the chill, snowy morning to the depot, little dreaming as he went of when and how he and Ethelyn would meet again.
The bell in the tower of St. John's pealed forth its summons to the house of prayer, and one by one, singly or in groups, the worshipers went up to keep this first solemn day of Lent—true, sincere worshipers, many of them, who came to weep, and pray, and acknowledge their past misdeeds; while others came from habit, and because it was the fashion, their pale, haggard faces and heavy eyes telling plainly of the last night's dissipation, which had continued till the first hour of the morning. Mrs. Howard was there, and Mrs. Miller, too, both glancing inquiringly at Judge Markham's pew and then wonderingly at each other. Ethelyn was not there. She had breakfast in her room after Richard left, and when that was over had gone mechanically to her closet and drawers and commenced sorting her clothes—hanging away the gayest, most expensive dresses, and laying across chairs and upon the bed the more serviceable ones, such as might properly be worn on ordinary occasions. Why she did this she had not yet clearly defined, and when, after her wardrobe was divided, and she brought out the heavy traveling trunk, made for her in Boston, she was not quite certain what she meant to do. She had been sorely wounded, and, as she thought, without just cause. She knew she was to blame for not having told Richard of Frank before she became his wife, but of the things with which he had so severely charged her she was guiltless, and every nerve quivered and throbbed with passion and resentment as she recalled the scene of the previous night, going over again with the cruel words Richard had uttered in his jealous anger, and then burning with shame and indignation as she thought of being locked in her room, and kept from attending the masquerade, where her absence must have excited so much wonder.