"What did they say, and what can I tell them when we meet?" she thought, just as Mrs. Howard's voice was heard in the upper hall.
Church was out, and several of the more intimate of Ethie's friends had stopped at the Stafford House to inquire into so strange a proceeding.
"Come to see if you were sick, or what, that you disappointed me so. I was vexed enough, I assure you," Mrs. Miller said, looking curiously enough at Ethelyn, whose face was white as ashes, save where a crimson spot burned on her cheeks, and whose lips were firmly pressed together.
She did not know what to say, and when pressed to give a reason stammered out:
"Judge Markham wished me to stay with him, and as an obedient wife I stayed."
With ready tact the ladies saw that something was wrong, and kindly forbore further remarks, except to tell what a grand affair it was, and how much she was missed. But Ethie detected in their manner an unspoken sympathy or pity, which exasperated and humiliated her more than open words would have done. Heretofore she had been the envy of the entire set, and it wounded her deeply to fall from that pedestal to the level of ordinary people. She was no longer the young wife, whose husband petted and humored her so much, but the wife whose husband was jealous and tyrannical, and even abusive, where language was concerned, and she could not rid herself of the suspicion that her lady friends knew more than they professed to know, and was heartily glad when they took their departure and left her again alone.
There was another knock at her door, and a servant handed in a card bearing Frank Van Buren's name. He was in the office, the waiter said. Should he show the gentleman up?
Ethie hesitated a moment, and then taking her pencil wrote upon the back of the card, "I am too busy to see you to-day."
The servant left the room, and Ethelyn went back to where her clothes were scattered about and the great trunk was standing open. She did not care to see Frank Van Buren now. He was the direct cause of every sorrow she had known, and bitter feelings were swelling in her heart in place of the softer emotions she had once experienced toward him. He was nothing to her now. Slowly but gradually the flame had been dying out, until Richard had nothing to dread from him, and he was never nearer to winning his wife's entire devotion than on that fatal night when, by his jealousy and rashness, he built so broad a gulf between them.
"It is impossible that we should ever live together again, after all that has transpired," Ethelyn said, as she stood beside her trunk and involuntarily folded up a garment and laid it on the bottom.
She had reached a decision, and her face grew whiter, stonier, as she made haste to act upon it. Every article which Richard had bought was laid aside and put away in the drawers and bureaus she would never see again. These were not numerous, for her bridal trousseau had been so extensive that but few demands had been made upon her husband's purse for dress, and Ethelyn felt glad that it was so. It did not take long to put them away, or very long to pack the trunk, and then Ethie sat down to think "what next?"
Only a few days before a Mr. Bailey, who boarded in the house, and whose daughter was taking music lessons, had tried to purchase her piano, telling her that so fine a player as herself ought to have one with a longer keyboard. Ethie had thought so herself, wishing sometimes that she had a larger instrument, which was better adapted to the present style of music, but she could not bring herself to part with Aunt Barbara's present. Now, however, the case was different. Money she must have, and as she scorned to take it from the bank, where her check was always honored, she would sell her piano. It was hers to do with as she liked, and when Mr. Bailey passed her door at dinner time he was asked to step in and reconsider the matter. She had changed her mind, she said. She was willing to sell it now; there was such a superb affair down at Shumway's Music Room. Had Mr. Bailey seen it?
Ethie's voice was not quite steady, for she was not accustomed to deception of this kind, and the first step was hard. But Mr. Bailey was not at all suspicious, and concluded the bargain at once; and two hours later Ethie's piano was standing between the south windows of Mrs. Bailey's apartment, and Ethie, in her own room, was counting a roll of three hundred dollars, and deciding how far it would go.
"There's my pearls," she said, "if worst comes to worst I can sell them and my diamond ring."
She did not mean Daisy's ring. She would not barter that, or take it with her, either. Daisy never intended it for a runaway wife, and Ethelyn must leave it where Richard would find it when he came back and found her gone. And then as Ethie in her anger exulted over Richard's surprise and possible sorrow when he found himself deserted, some demon from the pit whispered in her ear, "Give him back the wedding ring. Leave that for him, too, and so remove every tie which once bound you to him."
It was hard to put off Daisy's ring, and Ethelyn paused and reflected as the clear stone seemed to reflect the fair, innocent face hanging on the walls at Olney. But Ethie argued that she had no right to it, and so the dead girl's ring was laid aside, and then the trembling fingers fluttered about the plain gold band bearing the date of her marriage. But when she essayed to remove that, too, blood-red circles danced before her eyes, and such a terror seized her that her hands dropped powerless into her lap and the ring remained in its place.
It was four o'clock in the afternoon, and the cars for Olney left at seven. She was going that way as far as Milford, where she could take another route to the East. She would thus throw Richard off the track if he tried to follow her, and also avoid immediate remark in the hotel. They would think it quite natural that in her husband's absence she should go for a few days to Olney, she reasoned; and they did think so in the office when at six she asked that her trunk be taken to the station. Her rooms were all in order. She had made them so herself, sweeping and dusting, and even leaving Richard's dressing-gown and slippers by the chair where he usually sat the evenings he was at home. The vacancy left by the piano would strike him at once, she knew, and so she moved a tall bookcase up there, and put a sofa where the bookcase had been, and a large chair where the sofa had been, and pushed the center table into the large chair's place; and then her work was done—the last she would ever do in that room, or for Richard either. The last of everything is sad, and Ethie felt a thrill of pain as she whispered to herself, "It is the last, last time," and then thought of the outer world which lay all unknown before her. She would not allow herself to think, lest her courage should give way, and tried, by dwelling continually upon Richard's cruel words, to steel her heart against the good impulses which were beginning to suggest that what she was doing might not, after all, be the wisest course. What would the world say?—and dear Aunt Barbara, too? How it would wring her heart when she heard the end to which her darling had come! And Andy—simple, conscientious, praying Andy—Ethie's heart came up in her throat when she thought of him and his grief at her desertion.
"I will write to Andy," she said. "I will tell him how thoughts of him almost deterred me from my purpose," and opening her little writing desk, which Richard gave her at Christmas, she took up her pen and held it poised a moment, while something said: "Write to Richard, too. Surely you can do so much for him. You can tell him the truth at last, and let him know how he misjudged you."
And so the name which Ethie first wrote down upon the paper was not "Dear Brother Andy," but simply that of "Richard."
"Stafford House, Feb.—,
"Five o'clock in the afternoon.
"RICHARD: I am going away from you forever, and When you recall the words you spoke to me last night, and the deep humiliation you put upon me, you will readily understand that I go because we cannot live together any longer as man and wife. You said things to me, Richard, which women find hard to forgive, and which they never can forget. I did not deserve that you should treat me so, for, bad as I may have been in other respects, I am innocent of the worst thing you alleged against me, and which seemed to excite you so much. Until I heard it from you, I did not know Frank Van Buren was within a thousand miles of Camden. The note from him which I leave with this letter, and which you will remember was brought to the door by a servant, who said it had been mislaid and forgotten, will prove that I tell you truly. The other note which you found, and which must have fallen from the box where I kept it, was written years ago, when I was almost a little girl, with no thought that I ever could be the humbled, wretched creature I am now.
"Let me tell you all about it, Richard—how I happened to be engaged to Frank, and how wounded and sore and sorry I was when you came the second time to Chicopee, and asked me to be your wife."
Then followed the whole story of Ethelyn's first love. Nothing was concealed, nothing kept back. Even the dreariness of the day when Aunt Van Buren came up from Boston and broke poor Ethie's heart, was described and dwelt upon with that particularity which shows how the lights, and shadows, and sunshine, and storms which mark certain events in one's history will impress themselves upon one's mind, as parts of the great joy or sorrow which can never be forgotten. Then she spoke of meeting Richard, and the train of circumstances which finally led to their betrothal.
"I wanted to tell you about Frank that night, on the shore of the pond, when you told me of Abigail, and twice I made up my mind to do so, but something rose up to prevent it, and after that it was very hard to do so."
She did not tell him how she at first shrank away from his caresses with a loathing which made her flesh creep, but she confessed that she did not love him, even when taking the marriage vow.
"But I meant to be true to you, Richard. I meant to be a good wife, and never let you know how I felt. You were different from Frank; different from most men whom I had met, and you did annoy me so at times. You will tell me I was foolish to lay so much stress on little things, and so, perhaps, I was; but little things, rather than big, make up the sum of human happiness, and, besides, I was too young to fully understand how any amount of talent and brain could atone for absence of culture of manner. Then, too, I was so disappointed in your home and family. You know how unlike they are to my own, but you can never know how terrible it was to me who had formed so different an estimate of them. I suppose you will say I did not try to assimilate, and perhaps I did not. How could I, when to be like them was the thing I dreaded most of all? I do believe they tried to be kind, especially your brothers, and I shall ever be grateful to them for their attempt to please and interest me during that dreadful winter I spent alone, with you in Washington. You did wrong, Richard, not to take me with you, when I wanted so much to go. I know that, after what happened, you and your mother think you were fully justified in what you did; but, Richard, you are mistaken. The very means you took to avert a catastrophe hastened it instead. The cruel disappointment and terrible homesickness which I endured hastened our baby's birth, and cost its little life. Had it lived, Richard, I should have been a better woman from what I am now. It would have been something for me to love, and oh, my heart did ache so for an object on which to fasten. I did not love you when I became your wife, but I was learning to do so. When you came home from Washington I was so glad to see you, and I used to listen for your step when you went to Olney and it was time for you to return. Just in proportion as I was drawn toward you, Frank fell in my estimation, and I wanted to tell you all about it, and begin anew. I was going to do so in that letter commenced the night I was taken so ill, and two or three times afterwards I thought I would do it. Do you remember that night of our return from St. Paul? I found a letter from Aunt Van Buren, and asked if you would like to hear it. You seemed so indifferent and amost cross about it, that the good angel left me, and your chance was lost again. There was something in that letter about Frank and me—something which would have called forth questions from you, and I meant to explain if you would let me. Think, Richard. You will remember the night. You lay upon the sofa, and I sat down beside you, and smoothed your hair. I was nearer to loving you then than I ever was before; but you put me off, and the impulse did not come again—that is, the impulse of confession. A little more consideration on your part for what you call my airs and high notions would have won me to you, for I am not insensible to your many sterling virtues, and I do believe that you did love me once. But all that is over now. I made a great mistake when I came to you, and perhaps I am making a greater one in going from you. But I think not. We are better apart, especially after the indignities of last night. Where I am going it does not matter to you. Pursuit will be useless, inasmuch as I shall have the start of a week. Neither do I think you will search for me much. You will he happier without me, and it is better that I should go. You will give the accompanying note to Andy. Dear Andy, my heart aches to its very core when I think of him, and know that his grief for me will be genuine. I leave you Daisy's ring. I am not worthy to keep that, so I give it back. I wish I could make you free from me entirely, if that should be your wish. Perhaps some time you will be, and then when I am nothing to you save a sad memory, you will think better of me than you do now.
"Good-by, Richard. We shall probably never meet again. Good-by.
She did not stop to read what she had written. There was not time for that, and taking a fresh sheet, she wrote:
"DEAR, DARLING ANDY: If all the world were as good, and kind, and true as you, I should not be writing this letter, with my arrangements made for flight. Richard will tell you why I go. It would take me too long. I have been very unhappy here, though none of my wretchedness has been caused by you. Dear Andy, if I could tell you how much I love you, and how sorry I am to fall in your opinion, as I surely shall when you hear what has happened. Do not hate me, Andy, and sometimes when you pray, remember Ethie, won't you? She needs your prayers so much, for she cannot pray herself. I do not want to be wholly bad—do not want to be lost forever; and I have faith that God will hear you. The beautiful consistency of your everyday life and simple trust, have been powerful sermons to me, convincing me that there is a reality in the religion you profess. Go on, Andy, as you have begun, and may the God whom I am not worthy to name, bless you, and keep you, and give you every possible good. In fancy I wind my arms around your neck, and kiss your dear, kind face, as, with scalding tears, I write you good-by.
"Farewell, Andy, darling Andy, farewell."
Ethelyn had not wept before, but now, as Andy rose up before her with the thought that she should see him no more, her tears poured like rain, and blotted the sheet on which she had written to him. It hurt her more, if possible, to lose his respect than that of any other person, and for a half-instant she wavered in the decision. But it was too late now. The piano was sold and delivered, and if she tarried she had no special excuse to offer for its sale. She must carry out her plan, even though it proved the greatest mistake of her life. So the letters were directed and put, with Daisy's ring, in the little drawer of the bureau, where Richard would be sure to find them when he came back. Perhaps, as Ethie put them there, she thought how they might be the means of a reconciliation; that Richard, after reading her note, would move heaven and earth to find her, and having done so, would thenceforth be her willing slave; possibly, too, remembering the harsh things he had so recently said to her, she exulted a little as she saw him coming back to his deserted home, and finding his domestic altar laid low in the dust. But if this was so she gave no sign, and though her face was deathly pale, her nerves were steady and her voice calm, as she gave orders concerning her baggage, and then when it was time, turned the key upon her room, and left it with the clerk, to whom she said:
"I shall not be back until my husband returns."
She was going to Olney, of course—going to see his folks, the landlady said, when she heard Mrs. Markham had gone; and so no wonder was created among the female boarders, except that Ethelyn had not said good-by to a single one of them. She was not equal to that. Her great desire was to escape unseen, and with a veil drawn closely over her face, she sat in the darkest corner of the ladies' room, waiting impatiently for the arrival of the train, and glancing furtively at the people around her. Groups of men were walking up and down upon the platform without, and among them Frank Van Buren. On his way to the cars he had called again at the Stafford House, and learned that Mrs. Markham was out.
"I'll see her when I return," he thought, and so went his way to the train, which would take him to his next point of destination.
Never once dreaming how near he was to her, Ethie drew her veil and furs more closely around her, and turning her face to the frosty window, gazed drearily out into the wintry darkness as they sped swiftly on. She hardly knew where she was going or what she could do when she was there. She was conscious only of the fact that she was breaking away from scenes and associations which had been so distasteful to her—that she was leaving a husband who had been abusive to her, and she verily believed she had just cause for going. The world might not see it so, perhaps, but she did not care for the world. She was striking out a path of her own, and with her heart as sore and full of anger as it then was, she felt able to cope with any difficulty, so that her freedom was achieved. They were skirting across the prairie now; and the lights of Olney were in sight. Perhaps she could see the farmhouse, and rubbing, with her warm palm, the moisture from the window-pane, she looked wistfully out in the direction of Richard's home. Yes, there it was, and a light shining from the sitting-room window, as if they expected her. But Ethie was not going there, and with something like a sigh as she thought of Andy so near, yet separated so widely from her, she turned from the window and rested her tired head upon her hands while they stayed at Olney. It was only a moment they stopped, but to Ethie it seemed an age, and her heart almost stopped its beating when she heard the voice of Terrible Tim just outside the car. He was not coming in, as she found after a moment of breathless waiting; he was only speaking to an acquaintance, who stepped inside and took a seat by the stove, just as the train plunged again into the darkness, leaving behind a fiery track to mark its progress across the level prairie.
THE DESERTED HUSBAND
Richard had been very successful in St. Louis. The business which took him there had been more than satisfactorily arranged. He had collected a thousand-dollar debt he never expected to get, and had been everywhere treated with the utmost deference and consideration, as a man whose worth was known and appreciated. But Richard was ill at ease, and his face wore a sad, gloomy expression, which many remarked, wondering what could be the nature of the care so evidently preying upon him. Do what he might, he could not forget the white, stony face which had looked at him so strangely in the gray morning, nor shut out the icy tones in which Ethie had last spoken to him. Besides this, Richard was thinking of all he had said to her in the heat of passion, and wishing he could recall it in part at least. He was very indignant, very angry still, for he believed her guilty of planning to meet Frank Van Buren at the party and leave him at home, while his heart beat with keen throbs of pain when he remembered that Ethie's first love was not given to him—that she would have gone to her grave more willingly than she went with him to the altar; but he need not have been so harsh with her—that was no way to make her love him. Kindness must win her back should she ever be won, and impatient to be reconciled, if reconciliation were now possible, Richard chafed at the necessary delays which kept him a day longer in St. Louis than he had at first intended.
Ethie had been gone just a week when he at last found himself in the train which would take him back to Camden. First, however, he must stop at Olney; the case was imperative—and so he stepped from the train one snowy afternoon when the February light shone cold and blue upon the little town and the farmhouse beyond. His brothers were feeding their flocks and herds in the rear yard to the east; but they came at once to greet him, and ask after his welfare. The light snow which had fallen that day was lying upon the front door-steps undisturbed by any track, so Richard entered at the side. Mrs. Markham was dipping candles, and the faint, sickly odor of the hot melted tallow, which filled Richard's olfactories as he came in, was never forgotten, but remembered as part and parcel of that terrible day which would have a place in his memory so long as being lasted. Every little thing was impressed upon his mind, and came up afterward with vivid distinctness whenever he thought of that wretched time. There was a bit of oilcloth on the floor near to the dripping candles, and he saw the spots of tallow which had dropped and dried upon it—saw, too, his mother's short red gown and blue woolen stockings, as she got up to meet him, and smelled the cabbage cooking on the stove, for they were having a late dinner that day—the boys' favorite, and what Mrs. Markham designated as a "dish of biled vittles."
Richard had seen his mother dip candles before—nay, had sometimes assisted at the dipping. He had seen her short striped gown and blue woolen stockings, and smelled the cooking cabbage, but they never struck him with so great a sense of discomfort as they did to-day when he stood, hat in hand, wondering why home seemed so cheerless. It was as if the shadow of the great shock awaiting him had already fallen upon him, oppressing him with a weight he could not well shake off. He had no thought that any harm had come to Ethie, and yet his first question was for her. Had his mother heard from her while he was away, or did she know if she was well?
Mrs. Markham's under jaw dropped, in the way peculiar to her when at all irritated, but she did not answer at once; she waited a moment, while she held the rod poised over the iron kettle, and with her forefinger deliberately separated any of the eight candles which showed a disposition to stick together; then depositing them upon the frame and taking up another rod, she said:
"Miss Plympton was down to Camden three or four days ago, and she said Ann Merrills, the chambermaid at the Stafford House, told her Ethelyn had come to Olney to stay with us while you was away; but she must have gone somewhere else, as we have not seen her here. Gone to visit that Miss Amsden, most likely, that lives over the creek."
"What makes you think she has gone there?" Richard asked, with a sudden spasm of fear, for which he could not account, and which was not in any wise diminished by his mother's reply: "Ann said she took the six o'clock train for Olney, and as Miss Amsden lives beyond us, it's likely she went there, and is home by this time."
Richard accepted this supposition, but it was far from reassuring him. The load he had felt when he first came into the kitchen was pressing more and more heavily, and he wished that he had gone straight on instead of stopping at Olney. But now there was nothing to do but to wait with what patience he could command until the next train came and carried him to Camden.
It was nine o'clock when he reached there, and a stiff northeaster was blowing down the streets with gusts of sleet and rain, but he did not think of it as he hurried on toward the Stafford House, with that undefined dread growing stronger and stronger as he drew near. He did not know what he feared, nor why he feared it. He should find Ethie there, he said. She surely had returned from her visit by this time; he should see the lights from the windows shining out upon the park, just as he had seen them many other nights when hastening back to Ethie. He would take the shortest route down that dark, narrow alley, and so gain a moment of time. The alley was traversed at last, also the square, and he turned the corner of the street where stood the Stafford House. Halting for an instant, he strained his eyes to see if he were mistaken, or was there no light in the window, no sign that Ethie was there. There were lights below, and lights above, but the second floor was dark, the shutters closed, and all about them a look of silence and desertion, which quickened Richard's footsteps to a run. Up the private staircase he went, and through the narrow hall, till he reached his door and found it locked. Ethie was surely gone. She had not expected him so soon. Mrs. Amsden had urged her to stay, and she had stayed. This was what Richard said, as he went down to the office for the key, which the clerk handed him, with the remark: "Mrs. Markham went to Olney the very day you left. I thought perhaps you would stop there and bring her home."
Richard did not reply, but hurried back to the darkened room, where everything was in order; even Ethie's work-box was in its usual place upon the little table, and Ethie's chair was standing near; but something was missing—something besides Ethie—and its absence made the room look bare and strange as the gas-light fell upon it. The piano was gone or moved. It must be the latter, and Richard looked for it in every corner, even searching in the bedroom and opening the closet door, as if so ponderous a thing could have been hidden there! It was gone, and so was Ethie's trunk, and some of Ethie's clothes, for he looked to see, and then mechanically went out into the hall, just as Mr. Bailey came upstairs and saw him.
"Ho, Judge! is that you? Glad to see you back. Have been lonesome with you and your wife both away. Do you know of the trade we made—she and I—the very day you left? She offered me her piano for three hundred dollars, and I took her up at once. A fine instrument, that, but a little too small for her. Answers very well for Angeline. It's all right, isn't it?" the talkative man continued, as he saw the blank expression on Richard's face and construed it into disapprobation of the bargain.
"Yes, all right, of course. It was her piano, not mine," Richard said huskily. Then feeling the necessity of a little duplicity, he said, "Mrs. Markham went the same day I did, I believe?"
"Really, now, I don't know whether 'twas that day or the next," Mr. Bailey replied, showing that what was so important to Richard had as yet made but little impression upon him. "No, I can't say which day it was; but here's Hal Clifford—he'll know," and Mr. Bailey stepped aside as Harry came up the hall.
He had been to call upon a friend who occupied the floor above, and seeing Richard came forward to speak to him, the look of shame upon his face showing that he had not forgotten the circumstances under which they had last met. As Harry came in Mr. Bailey disappeared, and so the two men were alone when Richard asked, "Do you know what day Mrs. Markham left Camden?"
Richard tried to be natural. But Harry was not deceived. There was something afloat—something which had some connection with his foolish, drunken talk and Ethie's non-appearance at the masquerade. Blaming himself for what he remembered to have said, he would not now willingly annoy Richard, and he answered, indifferently: "She went the same day you did; that is, she left here on the six o'clock train. I know, for I called in the evening and found her gone."
"Was she going to Olney?"
Richard's lips asked this rather than his will, and Harry replied, "I suppose so. Isn't she there?"
It was an impudent question, but prompted purely by curiosity, and Richard involuntarily answered, "She has not been there at all."
For several seconds the two men regarded each other intently, one longing so much to ask a certain question, and the other reading that question in the wistful, anxious eyes bent so earnestly upon him.
"He left in that same train, and took the same route, too."
Harry said this, and Richard staggered forward, till he leaned upon the door-post while his face was ashy pale. Harry had disliked Richard Markham, whom he knew so strongly disapproved of his conduct; but he pitied him now and tried to comfort him.
"It cannot be they went together. I saw no indications of such an intention on the part of Frank. I hardly think he saw her, either. He was going to—, he said, and should be back in a few days. Maybe she is somewhere."
Yes, maybe she was somewhere, but so long as Richard did not know where, it was poor comfort for him. One thing, however, he could do—he could save her good name until the matter was further investigated; and pulling Harry after him into his room, he sat down by the cold, dark stove, over which he crouched shiveringly, while he said, "Ethie has gone to visit a friend, most likely—a Mrs. Amsden, who lives in the direction of Olney. So please, for her sake, do not say either now or ever who went on the train with her."
"You have my word as a gentleman that I will not," Harry replied; "and as no one but myself ever knew that they were cousins and acquaintances, their names need not be mentioned together, even if she never returns."
"But she will—she will come back, Ethie will. She has only gone to Mrs. Amsden's," Richard replied, his teeth chattering and his voice betraying all the fear and anguish he tried so hard to hide.
Harry saw how cold he seemed, and with his own hands built a quick wood fire, and then asked:
"Shall I leave you alone, or would you prefer me to stay?"
"Yes, stay. I do not like being here alone, though Ethie will come back. She's only gone to visit Mrs. Amsden," and Richard whispered the words, "gone to visit Mrs. Amsden."
It is pitiful to see a strong man cut down so suddenly, and every nerve of Harry's throbbed in sympathy as he sat watching the deserted husband walking up and down the room, now holding his cold fingers to the fire and now saying to himself: "She has only gone to Mrs. Amsden's. She will be back to-morrow."
At last the clock struck eleven, and then Richard roused from his lethargy and said: "The next train for Olney passes at twelve. I am going there, Harry—going after Ethie. You'll see her coming back to-morrow."
Richard hardly knew why he was going back to Olney, unless it were from a wish to be near his own kith and kin in this hour of sorrow. He knew that Ethie had gone, and the Mrs. Amsden ruse was thrown out for the benefit of Harry, who, frightened at the expression of Richard's face, did not dare to leave him alone until he saw him safely on board the train, which an hour later dropped him upon the slippery platform in Olney, and then went speeding on in the same direction Ethie once had gone.
* * * * *
Mrs. Markham's candles were finished, and in straight even rows were laid away in the candle-box, the good woman finding to her great satisfaction that there were just ten dozen besides the slim little thing she had burned during the evening, and which, with a long, crisp snuff, like the steeple of a church, was now standing on the chair by her bed. The hash was chopped ready for breakfast, the coffee was prepared, and the kindlings were lying near the stove, where, too, were hanging to dry Andy's stockings, which he had that day wet through. They had sat up later than usual at the farmhouse that night, for Melinda and her mother had been over there, and the boys had made molasses candy, and "stuck up" every dish and spoon, as Mrs. Markham said. Tim had come after his mother and sister, and as he had a good deal to say, the clock struck eleven before the guests departed, and Andy buttoned the door of the woodshed and put the nail over the window by the sink. Mrs. Markham had no suspicion of the trial in store for her, but for some cause she felt restless and nervous, and even scary, as she expressed it herself. "Worked too hard, I guess," she thought, as she tied on her high-crowned, broad-frilled nightcap, and then as a last chore, wound the clock before stepping into bed.
It was nearly midnight, and for some little time she lay awake listening to the wind as it swept past the house, or screamed through the key-hole of the door. But she did not hear the night train when it thundered through the town; nor the gate as it swung back upon its hinges; nor the swift step coming up the walk; nor the tap upon her window until it was repeated, and Richard's voice called faintly, "Mother, mother, let me in!"
Andy, who was as good as a watch-dog, was awake by this time, and with his window open was looking down at the supposed burglar, while his hand felt for some missile to hurl at the trespasser's head. With a start, Mr. Markham awoke, and, springing up, listened till the voice said again, "Mother, mother, it's I; let me in!"
The Japan candlestick Andy had secured was dropped in a trice, and adjusting his trousers as he descended the stairs, he reached the door simultaneously with his mother, and pulling Richard into the hall, asked why he was there, and what had happened. Richard did not know for certain that anything had happened. "Ethie was most probably with Mrs. Amsden. She would be home to-morrow," and Andy felt how his brother leaned against him and his hand pressed upon his shoulders as he went to the stove, and crouched down before it just as he had done in Camden. The candle was lighted, and its dim light fell upon that strange group gathered there at midnight, and looking into each other's faces with a wistful questioning as to what it all portended.
"It is very cold; make more fire," Richard said, shivering, as the sleet came driving against the window; and in an instant all the morning kindlings were thrust into the stove, which roared and crackled, and hissed, and diffused a sense of warmth and comfort through the shadowy room.
"What is it, Richard? What makes you so white and queer?" his mother asked, trying to pull on her stockings, and in her trepidation jamming her toes into the heel, and drawing her shoe over the bungle thus made at the bottom of her foot.
"Ethie was not there, and has not been since the night I left. She sold her piano, and took the money, and her trunk, and her clothes, and went to visit Mrs. Amsden."
This was Richard's explanation, which Andy thought a mighty funny reason for his brother's coming at midnight, and frightening them so terribly. But his mother saw things differently. She knew there was something underlying all this—something which would require all her skill and energy to meet—and her face was almost as white as Richard's as she asked, "Why do you think she has gone to Mrs. Amsden's?"
"You told me so, didn't you?" and Richard looked up at her in a bewildered, helpless way, which showed that all he knew upon the Amsden question was what she had said herself, and that was hardly enough to warrant a conclusion of any kind.
"Was there any reason why Ethelyn should go away?" she asked next, and Richard's head dropped, and his eyes were cast down in shame, as he replied:
"Yes; we—quar—. We differed, I mean, the night before I went away, and I kept her from the masquerade, I would not let her go. I locked the door, and now she has gone—gone to Mrs. Amsden's."
He persisted in saying that, as if he would fain make himself believe it against his better judgment.
"What is it all about? What does it mean?" Andy asked in great perplexity; and his mother answered for Richard:
"It means just this, as far as I can see: Ethelyn has got mad at Richard for keepin' her in, which he or'to have done long ago, and so, with her awful temper she has run away."
Mrs. Markham had defined it at last—had put into words the terrible thing which had happened, the disgrace which she saw coming upon them; and with this definition of it she, too, defined her own position with regard to Ethelyn, and stood bristling all over with anger and resentment, and ready to do battle for her son against the entire world.
"Mother! mother!" Andy gasped, and his face was whiter than Richard's. "It is not true. Ethie never went and done that—never! Did she, Dick? Tell me! Speak! Has Ethie run away?"
Andy was down on one knee now, and looking into Richard's face with a look which would almost have brought Ethie back could she have seen it. Andy had faith in her, and Richard clung to him rather than to the mother in denouncing her so bitterly.
"I don't know, Andy," he said, "I hope not. I think not. She must have gone to Mrs. Amsden's. We will wait till morning and see."
The sound of voices had aroused both James and John, who, half-dressed, came down to inquire what had happened, and why Dick was there at that unseemly hour of the night. James' face was very pale as he listened, and when his mother spoke of the disgrace which would come upon them all, his hard fists were clenched for a moment, while he thought of Melinda, and wondered if with her it would make any difference. Both James and John had liked Ethelyn, and as the temper about which their mother talked so much had never been exhibited to them, they were inclined even now to take her part, and cautious John suggested that it might not be so bad as his mother feared. To be sure, he didn't know how hard Dick and Ethie might have spatted it, or what had gone before; but anyway his advice would be to wait and see if she was not really at Mrs. Amsden's, or somewhere else. Richard let them manage it for him. He was powerless to act then, and stunned and silent he sat shivering by the stove, which they made red-hot with the blocks of wood they put in, hoping thus to warm him. There was no more sleep at the farmhouse that night, though James and John went back to bed, and Andy, too, crept up to his lonely room; but not to sleep. His heart was too full for that, and kneeling by his wooden chair, he prayed for Ethie—that she had not run away, but might be at Mrs. Amsden's, where he was going for her himself the moment the morning broke. He had claimed this privilege, and his mother had granted it, knowing that many allowances would be made for whatever Andy might say, and feeling that, on this account, he would do better than either of his brothers. Richard, of course, could not go. He scarcely had strength to move, and did not look up from his stooping posture by the stove, when, at day-dawn, Andy drew on his butternut overcoat, and tying a thick comforter about his neck, started for Mrs. Amsden's.
Richard knew she was not there—at least all the probabilities were against it; and still he clung to the vague hope that Andy would bring him some good news, and his thoughts went after the brother whose every breath was a prayer, as he galloped over the snowy ground toward Mrs. Amsden's. They were early risers there, and notwithstanding the sun was just coming up the eastern sky, the family were at breakfast when Andy's horse stopped before their gate, and Andy himself knocked at their door for admission. Andy's faith was great—so great that, in answer to his petitions, he fully expected to see Ethie herself at the table, when the door was opened, and he caught a view of the occupants of the dining room; but no Ethie was there, nor had been, as they said, in answer to his eager questionings.
"What made you think she was here? When did she go away? Was she intending to visit me?" Mrs. Amsden asked.
But Andy, while praying that Ethie might be there, had also asked that if she were not, "he needn't make a fool of himself, nor let the cat out of the bag," and he didn't; he merely replied:
"She left home a few days ago. Dick was in St. Louis, and it was lonesome stayin' alone. I'll find her, most likely, as she is somewhere else."
Andy was in his saddle now, and his fleet steed fled swiftly along toward home, where they waited so anxiously for him, Richard tottering to the window so as to read his fate in Andy's tell-tale face.
"She is not there. I knew she was not. She has gone with that villain."
Richard did not mean to say that last. It dropped from him mechanically, and in an instant his mother seized upon it, demanding what he meant, and who was the villain referred to. Richard tried to put her off, but she would know what he meant, and so to her and his three brothers he told as little as he could and make any kind of a story, and as he talked his heart hardened toward Ethie, who had done him this wrong. It seemed a great deal worse when put into words, and the whole expression of Richard's face was changed when he had finished speaking, while he was conscious of feeling much as he did that night when he denounced Ethie so terribly to her face. "Had it been a man, or half a man, or anybody besides that contemptible puppy, it would not seem so bad; but to forsake me for him!" Richard said, while the great ridges deepened in his forehead, and a hard, black look crept into his eyes, and about the corners of his mouth. He was terrible in his anger, which grew upon him until even his mother stood appalled at the fearful expression of his face.
"He would do nothing to call her back," he said, when James suggested the propriety of trying in a quiet way to ascertain where she had gone. "She had chosen her own path to ruin, and she might tread it for all of him. He would not put forth a hand to save her and if she came back, he never could forgive her."
Richard was walking up and down the room, white with rage, as he said this, and Andy, cowering in a corner, was looking on and listening. He did not speak until Richard declared his incapacity for forgiving Ethie, when he started up, and confronting the angry man, said to him rebukingly:
"Hold there, old Dick! You have gone a leetle too far. If God can forgive you and me all them things we've done, which he knows about, and other folks don't, you can, or or'to forgive sister Ethie, let her sin be what it may. Ethie was young, Dick, and childlike, and so pretty, too, and I 'most know you aggravated her some, if you talked to her as you feel now; and then, too, Dick, and mother, and all of you, I don't care who says it, or thinks it, it's a big lie! Ethie never went off with a man—never! I know she didn't. She wasn't that kind. I'll swear to it in the court. I won't hear anybody say that about her. I'll fight 'em, first, even if 'twas my own kin who did it!" And in his excitement, Andy began to shove back his wrist-bands from his strong wrists, as if challenging someone to the fight he had threatened.
Andy was splendid in his defense of Ethie, and both James and John stepped up beside him, showing their adhesion to the cause he pleaded so well. Ethie might have ran away, but she had surely gone alone, they said, and their advice was that Richard should follow her as soon as possible. But Richard would not listen to such a proposition now, and quietly aided and abetted by his mother, he declared his intention of "letting her alone." She had chosen her course, he said, and she must abide by it. "If she has gone with that villain"—and Richard ground his teeth together—"she can never again come back to me. If she has not gone with him, and chooses to return, I do not say the door is shut against her."
Richard seemed very determined and unrelenting, and, knowing how useless it was to reason with him when in so stern a mood, his brothers gave up the contest, Andy thinking within himself how many, many times a day he should pray for Ethie that she might come back again. Richard would not return to Camden that day, he said. He could not face his acquaintance there until the first shock was over and they were a little accustomed to thinking of the calamity which had fallen upon him. So he remained with his mother, sitting near the window which looked out upon the railroad track over which Ethie had gone. What his thoughts were none could fathom, save as they were expressed by the dark, troubled expression of his face, which showed how much he suffered. Perhaps he blamed himself as he went over again the incidents of that fatal night when he kept Ethelyn from the masquerade; but if he did, no one was the wiser for it, and so the first long day wore on, and the night fell again upon the inmates of the farmhouse. The darkness was terrible to Richard, for it shut out from his view that strip of road which seemed to him a part of Ethie. She had been there last, and possibly looked up at the old home—her first home after her marriage; possibly, too, she had thought of him. She surely did, if, as Andy believed, she was alone in her flight. If not alone, he wanted no thoughts of hers, and Richard's hands were clenched as he moved from the darkening window, and took his seat behind the stove, where he sat the entire evening, like some statue of despair, brooding over his ruined hopes.
The next day brought the Joneses—Melinda and Tim—the latter of whom had heard from Mrs. Amsden's son of Andy's strange errand there. There was something in the wind, and Melinda came to learn what it was. Always communicative to the Jones family, Mrs. Markham told the story without reserve, not even omitting the Van Buren part, but asking as a precaution that Melinda would not spread a story which would bring disgrace on them. Melinda was shocked, astonished, and confounded, but she did not believe in Frank Van Buren. Ethie never went with him—never. She, like Andy, would swear to that, and she said as much to Richard, taking Ethie's side as strongly as she could, without casting too much blame on him. And Richard felt better, hearing Ethie upheld and spoken for, even if it were so much against himself. Melinda was still his good angel, while Ethie, too, had just cause for thanking the kind girl who stood by her so bravely, and even made the mother-in-law less harsh in her expression.
There was a letter for Richard that night, from Harry Clifford, who wrote as follows:
"I do not know whether you found your wife at Mrs. Amsden's or not, but I take the liberty of telling you that Frank Van Buren has returned, and solemnly affirms that if Mrs. Markham was on board the train which left here on the 17th, he did not know it. Neither did he see her at all when in Camden. He called on his way to the depot that night, and was told she was out. Excuse my writing you this. If your wife has not come back, it will remove a painful doubt, and if she has, please burn and forget it. Yours,
"Thank Heaven for that!" was Richard's exclamation as in the first revulsion of feeling he sprang from his chair, while every feature of his face was irradiated with joy.
"What is it, Dick? Is Ethie found? I knew she would be. I've prayed for it fifty times to-day, and I had faith that God would hear," Andy said, the great tears rolling down his smooth, round face as he gave vent to his joy.
But Andy's faith was to be put to a stronger test, and his countenance fell a little when Richard explained the nature of the letter. Ethie was not found; she was only proved innocent of the terrible thing Richard had feared for her, and in being proven innocent, she was for a moment almost wholly restored to his favor. She would come back some time. She could not mean to leave him forever. She was only doing it for a scare, and to punish him for what he did that night. He deserved punishment, too, he thought, for he was pretty hard on her, and as he surely had been punished in all he had suffered during the last forty-eight hours, he would, when she came back, call everything even between them, and begin anew.
This was Richard's reasoning; and that night he slept soundly, dreaming that Ethie had returned, and on her knees was suing for his forgiveness, while her voice was broken with tears and choking sobs. As a man and husband who had been deserted, it was his duty to remain impassive a few moments, while Ethie atoned fully for her misdeeds: then he would forgive her, and so he waited an instant, and while he waited he woke to find only Andy, with whom he was sleeping, kneeling by the bedside, with the wintry moonlight falling on his upturned face, as he prayed for the dear sister Ethie, whose steps had "mewandered" so far away.
"Don't let any harm come to her; don't let anybody look at her for bad, but keep her—keep her—keep her in safety, and send her back to poor old Dick and me, and make Dick use her better than I 'most know he has, for he's got the Markham temper in him, and everybody knows what that is."
This was Andy's prayer, taken from no book or printed form, but the outpouring of his simple, honest heart, and Richard heard it, wincing a little as Andy thus made confession for him of his own sins; but he did not pray himself, though he was glad of Andy's prayers, and placed great hopes upon them. God would hear Andy, and if he did not send Ethie back at once, he would surely keep her from harm.
The next day Richard went back to Camden. Melinda Jones had suggested that possibly Ethie left a letter, or note, which would explain her absence, and Richard caught at it eagerly, wondering he had not thought of it before, and feeling very impatient to be off, even though he dreaded to meet some of his old friends, and be questioned as to the whereabouts of his wife. He did not know that the story of his desertion was already there—Mrs. Amsden having gone to town with her mite, which, added to the sale of the piano, Ethie's protracted absence, Richard's return to Olney at midnight, and Harry Clifford's serious and mysterious manner, were enough to set the town in motion. Various opinions were expressed, and, what was very strange, so popular were both Richard and Ethelyn that everybody disliked blaming either, and so but few unkind remarks had as yet been made, and those by people who had been jealous or envious of Ethelyn's high position. No one knew a whisper of Frank Van Buren, for Harry kept his promise well, and no worse motive was ascribed to Ethie's desertion than want of perfect congeniality with her husband. Thus they were not foes, but friends, who welcomed Richard back to Camden, watching him curiously, and wishing so much to ask where Mrs. Markham was. That she was not with him, was certain, for only Andy came—Andy, who held his head so high, and looked round so defiantly, as he kept close to Richard's side on the way to the hotel. It was very dreary going up the old, familiar staircase into the quiet hall, and along to the door of the silent room, which seemed drearier than on that night when he first came back to it and found Ethie gone. There were ashes now upon the stove-hearth where Hal Clifford had kindled the fire, and the two chairs they had occupied were standing just where they had left them. The gas had not been properly turned off, and a dead, sickly odor filled the room, making Andy heave as he hastened to open the window, and admit the fresh, pure air.
"Seems as it did the day Daisy died," Andy said, his eyes filling with tears.
To Richard it was far worse than the day Daisy died, for he had then the memory of her last loving words in his ear, and the feeling of her clinging kiss upon his lips, while now the memories of the lost one were only bitter and sad in the extreme.
"Melinda suggested a letter or something. Where do you suppose she would put it if there were one?" Richard asked in a helpless, appealing way, as he sank into a chair and looked wistfully around the room.
He had been very bold and strong in the cars and in the street; but here, in the deserted room, where Ethie used to be, and where something said she would never be again, he was weak as a girl, and leaned wholly upon Andy, who seemed to feel how much was depending upon him, and so kept up a cheery aspect while he kindled a fresh fire and cleared the ashes from the hearth by blowing them off upon the oilcloth; then, as the warmth began to make itself felt and the cold to diminish, he answered Richard's query.
"In her draw, most likely; mother mostly puts her traps there." So, to the "draw" they went—the very one where Daisy's ring was lying; and Richard saw that first, knowing now for sure that Ethelyn had fled.
He knew so before, but this made it more certain—more dreadful, too, for it showed a determination never to return.
"It was Daisy's, you know," he said to Andy, who, at his side, was not looking at the ring, but beyond it, to the two letters, his own and Richard's, both of which he seized with a low cry, for he, too, was sure of Ethie's flight.
"See, Dick, there's one for you and one for me," he exclaimed, and his face grew very red as he tore open his own note and began to devour the contents, whispering the words, and breaking down entirely amid a storm of sobs and tears as he read:
"DEAR ANDY: I wish I could tell you how much I love you, and how sorry I am to fall in your good opinion, as I surely shall when you hear what has happened. Do not hate me, Andy; and sometimes, when you pray, remember Ethie, won't you?"
He could get no farther than this, and with a great cry he buried his face in his hands and sobbed: "Yes, Ethie, I will, I will; but oh, what is it? What made you go? Why did she, Dick?" and he turned to his brother, who, with lightning rapidity, was reading Ethelyn's long letter. He did not doubt a word she said, and when the letter was finished he put it passively in Andy's hand, and then, with a bitter groan, laid his throbbing head upon the cushion of the lounge where he was sitting. There were no tears in his eyes—nothing but blood-red circles floating before them; while the aching balls seemed starting from their sockets with the pressure of pain. He had had his chance with Ethie and lost it; and though, as yet, he saw but dimly where he had been to blame, where he had made a mistake, he endured for the time all he was capable of enduring, and if revenge had been her object, Ethie had more than her desire.
Andy was stunned for a moment, and sat staring blankly at the motionless figure of his brother; then, as the terrible calamity began to impress itself fully upon him, intense pity for Richard became uppermost in his mind, and stooping over the crushed man, he laid his arm across his neck, and, tender as a sorrowing, loving mother, kissed and fondled the damp brown hair, and dropped great tears upon it, and murmured words of sympathy, incoherent at first, for the anguish choking his own utterance, but gradually gathering force and sound as his quivering lips kept trying to articulate: "Dick, poor old Dick, dear old Dick, don't keep so still and look so white and stony. She'll come back again, Ethie will. I feel it, I feel it, I know it, I shall pray for her every hour until she comes. Prayer will reach her where nothing else can find her. Poor Dick, I am so sorry. Don't look at me so; you scare me. Try to cry; try to make a fuss; try to do anything rather than that dreadful look. Lay your head on me, so," and lifting up the bowed head, which offered no resistance, Andy laid it gently on his arm, and smoothing back the hair from the pallid forehead, went on: "Now cry, old boy, cry with all your might;" and with his hand Andy brushed away the scalding tears which began to fall like rain from Richard's eyes.
"Better so, a great deal better than the other way. Don't hold up till you've had it out," he kept repeating, while Richard wept, until the fountain was dry and the tears refused to flow.
"I've been a brute, Andy," he said, when at last he could speak. "The fault was all my own. I did not understand her in the least. I ought never to have married her. She was not of my make at all."
Andy would hear nothing derogatory of Richard any more than of Ethelyn, and he answered promptly: "But, Dick, Ethie was some to blame. She didn't or'to marry you feelin' as she did. That was where the wrong began."
This was the most and the worst Andy ever said against Ethelyn, and he repented of that the moment the words were out of his mouth. It was mean to speak ill of the absent, especially when the absent one was Ethie, who had written, "In fancy I put my arms around your neck and kiss your dear, kind face." Andy deemed himself a monster of ingratitude when he recalled these lines and remembered that of her who penned them he had said, "She was some to blame." He took it all back to himself, and tried to exonerate Ethie entirely, though it was hard work to do so where he saw how broken, and stunned, and crushed his brother was, and how little he realized what was passing around him.
"He don't know much more than I do," was Andy's mental comment, when to his question, "What shall we do next?" Richard replied, in a maudlin kind of way, "Yes, that is a very proper course. I leave it entirely to you."
Andy felt that a great deal was depending upon himself, and he tried to meet the emergency. Seeing how Richard continued to shiver, and how cold he was, he persuaded him to lie down upon the bed, and piling the blankets upon him, made such a fire as he said to himself, "would roast a common ox"; then, when Hal Clifford came to the door and knocked, he kept him out, with that "Dick had been broke of his rest, and was tryin' to make it up."
But this state of things could not last long. Richard was growing ill, and talking so strangely withal, that Andy began to feel the necessity of having somebody there beside himself; "some of the wimmen folks, who knew what to do, for I'm no better than a settin' hen," he said.
Very naturally his thoughts turned to his mother as the proper person to come, "though Melinda Jones was the properest of the two. There was snap to her, and she would not go to pitchin' in to Ethie."
Accordingly, the next mail carried to Melinda Jones a note from Andy, which was as follows:
"MISS MELINDA JONES: Dear Madam—We found the letters Ethie writ, one to me, and one to Dick, and Dick's was too much for him. He lies like a punk of wood, makin' a moanin' noise, and talkin' such queer things, that I guess you or somebody or'to come and see to him a little. I send to you because there's no nonsense about you, and you are made of the right kind of stuff.
"Yours to command,
"ANDERSON MARKHAM, ESQ."
This note Melinda carried straight to Mrs. Markham, and as the result, four hours later both the mother and Melinda were on the road to Camden, where Melinda's services were needed to stem the tide of wonder and gossip, which had set in when it began to be known that Ethelyn was gone, and Richard was lying sick in his room, tended only by Andy, who would admit no one, not even the doctor, who, when urged by Harry Clifford, came to offer his services.
"He wasn't goin' to let in a lot of curious critters to hear what Dick was talkin'," he said to his mother and Melinda, his haggard face showing how much he had endured in keeping them at bay, and answering through the key-hole their numerous inquiries.
Richard did not have a fever, as was feared at first; but for several days he kept his bed, and during that time his mother and Melinda stayed by him, nursing him most assiduously, but never once speaking to each other of Ethelyn. Both had read her letter, for Mrs. Markham never thought of withholding it from Melinda, who, knowing that she ought not to have seen it, wisely resolved to keep to herself the knowledge of its contents. So, when she was asked, as she was repeatedly, "Why Mrs. Markham had gone away," she answered evasively, or not at all, and finding that nothing could be obtained from her, the people at last left her in quiet and turned to their own resources, which furnished various reasons for the desertion. They knew it was a desertion now, and hearing how sick and broken Richard was, popular opinion was in his favor mostly, though many a kind and wistful thought went after the fair young wife, who had been a belle in their midst, and a general favorite, too. Where was she now, and what was she doing, these many days, while the winter crept on into spring, and the March winds blew raw and chill against the windows of the chamber where Richard battled with the sickness which he finally overcame, so that by the third week of Ethie's absence he was up again and able to go in quest of her, if so be she might be found and won to the love she never returned.
They were having a late dinner at Aunt Barbara's, a four o'clock dinner of roast fowls with onions and tomatoes, and the little round table was nicely arranged with the silver and china and damask for two, while in the grate the fire was blazing brightly and on the hearth, the tabby cat was purring out her appreciation of the comfort and good cheer. But Aunt Barbara's heart was far too sorry and sad to care for her surroundings, or think how pleasant and cozy that little dining room looked to one who did not know of the grim skeleton which had walked in there that very day along with Mrs. Dr. Van Buren, of Boston. That lady had come up on the morning train and in her rustling black silk with velvet trimmings, and lace barb hanging from her head, she sat before the fire with a look of deep dejection and thoughtfulness upon her face, as if she too recked little of the creature comforts around her. Aunt Barbara knew nothing of her coming, and was taken by surprise when the village hack stopped at the door, and Sister Sophia's sable furs and beaver cloak alighted. That something was the matter she suspected from her sister's face the moment that lady removed her veil and gave the usual dignified kiss of greeting. Things had gone wrong again with Frank and Nettie, most likely, she thought, for she was not ignorant, of the misunderstandings and misery arising from that unfortunate marriage, and she had about made up her mind to tell her sister just where the fault lay. She would not spare Frank any longer, but would give him his just deserts. She never dreamed that the trouble this time concerned Ethie, her own darling, the child whom she had loved so well, and pitied, and thought of so much since the time she left her out West with "those Philistines," as she designated Richard's family. She had not heard from her for some time, but, in the last letter received, Ethie had written in a very cheerful strain, and told how gay and pleasant it was in Camden that winter. Surely nothing had befallen her, and the good woman stood aghast when Mrs. Dr. Van Buren abruptly asked if Ethelyn was not there, or had been there lately, or heard from either. What did it portend? Had harm come upon Ethie? And a shadow broke the placid surface of the sweet old face as Aunt Barbara put these questions, first to herself, and then to Mrs. Van Buren, who rapidly explained that Ethelyn had left her husband, and gone, no one knew whither.
"I hoped she might be here, and came up to see," Mrs. Van Buren concluded; while Aunt Barbara steadied herself against the great bookcase in the corner, and wondered if she was going out of her senses, or had she heard aright, and was it her sister Van Buren sitting there before her, and saying such dreadful things.
She could not tell if it were real until Tabby sprang with a purring, caressing sound, upon her shoulder, and rubbed her soft sides against her cap. That made it real, and brought the color back to her wrinkled face, but brought, also, a look of horror into her blue eyes, which sought Mrs. Van Buren's with an eager, and yet terribly anxious glance. Mrs. Dr. Van Buren understood the look. Its semblance had been on her own face for an instant when she first heard the news, and now she hastened to dispossess her sister's mind of any such suspicion.
"No, Barbara; Frank did not go with her, or even see her when in Camden. He is not quite so bad as that, I hope."
The mother nature was in the ascendant, and for a moment resented the suspicion against her son, even though that suspicion had been in her own mind when Frank returned from Camden with the news of Ethie's flight. That he had had something to do with it was her first fear, until convinced to the contrary; and now she blamed Aunt Barbara for harboring the same thought. As soon as possible she told all she had heard from Frank, and then went on with her invectives against the Markhams generally, and Richard in particular, and her endless surmises as to where Ethelyn had gone, and what was the final cause of her going.
For a time Aunt Barbara turned a deaf ear to what she was saying, thinking only of Ethie, gone; Ethie, driven to such strait, that she must either run away or die; Ethie, the little brown-eyed, rosy-cheeked, willful, imperious girl, whom she loved so much for the very willful imperiousness which always went hand in hand with such pretty fits of penitence, and sorrow, and remorse for the misdeed, that not to love her was impossible. Where was she now, and why had she not come at once to the dear old home, where she would have been so welcome until such time as matters could be adjusted on a more amicable basis?
For Aunt Barbara, though in taking Ethie's side altogether, had no thought that the separation should be final. She had chosen a life of celibacy because she preferred it, and found it a very smooth and pleasant one, especially after Ethie came and brought the sunshine of joyous childhood to her quiet home; but "those whom God had joined together" were bound to continue so, she firmly believed; and had Ethie come to her with her tale of sorrow, she would have listened kindly to it, poured in the balm of sympathy and love, and then, if possible, restored her to her husband. Of all this she thought during the few minutes Mrs. Dr. Van Buren talked, and she sat passive in her chair, where she had dropped, with her dumpy little hands lying so helplessly in her lap, and her cap all awry, as Tabby had made it when purring and rubbing against it.
"Then, you have not seen her, or heard a word?" Mrs. Van Buren asked; and in a kind of uncertain way, as if she wondered what they were talking about, Aunt Barbara replied:
"No, I have not seen her, and I don't know, I am sure, what made the child go off without letting us know."
"She was driven to it by the pack of heathens around her," Mrs. Dr. Van Buren retorted, feeling a good deal guilty herself for having been instrumental in bringing about this unhappy match, and in proportion as she felt guilty, seizing with avidity any other offered cause for Ethie's wretchedness. "I've heard even more about them than you told me," she went on to say. "There was Mrs. Ellis, whose cousin lives in Olney—she says the mother is the most peculiar and old-fashioned woman imaginable; actually wears blue yarn stockings, footed with black, makes her own candles, and sleeps in the kitchen."
With regard to the candles Aunt Barbara did not know; the sleeping in the kitchen she denied, and the footed stockings she admitted; saying, however, those she saw were black, rather than blue. Black or blue, it was all the same to Mrs. Dr. Van Buren, whose feet seldom came in contact with anything heavier than silk or the softest of lamb's wool; and, had there been wanting other evidence of Mrs. Markham's vulgarity, the stocking question would have settled the matter with her.
"Poor Ethie!" she sighed, as she drew her seat to the fire, and asked what they ought to do.
Aunt Barbara did not know. She was too much bewildered to think of anything just then, and after ordering the four o'clock dinner, which, she knew, would suit her sister's habits better than an earlier one, she, too, sat quietly down by the fire with her knitting lying idly in her lap, and her eyes looking dreamily through the frosty panes off upon the snowy hills where Ethelyn used to play. Occasionally, in reply to some question of her sister's, she would tell what she herself saw in that prairie home, and then look up amazed at the exasperating effect it seemed to have upon Mrs. Dr. Van Buren. That lady was terrible incensed against the whole Markham race, for through them she had been touched on a tender point. Ethie's desertion of her husband would not be wholly excused by the world; there was odium attaching to such a step, however great the provocation, and the disgrace was what Mrs. Van Buren would feel most keenly. That a Bigelow should do so was very humiliating; and, by way of fortifying herself with reasons for the step, she slandered and abused the Markhams until they would hardly have recognized the remotest relationship between themselves and the "terrible creatures" whom the great lady from Boston dissected so mercilessly that afternoon in Chicopee.
It was nearly four o'clock now, and the dinner was almost ready. Aunt Barbara had dropped her knitting upon the floor, where the ball was at once claimed as the lawful prey of Tabby, who rolled, and kicked, and tangled the yarn in a perfect abandon of feline delight. Mrs. Van Buren having exhausted herself, if not her topic, sat rocking quietly, and occasionally giving little sniffs of inquiry as to whether the tomatoes were really burned or not. If they were, there were still the silver-skinned onions left; and, as Mrs. Van Buren was one who thought a great deal of what she ate, she was anticipating her dinner with a keen relish, and wishing Barbara and Betty would hurry, when a buggy stopped before the door, and, with a start of disagreeable surprise, she recognized Richard Markham coming through the gate, and up the walk to the front door. He was looking very pale and worn, for to the effects of his recent illness were added traces of his rapid, fatiguing journey, and he almost staggered as he came into the room. It was not in kind Aunt Barbara's nature to feel resentment toward him then, and she went to him at once, as she would have gone to Ethie, and, taking his hand in hers, said softly:
"My poor boy! We have heard of your trouble. Have you found her yet? Do you know where she is?"
There was a look of anguish and disappointment in Richard's eyes as he replied:
"I thought—I hoped I might find her here."
"And that is the reason of your waiting so long before coming?" Mrs. Dr. Van Buren put in sharply.
It was three weeks now since Ethie's flight, and her husband had shown himself in no hurry to seek her, she reasoned; but Richard's reply, "I was away a week before I knew it, and I have been very sick since then," mollified her somewhat, though she sat back in her chair very stiff and very straight, eyeing him askance, and longing to pounce upon him and tell him what she thought. First, however, she must have her dinner. The tea would be spoiled if they waited longer; and when Aunt Barbara began to question Richard, she suggested that they wait till after dinner, when they would all be fresher and stronger. So dinner was brought in, and Richard, as he took his seat at the nicely-laid table, where everything was served with so much care, did think of the difference between Ethie's early surroundings and those to which he had introduced her when he took her to his mother's house. He was beginning to think of those things now; Ethie's letter had opened his eyes somewhat, and Mrs. Dr. Van Buren would open them more before she let him go. She was greatly refreshed with her dinner. The tomatoes had not been burned; the fowls were roasted to a most delicate brown; the currant jelly was just the right consistency; the pickled peaches were delicious, and the tea could not have been better. On the whole, Mrs. Van Buren was satisfied, and able to cope with a dozen men as crushed, and sore, and despondent as Richard seemed. She had scanned him very closely, deciding that so far as dress was concerned, he had improved since she saw him last. It is true, his collar was not all the style, and his necktie was too wide, and his coat sleeves too small, and his boots too rusty, and his vest too much soiled; but she made allowance for the circumstances, and his hasty journey, and so excused his tout ensemble. She had resumed her seat by the fire, sitting where she could look the culprit directly in the face; while good Aunt Barbara occupied the middle position, and, with her fat, soft hands shaking terribly, tried to pick up the stitches Tabby had pulled out. That personage, too, had had her chicken wing out in the woodshed, and, knowing nothing of Ethie's grievances, had mounted into Richard's lap, where she lay, slowly blinking and occasionally purring a little, as Richard now and then passed his hand over her soft fur.
"Now tell us: Why did Ethelyn go away?—that is, what reason did she give?"
It was Mrs. Dr. Van Buren who asked this question, her voice betokening that nothing which Richard could offer as an excuse would be received. They must have Ethie's reason or none. Richard would far rather Mrs. Dr. Van Buren had been in Boston, or Paris, or Guinea, than there in Chicopee, staring so coolly at him; but as her being there was something he could not help, he accepted it as a part of the train of calamities closing so fast about him, and answered, respectfully:
"It was no one thing which made her go, but the culmination of many. There was a mistake on my part. I thought her guilty when she was not, and charged her with it in a passion, saying things I would give much to recall. This was one night, and she went the next, before her temper had time to cool. You know she was a little hasty herself at times."
"Perhaps so, though her temper never troubled me any. On the whole, I think her temper amiable and mild in disposition as people generally are," Mrs. Van Buren replied, forgetting, or choosing to forget, the many occasions on which even she had shrunk from the fire which blazed in Ethie's eyes when that young lady was fully roused.
But Aunt Barbara had either more conscience or a better memory, and in a manner half apologetic for her interference, she said: "Yes, Sophia, Richard is right. Ethie had a temper—at least she was very decided. Don't you remember when she broke the cut glass fruit dish, because she could not have any more pineapple?"
"Barbara!" Mrs. Dr. Van Buren exclaimed, her voice indicating her surprise that her sister should so far forget herself as to reveal any secrets of the family, and especially any which could be brought to bear upon Ethelyn.
Aunt Barbara felt the implied rebuke, and while her sweet, old face crimsoned with mortification, she said: "Truth is truth, Sophia. Ethie is as dear to me as to you, but she was high-tempered, and did break the big fruit bowl, and then denied herself sweetmeats of all kinds, and even went without sugar in her coffee and butter on her bread until she had saved enough to buy another in its place. Ethie was generous and noble after it was all over, if she was a little hot at times. That's what I was going to say when you stopped me so sudden."
Aunt Barbara looked a little aggrieved at being caught up so quickly by her sister, who continued: "She was a Bigelow, and everybody knows what kind of blood that is. She was too sensitive, and had too nice a perception of what was proper to be thrown among"—heathen, she was going to add, but something in Aunt Barbara's blue eyes kept her in check, and so she abruptly turned to Richard and asked, "Did she leave no message, no reason why she went?"
Richard could have boasted his Markham blood had he chosen, and the white heats to which that was capable of being roused; but he was too utterly broken to feel more than a passing flash of resentment for anything which had yet been said, and after a moment's thought, during which he was considering the propriety of showing Mrs. Van Buren what Ethie had written of Frank, he held the letter to her, saying, "She left this. Read it if you like. It's a part of my punishment, I suppose, that her friends should know all."
With a stately bow Mrs. Van Buren took the letter and hastily read it through, her lip quivering a little and her eyelids growing moist as Ethie described the dreariness of that dreadful day when "Aunt Van Buren came up from Boston and broke her heart." And as she read how much poor Ethie had loved Frank, the cold, proud woman would have given all she had if the past could be undone and Ethie restored to her just as she was that summer nine years ago, when she came from the huckleberry hills and stood beneath the maples. With a strange obtuseness peculiar to some people who have seen their dearest plans come to naught, she failed to ascribe the trouble to herself, but charged it all to Richard. He was the one in fault; and by the time the letter was finished the Bigelow blood was at a boiling pitch, and for a polished lady, Mrs. Dr. Van Buren, of Boston, raised her voice pretty high as she asked: "Did you presume, sir, to think that my son—mine—a married man—would make an appointment with Ethie, a married woman? You must have a strange misconception of the manner in which he was brought up! But it is all of a piece with the rest of your abominable treatment of Ethelyn. I wonder the poor girl stayed with you as long as she did. Think of it, Barbara! Accused her of going to meet Frank by appointment, and then locked her up to keep her at home, and she a Bigelow!"
This was the first inkling Aunt Barbara had of what was in the letter. She was, however, certain that Frank was in some way involved in the matter, and anxious to know the worst, she said, beseechingly:
"Tell me something, do. I can't read it, for my eyes are dim-like to-night."
They were full of unshed tears—the kind old eyes, which did not grow one whit sterner or colder as Mrs. Van Buren explained, to some extent, what was in the letter; reading a little, telling a little, and skipping a little where Frank was especially concerned, until Aunt Barbara had a pretty correct idea of the whole. Matters had been worse than she supposed, Ethie more unhappy, and knowing her as she did, she was not surprised that at the last she ran away; but she did not say so—she merely sat grieved and helpless, while her sister took up the cudgels in Ethelyn's defense, and, attacking Richard at every point, left him no quarter at all. She did not pretend that Ethie was faultless or perfect, she said, but surely, if mortal ever had just provocation for leaving her husband, she had.
"Her marriage was a great mistake," she said; "and I must say, Mr. Markham, that you did very wrong to take her where you did without a word of preparation. You ought to have told her what she was to expect; then, if she chose to go, very well. But neither she nor I had any idea of the reality; and the change must have been terrible to her. For my part, I can conceive of nothing worse than to be obliged to live with people whom even sister Barbara called 'Hottentots,' when she came home from Iowa."
"Not Hottentots," mildly interposed Aunt Barbara. "Philistines was what I called them, Sophia; and in doing so; I did not mean all of them, you know."
"Well, Philistines, then, if that's a better word than Hottentots, which I doubt," Mrs. Van Buren retorted sharply.
Aunt Barbara's evident wish to smooth matters irritated her to say more than she might otherwise have done, and she went on:
"I know you made exceptions, but if my memory serves me right, your opinion of Ethie's mother-in-law was not very complimentary to that lady. A man has no business to take his wife to live with his mother when he knows how different they are."
"But I did not know," Richard said; "that is, I had never thought much of the things which tried Ethie. Mother was always a good mother to me, and I did not suppose she was so very different from other women."
"You certainly must be very obtuse, then," Mrs. Van Buren replied: "for, if all accounts which I hear are true, your mother is not the person to make a daughter-in-law happy. Neither, it seems, did you do what you could to please her. You annoyed her terribly with your codger-like ways, if I may be allowed that term. You made but little effort to improve, thinking, no doubt, that it was all nonsense and foolishness; that it was just as well to wear your hat in church, and sit with your boots on top of the stove, as any other way."
"I never wore my hat in church!" Richard exclaimed, with more warmth than he had before evinced.
"I don't suppose you did do that particular thing, but you were guilty of other low-bred habits which grated just as harshly as that. You thought because you were a judge and an M.C., and had the reputation of possessing brains, that it did not matter how you demeaned yourself; and there you were mistaken. The manners of a gentleman would sit ten times more gracefully upon you because you had brains. No one likes a boor, and no man of your ability has any business to be a clown. Even if you were not taught it at home, you could learn from observation, and it was your duty to do so. Instead of that, you took it for granted you were right because no one had ever suggested that you were wrong, while your mother had petted you to death. I have not the honor of her acquaintance, but I must say I consider her a very remarkable person, even for a Western woman."
"My mother was born East," Richard suggested, and Mrs. Van Buren continued:
"Certainly; but that does not help the matter. It rather makes it worse, for of all disagreeable people, a Western Yankee is, I think, the most disagreeable. Such an one never improves, but adheres strictly to the customs of their native place, no matter how many years have passed since they lived there, or how great the march of improvement may have been. In these days of railroads and telegraphs there is no reason why your mother should not be up to the times. Her neighbors are, it seems, and I have met quite as cultivated people from beyond the Rocky Mountains as I have even seen in Boston."
This was a great admission for Mrs. Van Buren, who verily believed there was nothing worth her consideration out of Boston unless it were a few families in the immediate vicinity of Fifth Avenue and Madison Square. She was bent upon making Richard uncomfortable, and could at the moment think of no better way of doing it than contrasting his mother's "way" with those of her neighbors. Occasionally Aunt Barbara put her feeble oar into the surging tide, hoping to check, even if she could not subdue the angry waters; but she might as well have kept silent save that Richard understood and appreciated her efforts to spare him as much as possible. Mrs. Van Buren was not to be stopped, and at last, when she had pretty fully set before Richard his own and his mother's delinquencies, she turned fiercely on her sister, demanding if she had not said "so and so" with regard to Ethie's home in the West. Thus straitened, Aunt Barbara replied:
"Things did strike me a little odd at Ethie's, and I don't well see how she could be very happy there. Mrs. Markham is queer—the queerest woman, if I must say it, that I ever saw, though I guess there's a good many like her up in Vermont, where she was raised, and if the truth was known, right here in Chicopee, too; and I wouldn't wonder if there were some queer ones in Boston. The place don't make the difference; it's the way the folks act."
This she said in defense of the West generally. There were quite as nice people there as anywhere, and she believed Mrs. Markham meant to be kind to Ethie; surely Richard did, only he did not understand her. It was very wrong to lock her up, and then it was wrong in Ethie to marry him, feeling as she did. "It was all wrong every way, but the heaviest punishment for the wrong had fallen on poor Ethie, gone, nobody knew where."
It was not in nature for Aunt Barbara to say so much without crying, and her tears were dropping fast into her motherly lap, where Tabby was now lying. Mrs. Van Buren was greatly irritated that her sister did not render her more assistance, and as a failure in that quarter called for greater exertions on her own part, she returned again to the charge, and wound up with sweeping denunciations against the whole Markham family.
"The idea of taking a young girl there, and trying to bend her to your ways of thinking—to debar her from all the refinements to which she had been accustomed, and give her for associates an ignorant mother-in-law and a half-witted brother."
Richard had borne a great deal from Mrs. Van Buren, and borne it patiently, too, as something which he deserved. He had seen himself torn to atoms, until he would never have recognized any one of the dissected members as parts of the Honorable Judge he once thought himself to be. He had heard his mother and her "ways" denounced as utterly repugnant to any person of decency, while James and John, under the head of "other vulgar appendages to the husband," had had a share in the general sifting down, and through it all he had kept quiet, with only an occasional demur or explanation; but when it came to Andy, the great, honest, true-hearted Andy, he could bear it no longer, and the Bigelow blood succumbed to the fiery gleam in Richard's eyes as he started to his feet, exclaiming:
"Mrs. Van Buren, you must stop, for were you a hundred times a woman, I would not listen to one word of abuse against my brother Andy. So long as it was myself and my mother, I did not mind; but every hair of Andy's head is sacred to us who know him, and I would take his part against the world, were it only for the sake of Ethie, who loved him so much, and whom he idolized. He would die for Ethie this very night, if need be—aye, die for you too, perhaps, if you were suffering and his life could bring relief. You don't know Andy, or you would know why we held him as dear as we do the memory of our darling Daisy; and when you taunt me with my half-witted brother, you hurt me as much as you would to tear my dead sister from her grave, and expose her dear face to the gaze of brutal men. No, Mrs. Van Buren, say what you like of me, but never again sneer at my brother Andy."
Richard paused, panting for breath, while Mrs. Van Buren looked at him with entirely new sensations from what she had before experienced. There was some delicacy of feeling in his nature, after all—something which recoiled from her unwomanly attack upon his weak-minded brother—and she respected him at that moment, if she had never done so before. Something like shame, too, she felt for her cruel taunt, which had both roused and wounded him, and she would gladly have recalled all she said of Andy if she could, for she remembered now what Aunt Barbara had told her of his kindness and the strong attachment there was between the simple man and Ethie. Mrs. Van Buren could be generous if she tried; and as this seemed a time for the trial, she did attempt to apologize, saying her zeal for Ethie had carried her too far; that she hoped Richard would excuse what she had said of Andy—she had no intention of wounding him on that point.
And Richard accepted the apology, but his face did not again assume the cowed, broken expression it had worn at first. There was a compression about the mouth, a firm shutting together of the teeth, and a dark look in the bloodshot eyes, which warned Mrs. Van Buren not to repeat much of what she had said. It would not now be received as it was at first. Richard would do much to bring Ethie back—he would submit to any humiliation, and bear anything for himself, but he would never again listen quietly while his mother and family were so thoroughly abused. Mrs. Van Buren felt this intuitively, and knowing that what she said had made an impression, and would after a time be acted upon, perhaps, she changed her tactics, and became quite as conciliating as Aunt Barbara herself, talking and consulting with Richard as to the best course to be pursued with regard to finding Ethie, and succeeding, in part, in removing from his face the expression it had put on when Andy was the subject of her maledictions.
Richard had a great dread of meeting his uncle, the old colonel, in his present trouble, and he was not quite sure whether he should go there or not. At least, he should not to-night; and when the clock struck eleven, he arose to retire.
"The room at the head of the stairs. I had a fire made for you in there," Aunt Barbara said, as she handed him the lamp.
Richard hesitated a moment, and then asked, "Does anyone occupy Ethie's old room? Seems to me I would rather go there. It would be somehow bring her nearer to me."
So to Ethie's old room he went, Aunt Barbara lamenting that he would find it so cold and comfortless, but feeling an increased kindliness toward him for this proof of love for her darling.
"There's a great deal of good about that man, after all," she said to her sister, when, after he was gone to his room, they sat together around their hearth and talked the matter over afresh; and then, as she took off and carefully smoothed her little round puffs of false hair, and adjusted her nightcap in its place, she said, timidly, "You were rather hard on him, Sophia, at times."
It needed but this for Mrs. Van Buren to explode again and charge her sister with saying too little rather than too much. "One would think you blamed Ethie entirely, or at least that you were indifferent to her happiness," she said, removing her lace barb, and unfastening the heavy switch bound about her head. "I was surprised at you, Barbara, I must say. After all your pretended affection for Ethelyn, I did expect you would be willing to do as much as to speak for her, at least."
This was too much for poor Aunt Barbara, and without any attempt at justification, except that her sister in her attack upon Richard had left her nothing to say, she cried quietly and sorrowfully, as she folded up her white apron and made other necessary preparations for the night. That she should be accused of not caring for Ethie, of not speaking for her, wounded her in a tender point; and long after Mrs. Van Buren had gone to the front chamber, where she always slept, Aunt Barbara was on her knees by the rocking chair, praying earnestly for Ethie, and then still kneeling there, with her face on the cushion, sobbing softly, "God knows how much I love her. There's nothing of personal comfort I would not sacrifice to bring her back; but when a man was feeling as bad as he could, what was the use of making him feel worse?"
WATCHING AND WAITING
The pink and white blossoms of the apple trees by the pump in Aunt Barbara's back yard were dropping their snowy petals upon the clean, bright grass, and the frogs in the meadows were croaking their sad music, when Richard Markham came again to Chicopee. He had started for home the morning after his memorable interview with Mrs. Dr. Van Buren, and to Aunt Barbara had fallen the task of telling her troubles to the colonel's family, asking that the affair be kept as quiet as possible, inasmuch as Ethie might soon be found, and matters between her and Richard be made right. Every day, after the mail came from the West, the colonel rang at Aunt Barbara's door and asked solemnly, "if there was any news"—good news, he meant—and Aunt Barbara always shook her head, while her face grew thinner, and her round, straight figure began to get a stoop and a look of greater age than the family Bible would warrant.
Ethelyn had not been heard from, and search as he would, Richard could find no trace of her whatever. She had effectually covered her tracks, so that not even a clew to her whereabouts was found. No one had seen her, or any person like her, and the suspense and anxiety of those three—Richard, Aunt Barbara, and Andy—who loved her so well, was getting to be terrible, when there came to Andy a letter—a letter in the dear, familiar handwriting. A few lines only, and they read:
"NEW YORK, May—.
"MY DARLING ANDY: I know you have not forgotten me, and I am superstitious enough to fancy that you are with me in spirit constantly. I do not know why I am writing this to you, but something impels me to do it, and tell you that I am well. I cannot say happy yet, for the sundering of every earthly relation made too deep a wound for me not to feel the pain for months and may be for years. I have employment, though—constant employment—that helps me to bear, and keeps me from dwelling too much upon the past.
"Andy, I want you to tell Richard that in thinking over my married life I see many places where I did very wrong and tried him terribly. I am sorry for that, and hope he will forgive me. I wish I had never crossed his path and left so dark a shadow on his life.
"Tell your mother that I know now I did not try to make her like me. Perhaps I could not if I had; but I might at least have tried. I am sorry I troubled her so much.
"Tell Melinda Jones, and James and John, that I remember all their kindness, and thank them so much. And Eunice, too. She was good to me, always. And oh! Andy, please get word somehow to dear Aunt Barbara that her lost Ethie is well, and so sorry to give her pain, as I know I do. I would write to her myself, but I am afraid she blames me for going away and bringing a kind of disgrace upon her and Aunt Van Buren. I cannot say yet I am sorry for the step I took, and, until I am sorry I cannot write to Aunt Barbara. But you must tell her for me how much I love her, and how every night of my life I dream I am back in the dear old home under the maples, and see upon the hills the swelling buds and leaves of spring. Tell her not to forget me, and be sure that wherever I am or whatever may befall me, she will be remembered as the dearest, most precious memory of my life. Next to her Andy, you come; my darling Andy, who was always so kind to me when my heart was aching so hard.
"Good-by, Andy, good-by."
This was the letter which Andy read with streaming eyes, while around him, on tiptoe, to look over his and each other's shoulders, stood the entire family, all anxious and eager to know what the runaway had written. It was a very conciliatory letter, and it left a sadly pleasant impression on those who read it, making even the mother wipe her eyes with the corner of her apron as she washed her supper dishes in the sink and whispered to herself, "She didn't trouble me so very much more than I did her. I might have done different, too."
Richard made no comment whatever, but, like Andy, he conned the letter over and over until he knew it by heart, especially the part referring to himself. She had cast a shadow upon his life, but she was very dear to him for all that, and he would gladly have taken back the substance, had that been possible. This letter Richard carried to Aunt Barbara, whom he found sitting in her pleasant porch, with the May moonlight falling upon her face, and her eyes wearing the look of one who is constantly expecting something which never comes. And Aunt Barbara was expecting Ethie. It could not be that a young girl like her would stay away for long. She might return at any time, and every morning the good woman said to herself, "She will be here to-day;" every night, "She will come home to-morrow." The letter, however, did not warrant such a conclusion There was no talk of coming back, but the postmark, "New York," told where she was, and that was something gained. They could surely find her now, Aunt Barbara said, and she and Richard talked long together about what he was going to do, for he was on his way then to the great city.