"Bring her to me at once. It is my privilege to have her first," Aunt Barbara said, next morning, as she bade Richard good-by, and then began to watch and wait for tidings which never came.
Richard could not find Ethelyn, or any trace of her, and after a protracted search of six long weeks, he went back to his Iowa home, sick, worn out, and discouraged. Aunt Barbara roused herself for action. "Men were good for nothing to hunt. They could not find a thing if it was right before their face and eyes. It took a woman; and she was going to see what she could do," she said to Mrs. Van Buren, who was up at the homestead for a few days, and who looked aghast at her sister's proposition, that she should accompany her, and help her hunt up Ethie.
"Was Barbara crazy, that she thought of going to New York in this hot weather, when the smallpox, and the dysentery, and the plague, and mercy knew what was there? Besides that, how did Barbara intend to manage? What was she going to do?"
Barbara hardly knew herself how she should manage, or what she should do. "Providence would direct," she said, though to be sure she had an idea. Ethie had written that she had found employment, and what was more probable than to suppose that the employment was giving music lessons, for which she was well qualified, or teaching in some gentleman's family. Taking this as her basis, Aunt Barbara intended to inquire for every governess and teacher in the city, besides watching every house where such an appendage would be likely to be found. Still her great hope was in the street and the Park. She should surely meet Ethie there some day—at least she would try the effect of her plan; and she went quietly on with her preparations, while Mrs. Van Buren tried to dissuade her from a scheme which seemed so foolish and utterly impracticable.
"Suppose Ethie was a governess, the family most likely would be out of town at that season; and what good would it do for Aunt Barbara to risk her life and health in the crowded city?"
This view of the matter was rather dampening to Aunt Barbara's zeal; but trusting that Providence would interfere in her behalf, she still insisted that she should go, and again expressed a wish that Sophia would go with her. "It would not be so lonesome, and would look better, too," she said, "while you know more of city ways than I do, and would not get imposed upon."
Mrs. Van Buren could go far beyond her sister in abusing Richard, but when it came to a sacrifice of her own comfort and pleasure, she held back. Nothing could induce her to go to New York. She preferred the cool seaside, where she was to join a party of Boston elite. Her dresses were made, her room engaged, and she must go, she said, urging that Nettie's health required the change—Nettie, who had given to her husband a sickly, puny child, which lived just long enough to warrant a grand funeral, and then was laid to rest under the shadow of the Van Buren monument, out in pleasant Mount Auburn.
So Mrs. Van Buren went back to Boston, while Aunt Barbara gave all needful directions to Betty with regard to the management of the house, and the garden, and plants, and cellar door, which must be shut nights, and the spot on the roof which sometimes leaked when it rained, and the burdocks and dandelions which must be dug up, and the grass which Uncle Billy Thompson must cut once in two weeks, and the old cat, Tabby, and the young cat, Jim, who had come to the door in a storm, and was now the pet of the house, and the canary bird, and the yeast, and look in the vinegar barrel to see that all was right, and be sure and scald the milk-pans, and turn them up in the sun for an hour, and keep the doors locked, and the silver up in the scuttle-hole; and if she heard the rat which baffled and tormented them so long, get some poison and kill it, but not on any account let it get in the cistern; and keep the door-steps clean, and the stoop, and once in a while sweep the low roof at the back of the house, and not sit up late nights, or sleep very long in the morning; and inasmuch as there would be so little to do, she might as well finish up all her new sewing, and make the pile of sheets and pillow-cases which had been cut out since March. These were Aunt Barbara's directions, which Betty, nothing appalled, promised to heed, telling her mistress not to worry an atom, as things should be attended to, even better than if she were at home to see to them herself.
Aunt Barbara knew she could trust old Betty, and so, after getting herself vaccinated in both arms, as a precaution against the smallpox, and procuring various disinfecting agents, and having underpockets put in all her dresses, by way of eluding pickpockets, the good woman started one hot July morning on her mission in search of Ethie. But, alas, finding Ethie, or anyone, in New York, was like "hunting for a needle in a hay mow," as Aunt Barbara began to think after she had been for four weeks or more an inmate of an uptown boarding house, recommended as first-class, but terrible to Aunt Barbara, from the contrast it presented to her own clean, roomy home beneath the maple trees, which came up to her so vividly, with all its delicious coolness and fragrance, and blossoming shrubs, and newly cut grass, with the dew sparkling like diamonds upon it.
Aunt Barbara was terribly homesick from the first, but she would not give up; so day after day she traversed one street after another, looking wistfully in every face she met for the one she sought, questioning children playing in the parks and squares as to whether they knew any teacher by the name of Markham or Grant, ringing the door-bells of every pretentious-looking house and putting the same question to the servants, until the bombazine dress and black Stella shawl, and brown Neapolitan hat, and old-fashioned lace veil, and large sun umbrella became pretty well known in various parts of New York, while the owner thereof grew to be a suspicious character, whom servants watched from the basement and ladies from the parlor windows, and children shunned on the sidewalk, while even the police were cautioned with regard to the strange woman who went up and down day after day, sometimes in stages, sometimes in cars, but oftener on foot, staring at everyone she met, especially if they chanced to be young or pretty, and had any children near them. Once down near Washington Square, as she was hurrying toward a group of children, in the center of which stood a figure much like Ethie's, a tall man in the blue uniform accosted her, inquiring into her reasons for wandering about so constantly.
Aunt Barbara's honest face, which she turned full toward the officer, was a sufficient voucher for her with the simple, straightforward explanation which she made to the effect that her niece had left home some time ago—run away, in fact—and she was hunting for her here in New York, where her letter was dated. "But it's wearisome work for an old woman like me, walking all over New York, as I have," Aunt Barbara said, and her lip began to quiver as she sat down upon one of the seats in the square, and looked helplessly up at the policeman. She was not afraid of him, nor of the five others of the craft who knew her by sight, and stopped to hear what she had to say. She never dreamed that they could suspect her of wrong, and they did not when they heard her story, and saw the truthful, motherly face. Perhaps they could help her, they said, and they asked the name of the runaway.
At first Aunt Barbara refused to give it, wishing to spare Ethie this notoriety; but she finally yielded so far as to say, "She might call herself either Markham or Grant," and that was all they could get from her; but after that day the bombazine dress, and black Stella shawl, and large sun umbrella were safe from the surveillance of the police, save as each had a kindly care for the owner, and an interest in the object of her search.
The light-fingered gentry, however, were not as chary of her. The sweet, motherly face, and wistful, pleading, timid eyes, did not deter them in the least. On the contrary, they saw in the bombazine and Stella shawl a fine field for their operations; and twice, on returning to her boarding house, the good soul was horrified to find her purse was missing, notwithstanding that she had kept her hand upon her pocket every instant, except once, when the man who looked like a minister had kindly opened the car window for her, and she had gathered up her dress to make more room for him at her side, and once when she got entangled in a crowd, and had to hold on to her shawl to keep it on her shoulders. Ten dollars was the entire sum purloined, so the villains did not make much out of her, Aunt Barbara reflected with a good deal of complacency; but when they stole her gold-bowed glasses from her pocket, and adroitly snatched from her hand the parcel containing the dress she had bought for Betty at Stewart's, she began to look upon herself as specially marked by a gang of thieves for one on whom to commit their depredations; and when at last a fire broke out in the very block where she was boarding, and she, with others was driven from her bed at midnight, with her bombazine only half on, and her hoops left behind, she made up her mind that the fates were against her, and wrote to Betty that she was coming home, following her letter in the next train so that both reached Chicopee the same day, the very last day of summer.
It was sooner than Betty expected her, but the clean, cool house, peeping out from the dense shadows of the maples, looked like a paradise to the tired, dusty woman, who rode down the street in the village hack and surprised Betty sitting in the back door cutting off corn to dry and talking to Uncle Billy, whose scythe lay on the grass while he drank from the gourd swimming on top of the water-pail.
Betty was glad to see her mistress, and lamented that she did not know of her coming, so as to have a nice hot cup of tea ready, with a delicate morsel of something. Aunt Barbara was satisfied to be home on any terms, though her nose did go up a little, and something which sounded like "P-shew!" dropped from her lips as she entered the dark sitting room, where the odor was not the best in the world.
"It's the rat, ma'am, I think," Betty said, opening both blinds and windows. "I put the pizen for him as you said, and all I could do he would die in the wall. It ain't as bad as it has been, and I've got some stuff here to kill it, though I think it smells worse than the rat himself," and Betty held her nose as she pointed out to her mistress the saucer of chloride of lime which, at Mrs. Col. Markham's suggestion, she had put in the sitting room.
Aside from the rat in the wall, things were mostly as Aunt Barbara could wish them to be. The vinegar had made beautifully. There was fresh yeast, brewed the day before, in the jug. The milk-pans were bright and sweet; the cellar door was fastened; the garden was looking its best; the silver was all up the scuttle-hole, Betty climbing up and risking her neck every morning to see if it were safe; the stoop and steps were scrubbed, the roof was swept, and both the cats, Tabby and Jim, were so fat that they could scarcely walk as they came up to greet their mistress. Only two mishaps Betty had to relate. Jim had eaten up the canary bird, and she had broken the kitchen tongs. She had also failed to accomplish as much sewing as she had hoped to do, and the pile of work was not greatly diminished.
"There is so many steps to take when a body is alone, and with you gone I was more particular," she said, by way of apology, as she confessed to the rat, and the canary bird, and the kitchen tongs, and the small amount of sewing she had done.
These were all the points wherein she had been remiss, and Aunt Barbara was content, and even happy, as she laid aside her Stella shawl and brown Neapolitan, and out in her pleasant dining room sat down to the hasty meal which Betty improvised, of bread and butter, Dutch cheese, baked apples, and huckleberry pie, with a cup of delicious tea, such as Aunt Barbara did not believe the people of New York had ever tasted. Most certainly those who were fortunate enough to board at first-class boarding-houses had not; and as she sipped her favorite beverage with Tabby on her dress and the criminal Tim in her lap, his head occasionally peering over the table, she felt comforted and rested, and thankful for her cozy home, albeit it lay like a heavy weight upon her that her trouble had been for nothing, and no tidings of Ethie had been obtained.
She wrote to Richard the next day, of her unsuccessful search, and asked what they should do next.
"We can do nothing but wait and hope," Richard wrote in reply, but Aunt Barbara added to it, "we can pray;" and so all through the autumn, when the soft, hazy days which Ethie had loved so well kept the lost one forever in mind, Aunt Barbara waited and hoped, and prayed and watched for Ethie's coming home, feeling always a sensation of expectancy when the Western whistle sounded and the Western train went thundering through the town; and when the hack came up from the depot and did not stop at her door, she said to herself, "She would walk up, maybe," and then waiting again she would watch from her window and look far up the quiet street, where the leaves of crimson and gold were lying upon the walk. No Ethie was to be seen. Then as the days grew shorter and the nights fell earlier upon the Chicopee hills, and the bleak winds blew across the meadow, and the waters of the river looked blue and dark and cold in the November light, she said: "She will be here sure by Christmas. She always liked that day best," and her fingers were busy with the lamb's wool stockings she was knitting for her darling.
"It won't be much," she said to Betty, "but it will show she is not forgotten;" and so the stocking grew, and was shaped from a half-worn pair which Ethelyn used to wear, and on which Aunt Barbara's tears dropped as she thought of the dear little feet, now wandered so far away, which the stockings used to cover.
Christmas came, and Susie Granger sang of Bethlehem in the old stone church, and other fingers than Ethie's swept the organ keys, and the Christmas tree was set up, and the presents were hung upon the boughs, and the names were called, and Aunt Barbara was there, but the lamb's-wool stockings were at home in the bureau drawer; there was no one to wear them, no one to take them from the tree, if they had been put there; Ethie had not come.
AFFAIRS AT OLNEY
Richard could not stay in Camden, where everything reminded him so much of Ethelyn, and at his mother's earnest solicitations he went back to Olney, taking with him all the better articles of furniture which Ethie had herself selected, and which converted the plain farmhouse into quite a palace, as both Andy and his mother thought. The latter did not object to them in the least, and was even conscious of a feeling of pride and satisfaction when her neighbors came in to admire, and some of them to envy her the handsome surroundings. Mrs. Dr. Van Buren's lesson, though a very bitter one, was doing Richard good, especially as it was adroitly followed up by Melinda Jones, who, on the strength of her now being his sister-elect, took the liberty of saying to him some pretty plain things with regard to his former intercourse with Ethie.
James had finally nerved himself to the point of asking Melinda if she could be happy with such a homespun fellow as himself, and Melinda had answered that she thought she could, hinting that it was possible for him to overcome much which was homespun about him.
"I do not expect you to leave off your heavy boots or your coarse frock when your work requires you to wear them," she said, stealing her hand into his in a caressing kind of way; "but a man can be a gentleman in any dress."
James promised to do his best, and with Melinda Jones for a teacher, had no fear of his success. And so, some time in August, when the summer work at the Jones' was nearly done, Melinda came to the farmhouse and was duly installed as mistress of the chamber which James and John had occupied—the latter removing his Sunday clothes, and rifle, and fishing lines, and tobacco, and the slippers Ethie had given him, into Andy's room, which he shared with his brother. Mrs. Markham, senior, got on better with Melinda than she had with Ethelyn; Melinda knew exactly how to manage her, and, indeed, how to manage the entire household, from Richard down to Andy, who, though extremely kind and attentive to her, never loved her as he did Ethelyn.
"She was a nice, good girl," he said, "but couldn't hold a candle to Ethie. She was too dark complected, and had altogether too thumpin' feet and ankles, besides wearin' wrinkly stockings."
That was Andy's criticism, confided to his brother John, around whose grave mouth there was a faint glimmer of a smile, as he gave a hitch to his suspender and replied, "I guess her stockin's do wrinkle some."
A few of Melinda's ways Mrs. Markham designated as high-flown, but one by one her prejudices gave way as Melinda gained upon her step by step, until at last Ethelyn would hardly have recognized the well-ordered household, so different from what she had known it.
"The boys" no longer came to the table in their shirt-sleeves, for Melinda always had their coats in sight, just where it was handy to put them on, and the trousers were slipped down over the boots while the boys ate, and the soft brown Markham hair always looked smooth and shining, and Mrs. Markham tidied herself a little before coming to the table, no matter how heavy her work, and never but once was she guilty of sitting down to her dinner in her pasteboard sun-bonnet, giving as an excuse that her "hair was at sixes and sevens." She remembered seeing her mother do this fifty years before, and she had clung to the habit as one which must be right because they used to do so in Vermont. Gradually, too, there came to be napkins for tea, and James' Christmas present to his wife was a set of silver forks, while John contributed a dozen individual salts, and Andy bought a silver bell, to call he did not know whom, only it looked pretty on the table, and he wanted it there every meal, ringing it himself sometimes when anything was needed, and himself answering the call. On the whole, the Markhams were getting to be "dreadfully stuck up," Eunice Plympton's mother said, while Eunice doubted if she should like living there now as well as in the days of Ethelyn. She had been a born lady, and Eunice conceded everything to her; but, "to see the airs that Melinda Jones put on" was a little too much for Eunice's democratic blood, and she and her mother made many invidious remarks concerning "Mrs. Jim Markham," who wore such heavy silk to church, and sported such handsome furs. One hundred and fifty dollars the cape alone had cost, it was rumored, and when, to this Richard added a dark, rich muff to match, others than Eunice looked enviously at Mrs. James, who to all intents and purposes, was the same frank, outspoken person that she was when she wore a plain scarf around her neck, and rode to church in her father's lumber wagon instead of the handsome turn-out James had bought since his marriage. Nothing could spoil Melinda, and though she became quite the fashion in Olney, and was frequently invited to Camden to meet the elite of the town, she was up just as early on Monday mornings as when she lived at home, and her young, strong arms saved Mrs. Markham more work than Eunice's had done. She would not dip candles, she said, nor burn them, either, except as a matter of convenience to carry around the house; and so the tallows gave way to kerosene, and as Melinda liked a great deal of light, the house was sometimes illuminated so brilliantly that poor Mrs. Markham had either to shade her eyes with her hands, or turn her back to the lamp. She never thought of opposing Melinda; that would have done no good; and she succumbed with the rest to the will which was ruling them so effectually and so well.
Some very plain talks Melinda had with Richard with regard to Ethelyn; and Richard, when he saw how anxious James was to please his wife, even in little things which he had once thought of no consequence, regretted so much that his own course had not been different with Ethelyn. "Poor, dear Ethie," he called her to himself, as he sat alone at night in the room where she used to be. At first he had freely talked of her with his family. That was when, like Aunt Barbara, they were expecting her back, or rather expecting constantly to hear from her through Aunt Barbara. She would go to Chicopee first, they felt assured, and then Aunt Barbara would write, and Richard would start at once. How many castles he built to that second bringing her home, where Melinda made everything so pleasant, and where she could be happy for a little time, when they would go where she liked—it did not matter where. Richard was willing for anything, only he did want her to stay a little time at the farmhouse, just to see how they had improved, and to learn that his mother could be kind if she tried. She meant to be so if Ethelyn ever came back, for she had said as much to him on the receipt of Ethie's message, sent in Andy's letter, and her tears had fallen fast as she confessed to not always having felt or acted right toward the young girl. With Melinda the ruling spirit they would have made it very pleasant for Ethelyn, and they waited for her so anxiously all through the autumnal days till early winter snow covered the prairies, and the frost was on the window panes, and the wind howled dismally past the door, just as it did one year ago, when Ethelyn went away. But, alas no Ethie came, or tidings of her either, and Richard ceased to speak of her at last, and his face wore so sad a look whenever she was mentioned that the family stopped talking of her; or, if they spoke her name, it was as they spoke of Daisy, or of one that was dead.
For a time Richard kept up a correspondence with Aunt Barbara; but that, too, gradually ceased, and as his uncle, the old colonel, died in the spring, and the widow went to her friends in Philadelphia, he seemed to be cut off from any connections with Chicopee, and but for the sad, harassing memory of what had been, he was to all intents and purposes the same grave, silent bachelor as of yore, following the bent of his own inclinations, coming and going as he liked, sought after by those who wished for an honest man to transact their business, and growing gradually more and more popular with the people of his own and the adjoining counties.
They were to elect a new one in Iowa, and there were rumors afloat that Richard Markham would be the man chosen by his party. There had been similar rumors once before, but Mrs. Markham had regarded them as mythical, never dreaming that such an honor could be in store for her boy. Now, however, matters began to look a little serious. Crowds of men came frequently to the farmhouse and were closeted with Richard. Tim Jones rode up and down the country, electioneering for "Dick." Hal Clifford, in Camden, contributed his influence, though he belonged to the other party. Others, too, of Harry's way of thinking, cast aside political differences and "went in," as they said, for the best man—one whom they knew to be honest and upright, like Judge Markham. Each in their own way—James and John, and Andy and Melinda—worked for Richard, who was frequently absent from home for several days, sometimes taking the stump himself, but oftener remaining quiet while others presented his cause. Search as they might, his opponents could find nothing against him, except that sad affair with his wife, who, one paper said, "had been put out of the way when she became troublesome," hinting at every possible atrocity on the husband's part, and dilating most pathetically upon the injured, innocent, and beautiful young wife. Then with a face as pale as ashes, Richard made his "great speech" in Camden court-house, asking that the whole matter be dropped at once, and saying that he would far rather live a life of obloquy than have the name, more dear to him than the names of our loved dead, bandied about from lip to lip and made the subject for newspaper paragraphs. They knew Richard in Camden, and they knew Ethelyn, too, liking both so well, that the result of that speech was to increase Richard's popularity tenfold, and to carry in his favor the entire town.
The day of election was a most exciting one, especially in Olney, where Richard had lived from boyhood. It was something for a little town like this to furnish the governor, the Olneyites thought, and though, for party's sake, there were some opponents, the majority went for Richard, and Tim Jones showed his zeal by drinking with so many that at night he stopped at the farmhouse, insisting that he had reached home, and should stay there, "for all of Melind," and hurrahing so loud for "Richud—Mark-um—Square," that he woke up the little blue-eyed boy which for six weeks had been the pride and pet and darling of the household.
Andy's tactics were different. He had voted in the morning, and prayed the rest of the day, that if it were right, "old Dick might lick the whole of 'em," adding the petition that "he need not be stuck up if he was governor," and that Ethie might come back to share his greatness. Others than Andy were thinking of Ethelyn that day, for not the faintest echo of a huzza reached Richard's ears that did not bring with it regretful thoughts of her. And when at last success was certain, and, flushed with triumph, he stood receiving the congratulations of his friends, and the Olney bell was ringing in honor of the new governor, and bonfires were lighted in the streets, the same little boys who had screamed themselves hoarse for the other candidates, stealing barrels and dry-goods boxes to feed the flames with quite as much alacrity as their opponents, there was not a throb of his heart which did not go out after the lost one, with a yearning desire to bring her back, and, by giving her the highest position in the State, atone in part for all which had been wrong. But Ethie was very, very far away—further than he dreamed—and strain ear and eye as she might, she could not see the lurid blaze which lit up the prairie till the tall grass grew red in the ruddy glow, or hear the deafening shouts which rent the sky for the new Governor Markham, elected by an overwhelming majority. Oh, how lonely Richard felt even in the first moments of his success! And how he longed to get away from all the noise and din which greeted him at every step, and be alone again, as since Ethie went away he had chosen to be so much of his time. Melinda guessed at his feelings in part, and when he came home at last, looking so pale and tired, she pitied him, and showed her pity by letting him alone; and when supper was ready, sending his tea to his room, whither he had gone as soon as his mother had unwound her arms from his neck, and told him how glad she was.
These were also days of triumph for Melinda, for it was soon known that she was to be the lady of the governor's mansion, and the knowledge gave her a fresh accession of dignity among her friends. It was human that Melinda should feel her good fortune a little, and perhaps she did. Andy thought so, and prayed silently against the pomps and vanities of the world, especially after her new purple silk was sent home, with the handsome velvet cloak and crimson morning gown. These had been made in Camden, a thing which gave mortal offense to Miss Henry, the Olney dressmaker, who wondered "what Melinda Jones was that she should put on such airs, and try to imitate Mrs. Richard Markham." They had expected such things from Ethelyn, and thought it perfectly right. She was born to it, they said; but for Melinda, whom all remembered as wearing a red woolen gown when a little girl, "for her to set up so steep was another matter." But when Melinda ordered a blue merino, and a flannel wrapper, and a blue silk, and a white cloak for baby, made at Miss Henry's, and told that functionary just how her purple was trimmed, and even offered to show it to her, the lady changed her mind, and quoted "Mrs. James Markham's" wardrobe for months afterward.
Richard, and James, and Melinda, and baby, and Eunice Plympton as baby's nurse, all went to Des Moines, and left the house so lonely that Andy lay flat upon the floor and cried, and his mother's face wore the look of one who had just returned from burying their dead. It was something, however, to be the mother and brother of a governor, and a comfort to get letters from the absent ones, to hear of Richard's immense popularity, and the very graceful manner in which Melinda discharged her duties. But to see their names in print, to find something about Governor Markham in almost every paper—that was best of all, and Andy spent half his time in cutting out and saving every little scrap pertaining to the "governor's family," and what they did at Des Moines. Andy was laid up with rheumatism toward spring; but Tim Jones used to bring him the papers, rolling his quid of tobacco rapidly from side to side as he pointed to the paragraphs so interesting to both. Tim hardly knew whether himself, or Richard, or Melinda, was the governor. On the whole, he gave the preference to "Melind," after the governor's levee, at which she had appeared in "royal purple, with ostrich feathers in her hair," and was described in the Camden Leader as the "elegant and accomplished Mrs. James Markham, who had received the guests with so much dignity and grace."
"Ain't Melind a brick? and only to think how she used to milk the cows, and I once chased her with a garter snake," Tim said, reading the article aloud to Andy, who, while assenting that she was a brick, and according all due credit to her for what she was, and what she did, never for a moment forgot Ethelyn.
She would have done so much better, and looked so much neater, especially her shoes! Andy could not quite forgive Melinda's big feet and ankles, especially as his contempt for such appendages was constantly kept in mind by the sight of the little half-worn slippers which Ethie had left in her closet when she moved to Camden, and which, now that she was gone, he kept as something almost as sacred as Daisy's hair, admiring the dainty rosettes and small high heels more than he admired the whole of Melinda's wardrobe when spread upon the bed, and tables, and chairs, preparatory to packing it for Des Moines. Richard, too, remembered Ethelyn, and never did Melinda stand at his side in any gay saloon that he did not see in her place a brown-eyed, brown-haired woman who would have moved a very queen among the people. Ethelyn was never forgotten, whether in the capitol, or the street, or at home, or awake, or asleep. Ethie's face and Ethie's form were everywhere, and if earnest, longing thoughts could have availed to bring her back, she would have come, whether across the rolling sea, or afar from the trackless desert. But they could not reach her, Ethie did not come, and the term of Richard's governorship glided away, and he declined a re-election, and went back to Olney, looking ten years older than when he left it, with an habitual expression of sadness on his face, which even strangers noticed, wondering what was the heart trouble which was aging him so fast, and turning his brown hair gray.
For a time the stillness and quiet of Olney were very acceptable to him, and then he began to long for more excitement—something to divert his mind from the harrowing fear, daily growing more and more certain, that Ethie would never come back. It was four years since she went away, and nothing had been heard from her since the letter sent to Andy from New York. "Dead," he said to himself many a time, and but for the dread of the hereafter, he, too, would gladly have lain down in the graveyard where Daisy was sleeping so quietly. With Andy it was different. Ethie was not dead—he knew she was not—and some time she would surely come back, There was comfort in Andy's strong assurance, and Richard always felt better after a talk with his hopeful brother. Perhaps she would come back, and if so he must have a place worthy of her, he said, one day, to Melinda, who seized the opportunity to unfold a plan she had long been cogitating. During the two years spent in Des Moines, James had devoted himself to the study of law, preferring it to his farming, and now he was looking out for a good locality where to settle and practice his profession.
"Let's go together somewhere and build a house," Melinda said. "You know Ethie's taste. You can fashion it as you think she would like it, and meantime we will live with you and see to you a little. You need some looking after," and Melinda laid her hand half pityingly upon the bowed head of her brother-in-law, who, but for her strong, upholding influence, and Andy's cheering faith, would have sunk ere this into hopeless despondency.
Melinda was a fine specimen of true womanhood. She had met many highly cultivated people at Des Moines and other towns, where, as the governor's sister-in-law, she had spent more or less of the last two years, and as nothing ever escaped her notice, she had improved wonderfully, until even Mrs. Van Buren, of Boston, would have been proud of her acquaintance. She had known sorrow, too; for in the cemetery at Des Moines she had left her little blue-eyed baby boy when only six months old, and her mother's heart had ached to its very core, until there came another child, a little girl, this time, whom they had christened "Ethelyn Grant," and who, on this account, was quite as dear to Richard as to either of its parents. Richard was happier with that little brown-haired girl than with anyone else, and when Melinda suggested they should go together somewhere, he assented readily, mentioning Davenport as a place where Ethelyn had many times said she would like to live. Now, as ever, Melinda's was the active, ruling voice, and almost before Richard knew it, he was in Davenport and bargaining for a vacant lot which overlooked the river and much of the country beyond. Davenport suited them all, and by September, Melinda, who had spent the summer with her mother, was located at a hotel and making herself very useful to Richard with her suggestions with regard to the palatial mansion he was building.
There was nothing in Davenport like the "governor's house," and the people watched it curiously as it went rapidly up. There was a suite of rooms which they called Ethelyn's, and to the arrangement and adorning of these Richard gave his whole attention, sparing nothing which could make them beautiful and attractive, and lavishing so much expense upon them that strangers came to inspect and comment upon them, wondering why he took so much pains, and guessing, as people will, that he was contemplating a second marriage as soon as a divorce could be obtained from his runaway wife.
The house was finished at last, and Richard took possession, installing Melinda as housekeeper, and feeling how happy he should be if only Ethie were there. Somehow he expected her now. Andy's prayers would certainly be answered even if his own were not, for he, too, had begun to pray, feeling, at times, that God was slow to hear, as weeks and weeks went by and still Ethie did not come. "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick," and the weary waiting told upon his bodily health, which began to fail so rapidly that people said "Governor Markham was going into a decline," and the physicians urged a change of air, and Mr. Townsend, who came in May for a day at Davenport, recommended him strongly to try what Clifton Springs, in Western New York, could do for him—the Clifton, whose healing waters and wonderful power to cure were famed from the shores of the Atlantic to the Californian hills.
AFTER YEARS OF WAITING
The weather in Chicopee that spring was as capricious as the smiles of the most spoiled coquette could ever be. The first days of April were warm, and balmy, and placid, without a cloud upon the sky or a token of storm in the air. The crocuses and daffodils showed their heads in the little borders by Aunt Barbara's door, and Uncle Billy Thompson sowed the good woman a bed of lettuce, and peas, and onions, which came up apace, and were the envy of the neighbors. Taking advantage of the warmth and the sunshine, and Uncle Billy's being there to whip her carpets, Aunt Barbara even began her house cleaning, commencing at the chambers first—the rooms which since the last "reign of terror," had only been used when a clergyman spent Sunday there, and when Mrs. Dr. Van Buren was up for a few days from Boston, with Nettie and the new girl baby, which, like Melinda's, bore the name of Ethelyn. Still they must be renovated, and cleaned, and scrubbed, lest some luckless moth were hiding there, or some fly-speck perchance had fallen upon the glossy paint. Aunt Barbara was not an untidy house-cleaner—one who tosses the whole house into chaos, and simultaneous with the china from the closet, brings up a basket of bottles from the cellar to be washed and rinsed. She took one room at a time, settling as she went along, so that her house never was in that state of dire confusion which so many houses present every fall and spring. Her house was not hard to clean, and the chambers were soon done, except Ethie's own room, where Aunt Barbara lingered longest, turning the pretty ingrain carpet the brightest side up, rubbing the furniture with polish, putting a bit of paint upon the window sills where it was getting worn, and once revolving the propriety of hanging new paper upon the wall. But that, she reasoned, would be needless expense. Since the night Richard spent there, five years ago, no one had slept there, and no one should sleep there, either, till Ethie came back again.
"Till Ethie comes again." Aunt Barbara rarely said that now, for with each fleeting year the chance for Ethie's coming grew less and less, until now she seldom spoke of it to Betty, the only person to whom she ever talked of Ethie. Even with her she was usually very reticent, unless something brought the wanderer to mind more vividly than usual. Cleaning her room was such an occasion, and sitting down upon the floor, while she darned a hole in the carpet which the turning had brought to view, Aunt Barbara spoke of her darling, and the time when, a little toddling thing of two years old, she first came to the homestead, and was laid in that very room, and "on that very pillow," Aunt Barbara said, seeing again the round hollow left by the little brown head when the child awoke and stretched its fat arms toward her.
"Julia, her mother, died in that bed," Aunt Barbara went on, "and Ethie always slept there after that. Well put on the sheets marked with her name, Betty, and the ruffled pillow-cases. I want it to seem as if she were here," and Aunt Barbara's chin quivered, and her eyes grew moist, as her fat, creasy hands smoothed and patted the plump pillows, and tucked in the white spread, and picked up a feather, and moved a chair, and shut the blinds, and dropped the curtains, and then she went softly out and shut the door behind her.
Two weeks from that day, the soft, bland air was full of sleet, and snow, and rain, which beat down the poor daffies on the borders, and pelted the onions, and lettuce, and peas which Uncle Billy had planted, and dashed against the closed windows of Ethie's room, and came in under the door of the kitchen, and through the bit of leaky roof in the dining room, while the heavy northeaster which swept over the Chicopee hills screamed fiercely at Betty peering curiously out to see if it was going to be any kind of drying for the clothes she had put out early in the day, and then, as if bent on a mischievous frolic took from the line and carried far down the street, Aunt Barbara's short night-gown with the patch upon the sleeve. On the whole it was a bleak, raw, stormy day, and when the night shut down, the snow lay several inches deep upon the half-frozen ground, making the walking execrable, and giving to the whole village that dirty, comfortless appearance which a storm in April always does. It was pleasant, though, in Aunt Barbara's sitting room. It was always pleasant there, and it seemed doubly so to-night from the contrast presented to the world without by the white-washed ceiling, the newly whipped carpet, the clean, white curtains, and the fire blazing on the hearth, where two huge red apples were roasting. This was a favorite custom of Aunt Barbara's, roasting apples in the evening. She used to do it when Ethie was at home, for Ethie enjoyed it quite as much as she did, and when the red cheeks burst, and the white frothy pulp came oozing out, she used, as a little girl, to clap her hands and cry, "The apples begin to bleed, auntie! the apples begin to bleed!"
Aunt Barbara never roasted them now that she did not remember her darling, and many times she put one down for Ethie, feeing that the "make believe" was better than nothing at all. There was one for to-night, and Aunt Barbara sat watching it as it simmered and sputtered, and finally burst with the heat, "bleeding," just as her heart was bleeding for the runaway whose feet had wandered so long. It was after nine, and Betty had gone to bed, so that Aunt Barbara was there alone, with the big Bible in her lap. She had been reading the parable of the Prodigal, and though she would not liken Ethie to him, she sighed softly, "If she would only come, we would kill the fatted calf." Then, thoughtfully, she turned the leaves of the Good Book one by one, till she found the "Births," and read in a low whisper, "Ethelyn Adelaide, Born," and so forth. Then her eye moved on to where the marriage of Ethelyn Adelaide with Richard Markham, of Iowa, had been recorded; and then she turned to the last of "Deaths," wondering if, unseen by her, Ethie's name had been added to the list. The last name visible to mortal eye was that of Julia, wife of William Grant, who had died at the age of twenty-five.
"Just as old as Ethie is, if living," Aunt Barbara whispered, and the tears which blotted the name of Julia Grant were given to Ethie rather than the young half-sister who had been so much of a stranger.
Suddenly, as Aunt Barbara sat there, with her Bible in her lap, there was heard the distant rumbling of the New York express, as it came rolling across the plains from West Chicopee. Then as the roar became more muffled as it moved under the hill, a shrill whistle echoed on the night air, and half the people of Chicopee who were awake said to each other, "The train is stopping. Somebody has come from New York." It was not often that the New York express stopped at Chicopee, and when it did, it was made a matter of comment. To-night, however, it was too dark, and stormy, and late for anyone to see who had come; and guessing it was some of the Lewises, who now lived in Col. Markham's old house, the people, one by one, went to their beds, until nearly every light in Chicopee was extinguished save the one shining out into the darkness from the room where Aunt Barbara sat, with thoughts of Ethie in her heart. And up the steep hill, from the station, through the snow, a girlish figure toiled—the white, thin face looking wistfully down the maple-lined street when the corner by the common was turned, and the pallid lips whispering softly, "I wonder if she will know me?"
There were flecks of snow upon the face and on the smooth brown hair and travel-soiled dress; clogs of snow, too, upon the tired feet—the little feet Andy had admired so much; but the traveler kept on bravely, till the friendly light shone out beneath the maples, and then she paused, and leaning for a moment against the fence, sobbed aloud, but not sadly or bitterly. She was too near home for that—too near the darling Aunt Barbara, who did not hear gate or door unclose, or the step in the dark hall. But when the knob of the sitting room door moved, she heard it, and, without turning her head, called out, "What is it, Betty? I thought you in bed an hour ago."
The supposed Betty did not reply, but stood a brief instant taking in every feature in the room, from the two apples roasting on the hearth to the little woman sitting with her fingers on the page where possibly Ethie's death ought to be recorded. Aunt Barbara was waiting for Betty to answer, and she turned her head at last, just as a low, rapid step glided across the floor, and a voice, which thrilled every vain, first with a sudden fear, and then with a joy unspeakable, said, "Aunt Barbara, it's I. It's Ethie, come back to you again. Is she welcome here?"
Was she welcome? Answer, the low cry, and gasping sob, and outstretched arms, which held the wanderer in so loving an embrace, while a rain of tears fell upon the dear head from which the bonnet had fallen back as Ethelyn sank upon her knees before Aunt Barbara. Neither could talk much for a few moments. Certainly not Aunt Barbara, who sat bewildered and stupefied while Ethelyn, more composed, removed her hat, and cloak, and overshoes, and shook out the folds of her damp dress; and then drawing a little covered stool to Aunt Barbara's side, sat down upon it, and leaning her elbows on Aunt Barbara's lap, looked up in her face, with the old, mischievous, winning smile, and said, "Auntie, have you forgiven your Ethie for running away?"
Then it began to seem real again—began to seem as if the last six years were blotted out, and things restored to what they were when Ethie was wont to sit at her aunt's feet as she was sitting now. There was this difference, however; the bright, round, rosy face, which used to look so flushed, and eager, and radiant, and assured, was changed, and the one confronting Aunt Barbara now was pale, and thin, and worn, and there were lines across the brow, and the eyes were heavy and tired, and a little uncertain and anxious in their expression as they scanned the sweet old face above them. Aunt Barbara saw it all, and this, if nothing else, would have brought entire pardon even had she been inclined to withhold it, which she was not. Ethie was back again, and that was enough for her. She would not chide or blame her ever so little, and her warm, loving hands took the thin white face and held it while she kissed the parted lips, the blue-veined forehead, and the hollow cheeks, whispering: "My own darling. I am so glad to have you back. I have been so sad without you, and mourned for you so much, fearing you were dead. Where has my darling been that none of us could find you?"
"Did you hunt, Aunt Barbara? Did you really hunt for me?"
And something of Ethie's old self leaped into her eyes and flushed into her cheeks as she asked the question.
"Yes, darling. All the spring and all the summer long, and on into the fall, and then I gave it up."
"Were you alone, auntie? That is, did nobody help you hunt?" was Ethelyn's next query; and Richard would have read much hope for him in the eagerness of the eyes, which waited for Aunt Barbara's answer, and which dropped so shyly upon the carpet when Aunt Barbara said, "Alone, child? No; he did all he could—Richard did—but we could get no clew."
Ethelyn could not tell her story until she had been made easy on several important points, and smoothing the folds of Aunt Barbara's dress, and still looking beseechingly into her face, she said, "and Richard hunted, too. Was he sorry, auntie? Did he care because I went away?"
"Care? Of course he did. It almost broke his heart, and wasted him to a skeleton. You did wrong, Ethie, to go and stay so long. Richard did not deserve it."
It was the first word of censure Aunt Barbara had uttered, and Ethelyn felt it keenly, as was evinced by her quivering lip and trembling voice, as she said: "Don't auntie, don't you scold me, please. I can bear it better from anyone else. I want you to stand by me. I know I was hasty and did very wrong. I've said so a thousand times; but I was so unhappy and wretched at first, and at the last he made me so angry with his unjust accusations."
"Yes; he told me all, and showed me the letter you left. I know the whole," Aunt Barbara said, while Ethelyn continued:
"Where is he now? How long since you heard from him?"
"It is two years or more. He wrote the last letter. I'm a bad correspondent, you know, and as I had no good news to write, I did not think it worth while to bother him. I don't know where he is since he quit being governor."
There was a sudden lifting of Ethie's head, a quick arching of her eyebrows, which told that the governor part was news to her. Then she asked, quietly, "Has he been governor?"
"Yes, Governor of Iowa; and James' wife lived with him. She was Melinda Jones."
"Yes, yes," and Ethie's foot beat the carpet thoughtfully, while her eyes were cast-down, and the great tears gathered slowly in the long-fringed lids, then they fell in perfect showers, and laying her head in Aunt Barbara's lap she sobbed piteously.
Perhaps she was thinking of all she had thrown away, and weeping that another had taken the post she would have been so proud to fill. Aunt Barbara did not know, and she kept smoothing the bowed head until it was lifted up again, and the tears were dried in Ethie's eyes, where there was not the same hopeful expression there had been at first when she heard of Richard's hunting for her. Some doubt or fear had crossed her mind, and her hands were folded together in a hopeless kind of way as, at Aunt Barbara's urgent request, she began the story of her wanderings.
"You say you read my letter, auntie; and if you did, you know nearly all that made me go away. I do not remember now just what was in it, but I know it was very concise, and plain, and literal; for I was angry when I wrote it, and would not spare Richard a bit. But, oh! I had been so tired and so wretched. You can't guess half how wretched I was at the farmhouse first, where they were all so different, and where one of the greatest terrors was lest I should get used to it and so be more like them. I mean Richard's mother, auntie. I liked the others—they were kind and good; especially Andy. Oh, Andy! dear old Andy! I have thought of him so much during the last five years, and bad as I am I have prayed every night that he would not forget me.
"Aunt Barbara, I did not love Richard, and that was my great mistake. I ought not to have married him, but I was so sore and unhappy then that any change was a relief. I do not see now how I ever could have loved Frank; but I did, or thought I did, and was constantly contrasting Richard with him and making myself more miserable. If I had loved Richard things would have been so much easier to bear. I was beginning to love him, and life was so much pleasanter, when he got so angry about Frank and charged me with those dreadful things, driving me frantic and making me feel as if I hated him and could do much to worry him. Don't look so shocked. I know how wicked it was, and sometimes I fear God never can forgive me; but I did not think of him then. I forgot everything but myself and my trouble, and so I went away, going first to ——, so as to mislead Richard, and then turning straight back to New York.
"Do you remember Abby Jackson, who was at school in Boston, and who once spent a week with me here? She married, and lives in New York, and believes in women's rights and wears the Bloomer dress. She would take my part, I said, and I went at once to her house and told her all I had done, and asked if I could stay until I found employment. Aunt Barbara, this is a queer world, and there are queer people in it. I thought I was sure of Abby, she used to protest so strongly against the tyranny of men, and say she should like nothing better than protecting females who were asserting their own rights. I was asserting mine, and I went to her for sympathy. She was glad to see me at first, and petted and fondled me just as she used to do at school. She was five years older than I, and so I looked up to her. But when I told my story her manner changed, and it really seemed as if she looked upon me as a suspicious person who had done something terrible. She advocated women's rights as strongly as ever, but could not advise me to continue in my present course. It would bring odium upon me, sure. A woman separated from her husband was always pointed at, no matter what cause she had for the separation. It was all wrong, she urged, that public opinion should be thus, and ere long she trusted there would be a change. Till then I would do well to return to Iowa and make it up with Richard. That was what she said, and it made me very angry, so that I was resolved to leave her the next day; but I was sick in the morning, and sick some weeks following, so that I could not leave her house.
"She nursed me carefully and tried to be kind, but I could see that my being there was a great annoyance to her. Her husband had an aunt—a rich, eccentric old lady—who came sometimes to see me, and seemed interested in me. Forgive me, auntie, if it was wrong. I dropped the name of Markham and took yours, asking Abby to call me simply Miss Bigelow to her friends. Her husband knew my real name, but to all others I was Adelaide Bigelow. Old Mrs. Plum did not know I was married, for Abby was as anxious to keep the secret as I was myself. She was going abroad, the rich aunt, and being a nervous invalid, she wanted some young, handy person as traveling companion. So when I was better Abby asked if I was still resolved not to go home, and on learning that I was, she spoke of Mrs. Plum, and asked if I would go. I caught at it eagerly, and in May I was sailing over the sea to France. I wrote a few lines to Andy before I went, and I wanted to write to you, but I fancied you must be vexed and mortified, and I would not trouble you.
"Mrs. Plum was very nervous, and capricious, and exacting, and my life with her was not altogether an easy one. At first, before we were accustomed to each other, it was terrible. I suppose I have a high temper. She thought so, and yet she could not do without me, for she was lame in her arms, and unable to help herself readily; besides that, I spoke the French language well enough to make myself understood, and so was necessary to her. There were many excellent traits of character about her, and after a time I liked her very much, while she seemed to think of me as a willful but rather 'nicish' kind of a daughter. She took me everywhere, even into Russia and Palestine; but the last two years of our stay abroad were spent in Southern France, where the days were one long bright summer dream, and I should have been so happy if the past had been forgotten."
"And did you hear nothing from us in all that time?" Aunt Barbara asked, and Ethelyn replied: "Nothing from Richard, no; and nothing direct from you. I requested as a favor that Mrs. Plum should order the Boston Traveller and Springfield Republican to be sent to her address in Paris, which we made our headquarters. I knew you took both these papers, and if anything happened to you, it would appear in their columns. I saw the death of Col. Markham, and after that I used to grow so faint and cold, for fear I might find yours. I came across a New York paper, too, and saw that Aunt Van Buren had arrived at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, knowing then that she was just as gay as ever. Richard's name I never saw; neither did Abby know anything about him.. I called at her house yesterday. She has seven children now—five born since I went away—and her women's rights have given place to theories with regard to soothing syrups and baby-jumpers, and the best means of keeping one child quiet while she dresses the other. Mrs. Plum died six weeks ago—died in Paris; and, auntie, I was kind to her in her last sickness, bearing everything, and finding my reward in her deep gratitude, expressed not only in words, but in a most tangible form. She made her will, and left me ten thousand dollars. So you see I am not poor nor dependent. I told her my story, too—told her the whole as it was; and she made me promise to come back, to you at least, if not to Richard. Going to him would depend upon whether he wanted me, I said. Do you think he has forgotten me?"
Again the eager, anxious expression crept into Ethie's eyes, which grew very soft, and even dewy, as Aunt Barbara replied, "Forgotten you? No. I never saw a man feel as he did when he first came here, and Sophia talked to him so, as he sat there in that very willow chair."
Involuntarily Ethie's hand rested itself on the chair where Richard had sat, and Ethie's face crimsoned where Aunt Barbara asked:
"Do you love Richard now?"
"I cannot tell. I only know that I have dreamed of him so many, many times, and thought it would be such perfect rest to put my tired head in his lap, as I never did put it. When I was on the ocean, coming home, there was a fearful storm, and I prayed so earnestly to live till I could hear him say that he forgave me for all the trouble I have caused him. I might not love him if I were to see him again just as he used to be. Sometimes I think I should not, but I would try. Write to him, auntie, please, and tell him I am here, but nothing more. Don't say I want to see him, or that I am changed from the willful, high-tempered Ethie who made him so unhappy, for perhaps I am not."
A while then they talked of Aunt Van Buren, and Frank, and Nettie, and Susie Granger, who was married to a missionary and gone to heathen lands; and the clock was striking one before Aunt Barbara lighted her darling up to the old room, and kissing her good-night, went back to weep glad tears of joy in the rocking-chair by the hearth, and to thank her Heavenly Father for sending home her long lost Ethelyn.
MRS. DR. VAN BUREN
She was always tossing up just when she was not wanted, Ethie used to say in the olden days, when she saw the great lady alighting at the gate in time to interfere with and spoil some favorite project arranged for the day, and she certainly felt it, if she did not say it, when, on the morning following her arrival in Chicopee she heard Betty exclaim, "If there ain't Miss Van Buren! I wonder what sent her here!"
Ethie wondered so, too, and drawing the blanket closer around her shoulders (for she had taken advantage of her fatigue and languor to lie very late in bed) she wished her aunt had stayed in Boston, for a little time at least.
It had been very delightful, waking up in the dear old room and seeing Betty's kind face bending over her—Betty, who had heard of her young mistress' return with a gush of glad tears, and then at once bethought herself as to what there was nice for the wanderer to eat. Just as she used to do when Ethie was a young lady at home, Betty had carried her pan of coals and kindlings into the chamber where Ethie was lying, and kneeling on the hearth had made the cheerfulest of fires, while Ethie, with half-closed eyes, watched her dreamily, thinking how nice it was to be cared for again, and conscious only of a vague feeling of delicious rest and quiet, which grew almost into positive happiness as she counted the days it would take for Aunt Barbara's letter to go to Iowa and for Richard to answer it in person, as he surely would if all which Aunt Barbara had said was true.
Ethie did not quite know if she loved him. She had thought of him so much during the last two years, and now, when he seemed so near, she longed to see him again—to hear his voice and look into his eyes. They were handsome eyes as she remembered them; kindly and pleasant, too—at least they had been so to her, save on that dreadful night, the memory of which always made her shiver and grow faint. It seemed a dream now—a far-off, unhappy dream—which she would fain forget just as she wanted Richard to forget her foibles and give her another chance. She had bidden Aunt Barbara write to say she was there, and so after the tempting breakfast, which had been served in her room, and which she had eaten sitting up in bed, because Betty insisted that it should be so—and she was glad to be petted and humored and made into a comfortable invalid—Aunt Barbara brought her writing materials into the room, and bidding Ethie lie still and rest herself, began the letter to Richard.
But only the date and name were written, when Betty, coming in with a few geranium leaves and a white fuchsia which she had purloined from her mistress' house plants, announced Mrs. Van Buren's arrival, and the pleasant morning was at an end. Mrs. Dr. Van Buren had come up from Boston to borrow money from her sister for the liquidation of certain debts contracted by her son, and which she had not the ready means to meet. Aunt Barbara had accommodated her once or twice before, saying to her as she signed the check, "That money in the bank was put there for Ethie, but no one knows if she will ever need it, so it may as well do somebody some good."
It had done good by relieving Mrs. Van Buren of a load of harassing care, for money was not as plenty with her as formerly, and now she wanted more. She was looking rather old and worn, and her cloak was last year's fashion, but good enough for Chicopee, she reflected, as she hurried into the house and stamped the muddy, melting snow from her feet.
Utter amazement seemed the prevailing sensation in her mind when she learned that Ethelyn had returned, and then her selfishness began to suggest that possibly Barbara's funds, saved for Ethie, might not now be as accessible for Frank. She was glad, though, to see her niece, but professed herself shocked at her altered appearance.
"Upon my word, I would not have recognized you," she said, sitting down upon the bed and looking Ethie fully in the face.
Aunt Barbara, thinking her sister might like to have Ethie alone for a little, had purposely left the room, and so Mrs. Van Buren was free to say what she pleased. She had felt a good deal of irritation toward Ethie for some time past. In fact, ever since Richard became governor, she had blamed her niece for running away from the honor which might have been hers. As aunt to the governor's lady, she, too, would have come in for a share of the eclat; and so, as she smoothed out the folds of her stone-colored merino, she felt as if she had been sorely aggrieved by that thin, white-faced woman, who really did not greatly resemble the rosy, bright-faced Ethelyn to whom Frank Van Buren had once talked love among the Chicopee hills.
"No, I don't believe I should have known you," Mrs. Van Buren continued. "What have you been about to fade you so?"
Few women like to hear that they have faded, even if they know it to be true, and Ethie's cheek flushed a little as she asked, with a smile, "Am I really such a fright?"
"Why, no, not a fright! No one with the Bigelow features can ever be that. But you are changed; and so I am sure Richard would think. He liked beautiful girls. You know he has been governor?"
Ethie nodded, and Mrs. Van Buren continued: "You lost a great deal, Ethelyn, when you went away; and I must say that, though, of course, you had great provocation, you did a very foolish thing leaving your husband as you did, and involving us all, to a certain extent, in disgrace."
It was the first direct intimation Ethie had received that her family had suffered from mortification on her account. She had felt that they must, and knew that she deserved some censure; but as kind Aunt Barbara had withheld it, she was not quite willing to hear it from Mrs. Van Buren, and for an instant her eyes flashed, and a hot reply trembled on her lips; but she restrained herself and merely said: "I am sorry if I disgraced you, Aunt Sophia. I was very unhappy at the time,"
"Certainly; I understand that, but the world does not; and if it did, it forgot all when your husband became governor. He was greatly honored and esteemed, I hear from a friend who spent a few weeks at Des Moines, and everybody was so sorry for him."
"Did they talk of me?" Ethie asked, repenting the next minute that she had been at all curious in the matter.
Mrs. Van Buren, bent upon annoying her, replied, "Some, yes; and knowing the governor as they did, it is natural they should blame you more than him. There was a rumor of his getting a divorce, but my friends did not believe it and neither do I, though divorces are easy to get out West. Have you written to him? Are you not 'most afraid he will think you came back because he has been governor?"
"Aunt Sophia!" and Ethie looked very much like her former self, as she started from her pillow and confronted her interlocutor. "He cannot think so. I never knew he had been governor until I heard it from Aunt Barbara last night. I came back for no honors, no object. My work was taken from me; I had nothing more to do, and I was so tired, and sick, and weary, and longed so much for home. Don't begrudge it to me, Aunt Sophia, that I came to see Aunt Barbara once more. I won't stay long in anybody's way; and if—if he likes, Richard—can—get—that—divorce—as soon as he pleases."
The last came gaspingly, and showed the real state of Ethie's feelings. In all the five long years of her absence the possibility that Richard would seek to separate himself from her had never crossed her mind. She had looked upon his love for her as something too strong to be shaken—as the great rock in whose shadow she could rest whenever she so desired. At first, when the tide of angry passion was raging at her heart, she had said she never should desire it, that her strength was sufficient to stand alone against the world; but as the weary weeks and months crept on, and her anger had had time to cool, and she had learned better to know the meaning of "standing alone in the world," and thoughts of Richard's many acts of love and kindness kept recurring to her mind, she had come gradually to see that the one object in the future to which she was looking forward was a return to Aunt Barbara and a possible reconciliation with her husband. The first she had achieved, and the second seemed so close within her grasp, a thing so easy of success, that in her secret heart she had exulted that, after all, she was not to be more sorely punished than she had been—that she could not have been so very much in fault, or Providence would have placed greater obstacles in the way of restoration to all that now seemed desirable. But Ethie's path back to peace and quiet was not to be free from thorns, and for a few minutes she writhed in pain, as she thought how possible, and even probable, it was that Richard should seek to be free from one who had troubled him so much. Life looked very dreary to Ethelyn that moment—drearier than it ever had before—but she was far too proud to betray her real feelings to her aunt, who, touched by the look of anguish on her niece's face, began to change her tactics, and say how glad she was to have her darling back under any circumstances, and so she presumed Richard would be. She knew he would, in fact; and if she were Ethie, she should write to him at once, apprising him of her return, but not making too many concessions.—Men could not bear them, and it was better always to hold a stiff rein, or there was danger of a collision. She might as well have talked to the winds, for all that Ethie heard or cared. She was thinking of Richard, and the possibility that she might not be welcome to him now. If so, nothing could tempt her to intrude herself upon him. At all events, she would not make the first advances. She would let Richard find out that she was there through some other source than Aunt Barbara, who should not now write the letter. It would look too much like begging him to take her back. This was Ethie's decision, from which she could not be moved; and when, next day, Mrs. Van Buren went back to Boston with the check for $1,000 which Aunt Barbara had given her, she was pledged not to communicate with Richard Markham in any way, while Aunt Barbara was held to the same promise.
"He will find it out somehow. I prefer that he should act unbiased by anything we can do," Ethelyn said to Aunt Barbara. "He might feel obliged to come if you wrote to him that I was here, and if he came, the sight of me so changed might shock him as it did Aunt Van Buren. She verily thought me a fright," and Ethie tried to smile as she recalled her Aunt Sophia's evident surprise at her looks.
The change troubled Ethie more than she cared to confess. Nor did the villagers' remarks, when they came in to see her, tend to soothe her ruffled feelings. Pale, and thin, and languid, she moved about the house and yard like a mere shadow of her former self, having, or seeming to have, no object in life, and worrying Aunt Barbara so greatly that the good woman began at last seriously to inquire what was best to do. Suddenly, like an inspiration, there came to her a thought of Clifton, the famous water-cure in Western New York, where health, both of body and soul, had been found by so many thousands. And Ethie caught eagerly at the proposition, accepting it on one condition—she would not go there as Mrs. Markham, where the name might be recognized. She had been Miss Bigelow abroad, she would be Miss Bigelow again; and so Aunt Barbara yielded, mentally asking pardon for the deception to which she felt she was a party, and when, two weeks after, the clerk at Clifton water-cure looked over his list to see what rooms were engaged, and to whom, he found "Miss Adelaide Bigelow, of Massachusetts," put down for No. 101, while "Governor Markham of Iowa," was down for No. 102.
They were very full at Clifton that summer, for the new building was not completed, and every available point was taken, from narrow, contracted No. 94 in the upper hall down to more spacious No. 8 on the lower floor, where the dampness, and noise, and mold, and smell of coal and cooking, and lower bathrooms were. "A very, very quiet place, with only a few invalids too weak and languid, and too much absorbed in themselves and their 'complaints' to note or care for their neighbors; a place where one lives almost as much excluded from the world as if immured within convent walls; a place where dress and fashion and distinction were unknown, save as something existing afar off, where the turmoil and excitement of life were going on." This was Ethelyn's idea of Clifton; and when, at four o'clock, on a bright June afternoon, the heavily laden train stopped before the little brown station, and "Clifton" was shouted in her ears, she looked out with a bewildered kind of feeling upon the crowd of gayly dressed people congregated upon the platform. Heads were uncovered, and hair frizzled, and curled, and braided, and puffed, and arranged in every conceivable shape, showing that even to that "quiet town" the hairdresser's craft had penetrated. Expanded crinoline, with light, fleecy robes, and ribbons, and laces, and flowers, was there assembled, with bright, eager, healthful faces, and snowy hands wafting kisses to some departed friend, and then turning to greet some new arrival. There were no traces of sickness, no token of disease among the smiling crowd, and Ethelyn almost feared she had made a mistake and alighted at the wrong place, as she gave her checks to John, and then taking her seat in the omnibus, sat waiting and listening to the lively sallies and playful remarks around her. Nobody spoke to her, nobody stared at her, nobody seemed to think of her; and for that she was thankful, as she sat with her veil drawn closely over her face, looking out upon the not very pretentious dwellings they were passing. The scenery around Clifton is charming, and to the worn, weary invalid escaping from the noise and heat and bustle of the busy city, there seems to come a rest and a quiet, from the sunlight which falls upon the hills, to the cool, moist meadow lands where the ferns and mosses grow, and where the rippling of the sulphur brook gives out constantly a soothing, pleasant kind of music. But for the architecture of the town not very much can be said; and Ethie, who had longed to get away from Chicopee, where everybody knew her story, and all looked curiously at her, confessed to a feeling of homesickness as her eyes fell upon the blacksmith shop, the dressmaker's sign, the grocery on the corner, where were sold various articles of food forbidden by doctor and nurse; the schoolhouse to the right, where a group of noisy children played, and the little church further on, where the Methodist people worshiped. She did not see the "Cottage" then, with its flowers and vines, and nicely shaven lawn, for her back was to it; nor the handsome grounds, where the shadows from the tall trees fall so softly upon the velvet grass; and the winding graveled walks, which intersect each other and give an impression of greater space than a closer investigation will warrant.
"I can't stay here," was Ethie's thought, as it had been the thought of many others, when, like her, they first step into the matted hall and meet the wet, damp odor, as of sheets just washed, which seems to be inseparable from that part of the building.
But that was the first day, and before she had met the kindness and sympathy of those whose business it is to care for the patients, or felt the influences for good, the tendency to all the better impulses of our nature, which seems to pervade the very atmosphere of Clifton. Ethie felt this influence very soon, and her second letter to Aunt Barbara was filled with praise of Clifton, where she had made so many friends, in spite of her evident desire to avoid society and stay by herself. She had passed through the usual ordeal attending the advent of every new face, especially if that face be a little out of the common order of faces. She had been inspected in the dining room, and bathroom, and chapel, both when she went in and when she went out. She had been talked up and criticised from the way she wore her hair to the hang of her skirts, which here, as well as in Olney, trailed the floor with a sweep unmistakably aristocratic and stamped her as somebody. The sacque and hat brought from Paris had been copied by three or four, and pronounced distingue, but ugly by as many more, while Mrs. Peter Pry, of whom there are always one or two at every watering-place, had set herself industriously at work to pry into her antecedents to find out just who and what Miss Bigelow was. As the result of this research, it had been ascertained that the young lady was remotely connected with the Bigelows of Boston, and had something of her own—that she had spent several years abroad, and could speak both French and German with perfect ease; that she had been at the top of Mont Blanc, and passed part of a winter at St. Petersburg, and seen a crocodile in the river Nile, and a Moslem burying-ground in Constantinople, and had the cholera at Milan, the varioloid at Rome, and was marked between the eyes and on the chin, and was twenty-five years old, and did not wear false hair, nor use Laird's Liquid Pearl, as was at first suspected from the clearness of her complexion, and did wear crimping pins at night, and pay Annie, the bath-girl, extra for bringing up the morning bath, and was more interested in the chapel exercises when the great Head Center was there, and bought cream every morning of Mrs. King, and sat up at night long after the gas was turned off, and was there at Clifton for spine in the back and head difficulties generally. These few items, together with the surmise that she had had some great trouble—a disappointment, most likely, which affected her health—were all Mrs. Pry could learn, and she detailed them to anyone who would listen, until Ethelyn's history, from the Pry point of view, was pretty generally known and the most made of every good quality and virtue.
The Mrs. Pry of this summer was not ill-natured; she was simply curious; and as she generally said more good than evil of people, she was generally liked and tolerated by all. She was not a fashionable woman, nor an educated woman, though very popular with her neighbors at home, and she was there for numbness and swollen knees; and, having knit socks for four years for the soldiers, she now knit stockings for the soldiers' orphans, and took a dash every morning and screamed loud enough to be heard at the depot when she took it, and had a pack every afternoon, and corked her right ear with cotton, which she always took out when in a pack, so as to hear whatever might be said in the hall, her open ventilator being the medium of sound. This was Mrs. Peter Pry, drawn from no one in particular, but a fair exponent of characters found in other places than Clifton Springs. Rooming on the same floor with Ethelyn, whom she greatly admired, the good woman persisted until she overcame the stranger's shyness, and succeeded in establishing, first, a bowing, then a speaking, and finally, a calling acquaintance between them—the calls, however, being mostly upon one side, and that the prying one.
Ethie had been at Clifton for three or four weeks, and the dimensions of No. 101 did not seem half so circumscribed, as at first. On the whole, she was contented, especially after the man who snored, and the woman who wore squeaky boots, and talked in her sleep, vacated No. 102, the large, airy, pleasant room adjoining her own. There was no one in it now but Mary, the chambermaid, who said it was soon to be occupied by a sick gentleman, adding that she believed he had the consumption, and hoped his cough would not fret Miss Bigelow. Ethie hoped so too. Nervousness, and, indeed, diseases of all kinds, seemed to develop rapidly at Clifton, where one has nothing to do but to watch each new symptom, and report to physician or nurse, and Ethie was not an exception. She was very nervous, and she found herself dreading the arrival of the sick man, wondering if his coughing would keep her awake nights, and if the light from her candle shining out into the darkened hall would annoy and worry him, as it had worried the woman opposite, who complained that she could not rest with that glimmer on the wall, showing that somebody was up, who, might at any moment make a noise. That he was a person of consequence she readily guessed, for an extra pair of pillows was taken in, and the rocking-chair possessed of two whole arms, and No. 109, also vacant just then, was rifled of its round stand and footstool, and Mrs. Pry reported that Dr. F—— himself had been up to see that all was comfortable, and Miss Clark had ordered a better set of springs, with a new hair mattress, and somebody had put a bouquet of flowers in the room and hung a muslin curtain at the window.
"A big-bug, most likely," Mrs. Peter Pry said, when, after her pack, she brought her knitting for a few moments into Ethelyn's room and wondered who the man could be.
Ethelyn did not care particularly who he was, provided he did not cough nights and keep her awake, in which case she should feel constrained to change her room, an alternative she did not care to contemplate, as she had become more attached to No. 101 than she had at first supposed possible. Ethelyn was very anxious that day, and, had she believed in presentiments, she would have thought that something was about to befall her, so heavy was the gloom weighing upon her spirits, and so dark the future seemed. She was going to have a headache, she feared, and as a means of throwing it off, she started, after ten, for a walk to Rocky Run, a distance of a mile or more. It was a cool, hazy July afternoon, such as always carried Ethie back to Chicopee and the days of her happy girlhood, when her heart was not so heavy and sad as it was now. With thoughts of Chicopee came also thoughts of Richard, and Ethie's eyes were moist with tears as she looked wistfully toward the setting sun and wondered if he ever thought of her now or had forgotten her, and was the story true of his seeking for a divorce. That rumor had troubled Ethie greatly, and was the reason why she did not improve as the physician hoped she would when she first came to Clifton. Sitting down upon the bridge across the creek, she bowed her head in her hands and went over again all the dreadful past, blaming herself now more than she did Richard, and wishing that much could be undone of all that had transpired to make her what she was, and while she sat there the Western train appeared in view, and, mechanically rising to her feet, Ethie turned her steps back toward the Cure, standing aside to let the long train go by, and feeling, when it passed her, a strange, sudden throb, as if it were fraught with more than ordinary interest to her. Usually, that Western train, the distant roll of whose wheels and the echo of whose scream quickened so many hearts waiting for news from home, had no special interest for her. It never brought her a letter. Her name was never called in the exciting distribution which took place in the parlor or on the long piazza after the eight-o'clock mail had arrived, and so she seldom heeded it; but to-night there was a difference, and she watched the long line curiously until it passed the corner by the old brown farmhouse and disappeared from view. It had left the station long ere she reached the Cure, for she had walked slowly, and lights were shining from the different rooms, and there was a sound of singing in the parlor, and the party of croquet players had come up from the lawn, and ladies were hurrying toward the bathroom, when she came in and climbed the three flights of stairs which led to the fourth floor. There was a light shining through the ventilator of No. 102, the door was partly ajar, and the doctor was there, asking some questions of the tall figure, whose outline Ethelyn dimly descried as she went into her room. There was more talking after a little—more going in and out, while Mary Ann brought up some supper on a tray, and John brought up a traveling trunk much larger than himself, and then, without Mrs. Pry's assurance, Ethie knew that the occupant of No. 102 had arrived.
THE OCCUPANT OF NO. 102
He did not cough, but he seemed to be a restless spirit, for Ethie heard him pacing up and down his room long after the gas was turned off and her own candle was extinguished. Once, too, she heard a long-drawn sigh, or groan, which made her start suddenly, for something in the tone carried her to Olney and the house on the prairie. It was late that night ere she slept, and when next morning she awoke, the nervous headache, which had threatened her the previous night, was upon her in full force, and kept her for nearly the entire day confined to her bed. Mrs. Pry was spending the day in Phelps, and with this source of information cut off, Ethelyn heard nothing of No. 102, further than the chambermaid's casual remark that "the gentleman was quite an invalid, and for the present was to take his meals and baths in his room to avoid so much going up and down stairs."
Who he was Ethelyn did not know or care, though twice she awoke from a feverish sleep with the impression that she had heard Richard speaking to her; but it was only Jim, the bath man, talking in the next room, and she laid her throbbing head again upon her pillow, while her new neighbor dreamed in turn of her and woke with the strange fancy that she was near him. Ethie's head was better that night; so much better that she dressed herself and went down to the parlor in time to hear the calling of the letters as the Western mail was distributed. Usually she felt but little interest in the affair further than watching the eager, anxious faces bending near the boy, and the looks of joy or disappointment which followed failure and success. To-night, however, it was different. She was not expecting a letter herself. Nobody wrote to her but Aunt Barbara, whose letters came in the morning, but she was conscious of a strange feeling of expectancy, and taking a step toward the table around which the excited group were congregated, she stood leaning against the column while name after name was called. First the letters, a score or two, and then the papers, matters of less account, but still snatched eagerly by those who could get nothing better. There was a paper for Mrs. More-house, and Mrs. Stone, and Mrs. Wilson, and Mrs. Turner, while Mr. Danforth had half a dozen or less, and then Perry paused a moment over a new name—one which had never before been called in the parlor at Clifton:
"Richard Markham, Esq."
The name rang out loud and clear, and Ethie grasped the pillar tightly to keep herself from falling. She did not hear Mr. Danforth explaining that it was "Governor Markham from Iowa, who came the night before." She did not know, either, how she left the parlor, for the next thing of which she was perfectly conscious was the fact that she was hurrying up the stairs and through the unfinished halls toward her own room, casting frightened glances around, and almost shrieking with excitement when through the open door of No. 102 she heard Dr. Hayes speaking to someone, and in the voice which answered recognized her husband.
He was there, then, next to her, separated by only a thin partition—the husband whom she had not seen for five long years, whom she had voluntarily left, resolving never to go back to him again, was there, where, just by crossing a single threshold, she could fall at his feet and sue for the forgiveness she had made up her mind to crave should she ever see him again. Dr. Hayes' next call was upon her, and he found her fainting upon the floor, where she had fallen in the excitement of the shock she had experienced.
"It was a headache," she said, when questioned as to the cause of the sudden attack; but her eyes had in them a frightened, startled look, for which the doctor could not account.
There was something about her case which puzzled and perplexed him. "She needed perfect quiet, but must not be left alone," he said, and so all that night Richard, who was very wakeful, watched the light shining out into the hall from the room next to his own, and heard occasionally a murmur of low voices as the nurse put some question to Ethie, who answered always in whispers, while her eyes turned furtively toward No. 102, as if fearful that its occupant would hear and know how near she was. For three whole days her door was locked against all intruders, for the headache and nervous excitement did not abate one whit. How could they, when every sound from No. 102, every footfall on the floor, every tone of Richard's voice speaking to servant or physician, quickened the rapid beats and sent the hot blood throbbing fiercely through the temple veins and down along the neck? At Clifton they are accustomed to every phase of nervousness, from spasms at the creaking of a board to the stumbling upstairs of the fireman in the early winter morning, and once when Ethie shuddered and turned her head aside at the sound of Richard's step, the attendant said to the physician:
"It's the gentleman's boots, I think, which make her nervous."
There was a deprecating gesture on Ethie's part, but it passed unnoticed, and when next the doctor went to visit Richard he said, in a half-apologetic way, that the young lady in the next room was suffering from a violent headache, which was aggravated by every sound, even the squeak of a boot—would Governor Markham greatly object to wearing slippers for a while? Dr. Hayes was sorry to trouble him, but "if they would effect a cure they must keep their patients quiet, and guard against everything tending to increase nervous irritation."
Governor Markham would do anything in his power for the young lady, and he asked some questions concerning her. Had he annoyed her much? Was she very ill? And what was her name?
"Bigelow," he repeated after Dr. Hayes, thinking of Aunt Barbara in Chicopee, and thinking of Ethelyn, too, but never dreaming how near she was to him.
He had come to Clifton at the earnest solicitation of some of his friends, who had for themselves tested the healing properties of the water, but he had little faith that anything could cure so long as the pain was so heavy at his heart. It had not lessened one jot with the lapse of years. On the contrary, it seemed harder and harder to bear, as the months went by and brought no news of Ethie. Oh, how he wanted her back again, even if she came as willful and imperious as she used to be at times, when the high spirit was roused to its utmost, and even if she had no love for him, as she had once averred. He could make her love him now, he said: he knew just where he had erred; and many a time in dreams he had strained the wayward Ethie to his bosom in the fond caress which from its very force should impart to her some faint sensation of joy. He had stroked her beautiful brown hair, and caressed her smooth round cheek, and pressed her little hands, and made her listen to him till the dark eyes flashed into his own with something of the tenderness he felt for her. Then, with a start, he had awakened to find it all a dream, and only darkness around him. Ethie was not there. The arms which had held her so lovingly were empty. The pillow where her dear head had lain was untouched, and he was alone as of old. Even that handsome house he had built for her had ceased to interest him, for Ethie did not come back to enjoy it. She would never come now, he said, and he built many fancies as to what her end had been, and where her grave could be. Here at Clifton he had thought of her continually, but not that she was alive. Andy's faith in her return was as strong as ever, but Richard's had all died out. Ethie was dead, and when asked by Dr. Hayes if he had a wife, he answered sadly:
"I had one, but I lost her."
He had no thought of deception, or how soon the story would circulate through the house that he was a widower, and so he, as ex-governor of Iowa, and a man just in his prime, became an object of speculative interest to every marriageable woman there. He had no thought, no care for the ladies, though for the Miss Bigelow, whom his boots annoyed, he did feel a passing interest, and Ethie, whose ears seemed doubly sharp, heard him in his closet adjusting the thin-soled slippers, which made no sound upon the carpet. She heard him, too, as he moved his water pitcher, and knew he was doing it so quietly for her. The idea of being cared for by him, even if he did not know who she was, was very soothing and pleasant, and she fell into a quiet sleep, which lasted several hours, while Richard, on the other side of the wall, scarcely moved, so fearful was he of worrying the young lady.
Ethie's headache spent itself at last, and she awoke at the close of the third day, free from pain, but very weak and languid, and wholly unequal to the task of entertaining Mrs. Peter Pry, who had been so distressed on her account, and was so delighted with a chance to see and talk with her again. Ethie knew she meant to be kind, and believed she was sincere in her professions of friendship. At another time she might have been glad to see her; but now, when she guessed what the theme of conversation would be, she felt a thrill of terror as the good woman came in, knitting in hand, and announced her intention of sitting through the chapel exercises. She was not going to prayer meeting that night, she said, for Dr. Foster was absent, and they were always stupid when he was away. She could not understand all Mr.—— said, his words were so learned, while the man who talked so long, and never came to the point, was insufferable in hot weather, so she remained away, and came to see her friend, who, she supposed, knew that she had a governor for next-door neighbor—Governor Markham from Iowa—and a widower, too, as Dr. Hayes had said, when she asked why his wife was not there with him.
"A widower!" and Ethie looked up so inquiringly that Mrs. Pry, mistaking the nature of her sudden interest, went on more flippantly. "Yes, and a splendid looking man, too, if he wasn't sick. I saw him in the chapel this morning—the only time he has been there—and sat where I had a good view of his face. They say he is very rich, and has one of the handsomest places in Davenport."
"Does he live in Davenport?" Ethie asked, in some surprise, and Mrs. Pry replied:
"Yes; and that Miss Owens, from New York, is setting her cap for him already. She met him in Washington, a few years ago, and the minute chapel exercises were over, she and her mother made up to him at once. I'm glad there's somebody good enough for them to notice. If there's a person I dislike it's that Susan Owens and her mother. I do hope she'll find a husband. It's what she's here for, everybody says."