Of the two men, Stephen had more to say, but Claude said more. He was thought brilliant in conversation; but what wonder, when one considered his advantages and his dazzling experiences! He had customers who were worth their thousands; ladies whose fingers never touched dish-water; ladies who would n't buy a glove of anybody else if they went bare-handed to the grave. He lived with his sister Maude Arthurlena in a house where there were twenty-two other boarders who could be seated at meals all at the same time, so immense was the dining-room. He ate his dinner at a restaurant daily, and expended twenty-five cents for it without blenching. He went to the theater once a week, and was often accompanied by "lady friends" who were "elegant dressers."
In a moment of wrath Stephen had called him a "counter-jumper," but it was a libel. So short and rough a means of exit from his place of power was wholly beneath Claude's dignity. It was with a "Pardon me, Miss Dix," that, the noon hour having arrived, he squeezed by that slave and victim, and raising the hinged board that separated his kingdom from that of the ribbon department, passed out of the store, hat in hand, serene in the consciousness that though other clerks might nibble luncheon from a brown paper bag, he would speedily be indulging in an expensive repast; and Miss Dix knew it, and it was a part of his almost invincible attraction for her.
It seemed flying in the face of Providence to decline the attentions of such a gorgeous butterfly of fashion simply because one was engaged to marry another man at some distant day.
All Edgewood femininity united in saying that there never was such a perfect gentleman as Claude Merrill; and during the time when his popularity was at its height Rose lost sight of the fact that Stephen could have furnished the stuff for a dozen Claudes and have had enough left for an ordinary man besides.
April gave place to May, and a veil hung between the lovers,—an intangible, gossamer-like thing, not to be seen with the naked eye, but, oh! so plainly to be felt. Rose hid herself thankfully behind it, while Stephen had not courage to lift a corner. She had twice been seen driving with Claude Merrill—that Stephen knew; but she had explained that there were errands to be done, that her grandfather had taken the horse, and that Mr. Merrill's escort had been both opportune and convenient for these practical reasons. Claude was everywhere present, the center of attraction, the observed of all observers. He was irresistible, contagious, almost epidemic. Rose was now gay, now silent; now affectionate, now distant, now coquettish; in fine, everything that was capricious, mysterious, agitating, incomprehensible.
One morning Alcestis Crambry went to the post-office for Stephen and brought him back the newspapers and letters. He had hung about the River Farm so much that Stephen finally gave him bed and food in exchange for numberless small errands. Rufus was temporarily confined in a dark room with some strange pain and trouble in his eyes, and Alcestis proved of use in many ways. He had always been Rose's slave, and had often brought messages and notes from the Brier Neighborhood, so that when Stephen saw a folded note among the papers his heart gave a throb of anticipation.
The note was brief, and when he had glanced through it he said: "This is not mine, Alcestis; it belongs to Miss Rose. Go straight back and give it to her as you were told; and another time keep your wits about you, or I'll send you back to Killick."
Alcestis Crambry's ideas on all subjects were extremely vague. Claude Merrill had given him a letter for Rose, but his notion was that anything that belonged to her belonged to Stephen, and the Waterman place was much nearer than the Wileys', particularly at dinner-time!
When the boy had slouched away, Stephen sat under the apple tree, now a mass of roseate bloom, and buried his face in his hands.
It was not precisely a love-letter that he had read, nevertheless it blackened the light of the sun for him. Claude asked Rose to meet him anywhere on the road to the station and to take a little walk, as he was leaving that afternoon and could not bear to say good-bye to her in the presence of her grandmother. "Under the circumstances," he wrote, deeply underlining the words, "I cannot remain a moment longer in Edgewood, where I have been so happy and so miserable!" He did not refer to the fact that the time limit on his return-ticket expired that day, for his dramatic instinct told him that such sordid matters have no place in heroics.
Stephen sat motionless under the tree for an hour, deciding on some plan of action. He had work at the little house, but he did not dare go there lest he should see the face of dead Love looking from the windows of the pink bedroom; dead Love, cold, sad, merciless. His cheeks burned as he thought of the marriage license and the gold ring hidden away upstairs in the drawer of his shaving stand. What a romantic fool he had been, to think he could hasten the glad day by a single moment! What a piece of boyish folly it had been, and how it shamed him in his own eyes!
When train time drew near he took his boat and paddled downstream. If for the Finland lover's reindeer there was but one path in all the world, and that the one that led to Her, so it was for Stephen's canoe, which, had it been set free on the river by day or by night, might have floated straight to Rose.
He landed at the usual place, a bit of sandy shore near the Wiley house, and walked drearily up the bank through the woods. Under the shade of the pines the white stars of the hepatica glistened and the pale anemones were coming into bloom. Partridge-berries glowed red under their glossy leaves, and clumps of violets sweetened the air. Squirrels chattered, woodpeckers tapped, thrushes sang; but Stephen was blind and deaf to all the sweet harbingers of spring.
Just then he heard voices, realizing with a throb of delight that, at any rate, Rose had not left home to meet Claude, as he had asked her to do. Looking through the branches, he saw the two standing together, Mrs. Brooks's horse, with the offensive trunk in the back of the wagon, being hitched to a tree near by. There was nothing in the tableau to stir Stephen to fury, but he read between the lines and suffered as he read—suffered and determined to sacrifice himself if he must, so that Rose could have what she wanted, this miserable apology for a man. He had never been the husband for Rose; she must take her place in a larger community, worthy of her beauty and charm.
Claude was talking and gesticulating ardently. Rose's head was bent and the tears were rolling down her cheeks. Suddenly Claude raised his hat, and with a passionate gesture of renunciation walked swiftly to the wagon, and looking back once, drove off with the utmost speed of which the Brooks's horse was capable,—Rose waving him a farewell with one hand and wiping her eyes with the other.
X. The Turquoise Ring
Stephen stood absolutely still in front of the opening in the trees, and as Rose turned she met him face to face. She had never dreamed his eyes could be so stern, his mouth so hard, and she gave a sob like a child.
"You seem to be in trouble," Stephen said in a voice so cold she thought it could not be his.
"I am not in trouble, exactly," Rose stammered, concealing her discomfiture as well as possible. "I am a little unhappy because I have made some one else unhappy; and now that you know it, you will be unhappy too, and angry besides, I suppose, though you've seen everything there was to see."
"There is no occasion for sorrow," Stephen said. "I did n't mean to break in on any interview; I came over to give you back your freedom. If you ever cared enough for me to marry me, the time has gone by. I am willing to own that I over-persuaded you, but I am not the man to take a girl against her inclinations, so we will say good-bye and end the thing here and now. I can only wish"—here his smothered rage at fate almost choked him—"that, when you were selecting another husband, you had chosen a whole man!"
Rose quivered with the scorn of his tone. "Size is n't everything!" she blazed.
"Not in bodies, perhaps; but it counts for something in hearts and brains, and it is convenient to have a sense of honor that's at least as big as a grain of mustard-seed."
"Claude Merrill is not dishonorable," Rose exclaimed impetuously; "or at least he is n't as bad as you think: he has never asked me to marry him."
"Then he probably was not quite ready to speak, or perhaps you were not quite ready to hear," retorted Stephen, bitterly; "but don't let us have words,-there'll be enough to regret without adding those. I have seen, ever since New Year's, that you were not really happy or contented; only I would n't allow it to myself; I kept hoping against hope that I was mistaken. There have been times when I would have married you, willing or unwilling, but I did n't love you so well then; and now that there's another man in the case, it's different, and I'm strong enough to do the right thing. Follow your heart and be happy; in a year or two I shall be glad I had the grit to tell you so. Good-bye, Rose!"
Rose, pale with amazement, summoned all her pride, and drawing the turquoise engagement ring from her finger, handed it silently to Stephen, hiding her face as he flung it vehemently down the river-bank. His dull eyes followed it and half uncomprehendingly saw it settle and glisten in a nest of brown pine-needles. Then he put out his hand for a last clasp and strode away without a word.
Presently Rose heard first the scrape of his boat on the sand, then the soft sound of his paddles against the water, then nothing but the squirrels and the woodpeckers and the thrushes, then not even these,—nothing but the beating of her own heart.
She sat down heavily, feeling as if she were wide awake for the first time in many weeks. How had things come to this pass with her?
Claude Merrill had flattered her vanity and given her some moments of restlessness and dissatisfaction with her lot; but he had not until today really touched her heart or tempted her, even momentarily, from her allegiance to Stephen. His eyes had always looked unspeakable things; his voice had seemed to breathe feelings that he had never dared put in words; but today he had really stirred her, for although he had still been vague, it was easy to see that his love for her had passed all bounds of discretion. She remembered his impassioned farewells, his despair, his doubt as to whether he could forget her by plunging into the vortex of business, or whether he had better end it all in the river, as so many other broken-hearted fellows had done. She had been touched by his misery, even against her better judgment; and she had intended to confess it all to Stephen sometime, telling him that she should never again accept attentions from a stranger, lest a tragedy like this should happen twice in a lifetime.
She had imagined that Stephen would be his large-minded, great-hearted, magnanimous self, and beg her to forget this fascinating will-o'-the-wisp by resting in his deeper, serener love. She had meant to be contrite and faithful, praying nightly that poor Claude might live down his present anguish, of which she had been the innocent cause.
Instead, what had happened? She had been put altogether in the wrong. Stephen had almost cast her off, and that, too, without argument. He had given her her liberty before she had asked for it, taking it for granted, without question, that she desired to be rid of him. Instead of comforting her in her remorse, or sympathizing with her for so nobly refusing to shine in Claude's larger world of Boston, Stephen had assumed that she was disloyal in every particular.
And pray how was she to cope with such a disagreeable and complicated situation?
It would not be long before the gossips rolled under their tongues the delicious morsel of a broken engagement, and sooner or later she must brave the displeasure of her grandmother.
And the little house—that was worse than anything. Her tears flowed faster as she thought of Stephen's joy in it, of his faithful labor, of the savings he had invested in it. She hated and despised herself when she thought of the house, and for the first time in her life she realized the limitations of her nature, the poverty of her ideals.
What should she do? She had lost Stephen and ruined his life. Now, in order that she need not blight a second career, must she contrive to return Claude's love? To be sure, she thought, it seemed indecent to marry any other man than Stephen, when they had built a house together, and chosen wallpapers, and a kitchen stove, and dining-room chairs; but was it not the only way to evade the difficulties?
Suppose that Stephen, in a fit of pique, should ask somebody else to share the new cottage?
As this dreadful possibility came into view, Rose's sobs actually frightened the birds and the squirrels. She paced back and forth under the trees, wondering how she could have been engaged to a man for eight months and know so little about him as she seemed to know about Stephen Waterman today. Who would have believed he could be so autocratic, so severe, SS so unapproachable? Who could have foreseen that she, Rose Wiley, would ever be given up to another man,—handed over as coolly as if she had been a bale of cotton? She wanted to return Claude Merrill's love because it was the only way out of the tangle; but at the moment she almost hated him for making so much trouble, for hurting Stephen, for abasing her in her own eyes, and, above all, for giving her rustic lover the chance of impersonating an injured emperor.
It did not simplify the situation to have Mite Shapley come in during the evening and run upstairs, uninvited, to sit on the foot of her bed and chatter.
Rose had closed her blinds and lay in the dark, pleading a headache. Mite was in high feather. She had met Claude Merrill going to the station that afternoon. He was much too early for the train, which the station agent reported to be behind time, so he had asked her to take a drive. She did n't know how it happened, for he looked at his watch every now and then; but, anyway, they got to laughing and "carrying on," and when they came back to the station the train had gone. Was n't that the greatest joke of the season? What did Rose suppose they did next?
Rose did n't know and did n't care; her head ached too badly.
Well, they had driven to Wareham, and Claude had hired a livery team there, and had been taken into Portland with his trunk, and she had brought Mrs. Brooks's horse back to Edgewood. Was n't that ridiculous? And had n't she cut out Rose where she least expected?
Rose was distinctly apathetic, and Mite Shapley departed after a very brief call, leaving behind her an entirely new train of thought.
If Claude Merrill were so love-blighted that he could only by the greatest self-control keep from flinging himself into the river, how could he conceal his sufferings so completely from Mite Shapley,—little shallow-pated, scheming coquette?
"So that pretty Merrill feller has gone, has he, mother?" inquired Old Kennebec that night, as he took off his wet shoes and warmed his feet at the kitchen oven. "Well, it ain't a mite too soon. I allers distrust that pink-an'-white, rosy-posy kind of a man. One of the most turrible things that ever happened in Gard'ner was brought about by jest sech a feller. Mothers hed n't hardly ought to name their boy babies Claude without they expect 'em to play the dickens with the girls. I don' know nothin' 'bout the fust Claude, there ain't none of 'em in the Bible, air they, but whoever he was, I bate ye he hed a deceivin' tongue. If it hed n't be'n for me, that Claude in Gard'ner would 'a' run away with my brother's fust wife; an' I'll tell ye jest how I contrived to put a spoke in his wheel."
But Mrs. Wiley, being already somewhat familiar with the circumstances, had taken her candle and retired to her virtuous couch.
XI. Rose Sees the World
Was this the world, after all? Rose asked herself; and, if so, what was amiss with it, and where was the charm, the bewilderment, the intoxication, the glamour?
She had been glad to come to Boston, for the last two weeks in Edgewood had proved intolerable. She had always been a favorite heretofore, from the days when the boys fought for the privilege of dragging her sled up the hills, and filling her tiny mitten with peppermints, down to the year when she came home from the Wareham Female Seminary, an acknowledged belle and beauty. Suddenly she had felt her popularity dwindling. There was no real change in the demeanor of her acquaintances, but there was a certain subtle difference of atmosphere. Everybody sympathized tacitly with Stephen, and she did not wonder, for there were times when she secretly took his part against herself. Only a few candid friends had referred to the rupture openly in conversation, but these had been blunt in their disapproval.
It seemed part of her ill fortune that just at this time Rufus should be threatened with partial blindness, and that Stephen's heart, already sore, should be torn with new anxieties. She could hardly bear to see the doctor's carriage drive by day after day, and hear night after night that Rufus was unresigned, melancholy, half mad; while Stephen, as the doctor said, was brother, mother, and father in one, as gentle as a woman, as firm as Gibraltar.
These foes to her peace of mind all came from within; but without was the hourly reproach of her grandmother, whose scorching tongue touched every sensitive spot in the girl's nature and burned it like fire.
Finally a way of escape opened. Mrs. Wealthy Brooks, who had always been rheumatic, grew suddenly worse. She had heard of a "magnetic" physician in Boston, also of one who used electricity with wonderful effect, and she announced her intention of taking both treatments impartially and alternately. The neighbors were quite willing that Wealthy Ann Brooks should spend the deceased Ezra's money in any way she pleased,—she had earned it, goodness knows, by living with him for twenty-five years,—but before the day for her departure arrived her right arm and knee became so much more painful that it was impossible for her to travel alone.
At this juncture Rose was called upon to act as nurse and companion in a friendly way. She seized the opportunity hungrily as a way out of her present trouble; but, knowing what Mrs. Brooks's temper was in time of health, she could see clearly what it was likely to prove when pain and anguish wrung the brow.
Rose had been in Boston now for some weeks, and she was sitting in the Joy Street boarding-house,—Joy Street, forsooth! It was nearly bedtime, and she was looking out upon a huddle of roofs and back yards, upon a landscape filled with clothes-lines, ash-barrels, and ill-fed cats. There were no sleek country tabbies, with the memory in their eyes of tasted cream, nothing but city-born, city-bred, thin, despairing cats of the pavement, cats no more forlorn than Rose herself.
She had "seen Boston," for she had accompanied Mrs. Brooks in the horse-cars daily to the two different temples of healing where that lady worshiped and offered sacrifices. She had also gone with Maude Arthurlena to Claude Merrill's store to buy a pair of gloves, and had overheard Miss Dix (the fashionable "lady assistant" before mentioned) say to Miss Brackett of the ribbon department, that she thought Mr. Merrill must have worn his blinders that time he stayed so long in Edgewood. This bit of polished irony was unintelligible to Rose at first, but she mastered it after an hour's reflection. She was n't looking her best that day, she knew; the cotton dresses that seemed so pretty at home were common and countrified here, and her best black cashmere looked cheap and shapeless beside Miss Dix's brilliantine. Miss Dix's figure was her strong point, and her dressmaker was particularly skillful in the arts of suggestion, concealment, and revelation. Beauty has its chosen backgrounds. Rose in white dimity, standing knee deep in her blossoming brier bushes, the river running at her feet, dark pine trees behind her graceful head, sounded depths and touched heights of harmony forever beyond the reach of the modish Miss Dix, but she was out of her element and suffered accordingly.
Rose had gone to walk with Claude one evening when she first arrived. He had shown her the State House and the Park Street Church, and sat with her on one of the benches in the Common until nearly ten. She knew that Mrs. Brooks had told her nephew of the broken engagement, but he made no reference to the matter, save to congratulate her that she was rid of a man who was so clumsy, so dull and behind the times, as Stephen Waterman, saying that he had always marveled she could engage herself to anybody who could insult her by offering her a turquoise ring.
Claude was very interesting that evening, Rose thought, but rather gloomy and unlike his former self. He referred to his grave responsibilities, to the frail health of Maude Arthurlena, and to the vicissitudes of business. He vaguely intimated that his daily life in the store was not so pleasant as it had been formerly; that there were "those" (he would speak no more plainly) who embarrassed him with undesired attentions, "those" who, without the smallest shadow of right, vexed him with petty jealousies.
Rose dared not ask questions on so delicate a topic, but she remembered in a flash Miss Dix's heavy eyebrows, snapping eyes, and high color. Claude seemed very happy that Rose had come to Boston, though he was surprised, knowing what a trial his aunt must be, now that she was so helpless. It was unfortunate, also, that Rose could not go on excursions without leaving his aunt alone, or he should have been glad to offer his escort. He pressed her hand when he left her at her door, telling her she could never realize what a comfort her friendship was to him; could never imagine how thankful he was that she had courageously freed herself from ties that in time would have made her wretched. His heart was full, he said, of feelings he dared not utter; but in the near future, when certain clouds had rolled by, he would unlock its treasures, and then—but no more tonight: he could not trust himself.
Rose felt as if she were assuming one of the characters in a mysterious romance, such as unfolded itself only in books or in Boston; but thrilling as it was, it was nevertheless extremely unsatisfactory.
Convinced that Claude Merrill was passionately in love with her, one of her reasons for coming to Boston had been to fall more deeply in love with him, and thus heal some, at least, of the wounds she had inflicted. It may have been a foolish idea, but after three weeks it seemed still worse,—a useless one; for after several interviews she felt herself drifting farther and farther from Claude; and if he felt any burning ambition to make her his own, he certainly concealed it with admirable art. Given up, with the most offensive magnanimity, by Stephen, and not greatly desired by Claude,—that seemed the present status of proud Rose Wiley of the Brier Neighborhood.
It was June, she remembered, as she leaned out of the open window; at least it was June in Edgewood, and she supposed for convenience' sake they called it June in Boston. Not that it mattered much what the poor city prisoners called it. How beautiful the river would be at home, with the trees along the banks in full leaf! How she hungered and thirsted for the river,—to see it sparkle in the sunlight; to watch the moonglade stretching from one bank to the other; to hear the soft lap of the water on the shore, and the distant murmur of the falls at the bridge! And the Brier Neighborhood would be at its loveliest, for the wild roses were in blossom by now. And the little house! How sweet it must look under the shade of the elms, with the Saco rippling at the back! Was poor Rufus still lying in a darkened room, and was Stephen nursing him,—disappointed Stephen, dear, noble old Stephen?
XII. Gold and Pinchbeck
Just then Mrs. Brooks groaned in the next room and called Rose, who went in to minister to her real needs, or to condole with her fancied ones, whichever course of action appeared to be the more agreeable at the moment.
Mrs. Brooks desired conversation, it seemed, or at least she desired an audience for a monologue, for she recognized no antiphonal obligations on the part of her listeners. The doctors were not doing her a speck of good, and she was just squandering money in a miserable boarding-house, when she might be enjoying poor health in her own home; and she did n't believe her hens were receiving proper care, and she had forgotten to pull down the shades in the spare room, and the sun would fade the carpet out all white before she got back, and she did n't believe Dr. Smith's magnetism was any more use than a cat's foot, nor Dr. Robinson's electricity any better than a bumblebee's buzz, and she had a great mind to go home and try Dr. Lord from Bonnie Eagle; and there was a letter for Rose on the bureau, which had come before supper, but the shiftless, lazy, worthless landlady had forgotten to send it up till just now.
The letter was from Mite Shapley, but Rose could read only half of it to Mrs. Brooks, little beside the news that the Waterman barn, the finest barn in the whole township, had been struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Stephen was away at the time, having taken Rufus to Portland, where an operation on his eyes would shortly be performed at the hospital, and one of the neighbors was sleeping at the River Farm and taking care of the cattle; still the house might not have been saved but for one of Alcestis Crambry's sudden bursts of common sense, which occurred now quite regularly. He succeeded not only in getting the horses out of the stalls, but gave the alarm so promptly that the whole neighborhood was soon on the scene of action. Stephen was the only man, Mite reminded Rose, who ever had any patience with, or took any pains to teach, Alcestis, but he never could have expected to be rewarded in this practical way. The barn was only partly insured; and when she had met Stephen at the station next day, and condoled with him on his loss, he had said: "Oh, well, Mite, a little more or less does n't make much difference just now."
"The rest would n't interest you, Mrs. Brooks," said Rose, precipitately preparing to leave the room.
"Something about Claude, I suppose," ventured that astute lady. "I think Mite kind of fancied him. I don't believe he ever gave her any real encouragement; but he'd make love to a pump, Claude Merrill would, and so would his father before him. How my sister Abby made out to land him we never knew, for they said he'd proposed to every woman in the town of Bingham, not excepting the wooden Indian girl in front of the cigar-store, and not one of 'em but our Abby ever got a chance to name the day. Abby was as set as the everlastin' hills, and if she'd made up her mind to have a man he could n't wriggle away from her nohow in the world. It beats all how girls do run after these slick-haired, sweet-tongued, Miss Nancy kind o' fellers, that ain't but little good as beaux an' worth less than nothing as husbands."
Rose scarcely noticed what Mrs. Brooks said, she was too anxious to read the rest of Mite Shapley's letter in the quiet of her own room.
Stephen looks thin and pale [so it ran on], but he does not allow anybody to sympathize with him. I think you ought to know something that I have n't told before for fear of hurting your feelings; but if I were in your place I'd like to hear everything, and then you'll know how to act when you come home. Just after you left, Stephen ploughed up all the land in front of your new house,—every inch of it, all up and down the road, between the fence and the front doorstep,—and then he planted corn where you were going to have your flower-beds. He has closed all the blinds and hung a "To Let" sign on the large elm at the gate. Stephen never was spiteful in his life, but this looks a little like spite. Perhaps he only wanted to save his self-respect and let people know that everything between you was over forever. Perhaps he thought it would stop talk once and for all. But you won't mind, you lucky girl, staying nearly three months in Boston! [So Almira purled on in violet ink, with shaded letters.] How I wish it had come my way, though I'm not good at rubbing rheumatic patients, even when they are his aunt. Is he as devoted as ever? And when will it be? How do you like the theater? Mother thinks you won't attend; but, by what he used to say, I am sure church members in Boston always go to amusements.
Your loving friend, Almira Shapley.
P.S. They say Rufus's doctor's bills here, and the operation and hospital expenses in Portland, will mount up to five hundred dollars. Of course Stephen will be dreadfully hampered by the toss of his barn, and maybe he wants to let your house that was to be, because he really needs money. In that case the dooryard won't be very attractive to tenants, with corn planted right up to the steps and no path left! It's two feet tall now, and by August (just when you were intending to move in) it will hide the front windows. Not that you'll care, with a diamond on your engagement finger!
The letter was more than flesh and blood could stand, and Rose flung herself on her bed to think and regret and repent, and, if possible, to sob herself to sleep.
She knew now that she had never admired and respected Stephen so much as at the moment when, under the reproach of his eyes, she had given him back his ring. When she left Edgewood and parted with him forever she had really loved him better than when she had promised to marry him.
Claude Merrill, on his native Boston heath, did not appear the romantic, inspiring figure he had once been in her eyes. A week ago she distrusted him; tonight she despised him.
What had happened to Rose was the dilation of her vision. She saw things under a wider sky and in a clearer light. Above all, her heart was wrung with pity for Stephen—Stephen, with no comforting woman's hand to help him in his sore trouble; Stephen, bearing his losses alone, his burdens and anxieties alone, his nursing and daily work alone. Oh, how she felt herself needed! Needed! that was the magic word that unlocked her better nature. "Darkness is the time for making roots and establishing plants, whether of the soil or of the soul," and all at once Rose had become a woman: a little one, perhaps, but a whole woman—and a bit of an angel, too, with healing in her wings. When and how had this metamorphosis come about? Last summer the fragile brier-rose had hung over the river and looked at its pretty reflection in the placid surface of the water. Its few buds and blossoms were so lovely, it sighed for nothing more. The changes in the plant had been wrought secretly and silently. In some mysterious way, as common to soul as to plant life, the roots had gathered in more nourishment from the earth, they had stored up strength and force, and all at once there was a marvelous fructifying of the plant, hardiness of stalk, new shoots everywhere, vigorous leafage, and a shower of blossoms.
But everything was awry: Boston was a failure; Claude was a weakling and a flirt; her turquoise ring was lying on the river-bank; Stephen did not love her any longer; her flower-beds were ploughed up and planted in corn; and the cottage that Stephen had built and she had furnished, that beloved cottage, was to let.
She was in Boston; but what did that amount to, after all? What was the State House to a bleeding heart, or the Old South Church to a pride wounded like hers?
At last she fell asleep, but it was only by stopping her ears to the noises of the city streets and making herself imagine the sound of the river rippling under her bedroom windows at home. The backyards of Boston faded, and in their place came the banks of the Saco, strewn with pine-needles, fragrant with wild flowers. Then there was the bit of sunny beach, where Stephen moored his boat. She could hear the sound of his paddle. Boston lovers came a-courting in the horse-cars, but hers had floated downstream to her just at dusk in a birch-bark canoe, or sometimes, in the moonlight, on a couple of logs rafted together.
But it was all over now, and she could see only Stephen's stern face as he flung the despised turquoise ring down the river-bank.
XIII. A Country Chevalier
It was early in August when Mrs. Wealthy Brooks announced her speedy return from Boston to Edgewood.
"It's jest as well Rose is comin' back," said Mr. Wiley to his wife. "I never favored her goin' to Boston, where that rosy-posy Claude feller is. When he was down here he was kep' kind o' tied up in a box-stall, but there he's caperin' loose round the pastur'."
"I should think Rose would be ashamed to come back, after the way she's carried on," remarked Mrs. Wiley, "but if she needed punishment I guess she's got it bein' comp'ny-keeper to Wealthy Ann Brooks. Bein' a church member in good an' reg'lar standin', I s'pose Wealthy Ann'll go to heaven, but I can only say that it would be a sight pleasanter place for a good many if she did n't."
"Rose has be'n foolish an' flirty an' wrong-headed," allowed her grandfather; "but it won't do no good to treat her like a hardened criminile, same's you did afore she went away. She ain't hardly got her wisdom teeth cut, in love affairs! She ain't broke the laws of the State o' Maine, nor any o' the ten commandments; she ain't disgraced the family, an' there's a chance for her to reform, seein' as how she ain't twenty year old yet. I was turrible wild an' hot-headed myself afore you ketched me an' tamed me down."
"You ain't so tame now as I wish you was," Mrs. Wiley replied testily.
"If you could smoke a clay pipe 't would calm your nerves, mother, an' help you to git some philosophy inter you; you need a little philosophy turrible bad."
"I need patience consid'able more," was Mrs. Wiley's withering retort.
"That's the way with folks," said Old Kennebec reflectively, as he went on peacefully puffing. "If you try to indoose 'em to take an int'rest in a bran'-new virtue, they won't look at it; but they 'll run down a side street an' buy half a yard more o' some turrible old shop-worn trait o' character that they've kep' in stock all their lives, an' that everybody's sick to death of. There was a man in Gard'ner—"
But alas! the experiences of the Gardiner man, though told in the same delightful fashion that had won Mrs. Wiley's heart many years before, now fell upon the empty air. In these years of Old Kennebec's "anecdotage," his pipe was his best listener and his truest confidant.
Mr. Wiley's constant intercessions with his wife made Rose's home-coming somewhat easier, and the sight of her own room and belongings soothed her troubled spirit, but the days went on, and nothing happened to change the situation. She had lost a lover, that was all, and there were plenty more to choose from, or there always had been; but the only one she wanted was the one who made no sign. She used to think that she could twist Stephen around her little finger; that she had only to beckon to him and he would follow her to the ends of the earth. Now fear had entered her heart. She no longer felt sure, because she no longer felt worthy, of him, and feeling both uncertainty and unworthiness, her lips were sealed and she was rendered incapable of making any bid for forgiveness.
So the little world of Pleasant River went on, to all outward seeming, as it had ever gone. On one side of the stream a girl's heart was longing, and pining, and sickening, with hope deferred, and growing, too, with such astonishing rapidity that the very angels marveled! And on the other, a man's whole vision of life and duty was widening and deepening under the fructifying influence of his sorrow.
The corn waved high and green in front of the vacant riverside cottage, but Stephen sent no word or message to Rose. He had seen her once, but only from a distance. She seemed paler and thinner, he thought,—the result, probably, of her metropolitan gayeties. He heard no rumor of any engagement and he wondered if it were possible that her love for Claude Merrill had not, after all, been returned in kind. This seemed a wild impossibility. His mind refused to entertain the supposition that any man on earth could resist falling in love with Rose, or, having fallen in, that he could ever contrive to climb out. So he worked on at his farm harder than ever, and grew soberer and more careworn daily. Rufus had never seemed so near and dear to him as in these weeks when he had lived under the shadow of threatened blindness. The burning of the barn and the strain upon their slender property brought the brothers together shoulder to shoulder.
"If you lose your girl, Steve," said the boy, "and I lose my eyesight, and we both lose the barn, why, it'll be us two against the world, for a spell!"
The "To Let" sign on the little house was an arrant piece of hypocrisy. Nothing but the direst extremity could have caused him to allow an alien step on that sacred threshold. The ploughing up of the flower-beds and planting of the corn had served a double purpose. It showed the too curious public the finality of his break with Rose and her absolute freedom; it also prevented them from suspecting that he still entered the place. His visits were not many, but he could not bear to let the dust settle on the furniture that he and Rose had chosen together; and whenever he locked the door and went back to the River Farm, he thought of a verse in the Bible: "Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken."
It was now Friday of the last week in August.
The river was full of logs, thousands upon thousands of them covering the surface of the water from the bridge almost up to the Brier Neighborhood. The Edgewood drive was late, owing to a long drought and low water; but it was to begin on the following Monday, and Lije Dennett and his under boss were looking over the situation and planning the campaign. As they leaned over the bridge-rail they saw Mr. Wiley driving clown the river road. When he caught sight of them he hitched the old white horse at the corner and walked toward them, filling his pipe the while in his usual leisurely manner. "We're not busy this forenoon," said Lije Dennett. "S'pose we stand right here and let Old Kennebec have his say out for once. We've never heard the end of one of his stories, an' he's be'n talkin' for twenty years."
"All right," rejoined his companion, with a broad grin at the idea. "I'm willin', if you are; but who's goin' to tell our fam'lies the reason we've deserted 'em? I bate yer we shan't budge till the crack o' doom. The road commissioner'll come along once a year and mend the bridge under our feet, but Old Kennebec'll talk straight on till the day o' jedgment."
Mr. Wiley had one of the most enjoyable mornings of his life, and felt that after half a century of neglect his powers were at last appreciated by his fellow citizens.
He proposed numerous strategic movements to be made upon the logs, whereby they would move more swiftly than usual. He described several successful drives on the Kennebec, when the logs had melted down the river almost by magic, owing to his generalship; and he paid a tribute, in passing, to the docility of the boss, who on that occasion had never moved a single log without asking his advice.
From this topic he proceeded genially to narrate the life-histories of the boss, the under boss, and several Indians belonging to the crew,—histories in which he himself played a gallant and conspicuous part. The conversation then drifted naturally to the exploits of river-drivers in general, and Mr. Wiley narrated the sorts of feats in log-riding, pick-pole-throwing, and the shooting of rapids that he had done in his youth. These stories were such as had seldom been heard by the ear of man; and, as they passed into circulation instantaneously, we are probably enjoying some of them to this day.
They were still being told when a Crambry child appeared on the bridge, bearing a note for the old man. Upon reading it he moved off rapidly in the direction of the store, ejaculating: "Bless my soul! I clean forgot that saleratus, and mother's settin' at the kitchen table with the bowl in her lap, waitin' for it! Got so int'rested in your list'nin' I never thought o' the time."
The connubial discussion that followed this breach of discipline began on the arrival of the saleratus, and lasted through supper; and Rose went to bed almost immediately afterward for very dullness and apathy. Her life stretched out before her in the most aimless and monotonous fashion. She saw nothing but heartache in the future; and that she richly deserved it made it none the easier to bear.
Feeling feverish and sleepless, she slipped on her gray Shaker cloak and stole quietly downstairs for a breath of air. Her grandfather and grandmother were talking on the piazza, and good humor seemed to have been restored. "I was over to the tavern tonight," she heard him say, as she sat down at a little distance. "I was over to the tavern tonight, an' a feller from Gorham got to talkin' an' braggin' 'bout what a stock o' goods they kep' in the store over there. 'An',' says I, 'I bate ye dollars to doughnuts that there hain't a darn thing ye can ask for at Bill Pike's store at Pleasant River that he can't go down cellar, or up attic, or out in the barn chamber an' git for ye.' Well, sir, he took me up, an' I borrered the money of Joe Dennett, who held the stakes, an' we went right over to Bill Pike's with all the boys follerin' on behind. An' the Gorham man never let on what he was going to ask for till the hull crowd of us got inside the store. Then says he, as p'lite as a basket o' chips, 'Mr. Pike, I'd like to buy a pulpit if you can oblige me with one.'
"Bill scratched his head an' I held my breath. Then says he, ''Pears to me I'd ought to hev a pulpit or two, if I can jest remember where I keep 'em. I don't never cal'late to be out o' pulpits, but I'm so plagued for room I can't keep 'em in here with the groc'ries. Jim (that's his new store boy), you jest take a lantern an' run out in the far corner o' the shed, at the end o' the hickory woodpile, an' see how many pulpits we've got in stock!' Well, Jim run out, an' when he come back he says, 'We've got two, Mr. Pike. Shall I bring one of 'em in?'
"At that the boys all bust out laughin' an' hollerin' an' tauntin' the Gorham man, an' he paid up with a good will, I tell ye!"
"I don't approve of bettin'," said Mrs. Wiley grimly, "but I'll try to sanctify the money by usin' it for a new wash-boiler."
"The fact is," explained Old Kennebec, somewhat confused, "that the boys made me spend every cent of it then an' there."
Rose heard her grandmother's caustic reply, and then paid no further attention until her keen ear caught the sound of Stephen's name. It was a part of her unhappiness that since her broken engagement no one would ever allude to him, and she longed to hear him mentioned, so that perchance she could get some inkling of his movements.
"I met Stephen tonight for the first time in a week," said Mr. Wiley. "He kind o' keeps out o' my way lately. He's goin' to drive his span into Portland tomorrow mornin' and bring Rufus home from the hospital Sunday afternoon. The doctors think they've made a success of their job, but Rufus has got to be bandaged up a spell longer. Stephen is goin' to join the drive Monday mornin' at the bridge here, so I'll get the latest news o' the boy. Land! I'll be turrible glad if he gets out with his eyesight, if it's only for Steve's sake. He's a turrible good fellow, Steve is! He said something tonight that made me set more store by him than ever. I told you I hed n't heard an unkind word ag'in' Rose sence she come home from Boston, an' no more I hev till this evenin'. There was two or three fellers talkin' in the post-office, an' they did n't suspicion I was settin' on the steps outside the screen door. That Jim Jenkins, that Rose so everlastin'ly snubbed at the tavern dance, spoke up, an' says he: 'This time last year Rose Wiley could 'a' hed the choice of any man on the river, an' now I bet ye she can't get nary one.'
"Steve was there, jest goin' out the door, with some bags o' coffee an' sugar under his arm.
"'I guess you're mistaken about that,' he says, speakin' up jest like lightnin'; 'so long as Stephen Waterman's alive, Rose Wiley can have him, for one; and that everybody's welcome to know.'
"He spoke right out, loud an' plain, jest as if he was readin' the Declaration of Independence. I expected the boys would everlastin'ly poke fun at him, but they never said a word. I guess his eyes flashed, for he come out the screen door, slammin' it after him, and stalked by me as if he was too worked up to notice anything or anybody. I did n't foller him, for his long legs git over the ground too fast for me, but thinks I, 'Mebbe I'll hev some use for my lemonade-set after all.'"
"I hope to the land you will," responded Mrs. Wiley, "for I'm about sick o' movin' it round when I sweep under my bed. And I shall be glad if Rose an' Stephen do make it up, for Wealthy Ann Brooks's gossip is too much for a Christian woman to stand."
Where was the pale Rose, the faded Rose, that crept noiselessly down from her room, wanting neither to speak nor to be spoken to? Nobody ever knew. She vanished forever, and in her place a thing of sparkles and dimples flashed up the stairway and closed the door softly. There was a streak of moon-shine lying across the bare floor, and a merry ghost, with dressing-gown held prettily away from bare feet, danced a gay fandango among the yellow moonbeams. There were breathless flights to the open window, and kisses thrown in the direction of the River Farm. There were impressive declamations at the looking-glass, where a radiant creature pointed to her reflection and whispered, "Worthless little pig, he loves you, after all!"
Then, when quiet joy had taken the place of mad delight, there was a swoop down upon the floor, an impetuous hiding of brimming eyes in the white counterpane, and a dozen impassioned promises to herself and to something higher than herself, to be a better girl.
The mood lasted, and deepened, and still Rose did not move. Her heart was on its knees before Stephen's faithful love, his chivalry, his strength. Her troubled spirit, like a frail boat tossed about in the rapids, seemed entering a quiet harbor, where there were protecting shores and a still, still evening star. Her sails were all torn and drooping, but the harbor was in sight, and the poor little weather-beaten craft could rest in peace.
A period of grave reflection now ensued, under the bedclothes, where one could think better. Suddenly an inspiration seized her, an inspiration so original, so delicious, and above all so humble and praiseworthy, that it brought her head from her pillow, and she sat bolt upright, clapping her hands like a child.
"The very thing!" she whispered to herself gleefully. "It will take courage, but I'm sure of my ground after what he said before them all, and I'll do it. Grandma in Biddeford buying church carpets, Stephen in Portland—was ever such a chance?"
The same glowing Rose came downstairs, two steps at a time, next morning, bade her grandmother goodbye with suspicious pleasure, and sent her grandfather away on an errand which, with attendant conversation, would consume half the day. Then bundles after bundles and baskets after baskets were packed into the wagon,—behind the seat, beneath the seat, and finally under the lap-robe. She gave a dramatic flourish to the whip, drove across the bridge, went through Pleasant River village, and up the leafy road to the little house, stared the "To Let" sign scornfully in the eye, alighted, and ran like a deer through the aisles of waving corn, past the kitchen windows, to the back door.
"If he has kept the big key in the old place under the stone, where we both used to find it, then he has n't forgotten me—or anything," thought Rose.
The key was there, and Rose lifted it with a sob of gratitude. It was but five minutes' work to carry all the bundles from the wagon to the back steps, and another five to lead old Tom across the road into the woods and tie him to a tree quite out of the sight of any passer-by.
When, after running back, she turned the key in the lock, her heart gave a leap almost of terror, and she started at the sound of her own footfall. Through the open door the sunlight streamed into the dark room. She flew to tables and chairs, and gave a rapid sweep of the hand over their surfaces.
"He has been dusting here,—and within a few days, too," she thought triumphantly.
The kitchen was perfection, as she always knew it would be, with one door opening to the shaded road and the other looking on the river; windows, too, framing the apple-orchard and the elms. She had chosen the furniture, but how differently it looked now that it was actually in place! The tiny shed had piles of split wood, with great boxes of kindlings and shavings, all in readiness for the bride, who would do her own cooking. Who but Stephen would have made the very wood ready for a woman's home-coming; and why had he done so much in May, when they were not to be married until August? Then the door of the bedroom was stealthily opened, and here Rose sat down and cried for joy and shame and hope and fear. The very flowered paper she had refused as too expensive! How lovely it looked with the white chamber set! She brought in her simple wedding outfit of blankets, bed-linen, and counterpanes, and folded them softly in the closet; and then for the rest of the morning she went from room to room, doing all that could remain undiscovered, even to laying a fire in the new kitchen stove.
This was the plan. Stephen must pass the house on his way from the River Farm to the bridge, where he was to join the river-drivers on Monday morning. She would be out of bed by the earliest peep of dawn, put on Stephen's favorite pink calico, leave a note for her grandmother, run like a hare down her side of the river and up Stephen's, steal into the house, open blinds and windows, light the fire, and set the kettle boiling. Then with a sharp knife she would cut down two rows of corn, and thus make a green pathway from the front kitchen steps to the road. Next, the false and insulting "To Let" sign would be forcibly tweaked from the tree and thrown into the grass. She would then lay the table in the kitchen, and make ready the nicest breakfast that two people ever sat down to. And oh, would two people sit down to it; or would one go off in a rage and the other die of grief and disappointment?
Then, having done all, she would wait and palpitate, and palpitate and wait, until Stephen came. Surely no property-owner in the universe could drive along a road, observe his corn leveled to the earth, his sign removed, his house open, and smoke issuing from his chimney, without going in to surprise the rogue and villain who could be guilty of such vandalism.
And when he came in?
Oh, she had all day Sunday in which to forecast, with mingled dread and gladness and suspense, that all-important, all-decisive first moment! All day Sunday to frame and unframe penitent speeches. All day Sunday! Would it ever be Monday? If so, what would Tuesday bring? Would the sun rise happy on Mrs. Stephen Waterman of Pleasant River, or miserable Miss Rose Wiley of the Brier Neighborhood?
XV. The Dream Room
Long ago, when Stephen was a boy of fourteen or fifteen, he had gone with his father to a distant town to spend the night. After an early breakfast next morning his father had driven off for a business interview, and left the boy to walk about during his absence. He wandered aimlessly along a quiet side street, and threw himself down on the grass outside a pretty garden to amuse himself as best he could.
After a few minutes he heard voices, and, turning, peeped through the bars of the gate in idle, boyish curiosity. It was a small brown house; the kitchen door was open, and a table spread with a white cloth was set in the middle of the room. There was a cradle in a far corner, and a man was seated at the table as though he might be waiting for his breakfast.
There is a kind of sentiment about the kitchen in New England, a kind of sentiment not provoked by other rooms. Here the farmer drops in to spend a few minutes when he comes back from the barn or field on an errand. Here, in the great, clean, sweet, comfortable place, the busy housewife lives, sometimes rocking the cradle, sometimes opening and shutting the oven door, sometimes stirring the pot, darning stockings, paring vegetables, or mixing goodies in a yellow bowl. The children sit on the steps, stringing beans, shelling peas, or hulling berries; the cat sleeps on the floor near the wood-box; and the visitor feels exiled if he stays in sitting-room or parlor, for here, where the mother is always busy, is the heart of the farmhouse.
There was an open back door to this kitchen, a door framed in morning-glories, and the woman (or was she only girl?) standing at the stove was pretty,—oh, so pretty in Stephen's eyes! His boyish heart went out to her on the instant. She poured a cup of coffee and walked with it to the table; then an unexpected, interesting thing happened—something the boy ought not to have seen, and never forgot. The man, putting out his hand to take the cup, looked up at the pretty woman with a smile, and she stooped and kissed him.
Stephen was fifteen. As he looked, on the instant he became a man, with a man's hopes, desires, ambitions. He looked eagerly, hungrily, and the scene burned itself on the sensitive plate of his young heart, so that, as he grew older, he could take the picture out in the dark, from time to time, and look at it again. When he first met Rose, he did not know precisely what she was to mean to him; but before long, when he closed his eyes and the old familiar picture swam into his field of vision, behold, by some spiritual chemistry, the pretty woman's face had given place to that of Rose!
All such teasing visions had been sternly banished during this sorrowful summer, and it was a thoughtful, sober Stephen who drove along the road on this mellow August morning. The dust was deep; the goldenrod waved its imperial plumes, making the humble waysides gorgeous; the river chattered and sparkled till it met the logs at the Brier Neighborhood, and then, lapsing into silence, flowed steadily under them till it found a vent for its spirits in the dashing and splashing of the falls.
Haying was over; logging was to begin that day; then harvesting; then wood-cutting; then eternal successions of ploughing, sowing, reaping, haying, logging, harvesting, and so on, to the endless end of his days. Here and there a red or a yellow branch, painted only yesterday, caught his eye and made him shiver. He was not ready for winter; his heart still craved the summer it had missed.
Hello! What was that? Corn-stalks prone on the earth? Sign torn down and lying flat in the grass? Blinds open, fire in the chimney?
He leaped from the wagon, and, flinging the reins to Alcestis Crambry, said, "Stay right here out of sight, and don't you move till I call you!" And striding up the green pathway, he flung open the kitchen door.
A forest of corn waving in the doorway at the back, morning-glories clambering round and round the window-frames, the table with shining white cloth, the kettle humming and steaming, something bubbling in a pan on the stove, the fire throwing out sweet little gleams of welcome through the open damper. All this was taken in with one incredulous, rapturous twinkle of an eye; but something else, too: Rose of all roses, Rose of the river, Rose of the world, standing behind a chair, with her hand pressed against her heart, her lips parted, her breath coming and going! She was glowing like a jewel—glowing with the extraordinary brilliancy that emotion gives to some women. She used to be happy in a gay, sparkling way, like the shallow part of the stream as it chatters over white pebbles and bright sands. Now it was a broad, steady, full happiness like the deeps of the river under the sun.
"Don't speak, Stephen, till you hear what I have to say. It takes a good deal of courage for a girl to do as I am doing; but I want to show how sorry I am, and it's the only way." She was trembling, and the words came faster and faster. "I've been very wrong and foolish, and made you very unhappy, but I have n't done what you would have hated most. I have n't been engaged to Claude Merrill; he has n't so much as asked me. I am here to beg you to forgive me, to eat breakfast with me, to drive me to the minister's and marry me quickly, quickly, before anything happens to prevent us, and then to bring me home here to live all the days of my life. Oh, Stephen dear, honestly, honestly, you have n't lost anything in all this long, miserable summer. I've suffered, too, and I'm better worth loving than I was. Will you take me back?"
Rose had a tremendous power of provoking and holding love, and Stephen of loving. His was too generous a nature for revilings and complaints and reproaches.
The shores of his heart were strewn with the wreckage of the troubled summer, but if the tide of love is high enough, it washes such things out of remembrance. He just opened his arms and took Rose to his heart, faults and all, with joy and gratitude; and she was as happy as a child who has escaped the scolding it richly deserves, and who determines, for very thankfulness' sake, never to be naughty again.
"You don't know what you've done for me, Stephen," she whispered, with her face hidden on his shoulder. "I was just a common little prickly rosebush when you came along like a good gardener and 'grafted in' something better; the something better was your love, Stephen dear, and it's made everything different. The silly Rose you were engaged to long ago has disappeared somewhere; I hope you won't be able to find her under the new leaves."
"She was all I wanted," said Stephen.
"You thought she was," the girl answered, "because you did n't see the prickles, but you'd have felt them some time. The old Rose was a selfish thing, not good enough for you; the new Rose is going to be your wife, and Rufus's sister, and your mother's daughter, all in one."
Then such a breakfast was spread as Stephen, in his sorry years of bachelor existence, had forgotten could exist; but before he broke his fast he ran out to the wagon and served the astonished Alcestis with his wedding refreshments then and there, bidding him drive back to the River Farm and bring him a package that lay in the drawer of his shaving-stand,—a package placed there when hot youth and love and longing had inspired him to hurry on the marriage day.
"There's an envelope, Alcestis," he cried, "a long envelope, way, way back in the corner, and a small box on top of it. Bring them both and my wallet too, and if you find them all and get them to me safely you shall be bridesmaid and groomsman and best man and usher and maid of honor at a wedding, in less than an hour! Off with you! Drive straight and use the whip on Dolly!"
When he re-entered the kitchen, flushed with joy and excitement, Rose put the various good things on the table and he almost tremblingly took his seat, fearing that contact with the solid wood might wake him from this entrancing vision.
"I'd like to put you in your chair like a queen and wait on you," he said with a soft boyish stammer; "but I am too dazed with happiness to be of any use."
"It's my turn to wait upon you, and I—Oh! how I love to have you dazed," Rose answered. "I'll be at the table presently myself; but we have been housekeeping only three minutes, and we have nothing but the tin coffee-pot this morning, so I'll pour the coffee from the stove."
She filled a cup with housewifely care and brought it to Stephen's side. As she set it down and was turning, she caught his look,—a look so full of longing that no loving woman, however busy, could have resisted it; then she stooped and kissed him fondly, fervently.
Stephen put his arm about her, and, drawing her down to his knee, rested his head against her soft shoulder with a sigh of comfort, like that of a tired child. He had waited for it ten years, and at last the dream room had come true.
THE OLD PEABODY PEW
A Christmas Romance of a Country Church
To a certain handful of dear New England women of names unknown to the world, dwelling in a certain quiet village, alike unknown:—
We have worked together to make our little corner of the great universe a pleasanter place in which to live, and so we know, not only one another's names, but something of one another's joys and sorrows, cares and burdens, economies, hopes, and anxieties.
We all remember the dusty uphill road that leads to the green church common. We remember the white spire pointing upward against a background of blue sky and feathery elms. We remember the sound of the bell that falls on the Sabbath morning stillness, calling us across the daisy-sprinkled meadows of June, the golden hayfields of July, or the dazzling whiteness and deep snowdrifts of December days. The little cabinet-organ that plays the Doxology, the hymn-books from which we sing "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," the sweet freshness of the old meeting-house, within and without,—how we have toiled to secure and preserve these humble mercies for ourselves and our children!
There really is a Dorcas Society, as you and I well know, and one not unlike that in these pages; and you and I have lived through many discouraging, laughable, and beautiful experiences while we emulated the Bible Dorcas, that woman "full of good works and alms deeds."
There never was a Peabody Pew in the Tory Hill Meeting-House, and Nancy's love story and Justin's never happened within its century-old walls, but I have imagined only one of the many romances that have had their birth under the shadow of that steeple, did we but realize it.
As you have sat there on open-windowed Sundays, looking across purple clover-fields to blue distant mountains, watching the palm-leaf fans swaying to and fro in the warm stillness before sermon time, did not the place seem full of memories, for has not the life of two villages ebbed and flowed beneath that ancient roof? You heard the hum of droning bees and followed the airy wings of butterflies fluttering over the grave-stones in the old churchyard, and underneath almost every moss-grown tablet some humble romance lies buried and all but forgotten.
If it had not been for you, I should never have written this story, so I give it back to you tied with a sprig from Ophelia's nosegay; a sprig of "rosemary, that's for remembrance."
K. D. W.
I. The Old Peabody Pew
Edgewood, like all the other villages along the banks of the Saco, is full of sunny slopes and leafy hollows. There are little, rounded, green-clad hillocks that might, like their scriptural sisters, "skip with joy"; and there are grand, rocky hills tufted with gaunt pine trees—these leading the eye to the splendid heights of a neighbor State, where snow-crowned peaks tower in the blue distance, sweeping the horizon in a long line of majesty.
Tory Hill holds its own among the others for peaceful beauty and fair prospect, and on its broad, level summit sits the white-painted Orthodox Meeting-House. This faces a grassy common where six roads meet, as if the early settlers had determined that no one should lack salvation because of a difficulty in reaching its visible source.
The old church has had a dignified and fruitful past, dating from that day in 1761 when young Paul Coffin received his call to preach at a stipend of fifty pounds sterling a year; answering "that never having heard of any Uneasiness among the people about his Doctrine or manner of life, he declared himself pleased to Settle as Soon as might be Judged Convenient."
But that was a hundred and fifty years ago, and much has happened since those simple, strenuous old days. The chastening hand of time has been laid somewhat heavily on the town as well as on the church. Some of her sons have marched to the wars and died on the field of honor; some, seeking better fortunes, have gone westward; others, wearying of village life, the rocky soil, and rigors of farm-work, have become entangled in the noise and competition, the rush and strife, of cities. When the sexton rings the bell nowadays, on a Sunday morning, it seems to have lost some of its old-time militant strength, something of its hope and courage; but it still rings, and although the Davids and Solomons, the Matthews, Marks, and Pauls of former congregations have left few descendants to perpetuate their labors, it will go on ringing as long as there is a Tabitha, a Dorcas, a Lois, or a Eunice left in the community.
This sentiment had been maintained for a quarter of a century, but it was now especially strong, as the old Tory Hill Meeting-House had been undergoing for several years more or less extensive repairs. In point of fact, the still stronger word, "improvements," might be used with impunity; though whenever the Dorcas Society, being female, and therefore possessed of notions regarding comfort and beauty, suggested any serious changes, the finance committees, which were inevitably male in their composition, generally disapproved of making any impious alterations in a tabernacle, chapel, temple, or any other building used for purposes of worship. The majority in these august bodies asserted that their ancestors had prayed and sung there for a century and a quarter, and what was good enough for their ancestors was entirely suitable for them. Besides, the community was becoming less and less prosperous, and church-going was growing more and more lamentably uncommon, so that even from a business standpoint, any sums expended upon decoration by a poor and struggling parish would be worse than wasted.
In the particular year under discussion in this story, the valiant and progressive Mrs. Jeremiah Burbank was the president of the Dorcas Society, and she remarked privately and publicly that if her ancestors liked a smoky church, they had a perfect right to the enjoyment of it, but that she did n't intend to sit through meeting on winter Sundays, with her white ostrich feather turning gray and her eyes smarting and watering, for the rest of her natural life.
Whereupon, this being in a business session, she then and there proposed to her already hypnotized constituents ways of earning enough money to build a new chimney on the other side of the church.
An awe-stricken community witnessed this beneficent act of vandalism, and, finding that no thunderbolts of retribution descended from the skies, greatly relished the change. If one or two aged persons complained that they could not sleep as sweetly during sermon-time in the now clear atmosphere of the church, and that the parson's eye was keener than before, why, that was a mere detail, and could not be avoided; what was the loss of a little sleep compared with the discoloration of Mrs. Jere Burbank's white ostrich feather and the smarting of Mrs. Jere Burbank's eyes?
A new furnace followed the new chimney, in due course, and as a sense of comfort grew, there was opportunity to notice the lack of beauty. Twice in sixty years had some well-to-do summer parishioner painted the interior of the church at his own expense; but although the roof had been many times reshingled, it had always persisted in leaking, so that the ceiling and walls were disfigured by unsightly spots and stains and streaks. The question of shingling was tacitly felt to be outside the feminine domain, but as there were five women to one man in the church membership, the feminine domain was frequently obliged to extend its limits into the hitherto unknown. Matters of tarring and waterproofing were discussed in and out of season, and the very school-children imbibed knowledge concerning lapping, over-lapping, and cross-lapping, and first and second quality of cedar shingles. Miss Lobelia Brewster, who had a rooted distrust of anything done by mere man, created strife by remarking that she could have stopped the leak in the belfry tower with her red flannel petticoat better than the Milltown man with his new-fangled rubber sheeting, and that the last shingling could have been more thoroughly done by a "female infant babe"; whereupon the person criticized retorted that he wished Miss Lobelia Brewster had a few infant babes to "put on the job he'd like to see 'em try." Meantime several male members of the congregation, who at one time or another had sat on the roof during the hottest of the dog-days to see that shingling operations were conscientiously and skillfully performed, were very pessimistic as to any satisfactory result ever being achieved.
"The angle of the roof—what they call the 'pitch'—they say that that's always been wrong," announced the secretary of the Dorcas in a business session.
"Is it that kind of pitch that the Bible says you can't touch without being defiled? If not, I vote that we unshingle the roof and alter the pitch!" This proposal came from a sister named Maria Sharp, who had valiantly offered the year before to move the smoky chimney with her own hands, if the "menfolks" would n't.
But though the incendiary suggestion of altering the pitch was received with applause at the moment, subsequent study of the situation proved that such a proceeding was entirely beyond the modest means of the society. Then there arose an ingenious and militant carpenter in a neighboring village, who asserted that he would shingle the meeting-house roof for such and such a sum, and agree to drink every drop of water that would leak in afterward. This was felt by all parties to be a promise attended by extraordinary risks, but it was accepted nevertheless, Miss Lobelia Brewster remarking that the rash carpenter, being already married, could not marry a Dorcas anyway, and even if he died, he was not a resident of Edgewood, and therefore could be more easily spared, and that it would be rather exciting, just for a change, to see a man drink himself to death with rain-water. The expected tragedy never occurred, however, and the inspired shingler fulfilled his promise to the letter, so that before many months the Dorcas Society proceeded, with incredible exertion, to earn more money, and the interior of the church was neatly painted and made as fresh as a rose. With no smoke, no rain, no snow nor melting ice to defile it, the good old landmark that had been pointing its finger Heavenward for over a century would now be clean and fragrant for years to come, and the weary sisters leaned back in their respective rocking-chairs and drew deep breaths of satisfaction.
These breaths continued to be drawn throughout an unusually arduous haying season; until, in fact, a visitor from a neighboring city was heard to remark that the Tory Hill Meeting-House would be one of the best preserved and pleasantest churches in the whole State of Maine, if only it were suitably carpeted.
This thought had secretly occurred to many a Dorcas in her hours of pie-making, preserving, or cradle-rocking, but had been promptly extinguished as flagrantly extravagant and altogether impossible. Now that it had been openly mentioned, the contagion of the idea spread, and in a month every sort of honest machinery for the increase of funds had been set in motion: harvest suppers, pie sociables, old folks' concerts, apron sales, and, as a last resort, a subscription paper, for the church floor measured hundreds of square yards, and the carpet committee announced that a good ingrain could not be purchased, even with the church discount, for less than ninety-seven cents a yard.
The Dorcases took out their pencils, and when they multiplied the surface of the floor by the price of the carpet per yard, each Dorcas attaining a result entirely different from all the others, there was a shriek of dismay, especially from the secretary, who had included in her mathematical operation certain figures in her possession representing the cubical contents of the church and the offending pitch of the roof, thereby obtaining a product that would have dismayed a Croesus. Time sped and efforts increased, but the Dorcases were at length obliged to clip the wings of their desire and content themselves with carpeting the pulpit and pulpit steps, the choir, and the two aisles, leaving the floor in the pews until some future year.
How the women cut and contrived and matched that hardly-bought red ingrain carpet, in the short December afternoons that ensued after its purchase; so that, having failed to be ready for Thanksgiving, it could be finished for the Christmas festivities!
They were sewing in the church, and as the last stitches were being taken, Maria Sharp suddenly ejaculated in her impulsive fashion:—
"Would n't it have been just perfect if we could have had the pews repainted before we laid the new carpet!"
"It would, indeed," the president answered; "but it will take us all winter to pay for the present improvements, without any thought of fresh paint. If only we had a few more men-folks to help along!"
"Or else none at all!" was Lobelia Brewster's suggestion. "It's havin' so few that keeps us all stirred up. If there wa'n't any anywheres, we'd have women deacons and carpenters and painters, and get along first rate; for somehow the supply o' women always holds out, same as it does with caterpillars an' flies an' grasshoppers!"
Everybody laughed, although Maria Sharp asserted that she for one was not willing to be called a caterpillar simply because there were too many women in the universe.
"I never noticed before how shabby and scarred and dirty the pews are," said the minister's wife, as she looked at them reflectively.
"I've been thinking all the afternoon of the story about the poor old woman and the lily," and Nancy Wentworth's clear voice broke into the discussion. "Do you remember some one gave her a stalk of Easter lilies and she set them in a glass pitcher on the kitchen table? After looking at them for a few minutes, she got up from her chair and washed the pitcher until the glass shone. Sitting down again, she glanced at the little window. It would never do; she had forgotten how dusty and blurred it was, and she took her cloth and burnished the panes. Then she scoured the table, then the floor, then blackened the stove before she sat down to her knitting. And of course the lily had done it all, just by showing, in its whiteness, how grimy everything else was."
The minister's wife, who had been in Edgewood only a few months, looked admiringly at Nancy's bright face, wondering that five-and-thirty years of life, including ten of school-teaching, had done so little to mar its serenity.
"The lily story is as true as the gospel!" she exclaimed, "and I can see how one thing has led you to another in making the church comfortable. But my husband says that two coats of paint on the pews would cost a considerable sum."
"How about cleaning them? I don't believe they've had a good hard washing since the flood." The suggestion came from Deacon Miller's wife to the president.
"They can't even be scrubbed for less than fifteen or twenty dollars, for I thought of that and asked Mrs. Simpson yesterday, and she said twenty cents a pew was the cheapest she could do it for."
"We've done everything else," said Nancy Wentworth, with a twitch of her thread; "why don't we scrub the pews? There's nothing in the Orthodox creed to forbid, is there?"
"Speakin' o' creeds," and here old Mrs. Sargent paused in her work, "Elder Ransom from Acreville stopped with us last night, an' he tells me they recite the Euthanasian Creed every few Sundays in the Episcopal Church. I did n't want him to know how ignorant I was, but I looked up the word in the dictionary. It means easy death, and I can't see any sense in that, though it's a terrible long creed, the Elder says, an' if it's any longer 'n ourn, I should think anybody might easy die learnin' it!"
"I think the word is Athanasian," ventured the minister's wife.
"Elder Ransom's always plumb full o' doctrine," asserted Miss Brewster, pursuing the subject. "For my part, I'm glad he preferred Acreville to our place. He was so busy bein' a minister, he never got round to bein' a human creeter. When he used to come to sociables and picnics, always lookin' kind o' like the potato blight, I used to think how complete he'd be if he had a foldin' pulpit under his coat-tails; they make foldin' beds nowadays, an' I s'pose they could make foldin' pulpits, if there was a call."
"Land sakes, I hope there won't be!" exclaimed Mrs. Sargent. "An' the Elder never said much of anything either, though he was always preachin'! Now your husband, Mis' Baxter, always has plenty to say after you think he's all through. There's water in his well when the others is all dry!"
"But how about the pews?" interrupted Mrs. Burbank. "I think Nancy's idea is splendid, and I want to see it carried out. We might make it a picnic, bring our luncheons, and work all together; let every woman in the congregation come and scrub her own pew."
"Some are too old, others live at too great a distance," and the minister's wife sighed a little; "indeed, most of those who once owned the pews or sat in them seem to be dead, or gone away to live in busier places."
"I've no patience with 'em, gallivantin' over the earth," and here Lobelia rose and shook the carpet threads from her lap. "I should n't want to live in a livelier place than Edgewood, seem's though! We wash and hang out Mondays, iron Tuesdays, cook Wednesdays, clean house and mend Thursdays and Fridays, bake Saturdays, and go to meetin' Sundays. I don't hardly see how they can do any more'n that in Chicago!"
"Never mind if we have lost members!" said the indomitable Mrs. Burbank. "The members we still have left must work all the harder. We'll each clean our own pew, then take a few of our neighbors', and then hire Mrs. Simpson to do the wainscoting and floor. Can we scrub Friday and lay the carpet Saturday? My husband and Deacon Miller can help us at the end of the week. All in favor manifest it by the usual sign. Contrary-minded? It is a vote."
There never were any contrary-minded when Mrs. Jere Burbank was in the chair. Public sentiment in Edgewood was swayed by the Dorcas Society, but Mrs. Burbank swayed the Dorcases themselves as the wind sways the wheat.
II. The old meeting-house wore an animated aspect when the eventful Friday came, a cold, brilliant, sparkling December day, with good sleighing, and with energy in every breath that swept over the dazzling snowfields. The sexton had built a fire in the furnace on the way to his morning work—a fire so economically contrived that it would last exactly the four or five necessary hours, and not a second more. At eleven o'clock all the pillars of the society had assembled, having finished their own household work and laid out on their respective kitchen tables comfortable luncheons for the men of the family, if they were fortunate enough to number any among their luxuries. Water was heated upon oil-stoves set about here and there, and there was a brave array of scrubbing-brushes, cloths, soap, and even sand and soda, for it had been decided and manifested-by-the-usual-sign-and-no-contrary- minded-and-it-was—a-vote that the dirt was to come off, whether the paint came with it or not. Each of the fifteen women present selected a block of seats, preferably one in which her own was situated, and all fell busily to work.
"There is nobody here to clean the right-wing pews," said Nancy Wentworth, "so I will take those for my share."
"You're not making a very wise choice, Nancy," and the minister's wife smiled as she spoke. "The infant class of the Sunday-School sits there, you know, and I expect the paint has had extra wear and tear. Families don't seem to occupy those pews regularly nowadays."
"I can remember when every seat in the whole church was filled, wings an' all," mused Mrs. Sargent, wringing out her washcloth in a reminiscent mood. "The one in front o' you, Nancy, was always called the 'deef pew' in the old times, and all the folks that was hard o' hearin' used to congregate there."
"The next pew has n't been occupied since I came here," said the minister's wife.
"No," answered Mrs. Sargent, glad of any opportunity to retail neighborhood news. "'Squire Bean's folks have moved to Portland to be with the married daughter. Somebody has to stay with her, and her husband won't. The 'Squire ain't a strong man, and he's most too old to go to meetin' now. The youngest son just died in New York, so I hear."
"What ailed him?" inquired Maria Sharp.
"I guess he was completely wore out takin' care of his health," returned Mrs. Sargent. "He had a splendid constitution from a boy, but he was always afraid it would n't last him. The seat back o' 'Squire Bean's is the old Peabody pew—ain't that the Peabody pew you're scrubbin', Nancy?"
"I believe so," Nancy answered, never pausing in her labors. "It's so long since anybody sat there, it's hard to remember."
"It is the Peabodys', I know it, because the aisle runs right up facin' it. I can see old Deacon Peabody settin' in this end same as if 't was yesterday."
"He had died before Jere and I came back here to live," said Mrs. Burbank. "The first I remember, Justin Peabody sat in the end seat; the sister that died, next, and in the corner, against the wall, Mrs. Peabody, with a crape shawl and a palmleaf fan. They were a handsome family. You used to sit with them sometimes, Nancy; Esther was great friends with you."
"Yes, she was," Nancy replied, lifting the tattered cushion from its place and brushing it; "and I with her. What is the use of scrubbing and carpeting, when there are only twenty pew-cushions and six hassocks in the whole church, and most of them ragged? How can I ever mend this?"
"I should n't trouble myself to darn other people's cushions!" This unchristian sentiment came in Mrs. Miller's ringing tones from the rear of the church.
"I don't know why," argued Maria Sharp. "I'm going to mend my Aunt Achsa's cushion, and we haven't spoken for years; but hers is the next pew to mine, and I'm going to have my part of the church look decent, even if she is too stingy to do her share. Besides, there are n't any Peabodys left to do their own darning, and Nancy was friends with Esther."
"Yes, it's nothing more than right," Nancy replied, with a note of relief in her voice, "considering Esther."
"Though he don't belong to the scrubbin' sex, there is one Peabody alive, as you know, if you stop to think, Maria; for Justin's alive, and livin' out West somewheres. At least, he's as much alive as ever he was; he was as good as dead when he was twenty-one, but his mother was always too soft-hearted to bury him."
There was considerable laughter over this sally of the outspoken Mrs. Sargent, whose keen wit was the delight of the neighborhood.
"I know he's alive and doing business in Detroit, for I got his address a week or ten days ago, and wrote, asking him if he'd like to give a couple of dollars toward repairing the old church."
Everybody looked at Mrs. Burbank with interest.
"Has n't he answered?" asked Maria Sharp. Nancy Wentworth held her breath, turned her face to the wall, and silently wiped the paint of the wainscoting. The blood that had rushed into her cheeks at Mrs. Sargent's jeering reference to Justin Peabody still lingered there for any one who ran to read, but fortunately nobody ran; they were too busy scrubbing.
"Not yet. Folks don't hurry about answering when you ask them for a contribution," replied the president, with a cynicism common to persons who collect funds for charitable purposes. "George Wickham sent me twenty-five cents from Denver. When I wrote him a receipt, I said thank you same as Aunt Polly did when the neighbors brought her a piece of beef: 'Ever so much obleeged, but don't forget me when you come to kill a pig.'—Now, Mrs. Baxter, you shan't clean James Bruce's pew, or what was his before he turned Second Advent. I'll do that myself, for he used to be in my Sunday-School class."
"He's the backbone o' that congregation now," asserted Mrs. Sargent, "and they say he's goin' to marry Mrs. Sam Peters, who sings in their choir, as soon as his year is up. They make a perfect fool of him in that church."
"You can't make a fool of a man that nature ain't begun with," argued Miss Brewster. "Jim Bruce never was very strong-minded, but I declare it seems to me that when men lose their wives, they lose their wits! I was sure Jim would marry Hannah Thompson that keeps house for him. I suspected she was lookin' out for a life job when she hired out with him."
"Hannah Thompson may keep Jim's house, but she'll never keep Jim, that's certain!" affirmed the president; "and I can't see that Mrs. Peters will better herself much."
"I don't blame her, for one!" came in no uncertain tones from the left-wing pews, and the Widow Buzzell rose from her knees and approached the group by the pulpit. "If there's anything duller than cookin' three meals a day for yourself, and settin' down and eatin' 'em by yourself, and then gettin' up and clearin' 'em away after yourself, I'd like to know it! I should n't want any good-lookin', pleasant-spoken man to offer himself to me without he expected to be snapped up, that's all! But if you've made out to get one husband in York County, you can thank the Lord and not expect any more favors. I used to think Tom was poor comp'ny and complain I could n't have any conversation with him, but land, I could talk at him, and there's considerable comfort in that. And I could pick up after him! Now every room in my house is clean, and every closet and bureau drawer, too; I can't start drawin' in another rug, for I've got all the rugs I can step foot on. I dried so many apples last year I shan't need to cut up any this season. My jelly and preserves ain't out, and there I am; and there most of us are, in this village, without a man to take steps for and trot 'round after! There's just three husbands among the fifteen women scrubbin' here now, and the rest of us is all old maids and widders. No wonder the men-folks die, or move away, like Justin Peabody; a place with such a mess o' women-folks ain't healthy to live in, whatever Lobelia Brewster may say."
III. Justin Peabody had once faithfully struggled with the practical difficulties of life in Edgewood, or so he had thought, in those old days of which Nancy Wentworth was thinking when she wiped the paint of the Peabody pew. Work in the mills did not attract him; he had no capital to invest in a stock of goods for store-keeping; school-teaching offered him only a pittance; there remained then only the farm, if he were to stay at home and keep his mother company.
"Justin don't seem to take no holt of things," said the neighbors.
"Good Heavens!" It seemed to him that there were no things to take hold of! That was his first thought; later he grew to think that the trouble all lay in himself, and both thoughts bred weakness.
The farm had somehow supported the family in the old Deacon's time, but Justin seemed unable to coax a competence from the soil. He could, and did, rise early and work late; till the earth, sow crops; but he could not make the rain fall nor the sun shine at the times he needed them, and the elements, however much they might seem to favor his neighbors, seldom smiled on his enterprises. The crows liked Justin's corn better than any other in Edgewood. It had a richness peculiar to itself, a quality that appealed to the most jaded palate, so that it was really worth while to fly over a mile of intervening fields and pay it the delicate compliment of preference.
Justin could explain the attitude of caterpillars, worms, grasshoppers, and potato-bugs toward him only by assuming that he attracted them as the magnet in the toy boxes attracts the miniature fishes.
"Land o' liberty! look at 'em congregate!" ejaculated Jabe Slocum, when he was called in for consultation. "Now if you'd gone in for breedin' insecks, you could be as proud as Cuffy an' exhibit 'em at the County Fair! They'd give yer prizes for size an' numbers an' speed, I guess! Why, say, they're real crowded for room—the plants ain't give 'em enough leaves to roost on! Have you tried 'Bug Death'?"
"It acts like a tonic on them," said Justin gloomily.
"Sho! you don't say so! Now mine can't abide the sight nor smell of it. What 'bout Paris green?"
"They thrive on it; it's as good as an appetizer."
"Well," said Jabe Slocum, revolving the quid of tobacco in his mouth reflectively, "the bug that ain't got no objection to p'ison is a bug that's got ways o' thinkin' an' feelin' an' reasonin' that I ain't able to cope with! P'r'aps it's all a leadin' o' Providence. Mebbe it shows you'd ought to quit farmin' crops an' take to raisin' live stock!"
Justin did just that, as a matter of fact, a year or two later; but stock that has within itself the power of being "live" has also rare qualification for being dead when occasion suits, and it generally did suit Justin's stock. It proved prone not only to all the general diseases that cattle-flesh is heir to, but was capable even of suicide. At least, it is true that two valuable Jersey calves, tied to stakes on the hillside, had flung themselves violently down the bank and strangled themselves with their own ropes in a manner which seemed to show that they found no pleasure in existence, at all events on the Peabody farm.
These were some of the little tragedies that had sickened young Justin Peabody with life in Edgewood, and Nancy Wentworth, even then, realized some of them and sympathized without speaking, in a girl's poor, helpless way.
Mrs. Simpson had washed the floor in the right wing of the church and Nancy had cleaned all the paint. Now she sat in the old Peabody pew darning the forlorn, faded cushion with gray carpet-thread; thread as gray as her own life.
The scrubbing-party had moved to its labors in a far corner of the church, and two of the women were beginning preparations for the basket luncheons. Nancy's needle was no busier than her memory. Long years ago she had often sat in the Peabody pew, sometimes at first as a girl of sixteen when asked by Esther, and then, on coming home from school at eighteen, "finished," she had been invited now and again by Mrs. Peabody herself, on those Sundays when her own invalid mother had not attended service.
Those were wonderful Sundays—Sundays of quiet, trembling peace and maiden joy.
Justin sat beside her, and she had been sure then, but had long since grown to doubt the evidence of her senses, that he, too, vibrated with pleasure at the nearness. Was there not a summer morning when his hand touched her white lace mitt as they held the hymn-book together, and the lines of the
Rise, my soul, and stretch thy wings, Thy better portion trace,
became blurred on the page and melted into something indistinguishable for a full minute or two afterward? Were there not looks, and looks, and looks? Or had she some misleading trick of vision in those days? Justin's dark, handsome profile rose before her: the level brows and fine lashes; the well-cut nose and lovable mouth—the Peabody mouth and chin, somewhat too sweet and pliant for strength, perhaps. Then the eyes turned to hers in the old way, just for a fleeting glance, as they had so often done at prayer-meeting, or sociable, or Sunday service. Was it not a man's heart she had seen in them? And oh, if she could only be sure that her own woman's heart had not looked out from hers, drawn from its maiden shelter in spite of all her wish to keep it hidden!
Then followed two dreary years of indecision and suspense, when Justin's eyes met hers less freely; when his looks were always gloomy and anxious; when affairs at the Peabody farm grew worse and worse; when his mother followed her husband, the old Deacon, and her daughter Esther to the burying-ground in the churchyard. Then the end of all things came, the end of the world for Nancy: Justin's departure for the West in a very frenzy of discouragement over the narrowness and limitation and injustice of his lot; over the rockiness and barrenness and unkindness of the New England soil; over the general bitterness of fate and the "bludgeonings of chance."
He was a failure, born of a family of failures. If the world owed him a living, he had yet to find the method by which it could be earned. All this he thought and uttered, and much more of the same sort. In these days of humbled pride self was paramount, though it was a self he despised. There was no time for love. Who was he for a girl to lean upon?—he who could not stand erect himself!
He bade a stiff goodbye to his neighbors, and to Nancy he vouchsafed little more. A handshake, with no thrill of love in it such as might have furnished her palm, at least, some memories to dwell upon; a few stilted words of leave-taking; a halting, meaningless sentence or two about his "botch" of life—then he walked away from the Wentworth doorstep. But halfway down the garden path, where the shriveled hollyhocks stood like sentinels, did a wave of something different sweep over him—a wave of the boyish, irresponsible past when his heart had wings and could fly without fear to its mate—a wave of the past that was rushing through Nancy's mind, wellnigh burying her in its bitter-sweet waters. For he lifted his head, and suddenly retracing his steps, he came toward her, and, taking her hand again, said forlornly: "You 'll see me back when my luck turns, Nancy."
Nancy knew that the words might mean little or much, according to the manner in which they were uttered, but to her hurt pride and sore, shamed woman-instinct, they were a promise, simply because there was a choking sound in Justin's voice and tears in Justin's eyes. "You 'll see me back when my luck turns, Nancy"; this was the phrase upon which she had lived for more than ten years. Nancy had once heard the old parson say, ages ago, that the whole purpose of life was the growth of the soul; that we eat, sleep, clothe ourselves, work, love, all to give the soul another day, month, year, in which to develop. She used to wonder if her soul could be growing in the monotonous round of her dull duties and her duller pleasures. She did not confess it even to herself; nevertheless she knew that she worked, ate, slept, to live until Justin's luck turned. Her love had lain in her heart a bird without a song, year after year. Her mother had dwelt by her side and never guessed; her father, too; and both were dead. The neighbors also, lynx-eyed and curious, had never suspected. If she had suffered, no one in Edgewood was any the wiser, for the maiden heart is not commonly worn on the sleeve in New England. If she had been openly pledged to Justin Peabody, she could have waited twice ten years with a decent show of self-respect, for long engagements were viewed rather as a matter of course in that neighborhood. The endless months had gone on since that gray November day when Justin had said goodbye. It had been just before Thanksgiving, and she went to church with an aching and ungrateful heart. The parson read from the eighth chapter of St. Matthew, a most unexpected selection for that holiday. "If you can't find anything else to be thankful for," he cried, "go home and be thankful you are not a leper!"
Nancy took the drastic counsel away from the church with her, and it was many a year before she could manage to add to this slender store anything to increase her gratitude for mercies given, though all the time she was outwardly busy, cheerful, and helpful.