Mercy was impatient to go at once to see their new home; but she could not induce her mother to leave the house.
"O Mercy!" she exclaimed pathetically, "ef yer knew what a comfort 't was to me jest to set still in a chair once more. It seems like heaven, arter them pesky joltin' cars. I ain't in no hurry to see the house. It can't run away, I reckon; and we're sure of it, ain't we? There ain't any thing that's got to be done, is there?" she asked nervously.
"Oh, no, mother. It is all sure. We have leased the house for one year; and we can't move in until our furniture comes, of course. But I do long to see what the place is like, don't you?" replied Mercy, pleadingly.
"No, no, child. Time enough when we move in. 'T ain't going to make any odds what it's like. We're goin' to live in it, anyhow. You jest go by yourself, ef you want to so much, an' let me set right here. It don't seem to me 's I'll ever want to git out o' this chair." At last, very unwillingly, late in the afternoon, Mercy went, leaving her mother alone in the hotel.
Without asking a question of anybody, she turned resolutely to the north.
"Even if our house is not on this street," she said to herself, "I am going to see those lovely woods;" and she walked swiftly up the hill, with her eyes fixed on the glowing dome of scarlet and yellow leaves which crowned it. The trees were in their full autumnal splendor: maples, crimson, scarlet, and yellow; chestnuts, pale green and yellow; beeches, shining golden brown; and sumacs in fiery spikes, brighter than all the rest. There were also tall pines here and there in the grove, and their green furnished a fine dark background for the gay colors. Mercy had often read of the glories of autumn in New England's thickly wooded regions; but she had never dreamed that it could be so beautiful as this. Rows of young maples lined the street which led up to this wooded hill. Each tree seemed a full sheaf of glittering color; and yet the path below was strewn thick with fallen leaves no less bright. Mercy walked lingeringly, each moment stopping to pick up some new leaf which seemed brighter than all the rest. In a very short time, her hands were too full; and in despair, like an over-laden child, she began to scatter them along the way. She was so absorbed in her delight in the leaves that she hardly looked at the houses on either hand, except to note with an unconscious satisfaction that they were growing fewer and farther apart, and that every thing looked more like country and less like town than it had done in the neighborhood of the hotel.
Presently she came to a stretch of stone wall, partly broken down, in front of an old orchard whose trees were gnarled and moss-grown. Blackberry-vines had flung themselves over this wall, in and out among the stones. The leaves of these vines were almost as brilliant as the leaves of the maple-trees. They were of all shades of red, up to the deepest claret; they were of light green, shading into yellow, and curiously mottled with tiny points of red; all these shades and colors sometimes being seen upon one long runner. The effect of these wreaths and tangles of color upon the old, gray stones was so fine that Mercy stood still and involuntarily exclaimed aloud. Then she picked a few of the most beautiful vines, and, climbing up on the wall, sat down to arrange them with the maple-leaves she had already gathered. She made a most picturesque picture as she sat there, in her severe black gown and quaint little black bonnet, on the stone wall, surrounded by the bright vines and leaves; her lap full of them, the ground at her feet strewed with them, her little black-gloved hands deftly arranging and rearranging them. She looked as if she might be a nun, who had run away from her cloister, and coming for the first time in her life upon gay gauds of color, in strange fabrics, had sat herself down instantly to weave and work with them, unaware that she was on a highway.
This was the picture that Stephen White saw, as he came slowly up the road on his way home after an unusually wearying day. He slackened his pace, and, perceiving how entirely unconscious Mercy was of his approach, deliberately studied her, feature, dress, attitude,—all, as scrutinizingly as if she had been painted on canvas and hanging on a wall.
"Upon my word," he said to himself, "she isn't bad-looking, after all. I'm not sure that she isn't pretty. If she hadn't that inconceivable bonnet on her head,—yes, she is very pretty. Her mouth is bewitching. I declare, I believe she is beautiful," were Stephen's successive verdicts, as he drew nearer and nearer to Mercy. Mercy was thinking of him at that very moment,—was thinking of him with a return of the annoyance and mortification which had stung her at intervals all day, whenever she recalled their interview of the previous evening. Mercy combined, in a very singular manner, some of the traits of an impulsive nature with those of an unimpulsive one. She did things, said things, and felt things with the instantaneous intensity of the poetic temperament; but she was quite capable of looking at them afterward, and weighing them with the cool and unbiassed judgment of the most phlegmatic realist. Hence she often had most uncomfortable seasons, in which one side of her nature took the other side to task, scorned it and berated it severely; holding up its actions to its remorseful view, as an elder sister might chide a younger one, who was incorrigibly perverse and wayward.
"It was about as silly a thing as you ever did in your life. He must have thought you a perfect fool to have supposed he had come down to meet you," she was saying to herself at the very moment when the sound of Stephen's footsteps first reached her ear, and caused her to look up. The sight of his face at that particular moment was so startling and so unpleasant to her that it deprived her of all self-possession. She gave a low cry, her face was flooded with crimson, and she sprang from the wall so hastily that her leaves and vines flew in every direction.
"I am very sorry I frightened you so, Mrs. Philbrick," said Stephen, quite unconscious of the true source of her confusion. "I was just on the point of speaking, when you heard me. I ought to have spoken before, but you made so charming a picture sitting there among the leaves and vines that I could not resist looking at you a little longer."
Mercy Philbrick hated a compliment. This was partly the result of the secluded life she had led; partly an instinctive antagonism in her straightforward nature to any thing which could be even suspected of not being true. The few direct compliments she had received had been from men whom she neither respected nor trusted. These words, coming from Stephen White, just at this moment, were most offensive to her.
Her face flushed still deeper red, and saying curtly,—"You frightened me very much, Mr. White; but it is not of the least consequence," she turned to walk back to the village. Stephen unconsciously stretched out his hand to detain her.
"But, Mrs. Philbrick," he said eagerly, "pray tell me what you think of the house. Do you think you can be contented in it?"
"I have not seen it," replied Mercy, in the same curt tone, still moving on.
"Not seen it!" exclaimed Stephen, in a tone which was of such intense astonishment that it effectually roused Mercy's attention. "Not seen it! Why, did you not know you were on your own stone wall? There is the house;" and Mercy, following the gesture of his hand, saw, not more than twenty rods beyond the spot where she had been sitting, a shabby, faded, yellow wooden house, standing in a yard which looked almost as neglected as the orchard, from which it was only in part separated by a tumbling stone wall.
Mercy did not speak. Stephen watched her face in silence for a moment; then he laughed constrainedly, and said,—
"Don't be afraid, Mrs. Philbrick, to say outright that it is the dismallest old barn you ever saw. That's just what I had said about it hundreds of times, and wondered how anybody could possibly live in it. But necessity drove us into it, and I suppose necessity has brought you to it, too," added Stephen, sadly.
Mercy did not speak. Very deliberately her eyes scanned the building. An expression of scorn slowly gathered on her face.
"It is not so forlorn inside as it is out," said Stephen. "Some of the rooms are quite pleasant. The south rooms in your part of the house are very cheerful."
Mercy did not speak. Stephen went on, beginning to be half-angry with this little, unknown woman from Cape Cod, who looked with the contemptuous glance of a princess upon the house in which he and his mother dwelt,—
"You are quite at liberty to throw up your lease, Mrs. Philbrick, if you choose. It was, perhaps, hardly fair to have let you hire the house without seeing it."
Mercy started. "I beg your pardon, Mr. White. I should not think of such a thing as giving up the lease. I am very sorry you saw how ugly I think the house. I do think it is the very ugliest house I ever saw," she continued, speaking with emphatic deliberation; "but, then, I have not seen many houses. In our village at home, all the houses are low and broad and comfortable-looking. They look as if they had sat down and leaned back to take their ease; and they are all neat and clean-looking, and have rows of flower-beds from the gate to the front door. I never saw a house built with such a steep angle to its roof as this has," said Mercy, looking up with the instinctive dislike of a natural artist's eye at the ridgepole of the old house.
"We have to have our roofs at a sharp pitch, to let the snow slide off in winter," said Stephen, apologetically, "we have such heavy snows here; but that doesn't make the angle any less ugly to look at."
"No," said Mercy; and her eyes still roved up and down and over the house, with not a shadow of relenting in their expression. It was Stephen's turn to be silent now. He watched her, but did not speak.
Mercy's face was not merely a record of her thoughts: it was a photograph of them. As plainly as on a written page held in his hand, Stephen White read the successive phases of thought and struggle which passed through Mercy's mind for the next five minutes; and he was not in the least surprised when, turning suddenly towards him with a very sweet smile, she said in a resolute tone,—
"There! that's done with. I hope you will forgive my rudeness, Mr. White; but the truth is I was awfully shocked at the first sight of the house. It isn't your house, you know, so it isn't quite so bad for me to say so; and I'm so glad you hate it as much as I do. Now I am never going to think about it again,—never."
"Why, can you help it, Mrs. Philbrick?" asked Stephen, in a wondering tone. "I can't. I hate it more and more, I verily believe, each time I come home; and I think that, if my mother weren't in it, I should burn it down some night."
Mercy looked at him with a certain shade of the same contempt with which she had looked at the house; and Stephen winced, as she said coolly,—
"Why, of course I can help it. I should be very much ashamed of myself if I couldn't. I never allow myself to be distressed by things which I can't help,—at least, that sort of thing," added Mercy, her face clouding with the sudden recollection of a grief that she had not been able to rise above. "Of course, I don't mean real troubles, like grief about any one you love. One can't wholly conquer such troubles as that; but one can do a great deal more even with these than people usually suppose. I am not sure that it is right to let ourselves be unhappy about any thing, even the worst of troubles. But I must hurry home now. It is growing late."
"Mrs. Philbrick," exclaimed Stephen, earnestly: "please come into the house, and speak to my mother a moment. You don't know how she has been looking forward to your coming."
"Oh, no, I cannot possibly do that," replied Mercy. "There is no reason why I should call on your mother, merely because we are going to live in the same house."
"But I assure you," persisted Stephen, "that it will give her the greatest pleasure. She is a helpless cripple, and never leaves her bed. She has probably been watching us from the window. She always watches for me. She will wonder if I do not bring you in to see her. Please come," he said with a tone which it was impossible to resist; and Mercy went.
Mrs. White had indeed been watching them from the window; but Stephen had reckoned without his host, or rather without his hostess, when he assured Mercy that his mother would be so glad to see her. The wisest and the tenderest of men are continually making blunders in their relations with women; especially if they are so unfortunate as to occupy in any sense a position involving a relation to two women at once. The relation may be ever so rightful and honest to each woman; the women may be good women, and in their right places; but the man will find himself perpetually getting into most unexpected hot water, as many a man could testify pathetically, if he were called upon.
Mrs. White had been watching her son through the whole of his conversation with Mercy. She could see only dimly at such a distance; but she had discerned that it was a woman with whom he stood talking so long. It was nearly half an hour past supper-time, and supper was Mrs. White's one festivity in the course of the day. Their breakfast and their mid-day dinner were too hurried meals for enjoyment, because Stephen was obliged to make haste to the office; but with supper there was nothing to interfere. Stephen's work for the day was done: he took great pains to tell her at this time every thing which he had seen or heard which could give her the least amusement. She looked forward all through her long lonely days to the evenings, as a child looks forward to Saturday afternoons. Like all invalids whose life has been forced into grooves, she was impatient and unreasonable when anybody or any thing interfered with her routine. A five minutes' delay was to her a serious annoyance, and demanded an accurate explanation. Stephen so thoroughly understood this exactingness on her part that he adjusted his life to it, as a conscientious school-boy adjusts his to bells and signals, and never trespassed knowingly. If he had dreamed that it was past tea-time, on this unlucky night, he would never have thought of asking Mercy to go in and see his mother. But he did not; and it was with a bright and eager face that he threw open the door, and said in the most cordial tone,—
"Mother, I have brought Mrs. Philbrick to see you."
"How do you do, Mrs. Philbrick?" was the rejoinder, in a tone and with a look so chilling that poor Mercy's heart sank within her. She had all along had an ideal in her own mind of the invalid old lady, Mr. White's mother, to whom she was to be very good, and who was to be her mother's companion. She pictured her as her own mother would be, a good deal older and feebler, in a gentle, receptive, patient old age. Of so repellent, aggressive, unlovely an old woman as this she had had no conception. It would be hard to do justice in words to Mrs. White's capacity to be disagreeable when she chose. She had gray eyes, which, though they had a very deceptive trick of suffusing with tears as of great sensibility on occasion, were capable of resting upon a person with a positively unhuman coldness; her voice also had at these times a distinctly unhuman quality in its tones. She had apparently no conception of any necessity of controlling her feelings, or the expression of them. If she were pleased, if all things went precisely as she liked, if all persons ministered to her pleasure, well and good,—she would be graciously pleased to smile, and be good-humored. If she were displeased, if her preferences were not consulted, if her plans were interfered with, woe betide the first person who entered her presence; and still more woe betide the person who was responsible for her annoyance.
As soon as Stephen's eyes fell on her face, on this occasion, he felt with a sense of almost terror that he had made a fatal mistake, and he knew instantly that it must be much later than he had supposed; but he plunged bravely in, like a man taking a header into a pool he fears he may drown in, and began to give a voluble account of how he had found Mrs. Philbrick sitting on their stone wall, so absorbed in looking at the bright leaves that she had not even seen the house. He ran on in this strain for some minutes, hoping that his mother's mood might soften, but in vain. She listened with the same stony, unresponsive look on her face, never taking the stony, unresponsive eyes from his face; and, as soon as he stopped speaking, she said in an equally stony voice,—
"Mrs. Philbrick, will you be so good as to take off your bonnet and take tea with us? It is already long past our tea-hour!"
Mercy sprang to her feet, and said impulsively, "Oh, no, I thank you. I did not dream that it was so late. My mother will be anxious about me. I must go. I am very sorry I came in. Good-evening."
"Good-evening, Mrs. Philbrick," in the same slow and stony syllables, came from Mrs. White's lips, and she turned her head away immediately.
Stephen, with his face crimson with mortification, followed Mercy to the door. In a low voice, he said, "I hope you will be able to make allowances for my mother's manner. It is all my fault. I know that she can never bear to have me late at meals, and I ought never to allow myself to forget the hour. It is all my fault"
Mercy's indignation at her reception was too great for her sense of courtesy.
"I don't think it was your fault at all, Mr. White," she exclaimed. "Good-night," and she was out of sight before Stephen could think of a word to say.
Very slowly he walked back into the sitting-room. He had seldom been so angry with his mother; but his countenance betrayed no sign of it, and he took his seat opposite her in silence. Silence, absolute, unconquerable silence, was the armor which Stephen White wore. It was like those invisible networks of fine chains worn next the skin, in which many men in the olden time passed unscathed through years of battles, and won the reputation of having charmed lives. No one suspected the secret. To the ordinary beholder, the man seemed accoutred in the ordinary fashion of soldiers; but, whenever a bullet struck him, it glanced off harmlessly as if turned back by a spell. It was so with Stephen White's silence: in ordinary intercourse, he was social genial; he talked more than average men talk; he took or seemed to take, more interest than men usually take in the common small talk of average people; but the instant there was a manifestation of anger, of discord of any thing unpleasant, he entrenched himself in silence. This was especially the case when he was reproached or aroused by his mother. It was often more provoking to her than any amount of retort or recrimination could have been. She had in her nature a certain sort of slow ugliness which delighted in dwelling upon a small offence, in asking irritating questions about it, in reiterating its details; all the while making it out a matter of personal unkindness or indifference to her that it should have happened. When she was in these moods, Stephen's silence sometimes provoked her past endurance.
"Can't you speak, Stephen?" she would exclaim.
"What would be the use, mother?" he would say sadly. "If you do not know that the great aim of my life is to make you happy, it is of no use for me to keep on saying it. If it would make you any happier to keep on discussing and discussing this question indefinitely, I would endure even that; but it would not."
To do Mrs. White justice, she was generally ashamed of these ebullitions of unreasonable ill-temper, and endeavored to atone for them afterward by being more than ordinarily affectionate and loving in her manner towards Stephen. But her shame was short-lived, and never made her any the less unreasonable or exacting when the next occasion occurred; so that, although Stephen received her affectionate epithets and caresses with filial responsiveness, he was never in the slightest degree deluded by them. He took them for what they were worth, and held himself no whit freer from constraint, no whit less ready for the next storm. By the very fact of the greater fineness of his organization, this tyrannical woman held him chained. His submission to her would have seemed abject, if it had not been based on a sentiment and grounded in a loyalty which compelled respect. He had accepted this burden as the one great duty of his life; and, whatever became of him, whatever became of his life, the burden should be carried. This helpless woman, who stood to him in the relation of mother, should be made happy. From the moment of his father's death, he had assumed this obligation as a sacrament; and, if it lasted his life out, he would never dream of evading or lessening it. In this fine fibre of loyalty, Stephen White and Mercy Philbrick were alike: though it was in him more an exalted sentiment; in her, simply an organic necessity. In him, it would always have been in danger of taking morbid shapes and phases; of being over-ridden and distorted at any time by selfishness or wickedness in its object, as it had been by his selfish mother. In Mercy, it was on a higher and healthier plane. Without being a shade less loyal, she would be far clearer-sighted; would render, but not surrender; would give a lifetime of service, but not a moment of subjection. There was a shade of something feminine in Stephen's loyalty, of something perhaps masculine in Mercy's; but Mercy's was the best, the truest.
"I wouldn't allow my mother to treat a stranger like that," she thought indignantly, as she walked away after Mrs. White's inhospitable invitation to tea. "I wouldn't allow her. I would make her see the shamefulness of it. What a weak man Mr. White must be!"
Yet if Mercy could have looked into the room she had just left, and have seen Stephen listening with a face unmoved, save for a certain compression of the mouth, and a look of patient endurance in the eyes, to a torrent of ill-nature from his mother, she would have recognized that he had strength, however much she might have undervalued its type.
"I should really think that you might have more consideration, Stephen, than to be so late to tea, when you know it is all I have to look forward to, all day long. You stood a good half hour talking with that woman, Did you not know how late it was?"
"No, mother. If I had, I should have come in."
"I suppose you had your watch on, hadn't you?"
"Well, I'd like to know what excuse there is for a man's not knowing what time it is, when he has a watch in his pocket? And then you must needs bring her in here, of all things,—when you know I hate to see people near my meal-times, and you must have known it was near supper-time. At any rate, watch or no watch, I suppose you didn't think you'd started to come home in the middle of the afternoon, did you? And what did you want her to come in for, anyhow? I'd like to know that. Answer me, will you?"
"Simply because I thought that it would give you pleasure to see some one, mother. You often complain of being so lonely, of no one's coming in," replied Stephen, in a tone which was pathetic, almost shrill, from its effort to be patient and calm.
"I wish, if you can't speak in your own voice, you wouldn't speak at all," said the angry woman. "What makes you change your voice so?"
Stephen made no reply. He knew very well this strange tone which sometimes came into his voice, when his patience was tried almost beyond endurance. He would have liked to avoid it; he was instinctively conscious that it often betrayed to other people what he suffered. But it was beyond his control: it seemed as if all the organs of speech involuntarily clenched themselves, as the hand unconsciously clenches itself when a man is enraged.
Mrs. White persisted. "Your voice, when you're angry, 's enough to drive anybody wild. I never heard any thing like it. And I'm sure I don't see what you have to be angry at now. I should think I was the one to be angry. You're all I've got in the world, Stephen; and you know what a life I lead. It isn't as if I could go about, like other women; then I shouldn't care where you spent your time, if you didn't want to spend it with me." And tears, partly of ill-temper, partly of real grief, rolled down the hard, unlovely, old face.
This was only one evening. There are three hundred and sixty-five in a year. Was not the burden too heavy for mortal man to carry?
Mercy said nothing to her mother of Mrs. White's rudeness. She merely mentioned the fact of her having met Mr. White near the house, and having gone with him, at his request, to speak to his mother.
"What's she like, Mercy?" asked Mrs. Carr, eagerly. "Is she goin' to be company for me?"
"I could not tell, mother," replied Mercy, indifferently; "for it was just their tea-hour, and I did not stay a minute,—only just to say, How d'ye do, and Good-evening. But Mr. White says she is very lonely; people don't go to see her much: so I should think she would be very glad of somebody her own age in the house, to come and sit with her. She looks very ill, poor soul. She hasn't been out of her bed, except when she was lifted, for eight years."
"Dear me! dear me!" exclaimed Mrs. Carr. "Oh, I hope I'll never be that way. What'u'd you ever do child, if I'd get to be like that?"
"No danger, mother dear, of your ever being like Mrs. White," said Mercy, with an incautious emphasis, which, however, escaped Mrs. Carr's recognition.
"Why, how can you be so sure I mightn't ever get into jest so bad a way, child? There's none of us can say what diseases we're likely to hev or not to hev. Now there's never been a case o' lung trouble in our family afore mine, not 's fur back 's anybody kin trace it out; 'n' there's been two cancers to my own knowledge; 'n' I allus hed a most awful dread o' gettin' a cancer. There ain't no death like thet. There wuz my mother's half-sister, Keziah,—she that married Elder Swift for her second husband. She died o' cancer; an' her oldest boy by her first husband he hed it in his face awful. But he held on ter life 's ef he couldn't say die, nohow; and I tell yer, Mercy, it wuz a sight nobody'd ever forget, to see him goin' round the street with one side o' his face all bound up, and his well eye a rolling round, a-doin' the work o' two. He got so he couldn't see at all out o' either eye afore he died, 'n' you could hear his screeches way to our house. There wouldn't no laudalum stop the pain a mite."
"Oh, mother! don't! don't!" exclaimed Mercy. "It is too dreadful to talk about. I can't bear to think that any human being has ever suffered so. Please don't ever speak of cancers again."
Mrs. Carr looked puzzled and a little vexed, as she answered, "Well, I reckon they've got to be talked about a good deal, fust and last, 's long 's there's so many dies on 'em. But I don't know 's you 'n' I've got any call to dwell on 'em much. You've got dreadful quick feelin's, Mercy, ain't you? You allus was orful feelin' for everybody when you wuz little, 'n' I don't see 's you've outgrowed it a bit. But I expect it's thet makes you sech friends with folks, an' makes you such a good gal to your poor old mother. Kiss me, child," and Mrs. Carr lifted up her face to be kissed, as a child lifts up its face to its mother. She did this many times a day; and, whenever Mercy bent down to kiss her, she put her hands on the old woman's shoulders, and said, "Dear little mother!" in a tone which made her mother's heart warm with happiness.
It is a very beautiful thing to see just this sort of relation between an aged parent and a child, the exact reversal of the bond, and the bond so absolutely fulfilled. It seems to give a new and deeper sense to the word "filial," and a new and deeper significance to the joy of motherhood or fatherhood. Alas, that so few sons and daughters are capable of it! so few helpless old people know the blessedness of it! No little child six years old ever rested more entirely and confidingly in the love and kindness and shelter and direction of its mother than did Mrs. Carr in the love and kindness and shelter and direction of her daughter Mercy. It had begun to be so, while Mercy was yet a little girl. Before she was fifteen years old, she felt a responsibility for her mother's happiness, a watchfulness over her mother's health, and even a care of her mother's clothes. With each year, the sense of these responsibilities grew deeper; and after her marriage, as she was denied the blessing of children, all the deep maternal instincts of her strong nature flowed back and centred anew around this comparatively helpless, aged child whom she called mother, and treated with never-failing respect.
When Mrs. Carr first saw the house they were to live in, she exclaimed,—
"O Lor', Mercy! Is thet the house?" Then, stepping back a few steps, shoving her spectacles high on her nose, and with her head well thrown back, she took a survey of the building in silence. Then she turned slowly around, and, facing Mercy, said in a droll, dry way, not uncommon with her,—
"'Bijah Jenkins's barn!"
Mercy laughed outright.
"So it is, mother. I hadn't thought of it. It looks just like that old barn of Deacon Jenkins's."
"Yes," said Mrs. Carr. "That's it, exzackly. Well, I never thought o' offerin' to hire a barn to live in afore, but I s'pose 't'll do till we can look about. Mebbe we can do better."
"But we've taken it for a year, mother," said Mercy, a little dismayed.
"Oh, hev we? Well, well, I daresay it's comfortable enough; so the sun shines in mornin's, thet's the most I care for. You'll make any kind o' house pooty to look at inside, an' I reckon we needn't roost on the fences outside, a-lookin' at it, any more'n we choose to. It does look, for all the world though, like 'Bijah Jenkins's old yaller barn; 'n' thet there jog's jest the way he jined on his cow-shed. I declare it's too redicklus." And the old lady laughed till she had to wipe her spectacles.
"It could be made very pretty, I think," said Mercy, "for all it is so hideous now. I know just what I'd do to it, if it were mine. I'd throw out a big bay window in that corner where the jog is, and another on the middle of the north side, and then run a piazza across the west side, and carry the platform round both the bay windows. I saw a picture of a house in a book Mr. Allen had, which looked very much as this would look then. Oh, but I'd like to do it!" Mercy's imagination was so fired with the picture she had made to herself of the house thus altered and improved, that she could not easily relinquish it.
"But, Mercy, you don't know the lay o' the rooms, child. You don' 'no' where that ere jog comes. Your bay window mightn't come so's't would be of any use. Yer wouldn't build one jest to look at, would you?" said her mother.
"I'm not so sure I wouldn't, if I had plenty of money," replied Mercy, laughing. "But I have no idea of building bay windows on other people's houses. I was only amusing myself by planning it. I'd rather have that house, old and horrid as it is, than any house in the town. I like the situation so much, and the woods are so beautiful. Perhaps I'll earn a lot of money some day, and buy the place, and make it just as we like it."
"You earn money, child!" said Mrs. Carr, in a tone of unqualified wonder. "How could you earn money, I'd like to know?"
"Oh, make bonnets or gowns, dear little mother, or teach school," said Mercy, coloring. "Mr. Allen said I was quite well enough fitted to teach our school at home, if I liked."
"But, Mercy, child, you'd never go to do any such thing's thet, would yer now?" said her mother, piteously. "Don't ye hev all ye want, Mercy? Ain't there money enough for our clothes? I'm sure I don't need much; an' I could do with a good deal less, if there was any thing you wanted, dear. Your father he 'd never rest in his grave, ef he thought his little Mercy was a havin' to arn money for her livin'. You didn't mean it, child, did yer? Say yer didn't mean it, Mercy," and tears stood in the poor old woman's eyes.
It is strange what a tenacious pride there was in the hearts of our old sea-faring men of a half century ago. They had the same feeling that kings and emperors might have in regard to their wives and daughters, that it was a disgrace for them to be obliged to earn money. It would be an interesting thing to analyze this sentiment, to trace it to its roots: it was so universal among successful sea-faring men that it must have had its origin in some trait distinctively peculiar to their profession. All the other women in the town or the village might eke out the family incomes by whatever devices they pleased; but the captains' wives were to be ladies. They were to wear silk gowns brought from many a land; they were to have ornaments of quaint fashion, picked up here and there; they were to have money enough in the bank to live on in quiet comfort during the intervals when the husbands sailed away to make more. So strong was this feeling that it crystallized into a traditionary custom of life, which even poverty finds it hard to overcome. You shall find to-day, in any one of the seaport cities or towns of New England, widows and daughters of sea-captains, living, or rather seeming to live, upon the most beggarly incomes, but still keeping up a certain pathetic sham of appearance of being at ease. If they are really face to face with probable starvation, they may go to some charitable institution where fine needlework is given out, and earn a few dollars in that way. But they will fetch and carry their work by night, and no neighbor will ever by any chance surprise them with it in their hands. Most beautifully is this surreptitious sewing done; there is no work in this country like it. The tiny stitches bear the very aroma of sad and lonely leisure in them; a certain fine pride, too, as if the poverty-constrained lady would in no wise condescend to depart from her own standard in the matter of a single loop or stitch, no matter to what plebeian uses the garment might come after it should leave her hands.
Mercy's deep blush when she replied to her mother's astonished inquiry, how she could possibly earn any money, sprung from her consciousness of a secret,—a secret so harmless in itself, that she was ashamed of having any feeling of guilt in keeping it a secret; and yet, her fine and fastidious honesty so hated even the semblance of concealment, that the mere withholding of a fact, simply because she disliked to mention it, seemed to her akin to a denial of it. If there is such a thing in a human being as organic honesty,—an honesty which makes a lie not difficult, but impossible, just as it is impossible for men to walk on ceilings like flies, or to breathe in water like fishes,—Mercy Philbrick had it. The least approach to an equivocation was abhorrent to her: not that she reasoned about it, and submitting it to her conscience found it wicked, and therefore hateful; but that she disliked it instinctively,—as instinctively as she disliked pain. Her moral nerves shrank from it, just as nerves of the body shrink from suffering; and she recoiled from the suggestion of such a thing with the same involuntary quickness with which we put up the hand to ward off a falling blow, or drop the eyelid to protect an endangered eye. Physicians tell us that there are in men and women such enormous differences in this matter of sensitiveness to physical pain that one person may die of a pain which would be comparatively slight to another; and this is a fact which has to be taken very carefully into account, in all dealing with disease in people of the greatest capacity for suffering. May there not be equally great differences in souls, in the matter of sensitiveness to moral hurt?—differences for which the soul is not responsible, any more than the body is responsible for its skin's having been made thin or thick. Will-power has nothing whatever to do with determining the latter conditions. Let us be careful how far we take it to task for failing to control the others. Perhaps we shall learn, in some other stage of existence, that there is in this world a great deal of moral color blindness, congenital, incurable; and that God has much more pity than we suppose for poor things who have stumbled a good many times while they were groping in darkness.
People who see clearly themselves are almost always intolerant of those who do not. We often see this ludicrously exemplified, even in the trivial matter of near-sightedness. We are almost always a little vexed, when we point out a distant object to a friend, and hear him reply,—
"No, I do not see it at all. I am near-sighted."
"What! can't you see that far?" is the frequent retort, and in the pity is a dash of impatience.
There is a great deal of intolerance in the world, which is closely akin to this; and not a whit more reasonable or righteous, though it makes great pretensions to being both. Mercy Philbrick was full of such intolerance, on this one point of honesty. She was intolerant not only to others, she was intolerant to herself. She had seasons of fierce and hopeless debating with herself, on the most trivial matters, or what would seem so to nine hundred and ninety-nine persons out of a thousand. During such seasons as these, her treatment of her friends and acquaintances had odd alternations of frank friendliness and reticent coolness. A sudden misgiving whether she might not be appearing to like her friend more than she really did would seize her at most inopportune moments, and make her absent-minded and irresponsive. She would leave sentences abruptly unfinished,—invitations, perhaps, or the acceptances of invitations, the mere words of which spring readily to one's lips, and are thoughtlessly spoken. But, in Mercy's times of conflict with herself, even these were exaggerated in her view to monstrous deceits. She had again and again held long conversations with Mr. Allen on this subject, but he failed to help her. He was a good man, of average conscientiousness and average perception: he literally could not see many of the points which Mercy's keener analysis ferreted out, and sharpened into weapons for her own pain. He thought her simply morbid.
"Now, child," he would say,—for, although he was only a few years Mercy's senior, he had taught her like a child for three years,—"now, child, leave off worrying yourself by these fancies. There is not the least danger of your ever being any thing but truthful. Nature and grace are both too strong in you. There is no lie in saying to a person who has come to see you in your own house, 'I am glad to see you,' for you are glad; and, if not, you can make yourself glad, when you think how much pleasure you can give the person by talking with him. You are glad, always, to give pleasure to any human being, are you not?"
"Yes," Mercy would reply unhesitatingly.
"Very well. To the person who comes to see you, you give pleasure: therefore, you are glad to see him."
"But, Mr. Allen," would persist poor Mercy, "that is not what the person thinks I mean. Very often some one comes to see me, who bores me so that I can hardly keep awake. He would not be pleased if he knew that all my cordial welcome really meant was,—'I'm glad to see you, because I'm a benevolent person, and am willing to make my fellow-creatures happy at any sacrifice, even at the frightful one of entertaining such a bore as you are!' He would never come near me again, if he knew I thought that; and yet, if I do think so, and make him think I do not, is not that the biggest sort of a lie? Why, Mr. Allen, many a time when I have seen tiresome or disagreeable people coming to our house, I have run away and hid myself, so as not to be found; not in the least because I could not bear the being bored by them, but because I could not bear the thought of the lies I should speak, or at least act, if I saw them."
"The interpretation a visitor chooses to put upon our kind cordiality of manner to him is his own affair, not ours, Mercy. It is a Christian duty to be cordial and kindly of manner to every human being: any thing less gives pain, repels people from us, and hinders our being able to do them good. There is no more doubt of this than of any other first principle of Christian conduct; and I am very sorry that these morbid notions have taken such hold of you. If you yield to them, you will make yourself soon disliked and feared, and give a great deal of needless pain to your neighbors."
It was hard for Mr. Allen to be severe with Mercy, for he loved her as if she were his younger sister; but he honestly thought her to be in great danger of falling into a chronic morbidness on this subject, and he believed that stern words were most likely to convince her of her mistake. It was a sort of battle, however,—this battle which Mercy was forced to fight,—in which no human being can help another, unless he has first been through the same battle himself. All that Mr. Allen said seemed to Mercy specious and, to a certain extent, trivial: it failed to influence her, simply because it did not so much as recognize the point where her difficulty lay.
"If Mr. Allen tries till he dies, he will never convinc me that it is not deceiving people to make them think you're glad to see them when you're not," Mercy said to herself often, as, with flushed cheeks and tears in her eyes, she walked home after these conversations. "He may make me think that it is right to deceive them rather than to make them unhappy. It almost seems as if it must be; yet, if we once admitted that, where should we ever stop? It seems to me that would be a very dangerous doctrine. A lie's a lie, let whoever will call it fine names, and pass it off as a Christian duty The Bible does not say, 'Thou shalt not lie, except when it is necessary to lie, to avoid hurting thy neighbor's feelings,' It says, 'Thou shalt not lie.' Oh, what a horrible word 'lie' is! It stings like a short, sharp stroke with a lash." And Mercy would turn away from the thought with a shudder, and resolutely force hersef to think of something else. Sometimes she would escape from the perplexity for weeks: chance would so favor her, that no opportunity for what she felt to be deceit would occur; but, in these intervals of relief, her tortured conscience seemed only to renew its voices, and spring upon her all the more fiercely on the next occasion. The effect, of all these indecisive conflicts upon Mercy's character had not been good. They had left her morally bruised, and therefore abnormally sensitive to the least touch. She was in danger of becoming either a fanatic for truth, or indifferent to it. Paradoxcal as it may seem, she was in almost as much danger of the one as of the other. But always, when our hurts are fast healing without help, the help comes. It is probable that there is to-day on the earth a cure, either in herb or stone or spring, for every ill which men's bodies can know. Ignorance and accident may hinder us long from them, but sooner or later the race shall come to possess them all. So with souls. There is the ready truth, the living voice, the warm hand, or the final experience, waiting for each soul's need. We do not die till we have found them. There were yet to enter into Mercy Philbrick's life a new light and a new force, by the help of which she would see clearly and stand firm.
The secret which she had now for nearly a year kept from her mother was a very harmless one. To people of the world, it would appear so trivial a thing, that the conscience which could feel itself wounded by reticence on such a point would seem hardly worth a sneer. Mr. Allen, who had been Mercy's teacher for three years, had early seen in her a strong poetic impulse, and had fostered and stimulated it by every means in his power. He believed that in the exercise of this talent she would find the best possible help for her loneliness and comfort for her sorrow. He recognized clearly that, to so exceptional a nature as Mercy's, a certain amount of isolation was inevitable, all through her life, however fortunate she might be in entering into new and wider relations. The loneliness of intense individuality is the loneliest loneliness in the world,—a loneliness which crowds only aggravate, and which even the closest and happiest companionship can only in part cure. The creative faculty is the most inalienable and uncontrollable of individualities. It is at once its own reward and its own penalty: until it has conquered the freedom of its own city, in which it must for ever dwell, more or less apart, it is only a prisoner in the cities of others. All this Mr. Allen felt for Mercy, recognized in Mercy. He felt and recognized it by the instinct of love, rather than by any intellectual perception. Intellectually, he was, in spite of his superior culture, far Mercy's inferior. He had been brave enough and manly enough to recognize this, and also to recognize what it took still more manliness to recognize,—that she could never love a man of his temperament. It would have been very easy for him to love Mercy. He was not a man of a passionate nature; but he felt himself strangely stirred whenever he looked into her sensitive, orchid-like face. He felt in every fibre of him that to have the whole love of such a woman would be bewildering joy; yet never for one moment did he allow himself to think of seeking it. "I might make her think she loved me, perhaps," he said to himself. "She is so lonely and sad, and has seen so few men; but it would be base. She needs a nature totally different from mine, a life unlike the life I shall lead. I will never try to make her love me. And he never did. He taught her and trained her, and developed her, patiently, exactingly, and yet tenderly as if she had been his sister; but he never betrayed to her, even by a look or tone, that he could have loved her as his wife. No doubt his influence was greater over her for this subtle, unacknowledged bond. It gave to their intercourse a certain strange mixture of reticence and familiarity, which grew more and more perilous and significant month by month. Probably a change must have come, had they lived thus closely together a year or two longer. The change could have been in but one direction. They loved each other too much to ever love less: they might have loved more; and Mercy's life had been more peaceful, her heart had known a truer content, if she had never felt any stronger emotion than that which Harley Allen's love would have roused in her bosom. But his resolution was inexorable. His instinct was too keen, his will too strong: he compelled all his home-seeking, wife-loving thoughts to turn away from Mercy; and, six months after her departure, he had loyally and lovingly promised to be the husband of another. In Mercy's future he felt an intense interest; he would never cease to watch over her, if she would let him; he would guide, mould, and direct her, until the time came—he knew it would come—when she had outgrown his help, and ascended to a plane where he could no longer guide her. His greatest fear was lest, from her overflowing vitality and keen sensuous delight in all the surface activities and pleasures of life, the intellectual side of her nature should be kept in the background and not properly nourished. He had compelled her to study, to think, to write. Who would do this for her in the new home? He knew enough of Stephen White's nature to fear that he, while he might be an appreciative friend, would not be a stimulating one. He was too dreamy and pleasure-loving himself to be a spur to others. A vague wonder, almost like a presentiment, haunted his thoughts continually as to the nature of the relation which would exist between Stephen and Mercy. One day he wrote a long letter to Stephen, telling him all about Mercy,—her history; her peculiarities, mental and moral; her great need of mental training; her wonderful natural gifts. He closed his letter in these words:—
"There is the making of a glorious woman and, I think, a true poet in this girl; but whether she ever makes either will depend entirely upon the hands she falls into. She has a capacity for involuntary adaptation of herself to any surroundings, and for an unconscious and indomitable loyalty to the every-day needs of every-day life, which rarely go with the poetic temperament. She would contentedly make bread and do nothing else, till the day of her death, if that seemed to be the nearest and most demanded duty. She would be heartily faithful and joyous every day, in intercourse with only common and uncultivated people, if fate sets her among them. She seems to me sometimes to be more literally a child of God, in the true and complete sense of the word 'child,' than any one I ever knew. She takes every thing which comes to her just as a happy and good little child takes every thing that is given to him, and is pleased with all; yet she is not at all a religious person. I am often distressed by her lack of impulse to worship. I think she has no strong sense of a personal God; yet her conscience is in many ways morbidly sensitive. She is a most interesting and absorbing person,—one entirely unique in my experience. Living with her, as you will, it will be impossible for you not to influence her strongly, one way or the other; and I want to enlist your help to carry on the work I have begun. She owes it to herself and to the world not to let her mind be inactive. I am very much mistaken if she has not within her the power to write poems, which shall take place among the work that lasts."
Mr. Allen read this letter over several times, and then, with a gesture of impatience, tore the sheets down the middle, and threw them into the fire, exclaiming,—
"Pshaw! as if there were any use in sending a man a portrait of a woman he is to see every day. If Stephen is the person to amount to any thing in her life, he will recognize her. If he is not, all my descriptions of her will be thrown away. It is best to let things take their own course."
After some deliberation, he decided to take a step, which he would never have taken, had Mercy not been going away from his influence,—a step which he had again and again said to himself he would hot risk, lest the effect might be to hinder her intellectual growth. He sent two of her poems to a friend of his, who was the editor of one of the leading magazines in the country. The welcome they met exceeded even his anticipations. By the very next mail, he received a note from his friend, enclosing a check, which to Harley Allen's inexperience of such matters seemed disproportionately large. "Your little Cape Cod girl is a wonder, indeed," wrote the editor. "If she can keep on writing such verse as this, she will make a name for herself. Send us some more: we'll pay her well for it."
Mr. Allen was perplexed. He had not once thought of the verses being paid for. He had thought that to see her poems in print might give Mercy a new incentive to work, might rouse in her an ambition, which would in part take the place of the stimulus which his teachings had given her. He very much disliked to tell her what he had done, and to give to her the money she had unwittingly earned. He feared that she would resent it; he feared that she would be too elated by it; he feared a dozen different things in as many minutes, as he sat turning the check over and over in his hands. But his fears were all unfounded. Mercy had too genuine an artistic nature to be elated, too much simplicity to be offended. Her first emotion was one of incredulity; her second, of unaffected and humble wonder that any verses of hers should have been so well spoken of; and her next, of childlike glee at the possibility of her earning any money. She had not a trace of the false pride which had crystallized in her mother's nature into such a barrier against the idea of a paid industry.
"O Mr. Allen!" she exclaimed, "is it really possible? Do you think the verses were really worth it? Are you quite sure the editor did not send the money because the verses were written by a friend of yours?"
Harley Allen laughed.
"Editors are not at all likely, Mercy," he said, "to pay any more for things than the things are worth. I think you will some day laugh heartily, as you look back upon the misgivings with which you received the first money earned by your pen. If you will only work faithfully and painstakingly, you can do work which will be much better paid than this."
Mercy's eyes flashed.
"Oh! oh! Then I can have books and pictures, and take journeys," she said in a tone of such ecstasy that Mr. Allen was surprised.
"Why, Mercy," he replied, "I did not know you were such a discontented girl. Have you always longed for all these things?"
"I'm not discontented, Mr. Allen," answered Mercy, a little proudly. "I never had a discontented moment in my life. I'm not so silly. I have never yet seen the day which did not seem to me brimful and running over with joys and delights; that is, except when I was for a little while bowed down by a grief nobody could bear up under," she added, with a sudden drooping of every feature in her expressive face, as she recalled the one sharp grief of her life. "I don't see why a distinct longing for all sorts of beautiful things need be in the least inconsistent with absolute content. In fact, I know it isn't; for I have both."
Mr. Allen was not enough of an idealist to understand this. He looked puzzled, and Mercy went on,—
"Why, Mr. Allen, I should like to have our home perfectly beautiful, just like the most beautiful houses I have read about in books. I should like to have the walls hung full of pictures, and the rooms filled full of books; and I should like to have great greenhouses full of all the rare and exquisite flowers of the whole world. I'd like one house like the house you told me of, full of all the orchids, and another full of only palms and ferns. I should like to wear always the costliest of silks, very plain and never of bright colors, but heavy and soft and shining; and laces that were like fleecy clouds when they are just scattering. I should like to be perfectly beautiful, and to have perfectly beautiful people around me. But all this doesn't make me one bit less contented. I care just as much for my few little, old books, and my two or three pictures, and our beds of sweet-williams and pinks. They all give me such pleasure that I'm just glad I'm alive every minute.—What are you thinking of, Mr. Allen!" exclaimed Mercy, breaking off and coloring scarlet, as she became suddenly aware that her pastor was gazing at her with a scrutinizing look she had never seen on his face before.
"Of your future life, Mercy,—of your future life. I am wondering what it will be, and if the dear Lord will carry you safe through all the temptations which the world must offer to one so sensitive as you are to all its beauties," replied Mr. Allen, sadly. Mercy was displeased. She was always intolerant of this class of references to the Lord. Her sense of honesty took alarm at them. In a curt and half-petulant tone, she answered,—
"I suppose ministers have to say such things, Mr. Allen; but I wish you wouldn't say them to me. I do not think that the Lord made the beautiful things in this world for temptations; and I believe he expects us to keep ourselves out of mischief, and not throw the responsibility on to him!"
"Oh, Mercy, Mercy! don't say such things! They sound irreverent: they shock me!" exclaimed Mr. Allen, deeply pained by Mercy's tone and words.
"I am very sorry to shock you, Mr. Allen," replied Mercy, in a gentler tone. "Pray forgive me. I do not think, however, there is half as much real irreverence in saying that the Lord expects us to look out for ourselves and keep out of mischief as there is in teaching that he made a whole world full of people so weak and miserable that they couldn't look after themselves, and had to be lifted along all the time."
Mr. Allen shook his head, and sighed. When Mercy was in this frame of mind, it was of no use to argue with her. He returned to the subject of her poetry.
"If you will keep on reading and studying, Mercy, and will compel yourself to write and rewrite carefully, there is no reason why you should not have a genuine success as a writer, and put yourself in a position to earn money enough to buy a great many comforts and pleasures for yourself, and your mother also," he said.
At the mention of her mother, Mercy started, and exclaimed irrelevantly,—
"Dear me! I never once thought of mother."
Mr. Allen looked, as well he might, mystified. "Never once thought of her! What do you mean, Mercy?"
"Why, I mean I never once thought about telling her about the money. She wouldn't like it."
"Why not? I should think she would not only like the money, but be very proud of your being able to earn it in such a way."
"Perhaps that might make a difference," said Mercy, reflectively: "it would seem quite different to her from taking in sewing, I suppose."
"Well, I should think so," laughed Mr. Allen. "Very different, indeed."
"But it's earning money, working for money, all the same," continued Mercy; "and you haven't the least idea how mother feels about that. Father must have been full of queer notions. She got it all from him. But I can't see that there is any difference between a woman's taking money for what she can do, and a man's taking money for what he can do. I can do sewing, and you can preach; and of the two, if people must go without one or the other, they could do without sermons better than without clothes,—eh, Mr. Allen?" and Mercy laughed mischievously. "But once when I told mother I believed I would turn dressmaker for the town, I knew I could earn ever so much money, besides doing a philanthropy in getting some decent gowns into the community, she was so horrified and unhappy at the bare idea that I never have forgotten it. It is just so with ever so many women here. They would rather half-starve than do any thing to earn money. For my part, I think it is nonsense."
"Certainly, Mercy,—certainly it is," replied Mr. Allen, anxious lest this new barrier should come between Mercy and her work. "It is only a prejudice. And you need never let your mother know any thing about it. She is so old and feeble it would not be worth while to worry her."
Mercy's eyes grew dark and stern as she fixed them on Mr. Allen. "I wonder I believe any thing you say, Mr. Allen. How many things do you keep back from me, or state differently from what they are, to save my feelings? or to adapt the truth to my feebleness, which is not like the feebleness of old age, to be sure, but is feebleness in comparison with your knowledge and strength? I hate, hate, hate, your theories about deceiving people. I shall certainly tell my mother, if I keep on writing, and am paid for it," she said impetuously.
"Very well. Of course, if you think it wrong to leave her in ignorance about it, you must tell her. I myself see no reason for your mentioning the fact, unless you choose to. You are a mature and independent woman: she is old and childish. The relation between you is really reversed. You are the mother, and she the child. Suppose she had become a writer when you were a little girl: would it have been her duty to tell you of it?" replied Mr. Allen.
"I don't care! I shall tell her! I never have kept the least thing from her yet, and I don't believe I ever will," said Mercy. "You'll never make me think it's right, Mr. Allen. What a good Jesuit you'd have made, wouldn't you?"
Mr. Allen colored. "Oh, child, how unjust you are!" he exclaimed. "But it must be all my stupid way of putting things. One of these days, you'll see it all differently."
And she did. Firm as were her resolutions to tell her mother every thing, she could not find courage to tell her about the verses and the price paid for them. Again and again she had approached the subject, and had been frightened back,—sometimes by her own unconquerable dislike to speaking of her poetry; sometimes, as in the instance above, by an outbreak on her mother's part of indignation at the bare suggestion of her earning money. After that conversation, Mercy resolved within herself to postpone the day of the revelation, until there should be more to tell and more to show.
"If ever I have a hundred dollars, I'll tell her then," she thought. "So much money as that would make it seem better to her. And I will have a good many verses by that time to read to her." And so the secret grew bigger and heavier, and yet Mercy grew more used to carrying it, until she herself began to doubt whether Mr. Allen were not right, after all; and if it would not be a pity to trouble the feeble old heart with a needless perplexity and pain.
When Stephen White saw his new tenants' first preparations for moving into his house, he was conscious of a strangely mingled feeling, half irritation, and half delight. Four weeks had passed since the unlucky evening on which he had taken Mercy to his mother's room, and he had not seen her face again. He had called at the hotel twice, but had found only Mrs. Carr at home. Mercy had sent a messenger with only a verbal message, when she wished the key of the house.
She had an undefined feeling that she would not come into any relation with Stephen White, if it could be avoided. She was heartily glad that she had not been in the house when he called. And yet, had she been in the habit of watching her own mental states, she would have discovered that Stephen White was very much in her thoughts; that she had come to wondering why she never met him in her walks; and, what was still more significant, to mistaking other men for him, at a distance. This is one of the oddest tricks of a brain preoccupied with the image of one human being. One would think that it would make the eye clearer-sighted, well-nigh infallible, in the recognition of the loved form. Not at all. Waiting for her lover to appear, a woman will stand wearily watching at a window, and think fifty times in sixty minutes that she sees him coming. Tall men, short men, dark men, light men; men with Spanish cloaks, and men in surtouts,—all wear, at a little distance, a tantalizing likeness to the one whom they in no wise resemble.
After such a watching as this, the very eye becomes disordered, as after looking at a bright color it sees a spectrum of a totally different tint; and, when the long looked-for person appears, he himself looks unnatural at first, and strange. How well many women know this curious fact in love's optics! I doubt if men ever watch long enough, and longingly enough, for a woman's coming, to be so familiar with the phenomenon. Stephen White, however, had more than once during these four weeks quickened his pace to overtake some slender figure clad in black, never doubting that it was Mercy Philbrick, until he came so near that his eyes were forced to tell him the truth. It was truly a strange thing that he and Mercy did not once meet during all these weeks. It was no doubt an important element in the growth of their relation, this interval of unacknowledged and combated curiosity about each other. Nature has a myriad of ways of bringing about her results. Seed-time and harvest are constant, and the seasons all keep their routine; but no two fields have the same method or measure in the summer's or the winter's dealings. Hearts lie fallow sometimes; and seeds of love swell very big in the ground, all undisturbed and unsuspected.
When Mercy and her mother drove up to the house, Stephen was standing at his mother's window. It was just at dusk.
"Here they are, mother," he said. "I think I will go out and meet them."
Mrs. White lifted her eyes very slowly towards her son, and spoke in the measured syllables and unvibrating tone which always marked her utterance when she was displeased.
"Do you think you are under any obligation to do that? Suppose they had hired a house of you in some other part of the town: would you have felt called upon to pay them that attention? I do not know what the usual duties of a landlord are. You know best."
Stephen colored. This was the worst of his mother's many bad traits,—an instinctive, unreasoning, and unreasonable jealousy of any mark of attention or consideration shown to any other person than herself, even if it did not in the smallest way interfere with her comfort; and this cold, sarcastic manner of speaking was, of all the forms of her ill-nature, the one he found most unbearable. He made no reply, but stood still at the window, watching Mercy's light and literally joyful movements, as she helped her mother out of, and down from, the antiquated old carriage, and carried parcel after parcel and laid them on the doorstep.
Mrs. White continued in the same sarcastic tone,—
"Pray go and help move all their baggage in, Stephen, if it would give you any pleasure. It is nothing to me, I am sure, if you choose to be all the time doing all sorts of things for everybody. I don't see the least occasion for it, that's all."
"It seems to me only common neighborliness and friendly courtesy, mother," replied Stephen, gently. "But you know you and I never agree upon such points. Our views are radically different, and it is best not to discuss them."
"Views!" ejaculated Mrs. White, in a voice more like the low growl of some animal than like any sound possible to human organs. "I don't want to hear any thing about 'views' about such a trifle. Why don't you go, if you want to, and be done with it?"
"It is too late now," answered Stephen, in the same unruffled tone. "They have gone in, and the carriage is driving off."
"Well, perhaps they would like to have you put down their carpets for them, or open their boxes," sneered Mrs. White, still with the same intolerable sarcastic manner. "I don't doubt they could find some use for your services."
"O mother, don't!" pleaded Stephen, "please don't. I do not wish to go near them or ever see them, if it will make you any less happy. Do let us talk of something else."
"Who ever said a word about your not going near them, I'd like to know? Have I ever tried to shut you up, or keep you from going anywhere you wanted to? Answer me that, will you?"
"No, mother," answered Stephen, "you never have. But I wish I could make you happier."
"You do make me very happy, Steve," said Mrs. White, mollified by the gentle answer. "You're a good boy, and always was; but it does vex me to see you always so ready to be at everybody's beck and call; and, where it's a woman, it naturally vexes me more. You wouldn't want to run any risk of being misunderstood, or making a woman care about you more than she ought."
Stephen stared. This was a new field. Had his mother gone already thus far in her thoughts about Mercy Philbrick? And was her only thought of the possibility of the young woman's caring for him, and not in the least of his caring for her?
And what would ever become of the peace of their daily life, if this kind of jealousy—the most exacting, most insatiable jealousy in the world—were to grow up in her heart? Stephen was dumb with despair. The apparent confidential friendliness and assumption of a tacit understanding and agreement between him and her on the matter, with which his mother had said, "You wouldn't want to be misunderstood, or make a woman care more for you than she ought," struck terror to his very soul. The apparent amicableness of her remark at the present moment did not in the least blind him to the enormous possibilities of future misery involved in such a train of feeling and thought on her part. He foresaw himself involved in a perfect network of espionage and cross-questioning and suspicion, in comparison with which all he had hitherto borne at his mother's hands would seem trivial. All this flashed through his mind in the brief instant that he hesitated before he replied in an off-hand tone, which for once really blinded his mother,—
"Goodness, mother! whatever put such ideas into your head? Of course I should never run any such risk as that."
"A man can't possibly be too careful," remarked Mrs. White, sententiously. "The world's full of gossiping people, and women are very impressionable, especially such high-strung women as that young widow. A man can't possibly be too careful. Read me the paper now, Stephen."
Stephen was only too thankful to take refuge in and behind the newspaper. A newspaper had so often been to him a shelter from his mother's eyes, a protection from his mother's tongue, that, whenever he saw a storm or a siege of embarrassing questioning about to begin, he looked around for a newspaper as involuntarily as a soldier feels in his belt for his pistol. He had more than once smiled bitterly to himself at the consciousness of the flimsy bulwark; but he found it invaluable. Sometimes, it is true, her impatient instinct made a keen thrust at the truth, and she would say angrily,—
"Put down that paper! I want to see your face when I speak to you;" but his reply, "Why, mother, I am reading. I was just going to read something aloud to you," would usually disarm and divert her. It was one of her great pleasures to have him read aloud to her. It mattered little what he read: she was equally interested in the paragraphs of small local news, and in the telegraphic summaries of foreign affairs. A revolt in a distant European province, of which she had never heard even the name, was neither more nor less exciting to her than the running away of a heifer from the premises of an unknown townsman.
All through the evening, the sounds of moving of furniture, and brisk going up and down stairs, came through the partition, and interrupted Stephen's thoughts as much as they did his mother's. They had lived so long alone in the house in absolute quiet, save for the semi-occasional stir of Marty's desultory house-cleaning, that these sounds were disturbing, and not pleasant to hear. Stephen did not like them much better than his mother did; and he gave her great pleasure by remarking, as he bade her good-night,—
"I suppose those people next door will get settled in a day or two, and then we can have a quiet evening again."
"I should hope so," replied his mother. "I should think that a caravan of camels needn't have made so much noise. It's astonishing to me that folks can't do things without making a racket; but I think some people feel themselves of more consequence when they're making a great noise."
The next morning, as Stephen was bidding his mother good-morning, he accidentally glanced out of the window, and saw Mercy walking slowly away from the house with a little basket on her arm.
"She'll go to market every morning," he thought to himself. "I shall see her then."
Not the slightest glance of Stephen's eye ever escaped his mother's notice.
"Ah! there goes the lady," she said. "I wonder if she is always going down town at this hour? You will have to manage to go either earlier or later, or else people will begin to talk about you."
Stephen White had one rule of conduct: when he was uncertain what to do, not to do any thing. He broke it in this instance, and had reason to regret it long. He spoke impulsively on the instant, and revealed to mother his dawning interest in Mercy, and planted then and there an ineffaceable germ of distrust in her mind.
"Now, mother," he said, "what's the use of you beginning to set up this new worry? Mrs. Philbrick is a widow, and very sad and lonely. She is the friend of my friend, Harley Allen; and I am in duty bound to show her some attention, and help her if I can. She is also a bright, interesting person; and I do not know so many such that I should turn my back on one under my own roof. I have not so many social pleasures that I should give up this one, just on account of a possible gossip about it."
Silence would have been wiser. Mrs. White did not speak for a moment or two; then she said, in a slow and deliberate manner, as if reflecting on a problem,—"You enjoy Mrs. Philbrick's society, then, do you, Stephen? How much have you seen of her?"
Still injudicious and unlike himself, Stephen answered, "Yes, I think I shall enjoy it very much, and I think you will enjoy it more than I shall; for you may see great deal of her. I have only seen her once, you know."
"I don't suppose she will care any thing about me," replied Mrs. White, with an emphasis on the last personal pronoun which spoke volumes. "Very few people do."
Stephen made no reply. It had just dawned on his consciousness that he had been blundering frightfully, and his mind stood still for a moment, as a man halts suddenly, when he finds himself in a totally wrong road. To turn short about is not always the best way of getting off a wrong road, though it may be the quickest way. Stephen turned short about, and exclaimed with a forced laugh, "Well, mother, I don't suppose it will make any great difference to you, if she doesn't. It is not a matter of any moment, anyhow, whether we see any thing of either of them or not. I thought she seemed a bright, cheery sort of body, that's all. Good-by," and he ran out of the house.
Mrs. White lay for a long time with her eyes fixed on the wall. The expression of her face was of mingled perplexity and displeasure. After a time, these gave place to a more composed and defiant look. She had taken her resolve, had marked out her line of conduct.
"I won't say another word to Stephen about her," she thought. "I'll just watch and see how things go. Nothing can happen in this house without my knowing it."
The mischief was done; but Mrs. White was very much mistaken in the last clause of her soliloquy.
Meantime, Mercy was slowly walking towards the village, revolving her own little perplexities, and with a mind much freer from the thought of Stephen White than it had been for four weeks. Mercy was in a dilemma. Their clock was broken, hopelessly broken. It had been packed in too frail a box; and heavier boxes placed above it had crashed through, making a complete wreck of the whole thing,—frame, works, all. It was a high, old-fashioned Dutch clock, and had stood in the corner of their sitting-room ever since Mercy could recollect. It had belonged to her father's father, and had been her mother's wedding gift from him.
"It's easy enough to get a clock that will keep good time," thought Mercy, as she walked along; "but, oh, how I shall miss the dear old thing! It looked like a sort of belfry in the corner. I wonder if there are any such clocks to be bought anywhere nowadays?" She stopped presently before a jeweller's and watchmaker's shop in the Brick Row, and eagerly scrutinized the long line of clocks standing in the window. Very ugly they all were,—cheap, painted wood, of a shining red, and tawdry pictures on the doors, which ran up to a sharp point in a travesty of the Gothic arch outline.
"Oh, dear!" sighed Mercy, involuntarily aloud.
"Bless my soul! Bless my soul!" fell suddenly upon her ear, in sharp, jerking syllables, accompanied by clicking taps of a cane on the sidewalk. She turned and looked into the face of her friend, "Old Man Wheeler," who was standing so near her that with each of his rapid shiftings from foot to foot he threatened to tread on the hem of her gown.
"Bless my soul! Bless my soul! Glad to see ye. Missed your face. How're ye gettin' on? Gone into your house? How's your mother? I'll come see you, if you're settled. Don't go to see anybody,—never go! never go! People are all wolves, wolves, wolves; but I'll come an' see you. Like your face,—good face, good face. What're you lookin' at? What're you lookin' at? Ain't goin' to buy any thin' out o' that winder, be ye? Trash, trash, trash! People are all cheats, cheats," said the old man, breathlessly.
"I'm afraid I'll have to, sir," replied Mercy, vainly trying to keep the muscles of her face quiet. "I must buy a clock. Our clock got broken on the way."
"Broken? Clock broken? Mend it, mend it, child. I'll show you a good man, not this feller in here,—he's only good for outsides. Holler sham, holler sham! What kind o' clock was it?"
"Oh, that's the worst of it. It was an old clock my grandfather brought from Holland. It reached up to the ceiling, and had beautiful carved work on it. But it's in five hundred pieces, I do believe. A heavy box crushed it. Even the brass work inside is all jammed and twisted. Our things came by sea," replied Mercy.
"Bless my soul! Bless my soul! Come on, come on! I'll show you," exclaimed the eccentric old man, starting off at a quick pace. Mercy did not stir. Presently, he looked back, wheeled, and came again so near that he nearly trod on her gown.
"Bless my soul! Didn't tell her,—bad habit, bad habit. Never do make people understand. Come on, child,—come on! I've got a clock like yours. Don't want it. Never use it. Run down twenty years ago. Guess we can find it. Come on, come on!" he exclaimed.
"But, Mr. Wheeler," said Mercy, half-frightened at his manner, yet trusting him in spite of herself, "do you really want to sell the clock? If you have no use for it, I'd be very glad to buy it of you, if it looks even a little like our old one. I will bring my mother to look at it."
"Fine young woman! fine young woman! Good face. Never mistaken in a face yet. Don't sell clocks: never sold a clock yet. I'll give yer the clock, if yer like it. Come on, child,—come on!" and he laid his hand on Mercy's arm and drew her along.
Mercy held back. "Thank you, Mr. Wheeler," she said. "You're very kind. But I think my mother would not like to have you give us a clock. I will buy it of you; but I really cannot go with you now. Tell me where the clock is, and I will come with my mother to see it."
The old man stamped his foot and his cane both with impatience. "Pshaw! pshaw!" he said: "women all alike, all alike." Then with an evident effort to control his vexation, and speak more slowly, he said, "Can't you see I'm an old man, child? Don't pester me now. Come, on, come on! I tell you I want to show yer that clock. Give it to you 's well 's not. Stood in the lumber-room twenty years. Come on, come on! It's right up here, ten steps." And again he took Mercy by the arm. Reluctantly she followed him, thinking to herself, "Oh, what a rash thing this is to do! How do I know but he really is crazy?"
He led the way up an outside staircase at the end of the Brick Row, and, after fumbling a long time in several deep pockets, produced a huge rusty iron key, and unlocked the door at the head of the stairs. A very strange life that key had led in pockets. For many years it had slept under Miss Orra White's maidenly black alpacas, and had been the token of confinement and of release to scores of Miss Orra's unruly pupils; then it had had an interval of dignified leisure, lifted to the level of the Odd Fellows regalia, and only used by them on rare occasions. For the last ten years, however, it had done miscellaneous duty as warder of Old Man Wheeler's lumber-room. If a key could be supposed to peep through a keyhole, and speculate on the nature of the service it was rendering to humanity, in keeping safe the contents of the room into which it gazed, this key might have indulged in fine conjectures, and have passed its lifetime in a state of chronic bewilderment. Each time that the door of this old storehouse opened, it opened to admit some new, strange, nondescript article, bearing no relation to any thing that had preceded it. "Old Man Wheeler" added to all his other eccentricities a most eccentric way of collecting his debts. He had dealings of one sort or another with everybody. He drove hard bargains, and was inexorable as to dates. When a debtor came, pleading for a short delay on a payment, the old man had but one reply,—
"No, no, no! What yer got? what yer got? Gie me somethin', gie me somethin'. Settle, settle, settle! Gie me any thin' yer got. Settle, settle, settle!" The consequences of twenty years' such traffic as this can more easily be imagined than described. The room was piled from floor to roof with its miscellaneous collections: junk-shops, pawnbrokers' cellars, and old women's garrets seemed all to have disgorged themselves here. A huge stack of calico comforters, their tufts gray with dust and cobwebs, lay on top of two old ploughs, in one corner: kegs of nails, boxes of soap, rolls of leather, harnesses stiff and cracking with age, piles of books, chairs, bedsteads, andirons, tubs, stone ware, crockery ware, carpets, files of old newspapers, casks, feather-beds, jars of druggists' medicines, old signboards, rakes, spades, school-desks,—in short, all things that mortal man ever bought or sold,—were here, packed in piles and layers, and covered with dust as with a gray coverlid. At each foot-fall on the loose boards of the floor, clouds of stifling dust arose, and strange sounds were heard in and behind the piles of rubbish, as if all sorts of small animals might be skurrying about, and giving alarms to each other.
Mercy stood still on the threshold, her face full of astonishment. The dust made her cough; and at first she could hardly see which way to step. The old man threw down his cane, and ran swiftly from corner to corner, and pile to pile, peering around, pulling out first one thing and then another. He darted from spot to spot, bending lower and lower, as he grew more impatient in his search, till he looked like a sort of human weasel gliding about in quest of prey.
"Trash, trash, nothin' but trash!" he muttered to himself as he ran. "Burn it up some day. Trash, trash!"
"How did you get all these queer things together, Mr. Wheeler?" Mercy ventured to say at last "Did you keep a store?"
The old man did not reply. He was tugging away at a high stack of rolls of undressed leather, which reached to the ceiling in one corner. He pulled them too hastily, and the whole stack tumbled forward, and rolled heavily in all directions, raising a suffocating dust, through which the old man's figure seemed to loom up as through a fog, as he skipped to the right and left to escape the rolling bales.
"O Mr. Wheeler!" cried Mercy, "are you hurt?"
He laughed a choked laugh, more like a chuckle than like a laugh.
"He! he! child. Dust don't hurt me. Goin' to return to 't presently. Made on 't! made on 't! Don't see why folks need be so 'fraid on 't! He! he! 'T is pretty choky, though." And he sat down on one of the leather rolls, and held his sides through a hard coughing fit. As the dust slowly subsided, Mercy saw standing far back in the corner, where the bales of leather had hidden it, an old-fashioned clock, so like her own that she gave a low cry of surprise.
"Oh, is that the clock you meant, Mr. Wheeler?" she exclaimed.
"Yes, yes, that's it. Nice old clock. Took it for debt. Cost me more'n 't's wuth. As fur that matter, 'tain't wuth nothin' to me. Wouldn't hev it in the house 'n' more than I'd git the town 'us tower in for a clock. D'ye like it, child? Ye can hev it's well's not. I'd like to give it to ye."
"I should like it very much, very much indeed," replied Mercy. "But I really cannot think of taking it, unless you let us pay for it."
The old man sprung to his feet with such impatience that the leather bale rolled away from him, and he nearly lost his balance. Mercy sprang forward and caught him.
"Bless my soul! Bless my soul! Don't pester me, child! Don't you see I'm an old man? I tell ye I'll give ye the clock, an' I won't sell it ter ye,—won't, won't, won't," and he picked up his cane, and stood leaning upon it with both his hands clasped on it, and his head bent forward, eagerly scanning Mercy's face. She hesitated still, and began to speak again.
"But, Mr. Wheeler,"—
"Don't 'but' me. There ain't any buts about it. There's the clock. Take it, child,—take it, take it, take it, or else leave it, just's you like. I ain't a-goin' to saddle ye with it; but I think ye'd be very silly not to take it,—silly, silly."
Mercy began to think so too. The clock was its own advocate, almost as strong as the old man's pleading.
"Very well, Mr. Wheeler," she said. "I will take the clock, though I don't know what my mother will say. It is a most valuable present. I hope we can do something for you some day."
"Tut, tut, tut!" growled the old man. "Just like all the rest o' the world. Got no faith,—can't believe in gettin' somethin' for nothin'. You're right, child,—right, right. 'S a general thing, people are cheats, cheats, cheats. Get all your money away,—wolves, wolves, wolves! Stay here, child, a minute. I'll get two men to carry it." And, before Mercy realized his intention, he had shut the door, locked it, and left her alone in the warehouse. Her first sensation was of sharp terror; but she ran to the one window which was accessible, and, seeing that it looked out on the busiest thoroughfare of the town, she sat down by it to await the old man's return. In a very few moments, she heard the sounds of steps on the stairs, the door was thrown open, and the old man, still talking to himself in muttered tones, pushed into the room two ragged vagabonds whom he had picked up on the street.