They looked as astonished at the nature of the place as Mercy had. With gaping mouths and roving eyes, they halted on the threshold.
"Come in, come in! What 're ye 'bout? Earn yer money, earn yer money!" exclaimed the old man, pointing to the clock, and bidding them take it up and carry it out.
"Now mind! Quarter a piece, quarter a piece,—not a cent more. Do ye understand? Hark 'e! do ye understand? Not a cent more," he said, following them out of the door. Then turning to Mercy, he exclaimed,—
"Bless my soul! Bless my soul! Forgot you, child. Come on, come on! I'll go with you, else those rascals will cheat you. Men are wolves, wolves, wolves. They're to carry the clock up to your house for a quarter apiece. But I'll come on with you. Got half a dollar?"
"Oh, yes," laughed Mercy, much pleased that the old man was willing she should pay the porters. "Oh, yes, I have my portemonnaie here," holding it up. "This is the cheapest clock ever sold, I think; and you are very good to let me pay the men."
The old man looked at her with a keen, suspicious glance.
"Good? eh! good? Why, ye didn't think I was goin' to give ye money, did ye? Oh, no, no, no! Not money. Never give money."
This was very true. It would probably have cost him a severer pang to give away fifty cents than to have parted with the entire contents of the storehouse. Mercy laughed aloud.
"Why, Mr. Wheeler," she said, "you have given me just the same as money. Such a clock as this must have cost a good deal, I am sure."
"No, no, child! It's very different, different. Clock wasn't any use to me, wasn't wuth any thin'. Money's of use, use, use. Can't have enough on't. People get it all away from you. They're wolves, wolves, wolves," replied the old man, running along in advance of Mercy, and rapping one of the men who were carrying the clock, sharply on his shoulder.
"Keep your end up there! keep it up! I won't pay you, if you don't carry your half," he exclaimed.
It was a droll procession, and everybody turned to look at it: the two ragged men carrying the quaint-fashioned old clock, from which the dust shook off at every jolt, revealing the carved scrolls and figures upon it: following them, Mercy, with her expressive face full of mirth and excitement; and the old man, now ahead, now lagging behind, now talking in an eager and animated manner with Mercy, now breaking off to admonish or chastise the bearers of the clock. The eccentric old fellow used his cane as freely as if it had been a hand. There were few boys in town who had not felt its weight; and his more familiar acquaintances knew the touch of it far better than they knew the grip of his fingers. It "saved steps," he used to say; though of steps the old man seemed any thing but chary, as he was in the habit of taking them perpetually, without advancing or retreating, changing from one foot to the other, as uneasily as a goose does.
Stephen White happened to be looking out of the window, when this unique procession of the clock passed his office. He could not believe what he saw. He threw up the window and leaned out, to assure himself that he was not mistaken. Mercy heard the sound, looked up, and met Stephen's eye. She colored violently, bowed, and involuntarily quickened her pace. Her companion halted, and looked up to see what had arrested her attention. When he saw Stephen's face, he said,—
"Pshaw!" and turned again to look at Mercy. The bright color had not yet left her cheek. The old man gazed at her angrily for a moment, then stopped short, planted his cane on the ground, and said in a loud tone, all the while peering into her face as if he would read her very thoughts,—
"Don't you know that Steve White isn't good for any thin'? Poor stock, poor stock! Father before him poor stock, too. Don't you go to lettin' him handle your money, child. Mind now! I'll be a good friend to you, if you'll do 's I say; but, if Steve White gets hold on you, I'll have nothin' to do with you. Mind that, eh? eh?"
Mercy had a swift sense of angry resentment at these words; but she repelled it, as she would have resisted the impulse to be angry with a little child.
"Mr. Wheeler," she said with a gentle dignity of tone, which was not thrown away on the old man, "I do not know why you should speak so to me about Mr. White. He is almost an entire stranger to me as yet. We live in his house; but we do not know him or his mother yet, except in the most formal way. He seems to be a very agreeable man," she added with a little tinge of perversity.
"Hm! hm!" was all the old man's reply; and he did not speak again till they reached Mercy's gate. Here the clock-carriers were about to set their burden down. Mr. Wheeler ran towards them with his cane outstretched.
"Here! here! you lazy rascals! Into the house! into the house, else you don't get any quarter!
"Well I came along, child,—well I came along. They'd ha' left it right out doors here. Cheats! People are all cheats, cheats, cheats," he exclaimed.
Into the house, without a pause, without a knock, into poor bewildered Mrs. Carr's presence he strode, the men following fast on his steps, and Mercy unable to pass them.
"Where'll you have it? Where'll you have it, child? Bless my soul! where's that girl!" he exclaimed, looking back at Mercy, who stood on the front doorstep, vainly trying to hurry in to explain the strange scene to her mother. Mrs. Carr was, as usual, knitting. She rose up suddenly, confused at the strange apparitions before her, and let her knitting fall on the floor. The ball rolled swiftly towards Mr. Wheeler, and tangled the yarn around his feet. He jumped up and down, all the while brandishing his cane, and muttering, "Pshaw! pshaw! Damn knitting! Always did hate the sight on't." But, kicking out to the right and the left vigorously, he soon snapped the yarn, and stood free.
"Mother! mother!" called Mercy from behind, "this is the gentleman I told you of,—Mr. Wheeler. He has very kindly given us this beautiful clock, almost exactly like ours."
The sound of Mercy's voice reassured the poor bewildered old woman, and, dropping her old-fashioned courtesy, she said timidly,—
"Pleased to see you, sir. Pray take a chair."
"Chair? chair? No, no! Never do sit down in houses,—never, never. Where'll you have it, mum? Where'll you have it?
"Don't you dare put that down! Wait till you are told to, you lazy rascals!" he exclaimed, lifting his cane, and threatening the men who were on the point of setting the clock down, very naturally thinking they might be permitted at last to rest a moment.
"Oh, Mr. Wheeler!" said Mercy, "let them put it down anywhere, please, for the present. I never can tell at first where I want a thing to stand. I shall have to try it in different corners before I am sure," and Mercy took out her portemonnaie, and came forward to pay the bearers. As she opened it, the old man stepped nearer to her, and peered curiously into her hand. The money in the portemonnaie was neatly folded and assorted, each kind by itself, in a separate compartment. The old man nodded, and muttered to himself, "Fine young woman! fine young woman! Business, business!—Who taught you, child, to sort your money that way?" he suddenly asked.
"Why, no one taught me," replied Mercy. "I found that it saved time not to have to fumble all through a portemonnaie for a ten-cent piece. It looks neater, too, than to have it all in a crumpled mass," she added, smiling and looking up in the old man's face. "I don't like disorder. Such a place as your store-room would drive me crazy."
The old man was not listening. He was looking about the room with a dissatisfied expression of countenance. In a few moments, he said abruptly,—
"'S this all the furniture you've got?"
Mrs. Carr colored, and looked appealingly at Mercy; but Mercy laughed, and replied as she would have answered her own grandfather,—
"Oh, no, not all we have! We have five more rooms furnished. It is all we have for this room, however. These rooms are all larger than our rooms were at home, and so the things look scanty. But I shall get more by degrees."
"Hm! hm! Want any thing out o' my lumber-room? Have it's well's not. Things no good to anybody."
"Oh, no, thank you, Mr. Wheeler. We have all we need. I could not think of taking any thing more from you. We are under great obligation to you now for the clock," said Mercy; and Mrs. Carr bewilderedly ejaculated, "Oh, no, sir,—no, sir! There isn't any call for you to give us any thin'."
While they were speaking, the old man was rapidly going out of the house; with quick, short steps like a child, and tapping his cane on the floor at every step. In the doorway he halted a moment, and, without looking back, said, "Well, well, let me know, if you do want any thing. Have it's well's not," and he was gone.
"Oh, Mercy! he's crazy, sure's you're alive. You'll get took up for hevin' this clock. Whatever made you take it, child?" exclaimed Mrs. Carr, walking round and round the clock, and dusting it here and there with a corner of her apron.
"Well, mother, I am sure I don't know. I couldn't seem to help it: he was so determined, and the clock was such a beauty. I don't think he is crazy. I think he is simply very queer; and he is ever, ever so rich. The clock isn't really of any value to him; that is, he'd never do any thing with it. He has a huge room half as big as this house, just crammed with things, all sorts of things, that he took for debts; and this clock was among them. I think it gave the old man a real pleasure to have me take it; so that is one more reason for doing it."
"Well, you know best, Mercy," said Mrs. Carr, a little sadly; "but I can't quite see it's you do. It seems to me amazin' like a charity. I wish he hadn't never found you out."
"I don't, mother. I believe he is going to be my best crony here," said Mercy, laughing; "and I'm sure nobody can say any thing ill-natured about such a crony as he would be. He must be seventy years old, at least."
When Stephen came home that night, he received from his mother a most graphic account of the arrival of the clock. She had watched the procession from her window, and had heard the confused sounds of talking and moving of furniture in the house afterward. Marty also had supplied some details, she having been surreptitiously overlooking the whole affair.
"I must say," remarked Mrs. White, "that it looks very queer. Where did she pick up Old Man Wheeler? Who ever heard of his being seen walking with a woman before? Even as a young man, he never would have any thing to do with them; and it was always a marvel how he got married. I used to know him very well."
"But, mother," urged Stephen, "for all we know, they may be relations or old friends of his. You forget that we know literally nothing about these people. So far from being queer, it may be the most natural thing in the world that he should be helping her fit up her house."
But in his heart Stephen thought, as his mother did, that it was very queer.
The beautiful white New England winter had set in. As far as the eye could reach, nothing but white could be seen. The boundary, lines of stone walls and fences were gone, or were indicated only by raised and rounded lines of the same soft white. On one side of these were faintly pencilled dark shadows in the morning and in the afternoon; but at high noon the fields were as unbroken a white as ever Arctic explorer saw, and the roads shone in the sun like white satin ribbons flung out in all directions. The groves of maple and hickory and beech were bare. Their delicate gray tints spread in masses over the hillsides like a transparent, gray veil, through which every outline of the hills was clear, but softened. The massive pines and spruces looked almost black against the white of the snow, and the whole landscape was at once shining and sombre; an effect which is peculiar to the New England winter in the hill country, and is always either very depressing or very stimulating to the soul. Dreamy and inert and phlegmatic people shiver and huddle, see only the sombreness, and find the winter one long imprisonment in the dark. But to a joyous, brisk, sanguine soul, the clear, crisp, cold air is like wine; and the whiteness and sparkle and shine of the snow are like martial music, a constant excitement and spell.
Mercy's soul thrilled within her with new delight and impulse each day. The winter had always oppressed her before. On the seashore, winter means raw cold, a pale, gray, angry ocean, fierce winds, and scanty wet snows. This brilliant, frosty air, so still and dry that it never seemed cold, this luxuriance of snow piled soft and high as if it meant shelter and warmth,—as indeed it does,—were very wonderful to Mercy. She would have liked to be out of doors all day long: it seemed to her a fairer than summer-time. She followed the partially broken trails of the wood-cutters far into the depths of the forests, and found there on sunny days, in sheltered spots, where the feet of the men and horses and the runners of the heavy sledges had worn away the snow, green mosses and glossy ferns and shining clumps of the hepatica. It was a startling sight on a December day, when the snow was lying many inches deep, to come suddenly on Mercy walking in the middle of the road, her hands filled with green ferns and mosses and vines. There were three different species of ground-pine in these woods, and hepatica and pyrola and wintergreen, and thickets of laurel. What wealth for a lover of wild, out-door things! Each day Mercy bore home new treasures, until the house was almost as green and fragrant as a summer wood. Day after day, Mrs. White, from her point of observation at her window, watched the lithe young figure coming down the road, bearing her sheaves of boughs and vines, sometimes on her shoulder, as lightly and gracefully as a peasant girl of Italy might bear her poised basket of grapes. Gradually a deep wonder took possession of the lonely old woman's soul.
"Whatever can she do with all that green stuff?" she thought. "She's carried in enough to trim the 'Piscopal church twice over."
At last she shared her perplexity with Marty.
"Marty," said she one day, "have you ever seen Mrs. Philbrick come into the house without somethin' green in her hands? What do you suppose she's goin' to do with it all?"
"Lord knows," answered Marty. "I've been a speckkerlatin' about that very thing myself. They can't be a brewin' beer this time o' year; but I see her yesterday with her hands full o' pyroly."
"I wish you would make an errand in there, Marty," said Mrs. White, "and see if you can any way find out what it's all for. She's carried in pretty near a grove of pine-trees, I should say."
The willing Marty went, and returned with a most surprising tale. Every room was wreathed with green vines. There were evergreen trees in boxes; the window-seats were filled with pots of green things growing; waving masses of ferns hung down from brackets on the walls.
"I jest stood like a dumb critter the minnit I got in," said Marty. "I didn't know whether I wuz in the house or out in the woods, the whole place smelled o' hemlock so, an' looked so kind o' sunny and shady all ter oncet.—I jest wished Steve could see it. He'd go wild," added the unconsciously injudicious Marty.
Mrs. White's face darkened instantly.
"It must be very unwholesome to have rooms made so dark and damp," she said. "I should think people might have more sense."
"Oh, it wa'n't dark a mite!" interrupted Marty, eagerly. "There wuz a blazin' fire on the hearth in the settin'-room, an' the sun a-streamin' into both the south winders. It made shadders on the floor, jest as it does in the woods. I'd jest ha' liked to set down there a spell, and not do nothin' but watch 'em."
At this moment, a low knock at the door interrupted the conversation. Marty opened the door, and there stood Mercy herself, holding in her hands some wreaths of laurel and pine, and a large earthen dish with ferns growing in it. It was the day before Christmas; and Mercy had been busy all day, putting up the Christmas decorations in her rooms. As she hung cross after cross, and wreath after wreath, she thought of the poor, lonely, and peevish old woman she had seen there weeks before, and wondered if she would have any Christmas evergreens to brighten her room.
"I don't suppose a man would ever think of such things," thought Mercy. "I've a great mind to carry her in some. I'll never muster courage to go in there, unless I go to carry her something; and I may as well do it first as last. Perhaps she doesn't care any thing about things from the woods; but I think they may do her good without her knowing it. Besides, I promised to go." It was now ten days since Stephen, meeting Mercy in the town one day, had stopped, and said to her, in a half-sad tone which had touched her,—
"Do you really never mean to come again to see my mother? I do assure you it would be a great kindness."
His tone conveyed a great deal,—his tone and his eyes. They said as plainly as words could have said,—
"I know that my mother treated you abominably, I know she is very disagreeable; but, after all, she is helpless and alone, and if you could only once get her to like you, and would come and see her now and then, it would be a kindness to her, and a great help to me; and I do yearn to know you better; and I never can, unless you will begin the acquaintance by being on good terms with my mother."
All this Stephen's voice and eyes had said to Mercy's eyes and heart, while his lips, pronounced the few commonplace words which were addressed to her ear. All this Mercy was revolving in her thoughts, as she deftly and with almost a magic touch laid the soft mosses in the earthen dish, and planted them thick with ferns and hepatica and partridge-berry vines and wintergreen. But all she was conscious of saying to herself was, "Mr. White asked me to go; and it really is not civil not to do it, and I may as well have it over with."
When Mrs. White's eyes first fell on Mercy in the doorway, they rested on her with the same cold gaze which had so repelled her on their first interview. But no sooner did she see the dish of mosses than her face lighted up, and exclaiming, "Oh, where did you get those partridge-berry vines?" she involuntarily stretched out her hands. The ice was broken. Mercy felt at home at once, and at once conceived a true sentiment of pity for Mrs. White, which never wholly died out of her heart. Kneeling on the floor by her bed, she said eagerly,—
"I am so glad you like them, Mrs. White. Let me hold them down low, where you can look at them."
Some subtle spell must have linked itself in Mrs. White's brain with the dainty red partridge berries. Her eyes filled with tears, as she lifted the vines gently in her fingers, and looked at them. Mercy watched her with great surprise; but with the quick instinct of a poet's temperament she thought, "She hasn't seen them very likely since she was a little girl."
"Did you use to like them when you were a child, Mrs. White?" she asked.
"I used to pick them when I was young," replied Mrs. White, dreamily,—"when I was young: not when I was a child, though. May I have one of them to keep?" she asked presently, still holding an end of one of the vines in her fingers.
"Oh, I brought them in for you, for Christmas," exclaimed Mercy. "They are all for you."
Mrs. White was genuinely astonished. No one had ever done this kind of thing for her before. Stephen always gave her on her birthday and on Christmas a dutiful and somewhat appropriate gift, though very sorely he was often puzzled to select a thing which should not jar either on his own taste or his mother's sense of utility. But a gift of this kind, a simple little tribute to her supposed womanly love of the beautiful, a thoughtful arrangement to give her something pleasant to look upon for a time, no one had ever before made. It gave her an emotion of real gratitude, such as she had seldom felt.
"You are very kind, indeed,—very," she said with emphasis, and in a gentler tone than Mercy had before heard from her lips. "I shall have a great deal of comfort out of it."
Then Mercy set the dish on a small table, and hung up the wreaths in the windows. As she moved about the room lightly, now and then speaking in her gay, light-hearted voice, Mrs. White thought to herself,—
"Steve was right. She is a wonderful cheery body." And, long after Mercy had gone, she continued to think happily of the pleasant incident of the fresh bright face and the sweet voice. For the time being, her jealous distrust of the possible effect of these upon her son slumbered.
When Stephen entered his mother's room that night, his heart gave a sudden bound at the sight of the green wreaths and the dish of ferns. He saw them on fhe first instant after opening the door; he knew in the same instant that the hands of Mercy Philbrick must have placed them there; but, also, in that same brief instant came to him an involuntary impulse to pretend that he did not observe them; to wait till his mother should have spoken of them first, that he might know whether she were pleased or not by the gift. So infinitely small are the first beginnings of the course of deceit into which tyranny always drives its victim. It could not be called a deceit, the simple forbearing to speak of a new object which one observed in a room. No; but the motive made it a sure seed of a deceit: for when Mrs. White said, "Why, Stephen, you haven't noticed the greens! Look in the windows!" his exclamation of apparent surprise, "Why, how lovely! Where did they come from?" was a lie. It did not seem so, however, to Stephen. It seemed to him simply a politic suppression of a truth, to save his mother's feelings, to avoid a possibility of a war of words. Mercy Philbrick, under the same circumstances, would have replied,—
"Oh, yes, I saw them as soon as I came in. I was waiting for you to tell me about them," and even then would have been tortured by her conscience, because she did not say why she was waiting.
While his mother was telling him of Mercy's call, and of the report Marty had brought back of the decorations of the rooms, Stephen stood with his face bent over the ferns, apparently absorbed in studying each leaf minutely; then he walked to the windows and examined the wreaths. He felt himself so suddenly gladdened by these tokens of Mercy's presence, and by his mother's evident change of feeling towards her, that he feared his face would betray too much pleasure; he feared to speak, lest his voice should do the same thing. He was forced to make a great effort to speak in a judiciously indifferent tone, as he said,—
"Indeed, they are very pretty. I never saw mosses so beautifully arranged; and it was so thoughtful of her to bring them in for you for Christmas Eve. I wish we had something to send in to them, don't you?"
"Well, I've been thinking," said his mother, "that we might ask them to come in and take dinner with us to-morrow. Marty's made some capital mince-pies, and is going to roast a turkey. I don't believe they'll be goin' to have any thing better, do you, Stephen?"
Stephen walked very suddenly to the fire, and made a feint of rearranging it, that he might turn his face entirely away from his mother's sight. He was almost dumb with astonishment. A certain fear mingled with it. What meant this sudden change? Did it portend good or evil? It seemed too sudden, too inexplicable, to be genuine. Stephen had yet to learn the magic power which Mercy Philbrick had to compel the liking even of people who did not choose to like her.
"Why, yes, mother," he said, "that would be very nice. It is a long time since we had anybody to Christmas dinner."
"Well, suppose you run in after tea and ask them," replied Mrs. White, in the friendliest of tones.
"Yes, I'll go," answered Stephen, feeling as if he were a man talking in a dream. "I have been meaning to go in ever since they came."
After tea, Stephen sat counting the minutes till he should go. To all appearances, he was buried in his newspaper, occasionally reading a paragraph aloud to his mother. He thought it better that she should remind him of his intention to go; that the call should be purely at her suggestion. The patience and silence with which he sat waiting for her to remember and speak of it were the very essence of deceit again,—twice in this one hour an acted lie, of which his dulled conscience took no note or heed. Fine and impalpable as the meshes of the spider's-web are the bands and bonds of a habit of concealment; swift-growing, too, and in ever-widening circles, like the same glittering net woven for death.
At last Mrs. White said, "Steve, I think it's getting near nine o'clock. You'd better go in next door before it's any later."
Stephen pulled out his watch. By his own sensations, he would have said that it must be midnight.
"Yes, it is half-past eight. I suppose I had better go now," he said, and bade his mother good-night.
He went out into the night with a sense of ecstasy of relief and joy. He was bewildered at himself. How this strong sentiment towards Mercy Philbrick had taken possession of him he could not tell. He walked up and down in the snowy path in front of the house for some minutes, questioning himself, sounding with a delicious dread the depths of this strange sea in which he suddenly found himself drifting. He went back to the day when Harley Allen's letter first told him of the two women who might become his tenants. He felt then a presentiment that a new element was to be introduced into his life; a vague, prophetic sense of some change at hand. Then came the first interview, and his sudden disappointment, which he now blushed to recollect. It seemed to him as if some magician must have laid a spell upon his eyes, that he did not see even in that darkness how lovely a face Mercy had, did not feel even through all the embarrassment and strangeness the fascination of her personal presence. Then he dwelt lingeringly on the picture, which had never faded from his brain, of his next sight of her, as she sat on the old stone wall, with the gay maple-leaves and blackberry-vines in her lap. From that day to the present, he had seen her only a half dozen times, and only for a chance greeting as they had passed each other in the street; but it seemed to him that she had never been really absent from him, so conscious was he of her all the time. So absorbed was he in these thoughts that a half-hour was gone before he realized it, and the village bells were ringing for nine o' clock when he knocked on the door of the wing.
Mrs. Carr had rolled up her knitting, and was just on the point of going upstairs. Their little maid of all work had already gone to bed, when Stephen's loud knock startled them all.
"Gracious alive! Mercy, what's that?" exclaimed Mrs. Carr, all sorts of formless terrors springing upon her at once. Mercy herself was astonished, and ran hastily to open the door. When she saw Stephen standing there, her astonishment was increased, and she looked it so undisguisedly that he said,—
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Philbrick. I know it is late, but my mother sent me in with a message." ...
"Pray come in, Mr. White," interrupted Mercy. "It is not really late, only we keep such absurdly early hours, and are so quiet, as we know nobody here, that a knock at the door in the evening makes us all jump. Pray come in," and she threw open the door into the sitting-room, where the lamps had already been put out, and the light of a blazing hickory log made long flickering shadows on the crimson carpet. In this dancing light, the room looked still more like a grove than it had to Marty at high noon. Stephen's eyes fastened hungrily on the sight.
"Your room is almost too much to resist," he said; "but I will not come in now. I did not know it was so late. My mother wishes to know if you and your mother will not come in and eat a Christmas dinner with us to-morrow. We live in the plainest way, and cannot entertain in the ordinary acceptation of the term. We only ask you to our ordinary home-dinner," he added, with a sudden sense of the incongruity between the atmosphere of refined elegance which pervaded Mercy's simple, little room, and the expression which all his efforts had never been able to banish from his mother's parlor.
"Oh thank you, Mr. White. You are very good. I think we should like to come very much. Mother and I were just saying that it would be the first Christmas dinner we ever ate alone. But you must come in, Mr. White,—I insist upon it," replied Mercy, stretching out one hand towards him, as if to draw him in.
Stephen went. On the threshold of the sitting-room he paused and stood silent for some minutes. Mercy was relighting the lamps.
"Oh, Mrs. Philbrick!" he exclaimed, "won't you please not light the lamps. This firelight on these evergreens is the loveliest thing I ever saw."
Too unconventional to think of any reasons why she should not sit with Stephen White alone by firelight in her own house, Mercy blew out the lamp she had lighted, and drawing a chair close up to the hearth sat down, and clasping her hands in her lap looked eagerly into Stephen's face, and said as simply as a child,—
"I like firelight, too, a great deal better than any other light. Some evenings we do not light the lamps at all. Mother can knit just as well without much light, and I can think better."
Mercy was sitting in a chair so low that, to look at Stephen, she had to lift her face. It was the position in which her face was sweetest. Some lines, which were a shade too strong and positive when her face fully confronted you, disappeared entirely when it was thrown back and her eyes were lifted. It was then as ingenuous and tender and trustful a face as if she had been but eight instead of eighteen.
Stephen forgot himself, forgot the fact that Mercy was comparatively a stranger, forgot every thing, except the one intense consciousness of this sweet woman-face looking up into his. Bending towards her, he said suddenly,—
"Mrs. Philbrick, your face is the very loveliest face I have ever seen in my life. Do not be angry with me. Oh, do not!" he continued, seeing the color deepen in Mercy's cheeks, and a stern expression gathering in her eyes, as she looked steadily at him with unutterable surprise. "Do not be angry with me. I could not help saying it; but I do not say it as men generally say such things. I am not like other men: I have lived alone all my life with my mother. You need not mind my saying your face is lovely, any more than my saying that the ferns on the walls are lovely."
If Stephen had known Mercy from her childhood, he could not have framed his words more wisely. Every fibre of her artistic nature recognized the possibility of a subtle truth in what he said, and his calm, dreamy tone and look heightened this impression. Moreover, as Stephen's soul had been during all the past four weeks slowly growing into the feeling which made it inevitable that he should say these words on first looking closely and intimately into Mercy's face, so had her soul been slowly growing into the feeling which made it seem not really foreign or unnatural to her that he should say them.
She answered him with hesitating syllables, quite unlike her usual fluent speech.
"I think you must mean what you say, Mr. White; and you do not say it as other men have said it. But will you please to remember not to say it again? We cannot be friends, if you do."
"Never again, Mrs. Philbrick?" he said,—he could almost have said "Mercy,"—and looked at her with a gaze of whose intentness he was hardly aware.
Mercy felt a strange terror of this man; a few minutes ago a stranger, now already asking at her hands she hardly knew what, and compelling her in spite of herself. But she replied very quietly, with a slight smile,—
"Never, Mr. White. Now talk of something else, please. Your mother seemed very much pleased with the ferns I carried her to-day. Did she love the woods, when she was well?"
"I do not know. I never heard her say," answered Stephen, absently, still gazing into Mercy's face.
"But you would have known, surely, if she had cared for them," said Mercy, laughing; for she perceived that Stephen had spoken at random.
"Oh, yes, certainly,—certainly. I should have known," said Stephen, still with a preoccupied air, and rising to go. "I thank you for letting me come into this beautiful room with you. I shall always think of your face framed in evergreens, and with flickering firelight on it."
"You are not going away, are you, Mr. White?" asked Mercy, mischievously.
"Oh, no, certainly not. I never go away. How could I go away? Why did you ask?"
"Oh," laughed Mercy, "because you spoke as if you never expected to see my face after to-night. That's all."
Stephen smiled. "I am afraid I seem a very absent-minded person," he said. "I did not mean that at all. I hope to see you very often, if I may. Good-night."
"Good-night, Mr. White. We shall be very glad to see you as often as you like to come. You may be sure of that; but you must come earlier, or you will find us all asleep. Good-night."
Stephen spent another half-hour pacing up and down in the snowy path in front of the house. He did not wish to go in until his mother was asleep. Very well he knew that it would be better that she did not see his face that night. When he went in, the house was dark and still. As he passed his mother's door, she called, "Steve!"
"All right, mother. They'll come," he replied, and ran swiftly up to his own room.
During this half-hour, Mercy had been sitting in her low chair by the fire, looking steadily into the leaping blaze, and communing very sternly with her own heart on the subject of Stephen White. Her pitiless honesty of nature was just as inexorable in its dealing with her own soul as with others; she never paltered with, nor evaded an accusation of, her consciousness. At this moment, she was indignantly admitting to herself that her conduct and her feeling towards Stephen were both deserving of condemnation. But, when she asked herself for their reason, no answer came framed in words, no explanation suggested itself, only Stephen's face rose up before her, vivid, pleading, as he had looked when he said, "Never again, Mrs. Philbrick?" and as she looked again into the dark blue eyes, and heard the low tones over again, she sank into a deeper and deeper reverie, from which gradually all self-accusation, all perplexity, faded away, leaving behind them only a vague happiness, a dreamy sense of joy. If lovers could look back on the first quickening of love in their souls, how precious would be the memories; but the unawakened heart never knows the precise instant of the quickening. It is wrapped in a half-conscious wonder and anticipation; and, by the time the full revelation comes, the impress of the first moments has been wiped out by intenser experiences. How many lovers have longed to trace the sweet stream back to its very source, to the hidden spring which no man saw, but have lost themselves presently in the broad greenness, undisturbed and fertile, through which, like a hidden stream through an emerald meadow, the love had been flowing undiscovered.
Months after, when Mercy's thoughts reverted to this evening, all she could recollect was that on the night of Stephen's first call she had been much puzzled by his manner and his words, had thought it very strange that he should seem to care-so much for her, and perhaps still more strange that she herself found it not unpleasing that he did so. Stephen's reminiscences were at once more distinct and more indistinct,—more distinct of his emotions, more indistinct of the incidents. He could not recollect one word which had been said: only his own vivid consciousness of Mercy's beauty; her face "framed in evergreens, with the firelight flickering on it," as he had told her he should always think of it.
Christmas morning came, clear, cold, shining bright. A slight thaw the day before had left every bough and twig and pine-needle covered with a moisture that had frozen in the night into glittering crystal sheaths, which flashed like millions of prisms in the sun. The beauty of the scene was almost solemn. The air was so frosty cold that even the noon sun did not melt these ice-sheaths; and, under the flood of the full mid-day light, the whole landscape seemed one blaze of jewels. When Mercy and her mother entered Mrs. White's room, half an hour before the dinner-hour, they found her sitting with the curtains drawn, because the light had hurt her eyes.
"Oh, Mrs. White!" exclaimed Mercy. "It is cruel you should not see this glorious spectacle! If you had the window open, the light would not hurt your eyes. It is the glare of it coming through the glass. Let us wrap you up, and draw you close to the window, and open it wide, so that you can see the colors for a few minutes. It is just like fairy-land."
Mrs. White looked bewildered. Such a plan as this of getting out-door air she had never thought of.
"Won't it make the room too cold?" she said.
"Oh, no, no!" cried Mercy; "and no matter if it does. We can soon warm it up again. Please let me ask Marty to come?" And, hardly waiting for permission, she ran to call Marty. Wrapped up in blankets, Mrs. White was then drawn in her bed close to the open window, and lay there with a look of almost perplexed delight on her face. When Stephen came in, Mercy stood behind her, a fleecy white cloud thrown over her head, pointing out eagerly every point of beauty in the view. A high bush of sweet-brier, with long, slender, curving branches, grew just in front of the window. Many of the cup-like seed-vessels still hung on the boughs: they were all finely encrusted with frost. As the wind faintly stirred the branches, every frost-globule flashed its full rainbow of color; the long sprays looked like wands strung with tiny fairy beakers, inlaid with pearls and diamonds. Mercy sprang to the window, took one of these sprays in her fingers, and slowly waved it up and down in the sunlight.
"Oh, look at it against the blue sky!" she cried. "Isn't it enough to make one cry just to see it?"
"Oh, how can mother help loving her?" thought Stephen. "She is the sweetest woman that ever drew breath."
Mrs. White seemed indeed to have lost all her former distrust and antagonism. She followed Mercy's movements with eyes not much less eager and pleased than Stephen's. It was like a great burst of sunlight into a dark place, the coming of this earnest, joyous, outspoken nature into the old woman's narrow and monotonous and comparatively uncheered life. She had never seen a person of Mercy's temperament. The clear, decided, incisive manner commanded her respect, while the sunny gayety won her liking. Stephen had gentle, placid sweetness and much love of the beautiful; but his love of the beautiful was an indolent, and one might almost say a-haughty, demand in his nature. Mercy's was a bounding and delighted acceptance. She was cheery: he was only placid. She was full of delight; he, only of satisfaction. In her, joy was of the spirit, spiritual. Keen as were her senses, it was her soul which marshalled them all. In him, though the soul's forces were not feeble, the senses foreran them,—compelled them, sometimes conquered them. It would have been impossible to put Mercy in any circumstances, in any situation, out of which, or in spite of which, she would not find joy. But in Stephen circumstance and place might as easily destroy as create happiness. His enjoyment was as far inferior to Mercy's in genuineness and enduringness as is the shallow lake to the quenchless spring. The waters of each may leap and sparkle alike, to the eye, in the sunshine; but when drought has fallen on the lake, and the place that knew it knows it no more, the spring is full, free, and glad as ever.
Mrs. White's pleasure in Mercy's presence was short-lived. Long before the simple dinner was over, she had relapsed into her old forbidding manner, and into a silence which was more chilly than any words could have been. The reason was manifest. She read in every glance of Stephen's eyes, in every tone of his voice, the depth and the warmth of his feeling towards Mercy. The jealous distrust which she had felt at first, and which had slept for a brief time under the spell of Mercy's kindliness towards herself, sprang into fiercer life than ever. Stephen and Mercy, in utter unconsciousness of the change which was gradually taking place, talked and laughed together in an evident gay delight, which made matters worse every moment. A short and surly reply from Mrs. White to an innocent question of Mrs. Carr's fell suddenly on Mercy's ear. Keenly alive to the smallest slight to her mother, she turned quickly towards Mrs. White, and, to her consternation, met the same steady, pitiless, aggressive look which she had seen on her face in their first interview. Mercy's first emotion was one of great indignation: her second was a quick flash of comprehension of the whole thing. A great wave of rosy color swept over her face; and, without knowing what she was doing, she looked appealingly at Stephen. Already there was between them so subtle a bond that each understood the other without words. Stephen knew all that Mercy thought in that instant, and an answering flush mounted to his forehead. Mrs. White saw both these flushes, and compressed her lips still more closely in a grimmer silence than before. Poor, unsuspecting Mrs. Carr kept on and on with her meaningless and childish remarks and inquiries; and Mercy and Stephen were both very grateful for them. The dinner came to an untimely end; and almost immediately Mercy, with a nervous and embarrassed air, totally foreign to her, said to her mother,—
"We must go home now. I have letters to write."
Mrs. Carr was disappointed. She had anticipated a long afternoon of chatty gossip with her neighbor; but she saw that Mercy had some strong reason for hurrying home, and she acquiesced unhesitatingly.
Mrs. White did not urge them to remain. To all Mrs. White's faults it must be confessed that she added the virtue of absolute sincerity.
"Good-afternoon, Mrs. Carr," and "Good-afternoon, Mrs. Philbrick," fell from her lips in the same measured syllables and the same cold, unhuman voice which had so startled Mercy once before.
"What a perfectly horrid old woman!" exclaimed Mercy, as soon as they had crossed the threshold of their own door. "I'll never go near her again as long as I live!"
"Why, Mercy Carr!" exclaimed her mother, "what do you mean? I don't think so. She got very tired before dinner was over. I could see that, poor thing! She's drefful weak, an' it stan's to reason she'd be kind o' snappish sometimes."
Mercy opened her lips to reply, but changed her mind and said nothing.
"It's just as well for mother to keep on good terms with her, if she can," she thought. "Maybe it'll help divert a little of Mrs. White's temper from him, poor fellow!"
Stephen had followed them to the door, saying little; but at the last moment, when Mercy said "good-by," he had suddenly held out his hand, and, clasping hers tightly, had looked at her sadly, with a world of regret and appeal and affection and almost despair in the look.
"What a life he must lead of it!" thought Mercy. "Dear me! I should go wild or else get very wicked. I believe I'd get very wicked. I wonder he shuts himself up so with her. It is all nonsense: it only makes her more and more selfish. How mean, how base of her, to be so jealous of his talking with me! If she were his wife, it would be another thing. But he doesn't belong to her body and soul, if she is his mother. If ever I know him well enough, I'll tell him so. It isn't manly in him to let her tyrannize over him and everybody else that comes into the house. I never saw any human being that made one so afraid, somehow. Her tone and look are enough to freeze your blood."
While Mercy was buried in these indignant thoughts, Stephen and his mother, only a few feet away, separated from her only by a wall, were having a fierce and angry talk. No sooner had the door closed upon Mercy than Mrs. White had said to Stephen,—
"Have you the slightest idea how much excitement you showed in conversing with Mrs. Philbrick? I have never seen you look or speak in this way."
The flush had not yet died away on Stephen's face. At this attack, it grew deeper still. He made no reply. Mrs. White continued,—
"I wish you could see your face. It is almost purple now."
"It is enough to make the blood mount to any man's face, mother, to be accused so," replied Stephen, with a spirit unusual for him.
"I don't accuse you of any thing," she retorted. "I am only speaking of what I observe. You needn't think you can deceive me about the least thing, ever. Your face is a perfect tell-tale of your thoughts, always."
Poor Stephen groaned inwardly. Too well he knew his inability to control his unfortunate face.
"Mother!" he exclaimed with almost vehemence of tone, "mother! do not carry this thing too far. I do not in the least understand what you are driving at about Mrs. Philbrick, nor why you show these capricious changes of feeling towards her. I think you have treated her so to-day that she will never darken your doors again. I never should, if I were in her place."
"Very well, I hope she never will, if her presence is to produce such an effect on you. It is enough to turn her head to see that she has such power over a man like you. She is a very vain woman, anyway,—vain of her power over people, I think."
Stephen could bear no more. With a half-smothered ejaculation of "O mother!" he left the room.
And thus the old year went out and the new year came in for Mercy Philbrick and Stephen White,—the old year in which they had been nothing, and the new year in which they were to be every thing to each other.
The next morning, while Stephen was dressing, he slowly reviewed the events of the previous day, and took several resolutions. If Mrs. White could have had the faintest conception of what was passing in her son's mind, while he sat opposite to her at breakfast, so unusually cheerful and talkative, she would have been very unhappy. But she, too, had had a season of reflection this morning, and was much absorbed in her own plans. She heartily regretted having shown so much ill-feeling in regard to Mercy; and she had resolved to atone for it in some way, if she could. Above all, she had resolved, if possible, to banish from Stephen's mind the idea that she was jealous of Mercy or hostile towards her. She had common sense enough to see that to allow him to recognize this feeling on her part was to drive him at once into a course of manoeuvring and concealment. She flattered herself that it was with a wholly natural and easy air that she began her plan of operations by remarking,—
"Mrs. Philbrick seems to be very fond of her mother, does she not, Stephen?"
"Yes, very," answered Stephen, indifferently.
"Mrs. Carr is quite an old woman. She must have been old when Mrs. Philbrick was born. I don't think Mrs. Philbrick can be more than twenty, do you?"
"I am sure I don't know. I never thought anything about her age," replied Stephen, still more indifferently. "I'm no judge of women's ages."
"Well, I'm sure she isn't more than twenty, if she is that," said Mrs. White; "and she really is a very pretty woman, Steve. I'll grant you that."
"Grant me that, mother?" laughed Stephen, lightly. "I never said she was pretty, did I? The first time I saw her, I thought she was uncommonly plain; but afterwards I saw that I had done her injustice. I don't think, however, she would usually be thought pretty."
Mrs. White was much gratified by his careless tone and manner; so much so that she went farther than she had intended, and said in an off-hand way, "I'm real sorry, Steve, you thought I didn't treat her well yesterday. I didn't mean to be rude, but you know it always does vex me to see a woman's head turned by a man's taking a little notice of her; and I know very well, Stephy, that women like you. It wouldn't take much to make Mrs. Philbrick fancy you were in love with her."
Stephen also was gratified by his mother's apparent softening of mood, and instinctively met her more than half way, replying,—
"I didn't mean to say that you were rude to her, mother; only you showed so plainly that you didn't want them to stay. Perhaps she didn't notice it, only thought you were tired. It isn't any great matter, any way. We'd better keep on good terms with them, if they're to live under the same roof with us, that's all."
"Oh, yes," replied Mrs. White. "Much better to be on neighborly terms. The old mother is a childish old thing, though. She'd bore me to death, if she came in often."
"Yes, indeed, she is a bore, sure enough," said Stephen; "but she's so simple, and so much like a child you can't help pitying her."
They fenced very well, these two, with their respective secrets to keep; but the man fenced best, his secret being the most momentous to shield from discovery. When he shut the door, having bade his mother good by, he fairly breathed hard with the sense of having come out of a conflict. One of the resolutions he had taken was that he would wait for Mercy this morning on a street he knew she must pass on her way to market. He did not define to himself any motive for this act, except the simple longing to see her face. He had not said to himself what he would do, or what words he would speak, or even that he would speak at all; but one look at her face he must have, and he had though to himself distinctly in making this plan, "Here is one way in which I can see her every day, and my mother never know any thing about it."
When Mrs. White saw Mercy set off for her usual morning walk, a half hour or more after Stephen had left the house, she thought, as she had often though before on similar occasions, "Well, she won't overtake Stephen this time. I dare say she planned to." Light-hearted Mercy, meantime, was walking on with her own swift, elastic tread, and thinking warmly and shyly of the look with which Stephen had bade her good-by the day before. She was walking, as was her habit, with her eyes cast down, and did not observe that any one approached her, until she suddenly heard Stephen's voice saying, "Good-morning, Mrs. Philbrick." It was the second time that he had surprised her in a reverie of which he himself was the subject. This time the surprise was a joyful one; and the quick flush of rosy color which spread over her cheeks was a flush of gladness,—undisguised and honest gladness.
"Why, Mr. White," she exclaimed, "I never thought of seeing you. I thought you were always in your office at this time."
"I waited to see you this morning," replied Stephen, in a tone as simply honest as her own. "I wanted to speak to you."
Mercy looked up inquiringly, but did not speak. Stephen smiled.
"Oh, not for any particular thing," he said: "only for the pleasure of it."
Then Mercy smiled, and the two looked into each other's faces with a joy which neither attempted to disguise. Stephen took Mercy's basket from her arm; and they walked along in silence, not knowing that it was silence, so full was it of sweet meanings to them in the simple fact that they were walking by each other's side. The few words they did speak were of the purposeless and irrelevant sort in which unacknowledged lovers do so universally express themselves in their earlier moments alone together,—a sort of speech more like birds chirping than like ordinary language. When they parted at the door of Stephen's office, he said,—
"I think you always come to the village about this time in the morning, do you not?"
"Yes, always," replied Mercy.
"Then, if you are willing, I would like sometimes to walk with you," said Stephen.
"I like it very much, Mr. White," answered Mercy, eagerly. "I used to walk a great deal with Mr. Allen, and I miss it sadly."
A jealous pang shot through Stephen's heart. He had been blind. This was the reason Harley Allen had taken such interest in finding a home for Mrs. Philbrick and her mother. He remembered now that he had thought at the time some of the expressions in his friend's letter argued an unusual interest in the young widow. Of course no man could know Mercy without loving her. Stephen was wretched; but no trace of it showed on the serene and smiling face with which he bade Mercy "Good-by," and ran up his office-stairs three steps at a time.
All day Mercy went about her affairs with a new sense of impulse and cheer. It was not a conscious anticipation of the morrow: she did not say to herself "To-morrow morning I shall see him for half an hour." Love knows the secret of true joy better than that. Love throws open wider doors,—lifts a great veil from a measureless vista: all the rest of life is transformed into one shining distance; every present moment is but a round in a ladder whose top disappears in the skies, from which angels are perpetually descending to the dreamer below.
The next morning Mercy saw Stephen leave the house even earlier than usual. Her first thought was one of blank disappointment. "Why, I thought he meant to walk down with me," she said to herself. Her second thought was a perplexed instinct of the truth: "I wonder if he can be afraid to have his mother see him with me?" At this thought, Mercy's face burned, and she tried to banish it; but it would not be banished, and by the time her morning duties were done, and she had set out on her walk, the matter had become quite clear in her mind.
"I shall see him at the corner where he was yesterday," she said.
But no Stephen was there. Spite of herself, Mercy lingered and looked back. She was grieved and she was vexed.
"Why did he say he wanted to walk with me, and then the very first morning not come?" she said, as she walked slowly into the village.
It was a cloudy day, and the clouds seemed to harmonize with Mercy's mood. She did her errands in a half-listless way; and more than one of the tradespeople, who had come to know her voice and smile, wondered what had gone wrong with the cheery young lady. All the way home she looked vainly for Stephen at every cross-street. She fancied she heard his step behind her; she fancied she saw his tall figure in the distance. After she reached home and the expectation was over for that day, she took herself angrily to task for her folly. She reminded herself that Stephen had said "sometimes," not "always;" and that nothing could have been more unlikely than that he should have joined her the very next day. Nevertheless, she was full of uneasy wonder how soon he would come again; and, when the next morning dawned clear and bright, her first thought as she sprang up was,—
"This is such a lovely day for a walk! He will surely come to-day."
Again she was disappointed. Stephen left the house at a very early hour, and walked briskly away without looking back. Mercy forced herself to go through her usual routine of morning work. She was systematic almost to a fault in the arrangement of her time, and any interference with her hours was usually a severe trial of her patience. But to-day it was only by a great effort of her will that she refrained from setting out earlier than usual for the village. She walked rapidly until she approached the street where Stephen had joined her before. Then she slackened her pace, and fixed her eyes on the street. No person was to be seen in it. She walked slower and slower: she could not believe that he was not there. Then she began to fear that she had come a little too early. She turned to retrace her steps; but a sudden sense of shame withheld her, and she turned back again almost immediately, and continued her course towards the village, walking very slowly, and now and then halting and looking back. Still no Stephen. Street after street she passed: no Stephen. A sort of indignant grief swelled up in Mercy's bosom; she was indignant with herself, with him, with circumstances, with everybody; she was unreasoning and unreasonable; she longed so to see Stephen's face that she could not think clearly of any thing else. And yet she was ashamed of this longing. All these struggling emotions together were too much for her; tears came into her eyes; then vexation at the tears made them come all the faster; and, for the first time in her life, Mercy Philbrick pulled her veil over her face to hide that she was crying. Almost in the very moment that she had done this, she heard a quick step behind her, and Stephen's voice calling,—
"Oh, Mrs. Philbrick! Mrs. Philbrick! do not walk so fast. I am trying to overtake you."
Feeling as guilty as a child detected in some forbidden spot, Mercy stood still, vainly hoping her black veil was thick enough to hide her red eyes; vainly trying to regain her composure enough to speak in her natural voice, and smile her usual smile. Vainly, indeed! What crape could blind a lover's eyes, or what forced tone deceive a lover's ears?
At his first sight of her face, Stephen started; at the first sound of her voice, he stood still, and exclaimed,—
"Mrs. Philbrick, you have been crying!" There was no gainsaying it, even if Mercy had not been too honest to make the attempt. She looked up mischievously at him, and tried to say lightly,—
"What then, Mr. White? Didn't you know all women cried?"
The voice was too tremulous. Stephen could not bear it. Forgetting that they were on a public street, forgetting every thing but that Mercy was crying, he exclaimed,—
"Mercy, what is it? Do let me help you! Can't I?"
She did not even observe that he called her "Mercy." It seemed only natural. Without realizing the full meaning of her words, she said,—
"Oh, you have helped me now," and threw up her veil, showing a face where smiles were already triumphant. Instinct told Stephen in the same second what she had meant, and yet had not meant to say. He dropped her hand, and said in a low voice,—
"Mercy, did you really have tears in your eyes because I did not come? Bless you, darling! I don't dare to speak to you here. Oh, pray come down this little by-street with me."
It was a narrow little lane behind the Brick Row into which Stephen and Mercy turned. Although it was so near the centre of the town, it had never been properly graded, but had been left like a wild bit of uneven field. One side of it was walled by the Brick Row; on the other side were only a few poverty-stricken houses, in which colored people lived. The snow lay piled in drifts here all winter, and in spring it was an almost impassable slough of mud. There was now no trodden path, only the track made by sleighs in the middle of the lane. Into this strode Stephen, in his excitement walking so fast that Mercy could hardly keep up with him. They were too much absorbed in their own sensations and in each other to realize the oddity of their appearance, floundering in the deep snow, looking eagerly in each other's faces, and talking in a breathless and disjointed way.
"Mercy," said Stephen, "I have been walking up and down waiting for you ever since I came out; but a man whom I could not get away from stopped me, and I had to stand still helpless and see you walk by the street, and I was afraid I could not overtake you."
"Oh, was that it?" said Mercy, looking up timidly in his face. "I felt sure you would be there this morning, because"—
"Because what?" said Stephen, gently.
"Because you said you would come sometimes, and I knew very well that that need not have meant this particular morning nor any particular morning; and that was what vexed me so, that I should have been silly and set my heart on it. That was what made me cry, Mr. White, I was so vexed with myself," stoutly asserted Mercy, beginning to feel braver and more like herself.
Stephen looked her full in the face without speaking for a moment. Then,—
"May I call you Mercy?" he said.
"Yes," she replied.
"May I say to you exactly what I am thinking?"
"Yes," she replied again, a little more hesitatingly.
"Then, Mercy, this is what I want to say to you," said Stephen, earnestly. "There is no reason why you and I should try to deceive each other or ourselves. I care very, very much for you, and you care very much for me. We have come very close to each other, and neither of our lives can ever be the same again. What is in store for us in all this we cannot now see; but it is certain we are very much to each other."
He spoke more and more slowly and earnestly; his eyes fixed on the distant horizon instead of on Mercy's face. A deep sadness gradually gathered on his countenance, and his last words were spoken more in the tone of one who felt a new exaltation of suffering than of one who felt the new ecstasy of a lover. Looking down into Mercy's face, with a tenderness which made her very heart thrill, he said,—
"Tell me, Mercy, is it not so? Are we not very much to each other?"
The strange reticence of his tone, even more reticent than his words, had affected Mercy inexplicably: it was as if a chill wind had suddenly blown at noonday, and made her shiver in spite of full sunlight. Her tone was almost as reticent and sad as his, as she said, without raising her eyes,—
"I think it is true."
"Please look up at me, Mercy," said Stephen. "I want to feel sure that you are not sorry I care so much for you."
"How could I be sorry?" exclaimed Mercy, lifting her eyes suddenly, and looking into Stephen's face with all the fulness of affection of her glowing nature. "I shall never be sorry."
"Bless you for saying that, dear!" said Stephen, solemnly,—"bless you. You should never be sorry a moment in your life, if I could help it; and now, dear, I must leave you," he said, looking uneasily about. "I ought not to have brought you into this lane. If people were to see us walking here, they would think it strange." And, as they reached the entrance of the lane, his manner suddenly became most ceremonious; and, extending his hand to assist her over a drift of snow, he said in tones unnecessarily loud and formal, "Good-morning, Mrs. Philbrick. I am glad to have helped you through these drifts. Good-morning," and was gone.
Mercy stood still, and looked after him for a moment with a blank sense of bewilderment. His sudden change of tone and manner smote her like a blow. She comprehended in a flash the subterfuge in it, and her soul recoiled from it with incredulous pain. "Why should he be afraid to have people see us together? What does it mean? What reason can he possibly have?" Scores of questions like these crowded on her mind, and hurt her sorely. Her conjecture even ran so wide as to suggest the possibility of his being engaged to another woman,—some old and mistaken promise by which he was hampered. Her direct and honest nature could conceive of nothing less than this which could explain his conduct. Restlessly her imagination fastened on this solution of the problem, and tortured her in vain efforts to decide what would be right under such circumstances.
The day was a long, hard one for Mercy. The more she thought, conjectured, remembered, and anticipated, the deeper grew her perplexity. All the joy which she had at first felt in the consciousness that Stephen loved her died away in the strain of these conflicting uncertainties: and it was a grave and almost stern look with which she met him that night, when, with an eager bearing, almost radiant, he entered her door.
He felt the change at once, and, stretching both his hands towards her, exclaimed,—
"Mercy, my dear, new, sweet friend! are you not well to-night?"
"Oh, yes, thank you. I am very well," replied Mercy, in a tone very gentle, but with a shade of reserve in it.
Stephen's face fell. The expression of patient endurance which was habitual to it, and which Mercy knew so well, and found always so irresistibly appealing, settled again on all his features. Without speaking, he drew his chair close to the hearth, and looked steadfastly into the fire. Some minutes passed in silence. Mercy felt the tears coming again into her eyes. What was this intangible but inexorable thing which stood between this man's soul and hers? She could not doubt that he loved her; she knew that her whole soul went out towards him with a love of which she had never before had even a conception. It seemed to her that the words he had spoken and she had received had already wrought a bond between them which nothing could hinder or harm. Why should they sit thus silent by each other's side to-night, when so few hours ago they were full of joy and gladness? Was it the future or the past which laid this seal on Stephen's lips? Mercy was not wont to be helpless or inert. She saw clearly, acted quickly always; but here she was powerless, because she was in the dark. She could not even grope her way in this mystery. At last Stephen spoke.
"Mercy," he said, "perhaps you are already sorry that I care so much for you. You said yesterday you never would be."
"Oh, no, indeed! I am not," said Mercy. "I am very glad you care so much for me."
"Perhaps you have discovered that you do not care so much for me as you yesterday thought you did."
"Oh, no, no!" replied poor Mercy, in a low tone.
Again Stephen was silent for a long time. Then he said,—
"Ever since I can remember, I have longed for a perfect and absorbing friendship. The peculiar relations of my life have prevented my even hoping for it. My father's and my mother's friends never could be my friends. I have lived the loneliest life a mortal man ever lived. Until I saw you, Mercy, I had never even looked on the face of a woman whom it seemed possible to me that any man could love. Perhaps, when I tell you that, you can imagine what it was to me to look on the face of a woman whom it seems to me no man could help loving. I suppose many men have loved you, Mercy, and many more men will. I do not think any man has ever felt for you, or ever will feel for you, as I feel. My love for you includes every love the heart can know,—the love of father, brother, friend, lover. Young as I am, you seem to me like my child, to be taken care of; and you seem like my sister, to be trusted and loved; and like my friend, to be leaned upon. You see what my life is. You see the burden which I must carry, and which none can share. Do you think that the friendship I can give you can be worth what it would ask? I feel withheld and ashamed as I speak to you. I know how little I can do, how little I can offer. To fetter you by a word would be base and selfish; but, oh, Mercy, till life brings you something better than my love, let me love you, if it is only till to-morrow!"
Mercy listened to each syllable Stephen spoke, as one in a wilderness, flying for his life from pursuers, would listen to every sound which could give the faintest indications which way safety might lie. If she had listened dispassionately to such words, spoken to any other woman, her native honesty of soul would have repelled them as unfair. But every instinct of her nature except the one tender instinct of loving was disarmed and blinded,—disarmed by her affection for Stephen, and blinded by her profound sympathy for his suffering.
She fixed her eyes on him as intently as if she would read the very thoughts of his heart.
"Do you understand me, Mercy?" he said.
"I think I do," she replied in a whisper.
"If you do not now, you will as time goes on," he continued. "I have not a thought I am unwilling for you to know; but there are thoughts which it would be wrong for me to put into words. I stand where I stand; and no mortal can help me, except you. You can help me infinitely. Already the joy of seeing you, hearing you, knowing that you are near, makes all my life seem changed. It is not very much for you to give me, Mercy, after all, out of the illimitable riches of your beauty, your brightness, your spirit, your strength,—just a few words, just a few smiles, just a little love,—for the few days, or it may be years, that fate sets us by each other's side? And you, too, need a friend, Mercy. Your duty to another has brought you where you are singularly alone, for the time being, just as my duty to another has placed me where I must be singularly alone. Is it not a strange chance which has thus brought us together?"
"I do not believe any thing is chance," murmured Mercy. "I must have been sent here for something."
"I believe you were, dear," said Stephen, "sent here for my salvation. I was thinking last night that, no matter if my life should end without my ever knowing what other men call happiness, if I must live lonely and alone to the end, I should still have the memory of you,—of your face, of your hand, and the voice in which you said you cared for me. O Mercy, Mercy! you have not the least conception of what you are to me!" And Stephen stretched out both his arms to her, with unspeakable love in the gesture.
So swiftly that he had not the least warning of her intention, Mercy threw herself into them, and laid her head on his shoulder, sobbing. Shame filled her soul, and burned in her cheeks, when Stephen, lifting her as he would a child, and kissing her forehead gently, placed her again in her chair, and said,—
"My darling, I cannot let you do that. I will never ask from you any thing that you can by any possibility come to regret at some future time. I ought perhaps to be unselfish enough not to ask from you any thing at all. I did not mean to; but I could not help it, and it is too late now."
"Yes, it is too late now," said Mercy,—"too late now." And she buried her face in her hands.
"Mercy," exclaimed Stephen, in a voice of anguish, "you will break my heart: you will make me wish myself dead, if you show such suffering as this. I thought that you, too, could find joy, and perhaps help, in my love, as I could in yours. If it is to give you pain and not happiness, it were better for you never to see me again. I will never voluntarily look on your face after to-night, if you wish it,—if you would be happier so."
"Oh, no, no!" cried Mercy. Then, overwhelmed with the sudden realization of the pain she was giving to a man whom she so loved that at that moment she would have died to shield him from pain, she lifted her face, shook back the hair from her forehead, and, looking bravely into his eyes, repeated,—
"No, no! I am very selfish to feel like this. I do understand you. I understand it all; and I will help you, and comfort you all I can. And I do love you very dearly," she added in a lower voice, with a tone of such incomparable sweetness that it took almost superhuman control on Stephen's part to refrain from clasping her to his heart. But he did not betray the impulse, even by a gesture. Looking at her with an expression of great thankfulness, he said,—
"I believe that peace will come to us, Mercy. I believe I can do something to make you happy. To know that I love you as I do will be a great deal to you, I think." He paused.
"Yes," answered Mercy, "a great deal." He went on,—
"And to know that you are perpetually helping and cheering me will be still more to you, I think. We shall know some joys, Mercy, which joyous lovers never know. Happy people do not need each other as sad people do. O Mercy, do try and remember all the time that you are the one bright thing in my life,—in my whole life."
"I will, Stephen, I will," said Mercy, resolutely, her whole face glowing with the new purposes forming in her heart. It was marvellous how clear the relation between herself and Stephen began to seem to her. It was rather by her magnetic consciousness of all that he was thinking and feeling than by the literal acceptance of any thing or all things which he said. She seemed to herself to be already one with him in all his trials, burdens, perplexities; in his renunciation; in his self-sacrifice; in his loyalty of reticence; in his humility of uncomplainingness.
When she bade him "good-night," her face was not only serene: it was serene with a certain exaltation added, as the face of one who had entered into a great steadfastness of joy. Stephen wondered greatly at this transition from the excitement and grief she had at first shown. He had yet to learn what wellsprings of strength lie in the poetic temperament.
As he stood lingering on the threshold, finding it almost impossible to turn away while the sweet face held him by the honest gaze of the loving eyes, he said,
"There will be many times, dear, when things will have to be very hard, when I shall not be able to do as you would like to have me, when you may even be pained by my conduct. Shall you trust me through it all?"
"I shall trust you till the day of my death," said Mercy, impetuously. "One can't take trust back. It isn't a gift: it is a necessity."
Stephen smiled,—a smile of sorrow rather than gladness.
"But if you thought me other than you had believed?" he said.
"I could never think you other than you are," replied Mercy, proudly. "It is not that I 'believe' you. I know you. I shall trust you to the day of my death."
Perhaps nothing could illustrate better the difference between Mercy Philbrick's nature and Stephen White's, between her love for him and his for her, than the fact that, after this conversation, she lay awake far into the early hours of the morning, living over every word that he had spoken, looking resolutely and even joyously into the strange future which was opening before her, and scanning with loving intentness every chance that it could possibly hold for her ministrations to him. He, on the other hand, laid his head on his pillow with a sense of dreamy happiness, and sank at once into sleep, murmuring,—
"The darling! how she does love me! She shall never regret it,—never. We can have a great deal of happiness together as it is; and if the time ever should come," ...
Here his thoughts halted, and refused to be clothed in explicit phrase. Never once had Stephen White permitted himself to think in words, even in his most secret meditations, "When my mother dies, I shall be free." His fine fastidiousness would shrink from it, as from the particular kind of brutality and bad taste involved in a murder. If the whole truth could have been known of Stephen's feeling about all crimes and sins, it would have been found to be far more a matter of taste than of principle, of instinct than of conviction.
Surely never in this world did love link together two souls more diametrically opposite than Mercy Philbrick's and Stephen White's. It needed no long study or especial insight into character to know which of the two would receive the more and suffer the less, in the abnormal and unfortunate relation on which they had entered. But no presentiment warned Mercy of what lay before her. She was like a traveller going into a country whose language he has never heard, and whose currency he does not understand. However eloquent he may be in his own land, he is dumb and helpless here; and of the fortune with which he was rich at home he is robbed at every turn by false exchanges which impose on his ignorance. Poor Mercy! Vaguely she felt that life was cruel to Stephen and to her; but she accepted its cruelty to her as an inevitable part of her oneness with him. Whatever he had to bear she must bear too, especially if he were helped by her sharing the burden. And her heart glowed with happiness, recalling the expression with which he had said,—
"Remember, Mercy, you are the one bright thing in my life."
She understood, or thought she understood, precisely the position in which he was placed.
"Very possibly he has even promised his mother," she said to herself, "even promised her he would never be married. It would be just like her to exact such a promise from him, and never think any thing of it. And, even if he has not, it is all the same. He knows very well no human being could live in the house with her, to say nothing of his being so terribly poor. Poor, dear Stephen! to think of our little rent being more than half his income! Oh, if there were only some way in which I could contrive to give him money without his knowing it."
If any one had said to Mercy at this time: "It was not honorable in this man, knowing or feeling that he could not marry you, to tell you of his love, and to allow you to show him yours for him. He is putting you in a false position, and may be blighting your whole life," Mercy would have repelled the accusation most indignantly. She would have said: "He has never asked me for any such love as that. He told me most honestly in the very beginning just how it was. He always said he would never fetter me by a word; and, once when I forgot myself for a moment, and threw myself into his very arms, he only kissed my forehead as if I were his sister, and put me away from him almost with a reproof. No, indeed! he is the very soul of honor. It is I who choose to love him with all my soul and all my strength. Why should not a woman devote her life to a man without being his wife, if she chooses, and if he so needs her? It is just as sacred and just as holy a bond as the other, and holier, too; for it is more unselfish. If he can give up the happiness of being a husband and father, for the sake of his duty to his mother, cannot I give up the happiness of being a wife and mother, for the sake of my affection and duty towards him?"
It looked very plain to Mercy in these first days. It looked right, and it seemed very full of joy. Her life seemed now rounded and complete. It had a ruling motive, without which no life is satisfying; and that motive was the highest motive known to the heart,—the desire to make another human being perfectly happy. All hindrances and difficulties, all drawbacks and sacrifices, seemed less than nothing to her. When she saw Stephen, she was happy because she saw him; and when she did not see him, she was happy because she had seen him, and would soon see him again. Past, present, and future all melt into one great harmonious whole under the spell of love in a nature like Mercy's. They are like so many rooms in one great house; and in one or the other the loved being is always to be found, always at home, can never depart! Could one be lonely for a moment in such a house?
Mercy's perpetual and abiding joy at times terrified Stephen. It was a thing so foreign to his own nature that it seemed to him hardly natural. Calm acquiescence he could understand,—serene endurance: he himself never chafed at the barriers, little or great, which kept him from Mercy. But there were many days when his sense of deprivation made him sad, subdued, and quiet. When, in these moods, he came into Mercy's presence, and found her radiant, buoyant, mirthful even, he wondered; and sometimes he questioned. He strove to find out the secret of her joy. There seemed to him no legitimate reason for it.
"Why, to see that I make you glad, Stephen," she would say. "Is not that enough? Or even, when I cannot make you glad, just to love you is enough."
"Mercy, how did you ever come to love me?" he said once, stung by a sense of his own unworthiness. "How do you know you love me, after all?"
"How do I know I love you!" she exclaimed. "Can any one ever tell that, I wonder? I know it by this: that every thing in the whole world, even down to the smallest grass-blade, seems to me different because you are alive." She said these words with a passionate vehemence, and tears in her eyes. Then, changing in a second to a mischievous, laughing mood, she said,—
"Yes: you make all that odds to me. But let us not talk about loving each other, Stephen. That's the way children do with their flower-seeds,—keep pulling them up, to see how they grow."
That night, Mercy gave Stephen this sonnet,—the first words she had written out of the great wellspring of her love:—
"HOW WAS IT?"
Why ask, dear one? I think I cannot tell, More than I know how clouds so sudden lift From mountains, or how snowflakes float and drift, Or springs leave hills. One secret and one spell All true things have. No sunlight ever fell With sound to bid flowers open. Still and swift Come sweetest things on earth. So comes true gift Of Love, and so we know that it is well. Sure tokens also, like the cloud, the snow, And silent flowing of the mountain-springs, The new gift of true loving always brings. In clearer light, in purer paths, we go: New currents of deep joy in common things We find. These are the tokens, dear, we know!
As the months went on, Mercy began to make friends. One person after another observed her bright face, asked who she was, and came to seek her out. "Who is that girl with fair hair and blue eyes, who, whenever you meet her in the street, always looks as if she had just heard some good news?" was asked one day. It was a noteworthy thing that this description was so instantly recognized by the person inquired of, that he had no hesitancy in replying,—
"Oh, that is a young widow from Cape Cod, a Mrs. Philbrick. She came last winter with her mother, who is an invalid. They live in the old Jacobs house with the Whites."
Among the friends whom Mercy thus met was a man who was destined to exercise almost as powerful an influence as Stephen White over her life. This was Parson Dorrance.
Parson Dorrance had in his youth been settled as a Congregationalist minister. But his love of literature and of science was even stronger than his love of preaching the gospel; and, after a very few years, he accepted a position as professor in a small college, in a town only four miles distant from the village in which Mercy had come to live. This was twenty-five years ago. Parson Dorrance was now fifty-five years old. For a quarter of a century, his name had been the pride, and his hand had been the stay, of the college. It had had presidents of renown and professors of brilliant attainments; but Parson Dorrance held a position more enviable than all. Few lives of such simple and steadfast heroism have ever been lived. Few lives have ever so stamped the mark of their influence on a community. In the second year of his ministry, Mr. Dorrance had married a very beautiful and brilliant woman. Probably no two young people ever began married life with a fairer future before them than these. Mrs. Dorrance was as exceptionally clever and cultured a person as her husband; and she added to these rare endowments a personal beauty which is said by all who knew her in her girlhood to have been marvellous. But, as is so often the case among New England women of culture, the body had paid the cost of the mind's estate; and, after the birth of her first child, she sank at once into a hopeless invalidism,—an invalidism all the more difficult to bear, and to be borne with, that it took the shape of distressing nervous maladies which no medical skill could alleviate. The brilliant mind became almost a wreck, and yet retained a preternatural restlessness and activity. Many regarded her condition as insanity, and believed that Mr. Dorrance erred in not giving her up to the care of those making mental disorders a specialty. But his love and patience were untiring. When her mental depression and suffering reached such a stage that she could not safely see a human face but his, he shut himself up with her in her darkened room till the crisis had passed. There were times when she could not close her eyes in sleep unless he sat by her side, holding her hand in his, and gently stroking it. He spent weeks of nights by her bedside in this way. At any hour of the day, a summons might come from her; and, whatever might be his engagement, it was instantly laid aside,—laid aside, too, with cheerfulness and alacrity. At times, all his college duties would be suspended on her account; and his own specialties of scientific research, in which he was beginning to win recognition even from the great masters of science in Europe, were very early laid aside for ever. It must have been a great pang to him,—this relinquishment of fame, and of what is dearer to the true scientific man than all fame, the joys of discovery; but no man ever heard from his lips an allusion to the sacrifice. The great telescope, with which he had so many nights swept the heavens, still stood in his garden observatory; but it was little used except for recreation, and for the pleasure and instruction of his boy. Yet no one would have dreamed, from the hearty joy with which he used it for these purposes, that it had ever been to him the token and the instrument of the great hope of his heart. The resolute cheer of this man's life pervaded the whole atmosphere of his house. Spite of the perpetual shadow of the invalid's darkened room, spite of the inevitable circumscribing of narrow means, Parson Dorrance's cottage was the pleasantest house in the place, was the house to which all the townspeople took strangers with pride, and was the house which strangers never forgot. There was always a new book, or a new print, or a new flower, or a new thought which the untiring mind had just been shaping; and there were always and ever the welcome and the sympathy of a man who loved men because he loved God, and who loved God with an affection as personal in its nature as the affection with which he loved a man.
Year after year, classes of young men went away from this college, having for four years looked on the light of this goodness. Said I not well that few lives have ever been lived which have left such a stamp on a community? No man could be so gross that he would utterly fail to feel its purity, no man so stupid that he could not see its grandeur of self-sacrifice; and to souls of a fibre fine enough to be touched to the quick by its exaltation, it was-a kindling fire for ever.
In the twenty-seventh year of her married life, and near the end of the twenty-fifth year of her confinement to her room, Mrs. Dorrance died. For a few months after her death, her husband seemed like a man suddenly struck blind in the midst of familiar objects. He seemed to be groping his way, to have lost all plan of daily life, so tremendous was the change involved in the withdrawal of this perpetual burden. Just as he was beginning to recover the natural tone of his mind, and to resume his old habits of work, his son sickened and died. The young man had never been strong: he had inherited his mother's delicacy of constitution, and her nervous excitability as well; but he had rare qualities of mind, and gave great promise as a scholar. The news of his death was a blow to every heart that loved his father. "This will kill the Parson," was said by sorrowing voices far and near. On the contrary, it seemed to be the very thing which cleared the atmosphere of his whole life, and renewed his vigor and energy. He rose up from the terrible grief more majestic than ever, as some grand old tree, whose young shoots and branches have been torn away by fierce storms, seems to lift its head higher than before, and to tower in its stripped loneliness above all its fellows. All the loving fatherhood of his nature was spent now on the young people of his town; and, by young people, I mean all between the ages of four and twenty. There was hardly a baby that did not know Parson Dorrance, and stretch out its arms to him; there was hardly a young man or a young woman who did not go to him with troubles or perplexities. You met him, one day, drawing a huge sledful of children on the snow; another day, walking in the centre of a group of young men and maidens, teaching them as he walked. They all loved him as a comrade, and reverenced him as a teacher. They wanted him at their picnics; and, whenever he preached, they flocked to hear him. It was a significant thing that his title of Professor was never heard. From first to last, he was always called "Parson Dorrance;" and there were few Sundays on which he did not preach at home or abroad. It was one of the forms of his active benevolence. If a poor minister broke down and needed rest, Parson Dorrance preached for him, for one month or for three, as the case required. If a little church were without a pastor and could not find one, or were in debt and could not afford to hire one, it sent to ask Parson Dorrance to supply the pulpit; and he always went. Finally, not content with these ordinary and established channels for preaching the gospel, he sought out for himself a new one. About eight miles from the village there was a negro settlement known as "The Cedars." It was a wild place. Great outcropping ledges of granite, with big boulders toppling over, and piled upon each other, and all knotted together by the gnarled roots of ancient cedar-trees, made the place seem like ruins of old fortresses. There were caves of great depth, some of them with two entrances, in which, in the time of the fugitive slave law, many a poor hunted creature had had safe refuge. Besides the cedar-trees, there were sugar-maples and white birches; and the beautiful rock ferns grew all over the ledges in high waving tufts, almost as luxuriantly as if they were in the tropics; so that the spot, wild and fierce as it was, had great beauty. Many of the fugitive slaves had built themselves huts here: some lived in the caves. A few poor and vicious whites had joined them, intermarried with them, and from these had gradually grown up a band of as mongrel, miserable vagabonds as is often seen. They were the terror of the neighborhood. Except for their supreme laziness, they would have been as dangerous as brigands; for they were utter outlaws. No man cared for them; and they cared for no man. Parson Dorrance's heart yearned over these poor Ishmaelites; and he determined to see if they were irreclaimable. The first thing that his townsmen knew of his plan was his purchase of several acres of land near "The Cedars." He bought it very cheap, because land in that vicinity was held to be worthless for purposes of cultivation. Unless the crops were guarded night and day, they were surreptitiously harvested by foragers from "The Cedars." Then it was found out that Parson Dorrance was in the habit of driving over often to look at his new property. Gradually, the children became used to his presence, and would steal out and talk to him. Then he carried over a small microscope, and let them look through it at insects; and before long there might have been seen, on a Sunday afternoon, a group of twenty or thirty of the outcasts gathered round the Parson, while he talked to them as he had talked to the children. Then he told them that, if they would help, he would build a little house on his ground, and put some pictures and maps in it for them, and come over every Sunday and talk to them; and they set to work with a will. Very many were the shrugs and smiles over "Parson Dorrance's Chapel at 'The Cedars.'" But the chapel was built; and the Parson preached in it to sometimes seventy-five of the outlaws. The next astonishment of the Parson's friends was on finding him laying out part of his new land in a nursery of valuable young fruit-trees and flowering shrubs. Then they said,—
"Really, the Parson is mad! Does he think he has converted all those negroes, so that they won't steal fruit?" And, when they met the Parson, they laughed at him. "Come, come, Parson," they said, "this is carrying the thing a little too far, to trust a fruit orchard over there by 'The Cedars.'"
Parson Dorrance's eyes twinkled.
"I know the boys better than you do," he replied. "They will not steal a single pear."
"I'd like to wager you something on that," said the friend.
"Well, I couldn't exactly take such a wager," answered the Parson, "because you see I know the boys won't steal the fruit."
Somewhat vexed at the obstinacy of the Parson's faith, his friend exclaimed, "I'd like to know how you can know that beforehand?"
Parson Dorrance loved a joke.
"Neighbor," said he, "I wish I could in honor have let you wager me on that. I've given the orchard to the boys. The fruit's all their own."