This was the man whom Mercy Philbrick met early in her first summer at Penfield. She had heard him preach twice, and had been so greatly impressed by his words and by his face that she longed very much to know him. She had talked with Stephen about him, but had found that Stephen did not sympathize at all in her enthusiasm. "The people over at Danby are all crazy about him, I think," said Stephen. "He is a very good man no doubt, and does no end of things for the college boys, that none of the other professors do. But I think he is quixotic and sentimental; and all this stuff about those niggers at the Cedars is moonshine. They'd pick his very pocket, I daresay, any day; and he'd never suspect them. I know that lot too well. The Lord himself couldn't convert them."
"Oh, Stephen! I think you are wrong," replied Mercy. "Parson Dorrance is not sentimental, I am sure. His sermons were clear and logical and terse,—not a waste word in them; and his mouth and chin are as strong as an old Roman's."
Stephen looked earnestly at Mercy. "Mercy," said he, "I wonder if you would love me better if I were a preacher, and could preach clear, logical, and terse sermons?"
Mercy was impatient. Already the self-centring of Stephen's mind, his instant reverting from most trains of thought to their possible bearing on her love for him, had begun to irritate her. It was so foreign to her own unconscious, free-souled acceptance and trust.
"Stephen," she exclaimed, "I wish you wouldn't say such things. Besides seeming to imply a sort of distrust of my love for you, they are illogical; and you know there is nothing I hate like bad logic."
Stephen made no reply. The slightest approach to a disagreement between Mercy and himself gave him great pain and a sense of terror; and he took refuge instantly behind his usual shield of silence. This also was foreign to Mercy's habit and impulse. When any thing went wrong, it was Mercy's way to speak out honestly; to have the matter set in all its lights, until it could reach its true one. She hated mystery; she hated reticence; she hated every thing which fell short of full and frank understanding of each other.
"Oh, Stephen!" she used to say often, "it is bad enough for us to be forced into keeping things back from the world. Don't let us keep any thing back from each other."
Poor Mercy! the days were beginning to be hard for her. Her face often wore a look of perplexed thought which was very new to it. Still she never wavered for a moment in her devotion to Stephen. If she had stood acknowledged before all the world as his wife, she could not have been any more single-hearted and unquestioning in her loyalty.
It was at a picnic in which the young people of both Danby and Penfield had joined that Mercy met Parson Dorrance. No such gathering was ever thought complete without the Parson's presence. Again and again one might hear it said in the preliminary discussion: "But we must find out first what day Parson Dorrance can go. It won't be any fun without him!"
Until Mercy came, Stephen White had rarely been asked to the pleasurings of the young people in Penfield. There was a general impression that he did not care for things of that sort. His manner was wrongly interpreted, however: it was really only the constraint born of the feeling that he was out of his place, or that nobody wanted him. He watched in silent wonder the cordial way in which, it seemed to him, that Mercy talked with everybody, and made everybody feel happy.
"Oh, Mercy, how can you!" he would exclaim: "I feel so dumb, even while I am talking the fastest!"
"Why, so do I, Stephen," said Mercy. "I am often racking my brains to think what I shall say next. Half the people I meet are profoundly uninteresting to me; and half of the other half paralyze me at first sight, and I feel like such a hypocrite all the time; but, oh, what a pleasure it is to talk with the other quarter!"
"Yes," sighed Stephen, "you look so happy and absorbed sometimes that it makes me feel as if you had forgotten me altogether."
"Silly boy!" laughed Mercy. "Do you want me to prove to you by a long face that I am remembering you?—Darling," she added, "at those very times when you see me seem so absorbed and happy in company, I am most likely thinking about the last time you looked into my face, or the next time you will."
And for once Stephen was satisfied.
The picnic at which Mercy met Parson Dorrance had taken place on a mountain some six miles south-west of Penfield. This mountain was the western extremity of the range of which I have before spoken; and at its base ran the river which made the meadow-lands of Penfield and Danby so beautiful. Nowhere in America is there a lovelier picture than these meadow-lands, seen from the top of this mountain which overhangs them. The mountain is only about twenty-five hundred feet high: therefore, one loses no smallest shade of color in the view; even the difference between the green of broom-corn and clover records itself to the eye looking down from the mountain-top. As far as one can see to northward the valley stretches in bands and belts and spaces of varied tints of green. The river winds through it in doubling curves, and looks from the height like a line of silver laid in loops on an enamelled surface. To the east and the west rise the river terraces, higher and higher, becoming, at last, lofty and abrupt hills at the horizon.
When Parson Dorrance was introduced to Mercy, she was alone on a spur of rock which jutted out from the mountain-side and overhung the valley. She had wandered away from the gay and laughing company, and was sitting alone, absorbed and almost saddened by the unutterable beauty of the landscape below. Stephen had missed her, but had not yet dared to go in search of her. He imposed on himself a very rigid law in public, and never permitted himself to do or say or even look any thing which could suggest to others the intimacy of their relations. Mercy sometimes felt this so keenly that she reproached him. "I can't see why you should think it necessary to avoid me so," she would say. "You treat me exactly as if I were only a common acquaintance."
"That is exactly what I wish to have every one believe you to be, Mercy," Stephen would reply with emphasis. "That is the only safe course. Once let people begin to associate our names together, and there is no limit to the things they would say. We cannot be too careful. That is one thing you must let me be the judge of, dear. You cannot understand it as I do. So long as I am without the right or the power to protect you, my first duty is to shield you from any or all gossip linking our names together."
Mercy felt the justice of this; and yet to her there seemed also a sort of injustice involved in it. She felt stung often, and wounded, in spite of all reasoning with herself that she had no cause to do so, that Stephen was but doing right. So inevitable and inextricable are pains and dilemmas when once we enter on the paths of concealment.
Parson Dorrance was introduced to Mercy by Mrs. Hunter, a young married woman, who was fast becoming her most intimate friend. Mrs. Hunter's father had been settled as the minister of a church in Penfield, in the same year that Parson Dorrance had taken his professorship in Danby, and the two men had been close friends from that day till the day of Mr. Adams's death. Little Lizzy Adams had been Parson Dorrance's pet when she lay in her cradle. He had baptized her; and, when she came to woman's estate, he had performed the ceremony which gave her in marriage to Luke Hunter, the most promising young lawyer in the county.
She had always called Parson Dorrance her uncle, and her house in Penfield was his second home. It had been Mrs. Hunter's wish for a long time that he should see and know her new friend, Mercy. But Mercy was very shy of seeing the man for whom she felt such reverence, and had steadily refused to meet him. It was therefore with a certain air of triumphant satisfaction that Mrs. Hunter led Parson Dorrance to the rock where Mercy was sitting, and exclaimed,—
"There, Uncle Dorrance! here she is!"
Parson Dorrance did not wait for any farther introduction; but; holding out both his hands to Mercy, he said in a deep, mellow voice, and with a tone which had a benediction in it,—
"I am very glad to see you, Mrs. Philbrick. My child Lizzy here has been telling me about you for a long time. You know I'm the same as a father to her; so you can't escape me, if you are going to be her friend."
Mercy looked up half-shamefacedly and half-archly, and replied,—
"It was not that I wanted to escape you; but I wanted you to escape me." She perceived that the Parson had been told of her refusals to meet him. Then they all sat down again on the jutting rock; and Mercy, leaning forward with her hands clasped on her knees, fixed her eyes on Parson Dorrance's face, and drank in every word that he said. He had a rare faculty of speaking with the greatest simplicity, both of language and manner. It was impossible not to feel at ease in his presence. It was impossible not to tell him all that he asked. Before you knew it, you were speaking to him of your own feelings, tastes, the incidents of your life, your plans and purposes, as if he were a species of father confessor. He questioned you so gently, yet with such an air of right; he listened so observantly and sympathetically. He did not treat Mercy Philbrick as a stranger; for Mrs. Hunter had told him already all she knew of her friend's life, and had showed him several of Mercy's poems, which had surprised him much by their beauty, and still more by their condensation of thought. They seemed to him almost more masculine than feminine; and he had unconsciously anticipated that in seeing Mercy he would see a woman of masculine type. He was greatly astonished. He could not associate this slight, fair girl, with a child's honesty and appeal in her eyes, with the forceful words he had read from her pen. He pursued his conversation with her eagerly, seeking to discover the secret of her style, to trace back the poetry from its flower to its root. It was an astonishment to Mercy to find herself talking about her own verses with this stranger whom she so reverenced. But she felt at once as if she had sat at his feet all her life, and had no right to withhold any thing from her master.
"I suppose, Mrs. Philbrick, you have read the earlier English poets a great deal, have you not?" he said. "I infer so from the style of some of your poems."
"Oh, no!" exclaimed Mercy, in honest vehemence. "I have read hardly any thing, Mr. Dorrance. I know Herbert a little; but most of the old English poets I have never even seen. I have never lived where there were any books till now."
"You love Wordsworth, I hope," he said inquiringly.
Mercy turned very red, and answered in a tone of desperation, "I've tried to. Mr. Allen said I must. But I can't. I don't care any thing about him." And she looked at the Parson with the air of a culprit who has confessed a terrible misdemeanor.
"Ah," he replied, "you have not then reached the point in the journey at which one sees him. It is only a question of time: one comes of a sudden into the presence of Wordsworth, as a traveller finds some day, upon a well-known road, a grand cathedral, into which he turns aside and worships, and wonders how it happens that he never before saw it. You will tell me some day that this has happened to you. It is only a question of time."
Just as Parson Dorrance pronounced the last words, they were echoed by a laughing party who had come in search of him. "Yes, yes, only a question of time," they said; "and it is our time now, Parson. You must come with us. No monopoly of the Parson allowed, Mrs. Hunter," and they carried him off, joining hands around him and singing the old college song, "Gaudeamus igitur."
Stephen, who had joined eagerly in the proposal to go in search of the Parson, remained behind, and made a sign to Mercy to stay with him. Sitting down by her side, he said gloomily,—
"What were you talking about when we came up? Your face looked as if you were listening to music."
"About Wordsworth," said Mercy. "Parson Dorrance said such a beautiful thing about him. It was like music, like far off music," and she repeated it to Stephen. "I wonder if I shall ever reach that cathedral," she added.
"Well, I've never reached it," said Stephen, "and I'm a good deal older than you. I think two thirds of Wordsworth's poetry is imbecile, absolutely imbecile."
Mercy was too much under the spell of Parson Dorrance's recent words to sympathize in this; but she had already learned to avoid dissent from Stephen's opinions, and she made no reply. They were sitting on the edge of a great fissure in the mountain. Some terrible convulsion must have shaken the huge mass to its centre, to have made such a rift. At the bottom ran a stream, looking from this height like little more than a silver thread. Shrubs and low flowering things were waving all the way down the sides of the abyss, as if nature had done her best to fill up the ugly wound. Many feet below them, on a projecting rock, waved one little white blossom, so fragile it seemed as if each swaying motion in the breeze must sever it from the stem.
"Oh, see the dainty, brave little thing!" exclaimed Mercy. "It looks as if it were almost alone in space."
"I will get it for you," said Stephen; and, before Mercy could speak to restrain him, he was far down the precipice. With a low ejaculation of terror, Mercy closed her eyes. She would not look on Stephen in such peril. She did not move nor open her eyes, until he stood by her side, exclaiming, "Why, Mercy! my darling, do not look so! There was no danger," and he laid the little plant in her hand. She looked at it in silence for a moment, and then said,—
"Oh, Stephen! to risk your life for such a thing as that! The sight of it will always make me shudder."
"Then I will throw it away," said Stephen, endeavoring to take it from her hand; but she held it only the tighter, and whispered,—
"No! oh, what a moment! what a moment! I shall keep this flower as long as I live!" And she did,—kept it wrapped in a paper, on which were written the following lines:—
Lightly as an insect floating In the sunny summer air, Waved one tiny snow-white blossom, From a hidden crevice growing, Dainty, fragile-leaved, and fair, Where great rocks piled up like mountains, Well-nigh to the shining heavens, Rose precipitous and bare, With a pent-up river rushing, Foaming as at boiling heat Wildly, madly, at their feet.
Hardly with a ripple stirring The sweet silence by its tone, Fell a woman's whisper lightly,— "Oh, the dainty, dauntless blossom! What deep secret of its own Keeps it joyous and light-hearted, O'er this dreadful chasm swinging, Unsupported and alone, With no help or cheer from kindred? Oh, the dainty, dauntless thing, Bravest creature of the spring!"
Then the woman saw her lover, For one instant saw his face, Down the precipice slow sinking, Looking up at her, and sending Through the shimmering, sunny space Look of love and subtle triumph, As he plucked the tiny blossom In its airy, dizzy place,— Plucked it, smiling, as if danger Were not danger to the hand Of true lover in love's land.
In her hands her face she buried, At her heart the blood grew chill; In that one brief moment crowded The whole anguish of a lifetime, Made her every pulse stand still. Like one dead she sat and waited, Listening to the stirless silence, Ages in a second, till, Lightly leaping, came her lover, And, still smiling, laid the sweet Snow-white blossom at her feet.
"O my love! my love!" she shuddered, "Bloomed that flower by Death's own spell? Was thy life so little moment, Life and love for that one blossom Wert thou ready thus to sell? O my precious love! for ever I shall keep this faded token Of the hour which came to tell, In such voice I scarce dared listen, How thy life to me had grown So much dearer than my own!"
On their way home from the picnic late in the afternoon, they came at the base of the mountain to a beautiful spot where two little streams met. The two streams were in sight for a long distance: one shining in a green meadow; the other leaping and foaming down a gorge in the mountain-side. A little inn, which was famous for its beer, stood on the meadow space, bounded by these two streams; and the picnic party halted before its door. While the white foamy glasses were clinked and tossed, Mercy ran down the narrow strip of land at the end of which the streams met. A little thicket of willows grew there. Standing on the very edge of the shore, Mercy broke off a willow wand, and dipped it to right in the meadow stream, to the left in the stream from the gorge. Then she brought it back wet and dripping.
"It has drank of two waters," she cried, holding it up. "Oh, you ought to see how wonderful it is to watch their coming together at that point! For a little while you can trace the mountain water by itself in the other: then it is all lost, and they pour on together." This picture, also, she set in a frame of verse one day, and gave it to Stephen.
On a green point of sunny land, Hemmed in by mountains stern and high, I stood alone as dreamers stand, And watched two streams that hurried by.
One ran to east, and one to south; They leaped and sparkled in the sun; They foamed like racers at the mouth, And laughed as if the race were won.
Just on the point of sunny land A low bush stood, like umpire fair, Waving green banners in its hand, As if the victory to declare.
Ah, victory won, but not by race! Ah, victory by a sweeter name! To blend for ever in embrace, Unconscious, swift, the two streams came.
One instant, separate, side by side The shining currents seemed to pour; Then swept in one tumultuous tide, Swifter and stronger than before.
O stream to south! O stream to east! Which bears the other, who shall see? Which one is most, which one is least, In this surrendering victory?
To that green point of sunny land, Hemmed in by mountains stern and high, I called my love, and, hand in hand, We watched the streams that hurried by.
It was a turning-point in Mercy's life when she met Parson Dorrance. Here at last was a man who had strength enough to influence her, culture enough to teach her, and the firm moral rectitude which her nature so inexorably demanded. During the first few weeks of their acquaintance, Mercy was conscious of an insatiable desire to be in his presence: it was an intellectual and a moral thirst. Nothing could be farther removed from the absorbing consciousness which passionate love feels of its object, than was this sentiment she felt toward Parson Dorrance. If he had been a being from another planet, it could not have been more so. In fact, it was very much as if another planet had been added to her world,—a planet which threw brilliant light into every dark corner of this one. She questioned him eagerly. Her old doubts and perplexities, which Mr. Allen's narrower mind had been unable to comprehend or to help, were now set at rest and cleared up by a spiritual vision far keener than her own. Her mind was fed and trained by an intellect so much stronger than her own that it compelled her assent and her allegiance. She came to him almost as a maiden, in the ancient days of Greece, would have gone to the oracle of the holiest shrine. Parson Dorrance in his turn was as much impressed by Mercy; but he was never able to see in her simply the pupil, the questioner. To him she was also a warm and glowing personality, a young and beautiful woman. Parson Dorrance's hair was white as snow; but his eyes were as keen and dark as in his youth, his step as firm, and his pulse as quick. Long before he dreamed of such a thing, he might have known, if he had taken counsel of his heart, that Mercy was becoming to him the one woman in the world. There was always this peculiarity in Mercy's influence upon all who came to love her. She was so unique and incalculable a person that she made all other women seem by comparison with her monotonous and wearying. Intimacy with her had a subtle flavor to it, by which other flavors were dulled. The very impersonality of her enthusiasms and interests, her capacity for looking on a person for the time being merely as a representative or mouth-piece, so to speak, of thoughts, of ideas, of narrations, was one of her strongest charms. By reason of this, the world was often unjust to her in its comments on her manner, on her relations with men. The world more than once accused her uncharitably of flirting. But the men with whom she had friendships knew better; and now and then a woman had the insight to be just to her, to see that she was quite capable of regarding a human being as objectively as she would a flower or a mountain or a star. The blending of this trait in her with the strong capacity she had for loving individuals was singular; not more so, perhaps, than the blending of the poetic temperament with the active, energetic, and practical side of her nature.
It was not long before her name began to be mentioned in connection with Parson Dorrance's, by the busy tongues which are always in motion in small villages. It was not long, moreover, before a thought and a hope, in which both these names were allied, crept into the heart of Lizzy Hunter.
"Oh," she thought, "if only Uncle Dorrance would marry Mercy, how happy I should be, she would be, every one would be."
No suspicion of the relation in which Mercy stood to Stephen White had ever crossed Mrs. Hunter's mind. She had never known Stephen until recently; and his manner towards her had been from the outset so chilled and constrained by his unconscious jealousy of every new friend Mercy made, that she had set him down in her own mind as a dull and surly man, and rarely thought of him. And, as one of poor Mercy's many devices for keeping up with her conscience a semblance of honesty in the matter of Stephen was the entire omission of all reference to him in her conversation, nothing occurred to remind her friends of him. Parson Dorrance, indeed, had said to her one day,—
"You never speak of Mr. White, Mercy. Is he an agreeable and kind landlord?"
Mercy started, looked bewilderedly in the Parson's face, and repeated his words mechanically,—
"Landlord?" Then recollecting herself, she exclaimed, "Oh, yes! we do pay rent to him; but it was paid for the whole year in advance, and I had forgotten all about it."
Parson Dorrance had had occasion to distrust Stephen's father, and he distrusted the son. "Advance? advance?" he exclaimed. "Why did you do that, child? That was all wrong."
"Oh, no!" said Mercy, eagerly. "I had the money, and it made no difference to me; and Mr. Allen told me that Mr. White was in a great strait for money, so I was very glad to give it to him. Such a mother is a terrible burden on a young man," and Mercy continued talking about Mrs. White, until she had effectually led the conversation away from Stephen.
When Lizzy Hunter first began to recognize the possibility of her Uncle Dorrance's loving her dear friend Mercy, she found it very hard to refrain, in her talks with Mercy, from all allusions to such a possibility. But she knew instinctively that any such suggestion would terrify Mercy, and make her withdraw herself altogether. So she contented herself with talking to her in what she thought were safe generalizations on the subject of marriage. Lizzy Hunter was one of the clinging, caressing, caressable women, who nestle into men's affections as kittens nestle into warm corners, and from very much the same motives,—love of warmth and shelter, and of being fondled. To all these instincts in Lizzy, however, were added a really beautiful motherliness and great loyalty of affection. If the world held more such women, there would be more happy children and contented husbands.
"Mercy," said she one afternoon, earnestly, "Mercy, it makes me perfectly wretched to have you say so confidently that you will never be married. You don't know what you are talking about: you don't realize in the least what it is for a woman to live alone and homeless to the end of her days."
"I never need be homeless, dear," said Mercy. "I shall always have a home, even after mother is no longer with me; and I am afraid that is very near, she has failed so much this past summer. But, even if I were all alone, I should still keep my home."
"A house isn't a home, Mercy!" exclaimed Lizzy. Of course you can always be comfortable, so far as a roof and food go towards comfort."
"And that's a great way, my Lizzy," interrupted Mercy, laughing,—"a great way. No husband could possibly take the place of them, could he?"
"Now, Mercy, don't talk so. You know very well what I mean," replied Lizzy. "It is so forlorn for a woman not to have anybody need her, not to have anybody to love her more than he loves all the rest of the world, and not to have anybody to love herself. Oh, Mercy, I don't see how any woman lives without it!"
The tears came into Mercy's eyes. There were depths of lovingness in her soul of which a woman like Lizzy could not even dream. But she spoke in a resolute tone, and she spoke very honestly, too, when she said,—
"Well, I don't see how any woman can help living very well without it, if it doesn't come to her. I don't see how any human being—man or woman, single or married—can help being glad to be alive under any conditions. It is such a glorious thing to have a soul and a body, and to get the most out of them. Just from the purely selfish point of view, it seems to me a delight to live; and when you look at it from a higher point, and think how much each human being can do for those around him, why, then it is sublime. Look at Parson Dorrance, Lizzy! Just think of the sum of the happiness that man has created in this world! He isn't lonely. He couldn't think of such a thing."
"Yes, he is, too,—I know he is," said Lizzy, impetuously. "The very way he takes up my children and hugs them and kisses them shows that he longs for a home and children of his own."
"I think not," replied Mercy. "It is all part of the perpetual overflow of his benevolence. He can't pass by a living creature, if it is only a dog, without a desire to give it a moment's happiness. Of happiness for himself he never thinks, because he is on a plane above happiness,—a plane of perpetual joy." Mercy hesitated, paused, and then went on, "I don't mean to be irreverent, but I could never think of his needing personal ministrations to his own happiness, any more than I could think of God's needing them. I think he is on a plane as absolutely above such needs as God is. Not so high above, but as absolutely."
"How are you so sure God is above it?" said Lizzy, timidly. "I can't conceive of God's being happy if nobody loved him."
Mercy was startled by these words from Lizzy, who rarely questioned and never philosophized. She opened her lips to reply with a hasty reiteration of her first sentiment, but the words died even before they were spoken, arrested by her sudden consciousness of the possibility of a grand truth underlying Lizzy's instinct. If that were so, did it not lie out far beyond every fact in life, include and control them all, as the great truth of gravitation outlies and embraces the physical universe? Did God so need as well as so love the world, that he gave his only begotten Son for it? Is this what it meant to be "one with God"? Then, if the great, illimitable heart of God thus yearns for the love of his creatures, the greater the heart of a human being, the more must he yearn for a fulness of love, a completion of the cycle of bonds and joys for which he was made. From these simple words of a loving woman's heart had flashed a great light into Mercy's comprehension of God. She was silent for some moments; then she said solemnly,—
"That was a great thought you had then, Lizzy. I never saw it in that light before. I shall never forget it. Perhaps you are right about the Parson, too. I wonder if there is any thing he does long for? If there is, I would die to give it to him,—I know that."
It was very near Lizzy's lips to say, "If you would live to give it to him, it would be more to the purpose, perhaps;" but she wisely forbore and they parted in silence, Mercy absorbed in thinking of this new view of God's relation to man, and Lizzy hoping that Mercy was thinking of Parson Dorrance's need of a greater happiness than he possessed.
As Mercy's circle of friends widened, and her interests enlarged and deepened, her relation to Stephen became at once easier and harder: easier, because she no longer spent so many hours alone in perplexed meditation as to the possible wrong in it; harder, because he was frequently unreasonable, jealous of the pleasure that he saw she found in others, jealous of the pleasure she gave to others,—jealous, in short, of every thing in which he was not her centre. Mercy was very patient with him. She loved him unutterably. She never forgot for an instant the quiet heroism with which he bore his hard life. As the months had gone on, she had gradually established a certain kindly familiarity with his mother; going in often to see her, taking her little gifts of flowers or fruit, and telling her of all little incidents which might amuse her. She seemed to herself in this way to be doing a little towards sharing Stephen's burden; and she also felt a certain bond to the woman who, being Stephen's mother, ought to have been hers by adoption. The more she saw of Mrs. White's tyrannical, exacting nature, the more she yearned over Stephen. Her first feeling of impatience with him, of resentment at the seeming want of manliness in such subjection, had long ago worn away. She saw that there were but two courses for him,—either to leave the house, or to buy a semblance of peace at any cost.
"Flesh and blood can't stand up agin Mis' White," said Marty one day, in an irrepressible confidence to Mercy. "An' the queerest thing is, that she'll never let go on you. There ain't nothin' to hender my goin' away any day, an' there hain't been for twenty year; but she sez I'm to stay till she dies, an' I don't make no doubt I shall. It's Mister Stephen I stay for, though, after all, more 'n 't is her. I don't believe the Lord ever made such a man."
Mercy's cheeks would burn after such a talk as this; and she would lavish upon Stephen every device of love and cheer which she could invent, to atone to him by hours, if possible, for the misery of days.
But the hours were few and far between. Stephen's days were filled with work, and his evenings were his mother's. Only after she slept did he have freedom. Just as soon as it was safe for him to leave the house, he flew to Mercy; but, oh, how meagre and pitiful did the few moments seem!
"Hardly long enough to realize that I am with you, my darling," he often said.
"But then it is every day, Stephen,—think of that," Mercy would reply, bent always on making all things easier instead of harder for him. Even the concealment, which was at times well-nigh insupportable to her, she never complained of now. She had accepted it. "And, after accepting it, I have no right to reproach him with it: it would be base," she thought.
Nevertheless, it was slowly wearing away the very foundations of her peace. The morning walks had long been given up. Mercy had been resolute about this. When she found Stephen insisting upon going in by-ways and lanes, lest some one should see them who might mention it to his mother, when he told her that she must not speak of it to her own mother, she said firmly,—
"This must end, Stephen. How hard it is to me to give it up you know very well. It is like the sunrise to my day, always, these moments with you. But I will not multiply concealments. It makes me guilty and ashamed all the time. Don't urge me to any such thing; for I am not sure that too much of it would not kill my love for you. Let us be patient. Chance will do a good deal for us; but I will not plan to meet clandestinely. Whenever you can come to our house, that is different. It distresses me to have you do that and never tell of it; but that is yours and not mine, if any thing can be yours and not mine," she added sadly. Stephen had not heard the last words.
"Kill your love for me, Mercy!" he exclaimed. "Are you really afraid of that?"
"No, not kill my love for you," replied Mercy, "I think nothing could do that, but kill all my joy in my love for you; and that would be as terrible to you as if the love were killed. You would not know the difference, and I should not be able to make you see it."
It was a strange thing that with all Stephen's jealousy of Mercy's enlarged and enlarging life, of her ever-widening circle of friends, he had no especial jealousy of Parson Dorrance. The Parson was Mercy's only frequent visitor; and Stephen knew very well that he had become her teacher and her guide, that she referred every question to his decision, and was guided implicitly by his taste and wish in her writing and in her studies. But, when Stephen was a boy in college, Parson Dorranee had seemed to him an old man; and he now seemed venerable. Stephen could not have been freer from a lover's jealousy of him, if he had been Mercy's own father. Perhaps, if his instinct had been truer, it might have quickened Mercy's. She was equally unaware of the real nature of the Parson's regard for her. He did for her the same things he did for Lizzy, whom he called his child. He came to see her no oftener, spoke to her no more affectionately: she believed that she and Lizzy were sisters together in his fatherly heart.
When she was undeceived, the shock was very great: it was twofold,—a shock to her sense of loyalty to Stephen, a shock to her tender love for Parson Dorrance. It was true, as she had said to Lizzy, that she would have died to give him a pleasure; and yet she was forced to inflict on him the hardest of all pains. Every circumstance attending it made it harder; made it seem to Mercy always in after life, as she looked back upon it, needlessly hard,—cruelly, malignantly hard.
It was in the early autumn. The bright colors which had thrilled Mercy with such surprise and pleasure on her first arrival in Penfield were glowing again on the trees, it seemed to her brighter than before. Purple asters and golden-rod waved on the roadsides and in the fields; and blue gentians, for which Penfield was famous, were blooming everywhere. Parson Dorrance came one day to take Lizzy and Mercy over to his "Parish," as he called "The Cedars." They had often been with him there; and Mercy had been for a long time secretly hoping that he would ask her to help him in teaching the negroes. The day was one of those radiant and crystalline days peculiar to the New England autumn. On such days, joy becomes inevitable even to inert and lifeless natures: to enthusiastic and spontaneous ones, the exhilaration of the air and the sun is as intoxicating as wine. Mercy was in one of her most mirthful moods. She frolicked with the negro children, and decked their little woolly heads with wreaths of golden-rod, till they looked as fantastic as dancing monkeys. She gathered great sheaves of ferns and blue gentians and asters, until the Parson implored her to "leave a few just for the poor sun to shine on." The paths winding among "The Cedars" were in some places thick-set with white eupatoriums, which were now in full, feathery flower, some of them so old that, as you brushed past them, a cloud of the fine thread-like petals flew in all directions. Mercy gathered branch after branch of these, but threw them away impatiently, as the flowers fell off, leaving the stems bare.
"Oh, dear!" she exclaimed. "Nature wants some seeds, I suppose; but I want flowers. What becomes of the poor flower, any way? it lives such a short while; all its beauty and grace sacrificed to the making of a seed for next year."
"That's the way with every thing in life, dear child," said Parson Dorrance. "The thing that shall be is the thing for which all the powers of nature are at work. We, you and Lizzy and I, will drop off our stems presently,—I, a good deal the first, for you and Lizzy have the blessing of youth, but I am old."
"You are not old! You are the youngest person I know," exclaimed Mercy, impetuously. "You will never be old, Mr. Dorrance, not if you should live to be as old as—as old as the Wandering Jew!"
Mercy's eyes were fixed intently on the Parson's face; but she did not note the deep flush which rose to his very hair, as she said these words. She was thinking only of the glorious soul, and seeing only its shining through the outer tabernacle. Lizzy Hunter, however, saw the flush, and knew what it meant, and her heart gave a leap of joy. "Now he can see that Mercy never thinks of him as an old man, and never would," she thought to herself; and while her hands were idly playing with her flowers and mosses, and her face looked as innocent and care-free as a baby's, her brain was weaving plots of the most complicated devices for hastening on the future which began to look to her so assured for these two.
They were sitting on a mossy mound in the shadow of great cedar-trees. The fields around "The Cedars" were filled with low mounds, like velvet cushions: some of them were merely a mat of moss over great rocks; some of them were soft yielding masses of moss, low cornel, blueberry-bushes, wintergreen, blackberry-vines, and sweet ferns; dainty, fragrant, crowded ovals, lovelier than any florist could ever make; white and green in the spring, when the cornels were in flower; scarlet and green and blue in the autumn, when the cornels and the blueberries were in fruit.
Mercy was sitting on a mound which was thick-grown with the shining wintergreen. She picked a stem which had a cluster of red berries on it, and below the berries one tiny pink blossom. As she held it up, the blossom fell, leaving a tiny satin disk behind it on its stem. She took the bell and tried to fit it again on its place; then she turned it over and over, held it up to the light and looked through it. "It makes me sad," she said: "I wish I knew if the flower knows any thing about the fruit. If it were working to that end all the while, and so were content to pass on and make room, it would seem all right. But I don't want to pass on and make room! I do so like to be here!"
Parson Dorrance looked from one woman's face to the other, both young, both lovely: Lizzy's so full of placid content, unquestioning affection, and acceptance; Mercy's so full of mysterious earnestness, far-seeing vision, and interpretation.
"What a lot lies before that gifted creature," he said to himself, "if life should go wrong with her! If only I might dare to take her fate into my hands! I do not believe any one else can do for her what I could, if I were only younger." And the Parson sighed.
That night he stayed in Penfield at Lizzy's house. The next morning, on his way to Danby, he stopped to see Mercy for a moment. When he entered her door, he had no knowledge of what lay before him; he had not yet said to himself, had not yet dared to say to himself, that he would ask Mercy to be his wife. He knew that the thought of it was more and more present with him, grew sweeter and sweeter; yet he had never ceased resisting it, saying that it was impossible. That is, he had never ceased saying so in words; but his heart had ceased resisting long ago. Only that traitor which we call judgment had been keeping up a false show of resolute opinion, just to lure the beguiled heart farther and farther on in a mistaken security.
But love is like the plants. It has its appointed days for flowers and for the falling of the flowers. The vague, sweetness of the early hours and days together, the bright happiness of the first close intimacy and interchange,—these reach their destined moment, to pass on and make room for the harvest. Blessed are the lives in which all these sweet early petals float off gently and in season for the perfect setting of the holy fruit!
On this morning, when Parson Dorrance entered Mercy's room, it was already decorated as if for a festival. Every blooming thing she had brought from "The Cedars" the day before had taken its own place in the room, and looked as at home as it had looked in the fields. One of Mercy's great gifts was the gift of creating in rooms a certain look which it is hard to define. The phrase "vitalized individuality," perhaps, would come as near describing it as is possible; for it was not merely that the rooms looked unlike other rooms. Every article in them seemed to stand in the place where it must needs stand by virtue of its use and its quality. Every thing had a certain sort of dramatic fitness, without in the least trenching on the theatrical. Her effects were always produced with simple things, in simple ways; but they resulted in an impression of abundance and luxury. As Parson Dorrance glanced around at all the wild-wood beauty, and the wild-wood fragrance stole upon his senses, a great mastering wave of love for the woman whose hand had planned it all swept over him. He recalled Mercy's face the day before, when she had said,—
"You are the youngest person I know;" and, as she crossed the threshold of the door at that instant, he went swiftly towards her with outstretched hands, and a look on his face which, if she had seen, she could not have failed to interpret aright.
But she was used to the outstretched hands; she always put both her own in them, as simply as a child; and she was bringing to her teacher now a little poem, of which her thoughts were full. She did not look fully in his face, therefore; for it was still a hard thing for her to show him her verses.
Holding out the paper, she said shyly,—
"It had to get itself said or sung, you know,—that thought that haunted me so yesterday at 'The Cedars.' I daresay it is very bad poetry, though."
Parson Dorrance unfolded the paper, and read the following poem:—
My snowy eupatorium has dropped Its silver threads of petals in the night; No sound told me its blossoming had stopped; Its seed-films flutter, silent, ghostly white: No answer stirs the shining air, As I ask, "Where?"
Beneath the glossy leaves of wintergreen Dead lily-bells lie low, and in their place A rounded disk of pearly pink is seen, Which tells not of the lily's fragrant grace: No answer stirs the shining air, As I ask "Where?"
This morning's sunrise does not show to me Seed-film or fruit of my sweet yesterday; Like falling flowers, to realms I cannot see Its moments floated silently away: No answer stirs the shining air, As I ask, "Where?"
As he read the last verse, his face altered. Mercy was watching him.
"I thought you wouldn't like the last verse," she said eagerly. "But, indeed, it doesn't mean doubt. I know very well no day dies; but we can't see the especial good of each single day by itself. That is all I meant."
Parson Dorrance came closer to Mercy: they were both standing. He laid one hand on her' head, and said,—
"Child, it was a 'sweet yesterday' wasn't it?"
"Oh, yes," said Mercy, still absorbed in the thought of the poem. "The day was as sweet as the flowers. But all days are heavenly sweet out of doors with you and Lizzy," she continued, lifting one hand, and laying it caressingly on the hand which was stroking her hair.
"O Mercy! Mercy! couldn't I make all days sweet for you? Come to me, darling, and let me try!" came from Parson Dorrance's lips in hurried and husky tones.
Mercy looked at him for one second in undisguised terror and bewilderment. Then she uttered a sharp cry, as of one who had suddenly got a wound, and, burying her face in her hands, sank into a chair and began to cry convulsively.
Parson Dorrance walked up and down the room. He dared not speak. He was not quite sure what Mercy's weeping meant; so hard is it, for a single moment, to wrench a great hope out of a man's heart. But, as she continued sobbing, he understood. Unselfish to the core, his first thought was, even now, "Alas! now she will never let me do any thing more for her. Oh, how shall I win her back to trust me as a father again?"
"Mercy!" he said. Mercy did not answer nor look up.
"Mercy!" he repeated in a firmer tone. "Mercy, my child, look up at me!"
Docile from her long habit and from her great love, Mercy looked up, with the tears streaming. As soon as she saw Parson Dorrance's face, she burst again into more violent crying, and sobbed out incoherently,—
"Oh! I never knew it. It wouldn't be right."
"Hush, dear! Hush!" said the Parson, in a voice of tender authority. "I have done wrong; and you must forgive me, and forget it. You are not in the least to blame. It is I who ought to have known that you could never think of me as any thing but a father."
"Oh! it is not that," sobbed Mercy, vehemently,—"it is not that at all! But it wouldn't be right."
Parson Dorrance would not have been human if Mercy's vehement "It is not that,—it is not that!" had not fallen on his ear gratefully, and made hope stir in his heart again. But her evident grief was too great for the hope to last a moment.
"You may not know why it seems so wrong to you, dear child," he continued; "but that is the real reason. There could be no other." He paused. Mercy shuddered, and opened her lips to speak again; but the words refused to be uttered. This was the supreme moment of pain. If she could but have said,—
"I loved some one else long before I saw you. I was not my own. If it had not been for that, I should have loved you, I know I should!" Even in her tumult of suffering, she was distinctly conscious of all this. The words "I could have loved him, I know I could! I can't bear to have him think it is because he is so old," went clamoring in her heart, pleading to be said; but she dared not say them.
Tenderly and patiently Parson Dorrance endeavored to soothe her, to convince her that his words sprung from a hasty impulse which he would be able wholly to put aside and forget. The one thing that he longed now to do, the only reparation that he felt was left for him to make to her, was to enable her, if possible, to look on him as she had done before. But Mercy herself made this more difficult. Suddenly wiping her tears, she looked very steadily into his face, and said slowly,—"It is not of the least use, Mr. Dorrance, for you to say this sort of thing to me. You can't deceive me. I know exactly how you love me, and how you always will love me. And, oh, I wish I were dead! It can never be any thing but pain to you to see me,—never," and she wept more bitterly than before.
"You do not know me, Mercy," replied the Parson, speaking as slowly as she had done. "All my life has been one long sacrifice of my own chief preferences. It is not hard for me to do it."
Mercy clasped her hands tighter, and groaned,—
"Oh, I know it! I know it! and I said you were on a plane above all thought of personal happiness."
The Parson looked bewildered, but went on,—
"You do love me, my child, very dearly, do you not?"
"Oh, you know I do!" cried Mercy. "You know I do!"
"Yes, I know you do, or I should not have said that. You know I am all alone in the world, do you not?"
"Yes," moaned Mercy.
"Very well. Now remember that you and Lizzy are my two children, and that the greatest happiness I can have, the greatest help in my loneliness, is the love of my two daughters. You will not refuse me this help, will you? You will let me be just as I was before, will you not?"
Mercy did not answer.
"Will you try, Mercy?" he said in a tone almost of the old affectionate authority; and Mercy again moaned rather than said,—
Then Parson Dorrance kissed her hair where his hand had lain a few moments before, and said,—
"Now I must go. Good-by, my child."
But Mercy did not look up; and he closed the door gently, leaving her sitting there bowed and heart-stricken, in the little room so gay with the bright flowers she had gathered on her "sweet yesterday."
The winter set in before its time, and with almost unprecedented severity. Early in the last week in November, the whole country was white with snow, the streams were frozen solid, and the cold was intense. Week after week the mercury ranged from zero to ten, fifteen, and even twenty below, and fierce winds howled night and day. It was a terrible winter for old people. They dropped on all sides, like leaves swept off of trees in autumn gales. It was startling to read the death records in the newspapers, so large a proportion of them were of men and women past sixty. Mrs. Carr had been steadily growing feebler all summer; but the change had seemed to Mercy to be more mental than physical, and she had been in a measure blinded to her mother's real condition. With the increase of childishness and loss of memory had come an increased gentleness and love of quiet, which partially disguised the loss of strength. She would sit in her chair from morning till night, looking out of the window or watching the movements of those around her, with an expression of perfect placidity on her face. When she was spoken to, she smiled, but did not often speak. The smile was meaningless and yet infinitely pathetic: it was an infant's smile on an aged face; the infant's heart and infant's brain had come back. All the weariness, all the perplexity, all the sorrow, had gone from life, had slipped away from memory. This state had come on so gradually that even Mercy hardly realized the extent of it. The silent smile or the gentle, simple ejaculations with which her mother habitually replied meant more to her than they did to others. She did not comprehend how little they really proved a full consciousness on her mother's part; and she was unutterably shocked, when, on going to her bedside one morning, she found her unable to move, and evidently without clear recognition of any one's face. The end had begun; the paralysis which had so slowly been putting the mind to rest had prostrated the body also. It was now only a question of length of siege, of how much vital force the system had hoarded up. Lying helpless in bed, the poor old woman was as placid and gentle as before. She never murmured nor even stirred impatiently. She seemed unconscious of any weariness. The only emotion she showed was when Mercy left the room; then she would cry silently till Mercy returned. Her eyes followed Mercy constantly, as a little babe's follow its mother; and she would not take a mouthful of food from any other hand.
It was the very hardest form of illness for Mercy to bear. A violent and distressing disease, taxing her strength, her ingenuity to their utmost every moment, would have been comparatively nothing to her. To sit day after day, night after night, gazing into the senseless yet appealing eyes of this motionless being, who had literally no needs except a helpless animal's needs of food and drink; who clung to her with the irrational clinging of an infant, yet would never know even her name again,—it was worse than the chaining of life to death. As the days wore on, a species of terror took possession of Mercy. It seemed to her that this silent watchful, motionless creature never had been her mother,—never had been a human being like other human beings. As the old face grew more and more haggard, and the old hands more and more skinny and claw-like, and the traces of intellect and thought more and more faded away from the features, the horror deepened, until Mercy feared that her own brain must be giving way. She revolted from the very thought of herself for having such a feeling towards her mother. Every instinct of loyalty in her deeply loyal nature rose up indignantly against her. She would reiterate to herself the word, "Mother! mother! mother!" as she sat gazing with a species of horror-stricken fascination into the meaningless face. But she could not shake off the feeling. Her nerves were fast giving way under the strain, and no one could help her. If she left the room or the house, the consciousness that the helpless creature was lying silently weeping for lack of the sight of her pursued her like a presence. She saw the piteous old face on the pillow, and the slow tears trickling down the cheeks, just as distinctly as if she were sitting by the bed. On the whole, the torture of staying was less than the torture of being away; and for weeks together she did not leave the house. Sometimes a dull sense of relief came to her in the thought that by this strange confinement she was escaping many things which would have been hard. She rarely saw Stephen except for a few moments late in the evening. He had ventured into Mrs. Carr's room once or twice; but his presence seemed to disturb her, the only presence that had done so. She looked distressed, made agonizing efforts to speak, and with the hand she could lift made a gesture to repel him when he drew near the bed. In Mercy's overwrought state, this seemed to her like an omen. She shuddered, and drew Stephen away.
"O Stephen," she said, "she knows now that I have deceived her about you. Don't come near her again."
"You never deceived her, darling. Do not distress yourself so," whispered Stephen. They were standing on the threshold of the room. A slight rustling in the bed made them turn: Mrs. Carr had half-lifted her head from the pillow, her lower jaw had fallen to its utmost extent in her effort to articulate, and she was pointing the forefinger of her left hand at the door. It was a frightful sight. Even Stephen turned pale, and sprang hastily away.
"You see," said Mercy, in a ghastly whisper, "sometimes she certainly does know things; but she never looks like that except at you. You must never come in again."
"No," said Stephen, almost as horror-stricken as Mercy. "It is very strange though, for she always used to seem so fond of me."
"She was very childish and patient," said Mercy. "And I think she thought that you were slowly getting to care about me; but now, wherever her soul is,—I think it has left her body,—she knows that we deceived her."
Stephen made no answer, but turned to go. The expression of resolved endurance on his face pierced Mercy to the quick, as it always did. She sprang after him, and clasped both her hands on his arm. "O Stephen, darling,—precious, brave, strong darling! do forgive me. I ought to be killed for even saying one word to give you pain. How I can, I don't see, when I long so to make you happy always."
"You do give me great, unutterable happiness, Mercy," he replied. "I never think of the pain: I only think of the joy," and he laid her hand on his lips. "All the pain that you could possibly give me in a lifetime could not outweigh the joy of one such moment as this, when you say that you love me."
These days were unspeakably hard for Stephen. He had grown during the past year to so live on the sight and in the blessedness of Mercy that to be shut away from them was simply a sort of dying. There was no going back for him to the calm routine of the old life before she came. He was restless and wretched: he walked up and down in front of the house every night, watching the shadow of her figure on the curtains of her mother's room. He made all manner of excuses, true and false, reasonable and unreasonable, to speak to her for a moment at the door in the morning. He carried the few verses in his pocket-book she had given him; and, although he knew them nearly by heart, he spent long hours in his office turning the little papers over and over. Some of them were so joyous that they stirred in him almost a bitter incredulity as he read them in these days of loss and pain. One was a sonnet which she had written during a two days' absence of his,—his only absence from his mother's house for six years. Mercy had been astonished at her sense of loneliness in these two days. "O Stephen," she had said, when he came back, "I am honestly ashamed of having missed you so much. Just the knowing that you wouldn't be here to come in, in the evenings, made the days seem a thousand years long, and this is what came of it."
And she gave him this sonnet:—
TO AN ABSENT LOVER.
That so much change should come when them dost go, Is mystery that I cannot ravel quite. The very house seems dark as when the light Of lamps goes out. Each wonted thing doth grow So altered, that I wander to and fro, Bewildered by the most familiar sight, And feel like one who rouses in the night From dream of ecstasy, and cannot know At first if he be sleeping or awake, My foolish heart so foolish for thy sake Hath grown, dear one! Teach me to be more wise. I blush for all my foolishness doth lack; I fear to seem a coward in thine eyes. Teach me, dear one,—but first thou must come back!
Another was a little poem, which she laughingly called his and not hers. One morning, when they had bade each other "good-by," and she had kissed him,—a rare thing for Mercy to do, he had exclaimed, "That kiss will go floating before me all day in the air, Mercy. I shall see every thing in a light as rosy as your lips."
At night she gave him this little poem, saying,—
"This is your poem, not mine, darling. I should never have thought of any thing so absurd myself."
"COULEUR DE ROSE."
All things to-day "Couleur de rose," I see,—oh, why? I know, and my dear love she knows, Why, oh, why! On both my eyes her lips she set, All red and warm and dewy wet, As she passed by. The kiss did not my eyelids close, But like a rosy vapor goes, Where'er I sit, where'er I lie, Before my every glance, and shows All things to-day "Couleur de rose."
Would it last thus? Alas, who knows? Men ask and sigh: They say it fades, "Couleur de rose." Why, oh, why? Without swift joy and sweet surprise, Surely those lips upon my eyes Could never lie, Though both our heads were white as snows, And though the bitterest storm that blows, Of trouble and adversity, Had bent us low: all life still shows To eyes that love "Couleur de rose."
This sonnet, also, she persisted in calling Stephen's, and not her own, because he had asked her the question which had suggested it:—
"How feels the earth when, breaking from the night, The sweet and sudden Dawn impatient spills Her rosy colors all along the hills? How feels the sea, as it turns sudden white, And shines like molten silver in the light Which pours from eastward when the full moon fills Her time to rise?"
"I know not, love, what thrills The earth, the sea, may feel. How should I know? Except I guess by this,—the joy I feel When sudden on my silence or my gloom Thy presence bursts and lights the very room? Then on my face doth not glad color steal Like shining waves, or hill-tops' sunrise glow?"
One of the others was the poem of which I spoke once before, the poem which had been suggested to her by her desolate sense of homelessness on the first night of her arrival in Penfield. This poem had been widely copied after its first appearance in one of the magazines; and it had been more than once said of it, "Surely no one but a genuine outcast could have written such a poem as this." It was hard for Mercy's friends to associate the words with her. When she was asked how it happened that she wrote them, she exclaimed, "I did not write that poem, I lived it one night,—the night when I came to Penfield, and drove through these streets in the rain with mother. No vagabond in the world ever felt more forlorn than I did then."
O sharp, cold wind, thou art my friend! And thou, fierce rain, I need not dread Thy wonted touch upon my head! On, loving brothers! Wreak and spend Your force on all these dwellings. Rend These doors so pitilessly locked, To keep the friendless out! Strike dead The fires whose glow hath only mocked By muffled rays the night where I, The lonely outcast, freezing lie!
Ha! If upon those doors to-night I knocked, how well I know the stare, The questioning, the mingled air Of scorn and pity at the sight, The wonder if it would be right To give me alms of meat and bread! And if I, reckless, standing there, For once the truth imploring said, That not for bread or meat I longed, That such an alms my real need wronged,
That I would fain come in, and sit Beside their fire, and hear the voice Of children; yea, and if my choice Were free, and I dared mention it, And some sweet child should think me fit To hold a child upon my knee One moment, would my soul rejoice, More than to banquet royally, And I the pulses of its wrist Would kiss, as men the cross have kissed.
Ha! Well the haughty stare I know With which they'd say, "The man is mad!" "What an impostor's face he had!" "How insolent these beggars grow!" Go to, ye happy people! Go! My yearning is as fierce as hate. Must my heart break, that yours be glad? Will your turn come at last, though late? I will not knock, I will pass by; My comrades wait,—the wind, the rain. Comrades, we'll run a race to-night! The stakes may not seem much to gain: The goal is not marked plain in sight; But, comrades, understand,—if I Drop dead, 't will be a victory!
These poems and many others Stephen carried with him wherever he went. To read them over was next to seeing Mercy. The poet was hardly less dear to him than the woman. He felt at times so removed from her by the great gulf which her genius all unconsciously seemed to create between herself and him that he doubted his own memories of her love, and needed to be reassured by gazing into her eyes, touching her hand, and listening to her voice. It seemed to him that, if this separation lasted much longer, he should lose all faith in the fact of their relation. Very impatient thoughts of poor old Mrs. Carr filled Stephen's thoughts in these days. Heretofore she had been no barrier to his happiness; her still and childlike presence was no restraint upon him; he had come to disregard it as he would the presence of an infant in a cradle. Therefore, he had, or thought he had, the kindest of feelings towards her; but now that her helpless paralyzed hands had the power to shut him away from Mercy, he hated her, as he had always hated every thing which stood between him and delight. Yet, had it been his duty to minister to her, he would have done it as gently, as faithfully, as Mercy herself. He would have spoken to her in the mildest and tenderest of tones, while in his heart he wished her dead. So far can a fine fastidiousness, allied to a sentiment of compassion, go towards making a man a consummate hypocrite.
Parson Dorrance came often to see Mercy, but always with Lizzy Hunter. By the subtle instinct of love, he knew that to see him thus, and see him often, would soonest win back for him his old place in Mercy's life. The one great desire he had left now was to regain that,—to see her again look up in his face with the frank, free, loving look which she always had had until that sad morning.
A strange incident happened to Mercy in these first weeks of her mother's illness. She was called to the door one morning by the message that a stranger wished to speak to her. She found standing there an elderly woman, with a sweet but care-worn face, who said eagerly, as soon as she appeared,—
"Are you Mrs. Philbrick?"
"Yes," said Mercy. "Did you wish to see me?"
The woman hesitated a moment, as if trying to phrase her sentence, and then burst out impetuously, with a flood of tears,—
"Won't you come and help me make my husband come home. He is so sick, and I believe he will die in that wretched old garret."
Mercy looked at her in blank astonishment, and her first thought was that she must be insane; but the woman continued,—
"I'm Mrs. Wheeler. You never saw me before, but my husband's talked about you ever since he first saw you on the street, that day. You're the only human being I've ever known him take a fancy to; and I do believe, if anybody could do any thing with him, you could."
It seemed that, in addition to all his other eccentricities, "Old Man Wheeler" had the habit of disappearing from his home at intervals, leaving no clew behind him. He had attacks of a morbid unwillingness to see a human face: during tkese attacks, he would hide himself, sometimes in one place, sometimes in another. He had old warehouses, old deserted mills and factories, and uninhabited rooms and houses in all the towns in the vicinity. There was hardly any article of merchandise which he had not at one time or another had a depot for, or a manufactory of. He had especially a hobby for attempting to make articles which were not made in this country. It was only necessary for some one to go to him, and say, "Mr. Wheeler, do you know how much this country pays every year for importing such or such an article?" to throw him into a rage.
"Damned nonsense! Damned nonsense, sir. Just as well make it here. I'll make it myself." And up would start a new manufacture, just as soon as he could get men to work at it.
At one time it was ink, at another time brushes, then chintz, and then pocket-books; in fact, nobody pretended to remember all the schemes which the old man had failed in. He would stop them as instantaneously as he began them, dismiss the workmen, shut up the shops or the mills, turn the key on them just as they stood, very possibly filled full of material in the rough. He did not care. The hobby was over: he had proved that the thing could be made in America, and he was content. It was usually in some one of these disused buildings that he set up his hermitage in these absences from home. He would sally out once a day and buy bread, just a pittance, hardly enough to keep him alive, and then bury himself again in darkness and solitude. If the absence did not last more than three or four days, his wife and sons gave themselves no concern about him. He usually returned a saner and healthier man than he went away. When the absences were longer, they went in search of him, and could usually prevail on him to return home with them. But this last absence had been much longer than usual before they found him. He was as cunning and artful as a fugitive from justice in concealing his haunt. At last he was discovered in the old garret store-room over the Brick Row. The marvel was that he had not died of cold there. He was not far from it, however; for he was so ill that at times he was delirious. He lay curled up in the old stack of comforters in the corner, with only a jug of water and some crumbs of bread by his side, when they found him. He had been so ill when he last crawled up the stairs that he had forgotten to take the key out of the keyhole, but left it on the outside, and by that they found him. At the bare suggestion of his going home, he became so furious that it seemed unsafe to urge it. His wife and eldest son had stayed there with him now for two days; but he had grown steadily worse, and it was plain that he must die unless he could be properly cared for.
"At last I thought of you," said the poor woman. "He's always said so much about you; and once, when I was riding with him, he pointed you out to me on the street, and said he, 'That's the very nicest girl in America.' And he told me about his giving you the clock; and I never knew him give any thing away before in his whole life. Not but what he has always been very good to me, in his way. He'd never give me a cent o' money; but he'd always pay bills,—that is, that was any way reasonable. But I said to 'Siah this morning, 'If there's anybody on earth can coax your father to let us take him home, it's that Mrs. Philbrick; and I'm going to find her.' 'Siah didn't want me to. The boys are so ashamed about it; but I don't see any shame in it. It's just a kind of queer way Mr. Wheeler's always had; and everybody's got something queer about 'em, first or last; and this way of Mr. Wheeler's of going off don't hurt anybody but himself. I got used to 't long ago. Now, won't you come, and try and see if you can't persuade him? It won't do any harm to try."
"Why, yes, indeed, Mrs. Wheeler, I'll come; but I don't believe I can do any thing," said Mercy, much touched by the appeal to her. "I have wondered very much what had become of Mr. Wheeler. I had not seen him for a long time."
When they went into the garret, the old man was half-lying, half-sitting, propped on his left elbow. In his right hand he held his cane, with which he continually tapped the floor, as he poured out a volley of angry reproaches to his son "'Siah," a young man of eighteen or twenty years old, who sat on a roll of leather at a safe distance from his father's lair. As the door opened, and he saw Mercy entering with his wife, the old man's face underwent the most extraordinary change. Surprise, shame, perplexity, bravado,—all struggled together there.
"God bless my soul! God bless my soul!" he exclaimed, trying to draw the comforters more closely about him.
Mercy went up to him, and, sitting down by his side, began to talk to him in a perfectly natural tone, as if she were making an ordinary call on an invalid in his own home. She said nothing to suggest that he had done any thing unnatural in hiding himself, and spoke of his severe cold as being merely what every one else had been suffering from for some time. Then she told him how ill her mother was, and succeeded in really arousing his interest in that. Finally, she said,—
"But I must go now. I can't be away from my mother long. I will come and see you again to-morrow. Shall I find you here or at your home?"
"Well, I was thinking I 'd better move home to-day," said he.
His wife and son involuntarily exchanged glances. This was more than they had dared to hope.
"Yes, I would, if I were you," replied Mercy, still in a perfectly natural tone. "It would be so much better for you to be in a room with a fire in it for a few days. There isn't any way of warming this room, is there?" said she, looking all about, as if to see if it might not be possible still to put up a stove there. "'Siah" turned his head away to hide a smile, so amused was he by the tact of the remark. "No, I see there is no stovepipe-hole here," she went on, "so you'd much better move home. I'm going by the stable. Let me send Seth right up with the carriage, won't you?"
"No, no! Bless my soul! Thinks I'm made of money, don't she! No, no! I can walk." And the old half-crazy glare came into his eyes.
Mercy went nearer to him, and laid her hand gently on his.
"Mr. Wheeler," said she, "you did something very kind for me once: now won't you do something once more,—just once? I want you to go home in the carriage. It is a terribly cold day, and the streets are very icy. I nearly fell several times myself coming over here. You will certainly take a terrible cold, if you walk this morning. Please say I may get the carriage."
"Bless my soul! Bless my soul, child! Go get it then, if you care so much; but tell him I'll only pay a quarter,—only a quarter, remember. They'd take every cent I've got. They are all wolves, wolves, wolves!"
"Yes, I'll tell him only a quarter. I'll have him here in a few minutes!" exclaimed Mercy, and ran out of the room hastily before the old man could change his mind.
As good luck would have it, Seth and his "kerridge" were in sight when Mercy reached the foot of the staircase. So in less than five minutes she returned to the garret, exclaiming,—
"Here is Seth now, Mr. Wheeler. It is so fortunate I met him. Now I can see you off." The old man was so weak that his son had to carry him down the stairs; and his face, seen in the broad daylight, was ghastly. As they placed him in the carriage, he called out to his wife and son, sharply,—
"Don't you get in! You can walk, you can walk. Mind, he's to have but a quarter, tell him." And, as Seth whipped up his horses and drove off, the words, "wolves, wolves, wolves," were heard coming in muffled tones through the door.
"He'd never have gone, if you hadn't come back,—never," said Mrs. Wheeler, as she turned to Mercy. "I never can thank you enough. It'll save his life, getting him out of that garret."
Mercy did not say, but she thought that it was too late. A mortal sickness had fastened upon the old man; and so it proved. When she went to his home the next day, he was in a high fever and delirious; and he lived only a few days. He had intervals of partial consciousness, and in those he seemed to be much touched by the patient care which his two sons were giving to him. He had always been a hard father; had compelled his sons very early to earn their own living, and had refused to give them money, which he could so easily have spared, to establish themselves in business. Now, that it was too late, he repented.
"Good boys, good boys, good boys after all," he would mutter to himself, as they bent over him, and nursed him tenderly in his helplessness. "Might have left them more money, might have left them more. Mistake, mistake!" Once he roused, and with great vehemence asked to have his lawyer sent for immediately. But, when the lawyer came, the delirium had returned again: it was too late; and the old man died without repairing the injustice he had done. The last intelligible words he spoke were, "Mistake! mistake!"
And he had indeed made a mistake. When his will was opened, it was found that the whole bulk of his large estate had been left to trustees, to be held as a fund for assisting poor young men to a certain amount of capital to go into business with,—the very thing which he had never done for his own children. The trust was burdened with such preposterous conditions, however, that it never could have amounted to any thing, even if the courts had not come to the rescue, and mercifully broken the will, dividing the property where it rightfully belonged, between the wife and children.
Early in February Mrs. Carr died. It was more like a going to sleep than like a death. She lay for two days in a dozing state, smiling whenever Mercy spoke to her, and making great efforts to swallow food whenever Mercy offered it to her. At last she closed her eyes, turned her head on one side, as if for a sounder sleep, and never moved again.
However we may think we are longing for the release from suffering to come to one we love, when it does come, it is a blow, is a shock. Hundreds of times Mercy had said to herself in the course of the winter, "Oh, if God would only take my mother to heaven! Her death would be easier to bear than this." But now she would have called her back, if she could. The silent house, the empty room, still more terrible the long empty hours in which nobody needed her help, all wrung Mercy's heart. It was her first experience of being alone. She had often pictured to herself, or rather she thought she had, what it would be; but no human imagination can ever sound the depths of that word: only the heart can feel it. It is a marvel that hearts do not break under it oftener than they do. The silence which is like that darkness which could be felt; the sudden awakening in the night with a wonder what it means that the loved one is not there; the pitiless morning light which fills the empty house, room after room; and harder than all else to forget, to rise above—the perpetual sense of no future: even the little near futures of the next hour, the next day, all cut off, all closed, to the human being left utterly alone. The mockery of the instincts of hunger and need of rest seems cruel. What a useless routine, for one left alone, to be fed, to sleep, and to rise up to eat and sleep again!
Mercy bore all this in a sort of dumb bewilderment for a few days. All Stephen's love and sympathy did not help her. He was unutterably tender and sympathizing now that poor old Mrs. Carr was fairly out of his way. It surprised even himself to see what a sort of respectful affection he felt for her in her grave. Any misgiving that this new quiet and undisturbed possession of Mercy might not continue did not cross his mind; and when Mercy said to him suddenly, one evening about ten days after her mother's death, "Stephen, I must go away, I can't live in this house another week," it was almost as sudden a shock to him as if he had gone in and found her dead.
"Go away! Leave me!" he gasped, rather than said. "Mercy, you can't mean it!" and the distress in his face smote Mercy bitterly. But she persisted. "Yes, I do mean it," she said. "You must not ask me to stay. I should lose my senses or fall ill. You can't think how terrible it is to me to be all alone in these rooms. Perhaps in new rooms I should not feel it so much. I have always looked forward to being left alone at some time, and have thought I would still have my home; but I did not think it could feel like this. I simply cannot bear it,—at any rate, not till I am stronger. And besides, Stephen," and Mercy's face flushed red, "there is another thing you have not thought of: it would never do for me to live here alone in this house with you, as we have been living. You couldn't come to see me so much now mother is not here."
Poor Mrs. Carr! avenged at last, by Stephen's own heart. How gladly would he have called her to life now! Mercy's words carried instantaneous conviction to his mind. It was strange he had never thought of this before; but he had not. He groaned aloud.
"O Mercy! O Mercy!" he exclaimed, "I never once thought of that, we have been living so so long. You are right: you cannot stay here. Oh, what shall I do without you, my darling, my darling?"
"I do not think you can ever be so lonely as I," said Mercy; "for you have still your work left you to do. If I had any human being to need me, I could bear being separated from you."
"Where will you go, Mercy?" asked Stephen, in a tone of dull, hopeless misery.
"I do not know. I have not thought yet. Back to my old home for a visit, I think, and then to some city to study and work. That is the best life for me."
"O Mercy, Mercy, I am going to lose you,—lose you utterly!" exclaimed Stephen.
Mercy looked at him with a pained and perplexed expression. "Stephen," she said earnestly, "I can't understand you. You bear your hard life so uncomplainingly, so bravely, that it seems as if you could not have a vestige of selfishness in you; and yet"—Mercy halted; she could not put her thought in words. Stephen finished it for her.
"And yet," he said, "I am selfish about you, you think. Selfish! Good God! do you call it selfishness in a man who is drowning, to try to swim, in a man who is starving, to clutch a morsel of bread? What else have I that one could call life except you? Tell me, Mercy! You are my life: that is the whole of it. All that a man has he will give for his life. Is it selfishness?" Stephen locked his hands tight together, and looked at Mercy almost angrily. She was writhing under his words. She had always an unspeakable dread of being unjust to him. Love made her infinitely tender, and pity made her yearn over him. But neither her own love and pity nor his passionate words could wholly blind her now; and there was a sadness in the tones in which she replied,—
"No, Stephen, I did not mean to call you selfish; but I can't understand why you are not as brave and patient about all hard things as you are about the one hardest thing of all."
"Mercy, would you marry me now, if I asked you?" said Stephen. He did not realize the equivocal form of his question. An indignant look swept over Mercy's face for a moment, but only for a moment. She knew Stephen's love too well.
"No, Stephen," she said, "I would not. If you had asked me at first, I should have done it. I thought then that it would be best," she said, with hot blushes mounting high on her cheeks; "but I have seen since that it would not."
Stephen sighed. "I am glad you see that," he said. Then in a lower tone, "You know you are free, Mercy,—utterly free. I would never be so base as to hold you by a word."
Mercy smiled half-bitterly, as she replied,—
"Words never hold people, and you know very well it is only an empty form of words to say that I am free. I do not want to be free, darling," she added, in a burst of tenderness toward him. "You could not set me free, if you tried."
When Mercy told Parson Dorrance her intention of going away, his face changed as if some fierce spasm wrung him; but it was over in a second, and he said,—
"You are quite right, my child,—quite right. It will be a great deal better for you in every way. This is no place for you now. You must have at least a year or two of travel and entire change."
In her heart, Mercy contrasted the replies of her two lovers. She could not banish the feeling that one was the voice of a truer love than the other. She fought against the feeling as against a treason; but the truth was strongest. In her heart, she knew that the man she did not love was manlier than the man she loved.
For the first few months after Mercy went away, Stephen seemed to himself to be like an automaton, which had been wound up to go through certain movements for a certain length of time, and could by no possibility stop. He did not suffer as he had expected. Sometimes it seemed to him that he did not suffer at all; and he was terrified at this very absence of suffering. Then again he had hours and days of a dull despair, which was worse than any more active form of suffering. Now he understood, he thought, how in the olden time men had often withdrawn themselves from the world after some great grief, and had lived long, stagnant lives in deserts and caves. He had thought it would kill him to lose Mercy out of his life. Now he felt sure that he should live to be a hundred years old; should live by very help of the apathy into which he had sunk. Externally, he seemed very little changed,—a trifle quieter, perhaps, and gentler. His mother sometimes said to herself,—
"Steve is really getting old very fast for so young a man;" but she was content with the change. It seemed to bring them nearer together, and made her feel more at ease as to the possibility of his falling in love. Her old suspicions and jealousies of Mercy had died out root and branch, within three months after her departure. Stephen's unhesitating assurance to her that he did not expect to write to Mercy had settled the question in her mind once for all. If she had known that at the very moment when he uttered these words he had one long letter from Mercy and another to her lying in his pocket, the shock might well-nigh have killed her; for never once in Mrs. White's most jealous and ill-natured hours had the thought crossed her mind that her son would tell her a deliberate lie. He told it, however, unflinchingly, in as gentle and even a tone and with as unruffled a brow as he would have bade her good-morning. He had thought the whole matter over, and deliberately resolved to do it. He did it to save her from pain; and he had no more compunction about it than he would have had about closing a blind, to shut out a sunlight too strong for her eyes. What a terrible thing is the power which human beings have of deceiving each other! Woe to any soul which trusts itself to any thing less than an organic integrity of nature, to which a lie is impossible!
Mercy's letters disappointed Stephen. They were loving; but they were concise, sensible, sometimes merry, and always cheerful. Her life was constantly broadening; friends crowded around her; and her art was becoming more and more to her every day. Her name was beginning to be known, and her influence felt. Her verses were simple, and went to people's hearts. They were also of a fine and subtle flavor, and gave pleasure to the intellect. Strangers began to write words of encouragement to her,—sometimes a word of gratitude for help, sometimes a word of hearty praise. She began to feel that she had her own circle of listeners, unknown friends, who were always ready to hear her when she spoke. This consciousness is a most exquisite happiness to a true artist: it is a better stimulus than all the flattering criticism in the world can give.
She was often touched to tears by the tributes she received from these unknown friends. They had a wide range, coming sometimes from her fellow-artists in literature, sometimes from lowly and uncultured people. Once there came to her by mail, on a sheet of coarse paper, two faded roses, fragrant,—for they were cinnamon roses, whose fragrance never dies,—but yellow and crumpled, for they had journeyed many days to reach her. They were tied together by a bit of blue yarn; and on the paper was written, in ill-spelt words, "I wanted to send you something; and these were all I had. I am an old woman, and very poor. You've helped me ever so much."
Another gift was a moss basket filled with arbutus blossoms. Hid away in the leaves was a tiny paper, on which were written some graceful verses, evidently by a not unpractised hand. The signature was in initials unknown to Mercy; but she hazarded a guess as to the authorship, and sent the following verses in reply:—
At night, the stream came to the sea. "Long leagues," it cried, "this drop I bring, O beauteous, boundless sea! What is the meagre, paltry thing In thine abundance unto thee? No ripple, in thy smallest wave, of me Will know! No thirst its suffering Shall better slake for my surrendering My life! O sea, in vain My leagues of toil and pain!"
At night, wayfarers reached the sea. "Long weary leagues we came," they cried, "O beauteous, boundless sea! The swelling waves of thy swift tide Break on the shores where souls are free: Through lonely wildernesses, unto thee One tiny stream has been our guide, And in the desert we had died, If its oases sweet Had not refreshed our feet."
O tiny stream, lost in the sea, Close symbol of a lifetime's speech! O beauteous, boundless sea, Close fitting symbol of the reach, Of measureless Eternity! Be glad, O stream, O sea, blest equally! And thou whose words have helped to teach Me this,—my unknown friend,—for each Kind thought, warm thanks. Only the stream can know How at such words the long leagues lighter grow.
All these new interests and occupations, while they did not in the least weaken her loyalty to Stephen, filled her thoughts healthfully and absorbingly, and left her no room for any such passionate longing and brooding as Stephen poured out to her in his letters. He looked in vain for any response to these expressions. Sometimes, unable to bear the omission any longer, he would ask her pathetically why she did not say that she longed to see him. Her reply was characteristic:—
"You ask me, dear, why I do not say that I long to see you. I am not sure that I ever do long, in the sense in which you use the word. I know that I cannot see you till next winter, just as I used to know every morning that I could not see you until night; and the months between now and then seem to me one solid interval of time to be filled up and made the most of, just as the interval of the daytime between your going away in the morning and coming home at night used to seem to me. I do not think, dear Stephen, there is a moment of any day when I have not an under current of consciousness of you; but it is not a longing for the sight of you. Are you sure, darling, that the love which takes perpetual shape in such longings is the strongest love?"
Little by little, phrases like this sank into Stephen's mind, and gradually crystallized into a firm conviction that Mercy was being weaned from him. It was not so. It was only that separation and its surer tests were adjusting to a truer level the relation between them. She did not love him one whit less; but she was taking the position which belonged to her stronger and finer organization. If she had ever lived by his side as his wife, the same change would have come; but her never-failing tenderness would have effectually covered it from his recognition, and hid it from her own, so long as he looked into her eyes with pleading love, and she answered with woman's fondness. No realization of inequality could ever have come. It is, after all, the flesh and blood of the loved one which we idealize. There is in love's sacraments a "real presence," which handling cannot make us doubt. It is when we go apart and reflect that our reason asks questions. Mercy did not in the least know that she was outgrowing Stephen White. She did not in the least suspect that her affection and her loyalty were centring around an ideal personality, to which she gave his name, but which had in reality never existed. She believed honestly that she was living for and in Stephen all this time; that she was his, as he was hers, inalienably and for ever. If it had been suggested to her that it was unnatural that she should be so content in a daily life which he did not share, so busy and glad in occupations and plans and aspirations into which he did not enter, she would have been astonished. She would have said, "How foolish of me to do otherwise! We have our lives to lead, our work to do. It would be a sin to waste one's life, to leave one's work undone, because of the mere lack of seeing any one human being, however dear." Stephen knew love better than this: he knew that life without the daily sight of Mercy was a blank drudgery; that, day by day, month by month, he was growing duller and duller, and more and more lifeless, as if his very blood were being impoverished by lack of nourishment. Surely it was a hard fate which inflicted on this man, already so overburdened, the perpetual pain of a love denied, thwarted, unhappy. Surely it was a brave thing in him to bear the double load uncomplainingly, to make no effort to throw it off, and never by a word or a look to visit his own sufferings on the head of the helpless creature, who seemed to be the cause of them all. If there were any change in his manner toward his mother during these months, it was that he grew tenderer and more demonstrative to her. There were even times when he kissed her, solely from the yearning need he felt to kiss something human, he so longed for one touch of Mercy's hand. He would sometimes ask her wistfully, "Do I make you happy, mother?" And she would be won upon and softened by the words; when in reality they were only the outcry of the famished heart which needed some reassurance that its sacrifices had not been all in vain.