Month after month went on, and no tenants came for the "wing." Stephen even humiliated himself so far as to offer it to Jane Barker's husband at a lowered rent; but his offer was surlily rejected, and he repented having made it. Very bitterly he meditated on the strange isolation into which he and his mother were forced. His sympathies were not broad and general enough to comprehend it. He did not know how quickly all people feel an atmosphere of withdrawal, an air of indifference. If Stephen had been rich and powerful, the world would have forgiven him these traits, or have smothered its dislike of them; but in a poor man, and an obscure one, such "airs" were not to be tolerated. Nobody would live in the "wing." And so it came to pass that one day Stephen wrote to Mercy the following letter:—
"You will be sorry to hear that I have had to foreclose the mortgage on this house. It was impossible to get a tenant for the other half of it, and there was nothing else to be done. The house must be sold, but I doubt if it brings the full amount of the loan. I should have done this three months ago, except for your strong feeling against it. I am very sorry for old Mrs. Jacobs; but it is her misfortune, not my fault. I have my mother to provide for, and my first duty is to her. Of course, Mrs. Jacobs will now have to go to the alms-house but I am not at all sure that she will not be more comfortable there than she has made herself in the cottage. She has starved herself all these years. Some people say she must have a hoard of money there somewhere, that she cannot have spent even the little she has received.
"I shall move out of the house at once, into the little cottage you liked so much, farther up on the hill. That is for rent, only fifty dollars a year. I shall put this house into good repair, run a piazza around it as you suggested, and paint it; and then I think I shall be sure of finding a purchaser. It can be made a very pretty house by expending a little money on it; and I can sell it for enough more to repay me. I am sure nobody would buy it as it is."
Mercy replied very briefly to this part of Stephen's letter. She had discussed the question with him often before, and she knew the strict justice of his claim; but her heart ached for the poor friendless old woman, who was thus to lose her last dollar. If it had been possible for Mercy to have continued to pay the rent of the wing herself, she would gladly have done so; but, at her suggestion of such a thing, Stephen had been so angry that she had been almost frightened.
"I am not so poor yet, Mercy," he had exclaimed, "as to take charity from you! I think I should go to the alms-house myself first. I don't see why old Granny Jacobs is so much to you, any way."
"Only because she is so absolutely friendless, Stephen," Mercy had replied gently. "I never before knew of anybody who had not a relative or a friend in the world; and I am afraid they are cruel to the poor people at the alms-house. They all look so starved and wretched!"
"Well, it will be no more than she deserves," said Stephen; "for she was cruel to her husband's brother's wife. I used to hear horrid stories, when I was a boy, about how she drove them out of the house; and she was cruel to her son too, and drove him away from home. Of course, I am sorry to be the instrument of punishing her, and I do have a certain pity for the old woman; but it is really her own fault. She might be living now in comfort with her son, perhaps, if she had treated him well."
"We can't go by such 'ifs' in this world, Steve," said Mercy, earnestly. "We have to take things as they are. I don't want to be judged way back in my life. Only God knows all the 'ifs.'" Such conversations as these had prepared Mercy for the news which Stephen now wrote her; but they had in no wise changed her feeling in regard to it. She believed in the bottom of her heart that Stephen might have secured a tenant, if he had tried. He had once, in speaking of the matter, dropped a sentence which had shocked her so that she could never forget it.
"It would be a great deal better for me," he had said, "to have the money invested in some other way. If the house does fall into my hands, I shall sell it; and, even if I don't get the full amount of what father loaned, I shall make it bring us in a good deal more than it does this way."
This sentence rang in Mercy's ears, as she read in Stephen's letter all his plans for improving the house; but the thing was done, and it was not Mercy's habit to waste effort or speech over things which could not be altered.
"I am very sorry," she wrote, "that you have been obliged to take the house. You know how I always felt for poor old Granny Jacobs. Perhaps we can do something to make her more comfortable in the alms-house. I think Lizzy could manage that for us."
And in her own mind Mercy resolved that the old woman should never lack for food and fire, however unwilling the overseers might be to permit her to have unusual comforts.
Stephen's next letter opened with these words: "O Mercy, I have such a strange thing to tell you. I am so excited I can hardly find words. I have found a lot of money in your old fireplace. Just think of our having sat there so quietly night after night, within hands' reach of it, all last winter! And how lucky that I found it, instead of any of the workmen! They'd have pocketed it, and never said a word."
"To be sure they would," thought Mercy, "and poor old Granny Jacobs would have been"—she was about to think, "cheated out of her rights again," but with a pang she changed the phrase into "none the better off for it. Oh, how glad I am for the poor old thing! People always said her husband must have hid money away somewhere."
Mercy read on. "I was in such a hurry to get the house done before the snow came that I took hold myself, and worked every night and morning before the workmen came; and, after they had gone, I found this last night, and I declare, Mercy, I haven't shut my eyes all night long. It seems to me too good to be true. I think there must be as much as three thousand dollars, all in solid gold. Some of the coins I don't know the value of; but the greater proportion of them are English sovereigns. Of course rich people wouldn't think this such a very big sum, but you and I know how far a little can go for poor people."
"Yes, indeed," thought Mercy. "Why, it will make the poor old woman perfectly comfortable all her life: it will give her more than she had from the house." And Mercy laid the letter in her lap and fell into a reverie, thinking how strange it was that this good fortune should have come about by means of an act which had seemed to her cruel on Stephen's part.
She took the letter up again. It continued: "O Mercy, my darling, do you suppose you can realize what this sudden lift is to me? All my life I have found our poverty so hard to bear, and these latter years I have bitterly felt the hardship of being unable to go out into the world and make my fortune as other men do, as I think I might, if I were free. But this sum, small as it is, will be a nucleus, I feel sure it will, of a competency at least. I know of several openings where I can place it most advantageously. O Mercy! dear, dear Mercy! what hopes spring up in my heart! The time may yet come when we shall build up a lovely home together. Bless old Jacobs's miserliness! How little he knew what he was hoarding up his gold for!"
At this point, Mercy dropped the letter,—dropped it as if it had been a viper that stung her. She was conscious of but two things: a strange, creeping cold which seemed to be chilling her to the very marrow of her bones; and a vague but terrible sense of horror, mentally. The letter fell to the floor. She did not observe it. A half-hour passed, and she did not know that it had been a moment. Gradually, her brain began to rouse into activity again, and strove confusedly with the thoughts which crowded on it.
"That would be stealing. He can't mean it. Stephen can't be a thief." Half-formed, incoherent sentences like these floated in her mind, seemed to be floating in the air, pronounced by hissing voices.
She pressed her hands to her temples, and sprang to her feet. The letter rustled on the floor, as her gown swept over it. She turned and looked at it, as if it were a living thing she would kill. She stooped to pick it up, and then recoiled from it. She shrank from the very paper. All the vehemence of her nature was roused. As in the moment of drowning people are said to review in one swift flash of consciousness their whole lives, so now in this moment did Mercy look back over the months of her life with Stephen. Her sense of the baseness of his action now was like a lightning illuming every corner of the past: every equivocation, every concealment, every subterfuge he had practised, stood out before her, bare, stripped of every shred of apology or excuse. "He lies; he has always lied. Why should he not steal?" she exclaimed. "It is only another form of the same thing. He stole me, too; and he made me steal him. He is dishonest to the very core. How did I ever love such a man? What blinded me to his real nature?"
Then a great revulsion of feeling, of tenderness toward Stephen, would sweep over her, and drown all these thoughts. "O my poor, brave, patient darling! He never meant to do any thing wrong in his life. He does not see things as I do: no human soul could see clearly, standing where he stands. There is a moral warp in his nature, for which he is no more responsible than a tree is responsible for having grown into a crooked shape when it was broken down by heavy stones while it was a sapling. Oh, how unjust I am to him! I will never think such thoughts of him again. My darling, my darling! He did not stop to think in his excitement that the money was not his. I daresay he has already seen it differently."
Like waves breaking on a beach, and rolling back again to meet higher waves and be swallowed up in them, these opposing thoughts and emotions struggled with each other in Mercy's bosom. Her heart and her judgment were at variance, and the antagonism was irreconcilable. She could not believe that her lover was dishonest. She could not but call his act a theft. The night came and went, and no lull had come to the storm by which her soul was tossed. She could not sleep. As the morning dawned, she rose with haggard and weary eyes, and prepared to write to Stephen. In some of her calmer intervals, she had read the remainder of his letter. It was chiefly filled with the details of the manner in which the gold had been hidden. A second fireplace had been built inside the first, leaving a space of several inches between the two brick walls. On each side two bricks had been so left that they could be easily taken out and replaced; and the bags of gold hung upon iron stanchions in the outer wall. What a strange picture it must have been in the silent night hours,—the old miser bending above the embers of the dying fire on the hearth, and reaching down the crevice to his treasures! The bags were of leather, curiously embossed; they were almost charred by the heat, and the gold was dull and brown.
"I wonder which old fellow put it there?" said Stephen, at the end of his letter. "Captain John would have been more likely to have foreign gold; but why should he hide it in his brother's fireplace? At any rate, to whichever of them I am indebted for it, I am most profoundly grateful. If ever I meet him in any world, I'll thank him."
Suddenly the thought occurred to Mercy, "Perhaps old Mrs. Jacobs is dead. Then there would be nobody who had any right to the money. But no: Stephen would have told me if she had been."
Still she clung to this straw of a hope; and, when she sat down to write to Stephen, these words came first to her pen:—
"Is Mrs. Jacobs dead, Stephen? You do not say any thing about her; but I cannot imagine your thinking for a moment of keeping that money for yourself, unless she is dead. If she is alive, the money is hers. Nobody but her husband or his brother could have put it there. Nobody else has lived in the house, except very poor people. Forgive me, dear, but perhaps you had not thought of this when you first wrote: it has very likely occurred to you since then, and I may be making a very superfluous suggestion." So hard did she cling to the semblance of a trust that all would yet prove to be well with her love and her lover.
Stephen's reply came by the very next mail. It was short: it ran thus:—
"DEAR DARLING,—I do not know what to make of your letter. Your sentence, 'I cannot imagine your thinking for a moment of keeping that money for yourself,' is a most extraordinary one. What do you mean by 'keeping it for myself'? It is mine: the house was mine and all that was in it. Old Mrs. Jacobs is alive still, at least she was last week; but she has no more claim on that money than any other old woman in town. I can't suppose you would think me a thief, Mercy; but your letter strikes me as a very strange one. Suppose I were to discover that there is a gold mine in the orchard,—stranger things than that have happened,—would you say that that also belonged to Mrs. Jacobs and not to me? The cases are precisely parallel. You have allowed your impulsive feeling to run away with your judgment; and, as I so often tell you, whenever you do that, you are wrong. I never thought, however, it would carry you so far as to make you suspect me of a dishonorable act."
Stephen was deeply wounded. Mercy's attempted reticence in her letter had not blinded him. He felt what had underlain the words, and it was a hard blow to him. His conscience was as free from any shadow of guilt in the matter of that money as if it had been his by direct inheritance from his own father. Feeling this, he had naturally the keenest sense of outrage at Mercy's implied accusation.
Before Stephen's second letter came, Mercy had grown calm. The more she thought the thing over, the more she felt sure that Mrs. Jacobs must be dead, and that Stephen in his great excitement had forgotten to mention the fact. Therefore the second letter was even a greater blow to her than the first: it was a second and a deeper thrust into a wound which had hardly begun to heal. There was also a tone of confident, almost arrogant, assumption in the letter, it seemed to Mercy, which irritated her. She did not perceive that it was the inevitable confidence of a person so sure he is right that he cannot comprehend any doubt in another's mind on the subject. There was in Mercy's nature a vein of intolerance, which was capable of the most terrible severity. She was as blinded, to Stephen's true position in the matter as he was to hers. The final moment of divergence had come: its seeds were planted in her nature and in Stephen's when they were born. Nothing could have hindered their growth, nothing could have forestalled their ultimate result. It was only a question of time and of occasion, when the two forces would be arrayed against each other, and would be found equally strong.
Mercy took counsel with herself now, and delayed answering this second letter. She was resolved to be just to Stephen.
"I will think this thing over and over," she said to herself, "till I am sure past all doubt that I am right, before I say another word."
But her long thinking did not help Stephen. Each day her conviction grew deeper, her perception clearer, her sense of alienation from Stephen profounder. If a moral antagonism had grown up between them in any other shape, it would have been less fatal to her love. There were many species of wrong-doing which would have been less hateful in her sight. It seemed to her sometimes that there could be no crime in the world which would appear to her so odious as this. Her imagination dwelt on the picture of the lonely old woman in the alms-house. She had been several times to see Mrs. Jacobs, and had been much moved by a certain grim stoicism which gave almost dignity to her squalor and wretchedness.
"She always had the bearing of a person who knew she was suffering wrongly, but was too proud to complain," thought Mercy. "I wonder if she did not all along believe there was something wrong about the mortgage?" and Mercy's suspicious thoughts and conjectures ran far back into the past, fastening on the beginnings of all this trouble. She recollected old Mr. Wheeler's warnings about Stephen, in the first weeks of her stay in Penfield. She recollected Parson Dorrance's expression, when he found out that she had paid her rent in advance. She tortured herself by reviewing minutely every little manoeuvre she had known of Stephen's practising to conceal his relation with her.
Let Mercy once distrust a person in one particular, and she distrusted him in all. Let one act of his life be wrong, and she believed that his every act was wrong in motive, or in relation to others, however specious and fair it might be made to appear. All the old excuses and apologies she had been in the habit of making for Stephen's insincerities to his mother and to the world seemed to her now less than nothing; and she wondered how she ever could have held them as sufficient. In vain her heart pleaded. In vain tender memories thrilled her, by their vivid recalling of hours, of moments, of looks and words. It was with a certain sense of remorse that she dwelt on them, of shame that she was conscious of clinging to them still. "I shall always love him, I am afraid," she said to herself; "but I shall never trust him again,—never!"
And hour by hour Stephen was waiting and looking for his letter.
Stephen took Mercy's letter from the post-office at night. It was one week past the time at which it would have reached him, if it had been written immediately on the receipt of his. Only too well he knew what the delay meant. He turned the letter over and over in his hand, and noted without surprise it was very light. The superscription was written with unusual care. Mercy's handwriting was free and bold, but illegible, unless she made a special effort to write with care; and she never made that effort in writing to Stephen. How many times he had said to her: "Never mind how you write to me, dear. I read your sentences by another sense than the sense of sight." This formally and neatly written, superscription smote him, as a formal bow and a chilling glance from Mercy would, if he had passed her on the street.
He carried the letter home unopened. All through the evening it lay like a leaden weight in his bosom, as he sat by his mother's side. He dared not read it until he was sure of being able to be alone for hours. At last he was free. As he went upstairs to his room, he thought to himself, "This is the hour at which I used to fly to her, and find such welcome. A year ago to-night how happy we were!" With a strange disposition to put off the opening of the letter, he moved about his room, rearranged the books, lighted an extra lamp, and finally sat down in an arm-chair, and leaning both his arms on the table looked at the letter lying there so white, so still. He felt a preternatural consciousness of what was in it; and he shrank from looking at the words, as a condemned prisoner might shrink from reading his own death-warrant. The room was bitterly cold. Fires in bed-rooms were a luxury Stephen had never known. As he sat there, his body and heart seemed to be growing numb together. At last he said, "I may as well read it," and took the letter up. As he opened it and read the first words, "My darling Stephen," his heart gave a great bound. She loved him still. What a reprieve in that! He had yet to learn that love can be crueller than any friendship, than any indifference, than any hate: nothing is so exacting, so inexorable, as love. The letter was full of love; but it was, nevertheless, hard and pitiless in its tone. Stephen read it again and again: then he held it in the flame of the lamp, and let it slowly burn, until only a few scorched fragments remained. These he folded in a small paper, and put into his pocket-book. Why he did this, he could not tell, and wondered at himself for doing it. Then he walked the room for an hour or two, revolving in his mind what he should say to Mercy. His ideas arranged themselves concisely and clearly. He had been stung by Mercy's letter into a frame of feeling hardly less inexorable than her own. He said to himself, "She never truly loved me, or nothing under heaven could make her believe me capable of a dishonesty;" and, in midst of all his pain at this thought, he had an indignant resentment, as if Mercy herself had been in some way actively responsible for all this misery.
His letter was shorter than Mercy's. They were sad, strange letters to have passed between lovers. Mercy's ran as follows:—
"MY DARLING STEPHEN,—Your letters have shocked me so deeply that I find myself at a loss for words in which to reply. I cannot understand your present position at all. I have waited all these days, hoping that some new light would come to me, that I could see the whole thing differently; but I cannot. On the contrary, each hour that I think of it (and I have thought of nothing else since your second letter came) only makes my conviction stronger. Darling, that money is Mrs. Jacobs's money, by every moral right. You may be correct in your statement as to the legal rights of the case. I take it for granted that you are. At any rate, I know nothing about that; and I rest no argument upon it at all. But it is clear as daylight to me that morally you are bound to give her the money. Suppose you had had permission from her to make those changes in the house, while you were still her tenant, and had found the money, then you would have handed it to her unhesitatingly. Why? Because you would have said, 'This woman's husband built this house. No one except his brother who could possibly have deposited this money here has lived in the house. One of those two men was the owner of that gold. In either case, she is the only heir, and it is hers. I am sure you would have felt this, had we chanced to discover the money on one of those winter nights you refer to. Now in what has the moral obligation been changed by the fact that the house has come into your hands? Not by ordinary sale, either; but simply by foreclosure of a mortgage, under conditions which were certainly very hard for Mrs. Jacobs, inasmuch as one-half the interest has always been paid. This money which you have found would have paid nearly the whole of the original loan. It was hers, only she did not know where it lay. O Stephen, my darling, I do implore you not to do this great wrong. You will certainly come to see, sooner or later, that it was a dishonest act; and then it will be too late to undo it. If I thought that by talking with you I could make you see it as I do, I would come to you at once. But I keep clinging to the hope that you will see it of yourself, that a sudden realization of it will burst upon you like a great light. Don't speak so angrily to me of calling you a thief. I never used the word. I never could. I know the act looks to you right, or you would not commit it. But it is terrible to me that it should look so to you. I feel, darling, as if you were color-blind, and I saw you about to pick a most deadly fruit, whose color ought to warn every one from touching it; but you, not seeing the color, did not know the danger; and I must save you at all hazards, at all costs. Oh, what shall I say, what shall I say! How can I make you see the truth? God help us if I do not; for such an act as this on your part would put an impassable gulf between our souls for ever. Your loving,
Stephen's letter was in curter phrase. Writing was not to him a natural form of expression. Even of joyous or loving words he was chary, and much more so of their opposites. His life-long habit of repression of all signs of annoyance, all complaints, all traces of suffering, told still more on his written words than on his daily speech and life. His letter sounded harder than it need for this reason; seemed to have been written in antagonism rather than in grief, and so did injustice to his feeling.
"MY DEAR MERCY,—It is always a mistake for people to try to impose their own standards of right and wrong on others. It gives me very great pain to wound you in any way, you know that; and to wound you in such a way as this gives me the greatest possible pain. But I cannot make your conscience mine. If this money had not seemed to me to be justly my own, I should never have thought of taking it. As it does seem to me to be justly my own, your believing it to be another's ought not to change my action. If I had only my own future to consider, I might give it up, for the sake of your peace of mind. But it is not so. I have a helpless invalid dependent on me; and one of the hardest things in my life to bear has always been the fear that I might lose my health, and be unable to earn even the poor living we now have. This sum, small as it is, will remove that fear, will enable me to insure for my mother a reasonable amount of comfort as long as she lives; and I cannot give it up. I do not suppose, either, that it would make any difference in your feeling if I gave it up solely to please you, and not because I thought it wrong to keep it. How any act which I honestly believe to be right, and which you know I honestly believe to be right, can put 'an impassable gulf between our souls for ever,' I do not understand. But, if' it seems so to you, I can only submit; and I will try to forget that you ever said to me, 'I shall trust you till I die!' O Mercy, Mercy, ask yourself if you are just!
Mercy grasped eagerly at the intimation in this letter that Stephen might possibly give the money up because she desired it.
"Oh, if he will only not keep it, I don't care on what grounds he gives it up!" she exclaimed. "I can bear his thinking it was his, if only the money goes where it belongs. He will see afterwards that I was right." And she sat down instantly, and wrote Stephen a long letter, imploring him to do as he had suggested.
"Darling," she said, "this last letter of yours has given me great comfort." As Stephen read this sentence, he uttered an ejaculation of surprise. What possible comfort there could have been in the words he remembered to have written he failed to see; but it was soon made clear to him.
"You say," she continued, "that you might possibly give the money up for sake of my peace of mind, if it were not for the fear that your mother might suffer. O Stephen, then give it up! give it up! Trust to the future's being at least as kind as the past. I will not say another word about the right or wrong of the thing. Think that my feeling is all morbid and overstrained about it, if you will. I do not care what you think of me, so that I do not have to think of you as using money which is not your own. And, darling, do not be anxious about the future: if any thing happens to you, I will take care of your mother. It is surely my right next to yours. I only wish you would let me help you in it even now. I am earning more and more money. I have more than I need. Oh, if you would only take some of it, darling! Why should you not? I would take it from you, if you had it and I had not. I could give you in a very few years as much as this you have found and never miss it. Do let me atone to you in this way for your giving up what you think is your right in the matter of this ill-fated money. O Stephen, I could be almost happy again, if you would do this! You say it would make no difference in my feeling about it, if you gave the money up only to please me, and not because you thought it wrong to keep it. No, indeed! that is not so. I would be happier, if you saw it as I do, of course; but, if you cannot, then the next best thing, the only thing left for my happiness, is to have you yield to my wish. Why, Stephen, I have even felt so strongly about it as this: that sometimes, in thinking it over, I have had a wild impulse to tell you that if you did not give the money to Mrs. Jacobs I would inform the authorities that you had it, and so test the question whether you had the right to keep it or not. Any thing, even your humiliation, has at times seemed to me better than that you should go on living in the possession of stolen money. You can see from this how deeply I felt about the thing. I suppose I really never could have done this. At the last moment, I should have found it impossible to array myself against you in any such public way; but, oh, my darling, I should always have felt as if I helped steal the money, if I kept quiet about it. You see I use a past tense already, I feel so certain that you will give it up now. Dear, dear Stephen, you will never be sorry: as soon as it is done, you will be glad. I wish that gold had been all sunk in the sea, and never seen light again, the sight of it has cost us so dear. Darling, I can't tell you what a load has rolled off my heart. Oh, if you could know what it has been to me to have this cloud over my thoughts of you! I have always been so proud of you, Stephen,—your patience, your bravery. In my thought, you have stood always for my ideal of the beautiful alliance of gentleness and strength. Darling, we owe something to those who love us: we owe it to them not to disappoint them. If I were to be tempted to do some dishonorable thing, I should say to myself: 'No, for I must be what Stephen believes me. It is not only that I will not grieve him: still more, I will not disappoint him.'"
Mercy wrote on and on. The reaction from the pent-up grief, the prolonged strain, was great. In her first joy at any, even the least, alleviation of the horror she had felt at the thought of Stephen's dishonesty, she over-estimated the extent of the relief she would feel from his surrendering the money at her request. She wrote as buoyantly, as confidently, as if his doing that would do away with the whole wrong from the beginning. In her overflowing, impetuosity, also, she did not consider what severe and cutting things were implied as well as said in some of her sentences. She closed the letter without rereading it, hastened to send it by the first mail, and then began to count the days which must pass before Stephen's answer could reach her.
Alas for Mercy! this was a sad preparation for the result which was to follow her hastily written words. It seems sometimes as if fate delighted in lifting us up only to cast us down, in taking us up into a high mountain to show us bright and goodly lands, only to make our speedy imprisonment in the dark valley the harder to bear.
Stephen read this last letter of Mercy's with an ever-increasing sense of resentment to the very end. For the time being it seemed to actually obliterate every trace of his love for her. He read the words as wrathfully as if they had been written by a mere acquaintance.
"Good heavens!" he exclaimed. "'Stolen money! Inform the authorities!' Let her do it if she likes and see how she would come out at the end of that.' And Stephen wrote Mercy very much such a letter as he would have written to a man under the same circumstances. Luckily, he kept it a day, and, rereading it in a cooler moment was shocked at its tone, destroyed it, and wrote another. But the second one was no less hard, only more courteous, than the first. It ran thus:—
"MERCY,—I am sorry that any thing in my last letter should have led you to suppose that under the existing circumstances you could control my actions. All I said was that I might, for the sake of your peace of mind, give up this money, if it were not for my obligations to my mother. It was a foolish thing to say, since those obligations could not be done away with. I ought to have known that in your overwrought frame of mind you would snatch at the suggestion, and make it the basis of a fresh appeal.
"Now let me say, once for all, that my mind is firmly made up on this subject, and that it must be dropped between us. The money is mine, and I shall keep it. If you think it your duty to 'inform the authorities,' as you say, you must do so; and I would not say one word to hinder you. I would never, as you do in this case, attempt to make my own conscience the regulator of another's conduct. If you do regard me as the possessor of 'stolen money,' it is undoubtedly your duty to inform against me. I can only warn you that all you would gain by it would be a most disagreeable exposure of your own and my private affairs, and much mortification to both of us. The money is mine beyond all question. I shall not reply to any more letters from you on this subject. There is nothing more to be said; and all prolonging of the discussion is a needless pain, and is endangering the very foundations of our affection for each other. I want to say one thing more, however; and I hope it will impress you as it ought. Never forget that the strongest proof that my conscience was perfectly clear in regard to that money is that I at once told you of its discovery. It would have been perfectly easy for me to have accounted to you in a dozen different ways for my having come into possession of a little money, or even to have concealed from you the fact that I had done so; and, if I had felt myself a thief, I should certainly have taken good care that you did not know it.
"I must also thank you for your expressions of willingness to take care of my mother, in case of any thing's happening to me. Until these last letters of yours, I had often thought, with a sense of relief, that, if I died, you would never see my mother suffer; but now any such thought is inseparably associated with bitter memories. And my mother will not, in any event, need your help; for the money I shall have from the sale of the house, together with this which I have found, will give her all she will require.
"You must forgive me if this letter sounds hard, Mercy. I have not your faculty of mingling endearing epithets with sharp accusations and reproaches. I cannot be lover and culprit at once, as you are able to be lover and accuser, or judge. I love you, I think, as deeply and tenderly as ever; but you yourself have made all expression of it impossible. STEPHEN."
This letter roused in Mercy most conflicting emotions. Wounded feeling at its coldness, a certain admiration for its tone of immovable resolution, anger at what seemed to her Stephen's unjustifiable resentment of her effort to influence his action,—all these blended in one great pain which was well-nigh unbearable. For the time being, her distress in regard to the money seemed cast into shadow and removed by all this suffering in her personal relation with Stephen; but the personal suffering had not so deep a foundation as the other. Gradually, all sense of her own individual hurts in Stephen's words, in his acts, in the weakening of the bond which held them together, died out, and left behind it only a sense of bereavement and loss; while the first horror of Stephen's wrong-doing, of the hopeless lack in his moral nature, came back with twofold intensity. This had its basis in convictions,—in convictions which were as strong as the foundations of the earth: the other had its basis in emotions, in sensibilities which might pass away or be dulled.
Spite of Stephen's having forbidden all reference to the subject, Mercy wrote letter after letter upon it, pleading sometimes humbly, sometimes vehemently. It seemed to her that she was fighting for Stephen's very life, and she could not give way. To all these out-pourings Stephen made no reply. He answered the letters punctually, but made no reference to the question of the money, save by a few short words at the end of his letter, or in a postscript: such as, "It grieves me to see that you still dwell on that matter of which I said we must speak no more;" or, "Pray, dear Mercy, do not prolong that painful discussion. I have nothing more to say to you about it."
For the rest, his letters were faithful transcripts of the little events of his uneventful life, warm comments on any of Mercy's writings which he read, and gentle assurances of his continued affection. The old longings, broodings, and passionate yearnings, which he used to pour out, ceased. Stephen was wounded to the very quick; and the wound did not heal. Yet he felt no withdrawal from Mercy: probably nothing she could do would ever drive him from her. He would die, if worst came to worst, lying by her side and looking up in her eyes, like a dog at the feet of its master who had shot him.
Mercy was much moved by this tone of patience in his letters: it touched her, as the look of patient endurance on his face used to touch her. It also irritated her, it was so foreign to her own nature.
"How can he help answering these things I say?" she would exclaim. "He has no right to refuse to talk with me about such a vital matter." If any one had said to Mercy, "He has as much right to refuse to discuss the question as you have to force it upon him," she could not have seen the point fairly.
But all Stephen's patience, gentleness, and firmness did not abate one jot or tittle of Mercy's conviction that he was doing a dishonest thing. Oh the contrary, his quiet appeared to her more and more like a callous satisfaction; and his occasional cheerfulness, like an exultation over his ill-gotten gains. Slowly there crept into her feeling towards him a certain something which was akin to scorn,—the most fatal of deaths to love. The hateful word "thief" seemed to be perpetually ringing in her ears. When she read accounts of robberies, of defalcations, of breaches of trust, she found herself always drawing parallels between the conduct of these criminals and Stephen's. The secrecy, the unassailable safety of his crime, seemed to her to make it inexpressibly more odious.
"I do believe," she thought to herself again and again, "that if he had been driven by his poverty to knocking men down on the highway, and robbing them of their pocket-books, I should not have so loathed it!"
As the weeks went on, Mercy's unhappiness increased rather than diminished. There seemed an irreconcilible conflict between her love and every other emotion in her soul. She seemed to herself to be, as it were, playing the hypocrite to her own heart in thinking thus of a man and loving him still; for that she still loved Stephen, she did not once doubt. At this time, she printed a little poem, which set many of her friends to vondering from what experience of hers it could possibly have been drawn. Mercy's poems were so largely subjective in tone that it was hard for her readers to believe that they were not all drawn from her own individual experience.
A WOMAN'S BATTLE.
Dear foe, I know thou'lt win the fight; I know thou hast the stronger bark, And thou art sailing in the light, While I am creeping in the dark. Thou dost not dream that I am crying, As I come up with colors flying.
I clear away my wounded, slain, With strength like frenzy strong and swift; I do not feel the tug and strain, Though dead are heavy, hard to lift. If I looked on their faces dying, I could not keep my colors flying.
Dear foe, it will be short,—our fight,— Though lazily thou train'st thy guns: Fate steers us,—me to deeper night, And thee to brighter seas and suns; But thou'lt not dream that I am dying, As I sail by with colors flying!
There was great injustice to Stephen in this poem. When he read it, he groaned, and exclaimed aloud, "O Mercy! O Mercy!" Then, as he read it over again, he said, "Surely she could not have meant herself in this: it is only dramatic. She could never call me her foe." Mercy had often said to him of some of her most intense poems, "Oh, it was purely dramatic. I just fancied how anybody would feel under such circumstances;" and he clung to the hope that it was true in this case. But it was not. Already Mercy had a sense of antagonism, of warfare, with Stephen, or rather with her love for him. Already her pride was beginning to array itself in reticence, in withdrawal, in suppression. More than once she had said to herself "I can live without him! I could bear that pain better than this." More than once she had asked herself with a kind of terror, "Do I really wish ever to see Stephen again?" and had been forced to own in her secret thought that she shrank from meeting him. She began even to consider the possibility of deferring the visit to Lizzy Hunter, which she had promised to make in the spring. As the time drew nearer, her unwillingness to go increased, and she would no doubt have discovered some way of escape; but one day early in March a telegram came to her, which left her no longer any room for choice.
"Uncle Dorrance is not expected to live. He wishes to see you. He is at my house. Come immediately.
Within six hours after the receipt of this telegram, Mercy was on her way to Penfield. Her journey would take a night and part of a day. As the morning dawned, and she drew near the old familiar scenes, her heart was wrung with conflicting memories and hopes and fears. The whole landscape was dreary: the fields were dark and sodden, with narrow banks of discolored snow lying under the fences, and thin rims of ice along the edges of the streams and pools. The sky was gray; the bare trees were gray: all life looked gray and hopeless to Mercy. She had had an over-mastering presentiment from the moment when she read the telegram that she should reach Penfield too late to see Parson Dorrance alive. A strange certainty that he had died in the night settled upon her mind as soon as she waked from her troubled sleep; and when she reached Lizzy's door, and saw standing before it the undertaker's wagon, which she so well remembered, there was no shock of surprise to her in the sight. At the first sound of Mercy's voice, Lizzy came swiftly forward, and fell upon her neck in a passion of crying.
"O Mercy, Mercy, he"—
"Yes, dear, I know it," interrupted Mercy, in a calm tone. "I know he is dead."
"Why, who told you, Mercy?" exclaimed Lizzy. "He only died a few hours ago,—about daybreak,"
"Oh, I thought he died in the night!" said Mercy, in a strange tone, as if trying to recollect something accurately about which her memory was not clear. Her look and her tone filled Lizzy with terror, and banished her grief for the time being.
"Mercy, Mercy, don't look so!" she exclaimed. "Speak to me! Oh, do cry, can't you?" And Lizzy's tears flowed afresh.
"No, Lizzy, I don't think I can cry," said Mercy, in the same strange, low voice. "I wish I could have spoken to him once, though. Did he leave any word for me? Perhaps there is something he wanted me to do."
Mercy's face was white, and her lips trembled; but her look was hardly the look of one in sorrow: it was a rapt look, as of one walking on dizzy heights, breathless with some solemn purpose. Lizzy was convulsed with grief, sobbing like a child, and pouring out one incoherent sentence after another. Mercy soothed her and comforted her as a mother might have done, and finally compelled her to be more calm. Mercy's magnetic power over those whom she loved was almost unlimited. She forestalled their very wills, and made them desire what she desired.
"O Mercy, don't make me glad he is dead! You frighten me, darling. I don't want to stop crying; but you have sealed up all my tears," cried Lizzy, later in the day, when Mercy had been talking like a seer, who could look into the streets of heaven, and catch the sound of the songs of angels.
Mercy smiled sadly. "I don't want to prevent your crying, dear," she said, "if it does you any good. But I am very sure that Mr. Dorrance sees us at this moment, and longs to tell us how glad he is, and that we must be glad for him." And Mercy's eyes shone as they looked steadfastly across the room, as if the empty space were, to her vision, peopled with spirits. This mood of exalted communion did not leave her. Her face seemed transfigured by it. When she stood by the body of her loved teacher and friend, she clasped her hands, and, bending over the face, exclaimed,—
"Oh, how good God was!" Then, turning suddenly to Lizzy, she exclaimed,—
"Lizzy, did you know that he loved me, and asked me to be his wife? This is why I am thanking God for taking him to heaven."
Lizzy's face paled. Astonishment, incredulity, anger, grief, all blended in the sudden look she turned upon Mercy. "I thought so! I thought so! But I never believed you knew it. And you did not love him! Mercy, I will never forgive you!"
"He forgave me," said Mercy, gently; "and so you might. But I shall never forgive myself!"
"Mercy Philbrick!" exclaimed Lizzy, "how could you help loving that man?" And, in her excitement, Lizzy stretched out her right hand towards the rigid, motionless figure under the white pall. "He was the most glorious man God ever made."
The two women stood side by side, looking into the face of the dead. It was a strange place for these words to be spoken. It was as solemn as eternity.
"I did not help loving him," said Mercy, in a lower tone, her white face growing whiter as she spoke. "But"—she paused. No words came to her lips, for the bitter consciousness which filled her heart.
Lizzy's voice sank to a husky whisper.
"But what?" she said. "O Mercy, Mercy! is it Stephen White you love?" And Lizzy's face, even in that solemn hour, took a look of scorn. "Are you going to marry Stephen White?" she continued.
"Never, Lizzy,—never!" said Mercy, in a tone as concentrated as if a lifetime ended there; and, stooping low, she kissed the rigid hands which lay folded on the heart of the man she ought to have loved, but had not. Then, turning away, she took Lizzy's hands in hers, and kissing, her forehead said earnestly,—
"We will never speak again of this, Lizzy, remember." Lizzy was overawed by her tone, and made no reply.
Parson Dorrance's funeral was a scene which will never be forgotten by those who saw it. It was on one of the fiercest days which the fierce New England March can show. A storm of rain and sleet, with occasional softened intervals of snow, raged all day. The roads were gullies of swift-running water and icy sloughs; the cold was severe; and the cutting wind at times drove the sleet and rain in slanting scourges, before which scarce man or beast could stand. The funeral was held in the village church, which was larger than the college chapel. Long before the hour at which the services were to begin, every pew was filled, and the aisles were crowded with those who could not find seats. From every parish within twenty miles the mourners had come. There was not one there who had not heard words of help or comfort from Parson Dorrance's lips. The students of the college filled the body of the church; the Faculty and distinguished strangers sat in the front pews. The pews under one of the galleries had been reserved for the negroes from "The Cedars." Early in the morning the poor creatures had begun to flock in. Not a seat was empty: old women, women with babies, old men, boys and girls, wet, dripping, ragged, friendless, more than one hundred of them,—there they were. They had walked all that distance in that terrible storm. Each one had brought in his hand a green bough or a bunch of rock-ferns, something of green beauty from the woods their teacher had taught them to love. They sat huddled together, with an expression of piteous grief on every face, which was enough to touch the stoniest heart. Now and then sobs would burst from the women, and some old figure would be seen rocking to and fro in uncontrollable sorrow.
The coffin stood on a table in front of the pulpit. It seemed to be resting on an altar of cedar and ferns. Mercy had brought from her old haunts in the woods masses of the glossy evergreen fern, and interwoven them with the boughs of cedar. At the end of the services, it was announced that all who wished could pass by the coffin and take one last look at their friend.
Slowly and silently the congregation passed up the right aisle, looked on the face, and passed out at the left door. It was a pathetic sight to see the poor, outcast band wait patiently, humbly, till every one else had gone: then, like a flock of stricken sheep, they rushed confusedly towards the pulpit, and gathered round the coffin. Now burst out the grief which had been pent up: with cries and ejaculations, they went tottering and stumbling down the aisles. One old man, with hair as white as snow,—one of the original fugitive slaves who had founded the settlement,—bent over the coffin at its head, and clung with both hands to its edge, swaying back and forth above it, crying aloud, till the sexton was obliged to loosen his grasp and lead him away by force.
The college faculty still sat in the front pews. There were some of their number, younger men, scholars and men of the world, who had not been free from a disposition to make good-natured fun of Parson Dorrance's philanthropies. They shrugged their shoulders sometimes at the mention of his parish at "The Cedars;" they regarded him as old-fashioned and unpractical. They sat conscience-stricken and abashed now; the tears of these bereaved black people smote their philosophy and their worldliness, and showed them how shallow they were. Tears answered to tears, and the college professors and the negro slaves wept together.
"They have nobody left to love them now," exclaimed one of the youngest and hitherto most cynical of Parson Dorrance's colleagues, as he stood watching the grief-stricken creatures.
While the procession formed to bear the body to the grave, the blacks stood in a group on the church-steps, watching it. After the last carriage had fallen into line, they hurried down and followed on in the storm. In vain some kindly persons tried to dissuade them. It was two miles to the cemetery, two miles farther away from their homes; but they repelled all suggestions of the exposure with indignant looks, and pressed on. When the coffin was lowered into the grave, they pushed timidly forward, and began to throw in their green boughs and bunches of ferns. Every one else stepped back respectfully as soon as their intention was discovered, and in a moment they had formed in solid ranks close about the grave, each one casting in his green palm of crown and remembrance,—a body-guard such as no emperor ever had to stand around him in his grave.
On the day after Mercy's arrival in town, Stephen had called to see her. She had sent down to him a note with these words:—
"I cannot see you, dear Stephen, until after all is over. The funeral will be to-morrow. Come the next morning, as early as you like."
The hours had seemed bitterly long to Stephen. He had watched Mercy at the funeral; and, when he saw her face bowed in her hands, and felt rather than saw that she was sobbing, he was stung by a new sense of loss and wrong that he had no right to be by her side and comfort her. He forgot for the time, in the sight of her grief, all the unhappiness of their relation for the past few months. He had unconsciously felt all along that, if he could but once look in her eyes, all would be well. How could he help feeling so, when he recalled the expression of childlike trust and devotion which her sweet face always wore when she lifted it to his? And now, as his eyes dwelt lingeringly and fondly on every line of her bowed form, he had but one thought, but one consciousness,—his desire to throw his arms about her, and exclaim, "O Mercy, are you not my own, my very own?"
With his heart full of this new fondness and warmth, Stephen went at an early hour to seek Mercy. As he entered the house, he was sensibly affected by the expression still lingering of the yesterday's grief. The decorations of evergreens and flowers were still untouched. Mercy and Lizzy had made the whole house gay as for a festival; but the very blossoms seemed to-day to say that it had been a festival of sorrow. A large sheaf of callas had stood on a small table at the head of the coffin. The table had not yet been moved from the place where it stood near the centre of the room; but it stood there now alone, with a strange expression of being left by accident. Stephen bent over it, looking into the deep creamy cups, and thinking dreamily that Mercy's nature was as fair, as white, as royal as these most royal of graceful flowers, when the door opened and Mercy came towards him. He sprang to meet her with outstretched arms. Something in her look made the outstretched arms fall nerveless; made his springing step pause suddenly; made the very words die away on his lips. "O Mercy!" was all he could say, and he breathed it rather than said it.
Mercy smiled a very piteous smile, and said, "Yes, Stephen, I am here."
"O Mercy, it is not you! You are not here. What has done this to you? Did you so love that man?" exclaimed Stephen, a sudden pang seizing him of fiercest jealousy of the dead, whom he had never feared while he was living.
Mercy's face contracted, as if a sharp pain had wrenched every nerve.
"No, I did not love him; that is, not as you mean. You know how very dearly I did love him, though."
"Dear darling, you are all worn out. This shock has been too much for you. You are not well," said Stephen, tenderly, coming nearer to her and taking her hand. "You must have rest and sleep at once."
The hand was not Mercy's hand any more than the voice had been Mercy's voice. Stephen dropped it, and, looking fixedly at Mercy's eyes, whispered, "Mercy, you do not love me as you used to."
Mercy's eyes drooped; she locked her hands tightly together, and said, "I can't, Stephen." No possible form of words could have been so absolute. "I can't!" "I do not," would have been merciful, would have held a hope, by the side of this helpless, despairing, "I can't."
Stephen sank into a chair, and covered his eyes with his hands. Mercy stood still, near the white callas; her hands clasped, and her eyes fixed on Stephen. At last she spoke, in a voice of unutterable yearning and tenderness, "I do love you, Stephen."
At these words, he pressed his hands tighter upon his eyes for one second, then shook them hastily free, and looking up at Mercy said gently,—
"Yes, dear, I know you do; and I know you would have loved me always, if you could. Do not be unhappy. I told you a long time ago that to have had you once love me was enough for a lifetime." And Stephen smiled,—a smile more pathetic than Mercy's had been. He went on, still in the same gentle voice,—a voice out of which the very life seemed to have died,—"I hoped, when we met, all would be right. It used to be so much to you, Mercy, to look into my eyes, I thought you would trust me when you saw me."
No reproach, no antagonism, no entreaty. With the long-trained patience of a lifetime, Stephen accepted this great grief, and made no effort to gainsay it. Mercy tried again and again to speak, but no words came. At last, with a flood of tears, she exclaimed,—
"I cannot help it, Stephen,—I cannot help it."
"No, darling, you cannot help it; and it is not your fault," replied Stephen. Touched to the heart by his sweetness and forbearance, Mercy went nearer him, and took his hand, and in her old way was about to lay it to her cheek.
Stephen drew it hastily away, and a shudder ran over his body. "No, Mercy, do not try to do that. That is not right, when you do not trust me. You cannot help loving the touch of my hand, Mercy,"—and a certain sad pride lighted Stephen's face at the thought of the clinging affection which even now stirred this woman's veins for him,—"any more than you can help having ceased to trust me. If the trust ever comes back, then"—Stephen turned his head away, and did not finish the sentence. A great silence fell upon them both. How inexplicable it seemed to them that there was nothing to say! At last Stephen rose, and said gravely,—
"Good-by, Mercy. Unless there is something I can do to help you, I would rather not see you again."
"No," whispered Mercy. "That is best."
"And if the time ever comes, darling, when you need me, ... or trust me ... again, will you write to me and say so?"
"Yes," sobbed Mercy, and Stephen left her. On the threshold of the door, he turned and fixed his eyes upon her with one long look of sorrow, compassion, and infinite love. Her heart thrilled under it. She made an eager step forward. If he had returned, she would have thrown herself into his arms, and cried out, "O Stephen, I do love you, I do trust you." But Stephen made an inexorable gesture of his hand, which said more than any words, "No! no! do not deceive yourself," and was gone.
And thus they parted for ever, this man and this woman who had been for two years all in all to each other, who had written on each other's hearts and lives characters which eternity itself could never efface.
Hope lived long in Stephen's heart. He built too much on the memories of his magnetic power over Mercy, and he judged her nature too much by his own. He would have loved and followed her to the end, in spite of her having become a very outcast of crime, if she had continued to love him; and it was simply impossible for him to conceive of her love's being either less or different. But, when in a volume of poems which Mercy published one year after their parting, he read the following sonnet, he knew that all was indeed over:—
Not by the death that kills the body. Nay, By that which even Christ bade us to fear Hath died my dead. Ah, me! if on a bier I could but see him lifeless stretched to-day, I 'd bathe his face with tears of joy, and lay My cheek to his in anguish which were near To ecstasy, if I could hold him dear In death as life. Mere separations weigh As dust in balances of love. The death That kills comes only by dishonor. Vain To chide me! vain! And weaker to implore, O thou once loved so well, loved now no more! There is no resurrection for such slain, No miracle of God could give thee breath!
* * * * *
Mercy Philbrick lived thirty years after the events described in these pages. It was a life rich to overflowing, yet uneventful, as the world reckons: a life lonely, yet full of companionship; sady yet full of cheer; hard, and yet perpetually uplifted by an inward joy which made her very presence like sunshine, and made men often say of her, "Oh, she has never known sorrow." This was largely the result of her unquenchable gift of song, of the true poet's temperament, to which life is for ever new, beautiful, and glad. It was also the result of her ever-increasing spirituality of nature. This took no shape of creed, worship, or what the world's common consent calls religion. Most of the words spoken by the teachers of churches repelled Mercy by their monotonous iteration of the letter which killeth. But her realization of the solemn significance of the great fact of being alive deepened every hour; her tenderness, her sense of brotherhood to every human being, and her sense of the actual presence and near love of God. Her old intolerance was softened, or rather it had changed from antagonisms on the surface to living principles at the core. Truth, truth, truth, was still the war-cry of her soul; and there was an intensity in every word of her written or spoken pleadings on this subject which might well have revealed to a careful analyzer of them that they had sprung out of the depths of the profoundest experiences. Her influence as a writer was very great. As she grew older, she wrote less and less for the delight of the ear, more and more for the stirring of the heart. To do a little towards making people glad, towards making them kind to one another, towards opening their eyes to the omnipresent beauty,—these were her ambitions. "Oh, the tender, unutterable beauty of all created things!" were the opening lines of one of her sweetest songs; and it might have been said to be one of the watchwords of her life.
It took many years for her to reach this plane, to attain to the fulness of this close spiritual communion with things seen and unseen. The double bereavement and strain of her two years of life in Penfield left her for a long time bruised and sore. Her relation with Stephen, as she looked back upon it, hurt her in every fibre of her nature. Sometimes she was filled with remorse for the grief she had caused him, and sometimes with poignant distress, of doubt whether she had not after all been unjust to him. Underlying all this remorse, all this doubt was a steadily growing consciousness that her love for him was in the very outset a mistake, an abnormal emotion, born of temporary and insufficient occasion, and therefore sure to have sooner or later proved too weak for the tests of life. On the other hand, her thoughts of Parson Dorrance grew constantly warmer, tenderer, more assured. His character, his love for her, his beautiful life, rose steadily higher and higher, and brighter and brighter on her horizon, as the lofty snow-clad peaks of a mountain land reveal themselves in all their grandeur to our vision only when we have journeyed away from their base. Slowly the whole allegiance of her heart transferred itself to the dead man's memory; slowly her grief for his loss deepened, and yet with the deepened grief came a certain new and holy joy. It surely could not be impossible for him to know in heaven that she was his on earth? As confidently as if she had been wedded to him here, she looked forward to the reunion with him there, and found in her secret consciousness of this eternal bond a hidden rapture, such as has been the stay of many a widowed heart through long lifetimes of loneliness. This secret bond was like an impalpable yet impenetrable veil between her soul and the souls of all men who came into relation with her. Men loved her and sought her,—loved her warmly and sought her with long years of devotion. The world often judged her uncharitably by reason of these friendships, which were only friendships, and yet pointed to a warmer regard than the world consents that friends may feel. But there was never a man, of all the men who loved Mercy, who did not feel himself, spite of all her frank and loving intimacy, withheld, debarred, separated from her at a certain point, as if there stood drawn up there a cordon of viewless spirits.
The one grief above which she could not wholly rise, which at times smote her and bowed her down, was her sense of her loss in being childless. The heart of mother was larger in her even than the heart of wife. Her longing for children of her own was so great that it was often more than she could bear to watch little children at their play. She stood sometimes at her window at dusk, and watched the poor laboring men and women going home, leading or carrying their children; and it seemed as if her heart would break. Everywhere, her eye noted the swarming groups of children, poor, uncared for, so often unwelcome; and she said sadly to herself, "So many! so many! and not one for me." Yet she never felt any desire to adopt children. She distrusted her own patience and justice too much; and she feared too deeply the development of hereditary traits which she could not conquer; "I might find that I had taken a liar," she thought; "and I should hate him."
As she reached middle age, this unsatisfied desire ceased to be so great a grief. She became more and more like a motherly friend to the young people surrounding her. Her house was a home to them all, and she reproduced in her own life very nearly the relation which Parson Dorrance had held to the young people of Danby. Her friend Lizzy Hunter was now the mother of four girls, all in their first young womanhood. They all strove eagerly for the privilege of living with "Aunt Mercy," and went in turn to spend whole seasons with her.
On Stephen White's thirty-sixth birthday, his mother died. The ten years which had passed since Mercy left him had grown harder and harder, day by day; but he bore the last as silently and patiently as he bore the first, and Mrs. White's last words to the gray-haired man who bent over her bed were,—
"You have been a good boy, Steve,—a good boy. You'll have some rest now."
Since the day he bade good-by to Mercy in the room from which Parson Dorrance had just been buried, Stephen had never written to her, never heard from her, except as all the world heard from her, in her published writings. These he read eagerly, and kept them carefully in scrap-books. He took great delight in collecting all the copies of her verses. Sometimes a little verse of hers would go the rounds of the newspapers for months, and each reappearance of it was a new pleasure to Stephen. He knew most of them by heart; and he felt that he knew Mercy still, as well as he knew her when she looked up in his face. On the night of his mother's death he wrote to her these words:—
"MERCY,—It is ten years since we parted. I love you as I loved you then. I shall never love any other woman. I am free now. My mother has died this night. May I come and see you? I ask nothing of you, except to be your friend. Can I not be that?
If a ghost of one dead for ten years had entered her presence, Mercy had hardly been more startled. Stephen had ceased to be a personality to her. Striving very earnestly with herself to be kind, and to do for this stranger whom she knew not what would be the very best and most healing thing for his soul, Mercy wrote to him as follows:—
"DEAR STEPHEN,—Your note was a very great surprise to me. I am most heartily thankful that you are at last free to live your life like other men. I think that the future ought to hold some very great and good gifts in store for you, to reward you for your patience. I have never known any human being so patient as you.
"You must forgive me for saying that I do not believe it is possible for us to be friends. I could be yours, and would be glad to be so. But you could not be mine while you continue so to set me apart from all other women, as you say you do, in your affection. I am truly grieved that you do this, and I hope that in your new free life you will very soon find other relations which will make you forget your old one with me. I did you a great harm, but we were both ignorant of our mistake. I pray that it may yet be repaired, and that you may soon be at rest in a happy home with a wife and children. Then I should be glad to see you: until then, it is not best.
"Yours most honestly,
Until he read this letter, Stephen had not known that secretly in the bottom of his heart he riad all these years cherished a hope that there might yet be a future in store for him and Mercy. Now, by the new sense of desolation which he felt, he knew that there must have been a little more life than he thought left; in him to die.
As soon as his mother was buried, he closed the house and went abroad. There he roamed about listlessly from country to country, for many years, acquiring a certain desultory culture, and buying, so far as his income would permit, every thing he saw which he thought Mercy would like. Then he went home, bought the old Jacobs house back again, and fitted it up in every respect as Mercy had once suggested. This done, he sat down to wait—for he knew not what. He had a vague feeling that he would die soon, and leave the house and his small fortune to Mercy; and she would come and spend her summers there, and so he would recall to her their old life together. He led the life of a hermit,—rarely went out, and still more rarely saw any one at home. He looked like a man of sixty rather than like one of fifty. He was fast becoming an invalid, more, however, from the lack of purpose and joy than from any disease. Life had been very hard to Stephen.
Nothing seemed more probable, contrasting his listless figure, gray hair, and jaded face with Mercy's full, fresh countenance and bounding elasticity, than that his dream of going first, and leaving to her the gift of all he had, would be realized; but he was destined to outlive her by many a long year.
Mercy's death was a strange one. She had gone with two of Lizzy Hunter's daughters to spend a few weeks in one of the small White Mountain villages, which was a favorite haunt of hers. The day after their arrival, a two days' excursion to some of the mountains was proposed; and Mercy, though not feeling well enough to join it herself, insisted that the girls should go. They were reluctant to leave her; but, with her usual vehemence, she resisted all their protestations, and compelled them to join the party. She was thus left alone in a house crowded with people, all of whom were strangers to her. Some of them recollected afterward to have noticed her sitting on the piazza at sunset, looking at the mountains with an expression of great delight; but no one spoke with her, and no one missed her the next morning, when she did not come to breakfast. Late in the forenoon, the landlady came running in great terror and excitement to one of the guests, exclaiming: "That lady that came yesterday is dying. The chambermaids could not get into her room, nor get any answer, so we broke open the door. The doctor says she'll never come to again!"
Helpless, the village doctor, and the servants, and the landlady, and as many of the guests as could crowd into the little room, stood around Mercy's bed. It seemed a sad way to die, surrounded by strangers, who did not even know her name; but Mercy was unconscious. It made no difference to her. Her heavy breathing told only too well the nature of the trouble.
"This cannot be the first attack she has had," said the doctor; and it was found afterward that Mercy had told Lizzy Hunter of her having twice had threatenings of a paralytic seizure. "If only I die at once," she had said to Lizzy, "I would rather go that way than in most others. I dread the dying part of death. I don't want to know when I am going."
And she did not. All day her breathing grew slower and more labored, and at night it stopped. In a few hours, there settled upon her features an expression of such perfect peace that each one who came to look at her stole away reverent and subdued.
The two old crones who had come to "lay out" the body crept about on tiptoe, their usual garrulity quenched by the sad and beautiful spectacle. It was a singular thing that no one knew the name of the stranger who had died thus suddenly and alone. In the confusion of their arrival, Mercy had omitted to register their names. In the smaller White Mountain houses, this formality is not rigidly enforced. And so it came to pass that this woman, so well known, so widely beloved, lay a night and a day dead, within a few hours' journey of her home as unknown as if she had been cast up from a shipwrecked vessel on a strange shore.
The two old crones sat with the body all night and all the next day. They sewed on the quaint garments in which it is still the custom of rural New England to robe the dead. They put a cap of stiff white muslin over Mercy's brown hair, which even now, in her fiftieth year, showed only here and there a silver thread. They laid fine plaits of the same stiff white muslin over her breast, and crossed her hands above them.
"She must ha' been a handsome woman in her time, Mis' Bunker. I 'spect she was married, don't you?" said Ann Sweetser, Mrs. Bunker's spinster cousin, who always helped her on these occasions.
"Well, this ere ring looks like it," replied Mrs. Bunker, taking up a bit of the muslin and rubbing the broad gold band on the third finger of Mercy's left hand. "But yer can't allers tell by that nowadays. There's folks wears 'em that ain't married. This is a real harndsome ring, 's heavy 's ever I see."
How Mercy's heart must have been touched, and also her fine and pathetic sense of humor, if her freed spirit hovered still in that little low-roofed room! This cast-off garment of hers, so carefully honored, so curiously considered and speculated upon by these simple-minded people! There was something rarely dramatic in all the surroundings of these last hours. Among the guests in the house was one, a woman, herself a poet, who toward the end of the second day came into the chamber, bringing long trailing vines of the sweet Linnea, which was then in full bloom. Her poet's heart was moved to the depths by the thought of this unknown, dead woman lying there, tended by strangers' hands. She gazed with an inexplicable feeling of affection upon Mercy's placid brow. She lifted the lifeless hands and laid them down again in a less constrained position. She, too, noted the broad gold ring, and said,—
"She has been loved then. I wonder if he is alive!" The door was closed, and no one was in the room. With a strange impulse she could not account for to herself, she said, "I will kiss her for him," and bent and kissed the cold forehead. Then she laid the fragrant vines around the face and across the bosom, and went away, feeling an inexplicable sense of nearness to the woman she had kissed. When the next morning she knew that it was Mercy Philbrick, the poet, in whose lifeless presence she had stood, she exclaimed with a burst of tears, "Oh, I might have known that there was some subtile bond which made me kiss her! I have always loved her verses so."
On the day after Lizzy Hunter returned from Mercy's funeral, Stephen White called at her house and asked to speak to her. She had almost forgotten his existence, though she knew that he was living in the Jacobs house. Their paths never crossed, and Lizzy had long ago forgotten her passing suspicion of Mercy's regard for him. The haggard and bowed man who met her now was so unlike the Stephen White she recollected, that Lizzy involuntarily exclaimed. Stephen took no notice of her exclamation.
"No, thank you, I will not sit down," he said, as with almost solicitude in her face she offered him a chair. "I merely wish to give you something of"—he hesitated—"Mrs. Philbrick's."
He drew from his breast a small package of papers, yellow, creased, old. He unfolded one of these and handed it to Lizzy, saying,—
"This is a sonnet of hers which has never been printed. She gave it to me when,"—he hesitated again,—"when she was living in my house. She said at that time that she would like to have it put on her tombstone. I did not know any other friend of hers to go to but you. Will you see that it is done?"
Lizzy took the paper and began to read the sonnet. Stephen stood leaning heavily on the back of a chair; his breath was short, and his face much flushed.
"Oh, pray sit down, Mr. White! You are ill," exclaimed Lizzy.
"No, I am not ill. I would rather stand," replied Stephen. His eyes were fixed on the spot where thirty years before Mercy had stood when she said, "I can't, Stephen."
Lizzy read the sonnet with tears rolling down her cheeks.
"Oh, it is beautiful,—beautiful!" she exclaimed. "Why did she never have it printed?"
Stephen colored and hesitated. One single thrill of pride followed by a bitter wave of pain, and he replied,—
"Because I asked her not to print it."
Lizzy's heart was too full of tender grief now to have any room for wonder or resentment at this, or even to realize in that first moment that there was any thing strange in the reply.
"Indeed, it shall be put on the stone," she said. "I am so thankful you brought it. I have been thinking that there were no words fit to put above her grave. No one but she herself could have written any that would be," and she was folding up the paper.
Stephen stretched out his hand. "Pardon me," he said, "I cannot part with that. I have brought a copy to leave with you," and he gave Lizzy another paper.
Mechanically she restored to him the first one, and gazed earnestly into his face. Its worn and harrowed features, its look of graven patience, smote her like a cry. She was about to speak to him eagerly and with sympathy, but he was gone. His errand was finished,—the last thing he could do for Mercy. She watched his feeble steps as he walked away, and her pity revealed to her the history of his past.
"How he loved her! how he loved her!" she said, and watched his figure lingeringly, till it was out of sight.
This is the sonnet which was cut on the stone above Mercy's grave:—
With sails full set, the ship her anchor weighs; Strange names shine out beneath her figure-head: What glad farewells with eager eyes are said! What cheer for him who goes, and him who stays! Fair skies, rich lands, new homes, and untried days Some go to seek: the rest but wait instead Until the next stanch ship her flag shall raise. Who knows what myriad colonies there are Of fairest fields, and rich, undreamed-of gains, Thick-planted in the distant shining plains Which we call sky because they lie so far? Oh, write of me, not,—"Died in bitter pains," But, "Emigrated to another star!"