"It must be dinner-time, I think," said Hiram as he drove cautiously along. Stopping at a house near the bridge: "Now this is the very house. Just you go right up and knock at that 'ere door."
I knocked. In a twinkling the door was opened by a neat Shaker sister, whose round, smiling face was flushed, as though she had just come from cooking dinner. I stepped across the threshold: "Bessie Stewart is here. Please say to her that a friend—a friend from England—wishes to see her."
"Sure," said the motherly-faced woman, for she was sweet and motherly in spite of her Shaker garb, "I'll go and see."
Smilingly she ushered me into a room at the left of the hall. "Take seat, please;" and with a cheerful alacrity she departed, closing the door gently behind her.
"Well," thought I, "this is pleasant: no bolts or bars here. I'm sure of one friend at court."
I had leisure to observe the apartment—the neatly-scrubbed floor, with one narrow cot bed against the wall, a tall bureau on which some brown old books were lying, and the little dust-pan and dust-brush on a brass nail in the corner. There was a brightly polished stove with no fire in it, and some straight-backed chairs of yellow wood stood round the room. An open door into a large, roomy closet showed various garments of men's apparel hanging upon the wall. The plain thermometer in the window casement seemed the one article of luxury or ornament in the apartment. I believe I made my observations on all these things aloud, concluding with, "Oh, Bessie! Bessie! you shall not stay here." I know that I was startled enough by the apparition of a man standing in the open closet door. He must have been within it at my entrance, and had heard all I said.
He came forward, holding out his hand—very friendly apparently. Then, requesting me to be seated, he drew out a chair from the wall and sat down, tilting it back on two legs and leaning against the wall, with his hands folded before him. Some commonplace remark about the weather, which I answered, led to a rambling conversation, in which he expressed the greatest curiosity as to worldly matters, and asked several purely local questions about the city of New York. Perhaps his ignorance was feigned. I do not know, but I found myself relating, a la Stanley-Livingstone, some of the current events of the day. His face was quite intelligent, tanned with labor in the fields, and his brown eyes were kind and soft, like those of some dumb animals. I note his eyes here especially, as different in expression from those of others of his sect.
Several times during the conversation I heard footsteps in the hall, and darted from my seat, and finally, in my impatience, began to pace the floor. Kindly as he looked, I did not wish to question the man about Bessie. I would rely upon the beaming portress, whose "Sure" was such an earnest of her good-will. Moreover, a feeling of contempt, growing out of pity, was taking possession of me. This man, in what did he differ from the Catholic priest save in the utter selfishness of his creed? Beside the sordid accumulation of gain to which his life was devoted the priest's mission among crowded alleys and fever-stricken lanes seemed luminous and grand. A moral suicide, with no redeeming feature. The barns bursting with fatness, the comfortable houses, gain added to gain—to what end? I was beginning to give very short answers indeed to his questions, and was already meditating a foray through the rest of the house, when the door opened slowly and a lady-abbess entered. She was stiff and stately, with the most formal neckerchief folded precisely over her straitened bust, a clear-muslin cap concealing her hair, and her face, stony, blue-eyed and cold—a pale, frozen woman standing stately there.
"Bessie Stewart?" said I. "She is here—I know it. Do not detain her. I must see her. Why all this delay?"
"Dost thou mean Sister Eliza?" she asked in chilling tones.
"No, nobody's sister—least of all a sister here—but the young lady who came over here from Lenox two months ago—Bessie Stewart, Mrs. Sloman's niece." (I knew that Mrs. Sloman was quite familiar with some of the Shakeresses, and visited them at times.)
Very composedly the sister took a chair and folded her hands across her outspread handkerchief before she spoke again. I noticed at this moment that her dress was just the color of her eyes, a pale, stony blue.
"Sister Eliza: it is the same," in measured accents. "She is not here: she has gone—to Watervliet."
Can this be treachery? I thought, and is she still in the house? Will they hide from her that I am here? But there was no fathoming the woman's cold blue eyes.
"To Watervliet?" I inquired dismally. "How? when? how did she go?"
"She went in one of our wagons: Sister Leah and Brother Ephraim went along."
"When will they return?"
"I cannot say."
All this time the man was leaning back against the wall, but uttered not a word. A glance of triumph shot from the sister's eyes as I rose. But she was mistaken if she thought I was going away. I stepped to the window, and throwing it open called to Hiram, who was still sitting in his wagon, chewing composedly a bit of straw. He leaped out in an instant, and leaning out to him I rapidly repeated in an undertone the previous conversation: "What would you do?"
"Ten chances to one it's a lie. Tell 'em you'll set there till you see her. They can't shake us off that way."
I drew in my head. The pair still sat as before. "Well," said I, "as I must see her, and as you seem so uncertain about it, I will wait here."
And again I took my seat. The sister's face flushed. I had meant no rudeness in my tone, but she must have detected the suspicion in it. She crimsoned to her temples, and said hastily, "It is impossible for us to entertain strangers to-day. A brother is dying in the house: we are all waiting for him to pass away from moment to moment. We can submit to no intrusion."
Well, perhaps it was an intrusion. It was certainly their house if it did hold my darling. I looked at her steadily: "Are you sure that Bessie Stewart has gone away from here?"
"To Watervliet—yea," she answered composedly. "She left here last week."
My skill at cross-examination was at fault. If that woman was lying, she would be a premium witness. "I should be sorry, madam," I said, recalling the world's etiquette, which I had half forgotten, "to intrude upon you at this or any other time, but I cannot leave here in doubt. Will you oblige me by stating the exact hour and day at which Miss Stewart is expected to return from Watervliet, and the road thither?"
She glanced across the room. Answering the look, the man spoke, for the first time since she had entered: "The party, I believe, will be home to-night."
"And she with them?"
"Yea, unless she has elected to remain."
"At what hour?"
"I cannot tell."
"By what road shall I meet her?"
"There are two roads: we generally use the river-road."
"To-night? I will go to meet her. By the river-road, you say?"
"And if I do not meet her?"
"If thou dost not meet her," said the lady-abbess, answering calmly, "it will be because she is detained on the road."
I had to believe her, and yet I was very skeptical. As I walked out of the door the man was at my heels. He followed me out on to the wooden stoop and nodded to Hiram.
"Who is that, Hiram?" I whispered as he leaned across the back of a horse, adjusting some leathern buckle.
"That?" said Hiram under his breath. "That's a deep 'un: that's Elder Nebson."
Great was the dissatisfaction of the stout-hearted Splinter at my retreat, as he called it, from the enemy's ground.
"I'd ha' liked nothin' better than to beat up them quarters. I thought every minit' you'd be calling me, and was ready to go in." And he clenched his fist in a way that showed unmistakably how he would have "gone in" had he been summoned. By this time we were driving on briskly toward the river-road. "You wa'n't smart, I reckon, to leave that there house. It was your one chance, hevin' got in. Ten chances to one she's hid away som'eres in one of them upper rooms," and he pointed to a row of dormer-windows, "not knowin' nothin' of your bein' there."
"Stop!" I said with one foot on the shafts. "You don't mean to say she is shut up there?"
"Shet up? No: they be too smart for that. But there's plenty ways to shet a young gal's eyes an' ears 'thout lockin' of her up. How'd she know who was in this wagon, even if she seed it from her winders? To be sure, I made myself conspicuous enough, a-whistlin' 'Tramp, tramp,' and makin' the horses switch round a good deal. But, like enough, ef she'd be down-spereted-like, she'd never go near the winder, but just set there, a-stitchin' beads on velvet or a-plattin' them mats."
"Why should she work?" I asked, with my grasp still on the reins.
"Them all does," he answered, taking a fresh bite of the straw. "It's the best cure for sorrow, they say. Or mebbe she's a-teachin' the children. I see a powerful sight of children comin' along while you was in there talkin', a-goin' to their school, and I tried to ask some o' them about her. But the old sheep who was drivin' on 'em looked at me like vinegar, and I thought I'd better shet up, or mebbe she'd give the alarm that we was here with horses and wagon to carry her off."
I had a painful moment of indecision as Hiram paused in his narrative and leisurely proceeded to evict a fly from the near horse's ear. "I think we'll go on, Hiram," I said, jumping back to my seat again. "Take the river-road."
Hiram had brought plentiful provision for his horses in a bag under the seat. "Victualed for a march or a siege," he said as he dragged out a tin kettle from the same receptacle when we drew up by the roadside an hour after. "We're clear of them pryin' Shakers, and we'll just rest a spell."
I could not demur, though my impatience was urging me on faster than his hungry horses could go.
"I told Susan," he said, "to put me up a bit of pie and cheese—mebbe we wouldn't be back afore night. Won't you hev' some?—there's a plenty."
But I declined the luncheon, and while he munched away contentedly, and while the horses crunched their corn, I got out and walked on, telling Hiram to follow at his leisure. My heart beat fast as I espied a wagon in the distance with one—yes, two—Shaker bonnets in it. Bessie in masquerade! Perhaps so—it could not be the other: that would be too horrible. But she was coming, surely coming, and the cold prim sister had told the truth, after all.
The wagon came nearer. In it were two weather-beaten dames, neither of whom could possibly be mistaken for Bessie in disguise; and the lank, long-haired brother who was driving them looked ignorant as a child of anything save the management of his horses. I hailed them, and the wagon drew up at the side of the road.
It was the women who answered in shrill, piping voices: "Ben to Watervliet? Nay, they'd ben driving round the country, selling garden seeds."
"Did they know Bessie Stewart, who was staying in the Shaker village, in the house by the bridge?"
"Sure, there had ben a stranger woman come there some time ago: they could not tell—never heerd her name."
I was forced to let them drive on after I had exhausted every possible inquiry, trusting that Hiram, who was close behind, would have keener wit in questioning them, but Hiram, as it happened, did not come up to them at all. They must have turned off into some farm-house lane before they passed him. The afternoon wore on. It grew toward sunset, and still we kept the river-road. There was no trace of the Shaker wagon, and indeed the road was growing wild and lonely.
"I tell you what," said Hiram, stopping suddenly, "these beasts can't go on for ever, and then turn round and come back again. I'll turn here, and drive to the little tavern we passed about two mile back, and stable 'em, and then you and me can watch the road."
It was but reasonable, and I had to assent, though to turn back seemed an evil omen, and to carry me away from Bessie. The horses were stabled, and I meanwhile paced the broad open sweep in front of the tavern, across which the lights were shining. Hiram improved the opportunity to eat a hearty supper, urging me to partake. But as I declined, in my impatience, to take my eyes off the road, he brought me out a bowl of some hot fluid and something on a plate, which I got through with quickly enough, for the cool evening air had sharpened my appetite. I rested the bowl on the broad bench beside the door, while Hiram went backward and forward with the supplies.
"Now," said he as I finished at last, still keeping my eye upon the road, "you go in and take a turn lyin' down: I'll watch the road. I'm a-goin' to see this thing out."
But I was not ready to sleep yet; so, yielding to my injunction, he went in, and I seated myself, wrapped in a buffalo robe from the wagon. The night was damp and chill.
"Hedn't you better set at the window?" said the kind-hearted landlady, bustling out. Hiram had evidently told her the story.
"Oh no, thank you;" for I was impatient of walls and tongues, and wanted to be alone with my anxiety.
What madness was this in Bessie? She could not, oh she could not, have thrown her life away! What grief and disquiet must have driven her into this refuge! Poor little soul, scorched and racked by distrust and doubt! if she could not trust me, whom should she trust?
The household noises ceased one by one; the clump of willows by the river grew darker and darker; the stars came out and shone with that magnetic brilliancy that fixes our gaze upon them, leading one to speculate on their influence, and—
A hand on my shoulder: Hiram with a lantern turned full upon my face. "'Most one o'clock," he said, rubbing his eyes sleepily. "Come to take my turn. Have you seen nothing?"
"Nothing," I said, staggering to my feet, which felt like lead—"nothing."
I did not confess it, but to this hour I cannot tell whether I had been nodding for one minute or ten. I kept my own counsel as I turned over the watch to Hiram, but a suspicion shot through me that perhaps that wagon had gone by, after all, in the moment that I had been off guard.
Hiram kept the watch faithfully till five that morning, when I too was stirring. One or two teams had passed, but no Shaker wagon rattling through the night. We breakfasted in the little room that overlooked the road. Outside, at the pump, a lounging hostler, who had been bribed to keep a sharp lookout for a Shaker wagon, whistled and waited too.
"Tell you what," said Hiram, bolting a goodly rouleau of ham and eggs, "I've got an idee. You and me might shilly-shally here on this road all day, and what surety shall we hev' that they hevn't gone by the other road. Old gal said there was two?"
"Yes, but the folks here say that the other is a wild mountain-road, and not much used."
"Well, you see they comes down by the boat a piece, or they may cut across the river at Greenbush. They have queer ways. Now, mebbe they have come over that mountain-road in the night, while you and me was a-watchin' this like ferrits. In that case she's safe and sound at Shaker Village, not knowin' anything of your coming; and Elder Nebson and that other is laughin' in their sleeves at us."
"Now, this is my advice, but I'll do just as you say. 'Tain't no good to lay around and watch that ere house to day. Ef we hedn't been in such a white heat, we might just hev' hid round in the neighborhood there till she came along. But it's too late, for that now. Let's you and me lay low till Sunday. She'll be sure to go to meetin' on Sunday ef she's there, and you can quietly slip in and see if she is. And to shut their eyes up, so that they won't suspect nothin', we'll leave a message on one of your pasteboards that you're very sorry not to hev' seen her, drefful sorry, but that you can't wait no longer, and you are off. They'll think you're off for York: you've got York on your cards, hevn't you?"
"You just come and stay to my house: we'll make you comfortable, and there's only one day longer to wait. This is Friday, be'ent it? You'd best not be seen around to the hotel, lest any of their spies be about. They do a powerful sight o' drivin' round the country this time o' year. And then, you see, ef on Sunday she isn't there, you can go over to Watervliet, or we'll search them houses—whichever you choose."
There seemed no help for it but to take Hiram's advice. We drove homeward through the Shaker village, and drew up at the house again. This time the door was opened by a bent, sharp little Creole, as I took her to be: the beaming portress of the day before had been relieved at her post.
"Nay, Bessie Stewart was not at home: she would go and inquire for me when she was expected."
"No," I said carelessly, not wishing to repeat the scene of yesterday and to present myself, a humiliated failure, before the two elders again—"no: give her this card when she does come, and tell her I could stay no longer."
I had not written any message on the card, for the message, indeed, was not for Bessie, but for the others. She would interpret it that I was in the neighborhood, anxious and waiting: she would understand.
"Home, then, Hiram," as I took my seat beside him. "We'll wait till Sunday."
"You'd better eat sum'thin'," said Hiram over the breakfast-table on Sunday morning. "Got a good long drive afore you, and mebbe a good day's work besides. No? Well, then, Susan, you put the apple-brandy into the basket, and some of them rusks, for I reckon we'll hev' work with this young man afore night."
Susan, bless her good heart! wanted to go along, and as Hiram's excitement was evidently at the highest pitch, he consented that she should occupy the back seat of the wagon: "P'raps Miss Stewart'll feel more comfortable about leavin' when she sees there's a woman along."
It was a rainy morning, and there were but few wagons on the road. Arrived at the village, we encountered one little procession after another of broad-brim straws and Shaker bonnets turning out of the several houses as we drove past. They stepped along quickly, and seemed to take no notice of us.
"Reckon we're the only visitors to-day," whispered Hiram as he stopped at the horseblock in front of the meeting-house. "You know where you hev' to set—on the left-hand side; and Susan, she goes to the right."
I followed Susan up the steps, and she hastened, as ordered, to the right, while I took my seat on one of the back benches of the left, against the wall. It was a barn-like structure, large, neat and exquisitely chill. Two large stoves on either side possibly had fire in them—an old man who looked like an ancient porter went to them from time to time and put on coal—but the very walls reflected a chill, blue glare. The roof was lofty and vaulted, and added to the hollow coldness of the hall. The whole apartment was clean to sanctity, and in its straitness and blank dreariness no unfit emblem of the faith it embodied.
Around three sides of the hall, and facing the benches for visitors, the Shaker fraternity were ranged. The hats and straight straw bonnets hung decorously upon the wall over their heads: here and there a sky-blue shawl or one of faded lilac hung beneath the headgear. Across the wide apartment it was difficult to distinguish faces. I scanned closely the sisterhood—old, withered faces most of them, with here and there one young and blooming—but no Bessie as yet. Still, they were coming in continually through the side door: she might yet appear. I recognized my lady-abbess, who sat directly facing me, in a seat of state apparently, and close to her, on the brethren's side of the house, was Elder Nebson.
The services began. All rose, and sisters and brethren faced each other and sang a hymn, with no accompaniment and no melody—a harsh chant in wild, barbaric measure. Then, after a prayer, they entered upon the peculiar method of their service. Round and round the room they trooped in two large circles, sister following sister, brother brother, keeping time with their hanging hands to the rhythm of the hymn. Clustered in the centre was a little knot of men and women, the high dignitaries, who seemed to lead the singing with their clapping hands.
The circles passed each other and wove in and out, each preserving its unbroken continuity. I looked for Elder Nebson: could it be that he was joining in these gyrations? Yes, he was leading one of the lines. But I noticed that his hands moved mechanically, not with the spasmodic fervor of the rest, and that his eyes, instead of the dull, heavy stare of his fellows, sought with faithful yet shy constancy the women's ranks. And as the women filed past me, wringing their hands, I scrutinized each face and figure—the sweet-faced portress, the shrunken little creole ("A mulatto, she is," Hiram whispered—he had taken his seat beside me—"and very powerful, they say, among 'em"), and some fair young girls; two or three of these with blooming cheeks bursting frankly through the stiff bordering of their caps. But I saw not the face I sought.
"Them children! Ain't it awful?" muttered Hiram as a file of blue-coat boys shambled past, with hair cut square across their foreheads and bleached white with the sun. "Ain't got a grain of sense! Look at 'em!—all crowded clean out by the Shaker schools."
And surely they were a most unpromising little crowd. Waifs, snatched probably from some New York whirlpool of iniquity, and wearing the brute mark on their faces, which nothing in this school of their transplanting tended to erase—a sodden little party, like stupid young beasts of burden, uncouth and awkward.
As the girls came round again, and I had settled it in my mind that there was certainly no Bessie in the room, I could watch them more calmly. Eagerly as I sought her face, it was a relief, surely, that it was not there. Pale to ghastliness, most of them, with high, sharpened shoulders, and features set like those of a corpse, it was indeed difficult to realize that these ascetic forms, these swaying devotees, were women—women who might else have been wives and mothers. Some of them wore in their hollow eyes an expression of ecstasy akin to madness, and there was not a face there that was not saintly pure.
It was a strange union that assembled under one roof these nun-like creatures, wasted and worn with their rigid lives, and the heavy, brutish men, who shambled round the room like plough-horses. Wicked eyes some of them had, mere slits through which a cunning and selfish spirit looked out. Some faces there were of power, but in them the disagreeable traits were even more strongly marked: the ignorant, narrow foreheads were better, less responsible, it seemed.
The singing ended, there was a sermon from a high priest who stood out imperious among his fellows. But this was not a sermon to the flock. It was aimed at the scanty audience of strangers with words of unblushing directness. How men and women may continue pure in the constant hearing and repetition of such revolting arguments and articles of faith is matter of serious question. The divine instincts of maternity, the sweet attractions of human love, were thrown down and stamped under foot in the mud of this man's mind; and at each peroration, exhorting his hearers to shake off Satan, a strong convulsive shiver ran through the assembly.
"Bessie is certainly not here: possibly she's still at Watervliet," I whispered to; Hiram as the concluding hymn began. "But I'll have a chance at Elder Nebson and that woman before they leave the house."
The rain had ceased for some time, and as again the wild chant went up from those harsh strained voices, a stray sunbeam, like a gleam of good promise, shot across the floor. But what was this little figure stealing in through a side-door and joining the circling throng?—a figure in lilac gown, with the stiff muslin cap and folded neckerchief. She entered at the farthest corner of the room, and I watched her approach with beating heart. Something in the easy step was familiar, and yet it could not be. She passed around with the rest in the inner circle, and, leaning forward, I held my breath lest indeed it might be she.
The circle opened, and again the long line of march around the room. The lilac figure came nearer and nearer, and now I see her face. It is Bessie!
With a cry I sprang up, but with a blow, a crash, a horrible darkness swept over me like a wave, and I knew nothing.
When I came to myself I was lying on a bed in a room that was new to me. A strong light, as of the setting sun, shone upon the whitewashed wall. There was a little table, over which hung a looking-glass, surmounted by two fans of turkey feathers. I stared feebly at the fans for a while, and then closed my eyes again.
Where was I? I had a faint remembrance of jolting in a wagon, and of pitying faces bent over me, but where was I now? Again I opened my eyes, and noted the gay patchwork covering of the bed, and the green paper curtain of the window in the golden wall—green, with a tall yellow flower-pot on it, with sprawling roses of blue and red. Turning with an effort toward the side whence all the brightness came, in a moment two warm arms were round my neck, and a face that I could not see was pressed close to mine.
"Oh, Charlie, Charlie! forgive, forgive me for being so bad!"
"Bessie," I answered dreamingly, and seemed to be drifting away again. But a strong odor of pungent salts made my head tingle again, and when I could open my eyes for the tears they rested on my darling's face—my own darling in a soft white dress, kneeling by my bedside, with both her arms round me. A vigorous patting of the pillow behind me revealed Mrs. Splinter, tearful too: "He's come to now. Don't bother him with talk, Miss Bessie. I'll fetch the tea."
And with motherly insistance she brought me a steaming bowl of beef-tea, while I still lay, holding Bessie's hand, with a feeble dawning that the vision was real.
"No," she said as Bessie put out her arm for the bowl, "you prop up his head. I've got a steddyer hand: you'd just spill it all over his go-to-meetin' suit."
I looked down at myself. I was still dressed in the clothes that I had worn—when was it? last week?—when I had started for the Shaker meeting.
"How long?" I said feebly.
"Only this morning, you darling boy, it all happened; and here we are, snug at Mrs. Splinter's, and Mary Jane is getting the cottage ready for us as fast as ever she can."
How good that beef-tea was! Bessie knew well what would give it the sauce piquante. "Ready for us!"
"Here's the doctor at last," said Hiram, putting his head in at the door. "Why, hillo! are we awake?"
"The doctor! Dr. Wilder?" I said beamingly. How good of Bessie! how thoughtful!
"Not Dr. Wilder, you dear old boy!" said Bessie, laughing and blushing, "though I sha'n't scold you, Charlie, for that!" in a whisper in my ear. "It's Dr. Bolster of Lee. Hiram has been riding all over the country for him this afternoon."
"I'll go down to him," I said, preparing to rise.
"No you won't;" and Mrs. Splinter's strong arm, as well as Bessie's soft hand, patted me down again.
Dr. Bolster pronounced, as well he might, that all danger was over. The blow on my head—I must have struck it with force against the projecting window-shelf as I sprang up—was enough to have stunned me; but the doctor, I found, was inclined to theorize: "A sudden vertigo, a dizziness: the Shaker hymns and dances have that effect sometimes upon persons viewing them for the first time. Or perhaps the heat of the room." He calmly fingered my pulse for a few seconds, with his fat ticking watch in his other hand, and then retired to the bureau to write a prescription, which I was indignantly prepared to repudiate. But Bessie, in a delightful little pantomime, made signs to me to be patient: we could throw it all out of the window afterward if need be.
"A soothing draught, and let him keep quiet for a day or so, will be all that is required. I will call to-morrow if you would prefer it."
"We will send you a note, doctor, to-morrow morning: he seems so much stronger already that perhaps it will not be necessary to make you take such a long drive."
"Yes, yes, I'm very busy. You send me word whether to come or not."
And bustlingly the good doctor departed, with Mrs. Splinter majestically descending to hold whispered conference with him at the gate.
"Charlie, I will send for Dr. Wilder if you are ready, for I'm never going to leave you another minute as long as we live."
"I think," said I, laughing, "that I should like to stand up first on my feet; that is, if I have any feet."
What a wonderful prop and support was Bessie! How skillfully she helped me to step once, twice, across the floor! and when I sank down, very tired, in the comfortable easy-chair by the window, she knelt on the floor beside me and bathed my forehead with fragrant cologne, that certainly did not come from Mrs. Splinter's tall bottle of lavender compound on the bureau.
"Oh, my dear boy, I have so much to say! Where shall I begin?"
"At the end," I said quietly. "Send for Dr. Wilder."
"But don't you want to hear what a naughty girl—"
"No, I want to hear nothing but 'I, Elizabeth, take thee—'"
"But I've been so very jealous, so suspicious and angry. Don't you want to hear how bad I am?"
"No," I said, closing the discussion after an old fashion of the Sloman cottage, "not until we two walk together to the Ledge to-morrow, my little wife and I."
"Where's a card—your card, Charlie? It would be more proper-like, as Mrs. Splinter would say, for you to write it."
"I will try," I said, taking out a card-case from my breast-pocket. As I drew it forth my hand touched a package, Fanny Meyrick's packet. Shall I give it to her now? I hesitated. No, we'll be married first in the calm faith that each has in the other to-day, needing no outward assurance or written word.
I penciled feebly, with a very shaky hand, my request that the doctor would call at Hiram Splinter's, at his earliest convenience that evening, to perform the ceremony of marriage between his young friend, Bessie Stewart, and the subscriber. Hiram's eldest son, a youth of eight, was swinging on the gate under our window. To him Bessie entrusted the card, with many injunctions to give it into no other hands than the doctor's own.
In less time than we had anticipated, as we looked out of the window at the last pink glow of the sunset, the urchin reappeared, walking with great strides beside a spare little-figure, whom we recognized as the worthy doctor himself.
"Good gracious! he is in a hurry!" said Bessie, retiring hastily from the window; "and we have not said a word to Mrs. Splinter yet!"
We had expected the little doctor would wait below until the bridal-party should descend; but no, he came directly up stairs, and walked into the room without prelude. He took Bessie in his arms with fatherly tenderness: "Ah, you runaway! so you've come back at last?"
"Yes, doctor, and don't you let go of her until you have married her fast to me."
"Ahem!" said the doctor, clearing his throat, "that is just what I came to advise you about. Hiram told me this afternoon of the chase you two had had, and of your illness this morning. Now, as it is half over the village by this time that Bessie Stewart has been rescued from the Shaker village by a chivalrous young gentleman, and as everybody is wild with impatience to know the denoument, I want you to come down quietly to the church this evening and be married after evening service."
"To please everybody?" I said, in no very pleasant humor.
"I think it will be wisest, best; and I am sure this discreetest of women," still holding Bessie's hand, "will agree with me. You need not sit through the service. Hiram can bring you down after it has begun; and you may sit in the vestry till the clerk calls you. I'll preach a short sermon to-night," with a benignant chuckle.
He had his will. Some feeling that it would please Mrs. Sloman best, the only person besides ourselves whom it concerned us to please, settled it in Bessie's mind, although she anxiously inquired several times before the doctor left if I felt equal to going to church. Suppose I should faint on the way?
I was equal to it, for I took a long nap on the sofa in Mrs. Splinter's parlor through the soft spring twilight, while Bessie held what seemed to me interminable conferences with Mary Jane.
It was not a brilliant ceremony so far as the groom was concerned. As we stood at the chancel-rail I am afraid that the congregation, largely augmented, by this time, by late-comers—for the doctor had spread the news through the village far and wide—thought me but a very pale and quiet bridegroom.
But the bride's beauty made amends for all. Just the same soft white dress of the afternoon—or was it one like it?—with no ornaments, no bridal veil. I have always pitied men who have to plight their troth to a moving mass of lace and tulle, weighed down with orange-blossoms massive as lead. This was my own little wife as she would walk by my side through life, dressed as she might be the next day and always.
But the next day it was the tartan cloak that she wore, by special request, as we climbed the hill to the Ledge. It was spring indeed—bluebirds in the air, and all the sky shone clear and warm.
"Let me begin," said my wife as she took her old seat under the sheltering pine. "You can't have anything to say, Charlie, in comparison with me."
There was a short preliminary pause, and then she began.
"Well, after you wouldn't take me to Europe, you know—"
"You naughty girl!"
"No interruptions, sir. After you couldn't take me to Europe I felt very much hurt and wounded, and ready to catch at any straw of suspicion. I ran away from you that night and left you in the parlor, hoping that you would call me back, and yet longing to hide myself from you too. You understand?"
"Yes, let us not dwell on that."
"Well, I believe I never thought once of Fanny Meyrick's going to Europe too until she joined us on the road that day—you remember?—at the washerwoman's gate."
"Yes; and do you remember how Fidget and I barked at her with all our hearts?"
"I was piqued then at the air of ownership Fanny seemed to assume in you. She had just come to Lenox, I knew; she could know nothing of our intimacy, our relations; and this seemed like the renewal of something old—something that had been going on before. Had she any claim on you? I wondered. And then, too, you were so provokingly reticent about her whenever her name had been mentioned before."
"Was I? What a fool I was! But, Bessie dear, I could not say to even you, then, that I believed Fanny Meyrick was in—cared a great deal for me."
"I understand," said Bessie nodding. "We'll skip that, and take it for granted. But you see I couldn't take anything for granted but just what I saw that day; and the little memorandum-book and Fanny's reminiscences nearly killed me. I don't know how I sat through it all. I tried to avoid you all the rest of the day. I wanted to think, and to find out the truth from Fanny."
"I should think you did avoid me pretty successfully, leaving me to dine coldly at the hotel, and then driving all the afternoon till train-time."
"It was in talking to Fanny that afternoon that I discovered how she felt toward you. She has no concealment about her, not any, and I could read her heart plainly enough. But then she hinted at her father's treatment of you; thought he had discouraged you, rebuffed you, and reasoned so that I fairly thought there might be truth in it, remembering it was before you knew me."
"Listen one minute, Bessie, till I explain that. It's my belief, and always was, that that shrewd old fellow, Henry Meyrick, saw very clearly how matters were all along—saw how the impetuous Miss Fanny was—"
"Falling in love: don't pause for a 'more tenderer word,' Charlie. Sam Weller couldn't find any."
"Well, falling in love, if you will say it—and that it was decidedly a difficult situation for me. I remember so well that night on the piazza, when Fanny clung about me like a mermaid, he bade her sharply go and change her dripping garments, and what Fanny calls 'a decidedly queer' expression came into his face. He could not say anything, poor old chap! and he always behaved with great courtesy to me. I am sure he divined that I was a most unimpassioned actor in that high-comedy plunge into the Hudson."
"Very well: I believe it, I'm sure, but, you see, how could I know then what was or was not true? Then it was that I resolved to give you leave—or rather give her leave to try. I had written my note in the morning, saying no finally to the Europe plan, and I scrawled across it, in lead-pencil, while Fanny stood at her horse's head, those ugly words, you remember?"
"Yes," I said: "'Go to Europe with Fanny Meyrick, and come up to Lenox, both of you, when you return.'"
"Then, after that, my one idea was to get away from Lenox. The place was hateful to me, and you were writing those pathetic letters about being married, and state-rooms, and all. It only made me more wretched, for I thought you were the more urgent now that you had been lacking before. I hurried aunt off to Philadelphia, and in New York she hurried me. She would not wait, though I did want to, and I was so disappointed at the hotel! But I thought there was a fate in it to give Fanny Meyrick her chance, poor thing! and so I wrote that good-bye note without an address."
"But I found you, for all, thanks to Dr. R——!"
"Yes, and when you came that night I was so happy. I put away all fear: I had to remind myself, actually, all the time, of what I owed to Fanny, until you told me you had changed your passage to the Algeria, and that gave me strength to be angry. Oh, my dear, I'm afraid you'll have a very bad wife. Of course the minute you had sailed I began to be horribly jealous, and then I got a letter by the pilot that made me worse."
"But," said I, "you got my letters from the other side. Didn't that assure you that you might have faith in me?"
"But I would not receive them. Aunt Sloman has them all, done up and labeled for you, doubtless. She, it seems—had you talked her over?—thought I ought to have gone with you, and fretted because she was keeping me. Then I couldn't bear it another day. It was just after you had sailed, and I had cut out the ship-list to send you; and I had worked myself up to believe you would go back to Fanny Meyrick if you had the chance. I told Aunt Sloman that it was all over between us—that you might continue to write to me, but I begged that she would keep all your letters in a box until I should ask her for them."
"But I wrote letters to her, too, asking what had become of you."
"She went to Minnesota, you know, early in February."
"And why didn't you go with her?"
"She scolded me dreadfully because I would not. But she was so well, and she had her maid and a pleasant party of Philadelphia friends; and I—well, I didn't want to put all those hundreds of miles between me and the sea."
"And was Shaker Village so near, then, to the sea?"
"Oh, Charlie," hiding her face on my shoulder, "that was cowardice in me. You know I meant to keep the cottage open and live there. It was the saddest place in all the world, but still I wanted to be there—alone. But I found I could not be alone; and the last people who came drove me nearly wild—those R——s, Fanny Meyrick's friends—and they talked about her and about you, so that I could bear it no longer. I wanted to hide myself from all the world. I knew I could be quiet at the Shaker village. I had often driven over there with Aunt Sloman: indeed, Sophia—that's the one you saw—is a great friend of Aunt Maria's."
"So the lady-abbess confessed, did she?" I asked with some curiosity.
"Yes: she said you were rudely inquisitive; but she excused you as unfamiliar with Shaker ways."
"And were you really at Watervliet?"
"Yes, but don't be in a hurry: we'll come to that presently. Sophia gave me a pretty little room opening out of hers, and they all treated me with great kindness, if they did call me Eliza."
"And did you," I asked with some impatience, remembering Hiram's description—"did you sew beads on velvet and plait straw for mats?"
"Nonsense! I did whatever I pleased. I was parlor-boarder, as they say in the schools. But I did learn something, sir, from that dear old sister Martha. You saw her?"
"The motherly body who invited me in?"
"Yes: isn't she a dear? I took lessons from her in all sorts of cookery: you shall see, Charlie, I've profited by being a Shakeress."
"Yes, my darling, but did you—you didn't go to church?"
"Only once," she said, with a shiver that made her all the dearer, "and they preached such dreary stuff that I told Sophia I would never go again."
"But did you really wear that dress I saw you in?"
"For that once only. You see, I was at Watervliet when you came. If you had only gone straight there, dear goose! instead of dodging in the road, you would have found me. I had grown a little tired of the monotony of the village, and was glad to join the party starting for Niskayuna, it was such a glorious drive across the mountain. I longed for you all the time."
"Pretty little Shakeress! But why did they put us on such a false track?"
"Oh, we had expected to reach home that night, but one of the horses was lame, and we did not start as soon as we had planned. We came back on Saturday afternoon—Saturday afternoon, and this is Monday morning!", leaning back dreamily, and looking across the blue distance to the far-off hills. "Then I got your card, and they told me about you, and I knew, for all the message, that you'd be back on Sunday morning. But how could I tell then that Fanny Meyrick would not be with you?"
"Bessie!" and my hand tightened on hers.
"Oh, Charlie, you don't know what it is to be jealous. Of course I did know that—no, I didn't, either, though I must have been sure underneath that day. For it was more in fun than anything else, after I knew you were in the meeting-house—"
"How did you know?"
"I saw you drive up—you and Hiram and Mrs. Hiram."
"You didn't think, then, that it was Mrs. Charles?"
"So I stole into Sophia's room, and put on one of her dresses. She is tall too, but it did not fit very well."
"I should think not," I answered, looking down admiringly at her.
"In fact," laughing, "I took quite a time pinning myself into it and getting the neckerchief folded prim. I waited till after the sermon, and then I knew by the singing that it was the last hymn, so I darted in. I don't know what they thought—that I was suddenly converted, I suppose, and they would probably have given thanks over me as a brand snatched from the burning. Did I do the dance well? I didn't want to put them out."
"My darling, it was a dreadful masquerade. Did you want to punish me to the end?"
"I was punished myself, Charlie, when you fell. Oh dear! don't let's talk about the dreadful thing any more. But I think you would have forgiven Elder Nebson if you had seen how tenderly he lifted you into the wagon. There, now: where are we going to live in New York, and what have we got to live on besides my little income?"
"Income! I had forgotten you had any."
"Ask Judge Hubbard if I haven't. You'll see."
"But, my dear," said I gravely, drawing forth the packet from my breast, "I, too, have my story to tell. I cannot call it a confession, either; rather it is the story of somebody else—Hallo! who's broken the seal?" For on shipboard I had beguiled the time by writing a sort of journal to accompany Fanny's letter, and had placed all together in a thick white envelope, addressing it, in legal parlance, "To whom it may concern."
"I did," said Bessie faintly, burying her face on my arm. "It fell out of your pocket when they carried you up stairs; and I read it, every word, twice over, before you came to yourself."
"You little witch! And I thought you were marrying me out of pure faith in me, and not of sight or knowledge."
"It was faith, the highest faith," said Bessie proudly, and looking into my eyes with her old saucy dash, "to know, to feel sure, that that sealed paper concerned nobody but me."
And so she has ever since maintained.
Transcriber's Note: This is a compiled version of a novel published in sections in the LIPPINCOTT'S MAGAZINE OF POPULAR LITERATURE AND SCIENCE.
List of the e-books from which this text was compiled: [EBook #13828] August 1873 [EBook #14036] September 1873 [EBook #13964] October 1873