"I don't see how you can talk the way you do," said Lemuel, shuddering inwardly at Berry's audacious freedom, and yet finding a certain comfort in it.
"That's just the way I felt myself at first. But you'll get over it as you go along. The nicest thing about their style of angel is that they're perfectly human, after all. You don't believe it now, of course, but you will."
It only heightened Lemuel's conception of Miss Carver's character to have Berry talk so lightly and daringly of her, in her relation to him. He lay long awake after he went to bed, and in the turmoil of his thoughts one thing was clear: so pure and high a being must never know anything of his shameful past, which seemed to dishonour her through his mere vicinity. He must go far from her, and she must not know why; but long afterwards Mr. Sewell would tell her, and then she would understand. He owed her this all the more because he could see now that she was not one of the silly persons, as Mr. Sewell called them, who would think meanly of him for having in his ignorance and inexperience, done a servant's work. His mind had changed about that, and he wondered that he could ever have suspected her of such a thing.
About noon the next day the street door was opened hesitatingly, as if by some one not used to the place; and when Lemuel looked up from the menus he was writing, he saw the figure of one of those tramps who from time to time presented themselves and pretended to want work. He scanned the vagabond sharply, as he stood moulding a soft hat on his hands, and trying to superinduce an air of piteous appeal upon the natural gaiety of his swarthy face. "Well! what's wanted?"
A dawning conjecture that had flickered up in the tramp's eyes flashed into full recognition.
Lemuel's heart stood still. "What—what do you want here?"
"Why, don't you know me, mate?"
All his calamity confronted Lemuel.
"No," he said, but nothing in him supported the lie he had uttered.
"Wayfarer's Lodge?" suggested the other cheerfully. "Don't you remember?"
"I guess you do," said the mate easily. "Anyway, I remember you."
Lemuel's feeble defence gave way. "Come in here," he said, and he shut the door upon the intruder and himself, and submitted to his fate. "What is it?" he asked huskily.
"Why, mate! what's the matter? Nobody's goin' to hurt you," said the other encouragingly. "What's your lay here?"
"Yes. Got a job here?"
"I'm the clerk," said Lemuel, with the ghost of his former pride of office.
"Clerk?" said the tramp with good-humoured incredulity. "Where's your diamond pin? Where's your rings?" He seemed willing to prolong the playful inquiry. "Where's your patent leather boots?"
"It's not a common hotel. It's a sort of a family hotel, and I'm the clerk. What do you want?"
The young fellow lounged back easily in his chair. "Why, I did drop in to beat the house out of a quarter if I could, or may be ten cents. Thank you, sir. God bless you, sir." He interrupted himself to burlesque a professional gratitude. "That style of thing, you know. But I don't know about it now. Look here, mate! what's the reason you couldn't get me a job here too? I been off on a six months' cruise since I saw you, and I'd like a job on shore first rate. Couldn't you kind of ring me in for something? I ain't afraid of work, although I never did pretend to love it. But I should like to reform now, and get into something steady. Heigh?"
"There isn't anything to do—there's no place for you," Lemuel began.
"Oh, pshaw, now, mate, you think!" pleaded the other. "I'll take any sort of a job; I don't care what it is. I ain't got any o' that false modesty about me. Been round too much. And I don't want to go back to the Wayfarer's Lodge. It's a good place, and I know my welcome's warm and waitin' for me, between two hot plates; but the thing of it is, it's demoralisin'. That's what the chaplain said just afore I left the—ship, 'n' I promised him I'd give work a try, anyway. Now you just think up something! I ain't in any hurry." In proof he threw his soft hat on the desk, and took up one of the menus. "This your bill of fare? Well, it ain't bad! Vurmiselly soup, boiled holibut, roast beef, roast turkey with cranberry sauce, roast pork with apple sauce, chicken corquettes, ditto patties, three kinds of pie; bread puddin', both kinds of sauce; ice cream, nuts, and coffee. Why, mate!"
Lemuel sat dumb and motionless. He could see no way out of the net that had entangled him. He began feebly to repeat. "There isn't anything," when some one tried the door.
"Mr. Barker!" called Mrs. Harmon. "You in there?"
He made it worse by waiting a moment before he rose and opened the door. "I didn't know I'd locked it." The lie came unbidden; he groaned inwardly to think how he was telling nothing but lies. Mrs. Harmon did not come in. She glanced with a little question at the young fellow, who had gathered his hat from the table, and risen with gay politeness.
It was a crisis of the old sort; the elevator boy had kicked, and Mrs. Harmon said, "I just stopped to say that I was going out and I could stop at the intelligence office myself to get an elevator boy—"
The mate took the word with a joyous laugh at the coincidence. "It's just what me and Mr. Barker was talking about! I'm from up his way, and I've just come down to Boston to see if I couldn't look up a job; and he was tellin' me, in here, about your wantin' a telegraph—I mean a elevator-boy, but he didn't think it would suit me. But I should like to give it a try, anyway. It's pretty dull up our way, and I got to do something. Mr. Barker 'll tell you who I am."
He winked at Lemuel with the eye not exposed to Mrs. Harmon, and gave her a broad, frank, prepossessing smile.
"Well, of course," said Mrs. Harmon smoothly, "any friend of Mr. Barker's——"
"We just been talkin' over old times in here," interrupted the mate. "I guess it was me shoved that bolt in. I didn't want to have anybody see me talkin' with him till I'd got some clothes that would be a little more of a credit to him."
"Well, that's right," said Mrs. Harmon appreciatively. "I always like to have everybody around my house looking neat and respectable. I keep a first-class house, and I don't have any but first-class help, and I expect them to dress accordingly, from the highest to the lowest."
"Yes, ma'am," said the mate, "that's the way I felt about it myself, me and Mr. Barker both; and he was just tellin' me that if I was a mind to give the elevator a try, he'd lend me a suit of his clothes."
"Very well, then," said Mrs. Harmon; "if Mr. Barker and you are a mind to fix it up between you——"
"Oh, we are!" said the mate. "There won't be any trouble about that."
"I don't suppose I need to stop at the intelligence office. I presume Mr. Barker will show you how to work the elevator. He helped us out with it himself at first."
"Yes, that's what he said," the other chimed in. "But I guess I'd better go and change my clothes first. Well, mate," he added to Lemuel, "I'm ready when you're ready."
Lemuel rose trembling from the chair where he had been chained, as it seemed to him, while the mate and Mrs. Harmon arranged their affair with his tacit connivance. He had not spoken a word; he feared so much to open his lips lest another lie should come out of them, that his sense of that danger was hardly less than his terror at the captivity in which he found himself.
"Yes," said Mrs. Harmon, "I'll look after the office till you get back. Mr. Barker 'll show you where you can sleep."
"Thank you, ma'am," said the mate, with gratitude that won upon her.
"And I'm glad," she added, "that it's a friend of Mr. Barker's that's going to have the place. We think everything of Mr. Barker here."
"Well, you can't think more of him than what we do up home," rejoined the other with generous enthusiasm.
In Lemuel's room he was not less appreciative. "Why, mate, it does me good to see how you've got along. I got to write a letter home at once, and tell the folks what friends you've got in Boston. I don't believe they half understand it." He smiled joyously upon Lemuel, who stood stock still, with such despair in his face that probably the wretch pitied him.
"Look here, mate, don't you be afraid now! I'm on the reform lay with all my might, and I mean business. I ain't a-goin' to do you any harm, you bet your life. These your things?" he asked, taking Lemuel's winter suit from the hooks where they hung, and beginning to pull off his coat. He talked on while he changed his dress. "I was led away, and I got my come-uppings, or the other fellow's come- uppings, for I wa'n't to blame any, and I always said so, and I guess the judge would say so too, if it was to do over again."
A frightful thought stung Lemuel to life. "The judge? Was it a passenger-ship?"
The other stopped buttoning Lemuel's trousers round him to slap himself on the thigh. "Why, mate! don't you know enough to know what a sea voyage is? Why, I've been down to the Island for the last six months! Hain't you never heard it called a sea voyage? Why, we always come off from a cruise when we git back! You don't mean to say you never been one?"
"Oh, my goodness!" groaned Lemuel. "Have—have you been in prison?"
"Why, of course."
"Oh, what am I going to do?" whispered the miserable creature to himself.
The other heard him. "Why, you hain't got to do anything! I'm on the reform, and you might leave everything layin' around loose, and I shouldn't touch it. Fact! You ask the ship's chaplain."
He laughed in the midst of his assertions of good resolutions, but sobered to the full extent, probably, of his face and nature, and tying Lemuel's cravat on at the glass, he said solemnly, "Mate, it's all right. I'm on the reform."
Lemuel's friend entered upon his duties with what may also be called artistic zeal. He showed a masterly touch in managing the elevator from the first trip. He was ready, cheerful, and obliging; he lacked nothing but a little more reluctance and a Seaside Library novel to be a perfect elevator-boy.
The ladies liked him at once; he was so pleasant and talkative, and so full of pride in Lemuel that they could not help liking him; and several of them promptly reached that stage of confidence where they told him, as an old friend of Lemuel's, they thought Lemuel read too much, and was going to kill himself if he kept on a great deal longer. The mate said he thought so too, and had noticed how bad Lemuel looked the minute he set eyes on him. But he asked what was the use? He had said everything he could to him about it. He was always just so, up at home. As he found opportunity he did what he could to console Lemuel with furtive winks and nods.
Lemuel dragged absently and haggardly through the day. In the evening he told Mrs. Harmon that he had to go round and see Mr. Sewell a moment.
It was then nine o'clock, and she readily assented; she guessed Mr. Williams—he had told her his name was Williams—could look after the office while he was gone. Mr. Williams was generously glad to do so. Behind Mrs. Harmon's smooth large form, he playfully threatened her with his hand levelled at his shoulder; but even this failed to gladden Lemuel.
It was half-past nine when he reached the minister's house, and the maid had a visible reluctance at the door in owning that Mr. Sewell was at home. Mrs. Sewell had instructed her not to be too eagerly candid with people who came so late; but he was admitted, and Sewell came down from his study to see him in the reception-room.
"What is the matter?" he asked at once, when he caught sight of Lemuel's face; "has anything gone wrong with you, Mr. Barker?" He could not help being moved by the boy's looks; he had a fleeting wish that Mrs. Sewell were there to see him, and be moved too; and he prepared himself as he might to treat the trouble which he now expected to be poured out.
"Yes," said Lemuel, "I want to tell you; I want you to tell me what to do."
When he had put the case fully before the minister, his listener was aware of wishing that it had been a love-trouble, such as he foreboded at first.
He drew a long and deep breath, and before he began to speak he searched himself for some comfort or encouragement, while Lemuel anxiously scanned his face.
"Yes—yes! I see your—difficulty," he began, making the futile attempt to disown any share in it. "But perhaps—perhaps it isn't so bad as it seems. Perhaps no harm will come. Perhaps he really means to do well; and if you are vigilant in—in keeping him out of temptation——" Sewell stopped, sensible that he was not coming to anything, and rubbed his forehead.
"Do you think," asked Lemuel, dry mouthed with misery, "that I ought to have told Mrs. Harmon at once?"
"Why, it is always best to be truthful and above-board—as a principle," said the minister, feeling himself somehow dragged from his moorings.
"Then I had better do it yet!"
"Yes," said Sewell, and he paused. "Yes. That is to say—As the mischief is done—Perhaps—perhaps there is no haste. If you exercise vigilance—But if he has been in prison—Do you know what he was in for?"
"No. I didn't know he had been in at all till we got to my room. And then I couldn't ask him—I was afraid to."
"Yes," said Sewell, kindly if helplessly.
"I was afraid, if I sent him off—or tried to—that he would tell about my being in the Wayfarer's Lodge that night, and they would think I had been a tramp. I could have done it, but I thought he might tell some lie about me; and they might get to know about the trial——"
"I see," said Sewell.
"I hated to lie," said Lemuel piteously, "but I seemed to have to."
There was another yes on the minister's tongue; he kept it back; but he was aware of an instant's relief in the speculation—the question presented itself abstractly—as to whether it was ever justifiable or excusable to lie. Were the Jesuitical casuists possibly right in some slight, shadowy sort? He came back to Lemuel groaning in spirit. "No—no—no!" he sighed; "we mustn't admit that you had to lie. We must never admit that." A truth flashed so vividly upon him that it seemed almost escape. "What worse thing could have come from telling the truth than has come from withholding it? And that would have been some sort of end, and this—this is only the miserable beginning."
"Yes," said Lemuel, with all desirable humility. "But I couldn't see it at once."
"Oh, I don't blame you; I don't blame you," said Sewell. "It was a sore temptation. I blame myself!" he exclaimed, with more comprehensiveness than Lemuel knew; but he limited his self- accusal by adding, "I ought to have told Mrs. Harmon myself what I knew of your history; but I refrained because I knew you had never done any harm, and I thought it cruel that you should be dishonoured by your misfortunes in a relation where you were usefully and prosperously placed; and so—and so I didn't. But perhaps I was wrong. Yes, I was wrong. I have only allowed the burden to fall more heavily upon you at last."
It was respite for Lemuel to have some one else accusing himself, and he did not refuse to enjoy it. He left the minister to wring all the bitterness he could for himself out of his final responsibility. The drowning man strangles his rescuer.
Sewell looked up, and loosened his collar as if really stifling. "Well, well. We must find some way out of it. I will see—see what can be done for you to-morrow."
Lemuel recognised his dismissal. "If you say so, Mr. Sewell, I will go straight back and tell Mrs. Harmon all about it."
Sewell rose too. "No—no. There is no such haste. You had better leave it to me now. I will see to it—in the morning."
"Thank you," said Lemuel. "I hate to give you so much trouble."
"Oh," said Sewell, letting him out at the street-door, and putting probably less thought and meaning into the polite words than they had ever contained before, "it's no trouble."
He went upstairs to his study, and found Mrs. Sewell waiting there. "Well, now—what, David?"
"Now what?" he feebly echoed.
"Yes. What has that wretched creature come for now?"
"You may well call him a wretched creature," sighed Sewell.
"Is he really engaged? Has he come to get you to marry him?"
"I think he'd rather have me bury him at present." Sewell sat down, and, bracing his elbow on his desk, rested his head heavily on his hand.
"Well," said his wife, with a touch of compassion tempering her curiosity.
He began to tell her what had happened, and he did not spare himself in the statement of the case. "There you have the whole affair now. And a very pretty affair it is. But, I declare," he concluded, "I can't see that any one is to blame for it."
"No one, David?"
"Well, Adam, finally, of course. Or Eve. Or the Serpent," replied the desperate man.
Seeing him at this reckless pass, his wife forebore reproach, and asked, "What are you going to do?"
"I am going around there in the morning to tell Mrs. Harmon all about Barker."
"She will send him away instantly."
"I dare say."
"And what will the poor thing do?"
"I'm afraid Badness knows. It will drive him to despair."
"Well, perhaps not—perhaps not," sighed the minister. "At any rate, we must not let him be driven to despair. You must help me, Lucy."
Mrs. Sewell was a good woman, and she liked to make her husband feel it keenly.
"I knew that it must come to that," she said.
"Of course, we must not let him be ruined. If Mrs. Harmon insists upon his going at once—as I've no doubt she will—you must bring him here, and we must keep him till he can find some other home." She waited, and added, for a final stroke of merciless beneficence, "He can have Alfred's room, and Alf can take the front attic."
Sewell only sighed again. He knew she did not mean this.
Barker went back to the St. Albans, and shrunk into as small space in the office as he could. He pulled a book before him and pretended to read, hiding the side of his face toward the door with the hand that supported his head. His hand was cold as ice, and it seemed to him as if his head were in a flame. Williams came and looked in at him once, and then went back to the stool which he occupied just outside the elevator-shaft when not running it. He whistled softly between his teeth, with intervals of respectful silence, and then went on whistling in absence of any whom it might offend.
Suddenly a muffled clamour made itself heard from the depths of the dining-room, like that noise of voices which is heard behind the scenes at the theatre when an armed mob is about to burst upon the stage. Irish tones, high, windy, and angry, yells, and oaths defined themselves, and Mrs. Harmon came obesely hurrying from the dining- room toward the office, closely followed by Jerry, the porter. When upon duty, or, as some of the boarders contended, when in the right humour, he blacked the boots, and made the hard-coal fires, and carried the trunks up and down stairs. When in the wrong humour, he had sometimes been heard to swear at Mrs. Harmon, but she had excused him in this eccentricity because, she said, he had been with her so long. Those who excused it with her on these grounds conjectured arrears of wages as another reason for her patience. His outbreaks of bad temper had the Celtic uncertainty; the most innocent touch excited them, as sometimes the broadest snub failed to do so; and no one could foretell what direction his zigzag fury would take. He had disliked Lemuel from the first, and had chafed at the subordination into which he had necessarily fallen. He was now yelling after Mrs. Harmon, to know if she was not satisfied with wan gutther-snoipe, that she must nades go and pick up another, and whether the new wan was going to be too good to take prisints of money for his worruk from the boarthers, and put all the rest of the help under the caumpliment of refusin' ut, or else demanin' themselves by takin' ut? If this was the case, he'd have her to know that she couldn't kape anny other help; and the quicker she found it out the betther. Mrs. Harmon was trying to appease him by promising to see Lemuel at once, and ask him about it.
The porter raised his voice an octave. "D' ye think I'm a loyar, domn ye? Don't ye think I'm tellin' the thruth?"
He followed her to the little office, whither she had retreated on a purely mechanical fulfilment of her promise to speak to Lemuel, and crowded in upon them there.
"Here he is now!" he roared in his frenzy. "He's too good to take the money that's offered to 'um! He's too good to be waither! He wannts to play the gintleman! He thinks 'umself too good to do what the other servants do, that's been tin times as lahng in the house!"
At the noise some of the ladies came hurrying out of the public parlour to see what the trouble was. The street-door opened, and Berry entered with the two art-students. They involuntarily joined the group of terrified ladies.
"What's the row?" demanded Berry. "Is Jerry on the kick?"
No one answered. Lemuel stood pale and silent, fronting the porter, who was shaking his fist in his face. He had not heard anything definite in the outrage that assailed him. He only conjectured that it was exposure of Williams's character, and the story of his own career in Boston.
"Why don't you fire him out of there, Barker?" called the law- student. "Don't be afraid of him!"
Lemuel remained motionless; but his glance sought the pitying eyes of the assembled women, and then dropped before the amaze that looked at him from those of Miss Carver. The porter kept roaring out his infamies.
Berry spoke again.
"Mrs. Harmon, do you want that fellow in there?"
"No, goodness knows I don't, Mr. Berry."
"All right." Berry swung the street-door open with his left hand, and seemed with the same gesture to lay his clutch upon the porter's collar. "Fire him out myself!" he exclaimed, and with a few swiftly successive jerks and bumps the burly shape of the porter was shot into the night. "I want you to get me an officer, Jerry," he said, putting his head out after him. "There's been a blackguard makin' a row here. Never mind your hat! Go!"
"Oh, my good gracious, Mr. Berry!" gasped Mrs. Harmon, "what have you done?" "If it's back pay, Mrs. Harmon, we'll pass round the hat. Don't you be troubled. That fellow wasn't fit to be in a decent house."
Berry stopped a moment and looked at Lemuel. The art-students did not look at him at all; they passed on upstairs with Berry.
The other ladies remained to question and to comment. Mrs. Harmon's nephew, to whom the uproar seemed to have penetrated in his basement, came up and heard the story from them. He was quite decided. He said that Mr. Berry had done right. He said that he was tired of having folks damn his aunt up hill and down dale; and that if Jerry had kept on a great deal longer, he would have said something to him himself about it.
The ladies justified him in the stand he took; they returned to the parlour to talk it all over, and he went back to his basement. Mrs. Harmon, in tears, retired to her room, and Lemuel was left standing alone in his office. The mate stole softly to him from the background of the elevator, where he had kept himself in safety during the outbreak.
"Look here, mate. This thing been about your ringin' me in here?"
"Oh, go away, go away!" Lemuel huskily entreated.
"Well, that's what I intend to do. I don't want to stay here and git you into no more trouble, and I know that's what's been done. You never done me no harm, and I don't want to do you none. I'm goin' right up to your room to git my clo'es, and then I'll skip."
"It won't do any good now. It'll only make it worse. You'd better stay now. You must."
"Well, if you say so, mate."
He went back to his elevator, and Lemuel sat down at his desk, and dropped his face upon his arms there. Toward eleven o'clock Evans came in and looked at him, but without speaking; he must have concluded that he was asleep; he went upstairs, but after a while he came down again and stopped again at the office door, and looked in on the haggard boy, hesitating as if for the best words. "Barker, Mr. Berry has been telling me about your difficulty here. I know all about you—from Mr. Sewell." Lemuel stared at him. "And I will stand your friend, whatever people think. And I don't blame you for not wanting to be beaten by that ruffian; you could have stood no chance against him; and if you had thrashed him it wouldn't have been a great triumph."
"I wish he had killed me," said Lemuel from his dust-dry throat.
"Oh no; that's foolish," said the elder, with patient, sad kindness. "Who knows whether death is the end of trouble? We must live things down, not die them down." He put his arm caressingly across the boy's shoulder.
"I can never live this down," said Lemuel. He added passionately, "I wish I could die!"
"No," said Evans. "You must cheer up. Think of next Saturday. It will soon be here, and then you'll be astonished that you felt so bad on Tuesday."
He gave Lemuel a parting pressure with his arm, and turned to go upstairs.
At the same moment the figure of Mrs. Harmon's nephew, distracted, violent, burst up through the door leading to the basement.
"Good heavens!" exclaimed the editor, "is Mr. Harmon going to kick?"
"The house is on fire!" yelled the apparition.
A thick cloud of smoke gushed out of the elevator-shaft, and poured into the hall, which it seemed to fill instantly. It grew denser, and in another instant a wild hubbub began. The people appeared from every quarter and ran into the street, where some of the ladies began calling up at the windows to those who were still in their rooms. A stout little old lady came to an open window, and paid out hand over hand a small cable on which she meant to descend to the pavement; she had carried this rope about with her many years against the exigency to which she was now applying it. Within, the halls and the stairway became the scene of frantic encounter between wives and husbands rushing down to save themselves, and then rushing back to save their forgotten friends. Many appeared in the simple white in which they had left their beds, with the addition of such shawls or rugs as chance suggested. A house was opened to the fugitives on the other side of the street, and the crowd that had collected could not repress its applause when one of them escaped from the hotel-door and shot across. It applauded impartially men, women, and children, and, absorbed in the spectacle, no one sounded the fire-alarm; the department began to be severely condemned among the bystanders before the engines appeared.
Most of the ladies, in their escape or their purpose of rescue, tried each to possess herself of Lemuel, and keep him solely in her interest. "Mr. Barker! Mr. Barker! Mr. Barker!" was called for in various sopranos and contraltos, till an outsider took up the cry and shouted, "Barker! Barker! Speech! Speech!" This made him very popular with the crowd, who in their enjoyment of the fugitives were unable to regard the fire seriously. A momentary diversion was caused by an elderly gentleman who came to the hotel-door, completely dressed except that he was in his stockings, and demanded Jerry. The humourist who had called for a speech from Lemuel volunteered the statement that Jerry had just gone round the corner to see a man. "I want him," said the old gentleman savagely. "I want my boots; I can't go about in my stockings."
Cries for Jerry followed; but in fact the porter had forgotten all his grudges and enmities; he had reappeared, in perfect temper, and had joined Lemuel and Berry in helping to get the women and children out of the burning house.
The police had set a guard at the door, in whom Lemuel recognised the friendly old officer who had arrested him. "All out?" asked the policeman.
The smoke, which had reddened and reddened, was now a thin veil drawn over the volume of flame that burned strongly and steadily up the well of the elevator, and darted its tongues out to lick the framework without. The heat was intense. Mrs. Harmon came panting and weeping from the dining-room with some unimportant pieces of silver, driven forward by Jerry and her nephew.
They met the firemen, come at last, and pulling in their hose, who began to play upon the flames; the steam filled the place with a dense mist.
Lemuel heard Berry ask him through the fog, "Barker, where's old Evans?"
"Oh, I don't know!" he lamented back.
"He must have gone up to get Mrs. Evans."
He made a dash towards the stairs. A fireman caught him and pulled him back. "You can't go up; smoke's thick as hell up there." But Lemuel pulled away, and shot up the stairs. He heard the firemen stop Berry.
"You can't go, I tell you! Who's runnin' this fire anyway, I'd like to know?"
He ran along the corridor which Evans's apartment opened upon. There was not much smoke there; it had drawn up the elevator-well, as if in a chimney.
He burst into the apartment and ran to the inner room, where he had once caught a glimpse of Mrs. Evans sitting by the window.
Evans stood leaning against the wall, with his hand at his breast. He panted, "Help her—help—"
"Where is she? Where is she?" demanded Lemuel.
She came from an alcove in the room, holding a handkerchief drenched with cologne in her hand, which she passed to her husband's face. "Are you better now? Can you come, dear? Rest on me!"
"I'm—I'm all right! Go—go! I can get along—"
"I'll go when you go," said Mrs. Evans. She turned to Lemuel. "Mr. Evans fainted; but he is better now." She took his hand with a tender tranquillity that ignored all danger or even excitement, and gently chafed it.
"But come—come!" cried Lemuel. "Don't you know the house is on fire?"
"Yes, I know it," she replied. "We must get Mr. Evans down. You must help me." Lemuel had seldom seen her before; but he had so long heard and talked of her hopeless invalidism that she was like one risen from the dead, in her sudden strength and courage, and he stared at the miracle of her restoration. It was she who claimed and bore the greater share of the burden in getting her husband away. He was helpless; but in the open air he caught his breath more fully, and at last could tremulously find his way out of the sympathetic crowd. "Get a carriage," she said to Lemuel; and then she added, as it drove up and she gave an address, "I can manage him now."
Evans weakly pressed Lemuel's hand from the seat to which he had helped him, and the hack drove away. Lemuel looked crazily after it a moment, and then returned to the burning house.
Berry called to him from the top of the outside steps, "Barker, have you seen that partner of yours?"
Lemuel ran up to him. "No!"
"Well, come in here. The elevator's dropped, and they're afraid he went down with it."
"I know he didn't! He wouldn't be such a fool!"
"Well, we'll know when they get the fire under."
"I thought I saw something in the elevator, and as long as you don't know where he is—" said a fireman.
"Well," said Berry, "if you've got the upper hands of this thing, I'm going to my room a minute."
Lemuel followed him upstairs, to see if he could find Williams. The steam had ascended and filled the upper halls; little cascades of water poured down the stairs, falling from step to step; the long strips of carpeting in the corridors swam in the deluge which the hose had poured into the building, and a rain of heavy drops burst through the ceilings.
Most of the room-doors stood open, as the people had flung them wide in their rush for life. At the door of Berry's room a figure appeared which he promptly seized by the throat.
"Don't be in a hurry!" he said, as he pushed it into the room. "I want to see you."
It was Williams.
"I want to see what you've got in your pockets. Hold on to him, Barker."
Lemuel had no choice. He held Williams by the arms while Berry went through him, as he called the search. He found upon him whatever small articles of value there had been in his room.
The thief submitted without a struggle, without a murmur.
Berry turned scornfully to Lemuel. "This a friend of yours, Mr. Barker?"
Still the thief did not speak, but he looked at Lemuel.
"Yes," he dryly gasped.
"Well!" said Berry, staring fiercely at him for a moment. "If it wasn't for something old Evans said to me about you, a little while ago, I'd hand you both over to the police."
Williams seemed to bear the threat with philosophic resignation, but Lemuel shrank back in terror. Berry laughed.
"Why, you are his pal. Go along! I'll get Jerry to attend to you."
Lemuel slunk downstairs with Williams. "Look here, mate," said the rogue; "I guess I ha'n't used you just right."
Lemuel expected himself to cast the thief off with bitter rejection. But he heard himself saying hopelessly, "Go away, and try to behave yourself," and then he saw the thief make the most of the favour of heaven and vanish through the crowd.
He would have liked to steal away too; but he remained, and began mechanically helping again wherever he saw help needed. By and by Berry came out; Lemuel thought that he would tell some policeman to arrest him; but he went away without speaking to any one.
In an hour the firemen had finished their share of the havoc, and had saved the building. They had kept the fire to the elevator-shaft and the adjoining wood-work, and but for the water they had poured into the place the ladies might have returned to their rooms, which were quite untouched by the flames. As it was, Lemuel joined with Jerry in fetching such things to them as their needs or fancies suggested; the refugees across the way were finally clothed by their efforts, and were able to quit their covert indistinguishable in dress from any of the other boarders.
The crowd began to go about its business. The engines had disappeared from the little street with exultant shrieks; in the morning the insurance companies would send their workmen to sweep out the extinct volcano, and mop up the shrunken deluge, preparatory to ascertaining the extent of the damage done; in the meantime the police kept the boys and loafers out of the building, and the order that begins to establish itself as soon as chaos is confessed took possession of the ruin.
But it was all the same a ruin and a calamitous conclusion for the time being. The place that had been in its grotesque and insufficient fashion a home for so many homeless people was uninhabitable; even the Harmons could not go back to it. The boarders had all scattered, but Mrs. Harmon lingered, dwelling volubly upon the scene of disaster. She did not do much else; she was not without a just pride in it, but she was not puffed up by all the sympathy and consolation that had been offered her. She thought of others in the midst of her own troubles, and she said to Lemuel, who had remained working with Jerry under her direction in putting together such things as she felt she must take away with her—
"Well, I don't know as I feel much worse about myself than I do about poor Mr. Evans. Why, I've got the ticket in my pocket now that he gave me for the Wednesday matinee! I do wonder how he's gettin' along! I guess they've got you to thank, if they're alive to tell the tale. What did you do to get that woman out alive?" Lemuel looked blankly at her, and did not answer. "And Mr. Evans too! You must have had your hands full, and that's what I told the reporters; but I told 'em I guessed you'd be equal to it if any one would. Why, I don't suppose Mrs. Evans has been out of her room for a month, or hardly stepped her foot to the floor. Well, I don't want to see many people look as he did when you first got him out of the house."
"Well, I don't know as I want to see many more fires where I live," said her nephew, as if with the wish to be a little more accurate.
Jerry asked Lemuel to watch Mrs. Harmon's goods while he went for a carriage, and said sir to him. It seemed to Lemuel that this respect, and Mrs. Harmon's unmerited praises, together with the doom that was secretly upon him, would drive him wild.
The evening after the fire Mrs. Sewell sat talking it over with her husband, in the light of the newspaper reports, which made very much more of Lemuel's part in it than she liked. The reporters had flattered the popular love of the heroic in using Mrs. Harmon's version of his exploits, and represented him as having been most efficient and daring throughout, and especially so in regard to the Evanses.
"Well, that doesn't differ materially from what they told us themselves," said Sewell.
"You know very well, David," retorted his wife, "that there couldn't have been the least danger at any time; and when he helped her to get Mr. Evans downstairs, the fire was nearly all out."
"Very well, then; he would have saved their lives if it had been necessary. It was a case of potential heroism, that contained all the elements of self-sacrifice."
Mrs. Sewell could not deny this, but she was not satisfied. She was silent a moment before she asked, "What do you suppose that wretched creature will do now?"
"I think very likely he will come to me," answered Sewell.
"I dare say." The bell rang. "And I suppose that's he now!"
They listened and heard Miss Vane's voice at the door, asking for them.
Mrs. Sewell ran down the stairs and kissed her. "Oh, I'm so glad you came. Isn't it wonderful? I've just come from them, and she's taking the whole care of him, as if he had always been the sick one, and she strong and well."
"What do you mean, Lucy? He isn't ill!"
"What are you talking about?"
"About Mr. Evans—"
"Oh!" said Miss Vane, with cold toleration. She arrived at the study door and gave Sewell her hand. "I scarcely knew him, you know; I only met him casually here. I've come to see," she added nervously, "if you know where Lemuel is, Mr. Sewell. Have you seen anything of him since the fire? How nobly he behaved! But I never saw anything he wasn't equal to!"
"Mrs. Sewell objects to his saving human life," said Sewell, not able to deny himself.
"I don't see how you can take the slightest interest in him," began Mrs. Sewell, saying a little more than she meant.
"You would, my dear," returned Miss Vane, "if you had wronged him as I have."
"Or as I," said Sewell.
"I'm thankful I haven't, then," said his wife. "It seems to me that there's nothing else of him. As to his noble behaviour, it isn't possible you believe those newspaper accounts? He didn't save any one's life; there was no danger!"
Miss Vane, preoccupied with her own ideal of the facts, stared at her without replying, and then turned to Sewell.
"I want to find him and ask him to stay with me till he can get something else to do." Sewell's eyebrows arched themselves involuntarily. "Sibyl has gone to New York for a fortnight; I shall be quite alone in the house, and I shall be very glad of his company," she explained to the eyebrows, while ignoring them. Her chin quivered a little, as she added, "I shall be proud of his company. I wish him to understand that he is my guest."
"I suppose I shall see him soon," said Sewell, "and I will give him your message."
"Will you tell him," persisted Miss Vane, a little hysterically, "that if he is in any way embarrassed, I insist upon his coming to me immediately—at once?"
Sewell smiled, "Yes."
"I know that I'm rather ridiculous," said Miss Vane, smiling in sympathy, "and I don't blame Mrs. Sewell for not entering into my feelings. Nobody could, who hadn't felt the peculiar Lemuel glamour."
"I don't imagine he's embarrassed in any way," said Sewell. "He seems to have the gift of lighting on his feet. But I'll tell him how peremptory you are, Miss Vane."
"Well, upon my word," cried Mrs. Sewell, when Miss Vane had taken leave of them in an exaltation precluding every recurrent attempt to enlighten her as to the true proportions of Lemuel's part in the fire, "I really believe people like to be made fools of. Why didn't you tell her, David, that he had done nothing?"
"What would have been the use? She has her own theory of the affair. Besides, he did do something; he did his duty, and my experience is that it's no small thing to do. It wasn't his fault that he didn't do more."
He waited some days for Lemuel to come to him, and he inquired each time he went to see the Evanses if they knew where he was. But they had not heard of him since the night of the fire.
"It's his shyness," said Evans; "I can understand how if he thought he had put me under an obligation he wouldn't come near me—and couldn't."
Evans was to go out of town for a little while; the proprietors of the Saturday Afternoon insisted upon his taking a rest, and they behaved handsomely about his salary. He did not want to go, but his wife got him away finally, after he had failed in two or three attempts at writing.
Lemuel did not appear to Sewell till the evening of the day when the Evanses left town. It seemed as if he had waited till they were gone, so that he could not be urged to visit them. At first the minister scolded him a little for his neglect; but Lemuel said he had heard about them, and knew they were getting along all right. He looked as if he had not been getting along very well himself; his face was thin, and had an air at once dogged and apprehensive. He abruptly left talking of Evans, and said, "I don't know as you heard what happened that night before the fire just after I got back from your house?"
"No, I hadn't."
Lemuel stopped. Then he related briefly and cleanly the whole affair, Sewell interrupting him from time to time with murmurs of sympathy, and "Tchk, tchk, tchk!" and "Shocking, shocking!" At the end he said, "I had hoped somehow that the general calamity had swallowed up your particular trouble in it. Though I don't know that general calamities ever do that with particular troubles," he added, more to himself than to Lemuel; and he put the idea away for some future sermon.
"Mr. Evans stopped and said something to me that night. He said we had to live things down, and not die them down; he wanted I should wait till Saturday before I was sure that I couldn't get through Tuesday. He said, How did we know that death was the end of trouble?"
"Yes," said the minister, with a smile of fondness for his friend; "that was like Evans all over."
"I sha'n't forget those things," said Lemuel. "They've been in my head ever since. If it hadn't been for them, I don't know what I should have done."
He stopped, and after a moment's inattention Sewell perceived that he wished to be asked something more. "I hope," he said, "that nothing more has been going wrong with you?" and as he asked this he laid his hand affectionately on the young man's shoulder, just as Evans had done. Lemuel's eyes dimmed and his breath thickened. "What has become of the person—the discharged convict?"
"I guess I had better tell you," he said; and he told him of the adventure with Berry and Williams.
Sewell listened in silence, and then seemed quite at a loss what to say; but Lemuel saw that he was deeply afflicted. At last he asked, lifting his eyes anxiously to Sewell's, "Do you think I did wrong to say the thief was a friend of mine, and get him off that way?"
"That's a very difficult question," sighed Sewell. "You had a duty to society."
"Yes, I've thought of that since!"
"If I had been in your place, I'm afraid I should be glad not to have thought of it in time; and I'm afraid I'm glad that, as it is, it's too late. But doesn't it involve you with him in the eyes of the other young man?" "Yes, I presume it does," said Lemuel. "I shall have to go away."
"Back to Willoughby Pastures?" asked Sewell, with not so much faith in that panacea for Lemuel's troubles as he had once had.
"No, to some other town. Do you know of anything I could get to do in New York?"
"Oh, no, no!" said the minister. "You needn't let this banish you. We must seek this young Mr.—"
"—Mr. Berry out, and explain the matter to him."
"Then you'll have to tell him all about me?"
"Yes. Why not?"
Lemuel was silent, and looked down.
"In the meantime," pursued the minister, "I have a message for you from Miss Vane. She has heard, as we all have, of your behaviour during the fire—"
"It wasn't anything," Lemuel interrupted. "There wasn't the least danger; and Mrs. Evans did it all herself, anyway. It made me sick to see how the papers had it. It's a shame!"
Sewell smiled. "I'm afraid you couldn't make Miss Vane think so; but I can understand what you mean. She has never felt quite easy about the way—the terms—on which she parted with you. She has spoken to me several times of it, and—ah—expressed her regret; and now, knowing that you have been—interrupted in your life, she is anxious to have you come to her—"
An angry flash lighted up Lemuel's face.
"I couldn't go back there! I wouldn't do any such work again."
"I don't mean that," Sewell hastened to say "Miss Vane wished me to ask you to come as her guest until you could find something—Miss Sibyl Vane has gone to New York—"
"I'm very much obliged to her," said Lemuel, "but I shouldn't want to give her so much trouble, or any one. I—I liked her very much, and I shouldn't want she should think I didn't appreciate her invitation."
"I will tell her," said the minister. "I had no great hope you would see your way to accepting it. But she will be glad to know that you received it." He added, rather interrogatively than affirmatively, "In the right spirit."
"Oh yes," said Lemuel. "Please to tell her I did."
"Thank you," said Sewell, with bland vagueness. "I don't know that I've asked yet where you are staying at present?"
"I'm at Mrs. Nash's, 13 Canary Place. Mrs. Harmon went there first."
"Oh! And are you looking forward to rejoining her in a new place?"
"I don't know as I am. I don't know as I should want to go into an hotel again."
Sewell manifested a little embarrassment. "Well, you won't forget your promise to let me be of use to you—pecuniarily, if you should be in need of a small advance at any time."
"Oh no! But I've got enough money for a while yet—till I can get something to do." He rose, and after a moment's hesitation he said, "I don't know as I want you should say anything to that fellow about me. To Mr. Berry, I mean."
"Oh! certainly not," said Sewell, "if you don't wish it."
Whatever it was in that reticent and elusive soul which prompted his request, the minister now felt that he could not know; but perhaps the pang that Lemuel inflicted on himself had as much transport as anguish in it. He believed that he had for ever cut himself off from the companionship that seemed highest and holiest on earth to him; he should never see that girl again; Berry must have told Miss Swan, and long before this Miss Carver had shuddered at the thought of him as the accomplice of a thief. But he proudly said to himself that he must let it all go; for if he had not been a thief, he had been a beggar and a menial, he had come out of a hovel at home, and his mother went about like a scarecrow, and it mattered little what kind of shame she remembered him in.
He thought of her perpetually now, and, in those dialogues which we hold in reverie with the people we think much about, he talked with her all day long. At first, when he began to do this, it seemed a wrong to Statira; but now, since the other was lost to him beyond other approach, he gave himself freely up to the mystical colloquies he held with her, as the devotee abandons himself to imagined converse with a saint. Besides, if he was in love with Statira, he was not in love with Jessie; that he had made clear to himself; for his feeling toward her was wholly different.
Most of the time, in these communings, he was with her in her own home, down at Corbitant, where he fancied she had gone, after the catastrophe at the St. Albans, and he sat there with her on a porch at the front door, which she had once described to him, and looked out under the silver poplars at the vessels in the bay. He formed himself some image of it all from pictures of the seaside which he had seen; and there were times when he tried to go back with her into the life she had led there as a child. Perhaps his ardent guesses at this were as near reality as anything that could be made to appear, for, after her mother and brothers and sisters had died out of the wide old house, her existence there was as lonely as if she had been a little ghost haunting it. She had inherited her mother's temperament with her father's constitution; she was the child born to his last long absence at sea and her mother's last solitude at home. When he returned, he found his wife dead and his maiden sister caring for the child in the desolate house.
This sister of Captain Carver's had been disappointed, as the phrase is, when a young girl; another girl had won her lover from her. Her disappointment had hardened her to the perception of the neighbours; and, by a strange perversion of the sympathies and faculties, she had turned from gossip and censure, from religion, and from all the sources of comfort that the bruised heart of Corbitant naturally turned to, and found such consolation as came to her in books, that is to say romances, and especially the romances that celebrated and deified such sorrow as her own. She had been a pretty little thing when young, and Jessie remembered her as pretty in her early old age. At heart she must still have been young when her hair was grey, for she made a friend and companion of the child, and they fed upon her romances together. When the aunt died, the child, who had known no mother but her, was stricken with a grief so deep and wild that at first her life and then her mind was feared for. To get her away from the associations and influences of the place, her father sent her to school in the western part of the State, where she met Madeline Swan, and formed one of those friendships which are like passions between young girls. During her long absence, her father married again; and she was called home to his deathbed. He was dead when she arrived; he had left a will that made her dependent on her stepmother. When Madeline Swan wrote to announce that she was coming to Boston to study art, Jessie Carver had no trouble in arranging with her stepmother, by the sacrifice of her final claim on her father's estate, to join her friend there, with a little sum of money on which she was to live till she should begin to earn something.
Her life had been a series of romantic episodes; Madeline said that if it could be written out it would be fascinating; but she went to work very practically, and worked hard. She had not much feeling for colour; but she drew better than her friend, and what she hoped to do was to learn to illustrate books.
One evening, after a day of bitter-sweet reveries of Jessie, Lemuel went to see Statira. She and 'Manda Grier were both very gay, and made him very welcome. They had tea for him; Statira tried all her little arts, and 'Manda Grier told some things that had happened in the box-factory. He could not help laughing at them; they were really very funny; but he felt somehow that it was all a preparation for something else. At last the two girls made a set at him, as 'Manda Grier called it, and tried to talk him into their old scheme of going to wait on table at some of the country hotels, or the seaside. They urged that now, while he was out of a place, it was just the time to look up a chance.
He refused, at first kindly, and at last angrily; and he would have gone away in this mood if Statira had not said that she would never say another word to him about it, and hung upon his neck, while 'Manda Grier looked on in sullen resentment. He came away sick and heavy at heart. He said to himself that they would be willing to drag him into the mire; they had no pride; they had no sense; they did not know anything and they could not learn. He tried to get away from them to Miss Carver in his thoughts; but the place where he had left her was vacant, and he could not conjure her back. Out of the void, he was haunted by a look of grieving reproach and wonder from her eyes.
That evening Sewell went to see an old parishioner of his who lived on the Hill, and who among his eccentricities had the habit of occupying his city house all summer long, while his family flitted with other people of fashion to the seashore. That year they talked of taking a cottage for the first time since they had sold their own cottage at Nahant, in a day of narrow things now past. The ladies urged that he ought to come with them, and not think of staying in Boston now that he had a trouble of the eyes which had befallen him, and Boston would be so dull if he could not get about freely and read as usual.
He answered that he would rather be blind in Boston than telescopic at Beverly, or any other summer resort; and that as for the want of proper care, which they urged, he did not think he should lack in his own house, if they left him where he could reach a bell. His youngest daughter, a lively little blonde, laughed with a cousin of his wife's who was present, and his wife decorously despaired. The discussion of the topic was rather premature, for they were not thinking of going to Beverly before middle of May, if they took the cottage; but an accident had precipitated it, and they were having it out, as people do, each party in the hope that the other would yield if kept at long enough before the time of final decision came.
"Do you think," said the husband and father, who looked a whimsical tyrant at the worst, but was probably no easier to manage for his whimsicality, "that I am going to fly in the face of prosperity, and begin to do as other people wish because I'm pecuniarily able to do as I please?"
The little blonde rose decisively from the low chair where she had been sitting. "If papa has begun to reason about it, we may as well yield the point for the present, mamma. Come, Lily! Let us leave him to Cousin Charles."
"Oh, but I say!" cried Cousin Charles, "if I'm to stay and fight it out with him, I've got to know which side I'm on."
"You're on the right side," said the young lady over her shoulder; "you always are, Cousin Charles."
Cousin Charles, in the attempt to kiss his hand toward his flatterer, pulled his glasses off his nose by their cord. "Bromfield," he said, "I don't see but this commits me against you." And then, the ladies having withdrawn, the two men put on that business air with which our sex tries to atone to itself for having unbent to the lighter minds of the other; heaven knows what women do when the men with whom they have been talking go away.
"If you should happen to stay in town," continued the cousin treacherously, "I shall be very glad, for I don't know but I shall be here the greater part of the summer myself."
"I shall stay," said the other, "but there won't be anything casual about it."
"What do you hear from Tom?" asked the cousin, feeling about on the mantel for a match. He was a full-bodied, handsome, amiable-looking old fellow, whose breath came in quick sighs with this light exertion. He had a blond complexion, and what was left of his hair, a sort of ethereal down on the top of his head, and some cherished fringes at the temples, was turning the yellowish grey that blond hair becomes.
The other gentleman, stretched at ease in a deep chair, with one leg propped on a cricket, had the distinction of long forms, which the years had left in their youthful gracility; his snow-white moustache had been allowed to droop over the handsome mouth, whose teeth were beginning to go. "They're on the other side of the clock," he said, referring to the matches. He added, with another glance at his relative, "Charles, you ought to bant. It's beginning to affect your wind."
"Beginning! Your memory's going, Bromfield. But they say there's a new system that allows you to eat everything. I'm waiting for that. In the meantime, I've gone back to my baccy."
"They've cut mine off," sighed the other. "Doesn't it affect your heart?"
"Not a bit. But what do you do, now you can't smoke and your eyes have given out?"
"I bore myself. I had a letter from Tom yesterday," said the sufferer, returning to the question that his cousin's obesity had diverted him from. "He's coming on in the summer."
"Tom's a lucky fellow," said the cousin. "I wish you had insisted on my taking some of that stock of his when you bought in."
"Yes, you made a great mistake," said the other, with whimsical superiority. "You should have taken my advice. You would now be rolling in riches, as I am, with a much better figure for it."
The cousin smoked a while. "Do you know, I think Tom's about the best fellow I ever knew."
"He's a good boy," said the other, with the accent of a father's pride and tenderness.
"Going to bring his pretty chickens and their dam?" asked the cousin, parting his coat-skirts to the genial influence of the fire.
"No; it's a short visit. They're going into the Virginia mountains for the summer." A manservant came in and said something in a low voice. "Heigh? What? Why, of course! Certainly! By all means! Show him in! Come in, parson; come in!" called the host to his yet unseen visitor, and he held out his hand for Sewell to take when he appeared at the door. "Glad to see you! I can't get up,—a little gouty to-day,—but Bellingham's on foot. His difficulty is sitting down."
Bellingham gave the minister a near-sighted man's glare through his glasses, and then came eagerly forward and shook hands. "Oh, Mr. Sewell! I hope you've come to put up some job on Corey. Don't spare him! With Kanawha Paint Co. at the present figures he merits any demand that Christian charity can make upon him. The man's prosperity is disgraceful."
"I'm glad to find you here, Mr. Bellingham," said Sewell, sitting down.
"Oh, is it double-barrelled?" pleaded Bellingham.
"I don't know that it's a deadly weapon of any kind," returned the minister. "But if one of you can't help me, perhaps the other can."
"Well, let us know what the job is," said Corey. "We refuse to commit ourselves beforehand."
"I shall have to begin at the beginning," said Sewell warningly, "and the beginning is a long way off."
"No matter," said Bellingham adventurously. "The further off, the better. I've been dining with Corey—he gives you a very good dinner now, Corey does—and I'm just in the mood for a deserving case."
"The trouble with Sewell is," said Corey, "that he doesn't always take the trouble to have them deserving. I hope this is interesting, at least."
"I suspect you'll find it more interesting than I shall," said the minister, inwardly preparing himself for the amusement which Lemuel's history always created in his hearers. It seemed to him, as he began, that he was always telling this story, and that his part in the affair was always becoming less and less respectable. No point was lost upon his hearers; they laughed till the ladies in the drawing-room above wondered what the joke could be.
"At any rate," said Bellingham, "the fellow behaved magnificently at the fire. I read the accounts of it."
"I think his exploits owe something to the imagination of the reporters," said Sewell. "He tells a different story himself."
"Oh, of course!" said Bellingham.
"Well; and what else?" asked Corey.
"There isn't any more. Simply he's out of work, and wants something to do—anything to do—anything that isn't menial."
"Ah, that's a queer start of his," said Bellingham thoughtfully. "I don't know but I like that."
"And do you come to such effete posterity as we are for help in a case like that?" demanded Corey. "Why, the boy's an Ancestor!"
"So he is! Why, so he is—so he is!" said Bellingham, with delight in the discovery. "Of course he is!"
"All you have to do," pursued Corey, "is to give him time, and he'll found a fortune and a family, and his children's children will be cutting ours in society. Half of our great people have come up in that way. Look at the Blue-book, where our nobility is enrolled; it's the apotheosis of farm-boys, mechanics, insidemen, and I don't know what!"
"But in the meantime this ancestor is now so remote that he has nothing to do," suggested Sewell. "If you give him time you kill him."
"Well, what do you want me to do? Mrs. Corey is thinking of setting up a Buttons. But you say this boy has a soul above buttons. And besides, he's too old."
"Look here, Bromfield," said Bellingham, "why don't you get him to read to you?"
Corey glanced from his cousin to the minister, whose face betrayed that this was precisely what he had had in his own mind.
"Is that the job?" asked Corey.
Sewell nodded boldly.
"He would read through his nose, wouldn't he? I couldn't stand that. I've stopped talking through mine, you know."
"Why, look here, Bromfield!" said Bellingham for the second time. "Why don't you let me manage this affair for you? I'm not of much use in the world, but from time to time I like to do my poor best; and this is just one of the kind of things I think I'm fitted for. I should like to see this young man. When I read in the newspapers of some fellow who has done a fine thing, I always want to see what manner of man he is; and I'm glad of any chance that throws him in my way."
"Your foible's notorious, Charles. But I don't see why you keep my cigars all to yourself," said Corey.
"My dear fellow," said Bellingham, making a hospitable offer of the cigar-box from the mantel, "you said they'd cut you off."
"Ah, so they have. I forgot. Well, what's your plan?"
"My plan," said Bellingham, "is to have him to breakfast with me, and interview him generally, and get him to read me a few passages, without rousing his suspicions. Heigh?"
"I don't know that I believe much in your plan," said Corey. "I should like to hear what my spiritual adviser has to say."
"I shouldn't know what to advise, exactly," said Sewell. "But I won't reject any plan that gives my client a chance."
"Isn't client rather euphuistic?" asked Corey.
"It is, rather. But I've got into the habit of handling Barker very delicately, even in thought. I'm not sure he'll come," added Sewell, turning to Bellingham.
"Oh yes, he will," said Bellingham. "Tell him it's business. There won't be anybody there. Will nine be too late for him?"
"I imagine he's more accustomed to half-past five at home, and seven here."
"Well, we'll say nine, anyway. I can't imagine the cause that would get me up earlier. Here!" He turned to the mantel and wrote an invitation upon his card, and handed it to Sewell. "Please give him that from me, and beg him to come. I really want to see him, and if he can't read well enough for this fastidious old gentleman, we'll see what else he can do. Corey tells me he expects Tom on this summer," he concluded, in dismissal of Lemuel as a topic.
"Ah," said Sewell, putting the card in his pocket, "I'm very glad to hear that."
He had something, but not so much, of the difficulty in overcoming Lemuel's reluctance that he had feared, and on the morning named Lemuel presented himself at the address on Bellingham's card exactly at nine. He had the card in his hand, and he gave it to the man who opened the street door of the bachelors' apartment house where Bellingham lived. The man read it carefully over, and then said, "Oh yes; second floor," and, handing it back, left Lemuel to wander upstairs alone. He was going to offer the card again at Bellingham's door, but he had a dawning misgiving. Bellingham had opened the door himself, and, feigning to regard the card as offered by way of introduction, he gave his hand cordially, and led him into the cozy room, where the table was already laid for breakfast.
"Glad to see you, glad to see you, Mr. Barker. Give me your coat. Ah, I see you scorn the effeminacy of half-season things. Put your hat anywhere. The advantage of bachelors' quarters is that you can put anything anywhere. We haven't a woman on the premises, and you can fancy how unmolested we are."
Lemuel had caught sight of one over the mantel, who had nothing but her water-colours on, and was called an "Etude;" but he no longer trembled, for evil or for good, in such presences. "That's one of those Romano-Spanish things," said Bellingham, catching the direction of his eye. "I forget the fellow's name; but it isn't bad. We're pretty snug here," he added, throwing open two doors in succession, to show the extent of his apartment.
"Here you have the dining-room and drawing-room and library in one; and here's my bedroom, and here's my bath."
He pulled an easy-chair up toward the low fire for Lemuel. "But perhaps you're hot from walking? Sit wherever you like."
Lemuel chose to sit by the window. "It's very mild out," he said, and Bellingham did not exact anything more of him. He talked at him, and left Lemuel to make his mental inventory of the dense Turkey rugs on the slippery hardwood floor, the pictures on the Avails, the deep, leather-lined seats, the bric-a-brac on the mantel, the tall, coloured chests of drawers in two corners, the delicate china and quaint silver on the table.
Presently steps were heard outside, and Bellingham threw open the door as he had to Lemuel, and gave a hand to each of the two guests whom he met on his threshold.
"Ah, Meredith! Good morning, venerable father!" He drew them in. "Let me introduce you to Mr. Barker, Mr. Meredith. Mr. Barker, the Rev. Mr. Seyton. You fellows are pretty prompt."
"We're pretty hungry," said Mr. Meredith. "I don't know that we should have got here if we hadn't leaned up against each other as we came along. Several policemen regarded us suspiciously, but Seyton's cloth protected us."
"It was terrible, coming up Beacon Street with an old offender like Meredith, at what he considered the dead hour of the night," said Mr. Seyton. "I don't know what I should have done if any one had been awake to see us."
"You shall have breakfast instantly," said Bellingham, touching an annunciator, and awakening a distant electric titter somewhere.
Mr. Seyton came toward Lemuel, who took the young Ritualist for a Catholic priest, but was not proof against the sweet friendliness which charmed every one with him, and was soon talking at more ease than he had felt from all Bellingham's cordial intention. He was put at his host's right hand when they sat down, and Mr. Seyton was given the foot, so that they continued their talk.
"Mr. Bellingham tells me you know my friend Sewell," said the clergyman.
Lemuel's face kindled. "Oh yes! Do you know him too?"
"Yes, I've known him a long time. He's a capital fellow, Sewell is."
"I think he's a great preacher," ventured Lemuel.
"Ah—well—yes? Is he? I've never heard him lecture," said Mr. Seyton, looking down at his bread.
"I swear, Seyton," said Meredith across the table, "when you put on that ecclesiastical superciliousness of yours, I want to cuff you."
"I've no doubt he'd receive it in a proper spirit," said Bellingham, who was eating himself hot and red from the planked shad before him. "But you mustn't do it here."
"Of course," said Mr. Seyton, "Sewell is a very able man, and no end of a good fellow, but you can't expect me to admit he's a priest."
He smiled in sweet enjoyment of his friend's wrath. Lemuel observed that he spoke with an accent different from the others, which he thought very pleasant, but he did not know it for that neat utterance which the Anglican Church bestows upon its servants.
"He's no Jesuit," growled Meredith.
"I'm bound to say he's not a pagan, either," laughed the clergyman.
"These gentlemen exchange these little knocks," Bellingham explained to Lemuel's somewhat puzzled look, "because they were boys together at school and college, and can't realise that they've grown up to be lights of the bar and the pulpit." He looked round at the different plates. "Have some more shad?" No one wanted more, it seemed, and Bellingham sent it away by the man, who replaced it with broiled chicken before Bellingham, and lamb chops in front of Mr. Seyton. "This is all there is," the host said.
"It's enough for me," said Meredith, "if no one else takes anything."
But in fact there was also an omelet, and bread and butter delicious beyond anything that Lemuel had tasted; and there was a bouquet of pink radishes with fragments of ice dropped among olives, and other facts of a polite breakfast. At the close came a dish of what Bellingham called premature strawberries.
"Why! they're actually sweet!" said Meredith, "and they're as natural as emery-bags."
"Yes, they're all you say," said Bellingham. "You can have strawberries any time nowadays after New Year's, if you send far enough for them; but to get them ripe and sound, or distinguishable from small turnips in taste, is another thing."
Lemuel had never imagined a breakfast like that; he wondered at himself for having respected the cuisine of the St. Albans. It seemed to him that he and the person he had been—the farm-boy, the captive of the police, the guest of the Wayfarer's Lodge, the servant of Miss Vane, and the head-waiter at the hotel—could not be the same person. He fell into a strange reverie, while the talk, in which he had shared so little, took a range far beyond him. Then he looked up and found all the others' eyes upon him, and heard Bellingham saying, "I fancy Mr. Barker can tell us something about that," and at Lemuel's mystified stare he added, "About the amount of smoke at a fire that a man could fight through. Mr. Seyton was speaking of the train that was caught in the forest fires down in Maine the other day. How was it with you at the St. Albans?"
Lemuel blushed. It was clear that Mr. Bellingham had been reading that ridiculous newspaper version of his exploit. "There was hardly any smoke at all where I was. It didn't seem to have got into the upper entries much."
"That's just what I was saying!" triumphed Bellingham. "If a man has anything to do, he can get on. That's the way with the firemen. It's the rat-in-a-trap idea that paralyses. Do you remember your sensations at all, when you were coming through the fire? Those things are very curious sometimes," Bellingham suggested.
"There was no fire where I was," said Lemuel stoutly, but helpless to make a more comprehensive disclaimer.
"I imagine you wouldn't notice that, any more than the smoke," said Bellingham, with a look of satisfaction in his hero for his other guests. "It's a sort of ecstasy. Do you remember that fellow of Bret Harte's, in How Christmas came to Simpson's Bar, who gets a shot in his leg, or something, when he's riding to get the sick boy a Christmas present, and doesn't know it till he drops off his horse in a faint when he gets back?" He jumped actively up from the table, and found the book on his shelf. "There!" He fumbled for his glasses without finding them. "Will you be kind enough to read the passage, Mr. Barker? I think I've found the page. It's marked." He sat down again, and the others waited.
Lemuel read, as he needs must, and he did his best.
"Ah, that's very nice. Glad you didn't dramatise it; the drama ought to be in the words, not the reader. I like your quiet way."
"Harte seems to have been about the last of the story-tellers to give us the great, simple heroes," said Seyton.
When the others were gone, and Lemuel, who had been afraid to go first, rose to take himself away, Bellingham shook his hand cordially and said, "I hope you weren't bored? The fact is, I rather promised myself a tete-a-tete with you, and I told Mr. Sewell so; but I fell in with Seyton and Meredith yesterday—you can't help falling in with one when you fall in with the other; they're inseparable when Seyton's in town and I couldn't resist the temptation to ask them."
"Oh no, I wasn't bored at all," said Lemuel.
"I'm very glad. But—sit down a moment. I want to speak to you about a little matter of business. Mr. Sewell was telling us something of you the other night, at my cousin Bromfield Corey's, and it occurred to me that you might be willing to come and read to him. His eyes seem to be on the wane, some way, and he's rather sleepless. He'd give you a bed, and sometimes you'd have to read to him in the night; you'd take your meals where you like. How does it strike you, supposing the 'harnsome pittance' can be arranged?"
"Why, if you think I can do it," began Lemuel.
"Of course I do. You don't happen to read French?"
Lemuel shook his head hopelessly. "I studied Latin some at school—"
"Ah! Well! I don't think he'd care for Latin. I think we'd better stick to English for the present."
Bellingham arranged for Lemuel to go with him that afternoon to his cousin's and make, as he phrased it, a stagger at the job.
The stagger seemed to be sufficiently satisfactory. Corey could not repress some twinges at certain characteristics of Lemuel's accent, but he seemed, in a critical way, to take a fancy to him, and he was conditionally installed for a week.
Corey was pleased from the beginning with Lemuel's good looks, and justified himself to his wife with an Italian proverb: "Novanta su cento, chi e bello difuori e buono di dentro." She had heard that proverb before, and she had always considered it shocking; but he insisted that most people married upon no better grounds, and that what sufficed in the choice of a husband or wife was enough for the choice of an intellectual nurse. He corrected Lemuel's pronunciation where he found it faulty, and amused himself with Lemuel's struggles to conceal his hurt vanity, and his final good sense in profiting by the correction. But Lemuel's reading was really very good; it was what, even more than his writing, had given him a literary reputation in Willoughby Pastures; and the old man made him exercise it in widely different directions. Chiefly, however, it was novels that he read, which, indeed, are the chief reading of most people in our time; and as they were necessarily the novels of our language, his elder was not obliged to use that care in choosing them which he must have exacted of himself in the fiction of other tongues. He liked to hear Lemuel talk, and he used the art of getting at the boy's life by being frank with his own experience. But this was not always successful, and he was interested to find Lemuel keeping doors that Sewell's narrative had opened carefully closed against him. He betrayed no consciousness that they existed, and Lemuel maintained intact the dignity and pride which come from the sense of ignominy well hidden.
The week of probation had passed without interrupting their relation, and Lemuel was regularly installed, and began to lead a life which was so cut off from his past in most things that it seemed to belie it. He found himself dropped in the midst of luxury stranger to him than the things they read of in those innumerable novels. The dull, rich colours in the walls, and the heavily rugged floors and dark-wooded leathern seats of the library where he read to the old man; the beautiful forms of the famous bronzes, and the Italian saints and martyrs in their baroque or Gothic frames of dim gold; the low shelves with their ranks of luxurious bindings, and all the seriously elegant keeping of the place, flattered him out of his strangeness; and the footing on which he was received in this house, the low-voiced respect with which the man-servant treated him, the master's light, cordial frankness, the distant graciousness of the mistress, and the unembarrassed, unembarrassing kindliness of the young ladies, both so much older than himself, contributed to an effect that afterwards deepened more and more, and became a vital part of the struggle which he was finally to hold with himself. The first two or three days he saw no one but Mr. Corey, and but for the women's voices in the other parts of the house, he might have supposed himself in another bachelor's apartments, finer and grander than Bellingham's. He was presented to Mrs. Corey when she came into the library, but he did not see the daughters of the house till he was installed in it. After that, his acquaintance with them seemed to go no further. They were all polite and kind when they met him, in the library or on the stairs, but they showed no curiosity about him; and his never meeting them at table helped to keep him a stranger to them under the same roof. He ate at a boarding-house in a neighbouring street, but he slept at the Coreys' after he had read their father asleep, and then, going out to his late breakfast, he did not return till Mr. Corey had eaten his own, much later.
He wondered at first that neither of those young ladies read to their father, not knowing the disability for mutual help that riches bring. Later, he saw how much Miss Lily Corey was engrossed with charity and art, and how constantly Miss Nannie Corey was occupied with social cares, and was perpetually going and coming in their performance. Then he saw that they could not have rendered nor their father have received from his family the duty which he was paid to do, as they must have done if they had been poorer. But they were all fond of one another, and the father had a way of joking with his daughters, especially the youngest; and they talked with a freedom of themselves which puzzled Lemuel. It appeared from what they said at different times that they had not always been so rich, or that they had once had money, and then less, and now much more. It appeared also that their prosperity was due to a piece of luck, and that the young Mr. Corey, whom they expected in the summer, had brought it about. His father was very proud of him, and, getting more and more used to Lemuel's companionship, he talked a great deal about his Tom, as he called him, and about Tom's wife, and his wife's family, who were somehow, Lemuel inferred, not all that his own family could wish them, but very good people. Once when Mr. Corey was talking of them, Mrs. Corey came in upon them, and seemed to be uneasy, as if she thought he was saying too much. But the daughters did not seem to care, especially the youngest.
He found out that Mr. Corey used to be a painter, and had lived a long time in Italy when he was young, and he recalled with a voluptuous thrill of secrecy that Williams had once been in Italy. Mr. Corey seemed to think better of it than Williams; he liked to talk of Rome and Florence, and of Venice, which Williams had said was a kind of hole. The old man said this or that picture was of this or that school, and vague lights of knowledge and senses of difference that flattered Lemuel's intellectual vanity stole in upon him. He began to feel that the things Mr. Corey had lived for were the great and high objects of life.
He now perceived how far from really fine or fashionable anything at the St. Albans had been, and that the simplicity of Miss Vane's little house, which the splendour of the hotel had eclipsed in his crude fancy, was much more in harmony with the richness of Mr. Corey's. He oriented himself anew, and got another view of the world which he had dropped into. Occasionally he had glimpses of people who came to see the Coreys, and it puzzled him that this family, which he knew so kind and good, took with others the tone hard and even cynical which seemed the prevailing tone of society; when their acquaintances went away they dropped back, as if with relief, into their sincere and amiable fashions of speech. Lemuel asked himself if every one in the world was playing a part; it did not seem to him that Miss Carver had been; she was always the same, and always herself. To be one's-self appeared to him the best thing in the world, and he longed for it the more as he felt that he too was insensibly beginning to play a part. Being so much in this beautiful and luxurious house, where every one was so well dressed and well mannered, and well kept in body and mind, and passing from his amazement at all its appointments into the habit of its comfortable beauty, he forgot more and more the humility and the humiliations of his past. He did not forget its claims upon him; he sent home every week the greater part of his earnings, and he wrote often to his mother; but now, when he could have got the time to go home and see her, he did not go. In the exquisite taste of his present environment, he could scarcely believe in that figure, grizzled, leathern, and gaunt, and costumed in a grotesque unlikeness to either sex. Sometimes he played with the fantastic supposition of some other origin for himself, romantic and involved like that of some of the heroes he was always reading of, which excluded her.
Another effect of this multifarious literature through which his duties led him was the awakening of the ambition to write, stunned by his first disastrous adventures in Boston, and dormant almost ever since, except as it had stirred under the promptings of Evans's kindly interest. But now it did not take the form of verse; he began to write moralistic essays, never finished, but full of severe comment on the folly of the world as he saw it. Sometimes they were examinations of himself, and his ideas and principles, his doctrines and practice, penetrating quests such as the theologians of an earlier day used to address to their consciences.
Meantime, the deeply underlying mass of his rustic crudity and raw youth took on a far higher polish than it had yet worn. Words dropped at random in the talk he now heard supplied him with motives and shaped his actions. Once Mr. Bellingham came in laughing about a sign which he saw in a back street, of Misfit Parlours, and Lemuel spent the next week's salary for a suit at a large clothing store, to replace the dress Sewell had thought him so well in. He began insensibly to ape the manners of those about him.
It drew near the time when the ladies of the Corey family were to leave town, where they had lingered much longer than they meant, in the hope that Mr. Corey might be so much better, or so much worse, that he would consent to go to the shore with them. But his disabilities remained much the same, and his inveterate habits indomitable. By this time that trust in Lemuel, which never failed to grow up in those near him, reconciled the ladies to the obstinate resolution of the master of the house to stay in it as usual. They gave up the notion of a cottage, and they were not going far away, nor for long at any one time; in fact, one or other of them was always in the house. Mrs. Corey had grown into the habit of confidence with Lemuel concerning her husband's whims and foibles; and this motherly frankness from a lady so stately and distant at first was a flattery more poisonous to his soul than any other circumstance of his changed life.
It came July, and even Sewell went away then. He went with a mind at rest concerning Lemuel's material prospects, and his unquestionable usefulness and acceptability; but something, at the bottom of his satisfaction, teased him still: a dumb fear that the boy was extravagant, a sense that he was somehow different, and not wholly for the better, from what he had been. He had seen, perhaps, nothing worse in him than that growth of manner which amused Corey.
"He is putting us on," he said to Bellingham one day, "and making us fit as well as he can. I don't think we're altogether becoming, but that's our fault, probably. I can't help thinking that if we were of better cut and material we should show to better effect upon that granite soul. I wish Tom were here. I've an idea that Tom would fit him like a glove. Charles, why don't you pose as a model for Barker?"
"I don't see why I'm not a very good model without posing," said Bellingham. "What do you want me to do for him? Take him to the club? Barker's not very conversational."
"You don't take him on the right topics," said Corey, not minding that he had left the point. "I assure you that Barker, on any serious question that comes up in our reading, has a clear head and an apt tongue of his own. It isn't our manners alone that he emulates. I can't find that any of us ever dropped an idea or suggestion of value that Barker didn't pick it up, and turn it to much more account than the owner. He's as true as a Tuscan peasant, as proud as an Indian, and as quick as a Yankee."
"Ah! I hoped you wouldn't go abroad for that last," said Bellingham.
"No; and it's delightful, seeing the great variety of human nature there is in every human being here. Our life isn't stratified; perhaps it never will be. At any rate, for the present, we're all in vertical sections. But I always go back to my first notion of Barker: he's ancestral, and he makes me feel like degenerate posterity. I've had the same sensation with Tom; but Barker seems to go a little further back. I suppose there's such a thing as getting too far back in these Origin of Species days; but he isn't excessive in that or in anything. He's confoundedly temperate, in fact; and he's reticent; he doesn't allow any unseemly intimacy. He's always turning me out-of-doors."
"Of course! But what can we old fellows hope to know of what's going on in any young one? Talk of strangeness! I'd undertake to find more in common with a florid old fellow of fifty from the red planet Mars than with any young Bostonian of twenty."
"Yes; but it's the youth of my sires that I find so strange in Barker. Only, theoretically, there's no Puritanism. He's a thorough believer in Sewell. I suspect he could formulate Sewell's theology a great deal better than Sewell could."
Statira and 'Manda Grier had given up their plan of getting places in a summer hotel when Lemuel absolutely refused to take part in it, and were working through the summer in the box-factory. Lemuel came less regularly to see them now, for his Sunday nights had to be at Mr. Corey's disposition; but Statira was always happy in his coming, and made him more excuses than he had thought of, if he had let a longer interval than usual pass. He could not help feeling the loveliness of her patience, the sweetness of her constancy; but he disliked 'Manda Grier more and more, and she grew stiffer and sharper with him. Sometimes the aimlessness of his relation to Statira hung round him like a cloud, which he could not see beyond. When he was with her he contented himself with the pleasure he felt in her devotion, and the tenderness this awakened in his own heart; but when he was away from her there was a strange disgust and bitterness in these.
Sometimes, when Statira and 'Manda Grier took a Saturday afternoon off, he went with them into the country on one of the horse-car lines, or else to some matinee at a garden-theatre in the suburbs. Statira liked the theatre better than anything else; and she used to meet other girls whom she knew there, and had a gay time. She introduced Lemuel to them, and after a few moments of high civility and distance they treated him familiarly, as Statira's beau. Their talk, after that he was now used to, was flat and foolish, and their pert ease incensed him. He came away bruised and burning, and feeling himself unfit to breathe the refined and gentle air to which he returned in Mr. Corey's presence. Then he would vow in his heart never to expose himself to such things again; but he could not tell Statira that he despised the friends she was happy with; he could only go with a reluctance it was not easy to hide, and atone by greater tenderness for a manner that wounded her. One day toward the end of August, when they were together at a suburban theatre, Statira wandered off to a pond there was in the grounds with some other girls, who had asked him to go and row them, and had called him a bear for refusing, and told him to look out for Barnum. They left him sitting alone with 'Manda Grier, at a table where they had all been having ice-cream at his expense; and though it was no longer any pleasure to be with her, it was better than to be with them, for she was not a fool, at any rate. Statira turned round at a little distance to mock them with a gesture and a laugh, and the laugh ended in a cough, long and shattering, so that one of her companions had to stop with her, and put her arm round her till she could recover herself and go on.
It sent a cold thrill through Lemuel, and then he turned angry. "What is it Statira does to keep taking more cold?"
"Oh, I guess 'tain't 'ny more cold," said 'Manda Grier.
"What do you mean?"
"I guess 'f you cared a great deal you'd noticed that cough 'f hers before now. 'Tain't done it any too much good workin' in that arsenic paper all summer long."
'Manda Grier talked with her face turned away from him.
It provoked him more and more. "I do care," he retorted, eager to quarrel, "and you know it. Who got her into the box- factory, I should like to know?"
"I did!" said 'Manda Grier, turning sharply on him, "and you kept her there; and between us we've killed her."
"How have I kept her there, I should like to know?"
"'F you'd done's she wanted you should, she might 'a' been at some pleasant place in the country—the mount'ns, or somewhere 't she'd been ov'r her cough by this time. But no! You was too nasty proud for that, Lemuel Barker!"
A heavy load of guilt dropped upon Lemuel's heart, but he flung it off, and he retorted furiously,
"You ought to have been ashamed of yourself to ever want her to take a servant's place."
"Oh, a servant's place! If she'd been ashamed of a servant when you came meechin' round her, where'd you been, I sh'd like to know? And now I wish she had; 'n' if she wa'n't such a little fool, 'n' all wrapped in you, the way 't she is, I could wish 't she'd never set eyes on you again, servant or no servant. But I presume it's too late now, and I presume she's got to go on suff'rin' for you and wonderin' what she's done to offend you when you don't come, and what she's done when you do, with your stuck-up, masterful airs, and your double-faced ways. But don't you try to pretend to me, Lemuel Barker, 't you care the least mite for her any more, 'f you ever did, because it won't go down! 'N' if S'tira wa'n't such a perfect little blind fool, she could see 't you didn't care for her any more than the ground 't you walk on, 'n' 't you'd be glad enough if she was under it, if you couldn't be rid of her any other way!" 'Manda Grier pulled her handkerchief out and began to cry into it.
Lemuel was powerfully shaken by this attack; he did feel responsible for Statira's staying in town all summer; but the spectacle of 'Manda Grier publicly crying at his side in a place like that helped to counteract the effect of her words. "'Sh! Don't cry!" he began, looking fearfully round him. "Everybody 'll see you!"
"I don't care! Let them!" sobbed the girl. "If they knowed what I know, and could see you not cryin', I guess they'd think you looked worse than I do!"
"You don't understand—I can explain—"
"No, you can't explain, Mr. Barker!" said 'Manda Grier, whipping down her handkerchief, and fiercely confronting him across the table. "You can't explain anything so 's to blind me any longer! I was a big fool to ever suppose you had any heart in you; but when you came round at first, and was so meek you couldn't say your soul was your own, and was so glad if S'tira spoke to you, or looked at you, that you was ready to go crazy, I did suppose there was some little something to you! And yes, I helped you on all I could, and helped you to fool that poor thing that you ain't worthy to kiss the ground she walks on, Lord forgive me for it! But it's all changed now! You seem to think it's the greatest favour if you come round once a fortnight, and set and let her talk to you, and show you how she dotes upon you, the poor little silly coot! And if you ever speak a word, it's like the Lord unto Moses, it's so grand! But I understand! You've got other friends now! You after that art-student? Oh, you can blush and try to turn it off! I've seen you blush before, and I know you! And I know you're in love with that girl, and you're just waitin' to break off with S'tira; but you hain't got the spirit to up and do it like a man! You want to let it lag along, and lag along, and see 'f something won't happen to get you out of it! You waitin' for her to die? Well, you won't have to wait long! But if I was a man, I'd spoil your beauty for you first."
The torrent of her words rolled him on, bruising and tearing his soul, which their truth pierced like jagged points. From time to time he opened his lips to protest or deny, but no words came, and in his silence a fury of scorn for the poor, faithful, scolding thing, so just, so wildly unjust, gathered head in him.
"Be still!" he ground between his teeth. "Be still, you—" He stopped for the word, and that saved him from the outrage he had meant to pay her back with. He rose from the table. "You can tell Statira what you've said to me. I'm going home."
He rushed away; the anger was like strong drink in his brain; he was like one drunk all the way back to the city in the car.
He could not go to Mr. Corey's at once; he felt as if physically besmeared with shame; he could not go to his boarding-house; it would have been as if he had shown himself there in a coat of tar and feathers. Those insolent, true, degrading words hissed in his ears, and stung him incessantly. They accused, they condemned with pitiless iteration; and yet there were instants when he knew himself guiltless of all the wrong of which in another sense he knew himself guilty. In his room he renewed the battle within himself that he had fought so long in his wanderings up and down the street, and he conquered himself at last into the theory that Statira had authorised or permitted 'Manda Grier to talk to him in that way. This simplified the whole affair; it offered him the release which he now knew he had longed for. As he stretched himself in the sheets at daybreak, he told himself that he need never see either of them again. He was free.
Lemuel went through the next day in that licence of revolt which every human soul has experienced in some measure at some time. We look back at it afterwards, and see it a hideous bondage. But for the moment Lemuel rejoiced in it; and he abandoned himself boldly to thoughts that had hitherto been a furtive and trembling rapture.
In the afternoon, when he was most at leisure, he walked down to the Public Garden, and found a seat on a bench near the fountain where the Venus had shocked his inexperience the first time he saw her; he remembered that simple boy with a smile of pity, and then went back into his cloud of reverie. There, safely hid from trouble and wrong, he told his ideal how dear she was to him, and how she had shaped and governed his life, and made it better and nobler from the first moment they had met. The fumes of the romances which he had read mixed with the love-born delirium in his brain; he was no longer low, but a hero of lofty line, kept from his rightful place by machinations that had failed at last, and now he was leading her, his bride, into the ancient halls which were to be their home, and the source of beneficence and hope to all the poor and humbly-born around them. His eyes were so full of this fantastic vision, the soul of his youth dwelt so deeply within this dream-built tabernacle, that it was with a shock of anguish he saw coming up the walk towards him the young girl herself. His airy structure fell in ruins around him; he was again common and immeasurably beneath her; she was again in her own world, where, if she thought of him at all, it must be as a squalid vagabond and the accomplice of a thief. If he could have escaped, he would, but he could not move; he sat still and waited with fallen eyes for her to pass him.