"Yes, foolishness," repeated Sylvia, with a sort of hysterical violence. She sat out on the front porch with some mending, and she sewed feverishly as she spoke.
"I don't know what you mean by foolishness, I guess, Sylvia."
Henry sat on the porch step. He wore a black mohair coat, and his thin hair was well brushed.
"It does seem," said Sylvia, "as if a young man and a young woman might live in the same house and behave themselves."
Henry stared at her. "Why, Sylvia, you don't mean—"
"I mean just what I said—behave themselves. It does seem sometimes as if everything any girl or young man thought of was falling in love and getting married," Sylvia said—"falling in love and getting married," with a bitter and satirical emphasis.
"I don't see," said Henry, "that there is very much against Mr. Allen and Rose's falling in love and getting married. I think he might do worse, and I think she might. Sometimes I've looked at the two of them and wondered if they weren't just made for each other. I can't see quite what you mean, Sylvia? You don't mean to say that you don't want Mr. Allen ever to get married?"
"He can marry whoever he wants to," said Sylvia, "but he sha'n't marry her."
"You don't mean you don't want her ever to get married?"
"Yes, I do mean just that."
"Why, Sylvia, are you crazy?"
"No, I ain't crazy," replied Sylvia, doggedly. "I don't want her to get married, and I'm in the right of it. She's no call to get married."
"I don't see why she 'ain't got a call as well as other girls."
"She 'ain't. Here she's got a good home, and everything she needs, and more, too. She's got money of her own that she had when she come here, plenty of it. I'm going over to Alford to-morrow and see if I can't find some things in the stores there for her that I think she'll like. And I'm going to get Jim Jones—he's a good hand—to see if he can't get a good, safe horse and pretty carriage for her, so she can ride out."
Henry stared. "I dunno as I can take care of a horse, Sylvia," he said, doubtfully.
"Nobody wants you to. I can get Billy Hudson to come. He can sleep in the chamber over the kitchen. I spoke to his mother about it, and she's tickled to pieces. She says he's real handy with horses, and he'll come for fifteen dollars a month and his board. Rose is going to have everything she wants."
"Does she want a horse and carriage?"
"I shouldn't think of it if I didn't s'pose she did."
"What made me ask," said Henry, "was, I'd never heard her speak of it, and I knew she had money enough for anything if she did want it."
"Are you grudging my spending money her own aunt left on her?"
Henry looked reproachfully at his wife. "I didn't quite deserve that from you, Sylvia," he said, slowly.
Sylvia looked at him a moment. Her face worked. Then she glanced around to be sure nobody saw, and leaned over and touched the shoulder of Henry's mohair coat with a little, skinny hand. "Henry," she said, pitifully.
"You know I didn't mean anything. You've always been generous about money matters. We 'ain't never had ill feeling about such a thing as that. I shouldn't have spoke that way if I hadn't been all wrought up, and—" Suddenly Sylvia thrust her hand under her white apron and swept it up to her face. She shook convulsively.
"Now, Sylvia, of course you didn't mean a blessed thing. I've known you were all wrought up for a long time, but I haven't known what about. Don't take on so, Sylvia."
A little, hysterical sob came from Sylvia under the apron. Her scissors fell from her lap and struck the stone slab on which Henry was sitting. He picked them up. "Here are your scissors, Sylvia," said he. "Now don't take on so. What is it about? What have you got on your mind? Don't you think it would do you good to tell me?"
"I wish," sobbed Sylvia, "that Abrahama White had left her property where it belonged. I wish we'd never had a cent of it. She didn't do right, and she laid the burden of her wrong-doing onto us when she left us the property."
"Is that what's troubling you, Sylvia?" said Henry, slowly. "If that's all," he continued, "why—"
But Sylvia interrupted him. She swept the apron from her face and showed it grimly set. There was no trace of tears. "That ain't troubling me," said she. "Nothing's troubling me. I'm kind of nervous, that's all, and I hate to set still and see foolishness. I don't often give way, and I 'ain't nothing to give way for. I'm jest all wrought up. I guess there's going to be a thunder-tempest. I've felt jest like it all day. I wish you'd go out in the garden and pick a mess of green corn for supper. If you're a mind to you can husk it, and get that middling-sized kettle out from under the sink and put the water on to boil. I suppose they'll be home before long now. They ain't quite got to going without their victuals."
Henry rose. "I'd admire to get the corn," said he, and went around the house towards the kitchen. Left to herself, Sylvia let her work fall in her lap. She stared at the front yard and the street beyond and the opposite house, dimly seen between waving boughs, and her face was the face of despair. Little, commonplace, elderly countenance that it seemed, it was strengthened into tragedy by the terrible stress of some concealed misery of the spirit. Sylvia sat very stiffly, so stiffly that even the work in her lap, a mass of soft muslin, might have been marble, with its immovable folds. Sylvia herself looked petrified; not a muscle of her face stirred. She was suffering the keenest agony upon earth, that agony of the spirit which strikes it dumb.
She had borne it for months. She had never let slip the slightest hint of it. At times she had managed to quiet it with what she knew to be sophistries. She had been able to imagine herself almost happy with Rose and the new passion for her which had come into her life, but that passion was overgrown by her secret, like some hideous parasite. Even the girl's face, which was so beloved, was not to be seen without a pang to follow upon the happiness. Sylvia showed, however, in spite of her face of utter despair, an odd strength, a courage as if for battle.
After awhile she heard Henry's returning footsteps, and immediately her face and whole body relaxed. She became flesh, and took up her needlework, and Henry found her sewing placidly. The change had been marvellous. Once more Sylvia was a little, commonplace, elderly woman at her commonplace task. Even that subtle expression which at times so puzzled Henry had disappeared. The man had a sensation of relief as he resumed his seat on the stone step. He was very patient with Sylvia. It was his nature to be patient with all women. Without realizing it, he had a tenderness for them which verged on contempt. He loved Sylvia, but he never lost sight of the fact that she was a woman and he a man, and therefore it followed, as a matter of course, that she was by nature weaker and, because of the weakness, had a sweet inferiority. It had never detracted from his love for her; it had increased it. There might not have been any love in the beginning except for that.
Henry was perhaps scarcely capable of loving a woman whom he might be compelled to acknowledge as his superior. This elderly New-Englander had in him none of the spirit of knight-errantry. He had been a good, faithful husband to his wife, but he had never set her on a pedestal, but a trifle below him, and he had loved her there and been patient with her.
But patience must breed a certain sense of superiority. That is inevitable. Henry's tender patience with Sylvia's moods and unreason made him see over her character, as he could see over her physical head. Lately this sense of mystery had increased, in a way, his comprehension of his own stature. The more mysterious Sylvia became, and the more Henry's patience was called into action, the taller he appeared to himself to become.
While he had been getting the corn out in the garden, and preparing it to be cooked, he had reflected upon Sylvia's unaccountable emotion and her assertion that there was no reason for it, and he realized his masculine height. He knew that it would have been impossible for him to lose control of himself and then declare that there was no cause; to sway like a reed driven by the wind.
Henry was rather taken by this idea. When he had returned to his station on the porch he was thinking how women were reeds driven by the winds of their emotions, and really, in a measure, irresponsible. If he had again found Sylvia with her apron over her face, he was quite prepared to be very tender, but he was relieved to see that the paroxysm had passed. He did not smile as he sat down, neither did Sylvia. It was rather unusual for them to smile at each other, but they exchanged looks of peaceful accord, which really meant more than smiles.
"Well," said Henry, "the kettle's on the stove."
"How much corn did you get?"
"Well, I allowed three ears apiece. They're pretty good size. I thought that was about right."
"The corn's holding out pretty well," said Henry. "That other later kind will be ready by the time the lima beans are ripe."
"That 'll go nice for succotash," said Sylvia, taking another stitch.
"That's what I was thinking," said Henry.
He sat staring out upon the front yard, and he was in reality thinking, with pleasant anticipations, of the succotash. Now that he was back in his old track at the shop, his appetite was better, and he found himself actually dreaming about savory dishes like a boy. Henry's pleasures in life were so few and simple that they had to go a long way, and lap over onto his spiritual needs from his physical ones.
Sylvia broke in upon his visions of succotash. She was straining her eyes to see the road beyond the front yard. "What time is it?" she asked. "Do you know?"
"It was half-past five by the kitchen clock."
"They ain't in sight yet." Sylvia stared and frowned at the distance. "This house does set too far back," she said, impatiently.
"Now, Sylvia, I wouldn't give up a mite of this front yard."
"I'd give it all up if I could see folks go past. A woman wants to see something out of the window and from the doorstep besides flowers and box and trees."
Sylvia glared at the yard, which was beautiful. The box grew lustily, framing beds of flowers and clusters of radiant bushes. There were two perfectly symmetrical horse-chestnut-trees, one on each side of the broad gravel walk. The yard looked like some wonderful map wherein the countries were made of flowers, the design was so charmingly artificial and prim.
"It's awful set, I think," said Sylvia. "I'd rather have flowers growing where they want to instead of where they have to. And I never did like box. Folks say it's unhealthy, too."
"It's been here for years, and the people who belonged here have never been short-lived," said Henry. "I like it."
"I don't," said Sylvia. She looked at the road. "I don't see where they can be."
"Oh, they'll be along soon. Don't worry, Sylvia."
"Well," said Sylvia, in a strident voice, "I'm going in and get supper, and when it's ready we'll set down and eat it. I ain't going to wait one minute. I'm just sick of this kind of work."
Sylvia got up, and her scissors dropped again onto the step. Henry picked them up. "Here are your scissors," said he.
Sylvia took them and went into the house with a flounce. Henry heard a door slam and dishes rattle. "She's all wrought up again," he thought. He felt very tall as he pitied Sylvia. He was sorry for her, but her distress over such a matter as the young folks' being late seemed to him about as much to be taken seriously as the buzzing of a bumblebee over a clump of lilies in the yard.
He was watching the bumblebee when he heard the front gate click, and thought with relief that the wanderers had returned, then Sidney Meeks came into view from between the rows of box. Sidney came up the walk, wiping his forehead with a large red handkerchief, and fanning himself with an obsolete straw hat.
"Hullo," said Henry.
"How are you?" said Meeks. "It's a corking hot day."
"Yes, it is pretty hot, but I think it's a little cooler than it was an hour ago."
"Try walking and you won't think so."
"Set down," said Henry, pointing to the chair Sylvia had just vacated. "Set down and stay to supper."
"I don't say I won't stay to supper, but I've got an errand first. I've struck a new idea about wine. Haven't you got a lot of wild grapes down back here?"
"Yes, back of the orchard."
"Well, I've got an idea. I won't say what it is now. I want to see how it turns out first. Does Sylvia use wild grapes?"
"No, I know she won't. There are going to be bushels of Concords and Delawares."
"Well, I want you to go down with me and let me look at your wild grape-vines. I suppose the grapes must be set long ago. I just want to see how many there are. I suppose I can make a deal with you for some?"
"You can have them, and welcome. I know Sylvia will say so, too."
"Well, come along. We can go around the house."
Henry and Meeks skirted the house and the vegetable garden, then crossed a field, and found themselves at one side of the orchard. It was a noble old orchard. The apple, pear, and peach trees, set in even rows, covered three acres. Between the men and the orchard grew the wild grapes, rioting over an old fence. Henry began to say there was a gap in the fence farther down, but the lawyer's hand gripped his arm with sudden violence, and he stopped short. Then he as well as Meeks heard voices. They heard the tones of a girl, trembling with sweetness and delight, foolish with the blessed folly of life and youth. The voice was so full of joy that at first it sounded no more articulate than a bird's song. It was like a strophe from the primeval language of all languages. Henry and Meeks seemed to understand, finally, what the voice said, more from some inner sympathy, which dated back to their youth and chorded with it, than from any actual comprehension of spoken words.
This was what the sweet, divinely foolish girl-voice said: "I don't know what you can see in me to love."
There was nothing in the words; it was what any girl might say; it was very trite, but it was a song. Celestial modesty and pride were in it, and joy which looked at itself and doubted if it were joy.
Then came the man's voice, and that sang a song also foolish and trite, but divine and triumphant and new as every spring.
Henry and Meeks saw gradually, as they listened, afraid to move lest they be heard. They saw Horace and Rose sitting on the green turf under an apple-tree. They leaned against its trunk, twisted with years of sun and storm, and the green spread of branches was overhead, and they were all dappled with shade and light like the gold bosses of a shield. The man's arm was around the girl, and they were looking at each other and seeing this world and that which is to come.
Suddenly Meeks gave Henry's arm another violent clutch. He pointed. Then they saw another girl standing in the tangle of wild grapes. She wore a green muslin gown, and was so motionless that it was not easy to discern her readily. She was listening and watching the lovers, and her young face was terrible. It was full of an enormous, greedy delight, as of one who eats ravenously, and yet there was malignity and awful misery and unreason in it. Her cheeks were flushed and her blue eyes glittered. It was evident that everything she heard and saw caused her the most horrible agony and a more horrible joy. She was like a fanatic who dances in fire.
Meeks and Henry looked at her for a long minute, then at each other. Henry nodded as if in response to a question. Then the two men, moving by almost imperceptible degrees, keeping the utmost silence, hearing all the time that love duet on the other side of the grape-vines, got behind the girl. She had been so intent that there had been no danger of seeing them. Horace and Rose were also so intent that they were not easily reached by any sight or sound outside themselves.
Meeks noiselessly and firmly clasped one of Lucy Ayres's arms. It was very slender, and pathetically cold through her thin sleeve. Henry grasped the other. She turned her wild young face over her shoulder, and saw them, and yielded. Between them the two men half carried, half led the girl away across the fields to the road. When they were on the road Henry released his grasp of her arm, but Meeks retained his. "Will you go quietly home?" said he, "or shall Mr. Whitman and I go with you?"
"I will go," Lucy replied, in a hoarse whisper.
Meeks looked keenly at her. "Now, Lucy," he said, in a gentle voice, "there's no use; you've got to go home."
"Yes," said Henry. "Go home to your ma, right away, like a good girl."
Lucy remained motionless. Her poor young eyes seemed to see nothing.
"Good Lord!" sighed Meeks, wiping his forehead with his disengaged hand. "Well, come along, Lucy. Now, Lucy, you don't want to make a spectacle of yourself on the street. I think we must go home with you, because I can see right in your eyes that you won't budge a step unless we make you, but we don't want to walk holding on to you. So now you just march along ahead, and we'll keep behind you, and we won't have all the town up in arms."
Lucy said nothing. Meeks wiped his forehead again, freed her, and gave her a gentle shove between her shoulders. "Now, march," said he.
Lucy began to walk; the two men kept behind her. Presently they met a boy, who evidently noticed nothing unusual, for he leaped past, whistling.
"Thank the Lord it isn't far," muttered Meeks, wiping his forehead. "It's d—n hot."
Lucy walked on quite rapidly after awhile. They were nearly in sight of her home when Mrs. Ayres met them. She was almost running, and was pale and out of breath.
"Lucy," she began, "where—?" Then she realized that Meeks and Henry were with the girl.
"Henry, you just keep an eye on her," said Meeks. Then he spoke to Mrs. Ayres with old-fashioned ceremony. "Madam," he said, "will you be so kind as to step aside? I have a word I would like to say to you."
Mrs. Ayres, with a scared glance at Lucy, complied.
"Just this way a moment," he said. "Now, madam, I have a word of advice which you are at liberty to take or not. Your daughter seems to be in a dangerously nervous state. I will tell you plainly where we found her. It seems that Mr. Allen and Miss Fletcher have fallen in love with each other, and have come to an understanding. We happened upon them, sitting together very properly, as lovers should, in the apple orchard back of Mr. Whitman's, and your daughter stood there watching them. She is very nervous. If you take my advice you will lose no time in getting her away."
Mrs. Ayres stood and listened with a cold, pale dignity. She waited until Meeks had entirely finished, then she spoke slowly and evenly.
"Thank you, Mr. Meeks," she said. "Your advice is very good, so good that I have proved it by anticipating you. My daughter is in a very nervous condition. She never fully recovered from a severe attack of the grip."
Mrs. Ayres lied, and Meeks respected her for it.
"We are to start before long for St. Louis, where my brother lives," continued Mrs. Ayres. "I am going to rent my house furnished. My brother is a widower, and wishes us to make our home with him, and we may never return here. I was obliged to go on an errand to the store, and when I came home I missed Lucy and was somewhat anxious. I am very much obliged to you. We are going away, and I have no doubt that an entire change of scene will restore my daughter entirely. Yesterday she had a sick headache, and is still suffering somewhat from it to-day."
"That woman lied like a gentleman," Meeks said to Henry when they were on their way home. "Good Lord! I was thankful to her."
Henry was regarding him with a puzzled look. "Do you think the poor girl is in love with Mr. Allen, too?" he asked.
"I think she is in love with love, and nothing will cure that," said Meeks.
Henry looked more and more disturbed as they went down the street. "I declare, I don't know what Sylvia will say," he remarked, moodily.
"You mean about the pretty little love-affair?" said Meeks, walking along fanning himself with his hat.
"Yes, she'll be dreadful upset."
"It beats me to know why. Who ever does know the why of a woman?"
"What in creation is the fellow, anyhow?" said Meeks, with a laugh. "Are all the women going daft over him? He isn't half bad looking, and he's a good sort, but I'm hanged if I can see why he should upset every woman who looks at him. Here we've just escorted that poor Ayres girl home. I declare, her face made me shiver. I was glad there wasn't any pond handy for her. But if you mean to say that your good, sensible old wife—"
"Get out! You know better," cried Henry, impatiently. "You know Sylvia better than that. She sets a lot by Mr. Allen; I do myself; but, as far as that goes, she'd give her blessing if he'd marry any girl but Rose. That's where the hitch comes in. She doesn't want him to marry her."
"Thinks he isn't good enough?"
"I don't believe it's that. I don't know what it is. She says she don't want Rose to marry anybody."
"Good Lord! Sylvia doesn't expect a girl with a face like that, and money to boot, to be an old maid! My only wonder is that she hasn't been snapped up before now."
"I guess Rose has had chances."
"If she hasn't, all the men who have seen her have been stone blind."
"I don't know what has got into Sylvia, and that's the truth," Henry said. "I never saw her act the way she does lately. I can't imagine what has got into her head about Rose that she thinks she mustn't get married."
"Maybe Sylvia is in love with the girl," said Meeks, shrewdly.
"I know she is," said Henry. "Poor Sylvia loves her as if she was her own daughter, but I have always understood that mothers were crazy to have their daughters married."
"So have I, but these popular ideas are sometimes nonsense. I have always heard that myself."
"Sylvia and I have been happy enough together," said Henry. "It can't be that her own life as a married woman makes her think it a better plan to remain single."
"It seems so to me. Well, all the reason I can think of is, Sylvia has come to set so much by the girl that she's actually jealous of her."
"Do you suppose they'll tell her to-night?" asked Meeks.
Henry regarded him with an expression of actual terror. "Seems as if they might wait, and let Sylvia have her night's sleep," he muttered.
"I guess I won't stay to supper," said Meeks.
"Stay, for the Lord's sake."
Meeks laughed. "I believe you are afraid, Henry."
"I hate to see a woman upset over anything."
"So do I, for that matter. Do you think my staying might make it any better?"
"Yes, it might. Here we are in sight of the house. You ain't going to back out?"
Meeks laughed again, although rather uneasily. "All right," he said.
When he and Henry entered they found Sylvia moving nervously about the sitting-room. She was scowling, and her starched apron-strings were rampant at her slim back.
"Well," she said, with a snap, "I'm glad somebody has come. Supper's been ready for the last quarter of an hour, and I don't know but the corn is spoiled. How do you do, Mr. Meeks? I'll be glad to have you stay to supper, but I don't know as there's a thing fit to eat."
"Oh, I'll risk it," Sidney said. "You can't have anything worse than I've got at home. I had to go to Alford about that confounded Ames case. I had a dinner there that wasn't fit for a dog to eat, and I'm down to baker's bread and cheese."
"Where have you been?" demanded Sylvia of Henry. He cast an appealing glance at Meeks. The two men stood shoulder to shoulder, as if confronted by a common foe of nervous and exasperated feminity.
"I'm to blame for that," said Meeks. "I wanted to see if you had any wild grapes to spare, and I asked Henry to go down to the orchard with me. I suppose you can spare me some of those wild grapes?"
"Take all you want, and welcome," said Sylvia. "Now, I'll put supper on the table, and we'll eat it. I ain't going to wait any longer for anybody."
After Sylvia had gone, with a jerk, out of the room, the two men looked at each other. "Couldn't you give Allen a hint to lay low to-night, anyhow?" whispered Meeks.
Henry shook his head. "They'll be sure to show it some way," he replied. "I don't know what's got into Sylvia."
"It seems a pretty good sort of match, to me."
"So it does to me. Of course Rose has got more money, and I know as well as I want to that Horace has felt a little awkward about that; but lately he's been earning extra writing for papers and magazines, and it was only last Monday he told me he'd got a steady job for a New York paper that wouldn't interfere with his teaching. He seemed mighty tickled about it, and I guess he made up his mind then to go ahead and get married."
"Come to supper," cried Sylvia, in a harsh voice, from the next room, and the two men went out at once and took their seats at the table. Rose's and Horace's places were vacant. "I'd like to know what they think," said Sylvia, dishing up the baked beans. "They can eat the corn cold. It's just as good cold as it is all dried up. Here it is six o'clock and they ain't come yet."
"These are baked beans that are baked beans," said Meeks.
"Yes, I always have said that Sylvia knows just how to bake beans," said Henry. "I go to church suppers, and eat other folks' baked beans, but they 'ain't got the knack of seasoning, or something."
"It's partly the seasoning and partly the cooking," said Sylvia, in a somewhat appeased voice.
"This is brown bread, too," said Meeks. His flattering tone was almost fulsome.
Henry echoed him eagerly. "Yes, I always feel just the same about the brown bread that Sylvia makes," he said.
But the brown bread touched a discordant tone.
Sylvia frowned. "Mr. Allen always wants it hot," said she, "and it 'll be stone cold. I don't see where they went to."
"Here they are now," said Henry. He and Meeks cast an apprehensive glance at each other. Voices were heard, and Horace and Rose entered.
"Are we late?" asked Rose. She smiled and blushed, and cast her eyes down before Sylvia's look of sharp inquiry. There was a wonderful new beauty about the girl. She fairly glowed with it. She was a rose indeed, full of sunlight and dew, and holding herself, over her golden heart of joy, with a divine grace and modesty.
Horace did not betray himself as much. He had an expression of subdued triumph, but his face, less mobile than the girl's, was under better control. He took his place at the table and unfolded his napkin.
"I am awfully sorry if we have kept you waiting, Mrs. Whitman," he said, lightly, as if it did not make the slightest difference if she had been kept waiting.
Sylvia had already served Rose with baked beans. Now she spoke to Horace. "Pass your plate up, if you please, Mr. Allen," she said. "Henry, hand Mr. Allen the brown bread. I expect it's stone cold."
"I like it better cold," said Horace, cheerfully.
Sylvia stared at him, then she turned to Rose. "Where on earth have you been?" she demanded.
Horace answered for her. "We went to walk, and sat down under a tree in the orchard and talked; and we hadn't any idea how the time was passing," he said.
Henry and Meeks cast a relieved glance at each other. It did not appear that an announcement was to be made that night. After supper, when Meeks left, Henry strolled down the street a little way with him.
"I'm thankful to have it put off to-night, anyhow," he said. "Sylvia was all wrought up about their being late to supper, and she wouldn't have got a mite of sleep."
"You don't think anything will be said to-night?"
"No, I guess not. I heard Sylvia tell Rose she'd better go to bed right after supper, and Rose said, 'Very well, Aunt Sylvia,' in that way she has. I never saw a human being who seems to take other people's orders as Rose does."
"Allen told me he'd got to sit up till midnight over some writing," said Meeks. "That may have made a difference to the girl. Reckon she knew spooning was over for to-day."
Henry looked back at the house. There were two lighted windows on the second floor. "Rose is going to bed," he said. "That light's in her room."
"She looked happy enough to dazzle one when she came in, poor little thing," said Meeks. In his voice was an odd mixture of tenderness, admiration, and regret. "You've got your wife," he said, "but I wonder if you know how lonely an old fellow like me feels sometimes, when he thinks of how he's lived and what he's missed. To think of a girl having a face like that for a man. Good Lord!"
"You might have got married if you'd wanted to," said Henry.
"Of course; could get married now if I wanted to, but that isn't the question. I don't know what I'm such a d—n fool as to tell you for, only it's like ancient history, and no harm that I can see for either the living or the dead. There was a time when, if Abrahama White had worn a face like that for me—well—Poor girl, she got her heart turned the way it wasn't meant to go. She had a mean, lonesome life of it. Sometimes now, when I go into that house where she lived so many years, I declare, the weight of the burden she had to bear seems to be on me. It was a cruel life for a woman, and here's your wife wanting that girl to live the same way."
"Wouldn't she have you after Susy got married?" asked Henry. The words sounded blunt, but his voice was tender.
"Didn't ask her. I don't think so. She wasn't that kind of woman. It was what she wanted or nothing with her, always was. Guess that was why I felt the way I did about her."
"She was a handsome girl."
"Handsome! This girl you've got is pretty enough, but there never was such a beauty as Abrahama. Sometimes when I call her face back before my eyes, I declare it sounds like women's nonsense, but I wonder if I haven't done better losing such a woman as that than marrying any other."
"She was handsome," Henry said again, in his tone of futile, wondering sympathy.
When Henry had left Sidney and returned home, he found, to his horror, that Sylvia was not down-stairs. "She's up there with the girl, and Rose 'll tell her," he thought, uneasily. "She can't keep it to herself if she's alone with another woman."
He was right. Sylvia had followed the girl to her room. She was still angry with Rose, and filled with a vague suspicion, but she adored her. She was hungry for the pleasure of unfastening her gown, of seeing the last of her for the day. When she entered she found Rose seated beside the window. The lamp was not lit.
Sylvia stood in the doorway looking into the shadowy room. "Are you here?" she asked. She meant her voice to be harsh, but it rang sweet with tenderness.
"Yes, Aunt Sylvia."
"Where are you?"
"Over here beside the window."
"What on earth are you setting in the dark for?"
"Oh, I just thought I'd sit down here a few minutes. I was going to light the lamp soon."
Sylvia groped her way to the mantel-shelf, found the china match-box, and struck a match. Then she lit the lamp on the bureau and looked at the girl. Rose held her face a little averted. The lighting of the room had blotted out for her the soft indeterminateness of the summer night outside, and she was a little afraid to look at Sylvia with the glare of the lamp full upon her face.
"You'll get cold setting there," said Sylvia; "besides, folks can look right in. Get up and I'll unhook your dress."
Rose got up. Sylvia lowered the white window-shade and Rose stood about for her gown to be unfastened. She still kept her face away from the older woman. Sylvia unfastened the muslin bodice. She looked fondly at the soft, girlish neck when it was exposed. Her lips fairly tingled to kiss it, but she put the impulse sternly from her.
"What were you and Mr. Allen talking about so long down in the orchard?" said she.
"A good many things—ever so many things," said Rose, evasively.
Sylvia saw the lovely, slender neck grow crimson. She turned the girl around with a sudden twist at the shoulders, and saw the face flushing sweetly under its mist of hair. She saw the pouting lips and the downcast eyes.
"Why don't you look at me?" she said, in a hard whisper.
Rose remained motionless.
"Look at me."
Rose raised her eyelids, gave one glance at Sylvia, then she dropped them again. She was all one soft, rosy flush. She smiled a smile which she could not control—a smile of ecstasy.
Sylvia turned deadly pale. She gasped, and held the girl from her, looking at her pitilessly. "You don't mean it?" she exclaimed.
Then Rose spoke with a sudden burst of emotion. "Oh, Aunt Sylvia," she said, "I thought I wouldn't tell you to-night. I made him promise not to tell to-night, because I was afraid you wouldn't like it, but I've got to. I don't feel right to go to bed and not let you know."
"Then it's so?"
Rose gave her a glance of ineffable happiness and appeal for sympathy.
"You and him are planning to get married?"
"Not for a year; not for a whole year. He's absurdly proud because he's poor, and he wants to make sure that he can earn more than his teacher's salary. Not for a whole year."
"You and him are planning to get married?"
"I wasn't sure till this afternoon," Rose whispered. She put her arms around Sylvia, and tried to nestle against her flat bosom with a cuddling movement of her head, like a baby. "I wasn't sure," she whispered, "but he—told me, and—now I am sure."
Then Rose wept a little, softly, against Sylvia's thin breast. Sylvia stood like a stone. "Haven't you had all you wanted here?" she asked.
"Oh, Aunt Sylvia, you know I have. You've been so good to me."
"I had got my plans made to put in a bath-room," said Sylvia. "I've got the carpenters engaged, and the plumber. They are going to begin next week."
"You've been as good as can be to me, Aunt Sylvia."
"And I'm on the lookout for a carriage and horse you can drive, and I've been planning to have some parties for you. I've tried to think of everything that would make you feel happy and contented and at home."
"Oh, you have; I know you have, dear Aunt Sylvia," murmured Rose.
"I have done all I knew how," repeated Sylvia, in a stony fashion. She put the girl gently away and turned to go, but Rose caught her arm.
"Aunt Sylvia, you aren't going like this!" she cried. "I was afraid you wouldn't like it, though I don't know why. It does seem that Horace is all you could ask, if I were your very own daughter."
"You are like my very own daughter," said Sylvia, stiffly.
"Then why don't you like Horace?"
"I never said anything against him."
"Then why do you look so?"
Sylvia stood silent.
"You won't go without kissing me, anyway, will you?" sobbed Rose.
This time she really wept with genuine hurt and bewilderment.
Sylvia bent and touched her thin, very cold lips to Rose's. "Now go to bed," she said, and moved away, and was out of the room in spite of Rose's piteous cry to her to come back.
Henry, after he had entered the house and discovered that Sylvia was up-stairs with Rose, sat down to his evening paper. He tried to read, but could not get further than the glaring headlines about a kidnapping case. He was listening always for Sylvia's step on the stair.
At last he heard it. He turned the paper, with a loud rustle, to the continuation of the kidnapping case as she entered the room. He did not even look up. He appeared to be absorbed in the paper.
Sylvia closed the hall door behind her noiselessly; then she crossed the room and closed the door leading into the dining-room. Henry watched her with furtive eyes. He was horribly dismayed without knowing why. When Sylvia had the room completely closed she came close to him. She extended her right hand, and he saw that it contained a little sheaf of yellowed newspaper clippings pinned together.
"Henry Whitman," said she.
"Sylvia, you are as white as a sheet. What on earth ails you?"
"Do you know what has happened?"
Henry's eyes fell before her wretched, questioning ones. "What do you mean, Sylvia?" he said, in a faint voice.
"Do you know that Mr. Allen and Rose have come to an understanding and are going to get married?"
Henry stared at her.
"She has just told me," said Sylvia. "Here I have done everything in the world I could for her to make her contented."
"Sylvia, what on earth makes you feel so? She is only going to do what every girl who has a good chance does—what you did yourself."
"Look at here," said Sylvia, in an awful voice.
"What are they?"
"I found them in a box up in the garret. They were cut from newspapers years ago, when Rose was nothing but a child, just after her mother died."
"What are they? Don't look so, Sylvia."
"Here," said Sylvia, and Henry took the little yellow sheaf of newspaper clippings, adjusted his spectacles, moved the lamp nearer, and began to read.
He read one, then he looked at Sylvia, and his face was as white as hers. "Good God!" he said.
Sylvia stood beside him, and their eyes remained fixed on each other's white face. "I suppose the others are the same," Henry said, hoarsely.
Sylvia nodded. "Only from different papers. It's terrible how alike they are."
"So you've had this on your mind?"
Sylvia nodded grimly.
"When did you find them?"
"We'd been living here a few days. I was up in the garret. There was a box."
Henry remained motionless for a few moments. Then he sighed heavily, rose, and took Sylvia by the hand. "Come," he said.
"What are you going to do?"
Sylvia followed, dragging back a little at her husband's leading hand, like a child. They passed through the dining-room into the kitchen. "There's a fire in the stove, ain't there?" said Henry, as they went.
Sylvia nodded again. She did not seem to have many words for this exigency.
Out in the kitchen Henry moved a lid from the stove, and put the little sheaf of newspaper clippings, which seemed somehow to have a sinister aspect of its own, on the bed of live coals. They leaped into a snarl of vicious flame. Henry and Sylvia stood hand in hand, watching, until nothing but a feathery heap of ashes remained on top of the coals. Then he replaced the lid and looked at Sylvia.
"Have you got any reason to believe that any living person besides you and I knows anything about this?" he asked.
Sylvia shook her head.
"Do you think Miss Farrel knew?"
Sylvia shook her head again.
"Do you think that lawyer out West, who takes care of her money, knows?"
"No." Sylvia spoke in a thin, strained voice. "This must be what she is always afraid of remembering," she said.
"Pray God she never does remember," Henry said. "Poor little thing! Here she is carrying a load on her back, and if she did but once turn her head far enough to get a glimpse of it she would die of it. It's lucky we can't see the other side of the moon, and I guess it's lucky we haven't got eyes in the backs of our heads."
"You wondered why I didn't want her to get married to him," said Sylvia.
Henry made an impatient motion. "Look here, Sylvia," he said. "I love that young man like my own son, and your feeling about it is rank idiocy."
"And I love her like my own daughter!" cried Sylvia, passionately. "And I don't want to feel that she's marrying and keeping anything back."
"Now, look here, Sylvia, here are you and I. We've got this secret betwixt us, and we've got to carry it betwixt us, and never let any living mortal see it as long as we both live; and the one that outlives the other has got to bear it alone, like a sacred trust."
Sylvia nodded. Henry put out the kitchen lamp, and the two left the room, moving side by side, and it was to each of them as if they were in reality carrying with their united strength the heavy, dead weight of the secret.
Henry, after the revelation which Sylvia had made to him, became more puzzled than ever. He had thought that her secret anxiety would be alleviated by the confidence she had made him, but it did not seem to be. On the contrary, she went about with a more troubled air than before. Even Horace and Rose, in the midst of their love-dream, noticed it.
One day Henry, coming suddenly into the sitting-room, found Rose on her knees beside Sylvia, weeping bitterly. Sylvia was looking over the girl's head with a terrible, set expression, as if she were looking at her own indomitable will. For the first time Henry lost sight of the fact that Sylvia was a woman. He seemed to see her as a separate human soul, sexless and free, intent upon her own ends, which might be entirely distinct from his, and utterly unknown to him.
Rose turned her tear-wet face towards him. "Oh, Uncle Henry," she sobbed, "Aunt Sylvia is worrying over something, and she won't tell me."
"Nonsense," said Henry.
"Yes, she is. Horace and I both know she is. She won't tell me what it is. She goes about all the time with such a dreadful face, and she won't tell me. Oh, Aunt Sylvia, is it because you don't want me to marry Horace?"
Sylvia spoke, hardly moving her thin lips. "I have nothing whatever against your marriage," she said. "I did think at first that you were better off as you were, but now I don't feel so."
"But you act so." Rose stumbled to her feet and ran sobbing out of the room.
Henry turned to his wife, who sat like a statue. "Sylvia, you ought to be ashamed of yourself," he said, in a bewildered tone. "Here you are taking all the pleasure out of that poor child's little love-affair, going about as you do."
"There are other things besides love-affairs," said Sylvia, in a strange, monotonous tone, almost as if she were deaf and dumb, and had no knowledge of inflections. "There are affairs between the soul and its Maker that are more important than love betwixt men and women."
Sylvia did not look at Henry. She still gazed straight ahead, with that expression of awful self-review. The thought crossed Henry's mind that she was more like some terrible doll with a mechanical speech than a living woman. He went up to her and took her hands. They were lying stiffly on her lap, in the midst of soft white cambric and lace—some bridal lingerie which she was making for Rose. "Look here, Sylvia," said Henry, "you don't mean that you are fretting about—what you told me?"
"No," said Sylvia, in her strange voice.
Sylvia shook off his hands and rose to her feet. Her scissors dropped with a thud. She kept the fluffy white mass over her arm. Henry picked up the scissors. "Here are your scissors," said he.
Sylvia paid no attention. She was looking at him with stern, angry eyes.
"What I have to bear I have to bear," said she. "It is nothing whatever to you. It is nothing whatever to any of you. I want to be let alone. If you don't like to see my face, don't look at it. None of you have any call to look at it. I am doing what I think is right, and I want to be let alone."
She went out of the room, leaving Henry standing with her scissors in his hand.
After supper that night he could not bear to remain with Sylvia, sewing steadily upon Rose's wedding finery, and still wearing that terrible look on her face. Rose and Horace were in the parlor. Henry went down to Sidney Meeks's for comfort.
"Something is on my wife's mind," he told Sidney, when the two men were alone in the pleasant, untidy room.
"Do you think she feels badly about the love-affair?"
"She says that isn't it," replied Henry, gloomily, "but she goes about with a face like grim death, and I don't know what to make of it."
"She'll tell finally."
"I don't know whether she will or not."
"Women always do."
"I don't know whether she will or not."
Henry remained with Meeks until quite late. Sylvia sewed and sewed by her sitting-room lamp. Her face never relaxed. She could hear the hum of voices across the hall.
After awhile the door of the parlor was flung violently open, and she heard Horace's rushing step upon the stair. Then Rose came in, all pale and tearful.
"I have told him I couldn't marry him, Aunt Sylvia," she said.
Sylvia looked at her. "Why not?" she asked, harshly.
"I can't marry him and have you feel so dreadfully about it."
"Who said I felt dreadfully about it?"
"Nobody said so; but you look so dreadfully."
"I can't help my looks. They have nothing whatever to do with your love-affairs."
"You say that just to pacify me, I know," said Rose, pitifully.
"You don't know. Do you mean to say that you have dismissed him?"
"Yes, and he is horribly angry with me," moaned Rose.
"I should think he would be. What right have you to dismiss a man to please another woman, who is hardly any relation to you? I should think he would be mad. What did he do?"
"He just slammed the door and ran."
Sylvia laid her work on the table and started out of the room with an angry stride.
"Where are you going?" asked Rose, feebly, but she got no reply.
Soon Sylvia re-entered the room, and she had Horace by the arm. He looked stern and bewildered. Sylvia gave him a push towards Rose.
"Now look at here, both of you," she said. "Once for all, I have got nothing to say against your getting married. I am worrying about something, and it is nobody's business what it is. I am doing right. I am doing what I know is right, and I ain't going to let myself be persuaded I ain't. I have done all I could for Rose, and I am going to do more. I have nothing against your getting married. Now I am going into the parlor to finish this work. The lamp in there is better. You can settle it betwixt you."
Sylvia went out, a long line of fine lace trailing in her wake. Horace stood still where she had left him. Rose looked at him timidly.
"I didn't know she felt so," she ventured, at last, in a small voice.
Horace said nothing. Rose went to him, put her hand through his arm, and laid her cheek against his unresponsive shoulder. "I did think it would about kill her if it went on," she whispered. "I think I was mistaken."
"And you didn't mind in the least how much I was hurt, as long as she wasn't," said Horace.
"Yes, I did."
"I must say it did not have that appearance."
Rose wept softly against his rough coat-sleeve. "I wanted to do what was right, and she looked so dreadfully; and I didn't want to be selfish," she sobbed.
Horace looked down at her, and his face softened. "Oh Rose," he said, "you are all alike, you women. When it comes to a question of right or wrong, you will all lay your best-beloved on the altar of sacrifice. Your logic is all wrong, dear. You want to do right so much that the dust of virtue gets into your eyes of love and blinds them. I should come first with you, before your aunt Sylvia, and your own truth and happiness should come first; but you wanted to lay them all at her feet—or, rather, at the feet of your conscience."
"I only wanted to do what was right," Rose sobbed again.
"I know you did, dear." Horace put his arm around Rose. He drew her to a chair, sat down, and took her on his knee. He looked at her almost comically, in return for her glance of piteous appeal.
"Don't laugh at me," she whispered.
Horace kissed her. "I am not laughing at you, but at the eternal feminine, dear," he said. "There is something very funny about the eternal feminine. It is so earnest on the wrong tack, and hurts itself and others so cruelly, and gets no thanks for it."
"I don't know what you mean. I don't like your talking so to me, Horace. I only meant to do what was right."
"I won't talk so any more, darling."
"I don't think I have much of the eternal feminine about me, Horace."
"Of course not, sweetheart."
"I love you, anyway," Rose whispered, and put up her face to be kissed again, "and I didn't want to hurt you. I only wanted to do my duty."
"Of course you did, sweetheart. But now you think your duty is to marry me, don't you?"
Rose laughed, and there was something angelic and innocent about that laugh of the young girl. Horace kissed her again, then both started. "She is talking to herself in there," whispered Rose. "Horace, what do you suppose it is about? Poor Aunt Sylvia must be worrying horribly about something. What do you think it is?"
"I don't know, darling," replied Horace, soberly.
They both heard that lamentable murmur of a voice in the other room, but the doors were closed and not a word could be understood.
Sylvia was sewing rapidly, setting the most delicate and dainty stitches, and all the time she was talking carrying on a horrible argument, as if against some invisible dissenter.
"Ain't I doing everything I can?" demanded Sylvia. "Ain't I, I'd like to know? Ain't I bought everything I could for her? Ain't I making her wedding-clothes by hand, when my eyes are hurting me all the time? Ain't I set myself aside and given her up, when God knows I love her better than if she was my own child? Ain't I doing everything? What call have I to blame myself? Only to-day I've bought a lot of silver for her, and I'm going to buy a lot more. After the underclothes are done I'm going about the table linen, though she don't need it. I ain't using a mite of her aunt Abrahama's. I'm saving it all for her. I'm saving everything for her. I've made my will and left all her aunt's property to her. What have I done? I'm doing right; I tell you I'm doing right. I know I'm doing right. Anybody that says I ain't, lies. They lie, I say. I'm doing right. I—"
Henry opened the door. He had just returned from Sidney Meeks's. Sylvia was sewing quietly.
Henry looked around the room. "Why, who were you talking to?" he asked.
"Nobody," replied Sylvia, taking another stitch.
"I thought I heard you talking."
"How could I be talking when there ain't anybody here to talk to?"
It was not quite a year afterwards that the wedding-day of Rose and Horace was set. It was July, shortly after the beginning of the summer vacation. The summer was very cool, and the country looked like June rather than July. Even the roses were not gone.
The wedding was to be in the evening, and all day long women worked decorating the house. Rose had insisted on being married in the old White homestead. She was to have quite a large wedding, and people from New York and Boston crowded the hotel. Miss Hart was obliged to engage three extra maids. Hannah Simmons had married the winter before. She had married a young man from Alford, where she now lived, and came over to assist her former mistress. Lucinda had a look of combined delight and anxiety. "It's almost as bad as when they thought we'd committed murder," she said to Hannah.
"It was queer how we found that," said Hannah.
"Hush," said Lucinda. "You remember what we agreed upon after we'd told Albion Bennet that we'd keep it secret."
"Of course I remember," said Hannah; "but there ain't any harm in my reminding you how queer it was that we found the arsenic, that the poor thing had been taking to make her beautiful complexion, in her room."
"It was awful," said Lucinda. "Poor soul! I always liked her. People ought to be contented with what God has given them for complexions."
"I wonder if she would have looked very dreadful if she hadn't taken it," Hannah said, ruminatingly. She was passing the kitchen looking-glass as she spoke, and glanced in it. Hannah considered that her own skin was very rough. "I suppose," said she, "that it would never have happened if she had been careful. I suppose lots of women do use such things."
Lucinda cast a sharp glance at Hannah. "It's downright wicked fooling with them," said she. "I hope you won't get any such ideas into your head."
"No, I sha'n't," replied Hannah. "I'm married."
"I heard pretty straight this morning," said Lucinda, "that Lucy Ayres had got married out West, and had done real well."
"I'm mighty glad of it," said Hannah, sharply. "She was crazy enough to get married when she was here."
Lucinda echoed her as sharply. "Guess you're right," she said. "Albion Bennet told me some things. I shouldn't think she'd make much of a wife, if she has got a pretty face."
"She's just the kind to settle down and be a real sensible woman, after she's found out that she's on the earth and not in the clouds," returned Hannah, with an air of wisdom.
Then Albion Bennet came into the kitchen for some hot water for shaving. He was going to the wedding, and had closed his store early, and was about to devote a long time to preparations. Lucinda, also, was going. She had a new black silk for the occasion.
When Albion left the kitchen he beckoned her to follow him. She made an excuse and went out into the corridor. "What is it?" she said to Albion, who was waiting, holding his pitcher of hot water.
"Nothing," said he, "only I was over to Alford this morning and—I bought some violets. I thought you'd like to wear them to the wedding."
Lucinda stared at him. "What for?" asked she.
Albion fidgeted and his pitcher of hot water tilted.
"Look out, you're spilling the water," said Lucinda. "What for?"
"I—thought you might like to wear them, you know," said Albion. He had never before given violets to a woman, and she had never had any given her by a man.
"Thank you," she said, faintly.
"I've ordered a hack to come for me at half-past seven, and—I thought maybe you'd like to ride with me," said Albion, further.
Lucinda stared. "What for?" she said again.
"I thought you might like to ride."
Then Lucinda colored. "Why, folks would talk," said she.
"Let them. I don't care; do you?"
"Albion Bennet, I'm a lot older than you. I ain't old enough to be your mother, but I'm a good deal older than you."
"I don't care," said Albion. "I know how old you are. I don't care. I'd enough sight rather have you than those young things that keep racing to my store. When I get you I shall know what I've got, and when I've got them I shouldn't know. I'd rather have heavy bread, or dry bread, and know it was bread, than new-fangled things that ain't a mite more wholesome, and you don't know what you've got. I don't know how you feel, Lucinda, but I ain't one who could ever marry somebody he hadn't summered and wintered. I've summered and wintered you, and you've summered and wintered me. I don't know how much falling in love there is for either of us, but I reckon we can get on together and have a good home, and that's what love-making has to wind up in, if the mainspring don't break and all the works bust. I'm making quite a little lot from my store. I suppose maybe the soda and candy trade will fall off a little if I get married, but if it does I can take a young clerk to draw it. You won't have to work so hard. You can let some of this big hotel, and keep rooms enough for us, and I'll hire a girl for the kitchen and you can do fancy-work."
"Land!" said Lucinda. "I can do the work for only two."
"You're going to have a hired girl," said Albion, firmly. "I know of one I can get. She's a real good cook. Are you going in the hack with me, Lucinda?"
Lucinda looked up at him, and her face was as the face of a young girl. She had never had an offer, nor a lover. Albion Bennet looked very dear to her.
"Good land!" said Albion, "you act as if you were a back number, Lucinda. You look as young as lots of the young women. You don't do up your hair quite like the girls that come for soda and candy, but otherwise—"
"I can do up my hair like them, if I want to," said Lucinda. "It's thick enough. I suppose I 'ain't fussed because I didn't realize that anybody but myself ever thought about it one way or the other."
"Then you'll go in the hack?" said Albion.
Lucinda made a sudden, sharp wheel about. "I sha'n't get ready to go in a hack if I don't hurry and get these biscuits made for supper," said she, and was gone.
It is odd how individuality will uprear itself before its own consciousness, in the most adverse circumstances. Few in all the company invited to the wedding wasted a thought upon Albion Bennet and Lucinda Hart, but both felt as if they were the principal figures of it all. Lucinda really did merit attention. She had taken another role upon her stage of life. The change in her appearance savored of magic. Albion kept looking at her as if he doubted his very eyes. Lucinda did not wear the black silk which she had made for the occasion. She had routed out an old lavender satin, which she had worn years ago and had laid aside for mourning when her father died. It was made in one of those quaint styles which defy fashion. Lucinda had not changed as to her figure. She hesitated a little at the V-shape of the neck. She wondered if she really ought not to fill that in with lace, but she shook her head defiantly, and fastened around her neck a black velvet ribbon with a little pearl pin. Then she tucked Albion's violets in the lavender satin folds of her waist. Her hair was still untouched with gray, and she had spoken the truth when she had said she could arrange it like a girl. She had puffed it low over her temples and given it a daring twist in the back.
Albion fairly gasped when he saw her. "Lord!" said he, "why ain't you been for candy and soda to the store, too?"
Few people at the wedding noticed Lucinda and Albion, but they noticed each other to that extent that all save themselves seemed rather isolated from them. Albion whispered to Lucinda that she would make a beautiful bride, and she looked up at him, and they were in love.
They stood well back. Neither Lucinda nor Albion were pushing. Lucinda considered that her wonderful city boarders belonged in the front ranks, and Albion shared her opinion. It was a beautiful wedding. The old house was transformed into a bower with flowers and vines. Musicians played in the south room, which was like a grove with palms. There was a room filled with the wedding-presents, and the glitter of cut glass and silver seemed almost like another musical effect.
The wedding was to be at eight o'clock. Everybody was there before that time. Meeks and Henry stood together in the hall by the spiral staircase, which was wound with flowers and vines. Henry wore a dress-suit for the first time in his life. Meeks wore an ancient one, in which he moved gingerly. "I believe I weigh fifty pounds more than I did when the blamed thing was made," he said to Henry, "and the broadcloth is as thin as paper. I'm afraid to move."
Henry looked very sober. "What's the matter, Henry?" asked Sidney.
"Sylvia? I thought—"
"Yes, I thought, too, that she had got what was on her mind off it, but she hasn't. I don't know what ails her. She ain't herself. I'm worried to death about her."
Then the wedding-march was played and the bridal party came down the stairs. Rose was on the arm of the lawyer who had acted as her trustee. He was to give her away. The task had been an impossible one for Henry to undertake, although he had been the first one thought of by Rose. Henry had told Meeks, and the two had chuckled together over it. "The idea of a man from a shoe-shop giving away a bride in real lace at a swell wedding," said Henry.
"She was the right sort to ask you, though," said Meeks.
"Bless her little heart," said Henry, "she wouldn't care if Uncle Henry smelled strong enough of leather to choke out the smell of the flowers. But I ain't going to make a spectacle of myself at my time of life. If I stand that dress-suit I shall do well. Sylvia is going to wear black lace with a tail to it. I know somebody will step on it."
Sylvia, in her black lace, came down the stairs in the wake of the bridal party. She did not seem to see her husband as she passed him.
"By Jove!" said the lawyer, in a whisper. "What does ail her, Henry? She looks as if she was going to jump at something."
Henry did not answer. He made his way as quickly as possible after Sylvia, and Sidney kept with him.
Horace and Rose, in her bridal white, stood before the clergyman. The music had ceased. The clergyman opened his mouth to begin the wedding-service, when Sylvia interrupted him. She pushed herself like a wedge of spiritual intent past the bridal pair and the bridesmaids and best man, and stood beside the clergyman. He was a small, blond man, naturally nervous, and he fairly trembled when Sylvia put her hand on his arm and spoke.
"I have something to say," said she, in a thin, strained voice. "You wait."
The clergyman looked aghast at her. People pressed forward, craning their necks to hear more distinctly. Some tittered from nervousness. Henry made his way to his wife's side, but she pushed him from her.
"No," she said. "Stand back, Henry, and listen with the others. You had nothing to do with it. You ain't concerned in it."
Then she addressed the assembly. "This man, my husband," she said, "has known nothing of it. I want you all to understand that before I begin." Sylvia fumbled in the folds of her black lace skirt, while the people waited. She produced a roll of paper and held it up before them. Then she began her speech.
"I want," said she, "before all this company, before my old friends, and the friends of these two young people who are about to be married, to make my confession. I have not had the courage before. I have courage now, and this is the fitting time and place, since it metes out the fittest punishment and shame to me, who deserve so much. You have assembled here to-night thinking that you were to be at my house at this wedding. It is not so. It is not my house. None of this property is mine. I have known it was not mine since a little while after we came to live here. I have known it all belonged to Rose Fletcher, Abrahama White's own niece. After Rose came to live with us, I tried to put salve on my conscience by doing every single thing I could for her. When my husband went to work again, I spent every cent that came from her aunt's property on Rose. I gave her all her aunt's jewelry. I tried to salve over my conscience and make it seem right—what I had done, what I was doing. I tried to make it seem right by telling myself that Rose had enough property of her own and didn't need this, but I couldn't do it. I have been in torment, holding wealth that didn't belong to me, that has gnawed at my very heart all the time. Now I am going to confess. Here is Abrahama White's last will and testament. I found it in a box in the garret with some letters. Abrahama wrote letters to her sister asking her to forgive her, and telling her how sorry she was, and begging her to come home, but she never sent one of them. There they all were. She had tried to salve her conscience as I have tried to salve mine. She couldn't do it, either. She had to give it up, as I am doing. Then she made her will and left all her property to Rose."
Sylvia unfolded the roll of paper and began reading. The will was very short and concise. It was as follows:
"I, Abrahama White, being in sound mind and understanding, and moved thereunto by a desire to make my peace with God for my sins before I give up this mortal flesh, declare this to be my last will and testament. I give and bequeath to my niece, Rose Fletcher, the daughter of my beloved sister, deceased, my entire property, real and personal, to her and her heirs forever. And I hereby appoint Sidney Meeks, Esquire, as my executor.
"(Signed) Abrahama White."
Sylvia read the will in her thin, strained voice, very clearly. Every word was audible. Then she spoke again. "I have kept it secret all this time," said she. "My husband knew nothing of it. I kept it from him. I tried to hide from God and myself what I was doing, but I could not. Here is the will, and Miss Rose Fletcher, who stands before you, about to be united to the man of her choice, is the owner of this house and land and all the property which goes with it."
She stopped. There was a tense silence. Then Sidney Meeks spoke. "Mrs. Whitman," he said, "may I trouble you for the date of that document you hold, and also for the names of the witnesses?"
Sylvia looked at Sidney in bewilderment, then she scrutinized the will. "I don't see any date," she said, at last, "and there is no name signed except just Abrahama's."
Meeks stepped forward. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "Mrs. Whitman has, I am pleased to say, been under quite unnecessary anxiety of spirit. The document which she holds is not valid. It is neither dated nor signed. I have seen it before. The deceased lady, Miss Abrahama White, called me in one morning, shortly before her death, and showed me this document, which she had herself drawn up, merely to make her wishes clear to me. She instructed me to make out a will under those directions, and I was to bring it to her for her signature, and produce the proper witnesses. Then, the next day, she called me in to inform me that there had been a change in her plans since she had heard of her niece's having a fortune, and gave me directions for the later will, which was properly made out, signed, witnessed, and probated after Miss White's decease. Mrs. Whitman is the rightful heir; but since she has labored under the delusion that she was not, I am sure we all appreciate her courage and sense of duty in making the statement which you have just heard from her lips."
Sylvia looked at the lawyer, and her face was ghastly. "Do you mean to say that I have been thinking I was committing theft, when I wasn't, all this time?" said she.
"I certainly do."
Henry went to Sylvia and took hold of her arm, but she did not seem to heed him. "I was just as guilty," said she, firmly, "for I had the knowledge of sin in my heart and I held it there. I was just as guilty."
She stared helplessly at the worthless will which she still held. A young girl tittered softly. Sylvia turned towards the sound. "There is no occasion to laugh," said she, "at one who thought she was sinning, and has had the taste of sin in her soul, even though she was not doing wrong. The intention was there."
Sylvia stopped. Rose had both arms around her, and was kissing her and whispering. Sylvia pushed her gently away. "Now," she said to the minister, "you can go on with your marrying. Even if Mr. Meeks had told me before what he has just told me here in your presence, I should have had to speak out. I've carried it on my shoulders and in my heart just as long as I could and live and walk and speak under it, let alone saying my prayers. I don't say I haven't got to carry it now, for I have, as long as I live; but telling you all about it was the only way I could shift a little of the heft of it. Now I feel as if the Lord Almighty was helping me carry the burden, and always would. That's all I've got to say. Now you can go on with your marrying."
Sylvia stepped back. There was a hush, then a solemn murmur of one voice, broken at intervals by other hushes and low responses.
When it was over, and the bridal pair stood in the soft shadow of their bridal flowers—Rose's white garment being covered with a lace-like tracery of vines and bride roses, and her head with its chaplet of orange-blossoms shining out clearly with a white radiance from the purple mist of leaves and flowers, which were real, yet unreal, and might have been likened to her maiden dreams—Henry and Sylvia came first to greet them.
Henry's dress-suit fitted well, but his shoulders, bent with his life-work over the cutting-table, already moulded it. No tailor on earth could overcome the terrible, triumphant rigidity of that back fitted for years to its burden of toil. However, the man's face was happy with a noble happiness. He simply shook hands, with awkward solemnity, with the two, but in his heart was great, unselfish exultation.
"This man," he was saying to himself, "has work to do that won't grind him down and double him up, soul and body, like a dumb animal. He can take care of his wife, and not let her get bent, either, and the Lord knows I'm thankful."
He felt Sylvia's little nervous hand on his arm, and a great tenderness for her was over him. He had not a thought of blame or shame on her account.
Instead, he looked at Rose, blooming under her bridal flowers, not so much smiling as beaming with a soft, remote radiance, like a star, and he said to himself: "Thank the Lord that she will never get so warped and twisted as to what is right and wrong by the need of money to keep soul and body together, that she will have to do what my wife has done, and bear such a burden on her pretty shoulders."
It seemed to Henry that never, not even in his first wedded rapture, had he loved his wife as he loved her that night. He glanced at her, and she looked wonderful to him; in fact, there was in Sylvia's face that night an element of wonder. In it spirit was manifest, far above and crowning the flesh and its sordid needs. Her shoulders, under the fine lace gown, were bent; her very heart was bent; but she saw the goal where she could lay her burden down.
The music began again. People thronged around the bride and groom. There were soft sounds of pleasant words, gentle laughs, and happy rejoinders. Everybody smiled. They witnessed happiness with perfect sympathy. It cast upon them rosy reflections. And yet every one bore, unseen or seen, the burden of his or her world upon straining shoulders. The grand, pathetic tragedy inseparable from life, which Atlas symbolized, moved multiple at the marriage feast, and yet love would in the end sanctify it for them all.