Just as candles were being lighted, there was another step on the porch, and the door opened on Martha Deane.
"I'm so glad!" cried Sally. "Never mind your pattens, Martha; Joe shall carry them into the kitchen. Come, let me take off your cloak and hat."
Martha's coming seemed to restore the fading daylight. Not boisterous or impulsive, like Sally, her nature burned with a bright and steady flame,—white and cold to some, golden and radiant to others. Her form was slender, and every motion expressed a calm, serene grace, which could only spring from some conscious strength of character. Her face was remarkably symmetrical, its oval outline approaching the Greek ideal; but the brow was rather high than low, and the light brown hair covered the fair temples evenly, without a ripple. Her eyes were purely blue, and a quick, soft spark was easily kindled in their depths; the cheeks round and rosy, and the mouth clearly and delicately cut, with an unusual, yet wholly feminine firmness in the lines of the upper lip. This peculiarity, again, if slightly out of harmony with the pervading gentleness of her face, was balanced by the softness and sweetness of her dimpled chin, and gave to her face a rare union of strength and tenderness. It very rarely happens that decision and power of will in a young woman are not manifested by some characteristic rather masculine than feminine; but Martha Deane knew the art of unwearied, soft assertion and resistance, and her beautiful lips could pronounce, when necessary, a final word.
Joe and Jake came forward with a half-shy delight, to welcome "Cousin Martha," as she was called in the Fairthorn household, her mother and Sally's father having been "own" cousins. There was a cheerful fire on the hearth, and the three ladies gathered in front of it, with the work-stand in the middle, while the boys took possession of the corner-nooks. The latter claimed their share of the gossip; they knew the family histories of the neighborhood much better than their school-books, and exhibited a precocious interest in this form of knowledge. The conversation, therefore, was somewhat guarded, and the knitting and sewing all the more assiduously performed, until, with great reluctance, and after repeated commands, Joe and Jake stole off to bed.
The atmosphere of the room then became infinitely more free and confidential. Sally dropped her hands in her lap, and settled herself more comfortably in her chair, while Miss Lavender, with an unobserved side-glance at her, said:—
"Mark is to put up Barton's new wagon-house, I hear, Martha."
"Yes," Martha answered; "it is not much, but Mark, of course, is very proud of his first job. There is a better one in store, though he does not know of it."
Sally pricked up her ears. "What is it?" asked Miss Betsy.
"It is not to be mentioned, you will understand. I saw Alfred Barton to-day. He seems to take quite an interest in Mark, all at once, and he told me that the Hallowells are going to build a new barn this summer. He spoke to them of Mark, and thinks the work is almost sure."
"Well, now!" Miss Betsy exclaimed, "if he gets that, after a year's journey-work, Mark is a made man. And I'll speak to Richard Rudd the next time I see him. He thinks he's beholden to me, since Sarah had the fever so bad. I don't like folks to think that, but there's times when it appears to come handy."
Sally arose, flushed and silent, and brought a plate of cakes and a basket of apples from the pantry. The work was now wholly laid aside, and the stand cleared to receive the refreshments.
"Now pare your peels in one piece, girls," Miss Betsy advised, "and then whirl 'em to find the initials o' your sweethearts' names."
"You, too, Miss Betsy!" cried Sally, "we must find out the widower's name!"
"The widower's name," Miss Betsy gravely repeated, as she took a knife.
With much mirth the parings were cut, slowly whirled three times around the head, and then let fly over the left shoulder. Miss Betsy's was first examined and pronounced to be an A.
"Who's A?" she asked.
"Alfred!" said Sally. "Now, Martha, here's yours—an S, no it's a G!"
"The curl is the wrong way," said Martha, gravely, "it's a figure 3; so, I have three of them, have I?"
"And mine," Sally continued, "is a W!"
"Yes, if you look at it upside down. The inside of the peel is uppermost: you must turn it, and then it will be an M."
Sally snatched it up in affected vexation, and threw it into the fire. "Oh, I know a new way!" she cried; "did you ever try it, Martha—with the key and the Bible!"
"Old as the hills, but awful sure," remarked Miss Lavender. "When it's done serious, it's never been known to fail."
Sally took the house-key, and brought from the old walnut cabinet a plump octavo Bible, which she opened at the Song of Solomon, eighth chapter and sixth verse. The end of the key being carefully placed therein, the halves of the book were bound together with cords, so that it could be carried by the key-handle. Then Sally and Martha, sitting face to face, placed each the end of the fore finger of the right hand under the half the ring of the key nearest to her.
"Now, Martha," said Sally, "we'll try your fortune first. Say 'A,' and then repeat the verse: 'set me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thine arm; for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.'"
Martha did as she was bidden, but the book hung motionless. She was thereupon directed to say B, and repeat the verse; and so on, letter by letter. The slender fingers trembled a little with the growing weight of the book, and, although Sally protested that she was holding as still "as she knew how," the trembling increased, and before the verse which followed G had been finished, the ring of the key slowly turned, and the volume fell to the floor.
Martha picked it up with a quiet smile.
"It is easy to see who was in your mind, Sally," she said. "Now let me tell your fortune: we will begin at L—it will save time."
"Save time," said Miss Lavender, rising. "Have it out betwixt and between you, girls: I'm a-goin' to bed."
The two girls soon followed her example. Hastily undressing themselves in the chilly room, they lay down side by side, to enjoy the blended warmth and rest, and the tender, delicious interchanges of confidence which precede sleep. Though so different in every fibre of their natures, they loved each other with a very true and tender affection.
"Martha," said Sally, after an interval of silence, "did you think I made the Bible turn at G?"
"I think you thought it would turn, and therefore it did. Gilbert Potter was in your mind, of course."
"And not in yours, Martha?"
"If any man was seriously in my mind, Sally, do you think I would take the Bible and the door-key in order to find out his name?"
Sally was not adroit in speech: she felt that her question had not been answered, but was unable to see precisely how the answer had been evaded.
"I certainly was beginning to think that you liked Gilbert," she said.
"So I do. Anybody may know that who cares for the information." And Martha laughed cheerfully.
"Would you say so to Gilbert himself?" Sally timidly suggested.
"Certainly; but why should he ask? I like a great many young men."
"Oh, Sally!—and so do you. But there's this I will say: if I were to love a man, neither he nor any other living soul should know it, until he had told me with his own lips that his heart had chosen me."
The strength of conviction in Martha's grave, gentle voice, struck Sally dumb. Her lips were sealed on the delicious secret she was longing, and yet afraid, to disclose. He had not spoken: she hoped he loved her, she was sure she loved him. Did she speak now, she thought, she would lower herself in Martha's eyes. With a helpless impulse, she threw one arm over the latter's neck, and kissed her cheek. She did not know that with the kiss she had left a tear.
"Sally," said Martha, in a tender whisper, "I only spoke for myself. Some hearts must be silent, while it is the nature of others to speak out. You are not afraid of me: it will be womanly in you to tell me everything. Your cheek is hot: you are blushing. Don't blush, Sally dear, for I know it already."
Sally answered with an impassioned demonstration of gratitude and affection. Then she spoke; but we will not reveal the secrets of her virgin heart. It is enough that, soothed and comforted by Martha's wise counsel and sympathy, she sank into happy slumber at her side.
THE NEW GILBERT.
This time the weather, which so often thwarts the farmer's calculations, favored Gilbert Potter. In a week the two fields were ploughed, and what little farm-work remained to be done before the first of April, could be safely left to Sam. On the second Monday after the chase, therefore, he harnessed his four sturdy horses to the wagon, and set off before the first streak of dawn for Columbia, on the Susquehanna. Here he would take from twelve to sixteen barrels of flour (according to the state of the roads) and haul them, a two days' journey, to Newport, on the Christiana River. The freight of a dollar and a half a barrel, which he received, yielded him what in those days was considered a handsome profit for the service, and it was no unusual thing for farmers who were in possession of a suitable team, to engage in the business whenever they could spare the time from their own fields.
Since the evening when she had spoken to him, for the first time in her life, of the dismal shadow which rested upon their names, Mary Potter felt that there was an indefinable change in her relation to her son. He seemed suddenly drawn nearer to her, and yet, in some other sense which she could not clearly comprehend, thrust farther away. His manner, always kind and tender, assumed a shade of gentle respect, grateful in itself, yet disturbing, because new in her experience of him. His head was slightly lifted, and his lips, though firm as ever, less rigidly compressed. She could not tell how it was, but his voice had more authority in her ears. She had never before quite disentangled the man that he was from the child that he had been; but now the separation, sharp, sudden, and final, was impressed upon her mind. Under all the loneliness which came upon her, when the musical bells of his team tinkled into silence beyond the hill, there lurked a strange sense of relief, as if her nature would more readily adjust itself during his absence.
Instead of accepting the day with its duties, as a sufficient burden, she now deliberately reviewed the Past. It would give her pain, she knew; but what pain could she ever feel again, comparable to that which she had so recently suffered? Long she brooded over that bitter period before and immediately succeeding her son's birth, often declaring to herself how fatally she had erred, and as often shaking her head in hopeless renunciation of any present escape from the consequences of that error. She saw her position clearly, yet it seemed that she had so entangled herself in the meshes of a merciless Fate, that the only reparation she could claim, either for herself or her son, would be thrown away by forestalling—after such endless, endless submission and suffering—the Event which should set her free.
Then she recalled and understood, as never before, Gilbert's childhood and boyhood. For his sake she had accepted menial service in families where he was looked upon and treated as an incumbrance. The child, it had been her comfort to think, was too young to know or feel this,—but now, alas! the remembrance of his shyness and sadness told her a different tale. So nine years had passed, and she was then forced to part with her boy. She had bound him to Farmer Fairthorn, whose good heart, and his wife's, she well knew, and now she worked for him, alone, putting by her savings every year, and stinting herself to the utmost that she might be able to start him in life, if he should live to be his own master. Little by little, the blot upon her seemed to fade out or be forgotten, and she hoped—oh, how she had hoped!—that he might be spared the knowledge of it.
She watched him grow up, a boy of firm will, strong temper, yet great self-control; and the easy Fairthorn rule, which would have spoiled a youth of livelier spirits, was, providentially, the atmosphere in which his nature grew more serene and patient. He was steady, industrious, and faithful, and the Fairthorns loved him almost as their own son. When he reached the age of eighteen, he was allowed many important privileges: he hauled flour to Newport, having a share of the profits, and in other ways earned a sum which, with his mother's aid, enabled him to buy a team of his own, on coming of age.
Two years more of this weary, lonely labor, and the one absorbing aim of Mary Potter's life, which she had impressed upon him ever since he was old enough to understand it, drew near fulfilment. The farm upon which they now lived was sold, and Gilbert became the purchaser. There was still a debt of a thousand dollars upon the property, and she felt that until it was paid, they possessed no secure home. During the year which had elapsed since the purchase, Gilbert, by unwearied labor, had laid up about four hundred dollars, and another year, he had said, if he should prosper in his plans, would see them free at last! Then,—let the world say what it chose! They had fought their way from shame and poverty to honest independence, and the respect which follows success would at least be theirs.
This was always the consoling thought to which Mary Potter returned, from the unallayed trouble of her mind. Day by day, Gilbert's new figure became more familiar, and she was conscious that her own manner towards him must change with it The subject of his birth, however, and the new difficulties with which it beset her, would not be thrust aside. For years she had almost ceased to think of the possible release, of which she had spoken; now it returned and filled her with a strange, restless impatience.
Gilbert, also, had ample time to review his own position, during the fortnight's absence. After passing the hills and emerging upon the long, fertile swells of Lancaster, his experienced leaders but rarely needed the guidance of his hand or voice. Often, sunk in revery, the familiar landmarks of the journey went by unheeded; often he lay awake in the crowded bedroom of a tavern, striving to clear a path for his feet a little way into the future. Only men of the profoundest culture make a deliberate study of their own natures, but those less gifted often act with an equal or even superior wisdom, because their qualities operate spontaneously, unwatched by an introverted eye. Such men may be dimly conscious of certain inconsistencies, or unsolved puzzles, in themselves, but instead of sitting down to unravel them, they seek the easiest way to pass by and leave them untouched. For them the material aspects of life are of the highest importance, and a true instinct shows them that beyond the merest superficial acquaintance with their own natures lie deep and disturbing questions, with which they are not fitted to grapple.
There comes a time, however, to every young man, even the most uncultivated, when he touches one of the primal, eternal forces of life, and is conscious of other needs and another destiny. This time had come to Gilbert Potter, forcing him to look upon the circumstances of his life from a loftier point of view. He had struggled, passionately but at random, for light,—but, fortunately, every earnest struggle is towards the light, and it now began to dawn upon him.
He first became aware of one enigma, the consideration of which was not so easy to lay aside. His mother had not been deceived: there was a change in the man since that evening. Often and often, in gloomy breedings over his supposed disgrace, he had fiercely asserted to himself that he was free from stain, and the unrespect in which he stood was an injustice to be bravely defied. The brand which he wore, and which he fancied was seen by every eye he met, existed in his own fancy; his brow was as pure, his right to esteem and honor equal, to that of any other man. But it was impossible to act upon this reasoning; still when the test came he would shrink and feel the pain, instead of trampling it under his feet.
Now that the brand was removed, the strength which he had so desperately craved, was suddenly his. So far as the world was concerned, nothing was altered; no one knew of the revelation which his mother had made to him; he was still the child of her shame, but this knowledge was no longer a torture. Now he had a right to respect, not asserted only to his own heart, but which every man would acknowledge, were it made known. He was no longer a solitary individual, protesting against prejudice and custom. Though still feeling that the protest was just, and that his new courage implied some weakness, he could not conceal from himself the knowledge that this very weakness was the practical fountain of his strength. He was a secret and unknown unit of the great majority.
There was another, more intimate subject which the new knowledge touched very nearly; and here, also, hope dawned upon a sense akin to despair. With all the force of his nature, Gilbert Potter loved Martha Deane. He had known her since he was a boy at Fairthorn's; her face had always been the brightest in his memory; but it was only since the purchase of the farm that his matured manhood had fully recognized its answering womanhood in her. He was slow to acknowledge the truth, even to his own heart, and when it could no longer be denied, he locked it up and sealed it with seven seals, determined never to betray it, to her or any one. Then arose a wild hope, that respect might come with the independence for which he was laboring, and perhaps he might dare to draw nearer,—near enough to guess if there were any answer in her heart. It was a frail support, but he clung to it as with his life, for there was none other.
Now,—although his uncertainty was as great as ever,—his approach could not humiliate her. His love brought no shadow of shame; it was proudly white and clean. Ah! he had forgotten that she did not know,—that his lips were sealed until his mother's should be opened to the world. The curse was not to be shaken off so easily.
By the time he had twice traversed the long, weary road between Columbia and Newport, Gilbert reached a desperate solution of this difficulty. The end of his meditations was: "I will see if there be love in woman as in man!—love that takes no note of birth or station, but, once having found its mate, is faithful from first to last." In love, an honest and faithful heart touches the loftiest ideal. Gilbert knew that, were the case reversed, no possible test could shake his steadfast affection, and how else could he measure the quality of hers? He said to himself: "Perhaps it is cruel, but I cannot spare her the trial." He was prouder than he knew,—but we must remember all that he endured.
It was a dry, windy March month, that year, and he made four good trips before the first of April. Returning home from Newport, by way of Wilmington, with seventy-five dollars clear profit in his pocket, his prospects seemed very cheerful. Could he accomplish two more months of hauling during the year, and the crops should be fair, the money from these sources, and the sale of his wagon and one span, would be something more than enough to discharge the remaining debt. He knew, moreover, how the farm could be more advantageously worked, having used his eyes to good purpose in passing through the rich, abundant fields of Lancaster. The land once his own,—which, like his mother, he could not yet feel,—his future, in a material sense, was assured.
Before reaching the Buck Tavern, he overtook a woman plodding slowly along the road. Her rusty beaver hat, tied down over her ears, and her faded gown, were in singular contrast to the shining new scarlet shawl upon her shoulders. As she stopped and turned, at the sound of his tinkling bells, she showed a hard red face, not devoid of a certain coarse beauty, and he recognized Deb. Smith, a lawless, irregular creature, well known about Kennett.
"Good-day, Deborah!" said he; "if you are going my way, I can give you a lift."
"He calls me 'Deborah,'" she muttered to herself; then aloud—"Ay, and thank ye, Mr. Gilbert."
Seizing the tail of the near horse with one hand, she sprang upon the wagon-tongue, and the next moment sat upon the board at his side. Then, rummaging in a deep pocket, she produced, one after the other, a short black pipe, an eel-skin tobacco-pouch, flint, tinder, and a clumsy knife. With a dexterity which could only have come from long habit, she prepared and kindled the weed, and was presently puffing forth rank streams, with an air of the deepest satisfaction.
"Which way?" asked Gilbert.
"Your'n, as far as you go,—always providin' you takes me."
"Of course, Deborah, you're welcome. I have no load, you see."
"Mighty clever in you, Mr. Gilbert; but you always was one o' the clever ones. Them as thinks themselves better born"—
"Come, Deborah, none of that!" he exclaimed.
"Ax your pardon," she said, and smoked her pipe in silence. When she had finished and knocked the ashes out against the front panel of the wagon, she spoke again, in a hard, bitter voice,—
"'Tisn't much difference what I am. I was raised on hard knocks, and now I must git my livin' by 'em. But I axes no'un's help, I'm that proud, anyways. I go my own road, and a straighter one, too, damme, than I git credit for, but I let other people go their'n. You might have wuss company than me, though I say it."
These words hinted at an inward experience in some respects so surprisingly like his own, that Gilbert was startled. He knew the reputation of the woman, though he would have found it difficult to tell whereupon it was based. Everybody said she was bad, and nobody knew particularly why. She lived alone, in a log-cabin in the woods; did washing and house-cleaning; worked in the harvest-fields; smoked, and took her gill of whiskey with the best of them,—but other vices, though inferred, were not proven. Involuntarily, he contrasted her position, in this respect, with his own. The world, he had recently learned, was wrong in his case; might it not also be doing her injustice? Her pride, in its coarse way, was his also, and his life, perhaps, had only unfolded into honorable success through a mother's ever-watchful care and never-wearied toil.
"Deborah," he said, after a pause, "no man or woman who makes an honest living by hard work, is bad company for me. I am trying to do the same thing that you are,—to be independent of others. It's not an easy thing for anybody, starting from nothing, but I can guess that it must be much harder for you than for me."
"Yes, you're a man!" she cried. "Would to God I'd been one, too! A man can do everything that I do, and it's all right and proper. Why did the Lord give me strength? Look at that!" She bared her right arm—hard, knitted muscle from wrist to shoulder—and clenched her fist. "What's that for?—not for a woman, I say; I could take two of 'em by the necks and pitch 'em over yon fence. I've felled an Irishman like an ox when he called me names. The anger's in me, and the boldness and the roughness, and the cursin'; I didn't put 'em there, and I can't git 'em out now, if I tried ever so much. Why did they snatch the sewin' from me when I wanted to learn women's work, and send me out to yoke th' oxen? I do believe I was a gal onc't, a six-month or so, but it's over long ago. I've been a man ever since!"
She took a bottle out of her pocket, and offered it to Gilbert. When he refused, she simply said: "You're right!" set it to her mouth, and drank long and deeply. There was a wild, painful gleam of truth in her words, which touched his sympathy. How should he dare to judge this unfortunate creature, not knowing what perverse freak of nature, and untoward circumstances of life had combined to make her what she was? His manner towards her was kind and serious, and by degrees this covert respect awoke in her a desire to deserve it. She spoke calmly and soberly, exhibiting a wonderful knowledge as they rode onwards, not only of farming, but of animals, trees, and plants.
The team, knowing that home and rest were near, marched cheerily up and down the hills along the border, and before sunset, emerging from the woods, they overlooked the little valley, the mill, and the nestling farmhouse. An Indian war-whoop rang across the meadow, and Gilbert recognized Sam's welcome therein.
"Now, Deborah," said he, "you shall stop and have some supper, before you go any farther."
"I'm obliged, all the same," said she, "but I must push on. I've to go beyond the Square, and couldn't wait. But tell your mother if she wants a man's arm in house-cleanin' time to let me know. And, Mr. Gilbert, let me say one thing: give me your hand."
The horses had stopped to drink at the creek. He gave her his right hand.
She held it in hers a moment, gazing intently on the palm. Then she bent her head and blew upon it gently, three times.
"Never mind: it's my fancy," she said. "You're born for trial and good-luck, but the trials come first, all of a heap, and the good luck afterwards. You've got a friend in Deb. Smith, if you ever need one. Good-bye to ye!"
With these words she sprang from the wagon, and trudged off silently up the hill. The horses turned of themselves into the lane leading to the barn, and Gilbert assisted Sam in unharnessing and feeding them before entering the house. By the time he was ready to greet his mother, and enjoy, without further care, his first evening at home, he knew everything that had occurred on the farm during his absence.
OLD KENNETT MEETING.
On the Sunday succeeding his return, Gilbert Potter proposed to his mother that they should attend the Friends' Meeting at Old Kennett.
The Quaker element, we have already stated, largely predominated in this part of the county; and even the many families who were not actually members of the sect were strongly colored with its peculiar characteristics. Though not generally using "the plain speech" among themselves, they invariably did so towards Quakers, varied but little from the latter in dress and habits, and, with very few exceptions, regularly attended their worship. In fact, no other religious attendance was possible, without a Sabbath journey too long for the well-used farm-horses. To this class belonged Gilbert and his mother, the Fairthorns, and even the Bartons. Farmer Fairthorn had a birthright, it is true, until his marriage, which having been a stolen match, and not performed according to "Friends' ceremony," occasioned his excommunication. He might have been restored to the rights of membership by admitting his sorrow for the offence, but this he stoutly refused to do. The predicament was not an unusual one in the neighborhood; but a few, among whom was Dr. Deane, Martha's father, submitted to the required humiliation. As this did not take place, however, until after her birth, Martha was still without the pale, and preferred to remain so, for two reasons: first, that a scoop bonnet was monstrous on a young woman's head; and second, that she was passionately fond of music, and saw no harm in a dance. This determination of hers was, as her father expressed himself, a "great cross" to him; but she had a habit of paralyzing his argument by turning against him the testimony of the Friends in regard to forms and ceremonies, and their reliance on the guidance of the Spirit.
Herein Martha was strictly logical, and though she, and others who belonged to the same class, were sometimes characterized, by a zealous Quaker, in moments of bitterness, as being "the world's people," they were generally regarded, not only with tolerance, but in a spirit of fraternity. The high seats in the gallery were not for them, but they were free to any other part of the meeting-house during life, and to a grave in the grassy and briery enclosure adjoining, when dead. The necessity of belonging to some organized church was recognized but faintly, if at all; provided their lives were honorable, they were considered very fair Christians.
Mary Potter but rarely attended meeting, not from any lack of the need of worship, but because she shrank with painful timidity from appearing in the presence of the assembled neighborhood. She was, nevertheless, grateful for Gilbert's success, and her heart inclined to thanksgiving; besides, he desired that they should go, and she was not able to offer any valid objection. So, after breakfast, the two best horses of the team were very carefully groomed, saddled, and—Sam having been sent off on a visit to his father, with the house-key in his pocket—the mother and son took the road up the creek.
Both were plainly, yet very respectably, dressed, in garments of the same home-made cloth, of a deep, dark brown color, but Mary Potter wore under her cloak the new crape shawl which Gilbert had brought to her from Wilmington, and his shirt of fine linen displayed a modest ruffle in front. The resemblance in their faces was even more strongly marked, in the common expression of calm, grave repose, which sprang from the nature of their journey. A stranger meeting them that morning, would have seen that they were persons of unusual force of character, and bound to each other by an unusual tie.
Up the lovely valley, or rather glen, watered by the eastern branch of Redley Creek, they rode to the main highway. It was an early spring, and the low-lying fields were already green with the young grass; the weeping-willows in front of the farm-houses seemed to spout up and fall like broad enormous geysers as the wind swayed them, and daffodils bloomed in all the warmer gardens. The dark foliage of the cedars skirting the road counteracted that indefinable gloom which the landscapes of early spring, in their grayness and incompleteness, so often inspire, and mocked the ripened summer in the close shadows which they threw. It was a pleasant ride, especially after mother and son had reached the main road, and other horsemen and horsewomen issued from the gates of farms on either side, taking their way to the meeting-house. Only two or three families could boast vehicles,—heavy, cumbrous "chairs," as they were called, with a convex canopy resting on four stout pillars, and the bulging body swinging from side to side on huge springs of wood and leather. No healthy man or woman, however, unless he or she were very old, travelled otherwise than on horseback.
Now and then exchanging grave but kindly nods with their acquaintances, they rode slowly along the level upland, past the Anvil Tavern, through Logtown,—a cluster of primitive cabins at the junction of the Wilmington Road,—and reached the meeting-house in good season. Gilbert assisted his mother to alight at the stone platform built for that purpose near the women's end of the building, and then fastened the horses in the long, open shed in the rear. Then, as was the custom, he entered by the men's door, and quietly took a seat in the silent assembly.
The stiff, unpainted benches were filled with the congregation, young and old, wearing their hats, and with a stolid, drowsy look upon their faces. Over a high wooden partition the old women in the gallery, but not the young women on the floor of the house, could be seen. Two stoves, with interminable lengths of pipe, suspended by wires from the ceiling, created a stifling temperature. Every slight sound or motion,—the moving of a foot, the drawing forth of a pocket- handkerchief, the lifting or lowering of a head,—seemed to disturb the quiet as with a shock, and drew many of the younger eyes upon it; while in front, like the guardian statues of an Egyptian temple, sat the older members, with their hands upon their knees or clasped across their laps. Their faces were grave and severe.
After nearly an hour of this suspended animation, an old Friend rose, removed his broad-brimmed hat, and placing his hands upon the rail before him, began slowly swaying to and fro, while he spoke. As he rose into the chant peculiar to the sect, intoning alike his quotations from the Psalms and his utterances of plain, practical advice, an expression of quiet but almost luxurious satisfaction stole over the faces of his aged brethren. With half-closed eyes and motionless bodies, they drank in the sound like a rich draught, with a sense of exquisite refreshment. A close connection of ideas, a logical derivation of argument from text, would have aroused their suspicions that the speaker depended rather upon his own active, conscious intellect, than upon the moving of the Spirit; but this aimless wandering of a half-awake soul through the cadences of a language which was neither song nor speech, was, to their minds, the evidence of genuine inspiration.
When the old man sat down, a woman arose and chanted forth the suggestions which had come to her in the silence, in a voice of wonderful sweetness and strength. Here Music seemed to revenge herself for the slight done to her by the sect. The ears of the hearers were so charmed by the purity of tone, and the delicate, rhythmical cadences of the sentences, that much of the wise lessons repeated from week to week failed to reach their consciousness.
After another interval of silence, the two oldest men reached their hands to each other,—a sign which the younger members had anxiously awaited. The spell snapped in an instant; all arose and moved into the open air, where all things at first appeared to wear the same aspect of solemnity. The poplar-trees, the stone wall, the bushes in the corners of the fence, looked grave and respectful for a few minutes. Neighbors said, "How does thee do?" to each other, in subdued voices, and there was a conscientious shaking of hands all around before they dared to indulge in much conversation.
Gradually, however, all returned to the out-door world and its interests. The fences became so many posts and rails once more, the bushes so many elders and blackberries to be cut away, and the half-green fields so much sod for corn-ground. Opinions in regard to the weather and the progress of spring labor were freely interchanged, and the few unimportant items of social news, which had collected in seven days, were gravely distributed. This was at the men's end of the meeting-house; on their side, the women were similarly occupied, but we can only conjecture the subjects of their conversation. The young men—as is generally the case in religious sects of a rigid and clannish character—were by no means handsome. Their faces all bore the stamp of repression, in some form or other, and as they talked their eyes wandered with an expression of melancholy longing and timidity towards the sweet, maidenly faces, whose bloom, and pure, gentle beauty not even their hideous bonnets could obscure.
One by one the elder men came up to the stone platform with the stable old horses which their wives were to ride home; the huge chair, in which sat a privileged couple, creaked and swayed from side to side, as it rolled with ponderous dignity from the yard; and now, while the girls were waiting their turn, the grave young men plucked up courage, wandered nearer, greeted, exchanged words, and so were helped into an atmosphere of youth.
Gilbert, approaching with them, was first recognized by his old friend, Sally Fairthorn, whose voice of salutation was so loud and cheery, as to cause two or three sedate old "women-friends" to turn their heads in grave astonishment. Mother Fairthorn, with her bright, round face, followed, and then—serene and strong in her gentle, symmetrical loveliness—Martha Deane. Gilbert's hand throbbed, as he held hers a moment, gazing into the sweet blue of her eyes; yet, passionately as he felt that he loved her in that moment, perfect as was the delight of her presence, a better joy came to his heart when she turned away to speak with his mother. Mark Deane—a young giant with curly yellow locks, and a broad, laughing mouth—had just placed a hand upon his shoulder, and he could not watch the bearing of the two women to each other; but all his soul listened to their voices, and he heard in Martha Deane's the kindly courtesy and respect which he did not see.
Mother Fairthorn and Sally so cordially insisted that Mary Potter and her son should ride home with them to dinner, that no denial was possible. When the horses were brought up to the block the yard was nearly empty, and the returning procession was already winding up the hill towards Logtown.
"Come, Mary," said Mother Fairthorn, "you and I will ride together, and you shall tell me all about your ducks and turkeys. The young folks can get along without us, I guess."
Martha Deane had ridden to meeting in company with her cousin Mark and Sally, but the order of the homeward ride was fated to be different. Joe and Jake, bestriding a single horse, like two of the Haymon's-children, were growing inpatient, so they took the responsibility of dashing up to Mark and Sally, who were waiting in the road, and announcing,—
"Cousin Martha says we're to go on; she'll ride with Gilbert."
Both well knew the pranks of the boys, but perhaps they found the message well-invented if not true; for they obeyed with secret alacrity, although Sally made a becoming show of reluctance. Before they reached the bottom of the hollow, Joe and Jake, seeing two school-mates in advance, similarly mounted, dashed off in a canter, to overtake them, and the two were left alone.
Gilbert and Martha naturally followed, since not more than two could conveniently ride abreast. But their movements were so quiet and deliberate, and the accident which threw them together was accepted so simply and calmly that no one could guess what warmth of longing, of reverential tenderness, beat in every muffled throb of one of the two hearts.
Martha was an admirable horsewoman, and her slender, pliant figure never showed to greater advantage than in the saddle. Her broad beaver hat was tied down over the ears, throwing a cool gray shadow across her clear, joyous eyes and fresh cheeks. A pleasanter face never touched a young man's fancy, and every time it turned towards Gilbert it brightened away the distress of love. He caught, unconsciously, the serenity of her mood, and foretasted the peace which her being would bring to him if it were ever intrusted to his hands.
"Did you do well by your hauling, Gilbert," she asked, "and are you now home for the summer?"
"Until after corn-planting," he answered. "Then I must take two or three weeks, as the season turns out. I am not able to give up my team yet."
"But you soon will be, I hope. It must be very lonely for your mother to be on the farm without you."
These words touched him gratefully, and led him to a candid openness of speech which he would not otherwise have ventured,—not from any inherent lack of candor, but from a reluctance to speak of himself.
"That's it, Martha," he said. "It is her work that I have the farm at all, and I only go away the oftener now, that I may the sooner stay with her altogether. The thought of her makes each trip lonelier than the last."
"I like to hear you say that, Gilbert. And it must be a comfort to you, withal, to know that you are working as much for your mother's sake as your own. I think I should feel so, at least, in your place. I feel my own mother's loss more now than when she died, for I was then so young that I can only just remember her face."
"But you have a father!" he exclaimed, and the words were scarcely out of his mouth before he became aware of their significance, uttered by his lips. He had not meant so much,—only that she, like him, still enjoyed one parent's care. The blood came into his face; she saw and understood the sign, and broke a silence which would soon have become painful.
"Yes," she said, "and I am very grateful that he is spared; but we seem to belong most to our mothers."
"That is the truth," he said firmly, lifting his head with the impulse of his recovered pride, and meeting her eyes without flinching. "I belong altogether to mine. She has made me a man and set me upon my feet. From this time forward, my place is to stand between her and the world!"
Martha Deane's blood throbbed an answer to this assertion of himself. A sympathetic pride beamed in her eyes; she slightly bent her head, in answer, without speaking, and Gilbert felt that he was understood and valued. He had drawn a step nearer to the trial which he had resolved to make, and would now venture no further.
There was a glimmering spark of courage in his heart. He was surprised, in recalling the conversation afterwards, to find how much of his plans he had communicated to her during the ride, encouraged by the kindly interest she manifested, and the sensible comments she uttered. Joe and Jake, losing their mates at a cross-road, and finding Sally and Mark Deane not very lively company for them, rode back and disturbed these confidences, but not until they had drawn the two into a relation of acknowledged mutual interest.
Martha Deane had always, as she confessed to Sally, liked Gilbert Potter; she liked every young man of character and energy; but now she began to suspect that there was a rarer worth in his nature than she had guessed. From that day he was more frequently the guest of her thoughts than ever before. Instinct, in him, had performed the same service which men of greater experience of the world would have reached through keen perception and careful tact,—in confiding to her his position, his labors and hopes, material as was the theme and seemingly unsuited to the occasion, he had in reality appreciated the serious, reflective nature underlying her girlish grace and gayety. What other young man of her acquaintance, she asked herself, would have done the same thing?
When they reached Kennett Square, Mother Fairthorn urged Martha to accompany them, and Sally impetuously seconded the invitation. Dr. Deane's horse was at his door, however, and his daughter, with her eyes on Gilbert, as if saying "for my father's sake," steadfastly declined. Mark, however, took her place, but there never had been, or could be, too many guests at the Fairthorn table.
When they reached the garden-wall, Sally sprang from her horse with such haste that her skirt caught on the pommel and left her hanging, being made of stuff too stout to tear. It was well that Gilbert was near, on the same side, and disengaged her in an instant; but her troubles did not end here. As she bustled in and out of the kitchen, preparing the dinner-table in the long sitting-room, the hooks and door-handles seemed to have an unaccountable habit of thrusting themselves in her way, and she was ready to cry at each glance of Mark's laughing eyes. She had never heard the German proverb, "who loves, teases," and was too inexperienced, as yet, to have discovered the fact for herself.
Presently they all sat down to dinner, and after the first solemn quiet,—no one venturing to eat or speak until the plates of all had been heaped with a little of everything upon the table,—the meal became very genial and pleasant. A huge brown pitcher of stinging cider added its mild stimulus to the calm country blood, and under its mellowing influence Mark announced the most important fact of his life,—he was to have the building of Hallowell's barn.
As Gilbert and his mother rode homewards, that afternoon, neither spoke much, but both felt, in some indefinite way, better prepared for the life that lay before them.
AT DR. DEANE'S.
As she dismounted on the large flat stone outside the paling, Martha Deane saw her father's face at the window. It was sterner and graver than usual.
The Deane mansion stood opposite the Unicorn Tavern. When built, ninety years previous, it had been considered a triumph of architecture; the material was squared logs from the forest, dovetailed, and overlapping at the corners, which had the effect of rustic quoins, as contrasted with the front, which was plastered and yellow-washed. A small portico, covered with a tangled mass of eglantine and coral honeysuckle, with a bench at each end, led to the door; and the ten feet of space between it and the front paling were devoted to flowers and rose-bushes. At each corner of the front rose an old, picturesque, straggling cedar-tree.
There were two front doors, side by side,—one for the family sitting-room, the other (rarely opened, except when guests arrived) for the parlor. Martha Deane entered the former, and we will enter with her.
The room was nearly square, and lighted by two windows. On those sides the logs were roughly plastered; on the others there were partitions of panelled oak, nearly black with age and smoke, as were the heavy beams of the same wood which formed the ceiling. In the corner of the room next the kitchen there was an open Franklin stove,—an innovation at that time,—upon which two or three hickory sticks were smouldering into snowy ashes. The floor was covered with a country-made rag carpet, in which an occasional strip of red or blue listing brightened the prevailing walnut color of the woof. The furniture was simple and massive, its only unusual feature being a tall cabinet with shelves filled with glass jars, and an infinity of small drawers. A few bulky volumes on the lower shelf constituted the medical library of Dr. Deane.
This gentleman was still standing at the window, with his hands clasped across his back. His Quaker suit was of the finest drab broadcloth, and the plain cravat visible above his high, straight waistcoat, was of spotless cambric. His knee-and shoe-buckles were of the simplest pattern, but of good, solid silver, and there was not a wrinkle in the stockings of softest lamb's-wool, which covered his massive calves. There was always a faint odor of lavender, bergamot, or sweet marjoram about him, and it was a common remark in the neighborhood that the sight and smell of the Doctor helped a weak patient almost as much as his medicines.
In his face there was a curious general resemblance to his daughter, though the detached features were very differently formed. Large, unsymmetrical, and somewhat coarse,—even for a man,—they derived much of their effect from his scrupulous attire and studied air of wisdom. His long gray hair was combed back, that no portion of the moderate frontal brain might be covered; the eyes were gray rather than blue, and a habit of concealment had marked its lines in the corners, unlike the open, perfect frankness of his daughter's. The principal resemblance was in the firm, clear outline of the upper lip, which alone, in his face, had it been supported by the under one, would have made him almost handsome; but the latter was large and slightly hanging. There were marked inconsistencies in his face, but this was no disadvantage in a community unaccustomed to studying the external marks of character.
"Just home, father? How did thee leave Dinah Passmore?" asked Martha, as she untied the strings of her beaver.
"Better," he answered, turning from the window; "but, Martha, who did I see thee riding with?"
"Does thee mean Gilbert Potter?"
"I do," he said, and paused. Martha, with her cloak over her arm and bonnet in her hand, in act to leave the room, waited, saying,—
So frank and serene was her bearing, that the old man felt both relieved and softened.
"I suppose it happened so," he said. "I saw his mother with Friend Fairthorn. I only meant thee shouldn't be seen in company with young Potter, when thee could help it; thee knows what I mean."
"I don't think, father," she slowly answered, "there is anything against Gilbert Potter's life or character, except that which is no just reproach to him."
"'The sins of the parents shall be visited upon the children, even to the third and fourth generation.' That is enough, Martha."
She went up to her room, meditating, with an earnestness almost equal to Gilbert's, upon this form of the world's injustice, which he was powerless to overcome. Her father shared it, and the fact did not surprise her; but her independent spirit had already ceased to be guided, in all things, by his views. She felt that the young man deserved the respect and admiration which he had inspired in her mind, and until a better reason could be discovered, she would continue so to regard him. The decision was reached rapidly, and then laid aside for any future necessity; she went down-stairs again in her usual quiet, cheerful mood.
During her absence another conversation had taken place.
Miss Betsy Lavender (who was a fast friend of Martha, and generally spent her Sundays at the Doctor's,) was sitting before the stove, drying her feet. She was silent until Martha left the room, when she suddenly exclaimed:
"Doctor! Judge not that ye be not judged."
"Thee may think as thee pleases, Betsy," said he, rather sharply: "it's thy nature, I believe, to take everybody's part."
"Put yourself in his place," she continued,—"remember them that's in bonds as bound with 'em,—I disremember exackly how it goes, but no matter: I say your way a'n't right, and I'd say it seven times, if need be! There's no steadier nor better-doin' young fellow in these parts than Gilbert Potter. Ferris, down in Pennsbury, or Alf Barton, here, for that matter, a'n't to be put within a mile of him. I could say something in Mary Potter's behalf, too, but I won't: for there's Scribes and Pharisees about."
Dr. Deane did not notice this thrust: it was not his habit to get angry. "Put thyself in my place, Betsy," he said. "He's a worthy young man, in some respects, I grant thee, but would thee like thy daughter to be seen riding home beside him from Meeting? It's one thing speaking for thyself, and another for thy daughter."
"Thy daughter!" she repeated. "Old or young can't make any difference, as I see."
There was something else on her tongue, but she forcibly withheld the words. She would not exhaust her ammunition until there was both a chance and a necessity to do some execution. The next moment Martha reentered the room.
After dinner, they formed a quiet group in the front sitting-room. Dr. Deane, having no more visits to make that day, took a pipe of choice tobacco,—the present of a Virginia Friend, whose acquaintance he had made at Yearly Meeting,—and seated himself in the arm-chair beside the stove. Martha, at the west window, enjoyed a volume of Hannah More, and Miss Betsy, at the front window, labored over the Psalms. The sun shone with dim, muffled orb, but the air without was mild, and there were already brown tufts, which would soon be blossoms, on the lilac twigs.
Suddenly Miss Betsy lifted up her head and exclaimed, "Well, I never!" As she did so, there was a knock at the door.
"Come in!" said Dr. Deane, and in came Mr. Alfred Barton, resplendent in blue coat, buff waistcoat, cambric ruffles, and silver-gilt buckles. But, alas! the bunch of seals—topaz, agate, and cornelian—no longer buoyed the deep-anchored watch. The money due his father had been promptly paid, through the agency of a three-months' promissory note, and thus the most momentous result of the robbery was overcome. This security for the future, however, scarcely consoled him for the painful privation of the present. Without the watch, Alfred Barton felt that much of his dignity and importance was lacking.
Dr. Deane greeted his visitor with respect, Martha with the courtesy due to a guest, and Miss Betsy with the offhand, independent manner, under which she masked her private opinions of the persons whom she met.
"Mark isn't at home, I see," said Mr. Barton, after having taken his seat in the centre of the room: "I thought I'd have a little talk with him about the wagon-house. I suppose he told you that I got Hallowell's new barn for him?"
"Yes, and we're all greatly obliged to thee, as well as Mark," said the Doctor. "The two jobs make a fine start for a young mechanic, and I hope he'll do as well as he's been done by: there's luck in a good beginning. By the bye, has thee heard anything more of Sandy Flash's doings?"
Mr. Barton fairly started at this question. His own misfortune had been carefully kept secret, and he could not suspect that the Doctor knew it; but he nervously dreaded the sound of the terrible name.
"What is it?" he asked, in a faint voice.
"He has turned up in Bradford, this time, and they say has robbed Jesse Frame, the Collector, of between four and five hundred dollars. The Sheriff and a posse of men from the Valley hunted him for several days, but found no signs. Some think he has gone up into the Welch Mountain; but for my part, I should not be surprised if he were in this neighborhood."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Mr. Barton, starting from his chair.
"Now's your chance," said Miss Betsy. "Git the young men together who won't feel afraid o' bein' twenty ag'in one: you know the holes and corners where he'll be likely to hide, and what's to hinder you from ketchin' him?"
"But he must have many secret friends," said Martha, "if what I have heard is true,—that he has often helped a poor man with the money which he takes only from the rich. You know he still calls himself a Tory, and many of those whose estates have been confiscated, would not scruple to harbor him, or even take his money."
"Take his money. That's a fact," remarked Miss Betsy, "and now I dunno whether I want him ketched. There's worse men goin' round, as respectable as you please, stealin' all their born days, only cunnin'ly jukin' round the law instead o' buttin' square through it. Why, old Liz Williams, o' Birmingham, herself told me with her own mouth, how she was ridin' home from Phildelphy market last winter, with six dollars, the price of her turkeys—and General Washin'ton's cook took one of 'em, but that's neither here nor there—in her pocket, and fearful as death when she come to Concord woods, and lo and behold! there she was overtook by a fresh-complected man, and she begged him to ride with her, for she had six dollars in her pocket and Sandy was known to be about. So he rode with her to her very lane-end, as kind and civil a person as she ever see, and then and there he said, 'Don't be afeard, Madam, for I, which have seen you home, is Sandy Flash himself, and here's somethin' more to remember me by,'—no sooner said than done, he put a gold guinea into her hand, and left her there as petrified as Lot's wife. Now I say, and it may be violation of the law, for all I know, but never mind, that Sandy Flash has got one corner of his heart in the right place, no matter where the others is. There's honor even among thieves, they say."
"Seriously, Alfred," said Dr. Deane, cutting Miss Betsy short before she had half expressed her sentiments, "it is time that something was done. If Flash is not caught soon, we shall be overrun with thieves, and there will be no security anywhere on the high roads, or in our houses. I wish that men of influence in the neighborhood, like thyself, would come together and plan, at least, to keep Kennett clear of him. Then other townships may do the same, and so the thing be stopped. If I were younger, and my practice were not so laborious, I would move in the matter, but thee is altogether a more suitable person."
"Do you think so?" Barton replied, with an irrepressible reluctance, around which he strove to throw an air of modesty. "That would be the proper way, certainly, but I,—I don't know,—that is, I can't flatter myself that I'm the best man to undertake it."
"It requires some courage, you know," Martha remarked, and her glance made him feel very uncomfortable, "and you are too dashing a fox-hunter not to have that. Perhaps the stranger who rode with you to Avondale—what was his name?—might be of service. If I were in your place, I should be glad of a chance to incur danger for the good of the neighborhood."
Mr. Alfred Barton was on nettles. If there were irony in her words his intellect was too muddy to detect it: her assumption of his courage could only be accepted as a compliment, but it was the last compliment he desired to have paid to himself, just at that time.
"Yes," he said, with a forced laugh, rushing desperately into the opposite extreme, "but the danger and the courage are not worth talking about. Any man ought to be able to face a robber, single-handed, and as for twenty men, why, when it's once known, Sandy Flash will only be too glad to keep away."
"Then, do thee do what I've recommended. It may be, as thee says, that the being prepared is all that is necessary," remarked Dr. Deane.
Thus caught, Mr. Barton could do no less than acquiesce, and very much to his secret dissatisfaction, the Doctor proceeded to name the young men of the neighborhood, promising to summon such as lived on the lines of his professional journeys, that they might confer with the leader of the undertaking. Martha seconded the plan with an evident interest, yet it did not escape her that neither her father nor Mr. Barton had mentioned the name of Gilbert Potter.
"Is that all?" she asked, when a list of some eighteen persons had been suggested. Involuntarily, she looked at Miss Betsy Lavender.
"No, indeed!" cried the latter. "There's Jabez Travilla, up on the ridge, and Gilbert Potter, down at the mill."
"H'm, yes; what does thee say, Alfred?" asked the Doctor.
"They're both good riders, and I think they have courage enough, but we can never tell what a man is until he's been tried. They would increase the number, and that, it seems to me, is a consideration."
"Perhaps thee had better exercise thy own judgment there," the Doctor observed, and the subject, having been as fully discussed as was possible without consultation with other persons, it was dropped, greatly to Barton's relief.
But in endeavoring to converse with Martha he only exchanged one difficulty for another. His vanity, powerful as it was, gave way before that instinct which is the curse and torment of vulgar natures,—which leaps into life at every contact of refinement, showing them the gulf between, which they know not how to cross. The impudence, the aggressive rudeness which such natures often exhibit, is either a mask to conceal their deficiency, or an angry protest against it. Where there is a drop of gentleness in the blood, it appreciates and imitates the higher nature.
This was the feeling which made Alfred Barton uncomfortable in the presence of Martha Deane,—which told him, in advance, that natures so widely sundered, never could come into near relations with each other, and thus quite neutralized the attraction of her beauty and her ten thousand dollars. His game, however, was to pay court to her, and in so pointed a way that it should be remarked and talked about in the neighborhood. Let it once come through others to the old man's ears, he would have proved his obedience and could not be reproached if the result were fruitless.
"What are you reading, Miss Martha?" he asked, after a long and somewhat awkward pause.
She handed him the book in reply.
"Ah! Hannah More,—a friend of yours? Is she one of the West-Whiteland Moores?"
Martha could not suppress a light, amused laugh, as she answered: "Oh, no, she is an English woman."
"Then it's a Tory book," said he, handing it back; "I wouldn't read it, if I was you."
"It is a story, and I should think you might."
He heard other words than those she spoke. "As Tory as—what?" he asked himself. "As I am," of course; that is what she means. "Old-man Barton" had been one of the disloyal purveyors for the British army during its occupancy of Philadelphia in the winter of 1777-8, and though the main facts of the traffic wherefrom he had drawn immense profits, never could be proved against him, the general belief hung over the family, and made a very disagreeable cloud. Whenever Alfred Barton quarrelled with any one, the taunt was sure to be flung into his teeth. That it came now, as he imagined, was as great a shock as if Martha had slapped him in the face with her own delicate hand, and his visage reddened from the blow.
Miss Betsy Lavender, bending laboriously over the Psalms, nevertheless kept her dull gray eyes in movement. She saw the misconception, and fearing that Martha did not, made haste to remark:—
"Well, Mr. Alfred, and do you think it's a harm to read a story? Why, Miss Ann herself lent me 'Alonzo and Melissa,' and 'Midnight Horrors,' and I'll be bound you've read 'em yourself on the sly. 'T a'n't much other readin' men does, save and except the weekly paper, and law enough to git a tight hold on their debtors. Come, now, let's know what you do read?"
"Not much of anything, that's a fact," he answered, recovering himself, with a shudder at the fearful mistake he had been on the point of making, "but I've nothing against women reading stories. I was rather thinking of myself when I spoke to you, Miss Martha."
"So I supposed," she quietly answered. It was provoking. Everything she said made him think there was another meaning behind the words; her composed manner, though he knew it to be habitual, more and more disconcerted him. Never did an intentional wooer find his wooing so painful and laborious. After this attempt he addressed himself to Doctor Deane, for even the question of circumventing Sandy Flash now presented itself to his mind as a relief.
There he sat, and the conversation progressed in jerks and spirts, between pauses of embarrassing silence. The sun hung on the western hill in a web of clouds; Martha and Miss Betsy rose and prepared the tea-table, and the guest, invited perforce, perforce accepted. Soon after the meal was over, however, he murmured something about cattle, took his hat and left.
Two or three horses were hitched before the Unicorn, and he saw some figures through the bar-room window. A bright thought struck him; he crossed the road and entered.
"Hallo, Alf! Where from now? Why, you're as fine as a fiddler!" cried Mr. Joel Ferris, who was fast becoming familiar, on the strength of his inheritance.
"Over the way," answered the landlord, with a wink and a jerk of his thumb.
Mr. Ferris whistled, and one of the others suggested: "He must stand a treat, on that."
"But, I say!" said the former, "how is it you're coming away so soon in the evening?"
"I went very early in the afternoon," Barton answered, with a mysterious, meaning smile, as much as to say: "It's all right; I know what I'm about." Then he added aloud,—"Step up, fellows; what'll you have?"
Many were the jests and questions to which he was forced to submit, but he knew the value of silence in creating an impression, and allowed them to enjoy their own inferences.
It is much easier to start a report, than to counteract it, when once started; but the first, only, was his business.
It was late in the evening when he returned home, and the household were in bed. Nevertheless, he did not enter by the back way, in his stockings, but called Giles down from the garret to unlock the front-door, and made as much noise as he pleased on his way to bed.
The old man heard it, and chuckled under his coverlet.
Steadily and serenely the Spring advanced. Old people shook their heads and said: "It will be April, this year, that comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion,"—but it was not so. Soft, warm showers and frostless nights repaid the trustfulness of the early-expanding buds, and May came clothed completely in pale green, with a wreath of lilac and hawthorn bloom on her brow. For twenty years no such perfect spring had been known; and for twenty years afterwards the farmers looked back to it as a standard of excellence, whereby to measure the forwardness of their crops.
By the twentieth of April the young white-oak leaves were the size of a squirrel's ear,—the old Indian sign of the proper time for corn-planting, which was still accepted by the new race, and the first of May saw many fields already specked with the green points of the springing blades. A warm, silvery vapor hung over the land, mellowing the brief vistas of the interlacing valleys, touching with a sweeter pastoral beauty the irregular alternation of field and forest, and lifting the wooded slopes, far and near, to a statelier and more imposing height. The park-like region of Kennett, settled originally by emigrants from Bucks and Warwickshire, reproduced to their eyes—as it does to this day—the characteristics of their original home, and they transplanted the local names to which they were accustomed, and preserved, even long after the War of Independence, the habits of their rural ancestry. The massive stone farm-houses, the walled gardens, the bountiful orchards, and, more than all, the well-trimmed hedges of hawthorn and blackthorn dividing their fields, or bordering their roads with the living wall, over which the clematis and wild-ivy love to clamber, made the region beautiful to their eyes. Although the large original grants, mostly given by the hand of William Penn, had been divided and subdivided by three or four prolific generations, there was still enough and to spare,—and even the golden promise held out by "the Backwoods," as the new States of Ohio and Kentucky were then called, tempted very few to leave their homes.
The people, therefore, loved the soil and clung to it with a fidelity very rare in any part of our restless nation. And, truly, no one who had lived through the mild splendor of that spring, seeing, day by day, the visible deepening of the soft woodland tints, hearing the cheerful sounds of labor, far and wide, in the vapory air, and feeling at once the repose and the beauty of such a quiet, pastoral life, could have turned his back upon it, to battle with the inhospitable wilderness of the West. Gilbert Potter had had ideas of a new home, to be created by himself, and a life to which none should deny honor and respect: but now he gave them up forever. There was a battle to be fought—better here than elsewhere—here, where every scene was dear and familiar, and every object that met his eye gave a mute, gentle sense of consolation.
Restless, yet cheery labor was now the order of life on the farm. From dawn till dusk, Gilbert and Sam were stirring in field, meadow, and garden, keeping pace with the season and forecasting what was yet to come. Sam, although only fifteen, had a manly pride in being equal to the duty imposed upon him by his master's absence, and when the time came to harness the wagon-team once more, the mother and son walked over the fields together and rejoiced in the order and promise of the farm. The influences of the season had unconsciously touched them both: everything conspired to favor the fulfilment of their common plan, and, as one went forward to the repetition of his tedious journeys back and forth between Columbia and Newport, and the other to her lonely labor in the deserted farm-house, the arches of bells over the collars of the leaders chimed at once to the ears of both, an anthem of thanksgiving and a melody of hope.
So May and the beginning of June passed away, and no important event came to any character of this history. When Gilbert had delivered the last barrels at Newport, and slowly cheered homewards his weary team, he was nearly two hundred dollars richer than when he started, and—if we must confess a universal if somewhat humiliating truth—so much the more a man in courage and determination.
The country was now covered with the first fresh magnificence of summer. The snowy pyramids of dog-wood bloom had faded, but the tulip trees were tall cones of rustling green, lighted with millions of orange-colored stars, and all the underwood beneath the hemlock-forests by the courses of streams, was rosy with laurels and azaleas. The vernal-grass in the meadows was sweeter than any garden-rose, and its breath met that of the wild-grape in the thickets and struggled for preeminence of sweetness. A lush, tropical splendor of vegetation, such as England never knew, heaped the woods and hung the road-side with sprays which grew and bloomed and wantoned, as if growth were a conscious joy, rather than blind obedience to a law.
When Gilbert reached home, released from his labors abroad until October, he found his fields awaiting their owner's hand. His wheat hung already heavy-headed, though green, and the grass stood so thick and strong that it suggested the ripping music of the scythe-blade which should lay it low. Sam had taken good care of the cornfield, garden, and the cattle, and Gilbert's few words of quiet commendation were a rich reward for all his anxiety. His ambition was, to be counted "a full hand,"—this was the toga virilis, which, once entitled to wear, would make him feel that he was any man's equal.
Without a day's rest, the labor commenced again, and the passion of Gilbert's heart, though it had only strengthened during his absence, must be thrust aside until the fortune of his harvest was secured.
In the midst of the haying, however, came a message which he could not disregard,—a hasty summons from Mark Deane, who, seeing Gilbert in the upper hill-field, called from the road, bidding him to the raising of Hallowell's new barn, which was to take place on the following Saturday. "Be sure and come!" were Mark's closing words—"there's to be both dinner and supper, and the girls are to be on hand!"
It was the custom to prepare the complete frame of a barn—sills, plates, girders, posts, and stays—with all their mortices and pins, ready for erection, and then to summon all the able-bodied men of the neighborhood to assist in getting the timbers into place. This service, of course, was given gratuitously, and the farmer who received it could do no less than entertain, after the bountiful manner of the country, his helping neighbors, who therefore, although the occasion implied a certain amount of hard work, were accustomed to regard it as a sort of holiday, or merry-making. Their opportunities for recreation, indeed, were so scanty, that a barn-raising, or a husking-party by moonlight, was a thing to be welcomed.
Hallowell's farm was just half-way between Gilbert's and Kennett Square, and the site of the barn had been well-chosen on a ridge, across the road, which ran between it and the farm-house. The Hallowells were what was called "good providers," and as they belonged to the class of outside Quakers, which we have already described, the chances were that both music and dance would reward the labor of the day.
Gilbert, of course, could not refuse the invitation of so near a neighbor, and there was a hope in his heart which made it welcome. When the day came he was early on hand, heartily greeted by Mark, who exclaimed,—"Give me a dozen more such shoulders and arms as yours, and I'll make the timbers spin!"
It was a bright, breezy day, making the wheat roll and the leaves twinkle. Ranges of cumuli moved, one after the other, like heaps of silvery wool, across the keen, dark blue of the sky. "A wonderful hay-day," the old farmers remarked, with a half-stifled sense of regret; but the younger men had already stripped themselves to their shirts and knee-breeches, and set to work with a hearty good-will. Mark, as friend, half-host and commander, bore his triple responsibility with a mixture of dash and decision, which became his large frame and ruddy, laughing face. It was—really, and not in an oratorical sense,—the proudest day of his life.
There could be no finer sight than that of these lithe, vigorous specimens of a free, uncorrupted manhood, taking like sport the rude labor which was at once their destiny and their guard of safety against the assaults of the senses. As they bent to their work, prying, rolling, and lifting the huge sills to their places on the foundation-wall, they showed in every movement the firm yet elastic action of muscles equal to their task. Though Hallowell's barn did not rise, like the walls of Ilium, to music, a fine human harmony aided in its construction.
There was a plentiful supply of whiskey on hand, but Mark Deane assumed the charge of it, resolved that no accident or other disturbance should mar the success of this, his first raising. Everything went well, and by the time they were summoned to dinner, the sills and some of the uprights were in place, properly squared and tied.
It would require a Homeric catalogue to describe the dinner. To say that the table "groaned," is to give no idea of its condition. Mrs. Hallowell and six neighbors' wives moved from kitchen to dining-room, replenishing the dishes as fast as their contents diminished, and plying the double row of coatless guests with a most stern and exacting hospitality. The former would have been seriously mortified had not each man endeavored to eat twice his usual requirement.
After the slight rest which nature enforced—though far less than nature demanded, after such a meal—the work went on again with greater alacrity, since every timber showed. Rib by rib the great frame grew, and those perched aloft, pinning the posts and stays, rejoiced in the broad, bright landscape opened to their view. They watched the roads, in the intervals of their toil, and announced the approach of delayed guests, all alert for the sight of the first riding-habit.
Suddenly two ladies made their appearance, over the rise of the hill, one cantering lightly and securely, the other bouncing in her seat, from the rough trot of her horse.
"Look out! there they come!" cried a watcher.
"Who is it?" was asked from below.
"Where's Barton? He ought to be on hand,—it's Martha Deane,—and Sally with her; they always ride together."
Gilbert had one end of a handspike, helping lift a heavy piece of timber, and his face was dark with the strain; it was well that he dared not let go until the lively gossip which followed Barton's absence,—the latter having immediately gone forward to take charge of the horses,—had subsided. Leaning on the handspike, he panted,—not entirely from fatigue. A terrible possibility of loss flashed suddenly across his mind, revealing to him, in a new light, the desperate force and desire of his love.
There was no time for meditation; his help was again wanted, and he expended therein the first hot tumult of his heart. By ones and twos the girls now gathered rapidly, and erelong they came out in a body to have a look at the raising. Their coming in no wise interrupted the labor; it was rather an additional stimulus, and the young men were right. Although they were not aware of the fact, they were never so handsome in their uneasy Sunday costume and awkward social ways, as thus in their free, joyous, and graceful element of labor. Greetings were interchanged, laughter and cheerful nothings animated the company, and when Martha Deane said,—
"We may be in the way, now—shall we go in?"
"No, Martha! No, girls! I'll get twice as much work out o' my twenty-five 'jours,' if you'll only stand where you are and look at 'em."
"Indeed!" Sally Fairthorn exclaimed. "But we have work to do as well as you. If you men can't get along without admiring spectators, we girls can."
The answer which Mark would have made to this pert speech was cut short by a loud cry of pain or terror from the old half-dismantled barn on the other side of the road. All eyes were at once turned in that direction, and beheld Joe Fairthorn rushing at full speed down the bank, making for the stables below. Mark, Gilbert Potter, and Sally, being nearest, hastened to the spot.
"You're in time!" cried Joe, clapping his hands in great glee. "I was awfully afeard he'd let go before I could git down to see him fall. Look quick—he can't hold on much longer!"
Looking into the dusky depths, they saw Jake, hanging by his hands to the edges of a hole in the floor above, yelling and kicking for dear life.
"You wicked, wicked boy!" exclaimed Sally, turning to Joe, "what have you been doing?"
"Oh," he answered, jerking and twisting with fearful delight, "there was such a nice hole in the floor! I covered it all over with straw, but I had to wait ever so long before Jake stepped onto it, and then he ketched hold goin' down, and nigh spoilt the fun."
Gilbert made for the barn-floor, to succor the helpless victim; but just as his step was heard on the boards, Jake's strength gave way. His fingers slipped, and with a last howl down he dropped, eight or ten feet, upon a bed of dry manure. Then his terror was instantly changed to wrath; he bounced upon his feet, seized a piece of rotten board, and made after Joe, who, anticipating the result, was already showing his heels down the road.
Meanwhile the other young ladies had followed, and so, after discussing the incident with a mixture of amusement and horror, they betook themselves to the house, to assist in the preparations for supper. Martha Deane's eyes took in the situation, and immediately perceived that it was capable of a picturesque improvement. In front of the house stood a superb sycamore, beyond which a trellis of grape-vines divided the yard from the kitchen-garden. Here, on the cool green turf, under shade, in the bright summer air, she proposed that the tables should be set, and found little difficulty in carrying her point. It was quite convenient to the outer kitchen door, and her ready invention found means of overcoming all other technical objections. Erelong the tables were transported to the spot, the cloth laid, and the aspect of the coming entertainment grew so pleasant to the eye, that there was a special satisfaction in the labor.
An hour before sundown the frame was completed; the skeleton of the great barn rose sharp against the sky, its fresh white-oak timber gilded by the sunshine. Mark drove in the last pin, gave a joyous shout, which was answered by an irregular cheer from below, and lightly clambered down by one of the stays. Then the black jugs were produced, and passed from mouth to mouth, and the ruddy, glowing young fellows drew their shirt-sleeves across their faces, and breathed the free, full breath of rest.
Gilbert Potter, sitting beside Mark,—the two were mutually drawn towards each other, without knowing or considering why,—had gradually worked himself into a resolution to be cool, and to watch the movements of his presumed rival. More than once, during the afternoon, he had detected Barton's eyes, fixed upon him with a more than accidental interest; looking up now, he met them again, but they were quickly withdrawn, with a shy, uneasy expression, which he could not comprehend. Was it possible that Barton conjectured the carefully hidden secret of his heart? Or had the country gossip been free with his name, in some way, during his absence? Whatever it was, the dearer interests at stake prevented him from dismissing it from his mind. He was preternaturally alert, suspicious, and sensitive.
He was therefore a little startled, when, as they were all rising in obedience to Farmer Hallowell's summons to supper, Barton suddenly took hold of his arm.
"Gilbert," said he, "we want your name in a list of young men we are getting together, for the protection of our neighborhood. There are suspicions, you know, that Sandy Flash has some friends hereabouts, though nobody seems to know exactly who they are; and our only safety is in clubbing together, to smoke him out and hunt him down, if he ever comes near us. Now, you're a good hunter"—
"Put me down, of course!" Gilbert interrupted, immensely relieved to find how wide his suspicions had fallen from the mark. "That would be a more stirring chase than our last; it is a shame and a disgrace that he is still at large."
"How many have we now?" asked Mark, who was walking on the other side of Barton.
"Twenty-one, with Gilbert," the latter replied.
"Well, as Sandy is said to count equal to twenty, we can meet him evenly, and have one to spare," laughed Mark.
"Has any one here ever seen the fellow?" asked Gilbert. "We ought to know his marks."
"He's short, thick-set, with a red face, jet-black hair, add heavy whiskers," said Barton.
"Jet-black hair!" Mark exclaimed; "why, it's red as brick-dust! And I never heard that he wore whiskers."
"Pshaw! what was I thinking of? Red, of course—I meant red, all the time," Barton hastily assented, inwardly cursing himself for a fool. It was evident that the less he conversed about Sandy Flash, the better.
Loud exclamations of surprise and admiration interrupted them. In the shade of the sycamore, on the bright green floor of the silken turf, stood the long supper-table, snowily draped, and heaped with the richest products of cellar, kitchen, and dairy. Twelve chickens, stewed in cream, filled huge dishes at the head and foot, while hams and rounds of cold roast-beef accentuated the space between. The interstices were filled with pickles, pies, jars of marmalade, bowls of honey, and plates of cheese. Four coffee-pots steamed in readiness on a separate table, and the young ladies, doubly charming in their fresh white aprons, stood waiting to serve the tired laborers. Clumps of crown-roses, in blossom, peered over the garden-paling, the woodbine filled the air with its nutmeg odors, and a broad sheet of sunshine struck the upper boughs of the arching sycamore, and turned them into a gilded canopy for the banquet. It might have been truly said of Martha Deane, that she touched nothing which she did not adorn.
In the midst of her duties as directress of the festival, she caught a glimpse of the three men, as they approached together, somewhat in the rear of the others. The embarrassed flush had not quite faded from Barton's face, and Gilbert's was touched by a lingering sign of his new trouble. Mark, light-hearted and laughing, precluded the least idea of mystery, but Gilbert's eye met hers with what she felt to be a painfully earnest, questioning expression. The next moment they were seated at the table, and her services were required on behalf of all.
Unfortunately for the social enjoyments of Kennett, eating had come to be regarded as a part of labor; silence and rapidity were its principal features. Board and platter were cleared in a marvellously short time, the plates changed, the dishes replenished, and then the wives and maidens took the places of the young men, who lounged off to the road-side, some to smoke their pipes, and all to gossip.
Before dusk, Giles made his appearance, with an old green bag under his arm. Barton, of course, had the credit of this arrangement, and it made him, for the time, very popular. After a pull at the bottle, Giles began to screw his fiddle, drawing now and then unearthly shrieks from its strings. The more eager of the young men thereupon stole to the house, assisted in carrying in the tables and benches, and in other ways busied themselves to bring about the moment when the aprons of the maidens could be laid aside, and their lively feet given to the dance. The moon already hung over the eastern wood, and a light breeze blew the dew-mist from the hill.
Finally, they were all gathered on the open bit of lawn between the house and the road. There was much hesitation at first, ardent coaxing and bashful withdrawal, until Martha broke the ice by boldly choosing Mark as her partner, apportioning Sally to Gilbert, and taking her place for a Scotch reel. She danced well and lightly, though in a more subdued manner than was then customary. In this respect, Gilbert resembled her; his steps, gravely measured, though sufficiently elastic, differed widely from Mark's springs, pigeon-wings, and curvets. Giles played with a will, swaying head and fiddle up and down and beating time with his foot; and the reel went off so successfully that there was no hesitation in getting up the next dance.
Mark was alert, and secured Sally this time. Perhaps Gilbert would have made the like exchange, but Mr. Alfred Barton stepped before him, and bore off Martha. There was no appearance of design about the matter, but Gilbert felt a hot tingle in his blood, and drew back a little to watch the pair. Martha moved through the dance as if but half conscious of her partner's presence, and he seemed more intent on making the proper steps and flourishes than on improving the few brief chances for a confidential word. When he spoke, it was with the unnecessary laugh, which is meant to show ease of manner, and betrays the want of it. Gilbert was puzzled; either the two were unconscious of the gossip which linked their names so intimately, (which seemed scarcely possible,) or they were studiedly concealing an actual tender relation. Among those simple-hearted people, the shyness of love rivalled the secrecy of crime, and the ways by which the lover sought to assure himself of his fortune were made very difficult by the shrinking caution with which he concealed the evidence of his passion. Gilbert knew how well the secret of his own heart was guarded, and the reflection, that others might be equally inscrutable, smote him with sudden pain.
The figures moved before him in the splendid moonlight, and with every motion of Martha's slender form the glow of his passion and the torment of his uncertainty increased. Then the dance dissolved, and while he still stood with folded arms, Sally Fairthorn's voice whispered eagerly in his ear,—
"Gilbert—Gilbert! now is your chance to engage Martha for the Virginia reel!"
"Let me choose my own partners, Sally!" he said, so sternly, that she opened wide her black eyes.
Martha, fanning herself with her handkerchief spread over a bent willow-twig, suddenly passed before him, like an angel in the moonlight. A soft, tender star sparkled in each shaded eye, a faint rose-tint flushed her cheeks, and her lips, slightly parted to inhale the clover-scented air, were touched with a sweet, consenting smile.
The word passed Gilbert's lips almost before he knew he had uttered it. Almost a whisper, but she heard, and, pausing, turned towards him.
"Will you dance with me now?"
"Am I your choice, or Sally's, Gilbert? I overheard your very independent remark."
"Mine!" he said, with only half truth. A deep color, shot into his face, and he knew the moonlight revealed it, but he forced his eyes to meet hers. Her face lost its playful expression, and she said, gently,—
"Then I accept."
They took their places, and the interminable Virginia reel—under which name the old-fashioned Sir Roger de Coverley was known—commenced. It so happened that Gilbert and Mr. Alfred Barton had changed their recent places. The latter stood outside the space allotted to the dance, and appeared to watch Martha Deane and her new partner. The reviving warmth in Gilbert's bosom instantly died, and gave way to a crowd of torturing conjectures. He went through his part in the dance so abstractedly, that when they reached the bottom of the line, Martha, out of friendly consideration for him, professed fatigue and asked his permission to withdraw from the company. He gave her his arm, and they moved to one of the benches.
"You, also, seem tired, Gilbert," she said.
"Yes—no!" he answered, confusedly, feeling that he was beginning to tremble. He stood before her as she sat, moved irresolutely, as if to leave, and then, facing her with a powerful effort, heexclaimed, —"Martha, do you know what people say about Alfred Barton and yourself?"
"It would make no difference if I did," she answered; "people will say anything."
"But is it—is it true?"
"Is what true?" she quietly asked.
"That he is to marry you!" The words were said, and he would have given his life to recall them. He dropped his head, not daring to meet her eyes.
Martha Deane rose to her feet, and stood before him. Then he lifted his head; the moon shone full upon it, while her face was in shadow, but he saw the fuller light of her eye, the firmer curve of her lip.
"Gilbert Potter," she said, "what right have you to ask me such a question?"
"I have no right—none," he answered, in a voice whose suppressed, husky tones were not needed to interpret the pain and bitterness of his face. Then he quickly turned away and left her.
Martha Deane remained a minute, motionless, standing as he left her. Her heart was beating fast, and she could not immediately trust herself to rejoin the gay company. But now the dance was over, and the inseparable Sally hastened forward.
"Martha!" cried the latter, hot and indignant, "what is the matter with Gilbert? He is behaving shamefully; I saw him just now turn away from you as if you were a—a shock of corn. And the way he snapped me up—it is really outrageous!"
"It seems so, truly," said Martha. But she knew that Gilbert Potter loved her, and with what a love.
Due to the abundant harvest of that year, and the universal need of extra labor for a time, Gilbert Potter would have found his burden too heavy, but for welcome help from an unexpected quarter. On the very morning that he first thrust his sickle into the ripened wheat, Deb Smith made her appearance, in a short-armed chemise and skirt of tow-cloth.
"I knowed ye'd want a hand," she said, "without sendin' to ask. I'll reap ag'inst the best man in Chester County, and you won't begrudge me my bushel o' wheat a day, when the harvest's in."
With this exordium, and a pull at the black jug under the elder-bushes in the fence-corner, she took her sickle and bent to work. It was her boast that she could beat both men and women on their own ground. She had spun her twenty-four cuts of yarn, in a day, and husked her fifty shocks of heavy corn. For Gilbert she did her best, amazing him each day with a fresh performance, and was well worth the additional daily quart of whiskey which she consumed.
In this pressing, sweltering labor, Gilbert dulled, though he could not conquer, his unhappy mood. Mary Potter, with a true mother's instinct, surmised a trouble, but the indications were too indefinite for conjecture. She could only hope that her son had not been called upon to suffer a fresh reproach, from the unremoved stain hanging over his birth.
Miss Betsy Lavender's company at this time was her greatest relief, in a double sense. No ten persons in Kennett possessed half the amount of confidences which were intrusted to this single lady; there was that in her face which said: "I only blab what I choose, and what's locked up, is locked up." This was true; she was the greatest distributor of news, and the closest receptacle of secrets—anomalous as the two characters may seem—that ever blessed a country community.
Miss Betsy, like Deb Smith, knew that she could be of service on the Potter farm, and, although her stay was perforce short, on account of an approaching house-warming near Doe-Run, her willing arms helped to tide Mary Potter over the heaviest labor of harvest. There were thus hours of afternoon rest, even in the midst of the busy season, and during one of these the mother opened her heart in relation to her son's silent, gloomy moods.