"You'll perhaps say it's all my fancy, Betsy," she said, "and indeed I hope it is; but I know you see more than most people, and two heads are better than one. How does Gilbert seem to you?"
Miss Betsy mused awhile, with an unusual gravity on her long face. "I dunno," she remarked, at length; "I've noticed that some men have their vapors and tantrums, jist as some women have, and Gilbert's of an age to—well, Mary, has the thought of his marryin' ever come into your head?"
"No!" exclaimed Mary Potter, with almost a frightened air.
"I'll be bound! Some women are lookin' out for daughter-in-laws before their sons have a beard, and others think theirs is only fit to wear short jackets when they ought to be raisin' up families. I dunno but what it'll be a cross to you, Mary,—you set so much store by Gilbert, and it's natural, like, that you should want to have him all to y'rself,—but a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife,—or somethin' like it. Yes, I say it, although nobody clove unto me."
Mary Potter said nothing. Her face grew very pale, and such an expression of pain came into it that Miss Betsy, who saw everything without seeming to look at anything, made haste to add a consoling word.
"Indeed, Mary," she said, "now I come to consider upon it, you won't have so much of a cross. You a'n't the mother you've showed yourself to be, if you're not anxious to see Gilbert happy, and as for leavin' his mother, there'll be no leavin' needful, in his case, but on the contrary, quite the reverse, namely, a comin' to you. And it's no bad fortin', though I can't say it of my own experience; but never mind, all the same, I've seen the likes—to have a brisk, cheerful daughter-in-law keepin' house, and you a-settin' by the window, knittin' and restin' from mornin' till night, and maybe little caps and clothes to make, and lots o' things to teach, that young wives don't know o' theirselves. And then, after awhile you'll be called 'Granny,' but you won't mind it, for grandchildren's a mighty comfort, and no responsibility like your own. Why, I've knowed women that never seen what rest or comfort was, till they'd got to be grandmothers!"
Something in this homely speech touched Mary Potter's heart, and gave her the relief of tears. "Betsy," she said at last, "I have had a heavy burden to bear, and it has made me weak."
"Made me weak," Miss Betsy repeated. "And no wonder. Don't think I can't guess that, Mary."
Here two tears trickled down the ridge of her nose, and she furtively wiped them off while adjusting her high comb. Mary Potter's face was turned towards her with a wistful, appealing expression, which she understood.
"Mary," she said, "I don't measure people with a two-foot rule. I take a ten-foot pole, and let it cover all that comes under it. Them that does their dooty to Man, I guess you won't have much trouble in squarin' accounts with the Lord. You know how I feel towards you without my tellin' of it, and them that's quick o' the tongue are always full o' the heart. Now, Mary, I know as plain as if you 'd said it, that there's somethin' on your mind, and you dunno whether to share it with me or not. What I say is, don't hurry yourself; I 'd rather show fellow- feelin' than cur'osity; so, see your way clear first, and when the tellin' me anything can help, tell it—not before."
"It wouldn't help now," Mary Potter responded.
"Wouldn't help now. Then wait awhile. Nothin' 's so dangerous as speakin' before the time, whomsoever and wheresoever. Folks talk o' bridlin' the tongue; let 'em git a blind halter, say I, and a curb-bit, and a martingale! Not that I set an example, Goodness knows, for mine runs like a mill-clapper, rickety-rick, rickety-rick; but never mind, it may be fast, but it isn't loose!"
In her own mysterious way, Miss Betsy succeeded in imparting a good deal of comfort to Mary Potter. She promised "to keep Gilbert under her eyes,"—which, indeed, she did, quite unconsciously to himself, during the last two days of her stay. At table she engaged him in conversation, bringing in references, in the most wonderfully innocent and random manner, to most of the families in the neighborhood. So skilfully did she operate that even Mary Potter failed to perceive her strategy. Deb Smith, sitting bare-armed on the other side of the table, and eating like six dragoons, was the ostensible target of her speech, and Gilbert was thus stealthily approached in flank. When she tied her bonnet- strings to leave, and the mother accompanied her to the gate, she left this indefinite consolation behind her:
"Keep up your sperrits, Mary. I think I'm on the right scent about Gilbert, but these young men are shy foxes. Let me alone, awhile yet, and whatever you do, let him alone. There's no danger—not even a snarl, I guess. Nothin' to bother your head about. You weren't his mother. Good lack! if I'm right, you'll see no more o' his tantrums in two months' time—and so, good-bye to you!"
The oats followed close upon the wheat harvest, and there was no respite from labor until the last load was hauled into the barn, filling its ample bays to the very rafters. Then Gilbert, mounted on his favorite Roger, rode up to Kennett Square one Saturday afternoon, in obedience to a message from Mr. Alfred Barton, informing him that the other gentlemen would there meet to consult measures for mutual protection against highwaymen in general and Sandy Flash in particular. As every young man in the neighborhood owned his horse and musket, nothing more was necessary than to adopt a system of action.
The meeting was held in the bar-room of the Unicorn, and as every second man had his own particular scheme to advocate, it was both long and noisy. Many thought the action unnecessary, but were willing, for the sake of the community, to give their services. The simplest plan—to choose a competent leader, and submit to his management—never occurred to these free and independent volunteers, until all other means of unity had failed. Then Alfred Barton, as the originator of the measure, was chosen, and presented the rude but sufficient plan which had been suggested to him by Dr. Deane. The men were to meet every Saturday evening at the Unicorn, and exchange intelligence; but they could be called together at any time by a summons from Barton. The landlord of the Unicorn was highly satisfied with this arrangement, but no one noticed the interest with which the ostler, an Irishman named Dougherty, listened to the discussion.
Barton's horse was hitched beside Gilbert's, and as the two were mounting, the former said,—
"If you're going home, Gilbert, why not come down our lane, and go through by Carson's. We can talk the matter over a little; if there's any running to do, I depend a good deal on your horse."
Gilbert saw no reason for declining this invitation, and the two rode side by side down the lane to the Barton farm-house. The sun was still an hour high, but a fragrant odor of broiled herring drifted out of the open kitchen-window. Barton thereupon urged him to stop and take supper, with a cordiality which we can only explain by hinting at his secret intention to become the purchaser of Gilbert's horse.
"Old-man Barton" was sitting in his arm-chair by the window, feebly brandishing his stick at the flies, and watching his daughter Ann, as she transferred the herrings from the gridiron to a pewter platter.
"Father, this is Gilbert Potter," said Mr. Alfred, introducing his guest.
The bent head was lifted with an effort, and the keen eyes were fixed on the young man, who came forward to take the crooked, half-extended hand.
"What Gilbert Potter?" he croaked.
Mr. Alfred bit his lips, and looked both embarrassed and annoyed. But he could do no less than say,—
"Mary Potter's son."
Gilbert straightened himself proudly, as if to face a coming insult. After a long, steady gaze, the old man gave one of his hieroglyphic snorts, and then muttered to him self,—"Looks like her."
During the meal, he was so occupied with the labor of feeding himself, that he seemed to forget Gilbert's presence. Bending his head sideways, from time to time, he jerked out a croaking question, which his son, whatever annoyance he might feel, was forced to answer according to the old man's humor.
"In at the Doctor's, boy?"
"A few minutes, daddy, before we came together."
"See her? Was she at home?"
"Yes," came very shortly from Mr. Alfred's lips; he clenched his fists under the table-cloth.
"That's right, boy; stick up to her!" and he chuckled and munched together in a way which it made Gilbert sick to hear. The tail of the lean herring on his plate remained untasted; he swallowed the thin tea which Miss Ann poured out, and the heavy "half-Indian" bread with a choking sensation. He had but one desire,—to get away from the room, out of human sight and hearing.
Barton, ill at ease, and avoiding Gilbert's eye, accompanied him to the lane. He felt that the old man's garrulity ought to be explained, but knew not what to say. Gilbert spared him the trouble—
"When are we to wish you joy, Barton?" he asked, in a cold, hard voice.
Barton laughed in a forced way, clutched at his tawny whisker, and with something like a flush on his heavy face, answered in what was meant to be an indifferent tone:
"Oh, it's a joke of the old man's—don't mean anything."
"It seems to be a joke of the whole neighborhood, then; I have heard it from others."
"Have you?" Barton eagerly asked. "Do people talk about it much? What do they say?"
This exhibition of vulgar vanity, as he considered it, was so repulsive to Gilbert, in his desperate, excited condition, that for a moment he did not trust himself to speak. Holding the bridle of his horse, he walked mechanically down the slope, Barton following him.
Suddenly he stopped, faced the latter, and said, in a stern voice: "I must know, first, whether you are betrothed to Martha Deane."
His manner was so unexpectedly solemn and peremptory that Barton, startled from his self-possession, stammered,—
"N-no: that is, not yet."
Another pause. Barton, curious to know how far gossip had already gone, repeated the question:
"Well, what do people say?"
"Some, that you and she will be married," Gilbert answered, speaking slowly and with difficulty, "and some that you won't. Which are right?"
"Damme, if I know!" Barton exclaimed, returning to his customary swagger. It was quite enough that the matter was generally talked about, and he had said nothing to settle it, in either way. But his manner, more than his words, convinced Gilbert that there was no betrothal as yet, and that the vanity of being regarded as the successful suitor of a lovely girl had a more prominent place than love, in his rival's heart. By so much was his torture lightened, and the passion of the moment subsided, after having so nearly betrayed itself.
"I say, Gilbert," Barton presently remarked, walking on towards the bars which led into the meadow-field; "it's time you were looking around in that way, hey?"
"It will be time enough when I am out of debt."
"But you ought, now, to have a wife in your house."
"I have a mother, Barton."
"That's true, Gilbert. Just as I have a father. The old man's queer, as you saw—kept me out of marrying; when I was young, and now drives me to it. I might ha' had children grown"—
He paused, laying his hand on the young man's shoulder. Gilbert fancied that he saw on Barton's coarse, dull face the fleeting stamp of some long-buried regret, and a little of the recent bitterness died out of his heart.
"Good-bye!" he said, offering his hand with greater ease than he would have thought possible, fifteen minutes sooner.
"Good-bye, Gilbert! Take care of Roger. Sandy Flash has a fine piece of horse-flesh, but you beat him once—Damnation! You could beat him, I mean. If he comes within ten miles of us, I'll have the summonses out in no time."
Gilbert cantered lightly down the meadow. The soft breath of the summer evening fanned his face, and something of the peace expressed in the rich repose of the landscape fell upon his heart. But peace, he felt, could only come to him through love. The shame upon his name—the slow result of labor—even the painful store of memories which the years had crowded in his brain—might all be lightly borne, or forgotten, could his arms once clasp the now uncertain treasure. A tender mist came over his deep, dark eyes, a passionate longing breathed in his softened lips, and he said to himself,—
"I would lie down and die at her feet, if that could make her happy; but how to live, and live without her?" This was a darkness which his mind refused to entertain. Love sees no justice on Earth or in Heaven, that includes not its own fulfilled desire.
Before reaching home, he tried to review the situation calmly. Barton's true relation to Martha Deane he partially suspected, so far as regarded the former's vanity and his slavish subservience to his father's will; but he was equally avaricious, and it was well known in Kennett that Martha possessed, or would possess, a handsome property in her own right. Gilbert, therefore, saw every reason to believe that Barton was an actual, if not a very passionate wooer.
That fact, however, was in itself of no great importance, unless Dr. Deane favored the suit. The result depended on Martha herself; she was called an "independent girl," which she certainly was, by contrast with other girls of the same age. It was this free, firm, independent, yet wholly womanly spirit which Gilbert honored in her, and which (unless her father's influence were too powerful) would yet save her to him, if she but loved him. Then he felt that his nervous, inflammable fear of Barton was incompatible with true honor for her, with trust in her pure and lofty nature. If she were so easily swayed, how could she stand the test which he was still resolved—nay, forced by circumstances—to apply?
With something like shame of his past excitement, yet with strength which had grown out of it, his reflections were terminated by Roger stopping at the barn-yard gate.
GUESTS AT POTTER'S.
A week or two later, there was trouble, but not of a very unusual kind, in the Fairthorn household. It was Sunday, the dinner was on the table, but Joe and Jake were not to be found. The garden, the corn-crib, the barn, and the grove below the house, were searched, without detecting the least sign of the truants. Finally Sally's eyes descried a remarkable object moving over the edge of the hill, from the direction of the Philadelphia road. It was a huge round creature, something like a cylindrical tortoise, slowly advancing upon four short, dark legs.
"What upon earth is that?" she cried.
All eyes were brought to bear upon this phenomenon, which gradually advanced until it reached the fence. Then it suddenly separated into three parts, the round back falling off, whereupon it was seized by two figures and lifted upon the fence.
"It's the best wash-tub, I do declare!" said Sally; "whatever have they been doing with it?"
Having crossed the fence, the boys lifted the inverted tub over their heads, and resumed their march. When they came near enough, it could be seen that their breeches and stockings were not only dripping wet, but streaked with black swamp-mud. This accounted for the unsteady, hesitating course of the tub, which at times seemed inclined to approach the house, and then tacked away towards the corner of the barn-yard wall. A few vigorous calls, however, appeared to convince it that the direct course was the best, for it set out with a grotesque bobbing trot, which brought it speedily to the kitchen-door.
Then Joe and Jake crept out, dripping to the very crowns of their heads, with their Sunday shirts and jackets in a horrible plight. The truth, slowly gathered from their mutual accusations, was this: they had resolved to have a boating excursion on Redley Creek, and had abstracted the tub that morning when nobody was in the kitchen. Slipping down through the wood, they had launched it in a piece of still water. Joe got in first, and when Jake let go of the tub, it tilted over; then he held it for Jake, who squatted in the centre, and floated successfully down the stream until Joe pushed him with a pole, and made the tub lose its balance. Jake fell into the mud, and the tub drifted away; they had chased it nearly to the road before they recovered it.
"You bad boys, what shall I do with you?" cried Mother Fairthorn. "Put on your every-day clothes, and go to the garret. Sally, you can ride down to Potter's with the pears; they won't keep, and I expect Gilbert has no time to come for any, this summer."
"I'll go," said Sally, "but Gilbert don't deserve it. The way he snapped me up at Hallowell's—and he hasn't been here since!"
"Don't be hard on him, Sally!" said the kindly old woman; nor was Sally's more than a surface grudge. She had quite a sisterly affection for Gilbert, and was rather hurt than angered by what he had said in the fret of a mood which she could not comprehend.
The old mare rejoiced in a new bridle, with a head-stall of scarlet morocco, and Sally would have made a stately appearance, but for the pears, which, stowed in the two ends of a grain-bag, and hung over the saddle, would not quite be covered by her riding-skirt. She trudged on slowly, down the lonely road, but had barely crossed the level below Kennett Square, when there came a quick sound of hoofs behind her.
It was Mark and Martha Deane, who presently drew rein, one on either side of her.
"Don't ride fast, please," Sally begged; "I can't, for fear of smashing the pears. Where are you going?"
"To Falconer's," Martha replied; "Fanny promised to lend me some new patterns; but I had great trouble in getting Mark to ride with me."
"Not, if you will ride along, Sally," Mark rejoined. "We'll go with you first, and then you'll come with us. What do you say, Martha?"
"I'll answer for Martha!" cried Sally; "I am going to Potter's, and it's directly on your way."
"Just the thing," said Mark; "I have a little business with Gilbert."
It was all settled before Martha's vote had been taken, and she accepted the decision without remark. She was glad, for Sally's sake, that they had fallen in with her, for she had shrewdly watched Mark, and found that, little by little, a serious liking for her friend was sending its roots down through the gay indifference of his surface mood. Perhaps she was not altogether calm in spirit at the prospect of meeting Gilbert Potter; but, if so, no sign of the agitation betrayed itself in her face.
Gilbert, sitting on the porch, half-hidden behind a mass of blossoming trumpet-flower, was aroused from his Sabbath reverie by the sound of hoofs. Sally Fairthorn's voice followed, reaching even the ears of Mary Potter, who thereupon issued from the house to greet the unexpected guest. Mark had already dismounted, and although Sally protested that she would remain in the saddle, the strong arms held out to her proved too much of a temptation; it was so charming to put her hands on his shoulders, and to have his take her by the waist, and lift her to the ground so lightly!
While Mark was performing this service, (and evidently with as much deliberation as possible,) Gilbert could do no less than offer his aid to Martha Deane, whose sudden apparition he had almost incredulously realized. A bright, absorbing joy kindled his sad, strong features into beauty, and Martha felt her cheeks grow warm, in spite of herself, as their eyes met. The hands that touched her waist were firm, but no hands had ever before conveyed to her heart such a sense of gentleness and tenderness, and though her own gloved hand rested but a moment on his shoulder, the action seemed to her almost like a caress.
"How kind of you—all—to come!" said Gilbert, feeling that his voice expressed too much, and his words too little.
"The credit of coming is not mine, Gilbert," she answered. "We overtook Sally, and gave her our company for the sake of hers, afterwards. But I shall like to take a look at your place; how pleasant you are making it!"
"You are the first to say so; I shall always remember that!"
Mary Potter now advanced, with grave yet friendly welcome, and would have opened her best room to the guests, but the bowery porch, with its swinging scarlet bloom, haunted by humming-birds and hawk-moths, wooed them "o take their seats in its shade. The noise of a plunging cascade, which restored the idle mill-water to its parted stream, made a mellow, continuous music in the air. The high road was visible at one point, across the meadow, just where it entered the wood; otherwise, the seclusion of the place was complete.
"You could not have found a lovelier home, M—Mary," said Martha, terrified to think how near the words "Mrs. Potter" had been to her lips. But she had recovered herself so promptly that the hesitation was not noticed.
"Many people think the house ought to be upon the road," Mary Potter replied, "but Gilbert and I like it as it is. Yes, I hope it will be a good home, when we can call it our own."
"Mother is a little impatient," said Gilbert, "and perhaps I am also. But if we have health, it won't be very long to wait."
"That's a thing soon learned!" cried Mark. "I mean to be impatient. Why, when I was doing journey-work, I was as careless as the day's long, and so from hand to mouth didn't trouble me a bit; but now, I ha'n't been undertaking six months, and it seems that I feel worried if I don't get all the jobs going!"
Martha smiled, well pleased at this confession of the change, which she knew better how to interpret than Mark himself. But Sally, in her innocence, remarked:
"Oh Mark! that isn't right."
"I suppose it isn't. But maybe you've got to wish for more than you get, in order to get what you do. I guess I take things pretty easy, on the whole, for it's nobody's nature to be entirely satisfied. Gilbert, will you be satisfied when your farm's paid for?"
"No!" answered Gilbert with an emphasis, the sound of which, as soon as uttered, smote him to the heart. He had not thought of his mother. She clasped her hands convulsively, and looked at him, but his face was turned away.
"Why, Gilbert!" exclaimed Sally.
"I mean," he said, striving to collect his thoughts, "that there is something more than property"—but how should he go on? Could he speak of the family relation, then and there? Of honor in the community, the respect of his neighbors, without seeming to refer to the brand upon his and his mother's name? No; of none of these things. With sudden energy, he turned upon himself, and continued:
"I shall not feel satisfied until I am cured of my own impatience—until I can better control my temper, and get the weeds and rocks and stumps out of myself as well as out of my farm."
"Then you've got a job!" Mark laughed. "I think your fields are pretty tolerable clean, what I've seen of 'em. Nobody can say they're not well fenced in. Why, compared with you, I'm an open common, like the Wastelands, down on Whitely Creek, and everybody's cattle run over me!"
Mark's thoughtlessness was as good as tact. They all laughed heartily at his odd continuation of the simile, and Martha hastened to say:
"For my part, I don't think you are quite such an open common, Mark, or Gilbert so well fenced in. But even if you are, a great many things may be hidden in a clearing, and some people are tall enough to look over a high hedge. Betsy Lavender says some men tell all about themselves without saying a word, while others talk till Doomsday and tell nothing."
"And tell nothing," gravely repeated Mark, whereat no one could repress a smile, and Sally laughed outright.
Mary Potter had not mingled much in the society of Kennett, and did not know that this imitation of good Miss Betsy was a very common thing, and had long ceased to mean any harm. It annoyed her, and she felt it her duty to say a word for her friend.
"There is not a better or kinder-hearted woman in the county," she said, "than just Betsy Lavender. With all her odd ways of speech, she talks the best of sense and wisdom, and I don't know who I'd sooner take for a guide in times of trouble."
"You could not give Betsy a higher place than she deserves," Martha answered. "We all esteem her as a dear friend, and as the best helper where help is needed. She has been almost a mother to me."
Sally felt rebuked, and exclaimed tearfully, with her usual impetuous candor,—"Now you know I meant no harm; it was all Mark's doing!"
"If you've anything against me, Sally, I forgive you for it. It isn't in my nature to bear malice," said Mark, with so serious an air, that poor Sally was more bewildered than ever. Gilbert and Martha, however, could not restrain their laughter at the fellow's odd, reckless humor, whereupon Sally, suddenly comprehending the joke, sprang from her seat. Mark leaped from the porch, and darted around the house, followed by Sally with mock-angry cries and brandishings of her riding-whip.
The scene was instantly changed to Gilbert's eyes. It was wonderful! There, on the porch of the home he so soon hoped to call his own, sat his mother, Martha Deane, and himself. The two former had turned towards each other, and were talking pleasantly; the hum of the hawk-moths, the mellow plunge of the water, and the stir of the soft summer breeze in the leaves, made a sweet accompaniment to their voices. His brain grew dizzy with yearning to fix that chance companionship, and make it the boundless fortune of his life. Under his habit of repression, his love for her had swelled and gathered to such an intensity, that it seemed he must either speak or die.
Presently the rollicking couple made their appearance. Sally's foot had caught in her riding-skirt as she ran, throwing her at full length on the sward, and Mark, in picking her up, had possessed himself of the whip. She was not hurt in the least, (her life having been a succession of tears and tumbles,) but Mark's arm found it necessary to encircle her waist, and she did not withdraw from the support until they came within sight of the porch.
It was now time for the guests to leave, but Mary Potter must first produce her cakes and currant-wine,—the latter an old and highly superior article, for there had been, alas! too few occasions which called for its use.
"Gilbert," said Mark, as they moved towards the gate, "why can't you catch and saddle Roger, and ride with us? You have nothing to do?"
"No; I would like—but where are you going?"
"To Falconer's; that is, the girls; but we won't stay for supper—I don't fancy quality company."
"Nor I," said Gilbert, with a gloomy face. "I have never visited Falconer's, and they might not thank you for introducing me."
He looked at Martha, as he spoke. She understood him, and gave him her entire sympathy and pity,—yet it was impossible for her to propose giving up the visit, solely for his sake. It was not want of independence, but a maidenly shrinking from the inference of the act, which kept her silent.
Mark, however, cut through the embarrassment. "I'll tell you what, Gilbert!" he exclaimed, "you go and get Roger from the field, while we ride on to Falconer's. If the girls will promise not to be too long about their patterns and their gossip, and what not, we can be back to the lane-end by the time you get there; then we'll ride up t' other branch o' Redley Creek, to the cross-road, and out by Hallowell's. I want to have a squint at the houses and barns down that way; nothing like business, you know!"
Mark thought he was very cunning in thus disposing of Martha during the ride, unconscious of the service he was offering to Gilbert. The latter's eagerness shone from his eyes, but still he looked at Martha, trembling for a sign that should decide his hesitation. Her lids fell before his gaze, and a faint color came into her face, yet she did not turn away. This time it was Sally Fairthorn who spoke.
"Five minutes will be enough for us, Mark," she said. "I'm not much acquainted with Fanny Falconer. So, Gilbert, hoist Martha into her saddle, and go for Roger."
He opened the gate for them, and then climbed over the fence into the hill-field above his house. Having reached the crest, he stopped to watch the three riding abreast, on a smart trot, down the glen. Sally looked back, saw him, and waved her hand; then Mark and Martha turned, giving no sign, yet to his eyes there seemed a certain expectancy in the movement.
Roger came from the farthest corner of the field at his call, and followed him down the hill to the bars, with the obedient attachment of a dog. When he had carefully brushed and then saddled the horse, he went to seek his mother, who was already making preparations for their early supper.
"Mother," he said, "I am going to ride a little way."
She looked at him wistfully and questioningly, as if she would fain have asked more; but only said,—
"Won't you be home to supper, Gilbert?"
"I can't tell, but don't wait a minute, if I'm not here when it's ready."
He turned quickly, as if fearful of a further question, and the next moment was in the saddle.
The trouble in Mary Potter's face increased. Sighing sorely, she followed to the bridge of the barn, and presently descried him, beyond the mill, cantering lightly down the road. Then, lifting her arms, as in a blind appeal for help, she let them fall again, and walked slowly back to the house.
THE EVENTS OF AN EVENING.
At the first winding of the creek, Gilbert drew rein, with a vague, half-conscious sense of escape. The eye which had followed him thus far was turned away at last.
For half a mile the road lay through a lovely solitude of shade and tangled bowery thickets, beside the stream. The air was soft and tempered, and filled the glen like the breath of some utterly peaceful and happy creature; yet over Gilbert's heart there brooded another atmosphere than this. The sultriness that precedes an emotional crisis weighed heavily upon him.
No man, to whom Nature has granted her highest gift,—that of expression,—can understand the pain endured by one of strong feelings, to whom not only this gift has been denied, but who must also wrestle with an inherited reticence. It is well that in such cases a kindly law exists, to aid the helpless heart. The least portion of the love which lights the world has been told in words; it works, attracts, and binds in silence. The eye never knows its own desire, the hand its warmth, the voice its tenderness, nor the heart its unconscious speech through these, and a thousand other vehicles. Every endeavor to hide the special fact betrays the feeling from which it sprang.
Like all men of limited culture, Gilbert felt his helplessness keenly. His mind, usually clear in its operations, if somewhat slow and cautious, refused to assist him here; it lay dead or apathetic in an air surcharged with passion. An anxious expectancy enclosed him with stifling pressure; he felt that it must be loosened, but knew not how. His craving for words—words swift, clear, and hot as lightning, through which his heart might discharge itself—haunted him like a furious hunger.
The road, rising out of the glen, passed around the brow of a grassy hill, whence he could look across a lateral valley to the Falconer farm-house. Pausing here, he plainly descried a stately "chair" leaning on its thills, in the shade of the weeping-willow, three horses hitched side by side to the lane-fence, and a faint glimmer of color between the mounds of box which almost hid the porch. It was very evident to his mind that the Falconers had other visitors, and that neither Mark nor Sally, (whatever might be Martha Deane's inclination,) would be likely to prolong their stay; so he slowly rode on, past the lane-end, and awaited them at the ford beyond.
It was not long—though the wood on the western hill already threw its shadow into the glen—before the sound of voices and hoofs emerged from the lane. Sally's remark reached him first:
"They may be nice people enough, for aught I know, but their ways are not my ways, and there's no use in trying to mix them."
"That's a fact!" said Mark. "Hallo, here's Gilbert, ahead of us!"
They rode into the stream together, and let their horses drink from the clear, swift-flowing water. In Mark's and Sally's eyes, Gilbert was as grave and impassive as usual, but Martha Deane was conscious of a strange, warm, subtle power, which seemed to envelop her as she drew near him. Her face glowed with a sweet, unaccustomed flush; his was pale, and the shadow of his brows lay heavier upon his eyes. Fate was already taking up the invisible, floating filaments of these two existences, and weaving them together.
Of course it happened, and of course by the purest accident, that Mark and Sally first reached the opposite bank, and took the narrow wood-road, where the loose, briery sprays of the thickets brushed them on either side. Sally's hat, and probably her head, would have been carried off by a projecting branch, had not Mark thrown his arm around her neck and forcibly bent her forwards. Then she shrieked and struck at him with her riding-whip, while Mark's laugh woke all the echoes of the woods.
"I say, Gilbert!" he cried, turning back in his saddle, "I'll hold you responsible for Martha's head; it's as much as I can do to keep Sally's on her shoulders."
Gilbert looked at his companion, as she rode slowly by his side, through the cool, mottled dusk of the woods. She had drawn the strings of her beaver through a buttonhole of her riding-habit, and allowed it to hang upon her back. The motion of the horse gave a gentle, undulating grace to her erect, self-reliant figure, and her lips, slightly parted, breathed maidenly trust and consent. She turned her face towards him and smiled, at Mark's words.
"The warning is unnecessary," he said. "You will give me no chance to take care of you, Martha."
"Is it not better so?" she asked.
He hesitated; he would have said "No," but finally evaded a direct answer.
"I would be glad enough to do you a service—even so little as that," were his words, and the tender tone in which they were spoken made itself evident to his own ears.
"I don't doubt it, Gilbert," she answered, so kindly and cordially that he was smitten to the heart. Had she faltered in her reply,—had she blushed and kept silence,—his hope would have seized the evidence and rushed to the trial; but this was the frankness of friendship, not the timidity of love. She could not, then, suspect his passion, and ah, how the risks of its utterance were multiplied!
Meanwhile, the wonderful glamour of her presence—that irresistible influence which at once takes hold of body and spirit—had entered into every cell of his blood. Thought and memory were blurred into nothingness by this one overmastering sensation. Riding through the lonely woods, out of shade into yellow, level sunshine, in the odors of minty meadows and moist spices of the creekside, they twain seemed to him to be alone in the world. If they loved not each other, why should not the leaves shrivel and fall, the hills split asunder, and the sky rain death upon them? Here she moved at his side—he could stretch out his hand and touch her; his heart sprang towards her, his arms ached for very yearning to clasp her,—his double nature demanded her with the will and entreated for her with the affection! Under all, felt though not suspected, glowed the vast primal instinct upon which the strength of manhood and of womanhood is based.
Sally and Mark, a hundred yards in advance, now thrown into sight and now hidden by the windings of the road, were so pleasantly occupied with each other that they took no heed of the pair behind them. Gilbert was silent; speech was mockery, unless it gave the words which he did not dare to pronounce. His manner was sullen and churlish in Martha's eyes, he suspected; but so it must be, unless a miracle were sent to aid him. She, riding as quietly, seemed to meditate, apparently unconscious of his presence; how could he know that she had never before been so vitally conscious of it?
The long rays of sunset withdrew to the tree-tops, and a deeper hush fell upon the land. The road which had mounted along the slope of a stubble-field, now dropped again into a wooded hollow, where a tree, awkwardly felled, lay across it. Roger pricked up his ears and leaped lightly over. Martha's horse followed, taking the log easily, but she reined him up the next moment, uttering a slight exclamation, and stretched out her hand wistfully towards Gilbert.
To seize it and bring Roger to a stand was the work of an instant. "What is the matter, Martha?" he cried.
"I think the girth is broken," said she. "The saddle is loose, and I was nigh losing my balance. Thank you, I can sit steadily now."
Gilbert sprang to the ground and hastened to her assistance.
"Yes, it is broken," he said, "but I can give you mine. You had better dismount, though; see, I will hold the pommel firm with one hand, while I lift you down with the other. Not too fast, I am strong; place your hands on my shoulders—so!"
She bent forward and laid her hands upon his shoulders. Then, as she slid gently down, his right arm crept around her waist, holding her so firmly and securely that she had left the saddle and hung in its support while her feet had not yet touched the earth. Her warm breath was on Gilbert's forehead; her bosom swept his breast, and the arm that until then had supported, now swiftly, tenderly, irresistibly embraced her. Trembling, thrilling from head to foot, utterly unable to control the mad impulse of the moment, he drew her to his heart and laid his lips to hers. All that he would have said—all, and more than all, that words could have expressed—was now said, without words. His kiss clung as if it were the last this side of death—clung until he felt that Martha feebly strove to be released.
The next minute they stood side by side, and Gilbert, by a revulsion equally swift and overpowering, burst into a passion of tears.
He turned and leaned his head against Roger's neck. Presently a light touch came upon his shoulder.
He faced her then, and saw that her own cheeks were wet. "Martha!" he cried, "unless you love me with a love like mine for you, you can never forgive me!"
She came nearer; she laid her arms around him, and lifted her face to his. Then she said, in a tender, tremulous whisper,—
"Gilbert—Gilbert! I forgive you."
A pang of wonderful, incredulous joy shot through his heart. Exalted by his emotion above the constraints of his past and present life, he arose and stood free and strong in his full stature as a man. He held her softly and tenderly embraced, and a purer bliss than the physical delight of her warm, caressing presence shone upon his face as he asked,—
"Knowing what I am?"
"Because I know what you are, Gilbert!"
He bowed his head upon her shoulder, and she felt softer tears—tears which came this time without sound or pang—upon her neck. It was infinitely touching to see this strong nature so moved, and the best bliss that a true woman's heart can feel—the knowledge of the boundless bounty which her love brings with it—opened upon her consciousness. A swift instinct revealed to her the painful struggles of Gilbert's life,—the stern, reticent strength they had developed,—the anxiety and the torture of his long-suppressed passion, and the power and purity of that devotion with which his heart had sought and claimed her. She now saw him in his true character,—firm as steel, yet gentle as dew, patient and passionate, and purposely cold only to guard the sanctity of his emotions.
The twilight deepened in the wood, and Roger, stretching and shaking himself, called the lovers to themselves. Gilbert lifted his head and looked into Martha's sweet, unshrinking eyes.
"May the Lord bless you, as you have blessed me!" he said, solemnly. "Martha, did you guess this before?"
"Yes," she answered, "I felt that it must be so."
"And you did not draw back from me—you did not shun the thought of me! You were"—
He paused; was there not blessing enough, or must he curiously question its growth?
Martha, however, understood the thought in his mind. "No, Gilbert!" she said, "I cannot truly say that I loved you at the time when I first discovered your feeling towards me. I had always esteemed and trusted you, and you were much in my mind; but when I asked myself if I could look upon you as my husband, my heart hesitated with the answer. I did not deserve your affection then, because I could not repay it in the same measure. But, although the knowledge seemed to disturb me, sometimes, yet it was very grateful, and therefore I could not quite make up my mind to discourage you. Indeed, I knew not what was right to do, but I found myself more and more strongly drawn towards you; a power came from you when we met, that touched and yet strengthened me, and then I thought, 'Perhaps I do love him.' To-day, when I first saw your face, I knew that I did. I felt your heart calling to me like one that cries for help, and mine answered. It has been slow to speak, Gilbert, but I know it has spoken truly at last!"
He replaced the broken girth, lifted her into the saddle, mounted his own horse, and they resumed their ride along the dusky valley. But how otherwise their companionship now!
"Martha," said Gilbert, leaning towards her and touching her softly as he spoke, as if fearful that some power in his words might drive them apart,—"Martha, have you considered what I am called? That the family name I bear is in itself a disgrace? Have you imagined what it is to love one so dishonored as I am?"
The delicate line of her upper lip grew clear and firm again, temporarily losing its relaxed gentleness. "I have thought of it," she answered, "but not in that way. Gilbert, I honored you before I loved you. I will not say that this thing makes no difference, for it does—a difference in the name men give you, a difference in your work through life (for you must deserve more esteem to gain as much as other men)—and a difference in my duty towards you. They call me 'independent,' Gilbert, because, though a woman, I dare to think for myself; I know not whether they mean praise by the word, or no; but I think it would frighten away the thought of love from many men. It has not frightened you; and you, however you were born, are the faithfullest and best man I know. I love you with my whole heart, and I will be true to you!"
With these words, Martha stretched out her hand. Gilbert took and held it, bowing his head fondly over it, and inwardly thanking God that the test which his pride had exacted was over at last. He could reward her truth, spare her the willing sacrifice,—and he would.
"Martha," he said, "if I sometimes doubted whether you could share my disgrace, it was because I had bitter cause to feel how heavy it is to bear. God knows I would have come to you with a clean and honorable name, if I could have been patient to wait longer in uncertainty. But I could not tell how long the time might be,—I could not urge my mother, nor even ask her to explain"—
"No, no, Gilbert! Spare her!" Martha interrupted.
"I have, Martha,—God bless you for the words!—and I will; it would be the worst wickedness not to be patient, now! But I have not yet told you"—
A loud halloo rang through the dusk.
"It is Mark's voice," said Martha; "answer him!"
Gilbert shouted, and a double cry instantly replied. They had reached the cross-road from New-Garden, and Mark and Sally, who had been waiting impatiently for a quarter of an hour, rode to meet them. "Did you lose the road?" "Whatever kept you so long?" were the simultaneous questions.
"My girth broke in jumping over the tree," Martha answered, in her clear, untroubled voice. "I should have been thrown off, but for Gilbert's help. He had to give me his own girth, and so we have ridden slowly, since he has none."
"Take my breast-strap," said Mark.
"No," said Gilbert, "I can ride Roger bareback, if need be, with the saddle on my shoulder."
Something in his voice struck Mark and Sally singularly. It was grave and subdued, yet sweet in its tones as never before; he had not yet descended from the solemn exaltation of his recent mood. But the dusk sheltered his face, and its new brightness was visible only to Martha's eyes.
Mark and Sally again led the way, and the lovers followed in silence up the hill, until they struck the Wilmington road, below Hallowell's. Here Gilbert felt that it was best to leave them.
"Well, you two are cheerful company!" exclaimed Sally, as they checked their horses. "Martha, how many words has Gilbert spoken to you this evening?"
"As many as I have spoken to him," Martha answered; "but I will say three more,—Good-night, Gilbert!"
"Good-night!" was all he dared say, in return, but the pressure of his hand burned long upon her fingers.
He rode homewards in the starlight, transformed by love and gratitude, proud, tender, strong to encounter any fate. His mother sat in the lonely kitchen, with the New Testament in her lap; she had tried to read, but her thoughts wandered from the consoling text. The table was but half-cleared, and the little old teapot still squatted beside the coals.
Gilbert strove hard to assume his ordinary manner, but he could not hide the radiant happiness that shone from his eyes and sat upon his lips.
"You've not had supper?" Mary Potter asked.
"No, mother! but I'm sorry you kept things waiting; I can do well enough without."
"It's not right to go without your regular meals, Gilbert. Sit up to the table!"
She poured out the tea, and Gilbert ate and drank in silence. His mother said nothing, but he knew that her eye was upon him, and that he was the subject of her thoughts. Once or twice he detected a wistful, questioning expression, which, in his softened mood, touched him almost like a reproach.
When the table had been cleared and everything put away, she resumed her seat, breathing an unconscious sigh as she dropped her hands into her lap. Gilbert felt that he must now speak, and only hesitated while he considered how he could best do so, without touching her secret and mysterious trouble.
"Mother!" he said at last, "I have something to tell you."
"Maybe it'll seem good news to you; but maybe not. I have asked Martha Deane to be my wife!"
He paused, and looked at her. She clasped her hands, leaned forward, and fixed her dark, mournful eyes intently upon his face.
"I have been drawn towards her for a long time," Gilbert continued. "It has been a great trouble to me, because she is so pretty, and withal so proud in the way a girl should be,—I liked her pride, even while it made me afraid,—and they say she is rich also. It might seem like looking too high, mother, but I couldn't help it."
"There's no woman too high for you, Gilbert!" Mary Potter exclaimed. Then she went on, in a hurried, unsteady voice: "It isn't that—I mistrusted it would come so, some day, but I hoped—only for your good, my boy, only for that—I hoped not so soon. You're still young—not twenty-five, and there's debt on the farm;—couldn't you ha' waited a little, Gilbert?"
"I have waited, mother," he said, slightly turning away his head, that he might not see the tender reproach in her face, which her question seemed to imply. "I did wait—and for that reason. I wanted first to be independent, at least; and I doubt that I would have spoken so soon, but there were others after Martha, and that put the thought of losing her into my head. It seemed like a matter of life or death. Alfred Barton tried to keep company with her—he didn't deny it to my face; the people talked of it. Folks always say more than they know, to be sure, but then, the chances were so much against me, mother! I was nigh crazy, sometimes. I tried my best and bravest to be patient, but to-day we were riding alone,—Mark and Sally gone ahead,—and—and then it came from my mouth, I don't know how; I didn't expect it. But I shouldn't have doubted Martha; she let me speak; she answered me—I can't tell you her words, mother, though I'll never forget one single one of 'em to my dying day. She gave me her hand and said she would be true to me forever."
Gilbert waited, as if his mother might here speak, but she remained silent.
"Do you understand, mother?" he continued. "She pledged herself to me—she will be my wife. And I asked her—you won't be hurt, for I felt it to be my duty—whether she knew how disgraced I was in the eyes of the people,—whether my name would not be a shame for her to bear? She couldn't know what we know: she took me even with the shame,—and she looked prouder than ever when she stood by me in the thought of it! She would despise me, now, if I should offer to give her up on account of it, but she may know as much as I do, mother? She deserves it."
There was no answer. Gilbert looked up.
Mary Potter sat perfectly still in her high rocking-chair. Her arms hung passively at her sides, and her head leaned back and was turned to one side, as if she were utterly exhausted. But in the pale face, the closed eyes, and the blue shade about the parted lips, he saw that she was unconscious of his words. She had fainted.
TWO OLD MEN.
Shortly after Martha Deane left home for her eventful ride to Falconer's, the Doctor also mounted his horse and rode out of the village in the opposite direction. Two days before, he had been summoned to bleed "Old-man Barton," on account of a troublesome buzzing in the head, and, although not bidden to make a second professional visit, there was sufficient occasion for him to call upon his patient in the capacity of a neighbor.
Dr. Deane never made a step outside the usual routine of his business without a special and carefully considered reason. Various causes combined to inspire his movement in the present instance. The neighborhood was healthy; the village was so nearly deserted that no curious observers lounged upon the tavern-porch, or sat upon the horse-block at the corner-store; and Mr. Alfred Barton had been seen riding towards Avondale. There would have been safety in a much more unusual proceeding; this, therefore, might be undertaken in that secure, easy frame of mind which the Doctor both cultivated and recommended to the little world around him.
The Barton farm-house was not often molested by the presence of guests, and he found it as quiet and lifeless as an uninhabited island of the sea. Leaving his horse hitched in the shade of the corn-crib, he first came upon Giles, stretched out under the holly-bush, and fast asleep, with his head upon his jacket. The door and window of the family-room were open, and Dr. Deane, walking softly upon the thick grass, saw that Old-man Barton was in his accustomed seat. His daughter Ann was not visible; she was at that moment occupied in taking out of the drawers of her queer old bureau, in her narrow bedroom up-stairs, various bits of lace and ribbon, done up in lavender, and perchance (for we must not be too curious) a broken sixpence or a lock of dead hair.
The old man's back was towards the window, but the Doctor could hear that papers were rustling and crackling in his trembling hands, and could see that an old casket of very solid oak, bound with iron, stood on the table at his elbow. Thereupon he stealthily retraced his steps to the gate, shut it with a sharp snap, cleared his throat, and mounted the porch with slow, loud, deliberate steps. When he reached the open door, he knocked upon the jamb without looking into the room. There was a jerking, dragging sound for a moment, and then the old man's snarl was heard:
Dr. Deane entered, smiling, and redolent of sweet-marjoram. "Well, Friend Barton," he said, "let's have a look at thee now!"
Thereupon he took a chair, placed it in front of the old man, and sat down upon it, with his legs spread wide apart, and his ivory-headed cane (which he also used as a riding-whip) bolt upright between them. He was very careful not to seem to see that a short quilt, which the old man usually wore over his knees, now lay in a somewhat angular heap upon the table.
"Better, I should say,—yes, decidedly better," he remarked, nodding his head gravely. "I had nothing to do this afternoon,—the neighborhood is very healthy,—and thought I would ride down and see how thee's getting on. Only a friendly visit, thee knows."
The old man had laid one shaking arm and crooked hand upon the edge of the quilt, while with the other he grasped his hickory staff. His face had a strange, ashy color, through which the dark, corded veins on his temples showed with singular distinctness. But his eye was unusually bright and keen, and its cunning, suspicious expression did not escape the Doctor's notice.
"A friendly visit—ay!" he growled—"not like Doctors' visits generally, eh? Better?—of course I'm better. It's no harm to tap one of a full-blooded breed. At our age, Doctor, a little blood goes a great way."
"No doubt, no doubt!" the Doctor assented. "Especially in thy case. I often speak of thy wonderful constitution."
"Neighborly, you say, Doctor—only neighborly?" asked the old man. The Doctor smiled, nodded, and seemed to exhale a more powerful herbaceous odor.
"Mayhap, then, you'll take a bit of a dram?—a thimble-full won't come amiss. You know the shelf where it's kep'—reach to, and help yourself, and then help me to a drop."
Dr. Deane rose and took down the square black bottle and the diminutive wine-glass beside it. Half-filling the latter,—a thimble-full in verity,—he drank it in two or three delicate little sips, puckering his large under-lip to receive them.
"It's right to have the best, Friend Barton," he said, "there's more life in it!" as he filled the glass to the brim and held it to the slit in the old man's face.
The latter eagerly drew off the top fulness, and then seized the glass in his shaky hand. "Can help myself," he croaked—"don't need waitin' on; not so bad as that!"
His color presently grew, and his neck assumed a partial steadiness. "What news, what news?" he asked. "You gather up a plenty in your goin's-around. It's little I get, except the bones, after they've been gnawed over by the whole neighborhood."
"There is not much now, I believe," Dr. Deane observed.
"Jacob and Leah Gilpin have another boy, but thee hardly knows them, I think. William Byerly died last week in Birmingham; thee's heard of him,—he had a wonderful gift of preaching. They say Maryland cattle will be cheap, this fall: does Alfred intend to fatten many? I saw him riding towards New-Garden."
"I guess he will," the old man answered,—"must make somethin' out o' the farm. That pastur'-bottom ought to bring more than it does."
"Alfred doesn't look to want for much," the Doctor continued. "It's a fine farm he has."
"Me, I say!" old Barton exclaimed, bringing down the end of his stick upon the floor. "The farm's mine!"
"But it's the same thing, isn't it?" asked Dr. Deane, in his cheeriest voice and with his pleasantest smile.
The old man looked at him for a moment, gave an incoherent grunt, the meaning of which the Doctor found it impossible to decipher, and presently, with a cunning leer, said.—
"Is all your property the same thing as your daughter's?"
"Well—well," replied the Doctor, softly rubbing his hands, "I should hope so—yes, I should hope so."
"Besides what she has in her own right?"
"Oh, thee knows that will be hers without my disposal. What I should do for her would be apart from that. I am not likely, at my time of life, to marry again—but we are led by the Spirit, thee knows; we cannot say, I will do thus and so, and these and such things shall happen, and those and such other shall not."
"Ay, that's my rule, too, Doctor," said the old man, after a pause, during which he had intently watched his visitor, from under his wrinkled eyelids.
"I thought," the Doctor resumed, "thee was pretty safe against another marriage, at any rate, and thee had perhaps made up thy mind about providing for thy children.
"It's better for us old men to have our houses set in order, that we may spare ourselves worry and anxiety of mind. Elisha is already established in his own independence, and I suppose Ann will give thee no particular trouble; but if Alfred, now, should take a notion to marry, he couldn't, thee sees, be expected to commit himself without having some idea of what thee intends to do for him."
Dr. Deane, having at last taken up his position and uncovered his front of attack, waited for the next movement of his adversary. He was even aware of a slight professional curiosity to know how far the old man's keen, shrewd, wary faculties had survived the wreck of his body.
The latter nodded his head, and pressed the top of his hickory stick against his gums several times, before he answered. He enjoyed the encounter, though not so sure of its issue as he would have been ten years earlier.
"I'd do the fair thing, Doctor!" he finally exclaimed; "whatever it might be, it'd be fair. Come, isn't that enough?"
"In a general sense, it is. But we are talking now as neighbors. We are both old men, Friend Barton, and I think we know how to keep our own counsel. Let us suppose a case—just to illustrate the matter, thee understands. Let us say that Friend Paxson—a widower, thee knows—had a daughter Mary, who had—well, a nice little penny in her own right,—and that thy son Alfred desired her in marriage. Friend Paxson, as a prudent father, knowing his daughter's portion, both what it is and what it will be,—he would naturally wish, in Mary's interest, to know that Alfred would not be dependent on her means, but that the children they might have would inherit equally from both. Now, it strikes me that Friend Paxson would only be right in asking thee what thee would do for thy son—nay, that, to be safe, he would want to see some evidence that would hold in law. Things are so uncertain, and a wise man guardeth his own household."
The old man laughed until his watery eyes twinkled. "Friend Paxson is a mighty close and cautious one to deal with," he said. "Mayhap he'd like to manage to have me bound, and himself go free?"
"Thee's mistaken, indeed!" Dr. Deane protested. "He's not that kind of a man. He only means to do what's right, and to ask the same security from thee, which thee—I'm sure of it, Friend Barton!—would expect him to furnish."
The old man began to find this illustration uncomfortable; it was altogether one-sided. Dr. Deane could shelter himself behind Friend Paxson and the imaginary daughter, but the applications came personally home to him. His old patience had been weakened by his isolation from the world, and his habits of arbitrary rule. He knew, moreover, the probable amount of Martha's fortune, and could make a shrewd guess at the Doctor's circumstances; but if the settlements were to be equal, each must give his share its highest valuation in order to secure more from the other. It was a difficult game, because these men viewed it in the light of a business transaction, and each considered that any advantage over the other would be equivalent to a pecuniary gain on his own part.
"No use beatin' about the bush, Doctor," the old man suddenly said. "You don't care for Paxson's daughter, that never was; why not put your Martha in her place. She has a good penny, I hear—five thousand, some say."
"Ten, every cent of it!" exclaimed Dr. Deane, very nearly thrown off his guard. "That is, she will have it, at twenty-five; and sooner, if she marries with my consent. But why does thee wish particularly to speak of her?"
"For the same reason you talk about Alfred. He hasn't been about your house lately, I s'pose, hey?"
The Doctor smiled, dropping his eyelids in a very sagacious way. "He does seem drawn a little our way, I must confess to thee," he said, "but we can't always tell how much is meant. Perhaps thee knows his mind better than I do?"
"Mayhap I do—know what it will be, if I choose! But I don't begrudge sayin' that he likes your girl, and I shouldn't wonder if he'd showed it."
"Then thee sees, Friend Barton," Dr. Deane continued, "that the case is precisely like the one I supposed; and what I would consider right for Friend Paxson, would even be right for myself. I've no doubt thee could do more for Alfred than I can do for Martha, and without wrong to thy other children,—Elisha, as I said, being independent, and Ann not requiring a great deal,—and the two properties joined together would be a credit to us, and to the neighborhood. Only, thee knows, there must be some legal assurance beforehand. There is nothing certain,—even thy mind is liable to change,—ah, the mind of man is an unstable thing!"
The Doctor delivered these words in his most impressive manner, uplifting both eyes and hands.
The old man, however, seemed to pay but little attention to it. Turning his head on one side, he said, in a quick, sharp voice: "Time enough for that when we come to it How's the girl inclined? Is the money hers, anyhow, at twenty-five,—how old now? Sure to be a couple, hey?—settle that first!"
Dr. Deane crossed his legs carefully, so as not to crease the cloth too much, laid his cane upon them, and leaned back a little in his chair. "Of course I've not spoken to Martha," he presently said; "I can only say that she hasn't set her mind upon anybody else, and that is the main thing. She has followed my will in all, except as to joining the Friends, and there I felt that I couldn't rightly command, where the Spirit had not spoken. Yes, the money will be hers at twenty-five,—she is twenty-one now,—but I hardly think it necessary to take that into consideration. If thee can answer for Alfred, I think I can answer for her."
"The boy's close about his money," broke in the old man, with a sly, husky chuckle. "What he has, Doctor, you understand, goes toward balancin' what she has, afore you come onto me, at all. Yes, yes, I know what I'm about. A good deal, off and on, has been got out o' this farm, and it hasn't all gone into my pockets. I've a trifle put out, but you can't expect me to strip myself naked, in my old days. But I'll do what's fair—I'll do what's fair!"
"There's only this," the Doctor added, meditatively, "and I want thee to understand, since we've, somehow or other, come to mention the matter, that we'd better have another talk, after we've had more time to think of it. Thee can make up thy mind, and let me know about what thee'll do; and I the same. Thee has a starting-point on my side, knowing the amount of Martha's fortune—that, of course, thee must come up to first, and then we'll see about the rest!"
Old-man Barton felt that he was here brought up to the rack. He recognized Dr. Deane's advantage, and could only evade it by accepting his proposition for delay. True, he had already gone over the subject, in his lonely, restless broodings beside the window, but this encounter had freshened and resuscitated many points. He knew that the business would be finally arranged, but nothing would have induced him to hasten it. There was a great luxury in this preliminary skirmishing.
"Well, well!" said he, "we needn't hurry. You're right there, Doctor. I s'pose you won't do anything to keep the young ones apart?"
"I think I've shown my own wishes very plainly, Friend Barton. It is necessary that Alfred should speak for himself, though, and after all we've said, perhaps it might be well if thee should give him a hint. Thee must remember that he has never yet mentioned the subject to me."
Dr. Deane thereupon arose, smoothed his garments, and shook out, not only sweet marjoram, but lavender, cloves, and calamus. His broad-brimmed drab hat had never left his head during the interview. There were steps on the creaking floor overhead, and the Doctor perceived that the private conference must now close. It was nearly a drawn game, so far; but the chance of advantage was on his side.
"Suppose I look at thy arm,—in a neighborly way, of course," he said, approaching the old man's chair.
"Never mind—took the bean off this mornin'—old blood, you know, but lively yet. Gad, Doctor! I've not felt so brisk for a year." His eyes twinkled so, under their puffy lids, the flabby folds in which his mouth terminated worked so curiously,—like those of a bellows, where they run together towards the nozzle,—and the two movable fingers on each hand opened and shut with such a menacing, clutching motion, that for one moment the Doctor felt a chill, uncanny creep run over his nerves.
"Brandy!" the old man commanded. "I've not talked so much at once't for months. You might take a little more, maybe. No? well, you hardly need it. Good brandy's powerful dear, these times."
Dr. Deane had too much tact to accept the grudging invitation. After the old man had drunk, he carefully replaced the bottle and glass on their accustomed shelf, and disposed himself to leave. On the whole, he was well satisfied with the afternoon's work, not doubting but that he had acted the part of a tender and most considerate parent towards his daughter.
Before they met, she also had disposed of her future, but in a very different way.
Miss Ann descended the stairs in time to greet the Doctor before his departure. She would have gladly retained him to tea, as a little relief to the loneliness and weariness of the day; but she never dared to give an invitation except when it seconded her father's, which, in the present case, was wanting.
DOUBTS AND SURMISES.
Gilbert's voice, sharpened by his sudden and mortal fear, recalled Mary Potter to consciousness. After she had drunk of the cup of water which he brought, she looked slowly and wearily around the kitchen, as if some instinct taught her to fix her thoughts on the signs and appliances of her every-day life, rather than allow them to return to the pang which had overpowered her. Little by little she recovered her calmness and a portion of her strength, and at last, noticing her son's anxious face, she spoke.
"I have frightened you, Gilbert; but there is no occasion for it. I wasn't rightly prepared for what you had to say—and—and—but, please, don't let us talk any more about it to-night. Give me a little time to think—if I can think. I'm afraid it's but a sad home I'm making for you, and sure it's a sad load I've put upon you, my poor boy! But oh, try, Gilbert, try to be patient a little while longer,—it can't be for long,—for I begin to see now that I've worked out my fault, and that the Lord in Heaven owes me justice!"
She clenched her hands wildly, and rose to her feet. Her steps tottered, and he sprang to her support.
"Mother," he said, "let me help you to your room. I'll not speak of this again; I wouldn't have spoken to-night, if I had mistrusted that it could give you trouble. Have no fear that I can ever be impatient again; patience is easy to me now!"
He spoke kindly and cheerfully, registering a vow in his heart that his lips should henceforth be closed upon the painful theme, until his mother's release (whatever it was and whenever it might come) should open them.
But competent as he felt in that moment to bear the delay cheerfully, and determined as he was to cast no additional weight on his mother's heart, it was not so easy to compose his thoughts, as he lay in the dusky, starlit bedroom up-stairs. The events of the day, and their recent consequences, had moved his strong nature to its very foundations. A chaos of joy, wonder, doubt, and dread surged through him. Over and over he recalled the sweet pressure of Martha Deane's lip, the warm curve of her bosom, the dainty, delicate firmness of her hand. Was this—could this possession really be his? In his mother's mysterious secret there lay an element of terror. He could not guess why the revelation of his fortunate love should agitate her so fearfully, unless—and the suspicion gave him a shock—her history were in some way involved with that of Martha Deane.
This thought haunted and perplexed him, continually returning to disturb the memory of those holy moments in the twilight dell, and to ruffle the bright current of joy which seemed to gather up and sweep away with it all the forces of his life. Any fate but to lose her, he said to himself; let the shadow fall anywhere, except between them! There would be other troubles, he foresaw,—the opposition of her father; the rage and hostility of Alfred Barton; possibly, when the story became known (as it must be in the end), the ill-will or aversion of the neighborhood. Against all these definite and positive evils, he felt strong and tolerably courageous, but the Something which evidently menaced him through his mother made him shrink with a sense of cowardice.
Hand in hand with this dread he went into the world of sleep. He stood upon the summit of the hill behind Falconer's farm-house, and saw Martha beckoning to him from the hill on the other side of the valley. They stretched and clasped hands through the intervening space; the hills sank away, and they found themselves suddenly below, on the banks of the creek. He threw his arms around her, but she drew back, and then he saw that it was Betsy Lavender, who said: "I am your father—did you never guess it before?" Down the road came Dr. Deane and his mother, walking arm in arm; their eyes were fixed on him, but they did not speak. Then he heard Martha's voice, saying: "Gilbert, why did you tell Alfred Barton? Nobody must know that I am engaged to both of you." Betsy Lavender said: "He can only marry with my consent—Mary Potter has nothing to do with it." Martha then came towards him smiling, and said: "I will not send back your saddle-girth—see, I am wearing it as a belt!" He took hold of the buckle and drew her nearer; she began to weep, and they were suddenly standing side by side, in a dark room, before his dead mother, in her coffin.
This dream, absurd and incoherent as it was, made a strange impression upon Gilbert's mind. He was not superstitious, but in spite of himself the idea became rooted in his thoughts that the truth of his own parentage affected, in some way, some member of the Deane family. He taxed his memory in vain for words or incidents which might help him to solve this doubt. Something told him that his obligation to his mother involved the understanding that he would not even attempt to discover her secret; but he could not prevent his thoughts from wandering around it, and making blind guesses as to the vulnerable point.
Among these guesses came one which caused him to shudder; he called it impossible, incredible, and resolutely barred it from his mind. But with all his resolution, it only seemed to wait at a little distance, as if constantly seeking an opportunity to return. What if Dr. Deane were his own father? In that case Martha would be his half-sister, and the stain of illegitimacy would rest on her, not on him! There was ruin and despair in the supposition; but, on the other hand, he asked himself why should the fact of his love throw his mother into a swoon? Among the healthy, strong-nerved people of Kennett such a thing as a swoon was of the rarest occurrence, and it suggested some terrible cause to Gilbert's mind. It was sometimes hard for him to preserve his predetermined patient, cheerful demeanor in his mother's presence, but he tried bravely, and succeeded.
Although the harvest was well over, there was still much work to do on the farm, in order that the month of October might be appropriated to hauling,—the last time, Gilbert hoped, that he should be obliged to resort to this source of profit. Though the price of grain was sure to decline, on account of the extraordinary harvest, the quantity would make up for this deficiency. So far, his estimates had been verified. A good portion of the money was already on hand, and his coveted freedom from debt in the following spring became now tolerably secure. His course, in this respect, was in strict accordance with the cautious, plodding, conscientious habits of the community in which he lived. They were satisfied to advance steadily and slowly, never establishing a new mark until the old one had been reached.
Gilbert was impatient to see Martha again, not so much for the delight of love, as from a sense of the duty which he owed to her. His mother had not answered his question,—possibly not even heard it,—and he did not dare to approach her with it again. But so much as he knew might be revealed to the wife of his heart; of that he was sure. If she could but share his confidence in his mother's words, and be equally patient to await the solution, it would give their relation a new sweetness, an added sanctity and trust.
He made an errand to Fairthorn's at the close of the week, hoping that chance might befriend him, but almost determined, in any case, to force an interview. The dread he had trampled down still hung around him, and it seemed that Martha's presence might dissipate it. Something, at least, he might learn concerning Dr. Deane's family, and here his thoughts at once reverted to Miss Betsy Lavender. In her he had the true friend, the close mouth, the brain crammed with family intelligence!
The Fairthorns were glad to see their "boy," as the old woman still called him. Joe and Jake threw their brown legs over the barn-yard fence and clamored for a ride upon Roger. "Only along the level, t'other side o' the big hill, Gilbert!" said Joe, whereupon the two boys punched each other in the sides and nearly smothered with wicked laughter. Gilbert understood them; he shook his head, and said: "You rascals, I think I see you doing that again!" But he turned away his face, to conceal a smile at the recollection.
It was, truly, a wicked trick. The boys had been in the habit of taking the farm-horses out of the field and riding them up and down the Unionville road. It was their habit, as soon as they had climbed "the big hill," to use stick and voice with great energy, force the animals into a gallop, and so dash along the level. Very soon, the horses knew what was expected of them, and whenever they came abreast of the great chestnut-tree on the top of the hill, they would start off as if possessed. If any business called Farmer Fairthorn to the Street Road, or up Marlborough way, Joe and Jake, dancing with delight, would dart around the barn, gain the wooded hollow, climb the big hill behind the lime-kiln, and hide themselves under the hedge, at the commencement of the level road. Here they could watch their father, as his benign, unsuspecting face came in sight, mounting the hill, either upon the gray mare, Bonnie, or the brown gelding, Peter. As the horse neared the chestnut-tree, they fairly shook with eager expectancy—then came the start, the astonishment of the old man, his frantic "Whoa, there, whoa!" his hat soaring off on the wind, his short, stout body bouncing in the saddle, as, half-unseated, he clung with one hand to the mane and the other to the bridle!—while the wicked boys, after breathlessly watching him out of sight, rolled over and over on the grass, shrieking and yelling in a perfect luxury of fun.
Then they knew that a test would come, and prepared themselves to meet it. When, at dinner, Farmer Fairthorn turned to his wife and said: "Mammy," (so he always addressed her) "I don't know what's the matter with Bonnie; why. she came nigh runnin' off with me!"—Joe. being the oldest and boldest, would look up in well-affected surprise, and ask, "Why, how, Daddy?" while Jake would bend down his head and whimper,—"Somethin' 's got into my eye." Yet the boys were very good- hearted fellows, at bottom, and we are sorry that we must chronicle so many things to their discredit.
Sally Fairthorn met Gilbert in her usual impetuous way. She was glad to see him, but she could not help saying: "Well, have you got your tongue yet, Gilbert? Why, you're growing to be as queer as Dick's hat-band! I don't know any more where to find you, or how to place you; whatever is the matter?"
"Nothing, Sally," he answered, with something of his old playfulness, "nothing except that the pears were very good. How's Mark?"
"Mark!" she exclaimed with a very well assumed sneer. "As if I kept an account of Mark's comings and goings!" But she could not prevent an extra color from rising into her face.
"I wish you did, Sally," Gilbert gravely remarked. "Mark is a fine fellow, and one of my best friends, and he'd be all the better, if a smart, sensible girl like yourself would care a little for him."
There was no answer to this, and Sally, with a hasty "I'll tell mother you're here!" darted into the house.
Gilbert was careful not to ask many questions during his visit; but Sally's rattling tongue supplied him with all he would have been likely to learn, in any case. She had found Martha at home the day before, and had talked about him, Gilbert. Martha hadn't noticed anything "queer" in his manner, whereupon she, Sally, had said that Martha was growing "queer" too; then Martha remarked that—but here Sally found that she had been talking altogether too fast, so she bit her tongue and blushed a little. The most important piece of news, however, was that Miss Lavender was then staying at Dr. Deane's.
On his way to the village, Gilbert chose the readiest and simplest way of accomplishing his purpose. He would call on Betsy Lavender, and ask her to arrange her time so that she could visit his mother during his approaching absence from home. Leaving his horse at the hitching-post in front of the store, he walked boldly across the road and knocked at Dr. Deane's door.
The Doctor was absent. Martha and Miss Lavender were in the sitting-room, and a keen, sweet throb in his blood responded to the voice that bade him enter.
"Gilbert Potter, I'll be snaked!" exclaimed Miss Lavender, jumping up with a start that overturned her footstool.
"Well, Gilbert!" and "Well, Martha!" were the only words the lovers exchanged, on meeting, but their hands were quick to clasp and loath to loose. Martha Deane was too clear-headed to be often surprised by an impulse of the heart, but when the latter experience came to her, she never thought of doubting its justness. She had not been fully, vitally aware of her love for Gilbert until the day when he declared it, and now, in memory, the two circumstances seemed to make but one fact. The warmth, the beauty, the spiritual expansion which accompany love had since then dawned upon her nature in their true significance. Proudly and cautiously as she would have guarded her secret from an intrusive eye, just as frank, tender, and brave was she to reveal every emotion of her heart to her lover. She was thoroughly penetrated with the conviction of his truth, of the integral nobility of his manhood; and these, she felt, were the qualities her heart had unconsciously craved. Her mind was made up inflexibly; it rejoiced in his companionship, it trusted in his fidelity, and if she considered conventional difficulties, it was only to estimate how they could most speedily be overthrown. Martha Deane was in advance of her age,—or, at least, of the community in which she lived.
They could only exchange common-places, of course, in Miss Lavender's presence; and perhaps they were not aware of the gentle, affectionate way in which they spoke of the weather and similar topics. Miss Lavender was; her eyes opened widely, then nearly closed with an expression of superhuman wisdom; she looked out of the window and nodded to the lilac-bush, then exclaiming in desperate awkwardness: "Goodness me, I must have a bit o' sage!" made for the garden, with long strides.
Gilbert was too innocent to suspect the artifice—not so Martha. But while she would have foiled the inference of any other woman, she accepted Betsy's without the least embarrassment, and took Gilbert's hand again in her own before the door had fairly closed.
"O Martha!" he cried, "if I could but see you oftener—but for a minute, every day! But there—I won't be impatient. I've thought of you ever since, and I ask myself, the first thing when I wake, morning after morning, is it really true?"
"And I say to myself, every morning, it is true," she answered. Her lovely blue eyes smiled upon him with a blissful consent, so gentle and so perfect, that he would fain have stood thus and spoken no word more.
"Martha," he said, returning to the thought of his duty, "I have something to say. You can hear it now. My mother declares that I am her lawful son, born in wedlock—she gave me her solemn word—but more than that she will not allow me to ask, saying she's bound for a time, and something, I don't know what, must happen before she can set herself right in the eyes of the world. I believe her, Martha, and I want that you should believe her, for her sake and for mine. I can't make things clear to you, now, because they're not clear to myself; only, what she has declared is and must be true! I am not base-born, and it'll be made manifest, I'm sure; the Lord will open her mouth in his own good time—and until then, we must wait! Will you wait with me?"
He spoke earnestly and hurriedly, and his communication was so unexpected that she scarcely comprehended its full import. But for his sake, she dared not hesitate to answer.
"Can you ask it, Gilbert? Whatever your mother declares to you, must be true; yet I scarcely understand it."
"Nor can I! I've wearied my brains, trying to guess why she can't speak, and what it is that'll give her the liberty at last. I daren't ask her more—she fainted dead away, the last time."
"Strange things sometimes happen in this world," said Martha, with a grave tenderness, laying her hand upon his arm, "and this seems to be one of the strangest. I am glad you have told me, Gilbert,—it will make so much difference to you!"
"So it don't take you from me, Martha," he groaned, in a return of his terrible dread.
"Only Death can do that—and then but for a little while."
Here Miss Betsy Lavender made her appearance, but without the sage.
"How far a body can see, Martha," she exclaimed, "since the big gum-tree's been cut down. It lays open the sight o' the road across the creek, and I seen your father ridin' down the hill, as plain as could be!"
"Betsy," said Gilbert, "I wanted to ask you about coming down our way."
"Our way. Did you? I see your horse hitched over at the store. I've an arrand,—sewin'-thread and pearl buttons,—and so I'll git my bonnet and you can tell me on the way."
The lovers said farewell, and Betsy Lavender accompanied Gilbert, proposing to walk a little way with him and get the articles on her return.
"Gilbert Potter," she said, when they were out of sight and ear-shot of the village, "I want you to know that I've got eyes in my head. I'm a safe body, as you can see, though it mayn't seem the proper thing in me to say it, but all other folks isn't, so look out!"
"Betsy!" he exclaimed, "you seem to know everything about everybody—at least, you know what I am, perhaps better than I do myself; now suppose I grant you're right, what do you think of it?"
"Think of it? Go 'long!—you know what you want me to say, that there never was such a pair o' lovyers under the firmament! Let my deeds prove what I think, say I—for here's a case where deeds is wanted!"
"You can help me, Betsy—you can help me now! Do you know—can you guess—who was my father?"
"Good Lord!" was her surprised exclamation—"No, I don't, and that's the fact."
"Who was Martha Deane's mother?"
"A Blake—Naomi, one o' the Birmingham Blakes, and a nice woman she was, too. I was at her weddin', and I helped nuss her when Martha was born." "Had Dr. Deane been married before?"
"Married before? Well—no!" Here Miss Betsy seemed to be suddenly put upon her guard. "Not to that extent, I should say. However, it's neither here nor there. Good lack, boy!" she cried, noticing a deadly paleness on Gilbert's face—"a-h-h-h, I begin to understand now. Look here, Gilbert! Git that nonsense out o' y'r head, jist as soon as you can. There's enough o' trouble ahead, without borrowin' any more out o' y'r wanderin' wits. I don't deny but what I was holdin' back somethin', but it's another thing as ever was. I'll speak you clear o' your misdoubtin's, if that's y'r present bother. You don't feel quite as much like a live corpse, now, I reckon, hey?"
"O, Betsy!" he said, "if you knew how I have been perplexed, you wouldn't wonder at my fancies!"
"I can fancy all that, my boy," she gently answered, "and I'll tell you another thing, Gilbert—your mother has a heavy secret on her mind, and I rather guess it concerns your father. No—don't look so eager-like—I don't know it. All I do know is that you were born in Phildelphy."
"In Philadelphia! I never heard that."
"Well—it's neither here nor there. I've had my hands too full to spy out other people's affairs, but many a thing has come to me in a nateral way, or half-unbeknown. You can't do better than leave all sich wild guesses and misdoubtin's to me, that's better able to handle 'em. Not that I'm a-goin' to preach and declare anything until I know the rights of it, whatever and wherever. Well, as I was sayin'—for there's Beulah Green comin' up the road, and you must git your usual face onto you, though Goodness knows, mine's so crooked, I've often said nothin' short o' Death'll ever make much change in it—but never mind, I'll go down a few days to your mother, when you're off, though I don't promise to do much, except, maybe, cheer her up a bit; but we'll see, and so remember me to her, and good-bye!"
With these words and a sharp, bony wring of his hand. Bliss Betsy strode rapidly back to the village. It did not escape Gilbert's eye that, strongly as she had pronounced against his secret fear, the detection of it had agitated her. She had spoken hurriedly, and hastened away as if desiring to avoid further questions. He could not banish the suspicion that she knew something which might affect his fortune; but she had not forbidden his love for Martha—she had promised to help him, and that was a great consolation. His cheerfulness, thenceforth, was not assumed, and he rejoiced to see a very faint, shadowy reflection of it, at times, in his mother's face.
ALFRED BARTON BETWEEN TWO FIRES.
For some days after Dr. Deane's visit, Old-man Barton was a continual source of astonishment to his son Alfred and his daughter Ann. The signs of gradual decay which one of them, at least, had watched with the keenest interest, had suddenly disappeared; he was brighter, sharper, more talkative than at any time within the previous five years. The almost worn-out machinery of his life seemed to have been mysteriously repaired, whether by Dr. Deane's tinkering, or by one of those freaks of Nature which sometimes bring new teeth and hair to an aged head, neither the son nor the daughter could guess. To the former this awakened activity of the old man's brain was not a little annoying. He had been obliged to renew his note for the money borrowed to replace that which had been transferred to Sandy Flash, and in the mean time was concocting an ingenious device by which the loss should not entirely fall on his own half-share of the farm-profits. He could not have endured his father's tyranny without the delight of the cautious and wary revenges of this kind which he sometimes allowed himself to take. Another circumstance, which gave him great uneasiness, was this: the old man endeavored in various ways, both direct and indirect, to obtain knowledge of the small investments which he had made from time to time. The most of these had been, through the agency of the old lawyer at Chester, consolidated into a first-class mortgage; but it was Alfred's interest to keep his father in ignorance of the other sums, not because of their importance, but because of their insignificance. He knew that the old man's declaration was true,—"The more you have, the more you'll get!"
The following Sunday, as he was shaving himself at the back kitchen-window,—Ann being up-stairs, at her threadbare toilet,—Old Barton, who had been silent during breakfast, suddenly addressed him:
"Well, boy, how stands the matter now?"
The son knew very well what was meant, but he thought it best to ask, with an air of indifference,—
"What matter, Daddy?"
"What matter, eh? The colt's lame leg, or the farrow o' the big sow? Gad, boy! don't you ever think about the gal, except when I put it into your head?"
"Oh, that!" exclaimed Alfred, with a smirk of well-assumed satisfaction—"that, indeed! Well, I think I may say, Daddy, that all's right in that quarter."
"Spoken to her yet?"
"N-no, not right out, that is; but since other folks have found out what I'm after, I guess it's plain enough to her. And a good sign is, that she plays a little shy."
"Shouldn't wonder," growled the old man. "Seems to me you play a little shy, too. Have to take it in my own hands, if it ever comes to anything."
"Oh, it isn't at all necessary; I can do my own courting," Alfred replied, as he wiped his razor and laid it away.
"Do it, then, boy, in short order! You're too old to stand in need o' much billin' and cooin'—but the gal's rayther young, and may expect it—and I s'pose it's the way. But I'd sooner you'd step up to the Doctor, bein' as I can only take him when he comes here to me loaded and primed. He's mighty cute and sharp, but if you've got any gumption, we'll be even with him."
Alfred turned around quickly and looked at his father.
"Ay, boy, I've had one bout with him, last Sunday, and there's more to come."
"What was it?"
"Set yourself down on that cheer, and keep your head straight a bit, so that what goes into one ear, don't fly out at the t'other."
While Alfred, with a singular expression of curiosity and distrust, obeyed this command, the old man deliberated, for the last time, on the peculiar tactics to be adopted, so that his son should be made an ally, as against Dr. Deane, and yet be prevented from becoming a second foe, as against his own property. For it was very evident that while it was the father's interest to exaggerate the son's presumed wealth, it was the latter's interest to underrate it. Thus a third element came into play, making this a triangular game of avarice. If Alfred could have understood his true position, he would have been more courageous; but his father had him at a decided advantage.
"Hark ye, boy!" said he, "I've waited e'en about long enough, and it's time this thing was either a hit or a flash in the pan. The Doctor's ready for 't; for all his cunnin' he couldn't help lettin' me see that; but he tries to cover both pockets with one hand while he stretches out the t'other. The gal's money's safe, ten thousand of it, and we've agreed that it'll be share and share; only, your'n bein' more than her'n, why, of course he must make up the difference."
The son was far from being as shrewd as the father, or he would have instantly chosen the proper tack; but he was like a vessel caught in stays, and experienced considerable internal pitching and jostling. In one sense it was a relief that the old man supposed him to be worth much more than was actually the case, but long experience hinted that a favorable assumption of this kind often led to a damaging result. So with a wink and grin, the miserable hypocrisy of which was evident to his own mind, he said:
"Of course he must make up the difference, and more too! I know what's fair and square."
"Shut your mouth, boy, till I give you leave to open it. Do you hear?—the gal's ten thousand dollars must be put ag'inst the ten thousand you've saved off the profits o' the farm; then, the rest you've made bein' properly accounted for, he must come down with the same amount. Then, you must find out to a hair what he's worth of his own—not that it concerns you, but I must know. What you've got to do is about as much as you've wits for. Now, open your mouth!"
"Ten thousand!" exclaimed Alfred, beginning to comprehend the matter more clearly; "why, it's hardly quite ten thousand altogether, let alone anything over!"
"No lies, no lies! I've got it all in my head, if you haven't. Twenty years on shares—first year, one hundred and thirty-seven dollars—that was the year the big flood swep' off half the corn on the bottom; second year, two hundred and fifteen, with interest on the first, say six on a hundred, allowin' the thirty-seven for your squanderin's, two hundred and twenty-one; third year, three hundred and five, with interest, seventeen, makes three hundred and twenty-two, and twenty, your half of the bay horse sold to Sam Falconer, forty-two; fourth year"—
"Never mind, Daddy!" Alfred interrupted; "I've got it all down in my books; you needn't go over it."
The old man struck his hickory staff violently upon the floor. "I will go over it!" he croaked, hoarsely. "I mean to show you, boy, to your own eyes and your own ears, that you're now worth thirteen thousand two hundred and forty-nine dollars and fifteen cents! And ten thousand of it balances the gal's ten thousand, leavin' three thousand two hundred and forty-nine and fifteen cents, for the Doctor to make up to you! And you'll show him your papers, for you're no son of mine if you've put out your money without securin' it. I don't mind your goin' your own road with what you've arned, though, for your proper good, you needn't ha' been so close; but now you've got to show what's in your hand, if you mean to git it double!"
Alfred Barton was overwhelmed by the terrors of this unexpected dilemma. His superficial powers of dissimulation forsook him; he could only suggest, in a weak voice:
"Suppose my papers don't show that much?"
"You've made that, or nigh onto it, and your papers must show it! If money can't stick to your fingers, do you s'pose I'm goin' to put more into 'em? Fix it any way you like with the Doctor, so you square accounts. Then, afterwards, let him come to me—ay, let him come!"
Here the old man chuckled until he brought on a fit of coughing, which drove the dark purple blood into his head. His son hastened to restore him with a glass of brandy.
"There, that'll do," he said, presently; "now you know what's what. Go up to the Doctor's this afternoon, and have it out before you come home. I can't dance at your weddin', but I wouldn't mind help nuss another grandchild or two—eh, boy?"