The trial commenced. To the astonishment of all, and, as it was afterwards reported, against the advice of his counsel, the prisoner plead guilty to some of the specifications of the indictment, while he denied others. The Collectors whom he had plundered were then called to the witness-stand, but the public seemed to manifest less interest in the loss of its own money, than in the few cases where private individuals had suffered, and waited impatiently for the latter.
Deb. Smith had so long borne the curious gaze of hundreds of eyes, whenever she lifted her head, that when her turn came, she was able to rise and walk forward without betraying any emotion. Only when she was confronted with Sandy Flash, and he met her with a wonderfully strange, serious smile, did she shudder for a moment and hastily turn away. She gave her testimony in a hard, firm voice, making her statements as brief as possible, and volunteering nothing beyond what was demanded.
On being dismissed from the stand, she appeared to hesitate. Her eyes wandered over the faces of the lawyers, the judges, and the jurymen, as if with a dumb appeal, but she did not speak. Then she turned towards the prisoner, and some words passed between them, which, in the general movement of curiosity, were only heard by the two or three persons who stood nearest.
"Sandy!" she was reported to have said, "I couldn't help myself; take the curse off o' me!"
"Deb., it's too late," he answered. "It's begun to work, and it'll work itself out!"
Gilbert noticed the feeling of hostility with which Deb. Smith was regarded by the spectators,—a feeling that threatened to manifest itself in some violent way, when the restraints of the place should be removed. He therefore took advantage of the great interest with which his own testimony was heard, to present her character in the light which her services to him shed upon it. This was a new phase of the story, and produced a general movement of surprise. Sandy Flash, it was noticed, sitting with his fettered hands upon the rail before him, leaned forward and listened intently, while an unusual flush deepened upon his cheeks.
The statements, though not strictly in evidence, were permitted by the Court, and they produced the effect which Gilbert intended. The excitement reached its height when Deb. Smith, ignorant of rule, suddenly rose and cried out,—
"It's true as Gospel, every word of it! Sandy, do you hear?"
She was removed by the constable, but the people, as they made way, uttered no word of threat or insult. On the contrary, many eyes rested on her hard, violent, wretched face with an expression of very genuine compassion.
The trial took its course, and terminated with the result which everybody—even the prisoner himself—knew to be inevitable. He was pronounced guilty, and duly sentenced to be hanged by the neck until he was dead.
Gilbert employed the time which he could spare from his attendance at the Court, in endeavoring to make a new loan, but with no positive success. The most he accomplished was an agreement, on the part of his creditor, that the foreclosure might be delayed two or three weeks, provided there was a good prospect of the money being obtained. In ordinary times he would have had no difficulty; but, as Mr. Trainer had written, the speculation in western lands had seized upon capitalists, and the amount of money for permanent investment was already greatly diminished.
He was preparing to return home, when Chaffey, the constable, came to him with a message from Sandy Flash. The latter begged for an interview, and both Judge and Sheriff were anxious that Gilbert should comply with his wishes, in the hope that a full and complete confession might be obtained. It was evident that the highwayman had accomplices, but he steadfastly refused to name them, even with the prospect of having his sentence commuted to imprisonment for life.
Gilbert did not hesitate a moment. There were doubts of his own to be solved,—questions to be asked, which Sandy Flash could alone answer. He followed the constable to the gloomy, high-walled jail-building, and was promptly admitted by the Sheriff into the low, dark, heavily barred cell, wherein the prisoner sat upon a wooden stool, the links of his leg-fetters passed through a ring in the floor.
Sandy Flash lifted his face to the light, and grinned, but not with his old, mocking expression. He stretched out his hand which Gilbert took,—hard and cold as the rattling chain at his wrist. Then, seating himself with a clash upon the floor, he pushed the stool towards his visitor, and said,—
"Set down, Potter. Limited accommodations, you see. Sheriff, you needn't wait; it's private business."
The Sheriff locked the iron door behind him, and they were alone.
"Potter," the highwayman began, "you see I'm trapped and done for, and all, it seems, on account o' that little affair o' your'n. You won't think it means much, now, when I say I was in the wrong there; but I swear I was! I had no particular spite ag'in Barton, but he's a swell, and I like to take such fellows down; and I was dead sure you were carryin' his money, as you promised to."
"Tell me one thing," Gilbert interrupted; "how did you know I promised to take money for him?"
"I knowed it, that's enough; I can give you, word for word, what both o' you said, if you doubt me."
"Then, as I thought, it was Barton himself!" Gilbert cried.
Sandy Flash burst into a roaring laugh. "Him! Ah-ha! you think we go snacks, eh? Do I look like a fool? Barton'd give his eye-teeth to put the halter round my neck with his own hands! No, no, young man; I have ways and ways o' learnin' things that you nor him'll never guess."
His manner, even more than his words, convinced Gilbert Barton was absolved, but the mystery remained. "You won't deny that you have friends?" he said.
"Maybe," Sandy replied, in a short, rough tone. "That's nothin' to you," he continued; "but what I've got to say is, whether or no you're a friend to Deb., she thinks you are. Do you mean to look after her, once't in a while, or are you one o' them that forgits a good turn?"
"I have told her," said Gilbert, "that she shall always have a home and a shelter in my house. If it's any satisfaction to you, here's my hand on it!"
"I believe you, Potter. Deb.'s done ill by me; she shouldn't ha' bullied me when I was sore and tetchy, and fagged out with your curst huntin' of me up and down! But I'll do that much for her and for you. Here; bend your head down; I've got to whisper."
Gilbert leaned his ear to the highwayman's mouth.
"You'll only tell her, you understand?"
"Say to her these words,—don't forgit a single one of 'em!—Thirty steps from the place she knowed about, behind the two big chestnut-trees, goin' towards the first cedar, and a forked sassyfrack growin' right over it. What she finds, is your'n."
"Sandy!" Gilbert exclaimed, starting from his listening posture.
"Hush, I say! You know what I mean her to do,—give you your money back. I took a curse with it, as you said. Maybe that's off o' me, now!"
"It is!" said Gilbert, in a low tone, "and forgiveness—mine and my mother's—in the place of it. Have you any"—he hesitated to say the words—"any last messages, to her or anybody else, or anything you would like to have done?"
"Thank ye, no!—unless Deb. can find my black hair and whiskers. Then you may give 'em to Barton, with my dutiful service."
He laughed at the idea, until his chains rattled.
Gilbert's mind was haunted with the other and darker doubt, and he resolved, in this last interview, to secure himself against its recurrence. In such an hour he could trust the prisoner's words.
"Sandy," he asked, "have you any children?"
"Not to my knowledge; and I'm glad of it."
"You must know," Gilbert continued, "what the people say about my birth. My mother is bound from telling me who my father was, and I dare not ask her any questions. Did you ever happen to know her, in your younger days, or can you remember anything that will help me to discover his name?"
The highwayman sat silent, meditating, and Gilbert felt that his heart was beginning to beat painfully fast, as he waited for the answer.
"Yes," said Sandy, at last, "I did know Mary Potter when I was a boy, and she knowed me, under another name. I may say I liked her, too, in a boy's way, but she was older by three or four years, and never thought o' lookin' at me. But I can't remember anything more; if I was out o' this, I'd soon find out for you!"
He looked up with an eager, questioning glance, which Gilbert totally misunderstood.
"What was your other name?" he asked, in a barely audible voice.
"I dunno as I need tell it," Sandy answered; "what'd be the good? There's some yet livin', o' the same name, and they wouldn't thank me."
"Sandy!" Gilbert cried desperately, "answer this one question,—don't go out of the world with a false word in your mouth!—You are not my father?"
The highwayman looked at him a moment, in blank amazement. "No, so help me God!" he then said.
Gilbert's face brightened so suddenly and vividly that Sandy muttered to himself,—"I never thought I was that bad."
"I hear the Sheriff at the outside gate," he whispered again. "Don't forgit—thirty steps from the place she knowed about—behind the two big chestnut-trees, goin' towards the first cedar—and a forked sassyfrack growin' right over it! Good-bye, and good-luck to the whole o' your life!"
The two clasped hands with a warmth and earnestness which surprised the Sheriff. Then Gilbert went out from his old antagonist.
That night Sandy Flash made an attempt to escape from the jail, and very nearly succeeded. It appeared, from some mysterious words which he afterwards let fall, and which Gilbert alone could have understood, that he had a superstitious belief that something he had done would bring him a new turn of fortune. The only result of the attempt was to hasten his execution. Within ten days from that time he was transformed from a living terror into a romantic name.
Gilbert Potter felt such an implicit trust in Sandy Flash's promise of restitution, that, before leaving Chester, he announced the forthcoming payment of the mortgage to its holder. His homeward ride was like a triumphal march, to which his heart beat the music. The chill March winds turned into May-breezes as they touched him; the brown meadows were quick with ambushed bloom. Within three or four months his life had touched such extremes of experience, that the fate yet to come seemed to evolve itself speedily and naturally from that which was over and gone. Only one obstacle yet remained in his path,—his mother's secret. Towards that he was powerless; to meet all others he was brimming with strength and courage.
Mary Potter recognized, even more keenly and with profounder faith than her son, the guidance of some inscrutable Power. She did not dare to express so uncertain a hope, but something in her heart whispered that the day of her own deliverance was not far off, and she took strength from it.
It was nearly a week before Deb. Smith made her appearance. Gilbert, in the mean time, had visited her cabin on the Woodrow farm, to find it deserted, and he was burning with impatience to secure, through her, the restoration of his independence. He would not announce his changed prospects, even to Martha Deane, until they were put beyond further risk. The money once in his hands, he determined to carry it to Chester without loss of time.
When Deb. arrived, she had a weary, hunted look, but she was unusually grave and silent, and avoided further reference to the late tragical episode in her life. Nevertheless, Gilbert led her aside and narrated to her the particulars of his interview with Sandy Flash. Perhaps he softened, with pardonable equivocation, the latter's words in regard to her; perhaps he conveyed a sense of forgiveness which had not been expressed; for Deb. more than once drew the corners of her hard palms across her eyes. When he gave the marks by which she was to recognize a certain spot, she exclaimed,—
"It was hid the night I dreamt of him! I knowed he must ha' been nigh, by that token. O, Mr. Gilbert, he said true! I know the place; it's not so far away; this very night you'll have y'r money back!"
After it was dark she set out, with a spade upon her shoulder, forbidding him to follow, or even to look after her. Both mother and son were too excited to sleep. They sat by the kitchen-fire, with one absorbing thought in their minds, and speech presently became easier than silence.
"Mother," said Gilbert, "when—I mean if—she brings the money, all that has happened will have been for good. It has proved to us that we have true friends (and I count my Roger among them), and I think that our independence will be worth all the more, since we came so nigh losing it again."
"Ay, my boy," she replied; "I was over-hasty, and have been lessoned. When I bend my mind to submit, I make more headway than when I try to take the Lord's work into my own hands. I'm fearsome still, but it seems there's a light coming from somewhere,—I don't know where."
"Do you feel that way, mother?" he exclaimed. "Do you think—let me mention it this once!—that the day is near when you will be free to speak? Will there be anything more you can tell me, when we stand free upon our own property?"
Mary Potter looked upon his bright, wistful, anxious face, and sighed. "I can't tell—I can't tell," she said. "Ah, my boy, you would understand it, if I dared say one thing, but that might lead you to guess what mustn't be told; and I will be faithful to the spirit as well as the letter. It must come soon, but nothing you or I can do would hasten it a minute."
"One word more, mother," he persisted, "will our independence be no help to you?"
"A great help," she answered, "or, maybe, a great comfort would be the true word. Without it, I might be tempted to—but see, Gilbert, how can I talk? Everything you say pulls at the one thing that cuts my mouth like a knife, because it's shut tight on it! And the more because I owe it to you,—because I'm held back from my duty to my child,—maybe, every day putting a fresh sorrow into his heart! Oh, it's not easy, Gilbert; it don't grow lighter from use, only my faith is the stronger and surer, and that helps me to bear it."
"Mother, I meant never to have spoken of this again," he said. "But you're mistaken; it is no sorrow; I never knew what it was to have a light heart, until you told me your trouble, and the question came to my mouth to-night because I shall soon feel strong in my own right as a man, and able to do more than you might guess. If, as you say, no man can help you, I will wait and be patient with you."
"That's all we can do now, my child. I wasn't reproaching you for speaking, for you've held your peace a long while, when I know you've been fretting; but this isn't one of the troubles that's lightened by speech, because all talking must go around the outside, and never touch the thing itself."
"I understand," he said, and gazed for a long time into the fire, without speaking.
Mary Potter watched his face, in the wavering light of the flame. She marked the growing decision of the features, the forward, fearless glance of the large, deep-set eye, the fuller firmness and sweetness of the mouth, and the general expression, not only of self-reliance, but of authority, which was spread over the entire countenance. Both her pride in her son, and her respect for him, increased as she gazed. Heretofore, she had rather considered her secret as her own property, her right to which he should not question; but now it seemed as if she were forced to withhold something that of right belonged to him. Yet no thought that the mysterious obligation might be broken ever entered her mind.
Gilbert was thinking of Martha Deane. He had passed that first timidity of love which shrinks from the knowledge of others, and longed to tell his mother what noble fidelity and courage Martha had exhibited. Only the recollection of the fearful swoon into which she had fallen bound his tongue; he felt that the first return to the subject must come from her. She lay back in her chair and seemed to sleep; he rose from time to time, went out into the lane and listened,—and so the hours passed away.
Towards midnight a heavy step was heard, and Deb. Smith, hot, panting, her arms daubed with earth, and a wild light in her eyes, entered the kitchen. With one hand she grasped the ends of her strong tow-linen apron, with the other she still shouldered the spade. She knelt upon the floor between the two, set the apron in the light of the fire, unrolled the end of a leathern saddle-bag, and disclosed the recovered treasure.
"See if it's all right!" she said.
Mary Potter and Gilbert bent over the rolls and counted them. It was the entire sum, untouched.
"Have you got a sup o' whiskey, Mr. Gilbert?" Deb. Smith asked. "Ugh! I'm hot and out o' breath, and yet I feel mortal cold. There was a screech-owl hootin' in the cedar; and I dunno how't is, but there always seems to be things around, where money's buried. You can't see 'em, but you hear 'em. I thought I'd ha' dropped when I turned up the sassyfrack bush, and got hold on it; and all the way back I feared a big arm'd come out o' every fence-corner, and snatch it from me!" [Footnote: It does not seem to have been generally known in the neighborhood that the money was unearthed. A tradition of that and other treasure buried by Sandy Flash, is still kept alive; and during the past ten years two midnight attempts have been made to find it, within a hundred yards of the spot indicated in the narrative.]
Mary Potter set the kettle on the fire, and Deb. Smith was soon refreshed with a glass of hot grog. Then she lighted her pipe and watched the two as they made preparations for the journey to Chester on the morrow, now and then nodding her head with an expression which chased away the haggard sorrow from her features.
This time the journey was performed without incident. The road was safe, the skies were propitious, and Gilbert Potter returned from Chester an independent man, with the redeemed mortgage in his pocket. His first care was to assure his mother of the joyous fact; his next to seek Martha Deane, and consult with her about their brightening future.
On the way to Kennett Square, he fell in with Mark, who was radiant with the promise of Richard Rudd's new house, secured to him by the shrewd assistance of Miss Betsy Lavender.
"I tell you what it is, Gilbert," said he; "don't you think I might as well speak to Daddy Fairthorn about Sally? I'm gettin' into good business now, and I guess th' old folks might spare her pretty soon."
"The sooner, Mark, the better for you; and you can buy the wedding-suit at once, for I have your hundred dollars ready."
"You don't mean that you wont use it, Gilbert?"
Who so delighted as Mark, when he heard Gilbert's unexpected story? "Oh, glory!" he exclaimed; "the tide's turnin', old fellow! What'll you bet you're not married before I am? It's got all over the country that you and Martha are engaged, and that the Doctor's full o' gall and wormwood about it; I hear it wherever I go, and there's more for you than there is against you, I tell you that!"
The fact was as Mark had stated. No one was positively known to have spread the rumor, but it was afloat and generally believed. The result was to invest Gilbert with a fresh interest. His courage in confronting Sandy Flash, his robbery, his wonderful preservation from death, and his singular connection, through Deb. Smith, with Sandy Flash's capture, had thrown a romantic halo around his name, which was now softly brightened by the report of his love. The stain of his birth and the uncertainty of his parentage did not lessen this interest, but rather increased it; and as any man who is much talked about in a country community will speedily find two parties created, one enthusiastically admiring, the other contemptuously depreciating him, so now it happened in this case.
The admirers, however, were in a large majority, and they possessed a great advantage over the detractors, being supported by a multitude of facts, while the latter were unable to point to any act of Gilbert Potter's life that was not upright and honorable. Even his love of Martha Deane was shorn of its presumption by her reciprocal affection. The rumor that she had openly defied her father's will created great sympathy, for herself and for Gilbert, among the young people of both sexes,—a sympathy which frequently was made manifest to Dr. Deane, and annoyed him not a little. His stubborn opposition to his daughter's attachment increased, in proportion as his power to prevent it diminished.
We may therefore conceive his sensations when Gilbert Potter himself boldly entered his presence. The latter, after Mark's description, very imperfect though it was, of Martha's courageous assertion of the rights of her heart, had swiftly made up his mind to stand beside her in the struggle, with equal firmness and equal pride. He would openly seek an interview with her, and if he should find her father at home, as was probable at that hour, would frankly and respectfully acknowledge his love, and defend it against any attack.
On entering the room, he quietly stepped forward with extended hand, and saluted the Doctor, who was so taken by surprise that he mechanically answered the greeting before he could reflect what manner to adopt towards the unwelcome visitor.
"What might be thy business with me?" he asked, stiffly, recovering from the first shock.
"I called to see Martha," Gilbert answered. "I have some news which she will be glad to hear."
"Young man," said the Doctor, with his sternest face and voice, "I may as well come to the point with thee, at once. If thee had had decency enough to apply to me before speaking thy mind to Martha, it would have saved us all a great deal of trouble. I could have told thee then, as I tell thee now, that I will never consent to her marriage with thee. Thee must give up all thought of such a thing." "I will do so," Gilbert replied, "when Martha tells me with her own mouth that such is her will. I am not one of the men who manage their hearts according to circumstances. I wish, indeed, I were more worthy of Martha; but I am trying to deserve her, and I know no better way than to be faithful as she is faithful. I mean no disrespect to you, Dr. Deane. You are her father; you have every right to care for her happiness, and I will admit that you honestly think I am not the man who could make her happy. All I ask is, that you should wait a little and know me better. Martha and I have both decided that we must wait, and there is time enough for you to watch my conduct, examine my character, and perhaps come to a more favorable judgment of me."
Dr. Deane saw that it would be harder to deal with Gilbert Potter than he had imagined. The young man stood before him so honestly and fearlessly, meeting his angry gaze with such calm, frank eyes, and braving his despotic will with such a modest, respectful opposal, that he was forced to withdraw from his haughty position, and to set forth the same reasons which he had presented to his daughter.
"I see," he said, with a tone slightly less arrogant, "that thee is sensible, in some respects, and therefore I put the case to thy understanding. It's too plain to be argued. Martha is a rich bait for a poor man, and perhaps I oughtn't to wonder—knowing the heart of man as I do—that thee was tempted to turn her head to favor thee; but the money is not yet hers, and I, as her father, can never allow that thy poverty shall stand for three years between her and some honorable man to whom her money would be no temptation! Why, if all I hear be true, thee hasn't even any certain roof to shelter a wife; thy property, such as it is, may be taken out of thy hands!"
Gilbert could not calmly hear these insinuations. All his independent pride of character was aroused; a dark flush came into his face, the blood was pulsing hotly through his veins, and indignant speech was rising to his lips, when the inner door unexpectedly opened, and Martha entered the room.
She instantly guessed what was taking place, and summoned up all her self-possession, to stand by Gilbert, without increasing her father's exasperation. To the former, her apparition was like oil on troubled waters. His quick blood struck into warm channels of joy, as he met her glowing eyes, and felt the throb of her soft, elastic palm against his own. Dr. Deane set his teeth, drew up his under lip, and handled his cane with restless fingers.
"Father," said Martha, "if you are talking of me, it is better that I should be present. I am sure there is nothing that either thee or Gilbert would wish to conceal from me."
"No, Martha!" Gilbert exclaimed; "I came to bring you good news. The mortgage on my farm is lifted, and I am an independent man!"
"Without my help! Does thee hear that, father?"
Gilbert did not understand her remark; without heeding it, he continued,—
"Sandy Flash, after his sentence, sent for me and told me where the money he took from me was to be found. I carried it to Chester, and have paid off all my remaining debt. Martha, your father has just charged me with being tempted by your property. I say to you, in his presence, put it beyond my reach,—give it away, forfeit the conditions of the legacy,—let me show truly whether I ever thought of money in seeking you!"
"Gilbert," she said, gently, "father doesn't yet know you as I do. Others will no doubt say the same thing, and we must both make up our minds to have it said; yet I cannot, for that, relinquish what is mine of right. We are not called upon to sacrifice to the mistaken opinions of men; your life and mine will show, and manifest to others in time, whether it is a selfish tie that binds us together."
"Martha!" Dr. Deane exclaimed, feeling that he should lose ground, unless this turn of the conversation were interrupted; "thee compels me to show thee how impossible the thing is, even if this man were of the richest. Admitting that he is able to support a family, admitting that thee waits three years, comes into thy property, and is still of a mind to marry him against my will, can thee forget—or has he so little consideration for thee as to forget—that he bears his mother's name?"
"Let me speak, Martha," said Gilbert, lifting his head, which had drooped for a moment. His voice was earnest and sorrowful, yet firm. "It is true that I bear my mother's name. It is the name of a good, an honest, an honorable, and a God-fearing woman. I wish I could be certain that the name which legally belongs to me will be as honorable and as welcome. But Martha knows, and you, her father, have a right to know, that I shall have another. I have not been inconsiderate. I trampled down my love for her, as long as I believed it would bring disgrace. I will not say that now, knowing her as I do, I could ever give her up, even if the disgrace was not removed,"—
"Thank you, Gilbert!" Martha interrupted.
"But there is none, Dr. Deane," he continued, "and when the time comes, my birth will be shown to be as honorable as your own, or Mark's."
Dr. Deane was strangely excited at these words. His face colored, and he darted a piercing, suspicious glance at Gilbert. The latter, however, stood quietly before him, too possessed by what he had said to notice the Doctor's peculiar expression; but it returned to his memory afterwards.
"Why," the Doctor at last stammered, "I never heard of this before!"
"No," Gilbert answered, "and I must ask of you not to mention it further, at present. I must beg you to be patient until my mother is able to declare the truth."
"What keeps her from it?"
"I don't know," Gilbert sadly replied.
"Come!" cried the Doctor, as sternly as ever, "this is rather a likely story! If Potter isn't thy name, what is?"
"I don't know," Gilbert repeated.
"No; nor no one else! How dare thee address my daughter,—talk of marriage with her,—when thee don't know thy real name? What name would thee offer to her in exchange for her own? Young man, I don't believe thee!"
"I do," said Martha, rising and moving to Gilbert's side.
"Martha, go to thy room!" the Doctor cried. "And as for thee, Gilbert Potter, or Gilbert Anything, I tell thee, once and for all, never speak of this thing again,—at least, until thee can show a legal name and an honorable birth! Thee has not prejudiced me in thy favor by thy devices, and it stands to reason that I should forbid thee to see my daughter,—to enter my doors!"
"Dr. Deane," said Gilbert, with sad yet inflexible dignity, "it is impossible, after what you have said, that I should seek to enter your door, until my words are proved true, and I am justified in your eyes. The day may come sooner than you think. But I will do nothing secretly; I won't promise anything to you that I can't promise to myself; and so I tell you, honestly and above-board, that while I shall not ask Martha to share my life until I can offer her my true name, I must see her from time to time. I'm not fairly called upon to give up that."
"No, Gilbert," said Martha, who had not yet moved from her place by his side, "it is as necessary to my happiness as to yours. I will not ask you to come here again; you cannot, and must not, even for my sake; but when I need your counsel and your sympathy, and there is no other way left, I will go to you."
"Martha!" Dr. Deane exclaimed; but the word conveys no idea of his wrath and amazement.
"Father," she said, "this is thy house, and it is for thee to direct, here. Within its walls, I will conduct myself according to thy wishes; I will receive no guest whom thee forbids, and will even respect thy views in regard to my intercourse with our friends; but unless thee wants to deprive me of all liberty, and set aside every right of mine as an accountable being, thee must allow me sometimes to do what both my heart and my conscience command!"
"Is it a woman's place," he angrily asked, "to visit a man?"
"When the two have need of each other, and God has joined their hearts in love and in truth, and the man is held back from reaching the woman, then it is her place to go to him!"
Never before had Dr. Deane beheld upon his daughter's sweet, gentle face such an expression of lofty spiritual authority. While her determination really outraged his conventional nature, he felt that it came from a higher source than his prohibition. He knew that nothing which he could urge at that moment would have the slightest weight in her mind, and moreover, that the liberal, independent customs of the neighborhood, as well as the respect of his sect for professed spiritual guidance, withheld him from any harsh attempt at coercion. He was powerless, but still inflexible.
As for Martha, what she had said was simply included in what she was resolved to do; the greater embraced the less. It was a defiance of her father's authority, very painful from the necessity of its assertion, but rendered inevitable by his course. She knew with what tenacity he would seize and hold every inch of relinquished ground; she felt, as keenly as Gilbert himself, the implied insult which he could not resent; and her pride, her sense of justice, and the strong fidelity of her woman's heart, alike impelled her to stand firm.
"Good-bye, Martha!" Gilbert said, taking her hand "I must wait."
"We wait together, Gilbert!"
MISS LAVENDER MAKES A GUESS.
There were signs of spring all over the land, and Gilbert resumed his farm-work with the fresh zest which the sense of complete ownership gave. He found a purchaser for his wagon, sold one span of horses, and thus had money in hand for all the coming expenses of the year. His days of hauling, of anxiety, of painful economy, were over; he rejoiced in his fully developed and recognized manhood, and was cheered by the respect and kindly sympathy of his neighbors.
Meanwhile, the gossip, not only of Kennett, but of Marlborough, Pennsbury, and New-Garden, was as busy as ever. No subject of country talk equalled in interest the loves of Gilbert Potter and Martha Deane. Mark, too open-hearted to be intrusted with any secret, was drawn upon wherever he went, and he revealed more (although he was by no means Martha's confidant) than the public had any right to know. The idlers at the Unicorn had seen Gilbert enter Dr. Deane's house, watched his return therefrom, made shrewd notes of the Doctor's manner when he came forth that evening, and guessed the result of the interview almost as well as if they had been present.
The restoration of Gilbert's plundered money, and his hardly acquired independence as a landholder, greatly strengthened the hands of his friends. There is no logic so convincing as that of good luck; in proportion as a man is fortunate (so seems to run the law of the world), he attracts fortune to him. A good deed would not have helped Gilbert so much in popular estimation, as this sudden and unexpected release from his threatened difficulties. The blot upon his name was already growing fainter, and a careful moral arithmetician might have calculated the point of prosperity at which it would cease to be seen.
Nowhere was the subject discussed with greater interest and excitement than in the Fairthorn household. Sally, when she first heard the news, loudly protested her unbelief; why, the two would scarcely speak to each other, she said; she had seen Gilbert turn his back on Martha, as if he couldn't bear the sight of her; it ought to be, and she would be glad if it was, but it wasn't!
When, therefore, Mark confirmed the report, and was led on, by degrees, to repeat Gilbert's own words, Sally rushed out into the kitchen with a vehemence which left half her apron hanging on the door-handle, torn off from top to bottom in her whirling flight, and announced the fact to her mother.
Joe, who was present, immediately cried out,—
"O, Sally! now I may tell about Mark, mayn't I?"
Sally seized him by the collar, and pitched him out the kitchen-door. Her face was the color of fire.
"My gracious, Sally!" exclaimed Mother Fairthorn, in amazement; "what's that for?"
But Sally had already disappeared, and was relating her trouble to Mark, who roared with wicked laughter, whereupon she nearly cried with vexation.
"Never mind," said he; "the boy's right. I told Gilbert this very afternoon that it was about time to speak to the old man; and he allowed it was. Come out with me and don't be afeard—I'll do the talkin'."
Hand in hand they went into the kitchen, Sally blushing and hanging back a little. Farmer Fairthorn had just come in from the barn, and was warming his hands at the fire. Mother Fairthorn might have had her suspicions, but it was her nature to wait cheerfully, and say nothing.
"See here, Daddy and Mammy!" said Mark, "have either o' you any objections to Sally and me bein' a pair?"
Farmer Fairthorn smiled, rubbed his hands together, and turning to his wife, asked,—"What has Mammy to say to it?"
She looked up at Mark with her kindly eyes, in which twinkled something like a tear, and said,—"I was guessin' it might turn out so between you two, and if I'd had anything against you, Mark, I wouldn't ha' let it run on. Be a steady boy, and you'll make Sally a steady woman. She's had pretty much her own way."
Thereupon Farmer Fairthorn, still rubbing his hands, ventured to remark,—"The girl might ha' done worse." This was equivalent to a hearty commendation of the match, and Mark so understood it. Sally kissed her mother, cried a little, caught her gown on a corner of the kitchen-table, and thus the betrothal was accepted as a family fact. Joe and Jake somewhat disturbed the bliss of the evening, it is true, by bursting into the room from time to time, staring significantly at the lovers, and then rushing out again with loud whoops and laughter.
Sally could scarcely await the coming of the next day, to visit Martha Deane. At first she felt a little piqued that she had not received the news from Martha's own lips, but this feeling speedily vanished in the sympathy with her friend's trials. She was therefore all the more astonished at the quiet, composed bearing of the latter. The tears she had expected to shed were not once drawn upon.
"O, Martha!" she cried, after the first impetuous outburst of feeling,—"to think that it has all turned out just as I wanted! No, I don't quite mean that; you know I couldn't wish you to have crosses; but about Gilbert! And it's too bad—Mark has told me dreadful things, but I hope they're not all true; you don't look like it; and I'm so glad, you can't think!"
Martha smiled, readily untangling Sally's thoughts, and said,—"I mustn't complain, Sally. Nothing has come to pass that I had not prepared my mind to meet. We will only have to wait a little longer than you and Mark."
"No you won't!" Sally exclaimed. "I'll make Mark wait, too! And everything must be set right—somebody must do something! Where's Betsy Lavender?"
"Here!" answered the veritable voice of the spinster, through the open door of the small adjoining room.
"Gracious, how you frightened me!" cried Sally. "But, Betsy, you seem to be able to help everybody; why can't you do something for Martha and Gilbert?"
"Martha and Gilbert. That's what I ask myself, nigh onto a hundred times a day, child. But there's things that takes the finest kind o' wit to see through, and you can't make a bead-purse out of a sow's-ear, neither jerk Time by the forelock, when there a'n't a hair, as you can see, to hang on to. I dunno as you'll rightly take my meanin'; but never mind, all the same, I'm flummuxed, and it's the longest and hardest flummux o' my life!"
Miss Betsy Lavender, it must here be explained, was more profoundly worried than she was willing to admit. Towards Martha she concealed the real trouble of her mind under the garb of her quaint, jocular speech, which meant much or little, as one might take it. She had just returned from one of her social pilgrimages, during which she had heard nothing but the absorbing subject of gossip. She had been questioned and cross-questioned, entreated by many, as Sally had done, to do something (for all had great faith in her powers), and warned by a few not to meddle with what did not concern her. Thus she had come back that morning, annoyed, discomposed, and more dissatisfied with herself than ever before, to hear Martha's recital of what had taken place during her absence.
In spite of Martha's steady patience and cheerfulness, Miss Lavender knew that the painful relation in which she stood to her father would not be assuaged by the lapse of time. She understood Dr. Deane's nature quite as well as his daughter, and was convinced that, for the present, neither threats nor persuasions would move his stubborn resistance. According to the judgment of the world (the older part of it, at least), he had still right on his side. Facts were wanted; or, rather, the one fact upon which resistance was based must be removed.
With all this trouble, Miss Lavender had a presentiment that there was work for her to do, if she could only discover what it was. Her faith in her own powers of assistance was somewhat shaken, and she therefore resolved to say nothing, promise nothing, until she had both hit upon a plan and carried it into execution.
Two or three days after Sally's visit, on a mild, sunny morning in the beginning of April, she suddenly announced her intention of visiting the Potter farm-house.
"I ha'n't seen Mary since last fall, you know, Martha," she said; "and I've a mortal longin' to wish Gilbert joy o' his good luck, and maybe say a word to keep him in good heart about you. Have you got no message to send by me?"
"Only my love," Martha answered; "and tell him how you left me. He knows I will keep my word; when I need his counsel, I will go to him."
"If more girls talked and thought that way, us women'd have fairer shakes," Miss Lavender remarked, as she put on her cloak and pattens.
When she reached the top of the hill overlooking the glen, she noticed fresh furrows in the field on her left. Clambering through the fence, she waited until the heads of a pair of horses made their appearance, rising over the verge of the hill. As she conjectured, Gilbert Potter was behind them, guiding the plough-handle. He was heartily glad to see her, and halted his team at the corner of the "land."
"I didn't know as you'd speak to me," said she, with assumed grimness. "Maybe you wouldn't, if I didn't come direct from her. Ah, you needn't look wild; it's only her love, and what's the use, for you had it already; but never mind, lovyers is never satisfied; and she's chipper and peart enough, seein' what she has to bear for your sake, but she don't mind that, on the contrary, quite the reverse, and I'm sure you don't deserve it!"
"Did she tell you what passed between us, the last time?" Gilbert asked.
"The last time. Yes. And jokin' aside, which often means the contrary in my crooked ways o' talkin', a'n't it about time somethin' was done?"
"What can be done?"
"I dunno," said Miss Lavender, gravely. "You know as well as I do what's in the way, or rather none of us knows what it is, only where it is; and a thing unbeknown may be big or little; who can tell? And latterly I've thought, Gilbert, that maybe your mother is in the fix of a man I've heerd tell on, that fell into a pit, and ketched by the last bush, and hung on, and hung on, till he could hold on no longer; so he gev himself up to death, shet his eyes and let go, and lo and behold! the bottom was a matter o' six inches under his feet! Leastways, everything p'ints to a sort o' skeary fancy bein' mixed up with it, not a thing to laugh at, I can tell you, but as earnest as sin, for I've seen the likes, and maybe easy to make straight if you could only look into it yourself; but you think there's no chance o' that?"
"No," said Gilbert. "I've tried once too often, already; I shall not try again."
"Try again," Miss Lavender repeated. "Then why not?"—but here she paused, and seemed to meditate. The fact was, she had been tempted to ask Gilbert's advice in regard to the plan she was revolving in her brain. The tone of his voice, however, was discouraging; she saw that he had taken a firm and gloomy resolution to be silent,—his uneasy air hinted that he desired to avoid further talk on this point. So, with a mental reprimand of the indiscretion into which her sympathy with him had nearly betrayed her, she shut her teeth and slightly bit her tongue.
"Well, well," she said; "I hope it'll come out before you're both old and sour with waitin', that's all! I don't want such true-love as your'n to be like firkin-butter at th' end; for as fresh, and firm, and well-kep' as you please, it ha'n't got the taste o' the clover and the sweet-grass; but who knows? I may dance at your weddin', after all, sooner'n I mistrust; and so I'm goin' down to spend the day with y'r mother!"
She strode over the furrow and across the weedy sod, and Gilbert resumed his ploughing. As she approached the house, Miss Lavender noticed that the secured ownership of the property was beginning to express itself in various slight improvements and adornments. The space in front of the porch was enlarged, and new flower-borders set along the garden-paling; the barn had received a fresh coat of whitewash, as well as the trunks of the apple-trees, which shone like white pillars; and there was a bench with bright straw bee-hives under the lilac-bush. Mary Potter was at work in the garden, sowing her early seeds.
"Well, I do declare!" exclaimed Miss Lavender, after the first cordial greetings were over. "Seems almost like a different place, things is so snugged up and put to rights."
"Yes," said Mary Potter; "I had hardly the heart, before, to make it everything that we wanted; and you can't think what a satisfaction I have in it now."
"Yes, I can! Give me the redishes, while you stick in them beets. I've got a good forefinger for plantin' 'em,—long and stiff; and I can't stand by and see you workin' alone, without fidgets."
Miss Lavender threw off her cloak and worked with a will. When the gardening was finished, she continued her assistance in the house, and fully earned her dinner before she sat down to it. Then she insisted on Mary Potter bringing out her sewing, and giving her something more to do; it was one of her working-days, she said; she had spent rather an idle winter; and moreover, she was in such spirits at Gilbert's good fortune, that she couldn't be satisfied without doing something for him, and to sew up the seams of his new breeches was the very thing! Never had she been so kind, so cheerful, and so helpful, and Mary Potter's nature warmed into happy content in her society.
No one should rashly accuse Miss Lavender if there was a little design in this. The task she had set herself to attempt was both difficult and delicate. She had divided it into two portions, requiring very different tactics, and was shrewd enough to mask, in every possible way, the one from which she had most hopes of obtaining a result. She made no reference, at first, to Gilbert's attachment to Martha Deane, but seemed to be wholly absorbed in the subject of the farm; then, taking wide sweeps through all varieties of random gossip, preserving a careless, thoughtless, rattling manner, she stealthily laid her pitfalls for the unsuspecting prey.
"I was over't Warren's t' other day," she said, biting off a thread, "and Becky had jist come home from Phildelphy. There's new-fashioned bonnets comin' up, she says. She stayed with Allen's, but who they are I don't know. Laws! now I think on it, Mary, you stayed at Allen's, too, when you were there!"
"No," said Mary Potter, "it was at—Treadwell's."
"Treadwell's? I thought you told me Allen's. All the same to me, Allen or Treadwell; I don't know either of 'em. It's a long while since I've been in Phildelphy, and never likely to go ag'in. I don't fancy trampin' over them hard bricks, though, to be sure, a body sees the fashions; but what with boxes tumbled in and out o' the stores, and bar'ls rollin', and carts always goin' by, you're never sure o' y'r neck; and I was sewin' for Clarissa Lee, Jackson that was, that married a dry goods man, the noisiest place that ever was; you could hardly hear yourself talk; but a body gets used to it, in Second Street, close't to Market, and were you anywheres near there?"
"I was in Fourth Street," Mary Potter answered, with a little hesitation. Miss Lavender secretly noticed her uneasiness, which, she also remarked, arose not from suspicion, but from memory.
"What kind o' buttons are you goin' to have, Mary?" she asked. "Horn splits, and brass cuts the stuff, and mother o' pearl wears to eternity, but they're so awful dear. Fourth Street, you said? One street's like another to me, after you get past the corners. I'd always know Second, though, by the tobacco-shop, with the wild Injun at the door, liftin' his tommyhawk to skulp you—ugh!—but never mind, all the same, skulp away for what I care, for I a'n't likely ever to lay eyes on you ag'in!"
Having thus, with perhaps more volubility than was required, covered up the traces of her design, Miss Lavender cast about how to commence the second and more hopeless attack. It was but scant intelligence which she had gained, but in that direction she dared not venture further. What she now proposed to do required more courage and less cunning.
Her manner gradually changed; she allowed lapses of silence to occur, and restricted her gossip to a much narrower sweep. She dwelt, finally, upon the singular circumstances of Sandy Flash's robbery of Gilbert, and the restoration of the money.
"Talkin' o' Deb. Smith," she then said, "Mary, do you mind when I was here last harvest, and the talk we had about Gilbert? I've often thought on it since, and how I guessed right for once't, for I know the ways o' men, if I am an old maid, and so it's come out as I said, and a finer couple than they'll make can't be found in the county!"
Mary Potter looked up, with a shadow of the old trouble on her face. "You know all about it, Betsy, then?" she asked.
"Bless your soul, Mary, everybody knows about it! There's been nothin' else talked about in the neighborhood for the last three weeks; why, ha'n't Gilbert told you o' what passed between him and Dr. Deane, and how Martha stood by him as no woman ever stood by a man?"
An expression of painful curiosity, such as shrinks from the knowledge it craves, came into Mary Potter's eyes. "Gilbert has told me nothing," she said, "since—since that time."
"That time. I won't ask you what time; it's neither here nor there; but you ought to know the run o' things, when it's common talk." And therewith Miss Lavender began at the beginning, and never ceased until she had brought the history, in all its particulars, down to that very day. She did not fail to enlarge on the lively and universal Interest in the fortunes of the lovers which was manifested by the whole community. Mary Potter's face grew paler and paler as she spoke, but the tears which some parts of the recital called forth were quenched again, as it seemed, by flashes of aroused pride.
"Now," Miss Lavender concluded, "you see just how the matter stands. I'm not hard on you, savin' and exceptin' that facts is hard, which they sometimes are I don't deny; but here we're all alone with our two selves, and you'll grant I'm a friend, though I may have queer ways o' showin' it; and why shouldn't I say that all the trouble comes o' Gilbert bearin' your name?"
"Don't I know it!" Mary Potter cried. "Isn't my load heaped up heavier as it comes towards the end? What can I do but wait till the day when I can give Gilbert his father's name?"
"His father's name! Then you can do it, some day? I suspicioned as much. And you've been bound up from doin' it, all this while,—and that's what's been layin' so heavy on your mind, wasn't it?"
"Betsy," said Mary Potter, with sudden energy, "I'll say as much as I dare, so that I may keep my senses. I fear, sometimes, I'll break together for want of a friend like you, to steady me while I walk the last steps of my hard road. Gilbert was born in wedlock; I'm not bound to deny that; but I committed a sin,—not the sin people charge me with,—and the one that persuaded me to it has to answer for more than I have. I bound myself not to tell the name of Gilbert's father,—not to say where or when I was married, not to do or say anything to put others On the track, until—but there's the sin and the trouble and the punishment all in one. If I told that, you might guess the rest. You know what a name I've had to bear, but I've taken my cross and fought my way, and put up with all things, that I might deserve the fullest justification the Lord has in His hands. If I had known all beforehand, Betsy,—but I expected the release in a month or two, and it hasn't come in twenty-five years!"
"Twenty-five years!" repeated Miss Lavender, heedless of the drops running down her thin face. "If there was a sin, Mary, even as big as a yearlin' calf, you've worked off the cost of it, years ago! If you break your word now, you'll stand justified in the sight o' the Lord, and of all men, and even if you think a scrimption of it's left, remember your dooty to Gilbert, and take a less justification for his sake!"
"I've been tempted that way, Betsy, but the end I wanted has been set in my mind so long I can't get it out. I've seen the Lord's hand so manifest in these past days, that I'm fearsome to hurry His judgments. And then, though I try not to, I'm waiting from day to day,—almost from hour to hour,—and it seems that if I was to give up and break my vow, He would break it for me the next minute afterwards, to punish my impatience!"
"Why," Miss Lavender exclaimed, "it must be your husband's death you're waitin' for!"
Mary Potter started up with a wild look of alarm. "No—no—not his death!" she cried. "I should want him to—be living! Ask me no more questions; forget what I've said, if it don't incline you to encourage me! That's why I've told you so much!"
Miss Lavender instantly desisted from further appeal. She rose, put her arm around Mary Potter's waist, and said,—"I didn't mean to frighten or to worry you, deary. I may think your conscience has worked on itself, like, till it's ground a bit too sharp; but I see just how you're fixed, and won't say another word, without it's to give comfort. An open confession's good for the soul, they say, and half a loaf's better than no bread, and you haven't violated your word a bit, and so let it do you good!"
In fact, when Mary Potter grew calm, she was conscious of a relief the more welcome because it was so rare in her experience. Miss Lavender, moreover, hastened to place Gilbert's position in a more cheerful light, and the same story, repeated for a different purpose, now assumed quite another aspect. She succeeded so well, that she left behind her only gratitude for the visit.
Late in the afternoon she came forth from the farmhouse, and commenced slowly ascending the hill. She stopped frequently and looked about her; her narrow forehead was wrinkled, and the base of her long nose was set between two deep furrows. Her lips were twisted in a pucker of great perplexity, and her eyes were nearly closed in a desperate endeavor to solve some haunting, puzzling question.
"It's queer," she muttered to herself, when she had nearly reached the top of the hill,—"it's mortal queer! Like a whip-poor-will on a moonlight night: you hear it whistlin' on the next fence-rail, it doesn't seem a yard off; you step up to ketch it, and there's nothin' there; then you step back ag'in, and 'whip-poor-will! whip-poor-will!' whistles louder 'n ever,—and so on, the whole night, and some folks says they can throw their voices outside o' their bodies, but that's neither here nor there.
"Now why can't I ketch hold o' this thing? It isn't a yard off me, I'll be snaked! And I dunno what ever she said that makes me think so, but I feel it in my bones, and no use o' callin' up words; it's one o' them things that comes without callin', when they come at all, and I'm so near guessin' I'll have no peace day or night."
With many similar observations she resumed her walk, and presently reached the border of the ploughed land. Gilbert's back was towards her; he was on the descending furrow. She looked at him, started, suddenly lost her breath, and stood with open mouth and wide, fixed eyes.
Loud and shrill her cry rang across the valley. It was like the yell of a war-horse, scenting the battle afar off. All the force of her lungs and muscles expended itself in the sound.
The next instant she dropped upon the moist, ploughed earth, and sat there, regardless of gown and petticoat. "Good Lord!" she repeated to herself, over and over again. Then, seeing Gilbert approaching, startled by the cry, she slowly arose to her feet.
"A good guess," she said to herself, "and what's more, there's ways o' provin' it. He's comin', and he mustn't know; you're a fool, Betsy Lavender, not to keep your wits better about you, and go rousin' up the whole neighborhood; good look that your face is crooked and don't show much o' what's goin' on inside!"
"What's the matter, Betsy?" asked Gilbert.
"Nothin'—one o' my crazy notions," she said. "I used to holler like a kildeer when I was a girl and got out on the Brandywine hills alone, and I s'pose I must ha' thought about it, and the yell sort o' come of itself, for it just jerked me off o' my feet; but you needn't tell anybody that I cut such capers in my old days, not that folks'd much wonder, but the contrary, for they're used to me."
Gilbert laughed heartily, but he hardly seemed satisfied with the explanation. "You're all of a tremble," he said.
"Am I? Well, it's likely,—and my gownd all over mud; but there's one favor I want to ask o' you, and no common one, neither, namely, the loan of a horse for a week or so."
"A horse?" Gilbert repeated.
"A horse. Not Roger, by no means; I couldn't ask that, and he don't know me, anyhow; but the least rough-pacin' o' them two, for I've got considerable ridin' over the country to do, and I wouldn't ask you, but it's a busy time o' year, and all folks isn't so friendly."
"You shall have whatever you want, Betsy," he said. "But you've heard nothing?"—
"Nothin' o' one sort or t'other. Make yourself easy, lad."
Gilbert, however, had been haunted by new surmises in regard to Dr. Deane. Certain trifles had returned to his memory since the interview, and rather than be longer annoyed with them, he now opened his heart to Miss Lavender.
A curious expression came over her face. "You've got sharp eyes and ears Gilbert," she said. "Now supposin' I wanted your horse o' purpose to clear up your doubts in a way to satisfy you, would you mind lettin' me have it?"
"Take even Roger!" he exclaimed.
"No, that bay'll do. Keep thinkin' that's what I'm after, and ask me no more questions."
She crossed the ploughed land, crept through the fence, and trudged up the road. When a clump of bushes on the bank had hid Gilbert from her sight, she stopped, took breath, and chuckled with luxurious satisfaction.
"Betsy Lavender," she said, with marked approval, "you're a cuter old thing than I took you to be!"
The next morning Sam took Gilbert's bay horse to Kennett Square, and hitched him in front of Dr. Deane's door. Miss Lavender, who was on the look-out, summoned the boy into the house, to bring her own side-saddle down from the garret, and then proceeded to pack a small valise, with straps corresponding to certain buckles behind the saddle. Martha Deane looked on with some surprise at this proceeding, but as Miss Lavender continued silent, she asked no questions.
"There!" exclaimed the spinster, when everything was ready, "now I'm good for a week's travel, if need be! You want to know where I'm goin', child, I see, and you might as well out with the words, though not much use, for I hardly know myself."
"Betsy," said Martha, "you seem so strange, so unlike yourself, ever since you came home last evening. What is it?"
"I remembered somethin', on the way up; my head's been so bothered that I forgot things, never mind what, for I must have some business o' my own or I wouldn't seem to belong to myself; and so I've got to trapes round considerable,—money matters and the likes,—and folks a'n't always ready for you to the minute; therefore count on more time than what's needful, say I."
"And you can't guess when you will be back?" Martha asked.
"Hardly under a week. I want to finish up everything and come home for a good long spell."
With these words she descended to the road, valise in hand, buckled it to the saddle, and mounted the horse. Then she said good-bye to Martha, and rode briskly away, down the Philadelphia road.
Several days passed and nothing was heard of her. Gilbert Potter remained on his farm, busy with the labor of the opening spring; Mark Deane was absent, taking measurements and making estimates for the new house, and Sally Fairthorn spent all her spare time in spinning flax for a store of sheets and table-cloths, to be marked "S. A. F." in red silk, when duly woven, hemmed, and bleached.
One afternoon, during Miss Lavender's absence, Dr. Deane was again called upon to attend Old-man Barton. It was not an agreeable duty, for the Doctor suspected that something more than medical advice was in question. He had not visited the farm-house since his discovery of Martha's attachment to Gilbert Potter,—had even avoided intercourse with Alfred Barton, towards whom his manner became cold and constrained. It was a sore subject in his thoughts, and both the Bartons seemed to be, in some manner, accessory to his disappointment.
The old man complained of an attack of "buzzing in the head," which molested him at times, and for which bleeding was the Doctor's usual remedy. His face had a flushed, congested, purple hue, and there was an unnatural glare in his eyes; but the blood flowed thickly and sluggishly from his skinny arm, and a much longer time than usual elapsed before he felt relieved.
"Gad, Doctor!" he said, when the vein had been closed, "the spring weather brings me as much fulness as a young buck o' twenty. I'd be frisky yet, if't wasn't for them legs. Set down, there; you've news to tell me!"
"I think, Friend Barton," Dr. Deane answered, "thee'd better be quiet a spell. Talking isn't exactly good for thee."
"Eh?" the old man growled; "maybe you'd like to think so, Doctor. If I am house-bound, I pick up some things as they go around. And I know why you let our little matter drop so suddent."
He broke off with a short, malicious laugh, which excited the Doctor's ire. The latter seated himself, smoothed his garments and his face, became odorous of bergamot and wintergreen, and secretly determined to repay the old man for this thrust.
"I don't know what thee may have heard, Friend Barton," he remarked, in his blandest voice. "There is always plenty of gossip in this neighborhood, and some persons, no doubt, have been too free with my name,—mine and my daughter's, I may say. But I want thee to know that that has nothing to do with the relinquishment of my visits to thee. If thee's curious to learn the reason, perhaps thy son Alfred may be able to give it more circumstantially than I can."
"What, what, what!" exclaimed the old man. "The boy told you not to come, eh?"
"Not in so many words, mind thee; but he made it unnecessary,—quite unnecessary. In the first place, he gave me no legal evidence of any property, and until that was done, my hands were tied. Further, he seemed very loath to address Martha at all, which was not so singular, considering that he never took any steps, from the first, to gain her favor; and then he deceived me into imagining that she wanted time, after she had positively refused his addresses. He is mistaken, and thee too, if you think that I am very anxious to have a man of no spirit and little property for my son-in-law!"
The Doctor's words expressed more than he intended. They not only stung, but betrayed his own sting. Old-man Barton crooked his claws around his hickory staff, and shook with senile anger; while his small, keen eyes glared on his antagonist's face. Yet he had force enough to wait until the first heat of his feeling subsided.
"Doctor," he then said, "mayhap my boy's better than a man o' no name and no property. He's worth, anyways, what I choose to make him worth. Have you made up y'r mind to take the t'other, that you've begun to run him down, eh?"
They were equally matched, this time. The color came into Dr. Deane's face, and then faded, leaving him slightly livid about the mouth. He preserved his external calmness, by a strong effort, but there was a barely perceptible tremor in his voice, as he replied,—
"It is not pleasant to a man of my years to be made a fool of, as I have every reason to believe thy son has attempted. If I had yielded to his persuasions, I should have spent much time—all to no purpose, I doubt not—in endeavoring to ascertain what thee means to do for him in thy will. It was, indeed, the only thing he seemed to think or care much about. If he has so much money of his own, as thee says, it is certainly not creditable that he should be so anxious for thy decease."
The Doctor had been watching the old man as he spoke, and the increasing effect of his words was so perceptible that he succeeded in closing with an agreeable smile and a most luxurious pinch of snuff. He had not intended to say so much, at the commencement of the conversation, but he had been sorely provoked, and the temptation was irresistible.
The effect was greater than he had imagined. Old Barton's face was so convulsed, that, for a few minutes, the Doctor feared an attack of complete paralysis. He became the physician again, undid his work as much as possible, and called Miss Ann into the room, to prevent any renewal of the discussion. He produced his stores of entertaining gossip, and prolonged his stay until all threatening symptoms of the excitement seemed to be allayed. The old man returned to his ordinary mood, and listened, and made his gruff comments, but with temporary fits of abstraction. After the Doctor's departure, he scarcely spoke at all, for the remainder of the evening.
A day or two afterwards, when Alfred Barton returned in the evening from a sale in the neighborhood, he was aware of a peculiar change in his father's manner. His first impression was that the old man, contrary to Dr. Deane's orders, had resumed his rations of brandy, and exceeded the usual allowance. There was a vivid color on his flabby cheeks; he was alert, talkative, and frequently chuckled to himself, shifting the hickory staff from hand to hand, or rubbing his gums backward and forward on its rounded end.
He suddenly asked, as Alfred was smoking his pipe before the fire,—
"Know what I've been thinkin' of, to-day, boy?"
"No, daddy; anything about the crops?"
"Ha! ha! a pretty good crop for somebody it'll be! Nearly time for me to make my will, eh? I'm so old and weak—no life left in me—can't last many days!"
He laughed with a hideous irony, as he pronounced these words. His son stared at him, and the fire died out in the pipe between his teeth. Was the old man getting childish? he asked himself. But no; he had never looked more diabolically cunning and watchful.
"Why, daddy," Alfred said at last, "I thought—I fancied, at least, you'd done that, long ago."
"Maybe I have, boy; but maybe I want to change it. I had a talk with the Doctor when he came down to bleed me, and since there's to be no match between you and the girl"—
He paused, keeping his eyes on his son's face, which lengthened and grew vacant with a vague alarm.
"Why, then," he presently resumed, "you're so much poorer by the amount o' her money. Would it be fair, do you think, if I was to put that much to what I might ha' meant for you before? Don't you allow you ought to have a little more, on account o' your disapp'intment?
"If you think so, dad, it's all right," said the son, relighting his pipe. "I don't know, though what Elisha'd say to it; but then, he's no right to complain, for he married full as much as I'd ha' got."
"That he did, boy; and when all's said and done, the money's my own to do with it what I please. There's no law o' the oldest takin' all. Yes, yes, I'll have to make a new will!"
A serene joy diffused itself through Alfred Barton's breast. He became frank, affectionate, and confidential.
"To tell you the truth, dad," he said, "I was mighty afraid you'd play the deuce with me, because all's over between me and Martha Deane. You seemed so set on it."
"So I was—so I was," croaked the old man, "but I've got over it since I saw the Doctor. After all I've heerd, she's not the wife for you; it's better as it is. You'd rayther have the money without her, tell the truth now, you dog, ha! ha!"
"Damme, dad, you've guessed it!" Alfred cried, joining in the laugh. "She's too high-flown for me. I never fancied a woman that's ready to take you down, every other word you say; and I'll tell you now, that I hadn't much stomach for the match, at any time; but you wanted it, you know, and I've done what I could, to please you."
"You're a good boy, Alfred,—a mighty good boy."
There was nothing very amusing in this opinion, but the old man laughed over it, by fits and starts, for a long time.
"Take a drop o' brandy, boy!" he said. "You may as well have my share, till I'm ready to begin ag'in."
This was the very climax of favor. Alfred arose with a broad beam of triumph on his face, filled the glass, and saying,—"Here's long life to you, dad!" turned it into his mouth.
"Long life?" the old man muttered. "It's pretty long as it is,—eighty-six and over; but it may be ninety-six, or a hundred and six; who knows? Anyhow, boy, long or short, I'll make a new will."
Giles was now summoned, to wheel him into the adjoining room and put him to bed. Alfred Barton took a second glass of brandy (after the door was closed), lighted a fresh pipe, and seated himself again before the embers to enjoy the surprise and exultation of his fortune. To think that he had worried himself so long for that which finally came of itself! Half his fear of the old man, he reflected, had been needless; in many things he had acted like the veriest fool! Well, it was a consolation to know that all his anxieties were over. The day that should make him a rich and important man might be delayed (his father's strength and vitality were marvellous), but it was certain to come.
Another day or two passed by, and the old man's quick, garrulous, cheerful mood continued, although he made no further reference to the subject of the will. Alfred Barton deliberated whether he should suggest sending for Lawyer Stacy, but finally decided not to hazard his prospects by a show of impatience. He was therefore not a little surprised when his sister Ann suddenly made her appearance in the barn, where he and Giles were mending some dilapidated plough-harness, and announced that the lawyer was even then closeted with their father. Moreover, for the first time in his knowledge, Ann herself had been banished from the house. She clambered into the hay-mow, sat down in a comfortable spot, and deliberately plied her knitting-needles.
Ann seemed to take the matter as coolly as if it were an every-day occurrence, but Alfred could not easily recover from his astonishment. There was more than accident here, he surmised. Mr. Stacy had made his usual visit, not a fortnight before; his father's determination had evidently been the result of his conversation with Dr. Deane; and in the mean time no messenger had been sent to Chester, neither was there time for a letter to reach there. Unless Dr. Deane himself were concerned in secretly bringing about the visit,—a most unlikely circumstance, —Alfred Barton could not understand how it happened.
"How did th' old man seem, when you left the house?" he asked.
"'Pears to me I ha'n't seen him so chipper these twenty years," said Ann.
"And how long are they to be left alone?"
"No tellin'," she answered, rattling her needles. "Mr. Stacy'll come, when all's done; and not a soul is to go any nearder the house till he gives the word."
Two hours, three hours, four hours passed away, before the summons came. Alfred Barton found himself so curiously excited that he was fain to leave the harness to Giles, and quiet himself with a pipe or two in the meadow. He would have gone up to the Unicorn for a little stronger refreshment, but did not dare to venture out of sight of the house. Miss Ann was the perfect image of Patience in a hay-mow, smiling at his anxiety. The motion of her needles never ceased, except when she counted the stitches in narrowing.
Towards sunset, Mr. Stacy made his appearance at the barn-door, but his face was a sealed book.
On the morning of that very day, another mysterious incident occurred. Jake Fairthorn had been sent to Carson's on the old gray mare, on some farm-errand,—perhaps to borrow a pick-axe or a post-spade. He had returned as far as the Philadelphia road, and was entering the thick wood on the level before descending to Redley Creek, when he perceived Betsy Lavender leading Gilbert Potter's bay horse through a gap in the fence, after which she commenced putting up the rails behind her.
"Why, Miss Betsy! what are you doin'?" cried Jake, spurring up to the spot.
"Boys should speak when they're spoken to, and not come where they're not wanted," she answered, in a savage tone. "Maybe I'm goin' to hunt bears."
"Oh, please, let me go along!" eagerly cried Jake, who believed in bears.
"Go along! Yes, and be eat up." Miss Lavender looked very much annoyed. Presently, however, her face became amiable; she took a buckskin purse out of her pocket, selected a small silver coin, and leaning over the fence, held it out to Jake.
"Here!" she said, "here's a 'levenpenny-bit for you, if you'll be a good boy, and do exackly as I bid you. Can you keep from gabblin', for two days? Can you hold your tongue and not tell anybody till day after to-morrow that you seen me here, goin' into the woods?"
"Why, that's easy as nothin'!" cried Jake, pocketing the coin. Miss Lavender, leading the horse, disappeared among the trees.
But it was not quite so easy as Jake supposed. He had not been at home ten minutes, before the precious piece of silver, transferred back and forth between his pocket and his hand in the restless ecstasy of possession, was perceived by Joe. Then, as Jake stoutly refused to tell where it came from, Joe rushed into the kitchen, exclaiming,—
"Mammy, Jake's stole a levy!"
This brought out Mother Fairthorn and Sally, and the unfortunate Jake, pressed and threatened on all sides, began to cry lamentably.
"She'll take it from me ag'in, if I tell," he whimpered.
"She? Who?" cried both at once, their curiosity now fully excited; and the end of it was that Jake told the whole story, and was made wretched.
"Well!" Sally exclaimed, "this beats all! Gilbert Potter's bay horse, too! Whatever could she be after? I'll have no peace till I tell Martha, and so I may as well go up at once, for there's something in the wind, and if she don't know already, she ought to!"
Thereupon Sally put on her bonnet, leaving her pewters half scoured, and ran rather than walked to the village. Martha Deane could give no explanation of the circumstance, but endeavored, for Miss Lavender's sake, to conceal her extreme surprise.
"We shall know what it means," she said, "when Betsy comes home, and if it's anything that concerns me, I promise, Sally, to tell you. It may, however, relate to some business of her own, and so, I think, we had better quietly wait and say nothing about it."
Nevertheless, after Sally's departure, Martha meditated long and uneasily upon what she had heard. The fact that Miss Lavender had come back from the Potter farmhouse in so unusual a frame of mind, borrowed Gilbert's horse, and set forth on some mysterious errand, had already disquieted her. More than the predicted week of absence had passed, and now Miss Lavender, instead of returning home, appeared to be hiding in the woods, anxious that her presence in the neighborhood should not be made known. Moreover she had been seen by the landlord of the Unicorn, three days before, near Logtown, riding towards Kennett Square.
These mysterious movements filled Martha Deane with a sense of anxious foreboding. She felt sure that they were connected, in some way, with Gilbert's interests, and Miss Lavender's reticence now seemed to indicate a coming misfortune which she was endeavoring to avert. If these fears were correct, Gilbert needed her help also. He could not come to her; was she not called upon to go to him?
Her resolution was soon taken, and she only waited until her father had left on a visit to two or three patients along the Street Road. His questions, she knew, would bring on another painful conflict of will, and she would save her strength for Gilbert's necessities. To avoid the inferences of the tavern loungers, she chose the longer way, eastward out of the village to the cross-road running past the Carson place.
All the sweet, faint tokens of Spring cheered her eyes and calmed the unrest of her heart, as she rode. Among the dead leaves of the woods, the snowy blossoms of the blood-root had already burst forth in starry clusters; the anemones trembled between the sheltering knees of the old oaks, and here and there a single buttercup dropped its gold on the meadows. These things were so many presentiments of brighter days in Nature, and they awoke a corresponding faith in her own heart.
As she approached the Potter farm she slackened her horse's pace, and deliberated whether she should ride directly to the house or seek for Gilbert in the fields. She had not seen Mary Potter since that eventful Sunday, the previous summer, and felt that Gilbert ought to be consulted before a visit which might possibly give pain. Her doubts were suddenly terminated by his appearance, with Sam and an ox-cart, in the road before her.
Gilbert could with difficulty wait until the slow oxen had removed Sam out of hearing.
"Martha! were you coming to me?" he asked.
"As I promised, Gilbert," she said. "But do not look so anxious. If there really is any trouble, I must learn it of you."
She then related to him what she had noticed in Miss Lavender's manner, and learned of her movements. He stood before her, listening, with his hand on the mane of her horse, and his eyes intently fixed on her face. She saw the agitation her words produced, and her own vague fears returned.
"Can you guess her business, Gilbert?" she asked.
"Martha," he answered, "I only know that there is something in her mind, and I believe it concerns me. I am afraid to guess anything more, because I have only my own wild fancies to go upon, and it won't do to give 'em play!"
"What are those fancies, Gilbert? May I not know?"
"Can you trust me a little, Martha?" he implored. "Whatever I know, you shall know; but if I sometimes seek useless trouble for myself, why should I seek it for you? I'll tell you now one fear I've kept from you, and you'll see what I mean."
He related to her his dread that Sandy Flash might prove to be his father, and the solution of it in the highwayman's cell. "Have I not done right?" he asked.
"I am not sure, Gilbert," she replied, with a brave smile; "you might have tested my truth, once more, if you had spoken your fears."
"I need no test, Martha; and you won't press me for another, now. I'll only say, and you'll be satisfied with it, that Betsy seemed to guess what was in my mind, and promised, or rather expected, to come back with good news."
"Then," said Martha, "I must wait until she makes her appearance."
She had hardly spoken the words, before a figure became visible between the shock-headed willows, where the road crosses the stream. A bay horse—and then Betsy Lavender herself!
Martha turned her horse's head, and Gilbert hastened forward with her, both silent and keenly excited.
"Well!" exclaimed Miss Betsy, "what are you two a-doin' here?"
There was news in her face, both saw; yet they also remarked that the meeting did not seem to be entirely welcome to her.
"I came," said Martha, "to see whether Gilbert could tell me why you were hiding in the woods, instead of coming home."
"It's that—that good-for-nothin' serpent, Jake Fairthorn!" cried Miss Lavender. "I see it all now. Much Gilbert could tell you, howsever, or you him, o' my business, and haven't I a right to it, as well as other folks; but never mind, fine as it's spun it'll come to the sun, as they say o' flax and sinful doin's; not that such is mine, but you may think so if you like, and you'll know in a day or two, anyhow!"
Martha saw that Miss Lavender's lean hands were trembling, and guessed that her news must be of vital importance. "Betsy," she said, "I see you don't mean to tell us; but one word you can't refuse—is it good or bad?"
"Good or bad?" Miss Lavender repeated, growing more and more nervous, as she looked at the two anxious faces. "Well, it isn't bad, so peart yourselves up, and ask me no more questions, this day, nor yet to-morrow, maybe; because if you do, I'll just screech with all my might; I'll holler, Gilbert, wuss 'n you heerd, and much good that'll do you, givin' me a crazy name all over the country. I'm in dead earnest; if you try to worm anything more out o' me, I'll screech; and so I was goin' to bring your horse home, Gilbert, and have a talk with your mother, but you've made me mortal weak betwixt and between you; and I'll ride back with Martha, by your leave, and you may send Sam right away for the horse. No; let Sam come now, and walk alongside, to save me from Martha's cur'osity."
Miss Lavender would not rest until this arrangement was made. The two ladies then rode away through the pale, hazy sunset, leaving Gilbert Potter in a fever of impatience, dread, and hope.
The next morning, at daybreak, Dr. Deane was summoned in haste to the Barton farm-house. Miss Betsy Lavender, whose secrets, whatever they were, had interfered with her sleep, heard Giles's first knock, and thrust her night-cap out the window before he could repeat it. The old man, so Giles announced, had a bad spell,—a 'plectic fit, Lawyer Stacy called it, and they didn't know as he'd live from one hour to another.
Miss Lavender aroused the Doctor, then dressed herself in haste, and prepared to accompany him. Martha, awakened by the noise, came into the spinster's room in her night-dress.
"Must you go, Betsy?" she asked.
"Child, it's a matter o' life and death, more likely death; and Ann's a dooless critter at best, hardly ever off the place, and need o' Chris'en help, if there ever was such; so don't ask me to stay, for I won't, and all the better for me, for I daresn't open my lips to livin' soul till I've spoke with Mary Potter!"
Miss Lavender took the foot-path across the fields, accompanied by Giles, who gave up his saddled horse to Dr. Deane. The dawn was brightening in the sky as they reached the farm-house, where they found Alfred Barton restlessly walking backwards and forwards in the kitchen, while Ann and Mr. Stacy were endeavoring to apply such scanty restoratives—consisting principally of lavender and hot bricks—as the place afforded.
An examination of the eyes and the pulse, and a last abortive attempt at phlebotomy, convinced Dr. Deane that his services were no longer needed. Death, which so many years before had lamed half the body, now asserted his claim to the whole. A wonderfully persistent principle of vitality struggled against the clogged functions, for two or three hours, then yielded, and the small fragment of soul in the old man was cast adrift, with little chance of finding a comfortable lodging in any other world.
Ann wandered about the kitchen in a dazed state, dropping tears everywhere, and now and then moaning,—"O Betsy, how'll I ever get up the funeral dinner?" while Alfred, after emptying the square bottle of brandy, threw himself upon the settle and went to sleep. Mr. Stacy and Miss Lavender, who seemed to know each other thoroughly at the first sight, took charge of all the necessary arrangements; and as Alfred had said,—"I can't look after anything; do as you two like, and don't spare expense!" they ordered the coffin, dispatched messengers to the relatives and neighbors, and soothed Ann's unquiet soul by selecting the material for the dinner, and engaging the Unicorn's cook.
When all was done, late in the day, Miss Lavender called Giles and said,—"Saddle me a horse, and if no side-saddle, a man's'll do, for go I must; it's business o' my own, Mr. Stacy, and won't wait for me; not that I want to do more this day than what I've done. Goodness knows; but I'll have a fit, myself, if I don't!"
She reached the Potter farm-house at dark, and both mother and son were struck with her flushed, excited, and yet weary air. Their supper was over, but she refused to take anything more than a cup of tea; her speech was forced, and more rambling and disconnected than ever. When Mary Potter left the kitchen to bring some fresh cream from the spring-house, Miss Lavender hastily approached Gilbert, laid her hand on his shoulder, and said,—
"Lad, be good this once't, and do what I tell you. Make a reason for goin' to bed as soon as you can; for I've been workin' in your interest all this while, only I've got that to tell your mother, first of all, which you mustn't hear; and you may hope as much as you please, for the news isn't bad, as'll soon be made manifest!"
Gilbert was strangely impressed by her solemn, earnest manner, and promised to obey. He guessed, and yet feared to believe, that the long release of which his mother had spoken bad come at last; how else, he asked himself, should Miss Lavender become possessed of knowledge which seemed so important? As early as possible he went up to his bedroom, leaving the two women alone. The sound of voices, now high and hurried, now, apparently, low and broken, came to his ears. He resisted the temptation to listen, smothered his head in the pillow to further muffle the sounds, and after a long, restless struggle with his own mind, fell asleep. Deep in the night he was awakened by the noise of a shutting door, and then all was still.
It was very evident, in the morning, that he had not miscalculated the importance of Miss Lavender's communication. Was this woman, whose face shone with such a mingled light of awe and triumph, his mother? Were these features, where the deep lines of patience were softened into curves of rejoicing, the dark, smouldering gleam of sorrow kindled into a flashing light of pride, those he had known from childhood? As he looked at her, in wonder renewed with every one of her movements and glances, she took him by the hand and said,—
"Gilbert, wait a little!"
Miss Lavender insisted on having breakfast by sunrise, and as soon as the meal was over demanded her horse. Then first she announced the fact of Old-man Barton's death, and that the funeral was to be on the following day.
"Mary, you must be sure and come," she said, as she took leave; "I know Ann expects it of you. Ten o'clock, remember!"
Gilbert noticed that his mother laid aside her sewing, and when the ordinary household labor had been performed, seated herself near the window with a small old Bible, which he had never before seen in her hands. There was a strange fixedness in her gaze, as if only her eyes, not her thoughts, were directed upon its pages. The new expression of her face remained; it seemed already to have acquired as permanent a stamp as the old. Against his will he was infected by its power, and moved about in barn and field all day with a sense of the unreality of things, which was very painful to his strong, practical nature.
The day of the old man's funeral came. Sam led up the horses, and waited at the gate with them to receive his master's parting instructions. Gilbert remarked with surprise that his mother placed a folded paper between the leaves of the Bible, tied the book carefully in a linen handkerchief, and carried it with her. She was ready, but still hesitated, looking around the kitchen with the manner of one who had forgotten something. Then she returned to her own room, and after some minutes, came forth, paler than before, but proud, composed, and firm.
"Gilbert," she said, almost in a whisper, "I have tried you sorely, and you have been wonderfully kind and patient. I have no right to ask anything more; I could tell you everything now, but this is not the place nor the time I had thought of, for so many years past. Will you let me finish the work in the way pointed out to me?"
"Mother," he answered, "I cannot judge in this matter, knowing nothing. I must be led by you; but, pray, do not let it be long?"
"It will not be long, my boy, or I wouldn't ask it. I have one more duty to perform, to myself, to you, and to the Lord, and it must be done in the sight of men. Will you stand by me, not question my words, not interfere with my actions, however strange they may seem, but simply believe and obey?"
"I will, mother," he said, "because you make me feel that I must."
They mounted, and side by side rode up the glen. Mary Potter was silent; now and then her lips moved, not, as once, in some desperate appeal of the heart for pity and help, but as with a thanksgiving so profound that it must needs be constantly renewed, to be credited.
After passing Carson's, they took the shorter way across the fields, and approached the Barton farm-house from below. A large concourse of people was already assembled; and the rude black hearse, awaiting its burden in the lane, spread the awe and the gloom of death over the scene. The visitors were grouped around the doors, silent or speaking cautiously in subdued tones; and all new-comers passed into the house to take their last look at the face, of the dead.
The best room, in which the corpse lay, was scarcely used once in a year, and many of the neighbors had never before had occasion to enter it. The shabby, antiquated furniture looked cold and dreary from disuse, and the smell of camphor in the air hardly kept down the musty, mouldy odors which exhaled from the walls. The head and foot of the coffin rested on two chairs placed in the centre of the room; and several women, one of whom was Miss Betsy Lavender, conducted the visitors back and forth, as they came. The members of the bereaved family were stiffly ranged around the walls, the chief mourners consisting of the old man's eldest son, Elisha, with his wife and three married sons, Alfred, and Ann.
Mary Potter took her son's arm, and they passed through the throng at the door, and entered the house. Gilbert silently returned the nods of greeting; his mother neither met nor avoided the eyes of others. Her step was firm, her head erect, her bearing full of pride and decision. Miss Lavender, who met her with a questioning glance at the door, walked beside her to the room of death, and then—what was remarkable in her—became very pale.
They stood by the coffin. It was not a peaceful, solemn sight, that yellow face, with its wrinkles and creases and dark blotches of congealed blood, made more pronounced and ugly by the white shroud and cravat, yet a tear rolled down Mary Potter's cheek as she gazed upon it. Other visitors came, and Gilbert gently drew her away, to leave the room; but with a quick pressure upon his arm, as if to remind him of his promise, she quietly took her seat near the mourners, and by a slight motion indicated that he should seat himself at her side.
It was an unexpected and painful position; but her face, firm and calm, shamed his own embarrassment. He saw, nevertheless, that the grief of the mourners was not so profound as to suppress the surprise, if not indignation, which the act called forth. The women had their handkerchiefs to their eyes, and were weeping in a slow, silent, mechanical way; the men had handkerchiefs in their hands, but their faces were hard, apathetic, and constrained.
By-and-by the visitors ceased; the attending women exchanged glances with each other and with the mourners, and one of the former stepped up to Mary Potter and said gently,—
"It is only the family, now."
This was according to custom, which required that just before the coffin was closed, the members of the family of the deceased should be left alone with him for a few minutes, and take their farewell of his face, undisturbed by other eyes. Gilbert would have risen, but his mother, with her hand on his arm, quietly replied,—
"We belong to the family."
The woman withdrew, though with apparent doubt and hesitation, and they were left alone with the mourners.
Gilbert could scarcely trust his senses. A swift suspicion of his mother's insanity crossed his mind; but when he looked around the room and beheld Alfred Barton gazing upon her with a face more livid than that of the dead man, this suspicion was followed by another, no less overwhelming. For a few minutes everything seemed to whirl and spin before his eyes; a light broke upon him, but so unexpected, so incredible, that it came with the force of a blow.