The undertaker entered the room and screwed down the lid of the coffin; the pall-bearers followed and carried it to the hearse. Then the mourners rose and prepared to set forth, in the order of their relation to the deceased. Elisha Barton led the way, with his wife; then Ann, clad in her Sunday black, stepped forward to take Alfred's arm.
"Ann," said Mary Potter, in a low voice, which yet was heard by every person in the room, "that is my place."
She left Gilbert and moved to Alfred Barton's side. Then, slightly turning, she said,—"Gilbert, give your arm to your aunt."
For a full minute no other word was said. Alfred Barton stood motionless, with Mary Potter's hand on his arm. A fiery flush succeeded to his pallor; his jaw fell, and his eyes were fixed upon the floor. Ann took Gilbert's arm in a helpless, bewildered way.
"Alfred, what does all this mean?" Elisha finally asked.
He said nothing; Mary Potter answered for him,—"It is right that he should walk with his wife rather than his sister."
The horses and chairs were waiting in the lane, and helping neighbors were at the door; but the solemn occasion was forgotten, in the shock produced by this announcement. Gilbert started and almost reeled; Ann clung to him with helpless terror; and only Elisha, whose face grew dark and threatening, answered.
"Woman," he said, "you are out of your senses! Leave us; you have no business here!"
She met him with a proud, a serene and steady countenance. "Elisha," she answered, "we are here to bury your father and my father-in-law. Let be until the grave has closed over him; then ask Alfred whether I could dare to take my rightful place before to-day."
The solemn decision of her face and voice struck him dumb. His wife whispered a few words in his ear, and he turned away with her, to take his place in the funeral procession.
It was Alfred Barton's duty to follow, and if it was not grief which impelled him to bury his face in his handkerchief as they issued from the door, it was a torture keener than was ever mingled with grief,—the torture of a mean nature, pilloried in its meanest aspect for the public gaze. Mary, (we must not call her Potter, and cannot yet call her Barton,) rather led him than was led by him, and lifted her face to the eyes of men. The shame which she might have felt, as his wife, was lost in the one overpowering sense of the justification for which she had so long waited and suffered.
When the pair appeared in the yard, and Gilbert followed with Miss Ann Barton on his arm, most of the funeral guests looked on in stupid wonder, unable to conceive the reason of the two thus appearing among the mourners. But when they had mounted and were moving off, a rumor of the startling truth ran from lip to lip. The proper order of the procession was forgotten; some untied their horses in haste and pushed forward to convince themselves of the astonishing fact; others gathered into groups and discussed it earnestly. Some had suspected a relation of the kind, all along, so they said; others scouted at the story, and were ready with explanations of their own. But not a soul had another thought to spare for Old-man Barton that day.
Dr. Deane and Martha heard what had happened as they were mounting their horses. When they took their places in the line, the singular companionship, behind the hearse, was plainly visible. Neither spoke a word, but Martha felt that her heart was beating fast, and that her thoughts were unsteady.
Presently Miss Lavender rode up and took her place at her side. Tears were streaming from her eyes, and she was using her handkerchief freely. It was sometime before she could command her feelings enough to say, in a husky whisper,—
"I never thought to ha' had a hand in such wonderful doin's, and how I held up through it, I can't tell. Glory to the Lord, the end has come; but, no—not yet—not quite; only enough for one day, Martha; isn't it?"
"Betsy," said Martha, "please ride a little closer, and explain to me how it came about. Give me one or two points for my mind to rest on, for I don't seem to believe even what I see."
"What I see. No wonder, who could? Well, it's enough that Mary was married to Alf. Barton a matter o' twenty-six year ago, and that he swore her to keep it secret till th' old man died, and he's been her husband all this while, and knowed it!"
"Father!" Martha exclaimed in a low, solemn voice, turning to Dr. Deane, "think, now, what it was thee would have had me do!"
The Doctor was already aware of his terrible mistake. "Thee was led, child," he answered, "thee was led! It was a merciful Providence."
"Then might thee not also admit that I have been led in that other respect, which has been so great a trial to thee?"
He made no reply.
The road to Old Kennett never seemed so long; never was a corpse so impatiently followed. A sense of decency restrained those who were not relatives from pushing in advance of those who were; yet it was, very tantalizing to look upon the backs of Alfred Barton and Mary, Gilbert and Ann, when their faces must be such a sight to see!
These four, however, rode in silence. Each, it may be guessed, was sufficiently occupied with his or her own sensations,—except, perhaps, Ann Barton, who had been thrown so violently out of her quiet, passive round of life by her father's death, that she was incapable of any great surprise. Her thoughts were more occupied with the funeral-dinner, yet to come, than with the relationship of the young man at her side.
Gilbert slowly admitted the fact into his mind, but he was so unprepared for it by anything in his mother's life or his own intercourse with Alfred Barton, that he was lost in a maze of baffled conjectures. While this confusion lasted, he scarcely thought of his restoration to honor, or the breaking down of that fatal barrier between him and Martha Deane. His first sensation was one of humiliation and disappointment. How often had he been disgusted with Alfred Barton's meanness and swagger! How much superior, in many of the qualities of manhood, was even the highwayman, whose paternity he had so feared! As he looked at the broad, heavy form before him, in which even the lines of the back expressed cowardice and abject shame, he almost doubted whether his former disgrace was not preferable to his present claim to respect.
Then his eyes turned to his mother's figure, and a sweet, proud joy swept away the previous emotion. Whatever the acknowledged relationship might be to him, to her it was honor—yea, more than honor; for by so much and so cruelly as she had fallen below the rights of her pure name as a woman, the higher would she now be set, not only in respect, but in the reverence earned by her saintly patience and self-denial. The wonderful transformation of her face showed him what this day was to her life, and he resolved that no disappointment of his own should come between her and her triumph.
To Gilbert the way was not too long, nor the progress too slow. It gave him time to grow familiar, not only with the fact, but with his duty. He forcibly postponed his wandering conjectures, and compelled his mind to dwell upon that which lay immediately before him.
It was nearly noon before the hearse reached Old Kennett meeting-house. The people of the neighborhood, who had collected to await its arrival, came forward and assisted the mourners to alight. Alfred Barton mechanically took his place beside his wife, but again buried his face in his handkerchief. As the wondering, impatient crowd gathered around, Gilbert felt that all was known, and that all eyes were fixed upon himself and his mother, and his face reflected her own firmness and strength. From neither could the spectators guess what might be passing in their hearts. They were both paler than usual, and their resemblance to each other became very striking. Gilbert, in fact, seemed to have nothing of his father except the peculiar turn of his shoulders and the strong build of his chest.
They walked over the grassy, briery, unmarked mounds of old graves to the spot where a pile of yellow earth denoted Old Barton's resting-place. When the coffin had been lowered, his children, in accordance with custom, drew near, one after the other, to bend over and look into the narrow pit. Gilbert led up his trembling aunt, who might have fallen in, had he not carefully supported her. As he was withdrawing, his eyes suddenly encountered those of Martha Deane, who was standing opposite, in the circle of hushed spectators. In spite of himself a light color shot into his face, and his lips trembled. The eager gossips, who had not missed even the wink of an eyelid, saw this fleeting touch of emotion, and whence it came. Thenceforth Martha shared their inspection; but from the sweet gravity of her face, the untroubled calm of her eyes, they learned nothing more.
When the grave had been filled, and the yellow mound ridged and patted with the spade, the family returned to the grassy space in front of the meeting-house, and now their more familiar acquaintances, and many who were not, gathered around to greet them and offer words of condolence. An overpowering feeling of curiosity was visible upon every face; those who did not venture to use their tongues, used their eyes the more.
Alfred Barton was forced to remove the handkerchief from his face, and its haggard wretchedness (which no one attributed to grief for his father's death), could no longer be hidden. He appeared to have suddenly become an old man, with deeper wrinkles, slacker muscles, and a helpless, tottering air of weakness. The corners of his mouth drooped, hollowing his cheeks, and his eyes seemed unable to bear up the weight of the lids; they darted rapidly from side to side, or sought the ground, not daring to encounter, for more than an instant, those of others.
There was no very delicate sense of propriety among the people, and very soon an inquisitive old Quaker remarked,—
"Why, Mary, is this true that I hear? Are you two man and wife?"
"We are," she said.
"Bless us! how did it happen?"
The bystanders became still as death, and all ears were stretched to catch the answer. But she, with proud, impenetrable calmness, replied,—
"It will be made known."
And with these words the people were forced, that day to be satisfied.
During the homeward journey from the grave, Gilbert and his mother were still the central figures of interest. That the members of the Barton family were annoyed and humiliated, was evident to all eyes; but it was a pitiful, undignified position, which drew no sympathy towards them, while the proud, composed gravity of the former commanded respect. The young men and women, especially, were unanimously of the opinion that Gilbert had conducted himself like a man. They were disappointed, it was true, that he and Martha Deane had not met, in the sight of all. It was impossible to guess whether she had been already aware of the secret, or how the knowledge of it would affect their romantic relation to each other.
Could the hearts of the lovers have been laid bare, the people would have seen that never had each felt such need of the other,—never had they been possessed with such restless yearning. To the very last, Gilbert's eyes wandered from time to time towards the slender figure in the cavalcade before him, hoping for the chance of a word or look; but Martha's finer instinct told her that she must yet hold herself aloof. She appreciated the solemnity of the revelation, saw that much was yet unexplained, and could have guessed, even without Miss Lavender's mysterious hints, that the day would bring forth other and more important disclosures.
As the procession drew nearer Kennett Square, the curiosity of the funeral guests, baulked and yet constantly stimulated, began to grow disorderly. Sally Fairthorn was in such a flutter that she scarcely knew what she said or did; Mark's authority alone prevented her from dashing up to Gilbert, regardless of appearances. The old men, especially those in plain coats and broad-brimmed hats, took every opportunity to press near the mourners; and but for Miss Betsy Lavender, who hovered around the latter like a watchful dragon, both Gilbert and his mother would have been seriously annoyed. Finally the gate at the lane-end closed upon them, and the discomfited public rode on to the village, tormented by keen envy of the few who had been bidden to the funeral-dinner.
When Mary alighted from her horse, the old lawyer approached her.
"My name is Stacy, Mrs. Barton," he said, "and Miss Lavender will have told you who I am. Will you let me have a word with you in private?"
She slightly started at the name he had given her; it was the first symptom of agitation she had exhibited. He took her aside, and began talking earnestly in a low tone. Elisha Barton looked on with an amazed, troubled air, and presently turned to his brother.
"Alfred," he said, "it is quite time all this was explained."
But Miss Lavender interfered.
"It's your right, Mr. Elisha, no denyin' that, and the right of all the fam'ly; so we've agreed to have it done afore all together, in the lawful way, Mr. Stacy bein' a lawyer; but dinner first, if you please, for eatin' 's good both for grief and cur'osity, and it's hard tellin' which is uppermost in this case. Gilbert, come here!"
He was standing alone, beside the paling. He obeyed her call.
"Gilbert, shake hands with your uncle and aunt Mr. Elisha, this is your nephew, Gilbert Barton, Mr. Alfred's son."
They looked at each other for a moment. There was that in Gilbert's face which enforced respect. Contrasted with his father, who stood on one side, darting stealthy glances at the group from the corners of his eyes, his bearing was doubly brave and noble. He offered his hand in silence, and both Elisha Barton and his wife felt themselves compelled to take it. Then the three sons, who knew the name of Gilbert Potter, and were more astonished than shocked at the new relationship, came up and greeted their cousin in a grave but not unfriendly way.
"That's right!" exclaimed Miss Lavender. "And now come in to dinner, all o' ye! I gev orders to have the meats dished as soon as the first horse was seen over the rise o' the hill, and it'll all be smokin' on the table."
Though the meal was such as no one had ever before seen in the Barton farm-house, it was enjoyed by very few of the company. The sense of something to come after it made them silent and uncomfortable. Mr. Stacy, Miss Lavender, and the sons of Elisha Barton, with their wives, carried on a scattering, forced conversation, and there was a general feeling of relief when the pies, marmalade, and cheese had been consumed, and the knives and forks laid crosswise over the plates.
When they arose from the table, Mr. Stacy led the way into the parlor. A fire, in the mean time, had been made in the chill, open fireplace, but it scarcely relieved the dreary, frosty aspect of the apartment. The presence of the corpse seemed to linger there, attaching itself with ghastly distinctness to the chair and hickory staff in a corner.
The few dinner-guests who were not relatives understood that this meeting excluded them, and Elisha Barton was therefore surprised to notice, after they had taken their seats, that Miss Lavender was one of the company.
"I thought," he said, with a significant look, "that it was to be the family only."
"Miss Lavender is one of the witnesses to the will," Mr. Stacy answered, "and her presence is necessary, moreover, as an important testimony in regard to some of its provisions."
Alfred Barton and Gilbert both started at these words, but from very different feelings. The former, released from public scrutiny, already experienced a comparative degree of comfort, and held up his head with an air of courage; yet now the lawyer's announcement threw him into an agitation which it was not possible to conceal. Miss Lavender looked around the circle, coolly nodded her head to Elisha Barton, and said nothing.
Mr. Stacy arose, unlocked a small niche let into the wall of the house, and produced the heavy oaken casket in which the old man kept the documents relating to his property. This he placed upon a small table beside his chair, opened it, and took out the topmost paper. He was completely master of the situation, and the deliberation with which he surveyed the circle of excited faces around him seemed to indicate that he enjoyed the fact.
"The last will and testament of Abiah Barton, made the day before his death," he said, "revokes all former wills, which were destroyed by his order, in the presence of myself and Miss Elizabeth Lavender."
All eyes were turned upon the spinster, who again nodded, with a face of preternatural solemnity.
"In order that you, his children and grandchildren," Mr. Stacy continued, "may rightly understand the deceased's intention in making this last will, when the time comes for me to read it, I must first inform you that he was acquainted with the fact of his son Alfred's marriage with Mary Potter."
Alfred Barton half sprang from his seat, and then fell back with the same startled, livid face, which Gilbert already knew. The others held their breath in suspense,—except Mary, who sat near the lawyer, firm, cold, and unmoved.
"The marriage of Alfred Barton and Mary Potter must therefore be established, to your satisfaction," Mr. Stacy resumed, turning towards Elisha. "Alfred Barton, I ask you to declare whether this woman is your lawfully wedded wife?"
A sound almost like a groan came from his throat, but it formed the syllable,—"Yes."
"Further, I ask you to declare whether Gilbert Barton, who has until this day borne his mother's name of Potter, is your lawfully begotten son?"
"To complete the evidence," said the lawyer, "Mary Barton, give me the paper in your hands."
She untied the handkerchief, opened the Bible, and handed Mr. Stacy the slip of paper which Gilbert had seen her place between the leaves that morning. The lawyer gave it to Elisha Barton, with the request that he would read it aloud.
It was the certificate of a magistrate at Burlington, in the Colony of New Jersey, setting forth that he had united in wedlock Alfred Barton and Mary Potter. The date was in the month of June, 1771.
"This paper," said Elisha, when he had finished reading, "appears to be genuine. The evidence must have been satisfactory to you, Mr. Stacy, and to my father, since it appears to have been the cause of his making a new will; but as this new will probably concerns me and my children, I demand to know why; if the marriage was legal, it has been kept secret so long? The fact of the marriage does not explain what has happened to-day."
Mr. Stacy turned towards Gilbert's mother, and made a sign.
"Shall I explain it in my way, Alfred?" she asked, "or will you, in yours?"
"There's but one story," he answered, "and I guess it falls to your place to tell it." "It does!" she exclaimed. "You, Elisha and Ann, and you, Gilbert, my child, take notice that every word of what I shall say is the plain God's truth. Twenty-seven years ago, when I was a young woman of twenty, I came to this farm to help Ann with the house-work. You remember it, Ann; it was just after your mother's death. I was poor; I had neither father nor mother, but I was as proud as the proudest, and the people called me good-looking. You were vexed with me, Ann, because the young men came now and then, of a Sunday afternoon; but I put up with your hard words. You did not know that I understood what Alfred's eyes meant when he looked at me; I put up with you because I believed I could be mistress of the house, in your place. You have had your revenge of me since, if you felt the want of it—so let that rest!"
She paused. Ann, with her handkerchief to her eyes, sobbed out,—"Mary, I always liked you better 'n you thought."
"I can believe it," she continued, "for I have been forced to look into my heart and learn how vain and mistaken I then was. But I liked Alfred, in those days; he was a gay young man, and accounted good-looking, and there were merry times just before the war, and he used to dress bravely, and was talked about as likely to marry this girl or that. My head was full of him, and I believed my heart was. I let him see from the first that it must be honest love between us, or not at all; and the more I held back, the more eager was he, till others began to notice, and the matter was brought to his father's ears."
"I remember that!" cried Elisha, suddenly.
"Yet it was kept close," she resumed. "Alfred told me that the old man had threatened to cut him out of his will if he should marry me, and I saw that I must leave the farm; but I gave out that I was tired of the country, and wanted to find service in Philadelphia. I believed that Alfred would follow me in a week or two, and he did. He brought news I didn't expect, and it turned my head upside down. His father had had a paralytic stroke, and nobody believed he'd live more than a few weeks. It was in the beginning of June, and the doctors said he couldn't get over the hot weather. Alfred said to me, Why wait?—you'll be taking up with some city fellow, and I want you to be my wife at once. On my side I thought, Let him be made rich and free by his father's death, and wives will be thrown in his way; he'll lose his liking for me, by little and little, and somebody else will be mistress of the farm. So I agreed, and we went to Burlington together, as being more out of the way and easier to be kept secret; but just before we came to the Squire's, he seemed to grow fearsome all at once, lest it should be found out, and he bought a Bible and swore me by my soul's salvation never to say I was married to him until after his father died. Here's the Bible, Alfred! Do you remember it? Here, here's the place where I kissed it when I took the oath!"
She rose from her seat, and held it towards him. No one could doubt the solemn truth of her words. He nodded his head mechanically, unable to speak. Still standing, she turned towards Elisha Barton, and exclaimed,—
"He took the same oath, but what did it mean to him! What does it mean to a man? I was young and vain; I thought only of holding fast to my good luck! I never thought of—of"—(here her faced flushed, and her voice began to tremble)—"of you, Gilbert! I fed my pride by hoping for a man's death, and never dreamed I was bringing a curse on a life that was yet to come! Perhaps he didn't then, either; the Lord pardon me if I judge him too hard. What I charge him with, is that he held me to my oath, when—when the fall went by and the winter, and his father lived, and his son was to be born! It was always the same,—Wait a little, a month or so, maybe; the old man couldn't live, and it was the difference between riches and poverty for us. Then I begged for poverty and my good name, and after that he kept away from me. Before Gilbert was born, I hoped I might die in giving him life; then I felt that I must live for his sake. I saw my sin, and what punishment the Lord had measured out to me, and that I must earn His forgiveness; and He mercifully hid from my sight the long path that leads to this day; for if the release hadn't seemed so near, I never could have borne to wait!"
All the past agony of her life seemed to discharge itself in these words. They saw what the woman had suffered, what wonderful virtues of patience and faith had been developed from the vice of her pride, and there was no heart in the company so stubborn as to refuse her honor. Gilbert's eyes were fixed on her face with an absorbing expression of reverence; he neither knew nor heeded that there were tears on his cheeks. The women wept in genuine emotion, and even the old lawyer was obliged to wipe his dimmed spectacles.
Elisha rose, and approaching Alfred, asked, in a voice which he strove to make steady,—"Is all this true?"
Alfred sank his head; his reply was barely audible,—
"She has said no more than the truth."
"Then," said Elisha, taking her hand, "I accept you, Mary Barton, and acknowledge your place in our family."
Elisha's wife followed, and embraced her with many tears, and lastly Ann, who hung totteringly upon her shoulder as she cried,—
"Indeed, Mary, indeed I always liked you; I never wished you any harm!"
Thus encouraged, Alfred Barton made a powerful effort. There seemed but one course for him to take; it was a hard one, but he took it.
"Mary," he said, "you have full right and justice on your side. I've acted meanly towards you—meaner, I'm afraid, than any man before ever acted towards his wife. Not only to you, but to Gilbert; but I always meant to do my duty in the end. I waited from month to month, and year to year, as you did; and then things got set in their way, and it was harder and harder to let out the truth. I comforted myself—that wasn't right, either, I know,—but I comforted myself with the thought that you were doing well; I never lost sight of you, and I've been proud of Gilbert, though I didn't dare show it, and always wanted to lend him a helping hand, if he'd let me."
She drew herself up and faced him with flashing eyes.
"How did you mean to do your duty by me? How did you mean to lend Gilbert a helping hand? Was it by trying to take a second wife during my lifetime, and that wife the girl whom Gilbert loves?"
Her questions cut to the quick, and the shallow protestations he would have set up were stripped off in a moment, leaving bare every cowardly shift of his life. Nothing was left but the amplest confession.
"You won't believe me, Mary," he stammered, feebly weeping with pity of his own miserable plight, "and I can't ask to—but it's the truth! Give me your Bible! I'll kiss the place you kissed, and swear before God that I never meant to marry Martha Deane! I let the old man think so, because he hinted it'd make a difference in his will, and he drove me—he and Dr. Deane together—to speak to her. I was a coward and a fool that I let myself be driven that far, but I couldn't and wouldn't have married her!"
"The whole snarl's comin' undone," interrupted Miss Lavender. "I see the end on't. Do you mind that day, Alf. Barton, when I come upon you suddent, settin' on the log and sayin' 'I can't see the way,'—the very day, I'll be snaked, that you spoke to the Doctor about Martha Deane!—and then you so mortal glad that she wouldn't have you! You have acted meaner 'n dirt; I don't excuse him, Mary; but never mind, justice is justice, and he's told the truth this once't."
"Sit down, friends!" said Mr. Stacy. "Before the will is read, I want Miss Lavender to relate how it was that Abiah Barton and myself became acquainted with the fact of the marriage."
The reading of the will had been almost forgotten in the powerful interest excited by Mary Barton's narrative. The curiosity to know its contents instantly revived, but was still subordinate to that which the lawyer's statement occasioned. The whole story was so singular, that it seemed as yet but half explained.
"Well, to begin at the beginnin'," said Miss Lavender, "it all come o' my wishin' to help two true-lovyers, and maybe you'll think I'm as foolish as I'm old, but never mind, I'll allow that; and I saw that nothin' could be done till Gilbert got his lawful name, and how to get it was the trouble, bein' as Mary was swore to keep secret. The long and the short of it is, I tried to worm it out o' her, but no use; she set her teeth as tight as sin, and all I did learn was, that when she was in Phildelphy—I knowed Gilbert was born there, but didn't let on—she lived at Treadwells, in Fourth Street Then turnin' over everything in my mind, I suspicioned that she must be waitin' for somebody to die, and that's what held her bound; it seemed to me I must guess right away, but I couldn't and couldn't, and so goin' up the hill, nigh puzzled to death, Gilbert ploughin' away from me, bendin' his head for'ard a little—there! turn round, Gilbert! turn round, Alf. Barton I Look at them two sets o' shoulders!"
Miss Lavender's words were scarcely comprehensible, but all saw the resemblance between father and son, in the outline of the shoulders, and managed to guess her meaning.
"Well," she continued, "it struck me then and there, like a streak o' lightnin'; I screeched and tumbled like a shot hawk, and so betwixt the saddle and the ground, as the sayin' is, it come to me—not mercy, but knowledge, all the same, you know what I mean; and I saw them was Alf. Barton's shoulders, and I remembered the old man was struck with palsy the year afore Gilbert was born, and I dunno how many other things come to me all of a heap; and now you know, Gilbert, what made me holler. I borrowed the loan o' his bay horse and put off for Phildelphy the very next day, and a mortal job it was; what with bar'ls and boxes pitched hither and yon, and people laughin' at y'r odd looks,—don't talk o' Phildelphy manners to me, for I've had enough of 'em!—and old Treadwell dead when I did find him, and the daughter married to Greenfield in the brass and tin-ware business, it's a mercy I ever found out anything."
"Come to the point, Betsy," said Elisha, impatiently.
"The point, Betsy. The p'int 's this: I made out from the Greenfield woman that the man who used to come to see Mary Potter was the perfect pictur' o' young Alf. Barton; then to where she went next, away down to the t'other end o' Third Street, boardin', he payin' the board till just afore Gilbert was born—and that's enough, thinks I, let me get out o' this rackety place. So home I posted, but not all the way, for no use to tell Mary Potter, and why not go right to Old-man Barton, and let him know who his daughter-in-law and son is, and see what'll come of it? Th' old man, you must know, always could abide me better 'n most women, and I wasn't a bit afeard of him, not lookin' for legacies, and wouldn't have 'em at any such price; but never mind. I hid my horse in the woods and sneaked into the house across the fields, the back way, and good luck that nobody was at home but Ann, here; and so I up and told the old man the whole story."
"The devil!" Alfred Barton could not help exclaiming, as he recalled his father's singular manner on the evening of the day in question.
"Devil!" Miss Lavender repeated. "More like an angel put it into my head. But I see Mr. Elisha's fidgetty, so I'll make short work o' the rest. He curst and swore awful, callin' Mr. Alfred a mean pup, and I dunno what all, but he hadn't so much to say ag'in Mary Potter; he allowed she was a smart lass, and he'd heerd o' Gilbert's doin's, and the lad had grit in him. 'Then,' says I, 'here's a mighty wrong been done, and it's for you to set it right afore you die, and if you manage as I tell you, you can be even with Mr. Alfred;' and he perks up his head and asks how, and says I 'This way'—but what I said'll be made manifest by Mr. Stacy, without my jumpin' ahead o' the proper time. The end of it was, he wound up by sayin',—'Gad, if Stacy was only here!' 'I'll bring him!' says I, and it was fixed betwixt and between us two, Ann knowin' nothin' o' the matter; and off I trapesed back to Chester, and brung Mr. Stacy, and if that good-for-nothin' Jake Fairthorn hadn't ha' seen me"—
"That will do, Miss Lavender," said Mr. Stacy, interrupting her. "I have only to add that Abiah Barton was so well convinced of the truth of the marriage, that his new will only requires the proof which has to-day been furnished, in order to express his intentions fully and completely. It was his wish that I should visit Mary Barton on the very morning afterwards; but his sudden death prevented it, and Miss Lavender ascertained, the same evening, that Mary, in view of the neglect and disgrace which she had suffered, demanded to take her justification into her own hands. My opinion coincided with that of Miss Lavender, that she alone had the right to decide in the matter, and that we must give no explanation until she had asserted, in her own way, her release from a most shameful and cruel bond."
It was a proud moment of Miss Lavender's life, when, in addition to her services, the full extent of which would presently be known, a lawyer of Mr. Stacy's reputation so respectfully acknowledged the wisdom of her judgment.
"If further information upon any point is required," observed the lawyer, "it may be asked for now; otherwise, I will proceed to the reading of the will."
"Was—was my father of sound mind,—that is, competent to dispose of his property?" asked Elisha Barton, with a little hesitation.
"I hope the question will not be raised," said Mr. Stacy, gravely; "but if it is I must testify that he was in as full possession of his faculties as at any time since his first attack, twenty-six years ago."
He then read the will, amid the breathless silence of the company. The old man first devised to his elder son, Elisha Barton, the sum of twenty thousand dollars, investments secured by mortgages on real estate; an equal amount to his daughter-in-law, Mary, provided she was able to furnish legal proof of her marriage to his son, Alfred Barton; five thousand dollars each to his four grand-children, the three sons of Elisha, and Gilbert Barton; ten thousand dollars to his daughter Ann; and to his son Alfred the occupancy and use of the farm during his life, the property, at his death, to pass into the hands of Gilbert Barton. There was also a small bequest to Giles, and the reversions of the estate were to be divided equally among all the heirs. The witnesses to the will were James Stacy and Elizabeth Lavender.
Gilbert and his mother now recognized, for the first time, what they owed to the latter. A sense of propriety kept them silent; the fortune which had thus unexpectedly fallen into their hands was the least and poorest part of their justification. Miss Lavender, also, was held to silence, but it went hard with her. The reading of the will gave her such an exquisite sense of enjoyment that she felt quite choked in the hush which followed it.
"As the marriage is now proven," Mr. Stacy said, folding up the paper, "there is nothing to prevent the will from being carried into effect."
"No, I suppose not," said Elisha; "it is as fair as could be expected."
"Mother, what do you say?" asked Gilbert, suddenly.
"Your grandfather wanted to do me justice, my boy," said she. "Twenty thousand dollars will not pay me for twenty-five years of shame; no money could; but it was the only payment he had to offer. I accept this as I accepted my trials. The Lord sees fit to make my worldly path smooth to my feet, and I have learned neither to reject mercy nor wrath."
She was not elated; she would not, on that solemn day, even express gratification in the legacy, for her son's sake. Though her exalted mood was but dimly understood by the others, they felt its influence. If any thought of disputing the will, on the ground of his father's incompetency, had ever entered Elisha Barton's mind, he did not dare, then or afterwards, to express it.
The day was drawing to a close, and Elisha Barton, with his sons, who lived in the adjoining township of Pennsbury, made preparations to leave. They promised soon to visit Gilbert and his mother. Miss Lavender, taking Gilbert aside, announced that she was going to return to Dr. Deane's.
"I s'pose I may tell her," she said, trying to hide her feelings under a veil of clumsy irony, "that it's all up betwixt and between you, now you're a rich man; and of course as she wouldn't have the father, she can't think o' takin' the son."
"Betsy," he whispered, "tell her that I never yet needed her love so much as now, and that I shall come to her tomorrow."
"Well, you know the door stands open, even accordin' to the Doctor's words."
As Gilbert went forth to look after the horses, Alfred Barton followed him. The two had not spoken directly to each other during the whole day.
"Gilbert," said the father, putting his hand on the son's shoulder, "you know, now, why it always cut me, to have you think ill of me. I deserve it, for I've been no father to you; and after what you've heard to-day, I may never have a chance to be one. But if you could give me a chance—if you could"—
Here his voice seemed to fail. Gilbert quietly withdrew his shoulder from the hand, hesitated a moment, and then said,—"Don't ask me anything now, if you please. I can only think of my mother to-day."
Alfred Barton walked to the garden-fence, leaned his arms upon it, and his head upon them. He was still leaning there, when mother and son rode by in the twilight, on their way home.
Both mother and son made the homeward ride in silence. A wide space, a deep gulf of time, separated them from the morning. The events of the day had been so startling, so pregnant with compressed fate, the emotions they had undergone had been so profound, so mixed of the keenest elements of wonder, pain, and pride, that a feeling of exhaustion succeeded. The old basis of their lives seemed to have shifted, and the new foundations were not yet firm under their feet.
Yet, as they sat together before the hearth-fire that evening, and the stern, proud calm of Gilbert's face slowly melted into a gentler and tenderer expression, his mother was moved to speak.
"This has been my day," she said; "it was appointed and set apart for me from the first; it belonged to me, and I have used it, in my right, from sun to sun. But I feel now, that it was not my own strength alone that held me up. I am weak and weary, and it almost seems that I fail in thanksgiving. Is it, Gilbert, because you do not rejoice as I had hoped you would?"
"Mother," he answered, "whatever may happen in my life, I can never feel so proud of myself, as I felt to-day, to be your son. I do rejoice for your sake, as I shall for my own, no doubt, when I get better used to the truth. You could not expect me, at once, to be satisfied with a father who has not only acted so cruelly towards you, but whom I have suspected of being my own rival and enemy. I don't think I shall ever like the new name as well as the old, but it is enough for me that the name brings honor and independence to you!"
"Perhaps I ought to ha' told you this morning, Gilbert I thought only of the justification, not of the trial; and it seemed easier to speak in actions, to you and to all men at once, as I did, than to tell the story quietly to you alone. I feared it might take away my strength, if I didn't follow, step by step, the course marked out for me."
"You were right, mother!" he exclaimed. "What trial had I, compared with yours? What tale had I to tell—what pain to feel, except that if I had not been born, you would have been saved twenty-five years of suffering!"
"No, Gilbert!—never say, never think that! I see already the suffering and the sorrow dying away as if they'd never been, and you left to me for the rest of life the Lord grants; to me a son has been more than a husband!"
"Then," he asked in an anxious, hesitating tone, "would you consider that I was not quite so much a son—that any part of my duty to you was lost—if I wished to bring you a daughter, also?".
"I know what you mean, Gilbert Betsy Lavender has told me all. I am glad you spoke of it, this day; it will put the right feeling of thanksgiving into my heart and yours. Martha Deane never stood between us, my boy; it was I that stood between you and her!"
"Mother!" he cried, a joyous light shining from his face, "you love her? You are willing that she should be my wife?"
"Ay, Gilbert; willing, and thankful, and proud."
"But the very name of her struck you down! You fell into a deadly faint when I told you I had spoken my mind to her!"
"I see, my boy," she said; "I see now why you never mentioned her name, from that time. It was not Martha Deane, but the name of the one you thought wanted to win her away from you,—your father's name, Gilbert,—that seemed to put a stop to my life. The last trial was the hardest of all, but don't you see it was only the bit of darkness that comes before the daylight?"
While this new happiness brought the coveted sense of thanksgiving to mother and son, and spread an unexpected warmth and peace over the close of the fateful day, there was the liveliest excitement in Kennett Square, over Miss Lavender's intelligence. That lady had been waylaid by a dozen impatient questioners before she could reach the shelter of Dr. Deane's roof; and could only purchase release by a hurried statement of the main facts, in which Alfred Barton's cruelty, and his wife's wonderful fidelity to her oath, and the justice done to her and Gilbert by the old man's will, were set forth with an energy that multiplied itself as the gossip spread.
In the adjoining townships, it was reported and believed, the very next day, that Alfred Barton had tried to murder his wife and poison his father—that Mary had saved the latter, and inherited, as her reward, the entire property.
Once safely housed, Miss Lavender enjoyed another triumph. She related the whole story, in every particular, to Martha Deane, in the Doctor's presence, taking especial care not to omit Alfred's words in relation to his enforced wooing.
"And there's one thing I mustn't forgit, Martha," she declared, at the close of her narrative. "Gilbert sends word to you that he needs your true-love more 'n ever, and he's comin' up to see you to-morrow; and says I to him, The door's open, even accordin' to the Doctor's words; and so it is, for he's got his true name, and free to come. You're a man o' your word, Doctor, and nothin' 's been said or done, thank Goodness, that can't be easy mended!"
What impression this announcement made upon Dr. Deane could not be guessed by either of the women. He rose, went to the window, looked into the night for a long time without saying a word, and finally betook himself to his bed.
The next morning, although there were no dangerous cases on his hands, he rode away, remarking that he should not be home again until the evening. Martha knew what this meant, and also what Miss Lavender meant in hurrying down to Fairthorn's, soon after the Doctor's departure. She became restless with tender expectation; her cheeks burned, and her fingers trembled so that she was forced to lay aside her needle-work. It seemed very long since she had even seen Gilbert; it was a long time (in the calendar of lovers) since the two had spoken to each other. She tried to compare the man he had been with the man he now was,—Gilbert poor, disgraced and in trouble, with Gilbert rich and honorably born; and it almost seemed as if the latter had impoverished her heart by taking from it the need of that faithful, passionate sympathy which she had bestowed upon the former.
The long hour of waiting came to an end. Roger was once more tethered at the gate, and Gilbert was in the room. It was not danger, this time, beyond the brink of which they met, but rather a sudden visitation of security; yet both were deeply and powerfully agitated. Martha was the first to recover her composure. Withdrawing herself from Gilbert's arms, she said,—
"It was not right that the tests should be all on my side. Now it is my turn to try you, Gilbert!"
Even her arch, happy smile did not enlighten him. "How, Martha?" he asked.
"Since you don't know, you are already tested. But how grave you look! Have I not yet learned all of this wonderful, wonderful history? Did Betsy Lavender keep something back?"
"Martha!" he cried, "you shame me out of the words I had meant to say. But they were doubts of my own position, not of you. Is my new name better or worse in your ears, than my old one?"
"To me you are only Gilbert," she answered, "as I am Martha to you. What does it matter whether we write Potter or Barton? Either is good in itself, and so would any other name be; but Barton means something, as the world goes, and therefore we will take it. Gilbert, I have put myself in your place, since I learned the whole truth. I guessed you would come to me with a strange, uncertain feeling,—not a doubt, but rather a wonder; and I endeavored to make your new circumstances clear to my mind. Our duty to your mother is plain; she is a woman beside whom all other women we know seem weak and insignificant. It is not that which troubled you, I am sure, when you thought of me. Let me say, then, that so far as our relation to your father is concerned, I will be guided entirely by your wishes."
"Martha," he said, "that is my trouble,—or, rather, my disappointment,—that with my true name I must bring to you and fasten upon you the whole mean and shameful story! One parent must always be honored at the expense of the other, and my name still belongs to the one that is disgraced."
"I foresaw your feeling, Gilbert. You were on the point of making another test for me; that is not fair. The truth has come too suddenly,—the waters of your life have been stirred too deeply; you must wait until they clear. Leave that to Alfred Barton and your mother. To me, I confess, he seems very weak rather than very bad. I can now understand the pains which his addresses to me must have cost him. If I ever saw fear on a man's face, it was on his when he thought I might take him at his word. But, to a man like you, a mean nature is no better than a bad one. Perhaps I feel your disappointment as deeply as you can; yet it is our duty to keep this feeling to ourselves. For your mother's sake, Gilbert; you must not let the value of her justification be lessened in her eyes. She deserves all the happiness you and I can give her, and if she is willing to receive me, some day, as a daughter"—
Gilbert interrupted her words by clasping her in his arms. "Martha!" he exclaimed, "your heart points out the true way because it is true to the core! In these things a woman sees clearer than a man; when I am with you only, I seem to have proper courage and independence—I am twice myself! Won't you let me claim you—take you—soon? My mother loves you; she will welcome you as my wife, and will your father still stand between us?"
Martha smiled. "My father is a man of strong will," she said, "and it is hard for him to admit that his judgment was wrong. We must give him a little time,—not urge, not seem to triumph, spare his pride, and trust to his returning sense of what is right. You might claim reparation, Gilbert, for his cruel words; I could not forbid you; but after so much strife let there be peace, if possible."
"It is at least beyond his power," Gilbert replied, "to accuse me of sordid motives. As I said before, Martha, give up your legacy, if need be, but come to me!"
"As I said before, Gilbert, the legacy is honestly mine, and I will come to you with it in my hands."
Then they both began to smile, but it was a conflict of purpose which drew them nearer together, in both senses,—an emulation of unselfish love, which was compromised by clasping arms and silent lips.
There was a sudden noise in the back part of the house. A shrill voice was heard, exclaiming,—"I will—I will! don't hold me!"—the door burst open, and Sally Fairthorn whirled into the room, with the skirt of her gown torn loose, on one side, from the body. Behind her followed Miss Lavender, in a state of mingled amusement and anger.
Sally kissed Martha, then Gilbert, then threw an arm around the neck of each, crying and laughing hysterically: "O Martha! O Gilbert! you'll be married first,—I said it,—but Mark and I must be your bridesmaids; don't laugh, you know what I mean; and Betsy wouldn't have me break in upon you; but I waited half an hour, and then off, up here, she after me, and we're both out o' breath! Did ever, ever such a thing happen!"
"You crazy thing!" cried Miss Lavender. "No, such a thing never happened, and wouldn't ha' happened this time, if I'd ha' been a little quicker on my legs; but never mind, it serves me right; you two are to blame, for why need I trouble my head furder about ye? There's cases, they say, where two's company, and three's overmuch; but you may fix it for yourselves next time, and welcome; and there's one bit o' wisdom I've got by it,—foller true-lovyers, and they'll wear your feet off, and then want you to go on the stumps!"
"We won't relieve you yet, Betsy," said Gilbert; "will we, Martha? The good work you've done for us isn't finished."
"Isn't finished. Well, you'll gi' me time to make my will, first. How long d' ye expect me to last, at this rate? Is my bones brass and my flesh locus'-wood? Am I like a tortle, that goes around the fields a hundred years?"
"No," Gilbert answered, "but you shall be like an angel, dressed all in white, with roses in your hair. Sally and Mark, you know, want to be the first bridesmaids"—
Sally interrupted him with a slap, but it was not very violent, and he did not even attempt to dodge it.
"Do you hear, Betsy?" said Martha. "It must be as Gilbert says."
"A pretty fool you'd make o' me," Miss Lavender remarked, screwing up her face to conceal her happy emotion.
Gilbert soon afterwards left for home, but returned towards evening, determined, before all things, to ascertain his present standing with Dr. Deane. He did not anticipate that the task had been made easy for him; but this was really the case. Wherever Dr. Deane had been that day, whoever he had seen, the current of talk all ran one way. When the first surprise of the news had been exhausted, and the Doctor had corrected various monstrous rumors from his own sources of positive knowledge, one inference was sure to follow,—that now there could be no objection to his daughter becoming Gilbert Barton's wife. He was sounded, urged, almost threatened, and finally returned home with the conviction that any further opposition must result in an immense sacrifice of popularity.
Still, he was not ready to act upon that conviction, at once. He met Gilbert with a bland condescension, and when the latter, after the first greeting, asked,—
"Have I now the right to enter your house?"
The Doctor answered,—
"Certainly. Thee has kept thy word, and I will willingly admit that I did thee wrong in suspecting thee of unworthy devices. I may say, also, that so far as I was able to judge, I approved of thy behavior on the day of thy grandfather's funeral. In all that has happened heretofore, I have endeavored to act cautiously and prudently; and thee will grant, I doubt not, that thy family history is so very far out of the common way, as that no man could be called upon to believe it without the strongest evidence. Of course, all that I brought forward against thee now falls to the ground."
"I trust, then," Gilbert said, "that you have no further cause to forbid my engagement with Martha. My mother has given her consent, and we both hope for yours."
Dr. Deane appeared to reflect, leaning back in his chair, with his cane across his knees. "It is a very serious thing," he said, at last,—"very serious, indeed. Not a subject for hasty decision. Thee offered, if I remember rightly, to give me time to know thee better; therefore thee cannot complain if I were now disposed to accept thy offer."
Gilbert fortunately remembered Martha's words, and restrained his impatience.
"I will readily give you time, Dr. Deane," he replied, "provided you will give me opportunities. You are free to question all who know me, of course, and I suppose you have done so. I will not ask you to take the trouble to come to me, in order that we may become better acquainted, but only that you will allow me to come to you."
"It would hardly be fair to deny thee that much," said the Doctor.
"I will ask no more now. I never meant, from the first, to question your interest in Martha's happiness, or your right to advise her. It may be too soon to expect your consent, but at least you'll hold back your refusal?"
"Thee's a reasonable young man, Gilbert," the Doctor remarked, after a pause which was quite unnecessary. "I like that in thee. We are both agreed, then, that while I shall be glad to see thee in my house, and am willing to allow to Martha and thee the intercourse proper to a young man and woman, it is not yet to be taken for granted that I sanction your desired marriage. Remember me kindly to thy mother, and say, if thee pleases, that I shall soon call to see her."
Gilbert had scarcely reached home that evening, before Deb. Smith, who had left the farm-house on the day following the recovery of the money, suddenly made her appearance. She slipped into the kitchen without knocking, and crouched down in a corner of the wide chimney-place, before she spoke. Both mother and son were struck by the singular mixture of shyness and fear in her manner.
"I heerd all about it, to-day," she presently said, "and I wouldn't ha' come here, if I'd ha' knowed where else to go to. They're after me, this time, Sandy's friends, in dead earnest; they'll have my blood, if they can git it; but you said once't you'd shelter me, Mr. Gilbert!"
"So I will, Deborah!" he exclaimed; "do you doubt my word?"
"No, I don't; but I dunno how't is—you're rich now, and as well-born as the best of 'em, and Mary's lawful-married and got her lawful name; and you both seem to be set among the folks that can't feel for a body like me; not that your hearts is changed, only it comes different to me, somehow."
"Stay here, Deborah, until you feel sure you're safe," said Mary. "If Gilbert or I should refuse to protect you, your blood would be upon our heads. I won't blame you for doubting us; I know how easy it is to lose faith in others; but if you think I was a friend to you while my name was disgraced, you must also remember that I knew the truth then as well as the world knows it now."
"Bless you for sayin' that, Mary! There wasn't much o' my name at any time; but what little I might ha' had is clean gone—nothin' o' me left but the strong arm! I'm not a coward, as you know, Mr. Gilbert; I'll meet any man, face to face, in a fair and open fight. Let 'em come in broad day, and on the high road!—not lay in wait in bushes and behind fences, to shoot me down unawares."
They strove to quiet her fears, and little by little she grew composed. The desperate recklessness of her mood contrasted strangely with her morbid fear of an ambushed enemy. Gilbert suspected that it might be a temporary insanity, growing out of her remorse for having betrayed Sandy Flash. When she had been fed, and had smoked a pipe or two, she seemed quite to forget it, and was almost her own self when she went up to her bed in the western room.
The moon, three quarters full, was hanging over the barn, and made a peaceful, snowy light about the house. She went to the window, opened it, and breathed the cool air of the April night. The "herring-frogs" were keeping up an incessant, birdlike chirp down the glen, and nearer at hand the plunging water of the mill-race made a soothing noise. It really seemed that the poor creature had found a quiet refuge at last.
Suddenly, something rustled and moved behind the mass of budding lilacs, at the farther corner of the garden-paling. She leaned forward; the next moment there was a flash, the crack of a musket rang sharp and loud through the dell, followed by a whiz and thud at her very ear. A thin drift of smoke rose above the bushes, and she saw a man's figure springing to the cover of the nearest apple-tree. In another minute, Gilbert made his appearance, gun in hand.
"Shoot him, Gilbert!" cried Deb. Smith; "it's Dougherty!"
Whoever it was, the man escaped; but by a singular coincidence, the Irish ostler disappeared that night from the Unicorn tavern, and was never again seen in the neighborhood.
The bullet had buried itself in the window-frame, after having passed within an inch or two of Deb. Smith's head. [Footnote: The hole made by the bullet still remains in the window-frame of the old farm-house.] To Gilbert's surprise, all her fear was gone; she was again fierce and defiant, and boldly came and went, from that night forth, saying that no bullet was or would be cast, to take her life.
Therein she was right; but it was a dreary life and a miserable death which awaited her. For twenty-five years she wandered about the neighborhood, achieving wonders in spinning, reaping and threshing, by the undiminished force of her arm, though her face grew haggard and her hair gray; sometimes plunging into wild drinking-bouts with the rough male companions of her younger days; sometimes telling a new generation, with weeping and violent self-accusation, the story of her treachery; but always with the fearful conviction of a yet unfulfilled curse hanging over her life. Whether it was ever made manifest, no man could tell; but when she was found lying dead on the floor of her lonely cabin on the Woodrow farm, with staring, stony eyes, and the lines of unspeakable horror on her white face, there were those who recalled her own superstitious forebodings, and believed them.
HUSBAND AND WIFE.
It may readily be guessed that such extraordinary developments as those revealed in the preceding chapters produced more than a superficial impression upon a quiet community like that of Kennett and the adjoining townships. People secluded from the active movements of the world are drawn to take the greater interest in their own little family histories,—a feeling which by-and-by amounts to a partial sense of ownership, justifying not only any degree of advice or comment, but sometimes even actual interference.
The Quakers, who formed a majority of the population, and generally controlled public sentiment in domestic matters, through the purity of their own domestic life, at once pronounced in favor of Mary Barton. The fact of her having taken an oath was a slight stumbling-block to some; but her patience, her fortitude, her submission to what she felt to be the Divine Will, and the solemn strength which had upborne her on the last trying day, were qualities which none could better appreciate. The fresh, warm sympathies of the younger people, already given to Gilbert and Martha, now also embraced her; far and wide went the wonderful story, carrying with it a wave of pity and respect for her, of contempt and denunciation for her husband.
The old Friends and their wives came to visit her, in their stately chairs; almost daily, for a week or two, the quiet of the farm was invaded, either by them, or by the few friends who had not forsaken her in her long disgrace, and were doubly welcome now. She received them all with the same grave, simple dignity of manner, gratefully accepting their expressions of sympathy, and quietly turning aside the inconsiderate questions that would have probed too deeply and painfully.
To an aged Friend,—a preacher of the sect,—who plumply asked her what course she intended to pursue towards her husband, she replied,—
"I will not trouble my season of thanksgiving. What is right for me to do will be made manifest when the occasion comes."
This reply was so entirely in the Quaker spirit that the old man was silenced. Dr. Deane, who was present, looked upon her with admiration.
Whatever conjectures Alfred Barton might have made in advance, of the consequences which would follow the disclosure of his secret marriage, they could have borne no resemblance to the reality. It was not in his nature to imagine the changes which the years had produced in his wife. He looked forward to wealth, to importance in the community, and probably supposed that she would only be too glad to share the proud position with him. There would be a little embarrassment at first, of course; but his money would soon make everything smooth.
Now, he was utterly defeated, crushed, overwhelmed. The public judgment, so much the more terrible where there is no escape from it, rolled down upon him. Avoided or coldly ignored by the staid, respectable farmers, openly insulted by his swaggering comrades of the fox-hunt and the bar-room, jeered at and tortured by the poor and idle hangers-on of the community, who took a malicious pleasure in thus repaying him for his former haughtiness and their own humility, he found himself a moral outcast. His situation became intolerable. He no longer dared to show himself in the village, or upon the highways, but slunk about the house and farm, cursing himself, his father and the miserable luck of his life.
When, finally, Giles begged to know how soon his legacy would be paid, and hinted that he couldn't stay any longer than to get possession of the money, for, hard as it might be to leave an old home, he must stop going to the mill, or getting the horses shod, or sitting in the Unicorn bar-room of a Saturday night, and a man might as well be in jail at once, and be done with it—when Alfred Barton heard all this, he deliberated, for a few minutes, whether it would not be a good thing to cut his own throat.
Either that, or beg for mercy; no other course was left.
That evening he stole up to the village, fearful, at every step, of being seen and recognized, and knocked timidly at Dr. Deane's door. Martha and her father were sitting together, when he came into the room, and they were equally startled at his appearance. His large frame seemed to have fallen in, his head was bent, and his bushy whiskers had become quite gray; deep wrinkles seamed his face; his eyes were hollow, and the corners of his mouth drooped with an expression of intolerable misery.
"I wanted to say a word to Miss Martha, if she'll let me," he said, looking from one to the other.
"I allowed thee to speak to my daughter once too often," Dr. Deane sternly replied. "What thee has to say now, must be said in my presence."
He hesitated a moment, then took a chair and sat down, turning towards Martha. "It's come to this," he said, "that I must have a little mercy, or lay hands on my own life. I haven't a word to say for myself; I deserve it all. I'll do anything that's wanted of me—whatever Mary says, or people think is her right that she hasn't yet got, if it's mine to give. You said you wished me well, Miss Martha, even at the time I acted so shamefully; I remember that, and so I ask you to help me."
She saw that he spoke truth, at last, and all her contempt and disgust could not keep down the quick sensation of pity which his wretchedness inspired. But she was unprepared for his appeal, and uncertain how to answer it.
"What would you have me do?" she asked.
"Go to Mary on my behalf! Ask her to pardon me, if she can, or say what I can do to earn her pardon—that the people may know it. They won't be so hard on me, if they know she's done that. Everything depends on her, and if it's true, as they say, that she's going to sue for a divorce and take back her own name for herself and Gilbert, and cut loose from me forever, why, it'll just"—
He paused, and buried his face in his hands.
"I have not heard of that," said Martha.
"Haven't you?" he asked. "But it's too likely to be true."
"Why not go directly to Mary, yourself?"
"I will, Miss Martha, if you'll go with me, and maybe say a kind word now and then,—that is, if you think it isn't too soon for mercy!"
"It is never too soon to ask for mercy," she said, coming to a sudden decision. "I will go with you; let it be tomorrow."
"Martha," warned Dr. Deane, "isn't thee a little hasty?"
"Father, I decide nothing. It is in Mary's hands. He thinks my presence will give him courage, and that I cannot refuse."
The next morning, the people of Kennett Square were again startled out of their proprieties by the sight of Alfred Barton, pale, agitated, and avoiding the gaze of every one, waiting at Dr. Deane's gate, and then riding side by side with Martha down the Wilmington road. An hour before, she had dispatched Joe Fairthorn with a note to Gilbert, informing him of the impending visit. Once on the way, she feared lest she had ventured too far; it might be, as her father had said, too hasty; and the coming meeting with Gilbert and his mother disquieted her not a little. It was a silent, anxious ride for both.
When they readied the gate, Gilbert was on hand to receive them. His face always brightened at the sight of Martha, and his hands lifted her as tenderly as ever from the saddle. "Have I done right?" she anxiously whispered.
"It is for mother to say," he whispered back.
Alfred Barton advanced, offering his hand. Gilbert looked upon his father's haggard, imploring face, a moment; a recollection of his own disgrace shot into his heart, to soften, not to exasperate; and he accepted the hand. Then he led the way into the house.
Mary Barton had simply said to her son,—"I felt that he would come, sooner or later, and that I must give him a hearing—better now, perhaps, since you and Martha will be with me."
They found her awaiting them, pale and resolute.
Gilbert and Martha moved a little to one side, leaving the husband and wife facing each other. Alfred Barton was too desperately moved to shrink from Mary's eyes; he strove to read something in her face, which might spare him the pain of words; but it was a strange face he looked upon. Not that of the black-eyed, bright-cheeked girl, with the proud carriage of her head and the charming scorn of her red lip, who had mocked, fascinated, and bewildered him. The eyes were there, but they had sunk into the shade of the brows, and looked upon him with an impenetrable expression; the cheeks were pale, the mouth firm and rigid, and out of the beauty which seduced had grown a power to resist and command.
"Will you shake hands with me, Mary?" he faltered.
She said nothing, but moved her right hand slightly towards him. It lay in his own a moment, cold and passive.
"Mary!" he cried, falling on his knees at her feet, "I'm a ruined, wretched man! No one speaks to me but to curse; I've no friend left in the world; the very farmhand leaves me! I don't know what'll become of me, unless you feel a little pity—not that I deserve any, but I ask it of you, in the name of God!"
Martha clung to Gilbert's arm, trembling, and more deeply moved than she was willing to show. Mary Barton's face was convulsed by some passing struggle, and when she spoke, her voice was hoarse and broken.
"You know what it is, then," she said, "to be disgraced in the eyes of the world. If you have suffered so much in these two weeks, you may guess what I have borne for twenty-five years!"
"I see it now, Mary!" he cried, "as I never saw it before. Try me! Tell me what to do!"
"The Lord has done it, already; there is nothing left."
He groaned; his head dropped hopelessly upon his breast.
Gilbert felt that Martha's agitation ceased. She quietly released her hold of his arm, lifted her head, and spoke,—
"Mother, forgive me if I speak when I should hold my peace; I would only remind you that there is yet one thing left. It is true, as you say; the Lord has justified you in His own way, and at His own time, and has revenged the wrong done to you by branding the sin committed towards Himself. Now He leaves the rest to your own heart. Think that He holds back and waits for the words that shall declare whether you understand the spirit in which He deals towards His children!"
"Martha, my dear child!" Mary Barton exclaimed,—what can I do?"
"It is not for me to advise you, mother. You, who put my impatient pride to shame, and make my love for Gilbert seem selfish by contrast with your long self-sacrifice! What right have I, who have done nothing, to speak to you, who have done so much that we never can reckon it? But, remember that in the Lord's government of the world pardon follows repentance, and it is not for us to exact like for like, to the uttermost farthing!"
Mary Barton sank into a chair, covered her face with her hands, and wept aloud.
There were tears in Martha's eyes; her voice trembled, and her words came with a softness and tenderness that soothed while they pierced:
"Mother, I am a woman like yourself; and, as a woman, I feel the terrible wrong that has been done to you. It may be as hard for you now to forget, as then to bear; but it is certainly greater and nobler to forgive than to await justice! Because I reverence you as a strong and pure and great-hearted woman—because I want to see the last and best and sweetest grace of our sex added to your name—and lastly, for Gilbert's sake, who can feel nothing but pain in seeing his father execrated and shunned—I ask your forgiveness for your husband!"
"Mary!" Alfred Barton cried, lifting up his head in a last appeal, "Mary, this much, at least! Don't go to the courts for a divorce! Don't get back your own name for yourself and Gilbert! Keep mine, and make it more respectable for me! And I won't ask you to pardon me, for I see you can't!"
"It is all clear to me, at last!" said Mary Barton. "I thank you, Martha, my child, for putting me in the right path. Alfred, don't kneel to me; if the Lord can pardon, who am I that I should be unforgiving? I fear me I was nigh to forfeit His mercy. Gilbert, yours was half the shame; yours is half the wrong; can you join me in pardoning your father and my husband?"
Gilbert was powerfully moved by the conflict of equally balanced emotions, and but for the indication which Martha had given, he might not at once have been able to decide. But it seemed now that his course was also clear. He said,—
"Mother, since you have asked the question, I know how it should be answered. If you forgive your husband, I forgive my—my father."
He stepped forward, seized Alfred Barton gently by the shoulder, and raised him to his feet Mary Barton then took her husband's hand in hers, and said, in a solemn voice,—
"I forgive you, Alfred, and will try to forget I know not what you may have heard said, but I never meant to go before the court for a divorce. Your name is a part of my right, a part of Gilbert's—our son's—right; it is true that you have debased the name, but we will keep it and make it honorable! We will not do that to the name of Barton which you have done to the name of Potter!"
It was very evident that though she had forgiven, she had not yet forgotten. The settled endurance of years could not be unlearned in a moment. Alfred Barton felt that her forgiveness implied no returning tenderness, not even an increase of respect; but it was more than he had dared to hope, and he felt humbly grateful. He saw that a consideration for Gilbert's position had been the chief element to which he owed his wife's relenting mood, and this knowledge was perhaps his greatest encouragement.
"Mary," he said, "you are kinder than I deserve. I wish I could make you and Gilbert understand all that I have felt. Don't think my place was easy; it wasn't. It was a hell of another kind. I have been punished in my way, and will be now to the end o' my life, while you two will be looked up to, and respected beyond any in the neighborhood; and if I'm not treated like a dog, it'll only be for your sakes! Will you let me say to the people that you have pardoned me? Will you say it yourselves?"
Martha, and perhaps Gilbert also, felt that it was the reflected image of Alfred Barton's meanness, as it came back to him in the treatment he had experienced, rather than his own internal consciousness of it, which occasioned his misery. But his words were true thus far; his life was branded by it, and the pardon of those he had wronged could not make that life more than tolerable.
"Why not?" said Gilbert, replying to him. "There has been enough of secrets. I am not ashamed of forgiveness—my shame is, that forgiveness is necessary."
Alfred Barton looked from mother to son with a singular, wistful expression. He seemed uncertain whether to speak or how to select his words. His vain, arrogant spirit was completely broken, but no finer moral instinct came in its place to guide him; his impulses were still coarse, and took, from habit, the selfish color of his nature. There are some persons whom even humiliation clothes with a certain dignity; but he was not one of them. There are others whose tact, in such emergencies, assumes the features of principle, and sets up a feeble claim to respect; but this quality is a result of culture, which he did not possess. He simply saw what would relieve him from the insupportable load of obloquy under which he groaned, and awkwardly hazarded the pity he had excited, in asking for it.
"Mary," he stammered, "I—I hardly know how to say the words, but you'll understand me; I want to make good to you all the wrong I did, and there seems no way but this,—if you'll let me care for you, slave for you, anything you please; you shall have your own say in house and farm; Ann'll give up everything to you. She always liked you, she says, and she's lonely since th' old man died and nobody comes near us—not just at once, I mean, but after awhile, when you've had time to think of it, and Gilbert's married. You're independent in your own right, I know, and needn't do it; but, see! it'd give me a chance, and maybe Gilbert wouldn't feel quite so hard towards me, and"—
He stopped, chilled by the increasing coldness of his wife's face. She did not immediately reply; to Martha's eye she seemed to be battling with some proud, vindictive instinct. But she spoke at last, and calmly:
"Alfred, you should not have gone so far. I have pardoned you, and that means more than the words. It means that I must try to overcome the bitterness of my recollections, that I must curb the tongues of others when they are raised against you, must greet you when we meet, and in all proper ways show the truth of my forgiveness to the world. Anger and reproach may be taken from the heart, and yet love be as far off as ever. If anything ever could lead me back to you it would not be love, but duty to my son, and his desire; but I cannot see the duty now. I may never see it. Do not propose this thing again. I will only say, if it be any comfort to you, that if you try to show your repentance as I my pardon, try to clean your name from the stain you have cast upon it, my respect shall keep pace with that of your neighbors, and I shall in this way, and in no other, be drawn nearer to you!"
"Gilbert," said Alfred Barton, "I never knew your mother before to-day. What she says gives me some hope, and yet it makes me afraid. I'll try to bring her nearer, I will, indeed; but I've been governed so long by th' old man that I don't seem to have any right strength o' my own. I must have some help, and you're the only one I can ask it of; will you come and see me sometimes? I've been so proud of you, all to myself, my boy! and if I thought you could once call me 'father' before I die"—
Gilbert was not proof against these words and the honest tears by which they were accompanied. Many shy hesitating tokens of affection in his former intercourse with Alfred Barton, suddenly recurred to his mind, with their true interpretation. His load had been light, compared to his mother's; he had only learned the true wrong in the hour of reparation; and moreover, in assuming his father's name he became sensitive to the prominence of its shame.
"Father," he answered, "if you have forfeited a son's obedience, you have still a man's claim to be helped. Mother is right; it is in your power to come nearer to us. She must stand aside and wait; but I can cross the line which separates you, and from this time on I shall never cross it to remind you of what is past and pardoned, but to help you, and all of us, to forget it!"
Martha laid her hand upon Gilbert's shoulder, leaned up and kissed him upon the cheek.
"Rest here!" she said. "Let a good word close the subject! Gilbert, take your father out and show him your farm. Mother, it is near dinner-time; I will help you set the table. After dinner, Mr. Barton, you and I will ride home together."
Her words were obeyed; each one felt that no more should be said at that time. Gilbert showed the barn, the stables, the cattle in the meadow, and the fields rejoicing in the soft May weather; Martha busied herself in kitchen and cellar, filling up the pauses of her labor with cheerful talk; and when the four met at the table, so much of the constraint in their relation to each other had been conquered, that a stranger would never have dreamed of the gulf which had separated them a few hours before. Martha shrewdly judged that when Alfred Barton had eaten at his wife's table, they would both meet more easily in the future. She did not expect that the breach could ever be quite filled; but she wished, for Gilbert's sake, to make it as narrow as possible.
After dinner, while the horses were being saddled, the lovers walked down the garden-path, between the borders of blue iris and mountain-pink.
"Gilbert," said Martha, "are you satisfied with what has happened?"
"Yes," he answered, "but it has shown to me that something more must be done."
"Martha, are these the only two who should be brought nearer?"
She looked at him with a puzzled face. There was a laughing light in his eyes, which brought a new lustre to here, and a delicate blush to her fair cheeks.
"Is it not too soon for me to come?" she whispered.
"You have come," he answered; "you were in your place; and it will be empty—the house will be lonely, the farm without its mistress—until you return to us!"
The neighborhood had decreed it There was but one just, proper, and satisfactory conclusion to all these events. The decision of Kennett was unanimous that its story should be speedily completed. New-Garden, Marlborough, and Pennsbury, so far as heard from, gave their hearty consent; and the people would have been seriously disappointed—the tide of sympathy might even have been checked—had not Gilbert Barton and Martha Deane prepared to fulfil the parts assigned to them.
Dr. Deane, of course, floated with the current. He was too shrewd to stand forth as a conspicuous obstacle to the consummation of the popular sense of justice. He gave, at once, his full consent to the nuptials, and took the necessary steps, in advance, for the transfer of his daughter's fortune into her own hands. In short, as Miss Lavender observed, there was an end of snarls. The lives of the lovers were taken up, as by a skilful hand, and evenly reeled together.
Gilbert now might have satisfied his ambition (and the people, under the peculiar circumstances of the case, would have sanctioned it) by buying the finest farm in the neighborhood; but Martha had said,—
"No other farm can be so much yours, and none so welcome a home to me. Let us be satisfied with it, at least for the first years."
And therein she spoke wisely.
It was now the middle of May, and the land was clothed in tender green, and filled with the sweet breath of sap and bud and blossom. The vivid emerald of the willow-trees, the blush of orchards, and the cones of snowy bloom along the wood-sides, shone through and illumined even the days of rain. The Month of Marriage wooed them in every sunny morning, in every twilight fading under the torch of the lovers' star.
In spite of Miss Lavender's outcries, and Martha's grave doubts, a fortnight's delay was all that Gilbert would allow. He would have dispensed with bridal costumes and merrymakings,—so little do men understand of these matters; but he was hooted down, overruled, ignored, and made to feel his proper insignificance. Martha almost disappeared from his sight during the interval. She was sitting upstairs in a confusion of lutestring, whalebone, silk, and cambric; and when she came down to him for a moment, the kiss had scarcely left her lips before she began to speak of the make of his new coat, and the fashion of the articles he was still expected to furnish.
If he visited Fairthorn's, it was even worse. The sight of him threw Sally into such a flutter that she sewed the right side of one breadth to the wrong side of another, attempted to clear-starch a woollen stocking, or even, on one occasion, put a fowl into the pot, unpicked and undressed. It was known all over the country that Sally and Mark Deane were to be bridesmaid and groomsman, and they both determined to make a brave appearance.
But there was another feature of the coming nuptials which the people did not know. Gilbert and Martha had determined that Miss Betsy Lavender should be second bridesmaid, and Martha had sent to Wilmington for a purple silk, and a stomacher of the finest cambric, in which to array her. A groomsman of her age was not so easy to find; but young Pratt, who had stood so faithfully by Gilbert during the chase of Sandy Flash, merrily avowed his willingness to play the part; and so it was settled without Miss Lavender's knowledge.
The appointed morning came, bringing a fair sky, mottled with gentle, lingering clouds, and a light wind from the west. The wedding company were to meet at Kennett Square, and then ride to Squire Sinclair's, where the ceremony would be performed by that magistrate; and before ten o'clock, the hour appointed for starting, all the surrounding neighborhood poured into the village. The hitching-bar in front of the Unicorn, and every post of fence or garden-paling, was occupied by the tethered horses. The wedding-guests, comprising some ten or fifteen persons, assembled at Dr. Deane's, and each couple, as they arrived, produced an increasing excitement among the spectators.
The fact that Alfred Barton had been formally pardoned by his wife and son, did not lessen the feeling with which he was regarded, but it produced a certain amount of forbearance. The people were curious to know whether he had been bidden to the wedding, and the conviction was general that he had no business to be there. The truth is, it had been left free to him whether to come or not, and he had very prudently chosen to be absent.
Dr. Deane had set up a "chair," which was to be used for the first time on this occasion. It was a ponderous machine, with drab body and wheels, and curtains of drab camlet looped up under its stately canopy. When it appeared at the gate, the Doctor came forth, spotless in attire, bland, smiling, a figure of sober gloss and agreeable odors. He led Mary Barton by the hand; and her steel-colored silk and white crape shawl so well harmonized with his appearance, that the two might have been taken for man and wife. Her face was calm, serene, and full of quiet gratitude. They took their places in the chair, the lines were handed to the Doctor, and he drove away, nodding right and left to the crowd.
Now the horses were brought up in pairs, and the younger guests began to mount. The people gathered closer and closer; and when Sam appeared, leading the well-known and beloved Roger, there was a murmur which, in a more demonstrative community, would have been a cheer. Somebody had arranged a wreath of lilac and snowy viburnum, and fastened it around Roger's forehead; and he seemed to wear it consciously and proudly. Many a hand was stretched forth to pat and stroke the noble animal, and everybody smiled when he laid his head caressingly over the neck of Martha's gray.
Finally, only six horses remained unmounted; then there seemed to be a little delay in-doors. It was explained when young Pratt appeared, bold and bright, leading the reluctant Miss Lavender, rustling in purple splendor, and blushing—actually blushing—as she encountered the eyes of the crowd. The latter were delighted. There was no irony in the voice that cried,—"Hurrah for Betsy Lavender!" and the cheer that followed was the expression of a downright, hearty good will. She looked around from her saddle, blushing, smiling, and on the point of bursting into tears; and it was a godsend, as she afterwards remarked, that Mark Deane and Sally Fairthorn appeared at that moment.
Mark, in sky-blue coat and breeches, suggested, with his rosy face and yellow locks, a son of the morning; while Sally's white muslin and cherry-colored scarf heightened the rich beauty of her dark hair and eyes, and her full, pouting lips. They were a buxom pair, and both were too happy in each other and in the occasion, to conceal the least expression of it.
There now only remained our hero and heroine, who immediately followed. No cheer greeted them, for the wonderful chain of circumstances which had finally brought them together, made the joy of the day solemn, and the sympathy of the people reverential. Mark and Sally represented the delight of betrothal; these two the earnest sanctity of wedlock.
Gilbert was plainly yet richly dressed in a bottle-green coat, with white waistcoat and breeches; his ruffles, gloves, hat, and boots were irreproachable. So manly looking a bridegroom had not been seen in Kennett for many a day. Martha's dress of heavy pearl-gray satin was looped up over a petticoat of white dimity, and she wore a short cloak of white crape. Her hat, of the latest style, was adorned with a bunch of roses and a white, drooping feather. In the saddle, she was charming; and as the bridal pair slowly rode forward, followed by their attendants in the proper order, a murmur of admiration, in which there was no envy and no ill-natured qualification, went after them.
A soft glitter of sunshine, crossed by the shadows of slow-moving clouds, lay upon the landscape. Westward, the valley opened in quiet beauty, the wooded hills on either side sheltering, like protecting arms, the white farmhouses, the gardens, and rosy orchards scattered along its floor. On their left, the tall grove rang with the music of birds, and was gay, through all its light-green depths, with the pink blossoms of the wild azalea. The hedges, on either side, were purple with young sprays, and a bright, breathing mass of sweet-brier and wild grape crowned the overhanging banks, between which the road ascended the hill beyond.
At first the company were silent; but the enlivening motion of the horses, the joy of the coming summer, the affectionate sympathy of Nature, soon disposed them to a lighter mood. At Hallowell's, the men left their hoes in the corn-field, and the women their household duties, to greet them by the roadside. Mark looked up at the new barn, and exclaimed,—