A Story of to-Day: Part Iii
Now that I have come to the love part of my story, I am suddenly conscious of dingy common colors on the palette with which I have been painting. I wish I had some brilliant dyes. I wish, with all my heart, I could take you back to that “ Once upon a time” in which the souls of our grandmothers delighted,—the time which Dr. Johnson sat up all night to read about in “Evelina,” — the time when all the celestial virtues, all the earthly graces were revealed in a condensed state to man through the blue eyes and sumptuous linens of some Belinda Portman or Lord Mortimer. None of your goodhearted, sorely-tempted villains then ! It made your hair stand on end only to read of them,—dyed at their birth clear through with Pluto’s blackest poison, going about perpetually seeking innocent maidens and unsophisticated old men to devour. That was the time for holding up virtue and vice ; no trouble then in seeing which were sheep and which were goats! A person could write a story with a moral to it, then, I should hope ! People that were born in those days had no fancy for going through the world with half-and-half characters, such as we put up with ; so Nature turned out complete specimens of each class, with all the appendages of dress, fortune, et cetera, chording decently. At least, so those veracious histories say. The heroine, for instance, glides into life fullcharged with rank, virtues, a name threesyllabled, and a white dress that never needs washing, ready to sail through dangers dire into a triumphant haven of matrimony ; — all the aristocrats have high foreheads and cold blue eyes; all the peasants are old women, miraculously grateful, in neat cheek aprons, or sullen-browed insurgents planning revolts in caves.
Of course, I do not mean that these times are gone : they are alive (in a modern fashion) in many places in the world ; some of my friends have described them in prose and verse. I only mean to say that I never was there ; I was born unlucky. I am willing to do my best, but I live in the commonplace. Once or twice I have rashly tried my hand at dark conspiracies, and women rare and radiant in Italian bowers; but I have a friend who is sure to say, “ Try and tell us about the butcher next door, my dear.” If I look up from my paper now, I shall be just as apt to see our dog and his kennel as the white sky stained with blood and Tyrian purple. I never saw a full-blooded saint or sinner in my life. The coldest villain I ever knew was the only son of his mother, and she a widow, —and a kinder son never lived. I have known people capable of a love terrible in its strength ; but I never knew such a case that some one did not consider its expediency as “ a match ” in the light of dollars and cents. As for heroines, of course I know beautiful women, and good as fair. The most beautiful is delicate and pure enough for a type of the Madonna, and has a heart almost as warm and holy as hers who was blessed among women. (Very pure blood is in her veins, too, if you care about blood.) But at home they call her Tode for a nickname ; all we can do, she will sing, and sing through her nose; and on washing-days she often cooks the dinner, and scolds wholesomely, if the tea-napkins are not in order. Now, what is anybody to do with a heroine like that ? I have known old maids in abundance, with pathos and sunshine in their lives; but the old maid of novels I never have met, who abandoned her soul to gossip,— nor yet the other type, a life-long martyr of unselfishness. They are mixed generally, and are not unlike their married sisters, so far as I can see. Then as to men, certainly I know heroes. One man, I knew, as high a chevalier in heart as any Bayard of them all; one of those souls simple and gentle as a woman, tender in knightly honor. He was an old man, with a rusty brown coat and rustier wig, who spent his life in a dingy village office. You poets would have laughed at him. Well, well, his history never will he written. The kind, sad, blue eyes are shut now. There is a little farm-graveyard overgrown with privet and wild grape-vines, and a flattened grave where he was laid to rest; and only a few who knew him when they were children care to go there, and think of what he was to them. But it was not in the far days of Chivalry alone, I think, that true and tender souls have stood in the world unwelcome, and, hurt to the quick, have turned away and dumbly died. Let it be. Their lives are not lost, thank God !
I meant only to ask you, How can I help it, if the people in my story seem coarse to you, — if the hero, unlike all other heroes, stopped to count the cost before he fell in love, — if it made his fingers thrill with pleasure to touch a full pocket-book as well as his mistress’s hand, — not being withal, this Stephen Holmes, a man to be despised ? A hero, rather, of a peculiar type,—a man, more than other men : the very mould of man, doubt it who will, that women love longest and most madly. Of course, if I could, I would have blotted out every meanness or flaw before I showed him to you; I would have given you Margaret an impetuous, whole-souled woman, glad to throw her life down for her father without one bitter thought of the wife and mother she might have been ; I would have painted her mother tender as she was, forgetting how pettish she grew on busy days: but what can I do ? I must show you men and women as they are in that especial State of the Union where I live. In all the others, of course, it is very different. Now, being prepared for disappointment, will you see my hero?
He had sauntered out from the city for a morning walk,—not through the hills, as Margaret went, going home, but on the other side, to the river, over which you could see the Prairie. We are in Indiana, remember. The sunlight was pure that morning, powerful, tintless, the true wine of life for body or spirit. Stephen Holmes knew that, being a man of delicate animal instincts, and so used it, just as he had used the dumb-bells in the moming. All things were made for man, were n’t they? He was leaning against the door of the school-house, — a red, flaunting house, the daub on the landscape: but, having his back to it, he could not see it, so through his half-shut eyes he suffered the beauty of the scene to act on him. Suffered : in a man, according to his creed, the will being dominant, and all influences, such as beauty, pain, religion, permitted to act under orders. Of course.
It was a peculiar landscape,—like the man who looked at it, of a thoroughly American type. A range of sharp, dark hills, with a sombre depth of green shadow in the clefts, and on the sides massed forests of scarlet and flame and crimson. Above, the sharp peaks of stone rose into the wan blue, wan and pale themselves, and wearing a certain air of fixed calm, the type of an eternal quiet. At the base of the hills lay the city, a dirty mass of bricks and smoke and dust, and at its far edge flowed the Wabash,—deep here, tinted with green, writhing and gurgling and curdling on the banks over shelving ledges of lichen and mud-covered rock. Beyond it yawned the opening to the great West, —the Prairies. Not the dreary deadness here, as farther west. A plain dark russet in hue,—for the grass was sun-scorched,— stretching away into the vague distance, intolerable, silent, broken by hillocks and puny streams that only made the vastness and silence more wide and heavy. Its limitless torpor weighed on the brain ; the eyes ached, stretching to find some break before the dull russet faded into the amber of the horizon and was lost. An American landscape : of few features, simple, grand in outline as a face of one of the early gods. It lay utterly motionless before him, not a fleck of cloud in the pure blue above, even where the mist rose from the river; it only had glorified the clear blue into clearer violet.
Holmes stood quietly looking; he could have created a picture like this, if he never had seen one; therefore he was able to recognize it, accepted it into his soul, and let it do what it would there.
Suddenly a low wind from the far Pacific coast struck from the amber line where the sun went down. A faint tremble passed over the great hills, the broad sweeps of color darkened from base to summit, then flashed again, — while below, the prairie rose and fell like a dun sea, and rolled in long, slow, solemn waves.
The wind struck so broad and fiercely in Holmes’s face that he caught his breath. It was a savage freedom, he thought, in the West there, whose breath blew on him, — the freedom of the primitive man, the untamed animal man, self-reliant and self-assertant, having conquered Nature. Well, this fierce masterful freedom was good for the soul, sometimes, doubtless. It was old Knowles’s vital air. He wondered if the old man would succeed in his hobby, if he could make the slavish beggars and thieves in the alleys yonder comprehend this fierce freedom. They craved leave to live on sufferance now, not knowing their possible divinity. It was a desperate remedy, this sense of unchecked liberty ; but their disease was desperate. As for himself, he did not need it; that element was not lacking. In a mere bodily sense, to be sure. He felt his arm. Yes, the cold rigor of this new life had already worn off much of the clogging weight of flesh, strengthened the muscles. Six months more in the West would toughen the fibres to iron. He raised an iron weight that lay on the steps, carelessly testing them. For the rest, he was going back here; something of the cold, loose freshness got into his brain, he believed. In the two years of absence his power of concentration had been stronger, his perceptions more free from prejudice, gaining every day delicate point, acuteness of analysis. He drew a long breath of the icy air, coarse with the wild perfume of the prairie. No, his temperament needed a subtiler atmosphere than this, rarer essence than mere brutal freedom. The East, the Old World, was his proper sphere for self-development. He would go as soon as he could command the means, leaving all clogs behind. All? His idle thought balked here, suddenly ; the sallow forehead contracted sharply, and his gray eyes grew in an instant shallow, careless, formal, as a man who holds back his thought. There was a fierce warring in his brain for a moment. Then he brushed his Kossuth hat with his arm, and put it on, looking out at the landscape again. Somehow its meaning was dulled to him. Just then a muddy terrier came up, and rubbed itself against his knee. “ Why, Tige, old boy ! ” he said, stooping to pat it kindly. The hard, shallow look faded out, and he half smiled, looking in the dog’s eyes. A curious smile, unspeakably tender and sad. It was the idiosyncrasy of the man’s face, rarely seen there. He might have looked with it at a criminal, condemning him to death. But he would have condemned him, and, if no hangman could be found, would have put the rope on with his own hands, and then most probably would have sat down pale and trembling, and analyzed his sensations on paper, — being sincere in all.
He sat down on the school-house step, which the boys had hacked and whittled rough, and waited; for he was there by appointment, to meet Dr. Knowles.
Knowles had gone out early in the morning to look at the ground he was going to buy for his Phalanstery, or whatever he chose to call it. He was to bring the deed of sale of the mill out with him for Holmes. The next day it was to be signed. Holmes saw him at last lumbering across the prairie, wiping the perspiration from his forehead. Summer or -winter, he contrived to be always hot. There was a cart drawn by an old donkey coming along beside him. Knowles was talking to the driver. The old man clapped his hands as stage-coachmen do, and drew in long draughts of air, as if there were keen life and promise in every breath. They came up at last, the cart empty, and drying for the day’s work after its morning’s scrubbing, Lois’s pock-marked face all in a glow with trying to keep Barney awake. She grew quite red with pleasure at seeing Holmes, but went on quickly as the men began to talk. Tige followed her, of course ; but when she had gone a little way across the prairie, they saw her stop, and presently the dog came back with something in his mouth, which he laid down beside his master, and bolted off. It was only a rough wicker-basket which she had filled with damp plushy moss, and half-buried in it clusters of plumy fern, delicate brown and ashen lichens, masses of forest-leaves all shaded green with a few crimson tints. It had a clear woody smell, like far-off myrrh. The Doctor laughed as Holmes took it up.
“ An artist’s gift, if it is from a mulatto,” he said. “ A born colorist.”
The men were not at ease, for some reason ; they seized on every trifle to keep off the subject which had brought them together.
“ That girl's artist-sense is pure, and her religion, down under the perversion and ignorance of her brain. Curious, eh ? ”
“ Look at the top of her head, -when you see her,” said Holmes. “ It is necessity for such brains to worship. They let the fire lick their blood, if they happen to be born Parsees. This girl, if she had been a Jew when Christ was born, would have known him as Simeon did.”
Knowles said nothing, — only glanced at the massive head of the speaker, with its overhanging brow, square development at the sides, and lowered crown, and smiled significantly.
“ Exactly,” laughed Holmes, putting his hand on his head. “ Crippled there by my Yorkshire blood, — my mother. Never mind ; outside of this life, blood or circumstance matters nothing.”
They walked on slowly towards town. Surely there was nothing in the bill-ofsale which the old man had in his pocket but a mere matter of business; yet they were strangely silent about it, as if it brought shame to some one. There was an embarrassed pause. The Doctor went back to Lois for relief.
“I think it is the pain and want of such as she that makes them susceptible to religion. The self in them is so starved and humbled that it cannot obscure their eyes ; they see God clearly.”
“ Say rather,” said Holmes, “ that the soul is so starved and blind that it cannot recognize itself as God.”
The Doctor’s intolerant eye kindled.
“ Humph ! So that ’s your creed ! Not Pantheism. Ego sum. Of course you go on with the conjugation : I have been, I shall be. I, — that covers the whole ground, creation, redemption, and commands the hereafter ? ”
“It does so,” said Holmes, coolly.
“ And this wretched huckster carries her deity about her,— her self-existent soul ? How, in God’s name, is her life to set it free ? ”
Holmes said nothing. The coarse sneer could not he answered. Men with pale faces and heavy jaws like his do not carry their religion on their tongue’s end; their creeds leave them only in the slow oozing life-blood, false as the creeds may be.
Knowles went on hotly, half to himself, seizing on the new idea fiercely, as men and women do who are yet groping for the truth of life.
“ What is it your Novalis says ? ‘ The true Shechinah is man.’ You know no higher God ? Pooh ! the idea is old enough; it began with Eve. It works slowly, Holmes. In six thousand years, taking humanity as one, this self-existent soul should have clothed itself with a freer, royaller garment than poor Lois’s body, — or mine,” he added, bitterly.
“ It works slowly,” said the other, quietly. “ Faster soon, in America. There are yet many ills of life for the divinity within to conquer.”
“ And Lois and the swarming mass yonder in those dens ? It is late for them to begin the fight ? ”
“ Endurance is enough for them here. Their religions teach them that they could not bear the truth. One does not put a weapon into the hands of a man dying of the fetor and hunger of the siege.”
“ But what will this life, or the lives to come, give to you champions who know the truth ? ”
“ Nothing but victory,” he said, in a low tone, looking away.
Knowles looked at the pale strength of the iron face.
“ God help you, Stephen ! ” he broke out, his shallow jeering falling off. “ For there is a God higher than we. The ills of life you mean to conquer will teach it to you, Holmes. You ’ll find the Something above yourself, if it’s only to curse Him and die.”
Holmes did not smile at the old man’s heat,— walked gravely, steadily.
There was a short silence. The old man put his hand gently on the other’s arm.
“ Stephen,” he hesitated, “ you ’re a stronger man than I. I know what you are ; I’ve watched you from a boy. But you ’re wrong here. I ’m an old man. There ’s not much I know in life,— enough to madden me. But I do know there’s something stronger,— some God outside of the mean devil they call ‘ Me.’ You ’ll learn it, boy. There ’s an old story of a man like you and the rest of your sect, and of the vile, mean, crawling things that God sent to bring him down. There are such things yet. Mean passions in your divine soul, low, selfish things, that will get the better of yon, show you what you are. You ’ll do all that man can do. But they are coming, Stephen Holmes! they ’re coming ! ”
He stopped, startled. For Holmes had turned abruptly, glancing over at the city with a strange wistfulness. It was over in a moment. He resumed the slow, controlling walk beside him. They went on in silence into town, and when they did speak, it was on indifferent subjects, not referring to the last. The Doctor’s heat, as it usually did, boiled out in spasms on trifles. Once he stumped his toe, and, I am sorry to say, swore roundly about it, just as he would have done in the new Arcadia, if one of the jail-birds comprising that colony had been ungrateful for his advantages. Philanthropists, for some curious reason, are not the most amiable members of small families.
He gave Holmes the roll of parchment he had in his pocket, looking keenly at him, as he did so, but only saying, that, if he meant to sign it, it would be done tomorrow. As Holmes took it, they stopped at the great door of the factory. He went in alone, Knowles going down the street. One trifle, Strange in its way, he remembered afterwards. Holding the roll of paper in his hand that would make the mill his, he went, in his slow, grave way, down the long passage to the loom-rooms. There was a crowd of porters and firemen there, as usual, and he thought one of them hastily passed him in the dark passage, hiding behind an engine. As the shadow fell on him, his teeth chattered with a chilly shudder. He smiled, thinking how superstitious people would say that some one trod on his grave just then, or that Death looked at him, and went on. Afterwards he thought of it. Going through the office, the fat old book-keeper, Huff, stopped him with a story he had been keeping for him all day. He liked to tell a story to Holmes; he could see into a joke; it did a man good to hear a fellow laugh like that. Holmes did laugh, for the story was a good one, and stood a moment, then went in, leaving the old fellow chuckling over his desk. Huff did not know how, lately, after every laugh, this man felt a vague scorn of himself, as if jokes and laughter belonged to a self that ought to have been dead long ago. Perhaps, if the fat old book-keeper had known it, he would have said that the man was better than he knew. But then, — poor Huff! He passed slowly through the long alleys between the great looms. Overhead the ceiling looked like a heavy maze of iron cylinders and black swinging bars and wheels, all in swift, ponderous motion. It was enough to make a brain dizzy with the clanging thunder of the engines, the whizzing spindles of red and yellow, and the hot daylight glaring over all. The looms were watched by women, most of them bold, tawdry girls of fifteen or sixteen, or lean-jawed women from the hills, wives of the coal-diggers. There was a breathless odor of copperas. As he went from one room to another up through the ascending stories, he had a vague sensation of being followed. Some shadow lurked at times behind the engines, or stole after him in the dark entries. Were there ghosts, then, in mills in broad daylight ? None but the ghosts of Want and Hunger and Crime, he might have known, that do not wait for night to walk our streets : the ghosts that poor old Knowles hoped to lay forever.
Holmes had a room fitted up in the mill, where he slept. He went up to it slowly, holding the paper tightly in one hand, glancing at the operatives, the work, through his furtive half-shut eye. Nothing escaped him. Passing the windows, he did not once look out at the prophetic dream of beauty he had left without. In the mill he was of the mill. Yet he went slowly, as if he shrank from the task waiting for him. Why should he ? It was a simple matter of business, this transfer of Knowles’S share in the mill to himself; today he was to decide whether he would conclude the bargain. If any dark history of wrong lay underneath, if this simple decision of his was to be the struggle for life and death with him, his cold, firm face told nothing of it. Let us be just to him, stand by him, if we can, in the midst of his desolate home and desolate life, and look through his cold, sorrowful eyes at the deed he was going to do. Dreary enough he looked, going through the great mill, despite the power in his quiet face. A man who had strength to be alone ; yet, I think, with all his strength and power, his mother could not have borne to look back from the dead that day, to see her boy so utterly alone. The day was the crisis of his life, looked forward to for years ; he held in his hand a sure passport to fortune. Yet he thrust the hour off, perversely, trifling with idle fancies, pushing from him the one question which all the years past and to come had left for this day to decide.
Some such idle fancy it may have been that made the man turn from the usual way down a narrow passage into which opened doors from small offices. Margaret Howth, he had learned to-day, was in the first one. He hesitated before he did it, his sallow face turning a trifle paler; then he went on in his hard, grave way, wondering dimly if she remembered his step, if she cared to see him now. She used to know it, — she was the only one in the world who ever had cared to know it,
— silly child ! Doubtless she was wiser now. He remembered he used to think, that, when this woman loved, it would be as he himself would love, with a simple trust which the wrong of years could not touch. And once he had thought — Well, well, he was mistaken. Poor Margaret ! Better as it was. They were nothing to each other. She had put him from her, and he had suffered himself to be put away. Why, he would have given up every prospect of life, if he had done otherwise ! Yet he wondered bitterly if she had thought him selfish, — if she thought it was money he cared for, as the others did. It mattered nothing what they thought, but it wounded him intolerably that she should wrong him. Yet, with all this, whenever he looked forward to death, it was with the certainty that he should find her there beyond. There would be no secrets then; she would know then how he had loved her always. Loved her? Yes; he need not hide it from himself, surely.
He was now by the door of the office ; — she was within. Little Margaret, poor little Margaret! struggling there day after day for the old father and mother. What a pale, cold little child she used to be! such a child! yet kindling at his look or touch, as if her veins were filled with subtile flame. Her soul was—like his own, he thought. He knew what it was, — he only. Even now he glowed with a man’s triumph to know he held the secret life of this woman bare in his hand. No other human power could ever come near her; he was secure in possession. She had put him from her; — it was better for both, perhaps. Their paths were separate here; for she had some unreal notions of duty, and he had too much to do in the world to clog himself with cares, or to idle an hour in the rare ecstasy of even love like this.
He passed the office, not pausing in his slow step. Some sudden impulse made him put his hand on the door as he brushed against it: just a quick, light touch; but it had all the fierce passion of a caress. He drew it back as quickly, and went on, wiping a clammy sweat from his face.
The room he had fitted up for himself was whitewashed and barely furnished ; it made one’s bones ache to look at the iron bedstead and chairs. Holmes’s natural taste was more glowing, however smothered, than that of any saffron-robed Sybarite. It needed correction, he knew, and this was the discipline. Besides, he had set apart the coming three or four years of his life to make money in, enough for the time to come. He would devote his whole strength to that work, and so be sooner done with it. Money, or place, or even power, was nothing but means to him : other men valued them because of their influence on others. As his work in the world was only the development of himself, it was different, of course. What would it matter to his soul the day after death, if millions called his name aloud in blame or praise ? Would he hear or answer then ? What would it matter to him then, if he had starved with them or ruled over them ? People talked of benevolence. What would it matter to him then, the misery or happiness of those yet working in this paltry life of ours ? In so far as the exercise of kindly emotions or self-denial developed the higher part of his nature, it was to be commended ; as for its effect on others, that he had nothing to do with. He practised self-denial constantly to strengthen the benevolent instincts. That very morning he had given his last dollar to Joe Byers, a half-starved cripple. “ Chucked it at me,” Joe said, “like as he’d give a bone to a dog, and be damned to him ! Who thanks him ? ” To tell the truth, you will find no fairer exponent than this Stephen Holmes of the great idea of American sociology, — that the object of life is to grow. Circumstances had forced it on him, partly. Sitting now in his room, where he was counting the cost of becoming a merchant prince, he could look back to the time of a boyhood passed in the depths of ignorance and vice. He knew what this Self within him was; he knew how it had forced him to grope his way up, to give this hungry, insatiate soul air and freedom and knowledge. All men around him were doing the same, — thrusting and jostling and struggling, up, up. It was the American motto, Go ahead; mothers taught it to their children ; the whole system was a scale of glittering prizes. He at least saw the higher meaning of the truth; he had no low ambitions. To lift this self up into a higher range of being when it had done with the uses of this,—that was his work. Self-salvation, self-elevation, — the ideas that give birth to, and destroy half of our Christianity, half of our philanthropy ! Sometimes sleeping instincts in the man struggled up to assert a divinity more terrible than this growing self-existent soul that he purified and analyzed day by day: a depth of tender pity for outer pain ; a fierce longing for rest, on something, in something, he cared not what. He stifled such rebellious promptings, — called them morbid. He called it morbid, too, the passion now that chilled his strong blood, and wrung out these clammy drops on his forehead, at the mere thought of this girl below.
He shut the door of his room tightly: he had no time to-day for lounging visitors. For Holmes, quiet and steady, was sought for, if not popular, even in the free-andeasy West; one of those men who are unwillingly masters among men. Just and mild, always ; with a peculiar gift that made men talk their best thoughts to him, knowing they would be understood ; if any core of eternal flint lay under the simple, truthful manner of the man, nobody saw it.
He laid the bill of sale on the table; it was an altogether practical matter on which be sat in judgment, but be was going to do nothing rashly. A plain business document: he took Dr. Knowles’s share in the factory ; the payments made with short intervals; John Herne was to be his indorser: it needed only the names to make it valid. Plain enough ; no hint there of the tacit understanding that the purchase-money was a wedding dowry; even between Herne and himself it never was openly put into words. If he did not marry Miss Herne, the mill was her father’s ; that of course must be spoken of, arranged to-morrow. If be took it, then ? if he married her ? Holmes had been poor, was miserably poor yet, with the position and habits of a man of refinement. God knows it was not to gratify those tastes that he clutched at this money. All the slow years of work trailed up before him, that were gone,— of hard, wearing work for daily bread, when his brain had been starving for knowledge, and his soul dulled, debased with sordid trailing. Was this to be always ? Were these few golden moments of life to be traded for the bread and meat he ate ? To eat and drink, — was that what he was here for ?
As he paced the floor mechanically, some vague recollection crossed his brain of a childish story of the man standing where the two great roads of life parted. They were open before him now. Money, money,—he took the word into his heart as a miser might do. With it, he was free from these carking cares that were making his mind foul and muddy. If he had money ! Slow, cool visions of triumphs rose before him outlined on the years to come, practical, if Utopian. Slow and sure successes of science and art, where his brain could work, helpful and growing. Far off, yet surely to come, — surely for him, — a day to come when a pure social system should be universal, should have thrust out its fibres of light knitting into one the nations of the earth, when the lowest slave should find its true place and rightful work, and stand up, knowing itself divine. “ To insure to every man the freest development of his faculties ”: he said over the hackneyed dogma again and again, while the heavy, hateful years of poverty rose before him that had trampled him down. “ To insure to him the freest development,” he did not need to wait for St. Simon, or the golden year, he thought with a dreary gibe ; money was enough, and — Miss Herne.
It was curious, that, when this woman, whom he saw every day, came up in his mind, it was always in one posture, one costume. You have noticed that peculiarity in your remembrance of some persons ? Perhaps you would find, if you looked closely, that in that look or indelible gesture which your memory has caught there lies some subtile hint of the tie between your soul and theirs. Now, when Holmes had resolved coolly to weigh this woman, brain, heart, and flesh, to know how much of a hindrance she would be, he could only see her, with his artist’s sense, as delicate a bloom of coloring as eye could crave, in one immovable posture,— as he had seen her once in some masquerade or tableau vivant. June, I think it was, she chose to represent that evening,—and with her usual success; for no woman ever knew more thoroughly her material of shape or color, or how to work it up. Not an illchosen fancy, either, that of the moist, warm month. Some tranced summer’s day might have drowsed down into such a human form by a dank pool, or on the thick grass-crusted meadows. There was the full contour of the limbs hid under warm green folds, the white flesh that glowed when you touched it as if some smothered heat lay beneath, the sleeping face, the amber hair uncoiled in a languid quiet, while yellow jasmines deepened its hue into molten sunshine, and a great tiger-lily laid its sultry head on her breast. June? Could June become incarnate with higher poetic meaning than that which this woman gave it ? Mr. Kitts, the artist I told you of, thought not, and fell in love with June and her on the spot, which passion became quite unbearable after she had graciously permitted him to sketch her, — for the benefit of Art. Three medical students and one attorney Miss Herne numbered as having been driven into a state of dogged despair on that triumphal occasion. Mr. Holmes may have quarrelled with the rendering, doubting to himself if her lip were not too thick, her eye too brassy and pale a blue for the queen, of months; though I do not believe he thought at all about it. Yet the picture clung to his memory.
As he slowly paced the room to-day, thinking of this woman as his wife, light blue eyes and yellow hair and the unclean sweetness of jasmine-flowers mixed with the hot sunshine and smells of the mill. He could think of her in no other light. He might have done so; for the poor girl had her other sides for view. She had one of those sharp, tawdry intellects whose possessors are always reckoned “ brilliant women, fine talkers.” She was (aside from the necessary sarcasm to keep up this reputation) a good-humored soul enough, — when no one stood in her way. But if her shallow virtues or vices were palpable at all to him to-day, they became one with the torpid beauty of the oppressive summer day, and weighed on him alike with a vague disgust. The woman luxuriated in perfume ; some heavy odor always hung about her. Holmes, thinking of her now, fancied he felt it stifling the air, and opened the window for breath. Patchouli or copperas,— what was the difference ? The mill and his future wife came to him together ; it was scarcely his fault, if he thought of them as one, or muttered, “ Damnable clog! ” as he sat down to write, his cold eye growing colder. But he did not argue the question any longer; decision had come keenly in one moment, fixed, unalterable.
If, through the long day, the starved heart of the man called feebly for its natural food, he called it a paltry weakness ; or if the old thought of the quiet, pure little girl in the office below came back to him, he— he wished her well, he hoped she might succeed in her work, he would always be ready to lend her a helping hand. So many years (he was ashamed to think how many) he had built the thought of this girl as his wife into the future, put his soul’s strength into the hope, as if love and the homely duties of husband and father were what life was given for ! A boyish fancy, he thought. He had not learned then that all dreams must yield to self-reverence and self-growth. As for taking up this life of poverty and soul-starvation for the sake of a little love, it would be an ignoble martyrdom, the sacrifice of a grand unmeasured life to a shallow pleasure. He was no longer a young man now; he had no time to waste. Poor Margaret! he wondered if it hurt her now.
He left the writing in the slow, quiet way natural to him, and after a while stooped to pat the dog softly, who was trying to lick his hand, — with the hard fingers shaking a little, and a smothered fierceness in the half-closed eye, like a man who is tortured and alone.
There is a miserable drama acted in other homes than the Tuileries, when men have found a woman’s heart in their way to success, and trampled it down under an iron heel. Men like Napoleon must live out the law of their natures, I suppose,— on a throne or in a mill.
So many trifles that day roused the under-current of old thoughts and old hopes that taunted him, — trifles, too, that he would not have heeded at another time. Pike came in on business, a bunch of bills in his hand. A wily, keen eye he had, looking over them, — a lean face, emphasized only by cunning. No wonder Dr. Knowles cursed him for a “slippery customer,” and was cheated by him the next hour. While he and Holmes were counting out the bills, a little whiteheaded girl crept shyly in at the door, and came up to the table,—oddly dressed, in an old-fashioned frock fastened with great horn buttons, and with an oldfashioned anxious pair of eyes, the color of blue Delft. Holmes smoothed her hair, as she stood beside them ; for he never could help caressing children or dogs. Pike looked up sharply,— then half smiled, as he went on counting.
“Ninety, ninety-five, and one hundred, all right,” — tying a bit of tape about the papers. “ My Sophy, Mr. Holmes. Good girl, Sophy is. Bring her up to the mill sometimes,” he said, apologetically, “ on ’count of not leaving her alone. She gets lonesome at th’ house.”
Holmes glanced at Pike’s felt hat lying on the table : there was a rusty strip of crape on it.
“ Yes,” said Pike, in a lower tone, - “ I ’m father and mother, both, to Sophy now.”
“ I had not heard,” said Holmes, kindly. “ How about the boys, now ? ”
“ Pete and John’s both gone West,” the man said, his eyes kindling eagerly. “ ’S fine boys as ever turned out of Indiana. Good eddications I give ’em both. I’ve felt the want of that all my life. Good eddications. Says I, ‘ Now, boys, you ’ve got your fortunes, nothing to hinder your bein’ President. Let ’s see what stuff’s in ye,’ says I. So they ’re doin’ well. Wrote fur me to come out in the fall. But I ’d rather scratch on, and gather up a little for Sophy here, before I stop work.”
He patted Sophy’s tanned little hand on the table, as if beating some soft tune. Holmes folded up the bills. Even this man could spare time out of his hard, stingy life to love, and be loved, and to be generous! But then he had no higher aim, knew nothing better.
“ Well,” said Pike, rising, “ in ease you take th’ mill, Mr. Holmes, I hope we ’ll be agreeable. I ’ll strive to do my best,” — in the old fawning manner, to which Holmes nodded a curt reply.
The man stopped for Sophy to gather up her bits of broken China with which she was making a tea-party on the table, and went down-stairs.
Towards evening Holmes went out, — not going through the narrow passage that led to the offices, but avoiding it by a circuitous route. If it cost him any pain to think why he did it, he showed none in his calm, observant face. Buttoning up his coat as he went : the October sunset looked as if it ought to be warm, but he was deathly cold. On the street the young doctor beset him again with bows and news : Cox was his name, I believe ; the one, you remember, who had such a Talleyrand nose for ferreting out successful men. He had to bear with him but for a few moments, however. They met a crowd of workmen at the corner, one of whom, an old man freshly washed, with honest eyes looking out of horn spectacles, waited for them by a fire-plug. It was Polston, the coal-digger, — an acquaintance, a far-off kinsman of Holmes, in fact.
“ Curious person making signs to you, yonder,” said Cox; “hand, I presume.’'
“ My cousin Polston. If you do not know him, you ’ll excuse me ? ”
Cox sniffed the air down the street, and twirled his rattan, as he went. The coal-digger was abrupt and distant in his greeting, going straight to business.
“ I will keep yoh only a minute, Mr. Holmes ” ——
“ Stephen,” corrected Holmes.
The old man’s face warmed.
“ Stephen, then,” holding out his hand, “ sence old times dawn’t shame yoh, Stephen. That’s hearty, now. It’s only a wured I want, but it’s immediate. Coneernin’ Joe Yare, — Lois’s father, yoh know ? He ’s back.”
“ Back ? I saw him to-day, following me in the mill. His hair is gray ? I think it was he.”
“ No doubt. Yes, he ’s aged fast, down in the lock-up; goin’ fast to the end. Feeble, pore-like. It’s a bad life, Joe Yare’s ; I wish ’n’ ’t would be better to the end ” ——
He stopped with a wistful look at Holmes, who stood outwardly attentive, but with little thought to waste on Joe Yare. The old coal-digger drummed on the fire-plug uneasily.
“ Myself, ’t was for Lois’s sake I thowt on it. To speak plain,—yoh ’ll mind that Stokes affair, th' note Yare brought ? Yes ? Ther’ ’s none knows o’ that but yoh an’ me. He’s safe, Yare is, only fur yoh an’ me. Yoh speak the wured an’ back he goes to the lock-up. Fur life. D’ yoli see ? ”
“ I see.”
“ He’s tryin’ to do right, Yare is.”
The old man went on, trying not to be eager, and watching Holmes’s face.
“ He ’s tryin’. Sendin’ him back — yoh know how that ’ll end. Seems like as we ’d his soul in our hands. S’pose, — what d’ yoh think, if we give him a chance ? It’s yoh he fears. I see him a-watchin’ yoh; what d’ yoh think, if we give him a chance?” catching Holmes’s sleeve. “ He’s old, an’ he’s tryin’. Heh?”
“ We did n’t make the law he broke. Justice before mercy. Have n’t I heard you talk to Sam in that way, long ago ?”
The old man loosened his hold of Holmes’s arm, looked up and down the street, uncertain, disappointed.
“ The law. Yes. That’s right! Yoh ’re a just man, Stephen Holmes.”
“ And yet ? ” ——
“ Yes. I dun’no’. Law ’s right, but Yare’s had a bad chance, an’ he’s tryin’. An’ we ’re sendin’ him to hell. Somethin’ ’s wrong. But I think yoh ’re a just man,” looking keenly in Holmes’s face.
“ A hard one, people say,” said Holmes, after a pause, as they walked on.
He had spoken half to himself, and received no answer. Some blacker shadow troubled him than old Yare’s fate.
“My mother was a hard woman,— you knew her?” he said, abruptly.
“ She was just, like yoh. She was one o’ th’ elect, she said. Mercy’s fur them, — an’ outside, justice. It ’s a narrer showin’, I ’m thinkin’.”
“ My father was outside,” said Holmes, some old bitterness rising up in his tone, his gray eye lighting with some unrevenged wrong.
Polston did not speak for a moment.
“ Dunnot bear malice agin her. They’re dead, now. It was n’t left fur her to judge him out yonder. Yoh ’ve yer father’s eyes, Stephen, ’times. Hungry, pitiful, like women’s. His got desper’t’ ’t th’ last. Drunk hard,—died of’t, yoh know. But she killed him, — th’ sin was writ down fur her. Never was a boy I loved like him, when we was boys.”
There was a short silence.
“ Yoh ’re like yer mother,” said Polston, striving for a lighter tone. “Here,” — motioning to the heavy iron jaws. “ She never — let go. Somehow, too, she ’d the law on her side in outward showin’, an’ th’ right. But I hated religion, knowin’ her. Well, ther’ ’s a day of makin’ things clear, comin’.”
They had reached the corner now, and Polston turned down the lane.
“Yoh ’ll think o’ Yare’s case?” he said.
“ Yes. But how can I help it,” Holmes said, lightly, “ if I am like my mother here ? ”—putting his hand to his mouth.
“ God help us, how can yoh ? It ’s harrd to think father and mother leave their souls fightin’ in their childern, cos th’ love was wantin’ to make them one here.”
Something glittered along the street as he spoke: the silver mountings of a lowhung phaëton drawn by a pair of Mexican ponies. One or two gentlemen on horseback were alongside, attendant on a lady within. She turned her fair face, and pale, greedy eyes, as she passed, and lifted her hand languidly in recognition of Holmes. Polston’s face colored.
“I ’ve heered,” he said, holding out his grimy hand. “ I wish yoh well, Stephen, boy. So ’ll the old ’Oman. Yoh ’ll come an’ see us, soon? Ye ‘r‘ lookin’ fagged, an’ yer eyes is gettin’ more like yer father’s. I 'm glad things is takin’ a good turn with yoh; an’ yoh ’ll never be like him, starvin’ fur th’ kind wured, an’ havin’ to die without it. I ’m glad yoh’ve got true love. She’d a fair face, I think. I wish yoh well, Stephen.”
Holmes shook the grimy hand, and then stood a moment looking back to the mill, from which the hands were just coming, and then down at the phaëton moving idly down the road. How cold it was growing! People passing by had a sickly look, as if they were struck by the plague. He pushed the damp hair back, wiping his forehead, with another glance at the mill-women coming out of the gate, and then followed the phaëton down the hill.