JOSEPH had made half the distance between Oakland Station and his farm, walking leisurely, when a buggy, drawn by an aged and irreproachable gray horse, came towards him. The driver was the Reverend Mr. Chaffinch. He stopped as they met.
“Will you turn back, as far as that tree ? ” said the clergyman, after greetings had been exchanged. “I have a message to deliver.”
“ Now,” he continued, reining up his horse in the shade, “we can talk without interruption. I will ask you to listen to me with the spiritual, not the carnal ear. I must not be false to my high calling, and the voice of my own conscience calls me to awaken yours.”
Joseph said nothing, but the flush upon his face was that of anger, not of confusion, as Mr. Chaffinch innocently supposed.
“It is hard for a young man, especially one wise in his own conceit, to see how the snares of the Adversary are closing around him. We cannot plead ignorance, however, when the Light is there, and we wilfully turn our eyes from it. You are walking on a road, Joseph Asten, it may seem smooth and fair to you, but do you know where it leads ? I will tell you : to Death and Hell ! ”
Still Joseph was silent.
“ It is not too late ! Your fault, I fear, is that you attach merit to works, as if works could save you ! You look to a cold, barren morality for support, and imagine that to do what is called ‘right ’ is enough for God ! You shut your eyes to the blackness of your own sinful heart, and are too proud to acknowledge the vileness and depravity of man’s nature ; but without this acknowledgment your morality (as you call it) is corrupt, your good works (as you suppose them to be) will avail you naught. You are outside the pale of Grace, and while you continue there, knowing the door to be open, there is no Mercy for you ! ”
The flush on Joseph’s face faded, and he became very pale, but he still waited. “ I hope,” Mr. Chaffinch continued, after a pause, “that your silence is the beginning of conviction. It only needs an awakening, an opening of the eyes in them that sleep. Do you not recognize your guilt, your miserable condition of sin ? ”
“ No !”
Mr. Chaffinch started, and an ugly, menacing expression came into his face.
“Before you speak again,” said Joseph, “ tell me one thing! Am I indebted for this Catechism to the order — perhaps I should say, the request — of my wife ? ”
“ I do not deny that she has expressed a Christian concern for your state ; but I do not wait for a request when I see a soul in peril. If I care for the sheep that willingly obey the shepherd, how much more am I commanded to look after them which stray, and which the wolves and bears are greedy to devour! ”
“Have you ever considered, Mr. Chaffinch,” Joseph rejoined, lifting his head and speaking with measured clearness, “that an intelligent man may possibly be aware that he has an immortal soul, — that the health and purity and growth of that soul may possibly be his first concern in life, — that no other man can know, as he does, its imperfections, its needs, its aspirations which rise directly towards God ; and that the attempt of a stranger to examine and criticise, and perhaps blacken, this most sacred part of his nature, may possibly be a pious impertinence ? ”
“ Ah, the natural depravity of the heart ! ” Mr. Chaffinch groaned.
“It is not the depravity, it is the only pure quality which the hucksters of doctrine, the money-changers in God’s temple of Man, cannot touch ! Shall I render a reckoning to you on the day when souls are judged ? Are you the infallible agent of the Divine Mercy ? What blasphemy ! ”
Mr. Chaffinch shuddered. “ I wash my hands of you ! ” he cried. “ I have had to deal with many sinners in my day, but I have found no sin which came so directly from the Devil as the pride of the mind. If you were rotten in all your members from the sins of the flesh, I might have a little hope. Verily, it shall go easier with the murderer and the adulterer on that day, than with such as ye ! ”
He gave the horse a more than saintly stroke, and the vehicle rattled away. Joseph could not see the predominance of routine in all that Mr. Chaffinch had said. He was too excited to remember that certain phrases are transmitted, and used without a thought of their tremendous character; he applied every word personally, and felt it as an outrage in all the sensitive fibres of his soul. And who had invoked the outrage? His wife: Mr. Chaffinch had confessed it. What representations had she made? — he could only measure them by the character of the clergyman’s charges. He sat down on the bank, sick at heart ; it was impossible to go home and meet her in his present frame of mind.
Presently he started up, crying aloud :
“ I will go to Philip! He cannot help me, I know, but I must have a word of love from a friend, or I shall go mad ! ”
He retraced his steps, took the road up the valley, and walked rapidly towards the Forge. The tumult in his blood gradually expended its force, but it had carried him along more swiftly than he was aware. When he reached the point where, looking across the valley, now narrowed to a glen, he could see the smoke of the Forge near at hand, and even catch a glimpse of the cottage on the knoll, he stopped. Up to this moment he had felt, not reflected ; and a secret instinct told him that he should not submit his trouble to Philip’s riper manhood, until it was made clear and coherent in his own mind. He must keep Philip’s love, at all hazards ; and to keep it he must not seem simply a creature of moods and sentiments, whom his friend might pity, but could not respect.
He left the road, crossed a sloping field on the left, and presently found himself on a bank overhanging the stream. Under the wood of oaks and hemlocks the laurel grew in rich, shining clumps ; the current, at this point deep, full, and silent, glimmered through the leaves, twenty feet below ; the opposite shore was level, and green with an herbage which no summer could wither. He leaned against a hemlock bole, and tried to think, but it was not easy to review the past while his future life overhung him like a descending burden which he had not the strength to lift. Love betrayed, trust violated, aspiration misinterpreted, were the spiritual aspects ; a divided household, entangling obligations, a probability of serious loss, were the material evils which accompanied them. He was so unprepared for the change that he could only rebel, not measure, analyze, and cast about for ways of relief.
It was a miserable strait in which he found himself; and the more he thought — or, rather, seemed to think — the less was he able to foresee any other than an unfortunate solution. What were his better impulses, if men persisted in finding them evil ? What was life, yoked to such treachery and selfishness ? Life had been to him a hope, an inspiration, a sound, enduring joy ; now it might never be so again! Then what a release were death !
He walked forward to the edge of the rock. A few pebbles, dislodged by his feet, slid from the brink, and plunged with a bubble and a musical tinkle into the dark, sliding waters. One more step, and the release which seemed so fair might be attained. He felt a morbid sense of delight in playing with the thought. Gathering a handful of broken stones he let them fall, one by one, thinking, “ So I hold my fate in my hand.” He leaned over and saw a shifting, quivering image of himself projected against the reflected sky, and a fancy, almost as clear as a voice, said : “ This is your present self: what will you do with it beyond the gulf where only the soul, superior to circumstances here, receives a nobler destiny ? ”
He was still gazing down at the flickering figure, when a step came upon the dead leaves. He turned and saw Philip, moving stealthily towards him, pale, with outstretched hand. They looked at each other for a moment, without speaking.
“ I guess your thought, Philip,” Joseph then said. “ But the things easiest to do are sometimes the most impossible.”
“ The bravest man may allow a fancy to pass through his mind, Joseph, which only the coward will carry into effect.”
“ I am not a coward ! ” Joseph exclaimed.
Philip took his hand, drew him nearer, and flinging his arms around him, held him to his heart.
Then they sat down, side by side.
“ I was up the stream, on the other side, trolling for trout,” said Philip, “when I saw you in the road. I was welcoming your coming, in my heart : then you stopped, stood still, and at last turned away. Something in your movements gave me a sudden, terrible feeling of anxiety : I threw clown my rod, came around by the bridge at the Forge, and followed you here. Do not blame me for my foolish dread.”
“Dear, dear friend,” Joseph cried, “ I did not mean to come to you until I seemed stronger and more rational in my own eyes. If that were a vanity, it is gone now : I confess my weakness and ignorance. Tell me, if you can, why this has come upon me ! Tell me why nothing that I have been taught, why no atom of the faith which I still must cling to, explains, consoles, or remedies any wrong of my life ! ”
“ Faiths, I suspect,” Philip answered, “are, like laws, adapted to the average character of the human race. You, in the confiding purity of your nature, are not an average man : you are very much above the class, and if virtue were its own reward, you would be most exceptionally happy. Then the puzzle is, what’s the particular use of virtue ? ”
“ I don't know, Philip, but I don’t like to hear you ask the question. I find mvself so often on the point of doubting all that was my Truth a little while ago; and yet, why should my misfortunes, as an individual, make the truth a lie ? I am only one man among millions who must have faith in the efficacy of virtue. Philip, if I believed the faith to be false, I think I should still say, ' Let it be preached ! ’ ”
Joseph related to Philip the whole of his miserable story, not sparing himself, nor concealing the weakness which allowed him to be entangled to such an extent. Philip’s brow grew dark as he listened, but at the close of the recital his face was calm, though stern.
“Now,” said he, — “now put this aside for a little while, and give your ear (and your heart too, Joseph) to my story. Do not compare my fortune with yours, but let us apply to both the laws which seem to govern life, and see whether justice is possible.”
Joseph had dismissed his wife’s suspicion, after the dinner at Hopeton’s, so immediately from his memory, that he had really forgotten it ; and he was not only startled, but also a little shocked, by Philip’s confession. Still, he saw that it was only the reverse form of his own experience, not more strange, perhaps not more to be condemned, yet equally inevitable.
“Is there no way out of this labyrinth of wrong?” Philip exclaimed. “Two natures, as far apart as Truth and Falsehood, monstrously held together in the most intimate, the holiest of bonds, — two natures destined for each other monstrously kept apart by the same bonds ! Is life to be so sacrificed to habit and prejudice ? I said that Faith, like Law, was fashioned for the average man : then there must be a loftier faith, a juster law, for the men — and the women—who cannot shape themselves according to the commonplace pattern of society, who were born with instincts, needs, knowledge, and rights — ay, rights ! — of their own ! ”
“ But, Philip,” said Joseph, “ we were both to blame : you through too little trust, I through too much. We have both been rash and impatient : I cannot forget that; and how are we to know that the punishment, terrible as it seems, is disproportioned to the offence ? ”
“We know this, Joseph, — and who can know it and be patient ? — that the power which controls our lives is pitiless, unrelenting ! There is the same punishment for an innocent mistake as for a conscious crime. A certain Nemesis follows ignorance, regardless how good and pure may be the individual nature. Had you even guessed your wife’s true character just before marriage, your very integrity, your conscience, and the conscience of the world, would have compelled the union, and Nature would not have mitigated her selfishness to reward you with a tolerable life. O no ! You would still have suffered as now. Shall a man with a heart feel this horrible injustice, and not rebel ? Grant that I am rightly punished for my impatience, my pride, my jealousy, how have you been rewarded for your stainless youth, your innocent trust, your almost miraculous goodness ? Had you known the world better, even though a part of your knowledge might have been evil, you would have escaped this fatal marriage. Nothing can be more certain ; and will you simply groan and bear ? What compensating fortune have you, or can you ever expect to find ? ”
Joseph was silent, at first; but Philip could see, from the trembling of his hands, and his quick breathing, that he was profoundly agitated. “ There is something within me,” he said, at last, “ which accepts everything you say ; and yet, it alarms me. I feel a mighty temptation in your words : they could lead me to snap my chains, break violently away from my past and present life, and surrender myself to will and appetite. O Philip, if we could make our lives wholly our own ! If we could find a spot — ”
“ I know such a spot! ” Philip cried, interrupting him, — “ a great valley, bounded by a hundred miles of snowy peaks ; lakes in its bed; enormous hillsides, dotted with groves of ilex and pine ; orchards of orange and olive; a perfect climate, where it is bliss enough just to breathe, and freedom from the distorted laws of men, for none are near enough to enforce them! If there is no legal way of escape for you, here, at least, there is no force which can drag you back, once you are there: I will go with you, and perhaps — perhaps — ”
Philip’s face glowed, and the vague alarm in Joseph’s heart took a definite form. He guessed what words had been left unspoken.
“ If we could be sure ! ” he said.
“Sure of what? Have I exaggerated the wrong, in your case ? Say we should be outlaws there, in our freedom ! — here we are fettered outlaws.”
“ I have been trying, Philip, to discover a law superior to that under which we suffer, and I think I have found it. If it be true that ignorance is equally punished with guilt ; if causes and consequences, in which there is neither pity nor justice, govern our lives, — then what keeps our souls from despair but the infinite pity and perfect justice of God ? Yes ! here is the difference between human and divine law ! This makes obedience safer than rebellion. If you and I, Philip, stand above the level of common natures, feeling higher needs and claiming other rights, let us shape them according to the law which is above, not that which is below us ! ”
Philip grew pale. “ Then you mean to endure in patience, and expect me to do the same ? ” he asked.
“ If I can. The old foundations upon which my life rested are broken up, and I am too bewildered to venture on a random path. Give me time ; nay, let us both strive to wait a little. I see nothing clearly but this : there is a Divine government, on which I lean now as never before. Yes, I say again, the very wrong that has come upon us makes God necessary ! ”
It was Philip’s turn to be agitated. There was a simple, solemn conviction in Joseph’s voice which struck to his heart. He had spoken from the heat of his passion, it is true, but he had the courage to disregard the judgment of men, and make his protest a reality. Both natures shared the desire, and were enticed by the daring of his dream ; but out of Joseph’s deeper conscience came a whisper, against which the cry of passion was powerless.
“ Yes, we will wait,” said Philip, after a long pause. “ You came to me, Joseph, as you said, in weakness and confusion : I have been talking of your innocence and ignorance. Let us not measure ourselves in this way. It is not experience alone which creates manhood. What will become of us I cannot say, but I will not, I dare not, say you are wrong ! ”
They took each other’s hands. The day was fading, the landscape was silent, and only the twitter of nesting birds was heard in the boughs above them. Each gave way to the impulse of his manly love, rarer, alas ! but as tender and true as the love of woman, and they drew nearer and kissed each other. As they walked back, and parted on the highway, each felt that life was not wholly unkind, and that happiness was not yet impossible.
JOSEPH said nothing that evening concerning the result of his trip to the city, and Julia, who instantly detected the signs which a powerful excitement had left upon his face, thought it prudent to ask no immediate questions. She was purposely demonstrative in little arrangements for his comfort, but spared him her caresses ; she did not intend to be again mistaken in choosing the time and occasion of bestowing them.
The next morning, when he felt that he could speak calmly, Joseph told her what he had done, carefully avoiding any word that might seem to express disappointment, or even doubt.
“ I hope you are satisfied that pa will make it easy for you ? ” she ventured to say.
“He thinks so.” Then Joseph could not help adding : “ He depends, I imagine, upon your sister Clementina marrying a Mr. Spelter, — ' a man of immense wealth, but, I regret to say, no refinement.’ ”
Julia bit her lip, and her eyes assumed that hard, flinty look which her husband knew so well. “If Clementina marries immense wealth,” she exclaimed, with a half-concealed sneer, “she will become simply insufferable! But what difference can that make in pa’s business affairs ? ”
The answer tingled on Joseph’s tongue: “ Probably he expects Mr. Spelter to indorse a promissory note ” ; but he held it back. “ What I have resolved to do is this,” he said. “ In a day or two—as soon as I can arrange to leave — I shall make a journey to the oil region, and satisfy myself where and what the Amaranth is. Your own practical instincts will tell you, Julia, that this intention of mine must be kept secret, even from your father.”
She leaned her head upon her hand, and appeared to reflect. When she looked up her face had a cheerful, confiding expression.
“ I think you are right,” she then said. “If—if things should not happen to be quite as they are represented, you can secure yourself against any risk — and pa, too — before the others know of it. You will have the inside track ; that is, if there is one. On the other hand, if all is right, pa can easily manage, if some of the others are shaky in their faith, to get their stock at a bargain. I am sure he would have gone out there himself, if his official services were not so important to the government.”
It was a hard task for Joseph to keep his feelings to himself.
“ And now,” she continued, — “ now I know you will agree to a plan of mine, which I was going to propose. Lucy Henderson’s school closes this week, and Mrs. Hopeton tells me she is a little overworked and ailing. It Would hardly help her much to go home, where she could not properly rest, as her father is a hard, avaricious man, who can’t endure idleness, except, I suppose, in a corpse (so these people seem to me). I want to ask Lucy to come here.
I think you always liked her” (here Julia shot a swift, stealthy glance at Joseph), “ and so she will be an agreeable guest for both of us. She shall just rest and grow strong. While you are absent, I shall not seem quite so lonely. You may be gone a week or more, and I shall find the separation very hard to bear even with her company.”
“ Why has Mrs. Hopeton not invited her ? ” Joseph asked.
“ The Hopetons are going to the sea-shore in a few days. She would take Lucy as a guest, but there is one difficulty in the way. She thinks Lucy would accept the trip and the stay there as an act of hospitality, but that she cannot (or thinks she cannot) afford the dresses that would enable her to appear in Mrs. Hopeton’s circle. But it is just as well : I am sure Lucy would feel more at home here.”
“ Then by all means ask her ! ” said Joseph. “ Lucy Henderson is a noble girl, for she has forced a true-hearted man to love her, without return.”
“ Ind-e-e-d ! ”
Julia’s drawl denoted surprise and curiosity, but Joseph felt that once more he had spoken too quickly. He endeavored to cover his mistake by a hearty acquiescence in the plan, which was speedily arranged between them, in all its details, Lucy’s consent being taken for granted.
It required, however, the extreme of Julia’s powers of disguise, aided by Joseph’s frank and hearty words and Mrs. Hopeton’s influence, to induce Lucy to accept the invitation. Unable to explain wholly to herself, much less mention to any other, the instinct which held her back, she found herself, finally, placed in a false position, and then resolved to blindly trust that she was doing right, inasmuch as she could not make it clear that she was doing wrong. Her decision once taken, she forcibly banished all misgivings, and determined to find nothing but a cheerful and restful holiday before her.
And, indeed, the first day or two of her residence at the farm, before Joseph’s departure, brought her a more agreeable experience than she had imagined. Both host and hostess were busy, the latter in the household and the former in the fields, and when they met at meals or in the evening, her presence was an element which compelled an appearance of harmony. She was surprised to find so quiet and ordered a life in two persons whom she had imagined to be miserably unfitted for each other, and began to suspect that she had been seriously mistaken.
After Joseph left, the two women were much together. Julia insisted that she should do nothing, and amiably protested at first against Lucy giving her so much of her society; but, little by little, the companionship was extended and became more frank and intimate. Lucy was in a charitable mood, and found it very easy to fancy that Julia’s character had been favorably affected by the graver duties which had come with her marriage. Indeed, Julia found many indirect ways of hinting as much : she feared she had seemed flighty (perhaps a little shallow) ; looking back upon her past life she could see that such a charge would not be unjust. Her education had been so superficial; all city education of young women was false ; they were taught to consider external appearances, and if they felt a void in their nature which these would not fill, whither could they turn for counsel or knowledge ?
Her face was sad and thoughtful while she so spoke ; but when, shaking her dark curls with a pretty impatience, she would lift her head and ask, with a smile : “ But it is not too late, in my case, is it ? I ’m really an older child, you know,”—Lucy could only answer: “Since you know what you need, it can never be too late. The very fact that you do know, proves that it will be easy for you.”
Then Julia would shake her head again, and say : “ O, you are too kind, Lucy ; you judge my nature by your own.”
When the friendly relation between them had developed a little further, Julia became — though still with a modest reticence — more confiding in relation to Joseph.
“ He is so good, so very, very true and good,” she said, one day, “ that it grieves me, more than I can tell, to be the cause of a little present anxiety of his. As it is only a business matter, some exaggerated report of which you have probably heard (for I know there have been foolish stories afloat in the neighborhood), I have no hesitation about confiding it to you. Perhaps you can advise me how to atone for my error ; for, if it was an error, I fear it cannot be remedied now ; if not, it will be a relief to me to confess it.”
Thereupon she gave a minute history of the Amaranth speculation, omitting the energy of her persuasion with Joseph, and presenting very strongly her father’s view of a sure and splendid success soon to follow. “It was for Joseph’s sake,” she concluded, “ rather than my own, that I advised the investment ; though, knowing his perfect unselfishness, I fear he complied, only for mine. He had guessed already, it seems to me now, that we women like beauty as well as comfort about our lives ; otherwise, he would hardly have undertaken these expensive improvements of our home. But, Lucy, it terrifies me to think that pa and Joseph and I may have been deceived ! The more I shut my mind against the idea, the more it returns to torment me. I, who brought so little to him, to be the instrument of such a loss ! O, if you were not here, how could I endure the anxiety and the absence ?”
She buried her face in her handkerchief, and sobbed.
“ I know Joseph to be good and true,” said Lucy, “ and I believe that he will bear the loss cheerfully, if it should come. But it is never good to ' borrow trouble,’ as we say in the country. Neither the worst nor the best things which we imagine ever come upon us.”
“You are wrong ! ” cried Julia, starting up and laughing gleefully ; “ I have the best thing, in my husband ! And yet, you are right, too : no worst thing can come to me, while I keep him ! ”
Lucy wished to visit the Hopetons before their departure for the sea-shore, and Julia was quite ready to accompany her. Only, with the wilfulness common to all selfish natures, she determined to arrange the matter in her own way. She drove away alone the next morning to the post-office, with a letter for Joseph, but never drew rein until she had reached Coventry Forge. Philip being absent, she confided to Madeline Held her wish (and Lucy’s) that they should all spend an afternoon together, on the banks of the stream, — a free society in the open air instead of a formal one within doors. Madeline entered into the plan with joyous readiness, accepting both for herself and for Philip. They all met together too rarely, she said : a lunch or a tea under the trees would be delightful : there was a little skiff which might be borrowed, and they might even catch and cook their own fish, as the most respectable people did in the Adirondacks.
Julia then drove to the Hopetons in high spirits. Mr. Hopeton found the proposed party very pleasant, and said at once to his wife : “ We have still three days, my dear : we can easily spare to-morrow ? ”
“ Mrs. Asten is very kind,” she replied ; “and her proposition is tempting: but I should not like to go without you, and I thought your business might — ”
“ O, there is nothing pressing,” he interrupted. “ I shall enjoy it exceedingly, especially the boat, and the chance of landing a few trout.”
So it was settled. Lucy, it is true, felt a dissatisfaction which she could scarcely conceal, and possibly did not, to Julia’s eyes ; but it was not for her own sake. She must seem grateful for a courtesy meant to favor both herself and her friend, and a little reflection reconciled her to the plan. Mrs. Hopeton dared not avoid Philip Held, and it might be well if she carried away with her to the sea-shore a later and less alarming memory of him. Lucy’s own desire for a quiet talk with the woman in whom she felt such a loving interest was of no consequence, if this were the result.
They met in the afternoon, on the eastern side of the stream, just below the Forge, where a little bay of level shore, shaded by superb trees, was left between the rocky bluffs. Stumps and a long-fallen trunk furnished them with rough tables and seats ; there was a natural fireplace among some huge, tumbled stones ; a spring of icy crystal gushed out from the foot of the bluff; and the shimmering, murmuring water in front, with the meadows beyond burning like emerald flame in the sunshine, offered a constant delight to the senses.
All were enchanted with the spot, which Philip and Madeline claimed as their discovery. The gypsy spirit awoke in them, and, while they scattered here and there possessed with the influences of the place, and constantly stumbling upon some new charm or convenience, Lucy felt her heart grow light for her friend, and the trouble of her own life subside. For a time no one seemed to think of anything but the material arrangements. Mr. Hopeton’s wineflasks were laid in the spring to cool ; Philip improvised a rustic table upon two neighboring stumps ; rough seats were made comfortable, dry sticks collected for fire-wood, stores unpacked and placed in readiness, and every little preliminary of labor, insufferable in a kitchen, took on its usual fascination in that sylvan nook.
Then they rested from their work. Mr. Hopeton and Philip lighted cigars and sat to windward, while the four ladies kept their fingers busy with bunches of maiden-hair and faint wildwood blossoms, as they talked. It really seemed as if a peace and joy from beyond their lives had fallen upon them. Madeline believed so, and Lucy hoped so; let us hope so, too, and not lift at once the veil which was folded so closely over two restless hearts !
Mr. Hopeton threw away the stump of his cigar, adjusted his fishing-tackle, and said : “If we are to have a trout supper, I must begin to troll at once.”
“ May I go with you ? ” his wife asked.
“Yes,” he answered, smiling, “if you will not be nervous. But I hardly need to make that stipulation with you, Emily.”
Philip assisted her into the unsteady little craft, which was fastened to a tree. Mr. Hopeton seated himself carefully, took the two light, short oars, and held himself from the shore, while Philip loosened the rope.
“ I shall row up stream,” he said, “ and then float back to you, trolling as I come. When I see you again, I hope I can ask you to have the coals ready.”
Slowly, and not very skilfully, he worked his way against the current, and passed out of sight around a bend in the stream. Philip watched Mrs. Hopeton’s slender figure as she sat in the stern, listlessly trailing one hand in the water. “ Does she feel that my eyes, my thoughts, are following her?” he asked; but she did not once turn her head.
“Philip!” cried Madeline, “here are three forlorn maidens, and you the only Sir Isumbras, or whoever is the proper knight! Are you looking into the stream, expecting, the 'damp woman’ to arise? She only rises for fishermen : she will come up and drag Mr. Hopeton down. Let me invoke the real nymph of this stream ! ” She sang: —
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair;
Listen for dear honor’s sake,
Goddess of the silver lake,
Listen and save ! ”
Madeline did not know what she was doing. She could not remark Philip’s paleness in the dim green light where they sat, but she was struck by the startled expression of his eyes.
“ One would think you really expected Sabrina to come,” she laughed. “ Miss Henderson, too, looks as if I had frightened her. You and I, Mrs. Asten, are the only cool, unimaginative brains in the party. But perhaps it was all owing to my poor voice ? Come now, confess it ! I don’t expect you to say, —
Breathe such divine, enchanting ravishment?’”
“ I was trying to place the song,” said Lucy ; “ I read it once.”
“ If any one could evoke a spirit, Madeline,” Philip replied, “ it would be you. But the spirit would be no nymph ; it would have little horns and hoofs, and you would be glad to get rid of it again.”
They all laughed at this, and presently, at Julia’s suggestion, arranged the wood they had collected, and kindled a fire. It required a little time and patience to secure a strong blaze, and in the great interest which the task called forth the Hopetons were forgotten.
At last Philip stepped back, heated and half stifled, for a breath of fresher air, and, turning, saw the boat between the trees gliding down the stream. “ There they are ! ” he cried ; “ now, to know our luck ! ”
The boat was in midstream, not far from a stony strip which rose above the water. Mrs. Hopeton sat musing with her hands in her lap, while her husband, resting on his knees and one hand, leaned over the bow, watching the fly which trailed at the end of his line. He seemed to be quite unconscious that an oar, which had slowly loosened itself from the lock, was floating away behind the boat.
“ You are losing your oars ! ” Philip cried.
Mr. Hopeton started, as from a dream of trout, dropped his line and stretched forward suddenly to grasp the oar. The skiff was too light and unbalanced to support the motion. It rocked threateningly; Mrs. Hopeton, quite forgetting herself, started to her feet, and, instantly losing her equilibrium, was thrown headlong into the deeper water. The skiff whirled back, turned over, and before Mr. Hopeton was aware of what had happened, he plunged full length face downwards into the shallower current.
It was all over before Madeline and Lucy reached the bank, and Philip was already in the stream. A few strokes brought him to Mrs. Hopeton, who struggled with the current as she rose to the surface, but made no outcry. No sooner had she touched Philip than she seized and locked him in her arms, and he was dragged down again with her. It was only the physical clinging to life : if some feeble recognition at that moment told her whose was the form she held and made powerless, it could not have abated an atom of her frantic, instinctive force.
Philip felt that they had drifted into water beyond his depth. With great exertion he freed his right arm and sustained himself and her a moment at the surface. Mrs. Hopeton’s head was on his shoulder; her hair drifted against his face, and even the desperation of the struggle could not make him insensible to the warmth of her breast upon his own. A wild thought flashed upon and stung his brain : she was his at last, — his in death, if not in life!
His arm slackened, and they sank slowly together. Heart and brain were illuminated with blinding light, and the swift succession of his thoughts compressed an age into the fragment of a second. Yes, she was his now : clasping him as he clasped, their hearts beating against each other, with ever slower pulsations, until they should freeze into one. The world, with its wrongs and prejudices, lay behind them ; the past was past, and only a short and painless atonement intervened between the immortal possession of souls ! Better that it should end thus : he had not sought this solution, but he would not thrust it from him. But, even as his mind accepted it, and with a sense of perfect peace, he heard Joseph’s voice, saying, “ We must shape our lives according to the law which is above, not that which is below us.” Through the air and the water, on the very rock which now overhung his head, he again saw Joseph bending, and himself creeping towards him with outstretched hand. Ha ! who was the coward, now ? And again Joseph spake, and his words were : “The very wrong that has come upon us makes God necessary.” God ? Then how would God in his wisdom fashion their future life ? Must they sweep eternally, locked in an unsevering embrace, like Paolo and Francesca, around some dreary circle of Hell ? Or must the manner of entering that life together be the act to separate them eternally? Only the inevitable act dare ask for pardon ; but here, if not will or purpose, was at least submission without resistance ! Then it seemed to him that Madeline’s voice came again to him, ringing like a trumpet through the waters, as she sang : —
Goddess of the silver lak
Listen and save ! ”
He pressed his lips to Mrs. Hopeton’s unconscious brow, his heart saying, “ Never, never again ! ” released himself by a sudden, powerful effort, seized her safely, as a practised swimmer, shot into light and air, and made for the shallower side of the stream. The upturned skiff was now within reach, and all danger was over.
Who could guess that the crisis of a soul had been reached and passed in that breath of time under the surface ? Julia’s long, shrill scream had scarcely come to an end ; Mr. Hopeton, bewildered by his fall, was trying to run towards them through water up to his waist, and Lucy and Madeline looked on, holding their breath in an agony of suspense. In another moment Philip touched bottom, and raising Mrs. Hopeton in his arms, carried her to the opposite bank.
She was faint and stunned, but not unconscious. She passively allowed Philip to support her until Mr. Hopeton, struggling through the shallows, drew near with an expression of intense terror and concern on his broad face. Then, breaking from Philip, she half fell, half flung herself into his arms, laid her head upon his shoulder, and burst into a fit of hysterical weeping.
Tears began to run down the honest man’s cheeks, and Philip, turning away, busied himself with righting the boat and recovering the oars.
“ O my darling ! ” said Mr. Hopeton, “ what should I do if I had lost you ? ”
“ Hold me, keep me, love me ! ” she cried. “ I must not leave you ! ”
He held her in his arms, he kissed her, he soothed her with endearing words. She grew calm, lifted her head, and looked in his eyes with a light which he had never yet seen in them. The man’s nature was moved and stirred : his lips trembled and the tears still slowly trickled from his eyes.
“ Let me set you over! ” Philip called from the stream. “ The boat is wet, but then, neither of us are dry. We have, fortunately, a good fire until the carriage can be brought for Mrs. Hopeton, and your wine will be needed at once.”
They had no trout, nor indeed any refreshment, except the wine. Philip tried to rally the spirits of the party, but Julia was the only one who at all seconded his efforts : the others had been too profoundly agitated. Mr. and Mrs. Hopeton were grave ; it seemed scarcely possible for them to speak, and yet, as Lucy remarked with amazement, the faces of both were bright and serene.
“ I shall never invoke another waternymph,” said Madeline, as they were leaving the spot.
“ Yes ! ” Philip cried, “ always invoke Sabrina, and the daughter of Locrine will arise for you, as she arose to-day.”
“ That is, not at all ? ”
“No,” said Philip, “she arose.”
WHEN he set forth upon his journey, Joseph had enough of natural shrewdness to perceive that his own personal interest in the speculation were better kept secret. The position of the Amaranth property, inserted like a wedge between the Fluke and Chowder Companies, was all the geography he needed ; and he determined to assume the character of a curious traveller, — at least for a day or two, — to keep his eyes and ears open, and learn as much as might be possible to one outside the concentric “ rings ” of oil operations.
He reached Corry without adventure, and took passage in the train to Oil City, intending to make the latter place the starting-point of his investigations. The car was crowded, and his companion on the seat was a keen, witty, redfaced man, with an astonishing diamond pin and a gold watch - chain heavy enough to lift an anchor. He was too restless, too full of “operative ” energy, to travel in silence, as is the universal and most dismal American habit; and before they passed three stations he had extracted from Joseph the facts that he was a stranger, that he intended visiting the principal wells, and that he might possibly (Joseph allowing the latter point to be inferred) be tempted to invest something, if the aspects were propitious.
“ You must be sure to take a look at my wells,” said the stranger; “not that any of our stock is in the market, — it is never offered to the public, unless accidentally, — but they will give you an illustration of the magnitude of the business. All wells, you know, sink after a while to what some people call the normal flowing capacity (we oilers call it ‘ the everidge run ’), and so it was reported of ourn. But since we’ve begun to torpedo them, it’s almost equal to the first tapping, though I don’t suppose it ’ll hold out so long.”
“ Are the torpedoes generally used ? ” Joseph asked, in some surprise.
“ They ’re generally tried, anyhow. The cute fellow who first hit upon the idea meant to keep it dark, but the oilers, you’ll find, have got their teeth skinned, and what they can’t find out is n’t worth finding out! Lord ! I torpedoed my wells at midnight, and it was n’t a week before the Fluke was at it, bustin’ and bustin’ all their dry auger-holes ! ”
“The what!” Joseph exclaimed.
“ Fluke. Queer name, is n’t it? But that’s nothing : we have the Crinoli, the Pipsissaway, the Mud-Lark, and the Sunburst, between us and Tideoute.”
“ What is the name of your company, if I may ask ? ”
“ About as queer as any of ’em, — the Chowder.”
Joseph started, in spite of himself. “It seems to me I have heard of that company,” he managed to say.
“ O no doubt,” replied the stranger. “’T is n’t often quoted in the papers, but it’s known. I’m rather proud of it, for I got it up. I was boring — boss, though — at three dollars a day, two years ago, and now I have my forty thousand a year, ‘free of income tax,’ as the Insurance Companies say. But then, where one is lucky like the Chowder, a hundred busts.”
Joseph rapidly collected himself, while the man was speaking. “ I should very much like to see your wells,” he said. “ Will you be there in a day or two from now ? My name is Asten, — not that you have ever heard of it before.”
“ Shall be glad to hear it again, though, and to see you,” said the man. “ My name is Blenkinsop.”
Again it was all that Joseph could do to restrain his astonishment.
“ I suppose you are the President of the Chowder ? ” he ventured to say.
“Yes,” Mr. Blenkinsop answered, “since it’s a company. It was all mine at the start, but I wanted capital, and I had to work ’em.”
“What other important companies are there near you ?”
“ None of any account, except the Fluke and the Depravity. They flow tolerable now, after torpedoing. To be sure, there are kites and catches with all sorts o’ names, — the Pennyroyal, the Ruby, the Wallholler (whatever that is), and the Amaranth, — ha, ha ! ”
“ I think I have heard of the Amaranth,” Joseph mildly remarked.
“ Lord ! are you bit, already ? ” Mr. Blenkinsop exclaimed, fixing his small, sharp eyes on Joseph’s face.
“I — I really don’t know what you mean.”
“No offence: I thought it likely, that’s all. The Amaranth is Kanuck’s last dodge. He keeps mighty close, but if he don’t feather his nest in a hurry, at somebody’s expense, I ain’t no judge o’ men ! ”
Joseph did not dare to mention the Amaranth again. He parted with Mr. Blenkinsop at Tarr Farm, and went on to Oil City, where he spent a day in unprofitable wanderings, and then set out up the river, first to seek the Chowder wells, and afterwards to ascertain whether there was any perennial beauty in the Amaranth.
The first thing which he remarked was the peculiar topography of the region. The Chowder property was a sloping bottom, gradually rising from the river to a range of high hills a quarter of a mile in the rear. Just above this point the river made a sharp horseshoe bend, washing the foot of the hills for a considerable distance, and then curving back again, with a second tract of bottom-land beyond. On the latter, he was informed, the Fluke wells were located. The inference was therefore irresistible that the Amaranth Company must be the happy possessor of the lofty section of hills dividing the two.
“Do they get oil up there?” he asked of Blenkinsop’s foreman, pointing to the ragged, barren heights.
“ They may get skunk oil, or rattlesnake oil,” the man answered. “ Them ’ll do to peddle, but you can’t fill tanks with ’em. I hear they’ve got a company for that place, — th’ Amaranth, they call it, — but any place ’ll do for derned fools. Why, look ’ee here ! We’ve got seven hundred feet to bore: now, jest put twelve hundred more atop o’ that, and guess whether they can even pump oil, with the Chowder and Fluke both sides of ’em ! But it does for green ’uns, as well as any other place.”
Joseph laughed, —a most feeble, unnatural, ridiculous laugh.
“ I ’ll walk over, that way, to the Fluke,” he said. “ I should like to see how such things are managed.”
“ Then be a little on your guard with Kanuck, if you meet him,” the man good-naturedly advised. “ Don’t ask him too many questions.”
It was a hot, wearisome climb to the timber-skeletons on the summit (more like gibbets than anything else), which denoted shafts to the initiated as well as the ignorant eye. There were a dozen or more, but all were deserted.
Joseph wandered from one to the other, asking himself, as he inspected each, “ Is this the splendid speculation ?” What was there in that miserable, shabby, stony region, a hundred acres of which would hardly pasture a cow, whence wealth should come ? Verily, as stony and as barren were the natures of the men, who on this wretched basis built their cheating schemes !
A little farther on he came to a deep ravine, cleaving the hills in twain. There was another skeleton in its bed, but several shabby individuals were gathered about it, — the first sign of life or business he had yet discovered.
He hastened down the steep declivity, the warning of the Chowder foreman recurring to his mind, yet it seemed so difficult to fix his policy in advance that he decided to leave everything to chance. As he approached he saw that the men were laborers, with the exception of a tall, lean individual, who looked like an unfortunate clergyman. He had a sallow face, lighted by small, restless, fiery eyes, which reminded Joseph, when they turned upon him, of those of a black snake. His greeting was cold and constrained, and his manner said plainly, “ The sooner you leave, the better I shall be satisfied.”
“This is a rough country for walking,” said Joseph ; “ how much farther is it to the Fluke wells ? ”
“Just a bit,” said one of the workmen.
Joseph took a seat on a stone, with the air of one who needed rest. “ This well, I suppose,” he remarked, “belongs to the Amaranth ?”
“ Who told you so ? ” asked the lean, dark man.
“ They said, below at the Chowder, that the Amaranth was up here.”
“ Did Blenkinsop send you this way ?” the man asked again.
“ Nobody sent me,” Joseph replied. “ I am a stranger, taking a look at the oil country. I have never before been in this part of the State.”
“ May I ask your name ? ”
“ Asten,” said Joseph, unthinkingly.
“ Asten ! I think I know where that
name belongs. Let me see.”
The man pulled out a large dirty envelope from his breast-pocket, ran over several papers, unfolded one, and presently asked,—
“ Joseph Asten ? ”
“Yes.” (Joseph set his teeth, and silently cursed his want of forethought.)
“ Proprietor of ten thousand dollars’ worth of stock in the Amaranth ! Who sent you here ? ”
His tone, though meant to be calm, was fierce and menacing. Joseph rose, scanned the faces of the workmen, who listened with a malicious curiosity, and finally answered with a candor which seemed to impress, while it evidently disappointed the questioner: —
“ No one sent me, and no one, beyond my own family, knows that I am here. I am a farmer, not a speculator. I was induced to take the stock from representations which have not been fulfilled, and which, I am now convinced, never will be fulfilled. My habit is, when I cannot get the truth from others, to ascertain it for myself. I presume you are Mr. Kanuck ? ”
The man did not answer immediately, but the quick, intelligent glance of one of the workmen showed Joseph that his surmise was correct. Mr. Kanuck conversed apart with the men, apparently giving private orders, and then said, with a constrained civility: —
“ If you are bound for the Fluke, Mr. Asten, I will join you. I am also going in that direction, and we can talk on the way.”
They toiled up the opposite side of the ravine in silence. When they had reached the top and taken breath, Mr. Kanuck commenced : —
“ I must infer that you have little faith in anything being realized from the Amaranth. Any man, ignorant of the technicalities of boring, might be discouraged by the external appearance of things ; and I shall therefore not endeavor to explain to you my grounds of hope, unless you will agree to join me for a month or two and become practically acquainted with the locality and the modes of labor.”
“ That is unnecessary,” Joseph replied.
“You being a farmer, of course I could not expect it. On the other hand, I think I can appreciate your,— disappointment, if we must call it so, — and I should be willing, under certain conditions, to save you, not from positive loss, because I do not admit the possibility of that, but from what, at present, may seem loss to you. Do I make my meaning clear ? ”
“ Entirely,” Joseph replied, “except as to the conditions.”
“ We are dealing on the square, I take it ? ”
“ Then,” said Mr. Kanuck, “ I need only intimate to you how important it is that I should develop our prospects. To do this, the faith of the principal stockholders must not be disturbed, otherwise the funds without which the prospects cannot be developed may fail me at the critical moment. Your hasty and unintelligent impressions, if expressed in a reckless manner, might do much to bring about such a catastrophe. I must therefore stipulate that you keep such impressions to yourself. Let me speak to you, as man to man, and ask you if your expressions, not being founded on knowledge, would be honest ? So far from it, yon will be bound, in all fairness, in consideration of my releasing you and restoring you what you have ventured, to adopt and disseminate the views of an expert, —namely, mine.”
“ Let me put it into fewer words,” said Joseph. “You will buy my stock, repaying me what I have disbursed, if, on my return, I say nothing of what I have seen, and express my perfect faith (adopting your views) in the success of the Amaranth ? ”
“ You have stated the conditions a little barely, perhaps, but not incorrectly. I only ask for perfect fairness, as between man and man.”
“ One question, first, Mr. Kanuck. Does Mr. Blessing know the real prospects of the Amaranth ? ”
“No man more thoroughly, I assure you, Mr. Asten. Indeed, without Mr. Blessing’s enthusiastic concurrence in the enterprise, I doubt whether we could have carried the work so far towards success. His own stock, I may say to you, — since we understand each other, — was earned by his efforts. If you know him intimately, you know also that he has no visible means of support. But he has what is much more important to us, — a thorough knowledge of men and their means.”
He rubbed his hands, and laughed softly. They had been walking rapidly during the conversation, and now came suddenly upon the farthest crest of the hills, where the ridge fell away to the bottom occupied by the Fluke wells. Both paused at this point.
“ On the square, then ! ” said Mr. Kanuck, offering his hand. “Tell me where you will be to-morrow morning, and our business can be settled in five minutes. You will carry out your part of the bargain, as man to man, when you find that I carry out mine.”
“ Do you take me for an infernal scoundrel ? ” cried Joseph, boiling over with disgust and rage.
Mr. Kanuck stepped back a pace or two. His sallow face became livid, and there was murder in his eyes. He put his hand into his breast, and Joseph, facing him, involuntarily did the same. Not until long afterwards, when other experiences had taught him the significance of the movement, did he remember what it then meant.
“ So ! that ’s your game, is it ? ” his antagonist said, hissing the words through his teeth. “ A spy, after all ! Or a detective, perhaps ? I was a fool to trust a milk-and-water face : but one thing I tell you, — you may get away, but come back again if you dare ! ”
Joseph said nothing, but gazed steadily in the man’s eyes, and did not move from his position so long as he was within sight. Then, breathing deeply, as if relieved from the dread of an unknown danger, he swiftly descended the hill.
That evening, as he sat in the barroom of a horrible shanty (called a hotel), farther up the river, he noticed a pair of eyes fixed intently upon him : they belonged to one of the workmen in the Amaranth ravine. The man made an almost imperceptible signal, and left the room. Joseph followed him.
“ Hush ! ” whispered the former. “ Don’t come back to the hill ; and get away from here to-morrow morning, if you can ! ” with these words he darted off and disappeared in the darkness.
The counsel was unnecessary. Joseph, with all his inexperience of the world, saw plainly that his only alternatives were loss — or connivance. Nothing was to be gained by following the vile business any further. He took the earliest possible train, and by the afternoon of the following day found himself again in the city.
He was conscious of no desire to meet Mr. Blessing, yet the pressure of his recent experience seemed to drive him irresistibly in that direction. When he rang the bell, it was with the hope that he should find nobody at home. Mr. Blessing, however, answered the summons, and after the first expression of surprise ushered him into the parlor.
“ I am quite alone,” he said ; “Mrs. Blessing is passing the evening with her sister, Mrs. Woollish, and Clementina is still at Long Branch. I believe it is as good as settled that we are to lose her ; at least, she has written to inquire the extent of my available funds, which, in her case is tantamount to — very much more.”
Joseph determined to avoid all digressions, and insist on the Amaranth speculation, once for all, being clearly discussed. He saw that his fatherin-law became more uneasy and excited as he advanced in the story of his journey, and, when it was concluded, did not seem immediately prepared to reply. His suspicions, already aroused by Mr. Kanuck’s expressions, were confirmed, and a hard, relentless feeling of hostility took possession of his heart.
“I—I really must look into this,” Mr. Blessing stammered, at last. “It seems incredible : pardon me, but I would doubt the statements, did they come from other lips than yours. It is as if I had nursed a dove in my bosom, and unexpectedly found it to be a — a basilisk ! ”
“ It can be no serious loss to you,” said Joseph, “ since you received your stock in return for services.”
“ That is true: I was not thinking of myself. The real sting of the cockatrice is, that I have innocently misled you.”
“ Yet I understood you to say that you had ventured your all ? ”
“My All of hope — my All of expectation ! ” Mr, Blessing cried. “ I dreamed I had overtaken the rainbow at last ; but this — this is senna — quassia — aloes ! My nature is so confiding that I accept the possibilities of the future as present realities, and build upon them as if they were Quincy granite. And yet, with all my experience, my acknowledged sagacity, my acquaintance with the hidden labyrinths of finance, it seems impossible that I can be so deceived ! There must be some hideous misunderstanding : I have calculated all the elements, prognosticated all the planetary aspects, so to speak, and have not found a whisper of failure ! ”
“ You omitted one very important element,” Joseph said.
“ What is that ? I might have employed a detective, it is true — ”
“No!” Joseph replied. “Honesty ! ”
Mr. Blessing fell back in his chair, weeping bitterly.
“ I deserve this ! ” he exclaimed. “ I will not resent it. I forgive you in advance of the time when you shall recognize my sincere, my heartfelt wish to serve you ! Go, go : let me not recriminate ! I meant to be, and still mean to be, your friend : but spare my too confiding child ! ”
Without a word of good by, Joseph took his hat and hastened from the house. At every step the abyss of dishonesty seemed to open deeper before his feet. Spare the too confiding child ! Father and daughter were alike: both mean, both treacherous, both unpardonably false to him.
With such feelings he left the city, next morning, and made his way homewards.