ON a corner of the village street smirked the smart little white frame-house of Dr. Davidson, a house to look at twice. It was built in the Grecian style, — a style to make the old Athenian architects wince in their sepulchres. It had its porch supported by alternate square and round pillars, and its pediment adorned with the finest devices of H. Billings, carpenter. In that pretentious small abode dwelt the least pretentious man in Churchill, Dr. Davidson, dentist, and his wife and their six children, the eldest of whom was Barbara.
She, Barbara, was standing, toward the close of an autumn day, in the centre of the best room of the house, a room in which taste was continually at work checking the forwardness of poverty, and rebuking the inroads of time, when her brother entered, and crossing the floor with three strides sat down at the piano, and, laying his hands noiselessly on the keys, looked at her. The mood of the moment it appeared was quite too strong for her. She seemed not to have noticed his entrance, and was not under the least apprehension, as usually she was, that his assaults on the instrument would require the services of a tuner on the morrow. As if to avoid the necessity of looking at or speaking to him, she walked to the window and gazed outward on the street.
What did she see ? Familiar objects which she had looked at ever since she was born. Opposite, the white framechurch with its square tower built in Gothic style, —Goth looking down on Greek ! Next it the parsonage ; and then, white houses, yards, and trees, with here and there a trace of summer’s bloom. A prospect pleasant, chiefly because of its peaceful signs of neighbors, friendship, and good-will. How many people crazed with city toils, chagrins, and noises would have hailed the sign of final escape into such a street and neighborhood ! Barbara looking forth over the scene sighed with deep dissatisfaction. There must be many mansions, if at last all are to feel at home.
While she stood and gazed at the lowly-minded brown sparrows and the serene doves pecking on the sidewalk, the youth at the piano felt moved to break the silence. He did so with a kind of violence.
“ Don’t you see you can’t take and polish ’em as you would a lot of tin pans ! Where would be the good of brightening up the outside only ? They ’re live things,” said he.
“ That’s just it ! ” she answered in a low voice, half turning toward him. “Assimilation and growth are just what confound me. I can’t live a hundred years, Dick, to see whether the aloe will bloom or not, after all my pains. And I don’t want to die without the sight.”
“Jupiter Olympicus ! will you go crazy over those trundle-bed folks? They ’ll never thank you.”
“O Dick, don’t talk! If I only knew anything ! I am so disappointed ! But I can be honest: I have just proved that to myself. I have sent Jane Spingler to Professor Jay. He can teach her thorough-bass, and she ought to learn it.”
The eyes which it had seemed just now might fill with tears in a moment brightened here, and an expression half triumphant appeared on Barbara’s face. As she kept that face resolutely toward the window, however, perhaps for this very reason that Dick might not witness her varying emotions, he had only his ear to guide him in reply, — his ear and his boy-spirit.
“ What did I tell you ages ago !” he exclaimed. “ You would teach, in spite of everybody.”
“Has mother ever objected? or father ? ”
“ Poor father and mother know how little would be gained by talking.”
“ Perhaps they feel there’s a need of helpers in this house.”
At this remark, dryly uttered, Master Dick, just seventeen, three years younger than his sister Barbara, and a great deal wiser than Solon, turned toward the front window also to look out on the narrow street, which induced her suddenly to take up a tattered sheet of music and bestow upon it her serious attention. Then he sighed inwardly, impatiently, as she.
O, for a man’s work and a man’s salary ! he thought. The few dollars for which Barbara was exchanging her time and her life, how pitiful, how disgusting ! Everything, in fact, was in these days disgusting to the eager young red-head. He had the utmost admiration for his sister, and that her life should be annoyed, her conscience afflicted by duties and her own shortcoming in performing them, troubled his affectionate, proud heart. He knew what it must have cost her to give up her best pupil, and he weakly wished that Jane Spingler had “ hung on,” in spite of Barbara’s conscience. He could see, though, that Barbara had done the honorable thing. And that was the worst of it ; in every dispute he perceived that the ground she took was the ground that must be taken. He knew that with six children in a house to be fed and clothed, and four of them yet to be educated, there was need of help from some quarter ; and since those two young dentists had come to Churchill, bringing with them all modern improvements in their art to set young people agog, the father’s income could not be expected to increase. Barbara had done the thing she must do when she began to teach the little she had learned in music. But it would be a long time before poor Dick would grow into the strength which generously acquiesces when, with all its valor, it is not able to overcome.
Standing by the window and watching the leaves borne past on clouds of dust, ignominiously yielding to the fate which had overtaken them at last after the long summer’s pride and beauty, the youth suddenly recollected the letter in his pocket.
“ Oh ! ” he said, “ you have had a fortune left you, I guess ; here is something for you.”
“From old Uncle Joshua!” said Barbara at once ; and she looked at the seal as if Destiny might really be concealed within.
“ If he wants you at the Mills, you ’ll go, of course,” said Dick. “ You will feel that you have a call, and we will fit you out and send you as a missionary. Then you will have done with this beastly whim of teaching.”
“ If anybody wants me anywhere,” began Barbara, speaking very quickly; then she checked herself, and Dick was satisfied because she looked a little less like grief and a good deal more like indignation. Anything but the sign of sorrow or of sad perplexity upon his sister’s handsome face.
Destiny, perchance, was in the letter. The contents were at least serious enough to demand a family consultation ; and the result of the consultation was a decision on the part of Dr. and Mrs. Davidson that their eldest daughter must give up her school and music teaching, and go forthwith to the Mills. Aunt Araminta, the wife of Uncle Joshua, the miller, had suddenly fallen into a feeble state of mind and body, and required a housekeeper, companion, nurse ; and in the circle of family relations there was no one beside Barbara who could be called to serve in either capacity.
The decision arrived at, this elect young woman was within a week on her way to Altman’s Mills. O, the mountain of honor which she had aspired to climb ! O, the valley of obscurity into which she was descending ! Yet her mood on the whole was joyful. She was going to earn her living, and no pretences were required. She could perform the work which she engaged to do. How many times she went over the programme which common sense, aided slightly by imagination, laid out for her, I will not attempt to say. She was to keep her uncle’s house in order ; see that the wheels of domestic economy rolled easily, and that the clock of comfort never ran down. Other and more sorrowful and trying duties might be linked with these, but she would stand on the solid foundation of a willing heart. “ I have had my call,” she said, and she strengthened herself thinking of Abram who went forth from Chaldea. She had a pleasant journey, on the whole, though it was made alone. The country which she passed through was the baldest, brownest, loneliest cast of the great plains, and winter was too evidently coming on ; but all the way she was thinking, “ I shall do my duty, I shall solve the problem. I am twenty years old. If I were father’s son instead of father’s daughter, I should have a trade by this time, and they would look to me for help and lean on me. But never mind, as Dick says, I am going now on a mission, and I did not seek it for myself. I will let myself be led till I can see an inch before me.”
So she journeyed toward the Mills, and at the close of day found her uncle’s nephew, Joseph Altman, waiting for her at the station ; and her courage on arriving was in kind at least like that of Christopher Columbus when he saw floating on the ocean a token from the land.
Joseph had driven to the Kill to meet her; and when she stepped from the car, he knew that she had arrived, because no other passenger walked across the platform ; but he made the circuit of the station office twice, and surveyed her trunk with doubting eves, before he ventured to present himself and answer her question whether any one had inquired for Miss Davidson. So there were persons, it appeared, to whom the coming was of consequence, as well as the arrival.
When Joseph had answered Barbara’s first question, and told her that Aunt Araminta was expecting her, she felt that the right woman might be in the right place at last ; and still more clear was her conviction when she stepped from the old buggy and entered the old stone house, and looked at the old people ; and in the fulness of her secret satisfaction, she thanked God that he had done for her that which would have sent hundreds of girls to water a sleepless pillow with streams of homesick tears.
So alive, so in earnest was she, that she proved nearly incapable of bungling in the home to which she had been called. She had come to do what her relations needed to have done ; above all what they wanted to have done, to please them and to serve them.
“ Don’t dictate; they’re old, they’ll want things their own way,” her mother had said when summing up the parting instructions. “ Araminta always was particular, and you could no more change Uncle Joshua than a weathercock could change the wind.”
“If I find the house upside down, may I turn it right side up ?” Barbara had inquired.
“ Not unless they ask you to do it, child. It is their house, and they ’re old people. Be modest, Barbara, and be patient. I know that I can trust you.”
Barbara meditated on this counsel and encouragement to such good purpose, that having acted on it for a week or two she was rewarded by seeing the anxiety which had fretted the pale face of the old woman removed from among the furrows. The great grief of the miller’s wife, in the days when the grasshopper became a burden to her, had been that strange hands must now be laid upon her household treasures, strange eyes overlook the riches of her closets and her chests, strange feet walk about her milk-room. Full forty years she had reigned in her kitchen : must pots and pans now know another ruler ? Barbara was in the house, but hardly with her aunt’s consent. It was not till she had actually fallen down the cellar-stairs in a fainting fit, that the poor old woman had yielded. And how exceeding hard she found it to cease from work and wait for death ! Yet to have escaped this pang do you think she would have had her recollections of home-life limited to private rooms in a public boarding-house ?
Barbara was in the house indeed, and not merely to be looked at; as time passed on, how shocked Dick would have been, and Barbara’s best pupil, who wrote her such impassioned notes week after week, could they have beheld her in the occupation of her new sphere, an upper and an under servant in her uncle’s family, having nobody to confer with in her manifold perplexities except the “Altman boys.”
Such service as she rendered was in fact not to be shirked. Domestic service in the neighborhood was considered in the highest degree derogatory to the respectability of the free-born American (citizen was going to get itself written down there unawares !). So successfully had the sewing-machine wooed the ready-handed daughters of the Flats, that in all the country round not a girl was to be discovered who would “undertake to do housework” at the Mills.
So there was the washing and ironing, the baking and cooking, to be done, and sharp-eyed criticism in the persons of three men to behold the doing. It is not a little to say that Barbara acquitted herself day after day to the admiration of beholders ; for old Altman had his female pedigree with their achievements at his memory’s end, and Joseph Altman and Bartholomew Bright were, thanks to Aunt Araminta’s training, both critics in their way.
But do not imagine that Barbara stepped easily and with perfect satisfaction into the place she had come to fill, when she perceived its dimensions. When she found what was expected of her, and what she must do if she remained at the Mills, Barbara conferred with herself, according to her custom, and decided that to turn from the plough on which she had laid her hand, merely because the furrows were rough, would be disgraceful and impossible. “ I did not bring myself here,” she said. “ It ’s lonesome, and there is n’t a thing as I expected to find it. But I shall earn my living, and I came because I was wanted.” And she fortified herself by thinking that all the sages from Buddha to Beecher have declared that it is n’t work, but worry, which kills all creation.
So the days came and went; autumn ended, winter set in. Commendation far and near smiled upon our exile. Winter had no terrors for her, and he blessed her in departing. By and by came March; and April, smiling on his bluster, soothed earth into serenity. In May a grave was made in the field, shadowed by elm-trees whose branches drooped, one way, over the waters which turned the miller’s millwheel. Yes, Araminta lived through the autumn and the winter and into the last of the spring months, and now, in blissful June, Barbara had been saying over and over, thirty times at least, as the clock struck seven in the morning, “Just at this moment Aunty breathed her last,” and had felt again the awe of the moment when the silence was broken by a low surprising cry from Joseph, and the miller’s solemn, “ Is it all over with Araminty ? Dear ! dear ! ”
And for thirty days, at least, she had been asking of herself, “ Shall I now go back to Churchill ?”
For the service she had come to render at the Mills was rendered and well rendered, her exacting conscience told her. She had soothed and comforted a poor sick soul on its passage from the earth, and might she not now return to her father’s house, to her old friends, to the pleasant yards and gardens, the young folks and the music, of Churchill ?
Uncle Altman, it was true, seemed to be like a lost child on her hands ; but could any one expect that, for his sake, Barbara would consent to dwell in banishment and servitude, as, without the sufficient explanation of dying Araminta, her own blood relation, in view, her life at the Mills must be regarded ?
Here were “ the boys,” Joseph and Bartholomew; but Joseph certainly stood in need of none of the ordinary sources of human comfort; he could at any moment take up the world on his back and go out in search of other conditions of existence. No sentimental compunctions would ever interfere with the conduct of his life. As to Bartholomew, of whom nobody seemed to take thought, she had certainly no call to consider whether she might be useful to him. Should she, then, go back to Churchill ? Thirty times at least, as I said, the question had come back to Barbara. She was now beginning to feel, with a sense of injury sustained, that the home people ought to decide the question for her. If she had duties, had not they ? Why did they not insist on her coming, instead of saying, as her mother had said in the letter lying in her work-basket a week old now, “ If you think that you are necessary to poor Uncle’s comfort in his loneliness, dear child, we do not object to your staying with him through the summer, as you say that you feel you must.”
She did, of course, see that she must; but then — but then! O, if well-disposed mortals could but widen their sphere and control all circumstances, what a noble exhibit they would make ! Is it true that the race of marble gods and heroes is in no wise to be confounded with the race of men that produced them ? Must the kingdom of heaven still be taken by violence, Barbara ?
At the close of a sultry afternoon on the first of June, she sat in the newly whitewashed sitting-room, thinking her one tiresome, perplexing thought, and moreover of the “ boys.”
The boys somehow compelled her to take thought of them. If Joseph was not a tyrant, it was because out of his elements early training could not develop one ; and if Bartholomew was not an underling, it was for the reason that Nature would not permit him to become one. Barbara did not see that Joseph was a tyrant, perhaps, but that he was “born to rule ” ; Bartholomew, to her observation, did not come under the servile distinction, possibly, but could she help perceiving that if really “crazy on wheels,” as Joseph said and all admitted, the worst place for him was the miller’s house. For there was perpetual antagonism between the young men, and it had perpetual display ; and in every time of conflict the old man kept close to the wall.
Yet why should this antagonism disturb her ? Was this one of the burdens of human nature which the spectator is not merely to behold, but to lift up and bear also on his own shoulders ? Had she a call to become here in her uncle’s house a peacemaker between two lives, neither of which a year ago could have found excuse to hope for a moment’s notice of her ? What good would be accomplished, though she kept on saying forever, “ Poor Bartholomew ” ? Poor Bartholomew ! Was there really anything to pity ? If he did not like the service in which he was engaged, had he not the manliness to leave it ? What though Uncle Joshua did rely upon him for the steady performance of duties, his own and also those that Joseph neglected ; he was not a bond servant, he was of age, he could choose another employer if he wished to do so. Indeed, was it not his duty to look for another ? Barbara had often pondered this question with others, and she now began to see that she might hint to Joseph that possibly the misunderstanding between him and Bartholomew might some day lead to Bartholomew’s departure. Her utmost duty in this direction would then certainly be performed. But it almost took her breath away to think of it. Why ? Because Joseph was Joseph. Then she was afraid of him ? Barbara afraid of Joseph !
The little room in which she sat thinking was a model in its way. It had its corner cupboards, and its high mantle painted blue, its fire-board covered with pretty flowered paper like that on the best room walls, and its handsome striped carpet woven by the hands now folded in their rest. The little square window, opened wide on its hinges, revealed the thickness of the wall of the miller’s “ stun house,” and suggested the summer coolness and winter warmth there which were Mr. Altman’s boast whenever the new house, Araminta’s unfulfilled dream, was talked about. By that window Barbara sat ; through it came the odors of dear old-fashioned flowers ; and with the odors seemed to come the blended hues of clematis and morningglories, white, purple, pink, and blue. The question revolving in her mind was still revolving when, suddenly looking up from her work, Barbara saw Bartholomew approaching the house. To give him an instant’s pleasure she called to him to break a spray of morning-glory vine for her, and stretched her hand through the window to take it.
He smiled as he complied with her wish, laid the vine-branch in her hand, called her attention to the fact that it was covered with buds which would have opened in the morning, and went his way.
A few minutes passed, and there was a sound of voices in the yard and near the window. Barbara looked up again and saw Joseph and Bartholomew together outside. Master and man ? Not quite. Master and master, perhaps. Barbara looked twice, and thought she understood why, when she first came to the house, she had felt an insecurity, a disturbance, which went deeper seeking its cause than the not well-understood duties, and the fact that a dying woman was in her care.
Was it a pitiful thought for the poor flowers cheated of their day that made her go to the shut-up parlor and bring thence the pretty china vase for which Aunt Araminta had exchanged Uncle Joshua’s great-coat three years ago? Surely then she should not have been followed from the darkened room, which was to her as Aunt Araminta’s tomb, by an accusing phantom !
When Bartholomew came in to tea he saw the vine-branch in the centre of the table, saw the china vase, and recognized it as one of Aunt Araminta’s treasures. So did Joseph ; so did the miller. Did Barbara suddenly become conscious that they were all thinking thoughts as her eyes ran round the little circle, and she saw what looked like a shadow on the brown face of giant Joseph, and an unmistakable smile in the pleasant gray eyes of Bartholomew, and the softening light of a tender memory diffusing itself over the old visage, the gray hairs, and the wrinkles of Miller Altman ? Possibly, for she began to talk, and soon had drawn mankind to the consideration of this agitating question, What were the garden’s prospects as long as the hens and chickens were at liberty to go over and under and between the pickets at any hour of the day ?
After tea, when her quick feet and nimble fingers had disposed of the tea things and she sat again by the window and resumed the family mending, — for it was Friday and the week’s washing had been delayed by rains, and industrious hands alone could accomplish the accustomed work by Saturday, — she was all at once seized by an impulse that made her drop her work and hasten from the house. She had heard an irresistible summons, — there was nothing supernatural in it, — the voice of the red light, equal to Alpglow for color, on the wall opposite to her. Time enough, it said, for patching and darning when those lovely tints shall all have perished from the sky, and fields and woods have retired into darkness.
Though it was not an attractive region in which Mr. Altman’s house stood, it had attractive points — to those who could see them. The swift little race on whose banks the mill was built was richly adorned with lily pads above the dam, and, in the season, with beautiful white lilies ; and there were willows below, whose branches touched the waters and were swayed by the swift current, and this made them look as if, were it possible, they would be gay and lively.
Then there was no end of ferns along the shady banks. Barbara knew the path by the stream well ; she had often walked in it, and Nature and she were on the friendliest terms. Going forth from the house now, it was to see her friend in her glory, and the act showed her courteous spirit. But could she find anywhere, in field or wood, a key to old Sphynx Duty’s secret ?
She was walking down the lane, when Bartholomew appeared in the door of the mill. She saw him looking up at the warm blue sky, covered in the west with soft bright pink cloudlets, and in the north and south sustained as it were by pillars of fire; and, before he observed her, she said, “ How divine it can be, even here ! ”
At that Bartholomew looked down.
“ You have a poor opinion of us,” he said. “ We have only the sky and the meadows, but I thought Nature was able to hold her own anywhere.”
A little surprised by the remark, Barbara answered, “ That may be. She makes me feel, though, that I have very little regard for her, sometimes.”
“ Is that when you shut yourself in the back room and give yourself up to mending old clothes ? I wonder you can stand it! ”
“ You do not understand me. When I think of the Peaks all down with fever and ague just because they came into the country to make her acquaintance, that sets me wondering whether Nature is just and kind.”
“ Peak should have known better than to build in a swamp. I might as well take a ride on the mill-wheel in order to learn the action.”
Do not suppose that Bartholomew used this illustration because it was handiest. No ; he wanted, had long wanted, to talk to Barbara about WHEELS, about his wheel, and he had nearly despaired of an opportunity.
The way she answered him brought such a glow into his face that he looked verily transfigured.
“ I want to hear about that wonderful piece of work of yours,” said she. “ You and Joseph have jested about it so often, that I begin to think there is nothing in it.”
What humiliations were buried deep as Herculaneum by these words ! She had not, then, heard and seen the insults ; she had taken all the sharpshooting, cross-firing, tripping up and knocking down which, figuratively speaking, had occurred in the skirmishes between himself and Joseph, merely for jesting !
“ I can’t tell you all I think is in it,” said he. “It would ’nt be very wise.”
“ Why not ? ”
“ I may be mistaken.”
“ Let us take it for granted that you ’re not,” she said, and the speech ran through him like an electric spark, as if “ Your time has come ! ” had flashed through every nerve and fibre of his being.
“ Wait till you see it doing the work of half a dozen ! ” said he, his eyes as bright as they were in the days when he first took to his heart the hope that was now the sole joy of his life.
“ Shall I see it here ? ” she asked. “ Do you think you will find it here ?”
There was that in the question that invited Bartholomew’s confidence. What he had longed to say for weeks, and what he had restrained himself from saying, was now said. “ I want success here, if anywhere on earth. Why have I stayed so long, if not for that ? ”
He had now stepped down from the door of the mill, and they were walking slowly up the lane.
“ Uncle is a magnet strong enough to keep us all here, it seems to me,” said Barbara.
“ I owe a great deal to Mr. Altman,” returned Bartholomew ; “ but I have served him as I would not serve another man. And she was like a mother to me, if I was not as a son to her. But these things perhaps could not keep me, if it was n’t for the wheel. I think so. I am afraid so.”
“ Tell me about the wheel. I am so glad there is something in it.”
“All my life is in it ! ” So the inmost truth escaped him !
“ Why, then I am delighted ! You must set it up and let all the neighborhood see it work. This very summer ! What reason can there be for waiting ? ”
When Barbara had said this, she was aware that she had pronounced a decree, and that she had spoken the first word of good cheer to which Bartholomew had ever been able to respond with all his soul. How did she know it ? Who is it that asks the explanation ?
But he answered gravely, though with not a trace left of his usual despondence either in voice or countenance, “It will cost money, and I have not laid by enough yet. It is slow work, getting ready.”
There was something in his way of saying this that excited in Barbara a feeling not unlike anger. It was not in this way that poor Dick or Joseph would have spoken, even of any unimportant purpose they had formed. Did she like Joseph’s way better? There was certainly nothing like Uriah Heep’s humility in Bartholomew’s careful estimate of his faculties and himself; the modest statement of the fact was as unlike self-depreciation basely proposing to creep into the place of power, as it was unlike Joseph’s defiant demand for the thing he coveted or desired. After a thoughtful pause, out of the sacred treasure-house of stillness came this kind of inspired speech, “ Uncle has money.”
“ A man don’t like to run the risk of losing it for him, though.”
To the ends of the brown locks which fringed the old straw hat he wore, Bartholomew seemed to be glorified when he had made this honest answer.
Barbara reflected again and said, “ Ought there to be any risk ? ”
“ Perhaps not.” When he had said this, Bartholomew in turn was still. Only for a moment; he continued in a way that showed the activity with which his mind was working: “You are quite right. There ought not to be any risk. I thought that I was patient. I must learn to be.”
“ Do you know,” said Barbara, “ I like to hear you say that! I really believe in you.”
“ God bless you ! ”
“ I shall tell Uncle and Joseph what I think about it.”
“ I believed you would work wonders when you came here. That old mill first gave me something to hope for ; that is the reason why I love this country which seems so poor to you.”
Barbara turned and looked at the mill, above which the full moon was rising ; she gazed as if the old red frame-building had not stared her in the face these six months, morning, noon, and night. Was it, too, transfigured ? — by the moonlight ?
“The country does not seem so poor to me,” said she, her voice full of apology.
“ The old things are all dear to me,” he said. “It won’t do for me to turn my back on this country till I ’ve shown I was worth raising.”
“ O, can anybody show that ! ” exclaimed Barbara, laughing. “ But then it may be worth while to try.”
At this Bartholomew looked at her with not a little wonder. Did he understand her aright ? Was it true that anybody besides himself felt dissatisfied with life, and knew what it was to be discouraged out of effort ? And if he did understand her, was this fact one to kindle the warm flame that shot up from his heart and gave light to all that was in his dwelling ? No wonder, perhaps, exceeds this, that in a moment, by a word, one maybecome possessed of the life of another to do with it whatsoever he will. If Bartholomew felt just now a power of will unknown to him before, it was because he felt that Barbara might do with him as it pleased her.
Uncle Joshua, returning from the store where the daily mail was received, now approached them ; and she went back to the house to light the lamp for him, and he sat down according to his nightly custom to read the morning paper, and, moreover, to consider seriously what had been suggested to him when he saw the young people in the lane.
For this old man, remarkable for foresight, was accustomed to consider seriously whatever passed before his eyes, and, even when Joseph interfered with his action, to do his own thinking.
And so, when he found Barbara walking with Bartholomew in the lane by moonlight, he felt compelled to say to Joseph that very evening, “ If you mean to set up for yourself, sir, you will never find anybody likelier than Barbara to make as good a wife as my poor wife made me.”
Joseph hesitated in making an answer ; finally he said, “ Perhaps so.” Not that a doubt lingered in his mind as to the truth of the remark or the force of the suggestion, but a hint as to the conduct he might best pursue was the last thing he desired. It did not now occur to him that it would be kindly to say to the old man what would have expressed a true state of things, “ I have seen it this long time, father.”
“ If you ’ll take my advice,” the miller added, in spite of the slight encouragement he had received, 44 don’t lose any time.”
To avoid further instructions, Joseph now left the room. And the old man, with a sigh which would have surprised himself, had he heard it, turned again to his newspaper.
But though Joseph went beyond the sound of the miller’s voice, he carried with him the thoughts which Altman had expressed in his hearing, and that emphatic glance over his spectacles which the old man had given him when he bade him lose no time.
Joseph had understood the significance of like glances on other occasions. There was something definite in the old man’s thoughts,—a real rival, must not one suppose ?
But what rival could that neighborhood produce ? There was only Bartholomew,— and Bartholomew ! It was an interesting theme, though, for a moment’s speculation, the process that would be best adapted to the restoration of Bart to his senses, if it should happen that his dreaming habit ran in this direction the length of insanity. In this game of Who Wins ? with an imaginary opponent, Joseph was capable of feelings which probably he would have hesitated to demonstrate by deeds. But perhaps not.
After a little excitement, which was by no means disagreeable to him, Joseph called himself to order and perceived that it was only the old man’s cautious way of speaking and acting which had warned him against loss of time. With him always the thing to be done must be done at once.
Still the doubt, though he would not harbor it, gave Joseph a restless night. Morning, however, found him saying to himself that he was rich and Barbara was poor, and he could do as he pleased. Mr. Altman would give him a deed of the mill property to-morrow, if he asked it ; and she was in a sense dependent. In the new house which he would build, his wife would be more at home than she could be, or ought to be, in the old stone dwelling. And she should have servants who could execute the orders she knew so well how to give, even if he were compelled to import them. Barbara was a lady, good-tempered, and handsome. She had only to say “ Yes.” He would speak to her to-morrow.
And as he looked at himself in the glass, why should Joseph doubt ? He had the aspect of a commander. His voice and behavior corresponded with his seventy-five inches. What could not Barbara make of such an abundance of raw material ? A gentleman perhaps. If ever there was mission-ground for a soul in quest of a mission, did not these waste-places furnish it ?
The next day after the miller had spoken to him, Joseph said to Barbara, choosing an hour when she was alone in the house, and busy enough, for it was her baking-day, “ I have been thinking that we shall never know how to get along here without you, Barbara. And I for one have made up my mind not to try it.” That was the way he began ; if a fellow wants a thing, why, let him take it.
But when he had gone so far as to declare his intentions, he unexpectedly met a difficulty, — Barbara herself, looking at him quietly and saying, “ It is n't to be expected that you will live out your life at the Mills, Joseph. So I shall have very little to do with it.”
“ You are mistaken,” said he. “ I have often spoken about going to some other place, but, of course, there is no place for me except the Mills while father lives ; and I do not intend to go away. I would not wish to go as long as you are here ; and I mean to keep you always ! ”
“ You are too kind,” said Barbara. “But do you see how busy I am ? Please go away. I have n’t time to think or talk.”
“ You are never anything else but busy ; I have to take you as I can find you. Take me the same! I am none too good — but—things can’t stay here as they are, always.”
“ No ; there may be an earthquake,” answered she; and if Joseph wished her to consider gravely the words he had spoken, she certainly was looking gravely enough. Her brain had, in fact, served her like a traitor at this important moment. Trying to grasp at this conclusion, “ Go your way and I will go mine,” she found all her powers of thought and of will shaken as in a kaleidoscope, and lo ! presented before her for consideration were Dick and all the children, her father and mother, and the decay of old-fashioned dentistry in Churchill!
“It is not the fair way to answer a man,” said Joseph, after a brief pause, doubting whether he understood the force of the earthquake suggestion, and half offended. “ I don’t know how to talk with you about it, but I wish I could make you see that you might be happy as my wife, here at the Mills.” Then he gathered courage and spoke in a way not suggestive of diffidence, or fear of his intentions with regard to the new house and the new mill. It should never be asked of his wife, he said, to spend her days in such labors as had kept his mother in the kitchen and cellar, year in, year out, all her life. He knew that Barbara had not been accustomed to that way of living until she came to their house, and he did n’t feel it was right to allow her to keep on. He had already gone up and down the country in search of help, in vain, but he did not intend to stop looking till he found what was needed.
“ Why,” said Barbara, when he stopped speaking, “as to what I am doing to make Uncle comfortable, I don’t consider it anything. Don’t trouble yourself further. I had no idea you were disturbed about it.”
“ You are not going to keep on here as our servant,” said he ; “ I won’t permit it.”
“ I have never thought of myself in that light,” returned Barbara. “ I am staying for Uncle’s sake. Please to see that, Joseph. When I ask for wages, it will be time to talk about service.”
Poor Joseph now sat down at his wits’ end. What could he say to conclude this business as he had decided it must be concluded. The fact was, if he could have seen it, he stood on vantage-ground, and had powerful invisible advocates. If persuasion had ever learned to sit upon his tongue ! But as he saw it, command was his best argument, and surrender her best wisdom.
After he had sat silent awhile he arose and left the room ; going out he stopped a moment and looked at Barbara. He did not speak. She did not lift her eyes ; but as he went his ways, he began to persuade himself that, if he could have spoken, he would not have been answered unkindly.
This conviction grew upon him ; and the suspicion that he had acted the part of a lover in a contemptible manner urged him to say to her the next afternoon, with not the least humbleness of manner, “ Have you forgotten what I tried to tell you yesterday?”
There was no need that she should answer the question. It was very evident that what he had said had not, during a single waking moment, ceased to occupy one of Barbara’s thoughts.
“Can’t you give an answer yet?” he said, aware now of a cowardly hope that she would not, because all at once he fell afraid to hear what she might say. So his pride came toppling down.
“Did I not answer you, Joseph?” she asked.
“No.” Did she really waver? He thought there was a tone in her voice that not even his hope was waiting to hear !
“ Did you suppose that I could be so foolish as not to know my own mind ? That is just my difficulty.”
“You have only to say yes,” urged Joseph, “and then stand by your word. No matter about your mind.”
“It looks easy enough,” said Barbara, with a troubled smile. “ You have only to shut your eyes and jump ! ”
“ Then do it ! ”
“ No, no, you deserve better treatment. I had to give up music-teaching ; I had made up my mind to that, though. There don’t seem to be anything gained by thinking, or letting it alone, does there ? But when I give you an answer, it ought to be the one I can stand by forever.”
“That’s what I expect,” said Joseph ; and now he did not fear, or quake, or hesitate ; he was himself again. It was clear though that he must wait for his answer; so he went to the mill, and all the afternoon, and until it became too dark there to move about without danger of stumbling over bags and barrels, he kept quietly at work ; Bartholomew, meantime, was busy in the loft above, whistling and singing and doing good execution, evidently, under the influence of his brisk accompaniments. These cheerful sounds at length began to irritate Joseph, and he went down into the yard and asked himself what would happen, probably, if it should appear that Bartholomew was his rival and the real hinderance to Barbara’s decision.
Who then so happy as he when on going into the house Barbara met him with these words, “ I hope you will never have reason to repent what you have asked of me, Joseph.”
“ I will look out for that,” he answered, quite satisfied with the exhibition of good sense she had now made. So here was a man who, not by the grace of God, neither by the grace of nature, but, according to his own thinking, by his own will, had won to himself a girl who — but this was not in his thought — must henceforth all her life be seeking changes of costume wherein Duty should successfully personify Love.
Barbara had been thinking, and to the point, as usual. She had taken cognizance of her mission. What was her life worth to the world, that is, to her own family and to Joseph ? “ There is something I can do for him,” she had concluded with regard to the latter. “ He must prove a blessing to all the neighborhood. There is enough of him for that.”
It was therefore comparatively easy for her to meet Joseph with a smile and say to him the words which she instantly perceived he had expected to hear !
It was now, of course, an easy thing for Joseph to patronize Bartholomew. At the tea-table he manifested a revived interest in mill - wheels, and asked Bart what he was doing now. The question took Bartholomew so by surprise, that, instead of answering, he looked at Barbara. Had she been pleading his cause? and with Joseph! Seeing only a pleased smile on her face, and that smile directed not towards himself, he answered that the wheel had n’t taken a new turn lately that he knew of.
“You must talk to father about it, for it seems to me there is something in it; and we shall begin on the new mill, say this season. Eh, father ? why not next month ? ”
“ Maybe so,” answered the old man, well pleased, like Barbara, to hear Joseph taking this new turn. “ We have had many talks about the wheel, Barty and I have. How is it, Barty? shall we run the risk ? ”
“ Not yet,” said Bartholomew, speaking with less enthusiasm than one might have expected, since never had opportunity like this offered for pushing his invention into a place where it could make an unobstructed revolution. He had long held the opinion that if Joseph had chosen to do so he could have made Mr. Altman see the force of the reasoning on which his wheel was constructed. But how was he to account for the sudden change from indifference to interest which Joseph manifested ? On the answer to that question depended the satisfaction he could feel.
Later in the evening, when he found himself alone with the miller and going over the ground of his work, he heard Joseph invite Barbara to ride to the village with him. They were standing in the porch watching the moon rise. Would Barbara go with Joseph ? Why should she not ? Yet when she was gone, Bartholomew lost so entirely his interest in mill-wheels, that his listener found it almost impossible to keep him to the point.
“ You are going to be successful,” said Barbara to him the next day. “ Anybody might predict it now.”
“ Did you say anything about the wheel to Joseph?” he asked, hesitating, and so coldly that her enthusiasm might easily have felt the chill.
“Not I. It surprised me when he began to talk about it. But I suppose among friends it ought not to be surprising that thoughts become contagious.”
“ I did not suppose Joseph could come near enough to guess my thoughts — or — yours.”
“Now you surprise me. I would n’t like to think with you. I don’t believe that you understand each other ; and it is high time you should.”
“ Then explain him to me, Miss Barbara.”
Miss Barbara reflected. Was not this work of the peacemaker also pertaining to her mission ? At last she said, “If he understood you better, Bartholomew, you would not find it so difficult to understand him. He is more in the wrong than you are. Joseph is a great stone quarry. There is enough of it to make a temple finer than Solomon’s.”
For an instant these words made the young man marvel. The next he began to doubt what Barbara might mean by them. They were not spoken in the spirit of joyful prediction, but as it with the determination to set the truth before herself.
“ Why do you say this to me ? ” he asked.
“ Because, Bartholomew, —because I want you to help me make him see that he is not just — to you.”
A flood of light broke in upon Bartholomew. “ There is a surer road to peace between him and me. You said this was not the place for me ; you saw the truth,” he said. “It was getting to be intolerable before you came. I see. I will go away. I must go. There’s no other way.”
“ I do not think that would be wise,” answered Barbara with a deliberation which was not resorted to for his sake, but was expressive of the slowness with which her mind now acted. “You will succeed with your wheel here, and nobody needs you anywhere as much as Joseph does,”
“ He! ”
“ He needs you more than I will say; but neither of you would agree with me. So I will keep my reasons to myself.”
“ Knowing exactly how it is with me, you would advise me to think only of a fellow who has never cared for anybody except himself! ”
“ You have your reputation to look after in the neighborhood,” she said finally, half expostulating, half entreating. “ You told me that yourself, you recollect.”
A gleam of light came into the eyes which had turned upon her hopelessly.
“ I ought to let them see they laughed too soon,” he exclaimed, “ but they shall, wherever I am ! ”
It was for the comfort and harmonious co-operation of the household that Barbara was working! She paid no heed to his last outburst, but said quietly, “ Uncle will let you have what you need for making the experiment, the very day you are so certain of yourself that you ask his assistance. I know it! and I really think that you are bound to go on.” After a moment she added, for he stood with his eyes downcast, his thoughts running along no sunlit track. “ Every man owes some sort of success to the community, and you don’t propose to tear down and not build up. You mean to give to the neighborhood and Uncle Joshua, something better than you take away in the old wheel.”
What a power there was in the sweet voice, and in the expectation and confidence it declared ! Perhaps, after all, it was worth while to have come into the wilderness to inspire that faint heart with a new hope and a higher, at the moment when it seemed that she had taken the best possible away.
“It must be as you say,” he said. “ I have been a great while at work here. It would be a pity to give them occasion for saying I have fooled away my time.”
But if Barbara had seen him walking about the old mill as night came on, and sitting down at last in the darkness with the old cat only for his companion, and the dismal drip of water, from the now motionless wheels, alone breaking the silence, — if she had seen him in the solitude which no words ever could express, feeling himself an outcast and an alien, heart and mind void of the cheerful inspiration of his hope, — she might have sighed over the providence that had brought her to the mills. For she would have seen that he had wakened to the knowledge that she was further from him than the shining stars. She would have seen, too, that the gulf between Bartholomew and Joseph was one which no effort of hers could span.
Barbara went about her work next morning light of heart, since made clear as to duty; believing that all things would yet work well for all the household, when a cry rang through the house, “ Barbara ! Barbara ! ”
In a moment the heart stands still ; in a moment an end of all things.
Bartholomew was lying in the arms of Joseph when she came, a drenched, maimed, bleeding, and motionless figure.
“ What has he done ? ” cried Joseph when he saw her, and his voice sounded strange as his words.
“ Not this,” answered Barbara ; “ O, let me help you ! ”
Now and then we are told of the wonderful works of science. Fruits which nature labors fondly to perfect through weeks of tropic heat are perfected in a day. The heart works greater wonders. Looking down on that poor crushed flower of youth, Barbara called herself hard names, and would have given gladly all she had of self-satisfaction so to have quickened his spirit with assurance. It seemed to her the cruel prejudice and tyranny of Fate, that in a moment Bartholomew should have ceased from among men. He had filled an humble place ; but he seemed to her a defrauded power as he lay on Joseph’s bed, to which, as if urged by the same impulse, they had carried him.
Joseph plainly had thought that he carried his victim in his arms.
“Not so,” said Barbara; but the thought led her to many others, and finally compelled her to say to Joseph while by night they kept watch from hour to hour over the insensible yet breathing body: “ I must take back what I said yesterday. I can’t keep my promise. You and I will be as we were before. It is not required of me.”
“ Don’t talk about it now,” he answered quietly.
“ But you understand me,” she said. “ It is not required of me.”
He did not answer.
We have expressed ourselves quite freely concerning Joseph, and have told merely the truth. But how is one ever to get at the entire truth concerning another, or predict with certainty concerning character and conduct in unexpected situations? If Bartholomew could have looked up into the face of Joseph that night, even after Barbara had spoken the words above recorded, he would not have seen in it the frown of an enemy or the cruel scorn of a tyrant. “Is this Joseph ? ” Barbara said to herself more than once as the hours went on ; but neither his gentleness nor his anguish drew her nearer to him. It was not, however, without a curious kind of satisfaction that she saw these kindly manifestations. “ He has a good heart,” she said. Yet she was glad that she had resigned it.
As to Joseph, it was evident that he was not thinking of her. When he brought the doctor, he had only eye and ear for him, and to see him place himself under direction, to hear him as he asked opinion and instruction, was to think, Is the stone hewn, and the Temple built ? Yet Joseph had merely been relieved of an incubus, — himself. He had only suddenly come to see an adversary who was without offence lying helpless before him, and the field of strife was abandoned, all its issues forgotten.
But how would it be when Bartholomew began to live again, and the cruel doubt whether he had really sought death had been removed ? Thought would probably run in its accustomed channels then, the old will assert itself in usual ways, and life reveal itself as heretofore. Barbara’s folly as displayed on that night when they were all beside themselves was at least not to be remembered. All this perhaps was to be expected and should now have record ; but other facts besides these wait for record.
A week after Bartholomew had risen from his bed to walk about the house and to talk like his emancipated self, Mr. Altman, finding himself alone with Barbara, said to her with a formality of speech that made her apprehensive, “ Let me see now, Barb’ra, you ’ve been with us, — it’s eight months since Aunt Minty died.”
He laid down his newspaper to say this, and to look at her. She hurriedly picked up her work and bestowed her attention upon it, as she answered, “ I was just thinking the same thing, Uncle ” ; and she might have made the same answer any hour of any day, for her thoughts were continually haunting the border-land as if to seek the counsel of the dweller in light.
“ We don’t want you to leave us, Barb’ra. Joseph don’t for one, as you must know. I have a — been speaking to him.” The old man said these last words with a tremulous gravity that communicated itself, or its symptoms, to Barbara. If he was going now to plead for Joseph, what could she say ?
“ Did he tell you anything, Uncle ? I have wanted so much to say something to you! I have felt so sorry! You cannot guess. No, Uncle, I assure you.” It was better to speak than to wait his speech, so Barbara rushed into words.
“ You can’t quite make up your mind to our Joseph ; is that it, Barb’ra ? ” said the old man, slowly passing his old hands over his old face.
“ I am so sorry, Uncle, but it is the truth.”
“ Well, if you can’t, you can’t. That’s the way I see it. I never wanted but one. Money’s no object with me though, Barb’ra.”
“ I am so glad to hear you say so, Uncle ! I began to think I was the only person in the world who felt so. I don’t care for money, I only want to earn my living. It is all I have ever asked for or expected.”
“ Just so, Barb’ra, I approve your sentiments. But it’s a good thing to have a comfortable home of your own, with things to your mind for the wishing.”
“ But what would you think of me Uncle, if I married for a home? ”
“ I ’d be glad to have you, if you married right ! Why should n’t you ? I don’t want you to leave us. You ’re my daughter, Barb’ra; that’s down in my will, and they know it in Churchill.”
“ I will never leave you, Uncle, while you need me. My place is here, and I know it. That’s in my will, Uncle.” Yes, on one point Barbara was absolutely clear.
The old man looked well pleased. He was silent for a moment, and when he spoke again it was slowly, but not with hesitation, as if he would feel his way ; rather with the reluctance of justice, which, in spite of all things, will be just: “ I have two boys, you mind.”
Barbara turned her eyes bright with amazement on the slow-speaking advocate who was not looking at her, but steadfastly on the floor. When he found that she would make no answer, he continued, “ We are all agreed on one point. We can’t spare you. The boys came to me about it. They understand each other better than they ever did before. It’s just which one of’em you’ll have. And if you won’t have either, just say so and they ’ll trouble you no further about it.”
“ Did Joseph say that, Uncle ? ”
“ Well, yes, Barb’ra, something like that.”
“ And Bartholomew ? ”
The old man was silent ; he lowered his spectacles over his eyes, and stretched out his hand as if reaching after his newspaper. Instead of the “ Tribune,” he found Barbara’s hand in his. She beheld her duty now clear as we see the rising sun on an unclouded morning.
“ Let us not say anything more about it,” said she. “Things can rest as they are. I will be a daughter to you, Uncle Joshua.”
“ But there are my boys,” said he. “ The business was not settled.”
“ Shall you try the new wheel in the new mill, Uncle ? ”
O Dick! what would you have made of Barbara’s question ? Would you have heard your dear girl’s heart in her voice, or merely duty’s cold urgence ?
“ Yes, yes, it ’ll come to that of course. I always meant to have it so.” The old man spoke warmly, and drew his hand across his eyes !
“I gave Joseph my answer, Uncle. I have n’t changed my mind.”
Heart or duty, what do you think ? All one ? It would seem so.
“ Well, well, I ’ll say no more.”
Need we ? The world is wide, and from the peak of magnanimity to which he had ascended, if by any stretch of meaning the word has force in this connection,—and are there not divers ways of yielding to the inevitable? — Joseph saw how far the horizon extended, and so it is not to be wondered at that by and by he went out “ seeking a country,” and Barbara, remaining at the Mills, felt satisfied that she had found hers, and could there fulfil her mission.