THE summer was past, but the pageant of autumn was yet undimmed. In the wet meadows of the lowlands, even in the last days of August, before the golden-rod was in its glory, the young maples lit their torches; and what might have seemed their dropping fires crept from sumac to sumac, by the vines in the grass and over the walls, till all the trees, kindling day by day, stood at last a flame of red and gold against the sky. The jay scolded among the luminous boughs; across the pale heaven the farvoiced crows swam in the mellow sunshine. The pastures took on again the green of May; the patches of corn near the farm-houses rustled dry in the soft wind; between the ranks of the stalks lolled the rounded pumpkins.
Many of the summer boarders at Woodward farm had already gone home. The two young girls had gone with each a box full of fern-roots and an inordinate pasteboard case full of pressed ferns. Mrs. Stevenson had stayed later than she had meant, in order to complete a study of cat-tails with autumn foliage. It was the best thing that she had done, and really better than anybody had ever expected her to do. It sold afterwards for enough money to confirm her in her belief that wifehood was no more the whole of womanhood than husbandhood was of manhood, and that to expect her to keep house would be the same as asking every man, no matter what his business might be, to make his own clothes and mend his own shoes.
The husbands of three of the married ladies came one final Saturday night, and departed with them by a much later train than they had ever taken before, on the Monday morning following. These ladies were going home to take up their domestic burdens again for the sake of the men who had toiled all summer long in the city for them. It was a sacrifice, but thanks to the wonderful air of West Pekin, and to Mrs. Woodward’s excellent country fare, they were equal to it; at least they did not complain, or said they did not, which is the same thing. The driver from the station came to fetch them away with his yellow Concord stage, and the ladies got upon the outside seats with him, and waved their handkerchiefs to those left behind. The husbands tried to shout back something epigrammatic as they drove off, but these things are usually lost in the rattle of the wheels, and, even when heard, often prove merely an earnest of good-will in the humorous direction, and are apt to fall flat upon the kindliest ear.
Mrs. Gilbert was among the latest who remained. Under the circumstances she might not have chosen to remain, and perhaps her prolonged stay was an offering to appearances, the fetich before which women will put themselves to any torment. Her husband was not coming for her, and she sat alone amidst her preparations for departure, when Mrs. Farrell, in passing her open door, lingered half wistfully and looked in upon her. Since that day which was doubtless always in both their minds whenever they met, they had neither shunned nor sought each other, but there had been no intimacy between them.
“ Won’t you come in, Mrs. Farrell? ” asked the elder lady, with a glance at the jaded beauty of the other.
“ You are really on the wing at last,”said Mrs. Farrell, evasively accepting the invitation. She came in, looking sad and distraught, and sat down with an impermanent air.
“ Yes, I suppose one may call it wing, for want of a better word,” said Mrs. Gilbert, who indeed did not look much like flying. Presently she added, in the silence that ensued, “You are not looking very well, Mrs. Farrell.”
“No?” said Mrs. Farrell. “Why should I look well? But I don’t know that I don’t feel as well as usual in the way I suppose you mean,”
“I'm sorry you don’t feel well in every way,” said Mrs. Gilbert, responding to so much of an advance as might be made to her in Mrs. Farrell’s dispirited words; and after another little silence, she said, “Mr. Easton seems to have gained a great deal in the last week.”
“ Yes, he is very much better; he is going away soon; he will not be here many days longer.”
“Mrs. Farrell,” said Mrs. Gilbert, “ I wish you would let me say something to you.”
“ Oh, say anything you like. Why should n’t you? ” returned Mrs. Farrell, not resentfully, but in the same dispirited tone.
“ I know you don’t trust me,” began Mrs. Gilbert.
“ There is n’t much trust lost between us, is there? ” asked Mrs. Farrell as before.
“ But I hope you will believe,” continued Mrs. Gilbert, “ that when we last spoke here together I was n’t trying to interfere with what you might consider entirely your own affair from any mean or idle motive. If I was trying to pry into your heart, as you said then, it was because it seemed to me that it was partly my affair too. ”
“I didn’t mean to resent anything you did or said,” answered Mrs. Farrell. “It was n’t my own affair altogether. Nothing that’s wrong can be one’s own affair, I suppose: it belongs to the whole world.” Mrs. Gilbert looked a little surprised at the wisdom of this, which had its own curious pathos, coming from whom it did, and Mrs. Farrell spoke again with sudden impetuosity:
“ Oh, Mrs. Gilbert, I hope you are not judging me harshly! ”
“No, I am trying not to judge you at all.”
“ Because,” continued Mrs. Farrell,
“ whatever I have done, I am not doing my own pleasure now, and my part is n’t an easy one to play.”
“I’m sorry you must play a part at all, — my dear,” said Mrs. Gilbert, with impulsive kindness. “ Why must you? Or, no, now it is all your affair, and I have no right to ask you anything. Don’t tell me — don’t speak to me about it! ” " But if I don’t speak to you, whom shall I speak to ? And I shall go wild if I don’t speak to some one! Oh, what shall I do? ”
“ Yes, yes, it drives me to despair! Ought I to break with him now, at once, or wait, and wait? Or shall I go on and marry him? I respect and honor him with my whole heart, indeed I do; and if he took me away with him — away to Europe, somewhere—for years and years, I know I should be good, and I should try hard to make him happy, and never, never let him know that I did n’t care for him as he did for me. Women often marry for money, for ambition, for mere board and lodging; you know they do; and why should n’t I marry him because I can’t bear to tell him I’m afraid I don’t love him ? ”
“ That’s a question that nobody can answer for you,” said Mrs. Gilbert.
“ But all those marriages are abominable; and even to marry from respect seems wrong — hideous.”
“ Yes, oh yes, it is hideous; it would be making this wearisome deceit a lifelong burden. I know what it would be better than any one could tell me. I feel the horror of it every minute, and it isn’t for myself that I care now: it’s the shame to him; it seems to ridicule and degrade him; it’s ghastly ! And he generous and high-minded, he never could think that I wasn’t always just as good and constant as he was. No, I ’m not fit for him, and I never was. He’s whole worlds above me, and it would wear my life out trying to be what he thinks me, and even then I could n’t be it. Oh, why did he fall in love with me, when there are so many women in the world who would have been so happy in the love of such a man? Why did he ever see me ? Why did he come here ? Good-by, Mrs. Gilbert, good-by! I wish were dead! ”
Mrs. Gilbert caught her in an impetuous embrace of pity and atonement.
Yet, an hour after, when she finally parted from her, it was by no means with equal tenderness; it was guardedly, almost coldly.
A week later, Ben Woodward asked his mother’s leave to go visit his married sister, who lived at Rock Island, Illinois. He urged that now her boarders were mostly gone, she did not need him so much about the house; he hung his head and kicked the chips of the woodpile by which they stood. She looked at him a moment, and fetching a long breath said he was a good son, and she wished he should please himself.
The next morning he kissed her and Rachel, shook hands with his father, nodded to his brothers, and started off toward the village, carrying his bag. At the foot of the hill on which the village stood, he met Mrs. Farrell, who was coming from the post-office with letters in one hand. With the other she held by their stems some bright autumn leaves, and she stooped from time to time and added to them from the fallen splendors about her feet. It ought to have been a poet or a painter who met Mrs. Farrell in the country road, under the tinted maples, that morning, but it was only a simple farm-boy, whose soul was inarticulate in its tender pain. When she saw him, she put the leaves and letters together in one hand, and began to feel in her pocket with the other. His face flushed as he came up to her, where she stood waiting for him, and blanched with a foolish, hopeless pleasure in the sight of her.
“Why, Ben!” she said sadly, yet with an eye that would gleam a little as she let it stray over the poor fellow’s uncouth best clothes, “are you going away?” She must have known that he was.
“Yes,” said Ben, uneasily.
“ And did you mean to go without saying good-by to me? ” she asked with soft reproach.
“ Well, I did n’t see what good it was going to do.”
“ Why, we might never meet again, Ben,” she said solemnly. And as Ben shifted his bag from his one hand to the other, she took the hand left free, and tried to make its great red fingers close over something she pressed into the palm. “ I want you to take this to remember me by, Ben,” she said; but the young fellow, glancing at the gold pencil she had left in his grasp, shook his head, and put the gift back in her hand.
“ I don’t need anything to remember you by, Mrs. Farrell,” he said huskily, looking at her half-amused, half-daunted face. “ If you can give me anything to forget you by, I ’ll take it,” and Ben, as if he had made a point which he might not hope to surpass, was going to press by her, when she placed herself full in front of him, and would not let him.
“ Oh, Ben,” she said, “ how can you talk so to me? You know I have always thought you such a friend of mine, and you know I like you and think ever so much of your good opinion. I shall never let you pass till you take back those cruel words. Will you take them back ? ’ ’
“ Yes,” said Ben, helpless before those still, dark eyes, “ I will if you want I should.”
“ And will you try to remember me — remember me kindly, and not think hardly of anything I ’ve done? ”
“You know well enough, Mrs. Farrell,” said the boy, with a sort of ireful pathos, “ that I would do anything you asked me to, and always would. Don’t, don’t mind what I said. You know how I like you, and wouldn’t forget you if I could.”
“ Oh, Ben, Ben, I’m very unhappy,” she broke out.
“ Don’t mind it,” said Ben, with the egotism of love, but touchingly unselfish even in this egotism. “ You need n’t be troubled about me. I always knew just as well as you that it was all foolishness, and I did n’t ever mean to let it vex you. Don’t mind it; I shall get over it, I suppose, and if I never do, I hope even when you ’re a married woman it won’t be any harm for me to think you cared enough for me to be sorry that — that I was such a fool.”
She looked at him, puzzled by his misconception, but divining it she said instantly, “No indeed, Ben; whatever becomes of me, I shall be only too proud to think of you as my dear, dear friend. I have n’t had so many that I could spare you. I only wish I half deserved you. Ben! ” cried Mrs. Farrell, abruptly, “do you know what I wish I was? I wish I was five or six years younger, so as to be a little younger than you; and I wish I was a good, simple girl, like some of these about here, and you had bought a farm out in Iowa, and you were taking me out there with you this peaceful, lovely morning.”
“Don’t. Mrs. Farrell!” implored Ben.
“ I do, Ben, I do! And if I were such a girl as that, I would work for you like a slave from morning till night; and I would obey you in everything; and all that I should ask would be that you should keep me there out of sight of everybody, and never let me go anywhere, or speak to a living soul but you. And oh, Ben, you would be very kind and patient with me, wouldn’t you? But it can’t be, it can’t be.”
She stooped down and gathered up some letters which had slipped from her hand; Ben let her; he had his bag to hold, and he was not used to offering little services to ladies. When she lifted her face again and confronted him, “ He is a good man, too; don’t you think he is, Ben ? ” she asked, brushing her hand across her eyes.
“ Yes; there a’n’t many like him,” answered Ben, soberly.
“ Do you think he’s too good for me? ”
“ I don’t think anybody could be that, you know well enough, Mrs. Farrell,” said Ben, with a note of indignation, as if he suspected a latent mockery in this appeal to his judgment.
“ Yes, yes, that’s true, I know that,” said Mrs. Farrell, hastily. “I meant, don’t you think he ’s better than — than Mr. Gilbert? ”
“ I never had anything against Mr. Gilbert,” answered Ben, loyally. “ He took good care of his friend.”
“Oh, yes! But — but — Ben,” she faltered, “ there is something — something I would like to ask you. It’s a very strange thing to ask you; but there is no one else. Did you ever think — sometimes I was afraid, you know, that Mr. Gilbert — it makes me very, very unhappy — was getting to — to care for me ” —
“ No, I never thought so,” answered Ben.
“ Oh, I’m so glad. But if he had? ”
“ I should say such a man ought to be shot. ’ ’
“ Yes, oh yes —he ought to be shot,” she assented, hysterically. “But, Ben, — but you cared for me, did n’t you? ”
“ Yes. But that was a very different thing. Mr. Easton wasn’t my friend, as he was Mr. Gilbert’s, and I commenced caring for you long before he was laid there sick and helpless. He would be just as much to blame as if you was married to Mr. Easton already. I don’t see any difference. But I don’t think he could. You must have been mistaken.”
“ Perhaps I was. Yes, I must have been mistaken. I’m glad to have you speak so frankly, Ben. It is too horrible to believe. For if he had been so, of course it could only be because he saw, or thought he saw, something in me that would let him. And you never could think anything so bad, so heartless, of me, could you, Ben? ”
“ No, I couldn’t, Mrs. Farrell,” answered Ben, decidedly. “What’s the use ” —
“ Thank you, Ben, — thank you. I knew you could n’t; it would be too monstrous. Oh yes, it’s just like some horrid dream. Such a woman as that would n’t deserve any mercy, —— not if she had allowed him to think so for one single instant. Would she? ”
“ Why, we can all find mercy, I suppose, if we go the right way to the right place for it,” answered Ben, seriously.
“ Yes, — but I don’t mean that kind. I mean, she would n't deserve— Ben, if you were in Mr. Easton’s place, and the girl you were engaged to had allowed some one else — just for the excitement, you know; not because she wanted him to, or was so wicked and heartless, but just foolish — to think she might let him like her, you never would speak to her again, would you, Ben? You never would forgive her? ”
“ No, I don’t know as I could overlook a thing like that.”
“Of course you couldn’t! You always see things in the right light, Ben; you are so good — oh! how cruel, how perfectly unrelenting you are! That is,
— I don’t mean that, — I mean— Oh, Ben, if you felt toward her — I ought n’t to say it, I know; but just for instance
— as you feel, as you used to feel, toward me, Ben,” — she implored, while her tearful eyes dwelt on his, — " could you forgive me — her, I mean? ”
“I — I don’t know,” faltered Ben.
“ Oh thank you, thank you, Ben! But you ought n’t, you ought n’t! ” she cried. “ I must n’t keep you, Ben. Good-by. And now you ’ll let me give you the pencil, won’t you? It is n’t for you. It’s for some nice girl you ’ll be sure to find, out there. Tell her I sent it to her; and, oh, tell her the best thing she can do is to be good! I hope you ’ll have a pleasant time, and get back safely; I shan’t be here when you come home.”
She did not shake hands with him at parting, and they went their several ways. At the turn of the road she looked back and saw him watching her. She took out her handkerchief and waved it to him; then, rounding the corner, she pressed it to her eyes, and stooped and made a little hasty toilet at the brook that ran along the road-side. When she rose she saw Easton at the head of the avenue, coming slowly down toward her. She went courageously to meet him. “ Are my eyes red? ” she asked. “ I have just been shedding the parting tear over poor Ben. He’s a good boy, and I felt sorry for him. I’ve been his firstlove for several years, you know.”
“ Yes,” said Easton, with the superiority that men feel toward much younger men’s passions. “ That was plain enough from the beginning. ”
Mrs. Farrell looked at him. He was pale and thin from his long lying in bed, but his old tone and manner were coming back, and he was growing better, though he was still far from strong.
They were lingering at the farm while the fair weather lasted, that he might profit by the air as long as it could do him good, though he had meant to go before this time.
“ I’ve brought you about all the letters there were in the office, this morning,” she said. “ Do you want them now? ”
“ I suppose they must be read. Yes; let us go back to the piazza and open them there. You ’ll be glad to rest after your walk to the village.”
“ Is that why you want to get at your letters? I’m not tired at all, and I’d rather walk on.”
“ Well, whatever you like. You’ve unmasked my deceit about the letters. I certainly don’t care to read them. I see that I had better never try to keep anything from you.”
“ Should you like me to tell you everything about myself? ”
“Why, you did that once, didn’t you ? ”
“ Oh, that was nothing. I mean everything I think and feel and do.”
“ If you wished to tell me. I can’t know too much about you.”
“ Don’t be so sure of that. Suppose I had something that lay very heavy on my conscience, and that I did n’t like to tell you. I ought to, ought n’t I? ”
“ Why, if it did n’t concern me ” —
“ But if it did concern you? ”
“ Well, still, I ’m not so sure about your obligation to tell it. If you could endure to keep it, you might have a greater right to keep it than I should have to know it. The only comfort of confession is that it seems to disown our wrong, and make it a sort of public property, a part of evil in general, and lets us begin new, like people who have taken the benefit of the bankrupt law.” He spoke these truisms in a jesting tone. “ I shall always be willing to adopt half of your sins. How have you been injuring me, Rosabel? ” he asked with the smile which Mrs. Farrell’s speculative seriousness was apt to call forth; the best men find it so hard to believe that a charming woman can be in earnest about anything but her good looks.
“ Oh, I was supposing a case,” she answered with a sigh. “ You do think I have some faults, then? ”
“Yes, I think you have; but that doesn’t make any difference.”
“But you can’t pretend you like them? ”
“Let me think! Do I like your faults? ”
“ Don’t joke. Which do you think is the worst? ” she demanded, stopping and confronting him with a look of solemnity, which he found amusing.
“ Upon my word,” he answered with a laugh, “ I don’t believe I could say.”
“ What are any of my faults? ”
“How can I tell? ”
“ Am I willful? Am I proud? Am I bad-tempered? What’s the thing you would find it hardest to forgive me? ”
“ You must give me time to think. And when I’ve forgiven you a great many times for a great variety of offenses, I will tell you which I found the hardest. You must remember that I’ve had no sort of experience yet.”
“ That ’s because you don’t know at all how badly I’ve treated you. What do you think of my laughing at you that day when I went off to the school-house with Rachel Woodward? Don’t you consider it heartless? If I had n’t been the worst person in the world, could I have done it? ”
Easton smiled at the zeal of her selfcondemnation. “ I dare say there had been something very ridiculous in my behavior. If you can remember any particular points that amused you, I should n’t mind laughing them over with you, now.”
“ How good you are! " she murmured, regarding him absently. “ I should be the worst woman in the world, should n’t I, if I deceived you in the least thing? But I never will; uo, no, I couldn’t! Your not thinking it anything would only make it the harder to bear. Don’t you know how killing it is to have people suppose you ’re too good to do things when you know you’ve done them? It’s awful. That’s one good thing about Rachel Woodward. She thinks I’m a miserable sinner, but she likes me; and you mustn’t like me unless you think I’m a miserable sinner. Oh no, I could n ’t let you. I ’ll tell you; I want you to think me perfectly reckless and fickle; I want you to believe that I’m so foolish, don’t you know, that even whilst you were lying sick there, if he ’d let me, I should have been quite capable of flirting with—with Ben Woodward.”
Easton burst into a laugh: “That’s altogether too abominable for anybody to believe, Rosabel. Can’t you try me with something a shade less atrocious? Come, I’m willing to think ill of you, since you wish it; but do be reasonable! Won’t you? ” he asked, looking round into her face, as they walked along. “ Well, then, try to help me in another way. What shall I do about Rachel Woodward? I don’t know how I’m to express my gratitude fitly or acceptably for all the trouble she ’s had with me in this most humiliating sickness of mine. Do you suppose she could be persuaded into accepting any sort of help? Do you think she would care to become a painter, if she had the facilities quite to her mind? ”
“ She would,” replied Mrs. Farrell, “ if she did n’t expect sometime to get married, like other people; there’s always that if in a woman’s aspirations. But that’s neither here nor there. If you think you can ever contrive to reward Rachel Woodward for doing what she thinks her duty, you ’re very much mistaken.”
“ It’s rather hard to be left so much in her debt.”
“ Yes; but she does n’t consider you indebted, that’s one comfort.”
Easton mused awhile. “ Do you know,” he said, presently, “I sometimes wonder Gilbert did n’t take a fancy to our difficult little friend. They ’re sufficiently unlike, and he would be just the man to feel the pale charm of her character.”
“ Do you think so? ” asked Mrs. Farrell, with cold evasion. “I supposed Mr. Gilbert was too worldly a man to care for a simple country girl like Rachel Woodward.”
“ Oh, you ’re very much mistaken. He ’d be altogether unworldly in a matter of that kind. He would be true to himself at any cost. That was what always charmed me so in Gilbert. He had the air and talk of a light man, but he was as true as steel under it all. Every day a man has a hundred occasions to prove himself mean or great, and Gilbert, without any show of being principled this way or that, always did the manly and generous and loyal thing.”
“ Shall we go back, now? ” asked Mrs. Farrell. “ I am rather tired, after all.”
“Will you take my arm?” asked Easton. “It isn’t of much use yet, I’m ashamed to think, but it will be. Did you despise me when I was lying there sick? ”
“ Despise you ? ”
“ Why, I think a sick man is a contemptible kind of creature. You women seem to be able to make anything gracious and appropriate, even suffering; but a sick man can only be an odious burden. We ought to be allowed to crawl away like hurt animals into holes and clefts of rocks, and take the chances, unseen, of dying or living. Were you able to pity me very much? ”
“ I don’t see why you ask such things,” she faltered. “ Don’t you think I did ? ”
“ Oh yes, too much. Sometimes I’m afraid that, without your knowing it, it ’s been all pity from the beginning. I dare say every decently modest man wonders what a woman finds to love in him. I wanted you to love me from the first instant I saw you, but I never concealed from myself that I was n’t worth a thought of yours. What a curious thing it is that makes one willing to receive everything for nothing.” He laid his left hand upon her fingers, where they passively clung to his right arm. “Why, how cold your hand is!” he said. “It seems incredible that it’s going to be my hand some day! Everything else under the sun has its price; you slave for it, you risk your life for it, you buy it somehow. But the divinest thing in the world is given, it has no price, it’s invaluable; we can’t merit a woman’s love any more than we can merit God’s mercy. Come, take yourself from me again! I’ve never given you a fair chance to say me nay. You must acknowledge that you never had time to answer that question of mine. Before you could decide whether you could endure me or not, you had to pity me so much that you were biased in my favor. I ought to set you free, and let you judge again whether you would have me! ”
Her breath went and came quickly, as he spoke in this mixed jest and earnest. He tried to make her meet his eye, peering round into her face, but she would not look at him. If this was the release, the opportunity, so long and wildly desired, it found her helpless to seize it. She moved her head from side to side like one stifling. “ Oh, don’t! How can you?” she gasped. “Don’t talk so any more,” she entreated. “ I can’t bear it! ”
She turned her face away; he tenderly pressed her arm against his side. They were near the house again, and she slipped her hand from his arm and fled in-doors. He blushed with joy, and walked on down the birch avenue, where she saw him sitting, after a while, on a stone by the wayside. She went to join him, holding forward, as she drew near him, a handful of letters. “We both forgot these,” she said, with a dim smile.
“ Oh yes,” he laughed. She glanced down at the stone where he sat, and up at that clump of birches through whose thin foliage the sun fell upon him, and shivered with the recognition of the spot where she had parted from Gilbert. “ Sit down, Rosabel,” he said, making a place for her at his side. “ This stone is large enough for both of us. I want you to help me read my letters.”
“ No, no! ” she faintly pleaded; “let me stand — a while. And do you — do you think it’s well for you to sit — just here?”
“ Why, yes,” he returned. “ It seems a sufficiently salubrious spot, and this is a most obliging rock. If you won’t share it with me, — here!” he said, touching another stone in front of his own seat,
“ sit here! Then I can see your face whenever I look up, and that will be better even than having you at my side. Ah! Now for the letters,” he cried, when she had suffered him to arrange her as he would, and she gave them into his hand.
He ran them quickly over before opening any, and “Why!” he exclaimed, holding up one of them, “ did you know whom we have kept waiting? Gilbert! It’s too bad, poor old fellow! Didn’t you notice his letter, you incurious Fatima ? ”
“ I never saw his handwriting. How could I know his letter? ”
“ Of course! That might have occurred to me if I had n’t known it so well myself. Never mind! We ’ll keep Gilbert a little longer, since we ’ve kept him so long already, and have him last of all, to take away the bad taste, if these are not pleasant reading.” He laid Gilbert’s letter aside, and opened the others and commented on them one after another; but her eyes continually wandered to the unopened letter, do what she might to keep them on the level of the page he was reading. At last he took up Gilbert’s letter; a shiver ran through her as he tore open the envelope, and she drew herself closer together.
“ Why, are you cold, my dear? ” he asked, glancing at her before he began to read. “Are n’t you well? Let us go up to the house, and read the letter there.”
“No, no,” she answered steadily; “ I’m not cold, I’m perfectly well. I was curious to know what he said: that was all. Do go on.”
Easton opened the sheet, and began to read to himself, as people often do with letters when they propose to read them aloud. “ Oh! ” he said, presently, “excuse me! I did n’t know what I was doing. Do you think you ’ll be able to stand all this?” He held up the eight pages of Gilbert’s letter, and then he began faithfully with the date, and read on to the end. The first part of the letter was given to Gilbert’s regrets at not having been able to write before. He took it for granted that his sister-in-law had told Easton of his sudden call to go to South America on that business of Mitchell & Martineiro, who wished him to look after some legal complications of their affairs in Brazil, which needed an American lawyer’s eye; and that she had made all the amends she could for his going so suddenly. “You were asleep,” he wrote, “when I went to take leave of you, and on the whole I’m not sorry. A good - by is good at any distance, and I knew I could send you mine. I did n’t suppose I should be so long about it; but the truth is that what with putting my own business in order before going, and instructing myself about Mitchell & Martineiro’s, in a case where I can represent their interests only in an exterior sort of way, I have not had a moment that I could call yours. I might have sent you a line, of course, but I waited till I could do more than that. I knew you were getting well, and I need not worry about leaving you before you were quite well. And now, after all, when I have a few hours before sailing, and I sit down to write to you, I do not know that I have much to say. Perhaps if I had had days before this, it would have come to the same thing. In fact, it could have come only to one thing under any circumstances. It could have come only to my telling you, with whatever force I had, that in all our recent unhappiness I felt myself wholly and solely at fault. I do not merely mean that you were blameless, but that every one else but myself was so. I hope this will not come to your eye like an impertinence; it lies under mine like a very vital thing. I do not know what your measure of my blame is, whether it has grown greater or not since we parted; but in my own sight my treatment of you seems inexpiable. Of course I feel that in this separation of ours there are many chances that we may not meet again; but I should like to say this to you if we were to meet every day all our lives. I will not appeal to the kindness of your heart; there ought to be none for me in it. But do not forget me, Easton ; and if ever in the future you can think more leniently of me than I deserve, I shall be glad of your pity.”
“Is that all?” asked Mrs. Farrell, hoarsely.
“Yes, that’s all,” returned Easton, turning the pages absently over, and looking up and down the leaves.
Whatever had been her purposes, or hopes, or dreads, the moment had come from which she could not recoil, and in which she stood as absolutely unfriended as in the face of death. Everything had led to this at last; it might have been said that she was born for this alone, so supreme was it over all other fates and chances. If she had hoped for help from any source, — from Easton’s possible suspicion, from the light in which she had tried to see what she had done with others’ eyes, from some confession of Gilbert’s in this letter of his, — it was all in vain. Everything was remanded to her, and she was to make her choice, with none to urge or stay her. She sat and stared at the man who, she knew, would have given his life to defend her from others, but who was so powerless now to help her against herself. Of all the contending passions of her soul, — shame, fear, resentment, and chiefly a frantic longing to discredit the reality of what was, and had been, — a momentary scorn came uppermost.
“ So! ” she cried. “ And that’s all he had to say! ” She caught the letter from Easton’s hand, ran her eye swiftly over the closing page, and flung it back to him. “ Yes, he was afraid to write it, two hundred miles away; he leaves it all to me. Well, then, I will tell you —— Oh,” she broke off, “ do you love me very, very much? Yes, I must tell you, for there is no one else, and, no matter what happens, you must know it.” She looked at him in an agony of terror and pity; she could not take her eyes from him while she spoke the words that now came. “ He was in love with me; he said so the last moment I saw him; he was so from the first. It was that which made him quarrel with you, and it is that which makes him — he thinks I've told you —ask your pity now,” In the ghastly silence that ensued, they found that they had both risen, and he stood with one hand resting against the trunk of the birch beneath which they had been sitting; Gilbert’s letter had fallen, and lay on the ground between them.
Easton made no answer, and tried to make none, standing in a hapless maze. The silence seemed interminable; but it was also intolerable; she recalled him to himself with a wild “ Well! ” Then he seemed to find his voice a great way off, and a husky murmur preceded his articulate speech.
“ Have I kept you apart? ” he asked. “ Do you love him? ”
“ Love him? I loathe him! ”
She shuddered to see the hope that rushed into his face, when he said, “Then I pity him with all my heart. How could he help loving you? ”
She wrung her hands in despair. “ Oh, why don’t you kill me, and spare me this? How can I tell you and make you understand ? He never would have dared to speak to me if I had not—— He never would have dared to speak if he had believed I loved you! ”
“ Do you love me? ” he asked, as if he regarded nothing else but that, and he searched with his clear gaze the eyes which she was powerless to avert. She tried to speak, and could not. The shame, more cruel than any crime can bring, which a man feels in such a disillusion, crimsoned his pale visage, and his head fell upon his breast. Again the terrible silence held them both.
“ Oh, don’t, don’t!” she wailed, at last. “What must you think of me? I did believe that I loved you once — that day when you asked me; and then when you were taken sick, and I thought you might die, how could I help earing for you? And afterwards, when you were better, and you never showed any misgiving, I could n’t undeceive you; it had to go on. I always respected you more than any one in the world; you ’re the best man I ever saw; better than I ever dreamed of; it frightened me to think how far too good for me you were. And why do you blame me so much, now?” she piteously implored. “You said, once, that you did n’t ask me to love you; that all you wanted was to love me.”
Easton rubbed his hand wearily over his forehead, and drew a long breath. “ If I blamed you, I was wrong,” he answered gravely. “ It was my fault.”
His hand began to tremble on the birch, and he sank down on the rock where he had been sitting. She saw his faltering, and dropped on her knees before him, and instinctively cast one arm about him to support him. He put it away. “I’m perfectly well,” he said, with his deathly face. “But I shall sit here a while before I go back to the house. Don’t — don’t let me keep you.”
The dismissal seemed to strike her back from him, but she did not rise. She only dropped her face in the hollow of her rejected arm, and moaned, “ Oh, how you must despise me. But don’t drive me from you! ”
“ I did n’t mean that,” he said; “ I thought of sparing you.”
“ But don’t spare me! It’s that that drives me wild. I want you to tell me what it is I’ve done. I want you to judge me.”
“ Judge yourself, Rosabel. I will not. ”
“ But I can’t have any mercy on myself! Oh, keep me from myself! Don’t cast me off! I know I’m not worthy of
you, but if you love me, take me! I will be a good wife to you, indeed I will. ”
“ Oh, no.” said Easton, in the tone of a man hurt beyond all solace, who faintly refuses some compassionately proffered, impossible kindness. “ I have loved you, Heaven knows how dearly, and I could have waited patiently any length of time in the hope of your love; that was what I meant when I said I did n’t ask you to love me then. But now ”——
She must have felt the exquisite manliness of his intention towards her. Perhaps she contrasted the grandeur which would not reproach her by a word or look, with the relentless bitterness in which Gilbert had retaliated all upon her. She had always admired Easton; it may be that in this moment she felt a thrill of the supreme tenderness. She suddenly clung to his arm, “ But I want you to take me ! ” she cried. “ Don’t you trust me? Don’t you think I know my own heart, even now ? Oh, if you will only believe in me again, I know I shall love you! ”
“ No! ” said Easton, “ I love you too much for that.”
“ And is it all over, then? Do you break your engagement? ”
“ It’s broken. You must go free of me. I know you would try to give me what you cannot; but only misery could come of trying. It would be worse than my mistake with Gilbert, when I accepted a sacrifice from him that no man should accept from another, because I believed that I could have done as much for him. We thought it our bond of friendship, but it must always have been a galling chain to him. And you are asking to do a thousand times more than he did! No, no; you would only be starving yourself to beggar me. If you loved me, all that’s happened would be nothing; but if you had married me without loving me, you would have done me a wrong that I could never have pardoned. Don’t accuse yourself,” he said. “ If you had loved me, nothing of all this could have happened. Think of that. It was my mistake more than yours; you were unfairly bound to me. Come,” he said, rising with a sudden access of strength that belied his pale looks, “I must go to-day.” And he led the way back to the house in a silence which neither broke.
She did not answer him by words, then or afterwards. But when they entered the dark of the hall doorway together, she expressed all by an action which was not the less characteristic for being so humble and childlike.; she caught up his hand, and, holding it a moment with a clinging stress, carried it to her mouth and reverently kissed it. That was their farewell, and it was both silent and passive on his part. He looked at her with eyes that she did not meet, and moved his lips as if he would say something, but made no sound.
The next morning, after Mrs. Farrell had gone, Rachel went with mechanical exactness about the work of putting in order the room where Easton had lain sick. Her mother came to the door, and, looking in, hesitated a moment before she crossed the threshold and sat down in the chair that stood just inside.
“ I don’t know as you ’ve got any call to hurry so about it, Rachel,” she said, with a granite quiet.
“ I’d just as soon, mother ; I 'd rather,” answered the girl as stonily, not ceasing from her work.
The mother put her hand to her passive mouth and then rubbed it up over her cheek and across her forehead, and drew a long, noiseless breath, following the movements of her daughter about the room with her eyes. “I suppose we shan’t hear from Benny, hardly, for a week or more,” she said after a pause of several minutes. Rachel did not reply, and her mother asked, after another pause, “ Rachel, what do you believe made him so set on going away? Do you think it was ” —
“ I don’t want you should ask me, mother, anything,” answered Rachel, nervously.
The mother waited a moment before she said, perhaps with that insensibility to others’ nerves which years often bring, “ I was afraid the boy might have got to caring about her. Do you think he had? ”
“ Yes, I think he had,” replied Rachel, abruptly, as if the words had been wrenched from her.
Once more the mother waited before she spoke. She had never talked gossip with her children, and perhaps she was now reconciling to her conscience the appearance of gossip in what she had to say. “ I always thought,” she began, “ that they were both as fine young men as I almost ever saw. I never saw more of a friend than the other one was to this one. Do you think she was much sorry for what she did to part them ? ”
“ Yes, I think she was. She did more than she meant, and I don’t know as we ought to be made to answer for more harm than we mean. ”
“No,” said Mrs. Woodward. “At least it is n’t for us to say, here. Did you like her as well at the last as you used to ? ”
“ Yes. I liked her,” answered Rachel. “ Nobody could help that. She was very unhappy, and I never had any call to feel hard against her — on my own account.”
“ I don’t know as I ever knew a person quite like her,” mused Mrs. Woodward. “ I don’t know as I should ever rightly understand her, and I won’t judge her, for one: she ’ll find plenty to do that. I don’t believe but what her feelings were led away for a while by the other one, and I don’t see as they ever rightly came back to this one, even supposing that she ever did care much for him.”
“ Oh, mother, mother, mother! ” the girl broke out, and cast herself into a chair, and hid her face on the bed.
A distress passed over the stony composure of the elder woman’s face, but she sat quiet, and did not go near her child or touch her. What comfort her children got from her went from heart to heart, or rather from conscience to conscience, without open demonstration; she hid her natural affections as if they were sins, but they ruled her in secret, and doubtless now her heart bled with the pity her arms withheld. She did not move from her place, and while the girl sobbed out the secret of a love which she had never yet owned to herself, the mother did not show by any sign or change of countenance that the revelation either surprised or shocked her. She may indeed have always suspected it, but however that was, she now accepted the fact as she would any calamity, in silence, and whatever inward trouble it gave her did not appear even to the solitude in which Rachel’s hidden face left her. She waited patiently, but when at last the girl lifted her face, and sat with her head thrown back and her eyelids fallen, the mother still did not speak; she left her to deal with her pain alone, as was best. But that evening she came to Rachel’s chamber with her lamp in her hand, and took her place near her where she lay listless in her rocking-chair.
“Before Mrs. Gilbert went away,” the mother abruptly began, “ she came and had a little talk with me about you, Rachel. I never told you, and I don’t know as I ever should.”
Rachel gave no token of interest. Mrs. Woodward went on: —
“ She seemed to think a good deal of that picture of yours, and she spoke as if you ’d ought not to neglect any providence that put it in your way to improve yourself. I don’t use her words, but that’s what they come to in the end. She said if you would like to go down and study drawing in Boston or New York, this winter, she wanted I should let her lend you the money to do it. I was put to it what to say without seeming to hurt her feelings. I did n’t make any direct answer at the time, and I haven’t since. I wa’n’t sure in my own mind whether we should do right to accept of such an offer unless we could see our way clear to pay the money back, and what made me more doubtful was her saying that you’d ought to be very certain of your own feelings, whether you really wanted to be a painter or not, for if you didn’t it would be a misery every way if you was one. I don’t know a great deal about such things, but I thought that was sensible. She said there wa’n’t any doubt about your making a living that way, if once you gave your mind to it.”
Still Rachel did not change her posture or expression, but she passed her fingers over the hem of her apron across her lap.
“ As to the money,” Mrs. Woodward went on, “there’s your school-money in the bank; you’ve worked hard enough for that, and it’s rightfully yours. I know you meant to give it to James for his schooling, but now it don’t seem quite fair you should. Why don’t you take it yourself, and go off somewheres, and study, the way Mrs. Gilbert said? ”
“ I don’t want the money, mother,” said the girl, coldly.
Mrs. Woodward waited a while before she asked, “ Don’t you feel sure’t you want to study in that way? ”
“ Yes, I think I could do it. Of course it is n’t as if I were a man, but I believe I could be a painter, and I should like it better than teaching.”
“Then why don’t you take up with the idea? It would be a little change for you; and maybe, if you was away from the place for a while, you might — get to feeling differently.”
The mother was patient with her daughter while the girl sat thinking. The countenance of neither changed, when at last the girl broke silence, and said very steadily, “ I might go in the spring, mother. But I ’m going to stay here this winter. If I’ve got any trouble, I can’t run away from it, and I would n't if I could. If the trouble is here, the help is here, too, I presume.” After a little pause, she added, “I don’t want you should speak to me about it again, mother — ever. ”
The mother said nothing, but awkwardly rose, and moved shyly to where her daughter sat. Her mouth trembled, but, whatever intent she had, she ended by merely laying on the girl’s head her large, toil-worn, kitchen-coarsened hand, with its bony knuckles and stubbed, broken nails. She let it rest there a moment and then went, softly out of the room.
In an orchestra-chair at the theatre sat a stout, good-natured looking gentleman, iron - gray where he was not bald, with a double chin smooth-shaven between iron-gray whiskers, and beside him sat a lady somewhat his junior in appearance, pale and invalid-like, to whom the strong contrast of her silvery hair and her thick, dark eyebrows gave a singular distinction; from some little attentions and neglects it could be seen that they were husband and wife. The husband seemed tranquilly expectant, and the wife nervously so, and as they talked together, waiting for the curtain to rise, he spoke in a slow, rich, easy voice, with a smile of amiable humor, while she had a more eager and sarcastic air, which at times did not veil a real anxiety of feeling.
“ And that is just where you misconceive the whole affair,” the lady was saying.
“ I don’t see,” said the gentleman.
“ Why,” demanded the lady despairingly, “can’t you imagine a woman’s liking to triumph over people with her beauty, and yet meaning it to be a purely æsthetic triumph? ”
“No, I can’t,” said the gentleman, with placid candor.
“ Well, women can,” said the lady conclusively, and the gentleman submitted in silence.
Presently he asked, “Is n’t she rather old for a novice ? ”
“ She’s twenty-six, if you call that old. She ’s a novice to the stage, but she’s been an actress all her life.”
The gentleman laughed in the contented fashion of gentlemen who think their wives are wits, and said, “ I think you ’re decidedly hard upon her to-night, Susan. It seems to me you have been more merciful at times.”
“ Oh, at times! I’ve never been of one mind about her half an hour together, and I don’t expect to be hard upon her the whole evening, now. The last day I saw her at the farm, as I’ve often told you, I pitied her from the bottom of my heart, but before we said good-by, I suspected that I had been the subject of one of her little dramatic effects. Can’t you imagine a person who really feels all she thinks she ought to feel at any given time? ”
“ No,” said the gentleman, with cheerful resignation, “that’s beyond my depth again.”
“ Well, she’s that kind; or I’ve fancied so in my skeptical moods about her. If she dramatizes her part to-night half as well as she used to dramatize herself, she ’ll be a great actress. But that remains to be seen. When I first heard she was going on the stage, it seemed like a clew to everything; she says she always wanted to be an actress; and I felt that it was a perfect inspiration. It would give her excitement and admiration, and it would multiply the subjects of her effects to any extent. It always did seem a ridiculous waste that she should merely fascinate one man at a time; she ought to have had thousands. But I’m not so certain, now, after all, that she’s found her destiny.”
“ Why? ”
“ Why, a stage success might be very much to her taste, while she might n’t at all like the trouble of making it. I think she has a real theatrical genius, but I suppose the stage takes a great deal of self - denial and constancy, and she’s fickle as the wind.”
“ Oh come, now, Susan, you know you said yesterday that after all you did believe she had a lasting regard for William’s friend.”
“ Yes, that ’s a great puzzle and mystery. Perhaps it was because she had broken with him. I did n’t infer from anything she said that their acquaintance now was of anything but a friendly sort. I wish I had felt authorized to ask just how it was renewed,” said the lady regretfully.
“I wish you had. I should have liked to know. There must be something extraordinary about her to enable her to keep him for a friend after all that happened.”
“ Oh, did I ever pretend there was n’t something extraordinary about her? There was everything extraordinary about her! And there are times when I can’t help admiring a sort of moral heroism she had. I think she was fascinated for a while with the dreadfulness of flirting with William under the circumstances; but not one woman in a thousand would have had the courage to do what she did when she found it was becoming serious with him.”
“ Very likely. But I have a higher opinion of women. My sense of right and wrong has not been shaken, like some people’s, by this enchantress. I can’t help thinking it might not have been so rough on him if her moral heroism had begun a little sooner: say before the flirtation.”
“ Oh, the more I think about it, the less I pity him in that matter. He knew perfectly well that he was doing wrong. Men ought to do right, even if it does n’t please women.”
The gentleman bowed his bald head in a fit of laughter. “I have no doubt those were Eve’s very words to Adam,” he chuckled; but the lady, without laughing, continued, —
“ And when the worst had come to the worst with Easton, it seems she didn’t spare herself. She told him everything.”
“ Perhaps she might have spared him somewhat if she had not been quite so frank.”
“ It was her duty to tell him!” rejoined the lady, sternly, " and I honor her for doing it. She never could have gone on and married him, with all that in her heart.”
“ At any rate she didn’t go on and marry him. And I shall always contend that she was a hardly-used woman; engaging herself to a man she merely pitied, under the mistaken impression that she was in love with him, and then, —when she found that she did n’t want his friend either,—dismissing the poor fellow with a final misgiving that perhaps she did like him, after all. I say it’s a case of unmerited suffering, if ever there was one.”
“ Oh, it’s all very well to talk! But how do you reconcile such contradictions? ”
“I don’t. But I’m certain of one thing: she was n’t trying any of her little dramatic effects on you, when she called yesterday and made you her confidante.” The gentleman here laughed so loud that the sound of his own voice alarmed him. He looked round, and saw that the seats about them were rapidly filling up, and he fell to studying his play-bill with conscious zeal.
By and by he turned again to his wife, and whispered, " I don’t think William’s peace of mind was permanently affected by his romance with your friend; he appeared to be in good spirits the other day when I saw him in New York, and was taking a good deal of interest in the fine arts, I fancied, from his behavior to your little protægæe. ”
“ William has been very polite and very good; I shall always feel grateful to him for his kindness to her. He must have found it difficult at first; she ’s very odd, and does n’t invite attention, though of course she ’s glad of it, at heart. Yes, it was very, very considerate, and I shall take it as the greatest favor that William could have done me,”
“ Well, I don’t know. He didn’t seem to be regarding the affair in the light of a self-sacrifice. Suppose he had rather lost the sense of it’s being a favor to you? ”
“ I should like that all the better.”
Those who remember the impression made among people who knew of her, by the announcement that Mrs. Farrell was going upon the stage, will recall the curiosity which attended her appearance in Boston, after her dæbut in a Western city, where she had played a season. There is always something vastly pitiable in the first attempts of a woman to please the public from the stage; this is especially the case if she is not to the theatre born, and confronts in her audience the faces she has known in the world; and her audience may have felt a peculiar forlornness in Mrs, Farrell’s position: at any rate it showed itself the kindest of houses, and seized with eager applause every good point of her performance. Her beauty in itself was almost sufficient to achieve success for her. It had never appeared to greater advantage. During the first two acts, it seemed to prosper from moment to moment, under all those admiring eyes, like the immediate gift of Heaven, as if she were inspired to be more and more beautiful by her consciousness of her beauty’s power; and whether she walked or sat, or only stirred in some chosen posture amidst the volume of her robes, she expressed a grace that divinely fascinated. Her girlish presence enabled her to realize the Juliet to many whose sensitive ideal refused the robust pretensions of more mature actresses; she might have played the part well or not, but there could be no question but she looked it. She had costumed it with a splendor which the modern taste might have accused of overdressing, but which was not discordant with a poetic sense of the magnificence of mediæval Verona. Her Juliet was no blonde, Gretchen-like maiden, in blue and white, but an impassioned southern girl in the dark reds and rich greens that go well with that beauty; she might have studied her dress from that of some superb patrician in a canvas of Cagliari. But with her beauty, her grace, and her genius for looking and dressing the character, her perfect triumph ended; there was something perplexingly indefinite in the nature or the cause of her failure, at those points where she failed. To some she simply appeared unequal to a sustained imagination of the character. Others thought her fatigued by the physical effort, which must be a very great one. Perhaps no one was of a very decided mind about her performance.
“It was good, yes—and it was n’t good, either,” said one of those critical spirits, rather commoner in Boston than elsewhere, who analyze and refine and re-refine and shrink from a final impression, with a perseverance that leaves one in doubt whether they have any opinion about the matter. “I should say she had genius, yes; genius for something— I don’t know; I suppose the drama. I dare say I saw her without the proper perspective; I was crowded so close to her by what I ’d heard of her off the stage, don’t you know. I don’t think the part was well chosen; and yet she did some things uncommonly well; all that passionate love-making of the first part was magnificent; but there was some detracting element, even there — I don’t know what; I suppose she did n’t let you think enough of Juliet; you could n’t help thinking how very charming she was, herself; she realized the part the wrong way. There was inspiration in it, and I should say study; yes, there was a good deal of study; but after all it was n’t so much art as it was nature and artifice. It wanted smoothness, unity; perhaps that might come, by and by. She had a very kind house; you know what our audiences usually are; they would n’t turn the thumb down, but they 'd make an unlucky gladiator wish they would. But they were very good to her, last night, and applauded her hits like a little man. She did n’t seem to have given herself a fair chance. Perhaps she was n’t artistically large enough for the theatre. I should n’t have said, at first, that she was particularly suggestive of the home circle; very likely, if I ’d met her off the stage, I should have pronounced her too theatrical; and yet there was a sort of appealing domesticity about her, after all—especially in her failures. It’s a pity she could n’t take some particular line of the profession, in which she could somehow produce a social effect, don't you know! I ’ll tell you what; she could do something perfectly charming in the way of what they call sketches — character sketches — little morsels of drama that she could have all to herself, with the audience in her confidence — a sort of partner in the enterprise, like the audience at private theatricals. That’s it; that’s the very thing! She ’d be the greatest possible success in private theatricals.”
“Well, Robert, it’s better than I ever dreamt she could do,” said Mrs. Gilbert, as they drove home from the theatre. “ But what a life for a woman! How hard and desolate at the best. Well, she’s sufficiently punished!”
“Yes,” said her husband, “it’s a great pity they could n’t somehow make up their minds to marry each other.
“ Never! There are things they can never get over.”
“ Oh, people get over all sorts of things. And even according to your own showing, she behaved very well when it came to the worst.”
“ Yes, I shall always say that of her. But she was to blame for it’s coming to the worst. No, a whole life-time would n’t be enough to atone for what she’s done.”
“ It would n’t, in a romance. But in life you have to make some allowance for human nature. I had no idea she was so charming.”
“ Robert,” said Mrs. Gilbert, sternly, “do you think it would be right for a woman to be happy after she had made others so wretched ? ”
“ Well, not at once. But I don’t see how her remaining unhappy is to help matters. You say that you really think she does like him, after all? ”
“ She would hardly talk of anything else — where he was, and what he saw, and what he said. Yes, I should say she does like him.”
“ Then I don’t see why he should n’t come back from Europe and marry her, when she makes her final failure on the stage. I would, in his place.”
“ My dear, you know you would n’t! ” “Well, then, he would in my place. Have it your own way, my love.”
Mr. Gilbert seemed to think he had made a joke, but his wife did not share his laugh.
“ Robert,” she said, after a thoughtful pause, “ the lenient way in which you look at her is worse than wrong; it ’s weak. ”
“ Very likely, my dear; but I can’t help feeling it9s a noble weakness. Why, of course I know that she spread a ruin round, for a while, but, as you say, it seems to have been more of a ruin than she meant; and there 9s every probability that she’s been sorry enough for it since. ”
“ Oh! And so you think such a person as that can change by trying — and atone for what she’s done by being sorry for it! ” said Mrs. Gilbert, with scorn.
“ Well, Susan, I should not like to be such a heathen as not to think so,” responded her husband, with an assumption none the less intolerable because, while his position was in itself impregnable, it left a thousand things to be said.
W. D. Howells.