Friends: A Duet
“Either Death or a Friend.” — PERSIAN PROVERB.
“May it be mine to keep the unwritten laws.”-SOPHOCLES.
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING.
IT was a February day in Boston. It was going to rain. Though only four o’clock in the afternoon, the sense of night already overpowered the sense of day on the “morning side ” of Mt. Vernon Street, whence the color of the sun had long since crept down the hill and lay low across Charles River and the intervening street, thrusting apart the gathering clouds with slips of light, long and pale, like slender hands.
A woman thought of this. She stood at her drawing-room window, looking up and down the hill. She held the curtain back from her figure with uplifted wrist, — a delicate wrist. She had stepped between the curtain, which was lace, and the window. Looking in, therefore, from without, as one passed through the darkening street, she showed real and human. But looking at her from within, across the warm and silent room, the curtain swaying on her outline, she made a lovely ghost.
In either aspect of the watcher — for she was a watcher, that was plain enough — an observant person would have said of her, It is a wife, — a happy watcher, a happy wife.
Beyond those trifling signs of individuality in household art which creep into the homes of most people of character, there was nothing to distinguish this from other parlors on Mt. Vernon Street. It was not necessary to look twice to see that the lady behind the curtain had a luxurious and light-hearted home.
Something — was it in her attitude ? was it in her expression ? — would have indicated her to the sensitive eye as a woman deeply loving and deeply loved. Certainly she bore that beautiful and modest self-consciousness which belongs to no other creature and to no other condition, and which is as radiant and as regal as the look that the sea gives to the sunrise.
A gentleman came over the hill, walking slowly ; he came from the direction of the State House and Tremont Street, and therefore held his face turned towards the swiftly departing light. Drops were falling. They ran together on the window and thickened ; the pavement was growing wet. It was a muggy night, and betokened either a prolonged thaw, or the sudden surrender of nature’s forces which precedes a deadly chill. The geutleman walked languidly, as people do in weak weather ; possibly he looked pale.
She had turned rapturously on hearing his step ; then all her attitude fell. He passed beneath the window, she watching him. He glanced up once before he rang the bell, and saw her, between the curtain and the window, nodding down to him. She looked very near. She was still standing there, when he came into the room; only the pale lace now fell over her. He could but notice her contour on it, even then, with the high, fine crown of hair and the wrist turned back, — a beautiful wraith !
But when she came to meet him she saw how grave he was.
“ Mr. Nordhall ! I — thought you were John. I mean when I heard your step — at first. Sit down. I am glad to see you. But you look ill. John is late. I was watching for him.”
“ Yes, Mrs. Strong, John is late.”
Nordhall said this clumsily enough. He too sat down. He felt faint. But she smiled up at him fondly; she had always known Charles Nordhall.
“ You will stay to dine with us, now. John will soon be here. We were to read together this evening, early ; I ordered dinner an hour sooner. We are reading—of all things, what do you think ?— Paul and Virginia ! We had never read it before, — together. John will be in very soon.”
She laughed at herself, blushing a little, but thinking that it was only Charley Nordhall. She had a low and happy laugh. Yet he could see that she listened towards the pavements with the intensity by which only the very happy or the very miserable attend.
It had grown dark. Servants came in. Nordhall dimly saw the gas flash, and the colors of the room leap out ; the hearth-rug where the dog lay, — listening, too. The rug was Persian ; the dog a setter, brown and white. The tête-à-tête was of a garnet shade, and lustrous ; it was rolled towards the grate, with a generous plump hassock before it, such as a tired man likes. An old copy of Paul and Virginia lay on the cushions of the tête-à-tête.
She sat between him and the fire, chatting in her sweet voice. Now and then she lifted the appealing eyes, which contrasted so with the pose of her head. He did not know how to look at them. He heard her talking of the parlor lectures, of Thursday’s concert, of the charity theatricals, of the Passion music, of what John said, of what John thought; and he saw her listening while she talked. But he did not know how to speak to her. It seemed to him that he had never seen her look so lovely. He noticed confusedly the color of the ribbon that she wore at her throat, under lace : it was rose-pink ; it deepened, yet rendered more delicate, the flush of her cheek. He occupied himself with these details. She looked at him confidingly.
The room began to seem stifling to him, and he asked her permission to open a window. The rain was already freezing into sleet, as he looked out. When he returned, he saw that she had risen, and stood regarding him with an expression neither of inquiry, sympathy, nor fear alone, but partaking slightly of the nature of all. Then he knew that he could defer no longer. Unconsciously to himself he put out his hands to touch her; would have drawn her to her chair again. But she said, —
“ You have something to tell me. You do not tell it! ” She hesitated. “ Do you know why John is late ? ”
Then he found his voice: “ Yes, I know why John is late.”
Nordhall was intoxicated by what we might call the wine of despair, at that moment, and deliriously regarding her as she stood there thought of certain words he had read, — he could not for his life have said where or when : —
Lifeless she fell.”
For though he had not spoken, she put her hands together suddenly ; he felt that all her face and figure crouched before him, and that the room rang to a cry which he should hear as long as he lived: —
This is not a tale of the fever of grief; it is not a study of the surprise of widowhood; nor will these pages be devoted to the analysis of agony.
We read often of the spasm of the volcano; much less of the slow processes of adjustment by which the purple lava hardens, and rivers of fire stiffen into waves of stone ; still less, perhaps, of the efforts of kind nature to fling green things hopefully over frozen flames, and the blind confidence of human homes that trust and build above forgotten gulfs.
We hear much of the tumult of freshets in the uproar of the year ; of the dash, the whirl, the shock, the watery dawn, that rises thin and cold upon pathetic ruin. Do we study to learn as well of the patient renewals of life that follow, the slow gathering of wasted forces, the gradual restoration of landmarks and symptoms of content, the gravely rebuilt firesides by which forever ears must listen for the footsteps of the flood ?
The story of Reliance Strong (such was her fine, Puritan inheritance of a name) is a short one and a quiet; worth telling more because it is like a great many other people’s stories than because it differs from them. She loved her husband, and he was dead. Let us turn a leaf, as we push away sacred letters not our own, that we can but will not read. He had been dead a year.
It was a year that day. Charles Nordhall remembered, and he felt that he ought not to go to her ; but his errand could not well wait. Since Mrs. Strong had moved out of town, these occasions would arise when he must consult her upon business of her own at short notice.
He left the train at Salem with a certain reluctance, and bade his driver travel slowly; he shrank from seeing her almost as much as he did a year ago.
She had asked his advice about moving to Salem to take care of her husband’s mother. He had been more touched by her deference to his opinion than conscious of ability to give one. To decide upon almost any course of action for a friend in extremity is like performing a surgical operation for which one has not been educated.
All places were alike to her, she had said. But Nordhall’s sturdy instinct rebelled, and answered that all places were not like the silent house where Paul and Virginia lay unread upon the unpressed cushions.
He was not ill pleased when her heart turned towards the old homestead, the old mother, and the old-fashioned, passionless town. It was indeed some time before he allowed himself to think that this would make her a neighbor of his own.
She did not talk with him often or much. There were a few questions about her husband’s affairs. What did it mean to be executrix ? Must she do this, or that? Was he to be her agent, and would he teach her how to manage wisely ? Not that she cared for the money, but she wished to he regardful of all that John had earned and left for her. Then she would sit silent, and forget that he was there.
She had never required him to tell her the details of her husband’s death. Having understood that there was an accident upon the railroad, she had asked no more. The circumstances were so painful that Nordhall felt a sad, abiding gratitude for the instinct by which she spared them both.
The house to which Nordhall drove was a mile, perhaps, from his own, in the direction of Marblehead and the open sea. It was a large wooden house, white, with dark-green blinds. It stood behind avenues of elm-trees and horse-chestnuts, bare now, and beating about in the northeast wind. A long garden ran behind and around the house ; straw lay bound upon the buried flowers ; patches of snow melted about the syringa hushes ; the stalks of the frozen hollyhocks nodded at the visitor. Over the marshes the fog was starting in from sea. It was some distance to the sea. Established Salem families did not live in the surf, like people who came in summer, and could afford only a few weeks of salt breezes.
Old Mr. Strong had gone quite far enough out of town, as it was ; but Winthrop L. Strong always did as he pleased, and he did not please (like Lamb) to favor “ houses in streets.” Of course, a gentleman would always have horses, and what did fifteen minutes to a neighbor signify ? The two ladies therefore lived a somewhat secluded life.
As Nordhall stood hesitating whether to lift the heavy brass knocker, or to ring the bell, the fog stretched itself a little, and seemed to shut the world out, and to shut him in against the closed door.
Mrs. Winthrop L. Strong came down with her daughter-in-law, to receive him; she always did. She spoke of the weather and the country, her pastor, her doctor, and her health, and asked if he had seen the Rollinstalls.
And then she invited him to tea, and begged him to excuse her, as she found it wearisome to sit up too long at a time, and had a little matter in preparation for the church charity society, which required her attention.
“ She’s knitting socks,” said Reliance, after the door was closed. “ She always does.”
“ For every fair? ”
“ It is n’t a fair. I think church people do not call them fairs ? It is a Dorcas. They are baby socks. They are always blue. And so they all have to be given to the boy babies.”
“ I should think there might perhaps be — a superfluity ? ”
“ Yes. Last year every Dorcas baby was a girl,” added Reliance, gravely; “and it was very inconvenient. For you know a girl must wear pink always.” “ No, I did n’t know,” said Nordhall. “ But mother is good,” sighed Mrs.' Strong. “ I wish I were as useful! ” She paused. Thus, clumsily enough, they had got over the edge of the occasion. She used to be full of fun in her happy days. He inferred, of course, that she desired no allusion to the anniversary. He began at once ; —
“I came to see you—to-day — because I must have your signature immediately. I think you must part with your Cicero and St. Thomas bonds. Suspicions of the management are afloat, and they have gone rapidly down. They were above par four days ago, but sell at 87¾ to-day.”
“ Cicero and St. Thomas ? ” she asked languidly. “ Those are factories ? ”
“ No ; a railroad.”
“ Oh, I remember; a Southern railroad.”
“ The road is in Ohio,” said Nordhall.
“ I am afraid I shall never learn about money,” she answered, shaking her head. “ But I wish to,” she added, after a thought. “ I do not wish to make you so much trouble. I do not wish to be so stupid, either ! ” with increasing emphasis, and a faint touch of spirit, — a ghostly thing, like her merriment. Nordhall liked better to see her sad, and even her languor had the comfort of genuineness. She subsided into this quickly enough, stooping to pat her dog with an idle and abstracted hand. The dog sat at her feet while they talked, and watched her closely.
“ They are registered bonds,” began Nordhall again. “ I had them registered, you remember, at your wish ; we thought it safer.”
She did not remember in the least, but she assented idly.
“ I regard it as always best to register when possible, — for women and all cautious investors,” he proceeded; “ though there are disadvantages. You canuot sell so quickly, in emergencies.”
“ But I do not wish to sell.”
“ Not now, — no. You might. It is well to remember these things, in case you should at any time prefer to manage them for yourself.”
She looked up ; her lips parted tremulously, but she only said that she had never thought about such matters, and that she thanked him for his great kindness to her.
“ It will be necessary for you to indorse all these coupons,” said Nordhall, spreading the bonds upon the table. “ The coupons are registered also. It is one of the thoroughly protected things. There are a good many. I’m sorry. The bonds run to ’85. You will please to write your name here.”
He went to bring the ink and pens from Madam Strong’s old ebony desk that stood in the adjoining library; but Reliance followed him. The dog followed her. She stood at the high desk to write. Her black dress and the black wood deepened the gloom of the dull room, ranged with law-books and encyclopædias. There was only one window in the room. The sound of the surf came up. Nordhall watched her. The dog watched him.
“ Now, come away,” he said, and hurried her out.
“ I never can forget ” — she spoke with a shiver — “ that Father Strong died in that room. John never could. You know it was John who went in — late —and found him ” — She stopped. It was the first time she had mentioned her husband’s name that day. But Nordhall only said, —
“ Come nearer to the fire. You are cold.”
He stirred the coals, and drew up the easiest of the stiff, old-fashioned chairs. She sank down, and put her hands out drearily, to warm them. They were purple, and had grown so thin that her Wedding-ring hung to the joint. Nordhall looked at them. His own were warm, and the rich blood ran abounding beneath his somewhat delicate and fair color. He had the sensitive complexion that flushes and pales easily. His hair had been red when he was a little boy. He had a boy’s eyes yet.
“ I will go now,” he said, after a difficult pause.
“ So soon ? ” She raised her head languidly. As she did so, she glanced at the clock on the mantel, and both saw that it was twenty-five minutes of five o’clock. It was at twenty-five minutes of five that he had come into her parlor on Mt. Vernon Street, a year ago.
She turned to him piteously ; held up her hands, drew them down, and buried her face in them.
He said in a whisper, “ Poor girl ! ” and then he went away. No one could help her. Glancing back, he saw her gently push the dog one side. Nordhall called the creature out, and stopped in the hall and looked at him with a singular sense of fellowship.
“ We ’re neither of us wanted, Kaiser,” he said. After a moment’s hesitation, the animal responded to this expression of sympathy, and graciously followed the man out. The weather had thickened densely. Nordhall could see as far as the syringa bushes by the gate, but the road was blotted.
“ Which way shall we go, Kaiser ? ” he murmured, looking over. Kaiser regarded him inquiringly. But it was with the dignity of possession that the setter turned and went back to the house. He waited on the granite steps some time, unnoticed but calm. At last Nordhall, strolling in the fog, stricken by an uncertainty of purpose of which he could not rid himself, saw the door opened and the dog admitted.
It was herself. She seemed to apologize to Kaiser for her neglect. She had infinite tenderness. Like a forbidden dream, he saw her broken face, and then the door was shut.
“ We are born loyal.” - EMERSON.
Reliance did not knit for the Dorcas babies. She did not like to knit. And when blue socks are the final cause of existence, as in the case of Madam Strong, it seems an impertinence to interpose a rivalry under the family roof; as if, for instance, one should crochet them, and of pink, and so seem either to reflect upon the taste, or to undervalue by competition the self-sacrifice of one’s mother-in-law.
But it has been well said that when the one creature whom the heart loves is removed, it takes the whole world to fill the place of that one. In the third year of her widowhood, Reliance Strong looked over the syringa bushes, one day, into the street, and remembered that there was a world beyond the gate which led between horse-chestnuts and elmtrees, past the hollyhocks, up the granite steps, into the old white mansion, where two women mourned their dead.
This was the way in which she happened to think of it.
That morning, as she came down in her veiled hat, to walk towards the marshes for a breath of air, she found one of the servants sobbing in the vestibule. It was Janet, the parlor-maid. She was washing the side-lights of the old hall door ; her tears mingled with the soap-suds as she splashed and scoured. The keen sun peered through the diamond-shaped glass upon her pale hair and reddened eyes, and her pretty, round figure, with neat apron-front crossed over the grief that wrung her blue calico bosom. Mrs. Strong, feeling as if she and the sun were both intruders, stopped hesitatingly, and asked what was the matter.
Janet answered evasively that it was nothing much.
“ I should be glad to help you with your trouble, if I could,” replied Mrs. Strong, with some timidity. She had never thought much about the grief of servants; or if, indeed, they had any. In her own brief, happy life as a householder, her people below-stairs had all been in good spirits ; or if not, her own had been too fine to notice it. Once, she remembered, the cook had a toothache, and the quail was burned; and she had given the house-maid things to cut over for a little sister. But with the consummate self-absorption of joy, she had supposed that every woman who lived in the house with Mr. Strong must, in a general way, be happy.
But Janet, between the dripping sidelights, stood crying.
“ It’s my father,” she said.
“ Is he dead, Janet ? ”
“ Ma’am — no ; he ’s worse than dead.”
Reliance had asked the question with a weary sadness, which reacted into a dull sense of surprise at Janet’s businesslike reply. The lady had heard people talk about griefs worse than death. It had not occurred to her for a long time that there could be such. With a sense of positive intellectual curiosity, she sat down and drew Janet’s story gently from her. It seemed, indeed, that a drunken husband might he worse than a dead one. And Janet had twelve brothers and sisters. And her mother hurt her right arm last week. And the baby was uncommonly sick. It was usually sick ; but now, Janet said, it was “ weak’nin’.” And “ he ” — by whom Janet meant to designate her father — “ he ” was just “ up for thirty days.”
“ Up ? ” asked Mrs. Strong.
“ Taken up,” Janet said. “ In the house.”
Mrs. Strong thought it must be very hard having him sick, too, and confined to the house at the same time with the rest.
“ Ma’am,” said Janet, “ I meant the House of Correction.”
There was a pause.
“ He was arrested,” began Janet again. “ He broke a man’s jaw, and he like to broke my mother’s arm. He did n't mean to, but he was flyin’ round that tempestuous with the rollin’-pin, — our rollin’-pin is rather heavy. But she won’t complain on him. Father ’s tried to reform, — that’s what they call it when you stop drinkin’. But he says if he had friends to help him, like some folks do, he’d hold out. But he gets discouraged. He says his friends are all poor. And there ain’t one the neighbors has twelve children.”
“ Do you think, Janet,” asked her mistress, after a thoughtful silence, and still with the same timidity of manner, “ that your mother would mind — if I should call to see her ? ”
“ Oh, no, ma’am; she’s glad to see anybody,” answered Janet, with the indifference of her type and a little, perhaps, of her grief.
Janet’s mother lived over the marshes, and the wind being live that morning Reliance walked quickly on her unusual errand. The fine air spurred her on like the approval of a friend.
She had to search and inquire for the place she wanted, — the houses on the marshes looking very much alike to her, and so many of their masters being “ up,” — and, for the first time upon her lonely morning walks, she threw back from her face her long crape veil.
Thus it happened that Reliance was introduced in one of the most effective, because one of the most natural, ways in the world to the griefs of other people ; and those forms of neighborhood benevolence which have been the solace of widowed and idle women from generation to generation, gradually attracting, ended by engrossing her sad attention.
A certain change touched her, which Nordhall watched with gratified scrutiny.
“ I cannot work in societies and clubs and sisterhoods and such places,” she said to him one day ; “ I quarrel with the other women. I tried it after the fire, when so many of those poor shop-girls were burned out. I was a committee for something, — I forget what. One of the ladies said a hard thing about the poor girls, and I answered her ; and so I hurt their feelings, and so I left.”
“ What was it ? ” asked Nordhall, smiling.
“ Oh, not much ; only she said if those girls would do wrong, why, let them go and do it! She did n’t think it was a lady’s duty to consider any but worthy cases. If there’s a word in the dictionary I hate, it is that ' cases ’ ! And the girls in such peril, being left homeless all at once ! ”
“ And you told her ? ”
“ I told her I thought if I were a poor girl, left alone, and nobody cared for me, and I were burned out of home and work, and I saw a bright-looking dance-house, and it was warm, and I was cold, I thought very likely I should go in,” said Reliance, quietly. “ So after that,” she added, “ I thought I would n’t try to work in societies. Then I’d rather people did not know everything I do. I like to put shoes on a barefoot child without telling of it.”
“ You have been busy lately ?” he asked her, hesitating.
“ Have I ?” she reflected. “Yes; very, I believe. I had n’t thought much about it. Only I do not like to see people suffer, if I can help it. That is all.” She sighed.
“You have ” — he checked himself. He thought he would not tell her that he saw a change in her. It was an indefinite thing, — a delicate irradiation of the eye, a firmer settling of the lip, a keener accent in a quicker voice; yet these slight tokens were only like the alterations of color on a bay’s surface when the whole day is gray. Nordhall regarded her fine and unhopeful face a moment, and said no more.
Presently he asked her how “ Mr. Janet” was getting along.
So then she laughed.
“ You always call that poor girl’s father Mr. Janet! His name is Griggs. He is doing finely. I’ve looked after him a little. He only needed friends. I saw him every day for a while.”
“ You ’re setting a premium on drunkenness!” murmured Nordhall impulsively. He had never spoken to her just like that; and as soon as he had done SO he hoped she would not notice it. Indeed, it seemed that she did not. She was leaning back in her chair, musing. Her thoughts were already far away from him. She was sitting by the long, low, open window, for it was summer, and the strong salt air drove into the drawing-room. She had tied a white lace handkerchief at her throat, over her warm and heavy widow’s weeds. Outside, Madam Strong was tending the hollyhocks : these were of gold and rose and silver; one was a rare brown or wine-color ; it was taller than the rest, and nodded in the wind. Kaiser was in the garden, too ; sunning himself at the feet of the gardener, who weeded industriously. Brisk and cheerful sounds came up ; the lonely old home had mellowed with the genial season. Madam Strong wore her garden gloves, and a Chinese silk sun-bonnet adorned her head : this was a concession to the Creator, which always filled her household with a certain responsive laxity of emotion ; it seemed phenomenal that anybody could do anything which would induce so stately and benevolent a lady to forget the Dorcas babies, and dig at the roots of hollyhocks in unbecoming if expensive nankin. Even Kaiser rolled on her dress when she put on that sunbonnet, and she said, “ Kaiser, Kaiser! ” with a dignified but tolerant bend.
“ It is midsummer,” said Nordhall, looking idly out over the head of Reliance. Her crown of brown hair drooped so near him that it seemed he felt rather than saw the wind stir it; the full, bright braid seemed to breathe. So idle was his mood that he was startled when she started murmuring, —
But then, by a sensitive chance, he too remembered: —
Close to her bosom press I dying eyes,
Praying, God shield thee till we meet in Para-
Neither spoke. Nordhall was sorry for her. But he thought bitterly how subtle were the memories of the mourning, and how hard it was for human tenderness to wend its way among them. She seemed to him like those gorgeous and mystical sea creatures that float upon the surface of tropic waters, throbbing with nerves that stretch and strike at every colliding object; but woe to the swimmer who dares cross the purple current where they pulsate ! Their lightest filaments, touching, shall cause him an exquisite agony.
Who could help her ? Who know where the pulse beat, when the nerve would quiver ? She had a world of unknown sensations. He could not enter it; he never had.
Presently she raised her head, and saw him watching her. She surprised him. She had never seen him look like that. For out of his eyes there sprang a fugitive look that bade defiance to his grave and guarded face. It was a feeling set free; and it was the feeling that only a man knows, and knows only for a woman, and only for her when she is pure and fair and is denied him. But it was a feeling of which the man is no more intelligently aware than he is of the look.
If we wished to be metaphysical, we might call it sub-conscious.
Reliance was used to the calm glances of this good man ; to his kindliness and friendliness and care, to the sad affection by which he protected her.
Had it been any other than he she would have said that this was the face of one who admired her: not because she was John’s wife, his friend’s wife, but because she was a woman and herself.
She put the thought to herself in these simple words. She remembered, with bewilderment like that of a transmigrated soul recalling its last stage of existence, other times when other looks of other men had wrought in her the same recoil and inquiry. She was too fair a woman not to be experienced in reading the countenances of men. As it was, the young widow pondered, saying to her disturbed heart,
“ But it is only Charley Nordhall! ” Yes, it was only Charley Nordhall, himself now, her dead husband’s friend, gravely regarding her, quietly asking,
“ Won’t you walk about the garden ? It is too pleasant to stay in-doors.”
He brought her hat, which hung in the hall, — he was quite at home at Madam Strong’s. Reliance put it on in silence. She followed him meekly. She felt perplexed and not unashamed, as if she had assumed or presumed what no woman would who did not overvalue herself. Her shocked feeling gave way.
This was Charley Nordhall: helping her in a fatherly manner out among the flowers, asking her questions about all her poor people, and stopping to assure Madam Strong that the facts she had heard about the homœopathic doctor were quite correct.
They walked down under the horsechestnuts, and spoke of the beauty of the elms. They stood together by the gate. Nordhall talked awhile about Mr. Janet. Reliance remembered how rich and ready was his interest in all her little ways of passing life. For philanthropy was not as yet a passion with Reliance ; she visited poor people because she felt it to be her duty, and she was glad to do her duty. She liked to talk about them, but had not reached the point at which she could talk of nothing else. She chatted calmly.
Nordhall watched the development of her feeling for Mr. Janet and his neighbors carefully, as he would have watched the growth of other or more intense emotions.
“ And yet,” he thought, “ it grows upon her.” He felt a vague envy.
They stood among the bushes which arched over the front gate, and looked across the garden. Bees upon the blossoms made a faint din in the vivid air. The gardener sang at his work. Madam Strong had removed her gloves, and was resting from her labors on the grapevine settle under the elm that had been pierced by lightning, but had grown the greener ever since. Kaiser came halfway down the path as if to meet them, changed his mind, and lay down lazily, yawning ineffectually at the flies, with his head upon his white forepaws. The hollyhocks blazed in the sun, — rose and gold and silver white, and the brown one taller than the rest.
“ That one is like a baton,” said Reliance, looking about with a little cheerful smile. “ It beats time for all the others. Look ! It is like seeing music that you cannot hear. It is a pleasant day ! ”
Nordhall was glad to hear her speak like this. His eyes and heart ached to see her there in her black dress, in the color and the light, among the bees and blossoms. All His soul rose and befriended her. He tried to think if there were anything he could do to make her happy that he had forgotten ; anything John would have wished him to do, — did wish, perhaps, if he were there that moment. He wanted to do what John would like. Then she, looking up, recognized by an intuition the loyalty and unselfishness of his unspoken mood. Without knowing why, Reliance felt happier just then than she had all day. She felt safe. It seemed as if in almost any grave shadow of the blossom-burdened lawn she might look, and she should find John.
When her mother-in-law sent the gardener out to urge Mr. Nordhall to dine, she pressed the invitation herself. The gardener was singing still. He sang : —
What thought in the leaf may be !
Go ask of the bud, and ponder
What message it brings to thee.
Loth and late, loth and late, though she be!
How shall my soul go to meet her,
Who never will hasten to me? ”
“ What are you singing, Jacobs ? ” asked Nordhall, abruptly.
Jacobs said it was a song he heard a lady sing once, — a lady where he worked. She had a powerful fine voice, and she practiced at the pianner a good deal. He caught it weeding petunias. It always made him think of it to see a petunia.
“ Petunias ! Let us say a morningglory.”
“ Sir ? ” asked Jacobs.
But Reliance was walking on before, in her black straw hat, stopping to speak to Janet, who had come out to meet her. Janet looked at her affectionately while she talked.
Nordhall glanced about him with a calm delight. He felt at home. It all seemed like a scene in a cheerful German novel, where the people were so much in gardens. He thought of Goethe’s ladies, Lotte and Friederike. When Kaiser heard the dinner-bell and they all went in, it seemed as if they had been doing this every day just so, and would go in again to-morrow and tomorrow, past the pink and white and yellow hollyhocks, and the tall one with the wine-red heart.
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.