MRS. PAUL had a moment of great astonishment when she learned of Major Lee’s invitation to Alan’s friend. Miss Sally had been her informant; but instead of being thankful for a bit of gossip and a new interest, she was angry that no one had told her sooner.
“ He invited him day before yesterday ? ” she said. “ Why are you so secretive, Sally ? Why did n’t you tell me before ? ”
“ I have not had a chance to come in,” Miss Sally explained, gently. “ I have had so much on my mind about the kitchen, you know, and ” —
“ Much difference it will make in what the poor young man gets to eat,” interrupted Mrs. Paul, “ whether the kitchen is on your mind or not, Sally! And as for not having had a chance to come in, why did n’t you make a chance?’ ’
But Mrs. Paul was really too much delighted with the arrangements of Providence — 14 for such things are providential,” she declared — to find much fault with Miss Sally. She was full of interest and pleased expectancy.
“ Young Steele can’t live in the house with Sidney,” she reflected, “ and not fall in love with her; the mere fact that Mortimer Lee does n’t want him to will insure that. Well, I shall do my part. No one can ever say that I shirk a duty ; ” and there was a glitter in her dark eyes which, could he have seen it, might have warned Sidney’s father. She lost no opportunity to inquire about Mr. Steele, his health, his frame of mind, his manner. “ All those things mean so much to a girl,” she thought, impatiently.
When John Paul came in to tea, one evening, a day or two after Robert had gone to the major’s, she was instant with a question.
“ Did you go to call upon Mr. Steele this afternoon ? I wonder if you would know enough to make a call upon any one unless I sent you! Well, why don’t you answer me ? ”
“ Yes,” said John.
“ Yes ? ” cried his mother. “ Are you as sparing of ideas as you are of words, Johnny ? ”
“ I saw him.”
“ Well? What? what? what? Can’t you tell me about it? Here I sit alone all day, and you make no effort to entertain me. Your weight is not confined to your body, my friend. The only really interesting and carious thing about you, Johnny, is how you can be so dull, and yet be my son. Was anything said ? ”
“ Nothing much,” John answered, slowly. He was thinking at that moment of Katherine Townsend.
“ I ’ll warrant, — if yon were there. Johnny, you’ve less sense each year. I suppose I must put it into plain words. Did Robert Steele seem impressed by Sidney ? There, you can answer that ! ”
“ No,” said John.
Mrs. Paul struck her hands sharply together. “ Either you are blind or he is,” she declared.
Indeed, there seemed to be no one from whom she could gain satisfactory information ; least of all could she learn anything from Sidney herself, although the girl came more than once, in her aunt’s place, to read aloud, which gave Mrs. Paul an opportunity to ask questions.
But Sidney’s absolute unconsciousness baffled her. Coming in out of the icy wind, which blew the snow in drifts along the path, and ruffled her hair about her forehead, she looked at the older woman with serene eyes, and a face on which the delicate flush, as fresh as the curve of a sea-shell, never deepened or changed. Sometimes her level brows gathered in a fleeting frown. It was not pleasant to talk so much of Mr. Steele, she thought; it was enough to have him in the house; and the best thing to do was to forget his presence, so far as she could.
“ I hate to think about sick people,” she had said once, in her placid way; “it is so disagreeable.”
Miss Sally, to whom the remark had been made, was distressed that her darling should be annoyed, although, to be sure, she said bravely, “ Is it quite kind to feel so, love ? ” But that little protest made, she did all in her power to keep Mr. Steele out of her niece’s way. Robert was perfectly aware that she did so. He felt Sidney’s aversion, without realizing that it was not for him, but for his suffering, and the consciousness of it threw him back with infinite relief upon Miss Sally’s gentleness and pity. She, at least, did not despise him; and he even began to tell himself that her friendship was an incentive to flight for his honor and his manhood.
Perhaps his first week at the major’s was the crisis of Robert Steele’s struggle for liberty and self-respect; but the last clutch of the old habit struck sharp into his heart. He was, however, far nearer freedom than he knew, for he was so absorbed in wrestling with this horror of weakness that he did not stop to remember how rapidly Alan was reducing his morphine. He was blind to everything which might have encouraged him, and quite unable to perceive his own progress. He felt as though he were remaining stationary, or even drifting, little by little, further away from hope. He spoke afterwards to Alan of his mental condition at that time. “ It was a horror of great darkness,” he said. “ I felt — you know the old illustration — as though a maelstrom were roaring for me, to suck me down into furious blackness of night, and then as if I were beating my way out along a side current, only to find that it too was whirling round the same terrible centre.”
Here, in this despair, Miss Sally’s little friendly, timid hand was reached out to him. Her kindness seemed greater, perhaps, for Sidney’s coldness ; but its cheer and strength no one knew save Robert himself. So it came about, when he had been at the major’s two or three days, that he and Miss Sally began to sit together in the parlor across the hall, and leave Sidney and her father alone in the library. Robert did not talk much; it was pleasure enough just to listen to Miss Sally’s mild voice, so full of confidence and respect. She, it must be admitted, talked a great deal. Once she told him, and it soothed him inexpressibly, that she thought he had been so noble and so brave about — that money. He must forgive her for speaking of it, but she did think so.
That Miss Sally was as ignorant of finance as little Susan, singing in the big, sunny kitchen, made no difference to Robert Steele; although perhaps he did not probe her knowledge by a question because he feared to discover its shallowness. He was quite content to sit here, in the long-unused parlor, listening dreamily to her pleasant chatter. It was not a cheerful room, save for her voice, even when the afternoon sunshine streamed through the leafless branches of the ailantus-trees, and touched the faded yellow damask of the old furniture and the gray paper with its scattered spots of gilt. Sometimes the sunshine rested in a glimmering dust upon the half-length portrait of a very beautiful young woman, who lifted a stately head and throat from a crimson velvet wrap, and looked with calm, level eyes over the heads of the people in the room, and out into the golden light behind the trees. Robert looked persistently at this picture while his hostess talked, although the same indifference which he had seen in Sidney chilled him in the face of this woman, long since dead, and made his heart shiver for the warmth and comfort of Miss Sally’s kindness.
They had been sitting here together, the first Sunday of Mr. Steele’s visit, when it occurred to Miss Sally that it might be a pleasure to him to see Mrs. Paul, and so she proposed that he should go to call upon her.
“ I’m afraid it is dull for you,” she said, apologetically, — “ just to talk to me. Mortimer never comes in here, because of Gertrude’s picture, you know, — he does not like to see it; and he and Sidney always spend their Sunday afternoons reading and studying, or they would beg you to come into the library with them. But I am sure you will enjoy seeing Mrs. Paul. Won’t you go ? ”
To Robert, pale, sad-eyed, and ashamed, there seemed but one thing to do, and that was to be guided by any one who would take the trouble to lead him.
“ If you want me to,” he answered; “ and if you will go.”
So they started out together ; Robert walking ahead to make a path through the snow for Miss Sally, and feeling a trembling dignity in this slight assertion of care for some one else. Feathery thimbles fell from the rusted hinges as he pulled open the door in the wall, and a wreath of snow shaken from the twisted branches of the wisteria powdered his shoulders with misty white. He laughed, and made light of Miss Sally’s fear that he might take cold. This, too, was good for him.
“ Now what in the world,” Mrs. Paul was saying at that moment, observing them from her bedroom window, " does that Sally come with him for ? ” However, she made haste to take Scarlett’s arm, and welcomed them, a moment later, at the fireside in the drawing-room. “ So good of you to come to see an old woman,” she said, smiling at Robert under dark brows which had not yet lost their delicate arch. “ And it was good in dear Sally to show you the short way between our houses: but you must not let Mr. Steele trespass upon your kindness, Sally, by keeping you here now, if you are needed at home ? ”
“ Oh, no,” said Miss Sally, cheerfully, delighted at Mrs. Paul’s consideration.
I can stay just as well as not, thank you.”
“ How fortunate ! ” returned her hostess, with the suggestion of a shrug; then she turned her shoulder towards Miss Sally, and began to talk altogether to Robert.
Here, too, was solace. With Mrs. Paul his past was all a matter of course. It was a little amusing, perhaps, — an excess of virtue is apt to be amusing, — but it could not change her friendliness, or that charming cordiality which could forget his amiable folly. Robert Steele felt braced into a glow of confidence and hope; not even the pang of hot disgust with himself, which came when his hostess cleverly turned the conversation upon Sidney, could rob him of that thrill of courage. In his heart he was thanking Miss Sally for it; but how could Mrs. Paul fancy that?
Alan Crossan, of course, had a clearer understanding of Robert’s frame of mind ; he knew that it was time to look for strength and courage, whether Miss Sally had been kind or not; but he was none the less pleased, when he called at the major’s, to know that his friend had gone out with her. The doctor had dropped in to see Mr. Steele, he said, and was delighted to learn that “ Bob was beginning to gad about.’ He had found the major and his daughter alone in the small room beyond the library, where the old man kept his dearest books and did some little writing, and where Sidney had learned all the bitter lessons which his life could teach. Sunday was the best time in the week to these two friends; the beautiful, silent hours marked Sidney’s spiritual growth, because in them she looked deeper and deeper into her father’s love. Miss Sally never thought of sitting with them, even when she did not go to church; and they had no callers, except once in a while when John Paul came in, and ate a piece of Miss Sally’s plain cake and took a glass of wine from the decanter which, more out of regard for ancient habits of hospitality than because of expected guests, stood on Sunday afternoon on a side-table in the library.
This December day was cold and bright; the wintry sunshine crept about the long room, gleaming on the silver collar of the decanter, and fading the glow of the smouldering logs in the fireplace. The major was tired, but he had let Sidney lead him to the old sofa, and arrange the cushions for his head, more for the happiness of her tender touch than for rest. Then she had brought a hassock to his side, and a book, and without words they were very happy.
Major Lee would have been dismayed if he had seen his daughter ungracious, yet, as he rose to welcome Alan, he felt vaguely that Sidney regretted “ this pleasing interruption ” (it was thus he answered the doctor’s apology) less than he did. It was she who said, in her glad young voice, “ You must wait until Mr. Steele comes back, Alan ; ” and the major could do no less than beg him to be seated, adding, “ And you will take tea with us, sir ? ” Of course the young man accepted the invitation ; indeed, he had counted upon receiving it.
“ It’s very good of Miss Sally,” he said, “ to devote herself to Steele in this way, instead of going to church. But what will Mr. Brown say ? His name is Brown, is n’t it? ”
“ Perhaps next Sunday she will induce Mr. Steele to accompany her to church,” the major answered.
“ She will not have to urge him,” Alan declared. “ He is one of those naturally religious people, you know. He goes to church as a matter of course.”
“Ah ?” returned Major Lee. Mr. Robert Steele’s eccentricities did not interest him.
But this mention of church-going introduced a subject upon which Alan wanted to speak to the older man. To be able to express his own opinion on one or two points would be an escape for the irritation which the major’s attitude had aroused in him.
“ To bring up a girl in this way is outrageous ! ” he had said to himself a dozen times since he had come back to Mercer ; for Alan knew all about the major’s theories upon education. Miss Sally’s quick and tender and somewhat shallow nature had made reserve about herself impossible, and her abundant kindliness claimed her friends’ affairs as her own. So, very long ago, Mrs. Paul had been told that Sidney was never to marry, and why ; and Alan Crossan’s mother had known, naturally ; and Mr. and Mrs. Brown, down in the little rectory of St. James the Less, — although, indeed, that the clergyman was aware of Mortimer Lee’s unholy project was not entirely due to Miss Sally. The major himself had had one keen, clear word with the young man concerning his daughter’s training, and Mr. Brown, sorry and disapproving, had yet, in his calls upon Miss Sally in her brother’s house, respected the father in the intidel, and made no effort to save Sidney’s soul.
So, little by little, Major Lee’s purpose had become a subject of half-amused, half-indignant gossip. Probably he was not aware of it, but it would not have troubled him at all had he learned it. There was nothing now in this world which could trouble Mortimer Lee, if Sidney were well and happy. Very literally, he lived for her. To show her how to live, he was content to bear life. If the sight of his enduring pain could save her from pain, it was enough.
Sidney, he had said, was to be taught to seek for truth; to do without illusions ; to look the facts of life full in the face. She was to judge, emotionally, first, whether it was probable that there was a beneficent and all-powerful Being in a world which held at the same time Love and Death : and next, with inexorable logic, she was to find a universe of law, empty of God. Reason, with relentless and majestic steps, trampled upon many things before this conviction was reached. It pointed out the myths and absurdities of the Bible ; it left no hope of personal immortality; it destroyed the Christ of Christianity. It demonstrated that morality and expediency were synonymous. It counseled negation instead of happiness. More than all, it pointed out the mad folly of love in a world where death follows love like its own shadow.
As a result, Sidney was sincere, but not earnest; which is perhaps inevitable, when one believes, but does not feel. She simply took her father’s word, and so her unbelief was not her own, but his.
Major Lee had not dogmatized his infidelity ; it was his opinion that dogma in negation was as unphilosophical as the dogmatic assertions of theology. He had only shown his daughter certain terrible facts, in a terrible world, and then subtly guided her inference. He had been careful to point out to her the falsehoods, and willful blindnesses, and astonishing egotism of Christianity, and with this to present the calm reasonableness of law.
That Christians called Law God, Sidney knew ; but what they felt when they said God was unknown to her. With all his fairness, Major Lee had never been able to tell his daughter that. He had spread his life, like a strange and dreadful picture, before her eyes, and she had seen, with terror, that it had been blasted by love and death. Love, he had declared, was the certain road to despair ; and she was instant to put his deduction into words, — therefore, never love.
This conclusion of hers was as unaffected as the most spontaneous impulses in the lives of other women, and it became perfectly natural. Rappaccini’s daughter, it will be remembered, found, in course of time, poison her daily and necessary food.
Alan Crossan, seeing the result of Major Lee’s deductions in Sidney’s serene indifference and in her understood determination never to marry, had burned to attack the sad old man. Yet, oddly enough, though his indignation was no less, he felt of late a growing disinclination to antagonize Sidney’s father. So, instead of rushing into argument upon the wisdom of love, he found himself considering that skepticism from which, he was assured, the major’s morbid theories sprang.
“ You never go to church, do you, Sidney ? ” he began.
“ Yes,” she answered, “ occasionally. I like the music.”
“ Oh,” said Alan, rather blankly, “ I thought, from something you said once about belief, that you would hardly go.”
“ It has nothing to do with belief,” Sidney explained. “ I never think of that, except sometimes.”
The major looked up at his daughter in silence.
“ I think of it,” she said, quite simply and gravely, answering the question in his eyes, “ when I see the power which it has. Oh, the lifted-up look one often sees ! Poor little Mrs. Brown, the light in her face on Easter, — you know their eldest son died just before Easter ? — it meant absolute confidence. And then to think that it is only belief, and not knowledge, which causes such confidence! It is wonderful, even if it is not real.”
“Yes,” observed the major, “it is certainly most interesting that a self-created illusion will sustain the soul in such a crisis. Yet it always fails, — always fails. It cannot outlast the capacity of the brain for nervous exaltation. Mrs. Brown’s resignation did not last, you remember, — poor soul — poor soul !” The major, with his long white fingers pressed together, looked absently at the spark of sunshine in the little worn ring upon his left hand.
“ I don’t think you ought to call belief unreal,” the doctor protested. “ True or false, it is real to the believer.”
“ You mean the hope of immortality and reunion, and all that?” Sidney asked, a little disdainfully. “ Do you think that is often real to people ?”
“ Yes,” he said ; “ but all the reality in the world cannot overcome the weakness of human nature.”
The major smiled. “ You are right. It cannot change facts; assertions will not conquer the inevitable.”
“ And, Alan,” cried the girl earnestly, “ surely, if its belief were genuine, human nature is great enough, love is great enough, not to be so horribly selfish as to mourn, if it could really believe that death did not end all, and there was a heaven and happiness. They have to say so, — the Christians, — and I suppose they think they believe it, or else they could not love any one, you know; but you can see it is not lasting, as a reality would be, for they mourn just as much as the people who have no illusions. The talk of the church about immortality, and meeting again, and Easter, why, it seems to me like taking hasheesh; but the burning pyre, and the smoke, and the flames are there, all the same.”
Alan did not answer her. His mother was in his heart. Had he not loved her enough to rejoice in her happiness, if, in his soul, he had believed that she was happier, — that she was at all ? Instead— and the memory of those empty days came back like a sickness of the soul. Perhaps Sidney was right, and his belief was not genuine.
“ You are not a Christian, are you, Alan ? ” Sidney asked, suddenly.
“ I don’t know,” he said, smiling. “ I suppose I am. But I prefer to keep my illusions, if you please; so I don’t examine myself very critically.”
“ How can you say that! ” cried Sidney. “ How can you even think that perhaps your beliefs are illusions! Either, it seems to me, a man would have to believe with all his heart, and not know that he was blind to facts, or else see the truth of life and make the best of it.”
“ Or the worst, ” Alan answered, lightly. “ There was Steele’s father; every one says he was a most unhappy man. He was a freethinker, was n’t he, Major Lee, — what would be called an agnostic, to-day ? ”
“ Yes,” said the major.
“ And you, — you are also an agnostic, are you not ? ”
The major looked at him, with mild patience in his eyes. “ I do not call myself so. I do not know enough ; I have not yet compassed the sum of my own ignorance.”
Alan felt instinctively that Sidney’s father regarded him with disapproval, and as one who spoke of great things flippantly. A little color came into his dark cheek, and he made haste to comment upon the fact that Robert Steele, with such a father and mother, was a religious man. “ One would fancy,” he ended, “ that their son would be negative, instead of an out-and-out churchman. Mrs. Steele was a Roman Catholic, you know. It was always a surprise to me that so intelligent a woman could be a Catholic.”
The major smiled. “ But religion and intelligence have nothing to do with each other, my young friend.”
Alan laughed. “ Very little, I acknowledge.”
“ Oh, how can you say that, and still call yourself a Christian ! ” said Sidney.
“ I suppose,” observed the major, courteously, “ that the doctor would spare himself the pain of knowledge.”
“ No,” answered the girl, looking with tender gratitude at her father, “ it is only knowledge which spares pain.”
“ And so,” Alan declared, amused and half annoyed, “ you are to have no pain in life, Sidney, because your knowledge has taught you to cast out the things that comfort other people, and save them from the fear of death, — I mean the belief in God and in immortality ?”
He had risen, and was standing in his favorite attitude by the fire, his elbow on the mantel and his hand grasping his coat collar. His dark, sensitive face was flushed a little by the glow of the logs. The sunshine had quite gone, and the dusk was beginning to creep in from the garden. “ How can any knowledge spare such suffering ? ” he went on. “ It is bound to come to us all; we cannot cheat life, or lose the anticipation and the fear of death. Where was there ever a happy soul, except a child ? ”
“ Here,” said Major Lee; he touched Sidney’s shoulder as he spoke. There was something in his voice which made the young man start. The passion of tenderness in the worn old face sobered him into earnestness.
“ But some time ” — he stammered, “ some time — even if she loves no one else ” —
“ She will lose me? Yes. But that is regret, not grief. Attachment to a father or a mother is natural ; it is the instinct of the animal; it is not — love.”
His voice shook with sudden excitement, and he said that word with the awe of one who takes the unspeakable name upon his lips.
“But,” Alan protested, “you make it appear that love is the curse of life! ”
The major was silent.
“ You forget,” insisted the young man, " that love is its own exceeding great reward, — it is worth the pain.”
“ You have, of course, experienced both love and grief, that you speak so positively,” said Mortimer Lee, his face darkening in the shadows.
A sharp reality came into the moment. Alan knew that he had never felt either, in the sense in which the older man spoke. “ No,” lie answered, “ but I know that life is beautiful and good where there is love, — I mean the love of a man and woman ; it is not always fierce and terrible: it does not of necessity involve the unreason of passion ; and it does glorify existence. But life is still good, even when death takes love out of it.”
“ I do not call that love,” said the major, “ which can be taken away and leave — anything! Passion, truly, is but the incident of love, but love and the worth of life end together.” The momentary agitation had left his face ; he even smiled a little at Alan’s excitement.
“ But,” persisted the young man, confused, by Major Lee’s contempt and his own lack of words, into contradicting himself, “ we must love. It means ambition and hope, and all that makes life worth having. Why, life without it, or without any comfort in religion to help a man meet death, — life is tragedy ! ”
“ Has that just struck you ? ” said the major.
“ Now, Sally,” said Mrs. Paul, “ I want to talk to you about Sidney ; just put that book down, will you? Are you in such a hurry to get back to Mr. Steele that you want to plunge into it at once ? Or is it that you are so charmed with Entre Nous Trois ? ”
Miss Sally’s quick disclaimer only made Mrs. Paul shrug her shoulders.
“ You have not enough sense, my dear, to appreciate it; it can’t be called innocence, at your age.”
They were sitting in the little room which opened out of Mrs. Paul’s bedroom ; in it she wrote her notes, or received her head clerk from the warehouse, or looked through her housekeeping accounts. Davids knew that room well. He knew that when Mrs. Paul sent Scarlett to summon him there, it was with the intention of finding fault. “ Law, now,” he had often remarked to Scarlett, “ if Mr. John only knew how to handle her as I do ! Give in just a bit here, and stick it out there, and let on you ’re more ’n half offended, and law ! she comes round in a minute. But Mr. John would rather bear her tongue than argufy. People that keep such close mouths,” said Davids, with a reproachful look at the little silent servingwoman, “ are exasperating. I ain’t one to deny it, for all I think of Mr. John.”
Miss Sally often read aloud in this small, severe room, — so small that Mrs. Paul, sitting with her back to the reader, by the window which overlooked Major Lee’s library, shut out a great deal of light, and made it necessary that Miss Sally should hold the book close to her eyes. Just now, however, Mrs. Paul had turned a little, so that she might look at her. “ For I want you to pay attention, if you know how, to what I am going to say,” she had explained ; and Miss Sally had put down the novel with a sigh of relief and apprehension at once.
Mrs. Paul permitted herself, in this room, something which was an approach to négligé: the bit of lace which did duty for a cap upon the soft puffs of her white hair was missing, and she wore a wrapper of changeable silk, lavender and black, with an edge of black fur down the front and around the throat and wrists; her white, delicate hands were without rings. “ The morning,” announced Mrs. Paul, leaning back among her cushions, listening to the French novel, “ is for work, and jewels are for the leisure of a drawing-room. Thank God, I understand the proprieties of life, or how would Sidney ever be taught ? No one, Sally, not even Mortimer Lee, insists more upon the observance of propriety than I do ; but you can make a goose of yourself about it, and that is just what you do, in looking after Sidney and young Steele.”
“ I ? ” said Miss Sally, startled into self-defense. “ Why, I don’t know what you mean, dear Mrs. Paul!
“ What should I mean,” cried the other, “ except that you are with him all the time, — not Sidney ! You seem to think a girl must not sit with a young man, or walk with him, or let him so much as look at her. All very well, to a certain extent, but are you never going to give him an opportunity ? I declare, one would think you were in love with him yourself.”
“ Opportunity ? ” faltered Miss Sally.
“Yes,” answered Mrs. Paul, emphatically. “ He has been at the major’s nearly three weeks ; he must have been impressed by Sidney, if you had ever permitted them to be alone for a moment, so that she could talk. She can’t, with your chatter going on, Sally; you know that as well as I do. With this absurd idea of propriety, you never leave them for an instant.”
Miss Sally’s face flushed a dull and painful red, and then faded into breathless pallor; in her astonishment, she even gasped a little, with a sob in her throat. She was used to being found fault with, but she never could get used to the pain of it.
“ Mrs. Paul,” she said, “ I don’t know what you mean; I — I never thought of propriety. Mr. Steele is not very strong, and I have tried to take care of him. Sidney does not want to talk much to him, and Mortimer is so much occupied that I must be with him; it would not be polite to leave him alone. And — and — as for Sidney, it never could make any difference how much she talked to him or to any young man; you know she will never care for anybody.”
“ 1 know you are a fool, Sally,” said Mrs. Paul, calmly. “ If this has been stupidity on your part, instead of anything better, — I gave you credit for something better, you see, — all I can say is, you can’t plead ignorance any longer. Arrange things a little. Lord ! have you no imagination ? Send Sidney over with a message to me, this evening, and ask him to see her through the garden.”
“ But I have n’t any message, and Sidney would not” —
Mrs. Paul sat up quite straight, and tapped her foot for a moment.
Miss Sally was too fluttered to continue.
“ Well, you can send her over here this afternoon, can’t you ? Now read ; that’s what you are here for. I gave up any hope of conversation long ago. And Miss Sally, in a trembling voice, began.
She would have been glad if she had been allowed to explain a little further. She would have repeated once more that unforgotten talk with her brother, to show how impossible it was that Sidney should ever fall in love with any one, no matter what “ opportunity ” — Miss Sally flushed as that word came into her mind — was offered.
She went on reading quite steadily, but that scene of twenty-two years ago rose before her eyes. How much younger Mortimer was then, but how old he looked that night ! She had gone upstairs to put Sidney to bed, and her brother had entered just as the child lisped after her aunt, her sleepy head on Miss Sally’s shoulder, “ God bless dear father and aunt Sally, and make Sidney a good girl, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.” In the dusk of the fire-lit room, his sister saw a strange expression on Mortimer Lee’s face, but he only said, quietly, “ When the child is asleep, Sarah, will you be so good as to let me see you in the library ? ” With what a light heart she had gone down-stairs to hear what he had to say, — she was young then, only sixteen, — with what high hopes of usefulness and comfort and love for the little motherless baby and the bereaved and lonely man ! He was walking restlessly about his library; his face was haggard, and bitter lines were deepening about his lips. He stood still when his sister entered. “Sit down,” he said curtly. “ I have something to say to you. I heard the child praying when I came into her room. It must not happen again, Sarah.”
“ But — but, Mortimer ” — Miss Sally answered, trembling, for his face frightened her. “ I thought I ought to teach her to say her prayers. Do you mean that you are going to, brother ? ”
“ I! ” he said, and laughed. “ Yes, yes, that’s it. I am going to teach her, my dear.”
“ Then you will hear her say her prayers?” she asked. It seemed perfectly natural to her that the child’s father should claim the sweet task. Major Lee looked at her with pitying impatience.
“ You do not understand me, Sarah. Sidney is to have no religious instruction.”
His sister opened her lips to speak, but dismay robbed her of words.
“ I will not have this folly of prayer in my house,” he continued, — “ at least for the child. You may pray, and believe, and suffer, if you will. Your life is your own; but Sidney is mine. She shall know that this God you talk of and this pretty hope of immortality have no more foundation in reason than her fairy stories. So no miserable egotism shall induce Sidney to address her puny wishes to the First Cause, or make her fancy that she is immortal, so that she may dare to fasten her soul on some other soul, which at any instant death may snatch away from her. Without your God and this immortality she will not love, and so she may escape suffering.”
Miss Sally could not argue: she could only protest. She clung, sobbing, to his arm, which never relaxed to take her to his heart.
“Oh, Mortimer, don’t — don’t say those things ! Oh, spare the child ! Don’t take God away from her. She can’t live without God. And oh, let her love somebody, Mortimer, if it’s only me ! ”
“ Love you ? ” he said sharply. “ Of course, that sort of affection, — certainly. I was not speaking of that. She will be fond of me, undoubtedly. I meant — love ! ”
He groaned as he spoke, and Miss Sally dared not look at him. “ Oh, brother,” she entreated, 14 don’t say she must never marry! People are happy who care for each other. You and Gertrude were happy.”
“You think people are happy, do you ? ” he answered. “ It is only observation, not experience, which draws such a conclusion. There is not, — listen, Sarah, — there is not an hour of a day, no matter how heavenly happy it may be, when the fear of death, the terror of the certain parting, does not strike upon a man’s heart. It stains every hope, it darkens every thought; and that you call happiness ! ” He pushed her away from him, and began again that terrible walk up and down the room.
“ But, Mortimer, dear brother, listen ! ” she cried, the tears rolling down her cheeks. “ God makes up for it afterwards, when we meet those we love.”
“ We do not meet them,” he said, turning and looking at her with stern eyes. ” What, could life be endured one instant if I thought she was — anywhere ? Could I wait long enough to think before I followed her — to search for her — oh, to search for her ! ”
He dropped his face in his hands. It seemed to Sally Lee as though she dared not breathe until he spoke again.
“ So you think your God would add that misery too ? Well, if it makes you happier, child, — but keep it to yourself. If your imagination can create a Being who permits love and death in the same world, and yet is not a — I suppose you can find some comfort. But not one word to Sidney, remember. I am going to save her from love, and then perhaps she will forgive me that site has this cruel and damnable thing called life.”
He left her without another word, and Miss Sally heard the key turn in the door of his little room beyond the library. As for her, she sat down on the edge of the sofa and cried as though her young heart would break, for her brother and for the baby who was to be the subject of his unnatural and unchristian grief. 44 If only I can be good, the dear child cannot help coming to the Saviour,” she said, between her sobs, “ because she will see how he helps and comforts me. Oh, I will try to be good. And if I ’m happy when I am married, she will know that Mortimer is all wrong.”
But Christianity taught Miss Sally no subtlety, only simple-mindedness; so how could she contend with the clear and clever reasoning which, little by little, drew hopes and illusions from before the eyes of the growing girl, and displayed the baseness and bitterness of life, while at the same time Sidney’s instinct showed her, in her father’s character, that this cruel knowledge was compatible with spotless honor and gracious sweetness ! As for the other way in which Miss Sally was to teach her niece, the gradual years had blurred her anticipation of marriage; for, like all those mild souls who are born old maids, she had cherished the conviction that marriage was a woman’s duty, and looked forward to it as a matter of course. Now, at nearly thirty-eight, although, from force of habit, vague thoughts of it flitted through her mind at times, she had ceased to think of it as a possibility; the cares of housekeeping and the interests of other people made her assume and feel a sedateness far beyond her years; and so, instead of precept or conscious example, she simply loved.
It all came back to her as she sat reading the unsavory novel; and if Mrs. Paul had not been so interested in the plans she was making for Sidney, she might have noticed the vagueness of the reader’s voice.
“ I would just like to tell her there is no use in thinking of such a thing,” Miss Sally was saying to herself. “ Mortimer would never permit it, and how could I seem to bring it about against his wishes — and Sidney ! ” It seemed to Miss Sally, in spite of her theories about the sphere of woman, improper to think of Sidney in such a way.
“ Do go,” Mrs. Paul said, suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, " and send Scarlett to me as you go down-stairs. Lord, what a book ! There is sorrow enough in real life without having tragedies in novels. I want to be amused, if you please. I hope you will make a better selection next time.”
Miss Sally’s horrified protest that the choice had not been hers delighted Mrs. Paul.
“ No, I suppose not,” she said. “ You have n’t sense enough. Every woman of the world should read such books, so as to make allowance for life and learn to be charitable; it is a religious duty. But you will never be a woman of the world, my dear ! ”
“I think,” returned Miss Sally, timidly, a bad book can’t teach us charity if it amuses us too.”
Occasionally this gentle and not very sensible little creature made a remark implying a moral bravery of which she could not have been supposed capable.
“ I could n’t let her speak of wicked books in that way,” she thought, as she went down-stairs, her heart pounding with fright.
She gave Mrs. Paul’s message to Sidney, and dared not omit adding, “ Perhaps Mr. Steele will walk across the garden with you, my love ? ”
“ No.” said the young woman, looking at him with wide, calm eyes, “ I will not trouble Mr. Steele.”
He had risen with quick pleasure, but at Sidney’s words he shrank back. “She does not want me,” he thought, and with bitter gratitude his mind returned to Miss Sally. The thought of her kindness was like wine to a resolution which sometimes flagged ; it never failed him when the struggle was hard. How much this courage which came with the thought of her was due to increasing bodily health Robert Steele never asked himself.
When, late that afternoon, Sidney opened the green baize door of Mrs. Paul’s drawing-room, she found her sitting by the fire. She seemed to be expecting some one, the girl thought ; at least, as Sidney entered, she looked beyond her into the hall. “ Well ? ” she said ; and then, “ Did you come alone ? ”
“ Yes,” Sidney answered, brightly. “ Aunt Sally told me that you wanted to see me.”
“That Sally ! ” said Mrs. Paul, under her breath. “ But why did you not ask that poor, forlorn Mr. Steele to come with you ? I’m sure he can’t find your aunt’s conversation very interesting; my drawing-room might be a little more entertaining.”
“ I did not think of amusing him,” said the girl. “ Aunt Sally proposed that he should walk across the garden with me, as though I were afraid to come alone! ” She smiled, but Mrs. Paul made an impatient gesture.
“ Well, never mind now. (I ’ll see Sally to-morrow !) Sit down, my dear.”
“ Can’t I read to you ? ” Sidney asked. “ You are alone, and ” —
“ I’m always alone,” said Mrs. Paul, sharply ; “ don’t say foolish things. No. I want to talk to you.”
She waited while Scarlett placed before the fire a screen, made of a fan, which had nymphs and shepherds painted upon it. Then she leaned her head against the carved and uncomfortable hack of her chair, and looked up at Sidney. Her keen dark eyes had an unwonted gentleness in them.
“ My dear,” she began, “ you must be a little more thoughtful for your poor sick man. Taks to him sometimes; it must be very dull when your father is not at home, if you never speak to him.”
Sidney raised her eyebrows. “I don’t like to talk to him,” she announced, calmly; “ he is n’t exactly ill, but to see any one who is not quite well is not pleasant. It is n’t as if I were aunt Sally, and could make him more comfortable, you know.”
The frank selfishness of this did not disturb Mrs. Paul. “ I do not want you to make him more comfortable,” she said, with a short laugh, “ but don’t ignore him while he is your father’s guest. Why, I am driven to entertaining him myself. I am going to ask you all to take tea here, — Alan and all. I suppose Mr. and Mrs. Brown must come; that is the nuisance of the clergy, —you have to invite them ; and of course you and Mr. Steele. He seems a most amiable young man ? ”
“ Yes,” Sidney answered, with something as near carelessness as can come into the voice of a young woman when speaking to her elders and betters.
“ And — Mortimer Lee. Perhaps he will he willing to do me a favor, for once ? I don’t ask him very often. It was three years the 18th of last July since he entered this house.”
“ But father never goes anywhere,” Sidney explained.
When that strange resentment came into Mrs. Paul’s voice, Sidney’s happy readiness to reply forsook her ; instead, there was something like anger in her serene eyes ; what right had Mrs. Paul to seem to disapprove of him ?
14 Don’t I know that ? ” cried the older woman. “ I knew him long before you were born, young lady ! And he would have been a great deal happier man today, if he had had more sense. There ! don’t talk about it; it irritates me to talk about such folly, — a man like Mortimer Lee to make a hermit of himself ! Stop, I say, —don’t talk about it! But I suppose he can do this, at least; it is n’t asking very much.”
“ I hope he will come,” Sidney said. “ It will be so pleasant if he will come.”
“ It will be pleasant, if you behave as a well-bred young woman should, and endeavor to be agreeable to my guest; and also if you wear a decent dress, as befits your father’s daughter. What have you to wear ? ”
“ I have that muslin, with the blue ribbons,” the girl answered, doubtfully ; “ or I suppose aunt Sally might get some new ones, — another color.”
“ Nonsense,” said Mrs. Paul; “ you are not a miss in your teens ; pray have some sense.” She stopped, and frowned. “ If you had not so much wicked, willful pride, I would buy you a proper gown. Sally does n’t know how to dress you. But I tell you what I will do. Hush ! don’t begin to protest; it is most unladylike to protest. I have some dresses in the garret, — old ones, child, old ones, — and Scarlett shall shape one over for you. I have my reasons for wanting to see you properly dressed, for once in your life.”
“ Oh, but, Mrs. Paul,” said Sidney, I should rather wear my muslin.”
“ Well, I should rather you did n’t wear your muslin,” interposed the other, grimly. “ Now, say no more about it. We will go and look at them, at least. Just ring for Davids; we must have candles ; the garret is dark by this time.”
” Had n’t we better wait for daylight ? ” Sidney said, anxious to put off the evil hour; but Davids was already listening to his mistress’s orders.
“ Tell Scarlett to take up two lamps ; and do you light all the bedroom candles, and put them on the red chest of drawers, over against the chimneybreast, so that the light will fall on the big mirror ; and make haste, — make haste ! ”
Davids was as incapable of haste as Major Lee himself, but Scarlett came hurrying in, a moment later, to say that the lamps were lighted, and to precede her mistress to the garret, a flaring candle in a tall silver candlestick in each hand. Davids gave Mrs. Paul his arm, and Sidney, annoyed but helpless, followed them through the hall and up the wide, winding stairs. The silence was broken only by the soft thud of Mrs. Paul’s stick, or a sharp word to Scarlett lest a drop of wax should fall on the faded Turkey carpet.
Davids had drawn an armchair to one side of the old cheval-glass in the garret, which, as the candles gleamed and flickered across it, seemed a pool of misty light among the shadows under the rafters. On the chest of drawers, which stood against the great unplastered chimney-breast in the middle of the room, were two lamps with frosted globes, which looked like moons glimmering in a mist; Scarlett had put some candles there, also, and on a shelf above the mirror a candelabrum dropped a wavering plummet of light into its mysterious depths. But the garret was quite dark, except for this spot of brightness about the three women. The stains on the yellowing plaster of the sloping ceiling had faded into the dusk, and one could scarcely see the spider-webs between the rafters, or the strange array of “ things ” on shelves and pegs; there were three warmingpans in a row upon the wall, — no one knew how long ago their brass had been polished last, — and at one end of the room old-fashioned bonnets hung, cavernous with shadows, and seeming to nod, when the candles flickered, as though ghostly heads whispered and chattered together; and there were portraits of the forgotten dead, hanging above the presses, which no one had had the courage to destroy.
Mrs. Paul sank into the chair by the glass, a little breathlessly, as Davids left her and noiselessly closed the door behind him. “ Now ! ” she said, with great satisfaction. “ Open the blue chest first, Scarlett. I think — I think it is in that.” Scarlett, on her knees by the blue chest, lifted out the piles of clothing within it. “ No, no, not that,” Mrs. Paul commented, impatiently, “ not that; have you no eyes, Scarlett ? That quilted satin petticoat was my mother’s, Sidney ; look, child ! She wore that when she rode into Washington, on a pillion, behind my grandfather, to see Lafayette. Nor that! Lord, Scarlett, have you no sense ? ”
“ The chest is empty, madam,” answered Scarlett. It was curious to see the eager look on Mrs. Paul’s face, when there was but a dream in Sidney’s eyes, and quiet indifference in Scarlett’s voice and manner.
“ Then look in the big press,”Mrs. Paul directed. “ It is the lavender brocade, with bunches of flowers ; don’t you know ? ”
When it was found, and shaken from its folds of years, and she had helped Sidney put it on, the servant began to be interested. Mrs. Paul leaned back in her chair and watched them. The yellowing lace ruffles in the sleeves scarcely touched the girl’s white elbows, and the flowered bodice would not meet across her young bosom. But the high-heeled satin slippers which Scarlett produced fitted her quite perfectly, and the full skirt was long enough, the train twisting itself about her ankles, as she turned and looked into the clear darkness of the mirror.
“ There is a taffeta scarf there,” said Mrs. Paul, plucking at Sidney’s sleeve, and then pushing aside the lace in the square neck, her wrinkled hand seeming to lose its whiteness where it touched the girl’s soft skin ; “ just put that over her shoulders, and then lace the bodice across it. Don’t cover her throat. Don’t you know better than to cover her throat ? Now, hold the candles so that I can see her! ”
Scarlett moved the candles upon this side and upon that, the lights and shadows falling on the distressed young face and the gleaming folds of the old brocade.
“ It seems to me,” Sidney said anxiously, and trying to draw a long breath, “ that the muslin would be better; this is quite stiff, Mrs. Paul, and tight, — truly it is.”
“ Nonsense,”said Mrs. Paul, impatiently. “ I went to parties before you were born ; I know what is proper for a young woman to wear. Of course Scarlett shall alter it. You don’t think, Scarlett, that a band of black velvet about her throat — Jewels can’t be thought of.”
“ No, madam,” Scarlett answered, the candles shining on her little worn face as she walked around the girl. “ She’s beautiful ! It does remind me of other days, madam ! ”
The two old women had apparently forgotten the young creature, with her protesting eyes. 14 Make a courtesy, Sidney! ” cried Mrs. Paul, shrilly; “ but you don’t know how ! There, take my stick, Scarlett;” and rising stiffly, her head held high, her lips breaking into a smile, she lifted her plum-colored silk skirt daintily and sunk back, with the sweeping bend with which long ago she had greeted one lover or another.
“ Do you remember, Scarlett ? ” she said, falling into her chair with a sigh which was almost a groan. “ I was as young as you, Sidney, when I saw your father first, — it was before he was married. It was nothing to me, of course, there were so many young men ; I don’t know why I should happen to remember it. I wore a yellow satin that night. You couldn’t do that, with your color; there are few women that could stand it. Do you remember, Scarlett ? There! the gown is beautiful; but you mustn’t let it make you vain. Fine feathers, you know. Yes, it must be altered a little ; women dress so foolishly nowadays. Now, come down-stairs. I want to see you walk across the drawing-room. A woman manages a train by inheritance ; if your mother was used — Well, come down-stairs, — come down-stairs. Scarlett shall do your hair the night you come to tea. Don’t interrupt me ; in my young days, chits of girls did n’t interrupt their elders.” There was a strange excitement in Mrs. Paul’s face. “ It will be beautiful, Scarlett. What ? ” In some dim way it was not Sidney who stood, young and flushed, with eyes like jewels under her shilling hair, but she herself. “ And this is the way I held my fan,” she said, opening the ivory sticks upon Sidney’s round arm. “ There, swing it — so ! Can’t you look across it and then down again, at your hands ? Oh, not like a Sunday-school child repeating its verse. Lord, Sidney! ”
Sidney laughed. “ But it is easier to look straight at you, Mrs. Paul,” she said. Then the little procession moved across the sagging floor, and down the stairs to the drawing-room. Sidney, still reluctant, but young; for the soft colors, the shimmering folds, the cobwebs of lace, were a glimpse into a new world.
“ You seem too pleased with life, Sidney,” declared the old woman, watching her with puzzled irritation. “ I did not look like that when I walked down a drawing-room, I can tell you. Oh, Alan Crossan ? Here, what is the matter with Sidney ? What will keep her from looking so — good ? ” She laughed as she spoke, with a droll glance.
The doctor had entered, with an unheard announcement from Davids. “ A little further instruction from Mrs. Paul,” he observed, critically, while beneath his eyes Sidney stood with a new, unpleasant consciousness of being embarrassed. “ A little more attention to your example cannot fail to remove obtrusive goodness. And yet, do you know, I doubt if it would be altogether an improvement? ”
Mrs. Paul laughed, her keen dark eyes sweeping him from head to foot with charming insolence. “ You are impossible ! ” she said. “ Sidney, you can go up-stairs now. She does n’t get her timidity from Mortimer Lee, I can tell you,” she went on. “ I suppose it is Gertrude Randolph over again. And yet, there is a certain way in which she can carry her head that promises hard things for young Steele.”
“ Steele ? ” questioned the doctor, frowning.
“ Yes, my friend,” cried Mrs. Paul, “ and I am doing my part, I can tell you. I have opened that Sally’s eyes, and — well, we shall see. That is, if the young man is not a fool, — though they generally are. How is he, your Steele ? ”
“ Better,” returned Alan, cheerfully. “ I left him just a moment, ago talking to dear Miss Sally, by the library fire. They said Sidney was here, and I came to fetch her home to tea.”
Mrs. Paul’s unusual softness, as she talked to Sidney that afternoon, had its natural reaction when she played at draughts with John Paul in the evening.
“ He’s that badged,” said Davids, when he left the mother and son at the tea-table, and came out into the serenity of Scarlett’s shining kitchen, “ that it does seem like as if he must jaw back. But he ain’t said a word, except to tell me to fetch him some more curried roe. Well, thank the Lord, he can eat.” Scarlett’s invariable response of silence filled the man with such wrath that he almost forgot his sympathy with his master. “ A woman’d better have a tongue,” he said, “even if she can’t, use it no better than she does ! ”
But John Paul found so much comfort in his curry, and in studying out a phase of the fishery question which it perhaps suggested, that Davids’ sympathy was really unnecessary; John did not even remember his mother’s anger over night. There was nothing to remind him of it, for he never saw Mrs. Paul in the morning; only Scarlett, and sometimes Miss Sally, were admitted to her bedroom while she breakfasted.
He took less time that day than usual over his coffee and paper, although breakfast was a most, important affair to John Paul ; for he was in haste to jot down those ideas about the fishery trouble, so that later in the day he might go and talk them over with Katherine Townsend. Indeed, such was his interest in his bit of work, and his impatience to have, he said to himself, the benefit of Miss Townsend’s clear criticism, that he started out over the old bridge quite early in the afternoon.
Little Eliza, staring from the toll-house window, answered his cheery nod with a dickering color in her round cheeks. “ Had your music lesson, Miss Eliza ? ” he called out, and waited good-naturetlly in the wind while she ran to open the door that she might answer him.
“ Quite a storm, is n’t it? ” he asked, beating his hands together, and looking back across the bridge. “ Seen Miss Townsend come out from town yet?”
“ No, sir, not yet,” responded Eliza ; “she comes late to-day, Miss Townsend does. Thursdays she does n’t pass the toll-house before a quarter after five, sir.”
“ Pshaw ! what did I start so early for ? ” he thought. He was uncertain what to do. He might go on, and wait for her in the parlor of the house in Red Lane ; but though Ted was a firstrate little boy, and the brother of his sister, talk of pups did sometimes pall. “ What time is it now ? ” he asked, bending his head so that he could look through the low doorway and see the fat Dutch clock ticking above the dresser. “ Twenty minutes to five ! I wonder if you’d let me wait in your pleasant sitting-room, Miss Eliza ? I — I’m a little early for a call I wanted to make ” —
“ Oh ! ” cried Eliza, after a speechless moment of delight.
So Mr. John Paul entered, and from the kitchen pantry what did Mrs. Jennings hear, “ just as sociable and friendly like, but, ‘ Won’t you — you take off your coat, Mr. Paul ? ’ ”
“ It gave me such a turn,” Mrs. Jennings confessed afterwards, as she and Eliza talked it all over, “ that I was like to sit right down on the floor. And was n’t I thankful that I ’d put them cakes in the oven ! " For they had cakes and tea, in the little sitting-room with the antimacassars on the chairs and the geraniums in the windows; and it was all, Mrs. Jennings declared, just as genteel and cozy as could be. Of course, after she brought in the little hot brown cakes, the mistress of the toll-house, in a discreet and proper way, retired to the pantry, where, with overflowing eyes and palpitating bosom, she could hear the whole conversation.
What that half hour was to Eliza and her mother John Paul never knew. “ Thank God, you was at home, ’Liza,” Mrs. Jennings remarked more than once; and then she excused the warmth of her words by saying that most people would say Providence, she supposed, but, for her part, she only said Providence when things did n’t go right and she wanted to find fault. “ And you can’t find fault — the other way ! ” said Mrs. Jennings, piously.
When it was time to go, John Paul, in the goodness of his heart, said many pleasant things of the gay little room, and complimented the cakes and the geraniums, and even the hens in the yard. Mrs. Jennings was so thrilled by his condescension, and so tearful with admiration of her daughter’s “ pretty manners,” that she began to make plans for his next visit. “ For he ’ll come,” she said, nodding and winking, as she and her daughter sat that night by the little airtight stove, which smiled redly through its square mica eyes, and filled the room with a cheery glow.
“ Law, ma ! ”
“Yes,” continued Mrs. Jennings. It was her habit, before going to bed, to sit thus by the stove, in a wadded short gown, with carpet slippers on her ponderous feet and a cup of tea in one hand. “ He enjoyed it, — he said he did. So he ‘ll come again; you mark my words.”
“ Did he say he enjoyed it ? ” Eliza murmured, meditatively, although she had herself repeated to her mother those very words when the door had closed behind John Paul; but it was a pleasure to hear them again.
“ Yes, he did,” declared Mrs. Jennings. “ ‘ Thank you for letting me come in,’ he says. ‘It’s been very pleasant to wait here,’ he says. ‘I’ve enjoyed it very much.’ What do you call that, ’Liza ? ”
“ And then he said that about the cakes,” added Eliza, dreamily.
“ Yes, then he said that about the cakes,” assented her mother, with great satisfaction. “ You ’d ought to have asked him to come again and have some more; still, it’s best to be sought, I will say! ”
“ Oh, ma ! ”
“ And then you talked all that about your music lessons. Well, now, it does seem to me I would n’t ’a’ kept on like you did about Miss Townsend ? ”
“But he was asking about my lessons,” Eliza explained.
“Yes, but you needn’t ’a’ gone on praisin’ her,” said Mrs. Jennings, in a discontented voice. “ There ! I do get out of all patience with her; and yet when she ’s here, I don’t know why it is, but I never seem to know just what to say. Well, never mind her. Only, next time he comes, do let on that you’ve something else to talk about than her.”
“ I don’t believe he ’ll ever come again,” said Eliza, with mournful common sense.
But Mrs. Jennings pressed her lips together in a mysterious way. “ I understand such things, ’Liza. I know a man don’t say to a young lady, ‘ Thank you for letting me stay,’ — letting me, says he, — without some meaning in it. Would Job Todd say it, d’ye think? I guess not! ”
In spite of her good sense, Eliza’s spirits rose, or at least she allowed herself to enter into the enjoyment of her delusion. She blushed and smiled in the firelight, until Mrs. Jennings shed tears of happiness at her darling’s happiness.
“ Oh, ma,” the little milliner said, rising with a happy sigh, and standing a moment before the glass, — “oh, ma, if I just was n’t freckled ! ”
But Mrs. Jennings pushed back the soft hair from her daughter’s forehead with a loving hand. “ There, now, deary, don’t think of that. My ! if your skin was n’t just so soft and fair, you would n’t freckle. Freckles is a sign of beautiful complexion under ’em.”
This was so comforting, Eliza smiled again. John Paul little knew what a commotion and joy his visit had caused ; had he known, possibly he might not have trespassed upon Mrs. Jennings’ hospitality again, even to the extent of coming in to buy a bunch of geraniums for Miss Townsend, later in the winter.
On this especial afternoon, however, he only knew that it had been a pleasure to listen to Eliza’s raptures about her teacher. (“ She’s just splendid ! ” Eliza had said, and sighed for want of better words.) Indeed, her praises were so much in his mind that he found himself smiling as he joined Miss Katherine Townsend and asked her to let him go as far as Red Lane with her. He had the most casual way in the world of asking such favors, which was almost irritating, unless one happened to know that this was his way of disguising his shyness.
“ You have a most ardent admirer in your toll-house pupil,” he declared. “ I — ah — stopped there a moment.”
Katherine’s smile was like sudden sunshine ; she knew quite well why Mr. John Paul had stopped at the toll-house. “ She is a good little tiling,” she said, “and her mother is delightful. Mrs. Jennings told me, when she engaged me,” — John winced, — “ that she was always glad ‘ to give the benefit to people that was real poor and had to work hard.’ ”
“ Confound her! ” grumbled John Paul, “ do you call that delightful ? ”
“ Charming !” returned Katherine, gayly. “ I told her that I was very much obliged to her, and she said in the most comfortable way, ‘ Well, never you mind; may be you ’ll get settled down, one of these days! ’ She had the respectable mechanic in her mind’s eye, I’m sure.”
She laughed as she spoke. One could easily believe, however, that Mrs. Jennings would have hesitated at that final suggestion. There was a look in this young woman’s face which puzzled and irritated the mistress of the toll-house, in spite of her knowledge that the Townsends had as little money as she had. That slight immobility of the upper lip, which gives piquancy as well as a hint of hardness to the whole face, or, it were more exact to say, a promise of justice without sentiment, gave also a look of pride which the carriage of her head accentuated. As Mrs. Jennings had confessed to her daughter, she never knew just what to say to Miss Townsend ; so naturally enough she disliked her.
They had almost reached Red Lane when John stopped “ Are you very tired ? he asked. “ Could you walk a little further out into the country ? That grove of birches on the Perryville Plank Road is marvelous.”
There had been a storm of sleet in the morning, which, as the cold deepened, had frozen on the trees, and now in the late afternoon, when the gray clouds lifted in the west, and a flood of ruddy gold poured over the white landscape, the icy branches blazed with all the jewels of Aladdin. The pools of ice by the roadside caught a sudden red, and the fringe of windy clouds in the east quivered with rosy light. The birch grove must be beautiful, John thought ; its trees were so slight that they would bend like wonderful feathers under the weight of ice, and in this glow of gold gleam and glitter as though powdered with the dust of a thousand diamonds.
It would be interesting to know how many men, in offering themselves to the women they love, use the subtile, or passionate, or tender sentences with which they have beguiled their imagination for many a day. Instead, the flutter of an eyelid, a broken word, or a beautiful silence may tell all!
John Paul had composed the story of his love in his own mind a dozen times in the last month, only to sigh as he ended it and say that he was a fool; she would never look at him, except with that contempt in her kind gray eyes which he could not understand. Nevertheless, he knew precisely at what point he meant to take her hand and tell her that he had loved her ever since he had known her — and— and would she let him take care of her now, and of Ted and the girls; and that no man had ever loved a woman as he loved her; and all the other statements usually made upon such occasions.
Who then could have been more astonished than John Paul to hear himself say, as they walked along the road, which was bordered with wild blackberry bushes, bending into a glistening network of ice, “ The respectable mechanic — must he be a mechanic ? ”
Katherine Townsend flashed a quick look into his face, but how could he see that, with the sun shining straight into His near-sighted eyes ?
“ Yes,” she said, lightly, “ I am inclined to think he must be. To tell you the truth, Mr. Paul, I have come of late to feel an immense amount of respect for him, — I speak generically, my acquaintance with him being, unfortunately, limited to the piano-tuner at the other end of Red Lane, and Mr. Job Todd, who built the kennel for the puppies.”
“ But, Katherine, I — I meant ” — John began to say, his voice quite hoarse, and in his agitation striking at a frozen mullein stalk with his cane; but she interrupted him, with a ring in her voice which made him stumble with astonishment.
“ You see, they amount to somethingin the world, these simple, hard-working men. Oh, since I have had to teach, since I have really seen what living is to most men and women, since I have understood the meanness of luxury, I have burned with contempt for my old, lazy, easy life, — the time when I did nothing for myself, and just let people wait upon me and take care of me.”
John Paul’s face stung; there was something in her voice which said that these words about herself were for him. A woman, plodding through the snow, looked towards them with that dull curiosity with which wayfarers regard one another, and John wondered if his face betrayed the ache in his heart. “ You are severe,” he said.
“ I can’t help it,” she answered ; and then a moment later, “ The iron has entered into my soul, Mr. Paul. The unevenness of life has seemed too horrible to bear. I think — I hope that if I were suddenly to have plenty of money again 1 should keep on doing something to earn it, and not be lazy, and indifferent, and satisfied with a small, ignoble, comfortable life. Oh, I feel this so about Ted. If I can but teach him to be a man ; to feel the shame, the disgrace, of dependence, either upon one person — me, for instance — or upon one class in the community. He must earn his own bread, and not take one crumb or one cent more than he gives: somehow, I don’t care how, — by his brains or his hands; only he must be independent. I try to make him feel it now, although he is just a little boy.” She stopped, and put her hand up to her eyes a moment. “ There is such a glare on the snow,” she explained, in an unsteady voice.
“ Miss Townsend,” John said. “ it seems to me that you are hardly fair to the men whom the accident of birth places in positions where work is not necessary ” — But she interrupted him.
“ Birth never places us where we should not work; our own weakness or cowardice may let us take advantage of circumstances that we have nothing to do with. Oh, I — I despise such men, men who are satisfied with small, useless lives, and take what they do not earn.”
“ I am afraid you are a Socialist,” John answered, but his face was white.
Katherine shook her head. “ I am a Christian, —that is all.”
“ You are not fair ! ” he burst out. “ For instance — I — I — my mother ” —
“Yes? Well ? ” she said, for he had paused ; to defend himself made all her scorn personal, and killed his hope.
“ You know my position,” with an impulsive gesture. “ It was my duty to go into the warehouse, no matter how much I hated it. I don’t work, I know, though I should have liked to ; but why should I have consulted my own wishes (I had n’t the motive then that I have now), why should I have made her miserable ? ”
“ Why disturb your own comfort? Is n’t that what you really mean ? ” Katherine said, with bitter lightness. “ But perhaps I don’t call things by the names that you do.”
“ What do you call it, Miss Townsend ? ” John asked, quietly.
“ I don’t think my opinion is of any consequence,” she said, but she bit her lip to keep it firm.
“It is everything in the world to me, Katherine.”
Her contempt scorched his face, but somehow there was a strange comfort in it, which he did not stop to analyze.
“ Please do not call me Katherine, Mr. Paul,” she commanded, with an attempt at gayety, “ even to show that you are friendly in spite of my candor. I — to tell you the truth, I should call such an attitude as yours towards your mother selfish and — and cowardly.”
John started as though he had been struck in the face ; to be sure, that talk about Ted and herself had meant it, but to put it into words ! They had reached the grove of birches, and stood looking miserably at the sparkling trees. The wet folds of the clouds had quenched the sunset light, and a low wind, blowing up from the river and wandering across the hills, made the mail-clad branches creak and rattle.
“ It is beautiful ! ” Katherine said, vaguely, looking into the glittering mist of the woods with unseeing eyes.
“ Very,” John answered, with his back to the trees and staring at Katherine’s face. “ I am astounded by your use of words, Miss Townsend.”
“ Why should you be ? ” she cried. “Look, cowardly: how many times have you told me that you have kept silent rather than have a discussion ! ”
“ Never when there was a principle involved,” he interposed, doggedly.
“There is always a principle in everything,” she declared. “ More than that, deeper than that, you have preferred the ignoble comfort of your life to working hard and honestly at anything.” John saw the sheen of tears in her eyes. “ And selfish ? Can you for one instant claim that this effacement of yourself has been for any one’s peace and comfort but your own ? Have you ever, by one single protest, helped your mother ? Forgive me for speaking of her, but you asked me, and I have to be honest. You know as well as I do that there is a point in the relation of parent and child where the parent grows no older, apparently, but the child ceases to be young, and at that point there has to be an adjustment of ideas which is not agreeable. But what are you to call the child who will not assert his individuality because it would be unpleasant to do so ? Indeed, I don’t know any other word than selfish. It seems to me that so many, many wrong things are done under the name of selfsacrifice.”
John did not speak. The branches of a tree creaked shrilly; some oak leaves, stiff with a glaze of sleet, rustled, and bits of ice fell sharp upon the frozen snow.
“ Oh, if I can only keep Ted from such twisted morality ! ” she ended.
John said something between his teeth. “ I wish you would be so good as to drop Ted ; you mean all this for me, of course. But you are cold. I ought not to have kept you standing here. Let us go back.”
They turned, and began to walk silently towards Red Lane. Katherine could not talk ; slie had spoken out of a full, hot heart, but she knew very well what the reaction would be. She saw herself beaten with self-reproach and helpless regret. They had almost reached Red Lane, when John said gently : —
“ I want you to believe that I value your sincerity. It has hurt you to say all this.”
“ Not at all,” Katherine answered, holding her head high; “ the truth is never hard. I — I have felt that we were friends, and ” —
“ And it is only right that I should know what you think of me ? ”
“ Yes,” said Katherine.