BEFORE Robert was really well, and could go back to the pleasant evenings with Miss Sally in the yellow parlor, April had come, with swallow flights, and sweeping rains, and a hint of greenness on the south slope of the pasture beyond Major Lee’s. Miss Sally had missed her lover very much, and welcomed him with timid warmth. She was the more affectionate, perhaps, because his fortnight’s absence, apart from her anxiety about him, had been — she was ashamed to acknowledge it to her own heart — a strange relief (it is not always easy to live in the exciting air of happiness; commonplace unimportance is really restful) ; and so she was very remorseful and very kind to her lover. She even told him, with a blush, that she had thought of what he had said about being married in June, but if — if he did n’t mind — if he had just as lief, could n’t it be in August? The question of living at the major’s afterwards had never been settled, because Robert had never thought of it seriously ; but Miss Sally made haste to drop the subject of marriage, lest it might have to be discussed. She knew quite well what she wanted, but she knew also, by experience, that it was extremely unlikely that her wishes would govern her circumstances. She began to chatter her small news : Alan had scarcely been to see them since Robert’s illness, and she was puzzled to know why ; Mrs. Paul had taken Scarlett and gone away for a fortnight’s visit (Miss Sally, anxious to be agreeable, did not add that Mrs. Paul had declared that she should die if she had to live among idiots any longer) ; John Paul had told the major that he was going to leave Mercer by the middle of May, to enter a newspaper office in the city ; she had seen Miss Katherine Townsend quite often. “ How pleasant she is! ” she said, her face beaming. “Once she met John Paul here, and it seems they know each other.” It would interest Robert, Miss Sally thought, to talk about his cousin. Katherine had been so cordial and so sweet, and her manner betrayed such pretty deference, that Miss Sally’s easily affectionate heart had been quickly won. Of course she could not see what a pathetic little creature she seemed in Miss Townsend’s eyes, or know that during the pleasant walk home with John Paul, after that meeting at the major’s, pity that was almost pain kept the girl in unexplained silence, which caused Mr. Paul much anxiety. Indeed, as he went back to town alone, he became very gloomy, and did not even notice Eliza at the window of the toll-house, so her heart ached also. It is easy to circumscribe a cause, but who can tell how far the effect will travel ?
Robert Steele had made the gravest mistake a man can make, and here, in the parlor of the old toll-house, Eliza Jennings cried until she could scarcely see. Her growing pain of unrequited love — it was thus Eliza expressed it, uncomforted by hot muffins and cups of strong tea — had made her pine more than ever to confide in some one. That impulse to confide generally strikes outside the family circle; perhaps one’s family sees too clearly the extenuating circumstances, and offers comfort too readily. The easy consolation of those who know us is dishonor to our grief, and it is natural to appeal to a stranger for sympathy.
In this connection, Eliza thought, as she had thought many times before, of Miss Katherine Townsend. Mrs. Jennings might share her joys, but Eliza could not bear to display her sorrows to the maternal eye. It was very well to tell her mother that she had had a talk with Mr. Paul at the toll-house window; or that he had asked her for some crocuses from her garden border (which he had made haste to give to Miss Townsend) ; or, most beautiful of all, that he had overtaken her at the other end of the bridge, and walked across with her, lifting his hat when he left her. “ Oh, ma, if you could ’a’ seen the way he lifted his hat! ” Upon that occasion, Eliza had been so dazed with happiness that, as she came into the house, she almost tumbled over her mother, who had been peering out of the window at this unusual scene, and she had had the moment of sharp anger with which one is shaken out of paradise by a blunder of one’s own. But Eliza’s paradise was speedily regained ; she seated herself by the stove, carefully turning her skirt back over her knees that it might not be scorched, and told her mother every word of Mr. Paul’s conversation. She ended the recital with a sigh, as though aware that one kind of happiness consists in understanding just when to be miserable. She knew exactly what Mrs. Jennings’ comment would be, and she knew also, in her heart of hearts, how groundless were her mother’s assertions that it “ would all come out right; ” but such knowledge did not interfere with her happy imaginings.
It needed something real and tangible to do that, and the reality came when Mr. Paul passed the toll-house without giving her a pleasant nod and smile. Eliza treasured this grief for many days. It put a certain life into her sentimentality, and gave her some genuine pain. The entries in violet ink in the diary became shorter as this small reality crept into them. It is not impossible that under such unnatural and artificial conditions a sickly sort of love could actually be created ; or rather, as love has no varieties, but many resemblances, a very good imitation could spring from such circumstances. Eliza’s round face was really a little pale under her freckles, in those first soft spring days; as the daffydowndillies and hyacinths pushed their green tips through the cold, wet ground in the toll-house borders, her eyes seemed to grow large and her lips took a pitiful droop. She began to spend much time in looking at the river, now very high with the spring rains, or in walking about the winding paths of the garden, stopping to lean her elbows on the white gate and stare down the road or along the bridge : in fact, she was thoroughly enjoying the misery of sentiment.
It is not only the young man’s fancy which is affected by the spring; the sunshine and the softly blowing winds, the scudding ripple on the river’s breast, the nod of the daffodils and the brimming gold of a crocus cup, touch the young woman’s heart, too, and then a confidante becomes absolutely necessary. So it happened, when, on one of these wonderful spring days, Miss Townsend came to give Eliza her music lesson, and noticed with a kindly word the paleness of her pupil’s face, that Eliza’s misery sprang to her lips.
“Oh, I ‘m that unhappy! ” She swung round on her music-stool, and put her hands up to her eyes. Mrs. Jennings chanced to be out, so there was nothing to check the stream of confidences, long restrained and swelling for expression.
“ Why, you poor little Eliza! ” said Miss Townsend. “ Something troubles you very much ? ”
“Oh, my goodness,” sobbed the pupil, “ I guess it does ! ”
“Can’t I help you ? ” Katherine asked. She was distressed to see the little milliner so unhappy, but, as she spoke, she thought, vaguely, how impossible it was to judge by the outside of things. She would never have connected anything so great as grief with the life in the tollhouse ; it had seemed to her too full of drowsy satisfaction to feel the spur of sorrow. Geraniums were always glowing on the white window-sills of the little sitting-room, and the rippling light, striking up from the river, played in a sleepy rhythm back and forth across the low ceiling ; the cheerful warmth which danced out from the isinglass windows of the stove, and shone on the keys of the family organ and on the lithographs upon the walls, told of nothing but content ; everything, Katherine had thought, was as comfortable as the big feather cushion in Mrs. Jennings’ rocking-chair. Heartache was incongruous in such a room. “Tell me about it,” she said, with good-natured amusement, for the sense of incongruity is hostile to reverence.
“ I’m — I ’m so unhappy ! ” Eliza answered, with a gasp. “ I’d — like to ask your advice, Miss Townsend.”
” Have you asked your mother’s advice ? ” (“ Can it he that Mrs. Jennings does not approve of Job Todd ? ” Katherine wondered.)
As for Eliza, she was trembling with joyous excitement; the moment had actually come, — she was going to tell Miss Townsend ! She rose from the revolving stool, and motioned her teacher to take Mrs. Jennings’ big chair, — which, however, Miss Townsend declined,— and then she flung herself down on a hassock, and once more buried her face in her hands. " Ma don’t know anything about it,” she declared, with filial indifference. “ I could n’t tell any one but just you, and I want you to advise me.”
“ Your mother ought to know whatever troubles you,” Katherine said, with kindly sternness, “but tell me, and let me see if I can help you.”
“ Miss Townsend, I don’t know what you ‘ll think of me,” Eliza answered, from between her fingers, “but I — I’m in love, Miss Townsend ! ”
Katherine’s smile was like sudden sunshine. “That ought to make you happy, if he is a good man and your mother approves of him.”
“Yes,”Eliza quavered, “only he — he don’t care anything about me ! ”
“Oh!” said Katherine blankly. So this was how unhappiness might come to the toll-house ? Job was unfaithful! “ If he does not love you any longer, you must try not to think of him, my dear.”She was really very sorry for her pupil.
“ Yes, but,” explained Eliza, wiping her eyes and looking up in her earnestness, “he never did, you see.”
“ Never did ? ”
“Care, I mean, and I don’t know what to do. I thought you would advise me.”
“ But I don’t see what advice there can be.”
“Oh,” the girl cried, wringing her hands, “ don’t you see ? I don’t know what to do ! ”
“ I should n’t think there was anything to do,” Katherine answered, really puzzled. “ But if it is Job Todd, I am sure you are mistaken, and it will all come out right; I know that he ” —
“ ’T is n’t him,” interposed Eliza briefly.
“ Then,” Katherine said, after a moment’s pause, “ the only thing for you to do, whoever it is, is to put him right out of your mind.”
“ Do you think it’s wrong to love him, if he don’t love me?” Eliza persisted, in a broken voice.
Katherine hesitated. It was not wrong; it might even be very great, but not in Eliza. How could she explain it ?
“ Not wrong, but — I don’t think I would.”
The poor little creature on the hassock was really so miserable that Katherine felt like putting her arms around her and bidding her dry her eyes; had she done so, the frightened pleasure of it would probably have banished her romance from Eliza’s mind, at least for the moment. “ If he cared for Another,” she protested, “ it would be different. I would — I would tear him from my heart.”
“ Certainly,” Katherine agreed; “ but, anyhow, you must try to put it all aside, and ” —
“ I thought,” interrupted the other, — she was so impressed with the importance of the occasion that she actually dared to interrupt Miss Townsend, — “ that may be you ‘d know if — if there was any other young lady. You know him.”
“ I have no idea whom you mean ; but don’t you see ? — that is his affair, not yours nor mine. All you have to do is just, cheerfully, to make your life richer and better by giving, or else to put the whole matter out of your mind, which is far the wiser way.”
“ But how ? ” And after all, the question was very pertinent.
“ Be a sensible girl, and do your duty, and ” —
“ It’s Mr. John Paid,” observed Eliza, in a sort of parenthesis.
Katherine Townsend had risen, meaning, with one or two cheerful, friendly words, to bring this conversation to an end; but she was so absolutely dumfounded that she stood with parted lips for an instant, staring, without speaking, at the figure on the hassock.
“I thought,” proceeded Eliza, “you’d know if he was waitin’ on anybody ; for, of course, if he is, I must — tear him from my heart! ”
Katherine’s impulse to laugh made her face scarlet, but she was conscious of a perfectly unreasonable anger. She sat down again. “I am ashamed of you, Eliza,” she said sharply. “ Mr. Paul is — you know very well, Mr. Paul is not in your station, and it is absurd and immodest for you to think about him in this way.”
At the change in her voice, Eliza looked up, half frightened. “Is — he waitin’ on somebody — is he engaged?
“Not that I know of,” Katherine answered, after an instant’s pause, “ but that has nothing to do with it. Mr. Paul is a gentleman, and you will probably never know him; he would certainly never think of you in any such way. Now, don’t be a silly girl. Just put this whole matter out of your mind. I shall not respect you if you give it any more thought.”
“I do know him! He’s been in an’ taken a cup of tea. I know him real well, Miss Townsend. He’s walked over the bridge with me, an’ he’s just as kind ” —
“ Of course he is kind ; but don’t you understand ? Mr. Paul is kind to every one, and you have no right to think of him — in that way. Try to he sensible, Eliza.”
Katherine was aware that she was unjust, and that her lofty thoughts of the greatness of giving were somehow blotted out; so, as she opened the door to go, she tried to throw some sympathy into her voice. “ Now, don’t cry; just see how foolish you have been. It isn’t worthy of you. There! Promise me you ‘11 not think of it again.” She went back, and rested her hand on the girl’s shoulder with a kindly touch.
This moved Eliza so much that she gasped out, “ I ‘ll try — but it is n’t any use — but I ‘11 try ” — and she even nodded, with a watery sort, of smile, when Miss Townsend looked back at her from the road.
In spite of a curious indignation, the absurdity of which she could not help recognizing, Katherine was so alive to the drollery of the situation that she laughed under her breath; and when she met Mrs. Jennings, a little later, she said “ Good-evening ” with such smothered gayety that Eliza’s mother was stirred to curiosity.
“ I ‘d like to know,” Mrs. Jennings reflected, waddling breathlessly towards the toll-house, “what she’s got to laugh at, poor soul ! ” But she was to discover the cause of Miss Townsend’s mirth. “ Law! ” she said, standing still in the doorway, as she caught sight of her daughter rocking and sobbing in the big chair, “ what is it, ’ Liza ? You give me such a turn ! ”
It was some time before Eliza coukl tell her, and all the while Mrs. .Jennings sat in her big fur-trimmed jacket, only loosening her bonnet-strings and taking off her gloves. She was far too excited to think of her own comfort. To see her Eliza crying, and Swaying hack and forth, and declaring that she wished she were dead, and refusing to say what was the matter, was anguish to Mrs. Jennings.
“Was it your music lesson?” she cried, in despair. “Didn’t you know it? Did she scold you, ’Liza?”
That opened the flood-gates; with tears and sobs Eliza confessed that she had told Miss Townsend about Mr. Paul. “An’ she said that he’d never look at me — “cause he was rich an’ I was poor, an’ there wasn’t no use to think of him — an’ so — an’ so ” —
She was really incoherent by this time, but Mrs. Jennings could not discriminate between grief and hysterics. She was beside herself with anger.
“So that was what she was laughin’ at, the hussy! Not another lesson do you take from her, do you hear that ? ” In her excitement, she Hung her bonnet down upon the floor, and tore her jacket open at the throat for breath; her face was purple. “ The like of her to say he would n’t look at you ! She wants him herself, so she does. I ’ll tell her so to her face, — a miserable music teacher ! ”
“ Ma ! ” expostulated Eliza. “ She was just as kind ” —
“ The idea of telling her, any way ! ” burst out Mrs. Jennings. “You ain’t got a proper pride, ’Liza,—you don’t know your place. Telling such a person as her — I ’m — I’m ashamed of you ! But I ’ll see to her, just trust me, — trust your mother, lovey, poor lamb, poor dear!”
She lifted her baby in her big trembling arms, to soothe her upon a bosom which held a flame of maternal love as true and tender as though she had been as slight and subtile as any wiser mother. But though she comforted Eliza, and, a little later, still in the heavy jacket, brought her a steaming cup of tea and a wedge of cake, she was raging and doubting at once in her own heart; even while she was assuring her daughter, now able to sit up. and eat and drink, that she “ knowed the ways of men — and if she was n’t very much mistaken — well!” she had a vague and awful fear that her first absurd charge was true, and the “ hussy ” wanted him for herself. Yes, and might get him, too! “ Ain’t he always a-walkin’ over the bridge with her?” she groaned, when she went out to the pantry for another piece of cake for her darling ; “ though he ain’t gentleman nough to pay the toll for her ! Well, she’s welcome to such meanness. ’Liza would n’t have him. But I ‘ll see to her ; she sha’n’t get him, — so there! ” And then aloud, “Here, lovey, now eat a bit of cake, darlin’; there, my heart, it ’ll be all right, lovey! ”
As Miss Sally had said, Alan had not come to the major’s very often during Robert’s illness. The doctor’s care for the sick man explained this perfectly to Miss Sally, but there had been another reason. Alan, for the first time in his life, was finding decision so difficult that he was deterred from action. He had been uncertain many a time before, and had found it very hard to make up his mind; but when this had been the case, he had always said gayly, “ I ‘11 drift. Fate must decide for me ; ” and generally he was well content with Fate. But he had come to a point now when this could not be ; he must keep his life in his own hands, he must decide for himself. And those hours with Robert Steele were his opportunity.
“ What is the right thing to do ? ” he asked himself again and again. He knew now, with all his happy heart, that he loved Sidney Lee. The knowledge had come to him in that midnight when he had thought that he might die from the strain and shock of his plunge into the river. Before that, he had been alternately charmed and antagonized by Sidney’s attitude towards life. Her father’s view he had regarded merely as a most interesting expression of the abnormal ; it never occurred to him to consider it seriously. An idée fixe he had called the major’s belief, and had had the usual patient, or impatient, amusement with which a doctor regards such a mental condition. But, although the unnaturalness of Sidney’s ignorance of life had in it something almost repulsive, her charm had become greater every day, even while he realized more and more the distance which she placed between herself and the natural human instincts.
The thought of death, the realization of the poverty of an eternal lull, sometimes opens the eyes to the treasures of life; and when Alan thought that he might he dying, he knew once for all that he loved her. With that knowledge the subtle antagonism departed, and with antagonism his dismay at her tranquil selfishness, and his approbation of that beautiful aloofness which had charmed him. All which had repulsed now attracted him. Even her selfishness seemed natural, for was it not herself that she loved ? Perhaps love of the same object often blinds the lover to selfishness. But Alan’s anxiety at present had nothing to do with character or with love itself. He was only concerned to know what course of action was demanded of him in view of Mortimer Lee’s wishes for his daughter’s future, and his own position as the major’s friend, or at least as his trusted acquaintance. Over and over the doctor argued with himself that the major’s theories were monstrous and unnatural. Sidney had a right to life, — which meant love, — and he, Alan, had a right to offer it to her. Yet to betray her father’s trust!
He frowned and whistled in his perplexity. The young man was as confused in his honest desire to see clearly as Robert Steele himself might have been.
“ If I tell the major I love her, and ask his permission to tell her so,” he said to himself, “it will only give him a chance to stuff a lot more pessimistic nonsense into her mind, and warn her against me; besides, he would probably show me the door. Now, it is n’t fair to Sidney to treat her in that way. I think I ought to speak to her first, and then tell the major.”
Alan was perfectly aware that this was not his honest opinion, though he continued to assert that it was. As a result, he stayed away from the major’s, assuring himself each clay that he would go on the next and warn his old friend.
He knew very well — for Alan felt the moods of his friends as truly as a sunny pool reflects cloud shadows, and perhaps no more deeply — that Sidney’s father was less cordial to him. The major himself did not recognize any change ; he only knew that those words of Mrs. Paul’s were a continual but vague diseomfort. He watched Alan now very closely, and with a perplexed and anxious look that sometimes turned upon Sidney, but never found any words of question to the one or of warning to the other. Indeed, he did not put what he feared into words even to himself ; to combat it in his thoughts would have been to dishonor his convictions by a doubt of the power of truth. But he was depressed, and grew more silent than ever. He fell into a habit of returning from the Bank by way of the great ironyards of the rolling-mills beside the river, which were deserted after six. Here he walked, his hands clasped behind him, and his worn old face sunk upon his breast, scarcely ever lookingup. It pleased him sometimes to stop and glance into the smelting-furnaces, and see the glow of molten metal as it was run into bars of pig-iron in the sand, and note the black figures of the puddlers standing against the fierce glare of red light, or coming out into the gray evening like shapes from the mouth of hell. No one noticed the old man in the blue cloak, and he could brood and dream in his slow walk without fear of interruption. But once, in the keen, sweet dusk of an April evening, Alan Crossan chanced to see him turn from the crowded street towards the riverhank and the mill-yards, and with a sudden impulse followed him.
It had been in the doctor’s mind, as a part of this troublesome question as to whether it was honorable to seek Sidney Lee’s love without her father’s knowledge, that he would some day discuss these absurd theories of love and life with the major himself. It would probably lead up to a fuller confidence; but merely to plan such a conversation seemed in some intangible way to satisfy his conscience for not having boldly told her father that he meant to win Sidney’s love — if he could. A discussion would at least hint the direction of his hopes, he thought; and it was something to let the major know how foolish, nay, how wicked, to his mind, was such a blighting of her life as her father proposed. He had, that very day, concluded to say something like this to Major Lee ; and with a decision all his gladness had come back again, and he felt the exhilaration of a man who has done his duty ; for the opportunity is a small thing, when the will is ready. But here was the opportunity, and so he made haste to follow the major, his face full of anxious gravity. Mortimer Lee’s mind had been of late so occupied with that miserable suggestion of Mrs. Paul’s that when he looked up, in answer to Alan’s greeting, and saw the earnest expression, he felt a pang of apprehension. A forlorn dismay looked out of his mild eyes. But Alan, as they began to talk, — or rather, as he began to talk, — grew more cheerful. The thought of combat always brought a fresh gayety and boyish confidence to his face, which added to its charm of indolent and sweet good-nature. He scarcely waited for the major’s “ Good-evening.”
“ Major Lee,” he said, rushing into his subject with all the enthusiasm of a young knight who has never tried his armor, “I have thought so often of that talk we had in your library, one Sunday afternoon in the winter ; do you remember? You spoke of the worth of life and the folly of love, and, do you know, I think you were all wrong?”
If Alan had been any less direct, his companion would have quietly turned the subject. The misery of life, as he saw it, was not a thing the major talked about. He had no desire to prove a point; he had felt it. When the grave had closed over his wife, all was said, and life needed no comment. Talk for the sake of talk was impossible, and the fashion of the day to protest that life was not worth living was not honored even by his contempt. The young man’s frank declaration that he was wrong would have pleased him, even had there not been something in the young courage of a fool which touched him. Of course he did not mean to enter into a discussion, but he put on his glasses and looked at Alan kindly; he even smiled a little. He had never been so near liking the doctor.
“So ? ” he said. “ You think I am wrong, do you ? ”
“Yes,” Alan answered ; “and I’ve been meaning to ask you how you account for the desire to be alive, even in the greatest pain or misery, — we doctors see that all the time, — if, as you seem to think, life is not worth living; and, also, how it is that those whose love cannot be questioned are yet capable of happiness even after death has robbed them ? ”
Perhaps because Alan had for a moment drawn his thoughts away from that hint of Mrs. Paul’s, and he had the kindly feeling which is a part of relief ; perhaps, too, because it was not easy to avoid a direct question, the major found himself saying something about the blind will to live, in the first place, and the belief in immortality, in the second place.
While he was speaking they reached the street, which was parallel to the river, and were about to cross it and enter the mill-yard, when Alan felt a detaining hand upon his arm. Drearily along the muddy street came a little funeral procession. Major Lee stood silently, with uncovered head, until it had passed, and then went on with the sentence which it had interrupted.
“ How genuine he is ! ” Alan thought, with sudden compunction. For a moment the young man almost forgot the absurdity of remembering death in one’s plans for life.
They walked on, down between the great piles of pig-iron, and reached the high bank of the river, but there the major seemed to hesitate. “Am I not taking you out of your way, sir ? ” he said. In his own mind he was wondering why in the world the young man should choose this path; it did not occur to Mortimer Lee that it might be for the pleasure of his society. The major would not have walked with any one, save Sidney, for the pleasure of society. Nor did it at that moment strike him that to walk with Sidney’s father might be agreeable to a young man.
“ Not if you will allow me to accompany you,” Alan answered, with that fine deference in his voice which is instinct and training rather than reason, for he was tingling with impatience.
The river, between banks of cinders which had been thrown out of the mills and furnaces, lay black under the falling dusk, but was touched by the wind here and there into a metallic sheen and lustre. On its further side, beyond Little Mercer and the distant hills, the sky was a pale, clear yellow, that melted up into the violet of early night; bars of filmy gray were gathering in the west, but in the upper heavens they rippled into fading fire ; a puff of brown smoke from a great chimney drifted like a stain upon the tranquil night. Now and then, from the rolling-mill through the yard of which they had come, a flare of light lifted and quivered and blotted out the tender sky colors, leaving only the gray dusk and the gray river. The very air was a caress, and all the sounds of day came softened into a tired murmur.
The major felt the peace of it, and could have wished that Alan had chosen some other time to convert him; but doubtless the young man’s intentions were good. So, in answer to the request to walk with him, he said patiently, “Surely, surely,”and began to calculate how soon the doctor would have to turn into the street again to seek his own home.
“ But this blind will to live, of which you speak,”Alan began, “ has, it seems to me, a certain reasonableness on the face of it, and that is what concerns us. As you talked of life, that night, you apparently did n’t consider any of the pleasures of living, with which the will certainly justifies itself. You did not admit any happiness. Now, Major Lee, there is happiness! ”
“ Yon are fortunate in thinking so,” said Mortimer Lee absently. He had no desire to convert the doctor; he was even glad, in a pathetic way, that any one could he so foolish.
“ Surely,” Alan persisted, his eager young face aflame with the sunset light, “ surely it is not fair, in making one’s estimate of life, to leave out the joy of success, and of hope, and of love, the gladness of the senses. Why, this very sky and soft wind, the ripple of the river over that sunken slag, are so beautiful that it is almost pain.”
“It is pain,” returned the major. He was glad that Alan had not stopped at love, in summing up the happiness of life ; he could not have put the reason into words, but he did not care to talk of love to Alan Crossan ; and for fear that the doctor might return to it, he began to repeat, with quaint impressiveness : —
Tears from the depths of some divine despair
Rise in the heart and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn fields.”
“Oh, no, no, it is not that!” said the other, “for the ‘days that are no more ’ are not nearly so beautiful as the days which are to come,” — his face was radiant at the thought of those coming days. “ I think that that pang with which we see beauty or power is only the assertion that we belong to it all, but are not in it; it is the protest of the molecule,” he ended, laughing; “the instinct to melt into the current of life, from which we have been for a moment separated. But, Major Lee, I can’t he abstract. I think my mind is inquisitive rather than speculative. The concrete attracts me, the real tangible reasons for thinking as you do, or as I do.”
The major made no reply.
“ You say life is miserable because there is death in it, but it seems to me you don’t take belief into consideration. You forget the consolations of religion. Of course I am not stopping to argue for the truth of the belief in immortality, the belief in God ; but its comfort cannot be denied. Well, granting that, never mind what is the fact, life is good, and love is wise.”
“True,” the major agreed mildly, “ you would not he apt to consider the fact.”
“ I consider the peace and happiness,” Alan answered; “ Ido not care to search tno deeply. If 1 am happy, I am satisfied. It is better to have a false belief than none, and with belief loss can be borne.”
“ Just so,” returned his companion, “ the truth which makes us free by no means necessitates happiness.”
“Whereas,” Alan insisted, “your position necessitates unhappiness ! ”
“ I cannot see,” observed the major, “ that happiness or unhappiness can affect belief ; because I should suppose a man must endeavor to believe, not what makes him happy, but what he thinks is true.”
“ I wonder,” Alan said, “ whether happiness is not the deepest truth, and so we believe in God, and immortality, and love ? ”
“ Because you prefer to? ”
“ Because I am a man, because I cannot help it! Yes, and I suppose because I prefer to ; at least, I refuse to disbelieve, and I make myself as happy as I can.”
Major Lee looked about for escape; this foolish talk was as annoying as a cloud of gnats. But suddenly a thought struck him: he might show the young man, he might prove to him, the folly of it all ? The boy was a sensible boy in the main, and perhaps he could be taught ? The major began to feel a little glow of friendliness.
“ If you are in no especial haste, I should be glad to hear your views. May we not stop here and talk for a little time? We shall suffer no interruption if we go down to the river-side.”
“I shall be delighted to ! ” cried Alan, really astounded at what he naturally felt to be the result of his logic.
They left the mill-yard and the smelting-furnace behind them ; the river was banked by slag which had been run into great conical moulds, and then flung out to cool and crumble down by the water. Upon one of these moulds the old man seated himself, drawing his blue cloak around him. and resting his hands upon his stick. He waited a moment, thinking how he might best begin, and looking up at the young man standing against the sunset. Alan had taken off his hat, and threw back his head with a certain beautiful joyousness which made it good to look at him. His voice held the sound of pleasant thoughts. The major’s patience exhilarated him. He did not wait for the older man to begin, but hurried on with his arguments.
“ Yes; it seems to me you quite leave out this ability of the soul to be satisfied, — this power of belief which makes it possible to bear grief; and there’s another thing, which I think prevents a really fair judgment upon the worth of life,—you dwell constantly upon death. Now — I beg your pardon, but the normal and healthy soul does not consider death; it lives in the present, as it was meant to do.”
The major did not stop to he amused at one who declared that he understood what the soul was “meant” to do. “ Does it really seem to you abnormal to take a certainty into consideration in making your plans for living?” lie asked.
“ Absolutely so ! ” Alan answered, and then hesitated. “ Perhaps because, while the consideration of such a certainty may he reasonable enough, it simply is not human. And humanity sets the limits of the normal.”
“ Then you would have a man a fool, just because there are, it must be admitted, more fools than wise men in the world ? ”
“ Hold on ! I don’t admit, that to forget death is folly. — it is merely sane ; and I think that the joy of life — I — I mean love, you know, while it lasts, is worth the pain of loss. .Beside, I do believe in the goodness of God, — immortality declares that; and if God is good, the purpose of life must be.”
“ Yet even you go through a process of reasoning, no doubt ? ” the major queried thoughtfully ; “ and when you say that the grief of death can be borne because death does not end all, you prove the reunion in which you say you believe ? ”
“ Yes,” Alan answered, “ I prove it, at least to my own satisfaction, by saying that God is good.”
“ Ah, I see,” commented the other. “ Life, which is one long endurance of sin and misery and exquisite suffering, must be compensated for by an eternity of joy, or else the Creator would he a conception so blastingly cruel that men would die at the very sight of the Frankenstein they had called into their minds ; men must be immortal to prove the goodness of God ? ”
“ Yes,” Alan said again.
“ But observe,” continued the major, “ your belief in the goodness of God rests upon your belief in immortality, and your belief in immortality rests upon your belief in the goodness of God. Admirable logic.”
“ But ” —Alan began to protest, in a confused way.
The major stopped him with a gesture. “ Now, if you were not so fortunate as to be able to retain your belief in God and immortality in the face of reason and as dependent upon each other (and there are some persons who are unable to do so), may I inquire whether you would still feel that life is good ? ”
“ I never maintained that it was entirely good,” Alan answered ; “ only that ” —
“ Goodness is not comparative, I think,” interrupted the other.
“ Only that it is worth having. It is beautiful and precious because — oh, because, Major Lee, of this very love which you think is an invitation to sorrow ! ”
The old man had risen, and put one lean white hand on Alan’s arm ; he was so earnest that his voice shook. “ Yes, love,” he said, — “ love is the greatest curse of all! That is what I wanted to say to you. To the man who cannot go through life with his eyes shut, who cannot summon the dream of immortality to comfort him with the thought of reunion, —and there are few who can do that genuinely, — love is only terror and misery beyond words. Love returns fourfold despair, whatever absence of pain there may be in success, or hope, or the beauty of conduct. Love is hell.
Alan was shocked into silence: the misery in this old face swept the light assertions from his lips. The yellow sunset had faded, and the fog was beginning to steal up the river. Alan shivered.
“This love, in marriage, what is it? Friendliness, perhaps, which commonplace daily living turns almost into indifference ; when it is that, it is the profanation of an ideal. Passionate joy, which is the ideal, and with it the blackening, blasting fear of grief, or — grief itself. Then, in either case, the responsibility of bringing new souls into the world, to suffer ; such a responsibility is like your God’s ! But what man shrinks from it ? I know what you would say, — that I am declaring existence to be a curse. I do so declare it. The only escape from the tragedy of consciousness which the caprice of the motiveless will fastens upon us is resignation — is the giving up of desire — is the giving up of living. Resignation ! even your religion teaches that, disguising it beneath promises of recompense and some future of happiness. Sir, I have studied life as other men study art or nature, and I know — listen to me, young man, I beseech you — I know that the nearest approach to what we call happiness is in negation. Believe me, Alan.”
The two men stood motionless in the shadows, but Alan could see the older man’s face, and there was a look in it which made him turn away his eyes. There is a brutal indecency in watching a naked soul struggle in an agonized human countenance.
“ But to seek only freedom from pain is moral suicide,” he stammered, scarcely knowing what he said, “ and a woman who is cheated of her right to suffer, of the beauty that there is in pain, has a life deformed and ” —
“Ah!” cried the other. “Young man, you talk of the beauty of suffering ? Because you know nothing about suffering ! ”
Mortimer Lee turned away; it was time to go home. Why had he wasted his words ? Who can convince a youth ? Yet he would have saved him ; there had been a point when he hail been really disinterested in what he said. He was so absorbed in his own disappointment that for a few moments lie was unaware that Alan was still walking at his side. The young man’s heart was hot within him, the physician was lost in the lover; he forgot that Major Lee was morbid. The human horror of death and the human instinct of love each entreated him, and he looked at both with that strange simplicity which comes when a man forgets himself in the presence of primal things. For once he could find, no words.
It was not until they reached the major’s gate and were within the little courtyard that he burst out, “No! no! no! you are wrong! Love is worth while. A man can blind himself, he can cast out fear, he can be divinely happy, with belief or without it. Love is enough; we can shut our eyes to everything else.”
“ Until the end, —until one is taken, and the other left,” the major answered.
As he spoke, the hall door opened, and Sidney stood upon the threshold, looking out into the night. As she saw the two dark figures beneath the ailantus-trees, she said under her breath, with that wonderful intonation which was the promise of untouched depths of tenderness in her nature, “ Father ? ”
She came down the steps, and took her father’s arm. “ You are coming in, Alan ? ” she said. The major stood as erect and silent as though upon the parade ground, but he glanced at Alan. The young man only shook his head silently, and turned away into the dark.
That glimpse of a living grief sobered Alan into patience, almost into reverence, for Mortimer Lee ; indeed, he felt a pitying tenderness towards the old man’s theories which the major would have resented with a pity of his own. But after a while Alan’s own hopes claimed him, and he declared that the way was clear. The major knew now, he insisted to himself, that he loved Sidney. “ I did n’t say it in so many words, but he must know it, and so I need not feel like a sneak,” and his courage and his hope increased together. There was nothing now to distract his attention, or to prevent him from going to the major’s on every possible excuse. He was well aware that Sidney’s father did not welcome him, and he guessed, with the compassionate amusement of youth, that the major did not forbid his coining only because that would have seemed to doubt Sidney’s convictions. Sidney’s convictions ! What were they ? Thistledown, if the breath of love should touch her lips. It was inconceivable to Alan that there should be any reality in an attitude of mind attained by precept and not experience (he admitted the major’s reality since that talk by the river), and he set himself with all his heart to win a conscious look from Sidney’s tranquil eyes, a deeper flush on her smooth cheek, or one word that was not as impersonally kind as the April sunshine itself.
Alan’s absorption and happiness, but perhaps still more the absence, for the first time in many months, of any anxiety about Robert Steele, shut his friend outside the doctor’s life. “ Bob is all right,” he reflected carelessly, and then had no more thought for him.
Robert was well. There had been a physical rebound after that sore throat which had made Miss Sally so anxious, and he was better than he had been for years ; which was of course a great happiness to Miss Sally. But that very health was a humiliation to him. There are times when the body seems to flaunt itself before the sick and cringing soul. Robert was walking in spiritual darkness ; he was searching for his duty with blind gropings into his fears. But the blood leaped in his veins, this spring weather; his hand was steady, his eye clear ; he was a well man. It is curious how sometimes the soul is outraged by the body. Grief resents hunger as an insult to its dead; anxiety flies from sleep which pursues it with unwelcome comfort; remorse turns its eyes away from the soft impulses which invite it; but how often the body triumphs ! Robert Steele felt a deeper shame for his health’s sake. And all the while Miss Sally rejoiced.
After that revelation of himself in the woods, there had come to Robert that dogged acceptance of despair which is a sort of peace. His duty to Miss Sally was all he had to live for, and that meant the fulfillment of his engagement. Yet, in his eyes, marriage without love was a profanation, and there had been a terrible moment when it had seemed that he must tell her of his baseness ; but he had flung the thought away from him. It was profanation, but why should he not profane himself if it saved her pain?—Robert honored Miss Sally too truly ever to suspect the quality of her love for him. To blacken his own soul was a small thing, if she could be spared the grief and humiliation of the truth. Yet he cringed at the thought, and, without being aware of it, beneath his resolution a continual argument had been carried on.
There were days when this strange secondary consciousness brought nearly to the surface of his determination the belief that truth to Miss Sally was his first and only duty. Truth to his ideal walked unrecognized beside that duty. But of late this hidden thought came boldly into his most sacred moments,— came, saying, “Truth is God manifested in the soul. To let silence lie to the woman who thinks you love her is the crudest wrong you can do her.” And Robert, with anguish, admitted to himself that this was so, and the peace of despair was lost in the possibility of greater pain.
But he was, during all this time, as even Mrs. Paul admitted, a most devoted lover ; it was she, however, who detected a confession in his devotion. To be sure, she did not witness it, and only knew of it by questioning Sally Lee, and sometimes Sidney, for she had scarcely seen Mr. Steele. He had made the proper call after the tea-party; then he had been ill ; after that, he had always been ready with an excuse when Miss Sally suggested that, they should go to call upon dear Mrs. Paul, She never did more than hint that they should go, not having courage enough to reproach her lover for ill manners, but she did hint quite constantly; not because she attached so much importance to the conventionalities of life, but because she was daily reminded of Mr. Steele’s shortcomings in this respect by Mrs. Paul.
Indeed, Mrs. Paul’s desire to see him was known to everybody except Mr. Steele himself; for the longer he neglected her, the more generally was her annoyance felt; what was really anger at him vented itself in sharp words upon any subject to any person. Unfortunately, it does not follow that the object of one’s anger receives its expression ; expression is all that is necessary to most people. There was a collateral justice, perhaps, in abusing Miss Sally ; but it was hard that Sidney should be scolded, and the girl protested to Mr. Steele, during one of their rare moments of conversation, — for Robert was quite right in feeling that she avoided talking to him. “ You must go to see Mrs. Paul, Mr. Steele,” she said, with a directness which took away Miss Sally’s breath. “ She really holds this entire family responsible for your absence.” And the next afternoon Robert went.
He had gone to the major’s first, and finding Miss Sally out thought that she might he at Mrs. Paul’s, and to go to fetch her home would be an excuse for a very short call. But Davids, as he announced him. said that Mrs. Paul was alone, and it was too late then for retreat. It came into his mind, as he saw her alert, keen face, that he had “gone up the winding stair,” and here was the spider awaiting him. Her eyes lighted as he entered.
She had long ago decided what she should say to him when he came; yet she approached her subject so delicately, and by that most subtle flattery of friendly silences, that Robert began to be remorseful for having judged her too harshly. It must have been as Miss Sally said, that Mrs. Paul had not been well that dreadful night, and that she was kinder than she seemed. She was entertaining now ; she said clever things, but forgot to be bitter. Robert almost enjoyed the twenty minutes before she touched on Miss Sally.
“ Oh, you expected to find her here? But you will never be so ill-mannered as to say you did not come to see me ? ”
“ Yes,” Robert answered, with instant constraint in his voice, “ I came to call upon you, but I hoped to find her here, so that I might walk home with her.”
This evident desire to protest his devotion delighted Mrs. Paul; she was almost fond of him, because of what such a desire betrayed, and because of the chance it gave her to wound him. “To be sure, and how sorry she will be not to have waited! She is really, you know, the most lovesick person; and it is n’t becoming to a middle-aged woman to be in love ! Oh, come, now: if you take offense so quickly, how will you stand the jars of domestic life ? And why should you take offense ? I merely said that Sally was very much in love.”
“ Because you do not speak as Miss Lee’s friend.”
She made a gesture, which meant apologetic amusement. “ No, no, you misunderstand me,” she said, watching, as though to see how far it was safe to go, the frowning antagonism gather in his face. “ I am Sally’s friend, her best friend, when I say ” — she hesitated, with a look of interest and concern — “ that I am sorry with all my heart that she has become engaged to you.”
Robert caught his breath. Was she in earnest ? Did she really see how despicable he was ?
I am not worthy of her,” he began to say, “but ” —
Of course not,” she answered, the restraint of temper beginning to show in her voice ; “ no one is, you know. But what I meant was, — I’ve known Sally so long, you must let me say just this,— it has been a mistake ; of hers, we ’ll say, not yours. She will not be happy, — I speak for her sake, — she can’t be happy. Lord ! an old maid can’t change her nature.” Mrs. Paul lost her patience and her policy together. The young man rose, with compressed lips. “ And would n’t it be better to release her ? ” she ended.
Robert was shaken by that tumult of dismay which comes when a man sees what he has thought good looking at him with a devil’s leer, or hears a solemn truth upon lips which turn it into a lie. He does not stop to say that the medium distorts it, and that truth is still true.
“ That is for her to say. Whatever she wishes of me, even my happiness, is hers. But I dare to believe that you are mistaken. I bid you good-afternoon, Mrs. Paul.”
He burned out of the house, tingling with rage and resolution. He would never see that woman again, he would never cross her threshold ! And as for her vile suggestion, — a thousand times no ! He would he true to Miss Sally, he would make himself love her. He thanked God that that wicked old woman had put lus thought into words, the purpose which he had said to himself was honor. He thanked God that she had shown him his own heart, had torn the mask of duty from the face of the hideous selfishness which had insisted that he must tell Miss Sally that he did not love her. Yet how, as that conviction of duty had grown, silently, in his mind, he had weighed his motives to see whether he was honest, — how he had Scanned each one in an agony of fear lest he might find a taint of self in it! Over and over again, since he had recognized those unseen processes which revealed to him his duty, had he retraced the mental steps which had led him to a terrible conclusion, looking for a way of escape, and finding none, — believing all the while that he was honest. He knew better now, he said. Mrs. Paul had confessed him to himself. He had been trying to find his own freedom, he had been hiding behind line words, he had taken the holy name of honor upon his profane lips. “ I have lied unto God ! ” he groaned.
He was almost blind with terror and pain. He did not know that people looked after him in the street, with a shrug or a half-laugh, and a light word that he was drunk. Mrs. Jennings, toiling across the bridge, shrank away from him as he passed her, and for a moment forgot her own troubles, His loathing of himself was so overpowering that he became indifferent to Mrs. Paul; he had not rage to spare for her. But could he have thought of her, he would have been incapable of imagining that the pleasure of having implanted in his mind the seed of what she must have felt was dishonor had left her delightfully amiable, — so amiable that when Davids told her there was a person in the hall who wished to see her, she nodded to him in a gracious way, and said, —
“ Very well, Davids.”
“ It is,” Davids observed, his eyebrows well lifted and his voice full of condescension, “ the bridge person, I believe.”
“Very well,” Mrs. Paul said again, pleasantly. “ She wants some help, no doubt.” She smiled archly as the man left her. Lord ! what fools, what fools they are! They can he led about like animals. Of course he was angry, but be ’ll do it !”
She looked up, still smiling, to see Mrs. Jennings entering with heavy awkwardness. Davids, standing flat against the baize door to keep it open, regarded the woman with an intolerable indifference, which so confused her that she forgot to make the decent bow she had planned, and was filled with the wordless fury of a vulgar woman. “ As though 1 did n’t know him ’fore he was in breeches ! ” she thought. But by the time she had seated herself and said “Good-evening,” and made a remark about the weather, she was more composed. She panted a little and swallowed hard before she began to speak, — perhaps because, although she had thought of this scene for days, she really did not know what to say. She hardly knew why she had come. A blind impulse to do something for her little ’Liza had made her resolve that she would “ see his mother and stop him breakin’ of her girl’s heart.” Her daughter did not know of her intention. Eliza was too interested in her own grievances to take much thought of the pain her mother suffered for her sake. Mrs. Jennings’ rage at Miss Townsend had found an echo in Eliza’s soul; she was full of that stinging anger which is really shame, and which follows bursts of unnecessary confidence.
“ Oh, why did I tell Miss Townsend?” she asked herself a dozen times a day, with a pang of humiliation which sent the tears into her eyes. As is the rule in such cases, the revenge Eliza took caused her as much suffering as she had hoped it might cause her victim. She decided to give up her music lessons.
“ Miss TOWNSEND,”she wrote, — “I ain’t going to take any more lessons. You can send your bill.
Mrs. Jennings approved of this note, though she would have been glad if Eliza had said right out that she considered her music teacher a meddlesome hussy. The only relief the poor mother had was to abuse Miss Townsend, which abuse blew up a great flame of wrath out of her almost imperceptible material, — so imperceptible, in fact, there was danger that it would burn out before she could put it into words, here in Mrs. Paul’s presence. So Davids’ Supercilious looks were really most helpful, although they had made her forget for the moment how she had intended to tell her story. There was a blown and breathless appearance about her, as she sat upon the edge of her chair, looking at Mrs. Paul. Her small crêpe bonnet was very far back upon her head, and her large and anxious face was mottled with rising color. Her hands, covered with those unpleasant gloves the fingers of which are gathered into a little bag, tied and untied the cord about the waist of an umbrella, which she held between her black bombazine knees.
“ Well, my good woman? ” Mrs. Paul interrogated, adjusting her glasses and crossing her feet with lazy comfort; her gown rustled, and then fell into soft gleaming folds.
“ Ma’am,” replied her visitor, swallowing once, “ my name is Jennings, — Mrs. Asa H. Jennings.”
“Yes?” said Mrs. Paul.
“ An’ I’ve come to see you,” proceeded the other, her voice growing louder. “ I’ve been meanin’ to come this long time ” —
“ Yes ? ” This enormously stout woman, whose face was quivering with emotion, and who had a chin like the folds of an accordion, was really very droll. Nor, for once, was Mrs. Paul more cruel than the rest of the world. Emotion which tries to express itself through a weight of flesh does not often reach the sympathies of the beholder.
“ Yes, I ‘ve been meanin’ to come, for I’ve somethin’ to say. I ‘m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I ain’t one that likes to tell unpleasant things ; no, nor gossip; no, nor make trouble in families.”
“ Of course ; I think I know exactly how much you would dislike to gossip, Mrs. — What did you say you were called ? ”
Mrs. Jennings supplied her name, and then, carefully unwinding the cord from around her umbrella, so that its generous folds flapped loosely about the wooden handle, she said, “So it ain’t to make mischief I come, only to tell the truth. I in a mother myself, an’ I know how you’ll feel havin’ some one comin’ an’ findin’ fault. But it’s truth, gospel truth, an’ my ‘Liza, she’s suffered enough, so she has! ’Tain’t only right but what he’d ought to be made to be different. ’Stead of that, he’s goin’ to see another young lady; nothin’ but a music teacher, too ! An’ I made out it was my duty to come an’ tell his mother.”
The lazy amusement had faded out of Mrs. Paul’s face.
“You are referring, I suppose, to Mr. John Paul ? ” she said,
“Yes, ma’am, I am,” answered Mrs. Jennings, her eyes roving about the room. “ I’m not one to deny it. I am. That’s the truth, an’ I’m not ashamed to tell it. He’s been — he’s been — my ’Liza’s heart’s just broken. An’ now he ain’t satisfied with sendin’ her to her grave, but he ’s makiu’ up to some one else. I’d just as lief tell her name, if you want me to ? ”
“I will not trouble you.”
“ A poor, miserable music teacher ! ” burst out Mrs. Jennings, “ with two sisters and a brother dependent on her. She thinks he’ll marry her; I believe in my soul she thinks he ’ll marry her. But I told my ’Liza I guessed not,— not if what everybody says about you was true, — I guessed not.”
“ Well,” said Mrs. Paul, tapping her glasses lightly upon the arm of her chair, “ and what is your object in coming here ? ”
Mrs. Jennings stared at her; there was a sudden collapse of all her windy anger. What had been her object ? What good would it do, after all ? There had been the moment’s relief of talking out the pain of her poor old heart, but what now ? She opened her lips, but she had nothing to say. There is something pathetic in the struggle of a small soul to grow great with passion. Mrs. Jennings burst into tears, and fumbled in her pocket for her handkerchief; not finding it, she wiped her eyes upon a fold of her umbrella. “My ’Liza” — she sobbed.
“Oh,” Mrs. Paul said; “yes, I see.” She leaned hack in her chair, with delicately knitted brows. “ Well ? ”
“ Well ? ” Mrs. Jennings repeated blankly.
“ I suppose you have threatened my son with this visit to me ? ”
“Ma’am?” said Mrs. Jennings.
“ But you have made a mistake. I do not interfere with Mr. Paul. You must go to him for money. I shall not give you any, you may depend upon that.”
Mrs. Jennings stared at her. “Why, I ain ‘t a poor person; I ain’t in any need, she said. “ I don’t know what ” —
Then it burst upon her. She rose, her lips parted, her broad bosom laboring for breath.
“ Shame on you! ” she stammered, — “ shame, you bad woman ! What are you thinking of ? Money for my ’Liza that’s had her innocent heart broke ? An’ what kind of a heart have you that you can think such thoughts of your own son ? ” In her honest and womanly anger her foolish jealousy of Miss Townsend was forgotten. “You think bad thoughts easier than good ones,” she cried shrilly, running her hand down the staff of her umbrella, so that it opened and closed with her quickened breathing. “ I come here ’cause I was most wild ’bout my ’Liza, an’ to warn you ’bout. Miss Townsend. Thank the Lord, my ’Liza ain’t in any danger of comin’ into such a family! An’ if it was n’t that I’m a Christian, an’ always do as I ’d be done by, I’d say I wish’t Miss Townsend would marry Mr. Paul, just to bring your dirty, wicked pride down ; hut she ’s too good for a son of yours, if she is poor. Shame on you ! ” She struck the floor with her mildewed old umbrella as sharply as Mrs. Paul could have done with her gold-headed stick.
“ She is poor, is she ? ” Mrs, Paul inquired, watching the tears course down Mrs. Jennings’ quivering cheeks.
“I haven’t anything more to say,” Mrs. Jennings responded, with a gasp, trying to tie her bonnet-strings into a tighter knot beneath her shaking chin.
“ But I have,” returned Mrs. Paul. “ Of course I know very well why you came here, and if you had conducted yourself properly no doubt something could have been arranged. But you have chosen to gossip about Mr. Paul. If you had given your attention to your daughter a little sooner, it would have been wiser. This Miss Townsend, whoever she is, Mr. Paul has no idea of marrying, and you will never allude to such a thing again ; do you hear me ? ”
“ I will do just exactly what I please! ” cried the other, thrusting out her lower lip and flinging her head back. When Mrs. Jennings chose, with her hands upon her broad hips, to make this unpleasant gesture, she was the embodiment of insolence.
Mrs. Paul was furious. She rang her hell wildly, and the savage jangle, echoing through the silent house, brought Davids running to the parlor door.
“ Show her out ! ” said Mrs. Paul. “ Show this person out, Davids ! ”
“ Don’t trouble yourself, Billy, don’t trouble yourself, my dear!” screamed Mrs. Jennings, purple and panting. “I would n’t stay, I would n’t stay, — no, not for all her money ; no, nor I would n’t let my ’Liza cross his threshold. An’ I ’ll warn Miss Townsend against him, but I hope he ’ll get her, poor as she is! ”
Mrs. Paul made a motion of her hand which was unmistakable. Davids took Mrs. Jennings’ wrist, and before she knew it, still railing and sobbing, she found herself running with the terrifying speed of a large person down the steep steps of the terrace and out through the iron gate. She was hardly able to check her pace by the time she came to the bridge, and her knees were still shaking, from such unusual exercise, when she reached the toll-house.
Eliza had been watching for her mother, holding back the dimity curtain, so that a wavering line of cheerful light fell across the road; when she saw the familiar figure she hastened to open the door. “The tea-table’s set, and the toast is ready, ma,” she said, and then broke into a cry of amazement at her mother’s face.
“ I’ve been — I’ve been ” — Mrs. Jennings panted, falling into the big rocking-chair, trembling very much, and pressing her hand upon her side — “I’ve been to his mother’s — and that woman, that bad, wicked woman” —
“ Whose mother’s ? ” said Eliza faintly. “ His ? ” She had run and fetched the toast from the kitchen, but in her agitation she put the plate down among the geraniums on the window-sill.
Mrs. Jennings nodded. She tried, with clumsy gloved fingers, to unfasten her bonnet-strings, and looked appealingly at Eliza for help, but her daughter was too excited to be dutiful.
“Tell me about it, ma, every word, quick ! ”
Mrs. Jennings, her voice still unsteady, told her story; at least part of it. She could tell Eliza that her mother had been insulted, but she could not soil her daughter’s mind with Mrs. Paul’s suspicion. When she stopped for breath Eliza burst into tears. In vain Mrs. Jennings tried to soothe her; she had nothing but sobbing reproaches for her mother.
“ I don’t know what in the world you went for, anyhow,” she wailed, “ an’ I don’t see that you said anything, either. Don’t seem, somehow, as if there was any point in it, an’ I ’ll never hold up my head again. Oh, mother, how could you do it, — how could you ? ”
“ But, ’Liza,” quavered Mrs. Jennings, “I didn’t mean no harm; I only meant — I only meant ” —
“You’ve disgraced me. She’ll tell him, and what’ll he think? ”
Even as she spoke a vision of Job Todd came into little Eliza’s mind: partly because, in this sudden light of common sense, her sentimental fancies showed their real value, and were almost blotted out; and partly because she reflected that if she “ took Job, why, then he’d never know anything, even if his mother did tell him ! ”
Of course this was all too confused for words, but Mrs. Jennings was profoundly thankful that Eliza’s sobs did not continue very long; and, indeed, she so far recovered that she was soon able to sit up and eat a piece of toast, while shedding a few excited tears into her tea-cup. Mrs. Jennings, all the while, hovered about her like a ponderous butterfly. She was full of small caresses, and tender words, and little ducking sounds of maternal love, but there was a mist of tears in her fierce little eyes. “I was never spoke to so in my life,” she was thinking. “ I would n’t’a’ minded for myself, but to think bad of my ’Liza!”