A LOVER IN HOMESPUN
AND OTHER STORIES
F. CLIFFORD SMITH
TORONTO: WILLIAM BRIGGS 29-33 Richmond St. West MONTREAL: C.W. COATES. HALIFAX: S.F. HUESTIS. PHILADELPHIA: HENRY ALTEMUS. 1896
ENTERED, according to Act of the Parliament of Canada, in the year one thousand eight hundred and ninety-six, by WILLIAM BRIGGS, at the Department of Agriculture.
To My Mother,
WHO HAS TAKEN SUCH A WARM AND LOVING INTEREST IN MY LITERARY ENDEAVORS,
MY BOOK OF CANADIAN STORIES.
A Lover in Homespun 7
The Faith that Removes Mountains 31
A Pair of Boots 50
A Prairie Episode 79
A Daughter of the Church 105
A Perilous Encounter 125
Le Loup-Garou 134
A Christmas Adventure 148
Narcisse's Friend 155
A Strange Presentiment 170
A Memorable Dinner 184
* * * * *
A Lover in Homespun.
Onesime Charest, farmer, of L'Orignal, was a happy man. As he drove through the quaint little French-Canadian village, on his way to the railway station, he was saluted by the villagers with much ceremony.
Everyone knew perfectly well just what it was that was taking farmer Charest to the station this beautiful hazy afternoon. Over a week had now elapsed since he received the letter from his son Zotique, in the United States, saying he would be home on September 10th.
Before the important communication had been in the village a day, it was common property, and had been read and re-read until almost every soul in the place knew it off by heart.
The wanderer's return was to be made more momentous by Madame Charest inviting a large number of guests to a party, to be given by her the evening he returned.
If these worthy people were in a joyous mood the night of the party, nature appeared equally so; for by the time the first hay-cart, with its burden of guests, drove up to the scene of the festivities, the moon, as though specially engaged to do duty on this honored occasion, stood right over farmer Charest's house, and with jovial countenance beamed into the faces of the arriving guests, and threw such a kindly light over the farmer's rough, nondescript garments as to make them look almost like good, soft broadcloth. It also paid flattering attention to Madame Charest, and so beautified her thin face and silvered her grey hair, as she stood in the door and welcomed the arrivals, as to make the neighbors affirm—and that in a manner that it would have been utterly useless to try and gainsay—that she looked far younger than she did ten years ago!
The lion of the hour, of course, was the wanderer Zotique. He stood in the main room of the house, the kitchen, near the long improvised table, with its burden of seductive viands, and shook hands with the guests without even the slightest tinge of the superiority which it was thought he would, and that justly, assume.
Notwithstanding his graciousness, however, he was looked upon with no little awe. He had grown so tall, got so broad-shouldered, become the owner of such a soft, curling moustache, and wore such fine clothes and white linen as to quite throw in the shade his elder brother Vital, and the other men present, who wore, as was customary on all occasions—state or otherwise—the dark woollen suits and grey woollen shirts, with the long pointed, attached collars.
Had Zotique not been a sensible fellow, he would surely have had his head turned by the many flattering things said to him.
It so chanced, too, that remarks were passed about him to his parents and brother, sotto voce, which, strange as it may appear, managed in some unaccountable manner always to reach his ears.
"He certainly has grown good-looking, very good-looking," thought Vital, as he hovered about his younger brother. Although he was sincerely glad to see him, he could not altogether drive away the shameful wish that he had been less handsome. When he thought of what it was that gave rise to the wish, he felt ill at ease.
Vital, in every way, was different from his tall younger brother. He was slimly built, scarcely the average height, and not prone to many words. He was given to day-dreams, too, and often did such absent-minded things as to cause his father much mental perturbation, and at times to wish that he had not given him so much schooling, but had trained him for a farmer instead of a school-teacher. Still he was immensely proud of his two sons, and as he saw them standing together, he decided that they looked far superior to the other farmers' sons, who had been given little or no education.
The wanderer Zotique was only twenty-two years of age, while Vital had turned thirty.
As the minutes stole by, and the babel of tongues increased, it might have been noticed that both the brothers stole anxious glances at the door. Every time it opened they invariably turned to see who the arrival was. There must have been some weighty reasons for the frequent disappointed looks which stole across their faces.
At last the guests had nearly all arrived, and farmer Charest, his good-natured face all aglow, intimated by much hammering on the table that it was time they sat down to supper. There being no dissenting voice to this popular proposition, a general move was made to the benches ranged on both sides of the table. By a strange coincidence, Zotique and Vital, instead of going to the table with the others, gravitated toward the door.
"Just thought I would have a look out; it is such a fine night," said Zotique, as he took a long breath of fresh air.
Vital looked at his robust brother in a queer, constrained manner, and said that it was indeed a beautiful evening. Now, instead of looking up at the queen of the night, as one would naturally have expected after such flattering comments, they both, as though by common consent, treated her with the most marked disrespect, not once looking toward her, but bestowing all their attention on a certain little whitewashed cottage down the road, from a window of which streamed a light.
"I think we had better go in," said Zotique, presently, in a slightly disappointed tone.
"Yes, yes, Zotique, what you say is right; there never was a finer night," answered Vital, dreamily, his eyes still fixed thoughtfully on the cottage. He was in one of his absent moods, and had not heard what his brother had said.
Zotique turned, looked sharply at him, and then broke into a hearty laugh. "You are as absent-minded as ever, Vital," he said jestingly, as he seized him by the arm and marched him into the room.
The guests were seated, but there was still room for four or five more. After jeering them both for being moon-gazers, farmer Charest called Zotique to come and sit by his side. Vital, thus being left alone, wandered off to the foot of the table, and sat down by the side of an old farmer, where there was plenty of room. What made him go so far for a seat when there were others nearer, though not so roomy, will presently be seen. Hardly had he seated himself when he did an unaccountable thing. Sitting as close as he could get to the farmer on his right, he stealthily ran his hand along the bench till it reached his neighbor on his left. The intervening space evidently was satisfactory, for a look of content came over his face, and he turned and looked once more expectantly at the door.
Scarcely had the repast begun when the door was quickly opened, and a young woman, clad in a bewitching white dress, burst into the room. She was out of breath, and had evidently been running.
"Do you know, Madame Charest," she said laughingly, as she advanced, "the reason I am late is—because—well, because"—the color rushed into her face as she hesitated for a few moments—"because it took me so long to dress. There, now, I have told you! Father said he would tell you all when he came just what did keep me, although I coaxed him not to. Now I have spoiled the joke he was going to have on me, and we can laugh at him."
This audacious thwarting of parental plans caused much laughter, during which Zotique sprang to his feet, and going over to where she was standing, and laughing merrily, held out his hand and said, "Have you no word of welcome for me, Katie White?"
She put her hand into the outstretched one, and looking up into his face with her bright blue eyes, told him that she was very much pleased to see him.
Vital, who had seen her the very moment the door opened, had risen with alacrity, and in the hope that she would see the vacant seat by his side, was unconsciously crushing the hapless farmer on his right into a most uncomfortable position. The hopeful, expectant look on Vital's face deserved far better recognition than it was awarded.
Despite the fact that there was but little room where Zotique was sitting, the shameless, prevaricating fellow impressed upon her that seats in that particular quarter were actually going begging.
For a few moments Katie hesitated as though she hardly knew what to do. Absent-minded Vital was still standing and looking at her, his whole heart in his eyes.
"Yes, I will sit next to you; it was very kind of you to take such interest in getting me a seat."
Poor Vital! As he heard these ominous words, saw her look up and smile at Zotique, and after great crushing sit down by his side, all the pleasure of eating left him entirely.
As the good things began to disappear and tongues were loosened, unobtrusive Vital seemed to be entirely forgotten, except by the neighbor whom he had so cruelly crowded. Had it not been for this kindly, unrevengeful soul, Vital's inner man would have been in as beggarly a condition at the conclusion of the meal as at the beginning. As it was, it received but scant attention. Seeing the poverty of his plate, without asking leave, the farmer generously filled it.
This act of kindness brought Vital's thoughts to a sudden halt, and made him feel ashamed of the interest he had been displaying in all the young woman, seated at his brother's side, had been doing and saying. With a firm determination no longer to slight his plate, he turned his attention to it, but had scarcely eaten two mouthfuls when his treacherous thoughts stole off to Katie again. Absently laying his knife and fork down, he was soon unconscious of all that was going on around him.
His friendly neighbor decided it would be a most opportune time to pass the salt, and thus give him another hint that he was losing much valuable time.
"Oh, thank you," said Vital, absently, as he took the salt and proceeded to distribute it over his meat in such reckless quantities as to completely entomb the latter. For a space the farmer looked aghast, and then, with a mystified shake of his head, turned his attention to his own affairs, and did not look at him again till the time for speech-making had arrived. Then, to his consternation, he saw Vital had not made the slightest effort to extricate the hapless meat from its strange covering. Besides the farmer, another person had witnessed the adventures of Vital's plate!
After considerable solicitation and stimulating applause, farmer Charest rose to deliver the first speech. "As dare are," he began in broken English, "a few farmer here who not spick de French lanwige, I will try for spick a few words in Anglish. I know I not spick de lanwige vary much, but my son Zotique, who just come from de States, he spick Anglish just so well as de Anglish, and so he mak you spich better dan I mak."
He turned and laid his hand affectionately on Zotique's head. Zotique colored at the unexpected compliment, and looking down into Miss Katie White's bright blue eyes, smiled, and shook his head deprecatingly. She looked up, smiled, and nodded her compact little head, as though she thought the compliment was fully deserved.
Vital, who had eyes for only one person in the room, saw the look Zotique gave her, and her apparent appreciation of it, and longed to be out in the little garden at the back of the house.
"I not mak some vary long spich," went on the orator, "as I know dat you all rather have de dance. Den I see, too, dat my friend Magloire Meloche, down dare, he look many time at de fiddle he brought and hang on de wall." This bantering allusion to the veteran fiddle-player of the district caused a hearty outburst of laughter and applause.
"All I want for say," continued the speaker, rubbing his hands briskly with gratified pride, "is dat me and my femme we both glad dat my son Zotique he come from de States to pay us de visit. My son he do well in de States, where dare is vary much place for work. When he write to say dat he pay us de visit, my femme, she say she mak dis little pleasure so dat you all see him. My son Zotique he now spick."
Had farmer Charest been a second "Mark Antony," the recognition of his oratorical ability could not have been more marked. Certain it is that that renowned orator could not have borne more becomingly the honors showered upon him.
Very handsome Zotique looked as he rose, and he spoke in English which fully justified the goodly remarks passed upon it by his father. Vital's heart beat fast with pride as he looked at his handsome brother, until it occurred to him how insignificant Katie White must think him in comparison.
Before Zotique had spoken many words, he had completely won the hearts of his hearers. Quite fluently he told them of the cities he had visited in the States, and how a grocery clerk's life was one much to be desired. He interspersed little jokes in his speech, at which he laughed just as heartily and sincerely as his listeners. More than once he was on the point of concluding, when a glance at Katie White's sweet face incited him to fresh efforts.
It was a speech remembered and spoken of for many days.
Before the dancing began, farmer Charest declared, despite the increasing and obvious restlessness of Magloire Meloche to get at the fiddle, that they must have a speech, in English, from his eldest son Vital. "And my son Vital, he has mak me a good son, if he do like to tink alone too much, and sometime do forgetful ting." Very affectionate was the look he gave Vital, who had been with him always, and for whom it was not necessary to kill the fatted calf.
If there was anything Vital was an adept at not doing, it was making a speech in English. He was considered quite clever at playing the organ in the little village church, singing the mass, teaching school, and a hundred other things, but at speaking English he was known as an arrant failure.
For a few moments he stood struggling hard to regain his composure, and ardently wishing that Katie were at his side to inspire him as she had inspired his brother. Finally, he launched forth, to the quiet amusement of the few English farmers present. Truly, he took liberties with the language seldom attempted even by French-Canadians, to whom the Saxon tongue appears to have no terrors. Yet, had he spoken in Dutch, he would have been listened to just as patiently, for all present knew and appreciated his quiet worth. After accomplishing the feat of letting them know, at least half a dozen times, that he was glad once more to see his brother with them, he got hopelessly wrecked, and gazed hard at his plate for inspiration. Finding no succor there, his thoughts again galloped off to the young woman who had come late, where they evidently delighted to linger. A peaceful smile stole over the speaker's worried face, and absently taking up his fork he began to drum contentedly on the table with it, utterly forgetful of those who were waiting anxiously for the remainder of his remarks.
With a broad smile, farmer Charest began to applaud loudly, receiving generous aid from the guests.
This unexpected appreciation caused Vital to color painfully, well intentioned though he knew the applause to be. The thought that Katie must be again contrasting him with Zotique kept the crimson hue on his face long after he sat down. The few remaining words which he spoke were in continued praise of his brother, of whose cleverness both he and his parents were very proud.
After the clapping of hands had subsided, the table was carried away to make room for the dancing.
Feeling that he had utterly disgraced himself in Katie's eyes, Vital wandered off to a quiet corner where he could see her without attracting attention. It seemed to him, once or twice, that she looked over inquiringly in his direction, but the thought that it was presumptuous of him to imagine she would think of him now, made him quickly decide that he had been mistaken as to the direction of her glances. He was also convinced now that he had made a still more serious mistake when he allowed himself to hope that she had cherished tender thoughts of the many walks they had taken along the quiet country road, and of the evenings he had spent with her.
Fearing to be thought unsociable, he rose hastily, and was soon talking to the guests with unusual eagerness. His sudden lapses into thought, however, created the impression in the minds of some of his listeners that he was laboring under suppressed excitement.
At times, when he found himself drifting unconsciously toward Katie, it was amusing to see what a hasty retreat he would beat.
As for Zotique, he had never enjoyed himself more. Scarcely for a moment did he leave Katie's side. Brightly he talked to her of their school-days and of the many pleasant parties they had met at before he went away. When, presently, he asked her about a certain little present which he had sent her a few months before, his voice grew very tender, as also indeed did his eyes. It took considerable questioning before she admitted that she had not parted with it. After this slight admission he grew more chatty than ever, and failed to notice that her manner was growing a little constrained.
Finally the floor was cleared, and Magloire Meloche, with much dignity, took down the doughty fiddle, seated himself, cast his eyes calmly over the expectant guests, and began slowly to tune up. From the expression of his face, it was quite apparent that he had a keen appreciation of the important part he had been called upon to occupy in the evening's festivities. Besides constituting the entire orchestra, he was floor manager, and called out the figures. The gusto with which he cried out, "Swing your pardner! Now tak de hand all round," etc., and beat time with his huge moccasined foot, added in no inconsiderable degree to the excitement.
It being well known that Vital did not dance, no comments were passed upon his absence. The poor fellow had tried to stay and watch the dancing, but the pain at his heart had grown so, on seeing Zotique's arm around her waist, that he really could not endure it, and so had gone out to the little garden at the back of the house, and was sitting on his favorite seat under a huge birch tree, whose thick foliage the inquisitive moon could scarcely pierce.
Through the open kitchen door there floated to him at intervals the playing of the fiddle, and the commanding tones of Magloire Meloche.
Finally the music ceased, and some of the dancers came out into the garden to view the beauty of the night. Vital was just in the act of rising, when a couple, whom he recognized as his brother and Katie White, came within a few yards of him. Where he sat, the shadows were too deep for them to see him.
Before he could escape, they paused for a few moments near the outer branches of the great birch, where the lavish moon beamed clear as noonday. Their faces were distinctly revealed. Zotique's bore an intensely eager look, while Katie's was strangely agitated. They were talking earnestly. Dreading they might think he was eaves-dropping, Vital was about to make his presence known, when they began slowly to move away, and there fell upon his ears words that bereft him of speech. It was his brother's voice, low and pleading: "Before I went away I loved you, and I have loved you ever since. I was so anxious to see you, that I came back. You are surprised at me telling you to-night; but I can only stay a few days. If you will only give me your promise, I—"
The voice died away in the distance.
The shadows where Vital stood suddenly assumed a more sombre hue, and widened and deepened and spread, until the whole garden was enveloped in a funereal pall.
The ancient garden seat groaned audibly as he sank back heavily upon it; the shock drove the gathering blackness away. Never in his life before had he been so sorely moved; his pale face had almost a ghastly hue, while his hands shook painfully. He rose mechanically and passed out into the moonlight, and looked around absently. There was no one in sight, and all was quiet. He began to move in the direction of the house. He appeared to have forgotten all about the festivities; he was simply weary, and was going home to rest.
"Tak your pardners for de nex' waltz!" A moment of preliminary scraping, then the tune, and finally the muffled scuffling of feet fell upon his ears. Then it all came back to him, and turning hurriedly, he walked away from the house to the far end of the garden. Resting his arms on the fence, he stood bathed in the moonlight, trying to think it all out calmly, and get courage to return and act as though nothing had happened. While he stood battling with his rebellious heart, he might have noticed, had he been facing the house, a young woman, dressed in white, come to the door soon after the dance had started, and look around the garden as if searching for someone. Finally her eyes travelled to the far end of the garden, where a lonely, despondent-looking figure was standing, and then she started eagerly forward. Very lovely was the color in her cheeks as she sped toward him. As she was about to lay her hand on his arm she appeared to grow irresolute. She paused and looked back at the house as though meditating upon the advisability of returning, and actually did take a few steps towards it, but again hesitated and looked back; the pathetic droop of his shoulders affected her keenly, and she stole back to him again. Bending her little head till it was near his, she said softly: "Dreaming again, Vital?"
The foolish fellow turned and looked at her as though he had utterly abandoned all faith in the veracity of his hitherto faithful eyes: "Katie! Katie White!" he exclaimed.
She laughed outright. "Yes, Katie White. Did you think it was my ghost? Of course, if you are not glad to see me, and would rather be alone, I can go back to the house again."
It was marvellous the way the look of misery fled from his face, while the sudden growth of his friendliness was nothing less than astounding. Taking her little hand in his he shook it repeatedly, and impressed upon her, over and over again, that he had never been more surprised in his life.
Suddenly she put on a most serious look, and leaning back against the fence, looked up into his face and said gravely: "Even if you don't dance, Vital, I think it was a little rude of you to leave the house for so long, and scarcely speak to anyone the whole evening. And the way you acted, too, at dinner, Vital! I can't understand it."
In the happiness of having Katie near him, he had forgotten all about the scene he had witnessed near the great birch tree, and the dreadful words that had floated to him, and had almost stopped the beating of his heart. Of course, she was his brother's now. How foolishly he had been acting, and how painful to her must have been his extravagant joy at seeing her. The reference she had made to the dinner made his humiliation still keener to bear, for he thought she alluded to his unhappy speech.
The sudden flight of happiness from his face made her own grow grave, and she drew a little closer to him; but in his humiliation he did not notice it. He thought she was haughtily waiting for him to speak. In his quaint halting English he began to tell her that he feared he had been most discourteous. The truth was he had "not meant to stay away so long, but had got thinking of—of—"
"Thinking of what, Vital?"
Was he mistaken? Was not that a kindly ring in her voice? It was hard to keep his eyes from her face. Then he thought of his brother, and he was sure his ears had deceived him. After a painful pause, he answered that he had been thinking of many things. Not for a moment did he dream of letting her know that she had been the magnet around which all his thoughts had revolved. Then he began to explain about that speech. Hardly had he begun to apologize for his lack of oratorical ability, when a pained expression swept across Katie's face, and she was about to reproach him for thinking she would be so ungenerous as to upbraid him for such a thing, when a spirit of mischief entered her heart, and putting on a serious air she let him continue. He finally wound up by praising his brother's wonderful gift of speech.
"Oh, yes," she replied warmly, "Zotique is a great speaker, and such a dancer!" She stole a swift glance at him. His eyes were still fixed on the trees in the distance. A queer little smile stole around the corners of her mouth. He admitted, with a valiant effort to throw a little enthusiasm into his voice, that Zotique was indeed a grand dancer. The smile, which was in no way scornful, deepened on her face.
"And he is so polite to ladies, and takes such trouble to provide them with seats at crowded tables," Katie went on reflectively.
He stole a hasty glance at her face, but quick as he was she was quicker; the smile had vanished. He saw only a deeply thoughtful expression.
To think of Katie praising Zotique for providing her with a seat! If she only knew how she was wounding him! but he was sure she did not. He wondered what she would think if she only knew that the failure of his speech had been largely due to not having had the privilege of providing her with a seat. He thought of how anxiously he had watched the door for her, and how Zotique had upset all his plans by going so fearlessly up to her and taking her to the seat at his side. He wondered she had not noticed how he had stood up all the time she had been talking to his brother, and how in that way he had tried to get her to notice the generous vacant space at his side. There was nothing to be done now but to let Katie misunderstand him: to let her know the true state of his feelings would be treachery to Zotique.
In a low voice he admitted Zotique's superiority over him also in the capacity of politeness.
It is wonderful how cruel maidens can be at times. In a tone in which there was just the slightest shade of reproach, Katie told him that she really had expected him to show her a little more attention, considering how very long they had been friends. Perhaps, however, his lack of attention had been due to his feeling unwell; she had seen how he had hardly eaten anything. Ill-health would account, too, for the tremendous covering of salt he had put over his meat.
Poor Vital! This was dreadful; she had misunderstood him in everything. She would never know that his prodigality with the salt had been due to the perversity of his heart in longing for what it would now never possess. Manfully he stuck to the thankless part he had to play, and admitted that ill-health had something to do with his strange behavior.
The trees were beginning to assume gigantic shapes and to get mixed up with the horizon, and his eyes were aching. He was suffering keenly. Finally his eyes rested on the ground. A new trouble had arisen and was torturing him: he thought it was his duty to congratulate her on her engagement with his brother. If he wished her happiness without waiting for her to tell him about the engagement, she perhaps would see that he was not quite so impolite as she had thought him. It was hard to commence. Distressfully his hand caressed the rough fence.
Katie glanced at him stealthily: the troubled look on his face smote her to the heart. She was ashamed of her cruelty.
Trying to piece his barren English so it would not offend, Vital finally told her how glad he was that she was going to be his brother's wife. He dwelt upon Zotique's manliness, and how he was quite sure she would never be sorry that she had chosen him.
She gazed at him in amazement. "Marry Zotique?" she queried, aghast.
He thought her surprise was due to his knowledge of the engagement, so he hastened, with much delicacy, to explain that he had not meant to listen. Zotique, of course, had been very much in earnest and had spoken a little loudly to her as they passed the birch tree; that was how he came to know so soon.
As Katie noted Vital's innate tact and delicacy, and saw how bravely he was suffering, and knew that it was all due to her cruelty, her lips began to tremble pitifully, and her eyes filled with tears. She tried hard not to break down, but her heart reproached her so fiercely that there was no use struggling, and so resting her arms on the fence she buried her face in them, and burst into remorseful tears.
Had the earth yawned and swallowed the trees in the distance, Vital's consternation could not have been greater. Had Katie laughed, he would not have been surprised; but to break into such heart-rending sobs! He was by her side in an instant, his sensitive face all aglow with sympathy. Laying his hand lightly on her arm, he told her how sorry he was for having caused her such bitter grief. He should have known better, and not have mentioned her engagement until she had first told him of it. He only now realized how embarrassing his conversation must have been to her.
Instead of diminishing her sorrow, these kindly words caused Katie's shoulders to heave still more quickly, and made the sobs more bitter. Miserably Vital stood by her side, utterly at a loss to know what to do; everything he had done and said had given her pain. For the first time in his life he wished he never had been born.
He did not again attempt to speak, but stood quietly at her side. At last the sobs ceased, and then with downcast eyes Katie stepped to his side and slipped her arm hesitatingly through his. The touch of her hand thrilled him. Thinking that she wanted him to take her back to the house, and was too angry to speak to him, he turned, and with the moon full in their faces they began silently to walk toward the house. As they neared it, the sounds of the violin and the merry-making grew more distinct. He thought of the happiness awaiting her there, and the bitterness for him, and his heart rebelled fiercely.
Near the house, partly shaded by a friendly apple-tree, was a bench, where Vital often sat. When they reached it, Katie let go of his arm and seated herself upon it.
"She wants to be alone until she can compose herself to go into the house," he thought, and was hurrying away, when she called to him. He retraced his steps and stood before her.
"Sit down, Vital."
This time he had not made a mistake; there was something in the tone of her voice which made him tremble with happiness. Willingly he obeyed the invitation.
For a few moments she sat and twined her fingers together nervously. She knew how dear she was to him, and wanted to make amends.
"I have been very cruel to you to-night, Vital," she began in a low, uneven tone.
Wrathfully he began to deny such an outrageous statement.
"I thought you would like to know," she continued, falteringly, when his indignation had somewhat subsided, "that you are mistaken in that about Zotique and me; we are not engaged. I—I—told him, no." It was hard to tell him this; but she had treated him so very badly and had taken such an unfair advantage of his trusting nature.
The sudden relief from the restraint he had borne so long made him lose command of himself altogether. He sprang quickly to his feet, and looking down at the fair averted face, said, with the love-light beaming in his eyes, "I love you, too, Katie." It was only after the words were spoken that he realized his amazing boldness. As he stood abashed, a warm, sweet hand crept into his. The daring fellow held it tightly!
"I can't tell you how glad I am that you love me, for I love you, too." In the twinkling of an eye he was sitting by her side.
"Once agin bow to de ladies!" And to think that he should ever have thought Magloire Meloche had a coarse voice, and that his fiddle was always out of tune! He had sorely maligned him. When they married, he decided mentally, he should have Magloire play at the wedding.
A laudable feeling of pity for the other little hand, which looked so lonely on the bench there, caused him to reach over and take possession of it, too. Then Katie made a full confession of her duplicity. She told him how she had seen the seat he had been saving for her the moment she entered the kitchen, but had wilfully pretended not to notice it in order to tease him. As for his speech, she was sure it had sounded as sweet to everyone at the table as it had to her, for they all knew that he had fully meant all the kindly things he had said about Zotique. His heart beat riotously as he heard her tell how badly she had been crowded at the table, and how all the time she had longed to be sitting next to him. When she declared she knew the reason of his seasoning his food in such a remarkable manner, was because she had not been by his side, he declared her to be a perfect mind-reader.
"All tak hands for de last time!" The sonorous tones brought them down to earth once more. She started to her feet and caught his hand. "Quick! quick!" she said; "we must get into the house before the dance stops, or they will miss us and we shall be teased."
Hand in hand, like two happy children, they began to run. As laughingly they turned the corner of the house they ran straight into the arms of a tall young man. They both uttered an exclamation, and looked up. It was Zotique!
Over Zotique's shoulder the shameless moon shone full into their startled faces. A child could have read their story. In the surprise of the moment they forgot to unclasp hands.
As he looked down at them an angry flush mounted to his brow, and then with a constrained nod Zotique stepped aside as though to continue his walk. But a closer look into Vital's face aroused a more generous spirit, and turning, he caught their clasped hands in his great ones, sympathetically pressed them, and without a word passed on. He would have liked to wish them happiness, but his heart ached so!
They entered the house just as Magloire took the fiddle from his shoulder, and the dancers, with flushed faces, sat down to rest. Katie was soon surrounded by a circle of admirers, and then, unnoticed, Vital slipped away, and hurried into the garden.
Zotique was nowhere in sight, but Vital knew just where he would find him. When he came to the great birch he stopped and peered in at the bench, where the shadows were deep: Zotique was there. Vital sat down by his side, and laying his hand on his brother's shoulder, said in a low voice, "You—cared—a great deal, Zotique?"
"A great deal, Vital." There was no reproach in the tone.
"Zotique—I don't know what to say—I never was, as you know, a very good hand at saying things. It was hard to think of you being here all alone. I—I—want you to know, Zotique, that I have not tried to act underhanded. It all happened between us so suddenly, and so—so—"
"Yes, I understand; don't worry about it, Vital," he interrupted,—in a tone which eased Vital's heart more than any words could have done.
They sat ever so long without speaking. Finally Zotique said quietly, "My coming back was all a mistake, Vital; I never thought you cared for her in that way; you were always so quiet and absent-minded that I misunderstood you." He paused for a few moments and then went on unevenly: "After I get back—perhaps not just at once—I will write and tell her how fortunate she is."
* * * * *
The Faith that Removes Mountains.
Just as the bells in the great towers of old Notre Dame Church, in Montreal, were striking the hour of ten, a gust of October wind, more fierce than its fellows, bore down upon the trees in the French Square fronting the church, tore from them multitudes of leaves, brown and crisp and dry, drove them past the ancient church, along Notre Dame Street, across the Champ de Mars to St. Dominique Street, and heaped them sportively in the doorway of a quaint French-Canadian cottage.
There huddling apprehensively together, the door opened, just as the wind with renewed vigor beat down upon them once more. For a few moments a weird, bent figure, crutch in hand, stood in the doorway gasping for breath, her claw-like hands brushing away the leaves, which clung to her as if affrighted. The weight of years bore upon her so heavily that she scarcely had strength to close the door in the face of the riotous storm. As she stood panting and wheezing in the little parlor, into which the street door opened, she made a remarkable picture. She was clad in a dark, ill-fitting dress, fastened around the waist by a broad strip of faded yellow ribbon; about her neck the parchment-like skin hung in heavy folds, while her entire face was seamed over and over with deep wrinkles, giving it a marvellously aged appearance.
At length her strength returned, and she muttered as she hobbled across the room: "The storm is worse; I fear she cannot go out to-night." Reaching an ancient door, from which the paint had faded years before, she turned the handle, when a strange sight was revealed. Kneeling before a plaster cast of the Virgin, with a string of bone prayer-beads in her hands, was another aged woman. Ranged on either side of the statue were two colored wax candles, lighting up the face of the devout worshipper, whose hair the years had bleached white as snow. She was twenty years younger than her crippled sister, who had defied death for nearly a hundred years.
On seeing the image and the worshipper, the sister in the doorway painfully fell upon her knees, clasped her hands, and also began to pray. Finally they both rose. Putting aside her beads, the younger sister—whom the neighbors called "Little Mother Soulard"—took up an ancient-looking bonnet, which she proceeded to fasten by two immense strings under her chin. She was short in stature and inclined to be stout; her face, though heavily lined, was still pleasing to look at. "Is it storming as badly as ever, Delmia?" she asked, turning to her sister, who stood watching her putting on her things with a dissatisfied countenance.
"The storm is worse than ever," Delmia answered peevishly. "Do not go out to-night. You, too, are old, and it is a long way to the Bonsecours Church. I fear the storm will be too much for you."
"But think, dear," replied her sister, commiseratingly, "how our poor nephew will be thinking of us in that dreadful place, and think, too, of her who was this day to have been his wife. They both sorely need my prayers this night. I must—I must go, Delmia."
"But," contended Delmia, persistently, bringing her crutch sharply down on the floor, "why not pray here" (turning and looking at the statue) "to the Virgin, instead of going out this fearful night to pray to her in the church?"
The Little Mother let the shawl she was drawing around her shoulders fall to the floor, as she heard the question, and walking over to her venerable sister, said excitedly, as she grasped her by the arm: "Have you not heard, Delmia, of the wonderful answers to prayer that the Virgin has given in the Bonsecours Church? Only yesterday two more miracles were reported. Madame Dubuc told me about them this morning. Two women who had been afflicted with lameness for years were fully restored to health, and they left their crutches in the church, where they can be seen by anyone."
Her excitement was infectious; the aged Delmia's eyes also began to gleam with religious enthusiasm, while her trembling hand caused the crutch to keep up a soft tattoo on the floor.
"And guess why the Virgin answered their prayers, Delmia?" she went on in a hushed voice; "because they prayed in the church from midnight until daybreak. Nearly all the miracles that the Blessed Virgin has performed there have been for those who have denied themselves for her in this manner. The night is rough and she knows how old I am. Who can tell what she may do for me if I go out on a night like this to the church and pray to her?"
"It is wonderful! wonderful! Blessed be the Virgin! It was wrong of me to tell you not to go. I spoke in ignorance. It may be that she will hear you, and cause a miracle to be worked, so that our nephew will be restored to us again. I cannot bear to think of him having to stay there for four long, long years."
"That would be too much to ask of the Virgin," answered the Little Mother, in a voice as though she feared to pursue the thought, "but I will pray to her that he be comforted, and that little Marie be restored to health again." As she spoke Mother Soulard glanced in the direction of the little bedroom where hours ago she, who that day was to have been a bride, had retired to rest.
Poor Marie! On this woful night she had persisted in sleeping at their house. Her parents had tried to soothe her, but she had grown so violent that, stormy and all as it was, they could do nothing but bring her to her lover's home. She was now in the little bedroom which had been Ovide's since he was a boy, but which he had not slept in for six months and would never sleep in again.
Delmia turned her dimmed eyes in the direction of the room and said with a sigh of relief: "Marie seems to be sleeping well, sister!"
As they stole, hand in hand, past the bedroom toward the street door, the Little Mother replied: "Sleep is the only thing that can save her now. She has hardly slept at all since Ovide went away, and her reason has nearly all gone with sorrowing for him. Everything depends upon her sleeping to-night. Ah, such trouble! I must go and pray, sister. If Ovide only knew how she suffers, it would kill him." Turning with hand on the door she added earnestly, "If you hear the slightest noise in the room, Delmia, go and soothe her, and tell her I won't be long."
"Had you not better open the door now, and look at her? She has been asleep so long," answered Delmia, uneasily.
"No! no! Delmia; we might disturb her." The next moment the door opened, a gust of cold air swept into the room and she was gone. If she only had glanced into the room to see if Marie was sleeping!
The storm had grown more violent, and great clouds, ominous with rain, were now overcasting the sky. Her sister could hardly have reached the corner of the street, when Delmia thought she heard a slight noise in the bedroom. She bent her head and listened attentively. "It is nothing; my ears often deceive me now," she mumbled as she laboriously seated herself on a maimed rocking-chair, which creaked dismally as she rocked herself to and fro. Its querulous protestations prevented her hearing the sound of a falling window which came from the direction of Marie's bedroom.
"Yes, yes," Delmia rambled on, "my hearing is very bad now." Presently she stopped, leaned her head toward the door and listened again. "Marie sleeps soundly," she said with a tired, contented sigh. Poor Delmia!
The strangely-clad figure, which had sprung through the window, crouched close to the side of the house, and with rapidly-beating heart listened to hear if Delmia had heard the noise the treacherous sash had made as it fell behind her. She knew there was no danger of the Little Mother being aroused, for she was listening at the bedroom door and had heard her go out; she had only the aged Delmia to fear.
There was no need for alarm; Delmia had not heard.
The rays from the gas-lamp cast yellow flickering shadows on the lane and the side of the old brick house, and at intervals upon the crouching figure. Suddenly Marie sprang to her feet and started to run; but before she had gone many steps, something white and cloud-like, which was fastened about her head, and which unperceived by her, had become fastened in the window, caused her to halt abruptly. She caught the tremulous thing in her hands and gave it a quick pull; there was a sound of tearing and then she was free. As she ran across the sidewalk under the lamp, her strange attire was distinctly revealed; it was that of a bride! Strikingly grotesque in the storm appeared her long white dress, flowing veil, and white kid shoes.
On reaching the opposite side of the road, where the shadows were deep, Marie paused and looked back at the little house which she had so suspiciously left. Finding that she was not being pursued, she turned, regardless of the storm, and began to walk toward the east, where lay, some six miles distant, the great penitentiary of St. Vincent de Paul. As she sped along in the shadow of the houses, she began to talk to herself like a pleased child. "This is our wedding-day, and he will be so glad to see me," she chattered.
Suddenly the smile died out of her face, and she said anxiously: "But how shall I know him, now that they have changed his name?" She wrung her hands distressfully. Soon the smile returned to her round, sweet face, and she went on: "But he cannot have forgotten that this is our wedding-day, and when he sees me, he is sure to know me."
* * * * *
If tender-hearted little Mother Soulard had only known as she struggled across the Champ de Mars, muttering prayers for Marie and her nephew Ovide, her strength must surely have failed her. She was so weak and worn that she fairly staggered across the Notre Dame and down Bonsecours Street; but her strength revived and her heart grew light again, as she saw in the near distance the famed Bonsecours Church, bearing on its lofty roof the great statue of the Blessed Virgin, which, with arms outstretched toward the River St. Lawrence, welcomes to port those whose business it is to imperil their lives in deep waters.
Although the hour was late, several French-Canadian women were in the church, crouched at the feet of the marble statue of the Virgin, near the gorgeous altar. As the church door complainingly opened and disclosed the wet, weary figure of little Mother Soulard, the worshippers, with that lack of curiosity so characteristic of French-Canadian women when in church, did not look up, nor even appear to notice her as she crowded past them, and also knelt before the statue that had given such wonderful answers to prayer. Devoutly she kissed the Virgin's feet.
One by one, the seekers after health and happiness stole away, and presently the Little Mother was all alone. Soon the only sounds that broke the intense silence were her loudly whispered supplications and the clicking of her prayer-beads, which waked weird echoes in the great galleries and organ loft.
Now it was Ovide, and anon Marie; over and over, again she poured out her heart for them. If the dear Mother would but put it into the hearts of the men who had sent Ovide, her nephew, from her—whom she loved as a son—to give him his liberty! She was sure he had never forged the note; it was cruel of them to have him kept in such an unhappy, disgraceful place. Even if he had fallen, might they not have shown him mercy? Better than anyone else the Blessed Virgin knew, that everyone needed mercy more than justice! Thus she pleaded, and in the innocence of her own simple mind she condoned the evil the loved one had done.
As she continued to pray, her religious enthusiasm increased, until, at last, raising her bowed head, and looking up into the immobile face, carved in pitying lines, she cried despairfully: "Dear Mother, hear my prayers for them both! This was to have been their wedding-day, and Marie is suffering so. She cannot sleep or eat, and they say her sorrow may drive her mad, and that she will have to be taken to the house of the imbecile. Poor, poor Ovide, that would surely break his heart!"
Unable any longer to control her sorrow, she sprang to her feet, and clasping both her arms around the statue, pleaded in a voice which started a thousand answering echoes: "Mother of us all, hearken to me. I know of the miracles thou hast wrought for those who have denied themselves for thee, and made sacrifices and done penance. And I will make sacrifices and do penance if thou wilt but restore Ovide to me again and give health to Marie. I will go on a pilgrimage to the Twelve Stations of the Cross, and pray at each of them; I will pray every night for the souls in purgatory; I will go every day and collect for the Little Sisters of the Poor. I—I—Mon Dieu, I will do anything, anything, if thou wilt only answer my prayers."
Through utter exhaustion her arms slipped from the statue, at whose feet she sank, sobbing like a child.
Of a sudden her tears ceased, and her face lighted up with hope—the sermon that Father Benoit had preached about faith, the previous Sabbath, had flashed across her mind. He had declared that to those who had faith nothing was impossible; faith could cause even mountains to be removed—Christ himself had declared so. It was only through those who had great faith that the Virgin could perform mighty things.
Vividly she recalled how the priest had pointed to the crutches in the glass case near the altar, and had told them that those who had left them forever behind, had been possessed of faith that nothing could daunt, and so had brought the blessing down.
The "faith that could remove mountains!" How the words rang and rang in her ears! Soon her heart grew so light that she could have shouted for joy. "Of course," she murmured with beaming eyes, "if I do not believe that she can do what I ask, how can she answer my prayers? How simple I have been, and how clear it all is to me now. I do believe and know that what I have asked will be granted, and that this very night Ovide will be restored to me, and Marie's mind be made well again." Again and again, out of the fulness of her heart, she kissed the marble feet, and give thanks for the faith within her—the faith that could remove mountains!
Not for a moment did she stop to think what hard requests she had made.
Fatigue and weariness now no longer beset her, and in glad eagerness to see her dear nephew again, and Marie, Mother Soulard fairly ran out of the dimly-lighted church, brushing against the shadowy pews as she sped along the narrow aisles. So bound up was she in her newly-found faith, that she scarcely noticed, on reaching the street, how heavily the rain was falling and how fierce the storm had grown. So boisterous, indeed, was the wind on the bleak Champ de Mars that again and again she had to halt for breath.
"I can imagine I see them," she thought, as she struggled on, "sitting in the parlor together with Delmia. How surprised Delmia must have been when Ovide walked in! and how Marie must have cried and kissed him! But the miracle will soon be known to all the neighbors, and will be told of in the churches, too. They shall be married in church by Father Benoit, because it was through his sermon the miracle was brought about. Ah, what a blessed day this will always be to me!"
As she turned the corner of St. Dominique Street and saw her house, with the yellow glare of the street-lamp still upon it, she caught her old, dripping black dress in her hands, drew it in above her ankles, and began to run, painfully. "Mon Dieu! At last, at last!" she panted.
Delmia, who had fallen asleep in her chair, sprang hastily to her feet as the street-door was burst open, and uttered a startled cry on seeing her sister standing in the doorway, looking with dazed expression around the parlor, the water pouring in great streams from her dress, which she still unconsciously held.
"Where are they? Where are they, Delmia?" she asked, stretching out her hand for support. The heavy fatigue she had borne seemed to come back to her all at once.
In her surprise and haste to reach the door, the bent and palsied Delmia let the crutch slip from her hand, and as she fell heavily after it, and lay struggling to regain her feet again, she looked like some distorted creature of fancy.
The sodden, pitiful figure in the door seemed not to have seen her. "Ovide! Ovide!" she called brokenly, staring blankly around the room.
At last Delmia reached her side. Very gently she drew her into the house and closed the door.
"Has Ovide not come, then?" she asked again, as she sank on the crazy rocking-chair.
"Is Ovide coming?" asked her sister, wonderingly.
The blood rushed back to the Little Mother's face, and she rose hastily. "How very foolish I am to-night," she said, trying to be brave. "I had forgotten that he may not have had time to get here yet; but he is coming, Delmia, surely coming. I have prayed to the Virgin, and the miracle is sure to be performed. I have the faith now, Delmia."
Her poor old face quivered with hope and fear. Across her bosom, she made the sign of the cross. "I did not mean to doubt," she said penitently.
Suddenly catching her sister by the arm, she cried quickly, "He may be here, though, Delmia, at any moment, and we must tell her of his coming before he arrives, or the shock may make her worse. Ah! but I had forgotten. She must be quite well now, for I prayed for her, too! But we must go and see her; she has been asleep so long."
The Little Mother sped across the room in the direction of the bedroom, holding above her head the flaring lamp, Delmia hobbling after her.
As she eagerly entered Marie's room, and the light fell across the bed, she uttered a cry of deep dismay. The bed had not been disturbed. The horror on her face deepened as she saw a piece of wedding veil, which the window still securely held, noiselessly beating against the panes. Slowly she turned her stricken face to the side of the wall, where Marie's wedding clothes had hung, covered with a sheet; the finery had gone, and the sheet lay in a disordered heap on the floor. At length, endurance had come to an end; she had suffered so much, and the shock had been so very great. The hand that held the lamp began to shake as though it were palsied; she swayed weakly from side to side; then there was a crash, and they were in darkness. As she fell heavily across the bed, she uttered a cry of anguish that was pitiful to hear.
In the blackness Delmia feebly groped her way to her sister's side, and throwing her shrunken arms about her, tried to win her back to consciousness by childishly calling her endearing names.
* * * * *
While Delmia called to her sister in the darkness, the storm without continued to rage. It had shown no mercy to the hapless leaves, neither did it lessen any of its malignity now as it tore along the straight road leading to the penitentiary of St. Vincent de Paul, and overtook the sadly bedraggled figure clad in bridal robes. The heavy rain had wet her through and through, and she staggered from weakness and exposure. The road was deep with mud, and the bridal dress was no longer white; she had fallen so often. The flowing veil, although sodden and heavy, still afforded excellent sport for the boisterous wind, which tossed it about her head and face in the most fantastic manner. Long since the covetous mud had snatched from her feet the little kid shoes, of which she had been so proud. Her reason had now entirely gone, and she babbled incessantly.
"I hope the priest who is to marry us will wait till I come," she fretted; "I did not mean to be late. How funny that they should now call Ovide No. 317, instead of his right name." She attempted to laugh, but no sound reached her lips.
"If I could only walk faster," she whispered. Her strength was well-nigh spent and the penitentiary was yet a mile away. Her feet were so heavy that she could hardly drag them along; the mud had clung to them so that they looked strangely huge and out of proportion.
As she neared the end of her journey, the road grew worse, the puddles deeper and wider. At first the poor girl had not fallen very often, but now the frequent dull splashes told a pitiful tale. Yet the rain fell none the less persistently, nor did the wind grow less aggressive.
At length, the grey dawn struggled through the clouds, which still doggedly hugged the earth, and drove away the gloomy shadows which enveloped the high unpicturesque walls of the penitentiary. The rain had ceased falling; even the wind had grown weary, and its faint whispering could now scarcely be heard.
As the clouds rose slowly above the walls of the penitentiary, the ghastly pinched face of Marie was revealed. She was on her hands and knees, climbing up the heap of stones which the convicts had broken and banked against the great walls. Around her face and shoulders streamed the tresses of her dark wet hair, while the fragment of veil which still remained trailed raggedly after her. As she crawled ever higher, the stones' jagged edges cut her hands and knees, but she did not feel the wounds; she was too far exhausted. When near the summit, she stopped abruptly; a shudder ran through her slight frame. For a few moments her hands clutched at the sharp stones, then she sprang to her feet, her body rigid, her eyes wild and staring. The end had come. "Ovide, I am here!" she gasped, and then fell heavily backward, rolling down the pile of stones into the hole near the wall, which the carters had made. The weary eyes were wide open and turned toward the sky, but they no longer comprehended; the disordered brain no longer conjured up fantastic scenes, nor gave birth to diseased thoughts; the rest she had so long needed had come to her at last, and she slept—slept that deep, dreamless sleep from which not even he, for whom she had sacrificed so much, could wake her.
As the light grew more distinct, there stood revealed, on the top of the walls, four sentry-boxes. At short intervals, through the mist, the forms of the sentries could be seen, as they slowly paced to and fro, with rifles resting on their shoulders.
The thick air was suddenly pierced by the penitentiary clock discordantly striking the hour of five. Hardly had its echoes died away when the clanking of chains and the decisive voices of the guards could be heard, issuing from the great stone building in the centre of the yard. Half an hour later the heavily-barred doors of the penitentiary swung open, and the convicts, surrounded by guards, filed slowly out into the courtyard. Before the men were taken to the various places of labor, they were ranged in single file, and their numbers called out.
Nearly all the prisoners responded in sullen, rebellious tones. But the voice that answered to No. 317 was full of contrition and hopelessness. Six months before, the young convict who bore this number was known as Ovide Demers, nephew of Little Mother Soulard. The day that had just expired was to have been his wedding-day, and little Marie Ethier, whom he had played with when a child, was to have been his wife. All night long, as he tossed about in his cell, he had been thinking of her and of his two old aunts who had taken him to their meagre home when his parents died, and had watched over and cared for him with the love of a mother. They had believed in him—although, alas! his guilt was so glaringly apparent—even when the whole world had forsaken him. So, because of all these things, his heart, on this gloomy morning, was almost breaking; little wonder that his voice nearly failed as he answered to the number that now stood for his name.
The file of convicts was broken up into gangs; "317" belonged to the stone-breaking gang, and worked outside the frowning walls. As they slowly passed out of the gate to the road, the sentries unswung their rifles—many successful attempts to escape had been made by convicts in the past.
Slowly the men were marched along the road, till they came to the great mound of stones, heaped against the walls, where they were put to work. Watchfully the guards stood near by, while the sentries, equally alert, paced the high walls.
Scarcely had the hammers begun their monotonous chorus, when the tragedy occurred. Convict 317 was seen to let his hammer suddenly fall, and gaze with terrified eyes into the hole near by. "Marie! Marie!" he shouted, in a voice charged with fear. Just as he reached the edge of the incline, and was about to jump down and clasp in his arms the dear, bedraggled figure, clad in the torn bridal robes, the sentry near the gate brought his rifle to the shoulder, and in a warning voice called out to the fleeing convict; but the latter failed to hear the warning. There was a puff of smoke, a sharp report, and convict 317 was seen to throw up his arms and fall.
When the guards reached the spot where they thought he had fallen, he was nowhere to be seen. They took a few steps forward and looked down the incline: there he was at the bottom, with his head resting on the bosom of a young girl, in strange array.
They sprang down and raised him—he would never occupy his cell again!
As the guards stooped wonderingly over the form of the girl, they failed to see in the distance the rapid approach of a carriage, which had passed the gate and was close upon them. Just as they were about to summon the convicts to carry the bodies into the yard, the carriage stopped, and she who had prayed so fervently for the lifeless ones, and had tried so hard to believe, sprang out and ran to where they were lying. Clasping her arms about them, she wept, and kissed them passionately.
"I am too late, too late!" she moaned in an agony of grief.
The Little Mother had instinctively known the road Marie had taken, and the moment consciousness returned to her in the bedroom, she had called a carriage and set out at once after her. The driver had driven furiously; his horse was covered with foam, but to no avail; Marie was near her sad journey's end when they started.
At first the guards were inclined to push the old creature away, but when they understood, from her grief, what relation the quiet forms bore to her, and heard snatches of their pitiful history fall, incoherently, from her lips, they drew back, and let her pour out her deep grief over them. With sympathizing hearts, at length they made a sign, and the convicts took up the bodies and bore them into the courtyard.
The Little Mother seemed too stunned to notice what they had done, and still sat sobbing and talking to herself.
The driver grew weary of waiting, and going to her side said softly, as he laid his hand on her shoulder: "Let me take you home; it is cold, and you are shivering."
She only crouched closer to the spot where they had lain, and talked on. Thinking she was speaking to him, the man bent his head to listen. "It is all my fault," he heard her say, "because I had not the faith—not the right faith—not the faith that Father Benoit meant—the faith that can remove mountains!"
* * * * *
A Pair of Boots.
THE RIFT WITHIN THE LUTE.
"There is nothing but death Our affections can sever, And till life's latest breath, Love shall bind us forever."
The words, as they flowed musically from the throat of the fair singer at the piano, were inflected with a subtle irony, which caused the frown to deepen upon the brow of the tall, scholarly, though somewhat morose-looking man who had entered the parlor soon after the singer had begun, and who, without glancing in her direction, had seated himself on one of the many luxurious chairs which strewed the room.
As he sat and listened to the song, sweet and simple in itself, but made with deft and almost imperceptible intonation on certain words, clearly for his ear, the stern lines about his mouth visibly deepened.
Finally the song ceased, and the singer swung slowly and noiselessly round and looked across at her husband, whose back was turned towards her. From the brilliant look in her eyes, it was evident she was laboring under suppressed excitement. She was a young woman of about twenty-six, singularly beautiful and with a fine intellectual cast of countenance. From her shoulders hung a richly-lined opera cloak, which, being fastened only at the throat, disclosed a figure of more than ordinary grace and symmetry.
As her husband continued silent, she presently arose, and with a peculiar smile playing about her mouth, walked calmly over to him, and laying her hand on the back of his chair, said, in a voice in which the same subtle tone was noticeable: "My lord, you see I have obeyed, and have not gone out without coming here, as commanded by you, to learn your pleasure regarding my coming in and going out."
Harold Townsley arose hastily, and said sternly and angrily, as he faced her: "Was it necessary, Grace, to sing that song in such a manner? Did you wish me to understand through it the state of your present feelings toward me? I dislike to harbor the thought that you chose the song, and began to sing it in the manner you did, the moment you heard me coming."
Had his tone been less angry and stern, her reply might not have been so bitterly cutting.
"Your questions, Harold, I must say, are pointed ones," she answered, as, seating herself, she broke into a seemingly disingenuous smile, and shook her head protestingly; "and it seems to me that they are utterly uncalled for, too. Our life for the past two years should have demonstrated that fact. However, to answer your questions: Your intuitions were correct; I did choose that song purposely for you, and only began to sing it when I heard you coming. As to the question of my sentiments toward you: When you remember that it is scarcely twenty minutes since you, once more, bitterly found fault with me, and that, too, almost before the servants, because I chose to go out again to-night, and angrily informed me that you would like to see me here before I left the house—surely you did not expect to find me trilling a love-song for you in heart-broken accents! Still, I must say that I wish you had not made it necessary for me to be so tryingly frank."
Her reply stung him deeply. With tightening lips he turned away, and muttered under his breath, "I am, indeed, right! She has not the slightest love left for me; it will delight her to be free."
"Grace," he said, a little sadly—but, unfortunately, also again sternly—as he halted by her side, "You and I, like so many others, evidently were not intended for each other."
Her clasped hands tightened, but he did not notice it; he was sure that he thoroughly understood her now.
"It is a pity," he went on, grimly, with his eyes fixed on the carpet, "that human nature is not gifted with the faculty of reading the future; so many mistakes and so much suffering would be prevented." He was thinking more of the unhappy days she must have spent with him, during the past two years, than of his own disappointment in her. But she did not understand the words in this way, and thinking he wanted her to know what a terrible mistake he had made when he married her, five years ago, her high-strung, nervous temperament was aroused still more, and rising quickly, she said, almost recklessly:
"I never knew before, Harold, that you were such a humanitarian and had such lofty longings to save others suffering; indeed, were you not evidently so much in earnest, I should certainly think that you were indulging in jests." Somehow her low laugh, this time, hardly rang true.
The cynical reply caused her husband's figure to straighten out stiffly—they both were now at dangerous cross purposes.
Meeting his gaze, she went on crisply: "And was it for the sake of expatiating on the general failure of marriage that you commanded me to meet you here before I could go out?" Without waiting for a reply, she drew out her gold watch, and after glancing at it, said carelessly, "I am afraid I shall not be able to listen to all the pros and cons of this vast question to-night, as I have, as you are aware, to be at the opera in a half-hour or so."
His face now lit up angrily, as he rejoined hotly, "Yes, it was to discuss this vast question that I wanted to see you alone; but not to discuss it in the abstract, as you evidently think, but as it concerns you and me, and to try to remedy, as far as possible, the mistake you evidently must have made when you thought you loved and married me."
As he ceased and turned away toward the piano, she almost sank on the chair at her side. "Where are we drifting?" she whispered; "surely it has not come to this between Harold and me!" His back was turned to her, and he was fingering the music restlessly, trying to get command of himself for what he had to say.
Turning, he leaned against the piano, and fixing his eyes on the comely head with its rich brown covering, he said firmly, but not without some emotion, "We have drifted, and drifted so, Grace, that there is nothing else left—we must part."
Her breath came quickly, but there was no other sign that she was agitated.
He paused, in his heart hoping she would give some sign that the words meant something to her, and that he might, even yet, catch some evidence that her love for him was not utterly dead. During the pause which ensued, she turned her face away from him, and so he did not see the look almost of terror which it now wore.
Construing her silence into simple acquiescence, and thus angered the more, he went on in a hard voice: "During the past two years the change in you, Grace, has been incomprehensible to me. For my wishes you have not shown the slightest regard, while your home, as you know, has held no attractions for you—possibly because I am in it. You have persisted in going out alone to the opera, to parties and social attractions of a like nature, until you have almost become talked about." His voice grew more bitter as he continued to recall the past. "Had you been a plain woman you would likely have found some attractions at your home; but the love of adulation and the greed of excitement and false flattery seem now to be so necessary to you that your true womanliness has been killed."
He was now pacing the floor in deep agitation.
A transformation had crept over his wife's face. Her cheeks were no longer pale, but flushed with anger, while her head was thrown back defiantly and her hands tightly clenched.
"And has my lord finished the list of his wife's accomplishments?" she asked, smothering her anger by a strong effort, and speaking as though in jest.
Quietly walking over to where she was sitting, he said, in a tense voice: "No, not quite. The bitterest memory I have of my wife is her heartless conduct toward the memory of our poor dead boy. When he was alive I really believed that you loved him passionately; but scarcely had he been dead a year when this greed for gaiety and excitement took possession of you, and you began to go out everywhere. You knew he was dearer to me than life, and that his memory was with me every hour of the day. How little true sentiment, after all, there must have been in your professed idolization of him. With such a mother it is perhaps well that he is dead!" His voice broke for a moment as memories of the boy he had so idolized crowded back upon him. Looking into her now flashing eyes he continued bitterly: "I am weary of the bitter scenes between us, and of your heartlessness, Grace, and we must part. I shall leave the house to-night and live my life elsewhere. You can stay here and enjoy the frivolity which is dearer to you than your husband, the memory of your dead boy, or—"
"You are a coward, Harold Townsley!" As she faced him, her head thrown back, her opera cloak lying in artistic disorder at her feet, exposing the richly trimmed dress, and the soft outlines of her fine figure, her eyes flashing and her bosom rapidly heaving, she looked, indeed, ready to do and dare anything.
Had he not been so wrought up himself he would have seen that he was goading her beyond endurance. When he mentioned their dead boy she had winced as though in bodily pain, but when he accused her of heartlessness towards his memory, she had grown so unstrung that she could scarcely contain herself. Never before in their differences had he accused her of faithlessness to the memory of their boy. The fear of having her husband leave her had now been swept away by the wave of indignation which possessed her.
He could not have started back in more surprise and dismay had she struck him, than when he heard her call him a coward and saw her intense anger.
With a great effort she mastered the wild rush of words that sprang to her lips, and bowing to him derisively said, as she looked into his face: "Truly a most gallant husband and a gentleman! And so, forsooth, you would desert your wife because she has forgotten the memory of her dead boy—whom she never truly loved—and because she thirsts after pleasure and excitement! What wondrous discernment! What a wise judge of human nature!" Her ironical laugh was now true in intonation.
"Utterly heartless," he whispered, almost wonderingly as he sank down on his chair.
She caught the words and said easily: "Yes, thanks to my husband, utterly heartless." Then calmly drawing a chair near to his, she said in an amused tone: "And let me tell you how this interesting metaphysical transformation was brought about."
His anger had died away and he looked at her pityingly.
"I shall have to go back to two years ago," she continued, "for up to that time you never doubted the existence of my heart—in fact, you will remember you more than once told me that I was too tender-hearted, and that you hoped deep sorrow would never come to me, because I had the capacity to suffer more than most women. The great change came with my boy's death."
For a brief space the mocking light died out of her face, while her voice grew deeply earnest. A rush of memories made her emotion so keen that she could not keep seated, and walking to and fro she talked rapidly, at times almost wildly.
"Your discernment for once was right; I had the capacity for suffering more than most women, and infinitely more than my husband, with all his worship of our boy. After his death my heart craved love and sympathy as it had never done before, and to whom but you was I to turn for it? And was it given? Let your conscience answer. With his death you shut me out of your heart, as I have said, when I most needed your sympathy. How many times before this passion for excitement, which you speak of, took possession of me, did I come to you in your study, in which you isolated yourself so, and tried, in numberless little ways, to show you how sorely I needed you—tried to make our sorrow a common one, tried to make you realize that I needed your company and sympathy to save me from the thoughts which seemed to be wearing away my very life. A dog could not more mutely have shown its craving for pity and companionship than I did; but the more I sought you out the more the desire seemed to grow upon you to nurse your own sorrow alone. At last it got so (you must remember) that I saw you only at our meals, which you ate almost in silence. The continued quiet of the house, and the company of my own sad thoughts and longings for him, finally grew more than I could bear, and so, after a year of suffering and solitude in this house, I broke down and tried to forget by accepting social invitations. I had, of course, to go out alone; you refused to go with me. So now I have humiliated myself to tell you the truth, and you can judge whether I am heartless or not; whether I truly loved my boy or not; and who is to blame if I am now heartless."
She paused suddenly before him and said, in a firm, decisive voice: "Until I heard your words to-night, my heart had not wholly hardened toward you, but now the little affection I had left for you has entirely gone. Never could a woman have been more disappointed in a man than I have been in you; the idol I set up has been broken into a thousand fragments. In adversity, when your manliness should have stood out true and bright, it warped and has grown to be a pitiable thing. Your life is now so narrow and morbid that you have but little sense of justice left, as is shown by your throwing upon me all the blame for the trouble which has been growing up between us, and which has at last separated us. You have said, Harold, that we must part; you have spoken truly. You have said, to-night; again you have spoken truly, for on no consideration shall this roof shelter us again. If you do not leave to-night, I most surely shall."
Her mood again changed, and she said, with a low laugh, as she paced the floor with an amused air: "And so I, Mrs. Townsley, am to be a deserted wife, a 'grass widow,' and all as a punishment for being heartless, too fond of pleasure, and for not having had any real love for my only boy! What a dire, dire punishment, Harold!" She glanced mockingly down at the bowed head of her husband, which was now pillowed in his hands, and with another burst of musical laughter, swept gracefully over to the piano, seated herself at it, struck a few chords; and then, as if driven by sudden impulse, wheeled quickly round and said: "But the runaway husband shall have something pleasant to remember the poor deserted wife by in his wanderings. Be sure, Harold, and always think of me as singing this love-lorn ditty." Again she laughed, but this time there was a peculiar tremor in her voice which betrayed, better than anything else could have done, the great effort she was making to sustain her pride. "Now listen:
"Oh! leave not your Kathleen, there's no one can cheer her, Alone in this wide world unpitied she'll sigh; And the scenes that were loveliest when thou wert near her Will—"
"Grace! Grace!" His hands trembled with deep emotion, as he laid one on her shoulder, and with the other hushed the words that cut him so keenly.
As he had listened to her, and at last understood her overwhelming love for their boy—and had realized, too, that it was indeed he who was to blame for their estrangement—a look of deep surprise had gradually overspread his face. Twice he had tried to interrupt her, but in vain, until finally, almost convinced by her torrent of anger, contempt and derision, that he had indeed lost all hold upon her affections, he had sunk back bewildered in his chair, and covered his face with his hands. But the mocking refrain of the song was more than he could bear, and so he had sprung to his feet, gone to her side, and putting his hand over her scornful lips had hushed the song.
As she wheeled defiantly round and looked up at him, he said remorsefully, his face pale and haggard: "I see, at last, Grace; I have been very blind and narrow; it is I, and only I, who am to blame for this estrangement. Had I only understood earlier, and not have been so blinded with my own sorrow! How very deeply you must have suffered, dear, with no one to comfort the bereaved mother-heart. As I now look over the past I cannot think how ever I got to think that your nature was shallow, and that your affection for our boy was not deep and true. Ah, how much easier it would have been had we borne the sorrow together, instead of suffering alone; and it was my fault that we did not! Grace, I need your pardon to-night far more than ever you needed my help and sympathy; and I know, now, how great that was."
He held out his arms pleadingly towards her: "Grace, try and forgive me!"
If he had humiliated her in any other way than by telling her he would desert her, her deeply wounded pride could not have held out, and she surely must have found refuge in his arms. But her humiliation had been so very deep, and her mood was now such that every nerve was quivering with indignation; so, subduing the pleading of her heart, she sprang away from the outstretched arms. As she faced him the angry color again stole into her cheeks, and she exclaimed, in a suppressed voice: "There are things, Harold, that a woman cannot forgive and retain her self-respect. Even had I been as fickle as you thought, that would not have been sufficient reason for you to make up your mind to desert me; and in deserting me, place me in a position for the world to suspect, wag its head at, and gossip over. You knew it would do this, and yet it did not alter your decision to throw me over. And now, after having renounced me, you ask me to forget and fly back to your arms." She laughed bitterly, her manner growing cynical once more. "No, no, Harold," she continued, "there can be no kissing, no making up and being good between us; the knife has cut too deep. I prefer facing the world, as you have decided, rather than trying to live down this humiliation with you, and being in constant dread of your threatening to desert me again, should any misunderstanding arise in the future."
She again paused for a brief space, and then went on, in a firm, quiet tone: "There is no use in prolonging this interview; nothing will alter my decision; we will both follow out the course you have mapped out. I repeat again, Harold, that if you do not leave the house, as intended, I certainly shall."
Again, seating herself at the piano, she ran her fingers restlessly over the keys, as though his presence were trying to her.
He stood by the side of the piano for a space and looked sadly and absently at her; but her set face gave him no encouragement. With a troubled air he turned and began to walk slowly and thoughtfully toward the door—when in deep distress he always grew strangely absent. When near the door his attention was attracted by a little book lying on a table. He picked it up, without appearing to be conscious of doing so, and opened it, but his eyes wandered far away from the open pages. He raised his hand thoughtfully to his face and said, ponderingly, to himself, in a low voice: "How—how could I have made such a mistake—such a frightful mistake? How changed she is, too!"
She now began to play a low, dreamy air, which stole into his heart and riveted his laggard feet still more to the room where she was.
As he slowly turned away, she partly turned her head, and with unmoved face watched his retreating figure. But when she noted his absent manner, which she recalled so well; saw the pondering look on his face when he picked up the book, which she knew he was not conscious of holding; caught the tired droop of his shoulders, and the glint of early grey hair at his temples, a pathetic expression stole about her mouth, and she made a motion as though she would cease playing and go over to him; but the bitterness was greater than the pity, and conquering the impulse, she kept her seat and played on.
As he was closing the book it fell on the table. His eyes followed it mechanically. "Yes," he went on presently, as though following out a deep train of thought, "a frightful mistake, how could I have made it?"