A PAIR OF PATIENT LOVERS
W. D. Howells
Author of "The Landlord at Lion's Head" "Ragged Lady" etc.
New York and London Harper & Brothers Publishers 1901
A Pair of Patient Lovers
The Pursuit of the Piano
A Difficult Case
The Magic of a Voice
A Circle in the Water
A PAIR OF PATIENT LOVERS
We first met Glendenning on the Canadian boat which carries you down the rapids of the St. Lawrence from Kingston and leaves you at Montreal. When we saw a handsome young clergyman across the promenade-deck looking up from his guide-book toward us, now and again, as if in default of knowing any one else he would be very willing to know us, we decided that I must make his acquaintance. He was instantly and cordially responsive to my question whether he had ever made the trip before, and he was amiably grateful when in my quality of old habitue of the route I pointed out some characteristic features of the scenery. I showed him just where we were on the long map of the river hanging over his knee, and I added, with no great relevancy, that my wife and I were renewing the fond emotion of our first trip down the St. Lawrence in the character of bridal pair which we had spurned when it was really ours. I explained that we had left the children with my wife's aunt, so as to render the travesty more lifelike; and when he said, "I suppose you miss them, though," I gave him my card. He tried to find one of his own to give me in return, but he could only find a lot of other people's cards. He wrote his name on the back of one, and handed it to me with a smile. "It won't do for me to put 'reverend' before it, in my own chirography, but that's the way I have it engraved."
"Oh," I said, "the cut of your coat bewrayed you," and we had some laughing talk. But I felt the eye of Mrs. March dwelling upon me with growing impatience, till I suggested, "I should like to make you acquainted with my wife, Mr. Glendenning."
He said, Oh, he should be so happy; and he gathered his dangling map into the book and came over with me to where Mrs. March sat; and, like the good young American husband I was in those days, I stood aside and left the whole talk to her. She interested him so much more than I could that I presently wandered away and amused myself elsewhere. When I came back, she clutched my arm and bade me not speak a word; it was the most romantic thing in the world, and she would tell me about it when we were alone, but now I must go off again; he had just gone to get a book for her which he had been speaking of, and would be back the next instant, and it would not do to let him suppose we had been discussing him.
I was sometimes disappointed in Mrs. March's mysteries when I came up close to them; but I was always willing to take them on trust; and I submitted to the postponement of a solution in this case with more than my usual faith. She found time, before Mr. Glendenning reappeared, to ask me if I had noticed a mother and daughter on the boat, the mother evidently an invalid, and the daughter very devoted, and both decidedly ladies; and when I said, "No. Why?" she answered, "Oh, nothing," and that she would tell me. Then she drove me away, and we did not meet till I found her in our state-room just before the terrible mid-day meal they used to give you on the Corinthian, and called dinner.
She began at once, while she did something to her hair before the morsel of mirror: "Why I wanted to know if you had noticed those people was because they are the reason of his being here."
"Did he tell you that?"
"Of course not. But I knew it, for he asked if I had seen them, or could tell him who they were."
"It seems to me that he made pretty good time to get so far as that."
"I don't say he got so far himself, but you men never know how to take steps for any one else. You can't put two and two together. But to my mind it's as plain as the nose on his face that he's seen that girl somewhere and is taking this trip because she's on board. He said he hadn't decided to come till the last moment."
"What wild leaps of fancy!" I said. "But the nose on his face is handsome rather than plain, and I sha'n't be satisfied till I see him with the lady."
"Yes, he's quite Greek," said Mrs. March, in assent to my opinion of his nose. "Too Greek for a clergyman, almost. But he isn't vain of it. Those beautiful people are often quite modest, and Mr. Glendenning is very modest."
"And I'm very hungry. If you don't hurry your prinking, Isabel, we shall not get any dinner."
"I'm ready," said my wife, and she continued with her eyes still on the glass: "He's got a church out in Ohio, somewhere; but he's a New-Englander, and he's quite wild to get back. He thinks those people are from Boston: I could tell in a moment if I saw them. Well, now, I am ready," and with this she really ceased to do something to her hair, and came out into the long saloon with me where the table was set. Rows of passengers stood behind the rows of chairs, with a detaining grasp on nearly all of them. We gazed up and down in despair. Suddenly Mrs. March sped forward, and I found that Mr. Glendenning had made a sign to her from a distant point, where there were two vacant chairs for us next his own. We eagerly laid hands on them, and waited for the gong to sound for dinner. In this interval an elderly lady followed by a young girl came down the saloon toward us, and I saw signs, or rather emotions, of intelligence pass between Mr. Glendenning and Mrs. March concerning them.
The older of these ladies was a tall, handsome matron, who bore her fifty years with a native severity qualified by a certain air of wonder at a world which I could well fancy had not always taken her at her own estimate of her personal and social importance. She had the effect of challenging you to do less, as she advanced slowly between the wall of state-rooms and the backs of the people gripping their chairs, and eyed them with a sort of imperious surprise that they should have left no place for her. So at least I read her glance, while I read in that of the young lady coming after, and showing her beauty first over this shoulder and then over that of her mother, chiefly a present amusement, behind which lay a character of perhaps equal pride, if not equal hardness. She was very beautiful, in the dark style which I cannot help thinking has fallen into unmerited abeyance; and as she passed us I could see that she was very graceful. She was dressed in a lady's acceptance of the fashions of that day, which would be thought so grotesque in this. I have heard contemporaneous young girls laugh at the mere notion of hoops, but in 1870 we thought hoops extremely becoming; and this young lady knew how to hold hers a little on one side so as to give herself room in the narrow avenue, and not betray more than the discreetest hint of a white stocking. I believe the stockings are black now.
They both got by us, and I could see Mr. Glendenning following them with longing but irresolute eyes, until they turned, a long way down the saloon, as if to come toward us again. Then he hurried to meet them, and as he addressed himself first to one and then to the other, I knew him to be offering them his chair. So did my wife, and she said, "You must give up your place too, Basil," and I said I would if she wished to see me starve on the spot. But of course I went and joined Glendenning in his entreaties that they would deprive us of our chances of dinner (I knew what the second table was on the Corinthian); and I must say that the elder lady accepted my chair in the spirit which my secret grudge deserved. She made me feel as if I ought to have offered it when they first passed us; but it was some satisfaction to learn afterwards that she gave Mrs. March, for her ready sacrifice of me, as bad a half-hour as she ever had. She sat next to my wife, and the young lady took Glendenning's place, and as soon as we had left them she began trying to find out from Mrs. March who he was, and what his relation to us was. The girl tried to check her at first, and then seemed to give it up, and devoted herself to being rather more amiable than she otherwise might have been, my wife thought, in compensation for the severity of her mother's scrutiny. Her mother appeared disposed to hold Mrs. March responsible for knowing little or nothing about Mr. Glendenning.
"He seems to be an Episcopal clergyman," she said, in a haughty summing up. "From his name I should have supposed he was Scotch and a Presbyterian." She began to patronize the trip we were making, and to abuse it; she said that she did not see what could have induced them to undertake it; but one had to get back from Niagara somehow, and they had been told at the hotel there that the boats were very comfortable. She had never been more uncomfortable in her life; as for the rapids, they made her ill, and they were obviously so dangerous that she should not even look at them again. Then, from having done all the talking and most of the eating, she fell quite silent, and gave her daughter a chance to speak to my wife. She had hitherto spoken only to her mother, but now she asked Mrs. March if she had ever been down the St. Lawrence before.
When my wife explained, and asked her whether she was enjoying it, she answered with a rapture that was quite astonishing, in reference to her mother's expressions of disgust: "Oh, immensely! Every instant of it," and she went on to expatiate on its peculiar charm in terms so intelligent and sympathetic that Mrs. March confessed it had been part of our wedding journey, and that this was the reason why we were now taking the trip.
The young lady did not seem to care so much for this, and when she thanked my wife in leaving the table with her mother, and begged her to thank the gentlemen who had so kindly given up their places, she made no overture to further acquaintance. In fact, we had been so simply and merely made use of that, although we were rather meek people, we decided to avoid our beneficiaries for the rest of the day; and Mr. Glendenning, who could not, as a clergyman, indulge even a just resentment, could as little refuse us his sympathy. He laughed at some hints of my wife's experience, which she dropped before she left us to pick up a meal from the lukewarm leavings of the Corinthian's dinner, if we could. She said she was going forward to get a good place on the bow, and would keep two camp-stools for us, which she could assure us no one would get away from her.
We were somewhat surprised then to find her seated by the rail with the younger lady of the two whom she meant to avoid if she meant anything by what she said. She was laughing and talking on quite easy terms with her apparently, and "There!" she triumphed as we came up, "I've kept your camp-stools for you," and she showed them at her side, where she was holding her hand on them. "You had better put them here."
The girl had stiffened a little at our approach, as I could see, but a young girl's stiffness is always rather amusing than otherwise, and I did not mind it. Neither, that I could see, did Mr. Glendenning, and it soon passed. It seemed that she had left her mother lying down in her state-room, where she justly imagined that if she did not see the rapids she should suffer less alarm from them; the young lady had come frankly to the side of Mrs. March as soon as she saw her, and asked if she might sit with her. She now talked to me for a decent space of time, and then presently, without my knowing how, she was talking to Mr. Glendenning, and they were comparing notes of Niagara; he was saying that he thought he had seen her at the Cataract House, and she was owning that she and her mother had at least stopped at that hotel.
I have no wish, and if I had the wish I should not have the art, to keep back the fact that these young people were evidently very much taken with each other. They showed their mutual pleasure so plainly that even I could see it. As for Mrs. March, she was as proud of it as if she had invented them and set them going in their advance toward each other, like two mechanical toys.
I confess that with reference to what my wife had told me of this young lady's behavior when she was with her mother, her submissiveness, her entire self-effacement, up to a certain point, I did not know quite what to make of her present independence, not to say freedom. I thought she might perhaps have been kept so strictly in the background, with young men, that she was rather disposed to make the most of any chance at them which offered. If the young man in this case was at no pains to hide his pleasure in her society, one might say that she was almost eager to show her delight in his. If it was a case of love at first sight, the earliest glimpse had been to the girl, who was all eyes for Glendenning. It was very pretty, but it was a little alarming, and perhaps a little droll, even. She was actually making the advances, not consciously, but helplessly; fondly, ignorantly, for I have no belief, nor had my wife (a much more critical observer), that she knew how she was giving herself away.
I thought perhaps that she was in the habit from pride, or something like it, of holding herself in check, and that this blameless excess which I saw was the natural expansion from an inner constraint. But what I really knew was that the young people got on very rapidly, in an acquaintance that prospered up to the last moment I saw them together. This was just before the Corinthian drew up to her landing at Montreal, when Miss Bentley (we had learned her name) came to us from the point where she was standing with Glendenning and said that now she must go to her mother, and took a sweet leave of my wife. She asked where we were going to stay in Montreal and whether we were going on to Quebec; and said her mother would wish to send Mrs. March her card.
When she was gone, Glendenning explained, with rather superfluous apology, that he had offered to see the ladies to a hotel, for he was afraid that at this crowded season they might not find it easy to get rooms, and he did not wish Mrs. Bentley, who was an invalid, to have any anxieties about it. He bade us an affectionate, but not a disconsolate adieu, and when we had got into the modest conveyance (if an omnibus is modest) which was to take us to the Ottawa House, we saw him drive off to the St. Lawrence Hall (it was twenty-five years ago) in one of those vitreous and tinkling Montreal landaus, with Mrs. and Miss Bentley and Mrs. Bentley's maid.
We were still so young as to be very much absorbed in the love affairs of other people; I believe women always remain young enough for that; and Mrs. March talked about the one we fancied we had witnessed the beginning of pretty much the whole evening. The next morning we got letters from Boston, telling us how the children were and all that they were doing and saying. We had stood it very well, as long as we did not hear anything about them, and we had lent ourselves in a sort of semi-forgetfulness of them to the associations of the past when they were not; but now to learn that they were hearty and happy, and that they sent love and kisses, was too much. With one mind we renounced the notion of going on to Quebec; we found that we could just get the ten-o'clock train that would reach Boston by eleven that night, and we made all haste and got it. We had not been really at peace, we perceived, till that moment since we had bidden the children good-bye.
Perhaps it was because we left Montreal so abruptly that Mrs. March never received Mrs. Bentley's card. It may be at the Ottawa House to this day, for all I know. What is certain is that we saw and heard nothing more of her or her daughter. Glendenning called to see us as he passed through Boston on his way west from Quebec, but we were neither of us at home and we missed him, to my wife's vivid regret. I rather think we expected him to find some excuse for writing after he reached his place in northern Ohio; but he did not write, and he became more and more the memory of a young clergyman in the beginning of a love-affair, till one summer, while we were still disputing where we should spend the hot weather within business reach, there came a letter from him saying that he was settled at Gormanville, and wishing that he might tempt us up some afternoon before we were off to the mountains or seaside. This revived all my wife's waning interest in him, and it was hard to keep the answer I made him from expressing in a series of crucial inquiries the excitement she felt at his being in New England and so near Boston, and in Gormanville of all places. It was one of the places we had thought of for the summer, and we were yet so far from having relinquished it that we were recurring from time to time in hope and fear to the advertisement of an old village mansion there, with ample grounds, garden, orchard, ice-house, and stables, for a very low rental to an unexceptionable tenant. We had no doubt of our own qualifications, but we had misgivings of the village mansion; and I am afraid that I rather unduly despatched the personal part of my letter, in my haste to ask what Glendenning knew and what he thought of the Conwell place. However, the letter seemed to serve all purposes. There came a reply from Glendenning, most cordial, even affectionate, saying that the Conwell place was delightful, and I must come at once and see it. He professed that he would be glad to have Mrs. March come too, and he declared that if his joy at having us did not fill his modest rectory to bursting, he was sure it could stand the physical strain of our presence, though he confessed that his guest-chamber was tiny.
"He wants you, Basil," my wife divined from terms which gave me no sense of any latent design of parting us in his hospitality. "But, evidently, it isn't a chance to be missed, and you must go—instantly. Can you go to-morrow? But telegraph him you're coming, and tell him to hold on to the Conwell place; it may be snapped up any moment if it's so desirable."
I did not go till the following week, when I found that no one had attempted to snap up the Conwell place. In fact, it rather snapped me up, I secured it with so little trouble. I reported it so perfect that all my wife's fears of a latent objection to it were roused again. But when I said I thought we could relinquish it, her terrors subsided; and I thought this the right moment to deliver a stroke that I had been holding in reserve.
"You know," I began, "the Bentleys have their summer place there—the old Bentley homestead. It's their ancestral town, you know."
"Bentleys? What Bentleys?" she demanded, opaquely.
"Why, those people we met on the Corinthian, summer before last—you thought he was in love with the girl—"
A simultaneous photograph could alone reproduce Mrs. March's tumultuous and various emotions as she seized the fact conveyed in my words. She poured out a volume of mingled conjectures, assertions, suspicions, conclusions, in which there was nothing final but the decision that we must not dream of going there; that it would look like thrusting ourselves in, and would be in the worst sort of taste; they would all hate us, and we should feel that we were spies upon the young people; for of course the Bentleys had got Glendenning there to marry him, and in effect did not want any one to witness the disgraceful spectacle.
I said, "That may be the nefarious purpose of the young lady, but, as I understood Glendenning, it is no part of her mother's design."
"What do you mean?"
"Miss Bentley may have got him there to marry him, but Mrs. Bentley seems to have meant nothing more than an engagement at the worst."
"What do you mean? They're not engaged, are they?"
"They're not married, at any rate, and I suppose they're engaged. I did not have it from Miss Bentley, but I suppose Glendenning may be trusted in such a case."
"Now," said my wife, with a severity that might well have appalled me, "if you will please to explain, Basil, it will be better for you."
"Why, it is simply this. Glendenning seems to have made himself so useful to the mother and pleasing to the daughter after we left them in Montreal that he was tolerated on a pretence that there was reason for his writing back to Mrs. Bentley after he got home, and, as Mrs. Bentley never writes letters, Miss Bentley had the hard task of answering him. This led to a correspondence."
"And to her moving heaven and earth to get him to Gormanville. I see! Of course she did it so that no one knew what she was about!"
"Apparently. Glendenning himself was not in the secret. The Bentleys were in Europe last summer, and he did not know that they had a place at Gormanville till he came to live there. Another proof that Miss Bentley got him there is the fact that she and her mother are Unitarians, and that they would naturally be able to select the rector of the Episcopal church."
"Go on," said Mrs. March, not the least daunted.
"Oh, there's nothing more. He is simply rector of St. Michael's at Gormanville; and there is not the slightest proof that any young lady had a hand in getting him there."
"As if I cared in the least whether she had! I suppose you will allow that she had something to do with getting engaged to him, and that is the great matter."
"Yes, I must allow that, if we are to suppose that young ladies have anything to do with young men getting engaged to them; it doesn't seem exactly delicate. But the novel phase of this great matter is the position of the young lady's mother in regard to it. From what I could make out she consents to the engagement of her daughter, but she don't and won't consent to her marriage." My wife glared at me with so little speculation in her eyes that I felt obliged to disclaim all responsibility for the fact I had reported. "Thou canst not say I did it. They did it, and Miss Bentley, if any one, is to blame. It seems, from what Glendenning says, that the young lady and he wrote to each other while she was abroad, and that they became engaged by letter. Then the affair was broken off because of her mother's opposition; but since they have met at Gormanville, the engagement has been renewed. So much they've managed against the old lady's will, but apparently on condition that they won't get married till she says."
"Nonsense! How could she stop them?"
"She couldn't, I dare say, by any of the old romantic methods of a convent or disinheritance; but she is an invalid; she wants to keep her daughter with her, and she avails with the girl's conscience by being simply dependent and obstructive. The young people have carried their engagement through, and now such hope as they have is fixed upon her finally yielding in the matter of their marriage, though Glendenning was obliged to confess that there was no sign of her doing so. They agree—Miss Bentley and he—that they cannot get married as they got engaged, in spite of her mother—it would be unclerical if it wouldn't be unfilial—and they simply have to bide their time."
My wife asked abruptly, "How many chambers are there in the Conwell place?"
I said, and then she asked, "Is there a windmill or a force-pump?" I answered proudly that in Gormanville there was town water, but that if this should give out there were both a windmill and a force-pump on the Conwell place.
"It is very complete," she sighed, as if this had removed all hope from her, and she added, "I suppose we had better take it."
We certainly did not take it for the sake of being near the Bentleys, neither of whom had given us particular reason to desire their further acquaintance, though the young lady had agreeably modified herself when apart from her mother. In fact, we went to Gormanville because it was an exceptional chance to get a beautiful place for a very little money, where we could go early and stay late. But no sooner had we acted from this quite personal, not to say selfish, motive than we were rewarded with the sweetest overtures of neighborliness by the Bentleys. They waited, of course, till we were settled in our house before they came to call upon Mrs. March, but they had been preceded by several hospitable offerings from their garden, their dairy, and their hen-house, which were very welcome in the days of our first uncertainty as to trades-people. We analyzed this hospitality as an effect of that sort of nature in Mrs. Bentley which can equally assert its superiority by blessing or banning. Evidently, since chance had again thrown us in her way, she would not go out of it to be offensive, but would continue in it, and make the best of us.
No doubt Glendenning had talked us into the Bentleys; and this my wife said she hated most of all; for we should have to live up to the notion of us imparted by a young man from the impressions of the moment when he saw us purple in the light of his dawning love. In justice to Glendenning, however, I must say that he did nothing, by a show of his own assiduities, to urge us upon the Bentleys after we came to Gormanville. If we had not felt so sure of him, we might have thought he was keeping his regard for us a little too modestly in the background. He made us one cool little call, the evening of our arrival, in which he had the effect of anxiety to get away as soon as possible; and after that we saw him no more until he came with Miss Bentley and her mother a week later. His forbearance was all the more remarkable because his church and his rectory were just across the street from the Conwell place, at the corner of another street, where we could see their wooden gothic in the cold shadow of the maples with which the green in front of them was planted.
During all that time Glendenning's personal elevation remained invisible to us, and we began to wonder if he were not that most lamentable of fellow-creatures, a clerical snob. I am not sure still that he might not have been so in some degree, there was such a mixture of joy that was almost abject in his genuine affection for us when Mrs. Bentley openly approved us on her first visit. I dare say he would not have quite abandoned us in any case; but he must have felt responsible for us, and it must have been such a load off him when she took that turn with us.
She called in the afternoon, and the young people dropped in again the same evening, and took the trouble to win back our simple hearts. That is, Miss Bentley showed herself again as frank and sweet as she had been on the boat when she joined my wife after dinner and left her mother in her state-room. Glendenning was again the Glendenning of our first meeting, and something more. He fearlessly led the way to intimacies of feeling with an expansion uncommon even in an accepted lover, and we made our conclusions that however subject he might be to his indefinitely future mother-in-law, he would not be at all so to his wife, if she could help it. He took the lead, but because she gave it him; and she displayed an aptness for conjugal submissiveness which almost amounted to genius. Whenever she spoke to either of us, it was with one eye on him to see if he liked what she was saying. It was so perfect that I doubted if it could last; but my wife said a girl like that could keep it up till she dropped. I have never been sure that she liked us as well as he did; I think it was part of her intense loyalty to seem to like us a great deal more.
She was deeply in love, and nothing but her ladylike breeding kept her from being openly fond. I figured her in a sort of impassioned incandescence, such as only a pure and perhaps cold nature could burn into; and I amused myself a little with the sense of Glendenning's apparent inadequacy. Sweet he was, and admirably gentle and fine; he had an unfailing good sense, and a very ready wisdom, as I grew more and more to perceive. But he was an inch or so shorter than Miss Bentley, and in his sunny blondness, with his golden red beard and hair, and his pinkish complexion, he wanted still more the effect of an emotional equality with her. He was very handsome, with features excellently regular; his smile was celestially beautiful; innocent gay lights danced in his blue eyes, through lashes and under brows that were a lighter blond than his beard and hair.
The next morning, which was of a Saturday, when I did not go to town, he came over to us again from the shadow of his sombre maples, and fell simply and naturally into talk about his engagement. He was much fuller in my wife's presence than he had been with me alone, and told us the hopes he had of Mrs. Bentley's yielding within a reasonable time. He seemed to gather encouragement from the sort of perspective he got the affair into by putting it before us, and finding her dissent to her daughter's marriage so ridiculous in our eyes after her consent to her engagement that a woman of her great good sense evidently could not persist in it.
"There is no personal objection to myself," he said, with a modest satisfaction. "In fact, I think she really likes me, and only dislikes my engagement to Edith. But she knows that Edith is incapable of marrying against her mother's will, or I of wishing her to do so; though there is nothing else to prevent us."
My wife allowed herself to say, "Isn't it rather cruel of her?"
"Why, no, not altogether; or not so much so as it might be in different circumstances. I make every allowance for her. In the first place, she is a great sufferer."
"Yes, I know," my wife relented.
"She suffers terribly from asthma. I don't suppose she has lain down in bed for ten years. She sleeps in an easy-chair, and she's never quite free from her trouble; when there's a paroxysm of the disease, her anguish is frightful. I've never seen it, of course, but I have heard it; you hear it all through the house. Edith has the constant care of her. Her mother has to be perpetually moved and shifted in her chair, and Edith does this for her; she will let no one else come near her; Edith must look to the ventilation, and burn the pastilles which help her to breathe. She depends upon her every instant." He had grown very solemn in voice and face, and he now said, "When I think of what she endures, it seems to me that it is I who am cruel even to dream of taking her daughter from her."
"Yes," my wife assented.
"But there is really no present question of that We are very happy as it is. We can wait, and wait willingly till Mrs. Bentley wishes us to wait no longer; or—"
He stopped, and we were both aware of something in his mind which he put from him. He became a little pale, and sat looking very grave. Then he rose. "I don't know whether to say how welcome you would be at St. Michael's to-morrow, for you may not be—"
"We are Unitarians, too," said Mrs. March. "But we are coming to hear you."
"I am glad you are coming to church," said Glendenning, putting away the personal tribute implied with a gentle dignity that became him.
We waited a discreet time before returning the call of the Bentley ladies, but not so long as to seem conscious. In fact, we had been softened towards Mrs. Bentley by what Glendenning told us of her suffering, and we were disposed to forgive a great deal of patronage and superiority to her asthma; they were not part of the disease, but still they were somehow to be considered with reference to it in her case.
We were admitted by the maid, who came running down the hall stairway, with a preoccupied air, to the open door where we stood waiting. There were two great syringa-bushes on each hand close to the portal, which were in full flower, and which flung their sweetness through the doorway and the windows; but when we found ourselves in the dim old-fashioned parlor, we were aware of this odor meeting and mixing with another which descended from the floor above—the smell of some medicated pastille. There was a sound of anxious steps overhead, and a hurried closing of doors, with the mechanical sound of labored breathing.
"We have come at a bad time," I suggested.
"Yes, why did they let us in?" cried my wife in an anguish of compassion and vexation. She repeated her question to Miss Bentley, who came down almost immediately, looking pale, indeed, but steady, and making a brave show of welcome.
"My mother would have wished it," she said, "and she sent me as soon as she knew who it was. You mustn't be distressed," she entreated, with a pathetic smile. "It's really a kind of relief to her; anything is that takes her mind off herself for a moment. She will be so sorry to miss you, and you must come again as soon as you can."
"Oh, we will, we will!" cried my wife, in nothing less than a passion of meekness; and Miss Bentley went on to comfort her.
"It's dreadful, of course, but it isn't as bad as it sounds, and it isn't nearly so bad as it looks. She is used to it, and there is a great deal in that. Oh, don't go!" she begged, at a movement Mrs. March made to rise. "The doctor is with her just now, and I'm not needed. It will be kind if you'll stay; it's a relief to be out of the room with a good excuse!" She even laughed a little as she said this; she went on to lead the talk away from what was so intensely in our minds, and presently I heard her and my wife speaking of other things. The power to do this is from some heroic quality in women's minds that we do not credit them with; we think it their volatility, and I dare say I thought myself much better, or at least more serious in my make, because I could not follow them, and did not lose one of those hoarse gasps of the sufferer overhead. Occasionally there came a stifling cry that made me jump, inwardly if not outwardly, but those women had their drama to play, and they played it to the end.
Miss Bentley came hospitably to the door with us, and waited there till she thought we could not see her turn and run swiftly up-stairs.
"Why did you stay, my dear?" I groaned. "I felt as if I were personally smothering Mrs. Bentley every moment we were there."
"I had to do it. She wished it, and, as she said, it was a relief to have us there, though she was wishing us at the ends of the earth all the time. But what a ghastly life!"
"Yes; and can you wonder that the poor woman doesn't want to give her up, to lose the help and comfort she gets from her? It's a wicked thing for that girl to think of marrying."
"What are you talking about, Basil? It's a wicked thing for her not to think of it! She is wearing her life out, tearing it out, and she isn't doing her mother a bit of good. Her mother would be just as well, and better, with a good strong nurse, who could lift her this way and that, and change her about, without feeling her heart-strings wrung at every gasp, as that poor child must. Oh, I wish Glendenning was man enough to make her run off with him, and get married, in spite of everything. But, of course, that's impossible—for a clergyman! And her sacrifice began so long ago that it's become part of her life, and she'll simply have to keep on."
When her attack passed off, Mrs. Bentley sent and begged my wife to come again and see her. She went without me, while I was in town, but she was so circumstantial in her report of her visit, when I came home, that I never felt quite sure I had not been present. What most interested us both was the extreme independence which the mother and daughter showed beyond a certain point, and the daughter's great frankness in expressing her difference of feeling. We had already had some hint of this, the first day we met her, and we were not surprised at it now, my wife at first hand, or I at second hand. Mrs. Bentley opened the way for her daughter by saying that the worst of sickness was that it made one such an affliction to others. She lived in an atmosphere of devotion, she said, but her suffering left her so little of life that she could not help clinging selfishly to everything that remained.
My wife perceived that this was meant for Miss Bentley, though it was spoken to herself; and Miss Bentley seemed to take the same view of the fact. She said: "We needn't use any circumlocution with Mrs. March, mother. She knows just how the affair stands. You can say whatever you wish, though I don't know why you should wish to say anything. You have made your own terms with us, and we are keeping them to the letter. What more can you ask? Do you want me to break with Mr. Glendenning? I will do that too, if you ask it. You have got everything but that, and you can have that at any time. But Arthur and I are perfectly satisfied as it is, and we can wait as long as you wish us to wait."
Her mother said: "I'm not allowed to forget that for a single hour," and Miss Bentley said, "I never remind you of it unless you make me, mother. You may be thinking of it all the time, but it isn't because of anything I say."
"Or that you do?" asked Mrs. Bentley; and her daughter answered, "I can't help existing, of course."
My wife broke off from the account she was giving me of her visit: "You can imagine how pleasant all this was for me, Basil, and how anxious I was to prolong my call!"
"Well," I returned, "there were compensations. It was extremely interesting; it was life. You can't deny that, my dear."
"It was more like death. Several times I was on the point of going, but you know when there's been a painful scene you feel so sorry for the people who've made it that you can't bear to leave them to themselves. I did get up to go, once, in mere self-defence, but they both urged me to stay, and I couldn't help staying till they could talk of other things. But now tell me what you think of it all. Which should your feeling be with the most? That is what I want to get at before I tell you mine."
"Which side was I on when we talked about them last?"
"Oh, when did we talk about them last? We are always talking about them! I am getting no good of the summer at all. I shall go home in the fall more jaded and worn out than when I came. To think that we should have this beautiful place, where we could be so happy and comfortable, if it were not for having this abnormal situation under our nose and eyes all the time!"
"Abnormal? I don't call it abnormal," I began, and I was sensible of my wife's thoughts leaving her own injuries for my point of view so swiftly that I could almost hear them whir.
"Not abnormal!" she gasped.
"No; only too natural. Isn't it perfectly natural for an invalid like that to want to keep her daughter with her; and isn't it perfectly natural for a daughter, with a New England sense of duty, to yield to her wish? You might say that she could get married and live at home, and then she and Glendenning could both devote themselves—"
"No, no," my wife broke in, "that wouldn't do. Marriage is marriage; and it puts the husband and wife with each other first; when it doesn't, it's a miserable mockery."
"Even when there's a sick mother in the case?"
"A thousand sick mothers wouldn't alter the case. And that's what they all three instinctively know, and they're doing the only thing they can do."
"Then I don't see what we're complaining of."
"Complaining of? We're complaining of its being all wrong and—romantic. Her mother has asked more than she had any right to ask, and Miss Bentley has tried to do more than she can perform, and that has made them hate each other."
"Should you say hate, quite?"
"It must come to that, if Mrs. Bentley lives."
"Then let us hope she—"
"My dear!" cried Mrs. March, warningly.
"Oh, come, now!" I retorted. "Do you mean to say that you haven't thought how very much it would simplify the situation if—"
"Of course I have! And that is the wicked part of it. It's that that is wearing me out. It's perfectly hideous!"
"Well, fortunately we're not actively concerned in the affair, and we needn't take any measures in regard to it. We are mere spectators, and as I see it the situation is not only inevitable for Mrs. Bentley, but it has a sort of heroic propriety for Miss Bentley."
"Oh, Glendenning isn't provided for in my scheme."
"Then I can tell you that your scheme, Basil, is worse than worthless."
"I didn't brag of it, my dear," I said, meekly enough. "I'm sorry for him, but I can't help him. He must provide for himself out of his religion."
It was, indeed, a trying summer for our emotions, torn as we were between our pity for Mrs. Bentley and our compassion for her daughter. We had no repose, except when we centred our sympathies upon Glendenning, whom we could yearn over in tender regret without doing any one else wrong, or even criticising another. He was our great stay in that respect, and though a mere external witness might have thought that he had the easiest part, we who knew his gentle and affectionate nature could not but feel for him. We never concealed from ourselves certain foibles of his; I have hinted at one, and we should have liked it better if he had not been so sensible of the honor, from a worldly point, of being engaged to Miss Bentley. But this was a very innocent vanity, and he would have been willing to suffer for her mother and for herself, if she had let him. I have tried to insinuate how she would not let him, but freed him as much as possible from the stress of the situation, and assumed for him a mastery, a primacy, which he would never have assumed for himself. We thought this very pretty of her, and in fact she was capable of pretty things. What was hard and arrogant in her, and she was not without something of the kind at times, was like her mother; but even she, poor soul, had her good points, as I have attempted to suggest. We used to dwell upon them, when our talk with Glendenning grew confidential, as it was apt to do; for it seemed to console him to realize that her daughter and he were making their sacrifice to a not wholly unamiable person.
He confided equally in my wife and myself, but there were times when I think he rather preferred the counsel of a man friend. Once when we had gone a walk into the country, which around Gormanville is of the pathetic Mid-Massachusetts loveliness and poverty, we sat down in a hillside orchard to rest, and he began abruptly to talk of his affair. Sometimes, he said, he felt that it was all an error, and he could not rid himself of the fear that an error persisted in was a wrong, and therefore a species of sin.
"That is very interesting," I said. "I wonder if there is anything in it? At first blush it looks so logical; but is it? Or are you simply getting morbid? What is the error? What is your error?"
"You know," he said, with a gentle refusal of my willingness to make light of his trouble. "It is surely an error to allow a woman to give her word when she can promise nothing more, and to let her hold herself to it."
I could have told him that I did not think the error in this case was altogether or mainly his, or the persistence in it; for it had seemed to me from the beginning that the love between him and Miss Bentley was fully as much her affair as his, and that quite within the bounds of maidenly modesty she showed herself as passionately true to their plighted troth. But of course this would not do, and I had to be content with the ironical suggestion that he might try offering to release Miss Bentley.
"Don't laugh at me," he implored, and I confess his tone would have taken from me any heart to do so.
"My dear fellow," I said, "I see your point. But don't you think you are quite needlessly adding to your affliction by pressing it? You two are in the position which isn't at all uncommon with engaged people, of having to wait upon exterior circumstances before you get married. Suppose you were prevented by poverty, as often happens? It would be a hardship as it is now; but in that case would your engagement be any less an error than it is now? I don't think it would, and I don't believe you think so either."
"In that case we should not be opposing our wills to the will of some one else, who has a better claim to her daughter's allegiance than I have. It seems to me that our error was in letting her mother consent to our engagement if she would not or could not consent to our marriage. When it came to that we ought both to have had the strength to say that then there should be no engagement. It was my place to do that. I could have prevented the error which I can't undo."
"I don't see how it could have been easier to prevent than to undo your error. I don't admit it's an error, but I call it so because you do. After all, an engagement is nothing but an open confession between two people that they are in love with each other and wish to marry. There need be no sort of pledge or promise to make the engagement binding, if there is love. It's the love that binds."
"It bound you from your first acknowledgment of it, and unless you could deny your love now, or hereafter, it must always bind you. If you own that you still love each other, you are still engaged, no matter how much you release each other. Could you think of loving her and marrying some one else? Could she love you and marry another? There isn't any error, unless you've mistaken your feeling for each other. If you have, I should decidedly say you couldn't break your engagement too soon. In fact, there wouldn't be any real engagement to break."
"Of course you are right," said Glendenning, but not so strenuously as he might.
I had a feeling that he had not put forward the main cause of his unhappiness, though he had given a true cause; that he had made some lesser sense of wrong stand for a greater, as people often do in confessing themselves; and I was not surprised when he presently added: "It is not merely the fact that she is bound in that way, and that her young life is passing in this sort of hopeless patience, but that—that—I don't know how to put the ugly and wicked thing into words, but I assure you that sometimes when I think—when I'm aware that I know—Ah, I can't say it!"
"I fancy I understand what you mean, my dear boy," I said, and in the right of my ten years' seniority I put my hand caressingly on his shoulder, "and you are no more guilty than I am in knowing that if Mrs. Bentley were not in the way there would be no obstacle to your happiness."
"But such a cognition is of hell," he cried, and he let his face fall into his hands and sobbed heartrendingly.
"Yes," I said, "such a cognition is of hell; you are quite right. So are all evil concepts and knowledges; but so long as they are merely things of our intelligence, they are no part of us, and we are not guilty of them."
"No; I trust not, I trust not," he returned, and I let him sob his trouble out before I spoke again; and then I began with a laugh of unfeigned gayety. Something that my wife had hinted in one of our talks about the lovers freakishly presented itself to my mind, and I said, "There is a way, and a very practical way, to put an end to the anomaly you feel in an engagement which doesn't imply a marriage."
"And what is that?" he asked, not very hopefully; but he dried his eyes and calmed himself.
"Well, speaking after the manner of men, you might run off with Miss Bentley."
All the blood in his body flushed into his face. "Don't!" he gasped, and I divined that what I had said must have been in his thoughts before, and I laughed again. "It wouldn't do," he added, piteously. "The scandal—I am a clergyman, and my parish—"
I perceived that no moral scruple presented itself to him; when it came to the point, he was simply and naturally a lover, like any other man; and I persisted: "It would only be a seven days' wonder. I never heard of a clergyman's running away to be married; but they must have sometimes done it. Come, I don't believe you'd have to plead hard with Miss Bentley, and Mrs. March and I will aid and abet you to the limit of our small ability. I'm sure that if I wrap up warm against the night air, she will let me go and help you hold the rope-ladder taut."
It was not very reverent to his cloth, or his recent tragical mood, but Glendenning was not offended; he laughed with a sheepish pleasure, and that evening he came with Miss Bentley to call upon us. The visit passed without unusual confidences until they rose to go, when she said abruptly to me: "I feel that we both owe you a great deal, Mr. March. Arthur has been telling me of your talk this afternoon, and I think that what you said was all so wise and true! I don't mean," she added, "your suggestion about putting an end to the anomaly!" and she and Glendenning both laughed.
My wife said, "That was very wicked, and I have scolded him for thinking of such a thing." She had, indeed, forgotten that she had put it in my head, and made me wholly responsible for it.
"Then you must scold me too a little, Mrs. March," said the girl, "for I've sometimes wondered if I couldn't work Arthur up to the point of making me run away with him," which was a joke that wonderfully amused us all.
I said, "I shouldn't think it would be so difficult;" and she retorted:
"Oh, you've no idea how obdurate clergymen are;" and then she went on, seriously, to thank me for talking Glendenning out of his morbid mood. With the frankness sometimes characteristic of her she said that if he had released her, it would have made no difference—she should still have felt herself bound to him; and until he should tell her that he no longer cared for her, she should feel that he was bound to her. I saw no great originality in this reproduction of my own ideas. But when Miss Bentley added that she believed her mother herself would be shocked and disappointed if they were to give each other up, I was aware of being in the presence of a curious psychological fact. I so wholly lost myself in the inquiry it invited that I let the talk flow on round me unheeded while I questioned whether Mrs. Bentley did not derive a satisfaction from her own and her daughter's mutual opposition which she could never have enjoyed from their perfect agreement. She had made a certain concession in consenting to the engagement, and this justified her to herself in refusing her consent to the marriage, while the ingratitude of the young people in not being content with what she had done formed a grievance of constant avail with a lady of her temperament. From what Miss Bentley let fall, half seriously, half jokingly, as well as what I observed, I divined a not unnatural effect of the strained relations between her and her mother. She concentrated whatever resentment she felt upon Miss Bentley, insomuch that it seemed as though she might altogether have withdrawn her opposition if it had been a question merely of Glendenning's marriage. So far from disliking him, she was rather fond of him, and she had no apparent objection to him except as her daughter's husband. It had not always been so; at first she had an active rancor against him; but this had gradually yielded to his invincible goodness and sweetness.
"Who could hold out against him?" his betrothed demanded, fondly, when these facts had been more or less expressed to us; and it was not the first time that her love had seemed more explicit than his. He smiled round upon her, pressing the hand she put in his arm; for she asked this when they stood on our threshold ready to go, and then he glanced at us with eyes that fell bashfully from ours.
"Oh, of course it will come right in time," said my wife when they were gone, and I agreed that they need only have patience. We had all talked ourselves into a cheerful frame concerning the affair; we had seen it in its amusing aspects, and laughed about it; and that seemed almost in itself to dispose of Mrs. Bentley's opposition. My wife and I decided that this could not long continue; that by-and-by she would become tired of it, and this would happen all the sooner if the lovers submitted absolutely, and did nothing to remind her of their submission.
The Conwells came home from Europe the next summer, and we did not go again to Gormanville. But from time to time we heard of the Bentleys, and we heard to our great amaze that there was no change in the situation, as concerned Miss Bentley and Glendenning. I think that later it would have surprised us if we had learned that there was a change. Their lives all seemed to have adjusted themselves to the conditions, and we who were mere spectators came at last to feel nothing abnormal in them.
Now and then we saw Glendenning, and now and then Miss Bentley came to call upon Mrs. March, when she was in town. Her mother had given up her Boston house, and they lived the whole year round at Gormanville, where the air was good for Mrs. Bentley without her apparently being the better for it; again, we heard in a roundabout way that their circumstances were not so fortunate as they had been, and that they had given up their Boston house partly from motives of economy.
There was no reason why our intimacy with the lovers' affairs should continue, and it did not. Miss Bentley made mention of Glendenning, when my wife saw her, with what Mrs. March decided to be an abiding fealty, but without offer of confidence; and Glendenning, when we happened to meet at rare intervals, did not invite me to more than formal inquiry concerning the well-being of Mrs. Bentley and her daughter.
He was undoubtedly getting older, and he looked it. He was one of those gentle natures which put on fat, not from self-indulgence, but from want of resisting force, and the clerical waistcoat that buttoned black to his throat swayed decidedly beyond a straight line at his waist. His red-gold hair was getting thin, and though he wore it cut close all round, it showed thinner on the crown than on the temples, and his pale eyebrows were waning. He had a settled patience of look which would have been a sadness, if there had not been mixed with it an air of resolute cheerfulness. I am not sure that this kept it from being sad, either.
Miss Bentley, on her part, was no longer the young girl she was when we met on the Corinthian. She must then have been about twenty, and she was now twenty-six, but she looked thirty. Dark people show their age early, and she showed hers in cheeks that grew thinner if not paler, and in a purple shadow under her fine eyes. The parting of her black hair was wider than it once was, and she wore it smooth in apparent disdain of those arts of fluffing and fringing which give an air of vivacity, if not of youth. I should say she had always been a serious girl, and now she showed the effect of a life that could not have been gay for any one.
The lovers promised themselves, as we knew, that Mrs. Bentley would relent, and abandon what was more like a whimsical caprice than a settled wish. But as time wore on, and she gave no sign of changing, I have wondered whether some change did not come upon them, which affected them towards each other without affecting their constancy. I fancied their youthful passion taking on the sad color of patience, and contenting itself more and more with such friendly companionship as their fate afforded; it became, without marriage, that affectionate comradery which wedded love passes into with the lapse of as many years as they had been plighted. "What," I once suggested to my wife, in a very darkling mood—"what if they should gradually grow apart, and end in rejoicing that they had never been allowed to join their lives? Wouldn't that be rather Hawthornesque?"
"It wouldn't be true," said Mrs. March, "and I don't see why you should put such a notion upon Hawthorne. If you can't be more cheerful about it, Basil, I wish you wouldn't talk of the affair at all."
"Oh, I'm quite willing to be cheerful about it, my dear," I returned; "and, if you like, we will fancy Mrs. Bentley coming round and ardently wishing their marriage, and their gayly protesting that after having given the matter a great deal of thought they had decided it would be better not to marry, but to live on separately for their own sake, just as they have been doing for hers so long. Wouldn't that be cheerful?"
Mrs. March said that if I wished to tease it was because I had no ideas on the subject, and she would advise me to drop it. I did so, for the better part of the evening, but I could not relinquish it altogether. "Do you think," I asked, finally, "that any sort of character will stand the test of such a prolonged engagement?"
"Why not? Very indifferent characters stand the test of marriage, and that's indefinitely prolonged."
"Yes, but it's not indefinite itself. Marriage is something very distinct and permanent; but such an engagement as this has no sort of future. It is a mere motionless present, without the inspiration of a common life, and with no hope of release from durance except through a chance that it will be sorrow instead of joy. I should think they would go to pieces under the strain."
"But as you see they don't, perhaps the strain isn't so great after all."
"Ah," I confessed, "there is that wonderful adaptation of the human soul to any circumstances. It's the one thing that makes me respect our fallen nature. Fallen? It seems to me that we ought to call it our risen nature; it has steadily mounted with the responsibility that Adam took for it—or Eve."
"I don't see," said my wife, pursuing her momentary advantage, "why they should not be getting as much pleasure or happiness out of life as most married people. Engagements are supposed to be very joyous, though I think they're rather exciting and restless times, as a general thing. If they've settled down to being merely engaged, I've no doubt they've decided to make the best of being merely engaged as long as her mother lives."
"There is that view of it," I assented.
By the following autumn Glendenning had completed the seventh year of his engagement to Miss Bentley, and I reminded my wife that this seemed to be the scriptural length of a betrothal, as typified in the service which Jacob rendered for Rachel. "But he had a prospective father-in-law to deal with," I added, "and Glendenning a mother-in-law. That may make a difference."
Mrs. March did not join me in the humorous view of the affair which I took. She asked me if I had heard anything from Glendenning lately; if that were the reason why I mentioned him.
"No," I said; "but I have some office business that will take me to Gormanville to-morrow, and I did not know but you might like to go too, and look the ground over, and see how much we have been suffering for them unnecessarily." The fact was that we had now scarcely spoken of Glendenning or the Bentleys for six months, and our minds were far too full of our own affairs to be given more than very superficially to theirs at any time. "We could both go as well as not," I suggested, "and you could call upon the Bentleys while I looked after the company's business."
"Thank you, Basil, I think I will let you go alone," said my wife. "But try to find out how it is with them. Don't be so terribly straightforward, and let it look as if that was what you came for. Don't make the slightest advance towards their confidence. But do let them open up if they will."
"My dear, you may depend upon my asking no leading questions whatever, and I shall behave with far more discretion than if you were with me. The danger is that I shall behave with too much, for I find that my interest in their affair is very much faded. There is every probability that unless Glendenning speaks of his engagement it won't be spoken of at all."
This was putting it rather with the indifference of the past six months than with the feeling of the present moment. Since I had known that I was going to Gormanville, the interest I denied had renewed itself pretty vividly for me, and I was intending not only to get everything out of Glendenning that I decently could, but to give him as much good advice as he would bear. I was going to urge him to move upon the obstructive Mrs. Bentley with all his persuasive force, and I had formulated some arguments for him which I thought he might use with success. I did not tell my wife that this was my purpose, but all the same I cherished it, and I gathered energy for the enforcement of my views for Glendenning's happiness from the very dejection I was cast into by the outward effect of the Gormanville streets. They were all in a funeral blaze of their shade trees, which were mostly maples, but were here and there a stretch of elms meeting in arches almost consciously Gothic over the roadway; the maples were crimson and gold, and the elms the pale yellow that they affect in the fall. A silence hung under their sad splendors which I found deepen when I got into what the inhabitants called the residential part. About the business centre there was some stir, and here in the transaction of my affairs I was in the thick of it for a while. Everybody remembered me in a pleasant way, and I had to stop and pass the time of day, as they would have said, with a good many whom I could not remember at once. It seemed to me that the maples in front of St. Michael's rectory were rather more depressingly gaudy than elsewhere in Gormanville; but I believe they were only thicker. I found Glendenning in his study, and he was so far from being cast down by their blazon that I thought him decidedly cheerfuller than when I saw him last. He met me with what for him was ardor; and as he had asked me most cordially about my family, I thought it fit to inquire how the ladies at the Bentley place were.
"Why, very well, very well indeed," he answered, brightly. "It's very odd, but Edith and I were talking about you all only last night, and wishing we could see you again. Edith is most uncommonly well. During the summer Mrs. Bentley had some rather severer attacks than usual, and the care and anxiety told upon Edith, but since the cooler weather has come she has picked up wonderfully." He did not say that Mrs. Bentley had shared this gain, and I imagined that he had a reluctance to confess she had not. He went on, "You're going to stay and spend the night with me, aren't you?"
"No," I said; "I'm obliged to be off by the four-o'clock train. But if I may be allowed to name the hospitality I could accept, I should say luncheon."
"Good!" cried Glendenning, gayly. "Let us go and have it at the Bentleys'."
"Far be it from me to say where you shall lunch me," I returned. "The question isn't where, but when and how, with me."
He got his hat and stick, and as we started out of his door he began: "You'll be a little surprised at the informality, perhaps, but I'm glad you take it so easily. It makes it easier for me to explain that I'm almost domesticated at the Bentley homestead; I come and go very much as if it were my own house."
"My dear fellow," I said, "I'm not surprised at anything in your relation to the Bentley homestead, and I won't vex you with any glad inferences."
"Why," he returned, a little bashfully, "there's no explicit change. The affair is just where it has been all along. But with the gradual decline in Mrs. Bentley—I'm afraid you'll notice it—she seems rather to want me about, and at times I'm able to be of use to Edith, and so—"
He stopped, and I said, "Exactly."
He went on: "Of course it's rather anomalous, and I oughtn't to let you get the impression that she has actually conceded anything. But she shows herself much more—er, shall I say?—affectionate, and I can't help hoping there may be a change in her mood which will declare itself in an attitude more favorable to—"
I said again, "Exactly," and Glendenning resumed:
"In spite of Edith's not having been quite so well as usual—she's wonderfully well now—it's been a very happy summer with us, on account of this change. It seems to have come about in a very natural way with Mrs. Bentley, and out of a growing regard which I can't specifically account for, as far as anything I've done is concerned."
"I think I could account for it," said I. "She must be a stonier-hearted old lady than I imagine if she hasn't felt your goodness, all along, Glendenning."
"Why, you're very kind," said the gentle creature. "You tempt me to repeat what she said, at the only time she expressed a wish to have me oftener with them: 'You've been very patient with a contrary old woman. But I sha'n't make you wait much longer.'"
"Well, I think that was very encouraging, my dear fellow."
"Do you?" he asked, wistfully. "I thought so too, at first, but when I told Edith she could not take that view of it. She said that she did not believe her mother had changed her mind at all, and that she only meant she was growing older."
"But, at any rate," I argued, "it was pleasant to have her make an open recognition of your patience."
"Yes, that was pleasant," he said, cheerfully again, "And it was the beginning of the kind of relation that I have held ever since to her household. I am afraid I am there a good half of my time, and I believe I dine there oftener than I do at home. I am quite on the footing of a son, with her."
"There are some of the unregenerate, Glendenning," I made bold to say, "who think it is your own fault that you weren't on the footing of a son-in-law with her long ago. If you'll excuse my saying so, you have been, if anything, too patient. It would have been far better for all if you had taken the bit in your teeth six or seven years back—"
He drew a deep breath. "It wouldn't have done; it wouldn't have done! Edith herself would never have consented to it."
"Did you ever ask her?"
"No," he said, innocently. "How could I?"
"And of course she could never ask you," I laughed. "My opinion is that you have lost a great deal of time unnecessarily. I haven't the least doubt that if you had brought a little pressure to bear with Mrs. Bentley herself, it would have sufficed."
He looked at me with a kind of dismay, as if my words had carried conviction, or had roused a conviction long dormant in his heart. "It wouldn't have done," he gasped.
"It isn't too late to try, yet," I suggested.
"Yes, it's too late. We must wait now." He hastened to add, "Until she yields entirely of herself."
He gave me a guilty glance when he drew near the Bentley place and we saw a buggy standing at the gate. "The doctor!" he said, and he hurried me up the walk to the door.
The door stood open and we heard the doctor saying to some one within: "No, no, nothing organic at all, I assure you. One of the commonest functional disturbances."
Miss Bentley appeared at the threshold with him, and she and Glendenning had time to exchange a glance of anxiety and of smiling reassurance, before she put out her hand in greeting to me, a very glad and cordial greeting, apparently. The doctor and I shook hands, and he got himself away with what I afterwards remembered as undue quickness, and left us to Miss Bentley.
Glendenning was quite right about her looking better. She looked even gay, and there was a vivid color in her checks such as I had not seen there for many years; her lips were red, her eyes brilliant. Her face was still perhaps as thin as ever, but it was indescribably younger.
I cannot say that there were the materials of a merrymaking amongst us, exactly, and yet I remember that luncheon as rather a gay one, with some laughing. I had not been till now in discovering that Miss Bentley had a certain gift of humor, so shy and proud, if I may so express it, that it would not show itself except upon long acquaintance, and I distinctly perceived now that this enabled her to make light of a burden that might otherwise have been intolerable. It qualified her to treat with cheerfulness the grimness of her mother, which had certainly not grown less since I saw her last, and to turn into something like a joke her valetudinarian austerities of sentiment and opinion. She made a pleasant mock of the amenities which passed between her mother and Glendenning, whose gingerliness in the acceptance of the old lady's condescension would, I confess, have been notably comical without this gloss. It was perfectly evident that Mrs. Bentley's favor was bestowed with a mental reservation, and conditioned upon his forming no expectations from it, and poor Glendenning's eagerness to show that he took it upon these terms was amusing as well as touching. I do not know how to express that Miss Bentley contrived to eliminate herself from the affair, or to have the effect of doing that, and to abandon it to them. I can only say that she left them to be civil to each other, and that, except when she recurred to them in playful sarcasm from time to time, she devoted herself to me.
Evidently, Mrs. Bentley was very much worse than she had been; her breathing was painfully labored. But if her daughter had any anxiety about her condition, she concealed it most effectually from us. I decided that she had perhaps been asking the doctor as to certain symptoms that had alarmed her, and it was in the rebound from her anxiety that her spirits had risen to the height I saw. Glendenning seized the moment of her absence after luncheon, when she helped her mother up to her room, to impart to me that this was his conclusion too. He said that he had not seen her so cheerful for a long time, and when I praised her in every way he basked in my appreciation of her as if it had all been flattery for himself. She came back directly, and then I had a chance to see what she might have been under happier stars. She could not, at any moment, help showing herself an intellectual and cultivated woman, but her opportunities to show herself a woman of rare social gifts had been scanted by circumstances and perhaps by conscience. It seemed to me that even in devoting herself to her mother as she had always done she need not have enslaved herself, and that it was in this excess her inherited puritanism came out. She might sometimes openly rebel against her mother's domination, as my wife and I had now and again seen her do; but inwardly she was almost passionately submissive. Here I thought that Glendenning, if he had been a different sort of man, might have been useful to her; he might have encouraged her in a little wholesome selfishness, and enabled her to withhold sacrifice where it was needless. But I am not sure; perhaps he would have made her more unhappy, if he had attempted this; perhaps he was the only sort of man whom, in her sense of his own utter unselfishness, she could have given her heart to in perfect peace. She now talked brilliantly and joyously to me, but all the time her eye sought his for his approval and sympathy; he, for his part, was content to listen in a sort of beatific pride in her which he did not, in his simple-hearted fondness, make any effort to mask.
When we came away he made himself amends for his silence by a long hymn in worship of her, and I listened with all the acquiescence possible. He asked me questions—whether I had noticed this thing or that about her, or remembered what she had said upon one point or another, and led up to compliments of her which I was glad to pay. In the long ordeal they had undergone they had at least kept all the freshness of their love.
Glendenning and I went back to the rectory, and sat down in his study, or rather he made me draw a chair to the open door, and sat down himself on a step below the threshold. The day was one of autumnal warmth; the haze of Indian summer blued the still air, and the wind that now and then stirred the stiff panoply of the trees was lullingly soft. This part of Gormanville quite overlooked the busier district about the mills, where the water-power found its way, and it was something of a climb even from the business street of the old hill village, which the rival prosperity of the industrial settlement in the valley had thrown into an aristocratic aloofness. From the upper windows of the rectory one could have seen only the red and yellow of the maples, but from the study door we caught glimpses past their boles of the outlying country, as it showed between the white mansions across the way. One of these, as I have already mentioned, was the Conwell place; and after we had talked of the landscape awhile, Glendenning said: "By the way! Why don't you buy the Conwell place? You liked it so much, and you were all so well in Gormanville. The Conwells want to sell it, and it would be just the thing for you, five or six months of the year."
I explained, almost compassionately, the impossibility of a poor insurance man thinking of a summer residence like the Conwell place, and I combated as well as I could the optimistic reasons of my friend in its favor. I was not very severe with him, for I saw that his optimism was not so much from his wish to have me live in Gormanville as from the new hope that filled him. It was by a perfectly natural, if not very logical transition that we were presently talking of this greater interest again, and Glendenning was going over all the plans that it included. I encouraged him to believe, as he desired, that a sea-voyage would be the thing for Mrs. Bentley, and that it would be his duty to take her to Europe as soon as he was in authority to do so. They should always, he said, live in Gormanville, for they were greatly attached to the place, and they should keep up the old Bentley homestead in the style that he thought they owed to the region where the Bentleys had always lived. It is a comfort to a man to tell his dreams, whether of the night or of the day, and I enjoyed Glendenning's pleasure in rehearsing these fond reveries of his.
He interrupted himself to listen to the sound of hurried steps, and directly a man in his shirt-sleeves came running by on the sidewalk beyond the maples. In a village like Gormanville any passer is of interest to the spectator, and a man running is of thrilling moment. Glendenning started to his feet, and moved forward for a better sight of the flying passer. He called out to the man, who shouted back something I could not understand, and ran on.
"What did he say?"
"I don't know." Glendenning's face as he turned to me again was quite white. "It is Mrs. Bentley's farmer," he added, feebly, and I could see that it was with an effort he kept himself from sinking. "Something has happened."
"Oh, I guess not, or not anything serious," I answered, with an effort to throw off the weight I suddenly felt at my own heart. "People have been known to run for a plumber. But if you're anxious, let us go and see what the matter is."
I turned and got my hat; Glendenning came in for his, but seemed unable to find it, though he stood before the table where it lay. I had to laugh, though I felt so little like it, as I put it in his hand.
"Don't leave me," he entreated, as we hurried out through the maples to the sidewalk. "It has come at last, and I feel, as I always knew I should, like a murderer."
"What rubbish!" I retorted. "You don't know that anything has happened. You don't know what the man's gone for."
"Yes, I do," he said. "Mrs. Bentley is—He's gone for the doctor."
As he spoke a buggy came tearing down the street behind us; the doctor was in it, and the man in shirt-sleeves beside him. We did not try to hail them, but as they whirled by the farmer turned his face, and again called something unintelligible to Glendenning.
We made what speed we could after them, but they were long out of sight in the mile that it seemed to me we were an hour in covering before we reached the Bentley place. The doctor's buggy stood at the gate, and I perceived that I was without authority to enter the house, on which some unknown calamity had fallen, no matter with what good-will I had come; I could see that Glendenning had suffered a sudden estrangement, also, which he had to make a struggle against. But he went in, leaving me without, as if he had forgotten me.
I could not go away, and I walked down the path to the gate, and waited there, in case I should be in any wise wanted. After a very long time the doctor came bolting over the walk towards me, as if he did not see me, but he brought himself up short with an "Oh!" before he actually struck against me. I had known him during our summer at the Conwell place, where we used to have him in for our little ailments, and I would never have believed that his round, optimistic face could look so worried. I read the worst in it; Glendenning was right; but I asked the doctor, quite as if I did not know, whether there was anything serious the matter.
"Serious—yes," he said. "Get in with me; I have to see another patient, but I'll bring you back." We mounted into his buggy, and he went on. "She's in no immediate danger, now. The faint lasted so long I didn't know whether we should bring her out of it, at one time, but the most alarming part is over for the present. There is some trouble with the heart, but I don't think anything organic."
"Yes, I heard you telling her daughter so, just before lunch. Isn't it a frequent complication with asthma?"
"Asthma? Her daughter? Whom are you talking about?"
"Mrs. Bentley. Isn't Mrs. Bentley—"
"No!" shouted the doctor, in disgust, "Mrs. Bentley is as well as ever. It's Miss Bentley. I wish there was a thousandth part of the chance for her that there is for her mother."
I stayed over for the last train to Boston, and then I had to go home without the hope which Miss Bentley's first rally had given the doctor. My wife and I talked the affair over far into the night, and in the paucity of particulars I was almost driven to their invention. But I managed to keep a good conscience, and at the same time to satisfy the demand for facts in a measure by the indulgence of conjectures which Mrs. March continually took for them. The doctor had let fall, in his talk with me, that he had no doubt Miss Bentley had aggravated the affection of the heart from which she was suffering by her exertions in lifting her mother about so much; and my wife said that it needed only that touch to make the tragedy complete.
"Unless," I suggested, "you could add that her mother had just told her she would not oppose her marriage any longer, and it was the joy that brought on the access of the trouble that is killing her."
"Did the doctor say that?" Mrs. March demanded, severely.
"No. And I haven't the least notion that anything like it happened. But if it had—"
"It would have been too tawdry. I'm ashamed of you for thinking of such a thing, Basil."
Upon reflection, I was rather ashamed myself; but I plucked up courage to venture: "It would be rather fine, wouldn't it, when that poor girl is gone, if Mrs. Bentley had Glendenning come and live with her, and they devoted themselves to each other for her daughter's sake?"
"Fine! It would be ghastly. What are you thinking of, my dear? How would it be fine?"
"Oh, I mean dramatically," I apologized, and, not to make bad worse, I said no more.
The next day, which was Sunday, a telegram came for me, which I decided, without opening it, to be the announcement of the end. But it proved to be a message from Mrs. Bentley, begging in most urgent terms that Mrs. March and I would come to her at once, if possible. These terms left the widest latitude for surmise, but none for choice, in the sad circumstances, and we looked up the Sunday trains for Gormanville, and went.
We found the poor woman piteously grateful, but by no means so prostrated as we had expected. She was rather, as often happens, stayed and held upright by the burden that had been laid upon her, and it was with fortitude if not dignity that she appealed to us for our counsel, and if possible our help, in a matter about which she had already consulted the doctor. "The doctor says that the excitement cannot hurt Edith; it may even help her, to propose it. I should like to do it, but if you do not think well of it, I will not do it. I know it is too late now to make up to her for the past," said Mrs. Bentley, and here she gave way to the grief she had restrained hitherto.
"There is no one else," she went on, "who has been so intimately acquainted with the facts of my daughter's engagement—no one else that I can confide in or appeal to."
We both murmured that she was very good; but she put our politeness somewhat peremptorily aside.
"It is the only thing I can do now, and it is useless to do that now. It will be no reparation for the past, and it will be for myself and not for her, as all that I have done in the past has been; but I wish to know what you think of their getting married now."
I am afraid that if we had said what we thought of such a tardy and futile proof of penitence we should have brought little comfort to the mother's heart, but we looked at each other in the disgust we both felt and said there would be a sacred fitness in it.
She was apparently much consoled.
It was touching enough, and I at least was affected by her tears; I am not so sure my wife was. But she had instantly to consider how best to propose the matter to Miss Bentley, and to act upon her decision.
After all, as she reported the fact to me later, it was very simple to suggest her mother's wish to the girl, who listened to it with a perfect intelligence in which there was no bitterness.
"They think I am going to die," she said, quietly, "and I can understand how she feels. It seems such a mockery; but if she wishes it; and Arthur—"
It was my part to deal with Glendenning, and I did not find it so easy.
"Marriage is for life and for earth," he said, solemnly, and I thought very truly. "In the resurrection we shall be one another's without it. I don't like to go through the form of such a sacrament idly; it seems like a profanation of its mystery."
"But if Miss Bentley—"
"She will think whatever I do; I shall feel as she does," he answered, with dignity.
"Yes, I know," I urged. "It would not be for her; it would not certainly be for yourself. But if you could see it as the only form of reparation which her mother can now offer you both, and the only mode of expressing your own forgiveness—Recollect how you felt when you thought that it was Mrs. Bentley's death; try to recall something of that terrible time—"
"I don't forget that," he relented. "It was in mercy to Edith and me that our trial is what it is: we have recognized that in the face of eternity. I can forgive anything in gratitude for that."
* * * * *
I have often had to criticise life for a certain caprice with which she treats the elements of drama, and mars the finest conditions of tragedy with a touch of farce. No one who witnessed the marriage of Arthur Glendenning and Edith Bentley had any belief that she would survive it twenty-four hours; they themselves were wholly without hope in the moment which for happier lovers is all hope. To me it was like a funeral, but then most weddings are rather ghastly to look upon; and the stroke that life had in reserve perhaps finally restored the lost balance of gayety in this. At any rate, Mrs. Glendenning did live, and she is living yet, and in rather more happiness than comes to most people under brighter auspices. After long contention among many doctors, the original opinion that her heart trouble was functional, not organic, has been elected final, and upon these terms she bids fair to live as long as any of us.
I do not know whether she will live as long as her mother, who seems to have taken a fresh lease of years from her single act of self-sacrifice. I cannot say whether Mrs. Bentley feels herself deceived and defrauded by her daughter's recovery; but I have made my wife observe that it would be just like life if she bore the young couple a sort of grudge for unwittingly outwitting her. Certainly, on the day we lately spent with them all at Gormanville, she seemed, in the slight attack of asthma from which she suffered, to come as heavily and exactingly upon both as she used to come upon her daughter alone. But I was glad to see that Glendenning eagerly bore the greater part of the common burden. He grows stouter and stouter, and will soon be the figure of a bishop.
THE PURSUIT OF THE PIANO.
Hamilton Gaites sat breakfasting by the window of a restaurant looking out on Park Square, in Boston, at a table which he had chosen after rejecting one on the Boylston Street side of the place because it was too noisy, and another in the little open space, among evergreens in tubs, between the front and rear, because it was too chilly. The wind was east, but at his Park Square window it tempered the summer morning air without being a draught; and he poured out his coffee with a content in his circumstance and provision which he was apt to feel when he had taken all the possible pains, even though the result was not perfect. But now, he had real French bread, as good as he could have got in New York, and the coffee was clear and bright. A growth of crisp green watercress embowered a juicy steak, and in its shade, as it were, lay two long slices of bacon, not stupidly broiled to a crisp, but delicately pink, and exemplarily lean. Gaites had already had a cantaloupe, whose spicy fragrance lingered in the air and mingled with the robuster odors of the coffee, the steak, and the bacon.
He owned to being a fuss, but he contended that he was a cheerful fuss, and when things went reasonably well with him, he was so. They were going well with him now, not only in the small but in the large way. He was sitting there before that capital breakfast in less than half an hour after leaving the sleeping-car, where he had passed a very good night, and he was setting out on his vacation, after very successful work in the June term of court. He was in prime health; he had a good conscience in leaving no interests behind him that could suffer in his absence; and the smile that he bent upon the Italian waiter as he retired, after putting down the breakfast, had some elements of a benediction.
There was a good deal of Gaites's smile, when it was all on: he had a generous mouth, full of handsome teeth, very white and even, which all showed in his smile. His whole face took part in the smile, and it was a charming face, long and rather quaintly narrow, of an amiable aquilinity, and clean-shaven. His figure, tall and thin, comported well with his style of visage, and at a given moment, when he suddenly rose and leaned from the window, eagerly following something outside with his eye, he had an alert movement that was very pleasant.
The thing outside which had caught, and which now kept, his eye as long as he could see it, was a case in the shape of an upright piano, on the end of a long, heavy-laden truck, making its way with a slow, jolting progress among the carts, carriages, and street cars, out of the square round the corner toward Boylston Street. On the sloping front of the case was inscribed an address, which seemed to gaze at Gaites with the eyes of the girl whom it named and placed, and to whom in the young man's willing fancy it attributed a charming quality. Nothing, he felt, could be more suggestive, more expressive of something shy, something proud, something pure, something pastoral yet patrician, something unaffected and yet chic, in an unknown personality, than the legend:
Miss Phyllis Desmond, Lower Merritt, New Hampshire.
Via S. B. & H. C. R. R.
Like most lawyers, he had a vein of romance, and this now opened in pleasing conjectures concerning the girl. He knew just where Lower Merritt was, and so well what it was like that a vision of its white paint against the dark green curtain of the wooded heights around it filled his sense as agreeably as so much white marble. There was the cottage of some summer people well above the village level, among pines and birches, and overlooking the foamiest rush of the Saco, to which he instantly destined the piano of Phyllis Desmond. He had never known that these people's name was Desmond, and he had certainly never supposed that they had a daughter called Phyllis; but he divined these facts in losing sight of the truck; and he imagined with as logical probability that one of the little girls whom he used to see playing on the hill-slope before the cottage had grown up into the young lady whose name the piano bore. There was quite time enough for this transformation; it was seven years since Gaites had run up into the White Mountains for a month's rest after his last term in the Harvard Law School, and before beginning work in the office of the law firm in New York where he had got a clerkship, and where he had now a junior partnership. The little girl was then just ten years old, and now, of course, the young lady was seventeen, or would be when the piano reached Lower Merritt, for it was clearly meant to arrive on her birthday; it was a birthday-present and a surprise. He had always liked the way those nice people let their children play about barefoot; it would be in character with them to do a fond, pretty thing like that; and Gaites smiled for pleasure in it, and then rather blushed in relating the brown legs of the little girl, as he remembered seeing them in her races over her father's lawn, to the dignified young lady she had now become.
He amused himself in mentally following the piano on its way to the Sea Board & Hill Country R. R. freight-depot, which he was quite able to do from a habit of Boston formed during his four years in the academic course and his three years in the law-school at Harvard. He knew that it would cross Boylston into Charles Street, and keep along that level to Cambridge; then it would turn into McLane Street, and again into Lynde, by this means avoiding the grades as much as possible, and arriving through Causeway Street at the long, low freight-depot of the S. B. & H. C., where it would be the first thing unloaded from the truck. It would stand indefinitely on the outer platform; and then, when the men in flat, narrow-peaked silk caps and grease-splotched overalls got round to it, with an air of as much personal indifference as if they were mere mechanical agencies, it would be pulled and pushed into the dimness of the interior, cool, and pleasantly smelling of pine, and hemp, and flour, and dried fruit, and coffee, and tar, and leather, and fish. There it would abide, indefinitely again, till in the same large impersonal way it was pulled and pushed out on the platform beside the track, where a freight-car marked for the Hill Country division of the road, with devices intelligible to the train-men, had been shunted down by a pony engine in obedience to mystical semaphoric gesticulations, from the brakeman risking his life for the purpose among the rails, addressed to the engineer keeping his hand on the pulse of the locomotive, and his head out of the cab window to see how near he could come to killing the brakeman without doing it.