JOHN WARD, PREACHER
BY MARGARET DELAND
AUTHOR OF "THE OLD GARDEN"
I sent my soul through the invisible, Some letter of that after-life to spell; And by and by my soul returned to me, And answered, "I myself am Heav'n and Hell"
NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
Copyright, 1888, By HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & CO. All rights reserved.
To LORIN DELAND This Book ALREADY MORE HIS THAN MINE IS DEDICATED.
Boston, December 25th, 1887.
JOHN WARD, PREACHER.
The evening before Helen Jeffrey's wedding day, the whole household at the rectory came out into the garden.
"The fact is," said Dr. Howe, smiling good-naturedly at his niece, "the importance of this occasion has made everybody so full of suppressed excitement one can't breathe in the house."
And indeed a wedding in Ashurst had all the charm of novelty. "Why, bless my soul," said the rector, "let me see: it must be ten—no, twelve years since Mary Drayton was married, and that was our last wedding. Well, we couldn't stand such dissipation oftener; it would wake us up."
But Ashurst rather prided itself upon being half asleep. The rush and life of newer places had a certain vulgarity; haste was undignified, it was almost ill bred, and the most striking thing about the village, resting at the feet of its low green hills, was its atmosphere of leisure and repose.
Its grassy road was nearly two miles long, so that Ashurst seemed to cover a great deal of ground, though there were really very few houses. A lane, leading to the rectory, curled about the foot of East Hill at one end of the road, and at the other was the brick-walled garden of the Misses Woodhouse.
Between these extremes the village had slowly grown; but its first youth was so far past, no one quite remembered it, and even the trying stage of middle age was over, and its days of growth were ended. This was perhaps because of its distance from the county town, for Mercer was twelve miles away, and there was no prospect of a railroad to unite them. It had been talked of once; some of the shopkeepers, as well as Mr. Lash, the carpenter, advocated it strenuously at Bulcher's grocery store in the evenings, because, they said, they were at the mercy of Phibbs, the package man, who brought their wares on his slow, creaking cart over the dusty turnpike from Mercer. But others, looking into the future, objected to a convenience which might result in a diminution of what little trade they had. Among the families, however, who did not have to consider "trade" there was great unanimity, though the Draytons murmured something about the increased value of the land; possibly not so much with a view to the welfare of Ashurst as because their property extended along the proposed line of the road.
The rector was very firm in his opinion. "Why," said he, mopping his forehead with his big silk handkerchief, "what do we want with a railroad? My grandfather never thought of such a thing, so I think I can get along without it, and it is a great deal better for the village not to have it."
It would have cut off one corner of his barn; and though this could not have interfered with the material or spiritual welfare of Ashurst, Dr. Howe's opinion never wavered. And the rector but expressed the feelings of the other "families," so that all Ashurst was conscious of relief when the projectors of the railroad went no further than to make a cut at one end of the Drayton pastures; and that was so long ago that now the earth, which had shown a ragged yellow wound across the soft greenness of the meadows, was sown by sweet clover and wild roses, and gave no sign of ever having been gashed by picks and shovels.
The Misses Woodhouse's little orchard of gnarled and wrinkled apple-trees came to the edge of the cut on one side, and then sloped down to the kitchen garden and back door of their old house, which in front was shut off from the road by a high brick wall, gray with lichens, and crumbling in places where the mortar had rotted under the creepers and ivy, which hung in heavy festoons over the coping. The tall iron gates had not been closed for years, and, rusting on their hinges, had pressed back against the inner wall, and were almost hidden by the tangle of vines, that were woven in and out of the bars, and waved about in the sunshine from their tops.
The square garden which the wall inclosed was full of cool, green darkness; the trees were the growth of three generations, and the syringas and lilacs were so thick and close they had scarcely light enough for blossoming. The box borders, which edged the straight prim walks, had grown, in spite of clippings, to be almost hedges, so that the paths between them were damp, and the black, hard earth had a film of moss over it. Old-fashioned flowers grew just where their ancestors had stood fifty years before. "I could find the bed of white violets with my eyes shut," said Miss Ruth Woodhouse; and she knew how far the lilies of the valley spread each spring, and how much it would be necessary to clip, every other year, the big arbor vitae, so that the sunshine might fall upon her bunch of sweet-williams.
Miss Ruth was always very generous with her flowers, but now that there was to be a wedding at the rectory she meant to strip the garden of every blossom she could find, and her nephew was to take them to the church the first thing in the morning.
Gifford Woodhouse had lately returned from Europe, and his three years' travel had not prepared his aunts to treat him as anything but the boy he seemed to them when he left the law school. They still "sent dear Giff" here, or "brought him" there, and arranged his plans for him, in entire unconsciousness that he might have a will of his own. Perhaps the big fellow's silence rather helped the impression, for so long as he did not remonstrate when they bade him do this or that, it was not of so much consequence that, in the end, he did exactly as he pleased. This was not often at variance with the desires of the two sisters, for the wordless influence of his will so enveloped them that his wishes were apt to be theirs. But no one could have been more surprised than the little ladies, had they been told that their nephew's intention of practicing law in the lumber town of Lockhaven had been his own idea.
They had cordially agreed with him when he observed that another lawyer in Ashurst, beside Mr. Denner, would have no other occupation than to make his own will; and they had nodded approvingly when the young man added that it would seem scarcely gracious to settle in Mercer while Mr. Denner still hoped to find clients there, and sat once a week, for an hour, in a dingy back office waiting for them. True, they never came; but Gifford had once read law with Mr. Denner, and knew and loved the little gentleman, so he could not do a thing which might appear discourteous. And when he further remarked that there seemed to be a good opening in Lockhaven, which was a growing place, and that it would be very jolly to have Helen Jeffrey there when she became Mrs. Ward, the two Misses Woodhouse smiled, and said firmly that they approved of it, and that they would send him to Lockhaven in the spring, and they were glad they had thought of it.
On this June night, they had begged him to take a message to the rectory about the flowers for the wedding. "He is glad enough to go, poor child," said Miss Deborah, sighing, when she saw the alacrity with which he started; "he feels her marriage very much, though he is so young."
"Are you sure, dear Deborah?" asked Miss Ruth, doubtfully. "I never really felt quite certain that he was interested in her."
"Certainly I am," answered Miss Deborah, sharply. "I've always maintained they were made for each other."
But Gifford Woodhouse's pleasant gray eyes, under straight brown brows, showed none of the despair of an unsuccessful lover; on the contrary, he whistled softly through his blonde moustache, as he came along the rectory lane, and then walked down the path to join the party in the garden.
The four people who had gathered at the foot of the lawn were very silent; Dr. Howe, whose cigar glowed and faded like a larger firefly than those which were beginning to spangle the darkness, was the only one ready to talk. "Well," he said, knocking off his cigar ashes on the arm of his chair, "everything ready for to-morrow, girls? Trunks packed and gowns trimmed? We'll have to keep you, Helen, to see that the house is put in order after all this turmoil; don't you think so, Lois?"
Here the rector yawned secretly.
"You needn't worry about order, father," Lois said, lifting her head from her cousin's shoulder, her red lower lip pouting a little, "but I wish we could keep Helen."
"Do you hear that, Mr. Ward?" the rector said. "Yes, we're all going to miss the child very much. Gifford Woodhouse was saying to-day Ashurst would lose a great deal when she went. There's a compliment for you, Helen! How that fellow has changed in these three years abroad! He's quite a man, now. Why, how old is he? It's hard for us elders to realize that children grow up."
"Giff is twenty-six," Lois said.
"Why, to be sure," said Dr. Howe, "so he is! Of course, I might have known it: he was born the year your brother was, Lois, and he would have been twenty-six if he'd lived. Nice fellow, Gifford is. I'm sorry he's not going to practice in Mercer. He has a feeling that it might interfere with Denner in some way. But dear me, Denner never had a case outside Ashurst in his life. Still, it shows good feeling in the boy; and I'm glad he's going to be in Lockhaven. He'll keep an eye on Helen, and let us know if she behaves with proper dignity. I think you'll like him, Mr. Ward,—I would say John,—my dear fellow!"
There was a lack of sympathy on the part of the rector for the man at his side, which made it difficult for him to drop the formal address, and think of him as one of the family. "I respect Ward," he said once to his sister,—"I can't help respecting him; but bless my soul, I wish he was more like other people!" There was something about the younger man, Dr. Howe did not know just what, which irritated him. Ward's earnestness was positively aggressive, he said, and there seemed a sort of undress of the mind in his entire openness and frankness; his truthfulness, which ignored the courteous deceits of social life, was a kind of impropriety.
But John Ward had not noticed either the apology or the omission; no one answered the rector, so he went on talking, for mere occupation.
"I always liked Gifford as a boy," he said; "he was such a manly fellow, and no blatherskite, talking his elders to death. He never had much to say, and when he did talk it was to the point. I remember once seeing him—why, let me see, he couldn't have been more than fifteen—breaking a colt in the west pasture. It was one of Bet's fillies, and as black as a coal: you remember her, don't you, Lois?—a beauty! I was coming home from the village early in the morning; somebody was sick,—let me see, wasn't it old Mrs. Drayton? yes,—and I'd been sent for; it must have been about six,—and there was Gifford struggling with that young mare in the west pasture. He had thrown off his coat, and caught her by the mane and a rope bridle, and he was trying to ride her. That blonde head of his was right against her neck, and when she reared he clung to her till she lifted him off his feet. He got the best of her, though, and the first thing she knew he was on her back. Jove! how she did plunge! but he mastered her; he sat superbly. I felt Gifford had the making of a man in him, after that. He inherits his father's pluck. You know Woodhouse made a record at Lookout Mountain; he was killed the third day."
"Gifford used to say," said Helen, "that he wished he had been born in time to go into the army."
"There's a good deal of fight in the boy," said the rector, chuckling. "His aunts were always begging him not to get into rows with the village boys. I even had to caution him myself. 'Never fight, sir,' I'd say; 'but if you do fight, whip 'em!' Yes, it's a pity he couldn't have been in the army."
"Well," said Lois, impatiently, "Giff would have fought, I know, but he's so contradictory! I've heard him say the Southerners couldn't help fighting for secession; it was a principle to them, and there was no moral wrong about it, he said."
"Oh, nonsense!" cried the rector; "these young men, who haven't borne the burden and heat of the day, pretend to instruct us, do they? No moral wrong? I thought Gifford had some sense! They were condemned by God and man."
"But, uncle Archie," Helen said, slowly, "if they thought they were right, you can't say there was a moral wrong?"
"Oh, come, come," said Dr. Howe, with an indignant splutter, "you don't understand these things my dear,—you're young yet, Helen. They were wrong through and through; so don't be absurd." Then turning half apologetically to John Ward, he added, "You'll have to keep this child's ideas in order; I'm sure she never heard such sentiments from me. Mr. Ward will think you haven't been well brought up, Helen. Principle? Twaddle! their pockets were what they thought of. All this talk of principle is rubbish."
The rector's face was flushed, and he brought his fist down with emphasis upon the arm of his chair.
"And yet," said John Ward, lifting his thoughtful dark eyes to Dr. Howe's handsome face, "I have always sympathized with a mistaken idea of duty, and I am sure that many Southerners felt they were only doing their duty in fighting for secession and the perpetuation of slavery."
"I don't agree with you, sir," said Dr. Howe, whose ideas of hospitality forbade more vigorous speech, but his bushy gray eyebrows were drawn into a frown.
"I think you are unfair not to admit that," John continued with gentle persistence, while the rector looked at him in silent astonishment, and the two young women smiled at each other in the darkness. ("The idea of contradicting father!" Lois whispered.) "They felt," he went on, "that they had found authority for slavery in the Bible, so what else could they do but insist upon it?"
"Nonsense," said Dr. Howe, forgetting himself, "the Bible never taught any such wicked thing. They believed in states rights, and they wanted slavery."
"But," John said, "if they did believe the Bible permitted slavery, what else could they do? Knowing that it is the inspired word of God, and that every action of life is to be decided by it, they had to fight for an institution which they believed sacred, even if their own judgment and inclination did not concede that it was right. If you thought the Bible taught that slavery was right, what could you do?"
"I never could think anything so absurd," the rector answered, a shade of contempt in his good-natured voice.
"But if you did," John insisted, "even if you were unable to see that it was right,—if the Bible taught it, inculcated it?"
Dr. Howe laughed impatiently, and flung the end of his cigar down into the bushes, where it glowed for a moment like an angry eye. "I—I? Oh, I'd read some other part of the book," he said. "But I refuse to think such a crisis possible; you can always find some other meaning in a text, you know."
"But, uncle Archie," Helen said, "if one did think the Bible taught something to which one's conscience or one's reason could not assent, it seems to me there could be only one thing to do,—give up the Bible!"
"Oh, no," said Dr. Howe, "don't be so extreme, Helen. There would be many things to do; leave the consideration of slavery, or whatever the supposed wrong was, until you'd mastered all the virtues of the Bible: time enough to think of an alternative then,—eh, Ward? Well, thank Heaven, the war's over, or we'd have you a rank copperhead. Come! it's time to go into the house. I don't want any heavy eyes for to-morrow."
"What a speech for a minister's wife, Helen!" Lois cried, as they rose. "What would people say if they heard you announce that you 'would give up the Bible'?"
"I hope no one will ever hear her say anything so foolish," said Dr. Howe, but John Ward looked at Lois in honest surprise.
"Would it make any difference what people said?" he asked.
"Oh, I wasn't speaking very seriously," Lois answered, laughing, "but still, one does not like to say anything which is unusual, you know, about such things. And of course Helen doesn't really mean that she'd give up the Bible."
"But I do," Helen interrupted, smiling; and she might have said more, for she could not see John's troubled look in the darkness, but Gifford Woodhouse came down the path to meet them and give Miss Ruth's message.
"Just in time, young man," said the rector, as Gifford silently took some of John's burden of shawls and cushions, and turned and walked beside him. "Here's Helen giving Ward an awful idea of her orthodoxy; come and vouch for the teaching you get at St. Michael's."
Gifford laughed. "What is orthodoxy, doctor?" he said. "I'm sure I don't know!"
"'The hungry sheep look up and are not fed,'" quoted the rector in a burlesque despair. "Why, what we believe, boy,—what we believe! The rest of my flock know better, Mr. Ward, I assure you."
"I don't think we know what we do believe, uncle," Helen said lightly.
"This grows worse and worse," said the rector. "Come, Helen, when an intelligent young woman, I might say a bright young woman, makes a commonplace speech, it is a mental yawn, and denotes exhaustion. You and Lois are tired; run up-stairs. Vanish! I say. Good night, dear child, and God bless you!"
Ashurst Rectory, in a green seclusion of vines and creepers, stood close to the lane,—Strawberry Lane it was called, because of a tradition that wild strawberries grew there. The richness of the garden was scarcely kept in bounds by its high fence; the tops of the bushes looked over it, and climbing roses shed their petals on the path below, and cherries, blossoms, and fruit were picked by the passer-by. "There is enough for us inside," said the rector.
The house itself was of gray stone, which seemed to have caught, where it was not hidden by Virginia creepers and wistaria, the mellow coloring of the sunset light, which flooded it from a gap in the western hills. Its dormer-windows, their roofs like brown caps bent about their ears, had lattices opening outward; and from one of these Lois Howe, on the evening of Helen's wedding day, had seen her father wandering about the garden, with the red setter at his heels, and had gone down to join him.
"I wonder," she said, as she wound her round young arm in his, which was behind him, and held his stick, "if John Ward has a garden? I hope so; Helen is so fond of flowers. But he never said anything about it; he just went around as though he was in a dream. He was perfectly happy if he could only look at Helen!"
"Well, that's right," said the rector; "that's proper. What else would you have? The fact is, Lois, you don't like Ward. Now, he is a good fellow; yes, good is just the word for him. Bless my soul, there's a pitch of virtue about him that is exhausting. But that's our fault," he added candidly.
"Oh, I'll like him," Lois said quickly, "if he will just make Helen happy."
The rector shook his head. "I know how you feel," he said, "and I acknowledge he is odd; that talk of his last night about slavery being a righteous institution"—
"Oh, he didn't say that, father," Lois interrupted.
—"was preposterous," continued Dr. Howe, not noticing her; "but he's earnest, he's sincere, and I have a great deal of respect for earnestness. And look here, Lois, you must not let anybody see you are not in sympathy with Helen's choice; be careful of that tongue of yours, child. It's bad taste to make one's private disappointments public. I wouldn't speak of it even to your aunt Deely, if I were you."
He stooped down to pull some matted grass from about the roots of a laburnum-tree, whose dark leaves were lighted by golden loops of blossoms, "Thirty-eight years ago," he said, "your mother and I planted this; we had just come home from our wedding journey, and she had brought this slip from her mother's garden in Virginia. But dear me, I suppose I've told you that a dozen times. What? How to-day brings back that trip of ours! We came through Lockhaven, but it was by stage-coach. I remember we thought we were so fortunate because the other two passengers got out there, and we had the coach to ourselves. Your mother had a striped ribbon, or gauze,—I don't know what you call it,—on her bonnet, and it kept blowing out of the window of the coach, like a little flag. You young people can go further in less time, when you travel, but you will never know the charm of staging it through the mountains. I declare, I haven't thought of it for years, but to-day brings it all back to me!"
They had reached the rectory porch, and Dr. Howe settled himself in his wicker chair and lighted his cigar, while Lois sat down on the steps, and began to dig small holes in the gravel with the stick her father had resigned to her.
The flood of soft lamplight from the open hall door threw the portly figure of the rector into full relief, and, touching Lois's head, as she sat in the shadow at the foot of the steps, with a faint aureole, fell in a broad bright square on the lawn in front of the house. They had begun to speak again of the wedding, when the click of the gate latch and the swinging glimmer of a lantern through the lilacs and syringas warned them that some one was coming, and in another moment the Misses Woodhouse and their nephew stepped across the square of light.
Miss Deborah and Miss Ruth were quite unconscious that they gave the impression of carrying Gifford about with them, rather than of being supported by him, for each little lady had passed a determined arm through one of his, and instead of letting her small hand, incased in its black silk mitt, rest upon his sleeve, pressed it firmly to her breast.
Ashurst was a place where friendships grew in simplicity as well as strength with the years, and because these three people had been most of the morning at the rectory, arranging flowers, or moving furniture about, or helping with some dainty cooking, and then had gone to the church at noon for the wedding, they saw no reason why they should not come again in the evening. So the sisters had put on their second-best black silks, and, summoning Gifford, had walked through the twilight to the rectory. Miss Deborah Woodhouse had a genius for economy, which gave her great pleasure and involved but slight extra expense to the household, and she would have felt it a shocking extravagance to have kept on the dress she had worn to the wedding. Miss Ruth, who was an artist, the sisters said, and fond of pretty things, reluctantly followed her example.
They sat down now on the rectory porch, and began to talk, in their eager, delicate little voices, of the day's doings. They scarcely noticed that their nephew and Lois had gone into the fragrant dusk of the garden. It did not interest them that the young people should wish to see, as Gifford had said, how the sunset light lingered behind the hills; and when they had exhausted the subject of the wedding, Miss Ruth was anxious to ask the rector about his greenhouse and the relative value of leaf mould and bone dressing, so they gave no thought to the two who still delayed among the flowers.
This was not surprising. Gifford and Lois had known each other all their lives. They had quarreled and made up with kisses, and later on had quarreled and made up without the kisses, but they had always felt themselves the most cordial and simple friends. Then had come the time when Gifford must go to college, and Lois had only seen him in his short vacations; and these gradually became far from pleasant. "Gifford has changed," she said petulantly. "He is so polite to me," she complained to Helen; not that Gifford had ever been rude, but he had been brotherly.
He once asked her for a rose from a bunch she had fastened in her dress. "Why don't you pick one yourself, Giff?" she said simply; and afterwards, with a sparkle of indignant tears in her eyes and with a quick impatience which made her an amusing copy of her father, she said to Helen, "I suppose he meant to treat me as though I was some fine young lady. Why can't he be just the old Giff?" And when he came back from Europe, she declared he was still worse.
Yet even in their estrangement they united in devotion to Helen. It was to Helen they appealed in all their differences, which were many, and her judgment was final; Lois never doubted it, even though Helen generally thought Gifford was in the right. So now, when her cousin had left her, she was at least sure of the young man's sympathy.
She was glad that he was going to practice in Lockhaven; he would be near Helen, and make the new place less lonely for her, she said, once. And Helen had smiled, as though she could be lonely where John was!
They walked now between the borders, where old-fashioned flowers crowded together, towards the stone bench. This was a slab of sandstone, worn and flaked by weather, and set on two low posts; it leaned a little against the trunk of a silver-poplar tree, which served for a back, and it looked like an altar ready for the sacrifice. The thick blossoming grass, which the mower's scythe had been unable to reach, grew high about the corners; three or four stone steps led up to it, but they had been laid so long ago they were sunken at one side or the other, and almost hidden by moss and wild violets. Quite close to the bench a spring bubbled out of the hill-side, and ran singing through a hollowed locust log, which was mossy green where the water had over-flowed, with a musical drip, upon the grass underneath.
They stood a moment looking towards the west, where a golden dust seemed blown across the sky, up into the darkness; then Lois took her seat upon the bench. "When do you think you will get off, Giff?" she said.
"I'm not quite sure," he answered; he was sitting on one of the lower steps, and leaning on his elbow in the grass, so that he might see her face. "I suppose it will take a fortnight to arrange everything."
"I'm sorry for that," Lois said, disappointedly. "I thought you would go in a few days."
Gifford was silent, and began to pick three long stems of grass and braid them together. Lois sat absently twisting the fringe on one end of the soft scarf of yellow crepe, which was knotted across her bosom, and fell almost to the hem of her white dress.
"I mean," she said, "I'm sorry Helen won't have you in Lockhaven. Of course Ashurst will miss you. Oh, dear! how horrid it will be not to have Helen here!"
"Yes," said Gifford sympathetically, "you'll be awfully lonely."
They were silent for a little while. Some white phlox in the girl's bosom glimmered faintly, and its heavy fragrance stole out upon the warm air. She pulled off a cluster of the star-like blossoms, and held them absently against her lips. "You don't seem at all impatient to get away from Ashurst, Giff," she said. "If I had been you, I should have gone to Lockhaven a month ago; everything is so sleepy here. Oh, if I were a man, wouldn't I just go out into the world!"
"Well, Lockhaven can scarcely be called the world," Gifford answered in his slow way.
"But I should think you would want to go because it will be such a pleasure to Helen to have you there," she said.
Gifford smiled; he had twisted his braid of grass into a ring, and had pushed it on the smallest of his big fingers, and was turning it thoughtfully about. "I don't believe," he said, "that it will make the slightest difference to Helen whether I am there or not. She has Mr. Ward."
"Oh," Lois said, "I hardly think even Mr. Ward can take the place of father, and the rectory, and me. I know it will make Helen happier to have somebody from home near her."
"No," the young man said, with a quiet persistence, "it won't make the slightest difference, Lois. She'll have the person she loves best in the world; and with the person one loves best one could be content in the desert of Sahara."
"You seem to have a very high opinion of John Ward," Lois said, a thread of anger in her voice.
"I have," said Gifford; "but that isn't what I mean. It's love, not John Ward, which means content. But you don't have a very high opinion of him?"
"Oh, yes, I have," Lois said quickly; "only he isn't good enough for Helen. I suppose, though, I'd say that of anybody. And he irritates me, he is so different from other people. I don't think I do—adore him!"
Gifford did not speak; he took another strand of grass, and began to weave it round and round his little ring, to make it smaller.
"Perhaps I ought not to say that," she added; "of course I wouldn't to any one but you."
"You ought not to say it to me, Lois," he said.
"Why? Isn't it true?" she said. "I don't think it is wrong to say he's different; it's certainly true!" Gifford was silent. "Do you?" she demanded.
"Yes," Gifford answered quietly; "and somehow it doesn't seem fair, don't you know, to say anything about them, they are so happy; it seems as though we ought not even to speak of them."
Lois was divided between indignation at being found fault with and admiration for the sentiment. "Well," she said, rather meekly for her, "I won't say anything more; no doubt I'll like him when I know him better."
"See if that fits your finger, Lois," her companion said, sitting up, and handing her the little grass ring. She took it, smiling, and tried it on. Gifford watched her with an intentness which made him frown; her bending head was like a shadowy silhouette against the pale sky, and the little curls caught the light in soft mist around her forehead.
"But I'm glad for my own part, then," she went on, "to think of you with Helen. You must tell me everything about her and about her life, when you write; she won't do it herself."
"I will," he answered, "if you let me write to you."
Lois opened her eyes with surprise; here was this annoying formality again, which Gifford's fault-finding seemed to have banished. "Let you write?" she said impatiently. "Why, you know I depended on your writing, Giff, and you must tell me everything you can think of. What's the good of having a friend in Lockhaven, if you don't?"
She had clasped her hands lightly on her knees, and was leaning forward a little, looking at him; for he had turned away from her, and was pulling at a bunch of violets. "I tell you what it is, Lois," he said; "I cannot go away, and write to you, and not—and not tell you. I suppose I'm a fool to tell you, but I can't help it."
"Tell me what?" Lois asked, bewildered.
"Oh," Gifford burst out, rising, and standing beside her, his big figure looming up in the darkness, "it's this talk of friendship, Lois, that I cannot stand. You see, I love you."
There was silence for one long moment. It was so still they could hear the bubbling of the spring, like a soft voice, complaining in the darkness. Then Lois said, under her breath, "Oh, Gifford!"
"Yes, I do," he went on, desperately. "I know you've never thought of such a thing; somehow, I could not seem to make you see it,—you wouldn't see it; but I do love you, and—and, Lois—if you could care, just a little? I've loved you so long."
Lois shrank back against the silver-poplar tree, and put her hands up to her face. In a moment tenderness made the young man forget his anxiety. "Did I startle you?" he said, sitting down beside her; but he did not take her hand, as he might have done in their old frank friendship. "I'm so sorry, but I couldn't help telling you. I know you've been unconscious of it, but how could a fellow help loving you, Lois? And I couldn't go away to Lockhaven and not know if there was any chance for me. Can you care, a—little?"
She did not speak until he said again, his voice trembling with a sudden hope, "Won't you say one word, Lois?"
"Why, Giff," she said, sitting up very straight, and looking at him, her wet eyes shining in the darkness, "you know I care—I've always cared, but not that way—and—and—you don't, Giff, you don't really—it's just a fancy."
"It is not a fancy," he answered quietly. "I knew I loved you that first time I came home from college. But you were too young; it would not have been right. And then before I went abroad, I tried to tell you once; but I thought from the way you spoke you did not care. So I didn't say anything more; but I love you, and I always shall."
"Oh, Gifford," Lois cried, with a voice full of distress, "you mustn't! Why, don't you see? You're just like my brother. Oh, do please let us forget all this, and let's be just as we used to be."
"We cannot," he said gently. "But I won't make you unhappy; I won't speak if you tell me to be silent."
"Indeed, I do tell you to be silent," she said, in a relieved tone. "I—could not, Giff. So we'll just forget it. Promise me you will forget it?"
He shook his head, with a slow smile. "You must forget it, if it will make you any happier; but you cannot ask me to forget. I am happier to remember. I shall always love you, Lois."
"But you mustn't!" she cried again. "Why can't we have just the old friendship? Indeed—indeed, it never could be anything else; and," with a sudden break of tenderness in her voice, "I—I really am so fond of you, Giff!"
Here the young man smiled a little bitterly. Friendship separated them as inexorably as though it had been hate!
"And," the girl went on, gaining confidence as she spoke, for argument cleared the air of sentiment, in which she felt as awkward as she was unkind, "and you know there are a good many things you don't like in me; you think I have lots of faults,—you know you do."
"I suppose I do, in a way," he acknowledged; "but if I didn't love you so much, Lois, I would not notice them."
Lois held her head a little higher, but did not speak. He watched her twist her fingers nervously together; she had forgotten to take off the little ring of braided grass.
"I am so sorry, Giff," she said, to break the silence,—"oh, so sorry. I—I can't forgive myself."
"There is nothing to forgive," he answered gently; "and you must not distress yourself by thinking that I am unhappy. I am better, Lois, yes, and happier, because I love you. It shall be an inspiration to me all my life, even if you should forget all about me. But I want you to make me one promise, will you?"
She hesitated. "If I can, Giff;" and then, with sudden trustfulness, she added, "Yes, I will. What is it?"
She had risen, and was standing on the step above him. He looked at her nervous little hands a moment, but did not touch them, and then he said, "If the time ever comes when you can love me, tell me so. I ask you this, Lois, because I cannot bear to distress you again by speaking words of love you do not want to hear, and yet I can't help hoping; and I shall always love you, but it shall be in silence. So if the day ever does come when you can love me, promise to tell me."
"Oh, yes," she said, glad to grant something. "But, Gifford, dear, it will never come; I must say that now."
"But you promise?"
"Yes," she answered, soberly. "I promise."
He looked at her steadily a moment. "God bless you, dear," he said.
"Oh, Gifford!" cried the girl, and with a sudden impulse she stooped and kissed his forehead; then, half frightened at what she had done, but not yet regretting it, she brushed past him, and went swiftly up the path to the rectory.
The young man stood quite still a moment, with reverent head bent as though he had received a benediction, and then turned and followed her.
Lois Howe's mind was in a strange tumult that night; the subtile thrill, which is neither pain nor pride, and yet seems both, with which a young woman hears for the first time that she is loved, stung through all her consciousness of grief at having wounded her old friend. Tears came into her eyes once, and yet she did not know why; perhaps it was anger. How could Gifford have been so foolish as to talk that way, and make her have to say what she did? The old friendship was what she wanted. And then more tears came; and for the first time in her simple girlish life, Lois could not understand her own heart.
It was because Helen had gone away, she said to herself, and she was tired; and that gave her the right to cry with all her heart, which was a great relief.
But Lois was young. The next morning, when she pushed back her windows, she felt joy bubble up in her soul as unrestrainedly as though she had never said a word to Gifford which could make his heart ache. The resistance and spring of the climbing roses made her lean out to fasten her lattices back, and a shower of dew sprinkled her hair and bosom; and at the sudden clear song of the robin under the eaves, she stood breathless a moment to listen, with that simple gladness of living which is perhaps a supreme unselfishness in its entire unconsciousness of individual joy.
But like the rest of the world, Lois found that such moments do not last; the remembrance of the night before forced itself upon her, and she turned to go down-stairs, with a troubled face.
Of course there is plenty to do the day after a wedding, and Lois was glad to have the occupation; it was a relief to be busy.
Ashurst ladies always washed the breakfast things themselves; no length of service made it seem proper to trust the old blue china and the delicate glass to the servants. So Lois wiped her cups and saucers, and then, standing on a chair in the china-closet, put the dessert plates with the fine gilt pattern borders, which had been used yesterday, on the very back of the top shelf, in such a quick, decided way Jean trembled for their safety.
The rectory dining-room was low-studded, and lighted by one wide latticed window, which had a cushioned seat, with a full valance of flowered chintz; the dimity curtains were always pushed back, for Dr. Howe was fond of sunshine. In the open fireplace, between the brasses, stood a blue jug filled with white lilacs, and the big punch-bowl on the sideboard was crowded with roses. There were antlers over the doors, and the pictures on the walls were of game and fish, and on the floor was a bear-skin, which was one of the rector's trophies.
Lois stood by a side-table which held a great pan of hot water; she had a long-handled mop in her hand and a soft towel over her arm, and she washed and wiped some wine-glasses with slender twisted stems and sparkling bowls, and then put them on their shelves in the corner closet, where they gleamed and glittered in the sunshine, pouring through the open window.
She did not work as fast now, for things were nearly in order, and she dreaded having nothing to do; her aunt, Mrs. Dale, would have said she was dawdling, but Miss Deborah Woodhouse, who had come over to the rectory early to see if she could be of use, said haste was not genteel, and it was a pleasure to see a young person who was deliberate in her movements.
"But you must let me help you, my dear," she added, taking off her gloves, and pulling the fingers straight and smooth.
"Indeed, Miss Deborah, there is nothing more to do," Lois answered, smiling, as she closed the brass-hinged doors of the corner closet.
"Dear me!" said the other absently, "I do trust dear Gifford's china-closet will be kept in proper order. Your shelves do credit to Jean's housekeeping; indeed they do! And I hope he'll have a maid who knows how to put the lavender among the linen; there's always a right and a wrong way. I have written out directions for her, of course, but if there was time I would write and ask Helen to see to it."
"Why, Giff says he won't get off for a fortnight," Lois said, with sudden surprise.
"I thought so," responded Miss Deborah, shaking her head, so that the little gray curls just above her ears trembled,—"I thought so, too; but last night he said he was going at once. At least," stopping to correct herself, "dear Ruth and I think it best for him to go. I have everything ready for him, so no doubt he'll get off to-morrow."
Lois was silent.
"The fact is," said Miss Deborah, lowering her voice, "Gifford does not seem perfectly happy. Of course you wouldn't be apt to observe it; but those things don't escape my eyes. He's been depressed for some time."
"I hadn't noticed it," said Lois faintly.
"Oh, no, certainly not," answered Miss Deborah; "it would be scarcely proper that you should, considering the reason: but it's no surprise to me. I always thought that when they grew old enough, dear Giff and Helen would care for one another; and so I don't wonder that he has been feeling some disappointment since he came home, though I had written him she was engaged—Much too young she was, too, in my judgment."
Lois's astonishment was so great that she dropped her mop, and Miss Deborah looked at her reprovingly over her glasses. "Oh, yes, there's no doubt Gifford felt it," she said, "but he'll get over it. Those things do not last with men. You know I wouldn't speak of this to any one but you, but he's just like a brother to you."
"Yes, exactly like a brother," Lois said hurriedly, "and I think I should have known it if it had been—had been that way."
"No," said Miss Deborah, putting down the last glass, "I think not. I only guessed it myself last night; it is all over now; those things never last. And very likely he'll meet some nice girl in Lockhaven who will make him happy; indeed, I shouldn't wonder if we heard he was taken with somebody at once; hearts are often caught on the rebound! I don't know," Miss Deborah added candidly, "how lasting an attachment formed on a previous disappointment might be; and dear me! he does feel her marriage very much."
Here Sally came in to take away the pan and mop, and Lois looked about to see if there was anything more to do. She was very anxious to bring Miss Deborah's conversation to an end, and grateful that Jean should come and ask her to take some silver, borrowed for yesterday's festivities, back to Mrs. Dale.
"It's these spoons," the old woman explained to Miss Deborah. "Mrs. Dale, she lent us a dozen. I've counted 'em all myself; I wouldn't trust 'em to that Sally. If there was a hair's difference, Mrs. Dale would know it 'fore she set eyes on them, let alone havin' one of our spoons 'stead of hers."
Miss Deborah nodded her head. "Very likely, Jean," she said; "I've not a doubt of it. I'm going now, and Miss Lois will walk along with me. Yes, Mrs. Dale would see if anything was wrong, you can depend upon it."
They set out together, Lois listening absently to Miss Deborah's chatter about the wedding, and vaguely glad when, at the gate of her aunt's house, she could leave her, with a pretty bow, which was half a courtesy.
There was a depressing stateliness about Dale house, which was felt as soon as the stone gateway, with its frowning sphinxes, was passed. The long shutters on either side of the front door were always solemnly bowed, for Mrs. Dale did not approve of faded carpets, and the roof of the veranda, supported by great white pillars, darkened the second-story windows. There was no tangle of vines about its blank walls of cream-colored brick with white trimmings, nor even trees to soften the stare with which it surveyed the dusty highway; and the formal precision of the place was unrelieved by flowers, except for a stiff design in foliage plants on the perfectly kept lawn.
On the eastern side of the house, about the deep windows of Mr. Dale's sanctum, ivy had been permitted to grow, and there were a few larch and beech trees, and a hedge to hide the stables; but these were special concessions to Mr. Dale.
"I do dislike," said Mrs. Dale,—"I do dislike untidy gardens; flowers, and vines, and trees, all crowded together, and weeds too, if the truth's told. I never could understand how the Woodhouse girls could endure that forlorn old place of theirs. But then, a woman never does make a really good manager unless she's married."
Lois found her aunt in the long parlor, playing Patience. She was sitting in a straight-backed chair,—for Mrs. Dale scorned the weakness of a rocking-chair,—before a spindle-legged table, covered with green baize and with a cherry-wood rim inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory. On it were thirteen groups of cards, arranged with geometrical exactness at intervals of half an inch.
"Well, Lois," she said, as her niece entered. "Oh, you have brought the spoons back?" But she interrupted herself, her eyebrows knitted and her lower lip thrust out, to lift a card slowly, and decide if she should move it. Then she glanced at the girl over her glasses. "I'm just waiting here because I must go into the kitchen soon, and look at my cake. That Betty of mine must needs go and see her sick mother to-day, and I have to look after things. But I cannot be idle. I declare, there is something malicious in the way in which the relatives of servants fall ill!"
She stopped here long enough to count the spoons, and then began her game again. She was able, however, to talk while she played, and pointed out various things which did not "go quite right" at the wedding.
The parlor at Dale house was as exact and dreary as the garden. The whole room suggested to Lois, watching her aunt play solitaire, and the motes dancing in the narrow streaks of sunshine which fell between the bowed shutters, and across the drab carpet to the white wainscoting on the other side, the pictures in the Harry and Lucy books, or the parlor where, on its high mantel shelf, Rosamond kept her purple jar.
She wondered vaguely, as Mrs. Dale moved her cards carefully about, whether her aunt had ever been "bothered" about anything. Helen's marriage seemed only an incident to Mrs. Dale; the wedding and the weather, the dresses and the presents, which had been a breathless interest to Lois, were apparently of no more importance to the older woman than the building up a suit.
"Well," Mrs. Dale said, when she had exhausted the subject of the wedding, "I'm sure I hope it will turn out well, but I really can't say. Ever since I've seen this Mr. Ward I've somehow felt that it was an experiment. In the first place, he's a man of weak will,—I'm sure of that, because he seems perfectly ready to give way to Helen in everything; and that isn't as it ought to be,—the man should rule! And then, besides that, whoever heard of his people? Came from the South somewhere, I believe, but he couldn't tell me the first name of his great-grandfather. I doubt if he ever had any, between ourselves. Still, I hope for the best. And I'm sure I trust," she added, with an uneasy recollection of the cake in the oven, "she won't have trouble with servants. I declare, the happiness of married life is in the hands of your cook. If Betty had not gone off this morning, I should have come over to the rectory to help you. There's so much to do after a wedding."
"Oh, you're very kind," said Lois, "but I think Jean and I can see to things. Miss Deborah came to help me, but we were really quite in order."
"Miss Deborah!" said Mrs. Dale. "Well, I'm glad if she could be of any use; she really is so un-practical. But it's lucky you have Jean. Just wait till you get a house of your own, young lady, and then you'll understand what the troubles of housekeeping are."
"I'm in no haste for a house of my own," said the girl, smiling.
"That's because you're a foolish child," returned Mrs. Dale promptly. "You'd be a great deal happier if you were married and settled. Though I must say there is very little chance of it, unless you go away to make a visit, as Helen did. There is only one young man in Ashurst; and now he's going. But for that matter, Gifford Woodhouse and you are just like brother and sister. Yes, Lois, I must say, I wish I could see you in a home of your own. No woman is really happy unless she's married."
"I think I'm the best judge of that," Lois answered. "No girl could be happier than I am; to hear father call me his—Tyrant? I don't want anything better than that."
"Nonsense!" said Mrs. Dale decidedly. "If you had a husband to call you his Tyrant, it would be a thousand times better. I declare, I always think, when we pray for 'all who are destitute and oppressed,' it means the old maids. I'm sure the 'fatherless children and widows' are thought of, and why not the poor, forlorn, unmarried women? Indeed, I think Archibald is almost selfish to keep you at home as he does. My girls would never have been settled if I had let them stay in Ashurst. I've a great mind to tell your father he isn't doing his duty. You ought to have a winter in town."
"Indeed, I hope you won't tell him anything of the sort!" cried Lois. "I wouldn't leave Ashurst for the world, and I'm perfectly happy, I assure you!"
"Don't be so silly," said Mrs. Dale calmly, "or think that no one loves your father but yourself. He was my brother for thirty-four years before he was your father. I only spoke for your good, and his too, for of course he would be happier if you were."
She stopped here to gather her cards up, and deal them out again in little piles, and also to reprove Lois, who had made an impatient gesture at her words.
"These little restless ways you have are very unpleasant," she said; "my girls never did such things. I don't know where you get your unlady-like habits; not from your father, I'm sure. I suppose it's because you don't go out at all; you never see anybody. There, that reminds me. I have had a letter from Arabella Forsythe. I don't know whether you remember the Forsythes; they used to visit here; let me see, fifteen years ago was the last time, I think. Well, they are going to take the empty house near us for the summer. She was a Robinson; not really Ashurst people, you know, not born here, but quite respectable. Her father was a button manufacturer, and he left her a great deal of money. She married a person called Forsythe, who has since died. She has one boy, about your age, who'll be immensely rich one of these days; he is not married. Heaven knows when Ashurst will see an eligible young man again," she added; and then, absently, "Eight on a nine, and there's a two-spot for my clubs!"
"I wonder if I remember Mrs. Forsythe?" Lois said, wrinkling her pretty forehead in a puzzled way. "Wasn't she a tall, thin lady, with a pleasant face?"
"Yes," answered Mrs. Dale, nodding her sleek, head, "yes, rather pleasant, but melancholy. And no wonder, talking about her aches and pains all the time! But that's where the button manufacturer showed. She was devoted to that boy of hers, and a very nice child he was, too." She looked sharply at her niece as she spoke.
"I remember him," Lois said. "I saw Gifford shake him once; 'he was too little to lick,' he said."
"I'm afraid Gifford is very rough and unmannerly sometimes," Mrs. Dale said. "But then, those Woodhouse girls couldn't be expected to know how to bring up a big boy."
"I don't think Giff is unmannerly," cried Lois.
"Well, not exactly," Mrs. Dale admitted; "but of course he isn't like Mr. Forsythe. Gifford hasn't had the opportunities, or the money, you know."
"I don't think money is of much importance," said Lois. "I don't think money has anything to do with manners."
"Oh, you don't know anything about it!" cried Mrs. Dale. "There! you made me make a mistake, and lose my game. Pray do not be silly, Lois, and talk in that emphatic way; have a little more repose. I mean this young man is—he is very different from anybody you have ever seen in Ashurst. But there is no use trying to tell you anything; you always keep your own opinion. You are exactly like a bag of feathers. You punch it and think you've made an impression, and it comes out just where it went in."
Lois laughed, and rose to go.
"Tell your father what I said about a winter in town," Mrs. Dale called after her; and then, gathering her cards up, and rapping them on the table to get the edges straight, she said to herself, "But perhaps it won't be necessary to have a winter in town!" And there was a grim sort of smile on her face when, a moment later, Mr. Dale, in a hesitating way, pushed the door open, and entered.
"I thought I heard Lois's voice, my dear," he said, with a deprecating expression.
He wore his flowered cashmere dressing-gown, tied about the waist with a heavy silk cord and tassel, and a soft red silk handkerchief was spread over his white hair to protect his head from possible draughts in the long hall. Just now one finger was between the pages of "A Sentimental Journey."
"She was here," said Mrs. Dale, still smiling. "I was telling her the Forsythes were coming. It is an excellent thing; nothing could be better."
"What do you mean?" asked Mr. Dale.
"Mean?" cried his wife. "What should I be apt to mean? You have no sense about such things, Henry."
"Oh," said her husband meekly, "you want them to fall in love?"
"Well, really," she answered, leaning back in her chair, and tapping her foot impatiently, "I do not see how my husband can be so silly. One would think I was a matchmaker, and no one detests anything of that sort as I do,—no one! Fall in love, indeed! I think the expression is positively indelicate, Henry. Of course, if Lois should be well married, I should be grateful; and if it should be Mr. Forsythe, I should only feel I had done my duty in urging Arabella to take a house in Ashurst."
"Oh, you urged her?"
"I wrote her Ashurst was very pleasant," Mrs. Dale acknowledged, "and it was considered healthy. (I understand Arabella!) I knew her son was going abroad later in the summer, but I thought, if he once got here"—
"Ah," responded Mr. Dale.
John and Helen had not gone at once to Lockhaven; they spent a fortnight in wandering about through the mountains on horseback. The sweet June weather, the crystal freshness of the air, and the melodious stillness of the woods and fields wrapped those first heavenly days of entire possession in a mist of joy. Afterwards, John Ward felt that it had blinded the eyes of his soul, and drifted between him and his highest duty; he had not been able to turn away from the gladness of living in her presence to think of what had been, during all their engagement, an anxiety and grief, and, he had promised himself, should be his earliest thought when she became his wife:—the unsaved condition of her soul.
When he had first seen her, before he knew he loved her, he had realized with distress and terror how far she was from what he called truth; how indifferent to what was the most important thing in the whole world to him,—spiritual knowledge. He listened to what she said of her uncle's little Episcopal church in Ashurst, and heard her laugh good-naturedly about the rector's sermons, and then thought of the doctrines which were preached from his own pulpit in Lockhaven.
Helen had never listened to sermons full of the hopelessness of predestination; she frankly said she did not believe that Adam was her federal head and representative, and that she, therefore, was born in sin. "I'm a sinner," she said, smiling; "we're all miserable sinners, you know, Mr. Ward, and perhaps we all sin in original ways; but I don't believe in original sin."
When he spoke of eternal punishment, she looked at him with grave surprise in her calm brown eyes. "How can you think such a thing?" she asked. "It seems to me a libel upon the goodness of God."
"But justice, Miss Jeffrey," he said anxiously; "surely we must acknowledge the righteousness and justice of God's judgments."
"If you mean that God would send a soul to hell forever, if you call that his judgment, it seems to me unrighteous and unjust. Truly, I can think of no greater heresy, Mr. Ward, than to deny the love of God; and is not that what you do when you say he is more cruel than even men could be?"
"But the Bible says"—he began, when she interrupted him.
"It does not seem worth while to say, 'the Bible says,'" she said, smiling a little as she looked into his troubled face. "The Bible was the history, and poetry, and politics of the Jews, as well as their code of ethics and their liturgy; so that, unless we are prepared to believe in its verbal inspiration, I don't see how we can say, as an argument, 'the Bible says.'"
"And you do not believe in its verbal inspiration?" he said slowly.
"No," Helen answered, "I could not."
It was not for John Ward to ask how she had been taught, or to criticise another minister's influence, but as he walked home, with anxious, downcast eyes, he wondered what Dr. Howe's belief could be, and how it had been possible for her soul to have been so neglected. This woman, whose gracious, beautiful nature stirred him with profound admiration, was in the darkness of unbelief; she had never been taught the truth.
As he said this to himself, John Ward knew, with sudden, passionate tenderness, that he loved her. Yet it was months before he came and told her. What right had he to love her? he said to himself, when he knelt and prayed for her soul's salvation: she was an unbeliever; she had never come to Christ, or she would have known the truth. His duty to his people confronted him with its uncompromising claim that the woman whom he should bring to help him in his labors among them should be a Christian, and he struggled to tear this love out of his heart.
John Ward's was an intellect which could not hold a belief subject to the mutations of time or circumstances. Once acknowledged by his soul, its growth was ended; it hardened into a creed, in which he rested in complete satisfaction. It was not that he did not desire more light; it was simply that he could not conceive that there might be more light. And granting his premise that the Bible was directly inspired by God, he was not illogical in holding with a pathetic and patient faith to the doctrines of the Presbyterian Church.
Helen's belief was as different as was her mode of thought. It was perhaps a development of her own nature, rather than the result of her uncle's teaching, though she had been guided by him spiritually ever since he had taken her to his own home, on the death of her parents, when she was a little child. "Be a good girl, my dear," Dr. Howe would say. So she learned her catechism, and was confirmed just before she went to boarding-school, as was the custom with Ashurst young women, and sung in the choir, while Mr. Denner drew wonderful chords from the organ, and she was a very well-bred and modest young woman, taking her belief for granted, and giving no more thought to the problems of theology than girls usually do.
But this was before she met John Ward. After those first anxious questions of his, Helen began to understand how slight was her hold upon religion. But she did not talk about her frame of mind, nor dignify the questions which began to come by calling them doubts; how could they be doubts, when she had never known what she had believed? So, by degrees, she built up a belief for herself.
Love of good was really love of God, in her mind. Heaven meant righteousness, and hell an absence from what was best and truest; but Helen did not feel that a soul must wait for death before it was overtaken by hell. It was very simple and very short, this creed of hers; yet it was the doorway through which grief and patience were to come,—the sorrow of the world, the mystery of sin, and the hope of that far-off divine event.
There was no detail of religious thought with Helen Jeffrey; ideas presented themselves to her mind with a comprehensiveness and simplicity which would have been impossible to Mr. Ward. But at this time he knew nothing of the mental processes that were leading her out of the calm, unreasoning content of childhood into a mist of doubt, which, as she looked into the future, seemed to darken into night. He was struggling with his conscience, and asking himself if he had any right to seek her love.
"Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers," he said to himself. To his mind, Helen's lack of belief in certain doctrines—for it had hardly crystallized into unbelief—was sin; and sin was punishable by eternal death. Here was his escape from conscience. Should this sweet soul, that he loved more than his own, be lost? No; surely, it was a sacred right and duty to win her heart and marry her, that he might take her away from the atmosphere of religious indifference in which she lived, and guide her to light and life.
Love won the day. "I will save her soul!" he said to himself; and with this purpose always before him to hide a shadow, which whispered,—so he thought,—"This is a sin," he asked her to be his wife.
He did not have to plead long. "I think I have always loved you," Helen said, looking up into his eyes; and John was so happy that every thought of anxiety for her soul was swallowed up in gratitude to God for her love.
It was one midsummer afternoon that he reached Ashurst; he went at once to the rectory, though with no thought of asking Dr. Howe's permission to address his niece. It seemed to John as though there were only their two souls in the great sunny world that day, and his love-making was as simple and candid as his life.
"I've come to tell you I love you," he said, with no preface, except to take her hands in his.
He did not see her often during their engagement, nor did he write her of his fears and hopes for her; he would wait until she was quite away from Ashurst carelessness, he thought; and beside, his letters were so full of love, there was no room for theology. But he justified silence by saying when they were in their own home he would show her the beauty of revealed religion; she should understand the majesty of the truth; and their little house, which was to be sacred as the shrine of human love, should become the very gate of heaven.
It was a very little house, this parsonage. Its sharp pitch roof was pulled well down over its eyes, which were four square, shining windows, divided into twenty-four small panes of glass, so full of bubbles and dimples that they made the passer-by seem sadly distorted, and the spire of the church opposite have a strange bend in it.
John Ward's study had not a great many books. He could not afford them, for one reason; but, with a row of Edwards, and some of Dr. Samuel Hopkins' sermons, and pamphlets by Dr. Emmons, he could spare all but one or two volumes of Hodge and Shedd, who, after all, but reiterate, in a form suited to a weaker age, the teachings of Dr. Jonathan Edwards.
The dim Turkey carpet was worn down to the nap in a little path in front of his bookshelves, where he used to stand absorbed in reading, or where he walked back and forth, thinking out his dark and threatening sermons. For before his marriage John preached the law rather than the gospel.
"So I am going to hear you preach on Sunday?" Helen said, the Saturday morning after their return. "It's odd that I've never heard you, and we have known each other more than a year."
He was at his desk, and she rested her hand lightly on his shoulder. He put down his pen, and turned to look up into her face. "Perhaps you will not like my sermons;" there was a little wistfulness in his dark eyes as he spoke.
"Oh, yes, I shall," she said, with smiling certainty. "Sermons are pretty much alike, don't you think? I know some of uncle Archie's almost by heart. Really, there is only one thing to say, and you have to keep saying it over and over."
"We cannot say it too often," John answered. "The choice between eternal life and eternal death should sound in the ears of unconverted men every day of their lives."
Helen shook her head. "I didn't mean that, John. I was thinking of the beauty of holiness." And then she added, with a smile, "I hope you don't preach any awful doctrines?"
"Sometimes the truth is terrible, dear," he said gently.
But when she had left him to write his sermon, he sat a long while thinking. Surely she was not ready yet to hear such words as he had meant to speak. He would put this sermon away for some future Sunday, when the truth would be less of a shock to her. "She must come to the knowledge of God slowly," he thought. "It must not burst upon her; it might only drive her further from the light to hear of justice as well as mercy. She is not able to bear it yet."
So he took some fresh paper, and wrote, instead of his lurid text from Hebrews, "Ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty."
But when Helen went out of the study, she thought very little of sermons or doctrines. John filled her mind, and she had no room for wondering about his beliefs; he could believe anything he chose; he was hers,—that was enough.
She went into her small kitchen, the smile still lingering upon her lips, and through its open doorway saw her little maid, Alfaretta, out in the sunny garden at the back of the house. She had an armful of fresh white tea-towels, which had been put out to dry on the row of gooseberry bushes at the end of the garden, and was coming up the path, singing cheerily, with all the force of her strong young lungs. Helen caught the words as she drew near:—
"My thoughts on awful subjects roll, Damnation and the dead. What horrors seize the guilty soul, Upon the dying bed!
"Where endless crowds of sinners lie, And darkness makes their chains, Tortured with keen despair they cry, Yet wait for fiercer pains!"
"Oh, Alfaretta!" her mistress cried, in indignant astonishment. "How can you say such terrible words!" Alfaretta stood still, in open-mouthed amazement, an injured look in her good-natured blue eyes. The incongruity of this rosy-faced, happy girl, standing in the sunshine, with all the scents and sounds of a July day about her, and singing in her cheerful voice these hopeless words, almost made Helen smile; but she added gravely, "I hope you will not sing that again. I do not like it."
"But ma'am—but Mrs. Ward," said the girl, plainly hurt at the reproof, "I was practicing. I belong to the choir."
Alfaretta had dropped the tea-towels, hot with sunshine and smelling of clover-blossoms, upon her well-scoured dresser, and then turned and looked at her mistress reproachfully. "I don't know what I am going to do if I can't practice," she said.
"You don't mean to say you sing that in church?" cried Helen. "Where do you go?"
"Why, I go to your church," said the still injured Alfaretta,—"to Mr. Ward's. We're to have that hymn on Sabbath"—
"Oh, there must be some mistake," remonstrated Helen. "I'm sure Mr. Ward did not notice that verse."
"But it's all like that; it says"—
"Don't tell me any more," Helen said. "I've heard enough. I had no idea such awful words were written." Then she stopped abruptly, feeling her position as the preacher's wife in a way of which she had never thought.
Alfaretta's father was an elder in John's church, which gave her a certain ease in speaking to her mistress that did not mean the slightest disrespect.
"Is it the words of it you don't like?" said Alfaretta, rather relieved, since her singing had not been criticised.
"Yes," Helen answered, "it is the words. Don't you see how dreadful they are?"
Alfaretta stood with her plump red hands on her hips, and regarded Mrs. Ward with interest. "I hadn't ever thought of 'em," she said. "Yes, ma'am. I suppose they are awful bad," and swinging back and forth on her heels, her eyes fixed meditatively on the ceiling, she said,—
"'Then swift and dreadful she descends Down to the fiery coast, Amongst abominable fiends'—
Yes, that does sound dreadful. Worst of it is, you get used to 'em, and don't notice 'em much. Why, I've sung that hymn dozens of times in church, and never thought of the meanin'. And there's Tom Davis: he drinks most of the time, but he has sung once or twice in the choir (though he ain't been ever converted yet, and he is really terrible wicked; don't do nothin' but swear and drink). But I don't suppose he noticed the words of this hymn,—though I know he sung it,—for he keeps right on in his sin; and he couldn't, you know, Mrs. Ward, if that hymn was true to him."
Helen left Alfaretta to reflect upon the hymn, and went back to the study; but the door was shut, and she heard the scratching of her husband's pen. She turned away, for she had lived in a minister's household, and had been brought up to know that nothing must disturb a man who was writing a sermon. But John had hurriedly opened the door.
"Did you want to speak to me, dearest?" he said, standing at the foot of the stairs, his pen still between his fingers. "I heard your step."
"But I must not interrupt you," she answered, smiling at him over the balusters.
"You never could interrupt me. Come into the study and tell me what it is."
"Only to ask you about a hymn which Alfaretta says is to be sung on Sunday," Helen said. "Of course there is some mistake about it, but Alfaretta says the choir has been practicing it, and I know you would not want it."
"Do you remember what it was, dear?"
"I can't quote it," Helen answered, "but it began something about 'damnation and the dead.'"
"Oh, yes, I know;" and then he added, slowly, "Why don't you like it, Helen?"
She looked at him in astonishment. "Why, it's absurd; it's horrible."
John was silent for a few moments, and then he sighed: "We will not sing it, dear."
"But, John," she cried, "how could such a hymn ever have been printed? Of course I know people used to think such things, but I had no idea anybody thought of hell in that literal way to-day, or that hell itself was a real belief to very many people; however, I suppose, if such hymns are printed, the doctrine is still taught?"
"Yes," John said, "it is as real to-day as God himself,—as it always has been and must be; and it is believed by Christians as earnestly as ever. We cannot help it, Helen."
Helen looked at him thoughtfully. "It is very terrible; but oh, John, what sublime faith, to be able to believe God capable of such awful cruelty, and yet to love and trust Him!"
John's face grew suddenly bright. "'Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him,'" he said, with the simplicity of assurance. But when he went back again to his sermon, he was convinced that he had been wise to put off for a little while the instruction in doctrine of which his wife's soul stood in such sore need.
"I was right," he thought; "the Light must come gradually, the blaze of truth at once would blind her to the perfection of justice. She would not be able to understand there was mercy, too."
So the choir was told the hymn would be "Welcome, sweet day of rest," which, after all, was much better suited to the sermon.
Why the Misses Woodhouse, and Mr. Dale, and Mr. Denner should go to the rectory for their Saturday night games of whist was never very clear to any of them. The rector did not understand the game, he said, and it was perhaps to learn that he watched every play so closely. Lois, of course, had no part in it, for Mrs. Dale was always ready to take a hand, if one of the usual four failed. Mrs. Dale was too impatient to play whist from choice, but she enjoyed the consciousness of doing a favor.
Lois's only occupation was to be useful. Ashurst was strangely behind the times in thinking that it was a privilege, as it ought to be a pleasure, for young people to wait upon their elders and betters.
True, Mr. Denner, with old-fashioned politeness, always offered his services when Lois went for the wine and cake at close of the rubber; but the little gentleman would have been conscious of distinct surprise had she accepted them, for Lois, in his eyes, was still a little girl. This was perhaps because Mr. Denner, at sixty-two, did not realize that he had ceased to be, as he would have expressed it, "a gentleman in middle life." He had no landmarks of great emotions to show him how far the sleepy years had carried him from his youth; and life in Ashurst was very placid. There were no cases to try; property rarely went out of families which had held it when Mr. Denner's father wrote their wills and drew up their deeds in the same brick office which his son occupied now, and it was a point of decency and honor that wills should not be disputed.
Yet Mr. Denner felt that his life was full of occupation. He had his practicing in the dim organ-loft of St. Michael's and All Angels; and every day when dinner was over, his little nephew slipped from his chair, and stood with his hands behind him to recite his rego regere; then there were always his flies and rods to keep in order against the season when he and the rector started on long fishing tramps; and in the evenings, when Willie had gone to bed, and his cook was reading "The Death Beds of Eminent Saints" by the kitchen fire, Mr. Denner worked out chess problems by himself in his library, or read Cavendish and thought of next Saturday; and besides all this, he went once a week to Mercer, and sat waiting for clients in a dark back office, while he studied his weekly paper.
But though there seemed plenty to do, sometimes Mr. Denner would sigh, and say to himself that it was somewhat lonely, and Mary was certainly severe. He supposed that was because she had no mistress to keep an eye on her.
These weekly games of whist were a great pleasure to him. The library at the rectory was cheerful, and there was a feeling of importance in playing a game at which the rector and Mrs. Dale only looked on. It was understood that the gentlemen might smoke, though the formality of asking permission of the ladies, and being urged by them, always took place. Mr. Denner's weekly remark to the Misses Woodhouse in this connection, as he stood ready to strike a match on the hearth of the big fireplace, was well known. "When ladies," he would say, bowing to each sister in turn, with his little heels close together and his toes turned well out,—"when ladies are so charitable to our vices, we will not reform, lest we lose the pleasure of being forgiven." Mr. Denner smoked a cigar, but Mr. Dale always drew from his pocket a quaint silver pipe, very long and slender, and with an odd suggestion of its owner about it; for he was tall and frail, and his thin white hair, combed back from his mild face, had a silvery gleam in the lamplight. Often the pipe would be between the pages of a book, from the leaves of which Lois would have to shake the loose ashes before putting it back in his pocket.
The whist party sat in high-backed chairs about a square mahogany table, whose shining top betokened much muscle on the part of Sally. At each corner was a candle in a tall silver candlestick, because Miss Deborah objected to a shadow on the board, which would have been cast by a hanging lamp. The August night was hot, and doors and windows were open for any breath of air that might be stirring in the dark garden. Max had retreated to the empty fireplace, finding the bricks cooler than the carpeted floor. All was very still, save when the emphatic sweep of a trump card made the candle flames flicker. But the deals were a diversion. Then the rector, who had tiptoed about, to look over the shoulder of each player, might say, "You didn't answer Miss Ruth's call, Denner;" or, "Bless my soul, Dale, what made you play a ten-spot on that second hand round? You ought not to send a boy to take a trick, sir!"
It was in one of these pauses that Mrs. Dale, drawing a shining knitting-needle out of her work, said, "I suppose you got my message this morning, brother, that Arabella Forsythe didn't feel well enough to come to-night? I told her she should have Henry's place, but she said she wasn't equal to the excitement." Mrs. Dale gave a careful laugh; she did not wish to make Mrs. Forsythe absurd in the eyes of one person present.
"You offered her my place, my dear?" Mr. Dale asked, turning his blue eyes upon her. "I didn't know that, but it was quite right."
"Of course it was," replied Mrs. Dale decidedly, while the rector said, "Yes, young Forsythe said you sent him to say so."
Mrs. Dale glanced at Lois, sitting in one of the deep window-seats, reading, with the lamplight shining on her pretty face.
"I asked him to come," continued the rector, "but he said he must not leave his mother; she was not feeling well."
"Quite right, very proper," murmured the rest of the party; but Mrs. Dale added, "As there's no conversation, I'm afraid it would have been very stupid; I guess he knew that. And I certainly should not have allowed Henry to give up his seat to him." As she said this, she looked at Mr. Denner, who felt, under that clear, relentless eye, his would have been the seat vacated, if Dick Forsythe had come. Mr. Denner sighed; he had no one to protect him, as Dale had.
"I wonder," said Miss Deborah, who was sorting her cards, and putting all the trumps at the right side, "what decided Mr. Forsythe to spend the summer here? I understood that his mother took the house in Ashurst just because he was going to be abroad."
Mrs. Dale nodded her head until her glasses glistened, and looked at Lois, but the girl's eyes were fastened upon her book.
"I think," remarked Mr. Dale, hesitating, and then glancing at his wife, "he is rather a changeable young man. He has one view in the morning, and another in the afternoon."
"Don't be so foolish, Henry," said his wife sharply. "I hope there's nothing wrong in the young man finding his own country more attractive than Europe? To change his mind in that way is very sensible." But this was in a hushed voice, for Mr. Denner had led, and the room was silent again.
At the next deal, Miss Deborah looked sympathetically at Mr. Dale. "I think he is changeable," she said; "his own mother told me that she was constantly afraid he'd marry some unsuitable young woman, and the only safety was that he would see a new one before it became too serious. She said it really told upon her health. Dear me, I should think it might."
Mrs. Dale tossed her head, and her knitting-needles clicked viciously; then she told Lois that this was the rubber, and she had better see to the tray. The young girl must have heard every word they said, though she had not lifted her bright eyes from her book, but she did not seem disturbed by the charge of fickleness on the part of Mr. Forsythe. He had not confided to her his reasons for not going abroad; all she knew was that the summer was the merriest one she had ever spent. "I feel so young," little Lois said; and indeed she had caught a certain careless gayety from her almost daily companion, which did not belong to Ashurst. But she gave no thought to his reason for staying, though her father and Mrs. Dale did, and with great satisfaction.
"What do you hear from Helen, brother?" Mrs. Dale asked, as Lois rose to do her bidding. Mrs. Dale was determined to leave the subject of Dick Forsythe, "for Henry has so little sense," she thought, "there is no knowing what he'll say next, or Deborah Woodhouse either. But then, one couldn't expect anything else of her."
"Ah,—she's all right," said Dr. Howe, frowning at Miss Ruth's hand, and then glancing at Mr. Dale's, and thrusting out his lower lip, while his bushy eyebrows gathered in a frown.
"What is Ward?" asked Mr. Dale, sorting his cards. "Old or new school?"
"I'm sure I don't know the difference," said Dr. Howe; "he's a blue Presbyterian, though, through and through. He didn't have much to say for himself, but what he did say made me believe he was consistent; he doesn't stop short where his creed ceases to be agreeable, and you know that is unusual."
"Well," remarked the older man, "he might be consistent and belong to either school. I am told the difference consists merely in the fact that the old school have cold roast beef on the Sabbath, and the new school have hot roast beef on Sunday. But doubtless both unite on hell for other sects."
The rector's quick laugh was silenced by the game, but at the next pause he hastened to tell them what John Ward had said of slavery. "Fancy such a speech!" he cried, his face growing red at the remembrance. "Under the circumstances, I couldn't tell him what I thought of him; but I had my opinion. I wonder," he went on, rattling a bunch of keys in his pocket, "what would be the attitude of a mind like his in politics? Conservative to the most ridiculous degree, I imagine. Of course, to a certain extent, it is proper to be conservative. I am conservative myself; I don't like to see the younger generation rushing into things because they are new, like Gifford,—calling himself a Democrat. I beg your pardon, Miss Deborah, for finding fault with the boy."
"Ah, doctor, ladies don't understand politics," answered Miss Deborah politely.
"But really," said the rector, "for a boy whose father died for the Union, it's absurd, you know, perfectly absurd. But Ward! one can't imagine that he would ever change in anything, and that sort of conservatism can be carried too far."
"Well, now," said Mr. Denner, "I should say, I should be inclined to think, it would be just the opposite, quite—quite the contrary. From what you say, doctor, it seems to me more likely that he might be an anarchist, as it were. Yes, not at all a conservative."
"How so?" asked the rector. "A man who would say such a thing as that the Bible, his interpretation of it, was to decide all questions of duty (a pretty dangerous thing that, for a man must have inclinations of his own, which would be sure to color his interpretation! What?), and who would bring all his actions down to its literal teachings without regard to more modern needs? No, Denner; you are wrong there."
"Not altogether," Mr. Dale demurred in his gentle voice. "Ward would believe in a party only so long as it agreed with his conscience, I should suppose, and his conscience might make him—anything. And certainly the Bible test would not leave him content with democracy, doctor. Communism is literal Christianity. I can fancy he would leave any party, if he thought its teachings were not supported by the Bible. But I scarcely know him; my opinion is very superficial."
"Why do you express it, then?" said Mrs. Dale. "Don't you see Deborah has led? You are keeping the whole table waiting!"
They began to play. Mr. Denner, who was facing the open door, could see the square hall, and the white stair-rail across the first landing, where with the moon and stars about its face, the clock stood; it was just five minutes to nine. This made the lawyer nervous; he played a low trump, in spite of the rector's mutter of, "Look out, Denner!" and thus lost the trick, which meant the rubber, so he threw down his cards in despair. He had scarcely finished explaining that he meant to play the king, but threw the knave by mistake, when Lois entered, followed by Sally with the big tray, which always carried exactly the same things: a little fat decanter, with a silver collar jingling about its neck, marked, Sherry, '39; a plate of ratifia cakes, and another of plum-cake for the rector's especial delectation; and a silver wire basket full of home-made candy for Mr. Dale, who had two weaknesses, candy and novels. Of late Mrs. Dale had ceased to inveigh against these tastes, feeling that it was hopeless to look for reformation in a man nearly seventy years old. "It is bad manners," she said, "to do foolish things if they make you conspicuous. But then! it is easier to change a man's creed than his manners."
The candles stood in a gleaming row on the mantelpiece, where Lois had placed them to make room for the tray on the whist-table; for it was useless to think of putting anything on the rector's writing-table, with its litter of church papers, and sporting journals, and numbers of Bell's "Life," besides unanswered letters. The ladies, still sitting in the high-backed chairs, spread white doilies over their laps, and then took their small glasses of wine and delicate little cakes, but the gentlemen ate and drank standing, and they all discussed the last game very earnestly. Only Lois, waiting by the tray, ready to hand the cake, was silent. It was a peculiarity of Ashurst that even after childhood had passed young people were still expected to be seen, and not heard; so her silence would only have been thought decorous, had any one noticed it. By and by, when she saw she was not needed, she slipped out to the front porch, and sat down on the steps. Max followed her, and thrust his cold nose under her hand.