Men, Women, and Ghosts
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1869, by FIELDS, OSGOOD, & CO., in the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts.
University Press: Welch, Bigelow, &., Cambridge.
Of this collection of stories, "Calico," "The Day of my Death," and "Night-Watches" (the last under the title of "Voices of the Night") have appeared in Harper's Monthly; "One of the Elect," (under the title of "Magdalene,") in Hours at Home; and "Little Tommy Tucker," in the Watchman and Reflector.
E. S. P.
Andover, April, 1869.
No News The Tenth of January Night-Watches The Day of My Death "Little Tommy Tucker" One of the Elect What Was the Matter? In the Gray Goth Calico Kentucky's Ghost
None at all. Understand that, please, to begin with. That you will at once, and distinctly, recall Dr. Sharpe—and his wife, I make no doubt. Indeed, it is because the history is a familiar one, some of the unfamiliar incidents of which have come into my possession, that I undertake to tell it.
My relation to the Doctor, his wife, and their friend, has been in many respects peculiar. Without entering into explanations which I am not at liberty to make, let me say, that those portions of their story which concern our present purpose, whether or not they fell under my personal observation, are accurately, and to the best of my judgment impartially, related.
Nobody, I think, who was at the wedding, dreamed that there would ever be such a story to tell. It was such a pretty, peaceful wedding! If you were there, you remember it as you remember a rare sunrise, or a peculiarly delicate May-flower, or that strain in a simple old song which is like orioles and butterflies and dew-drops.
There were not many of us; we were all acquainted with one another; the day was bright, and Harrie did not faint nor cry. There were a couple of bridesmaids,—Pauline Dallas, and a Miss—Jones, I think,—besides Harrie's little sisters; and the people were well dressed and well looking, but everybody was thoroughly at home, comfortable, and on a level. There was no annihilating of little country friends in gray alpacas by city cousins in point and pearls, no crowding and no crush, and, I believe, not a single "front breadth" spoiled by the ices.
Harrie is not called exactly pretty, but she must be a very plain woman who is not pleasant to see upon her wedding day. Harrie's eyes shone,—I never saw such eyes! and she threw her head back like a queen whom they were crowning.
Her father married them. Old Mr. Bird was an odd man, with odd notions of many things, of which marriage was one. The service was his own. I afterwards asked him for a copy of it, which I have preserved. The Covenant ran thus:—
"Appealing to your Father who is in heaven to witness your sincerity, you .... do now take this woman whose hand you hold—choosing her alone from all the world—to be your lawfully wedded wife. You trust her as your best earthly friend. You promise to love, to cherish, and to protect her; to be considerate of her happiness in your plans of life; to cultivate for her sake all manly virtues; and in all things to seek her welfare as you seek your own. You pledge yourself thus honorably to her, to be her husband in good faith, so long as the providence of God shall spare you to each other.
"In like manner, looking to your Heavenly Father for his blessing, you ... do now receive this man, whose hand you hold, to be your lawfully wedded husband. You choose him from all the world as he has chosen you. You pledge your trust to him as your best earthly friend. You promise to love, to comfort, and to honor him; to cultivate for his sake all womanly graces; to guard his reputation, and assist him in his life's work; and in all things to esteem his happiness as your own. You give yourself thus trustfully to him, to be his wife in good faith, so long as the providence of God shall spare you to each other."
When Harrie lifted her shining eyes to say, "I do!" the two little happy words ran through the silent room like a silver bell; they would have tinkled in your ears for weeks to come if you had heard them.
I have been thus particular in noting the words of the service, partly because they pleased me, partly because I have since had some occasion to recall them, and partly because I remember having wondered, at the time, how many married men and women of your and my acquaintance, if honestly subjecting their union to the test and full interpretation and remotest bearing of such vows as these, could live in the sight of God and man as "lawfully wedded" husband and wife.
Weddings are always very sad things to me; as much sadder than burials as the beginning of life should be sadder than the end of it. The readiness with which young girls will flit out of a tried, proved, happy home into the sole care and keeping of a man whom they have known three months, six, twelve, I do not profess to understand. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it. But that may be because I am fifty-five, an old maid, and have spent twenty years in boarding-houses.
A woman reads the graces of a man at sight. His faults she cannot thoroughly detect till she has been for years his wife. And his faults are so much more serious a matter to her than hers to him!
I was thinking of this the day before the wedding. I had stepped in from the kitchen to ask Mrs. Bird about the salad, when I came abruptly, at the door of the sitting-room, upon as choice a picture as one is likely to see.
The doors were open through the house, and the wind swept in and out. A scarlet woodbine swung lazily back and forth beyond the window. Dimples of light burned through it, dotting the carpet and the black-and-white marbled oilcloth of the hall. Beyond, in the little front parlor, framed in by the series of doorways, was Harrie, all in a cloud of white. It floated about her with an idle, wavelike motion. She had a veil like fretted pearls through which her tinted arm shone faintly, and the shadow of a single scarlet leaf trembled through a curtain upon her forehead.
Her mother, crying a little, as mothers will cry the day before the wedding, was smoothing with tender touch a tiny crease upon the cloud; a bridesmaid or two sat chattering on the floor; gloves, and favors, and flowers, and bits of lace like hoar frost, lay scattered about; and the whole was repictured and reflected and reshaded in the great old-fashioned mirrors before which Harrie turned herself about.
It seemed a pity that Myron Sharpe should miss that, so I called him in from the porch where he sat reading Stuart Mill on Liberty.
If you form your own opinion of a man who might spend a livelong morning,—an October morning, quivering with color, alive with light, sweet with the breath of dropping pines, soft with the caress of a wind that had filtered through miles of sunshine,—and that the morning of the day before his wedding,—reading Stuart Mill on Liberty,—I cannot help it.
Harrie, turning suddenly, saw us,—met her lover's eyes, stood a moment with lifted lashes and bright cheeks,—crept with a quick, impulsive movement into her mother's arms, kissed her, and floated away up the stairs.
"It's a perfect fit," said Mrs. Bird; coming out with one corner of a very dingy handkerchief—somebody had just used it to dust the Parian vases—at her eyes.
And though, to be sure, it was none of my business, I caught myself saying, under my breath,—
"It's a fit for life; for a life, Dr. Sharpe."
Dr. Sharpe smiled serenely. He was very much in love with the little pink-and-white cloud that had just fluttered up the stairs. If it had been drifting to him for the venture of twenty lifetimes, he would have felt no doubt of the "fit."
Nor, I am sure, would Harrie. She stole out to him that evening after the bridal finery was put away, and knelt at his feet in her plain little muslin dress, her hair all out of crimp, slipping from her net behind her ears,—Harrie's ears were very small, and shaded off in the colors of a pale apple-blossom,—up-turning her flushed and weary face.
"Put away the book, please, Myron."
Myron put away the book (somebody on Bilious Affections), and looked for a moment without speaking at the up-turned face.
Dr. Sharpe had spasms of distrusting himself amazingly; perhaps most men have,—and ought to. His face grew grave just then. That little girl's clear eyes shone upon him like the lights upon an altar. In very unworthiness of soul he would have put the shoes from off his feet. The ground on which he trod was holy.
When he spoke to the child, it was in a whisper:—
"Harrie, are you afraid of me? I know I am not very good,"
And Harrie, kneeling with the shadows of the scarlet leaves upon her hair, said softly, "How could I be afraid of you? It is I who am not good."
Dr. Sharpe could not have made much progress in Bilious Affections that evening. All the time that the skies were fading, we saw them wandering in and out among the apple-trees,—she with those shining eyes, and her hand in his. And when to-morrow had come and gone, and in the dying light they drove away, and Miss Dallas threw old Grandmother Bird's little satin boot after the carriage, the last we saw of her was that her hand was clasped in his, and that her eyes were shining.
Well, I believe that they got along very well till the first baby came. As far as my observation goes, young people usually get along very well till the first baby comes. These particular young people had a clear conscience,—as young people's consciences go,—fair health, a comfortable income for two, and a very pleasant home.
This home was on the coast. The townspeople made shoes, and minded their own business. Dr. Sharpe bought the dying practice of an antediluvian who believed in camomile and castor-oil. Harrie mended a few stockings, made a few pies, and watched the sea.
It was almost enough of itself to make one happy—the sea—as it tumbled about the shores of Lime. Harrie had a little seat hollowed out in the cliffs, and a little scarlet bathing-dress, which was surprisingly becoming, and a little boat of her own, moored in a little bay,—a pretty shell which her husband had had made to order, that she might be able to row herself on a calm water. He was very thoughtful for her in those days.
She used to take her sewing out upon the cliff; she would be demure and busy; she would finish the selvage seam; but the sun blazed, the sea shone, the birds sang, all the world was at play,—what could it matter about selvage seams? So the little gold thimble would drop off, the spool trundle down the cliff, and Harrie, sinking back into a cushion of green and crimson sea-weed, would open her wide eyes and dream. The waves purpled and silvered, and broke into a mist like powdered amber, the blue distances melted softly, the white sand glittered, the gulls were chattering shrilly. What a world it was!
"And he is in it!" thought Harrie. Then she would smile and shut her eyes. "And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that Moses' face shone, and they were afraid to come nigh him." Harrie wondered if everybody's joy were too great to look upon, and wondered, in a childish, frightened way, how it might be with sorrow; if people stood with veiled faces before it, dumb with pain as she with peace,—and then it was dinner-time, and Myron came down to walk up the beach with her, and she forgot all about it.
She forgot all about everything but the bare joy of life and the sea, when she had donned the pretty scarlet suit, and crept out into the surf,—at the proper medicinal hour, for the Doctor was very particular with her,—when the warm brown waves broke over her face, the long sea-weeds slipped through her fingers, the foam sprinkled her hair with crystals, and the strong wind was up.
She was a swift swimmer, and as one watched from the shore, her lithe scarlet shoulders seemed to glide like a trail of fire through the lighted water; and when she sat in shallow foam with sunshine on her, or flashed through the dark green pools among the rocks, or floated with the incoming tide, her great bathing-hat dropping shadows on her wet little happy face, and her laugh ringing out, it was a pretty sight.
But a prettier one than that, her husband thought, was to see her in her boat at sunset; when sea and sky were aflame, when every flake of foam was a rainbow, and the great chalk-cliffs were blood-red; when the wind blew her net off, and in pretty petulance she pulled her hair down, and it rippled all about her as she dipped into the blazing West.
Dr. Sharpe used to drive home by the beach, on a fair night, always, that he might see it. Then Harrie would row swiftly in, and spring into the low, broad buggy beside him, and they rode home together in the fragrant dusk. Sometimes she used to chatter on these twilight drives; but more often she crept up to him and shut her eyes, and was as still as a sleepy bird. It was so pleasant to do nothing but be happy!
I believe that at this time Dr. Sharpe loved his wife as unselfishly as he knew how. Harrie often wrote me that he was "very good." She was sometimes a little troubled that he should "know so much more" than she, and had fits of reading the newspapers and reviewing her French, and studying cases of hydrophobia, or some other pleasant subject which had a professional air. Her husband laughed at her for her pains, but nevertheless he found her so much the more entertaining. Sometimes she drove about with him on his calls, or amused herself by making jellies in fancy moulds for his poor, or sat in his lap and discoursed like a bobolink of croup and measles, pulling his whiskers the while with her pink fingers.
All this, as I have said, was before the first baby came.
It is surprising what vague ideas young people in general, and young men in particular, have of the rubs and jars of domestic life; especially domestic life on an income of eighteen hundred, American constitutions and country servants thrown in.
Dr. Sharpe knew something of illness and babies and worry and watching; but that his own individual baby should deliberately lie and scream till two o'clock in the morning, was a source of perpetual astonishment to him; and that it,—he and Mrs. Sharpe had their first quarrel over his persistence in calling the child an "it,"—that it should invariably feel called upon to have the colic just as he had fallen into a nap, after a night spent with a dying patient, was a phenomenon of the infant mind for which he was, to say the least, unprepared.
It was for a long time a mystery to his masculine understanding, that Biddy could not be nursery-maid as well as cook. "Why, what has she to do now? Nothing but to broil steaks and make tea for two people!" That whenever he had Harrie quietly to himself for a peculiarly pleasant tea-table, the house should resound with sudden shrieks from the nursery, and there was always a pin in that baby, was forever a fresh surprise; and why, when they had a house full of company, no "girl," and Harrie down with a sick-headache, his son and heir should of necessity be threatened with scarlatina, was a philosophical problem over which he speculated long and profoundly.
So, gradually, in the old way, the old sweet habits of the long honeymoon were broken. Harrie dreamed no more on the cliffs by the bright noon sea; had no time to spend making scarlet pictures in the little bathing-suit; had seldom strength to row into the sunset, her hair loose, the bay on fire, and one to watch her from the shore. There were no more walks up the beach to dinner; there came an end to the drives in the happy twilight; she could not climb now upon her husband's knee, because of the heavy baby on her own.
The spasms of newspaper reading subsided rapidly; Corinne and Racine gathered the dust in peace upon their shelves; Mrs. Sharpe made no more fancy jellies, and found no time to inquire after other people's babies.
One becomes used to anything after a while, especially if one happens to be a man. It would have surprised Dr. Sharpe, if he had taken the pains to notice,—which I believe he never did,—how easily he became used to his solitary drives and disturbed teas; to missing Harrie's watching face at door or window; to sitting whole evenings by himself while she sang to the fretful baby overhead with her sweet little tired voice; to slipping off into the "spare room" to sleep when the child cried at night, and Harrie, up and down with him by the hour, flitted from cradle to bed, or paced the room, or sat and sang, or lay and cried herself, in sheer despair of rest; to wandering away on lonely walks; to stepping often into a neighbor's to discuss the election or the typhoid in the village; to forgetting that his wife's conversational capacities could extend beyond Biddy and teething; to forgetting that she might ever hunger for a twilight drive, a sunny sail, for the sparkle and freshness, the dreaming, the petting, the caresses, all the silly little lovers' habits of their early married days; to going his own ways, and letting her go hers.
Yet he loved her, and loved her only, and loved her well. That he never doubted, nor, to my surprise, did she. I remember once, when on a visit there, being fairly frightened out of the proprieties by hearing her call him "Dr. Sharpe." I called her away from the children soon after, on pretence of helping me unpack. I locked the door, pulled her down upon a trunk tray beside me, folded both her hands in mine, and studied her face; it had grown to be a very thin little face, less pretty than it was in the shadow of the woodbine, with absent eyes and a sad mouth. She knew that I loved her, and my heart was full for the child; and so, for I could not help it, I said,—"Harrie, is all well between you? Is he quite the same?"
She looked at me with a perplexed and musing air.
"The same? O yes, he is quite the same to me. He would always be the same to me. Only there are the children, and we are so busy. He—why, he loves me, you know,—" she turned her head from side to side wearily, with the puzzled expression growing on her forehead,—"he loves me just the same,—just the same. I am his wife; don't you see?"
She drew herself up a little haughtily, said that she heard the baby crying, and slipped away.
But the perplexed knot upon her forehead did not slip away. I was rather glad that it did not. I liked it better than the absent eyes. That afternoon she left her baby with Biddy for a couple of hours, went away by herself into the garden, sat down upon a stone and thought.
Harrie took a great deal of comfort in her babies, quite as much as I wished to have her. Women whose dream of marriage has faded a little have a way of transferring their passionate devotion and content from husband to child. It is like anchoring in a harbor,—a pleasant harbor, and one in which it is good to be,—but never on shore and never at home. Whatever a woman's children may be to her, her husband should be always something beyond and more; forever crowned for her as first, dearest, best, on a throne that neither son nor daughter can usurp. Through mistake and misery the throne may be left vacant or voiceless: but what man cometh after the King?
So, when Harrie forgot the baby for a whole afternoon, and sat out on her stone there in the garden thinking, I felt rather glad than sorry.
It was when little Harrie was a baby, I believe, that Mrs. Sharpe took that notion about having company. She was growing out of the world, she said; turning into a fungus; petrifying; had forgotten whether you called your seats at the Music Hall pews or settees, and was as afraid of a well-dressed woman as she was of the croup.
So the Doctor's house at Lime was for two or three months overrun with visitors and vivacity. Fathers and mothers made fatherly and motherly stays, with the hottest of air-tights put up for their benefit in the front room; sisters and sisters-in-law brought the fashions and got up tableaux; cousins came on the jump; Miss Jones, Pauline Dallas, and I were invited in turn, and the children had the mumps at cheerful intervals between.
The Doctor was not much in the mood for entertaining Miss Dallas; he was a little tired of company, and had had a hard week's work with an epidemic down town. Harrie had not seen her since her wedding day, and was pleased and excited at the prospect of the visit. Pauline had been one of her eternal friendships at school.
Miss Dallas came a day earlier than she was expected, and, as chance would have it, Harrie was devoting the afternoon to cutting out shirts. Any one who has sat from two till six at that engaging occupation, will understand precisely how her back ached and her temples throbbed, and her fingers stung, and her neck stiffened; why her eyes swam, her cheeks burned, her brain was deadened, the children's voices were insufferable, the slamming of a door an agony, the past a blot, the future unendurable, life a burden, friendship a myth, her hair down, and her collar unpinned.
Miss Dallas had never cut a shirt, nor, I believe, had Dr. Sharpe.
Harrie was groaning over the last wristband but one, when she heard her husband's voice in the hall.
"Harrie, Harrie, your friend is here. I found her, by a charming accident, at the station, and drove her home." And Miss Dallas, gloved, perfumed, rustling, in a very becoming veil and travelling-suit of the latest mode, swept in upon her.
Harrie was too much of a lady to waste any words on apology, so she ran just as she was, in her calico dress, with the collar hanging, into Pauline's stately arms, and held up her little burning cheeks to be kissed.
But her husband looked annoyed.
He came down before tea in his best coat to entertain their guest. Biddy was "taking an afternoon" that day, and Harrie bustled about with her aching back to make tea and wash the children. She had no time to spend upon herself, and, rather than keep a hungry traveller waiting, smoothed her hair, knotted a ribbon at the collar, and came down in her calico dress.
Dr. Sharpe glanced at it in some surprise. He repeated the glances several times in the course of the evening, as he sat chatting with his wife's friend. Miss Dallas was very sprightly in conversation; had read some, had thought some; and had the appearance of having read and thought about twice as much as she had.
Myron Sharpe had always considered his wife a handsome woman. That nobody else thought her so had made no difference to him. He had often looked into the saucy eyes of little Harrie Bird, and told her that she was very pretty. As a matter of theory, he supposed her to be very pretty, now that she was the mother of his three children, and breaking her back to cut out his shirts.
Miss Dallas was a generously framed, well-proportioned woman, who carried long trains, and tied her hair with crimson velvet. She had large, serene eyes, white hands, and a very pleasant smile. A delicate perfume stirred as she stirred, and she wore a creamy lace about her throat and wrists.
Calicoes were never becoming to Harrie, and that one with the palm-leaf did not fit her well,—she cut it herself, to save expense. As the evening passed, in reaction from the weariness of shirt-cutting she grew pale, and the sallow tints upon her face came out; her features sharpened, as they had a way of doing when she was tired; and she had little else to do that evening than think how tired she was, for her husband observing, as he remarked afterwards, that she did not feel like talking, kindly entertained her friend himself.
As they went up stairs for the night, it struck him, for the first time in his life, that Harrie had a snubbed nose. It annoyed him, because she was his wife, and he loved her, and liked to feel that she was as well looking as other women.
"Your friend is a bright girl," he said, encouragingly, when Harrie had hushed a couple of children, and sat wearily down to unbutton her boots.
"I think you will find her more easy to entertain than Cousin Mehitabel."
Then, seeing that Harrie answered absently, and how exhausted she looked, he expressed his sorrow that she should have worked so long over the shirts, and kissed her as he spoke; while Harrie cried a little, and felt as if she would cut them all over again for that.
The next day Miss Dallas and Mrs. Sharpe sat sewing together; Harrie cramping her shoulders and blackening her hands over a patch on Rocko's rough little trousers; Pauline playing idly with purple and orange wools,—her fingers were white, and she sank with grace into the warm colors of the arm-chair; the door was opened into the hall, and Dr. Sharpe passed by, glancing in as he passed.
"Your husband is a very intelligent man, Harrie," observed Miss Dallas, studying her lavenders and lemons thoughtfully. "I was much interested in what he said about pre-Adamic man, last evening."
"Yes," said Harrie, "he knows a great deal. I always thought so." The little trousers slipped from her black fingers by and by, and her eyes wandered out of the window absently.
She did not know anything about pre-Adamic man.
In the afternoon they walked down the beach together,—the Doctor, his wife, and their guest,—accompanied by as few children as circumstances would admit of. Pauline was stately in a beach-dress of bright browns, which shaded softly into one another; it was one of Miss Dallas's peculiarities, that she never wore more than one color, or two, at the same time. Harrie, as it chanced, wore over her purple dress (Rocko had tipped over two ink-bottles and a vinegar-cruet on the sack which should have matched it) a dull gray shawl; her bonnet was blue,—it had been a present from Myron's sister, and she had no other way than to wear it. Miss Dallas bounded with pretty feet from rock to rock. Rocko hung heavily to his mother's fingers; she had no gloves, the child would have spoiled them; her dress dragged in the sand,—she could not afford two skirts, and one must be long,—and between Rocko and the wind she held it up awkwardly.
Dr. Sharpe seldom noticed a woman's dress; he could not have told now whether his wife's shawl was sky-blue or pea-green; he knew nothing about the ink-spots; he had never heard of the unfortunate blue bonnet, or the mysteries of short and long skirts. He might have gone to walk with her a dozen times and thought her very pretty and "proper" in her appearance. Now, without the vaguest idea what was the trouble, he understood that something was wrong. A woman would have said, Mrs. Sharpe looks dowdy and old-fashioned; he only considered that Miss Dallas had a pleasant air, like a soft brown picture with crimson lights let in, and that it was an air which his wife lacked. So, when Rocko dragged heavily and more heavily at his mother's skirts, and the Doctor and Pauline wandered off to climb the cliffs, Harrie did not seek to follow or to call them back. She sat down with Rocko on the beach, wrapped herself with a savage hug in the ugly shawl, and wondered with a bitterness with which only women can wonder over such trifles, why God should send Pauline all the pretty beach-dresses and deny them to her,—for Harrie, like many another "dowdy" woman whom you see upon the street, my dear madam, was a woman of fine, keen tastes, and would have appreciated the soft browns no less than yourself. It seemed to her the very sting of poverty, just then, that one must wear purple dresses and blue bonnets.
At the tea-table the Doctor fell to reconstructing the country, and Miss Dallas, who was quite a politician in Miss Dallas's way, observed that the horizon looked brighter since Tennessee's admittance, and that she hoped that the clouds, &c.,—and what did he think of Brownlow? &c., &c.
"Tennessee!" exclaimed Harrie; "why, how long has Tennessee been in? I didn't know anything about it."
Miss Dallas smiled kindly. Dr. Sharpe bit his lip, and his face flushed.
"Harrie, you really ought to read the papers," he said, with some impatience; "it's no wonder you don't know anything."
"How should I know anything, tied to the children all day?" Harrie spoke quickly, for the hot tears sprang. "Why didn't you tell me something about Tennessee? You never talk politics with me."
This began to be awkward; Miss Dallas, who never interfered—on principle—between husband and wife, gracefully took up the baby, and gracefully swung her dainty Geneva watch for the child's amusement, smiling brilliantly. She could not endure babies, but you would never have suspected it.
In fact, when Pauline had been in the house four or five days, Harrie, who never thought very much of herself, became so painfully alive to her own deficiencies, that she fell into a permanent fit of low spirits, which did not add either to her appearance or her vivacity.
"Pauline is so pretty and bright!" she wrote to me. "I always knew I was a little fool. You can be a fool before you're married, just as well as not. Then, when you have three babies to look after, it is too late to make yourself over. I try very hard now to read the newspapers, only Myron does not know it."
One morning something occurred to Mrs. Sharpe. It was simply that her husband had spent every evening at home for a week. She was in the nursery when the thought struck her, rocking slowly in her low sewing-chair, holding the baby on one arm and trying to darn stockings with the other.
Pauline was—she did not really know where. Was not that her voice upon the porch? The rocking-chair stopped sharply, and Harrie looked down through the blinds. The Doctor's horse was tied at the gate. The Doctor sat fanning himself with his hat in one of the garden chairs; Miss Dallas occupied the other; she was chatting, and twisting her golden wools about her fingers,—it was noticeable that she used only golden wools that morning; her dress was pale blue, and the effect of the purples would not have been good.
"I thought your calls were going to take till dinner, Myron," called Harrie, through the blinds.
"I thought so too," said Myron, placidly, "but they do not seem to. Won't you come down?"
Harrie thanked him, saying, in a pleasant nonchalant way, that she could not leave the baby. It was almost the first bit of acting that the child had ever been guilty of,—for the baby was just going to sleep, and she knew it.
She turned away from the window quietly. She could not have been angry, and scolded; or noisy, and cried. She put little Harrie into her cradle, crept upon the bed, and lay perfectly still for a long time.
When the dinner-bell rang, and she got up to brush her hair, that absent, apathetic look of which I have spoken had left her eyes. A stealthy brightness came and went in them, which her husband might have observed if he and Miss Dallas had not been deep in the Woman question. Pauline saw it; Pauline saw everything.
"Why did you not come down and sit with us this morning?" she asked, reproachfully, when she and Harrie were alone after dinner. "I don't want your husband to feel that he must run away from you to entertain me."
"My husband's ideas of hospitality are generous," said Mrs. Sharpe. "I have always found him as ready to make it pleasant here for my company as for his own."
She made this little speech with dignity. Did both women know it for the farce it was? To do Miss Dallas justice,—I am not sure. She was not a bad-hearted woman. She was a handsome woman. She had come to Lime to enjoy herself. Those September days and nights were fair there by the dreamy sea. On the whole I am inclined to think that she did not know exactly what she was about.
"My perfumery never lasts," said Harrie, once, stooping to pick up Pauline's fine handkerchief, to which a faint scent like unseen heliotrope clung; it clung to everything of Pauline's; you would never see a heliotrope without thinking of her, as Dr. Sharpe had often said. "Myron used to like good cologne, but I can't afford to buy it, so I make it myself, and use it Sundays, and it's all blown away by the time I get to church. Myron says he is glad of it, for it is more like Mrs. Allen's Hair Restorer than anything else. What do you use, Pauline?"
"Sachet powder of course," said Miss Dallas, smiling.
That evening Harrie stole away by herself to the village apothecary's. Myron should not know for what she went. If it were the breath of a heliotrope, thought foolish Harrie, which made it so pleasant for people to be near Pauline, that was a matter easily remedied. But sachet powder, you should know, is a dollar an ounce, and Harrie must needs content herself with "the American," which could be had for fifty cents; and so, of course, after she had spent her money, and made her little silk bags, and put them away into her bureau drawers, Myron never told her, for all her pains, that she reminded him of a heliotrope with the dew on it. One day a pink silk bag fell out from under her dress, where she had tucked it.
"What's all this nonsense, Harrie?" said her husband, in a sharp tone.
At another time, the Doctor and Pauline were driving upon the beach at sunset, when, turning a sudden corner, Miss Dallas cried out, in real delight,—
"See! That beautiful creature! Who can it be?"
And there was Harrie, out on a rock in the opal surf,—a little scarlet mermaid, combing her hair with her thin fingers, from which the water almost washed the wedding ring. It was—who knew how long, since the pretty bathing-suit had been taken down from the garret nails? What sudden yearning for the wash of waves, and the spring of girlhood, and the consciousness that one is fair to see, had overtaken her? She watched through her hair and her fingers for the love in her husband's eyes.
But he waded out to her, ill-pleased.
"Harrie, this is very imprudent,—very! I don't see what could have possessed you!"
Myron Sharpe loved his wife. Of course he did. He began, about this time, to state the fact to himself several times a day. Had she not been all the world to him when he wooed and won her in her rosy, ripening days? Was she not all the world to him now that a bit of searness had crept upon her, in a married life of eight hard-working years?
That she had grown a little sear, he felt somewhat keenly of late. She had a dreary, draggled look at breakfast, after the children had cried at night,—and the nights when Mrs. Sharpe's children did not cry were like angels' visits. It was perhaps the more noticeable, because Miss Dallas had a peculiar color and coolness and sparkle in the morning, like that of opening flowers. She had not been up till midnight with a sick baby.
Harrie was apt to be too busy in the kitchen to run and meet him when he came home at dusk. Or, if she came, it was with her sleeves rolled up and an apron on. Miss Dallas sat at the window; the lace curtain waved about her; she nodded and smiled as he walked up the path. In the evening Harrie talked of Rocko, or the price of butter; she did not venture beyond, poor thing! since her experience with Tennessee.
Miss Dallas quoted Browning, and discussed Goethe, and talked Parepa; and they had no lights, and the September moon shone in. Sometimes Mrs. Sharpe had mending to do, and, as she could not sew on her husband's buttons satisfactorily by moonlight, would slip into the dining-room with kerosene and mosquitoes for company. The Doctor may have noticed, or he may not, how comfortably he could, if he made the proper effort, pass the evening without her.
But Myron Sharpe loved his wife. To be sure he did. If his wife doubted it,—but why should she doubt it? Who thought she doubted it? If she did, she gave no sign. Her eyes, he observed, had brightened, of late; and when they went to her from the moonlit parlor, there was such a pretty color upon her cheeks, that he used to stoop and kiss them, while Miss Dallas discreetly occupied herself in killing mosquitoes. Of course he loved his wife!
It was observable that, in proportion to the frequency with which he found it natural to remark his fondness for Harrie, his attentions to her increased. He inquired tenderly after her headaches; he brought her flowers, when he and Miss Dallas walked in the autumn woods; he was particular about her shawls and wraps; he begged her to sail and drive with them; he took pains to draw his chair beside hers on the porch; he patted her hands, and played with her soft hair.
Harrie's clear eyes puzzled over this for a day or two; but by and by it might have been noticed that she refused his rides, shawled herself, was apt to be with the children when he called her, and shrank, in a quiet way, from his touch.
She went into her room one afternoon, and locked the children out. An east wind blew, and the rain fell drearily. The Doctor and Pauline were playing chess down stairs; she should not be missed. She took out her wedding-dress from the drawer where she had laid it tenderly away; the hoar-frost and fretted pearl fell down upon her faded morning-dress; the little creamy gloves hung loosely upon her worn fingers. Poor little gloves! Poor little pearly dress! She felt a kind of pity for their innocence and ignorance and trustfulness. Her hot tears fell and spotted them. What if there were any way of creeping back through them to be little Harrie Bird again? Would she take it?
Her children's voices sounded crying for her in the hall. Three innocent babies—and how many more?—to grow into life under the shadow of a wrecked and loveless home! What had she done? What had they done?
Harrie's was a strong, healthy little soul, with a strong, healthy love of life; but she fell down there that dreary afternoon, prone upon the nursery floor, among the yellow wedding lace, and prayed God to let her die.
Yet Myron Sharpe loved his wife, you understand. Discussing elective affinities down there over the chessboard with Miss Dallas,—he loved his wife, most certainly; and, pray, why was she not content?
It was quite late when they came up for Harrie. She had fallen into a sleep or faint, and the window had been open all the time. Her eyes burned sharply, and she complained of a chill, which did not leave her the next day nor the next.
One morning, at the breakfast-table, Miss Dallas calmly observed that she should go home on Friday.
Dr. Sharpe dropped his cup; Harrie wiped up the tea.
"My dear Miss Dallas—surely—we cannot let you go yet! Harrie! Can't you keep your friend?"
Harrie said the proper thing in a low tone. Pauline repeated her determination with much decision, and was afraid that her visit had been more of a burden than Harrie, with all her care, was able to bear. Dr. Sharpe pushed back his chair noisily, and left the room.
He went and stood by the parlor window. The man's face was white. What business had the days to close down before him like a granite wall, because a woman with long trains and white hands was going out of them? Harrie's patient voice came in through the open door:—
"Yes, yes, yes, Rocko; mother is tired to-day; wait a minute."
Pauline, sweeping by the piano, brushed the keys a little, and sang:—
"Drifting, drifting on and on, Mast and oar and rudder gone, Fatal danger for each one, We helpless as in dreams."
What had he been about?
The air grew sweet with the sudden scent of heliotrope, and Miss Dallas pushed aside the curtain gently.
"I may have that sail across the bay before I go? It promises to be fair to-morrow."
"I suppose it will be our last," said the lady, softly.
She was rather sorry when she had spoken, for she really did not mean anything, and was surprised at the sound of her own voice.
But they took the sail.
Harrie watched them off—her husband did not invite her to go on that occasion—with that stealthy sharpness in her eyes. Her lips and hands and forehead were burning. She had been cold all day. A sound like the tolling of a bell beat in her ears. The children's voices were choked and distant. She wondered if Biddy were drunk, she seemed to dance about so at her ironing-table, and wondered if she must dismiss her, and who could supply her place. She tried to put my room in order, for she was expecting me that night by the last train, but gave up the undertaking in weariness and confusion.
In fact, if Harrie had been one of the Doctor's patients, he would have sent her to bed and prescribed for brain-fever. As she was not a patient, but only his wife, he had not found out that anything ailed her.
Nothing happened while he was gone, except that a friend of Biddy's "dropped in," and Mrs. Sharpe, burning and shivering in her sewing-chair, dreamily caught through the open door, and dreamily repeated to herself, a dozen words of compassionate Irish brogue:—
"Folks as laves folks cry in' to home and goes sailin' round with other women—"
Then the wind latched the door.
The Doctor and Miss Dallas drew in their oars, and floated softly.
There were gray and silver clouds overhead, and all the light upon the sea slanted from low in the west: it was a red light, in which the bay grew warm; it struck across Pauline's hands, which she dipped, as the mood took her, into the waves, leaning upon the side of the boat, looking down into the water. One other sail only was to be seen upon the bay. They watched it for a while. It dropped into the west, and sunk from sight.
They were silent for a time, and then they talked of friendship, and nature, and eternity, and then were silent for a time again, and then spoke—in a very general and proper way—of separation and communion in spirit, and broke off softly, and the boat rose and fell upon the strong outgoing tide.
"Drifting, drifting on and on," hummed Pauline.
The west, paling a little, left a haggard look upon the Doctor's face.
"An honest man," the Doctor was saying, "an honest man, who loves his wife devotedly, but who cannot find in her that sympathy which his higher nature requires, that comprehension of his intellectual needs, that—"
"I always feel a deep compassion for such a man," interrupted Miss Dallas, gently.
"Such a man," questioned the Doctor in a pensive tone, "need not be debarred, by the shallow conventionalities of an unappreciative world, from a friendship which will rest, strengthen, and ennoble his weary soul?"
"Certainly not," said Pauline, with her eyes upon the water; dull yellow, green, and indigo shades were creeping now upon its ruddiness.
"Pauline,"—Dr. Sharpe's voice was low,—"Pauline!"
Pauline turned her beautiful head. "There are marriages for this world; true and honorable marriages, but for this world. But there is a marriage for eternity,—a marriage of souls."
Now Myron Sharpe is not a fool, but that is precisely what he said to Miss Pauline Dallas, out in the boat on that September night. If wiser men than Myron Sharpe never uttered more unpardonable nonsense under similar circumstances, cast your stones at him.
"Perhaps so," said Miss Dallas, with a sigh; "but see! How dark it has grown while we have been talking. We shall be caught in a squall; but I shall not be at all afraid—with you."
They were caught indeed, not only in a squall, but in the steady force of a driving northeasterly storm setting in doggedly with a very ugly fog. If Miss Dallas was not at all afraid—with him, she was nevertheless not sorry when they grated safely on the dull white beach.
They had had a hard pull in against the tide. Sky and sea were black. The fog crawled like a ghost over flat and cliff and field. The rain beat upon them as they turned to walk up the beach.
Pauline stopped once suddenly.
"What was that?"
"I heard nothing."
"A cry,—I fancied a cry down there in the fog."
They went back, and walked down the slippery shore for a space. Miss Dallas took off her hat to listen.
"You will take cold," said Dr. Sharpe, anxiously. She put it on; she heard nothing,—she was tired and excited, he said.
They walked home together. Miss Dallas had sprained her white wrist, trying to help at the oars; he drew it gently through his arm.
It was quite dark when they reached the house. No lamps were lighted. The parlor window had been left open, and the rain was beating in. "How careless in Harrie!" said her husband, impatiently.
He remembered those words, and the sound of his own voice in saying them, for a long time to come; he remembers them now, indeed, I fancy, on rainy nights when the house is dark.
The hall was cold and dreary. No table was set for supper. The children were all crying. Dr. Sharpe pushed open the kitchen door with a stern face.
"Biddy! Biddy! what does all this mean? Where is Mrs. Sharpe?"
"The Lord only knows what it manes, or where is Mrs. Sharpe," said Biddy, sullenly. "It's high time, in me own belafe, for her husband to come ashkin' and inquirin' her close all in a hape on the floor upstairs, with her bath-dress gone from the nails, and the front door swingin',—me never findin' of it out till it cooms tay-time, with all the children cryin' on me, and me head shplit with the noise, and—"
Dr. Sharpe strode in a bewildered way to the front door. Oddly enough, the first thing he did was to take down the thermometer and look at it. Gone out to bathe in a temperature like that! His mind ran like lightning, while he hung the thing back upon its nail, over Harrie's ancestry. Was there not a traditionary great-uncle who died in an asylum? The whole future of three children with an insane mother spread itself out before him while he was buttoning his overcoat.
"Shall I go and help you find her?" asked Miss Dallas, tremulously; "or shall I stay and look after hot flannels and—things? What shall I do?"
"I don't care what you do!" said the Doctor, savagely. To his justice be it recorded that he did not. He would not have exchanged one glimpse of Harrie's little homely face just then for an eternity of sunset-sailing with the "friend of his soul." A sudden cold loathing of her possessed him; he hated the sound of her soft voice; he hated the rustle of her garments, as she leaned against the door with her handkerchief at her eyes. Did he remember at that moment an old vow, spoken on an old October day, to that little missing face? Did he comfort himself thus, as he stepped out into the storm, "You have 'trusted her,' Myron Sharpe, as 'your best earthly friend'"?
As luck, or providence or God—whichever word you prefer—decreed it, the Doctor had but just shut the door when he saw me driving from the station through the rain. I heard enough of the story while he was helping me down the carriage steps. I left my bonnet and bag with Miss Dallas, pulled my water-proof over my head, and we turned our faces to the sea without a word.
The Doctor is a man who thinks and acts rapidly in emergencies, and little time was lost about help and lights. Yet when all was done which could be done, we stood there upon the slippery weed-strewn sand, and looked in one another's faces helplessly. Harrie's little boat was gone. The sea thundered out beyond the bar. The fog hung, a dead weight, upon a buried world. Our lanterns cut it for a foot or two in a ghostly way, throwing a pale white light back upon our faces and the weeds and bits of wreck under our feet.
The tide had turned. We put out into the surf not knowing what else to do, and called for Harrie; we leaned on our oars to listen, and heard the water drip into the boat, and the dull thunder beyond the bar; we called again, and heard a frightened sea-gull scream.
"This yere's wastin' valooable time," said Hansom, decidedly. I forgot to say that it was George Hansom whom Myron had picked up to help us. Anybody in Lime will tell you who George Hansom is,—a clear-eyed, open-hearted sailor; a man to whom you would turn in trouble as instinctively as a rheumatic man turns to the sun.
I cannot accurately tell you what he did with us that night. I have confused memories of searching shore and cliffs and caves; of touching at little islands and inlets that Harrie fancied; of the peculiar echo which answered our shouting; of the look that settled little by little about Dr. Sharpe's mouth; of the sobbing of the low wind; of the flare of lanterns on gaping, green waves; of spots of foam that writhed like nests of white snakes; of noticing the puddles in the bottom of the boat, and of wondering confusedly what they would do with my travelling-dress, at the very moment when I saw—I was the first to see it—little empty boat; of our hauling alongside of the tossing, silent thing; of a bit of a red scarf that lay coiled in its stern; of our drifting by, and speaking never a word; of our coasting along after that for a mile down the bay, because there was nothing in the world to take us there but the dread of seeing the Doctor's eyes when we should turn.
It was there that we heard the first cry.
"It's shoreward!" said Hansom.
"It is seaward!" cried the Doctor.
"It is behind us!" said I.
Where was it? A sharp, sobbing cry, striking the mist three or four times in rapid succession,—hushing suddenly,—breaking into shrieks like a frightened child's,—dying plaintively down.
We struggled desperately after it, through the fog. Wind and water took the sound up and tossed it about. Confused and bewildered, we beat about it and about it; it was behind us, before us, at our right, at our left,—crying on in a blind, aimless way, making us no replies,—beckoning us, slipping from us, mocking us utterly.
The Doctor stretched his hands out upon the solid wall of mist; he groped with them like a man struck blind.
"To die there,—in my very hearing,—without a chance—"
And while the words were upon his lips the criews ceased.
He turned a gray face slowly around, shivered a little, then smiled a little, then began to argue with ghastly cheerfulness:—
"It must be only for a moment, you know. We shall hear it again,—I am quite sure we shall it again, Hansom!"
Hansom, making a false stroke, I believe for the first time in his life, snapped an oar and overturned a lantern. Some drift-wood, covered with slimy weeds, washed heavily up at our feet. I remember that a little disabled ground-sparrow, chased by the tide, was fluttering and drowning just in sight, and that Myron drew it out of the water, and held itup for a moment to his cheek.
Bending over the ropes, George spoke between his teeth to me:—
"It may be a night's job on 't, findin' of the body."
The poor little sparrow dropped from Dr. Sharpe's hand. He took a step backward, scanned our faces, sat down dizzily, and fell over upon the sand.
He is a man of good nerves and great self-possession, but he fell like a woman, and lay like the dead.
"It's no place for him," Hansom said, softly. "Get him home. Me and the neighbors can do the rest. Get him home, and put his baby into his arms, and shet the door, and go about your business."
I had left him in the dark on the office floor at last. Miss Dallas and I sat in the cold parlor and looked at each other.
The fire was low and the lamp dull. The rain beat in an uncanny way upon the windows. I never like to hear the rain upon the windows. I liked it less than usual that night, and was just trying to brighten the fire a little, when the front door blew open.
"Shut it, please," said I, between the jerks of my poker.
But Miss Dallas looked over her shoulder and shivered.
"Just look at that latch!" I looked at that latch.
It rose and fell in a feeble fluttering way,—was still for a minute,—rose and fell again.
When the door swung in and Harrie—or the ghost of her—staggered into the chilly room and fell down in a scarlet heap at my feet, Pauline bounded against the wall with a scream which pierced into the dark office where the Doctor lay with his face upon the floor.
It was long before we knew how it happened. Indeed, I suppose we have never known it all. How she glided down, a little red wraith, through the dusk and damp to her boat; how she tossed about, with some dim, delirious idea of finding Myron on the ebbing waves; that she found herself stranded and tangled at last in the long, matted grass of that muddy-cove, started to wade home, and sunk in the ugly ooze, held, chilled, and scratched by the sharp grass, blinded and frightened by the fog, and calling, as she thought of it, for help; that in the first shallow wash of the flowing tide she must have struggled free, and found her way home across the fields,—she can tell us, but she can tell no more.
This very morning on which I write, an unknown man, imprisoned in the same spot in the same way overnight, was found by George Hansom dead there from exposure in the salt grass.
It was the walk home, and only that, which could have saved her.
Yet for many weeks we fought, her husband and I, hand to hand with death, seeming to see the life slip out of her, and watching for wandering minutes when she might look upon us with sane eyes.
We kept her—just. A mere little wreck, with drawn lips, and great eyes, and shattered nerves,—but we kept her.
I remember one night, when she had fallen into her first healthful nap, that the Doctor came down to rest a few minutes in the parlor where I sat alone. Pauline was washing the tea-things.
He began to pace the room with a weary abstracted look,—he was much worn by watching,—and, seeing that he was in no mood for words, I took up a book which lay upon the table. It chanced to be one of Alger's, which somebody had lent to the Doctor before Harrie's illness; it was a marked book, and I ran my eye over the pencilled passages. I recollect having been struck with this one: "A man's best friend is a wife of good sense and good heart, whom he loves and who loves him."
"You believe that?" said Myron, suddenly, behind my shoulder.
"I believe that a man's wife ought to be his best friend,—in every sense of the word, his best friend,—or she ought never to be his wife."
"And if—there will be differences of temperament, and—other things. If you were a man now, for instance, Miss Hannah—"
I interrupted him with hot cheeks and sudden courage.
"If I were a man, and my wife were not the best friend I had or could have in the world, nobody should ever know it,—she, least of all,—Myron Sharpe!"
Young people will bear a great deal of impertinence from an old lady, but we had both gone further than we meant to. I closed Mr. Alger with a snap, and went up to Harrie.
The day that Mrs. Sharpe sat up in the easy-chair for two hours, Miss Dallas, who had felt called upon to stay and nurse her dear Harrie to recovery, and had really been of service, detailed on duty among the babies, went home.
Dr. Sharpe drove her to the station. I accompanied them at his request. Miss Dallas intended, I think, to look a little pensive, but had her lunch to cram into a very full travelling-bag, and forgot it. The Doctor, with clear, courteous eyes, shook hands, and wished her a pleasant journey.
He drove home in silence, and went directly to his wife's room, A bright blaze flickered on the old-fashioned fireplace, and the walls bowed with pretty dancing shadows. Harrie, all alone, turned her face weakly and smiled.
Well, they made no fuss about it, after all. Her husband came and stood beside her; a cricket on which one of the baby's dresses had been thrown, lay between them; it seemed, for the moment, as if he dared not cross the tiny barrier. Something of that old fancy about the lights upon the altar may have crossed his thought.
"So Miss Dallas has fairly gone, Harrie," said he, pleasantly, after a pause.
"Yes. She has been very kind to the children while I have been sick."
"You must miss her," said poor Harrie, trembling; she was very weak yet.
The Doctor knocked away the cricket, folded his wife's two shadowy hands into his own, and said:—
"Harrie we have no strength to waste, either of us, upon a scene; but I am sorry, and I love you."
She broke all down at that, and, dear me! they almost had a scene in spite of themselves. For O, she had always known what a little goose she was; and Pauline never meant any harm, and how handsome she was, you know! only she didn't have three babies to look after, nor a snubbed nose either, and the sachet powder was only American, and the very servants knew, and, O Myron! she had wanted to be dead so long, and then—
"Harrie!" said the Doctor, at his wit's end, "this will never do in the world. I believe—I declare!—Miss Hannah!—I believe I must send you to bed."
"And then I'm SUCH a little skeleton!" finished Harrie, royally, with a great gulp.
Dr. Sharpe gathered the little skeleton all into a heap in his arms,—it was a very funny heap, by the way, but that doesn't matter,—and to the best of my knowledge and belief he cried just about as hard as she did.
The Tenth of January.
The city of Lawrence is unique in its way.
For simooms that scorch you and tempests that freeze; for sand-heaps and sand-hillocks and sand-roads; for men digging sand, for women shaking off sand, for minute boys crawling in sand; for sand in the church-slips and the gingerbread-windows, for sand in your eyes, your nose, your mouth, down your neck? up your sleeves, under your chignon, down your throat; for unexpected corners where tornadoes lie in wait; for "bleak, uncomforted" sidewalks, where they chase you, dog you, confront you, strangle you, twist you, blind you, turn your umbrella wrong side out; for "dimmykhrats" and bad ice-cream; for unutterable circus-bills and religious tea-parties; for uncleared ruins, and mills that spring up in a night; for jaded faces and busy feet; for an air of youth and incompleteness at which you laugh, and a consciousness of growth and greatness which you respect,—it—
I believe, when I commenced that sentence, I intended to say that it would be difficult to find Lawrence's equal.
Of the twenty-five thousand souls who inhabit that city, ten thousand are operatives in the factories. Of these ten thousand two thirds are girls.
These pages are written as one sets a bit of marble to mark a mound. I linger over them as we linger beside the grave of one who sleeps well; half sadly, half gladly,—more gladly than sadly,—but hushed.
The time to see Lawrence is when the mills open or close. So languidly the dull-colored, inexpectant crowd wind in! So briskly they come bounding out! Factory faces have a look of their own,—not only their common dinginess, and a general air of being in a hurry to find the wash-bowl, but an appearance of restlessness,—often of envious restlessness, not habitual in most departments of "healthy labor." Watch them closely: you can read their histories at a venture. A widow this, in the dusty black, with she can scarcely remember how many mouths to feed at home. Worse than widowed that one: she has put her baby out to board,—and humane people know what that means,—to keep the little thing beyond its besotted father's reach. There is a group who have "just come over." A child's face here, old before its time. That girl—she climbs five flights of stairs twice a day—will climb no more stairs for herself or another by the time the clover-leaves are green. "The best thing about one's grave is that it will be level," she was heard once to say. Somebody muses a little here,—she is to be married this winter. There is a face just behind her whose fixed eyes repel and attract you; there may be more love than guilt in them, more despair than either.
Had you stood in some unobserved corner of Essex Street, at four o'clock one Saturday afternoon towards the last of November, 1859, watching the impatient stream pour out of the Pemberton Mill, eager with a saddening eagerness for its few holiday hours, you would have observed one girl who did not bound.
She was slightly built, and undersized; her neck and shoulders were closely muffled, though the day was mild; she wore a faded scarlet hood which heightened the pallor of what must at best have been a pallid face. It was a sickly face, shaded off with purple shadows, but with a certain wiry nervous strength about the muscles of the mouth and chin: it would have been a womanly, pleasant mouth, had it not been crossed by a white scar, which attracted more of one's attention than either the womanliness or pleasantness. Her eyes had light long lashes, and shone through them steadily.
You would have noticed as well, had you been used to analyzing crowds, another face,—the two were side by side,—dimpled with pink and white flushes, and framed with bright black hair. One would laugh at this girl and love her, scold her and pity her, caress her and pray for her,—then forget her perhaps.
The girls from behind called after her: "Del! Del Ivory! look over there!"
Pretty Del turned her head. She had just flung a smile at a young clerk who was petting his mustache in a shop-window, and the smile lingered.
One of the factory boys was walking alone across the Common in his factory clothes.
"Why, there's Dick! Sene, do you see?"
Sene's scarred mouth moved slightly, but she made no reply. She had seen him five minutes ago.
One never knows exactly whether to laugh or cry over them, catching their chatter as they file past the show-windows of the long, showy street.
"Look a' that pink silk with the figures on it!"
"I've seen them as is betther nor that in the ould counthree.—Patsy Malorrn, let alon' hangin' onto the shawl of me!"
"That's Mary Foster getting out of that carriage with the two white horses,—she that lives in the brown house with the cupilo."
"Look at her dress trailin' after her. I'd like my dresses trailin' after me."
"Well, may they be good,—these rich folks!"
"That's so. I'd be good if I was rich; wouldn't you, Moll?"
"You'd keep growing wilder than ever, if you went to hell, Meg Match: yes you would, because my teacher said so."
"So, then, he wouldn't marry her, after all; and she—"
"Going to the circus to-night, Bess?"
"I can't help crying, Jenny. You don't know how my head aches! It aches, and it aches, and it seems as if it would never stop aching. I wish—I wish I was dead, Jenny!"
They separated at last, going each her own way,—pretty Del Ivory to her boarding-place by the canal, her companion walking home alone.
This girl, Asenath Martyn, when left to herself, fell into a contented dream not common to girls who have reached her age,—especially girls who have seen the phases of life which she had seen. Yet few of the faces in the streets that led her home were more gravely lined. She puzzled one at the first glance, and at the second. An artist, meeting her musing on a canal-bridge one day, went home and painted a May-flower budding in February.
It was a damp, unwholesome place, the street in which she lived, cut short by a broken fence, a sudden steep, and the water; filled with children,—they ran from the gutters after her, as she passed,—and filled to the brim; it tipped now and then, like an over-full soup-plate, and spilled out two or three through the break in the fence.
Down in the corner, sharp upon the water, the east-winds broke about a little yellow house, where no children played; an old man's face watched at a window, and a nasturtium-vine crawled in the garden. The broken panes of glass about the place were well mended, and a clever little gate, extemporized from a wild grape-vine, swung at the entrance. It was not an old man's work.
Asenath went in with expectant eyes; they took in the room at a glance, and fell.
"Dick hasn't come, father?"
"Come and gone child; didn't want any supper, he said. Your 're an hour before time, Senath."
"Yes. Didn't want any supper, you say? I don't see why not."
"No more do I, but it's none of our concern as I knows on; very like the pickles hurt him for dinner; Dick never had an o'er-strong stomach, as you might say. But you don't tell me how it m' happen you're let out at four o'clock, Senath," half complaining.
"O, something broke in the machinery, father; you know you wouldn't understand if I told you what."
He looked up from his bench,—he cobbled shoes there in the corner on his strongest days,—and after her as she turned quickly away and up stairs to change her dress. She was never exactly cross with her father; but her words rang impatiently sometimes.
She came down presently, transformed, as only factory-girls are transformed, by the simple little toilet she had been making; her thin, soft hair knotted smoothly, the tips of her fingers rosy from the water, her pale neck well toned by her gray stuff dress and cape;—Asenath always wore a cape: there was one of crimson flannel, with a hood, that she had meant to wear to-night; she had thought about it coming home from the mill; she was apt to wear it on Saturdays and Sundays; Dick had more time at home. Going up stairs to-night, she had thrown it away into a drawer, and shut the drawer with a snap; then opened it softly, and cried a little; but she had not taken it out.
As she moved silently about the room, setting the supper-table for two, crossing and recrossing the broad belt of sunlight that fell upon the floor, it was easy to read the sad story of the little hooded capes.
They might have been graceful shoulders. The hand which had scarred her face had rounded and bent them,—her own mother's hand.
Of a bottle always on the shelf; of brutal scowls where smiles should be; of days when she wandered dinnerless and supperless in the streets through loathing of her home; of nights when she sat out in the snow-drifts through terror of her home; of a broken jug one day, a blow, a fall, then numbness, and the silence of the grave,—she had her distant memories; of waking on a sunny afternoon, in bed, with a little cracked glass upon the opposite wall; of creeping out and up to it in her night-dress; of the ghastly twisted thing that looked back at her. Through the open window she heard the children laughing and leaping in the sweet summer air. She crawled into bed and shut her eyes. She remembered stealing out at last, after many days, to the grocery round the corner for a pound of coffee. "Humpback! humpback!" cried the children,—the very children who could leap and laugh.
One day she and little Del Ivory made mud-houses after school.
"I'm going to have a house of my own, when I'm grown up," said pretty Del; "I shall have a red carpet and some curtains; my husband will buy me a piano."
"So will mine, I guess," said Sene, simply.
"Yours!" Del shook back her curls; "who do you suppose would ever marry you?"
One night there was a knocking at the door, and a hideous, sodden thing borne in upon a plank. The crowded street, tired of tipping out little children, had tipped her mother staggering through the broken fence. At the funeral she heard some one say, "How glad Sene must be!"
Since that, life had meant three things,—her father, the mills, and Richard Cross.
"You're a bit put out that the young fellow didn't stay to supper,—eh, Senath?" the old man said, laying down his boot.
"Put out! Why should I be? His time is his own. It's likely to be the Union that took him out,—such a fine day for the Union! I'm sure I never expected him to go to walk with me every Saturday afternoon. I'm not a fool to tie him up to the notions of a crippled girl. Supper is ready, father."
But her voice rasped bitterly. Life's pleasures were so new and late and important to her, poor thing! It went hard to miss the least of them. Very happy people will not understand exactly how hard.
Old Martyn took off his leather apron with a troubled face, and, as he passed his daughter, gently laid his tremulous, stained hand upon her head. He felt her least uneasiness, it would seem, as a chameleon feels a cloud upon the sun.
She turned her face softly and kissed him. But she did not smile.
She had planned a little for this holiday supper; saving three mellow-cheeked Louise Bonnes—expensive pears just then—to add to their bread and molasses. She brought them out from the closet, and watched her father eat them.
"Going out again Senath?" he asked, seeing that she went for her hat and shawl, u and not a mouthful have you eaten! Find your old father dull company hey? Well, well!"
She said something about needing the air; the mill was hot; she should soon be back; she spoke tenderly and she spoke truly, but she went out into the windy sunset with her little trouble, and forgot him. The old man, left alone, sat for a while with his head sunk upon his breast. She was all he had in the world,—this one little crippled girl that the world had dealt hardly with. She loved him; but he was not, probably would never be, to her exactly what she was to him. Usually he forgot this. Sometimes he quite understood it, as to-night.
Asenath, with the purpose only of avoiding Dick, and of finding a still spot where she might think her thoughts undisturbed, wandered away over the eastern bridge, and down to the river's brink. It was a moody place; such a one as only apathetic or healthy natures (I wonder if that is tautology!) can healthfully yield to. The bank sloped steeply; a fringe of stunted aspens and willows sprang from the frozen sand: it was a sickening, airless place in summer,—it was damp and desolate now. There was a sluggish wash of water under foot, and a stretch of dreary flats behind. Belated locomotives shrieked to each other across the river, and the wind bore down the current the roar and rage of the dam. Shadows were beginning to skulk under the huge brown bridge. The silent mills stared up and down and over the streams with a blank, unvarying stare. An oriflamme of scarlet burned in the west, flickered dully in the dirty, curdling water, flared against the windows of the Pemberton, which quivered and dripped, Asenath thought, as if with blood.
She sat down on a gray stone, wrapped in her gray shawl, curtained about by the aspens from the eye of passers on the bridge. She had a fancy for this place when things went ill with her. She had always borne her troubles alone, but she must be alone to bear them.
She knew very well that she was tired and nervous that afternoon, and that, if she could reason quietly about this little neglect of Dick's, it would cease to annoy her. Indeed, why should she be annoyed? Had he not done everything for her, been everything to her, for two long, sweet years? She dropped her head with a shy smile. She was never tired of living over these two years. She took positive pleasure in recalling the wretchedness in which they found her, for the sake of their dear relief. Many a time, sitting with her happy face hidden in his arms, she had laughed softly, to remember the day on which he came to her. It was at twilight, and she was tired. Her reels had troubled her all the afternoon; the overseer was cross; the day was hot and long. Somebody on the way home had said in passing her: "Look at that girl! I'd kill myself if I looked like that": it was in a whisper, but she heard it. All life looked hot and long; the reels would always be out of order; the overseer would never be kind. Her temples would always throb, and her back would ache. People would always say, "Look at that girl!"
"Can you direct me to—". She looked up; she had been sitting on the doorstep with her face in her hands. Dick stood there with his cap off. He forgot that he was to inquire the way to Newbury Street, when he saw the tears on her shrunken cheeks. Dick could never bear to see a woman suffer.
"I wouldn't cry," he said simply, sitting down beside her. Telling a girl not to cry is an infallible recipe for keeping her at it. What could the child do, but sob as if her heart would break? Of course he had the whole story in ten minutes, she his in another ten. It was common and short enough:—a "Down-East" boy, fresh from his father's farm, hunting for work and board,—a bit homesick here in the strange, unhomelike city, it might be, and glad of some one to say so to.
What more natural than that, when her father came out and was pleased with the lad, there should be no more talk of Newbury Street; that the little yellow house should become his home; that he should swing the fantastic gate, and plant the nasturtiums; that his life should grow to be one with hers and the old man's, his future and theirs unite unconsciously?
She remembered—it was not exactly pleasant, somehow, to remember it to-night—just the look of his face when they came into the house that summer evening, and he for the first time saw what she was, her cape having fallen off, in the full lamplight. His kindly blue eyes widened with shocked surprise, and fell; when he raised them, a pity like a mother's had crept into them; it broadened and brightened as time slid by, but it never left them.
So you see, after that, life unfolded in a burst of little surprises for Asenath. If she came home very tired, some one said, "I am sorry." If she wore a pink ribbon, she heard a whisper, "It suits you." If she sang a little song, she knew that somebody listened.
"I did not know the world was like this!" cried the girl.
After a time there came a night that he chanced to be out late,—they had planned an arithmetic lesson together, which he had forgotten,—and she sat grieving by the kitchen fire.
"You missed me so much then?" he said regretfully, standing with his hand upon her chair. She was trying to shell some corn; she dropped the pan, and the yellow kernels rolled away on the floor.
"What should I have if I didn't have you?" she said, and caught her breath.
The young man paced to the window and back again. The firelight touched her shoulders, and the sad, white scar.
"You shall have me always, Asenath," he made answer. He took her face within his hands and kissed it; and so they shelled the corn together, and nothing more was said about it.
He had spoken this last spring of their marriage; but the girl, like all girls, was shyly silent, and he had not urged it.
Asenath started from her pleasant dreaming just as the oriflamme was furling into gray, suddenly conscious that she was not alone. Below her, quite on the brink of the water, a girl was sitting,—a girl with a bright plaid shawl, and a nodding red feather in her hat. Her head was bent, and her hair fell against a profile cut in pink-and-white.
"Del is too pretty to be here alone so late," thought Asenath, smiling tenderly. Good-natured Del was kind to her in a certain way, and she rather loved the girl. She rose to speak to her, but concluded, on a second glance through the aspens, that Miss Ivory was quite able to take care of herself.
Del was sitting on an old log that jutted into the stream, dabbling in the water with the tips of her feet. (Had she lived on The Avenue she could not have been more particular about her shoemaker.) Some one—it was too dark to see distinctly—stood beside her, his eyes upon her face. Asenath could hear nothing, but she needed to hear nothing to know how the young fellow's eyes drank in the coquettish picture. Besides, it was an old story. Del counted her rejected lovers by the score.
"It's no wonder," she thought in her honest way, standing still to watch them with a sense of puzzled pleasure much like that with which she watched the print-windows,—"it's no wonder they love her. I'd love her if I was a man: so pretty! so pretty! She's just good for nothing, Del is;—would let the kitchen fire go out, and wouldn't mend the baby's aprons; but I'd love her all the same; marry her, probably, and be sorry all my life."
Pretty Del! Poor Del! Asenath wondered whether she wished that she were like her; she could not quite make out; it would be pleasant to sit on a log and look like that; it would be more pleasant to be watched as Del was watched just now; it struck her suddenly that Dick had never looked like this at her.
The hum of their voices ceased while she stood there with her eyes upon them; Del turned her head away with a sudden movement, and the young man left her, apparently without bow or farewell, sprang up the bank at a bound, and crushed the undergrowth with quick, uneasy strides.
Asenath, with some vague idea that it would not be honorable to see his face,—poor fellow!—shrank back into the aspens and the shadow.
He towered tall in the twilight as he passed her, and a dull, umber gleam, the last of the sunset, struck him from the west.
Struck it out into her sight,—the haggard struggling face,—Richard Cross's face.
Of course you knew it from the beginning, but remember that the girl did not. She might have known it, perhaps, but she had not.
Asenath stood up, sat down again.
She had a distinct consciousness, for the moment, of seeing herself crouched down there under the aspens and the shadow, a humpbacked white creature, with distorted face and wide eyes. She remembered a picture she had somewhere seen of a little chattering goblin in a graveyard, and was struck with the resemblance. Distinctly, too, she heard herself saying, with a laugh, she thought, "I might have known it; I might have known."
Then the blood came through her heart with a hot rush, and she saw Del on the log, smoothing the red feather of her hat. She heard a man's step, too, that rang over the bridge, passed the toll-house, grew faint, grew fainter, died in the sand by the Everett Mill.
Richard's face! Richard's face, looking—God help her!—as it had never looked at her; struggling—God pity him!—as it had never struggled for her.
She shut her hands, into each other, and sat still a little while. A faint hope came to her then perhaps, after all; her face lightened grayly, and she crept down the bank to Del.
"I won't be a fool," she said, "I'll make sure,—I'll make as sure as death."
"Well, where did you drop down from, Sene?" said Del, with a guilty start.
"From over the bridge, to be sure. Did you think I swam, or flew, or blew?"
"You came on me so sudden!" said Del, petulantly; "you nearly frightened the wits out of me. You didn't meet anybody on the bridge?" with a quick look.
"Let me see." Asenath considered gravely. "There was one small boy making faces, and two—no, three—dogs, I believe; that was all."
Del looked relieved, but fell silent.
"You're sober, Del. Been sending off a lover, as usual?"
"I don't know anything about its being usual," answered Del, in an aggrieved, coquettish way, "but there's been somebody here that liked me well enough."
"You like him, maybe? It's time you liked somebody, Del."
Del curled the red feather about her fingers, and put her hat on over her eyes, then a little cry broke from her, half sob, half anger.
"I might, perhaps,—I don't know. He's good. I think he'd let me have a parlor and a door-bell. But he's going to marry somebody else, you see. I sha'n't tell you his name, so you needn't ask."
Asenath looked out straight upon the water. A dead leaf that had been caught in an eddy attracted her attention; it tossed about for a minute, then a tiny whirlpool sucked it down.
"I wasn't going to ask; it's nothing to me, of course. He doesn't care for her then,—this other girl?"
"Not so much as he does for me. He didn't mean to tell me, but he said that I—that I looked so—pretty, it came right out. But there! I mustn't tell you any more."
Del began to be frightened; she looked up sideways at Asenath's quiet face. "I won't say another word," and so chattered on, growing a little cross; Asenath need not look so still, and sure of herself,—a mere humpbacked fright!
"He'll never break his engagement, not even for me; he's sorry for her, and all that. I think it's too bad. He's handsome. He makes me feel like saying my prayers, too, he's so good! Besides, I want to be married. I hate the mill. I hate to work. I'd rather be taken care of,—a sight rather. I feel bad enough about it to cry."
Two tears rolled over her cheeks, and fell on the soft plaid shawl. Del wiped them away carefully with her rounded fingers.
Asenath turned and looked at this Del Ivory long and steadily through the dusk. The pretty, shallow thing! The worthless, bewildering thing!
A fierce contempt for her pink-and-white, and tears and eyelashes and attitudes, came upon her; then a sudden sickening jealousy that turned her faint where she sat.
What did God mean,—Asenath believed in God, having so little else to believe in,—what did he mean, when he had blessed the girl all her happy life with such wealth of beauty, by filling her careless hands with this one best, last gift? Why, the child could not hold such golden love! She would throw it away by and by. What a waste it was!
Not that she had these words for her thought, but she had the thought distinctly through her dizzy pain.
"So there's nothing to do about it," said Del, pinning her shawl. "We can't have anything to say to each other,—unless anybody should die, or anything; and of course I'm not wicked enough to think of that.—Sene! Sene! what are you doing?"
Sene had risen slowly, stood upon the log, caught at an aspen-top, and swung out with it its whole length above the water. The slight tree writhed and quivered about the roots. Sene looked down and moved her marred lips without sound.
Del screamed and wrung her hands. It was an ugly sight!
"O don't, Sene, don't! You'll drown yourself! you will be drowned! you will be—O, what a start you gave me! What were you doing, Senath Martyn?"
Sene swung slowly back, and sat down.
"Amusing myself a little;—well, unless somebody died, you said? But I believe I won't talk any more to-night. My head aches. Go home, Del."
Del muttered a weak protest at leaving her there alone; but, with her bright face clouded and uncomfortable, went.
Asenath turned her head to listen for the last rustle of her dress, then folded her arms, and, with her eyes upon the sluggish current, sat still.
An hour and a half later, an Andover farmer, driving home across the bridge, observed on the river's edge—a shadow cut within a shadow—the outline of a woman's figure, sitting perfectly still with folded arms. He reined up and looked down; but it sat quite still.
"Hallo there!" he called; "you'll fall in if you don't look out!" for the wind was strong, and it blew against the figure; but it did not move nor make reply. The Andover farmer looked over his shoulder with the sudden recollection of a ghost-story which he had charged his grandchildren not to believe last week, cracked his whip, and rumbled on.