MERCY PHILBRICK'S CHOICE.
To one who found us on a starless night, All helpless, groping in a dangerous way, Where countless treacherous hidden pitfalls lay, And, seeing all our peril, flashed a light To show to our bewildered, blinded sight, By one swift, clear, and piercing ray, The safe, sure path,—what words could reach the height Of our great thankfulness? And yet, at most, The most he saved was this poor, paltry life Of flesh, which is so little worth its cost, Which eager sows, but may not stay to reap, And so soon breathless with the strain and strife, Its work half-done, exhausted, falls asleep.
But unto him who finds men's souls astray In night that they know not is night at all, Walking, with reckless feet, where they may fall Each moment into deadlier deaths than slay The flesh,—to him whose truth can rend away From such lost souls their moral night's black pall,— Oh, unto him what words can hearts recall Which their deep gratitude finds fit to say? No words but these,—and these to him are best:— That, henceforth, like a quenchless vestal flame, His words of truth shall burn on Truth's pure shrine; His memory be truth worshipped and confessed; Our gratitude and love, the priestess line, Who serve before Truth's altar, in his name.
Mercy Philbrick's Choice.
It was late in the afternoon of a November day. The sky had worn all day that pale leaden gray color, which is depressing even to the least sensitive of souls. Now, at sunset, a dull red tint was slowly stealing over the west; but the gray cloud was too thick for the sun to pierce, and the struggle of the crimson color with the unyielding sky only made the heavens look more stern and pitiless than before.
Stephen White stood with his arms folded, leaning on the gate which shut off, but seemed in no wise to separate, the front yard of the house in which he lived from the public highway. There is something always pathetic in the attempt to enforce the idea of seclusion and privacy, by building a fence around houses only ten or twelve feet away from the public road, and only forty or fifty feet from each other. Rows of picketed palings and gates with latches and locks seem superfluous, when the passer-by can look, if he likes, into the very centre of your sitting-room, and your neighbors on the right hand and on the left can overhear every word you say on a summer night, where windows are open.
One cannot walk through the streets of a New England village, without being impressed by a sense of this futile semblance of barrier, this touching effort at withdrawal and reticence. Often we see the tacit recognition of its uselessness in an old gate shoved back to its farthest, and left standing so till the very grass roots have embanked themselves on each side of it, and it can never again be closed without digging away the sods in which it is wedged. The gate on which Stephen White was leaning had stood open in that way for years before Stephen rented the house; had stood open, in fact, ever since old Billy Jacobs, the owner of the house, had been carried out of it dead, in a coffin so wide that at first the bearers had thought it could not pass through the gate; but by huddling close, three at the head and three at the feet, they managed to tug the heavy old man through without taking down the palings. This was so long ago that now there was nobody left who remembered Billy Jacobs distinctly, except his widow, who lived in a poor little house on the outskirts of the town, her only income being that derived from the renting of the large house, in which she had once lived in comfort with her husband and son. The house was a double house; and for a few years Billy Jacobs's twin brother, a sea captain, had lived in the other half of it. But Mrs. Billy could not abide Mrs. John, and so with a big heart wrench the two brothers, who loved each other as only twin children can love, had separated. Captain John took his wife and went to sea again. The ship was never heard of, and to the day of Billy Jacobs's death he never forgave his wife. In his heart he looked upon her as his brother's murderer. Very much like the perpetual presence of a ghost under her roof it must have been to the woman also, the unbroken silence of those untenanted rooms, and that never opened door on the left side of her hall, which she must pass whenever she went in or out of her house. There were those who said that she was never seen to look towards that door; and that whenever a noise, as of a rat in the wall, or a blind creaking in the wind, came from that side of the house, Mrs. Billy turned white, and shuddered. Well she might. It is a fearful thing to have lying on one's heart in this life the consciousness that one has been ever so innocently the occasion, if not the cause, of a fellow-creature's turning aside into the path which was destined to take him to his death.
The very next day after Billy Jacobs's funeral, his widow left the house. She sold all the furniture, except what was absolutely necessary for a very meagre outfitting of the little cottage into which she moved. The miserly habit of her husband seemed to have suddenly fallen on her like a mantle. Her life shrank and dwindled in every possible way; she almost starved herself and her boy, although the rent of her old homestead was quite enough to make them comfortable. In a few years, to complete the poor woman's misery, her son ran away and went to sea. The sea-farer's stories which his Uncle John had told him, when he was a little child, had never left his mind; and the drearier his mother made life for him on land, the more longingly he dwelt on his fancies of life at sea, till at last, when he was only fifteen, he disappeared one day, leaving a note, not for his mother, but for his Sunday-school teacher,—the only human being he loved. This young woman carried the note to Mrs. Jacobs. She read it, made no comment, and handed it back. Her visitor was chilled and terrified by her manner.
"Can I do any thing for you, Mrs. Jacobs?" she said. "I do assure you I sympathize with you most deeply. I think the boy will soon come back. He will find the sea life very different from what he has dreamed."
"No, you can do nothing for me," replied Mrs. Jacobs, in a voice as unmoved as her face. "He will never come back. He will be drowned." And from that day no one ever heard her mention her son. It was believed, however, that she had news from him, and that she sent him money; for, although the rents of her house were paid to her regularly, she grew if possible more and more penurious every year, allowing herself barely enough food to support life, and wearing such tattered and patched clothes that she was almost an object of terror to children when they met her in lonely fields and woods, bending down to the ground and searching for herbs like an old witch. At one time, also, she went in great haste to a lawyer in the village, and with his assistance raised three thousand dollars on a mortgage on her house, mortgaging it very nearly to its full value. In vain he represented to her that, in case the house should chance to stand empty for a year, she would have no money to pay the interest on her mortgage, and would lose the property. She either could not understand, or did not care for what he said. The house always had brought her in about so many dollars a year; she believed it always would; at any rate, she wanted this money. And so it came to pass that the mortgage on the old Jacobs house had come into Stephen White's hands, and he was now living in one half of it, his own tenant and landlord at once, as he often laughingly said.
These old rumors and sayings about the Jacobs's family history were running in Stephen's head this evening, as he stood listlessly leaning on the gate, and looking down at the unsightly spot of bare earth still left where the gate had so long stood pressed back against the fence.
"I wonder how long it'll take to get that old rut smooth and green like the rest of the yard," he thought. Stephen White absolutely hated ugliness. It did not merely irritate and depress him, as it does everybody of fine fastidiousness: he hated not only the sight of it, he hated it with a sort of unreasoning vindictiveness. If it were a picture, he wanted to burn the picture, cut it, tear it, trample it under foot, get it off the face of the earth immediately, at any cost or risk. It had no business to exist: if nobody else would make way with it, he must. He often saw places that he would have liked to devastate, to blot out of existence if he could, just because they were barren and unsightly. Once, when he was a very little child, he suddenly seized a book of his father's,—an old, shabby, worn dictionary,—and flung it into the fire with uncontrollable passion; and, on being asked why he did it, had nothing to say in justification of his act, except this extraordinary statement: "It was an ugly book; it hurt me. Ugly books ought to go in the fire." What the child suffered, and, still more, what the man suffered from this hatred of ugliness, no words could portray. Ever since he could remember, he had been unhappy from the lack of the beautiful in the surroundings of his daily life. His father had been poor; his mother had been an invalid; and neither father nor mother had a trace of the artistic temperament. From what long-forgotten ancestor in his plain, hard-working family had come Stephen's passionate love of beauty, nobody knew. It was the despair of his father, the torment of his mother. From childhood to boyhood, from boyhood to manhood, he had felt himself needlessly hurt and perversely misunderstood on this one point. But it had not soured him: it had only saddened him, and made him reticent. In his own quiet way, he went slowly on, adding each year some new touch of simple adornment to their home. Every dollar he could spare out of his earnings went into something for the eye to feast on; and, in spite of the old people's perpetual grumbling and perpetual antagonism, it came about that they grew to be, in a surly fashion, proud of Stephen's having made their home unlike the homes of their neighbors.
"That's Stephen's last notion. He's never satisfied without he's sticking up suthin' new or different," they would say, as they called attention to some new picture or shelf or improvement in the house. "It's all tom-foolery. Things was well enough before." But in their hearts they were secretly a little elate, as in latter years they had come to know, by books and papers which Stephen forced them to hear or to read, that he was really in sympathy with well-known writers in this matter of the adornment of homes, the love of beautiful things even in every-day life.
A little more than a year before the time at which our story begins, Stephen's father had died. On an investigation of his affairs, it was found that after the settling of the estate very little would remain for Stephen and his mother. The mortgage on the old Jacobs house was the greater part of their property. Very reluctantly Stephen decided that their wisest—in fact, their only—course was to move into this house to live. Many and many a time he had walked past the old house, and thought, as he looked at it, what a bare, staring, hopeless, joyless-looking old house it was. It had originally been a small, square house. The addition which Billy Jacobs had made to it was oblong, running out to the south, and projecting on the front a few feet beyond the other part. This obtrusive jog was certainly very ugly; and it was impossible to conceive of any reason for it. Very possibly, it was only a carpenter's blunder; for Billy Jacobs was, no doubt, his own architect, and left all details of the work to the builders. Be that as it may, the little, clumsy, meaningless jog ruined the house,—gave it an uncomfortably awry look, like a dining-table awkwardly pieced out for an emergency by another table a little too narrow.
The house had been for several years occupied by families of mill operatives, and had gradually acquired that indefinable, but unmistakable tenement-house look, which not even neatness and good repair can wholly banish from a house. The orchard behind the house had so run down for want of care that it looked more like a tangle of wild trees than like any thing which had ever been an orchard. Yet the Roxbury Russets and Baldwins of that orchard had once been Billy Jacobs's great pride, the one point of hospitality which his miserliness never conquered. Long after it would have broken his heart to set out a generous dinner for a neighbor, he would feast him on choice apples, and send him away with a big basket full in his hands. Now every passing school-boy helped himself to the wan, withered, and scanty fruit; and nobody had thought it worth while to mend the dilapidated fences which might have helped to shut them out.
Even Mrs. White, with all her indifference to externals, rebelled at first at the idea of going to live in the old Jacobs house.
"I'll never go there, Stephen," she said petulantly. "I'm not going to live in half a house with the mill people; and it's no better than a barn, the hideous, old, faded, yellow thing!"
If it crossed Stephen's mind that there was a touch of late retribution in his mother's having come at last to a sense of suffering because she must live in an unsightly house, he did not betray it.
He replied very gently. He was never heard to speak other than gently to his mother, though to every one else his manner was sometimes brusque and dictatorial.
"But, mother, I think we must. It is the only way that we can be sure of the rent. And, if we live ourselves in one half of it, we shall find it much easier to get good tenants for the other part. I promise you none of the mill people shall ever live there again. Please do not make it hard for me, mother. We must do it."
When Stephen said "must," his mother never gainsaid him. He was only twenty-five, but his will was stronger than hers,—as much stronger as his temper was better. Persons judging hastily, by her violent assertions and vehement statements of her determination, as contrasted with Stephen's gentle, slow, almost hesitating utterance of his opinions or intentions, might have assumed that she would always conquer; but it was not so. In all little things, Stephen was her slave, because she was a suffering invalid and his mother. But, in all important decisions, he was the master; and she recognized it, and leaned upon it in a way which was almost ludicrous in its alternation with her petulance and perpetual dictating to him in trifles.
And so they went to live in the old Jacobs house. They took the northern half of it, the part in which the sea captain and his wife had lived. This half of the house was not so pleasant as the other, had less sun, and had no door upon the street; but it was smaller and better suited to their needs, and moreover, Stephen said to his mother,—
"We must live in the half we should find it hardest to rent to a desirable tenant."
For the first six months after they moved in, the "wing," as Mrs. White persisted in calling it, though it was larger by two rooms than the part she occupied herself, stood empty. There would have been plenty of applicants for it, but it had been noised in the town that the Whites had given out that none but people as good as they were themselves would be allowed to rent the house. This made a mighty stir among the mill operatives and the trades-people, and Stephen got many a sour look and short answer, whose real source he never suspected.
"Ahem! there he goes with his head in the clouds, damn him!" muttered Barker the grocer, one day, as Stephen in a more than ordinarily absent-minded fit had passed Mr. Barker's door without observing that Mr. Barker stood in it, ready to bow and smile to the whole world. Mr. Barker's sister had just married an overseer in the mill; and they had been very anxious to set up housekeeping in the Jacobs house, but had been prevented from applying for it by hearing of Mrs. White's determination to have no mill people under the same roof with herself.
"Mill people, indeed!" exclaimed Jane Barker, when her lover told her, in no very guarded terms, the reason they could not have the house on which she had set her heart.
"Mill people, indeed! I'd like to know if they're not every whit's good's an old shark of a lawyer like Hugh White was! I'll be bound, if poor old granny Jacobs hadn't lost what little wit she ever had, it 'ud be very soon seen whether Madam White's got the right to say who's to come and who's to go in that house. It's a nasty old yaller shell anyhow, not to say nothin' o' it's bein' haunted, 's like 's not. But there ain't no other place so handy to the mill for us, an' I guess our money's good ez any lawyer's money, o' the hull on 'em any day. Mill people, indeed! I'll jest give Steve White a piece o' my mind, the first time I see him on the street."
Jane and her lover were sitting on the tops of two barrels just outside the grocery door, when this conversation took place. Just as the last words had left her lips, she looked up and saw Stephen approaching at a very rapid pace. The unusual sight of two people perched on barrels on the sidewalk roused Stephen from the deep reverie in which he habitually walked. Lifting his hat as courteously as if he were addressing the most distinguished of women, he bowed, and said smiling, "How do you do, Miss Jane?" and "Good-morning, Mr. Lovejoy," and passed on; but not before Jane Barker had had time to say in her gentlest tones, "Very well, thank you, Mr. Stephen," while an ugly sneer spread over the face of Reuben Lovejoy.
"Woman all over!" he muttered. "Never saw one on ye yet thet wasn't caught by a bow from a palaverin' fool."
Jane laughed nervously. She herself felt ashamed of having so soon given the lie to her own words of bravado; but she was woman enough not to admit her mortification.
"I know he's a palaverin' fool's well's you do; but I reckon I've got some manners o' my own, 's well's he. When a man bids me a pleasant good-mornin', I ain't a-goin' to take that time to fly out at him, however much I've got agin him."
And Reuben was silenced. The under-current of ill-feeling against Stephen and his mother went steadily on increasing. There is a wonderful force in these slow under-currents of feeling, in small communities, for or against individuals. After they have once become a steady tide, nothing can check their force or turn their direction. Sometimes they can be traced back to their spring, as a stream can: one lucky or unlucky word or deed, years ago, made a friend or an enemy of one person, and that person's influence has divided itself again and again, as brooks part off and divide into countless rivulets, and water whole districts. But generally one finds it impossible to trace the like or dislike to its beginning. A stranger, asking the reason of it, is answered in an off-hand way,—"Oh, everybody'll tell you the same thing. There isn't a soul in the town but hates him;" or, "Well, he's just the most popular man in the town. You'll never hear a word said against him,—never; not if you were to settle right down here, and live."
It was months before Stephen realized that there was slowly forming in the town a dislike to him. He was slow in discovering it, because he had always lived alone; had no intimate friends, not even when he was a boy. His love of books and his passionate love of beauty combined with his poverty to hedge him about more effectually than miles of desert could have done. His father and mother had lived upon fairly good terms with all their neighbors, but had formed no very close bonds with any. In the ordinary New England town, neighborhood never means much: there is a dismal lack of cohesion to the relations between people. The community is loosely held together by a few accidental points of contact or common interest. The individuality of individuals is, by a strange sort of paradox, at once respected and ignored. This is indifference rather than consideration, selfishness rather than generosity; it is an unsuspected root of much of our national failure, is responsible for much of our national disgrace. Some day there will come a time when it will have crystallized into a national apathy, which will perhaps cure itself, or have to be cured, as indurations in the body are, by sharp crises or by surgical operations. In the mean time, our people are living, on the whole, the dullest lives that are lived in the world, by the so-called civilized; and the climax of this dulness of life is to be found in just such a small New England town as Penfield, the one of which we are now speaking.
When it gradually became clear to Stephen that he and his mother were unpopular people, his first feeling was one of resentment, his second of calm acquiescence: acquiescence, first, because he recognized in a measure the justice of it,—they really did not care for their neighbors; why should their neighbors care for them? secondly, a diminished familiarity of intercourse would have to him great compensations. There were few people in the town, whose clothes, whose speech, whose behavior, did not jar upon his nerves. On the whole, he would be better content alone; and if his mother could only have a little more independence of nature, more resource within herself, "The less we see of them, the better," said Stephen, proudly.
He had yet to learn the lesson which, sooner or later, the proudest, most scornful, most self-centred of human souls must learn, or must die of loneliness for the want of learning, that humanity is one and indivisible; and the man who shuts himself apart from his fellows, above all, the man who thus shuts himself apart because he thinks of his fellows with pitying condescension as his inferiors, is a fool and a blasphemer,—a fool, because he robs himself of that good-fellowship which is the leaven of life; a blasphemer, because he virtually implies that God made men unfit for him to associate with. Stephen White had this lesson yet to learn.
The practical inconvenience of being unpopular, however, he began to feel keenly, as month after month passed by, and nobody would rent the other half of the house in which he and his mother lived. Small as the rent was, it was a matter of great moment to them; for his earnings as clerk and copyist were barely enough to give them food. He was still retained by his father's partner in the same position which he had held during his father's life. But old Mr. Williams was not wholly free from the general prejudice against Stephen, as an aristocratic fellow, given to dreams and fancies; and Stephen knew very well that he held the position only as it were on a sort of sufferance, because Mr. Williams had loved his father. Moreover, law business in Penfield was growing duller and duller. A younger firm in the county town, only twelve miles away, was robbing them of clients continually; and there were many long days during which Stephen sat idle at his desk, looking out in a vague, dreamy way on the street below, and wondering if the time were really coming when Mr. Williams would need a clerk no longer; and, if it did come, what he could possibly find to do in that town, by which he could earn money enough to support his mother. At such times, he thought uneasily of the possibility of foreclosing the mortgage on the old Jacobs house, selling the house, and reinvesting the money in a more advantageous way. He always tried to put the thought away from him as a dishonorable one; but it had a fatal persistency. He could not banish it.
"Poor, half-witted old woman! she might a great deal better be in the poor-house."
"There is no reason why we should lose our interest, for the sake of keeping her along."
"The mortgage was for too large a sum. I doubt if the old house could sell to-day for enough to clear it, anyhow." These were some of the suggestions which the devil kept whispering into Stephen's ear, in these long hours of perplexity and misgiving. It was a question of casuistry which might, perhaps, have puzzled a finer moral sense than Stephen's. Why should he treat old Mrs. Jacobs with any more consideration than he would show to a man under the same circumstances? To be sure, she was a helpless old woman; but so was his own mother, and surely his first duty was to make her as comfortable as possible.
Luckily for old Mrs. Jacobs, a tenant appeared for the "south wing." A friend of Stephen's, a young clergyman living in a seaport town on Cape Cod, had written to him, asking about the house, which he knew Stephen was anxious to rent. He made these inquiries on behalf of two women, parishioners of his, who were obliged to move to some inland town on account of the elder woman's failing health. They were mother and daughter, but both widows. The younger woman's marriage had been a tragically sad one, her husband having died suddenly, only a few days after their marriage. She had returned at once to her mother's house, widowed at eighteen; "heart-broken," the young clergyman wrote, "but the most cheerful person in this town,—the most cheerful person I ever knew; her smile is the sunniest and most pathetic thing I ever saw."
Stephen welcomed most gladly the prospect of such tenants as these. The negotiations were soon concluded; and at the time of the beginning of our story the two women were daily expected.
A strange feverishness of desire to have them arrive possessed Stephen's mind. He longed for it, and yet he dreaded it. He liked the stillness of the house; he felt a sense of ownership of the whole of it: both of these satisfactions were to be interfered with now. But he had a singular consciousness that some new element was coming into his life. He did not define this; he hardly recognized it in its full extent; but if a bystander could have looked into his mind, following the course of his reverie distinctly, as an unbiassed outsider might, he would have said, "Stephen, man, what is this? What are these two women to you, that your imagination is taking these wild and superfluous leaps into their history?"
There was hardly a possible speculation as to their past history, as to their looks, as to their future life under his roof, that Stephen did not indulge in, as he stood leaning with his folded arms on the gate, in the gray November twilight, where we first found him. His thoughts, as was natural, centred most around the younger woman.
"Poor thing! That was a mighty hard fate. Only nineteen years old now,—six years younger than I am; and how much more she must know of life than I do. I suppose she can't be a lady, exactly,—being a sea captain's wife. I wonder if she's pretty? I think Harley might have told me more about her. He might know I'd be very curious.
"I wonder if mother'll take to them? If she does, it will be a great comfort to her. She 's so alone." And Stephen's face clouded, as he reflected how very seldom the monotony of the invalid's life was broken now by a friendly visit from a neighbor.
"If they should turn out really social, neighborly people that we liked, we might move away the old side-board from before the hall door, and go in and out that way, as the Jacobses used to. It would be unlucky though, I reckon, to use that door. I guess I'll plaster it up some day." Like all people of deep sentiment, Stephen had in his nature a vein of something which bordered on superstition.
The twilight deepened into darkness, and a cold mist began to fall in slow, drizzling drops. Still Stephen stood, absorbed in his reverie, and unmindful of the chill.
The hall door opened, and an old woman peered out. She held a lamp in one hand; the blast of cold air made the flame flicker and flare, and, as she put up one hand to shade it, the light was thrown sharply across her features, making them stand out like the distorted features of a hideous mask.
"Steve! Steve!" she called, in a shrill voice. "Supper's been waitin' more 'n half an hour. Lor's sake, what's the boy thinkin' on now, I wonder?" she muttered in an impatient lower tone, as Stephen turned his head slowly.
"Yes, yes, Marty. Tell my mother I will be there in a moment," replied Stephen, as he walked slowly toward the house; even then noting, with the keen and relentless glance of a beauty-worshipper, how grotesquely ugly the old woman's wrinkled face became, lighted up by the intense cross-light. Old Marty's face had never looked other than lovingly into Stephen's since he first lay in her arms, twenty-five years ago, when she came, a smooth-cheeked, rosy country-woman of twenty-five, to nurse his mother at the time of his birth. She had never left the home since. With a faithfulness and devotion only to be accounted for by the existence of rare springs of each in her own nature, surely not by any uncommon lovableness in either Mr. or Mrs. White, or by any especial comforts in her situation, she had stayed on a quarter of a century, in the hard position of woman of all work in a poor family. She worshipped Stephen, and, as I said, her face had never once looked other than lovingly into his; but he could not remember the time when he had not thought her hideous. She had a big brown mole on her chin, out of which grew a few bristling hairs. It was an unsightly thing, no doubt, on a woman's chin; and sometimes, when Marty was very angry, the hairs did actually seem to bristle, as a cat's whiskers do. When Stephen could not speak plain, he used to point his little dimpled finger at this mole and say, "Do doe away,—doe away;" and to this day it was a torment to him. His eyes seemed morbidly drawn toward it at times.. When he was ill, and poor Marty bent over his bed, ministering to him as no one but a loving old nurse can, he saw only the mole, and had to make an effort not to shrink from her. To-night, as she lingered on the threshold, affectionately waiting to light his path, he was thinking only of her ugliness. But when she exclaimed, with the privileged irritability of an old servant,—
"Jest look at your feet, Steve! they're wet through, an' your coat too, a standin' out in that drizzle. Anybody 'ud think you hadn't common sense," he replied with perfect good nature, and as heartily loving a tone as if he had been feasting on her beauty, instead of writhing inwardly at her ugliness,—
"All right, Marty,—all right. I'm not so wet as I look. I'll change my coat, and come in to supper in one minute. Don't you fidget about me so, good Marty." Never was Stephen heard to speak discourteously or even ungently to a human being. It would have offended his taste. It was not a matter of principle with him,—not at all: he hardly ever thought of things in that light. A rude or harsh word, a loud, angry tone, jarred on his every sense like a discord in music, or an inharmonious color; so he never used them. But as he ran upstairs, three steps at a time, after his kind, off-hand words to Marty, he said to himself, "Good heavens! I do believe Marty gets uglier every day. What a picture Rembrandt would have made of her old face peering out into the darkness there to-night! She would have done for the witch of Endor, watching to see if Samuel were coming up." And as he went down more slowly, revolving in his mind what plausible excuse he could give to his mother for his tardiness, he thought, "Well, I do hope she'll be at least tolerably good-looking."
Already the younger of the two women who were coming to live under his roof was "she," in his thoughts.
In the mean time, the young widow, Mercy Philbrick, and her old and almost childish mother, Mercy Carr, were coming by slow and tiring stage journeys up the dreary length of Cape Cod. For thirty years the elder woman had never gone out of sight of the village graveyard in which her husband and four children were buried. To transplant her was like transplanting an old weather-beaten tree, already dead at the top. Yet the physicians had said that the only chance of prolonging her life was to take her away from the fierce winds of the sea. She herself, while she loved them, shrank from them. They seemed to pierce her lungs like arrows of ice-cold steel, at once wounding and benumbing. Yet the habit and love of the seashore life were so strong upon her that she would never have been able to tear herself away from her old home, had it not been for her daughter's determined will. Mercy Philbrick was a woman of slight frame, gentle, laughing, brown eyes, a pale skin, pale ash-brown hair, a small nose; a sweet and changeful mouth, the upper lip too short, the lower lip much too full; little hands, little feet, little wrists. Not one indication of great physical or great mental strength could you point out in Mercy Philbrick; but she was rarely ill; and she had never been known to give up a point, small or great, on which her will had been fully set. Even the cheerfulness of which her minister, Harley Allen, had written to Stephen, was very largely a matter of will with Mercy. She confronted grief as she would confront an antagonist force of any sort: it was something to be battled with, to be conquered. Fate should not worst her: come what might, she would be the stronger of the two. When the doctor said to her,—
"Mrs. Philbrick, I fear that your mother cannot live through another winter in this climate," Mercy looked at him for a moment with an expression of terror. In an instant more, the expression had given place to one of resolute and searching inquiry.
"You think, then, that she might be well in a different climate?"
"Perhaps not well, but she might live for years in a dryer, milder air. There is as yet no actual disease in her lungs," the doctor replied.
Mercy interrupted him.
"You think she might live in comparative comfort? It would not be merely prolonging her life as a suffering invalid?" she said; adding in an undertone, as if to herself, "I would not subject her to that."
"Oh, yes, undoubtedly," said the doctor. "She need never die of consumption at all, if she could breathe only inland air. She will never be strong again, but she may live years without any especial liability to suffering."
"Then I will take her away immediately," replied Mercy, in as confident and simple a manner as if she had been proposing only to move her from one room into another. It would not seem so easy a matter for two lonely women, in a little Cape Cod village, without a male relative to help them, and with only a few thousand dollars in the world, to sell their house, break up all their life-long associations, and go out into the world to find a new home. Associations crystallize around people in lonely and out of the way spots, where the days are all alike, and years follow years in an undeviating monotony. Perhaps the process might be more aptly called one of petrifaction. There are pieces of exquisite agate which were once soft wood. Ages ago, the bit of wood fell into a stream, where the water was largely impregnated with some chemical matter which had the power to eat out the fibre of the wood, and in each spot thus left empty to deposit itself in an exact image of the wood it had eaten away. Molecule by molecule, in a mystery too small for human eye to detect, even had a watchful human eye been lying in wait to observe, the marvellous process went on; until, after the lapse of nobody knows how many centuries, the wood was gone, and in its place lay its exact image in stone,—rings of growth, individual peculiarities of structure, knots, broken slivers and chips; color, shape, all perfect. Men call it agatized wood, by a feeble effort to translate the mystery of its existence; but it is not wood, except to the eye. To the touch, and in fact, it is stone,—hard, cold, unalterable, eternal stone. The slow wear of monotonous life in a set groove does very much such a thing as this to human beings. To the eye they retain the semblance of other beings; but try them by touch, that is by contact with people, with events outside their groove, and they are stone,—agatized men and women. Carry them where you please, after they have reached middle or old age, and they will not change. There is no magic water, a drop of which will restore to them the vitality and pliability of their youth. They last well, such people,—as well, almost, as agatized wood on museum shelves; and the most you can do for them is to keep them well dusted.
Old Mrs. Carr belonged, in a degree, to this order of persons. Only the coming of Mercy's young life into the feeble current of her own had saved it from entire stagnation. But she was already past middle age when Mercy was born; and the child with her wonderful joyousness, and the maiden with her wondrous cheer, came too late to undo what the years had done. The most they could do was to interrupt the process, to stay it at that point. The consequence was that Mrs. Carr at sixty-five was a placid sort of middle-aged old lady, very pleasant to talk with as you would talk with a child, very easy to take care of as you would take care of a child, but, for all purposes of practical management or efficient force, as helpless as a baby.
When Mercy told her what the doctor had said of her health, and that they must sell the house and move away before the winter set in, she literally opened her mouth too wide to speak for a minute, and then gasped out like a frightened child,—
"O Mercy, don't let's do it!"
As Mercy went on explaining to her the necessity of the change, and the arrangements she proposed to make, the poor old woman's face grew longer and longer; but, some time before Mercy had come to the end of her explanation, the childish soul had accepted the whole thing as fixed, had begun already to project itself in childish imaginations of detail; and to Mercy's infinite relief and half-sad amusement, when she ceased speaking, her mother's first words were, eagerly,—
"Well, Mercy, if we go 'n the stage, 'n' I s'pose we shall hev to, don't ye think my old brown merino'll do to wear?"
Fortune favored Mercy's desire to sell the house. Stephen's friend, the young minister, had said to himself many times, as he walked up to its door between the quaint, trim beds of old-fashioned pinks and ladies' delights and sweet-williams which bordered the little path, "This is the only house in this town I want to live in." As soon as he heard that it was for sale, he put on his hat, and fairly ran to buy it. Out of breath, he took Mercy's hands in his, and exclaimed,—
"O Mercy, do you really want to sell this house?"
Very unworldly were this young man and this young woman, in the matter of sale and purchase. Adepts in traffic would have laughed, had they overheard the conversation.
"Yes, indeed, Mr. Allen, I do. I must sell it; and I am afraid I shall have to sell it for a great deal less than it is worth," replied Mercy.
"No, you sha'n't, Mercy! I'll buy it myself. I've always wanted it. But why in the world do you want to sell it? Where will you live yourself? There isn't another house in the village you'd like half so well. Is it too large for you?" continued Mr. Allen, hurriedly. Then Mercy told him all her plans, and the sad necessity for her making the change. The young minister did not speak for some moments. He seemed lost in thought. Then he exclaimed,—
"I do believe it's a kind of Providence!" and drew a letter from his pocket, which he had only two days before received from Stephen White. "Mercy," he went on, "I believe I've got the very thing you want right here;" and he read her the concluding paragraph of the letter, in which Stephen had said: "Meantime, I am waiting as patiently as I can for a tenant for the other half of this house. It seems to be very hard to find just the right sort of person. I cannot take in any of the mill operatives. They are noisy and untidy; and the bare thought of their being just the other side of the partition would drive my mother frantic. I wish so much I could get some people in that would be real friends for her. She is very lonely. She never leaves her bed; and I have to be away all day."
Mercy's face lighted up. She liked the sound of each word that this unknown man wrote. Very eagerly she questioned Mr. Allen about the town, its situation, its healthfulness, and so forth. As he gave her detail after detail, she nodded her head with increasing emphasis, and finally exclaimed: "That is precisely such a spot as Dr. Wheeler said we ought to go to. I think you're right, Mr. Allen. It's a Providence. And I'd be so glad to be good to that poor old woman, too. What a companion she'd be for mother! that is, if I could keep them from comparing notes for ever about their diseases. That's the worst of putting invalid old women together," laughed Mercy with a kindly, merry little laugh.
Mr. Allen had visited Penfield only once. When he and Stephen were boys at school together, he had passed one of the short vacations at Stephen's house. He remembered very little of Stephen's father and mother, or of their way of life. He was at the age when house and home mean little to boys, except a spot where shelter and food are obtained in the enforced intervals between their hours of out-door life. But he had never forgotten the grand out-look and off-look from the town. Lying itself high up on the western slope of what must once have been a great river terrace, it commanded a view of a wide and fertile meadow country, near enough to be a most beautiful feature in the landscape, but far enough away to prevent any danger from its moisture. To the south and south-west rose a fine range of mountains, bold and sharp-cut, though they were not very high, and were heavily wooded to their summits. The westernmost peak of this range was separated from the rest by a wide river, which had cut its way through in some of those forgotten ages when, if we are to believe the geologists, every thing was topsy-turvy on this now meek and well-regulated planet.
The town, although, as I said, it lay on the western slope of a great river terrace, held in its site three distinctly marked plateaus. From the two highest of these, the views were grand. It was like living on a mountain, and yet there was the rich beauty of coloring of the river interval. Nowhere in all New England was there a fairer country than this to look upon, nor a goodlier one in which to live.
Mr. Allen's enthusiasm in describing the beauties of the place, and Mercy's enthusiasm in listening, were fast driving out of their minds the thought of the sale, which had been mentioned in the beginning of their conversation. Mercy was the first to recall it. She blushed and hesitated, as she said,—
"But, Mr. Allen, we can't go, you know, until I have sold this house. Did you really want to buy it? And how much do you think I ought to ask for it?"
"To be sure, to be sure!" exclaimed the young minister. "Dear me, what children we are! Mercy, I don't honestly know what you ought to ask for the house. I'll find out."
"Deacon Jones said he thought, taking in the cranberry meadow, it was worth three thousand dollars," said Mercy; "but that seems a great deal to me: though not in a good cranberry year, perhaps," added she, ingenuously, "for last year the cranberries brought us in seventy-five dollars, besides paying for the picking."
"And the meadow ought to go with the house, by all means," said Mr. Allen. "I want it for color in the background, when I look at the house as I come down from the meeting-house hill. I wouldn't like to have anybody else own the canvas on which the picture of my home will be oftenest painted for my eyes. I'll give you three thousand dollars for the house, Mercy. I can only pay two thousand down, and pay you interest on the other thousand for a year or two. I'll soon clear it off. Will that do?"
"Oh, thank you, thank you, Mr. Allen. It will more than do," said poor Mercy, who could not believe in such sudden good fortune; "but do you think you ought to buy it so quick? Perhaps it wouldn't bring so much money as that. I had not asked anybody except Deacon Jones."
Mr. Allen laughed. "If you don't look out for yourself sharper than this, Mercy," he said, "in the new place 'where you're going to live, you'll fare badly. Perhaps it may be true, as you say, that nobody else would give you three thousand dollars for the house, because nobody might happen to want to live in it. But Deacon Jones knows better than anybody else the value of property here, and I am perfectly willing to give you the price he set on the place. I had laid by this two thousand dollars towards my house; and I could not build such a house as this, to-day, for three thousand dollars. But really, Mercy, you must look 'out for yourself better than this."
"I don't know," replied Mercy, looking out of the window, with an earnest gaze, as if she were reading a writing a great way off,—"I don't know about that. I doubt very much if looking out for one's self, as you call it, is the best way to provide for one's self."
That very night Mr. Allen wrote to Stephen; in two weeks, the whole matter was settled, and Mercy and her mother had set out on their journey. They carried with them but one small valise. The rest of their simple wardrobe had gone in boxes, with the furniture, by sailing vessel, to a city which was within three hours by rail of their new home. This was the feature of the situation which poor Mrs. Carr could not accept. In the bottom of her heart, she fully believed that they would never again see one of those boxes. The contents of some which she had herself packed were of a most motley description. In the beginning of the breaking up, while Mercy was at her wits' end, with the unwonted perplexities of packing the whole belongings of a house, her mother had tormented her incessantly by bringing to her every few minutes some utterly incongruous and frequently worthless article, and begging her to put it in at once, whatever she might be packing. Any one who has ever packed for a long journey, with an eager and excited child running up every minute with more and more cumbrous toys, dogs, cats, Noah's arks, and so on, to be put in among books and under-clothing, can imagine Mercy's despair at her mother's restless activity.
"Oh, mother, not in this box! Not in with the china!" would groan poor Mercy, as her mother appeared with armfuls of ancient relics from the garret, such as old umbrellas, bonnets, bundles of old newspapers, broken spinning-wheels, andirons, and rolls of remains of old wall-paper, the last of which had disappeared from the walls of the house, long before Mercy was born. No old magpie was ever a more indiscriminate hoarder than Mrs. Carr had been; and, among all her hoardings, there was none more amusing than her hoarding of old wall-papers. A scrap a foot square seemed to her too precious to throw away. "It might be jest the right size to cover suthin' with," she would say; and, to do her justice, she did use in the course of a year a most unexampled amount of such fragments. She had a mania for papering and repapering and papering again every shelf, every box, every corner she could get hold of. The paste and brush were like toys to her; and she delighted in gay combinations, sticking on old bits of borders in fantastic ways, in most inappropriate situations.
"I do believe you'll paper the pigsty next, mother," said Mercy one day: "there's nothing left you can paper except that." Mrs. Carr took the suggestion in perfect good faith, and convulsed Mercy a few days later by entering the kitchen with the following extraordinary remark,—
"I don't believe it's worth while to paper the pigsty. I've been looking at it, and the boards they're so rough, the paper wouldn't lay smooth, anyhow; and I couldn't well get at the inside o' the roof, while the pig's in. It would look real neat, though. I'd like to do it."
Mercy endured her mother's help in packing for one day. Then the desperateness of the trouble suggested a remedy. Selecting a large, strong box, she had it carried into the garret.
"There, mother," she said, "now you can pack in this box all the old lumber of all sorts which you want to carry. And, if this box isn't large enough, you shall have two more. Don't tire yourself out: there's plenty of time; and, if you don't get it all packed by the time I am done, I can help you."
Then Mercy went downstairs feeling half-guilty, as one does when one has practised a subterfuge on a child.
How many times that poor old woman packed and unpacked that box, nobody could dream. All day long she trotted up and down, up and down; ransacking closets, chests, barrels; sorting and resorting, and forgetting as fast as she sorted. Now and then she would come across something which would rouse an electric chain of memories in the dim chambers of her old, worn-out brain, and she would sit motionless for a long time on the garret floor, in a sort of trance. Once Mercy found her leaning back against a beam, with her knees covered by a piece of faded blue Canton crape, on which her eyes were fastened. She did not speak till Mercy touched her shoulder.
"Oh, my! how you scared me, child!" she exclaimed. "D'ye see this ere blue stuff? I hed a gown o' thet once: it was drefful kind o' clingy stuff. I never felt exzackly decent in it, somehow: it hung a good deal like a night-gownd; but your father he bought it for the color. He traded off some shells for it in some o' them furrin places. You wouldn't think it now, but it used to be jest the color o' a robin's egg or a light-blue 'bachelor's button;' and your father he used to stick one o' them in my belt whenever they was in blossom, when I hed the gownd on. He hed a heap o' notions about things matchin'. He brought me that gownd the v'yage he made jest afore Caleb was born; and I never hed a chance to wear it much, the children come so fast. It warn't re'ly worn at all, 'n' I hed it dyed black for veils arterwards."
It was from this father who used to "stick" pale-blue flowers in his wife's belt, and whose love of delicate fabrics and tints made him courageous enough to lead her draped in Canton crape into the unpainted Cape Cod meeting-house, where her fellow-women bristled in homespun, that Mercy inherited all the artistic side of her nature. She knew this instinctively, and all her tenderest sentiment centred around the vague memory she retained of a tall, dark-bearded man, who, when she was only three years old, lifted her in his arms, called her his "little Mercy," and kissed her over and over again. She was most loyally affectionate to her mother, but the sentiment was not a wholly filial one. There was too much reversal of the natural order of the protector and the protected in it; and her life was on too different a plane of thought, feeling, and interest from the life of the uncultured, undeveloped, childish, old woman. Yet no one who saw them together would have detected any trace of this shortcoming in Mercy's feeling towards her mother. She had in her nature a fine and lofty fibre of loyalty which could never condescend even to parley with a thought derogatory to its object; was lifted above all consciousness of the possibility of any other course. This is a sort of organic integrity of affection, which is to those who receive it a tower of strength, that is impregnable to all assault except that of death itself. It is a rare type of love, the best the world knows; but the men and the women whose hearts are capable of it are often thought not to be of a loving nature. The cheaper and less lasting types of love are so much louder of voice and readier of phrase, as in cloths cheap fabrics, poor to wear, are often found printed in gay colors and big patterns.
The day before they left home, Mercy, becoming alarmed by a longer interval than usual without any sound from the garret, where her mother was still at work over her fantastic collections of old odds and ends, ran up to see what it meant.
Mrs. Carr was on her knees before a barrel, which had held rags and papers. The rags and papers were spread around her on the floor. She had leaned her head on the barrel, and was crying bitterly.
"Mother! mother! what is the matter?" exclaimed Mercy, really alarmed; for she had very few times in her life seen her mother cry. Without speaking, Mrs. Carr held up a little piece of carved ivory. It was of a creamy yellow, and shone like satin: a long shred of frayed pink ribbon hung from it. As she held it up to Mercy, a sunbeam flashed in at the garret window, and fell across it, sending long glints of light to right and left.
"What a lovely bit of carving! What is it, mother? Why does it make you cry?" asked Mercy, stretching out her hand to take the ivory.
"It's Caley's whistle," sobbed Mrs. Carr. "We allus thought Patience Swift must ha' took it. She nussed me a spell when he was a little feller, an' jest arter she went away we missed the whistle. Your father he brought that hum the same v'yage I told ye he brought the blue crape. He knowed I was a expectin' to be sick, and he was drefful afraid he wouldn't get hum in time; but he did. He jest come a sailin' into th' harbor, with every mite o' sail the old brig 'd carry, two days afore Caley was born. An' the next mornin',—oh, dear me! it don't seem no longer ago 'n yesterday,—while he was a dressin', an' I lay lookin' at him, he tossed that little thing over to me on the bed, 'n' sez he,—"
"T 'll be a boy, Mercy, I know 'twill; an' here's his bos'u'n's whistle all ready for him,' an' that night he bought that very yard o' pink rebbin, and tied it on himself, and laid it in the upper drawer into one o' the little pink socks I'd got all ready. Oh, it don't seem any longer ago 'n yesterday! An' sure enough it was a boy; an' your father he allus used to call him 'Bos'u'n,' and he'd stick this ere whistle into his mouth an' try to make him blow it afore he was a month old. But by the time he was nine months old he'd blow it ez loud ez I could. And his father he'd just lay back 'n his chair, and laugh 'n' laugh, 'n' call out, 'Blow away, my hearty!' Oh, my! it don't seem any longer ago'n yesterday. I wish I'd ha' known. I wa'n't never friends with Patience any more arter that. I never misgave me but what she'd got the whistle. It was such a curious cut thing, and cost a heap o' money. Your father wouldn't never tell what he gin for 't. Oh, my! it don't seem any longer ago 'n yesterday," and the old woman wiped her eyes on her apron, and struggling up on her feet took the whistle again from Mercy's hands.
"How old would my brother Caley be now, if he had lived, mother?" said Mercy, anxious to bring her mother gently back to the present.
"Well, let me see, child. Why, Caley—Caley, he'd be—How old am I, Mercy? Dear me! hain't I lost my memory, sure enough, except about these ere old things? They seem's clear's daylight."
"Sixty-five last July, mother," said Mercy. "Don't you know I gave you your new specs then?"
"Oh, yes, child,—yes. Well, I'm sixty-five, be I? Then Caley,—Caley, he'd be, let me see—you reckon it, Mercy. I wuz goin' on nineteen when Caley was born."
"Why, mother," exclaimed Mercy, "is it really so long ago? Then my brother Caleb would be forty-six years old now!" and mercy took again in her hand the yellow ivory whistle, and ran her fingers over the faded and frayed pink ribbon, and looked at it with an indefinable sense of its being a strange link between her and a distant past, which, though she had never shared it, belonged to her by right. Hardly thinking what she did, she raised the whistle to her lips, and blew a loud, shrill whistle on it. Her mother started. "O Mercy, don't, don't!" she cried. "I can't bear to hear it."
"Now, mother, don't you be foolish," said Mercy, cheerily. "A whistle's a whistle, old or young, and made to be whistled with. We'll keep this to amuse children with: you carry it in your pocket. Perhaps we shall meet some children on the journey; and it'll be so nice for you to pop this out of your pocket, and give it to them to blow."
"So it will, Mercy, I declare. That 'ud be real nice. You're a master-piece for thinkin' o' things." And, easily diverted as a child, the old woman dropped the whistle into her deep pocket, and, forgetting all her tears, returned to her packing.
Not so Mercy. Having attained her end of cheering her mother, her own thoughts reverted again and again all day long, and many times in after years, whenever she saw the ivory whistle, to the strange picture of the lonely old woman in the garret coming upon her first-born child's first toy, lost for forty years; the picture, too, of the history of the quaint piece of carving itself; the day it was slowly cut and chiselled by a patient and ill-paid toiler in some city of China; its voyage in the keeping of the ardent young husband hastening home to welcome his first child; its forty years of silence and darkness in the old garret; and then its return to life and light and sound, in the hands and lips of new generations of children.
The journey which Mercy had so much dreaded was unexpectedly pleasant. Mrs. Carr proved an admirable traveller with the exception of her incessant and garrulous anxiety about the boxes which had been left behind on the deck of the schooner "Maria Jane," and could not by any possibility overtake them for three weeks to come. She was, in fact, so much of a child that she was in a state of eager delight at every new scene and person. Her childishness proved the best of claims upon every one's courtesy. Everybody was ready to help "that poor sweet old woman;" and she was so simply and touchingly grateful for the smallest kindness that everybody who had helped her once wanted to help her again. More than one of their fellow-travellers remembered for a long time the bright-faced young woman with her childish mother, and wondered where they could have been going, and what was to be their life.
On the fourth day, just as the sun was sinking behind the hills, they entered the beautiful river interval, through which the road to their new home lay. Mercy sat with her face almost pressed against the panes of the car-windows, eagerly scanning every feature of the landscape, to her so new and wonderful. To the dweller by the sea, the first sight of mountains is like the sight of a new heavens and a new earth. It is a revelation of a new life. Mercy felt strangely stirred and overawed. She looked around in astonishment at her fellow-passengers, not one of whom apparently observed that on either hand were stretching away to the east and the west fields that were, even in this late autumn, like carpets of gold and green. Through these fertile meadows ran a majestic river, curving and doubling as if loath to leave such fair shores. The wooded mountains changed fast from green to purple, from purple to dark gray; and almost before Mercy had comprehended the beauty of the region, it was lost from her sight, veiled in the twilight's pale, indistinguishable tints. Her mother was fast asleep in her seat. The train stopped every few moments at some insignificant station, of which Mercy could see nothing but a narrow platform, a dim lantern, and a sleepy-looking station-master. Slowly, one or two at a time, the passengers disappeared, until she and her mother were left alone in the car. The conductor and the brakeman, as they passed through, looked at them with renewed interest: it was evident now that they were going through to the terminus of the road.
"Goin' through, be ye?" said the conductor. "It'll be dark when we get in; an' it's beginnin' to rain. 'S anybody comin' to meet ye?"
"No," said Mercy, uneasily. "Will there not be carriages at the depot? We are going to the hotel. I believe there is but one."
"Well, there may be a kerridge down to-night, an' there may not: there's no knowin'. Ef it don't rain too hard, I reckon Seth'll be down."
Mercy's sense of humor never failed her. She laughed heartily, as she said,—
"Then Seth stays away, does he, on the nights when he would be sure of passengers?"
The conductor laughed too, as he replied,—-
"Well, 'tisn't quite so bad's that. Ye see this here road's only a piece of a road. It's goin' up through to connect with the northern roads; but they 've come to a stand-still for want o' funds, an' more 'n half the time I don't carry nobody over this last ten miles. Most o' the people from our town go the other way, on the river road. It's shorter, an' some cheaper. There isn't much travellin' done by our folks, anyhow. We're a mighty dead an' alive set up here. Goin' to stay a spell?" he continued, with increasing interest, as he looked longer into Mercy's face.
"Probably," said Mercy, in a grave tone, suddenly recollecting that she ought not to talk with this man as if he were one of her own village people. The conductor, sensitive as are most New England people, spite of their apparent familiarity of address, to the least rebuff, felt the change in Mercy's tone, and walked away, thinking half surlily, "She needn't put on airs. A schoolma'am, I reckon. Wonder if it can be her that's going to teach the Academy?"
When they reached the station, it was, as the conductor had said, very dark; and it was raining hard. For the first time, a sense of her unprotected loneliness fell upon Mercy's heart. Her mother, but half-awake, clung nervously to her, asking purposeless and incoherent questions. The conductor, still surly from his fancied rebuff at Mercy's hands, walked away, and took no notice of them. The station-master was nowhere to be seen. The two women stood huddling together under one umbrella, gazing blankly about them.
"Is this Mrs. Philbrick?" came in clear, firm tones, out of the darkness behind them; and, in a second more, Mercy had turned and looked up into Stephen White's face.
"Oh, how good you were to come and meet us!" exclaimed Mercy. "You are Mr. Allen's friend, I suppose."
"Yes," said Stephen, curtly. "But I did not come to meet you. You must not thank me. I had business here. However, I made the one carriage which the town boasts, wait, in case you should be here. Here it is!" And, before Mercy had time to analyze or even to realize the vague sense of disappointment she felt at his words, she found herself and her mother placed in the carriage, and the door shut.
"Your trunks cannot go up until morning," he said, speaking through the carriage window; "but, if you will give me your checks, I will see that they are sent."
"We have only one small valise," said Mercy: "that was under our seat. The brakeman said he would take it out for us; but he forgot it, and so did I."
The train was already backing out of the station. Stephen smothered some very unchivalrous words on his lips, as he ran out into the rain, overtook the train, and swung himself on the last car, in search of the "one small valise" belonging to his tenants. It was a very shabby valise: it had made many a voyage with its first owner, Captain Carr. It was a very little valise: it could not have held one gown of any of the modern fashions.
"Dear me," thought Stephen, as he put it into the carriage at Mercy's feet, "what sort of women are these I've taken under my roof! I expect they'll be very unpleasing sights to my eyes. I did hope she'd be good-looking." How many times in after years did Stephen recall with laughter his first impressions of Mercy Philbrick, and wonder how he could have argued so unhesitatingly that a woman who travelled with only one small valise could not be good-looking.
"Will you come to the house to-morrow?" he asked.
"Oh, no," replied Mercy, "not for three or four weeks yet. Our furniture will not be here under that time."
"Ah!" said Stephen, "I had not thought of that. I will call on you at the hotel, then, in a day or two."
His adieus were civil, but only civil: that most depressing of all things to a sensitive nature, a kindly indifference, was manifest in every word he said, and in every tone of his voice.
Mercy felt it to the quick; but she was ashamed of herself for the feeling. "What business had I to expect that he was going to be our friend?" she said in her heart. "We are only tenants to him."
"What a kind-spoken young man he is, to be sure, Mercy!" said Mrs. Carr.
So all-sufficient is bare kindliness of tone and speech to the unsensitive nature.
"Yes, mother, he was very kind," said Mercy; "but I don't think we shall ever know him very well."
"Why, Mercy, why not?" exclaimed her mother. "I should say he was most uncommon friendly for a stranger, running back after our valise in the rain, and a goin' to call on you to oncet."
Mercy made no reply. The carriage rolled along over the rough and muddy road. It was too dark to see any thing except the shadowy black shapes of houses, outlined on a still deeper blackness by the light streaming from their windows. There is no sight in the world so hard for lonely, homeless people to see, as the sight of the lighted windows of houses after nightfall. Why houses should look so much more homelike, so much more suggestive of shelter and cheer and companionship and love, when the curtains are snug-drawn and the doors shut, and nobody can look in, though the lights of fires and lamps shine out, than they do in broad daylight, with open windows and people coming and going through open doors, and a general air of comradeship and busy living, it is hard to see. But there is not a lonely vagabond in the world who does not know that they do. One may see on a dark night many a wistful face of lonely man or lonely woman, hurrying resolutely past, and looking away from, the illumined houses which mean nothing to them except the keen reminder of what they are without. Oh, the homeless people there are in this world! Did anybody ever think to count up the thousands there are in every great city, who live in lodgings and not in homes; from the luxurious lodger who lodges in the costliest rooms of the costliest hotel, down to the most poverty-stricken lodger who lodges in a corner of the poorest tenement-house? Homeless all of them; their common vagabondage is only a matter of degrees of decency. All honor to the bravery of those who are homeless because they must be, and who make the best of it. But only scorn and pity for those who are homeless because they choose to be, and are foolish enough to like it.
Mercy had never before felt the sensation of being a homeless wanderer. She was utterly unprepared for it. All through the breaking up of their home and the preparations for their journey, she had been buoyed up by excitement and anticipation. Much as she had grieved to part from some of the friends of her early life, and to leave the old home in which she was born, there was still a certain sense of elation in the prospect of new scenes and new people. She had felt, without realizing it, a most unreasonable confidence that it was to be at once a change from one home to another home. In her native town, she had had a position of importance. Their house was the best house in the town; judged by the simple standards of a Cape Cod village, they were well-to-do. Everybody knew, and everybody spoke with respect and consideration, of "Old Mis' Carr," or, as she was perhaps more often called, "Widder Carr." Mercy had not thought—in her utter inexperience of change, it could not have occurred to her—what a very different thing it was to be simply unknown and poor people in a strange place. The sense of all this smote upon her suddenly and keenly, as they jolted along in the noisy old carriage on this dark, rainy night. Stephen White's indifferent though kindly manner first brought to her the thought, or rather the feeling, of this. Each new glimmer of the home-lights deepened her sense of desolation. Every gust of rain that beat on the carriage roof and windows made her feel more and more like an outcast. She never forgot these moments. She used to say that in them she had lived the whole life of the loneliest outcast that was ever born. Long years afterward, she wrote a poem, called "The Outcast," which was so intense in its feeling one could have easily believed that it was written by Ishmael. When she was asked once how and when she wrote this poem, she replied, "I did not write it: I lived it one night in entering a strange town." In vain she struggled against the strange and unexpected emotion. A nervous terror of arriving at the hotel oppressed her more and more; although, thanks to Harley Allen's thoughtfulness, she knew that their rooms were already engaged for them. She felt as if she would rather drive on and on, in all the darkness and rain, no matter where, all night long, rather than enter the door of the strange and public house, in which she must give her name and her mother's name on the threshold.
When the carriage stopped, she moved so slowly to alight that her mother exclaimed petulantly,—
"Dear me, child, what's the matter with you? Ain't you goin' to git out? Ain't this the tavern?"
"Yes, mother, this is our place," said Mercy, in a low voice, unlike her usual cheery, ringing tones, as she assisted her mother down the clumsy steps from the old-fashioned, high vehicle. "They're expecting us: it is all right." But her voice and face belied her words. She moved all through the rest of the evening like one in a dream. She said little, but busied herself in making her mother as comfortable as it was possible to be in the dingy and unattractive little rooms; and, as soon as the tired old woman had fallen asleep, Mercy sat down on the floor by the window, and leaning her head on the sill cried hard.
The next morning the sun shone, and Mercy was herself again. Her depression of the evening before seemed to her so causeless, so inexplicable, that she recalled it almost with terror, as one might a temporary insanity. She blushed to think of her unreasonable sensitiveness to the words and tones of Stephen White. "As if it made any sort of difference to mother and to me whether he were our friend or not. He can do as he likes. I hope I'll be out when he calls," thought Mercy, as she stood on the hotel piazza, after breakfast, scanning with a keen and eager glance every feature of the scene. To her eyes, accustomed to the broad, open, leisurely streets of the Cape Cod hamlet, its isolated little houses with their trim flower-beds in front and their punctiliously kept fences and gates, this somewhat untidy and huddled town looked unattractive. The hotel stood on the top of one of the plateaus of which I spoke in the last chapter. The ground fell away slowly to the east and to the south. A poorly kept, oblong-shaped "common," some few acres in extent, lay just in front of the hotel: it had once been fenced in; but the fences were sadly out of repair, and two cows were grazing there this morning, as composedly as if there were no town ordinance forbidding all running of cattle in the streets. A few shabby old farm-wagons stood here and there by these fences; the sleepy horses which had drawn them thither having been taken out of the shafts, and tethered in some mysterious way to the hinder part of the wagons. A court was in session; and these were the wagons of lawyers and clients, alike humble in their style of equipage. On the left-hand side of the hotel, down the eastern slope of the hill ran an irregular block of brick buildings, no two of a height or size, The block had burned down in spots several times, and each owner had rebuilt as much or as little as he chose, which had resulted in as incoherent a bit of architecture as is often seen. The general effect, however, was of a tendency to a certain parallelism with the ground line: so that the block itself seemed to be sliding down hill; the roof of the building farthest east being not much above the level of the first story windows in the building farthest west. To add to the queerness of this "Brick Row," as it was called, the ingenuity of all the sign-painters of the region had been called into requisition. Signs alphabetical, allegorical, and symbolic; signs in black on white, in red on black, in rainbow colors on tin; signs high up, and signs low down; signs swung, and signs posted,—made the whole front of the Row look at a little distance like a wall of advertisements of some travelling menagerie. There was a painted yellow horse with a fiery red mane, which was the pride of the heart of Seth Nims, the livery-stable keeper; and a big black dog's head with a gay collar of scarlet and white morocco, which was supposed to draw the custom of all owners of dogs to "John Locker, harness-maker." There was a barber's pole, and an apothecary's shop with the conventional globes of mysterious crimson and blue liquids in the window; and, to complete the list of the decorations of this fantastic front, there had been painted many years ago, high up on the wall, in large and irregular letters, the sign stretching out over two-thirds of the row, "Miss Orra White's Seminary for Young Ladies." Miss Orra White had been dead for several years; and the hall in which she had taught her school, having passed through many successive stages of degradation in its uses, had come at last to be a lumber-room, from which had arisen many a waggish saying as to the similarity between its first estate and its last.
On the other side of the common, opposite the hotel, was a row of dwelling-houses, which owing to the steep descent had a sunken look, as if they were slipping into their own cellars. The grass was too green in their yards, and the thick, matted plantain-leaves grew on both edges of the sodden sidewalk.
"Oh, dear," thought Mercy to herself, "I am sure I hope our house is not there." Then she stepped down from the high piazza, and stood for a moment on the open space, looking up toward the north. She could only see for a short distance up the winding road. A high, wood-crowned summit rose beyond the houses, which seemed to be built higher and higher on the slope, and to be much surrounded by trees. A street led off to the west also: this was more thickly built up. To the south, there was again a slight depression; and the houses, although of a better order than those on the eastern side of the common, had somewhat of the same sunken air. Mercy's heart turned to the north with a sudden and instinctive recognition. "I am sure that is the right part of the town for mother," she said. "If Mr. White's house is down in that hollow, we'll not live in it long." She was so absorbed in her study of the place, and in her conjectures as to their home, that she did not realize that she herself was no ordinary sight in that street: a slight, almost girlish figure, in a plain, straight, black gown like a nun's, with one narrow fold of transparent white at her throat, tied carelessly by long floating ends of black ribbon; her wavy brown hair blown about her eyes by the wind, her cheeks flushed with the keen air, and her eyes bright with excitement. Mercy could not be called even a pretty woman; but she had times and seasons of looking beautiful, and this was one of them. The hostler, who was rubbing down his horses in the door of the barn, came out wide-mouthed, and exclaimed under his breath,—
"Gosh! who's she?" with an emphasis on that feminine, personal pronoun which was all the bitterer slur on the rest of womankind in that neighborhood, that he was so unconscious of the reflection it conveyed. The cook and the stable-boy also came running to the kitchen door, on hearing the hostler's exclamation; and they, too, stood gazing at the unconscious Mercy, and each, in their own way, paying tribute to her appearance.
"That's the gal thet comed last night with her mother. Darned sight better-lookin' by daylight than she wuz then!" said the stable-boy.
"Hm! boys an' men, ye 're all alike,—all for looks," said the cook, who was a lean and ill-favored spinster, at least fifty years old. "The gal isn't any thin' so amazin' for good looks, 's I can see; but she's got mighty sarchin' eyes in her head. I wonder if she's a lookin' for somebody they're expectin'."
"Steve White he was with 'em down to the depot," replied the stable-boy. "Seth sed he handed on 'em into the kerridge, 's if they were regular topknots, sure enough."
"Hm! Seth Quin 's a fool, 'n' always wuz," replied the cook, with a seemingly uncalled-for acerbity of tone. "I've allus observed that them that hez the most to say about topknots hez the least idea of what topknots really is. There ain't a touch o' topknot about that ere girl: she's come o' real humbly people. Anybody with half an eye can see that. Good gracious! I believe she's goin' to stand still, and let old man Wheeler run over her. Look out there, look out, gal!" screamed the cook, and pounded vigorously with her rolling-pin on the side of the door to rouse Mercy's attention. Mercy turned just in time to confront a stout, red-faced, old gentleman with a big cane, who was literally on the point of walking over her. He was so near that, as she turned, he started back as if she had hit him in the breast.
"God bless my soul, God bless my soul, miss!" he exclaimed, in his excitement, striking his cane rapidly against the ground. "I beg your pardon, beg pardon, miss. Bad habit of mine, very bad habit,—walk along without looking. Walked on a dog the other day; hurt dog; tumbled down myself, nearly broke my leg. Bad habit, miss,—bad habit; too old to change, too old to change. Beg pardon, miss."
The old gentleman mumbled these curt phrases in a series of inarticulate jerks, as if his vocal apparatus were wound up and worked with a crank, but had grown so rusty that every now and then a wheel would catch on a cog. He did not stand still for a moment, but kept continually stepping, stepping, without advancing or retreating, striking his heavy cane on the ground at each step, as if beating time to his jerky syllables. He had twinkling blue eyes, which were half hid under heavy, projecting eyebrows, and shut up tight whenever he laughed. His hair was long and thin, and white as spun glass. Altogether, except that he spoke with an unmistakable Yankee twang, and wore unmistakable Yankee clothes, you might have fancied that he was an ancient elf from the Hartz Mountains.
Mercy could not refrain from laughing in his face, as she retreated a few steps towards the piazza, and said,—
"It is I who ought to beg your pardon. I had no business to be standing stock-still in the middle of the highway like a post."
"Sensible young woman! sensible young woman! God bless my soul! don't know your face, don't know your face," said the old gentleman, peering out from under the eaves of his eyebrows, and scrutinizing Mercy as a child might scrutinize a new-comer into his father's house. One could not resent it, any more than one could resent the gaze of a child. Mercy laughed again.
"No, sir, you don't know my face. I only came last night," she said.
"God bless my soul! God bless my soul! Fine young woman! fine young woman! glad to see you,—glad, glad. Girls good for nothing, nothing, nothing at all, nowadays," jerked on the queer old gentleman, still shifting rapidly from one foot to the other, and beating time continuously with his cane, but looking into Mercy's face with so kindly a smile that she felt her heart warm with affection towards him.
"Your father come with you? Come to stay? I'd like to know ye, child. Like your face,—good face, good face, very good face," continued the inexplicable old man. "Don't like many people. People are wolves, wolves, wolves. 'D like to know you, child. Good face, good face."
"Can he be crazy?" thought Mercy. But the smile and the honest twinkle of the clear blue eye were enough to counterbalance the incoherent talk: the old man was not crazy, only eccentric to a rare degree. Mercy felt instinctively that she had found a friend, and one whom she could trust and lean on.
"Thank you, sir," she said. "I'm very glad you like my face. I like yours, too,—you look so merry. I think I and my mother will be very glad to know you. We have come to live here in half of Mr. Stephen White's house."
"Merry, merry? Nobody calls me merry. That's a mistake, child,—mistake, mistake. Mistake about the house, too,—mistake. Stephen White hasn't any house,—no, no, hasn't any house. My name's Wheeler, Wheeler. Good enough name. 'Old Man Wheeler' some think's better. I hear 'em: my cane don't make so much noise but I hear 'em. Ha! ha! wolves, wolves, wolves! People are all wolves, all alike, all alike. Got any money, child?" With this last question, the whole expression of his face changed; the very features seemed to shrink; his eyes grew dark and gleaming as they fastened on Mercy's face.
Even this did not rouse Mercy's distrust. There was something inexplicable in the affectionate confidence she felt in this strange, old man.
"Only a little, sir," she said. "We are not rich; we have only a little."
"A little's a good deal, good deal, good deal. Take care of it, child. People'll git it away from you. They're nothing but wolves, wolves, wolves;" and, saying these words, the old man set off at a rapid pace down the street, without bidding Mercy good-morning.
As she stood watching him with an expression of ever-increasing astonishment, he turned suddenly, planted his stick in the ground, and called,—
"God bless my soul! God bless my soul! Bad habit, bad habit. Never do say good-morning,—bad habit. Too old to change, too old to change. Bad habit, bad habit." And with a nod to Mercy, but still not saying good-morning, he walked away.
Mercy ran into the house, breathless with amusement and wonder, and gave her mother a most graphic account of this strange interview.
"But, for all his queerness, I like him, and I believe he'll be a great friend of ours," she said, as she finished her story.
Mrs. Carr was knitting a woollen stocking. She had been knitting woollen stockings ever since Mercy could remember. She always kept several on hand in different stages of incompletion: some that she could knit on in the dark, without any counting of stitches; others that were in the process of heeling or toeing, and required the closest attention. She had been setting a heel while Mercy was speaking, and did not reply for a moment. Then, pushing the stitches all into a compact bunch in the middle of one needle, she let her work fall into her lap, and, rolling the disengaged knitting-needle back and forth on her knee to brighten it, looked at Mercy reflectively.
"Mercy," said she, "queer people allers do take to each other. I don't believe he's a bit queerer 'n you are, child." And Mrs. Carr laughed a little laugh, half pride and half dissatisfaction. "You're jest like your father: he'd make friends with a stranger, any day, on the street, in two jiffeys, if he took a likin' to him; and there might be neighbors a livin' right long 'side on us, for years an' years, thet he'd never any more 'n jest pass the time o' day with, 'n' he wa'n't a bit stuck up, either. I used ter ask him, often 'n' often, what made him so offish to sum folks, when I knew he hadn't the least thing agin 'em; and he allers said, sez he, 'Well, I can't tell ye nothin' about it, only jest this is the way 't is: I can't talk to 'em; they sort o' shet me up, like. I don't feel nateral, somehow, when they're round!'"
"O mother!" exclaimed Mercy, "I think I must be just like father. That is exactly the way I feel so often. When I get with some people, I feel just as if I had been changed into somebody else. I can't bear to open my mouth. It is like a bad dream, when you dream you can't move hand nor foot, all the time they're in the room with me."
"Well, I thank the Lord, I don't never take such notions about people," said Mrs. Carr, settling herself back in her chair, and beginning to make her needles fly. "Nobody don't never trouble me much, one way or the other. For my part, I think folks is alike as peas. We shouldn't hardly know 'em apart, if 't wa'n't for their faces."
Mercy was about to reply, "Why, mother, you just said that I was queer; and this old man was queer; and my father must have been queer, too." But she glanced at the placid old face, and forbore. There was a truth as well as an untruth in the inconsistent sayings, and both lay too deep for the childish intellect to grasp.