THE MINISTER'S CHARGE
THE APPRENTICESHIP OF LEMUEL BARKER
WILLIAM D. HOWELLS
AUTHOR OF "THE RISE OF SILAS LAPHAM," "A MODERN INSTANCE," "INDIAN SUMMER," ETC.
THE MINISTER'S CHARGE;
OR, THE APPRENTICESHIP OF LEMUEL BARKER.
On their way back to the farm-house where they were boarding, Sewell's wife reproached him for what she called his recklessness. "You had no right," she said, "to give the poor boy false hopes. You ought to have discouraged him—that would have been the most merciful way—if you knew the poetry was bad. Now, he will go on building all sorts of castles in the air on your praise, and sooner or later they will come tumbling about his ears—just to gratify your passion for saying pleasant things to people."
"I wish you had a passion for saying pleasant things to me, my dear," suggested her husband evasively.
"Oh, a nice time I should have!"
"I don't know about your nice time, but I feel pretty certain of my own. How do you know—Oh, do get up, you implacable cripple!" he broke off to the lame mare he was driving, and pulled at the reins.
"Don't saw her mouth!" cried Mrs. Sewell.
"Well, let her get up, then, and I won't. I don't like to saw her mouth; but I have to do something when you come down on me with your interminable consequences. I dare say the boy will never think of my praise again. And besides, as I was saying when this animal interrupted me with her ill-timed attempts at grazing, how do you know that I knew the poetry was bad?"
"How? By the sound of your voice. I could tell you were dishonest in the dark, David."
"Perhaps the boy knew that I was dishonest too," suggested Sewell.
"Oh no, he didn't. I could see that he pinned his faith to every syllable."
"He used a quantity of pins, then; for I was particularly profuse of syllables. I find that it requires no end of them to make the worse appear the better reason to a poet who reads his own verses to you. But come, now, Lucy, let me off a syllable or two. I—I have a conscience, you know well enough, and if I thought—But pshaw! I've merely cheered a lonely hour for the boy, and he'll go back to hoeing potatoes to-morrow, and that will be the end of it."
"I hope that will be the end of it," said Mrs. Sewell, with the darkling reserve of ladies intimate with the designs of Providence.
"Well," argued her husband, who was trying to keep the matter from being serious, "perhaps he may turn out a poet yet. You never can tell where the lightning is going to strike. He has some idea of rhyme, and some perception of reason, and—yes, some of the lines were musical. His general attitude reminded me of Piers Plowman. Didn't he recall Piers Plowman to you?"
"I'm glad you can console yourself in that way, David," said his wife relentlessly.
The mare stopped again, and Sewell looked over his shoulder at the house, now black in the twilight, on the crest of the low hill across the hollow behind them. "I declare," he said, "the loneliness of that place almost broke my heart. There!" he added, as the faint sickle gleamed in the sky above the roof, "I've got the new moon right over my left shoulder for my pains. That's what comes of having a sympathetic nature."
* * * * *
The boy was looking at the new moon, across the broken gate which stopped the largest gap in the tumbled stone wall. He still gripped in his hand the manuscript which he had been reading to the minister.
"There, Lem," called his mother's voice from the house, "I guess you've seen the last of 'em for one while. I'm 'fraid you'll take cold out there 'n the dew. Come in, child."
The boy obeyed. "I was looking at the new moon, mother. I saw it over my right shoulder. Did you hear—hear him," he asked, in a broken and husky voice,—"hear how he praised my poetry, mother?"
* * * * *
"Oh, do make her get up, David!" cried Mrs. Sewell. "These mosquitoes are eating me alive!"
"I will saw her mouth all to the finest sort of kindling-wood, if she doesn't get up this very instant," said Sewell, jerking the reins so wildly that the mare leaped into a galvanic canter, and continued without further urging for twenty paces. "Of course, Lucy," he resumed, profiting by the opportunity for conversation which the mare's temporary activity afforded, "I should feel myself greatly to blame if I thought I had gone beyond mere kindness in my treatment of the poor fellow. But at first I couldn't realise that the stuff was so bad. Their saying that he read all the books he could get, and was writing every spare moment, gave me the idea that he must be some sort of literary genius in the germ, and I listened on and on, expecting every moment that he was coming to some passage with a little lift or life in it; and when he got to the end, and hadn't come to it, I couldn't quite pull myself together to say so. I had gone there so full of the wish to recognise and encourage, that I couldn't turn about for the other thing. Well! I shall know another time how to value a rural neighbourhood report of the existence of a local poet. Usually there is some hardheaded cynic in the community with native perception enough to enlighten the rest as to the true value of the phenomenon; but there seems to have been none here. I ought to have come sooner to see him, and then I could have had a chance to go again and talk soberly and kindly with him, and show him gently how much he had mistaken himself. Oh, get up!" By this time the mare had lapsed again into her habitual absent-mindedness, and was limping along the dark road with a tendency to come to a full stop, from step to step. The remorse in the minister's soul was so keen that he could not use her with the cruelty necessary to rouse her flagging energies; as he held the reins he flapped his elbows up toward his face, as if they were wings, and contrived to beat away a few of the mosquitoes with them; Mrs. Sewell, in silent exasperation, fought them from her with the bough which she had torn from an overhanging birch-tree.
In the morning they returned to Boston, and Sewell's parish duties began again; he was rather faithfuller and busier in these than he might have been if he had not laid so much stress upon duties of all sorts, and so little upon beliefs. He declared that he envied the ministers of the good old times who had only to teach their people that they would be lost if they did not do right; it was much simpler than to make them understand that they were often to be good for reasons not immediately connected with their present or future comfort, and that they could not confidently expect to be lost for any given transgression, or even to be lost at all. He found it necessary to do his work largely in a personal way, by meeting and talking with people, and this took up a great deal of his time, especially after the summer vacation, when he had to get into relations with them anew, and to help them recover themselves from the moral lassitude into which people fall during that season of physical recuperation.
He was occupied with these matters one morning late in October when a letter came addressed in a handwriting of copybook carefulness, but showing in every painstaking stroke the writer's want of training, which, when he read it, filled Sewell with dismay. It was a letter from Lemuel Barker, whom Sewell remembered, with a pang of self-upbraiding, as the poor fellow he had visited with his wife the evening before they left Willoughby Pastures; and it enclosed passages of a long poem which Barker said he had written since he got the fall work done. The passages were not submitted for Sewell's criticism, but were offered as examples of the character of the whole poem, for which the author wished to find a publisher. They were not without ideas of a didactic and satirical sort, but they seemed so wanting in literary art beyond a mechanical facility of versification, that Sewell wondered how the writer should have mastered the notion of anything so literary as publication, till he came to that part of the letter in which Barker spoke of their having had so much sickness in the family that he thought he would try to do something to help along. The avowal of this meritorious ambition inflicted another wound upon Sewell's guilty consciousness; but what made his blood run cold was Barker's proposal to come down to Boston, if Sewell advised, and find a publisher with Sewell's assistance.
This would never do, and the minister went to his desk with the intention of despatching a note of prompt and total discouragement. But in crossing the room from the chair into which he had sunk, with a cheerful curiosity, to read the letter, he could not help some natural rebellion against the punishment visited upon him. He could not deny that he deserved punishment, but he thought that this, to say the least, was very ill-timed. He had often warned other sinners who came to him in like resentment that it was this very quality of inopportuneness that was perhaps the most sanative and divine property of retribution; the eternal justice fell upon us, he said, at the very moment when we were least able to bear it, or thought ourselves so; but now in his own case the clear-sighted prophet cried out and revolted in his heart. It was Saturday morning, when every minute was precious to him for his sermon, and it would take him fully an hour to write that letter; it must be done with the greatest sympathy; he had seen that this poor foolish boy was very sensitive, and yet it must be done with such thoroughness as to cut off all hope of anything like literary achievement for him.
At the moment Sewell reached his desk, with a spirit disciplined to the sacrifice required of it, he heard his wife's step outside his study door, and he had just time to pull open a drawer, throw the letter into it, and shut it again before she entered. He did not mean finally to conceal it from her, but he was willing to give himself breath before he faced her with the fact that he had received such a letter. Nothing in its way was more terrible to this good man than the righteousness of that good woman. In their case, as in that of most other couples who cherish an ideal of dutiful living, she was the custodian of their potential virtue, and he was the instrument, often faltering and imperfect, of its application to circumstances; and without wishing to spare himself too much, he was sometimes aware that she did not spare him enough. She worked his moral forces as mercilessly as a woman uses the physical strength of a man when it is placed at her direction.
"What is the matter, David?" she asked, with a keen glance at the face he turned upon her over his shoulder.
"Nothing that I wish to talk of at present, my dear," answered Sewell, with a boldness that he knew would not avail him if she persisted in knowing.
"Well, there would be no time if you did," said his wife. "I'm dreadfully sorry for you, David, but it's really a case you can't refuse. Their own minister is taken sick, and it's appointed for this afternoon at two o'clock, and the poor thing has set her heart upon having you, and you must go. In fact, I promised you would. I'll see that you're not disturbed this morning, so that you'll have the whole forenoon to yourself. But I thought I'd better tell you at once. It's only a child—a little boy. You won't have to say much."
"Oh, of course I must go," answered Sewell, with impatient resignation; and when his wife left the room, which she did after praising him and pitying him in a way that was always very sweet to him, he saw that he must begin his sermon at once, if he meant to get through with it in time, and must put off all hope of replying to Lemuel Barker till Monday at least. But he chose quite a different theme from that on which he had intended to preach. By an immediate inspiration he wrote a sermon on the text, "The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel," in which he taught how great harm could be done by the habit of saying what are called kind things. He showed that this habit arose not from goodness of heart, or from the desire to make others happy, but from the wish to spare one's-self the troublesome duty of formulating the truth so that it would perform its heavenly office without wounding those whom it was intended to heal. He warned his hearers that the kind things spoken from this motive were so many sins committed against the soul of the flatterer and the soul of him they were intended to flatter; they were deceits, lies; and he besought all within the sound of his voice to try to practise with one another an affectionate sincerity, which was compatible not only with the brotherliness of Christianity, but the politeness of the world. He enforced his points with many apt illustrations, and he treated the whole subject with so much fulness and fervour, that he fell into the error of the literary temperament, and almost felt that he had atoned for his wrongdoing by the force with which he had portrayed it.
Mrs. Sewell, who did not always go to her husband's sermons, was at church that day, and joined him when some ladies who had lingered to thank him for the excellent lesson he had given them at last left him to her.
"Really, David," she said, "I wondered your congregation could keep their countenances while you were going on. Did you think of that poor boy up at Willoughby Pastures when you were writing that sermon?"
"Yes, my dear," replied Sewell gravely; "he was in my mind the whole time."
"Well, you were rather hard upon yourself; and I think I was rather too hard upon you, that time, though I was so vexed with you. But nothing has come of it, and I suppose there are cases where people are so lost to common sense that you can't do anything for them by telling them the truth."
"But you'd better tell it, all the same," said Sewell, still in a glow of righteous warmth from his atonement; and now a sudden temptation to play with fire seized him. "You wouldn't have excused me if any trouble had come of it."
"No, I certainly shouldn't," said his wife. "But I don't regret it altogether if it's made you see what danger you run from that tendency of yours. What in the world made you think of it?"
"Oh, it came into my mind." said Sewell.
He did not find time to write to Barker the next day, and on recurring to his letter he saw that there was no danger of his taking another step without his advice, and he began to postpone it; when he had time he was not in the mood; he waited for the time and the mood to come together, and he also waited for the most favourable moment to tell his wife that he had got that letter from Barker and to ask her advice about answering it. If it had been really a serious matter, he would have told her at once; but being the thing it was, he did not know just how to approach it, after his first concealment. He knew that, to begin with, he would have to account for his mistake in attempting to keep it from her, and would have to bear some just upbraiding for this unmanly course, and would then be miserably led to the distasteful contemplation of the folly by which he had brought this trouble upon himself. Sewell smiled to think how much easier it was to make one's peace with one's God than with one's wife; and before he had brought himself to the point of answering Barker's letter, there came a busy season in which he forgot him altogether.
One day in the midst of this Sewell was called from his study to see some one who was waiting for him in the reception-room, but who sent in no name by the housemaid.
"I don't know as you remember me," the visitor said, rising awkwardly, as Sewell came forward with a smile of inquiry. "My name's Barker."
"Barker?" said the minister, with a cold thrill of instant recognition, but playing with a factitious uncertainty till he could catch his breath in the presence of the calamity. "Oh yes! How do you do?" he said; and then planting himself adventurously upon the commandment to love one's neighbour as one's-self, he added: "I'm very glad to see you!"
In token of his content, he gave Barker his hand and asked him to be seated.
The young man complied, and while Sewell waited for him to present himself in some shape that he could grapple with morally, he made an involuntary study of his personal appearance. That morning, before starting from home by the milk-train that left Willoughby Pastures at 4.5, Barker had given his Sunday boots a coat of blacking, which he had eked out with stove-polish, and he had put on his best pantaloons, which he had outgrown, and which, having been made very tight a season after tight pantaloons had gone out of fashion in Boston, caught on the tops of his boots and stuck there in spite of his efforts to kick them loose as he stood up, and his secret attempts to smooth them down when he had reseated himself. He wore a single-breasted coat of cheap broadcloth, fastened across his chest with a carnelian clasp-button of his father's, such as country youth wore thirty years ago, and a belated summer scarf of gingham, tied in a breadth of knot long since abandoned by polite society.
Sewell had never thought his wife's reception-room very splendidly appointed, but Barker must have been oppressed by it, for he sat in absolute silence after resuming his chair, and made no sign of intending to open the matter upon which he came. In the kindness of his heart Sewell could not refrain from helping him on.
"When did you come to Boston?" he asked with a cheeriness which he was far from feeling.
"This morning," said Barker briefly, but without the tremor in his voice which Sewell expected.
"You've never been here before, I suppose," suggested Sewell, with the vague intention of generalising or particularising the conversation, as the case might be.
Barker abruptly rejected the overture, whatever it was. "I don't know as you got a letter from me a spell back," he said.
"Yes, I did," confessed Sewell. "I did receive that letter," he repeated, "and I ought to have answered it long ago. But the fact is—" He corrected himself when it came to his saying this, and said, "I mean that I put it by, intending to answer it when I could do so in the proper way, until, I'm very sorry to say, I forgot it altogether. Yes, I forgot it, and I certainly ask your pardon for my neglect. But I can't say that as it's turned out I altogether regret it. I can talk with you a great deal better than I could write to you in regard to your"—Sewell hesitated between the words poems and verses, and finally said—"work. I have blamed myself a great deal," he continued, wincing under the hurt which he felt that he must be inflicting on the young man as well as himself, "for not being more frank with you when I saw you at home in September. I hope your mother is well?"
"She's middling," said Barker, "but my married sister that came to live with us since you was there has had a good deal of sickness in her family. Her husband's laid up with the rheumatism most of the time."
"Oh!" murmured Sewell sympathetically. "Well! I ought to have told you at that time that I could not see much hope of your doing acceptable work in a literary way; and if I had supposed that you ever expected to exercise your faculty of versifying to any serious purpose,—for anything but your own pleasure and entertainment,—I should certainly have done so. And I tell you now that the specimens of the long poem you have sent me give me even less reason to encourage you than the things you read me at home."
Sewell expected the audible crash of Barker's air-castles to break the silence which the young man suffered to follow upon these words; but nothing of the kind happened, and for all that he could see, Barker remained wholly unaffected by what he had said. It nettled Sewell a little to see him apparently so besotted in his own conceit, and he added: "But I think I had better not ask you to rely altogether upon my opinion in the matter, and I will go with you to a publisher, and you can get a professional judgment. Excuse me a moment."
He left the room and went slowly upstairs to his wife. It appeared to him a very short journey to the third story, where he knew she was decking the guest-chamber for the visit of a friend whom they expected that evening. He imagined himself saying to her when his trial was well over that he did not see why she complained of those stairs; that he thought they were nothing at all. But this sense of the absurdity of the situation which played upon the surface of his distress flickered and fled at sight of his wife bustling cheerfully about, and he was tempted to go down and get Barker out of the house, and out of Boston if possible, without letting her know anything of his presence.
"Well?" said Mrs. Sewell, meeting his face of perplexity with a penetrating glance. "What is it, David?"
"Nothing. That is—everything! Lemuel Barker is here!"
"Lemuel Barker? Who is Lemuel Barker?" She stood with the pillow- sham in her hand which she was just about to fasten on the pillow, and Sewell involuntarily took note of the fashion in which it was ironed.
"Why, surely you remember! That simpleton at Willoughby Pastures." If his wife had dropped the pillow-sham, and sunk into a chair beside the bed, fixing him with eyes of speechless reproach; if she had done anything dramatic, or said anything tragic, no matter how unjust or exaggerated, Sewell could have borne it; but she only went on tying the sham on the pillow, without a word. "The fact is, he wrote to me some weeks ago, and sent me some specimens of a long poem."
"Just before you preached that sermon on the tender mercies of the wicked?"
"Yes," faltered Sewell. "I had been waiting to show you the letter."
"You waited a good while, David."
"I know—I know," said Sewell miserably. "I was waiting—waiting—" He stopped, and then added with a burst, "I was waiting till I could put it to you in some favourable light."
"I'm glad you're honest about it at last, my dear!"
"Yes. And while I was waiting I forgot Barker's letter altogether. I put it away somewhere—I can't recollect just where, at the moment. But that makes no difference; he's here with the whole poem in his pocket, now." Sewell gained a little courage from his wife's forbearance; she knew that she could trust him in all great matters, and perhaps she thought that for this little sin she would not add to his punishment. "And what I propose to do is to make a complete thing of it, this time. Of course," he went on convicting himself, "I see that I shall inflict twice the pain that I should have done if I had spoken frankly to him at first; and of course there will be the added disappointment, and the expense of his coming to Boston. But," he added brightly, "we can save him any expense while he's here, and perhaps I can contrive to get him to go home this afternoon."
"He wouldn't let you pay for his dinner out of the house anywhere," said Mrs. Sewell. "You must ask him to dinner here."
"Well," said Sewell, with resignation; and suspecting that his wife was too much piqued or hurt by his former concealment to ask what he now meant to do about Barker, he added: "I'm going to take him round to a publisher and let him convince himself that there's no hope for him in a literary way."
"David!" cried his wife; and now she left off adjusting the shams, and erecting herself looked at him across the bed, "You don't intend to do anything so cruel."
"Yes! Why should you go and waste any publisher's time by getting him to look at such rubbish? Why should you expose the poor fellow to the mortification of a perfectly needless refusal? Do you want to shirk the responsibility—to put it on some one else?"
"No; you know I don't."
"Well, then, tell him yourself that it won't do."
"I have told him."
"What does he say?"
"He doesn't say anything. I can't make out whether he believes me or not."
"Very well, then; you've done your duty, at any rate." Mrs. Sewell could not forbear saying also, "If you'd done it at first, David, there wouldn't have been any of this trouble."
"That's true," owned her husband, so very humbly that her heart smote her.
"Well, go down and tell him he must stay to dinner, and then try to get rid of him the best way you can. Your time is really too precious, David, to be wasted in this way. You must get rid of him, somehow."
Sewell went back to his guest in the reception-room, who seemed to have remained as immovably in his chair as if he had been a sitting statue of himself. He did not move when Sewell entered.
"On second thoughts," said the minister, "I believe I will not ask you to go to a publisher with me, as I had intended; it would expose you to unnecessary mortification, and it would be, from my point of view, an unjustifiable intrusion upon very busy people. I must ask you to take my word for it that no publisher would bring out your poem, and it never would pay you a cent if he did." The boy remained silent as before, and Sewell had no means of knowing whether it was from silent conviction or from mulish obstinacy. "Mrs. Sewell will be down presently. She wished me to ask you to stay to dinner. We have an early dinner, and there will be time enough after that for you to look about the city."
"I shouldn't like to put you out," said Barker.
"Oh, not at all," returned Sewell, grateful for this sign of animation, and not exigent of a more formal acceptance of his invitation. "You know," he said, "that literature is a trade, like every other vocation, and that you must serve an apprenticeship if you expect to excel. But first of all you must have some natural aptitude for the business you undertake. You understand?" asked Sewell; for he had begun to doubt whether Barker understood anything. He seemed so much more stupid than he had at home; his faculties were apparently sealed up, and he had lost all the personal picturesqueness which he had when he came in out of the barn, at his mother's call, to receive Sewell.
"Yes," said the boy.
"I don't mean," continued Sewell, "that I wouldn't have you continue to make verses whenever you have the leisure for it. I think, on the contrary, that it will give a grace to your life which it might otherwise lack. We are all in daily danger of being barbarised by the sordid details of life; the constantly recurring little duties which must be done, but which we must not allow to become the whole of life." Sewell was so much pleased with this thought, when it had taken form in words, that he made a mental note of it for future use. "We must put a border of pinks around the potato-patch, as Emerson would say, or else the potato-patch is no better than a field of thistles." Perhaps because the logic of this figure rang a little false, Sewell hastened to add: "But there are many ways in which we can prevent the encroachment of those little duties without being tempted to neglect them, which would be still worse. I have thought a good deal about the condition of our young men in the country, and I have sympathised with them in what seems their want of opportunity, their lack of room for expansion. I have often wished that I could do something for them—help them in their doubts and misgivings, and perhaps find some way out of the trouble for them. I regret this tendency to the cities of the young men from the country. I am sure that if we could give them some sort of social and intellectual life at home, they would not be so restless and dissatisfied."
Sewell felt as if he had been preaching to a dead wall; but now the wall opened, and a voice came out of it, saying: "You mean something to occupy their minds?"
"Exactly so!" cried Sewell. "Something to occupy their minds. Now," he continued, with a hope of getting into some sort of human relations with his guest which he had not felt before, "why shouldn't a young man on a farm take up some scientific study, like geology, for instance, which makes every inch of earth vocal, every rock historic, and the waste places social?" Barker looked so blankly at him that he asked again, "You understand?"
"Yes," said Barker; but having answered Sewell's personal question, he seemed to feel himself in no wise concerned with the general inquiry which Sewell had made, and he let it lie where Sewell had let it drop. But the minister was so well pleased with the fact that Barker had understood anything of what he had said, that he was content to let the notion he had thrown out take its chance of future effect, and rising, said briskly: "Come upstairs with me into my study, and I will show you a picture of Agassiz. It's a very good photograph."
He led the way out of the reception-room, and tripped lightly in his slippered feet up the steps against which Barker knocked the toes of his clumsy boots. He was not large, nor naturally loutish, but the heaviness of the country was in every touch and movement. He dropped the photograph twice in his endeavour to hold it between his stiff thumb and finger.
Sewell picked it up each time for him, and restored it to his faltering hold. When he had securely lodged it there, he asked sweetly: "Did you ever hear what Agassiz said when a scheme was once proposed to him by which he could make a great deal of money?"
"I don't know as I did," replied Barker.
"'But, gentlemen, I've no time to make money.'" Barker received the anecdote in absolute silence, standing helplessly with the photograph in his hand; and Sewell with a hasty sigh forbore to make the application to the ordinary American ambition to be rich that he had intended. "That's a photograph of the singer Nilsson," he said, cataloguing the other objects on the chimney-piece. "She was a peasant, you know, a country girl in Norway. That's Grevy, the President of the French Republic; his father was a peasant. Lincoln, of course. Sforza, throwing his hoe into the oak," he said, explaining the picture that had caught Barker's eye on the wall above the mantel. "He was working in the field, when a band of adventurers came by, and he tossed his hoe at the tree. If it fell to the ground, he would keep on hoeing; if it caught in the branches and hung there, he would follow the adventurers. It caught, and he went with the soldiers and became Duke of Milan. I like to keep the pictures of these great Originals about me," said Sewell, "because in our time, when we refer so constantly to law, we are apt to forget that God is creative as well as operative." He used these phrases involuntarily; they slipped from his tongue because he was in the habit of saying this about these pictures, and he made no effort to adapt them to Barker's comprehension, because he could not see that the idea would be of any use to him. He went on pointing out the different objects in the quiet room, and he took down several books from the shelves that covered the whole wall, and showed them to Barker, who, however, made no effort to look at them for himself, and did not say anything about them. He did what Sewell bade him do in admiring this thing or that; but if he had been an Indian he could not have regarded them with a greater reticence. Sewell made him sit down from time to time, but in a sitting posture Barker's silence became so deathlike that Sewell hastened to get him on his legs again, and to walk him about from one point to another, as if to keep life in him. At the end of one of these otherwise aimless excursions Mrs. Sewell appeared, and infused a gleam of hope into her husband's breast. Apparently she brought none to Barker; or perhaps he did not conceive it polite to show any sort of liveliness before a lady. He did what he could with the hand she gave him to shake, and answered the brief questions she put to him about his family to precisely the same effect as he had already reported its condition to Sewell.
"Dinner's ready now," said Mrs. Sewell, for all comment. She left the expansiveness of sympathy and gratulation to her husband on most occasions, and on this she felt that she had less than the usual obligation to make polite conversation. Her two children came downstairs after her, and as she unfolded her napkin across her lap after grace she said, "This is my son, Alfred, Mr. Barker; and this is Edith." Barker took the acquaintance offered in silence, the young Sewells smiled with the wise kindliness of children taught to be good to all manner of strange guests, and the girl cumbered the helpless country boy with offers of different dishes.
Mr. Sewell as he cut at the roast beef lengthwise, being denied by his wife a pantomimic prayer to be allowed to cut it crosswise, tried to make talk with Barker about the weather at Willoughby Pastures. It had been a very dry summer, and he asked if the fall rains had filled up the springs. He said he really forgot whether it was an apple year. He also said that he supposed they had dug all their turnips by this time. He had meant to say potatoes when he began, but he remembered that he had seen the farmers digging their potatoes before he came back to town, and so he substituted turnips; afterwards it seemed to him that dig was not just the word to use in regard to the harvesting of turnips. He wished he had said, "got your turnips in," but it appeared to make no difference to Barker, who answered, "Yes, sir," and "No, sir," and "Yes, sir," and let each subject drop with that.
The silence grew so deep that the young Sewells talked together in murmurs, and the clicking of the knives on the plates became painful. Sewell kept himself from looking at Barker, whom he nevertheless knew to be changing his knife and fork from one hand to the other, as doubt after doubt took him as to their conventional use, and to be getting very little good of his dinner in the process of settling these questions. The door-bell rang, and the sound of a whispered conference between the visitor and the servant at the threshold penetrated to the dining-room. Some one softly entered, and then Mrs. Sewell called out, "Yes, yes! Come in! Come in, Miss Vane!" She jumped from her chair and ran out into the hall, where she was heard to kiss her visitor; she reappeared, still holding her by the hand, and then Miss Vane shook hands with Sewell, saying in a tone of cordial liking, "How d'ye do?" and to each of the young people as she shook hands in turn with them, "How d'ye do, dear?" She was no longer so pretty as she must have once been; but an air of distinction and a delicate charm of manner remained to her from her fascinating youth.
Young Sewell pushed her a chair to the table, and she dropped softly into it, after acknowledging Barker's presentation by Mrs. Sewell with a kindly glance that probably divined him.
"You must dine with us," said Mrs. Sewell. "You can call it lunch."
"No, I can't, Mrs. Sewell," said Miss Vane. "I could once, and should have said with great pleasure, when I went away, that I had been lunching at the Sewells; but I can't now. I've reformed. What have you got for dinner?"
"Roast beef," said Sewell.
"Nothing I dislike more," replied Miss Vane. "What else?" She put on her glasses, and peered critically about the table.
"Stewed tomatoes, baked sweet potatoes, macaroni."
"How unimaginative! What are you going to have afterwards?"
"The very climax of the commonplace. Well!" Miss Vane began to pull off her gloves, and threw her veil back over her shoulder. "I will dine with you, but when I say dine, and people ask me to explain, I shall have to say, 'Why, the Sewells still dine at one o'clock, you know,' and laugh over your old-fashioned habits with them. I should like to do differently, and to respect the sacredness of broken bread and that sort of thing; but I'm trying to practise with every one an affectionate sincerity, which is perfectly compatible not only with the brotherliness of Christianity, but the politeness of the world." Miss Vane looked demurely at Mrs. Sewell. "I can't make any exceptions."
The ladies both broke into a mocking laugh, in which Sewell joined with sheepish reluctance; after all, one does not like to be derided, even by one's dearest friends.
"As soon as I hear my other little sins denounced from the pulpit, I'm going to stop using profane language and carrying away people's spoons in my pocket."
The ladies seemed to think this also a very good joke, and his children laughed in sympathy, but Sewell hung his head; Barker sat bolt upright behind his plate, and stared at Miss Vane. "I never have been all but named in church before," she concluded, "and I've heard others say the same."
"Why didn't you come to complain sooner?" asked Sewell.
"Well, I have been away ever since that occasion. I went down the next day to Newport, and I've been there ever since, admiring the ribbon-planting."
"On the lawns or on the ladies?" asked Sewell.
"Both. And sowing broadcast the seeds of plain speaking. I don't know what Newport will be in another year if they all take root."
"I dare say it will be different," said Sewell. "I'm not sure it will be worse." He plucked up a little spirit, and added: "Now you see of how little importance you really are in the community; you have been gone these three weeks, and your own pastor didn't know you were out of town."
"Yes, you did, David," interposed his wife. "I told you Miss Vane was away two weeks ago."
"Did you? Well I forgot it immediately; the fact was of no consequence, one way or the other. How do you like that as a bit of affectionate sincerity?"
"I like it immensely," said Miss Vane. "It's delicious. I only wish I could believe you were honest." She leaned back and laughed into her handkerchief, while Sewell regarded her with a face in which his mortification at being laughed at was giving way to a natural pleasure at seeing Miss Vane enjoy herself. "What do you think," she asked, "since you're in this mood of exasperated veracity—or pretend to be—of the flower charity?"
"Do you mean by the barrel, or the single sack? The Graham, or the best Haxall, or the health-food cold-blast?" asked Sewell.
Miss Vane lost her power of answering in another peal of laughter, sobering off, and breaking down again before she could say, "I mean cut flowers for patients and prisoners."
"Oh, that kind! I don't think a single pansy would have an appreciable effect upon a burglar; perhaps a bunch of forget-me-nots might, or a few lilies of the valley carelessly arranged. As to the influence of a graceful little boutonniere, in cases of rheumatism or cholera morbus, it might be efficacious but I can't really say."
"How perfectly cynical!" cried Miss Vane. "Don't you know how much good the flower mission has accomplished among the deserving poor? Hundreds of bouquets are distributed every day. They prevent crime."
"That shows how susceptible the deserving poor are. I don't find that a bowl of the most expensive and delicate roses in the centre of a dinner-table tempers the asperity of the conversation when it turns upon the absent. But perhaps it oughtn't to do so."
"I don't know about that," said Miss Vane; "but if you had an impulsive niece to supply with food for the imagination, you would be very glad of anything that seemed to combine practical piety and picturesque effect."
"Oh, if you mean that," began Sewell more soberly, and his wife leaned forward with an interest in the question which she had not felt while the mere joking went on.
"Yes. When Sibyl came in this morning with an imperative demand to be allowed to go off and do good with flowers in the homes of virtuous poverty, as well as the hospitals and prisons, I certainly felt as if there had been an interposition, if you will allow me to say so."
Miss Vane still had her joking air, but a note of anxiety had crept into her voice.
"I don't think it will do the sick and poor any harm," said Sewell, "and it may do Sibyl some good." He smiled a little in adding: "It may afford her varied energies a little scope."
Miss Vane shook her head, and some lines of age came into her face which had not shown themselves there before. "And you would advise letting her go into it?" she asked.
"By all means," replied Sewell. "But if she's going to engage actively in the missionary work, I think you'd better go with her on her errands of mercy."
"Oh, of course, she's going to do good in person. What she wants is the sensation of doing good—of seeing and hearing the results of her beneficence. She'd care very little about it if she didn't."
"Oh, I don't know that you can say that," replied Sewell in deprecation of this extreme view. "I don't believe," he continued, "that she would object to doing good for its own sake."
"Of course she wouldn't, David! Who in the world supposed she would?" demanded his wife, bringing him up roundly at this sign of wandering, and Miss Vane laughed wildly.
"And is this what your doctrine of sincerity comes to? This fulsomeness! You're very little better than one of the wicked, it seems to me! Well, I hoped that you would approve of my letting Sibyl take this thing up, but such unbounded encouragement!"
"Oh, I don't wish to flatter," said Sewell, in the spirit of her raillery. "It will be very well for her to go round with flowers; but don't let her," he continued seriously—"don't let her imagine it's more than an innocent amusement. It would be a sort of hideous mockery of the good we ought to do one another if there were supposed to be anything more than a kindly thoughtfulness expressed in such a thing."
"Oh, if Sibyl doesn't feel that it's real, for the time being she won't care anything about it. She likes to lose herself in the illusion, she says."
"Well!" said Sewell with a slight shrug, "then we must let her get what good she can out of it as an exercise of the sensibilities."
"O my dear!" exclaimed his wife, "You don't mean anything so abominable as that! I've heard you say that the worst thing about fiction and the theatre was that they brought emotions into play that ought to be sacred to real occasions."
"Did I say that? Well, I must have been right. I—"
Barker made a scuffling sound with his boots under the table, and rose to his feet. "I guess," he said, "I shall have to be going."
They had all forgotten him, and Sewell felt as if he had neglected this helpless guest. "Why, no, you mustn't go! I was in hopes we might do something to make the day pleasant to you. I intended proposing—"
"Yes," his wife interrupted, believing that he meant to give up one of his precious afternoons to Barker, and hastening to prevent the sacrifice, "my son will show you the Public Garden and the Common, and go about the town with you." She rose too, and young Sewell, accustomed to suffer, silently acquiesced. "If your train isn't to start very soon—"
"I guess I better be going," said Barker, and Mrs. Sewell now gave her husband a look conveying her belief that Barker would be happier if they let him go. At the same time she frowned upon the monstrous thought of asking him to stay the night with them, which she detected in Sewell's face.
She allowed him to say nothing but, "I'm sorry; but if you really must—"
"I guess I better," persisted Barker. He got himself somehow to the door, where he paused a moment, and contrived to pant, "Well, good day," and without effort at more cordial leave-taking, passed out.
Sewell followed him, and helped him find his hat, and made him shake hands. He went with him to the door, and, beginning to suffer afresh at the wrong he had done Barker, he detained him at the threshold. "If you still wish to see a publisher, Mr. Barker, I will gladly go with you."
"Oh, not at all, not at all. I guess I don't want to see any publisher this afternoon. Well, good afternoon!" He turned away from Sewell's remorseful pursuit, and clumsily hurrying down the steps, he walked up the street and round the next corner. Sewell stood watching him in rueful perplexity, shading his eyes from the mild October sun with his hand; and some moments after Barker had disappeared, he remained looking after him.
When he rejoined the ladies in the dining-room they fell into a conscious silence.
"Have you been telling, Lucy?" he asked.
"Yes, I've been telling, David. It was the only way. Did you offer to go with him to a publisher again?"
"Yes, I did. It was the only way," said Sewell.
Miss Vane and his wife both broke into a cry of laughter. The former got her breath first. "So that was the origin of the famous sermon that turned all our heads grey with good resolutions." Sewell assented with a sickly grin. "What in the world made you encourage him?"
"My goodness of heart, which I didn't take the precaution of mixing with goodness of head before I used it."
Everything was food for Miss Vane's laugh, even this confession. "But what is the natural history of the boy? How came he to write poetry? What do you suppose he means by it?"
"That isn't so easy to say. As to his natural history, he lives with his mother in a tumbledown, unpainted wooden house in the deepest fastness of Willoughby Pastures. Lucy and I used to drive by it and wonder what kind of people inhabited that solitude. There were milk- cans scattered round the door-yard, and the Monday we were there a poverty-stricken wash flapped across it. The thought of the place preyed upon me till one day I asked about it at the post-office, and the postmistress told me that the boy was quite a literary character, and read everything he could lay his hands on, and 'sat up nights' writing poetry. It seemed to me a very clear case of genius, and the postmistress's facts rankled in my mind till I couldn't stand it any longer. Then I went to see him. I suppose Lucy has told you the rest?"
"Yes, Mrs. Sewell has told me the rest. But still I don't see how he came to write poetry. I believe it doesn't pay, even in extreme cases of genius."
"Ah, but that's just what this poor fellow didn't know. He must have read somewhere, in some deleterious newspaper, about the sale of some large edition of a poem, and have had his own wild hopes about it. I don't say his work didn't show sense; it even showed some rude strength, of a didactic, satirical sort, but it certainly didn't show poetry. He might have taken up painting by a little different chance. And when it was once known about the neighbourhood that he wrote poetry, his vanity was flattered—"
"Yes, I see. But wasn't there any kind soul to tell him that he was throwing his time away?"
"It appears not."
"And even the kind soul from Boston, who visited him," suggested Mrs. Sewell. "Go on, David."
"Visited him in spite of his wife's omniscience,—even the kind soul from Boston paltered with this plain duty. Even he, to spare himself the pain of hurting the boy's feelings, tried to find some of the lines better than others, and left him with the impression that he had praised them."
"Well, that was pretty bad," said Miss Vane. "You had to tell him to-day, I suppose, that there was no hope for him?"
"Yes, I had to tell him at last, after letting him waste his time and money in writing more stuff and coming to Boston with it. I've put him to needless shame, and I've inflicted suffering upon him that I can't lighten in the least by sharing."
"No, that's the most discouraging thing about pitying people. It does them no manner of good," said Miss Vane, "and just hurts you. Don't you think that in an advanced civilisation we shall cease to feel compassion? Why don't you preach against common pity, as you did against common politeness?"
"Well, it isn't quite such a crying sin yet. But really, really," exclaimed Sewell, "the world seems so put together that I believe we ought to think twice before doing a good action."
"David!" said his wife warningly.
"Oh, let him go on!" cried Miss Vane, with a laugh. "I'm proof against his monstrous doctrines. Go on, Mr. Sewell."
"What I mean is this." Sewell pushed himself back in his chair, and then stopped.
"Is what?" prompted both the ladies.
"Why, suppose the boy really had some literary faculty, should I have had any right to encourage it? He was very well where he was. He fed the cows and milked them, and carried the milk to the crossroads, where the dealer collected it and took it to the train. That was his life, with the incidental facts of cutting the hay and fodder, and bedding the cattle; and his experience never went beyond it. I doubt if his fancy ever did, except in some wild, mistaken excursion. Why shouldn't he have been left to this condition? He ate, he slept, he fulfilled his use. Which of us does more?"
"How would you like to have been in his place?" asked his wife.
"I couldn't put myself in his place; and therefore I oughtn't to have done anything to take him out of it," answered Sewell.
"It seems to me that's very un-American," said Miss Vane. "I thought we had prospered up to the present point by taking people out of their places."
"Yes, we have," replied the minister, "and sometimes, it seems to me, the result is hideous. I don't mind people taking themselves out of their places; but if the particles of this mighty cosmos have been adjusted by the divine wisdom, what are we to say of the temerity that disturbs the least of them?"
"I'm sure I don't know," said Miss Vane, rising. "I'm almost afraid to stir, in view of the possible consequences. But I can't sit here all day, and if Mrs. Sewell will excuse me, I'll go at once. Yes, 'I guess I better be going,' as your particle Barker says. Let us hope he'll get safely back to his infinitesimal little crevice in the cosmos. He's a very pretty particle, don't you think? That thick, coarse, wavy black hair growing in a natural bang over his forehead would make his fortune if he were a certain kind of young lady."
They followed her to the door, chatting, and Sewell looked quickly out when he opened it for her.
As she shook his hand she broke into another laugh. "Really, you looked as if you were afraid of finding him on the steps!"
"If I could only have got near the poor boy," said Sewell to his wife, as they returned withindoors. "If I could only have reached him where he lives, as our slang says! But do what I would, I couldn't find any common ground where we could stand together. We were as unlike as if we were of two different species. I saw that everything I said bewildered him more and more; he couldn't understand me! Our education is unchristian, our civilisation is pagan. They both ought to bring us in closer relations with our fellow-creatures, and they both only put us more widely apart! Every one of us dwells in an impenetrable solitude! We understand each other a little if our circumstances are similar, but if they are different all our words leave us dumb and unintelligible."
Barker walked away from the minister's door without knowing where he was going, and with a heart full of hot pain. He burned with a confused sense of shame and disappointment and anger. It had turned out just as his mother had said: Mr. Sewell would be mighty different in Boston from what he was that day at Willoughby Pastures. There he made Barker think everything of his poetry, and now he pretended to tell him that it was not worth anything; and he kept hinting round that Barker had better go back home and stay there. Did he think he would have left home if there had been anything for him to do there? Had not he as much as told him that he was obliged to find something to make a living by, and help the rest? What was he afraid of? Was he afraid that Barker wanted to come and live off him? He could show him that there was no great danger. If he had known how, he would have refused even to stay to dinner.
What made him keep the pictures of these people who had got along, if he thought no one else ought to try? Barker guessed to himself that if that Mr. Agassiz had had to get a living off the farm at Willoughby Pastures, he would have found time to make money. What did Mr. Sewell mean by speaking of that Nilsson lady by her surname, without any Miss or Mrs.? Was that the way people talked in Boston?
Mr. Sewell had talked to him as if he were a baby, and did not know anything; and Barker was mad at himself for having stayed half a minute after the minister had owned up that he had got the letter he wrote him. He wished he had said, "Well, that's all I want of you, sir," and walked right out; but he had not known how to do it. Did they think it was very polite to go on talking with that woman who laughed so much, and forget all about him? Pretty poor sort of manners to eat with her bonnet on, and tell them she hated their victuals.
Barker tried to rage against them in these thoughts, but at the bottom of all was a simple grief that he should have lost the friend whom he thought he had in the minister; the friend he had talked of and dreamed of ever since he had seen and heard him speak those cordial words; the friend he had trusted through all, and had come down to Boston counting upon so much. The tears came into his eyes as he stumbled and scuffled along the brick pavements with his uncouth country walk.
He was walking up a straight, long street, with houses just alike on both sides and bits of grass before them, that sometimes were gay with late autumn flowers. A horse-car track ran up the middle, and the cars seemed to be tinkling by all the time, and people getting on and off. They were mostly ladies and children, and they were very well dressed. Sometimes they stared at Barker, as they crossed his way in entering or issuing from the houses, but generally no one appeared to notice him. In some of the windows there were flowers in painted pots, and in others little marble images on stands.
There were more images in the garden that Barker came to presently: an image of Washington on horseback, and some orator speaking, with his hand up, and on top of a monument a kind of Turk holding up a man that looked sick. The man was almost naked, but he was not so bad as the image of a woman in a granite basin; it seemed to Barker that it ought not to be allowed there. A great many people of all kinds were passing through the garden, and after some hesitation he went in too, and walked over the bridge that crossed the pond in the middle of the garden, where there were rowboats and boats with images of swans on them. Barker made a sarcastic reflection that Boston seemed to be a great place for images, and passed rather hurriedly through the garden on the other side of the bridge. There were beds of all kinds of flowers scattered about, and they were hardly touched by the cold yet. If he had been in better heart, he would have liked to look round a little; but he felt strange, being there all alone, and he felt very low-spirited.
He wondered if this were the Public Garden that Mrs. Sewell had spoken of, and if that kind of grove across the street were the Common. He felt much more at home in it, as he wandered up and down the walks, and finally sat down on one of the iron benches beside the path. At first he obscurely doubted whether he had any right to do so, unless he had a lady with him; most of the seats were occupied by couples who seemed to be courting, but he ventured finally to take one; nobody disturbed him, and so he remained.
It was a beautiful October afternoon; the wind, warm and dry, caught the yellow leaves from the trees overhead in little whiffs, and blew them about the grass, which the fall rains had made as green as May; and a pensive golden light streamed through the long loose boughs, and struck across the slopes of the Common. Slight buggies flashed by on the street near which he sat, and glistening carriages, with drivers dressed out in uniform like soldiers, rumbled down its slope.
While he sat looking, now at the street and now at the people sauntering and hurrying to and fro in the Common, he tried to decide a question that had mixed itself up with the formless resentment he had felt ever since Mr. Sewell played him false. It had got out in the neighbourhood that he was going to Boston before he left home; his mother must have told it; and people would think he was to be gone a long time. He had warned his mother that he did not know when he should be back, before he started in the morning; and he knew that she would repeat his words to everybody who stopped to ask about him during the day, with what she had said to him in reply: "You better come home to-night, Lem; and I'll have ye a good hot supper waitin' for ye."
The question was whether he should go back on the five o'clock train, which would reach Willoughby Centre after dark, and house himself from public ignominy for one night at least, or whether self-respect did not demand that he should stay in Boston for twenty-four hours at any rate, and see if something would not happen. He had now no distinct hope of anything; but his pride and shame were holding him fast, while the home-sickness tugged at his heart, and made him almost forget the poverty that had spurred him to the adventure of coming to Boston. He could see the cows coming home through the swampy meadow as plain as if they were coming across the Common; his mother was calling them; she and his sister were going to milk in his absence, and he could see her now, how she looked going out to call the cows, in her bare, grey head, gaunt of neck and cheek, in the ugly Bloomer dress in which she was not grotesque to his eyes, though it usually affected strangers with stupefaction or alarm. But it all seemed far away, as far as if it were in another planet that he had dropped out of; he was divided from it by his failure and disgrace. He thought he must stay and try for something, he did not know what; but he could not make up his mind to throw away his money for nothing; at the hotel, down by the depot, where he had left his bag, they were going to make him pay fifty cents for just a room alone.
"Any them beats 'round here been trying to come their games on you?"
At first Barker could not believe himself accosted, though the young man who spoke stood directly in front of him, and seemed to be speaking to him. He looked up, and the young man added, "Heigh?"
"Beats? I don't know what you mean," said Barker.
"Confidence sharps, young feller. They're 'round everywheres, and don't you forget it. Move up a little!"
Barker was sitting in the middle of the bench, and at this he pushed away from the young man, who had dropped himself sociably beside him. He wore a pair of black pantaloons, very tight in the legs, and widening at the foot so as almost to cover his boots. His coat was deeply braided, and his waistcoat was cut low, so that his plastron- scarf hung out from the shirt-bosom, which it would have done well to cover.
"I tell you, Boston's full of 'em," he said excitedly. "One of 'em come up to me just now, and says he, 'Seems to me I've seen you before, but I can't place you.' 'Oh yes,' says I, 'I'll tell you where it was. I happened to be in the police court one morning when they was sendin' you up for three months.' I tell you he got round the corner! Might 'a' played checkers on his coat tail. Why, what do you suppose would been the next thing if I hadn't have let him know I saw through him?" demanded the young man of Barker, who listened to this adventure with imperfect intelligence. "He'd 'a' said, 'Hain't I seen you down Kennebunk way som'eres?' And when I said, 'No, I'm from Leominster!' or where-ever I was from if I was green, he'd say, 'Oh yes, so it was Leominster. How's the folks?' and he'd try to get me to think that he was from Leominster too; and then he'd want me to go off and see the sights with him; and pretty soon he'd meet a feller that 'ud dun him for that money he owed him; and he'd say he hadn't got anything with him but a cheque for forty dollars; and the other feller'd say he'd got to have his money, and he'd kind of insinuate it was all a put-up job about the cheque for forty dollars, anyway; and that 'ud make the first feller mad, and he'd take out the check, and ask him what he thought o' that; and the other feller'd say, well, it was a good cheque, but it wan't money, and he wanted money; and then the first feller'd say, 'Well, come along to the bank and get your money,' and the other'd say the bank was shut. 'Well, then,' the first feller'd say, 'well, sir, I ain't a-goin' to ask any favour of you. How much is your bill?' and the other feller'd say ten dollars, or fifteen, or may be twenty-five, if they thought I had that much, and the first feller'd say, 'Well, here's a gentleman from up my way, and I guess he'll advance me that much on my cheque if I make it worth his while. He knows me.' And the first thing you know—he's been treatin' you, and so polite, showin' you round, and ast you to go to the theayter—you advance the money, and you keep on with the first feller, and pretty soon he asks you to hold up a minute, he wants to go back and get a cigar; and he goes round the corner, and you hold up, and hold up, and in about a half an hour, or may be less time, you begin to smell a rat, and you go for a policeman, and the next morning you find your name in the papers, 'One more unfortunate!' You look out for 'em, young feller! Wish I had let that one go on till he done something so I could handed him over to the cops. It's a shame they're allowed to go 'round, when the cops knows 'em. Hello! There comes my mate, now." The young man spoke as if they had been talking of his mate and expecting him, and another young man, his counterpart in dress, but of a sullen and heavy demeanour very unlike his own brisk excitement, approached, flapping a bank-note in his hand. "I just been tellin' this young feller about that beat, you know."
"Oh, he's all right," said the mate. "Just seen him down on Tremont Street, between two cops. Must ha' caught him in the act."
"You don't say so! Well, that's good, anyway. Why! didn't you' get it changed?" demanded the young man with painful surprise as his mate handed him the bank-note.
"No, I didn't. I been to more'n twenty places, and there ain't no small bills nowhere. The last place, I offered 'em twenty-five cents if they'd change it."
"Why didn't you offer 'em fifty? I'd 'a' give fifty, and glad to do it. Why, I've got to have this bill changed."
"Well, I'm sorry for you," said the mate, with ironical sympathy, "because I don't see how you're goin' to git it done. Won't you move up a little bit, young feller?" He sat down on the other side of Barker. "I'm about tired out." He took his head between his hands in sign of extreme fatigue, and drooped forward, with his eyes fixed on the ground.
Lemuel's heart beat. Fifty cents would pay for his lodging, and he could stay till the next day and prolong the chance of something turning up without too sinful a waste of money.
"How much is the bill?" he asked.
"Ten dollars," said the young man despondently.
"And will you give me fifty cents if I change it?"
"Well, I said I'd give fifty cents," replied the young man gloomily, "and I will."
"It's a bargain," said Lemuel promptly, and he took from his pocket the two five-dollar notes that formed his store, and gave them, to the young man.
He looked at them critically. "How do I know they're good?" he asked. "You're a stranger to me, young feller, and how do I know you ain't tryin' to beat me?" He looked sternly at Lemuel, but here the mate interposed.
"How does he know that you ain't tryin' to beat him?" he asked contemptuously. "I never saw such a feller as you are! Here you make me run half over town to change that bill, and now when a gentleman offers to break it for you, you have to go and accuse him of tryin' to put off counterfeit money on you. If I was him I'd see you furder."
"Oh, well, I don't want any words about it. Here, take your money," said the young man. "As long as I said I'd do it, I'll do it. Here's your half a dollar." He put it, with the bank-note, into Lemuel's hand, and rose briskly. "You stay here, Jimmy, till I come back. I won't be gone a minute."
He walked down the mall, and went out of the gate on Tremont Street. Then the mate came to himself. "Why, I've let him go off with both them bills now, and he owes me one of 'em." With that he rose from Lemuel's side and hurried after his vanishing comrade; before he was out of sight he had broken into a run.
Lemuel sat looking after them, his satisfaction in the affair alloyed by dislike of the haste with which it had been transacted. His rustic mind worked slowly; it was not wholly content even with a result in its own favour, where the process had been so rapid; he was scarcely able to fix the point at which the talk ceased to be a warning against beats and became his opportunity for speculation. He did not feel quite right at having taken the fellow's half-dollar; and yet a bargain was a bargain. Nevertheless, if the fellow wanted to rue it, Lemuel would give him fifteen minutes to come back and get his money; and he sat for that space of time where the others had left him. He was not going to be mean; and he might have waited a little longer if it had not been for the behaviour of two girls who came up and sat down on the same bench with him. They could not have been above fifteen or sixteen years old, and Lemuel thought they were very pretty, but they talked so, and laughed so loud, and scuffled with each other for the paper of chocolate which one of them took out of her pocket, that Lemuel, after first being abashed by the fact that they were city girls, became disgusted with them. He was a stickler for propriety of behaviour among girls; his mother had taught him to despise anything like carrying-on among them, and at twenty he was as severely virginal in his morality as if he had been twelve.
People looked back at these tomboys when they had got by; and some shabby young fellows exchanged saucy speeches with them. When Lemuel got up and walked away in reproving dignity, one of the hoydens bounced into his place, and they both sent a cry of derision after him. But Lemuel would not give them the satisfaction of letting them know that he heard them, and at the same time he was not going to let them suppose that they had driven him away. He went very slowly down to the street where a great many horse-cars were passing to and fro, and waited for one marked "Fitchburg, Lowell, and Eastern Depots." He was not going to take it; but he meant to follow it on its way to those stations, in the neighbourhood of which was the hotel where he had left his travelling-bag. He had told them that he might take a room there, or he might not; now since he had this half-dollar extra he thought that he would stay for the night; it probably would not be any cheaper at the other hotels.
He ran against a good many people in trying to keep the car in sight, but by leaving the sidewalk from time to time where it was most crowded, he managed not to fall very much behind; the worst was that the track went crooking and turning about so much in different streets, that he began to lose faith in its direction, and to be afraid, in spite of the sign on its side, that the car was not going to the depots after all. But it came in sight of them at last, and then Lemuel, blown with the chase but secure of his ground, stopped and rested himself against the side of a wall to get his breath. The pursuit had been very exhausting, and at times it had been mortifying; for here and there people who saw him running after the car had supposed he wished to board it, and in their good-nature had hailed and stopped it. After this had happened twice or thrice, Lemuel perceived that he was an object of contempt to the passengers in the car; but he did not know what to do about it; he was not going to pay six cents to ride when he could just as well walk, and on the other hand he dared not lose sight of the car, for he had no other means of finding his way back to his hotel.
But he was all right now, as he leaned against the house-wall, panting, and mopping his forehead with his handkerchief; he saw his hotel a little way down the street, and he did not feel anxious about it.
"Gave you the slip after all," said a passer, who had apparently been interested in Lemuel's adventure.
"Oh, I didn't want to catch it," said Lemuel.
"Ah, merely fond of exercise," said the stranger. "Well, it's a very good thing, if you don't overdo it." He walked by, and then after a glance at Lemuel over his shoulder, he returned to him. "May I ask why you wanted to chase the car, if you didn't want to catch it?"
Lemuel hesitated; he did not like to confide in a total stranger; this gentleman looked kind and friendly, but he was all the more likely on that account to be a beat; the expression was probably such as a beat would put on in approaching his intended prey. "Oh, nothing," said Lemuel evasively.
"I beg your pardon," said the stranger, and he walked away with what Lemuel could only conjecture was the air of a baffled beat.
He waited till he was safely out of sight, and then followed on down the street towards his hotel. When he reached it he walked boldly up to the clerk's desk, and said that he guessed he would take a room for the night, and gave him the check for his bag that he had received in leaving it there.
The clerk wrote the number of a room against Lemuel's name in the register, and then glanced at the bag. It was a large bag of oil- cloth, a kind of bag which is by nature lank and hollow, and must be made almost insupportably heavy before it shows any signs of repletion. The shirt and pair of everyday pantaloons which Lemuel had dropped that morning into its voracious maw made no apparent effect there, as the clerk held it up and twirled it on the crook of his thumb.
"I guess I shall have to get the money for that room in advance," he said, regarding the bag very critically. However he might have been wounded by the doubt of his honesty or his solvency implied in this speech, Lemuel said nothing, but took out his ten-dollar note and handed it to the clerk. The latter said apologetically, "It's one of our rules, where there isn't baggage," and then glancing at the note he flung it quickly across the counter to Lemuel. "That won't do!"
"Won't do?" repeated Lemuel, taking up the bill.
"Counterfeit," said the clerk.
Lemuel stretched the note between his hands, and pored so long upon it that the clerk began to tap impatiently with his finger-tips on the register. "It won't go?" faltered the boy, looking up at the clerk's sharp face.
"It won't go here," replied the clerk. "Got anything else?"
Lemuel's head whirled; the air seemed to darken around him, as he pored again upon the note, and turned it over and over. Two tears scalded their way down his cheeks, and his lips twitched, when the clerk added, "Some beats been workin' you?" but he made no answer. His heart was hot with shame and rage, and heavy with despair. He put the note in his pocket, and took his bag and walked out of the hotel. He had not money enough to get home with now, and besides he could not bear to go back in the disgrace of such calamity. It would be all over the neighbourhood, as soon as his mother could tell it; she might wish to keep it to herself for his sake, but she could not help telling it to the first person and every person she saw; she would have to go over to the neighbours to tell it. In a dreary, homesick longing he saw her crossing the familiar meadows that lay between the houses, bareheaded, in her apron, her face set and rigid with wonder at what had happened to her Lem. He could not bear the thought. He would rather die; he would rather go to sea. This idea flashed into his mind as he lifted his eyes aimlessly and caught sight of the tall masts of the coal-ships lying at the railroad wharves, and he walked quickly in the direction of them, so as not to give himself time to think about it, so as to do it now, quick, right off. But he found his way impeded by all sorts of obstacles; a gate closed across the street to let some trains draw in and out of a station; then a lot of string teams and slow, heavy-laden trucks got before him, with a turmoil of express wagons, herdics, and hacks, in which he was near being run over, and was yelled at, sworn at, and laughed at as he stood bewildered, with his lank bag in his hand. He turned and walked back past the hotel again. He felt it an escape, after all, not to have gone to sea; and now a hopeful thought struck him. He would go back to the Common and watch for those fellows who fooled him, and set the police on them, and get his money from them; they might come prowling round again to fool somebody else. He looked out for a car marked like the one he had followed down from the Common, and began to follow it on its return. He got ahead of the car whenever it stopped, so as to be spared the shame of being seen to chase it; and he managed to keep it in sight till he reached the Common. There he walked about looking for those scamps, and getting pushed and hustled by the people who now thronged the paths. At last he was tired out, and on the Beacon Street mall, where he had first seen those fellows, he found the very seat where they had all sat together, and sank into it. The seats were mostly vacant now; a few persons sat there reading their evening papers. As the light began to wane, they folded up their papers and walked away, and their places were filled by young men, who at once put their arms round the young women with them, and seemed to be courting. They did not say much, if anything; they just sat there. It made Lemuel ashamed to look at them; he thought they ought to have more sense. He looked away, but he could not look away from them all, there were so many of them. He was all the time very hungry, but he thought he ought not to break into his half-dollar as long as he could help it, or till there was no chance left of catching those fellows. The night came on, the gas-lamps were lighted, and some lights higher up, like moonlight off on the other paths, projected long glares into the night and made the gas look sickly and yellow. Sitting still there while it grew later, he did not feel quite so hungry, but he felt more tired than ever. There were not so many people around now, and he did not see why he should not lie down on that seat and rest himself a little. He made feints of reclining on his arm at first, to see if he were noticed; then he stretched himself out, with his bag under his head, and his hands in his pockets clutching the money which he meant to make those fellows take back. He got a gas-lamp in range, to keep him awake, and lay squinting his eyes to meet the path of rays running down from it to him. Then he shivered, and rose up with a sudden start. The dull, rich dawn was hanging under the trees around him, while the electric lamps, like paler moons now, still burned among their tops. The sparrows bickered on the grass and the gravel of the path around him.
He could not tell where he was at first; but presently he remembered, and looked for his bag. It was gone; and the money was gone out of both his pockets. He dropped back upon the seat, and leaning his head against the back, he began to cry for utter despair. He had hardly ever cried since he was a baby; and he would not have done it now, but there was no one there to see him.
When he had his cry out he felt a little better, and he got up and went to the pond in the hollow, and washed his hands and face, and wiped them on the handkerchief his mother had ironed for him to use at the minister's; it was still in the folds she had given it. As he shook it out, rising up, he saw that people were asleep on all the benches round the pond; he looked hopelessly at them to see if any of them were those fellows, but he could not find them. He seemed to be the only person awake on the Common, and wandered out of it and down through the empty streets, filled at times with the moony light of the waning electrics, and at times merely with the grey dawn. A man came along putting out the gas, and some milk-carts rattled over the pavement. By and by a market-wagon, with the leaves and roots of cabbages sticking out from the edges of the canvas that covered it, came by, and Lemuel followed it; he did not know what else to do, and it went so slow that he could keep up, though the famine that gnawed within him was so sharp sometimes that he felt as if he must fall down. He was going to drop into a doorway and rest, but when he came to it he found on an upper step a man folded forward like a limp bundle, snoring in a fetid, sodden sleep, and, shocked into new strength, he hurried on. At last the wagon came to a place that he saw was a market. There were no buyers yet, but men were flitting round under the long arcades of the market-houses, with lanterns under their arms, among boxes and barrels of melons, apples, potatoes, onions, beans, carrots, and other vegetables, which the country carts as they arrived continually unloaded. The smell of peaches and cantaloupes filled the air, and made Lemuel giddy as he stood and looked at the abundance. The men were not saying much; now and then one of them priced something, the owner pretended to figure on it, and then they fell into a playful scuffle, but all silently. A black cat lay luxuriously asleep on the canvas top of a barrel of melons, and the man who priced the melons asked if the owner would throw the cat in. There was a butcher's cart laden with carcasses of sheep, and one of the men asked the butcher if he called that stuff mutton. "No; imitation," said the butcher. They all seemed to be very good-natured. Lemuel thought he would ask for an apple; but he could not.
The neighbouring restaurants began to send forth the smell of breakfast, and he dragged up and down till he could bear it no longer, and then went into one of them, meaning to ask for some job by which he could pay for a meal. But his shame again would not let him. He looked at the fat, white-aproned boy drawing coffee hot from a huge urn, and serving a countryman with a beefsteak. It was close and sultry in there; the open sugar-bowl was black with flies, and a scent of decaying meat came from the next cellar. "Like some nice fresh dough-nuts?" said the boy to Lemuel. He did not answer; he looked around as if he had come in search of some one. Then he went out, and straying away from the market, he found himself after a while in a street that opened upon the Common.
He was glad to sit down, and he said to himself that now he would stay there, and keep a good lookout for the chaps that had robbed him. But again he fell asleep, and he did not wake now till the sun was high, and the paths of the Common were filled with hurrying people. He sat where he had slept, for he did not know what else to do or where to go. Sometimes he thought he would go to Mr. Sewell, and ask him for money enough to get home; but he could not do it; he could more easily starve.
After an hour or two he went to get a drink at a fountain he saw a little way off, and when he came back some people had got his seat. He started to look for another, and on his way he found a cent in the path, and he bought an apple with it—a small one that the dealer especially picked out for cheapness. It seemed pretty queer to Lemuel that a person should want anything for one apple. The apple when he ate it made him sick. His head began to ache, and it ached all day. Late in the afternoon he caught sight of one of those fellows at a distance; but there was no policeman near. Lemuel called out, "Stop there, you!" but the fellow began to run when he recognised Lemuel, and the boy was too weak and faint to run after him.
The day wore away and the evening came again, and he had been twenty-four hours houseless and without food. He must do something; he could not stand it any longer; there was no sense in it. He had read in the newspapers how they gave soup at the police-stations in Boston in the winter; perhaps they gave something in summer. He mustered up courage to ask a gentleman who passed where the nearest station was, and then started in search of it. If the city gave it, then there was no disgrace in it, and Lemuel had as much right to anything that was going as other people; that was the way he silenced his pride.
But he missed the place; he must have gone down the wrong street from Tremont to Washington; the gentleman had said the street that ran along the Common was Tremont, and the next was Washington. The cross-street that Lemuel got into was filled with people, going and coming, and lounging about. There were girls going along two or three together with books under their arms, and other girls talking with young fellows who hung about the doors of brightly lighted shops, and flirting with them. One of the girls, whom he had seen the day before in the Common, turned upon Lemuel as he passed, and said, "There goes my young man now! Good evening, Johnny!" It made Lemuel's cheek burn; he would have liked to box her ears for her. The fellows all set up a laugh.
Towards the end of the street the crowd thickened, and there the mixture of gas and the white moony lights that glared higher up, and winked and hissed, shone upon the faces of a throng that had gathered about the doors and windows of a store a little way down the other street. Lemuel joined them, and for pure listlessness waited round to see what they were looking at. By and by he was worked inward by the shifting and changing of the crowd, and found himself looking in at the door of a room, splendidly fitted up with mirrors and marble everywhere, and coloured glass and carved mahogany. There was a long counter with three men behind it, and over their heads was a large painting of a woman, worse than that image in the garden. The men were serving out liquor to the people that stood around drinking and smoking, and battening on this picture. Lemuel could not help looking, either. "What place is this?" he asked of the boy next him.
"Why, don't you know?" said the boy. "It's Jimmy Baker's. Just opened."
"Oh," said Lemuel. He was not going to let the boy see that he did not know who Jimmy Baker was. Just then something caught his eye that had a more powerful charm for him than that painting. It was a large bowl at the end of the counter, which had broken crackers in it, and near it were two plates, one with cheese, and one with bits of dried fish and smoked meat. The sight made the water come into his mouth; he watched like a hungry dog, with a sympathetic working of the jaws, the men who took a bit of fish, or meat, or cheese, and a cracker, or all four of them, before or after they drank. Presently one of the crowd near him walked in and took some fish and cracker without drinking at all; he merely winked at one of the bar- tenders, who winked at him in return.