THE NEW PENELOPE
OTHER STORIES AND POEMS.
Mrs. Frances Fuller Victor.
San Francisco: A. L. BANCROFT & COMPANY, PRINTERS. 1877.
Copyright, 1877, by MRS. FRANCES FULLER VICTOR.
This collection consists of sketches of Pacific Coast life, most of which have appeared, from time to time, in the Overland Monthly, and other Western magazines. If they have a merit, it is because they picture scenes and characters having the charm of newness and originality, such as belong to border life.
The poems embraced in the collection, have been written at all periods of my life, and therefore cannot be called peculiarly Western. But they embody feelings and emotions common to all hearts, East or West; and as such, I dedicate them to my friends on the Pacific Coast, but most especially in Oregon.
Portland, August, 1877.
The New Penelope 9 A Curious Interview 80 Mr. Ela's Story 96 On the Sands 112 An Old Fool 132 How Jack Hastings Sold His Mine 180 What They Told Me at Wilson's Bar 197 Miss Jorgensen 212 Sam Rice's Romance 231 El Tesoro 247
A Pagan Reverie 269 Passing by Helicon 272 Lost at Sea 275 'Twas June, Not I 276 Lines to a Lump of Virgin Gold 281 Magdalena 284 Repose 289 Aspasia 291 A Reprimand 296 To Mrs. —— 297 Moonlight Memories 299 Verses for M—— 301 Autumnalia 303 Palo Santo 305 A Summer Day 306 He and She 308 O Wild November Wind 308 By the Sea 309 Polk County Hills 310 Waiting 312 Palma 314 Making Moan 316 Childhood 317 A Little Bird that Every One Knows 318 Wayward Love 319 A Lyric of Life 320 From an Unpublished Poem 321 Nevada 324 The Vine 326 What the Sea Said to Me 327 Hymn 328 Do You Hear the Women Praying? 329 Our Life is Twofold 331 Souvenir 334 I Only Wished to Know 335 Lines Written in an Album 335 Love's Footsteps 336 The Poet's Ministers 336 Sunset at the Mouth of the Columbia 340 The Passing of the Year 342
The New Penelope and Other Stories And Poems.
THE NEW PENELOPE.
I may as well avow myself in the beginning of my story as that anomalous creature—a woman who loves her own sex, and naturally inclines to the study of their individual peculiarities and histories, in order to get at their collective qualities. If I were to lay before the reader all the good and bad I know about them by actual discovery, and all the mean, and heroic, attributes this habit I have of studying people has revealed to me, I should meet with incredulity, perhaps with opprobrium. However that may be, I have derived great enjoyment from having been made the recipient of the confidences of many women, and by learning therefrom to respect the moral greatness that is so often coupled with delicate physical structure, and almost perfect social helplessness. Pioneer life brings to light striking characteristics in a remarkable manner; because, in the absence of conventionalities and in the presence of absolute and imminent necessities, all real qualities come to the surface as they never would have done under different circumstances. In the early life of the Greeks, Homer found his Penelope; in the pioneer days of the Pacific Coast, I discovered mine.
My wanderings, up and down among the majestic mountains and the sunny valleys of California and Oregon, had made me acquainted with many persons, some of whom were to me, from the interest they inspired me with, like the friends of my girlhood. Among this select number was Mrs. Anna Greyfield, at whose home among the foot-hills of the Sierras in Northern California, I had spent one of the most delightful summers of my life. Intellectual and intelligent without being learned or particularly bookish; quick in her perceptions and nearly faultless in her judgment of others; broadly charitable, not through any laxity of principle on her own part, but through knowledge of the stumbling-blocks of which the world is full for the unwary, she was a constant surprise and pleasure to me. For, among the vices of women I had long counted uncharitableness; and among their disadvantages want of actual knowledge of things—the latter accounting for the former.
I had several times heard it mentioned that Mrs. Greyfield had been twice married; and as her son Benton was also called Greyfield, I presumed that he was the son of the second marriage. How I found out differently I am about to relate.
One rainy winter evening, on the occasion of my second visit to this friend, we were sitting alone before a bright wood fire in an open fireplace, when we chanced to refer to the subject of her son's personal qualities; he then being gone on a visit to San Francisco, and of course very constantly in his mother's thoughts, as only sons are sure to be.
"Benton is just like his father," she said. "He is self-possessed and full of expedients, but he says very little. I have often wished he conversed more readily, for I admire a good talker."
"And yet did not marry one:—the common lot!"
Mrs. Greyfield smiled, and gazed into the fire, whose pleasant radiance filled the room, bringing out the soft warm colors in the carpet, and making fantastic shadows of our easy-chairs and ourselves upon the wall.
"Mr. Greyfield was your second husband?" I said, in an inquiring tone, but without expecting to be contradicted.
"Mr. Greyfield was my first, last, and only husband," she replied, with a touch of asperity, yet not as if she meant it for me.
"I beg your pardon," I hastened to explain: "but I had been told—"
"Yes, I can guess what you have been told. Very few people know the truth: but I never had a second husband, though I was twice married;" and my hostess regarded me with a smile half assumed and half embarrassed.
For my own part, I was very much embarrassed, because I had certainly been informed that she had lived for a number of years with a second husband who had not used her well, and from whom she was finally divorced. Doubt her word I could not; neither could I reconcile her statement with facts apparently well known. She saw my dilemma, and, after a brief silence, mentally decided to help me out of it. I could see that, in the gradual relaxing of certain muscles of her face, which had contracted at the first reference to this—as I could not doubt—painful subject. Straightening her fine form as if ease of position was not compatible with what was in her mind, she grasped the arms of her chair with either hand, and looking with a retrospective gaze into the fire, began:
"You see it was this way: the man I married the second time had another wife."
While she drew a deep breath, and made a momentary pause, I seemed to take it all in, for I had heard so many stories of deserted Eastern homes, and subsequent illegal marriages in California, that I was prepared not to be at all surprised at what I should learn from her. Directly she went on:
"I found out about it the very day of the marriage. We were married in the morning, and in the afternoon a man came over from Vancouver who told me that Mr. Seabrook had a wife, and family of children, in a certain town in Ohio." Another pause followed, while she seemed to be recalling the very emotions of that time.
"Vancouver?" I said: "that is on the Columbia River."
"Yes; I was living in Portland at that time."
In reply to my glance of surprise, she changed the scene of her story to an earlier date.
"Mr. Greyfield had always wanted to come to California, after the gold discoveries; but when he married me he agreed not to think of it any more. I was very young and timid, and very much attached to my childhood's home, and my parents; and I could not bear the thought of going so long a distance away from them. It was not then, as it is now, an easy journey of one week; but a long six months' pilgrimage through a wilderness country infested by Indians. To reach what? another wilderness infested by white barbarians!"
"But I have always heard," I said, "that women were idealized and idolized in those days."
"That is a very pretty fiction. If you had seen what I have seen on this coast, you would not think we had been much idealized. Women have a certain value among men, when they can be useful to them. In the old States, where every man has a home, women have a fixed position and value in society, because they are necessary to make homes. But on this coast, in early times, and more or less even now, men found they could dispense with homes; they had been converted into nomads, to whom earth and sky, a blanket and a frying-pan, were sufficient for their needs. Unless we came to them armed with endurance to battle with primeval nature, we became burdensome. Strong and coarse women who could wash shirts in any kind of a tub out of doors under a tree, and iron them kneeling on the ground, to support themselves and half a dozen little, hungry young ones, were welcome enough—before the Chinamen displaced them. We had some value as cooks, before men, with large means, turned their attention to supplying their brothers with prepared food for a consideration below what we could do with our limited means. And then the ladies, the educated, refined women, who followed their husbands to this country, or who came here hoping to share, perchance, in the golden spoils of the mines! Where are they to-day, and what is their condition? Look for them in the sunless back rooms of San Francisco boarding-houses, and you will find them doing a little fine sewing for the shops; or working on their own garments, which they must make out of school hours, because the niggardly pay of teachers in the lower grades will not allow of their getting them done. Idealized indeed! Men talk about our getting out of our places where we clamor for paying work of some kind, for something to do that will enable us to live in half comfort by working more hours than they do to earn lordly livings."
How much soever I might have liked to talk this labor question over with my intelligent hostess at any other time, my curiosity concerning her own history having been so strongly aroused, the topic seemed less interesting than usual, and I seized the opportunity given by an emphasized pause to bring her back to the original subject.
"Did you come first to California?" I asked.
"No. I had been married little over a year when Benton was born. 'Now,' I thought, 'my husband will be contented to stay at home.' He had been fretting about having promised not to take me to California; but I hoped the baby would divert his thoughts. We were doing well, and had a pleasant house, with everything in and about it that a young couple ought to desire. I deceived myself in expecting Mr. Greyfield to give up anything he had strongly desired; and seeing how much he brooded over it, I finally told him to be comforted; that I would go with him to California if he would wait until the baby was a year old before starting; and to this he agreed."
"How old were you at that time?"
"Only about nineteen. I was twenty the spring we started; and celebrated my anniversary by making a general gathering of all my relatives and friends at our house, before we broke up and sold off our house-keeping goods—all but such as could be carried in our wagons across the plains."
"You were not starting by yourselves?"
"O no. There was a large company gathering together on the Missouri river, to make the start in May; and we, with some of our neighbors, made ready to join them. I shall never forget my feelings as I stood in my own house for the last time, taking a life-long leave of every familiar object! But you do not want to hear about that."
"I want to hear what you choose to tell me; but most of all about your second marriage, and what led to it."
"It is not easy to go back so many years and take up one thread in the skein of life, and follow that alone. I will disentangle it as rapidly as I can; but first let us have a fresh fire."
Suiting the action to the word, my hostess touched a bell and ordered a good supply of wood, which I took as an intimation that we were to have one of our late sittings. In confirmation of this suspicion a second order was given to have certain refreshments, including hot lemonade, made ready to await our pleasure. When we were once more alone I begged her to go on with her story.
"We left the rendezvous in May, and traveled without any unusual incidents all through the summer."
"I beg pardon for interrupting you; but I do want to know how you endured that sort of life. Was it not terrible?"
"It was monotonous, it was disagreeable, but it was not terrible while everybody was well. There were compensations in it, as in almost any kind of life. My husband was strong and cheerful, now that he was having his own way; the baby throve on fresh air and good milk—for we had milch cows with us—and the summer months on the grassy plains are delightful, except for rather frequent thunder storms. The grass was good, and our cattle in fine order. Everything went well until the cholera broke out among us."
"And then my husband died."
"Ah, what have not pioneer women endured!"
"Mr. Greyfield had from the first been regarded as a sort of leader. Without saying much, but by being always in the right place at the right time, he had gained an ascendancy over the less courageous, strong and decided men. When the cholera came he was continually called upon to nurse the sick, to bury the dead and comfort the living."
"And so became the easier victim?"
My remark was unheeded, while my hostess lived over again in recollection the fearful scenes of the cholera season on the plains. I wanted to divert her, and called her attention to the roaring of the wind and beating of the rain without.
"Yes," she said; "it stormed just in that way the night before he died. We all were drenched to the skin, and he was not in a condition to bear the exposure. I was myself half sick with fever, and when the shock came I became delirious. When I came to myself we were a hundred and fifty miles away from the place where he died."
"How dreadful!" I could not help exclaiming. "Not even to know how and where he was buried."
"Nor if he were buried at all. So frightened were the people in our train that they could not be prevailed upon to take proper care of the sick and dying, nor pay proper respect to the dead. After my reason returned, the one subject that I could not bear to have mentioned was that of my husband's death. Some of the men belonging to the train had taken charge of my affairs and furnished a driver for the wagon I was in. The women took care of Benton; and I lived, who would much rather have died. Probably I should have died, but for the need I felt, when I could think, of somebody to care for, support and educate my child. My constitution was good; and that, with the anxiety about Benton, made it possible for me to live."
"My dear friend," I exclaimed; "what a dreadful experience! I wonder that you are alive and sit there talking to me, this moment."
"You will wonder more before I have done," she returned, with what might be termed a superior sort of smile at my inexperience.
"But how did you get to Oregon?" I asked, interrupting her again.
"Our train was about at the place where the Oregon and California emigrants parted company, when I recovered my reason and strength enough to have any concern about where I was going. Some of those who had started for Oregon had determined to go to California; and the most particular friend Mr. Greyfield had in the train had decided to go to Oregon instead of to California, as he first intended. Now, when my husband was hopeless of his own recovery, he had given me in charge of this man, with instructions to be governed by him in all my business affairs; and I had no thought of resisting his will, though that bequest was the cause of the worst sorrows of my life, by compelling me to go to Oregon."
"Why cannot people be contented with ruling while living, without subjecting others to the domination of an irrevocable will, when they are no longer able to mold or govern circumstances. I beg your pardon. Pray go on. But first let me inquire whether the person to whom you were commanded to trust your affairs proved trustworthy?"
"As trustworthy as nearly absolute power on one side, and timid inexperience on the other, is likely to make any one. When we arrived finally in Portland, he took my wagons and cattle off my hands, and returned me next to nothing for them. Yet, he was about like the average administrator; it did not make much difference, I suppose, whether this one man got my property, or a probate court."
"Poor child! I can see just how you were situated. Alone in a new country, with a baby on your hands, and without means to make a home for yourself. What did you do? did you never think of going back to your parents?"
"How could I get back? The tide of travel was not in that direction. Besides, I had neither money nor a sufficient outfit. There was no communication by mail in those days oftener than once in three months. You might perish a thousand times before you could get assistance from the East. O, no! there was nothing to be done, except to make the best of the situation."
"Certainly, you had some friends among your fellow-immigrants who interested themselves in your behalf to find you a home? Somebody besides your guardian already mentioned."
"The most of them were as badly off as myself. Many had lost near friends. I was not the only widow; but some women had lost their husbands who had several young children. They looked upon me as comparatively fortunate. Men had lost wives, and these were the most wretched of all; for a woman can contrive some way to take care of her children, where a man is perfectly helpless. Families, finding no houses to go into by themselves, were huddled together in any shelter that could be procured. The lines of partition in houses were often as imaginary as the parallels of latitude on the earth; or were defined by a window, or a particular board in the wall. O, I couldn't live in that way. My object was to get a real home somewhere. As soon as I could, I rented a room in a house with a good family, for the sake of the protection they would be to me, and went to work to earn a living. Of course, people were forward enough with their suggestions."
"Of what, for instance?"
"Most persons—in fact everybody that I talked with—said I should have to marry. But I could not think of it; the mention of it always made me sick that first winter. I was recovering strength, and was young; so I thought I need not despair."
"Such a woman could not but have plenty of offers, in a new country especially; but I understand how you must have felt. You could not marry so soon after your husband's death, and it revolted you to be approached on the subject. A wife's love is not so easily transferred."
"You speak as any one might think, not having been in my circumstances. But there was something more than that in the feeling I had. I could not realize the fact of Mr. Greyfield's death. It was as if he had only fallen behind the train, and might come up with us any day. I waited for him all that winter."
"How distressing!" I could not help saying. Mrs. Greyfield sat silent for some minutes, while the storm raged furiously without. She rested her cheek on her hand and gazed into the glowing embers, as if the past were all pictured there in living colors. For me to say, as I did, "how distressing," no doubt seemed to her the merest platitude. There are no conventional forms for the expression of the utmost grief or sympathy. Silence is most eloquent, but I could not keep silence. At last I asked, "What did she do to earn a living?"
"I learned to make men's clothes. There was a clothing store in the place that gave me employment. First I made vests, and then pants; and finally I got to be quite expert, and could earn several dollars a day. But a dollar did not buy much in those times; and oh, the crying spells that I had over my work, before I had mastered it sufficiently to have confidence in myself. Sancho Panza blessed the man that invented sleep—I say, blessed be the woman that invented crying-fits, for they save thousands and thousands of women from madness, annually!"
This was a return to that sprightly manner of speech that was one of Mrs. Greyfield's peculiar attractions; and which often cropped out in the least expected places. But though she smiled, it was easy to see that tears would not be far to seek. "And yet," I said, "it is a bad habit to cultivate—the habit of weeping. It wastes the blood at a fearful rate."
"Don't I know it? But it is safer than frenzy. Why I used—but I'll not tell you about that yet. I set out to explain to you my marriage with Mr. Seabrook. As I told you, everybody said I must marry; and the reasons they gave were, that I must have somebody to support me; that it was not safe for me to live alone; that my son would need a man's restraining hand when he came to be a few years older; and that I, myself, was too young to live without love!—therefore the only correct thing to do was to take a husband—a good one, if you could get him—a husband, anyway. As spring came round, and my mind regained something of its natural elasticity, and my personal appearance probably improved with returned health, the air seemed full of husbands. Everybody that had any business with me, if he happened not to have a wife, immediately proposed to take me in that relation. All the married men of my acquaintance jested with me on the subject, and their wives followed in the same silly iteration. I actually felt myself of some consequence, whether by nature or by accident, until it became irksome."
"How did all your suitors contrive to get time for courtship?" I laughingly inquired.
"O, time was the least of their requirements. You know, perhaps, that there was an Oregon law, or, rather, a United States law, giving a mile square of land to a man and his wife: to each, half. Now some of the Oregonians made this "Donation Act" an excuse for going from door to door to beg a wife, as they pretended, in order to be able to take up a whole section, though when not one of them ever cultivated a quarter section, or ever meant to."
"And they come to you in this way? What did they say? how did they act?"
"Why, they rode a spotted cayuse up to the door with a great show of hurry, jangling their Mexican spurs, and making as much noise as possible. As there were no sidewalks in Portland, then, they could sit on their horses and open a door, or knock at one, if they had so much politeness. In either case, as soon as they saw a woman they asked if she were married; and if not, would she marry? there was no more ceremony about it."
"Did they ever really get wives in that way, or was it done in recklessness and sport? It seems incredible that any woman could accept such an offer as that."
"There were some matches made in that way; though, as you might conjecture, they were not of the kind made in heaven, and most of them were afterwards dissolved by legislative action or decree of the courts."
"Truly you were right, when you said women are not idealized in primitive conditions of society," I said, after the first mirthful impulse created by so comical a recital had passed. "But how was it, that with so much to disgust you with the very name of marriage, you finally did consent to take a husband? He, certainly, was not one of the kind that came riding up to doors, proposing on the instant?"
"No, he was not: but he might as well have been for any difference it made to me," said Mrs. Greyfield, with that bitterness in her tone that always came into it when she spoke of Seabrook. "You ask 'how was it that I at last consented to take a husband?' Do you not know that such influences as constantly surrounded me, are demoralizing as I said? You hear a thing talked of until you become accustomed to it. It is as Pope says: You 'first endure, then pity, then embrace.' I endured, felt contempt, and finally yielded to the pressure.
"Why, you have no idea, from what I have told you, of the reality. My house as I have already mentioned, was one room in a tenement. It opened directly upon the street. In one corner was a bed. Opposite the door was a stove for cooking and warming the house. A table and two chairs besides my little sewing-chair completed the furnishing of the apartment. The floor was bare, except where I had put down an old coverlet for a rug before the bed. Here in this crowded place I cooked, ate, slept, worked, and received company and offers!
"Just as an example of the way in which some of my suitors broached the subject I will describe a scene. Fancy me kneeling on the floor, stanching the blood from quite a serious cut on Benton's hand. The door opens behind me, and a man I never have seen before, thrusts his head and half his body in at the opening. His salutation is 'Howdy!'—his first remark, 'I heern thar was a mighty purty widder livin' here; and I reckon my infurmation was correct. If you would like to marry, I'm agreeable.'"
"How did you receive this candidate? You have not told me what you replied on these occasions," I said, amused at this picture of pioneer life.
"I turned my head around far enough to get one look at his face, and asking him rather crossly 'if there were any more fools where he came from,' went on bandaging Benton's hand."
The recollection of this absurd incident caused the narrator to laugh as she had not often laughed in my hearing.
"This may have been a second Werther," I remarked, "and surely no Charlotte could have been more unfeeling than you showed yourself. It could not be that a man coming in that way expected to get any other answer than the one you gave him?"
"I do not know, and I did not then care. One day a man, to whose motherless children I had been kind when opportunity offered, slouched into my room without the ceremony of knocking and dropping into a chair as if his knees failed him, began twirling his battered old hat in an embarrassed manner, and doing as so many of his predecessors had done—proposing off-hand. He had a face like a terra-cotta image, a long lank figure, faded old clothes, and a whining voice."
"He told me that he had no 'woman,' and that I had no 'man,' a condition that he evidently considered deplorable. He assured me that I suited him 'fustrate;' that his children 'sot gret store by me,' and 'liked my victuals;' and that he thought a 'heap' of my little boy. He also impressed upon me that he had been 'considerin' the 'rangement of jinin' firms for some time. To close the business at once, he proposed that I should accept of him for my husband then and there."
"And pray, what did you say to him!"
"I told him that I did not know what use I had for him, unless I should put him behind the stove, and break bark over his head."
This reply tickled my fancy so much that I laughed until I cried. I insisted on knowing what put it into her mind to say that.
"You see, we burned fir wood, the bark of which is better to make heat than the woody portion of the tree; but is never sawed or split, and has to be broken. I used to take up a big piece, and bring it down with a blow over any sharp corner to knock it into smaller fragments, and something in the man's appearance, I suppose, suggested that he might be good for that, if for nothing else. I did not stop to frame my replies on any forms laid down in young ladies' manuals; but they seemed to be conclusive as a general thing."
"I should think so. Yet, there must have been some, more nearly your equals, attracted by your youth and beauty, loving you, or capable of loving you, to whom you could not give such answers, by whom such answers would not be taken."
"As I look back upon it now, I cannot think of any one I might have taken and did not, that I regret. There were men of all classes nearly; but they were not desirable, as I saw it then, or as I see it now. It is true that I was young, and pretty, perhaps, and that women were in a minority. But then, too, the men who were floating about on the surface of pioneer society were not likely to be the kind of men that make true lovers and good husbands. Some of them have settled down into steady-going benedicts, and have money and position. The worst effect of all this talk about marrying was, that it prepared me to be persuaded against my inner consciousness into doing that which I ought not to have done. My truer judgment had become confused, my perceptions clouded, from being so often assailed by the united majority who could not bear to see poor, little minority go unappropriated. But come, let us have our cakes and lemonade. You need something to sustain you while I complete the recital of my conquests."
I felt that she needed a brief interval in which to collect her thoughts and calm a growing nervousness that in spite of her efforts at pleasantry would assert itself in various little ways, evident enough to my observation. A saucepan of water was set upon the hot coals on the hearth, the lemons cut and squeezed into two elegant goblets, upon square lumps of sugar that eagerly took up the keen acid, and grew yellow and spongy in consequence. A sociable little round table was rolled out of its seclusion in a corner, and made to support a tray between us, whereon were such dainty cakes and confections as my hostess delighted in.
There was an air of substantial comfort in all the arrangements of my friend's house that made it a peculiarly pleasant one to visit. It lacked nothing to make it home-like, restful, attractive. The house itself was large and airy, with charming views; the furniture sufficiently elegant without being too fine for use; flowers, birds, and all manner of curios abounded, yet were never in the way, as they so often are in the houses of people who are fond of pretty and curious things, but have no really refined taste to arrange them. Our little ten-o'clock lunch was perfect in its appointments—a "thing of beauty," as it was of palatableness and refreshment. So strongly was I impressed at the moment with this talent of Mrs. Greyfield's, that I could not refrain from speaking of it, as we sat sipping hot and spicy lemonade from those exquisite cut-glass goblets of her choosing, and tasting dainties served on the loveliest china: "Yes, I suppose it is a gift of God, the same as a taste for the high arts is an endowment from the same source. Did it never strike you as being absurd, that men should expect, and as far as they can, require all women to be good housekeepers? They might as well expect every mechanic to carve in wood or chisel marble into forms of life. But it is my one available talent, and has stood me in good stead, though I have no doubt it was one chief cause of my trouble, by attracting Mr. Seabrook."
"You must know," I said, "that I am tortured with curiosity to hear about that person. Will you not now begin?"
"Let me see—where did I leave off? I was telling you that although I had so many suitors, of so many classes, and none of them desirable, to my way of thinking, I was really gradually being influenced to marry. You must know that a woman so young and so alone in the world, and who had to labor for her bread, and her child's bread, could not escape the solicitations of men who did not care to marry; and it was this class who gave me more uneasiness than all the presuming ignorant ones, who would honor me by making me a wife. I know it is constantly asserted, by men themselves, that no woman is approached in that way who does not give some encouragement. But no statement could be more utterly false—unless they determine to construe ordinary politeness and friendliness into a covert advance. The cunning of the "father of lies" is brought to bear to entrap artless and inexperienced women into situations whence they are assured there is no escape without disgrace.
"During my first year of widowhood my feelings were several times outraged in this way; and at first I was so humiliated, and had such a sense of guilt, that it made me sick and unfit for my work. The guilty feeling came, I now know, from the consciousness I had of the popular opinion I have referred to, that there must be something wrong in my deportment. But by calling to mind all the circumstances connected with these incidents, and studying my own behavior and the feelings that impelled me, I taught myself at last not to care so very much about it, after the first emotions of anger had passed away. Still I thought I could perceive that I was not quite the same person: you understand?—the 'bloom' was being brushed away."
"What an outrage! What a shame, that a woman in your situation could not be left to be herself, with her own pure thoughts and tender sorrows! Was there no one to whom you could go for advice and sympathy?—none among all those who came to the country with you who could have helped you?"
"The people who came out with me were mostly scattered through the farming country; and would have been of very little use to me if they had not been. In fact, they would, probably, have been first to condemn me, being chiefly of an uneducated class, and governed more by traditions than by the wisdom of experience. There were two or three families whose acquaintance I had made after arriving in Portland, who were kindly disposed towards me, and treated me with great neighborliness; especially the family that was in the same tenement with me. To them I sometimes mentioned my troubles; but while they were willing to do anything for me in the way of a common friendly service, like the loaning of an article of household convenience, or sitting with me when Benton was sick—as he very often was—they could not understand other needs, or minister to the sickness of the mind. If I received any counsel, it was to the effect that a woman was in every way better off to be married. I used to wonder why God had not made us married—why he had given us our individual natures, since there was forever this necessity of being paired!"
"Yet you had loved your husband?"
"I had never ceased to love him!—and that was just what these people could not understand. Death cut them loose from everything, and they were left with only strong desires, and no sentiment to sanctify them. That I should love a dead husband, and turn with disgust from a living one, was inexplicable to them."
"My dear, I think I see the rock on which you wrecked your happiness." For the moment I had forgotten what she had told me in the beginning, that Seabrook had married her illegally; and was imagining her married to a living husband, and loving only the memory of one dead. She saw my error, and informed me by a look. Pushing away the intervening table with its diminished contents, and renewing the fire, Mrs. Greyfield proceeded:
"It would take too long to go over the feelings of those times, and assign their causes. You are a woman that can put yourself in my place, to a great extent, though not wholly; for there are some things that cannot be imagined, and only come by experience."
"Benton was two years and a half old; a very delicate child, suffering nearly all the time with chills and fever. I had occasional attacks of illness from the malaria, always to be met with on the clearing up of low-lands near a river. Still I was able to sew enough to keep a shelter over our heads, and bread in our mouths, until I had been a year in Portland. But I could not get ahead in the least, and was often very low spirited. About this time I made the acquaintance of Mr. Seabrook. He was introduced to me by a mutual acquaintance, and having a little knowledge of medicine, gave me both advice and remedies for Benton. He used to come in quite often, and look after the child, and praise my housekeeping, which probably was somewhat better than that of the average pioneer of those days. He never paid me any silly compliments, or disturbed my tranquillity with love-making of any sort. Just for that reason I began to like him. He was twelve or fifteen years older than myself; and more than ordinarily fine-looking and intelligent. You have no idea, because you have never been so placed, what a comfort it was to me to have such a friend."
"Yes, I think I know."
"One day he said to me, 'Mrs. Greyfield, this sitting and sewing all day is bad for your health. Now, I should think, being so good a housekeeper, you might do very well by taking a few boarders; and I believe you could stand that kind of labor better than sewing.' We had a little talk about it, and he proposed trying to find me a house suited to the purpose; to which I very readily consented; for, though I was wholly inexperienced in any business, I thought it better to venture the experiment than to keep on as I was doing."
"How did you expect to get furniture? Pardon me; but you see I want to learn all about the details of so strange a life."
"I don't think I expected anything, or thought of all the difficulties at once."
"Which was fortunate, because they would have discouraged you."
"It is hard to say what has or has not been for the best. But for that boarding-house scheme, I do not believe I should have married the man I did.
"As I was saying, Mr. Seabrook never annoyed me with attentions. He came and talked to me in a friendly manner, and with a superior air that disarmed apprehension on that score. Mrs. ——, my neighbor in the next room, once hinted to me that his visits were indicative of his intentions, and thereby caused me a sleepless night. But as he never referred to the subject, and as I was now full of my new business project, the alarm subsided. A house was finally secured, or a part of a house, consisting of a kitchen, dining-room and bed-room, on the first floor; and the same number of rooms above. I had a comfortable supply of bedding and table linen; the trouble was about cabinet furniture. But as most of my boarders were bachelors, who quartered themselves where they could, I got along very well."
"You made a success of it, then?"
"I made a success. I threw all my energies into it, and had all the boarders I could cook for."
"Mr. Seabrook boarded with you?—I conjecture that."
"Yes; and he took a room at my house. At first I liked it well enough; I had so much confidence in him. But in a short time I thought I could perceive that my other boarders were disposed to think that we looked toward a nearer relationship in the future. Perhaps they were justified in thinking so, as they could only judge from appearances; and I had asked Mr. Seabrook to take the foot of the table, and carve, because I had so much else to do that it was impossible for me to do that also. Gradually he assumed more the air of proprietor than of boarder; but as he was so much older and wiser, and had been of so much service to me, I readily pardoned what I looked upon as a matter of no great consequence.
"It proved to be, however, a matter of very great consequence. I had been established in the new house and business four or five weeks, when one evening, Benton being unusually ill, I asked Mr. Seabrook's advice about him. My bed-room was up stairs, against the partition which separated my apartments from those occupied by a family of Germans. I chose that room for myself because it seemed less lonely, and safer for me, to be where I could hear the voice of the little German woman, and she could hear mine. In the same manner my kitchen joined on to hers, and we could hear each other at our work. Benton being too ill to be dressed, was lying on the bed in my room, and I asked Mr. Seabrook to go up and look at him. He examined him and told me what to do, in his usual decided and assured manner, and went back to the dining-room, which was also my sitting-room. As soon as Benton was quieted, so that I could leave him, I also returned to the lower part of the house to finish my evening tasks.
"There is such a feeling of hatred arises in my heart when I recall that part of my history that it makes me fear my own wickedness! Do you think we can hate so much as to curse and blight our own natures?"
"Undoubtedly; but that would be a sort of frenzy, and would finally end in madness. You do not feel in that way. It is the over-mastering sense of wrong suffered, for which there can be no redress. Terrible as the feeling is, it must be free from the wickedness you impute to yourself. Your nature is sound and sweet at the core—I feel sure of that."
"Thank you. I have had many grave doubts about myself. But to go on. Contrary to his usual habit, Mr. Seabrook remained at the house that evening, and in the dining-room instead of his own room. I was so busy with my work and anxious about Benton, that I did not give more than a passing thought to him. He, also, seemed much pre-occupied.
"At last my work was done, and I took a light to go to my room, telling Mr. Seabrook to put out the lights below stairs, as I should not be down again. 'Stop a moment,' said he, 'I have something to tell you that you ought to know.' He very politely placed a chair for me, which I took. His manners were faultless in the matter of etiquette—and how very far a fine manner goes, in our estimate of people! I had not the shadow of a suspicion of what was coming. 'Mrs. Greyfield,' he said, with great gravity, 'I fear I have unintentionally compromised you very seriously. In advising you to take this house, and open it for boarders, I was governed entirely by what I conceived to be your best interests; but it seems that I erred in my judgment. You are very young—only twenty-three, I believe, and—I beg your pardon—too beautiful to pass unnoticed in a community like this. Your boarders, so far, are all gentlemen. Further, it has been noticed and commented upon that—really, I do not know how to express it—that I have seemed to take the place in your household that—pray, forgive me, Mrs. Greyfield—only a husband, in fact or in expectancy, could be expected or permitted to occupy. Do you see what I mean?'
"I sat stunned and speechless while he went on. 'I presume your good sense will direct you in this matter, and that you will grasp the right horn of the dilemma. If you would allow me to help you out of it, you would really promote my happiness. Dear Mrs. Greyfield, permit me to offer you the love and protection of a husband, and stop these gossips' mouths.'"
"You do not think he had premeditated this?" I asked.
"I did not take it in then, but afterwards I saw it plainly enough. He pressed me for an answer, all the time plausibly protesting that although he had hoped some time to win my love, he had not anticipated the necessity for urging his suit as a matter of expediency. In vain I argued that if his presence in the house was an injury to me, he could leave it. It was too late, he said. I indignantly declared that it was not my fault that my boarders were all men. I was working for my living, and would just as willingly have boarded any other creature if I could have got my money for it; a monkey or a sheep; it was all the same to me. He smiled superiorly on my fretfulness; and when I at last burst into a passion of tears, bade me good night with such an air of being extremely forbearing and judicious that I could not help regarding myself as a foolish and undisciplined child.
"That night I scarcely slept at all. Benton was feverish, and I half wild. All sorts of plans ran through my head; but turn the matter over any way I would, it amounted to the same thing. The money I must earn, must come from men. Whether I sewed or cooked, or whatever I did, they were the paymasters to whom I looked for my wages. How, then, was it possible to escape contact with them, or avoid being misunderstood. In one breath I resented, with all the ardor of my soul, the impertinence of the world's judgment, and in the next I declared to myself that I did not care; that conscious innocence should sustain me, and that I had a right to do the best I could for myself and child.
"But that was only sham courage. I was morally a coward, and could not possibly face the evil spirit of detraction. Therefore, the morning found me feverish in body and faint in spirit. I kept out of sight of my boarders, except Mr. Seabrook, who looked into the kitchen with a sympathizing face, and inquired very kindly after Bennie, as he pet-named Benton. When my dinner was over that day, I asked the little German woman to keep the child until I could go on an errand, and went over to Mrs. ——, my old house-mate, to get advice.
"Do you know how much advice is worth? If you like it, you haven't needed it; and if you do not like it, you will not take it. Mrs. —— told me that if she were in my place, as if she could be in my place! she would get rid of all her troubles by getting some man to take charge of her and her affairs. When I asked, with transparent duplicity, where I was to find a man for this service, she laughed in my face. People did talk so then, and what Mr. Seabrook said was the unexaggerated truth. It did not occur to me to examine into the authorship of the rumors; I was too shrinking and sensitive for that.
"When I reached home I found Mr. Seabrook at the house. A sudden feeling of anger flashed into my mind, and must have illuminated my eyes; for he gave me one deprecating glance, and immediately went out. This made me fear I was unjust to him. That evening he did not come to tea, but sent me a note saying he had business at Vancouver and would not return for two or three days; but that when he did return it would be better to have my mind made up to dismiss him entirely out of the country, or to have our engagement made known.
"That threw the whole responsibility upon me; and it was, as he knew it would be, too heavy for my twenty-three years to carry. To lose the most helpful and agreeable friend I had in the country, to banish him for no fault but being too kind to me, or to take him in place of one whose image would always stand between us: that was the alternative.
"The next day an incident occurred that decided my destiny. I had to go out to make some purchases for the house. At the store where I usually bought provisions I chanced to meet a woman who had crossed the continent in my company; and she turned her back upon me without speaking. She was an ignorant, bigoted sort of woman, of an uncertain temper, and at another time I might not have cared for the slight; but coming at a time when I was in a state of nervous alarm, it cut me to the quick. With great difficulty I restrained my tears, and left the store. While hurrying home with a basket on my arm, almost choked with grief, I passed a kind old gentleman who had always before had a pleasant word for me, and an inquiry about my child. He, too, passed me with only the slightest sign of recognition. I thought my heart would burst in my breast, so terrible was the sense of outrage and shame—"
"Which was, after all, probably imaginary," I interrupted. "The insult of the ignorant, ill-tempered woman was purely an accidental display of those qualities, and the slight recognition of your old friend the consequence of the other, for your face certainly expressed the state of your feelings, and your friend was surprised into silence by seeing you in such distress."
"That, very likely, is the true explanation. But it did not so impress me then. You cannot, in the state of mind I was in, go after people, and ask them to tell you whether or not they really mean to insult you, because you are only too certain that they do. I was sick with pain and mortification. How I got through my day's work I do not remember; but you can understand that my demoralization was complete by this time, and that when Mr. Seabrook returned I was like wax in his hands. All that I stipulated for was a little more time; he had my permission to announce our engagement.
"My boarders and every one who spoke to me about it congratulated me. When I look back upon it now, it seems strange that no one ever suggested to me the importance of knowing the antecedents of the man I was going to marry; but they did not. It seemed to be tacitly understood that antecedents were not to be dragged to light in this new world, and that "by-gones should be by-gones." As to myself, it never occurred to my inexperience to suspect that a man might be dishonorable, even criminal, though he had the outside bearing of a gentleman."
"Did he propose to relieve you of the necessity of keeping boarders?"
"No. The business was a good one; and, as I have said, I was a success in this line. My constitution was good; my energy immense, in labor; my training in household economy good; and, besides, I had a real talent for pleasing my boarders. I was to be provided with a servant; and the care of the marketing would devolve upon Mr. Seabrook. With this amelioration of my labors, the burden could be easily borne for the sake of the profits."
"What business was Mr. Seabrook in?"
"I never thought of the subject at that time. He was always well dressed; associated with men of business; seemed to have money; and I never doubted that such a man was able to do anything he proposed. Women, you know, unconsciously attribute at least an earthly omnipotence to men. Afterwards, of course, I was disillusioned. But I must hasten, for it is growing late; and either the storm or these old memories shake my nerves.
"I had asked for a month's time to prepare my mind for my coming marriage. At the end of a week, however, Mr. Seabrook came to me and told me that imperative business called him away for an absence of several weeks, and that, in his judgment, the marriage ceremony should take place before he left. He should be away over the month I had stipulated for; and, in case of accident, I would have the protection of his name. My objections were soon overruled, and on the morning of his departure we were married—as I believed, legally and firmly bound—in the presence of my family of boarders, and two or three women, including Mrs. ——. He went away immediately, and I was left to my tumultuous thoughts."
"May I be permitted to know whether you loved him at all, at that time? It seems to me that you must have sometimes yearned for the ownership of some heart, and the strong tenderness of man's firmer nature."
Mrs. Greyfield looked at me with a curiously mixed expression, half of sarcastic pity, half of amused contempt. But the thought, whatever it was, went unspoken. She reflected a moment silently before she answered.
"I have told you that my heart remained unweaned from the memory of my dead husband. I told Mr. Seabrook the same. But I admired, respected and believed in him; he was agreeable to me, and had my confidence. There can be no doubt, but if he had been all that he seemed, I should have ended by loving him in a quiet and constant way. As it was, the shock I felt at the discovery of his perfidy was terrible.
"My ears were yet tingling with my new name, when, everybody having gone, I sat down with Benton on my lap to have the pleasure of the few natural tears that women are bound to shed over their relinquished freedom. I was very soon aroused by a knock at the door, which opened to admit an old acquaintance, then residing in Vancouver, and a former suitor of mine. Almost the first thing he said was, 'I hear you have been getting married?' 'Yes,' I said, trying to laugh off my embarrassment, 'I had to marry a man at last to get rid of them!'
"'You made a poor selection, then,' he returned, rather angrily.
"His anger roused mine, for his tone was, as I thought, insolent, 'Do you think I should have done better to have taken you?' I asked, scornfully.
"'You would at least have got a man that the law could give you,' he retorted, 'and not another woman's husband.'
"The charge seemed so enormous that I laughed in his face, attributing his conduct to jealous annoyance at my marriage. But something in his manner, in spite of our mutual excitement, unsettled my confidence. He was not inventing this story; he evidently believed it himself. 'For God's sake,' I entreated, 'if you have any proof of what you say, give it me at once!' And then he went on to tell me that on the occasion of Mr. Seabrook's late visit to Vancouver, he had been recognized by an emigrant out from Ohio, who met and talked with him at the Hudson's Bay store. That man had told him, my informant, that he was well acquainted with the family of Mr. Seabrook, and that his wife and several children were living when he left Ohio.
"'Can you bring this man to me?' I asked, trembling with horrible apprehensions.
"'I don't know as I could,' said he; 'for he went, I think, over to the Sound to look up a place. But I can give you the name of the town he came from, if that would be of any use.' I had him write the address for me, as I was powerless to do it for myself.
"'I am sorry for you,' he said, as he handed me the slip of paper; 'that is, if you care anything for the rascal.'
"'Thank you,' I returned, 'but this thing is not proven yet. If you really mean well by me, keep what you have told me to yourself.'
"'You mean to live with him?' he asked.
"'I don't know what I shall do; I must have time to think.'
"'Very well; it is no affair of mine. I don't want a bullet through my head for interfering; but I thought it was no more than fair to let you know.'
"'I am very grateful, of course;—I mean I am if there is any occasion; but this story is so strange, and has come upon me so suddenly that I cannot take it all in at once, with all its consequences.'
"'I know what you think,' he said finally: 'You suspect me of making up this thing to be revenged on you for preferring Seabrook to me. I'd be a damned mean cuss, to do such a turn by any woman, wouldn't I? As to consequences, if the story is true, and I believe it is, why your marriage amounts to nothing, and you are just as free as you were before!'
"I fancied his face brightened up with the idea of my freedom, and a doubt of his veracity intruded upon my growing conviction. Distracted, excited, pressed down with cares and fears, I still had to attend to my daily tasks. I begged him to go away, and not to say a word to any other mortal about what he had told me; and he gave me the promise I desired. That was a fatal error, and fearfully was I punished."
"How an error? It seems to me quite remarkable prudence for one in your situation."
"So I thought then; but the event proved differently."
"Pray do tell me how you bore up under all this excitement, and the care and labor of a boarding-house? The more I know of your life, the more surprised I am at your endurance."
"It was the care and labor that saved me, perhaps. At all events, here I am, alive and well, to-night. I sometimes liken myself to a tree that I know of. It was a small fir tree in a friend's garden. For some reason, it began to pine and dwindle and turn red. My friend's husband insisted on cutting it down, as unsightly; but this she objected to, until all the leaves were dry and faded, and the tree apparently dead. Still she asked for it to be spared for another season; and, taking a stick, she beat the tree all over until not a leaf was left on a single bough; and there it stood, a mere frame of dry branches, until everybody wished it out of the way. But behold! at last it was covered with little green dots of leaves, that rapidly grew to the usual size, and now that tree is the thriftiest in my friend's garden, and a living evidence of the uses of adversity. But for the beating it got, it would now be a dead tree! I had my child to live and work for; and really, but for this last trouble, I should have thought myself doing well. I had found out how I could make and lay up money, and was gaining that sense of independence such knowledge gives. Besides, I was young, and in good physical health most of the time before this last and worst stroke of fortune. That broke down my powers of resistance in some directions, I had so much to resist in others."
"Do you see what o'clock it is?" I asked.
"Yes; but if you do not mind the sitting up, let's make a night of it. I feel as if I could not sleep—as if something were going to happen."
Very cheerfully I consented to the proposed vigil. I wanted to hear the rest of the story; and I knew she had a sort of prophetic consciousness of coming events. If she said "something was going to happen," something surely did happen. So the fire was renewed, and we settled ourselves again for "a night of it.
"What did you do? and why do you say that you committed a fatal error by keeping silence?"
"By suffering the matter to rest, I unfortunately fixed myself in the situation I would have avoided. My object was what yours would have been, or any woman's—to save all scandal, until the facts were known to a certainty. I was so sensitive about being talked over; and besides felt that I had no right to expose Mr. Seabrook to a slanderous accusation. It was not possible for me to have foreseen what actually happened.
"I took one night to think the matter over. It was a longer night than this one will seem to you. My decision was to write to the postmaster of the town from which Mr. Seabrook was said to come. Now that would be a simple affair enough; the telegraph would procure us the information wanted in a day. Then a letter was five or six months going and coming. In the meantime I had resolved not to live with Mr. Seabrook as his wife; but you will see how I would, under the circumstances, be compelled to seem to do so. I did not think of that at first, however. You know how you mentally go over impending scenes beforehand? I meant to surprise him into a confession, if he were guilty; and believed I should be able to judge of his innocence, if he should be wrongly accused. I wrote and dispatched my letter at once, and under an assumed name, to prevent its being stolen. When that was done I tried to rest unconcerned; but, of course, that was impossible. My mind ran on this subject day and night.
"The difficulties of my position could never be imagined; you would have to be in the same place to see them. Everybody now called me Mrs. Seabrook, and I could not repudiate the name without sufficient cause. I was forced to appear to have confidence in the man I had married of my own free will. Besides, I really did not know, of a verity, that he was not worthy of confidence. It seemed quite as credible that another man should invent a lie, as that Mr. Seabrook should be guilty of an enormous crime.
"Naturally I had a buoyant temper; was inclined to see the amusing side of things; enjoyed frolicsome conversation; and in a general way was well fitted to bear up under worries, and recover quickly from depressed conditions. The gentlemen who boarded with me were a cheerful and intelligent set, whose conversation entertained me, as they met three times a day at table. They were all friends of Mr. Seabrook, which gave them the privilege of saying playful things to me about him daily. To these remarks I must make equally playful replies, or seem ungracious to them. You will see how every such circumstance complicated my difficulties afterwards.
"You know, too, how pliable we all are at twenty-three—how often our opinions waver and our emotions change. I was particularly mercurial in my temperament before the events I am relating hardened me. I often laid in a half-waking state almost all night, my imagination full of horrible images; and when breakfast-time came, and I listened to an hour of entertaining talk, with frequent respectful allusions to Mr. Seabrook, and kindly compliments to myself, these ugly visions took flight, while I persuaded myself that everything would come out right in the end.
"A little while ago you asked me if I did not love Mr. Seabrook at all?—did not long for tenderness from him? The question roused something of the wickedness in me that I confessed to you before; but I will answer the inquiry now, by asking you if you think any woman in her twenties is quite reconciled to live unloved? I had not wished to marry again; yet undoubtedly there was a great blank in my life, which my peculiarly friendless condition made me very sensible of; and there was a yearning desire in my heart to be petted and cared for, as in my brief married life I had been. But the coarseness and intrusiveness I had experienced in my widowhood had made me as irritable as the 'fretful porcupine' towards that class of men. The thought of Mr. Seabrook loving me had never taken root in my mind. Even when he proposed marriage, it had seemed much more a matter of expediency than of love. But when, after I had accepted him as an avowed lover, his conduct had continued to be unintrusive, and delicately flattering to my womanly pride, it was most natural that I should begin to congratulate myself on the prospect before me of life-long protection from such wounds as I had received, with the great satisfaction of increased dignity in point of social position; for then, much more than now, and in a new country more than in an old one, a woman's position depended on her relationship to men; the wife of the most worthless man being the superior of an unmarried woman. Accordingly I felt my promised importance, and began to exult in it."
"In short, you were preparing to become much more subject to the second love than the first; a not infrequent experience," I interrupted. "You certainly must have loved a handsome, agreeable, courteous, and manly man, who would have interposed between you and the rude shocks of the world; and you had begun to realize that you could, in spite of your first love?"
"And to have a feeling of disappointment when the possibility presented itself that after all these blessings might be wrested from me; of horror when I reflected that in that case my last estate would be inexpressibly worse than the first."
"There was a terrible temptation there!"
"No; that was the one thing I was perfectly clear about. Not to be dragged into crime or deserved disgrace, I was determined upon. How I should avoid it was where I was in doubt."
"I am very anxious to know how you met him on his return."
"There was no one in the house except myself, and Benton, who was now quite well again for the time. I was standing by the dining-room window, arranging some ferns in a hanging basket, and Benton was amusing himself with toys the boarders were always giving him. I heard a footstep, and turned my head slightly to see who it was. Mr. Seabrook stood in the door, regarding us with a pleased smile.
"'How is my wife and boy?' he said, cheerily, advancing towards me, and proffering a kiss of greeting.
"I put up my hand to ward him off, and my heart stood motionless. I seemed to be struck with a chill. My teeth chattered together, while the ends of my fingers turned cold at once.
"Naturally, he was surprised; but thinking perhaps that the suddenness of his return, under the circumstances, had overcome me, he quickly recovered his tenderness of manner.
"'Have I frightened you, my darling?' he asked, putting out his arms to fold me to his breast. Not being able to speak, I whirled round rapidly, and hastened to place the table between us. Of course, he could not comprehend such conduct, but thought it some nervous freak, probably.
"Turning to Benton, he took him up in his arms and kissed him, asking him some questions about himself and toys. 'Could you tell me what is the matter with your mamma, Bennie?' he asked, seeing that my manner remained inexplicable.
"'I tink see has a till,' answered Benton, who by this time knew the meaning of the word 'chill' by experience.
"'She has given me one, I know,' said Mr. Seabrook, regarding me curiously. I began to feel faint, and sat down, leaning my head on my hand, my elbow on the table.
"'Anna,' said he, addressing me by my Christian name for the first time, and giving me a little shock in consequence—for I had almost forgotten I had ever been called 'Anna'—'if I am so disagreeable to you, I will go away again; though I certainly had reason to expect a different reception.'
"'No,' I said, suddenly rousing up; 'you must not go until I have told you something; unless you go to stay—which would perhaps be best.'
"'To stay! go to stay? There seems great need of explanation here. Will you be good enough to tell me why I am to go away to stay?'
"'The reason is, Mr. Seabrook,' I answered, 'that your true wife, and your own children expect you at home, in Ohio.'
"I had worded my answer with the intention of shocking the truth out of him, if possible. If he should be innocent, I thought, he would forgive me. There was too much at stake to stand upon niceties of speech; and I watched him narrowly."
"How did he receive such a blow as that? I am curious to know how guilty people act, on being accused."
"You cannot tell an innocent from a guilty person," Mrs. Greyfield returned, with a touch of that asperity that was sometimes noticeable in her utterances. Then, more quietly: "Both are shocked alike at being accused; one because he is innocent; the other, because he is guilty. How much a person is shocked depends upon temperament and circumstance. The guilty person, always consciously in danger of being accused, is likely to be prepared and on the defensive, while the other is not.
"What Mr. Seabrook did, was to turn upon me a look of keen observation, not unmixed with surprise. It might mean one thing; it might mean another; how could I tell? He always impressed me so with his superiority that even in that moment, when my honor and life's happiness were at stake, I was conscious of a feeling of abasement and guiltiness that I dare accuse him to his face. Perhaps, he saw that I was frightened at my own temerity; at all events he was not thrown off his guard.
"'Do I understand you to charge me with crime—a very ugly crime, indeed?' he asked pointedly.
"'You know,' I said, 'whether you are guilty. If you are, may God so deal with you as you have meant to deal with me.'
"I fancied that he winced slightly at this; but in my excitement could not have seen very clearly. He knitted his brows, and took several turns up and down the room.
"'If I knew who had put this monstrous idea into your mind,' he finally said with vehemence; 'I would send a bullet through his heart!'
"'In that case,' I replied: 'you could not expect me to tell you;' and I afterwards made that threat my excuse for concealing the name of my informant.
"Mr. Seabrook continued to pace the floor in an excited manner, stroking his long blonde beard rapidly and unconsciously. I still sat by the table, trying to appear the calm observer that I was not. He came and stood by me, saying: 'Do you believe this thing against me?'
"'I do not know what to believe, Mr. Seabrook,' I replied, 'but something will have to be done about this rumor.' I could not bear to go on; but he understood me. He leaned over my chair, and touched my cheek with his:
"'Are you my wife, or not?' he asked. I shuddered, and put my face down on my hands. He knelt by my side, and taking my hands in his, so that my face must be seen, asked me to look into his eyes and listen to him. What he said, was this:
"'If I swear to you, by Almighty God, that you are my true and only wife, will you then believe me?'"
Mrs. Greyfield was becoming visibly agitated by these reminiscences, and paused to collect herself.
"You dared not say 'yes,'" I cried, carried away with sympathy, "and yet, you could not say 'no.' What did you do?"
"I burst into a passion of tears, and cried convulsively. He would have caressed and consoled me, but I would have none of it.
"'Anna, what a strange home-coming for a bridegroom!' he said, reproachfully.
"'Go away, and leave me to myself,' I entreated; 'You must not stay here.'
"'What madness?' he exclaimed. 'Do you wish to set everybody to talking about us?' Ah! 'talking about us,' was the bugbear I most dreaded, and he knew it. But I wanted to seem brave; so I said that in private matters we were at liberty to do as we thought right and best.
"'And I think it right and best to stay where my wife is. Anna, what is to be the result of this strange suspicion of yours, but to make us both unhappy, and me desperate! Why, I shall be the laughing-stock of the town—and I confess it is more than I can bear without flinching, to have it circulated about, that Seabrook married a wife who cut him adrift the first thing she did. And then look at your position, too, which would be open to every unkind remark. You must not incur this almost certain ruin.'
"'Mr. Seabrook,' I said, more calmly than I had yet spoken; 'what you have said has suggested itself to me before. Stay here, then, if you must, until I can take measures to satisfy myself of the legality of our marriage. You can keep your own counsel, and I can keep mine. I have spoken to no one about this matter, nor will I for the present. There is your old room; your old place at the table. I will try to act as natural as possible; more than this you must not expect of me.' This business-like tone nettled him.
"'May I inquire, Mrs. Seabrook, how long a probation I may anticipate, and what measures you intend taking to establish my good or bad character? A man may not be willing to wait always for a wife.'
"'Very well,' I replied to this covert threat; 'when you tire of waiting, you know what to do.' But my voice must have trembled, for he instantly changed his manner. There was more chance of winning me through my weakness than of intimidating me, coward though I was.
"'My dear Anna,' he said kindly, 'this is a most mortifying and trying predicament that I am in; and you must pardon me if I seem selfish. I do not know how I am to bear several months of this unnatural life you propose; and in thinking of myself I forget you. Yet your case, as you see it, is harder than mine; and I ought to pity and comfort you. If my darling would only let me!' He stretched out his arms to me. It was all I could do to keep from rushing into them, and sobbing on his breast. I was so tempest-tossed and weary!—what would I not have given to lay down my burdens?"
"That is where the unrecognized heroism of women comes in. How few men would suffer in this way for the right! Had you chosen to ignore the tale that you had heard, and taken this man whom fortune had thrown with you upon this far-off coast, he might have been to you a kind friend and protector. Do you not think so?"
"Very likely. Plenty of bad men, when deferred to, have made good husbands, as men go. But I, by resisting the will of one bad man, made infinite trouble for myself. Are you becoming wearied?"
"No, no; go on."
"I must pass over a great deal; and, thank God! some things have been forgotten. Mr. Seabrook took his old room down stairs. As before, he sat at the foot of the table and carved, but now as master of the house. Servants not being easily obtained, it was not remarked that my duties prevented my sitting down with my supposed husband at meals. He marketed for me, and received the money of my boarders when pay-day came; and at first he did—what he failed to do afterwards—pay the money over to me.
"You are curious to know how Mr. Seabrook conducted himself toward me personally, and in particular. For a few days, well; so that I began to feel confidence that so honorable a gentleman would be proved free from all stain. But he soon began to annoy me with the most persistent courtship, looking, as I could see, to breaking down my reserve, and subjecting me to the domination of a passion for him. If I had ever really loved Mr. Seabrook, it would have been a love of the senses, of interest, of the understanding, and not of the imagination and heart. I was just on the eve of such a love when it was fortunately put in check by my suspicions. For him to endeavor to create a feeling now that might, nay, that was intended to subvert principle and virtue, appeared even to my small worldly sense, an insult and an outrage.
"When I talked in this way to him, he half laughingly and half in earnest always declared that I should get into the habit of forgetting our marriage before my 'proofs' came from Ohio, unless he every day put me in mind of it! and this willingness to refer to 'proofs' threw me off my guard a little. He designed very cunningly, but not quite cunningly enough. As time wore on and he feared the proofs might come before he had bent me to his will, his attempts lost even the semblance of love or decency. Many and many a night I feared to close my eyes in sleep, lest he should carry out his avowed purpose; for locks and bolts in a house in those days were considered unnecessary, and I improvised such defenses as I could. I used to threaten to call in my little German neighbor, to which he replied she would probably recognize a man's right to occupy the same apartment with his wife! Still, I think he was deterred somewhat by the fear of exposure from using violence."
The recital of such sufferings and anxieties as these; endured, too, by a young and lonely woman, affected me powerfully. My excited imagination was engaged in comparing the Mrs. Greyfield I saw before me, wearing her nearly fifty years with dignity and grace, full of a calm and ripe experience, still possessing a dark and striking beauty, with the picture she had given me of herself at twenty-three. What a wonder it was that with her lively temperament either for pain or pleasure; with her beauty and her helplessness, she had come out of the furnace unscathed, as she now appeared.
"How could you," I said, with a feeling of deep disgust, "how could you allow such a man to remain in your house?"
"How could I get him out? We were legally married, so far as anybody in Oregon knew, except himself. Everybody presumed us to be living amicably together. He was careful to act the courteous gentleman to me in the presence of others. If we never went out together, it was easily explained by reference to my numerous household cares, and Benton's frequent illness. As I before said, no one could understand the position who had not been in it. I could not send him away from me; nor could I go away from him. He would have followed me, he said, to the 'ends of the earth.' Besides, where could I go? There was nothing for me but to endure until the answer to my letter came. Never was letter so anxiously desired as that one; for, of course, I fully expected that whatever news it contained, would bring relief in some way. But I had made up my mind to his guilt, rightly judging that, had he been innocent, he would either have found means to satisfy me, or have gone away and left me altogether.
"It had been six or seven months since my marriage. I had a large family of boarders to cook for, and Benton giving me a great deal of worry, fearing I should lose him. Working hard all day, and sleeping very little nights, with constant excitement and dread, had very much impaired my health. My boarders of ten said to me: 'Mrs. Seabrook, you are working too hard; you must make Mr. Seabrook get you a cook.' What could I say in return, except to force a smile, and turn the drift of the conversation? Once, carried away with indignation, I replied that 'Mr. Seabrook found it as much as he could do to collect the money I earned!'"
"And you were set down at once as a vixen!" I said, smiling.
"Well, they were not expected to know how matters stood, when I had taken so much pain to conceal the truth. I was sorry I had not held my peace a little longer, or altogether. Men never can understand a woman's right to resent selfishness, however atrocious; even when they are knowing to it, which in this case they were not. I might as well have held my tongue, since every unguarded speech of mine militated against me afterwards."
"You allowed Mr. Seabrook to have all your earnings?"
"I could not prevent it; he was my husband. Sometimes I thought he meant to save up all he could, to take him out of the country, when the hoped-for proofs of his crime should arrive. And in that light I was inclined to rejoice in his avarice. I would have given all I had for that purpose. Oh, those dreadful, dreadful days! when I was so near insane with sleeplessness and anxiety, that I seemed to be walking on the air! Such, indeed, was my mental and physical condition, that everything seemed unreal, even myself; and it surprises me now that my reason did not give way."
"Did you never pray?"
"My training had been religious, and I had always prayed. This, I felt, entitled me to help; and yet help did not come. I felt forsaken of God, and sullenly shut my lips to prayer or complaint. All severely tried souls go through a similar experience. Christ himself cried out: 'My God, my God, why hast forsaken me!'"
"No wonder you felt forsaken, indeed."
"You think I was as tried as I could be then, when I had a hope of escape; but worse came after that—worse, because more hopeless."
"You were really married to him then?" I cried in alarm: "I thought you told me in the beginning, that you were not."
"Neither was I; but that did not release me. When at last I received an answer to my inquiries, confirming the statement of the immigrant from Ohio, it was too late."
"You do not mean!"—I interrupted, in a frightened voice.
"No, no! I only mean that I had committed a great error, in keeping silence on the subject at the first. You can imagine one of your acquaintances who had been several months peaceably living with a man of good appearance and repute, to whom you had seen her married, suddenly declaring her husband a bigamist and refusing to live with him; and on no other evidence than a letter obtained, nobody knew how. To me the proof was conclusive; and it made me frantic to find that it was not so received by others."
"What did he say, when you told him that you had this evidence? How did he act?"
"He swore it was a conspiracy; and declared that now he had borne enough of such contumelious conduct; he should soon bring me into subjection. He represented himself to me, as an injured and long-suffering man; and me, to myself, as an unkind, undutiful, and most unwomanly woman. He told me, what was true, that I need not expect people to believe such a 'cock and bull story;' and used every possible means of intimidation, except actual corporeal punishment. That he threatened long after; and I told him if he ever laid a finger on me, I should certainly shoot him dead. But we had not come to that yet."
"Long after!" I repeated. "You do not, you cannot mean that this wretch continued to live under the same roof with you, long after he knew that you would never acknowledge him as your husband?"
"Yes, for years! For years after he knew that I knew he was what he was, he lived in my house and took my earnings; yes, and ordered me about and insulted me as much as he liked."
"But," I said, "I cannot understand such a condition of things. Was there no law in the land? no succor in the society about you? How could other women hold still, and know that a young creature like you was being tortured in that way?"
"The inertia of women in each other's defense is immense," returned Mrs. Greyfield, in her most incisive tone. "You must not forget that Portland was then almost a wilderness, and families were few, and often 'far between.' Among the few, my acquaintances were still fewer; for I had come among them poor and alone, and with all I could do to support myself, without time or disposition to visit. The peculiar circumstances I have related to you broke my spirit and inclined me to seclusion. However, I did carry my evidence, and my story together, to two or three women that I knew, and what do you suppose they said? That I 'should have thought of all that before I married!' They treated it exactly as if, having gone through the marriage ceremony, I was bound, no matter how many wives Mr. Seabrook had back in Ohio."
"They could not have believed your story," I said; not being able to take in such inferior morality.
"What they believed I do not know: what they said I have told you. I incline to the opinion that they thought I might be a little daft—I am sure I must have looked so at times, from sheer sleeplessness and exhaustion. Or they thought I had no chance of establishing the truth, and would be better off to submit quietly. At all events, not one encouraged me to resist Mr. Seabrook; and to overflow my cup of misery, he contrived to find the important letter, which I had hidden, and destroy it."
"Did you never go to men about your case, and ask for assistance?"
"At first I was afraid to appeal to them, having had so many unpleasant experiences; and when I at last was driven to seek counsel, I was too late, as I before explained."
"Yes; I mean that the idea of my being Mr. Seabrook's wife was so firmly seated in their minds that they could not see it in any other light. The fact of my having written and received a letter did not impress them as of any consequence. You will find this to be a truth among men; they respect the sense of ownership in women, entertained by each other; and they respect it so much that they would as soon be caught stealing, as seeming in any way to interfere with it. That is the reason that, although there is nothing in the wording of the marriage contract converting the woman into a bond-slave or a chattel, the man who practices any outrage or wrong on his wife is so seldom called to account. In the eyes of these men, having entered into marriage with Mr. Seabrook, I belonged to him, and there was no help for me. For life and until death, I was his, to do what he pleased with, so long as he did not bruise my flesh nor break my bones. Is not that an awful power to be lodged with any human being?"
"But," I said, "if they were told the whole truth, that the marriage had never been consummated, and why, would they not have been moved by a feeling of chivalry to interfere? Your view of their sentiments pre-supposes the non-existence of what I should call chivalry."
"There may be in men such a sentiment as you would call chivalry; but I never yet have seen the occasion where they were pleased to exercise it. I would not advise any other young woman to tell one of them that she had lived alone in the same house with a man reputed to be her husband, for seven months, without the marriage having been consummated. She would find, as I did, that his chivalry would be exhibited by an ineffectual effort to suppress a smile of incredulity."
"Can it be possible," I was forced to exclaim, "that there was no help for you?"
"You see how it was. I have outlined the bare facts to you. Nobody wanted to be mixed up in my troubles, and the worst of it was that Mr. Seabrook got more sympathy than I did, as the unfortunate husband of a terrible termagant, who made his life a burden to him. He could talk in a certain way around among men, and put on an aggrieved air at home before the boarders, and what was the use of my saying anything. If it had not been for my little German neighbor, I should have felt utterly forsaken by all the world. But she, whatever she thought of my domestic affairs, was sorry for me. 'What for you cry so much all de time?' she said to me one day. 'You makes yourself sick all de time mit cryin'; an' your face be gettin' wite as my hankershif. De leedle boy, too, he sees you, an' he gets all so wite as you are, all de same. Dat is not goot. You gomes to see me, an' brings de boy to see my Hans. You get sheered up den.' And I took her advice for Benton's sake."
"What object had Mr. Seabrook in remaining where he was so unwelcome? He certainly entertained no hope that you would finally yield; and his position could not have been an agreeable one, from any point of view; for whether he was regarded as the monster he was, or only as a sadly beshrewed husband, he must have felt himself the subject of unpleasant remark."
"He could afford to be remarked upon when he was a free pensioner upon a woman's bounty, and in receipt of a fine income which I earned for him by ceaseless toil. I can see him now sitting at the bottom of the table, my table, flourishing his white hands, and stroking his flowing blonde beard occasionally as something very gratifying to his vanity was said; talking and laughing with perfect unconcern, while he fattened himself at my expense; while I, who earned and prepared his dinner for him, gasped half fainting in the heat of a kitchen, sick in heart and body. Do you wonder that I hated him?"
"I wonder more that you did not kill him," I said; feeling that this would have been a case of 'justifiable homicide.'
"The impulse certainly came to me at times to kill him; or if not exactly that, to wish him dead. Yet when the opportunity came to be revenged upon him by fate itself, I interfered to save him. That was strange, was it not? To be suffering as I suffered at this man's hands, and yet when he was in peril to have compassion upon him?"
"You could not alter your nature," I said, "which is, as I told you before, thoroughly sound and sweet. It goes against us to suffer wrong; but it goes still harder with us to do wrong. Besides, you had your religious training to help you."
"I had the temptation, all the same. It happened in this way: One night I was lying awake, as I usually did, until I heard Mr. Seabrook come in and go to his room. He came in rather later than usual, and I listened until all was still in the house, that I might sleep the more safely and soundly afterwards. I had, however, become so nervously wakeful by this time that the much needed and coveted sleep refused to visit me, and I laid tossing feverishly upon my bed when I became aware that there was a smell of fire in the air. Rapidly dressing, I took Benton in my arms and hastened down stairs, to have him where I could save him, should the house be in danger. There was a still stronger odor of burning cloth and wood in the lower rooms, but very little smoke to be detected. After looking into the kitchen and finding all right there, I feared the fire might be in the other part of the house, and was about to give the alarm, when it occurred to me that the trouble might be in Mr. Seabrook's room.
"Leaving Benton asleep on the dining-room table, I ran to his door and knocked. No answer came; but I could smell the smoke within. Pushing open the door I discovered him lying in a perfectly unconscious state, and half undressed, on the bed, sleeping off the effects of a wine supper. A candle which he had lighted, and left burning, had consumed itself down to the socket, and by some chance had ignited a few loose papers on the table beside the bed; the fire had communicated to the bedding on one side, and to some of his wearing apparel on the other. All was just ready to burst into a blaze with the admission of fresh air, which I had the presence of mind to prevent, by closing the door behind me.
"There I was, in the presence of my enemy, and he in the clutches of death. I shudder when I think of the feelings of that moment! An evil spirit plainly said to me, 'Now you shall have rest. Let him alone; he is dying by his own hand, not yours—why do you interfere with the decree of fate?' An exulting yet consciously guilty joy agitated my heart, which was beating violently. 'Let him die!' I said to myself, 'let him die!'
"Very rapidly such thoughts whirl through the brain under great excitement. The instant that I hesitated seemed an age of cool deliberation to me. Then the wickedness of my self-gratulation rushed into my mind, making me feel like a murderer. 'O, God,' I cried in anguish of spirit, 'why have I been put to this test?' The next instant I was working with might and main to extinguish the fire, which with the aid of blankets and a pitcher of water was soon suppressed.
"Through it all he slept on, breathing heavily, an object of disgust to my senses and my feelings. When all was safe I returned to my room, thankful that I had been able on the spot to expiate my murderous impulses. The next day he took occasion to say to me, 'I shouldn't have expected a visit of mercy from you, Mrs. Seabrook. If I had known you were coming, I should have tried to keep awake!' 'If ever you refer to such a subject again,' I replied, 'I will set fire to you myself, and let you burn;' and either the threat deterred him, or some spark of generosity in his nature was struck by the benefit received, but he never afterwards offered me any annoyance of that kind."
"How did Mr. Seabrook usually treat your son? Was he kind to him?"
"He was not unkind. Perhaps you cannot understand such a character; but he was one who would be kind to man, woman, or child who would be governed by him; yet resistance to his will, however just, roused a tyranny that sought for opportunities to exhibit itself. Such a one passes in general society for a 'good fellow,' because 'the iron hand in the velvet glove' is scarcely perceptible there, while its ungloved force is felt most heavily in the relations of private life. If I had been in a position to flatter Mr. Seabrook, undoubtedly he would have shown me a corresponding consideration, notwithstanding his selfishness. It would have been one way of gratifying his own vanity, by putting me in a humor to pander to it. But knowing how I hated and despised him, he felt toward me all the rancor of his vain and tyrannical nature. It is always more dangerous to hate justly than unjustly, and that is the reason why domestic differences are so bitter. Somebody has always done wrong and knows it, and cannot bear to suffer the natural consequences—the disapprobation of the injured party, in addition to the stings of conscience."
"I suppose, then," I said, "it has been the perception of this truth that has caused the sweetest and purest women in all time to ignore the baser sins of man, while calling their own sex to strict account. And yet I cannot think but that this degree of mercy is injurious to their own purity and derogatory to their dignity. I remember being excessively shocked several years ago by having this trait of forgiveness in woman placed in its true light by an accidental publication in a New York paper, which was intended to have just the opposite effect. It was headed 'A Model Woman,' and appeared in the Evening Post—Bryant's paper. With a curious desire to know the poet's model for a woman—though the article may have never come under his eye—I commenced reading it. It ran to this effect: A certain man in New York had a good wife and two interesting little children. But he met and fell in love with a handsome, dashing, and rather coarse girl; and the affair had gone so far as to lead to serious expostulation on the part of the wife. The writer did not relate whether or not the girl knew the man to be married; but only that the two were infatuated with each other.
"As the story ran, the wife expostulated, and the husband was firm in his determination to possess the girl at all hazards, concluding his declaration with this business-like statement: 'I shall take the girl, and go to California. If you keep quiet about it, I will leave a provision for you and the children; if you do not, I shall go just the same, but without leaving you anything.' The wife acquiesced in the terms. Her husband went to California with his paramour, and tired of her (it was in old steamer times), about as soon as he got there. Very soon he deserted her and returned to New York a la prodigal, and was received back to the arms of his forgiving wife. The girl followed her faithless lover to New York, and failing to win a kind word from him by the most piteous appeals, finally committed suicide at her hotel in that city. The wife continued to live with the author of this misery upon the most affectionate terms.
"That was the whole story. Is it possible, I asked myself, that the writer of that article, whoever he may be, could have meant its title in anything but irony? Yet, there it stood on the front page of a most respectable journal, indorsed by an editor of the highest reputation. To my way of thinking, the wife was accessory to the crime; had no womanly self-respect, no delicacy, no Christian feeling for her husband's victim; was, in short, morally, as guilty as he was; and yet a newspaper of high standing made her out to be a model for wives. For what? Plainly for consenting to, or for forgiving three of the most heinous crimes in the decalogue, because committed by her husband. I confess that since that day I have been prone to examine into the claims of men to be forgiven, or the moral right of women to forgive them certain offenses."