“Yes,” she replied with bowed head. “I should meet coldness, probably harshness and scorn.”
“Well, you’d never meet anything of the kind in my house. I would treat you
with respect and kindness. At the same time, I’m not going to mislead you by a word. You shall have a chance to decide in view of the whole truth. My friend, Mr. Watterly, has asked me more’n once, ‘Why don’t you marry again?’ I told him I had been married once, and that I couldn’t go before a minister and promise the same things over again when they wasn’t true. I can’t make to you any promises or say any words that are not true, and I don’t ask or expect you to do what I can’t do. But it has seemed to me that our condition was out of the common lot–that we could take each other for just what we might be to each other and no more. You would be my wife in name, and I do not ask you to be my wife in more than name. You would thus secure a good home and the care and protection of one who would be kind to you, and I would secure a housekeeper–one that would stay with me and make my interests hers. It would be a fair, square arrangement between ourselves, and nobody else’s business. By taking this course, we don’t do any wrong to our feelings or have to say or promise anything that isn’t true.”
“Yet I can’t help saying, sir,” she replied, in strong, yet repressed agitation, “that your words sound very strange; and it seems stranger still that you can offer marriage of any kind to a woman situated as I am. You know my story, sir,” she added, crimsoning, “and all may soon know it. You would suffer wrong and injury.”
“I offer you open and honorable marriage before the world, and no other kind. Mr. Watterly and others–as many as you pleased–would witness it, and I’d have you given a certificate at once. As for your story, it has only awakened my sympathy. You have not meant to do any wrong. Your troubles are only another reason in my mind for not taking any advantage of you or deceiving you in the least. Look the truth squarely in the face. I’m bent on keeping my house and getting my living as I have done, and I need a housekeeper that will be true to all my interests. Think how I’ve been robbed and wronged, and what a dog’s life I’ve lived in my own home. You need a home, a support, and a protector. I couldn’t come to you or go to any other woman and say honestly more than this. Isn’t it better for people to be united on the ground of truth than to begin by telling a pack of lies?”
“But–but can people be married with such an understanding by a minister? Wouldn’t it be deceiving him?”
“I shall not ask you to deceive anyone. Any marriage that either you or I could now make would be practically a business marriage. I should therefore take you, if you were willing, to a justice and have a legal or civil marriage performed, and this would be just as binding as any other in the eye of the law. It is often done. This would be much better to my mind than if people, situated as we are, went to a church or a minister.”
“Yes, yes, I couldn’t do that.”
“Well, now, Alida,” he said, with a smile that wonderfully softened his rugged
features, “you are free to decide. It may seem to you a strange sort of courtship, but we are both too old for much foolishness. I never was sentimental, and it would be ridiculous to begin now. I’m full of trouble and perplexity, and so are you. Are you willing to be my wife so far as an honest name goes, and help me make a living for us both? That’s all I ask. I, in my turn, would promise to treat you with kindness and respect, and give you a home as long as I lived and to leave you all I have in the world if I died. That’s all I could promise. I’m a lonely, quiet man, and like to be by myself. I wouldn’t be much society for you. I’ve said more today than I might in a month, for I felt that it was due to you to know just what you were doing.”
“Oh, sir,” said Alida, trembling, and with tears in her eyes, “you do not ask much and you offer a great deal. If you, a strong man, dread to leave your home and go out into the world you know not where, think how terrible it is for a weak, friendless woman to be worse than homeless. I have lost everything, even my good name.”
“No, no! Not in my eyes.”
“Oh, I know, I know!” she cried, wringing her hands. “Even these miserable paupers like myself have made me feel it. They have burned the truth into my brain and heart. Indeed, sir, you do not realize what you are doing or asking. It is not fit or meet that I should bear your name. You might be sorry, indeed.”
“Alida,” said Holcroft gravely, “I’ve not forgotten your story, and you shouldn’t forget mine. Be sensible now. Don’t I look old enough to know what I’m about?”
“Oh, oh, oh!” she cried impetuously, “if I were only sure it was right! It may be business to you, but it seems like life or death to me. It’s more than death–I don’t fear that–but I do fear life, I do fear the desperate struggle just to maintain a bare, dreary existence. I do dread going out among strangers and seeing their cold curiosity and their scorn. You can’t understand a woman’s heart. It isn’t right for me to die till God takes me, but life has seemed so horrible, meeting suspicion on one side and cruel, significant looks of knowledge on the other. I’ve been tortured even here by these wretched hags, and I’ve envied even them, so near to death, yet not ashamed like me. I know, and you should know, that my heart is broken, crushed, trampled into the mire. I had felt that for me even the thought of marriage again would be a mockery, a wicked thing, which I would never have a right to entertain.–I never dreamt that anyone would think of such a thing, knowing what you know. Oh, oh! Why have you tempted me so if it is not right? I must do right. The feeling that I’ve not meant to do wrong is all that has kept me from despair. But can it be right to let you take me from the street, the poorhouse, with nothing to give but a blighted name, a broken heart and feeble hands! See, I am but the shadow of what I was, and a dark
shadow at that. I could be only a dismal shadow at any man’s hearth. Oh, oh! I’ve thought and suffered until my reason seemed going. You don’t realize, you don’t know the depths into which I’ve fallen. It can’t be right.”
Holcroft was almost appalled at this passionate outburst in one who thus far had been sad, indeed, yet self-controlled. He looked at her in mingled pity and consternation. His own troubles had seemed heavy enough, but he now caught glimpses of something far beyond trouble–of agony, of mortal dread that bordered on despair. He could scarcely comprehend how terrible to a woman like Alida were the recent events of her life, and how circumstances, with illness, had all tended to create a morbid horror of her situation. Like himself she was naturally reticent in regard to her deeper feelings, patient and undemonstrative. Had not his words evoked this outburst she might have suffered and died in silence, but in this final conflict between conscience and hope, the hot lava of her heart had broken forth. So little was he then able to understand her, that suspicions crossed his mind. Perhaps his friend Watterly had not heard the true story or else not the whole story. But his straightforward simplicity stood him in good stead, and he said gently, “Alida, you say I don’t know, I don’t realize. I believe you will tell me the truth. You went to a minister and were married to a man that you thought you had a right to marry–”
“You shall know it all from my own lips,” she said, interrupting him; “you have a right to know; and then you will see that it cannot be,” and with bowed head, and low, rapid, passionate utterance, she poured out her story. “That woman, his wife,” she concluded, “made me feel that I was of the scum and offscouring of the earth, and they’ve made me feel so here, too–even these wretched paupers. So the world will look on me till God takes me to my mother. O, thank God! She don’t know. Don’ you see, now?” she asked, raising her despairing eyes from which agony had dried all tears.
“Yes, I see you do,” she added desperately, “for even you have turned from me.”
“Confound it!” cried Holcroft, standing up and searching his pockets for a handkerchief. “I–I–I’d like–like to choke that fellow. If I could get my hands on him, there’d be trouble. Turn away from you, you poor wronged creature! Don’t you see I’m so sorry for you that I’m making a fool of myself? I, who couldn’t shed a tear over my own troubles–there, there,–come now, let us be sensible. Let’s get back to business, for I can’t stand this kind of thing at all. I’m so confused betwixt rage at him and pity for you–Let me see; this is where we were: I want someone to take care of my home, and you want a home. That’s all there is about it now. If you say so, I’ll make you Mrs. Holcroft in an hour.”
“I did not mean to work upon your sympathies, only to tell you the truth. God bless you! That the impulses of your heart are so kind and merciful. But let me be true to you as well as to myself. Go away and think it all over calmly
and quietly. Even for the sake of being rescued from a life that I dread far more than death, I cannot let you do that which you may regret unspeakably. Do not think I misunderstand your offer. It’s the only one I could think of, and I would not have thought of it if you had not spoke. I have no heart to give. I could be a wife only in name, but I could work like a slave for protection from a cruel, jeering world; I could hope for something like peace and respite from suffering if I only had a safe refuge. But I must not have these if it is not right and best. Good to me must not come through wrong to you.”
“Tush, tush! You mustn’t talk so. I can’t stand it at all. I’ve heard your story. It’s just as I supposed at first, only a great deal more so. Why, of course it’s all right. It makes me believe in Providence, it all turns out so entirely for our mutual good. I can do as much to help you as you to help me. Now let’s get back on the sensible, solid ground from which we started. The idea of my wanting you to work like a slave! Like enough some people would, and then you’d soon break down and be brought back here again. No, no; I’ve explained just what I wish and just what I mean. You must get over the notion that I’m a sentimental fool, carried away by my feelings. How Tom Watterly would laugh at the idea! My mind is made up now just as much as it would be a week hence. This is no place for you, and I don’t like to think of your being here. My spring work is pressing, too. Don’t you see that by doing what I ask you can set me right on my feet and start me uphill again after a year of miserable downhill work? You have only to agree to what I’ve said, and you will be at home tonight and I’ll be quietly at my work tomorrow. Mr. Watterly will go with us to the justice, who has known me all my life. Then, if anyone ever says a word against you, he’ll have me to settle with. Come, Alida! Here’s a strong hand that’s able to take care of you.”
She hesitated a moment, then clasped it like one who is sinking, and before he divined her purpose, she kissed and bedewed it with tears.
Chapter XIX. A Business Marriage
While Holcroft’s sympathies had been deeply touched by the intense emotion of gratitude which had overpowered Alida, he had also been disturbed and rendered somewhat anxious. He was actually troubled lest the woman he was about to marry should speedily begin to love him, and develop a tendency to manifest her affection in a manner that would seem to him extravagant and certainly disagreeable. Accustomed all his life to repress his feelings, he wondered at himself and could not understand how he had given way so unexpectedly. He was not sufficiently versed in human nature to know that the depth of Alida’s distress was the adequate cause. If there had been a false or an affected word, he would have remained cool enough. In his inability to gauge his own nature as well as hers, he feared lest this businesslike marriage was verging toward sentiment on her part. He did not like her kissing his hand. He was profoundly sorry for her, but so he would have been for any other woman
suffering under the burden of a great wrong. He felt that it would be embarrassing if she entertained sentiments toward him which he could not reciprocate, and open manifestations of regard would remind him of that horror of his life, Mrs. Mumpson. He was not incapable of quick, strong sympathy in any instance of genuine trouble, but he was one of those men who would shrink in natural recoil from any marked evidence of a woman’s preference unless the counterpart of her regard existed in his own breast.
To a woman of Alida’s intuition the way in which he withdrew his hand and the expression of his face had a world of meaning. She would not need a second hint. Yet she did not misjudge him; she knew that he meant what he had said and had said all that he meant. She was also aware that he had not and never could understand the depths of fear and suffering from which his hand was lifting her. Her gratitude was akin to that of a lost soul saved, and that was all she had involuntarily expressed. She sat down again and quietly dried her eyes, while in her heart she purposed to show her gratitude by patient assiduity in learning to do what he required.
Holcroft was now bent upon carrying out his plan as quickly as possible and returning home. He therefore asked, “Can you go with me at once, Alida?”
She simply bowed her acquiescence.
“That’s sensible. Perhaps you had better get your things ready while I and Mr. Watterly go and arrange with Justice Harkins.”
Alida averted her face with a sort of shame which a woman feels who admits such a truth. “I haven’t anything, sir, but a hat and cloak to put on. I came away and left everything.”
“And I’m glad of it,” said Holcroft heartily. “I wouldn’t want you to bring anything which that scoundrel gave you.” He paced the room thoughtfully a moment or two and then he called Watterly in. “It’s settled, Tom. Alida will be Mrs. Holcroft as soon as we can see the justice. Do you think we could persuade him to come here?”
“One thing at a time. Mrs. Holcroft,–I may as well call you so, for when my friend says he’ll do a thing he does it,–I congratulate you. I think you are well out of your troubles. Since you are to marry my old friend, we must be friends, too,” and he shook her heartily by the hand.
His words and manner were another ray of light–a welcome rift in the black pall that had gathered round her.
“You were the first friend I found, sir, after–what happened,” she said gratefully.
“Well, you’ve found another and a better one; and he’ll always be just the
same. Any woman might be glad–”
“Come, Tom, no more of that. I’m a plain old farmer that does what he agrees, and that’s all there is about it. I’ve told Alida just what I wished and could do–”
“I should hope so,” interrupted Watterly, laughing. “You’ve taken time enough, certainly, and I guess you’ve talked more than you have before in a year.”
“Yes, I know I’m almost as bad as an oyster about talking except when I’m with you. Somehow we’ve always had a good deal to say to each other. In this case, I felt that it was due to Alida that she should know all about me and understand fully just how I felt concerning this marriage. The very fact that she hasn’t friends to advise her made it all the more needful that I should be plain and not mislead her in any respect.–She has just as good a right to judge and act for herself as any woman in the land, and she takes me, and I take her, with no sentimental lies to start with. Now let’s get back to business. I rather think, since Harkins was an old acquaintance of mine, he’ll come up here and marry us, don’t you? Alida, wouldn’t you rather be married here quietly than face a lot of strangers? You can have your own way, I don’t care now if half the town was present.”
“Oh, yes, indeed, sir! I don’t want to meet strangers–and–and–I’m not very strong yet. I thank you for considering my feelings so kindly.”
“Why, that’s my duty,” replied the farmer. “Come, Watterly, the sun is getting low, and we’ve considerable to do yet before we start home.”
“I’m with you. Now, Alida, you go back quietly and act as if nothing had happened till I send for you. Of course this impatient young groom will hurry back with the justice as fast as possible. Still, we may not find him, or he may be so busy that we shall have to come back for you and take you to his office.”
As she turned to leave the room, Holcroft gave her his hand and said kindly, “Now don’t you be nervous or worried. I see you are not strong, and you shall not be taxed any more than I can help. Goodby for a little while.”
Meantime Watterly stepped out a moment and gave his domestic a few orders; then he accompanied Holcroft to the barn, and the horses were soon attached to the market wagon. “You’re in for it now, Jim, sure enough,” he said laughing. “What will Angy say to it all?”
“Tell her that I say you’ve been a mighty good friend to me, yet I hope I may never return any favors of the same kind.”
“By jocks! I hope not. I guess it’s just as well she was away. She’ll think we’ve acted just like two harum-scarum men, and will be awfully scandalized
over your marrying this woman. Don’t you feel a little nervous about it?”
“No! When my mind’s made up, I don’t worry. Nobody else need lie awake for it’s my affair.”
“Well, Jim, you know how I feel about it, but I’ve got to say something and I might as well say it plain.”
“That’s the only way you ought to say it.”
“Well, you talked long enough to give me plenty of time to think. One thing is clear, Angy won’t take to this marriage. You know I’d like to have you both come in and take a meal as you always have done, but then a man must keep peace with his wife, and–”
“I understand, Tom. We won’t come till Mrs. Watterly asks us.”
“But you won’t have hard feelings?”
“No, indeed. Aint you doing your level best as a friend?”
“Well, you know women are so set about these things, and Angy is rather hard on people who don’t come up to her mark of respectability. What’s more, I suppose you’ll find that others will think and act as she does. If you cared about people’s opinions I should have been dead against it, but as you feel and are situated, I’m hanged if I don’t think she’s just the one.”
“If it hadn’t been this one, I don’t believe it would have been anyone. Here we are,” and he tied his horses before the office of the justice.
Mr. Harkins greeted Holcroft with a sort of patronizing cordiality, and was good enough to remember that they had been at the little country schoolhouse together. In Watterly he heartily recognized a brother politician who controlled a goodly number of votes.
When Holcroft briefly made known his errand, the justice gave a great guffaw of laughter and said, “Oh, bring her here! And I’ll invite in some of the boys as witnesses.”
“I’m not afraid of all the witnesses that you could crowd into a ten-acre lot,” said Holcroft somewhat sternly, “but there is no occasion to invite the boys, whoever they are, or anyone else. She doesn’t want to be stared at. I was in hopes, Mr. Harkins, that you’d ride up to the almshouse with us and quietly marry us there.”
“Well, I guess you’d better bring her here. I’m pretty busy this afternoon, and–”
“See here, Ben,” said Watterly, taking the justice aside, “Holcroft is my friend, and you know I’m mighty thick with my friends. They count more with me than my wife’s relations. Now I want you to do what Holcroft wishes, as a personal favor to me, and the time will come when I can make it up to you.”
“Oh, certainly, Watterly! I didn’t understand,” replied Harkins, who looked upon Holcroft as a close and, as he would phrase it, no-account farmer, from whom he could never expect even a vote. “I’ll go with you at once. It’s but a short job.”
“Well,” said Holcroft, “how short can you make it?”
“Let me get my book,” and he took from a shelf the “Justice’s Assistant.” “You can’t want anything shorter than this?” and he read, “‘By this act of joining hands you do take each other as husband and wife and solemnly engage in the presence of these witnesses to love and honor and comfort and cherish each other as such so long as you both shall live. Therefore, in accordance with the law of the state of New York I do hereby pronounce you husband and wife.’ A sailor couldn’t tie a knot quicker than that.”
“I guess you can, justice,” said Holcroft, taking the book. “Suppose you only read this much: ‘By this act of joining hands you do take each other as husband and wife. Therefore, in accordance with the law, etc.’ Would that be a legal marriage?”
“Certainly. You’d have to go to a divorce court to get out of that.”
“It’s my purpose to keep out of courts of all kinds. I’ll thank you to read just that much and no more. I don’t want to say anything that isn’t exactly true.”
“You see how it is, Ben. Holcroft hasn’t known the woman long, and she’s a nice woman, too, if she is boarding at my hotel. Holcroft needs a wife–must have one, in fact, to help run his house and dairy. It wasn’t exactly a love match, you know; and he’s that kind of a man that a yoke of oxen couldn’t draw a word out of him that he didn’t mean.”
“Yes, yes, I see now,” said Harkins. “I’ll read just what you say and no more.”
“And I’ll have a little spread that we can be longer at than the ceremony,” added Watterly, who was inclined to be a little hilarious over the affair.
Holcroft, however, maintained his grave manner, and when they reached the almshouse he took Watterly aside and said, “See here, Tom, you’ve been a good friend today and seconded me in everything. Now let the affair pass off just as quietly and seriously as possible. She’s too cast down for a gay wedding. Suppose we had a daughter who’d been through such an experience–a nice, good,
modest girl. Her heart’s too sore for fun and jokes. My marrying her is much the same as pulling her out of deep water in which she was sinking.”
“You’re right, Jim. I didn’t think, and one doesn’t have much cause to be so sparing of the feelings of such creatures as come here. But she’s out of the common run, and I ought to have remembered it. By jocks! You’re mighty careful about promising to love, cherish, and obey, and all that, but I guess you’ll do a sight more than many who do promise.”
“Of course I’m going to be kind. That’s my duty. Give Harkins a hint. Tell him that she’s lost her mother. He needn’t know when the old lady died, but it will kind of solemnize him.”
Watterly did as requested, and Harkins, now convinced that his political interests could be furthered by careful compliance with all requirements, put on a grave, official air and was ready for business.
Alida was sent for. She was too agitated to say farewell to any of the poor creatures with whom she had been compelled to associate–even to the few who, though scarcely sane, had manifested tenderness and affection. She had felt that she must reserve all her strength for the coming ordeal, which she both welcomed and feared inexpressibly. She knew how critical was the step she was taking and how much depended on it, yet the more she thought, the more it seemed to her as if Providence had, as by a miracle, given her a refuge. Holcroft’s businesslike view of the marriage comforted her greatly, and she asked God to give her health and strength to work faithfully for him many years.
But she had sad misgivings as she followed the messenger, for she felt so weak that she could scarcely walk. It was indeed a pallid, sorrowful, trembling bride that entered Mr.Watterly’s parlor. Holcroft met her and taking her hand, said kindly, “Courage! It will be over in a minute.”
She was so pale and agitated that the justice asked, “do you enter into this marriage freely and without compulsion of any kind?”
“Please let me sit down a moment,” she faltered, and Watterly hastened to give her a chair. She fixed her eyes on Holcroft, and said anxiously, “You see, sir, how weak I am. I have been sick and–and I fear I am far from being well now. I fear you will be disappointed–that it is not right to you, and that I may not be able–”
“Alida,” interrupted Holcroft gravely, “I’m not one to break my word. Home and quiet will soon restore you. Answer the justice and tell him the exact truth.”
No elixir could have brought hope and courage like that word “home.” She rose at once and said to Harkins, “I have consented to Mr. Holcroft’s wishes with
feelings of the deepest gratitude.”
“Very well. Join hands.”
She hesitated and looked for a moment at Holcroft with strange intensity.
“It’s all right, Alida,” he said with a smile. “Come!”
His perfect honesty and steadfastness of purpose stood him in good stead then, for she came at once to his side and took his hand.
Justice Harkins solemnly opened his big book and read, “‘By this act of joining hands you do take each other as husband and wife. Therefore, in accordance with the law of the State of New York, I do hereby pronounce you husband and wife.’ That’s all.”
“I don’t think you’ll ever be sorry, Alida,” said Holcroft, pressing her hand as he led her to a chair. Watterly again bustled up with congratulations, and then said, “you must all come out now to a little supper, and also remember that it was gotten up in a hurry.”
The domestic stared at Alida and Holcroft, and then surmising what had taken place, was so excited that she could scarcely wait on the guests.
Holcroft, with the simple tact which genuine kindness usually suggests, was attentive to his bride, but managed, by no slight effort for him, to engage the two men in general conversation, so that Alida might have time to recover her composure. His quiet, matter-of-fact bearing was reassuring in itself. A cup of strong tea and a little old currant wine, which Watterly insisted on her taking, brightened her up not a little. Indeed her weakness was now largely due to the want of nourishment suited to her feeble condition. Moreover, both nerves and mind found relief and rest in the consciousness that the decisive step had been taken. She was no longer shuddering and recoiling from a past in which each day had revealed more disheartening elements. Her face was now toward a future that promised a refuge, security, and even hope.
The quiet meal was soon over. Holcroft put a five-dollar bill in the hands of the justice, who filled in a certificate and departed, feeling that the afternoon had not been spent in vain.
“Jim,” said Watterly, drawing his friend aside, “you’ll want to make some purchases. You know she’s only what she wears. How are you off for money?”
“Well, Tom, you know I didn’t expect anything of this kind when–”
“Of course I know it. Will fifty answer?”
“Yes. You’re a good friend. I’ll return it in a day or two.”
“Return it when you’re a mind to. I say, Alida, I want you to take this. Jim Holcroft can’t get married and his bride not receive a present from me,” and he put ten dollars in her hand.
Tears rushed to her eyes as she turned them inquiringly to Holcroft to know what she should do.
“Now see here, Tom, you’ve done too much for us already.”
“Shut up, Jim Holcroft! Don’t you end the day by hurting my feelings! It’s perfectly right and proper for me to do this. Goodby, Alida. I don’t believe you’ll ever be sorry you found your way to my hotel.”
Alida took his proffered hand, but could only falter, “I–I can never forget.”
Chapter XX. Uncle Jonathan’s Impression of the Bride
“Now, Alida,” said Holcroft, as they drove away, “remember that we are two middle-aged, sensible people. At least I’m middle-aged, and fairly sensible, too, I hope. You’ll need to buy some things, and I want you to get all you need. Don’t stint yourself, and you needn’t hurry so as to get tired, for we shall have moonlight and there’s no use trying to get home before dark. Is there any particular store which you’d like to go to?”
“No, sir; only I’d rather go over on the east side of the town where I’m not known.”
“That suits me, for it’s the side nearest home and I AM known there.”
“Perhaps–perhaps you also would rather go this evening where you are not known,” she said hesitatingly.
“It makes no difference to me. In fact I know of a place where you’ll have a good choice at reasonable rates.”
“I’ll go where you wish,” she said quietly.
They soon entered a large shop together, and the proprietor said pleasantly, “Good evening, Mr. Holcroft.”
“Good evening, Mr. Jasper. My wife wants to get some things. If you’ll be good enough to wait on her, I’ll step out to do two or three errands.”
The merchant looked curiously at Alida, but was too polite to ask questions or make comments on her very simple purchases. Her old skill and training were of service now. She knew just what she absolutely needed, and bought no more.
Holcroft laid in a good stock of groceries and some juicy beef and then returned. When Mr. Jasper gave him his bill, he went to Alida, who was resting, and said in a low voice, “This won’t do at all. You can’t have bought half enough.”
For the first time something like a smile flitted across her face as she replied, “It’s enough to begin with. I know.”
“Really, Mr. Holcroft, I didn’t know you were married,” said the merchant. “I must congratulate you.”
“Well, I am. Thank you. Good night.”
A few moments later he and his wife were bowling out of town toward the hills. Reaching one of these, the horses came down to a walk and Holcroft turned and said, “Are you very tired, Alida? I’m troubled about you taking this long ride. You have been so sick.”
“I’m sorry I’m not stronger, sir, but the fresh air seems to do me good and I think I can stand it.”
“You didn’t promise to obey me, did you?” with a rather nervous little laugh.
“No, sir, but I will.”
“That’s a good beginning. Now see what an old tyrant I am. In the first place, I don’t want you to say ‘sir’ to me any more. My name is James. In the second place, you must work only as I let you. Your first business is to get strong and well, and you know we agreed to marry on strictly business grounds.”
“I understand it well, but I think you are very kind for a business man.”
“Oh, as to that, if I do say it of myself, I don’t think it’s my nature to be hard on those who treat me square. I think we shall be very good friends in our quiet way, and that’s more than can be said of a good many who promise more than they seem to remember afterward.”
“I will try to do all you wish for I am very grateful.”
“If you do, you may find I’m as grateful as you are.”
“That can never be. Your need and mine were very different.–But I shall try to show my gratitude by learning your ways and wishes and not by many words of thanks.”
“Thank the Lord!” mentally ejaculated the farmer, “there’s no Mrs. Mumpson in
this case;” but he only said kindly, “I think we understand each other now, Alida. I’m not a man of words either, and I had better show by actions also what I am. The fact is, although we are married, we are scarcely acquainted, and people can’t get acquainted in a day.”
The first long hill was surmounted and away they bowled again, past cottage and farmhouse, through strips of woodland and between fields from which came the fragrance of the springing grass and the peepings of the hylas. The moon soon rose, full-orbed, above the higher eastern hills, and the mild April evening became luminous and full of beauty.
A healing sense of quiet and security already began to steal into Alida’s bruised heart. In turning her back upon the town in which she had suffered so greatly, she felt like one escaping from prison and torture. An increasing assurance of safety came with every mile; the cool, still radiance of the night appeared typical of her new and most unexpected experience. Light had risen on her shadowed path, but it was not warm, vivifying sunlight, which stimulates and develops. A few hours before she was in darkness which might be felt–yet it was a gloom shot through and through with lurid threatening gleams. It had seemed to her that she had fallen from home, happiness, and honor to unfathomed depths, and yet there had appeared to be deeper and darker abysses on every side. She had shuddered at the thought of going out into the world, feeling that her misfortune would awaken suspicion rather than sympathy, scorn instead of kindness; that she must toil on until death, to sustain a life to which death would come as God’s welcome messenger. Then had come this man at her side, with his comparatively trivial troubles and perplexities, and he had asked her help–she who was so helpless. He had banished despair from her earthly future, he had lifted her up and was bearing her away from all which she had so dreaded; nothing had been asked which her crushed spirit was unable to bestow; she was simply expected to aid him in his natural wish to keep his home and to live where he had always dwelt. His very inability to understand her, to see her broken, trampled life and immeasurable need as she saw it, brought quietness of mind. The concentration of his thoughts on a few homely and simple hopes gave her immunity. With quick intuition, she divined that she had not a whimsical, jealous, exacting nature to deal with. He was the plain, matter-of-fact man he seemed; so literal and absolutely truthful that he would appear odd to most people. To her mind, his were the traits which she could now most welcome and value. He knew all about her, she had merely to be herself, to do what she had promised, in order to rest securely on his rock-like truth. He had again touched a deep, grateful chord in speaking of her to the shopkeeper as his wife; he showed no disposition whatever to shrink from the relation before the world; it was evident that he meant to treat her with respect and kindness, and to exact respect from others. For all this, while sitting quietly and silently at his side, she thanked him almost passionately in her heart; but far more than for all this she was glad and grateful that he would not expect what she now felt it would be impossible for her to give–the love and personal devotion which had been inseparable from marriage in her girlhood thoughts. He would make
good his words–she should be his wife in name and be respected as such. He was too simple and true to himself and his buried love, too considerate of her, to expect more. She might hope, therefore, as he had said, that they might be helpful, loyal friends and he would have been surprised indeed had he known how the pale, silent woman beside him was longing and hoping to fill his home with comfort.
Thoughts like these had inspired and sustained her while at the same time ministering the balm of hope. The quiet face of nature, lovely in the moonlight, seemed to welcome and reassure her. Happy are those who, when sorely wounded in life, can turn to the natural world and find in every tree, shrub, and flower a comforting friend that will not turn from them. Such are not far from God and peace.
The range of Holcroft’s thoughts was far simpler and narrower than Alida’s. He turned rather deliberately from the past, preferring to dwell on the probable consummation of his hope. His home, his farm, were far more to him than the woman he had married. He had wedded her for their sake, and his thoughts followed his heart, which was in his hillside acres. It is said that women often marry for a home; he truly had done so to keep his home. The question which now most occupied him was the prospect of doing this through quiet, prosperous years. He dwelt minutely on Alida’s manner, as well as her words, and found nothing to shake his belief that she had been as truthful as himself. Nevertheless, he queried in regard to the future with not a little anxiety. In her present distress and poverty she might naturally be glad of the refuge he had offered; but as time passed and the poignancy of bitter memories was allayed, might not her life on the farm seem monotonous and dull, might not weariness and discontent come into her eyes in place of gratitude? “Well, well!” he concluded, “this marrying is a risky experiment at best, but Tom Watterly’s talk and her manner seemed to shut me up to it. I was made to feel that I couldn’t go on in any other way; and I haven’t done anything underhanded or wrong, as I see, for the chance of going on. If I hadn’t become such a heathen I should say there was a Providence in it, but I don’t know what to think about such things any more. Time’ll show, and the prospect is better than it has been yet. She’ll never be sorry if she carries out the agreement made today, if kindness and good will can repay her.”
Thus it may be seen that, although two life currents had become parallel, they were still very distinct.
By the time Holcroft approached the lane leading to his dwelling, Alida was growing very weary, and felt that her endurance had almost reached its limit. Her face was so white in the moonlight that he asked solicitously, “You can stand it a little longer, can’t you?”
“I’ll try. I’m very sorry I’m not stronger.”
“Don’t you worry about that! You won’t know yourself in a week. Here we are
at the lane and there’s the house yonder. A moment or two more and you’ll be by the fire.”
A loud barking startled old Jonathan Johnson out of his doze, and he hastened to replenish the fire and to call off his rather savage dog. He was a little surprised to see Holcroft drive toward the kitchen door with a woman by his side. “He’s tried his luck with another of them town gals,” he muttered, “but, Jerusalem! She won’t stay a week, an’ my old woman’ll have the washin’ an’ mendin’ all the same.”
He could scarcely believe his ears and eyes when he heard the farmer say, “Alida, you must let me lift you out,” and then saw the “town gal” set gently on the ground, her hand placed on Holcroft’s arm as she was supported slowly and carefully to the rocking chair beside the fire. “Jonathan,” was the quiet announcement, “this is Mrs. Holcroft, my wife.”
“Jeru–beg a pardon. Wasn’t ‘spectin; jis’ sich a turn o’ things. Respects, missus! Sorry to see yer enj’yin’ poor health.”
“Yes, Jonathan, Mrs. Holcroft has been sick, but she’s much better and will soon be well. She’s very tired now from the long drive, but quiet life and country air will soon make her strong. I’ll just step out and care for the horses, Alida, and soon be back again. You come and help me, Jonathan, and keep your dog off, too.”
The old man complied with rather poor grace for he would have preferred to interview the bride, at whom he was staring with all his weak, watery eyes. Holcroft understood his neighbor’s peculiarities too well to subject his wife to this ordeal, and was bent on dispatching Jonathan homeward as soon as possible.
“I say, Jim,” said the old guardsman, who felt that he was speaking to the boy he had known for thirty odd years, “where on airth did you pick up sich a sickly lookin’ critter?”
“I didn’t pick her up,” replied the farmer laughingly. “I married her fair and square just as you did your wife a hundred years ago, more or less. Haven’t I as good a right to get married as you had?”
“Oh, I aint a-disputin’ yer right, but it seems so kind o’ suddint that it’s taken what little breath I’ve left.”
“How do you know it’s sudden? Did you go around telling everyone how you were getting on when you were a-courting?”
“Well, I swan! Yer got me. ‘Taint so long ago that I disremember we did it on the sly.”
“Well, now, Uncle Jonathan, you’ve got nothing to say against me for I didn’t marry on the sly, although I’ve gone on the principle that my business wasn’t everybody’s business. When I saw your wife about my washing and mending I didn’t know I was going to be lucky so soon. You know you can’t marry a woman in this country till she’s willing. But tell your wife she shan’t lose anything, and the next time I go to town I’ll leave that settin’ of eggs she wanted. Now, Jonathan, honor bright, do you feel able to walk home if I give you fifty cents extra?”
“Why, sartinly! S’pose I’d take yer away on sich a ‘casion? My wife wouldn’t let me in if she knowed it.”
“Well, you and your wife are good neighbors, and that’s more’n I can say for most people in these parts. Here’s the money. Mrs. Holcroft isn’t strong or well enough to talk any tonight. You got yourself a good supper, didn’t you?”
“Yes, yes! Helped myself bount’fully. Good night, and good luck ter yer. I can’t help thinkin’ it was kind o’ suddint though, and then she’s sich a sickly lookin’ critter. Hope yer haven’t been taken in, but then, as you say, the marryin’ business, like other kinds o’ business, is a man’s own business.”
“I hope everyone will take your sensible view, Uncle Jonathan. Good night.”
Chapter XXI. At Home
Alida was not so cold, weary, and almost faint but that she looked around the old kitchen with the strongest interest. This interest was as unlike Mrs. Mumpson’s curiosity as she was unlike the widow. It is true the thought of self was prominent, yet hers were not selfish thoughts. There are some blessed natures in the world that in doing the best for themselves do the best that is possible for others.
The genial warmth of the fire was grateful to her chilled and enfeebled frame; the homely kitchen, with its dresser of china ware, its tin closet and pantry, the doors of which old Jonathan had left open, manlike, after helping himself “bount’fully,” all suggested more comfort to this pallid bride, sitting there alone, than wealth of ornament in elegant apartments has brought to many others. She saw her chief domain, not in its coarse and common aspect, but as her vantage ground, from which she could minister to the comforts of the one who had rescued her. Few brides would care to enter the kitchen first, but she was pleased; she who had scarcely hoped to smile again looked smilingly around on the quaint, homelike room.
“And this is to be my home!” she murmured. “How strange, unexpected, yet natural it all is! Just what he led me to expect. The little lonely farmhouse, where I can be safe from staring eyes and unwounded by cruel questionings. Yet that old man had a dozen questions on his tongue. I
believe HE took him away to save my feelings. It’s strange that so plain and simple a man in most respects can be so considerate. Oh, pray God that all goes on as it promises! I couldn’t have dreamt it this morning, but I have an odd, homelike feeling already. Well, since I AM at home I may as well take off my hat and cloak.”
And she did so. Holcroft entered and said heartily, “That’s right, Alida! You are here to stay, you know. You mustn’t think it amiss that I left you a few moments alone for I had to get that talkative old man off home. He’s getting a little childish and would fire questions at you point-blank.”
“But shouldn’t you have taken him home in the wagon? I don’t mind being alone.”
“Oh, no! He’s spry enough to walk twice the distance and often does. It’s light as day outside, and I made it right with him. You can leave your things upstairs in your room, and I’ll carry up your bundles also if you are rested enough for the journey.”
“Oh, yes!” she replied, “I’m feeling better already.”
He led the way to the apartment that Mrs. Mumpson had occupied and said regretfully, “I’m sorry the room looks so bare and comfortless, but that will all be mended in time. When you come down, we’ll have some coffee and supper.”
She soon reappeared in the kitchen, and he continued, “Now I’ll show you that I’m not such a very helpless sort of man, after all; so if you’re sick you needn’t worry. I’m going to get you a good cup of coffee and broil you a piece of steak.”
“Oh! Please let me–” she began.
“No, can’t allow you to do anything tonight but sit in that chair. You promised to mind, you know,” and he smiled so genially that she smiled back at him although tears came into her eyes.
“I can’t realize it all,” she said in a low voice. “To think how this day began and how it is ending!”
“It’s ending in a poor man’s kitchen, Alida. It was rather rough to bring you in here first, but the parlor is cold and comfortless.
“I would rather be brought here. It seems to me that it must be a light and cheerful room.”
“Yes, the sun shines in these east windows, and there’s another window facing the south, so it’s light all day long.”
She watched him curiously and with not a little self-reproach as he deftly prepared supper. “It’s too bad for me to sit idle while you do such things, yet you do everything so well that I fear I shall seem awkward. Still, I think I do at least know how to cook a little.”
“If you knew what I’ve had to put up with for a year or more, you wouldn’t worry about satisfying me in this respect. Except when old Mrs. Wiggins was here, I had few decent meals that I didn’t get myself,” and then, to cheer her up, he laughingly told her of Mrs. Mumpson’s essay at making coffee. He had a certain dry humor, and his unwonted effort at mimicry was so droll in itself that Alida was startled to hear her own voice in laughter, and she looked almost frightened, so deeply had she been impressed that it would never be possible or even right for her to laugh again.
The farmer was secretly much pleased at his success. If she would laugh, be cheerful and not brood, he felt sure she would get well and be more contented. The desperate view she had taken of her misfortunes troubled him, and he had thought it possible that she might sink into despondency and something like invalidism; but that involuntary bubble of laughter reassured him. “Quiet, wholesome, cheerful life will restore her to health,” he thought, as he put his favorite beverage and the sputtering steak on the table. “Now,” he said, placing a chair at the table, “you can pour me a cup of coffee.”
“I’m glad I can do something,” she answered, “for I can’t get over the strangeness of being so waited on. Indeed, everything that was unexpected or undreamt of has happened,” and there was just the faintest bit of color on her cheeks as she sat down opposite him.
Few men are insensible to simple, natural, womanly grace, and poor Holcroft, who so long had been compelled to see at his table “perfect terrors,” as he called them, was agreeably impressed by the contrast she made with the Mumpson and Malony species. Alida unconsciously had a subtle charm of carriage and action, learned in her long past and happy girlhood when all her associations were good and refined. Still, in its truest explanation, this grace is native and not acquired; it is a personal trait. Incapable of nice analysis or fine definitions, he only thought, “How much pleasanter it is to see at the table a quiet, sensible woman instead of a ‘peculiar female!'” and it was not long before he supplemented her remark by saying, “Perhaps things are turning out for both of us better than we expected. I had made up my mind this morning to live here like a hermit, get my own meals, and all that. I actually had the rough draught of an auction bill in my pocket,–yes, here it is now,–and was going to sell my cows, give up my dairy, and try to make my living in a way that wouldn’t require any woman help. That’s what took me up to Tom Watterly’s; I wanted him to help me put the bill in shape. He wouldn’t look at it, and talked me right out of trying to live like Robinson Crusoe, as he expressed it. I had been quite cheerful over my prospects; indeed, I was almost happy in being alone again after having such terrors in the house.
But, as I said, Watterly talked all the courage and hope right out of me, and made it clear that I couldn’t go it alone. You see, Tom and I have been friends since we were boys together, and that’s the reason he talks so plain to me.”
“He has a good, kind heart,” said Alida. “I don’t think I could have kept up at all had it not been for his kindness.”
“Yes, Tom’s a rough diamond. He don’t make any pretenses, and looks upon himself as a rather hard case, but I fancy he’s doing kind things in his rough way half the time. Well, as we were talking, he remembered you, and he spoke of you so feelingly and told your story with so much honest sympathy that he awoke my sympathy. Now you know how it has all come about. You see it’s all natural enough and simple enough, and probably it’s the best thing that could have happened for us both. All you have to do is to get strong and well, and then it won’t be any one-sided affair, as you’ve been too much inclined to think. I can go on and keep my farm and home just as my heart is bent on doing. I want you to understand everything for then your mind will be more satisfied and at rest, and that’s half the battle in getting over sickness and trouble like yours.”
“I can only thank God and you for the great change in my prospects. This quiet and escape from strangers are just what I most craved, and I am already beginning to hope that if I can learn to do all you wish, I shall find a content that I never hoped for,” and the tears that stood in her eyes were witnesses of her sincerity.
“Well, don’t expect to learn everything at once. Let me have my way for a while, and then you’ll find, as you get strong, and the busy season comes on, that I’ll be so taken up with the farm that you’ll have your own way. Won’t you have some more steak? No? Well, you’ve enjoyed your supper a little, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” she replied, smiling. “I actually felt hungry when I sat down, and the coffee has taken away the tired, faint feeling.”
“I hope you’ll soon be good and hungry three times a day,” he said, laughing pleasantly.
“You’ll at least let me clear the table?” she asked. “I feel so much better.”
“Yes, if you are sure you’re strong enough. It may make you feel more at home. But drop everything till tomorrow when tired. I must go out and do my night work, and it’s night work now, sure enough–”
“It’s too bad!” she said sympathetically.
“What! To go out and feed my stock this clear, bright night? And after a
hearty supper too? Such farming is fun. I feel, too, as if I wanted to go and pat the cows all around in my gladness that I’m not going to sell them. Now remember, let everything go till morning as soon as you feel tired.”
She nodded smilingly and set to work. Standing in the shadow of a hemlock, he watched her for a few moments. Her movements were slow, as would be natural to one who had been so reduced by illness, but this every evidence of feebleness touched his feelings. “She is eager to begin–too eager. No nonsense there about ‘menial tasks.’ Well, it does give one hope to see such a woman as that in the old kitchen,” and then the hungry cattle welcomed him.
The traveler feels safe after the fierce Arab of the desert has broken bread with him. It would seem that a deep principle of human nature is involved in this act. More than the restoring power of the nourishment itself was the moral effect for Alida of that first meal in her husband’s home. It was another step in what he had said was essential–the forming of his acquaintance. She had seen from the first that he was plain and unpolished–that he had not the veneer of gentility of the man she had so mistakenly married; yet, in his simple truth, he was inspiring a respect which she had never felt for any man before. “What element of real courtesy has been wanting?” she asked herself. “If this is an earnest of the future, thank God for the real. I’ve found to my cost what a clever imitation of a man means.”
It was as sweet as it was strange to think that she, who had trembled at the necessity of becoming almost a slave to unfeeling strangers, had been compelled to rest while a husband performed tasks naturally hers. It was all very homely, yet the significance of the act was chivalrous consideration for her weakness; the place, the nature of the ministry could not degrade the meaning of his action. Then, too, during the meal he had spoken natural, kindly words which gave to their breaking of bread together the true interpretation. Although so feeble and wary, she found a deep satisfaction in beginning her household work. “It does make me feel more at home,” she said. “Strange that he should have thought of it!”
She had finished her task and sat down again when he entered with a pail of milk. Taking a dipper with a strainer on one side of it, he poured out a tumblerful. “Now, take this,” he said, “I’ve always heard that milk fresh from the cow was very strengthening. Then go and sleep till you are thoroughly rested, and don’t think of coming down in the morning till you feel like it. I’ll make the fire and get breakfast. You have seen how easily I can do it. I have several more cows to milk, and so will say ‘Goodnight.'”
For the first time since chaos had come into her life Alida slept soundly and refreshingly, unpursued by the fears which had haunted even her dreams. When she awoke she expected to see the gray locks and repulsive features of the woman who had occupied the apartment with her at the almshouse, but she was alone in a small, strange room. Then memory gathered up the threads of the past; but so strange, so blessed did the truth seem that she hastened to dress
and go down to the old kitchen and assure herself that her mind had not become shattered by her troubles and was mocking her with unreal fancies. The scene she looked upon would have soothed and reassured her even had her mind been as disordered as she, for the moment, had been tempted to believe. There was the same homely room which had pictured itself so deeply in her memory the evening before. Now it was more attractive for the morning sun was shining into it, lighting up its homely details with a wholesome, cheerful reality which made it difficult to believe that there were tragic experiences in the world. The wood fire in the stove crackled merrily, and the lid of the kettle was already bobbing up and down from internal commotion.
As she opened the door a burst of song entered, securing her attention. She had heard the birds before without recognizing consciousness, as is so often true of our own condition in regard to the familiar sounds of nature. It was now almost as if she had received another sense, so strong, sweet, and cheering was the symphony. Robins, song-sparrows, blackbirds, seemed to have gathered in the trees nearby, to give her a jubilant welcome; but she soon found that the music shaded off to distant, dreamlike notes, and remembered that it was a morning chorus of a hemisphere. This universality did not render the melody less personally grateful. We can appreciate all that is lovely in Nature, yet leave all for others. As she stood listening, and inhaling the soft air, full of the delicious perfume of the grass and expanding buds, and looking through the misty sunshine on the half-veiled landscape, she heard Holcroft’s voice, chiding some unruly animal in the barnyard.
This recalled her, and with the elasticity of returning health and hope she set about getting breakfast.
“It seems to me that I never heard birds sing before,” she thought, “and their songs this morning are almost like the music of heaven. They seem as happy and unconscious of fear and trouble as if they were angels. Mother and I used to talk about the Garden of Eden, but could the air have been sweeter, or the sunshine more tempered to just the right degree of warmth and brightness than here about my home? Oh, thank God again, again and forever, for a home like this!” and for a few moments something of the ecstasy of one delivered from the black thraldom of evil filled her soul. She paused now and then to listen to the birds for only their songs seemed capable of expressing her emotion. It was but another proof that heavenly thoughts and homely work may go on together.
Chapter XXII. Getting Acquainted
It was still early, and Holcroft was under the impression that Alida would sleep late after the severe fatigues of the preceding day. He therefore continued his work at the barn sufficiently long to give his wife time for her little surprise. She was not long in finding and laying her hands on the
simple materials for breakfast. A ham hung in the pantry and beneath it was a great basket of eggs, while the flour barrel stood in the corner. Biscuits were soon in the oven, eggs conjured into an omelet, and the ham cut into delicate slices, instead of great coarse steaks.
Remembering Mrs. Mumpson’s failure with the coffee, she made it a trifle strong and boiled the milk that should temper without cooling it. The biscuits rose like her own spirits, the omelet speedily began to take on color like her own flushed face as she busied herself about the stove.
Everything was nearly ready when she saw Holcroft coming toward the house with two pails of milk. He took them to the large dairy room under the parlor and then came briskly to the kitchen.
She stood, screened by the door as he entered, then stopped and stared at the table all set and at the inviting breakfast on the stove.
Seeing Alida’s half-smiling, half-questioning face, seeking his approval, he exclaimed, “Well, you HAVE stolen a march on me! I supposed you were asleep yet.”
“I felt so much stronger and better when I awoke that I thought you wouldn’t mind if I came down and made a beginning.”
“You call this a beginning do you? Such a breakfast as this before seven in the morning? I hope you haven’t overtaxed yourself.”
“No, only a little of just the right kind of tired feeling.”
“Haven’t you left anything for me to do?”
“Perhaps. You will know when I’ve put all on the table. What I’ve prepared is ready.”
“Well, this is famous. I’ll go and wash and fix up a little and be right down.”
When Holcroft returned, he looked at her curiously, for he felt that he, too, was getting acquainted. Her thin face was made more youthful by color; a pleased look was in her blue eyes, and a certain neatness and trimness about her dress to which he had not been accustomed. He scanned the table wonderingly, for things were not put upon it at haphazard; the light biscuits turned their brown cheeks invitingly toward him,–she had arranged that they should do that,–the ham was crisp, not sodden, and the omelet as russet as a November leaf. “This is a new dish,” he said, looking at it closely. “What do you call it?”
“Omelet. Perhaps you won’t like it, but mother used to be very fond of it.”
“No matter. We’ll have it if you like it and it brings you pleasant thoughts of your mother.” Then he took a good sip of coffee and set the cup down again as he had before under the Mumpson regime, but with a very different expression. She looked anxiously at him, but was quickly reassured. “I thought I knew how to make coffee, but I find I don’t. I never tasted anything so good as that. How DO you make it?”
“Just as mother taught me.”
“Well, well! And you call this making a beginning? I just wish I could give Tom Watterly a cup of this coffee. It would set his mind at rest. ‘By jocks!’ he would say, ‘isn’t this better than going it alone?'”
She looked positively happy under this sweet incense to a housewifely heart. She was being paid in the coin that women love best, and it was all the more precious to her because she had never expected to receive it again.
He did like the omelet; he liked everything, and, after helping her liberally, cleared the table, then said he felt equal to doing two men’s work. Before going out to his work, he lighted a fire on the parlor hearth and left a good supply of fuel beside it. “Now, Alida,” he remarked humorously, “I’ve already found out that you have one fault that you and I will have to watch against. You are too willing. I fear you’ve gone beyond your strength this morning. I don’t want you to do a thing today except to get the meals, and remember, I can help in this if you don’t feel well. There is a fire in the parlor, and I’ve wheeled the lounge up by it. Take it quietly today, and perhaps tomorrow I can begin to show you about butter-making.”
“I will do as you wish,” she replied, “but please show me a little more where things are before you go out.”
This he did and added, “You’ll find the beef and some other things on a swing-shelf in the cellar. The potato bins are down there, too. But don’t try to get up much dinner. What comes quickest and easiest will suit me. I’m a little backward with my work and must plow all day for oats. It’s time they were in. After such a breakfast, I feel as if I had eaten a bushel myself.”
A few moments later she saw him going up the lane, that continued on past the house, with his stout team and the plow, and she smiled as she heard him whistling “Coronation” with levity, as some good people would have thought.
Plowing and planting time had come and under happier auspices, apparently, than he had ever imagined possible again. With the lines about his neck, he began with a sidehill plow at the bottom of a large, sloping field which had been in corn the previous year, and the long, straight furrows increased from a narrow strip to a wide, oblong area. “Ah,” said he in tones of strong satisfaction, “the ground crumbles freely; it’s just in the right condition.
I’ll quit plowing this afternoon in time to harrow and sow all the ground that’s ready. Then, so much’ll be all done and well done. It’s curious how seed, if it goes into the ground at the right time and in the right way, comes right along and never gets discouraged. I aint much on scientific farming, but I’ve always observed that when I sow or plant as soon as the ground is ready, I have better luck.”
The horses seemed infected by his own brisk spirit, stepping along without urging, and the farmer was swept speedily into the full, strong current of his habitual interests.
One might have supposed the recent events would have the uppermost place in his thoughts, but this was not true. He rather dwelt upon them as the unexpectedly fortunate means to the end now attained. This was his life, and he was happy in the thought that his marriage promised to make this life not merely possible, but prosperous and full of quiet content.
The calling of the born agriculturist, like that of the fisherman, has in it the element of chance and is therefore full of moderate yet lasting excitement. Holcroft knew that, although he did his best, much would depend on the weather and other causes. He had met with disappointments in his crops, and had also achieved what he regarded as fine successes, although they would have seemed meager on a Western prairie. Every spring kindled anew his hopefulness and anticipation. He watched the weather with the interested and careful scrutiny of a sailor, and it must be admitted that his labor and its results depended more on natural causes than upon his skill and the careful use of the fertilizers. He was a farmer of the old school, the traditions received from his father controlled him in the main. Still, his good common sense and long experience stood him fairly well in the place of science and knowledge of improved methods, and he was better equipped than the man who has in his brain all that the books can teach, yet is without experience. Best of all, he had inherited and acquired an abiding love of the soil; he never could have been content except in its cultivation; he was therefore in the right condition to assimilate fuller knowledge and make the most of it.
He knew well enough when it was about noon. From long habit he would have known had the sky been overcast, but now his glance at the sun was like looking at a watch. Dusty and begrimed he followed his team to the barn, slipped from them their headstalls and left them to amuse themselves with a little hay while they cooled sufficiently for heartier food. “Well now,” he mused, “I wonder what that little woman has for dinner? Another new dish, like enough. Hanged if I’m fit to go in the house, and she looking so trim and neat. I think I’ll first take a souse in the brook,” and he went up behind the house where an unfailing stream gurgled swiftly down from the hills. At the nearest point a small basin had been hollowed out, and as he approached he saw two or three speckled trout darting away through the limpid water.
“Aha!” he muttered, “glad you reminded me. When SHE’S stronger, she may enjoy catching our supper some afternoon. I must think of all the little things I can to liven her up so she won’t get dull. It’s curious how interested I am to know how she’s got along and what she has for dinner. And to think that, less than a week ago, I used to hate to go near the house!”
As he entered the hall on his way to his room, that he might make himself more presentable, an appetizing odor greeted him and Alida smiled from the kitchen door as she said, “Dinner’s ready.”
Apparently she had taken him at his word, as she had prepared little else than an Irish stew, yet when he had partaken of it, he thought he would prefer Irish stews from that time onward indefinitely. “Where did you learn to cook, Alida?” he asked.
“Mother wasn’t very strong and her appetite often failed her. Then, too, we hadn’t much to spend on our table so we tried to make simple things taste nice. Do you like my way of preparing that old-fashioned dish?”
“I’m going to show you how I like it,” he replied, nodding approvingly. “Well, what have you been doing besides tempting me to eat too much?”
“What you said, resting. You told me not to get up much of a dinner, so I very lazily prepared what you see. I’ve been lying on the lounge most of the morning.”
“Famous, and you feel better?”
“Yes, I think I shall soon get well and strong,” she replied, looking at him gratefully.
“Well, well! My luck’s turned at last. I once thought it never would, but if this goes on–well, you can’t know what a change it is for the better. I can now put my mind on my work.”
“You’ve been plowing all the morning, haven’t you?” she ventured, and there was the pleased look in her eyes that he already liked to see.
“Yes,” he replied, “and I must keep at it several days to get in all the oats I mean to sow. If this weather holds, I shall be through next week.”
“I looked in the milk-room a while ago. Isn’t there anything I could do there this afternoon?”
“No. I’ll attend to everything there. It’s too damp for you yet. Keep on resting. Why, bless me! I didn’t think you’d be well enough to do anything for a week.”
“Indeed,” she admitted, “I’m surprised at myself. It seems as if a crushing weight had been lifted off my mind and that I was coming right up. I’m so glad, for I feared I might be feeble and useless a long time.”
“Well, Alida, if you had been, or if you ever are, don’t think I’ll be impatient. The people I can’t stand are those who try to take advantage of me, and I tell you I’ve had to contend with that disposition so long that I feel as if I could do almost anything for one who is simply honest and tries to keep her part of an agreement. But this won’t do. I’ve enjoyed my own dinner so much that I’ve half forgotten that the horses haven’t had theirs yet. Now will you scold if I light my pipe before I go out?”
“Oh, no! I don’t mind that.”
“No good-natured fibs! Isn’t smoke disagreeable?”
She shook her head. “I don’t mind it at all,” she said, but her sudden paleness puzzled him. He could not know that he had involuntarily recalled the many times that she had filled the evening pipe for a man who now haunted her memory like a specter.
“I guess you don’t like it very much,” he said, as he passed out. “Well, no matter! It’s getting so mild that I can smoke out of doors.”
With the exception of the episode of dinner the day was chiefly passed by Alida in a health-restoring languor, the natural reaction from the distress and strong excitements of the past. The rest that had been enjoined upon her was a blessed privilege, and still more happy was the truth that she could rest. Reclining on the lounge in the parlor, with a wood fire on one side and the April sun on the other, both creating warmth and good cheer, she felt like those who have just escaped from a wreck and engulfing waves. Her mind was too weary to question either the past or the future, and sometimes a consciousness of safety is happiness in itself. In the afternoon, the crackling of the fire and the calling and singing of the birds without formed a soothing lullaby and she fell asleep.
At last, in a dream, she heard exquisite music which appeared to grow so loud, strong, and triumphant that she started up and looked around bewildered. A moment later, she saw that a robin was singing in a lilac bush by the window and that near the bird was a nest partially constructed. She recalled her hopeless grief when she had last seen the building of one of their little homes; and she fell upon her knees with a gratitude too deep for words, and far more grateful to Heaven than words.
Stepping out on the porch, she saw by the shadows that the sun was low in the west and that Holcroft was coming down the lane with his horses. He nodded pleasantly as he passed on to the barn. Her eyes followed him lingeringly till he disappeared, and then they ranged over the wide valley and the wooded
hills in the distance. Not a breath of air was stirring; the lowing of cattle and other rural sounds softened by distance came from other farmhouses; the birds were at vespers, and their songs, to her fancy, were imbued with a softer, sweeter melody than in the morning. From the adjacent fields came clear, mellow notes that made her nerves tingle, so ethereal yet penetrating were they. She was sure she had never heard such bird music before. When Holcroft came in to supper she asked, “What birds are those that sing in the field?”
“Meadow larks. Do you like them?”
“I never heard a hymn sung that did me more good.”
“Well, I own up, I’d rather hear ’em than much of the singing we used to have down at the meeting house.”
“It seems to me,” she remarked, as she sat down at the table, “that I’ve never heard birds sing as they have today.”
“Now I think of it, they have been tuning up wonderfully. Perhaps they’ve an idea of my good luck,” he added smilingly.
“I had thought of that about myself,” she ventured. “I took a nap this afternoon, and a robin sang so near the window that he woke me up. It was a pleasant way to be waked.”
“Took a nap, did you? That’s famous! Well, well! This day’s gone just to suit me, and I haven’t had many such in a good while, I can tell you. I’ve got in a big strip of oats, and now, when I come in tired, here’s a good supper. I certainly shall have to be on the watch to do Tom Watterly good turns for talking me into this business. That taking a nap was a first-rate idea. You ought to keep it up for a month.”
“No, indeed! There’s no reason why you should work hard and I be idle. I’ve rested today, as you wished, and I feel better than I ever expected to again; but tomorrow I must begin in earnest. What use is there of your keeping your cows if good butter is not made? Then I must be busy with my needle.”
“Yes, that’s true enough. See how thoughtless I am! I forgot you hadn’t any clothes to speak of. I ought to take you to town to a dressmaker.”
“I think you had better get your oats in,” she replied, smiling shyly. “Besides, I have a dressmaker that just suits me–one that’s made my dresses a good many years.”
“If she don’t suit you, you’re hard to be suited,” said he, laughing. “Well, some day, after you are fixed up, I shall have to let you know how dilapidated I am.”
“Won’t you do me a little favor?” “Oh, yes! A dozen of ’em, big or little.” “Please bring down this evening something that needs mending. I am so much
better–” “No, no! I wasn’t hinting for you to do anything tonight.” “But you’ve promised me,” she urged. “Remember I’ve been resting nearly all
day. I’m used to sewing, and earned my living at it. Somehow, it don’t seem natural for me to sit with idle hands.” “If I hadn’t promised–”
“But you have.” “I suppose I’m fairly caught,” and he brought down a little of the most pressing of the mending.
“Now I’ll reward you,” she said, handing him his pipe, well filled. “You go in the parlor and have a quiet smoke. I won’t be long in clearing up the kitchen.”
“What! Smoke in the parlor?” “Yes, why not? I assure you I don’t mind it.” “Ha! Ha! Why didn’t I think of it before–I might have kept the parlor and
smoked Mrs. Mumpson out.” “It won’t be smoke that will keep me out.” “I should hope not, or anything else. I must tell you how I DID have to smoke
Mrs. Mumpson out at last,” and he did so with so much drollery that she again yielded to irrepressible laughter.
“Poor thing! I’m sorry for her,” she said. “I’m sorry for Jane–poor little stray cat of a child! I hope we can do something for her some day,” and having lighted his pipe, he took up the county paper, left weekly in a hollow tree by the stage driver, and went into the parlor.
After freshening up the fire he sat down to read, but by the time she joined him the tired man was nodding. He tried to brighten up, but his eyes were heavy.
“You’ve worked hard today,” she said sympathetically.
“Well, I have,” he answered. “I’ve not done such a good day’s work in a year.”
“Then why don’t you go to sleep at once?”
“It don’t seem polite–”
“Please don’t talk that way,” she interrupted. “I don’t mind being alone at all. I shall feel a great deal more at home if you forget all about ceremony.”
“Well, Alida, I guess we had both better begin on that basis. If I give up when I’m tired, you must. You mustn’t think I’m always such a sleepyhead. The fact is I’ve been more tired out with worry of late than with work. I can laugh about it now, but I’ve been so desperate over it that I’ve felt more like swearing. You’ll find out I’ve become a good deal of a heathen.”
“Very well; I’ll wait till I find out.”
“I think we are getting acquainted famously, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she nodded, with a smile that meant more than a long speech. “Good night.”
Chapter XXIII. Between the Past and Future
Human nature, in common with Mother Nature, has its immutable laws. The people who existed before the flood were, in their primal motives, like those of today. The conventionality of highly civilized society does not change the heart, but it puts so much restraint upon it that not a few appear heartless. They march through life and fight its battles like uniformed men, trained in a certain school of tactics. The monotony of character and action is superficial, in most cases, rather than real, and he who fathoms the eyes of others, who catches the subtle quality of tones and interprets the flexible mouth that utters them, will discover that the whole gamut of human nature exists in those that appear only like certain musical instruments, made by machinery to play a few well-known tunes. Conventional restraint often, no doubt, produces dwarfed and defective human nature. I suppose that if souls could be put under a microscope, the undeveloped rudiments of almost everything would be discovered. It is more satisfactory to study the things themselves than their suggestions; this we are usually better able to do among people of simple and untrammeled modes of life, who are not practiced in disguises. Their peculiar traits and their general and dominant laws and impulses are exhibited with less reserve than by those who have learned to be always on their guard. Of course there are commonplace yeomen as truly as
commonplace aristocrats, and simple life abounds in simpletons.
When a man in Holcroft’s position has decided traits, they are apt to have a somewhat full expression; his rugged nature beside a tamer one outlines itself more vividly, just as a mountain peak is silhouetted against the horizon better than a rounded hill. It probably has been observed that his character possessed much simplicity and directness. He had neither the force nor the ambition to raise him above his circumstances; he was merely decided within the lines of his environment. Perhaps the current of his life was all the stronger for being narrow. His motives were neither complex nor vacillating. He had married to keep his home and to continue in the conditions of life dear from association and the strongest preference, and his heart overflowed with good will and kindness toward Alida because she promised to solve the hard problem of the future satisfactorily. Apart from the sympathy which her misfortune had evoked, he probably could have felt much the same toward any other good, sensible woman, had she rendered him a similar service. It is true, now that Alida was in his home, that she was manifesting agreeable traits which gave him pleasant little surprises. He had not expected that he would have had half so much to say to her, yet felt it his duty to be sociable in order to cheer up and mark the line between even a business marriage and the employment of a domestic. Both his interest and his duty required that he should establish the bonds of strong friendly regard on the basis of perfect equality, and he would have made efforts, similar to those he put forth, in behalf of any woman, if she had consented to marry him with Alida’s understanding. Now, however, that his suddenly adopted project of securing a housekeeper and helper had been consummated, he would find that he was not dealing with a business partner in the abstract, but a definite woman, who had already begun to exert over him her natural influence. He had expected more or less constraint and that some time must elapse before his wife would cease to be in a sense company whom he, with conscious and deliberate effort, must entertain. On the contrary she entertained and interested him, although she said so little, and by some subtle power she unloosed his tongue and made it easy for him to talk to her. In the most quiet and unobtrusive way, she was not only making herself at home, but him also; she was very subservient to his wishes, but not servilely so; she did not assert, but only revealed her superiority, and after even so brief an acquaintance he was ready to indorse Tom Watterly’s view, “She’s out of the common run.”
While all this was true, the farmer’s heart was as untouched as that of a child who simply and instinctively likes a person. He was still quietly and unhesitatingly loyal to his former wife. Apart from his involuntary favor, his shrewd, practical reason was definite enough in its grounds of approval. Reason assured him that she promised to do and to be just what he had married her for, but this might have been true of a capable, yet disagreeable woman whom he could not like, to save himself.
Both in regard to himself and Alida, Holcroft accepted the actual facts with the gladness and much of the unquestioning simplicity of a child. This rather
risky experiment was turning out well, and for a time he daily became more and more absorbed in his farm and its interests. Alida quietly performed her household tasks and proved that she would not need very much instruction to become a good butter maker. The short spring of the North required that he should be busy early and late to keep pace with the quickly passing seedtime. His hopefulness, his freedom from household worries, prompted him to sow and plant increased areas of land. In brief, he entered on just the business-like honeymoon he had hoped for.
Alida was more than content with the conditions of her life. She saw that Holcroft was not only satisfied, but also pleased with her, and that was all she had expected and indeed all that thus far she had wished or hoped. She had many sad hours; wounds like hers cannot heal readily in a true, sensitive woman’s heart. While she gained in cheerfulness and confidence, the terrible and unexpected disaster which had overtaken her rendered impossible the serenity of those with whom all has gone well. Dread of something, she knew not what, haunted her painfully, and memory at times seemed malignantly perverse in recalling one whom she prayed to forget.
Next to her faith and Holcroft’s kindness her work was her best solace, and she thanked God for the strength to keep busy.
On the first Sunday morning after their marriage the farmer overslept, and breakfast had been ready some time when he came down. He looked with a little dismay at the clock over the kitchen mantel and asked, “Aren’t you going to scold a little?”
She shook her head, nor did she look the chiding which often might as well be spoken.
“How long have I kept breakfast waiting, or you rather?”
“What difference does it make? You needed the rest. The breakfast may not be so nice,” was her smiling answer.
“No matter. You are nice to let a man off in that way.” Observing the book in her lap, he continued, “So you were reading the old family Bible to learn lessons of patience and forbearance?”
Again she shook her head. She often oddly reminded him of Jane in her employment of signs instead of speech, but in her case there was a grace, a suggestiveness, and even a piquancy about them which made them like a new language. He understood and interpreted her frankly. “I know, Alida,” he said kindly; “you are a good woman. You believe in the Bible and love to read it.”
“I was taught to read and love it,” she replied simply. Then her eyes dropped and she faltered, “I’ve reproached myself bitterly that I rushed away so hastily that I forgot the Bible my mother gave me.”
“No, no,” he said heartily, “don’t reproach yourself for that. It was the Bible in your heart that made you act as you did.”
She shot him a swift, grateful glance through her tears, but made no other response.
Having returned the Bible to the parlor, she put the breakfast on the table and said quietly, “It looks as if we would have a rainy day.”
“Well,” said he, laughing, “I’m as bad as the old woman–it seems that women can run farms alone if men can’t. Well, this old dame had a big farm and employed several men, and she was always wishing it would rain nights and Sundays. I’m inclined to chuckle over the good this rain will do my oats, instead of being sorry to think how many sinners it’ll keep from church. Except in protracted-meeting times, most people of this town would a great deal rather risk their souls than be caught in the rain on Sunday. We don’t mind it much week days, but Sunday rain is very dangerous to health.”
“I’m afraid I’m as bad as the rest,” she said, smiling. “Mother and I usually stayed home when it rained hard.”
“Oh, we don’t need a hard storm in the country. People say, ‘It looks threatening,’ and that settles it; but we often drive to town rainy days to save time.”
“Do you usually go to church at the meeting house I see off in the valley?” she asked.
“I don’t go anywhere,” and he watched keenly to see how she would take this blunt statement of his practical heathenism.
She only looked at him kindly and accepted the fact.
“Why don’t you pitch into me?” he asked.
“That wouldn’t do any good.”
“You’d like to go, I suppose?”
“No, not under the circumstances, unless you wished to. I’m cowardly enough to dread being stared at.”
He gave a deep sign of relief. “This thing has been troubling me,” he said. “I feared you would want to go, and if you did, I should feel that you ought to go.”
“I fear I’m very weak about it, but I shrink so from meeting strangers. I do
thank God for his goodness many times a day and ask for help. I’m not brave enough to do any more, yet.”
His rugged features became very somber as he said, “I wish I had as much courage as you have.”
“You don’t understand me–” she began gently.
“No, I suppose not. It’s all become a muddle to me. I mean this church and religious business.”
She looked at him wistfully, as if she wished to say something, but did not venture to do so. He promptly gave a different turn to the conversation by quoting Mrs. Mumpson’s tirade on churchgoing the first Sunday after her arrival. Alida laughed, but not in a wholly mirthful and satisfied way. “There!” he concluded, “I’m touching on things a little too sacred for you. I respect your feelings and beliefs, for they are honest and I wish I shared in ’em.” Then he suddenly laughed again as he added, “Mrs. Mumpson said there was too much milking done on Sunday, and it’s time I was breaking the Fourth Commandment, after her notion.”
Alida now laughed outright, without reservation.
“‘By jocks!’ as Watterly says, what a difference there is in women!” he soliloquized on his way to the barn. “Well, the church question is settled for the present, but if Alida should ask me to go, after her manner this morning, I’d face the whole creation with her.”
When at last he came in and threw off his waterproof coat, the kitchen was in order and his wife was sitting by the parlor fire with Thomson’s “Land and the Book” in her hand.
“Are you fond of reading?” he asked.
“Well, I am, too, sort of; but I’ve let the years slip by without doing half as much as I ought.”
“Light your pipe and I’ll read to you, if you wish me to.”
“Oh, come now! I at least believe in Sunday as a day of rest, and you need it. Reading aloud is about as hard work as I can do.”
“But I’m used to it. I read aloud to mother a great deal,” and then there passed over her face an expression of deep pain.
“What is it, Alida? Don’t you feel well?”
“Yes, oh, yes!” she replied hastily, and her pale face became crimson.
It was another stab of memory recalling the many Sundays she had read to the man who had deceived her. “Shall I read?” she asked.
“Alida,” he said very kindly, “it wasn’t the thought of your mother that brought that look of pain into your face.”
She shook her head sadly, with downcast eyes. After a moment or two, she raised them appealingly to him as she said simply, “There is so much that I wish I could forget.”
“Poor child! Yes, I think I know. Be patient with yourself, and remember that you were never to blame.”
Again came that quick, grateful glance by which some women express more than others can ever put in words. Her thought was, “I didn’t think that even he was capable of that. What a way of assuring me that he’ll be patient with me!” Then she quietly read for an hour descriptions of the Holy Land that were not too religious for Holcroft’s mind and which satisfied her conscience better than much she had read in former days to satisfy a taste more alien to hers than that of her husband.
Holcroft listened to her correct pronunciation and sweet, natural tones with a sort of pleased wonder. At last he said, “You must stop now.”
“Are you tired?” she asked.
“No, but you are, or ought to be. Why, Alida, I didn’t know you were so well educated. I’m quite a barbarous old fellow compared with you.”
“I hadn’t thought of that before,” she said with a laugh.
“What a fool I was, then, to put it into your head!”
“You must be more careful. I’d never have such thoughts if you didn’t suggest them.”
“How did you come to get such a good education?”
“I wish I had a better one. Well, I did have good advantages up to the time I was seventeen. After I was old enough I went to school quite steadily, but it seems to me that I learned a little of everything and not much of anything. When father died and we lost our property, we had to take to our needles. I suppose I might have obtained work in a store, or some such place, but I couldn’t bear to leave mother alone and I disliked being in public. I certainly didn’t know enough to teach, and besides, I was afraid to try.”
“Well, well! You’ve stumbled into a quiet enough place at last.”
“That’s what I like most about it, but I don’t think I stumbled into it. I think I’ve been led and helped. That’s what I meant when I said you didn’t understand me,” she added hesitatingly. “It doesn’t take courage for me to go to God. I get courage by believing that he cares for me like a father, as the bible says. How could I ever have found so kind a friend and good a home myself?”
“I’ve been half inclined to believe there’s a Providence in it myself–more and more so as I get acquainted with you. Your troubles have made you better, Alida; mine made me worse. I used to be a Christian; I aint any more.”
She looked at him smilingly as she asked, “How do you know?”
“Oh! I know well enough,” he replied gloomily. “Don’t let’s talk about it any more,” and then he led her on to speak simply and naturally about her childhood home and her father and mother.
“Well,” he said heartily, “I wish your mother was living for nothing would please me better than to have such a good old lady in the house.”
She averted her face as she said huskily, “I think it was better she died before–” But she did not finish the sentence.
By the time dinner was over the sun was shining brightly, and he asked her if she would not like to go up the lane to his woodland to see the view. Her pleased look was sufficient answer. “But are you sure you are strong enough?” he persisted.
“Yes, it will do me good to go out, and I may find some wild flowers.”
“I guess you can, a million or two.”
By the time he was through at the barn she was ready and they started up the lane, now green with late April grass and enlivened with dandelions in which bumblebees were wallowing. The sun had dried the moisture sufficiently for them to pass on dry-shod, but everything had the fresh, vernal aspect that follows a warm rain. Spring had advanced with a great bound since the day before. The glazed and glutinous cherry buds had expanded with aromatic odors and the white of the blossoms was beginning to show.
“By tomorrow,” said Holcroft, “the trees will look as if covered with snow. Let me help you,” and he put his hand under her arm, supporting and aiding her steps up the steep places.
Her lips were parted, the pleased look was in her eyes as they rested on trees
and shrubs which lined the half ruinous stone walls on either side. “Everything seems so alive and glad this afternoon,” she remarked.
“Yes,” replied the matter-of-fact farmer. “A rain such as we had this morning is like turning the water on a big mill-wheel. It starts all the machinery right up. Now the sun’s out, and that’s the greatest motor power of all. Sun and moisture make the farm go.”
“Mustn’t the ground be enriched, too?”
“Yes, yes indeed; I suppose that’s where we all fail. But it’s no easy matter to keep a farm in good heart. That’s another reason why I’m so glad I won’t have to sell my stock. A farm run without stock is sure to grow poor, and if the farm grows poor, the owner does as a matter of course. But what put enriching the ground into your head? Do you know anything about farming?”
“No, but I want to learn. When I was a girl, father had a garden. He used to take papers about it, and I often read them aloud to him evenings. Now I remember there used to be much in them about enriching the ground. Do you take any such paper?”
“No, I haven’t much faith in book-farming.”
“I don’t know,” she ventured. “Seems to me you might get some good ideas out of papers, and your experience would teach you whether they were useful ideas or not. If you’ll take one, I’ll read it to you.”
“I will, then, for the pleasure of hearing you read, if nothing else. That’s something I hadn’t bargained for,” he added, laughing.
She answered in the same spirit by saying, “I’ll throw that in and not call it square yet.”
“I think I’ve got the best of you,” he chuckled; “and you know nothing makes a Yankee farmer happier than to get the best of a bargain.”
“I hope you’ll continue to think so. Can I sit down a few moments?”
“Why, certainly! How forgetful I am! Your talk is too interesting for me to think of anything else,” and he placed her on a flat rock by the side of the lane while he leaned against the wall.
Bees and other insects were humming around them; a butterfly fluttered over the fence and alighted on a dandelion almost at her feet; meadow larks were whistling their limpid notes in the adjoining fields, while from the trees about the house beneath them came the songs of many birds, blending with the babble of the brook which ran not far away.
“Oh, how beautiful, how strangely beautiful it all is!”
“Yes, when you come to think of it, it is real pretty,” he replied. “It’s a pity we get so used to such things that we don’t notice ’em much. I should feel miserable enough, though, if I couldn’t live in just such a place. I shouldn’t wonder if I was a good deal like that robin yonder. I like to be free and enjoy the spring weather, but I suppose neither he nor I think or know how fine it all is.”
“Well, both you and the robin seem a part of it,” she said, laughing.
“Oh, no, no!” he replied with a guffaw which sent the robin off in alarm. “I aint beautiful and never was.”
She joined his laugh, but said with a positive little nod, “I’m right, though. The robin isn’t a pretty bird, yet everybody likes him.”
“Except in cherry time. Then he has an appetite equal to mine. But everybody don’t like me. In fact, I think I’m generally disliked in this town.”
“If you went among them more they wouldn’t dislike you.”
“I don’t want to go among them.”
“They know it, and that’s the reason they dislike you.”
“Would you like to go out to tea-drinkings, and all that?”
“No, indeed; and I don’t suppose I’d be received,” she added sadly.
“So much the worse for them, then, blast ’em!” said Holcroft wrathfully.
“Oh no! I don’t feel that way and you shouldn’t. When they can, people ought to be sociable and kind.”
“Of course I’d do any of my neighbors, except Lemuel Weeks, a good turn if it came in my way, but the less I have to do with them the better I’m satisfied.”
“I’m rested enough to go on now,” said Alida quietly.
They were not long in reaching the edge of the woodland, from which there was an extended prospect. For some little time they looked at the wide landscape in silence. Alida gave to it only partial attention for her mind was very busy with thoughts suggested by her husband’s alienation from his neighbors. It would make it easier for her, but the troubled query would arise, “Is it right or best for him? His marrying me will separate him still more.”
Holcroft’s face grew sad rather than troubled as he looked at the old meeting
house and not at the landscape. He was sitting near the spot where he spent that long forenoon a few Sundays before, and the train of thought came back again. In his deep abstraction, he almost forgot the woman near him in memories of the past.
His old love and lost faith were inseparable from that little white spire in the distance.
Alida stole a glance at him and thought, “He’s thinking of her,” and she quietly strolled away to look for wild flowers.
“Yes,” muttered Holcroft, at last. “I hope Bessie knows. She’d be the first one to say it was right and best for me, and she’d be glad to know that in securing my own home and comfort I had given a home to the homeless and sorrowful–a quiet, good woman, who worships God as she did.”
He rose and joined his wife, who held toward him a handful of trailing arbutus, rue anemones, bloodroot, and dicentras. “I didn’t know they were so pretty before,” he said with a smile.
His smile reassured her for it seemed kinder than any she had yet received, and his tone was very gentle. “His dead wife will never be my enemy,” she murmured. “He has made it right with her in his own thoughts.”
Chapter XXIV. Given Her Own Way
On Monday the absorbing work of the farm was renewed, and every day brought to Holcroft long and exhausting hours of labor. While he was often taciturn, he evidently progressed in cheerfulness and hope. Alida confirmed his good impressions. His meals were prompt and inviting; the house was taking on an aspect of neatness and order long absent, and his wardrobe was put in as good condition as its rather meager character permitted. He had positively refused to permit his wife to do any washing and ironing. “We will see about it next fall,” he said. “If then you are perfectly well and strong, perhaps, but not in the warm weather now coming on.” Then he added, with a little nod, “I’m finding out how valuable you are, and I’d rather save you than the small sum I have to pay old Mrs. Johnson.”
In this and in other ways he showed kindly consideration, but his mind continually reverted to his work and outdoor plans with the preoccupation of one who finds that he can again give his thoughts to something from which they had been most reluctantly withdrawn. Thus Alida was left alone most of the time. When the dusk of evening came he was too tired to say much, and he retired early that he might be fresh for work again when the sun appeared. She had no regrets, for although she kept busy she was resting and her wounds were healing through the long, quiet days.
It was the essential calm after the storm. Caring for the dairy and working the butter into firm, sweet, tempting yellow rolls were the only tasks that troubled her a little, but Holcroft assured her that she was learning these important duties faster than he had expected her to. She had several hours a day in which to ply her needle, and thus was soon enabled to replenish her scanty wardrobe.
One morning at breakfast she appeared in another gown, and although its material was calico, she had the appearance to Holcroft of being unusually well dressed. He looked pleased, but made no comment. When the cherry blossoms were fully out, an old cracked flower vase–the only one in the house–was filled with them, and they were placed in the center of the dinner table. He looked at them and her, then smilingly remarked, “I shouldn’t wonder if you enjoyed those cherry blows more than anything else we have for dinner.”
“I want something else, though. My appetite almost frightens me.”
“That’s famous! I needn’t be ashamed of mine, then.”
One evening, before the week was over, he saw her busy with a rake about the door. Last year’s leaves were still scattered about, with twigs and even small boughs wrested by the winds from the trees. He was provoked with himself that he had neglected the usual spring clearing away of litter, and a little irritated that she should have tried to do the work herself. He left the horses at the barn and came forward directly. “Alida,” he said gravely, “there’s no need of your doing such work; I don’t like to see you do it.”
“Why,” she replied, “I’ve heard that women in the country often milk and take care of the chickens.”
“Yes, but that’s very different from this work. I wouldn’t like people to think I expected such things of you.”
“It’s very easy work,” she said smilingly, “easier than sweeping a room, though something like it. I used to do it at home when I was a girl. I think it does me good to do something in the open air.”
She was persisting, but not in a way that chafed him. Indeed, as he looked into her appealing eyes and face flushed with exercise, he felt that it would be churlish to say another word.
“Well,” he said, laughing, “it makes you look so young and rosy I guess it does you good. I suppose you’ll have to have your own way.”
“You know I wouldn’t do this or anything else if you really didn’t want me to.”
“You are keen,” he replied, with his good nature entirely restored. “You can see that you get me right under your thumb when you talk that way. But we must both be on our guard against your fault, you know, or pretty soon you’ll be taking the whole work of the farm off my hands.”
“To be serious,” she resumed, accompanying him to the barn for the first time, “I think YOU are working too hard. I’m not. Our meals are so simple that it doesn’t take me long to get them. I’m through with the hurry in my sewing, the old dog does the churning, and you give me so much help in the dairy that I shall soon have time on my hands. Now it seems to me that I might soon learn to take entire care of the chickens, big and little, and that would be so much less for you to look after. I’m sure I would enjoy it very much, especially the looking after the little chickens.”
“So you really think you’d like to do that?” he asked, as he turned to her from unharnessing the horses.
“Yes, indeed, if you think I’m competent.”
“You are more so than I am. Somehow, little chickens don’t thrive under a busy man’s care. The mother hens mean well, but they are so confoundedly silly. I declare to you that last year I lost half the little chicks that were hatched out.”
“Well, then,” she replied, laughing, “I won’t be afraid to try, for I think I can beat you in raising chickens. Now, show me how much you feed them at night and how much I’m to give them in the morning, and let me take the whole care of them for a month, get the eggs, and all. If they don’t do so well, then I’ll resign. I can’t break you in a month.”
“It looks more as if you’d make me. You have a good big bump of order, and I haven’t any at all in little things. Tom Watterly was right. If I had tried to live here alone, things would have got into an awful mess. I feel ashamed of myself that I didn’t clear up the yard before, but my whole mind’s been on the main crops.”
“As it should be. Don’t you worry about the little things. They belong to me. Now show me about the chickens, or they’ll go to roost while we’re talking.”
“But I, as well as the chickens, shall want some supper.”
“I won’t let either of you starve. You’ll see.”
“Well, you see this little measure? You fill it from this bin with this mixture of corn and wheat screenings. That’s the allowance, morning and evening. Then you go out to the barnyard there, and call ‘kip, kip, kip.’ That’s the way my wife used–” He stopped in a little embarrassment.
“I’d be glad if I could do everything as she did,” said Alida gently. “It has grown clearer every day how hard her loss was to you. If you’ll tell me what she did and how she did things–” and she hesitated.
“That’s good of you, Alida,” he replied gratefully. Then, with his directness of speech, he added, “I believe some women are inclined to be jealous even of the dead.”
“You need never fear to speak of your wife to me. I respect and honor your feelings–the way you remember her. There’s no reason why it should be otherwise. I did not agree to one thing and expect another,” and she looked him straight in the eyes.
He dropped them, as he stood leaning against the bin in the shadowy old barn, and said, “I didn’t think you or anyone would be so sensible. Of course, one can’t forget quickly–”
“You oughtn’t to forget,” was the firm reply. “Why should you? I should be sorry to think you could forget.”
“I fear I’m not like to make you sorry,” he replied, sighing. “To tell you the truth–” he added, looking at her almost commiseratingly, and then he hesitated.
“Well, the truth is usually best,” she said quietly.
“Well, I’ll tell you my thought. We married in haste, we were almost strangers, and your mind was so distracted at the time that I couldn’t blame you if you forgot what–what I said. I feared–well, you are carrying out our agreement so sensibly that I want to thank you. It’s a relief to find that you’re not opposed, even in your heart, that I should remember one that I knew as a little child and married when I was young.”
“I remember all you said and what I said,” she replied, with the same direct, honest gaze. “Don’t let such thoughts trouble you any more. You’ve been kinder and more considerate than I ever expected. You have only to tell me how she did–”
“No, Alida,” he said quietly, obeying a subtle impulse. “I’d rather you would do everything your own way–as it’s natural for you. There, we’ve talked so long that it’s too late to feed the chickens tonight. You can begin in the morning.”
“Oh!” she cried, “and you have all your other work to do. I’ve hindered rather than helped you by coming out.”
“No,” he replied decidedly, “you’ve helped me. I’ll be in before very long.”
She returned to the house and busied herself in preparations for supper. She was very thoughtful, and at last concluded: “Yes, he is right. I understand. Although I may do WHAT his wife did, he don’t wish me to do it AS she did. There could only be a partial and painful resemblance to his eyes. Both he and I would suffer in comparisons, and he be continually reminded of his loss. She was his wife in reality, and all relating to her is something sacred and past to him. The less I am like her, the better. He married me for the sake of his farm, and I can best satisfy him by carrying out his purpose in my own way. He’s through with sentiment and has taken the kindest way he could to tell me that I’ve nothing to do with his past. He feared, yes, he FEARED, I should forget our businesslike agreement! I didn’t know I had given him cause to fear; I certainly won’t hereafter!” and the wife felt, with a trace of bitterness and shame, that she had been put on her guard; that her husband had wished to remind her that she must not forget his motive in marrying her, or expect anything not in consonance with that motive. Perhaps she had been too wifelike in her manner, and therefore he had feared. She was as sensitive to such a reproach as she would have been in her girlhood.
For once her intuition was at fault, and she misjudged Holcroft in some respects. He did think he was through with sentiment; he could not have talked deliberately to Alida or to any other about his old life and love, and he truly felt that she had no part in that life. It had become a sad and sacred memory, yet he wished to feel that he had the right to dwell upon it as he chose. In his downright sincerity he wished her to know that he could not help dwelling on it; that for him some things were over, and that he was not to blame. He was profoundly grateful to her that she had so clearly accepted the facts of his past, and of their own present relations. He HAD feared, it is true, but she had not realized his fears, and he felt that it was her due that he should acknowledge her straightforward carrying out of the compact made under circumstances which might well excuse her from realizing everything fully.
Moreover, direct and matter of fact as he was, he had felt vaguely the inevitable difficulties of their relationship. The very word “wife” might suggest to her mind an affection which he believed it was not in his power to bestow. They had agreed to give an arbitrary and unusual meaning to their marriage, and, while thinking it could have no other meaning for him, his mind was haunted, and he feared that hers might be, by the natural significance of the rite. So far from meaning to hint that she had been too wifelike, he had meant to acknowledge her simple and natural fulfillment of his wishes in a position far more difficult to fill than even he imagined. That she succeeded so well was due to the fact that she entertained for him all the kind feelings possible except the one supreme regard which, under ordinary circumstances, would have accounted for the marriage. The reason that all promised to go so well in their relationship of mere mutual help was the truth that this basis of union had satisfied their mutual need. As the farmer had hoped, they had become excellent friends, supplementing each other’s work in a way that
Without the least intention on the part of either, chance words had been spoken which would not be without effect. He had told her to do everything in her own way because the moment he thought of it he knew he liked her ways. They possessed a novelty and natural grace which interested him. There are both a natural and a conventional grace, and the true lady learns to blend the one with the other so as to make a charming manner essentially her own–a manner which makes a woman a lady the world over. Alida had little more than natural grace and refinement, unmodified by society. This the plain farmer could understand, and he was already awakening to an appreciation of it. It impressed him agreeably that Alida should be trim and neat while about her work, and that all her actions were entirely free from the coarse, slovenly manner, the limp carriage, and slatternly aspect of the whole tribe which had come and gone during the past year. They had all been so much alike in possessing disagreeable traits that he felt that Alida was the only peculiar one among them. He never thought of instituting comparisons between her and his former wife, yet he did so unconsciously. Mrs. Holcroft had been too much like himself, matter of fact, materialistic, kind, and good. Devoid of imagination, uneducated in mind, her thoughts had not ranged far from what she touched and saw. She touched them with something of their own heaviness, she saw them as objects–just what they were–and was incapable of obtaining from them much suggestion or enjoyment. She knew when the cherry and plum trees were in blossom just as she knew it was April. The beautiful sounds and changes in nature reminded her that it was time to do certain kinds of work, and with her, work was alpha and omega. As her mother had before her, she was inclined to be a house drudge rather than a housewife. Thrift, neatness, order, marked the limits of her endeavor, and she accomplished her tasks with the awkward, brisk directness learned in her mother’s kitchen. Only mind, imagination, and refinement can embroider the homely details of life. Alida would learn to do all that she had done, but the woman with a finer nature would do it in a different way. Holcroft already knew he liked this way although he could not define it to himself. Tired as he was when he came home in the evening, his eyes would often kindle with pleasure at some action or remark that interested him from its novelty. In spite of his weariness and preoccupation, , in spite of a still greater obstacle–the inertia of a mind dulled by material life–he had begun to consider Alida’s personality for its own sake. He liked to watch her, not to see what she did to his advantage, but how she did it. She was awakening an agreeable expectancy, and he sometimes smilingly said to himself, “What’s next?”
“Oh, no!” he thought as he was milking the last cow, “I’d much rather she’d take her own natural way in doing things. It would be easier for her and it’s her right and–and somehow I like her way just as I used to like Bessie’s ways. She isn’t Bessie and never can be, and for some reason I’d like her to be as different as possible.”
Unconsciously and unintentionally, however, he had given Alida’s sensitive
nature a slight wound. She felt that she had been told in effect, “You can help me all you please, and I would rather you would do this in a way that will not awaken associations, but you must not think of me or expect me to think of you in any light that was not agreed upon.” That he had feared the possibility of this, that he might have fancied he saw indications of this, hurt her pride–that pride and delicacy of feeling which most women shield so instinctively. She was now consciously on her guard, and so was not so secure against the thoughts she deprecated as before. In spite of herself, a restraint would tinge her manner which he would eventually feel in a vague, uncomfortable way.
But he came in at last, very tired and thoroughly good-natured. “I’m going to town tomorrow,” he said, “and I thought of taking a very early start so as to save time. Would you like to go?”
“There’s no need of my going.”
“I thought perhaps you’d enjoy the drive.”
“I would have to meet strangers and I’m so entirely content in being alone–I won’t go this time unless you wish it.”
“Well, if you don’t care about it, I’ll carry out my first plan and take a very early start. I want to sell the butter and eggs on hand, repay Tom Watterly, and get some seeds. We need some things from the store, too, I suppose?”
“Yes, you are such a coffee drinker–” she began, smiling.
“Oh, I know!” he interrupted. “Make out your list. You shall say what we want. Isn’t there something you want for yourself?”
“No, not for myself, but I do want something that perhaps you would enjoy, too. You may think it a waste of money, though.”
“Well, you’ve a right to waste some in your way as well as I have over my pipe.”
“That’s good. I hadn’t thought of that. You are the one that puts notions into my head. I would like three or four geraniums and a few flower seeds.”
He looked as if he was thinking deeply and she felt a little hurt that he should not comply at once with her request, knowing that the outlay suggested was very slight.
At last he looked up, smiling as he said, “So I put notions into your head, do I?”
“Oh, well,” she replied, flushing in the consciousness of her thoughts, “if you think it’s foolish to spend money for such things–”
“Tush, tush, Alida! Of course I’ll get what you wish. But I really am going to put a notion into your head, and it’s stupid and scarcely fair in me that I hadn’t thought of some such plan before. You want to take care of the chickens. Well, I put them wholly in your care and you shall have all you can make off them–eggs, young chickens, and everything.”
“That IS a new notion,” she replied, laughing. “I hadn’t thought of such a thing and it’s more than fair. What would I do with so much money?”
“What you please. Buy yourself silk dresses if you want to.”
“But I couldn’t use a quarter of the money.”
“No matter, use what you like and I’ll put the rest in the bank for you and in your name. I was a nice kind of a business partner, wasn’t I? Expecting you to do nearly half the work and then have you say, ‘Will you please get me a few plants and seeds?’ and then, ‘Oh! If you think it’s foolish to spend money for such things.’ Why, you have as good a right to spend some of the money you help earn as I have. You’ve shown you’ll be sensible in spending it. I don’t believe you’ll use enough of it. Anyway, it will be yours, as it ought to be.”
“Very well,” she replied, nodding at him with piquant significance, “I’ll always have some to lend you.”
“Yes, shouldn’t wonder if you were the richest some day. Everything you touch seems to turn out well. I shall be wholly dependent on you hereafter for eggs and an occasional fricassee.”
“You shall have your share. Yes, I like this notion. It grows on me. I’d like to earn some money to do what I please with. You’ll be surprised to see what strange and extravagant tastes I’ll develop!”
“I expect to be perfectly dumfoundered, as Mrs. Mumpson used to say. Since you are so willing to lend, I’ll lend you enough to get all you want tomorrow. Make out your list. You can get a good start tomorrow for I was too tired and it was too late for me to gather the eggs tonight. I know, too, that a good many of the hens have stolen their nests of late, and I’ve been too busy to look for ’em. You may find perfect mines of eggs, but, for mercy’s sake! don’t climb around in dangerous places. I had such bad luck with chicks last year that I’ve only set a few hens. You can set few or many now, just as you please.”
Even as he talked and leisurely finished his supper, his eyes grew heavy with sleep. “What time will you start tomorrow?” she asked.
“Oh, no matter; long before you are up or ought to be. I’ll get myself a cup of coffee. I expect to do my morning work and be back by nine or ten o’clock for I wish to get in some potatoes and other vegetables before Sunday.”
“Very well, I’ll make out my list and lay it on the table here. Now, why don’t you go and sleep at once? You ought, with such an early start in prospect.”
“Ought I? Well, I never felt more inclined to do my duty. You must own up I have put one good notion into your head?”
“I have said nothing against any of them. Come, you ought to go at once.”
“Can’t I smoke my pipe first please?”
“You’ll find it quieter in the parlor.”
“But it’s pleasanter here where I can watch you.”
“Do you think I need watching?”
“Yes, a little, since you don’t look after your own interests very sharply.”
“It isn’t my way to look after anything very sharply.”
“No, Alida, thank the Lord! There’s nothing sharp about you, not even your tongue. You won’t mind being left alone a few hours tomorrow?”
“No, indeed, I like to be alone.”
“I thought I did. Most everyone has seemed a crowd to me. I’m glad you’ve never given me that feeling. Well, goodbye till you see me driving up with the geraniums.”
Chapter XXV. A Charivari
The eastern horizon was aglow with rosy tints the following morning when Holcroft awoke; the stars were but just fading from the sky and the birds were still silent. He knew by these signs that it was very early and that he could carry out his plan of a timely start to town. Dressing very quietly, he stole downstairs, shoes in hand, lest his tread should awaken Alida. The kitchen door leading into the hall was closed. Lifting the latch carefully, he found the lamp burning, the breakfast table set, and the kettle humming over a good fire. “This is her work, but where is she?” he queried in much surprise.
The outer door was ajar; he noiselessly crossed the room, and looking out, he
saw her. She had been to the well for a pail of water, but had set it down and was watching the swiftly brightening east. She was so still and her face so white in the faint radiance that he had an odd, uncanny impression. No woman that he had ever known would stop that way to look at the dawn. He could see nothing so peculiar in it as to attract such fixed attention. “Alida,” he asked, “what do you see?”
She started slightly and turned to take up the pail; but he had already sprung down the steps and relieved her of the burden.
“Could anything be more lovely than those changing tints? It seems to me I could have stood there an hour,” she said quietly.
“You are not walking or doing all this in your sleep, are you?” he asked, laughing, yet regarding her curiously. “You looked as you stood there like what people call a–what’s that big word?”
“I’m not a somnambulist and never was, to my knowledge. You’ll find I’m wide enough awake to have a good breakfast soon.”
“But I didn’t expect you to get up so early. I didn’t wish it.”
“It’s too late now,” she said pleasantly, “so I hope you won’t find fault with me for doing what I wanted to do.”
“Did you mean to be up and have breakfast when I told you last night?”
“Yes. Of course I didn’t let you know for you would have said I mustn’t, and then I couldn’t. It isn’t good for people to get up so early and do as much as you had on your mind without eating. Now you won’t be any the worse for it.”
“I certainly ought to be the better for so much kindly consideration; but it will cure me of such unearthly hours if you feel that you must conform to them. You look pale this morning, Alida; you’re not strong enough to do such things, and there’s no need of it when I’m so used to waiting on myself.”
“I shall have to remind you,” she replied with a bright look at him over her shoulder, “that you said I could do things my own way.”
“Well, it seems odd after a year when everyone who came here appeared to grudge doing a thing for a man’s comfort.”
“I should hope I was different from them.”
“Well, you are. I thought you were different from anyone I ever knew as I saw you there looking at the east. You seem wonderfully fond of pretty things.”
“I’ll own to that. But if you don’t hurry you won’t do as much as you hoped by getting up early.”
The morning was very mild, and she left the outer door open as she went quickly to and fro with elasticity of spirit as well as step. It was pleasant to have her efforts appreciated and almost as grateful to hear the swelling harmony of song from the awakening birds. The slight cloud that had fallen on her thoughts the evening before had lifted. She felt that she understood Holcroft better, and saw that his feeling was only that of honest friendliness and satisfaction. She had merely to recognize and respond to so much only and all would be well. Meantime, she desired nothing more, and he should be thoroughly convinced of this fact. She grew positively light-hearted over the fuller assurance of the truth that although a wife, she was not expected to love–only to be faithful to all his interests. This, and this only, she believed to be within her power.
Holcroft departed in the serenity characteristic of one’s mood when the present is so agreeable that neither memories of the past nor misgivings as to the future are obtrusive. He met Watterly in town, and remarked, “This is another piece of good luck. I hadn’t time to go out to your place, although I meant to take time.”
“A piece of good luck indeed!” Tom mentally echoed, for he would have been greatly embarrassed if Holcroft had called. Mrs. Watterly felt that she had been scandalized by the marriage which had taken place in her absence, and was all the more resentful for the reason that she had spoken to a cousin of uncertain age and still more uncertain temper in behalf of the farmer. In Mrs. Watterly’s estimate of action, it was either right, that is, in accordance with her views, or else it was intolerably wrong and without excuse. Poor Tom had been made to feel that he had not only committed an almost unpardonable sin against his wife and her cousin, but also against all the proprieties of life. “The idea of such a wedding taking place in my rooms and with my husband’s sanction!” she had said with concentrated bitterness. Then had followed what he was accustomed to characterize as a spell of “zero weather.” He discreetly said nothing. “It didn’t seem such a bad idea to me,” he thought, “but then I suppose women folks know best about such things.”
He was too frank in his nature to conceal from Holcroft his misgivings or his wife’s scornful and indignant disapproval. “Sorry Angy feels so bad about it, Jim,” he said ruefully, “but she says I mustn’t buy anything more of you.”
“Or have anything more to do with me, I suppose?”
“Oh, come now! You know a man’s got to let his women-folks have their say about household matters, but that don’t make any difference in my feelings toward you.”
“Well, well, Tom! If it did, I should be slow to quarrel with a man who had
done me as good a turn as you have. Thank the Lord! I’ve got a wife that’ll let me have some say about household and all other matters. You, too, are inclined to think that I’m in an awful scrape. I feel less like getting out of it every day. My wife is as respectable as I am and a good sight better than I am. If I’m no longer respectable for having married her, I certainly am better contented than I ever expected to be again. I want it understood, though, that the man who says anything against my wife may have to get me arrested for assault and battery.”
“When it comes to that, Jim,” replied Watterly, who was meek only in the presence of his wife, “I’d just as lief speak against her as wink if there was anything to say. But I say now, as I said to you at first, she aint one of the common sort. I thought well of her at first, and I think better of her now since she’s doing so well by you. But I suppose marrying a woman situated as she was isn’t according to regulation. We men are apt to act like the boys we used to be and go for what we want without thinking of the consequences.”
“It’s the consequences that please me most. If you had been dependent on Mumpson, Malonys, and Wigginses for your home comfort you wouldn’t worry about the talk of people who’d never raise a finger for you. Well, goodbye, I’m in a hurry. Your heart’s in the right place, Tom, and some day you’ll come out and take dinner with me. One dinner, such as she’ll give you, will bring you round. One of our steady dishes is a bunch of flowers and I enjoy ’em, too. What do you think of that for a hard-headed old fellow like me?”
Some men are chilled by public disapproval and waver under it, but Holcroft was thereby only the more strongly confirmed in his course. Alida had won his esteem as well as his good will, and it was the instinct of his manhood to protect and champion her. He bought twice as many flowers and seeds as she had asked for, and also selected two simple flower vases; then started on his return with the feeling that he had a home.
Alida entered upon her duties to the poultry with almost the pleasure of a child. She first fed them, then explored every accessible nook and hiding place in the barn and outbuildings. It was evident that many of the biddies had stolen their nests, and some were brooding upon them with no disposition to be disturbed. Out of the hundred or more fowls on the place, a good many were clucking their maternal instincts, and their new keeper resolved to put eggs under all except the flighty ones that left their nests within two or three days’ trial. As the result of her search, the empty egg basket was in a fair way to be full again very soon. She gloated over her spoils as she smilingly assured herself, “I shall take him at his word. I shall spend nearly all I make this year in fixing up the old house within and without, so he’ll scarcely know it.”
It was eleven o’clock before Holcroft drove to the door with the flowers, and he was amply repaid by her pleasure in receiving them. “Why, I only expected geraniums,” she said, “and you’ve bought half a dozen other kinds.”
“And I expected to get my own coffee this morning and a good breakfast was given me instead, so we are quits.”
“You’re probably ready for your dinner now, if it is an hour earlier than usual. It will be ready in ten minutes.”
“Famous! That will give me a good long afternoon. I say, Alida, when do you want the flower beds made?”
“No hurry about them. I shall keep the plants in the window for a week or two. It isn’t safe to put them outdoors before the last of May. I’ll have some slips ready by that time.”
“Yes, I know. You’ll soon have enough to set out an acre.”
The days of another week passed quietly and rapidly away, Alida becoming almost as much absorbed in her interests as he in his. Every hour added to the beauty of the season without. The unplowed fields were taking on a vivid green, and Holcroft said that on the following Monday the cows should go out to pasture. Wholesome, agreeable occupation enabled Alida to put away sad thoughts and memories. Nature and pleasant work are two potent healers, and she was rallying fast under their ministry. Holcroft would have been blind indeed had he not observed changes for the better. Her thin cheeks were becoming fuller, and her exertions, with the increasing warmth of the season, often flushed her face with a charming color. The old sad and troubled expression was passing away from her blue eyes. Every day it seemed easier for her to laugh, and her step grew more elastic. It was all so gradual that he never questioned it, but his eyes followed her with increasing pleasure and he listened, when she spoke, with deepening interest. Sundays had been long and rather dreary days, but now he positively welcomed their coming and looked forward to the hours when, instead of brooding over the past, he should listen to her pleasant voice reading his few and neglected books. There was a new atmosphere in his home–a new influence, under which his mind was awakening in spite of his weariness and absorption in the interests of the farm. Alida was always ready to talk about these, and her questions would soon enable her to talk understandingly. She displayed ignorance enough, and this amused him, but her queries evinced no stupidity. In reading to her father and in the cultivation of flowers, she had obtained hints of vital horticultural principles, and Holcroft said to her laughingly one evening at supper, “You’ll soon learn all I know and begin to teach me.”
Her manner of deprecating such remarks was to exaggerate them and she replied, “Yes, next week you will sell my eggs and I shall subscribe for the agricultural paper my father used to take. Then will begin all the improvements of book-farming. I shall advise you to sow oats in June, plant corn in March, and show you generally that all your experience counts for nothing.”
This kind of badinage was new to the farmer, and it amused him immensely. He did not grow sleepy so early in the evening, and as he was driving his work prosperously he shortened his hours of labor slightly. She also found time to read the county paper and gossip a little about the news, thus making a beginning in putting him and herself en rapport with other interests than those which centered in the farm. In brief, she had an active, intelligent mind and a companionable nature. Her boundless gratitude for her home, which daily grew more homelike, led her to employ all her tact in adding to his enjoyment. Yet so fine was her tact that her manner was a simple embodiment of good will, and he was made to feel that it was nothing more.
While all was passing so genially and satisfactorily to Holcroft, it may well be supposed that his conduct was not at all to the mind of his neighbors. News, especially during the busy spring season, permeates a country neighborhood slowly. The fact of his marriage had soon become known, and eventually, through Justice Harkins, the circumstances relating to it and something of Alida’s previous history, in a garbled form, came to be discussed at rural firesides. The majority of the men laughed and shrugged their shoulders, implying it was none of their business, but not a few, among whom was Lemuel Weeks, held up their hands and spoke of the event in terms of the severest reprehension. Many of the farmers’ wives and their maiden sisters were quite as much scandalized as Mrs. Watterly had been that an unknown woman, of whom strange stories were told, should have been brought into the community from the poorhouse, “and after such a heathenish marriage, too,” they said. It was irregular, unprecedented, and therefore utterly wrong and subversive of the morals of the town.
They longed to ostracize poor Alida, yet saw no chance of doing so. They could only talk, and talk they did, in a way that would have made her ears tingle had she heard.
The young men and older boys, however, believed that they could do more than talk. Timothy Weeks had said to a group of his familiars, “Let’s give old Holcroft and his poorhouse bride a skimelton that will let ’em know what folks think of ’em.”
The scheme found favor at once, and Tim Weeks was soon recognized as organizer and leader of the peculiar style of serenade contemplated. After his day’s work was over, he rode here and there summoning congenial spirits. The project soon became pretty well known in several families, but the elder members remained discreetly blind and deaf, proposing to wink at what was going on, yet take no compromising part themselves. Lemuel Weeks winked very knowingly and suggestively. He kept within such bounds, however, as would enable him to swear that he knew nothing and had said nothing, but his son had never felt more assured of his father’s sympathy. When at last the motley gathering rendezvoused at Tim’s house, Weeks, senior, was conveniently making a call on a near neighbor.
It was Saturday evening, and the young May moon would furnish sufficient light without revealing identity too clearly. About a score of young fellows and hired farm-hands of the ruder sort came riding and trudging to Weeks’ barn, where there was a barrel of cider on tap. Here they blackened their faces with charcoal and stimulated their courage, for it was well known that Holcroft was anything but lamblike when angered.
“He’ll be like a bull in a china shop,” remarked Tim, “but then there’s enough of us to handle him if he gets too obstrep’rous.”
Armed with tin pans and horns which were to furnish the accompaniment to their discordant voices, they started about eight in the evening. As they moved up the road there was a good deal of coarse jesting and bravado, but when they approached the farmhouse silence was enjoined. After passing up the lane they looked rather nervously at the quiet dwelling softly outlined in the moonlight. A lamp illumined the kitchen window, and Tim Weeks whispered excitedly, “He’s there. Let’s first peek in the window and then give ’em a scorcher.”
Knowing that they should have the coming day in which to rest, Holcroft and Alida had busied themselves with outdoor matters until late. She had been planning her flower beds, cutting out the dead wood from some neglected rosebushes and shrubbery, and had also helped her husband by sowing seed in the kitchen garden back of the house. Then, weary, yet pleased with the labor accomplished, they made a very leisurely supper, talking over garden matters and farm prospects in general. Alida had all her flower seeds on the table beside her, and she gloated over them and expatiated on the kind of blossoms they would produce with so much zest that Holcroft laughingly remarked, “I never thought that flowers would be one of the most important crops on the place.”
“You will think so some day. I can see, from the expression of your eyes, that the cherry blossoms and now the apple blows which I put on the table please you almost as much as the fruit would.”
“Well, it’s because I notice ’em. I never seemed to notice ’em much before.”
“Oh, no! It’s more than that,” she replied, shaking her head. “Some people would notice them, yet never see how pretty they were.”
“Then they’d be blind as moles.”
“The worst kind of blindness is that of the mind.”
“Well, I think many country people are as stupid and blind as oxen, and I was one of ’em. I’ve seen more cherry and apple blossoms this year than in all my life before, and I haven’t thought only of cherries and apples either.”
“The habit of seeing what is pretty grows on one,” she resumed. “It seems to me that flowers and such things feed mind and heart. So if one HAS mind and heart, flowers become one of the most useful crops. Isn’t that practical common sense?”
“Not very common in Oakville. I’m glad you think I’m in a hopeful frame of mind, as they used to say down at the meeting house. Anyhow, since you wish it, we will have a flower crop as well as a potato crop.”
Thus they continued chatting while Alida cleared up the table, and Holcroft, having lighted his pipe, busied himself with peeling a long, slim hickory sapling intended for a whipstock.
Having finished her tasks, Alida was finally drying her hands on a towel that hung near a window. Suddenly, she caught sight of a dark face peering in. Her startled cry brought Holcroft hastily to his feet. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I saw–” Then she hesitated from a fear that he would rush into some unknown danger.
The rough crew without perceived that their presence was known, and Tim Weeks cried, “Now, all together!”
A frightful overture began at once, the hooting and yelling almost drowning the instrumental part and sending to Alida’s heart that awful chill of fear produced by human voices in any mob-like assemblage. Holcroft understood the affair at once, for he was familiar with the custom, but she did not. He threw open the door with the purpose of sternly expostulating with the disturbers of the peace and of threatening them with the law unless they retired. With an instinct to share his danger she stepped to his side, and this brought a yell of derision. Lurid thoughts swept through her mind. She had brought this danger. Her story had become known. What might they not do to Holcroft? Under the impulse of vague terror and complete self-sacrifice, she stepped forward and cried, “I only am to blame. I will go away forever if you will spare–” But again the scornful clamor rose and drowned her voice.
Her action and words had been so swift that Holcroft could not interfere, but in an instant he was at her side, his arm around her, his square jaw set, and his eyes blazing with his kindling anger. He was not one of those men who fume early under provocation and in words chiefly. His manner and gesture were so impressive that his tormentors paused to listen.
“I know,” he said quietly, “all about this old, rude custom–that it’s often little more than a rough lark. Well, now that you’ve had it, leave at once. I’m in no mood for such attention from my neighbors. This is my wife, and I’ll break any man’s head who says a word to hurt her feelings–”
“Oh yes! Take care of her feelings, now it’s your turn. They must ‘a’ been hurt before,” piped up Tim Weeks.
“Good for you, old man, for showin’ us your poorhouse bride,” said another.
“We don’t fancy such grass-widders, and much married, half-married women in Oakville,” yelled a third.
“Why didn’t yer jump over a broomstick for a weddin’ ceremony?” someone else bawled.
These insults were fired almost in a volley. Alida felt Holcroft’s arm grow rigid for a second. “Go in, quick!” he said.
Then she saw him seize the hickory sapling he had leaned against the house, and burst upon the group like a thunderbolt. Cries of pain, yells, and oaths of rage rose above the rain of blows. The older members of the crew sought to close upon him, but he sprung back, and the tough sapling swept about him like a circle of light. It was a terrific weapon in the hands of a strong man, now possessed of almost giant strength in his rage. More than one fellow went down under its stinging cut, and heads and faces were bleeding. The younger portion of the crowd speedily took to their heels, and soon even the most stubborn fled; the farmer vigorously assisting their ignominious retreat with tremendous downward blows on any within reach. Tim Weeks had managed to keep out of the way till they entered the lane; then, taking a small stone from the fence, he hurled it at their pursuer and attempted to jump over the wall. This was old, and gave way under him in such a way that he fell on the other side. Holcroft leaped the fence with a bound, but Tim, lying on his back, shrieked and held up his hands, “You won’t hit a feller when he’s down!”
“No,” said Holcroft, arresting his hickory. “I’ll send you to jail, Tim Weeks. That stone you fired cut my head. Was your father in that crowd?”
“No-o-o!” blubbered Tim.
“If he was, I’d follow him home and whip him in his own house. Now, clear out, and tell the rest of your rowdy crew that I’ll shoot the first one of you that disturbs me again. I’ll send the constable for you, and maybe for some of the others.”
Dire was the dismay, and dreadful the groaning in Oakville that night. Never before had salves and poultices been in such demand. Not a few would be disfigured for weeks, and wherever Holcroft’s blows had fallen welts arose like whipcords. In Lemuel Weeks’ dwelling the consternation reached its climax. Tim, bruised from his fall, limped in and told his portentous story. In his spite, he added, “I don’t care, I hit him hard. His face was all bloody.”
“All bloody!” groaned his father. “Lord ‘a mercy! He can send you to jail, sure enough!”
Then Mrs. Weeks sat down and wailed aloud.
Chapter XXVI. “You Don’t Know.”
As Timothy Weeks limped hastily away, Holcroft, with a strong revulsion of feeling, thought of Alida. HE had been able to answer insults in a way eminently satisfactory to himself, and every blow had relieved his electrical condition. But how about the poor woman who had received worse blows than he had inflicted? As he hastened toward the house he recalled a dim impression of seeing her sink down on the doorstep. Then he remembered her effort to face the marauders alone. “She said she was to blame, poor child! As if there were any blame at all! She said, ‘spare him,’ as if I was facing a band of murderers instead of a lot of neighborhood scamps, and that she’d go away. I’d fight all Oakville–men, women, and children–before I’d permit that,” and he started on a run.
He found Alida on the step, where she had sunk as if struck down by the rough epithets hurled at her. She was sobbing violently, almost hysterically, and at first could not reply to his soothing words. He lifted her up, and half carried her within to a chair. “Oh, oh,” she cried, “why did I not realize it more fully before? Selfish woman that I was, to marry you and bring on you all this shame and danger. I should have thought of it all, I ought to have died rather than do you such a wrong.”
“Alida, Alida,” protested Holcroft, “if it were all to do over again, I’d be a thousand times more–”
“Oh, I know, I know! You are brave and generous and honest. I saw that much when you first spoke to me. I yielded to the temptation to secure such a friend. I was too cowardly to face the world alone. And now see what’s happened! You’re in danger and disgrace on my account. I must go away–I must do what I should have done at first,” and with her face buried in her hands she rocked back and forth, overwhelmed by the bitterness and reproach of her thoughts.
“Alida,” he urged, “please be calm and sensible. Let me reason with you and tell you the truth. All that’s happened is that the Oakville cubs have received a well-deserved whipping. When you get calm, I can explain everything so it won’t seem half so bad. Neither you nor I are in any danger, and, as for your going away, look me in the eyes and listen.”
His words were almost stern in their earnestness. She raised her streaming eyes to his face, then sprung up, exclaiming, “Oh! You’re wounded!”
“What’s that, compared with your talk of going away?”
All explanations and reassurances would have been trivial in effect, compared with the truth that he had been hurt in her defense. She dashed her tears right and left, ran for a basin of water, and making him take her chair, began washing away the blood stains.
“Thunder!” he said, laughing, “How quickly we’ve changed places!”
“Oh, oh!” she moaned, “It’s a terrible wound; it might have killed you, and they WILL kill you yet.”
He took her hands and held them firmly. “Alida,” he said, gravely yet kindly, “be still and listen to me.”
For a moment or two longer her bosom heaved with convulsive sobs, and then she grew quiet. “Don’t you know you can’t go away?” he asked, still retaining her hands and looking in her face.
“I could for your sake,” she began.
“No, it wouldn’t be for my sake. I don’t wish you to go, and wouldn’t let you. If you should let the Oakville rabble drive you away, I WOULD be in danger, and so would others, for I’d be worse on ’em than an earthquake. After the lesson they’ve had tonight, they’ll let us alone, and I’ll let them alone. You know I’ve tried to be honest with you from the first. Believe me, then, the trouble’s over unless we make more for ourselves. Now, promise you’ll do as I say and let me manage.”
“I’ll try,” she breathed softly.
“No, no! That won’t do. I’m beginning to find you out. You may get some foolish, self-sacrificing notion in your head that it would be best for me, when it would be my ruination. Will you promise?”
“Famous! Now you can bathe my head all you please for it feels a little queer.”
“It’s an awful wound,” she said in tones of the deepest sympathy. “Oh, I’m so sorry!”
“Pshaw! My head is too hard for that little scamp of a Weeks to break. His turn’ll come next.”
She cut away the blood-clotted hair and bound up the rather severe scalp wound
with a tenderness and sympathy that expressed itself even in her touch. She was too confused and excited to be conscious of herself, but she had received some tremendously strong impressions. Chief among them was the truth that nothing which had happened made any difference in him–that he was still the same loyal friend, standing between her and the world she dreaded–yes, between her and her own impulses toward self-sacrifice. Sweetest of all was the assurance that he did this for his own sake as well as hers. These facts seemed like a foothold in the mad torrent of feeling and shame which had been sweeping her away. She could think of little more than that she was safe–safe because he was brave and loyal–and yes, safe because he wanted her and would not give her up. The heart of a woman must be callous indeed, and her nature not only trivial but stony if she is not deeply touched under circumstances like these.
In spite of his laughing contempt of danger, she trembled as she saw him ready to go out again; she wished to accompany him on his round of observation, but he scouted the idea, although it pleased him. Standing in the door, she strained her eyes and listened breathlessly. He soon returned and said, “They’ve all had enough. We won’t be disturbed again.”
He saw that her nerves needed quieting, and he set about the task with such simple tact as he possessed. His first step was to light his pipe in the most nonchalant manner, and then he burst out laughing. “I’ll hang that hickory up. It has done too good service to be put to common use again. Probably you never heard of a skimelton, Alida. Well, they are not so uncommon in this region. I suppose I’ll have to own up to taking part in one myself when I was a young chap. They usually are only rough larks and are taken good-naturedly. I’m not on jesting terms with my neighbors, and they had no business to come here, but I wouldn’t have made any row if they hadn’t insulted you.”
Her head bowed very low as she faltered, “They’ve heard everything.”
He came right to her and took her hand. “Didn’t I hear everything before they did?”
“Well, Alida, I’m not only satisfied with you, but I’m very grateful to you. Why shouldn’t I be when you are a good Christian woman? I guess I’m the one to be suited, not Oakville. I should be as reckless as the devil if you should go away from me. Don’t I act like a man who’s ready to stand up for and protect you?”
“Yes, too ready. It would kill me if anything happened to you on my account.”
“Well, the worst would happen,” he said firmly, “if we don’t go right on as we’ve begun. If we go quietly on about our own affairs, we’ll soon be let alone and that’s all we ask.”
“Yes, yes indeed! Don’t worry, James. I’ll do as you wish.”
“Famous! You never said ‘James’ to me before. Why haven’t you?”
“I don’t know,” she faltered, with a sudden rush of color to her pale face.
“Well, that’s my name,” he resumed, laughing. “I guess it’s because we are getting better acquainted.
She looked up and said impetuously, “You don’t know how a woman feels when a man stands up for her as you did tonight.”
“Well, I know how a man feels when there is a woman so well worth standing up for. It was a lucky thing that I had nothing heavier in my hand than that hickory.” All the while he was looking at her curiously; then he spoke his thought. “You’re a quiet little woman, Alida, most times, but you’re capable of a thunder gust now and then.”
“I’ll try to be quiet at all times,” she replied, with drooping eyes.
“Oh, I’m not complaining!” he said, laughing. “I like the trait.”
He took a small pitcher and went to the dairy. Returning, he poured out two glasses of milk and said, “Here’s to your health and happiness, Alida; and when I don’t stand up for the woman who started out to save me from a mob of murderers, may the next thing I eat or drink choke me. You didn’t know they were merely a lot of Oakville boys, did you?”
“You can’t make so light of it,” said she. “They tried to close on you, and if that stone had struck you on the temple, it might have killed you. They swore like pirates, and looked like ruffians with their blackened faces. They certainly were not boys in appearance.”
“I’m afraid I swore too,” he said sadly.
“You had some excuse, but I’m sorry. They would have hurt you if you hadn’t kept them off.”
“Yes, they’d probably have given me a beating. People do things in hot blood they wish they hadn’t afterward. I know this Oakville rough-scuff. Since we’ve had it out, and they know what to expect, they’ll give me a wide berth. Now go and sleep. You were never safer in your life.”
She did not trust herself to reply, but the glance she gave him from her tearful eyes was so eloquent with grateful feeling that he was suddenly conscious of some unwonted sensations. He again patrolled the place and tied the dog near the barn.
“It’s barely possible that some of these mean cusses might venture to kindle a fire, but a bark from Towser will warn ’em off. She IS a spirited little woman,” he added, with a sharp change in soliloquy. “There’s nothing milk-and-water about her. Thunder! I felt like kissing her when she looked at me so. I guess that crack on my skull has made me a little light-headed.”
He lay down in his clothes so that he might rush out in case of any alarm, and he intended to keep awake. Then, the first thing he knew, the sun was shining in the windows.
It was long before Alida slept, and the burden of her thoughts confirmed the words that she had spoken so involuntarily. “You don’t know how a woman feels when a man stands up for her as you did.” It is the nature of her sex to adore hardy, courageous manhood. Beyond all power of expression, Alida felt her need of a champion and protector. She was capable of going away for his sake, but she would go in terror and despair. The words that had smitten her confirmed all her old fears of facing the world alone. Then came the overpowering thought of his loyalty and kindness, of his utter and almost fierce repugnance to the idea of her leaving him. In contrast with the man who had deceived and wronged her, Holcroft’s course overwhelmed her very soul with a passion of grateful affection. A new emotion, unlike anything she had ever known, thrilled her heart and covered her face with blushes. “I could die for him!” she murmured.
She awoke late in the morning. When at last she entered the kitchen she stopped in deep chagrin, for Holcroft had almost completed preparations for breakfast. “Ha, ha!” he laughed, “turn about is fair play.”
“Well,” she sighed, “there’s no use of making excuses now.”
“There’s no occasion for any. Did you ever see such a looking case as I am with this bandage around my head?”
“Does it pain you?” she asked sympathetically.
“Well, it does. It pains like thunder.”
“The wound needs dressing again. Let me cleanse and bind it up.”
“Yes, after breakfast.”
“No, indeed; now. I couldn’t eat my breakfast while you were suffering so.”
“I’m more unfeeling then than you are, for I could.”
She insisted on having her way, and then tore up her handkerchief to supply a soft linen bandage.
“You’re extravagant, Alida,” but she only shook her head.
“Famous! That feels better. What a touch you have! Now, if you had a broken head, my fingers would be like a pair of tongs.”
She only shook her head and smiled.
“You’re as bad as Jane used to be. She never said a word when she could shake or nod her meaning.”
“I should think you would be glad, after having been half talked to death by her mother.”
“As I said before, take your own way of doing things. It seems the right way after it is done.”
A faint color came into her face, and she looked positively happy as she sat down to breakfast. “Are you sure your head feels better?” she asked.
“Yes, and you look a hundred per cent better. Well, I AM glad you had such a good sleep after all the hubbub.”
“I didn’t sleep till toward morning,” she said, with downcast eyes.
“Pshaw! That’s too bad. Well, no matter, you look like a different person from what you did when I first saw you. You’ve been growing younger every day.”
Her face flushed like a girl’s under his direct, admiring gaze, making her all the more pretty. She hastened to divert direct attention from herself by asking, “You haven’t heard from anyone this morning?”
“No, but I guess the doctor has. Some of those fellows will have to keep shady for a while.”
As they were finishing breakfast, Holcroft looked out of the open kitchen door and exclaimed, “By thunder! We’re going to hear from some of them now. Here comes Mrs. Weeks, the mother of the fellow who hit me.”
“Won’t you please receive her in the parlor?”
“Yes, she won’t stay long, you may be sure. I’m going to give that Weeks tribe one lesson and pay off the whole score.”
He merely bowed coldly to Mrs. Weeks’ salutation and offered her a chair. The poor woman took out her handkerchief and began to mop her eyes, but Holcroft was steeled against her, not so much on account of the wound inflicted by her
son as for the reason that he saw in her an accomplice with her husband in the fraud of Mrs. Mumpson.
“I hope you’re not badly hurt,” she began.
“It might be worse.”
“Oh, Mr. Holcroft!” she broke out sobbingly, “spare my son. It would kill me if you sent him to prison.”
“He took the chance of killing me last night,” was the cold reply. “What’s far worse, he insulted my wife.”
“Oh, Mr. Holcroft! He was young and foolish; he didn’t realize–”
“Were you and your husband young and foolish,” he interrupted bitterly, “when you gulled me into employing that crazy cousin of yours?”
This retort was so overwhelming that Mrs. Weeks sobbed speechlessly.
Alida could not help overhearing the conversation, and she now glided into the room and stood by her husband’s side.
“James,” she said, “won’t you do me a favor, a great kindness?”
Mrs. Weeks raised her eyes and looked wonderingly at this dreadful woman, against whom all Oakville was talking.
“I know what you wish, Alida,” he replied sternly, “but I can’t do it. This is a case for justice. This woman’s son was the leader of that vile crowd that insulted you last night. I can forgive his injuring me, but not the words he used about you. Moreover, when I was alone and struggling to keep my home, Mrs. Weeks took part with her husband in imposing on me their fraud of a cousin and in tricking me out of honest money. Any woman with a heart in her breast would have tried to help a man situated as I was. No, it’s a clear case of justice, and her son shall go to jail.”
Mrs. Weeks wailed afresh at this final sentence. Holcroft was amazed to see his wife drop on her knees beside his chair. He raised her instantly. “Don’t do such a thing as that,” he said huskily.
Without removing her pleading eyes from his face she asked gently, “Who told us to forgive as we would be forgiven? James, I shall be very unhappy if you don’t grant this mother’s prayer.”
He tried to turn away, but she caught his hand and held his eyes with hers. “Alida,” he said in strong agitation, “you heard the vile, false words that Timothy Weeks said last night. They struck you down like a blow. Can you
“Yes, and I plead with you to forgive him. Grant me my wish, James; I shall be so much happier, and so will you.”
“Well, Mrs. Weeks, now you know what kind of a woman your son came to insult. You may tell your neighbors that there’s one Christian in Oakville. I yield to Mrs. Holcroft, and will take no further action in the affair if we are let alone.”
Mrs. Weeks was not a bad woman at heart, and she had received a wholesome lesson. She came and took Alida’s hand as she said, “Yes, you are a Christian–a better woman than I’ve been, but I aint so mean and bad but what, when I see my fault, I am sorry and can ask forgiveness. I do ask your forgiveness, Mr. Holcroft. I’ve been ashamed of myself ever since you brought my cousin back. I thought she would try, when she had the chance you gave her, but she seems to have no sense.”
“There, there! Let bygones be bygones,” said the farmer in embarrassment. “I’ve surrendered. Please don’t say anything more.”
“You’ve got a kind heart, in spite–”
“Oh, come now! Please quit, or I’ll begin to swear a little to keep up the reputation my neighbors have given me. Go home and tell Tim to brace up and try to be a man. When I say I’m done with a grudge, I AM done. You and Mrs. Holcroft can talk all you like, but please excuse me,” and with more than most men’s horror of a scene, he escaped precipitately.
“Sit down, Mrs. Weeks,” said Alida kindly.
“Well, I will. I can’t say much to excuse myself or my folks–”
“You’ve already said everything, Mrs. Weeks,” interrupted Alida gently; “you’ve said you are sorry.”
Mrs. Weeks stared a moment, and then resumed sententiously, “Well, I’ve heard more gospel in that remark than if I’d gone to church. And I couldn’t go to church, I could never have gone there again or held my head up anywhere if–if–”
“That’s all past and gone,” said Alida, smiling. “When Mr. Holcroft says anything, you may depend on it.”
“Well, God bless you for intercedin’–you had so much to forgive. Nobody shall ever speak a word against you again while I’ve got breath to answer. I wish you’d let me come and see you sometimes.”
“Whenever you wish, if you care to visit one who has had so much–so much trouble.”
“I see now that’s all the more reason I should come, for if it hadn’t been for you, I’d have been in bitter trouble myself. We’ve been worse than heathen, standin’ off and talking against you. Oh, I’ve had a lesson I won’t forget! Well, I must hurry home, for I left Timothy and Lemuel in a dreadful state.”
Seeing the farmer in the barn as she was passing, she rushed to him. “You’ve got to shake hands with me, Mr. Holcroft. Your wife IS a good woman, and she’s a lady, too. Anyone with half an eye can see she’s not one of the common sort.”
The farmer shook the poor woman’s hand good-naturedly and said heartily, “That’s so! All right, meeting’s over. Goodbye.” Then he turned to his work and chuckled, “That’s what Tom Watterly said. Thank the Lord! She ISN’T of the common sort. I’ve got to brace up and be more of a man as well as Tim Weeks.”
In spite of the pain in his head, Alida’s words proved true. He was happier than he had been in many a long day. He had the glow which follows a generous act, and the thought that he had pleased a sweet little woman who somehow seemed very attractive to him that May morning; at the same time the old Adam in his nature led to a sneaking satisfaction that he had laid on the hickory so unsparingly the evening before.
Alida uttered a low, happy laugh as she heard him whistling “Coronation” in jig time, and she hustled away the breakfast things with the eagerness of a girl, that she might be ready to read to him when he came in.
Chapter XXVII. Farm and Farmer Bewitched
The day grew warm, and having finished her tasks indoors and cared for the poultry, Alida brought a chair out in the porch. Her eyes were dreamy with a vague, undefined happiness. The landscape in itself was cause for exquisite pleasure, for it was an ideal day of the apple-blossoming period. The old orchard back of the barn looked as if pink-and-white clouds had settled upon it, and scattered trees near and far were exhaling their fragrance. The light breeze which fanned her cheek and bent the growing rye in an adjacent field was perfumed beyond the skill of art. Not only were her favorite meadow larks calling to each other, but the thrushes had come and she felt that she had never heard such hymns as they were singing. A burst of song from the lilac bush under the parlor window drew her eyes thither, and there was the paternal redbreast pouring out the very soul of ecstasy. From the nest beneath him rose the black head and yellow beak of his brooding mate. “How contented and happy she looks!” Alida murmured, “how happy they both are! And the secret of it is HOME. And to think that I, who was a friendless waif, am at home, also!
At home with Eden-like beauty and peace before my eyes. But if it hadn’t been for him, and if he were not brave, kind, and true to all he says–” and she shuddered at a contrast that rose before her fancy.
She could now scarcely satisfy herself that it was only gratitude which filled her heart with a strange, happy tumult. She had never been conscious of such exaltation before. It is true, she had learned to cherish a strong affection for the man whom she had believed to be her husband, but chiefly because he had seemed kind and she had an affectionate disposition. Until within the last few hours, her nature had never been touched and awakened in its profoundest depths. She had never known before nor had she idealized the manhood capable of evoking the feelings which now lighted her eyes and gave to her face the supreme charm and beauty of womanhood. In truth, it was a fitting day and time for the birth of a love like hers, simple, all-absorbing, and grateful. It contained no element not in harmony with that May Sunday morning.
Holcroft came and sat on the steps below her. She kept her eyes on the landscape, for she was consciously enough on her guard now. “I rather guess you think, Alida, that you are looking at a better picture than any artist fellow could paint?” he remarked.
“Yes,” she replied hesitatingly, “and the picture seems all the more lovely and full of light because the background is so very dark. I’ve been thinking of what happened here last night and what might have happened, and how I felt then.”
“You feel better–different now, don’t you? You certainly look so.”
“Yes!–You made me very happy by yielding to Mrs. Weeks.”
“Oh! I didn’t yield to her at all.”
“Very well, have it your own way, then.”
“I think you had it your way.”
“Are you sorry?”
“Do I look so? How did you know I’d be happier if I gave in?”
“Because, as you say, I’m getting better acquainted with you. YOU couldn’t help being happier for a generous act.”
“I wouldn’t have done it, though, if it hadn’t been for you.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“I am. You’re coming to make me feel confoundedly uncomfortable in my heathenish life.”
“I wish I could.”
“I never had such a sermon in my life as you gave me this morning. A Christian act like yours is worth a year of religious talk.”
She looked at him wistfully for a moment and then asked, a little abruptly, “Mr. Holcroft, have you truly forgiven that Weeks family?”
“Oh, yes! I suppose so. I’ve forgiven the old lady, anyhow. I’ve shaken hands with her.”
“If her husband and son should come and apologize and say they were sorry, would you truly and honestly forgive them?”
“Certainly! I couldn’t hold a grudge after that. What are you aiming at?” and he turned and looked inquiringly into her face.
It was flushed and tearful in its eager, earnest interest. “Don’t you see?” she faltered.
He shook his head, but was suddenly and strangely moved by her expression.
“Why, Mr. Holcroft, if you can honestly forgive those who have wronged you, you ought to see how ready God is to forgive.”
He fairly started to his feet so vividly the truth came home to him, illumined, as it was, by a recent and personal experience. After a moment, he slowly sat down again and said, with a long breath, “That was a close shot, Alida.”
“I only wish you to have the trust and comfort which this truth should bring you,” she said. “It seems a pity you should do yourself needless injustice when you are willing to do what is right and kind by others.”
“It’s all a terrible muddle, Alida. If God is so ready to forgive, how do you account for all the evil and suffering in the world?”
“I don’t account for it and can’t. I’m only one of his little children; often an erring one, too. You’ve been able to forgive grown people, your equals, and strangers in a sense. Suppose you had a little boy that had done wrong, but said he was sorry, would you hold a grudge against him?”
“The idea! I’d be a brute.”
She laughed softly as she asked again, “don’t you see?”
He sat looking thoughtfully away across the fields for a long time, and finally asked, “Is your idea of becoming a Christian just being forgiven like a child and then trying to do right?”
“Yes. Why not?”
“Well,” he remarked, with a grim laugh. “I didn’t expect to be cornered in this way.”
“You who are truthful should face the truth. It would make you happier. A good deal that was unexpected has happened. When I look out on a scene like this and think that I am safe and at home, I feel that God has been very good to me and that you have, too. I can’t bear to think that you have that old trouble on your mind–the feeling that you had been a Christian once, but was not one now. Being sure that there is no need of your continuing to feel so, what sort of return would I be making for all your kindness if I did not try to show you what is as clear to me as this sunshine?”
“You are a good woman, Alida. Believing as you do, you have done right to speak to me, and I never believed mortal lips could speak so to the purpose. I shall think of what you have said, for you have put things in a new light. But say, Alida, what on earth possesses you to call me ‘Mr.’? You don’t need to be scared half to death every time to call me by my first name, do you?”
“Scared? Oh, no!” She was a trifle confused, he thought, but then her tone was completely reassuring.
The day was one long remembered by both. As in nature about them, the conditions of development and rapid change now existed.
She did not read aloud very much, and long silences fell between them. They were reaching a higher plane of companionship, in which words are not always essential. Both had much to think about, and their thoughts were like roots which prepare for blossom and fruit.
With Monday, busy life was resumed. The farmer began planting his corn and Alida her flower seeds. Almost every day now added to the brood of little chicks under her care. The cows went out to pasture. Holcroft brought in an increasing number of overflowing pails of milk, and if the labors of the dairy grew more exacting, they also grew more profitable. The tide had turned; income was larger than outgo, and it truly seemed to the long-harassed man that an era of peace and prosperity had set in.
To a superficial observer things might have appeared to be going on much as before, but there were influences at work which Holcroft did not clearly comprehend.
As Alida had promised herself, she spent all the money which the eggs brought in, but Holcroft found pretty muslin curtains at the parlor windows, and shades which excluded the glare from the kitchen. Better china took the place of that which was cracked and unsightly. In brief, a subtle and refining touch was apparent all over the house.
“How fine we are getting!” he remarked one evening at supper.
“I’ve only made a beginning,” she replied, nodding defiantly at him. “The chickens will paint the house before the year is over.”
“Phew! When do the silk dresses come in?”
“When your broadcloth does.”
“Well, if this goes on, I shall certainly have to wear purple and fine linen to keep pace.”
“Fine linen, certainly. When you take the next lot of eggs to town I shall tell you just the number of yards I need to make half a dozen extra fine shirts. Those you have are getting past mending.”
“Do you think I’ll let you spend your money in that way?”
“You’ll let me spend MY money just as I please–in the way that will do me the most good!”
“What a saucy little woman you are becoming!” he said, looking at her so fondly that she quickly averted her eyes. “It’s a way people fall into when humored,” she answered.
“See here, Alida, you’re up to some magic. It seems but the other day I brought you here, a pale ghost of a woman. As old Jonathan Johnson said, you were ‘enj’yin’ poor health.’ Do you know what he said when I took him off so he wouldn’t put you through the catechism?”
“No,” she replied, with a deprecating smile and rising color.
“He said he was ‘afeared I’d been taken in, you were such a sickly lookin’ critter.’ Ha! Ha! Wish he might see you now, with that flushed face of yours. I never believed in magic, but I’ll have to come to it. You are bewitched, and are being transformed into a pretty young girl right under my eyes; the house is bewitched, and is growing pretty, too, and pleasanter all the time. The cherry and apple trees are bewitched, for they never blossomed so before; the hens are bewitched, they lay as if possessed; the–”
“Oh, stop! Or I shall think that you’re bewitched yourself.”
“I truly begin to think I am.”
“Oh, well! Since we all and everything are affected in the same way, it don’t matter.”
“But it does. It’s unaccountable. I’m beginning to rub my eyes and pinch myself to wake up.”
“If you like it, I wouldn’t wake up.”
“Suppose I did, and saw Mrs. Mumpson sitting where you do, Jane here, and Mrs. Wiggins smoking her pipe in the corner. The very thought makes me shiver. My first words would be, ‘Please pass the cold p’ison.'”
“What nonsense you are talking tonight!” she tried to say severely, but the pleased, happy look in her eyes betrayed her. He regarded her with the open admiration of a boy, and she sought to divert his attention by asking, “What do you think has become of Jane?”
“I don’t know–stealing around like a strange cat in some relation’s house, I suppose.”
“You once said you would like to do something for her.”
“Well, I would. If I could afford it, I’d like to send her to school.”
“Would you like her to come here and study lessons part of the time?”
He shivered visibly. “No, Alida, and you wouldn’t either. She’d make you more nervous than she would me, and that’s saying a good deal. I do feel very sorry for her, and if Mrs. Weeks comes to see you, we’ll find out if something can’t be done, but her presence would spoil all our cozy comfort. The fact is, I wouldn’t enjoy having anyone here. You and I are just about company enough. Still, if you feel that you’d like to have some help–”
“Oh, no! I haven’t enough to do.”
“But you’re always a-doing. Well, if you’re content, I haven’t Christian fortitude enough to make any changes.”
She smiled and thought that she was more than content. She had begun to detect symptoms in her husband which her own heart enabled her to interpret. In brief, it looked as if he were drifting on a smooth, swift tide to the same haven in which she was anchored.
One unusually warm morning for the season, rain set in after breakfast. Holcroft did not fret in the least that he could not go to the fields, nor did he, as had been his custom at first, find rainy-day work at the barn. The
cows, in cropping the lush grass, had so increased their yield of milk that it was necessary to churn every other day, and Alida was busy in the dairy. This place had become inviting by reason of its coolness, and she had rendered it more so by making it perfectly clean and sweet. Strange to say, it contained another chair besides the one she usually occupied. The apartment was large and stone-flagged. Along one side were shelves filled with rows of shining milk-pans. In one corner stood the simple machinery which the old dog put in motion when tied upon his movable walk, and the churn was near. An iron pipe, buried deep in the ground, brought cool spring water from the brook above. This pipe emptied its contents with a low gurgle into a shallow, oblong receptacle sunk in the floor, and was wide and deep enough for two stone crocks of ample size to stand abreast up to their rims in the water. The cream was skimmed into these stone jars until they were full, then Holcroft emptied them into the churn. He had charged Alida never to attempt this part of the work, and indeed it was beyond her strength. After breakfast on churning days, he prepared everything and set the dog at work. Then he emptied the churn of the buttermilk when he came in to dinner.
All the associations of the place were pleasant to Alida. It was here that her husband had shown patience as well as kindness in teaching her how to supplement his work until her own experience and judgment gave her a better skill than he possessed. Many pleasant, laughing words had passed between them in this cool, shadowy place, and on a former rainy morning he had brought a chair down that he might keep her company. She had not carried it back, nor was she very greatly surprised to see him saunter in and occupy it on the present occasion. She stood by the churn, her figure outlined clearly in the light from the open door, as she poured in cold water from time to time to hasten and harden the gathering butter. Her right sleeve was rolled well back, revealing a white arm that was becoming beautifully plump and round. An artist would have said that her attitude and action were unconsciously natural and graceful. Holcroft had scarcely the remotest idea of artistic effect, but he had a sensible man’s perception of a charming woman when she is charming.
“Mr. Holcroft,” she asked very gravely, “will you do something for me?”
“Yes, half a dozen things.”
“Certainly! What’s the trouble?”
“I don’t mean there shall be any if I can help it,” she answered with a light ripple of laughter. “Please go and put on your coat.”
“How you’ve humbugged me! It’s too hot.”
“Oh, you’ve got to do it; you promised. You can’t stay here unless you do.”
“So you are going to take care of me as if I were a small boy?”
“You need care–sometimes.”
He soon came back and asked, “Now may I stay?”
“Yes. Please untie the dog. Butter’s come.”
“I should think it would, or anything else at your coaxing.”
“Oh-h, what a speech! Hasn’t that a pretty golden hue?” she asked, holding up a mass of the butter she was ladling from the churn into a wooden tray.
“Yes, you are making the gilt-edge article now. I don’t have to sell it to Tom Watterly any more.”
“I’d like to give him some, though.”
He was silent, and something like sudden rage burned in his heart that Mrs. Watterly would not permit the gift. That anyone should frown on his having such a helper as Alida was proving herself to be, made him vindictive. Fortunately her face was turned away, and she did not see his heavy frown. Then, to shield her from a disagreeable fact, he said quickly, “do you know that for over a year I steadily went behind my expenses . And that your butter making has turned the tide already? I’m beginning to get ahead again.”
“I’m SO glad,” and her face was radiant.
“Yes, I should know that from your looks. It’s clearer every day that I got the best of our bargain. I never dreamed, though, that I should enjoy your society as I do–that we should become such very good friends. That wasn’t in the bargain, was it?”
“Bargain!” The spirited way with which she echoed the word, as if thereby repudiating anything like a sordid side to their mutual relations, was not lost on her wondering and admiring partner. She checked herself suddenly. “Now let me teach YOU how to make butter,” and with the tray in her lap, she began washing the golden product and pressing out the milk.
He laughed in a confused delighted way at her piquant, half saucy manner as he watched her deft round arm and shapely hand.
“The farmers’ wives in Oakville would say your hands were too little to do much.”
“They would?” and she raised her blue eyes indignantly to his. “No matter, you are the one to say about that.”
“I say they do too much. I shall have to get Jane to help you.”
“By all means! Then you’ll have more society.”
“That was a home shot. You know how I dote on everybody’s absence, even Jane’s.” “You dote on butter. See how firm and yellow it’s getting. You wouldn’t
think it was milk-white cream a little while ago, would you? Now I’ll put in the salt and you must taste it, for you’re a connoisseur.” “A what?” “Judge, then.” “You know a sight more than I do, Alida.” “I’m learning all the time.”
“So am I–to appreciate you.” “Listen to the sound of the rain and the water as it runs into the milk-cooler. It’s like low music, isn’t it?”
Poor Holcroft could make no better answer than a sneeze.
“Oh-h,” she exclaimed, “you’re catching cold? Come, you must go right upstairs. You can’t stay here another minute. I’m nearly through.” “I was never more contented in my life.” “You’ve no right to worry me. What would I do if you got sick? Come, I’ll
stop work till you go.” “Well then, little boss, goodbye.” With a half suppressed smile at his obedience Alida watched his reluctant
departure. She kept on diligently at work, but one might have fancied that
her thoughts rather than her exertions were flushing her cheeks. It seemed to her that but a few moments elapsed before she followed him, but he had gone. Then she saw that the rain had ceased and that the clouds were breaking. His cheerful whistle sounded reassuringly from the barn, and a little later he drove up the lane with a cart.
She sat down in the kitchen and began sewing on the fine linen they had jested about. Before long she heard a light step. Glancing up, she saw the most peculiar and uncanny-looking child that had ever crossed her vision, and with
dismal presentiment knew it was Jane.
Chapter XXVIII. Another Waif It was indeed poor, forlorn little Jane that had appeared like a specter in the kitchen door. She was as wet and bedraggled as a chicken caught in a shower. A little felt hat hung limp over her ears; her pigtail braid had lost its string and was unraveling at the end, and her torn, sodden shoes were ready to drop from her feet. She looked both curiously and apprehensively at
Alida with her little blinking eyes, and then asked in a sort of breathless voice, “Where’s him?” “Mr. Holcroft?” Jane nodded. “He’s gone out to the fields. You are Jane, aren’t you?” Another nod. “Oh, DEAR!” groaned Alida mentally; “I wish she hadn’t come.” Then with a
flush of shame the thought crossed her mind, “She perhaps is a friendless and homeless as I was, and , and ‘him’ is also her only hope. “Come in, Jane,” she said kindly, “and tell me everything.”
“Be you his new girl?” “I’m his wife,” said Alida, smiling. Jane stopped; her mouth opened and her eyes twinkled with dismay. “Then he is
married, after all?” she gasped. “Yes, why not?” “Mother said he’d never get anyone to take him.” “Well, you see she was mistaken.” “She’s wrong about everything. Well, it’s no use then,” and the child turned
and sat down on the doorstep. Alida was perplexed. From the way Jane wiped her eyes with her wet sleeve,
she was evidently crying. Coming to her, Alida said, “What is no use, Jane? Why are you crying?” “I thought–he–might–p’raps–let me stay and work for him.”
Alida was still more perplexed. What could be said by way of comfort, feeling sure as she did that Holcroft would be bitterly hostile to the idea of keeping the child? The best she could do was to draw the little waif out and obtain some explanation of her unexpected appearance. But first she asked, “Have you had any breakfast?”
Jane shook her head. “Oh, then you must have some right away.” “Don’t want any. I want to die. I oughtn’ ter been born.” “Tell me your troubles, Jane. Perhaps I can help you.” “No, you’d be like the rest. They all hate me and make me feel I’m in the
way. He’s the only one that didn’t make me feel like a stray cat, and now
he’s gone and got married,” and the child sobbed aloud. Her grief was pitiful to see, for it was overwhelming. Alida stooped down, and gently lifting the child up, brought her in. Then she took off the wet hat and wiped the tear-stained face with her handkerchief. “Wait a minute, Jane, till I bring you something,” and she ran to the dairy for a glass of milk. “You must drink it, she said, kindly but firmly.
The child gulped it down, and with it much of her grief, for this was unprecedented treatment and was winning her attention. “Say,” she faltered, “will you ask him to let me stay?”
“Yes, I’ll ask him, but I can’t promise that he will.” “You won’t ask him ‘fore my face and then tell him not to behind my back?” and there was a sly, keen look in her eyes which tears could not conceal.
“No,” said Alida gravely, “that’s not my way. How did you get here, Jane?” “Run away.” “From where?” “Poorhouse.” Alida drew a quick breath and was silent a few moments. “Is–is your mother
there?” she asked at length. “Yes. They wouldn’t let us visit round any longer.” “Didn’t your mother or anyone know you were coming?”
Jane shook her head.
Alida felt that it would be useless to burden the unhappy child with misgivings as to the result, and her heart softened toward her as one who in her limited way had known the bitterness and dread which in that same almshouse had overwhelmed her own spirit. She could only say gently, “Well, wait till Mr. Holcroft comes, and then we’ll see what he says.” She herself was both curious and anxious as to his course. “It will be a heavy cross,” she thought, “but I should little deserve God’s goodness to me if I did not befriend this child.”
Every moment added weight to this unexpected burden of duty. Apart from all consideration of Jane’s peculiarities, the isolation with Holcroft had been a delight in itself. Their mutual enjoyment of each other’s society had been growing from day to day, and she, more truly than he, had shrunk from the presence of another as an unwelcome intrusion. Conscious of her secret, Jane’s prying eyes were already beginning to irritate her nerves. Never had she seen a human face that so completely embodied her idea of inquisitiveness as the uncanny visage of this child. She saw that she would be watched with a tireless vigilance. Her recoil, however, was not so much a matter of conscious reasoning and perception as it was an instinctive feeling of repulsion caused by the unfortunate child. It was the same old story. Jane always put the women of a household on pins and needles just as her mother exasperated the men. Alida had to struggle hard during a comparatively silent hour to fight down the hope that Holcroft would not listen to Jane’s and her own request.
As she stepped quickly and lightly about in her preparations for dinner, the girl watched her intently. At last she gave voice to her thoughts and said, “If mother’d only worked round smart as you, p’raps she’d hooked him ‘stid er you.”
Alida’s only reply was a slight frown, for the remark suggested disagreeable images and fancies. “Oh, how can I endure it?” she sighed. She determined to let Jane plead her own cause at first, thinking that perhaps this would be the safest way. If necessary, she would use her influence against a hostile decision, let it cost in discomfort what it might.
At a few moments before twelve the farmer came briskly toward the house, and was evidently in the best of spirits. When he entered and saw Jane, his countenance indicated so much dismay that Alida could scarcely repress a smile. The child rose and stood before him like a culprit awaiting sentence. She winked hard to keep the tears back, for there was no welcome in his manner. She could not know how intensely distasteful was her presence at this time, nor had Holcroft himself imagined how unwelcome a third person in his house could be until he saw the intruder before him. He had only felt that he was wonderfully contented and happy in his home, and that Jane would be a
constant source of annoyance and restraint. Moreover, it might lead to visitation from Mrs. Mumpson, and that was the summing up of earthly ills. But the child’s appearance and manner were so forlorn and deprecating that words of irritation died upon his lips. He gravely shook hands with her and then drew out the story which Alida had learned.
“Why, Jane,” he exclaimed, frowning, “Mr. Watterly will be scouring the country for you. I shall have to take you back right after dinner.”
“I kinder hoped,” she sobbed, “that you’d let me stay. I’d stay in the barn if I couldn’t be in the house. I’d just as soon work outdoors, too.”
“I don’t think you’d be allowed to stay,” said the farmer, with a sinking heart; “and then–perhaps your mother would be coming here.”
“I can’t stand mother no more’n you can” said the girl, through her set teeth. “I oughtn’ter been born, for there’s no place for me in the world.”
Holcroft looked at his wife, his face expressive of the utmost annoyance, worry, and irresolution. Her glance was sympathetic, but she said nothing, feeling that if he could make the sacrifice from his own will he should have the chance. “You can’t begin to know how much trouble this may lead to, Jane,” he resumed. “You remember how your other threatened to take the law upon me, and it wouldn’t be possible for you to stay here without her consent.”
“She oughter consent; I’ll make her consent!” cried the child, speaking as if driven to desperation. “What’s she ever done for me but teach me mean ways? Keep me or kill me, for I must be in some place where I’ve a right to be away from mother. I’ve found that there’s no sense in her talk, and it drives me crazy.”
Although Jane’s words and utterance were strangely uncouth, they contained a despairing echo which the farmer could not resist. Turning his troubled face to his wife, he began, “”If this is possible, Alida, it will be a great deal harder on you than it will on me. I don’t feel that I would be doing right by you unless you gave your consent with full knowledge of–”
“Then please let her stay, if it is possible. She seems to need a friend and home as much as another that you heard about.”
“There’s no chance of such a blessed reward in this case,” he replied, with a grim laugh. Then, perplexed indeed, he continued to Jane, “I’m just as sorry for you as I can be, but there’s no use of getting my wife and self in trouble which in the end will do you no good. You are too young to understand all that your staying may lead to.”
“It won’t lead to mother’s comin’ here, and that’s the worst that could happen. Since she can’t do anything for me she’s got to let me do for
“Alida, please come with me in the parlor a moment. You stay here, Jane.” When they were alone, he resumed, “Somehow, I feel strangely unwilling to have that child live with us. We were enjoying our quiet life so much. Then you don’t realize how uncomfortable she will make you, Alida.”
“Yes, I do.”
“I don’t think you can yet. Your sympathies are touched now, but she’ll watch you and irritate you in a hundred ways. Don’t her very presence make you uncomfortable?”
“Well, then, she can’t stay,” he began decidedly. “This is your home, and no one shall make you uncomfortable–”
“But I should be a great deal more uncomfortable if she didn’t stay,” Alida interrupted. “I should feel that I did not deserve my home. Not long ago my heart was breaking because I was friendless and in trouble. What could I think of myself if I did not entreat you in behalf of this poor child?”
“Thunder!” ejaculated Holcroft. “I guess I was rather friendless and troubled myself, and I didn’t know the world had in it such a good friend as you’ve become, Alida. Well, well! You’ve put it in such a light that I’d be almost tempted to take the mother, also.”
“No,” she replied, laughing; “we’ll draw the line at the mother.”
“Well, I’ll take Jane to town this afternoon, and if her mother will sign an agreement to leave us all in peace, we’ll give up our old cozy comfort of being alone. I suppose it must be a good deed, since it’s so mighty hard to do it,” he concluded with a wry face, leading the way to the kitchen again. She smiled as if his words were already rewarding her self denial.
“Well, Jane,” he resumed, “Mrs. Holcroft has spoken in your behalf, and if we can arrange matters so that you can stay, you will have her to thank chiefly. I’ll take you back to the poorhouse after dinner, so it may be known what’s become of you. Then, if your mother’ll sign an agreement to make no trouble and not come here, we’ll give you a home until we can find a better place for you.”
There was no outburst of gratitude. The repressed, dwarfed nature of the child was incapable of this, yet there was an unwonted little thrill of hope in her heart. Possibly it was like the beginning of life in a seed under the first spring rays of the sun. She merely nodded to Holcroft as if the matter had been settled as far as it could be, and ignored Alida.
“Why don’t you thank Mrs. Holcroft?” he asked.
Then Jane turned and nodded at Alida. Her vocabulary of thanks was undeveloped.
“She’s glad,” said Alida. “You’ll see. Now that it’s settled, we hope you’re hungry, Jane, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I be. Can’t I help you put things on the table?”
Holcroft looked at the two for a moment, and then shook his head as he went up to his room. “I thought my wife was nice and pleasant looking before,” he thought, “but she’s like a picture beside that child. Well, she has behaved handsomely. Tom Watterly didn’t tell half the truth when he said she was not of the common run. She’s a Christian in deeds, not talk. What’s that in Scripture about ‘I was hungry’? Well, well! She makes religion kind of natural and plain like, whether it’s easy or not. Thunder! What a joke it is to see her so grateful because I’ve given her a chance to help me out of the worst scrape a man could be in! As if she hadn’t changed everything for the better! Here I am sure of my home and getting ahead in the world again, and it’s all her doing.”
In admiration of his wife Holcroft quite forgot that there had been any self-sacrifice on his part, and he concluded that he could endure Jane and almost anything else as long as Alida continued to look after his comfort and interests.
Now that the worst stress of Jane’s anxiety was over, she proved that she was half starved. Indeed she had few misgivings now, for her confidence that Holcroft would accomplish what he attempted was almost unbounded. It was a rather silent meal at first, for the farmer and his wife had much to think about and Jane much to do in making up for many limited meals. At last Holcroft smiled so broadly that Alida said, “Something seems to please you.”
“Yes, more than one thing. It might be a great deal worse, and was, not long ago. I was thinking of old times.”
“How pleasant they must have been to make you look so happy!”
“They had their uses, and make me think of a picture I saw in a store window in town. It was a picture of a woman, and she took my fancy amazingly. But the point uppermost in my mind was a trick of the fellow who painted her. He had made the background as dark as night and so she stood out as if alive; and she looked so sweet and good that I felt like shaking hands with her. I now see why the painter made the background so dark”
Alida smiled mischievously as she replied, “That was his art. He knew that almost anyone would appear well against such a background.”
But Holcroft was much too direct to be diverted from his thought or its expression. “The man knew the mighty nice-looking woman he had painted would look well,” he said, “and I know of another woman who appears better against a darker background. That’s enough to make a man smile who has been through what I have.”
She could not help a flush of pleasure or disguise the happy light in her eyes, but she looked significantly at Jane, who, mystified and curious, was glancing from one to the other.
“Confound it!” thought the farmer. “That’ll be the way of it now. Here’s a little pitcher that’s nearly all ears. Well, we’re in for it and must do our duty.”
Going to town that day involved no slight inconvenience, but Holcroft dropped everything and rapidly made his preparations.
When Alida was left alone with Jane, the latter began clearing the table with alacrity, and after a few furtive glances at Mrs. Holcroft, yielded to the feeling that she should make some acknowledgment of the intercession in her behalf. “Say,” she began, “I thought you wasn’t goin; to stand up for me, after all. Women folks are liars, mostly.”
“You are mistaken, Jane. If you wish to stay with us, you must tell the truth and drop all sly ways.”
“That’s what he said when I first come.”
“I say it too. You see a good deal, Jane. Try to see what will please people instead of what you can find out about them. It’s a much better plan. Now, as a friend, I tell you of one thing you had better not do. You shouldn’t watch and listen to Mr. Holcroft unless he speaks to you. He doesn’t like to be watched–no one does. It isn’t nice; and if you come to us, I think you will try to do what is nice. Am I not right?”
“I dunno how,” said Jane.
“It will be part of my business to teach you. You ought to understand all about your coming. Mr. Holcroft doesn’t take you because he needs your work, but because he’s sorry for you, and wishes to give you a chance to do better and learn something. You must make up your mind to lessons, and learning to talk and act nicely, as well as to do such work as is given you. Are you willing to do what I say and mind me pleasantly and promptly?”
Jane looked askance at the speaker and was vaguely suspicious of some trick. In her previous sojourn at the farmhouse she had concluded that it was her best policy to keep in Holcroft’s good graces, even though she had to defy her mother and Mrs. Wiggins, and she was now by no means ready to commit herself to this new domestic power. She had received the impression that the authority and continued residence of females in this household was involved in much uncertainty, and although Alida was in favor now and the farmer’s wife, she didn’t know what “vicissitudes” (as her mother would denominate them) might occur. Holcroft was the only fixed and certain quantity in her troubled thoughts, and after a little hesitation she replied, “I’ll do what he says; I’m goin’ to mind him.”
“Suppose he tells you to mind me?”
“Then I will. That ud be mindin’ him. I’m goin’ to stick to him, for I made out by it better before than by mindin’ mother and Mrs. Wiggins.”
Alida now understood the child and laughed aloud. “You are right,” she said. “I won’t ask you to do anything contrary to his wishes. Now tell me, Jane, what other clothes have you besides those you are wearing?”
It did not take the girl long to inventory her scanty wardrobe, and then Alida rapidly made out a list of what was needed immediately. “Wait here,” she said, and putting on a pretty straw hat, one of her recent purchases, she started for the barn.
Holcroft had his wagon and team almost ready when Alida joined him, and led the way to the floor between the sweet-smelling hay-mows.
“One thing leads to another,” she began, looking at him a little deprecatingly. “You must have noticed the condition of Jane’s clothes.”
“She does look like a little scarecrow, now I come to think of it,” he admitted.
“Yes, she’s not much better off than I was,” Alida returned, with downcast eyes and rising color.
Her flushing face was so pretty under the straw hat, and the dark mow as a background brought out her figure so finely that he thought of the picture again and laughed aloud for pleasure. She looked up in questioning surprise, thus adding a new grace.
“I wish that artist fellow was here now,” he exclaimed. “He could make another picture that would suit me better than the one I saw in town.”
“What nonsense!” she cried, quickly averting her face from his admiring scrutiny. “Come, I’m here to talk business and you’ve no time to waste. I’ve
made out a list of what the child actually must have to be respectable.”
“You’re right, Alida,” said the farmer, becoming grave at once over a question of dollars and cents. “As you say, one thing leads to another, and if we take the girl we must clothe her decently. But then, I guess she’ll earn enough to pay her way. It isn’t that I worry about so much,” he broke out discontentedly, “but the interference with our quiet, cozy life. Things are going so smoothly and pleasantly that I hate a change of any kind.”
“We mustn’t be selfish, you know,” she replied. “You are doing a kind, generous act, and I respect you all the more for it.”
“That settles everything. You’ll like me a little better for it, too, won’t you?” he asked hesitatingly.
She laughed outright at this question and answered, “It won’t do to take too much self-sacrifice out of your act. There’s something which does us all good. She ought to have a spelling and a writing book also.”
Holcroft was assuredly falling under the sway of the little blind god, for he began at once to misunderstand Alida. “You are very fond of self-sacrifice,” he said, rather stiffly. “Yes, I’ll get everything on your list,” and he took it from her hand. “Now I must be off,” he added, “for I wish to get back before night, and it’s so warm I can’t drive fast. Sorry I have to go, for I can’t say I dote on self-sacrifice.”
Alida but partially understood his sudden change of mood, nor was the farmer much better enlightened himself in regard to his irritation. He had received an unexpected impression and it seemed to fit in with other things and explain them. She returned slowly and dejectedly to the house, leaving unsaid the words she meant to speak about Jane’s relations to her. Now she wished that she had imitated Jane, and merely nodded to the farmer’s questions. “If he knew how far I am beyond the point of liking, I don’t know what he’d do or say,” she thought, “and I suppose that’s the reason I couldn’t answer him frankly, in a way that would have satisfied him. It’s a pity I couldn’t begin to just LIKE a little at first, as he does and have everything grow as gradually and quietly as one of his cornstalks. That’s the way I meant it should be; but when he stood up for me and defended me from those men, my heart just melted, and in spite of myself, I felt I could die for him. It can’t be such an awful thing for a woman to fall in love with her husband, and yet–yet I’d rather put my hand in the fire than let him know how I feel. Oh, dear! I wish Jane hadn’t been born, as she says. Trouble is beginning already, and it was all so nice before she came.”
In a few moments Holcroft drove up. Alida stood in the door and looked timidly at him. He thought she appeared a little pale and troubled, but his bad mood prevailed and he only asked briefly, “Can’t I get something for you?”
She shook her head.
“Well, goodbye, then,” and he drove away with Jane, who was confirmed in her line of policy. “She’s afraid of ‘im too,” thought the child. “Mind her! Guess not, unless he says so.” She watched the farmer furtively and concluded that she had never known him to look more grim or be more silent even under her mother’s blandishments. “He’s married this one, I s’pose, to keep house for ‘im, but he don’t like her follerin’ ‘im up or bein’ for’ard any more’n he did mother. Shouldn’t wonder if he didn’t keep her, either, if she don’t suit better. She needn’t ‘a’ put on such airs with me, for I’m goin’ to stick to him.”
Chapter XXIX. Husband and Wife in Trouble
Like many others with simple, strong natures, Holcroft could not be wrong-headed moderately, and his thoughts, once started in a direction were apt to carry him much farther than the cause warranted. Engrossed in painful and rather bitter musings, he paid no heed to Jane and almost forgot his errand to town. “I was a fool to ask that question,” he thought. “I was getting silly and sentimental with my talk about the picture and all that. She laughed at me and reminded me I was wasting time. Of course she can’t like an old, hard-featured man like me. I’m beginning to understand her now. She made a business marriage with me and means to live up to her agreement. She’s honest; she feels I’ve done her a real kindness in giving her a home, and she’s willing to be as self-sacrificing as the day is long to make it up to me. I wish she wasn’t so grateful; there’s no occasion for it. I don’t want her to feel that every pleasant word and every nice act is so much toward paying a debt. If there was any balance in my favor it was squared up long ago, and I was willing to call it even from the start. She’s made me like her for her own sake and not on account of what she does for me, and that’s what I had in mind. But she’s my superior in every way; she’s growing to be a pretty as a picture, and I suppose I appear like a rather rough customer. Well, I can’t help if, but it rather goes against me to have her think, ‘I’ve married him and I’m going to do my duty by him, just as I agreed.’ She’ll do her duty by this Jane in the same self-sacrificing spirit, and will try to make it pleasant for the child just because it’s right and because she herself was taken out of trouble. That’s the shape her religion takes. ‘Tisn’t a common form, I know–this returning good for good with compound interest. But her conscience won’t let her rest unless she does everything she can for me, and now she’ll begin to do everything for Jane because she feels that self-sacrifice is a duty. Anybody can be self-sacrificing. If I made up my mind, I could ask Mrs. Mumpson to visit us all summer, but I couldn’t like her to save my life, and I don’t suppose Alida can like me, beyond a certain point, to save her life. But she’ll do her duty. She’ll be pleasant and self-sacrificing and do all the work she can lay her hands on for my sake; but when it comes to feeling toward me as I can’t help feeling toward her–that wasn’t in the bargain,” and he startled Jane with a sudden bitter laugh.
“Say,” said the child, as if bent on adding another poignant reflection, “if you hadn’t married her, I could ‘a’ come and cooked for you.” “You think I’d been better off if I’d waited for you, eh?”
“You kinder looked as if yer thought so.” He now made the hills echo with a laugh, excited both by his bitter fancies and the preposterous idea. She looked at him inquiringly and was much perplexed by his unwonted behavior. Indeed, he was slightly astonished at his own strange mood, but he yielded to it almost recklessly. “I say, Jane,” he began, “I’m not a very good-looking man, am I?”
She shook her head in emphatic agreement. “I’m old and rough and hard-featured?” Again she nodded approvingly. “Children and some others speak the truth,” he growled. “I never had no teachin’, but I’m not a fool,” remarked Jane keenly. “I guess I’m the fool in this case,” he added. “It don’t make no difference to me,” she said sympathetically. “I’m goin’ to
mind you and not her. If you ever send her away I’ll cook for you.”
“Send her away!” exclaimed the farmer, with a shiver. “God forbid! There, don’t talk any more!” For the next half mile he drove in silence, with a heavy frown on his face;
then he broke out sternly, “If you don’t promise to mind Mrs. Holcroft and please her in everything, I’ll leave you at the poorhouse door and drive home again.”
“‘Course I will, if you tells me to,” said the child in trepidation.
“Well, I DO. People will find that making her trouble is the surest way of making themselves trouble.” “She’s got some hold on ‘im,” concluded Jane, who, in listening to much
gossip, had often heard this expression, and now made a practical application
of the idea. Watterly was greatly relieved when he saw Holcroft drive up with the fugitive. “I was just going out to your place,” he said, “for the girl’s mother insisted
that you had enticed the child away,” and the man laughed, as if the idea tickled him immensely.
Holcroft frowned, for he was in no mood for his friend’s rough jests. “Go to your mother till I send for you,” he said to Jane.
“The fact that you had taken two other females from the house gave some color to Mrs. Mumpson’s views,” pursued Watterly, who could take only the broadest hint as to his social conduct.
He received one now. “Tom Watterly,” said the farmer sternly, “did I ever insult your wife?”
“By jocks! No, you nor no other man. I should say not.”
“Well, then, don’t you insult mine. Before I’d seen Mrs. Holcroft, you told me she was out of the common run,–how much out, you little know,–and I don’t want her mixed up with the common run, even in your thoughts.”
“Well, now, I like that,” said Watterly, giving Holcroft his hand. “You know I didn’t mean any offense, Jim. It was only one of my foolish jokes. You were mighty slow to promise to love, honor, and obey, but hanged if you aint more on that line than any man in town. I can see she’s turning out well and keeping her agreement.”
“Yes, that’s just what she’s doing,” said the farmer gloomily. “She’s a good, capable woman that’ll sacrifice herself to her duty any day. But it wasn’t to talk about her I came. She’s a sight better than I am, but she’s probably not good enough for anybody in this town to speak to.”
“Oh, pshaw; now, Jim!”
“Well, I’ve come on disagreeable business. I didn’t know that Mrs. Mumpson and her child were here, and I wish to the Lord they could both stay here! You’ve found out what the mother is, I suppose?”
“I should say so,” replied Tom, laughing. “She’s talked several of the old women to death already. The first day she was here she called on my wife and claimed social relations, because she’s so ‘respecterbly connected,’ as she says. I thought Angy’d have a fit. Her respectable connections have got to take her off my hands.”
“I’m not one of ’em, thank goodness!” resumed Holcroft. “But I’m willing to take the girl and give her a chance–at least I’ll do it,” he corrected himself, in his strict observance of truth. “You can see she’s not a child to dote on, but I was sorry for her when I sent her mother away and said I’d try and do something for her. The first thing I knew she was at the house, begging me to either take her in or kill her. I couldn’t say no, though I
wanted to. Now, you see what kind of a good Samaritan I am.”
“Oh, I know you! You’d hit a man between the eyes if he charged you with doing a good deed. But what does your wife say to adopting such a cherub?”
“We’re not going to adopt her or bind ourselves. My wife took the child’s part and plead with me in her behalf, though I could see the young one almost made her sick. She thinks it’s her duty, you know, and that’s enough for her.”
“By jocks, Holcroft! She don’t feel that way about you, does she?”
“Why shouldn’t she?”
“Why should she? I can take about anything from Angy, but it wouldn’t do for her to let me see that she disliked me so that I kinder made her sick.”
“Oh, thunder, Tom! You’re getting a wrong impression. I was never treated better by anybody in my life than by Mrs. Holcroft. She’s a lady, every inch of her. But there’s no reason why she should dote on an old fellow like me.”
“Yes, there is. I have my opinion of a woman who wouldn’t dote on a man that’s been such a friend as you have.”
“Oh, hang it all, Tom! Let’s talk about business. She’s too grateful–that’s what worries me. By the way she took hold and filled the house with comfort she made everything even from the start. She’s been as good a friend to me as I to her. She’s done all she agreed and more, and I’ll never hear a word against her. The point I’ve been trying to get at is this: If Mrs. Mumpson will agree never to come near us or make trouble in any way, we’ll take the child. If she won’t so agree, I’ll have nothing to do with the girl. I don’t want to see her mother, and you’d do me one of the kindest turns you ever did a man by stating the case to her.”
“If I do,” said Watterly, laughing, “you’ll have to forgive me everything in the past and the future.”
“I will, Tom, for I’d rather have an eye tooth pulled than face that woman. We’re all right–just as we used to be at school, always half quarreling, yet ready to stand up for each other to the last drop. But I must have her promise in black and white.”
“Well, come to my office and we’ll try to arrange it. The law is on your side, for the county won’t support people that anyone will take off its hands. Besides I’m going to shame the woman’s relations into taking her away, and they’ll be glad there’s one less to support.”
They drew up a brief, strong agreement, and Watterly took it to the widow to
sign. He found her in great excitement and Jane looking at her defiantly. “I told you he was the one who enticed away my offspring,” she began, almost hysterically. “He’s a cold-blooded villain! If there’s a law in the land, I’ll–”
“Stop!” thundered Watterly. His voice was so high and authoritative that she did stop, and with open mouth stared at the superintendent. “Now, be quiet and listen to me,” he continued. “Either you are a sane woman and can stop this foolishness, or else you are insane and must be treated as such. You have your choice. You can’t tell me anything about Holcroft; I’ve known him since he was a boy. He doesn’t want your girl. She ran away to him, didn’t you?” to Jane, who nodded. “But he’s willing to take her, to teach her something and give her a chance. His motive is pure kindness, and he has a good wife who’ll–”
“I see it all,” cried the widow, tragically clasping her hands. “It’s his wife’s doings! She wishes to triumph over me, and even to usurp my place in ministering to my child. Was there ever such an outrage? Such a bold, vindictive female–”
Here Jane, in a paroxysm of indignant protest, seized her mother and began to shake her so violently that she could not speak.
“Stop that!” said Watterly, repressing laughter with difficulty. “I see you are insane and the law will have to step in and take care of you both.”
“What will it do with us?” gasped the widow.
“Well, it ought to put you in strait jackets to begin with–”
“I’ve got some sense if mother aint!” cried Jane, commencing to sob.
“It’s plain the law’ll decide your mother’s not fit to take care of you. Anyone who can even imagine such silly ridiculous things as she’s just said must be looked after. You MAY take a notion, Mrs. Mumpson, that I’m a murderer or a giraffe. It would be just as sensible as your other talk.”
“What does Mr. Holcroft offer?” said the widow, cooling off rapidly. If there was an atom of common sense left in any of his pauper charges, Watterly soon brought it into play, and his vague threatenings of law were always awe-inspiring.
“He makes a very kind offer that you would jump at if you had sense–a good home for your child. You ought to know she can’t stay here and live on charity if anyone is willing to take her.”
“Of course I would be permitted to visit my child from time to time? He couldn’t be so monstrously hard-hearted as–”
“Oh, nonsense!” cried Watterly impatiently. “The idea of his letting you come to his house after what you’ve said about him! I’ve no time to waste in foolishness, or he either. He will let Jane visit you, but you are to sign this paper and keep the agreement not to go near him or make any trouble whatever.”
“It’s an abominable–”
“Tut! Tut! That kind of talk isn’t allowed here. If you can’t decide like a sane woman the law’ll soon decide for you.”
As was always the case when Mrs. Mumpson reached the inevitable, she yielded; the paper was signed, and Jane, who had already made up her small bundle, nodded triumphantly to her mother and followed Watterly. Mrs. Mumpson, on tiptoe, followed also, bent on either propitiating Holcroft and so preparing the way for a visit, or else on giving him once more a “piece of her mind.”
“All right, Holcroft!” said Watterly, as he entered the office, “here’s the paper signed. Was there ever such an id—–”
“Oh, how do you do, Mr. Holcroft?” cried the widow, bursting in and rushing forward with extended hand.
The farmer turned away and looked as if made of stone.
Changing her tactics instantly, she put her handkerchief to her eyes and moaned, “You never can have the heart to say I can’t come and see my child. I’ve signed writings, ’tis true, under threats and compulsions; but I trust there will be relentings–”
“There won’t be one relent!” cried Jane. “I never want to see you again, and a blind post could see that he doesn’t.”
“Jane,” said Holcroft sternly, “don’t speak so again. If strangers can be kind and patient with you, you can be so with your mother. She has no claims on me and has said things which make it impossible for me to speak to her again, but I shall insist on your visiting and treating her kindly. Goodbye, Watterly. You’ve proved yourself a friend again,” and he went rapidly away, followed by Jane.
Mrs. Mumpson was so taken aback by Holcroft’s final words and Watterly’s stern manner as he said, “This is my office,” that for once in her life she disappeared silently.
Holcroft soon purchased the articles on his list, meanwhile racking his brains to think of something that he could buy for Alida, but the fear of being thought sentimental and of appearing to seek a personal regard for himself,
not “nominated in the bond,” restrained him.
On his way home he was again sunk in deep abstraction, but the bitterness of his feeling had passed away. Although as mistaken as before in his apprehension of Alida, his thoughts were kinder and juster. “I’ve no right to find fault or complain,” he said to himself. “She’s done all I asked and better than she agreed, and there’s no one to blame if she can’t do more. It must have been plain enough to her at first that I didn’t want anything but a housekeeper–a quiet, friendly body that would look after the house and dairy, and she’s done better than I even hoped. That’s just the trouble; she’s turned out so different from what I expected, and looks so different from what she did, that I’m just sort of carried away. I’d give half the farm if she was sitting by my side this June evening and I could tell her all I feel and know she was glad. I must be just and fair to her. I asked her to agree to one thing and now I’m beginning to want a tremendous sight more–I want her to like not only her home and work and the quiet life she so longed for, but I want her to like me, to enjoy my society, not only in a friendly, businesslike way, but in another way–yes, confound my slow wits! Somewhat as if she was my wife in reality and not merely in name, as I insisted. It’s mighty mean business in me, who have been so proud of standing up to my agreements and so exacting of others to do the same. I went away cold and stiff this afternoon because she wasn’t silly and sentimental when I was. I’m to her an unpolished, homely, middle-aged man, and yet I sort of scoffed at the self-sacrifice which has led her to be pleasant and companionable in every way that her feelings allowed. I wish I were younger and better looking, so it wouldn’t all be a sense of duty and gratitude. Gratitude be hanged! I don’t want any more of it. Well, now, James Holcroft, if you’re the square man you supposed yourself to be, you’ll be just as kind and considerate as you know how, and then you’ll leave Alida to the quiet, peaceful life to which she looked forward when she married you. The thing for you to do is to go back to your first ways after you were married and attend to the farm. She doesn’t want you hanging around and looking at her as if she was one of her own posies. That’s something she wasn’t led to expect and it would be mean enough to force it upon her before she shows that she wishes it, and I couldn’t complain if she NEVER wished it.”
During the first hour after Holcroft’s departure Alida had been perplexed and worried, but her intuitions soon led to hopefulness, and the beauty and peace of nature without aided in restoring her serenity. The more minutely she dwelt on Holcroft’s words and manner, the more true it seemed that he was learning to take an interest in her that was personal and apart from every other consideration. “If I am gentle, patient, and faithful,” she thought, “all will come out right. He is so true and straightforward that I need have no fears.”
When he returned and greeted her with what seemed his old, friendly, natural manner, and, during a temporary absence of Jane, told her laughingly of the Mumpson episode, she was almost completely reassured. “Suppose the widow
breaks through all restraint and appears as did Jane, what would you do?” he asked.
“Whatever you wished,” she replied, smiling.
“In other words, what you thought your duty?”
“I suppose that is what one should try to do.”
“I guess you are the one that would succeed in doing it, even to Mrs. Mumpson,” he said, turning hastily away and going to his room.
She was puzzled again. “I’m sure I don’t dote on self-sacrifice and hard duty any more than he does, but I can’t tell him that duty is not hard when it’s to him.”
Jane was given the room over the kitchen which Mrs. Wiggins had occupied, and the farmhouse soon adopted her into its quiet routine. Holcroft’s course continued to cause Alida a dissatisfaction which she could scarcely define. He was as kind as ever he had been and even more considerate; he not only gratified her wishes, but tried to anticipate them, while Jane’s complete subserviency proved that she had been spoken to very plainly.
One day she missed her spelling lesson for the third time, and Alida told her that she must learn it thoroughly before going out. The child took the book reluctantly, yet without a word. “That’s a good girl!” said Alida, wishing to encourage her. “I was afraid at first you wouldn’t mind me so readily.”
“He told me to. He’d fire me out the window if I didn’t mind you.”
“Oh, no! I think he’s very kind to you.”
“Well, he’s kind to you, too.”
“Yes, he has always been kind to me,” said Alida gently and lingeringly, as if the thought were pleasant to dwell upon.
“Say,” said Jane, yielding to her curiosity, “how did you make him so afraid of you when he don’t like you? He didn’t like mother, but he wasn’t afraid of her.”
“Why do you think he doesn’t like me?” Alida faltered, turning very pale.
“Oh! ‘Cause he looked once jest as he did after mother’d been goin’ for–”
“There, be still! You mustn’t speak of such things, or talk to me about Mr. Holcroft in such a way,” and she hastily left the kitchen. When in the solitude of her own room, she gave way to bitter tears. “Is it so plain,” she
thought, “that even this ignorant child sees it? And the unhappy change began the day she came, too. I can’t understand it. We were so happy before; and he seemed to enjoy being near me and talking to me when his work permitted. He used to look into my eyes in a way that made me hope and, indeed, feel almost sure. I receive no more such looks; he seems only trying to do his duty by me as he promised at first, and acts as if it were all duty, a mere matter of conscience. Could he have discovered how I felt, and so is taking this way to remind me that nothing of the kind was in our agreement? Well, I’ve no reason to complain; I accepted the relation of my own free will, but it’s hard, hard indeed for a woman who loves a man with her whole heart and soul–and he her husband–to go on meeting him day after day, yet act as if she were his mere business partner. But I can’t help myself; my very nature, as well as a sense of his rights, prevents me from asking more or even showing that I wish for more. That WOULD be asking for it. But can it be true that he is positively learning to dislike me? To shrink from me with that strong repulsion which women feel toward some men? Oh! If that is true, the case is hopeless; it would kill me. Every effort to win him, even the most delicate and unobtrusive, would only drive him farther away; the deepest instincts of his soul would lead him to withdraw–to shun me. If this is true, the time may come when, so far from my filling his house with comfort, I shall make him dread to enter it. Oh, oh! My only course is to remember just what I promised and he expected when he married me, and live up to that.”
Thus husband and wife reached the same, conclusion and were rendered equally unhappy.
Chapter XXX. Holcroft’s Best Hope
When Holcroft came in to dinner that day the view he had adopted was confirmed, yet Alida’s manner and appearance began to trouble him. Even to his rather slow perception, she did not seem so happy as she had been. She did not meet his eye with her old frank, friendly, and as he had almost hoped, affectionate, expression; she seemed merely feverishly anxious to do everything and have all as he wished. Instead of acting with natural ease and saying what was in her mind without premeditation, a conscious effort was visible and an apparent solicitude that he should be satisfied. The inevitable result was that he was more dissatisfied. “She’s doing her best for me,” he growled, as he went back to his work, “and it begins to look as if it might wear her out in time. Confound it! Having everything just so isn’t of much account when a man’s heart-hungry. I’d rather have had one of her old smiles and gone without my dinner. Well, well; how little a man understands himself or knows the future! The day I married her I was in mortal dread lest she should care for me too much and want to be affectionate and all that; and here I am, discontented and moping because everything has turned out as I then wished. Don’t see as I’m to blame, either. She had no business to grow so pretty. Then she looked like a ghost, but now when the color comes into her cheeks, and her blue eyes sparkle, a man would be a stupid clod if he didn’t
look with all his eyes and feel his heart a-thumping. That she should change so wasn’t in the bargain; neither was it that she should read aloud in such sweet tones that a fellow’d like to listen to the dictionary; nor that she should make the house and yard look as they never did before, and, strangest of all, open my eyes to the fact that apple trees bear flowers as well as pippins. I can’t even go by a wild posy in the lane without thinking she’d like it and see in it a sight more than I once could. I’ve been taken in, as old Jonathan feared,” he muttered, following out his fancy with a sort of grim humor. “She isn’t the woman I thought I was marrying at all, and I aint bound by my agreement–not in my thoughts, anyhow. I’d have been in a nice scrape if I’d taken my little affidavit not to think of her or look upon her in any other light than that of housekeeper and butter maker. It’s a scary thing, this getting married with a single eye to business. See where I am now! Hanged if I don’t believe I’m in love with my wife, and, like a thundering fool, I had to warn her against falling in love with me! Little need of that, though. She hasn’t been taken in, for I’m the same old chap she married, and I’d be a mighty mean cuss if I went to her and said, ‘Here, I want you to do twice as much, a hundred-fold as much as you agreed to.’ I’d be a fool, too, for she couldn’t do it unless something drew her toward me just as I’m drawn toward her.”
Late in the afternoon he leaned on the handle of his corn plow, and, in the consciousness of solitude, said aloud: “Things grow clear if you think of them enough, and the Lord knows I don’t think of much else any more. It isn’t her good qualities which I say over to myself a hundred times a day, or her education, or anything of the kind, that draws me; it’s she herself. I like her. Why don’t I say love her, and be honest? Well, it’s a fact, and I’ve got to face it. Here I am, plowing out my corn, and it looks splendid for its age. I thought if I could stay on the old place, and plant and cultivate and reap, I’d be more than content, and now I don’t seem to care a rap for the corn or the farm either, compared with Alida; and I care for her just because she is Alida and no one else. But the other side of this fact has an ugly look. Suppose I’m disagreeable to her! When she married me she felt like a woman drowning; she was ready to take hold of the first hand reached to her without knowing much about whose hand it was. Well, she’s had time to find out. She isn’t drawn. Perhaps she feels toward me somewhat as I did toward Mrs. Mumpson, and she can’t help herself either. Well, well, the bare thought of it makes my heart lead. What’s a man to do? What can I do but live up to my agreement and not torment her any more than I can help with my company? That’s the only honest course. Perhaps she’ll get more used to me in time. She might get sick, and then I’d be so kind and watchful that she’d think the old fellow wasn’t so bad, after all, But I shan’t give her the comfort of no end of self-sacrifice in trying to be pleasant and sociable. If she’s foolish enough to think she’s in my debt she can’t pay it in that way. No, sir! I’ve got to make the most of it now–I’m bound to–but this business marriage will never suit me until the white arm I saw in the dairy room is around my neck, and she looks in my eyes and says, ‘James, I guess I’m ready for a longer marriage ceremony.'”
It was a pity that Alida could not have been among the hazelnut bushes near and heard him.
He resumed his toil, working late and doggedly. At supper he was very attentive to Alida, but taciturn and preoccupied; and when the meal was over he lighted his pipe and strolled out into the moonlight. She longed to follow him, yet felt it to be more impossible than if she were chained to the floor.
And so the days passed; Holcroft striving with the whole force of his will to appear absorbed in the farm, and she, with equal effort, to seem occupied and contented with her household and dairy duties. They did everything for each other that they could, and yet each thought that the other was acting from a sense of obligation, and so all the more sedulously veiled their actual thoughts and feelings from each other. Or course, such mistaken effort only led to a more complete misunderstanding.
With people of their simplicity and habit of reticence, little of what was in their hearts appeared on the surface. Neither had time to mope, and their mutual duties were in a large measure a support and refuge. Of these they could still speak freely for they pertained to business. Alida’s devotion to her work was unfeigned for it seemed now her only avenue of approach to her husband. She watched over the many broods of little chickens with tireless vigilance. If it were yellow gold, she could not have gathered the butter from the churn with greater greed. She kept the house immaculate and sought to develop her cooking into a fine art. She was scrupulous in giving Jane her lessons and trying to correct her vernacular and manners, but the presence of the child grew to be a heavier cross every day. She could not blame the girl, whose misfortune it was to lead incidentally to the change in Holcroft’s manner, yet it was impossible not to associate her with the beginning of that change. Jane was making decided improvement, and had Alida been happy and at rest this fact would have given much satisfaction in spite of the instinctive repugnance which the girl seemed to inspire universally. Holcroft recognized this repugnance and the patient effort to disguise it and be kind.
“Like enough she feels in the same way toward me,” he thought, “and is trying a sight harder not to show it. But she seems willing enough to talk business and to keep up her interest in the partnership line. Well, blamed if I wouldn’t rather talk business to her than love to any other woman!”
So it gradually came about that they had more and more to say to each other on matters relating to the farm. Holcroft showed her the receipts from the dairy, and her eyes sparkled as if he had brought jewels home to her. Then she in turn would expatiate on the poultry interests and assure him that there were already nearly two hundred little chicks on the place. One afternoon, during a shower, she ventured to beguile him into listening to the greater part of one of the agricultural journals, and with much deference made two or three suggestions about the farm, which he saw were excellent. She little
dreamed that if she were willing to talk of turning the farm upside down and inside out, he would have listened with pleasure.
They both began to acquire more serenity and hopefulness, for even this sordid business partnership was growing strangely interesting. The meals grew less and less silent, and the farmer would smoke his pipe invitingly near in the evening so that she could resume their talk on bucolic subjects without much conscious effort, while at the same time, if she did not wish his society, she could shun it without discourtesy. He soon perceived that she needed some encouragement to talk even of farm matters; but, having received it, that she showed no further reluctance. He naturally began to console himself with business as unstintedly as he dared. “As long as I keep on this tack all seems well,” he muttered. “She don’t act as if I was disagreeable to her, but then how can a man tell? If she thinks it her duty, she’ll talk and smile, yet shiver at the very thought of my touching her. Well, well, time will show. We seem to be getting more sociable, anyhow.”
They both recognized this fact and tried to disguise it and to relieve themselves from the appearance of making any undue advances by greater formality of address. In Jane’s presence he had formed the habit of speaking to his wife as Mrs. Holcroft, and now he was invariably “Mr.”
One evening in the latter part of June, he remarked at supper, “I must give half a day to hoeing the garden tomorrow. I’ve been so busy working out the corn and potatoes that it seems an age since I’ve been in the garden.”
“She and me,” began Jane, “I mean Mrs. Holcroft and I, have been in the garden.”
“That’s right, Jane, You’re coming on. I think your improved talk and manners do Mrs. Holcroft much credit. I’d like to take some lessons myself.” Then, as if a little alarmed at his words, he hastened to ask, “What have you been doing in the garden?”
“You’ll see when you go there,” replied Jane, her small eyes twinkling with the rudiments of fun.
Holcroft looked at the child as if he had not seen her for some time either. Her hair was neatly combed, braided, and tied with a blue ribbon instead of a string, her gown was as becoming as any dress could be to her, her little brown hands were clean, and they no longer managed the knife and fork in an ill-bred manner. The very expression of the child’s face was changing, and now that it was lighted up with mirth at the little surprise awaiting him, it had at least attained the negative grace of being no longer repulsive. He sighed involuntarily as he turned away. “Just see what she’s doing for that child that I once thought hideous! How much she might do for me if she cared as I do!”
He rose from the table, lighted his pipe, and went out to the doorstep. Alida looked at him wistfully. “He stood there with me once and faced a mob of men,” she thought. “Then he put his arm around me. I would face almost any danger for even such a caress again.” The memory of that hour lent her unwonted courage, and she approached him timidly and said, “Perhaps you would like to go and look at the garden? Jane and I may not have done everything right.”
“Why, certainly. I forgot about the garden; but then you’ll have to go with me if I’m to tell you.”
“I don’t mind,” she said, leading the way.
The June sun was low in the west and the air had become deliciously cool and fragrant. The old rosebushes were in bloom, and as she passed she picked a bud and fastened it on her bosom. Wood thrushes, orioles, and the whole chorus of birds were in full song: limpid rills of melody from the meadow larks flowed from the fields, and the whistling of the quails added to the harmony.
Holcroft was in a mood of which he had never been conscious before. These familiar sounds, which had been unheeded so much of his life, now affected him strangely, creating an immeasurable sadness and longing. It seemed as if perceptions which were like new senses were awakening in his mind. The world was full of wonderful beauty before unrecognized, and the woman who walked lightly and gracefully at his side was the crown of it all. He himself was so old, plain, and unworthy in contrast. His heart ached with a positive, definite pain that he was not younger, handsomer, and better equipped to win the love of his wife. As she stood in the garden, wearing the rose, her neat dress outlining her graceful form, the level rays of the sun lighting up her face and turning her hair to gold, he felt that he had never seen or imagined such a woman before. She was in harmony with the June evening and a part of it, while he, in his working clothes, his rugged, sun-browned features and hair tinged with gray, was a blot upon the scene. She who was so lovely, must be conscious of his rude, clownish appearance. He would have faced any man living and held his own on the simple basis of his manhood. Anything like scorn, although veiled, on Alida’s part, would have touched his pride and steeled his will, but the words and manner of this gentle woman who tried to act as if blind to all that he was in contrast with herself, to show him deference, kindness, and good will when perhaps she felt toward him somewhat as she did toward Jane, overwhelmed him with humility and grief. It is the essence of deep, unselfish love to depreciate itself and exalt its object. There was a superiority in Alida which Holcroft was learning to recognize more clearly every day, and he had not a trace of vanity to sustain him. Now he was in a mood to wrong and undervalue himself without limit.
She showed him how much she and Jane had accomplished, how neat and clean they had kept the rows of growing vegetables, and how good the promise was for an indefinite number of dinners, but she only added to the farmer’s depression.
He was in no mood for onions, parsnips, and their vegetable kin, yet thought, “She thinks I’m only capable of being interested in such things, and I’ve been at much pains to give that impression. She picked that rose for HERSELF, and now she’s showing ME how soon we may hope to have summer cabbage and squash. She thus shows that she knows the difference between us and that always must be between us, I fear. She is so near in our daily life, yet how can I ever get any nearer? As I feel now, it seems impossible.”
She had quickly observed his depressed, abstracted manner, but misinterpreted the causes. Her own face clouded and grew troubled. Perhaps she was revealing too much of her heart, although seeking to disguise it so sedulously, and he was penetrating her motives for doing so much in the garden and in luring him thither now. He was not showing much practical interest in beans and beets, and was evidently oppressed and ill at ease.
“I hope we have done things right?” she ventured, turning away to hide tears of disappointment.
“Her self-sacrifice is giving out,” he thought bitterly. “She finds she can scarcely look at me as I now appear in contrast with this June evening. Well, I don’t blame her. It makes me almost sick when I think of myself and I won’t be brute enough to say a harsh word to her. “You have done it all far better than I could,” he said emphatically. “I would not have believed it if you hadn’t shown me. The trouble is, you are trying to do too much. I–I think I’ll take a walk.”
In fact, he had reached the limit of endurance; he could not look upon her another moment as she appeared that evening and feel that she associated him chiefly with crops and business, and that all her grateful good will could not prevent his personality from being disagreeable. He must carry his bitterness whither no eye could see him, and as he turned, his self-disgust led him to whirl away his pipe. It struck a tree and fell shattered at its foot. Alida had never seen him do anything of the kind before, and it indicated that he was passing beyond the limits of patience. “Oh, oh,” she sobbed, “I fear we are going to drift apart! If he can’t endure to talk with me about such things, what chance have I at all? I hoped that the hour, the beauty of the evening, and the evidence that I had been trying so hard to please him would make him more like what he used to be before he seemed to take a dislike. There’s only one way to account for it all–he sees how I feel and he doesn’t like it. My very love sets him against me. My heart was overflowing tonight. How could I help it, as I remembered how he stood up for me? He was brave and kind; he meant well by me, he means well now; but he can’t help his feelings. He has gone away now to think of the woman that he did love and loves still, and it angers him that I should think of taking her place. He loved her as a child and girl and woman–he told me so; he warned me and said he could not help thinking of her. If I had not learned to love him so deeply and passionately and show it in spite of myself, time would gradually have softened the past and all might have gone well. Yet how could I help it when
he saved me from so much? I feel tonight, though, that I only escaped one kind of trouble to meet another almost as bad and which may become worse.”
She strolled to the farther end of the garden that she might become calm before meeting Jane’s scrutiny. Useless precaution! For the girl had been watching them both. Her motive had not been unmixed curiosity, since, having taken some part in the garden work, she had wished to witness Holcroft’s pleasure and hear his praises. Since the actors in the scene so misunderstood each other, she certainly would not rightly interpret them. “She’s losin’ her hold on ‘im,” she thought, “He acted just as if she was mother.”
When Jane saw Alida coming toward the house she whisked from the concealing shrubbery to the kitchen again and was stolidly washing the dishes when her mistress entered. “You are slow tonight,” said Alida, looking at the child keenly, but the impassive face revealed nothing. She set about helping the girl, feeling it would be a relief to keep her hands busy.
Jane’s efforts to comfort were always maladroit, yet the apparent situation so interested her that she yielded to her inclination to talk. “Say,” she began, and Alida was too dejected and weary to correct the child’s vernacular, “Mr. Holcroft’s got somethin’ on his mind.”
“Well, that’s not strange.”
“No, s’pose not. Hate to see ‘im look so, though. He always used to look so when mother went for ‘im and hung around ‘im. At last he cleared mother out, and just before he looked as black as he did when he passed the house while ago. You’re good to me, an’ I’d like you to stay. ‘Fi’s you I’d leave ‘im alone.”
“Jane,” said Alida coldly, “I don’t wish you ever to speak to me of such things again,” and she hastily left the room.
“Oh, well!” muttered Jane, “I’ve got eyes in my head. If you’re goin’ to be foolish, like mother, and keep a-goin’ for ‘im, it’s your lookout. I kin get along with him and he with me, and I’M goin’ to stay.”
Holcroft strode rapidly up the lane to the deep solitude at the edge of his woodland. Beneath him lay the farm and the home that he had married to keep, yet now, without a second’s hesitation, he would part with all to call his wife WIFE. How little the name now satisfied him, without the sweet realities of which the word is significant! The term and relation had become a mocking mirage. He almost cursed himself that he had exulted over his increasing bank account and general prosperity, and had complacently assured himself that she was doing just what he had asked, without any sentimental nonsense. “How could I expect it to turn out otherwise?” he thought. “From the first I made her think I hadn’t a soul for anything but crops and money. Now that she’s getting over her trouble and away from it, she’s more able to see just what I
am, or at least what she naturally thinks I am. But she doesn’t understand me–I scarcely understand myself. I long to be a different man in every way, and not to work and live like an ox. Here are some of my crops almost ready to gather and they never were better, yet I’ve no heart for the work. Seems to me it’ll wear me out if I have to carry this load of trouble all the time. I thought my old burdens hard to bear; I thought I was lonely before, but it was nothing compared with living near one you love, but from whom you are cut off by something you can’t see, yet must feel to the bottom of your heart.”
His distraught eyes rested on the church spire, fading in the twilight, and the little adjoining graveyard. “Oh, Bessie,” he groaned, “why did you die? I was good enough for YOU. Oh! That all had gone on as it was and I had never known–”
He stopped, shook his head, and was silent. At last he signed, “I DID love Bessie. I love and respect her memory as much as ever. But somehow I never felt as I do now. All was quiet and matter-of-fact in those days, yet it was real and satisfying. I was content to live on, one day like another, to the end of my days. If I hadn’t been so content it would be better for me now.
I’d have a better chance if I had read more, thought more, and fitted myself to be more of a companion for a woman like Alida. If I knew a great deal and could talk well, she might forget I’m old and homely. Bessie was so true a friend that she would wish, if she knows, what I wish. I thought I needed a housekeeper; I find I need more than all else such a wife as Alida could be–one that could help me to be a man instead of a drudge, a Christian instead of a discontented and uneasy unbeliever. At one time, it seemed that she was leading me along so naturally and pleasantly that I never was so happy; then all at once it came to me that she was doing it from gratitude and a sense of duty, and the duty grows harder for her every day. Well, there seems nothing for it now but to go on as we began and hope that the future will bring us more in sympathy.”
Chapter XXXI. “Never!”
For the next two or three days Jane had no occasion to observe that Alida was in the least degree obtrusive in her attention to the farmer. She was assiduous in her work and more diligent than ever in her conscious efforts to do what she thought he wished; but she was growing pale, constrained, and silent. She struggled heroically to appear as at first, but without much success, for she could not rally from the wound he had given her so unintentionally and which Jane’s words had deepened. She almost loathed herself under her association with Mrs. Mumpson, and her morbid thoughts had hit upon a worse reason for Holcroft’s apparent repulsion. As she questioned everything in the sleepless hours that followed the interview in the garden, she came to the miserable conclusion that he had discovered her love, and that by suggestion, natural to his mind, it reminded him of her pitiful story. He
could be sorry for her and be kind; he could even be her honest friend and protector as a wronged and unhappy woman, but he could not love one with a history like hers and did not wish her to love him. This seemed an adequate explanation of the change in their relations, but she felt that it was one under which her life would wither and her heart break.
This promised to be worse than what she had dreaded at the almshouse–the facing the world alone and working till she died among strangers. The fact that they were strangers would enable her to see their averted faces with comparative indifference, but that the man to whom she had yielded her whole heart should turn away was intolerable. She felt that he could not do this willingly but only under the imperious instincts of his nature–that he was virtually helpless in the matter. There was an element in these thoughts which stung her woman’s soul, and, as we have said, she could not rally.
Holcroft never suspected her morbid thoughts, and his loyal, loving heart was incapable of dreaming of them. He only grew more unhappy as he saw the changes in her, for he regarded himself as the cause. Yet he was perplexed and unable to account for her rapidly increasing pallor while he continued so kind, considerate, and especially so unobtrusive. He assuredly thought he was showing a disposition to give her all the time she wished to become reconciled to her lot. “Thunder!” he said to himself, “we can’t grow old together without getting used to each other.”
On Saturday noon, at dinner, he remarked, “I shall have to begin haying on Monday and so I’ll take everything to town this afternoon, for I won’t be able to go again for some days. Is there anything you’d like me to get, Mrs. Holcroft?”
She shook her head. “I don’t need anything,” she replied. He looked at her downcast face with troubled eyes and shivered. “She looks as if she were going to be sick,” he thought. “Good Lord! I feel as if there was nothing but trouble ahead. Every mouthful I take seems to choke me.”
A little later he pushed away almost untasted a piece of delicious cherry pie, the first of the season. Alida could scarcely keep the tears back as she thought, “There was a time when he would have praised it without stint. I took so much pains with it in the hope he’d notice, for he once said he was very fond of it.” Such were the straws that were indicating the deep, dark currents.
As he rose, she said almost apathetically in her dejection, “Mr. Holcroft, Jane and I picked a basket of the early cherries. You may as well sell them, for there are plenty left on the tree for us.”
“That was too much for you to do in the hot sun. Well, I’ll sell ’em and add what they bring to your egg money in the bank. You’ll get rich,” he continued, trying to smile, “if you don’t spend more.”
“I don’t wish to spend anything,” she said, turning away with the thought, “How can he think I want finery when my heart is breaking?”
Holcroft drove away, looking and feeling as if he were going to a funeral. At last he broke out, “I can’t stand this another day. Tomorrow’s Sunday, and I’ll manage to send Jane somewhere or take Alida out to walk and tell her the whole truth. She shall be made to see that I can’t help myself and that I’m willing to do anything she wishes. She’s married to me and has got to make the best of it, and I’m sure I’m willing to make it as easy as I can.”
Jane was a little perplexed at the condition of affairs. Mrs. Holcroft had left her husband alone as far as possible, as she had advised, but apparently it had not helped matters much. But she believed that the trouble she had witnessed bode her no ill and so was inclined to regard it philosophically. “He looks almost as glum, when he’s goin’ round alone, as if he’d married mother. She talked too much, and that didn’t please him; this one talks less and less, and he don’t seem pleased, nuther, but it seems to me he’s very foolish to be so fault-findin’ when she does everything for him top-notch. I never lived so well in my life, nor he, nuther, I believe. He must be in a bad way when he couldn’t eat that cherry pie.”
Alida was so weary and felt so ill that she went to the parlor and lay down upon the lounge. “My heart feels as if it were bleeding slowly away,” she murmured. “If I’m going to be sick the best thing I can do is to die and end it all,” and she gave way to that deep dejection in which there seems no remedy for trouble.
The hours dragged slowly by; Jane finished her household tasks very leisurely, then taking a basket, went out to the garden to pick some early peas. While thus engaged, she saw a man coming up the lane. His manner instantly riveted her attention and awakened her curiosity, and she crouched lower behind the pea vines for concealment. All her furtive, watchful instincts were awake, and her conscience was clear, too, for certainly she had a right to spy upon a stranger.
The man seemed almost as furtive as herself; his eyes were everywhere and his step slow and hesitating. Instead of going directly to the house he cautiously entered the barn, and she heard him a little later call Mr. Holcroft. Of course there was no answer, and as if reassured, he approached the house, looking here and there on every side, seemingly to see if anyone was about. Jane had associated with men and boys too long to have any childlike timidity, and she also had just confidence in her skulking and running powers. “After all, he don’t want nothin’ of me and won’t hurt me,” she reasoned. “He acts mighty queer though and I’m goin’ to hear what he says.”
The moment he passed the angle of the house she dodged around to its rear and
stole into the dairy room, being well aware that from this position she could overhear words spoken in ordinary conversational tones in the apartment above. She had barely gained her ambush when she heard Alida half shriek, “Henry Ferguson!”
It was indeed the man who had deceived her that had stolen upon her solitude. His somewhat stealthy approach had been due to the wish and expectation of finding her alone, and he had about convinced himself that she was so by exploring the barn and observing the absence of the horses and wagon. Cunning and unscrupulous, it was his plan to appear before the woman who had thought herself his wife, without any warning whatever, believing that in the tumult of her surprise and shock she would be off her guard and that her old affection would reassert itself. He passed through the kitchen to the parlor door. Alida, in her deep, painful abstraction, did not hear him until he stood in the doorway, and, with outstretched arms, breathed her name. Then, as if struck a blow, she had sprung to her feet, half shrieked his name and stood panting, regarding him as if he were a specter.
“Your surprise is natural, Alida, dear,” he said gently, “but I’ve a right to come to you, for my wife is dead,” and he advanced toward her.
“Stand back!” she cried sternly. “You’ve no right, and never can have.”
“Oh, yes, I have!” he replied in a wheedling tone. “Come, come! Your nerves are shaken. Sit down, for I’ve much to tell you.”
“No, I won’t sit down, and I tell you to leave me instantly. You’ve no right here and I no right to listen to you.”
“I can soon prove that you have a better right to listen to me than to anyone else. Were we not married by a minister?”
“Yes, but that made no difference. You deceived both him and me.”
“It made no difference, perhaps, in the eye of the law, while that woman you saw was living, but she’s dead, as I can easily prove. How were you married to this man Holcroft?”
Alida grew dizzy; everything whirled and grew black before her eyes as she sank into a chair. He came to her and took her hand, but his touch was a most effectual restorative. She threw his hand away and said hoarsely, “Do you–do you mean that you have any claim on me?”
“Who has a better claim?” he asked cunningly. “I loved you when I married you and I love you now. Do you think I rested a moment after I was free from the woman I detested? No, indeed; nor did I rest till I found out who took you from the almshouse to be his household drudge, not wife. I’ve seen the justice who aided in the wedding farce, and learned how this man Holcroft made
him cut down even the ceremony of a civil marriage to one sentence. It was positively heathenish, and he only took you because he couldn’t get a decent servant to live with him.”
“O God!” murmured the stricken woman. “Can such a horrible thing be?”
“So it seems,” he resumed, misinterpreting her. “Come now!” he said confidently, and sitting down, “Don’t look so broken up about it. Even while that woman was living I felt that I was married to you and you only; now that I’m free–”
“But I’m not free and don’t wish to be.”
“Don’t be foolish, Alida. You know this farmer don’t care a rap for you. Own up now, does he?”
The answer was a low, half-despairing cry.
“There, I knew it was so. What else could you expect? Don’t you see I’m your true refuge and not this hard-hearted, money-grasping farmer?”
“Stop speaking against him!” she cried. “O God!” she wailed, “can the law give this man any claim on me, now his wife is dead?”
“Yes, and one I mean to enforce,” he replied doggedly.
“I don’t believe she’s dead, I don’t believe anything you say! You deceived me once.
“I’m not deceiving you now, Alida,” he said with much solemnity. “She IS dead. If you were calmer, I have proofs to convince you in these papers. Here’s the newspaper, too, containing the notice of her death,” and he handed it to her.
She read it with her frightened eyes, and then the paper dropped from her half-paralyzed hands to the floor. She was so unsophisticated, and her brain was in such a whirl of confusion and terror, that she was led to believe at the moment that he had a legal claim upon her which he could enforce.
“Oh, that Mr. Holcroft were here!” she cried desperately. “He wouldn’t deceive me; he never deceived me.”
“It is well for him that he isn’t here,” said Ferguson, assuming a dark look.
“What do you mean?” she gasped.
“Come, come, Alida!” he said, smiling reassuringly. “You are frightened and nervous, and I don’t wish to make you any more so. You know how I would naturally regard the man who I feel has my wife; but let us forget about him.
Listen to my plan. All I ask of you is to go with me to some distant place where neither of us are known, and–”
“Never!” she interrupted.
“Don’t say that,” he replied coolly. “Do you think I’m a man to be trifled with after what I’ve been through?”
“You can’t compel me to go against my will,” and there was an accent of terror in her words which made them a question.
He saw his vantage more clearly and said quietly, “I don’t want to compel you if it can be helped. You know how true I was to you–”
“No, no! You deceived me. I won’t believe you now.”
“You may have to. At any rate, you know how fond I was of you, and I tell you plainly, I won’t give you up now. This man doesn’t love you, nor do you love him–”
“I DO love him, I’d die for him! There now, you know the truth. You wouldn’t compel a woman to follow you who shrinks from you in horror, even if you had the right. Although the ceremony was brief it WAS a ceremony; and he was not married then, as you were when you deceived me. He has ever been truth itself, and I won’t believe you have any rights till he tells me so himself.”
“So you shrink from me with horror, do you?” asked Ferguson, rising, his face growing black with passion.
“Yes, I do. Now leave me and let me never see you again.”
“And you are going to ask this stupid old farmer about my rights?”
“Yes. I’ll take proof of them from no other, and even if he confirmed your words I’d never live with you again. I would live alone till I died!”
“That’s all very foolish high tragedy, but if you’re not careful there may be some real tragedy. If you care for this Holcroft, as you say, you had better go quietly away with me.”
“What do you mean?” she faltered tremblingly.
“I mean I’m a desperate man whom the world has wronged too much already. You know the old saying, ‘Beware of the quiet man!’ You know how quiet, contented, and happy I was with you, and so I would be again to the end of my days. You are the only one who can save me from becoming a criminal, a vagabond, for with you only have I known happiness. Why should I live or care to live? If this farmer clod keeps you from me, woe betide him! My one
object in living will be his destruction. I shall hate him only as a man robbed as I am can hate.”
“What would you do?” she could only ask in a horrified whisper. “I can only tell you that he’d never be safe a moment. I’m not afraid of him. You see I’m armed,” and he showed her a revolver. “He can’t quietly keep from me what I feel is my own.”
“Merciful Heaven! This is terrible,” she gasped. “Of course it’s terrible–I mean it to be so. You can’t order me off as if I
were a tramp. Your best course for his safety is to go quietly with me at once. I have a carriage waiting near at hand.” “No, no! I’d rather die than do that, and though he cannot feel as I do, I
believe he’d rather die than have me do it.” “Oh, well! If you think he’s so ready to die–” “No, I don’t mean that! Kill me! I want to die.” “Why should I kill you?” he asked with a contemptuous laugh. “That wouldn’t do
me a particle of good. It will be your own fault if anyone is hurt.” “Was ever a woman put in such a cruel position?” “Oh, yes! Many and many a time. As a rule, though, they are too sensible and
kind-hearted to make so much trouble.”
“If you have legal rights, why don’t you quietly enforce them instead of threatening?” For a moment he was confused and then said recklessly, “It would come to the
same thing in the end. Holcroft would never give you up.” “He’d have to. I wouldn’t stay here a moment if I had no right.” “But you said you would not live with me again?” “Nor would I. I’d go back to the poorhouse and die there, for do you think I
could live after another such experience? But my mind has grown clearer. You are deceiving me again, and Mr. Holcroft is incapable of deceiving me. He would never have called me his wife unless I was his wife before God and man.”
“I’m not deceiving you in regard to one thing!” he said tragically.
“O God, what shall I do?”
“If you won’t go with me you must leave him,” he replied, believing that, if this step were taken, others would follow.
“If I leave him–if I go away and live alone, will you promise to do him no harm?”
“I’d have no motive to harm him then, which will be better security than a promise. At the same time I do promise.”
“And you will also promise to leave me utterly alone?”
“If I can.”
“You must promise never even to tempt me to think of going away. I’d rather you’d shot me than ask it. I’m not a weak, timid girl. I’m a broken-hearted woman who fears some things far more than death.”
“If you have any fears for Holcroft, they are very rational ones.”
“It is for his sake that I would act. I would rather suffer anything and lose everything than have harm come to him.”
“All I can say is that, if you will leave him completely and finally, I will let him alone. But you must do it promptly. Everything depends upon this. I’m in too reckless and bitter a mood to be trifled with. Besides, I’ve plenty of money and could escape from the country in twenty-four hours. You needn’t think you can tell this story to Holcroft and that he can protect you and himself. I’m here under an assumed name and have seen no one who knows me. I may have to disappear for a time and be disguised when I come again, but I pledge you my word he’ll never be safe as long as you are under his roof.”
“Then I will sacrifice myself for him,” she said, pallid even to her lips. “I will go away. But never dream that you can come near me again–you who deceived and wronged me, and now, far worse, threaten the man I love.”
“We’ll see about that,” he replied cynically. “At any rate, you will have left him.”
“Go!” she said imperiously.
“I’ll take a kiss first, sweetheart,” he said, advancing with a sardonic smile.
“Jane!” she shrieked. He paused, and she saw evidences of alarm.
The girl ran lightly out of the dairy room, where she had been a greedy
listener to all that had been said, and a moment later appeared in the yard before the house. “Yes’m,” she answered.
“Be careful now, sir,” said Alida sternly. “There’s a witness.”
“Only a little idiotic-looking girl.”
“She’s not idiotic, and if you touch me the compact’s broken.”
“Very well, my time will come. Remember, you’ve been warned,” and he pulled his hat over his eyes and strode away.
“Bah!” said Jane with a snicker, “as if I hadn’t seen his ugly mug so I’d know it ‘mong a thousand.”
With a face full of loathing and dread, Alida watched her enemy disappear down the lane, and then, half fainting, sank on the lounge.
“Jane!” she called feebly, but there was no answer.
Chapter XXXII. Jane Plays Mouse to the Lion
It can well be understood that Jane had no disposition to return to Mrs. Holcroft and the humdrum duties of the house. There opened before her an exciting line of action which fully accorded with her nature, and she entered upon it at once. Her first impulse was to follow the man of whom she had learned so much. Not only was she spurred to this course by her curiosity, but also by her instinctive loyalty to Holcroft, and, it must be admitted, by her own interests. Poor little Jane had been nurtured in a hard school, and had by this time learned the necessity of looking out for herself. This truth, united with her shrewd, matter-of-fact mind, led her to do the most sensible thing under the circumstances. “I know a lot now that he’ll be glad to know, and if I tell him everything he’ll keep me always. The first thing he’ll want to know is what’s become of that threatenin’ scamp,” and she followed Ferguson with the stealth of an Indian.
Ferguson was not only a scamp, but, like most of his class, a coward. He had been bitterly disappointed in his interview with Alida. As far as his selfish nature permitted, he had a genuine affection for her, and he had thought of little else besides her evident fondness for him. He was so devoid of moral principle that he could not comprehend a nature like hers, and had scarcely believed it possible that she would repulse him so inflexibly. She had always been so gentle, yielding, and subservient to his wishes that he had thought that, having been assured of his wife’s death, a little persuasion and perhaps a few threats would induce her to follow him, for he could not imagine her becoming attached to such a man as Holcroft had been described to be. Her uncompromising principle had entered but slightly into his calculations, and
so, under the spur of anger and selfishness, he had easily entered upon a game of bluff He knew well enough that he had no claim upon Alida, yet it was in harmony with his false heart to try to make her think so. He had no serious intention of harming Holcroft–he would be afraid to attempt this–but if he could so work on Alida’s fears as to induce her to leave her husband, he believed that the future would be full of possibilities. At any rate, he would find his revenge in making Alida and Holcroft all the trouble possible. Even in the excitement of the interview, however, he realized that he was playing a dangerous game, and when Jane answered so readily to Alida’s call he was not a little disturbed. Satisfied that he had accomplished all that he could hope for at present, his purpose now was to get back to town unobserved and await developments. He therefore walked rapidly down the lane and pursued the road for a short distance until he came to an old, disused lane, leading up the hillside into a grove where he had concealed a horse and buggy. Unless there should be necessity, it was his intention to remain in his hiding place until after nightfall.
Jane had merely to skirt the bushy hillside higher up, in order to keep Ferguson in view and discover the spot in which he was lurking. Instead of returning to the house she kept right on, maintaining a sharp eye on the road beneath to make sure that Holcroft did not pass unobserved. By an extended detour, she reached the highway and continued toward town in the hope of meeting the farmer. At last she saw him driving rapidly homeward. He was consumed with anxiety to be at least near to Alida, even if, as he believed, he was no longer welcome in her presence. When Jane stepped out into the road he pulled up his horses and stared at her. She, almost bursting with her great secrets, put her finger on her lips and nodded portentously.
“Well, what is it?” he asked, his heart beating quickly.
“I’ve got a lot to tell yer, but don’t want no one to see us.”
“About my wife?”
The girl nodded.
“Good God! Speak then. Is she sick?” and he sprung out and caught her arm with a grip that hurt her.
“Please, sir, I’m doin’ all I kin for yer and–and you hurt me.”
Holcroft saw the tears coming to her eyes and he released his hold as he said, “Forgive me, Jane, I didn’t mean to; but for mercy’s sake, tell your story.”
“It’s a long ‘un.”
“Well, well, give me the gist of it in a word.”
“I guess she’s goin’ to run away.”
Holcroft groaned and almost staggered to his horses’ heads, then led them to the roadside and tied them to a tree. Sitting down, as if too weak to stand, he buried his face in his hands. He could not bear to have Jane see his distress. “Tell your story,” he said hoarsely, “quick, for I may have to act quickly.”
“Guess yer will. Did yer know she was married?”
“No, to another man–married by a minister. He’s been there with her.” She little foresaw the effect of her words, for the farmer bounded to his feet with an oath and sprang to his horses.
“Stop!” cried Jane, tugging at his arm. “If you go rushin’ home now, you’ll show you’ve got no more sense than mother. You’ll spoil everything. She aint goin’ to run away with HIM–she said she wouldn’t, though he coaxed and threatened to kill yer if she didn’t. ‘Fi’s a man I wouldn’t act like a mad bull. I’d find out how to get ahead of t’other man.”
“Well,” said Holcroft, in a voice that frightened the child, “she said she wouldn’t run away with this scoundrel–of course not–but you say she’s going to leave. She’ll meet him somewhere–good God! But how should you understand? Come, let me get home!”
“I understand a sight more’n you do, and you go on so that I can’t tell you anything. If you showed sense, you’d be glad I was lookin’ out for you so I could tell you everything. What’s the good of goin’ rampaigin’ home when, if you’d only listen, you could get even with that scoundrel, as yer call ‘im, and make all right,” and Jane began to cry.
“Oh, thunder!” exclaimed the chafing man, “tell me your story at once, or you’ll drive me mad. You don’t half know what you’re talking about or how much your words mean–how should you? The thing to do is to get home as soon as possible.”
“You aint no reason to be so mad and glum all the while,” cried Jane, smarting under a sense of injustice. “Here I’m a-tryin’ to do for you, and you’ll be sorry ernuff if you don’t stop and listen. And she’s been a-tryin’ to do for you all along, and she’s been standin’ up for you this afternoon, and is goin’ to run away to save your life.”
“Run away to save my life? Are you crazy?”
“No, but you be,” cried the girl, excited and exasperated beyond restraint. “If she IS your wife I’d stand up for her and take care of her, since she
stands up for you so. ‘Stead of that, you go round as glum as a thundercloud and now want to go ragin’ home to her. Dunno whether she’s your wife or not, but I DO know she said she loved you and ‘ud die for you, and she wouldn’t do a thing that man asked but go away to save your life.”
Holcroft looked at the girl as if dazed. “Said she LOVED me?” he repeated slowly.
“Of course! You knowed that all ‘long–anybody could see it–an’ you don’t treat her much better’n you did mother.” Then, with an impatient gesture, she asked, “Will you sit down and listen?”
“No, I won’t!” he cried, springing toward his horses. “I’ll find out if your words are true.”
“Oh, yes!” said Jane contemptuously; “run right to her to find out somethin’ as plain as the nose on her face, and run right by the man that was threatenin’ her and you too.”
Wheeling round, he asked, “Where is he?”
“I know, but I won’t say ‘nuther word till you stop goin’ on. ‘Fi’s a man I’d find out what to do ‘fore I did anythin’.”
Jane had little comprehension of the tempest she had raised in Holcroft’s soul or its causes, and so was in no mood to make allowances for him. By this time, the first gust of his passion was passing and reason resuming its sway. He paced up and down in the road a moment or two, and then sat down as he said, “I don’t half understand what you’ve been talking about and I fear you don’t. You’ve evidently been listening and watching and have got hold of something. Now, I’ll be as patient as I can if you’ll tell me the whole story quickly,” and he turned his flushed, quivering face toward her.
“Then I s’pose you’ll scold me for listenin’ and watchin’ that scamp,” said the girl sullenly.
“No, Jane, not in this case. Unless your impressions are all mistaken I may have to thank you all my life. I’m not one to forget those who are true to me. Now, begin at the beginning and go right through to the end; then I may understand better than you can.”
Jane did as she was told, and many “says he’s” and “says she’s” followed in her literal narrative. Holroft again dropped his face into his hands, and before she was through, tears of joy trickled through his fingers. When she finished, he arose, turned away, and hastily wiped his eyes, then gave the girl his hand as he said, “Thank you, Jane. You’ve tried to be a true friend to me today. I’ll show you that I don’t forget. I was a fool to get in such a rage, but you can’t understand and must forgive me. Come, you see I’m quiet
now,” and he untied the horses and lifted her into his wagon.
“What yer doin’ to do?” she asked, as they drove away.
“I’m going to reward you for watching and listening to that scoundrel, but you must not watch me or Mrs. Holcroft, or listen to what we say unless we speak before you. If you do, I shall be very angry. Now, you’ve only one thing more to do and that is, show me where this man is hiding.”
“But you won’t go near him alone?” inquired Jane in much alarm.
“You must do as I bid you,” he replied sternly. “Show me where he’s hiding, then stay by the wagon and horses.”
“But he same as said he’d kill you.”
“You have your orders,” was his quiet reply.
She looked scared enough, but remained silent until they reached a shaded spot on the road, then said, “If you don’t want him to see you too soon, better tie here. He’s around yonder, in a grove up on the hill.”
Holcroft drove to a tree by the side of the highway and again tied his horses, then took the whip from the wagon. “Are you afraid to go with me a little way and show me just where he is?” he asked.
“No, but you oughtn’ ter go.”
“Come on, then! You must mind me if you wish to keep my good will. I know what I’m about.” As in his former encounter, his weapon was again a long, tough whipstock with a leather thong attached. This he cut off and put in his pocket, then followed Jane’s rapid lead up the hill. Very soon she said, “There’s the place I saw ‘im in. If you will go, I’d steal up on him.”
“Yes. You stay here.” She made no reply, but the moment he disappeared she was upon his trail. Her curiosity was much greater than her timidity, and she justly reasoned that she had little to fear.
Holcroft approached from a point whence Ferguson was expecting no danger. The latter was lying on the ground, gnawing his nails in vexation, when he first heard the farmer’s step. Then he saw a dark-visaged man rushing upon him. In the impulse of his terror, he drew his revolver and fired. The ball hissed near, but did no harm, and before Ferguson could use the weapon again, a blow from the whipstock paralyzed his arm and the pistol dropped to the ground. So also did its owner a moment later, under a vindictive rain of blows, until he shrieked for mercy.
“Don’t move!” said Holcroft sternly, and he picked up the revolver. “So you
meant to kill me, eh?”
“No, no! I didn’t. I wouldn’t have fired if it hadn’t been in self-defense and because I hadn’t time to think.” He spoke with difficulty, for his mouth was bleeding and he was terribly bruised.
“A liar, too!” said the farmer, glowering down upon him. “But I knew that before. What did you mean by your threats to my wife?”
“See here, Mr. Holcroft; I’m down and at your mercy. If you’ll let me off I’ll go away and never trouble you or your wife again.”
“Oh, no!” said Holcroft with a bitter laugh. “You’ll never, never trouble us again.”
“What, do you mean to murder me?” Ferguson half shrieked.
“Would killing such a thing as you be murder? Any jury in the land would acquit me. You ought to be roasted over a slow fire.”
The fellow tried to scramble on his knees, but Holcroft hit him another savage blow, and said, “Lie still!”
Ferguson began to wring his hands and beg for mercy. His captor stood over him a moment or two irresolutely in his white-heated anger; then thoughts of his wife began to soften him. He could not go to her with blood on his hands–she who had taught him such lessons of forbearance and forgiveness. He put the pistol in his pocket and giving his enemy a kick, said, “Get up!”
The man rose with difficulty.
“I won’t waste time in asking any promises from YOU, but if you ever trouble my wife or me again, I’ll break every bone in your body. Go, quick, before my mood changes, and don’t say a word.”
As the man tremblingly untied his horse, Jane stepped out before him and said, “I’m a little idiotic girl, am I?”
He was too thoroughly cowed to make any reply and drove as rapidly away as the ground permitted, guiding his horse with difficulty in his maimed condition.
Jane, in the exuberance of her pleasure, began something like a jig on the scene of conflict, and her antics were so ridiculous that Holcroft had to turn away to repress a smile. “You didn’t mind me, Jane,” he said gravely.
“Well, sir,” she replied, “after showin’ you the way to ‘im, you oughter not grudge me seein’ the fun.”
“But it isn’t nice for little girls to see such things.”
“Never saw anything nicer in my life. You’re the kind of man I believe in, you are. Golly! Only wished SHE’D seen you. I’ve seen many a rough and tumble ‘mong farm hands, but never anything like this. It was only his pistol I was ‘fraid of.”
“Will you do exactly what I say now?”
“Well, go home across the fields and don’t by word or manner let Mrs. Holcroft know what you’ve seen or heard, and say nothing about meeting me. Just make her think you know nothing at all and that you only watched the man out of sight. Do this and I’ll give you a new dress.”
“I’d like somethin’ else ‘sides that.”
“I’d like to be sure I could stay right on with you.”
“Yes, Jane, after today, as long as you’re a good girl. Now go, for I must get back to my team before this scamp goes by.”
She darted homeward as the farmer returned to his wagon. Ferguson soon appeared and seemed much startled as he saw his Nemesis again. “I’ll keep my word,” he said, as he drove by.
“You’d better!” called the farmer. “You know what to expect now.”
Alida was so prostrated by the shock of the interview that she rallied slowly. At last she saw that it was getting late and that she soon might expect the return of her husband. She dragged herself to the door and again called Jane, but the place was evidently deserted. Evening was coming on tranquilly, with all its sweet June sounds, but now every bird song was like a knell. She sunk on the porch seat and looked at the landscape, already so dear and familiar, as if she were taking a final farewell of a friend. Then she turned to the homely kitchen to which she had first been brought. “I can do a little more for him,” she thought, “before I make the last sacrifice which will soon bring the end. I think I could have lived–lived, perhaps, till I was old, if I had gone among strangers from the almshouse, but I can’t now. My heart is broken. Now that I’ve seen that man again I understand why my husband cannot love me. Even the thought of touching me must make him shudder. But I can’t bear up under such a load much longer, and that’s my comfort. It’s best I should go away now; I couldn’t do otherwise,” and the tragedy went on in her soul as she feebly prepared her husband’s meal.
At last Jane came in with her basket of peas. Her face was so impassive as to suggest that she had no knowledge of anything except that there had been a visitor, and Alida had sunk into such depths of despairing sorrow that she scarcely noticed the child.
Chapter XXXIII. “Shrink from YOU?”
Holcroft soon came driving slowly up the lane as if nothing unusual was on his mind. Having tied his horses, he brought in an armful of bundles and said kindly, “Well, Alida, here I am again, and I guess I’ve brought enough to last well through haying time.”
“Yes,” she replied with averted face. This did not trouble him any now, but her extreme pallor did and he added, “You don’t look well. I wouldn’t mind getting much supper tonight. Let Jane do the work.”
“I’d rather do it,” she replied.
“Oh, well!” laughing pleasantly, “you shall have your own way. Who has a better right than you, I’d like to know?”
“Don’t speak that way,” she said, almost harshly, under the tension of her feelings. “I–I can’t stand it. Speak and look as you did before you went away.”
“Jane,” said the farmer, “go and gather the eggs.”
As soon as they were alone, he began gently, “Alida–”
“Please don’t speak so to me today. I’ve endured all I can. I can’t keep up another minute unless you let things go on as they were. Tomorrow I’ll try to tell you all. It’s your right.”
“I didn’t mean to say anything myself till after supper, and perhaps not till tomorrow, but I think I’d better. It will be better for us both, and our minds will be more at rest. Come with me into the parlor, Alida.”
“Well, perhaps the sooner it’s over the better,” she said faintly and huskily.
She sunk on the lounge and looked at him with such despairing eyes that tears came into his own.
“Alida,” he began hesitatingly, “after I left you this noon I felt I must speak with and be frank with you.”
“No, no!!” she cried, with an imploring gesture, “if it must be said, let me say it. I couldn’t endure to hear it from you. Before you went away I
understood it all, and this afternoon the truth has been burned into my soul. That horrible man has been here–the man I thought my husband–and he has made it clearer, if possible. I don’t blame you that you shrink from me as if I were a leper. I feel as if I were one.”
“I shrink from YOU!” he exclaimed.
“Yes. Can you think I haven’t seen the repugnance growing in spite of yourself? When I thought of that man–especially when he came today–I understood WHY too well. I cannot stay here any longer. You’d try to be kind and considerate, but I’d know how you felt all the time. It would not be safe for you and it would not be right for me to stay, either, and that settles it. Be–be as kind to me–as you can a few–a few hours longer, and then let me go quietly.” Her self-control gave way, and burying her face in her hands, she sobbed convulsively.
In a moment he was on his knees beside her, with his arm about her waist. “Alida, dear Alida!” he cried, “we’ve both been in the dark about each other. What I resolved to do, when I started for town, was to tell you that I had learned to love you and to throw myself on your mercy. I thought you saw I was loving you and that you couldn’t bear to think of such a thing in an old, homely fellow like me. That was all that was in my mind, so help me God!”
“But–but HE’S been here,” she faltered; “you don’t realize–”
“I don’t believe I do or can, yet, Alida, dear, but that blessed Jane’s spying trait has served me the best turn in the world. She heard every brave word you said and I shed tears of joy when she told me; and tears are slow coming to my eyes. You think I shrink from you, do you?” and he kissed her hands passionately. “See,” he cried, “I kneel to you in gratitude for all you’ve been to me and are to me.”
“Oh, James! Please rise. It’s too much.”
“No, not till you promise to go with me to a minister and hear me promise to love, cherish–yes, in your case I’ll promise to obey.”
She bowed her head upon his shoulder in answer. Springing up, he clasped her close and kissed away her tears as he exclaimed, “No more business marriage for me, if you please. There never was a man so in love with his wife.”
Suddenly she looked up and said fearfully, “James, he threatened you. He said you’d never be safe a moment as long as I stayed here.”
His answer was a peal of laughter. “I’ve done more than threaten him. I’ve whipped him within an inch of his life, and it was the thought of you that led me, in my rage, to spare his life. I’ll tell you all–I’m going to tell you everything now. How much trouble I might have saved if I had told you my
thoughts! What was there, Alida, in an old fellow like me that led you to care so?”
Looking up shyly, she replied, “I think it was the MAN in you–and–then you stood up for me so.”
“Well, love is blind, I suppose, but it don’t seem to me that mine is. There never was a man so taken in at his marriage. You were so different from what I expected that I began loving you before I knew it, but I thought you were good to me just as you were to Jane–from a sense of duty–and that you couldn’t abide me personally. So I tried to keep out of your way. And, Alida, dear, I thought at first that I was taken by your good traits and your education and all that, but I found out at last that I had fallen in love with YOU. Now you know all. You feel better now, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she breathed softly.
“You’ve had enough to wear a saint out,” he continued kindly. “Lie down on the lounge and I’ll bring your supper to you.”
“No, please! It will do me more good to go on and act as if nothing had happened.”
“Well, have your own way, little wife. You’re boss now, sure enough.”
She drew him to the porch, and together they looked upon the June landscape which she had regarded with such despairing eyes an hour before.
“Happiness never kills, after all,” she said.
“Shouldn’t be alive if it did,” he replied. “The birds seem to sing as if they knew.”
Jane emerged from the barn door with a basket of eggs, and Alida sped away to meet her. The first thing the child knew the arms of her mistress were about her neck and she was kissed again and again.
“What did you do that for?” she asked.
“You’ll understand some day.”
“Say,” said Jane in an impulse of good will, “if you’re only half married to Mr. Holcroft, I’d go the whole figure, ‘fi’s you. If you’d ‘a’ seen him a-thrashin’ that scamp you’d know he’s the man to take care of you.”
“Yes, Jane, I know. He’ll take care of me always.”
The next morning Holcroft and Alida drove to town and went to the church which
she and her mother used to attend. After the service they followed the clergyman home, where Alida again told him her story, though not without much help from the farmer. After some kindly reproach that she had not brought her troubles to him at first, the minister performed a ceremony which found deep echoes in both their hearts.
Time and right, sensible living soon remove prejudice from the hearts of the good and stop the mouths of the cynical and scandal-loving. Alida’s influence, and the farmer’s broadening and more unselfish views gradually bought him into a better understanding of his faith, and into a kinder sympathy and charity for his neighbors than he had ever known. His relations to the society of which he was a part became natural and friendly, and his house a pretty and a hospitable home. Even Mrs. Watterly eventually entered its portals. She and others were compelled to agree with Watterly that Alida was not of the “common sort,” and that the happiest good fortune which could befall any man had come to Holcroft when he fell in love with his wife.