Part 1 out of 4
Scanned by Charles Keller with
OmniPage Professional OCR software
donated by Caere Corporation, 1-800-535-7226.
Contact Mike Lough
A STORY OF TO-DAY
"My matter hath no voice to alien ears."
TO MY MOTHER.
Let me tell you a story of To-Day,--very homely and narrow in its
scope and aim. Not of the To-Day whose significance in the
history of humanity only those shall read who will live when you
and I are dead. We can bear the pain in silence, if our hearts
are strong enough, while the nations of the earth stand afar off.
I have no word of this To-Day to speak. I write from the border
of the battlefield, and I find in it no theme for shallow
argument or flimsy rhymes. The shadow of death has fallen on us;
it chills the very heaven. No child laughs in my face as I pass
down the street. Men have forgotten to hope, forgotten to pray;
only in the bitterness of endurance, they say "in the morning,
`Would God it were even!' and in the evening, `Would God it were
morning!'" Neither I nor you have the prophet's vision to see
the age as its meaning stands written before God. Those who
shall live when we are dead may tell their children, perhaps,
how, out of anguish and darkness such as the world seldom has
borne, the enduring morning evolved of the true world and the
true man. It is not clear to us. Hands wet with a brother's
blood for the Right, a slavery of intolerance, the hackneyed cant
of men, or the blood-thirstiness of women, utter no prophecy to
us of the great To-Morrow of content and right that holds the
world. Yet the To-Morrow is there; if God lives, it is there.
The voice of the meek Nazarene, which we have deafened down as
ill-timed, unfit to teach the watchword of the hour, renews the
quiet promise of its coming in simple, humble things. Let us go
down and look for it. There is no need that we should feebly
vaunt and madden ourselves over our self-seen rights, whatever
they may be, forgetting what broken shadows they are of eternal
truths in that calm where He sits and with His quiet hand
Patriotism and Chivalry are powers in the tranquil, unlimited
lives to come, as well as here, I know; but there are less
partial truths, higher hierarchies who serve the God-man, that do
not speak to us in bayonets and victories,-- Mercy and Love. Let
us not quite neglect them, unpopular angels though they be. Very
humble their voices are, just now: yet not altogether dead, I
think. Why, the very low glow of the fire upon the hearth tells
me something of recompense coming in the hereafter,--
Christmas-days, and heartsome warmth; in these bare hills
trampled down by armed men, the yellow clay is quick with pulsing
fibres, hints of the great heart of life and love throbbing
within; slanted sunlight would show me, in these sullen
smoke-clouds from the camp, walls of amethyst and jasper, outer
ramparts of the Promised Land. Do not call us traitors, then,
who choose to be cool and silent through the fever of the
hour,--who choose to search in common things for auguries of the
hopeful, helpful calm to come, finding even in these poor
sweet-peas, thrusting their tendrils through the brown mould; a
deeper, more healthful lesson for the eye and soul than warring
truths. Do not call me a traitor, if I dare weakly to hint that
there are yet other characters besides that of Patriot in which a
man may appear creditably in the great masquerade, and not blush
when it is over; or if I tell you a story of To-Day, in which
there shall be no bloody glare,--only those homelier, subtiler
lights which we have overlooked. If it prove to you that the sun
of old times still shines, and the God of old times still lives,
is not that enough?
My story is very crude and homely, as I said,--only a rough
sketch of one or two of those people whom you see every day, and
call "dregs," sometimes,--a dull, plain bit of prose, such as you
might pick for yourself out of any of these warehouses or
back-streets. I expect you to call it stale and plebeian, for I
know the glimpses of life it pleases you best to find; idyls
delicately tinted; passion-veined hearts, cut bare for curious
eyes; prophetic utterances, concrete and clear; or some word of
pathos or fun from the old friends who have endenizened
themselves in everybody's home. You want something, in fact, to
lift you out of this crowded, tobacco-stained commonplace, to
kindle and chafe and glow in you. I want you to dig into this
commonplace, this vulgar American life, and see what is in it.
Sometimes I think it has a new and awful significance that we do
Your ears are openest to the war-trumpet now. Ha! that is
spirit-stirring!--that wakes up the old Revolutionary blood!
Your manlier nature had been smothered under drudgery, the poor
daily necessity for bread and butter. I want you to go down into
this common, every-day drudgery, and consider if there might not
be in it also a great warfare. Not a serfish war; not altogether
ignoble, though even its only end may appear to be your daily
food. A great warfare, I think, with a history as old as the
world, and not without its pathos. It has its slain. Men and
women, lean-jawed, crippled in the slow, silent battle, are in
your alleys, sit beside you at your table; its martyrs sleep
under every green hill-side.
You must fight in it; money will buy you no discharge from that
war. There is room in it, believe me, whether your post be on a
judge's bench, or over a wash-tub, for heroism, for knightly
honour, for purer triumph than his who falls foremost in the
breach. Your enemy, Self, goes with you from the cradle to the
coffin; it is a hand-to-hand struggle all the sad, slow way,
fought in solitude,--a battle that began with the first
heart-beat, and whose victory will come only when the drops ooze
out, and sudden halt in the veins,--a victory, if you can gain
it, that will drift you not a little way upon the coasts of the
wider, stronger range of being, beyond death.
Let me roughly outline for you one or two lives that I have
known, and how they conquered or were worsted in the fight. Very
common lives, I know,--such as are swarming in yonder
market-place; yet I dare to call them voices of God,--all!
My reason for choosing this story to tell you is simple enough.
An old book, which I happened to find to-day, recalled it. It
was a ledger, iron-bound, with the name of the firm on the
outside,--Knowles & Co. You may have heard of the firm: they
were large woollen manufacturers: supplied the home market in
Indiana for several years. This ledger, you see by the writing,
has been kept by a woman. That is not unusual in Western trading
towns, especially in factories where the operatives are chiefly
women. In such establishments, they can fill every post
successfully, but that of overseer: they are too hard with the
hands for that.
The writing here is curious: concise, square, not flowing,--very
legible, however, exactly suited to its purpose. People who
profess to read character in chirography would decipher but
little from these cramped, quiet lines. Only this, probably:
that the woman, whoever she was, had not the usual fancy of her
sex for dramatizing her soul in her writing, her dress, her
face,--kept it locked up instead, intact; that her words and
looks, like her writing, were most likely simple, mere absorbents
by which she drew what she needed of the outer world to her, not
flaunting helps to fling herself, or the tragedy or comedy that
lay within, before careless passers-by. The first page has the
date, in red letters, October 2, 1860, largely and clearly
written. I am sure the woman's hand trembled a little when she
took up the pen; but there is no sign of it here; for it was a
new, desperate adventure to her, and she was young, with no faith
in herself. She did not look desperate, at all,--a quiet, dark
girl, coarsely dressed in brown.
There was not much light in the office where she sat; for the
factory was in one of the close by-streets of the town, and the
office they gave her was only a small square closet in the
seventh story. It had but one window, which overlooked a
back-yard full of dyeing vats. The sunlight that did contrive to
struggle in obliquely through the dusty panes and cobwebs of the
window, had a sleepy odour of copperas latent in it. You smelt
it when you stirred. The manager, Pike, who brought her up, had
laid the day-books and this ledger open on the desk for her. As
soon as he was gone, she shut the door, listening until his heavy
boots had thumped creaking down the rickety ladder leading to the
frame-rooms. Then she climbed up on the high office-stool
(climbed, I said, for she was a little, lithe thing) and went to
work, opening the books, and copying from one to the other as
steadily, monotonously, as if she had been used to it all her
life. Here are the first pages: see how sharp the angles are of
the blue and black lines, how even the long columns: one would
not think, that, as the steel pen traced them out, it seemed to
be lining out her life, narrow and black. If any such morbid
fancy were in the girl's head, there was no tear to betray it.
The sordid, hard figures seemed to her types of the years coming,
but she wrote them down unflinchingly: perhaps life had nothing
better for her, so she did not care. She finished soon: they had
given her only an hour or two's work for the first day. She
closed the books, wiped the pens in a quaint, mechanical fashion,
then got down and examined her new home.
It was soon understood. There were the walls with their broken
plaster, showing the laths underneath, with here and there, over
them, sketches with burnt coal, showing that her predecessor had
been an artist in his way,--his name, P. Teagarden, emblazoned on
the ceiling with the smoke of a candle; heaps of hanks of yarn in
the dusty corners; a half-used broom; other heaps of yarn on the
old toppling desk covered with dust; a raisin-box, with P.
Teagarden done on the lid in bas-relief, half full of ends of
cigars, a pack of cards, and a rotten apple. That was all,
except an impalpable sense of dust and worn-outness pervading the
whole. One thing more, odd enough there: a wire cage, hung on
the wall, and in it a miserable pecking chicken, peering
dolefully with suspicious eyes out at her, and then down at the
mouldy bit of bread on the floor of his cage,--left there, I
suppose, by the departed Teagarden. That was all, inside. She
looked out of the window. In it, as if set in a square black
frame, was the dead brick wall, and the opposite roof, with a cat
sitting on the scuttle. Going closer, two or three feet of sky
appeared. It looked as if it smelt of copperas, and she drew
She sat down, waiting until it was time to go; quietly taking the
dull picture into her slow, unrevealing eyes; a sluggish,
hackneyed weariness creeping into her brain; a curious feeling,
that all her life before had been a silly dream, and this dust,
these desks and ledgers, were real,--all that was real. It was
her birthday; she was twenty. As she happened to remember that,
another fancy floated up before her, oddly life-like: of the old
seat she made under the currant-bushes at home when she was a
child, and the plans she laid for herself, when she should be a
woman, sitting there,--how she would dig down into the middle of
the world, and find the kingdom of the griffins, or would go
after Mercy and Christiana in their pilgrimage. It was only a
little while ago since these things were more alive to her than
anything else in the world. The seat was under the
currant-bushes still. Very little time ago; but she was a woman
now,--and, look here! A chance ray of sunlight slanted in,
falling barely on the dust, the hot heaps of wool, waking a
stronger smell of copperas; the chicken saw it, and began to
chirp a weak, dismal joy, more sorrowful than tears. She went to
the cage, and put her finger in for it to peck at. Standing
there, if the vacant life coming rose up before her in that hard
blare of sunlight, she looked at it with the same still, waiting
eyes, that told nothing.
The door opened at last, and a man came in,--Dr. Knowles, the
principal owner of the factory. He nodded shortly to her, and,
going to the desk, turned over the books, peering suspiciously at
her work. An old man, overgrown, looking like a huge misshapen
mass of flesh, as he stood erect, facing her.
"You can go now," he said, gruffly. "Tomorrow you must wait for
the bell to ring, and go--with the rest of the hands."
A curious smile flickered over her face like a shadow; but she
said nothing. He waited a moment.
"So!" he growled, "the Howth blood does not blush to go down into
the slime of the gutter? is sufficient to itself?"
A cool, attentive motion,--that was all. Then she stooped to tie
her sandals. The old man watched her, irritated. She had been
used to the keen scrutiny of his eyes since she was a baby, so
was cool under it always. The face watching her was one that
repelled most men: dominant, restless, flushing into red gusts of
passion, a small, intolerant eye, half hidden in folds of yellow
fat,--the eye of a man who would give to his master (whether God
or Satan) the last drop of his own blood, and exact the same of
She had tied her bonnet and fastened her shawl, and stood ready to go.
"Is that all you want?" he demanded. "Are you waiting to hear
that your work is well done? Women go through life as babies
learn to walk,--a mouthful of pap every step, only they take it
in praise or love. Pap is better. Which do you want? Praise, I fancy."
"Neither," she said, quietly brushing her shawl. "The work is
well done, I know."
The old man's eye glittered for an instant, satisfied; then he
turned to the books. He thought she had gone, but, hearing a
slight clicking sound, turned round. She was taking the chicken
out of the cage.
"Let it alone!" he broke out, sharply. "Where are you going with it?"
"Home," she said, with a queer, quizzical face. "Let it smell
the green fields, Doctor. Ledgers and copperas are not good food
for a chicken's soul, or body either."
"Let it alone!" he growled. "You take it for a type of yourself, eh?
It has another work to do than to grow fat and sleep about the barnyard."
She opened the cage.
"I think I will take it."
"No," he said, quietly. "It has a master here. Not P. Teagarden.
Why, Margret," pushing his stubby finger between the tin bars
"do you think the God you believe in would have sent it here
without a work to do?"
She looked up; there was a curious tremour in his flabby face, a
shadow in his rough voice.
"If it dies here, its life won't have been lost. Nothing is lost.
Let it alone."
"Not lost?" she said, slowly, refastening the cage. "Only I think"----
She glanced furtively at him.
"It's a hard, scraping world where such a thing as that has work to do!"
He vouchsafed no answer. She waited to see his lip curl
bitterly, and then, amused, went down the stairs. She had paid
him for his sneer.
The steps were but a long ladder set in the wall, not the great
staircase used by the hands: that was on the other side of the
factory. It was a huge, unwieldy building, such as crowd the
suburbs of trading towns. This one went round the four sides of
a square, with the yard for the vats in the middle. The ladders
and passages she passed down were on the inside, narrow and dimly
lighted: she had to grope her way sometimes. The floors shook
constantly with the incessant thud of the great looms that filled
each story, like heavy, monotonous thunder. It deafened her,
made her dizzy, as she went down slowly. It was no short walk to
reach the lower hall, but she was down at last. Doors opened
from it into the ground-floor ware-rooms; glancing in, she saw
vast, dingy recesses of boxes piled up to the dark ceilings.
There was a crowd of porters and draymen cracking their whips,
and lounging on the trucks by the door, waiting for loads,
talking politics, and smoking. The smell of tobacco, copperas,
and burning logwood was heavy to clamminess here. She stopped,
uncertain. One of the porters, a short, sickly man, who stood
aloof from the rest, pushed open a door for her with his staff.
Margret had a quick memory for faces; she thought she had seen
this one before as she passed,--a dark face, sullen,
heavy-lipped, the hair cut convict-fashion, close to the head.
She thought too, one of the men muttered "jail-bird," jeering him
for his forwardness. "Load for Clinton! Western Railroad!" sung
out a sharp voice behind her, and, as she went into the street, a
train of cars rushed into the hall to be loaded, and men swarmed
out of every corner,--red-faced and pale, whiskey-bloated and
heavy-brained, Irish, Dutch, black, with souls half asleep
somewhere, and the destiny of a nation in their grasp,--hands,
like herself, going through the slow, heavy work, for, as Pike
the manager would have told you, "three dollars a week,--good
wages these tight times." For nothing more? Some other meaning
may have fallen from their faces into this girl's subtile
intuition in the instant's glance,--cheerfuller, remoter aims,
hidden in the most sensual face,--homeliest home-scenes, low
climbing ambitions, some delirium of pleasure to come,--whiskey,
if nothing better: aims in life like yours differing in degree.
Needing only to make them the same----did you say what?
She had reached the street now,--a back-street, a crooked sort of
lane rather, running between endless piles of warehouses. She
hurried down it to gain the suburbs, for she lived out in the
country. It was a long, tiresome walk through the outskirts of
the town, where the dwelling-houses were,--long rows of two-story
bricks drabbled with soot-stains. It was two years since she had
been in the town. Remembering this, and the reason why she had
shunned it, she quickened her pace, her face growing stiller than
before. One might have fancied her a slave putting on a mask,
fearing to meet her master. The town, being unfamiliar to her,
struck her newly. She saw the expression on its face better. It
was a large trading city, compactly built, shut in by hills. It
had an anxious, harassed look, like a speculator concluding a
keen bargain; the very dwelling-houses smelt of trade, having
shops in the lower stories; in the outskirts, where there are
cottages in other cities, there were mills here; the trees, which
some deluded dreamer had planted on the flat pavements, had all
grown up into abrupt Lombardy poplars, knowing their best policy
was to keep out of the way; the boys, playing marbles under them,
played sharply "for keeps;" the bony old dray-horses, plodding
through the dusty crowds, had speculative eyes, that measured
their oats at night with a "you-don't-cheat-me" look. Even the
churches had not the grave repose of the old brown house yonder
in the hills, where the few field-people--Arians, Calvinists,
Churchmen-- gathered every Sunday, and air and sunshine and
God's charity made the day holy. These churches lifted their
hard stone faces insolently, registering their yearly alms in the
morning journals. To be sure the back-seats were free for the
poor; but the emblazoned crimson of the windows, the carving of
the arches, the very purity of the preacher's style, said plainly
that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for a man in a red wamus to enter the kingdom of heaven
through that gate.
Nature itself had turned her back on the town: the river turned
aside, and but half a river crept reluctantly by; the hills were
but bare banks of yellow clay. There was a cinder-road leading
through these. Margret climbed it slowly. The low town-hills,
as I said, were bare, covered at their bases with dingy stubble-
fields. In the sides bordering the road gaped the black mouths
of the coal-pits that burrowed under the hills, under the town.
Trade everywhere,--on the earth and under it. No wonder the girl
called it a hard, scraping world. But when the road had crept
through these hills, it suddenly shook off the cinders, and
turned into the brown mould of the meadows,--turned its back on
trade and the smoky town, and speedily left it out of sight
contemptuously, never looking back once. This was the country
now in earnest.
Margret slackened her step, drawing long breaths of the fresh
cold air. Far behind her, panting and puffing along, came a
black, burly figure, Dr. Knowles. She had seen him behind her
all the way, but they did not speak. Between the two there lay
that repellent resemblance which made them like close
relations,--closer when they were silent. You know such people?
When you speak to them, the little sharp points clash. Yet they
are the few whom you surely know you will meet in the life beyond
death, "saved" or not. The Doctor came slowly along the quiet
country-road, watching the woman's figure going as slowly before
him. He had a curious interest in the girl,--a secret reason for
the interest, which as yet he kept darkly to himself. For this
reason he tried to fancy how her new life would seem to her. It
should be hard enough, her work,--he was determined on that; her
strength and endurance must be tested to the uttermost. He must
know what stuff was in the weapon before he used it. He had been
reading the slow, cold thing for years,--had not got into its
secret yet. But there was power there, and it was the power he
wanted. Her history was simple enough: she was going into the
mill to support a helpless father and mother; it was a common
story; she had given up much for them;--other women did the same.
He gave her scanty praise. Two years ago (he had keen, watchful
eyes, this man) he had fancied that the homely girl had a dream,
as most women have, of love and marriage: she had put it aside,
he thought, forever; it was too expensive a luxury; she had to
begin the life-long battle for bread and butter. Her dream had
been real and pure, perhaps; for she accepted no sham love in its
place: if it had left an empty hunger in her heart, she had not
tried to fill it. Well, well, it was the old story. Yet he
looked after her kindly as he thought of it; as some people look
sorrowfully at children, going back to their own childhood. For
a moment he half relented in his purpose, thinking, perhaps, her
work for life was hard enough. But no: this woman had been
planned and kept by God for higher uses than daughter or wife or
mother. It was his part to put her work into her hands.
The road was creeping drowsily now between high grass-banks, out
through the hills. A sleepy, quiet road. The restless dust of
the town never had been heard of out there. It went wandering
lazily through the corn-fields, down by the river, into the very
depths of the woods,--the low October sunshine slanting warmly
down it all the way, touching the grass-banks and the corn-fields
with patches of russet gold. Nobody in such a road could be in a
hurry. The quiet was so deep, the free air, the heavy trees, the
sunshine, all so full and certain and fixed, one could be sure of
finding them the same a hundred years from now. Nobody ever was
in a hurry. The brown bees came along there, when their work was
over, and hummed into the great purple thistles on the road-side
in a voluptuous stupor of delight. The cows sauntered through
the clover by the fences, until they wound up by lying down in it
and sleeping outright. The country-people, jogging along to the
mill, walked their fat old nags through the stillness and warmth
so slowly that even Margret left them far behind. As the road
went deeper into the hills, the quiet grew even more penetrating
and certain,--so certain in these grand old mountains that one
called it eternal, and, looking up to the peaks fixed in the
clear blue, grew surer of a world beyond this where there is
neither change nor death.
It was growing late; the evening air more motionless and cool;
the russet gold of the sunshine mottled only the hill-tops now;
in the valleys there was a duskier brown, deepening every moment.
Margret turned from the road, and went down the fields. One did
not wonder, feeling the silence of these hills and broad sweeps
of meadow, that this woman, coming down from among them, should
be strangely still, with dark questioning eyes dumb to their own
Looking into her face now, you could be sure of one thing: that
she had left the town, the factory, the dust far away, shaken the
thought of them off her brain. No miles could measure the
distance between her home and them. At a stile across the field
an old man sat waiting. She hurried now, her cheek colouring.
Dr. Knowles could see them going to the house beyond, talking
earnestly. He sat down in the darkening twilight on the stile,
and waited half an hour. He did not care to hear the story of
Margret's first day at the mill, knowing how her father and
mother would writhe under it, soften it as she would. It was
nothing to her, he knew. So he waited. After a while he heard
the old man's laugh, like that of a pleased child, and then went
in and took her place beside him. She went out, but came back
presently, every grain of dust gone, in her clear dress of pearl
gray. The neutral tint suited her well. As she stood by the
window, listening gravely to them, the homely face and waiting
figure came into full relief. Nature had made the woman in a
freak of rare sincerity. There were no reflected lights about
her; no gloss on her skin, no glitter in her eyes, no varnish on
her soul. Simple and dark and pure, there she was, for God and
her master to conquer and understand. Her flesh was cold and
colourless,--there were no surface tints on it,--it warmed
sometimes slowly from far within; her voice, quiet,--out of her
heart; her hair, the only beauty of the woman, was lustreless
brown, lay in unpolished folds of dark shadow. I saw such hair
once, only once. It had been cut from the head of a man, who,
unconscious, simple as a child, lived out the law of his nature,
and set the world at defiance,--Bysshe Shelley.
The Doctor, talking to her father, watched the girl furtively,
took in every point, as one might critically survey a Damascus
blade which he was going to carry into battle. There was neither
love nor scorn in his look,--a mere fixedness of purpose to make
use of her some day. He talked, meanwhile, glancing at her now
and then, as if the subject they discussed were indirectly linked
with his plan for her. If it were, she was unconscious of it.
She sat on the wooden step of the porch, looking out on the
melancholy sweep of meadow and hill range growing cool and dimmer
in the dun twilight, not hearing what they said, until the
sharpened, earnest tones roused her.
"You will fail, Knowles."
It was her father who spoke.
"Nothing can save such a scheme from failure. Neither the French
nor German Socialists attempted to base their systems on the
lowest class, as you design."
"I know," said Knowles. "That accounts for their partial
"Let me understand your plan practically," eagerly demanded her
She thought Knowles evaded the question,--wished to leave the
subject. Perhaps he did not regard the poor old school-master as
a practical judge of practical matters. All his life he had
called him thriftless and unready.
"It never will do, Knowles," he went on in his slow way. "Any
plan, Phalanstery or Community, call it what you please, founded
on self government, is based on a sham, the tawdriest of shams."
The old school-master shook his head as one who knows, and tried
to push the thin gray hairs out of his eyes in a groping way.
Margret lifted them back, so quietly that he did not feel her.
"You'll call the Republic a sham next!" said the Doctor, coolly
"The Republic!" The old man quickened his tone, like a war-horse
scenting the battle near at hand. "There never was a thinner-
crusted Devil's egg in the world than democracy. I think I've
told you that before?"
"I think you have," said the other, dryly.
"You always were a Tory, Mr. Howth," said his wife, in her
placid, creamy way. "It is in the blood, I think, Doctor. The
Howths fought under Cornwallis, you know."
The school-master waited until his wife had ended.
"Very true, Mrs. Howth," he said, with a grave smile. Then his
thin face grew hot again.
"No, Dr. Knowles. Your scheme is but a sign of the mad age we
live in. Since the thirteenth century, when the anarchic element
sprang full-grown into the history of humanity, that history has
been chaos. And this republic is the culmination of chaos."
"Out of chaos came the new-born earth," suggested the Doctor.
"But its foundations were granite," rejoined the old man with
nervous eagerness,--"granite, not the slime of yesterday. When
you found empires, go to work as God worked."
The Doctor did not answer; sat looking, instead, out into the
dark indifferently, as if the heresies which the old man hurled
at him were some old worn-out song. Seeing, however, that the
school-master's flush of enthusiasm seemed on the point of dying
out, he roused himself to gibe it into life.
"Well, Mr. Howth, what will you have? If the trodden rights of
the human soul are the slime of yesterday, how shall we found our
empire to last? On despotism? Civil or theocratic?"
"Any despotism is better than that of newly enfranchised serfs,"
replied the school-master.
The Doctor laughed.
"What a successful politician you would have made? You would
have had such a winning way to the hearts of the great unwashed!"
Mrs. Howth laid down her knitting.
"My dear," she said, timidly, "I think that is treason."
The angry heat died out of his face instantly, as he turned to
her, without the glimmer of a covert smile at her simplicity.
She was a woman; and when he spoke to the Doctor, it was in a
tone less sharp.
"What is it the boys used to declaim, their Yankee hearts
throbbing under their round-aborts? `Happy, proud America!'
Somehow in that way. `Cursed, abased America!' better if they
had said. Look at her, in the warm vigour of her youth, most
vigorous in decay! Look at the germs and dregs of nations,
creeds, religions, fermenting together! As for the theory of
self-government, it will muddle down here, as in the three great
archetypes of the experiment, into a paling, miserable failure!"
The Doctor did not hear. Some sharper shadow seemed to haunt him
than the downfall of the Republic. What help did he seek in this
girl? His keen, deep eyes never left her unconscious face.
"No," Mr. Howth went on, having the field to himself,--"we left
Order back there in the ages you call dark, and Progress will
trumpet the world into the ditch."
"Comte!" growled the Doctor.
The school-master's cane beat an angry tattoo on the hearth.
"You sneer at Comte? Because, having the clearest eye, the
widest sweeping eye ever given to man, he had no more? It was to
show how far flesh can go alone. Could he help it, if God
refused the prophet's vision?"
"I'm sure, Samuel," interrupted his wife with a sorrowful
earnestness, "your own eyes were as strong as a man's could be.
It was ten years after I wore spectacles that you began. Only
for that miserable fever, you could read shorthand now."
Her own blue eyes filled with tears. There was a sudden silence.
Margret shivered, as if some pain stung her. Holding her
father's bony hand in hers, she patted it on her knee. The hand
trembled a little. Knowles's sharp eyes darted from one to the
other; then, with a smothered growl, he shook himself, and rushed
headlong into the old battle which he and the school-master had
been waging now, off and on, some six years. That was a fight, I
can tell you! None of your shallow, polite clashing of modern
theories,--no talk of your Jeffersonian Democracy, your high-bred
Federalism! They took hold of the matter by the roots, clear at
Mrs. Howth's breath fairly left her, they went into the soul of
the matter in such a dangerous way. What if Joel should hear?
No doubt he would report that his master was an infidel,-- that
would be the next thing they would hear. He was in the kitchen
now: he finished his wood-chopping an hour ago. Asleep,
doubtless; that was one comfort. Well, if he were awake, he
could not understand. That class of people----And Mrs. Howth
(into whose kindly brain just enough of her husband's creed had
glimmered to make her say, "that class of people," in the tone
with which Abraham would NOT have spoken of Dives over the gulf)
went tranquilly back to her knitting, wondering why Dr. Knowles
should come ten times now where he used to come once, to provoke
Samuel into these wearisome arguments. Ever since their
misfortune came on them, he had been there every night, always at
it. She should think he might be a little more considerate. Mr.
Howth surely had enough to think of, what with his--his
misfortune, and the starvation waiting for them, and poor
Margret's degradation, (she sighed here,) without bothering his
head about the theocratic principle, or the Battle of Armageddon.
She had hinted as much to Dr. Knowles one day, and he had
muttered out something about its being "the life of the dog,
Ma'am." She wondered what he meant by that! She looked over at
his bearish figure, snuff-drabbled waistcoat, and shock of black
hair. Well, poor man, he could not help it, if he were coarse,
and an Abolitionist, and a Fourierite, and----She was getting a
little muddy now, she was conscious, so turned her mind back to
the repose of her stocking. Margret took it very quietly, seeing
her father flaming so. But Margret never had any opinions to
express. She was not like the Parnells: they were noted for
their clear judgment. Mrs. Howth was a Parnell.
"The combat deepens,--on, ye brave!"
The Doctor's fat, leathery face was quite red now, and his
sentences were hurled out in a sarcastic bass, enough to wither
the marrow of a weak man. But the school-master was no weak man.
His foot was entirely on his native heath, I assure you. He knew
every inch of the ground, from the domination of the absolute
faith in the ages of Fetichism, to its pseudo-presentment in the
tenth century, and its actual subversion in the nineteenth.
Every step. Our politicians might have picked up an idea or two
there, I should think! Then he was so cool about it, so skilful!
He fairly rubbed his hands with glee, enjoying the combat. And
he was so sure that the Doctor was savagely in earnest: why, any
one with half an ear could hear that! He did not see how, in the
very heat of the fray, his eyes would wander off listlessly. But
Mr. Howth did not wander; there was nothing careless or two-sided
in the making of this man,--no sham about him, or borrowing.
They came down gradually, or out,--for, as I told you, they dug
into the very heart of the matter at first,--they came out
gradually to modern times. Things began to assume a more
familiar aspect. Spinoza, Fichte, Saint Simon,--one heard about
them now. If you could but have heard the school-master deal
with these his enemies! With what tender charity for the man,
what relentless vengeance for the belief, he pounced on them,
dragging the soul out of their systems, holding it up for slow
slaughter! As for Humanity, (how Knowles lingered on that word,
with a tenderness curious in so uncouth a mass of flesh!)--as for
Humanity, it was a study to see it stripped and flouted and
thrown out of doors like a filthy rag by this poor old Howth, a
man too child-hearted to kill a spider. It was pleasanter to
hear him when he defended the great Past in which his ideal truth
had been faintly shadowed. How he caught the salient tints of
the feudal life! How the fine womanly nature of the man rose
exulting in the free picturesque glow of the day of crusader and
heroic deed! How he crowded in traits of perfected manhood in
the conqueror, simple trust in the serf, to colour and weaken his
argument, not seeing that he weakened it! How, when he thought
he had cornered the Doctor, he would colour and laugh like a boy,
then suddenly check himself, lest he might wound him! A curious
laugh, genial, cheery,--bubbling out of his weak voice in a way
that put you in mind of some old and rare wine. When he would
check himself in one of these triumphant glows, he would turn to
the Doctor with a deprecatory gravity, and for a few moments be
almost submissive in his reply. So earnest and worn it looked
then, the poor old face, in the dim light! The black clothes he
wore were so threadbare and shining at the knees and elbows, the
coarse leather shoes brought to so fine a polish! The Doctor
idly wondered who had blacked them, glancing at Margret's
There was a flower stuck in the button-hole of the
school-master's coat, a pale tea-rose. If Dr. Knowles had been a
man of fine instincts, (which his opaque shining eyes would seem
to deny,) he might have thought it was not unapt or ill-placed
even in the shabby, scuffed coat. A scholar, a gentleman, though
in patched shoes and trousers a world too short. Old and gaunt,
hunger-bitten even it may be, with loose-jointed, bony limbs, and
yellow face; clinging, loyal and brave, to the quaint, delicate
fancies of his youth, that were dust and ashes to other men. In
the very haggard face you could find the quiet purity of the
child he had been, and the old child's smile, fresh and
credulous, on the mouth.
The Doctor had not spoken for a moment. It might be that he was
careless of the poetic lights with which Mr. Howth tenderly
decorated his old faith, or it might be, that even he, with the
terrible intentness of a real life-purpose in his brain, was
touched by the picture of the far old chivalry, dead long ago.
The master's voice grew low and lingering now. It was a labour
of love, this. Oh, it is so easy to go back out of the broil of
dust and meanness and barter into the clear shadow of that old
life where love and bravery stand eternal verities,--never to be
bought and sold in that dusty town yonder! To go back? To dream
back, rather. To drag out of our own hearts, as the hungry old
master did, whatever is truest and highest there, and clothe it
with name and deed in the dim days of chivalry. Make a poem of
it,--so much easier than to make a life!
Knowles shuffled uneasily, watching the girl keenly, to know how
the picture touched her. Was, then, she thought, this grand,
dead Past so shallow to him? These knights, pure, unstained,
searching until death for the Holy Grail, could he understand the
life-long agony, the triumph of their conflict over Self? These
women, content to live in solitude forever because they once had
loved, could any man understand that? Or the dead queen, dead
that the man she loved might be free and happy,--why, this WAS
life,--this death! But did pain, and martyrdom, and victory lie
back in the days of Galahad and Arthur alone? The homely face
grew stiller than before, looking out into the dun sweep of
moorland,--cold, unrevealing. It baffled the man that looked at
it. He shuffled, chewed tobacco vehemently, tilted his chair on
two legs, broke out in a thunder-gust at last.
"Dead days for dead men! The world hears a bugle-call to-day
more noble than any of your piping troubadours. We have
something better to fight for than a vacant tomb."
The old man drew himself up haughtily.
"I know what you would say,--Liberty for the low and vile. It is
a good word. That was a better which they hid in their hearts in
the old time,--Honour!"
Honour! I think, Calvinist though he was, that word was his
religion. Men have had worse. Perhaps the Doctor thought this;
for he rose abruptly, and, leaning on the old man's chair, said,
"It is better, even here. Yet you poison this child's mind. You
make her despise To-Day; make honour live for her now."
"It does not," the school-master said, bitterly. "The world's a
failure. All the great old dreams are dead. Your own phantom,
your Republic, your experiment to prove that all men are born
free and equal,--what is it to-day?"
Knowles lifted his head, looking out into the brown twilight.
Some word of pregnant meaning flashed in his eye and trembled on
his lip; but he kept it back. His face glowed, though, and the
glow and strength gave to the huge misshapen features a grand
"You talk of To-Day," the old man continued, querulously. "I am
tired of it. Here is its type and history," touching a county
newspaper,--"a fair type, with its cant, and bigotry, and weight
of uncomprehended fact. Bargain and sale,--it taints our
religion, our brains, our flags,--yours and mine, Knowles, with
the rest. Did you never hear of those abject spirits who entered
neither heaven nor hell, who were neither faithful to God nor
rebellious, caring only for themselves?"
He paused, fairly out of breath. Margret looked up. Knowles was
silent. There was a smothered look of pain on the coarse face;
the school-master's words were sinking deeper than he knew.
"No, father," said Margret, hastily ending his quotation, " `io
non averei creduto, che [vita] tanta n' avesse disfatta.' "
Skilful Margret! The broil must have been turbid in the old
man's brain which the grand, slow-stepping music of the
Florentine could not calm. She had learned that long ago, and
used it as a nurse does some old song to quiet her pettish
infant. His face brightened instantly.
"Do not believe, then, child," he said, after a pause. "It is a
noble doubt, in Dante or in you."
The Doctor had turned away; she could not see his face. The
angry scorn was gone from the old master's countenance; it was
bent with its usual wistful eagerness on the floor. A moment
after he looked up with a flickering smile.
" `Onorate l' altissmo poeta!' " he said, gently lifting his
finger to his forehead in a military fashion. "Where is my cane,
Margret? The Doctor and I will go and walk on the porch before
it grows dark."
The sun had gone down long before, and the stars were out; but no
one spoke of this. Knowles lighted the school-master's pipe and
his own cigar, and then moved the chairs out of their way,
stepping softly that the old man might not hear him. Margret, in
the room, watched them as they went, seeing how gentle the rough,
burly man was with her father, and how, every time they passed
the sweet-brier, he bent the branches aside, that they might not
touch his face. Slow, childish tears came into her eyes as she
saw it; for the school-master was blind. This had been their
regular walk every evening, since it grew too cold for them to go
down under the lindens. The Doctor had not missed a night since
her father gave up the school, a month ago: at first, under
pretence of attending to his eyes; but since the day he had told
them there was no hope of cure, he had never spoken of it again.
Only, since then, he had grown doubly quarrelsome,--standing
ready armed to dispute with the old man every inch of every
subject in earth or air, keeping the old man in a state of boyish
excitement during the long, idle days, looking forward to this
It was very still; for the house, with its half-dozen acres, lay
in an angle of the hills, looking out on the river, which shut
out all distant noises. Only the men's footsteps broke the
silence, passing and repassing the window. Without, the October
starlight lay white and frosty on the moors, the old barn, the
sharp, dark hills, and the river, which was half hidden by the
orchard. One could hear it, like some huge giant moaning in his
sleep, at times, and see broad patches of steel blue glittering
through the thick apple-trees and the bushes. Her mother had
fallen into a doze. Margret looked at her, thinking how sallow
the plump, fair face had grown, and how faded the kindly blue
eyes were now. Dim with crying,--she knew that, though she never
saw her shed a tear. Always cheery, going placidly about the
house in her gray dress and Quaker cap, as if there were no such
things in the world as debt or blindness. But Margret knew,
though she said nothing. When her mother came in from those
wonderful foraging expeditions in search of late pease or corn,
she could see the swollen circle round the eyes, and hear her
breath like that of a child which has sobbed itself tired. Then,
one night, when she had gone into her mother's room, after she
was in bed, the blue eyes were set in a wild, hopeless way, as if
staring down into years of starvation and misery. The fire on
the hearth burned low and clear; the old worn furniture stood out
cheerfully in the red glow, and threw a maze of twisted shadow on
the floor. But the glow was all that was cheerful. To-morrow,
when the hard daylight should jeer away the screening shadows, it
would unbare a desolate, shabby home. She knew; struck with the
white leprosy of poverty; the blank walls, the faded hangings,
the old stone house itself, looking vacantly out on the fields
with a pitiful significance of loss. Upon the mantel-shelf there
was a small marble figure, one of the Dancing Graces: the other
two were gone, gone in pledge. This one was left, twirling her
foot, and stretching out her hands in a dreary sort of ecstasy,
with no one to respond. For a moment, so empty and bitter seemed
her home and her life, that she thought the lonely dancer with
her flaunting joy mocked her,--taunted them with the slow, gray
desolation that had been creeping on them for years. Only for a
moment the morbid fancy hurt her.
The red glow was healthier, suited her temperament better. She
chose to fancy the house as it had been once,--should be again,
please God. She chose to see the old comfort and the old beauty
which the poor school-master had gathered about their home. Gone
now. But it should return. It was well, perhaps, that he was
blind, he knew so little of what had come on them. There, where
the black marks were on the wall, there had hung two pictures.
Margret and her father religiously believed them to be a Tintoret
and Copley. Well, they were gone now. He had been used to dust
them with a light brush every morning, himself, but now he said
"You can clean the pictures to-day, Margret. Be careful, my
And Margret would remember the greasy Irishman who had tucked
them under his arm, and flung them into a cart, her blood growing
hotter in her veins.
It was the same through all the house; there was not a niche in
the bare rooms that did not recall a something gone,--something
that should return. She willed that, that evening, standing by
the dim fire. What women will, whose eyes are slow, attentive,
still, as this Margret's, usually comes to pass.
The red fire-glow suited her; another glow, warming her floating
fancy, mingled with it, giving her every-day purpose the trait of
heroism. The old spirit of the dead chivalry, of succour to the
weak, life-long self-denial,--did it need the sand waste of
Palestine or a tournament to call it into life? Down in that
trading town, in the thick of its mills and drays, it could live,
she thought. That very night, perhaps, in some of those fetid
cellars or sunken shanties, there were vigils kept of purpose as
unselfish, prayer as heaven-commanding, as that of the old
aspirants for knighthood. She, too,--her quiet face stirred with
a simple, childish smile, like her father's.
"Why, mother!" she said, stroking down the gray hair under the
cap, "shall you sleep here all night?" laughing.
A cheery, tender laugh, this woman's was,-- seldom heard,--not
far from tears.
Mrs. Howth roused herself. Just then, a broad, high-shouldered
man, in a gray flannel shirt, and shoes redolent of the stable,
appeared at the door. Margret looked at him as if he were an
accusing spirit,--coming down, as woman must, from heights of
self-renunciation or bold resolve, to an undarned stocking or an
"Kittle's b'ilin'," he announced, flinging in the information as
a general gratuity.
"That will do, Joel," said Mrs. Howth.
The tone of stately blandness which Mrs. Howth erected as a
shield between herself and "that class of people" was a study: a
success; the resume of her experience in the combat that had
devoured half her life, like that of other American
house-keepers. "Be gentle, but let them know their place, my
dear!" The class having its type and exponent in Joel, stopped
at the door, and hitched up its suspenders.
"That will DO, Joel," with a stern suavity.
Some idea was in Joel's head under the brush of red
hair,--probably the "anarchic element."
"Uh was wishin' toh read the G'zette." Whereupon he advanced into
the teeth of the enemy and bore off the newspaper, going before
Margret, as she went to the kitchen, and seating himself beside a
flaring tallow-candle on the table.
Reading, with Joel, was not the idle pastime that more trivial
minds find it; a thing, on the contrary, to be gone into with
slow spelling, and face knitted up into savage sternness,
especially now, when, as he gravely explained to Margret, "in HIS
opinion the crissis was jest at hand, and ev'ry man must be
seein' ef the gover'ment was carryin' out the views of the
With which intent, Joel, in company with five thousand other
sovereigns, consulted, as definitive oracle, "The Daily Gazette"
of Towbridge. The school-master need not have grumbled for the
old time: feodality in the days of Warwick and of "The Daily
Gazette" was not so widely different as he and Joel thought.
Now and then, partly as an escape-valve for his overcharged
conviction, partly in compassion to the ignorance of women in
political economics, he threw off to Margret divers commentaries
on the text, as she passed in and out.
If she had risen to the full level of Joel's views, she might
have considered these views tinctured with radicalism, as they
consisted in the propriety of the immediate "impinging of the
President." Besides, (Joel was a good-natured man, too, merciful
to his beast,) Nero-like, he wished, with the tiger drop of blood
that lies hid in everybody's heart, that the few millions who
differed with himself and the "Gazette" had but one neck for
their more convenient hanging, "It's all that'll save the
kentry," he said, and believed it, too.
If Margret fell suddenly from the peak of outlook on life to the
homely labor of cooking supper, some of the healthy heroic flush
of the knightly days and the hearth-fire went down with her, I
think. It brightened and reddened the square kitchen with its
cracked stove and meagre array of tins; she bustled about in her
quaint way, as if it had been filled up and running over with
comforts. It brightened and reddened her face when she came in
to put the last dish on the table,--a cosy, snug table, set
for four. Heroic dreams with poets, I suppose, make them unfit
for food other than some feast such as Eve set for the angel.
But then Margret was no poet. So, with the kindling of her hope,
its healthful light struck out, and warmed and glorified these
common things. Such common things! Only a coarse white cloth,
redeemed by neither silver nor china, the amber coffee, (some
that Knowles had brought out to her father--"thrown on his hands;
he couldn't use it,--product of slave-labour!--never, Sir!") the
delicate brown fish that Joel had caught, the bread her mother
had made, the golden butter,--all of them touched her nerves with
a quick sense of beauty and pleasure. And more, the gaunt face
of the blind old man, his bony hand trembling as he raised the
cup to his lips, her mother and the Doctor managing silently to
place everything he liked best near his plate. Wasn't it all
part of the fresh, hopeful glow burning in her consciousness? It
brightened and deepened. It blotted out the hard, dusty path of
the future, and showed warm and clear the success at the end.
Not much to show, you think. Only the old home as it once was,
full of quiet laughter and content; only her mother's eyes clear
shining again; only that gaunt old head raised proudly, owing no
man anything but courtesy. The glow deepened, as she thought of
it. It was strange, too, that, with the deep, slow-moving nature
of this girl, she should have striven so eagerly to throw this
light over the future. Commoner natures have done more and hoped
less. It was a poor gift, you think, this of the labour of a
life for so plain a duty; hardly heroic. She knew it. Yet, if
there lay in this coming labour any pain, any wearing effort, she
clung to it desperately, as if this should banish, it might be,
worse loss. She tried desperately, I say, to clutch the far,
uncertain hope at the end, to make happiness out of it, to give
it to her silent gnawing heart to feed on. She thrust out of
sight all possible life that might have called her true self into
being, and clung to this present shallow duty and shallow reward.
Pitiful and vain so to cling! It is the way of women. As if any
human soul could bury that which might have been, in that which
The Doctor, peering into her thought with sharp, suspicious eyes,
heeded the transient flush of enthusiasm but little. Even the
pleasant cheery talk that pleased her father so was but
surface-deep, he knew. The woman he must conquer for his great
end lay beneath, dark and cold. It was only for that end he
cared for her. Through what cold depths of solitude her soul
breathed faintly mattered little. Yet an idle fancy touched
him, what a triumph the man had gained, whoever he might be, who
had held the master-key to a nature so rare as this, who had the
kingly power in his hand to break its silence into electric
shivers of laughter and tears,--terrible subtile pain, or joy as
terrible. Did he hold the power still? He wondered. Meanwhile
she sat there, unread.
The evening came on, slow and cold. Life itself, the Doctor
thought, impatiently, was cool and tardy here among the hills.
Even he fell into the tranquil tone, and chafed under it.
Nowhere else did the evening gray and sombre into the mysterious
night impalpably as here. The quiet, wide and deep, folded him
in, forced his trivial heat into silence and thought. The world
seemed to think there. Quiet in the dead seas of fog, that
filled the valleys like restless vapour curdled into silence;
quiet in the listening air, stretching gray up to the stars,--in
the solemn mountains, that stood motionless, like hoary-headed
prophets, waiting with uplifted hands, day and night, to hear the
Voice, silent now for centuries; the very air, heavy with the
breath of the sleeping pine-forests, moved slowly and cold, like
some human voice weary with preaching to unbelieving hearts of a
peace on earth. This man's heart was unbelieving; he chafed in
the oppressive quiet; it was unfeeling mockery to a sick and
hungry world,--a dead torpor of indifference. Years of hot and
turbid pain had dulled his eyes to the eternal secret of the
night; his soul was too sore with stumbling, stung, inflamed with
the needs and suffering of the countless lives that hemmed him
in, to accept the great prophetic calm. He was blind to the
prophecy written on the earth since the day God first bade it
tell thwarted man of the great To-Morrow.
He turned from the night in-doors. Human hearts were his proper
study. The old house, he thought, slept with the rest. One did
not wonder that the pendulum of the clock swung long and slow.
The frantic, nervous haste of town-clocks chorded better with the
pulse of human life. Yet life in the veins of these people
flowed slow and cool; their sorrows and joys were few and
life-long. The enduring air suited this woman, Margret Howth.
Her blood could never ebb or flow with sudden gusts of passion,
like his own, throbbing, heating continually: one current,
absorbing, deep, would carry its tide from one eternity to the
other, one love or one hate. Whatever power was in the tide
should be his, in its entirety. It was his right. Was not his
aim high, the highest? It was his right.
Margret, looking up, saw the man's eye fixed on her. She met it
coolly. All her short life, this strange man, so tender to the
weak, had watched her with a sort of savage scorn, sneering at
her childish, dreamy apathy, driving her from effort to effort
with a scourge of contempt. What did he want now with her? Her
duty was light; she took it up,--she was glad to take it up; what
more would he have? She put the whole matter away from her.
It grew late. She sat down by the lamp and began to read to her
father, as usual. Her mother put away her knitting; Joel came in
half-asleep; the Doctor put out his everlasting cigar, and
listened, as he did everything else, intently. It was an old
story that she read,-- the story of a man who walked the fields
and crowded streets of Galilee eighteen hundred years ago.
Knowles, with his heated brain, fancied that the silence without
in the night grew deeper, that the slow-moving air stopped in its
course to listen. Perhaps the simple story carried a deeper
meaning to these brooding mountains and solemn sky than to the
purblind hearts within. It was a far-off story to them,--very
far off. The old school-master heard it with a lowered head,
with the proud obedience with which a cavalier would receive his
leader's orders. Was not the leader a knights the knight of
truest courage? All that was high, chivalric in the old man
sprang up to own him Lord. That he not only preached to, but ate
and drank with publicans and sinners, was a requirement of his
mission; nowadays----. Joel heard the "good word" with a
bewildered consciousness of certain rules of honesty to be
observed next day, and a maze of crowns and harps shining
somewhere beyond. As for any immediate connection between the
teachings of this book and "The Daily Gazette," it was pure
blasphemy to think of it. The Lord held those old Jews in His
hand, of course; but as for the election next month, that was
quite another thing. If Joel thrust the history out of the touch
of common life, the Doctor brought it down, and held it there on
trial. To him it was the story of a Reformer who, eighteen
centuries ago, had served his day. Could he serve this day?
Could he? The need was desperate. Was there anything in this
Christianity, freed from bigotry, to work out the awful problem
which the ages had left for America to solve? He doubted it.
People called this old Knowles an infidel, said his brain was as
unnatural and distorted as his body. God, looking down into his
heart that night, saw the savage wrestling there, and judged him
with other eyes than theirs.
The story stood alive in his throbbing brain demanding hearing.
All things were real to this man, this uncouth mass of flesh that
his companions sneered at; most real of all, the unhelped pain of
life, the great seething mire of dumb wretchedness in streets and
alleys, the cry for aid from the starved souls of the world. You
and I have other work to do than to listen,--pleasanter. But he,
coming out of the mire, his veins thick with the blood of a
despised race, had carried up their pain and hunger with him: it
was the most real thing on earth to him,--more real than his own
share in the unseen heaven or hell. By the reality, the peril of
the world's instant need, he tried the offered help from Calvary.
It was the work of years, not of this night. Perhaps, if they
who preach Christ crucified had doubted him as this man did,
their work in the coming heaven might be higher,--and ours, who
hear them. When the girl had finished reading, she went out into
the cool air. The Doctor passed her without notice. He went, in
his lumbering way, down the hill into the city; glad to go; the
trustful, waiting quiet oppressed, taunted him. It sent him back
more mad against Destiny, his heart more bitter in its great
pity. Let him go to the great city, with its stifling
gambling-hells, its negro-pens, its foul cellars;--his place and
work. If he stumble blindly against unconquerable ills, and die,
others have so stumbled and so died. Do you think their work is
Margret stood looking down at the sloping moors and fog. She,
too, had her place and work. She thought that night she saw it
clearly, and kept her eyes fixed on it, as I said. They plodded
steadily down the wide years opening before her. Whatever slow,
unending toil lay in them, whatever hungry loneliness, or
coarseness of deed, she saw it all, shrinking from nothing. She
looked at the big blue-corded veins in her wrist, full of
untainted blood,--gauged herself coolly, her lease of life, her
power of endurance,--measured it out against the work waiting for
her. No short task, she knew that. She would be old before it
was finished, quite an old woman, hard, mechanical, worn out.
But the day would be so bright, when it came, it would atone for
all: the day would be bright, the home warm again; it would hold
all that life had promised her of good.
All? Oh, Margret, Margret! Was there no sullen doubt in the
brave resolve? Was there no shadow just then, dark, ironical,
blotting out father and mother and home, creeping nearer, less
alien to your soul than these, than even your God?
If any such cold, masterful shadow rose out of years gone, and
clutched at the truest life of her heart, she stifled it, and
thrust it down. And yet, leaning on the gate, and thinking
vacantly, she remembered a time when through that shadow, she
believed more in a God than she did now. When, by the help of
that very dead hope, He of whom she read to-night stood close, an
infinitely tender Helper, that with the differing human loves she
knew, had loved His mother and Mary. Therefore, a Helper. Now,
struggle as she would for warmth or healthy hopes, the world was
gray and silent. Her defeated woman's nature called it so,
bitterly. Christ was a dim, ideal power, heaven far-off. She
doubted if it held anything as real as that which she had lost.
As if to bring back the old times more vividly to her, there
happened one of those curious little coincidences with which
Fate, we think, has nothing to do. She heard a quick step along
the clay road, and a muddy little terrier jumped up, barking,
beside her. She stopped with a suddenness strange in her slow
movements. "TIGER!" she said, stroking its head with passionate
eagerness. The dog licked her hand, smelt her clothes to know if
she were the same: it was two years since he had seen her. She
sat there, softly stroking him. Presently there was a sound of
wheels jogging down the road, and a voice singing snatches of
some song, one of those cheery street-songs that the boys
whistle. It was a low, weak voice, but very pleasant. Margret
heard it through the dark: she kissed the dog with a strange
paleness on her face, and stood up, quiet, attentive as before.
Tiger still kept licking her hand, as it hung by her side: it was
cold, and trembled as he touched it. She waited a moment, then
pushed him from her, as if his touch, even, caused her to break
some vow. He whined, but she hurried away, not waiting to know
how he came, or with whom. Perhaps, if Dr. Knowles had seen her
face as she looked back at him, he would have thought there were
depths in her nature which his probing eyes had never reached.
The wheels came close, and directly a cart stopped at the gate.
It was one of those little wagons that hucksters drive; only this
seemed to be a home-made affair, patched up with wicker-work and
bits of board. It was piled up with baskets of vegetables, eggs,
and chickens, and on a broken bench in the middle sat the driver,
a woman. You could not help laughing, when you looked at the
whole turn-out, it had such a make-shift look altogether. The
reins were twisted rope, the wheels uneven. It went jolting
along in such a careless, jolly way, as if it would not care in
the least, should it go to pieces any minute just there in the
road. The donkey that drew it was bony and blind of one eye; but
he winked the other knowingly at you, to ask if you saw the joke
of the thing. Even the voice of the owner of the establishment,
chirruping some idle song, as I told you, was one of the
cheeriest sounds you ever heard. Joel, up at the barn, forgot
his dignity to salute it with a prolonged "Hillo!" and presently
appeared at the gate.
"I'm late, Joel," said the weak voice. It sounded like a
child's, near at hand.
"We can trade in the dark, Lois, both bein' honest," he
responded, graciously, hoisting a basket of tomatoes into the
cart, and taking out a jug of vinegar.
"Is that Lois?" said Mrs. Howth, coming to the gate. "Sit still,
child. Don't get down."
But the child, as she called her, had scrambled off the cart, and
stood beside her, leaning on the wheel, for she was helplessly
"I thought you would be down to-night. I put some coffee on the
stove. Bring it out, Joel."
Mrs. Howth never put up the shield between herself and this
member of "the class,"-- because, perhaps, she was so wretchedly
low in the social scale. However, I suppose she never gave a
reason for it even to herself. Nobody could help being kind to
Lois, even if he tried. Joel brought the coffee with more
readiness than he would have waited on Mrs. Howth.
"Barney will be jealous," he said, patting the bare ribs of the
old donkey, and glancing wistfully at his mistress.
"Give him his supper, surely," she said, taking the hint.
It was a real treat to see how Lois enjoyed her supper, sipping
and tasting the warm coffee, her face in a glow, like an epicure
over some rare Falernian. You would be sure, from just that
little thing, that no sparkle of warmth or pleasure in the world
slipped by her which she did not catch and enjoy and be thankful
for to the uttermost. You would think, perhaps, pitifully, that
not much pleasure or warmth would ever go down so low, within her
reach. Now that she stood on the ground, she scarcely came up to
the level of the wheel; some deformity of her legs made her walk
with a curious rolling jerk, very comical to see. She laughed at
it, when other people did; if it vexed her at all, she never
showed it. She had turned back her calico sun-bonnet, and stood
looking up at Mrs. Howth and Joel, laughing as they talked with
her. The face would have startled you on so old and stunted a
body. It was a child's face, quick, eager, with that pitiful
beauty you always see in deformed people. Her eyes, I think,
were the kindliest, the hopefullest I ever saw. Nothing but the
livid thickness of her skin betrayed the fact that set Lois apart
from even the poorest poor,--the taint in her veins of black
"Whoy! be n't this Tiger?" said Joel, as the dog ran yelping
about him. "How comed yoh with him, Lois?"
"Tiger an' his master's good friends o' mine,--you remember they
allus was. An' he's back now, Mr. Holmes,--been back for a
Margret, walking in the porch with her father, stopped.
"Are you tired, father? It is late."
"And you are worn out, poor child! It was selfish in me to
forget. Good-night, dear!"
Margret kissed him, laughing cheerfully, as she led him to his
room-door. He lingered, holding her dress.
"Perhaps it will be easier for you to-morrow than it was to-day?"
"I am sure it will. To-morrow will be sure to be better than
She left him, and went away with a step that did not echo the
promise of her words.
Joel, meanwhile, consulted apart with his mistress.
"Of course," she said, emphatically.--"You must stay until
morning, Lois. It is too late. Joel will toss you up a bed in
The queer little body hesitated.
"I can stay," she said, at last. "It's his watch at the mill
"Whose watch?" demanded Joel.
Her face brightened.
"Father's. He's back, mum."
Joel caught himself in a whistle.
"He's very stiddy, Joel,--as stiddy as yoh."
"I am very glad he has come back, Lois," said Mrs. Howth,
At every place where Lois had been that day she had told her bit
of good news, and at every place it had been met with the same
kindly smile and "I'm glad he's back, Lois."
Yet Joe Yare, fresh from two years in the penitentiary, was not
exactly the person whom society usually welcomes with open arms.
Lois had a vague suspicion of this, perhaps; for, as she hobbled
along the path, she added to her own assurance of his
"stiddiness" earnest explanations to Joel of how he had a place
in the Croft Street woollen-mills, and how Dr. Knowles had said
he was as ready a stoker as any in the furnace-rooms.
The sound of her weak, eager voice was silent presently, and
nothing broke the solitary cold of the night.
The morning, when it came long after, came quiet and cool,--the
warm red dawn helplessly smothered under great waves of gray
cloud. Margret, looking out into the thick fog, lay down wearily
again, closing her eyes. What was the day to her?
Very slowly the night was driven back. An hour after, when she
lifted her head again, the stars were still glittering through
the foggy arch, like sparks of brassy blue, and hills and valleys
were one drifting, slow-heaving mass of ashy damp. Off in the
east a stifled red film groped through. It was another day
coming; she might as well get up, and live the rest of her life
out;--what else had she to do?
Whatever this night had been to the girl, it left one thought
sharp, alive, in the exhausted quiet of her brain: a cowardly
dread of the trial of the day, when she would see him again. Was
the old struggle of years before coming back? Was it all to go
over again? She was worn out. She had been quiet in these two
years: what had gone before she never looked back upon; but it
made her thankful for even this stupid quiet. And now, when she
had planned her life, busy, useful, contented, why need God have
sent the old thought to taunt her? A wild, sickening sense of
what might have been struggled up: she thrust it down,-- she had
kept it down all night; the old pain should not come back,--it
should not. She did not think of the love she had given up as a
dream, as verse-makers or sham people do; she knew it to be the
quick seed of her soul. She cried for it even now, with all the
fierce strength of her nature; it was the best she knew; through
it she came nearest to God. Thinking of the day when she had
given it up, she remembered it with a vague consciousness of
having fought a deadly struggle with her fate, and that she had
been conquered,--never had lived again. Let it be; she could not
bear the struggle again.
She went on dressing herself in a dreary, mechanical way. Once,
a bitter laugh came on her face, as she looked into the glass,
and saw the dead, dull eyes, and the wrinkle on her forehead.
Was that the face to be crowned with delicate caresses and love?
She scorned herself for the moment, grew sick of herself, balked,
thwarted in her true life as she was. Other women whom God has
loved enough to probe to the depths of their nature have done the
same,--saw themselves as others saw them: their strength drying
up within them, jeered at, utterly alone. It is a trial we laugh
at. I think the quick fagots at the stake were fitter subjects
for laughter than the slow gnawing hunger in the heart of many a
slighted woman or a selfish man. They come out of the trial as
out of martyrdom, according to their faith: you see its marks
sometimes in a frivolous old age going down with tawdry hopes and
starved eyes to the grave; you see its victory in the freshest,
fullest lives in the earth. This woman had accepted her trial,
but she took it up as an inflexible fate which she did not
understand; it was new to her; its solitude, its hopeless thirst
were freshly bitter. She loathed herself as one whom God had
thought unworthy of every woman's right,--to love and be loved.
She went to the window, looking blankly out into the gray cold.
Any one with keen analytic eye, noting the thin muscles of this
woman, the protruding brain, the eyes deep, concealing, would
have foretold that she would conquer in the fight; force her soul
down,-- but that the forcing down would leave the weak, flaccid
body spent and dead. One thing was certain: no curious eyes
would see the struggle; the body might be nerveless or sickly,
but it had the great power of reticence; the calm with which she
faced the closest gaze was natural to her,--no mask. When she
left her room and went down, the same unaltered quiet that had
baffled Knowles steadied her step and cooled her eyes.
After you have made a sacrifice of yourself for others, did you
ever notice how apt you were to doubt, as soon as the deed was
irrevocable, whether, after all, it were worth while to have done
it? How mean seems the good gained! How new and unimagined the
agony of empty hands and stifled wish! Very slow the angels are,
sometimes, that are sent to minister!
Margret, going down the stairs that morning, found none of the
chivalric unselfish glow of the night before in her home. It was
an old, bare house in the midst of dreary stubble fields, in
which her life was slowly to be worn out: working for those who
did not comprehend her; thanked her little,--that was all. It
did not matter; life was short: she could thank God for that at
She opened the house-door. A draught of cold morning air struck
her face, sweeping from the west; it had driven the fog in great
gray banks upon the hills, or in shimmering swamps into the cleft
hollows: a vague twilight filled the space left bare. Tiger,
asleep in the hall, rushed out into the meadow, barking, wild
with the freshness and cold, then back again to tear round her
for a noisy good-morning. The touch of the dog seemed to bring
her closer to his master; she put him away; she dared not suffer
even that treachery to her purpose: the very circumstances that
had forced her to give him up made it weak cowardice to turn
again. It was a simple story, yet one which she dared not tell
to herself; for it was not altogether for her father's sake she
had made the sacrifice. She knew, that, though she might be near
to this man Holmes as his own soul, she was a clog on him,--stood
in his way,--kept him back. So she had quietly stood aside,
taken up her own solitary burden, and left him with his clear
self-reliant life,--with his Self, dearer to him than she had
ever been. Why should it not be dearer? She
thought,--remembering the man as he was, a master among men: fit
to be a master. She,--what was she compared to him? He was back
again; she must see him. So she stood there with this persistent
dread running through her brain.
Suddenly, in the lane by the house, she heard a voice talking to
Joel,--the huckster-girl. What a weak, cheery sound it was in
the cold and fog! It touched her curiously: broke through her
morbid thought as anything true and healthy should have done.
"Poor Lois!" she thought, with an eager pity, forgetting her own
intolerable future for the moment, as she gathered up some
breakfast and went with it down the lane. Morning had come;
great heavy bars of light fell from behind the hills athwart the
banks of gray and black fog; there was shifting, uneasy,
obstinate tumult among the shadows; they did not mean to yield to
the coming dawn. The hills, the massed woods, the mist opposed
their immovable front, scornfully. Margret did not notice the
silent contest until she reached the lane. The girl Lois,
sitting in her cart, was looking, attentive, at the slow surge of
the shadows, and the slower lifting of the slanted rays.
"T' mornin' comes grand here, Miss Marg'et!" she said, lowering
Margret said nothing in reply; the morning, she thought, was gray
and cold, like her own life. She stood leaning on the low cart;
some strange sympathy drew her to this poor wretch, dwarfed,
alone in the world,--some tie of equality, which the odd childish
face, nor the quaint air of content about the creature, did not
lessen. Even when Lois shook down the patched skirt of her
flannel frock straight, and settled the heaps of corn and
tomatoes about her, preparatory for a start, Margret kept her
hand on the side of the cart, and walked slowly by it down the
road. Once, looking at the girl, she thought with a half smile
how oddly clean she was. The flannel skirt she arranged so
complacently had been washed until the colours had run madly into
each other in sheer desperation; her hair was knotted with
relentless tightness into a comb such as old women wear. The
very cart, patched as it was, had a snug, cosy look; the masses
of vegetables, green and crimson and scarlet, were heaped with a
certain reference to the glow of colour, Margret noticed,
wondering if it were accidental. Looking up, she saw the girl's
brown eyes fixed on her face. They were singularly soft,
"Ye 'r' goin' to th' mill, Miss Marg'et?" she asked, in a half
"Yes. You never go there now, Lois?"
The girl shuddered, and then tried to hide it in a laugh.
Margret walked on beside her, her hand on the cart's edge.
Somehow this creature, that Nature had thrown impatiently aside
as a failure, so marred, imperfect, that even the dogs were kind
to her, came strangely near to her, claimed recognition by some
Partly for this, and partly striving to forget herself, she
glanced furtively at the childish face of the distorted little
body, wondering what impression the shifting dawn made on the
unfinished soul that was looking out so intently through the
brown eyes. What artist sense had she,--what could she know--the
ignorant huckster--of the eternal laws of beauty or grandeur?
Nothing. Yet something in the girl's face made her think that
these hills, this air and sky, were in fact alive to her,--real;
that her soul, being lower, it might be, than ours, lay closer to
Nature, knew the language of the changing day, of these
earnest-faced hills, of the very worms crawling through the brown
mould. It was an idle fancy; Margret laughed at herself for it,
and turned to watch the slow morning-struggle which Lois followed
with such eager eyes.
The light was conquering. Up the gray arch the soft, dewy blue
crept gently, deepening, broadening; below it, the level bars of
light struck full on the sullen black of the west, and worked
there undaunted, tinging it with crimson and imperial purple.
Two or three coy mist-clouds, soon converted to the new
allegiance, drifted giddily about, mere flakes of rosy blushes.
The victory of the day came slowly, but sure, and then the full
morning flushed out, fresh with moisture and light and delicate
perfume. The bars of sunlight fell on the lower earth from the
steep hills like pointed swords; the foggy swamp of wet vapour
trembled and broke, so touched, rose at last, leaving patches of
damp brilliance on the fields, and floated majestically up in
radiant victor clouds, led by the conquering wind. Victory: it
was in the cold, pure ether filling the heavens, in the solemn
gladness of the hills. The great forests thrilling in the soft
light, the very sleepy river wakening under the mist, chorded
with a grave bass in the rising anthem of welcome to the new life
which God had freshly given to the world. From the sun himself,
come forth as a bridegroom from his chamber, to the flickering
raindrops on the road-side mullein, the world seemed to rejoice,
exultant in victory. Homely, cheerier sounds broke the outlined
grandeur of the morning, on which Margret looked wearily. Lois
lost none of them; no morbid shadow of her own balked life kept
their meaning from her.
The light played on the heaped vegetables in the old cart; the
bony legs of the donkey trotted on with fresh vigour. There was
not a lowing cow in the distant barns, nor a chirping swallow on
the fence-bushes, that did not seem to include the eager face of
the little huckster in their morning greetings. Not a golden
dandelion on the road-side, not a gurgle of the plashing brown
water from the well-troughs, which did not give a quicker
pleasure to the glowing face. Its curious content stung the
woman walking by her side. What secret of recompense had the
poor wretch found?
"Your father is here, Lois," she said carelessly, to break the
silence. "I saw him at the mill yesterday."
Her face kindled instantly.
"He's home, Miss Marg'et,--yes. An' it's all right wid him.
Things allus do come right, some time," she added, in a
reflective tone, brushing a fly off Barney's ear.
"Always? Who brings them right for you, Lois?"
"The Master," she said, turning with an answering smile.
Margret was touched. The owner of the mill was not a more real
verity to this girl than the Master of whom she spoke with such
"Are things right in the mill?" she said, testing her.
A shadow came on her face; her eyes wandered uncertainly, as if
her weak brain were confused,--only for a moment.
"They'll come right!" she said, bravely "The Master'll see to
But the light was gone from her eyes; some old pain seemed to be
surging through her narrow thought; and when she began to talk,
it was in a bewildered, doubtful way.
"It's a black place, th' mill," she said, in a low voice. "It
was a good while I was there: frum seven year old till sixteen.
'T seemed longer t' me 'n 't was. 'T seemed as if I'd been there
allus,--jes' forever, yoh know. 'Fore I went in, I had the
rickets, they say: that's what ails me. 'T hurt my head, they've
told me,-- made me different frum other folks."
She stopped a moment, with a dumb, hungry look in her eyes.
After a while she looked at Margret furtively, with a pitiful
"Miss Marg'et, I think there BE something wrong in my head. Did
YOH ever notice it?"
Margret put her hand kindly on the broad, misshapen forehead.
"Something is wrong everywhere, Lois," she said, absently.
She did not see the slow sigh with which the girl smothered down
whatever hope had risen just then, listened half-attentive as the
huckster maundered on.
"It was th' mill," she said at last. "I kind o' grew into that
place in them years: seemed to me like as I was part o' th'
engines, somehow. Th' air used to be thick in my mouth, black
wi' smoke 'n' wool 'n' smells.
"In them years I got dazed in my head, I think. 'T was th' air
'n' th' work. I was weak allus. 'T got so that th' noise o' th'
looms went on in my head night 'n' day,--allus thud, thud. 'N'
hot days, when th' hands was chaffin' 'n' singin', th' black
wheels 'n' rollers was alive, starin' down at me, 'n' th'
shadders o' th' looms was like snakes creepin',--creepin' anear
all th' time. They was very good to me, th' hands was,--very
good. Ther' 's lots o' th' Master's people down there, though
they never heard His name: preachers don't go there. But He'll
see to 't. He'll not min' their cursin' o' Him, seein' they
don't know His face, 'n' thinkin' He belongs to th' gentry. I
knew it wud come right wi' me, when times was th' most bad. I
The girl's hands were working together, her eyes set, all the
slow years of ruin that had eaten into her brain rising before
her, all the tainted blood in her veins of centuries of slavery
and heathenism struggling to drag her down. But above all, the
Hope rose clear, simple: the trust in the Master: and shone in
her scarred face,-- through her marred senses.
"I knew it wud come right, allus. I was alone then: mother was
dead, and father was gone, 'n' th' Lord thought 't was time to
see to me,--special as th' overseer was gettin' me an enter to
th' poor-house. So He sent Mr. Holmes along. Then it come
Margret did not speak. Even this mill-girl could talk of him,
pray for him; but she never must take his name on her lips!
"He got th' cart fur me, 'n' this blessed old donkey, 'n' my
room. Did yoh ever see my room, Miss Marg'et?"
Her face lighted suddenly with its peculiar childlike smile.
"No? Yoh'll come some day, surely? It's a pore place, yoh'll
think; but it's got th' air,--th' air."
She stopped to breathe the cold morning wind, as if she thought
to find in its fierce freshness the life and brains she had lost.
"Ther' 's places in them alleys 'n' dark holes, Miss Marg'et,
like th' openin's to hell, with th' thick smells 'n' th' sights
She went back with a terrible clinging pity to the Gehenna from
which she had escaped. The ill of life was real enough to
her,--a hungry devil down in those alleys and dens. Margret
listened, waked reluctantly to the sense of a different pain in
the world from her own,--lower deeps from which women like
herself draw delicately back, lifting their gauzy dresses.
Her face flashed.
"Th' Master has His people 'mong them very lowest, that's not for
such as yoh to speak to. He knows 'em: men 'n' women starved 'n'
drunk into jails 'n' work-houses, that 'd scorn to be cowardly or
mean,--that shows God's kindness, through th' whiskey 'n'
thievin', to th' orphints or--such as me. Ther' 's things th'
Master likes in them, 'n' it'll come right, it'll come right at
last; they'll have a chance--somewhere."
Margret did not speak; let the poor girl sob herself into quiet.
What had she to do with this gulf of pain and wrong? Her own
higher life was starved, thwarted. Could it be that the blood of
these her brothers called against HER from the ground? No wonder
that the huckster-girl sobbed, she thought, or talked heresy. It
was not an easy thing to see a mother drink herself into the
grave. And yet--was she to blame? Her Virginian blood was cool,
high-bred; she had learned conservatism in her cradle. Her life
in the West had not yet quickened her pulse. So she put aside
whatever social mystery or wrong faced her in this girl, just as
you or I would have done. She had her own pain to bear. Was she
her brother's keeper? It was true, there was wrong; this woman's
soul lay shattered by it; it was the fault of her blood, of her
birth, and Society had finished the work. Where was the help?
She was free,-- and liberty, Dr. Knowles said, was the cure for
all the soul's diseases, and----
Well, Lois was quiet now,--ready to be drawn into a dissertation
on Barney's vices and virtues, or her room, where "th' air was so
strong, 'n' the fruit 'n' vegetables allus stayed fresh,-- best
in THIS town," she said, with a bustling pride.
They went on down the road, through the corn-fields sometimes, or
on the river-bank, or sometimes skirting the orchards or
barn-yards of the farms. The fences were well built, she
noticed,--the barns wide and snug-looking: for this county in
Indiana is settled by New England people, as a general thing, or
Pennsylvanians. They both leave their mark on barns or fields, I
can tell you! The two women were talking all the way. In all
his life Dr. Knowles had never heard from this silent girl words
as open and eager as she gave to the huckster about paltry,
common things,--partly, as I said, from a hope to forget herself,
and partly from a vague curiosity to know the strange world which
opened before her in this disjointed talk. There were no morbid
shadows in this Lois's life, she saw. Her pains and pleasures
were intensely real, like those of her class. If there were
latent powers in her distorted brain, smothered by hereditary
vice of blood, or foul air and life, she knew nothing of it. She
never probed her own soul with fierce self-scorn, as this quiet
woman by her side did;--accepted, instead, the passing moment,
with keen enjoyment. For the rest, childishly trusted "the
This very drive, now, for instance,--although she and the cart
and Barney went through the same routine every day, you would
have thought it was a new treat for a special holiday, if you had
seen the perfect abandon with which they all threw themselves
into the fun of the thing. Not only did the very heaps of ruby
tomatoes, and corn in delicate green casings, tremble and shine
as though they enjoyed the fresh light and dew, but the old
donkey cocked his ears, and curved his scraggy neck, and tried to
look as like a high-spirited charger as he could. Then everybody
along the road knew Lois, and she knew everybody, and there was a
mutual liking and perpetual joking, not very refined, perhaps,
but hearty and kind. It was a new side of life for Margret. She
had no time for thoughts of self-sacrifice, or chivalry, ancient
or modern, watching it. It was a very busy ride,-- something to
do at every farm-house: a basket of eggs to be taken in, or some
egg-plants, maybe, which Lois laid side by side, Margret
noticed,--the pearly white balls close to the heap of royal
purple. No matter how small the basket was that she stopped for,
it brought out two or three to put it in; for Lois and her cart
were the event of the day for the lonely farm-houses. The wife
would come out, her face ablaze from the oven, with an anxious
charge about that butter; the old man would hail her from the
barn to know "ef she'd thought toh look in th' mail yes'rday;"
and one or the other was sure to add, "Jes' time for breakfast,
Lois." If she had no baskets to stop for, she had "a bit o'
business," which turned out to be a paper she had brought for the
grandfather, or some fresh mint for the baby, or "jes' to inquire
fur th' fam'ly."
As to the amount that cart carried, it was a perpetual mystery to
Lois. Every day since she and the cart went into partnership,
she had gone into town with a dead certainty in the minds of
lookers-on that it would break down in five minutes, and a
triumphant faith in hers in its unlimited endurance. "This cart
'll be right side up fur years to come," she would assert,
shaking her head. "It 's got no more notion o' givin' up than me
nor Barney,--not a bit." Margret had her doubts,--and so would
you, if you had heard how it creaked under the load,--how they
piled in great straw panniers of apples: black apples with yellow
hearts, scarlet veined,--golden pippin apples, that held the
warmth and light longest,--russet apples with a hot blush on
their rough brown skins,--plums shining coldly in their delicate
purple bloom,--peaches with the crimson velvet of their cheeks
aglow with the prisoned heat of a hundred summer days.
I wish with all my heart somebody would paint me Lois and her
cart! Mr. Kitts, the artist in the city then, used to see it
going past his room out by the coal-pits every day, and thought
about it seriously. But he had his grand battle-piece on hand
then,--and after that he went the way of all geniuses, and died
down into colourer for a photographer. He met them, that day,
out by the stone quarry, and touched his hat as he returned
Lois's "Good-morning," and took a couple of great pawpaws from
her. She was a woman, you see, and he had some of the
school-master's old-fashioned notions about women. He was a
sickly-looking soul. One day Lois had heard him say that there
were pawpaws on his mother's place in Ohio; so after that she
always brought him some every day. She was one of those people
who must give, if it is nothing better than a Kentucky banana.
After they passed the stone quarry, they left the country behind
them, going down the stubble-covered hills that fenced in the
town. Even in the narrow streets, and through the warehouses,
the strong, dewy air had quite blown down and off the fog and
dust. Morning (town morning, to be sure, but still morning) was
shining in the red window-panes, in the tossing smoke up in the
frosty air, in the very glowing faces of people hurrying from
market with their noses nipped blue and their eyes watering with
cold. Lois and her cart, fresh with country breath hanging about
them, were not so out of place, after all. House-maids left the
steps half-scrubbed, and helped her measure out the corn and
beans, gossiping eagerly; the newsboys "Hi-d!" at her in a
friendly, patronizing way; women in rusty black, with sharp, pale
faces, hoisted their baskets, in which usually lay a scraggy bit
of flitch, on to the wheel, their whispered bargaining ending
oftenest in a low "Thank ye, Lois!"--for she sold cheaper to some
people than they did in the market.
Lois was Lois in town or country. Some subtile power lay in the
coarse, distorted body, in the pleading child's face, to rouse,
wherever they went, the same curious, kindly smile. Not, I
think, that dumb, pathetic eye, common to deformity, that cries,
"Have mercy upon me, O my friend, for the hand of God hath
touched me!"--a deeper, mightier charm, rather: a trust down in
the fouled fragments of her brain, even in the bitterest hour of
her bare life,--a faith faith in God, faith in her fellow-man,
faith in herself. No human soul refused to answer its summons.
Down in the dark alleys, in the very vilest of the black and
white wretches that crowded sometimes about her cart, there was
an undefined sense of pride in protecting this wretch whose
portion of life was more meagre and low than theirs. Something
in them struggled up to meet the trust in the pitiful
eyes,--something which scorned to betray the trust,--some
Christ-like power in their souls, smothered, dying, under the
filth of their life and the terror of hell. A something in them
never to be lost. If the Great Spirit of love and trust lives,
Even in the cold and quiet of the woman walking by her side the
homely power of the poor huckster was wholesome to strengthen.
Margret left her, turning into the crowded street leading to the
part of the town where the factories lay. The throng of
anxious-faced men and women jostled and pushed, but she passed
through them with a different heart from yesterday's. Somehow,
the morbid fancies were gone: she was keenly alive; the coarse
real life of this huckster fired her, touched her blood with a
more vital stimulus than any tale of crusader. As she went down
the crooked maze of dingy lanes, she could hear Lois's little
cracked bell far off: it sounded like a Christmas song to her.
She half smiled, remembering how sometimes in her distempered
brain the world had seemed a gray, dismal Dance of Death. How
actual it was to-day,--hearty, vigorous, alive with honest work
and tears and pleasure! A broad, good world to live and work in,
to suffer or die, if God so willed it,--God, the good!
She entered the vast, dingy factory; the woollen dust, the clammy
air of copperas were easier to breathe in; the cramped, sordid
office, the work, mere trifles to laugh at; and she bent over the
ledger with its hard lines in earnest good-will, through the slow
creeping hours of the long day. She noticed that the unfortunate
chicken was making its heart glad over a piece of fresh earth
covered with damp moss. Dr. Knowles stopped to look at it when
he came, passing her with a surly nod.
"So your master's not forgotten you," he snarled, while the blind
old hen cocked her one eye up at him.
Pike, the manager, had brought in some bills.
"Who's its master?" he said, curiously, stopping by the door.
"Holmes,--he feeds it every morning."
The Doctor drawled out the words with a covert sneer, watching
the cold face bending over the desk, meantime.
"Bah! it's the first thing he ever fed, then, besides himself.
Chickens must lie nearer his heart than men."
Knowles scowled at him; he had no fancy for Pike's scurrilous
The quiet face was unmoved. When he heard the manager's foot on
the ladder without, he tested it again. He had a vague suspicion
which he was determined to verify.
"Holmes," he said, carelessly, "has an affinity for animals. No
wonder. Adam must have been some such man as he, when the Lord
gave him `dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of
the air.' "
The hand paused courteously a moment, then resumed its quick,
cool movement over the page. He was not baffled.
"If there were such a reality as mastership, that man was born to
rule. Pike will find him harder to cheat than me, when he takes
She looked up now.
"He came here to take my place in the mills,--buy me
out,--articles will be signed in a day or two. I know what you
think,--no,--not worth a dollar. Only brains and a soul, and he
's sold them at a high figure,--threw his heart in,--the
purchaser being a lady. It was light, I fancy,--starved out,
The old man's words were spurted out in the bitterness of scorn.
The girl listened with a cool incredulity in her eyes, and went
back to her work.
"Miss Herne is the lady,--my partner's daughter. Herne and
Holmes they'll call the firm. He is here every, day, counting
Nothing could be read on the face; so he left her, cursing, as he
went, men who put themselves up at auction,--worse than Orleans
slaves. Margret laughed to herself at his passion; as for the
story he hinted, it was absurd. She forgot it in a moment.
Two or three gentlemen down in one of the counting-rooms, just
then, looked at the story from another point of view. They were
talking low, out of hearing from the clerks.
"It's a good thing for Holmes," said one, a burly, farmer-like
man, who was choosing specimens of wool.
"Cheap. And long credit. Just half the concern he takes."
"There is a lady in the case?" suggested a young doctor, who, by
virtue of having spent six months in the South, dropped his r-s,
and talked of "niggahs" in a way to make a Georgian's hair stand
"A lady in the case?"
"Of course. Only child of Herne's. HE comes down with the dust
as dowry. Good thing for Holmes. 'Stonishin' how he's made his
way up. If money 's what he wants in this world, he's making a
long stride now to 't."
The young doctor lighted his cigar, asserting that--
"Ba George, some low people did get on, re-markably! Mary Herne,
now, was best catch in town."
"Do you think money is what he wants?" said a quiet little man,
sitting lazily on a barrel,--a clergyman, Vandyke; whom his
clerical brothers shook their heads when they named, but never
argued with, and bowed to with uncommon deference.
The wool-buyer hesitated with a puzzled look.
"No," he said, slowly; "Stephen Holmes is not miserly. I've
knowed him since a boy. To buy place, power, perhaps, eh? Yet
not that, neither," he added, hastily. "We think a sight of him
out our way, (self-made, you see,) and would have had him the
best office in the State before this, only he was so cursedly
"Indifferent, yes. No man cares much for stepping-stones in
themselves," said Vandyke, half to himself.
"Great fault of American society, especially in the West," said
the young aristocrat. "Stepping-stones lie low, as my reverend
friend suggests; impudence ascends; merit and refinement scorn
such dirty paths,"--with a mournful remembrance of the last dime
in his waistcoat-pocket.
"But do you," exclaimed the farmer, with sudden solemnity, "do
you understand this scheme of Knowles's? Every dollar he owns is
in this mill, and every dollar of it is going into some castle in
the air that no sane man can comprehend."
"Mad as a March hare," contemptuously muttered the doctor.
His reverend friend gave him a look,--after which he was silent.
"I wish to the Lord some one would persuade him out of it,"
persisted the wool-man, earnestly looking at the attentive face
of his listener. "We can't spare old Knowles's brain or heart
while he ruins himself. It's something of a Communist
fraternity: I don't know the name, but I know the thing."
Very hard common-sense shone out of his eyes just then at the
clergyman, whom he suspected of being one of Knowles's abettors.
"There's two ways for 'em to end. If they're made out of the top
of society, they get so refined, so idealized, that every
particle flies off on its own special path to the sun, and the
Community 's broke; and if they're made of the lower mud, they
keep going down, down together,--they live to drink and eat, and
make themselves as near the brutes as they can. It isn't easy to
believe, Sir, but it's true. I have seen it. I've seen every
one of them the United States can produce. It's FACTS, Sir; and
facts, as Lord Bacon says, `are the basis of every sound
The last sentence was slowly brought out, as quotations were not
exactly his forte, but, as he said afterwards,--"You see, that
nailed the parson."
The parson nodded gravely.
"You'll find no such experiment in the Bible," threw in the young