doctor, alluding to “serious things” as a peace-offering to his reverend friend.
“One, I believe,” dryly.
“Well,” broke in the farmer, folding up his wool, “that’s neither here nor there. This experiment of Knowles’s is like nothing known since the Creation. Plan of his own. He spends his days now hunting out the gallows-birds out of the dens in town here, and they’re all to be transported into the country to start a new Arcadia. A few men and women like himself, but the bulk is from the dens, I tell you. All start fair, level ground, perpetual celibacy, mutual trust, honour, rise according to the stuff that’s in them,–pah! it makes me sick!”
“Knowles’s inclination to that sort of people is easily explained,” spitefully lisped the doctor. “Blood, Sir. His mother was a half-breed Creek, with all the propensities of the redskins to fire-water and ‘itching palms.’ Blood will out.”
“Here he is,” maliciously whispered the woolman. “No, it’s Holmes,” he added, after the doctor had started into a more respectful posture, and glanced around frightened.
He, the doctor, rose to meet Holmes’s coming footstep,–“a low fellah, but always sure to be the upper dog in the fight, goin’ to marry the best catch,” etc., etc. The others, on the contrary, put on their hats and sauntered away into the street.
The day broadened hotly; the shadows of the Lombardy poplars curdling up into a sluggish pool of black at their roots along the dry gutters. The old school-master in the shade of the great horse-chestnuts (brought from the homestead in the Piedmont country, every one) husked corn for his wife, composing, meanwhile, a page of his essay on the “Sirventes de Bertrand de Born.” Joel, up in the barn by himself, worked through the long day in the old fashion,–pondering gravely (being of a religious turn) upon a sermon by the Reverend Mr. Clinche, reported in the “Gazette;” wherein that disciple of the meek Teacher invoked, as he did once a week, the curses of the law upon slaveholders, praying the Lord to sweep them immediately from the face of the earth. Which rendering of Christian doctrine was so much relished by Joel, and the other leading members of Mr. Clinche’s church, that they hinted to him it might be as well to continue choosing his texts from Moses and the Prophets until the excitement of the day was over. The New Testament was,–well,–hardly suited for the– emergency; did not, somehow, chime in with the lesson of the hour. I may remark, in passing, that this course of conduct so disgusted the High Church rector of the parish, that he not only ignored all new devils, (as Mr. Carlyle might have called them,) but talked as if the millennium were un fait accompli, and he had leisure to go and hammer at the poor dead old troubles of Luther’s time. One thing, though, about Joel: while he was joining in Mr. Clinche’s petition for the “wiping out” of some few thousands, he was using up all the fragments of the hot day in fixing a stall for a half-dead old horse he had found by the road-side.
Perhaps, even if the listening angel did not grant the prayer, he marked down the stall at least, as a something done for eternity.
Margret, through the stifling air, worked steadily alone in the dusty office, her face bent over the books, never changing but once. It was a trifle then; yet, when she looked back afterwards, the trifle was all that gave the day a name. The room shook, as I said, with the thunderous, incessant sound of the engines and the looms; she scarcely heard it, being used to it. Once, however, another sound came between,– an iron tread, passing through the long wooden corridor,–so firm and measured that it sounded like the monotonous beatings of a clock. She heard it through the noise in the far distance; it came slowly nearer, up to the door without,–passed it, going down the echoing plank walk. The girl sat quietly, looking out at the dead brick wall. The slow step fell on her brain like the sceptre of her master; if Knowles had looked in her face then, he would have seen bared the secret of her life. Holmes had gone by, unconscious of who was within the door. She had not seen him; it was nothing but a step she heard. Yet a power, the power of the girl’s life, shook off all outward masks, all surface cloudy fancies, and stood up in her with a terrible passion at the sound; her blood burned fiercely; her soul looked out, her soul as it was, as God knew it,–God and this man. No longer a cold, clear face; you would have thought, looking at it, what a strong spirit the soul of this woman would be, if set free in heaven or in hell. The man who held it in his grasp went on carelessly, not knowing that the mere sound of his step had raised it as from the dead. She, and her right, and her pain, were nothing to him now, she remembered, staring out at the taunting hot sky. Yet so vacant was the sudden life opened before her when he was gone, that, in the desperation of her weakness, her mad longing to see him but once again, she would have thrown herself at his feet, and let the cold, heavy step crush her life out,–as he would have done, she thought, choking down the icy smother in her throat, if it had served his purpose, though it cost his own heart’s life to do it. He would trample her down, if she kept him back from his end; but be false to her, false to himself, that he would never be!
The red bricks, the dusty desk covered with wool, the miserable chicken peering out, grew sharper and more real. Life was no morbid nightmare now; her weak woman’s heart found it near, cruel. There was not a pain nor a want, from the dumb question in the dog’s eyes that passed her on the street, to her father’s hopeless fancies, that did not touch her sharply through her own loss, with a keen pity, a wild wish to help to do something to save others with this poor life left in her hands.
So the day wore on in the town and country; the old sun glaring down like some fierce old judge, intolerant of weakness or shams,–baking the hard earth in the streets harder for the horses’ feet, drying up the bits of grass that grew between the boulders of the gutter, scaling off the paint from the brazen faces of the interminable brick houses. He looked down in that city as in every American town, as in these where you and I live, on the same countless maze of human faces going day by day through the same monotonous routine. Knowles, passing through the restless crowds, read with keen eye among them strange meanings by this common light of the sun,–meanings such as you and I might read, if our eyes were clear as his,–or morbid, it may be, you think? A commonplace crowd like this in the street without: women with cold, fastidious faces, heavy-brained, bilious men, dapper ‘prentices, draymen, prize- fighters, negroes. Knowles looked about him as into a seething caldron, in which the people I tell you of were atoms, where the blood of uncounted races was fused, but not mingled,– where creeds, philosophies, centuries old, grappled hand to hand in their death-struggle,– where innumerable aims and beliefs and powers of intellect, smothered rights and triumphant wrongs, warred together, struggling for victory.
Vulgar American life? He thought it a life more potent, more tragic in its history and prophecy, than any that has gone before. People called him a fanatic. It may be that he was one: yet the uncouth old man, sick in soul from some pain that I dare not tell you of; in his own life, looked into the depths of human loss with a mad desire to set it right. On the very faces of those who sneered at him he found some trace of failure, something that his heart carried up to God with a loud and exceeding bitter cry. The voice of the world, he thought, went up to heaven a discord, unintelligible, hopeless,–the great blind world, astray since the first ages! Was there no hope, no help?
The sun shone down, as it had done for six thousand years; it shone on open problems in the lives of these men and women, of these dogs and horses who walked the streets, problems whose end and beginning no eye could read. There were places where it did not shine: down in the fetid cellars, in the slimy cells of the prison yonder: what riddles of life lay there he dared not think of. God knows how the man groped for the light,–for any voice to make earth and heaven clear to him.
There was another light by which the world was seen that day, rarer than the sunshine, and purer. It fell on the dense crowds,–upon the just and the unjust. It went into the fogs of the fetid dens from which the coarser light was barred, into the deepest mires of body where a soul could wallow, and made them clear. It lighted the depths of the hearts whose outer pain and passion men were keen to read in the unpitying sunshine, and bared in those depths the feeble gropings for the right, the loving hope, the unuttered prayer. No kind thought, no pure desire, no weakest faith in a God and heaven somewhere, could be so smothered under guilt that this subtile light did not search it out, glow about it, shine under it, hold it up in full view of God and the angels,–lighting the world other than the sun had done for six thousand years. I have no name for the light: it has a name,–yonder. Not many eyes were clear to see its–shining that day; and if they did, it was as through a glass, darkly. Yet it belonged to us also, in the old time, the time when men could “hear the voice of the Lord God in the garden in the cool of the day.” It is God’s light now alone.
Yet Lois caught faint glimpses, I think, sometimes, of its heavenly clearness. I think it was this light that made the burning of Christmas fires warmer for her than for others, that showed her all the love and outspoken honesty and hearty frolic which her eyes saw perpetually in the old warm-hearted world. That evening, as she sat on the step of her frame-shanty, knitting at a great blue stocking, her scarred face and misshapen body very pitiful to the passers-by, it was this that gave to her face its homely, cheery smile. It made her eyes quick to know the message in the depths of colour in the evening sky, or even the flickering tints of the green creeper on the wall with its crimson cornucopias filled with hot shining. She liked clear, vital colours, this girl,–the crimsons and blues. They answered her, somehow. They could speak. There were things in the world that like herself were marred,–did not understand,–were hungry to know: the gray sky, the mud streets, the tawny lichens. She cried sometimes, looking at them, hardly knowing why: she could not help it, with a vague sense of loss. It seemed at those times so dreary for them to be alive,–or for her. Other things her eyes were quicker to see than ours: delicate or grand lines, which she perpetually sought for unconsciously,–in the homeliest things, the very soft curling of the woollen yarn in her fingers, as in the eternal sculpture of the mountains. Was it the disease of her injured brain that made all things alive to her,–that made her watch, in her ignorant way, the grave hills, the flashing, victorious rivers, look pitifully into the face of some starved hound, or dingy mushroom trodden in the mud before it scarce had lived, just as we should look into human faces to know what they would say to us? Was it weakness and ignorance that made everything she saw or touched nearer, more human to her than to you or me? She never got used to living as other people do; these sights and sounds did not come to her common, hackneyed. Why, sometimes, out in the hills, in the torrid quiet of summer noons, she had knelt by the shaded pools, and buried her hands in the great slumberous beds of water-lilies, her blood curdling in a feverish languor, a passioned trance, from which she roused herself, weak and tired.
She had no self-poised artist sense, this Lois,–knew nothing of Nature’s laws, as you do. Yet sometimes, watching the dun sea of the prairie rise and fall in the crimson light of early morning, or, in the farms, breathing the blue air trembling up to heaven exultant with the life of bird and forest, she forgot the poor vile thing she was, some coarse weight fell off, and something within, not the sickly Lois of the mill, went out, free, like an exile dreaming of home.
You tell me, that, doubtless, in the wreck of the creature’s brain, there were fragments of some artistic insight that made her thus rise above the level of her daily life, drunk with the mere beauty of form and colour. I do not know,–not knowing how sham or real a thing you mean by artistic insight. But I do know that the clear light I told you of shone for this girl dimly through this beauty of form and colour; alive. The Life, rather; and ignorant, with no words for her thoughts, she believed in it as the Highest that she knew. I think it came to her thus in imperfect language, (not an outward show of tints and lines, as to artists,)–a language, the same that Moses heard when he stood alone, with nothing between his naked soul and God, but the desert and the mountain and the bush that burned with fire. I think the weak soul of the girl staggered from its dungeon, and groped through these heavy-browed hills, these colour-dreams, through the faces of dog or man upon the street, to find the God that lay behind. So she saw the world, and its beauty and warmth being divine as near to her, the warmth and beauty became real in her, found their homely reflection in her daily life. So she knew, too, the Master in whom she believed, saw Him in everything that lived, more real than all beside. The waiting earth, the prophetic sky, the very worm in the gutter was but a part of this man, something come to tell her of Him,–she dimly felt; though, as I said, she had no words for such a thought. Yet even more real than this. There was no pain nor temptation down in those dark cellars where she went that He had not borne,–not one. Nor was there the least pleasure came to her or the others, not even a cheerful fire, or kind words, or a warm, hearty laugh, that she did not know He sent it and was glad to do it. She knew that well! So it was that He took part in her humble daily life, and became more real to her day by day. Very homely shadows her life gave of His light, for it was His: homely, because of her poor way of living, and of the depth to which the heavy foot of the world had crushed her. Yet they were there all the time, in her cheery patience, if nothing more. To-night, for instance, how differently the surging crowd seemed to her from what it did to Knowles! She looked down on it from her high wood-steps with an eager interest, ready with her weak, timid laugh to answer every friendly call from below. She had no power to see them as types of great classes; they were just so many living people, whom she knew, and who, most of them, had been kind to her. Whatever good there was in the vilest face, (and there was always something,) she was sure to see it. The light made her poor eyes strong for that.
She liked to sit there in the evenings, being alone, yet never growing lonesome; there was so much that was pleasant to watch and listen to, as the cool brown twilight came on. If, as Knowles thought, the world was a dreary discord, she knew nothing of it. People were going from their work now,–they had time to talk and joke by the way,–stopping, or walking slowly down the cool shadows of the pavement; while here and there a lingering red sunbeam burnished a window, or struck athwart the gray boulder-paved street. From the houses near you could catch a faint smell of supper: very friendly people those were in these houses; she knew them all well. The children came out with their faces washed, to play, now the sun was down: the oldest of them generally came to sit with her and hear a story.
After it grew darker, you would see the girls in their neat blue calicoes go sauntering down the street with their sweethearts for a walk. There was old Polston and his son Sam coming home from the coal-pits, as black as ink, with their little tin lanterns on their caps. After a while Sam would come out in his suit of Kentucky jean, his face shining with the soap, and go sheepishly down to Jenny Ball’s, and the old man would bring his pipe and chair out on the pavement, and his wife would sit on the steps. Most likely they would call Lois down, or come over themselves, for they were the most sociable, cosiest old couple you ever knew. There was a great stopping at Lois’s door, as the girls walked past, for a bunch of the flowers she brought from the country, or posies, as they called them, (Sam never would take any to Jenny but “old man” and pinks,) and she always had them ready in broken jugs inside. They were good, kind girls, every one of them,–had taken it in turn to sit up with Lois last winter all the time she had the rheumatism. She never forgot that time,–never once.
Later in the evening you would see a man coming along, close by the wall, with his head down, the same Margret had seen in the mill,–a dark man, with gray, thin hair,–Joe Yare, Lois’s old father. No one spoke to him,– people always were looking away as he passed; and if old Mr. or Mrs. Polston were on the steps when he came up, they would say, “Good-evening, Mr. Yare,” very formally, and go away presently. It hurt Lois more than anything else they could have done. But she bustled about noisily, so that he would not notice it. If they saw the marks of the ill life he had lived on his old face, she did not; his sad, uncertain eyes may have been dishonest to them, but they were nothing but kind to the misshapen little soul that he kissed so warmly with a “Why, Lo, my little girl!” Nobody else in the world ever called her by a pet name.
Sometimes he was gloomy and silent, but generally he told her of all that had happened in the mill, particularly any little word of notice or praise he might have received, watching her anxiously until she laughed at it, and then rubbing his hands cheerfully. He need not have doubted Lois’s faith in him. Whatever the rest did, she believed in him; she always had believed in him, through all the dark years, when he was at home, and in the penitentiary. They were gone now, never to come back. It had come right. If the others wronged him, and it hurt her bitterly that they did, that would come right some day too, she would think, as she looked at the tired, sullen face of the old man bent to the window-pane, afraid to go out. But they had very cheerful little suppers there by themselves in the odd, bare little room, as homely and clean as Lois herself.
Sometimes, late at night, when he had gone to bed, she sat alone in the door, while the moonlight fell in broad patches over the square, and the great poplars stood like giants whispering together. Still the far sounds of the town came up cheerfully, while she folded up her knitting, it being dark, thinking how happy an ending this was to a happy day. When it grew quiet, she could hear the solemn whisper of the poplars, and sometimes broken strains of music from the cathedral in the city floated through the cold and moonlight past her, far off into the blue beyond the hills. All the keen pleasure of the day, the warm, bright sights and sounds, coarse and homely though they were, seemed to fade into the deep music, and make a part of it.
Yet, sitting there, looking out into the listening night, the poor child’s face grew slowly pale as she heard it. It humbled her. It made her meanness, her low, weak life so plain to her! There was no pain nor hunger she had known that did not find a voice in its articulate cry. SHE! what was she? The pain and wants of the world must be going up to God in that sound, she thought. There was something more in it,–an unknown meaning of a great content that her shattered brain struggled to grasp. She could not. Her heart ached with a wild, restless longing. She had no words for the vague, insatiate hunger to understand. It was because she was ignorant and low, perhaps; others could know. She thought her Master was speaking. She thought that unknown Joy linked all earth and heaven together, and made it plain. So she hid her face in her hands, and listened, while the low harmony shivered through the air, unheeded by others, with the message of God to man. Not comprehending, it may be,–the poor girl,–hungry still to know. Yet, when she looked up, there were warm tears in her eyes, and her scarred face was bright with a sad, deep content and love.
So the hot, long day was over for them all,–passed as thousands of days have done for us, gone down, forgotten: as that long, hot day we call life will be over some time, and go down into the gray and cold. Surely, whatever of sorrow or pain may have made darkness in that day for you or me, there were countless openings where we might have seen glimpses of that other light than sunshine: the light of that great To-Morrow, of the land where all wrongs shall be righted. If we had but chosen to see it,–if we only had chosen!
Now that I have come to the love part of my story, I am suddenly conscious of dingy common colors on the palette with which I have been painting. I wish I had some brilliant dyes. I wish, with all my heart, I could take you back to that “Once upon a time” in which the souls of our grandmothers delighted,–the time which Dr. Johnson sat up all night to read about in “Evelina,”–the time when all the celestial virtues, all the earthly graces were revealed in a condensed state to man through the blue eyes and sumptuous linens of some Belinda Portman or Lord Mortimer. None of your good-hearted, sorely-tempted villains then! It made your hair stand on end only to read of them,–going about perpetually seeking innocent maidens and unsophisticated old men to devour. That was the time for holding up virtue and vice; no trouble then in seeing which were sheep and which were goats! A person could write a story with a moral to it, then, I should hope! People that were born in those days had no fancy for going through the world with half-and-half characters, such as we put up with; so Nature turned out complete specimens of each class, with all the appendages of dress, fortune, et cetera, chording decently. The heroine glides into life full-charged with rank, virtues, a name three-syllabled, and a white dress that never needs washing, ready to sail through dangers dire into a triumphant haven of matrimony;– all the aristocrats have high foreheads and cold blue eyes; all the peasants are old women, miraculously grateful, in neat check aprons, or sullen-browed insurgents planning revolts in caves.
Of course, I do not mean that these times are gone: they are alive (in a modern fashion) in many places in the world; some of my friends have described them in prose and verse. I only mean to say that I never was there; I was born unlucky. I am willing to do my best, but I live in the commonplace. Once or twice I have rashly tried my hand at dark conspiracies, and women rare and radiant in Italian bowers; but I have a friend who is sure to say, “Try and tell us about the butcher next door, my dear.” If I look up from my paper now, I shall be just as apt to see our dog and his kennel as the white sky stained with blood and Tyrian purple. I never saw a full-blooded saint or sinner in my life. The coldest villain I ever knew was the only son of his mother, and she a widow,–and a kinder son never lived. Doubtless there are people capable of a love terrible in its strength; but I never knew such a case that some one did not consider its expediency as “a match” in the light of dollars and cents. As for heroines, of course I have seen beautiful women, and good as fair. The most beautiful is delicate and pure enough for a type of the Madonna, and has a heart almost as warm and holy. (Very pure blood is in her veins, too, if you care about blood.) But at home they call her Tode for a nickname; all we can do, she will sing, and sing through her nose; and on washing-days she often cooks the dinner, and scolds wholesomely, if the tea-napkins are not in order. Now, what is anybody to do with a heroine like that? I have known old maids in abundance, with pathos and sunshine in their lives; but the old maid of novels I never have met, who abandoned her soul to gossip,–nor yet the other type, a life-long martyr of unselfishness. They are mixed generally, and not unlike their married sisters, so far as I can see. Then as to men, certainly I know heroes. One man, I knew, as high a chevalier in heart as any Bayard of them all; one of those souls simple and gentle as a woman, tender in knightly honour. He was an old man, with a rusty brown coat and rustier wig, who spent his life in a dingy village office. You poets would have laughed at him. Well, well, his history never will be written. The kind, sad, blue eyes are shut now. There is a little farm-graveyard overgrown with privet and wild grape-vines, and a flattened grave where he was laid to rest; and only a few who knew him when they were children care to go there, and think of what he was to them. But it was not in the far days of Chivalry alone, I think, that true and proud souls have stood in the world unwelcome, and, hurt to the quick, have turned away and dumbly died. Let it be. Their lives are not lost, thank God!
I meant only to ask you, How can I help it, if the people in my story seem coarse to you,–if the hero, unlike all other heroes, stopped to count the cost before he fell in love,–if it made his fingers thrill with pleasure to touch a full pocket-book as well as his mistress’s hand,–not being withal, this Stephen Holmes, a man to be despised? A hero, rather, of a peculiar type,–a man, more than other men: the very mould of man, doubt it who will, that women love longest and most madly. Of course, if I could, I would have blotted out every meanness before I showed him to you; I would have told you Margret was an impetuous, whole-souled woman, glad to throw her life down for her father, without one bitter thought of the wife and mother she might have been; I would have painted her mother tender, (as she was,) forgetting how pettish she grew on busy days: but what can I do? I must show you men and women as they are in that especial State of the Union where I live. In all the others, of course, it is very different. Now, being prepared for disappointment, will you see my hero?
He had sauntered out from the city for a morning walk,–not through the hills, as Margret went, going home, but on the other side, to the river, over which you could see the Prairie. We are in Indiana, remember. The sunlight was pure that morning, powerful, tintless, the true wine of life for body or spirit. Stephen Holmes knew that, being a man of delicate animal instincts, and so used it, just as he had used the dumb-bells in the morning. All things were made for man, weren’t they? He was leaning against the door of the school-house,– a red, flaunting house, the daub on the landscape: but, having his back to it, he could not see it, so through his half-shut eyes he suffered the beauty of the scene to act on him. Suffered: in a man, according to his creed, the will being dominant, and all influences, such as beauty, pain, religion, permitted to act under orders. Of course.
It was a peculiar landscape,–like the man who looked at it, of a thoroughly American type. A range of sharp, dark hills, with a sombre depth of green shadow in the clefts, and on the sides massed forests of scarlet and flame and crimson. Above, the sharp peaks of stone rose into the wan blue, wan and pale themselves, and wearing a certain air of fixed calm, the type of an eternal quiet. At the base of the hills lay the city, a dirty mass of bricks and smoke and dust, and at its far edge flowed the river,–deep here, tinted with green, writhing and gurgling and curdling on the banks over shelving ledges of lichen and mud-covered rock. Beyond it yawned the opening to the great West,–the Prairies. Not the dreary deadness here, as farther west. A plain, dark russet in hue,–for the grass was sun-scorched,–stretching away into the vague distance, intolerable, silent, broken by hillocks and puny streams that only made the vastness and silence more wide and heavy. Its limitless torpor weighed on the brain; the eyes ached, stretching to find some break before the dull russet faded into the amber of the horizon and was lost. An American landscape: of few features, simple, grand in outline as a face of one of the early gods. It lay utterly motionless before him, not a fleck of cloud in the pure blue above, even where the mist rose from the river; it only had glorified the clear blue into clearer violet.
Holmes stood quietly looking; he could have created a picture like this, if he never had seen one; therefore he was able to recognize it, accepted it into his soul, and let it do what it would there.
Suddenly a low wind from the far Pacific coast struck from the amber line where the sun went down. A faint tremble passed over the great hills, the broad sweeps of colour darkened from base to summit, then flashed again,–while below, the prairie rose and fell like a dun sea, and rolled in long, slow, solemn waves.
The wind struck so broad and fiercely in Holmes’s face that he caught his breath. It was a savage freedom, he thought, in the West there, whose breath blew on him,–the freedom of the primitive man, the untamed animal man, self-reliant and self-assertant, having conquered Nature. Well, this fierce, masterful freedom was good for the soul, sometimes, doubtless. It was old Knowles’s vital air. He wondered if the old man would succeed in his hobby, if he could make the slavish beggars and thieves in the alleys yonder comprehend this fierce freedom. They craved leave to live on sufferance now, not knowing their possible divinity. It was a desperate remedy, this sense of unchecked liberty; but their disease was desperate. As for himself, he did not need it; that element was not lacking. In a mere bodily sense, to be sure. He felt his arm. Yes, the cold rigor of this new life had already worn off much of the clogging weight of flesh, strengthened the muscles. Six months more in the West would toughen the fibres to iron. He raised an iron weight that lay on the steps, carelessly testing them. For the rest, he was going back here; something of the cold, loose freshness got into his brain, he believed. In the two years of absence his power of concentration had been stronger, his perceptions more free from prejudice, gaining every day delicate point, acuteness of analysis. He drew a long breath of the icy air, coarse with the wild perfume of the prairie. No, his temperament needed a subtiler atmosphere than this, rarer essence than mere brutal freedom The East, the Old World, was his proper sphere for self-development. He would go as soon as he could command the means, leaving all clogs behind. ALL? His idle thought balked here, suddenly; the sallow forehead contracted sharply, and his gray eyes grew in an instant shallow, careless, formal, as a man who holds back his thought. There was a fierce warring in his brain for a moment. Then he brushed his Kossuth hat with his arm, and put it on, looking out at the landscape again. Somehow its meaning was dulled to him. Just then a muddy terrier came up, and rubbed itself against his knee. “Why, Tige, old boy!” he said, stooping to pat it kindly. The hard, shallow look faded out; he half smiled, looking in the dog’s eyes. A curious smile, unspeakably tender and sad. It was the idiosyncrasy of the man’s face, rarely seen there. He might have looked with it at a criminal, condemning him to death. But he would have condemned him, and, if no hangman could be found, would have put the rope on with his own hands, and then most probably would have sat down pale and trembling, and analyzed his sensations on paper,–being sincere in all.
He sat down on the school-house step, which the boys had hacked and whittled rough, and waited; for he was there by appointment, to meet Dr. Knowles.
Knowles had gone out early in the morning to look at the ground he was going to buy for his Phalanstery, or whatever he chose to call it. He was to bring the deed of sale of the mill out with him for Holmes. The next day it was to be signed. Holmes saw him at last lumbering across the prairie, wiping the perspiration from his forehead. Summer or winter, he contrived to be always hot. There was a cart drawn by an old donkey coming along beside him. Knowles was talking to the driver. The old man clapped his hands as stage-coachmen do, and drew in long draughts of air, as if there were keen life and promise in every breath. They came up at last, the cart empty, and drying for the day’s work after its morning’s scrubbing, Lois’s pock-marked face all in a glow with trying to keep Barney awake. She grew quite red with pleasure at seeing Holmes, but went on quickly as the men began to talk. Tige followed her, of course; but when she had gone a little way across the prairie, they saw her stop, and presently the dog came back with something in his mouth, which he laid down beside his master, and bolted off. It was only a rough wicker-basket which she had filled with damp plushy moss, and half-buried in it clusters of plumy fern, delicate brown and ashen lichens, masses of forest-leaves all shaded green with a few crimson tints. It had a clear woody smell, like far-off myrrh. The Doctor laughed as Holmes took it up.
“An artist’s gift, if it is from a mulatto,” he said. “A born colourist.”
The men were not at ease,–for some reason; they seized on every trifle to keep off the subject which had brought them together.
“That girl’s artist-sense is pure, and her religion, down under the perversion and ignorance of her brain. Curious, eh?”
“Look at the top of her head, when you see her,” said Holmes. “It is necessity for such brains to worship. They let the fire lick their blood, if they happen to be born Parsees. This girl, if she had been a Jew when Christ was born, would have known him as Simeon did.”
Knowles said nothing,–only glanced at the massive head of the speaker, with its overhanging brow, square development at the sides, and lowered crown, and smiled significantly.
“Exactly,” laughed Holmes, putting his hand on his head. “Crippled there by my Yorkshire blood,–my mother. Never mind; outside of this life, blood or circumstance matters nothing.”
They walked on slowly towards town. Surely there was nothing in the bill-of-sale which the old man had in his pocket but a mere matter of business; yet they were strangely silent about it, as if it brought shame to some one. There was an embarrassed pause. The Doctor went back to Lois for relief.
“I think it is the pain and want of such as she that makes them susceptible to religion. The self in them is so starved and humbled that it cannot obscure their eyes; they see God clearly.”
“Say rather,” said Holmes, “that the soul is so starved and blind that it cannot recognize itself as God.”
The Doctor’s intolerant eye kindled.
“Humph! So that’s your creed! Not Pantheism. Ego sum. Of course you go on with the conjugation: I have been, I shall be. I,– that covers the whole ground, creation, redemption, and commands the hereafter?”
“It does so,” said Holmes, coolly.
“And this wretched huckster carries her deity about her,–her self-existent soul? How, in God’s name, is her life to set it free?”
Holmes said nothing. The coarse sneer could not be answered. Men with pale faces and heavy jaws like his do not carry their religion on their tongue’s end; their creeds leave them only in the slow oozing life-blood, false as the creeds may be.
Knowles went on hotly, half to himself, seizing on the new idea fiercely, as men and women do who are yet groping for the truth of life.
“What is it your Novalis says? `The true Shechinah is man.’ You know no higher God? Pooh! the idea is old enough; it began with Eve. It works slowly, Holmes. In six thousand years, taking humanity as one, this self-existent soul should have clothed itself with a freer, royaller garment than poor Lois’s body,– or mine,” he added, bitterly.
“It works slowly,” said the other, quietly. “Faster soon, in America. There are yet many ills of life for the divinity within to conquer.”
“And Lois and the swarming mass yonder in those dens? It is late for them to begin the fight?”
“Endurance is enough for them here, and their religions teach them that. They could not bear the truth. One does not put a weapon into the hands of a man dying of the fetor and hunger of the siege.”
“But what will this life, or the lives to come, give to you, champions who know the truth?”
“Nothing but victory,” he said, in a low tone, looking away.
Knowles looked at the pale strength of the iron face.
“God help you, Stephen!” he broke out, his shallow jeering falling off. “For there IS a God higher than we. The ills of life you mean to conquer will teach it to you, Holmes. You’ll find the Something above yourself, if it’s only to curse Him and die.”
Holmes did not smile at the old man’s heat,– walked gravely, steadily.
There was a short silence. Knowles put his hand gently on the other’s arm.
“Stephen,” he hesitated, “you’re a stronger man than I. I know what you are; I’ve watched you from a boy. But you’re wrong here. I’m an old man. There’s not much I know in life,–enough to madden me. But I do know there’s something stronger,–some God outside of the mean devil they call `Me.’ You’ll learn it, boy. There’s an old story of a man like you and the rest of your sect, and of the vile, mean, crawling things that God sent to bring him down. There are such things yet. Mean passions in your divine soul, low, selfish things, that will get the better of you, show you what you are. You’ll do all that man can do. But they are coming, Stephen Holmes! they’re coming!”
He stopped, startled. For Holmes had turned abruptly, glancing over at the city with a strange wistfulness. It was over in a moment. He resumed the slow, controlling walk beside him. They went on in silence into town, and when they did speak, it was on indifferent subjects, not referring to the last. The Doctor’s heat, as it usually did, boiled out in spasms on trifles. Once he stumped his toe, and, I am sorry to say, swore roundly about it, just as he would have done in the new Arcadia, if one of the jail-birds comprising that colony had been ungrateful for his advantages. Philanthropists, for some curious reason, are not the most amiable members of small families.
He gave Holmes the roll of parchment he had in his pocket, looking keenly at him, as he did so, but only saying, that, if he meant to sign it, it would be done to-morrow. As Holmes took it, they stopped at the great door of the factory. He went in alone, Knowles going down the street. One trifle, strange in its way, he remembered afterwards. Holding the roll of paper in his hand that would make the mill his, he went, in his slow, grave way, down the long passage to the loom-rooms. There was a crowd of porters and firemen there, as usual, and he thought one of them hastily passed him in the dark passage, hiding behind an engine. As the shadow fell on him, his teeth chattered with a chilly shudder. He smiled, thinking how superstitious people would say that some one trod on his grave just then, or that Death looked at him, and went on. Afterwards he thought of it. Going through the office, the fat old book-keeper, Huff, stopped him with a story he had been keeping for him all day. He liked to tell a story to Holmes; he could see into a joke; it did a man good to hear a fellow laugh like that. Holmes did laugh, for the story was a good one, and stood a moment, then went in, leaving the old fellow chuckling over his desk. Huff did not know how, lately, after every laugh, this man felt a vague scorn of himself, as if jokes and laughter belonged to a self that ought to have been dead long ago. Perhaps, if the fat old book-keeper had known it, he would have said that the man was better than he knew. But then,–poor Huff! He passed slowly through the alleys between the great looms. Overhead the ceiling looked like a heavy maze of iron cylinders and black swinging bars and wheels, all in swift, ponderous motion. It was enough to make a brain dizzy with the clanging thunder of the engines, the whizzing spindles of red and yellow, and the hot daylight glaring over all. The looms were watched by women, most of them bold, tawdry girls of fifteen or sixteen, or lean-jawed women from the hills, wives of the coal-diggers. There was a breathless odour of copperas. As he went from one room to another up through the ascending stories, he had a vague sensation of being followed. Some shadow lurked at times behind the engines, or stole after him in the dark entries. Were there ghosts, then, in mills in broad daylight? None but the ghosts of Want and Hunger and Crime, he might have known, that do not wait for night to walk our streets: the ghosts that poor old Knowles hoped to lay forever.
Holmes had a room fitted up in the mill, where he slept. He went up to it slowly, holding the paper tightly in one hand, glancing at the operatives, the work, through his furtive half-shut eye. Nothing escaped him. Passing the windows, he did not once look out at the prophetic dream of beauty he had left without. In the mill he was of the mill. Yet he went slowly, as if he shrank from the task waiting for him. Why should he? It was a simple matter of business, this transfer of Knowles’s share in the mill to himself; to-day he was to decide whether he would conclude the bargain. If any dark history of wrong lay underneath, if this simple decision of his was to be the struggle for life and death with him, his cold, firm face told nothing of it. Let us be just to him, stand by him, if we can, in the midst of his desolate home and desolate life, and look through his cold, sorrowful eyes at the deed he was going to do. Dreary enough he looked, going through the great mill, despite the power in his quiet face. A man who had strength for solitude; yet, I think, with all his strength, his mother could not have borne to look back from the dead that day, to see her boy so utterly alone. The day was the crisis of his life, looked forward to for years; he held in his hand a sure passport to fortune. Yet he thrust the hour off, perversely, trifling with idle fancies, pushing from him the one question which all the years past and to come had left for this day to decide.
Some such idle fancy it may have been that made the man turn from the usual way down a narrow passage into which opened doors from small offices. Margret Howth, he had learned to-day, was in the first one. He hesitated before he did it, his sallow face turning a trifle paler; then he went on in his hard, grave way, wondering dimly if she remembered his step, if she cared to see him now. She used to know it,–she was the only one in the world who ever had cared to know it,–silly child! Doubtless she was wiser now. He remembered he used to think, that, when this woman loved, it would be as he himself would, with a simple trust which the wrong of years could not touch. And once he had thought—- Well, well, he was mistaken. Poor Margret! Better as it was. They were nothing to each other. She had put him from her, and he had suffered himself to be put away. Why, he would have given up every prospect of life, if he had done otherwise! Yet he wondered bitterly if she had thought him selfish,–if she thought it was money he cared for, as the others did. It mattered nothing what they thought, but it wounded him intolerably that she should wrong him. Yet, with all this, whenever he looked forward to death, it was with the certainty that he should find her there beyond. There would be no secrets then; she would know then how he had loved her always. Loved her? Yes; he need not hide it from himself, surely.
He was now by the door of the office;– she was within. Little Margret, poor little Margret! struggling there day after day for the old father and mother. What a pale, cold little child she used to be! such a child! yet kindling at his look or touch, as if her veins were filled with subtile flame. Her soul was–like his own, he thought. He knew what it was,– he only. Even now he glowed with a man’s triumph to know he held the secret life of this woman bare in his hand. No other human power could ever come near her; he was secure in possession. She had put him from her;–it was better for both, perhaps. Their paths were separate here; for she had some unreal notions of duty, and he had too much to do in the world to clog himself with cares, or to idle an hour in the rare ecstasy of even love like this.
He passed the office, not pausing in his slow step. Some sudden impulse made him put his hand on the door as he brushed against it: just a quick, light touch; but it had all the fierce passion of a caress. He drew it back as quickly, and went on, wiping a clammy sweat from his face.
The room he had fitted up for himself was whitewashed and barely furnished; it made one’s bones ache to look at the iron bedstead and chairs. Holmes’s natural taste was more glowing, however smothered, than that of any saffron-robed Sybarite. It needed correction, he knew; here was discipline. Besides, he had set apart the coming three or four years of his life to make money in, enough for the time to come. He would devote his whole strength to that work, and so be sooner done with it. Money, or place, or even power, was nothing but a means to him: other men valued them because of their influence on others. As his work in the world was only the development of himself, it was different, of course. What would it matter to his soul the day after death, if millions called his name aloud in blame or praise? Would he hear or answer then? What would it matter to him then, if he had starved with them, or ruled over them? People talked of benevolence. What would it matter to him then, the misery or happiness of those yet working in this paltry life of ours? In so far as the exercise of kindly emotions or self-denial developed the higher part of his nature, it was to be commended; as for its effect on others, that he had nothing to do with. He practised self-denial constantly to strengthen the benevolent instincts. That very morning he had given his last dollar to Joe Byers, a half-starved cripple. “Chucked it at me,” Joe said, “like as he’d give a bone to a dog, and be damned to him! Who thanks him?” To tell the truth, you will find no fairer exponent than this Stephen Holmes of the great idea of American sociology,–that the object of life is TO GROW. Circumstances had forced it on him, partly. Sitting now in his room, where he was counting the cost of becoming a merchant prince, he could look back to the time of a boyhood passed in the depths of ignorance and vice. He knew what this Self within him was; he knew how it had forced him to grope his way up, to give this hungry, insatiate soul air and freedom and knowledge. All men around him were doing the same,–thrusting and jostling and struggling, up, up. It was the American motto, Go ahead; mothers taught it to their children; the whole system was a scale of glittering prizes. He at least saw the higher meaning of the truth; he had no low ambitions. To lift this self up into a higher range of being when it had done with the uses of this,–that was his work. Self-salvation, self-elevation,–the ideas that give birth to, and destroy half of our Christianity, half of our philanthropy! Sometimes, sleeping instincts in the man struggled up to assert a divinity more terrible than this growing self-existent soul that he purified and analyzed day by day: a depth of tender pity for outer pain; a fierce longing for rest, on something, in something, he cared not what. He stifled such rebellious promptings,–called them morbid. He called it morbid, too, the passion now that chilled his strong blood, and wrung out these clammy drops on his forehead, at the mere thought of this girl below.
He shut the door of his room tightly: he had no time to-day for lounging visitors. For Holmes, quiet and steady, was sought for, if not popular, even in the free-and-easy West; one of those men who are unwillingly masters among men. Just and mild, always; with a peculiar gift that made men talk their best thoughts to him, knowing they would be understood; if any core of eternal flint lay under the simple, truthful manner of the man, nobody saw it.
He laid the bill of sale on the table; it was an altogether practical matter on which he sat in judgment, but he was going to do nothing rashly. A plain business document: he took Dr. Knowles’s share in the factory; the payments made with short intervals; John Herne was to be his endorser: it needed only the names to make it valid. Plain enough; no hint there of the tacit understanding that the purchase-money was a wedding dowry; even between Herne and himself it never was openly put into words. If he did not marry Miss Herne, the mill was her father’s; that of course must be spoken of, arranged to-morrow. If he took it, then? if he married her? Holmes had been poor, was miserably poor yet, with the position and habits of a man, of refinement. God knows it was not to gratify those tastes that he clutched at this money. All the slow years of work trailed up before him, that were gone,–of hard, wearing work for daily bread, when his brain had been starving for knowledge, and his soul dulled, debased with sordid trading. Was this to be always? Were these few golden moments of life to be traded for the bread and meat he ate? To eat and drink,–was that what he was here for?
As he paced the floor mechanically, some vague recollection crossed his brain of a childish story of the man standing where the two great roads of life parted. They were open before him now. Money, money,–he took the word into his heart as a miser might do. With it, he was free from these carking cares that were making his mind foul and muddy. If he had money! Slow, cool visions of triumphs rose before him outlined on the years to come, practical, if Utopian. Slow and sure successes of science and art, where his brain could work, helpful and growing. Far off, yet surely to come,–surely for him,–a day when a pure social system should be universal, should have thrust out its fibres of light, knitting into one the nations of the earth, when the lowest slave should find its true place and rightful work, and stand up, knowing itself divine. “To insure to every man the freest development of his faculties:” he said over the hackneyed dogma again and again, while the heavy, hateful years of poverty rose before him that had trampled him down. “To insure to him the freest development,” he did not need to wait for St. Simon, or the golden year, he thought with a dreary gibe; money was enough, and–Miss Herne.
It was curious, that, when this woman, whom he saw every day, came up in his mind, it was always in one posture, one costume. You have noticed that peculiarity in your remembrance of some persons? Perhaps you would find, if you looked closely, that in that look or indelible gesture which your memory has caught there lies some subtile hint of the tie between your soul and theirs. Now, when Holmes had resolved coolly to weigh this woman, brain, heart, and flesh, to know how much of a hindrance she would be, he could only see her, with his artist’s sense, as delicate a bloom of colouring as eye could crave, in one immovable posture,–as he had seen her once in some masquerade or tableau vivant. June, I think it was, she chose to represent that evening,–and with her usual success; for no woman ever knew more thoroughly her material of shape or colour, or how to work it up. Not an ill-chosen fancy, either, that of the moist, warm month. Some tranced summer’s day might have drowsed down into such a human form by a dank pool, or on the thick grass-crusted meadows. There was the full contour of the limbs hid under warm green folds, the white flesh that glowed when you touched it as if some smothered heat lay beneath, the snaring eyes, the sleeping face, the amber hair uncoiled in a languid quiet, while yellow jasmines deepened its hue into molten sunshine, and a great tiger-lily laid its sultry head on her breast. June? Could June become incarnate with higher poetic meaning than that which this woman gave it? Mr. Kitts, the artist I told you of, thought not, and fell in love with June and her on the spot, which passion became quite unbearable after she had graciously permitted him to sketch her,–for the benefit of Art. Three medical students and one attorney, Miss Herne numbered as having been driven into a
state of dogged despair on that triumphal occasion. Mr. Holmes may have quarrelled with the rendering, doubting to himself if her lip were not too thick, her eye too brassy and pale a blue for the queen of months; though I do not believe he thought at all about it. Yet the picture clung to his memory.
As he slowly paced the room to-day, thinking of this woman as his wife, light blue eyes and yellow hair and the unclean sweetness of jasmine-flowers mixed with the hot sunshine and smells of the mill. He could think of her in no other light. He might have done so; for the poor girl had her other sides for view. She had one of those sharp, tawdry intellects whose possessors are always reckoned “brilliant women, fine talkers.” She was (aside from the necessary sarcasm to keep up this reputation) a good-humoured soul enough,–when no one stood in her way. But if her shallow virtues or vices were palpable at all to him, they became one with the torpid beauty of the oppressive summer day, and weighed on him alike with a vague disgust. The woman luxuriated in perfume; some heavy odour always hung about her. Holmes, thinking of her now, fancied he felt it stifling the air, and opened the window for breath. Patchouli or copperas,–what was the difference? The mill and his future wife came to him together; it was scarcely his fault, if he thought of them as one, or muttered, “Damnable clog!” as he sat down to write, his cold eye growing colder. But he did not argue the question any longer; decision had come keenly in one moment, fixed, unalterable.
If, through the long day, the starved heart of the man called feebly for its natural food, he called it a paltry weakness; or if the old thought of the quiet, pure little girl in the office below came back to him, he–he wished her well, he hoped she might succeed in her work, he would always be ready to lend her a helping hand. So many years (he was ashamed to think how many) he had built the thought of this girl as his wife into the future, put his soul’s strength into the hope, as if love and the homely duties of husband and father were what life was given for! A boyish fancy, he thought. He had not learned then that all dreams must yield to self-reverence and self-growth. As for taking up this life of poverty and soul-starvation for the sake of a little love, it would be an ignoble martyrdom, the sacrifice of a grand unmeasured life to a shallow pleasure. He was no longer a young man now; he had no time to waste. Poor Margret! he wondered if it hurt her?
He signed the deed, and left it in the slow, quiet way natural to him, and after a while stooped to pat the dog softly, who was trying to lick his hand,–with the hard fingers shaking a little, and a smothered fierceness in the half-closed eye, like a man who is tortured and alone.
There is a miserable drama acted in other homes than the Tuileries, when men have found a woman’s heart in their way to success, and trampled it down under an iron heel. Men like Napoleon must live out the law of their natures, I suppose,–on a throne, or in a mill.
So many trifles that day roused the undercurrent of old thoughts and old hopes that taunted him,–trifles, too, that he would not have heeded at another time. Pike came in on business, a bunch of bills in his hand. A wily, keen eye he had, looking over them,–a lean face, emphasized only by cunning. No wonder Dr. Knowles cursed him for a “slippery customer,” and was cheated by him the next hour. While he and Holmes were counting out the bills, a little white-headed girl crept shyly in at the door, and came up to the table,–oddly dressed, in a frock fastened with great horn buttons, and with an old-fashioned anxious pair of eyes, the color of blue Delft. Holmes smoothed her hair, as she stood beside them; for he never could help caressing children or dogs. Pike looked up sharply,–then half smiled, as he went on counting.
“Ninety, ninety-five, AND one hundred, all right,”–tying a bit of tape about the papers. “My Sophy, Mr. Holmes. Good girl, Sophy is. Bring her up to the mill sometimes,” he said, apologetically, “on ‘count of not leaving her alone. She gets lonesome at th’ house.”
Holmes glanced at Pike’s felt hat lying on the table: there was a rusty strip of crape on it.
“Yes,” said Pike, in a lower tone, “I’m father and mother, both, to Sophy now.”
“I had not heard,” said Holmes, kindly. “How about the boys, now?”
“Pete and John ‘s both gone West,” the man said, his eyes kindling eagerly. ” ‘S fine boys as ever turned out of Indiana. Good eddications I give ’em both. I’ve felt the want of that all my life.. Good eddications. Says I, `Now, boys, you’ve got your fortunes, nothing to hinder your bein’ President. Let’s see what stuff ‘s in ye,’ says I. So they’re doin’ well. Wrote fur me to come out in the fall. But I’d rather scratch on, and gather up a little for Sophy here, before I stop work.”
He patted Sophy’s tanned little hand on the table, as if beating some soft tune. Holmes folded up the bills. Even this man could spare time out of his hard, stingy life to love, and be loved, and to be generous! But then he had no higher aim, knew nothing better.
“Well,” said Pike, rising, “in case you take th’ mill, Mr. Holmes, I hope we’ll be agreeable. I’ll strive to do my best,”–in the old fawning manner, to which Holmes nodded a curt reply.
The man stopped for Sophy to gather up her bits of broken “chayney” with which she was making a tea-party on the table, and went down-stairs.
Towards evening Holmes went out,–not going through the narrow passage that led to the offices, but avoiding it by a circuitous route. If it cost him any pain to think why he did it, he showed none in his calm, observant face. Buttoning up his coat as he went: the October sunset looked as if it ought to be warm, but he was deathly cold. On the street the young doctor beset him again with bows and news: Cox was his name, I believe; the one, you remember, who had such a Talleyrand nose for ferreting out successful men. He had to bear with him but for a few moments, however. They met a crowd of workmen at the corner, one of whom, an old man freshly washed, with honest eyes looking out of horn spectacles, waited for them by a fire-plug. It was Polston, the coal-digger,–an acquaintance, a far-off kinsman of Holmes, in fact.
“Curious person making signs to you, yonder,” said Cox; “hand, I presume.”
“My cousin Polston. If you do not know him, you’ll excuse me?”
Cox sniffed the air down the street, and twirled his rattan, as he went. The coal-digger was abrupt and distant in his greeting, going straight to business.
“I will keep yoh only a minute, Mr. Holmes”—-
“Stephen,” corrected Holmes.
The old man’s face warmed.
“Stephen, then,” holding out his hand, “sence old times dawn’t shame yoh, Stephen. That’s hearty, now. It’s only a wured I want, but it’s immediate. Concernin’ Joe Yare,–Lois’s father, yoh know? He’s back.”
“Back? I saw him to-day, following me in the mill. His hair is gray? I think it was he.”
“No doubt. Yes, he’s aged fast, down in the lock-up; goin’ fast to the end. Feeble, pore-like. It’s a bad life, Joe Yare’s; I wish ‘n’ ‘t would be better to the end”—-
He stopped with a wistful look at Holmes, who stood outwardly attentive, but with little thought to waste on Joe Yare. The old coal-digger drummed on the fire-plug uneasily.
“Myself, ‘t was for Lois’s sake I thowt on it. To speak plain,–yoh’ll mind that Stokes affair, th’ note Yare forged? Yes? Ther’ ‘s none knows o’ that but yoh an’ me. He’s safe, Yare is, only fur yoh an’ me. Yoh speak the wured an’ back he goes to the lock-up. Fur life. D’ yoh see?”
“He’s tryin’ to do right, Yare is.”
The old man went on, trying not to be eager, and watching Holmes’s face.
“He’s tryin’. Sendin’ him back–yoh know how THAT’ll end. Seems like as we’d his soul in our hands. S’pose,–what d’ yoh think, if we give him a chance? It’s yoh he fears. I see him a-watchin’ yoh; what d’ yoh think, if we give him a chance?” catching Holmes’s sleeve. “He’s old, an’ he’s tryin’. Heh?”
“We didn’t make the law he broke. Justice before mercy. Haven’t I heard you talk to Sam in that way, long ago?”
The old man loosened his hold of Holmes’s arm, looked up and down the street, uncertain, disappointed.
“The law. Yes. That’s right! Yoh’re just man, Stephen Holmes.”
“Yes. I dun’no’. Law’s right, but Yare’s had a bad chance, an’ he’s tryin’. An’ we’re sendin’ him to hell. Somethin’ ‘s wrong. But I think yoh’re a just man,” looking keenly in Holmes’s face.
“A hard one, people say,” said Holmes, after a pause, as they walked on.
He had spoken half to himself, and received no answer. Some blacker shadow troubled him than old Yare’s fate.
“My mother was a hard woman,–you knew her?” he said, abruptly.
“She was just, like yoh. She was one o’ th’ elect, she said. Mercy’s fur them,–an’ outside, justice. It’s a narrer showin’, I’m thinkin’.”
“My father was outside,” said Holmes, some old bitterness rising up in his tone, his gray eye lighting with some unrevenged wrong.
Polston did not speak for a moment.
“Dunnot bear malice agin her. They’re dead, now. It wasn’t left fur her to judge him out yonder. Yoh’ve yer father’s Stephen, ‘times. Hungry, pitiful, like women’s. His got desper’t’ ‘t th’ last. Drunk hard,–died of ‘t, yoh know. But SHE killed him,–th’ sin was writ down fur her. Never was a boy I loved like him, when we was boys.”
There was a short silence.
“Yoh’re like yer mother,” said Polston, striving for a lighter tone. “Here,”–motioning to the heavy iron jaws. “She never–let go. Somehow, too, she’d the law on her side in outward showin’, an’ th’ right. But I hated religion, knowin’ her. Well, ther’ ‘s a day of makin’ things clear, comin’.”
They had reached the corner now, and Polston turned down the lane.
“Yoh ‘ll think o’ Yare’s case?” he said.
“Yes. But how can I help it,” Holmes said, lightly, “if I am like my mother, here?”– putting his hand to his mouth.
“God help us, how can yoh? It’s hard to think father and mother leave their souls fightin’ in their childern, cos th’ love was wantin’ to make them one here.”
Something glittered along the street as he spoke: the silver mountings of a low-hung phaeton drawn by a pair of Mexican ponies. One or two gentlemen on horseback were alongside, attendant on a lady within, Miss Herne. She turned her fair face, and pale, greedy eyes, as she passed, and lifted her hand languidly in recognition of Holmes. Polston’s face coloured.
“I’ve heered,” he said, holding out his grimy hand. “I wish yoh well, Stephen, boy. So’ll the old ‘oman. Yoh’ll come an’ see us, soon? Ye’r’ lookin’ fagged, an’ yer eyes is gettin’ more like yer father’s. I’m glad things is takin’ a good turn with yoh; an’ yoh’ll never be like him, starvin’ fur th’ kind wured, an’ havin’ to die without it. I’m glad yoh’ve got true love. She’d a fair face, I think. I wish yoh well, Stephen.”
Holmes shook the grimy hand, and then stood a moment looking back to the mill, from which the hands were just coming, and then down at the phaeton moving idly down the road. How cold it was growing! People passing by had a sickly look, as if they were struck by the plague. He pushed the damp hair back, wiping his forehead, with another glance at the mill-women coming out of the gate, and then followed the phaeton down the hill.
An hour after, the evening came on sultry, the air murky, opaque, with yellow trails of colour dragging in the west: a sullen stillness in the woods and farms; only, in fact, that dark, inexplicable hush that precedes a storm. But Lois, coming down the hill-road, singing to herself, and keeping time with her whip-end on the wooden measure, stopped when she grew conscious of it. It seemed to her blurred fancy more than a deadening sky: a something solemn and unknown, hinting of evil to come. The dwarf-pines on the road-side scowled weakly at her through the gray; the very silver minnows in the pools she passed, flashed frightened away, and darkened into the muddy niches. There was a vague dread in the sudden silence. She called to the old donkey, and went faster down the hill, as if escaping from some overhanging peril, unseen. She saw Margret coming up the road. There was a phaeton behind Lois, and some horsemen: she jolted the cart off into the stones to let them pass, seeing Mr. Holmes’s face in the carriage as she did so. He did not look at her; had his head turned towards the gray distance. Lois’s vivid eye caught the full meaning of the woman beside him. The face hurt her: not fair, as Polston called it: vapid and cruel. She was dressed in yellow: the colour seemed jeering and mocking to the girl’s sensitive instinct, keenly alive to every trifle. She did not know that it is the colour of shams, and that women like this are the most deadly of shams. As the phaeton went slowly down, Margret came nearer, meeting it on the road-side, the dust from the wheels stifling the air. Lois saw her look up, and then suddenly stand still, holding to the fence, as they met her. Holmes’s cold, wandering eye turned on the little dusty figure standing there, poor and despised. Polston called his eyes hungry: it was a savage hunger that sprang into them now; a gray shadow creeping over his set face, as he looked at her, in that flashing moment. The phaeton was gone in an instant, leaving her alone in the road. One of the men looked back, and then whispered something to the lady with a laugh. She turned to Holmes, when he had finished, fixing her light, confusing eyes on his face, and softening her voice.
“Fred swears that woman we passed was your first love. Were you, then, so chivalric? Was it to have been a second romaunt of `King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid?’ “
He met her look, and saw the fierce demand through the softness and persiflage. He gave it no answer, but, turning to her, kindled into the man whom she was so proud to show as her capture,–a man far off from Stephen Holmes. Brilliant she called him,–frank, winning, generous. She thought she knew him well; held him a slave to her fluttering hand. Being proud of her slave, she let the hand flutter down now somehow with some flowers it held until it touched his hard fingers, her cheek flushing into rose. The nerveless, spongy hand,–what a death-grip it had on his life! He did not look back once at the motionless, dusty figure on the road. What was that Polston had said about starving to death for a kind word? LOVE? He was sick of the sickly talk,–crushed it out of his heart with a savage scorn. He remembered his father, the night he died, had said in his weak ravings that God was love. Was He? No wonder, then, He was the God of women, and children, and unsuccessful men. For him, he was done with it. He was here with stronger purpose than to yield to weaknesses of the flesh. He had made his choice,–a straight, hard path upwards; he was deaf now and forever to any word of kindness or pity. As for this woman beside him, he would be just to her, in justice to himself: she never should know the loathing in his heart: just to her as to all living creatures. Some little, mean doubt kept up a sullen whisper of bought and sold,–sold,–but he laughed it down. He sat there with his head steadily turned towards her: a kingly face, she called it, and she was right,–it was a kingly face: with the same shallow, fixed smile on his mouth,–no weary cry went up to God that day so terrible in its pathos, I think: with the same dull consciousness that this was the trial night of his life,–that with the homely figure on the road-side he had turned his back on love and kindly happiness and warmth, on all that was weak and useless in the world. He had made his choice; he would abide by it,–he would abide by it. He said that over and over again, dulling down the death-gnawing of his outraged heart.
Miss Herne was quite contented, sitting by him, with herself, and the admiring world. She had no notion of trial nights in life. Not many temptations pierced through her callous, flabby temperament to sting her to defeat or triumph. There was for her no under-current of conflict, in these people whom she passed, between self and the unseen power that Holmes sneered at, whose name was love; they were nothing but movables, pleasant or ugly to look at, well- or ill-dressed. There were no dark iron bars across her life for her soul to clutch and shake madly,–nothing “in the world amiss, to be unriddled by and by.” Little Margret, sitting by the muddy road, digging her fingers dully into the clover-roots, while she looked at the spot where the wheels had passed, looked at life differently, it may be;–or old Joe Yare by the furnace-fire, his black face and gray hair bent over a torn old spelling-book Lois had given him. The night, perhaps, was going to be more to them than so many rainy hours for sleeping,–the time to be looked back on through coming lives as the hour when good and ill came to them, and they made their choice, and, as Holmes said, did abide by it.
It grew cool and darker. Holmes left the phaeton before they entered town, and turned back. He was going to see this Margret Howth, tell her what he meant to do. Because he was going to leave a clean record. No one should accuse him of want of honour. This girl alone of all living beings had a right to see him as he stood, justified to himself. Why she had this right, I do not think he answered to himself. Besides, he must see her, if only on business. She must keep her place at the mill: he would not begin his new life by an act of injustice, taking the bread out of Margret’s mouth. LITTLE MARGRET! He stopped suddenly, looking down into a deep pool of water by the road-side. What madness of weariness crossed his brain just then I do not know. He shook it off. Was he mad? Life was worth more to him than to other men, he thought; and perhaps he was right. He went slowly through the cool dusk, looking across the fields, up at the pale, frightened face of the moon hooded in clouds: he did not dare to look, with all his iron nerve, at the dark figure beyond him on the road. She was sitting there just where he had left her: he knew she would be. When he came closer, she got up, not looking towards him; but he saw her clasp her hands behind her, the fingers plucking weakly at each other. It was an old, childish fashion of hers, when she was frightened or hurt. It would only need a word, and he could be quiet and firm,–she was such a child compared to him: he always had thought of her so. He went on up to her slowly, and stopped; when she looked at him, he untied the linen bonnet that hid her face, and threw it back. How thin and tired the little face had grown! Poor child! He put his strong arm kindly about her, and stooped to kiss her hand, but she drew it away. God! what did she do that for? Did not she know that he could put his head beneath her foot then, he was so mad with pity for the woman he had wronged? Not love, he thought, controlling himself,–it was only justice to be kind to her.
“You have been ill, Margret, these two years, while I was gone?”
He could not hear her answer; only saw that she looked up with a white, pitiful smile. Only a word it needed, he thought,–very kind and firm: and he must be quick,–he could not bear this long. But he held the little worn fingers, stroking them with an unutterable tenderness.
“You must let these fingers work for me, Margret,” he said, at last, “when I am master in the mill.”
“It is true, then, Stephen?”
“It is true,–yes.”
She lifted her hand to her head, uncertainly: he held it tightly, and then let it go. What right had he to touch the dust upon her shoes,–he, bought and sold? She did not speak for a time; when she did, it was a weak and sick voice.
“I am glad. I saw her, you know. She is very beautiful.”
The fingers were plucking at each other again; and a strange, vacant smile on her face, trying to look glad.
“You love her, Stephen?”
He was quiet and firm enough now.
“I do not. Her money will help me to become what I ought to be. She does not care for love. You want me to succeed, Margret? No one ever understood me as you did, child though you were.”
Her whole face glowed.
“I know! I know! I did understand you!”
She said, lower, after a little while,–
“I knew you did not love her.”
“There is no such thing as love in real life,” he said, in his steeled voice. “You will know that, when you grow older. I used to believe in it once, myself.”
She did not speak, only watched the slow motion of his lips, not looking into his eyes,–as she used to do in the old time. Whatever secret account lay between the souls of this man and woman came out now, and stood bare on their faces.
“I used to think that I, too, loved,” he went on, in his low, hard tone. “But it kept me back, Margret, and”—-
He was silent.
“I know, Stephen. It kept you back”—-
“And I put it away. I put it away to-night, forever.”
She did not speak; stood quite quiet, her head bent on her breast. His conscience was clear now. But he almost wished he had not said it, she was such a weak, sickly thing. She sat down at last, burying her face in her hands, with a shivering sob. He dared not trust him self to speak again.
“I am not proud,–as a woman ought to be,” she said, wearily, when he wiped her clammy forehead.
“You loved me, then?” he whispered.
Her face flashed at the unmanly triumph; her puny frame started up, away from him.
“I did love you, Stephen. I did love you,– as you might be, not as you are,–not with those inhuman eyes. I do understand you,– I do. I know you for a better man than you know yourself this night.”
She turned to go. He put his hand on her arm; something we have never seen on his face struggled up,–the better soul that she knew.
“Come back,” he said, hoarsely; “don’t leave me with myself. Come back, Margret.”
She did not come; stood leaning, her sudden strength gone, against the broken wall. There was a heavy silence. The night throbbed slow about them. Some late bird rose from the sedges of the pool, and with a frightened cry flapped its tired wings, and drifted into the dark. His eyes, through the gathering shadow, devoured the weak, trembling body, met the soul that looked at him, strong as his own. Was it because it knew and trusted him that all that was pure and strongest in his crushed nature struggled madly to be free? He thrust it down; the self-learned lesson of years was not to be conquered in a moment.
“There have been times,” he said, in a smothered, restless voice, “when I thought you belonged to me. Not here, but before this life. My soul and body thirst and hunger for you, then, Margret.”
She did not answer; her hands worked feebly together, the dull blood fainting in her veins.
Knowing only that the night yawned intolerable about her, that she was alone,–going mad with being alone. No thought of heaven or God in her soul: her craving eyes seeing him only. The strong, living man that she loved: her tired-out heart goading, aching to lie down on his brawny breast for one minute, and die there,–that was all.
She did not move: underneath the pain there was power, as Knowles thought.
He came nearer, and held up his arms to where she stood,–the heavy, masterful face pale and wet.
“I need you, Margret. I shall be nothing without you, now. Come, Margret, little Margret!”
She came to him, then, and put her hands in his.
“No, Stephen,” she said.
If there were any pain in her tone, she kept it down, for his sake.
“Never, I could never help you,–as you are. It might have been, once. Good-by, Stephen.”
Her childish way put him in mind of the old days when this girl was dearer to him than his own soul. She was so yet. He held her close to his breast, looking down into her eyes. She moved uneasily; she dared not trust herself.
“You will come?” he said. “It might have been,–it shall be again.”
“It may be,” she said, humbly. “God is good. And I believe in you, Stephen. I will be yours some time: we cannot help it, if we would: but not as you are.”
“You do not love me?” he said, flinging her off, his face whitening.
She said nothing, gathered her damp shawl around her, and turned to go. Just a moment they stood, looking at each other. If the dark square figure standing there had been an iron fate trampling her young life down into hopeless wretchedness, she forgot it now. Women like Margret are apt to forget. His eye never abated in its fierce question.
“I will wait for you yonder, if I die first,” she whispered.
He came closer, waiting for an answer.
“And–I love you, Stephen.”
He gathered her in his arms, and put his cold lips to hers, without a word; then turned, and left her slowly.
She made no sign, shed no tear, as she stood, watching him go. It was all over: she had willed it, herself, and yet–he could not go! God would not suffer it! Oh, he could not leave her,–he could not!–He went down the hill, slowly. If it were a trial of life and death for her, did he know or care?–He did not look back. What if he did not? his heart was true; he suffered in going; even now he walked wearily. God forgive her, if she had wronged him!–What did it matter, if he were hard in this life, and it hurt her a little? It would come right,–beyond, some time. But life was long.–She would not sit down, sick as she was: he might turn, and it would vex him to see her suffer.–He walked slowly; once he stopped to pick up something. She saw the deep-cut face and half-shut eyes. How often those eyes had looked into her soul, and it had answered! They never would look so any more.–There was a tree by the place where the road turned into town. If he came back, he would be sure to turn there.–How tired he walked, and slow!–If he was sick, that beautiful woman could be near him,–help him.– SHE never would touch his hand again,–never again, never,–unless he came back now.– He was near the tree: she closed her eyes, turning away. When she looked again, only the bare road lay there, yellow and wet. It was over, now.
How long she sat there she did not know. She tried once or twice to go to the house, but the lights seemed so far off that she gave it up and sat quiet, unconscious, except of the damp stone-wall her head leaned on, and the stretch of muddy road. Some time, she knew not when, there was a heavy step beside her, and a rough hand shook hers where she stooped, feebly tracing out the lines of mortar between the stones. It was Knowles. She looked up, bewildered.
“Hunting catarrhs, eh?” he growled, eying her keenly. “Got your father on the Bourbons, so took the chance to come and find you. He’ll not miss ME for an hour. That man has a natural hankering after treason against the people. Lord, Margret! what a stiff old head he’d have carried to the guillotine! How he’d have looked at the canaille!”
He helped her up gently enough.
“Your bonnet’s like a wet rag,”–with a furtive glance at the worn-out face. A hungry face always, with her life unfed by its stingy few crumbs of good; but to-night it was vacant with utter loss.
She got up, trying to laugh cheerfully, and went beside him down the road.
“You saw that painted Jezebel to-night, and”—-stopping abruptly.
She had not heard him, and he followed her doggedly, with an occasional snort or grunt or other inarticulate damn at the obstinate mud. She stopped at last, with a quick gasp. Looking at her, he chafed her limp hands,–his huge, uncouth face growing pale. When she was better, he said, gravely,–
“I want you, Margret. Not at home, child. I want to show you something.”
He turned with her suddenly off the main road into a by-path, helping her along, watching her stealthily, but going on with his disjointed, bearish growls. If it stung her from her pain, vexing her, he did not care.
“I want to show you a bit of hell: outskirt. You’re in a fit state: it’ll do you good. I’m minister there. The clergy can’t attend to it just now: they’re too busy measuring God’s truth by the States’–Rights doctrine, or the Chicago Platform. Consequence, religion yields to majorities. Are you able? It’s only a step.”
She went on indifferently. The night was breathless and dark. Black, wet gusts dragged now and then through the skyless fog, striking her face with a chill. The Doctor quit talking, hurrying her, watching her anxiously. They came at last to the railway-track, with long trains of empty freight-cars.
“We are nearly there,” he whispered. “It’s time you knew your work, and forgot your weakness. The curse of pampered generations. `High Norman blood,’–pah!”
There was a broken gap in the fence. He led her through it into a muddy yard. Inside was one of those taverns you will find in the suburbs of large cities, haunts of the lowest vice. This one was a smoky frame, standing on piles over an open space where hogs were rooting. Half a dozen drunken Irishmen were playing poker with a pack of greasy cards in an out-house. He led her up the rickety ladder to the one room, where a flaring tallow-dip threw a saffron glare into the darkness. A putrid odour met them at the door. She drew back, trembling.
“Come here!” he said, fiercely, clutching her hand. “Women as fair and pure as you have come into dens like this,–and never gone away. Does it make your delicate breath faint? And you a follower of the meek and lowly Jesus! Look here! and here!”
The room was swarming with human life. Women, idle trampers, whiskey-bloated, filthy, lay half-asleep, or smoking, on the floor, and set up a chorus of whining begging when they entered. Half-naked children crawled about in rags. On the damp, mildewed walls there was hung a picture of the Benicia Boy, and close by, Pio Nono, crook in hand, with the usual inscription, “Feed my sheep.” The Doctor looked at it.
” `Tu es Petrus, et super hanc’—- Good God! what IS truth?” he muttered, bitterly.
He dragged her closer to the women, through the darkness and foul smell.
“Look in their faces,” he whispered. “There is not one of them that is not a living lie. Can they help it? Think of the centuries of serfdom and superstition through which their blood has crawled. Come closer,–here.”
In the corner slept a heap of half-clothed blacks. Going on the underground railroad to Canada. Stolid, sensual wretches, with here and there a broad, melancholy brow, and desperate jaws. One little pickaninny rubbed its sleepy eyes, and laughed at them.
“So much flesh and blood out of the market, unweighed!”
Margret took up the child, kissing its brown face. Knowles looked at her.
“Would you touch her? I forgot you were born down South. Put it down, and come on.”
They went out of the door. Margret stopped, looking back.
“Did I call it a bit of hell? It ‘s only a glimpse of the under-life of America,–God help us!–where all men are born free and equal.”
The air in the passage grew fouler. She leaned back faint and shuddering. He did not heed her. The passion of the man, the terrible pity for these people, came out of his soul now, writhing his face, and dulling his eyes.
“And you,” he said, savagely, “you sit by the road-side, with help in your hands, and Christ in your heart, and call your life lost, quarrel with your God, because that mass of selfishness has left you,–because you are balked in your puny hope! Look at these women. What is their loss, do you think? Go back, will you, and drone out your life whimpering over your lost dream, and go to Shakspeare for tragedy when you want it? Tragedy! Come here,–let me hear what you call this.”
He led her through the passage, up a narrow flight of stairs. An old woman in a flaring cap sat at the top, nodding,–wakening now and then, to rock herself to and fro, and give the shrill Irish keen.
“You know that stoker who was killed in the mill a month ago? Of course not,–what are such people to you? There was a girl who loved him,–you know what that is? She’s dead now, here. She drank herself to death,–a most unpicturesque suicide. I want you to look at her. You need not blush for her life of shame, now; she’s dead.–Is Hetty here?”
The woman got up.
“She is, Zur. She is, Mem. She’s lookin’ foine in her Sunday suit. Shrouds is gone out, Mem, they say.”
She went tipping over the floor to something white that lay on a board, a candle at the head, and drew off the sheet. A girl of fifteen, almost a child, lay underneath, dead,–her lithe, delicate figure decked out in a dirty plaid skirt, and stained velvet bodice,–her neck and arms bare. The small face was purely cut, haggard, patient in its sleep,–the soft, fair hair gathered off the tired forehead. Margret leaned over her, shuddering, pinning her handkerchief about the child’s dead neck.
“How young she is!” muttered Knowles. “Merciful God, how young she is!–What is that you say?” sharply, seeing Margret’s lips move.
” `He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’ “
“Ah, child, that is old-time philosophy. Put your hand here, on her dead face. Is your loss like hers?” he said lower, looking into the dull pain in her eyes. Selfish pain he called it.
“Let me go,” she said. “I am tired.”
He took her out into the cool, open road, leading her tenderly enough,–for the girl suffered, he saw.
“What will you do?” he asked her then. “It is not too late,–will you help me save these people?”
She wrung her hands helplessly.
“What do you want with me?” she cried. “I have enough to bear.”
The burly black figure before her seemed to tower and strengthen; the man’s face in the wall light showed a terrible life-purpose coming out bare.
“I want you to do your work. It is hard, it will wear out your strength and brain and heart. Give yourself to these people. God calls you to it. There is none to help them. Give up love, and the petty hopes of women. Help me. God calls you to the work.”
She went, on blindly: he followed her. For years he had set apart this girl to help him in his scheme: he would not be balked now. He had great hopes from his plan: he meant to give all he had: it was the noblest of aims. He thought some day it would work like leaven through the festering mass under the country he loved so well, and raise it to a new life. If it failed,–if it failed, and saved one life, his work was not lost. But it could not fail.
“Home!” he said, stopping her as she reached the stile,–“oh, Margret, what is home? There is a cry going up night and day from homes like that den yonder, for help,–and no man listens.”
She was weak; her brain faltered.
“Does God call me to this work? Does He call me?” she moaned.
He watched her eagerly.
“He calls you. He waits for your answer. Swear to me that you will help His people. Give up father and mother and love, and go down as Christ did. Help me to give liberty and truth and Jesus’ love to these wretches on the brink of hell. Live with them, raise them with you.”
She looked up, white; she was a weak, weak woman, sick for her natural food of love.
“Is it my work?”
“It is your work. Listen to me, Margret,” softly. “Who cares for you? You stand alone to-night. There is not a single human heart that calls you nearest and best. Shiver, if you will,–it is true. The man you wasted your soul on left you in the night and cold to go to his bride,–is sitting by her now, holding her hand in his.”
He waited a moment, looking down at her, until she should understand.
“Do you think you deserved this of God? I know that yonder on the muddy road you looked up to Him, and knew it was not just; that you had done right, and this was your reward. I know that for these two years you have trusted in the Christ you worship to make it right, to give you your heart’s desire. Did He do it? Did He hear your prayer? Does He care for your weak love, when the nations of the earth are going down? What is your poor hope to Him, when the very land you live in is a wine-press that will be trodden some day by the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God? O Christ!–if there be a Christ,–help me to save it!”
He looked up,–his face white with pain. After a time he said to her,–
“Help me, Margret! Your prayer was selfish; it was not heard. Give up your idle hope that Christ will aid you. Swear to me, this night when you have lost all, to give yourself to this work.”
The storm had been dark and windy: it cleared now slowly, the warm summer rain falling softly, the fresh blue stealing broadly from behind the gray. It seemed to Margret like a blessing; for her brain rose up stronger, more healthful.
“I will not swear,” she said, weakly. “I think He heard my prayer. I think He will answer it. He was a man, and loved as we do. My love is not selfish; it is the best gift God has given me.”
Knowles went slowly with her to the house. He was not baffled. He knew that the struggle was yet to come; that, when she was alone, her faith in the far-off Christ would falter; that she would grasp at this work, to fill her empty hands and starved heart, if for no other reason,–to stifle by a sense of duty her unutterable feeling of loss. He was keenly read in woman’s heart, this Knowles. He left her silently, and she passed through the dark passage to her own room.
Putting her damp shawl off, she sat down on the floor, leaning her head on a low chair,–one her father had given her for a Christmas gift when she was little. How fond Holmes and her father used to be of each other! Every Christmas he spent with them. She remembered them all now. “He was sitting by her now, holding her hand in his.” She said that over to herself, though it was not hard to understand.
After a long time, her mother came with a candle to the door.
“Good-night, Margret. Why, your hair is wet, child!”
For Margret, kissing her good-night, had laid her head down a minute on her breast. She stroked the hair a moment, and then turned away.
“Mother, could you stay with me to-night?”
“Why, no, Maggie,–your father wants me to read to him.”
“Oh, I know. Did he miss me to-night,– father?”
“Not much; we were talking old times over,–in Virginia, you know.”
“I know; good-night.”
She went back to the chair. Tige was there,–for he used to spend half of his time on the farm. She put her arm about his head. God knows how lonely the poor child was when she drew the dog so warmly to her heart: not for his master’s sake alone; but it was all she had. He grew tired at last, and whined, trying to get out.
“Will you go, Tige?” she said, and opened the window.
He jumped out, and she watched him going towards town. Such a little thing, it was! But not even a dog “called her nearest and best.”
Let us be silent; the story of the night is not for us to read. Do you think that He, who in the far, dim Life holds the worlds in His hand, knew or cared how alone the child was? What if she wrung her thin hands, grew sick with the slow, mad, solitary tears?–was not the world to save, as Knowles said?
He, too, had been alone; He had come unto His own, and His own received him not: so, while the struggling world rested, unconscious, in infinite calm of right, He came close to her with human eyes that had loved, and not been loved, and had suffered with that pain. And, trusting Him, she only said, “Show me my work! Thou that takest away the pain of the world, have mercy upon me!”
For that night, at least, Holmes swept his soul clean of doubt and indecision; one of his natures was conquered,–finally, he thought. Polston, if he had seen his face as he paced the street slowly home to the mill, would have remembered his mother’s the day she died. How the stern old woman met death half-way! why should she fear? she was as strong as he. Wherein had she failed of duty? her hands were clean: she was going to meet her just reward.
It was different with Holmes, of course, with his self-existent soul. It was life he accepted to-night, he thought,–a life of growth, labour, achievement,–eternal.
“Ohne Hast, aber ohne Rast,”–favourite words with him. He liked to study the nature of the man who spoke them; because, I think, it was like his own,–a Titan strength of endurance, an infinite capability of love, and hate, and suffering, and over all, (the peculiar identity of the man,) a cold, speculative eye of reason, that looked down into the passion and depths of his growing self, and calmly noted them, a lesson for all time.
“Ohne Hast.” Going slowly through the night, he strengthened himself by marking how all things in Nature accomplish a perfected life through slow, narrow fixedness of purpose,– each life complete in itself: why not his own, then? The windless gray, the stars, the stone under his feet, stood alone in the universe, each working out its own soul into deed. If there were any all-embracing harmony, one soul through all, he did not see it. Knowles–that old sceptic–believed in it, and called it Love. Even Goethe himself, what was it he said? “Der Allumfasser, der Allerhalter, fasst und erhalt er nicht, dich, mich, sich selbst?”
There was a curious power in the words, as he lingered over them, like half-comprehended music,–as simple and tender as if they had come from the depths of a woman’s heart: it touched him deeper than his power of control. Pah! it was a dream of Faust’s; he, too, had his Margaret; he fell, through that love.
He went on slowly to the mill. If the name or the words woke a subtile remorse or longing, he buried them under restful composure. Whether they should ever rise like angry ghosts of what might have been, to taunt the man, only the future could tell.
Going through the gas-lit streets, Holmes met some cordial greeting at every turn. What a just, clever fellow he was! people said: one of those men improved by success: just to the defrauding of himself: saw the true worth of everybody, the very lowest: hadn’t one spark of self-esteem: despised all humbug and show, one could see, though he never said it: when he was a boy, he was moody, with passionate likes and dislikes; but success had improved him, vastly. So Holmes was popular, though the beggars shunned him, and the lazy Italian organ-grinders never held their tambourines up to him.
The mill street was dark; the building threw its great shadow over the square. It was empty, he supposed; only one hand generally remained to keep in the furnace-fires. Going through one of the lower passages, he heard voices, and turned aside to examine. The management was not strict, and in case of a fire the mill was not insured: like Knowles’s carelessness.
It was Lois and her father,–Joe Yare being feeder that night. They were in one of the great furnace-rooms in the cellar,–a very comfortable place that stormy night. Two or three doors of the wide brick ovens were open, and the fire threw a ruddy glow over the stone floor, and shimmered into the dark recesses of the shadows, very home-like after the rain and mud without. Lois seemed to think so, at any rate, for she had made a table of a store-box, put a white cloth on it, and was busy getting up a regular supper for her father,–down on her knees before the red coals, turning something on an iron plate, while some slices of ham sent up a cloud of juicy, hungry smell.
The old stoker had just finished slaking the out-fires, and was putting some blue plates on the table, gravely straightening them. He had grown old, as Polston said,–Holmes saw, stooped much, with a low, hacking cough; his coarse clothes were curiously clean: that was to please Lois, of course. She put the ham on the table, and some bubbling coffee, and then, from a hickory board in front of the fire, took off, with a jerk, brown, flaky slices of Virginia johnny-cake.
“Ther’ yoh are, father, hot ‘n’ hot,” with her face on fire,–“ther’–yoh–are,–coaxin’ to be eatin’.–Why, Mr. Holmes! Father! Now, ef yoh jes’ hedn’t hed yer supper?”
She came up, coaxingly. What brooding brown eyes the poor cripple had! Not many years ago he would have sat down with the two poor souls, and made a hearty meal of it: he had no heart for such follies now.
Old Yare stood in the background, his hat in his hand, stooping in his submissive negro fashion, with a frightened watch on Holmes.
“Do you stay here, Lois?” he asked, kindly, turning his back on the old man.
“On’y to bring his supper. I couldn’t bide all night ‘n th’ mill,” the old shadow coming on her face,–“I couldn’t, yoh know. HE doesn’t mind it.”
She glanced quickly from one to the other in silence, seeing the fear on her father’s face.
“Yoh know father, Mr. Holmes? He’s back now. This is him.”
The old man came forward, humbly.
“It’s me, Marster Stephen.”
The sullen, stealthy face disgusted Holmes. He nodded, shortly.
“Yoh’ve been kind to my little girl while I was gone,” he said, catching his breath. “I thank yoh, Marster.”
“You need not. It was for Lois.”
” ‘T was fur her I comed back hyur. ‘T was a resk,”–with a dumb look of entreaty at Holmes,–“but fur her I thort I’d try it. I know’t was a resk; but I thort them as cared fur Lo wud be merciful. She’s a good girl, Lo. She’s all I hev.”
Lois brought a box over, lugging it heavily.
“We hev n’t chairs; but yoh’ll sit down, Mr. Holmes?” laughing as she covered it with a cloth. “It’d a warm place, here. Father studies ‘n his watch, ‘n’ I’m teacher,”–showing the torn old spelling-book.
The old man came eagerly forward, seeing the smile flicker on Holmes’s face.
“It’s slow work, Marster,–slow. But Lo’s a good teacher, ‘n’ I’m tryin’,–I’m tryin’ hard.”
“It’s not slow, Sir, seein’ father hed n’t ‘dvantages, like me. He was a”—-
She stopped, lowering her voice, a hot flush of shame on her face.
“Be n’t that’ll ‘xcuse, Marster, seein’ I knowed noght at the beginnin’? Thenk o’ that, Marster. I’m tryin’ to be a different