groves of larch and pine.
“Never knew I that the woods were so beautiful thus early in the year,” said the honest Willan.
“Nor I, till to-day,” said the artful Victorine, who knew well enough what Willan did not know himself.
“Dost thou ride here alone?” asked Willan. “It is a wild place for thee to be alone.”
“If I came not alone, I could not come at all,” replied Victorine, sorrowfully. “My grandfather is too busy, and my aunt likes not to ride except she must, on a market day or to go to church. No one but thou hast ever walked or ridden with me,” she added in a low voice, sighing; “and now after two days or three thou wilt be gone.”
Willan sighed also, but did not speak. The words, “I will always ride by thy side, Victorine,” were on his lips, but he felt himself still withheld from speaking them.
The visit at the mill was unsatisfactory. The elder Gaspard was away, and young Pierre was curt and surly. The sight of Victorine riding familiarly, and with an evident joyous pride, by the side of one of the richest men in the country, and a young man at that,–and a young man, moreover, who looked and behaved as if he were in love with his companion,–how could the poor miller be expected to be cordial and unconstrained with such a sight before his eyes! Annette also was more overawed even than Victorine had desired she should be by the sight of the handsome stranger,–so overawed, and withal perhaps a little curious, that she was dumb and awkward; and as for _Mere_ Gaspard, she never under any circumstances had a word to say. So the visit was very stupid, and everybody felt ill at ease,–especially Willan, who had lost his temper in the beginning at a speech of Pierre’s to Victorine, which seemed to his jealous sense too familiar.
“I thought thou never wouldst take leave,” he said ill-naturedly to Victorine, as they rode away.
Victorine turned towards him with an admirably counterfeited expression of surprise. “Oh, sir,” she said, “I did think I ought to wait for thee to take leave. I was dying with the desire I had to be back in the woods again; and only when I could not bear it any longer, did I bethink me to say that my aunt expected us back to dinner.”
Long they lingered on the river-banks on their way home. Even the plotting brain of Victorine was not insensible to the charm of the sky, the air, the budding foliage, and the myriads of blossoms. “Oh, sir,” she said, “I think there never was such a day as this before!”
“I know there never was,” replied Willan, looking at her with an expression which was key to his words. But the daughter of Jeanne Dubois was not to be wooed by any vague sentimentalisms. There was one sentence which she was intently waiting to hear Willan Blaycke speak. Anything short of that Mademoiselle Victorine was too innocent to comprehend.
“Sweet child!” thought Willan to himself, “she doth not know the speech of lovers. I mistrust that if I wooed her outright, she would be afraid.”
It was long past noon when they reached the Golden Pear. Dinner had waited till the hungry Victor and Jeanne could wait no longer; but a very pretty and dainty little repast was ready for Willan and Victorine. As she sat opposite him at the table, so bright and beaming, her whole face full of pleasure, Willan leaned both his arms on the table and looked at her in silence for some minutes.
“Victorine!” he said. Victorine started. She was honestly very hungry, and had been so absorbed in eating her dinner she had not noticed Willan’s look. She dropped her knife and sprang up.
“What is it, sir?” she said; “what shall I fetch?” Her instantaneous resumption of the serving-maid’s relation to him jarred on Willan at that second indescribably, and shut down like a floodgate on the words he was about to speak.
“Nothing, nothing,” said he. “I was only going to say that thou must sleep this afternoon; thou art tired.”
“Nay, I am not tired,” said Victorine, petulantly. “What is a matter of six leagues of a morning? I could ride it again between this and sunset, and not be tired.”
But she was tired, and she did sleep, though she had not meant to do so when she threw herself on her bed, a little later; she had meant only to rest herself for a few minutes, and then in a fresh toilette return to Willan. But she slept on and on until after sunset, and Willan wandered aimlessly about, wondering what had become of her. Jeanne saw him, but forebore to take any note of his uneasiness. She had looked in upon Victorine in her slumber, and was well content that it should be so.
“The girl will awake refreshed and rosy,” thought Jeanne; “and it will do no harm, but rather good, if he have missed her sorely all the afternoon.”
Supper was over, and the evening work all done when Victorine waked. It was dusk. Rubbing her eyes, she sprang up and went to the window. Jeanne heard her steps, and coming to the foot of the stairs called: “Thou need’st not to come down; all is done. What shall I bring thee to eat?”
“Why didst thou not waken me?” replied Victorine, petulantly; “I meant not to sleep.”
“I thought the sleep was better,” replied her aunt. “Thou didst look tired, and it suits no woman’s looks to be tired.”
Victorine was silent. She saw Willan walking up and down under the pear-tree. She leaned out of her window and moved one of the flower-pots. Willan looked up; in a second more he had bounded up the staircase, and eagerly said: “Art thou there? Wilt thou never come down?”
Victorine was uncertain in her own mind what was the best thing to do next; so she replied evasively: “Thou wert right, after all. I did not feel myself tired, but I have slept until now.”
“Then thou art surely rested. Canst thou not come and walk with me in the pear orchard?” said Willan.
“I fear me I may not do that after nightfall,” replied Victorine. “My aunt would be angry.”
“She need not know,” replied the eager Willan. “Thou canst come down by this stairway, and it is already near dark.”
Victorine laughed a little low laugh. This pleased her. “Yes,” she said, “I have often come down by, that post from my window; but truly, I fear I ought not to do it for thee. What should I say to my aunt if she missed me?”
“Oh, she thinks thee asleep,” said Willan. “She told me at supper that she would not waken thee.”
All of which Mistress Jeanne heard distinctly, standing midway on the wide staircase, with Victorine’s supper of bread and milk in her hand. She had like to have spilled the whole bowlful of milk for laughing. But she stood still, holding her breath lest Victorine should hear her, till the conversation ceased, and she heard Victorine moving about in her room again. Then she went in, and kissing Victorine, said: “Eat thy supper now, and go to bed; it is late. Good-night. I’ll wake thee early enough in the morning to pay for not having called thee this afternoon. Good-night.”
Then Jeanne went down to her own room, blew out her candle, and seated herself at the window to hear what would happen.
“My aunt’s candle is out; she hath gone to bed,” whispered Victorine, as holding Willan’s hand she stole softly down the outer stair. “I do doubt much that I am doing wrong.”
“Nay, nay,” whispered Willan. “Thou sweet one, what wrong can there be in thy walking a little time with me? Thy aunt did let thee ride with me all the day.” And he tenderly guided Victorine’s steps down the steep stairs.
“Pretty well! pretty well!” laughed Mistress Jeanne behind her casement; and as soon as the sound of Willan’s and Victorine’s steps had died away, she ran downstairs to tell Victor what had happened. Victor was not so pleased as Jeanne; he did not share her confidence in Victorine’s character.
“Sacre!” he said; “what wert thou thinking of? Dost want another niece to be fetched up in a convent? Thou mayst thank thyself for it, if thou art grandmother to one. I trust no man out of sight, and no girl. The man’s in love with the girl, that is plain; but he means no marrying.”
“That thou dost not know,” retorted Jeanne. “I tell thee he is an honorable, high-minded man, and as pure as if he were but just now weaned. I know him, and thou dost not. He will marry her, or he will leave her alone.”
“We shall see,” muttered the coarse old man as he walked away,–“we shall see. Like mother, like child. I trust them not.” And in a thorough ill-humor Victor betook himself to the courtyard. What he heard there did not reassure him. Old Benoit had seen Willan and Victorine going down through the poplar copse toward the pear orchard. “And may the saints forsake me,” said Benoit, “if I do not think he had his arm around her waist and her head on his shoulder. Think’st thou he will marry her?”
“Nay,” growled Victor; “he’s no fool. That Jeanne hath set her heart on it, and thinketh it will come about; but not so I.”
“He seems of a rare fine-breeding and honorable speech,” said Benoit.
“Ay, ay,” replied Victor, “words are quick said, and fine manners come easy to some; but a man looks where he weds.”
“His father did not have chance for much looking,” sneered Benoit.
“This is another breed, even if his father begot him,” replied Victor. “He goeth no such way as that.” And thoroughly disquieted, Victor returned to the house to report to Jeanne what Benoit had seen. She was still undisturbed.
“Thou wilt see,” was her only reply; and the two sat down together in the porch to await the lovers’ return. Hour after hour passed; even Jeanne began to grow alarmed. It was long after midnight.
“I fear some accident hath befallen them,” she said at last. “Would it be well, thinkest thou, to go in search of them?”
“Not a step!” cried Victor. “He took her away, and he must needs bring her back. We await them here. He shall see whether he may tamper with the granddaughter of Victor Dubois.”
“Hush, father!” said Jeanne, “here they come.”
Walking very slowly, arm in arm, came Willan and Victorine. They had evidently no purpose of entering the house clandestinely, but were approaching the front door.
“Hoity, toity!” muttered Victor; “he thinks he can lord it over us, surely.”
“Be quiet, father!” entreated Jeanne. Her quick eye saw something new in the bearing of both Willan and Victorine. But Victor was not to be quieted. With an angry oath, he sprung forward from the porch, and began to upbraid Willan in no measured tones.
Willan lifted his right hand authoritatively. “Wait!” he said. “Do not say what thou wilt repent, Victor Dubois. Thy granddaughter hath promised to be my wife.”
So the new generation avenged the old; and Willan Blaycke, in the prime of his cultured and fastidious manhood, fell victim to a spell less coarsely woven but no less demoralizing than that which had imbittered the last years of his father’s life.
[Footnote: Note.–“The Inn of the Golden Pear” includes three chapters of a longer story entitled “Elspeth Pynevor,”–a story of such remarkable vigor and promise, and planned on such noble and powerful lines as to deepen regret that its author’s death left it but half finished. A single sentence has been added by another hand to round the episode of Willan Blaycke’s infatuation to conclusion.]
The Mystery of Wilhelm Ruetter.
It was long past dusk of an August evening. Farmer Weitbreck stood leaning on the big gate of his barnyard, looking first up and then down the road. He was chewing a straw, and his face wore an expression of deep perplexity. These were troublous times in Lancaster County. Never before had the farmers been so put to it for farm service; harvest-time had come, and instead of the stream of laborers seeking employment, which usually at this season set in as regularly as river freshets in spring, it was this year almost impossible to hire any one.
The explanation of this nobody knew or could divine; but the fact was indisputable, and the farmers were in dismay,–nobody more so than Farmer Weitbreck, who had miles of bottom-lands, in grain of one sort and another, all yellow and nodding, and ready for the sickle, and nobody but himself and his son John to swing scythe, sickle, or flail on the place.
“Never I am caught this way anoder year,” thought he, as he gazed wearily up and down the dark, silent road; “but that does to me no goot this time that is now.”
Gustavus Weitbreck had lived so long on his Pennsylvania farm that he even thought in English instead of in German, and, strangely enough, in English much less broken and idiomatic than that which he spoke. But his phraseology was the only thing about him that had changed. In modes of feeling, habits of life, he was the same he had been forty years ago, when he farmed a little plot of land, half wheat, half vineyard, in the Mayence meadows in the fatherland,–slow, methodical, saving, stupid, upright, obstinate. All these traits “Old Weitbreck,” as he was called all through the country, possessed to a degree much out of the ordinary; and it was a combination of two of them–the obstinacy and the savingness–which had brought him into his present predicament.
In June he had had a good laborer,–one of the best known, and eagerly sought by every farmer in the county; a man who had never yet been beaten in a mowing-match or a reaping. By his help the haying had been done in not much more than two thirds the usual time; but when John Weitbreck, like a sensible fellow, said, “Now, we would better keep Alf on till harvest; there is plenty of odds-and-ends work about the farm he can help at, and we won’t get his like again in a hurry,” his father had cried out,–
“Mein Gott! It is that you tink I must be made out of money! I vill not keep dis man on so big wages to do vat you call odd-and-end vork. We do odd-and-end vork ourself.”
There was no discussion of the point. John Weitbreck knew better than ever to waste his time and breath or temper in trying to change a purpose of his father’s or convince him of a mistake. But he bided his time; and he would not have been human if he had not now taken secret satisfaction, seeing his father’s anxiety daily increase as the August sun grew hotter and hotter, and the grain rattled in the husks waiting to be reaped, while they two, straining their arms to the utmost, and in long days’ work, seemed to produce small impression on the great fields.
“The women shall come work in field to-morrow,” thought the old man, as he continued his anxious reverie. “It is not that they sit idle all day in house, when the wheat grows to rattle like the peas in pod. They can help, the muetter and Carlen; that will be much help; they can do.” And hearing John’s steps behind him, the old man turned and said,–
“Johan, dere comes yet no man to reap. To-morrow must go in the field Carlen and the muetter; it must. The wheat get fast too dry; it is more as two men can do.”
John bit his lips. He was aghast. Never had he seen his mother and sister at work in the fields. John had been born in America; and he was American, not German, in his feeling about this. Without due consideration he answered,–
“I would rather work day and night, father, than see my mother and sister in the fields. I will do it, too, if only you will not make them go!”
The old man, irritated by the secret knowledge that he had nobody but himself to blame for the present dilemma, still more irritated, also, by this proof of what was always exceedingly displeasing to him,–his son’s having adopted American standards and opinions,–broke out furiously with a wrath wholly disproportionate to the occasion,–
“You be tam, Johan Weitbreck. You tink we are fine gentlemen and ladies, like dese Americans dat is too proud to vork vid hands. I say tam dis country, vere day say all is alike, an’ vork all; and ven you come here, it is dat nobody vill vork, if he can help, and vimmins ish shame to be seen vork. It is not shame to be seen vork; I vork, mein vife vork too, an’ my childrens vork too, py tam!”
John walked away,–his only resource when his father was in a passion. John occupied that hardest of all positions,–the position of a full-grown, mature man in a father’s home, where he is regarded as nothing more than a boy.
As he entered the kitchen and saw his pretty sister Carlen at the high spinning-wheel, walking back and forth drawing the fine yarn between her chubby fingers, all the while humming a low song to which the whirring of the wheel made harmonious accompaniment, he thought to himself bitterly: “Work, indeed! As if they did not work now longer than we do, and quite as hard! She’s been spinning ever since daylight, I believe.”
“Is it hard work spinning, Liebchen?” he asked.
Carlen turned her round blue eyes on him with astonishment. There was something in his tone that smote vaguely on her consciousness. What could he mean, asking such a question as that?
“No,” she said, “it is not hard exactly. But when you do it very long it does make the arms ache, holding them so long in the same position; and it tires one to stand all day!”
“Ay,” said John, “that is the way it tires one to reap; my back is near broke with it to-day.”
“Has no one come to help yet?” she said.
“No!” said John, angrily, “and that is what I told father when he let Alf go. It is good enough for him for being so stingy and short-sighted; but the brunt of it comes on me,–that’s the worst of it. I don’t see what’s got all the men. There have always been plenty round every year till now.”
“Alf said he shouldn’t be here next year,” said Carlen, each cheek showing a little signal of pink as she spoke; but it was a dim light the one candle gave, and John did not see the flush. “He was going to the west to farm; in Oregon, he said.”
“Ay, that’s it!” replied John. “That’s where everybody can go but me! I’ll be going too some day, Carlen. I can’t stand things here. If it weren’t for you I’d have been gone long ago.”
“I wouldn’t leave mother and father for all the world, John,” cried Carlen, warmly, “and I don’t think it would be right for you to! What would father do with the farm without you?”
“Well, why doesn’t he see that, then, and treat me as a man ought to be treated?” exclaimed John; “he thinks I’m no older than when he used to beat me with the strap.”
“I think fathers and mothers are always that way,” said the gentle, cheery Carlen, with a low laugh. “The mother tells me each time how to wind the warp, as she did when I was little; and she will always look into the churn for herself. I think it is the way we are made. We will do the same when we are old, John, and our children will be wondering at us!”
John laughed. This was always the way with Carlen. She could put a man in good humor in a few minutes, however cross he felt in the beginning.
“I won’t, then!” he exclaimed. “I know I won’t. If ever I have a son grown, I’ll treat him like a son grown, not like a baby.”
“May I be there to see!” said Carlen, merrily,–
“And you remember free
The words I said to thee.
“Hold the candle here for me, will you, that’s a good boy. While we have talked, my yarn has tangled.”
As they stood close together, John holding the candle high over Carlen’s head, she bending over the tangled yarn, the kitchen door opened suddenly, and their father came in, bringing with him a stranger,–a young man seemingly about twenty-five years of age, tall, well made, handsome, but with a face so melancholy that both John and Carlen felt a shiver as they looked upon it.
“Here now comes de hand, at last of de time, Johan,” cried the old man. “It vill be that all can vel be done now. And it is goot that he is from mine own country. He cannot English speak, many vords; but dat is nothing; he can vork. I tolt you dere vould be mans come!”
John looked scrutinizingly at the newcomer. The man’s eyes fell.
“What is your name?” said John.
“Wilhelm Ruetter,” he answered.
“How long have you been in this country?”
“Where are your friends?”
“I haf none.”
These replies were given in a tone as melancholy as the expression of the face.
Carlen stood still, her wheel arrested, the yarn between her thumb and ringer, her eyes fastened on the stranger’s face. A thrill of unspeakable pity stirred her. So young, so sad, thus alone in the world; who ever heard of such a fate?
“But there were people who came with you in the ship?” said John. “There is some one who knows who you are, I suppose.”
“No, no von dat knows,” replied the newcomer.
“Haf done vid too much questions,” interrupted Farmer Weitbreck. “I haf him asked all. He stays till harvest be done. He can vork. It is to be easy see he can vork.”
John did not like the appearance of things. “Too much mystery here,” he thought. “However, it is not long he will be here, and he will be in the fields all the time; there cannot be much danger. But who ever heard of a man whom no human being knew?”
As they sat at supper, Farmer Weitbreck and his wife plied Wilhelm with questions about their old friends in Mayence. He was evidently familiar with all the localities and names which they mentioned. His replies, however, were given as far as possible in monosyllables, and he spoke no word voluntarily. Sitting with his head bent slightly forward, his eyes fixed on the floor, he had the expression of one lost in thoughts of the gloomiest kind.
“Make yourself to be more happy, mein lad,” said the farmer, as he bade him good-night and clapped him on the shoulder. “You haf come to house vere is German be speaked, and is Germany in hearts; dat vill be to you as friends.”
A strange look of even keener pain passed over the young man’s face, and he left the room hastily, without a word of good-night.
“He’s a surly brute!” cried John; “nice company he’ll be in the field! I believe I’d sooner have nobody!”
“I think he has seen some dreadful trouble,” said Carlen. “I wish we could do something for him; perhaps his friends are all dead. I think that must be it, don’t you think so, muetter?”
Frau Weitbreck was incarnate silence and reticence. These traits were native in her, and had been intensified to an abnormal extent by thirty years of life with a husband whose temper and peculiarities were such as to make silence and reticence the sole conditions of peace and comfort. To so great a degree had this second nature of the good frau been developed, that she herself did not now know that it was a second nature; therefore it stood her in hand as well as if she had been originally born to it, and it would have been hard to find in Lancaster County a more placid and contented wife than she. She never dreamed that her custom of silent acquiescence in all that Gustavus said–of waiting in all cases, small and great, for his decision–had in the outset been born of radical and uncomfortable disagreements with him. And as for Gustavus himself, if anybody had hinted to him that his frau could think, or ever had thought, any word or deed of his other than right, he would have chuckled complacently at that person’s blind ignorance of the truth.
“Mein frau, she is goot,” he said; “goot frau, goot muetter. American fraus not goot so she; all de time talk and no vork. American fraus, American mans, are sheep in dere house.”
But in regard to this young stranger, Frau Weitbreck seemed strangely stirred from her usual phlegmatic silence. Carlen’s appeal to her had barely been spoken, when, rising in her place at the head of the table, the old woman said solemnly, in German,–
“Yes, Liebchen, he goes with the eyes like eyes of a man that saw always the dead. It must be as you say, that all whom he loves are in the grave. Poor boy! poor boy! it is now that one must be to him mother and father and brother.”
“And sister too,” said Carlen, warmly. “I will be his sister.”
“And I not his brother till he gets a civiller tongue in his head,” said John.
“It is not to be brother I haf him brought,” interrupted the old man. “Alvays you vimmen are too soon; it may be he are goot, it may be he are pad; I do not know. It is to vork I haf him brought.”
“Yes,” echoed Frau Weitbreck; “we do not know.”
It was not so easy as Carlen and her mother had thought, to be like mother and sister to Wilhelm. The days went by, and still he was as much a stranger as on the evening of his arrival. He never voluntarily addressed any one. To all remarks or even questions he replied in the fewest words and curtest phrases possible. A smile was never seen on his face. He sat at the table like a mute at a funeral, ate without lifting his eyes, and silently rose as soon as his own meal was finished. He had soon selected his favorite seat in the kitchen. It was on the right-hand side of the big fireplace, in a corner. Here he sat all through the evenings, carving, out of cows’ horns or wood, boxes and small figures such as are made by the peasants in the German Tyrol. In this work he had a surprising skill. What he did with the carvings when finished, no one knew. One night John said to him,–
“I do not see, Wilhelm, how you can have so steady a hand after holding the sickle all day. My arm aches, and my hand trembles so that I can but just carry my cup to my lips.”
Wilhelm made no reply, but held his right hand straight out at arm’s length, with the delicate figure he was carving poised on his forefinger. It stood as steady as on the firm ground.
Carlen looked at him admiringly. “It is good to be so steady-handed,” she said; “you must be strong, Wilhelm.”
“Yes,” he said, “I haf strong;” and went on carving.
Nothing more like conversation than this was ever drawn from him. Yet he seemed not averse to seeing people. He never left the kitchen till the time came for bed; but when that came he slipped away silent, taking no part in the general good-night unless he was forced to do so. Sometimes Carlen, having said jokingly to John, “Now, I will make Wilhelm say good-night to-night,” succeeded in surprising him before he could leave the room; but often, even when she had thus planned, he contrived to evade her, and was gone before she knew it.
He slept in a small chamber in the barn,–a dreary enough little place, but he seemed to find it all sufficient. He had no possessions except the leather pack he had brought on his back. This lay on the floor unlocked; and when the good Frau Weitbreck, persuading herself that she was actuated solely by a righteous, motherly interest in the young man, opened it, she found nothing whatever there, except a few garments of the commonest description,–no book, no paper, no name on any article. It would not appear possible that a man of so decent a seeming as Wilhelm could have come from Germany to America with so few personal belongings. Frau Weitbreck felt less at ease in her mind about him after she examined this pack.
He had come straight from the ship to their house, he had said, when he arrived; had walked on day after day, going he knew not whither, asking mile by mile for work. He did not even know one State’s name from another. He simply chose to go south rather than north,–always south, he said.
He did not know.
He was indeed strong. The sickle was in his hand a plaything, so swift-swung that he seemed to be doing little more than simply striding up and down the field, the grain falling to right and left at his steps. From sunrise to sunset he worked tirelessly. The famous Alf had never done so much in a day. Farmer Weitbreck chuckled as he looked on.
“Vat now you say of dat Alf?” he said triumphantly to John; “vork he as dis man? Oh, but he make swing de hook!”
John assented unqualifiedly to this praise of Wilhelm’s strength and skill; but nevertheless he shook his head.
“Ay, ay,” he said, “I never saw his equal; but I like him not. What carries he in his heart to be so sour? He is like a man bewitched. I know not if there be such a thing as to be sold to the devil, as the stories say; but if there be, on my word, I think Wilhelm has made some such bargain. A man could not look worse if he had signed himself away.”
“I see not dat he haf fear in his face,” replied the old man.
“No,” said John, “neither do I see fear. It is worse than fear. I would like to see his face come alive with a fear. He gives me cold shivers like a grave underfoot. I shall be glad when he is gone.”
Farmer Weitbreck laughed. He and his son were likely to be again at odds on the subject of a laborer.
“But he vill not go. I haf said to him to stay till Christmas, maybe always.”
John’s surprise was unbounded.
“To stay! Till Christmas!” he cried. “What for? What do we need of a man in the winter?”
“It is not dat to feed him is much, and all dat he make vid de knife is mine. It is home he vants, no oder ting; he vork not for money.”
“Father,” said John, earnestly, “there must be something wrong about that man. I have thought so from the first. Why should he work for nothing but his board,–a great strong fellow like that, that could make good day’s wages anywhere? Don’t keep him after the harvest is over. I can’t bear the sight of him.”
“Den you can turn de eyes to your head von oder way,” retorted his father. “I find him goot to see; and,” after a pause, “so do Carlen.”
John started. “Good heavens, father!” he exclaimed.
“Oh, you need not speak by de heavens, mein son!” rejoined the old man, in a taunting tone. “I tink I can mine own vay, vidout you to be help. I was not yesterday born!”
John was gone. Flight was his usual refuge when he felt his temper becoming too much for him; but now his steps were quickened by an impulse of terrible fear. Between him and his sister had always been a bond closer than is wont to link brother and sister. Only one year apart in age, they had grown up together in an intimacy like that of twins; from their cradles till now they had had their sports, tastes, joys, sorrows in common, not a secret from each other since they could remember. At least, this was true of John; was he to find it no longer true of Carlen? He would know, and that right speedily. As by a flash of lightning he thought he saw his father’s scheme,–if Carlen were to wed this man, this strong and tireless worker, this unknown, mysterious worker, who wanted only shelter and home and cared not for money, what an invaluable hand would be gained on the farm! John groaned as he thought to himself how little anything–any doubt, any misgiving, perhaps even an actual danger–would in his father’s mind outweigh the one fact that the man did not “vork for money.”
As he walked toward the house, revolving these disquieting conjectures, all his first suspicion and antagonism toward Wilhelm revived in full force, and he was in a mood well calculated to distort the simplest acts, when he suddenly saw sitting in the square stoop at the door the two persons who filled his thoughts, Wilhelm and Carlen,–Wilhelm steadily at work as usual at his carving, his eyes closely fixed on it, his figure, as was its wont, rigidly still; and Carlen,–ah! it was an unlucky moment John had taken to search out the state of Carlen’s feeling toward Wilhelm,–Carlen sitting in a posture of dreamy reverie, one hand lying idle in her lap holding her knitting, the ball rolling away unnoticed on the ground; her other arm thrown carelessly over the railing of the stoop, her eyes fixed on Wilhelm’s bowed head.
John stood still and watched her,–watched her long. She did not move. She was almost as rigidly still as Wilhelm himself. Her eyes did not leave his face. One might safely sit in that way by the hour and gaze undetected at Wilhelm. He rarely looked up except when he was addressed.
After standing thus a few moments John turned away, bitter and sick at heart. What had he been about, that he had not seen this? He, the loving comrade brother, to be slower of sight than the hard, grasping parent!
“I will ask mother,” he thought. “I can’t ask Carlen now! It is too late.”
He found his mother in the kitchen, busy getting the bountiful supper which was a daily ordinance in the Weitbreck religion. To John’s sharpened perceptions the fact that Carlen was not as usual helping in this labor loomed up into significance.
“Why does not Carlen help you, muetter?” he said hastily. “What is she doing there, idling with Wilhelm in the stoop?”
Frau Weitbreck smiled. “It is not alvays to vork, ven one is young,” she said. “I haf not forget!” And she nodded her head meaningly.
John clenched his hands. Where had he been? Who had blinded him? How had all this come about, so soon and without his knowledge? Were his father and his mother mad? He thought they must be.
“It is a shame for that Wilhelm to so much as put his eyes on Carlen’s face,” he cried. “I think we are fools; what know we about him? I doubt him in and out. I wish he had never darkened our doors.”
Frau Weitbreck glanced cautiously at the open door. She was frying sweet cakes in the boiling lard. Forgetting everything in her fear of being overheard, she went softly, with the dripping skimmer in her hand, across the kitchen, the fat falling on her shining floor at every step, and closed the door. Then she came close to her son, and said in a whisper, “The fader think it is goot.” At John’s angry exclamation she raised her hand in warning.
“Do not loud spraken,” she whispered; “Carlen will hear.”
“Well, then, she shall hear!” cried John, half beside himself. “It is high time she did hear from somebody besides you and father! I reckon I’ve got something to say about this thing, too, if I’m her brother. By—-, no tramp like that is going to marry my sister without I know more about him!” And before the terrified old woman could stop him, he had gone at long strides across the kitchen, through the best room, and reached the stoop, saying in a loud tone: “Carlen! I want to see you.”
Carlen started as one roused from sleep. Seeing her ball lying at a distance on the ground, she ran to pick it up, and with scarlet cheeks and uneasy eyes turned to her brother.
“Yes, John,” she said, “I am coming.”
Wilhelm did not raise his eyes, or betray by any change of feature that he had heard the sound or perceived the motion. As Carlen passed him her eyes involuntarily rested on his bowed head, a world of pity, perplexity, in the glance. John saw it, and frowned.
“Come with me,” he said sternly,–“come down in the pasture; I want to speak to you.”
Carlen looked up apprehensively into his face; never had she seen there so stern a look.
“I must help muetter with the supper,” she said, hesitating.
John laughed scornfully. “You were helping with the supper, I suppose, sitting out with yon tramp!” And he pointed to the stoop.
Carlen had, with all her sunny cheerfulness, a vein of her father’s temper. Her face hardened, and her blue eyes grew darker.
“Why do you call Wilhelm a tramp,” she said coldly.
“What is he then, if he is not a tramp?” retorted John.
“He is no tramp,” she replied, still more doggedly.
“What do you know about him?” said John.
Carlen made no reply. Her silence irritated John more than any words could have done; and losing self-control, losing sight of prudence, he poured out on her a torrent of angry accusation and scornful reproach.
She stood still, her eyes fixed on the ground. Even in his hot wrath, John noticed this unwonted downcast look, and taunted her with it.
“You have even caught his miserable hangdog trick of not looking anybody in the face,” he cried. “Look up now! look me in the eye, and say what you mean by all this.”
Thus roughly bidden, Carlen raised her blue eyes and confronted her brother with a look hardly less angry than his own.
“It is you who have to say to me what all this means that you have been saying,” she cried. “I think you are out of your senses. I do not know what has happened to you.” And she turned to walk back to the house.
John seized her shoulders in his brawny hands, and whirled her round till she faced him again.
“Tell me the truth!” he said fiercely; “do you love this Wilhelm?”
Carlen opened her lips to reply. At that second a step was heard, and looking up they saw Wilhelm himself coming toward them, walking at his usual slow pace, his head sunk on his breast, his eyes on the ground. Great waves of blushes ran in tumultuous flood up Carlen’s neck, cheeks, forehead. John took his hands from her shoulders, and stepped back with a look of disgust and a smothered ejaculation. Wilhelm, hearing the sound, looked up, regarded them with a cold, unchanged eye, and turned in another direction.
The color deepened on Carlen’s face. In a hard and bitter tone she said, pointing with a swift gesture to Wilhelm’s retreating form: “You can see for yourself that there is nothing between us. I do not know what craze has got into your head.” And she walked away, this time unchecked by her brother. He needed no further replies in words. Tokens stronger than any speech had answered him. Muttering angrily to himself, he went on down to the pasture after the cows. It was a beautiful field, more like New England than Pennsylvania; a brook ran zigzagging through it, and here and there in the land were sharp lifts where rocks cropped out, making miniature cliffs overhanging some portions of the brook’s-course. Gray lichens and green mosses grew on these rocks, and belts of wild flag and sedges surrounded their base. The cows, in a warm day, used to stand knee-deep there, in shade of the rocks.
It was a favorite place of Wilhelm’s. He sometimes lay on the top of one of these rocks the greater part of the night, looking down into the gliding water or up into the sky. Carlen from her window had more than once seen him thus, and passionately longed to go down and comfort his lonely sorrow.
It was indeed true, as she had said to her brother, that there was “nothing between” her and Wilhelm. Never a word had passed; never a look or tone to betray that he knew whether she were fair or not,–whether she lived or not. She came and went in his presence, as did all others, with no more apparent relation to the currents of his strange veiled existence than if they or he belonged to a phantom world. But it was also true that never since the first day of his mysterious coming had Wilhelm been long absent from Carlen’s thoughts; and she did indeed find him–as her father’s keen eyes, sharpened by greed, had observed–good to look upon. That most insidious of love’s allies, pity, had stormed the fortress of Carlen’s heart, and carried it by a single charge. What could a girl give, do, or be, that would be too much for one so stricken, so lonely as was Wilhelm! The melancholy beauty of his face, his lithe figure, his great strength, all combined to heighten this impression, and to fan the flames of the passion in Carlen’s virgin soul. It was indeed, as John had sorrowfully said to himself, “too late” to speak to Carlen.
As John stood now at the pasture bars, waiting for the herd of cows, slow winding up the slope from the brook, he saw Wilhelm on the rocks below. He had thrown himself down on his back, and lay there with his arms crossed on his breast. Presently he clasped both hands over his eyes as if to shut out a sight that he could no longer bear. Something akin to pity stirred even in John’s angry heart as he watched him.
“What can it be,” he said, “that makes him hate even the sky? It may be it is a sweetheart he has lost, and he is one of that strange kind of men who can love but once; and it is loving the dead that makes him so like one dead himself. Poor Carlen! I think myself he never so much as sees her.”
A strange reverie, surely, for the brother who had so few short moments ago been angrily reproaching his sister for the disgrace and shame of caring for this tramp. But the pity was short-lived in John’s bosom. His inborn distrust and antagonism to the man were too strong for any gentler sentiment toward him to live long by their side. And when the family gathered at the supper-table he fixed upon Wilhelm so suspicious and hostile a gaze that even Wilhelm’s absent mind perceived it, and he in turn looked inquiringly at John, a sudden bewilderment apparent in his manner. It disappeared, however, almost immediately, dying away in his usual melancholy absorption. It had produced scarce a ripple on the monotonous surface of his habitual gloom. But Carlen had perceived all, both the look on John’s face and the bewilderment on Wilhelm’s; and it roused in her a resentment so fierce toward John, she could not forbear showing it. “How cruel!” she thought. “As if the poor fellow had not all he could bear already without being treated unkindly by us!” And she redoubled her efforts to win Wilhelm’s attention and divert his thoughts, all in vain; kindness and unkindness glanced off alike, powerless, from the veil in which he was wrapped.
John sat by with roused attention and sharpened perception, noting all. Had it been all along like this? Where had his eyes been for the past month? Had he too been under a spell? It looked like it. He groaned in spirit as he sat silently playing with his food, not eating; and when his father said, “Why haf you not appetite, Johan?” he rose abruptly, pushed back his chair, and leaving the table without a word went out and down again into the pasture, where the dewy grass and the quivering stars in the brook shimmered in the pale light of a young moon. To John, also, the mossy rocks in this pasture were a favorite spot for rest and meditation. Since the days when he and Carlen had fished from their edges, with bent pins and yarn, for minnows, he had loved the place: they had spent happy hours enough there to count up into days; and not the least among the innumerable annoyances and irritations of which he had been anxious in regard to Wilhelm was the fact that he too had perceived the charm of the field, and chosen it for his own melancholy retreat.
As he seated himself on one of the rocks, he saw a figure gliding swiftly down the hill.
It was Carlen.
As she drew near he looked at her without speaking, but the loving girl was not repelled. Springing lightly to the rock, she threw her arms around his neck, and kissing him said: “I saw you coming down here, John, and I ran after you. Do not be angry with me, brother; it breaks my heart.”
A sudden revulsion of shame for his unjust suspicion filled John with tenderness.
“Mein Schwester,” he said fondly,–they had always the habit of using the German tongue for fond epithets,–“mein Schwester klein, I love you so much I cannot help being wretched when I see you in danger, but I am not angry.”
Nestling herself close by his side, Carlen looked over into the water.
“This is the very rock I fell off of that day, do you remember?” she said; “and how wet you got fishing me out! And oh, what an awful beating father gave you! and I always thought it was wicked, for if you had not pulled me out I should have drowned.”
“It was for letting you fall in he beat me,” laughed John; and they both grew tender and merry, recalling the babyhood times.
“How long, long ago!” cried Carlen.
“It seems only a day,” said John.
“I think time goes faster for a man than for a woman,” sighed Carlen. “It is a shorter day in the fields than in the house.”
“Are you not content, my sister?” said John.
Carlen was silent.
“You have always seemed so,” he said reproachfully.
“It is always the same, John,” she murmured. “Each day like every other day. I would like it to be some days different.”
John sighed. He knew of what this new unrest was born. He longed to begin to speak of Wilhelm, and yet he knew not how. Now that, after longer reflection, he had become sure in his own mind that Wilhelm cared nothing for his sister, he felt an instinctive shrinking from recognizing to himself, or letting it be recognized between them, that she unwooed had learned to love. His heart ached with dread of the suffering which might be in store for her.
Carlen herself cut the gordian knot.
“Brother,” she whispered, “why do you think Wilhelm is not good?”
“I said not that, Carlen,” he replied evasively. “I only say we know nothing; and it is dangerous to trust where one knows nothing.”
“It would not be trust if we knew,” answered the loyal girl. “I believe he is good; but, John, John, what misery in his eyes! Saw you ever anything like it?”
“No,” he replied; “never. Has he never told you anything about himself, Carlen?”
“Once,” she answered, “I took courage to ask him if he had relatives in Germany; and he said no; and I exclaimed then, ‘What, all dead!’ ‘All dead,’ he answered, in such a voice I hardly dared speak again, but I did. I said: ‘Well, one might have the terrible sorrow to lose all one’s relatives. It needs only that three should die, my father and mother and my brother,–only three, and two are already old,–and I should have no relatives myself; but if one is left without relatives, there are always friends, thank God!’ And he looked at me,–he never looks at one, you know; but he looked at me then as if I had done a sin to speak the word, and he said, ‘I have no friends. They are all dead too,’ and then went away! Oh, brother, why cannot we win him out of this grief? We can be good friends to him; can you not find out for me what it is?”
It was a cruel weapon to use, but on the instant John made up his mind to use it. It might spare Carlen grief, in the end.
“I have thought,” he said, “that it might be for a dead sweetheart he mourned thus. There are men, you know, who love that way and never smile again.”
Short-sighted John, to have dreamed that he could forestall any conjecture in the girl’s heart!
“I have thought of that,” she answered meekly; “it would seem as if it could be nothing else. But, John, if she be really dead–” Carlen did not finish the sentence; it was not necessary.
After a silence she spoke again: “Dear John, if you could be more friendly with him I think it might be different. He is your age. Father and mother are too old, and to me he will not speak.” She sighed deeply as she spoke these last words, and went on: “Of course, if it is for a dead sweetheart that he is grieving thus, it is only natural that the sight of women should be to him worse than the sight of men. But it is very seldom, John, that a man will mourn his whole life for a sweetheart; is it not, John? Why, men marry again, almost always, even when it is a wife that they have lost; and a sweetheart is not so much as a wife.”
“I have heard,” said the pitiless John, “that a man is quicker healed of grief for a wife than for one he had thought to wed, but lost.”
“You are a man,” said Carlen. “You can tell if that would be true.”
“No, I cannot,” he answered, “for I have loved no woman but you, my sister; and on my word I think I will be in no haste to, either. It brings misery, it seems to me.”
If Carlen had spoken her thought at these words, she would have said, “Yes, it brings misery; but even so it is better than joy.” But Carlen was ashamed; afraid also. She had passed now into a new life, whither her brother, she perceived, could not follow. She could barely reach his hand across the boundary line which parted them.
“I hope you will love some one, John,” she said. “You would be happy with a wife. You are old enough to have a home of your own.”
“Only a year older than you, my sister,” he rejoined.
“I too am old enough to have a home of my own,” she said, with a gentle dignity of tone, which more impressed John with a sense of the change in Carlen than all else which had been said.
It was time to return to the house. As he had done when he was ten, and she nine, John stood at the bottom of the steepest rock, with upstretched arms, by the help of which Carlen leaped lightly down.
“We are not children any more,” she said, with a little laugh.
“More’s the pity!” said John, half lightly, half sadly, as they went on hand in hand.
When they reached the bars, Carlen paused. Withdrawing her hand from John’s and laying it on his shoulder, she said: “Brother, will you not try to find out what is Wilhelm’s grief? Can you not try to be friends with him?”
John made no answer. It was a hard thing to promise.
“For my sake, brother,” said the girl. “I have spoken to no one else but you. I would die before any one else should know; even my mother.”
John could not resist this. “Yes,” he said; “I will try. It will be hard; but I will try my best, Carlen. I will have a talk with Wilhelm to-morrow.”
And the brother and sister parted, he only the sadder, she far happier, for their talk. “To-morrow,” she thought, “I will know! To-morrow! oh, to-morrow!” And she fell asleep more peacefully than had been her wont for many nights.
On the morrow it chanced that John and Wilhelm went separate ways to work and did not meet until noon. In the afternoon Wilhelm was sent on an errand to a farm some five miles away, and thus the day passed without John’s having found any opportunity for the promised talk. Carlen perceived with keen disappointment this frustration of his purpose, but comforted herself, thinking, with the swift forerunning trust of youth: “To-morrow he will surely get a chance. To-morrow he will have something to tell me. To-morrow!”
When Wilhelm returned from this errand, he came singing up the road. Carlen heard the voice and looked out of the window in amazement. Never before had a note of singing been heard from Wilhelm’s voice. She could not believe her ears; neither her eyes, when she saw him walking swiftly, almost running, erect, his head held straight, his eyes gazing free and confident before him.
What had happened? What could have happened? Now, for the first time, Carlen saw the full beauty of his face; it wore an exultant look as of one set free, triumphant. He leaped lightly over the bars; he stooped and fondled the dog, speaking to him in a merry tone; then he whistled, then broke again into singing a gay German song. Carlen was stupefied with wonder. Who was this new man in the body of Wilhelm? Where had disappeared the man of slow-moving figure, bent head, downcast eyes, gloom-stricken face, whom until that hour she had known? Carlen clasped her hands in an agony of bewilderment.
“If he has found his sweetheart, I shall die,” she thought. “How could it be? A letter, perhaps? A message?” She dreaded to see him. She lingered in her room till it was past the supper hour, dreading what she knew not, yet knew. When she went down the four were seated at supper. As she opened the door roars of laughter greeted her, and the first sight she saw was Wilhelm’s face, full of vivacity, excitement. He was telling a jesting story, at which even her mother was heartily laughing. Her father had laughed till the tears were rolling down his cheeks. John was holding his sides. Wilhelm was a mimic, it appeared; he was imitating the ridiculous speech, gait, gestures, of a man he had seen in the village that afternoon.
“I sent you to village sooner as dis, if I haf known vat you are like ven you come back,” said Farmer Weitbreck, wiping his eyes.
And John echoed his father. “Upon my word, Wilhelm, you are a good actor. Why have you kept your light under a bushel so long?” And John looked at him with a new interest and liking. If this were the true Wilhelm, he might welcome him indeed as a brother.
Carlen alone looked grave, anxious, unhappy. She could not laugh. Tale after tale, jest after jest, fell from Wilhelm’s lips. Such a story-teller never before sat at the Weitbreck board. The old kitchen never echoed with such laughter.
Finally John exclaimed: “Man alive, where have you kept yourself all this time? Have you been ill till now, that you hid your tongue? What has cured you in a day?”
Wilhelm laughed a laugh so ringing, it made him seem like a boy.
“Yes, I have been ill till to-day,” he said; “and now I am well.” And he rattled on again, with his merry talk.
Carlen grew cold with fear; surely this meant but one thing. Nothing else, nothing less, could have thus in an hour rolled away the burden of his sadness.
Later in the evening she said timidly, “Did you hear any news in the village this afternoon, Wilhelm?”
“No; no news,” he said. “I had heard no news.”
As he said this a strange look flitted swiftly across his face, and was gone before any eye but a loving woman’s had noted it. It did not escape Carlen’s, and she fell into a reverie of wondering what possible double meaning could have underlain his words.
“Did you know Mr. Dietman in Germany?” she asked. This was the name of the farmer to whose house he had been sent on an errand. They were new-comers into the town, since spring.
“No!” replied Wilhelm, with another strange, sharp glance at Carlen. “I saw him not before.”
“Have they children?” she continued. “Are they old?”
“No; young,” he answered. “They haf one child, little baby.”
Carlen could not contrive any other questions to ask. “It must have been a letter,” she thought; and her face grew sadder.
It was a late bedtime when the family parted for the night. The astonishing change in Wilhelm’s manner was now even more apparent than it had yet been. Instead of slipping off, as was his usual habit, without exchanging a good-night with any one, he insisted on shaking hands with each, still talking and laughing with gay and affectionate words, and repeating, over and again, “Good-night, good-night.” Farmer Weitbreck was carried out of himself with pleasure at all this, and holding Wilhelm’s hand fast in his, shaking it heartily, and clapping him on the shoulder, he exclaimed in fatherly familiarity: “Dis is goot, mein son! dis is goot. Now are you von of us.” And he glanced meaningly at John, who smiled back in secret intelligence. As he did so there went like a flash through his mind the question, “Can Carlen have spoken with him to-day? Can that be it?” But a look at Carlen’s pale, perplexed face quickly dissipated this idea. “She looks frightened,” thought John. “I do not much wonder. I will get a word with her.” But Carlen had gone before he missed her. Running swiftly upstairs, she locked the door of her room, and threw herself on her knees at her open window. Presently she saw Wilhelm going down to the brook. She watched his every motion. First, he walked slowly up and down the entire length of the field, following the brook’s course closely, stopping often and bending over, picking flowers. A curious little white flower called “Ladies’-Tress” grew there in great abundance, and he often brought bunches of it to her.
“Perhaps it is not for me this time,” thought Carlen, and the tears came into her eyes. After a time Wilhelm ceased gathering the flowers, and seated himself on his favorite rock,–the same one where John and Carlen had sat the night before. “Will he stay there all night?” thought the unhappy girl, as she watched him. “He is so full of joy he does not want to sleep. What will become of me! what will become of me!”
At last Wilhelm arose and came toward the house, bringing the bunch of flowers in his hand. At the pasture bars he paused, and looked back over the scene. It was a beautiful picture, the moon making it light as day; even from Carlen’s window could be seen the sparkle of the brook.
As he turned to go to the barn his head sank on his breast, his steps lagged. He wore again the expression of gloomy thought. A new fear arose in Carlen’s breast. Was he mad? Had the wild hilarity of his speech and demeanor in the evening been merely a new phase of disorder in an unsettled brain? Even in this was a strange, sad comfort to Carlen. She would rather have him mad, with alternations of insane joy and gloom, than know that he belonged to another. Long after he had disappeared in the doorway at the foot of the stairs which led to his sleeping-place in the barn-loft, she remained kneeling at the window, watching to see if he came out again. Then she crept into bed, and lay tossing, wakeful, and anxious till near dawn. She had but just fallen asleep when she was aroused by cries. It was John’s voice. He was calling loudly at the window of their mother’s bedroom beneath her own.
“Father! father! Get up, quick! Come out to the barn!”
Then followed confused words she could not understand. Leaning from her window she called: “What is it, John? What has happened?” But he was already too far on his way back to the barn to hear her.
A terrible presentiment shot into her mind of some ill to Wilhelm. Vainly she wrestled with it. Why need she think everything that happened must be connected with him? It was not yet light; she could not have slept many minutes. With trembling hands she dressed, and running swiftly down the stairs was at the door just as her father appeared there.
“What is it? What is it, father?” she cried. “What has happened?”
“Go back!” he said in an unsteady voice. “It is nothing. Go back to bed. It is not for vimmins!”
Then Carlen was sure it was some ill to Wilhelm, and with a loud cry she darted to the barn, and flew up the stairway leading to his room.
John, hearing her steps, confronted her at the head of the stairs.
“Good God, Carlen!” he cried, “go back! You must not come here. Where is father?”
“I will come in!” she answered wildly, trying to force her way past him. “I will come in. You shall not keep me out. What has happened to him? Let me by!” And she wrestled in her brother’s strong arms with strength almost equal to his.
“Carlen! You shall not come in! You shall not see!” he cried.
“Shall not see!” she shrieked. “Is he dead?”
“Yes, my sister, he is dead,” answered John, solemnly. In the next instant he held Carlen’s unconscious form in his arms; and when Farmer Weitbreck, half dazed, reached the foot of the stairs, the first sight which met his eyes was his daughter, held in her brother’s arms, apparently lifeless, her head hanging over his shoulder.
“Haf she seen him?” he whispered.
“No!” said John. “I only told her he was dead, to keep her from going in, and she fainted dead away.”
“Ach!” groaned the old man, “dis is hard on her.”
“Yes,” sighed the brother; “it is a cruel shame.”
Swiftly they carried her to the house, and laid her on her mother’s bed, then returned to their dreadful task in Wilhelm’s chamber.
Hung by a stout leathern strap from the roof-tree beam, there swung the dead body of Wilhelm Ruetter, cold, stiff. He had been dead for hours; he must have done the deed soon after bidding them good-night.
“He vas mad, Johan; it must be he vas mad ven he laugh like dat last night. Dat vas de beginning, Johan,” said the old man, shaking from head to foot with horror, as he helped his son lift down the body.
“Yes!” answered John; “that must be it. I expect he has been mad all along. I do not believe last night was the beginning. It was not like any sane man to be so gloomy as he was, and never speak to a living soul. But I never once thought of his being crazy. Look, father!” he continued, his voice breaking into a sob, “he has left these flowers here for Carlen! That does not look as if he was crazy! What can it all mean?”
On the top of a small chest lay the bunch of white Ladies’-Tress, with a paper beneath it on which was written, “For Carlen Weitbreck,–these, and the carvings in the box, all in memory of Wilhelm.”
“He meant to do it, den,” said the old man.
“Yes,” said John.
“Maybe Carlen vould not haf him, you tink?”
“No,” said John, hastily; “that is not possible.”
“I tought she luf him, an’ he vould stay an’ be her mann,” sighed the disappointed father. “Now all dat is no more.”
“It will kill her,” cried John.
“No!” said the father. “Vimmins does not die so as dat. She feel pad maybe von year, maybe two. Dat is all. He vas great for vork. Dat Alf vas not goot as he.”
The body was laid once more on the narrow pallet where it had slept for its last few weeks on earth, and the two men stood by its side, discussing what should next be done, how the necessary steps could be taken with least possible publicity, when suddenly they heard the sound of horses’ feet and wheels, and looking out they saw Hans Dietman and his wife driving rapidly into the yard.
“Mein Gott! Vat bring dem here dis time in day,” exclaimed Farmer Weitbreck. “If dey ask for Wilhelm dey must all know!”
“Yes,” replied John; “that makes no difference. Everybody will have to know.” And he ran swiftly down to meet the strangely arrived neighbors.
His first glance at their faces showed him that they had come on no common errand. They were pale and full of excitement, and Hans’s first word was: “Vere is dot man you sent to mine place yesterday?”
“Wilhelm?” stammered Farmer Weitbreck.
“Wilhelm!” repeated Hans, scornfully. “His name is not ‘Wilhelm.’ His name is Carl,–Carl Lepmann; and he is murderer. He killed von man–shepherd, in our town–last spring; and dey never get trail of him. So soon he came in our kitchen yesterday my vife she knew him; she wait till I get home. Ve came ven it vas yet dark to let you know vot man vas in your house.”
Farmer Weitbreck and his son exchanged glances; each was too shocked to speak. Mr. and Mrs. Dietman looked from one to the other in bewilderment. “Maype you tink ve speak not truth,” Hans continued. “Just let him come here, to our face, and you will see.”
“No!” said John, in a low, awe-stricken voice, “we do not think you are not speaking truth.” He paused; glanced again at his father. “We’d better take them up!” he said.
The old man nodded silently. Even his hard and phlegmatic nature was shaken to the depths.
John led the way up the stairs, saying briefly, “Come.” The Dietmans followed in bewilderment.
“There he is,” said John, pointing to the tall figure, rigid, under the close-drawn white folds; “we found him here only an hour ago, hung from the beam.”
A horror-stricken silence fell on the group.
Hans spoke first. “He know dat we know; so he kill himself to save dat de hangman have trouble.”
John resented the flippant tone. He understood now the whole mystery of Wilhelm’s life in this house.
“He has never known a happy minute since he was here,” he said. “He never smiled; nor spoke, if he could help it. Only last night, after he came back from your place, he laughed and sang, and was merry, and looked like another man; and he bade us all good-night over and over, and shook hands with every one. He had made up his mind, you see, that the end had come, and it was nothing but a relief to him. He was glad to die. He had not courage before. But now he knew he would be arrested he had courage to kill himself. Poor fellow, I pity him!” And John smoothed out the white folds over the clasped hands on the quiet-stricken breast, resting at last. “He has been worse punished than if he had been hung in the beginning,” he said, and turned from the bed, facing the Dietmans as if he constituted himself the dead man’s protector.
“I think no one but ourselves need know,” he continued, thinking in his heart of Carlen. “It is enough that he is dead. There is no good to be gained for any one, that I see, by telling what he had done.”
“No,” said Mrs. Dietman, tearfully; but her husband exclaimed, in a vindictive tone:
“I see not why it is to be covered in secret. He is murderer. It is to be sent vord to Mayence he vas found.”
“Yes, they ought to know there,” said John, slowly; “but there is no need for it to be known here. He has injured no one here.”
“No,” exclaimed Farmer Weitbreck. “He haf harm nobody here; he vas goot. I haf ask him to stay and haf home in my house.”
It was a strange story. Early in the spring, it seemed, about six weeks before Hans Dietman and his wife Gretchen were married, a shepherd on the farm adjoining Gretchen’s father’s had been murdered by a fellow-laborer on the same farm. They had had high words about a dog, and had come to blows, but were parted by some of the other hands, and had separated and gone their ways to their work with their respective flocks.
This was in the morning. At night neither they nor their flocks returned; and, search being made, the dead body of the younger shepherd was found lying at the foot of a precipice, mutilated and wounded, far more than it would have been by any accidental fall. The other shepherd, Carl Lepmann, had disappeared, and was never again seen by any one who knew him, until this previous day, when he had entered the Dietmans’ door bearing his message from the Weitbreck farm. At the first sight of his face, Gretchen Dietman had recognized him, thrown up her arms involuntarily, and cried out in German: “My God! the man that killed the shepherd!” Carl had halted on the threshold at hearing these words, and his countenance had changed; but it was only for a second. He regained his composure instantly, entered as if he had heard nothing, delivered his message, and afterward remained for some time on the farm chatting with the laborers, and seeming in excellent spirits.
“And so vas he ven he come home,” said Farmer Weitbreck; “he make dat ve all laugh and laugh, like notings ever vas before, never before he open his mouth to speak; he vas like at funeral all times, night and day. But now he seem full of joy. It is de most strange ting as I haf seen in my life.”
“I do not think so, father,” said John. “I do not wonder he was glad to be rid of his burden.”
It proved of no use to try to induce Hans Dietman to keep poor Carl’s secret. He saw no reason why a murderer should be sheltered from disgrace. To have his name held up for the deserved execration seemed to Hans the only punishment left for one who had thus evaded the hangman; and he proceeded to inflict this punishment to the extent of his ability.
Finding that the tale could not be kept secret, John nerved himself to tell it to Carlen. She heard it in silence from beginning to end, asked a few searching questions, and then to John’s unutterable astonishment said: “Wilhelm never killed that man. You have none of you stopped to see if there was proof.”
“But why did he fly, Liebchen?” asked John.
“Because he knew he would be accused of the murder,” she replied. “They might have been fighting at the edge of the precipice and the shepherd fell over, or the shepherd might have been killed by some one else, and Wilhelm have found the body. He never killed him, John, never.”
There was something in Carlen’s confident belief which communicated itself to John’s mind, and, coupled with the fact that there was certainly only circumstantial evidence against Wilhelm, slowly brought him to sharing her belief and tender sorrow. But they were alone in this belief and alone in their sorrow. The verdict of the community was unhesitatingly, unqualifiedly, against Wilhelm.
“Would a man hang himself if he knew he were innocent?” said everybody.
“All the more if he knew he could never prove himself innocent,” said John and Carlen. But no one else thought so. And how could the truth ever be known in this world?
Wilhelm was buried in a corner of the meadow field he had so loved. Before two years had passed, wild blackberry vines had covered the grave with a thick mat of tangled leaves, green in summer, blood-red in the autumn. And before three more had passed there was no one in the place who knew the secret of the grave. Farmer Weitbreck and his wife were both dead, and the estate had passed into the hands of strangers who had heard the story of Wilhelm, and knew that his body was buried somewhere on the farm; but in which field they neither asked nor cared, and there was no mourner to tell the story. John Weitbreck had realized his dream of going West, a free man at last, and by no means a poor one; he looked out over scores of broad fields of his own, one of the most fertile of the Oregon valleys.
Alf was with him, and Carlen; and Carlen was Alf’s wife,–placid, contented wife, and fond and happy mother,–so small ripples did there remain from the tempestuous waves beneath which Carl Lepmann’s life had gone down. Some deftly carved boxes and figures of chamois and their hunters stood on Carlen’s best-room mantel, much admired by her neighbors, and longed for by her toddling girl,–these, and a bunch of dried and crumbling blossoms of the Ladies’ Tress, were all that had survived the storm. The dried flowers were in the largest of the boxes. They lay there side by side with a bit of carved abalone shell Alf had got from a Nez Perce Indian, and some curious seaweeds he had picked up at the mouth of the Columbia River. Carlen’s one gilt brooch was kept in the same box, and when she took it out of a Sunday, the sight of the withered flowers always reminded her of Wilhelm. She could not have told why she kept them; it certainly was not because they woke in her breast any thoughts which Alf might not have read without being disquieted. She sometimes sighed, as she saw them, “Poor Wilhelm!” That was all.
But there came one day a letter to John that awoke even in Carlen’s motherly and contented heart strange echoes from that past which she had thought forever left behind. It was a letter from Hans Dietman, who still lived on the Pennsylvania farm, and who had been recently joined there by a younger brother from Germany.
This brother had brought news which, too late, vindicated the memory of Wilhelm. Carlen had been right. He was no murderer.
It was with struggling emotions that Carlen heard the tale; pride, joy, passionate regret, old affection, revived. John was half afraid to go on, as he saw her face flushing, her eyes filling with tears, kindling and shining with a light he had not seen in them since her youth.
“Go on! go on!” she cried. “Why do you stop? Did I not tell you so? And you never half believed me! Now you see I was right! I told you Wilhelm never harmed a human being!”
It was indeed a heartrending story, to come so late, so bootless now, to the poor boy who had slept all these years in the nameless grave, even its place forgotten.
It seemed that a man sentenced in Mayence to be executed for murder had confessed, the day before his execution, that it was he who had killed the shepherd of whose death Carl Lepmann had so long been held guilty. They had quarrelled about a girl, a faithless creature, forsworn to both of them, and worth no man’s love or desire; but jealous anger got the better of their sense, and they grappled in fight, each determined to kill the other.
The shepherd had the worst of it; and just as he fell, mortally hurt, Carl Lepmann had come up,–had come up in time to see the murderer leap on his horse to ride away.
In a voice, which the man said had haunted him ever since, Carl had cried out: “My God! You ride away and leave him dead! and it will be I who have killed him, for this morning we fought so they had to tear us apart!”
Smitten with remorse, the man had with Carl’s help lifted the body and thrown it over the precipice, at the foot of which it was afterward found. He then endeavored to persuade the lad that it would never be discovered, and he might safely return to his employer’s farm. But Carl’s terror was too great, and he had finally been so wrought upon by his entreaties that he had taken him two days’ journey, by lonely ways, the two riding sometimes in turn, sometimes together,–two days’ and two nights’ journey,–till they reached the sea, where Carl had taken ship for America.
“He was a good lad, a tender-hearted lad,” said the murderer. “He might have accused me in many a village, and stood as good chance to be believed as I, if he had told where the shepherd’s body was thrown; but he could be frightened as easily as a woman, and all he thought of was to fly where he would never be heard of more. And it was the thought of him, from that day till now, has given me more misery than the thought of the dead man!”
Carlen was crying bitterly; the letter was just ended, when Alf came into the room asking bewilderedly what it was all about.
The name Wilhelm meant nothing to him. It was the summer before Wilhelm came that he had begun this Oregon farm, which he, from the first, had fondly dedicated to Carlen in his thoughts; and when he went back to Pennsylvania after her, he found her the same as when he went away, only comelier and sweeter. It would not be easy to give Alf an uncomfortable thought about his Carlen. But he did not like to see her cry.
Neither, when he had heard the whole story, did he see why her tears need have flowed so freely. It was sad, no doubt, and a bitter shame too, for one man to suffer and go to his grave that way for the sin of another. But it was long past and gone; no use in crying over it now.
“What a tender-hearted, foolish wife it is!” he said in gruff fondness, laying his hand on Carlen’s shoulder, “crying over a man dead and buried these seven years, and none of our kith or kin, either. Poor fellow! It was a shame!”
But Carlen said nothing.
Little Bel’s Supplement.
“Indeed, then, my mother, I’ll not take the school at Wissan Bridge without they promise me a supplement. It’s the worst school i’ a’ Prince Edward Island.”
“I doubt but ye’re young to tackle wi’ them boys, Bel,” replied the mother, gazing into her daughter’s face with an intent expression in which it would have been hard to say which predominated,–anxiety or fond pride. “I’d sooner see ye take any other school between this an’ Charlottetown, an’ no supplement.”
“I’m not afraid, my mother, but I’ll manage ’em well enough; but I’ll not undertake it for the same money as a decent school is taught. They’ll promise me five pounds’ supplement at the end o’ the year, or I’ll not set foot i’ the place.”
“Maybe they’ll not be for givin’ ye the school at all when they see what’s yer youth,” replied the mother, in a half-antagonistic tone. There was between this mother and daughter a continual undercurrent of possible antagonism, overlain and usually smothered out of sight by passionate attachment on both sides.
Little Bel tossed her head. “Age is not everything that goes to the makkin o’ a teacher,” she retorted. “There’s Grizzy McLeod; she’s teachin’ at the Cove these eight years, an’ I’d shame her myself any day she likes wi’ spellin’ an’ the lines; an’ if there’s ever a boy in a school o’ mine that’ll gie me a floutin’ answer such’s I’ve heard her take by the dozen, I’ll warrant ye he’ll get a birchin’; an’ the trustees think there’s no teacher like Grizzy. I’m not afraid.”
“Grizzy never had any great schoolin’ herself,” replied her mother, piously. “There’s no girl in all the farms that’s had what ye’ve had, Bel.”
“It isn’t the schoolin’, mother,” retorted little Bel. “The schoolin’ ‘s got nothin’ to do with it. I’d teach a school better than Grizzy McLeod if I’d never had a day’s schoolin’.”
“An’ now if that’s not the talk of a silly,” retorted the quickly angered parent. “Will ye be tellin’ me perhaps, then, that them that can’t read theirselves is to be set to teach letters?”
Little Bel was too loyal at heart to her illiterate mother to wound her further by reiterating her point. Throwing her arms around her neck, and kissing her warmly, she exclaimed: “Eh, my mother, it’s not a silly that ye could ever have for a child, wi’ that clear head, and the wise things always said to us from the time we’re in our cradles. Ye’ve never a child that’s so clever as ye are yerself. I didn’t mean just what I said, ye must know, surely; only that the schoolin’ part is the smallest part o’ the keepin’ a school.”
“An’ I’ll never give in to such nonsense as that, either,” said the mother, only half mollified. “Ye can ask yer father, if ye like, if it stands not to reason that the more a teacher knows, the more he can teach. He’ll take the conceit out o’ ye better than I can.” And good Isabella McDonald turned angrily away, and drummed on the window-pane with her knitting-needles to relieve her nervous discomfort at this slight passage at arms with her best-beloved daughter.
Little Bel’s face flushed, and with compressed lips she turned silently to the little oaken-framed looking-glass that hung so high on the wall she could but just see her chin in it. As she slowly tied her pink bonnet strings she grew happier. In truth, she would have been a maiden hard to console if the face that looked back at her from the quaint oak leaf and acorn wreath had not comforted her inmost soul, and made her again at peace with herself. And as the mother looked on she too was comforted; and in five minutes more, when Little Bel was ready to say good-by, they flung their arms around each other, and embraced and kissed, and the daughter said, “Good-by t’ ye now, mother. Wish me well, an’ ye’ll see that I get it,–supplement an’ all,” she added slyly. And the mother said, “Good luck t’ ye, child; an’ it’s luck to them that gets ye.” That was the way quarrels always ended between Isabella McDonald and her oldest daughter.
The oldest daughter, and yet only just turned of twenty; and there were eight children younger than she, and one older. This is the way among the Scotch farming-folk in Prince Edward Island. Children come tumbling into the world like rabbits in a pen, and have to scramble for a living almost as soon and as hard as the rabbits. It is a narrow life they lead, and full of hardships and deprivations, but it has its compensations. Sturdy virtues in sturdy bodies come of it,–the sort of virtue made by the straitest Calvinism, and the sort of body made out of oatmeal and milk. One might do much worse than inherit both.
It seemed but a few years ago that John McDonald had wooed and won Isabella McIntosh,–wooed her with difficulty in the bosom of her family of six brothers and five sisters, and won her triumphantly in spite of the open and contemptuous opposition of one of the five sisters. For John himself was one of seven in his father’s home, and whoever married John must go there to live, to be only a daughter in a mother-in-law’s house, and take a daughter’s share of the brunt of everything. “And nothing to be got except a living, and it was a poor living the McDonald farm gave beside the McIntosh,” the McIntosh sisters said. And, moreover: “The saint did not live that could get on with John McDonald’s mother. That was what had made him the silent fellow he was, always being told by his mother to hold his tongue and have done speaking; and a fine pepper-pot there’d be when Isabella’s hasty tongue and temper were flung into that batch!”
There was no gainsaying all this. Nevertheless, Isabella married John, went home with him into his father’s house, put her shoulder against her spoke in the family wheel, and did her best. And when, ten years later, as reward of her affectionate trust and patience, she found herself sole mistress of the McDonald farm, she did not feel herself ill paid. The old father and mother were dead, two sisters had died and two had married, and the two sons had gone to the States to seek better fortunes than were to be made on Prince Edward Island. John, as eldest son, had, according to the custom of the island, inherited the farm; and Mrs. Isabella, confronting her three still unmarried sisters, was able at last triumphantly to refute their still resentfully remembered objections to her choice of a husband.
“An’ did ye suppose I did not all the time know that it was to this it was sure to come, soon or late?” she said, with justifiable complacency. “It’s a good thing to have a house o’ one’s own an’ an estate. An’ the linen that’s in the house! I’ve no need to turn a hand to the flax-wheel for ten years if I’ve no mind. An’ ye can all bide your times, an’ see what John’ll make o’ the farm, now he’s got where he can have things his own way. His father was always set against anything that was new, an’ the place is run down shameful; but John’ll bring it up, an’ I’m not an old woman yet.”
This last was the unkindest phrase Mrs. John McDonald permitted herself to use. There was a rebound in it which told on the Mclntosh sisters; for they, many years older than she, were already living on tolerance in their father’s house, where their oldest brother and his wife ruled things with an iron hand. All hopes of a husband and a home of their own had quite died out of their spinster bosoms, and they would not have been human had they not secretly and grievously envied the comely, blooming Isabella her husband, children, and home.
But, with all this, it was no play-day life that Mrs. Isabella had led. At the very best, and with the best of farms, Prince Edward Island farming is no high-road to fortune; only a living, and that of the plainest, is to be made; and when children come at the rate of ten in twenty-two years, it is but a small showing that the farmer’s bank account makes at the end of that time. There is no margin for fineries, luxuries, small ambitions of any kind. Isabella had her temptations in these directions, but John was firm as a rock in withstanding them. If he had not been, there would never have been this story to tell of his Little Bel’s school-teaching, for there would never have been money enough in the bank to have given her two years’ schooling in Charlottetown, the best the little city afforded,–“and she boardin’ all the time like a lady,” said the severe McIntosh aunts, who disapproved of all such wide-flying ambitions, which made women discontented with and unfitted for farming life.
“And why should Isabella be setting her daughters up for teachers?” they said. “It’s no great schoolin’ she had herself, and if her girls do as well as she’s done, they’ll be lucky,”–a speech which made John McDonald laugh out when it was reported to him. He could afford to laugh now.
“I mind there was a day when they thought different o’ me from that,” he said. “I’m obliged to them for nothin’; but I’d like the little one to have a better chance than the marryin’ o’ a man like me, an’ if anything’ll get it for her, it’ll be schoolin’.”
The “boardin’ like a lady,” which had so offended the Misses Mclntosh’s sense of propriety, was not, after all, so great an extravagance as they had supposed; for it was in his own brother’s house her thrifty father had put her, and had stipulated that part of the price of her board was to be paid in produce of one sort and another from the farm, at market rates; “an’ so, ye see, the lass ‘ll be eatin’ it there ‘stead of here,” he said to his wife when he told her of the arrangement, “an’ it’s a sma’ difference it’ll make to us i’ the end o’ the two years.”
“An’ a big difference to her a’ her life,” replied Isabella, warmly.
“Ay, wife,” said John, “if it fa’s out as ye hope; but it’s main uncertain countin’ on the book-knowledge. There’s some it draws up an’ some it draws down; it’s a millstone. But the lass is bright; she’s as like you as two peas in a pod. If ye’d had the chance she’s had–“
Rising color in Isabella’s face warned John to stop. It is a strange thing to see how often there hovers a flitting shadow of jealousy between a mother and the daughter to whom the father unconsciously manifests a chivalrous tenderness akin to that which in his youth he had given only to the sweetheart he sought for wife. Unacknowledged, perhaps, even unmanifested save in occasional swift and unreasonable petulances, it is still there, making many a heartache, which is none the less bitter that it is inexplicable to itself, and dares not so much as confess its own existence.
“It’s a better thing for a woman to make her way i’ the world on the book-learnin’ than to be always at the wheel an’ the churn an’ the floors to be whitened,” replied Isabella, sharply. “An’ one year like another, till the year comes ye’re buried. I look for Bel to marry a minister, or maybe even better.”
“Ye’d a chance at a minister yersel’, then, my girl,” replied the wise John, “an’ ye did not take it.” At which memory the wife laughed, and the two loyal hearts were merry together for a moment, and young again.
Little Bel had, indeed, even before the Charlottetown schooling, had a far better chance than her mother; for in her mother’s day there was no free school in the island, and in families of ten and twelve it was only a turn and turn about that the children had at school. Since the free schools had been established many a grown man and woman had sighed curiously at the better luck of the youngsters under the new regime. No excuse now for the poorest man’s children not knowing how to read and write and more; and if they chose to keep on, nothing to hinder their dipping into studies of which their parents never heard so much as the names.
And this was not the only better chance which Little Bel had had. John McDonald’s farm joined the lands of the manse; his house was a short mile from the manse itself; and by a bit of good fortune for Little Bel it happened that just as she was growing into girlhood there came a new minister to the manse,–a young man from Halifax, with a young bride, the daughter of an officer in the Halifax garrison,–gentlefolks, both of them, but single-hearted and full of fervor in their work for the souls of the plain farming-people given into their charge. And both Mr. Allan and Mrs. Allan had caught sight of Little Bel’s face on their first Sunday in church, and Mrs. Allan had traced to her a flute-like voice she had detected in the Sunday-school singing; and before long, to Isabella’s great but unspoken pride, the child had been “bidden to the manse for the minister’s wife to hear her sing;” and from that day there was a new vista in Little Bel’s life.
Her voice was sweet as a lark’s and as pure, and her passionate love for music a gift in itself. “It would be a sin not to cultivate it,” said Mrs. Allan to her husband, “even if she never sees another piano than mine, nor has any other time in her life except these few years to enjoy it; she will always have had these, and nothing can separate her from her voice.”
And so it came to pass that when, at sixteen, Little Bel went to Charlottetown for her final two years of study at the High School, she played almost as well as Mrs. Allan herself, and sang far better. And in all Isabella McDonald’s day-dreams of the child’s future, vague or minute, there was one feature never left out. The “good husband” coming always was to be a man who could “give her a piano.”
In Charlottetown Bel found no such friend as Mrs. Allan; but she had a young school-mate who had a piano, and–poor short-sighted creature that she was, Bel thought–hated the sight of it, detested to practise, and shed many a tear over her lessons. This girl’s parents were thankful to see their daughter impressed by Bel’s enthusiasm for music; and so well did the clever girl play her cards that before she had been six months in the place, she was installed as music-teacher to her own schoolfellow, earning thereby not only money enough to buy the few clothes she needed, but, what to her was better than money, the privilege of the use of the piano an hour a day.
So when she went home, at the end of the two years, she had lost nothing,–in fact, had made substantial progress; and her old friend and teacher, Mrs. Allan, was as proud as she was astonished when she first heard her play and sing. Still more astonished was she at the forceful character the girl had developed. She went away a gentle, loving, clinging child; her nature, like her voice, belonging to the order of birds,–bright, flitting, merry, confiding. She returned a woman, still loving, still gentle in her manner, but with a new poise in her bearing, a resoluteness, a fire, of which her first girlhood had given no suggestion. It was strange to see how similar yet unlike were the comments made on her in the manse and in the farmhouse by the two couples most interested in her welfare.
“It is wonderful, Robert,” said Mrs. Allan to her husband, “how that girl has changed, and yet not changed. It is the music that has lifted her up so. What a glorious thing is a real passion for any art in a human soul! But she can never live here among these people. I must take her to Halifax.”
“No,” said Mr. Allan; “her work will be here. She belongs to her people in heart, all the same. She will not be discontented.”
“Husband, I’m doubtin’ if we’ve done the right thing by the child, after a’,” said the mother, tearfully, to the father, at the end of the first evening after Bel’s return. “She’s got the ways o’ the city on her, an’ she carries herself as if she’d be teachin’ the minister his own self. I doubt but she’ll feel herself strange i’ the house.”
“Never you fash yourself,” replied John. “The girl’s got her head, that’s a’; but her heart’s i’ the right place. Ye’ll see she’ll put her strength to whatever there’s to be done. She’ll be a master hand at teachin’, I’ll wager!”
“You always did think she was perfection,” replied the mother, in a crisp but not ill-natured tone, “an’ I’m not gainsayin’ that she’s not as near it as is often seen; but I’m main uneasy to see her carryin’ herself so positive.”
If John thought in his heart that Bel had come through direct heredity on the maternal side by this “carryin’ herself positive,” he knew better than to say so, and his only reply was a good-natured laugh, with: “You’ll see! I’m not afraid. She’s a good child, an’ always was.”
Bel passed her examination triumphantly, and got the Wissan Bridge school; but she got only a contingent promise of the five-pound supplement. It went sorely against her will to waive this point. Very keenly Mr. Allan, who was on the Examining Board, watched her face as she modestly yet firmly pressed it.
The trustees did not deny that the Wissan Bridge school was a difficult and unruly one; that to manage it well was worth more money than the ordinary school salaries. The question was whether this very young lady could manage it at all; and if she failed, as the last incumbent had,–failed egregiously, too; the school had broken up in riotous confusion before the end of the year,–the canny Scotchmen of the School Board did not wish to be pledged to pay that extra five pounds. The utmost Bel could extract from them was a promise that if at the end of the year her teaching had proved satisfactory, the five pounds should be paid. More they would not say; and after a short, sharp struggle with herself Bel accepted the terms; but she could not restrain a farewell shot at the trustees as she turned to go. “I’m as sure o’ my five pounds as if ye’d promised it downright, sirs. I shall keep ye a good school at Wissan Bridge.”
“We’ll make it guineas, then, Miss Bel,” cried Mr. Allan, enthusiastically, looking at his colleagues, who nodded their heads, and said, laughing, “Yes, guineas it is.”
“And guineas it will be,” retorted Little Bel, as with cheeks like peonies she left the room.
“Egad, but she’s a fine spirit o’ her ain, an’ as bonnie a face as I’ve seen since I remember,” cried old Mr. Dalgetty, the senior member of the Board, and the one hardest to please. “I’d not mind bein’ a pupil at Wissan Bridge school the comin’ term myself.” And he gave an old man’s privileged chuckle as he looked at his colleagues. “But she’s over-young for the work,–over-young.”
“She’ll do it,” said Mr. Allan, confidently. “Ye need have no fear. My wife’s had the training of the girl since she was little. She’s got the best o’ stuff in her. She’ll do it.”
Mr. Allan’s prediction was fulfilled. Bel did it. But she did it at the cost of harder work than even she had anticipated. If it had not been for her music she would never have pulled through with the boys of Wissan Bridge. By her music she tamed them. The young Marsyas himself never piped to a wilder set of creatures than the uncouth lads and young men that sat in wide-eyed, wide-mouthed astonishment listening to the first song their pretty young schoolmistress sang for them. To have singing exercises part of the regular school routine was a new thing at Wissan Bridge. It took like wild-fire; and when Little Bel, shrewd and diplomatic as a statesman, invited the two oldest and worst boys in the school to come Wednesday and Saturday afternoons to her boarding-place to practise singing with her to the accompaniment of the piano, so as to be able to help her lead the rest, her sovereignty was established. They were not conquered; they were converted,–a far surer and more lasting process. Neither of them would, from that day out, have been guilty of an act, word, or look to annoy her, any more than if they had been rival lovers suing for her hand. As Bel’s good luck would have it,–and Bel was born to good luck, there is no denying it,–one of these boys had a good tenor voice, the other a fine barytone; they had both in their rough way been singers all their lives, and were lovers of music.
“That was more than half the battle, my mother,” confessed Bel, when, at the end of the first term she was at home for a few days, and was recounting her experiences. “Except for the singin’ I’d never have got Archie McLeod under, nor Sandy Stairs either. I doubt they’d have been too many for me, but now they’re like two more teachers to the fore. I’d leave the school-room to them for a day, an’ not a lad’d dare stir in his seat without their leave. I call them my constables; an’ I’m teaching them a small bit of chemistry out o’ school hours, too, an’ that’s a hold on them. They’ll see me out safe; an’ I’m thinkin’ I’ll owe them a bit part o’ the five guineas when I get it,” she added reflectively.
“The minister says ye’re sure of it,” replied her mother. “He says ye’ve the best school a’ready in all his circuit. I don’t know how ever ye come to’t so quick, child.” And Isabella McDonald smiled wistfully, spite of all her pride in her clever bairn.
“Ye see, then, what he’ll say after the examination at New Year’s,” gleefully replied Bel, “if he thinks the school is so good now. It’ll be twice as good then; an’ such singin’ as was never heard before in any school-house on the island, I’ll warrant me. I’m to have the piano over for the day to the school-house. Archie and Sandy’ll move it in a big wagon, to save me payin’ for the cartin’; an’ I’m to pay a half-pound for the use of it if it’s not hurt,–a dear bargain, but she’d not let it go a shilling less. And, to be sure, there is the risk to be counted. An’ she knew I ‘d have it if it had been twice that. But I got it out of her that for that price she was to let me have all the school over twice a week, for two months before, to practise. So it’s not too dear. Ye’ll see what ye’ll hear then.”
It had been part of Little Bel’s good luck that she had succeeded in obtaining board in the only family in the village which had the distinction of owning a piano; and by paying a small sum extra, she had obtained the use of this piano for an hour each day,–the best investment of Little Bel’s life, as the sequel showed.
It was a bitter winter on Prince Edward Island. By New Year’s time the roads were many of them wellnigh impassable with snow. Fierce winds swept to and fro, obliterating tracks by noon which had been clear in the morning; and nobody went abroad if he could help it. New Year’s Day opened fiercest of all, with scurries of snow, lowering sky, and a wind that threatened to be a gale before night. But, for all that, the tying-posts behind the Wissan Bridge school-house were crowded full of steaming horses under buffalo-robes, which must stamp and paw and shiver, and endure the day as best they might, while the New Year’s examination went on. Everybody had come. The fame of the singing of the Wissan Bridge school had spread far and near, and it had been whispered about that there was to be a “piece” sung which was finer than anything ever sung in the Charlottetown churches.
The school-house was decorated with evergreens,–pine and spruce. The New Year’s Day having fallen on a Monday, Little Bel had had a clear working-day on the Saturday previous; and her faithful henchmen, Archie and Sandy, had been busy every evening for a week drawing the boughs on their sleds and piling them up in the yard. The teacher’s desk had been removed, and in its place stood the shining red mahogany piano,–a new and wonderful sight to many eyes there.
All was ready, the room crowded full, and the Board of Trustees not yet arrived. There sat their three big arm-chairs on the raised platform, empty,–a depressing and perplexing sight to Little Bel, who, in her short blue merino gown, with a knot of pink ribbon at her throat, and a roll of white paper (her schedule of exercises) in her hand, stood on the left hand of the piano, her eyes fixed expectantly on the doors. The minutes lengthened out into quarter of an hour, half an hour. Anxiously Bel consulted with her father what should be done.
“The roads are something fearfu’, child,” he replied; “we must make big allowance for that. They’re sure to be comin’, at least some one o’ them. It was never known that they failed on the New Year’s examination, an’ it would seem a sore disrespect to begin without them here.”
Before he had finished speaking there was heard a merry jingling of bells outside, dozens and dozens it seemed, and hilarious voices and laughter, and the snorting of overdriven horses, and the stamping of feet, and more voices and more laughter. Everybody looked in his neighbor’s face. What sounds were these? Who ever heard a sober School Board arrive in such fashion as this? But it was the School Board,–nothing less: a good deal more, however. Little Bel’s heart sank within her as she saw the foremost figure entering the room. What evil destiny had brought Sandy Bruce in the character of school visitor that day?–Sandy Bruce, retired school-teacher himself, superintendent of the hospital in Charlottetown, road-master, ship-owner, exciseman,–Sandy Bruce, whose sharp and unexpected questions had been known to floor the best of scholars and upset the plans of the best of teachers. Yes, here he was,–Sandy Bruce himself; and it was his fierce little Norwegian ponies, with their silver bells and fur collars, the admiration of all Charlottetown, that had made such a clatter and stamping outside, and were still keeping it up; for every time they stirred the bells tinkled like a peal of chimes. And, woe upon woe, behind him came, not Bel’s friend and pastor, Mr. Allan, but the crusty old Dalgetty, whose doing it had been a year before, as Bel very well knew, that the five-pound supplement had been only conditionally promised.
Conflicting emotions turned Bel’s face scarlet as she advanced to meet them; the most casual observer could not have failed to see that dismay predominated, and Sandy Bruce was no casual observer; nothing escaped his keen glance and keener intuition, and it was almost with a wicked twinkle in his little hazel eyes that he said, still shaking off the snow, stamping and puffing: “Eh, but ye were not lookin’ for me, teacher! The minister was sent for to go to old Elspie Breadalbane, who’s dyin’ the morn; and I happened by as he was startin’, an’ he made me promise to come i’ his place; an’ I picked up my friend Dalgetty here a few miles back, wi’ his horse flounderin’ i’ the drifts. Except for me ye’d ha’ had no board at all here to-day; so I hope ye’ll give me no bad welcome.”
As he spoke he was studying her face, where the color came and went like waves; not a thought in the girl’s heart he did not read. “Poor little lassie!” he was thinking to himself. “She’s shaking in her shoes with fear o’ me. I’ll not put her out. She’s a dainty blossom of a girl. What’s kept her from being trodden down by these Wissan Bridge racketers, I’d like to know.”
But when he seated himself on the platform, and took his first look at the rows of pupils in the centre of the room, he was near starting with amazement. The Wissan Bridge “racketers,” as he had mentally called them, were not to be seen. Very well he knew many of them by sight; for his shipping business called him often to Wissan Bridge, and this was not the first time he had been inside the school-house, which had been so long the dread and terror of school boards and teachers alike. A puzzled frown gathered between Sandy Bruce’s eyebrows as he gazed.
“What has happened to the youngsters, then? Have they all been convarted i’ this twelvemonth?” he was thinking. And the flitting perplexed thought did not escape the observation of John McDonald, who was as quick a reader of faces as Sandy himself, and had been by no means free from anxiety for his little Bel when he saw the redoubtable visage of the exciseman appear in the doorway.
“He’s takin’ it in quick the way the bairn’s got them a’ in hand,” thought John. “If only she can hold hersel’ cool now!”
No danger. Bel was not the one to lose a battle by appearing to quail in the outset, however clearly she might see herself outnumbered. And sympathetic and eager glances from her constables, Archie and Sandy, told her that they were all ready for the fray. These glances Sandy Bruce chanced to intercept, and they heightened his bewilderment. To Archie McLeod he was by no means a stranger, having had occasion more than once to deal with him, boy as he was, for complications with riotous misdoings. He had happened to know, also, that it was Archie McLeod who had been head and front of the last year’s revolt in the school,–the one boy that no teacher hitherto had been able to control. And here stood Archie McLeod, rising in his place, leader of the form,