Produced by Juliet Sutherland, David Widger and PG Distributed Proofreaders
HETTY’S STRANGE HISTORY.
BY THE AUTHOR OF “MERCY PHILBRICK’S CHOICE.”
“IS THE GENTLEMAN ANONYMOUS? IS HE A GREAT UNKNOWN?” Daniel Deronda.
_What lover best his love doth prove and show? The one whose words are swiftest, love to state? The one who measures out his love by weight In costly gifts which all men see and know? Nay! words are cheap and easy: they may go For what men think them worth: or soon or late, They are but air. And gifts? Still cheaper rate Are they at which men barter to and fro Where love is not!_
_One thing remains. Oh, Love,
Thou hast so seldom seen it on the earth, No name for it has ever sprung to birth; To give one’s own life up one’s love to prove, Not in the martyr’s death, but in the dearth Of daily life’s most wearing daily groove_.
_And unto him who this great thing hath done, What does Great Love return? No speedy joy! That swift delight which beareth large alloy Is guerdon Love bestowed on him who won A lesser trust: the happiness begun
In happiness, of happiness may cloy, And, its own subtle foe, itself destroy. But steadfast, tireless, quenchless as the sun Doth grow that gladness which hath root in pain. Earth’s common griefs assail this soul in vain. Great Love himself, too poor to pay such debt, Doth borrow God’s great peace which passeth yet All understanding. Full tenfold again
Is found the life, laid down without regret!_
HETTY’S STRANGE HISTORY
When Squire Gunn and his wife died, within three months of each other, and Hetty their only child was left alone in the big farm-house, everybody said, “Well, now Hetty Gunn’ll have to make up her mind to marry somebody.” And it certainly looked as if she must. What could be lonelier than the position of a woman thirty-five years of age sole possessor of a great stone house, half a dozen barns and out-buildings, herds of cattle, and a farm of five hundred acres? The place was known as “Gunn’s,” far and wide. It had been a rich and prosperous farm ever since the days of the first Squire Gunn, Hetty’s grandfather. He was one of Massachusetts’ earliest militia-men, and had a leg shot off at Lexington. To the old man’s dying day he used to grow red in the face whenever he told the story, and bring his fist down hard on the table, with “damn the leg, sir! ‘Twasn’t the leg I cared for: ’twas the not having another chance at those damned British rascals;” and the wooden leg itself would twitch and rap on the floor in his impatient indignation. One of Hetty’s earliest recollections was of being led about the farm by this warm-hearted, irascible, old grandfather, whose wooden leg was a perpetual and unfathomable mystery to her. Where the flesh leg left off and the wooden leg began, and if, when the wooden leg stumped so loud and hard on the floor, it did not hurt the flesh leg at the other end, puzzled little Hetty’s head for many a long hour. Her grandfather’s frequent and comic references to the honest old wooden pin did not diminish her perplexities. He was something of a wag, the old Squire; and nothing came handier to him, in the way of a joke, than a joke at his own expense. When he was eighty years old, he had a stroke of paralysis: he lived six years after that; but he could not walk about the farm any longer. He used to sit in a big cane-bottomed chair close to the fireplace, in winter, and under a big lilac-bush, at the north-east corner of the house, in summer. He kept a stout iron-tipped cane by his side: in the winter, he used it to poke the fire with; in the summer, to rap the hens and chickens which he used to lure round his chair by handfuls of corn and oats. Sometimes he would tap the end of the wooden leg with this cane, and say, laughingly, “Ha! ha! think of a leg like that’s being paralyzed, if you please. Isn’t that a joke? It ‘s just as paralyzed as the other: damn those British rascals.” And only a few hours before he died, he said to his son: “Look here, Abe, you put on my grave-stone,–‘Here lies Abraham Gunn, all but one leg.’ What do you suppose one-legged men’re going to do in the resurrection, hey, Abe? I’ll ask the parson if he comes in this afternoon,” he added. But, when the parson came, the brave, merry eyes were shut for ever, and the old hero had gone to a new world, on which he no doubt entered as resolutely and cheerily as he had gone through nearly a century of this. These glimpses of the old Squire’s characteristics are not out of place here, although he himself has no place in our story, having been dead and buried for more than twenty years before the story begins. But he lived again in his granddaughter Hetty. How much of her off-hand, comic, sturdy, resolute, disinterested nature came to her by direct inheritance from his blood, and how much was absorbed as she might have absorbed it from any one she loved and associated with, it is impossible to tell. But by one process or the other, or by both, Hetty Gunn was, as all the country people round about said, “Just the old Squire over again,” and if they sometimes added, as it must be owned they did, “It’s a thousand pities she wasn’t a boy,” there was, in this reflection on the Creator, no reflection on Hetty’s womanliness: it was rather on the accepted theory and sphere of woman’s activities and manifestations. Nobody in this world could have a tenderer heart than Hetty: this also she had inherited or learned from her grandfather. Many a day the two had spent together in nursing a sick or maimed chicken, or a half-frozen lamb, even a woodchuck that had got its leg broken in a trap was not an outcast to them; and as for beggars and tramps, not one passed “Gunn’s,” from June till October, that was not hailed by the old squire from under his lilac-bush, and fed by Hetty. Plenty of sarcastic and wholesome advice the old gentleman gave them, while they sat on the ground eating; and every word of it sank into Hetty’s wide-open ears and sensible soul, developing in her a very rare sort of thing which, for want of a better name, we might call common-sense sympathy. To this sturdy common-sense barrier against the sentimental side of sympathy with other people’s sufferings, Hetty added an equally sturdy, and she would have said common-sense, fortitude in bearing her own. This invaluable trait she owed largely to her grandfather’s wooden leg. Before she could speak plain, she had already made his cheerful way of bearing the discomfort and annoyance of that queer leg her own standard of patience and equanimity. Nothing that ever happened to her, no pain, no deprivation, seemed half so dreadful as a wooden leg. She used to stretch out her own fat, chubby, little legs, and look from them to her grandfather’s. Then she would timidly touch the wooden tip which rested on the floor, and look up in her grandfather’s face, and say, “Poor Grandpa!”
“Pshaw! pshaw! child,” he would reply, “that’s nothing. It does almost as well to walk on, and that’s all legs are for. I’d have had forty legs shot off rather than not have helped drive out those damned British rascals.”
Not even for sake of Hetty’s young ears could the old Squire mention the British rascals without his favorite expletive. Here, also, came in another lesson which sank deep into Hetty’s heart. It was for his country that her grandfather had lost that leg, and would have gladly lost forty, if he had had so many to lose, not for himself; for something which he loved better than himself: this was distinct in Hetty Gunn’s comprehension before she was twelve years old, and it was a most important force in the growth of her nature. No one can estimate the results on a character of these slow absorptions, these unconscious biases, from daily contact. All precepts, all religions, are insignificant agencies by their side. They are like sun and soil to a plant: they make a moral climate in which certain things are sure to grow, and certain other things are sure to die; as sure as it is that orchids and pineapples thrive in the tropics, and would die in New England.
When old Squire Gunn was buried, all the villages within twenty miles turned out to his funeral. He was the last revolutionary hero of the county. An oration was delivered in the meeting-house; and the brass band of Welbury played “My country, ’tis of thee,” all the way from the meeting-house to the graveyard gate. After the grave was filled up, guns were fired above it, and the Welbury village choir sang an anthem. The crowd, the music, the firing of guns, produced an ineffaceable impression upon Hetty’s mind. While her grandfather’s body lay in the house, she had wept inconsolably. But as soon as the funeral services began, her tears stopped; her eyes grew large and bright with excitement; she held her head erect; a noble exaltation and pride shone on her features; she gazed upon the faces of the people with a composure and dignity which were unchildlike. No emperor’s daughter in Rome could have borne herself, at the burial of her most illustrious ancestor, more grandly and yet more modestly than did little Hetty Gunn, aged twelve, at the burial of this unfamed Massachusetts revolutionary soldier: and well she might; for a greater than royal inheritance had come to her from him. The echoes of the farewell shots which were fired over the old man’s grave were never to die out of Hetty’s ears. Child, girl, woman, she was to hear them always: signal guns of her life, they meant courage, cheerfulness, self-sacrifice.
Of Hetty’s father, the “young Squire,” as to the day of his death he was called by the older people in Welbury, and of Hetty’s mother, his wife, it is not needful to say much here. The young Squire was a lazy, affectionate man to whom the good things of life had come without his taking any trouble for them: even his wife had been more than half wooed for him by his doting father; and there were those who said that pretty Mrs. Gunn had been quite as much in love with the old Squire, old as he was, as with the young one; but that was only an idle village sneer. The young Squire and his wife loved each other devotedly, and their only child, Hetty, with an unreasoning and unreasonable affection which would have been the ruin of her, if she had been any thing else but what she was, “the old Squire over again.” As it was, the only effect of this overweening affection, on their part, was to produce a slow reversal of some of the ordinary relations between parents and children. As Hetty grew into womanhood, she grew more and more to have a sense of responsibility for her father’s and mother’s happiness. She was the most filially docile of creatures, and obeyed like a baby, grown woman as she was. It was strange to hear and to see.
“Hetty, bring me my overcoat,” her father would say to her in her thirty-fifth year, exactly as he would have said it in her twelfth; and she would spring with the same alacrity and the same look of pleasure at being of use. But there was a filial service which she rendered to her parents much deeper than these surface obediences and attentions. They were but dimly conscious of it; and yet, had it been taken away from them, they had found their lives blighted indeed. She was the link between them and the outside world. She brought merriment, cheer, hearty friendliness into the house. She was the good comrade of every young woman and every young man in Welbury; and she compelled them all to bring a certain half-filial affection and attention to her father and mother. The best tribute to what she had accomplished in this direction was in the fact, that you always heard the young people mention Squire Gunn and his wife as “Hetty Gunn’s father” or “Hetty Gunn’s mother;” and the two old people were seen at many a gathering where there was not a single old face but theirs.
“Hetty won’t go without her father and mother,” or “Hetty’ll be so pleased if we ask her father and mother,” was frequently heard. From this free and unembarrassed association of the old and the young, grew many excellent things. In this wholesome atmosphere honesty and good behavior thrived; but there was little chance for the development of those secret sentimental preferences and susceptibilities out of which spring love-making and thoughts of marriage.
There probably was not a marriageable young man in Welbury who had not at one time or another thought to himself, what a good thing it would be to marry Hetty Gunn. Hetty was pretty, sensible, affectionate, and rich. Such girls as that were not to be found every day. A man might look far and long before he could find such a wife as Hetty would make. But nothing seemed to be farther from Hetty’s thoughts than making a wife of herself for anybody. And the world may say what it pleases about its being the exclusive province of men to woo: very few men do woo a woman who does not show herself ready to be wooed. It is a rare beauty or a rare spell of some sort which can draw a man past the barrier of a woman’s honest, unaffected, and persistent unconsciousness of any thoughts of love or matrimony. So between Hetty’s unconsciousness and her perpetual comradeship with her father and mother, the years went on, and on, and no man asked Hetty to marry him. The odd thing about it was that every man felt sure that he was the only man who had not asked her; and a general impression had grown up in the town that Hetty Gunn had refused nearly everybody. She was so evidently a favorite; “Gunn’s” was so much the headquarters for all the young people; it was so open to everybody’s observation how much all men admired and liked Hetty,–she was never seen anywhere without one or two or three at her service: it was the most natural thing in the world for people to think as they did. Yet not a human being ever accused Hetty of flirting; her manner was always as open, friendly, and cordial as an honest boy’s, and with no more trace of self-seeking or self-consciousness about it. She was as full of fun and mischief, too, as any boy could be. She had slid down hill with the wildest of them, till even her father said sternly,–
“Hetty,–you’re too big. It’s a shameful sight to see a girl of your size, out on a sled with boys.” And Hetty hung her head, and said pathetically,–
“I wish I hadn’t grown. I’d rather be a dwarf, than not slide down hill.”
But after the sliding was forbidden, there remained the chestnuttings in the autumn, and the trout fishings in the summer, and the Mayflower parties in the spring, and colts and horses and dogs. Until Hetty was twenty-two years old, you might have been quite sure that, whenever you found her in any out-door party, the masculine element was largely predominant in that party. After this time, however, life gradually sobered for Hetty: one by one her friends married; the maidens became matrons, the young men became heads of houses. In wedding after wedding, Hetty Gunn was the prettiest of the bridesmaids, and people whispered as they watched her merry, kindly face,–
“Ain’t it the queerest thing in life, Hetty Gunn won’t marry. There isn’t a fellow in town she mightn’t have.”
If anybody had said this to Hetty herself, she would probably have laughed, and said with entire frankness,–
“You’re quite mistaken. They don’t want me,” which would only have strengthened her hearers’ previous impressions that they did.
In process of time, after the weddings came the christenings, and at these also Hetty Gunn was still the favorite friend, the desired guest. Presently, there came to be so many little Hetty Gunns in the village, that no young mother had courage to use the name more, however much she loved Hetty. Hetty used to say laughingly that it was well she was an only child, for she had now more nieces and nephews than she knew what to do with. Very dearly she loved them all; and the little things all loved her, the instant she put her arms round them: and more than one young husband, without meaning to be in the least disloyal to his wife, thought to himself, when he saw his baby’s face nestling down to Hetty Gunn’s brown curls,–
“I wonder if she’d have had me, if I’d asked her. But I don’t believe Hetty’ll ever marry,–a girl that’s had the offers she has.”
And so it had come to pass that, at the time our story begins, Hetty was thirty-five years old, and singularly alone in the world. The death of her mother, which had occurred first, was a great shock to her, for it had been a sudden and a painful death. But the loss of her mother was to Hetty a trivial one, in comparison with the loss of her father. On the day of her grandfather’s death, she had seemed, child as she was, to have received her father into her hands, as a sacred legacy of trust; and he, on his part, seemed fully to reciprocate and accept without comprehending the new relation. He unconsciously leaned upon Hetty more and more from that hour until the hour when he died, bolstered up in bed with his head on her shoulder, and gasping out, between difficult breaths, his words of farewell,–strange farewell to be spoken to a middle-aged woman, whose hair was already streaked with gray,–
“Poor little girl! I’ve got to leave you. You’ve been a good little girl, Hetty, a good little girl.”
Neighbors and friends crowded around Hetty, in the first moments of her grief. But they all, even those nearest and most intimate, found themselves bewildered and baffled, nay almost repelled, by Hetty’s manner. Her noble face was so grief-stricken that she looked years older in a single day. But her voice and her smile were unaltered; and she would not listen to any words of sympathy. She wished to hear no allusions to her trouble, except such as were needfully made in the arranging of practical points. Her eyes filled with tears frequently, but no one saw a tear fall. At the funeral, her face wore much the same look it had worn, twenty-three years before, at her grandfather’s funeral. There were some present who remembered that day well, and remembered the look, and they said musingly,–
“There ‘s something very queer about Hetty Gunn, after all. Don’t you remember how she acted, when she was a little thing, the day old Squire Gunn was buried? Anybody’d have thought then a funeral was Fourth of July, and she looks much the same way now.”
Then they fell to discussing the probabilities of her future course. It was not easy to predict.
“The Squire’s left every thing to her, just as if she was a man. She can sell the property right off, if she wants to, and go and live where she likes,” they said.
“Well, you may set your minds to rest on that,” said old Deacon Little, who had been the young squire’s most intimate friend, and who knew Hetty as well as if she were his own child, and loved her better; for his own children, poor man, had nearly brought his gray hairs down to the grave with distress and shame.
“Hetty Gunn’ll never sell that farm, not a stick nor a stone on’t, any more than the old Squire himself would. You’ll see, she’ll keep it a goin’, jest the same’s ever. It’s a thousand pities, she warn’t born a boy.”
The funeral took place late in the afternoon of a warm April day. The roads were very muddy, and the long procession wound back to the village about as slowly as it had gone out. One by one, wagon after wagon fell out of the line, and turned off to the right or left, until there were left only the Gunns’ big carryall, in which sat Hetty, with her two house-servants,–an old black man and his wife, who had been in her father’s house so long, that their original patronymic had fallen entirely out of use, and they were known as “Caesar Gunn” and “Nan Gunn” the town over. Behind this followed their farm wagon, in which sat the farmer and his wife with their babies, and the two farm laborers,–all Irish, and all crying audibly after the fashion of their race. As they turned into the long avenue of pines which led up to the house, their grief broke out louder and louder; and, when the wagon stopped in front of the western piazza, their sobs and cries became howls and shrieks. Hetty, who was just entering the front-door, turned suddenly, and walking swiftly toward them, said, in a clear firm tone,–
“Look here! Mike, Dan, Norah, I’m ashamed of you. Don’t you see you’re frightening the poor little children? Be quiet. The one who loved my father most will be the first one to go about his work as if nothing had happened. Mike, saddle the pony for me at six. I am going to ride over to Deacon Little’s.”
The men were too astonished to reply, but gazed at her dumbly. Mike muttered sullenly, as he drove on,–
“An’ it’s a quare way to be showin’ our love, I’m thinkin’.”
“An’ it’s Miss Hetty’s own way thin, by Jasus!” answered Dan; “an’ I’d jist loike to see the man ‘ud say, she didn’t fairly worship the very futsteps of ‘im.”
When Deacon Little heard Hetty Gunn’s voice at his door that night, the old man sprang to his feet as he had not sprung for twenty years.
“Bless my soul!” he exclaimed, “what can have brought Hetty Gunn here to-night?” and he met her in the hall with outstretched hands.
“Hetty, my dear, what is it?” he exclaimed, in a tone of anxiety. “Oh!” said Hetty, earnestly. “I have frightened you, haven’t I? was it wrong for me to come to-night? There are so many things I want to talk over with you. I want to get settled; and all the work on the farm is belated: and I can’t have the place run behindhand; that would worry father so.”
The tears stood in her eyes, but she spoke in as matter-of-course a tone as if she had simply come as her father’s messenger to ask advice. The old deacon pushed his spectacles high upon his forehead, and, throwing his head back, looked at Hetty a moment, scrutinizingly, in silence. Then, he said, half to himself, half to her,–
“You’re your grandfather all over, Hetty. Now let me know what I can help you about. You can always come to me, as long as I ‘m alive, Hetty. You know that.”
“Yes,” said Hetty, walking back and forth in the little room, rapidly. “You are the only person I shall ever ask any thing of in that way.”
“Sit down, Hetty, sit down,” said the old man. “You must be all worn out.”
“Oh, no! I ‘m not tired: I was never tired in my life,” replied Hetty. “Let me walk: it does me good to walk; I walked nearly all last night; it seems to be something to do. You see, Mr. Little,” she said,–pausing suddenly, and folding her arms on her breast, as she looked at him,– “I don’t quite see my way clear yet; and one must see one’s way clear before one can be quiet. It’s horrible to grope.”
“Yes, yes, child,” said the deacon, hesitatingly. He did not understand metaphor. “You are not thinking of going away, are you, Hetty?”
“Going away!” exclaimed Hetty. “Why, what do you mean? How could I go away? Besides, I wouldn’t go for any thing in the world. What should I go away for?”
“Well, I’m real glad to hear you say so, Hetty,” replied the deacon warmly; “some folks have said, you’d most likely sell the farm, and go away.”
“What fools! I’d as soon sell myself,” said Hetty, curtly. “But I can’t live there all alone. And one thing I wanted to ask you about tonight was, whether you thought it would do for your James and his wife to come and live there with me: I would give him a good salary as a sort of overseer. Of course, I should expect to control every thing; and that’s not much more than I have done for three or four years: but the men will do better with a man to give them their orders, than they will with me alone. I could do this better with Jim than I could with a stranger. I’ve always liked Jim.”
Deacon Little did not reply. His eyes were fixed on the ground, and his face flushed with agitation. At last he said huskily,–
“Would you really take Jim and Sally home to your house, to live with you, Hetty?”
“Why, certainly,” replied Hetty, in an impatient tone, “that’s what I said: didn’t I make it plain?” and she walked faster and faster back and forth.
“Hetty, you’re an angel,” exclaimed the old man, solemnly. “If there’s any thing that could make him hold up his head again, it would be just that thing. But–” he hesitated, “you know Sally?”
“Yes, yes, I know her. I know all about her. She’s a poor, weak thing,” said Hetty, with no shade of tenderness in her voice; “but Jim was the most to blame, and it’s abominable the way people have treated her. I always wished I could do something for them both, and now I’ve got the chance: that is if you think they’d like to come.”
The deacon hesitated again, began to speak, broke off, hesitated, tried again, and at last stammered:–“Don’t think I don’t feel your kindness, Hetty; but, low’s Jim’s fallen, I don’t quite feel like having them go into anybody’s kitchen, especially with black help.”
“Kitchen!” interrupted Hetty. “What do you take me for, Deacon Little? If Jim comes to live with me as my overseer, he is just the same as my partner in the place, so far as his position goes. How do you suppose I thought that the men would respect him, and take orders from him, if I meant to put him in the kitchen with Caesar and Nan? No indeed, they shall live with me as if they were my brother and sister. There are plenty of rooms in the house for them to have their own sitting-room, and be by themselves as much as they like. Kitchen indeed! I think you’ve forgotten that Jim and I were schoolmates from the time we were six till we were twenty. I always liked Jim, and he hasn’t had half a chance yet: that miserable affair pulled him down when he was so young.”
“That’s so, Hetty; that’s so,” said the deacon, with tears rolling down his wrinkled cheeks. “Jim wasn’t a bad boy. He never meant to harm anybody, and he hasn’t had any chance at all since that happened. It seems as if it took all the spirit right out of him; and Sally, she hasn’t got any spirit either: she’s been nothin’ but a millstone round his neck. It’s a mercy the baby died: that’s one thing.”
“I don’t think so at all, Mr. Little,” said Hetty, vehemently. “I think if the baby had lived, it would have strengthened them both. It would have made Sally much happier, at any rate. She is a motherly little thing.”
“Yes,” said the old man, reluctantly. “Sally’s affectionate; I won’t deny that: but”–and an expression of exceeding bitterness passed over his face–“I wish to the Lord I needn’t ever lay my eyes on her face again! I can’t feel right towards her, and I don’t suppose I ever shall.”
“I wouldn’t wonder if the time came when she was a real comfort to you, Mr. Little,” said Hetty, cheerily. “You get them to come and live with me and see what that’ll do. I can afford to give Jim more than he can make at surveying. I have a notion he’s a better farmer than he is engineer, isn’t he?”
“Yes, there’s nothing Jim don’t know about a farm. I always did hope he’d settle down here at home with us. But we couldn’t have Sally in the house: it would have killed Mrs. Little. It gives her a day’s nervous headache now, long ago ‘s ’tis, whenever she sees her on the street.”
“Well, well,” said Hetty, impatiently, “she won’t give anybody nervous headaches in my house, poor little soul, that’s certain; and the sooner they can come the better I shall like it. So you will arrange it all for me at once, won’t you?”
Then Hetty went on to speak of some matters in regard to the farm about which she was in doubt,–as to certain fields, and crops, and what should be done with the young stock from last year. Presently the old clock in the hall struck nine, and the village bells began to ring.
Hetty sprang to her feet.
“Dear me!” she exclaimed, “I had no idea it was so late. I only meant to stay an hour. Nan will be frightened about me.” And she was out of the house and on her pony’s back almost before Deacon Little could say,–
“But, Hetty, ain’t you afraid to go home by yourself. I can go with you ‘s well ‘s not.”
“Bless me, no!” said Hetty. “I always ride alone. Polly knows the road as well as I do;” and she cantered off, saying cheerily, “Goodnight, deacon, I can’t tell you how much I’m obliged to you. Please see Jim ‘s early ‘s you can to-morrow: I want to get settled and begin work.”
When Hetty reached home, the house was silent and dark: only one feeble light glimmered in the hall. As she threw open the door, old Caesar and Nan rushed forward together from the kitchen, exclaiming, half sobbing,–
“Oh, Miss Hetty! Miss Hetty! we made sure you was killed.”
“Nonsense, Nan!” said Hetty, goodnaturedly: “what put such an idea into your head? Haven’t I ridden Polly many a darker night than this?”
“Yes’m,” sobbed Nan; “but to-night’s different. All our luck’s gone: ‘When the master’s dead, the house is shook,’ they say where I was raised. Oh, Miss Hetty! it’s lonesome’s death in the kitchen.”
Hetty threw open the door into the sitting-room. “Put on a stick of wood, Nan, and make the fire blaze up,” she said.
While Nan was doing this, Hetty lighted the lamps, drew down the curtains, and gave the room its ordinary evening look. Then she said,–
“Now, Nan, sit down: I want to talk with you,” and Hetty herself sat down in her father’s chair on the right hand of the fireplace.
“Oh, Miss Hetty!” cried Nan, “don’t you go set in that chair: you’ll die before the year ‘s out if you do. Oh please, Miss Hetty! get right up;” and the poor old woman took forcible hold of her young mistress’s arms, and tried to lift her from the chair.
“To please you, I will sit in another chair now, Nan, because I want you to be quiet and listen to me. But that will be my chair to sit in always, just as it used to be my father’s; and I shall not die before the year ‘s out, Nan, nor I hope for a great many years to come yet,” said Hetty.
“Oh, no! please the Lord, Miss Hetty,” sobbed Nan: “who’d take care of Caesar an’ me ef you was to die.”
“But I expect you and Caesar to take care of me, Nan,” replied Hetty, smiling, “and I want to have a good talk with you now, and make you understand about our life here. You want to please me, don’t you, Nan?”
“Oh, yes! Miss Hetty. You knows I do, and so does Caesar. We wouldn’t have no other missus, not in all these Norf States: we’d sooner go back down where we was raised.” Hetty smiled involuntarily at this violent comparison, knowing well that both Caesar and Nan would have died sooner than go back to the land where they were “raised.” But she went on,–
“Very well. You never need have any other mistress as long as I live: and when I die you and Caesar will have money enough to make you comfortable, and a nice little house. Now the first thing I want you to understand is that we are going to live on here in this house, exactly as we did when my father was here. I shall carry on the farm exactly as he would if he were alive; that is, as nearly as I can. Now you will make it very hard for me, if you cry and are lonesome, and say such things as you said to-night. If you want to please me, you will go right on with your work cheerfully, and behave just as if your master were sitting there in his chair all the time. That is what will please him best, too, if he is looking on, as I don’t doubt he very often will be.”
“But is you goin’ to be here all alone, Miss Hetty? yer don’t know what yer a layin’ out for, yer don’t,” interrupted Nan.
“No,” replied Hetty: “Mr. James Little and his wife are coming here to stay. He will be overseer of the farm.”
“What! Her that was Sally Newhall?” exclaimed Nan, in a sharp tone.
“Yes, that was Mrs. Little’s name before she was married,” replied Hetty, looking Nan full in the face with a steady expression, intended to restrain any farther remarks on the subject of Mrs. Little. But Nan was not to be restrained.
“Before she was married! Yes’m! an’ a good deal too late ’twas she was married too. ‘Deed, Miss Hetty, yer ain’t never going to take her in to live with you, be yer?” she muttered.
“Yes, I am, Nan,” Hetty said firmly; “and you must never let such a word as that pass your lips again. You will displease me very much if you do not treat Mrs. Little respectfully.”
“But, Miss Hetty,” persisted Nan. “Yer don’t know”–
“Yes, I do, Nan: I know it all. But I pity them both very much. We have all done wrong in one way or another; and it is the Lord’s business to punish people, not ours. You ‘ve often told me, Nan, about that pretty little girl of yours and Caesar’s that died when I was a baby. Supposing she had lived to be a woman, and some one had led her to do just as wrong as poor Sally Little did, wouldn’t you have thought it very hard if the whole world had turned against her, and never given her a fair chance again to show that she was sorry and meant to live a good life?”
Nan was softened.
“‘Deed would I, Miss Hetty. But that don’t make me feel like seein’ that gal a settin’ down to table with you, Miss Hetty, now I tell yer! Caesar nor me couldn’t stand that nohow!”
“Yes you can, Nan; and you will, when you know that it would make me very unhappy to have you be unkind to her,” answered Hetty, firmly. “She and her husband both, have done all in their power to atone for their wrong; and nobody has ever said a word against Mrs. Little since her marriage; and one thing I want distinctly understood, Nan, by every one on this place,–any disrespectful word or look towards Mr. or Mrs. Little will be just the same as if it were towards me myself.”
Nan was silenced, but her face wore an obstinate expression which gave Hetty some misgivings as to the success of her experiment. However, she knew that Nan could be trusted to repeat to the other servants all that she had said, and that it would lose nothing in the recital; and, as for the future, one of Hetty’s first principles of action was an old proverb which her grandfather had explained to her when she was a little girl,–
“Don’t cross bridges till you come to them.”
The gratitude with which James Little’s wife received Hetty’s proposition was so great that it softened even her father-in-law’s heart.
“I do believe, Hetty,” he said, when he gave her their answer, “I do believe that poor girl has suffered more ‘n we’ve given her credit for. When I explained to her that you was goin’ to take her right in to be like one o’ your own family, she turned as white as a sheet, and says she,–
“‘You don’t mean it, father: she won’t ever dare to:’ and when I said, says I,–
“‘Yes, she does: Hetty Gunn ain’t a girl not to know what she means to do. And that’s just what she says she’s goin’ to do with you and Jim,’ she broke right out crying, out loud, just like a little baby, and says she,–
“‘If the Lord don’t bless Hetty Gunn for bein’ so good to us! she sha’n’t ever be sorry for it’s long’s she lives.'”
“Of course I sha’n’t,” said Hetty, bluntly. “I never was sorry yet for any thing I did which was right, and I am as sure this is right as I am that I am alive. When will they come?”
“Sarah said she would come right over to-day, if you’d like to have her help you; and Jim he could fix up things at home, and shut the house up. Jim said they’d better not let the house till you had tried how it worked havin’ ’em here. Jim don’t seem very sanguine about it. Poor fellow, he’s got the spirit all taken out of him.”
“Well, well, we’ll put it back again, see if we don’t, before the year is out,” replied Hetty, with a beaming smile, which made her face beautiful.
It happened fortunately that poor Sarah Little first came to her new home alone, rather than with her husband. The years of solitude and disgrace through which they had lived, had made him dogged and defiant of manner, but had made her humble and quiet. She still kept a good deal of the beauty of her youth; and there were few persons who could be unmoved by the upward glance of her saddened blue eyes. In less than five minutes, she conquered old Nan, and secured her as an ally for ever. As she entered the house, Hetty met her, and saying cordially,–
“I’m glad to see you, Sally. It was so good of you to come right over at once; we have a great deal to do,”–she kissed her on her forehead.
Sarah burst into tears. Nan stood by with a sullen face. Turning towards her involuntarily, perhaps because she hardly dared to speak to Hetty, Sarah said,–
“Oh, Nan, I’m only crying because she is so kind to me. I can’t help it;” and the poor thing sank into a chair and sobbed. No wonder! it was six years since she had returned to her native village, a shame-stricken woman, bearing in her arms the child whose birth had been her disgrace. That its father was now her husband did little or nothing to repair the loss which her weakness and wrong-doing had entailed on her. If there be a pitiless community in this world, it is a small New England village. Calvinism, in its sternest aspects, broods over it; narrowness and monotony make rigid the hearts which theology has chilled; and a grim Pharisaism, born of a certain sort of intellectual keen-wittedness, completes the cruel inhumanity. It was six years since poor Sarah Little, baby in arms, had come into such an air as this,–six years, and until this moment, when Hetty Gunn kissed her forehead and spoke to her with affection, no woman had ever said to her a kindly word. When the baby died, not a neighbor came to its funeral. The minister, the weeping father and mother, and the stern-looking grandfather, alone followed the little unwelcomed one to its grave. After that, Sarah rarely went out of her house except at night. The tradesmen with whom she had to deal came slowly to have a pitying respect for her. The minister went occasionally to see her, and in his clumsy way thought he perceived what he called “the right spirit” in her. Sarah dreaded his calls more than any thing else. What made her isolation much harder to bear was the fact that, only two years before, every young girl in the county had been her friend. There was no such milliner in all that region as Sarah Newhall. In autumn and in spring, her little shop at Lonway Four Corners was crowded with chattering and eager girls, choosing ribbons and hats, and all deferring to her taste. Now they all passed her by with only a cold and silent bow. Not one spoke. To Sarah’s affectionate, mirth-loving temperament, this was misery greater than could be expressed. She said not a word about it, not even to her husband: she bore it as dumb animals bear pain, seeking only a shelter, a hiding-place; but she wished herself dead. Jim’s share of the punishment had been in some ways lighter than hers, in others harder. He had less loneliness; but, on the other hand, by his constant intercourse with men, he was frequently reminded of the barrier which separated himself and his wife from all that went on in the village. He had the same mirthful, social temperament which she had: the thoughtless, childish, pleasure-loving quality, which they had in common, had been the root of their sin; and was now the instrument of their suffering. Stronger people could have borne up better; worse people might have found a certain evil solace in evil ways and with evil associates: but Jim and Sally were incapable of any such course; they were simply two utterly broken-spirited and hopeless children whose punishment had been greater than they could bear. In a dogged way, because they must live, Jim went on earning a little money as surveyor and draughtsman. He often talked of going away into some new faraway place where they could have, as he said, in the same words Hetty had used, “a fair chance;” but Sally would not go. “It would not make a bit of difference,” she said: “it would be sure to be found out, and strange folks would despise us even more than our own folks do; perhaps things will come round right after a while, if we stay here.” Jim did not insist, for he loved Sally tenderly; and he felt, to the core of his heart, that the least he could do for her now was to let her live where she chose to live: but he grew more sullen and dogged, day by day; and Sally grew sadder and quieter, and things were fast coming to a bad pass, when Hetty Gunn’s generous offer came to them, like a great rift of sunlight in a black sky.
When Sally sank into the chair sobbing, Hetty made a quick movement towards her, and was about to speak; but, seeing that old Nan was hastening to do the same thing, she wisely waited, thinking to herself,–
“If Nan will only take her under her wing, all will go well.”
Old Nan’s tenderness of heart was unlimited. If her worst enemy were in pain or sorrow, she would succor him: ready perhaps to take up the threads of her resentment again, as soon as his sufferings were alleviated; but a very Samaritan of good offices as long as he needed them. Caesar, so well understood this trait in her, that in their matrimonial disputes, which, it must be confessed, were frequent and sharp, when all other weapons failed him, he fell back on the colic. He had only to interrupt the torrent of her reproaches, with a groan, and a twist of his fat abdomen, and “oh, honey, I’m so bad in my stomach!” and she was transformed, in an instant from a Xantippe into a Florence Nightingale: the whole current of her wrath deviated from him to the last meal he had eaten, whatever it might be.
“Now, it’s jist nothin’ but that pesky bacon you ate this mornin’, Caesar: you sha’n’t never touch a bit again’s long’s you live; do you hear?” and with hot water and flannels, she would proceed to comfort and coddle him as if no anger had ever stirred her heart.
When she saw poor Sarah Little sink crying into a chair, and heard the humble gratefulness of her words; and, moreover, felt herself, as it were, distinctly taken into confidence by the implied reference to the unhappy past,–old Nan melted.
“There, there, honey: don’t ye take on so. We’re jest powerful glad to get you here, we be. I was a tellin’ Miss Hetty yesterday she couldn’t live here alone, noways: we couldn’t any of us stand it. Come along into the dinin’-room, an’ Caesar he’ll give you a glass of his blackberry wine. Caesar won’t let anybody but hisself touch the blackberry wine, an’ hain’t this twenty year.”
“Here, Caesar! you, Caesar! where be yer? Come right in here, you loafin’ niggah.” This was Nan’s most affectionate nickname for her husband; it was always accompanied with a glance of proud admiration, which was the key to the seemingly opprobrious epithet, and revealed that all it really meant was a complacent satisfaction in her breast that her husband was in a position to loaf if he liked to,–a gentleman of leisure and dignity, so to speak, subject to no orders but her own.
Caesar could hardly believe his ears when he heard himself called upon to bring a glass of his blackberry wine to Mrs. Sarah Little. This was not at all in keeping with the line of conduct which Nan had announced beforehand that she should pursue in regard to that lady. Bewildered by his perplexed meditations on this change of policy, he moved even more slowly than was his wont, and was presently still more bewildered by finding the glass snatched suddenly from his hand, with a sharp reprimand from Nan.
“You’re asleep, ain’t you? p’raps you’d better go back to bed, seein’ it’s nigh noon.”
“There, honey, you jest drink this, an’ it’ll do you good,” came in the next second from the same lips, in such dulcet tones, that Caesar rubbed his head in sheer astonishment, and gazed with open mouth and eyes upon Nan, who was holding the glass to Sally’s mouth, as caressingly as she would to a sick child’s.
The battle was won; won by a tone and a tear; won, as, ever since the days of Goliath, so many battles have been won by the feebleness of weapons, and not by their might.
When two days later, James Little, more than half unwillingly, spite of his gratitude to Hetty, came to take his position as overseer at “Gunn’s,” he was met at the great gate by his wife, who had been watching there for him for an hour. He looked at her with undisguised wonder. There was a light in her eyes, a color in her cheeks, he had not seen there for many years. “Why, Sally!” he exclaimed, but gave no other expression to his amazement. She understood.
“Oh, Jim!” she said, “it is like heaven here: they’re all so kind. I told you things would come round all right if we waited.”
The new overseer found himself welcomed because he was Sally’s husband, and the strangeness of this was a bewilderment indeed. He could hardly understand the atmosphere of cordial good feeling which seemed in so short time to have grown up between his wife and all the household. He had become so used to Sally’s sweet sad face, that he did not know how great a charm it held for others; and he had never seen in her the manner which she now wore to every one. One day’s kindly treatment had been to her like one day’s sunlight to a drooping plant.
Hetty was relieved and glad. All her misgivings had vanished; and she found growing up in her heart a great tenderness toward Sally. She recollected well the bright rosy face Sally had worn only a few years before, and the contrast between it and her pale sorrow-stricken countenance now smote Hetty whenever she looked at her. Her sympathy, however, took no shape in words or caresses. She was too wise for that. She simply made it plain that Sally’s place in the family was to be a fixed and a busy one.
“I shall look after the out-door things, Sally,” she said. “I have done that ever since father was so poorly, and I like it best. I shall trust to you to keep the house going all straight. Old Nan isn’t much of a housekeeper, though she’s a good cook: she needs looking after.”
And so the new household entered on its first summer. The crops sprang up, abundant and green: all the cattle throve and increased: the big garden bloomed full of its old-fashioned flowers; its wide borders of balm and lavender made the whole road-side sweet: the doors stood open, and the cheery sounds of brisk farm life were to be heard all day long. To all passers-by “Gunn’s” seemed unchanged, unless it were that it had grown even more prosperous and active. But in the hall, two knobbed old canes which used to stand in the corner were hung by purple ribbons from the great antlers on the wall, and would never be taken down again. Hetty had hung them there the day after the funeral, and had laid the squire’s riding-whip across them, saying to herself as she did so,–
“There! I’ll keep those up there as long as I live, and I wonder what will become of them then or of the farm either,” and she had a long and sad reverie, standing with the riding-whip in her hand in the doorway, and tying and untying the purple ribbons. But she shook the thought off at last, saying to herself,–
“Well, well, I don’t suppose the farm’ll go begging. There are plenty of people that would be glad enough to have me give it to them. I expect it will have to go to Cousin Josiah after all; but father couldn’t abide him. It’s a great pity I wasn’t a boy, then I could have married and had children to take it.” A sudden flush covered Hetty’s face as she said this, and with a shamefaced, impatient twist of her expressive features, she ran in hastily and laid the whip above the canes.
The only thing which broke in on the even tenor of this summer at Gunn’s was Caesar’s experiencing religion in a great revival at the Methodist church. Caesar had been under conviction again and again; but, as old Nan said pathetically to her minister, there didn’t seem to be “nothin’ to ketch hold by in Caesar.” By the time his emotions had worked up to the proper climax for a successful result, he was “done tired out,” and would “jest give right up” and “let go,” and “there he was as bad’s ever, if not wuss.” Poor old Nan was a very ardent and sincere Christian, spite of her infirmities of temper, and she would wrestle in prayer with and for her husband till her black cheeks shone under streams of tears. She wrestled all the harder because the ungodly Caesar would sometimes turn upon her, and in the most sarcastic and ungenerous way ask if he didn’t keep his temper better “without religion than she did with it:” upon which Nan would groan and travail in spirit, and beseech the Lord not to “go an’ let her be a stumbler-block in Caesar’s way.” The Squire’s death had produced a great impression on Caesar: from that day he had been, Nan declared, “quite a changed pusson;” and the impression deepened until three months later, in the course of a great midnight meeting in the Methodist church, Caesar Gunn suddenly announced that he had “got religion.” The one habit which it was hardest for Caesar to give up, in his new character, was the habit of swearing. Profanity had never been strongly discountenanced at “Gunn’s.” The old Squire and the young Squire had both been in the habit of swearing, on occasion, as roundly as troopers! and black Caesar was not going to be behind his masters, not he. So he, too, in spite of old Nan’s protestations and entreaties, had become a confirmed swearer. It had really grown into so fixed a habit that the words meant nothing: it was no more than a trick of physical contortion of which a man may be utterly unconscious. How to break himself of this was Caesar’s difficulty.
“Yer see, Nan!” he said, “I dunno when it’s a comin’: the fust I know, it’s said and done, an’ what am I goin’ to do ’bout it then, ‘ll yer tell me?” At last, Caesar hit on a compromise which seemed to him a singularly happy one. To avoid saying “damn” was manifestly impossible: the word slipped out perpetually without giving him warning; as soon as he heard it, however, his righteous soul remorsefully followed up the syllable by,–
“Bress the Lord,” in Stentorian tones. The compound ejaculation thus formed was one which nobody’s gravity could resist; and the surprised and grieved expression with which poor Caesar would look round upon an audience which he had thus convulsed was even more irresistible than the original expression. Everybody who came to “Gunn’s” went away and said,–
“Have you heard the new oath Caesar Gunn swears with since he got religion?” and “Damn bress the Lord” soon became a very by-word in the town.
Early in the autumn, Deacon Little’s wife came one morning to the house and asked to see Hetty alone. Hetty met her with great coolness and remained standing, with evident purpose to regard the interview as simply one of business. As heartily as it was in Hetty Gunn’s nature to dislike any one, and that was very heartily, she disliked Mrs. Little. Again and again, during the six months that James and Sally had been living in her house, Hetty had asked Deacon and Mrs. Little to come and spend the day with them there. The deacon always had come alone, bringing feeble apologies for Mrs. Little, on score of headaches, previous engagements, and so on; but privately, to Hetty, he had confessed the truth, saying,–
“You see, Hetty, she hasn’t spoken to Sally yet; and she says she never will: just to see her on the street, gives her a dreadful nervous headache, sometimes for two days. Mrs. Little’s nerves are too much for her always: she ain’t strong, you know, Hetty.”
“Nonsense!” exclaimed Hetty at last, bluntly. “It isn’t nerves, it’s temper, and a most unchristian temper too, begging your pardon. Deacon, I know she’s your wife. If I were Jim, I’d never go near her, never, so long as she wouldn’t speak to Sally. I shan’t ask her again, and you may tell her so; and you may tell her, too, that I say I’d rather take my chance of being forgiven for what Sally’s done than for what she’s doing.” And Hetty strode up and down her piazza wrathfully.
“There are plenty of people in town who do come here, and do speak to Sally,” she continued; “and ever so many of them have told me how much they were coming to like her. She hasn’t got any great force I know. If she had had, such a fellow as your Jim couldn’t have led her away as he did: but she’s got all the force the Lord gave her; and if ever there was a girl that repented for a sin, and atoned for it too, it’s Sally; and I’d a good deal rather be in her place to-day, than in the place of any of the people that set themselves up as too good to speak to her. She’s a loving, patient-souled creature, and she’s been a real comfort to me ever since she came into my house; and anybody that won’t speak to her needn’t speak to me, that’s all.” Poor Deacon Little twirled his hat in his hands, and moved about uneasily on his chair, during Hetty’s excited speech. When he spoke, his distress was so evident in his voice that Hetty relented and was ashamed of herself instantly.
“Don’t be too hard on Mrs. Little, Hetty,” he said, “you know Jim was her favorite of all the children; and she can’t never see it anyways but that Sally’s been his ruin. Now I don’t see it that way; and I ‘ve always tried to be good to Sally, in all ways that I could be, things being as they were at home. You know a man ain’t always free to do’s he likes, Hetty. He can’t go against his wife, leastways not when she’s feeble like Mrs. Little.”
“No, no, Deacon Little,” Hetty hastened to say, “I never meant to reproach you. Sally always says you’ve been good to her. I ‘m very sorry that I spoke so about Mrs. Little; not that I can take a word of it back, though,” added Hetty, her anger still rising hotly at mention of the name; “but I’ll never say a word to you about it again. It isn’t fair.”
Deacon Little repeated this conversation to his wife, and told Hetty that he had done so. It was therefore with great surprise that Hetty found herself on this morning face to face in her own home with Mrs. Little.
“What in the world can have brought her here?” thought Hetty, as she walked slowly towards the sitting-room, “no good I’ll be bound;” and it was with a look almost of defiance that she stood before her, waiting for her to speak. Mrs. Little with all her immovability of prejudice was a timid woman, and moreover was especially afraid of Hetty Gunn. Hetty’s independent, downright, out-spoken ways were alarming to her nervous, conservative, narrow-minded soul.
“I expect you’re surprised to see me here, Hetty,” she began.
“Very much,” interrupted Hetty curtly, in a hard tone. A long silence ensued, which Hetty made no movement to break, but stood with her arms folded, looking Mrs. Little in the eye.
“I came–to–tell–to let you know–Mr. Little he wanted me to come and tell you–he didn’t like to–” she stammered.
Hetty’s quick instinct took alarm.
“If it’s any thing you’ve got to say against that poor girl out there,” pointing to the garden, where Sally was busy tying up chrysanthemums “you may as well save yourself the trouble. I shan’t hear it,” and Hetty looked her unwelcome visitor still more defiantly in the face. Mrs. Little colored, and stung at last into a command of her organs of speech, said, not without dignity:
“You needn’t suppose that I wish to do any thing to injure the woman my son has married. It was Jim who asked his father to tell you–“
“For goodness’ sake, do say what it is you’ve got to say, can’t you?” burst out Hetty, impatiently. But Mrs. Little was not to be hurried. Between her uneasiness at being face to face with Hetty, and her false sense of embarrassment in speaking of the subject she had come to speak of, it took her a long time to make Hetty understand that poor Sally, finding that she was to be a mother again, had been afraid to tell Hetty herself, and had taken this method of letting her know the fact.
Hetty listened breathlessly, her blue eyes opening wide, and her cheeks growing red. She did not speak. Mrs. Little misinterpreted her silence.
“If you didn’t want the baby here, I ‘d take it,” she said almost beseechingly, “if Sally’d let me: it would break Jim’s heart if they should have to leave here.”
“Not want the baby!” shouted Hetty, in a voice which reached Sally in the garden, and made her look up, thinking she was called. “I should think you must be crazy, Mrs. Little;” and, with the involuntary words, there entered for the first time into her mind a wonder whether Mrs. Little’s whole treatment of her son and his wife were not so monstrous as to warrant a doubt as to her sanity. “Not want the baby! Why I’d give half the farm to have a baby running about here. How could Sally help knowing I’d be glad?” and Hetty moved swiftly towards the door, to go and seek Sally. Recollecting herself suddenly, she turned, and, halting on the threshold, said in her hardest tone:
“Is there any thing else you wish to say?”
There was ignominious dismissal in her tone, her look, her attitude; and Mrs. Little said hastily:
“Oh, no, nothing, nothing! I only want to tell you that I’d like to thank you, though, for all your kindness to Jim;” and Mrs. Little’s lips quivered, and the tears came into her eyes. Hetty was unmoved by them.
“I think more of Sally than I do of Jim,” she said severely. “It’s all owing to Sally that he’s got a chance to hold up his head again. Good morning, Mrs. Little;” and Hetty walked out of one door, leaving her guest to make her own way out of the other.
Sally found it hard to believe in Hetty’s readiness to welcome her baby.
“Oh! you don’t know, Hetty, how it will set everybody to talking again,” said the poor girl. “You are so different from other folks. You can’t understand. I don’t suppose my children ever would be allowed to play with other children, do you?” she asked mournfully. “That was one thing which comforted me when my baby died. I thought she wouldn’t live to have anybody despise her because she had had me for a mother. Somehow it don’t seem fair, does it, Hetty, to have people punished for what their parents do? But the minister over at the Corners, that used to come and see me, he said that was what it meant in the Bible, where it said: ‘Unto the third and fourth generation.’ But I can’t think it’s so bad as that. You don’t believe, Hetty, do you, that if I should have several children, and they should be married, that their grandchildren would ever hear any thing about me, how wicked I had been: do you, Hetty?” “No, indeed, child!” said Hetty sharply, feeling as if she should cry.” Of course I don’t believe any such thing; and, if I did, I wouldn’t worry over it. Why, I don’t even know my great-grandmother’s name,” she laughed, “much less whether she were good or bad.”
“Oh, but the bad things last so!” said Sally. “Nobody says any thing about the good things: it’s always the bad ones. I don’t see why people like to: if they didn’t, there’d be some chance of a thing’s being forgotten.”
“Never you mind, Sally,” said Hetty, in a tone unusually caressing for her. “Never you mind, nobody talks about you now, except to say the good things; and you are always going to stay with me as long as I live, and when that baby comes we’ll just wonder how we ever got along without him.”
“Oh, Hetty, you’re just one of the Lord’s angels!” cried Sally.
“Humph!” said Hetty. “I hope he’s got better ones. There wasn’t much angel about me this morning when that mother-in-law of yours was here, I can tell you. I wonder if she’ll have the heart to keep away after the baby’s born.”
“I thought of that, too,” said Sally, timidly. “If it should be a boy, I think maybe she’d be pleased. She always did worship Jim. That’s the reason she hates me so,” sighed Sally.
It was the last of March before the longed-for baby came. Never did baby have a better welcome. It was as if three mothers had awaited his coming. Hetty’s happiness was far greater than Sally’s, and Nan’s was hardly less. Hetty had been astonished at herself for the passionate yearning she had felt towards the little unborn creature from the beginning, and, when she took the little fellow in her arms, her first thought was, “Dear me! if mothers feel any more than I feel now, how can they bear it?” Turning to Jim, she exclaimed, “Oh, Jim! I’m sure you ought to be happy now. We’ll name this little chap after you, James Little, Junior.”
“No!” said Jim, doggedly, “I’ll not hand down that name. The sooner it is forgotten the better.” All the sunshine and peace of his new home had not been enough wholly to brighten or heal Jim’s wounded spirit. Hetty had found herself baffled at every turn by a sort of inertia of sadness, harder to deal with than any other form of mental depression.
“You’re very wrong, Jim,” replied Hetty, earnestly. “The name is your own to make or to mar, and you ought to be proud to hand it down.”
“You can’t judge about that, Hetty,” said Jim. “It stands to reason that you can’t have any idea about the feeling of being disgraced. I don’t believe a man can ever shake it off in this world: if he can in any other, I have my doubts. I don’t know what the orthodox people ever wanted to get up their theory of a hell for. A man can be a worse hell to himself, than any hell they can invent to put him into. I know that.”
“Jim!” exclaimed Hetty, “how dare you speak so, with this dear little innocent baby’s eyes looking up at you?”
“That’s just the reason,” answered Jim, bitterly. “If this baby hadn’t come, there seemed to be some chance of our outgrowing the memory of the things we’d like to forget and have forgotten. But this just rakes it all up again as bad as ever. You’ll see: you don’t know people so well as Sally and I do.”
Before many weeks had passed, Hetty was forced to admit that Jim was partly in the right. Neighbor after neighbor, under the guise of a friendly interest in the baby, took occasion to go over all the details of the first baby’s life and death; and there was, in their manner to Sally, a certain new and pitying condescension which filled Hetty with wrath.
“What a mercy ’tis, ’tis a boy,” said one visitor sanctimoniously to Hetty, as they left Sally’s room together. Hetty turned upon her like lightning.
“I’d like to know what you mean by that,” she said sharply. The woman hesitated, and at last said:
“Why you know, of course, such things are not so much consequence to men.”
“Such things as what?” said Hetty, bluntly. “I don’t understand you.” When at last her visitor put her meaning into unmistakable words, Hetty wheeled (they were walking down the long pine-shaded avenue together); stood still; and folding her arms on her bosom said:
“There! that was what I wanted. I thought if you were driven to putting it into plain English, perhaps you ‘d see how abominable it was to think it.”
“No, no, you needn’t try to smooth it down,” she continued, interrupting her guest’s efforts to mollify her by a few deprecating words. “You can’t unsay it, now it’s said; and saying it’s no worse than thinking it. I don’t envy you your thoughts, though. I’ve always stood up for Sally, and I always shall, and anybody that is stupid enough to suppose, because I stand up for her, I justify what she did that was wrong, is welcome: I don’t care. Sally is a good, patient, loving woman to-day; I don’t know anybody more so: I, for one, respect her. I wish I could be half as patient;” and Hetty stooped, and, picking up a handful of the pine-needles with which the road was thickly strewn, crumbled them up fiercely in her hands, and tossing the dust high in the air, exclaimed:
“I wouldn’t give that for the character of any woman that can’t believe in another woman’s having thoroughly repented of having done wrong.”
“Oh! nobody doubts that Sally has repented,” said the embarrassed visitor.
“Oh, they don’t?” said Hetty, in a sarcastic tone; “well then I’d like to ask them what they mean by treating her as they do. I ‘d like to ask them what the Lord does to sinners that repent. He says they are to come and be with him in Heaven, I believe; and I’d like to know whether after He’s taken them to Heaven, they ‘re going to be reminded every minute of all the sins they’ve repented of. Oh, but I’ve no patience with it!” As Hetty was walking slowly back to the house after this injudicious outburst, she met Dr. Eben Williams coming down the avenue. Her first impulse was to plunge into the shrubbery, on the right hand or the left, and escape him. The baby was now four weeks old, and yet Hetty had never till to-day seen the doctor. It had been a very sore point between her and Sally, that Sally would persist in having this young Dr. Williams from the “Corners,” instead of old Dr. Tuthill, who had been the family doctor at “Gunn’s” for nearly fifty years. It was the only quarrel that Hetty and Sally had ever had; and it came near being a very serious one: but Hetty suddenly recollected herself, and exclaiming:
“Why bless me, Sally, I haven’t any right to decide what doctor you’re to have when you’re sick; I’ll never say another word about it; only you needn’t expect me ever to speak to that Eben Williams; I never expected to see him under my roof,” she dropped the subject and never alluded to it again.
Her first impulse, as we said, when she saw the obnoxious doctor coming towards her now, was to fly; her second one of anger with herself for the first. “I’m on my own ground,” she thought with some of the old Squire’s honest pride stirring her veins, “I think I will not run away from the popinjay.”
It was hard to know just how such a dislike to Dr. Eben Williams had grown up in Hetty’s friendly heart. He had come some four years before to practise medicine at Lonway Four Corners. His bright and cordial face, his social manner, his superior education, readiness, and resource, had quickly won away many patients from old Dr. Tuthill, who still drove about the country as he had driven for half a century, with a ponderous black leather case full of calomel and jalap swung under his sulky. A few old families, the Gunns among the number, adhered faithfully to the old doctor, and became bitter partisans against the new one.
“Let him stick to the Corners: if they like him there, they ‘re welcome to him. He needn’t be trying to get all Welbury besides,” they said angrily. “Welbury’s done very well for a doctor, these good many years: since before Eben Williams was born, for that matter;” and words ran high in the warfare. Squire Gunn was one of the most violent of Dr. Williams’s opposers; and when, a few days before his death, old Dr. Tuthill had timidly suggested that it might be well to have a consultation, the Squire broke out with:
“Not that damned Eben Williams then. I won’t have that damned rascal set foot in this house. You’re a fool, Tuthill, to let that young upstart get all your practice as he’s a doing.”
The old man smiled sadly. He did not in the least share his friends’ hostility to the handsome, young, and energetic physician who was so plainly soon to be his successor in the county.
“Ah, Squire!” he said, “you forget how old you and I are. It is nearly my time to pass on, and make room for a younger man. Eben’s a good doctor. I ‘d rather he’d have the circuit here than anybody I know.”
“Damned interloper! let him wait till you’re dead,” growled the Squire. “He shan’t have a hand in finishing me off at any rate. I don’t want any of their new-fangled notions.” And the Squire died as he had lived, on the old plan, with the old doctor.
When Eben Williams saw that he was about to meet Hetty Gunn, his emotions were hardly less conflicting than hers. He, too, would have liked to escape the meeting, for he had understood clearly that his presence in her house was most unwelcome to her. But he, too, had his own pride, as distinct and as strong as hers, and at the very moment that Hetty was saying to herself, “I’m on my own ground: I won’t run away from the popinjay,” Dr. Eben was thinking in his heart, “What a fool I am to care a straw about meeting her! I’m about my own business, and she is an obstinate simpleton.”
The expressions of their faces as they met, and passed, with cold bows, were truly comical; each so thoroughly conscious of the other’s antagonism, and endeavoring to look unconscious of it.
“By Jove, she’s got a charming face, if she didn’t look so obstinate,” said Dr. Eben to himself, as he hurried on.
“He looked at me as he’d have looked at a snake,” thought Hetty. “I guess he’s an honest fellow after all. He’s got a handsome beard of his own.”
When she entered Sally’s room, Sally exclaimed, “Oh, Hetty! didn’t you meet the doctor?”
“Yes,” said Hetty, coolly. Sally looked wistfully at her for a few seconds. “Oh, Hetty!” she said, “I thought, perhaps, if you saw him, you’d like him better.”
“I never said any thing against his looks, did I?” laughed Hetty. “He is a very handsome man: he is the handsomest man I ever saw, if that’s all!”
“But it isn’t all; it isn’t any thing!” exclaimed Sally. “If he were an ugly dwarf, I should love him just as well. Oh, Hetty, if you only knew how good he was to me, when I was sick seven years ago! I should have died if it hadn’t been for him. There wasn’t a woman at the Corners that ever came near me, except Mrs. Patrick, the Irish woman I boarded with; and, he used to stop and make broth for me, on my stove, with his own hands, and sit and hold the baby on his knees, and talk to me so beautifully about her. He just kept me alive.”
Hetty’s face flushed. Sally had never told her so much before; she could not help a glow at her heart, at the picture of the handsome young doctor sitting with the poor, outcast baby on his knees, and comforting the poor outcast mother. But Hetty was a Gunn; and, as Dr. Eben had said, obstinate. She could not forget her partisanship for Dr. Tuthill. She was even all the angrier with the young doctor for being so clever, so kind, so skilful, so handsome, and so pleasant, that everybody wanted him. “I dare say,” she replied. “He’d do any thing to curry favor. He’s been determined from the first to get all the practice of the whole county, and I suppose as soon as Doctor Tuthill dies, he’ll have it; and he may as well, for I don’t doubt he’s a good doctor: but I think it was a mean underhand thing to come in here and try to cut another man out.”
“Why, Hetty!” remonstrated Sally, in a tone of unusual vehemence for her. “Why, Hetty; there wasn’t any doctor at the Corners: he didn’t cut anybody out there; and I’m sure they needed a doctor bad enough; and it was his native place too.”
“Oh! that’s all very well to say,” answered Hetty. “It’s a likely story, isn’t it, that anybody’d settle in Lonway Four Corners, just for the little practice there is in that handful of a village. He knew very well he’d get Welbury, and Springton, and all the county.”
“But, Hetty,” persisted Sally. “He wasn’t to blame, if people in these towns sent for him, hearing how good he was. Indeed, indeed, Hetty, he don’t care for the money. He wouldn’t take a cent from Jim, and he never does from poor people. I’ve heard him say a dozen times, that he should have come home to live on the old farm, even if they hadn’t needed a doctor there: he loves the country so, he can’t be happy in the city; and he loves every stick and stone of the old farm.”
“Humph!” said Hetty. “He looks like a country fellow, doesn’t he, with his fine clothes, and his gauntlet gloves! Don’t tell me! I say he is a popinjay, with all his learning. Now don’t talk any more about it, little woman, for your cheeks are getting too red,” and Hetty took up the baby, and began to toss him and talk to him.
Hetty knew in her heart that she was unjust. More than she would have owned to herself, and still more than she would have acknowledged to Sally, she had admired Eben Williams’s honest, straightforward, warm-hearted face. But she preferred to dislike Eben Williams: her father had disliked him, and had said he should never set foot in the house; and Hetty felt a certain sort of filial obligation to keep up the animosity.
But Nature had other plans for Hetty. In fact if one were disposed to be superstitious, one might well have said that fate itself had determined to thwart Hetty’s resolution of hostility.
Sally did not recover rapidly from her illness: her long mental suffering had told upon her vitality, and left her unprepared for any strain. The little baby also languished, sharing its mother’s depressed condition. Day after day, Doctor Eben came to the house. His quick step sounded in the hall and on the stairs; his voice rang cheery, whenever the door of Sally’s room stood open. Hetty found herself more and more conscious of his presence: each day she felt a half guilty desire to see him again; she caught herself watching for his knock, listening for his step; she even went so far as to wonder in a half impatient way why he never sent for her, to give her the directions about Sally, instead of giving them to the nurse. She little dreamed that Doctor Eben was as anxious to avoid seeing her, as she had been to avoid seeing him. He had a strangely resentful feeling towards Hetty, as if she were a personal friend who had been treacherous to him. She was the only one of all the partisans of Doctor Tuthill that he could not sympathize with and heartily forgive. He would have found it very hard to explain why he thus singled out Hetty, but he had done so from the outset. Strange forerunning instinct of love, which uttered its prophecy in an unknown tongue in an alien country! There came a day before long, when Doctor Eben and Hetty were forced to forget all their prejudices, and to come together on a common ground, where no antagonisms could exist.
Sally and the baby were both very ill. Hetty, in her inexperience of illness, had not realized how serious a symptom Sally’s long continued prostration was. In her own busy and active life, the days flew by almost uncounted: she was out early and late, walking or riding over the farm; and when she came back to Sally’s room, and found her always with the same placid smile, and fair untroubled face, and heard always the same patient reply, “Very comfortable, thank you, dear Hetty,” it never occurred to her that any thing was wrong. It seemed strange to her that the baby was so still, that he neither cried nor laughed like other babies; and it seemed to her very hard for Sally to have to be shut up in the house so long: but this was all; she was totally unprepared for any thought of danger, and the shock was terrible to her, when the thought came. It was on a sunny day in May, one of those incredible summer days which New England sometimes flashes out like frost-set jewels in her icy spring. Hetty had listened, as usual, to hear the Doctor leave Sally’s room: she was more than usually impatient to have him go, for she was waiting to take in to Sally a big basket of arbutus blossoms which old Caesar had gathered, and had brought to Hetty with a characteristic speech.
“Seems’s if the Lord meant ’em for baby’s cheeks, don’t it, Miss Hetty? they’re so rosy.”
“Our poor little man’s cheeks are not so pink yet,” said Hetty, and as she looked at the pearly pink bells nestling in their green leaves, she sighed, and wished that the baby did not look so pale. “But he’ll be all right as soon as we can get him out of doors in the June sunshine,” she added, and turned from the dining-room into the hall, with the great basket of arbutus in her hand. As she turned, she gave a cry, and dropped her flowers: there sat Dr. Eben, in a big arm-chair, by the doorway. He sprang to pick up the flowers. Hetty looked at him without speaking. “I was waiting here to see you, Miss Gunn,” he said, as he gave back the flowers. “I am very sorry to be obliged to speak to you,” –here Hetty’s eyes twinkled, and a slight, almost imperceptible, but very comic grimace passed over her face. She was thinking to herself, “Honest, that! I expect he is very sorry,”–“I am very sorry to have to speak to you about Mrs. Little,” he continued; “but I think it is my duty to tell you that she is sinking very fast.”
“What! Sally! what is the matter with her?” exclaimed Hetty. “Come right in here, doctor;” and she threw open the sitting-room door, and, leading him in, sank into the nearest chair, and said, like a little child:
“Oh, dear! what shall I do?”
Dr. Eben looked at her for a second, scrutinizingly.
This was not the sort of person he had expected to see in Miss Hetty Gunn. This was an impulsive, outspoken, loving woman, without a trace of any thing masculine about her, unless it were a certain something in the quality of her frankness, which was masculine rather than feminine; it was more purely objective than women’s frankness is wont to be: this Dr. Eben thought out later; at present, he only thought: “Poor girl! I’ve got to hurt her sadly.”
“You don’t mean that Sally’s going to die, do you?” said Hetty, in a clear, unflinching tone.
“I am afraid she will, Miss Gunn,” replied Dr. Eben, “not immediately; perhaps not for some months: but there seems to be a general failure of all the vital forces. I cannot rouse her, body or soul.”
“Nonsense!” said Hetty. “If rousing is all she wants, surely we can rouse her somehow. Isn’t there any thing wrong with her anywhere?”
Dr. Eben smiled in spite of himself at this off-hand, non-professional view of the case; but he answered, sadly:
“Not what you mean by any thing wrong; if there were, it would be easier to cure her.”
Hetty knitted her brows, and looked at him in her turn, scrutinizingly. “Have you had patients like her before?”
“Yes,” said Dr. Eben.
“Did they all die? Didn’t you cure one?” continued Hetty, inexorably.
“I have known persons in such a condition to recover,” said Dr. Eben, with dignity; “but not by the help of medicine so much as by an entire change of conditions.”
“What do you mean by conditions?” said Hetty, never having heard, in her simple and healthful life, of anybody’s needing what is called a “change of scene.” Dr. Eben smiled again, and, as he smiled, he noted with an involuntary professional delight the clear, fine skin, the firm flesh, the lustrous eye, the steady poise of every muscle in this woman, who was catechising him, with so evident a doubt as to his skill and information.
“I hardly think; Miss Gunn,” he went on, “that I could make you understand, in your superb health, just all I mean by change of conditions. It means change of food, air, surroundings; every thing in short, which addresses itself to the senses. It means an entire new set of nerve impressions.”
“Sally isn’t in the least nervous,” broke in Hetty. “She’s always as quiet as a mouse.”
“You mean that she isn’t in the least fidgety,” replied the doctor. “That is quite another thing. Some of the most nervous people I know have absolute quiet of manner. Mrs. Little’s nervous system has been for several years under a terrible strain. When I was first called to her, I thought her trouble and suffering would kill her; and I didn’t think it would take so long. But it is that which is killing her now.” Hetty was not listening: she was thinking very perplexedly of what the doctor had said a few moments before; interrupting him now, she said, “Would it do Sally good to take her to another place? that is easily done.” Dr. Eben hesitated.
“I think sea-air might help her; but I am not sure,” he replied.
“Would you go with us?” asked Hetty. “She wouldn’t go without you.” The doctor hesitated again. He looked into Hetty’s eyes: they were fixed on his as steadily, as unembarrassedly, as if he and Hetty had been comrades for years. “What a woman she is,” he thought to himself, “to coolly ask me to become their travelling physician, when for six weeks I have been coming to the house every day, and she would not even speak to me!”
“I am not sure that I could, Miss Gunn,” he replied. Hetty’s face changed. A look of distress stamped every feature.
“Oh, Dr. Williams, do!” she exclaimed. “Sally would never go without you; and she will die, you say, unless she has change.” Then hesitating, and turning very red, Hetty stammered, “I can pay you any thing–which would be necessary to compensate you: we have money enough.” Dr. Eben bowed, and answered with some asperity:
“The patients that I had hesitancy about leaving are patients who pay me nothing. It is not in the least a question of money, Miss Gunn.”
“Forgive me,” exclaimed Hetty, “I did not know–I thought–“
“Your thought was a perfectly natural one, Miss Gunn,” interrupted the doctor, pitying her confusion. “I have never had need to make my profession a source of income: I have no ambition to be rich; and, as I am alone in the world, I can afford to do what many other physicians could not.”
“When can you tell if you could go?” continued Hetty, not apparently hearing what the doctor had said.
“She only thinks of me as she would of a chair or a carriage which would make her friend more comfortable,” thought the doctor; “and why should she think of me in any other way,” he added, impatient with himself for the selfish thought.
“To-morrow,” said he, curtly. “If I can go, I will; and there is no time to be lost.”
Hetty nodded her head, but did not speak another word: she was too near crying; and to have cried in the presence of Dr. Eben Williams would have mortified Hetty to the core.
“Oh, to think,” she said to herself, “that, after all, I should have to be under such obligations to that man! But it is all for Sally’s sake, poor dear child. How good he is to her! If he were anybody else, I should like him with all my heart.”
The next morning, as Dr. Williams walked slowly up the avenue, he saw Hetty standing in the doorway, shading her eyes with her hand and looking towards him. The morning sun shone full upon her, and made glints of golden light here and there in her thick brown curls. Hetty had worn her hair in the same style for fifteen years; short, clustering curls close to her head on either side, and a great mass of curls falling over a comb at the back. If Hetty had a vanity it was of her hair; and it was a vanity one was forced to forgive,–it had such excellent reason for being. The picture which she made in the doorway, at this moment, Dr. Eben never forgot: a strange pleasure thrilled through him at the sight. As he drew near, she ran down the steps towards him; ran down with no more thought or consciousness of the appearance of welcoming him, than if she had been a child of seven: she was impatient to know whether Sally could go to the sea-shore. This man who approached held the decision in his hands; and he was, at that moment, no more to Hetty than any messenger bringing word which she was eager to hear. But Dr. Eben would have been more or less than man, could he have seen, unmoved, the swift motion, the outstretched hands, the eager eyes, the bright cheeks, the sunlit hair, of the beautiful woman who ran to meet him.
“Well?” was all that Hetty said, as, panting for want of breath, she turned as shortly as a wild creature turns, and began to walk by Dr. Eben’s side. He forgot, for the instant, all the old antagonisms; he forgot that, until yesterday, he had never spoken with Hetty Gunn; and, meeting her eager gaze with one about as eager, he said in a familiar tone:
“Yes; well! I am going.”
Hetty stopped short, and, looking up at him, exclaimed:
“Oh, I am so glad!”
The words were simple enough, but the tone made them electric. The doctor felt the blood mounting in his face, under the unconscious look of this middle-aged child. She did not perceive his expression. She did not perceive any thing, except the fact that Sally’s doctor would help her take Sally away, and save Sally’s life. She continued:
“We’ll take her to ‘The Runs.’ Did you ever go there, doctor? It is only a day’s journey from here, the loveliest little sea-side place I ever saw. It isn’t like the big sea-side places with their naked rocks, and their great, cruel, thundering beaches. I hate those. They make me sad and desperate. I know Sally wouldn’t like them. But this little place is as sweet and quiet as a lake; and yet it is the sea. It is hugged in between two tongues of land, and there are ever so many little threads of the sea, running way up into the meadows, which are thick with high strong grass, so different from all the grasses we have here. I buy salt hay from there every year, and the cattle like it, just a little of it, as well as we like a bit of broiled bacon for breakfast. There is a nice bit of beach, too,–real beach; but there are trees on it, and it looks friendly: not as if it were just made on purpose for wrecks to drift up on, like the big beaches: oh, but I hate a great, long sea-beach! There is a farm-house there, not two minutes’ walk from this beach, where they always take summer boarders. In July it wouldn’t be pleasant, because it is crowded; but now it will be empty, and we can have it all to ourselves. There is a dear, old, retired, sea captain there, too, who takes people out in such a nice sail-boat. I shall keep Sally and the baby out on the water all day long. I am afraid you will find it very dull, Dr. Williams. Do you like the sea? Of course you will stay with us all the time. I don’t mean in the least, that you are to come only once a day to see Sally, as you do here. You will be our guest, you understand. I dare say you will do more to cure Sally than all the sea-air and all the medicine put together. She has had so few people to love in this world, poor girl, that those she does love are very dear to her. She is more grateful to you than to anybody else in the world.”
“Except you, Miss Gunn,” replied the doctor, earnestly. “You have done for her far more than I ever could. I could show only a personal sympathy; but you have added to the personal sympathy material aid.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” said Hetty, absently. She did not wish to hear any thing said about this. “We can set out to-morrow, if you can be ready,” she continued. “I shall have Caesar drive the horses over next week. They can’t very well be spared this week. The worst thing is, we have to set out so early in the morning, and Sally is always so much weaker then. Could you”–Hetty hesitated, and fairly stammered in her embarrassment. “Couldn’t you come over here to-night and sleep, so as to be here when she first wakes up? You might do something to help her.” Before Hetty had finished her sentence, her face was crimson. Dr. Eben’s was full of a humorous amusement. Already, in twenty-four hours, had it come to this, that Hetty was urging that popinjay Dr. Ebenezer Williams, to come and sleep under her roof? The twinkle in his face showed her plainly what he was thinking. He began to reply:
“You are very kind, Miss Gunn”–Hetty interrupted him:
“No, I am not at all kind, Dr. Williams; and I see you are laughing at me, because I’ve had to speak to you, after all, as if I liked you. But, of course, you understand that it is all for Sally’s sake. If I were to be ill myself, I should have Dr. Tuthill,” said Hetty, in a tone meant to be very resolute and dignified, but only succeeding in being comical.
The doctor bowed ceremoniously, replying: “I will be as frank as you are, Miss Gunn. As you say, ‘of course’ I understand that any apparent welcome which you extend to me is entirely for Mrs. Little’s sake; and that it is sorely against your will that you have been obliged to speak to me; and that it is solely in my capacity as physician that I am asked to sleep under your roof to-night; and I beg your pardon for saying that I accept the invitation in that capacity, and no other, solely because I believe it will be for the interest of my patient that I do so. Good morning, Miss Gunn,” and, as at that moment they reached the house, Dr. Eben bowed again as ceremoniously as before, sprang up the piazza steps, and ran up the staircase, two steps at a time, to Sally’s room. Hetty stood still in the doorway: she felt herself discomfited. She was half angry, half amused. She did not like what the doctor had said; but she admitted to herself that it was precisely what she would have said in his place.
“I don’t blame him,” she thought, “I don’t blame him a bit; but, it is horridly disagreeable. I don’t see how we’re ever to get on; and it is so provoking, for, if he were anybody else, we’d be real good friends. He isn’t in the least what I thought he was. I hope he won’t come over before tea. It would be awkward enough. But then, he’s got to take all his meals with us at ‘The Runs.’ Oh, dear!” and Hetty went about her preparations for the journey, with feelings by no means of unalloyed pleasure.
No danger of Dr. Eben’s coming before tea. It was very late when he appeared, valise in hand, and said in a formal tone to Hetty, who met him at the door, in fact had been nervously watching for him for four whole hours:
“I am very sorry to see you still up, Miss Gunn. I ought to have recollected to tell you that I should not be here until late: I have been saying good-by to my patients. Will you have the kindness to let me be shown to my room?” and like a very courteous traveller, awaiting a landlady’s pleasure, he stood at foot of the stairs.
With some confusion of manner, and in a constrained tone, unlike her usual cheery voice, Hetty replied:
“The next door to Sally’s, doctor.” She wished to say something more, but she could not think of a word.
“What a fool I am!” she mentally ejaculated, as the doctor, with a hasty “good-night,” entered his room. “What a fool I am to let him make me so uncomfortable. I don’t see what it is. I wish I hadn’t asked him to go.”
“That woman’s a jewel!” the doctor was saying to himself the other side of the door: “she is as honest as a man could be. I didn’t know there could be any thing so honest in shape of a woman under fifty: she doesn’t look a day over twenty-five; but, they say she’s nearly forty; it’s the strangest thing in life she’s never married. I’ll wager any thing, she’s wishing this minute I was in Guinea; but she’ll put it through bravely for sake of Sally, as she calls her, and I’ll keep out of her way all I can. If it weren’t for the confounded notion she’s taken up against me, I’d like to know her. She’s a woman a man could make a friend of, I do believe,” and Dr. Eben jumped into bed, and was fast asleep in five minutes, and dreamed that Hetty came towards him, dressed like an Indian, with her brown curls stuck full of painted porcupine quills, and a tomahawk brandished in her hand.
The journey was a hard one, though so short. How many times an hour did Hetty bless the good fortune which had given them Dr. Williams for an escort! Sally had been so much excited and pleased at the prospect of the trip to the sea-shore, that she had seemed in the outset far stronger than she really was. Before mid-day a reaction had set in, and she had grown so weak that the doctor was evidently alarmed. The baby disturbed, and frightened by the noise and jar, had wailed almost incessantly; and Hetty was more nearly at her wits’ end than she had ever been in her life. It was piteous to see her,–usually so brisk, so authoritative, so unhesitating,–looking helplessly into the face of the doctor, and saying:
“Oh, what shall we do! what shall we do!” At last, the weary day came to an end; and when Hetty saw her two sufferers quietly asleep in snowy beds, in a great airy room, with a blazing log-fire on the hearth, she drew a long breath, and said to the doctor:
“This is the most awful day I ever lived through.”
Dr. Eben smiled. “You have had a life singularly free from troubles, Miss Gunn.”
“No!” said Hetty, “I’ve had a great deal. But there has always been something to do. The only things one can’t bear, it seems to me, are where one can’t do any thing, like to-day: that poor little baby crying, crying, and nothing to be done, but to wait for him to stop; and Sally looking as if she would die any minute; and that screaming steam-engine whirling us all along as if we were only dead freight. I suppose if Sally had died, we should have had to keep right on, shouldn’t we?”
“Yes,” said the doctor. Something in his tone arrested Hetty’s ear. She looked at him inquiringly; then she said slowly:
“I understand you. I am ashamed. We were only three people out of hundreds: it is just like life, isn’t it: how selfish we are without realizing it! It isn’t of any consequence how or where or when any one of us dies: the train must keep right on. I see.”
“Yes,” said the doctor again: and this monosyllable meant even more than the other. Dr. Eben was a philosopher. Epictetus, and that most royal of royal emperors, Marcus Aurelius, had been his masters: their words were ever present with him. “It is not possible that the nature of the universe, either through want of power or want of skill, has made a mistake;” “nothing happens to any man which he is not formed by nature to bear,”–were hourly watchwords of thought with him. In this regard he and Hetty were alike, though they had reached their common standpoint by different roads: he by education and reasoning, and a profound admiration for the ancient classics; she by instinct and healthfulness of soul, and a profound love for that old Massachusetts militia-man, her grandfather.
“The Runs” was, as Hetty had said, one of the loveliest of sea-side places. Dr. Eben, who was familiar with all the well-known sea-side resorts in America, was forced to admit that this little nook had a charm of its own, unlike all the others. The epithet “hugged in,” which Hetty had used, was the very phrase to best convey it. It was at the mouth of a small river, which, as it drew near the sea, widened so suddenly that it looked like a lake. The country, for miles about, was threaded by little streams of water: which of them were sea making up, and which were river coming down, it was hard to tell. In early morning they were blue as the sky overhead; at sunset they glowed like a fiery net, suddenly flung over the grasses and rushes. Great flocks of marsh birds dwelt year after year in these cool, green labyrinths, and made no small part of the changeful beauty of the picture, rising sometimes, suddenly, in a dusky cloud, and floating away, soaring, and sinking, and at last dropping out of sight again, as suddenly as they had risen. The meadows were vivid green in June, vivid claret in October: no other grass spreads such splendor of tint on so superb a palette, as the salt-marsh grasses on the low, wide stretches of some of New England’s southern shores. Sailing down this river, and keeping close to the left-hand bank, one came almost unawares on a sharp bend to the left: here the river suddenly ended, and the sea began; the rushes and reeds and high grasses ceased; a low, rocky barrier stayed them. Rounding this point, lo, your boat swayed instantly to the left: a gentle surf-wave took possession of you, and irresistibly bore you towards a yellow sand beach, which curved inward like a reaper’s sickle, not more than a quarter of a mile long, from the handle to the shining point; smooth and glistening, strewn with polished pebbles and tiny shells, it seemed some half-hidden magic beach on which shallops of fairies might any moment come to moor. On the farther point, so close to the sea that it seemed to rise out of the water, stood a high stone lighthouse, with a revolving light, whose rays swept the open sea for many miles. The opposite river bank was a much higher one, and ran farther out to sea. On this promontory was Safe Haven, a small, thickly settled town, whose spires and house-tops, as seen from the beach at “The Runs,” looked always like a picture, painted on the sky; white on gray in the morning, gray on crimson at sunset. The farmhouse of which we have spoken stood only a few rods back from the beach, and yet it had green fields on either hand; and a row of Balm of Gilead trees in front; an old and sandy road, seldom disturbed by wheels, ran between these trees and the house, and rambled down towards the light-house. Wild pea and pimpernel made this road gay; white clover and wild rose made it fragrant; and there branched off from it a lane, on which if you turned and strayed back into the fields, a mile or so, you came to thickets of wild azalia, and tracts of pink laurel; and, a little way farther in, you came to fresh-water ponds which in July were white with lilies. No storm ever lashed the water high on the beach at “The Runs”; no sultriest summer calm ever stilled it; the even rhythm and delightsome cooling of its waves seemed to obey a law of their own, quite independent of the great booming sea outside the light-house bar.
In the quiet, and the beauty, and the keen salt air of this charmed spot, poor Sally Little lifted up her head, and began to live again, like a flower taken from desert sands and set by a spring. The baby also bloomed like a rose. In an incredibly short time, both mother and child had so altered that one would hardly have known them. The days went by, to them all, as days go by for children: unnamed, uncounted; only marked by joy of sleep, and the delight of waking. In after years, when Hetty looked back upon these weeks, they seemed to her, not like a dream, which is usually the heart’s first choice of a phrase to describe the swift flight of a happy time, but like a few days spent on some other planet, where, for the interval, she had been changed into a sort of supernatural child. Except at night, they were never in the house. The harsh New England May laid aside for them all its treacheries, and was indeed the month of spring. Their mornings they spent on the water, rowing or sailing; their afternoons in driving through the budding and blossoming country. Always the baby lay in Hetty’s lap: from the beginning, his nurse had found herself perpetually set aside by Hetty’s imperious affection. As Eben Williams looked, day after day, on the picture which Hetty and the baby made, he found himself day after day more and more bewildered by Hetty. She had adopted towards him a uniform manner of cordial familiarity, which had in it, however, no shade of intimacy. If Hetty had been the veriest coquette living, she could not have devised a more effectual charm to a man of Eben Williams’s temperament. He had come out unscathed from many sieges which had been laid to him by women. He knew very well the ordinary methods, the atmosphere of the average wooing or wooable woman, and he was proof against them all. He was thirty years old and he had never yet been in love. But this woman, who treated him with the same easy, unconscious frankness with which men treat men, who never seemed to observe his going or his coming, otherwise than as it might affect her friend’s need of him as a physician; this woman who seemed all mother while she was holding the baby, and all boy while she was trying, under old Captain Mayhew’s guidance to learn to sail a boat; this woman who was a spinster in years, and a child in simplicity and directness; who was beautiful, and never once thought of her beauty; who was alone, and never seemed lonely: she was a perpetual problem and fascination to him. Dr. Eben was not usually given to concerning himself much as to other people’s opinion of him: but he found himself for ever wondering what Hetty Gunn thought of him; whether she were beginning to lose any of her old prejudice against him; and whether, after this seaside idyl were over, he should ever see her again. The more he pondered, the less he could solve the question. No wonder. The simple truth was that Hetty was not thinking about him at all. She had accepted the whole situation with frankness and good sense: she found him kind, helpful, cheery, and entertaining; the embarrassments she had feared, did not arise, and she was very glad of it. She often said to herself: “The doctor is very sensible. He does not show any foolish feeling of resentment;” and she felt a sincere and increasing gratitude to him, because Sally and her child were fast regaining health under his care. But, beyond this, Hetty did not occupy her thoughts with Dr. Eben. It had never been her way to think about men, as most women think about them: good comradeship seemed to be all that she was capable of towards a man. Dr. Eben said this to himself hundreds of times each day; and then hundreds of other times each day, as he watched the looks which she bent on the baby in her arms, he knew that he had said what was not true; that there must be unstirred depths in her nature, which only the great forces of love could move. All this time Dr. Eben fancied that he was simply analyzing Hetty as a psychological study. He would have admitted frankly to any one, that she interested him more than any woman he had ever seen, puzzled him more, occupied his thoughts more; but that he could be in love with this rather eccentric middle-aged woman, beautiful though she was, Dr. Eben would have warmly denied. His ideal maiden, the woman whom he had been for ten years confidently expecting some day to find, woo, and win, was quite unlike Hetty; unlike even what Hetty must have been in her youth: she was to be slender and graceful; gentle as a dove; vivacious, but in no wise opinionated, gracious and suave and versed in all elegancies; cultured too, and of a rare, fine wit: so easy is it for the heart to garnish its unfilled chambers, and picture forth the sort of guest it will choose to entertain. Meanwhile, by doors which the heart knows not of, quietly enters a guest of quite different presence, takes up abode, is lodged and fed by angels, till grown a very monarch in possession and control, it suddenly surprises the heart into an absolute and unconditional allegiance; and this is like what the apostle meant, when he said,–
“The kingdom of God cometh not by observation.”
When Hetty said to Dr. Eben, one night, “I really think we must go home. Sally seems perfectly well, and baby too: do you not think it will be quite safe to take them back?” he gave an actual start, and colored. Professionally, Dr. Eben was more ashamed of himself in that instant than he had ever been in his life. He had absolutely forgotten, for many days, that it was in the capacity of a physician that he was living on this shore of the sea. They had been at “The Runs” now two months; and, except in his weekly visits to Lonway Corners, he had hardly recollected that he was a physician at all. The sea and the wind had been Sally’s real physicians, and the baby’s; and as for the other two, in the happy quartette, had they needed a physician? Perhaps; but no physician was there for them.
“Certainly! certainly!” he stammered, “it will be safe;” and his face grew redder and redder, as he spoke. Hetty looked at him in honest amazement. She could put but one interpretation on his manner.
“Why, there is no need of our going yet, if it isn’t best. Don’t look so! Sally can stay here all summer if it will do her good.”
“You misunderstood me, Miss Gunn,” said the doctor, now himself again. “It will really be perfectly safe for Mrs. Little to go home. She is entirely well.”
“What did you mean then?” said Hetty, looking him straight in the eye with honest perplexity in her face. “You looked as if you didn’t think it best to go.”
“No, Miss Gunn,” replied Dr. Eben. “I looked as if I did not want to go. It has been so pleasant here: that was all.”
“Oh,” said Hetty, in a relieved tone, “was that it? I feel just so, too: it has been delightful; it is the only real play-spell I ever had in my life. But for all that I’m really impatient to get home: they need me on the farm; the men have not been doing just as they ought to. Jim Little is all right when I’m there; but they take advantage of him when I’m away. I really must get home before haying. I think we must certainly go some day next week.”
Dr. Eben was just going over to town for the letters. As he walked slowly down to the beach, he said to himself:
“Haying! By Jove!” and this was pretty much all he thought during the whole of the hour that he spent in rowing to and from the Safe Haven wharf. “Haying!” he ejaculated again, and again. “What a woman that is! I believe if we were all dead, she’d have just as keen an eye to that haying!”
By “we all” in that sentence of his soliloquy, Dr. Eben really meant “I.” He was beginning to be half aware of a personal unhappiness, because Hetty showed no more consciousness of his existence. Her few words this morning about returning home had produced startling results in his mind; like those a chemist sometimes sees in his crucible, when, on throwing in a single drop of some powerful agent, he discovers by its instantaneous and infallible test, the presence of things he had not suspected were there. Dr. Eben Williams clenched his hands as he paced up and down the beach. He did not wish to love Hetty Gunn. He did not approve of loving Hetty Gunn; but love her he did with the whole strength of his soul. In this one brief hour, he had become aware of it. What would be its result, in vain he tried to conjecture. One moment, he said to himself that it was not in Hetty’s nature to love any man; the next moment, with a lover’s inconsistency, he reproached himself for a thought so unjust to her: one moment, he rated himself soundly for his weakness, and told himself sternly that it was plain Hetty cared no more for him than she did for one of her farm laborers; the next moment, he fell into reverie full of a vague and hopeful recalling of all the kind and familiar things she had ever done or said. The sum and substance of his meditations was, however, that nothing should lead him to commit the folly of asking Hetty to marry him, unless her present manner toward him changed.
“I dare say she would laugh in my face,” thought he; “I don’t know but that she would in any man’s face who should ask her,” and, armed and panoplied in this resolution, Dr. Eben walked up to the spot where Hetty sat under one of the old Balm of Gilead trees sewing, with the baby in its cradle at her feet. It was still early morning: the Safe Haven spires shone in the sun, and the little fishing schooners were racing out to sea before the wind. This was one of the prettiest sights from the beach at “The Runs.” Every morning scores of little fishing vessels came down the river, shot past like arrows, and disappeared beyond the bar. At night they came home again slowly; sometimes with their sails cross-set, which made them look like great white butterflies skimming the water. Hetty never wearied of watching them: still pictures never wholly pleased her. The things in nature which had motion, evident aim, purpose, arrested her eye, and gave her delight.
“I haven’t learned to sail a boat yet, after all,” she said regretfully, as the doctor came up. “Only see how lovely they are. I wish I could buy this whole place, and carry it home. I think we will all come here again next summer.”
“Not all,” said Dr. Eben; “I shall not be here with you.”
“No, I hope not,” replied Hetty, unconsciously. Dr. Eben laughed outright: her tone was so unaffectedly honest.
“Oh, you know what I mean,” exclaimed Hetty, “I mean, I hope Sally will not have to bring you as a physician. Of course, there is nothing to hinder your coming here at any time, if you like,” she added, in a kindly but indifferent tone.
“But I should not want to come alone,” said the doctor.
“No,” said Hetty, reflectively. “It would be dull, I shouldn’t like it myself, to be here all alone. The sea is the loneliest of things in the universe, I think. The fields and the woods and the hills all look as if they had good fellowship with each other perpetually; but the great, blank, bare sea, looks for ever alone; and sometimes the waves seem to me to run up on the shore as fiercely as starved wolves leaping on prey!”
“Not on this little comfortable beach, though,” said Dr. Eben.
“Oh, no!” replied Hetty, “I did not mean such sea-shore as this. But even here, I should find it sad if I were alone.”
“All places are sad if one is alone, Miss Gunn,” replied the doctor, in a pensive tone, rare with him. Hetty turned a surprised glance at him,