The Gates Ajar

by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

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Chapter IV

May 5. I am afraid that my brave resolutions are all breaking down.

The stillness of the May days is creeping into everything; the days in which the furlough was to come; in which the bitter Peace has come instead, and in which he would have been at home, never to go away from me any more.

The lazy winds are choking me. Their faint sweetness makes me sick. The moist, rich loam is ploughed in the garden; the grass, more golden than green, springs in the warm hollow by the front gate; the great maple, just reaching up to tap at the window, blazes and bows under its weight of scarlet blossoms. I cannot bear their perfume; it comes up in great breaths, when the window is opened. I wish that little cricket, just waked from his winter’s nap, would not sit there on the sill and chirp at me. I hate the bluebirds flashing in and out of the carmine cloud that the maple makes, and singing, singing, everywhere.

It is easy to understand how Bianca heard “The nightingales sing through her head,” how she could call them “Owl-like birds,” who sang “for spite,” who sang “for hate,” who sang “for doom.”

Most of all I hate the maple. I wish winter were back again to fold it away in white, with its bare, black fingers only to come tapping at the window. “Roy’s maple” we used to call it. How much fun he had out of that old tree!

As far back as I can remember, we never considered spring to be officially introduced till we had had a fight with the red blossoms. Roy used to pelt me well; but with that pretty chivalry of his, which was rare in such a little fellow, which developed afterwards into that rarer treatment of women, of which every one speaks who speaks of him, he would stop the play the instant it threatened roughness. I used to be glad, though, that I had strength and courage enough to make it some fun to him.

The maple is full of pictures of Roy. Roy not yet over the dignity of his first boots, aiming for the cross-barred branch, coming to the ground with a terrible wrench on his ankle, straight up again before anybody could stop him, and sitting there on the ugly, swaying bough as white as a sheet, to wave his cap,—“There, I meant to do it, and I have!” Roy, chopping off the twigs for kindling-wood in his mud oven, and sending his hatchet right through the parlor window. Roy cutting leaves for me, and then pulling all my wreaths down over my nose every time I put them on! Roy making me jump half-way across the room with a sudden thump on my window, and, looking out, I would see him with his hat off and hair blown from his forehead, framed in by the scented blossoms, or the quivering green, or the flame of blood-red leaves. But there is no end to them if I begin.

I had planned, if he came this week, to strip the richest branches, and fill his room.

May 6. The May-day stillness, the lazy winds, the sweetness in the air, are all gone. A miserable northeasterly storm has set in. The garden loam is a mass of mud; the golden grass is drenched; the poor little cricket is drowned in a mud-puddle; the bluebirds are huddled among the leaves, with their heads under their drabbled wings, and the maple blossoms, dull and shrunken, drip against the glass.

It begins to be evident that it will never do for me to live alone. Yet who is there in the wide world that I could bear to bring here—into Roy’s place?

A little old-fashioned book, bound in green and gold, attracted my attention this morning while I was dusting the library. It proved to be my mother’s copy of “Elia,”—one that father had given her, I saw by the fly-leaf, in their early engagement days. It is some time since I have read Charles Lamb; indeed, since the middle of February I have read nothing of any sort. Phœbe dries the Journal for me every night, and sometimes I glance at the Telegraphic Summary, and sometimes I don’t.

“You used to be fond enough of books,” Mrs. Bland says, looking puzzled,—“regular blue-stocking, Mr. Bland called you (no personal objection to you, of course, my dear, but he doesn’t like literary women, which is a great comfort to me). Why don’t you read and divert yourself now?”

But my brain, like the rest of me, seems to be crushed. I could not follow three pages of history with attention. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Whittier, Mrs. Browning, are filled with Roy’s marks,—and so down the shelf. Besides, poetry strikes as nothing else does, deep into the roots of things. One finds everywhere some strain at the fibres of one’s heart. A mind must be healthily reconciled to actual life, before a poet—at least most poets—can help it. We must learn to bear and to work, before we can spare strength to dream.

To hymns and hymn-like poems, exception should be made. Some of them are like soft hands stealing into ours in the dark, and holding us fast without a spoken word. I do not know how many times Whittier’s “Psalm,” and that old cry of Cowper’s, “God moves in a mysterious way,” have quieted me,—just the sound of the words; when I was too wild to take in their meaning, and too wicked to believe them if I had.

As to novels, (by the way, Meta Tripp sent me over four yesterday afternoon, among which notice “Aurora Floyd” and “Uncle Silas,”) the author of “Rutledge” expresses my feeling about them precisely. I do not remember her exact words, but they are not unlike these.{35} “She had far outlived the passion of ordinary novels; and the few which struck the depths of her experience gave her more pain than pleasure.”

However, I took up poor “Elia” this morning, and stumbled upon “Dream Children,” to which, for pathos and symmetry, I have read few things superior in the language. Years ago, I almost knew it by heart, but it has slipped out of memory with many other things of late. Any book, if it be one of those which Lamb calls “books which are books,” put before us at different periods of life, will unfold to us new meanings,—wheels within wheels, delicate springs of purpose to which, at the last reading, we were stone-blind; gems which perhaps the author ignorantly cut and polished.

A sentence in this “Dream Children,” which at eighteen I passed by with a compassionate sort of wonder, only thinking that it gave me “the blues” to read it, and that I was glad Roy was alive, I have seized upon and learned all over again now. I write it down to the dull music of the rain.

“And how, when he died, though he had not been dead an hour, it seemed as if he had died a great while ago, such a distance there is betwixt life and death; and how I bore his death, as I thought, pretty well at first, but afterwards it haunted and haunted me; and though I did not cry or take it to heart as some do, and as I think he would have done if I had died, yet I missed him all day long, and knew not till then how much I had loved him. I missed his kindness and I missed his crossness, and wished him to be alive again to be quarrelling with him (for we quarrelled sometimes), rather than not have him again.”

How still the house is! I can hear the coach rumbling away at the half-mile corner, coming up from the evening train. A little arrow of light has just cut the gray gloom of the West.

Ten o’clock.

The coach to which I sat listening rumbled up to the gate and stopped. Puzzled for the moment, and feeling as inhospitable as I knew how, I went down to the door. The driver was already on the steps, with a bundle in his arms that proved to be a rather minute child; and a lady, veiled, was just stepping from the carriage into the rain. Of course I came to my senses at that, and, calling to Phœbe that Mrs. Forceythe had come, sent her out an umbrella.

She surprised me by running lightly up the steps. I had imagined a somewhat advanced age and a sedate amount of infirmities, to be necessary concomitants of aunthood. She came in all sparkling with rain-drops, and, gently pushing aside the hand with which I was trying to pay her driver, said, laughing:—

“Here we are, bag and baggage, you see, ‘big trunk, little trunk,’ &c., &c. You did not expect me? Ah, my letter missed then. It is too bad to take you by storm in this way. Come, Faith! No, don’t trouble about the trunks just now. Shall I go right in here?”

Her voice had a sparkle in it, like the drops on her veil, but it was low and very sweet. I took her in by the dining-room fire, and was turning to take off the little girl’s things, when a soft hand stayed me, and I saw that she had drawn off the wet veil. A face somewhat pale looked down at me,—she is taller than I,—with large, compassionate eyes.

“I am too wet to kiss you, but I must have a look,” she said, smiling. “That will do. You are like your mother, very like.”

I don’t know what possessed me, whether it was the sudden, sweet feeling of kinship with something alive, or whether it was her face or her voice, or all together, but I said:—

“I don’t think you are too wet to be kissed,” and threw my arms about her neck,—I am not of the kissing kind, either, and I had on my new bombazine, and she was very wet.

I thought she looked pleased.

Phœbe was sent to open the register in the blue room, and as soon as it was warm I went up with them, leading Faith by the hand. I am unused to children, and she kept stepping on my dress, and spinning around and tipping over, in the most astonishing manner. It strikingly reminded me of a top at the last gasp. Her mother observed that she was tired and sleepy. Phœbe was waiting around awkwardly up stairs, with fresh towels on her arm. Aunt Winifred turned and held out her hand.

“Well, Phœbe, I am glad to see you. This is Phœbe, I am sure? You have altered with everything else since I was here before. You keep bright and well, I hope, and take good care of Miss Mary?”

It was a simple enough thing, to be sure, her taking the trouble to notice the old servant with whom she had scarcely ever exchanged a half-dozen words; but I liked it. I liked the way, too, in which it was done. It reminded me of Roy’s fine, well-bred manner towards his inferiors,—always cordial, yet always appropriate; I have heard that our mother had much the same.

I tried to make things look as pleasant as I could down stairs, while they were making ready for tea. The grate was raked up a little, a bright supper-cloth laid on the table, and the curtains drawn. Phœbe mixed a hasty cake of some sort, and brought out the heavier pieces of silver,—tea-pot, &c., which I do not use when I am alone, because it is so much trouble to take care of them, and because I like the little Wedgwood set that Roy had for his chocolate.

“How pleasant!” said Aunt Winifred, as she sat down with Faith in a high chair beside her. Phœbe had a great hunt up garret for that chair; it has been stowed away there since it and I parted company. “How pleasant everything is here! I believe in bright dining-rooms. There is an indescribable dinginess to most that I have seen, which tends to anything but thankfulness. Homesick, Faith? No; that’s right. I don’t think we shall be homesick at Cousin Mary’s.”

If she had not said that, the probabilities are that they would have been, for I have fallen quite out of the way of active housekeeping, and have almost forgotten how to entertain a friend. But I do not want her good opinion wasted, and mean they shall have a good time if I can make it for them.

It was a little hard at first to see her opposite me at the table; it was Roy’s place.

While she was sitting there in the light, with the dust and weariness of travel brushed away a little, I was able to make up my mind what this aunt of mine looks like.

She is young, then, to begin with, and I find it necessary to reiterate the fact, in order to get it into my stupid brain. The cape and spectacles, the little old woman’s shawl and invalid’s walk, for which I had prepared myself, persist in hovering before my bewildered eyes, ready to drop down on her at a moment’s notice. Just thirty-five she is by her own showing; older than I, to be sure; but as we passed in front of the mirror together, once to-night, I could not see half that difference between us. The peace of her face and the pain of mine contrast sharply, and give me an old, worn look, beside her. After all, though, to one who had seen much of life, hers would be the true maturity perhaps,—the maturity of repose. A look in her eyes once or twice gave me the impression that she thinks me rather young, though she is far too wise and delicate to show it. I don’t like to be treated like a girl. I mean to find out what she does think.

My eyes have been on her face the whole evening, and I believe it is the sweetest face—woman’s face—that I have ever seen. Yet she is far from being a beautiful woman. It is difficult to say what makes the impression; scarcely any feature is accurate, yet the tout ensemble seems to have no fault. Her hair, which must have been bright bronze once, has grown gray—quite gray—before its time. I really do not know of what color her eyes are; blue, perhaps, most frequently, but they change with every word that she speaks; when quiet, they have a curious, far-away look, and a steady, lambent light shines through them. Her mouth is well cut and delicate, yet you do not so much notice that as its expression. It looks as if it held a happy secret, with which, however near one may come to her, one can never intermeddle. Yet there are lines about it and on her forehead, which are proof plain enough that she has not always floated on summer seas. She yet wears her widow’s black, but relieves it pleasantly by white at the throat and wrists. Take her altogether, I like to look at her.

Faith is a round, rolling, rollicking little piece of mischief, with three years and a half of experience in this very happy world. She has black eyes and a pretty chin, funny little pink hands all covered with dimples, and a dimple in one cheek besides. She has tipped over two tumblers of water, scratched herself all over playing with the cat, and set her apron on fire already since she has been here. I stand in some awe of her; but, after I have become initiated, I think that we shall be very good friends.

“Of all names in the catalogue,” I said to her mother, when she came down into the parlor after putting her to bed, “Faith seems to be about the most inappropriate for this solid-bodied, twinkling little bairn of yours, with her pretty red cheeks, and such an appetite for supper!”

“Yes,” she said, laughing, “there is nothing spirituelle about Faith. But she means just that to me. I could not call her anything else. Her father gave her the name.” Her face changed, but did not sadden; a quietness crept into it and into her voice, but that was all.

“I will tell you about it sometime,—perhaps,” she added, rising and standing by the fire. “Faith looks like him.” Her eyes assumed their distant look, “like the eyes of those who see the dead,” and gazed away,—so far away, into the fire, that I felt that she would not be listening to anything that I might say, and therefore said nothing.

We spent the evening chatting cosily. After the fire had died down in the grate (I had Phœbe light a pine-knot there, because I noticed that Aunt Winifred fancied the blaze in the dining-room), we drew up our chairs into the corner by the register, and roasted away to our hearts’ content. A very bad habit, to sit over the register, and Aunt Winifred says she shall undertake to break me of it. We talked about everything under the sun,—uncles, aunts, cousins, Kansas and Connecticut, the surrenders and the assassination, books, pictures, music, and Faith,—O, and Phœbe and the cat. Aunt Winifred talks well, and does not gossip nor exhaust her resources; one feels always that she has material in reserve on any subject that is worth talking about.

For one thing I thank her with all my heart: she never spoke of Roy.

Upon reflection, I find that I have really passed a pleasant evening.

She knocked at my door just now, after I had written the last sentence, and had put away the book for the night. Thinking that it was Phœbe, I called, “Come in,” and did not turn. She had come to the bureau where I stood unbraiding my hair, and touched my arm, before I saw who it was. She had on a crimson dressing-gown of warm flannel, and her hair hung down on her shoulders. Although so gray, her hair is massive yet, and coils finely when she is dressed.

“I beg your pardon,” she said, “but I thought you would not be in bed, and I came in to say,—let me sit somewhere else at the breakfast-table, if you like. I saw that I had taken ‘the vacant place.’ Good night, my dear.”

It was such a little thing! I wonder how many people would have noticed it or taken the trouble to speak of it. The quick perception, the unusual delicacy,—these too are like Roy.

I almost wish that she had stayed a little longer. I almost think that I could bear to have her speak to me about him.

Faith, in the next room, seems to have wakened from a frightened dream, and I can hear their voices through the wall. Her mother is soothing and singing to her in the broken words of some old lullaby with which Phœbe used to sing Roy and me to sleep, years and years ago. The unfamiliar, home-like sound is pleasant in the silent house. Phœbe, on her way to bed, is stopping on the garret-stairs to listen to it. Even the cat comes mewing up to the door, and purring as I have not heard the creature purr since the old Sunday-night singing, hushed so long ago.

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