A Step Too Far.
Who of us has not known the presence of Misery? Perhaps as those fortunate ones whom he has but touched as he passed them by. It may be that we see but a promise of him as we look into the prophetic faces of children; into the eyes of those we love, and the awfulness of life’s possibilities presses into our souls. Do we fly him? hearing him gain upon us panting close at our heels, till we turn from the desperation of uncertainty to grapple with him? In close scuffle we may vanquish him. Fleeing, we may elude him. But what if he creep into the sanctuary of our lives, with his subtle omnipresence, that we do not see in all its horror till we are disarmed; thrusting the burden of his companionship upon us to the end! However we turn he is there. However we shrink he is there. However we come or go, or sleep or wake he is before us. Till the keen sense grows dull with apathy at looking on him, and he becomes like the familiar presence of sin.
Into such callousness had Hosmer fallen. He had ceased to bruise his soul in restless endeavor of resistance. When the awful presence bore too closely upon him, he would close his eyes and brave himself to endurance. Yet Fate might have dealt him worse things.
But a man’s misery is after all his own, to make of it what he will or what he can. And shall we be fools, wanting to lighten it with our platitudes?
My friend, your trouble I know weighs. That you should be driven by earthly needs to drag the pinioned spirit of your days through rut and mire. But think of the millions who are doing the like. Or is it your boy, that part of your own self and that other dearer self, who is walking in evil ways? Why, I know a man whose son was hanged the other day; hanged on the gibbet; think of it. If you be quivering while the surgeon cuts away that right arm, remember the poor devil in the hospital yesterday who had both his sawed off.
Oh, have done, with your mutilated men and your sons on gibbets! What are they to me? My hurt is greater than all, because it is my own. If it be only that day after day I must look with warm entreaty into eyes that are cold. Let it be but that peculiar trick of feature which I have come to hate, seen each morning across the breakfast table. That recurrent pin-prick: it hurts. The blow that lays the heart in twain: it kills. Let be mine which will; it is the one that counts.
If Misery kill a man, that ends it. But Misery seldom deals so summarily with his victims. And while they are spared to earth, we find them usually sustaining life after the accepted fashion.
Hosmer was seated at table, having finished his breakfast. He had also finished glancing over the contents of a small memorandum book, which he replaced in his pocket. He then looked at his wife sitting opposite him, but turned rather hastily to gaze with a certain entreaty into the big kind eyes of the great shaggy dog who stood--the shameless beggar--at his side.
“I knew there was something wrong,” he said abruptly, with his eyes still fixed on the dog, and his fingers thrust into the animal’s matted wool, “Where’s the mail this morning?”
“I don’t know if that stupid boy’s gone for it or not. I told him. You can’t depend on any one in a place like this.”
Fanny had scarcely touched the breakfast before her, and now pushed aside her cup still half filled with coffee.
“Why, how’s that? Sampson seems to do the right thing.”
“Yes, Sampson; but he ain’t here. That boy of Minervy’s been doing his work all morning.”
Minervy’s boy was even now making his appearance, carrying a good sized bundle of papers and letters, with which he walked boldly up to Hosmer, plainly impressed with the importance of this new rôle.
“Well, colonel; so you’ve taken Sampson’s place?” Hosmer observed, receiving the mail from the boy’s little black paws.
“My name’s Major, suh. Maje; dats my name. I ain’t tuck Sampson’s place: no, suh.”
“Oh, he’s having a day off--” Hosmer went on, smiling quizzingly at the dapper little darkey, and handing him a red apple from the dish of fruit standing in the center of the table. Maje received it with a very unmilitary bob of acknowledgment.
“He yonda home ’cross de riva, suh. He ben too late fu’ kotch de flat’s mornin’ An’ he holla an’ holla. He know dey warn’t gwine cross dat flat ’gin jis’ fu’ Sampson.”
Hosmer had commenced to open his letters. Fanny with her elbows on the table, asked the boy--with a certain uneasiness in her voice--“Ain’t he coming at all to-day? Don’t he know all the work he’s got to do? His mother ought to make him.”
“Don’t reckon. Dat away Sampson: he git mad he stay mad,” with which assurance Maje vanished through the rear door, towards the region of the kitchen, to seek more substantial condiments than the apple which he still clutched firmly.
One of the letters was for Fanny, which her husband handed her. When he had finished reading his own, he seemed disposed to linger, for he took from the fruit dish the mate to the red apple he had given Maje, and commenced to peel it with his clasp knife.
“What has our friend Belle Worthington to say for herself?” he inquired good humoredly. “How does she get on with those Creoles down there?”
“You know as well as I do, Belle Worthington ain’t going to mix with Creoles. She can’t talk French if she wanted to. She says Muddy-Graw don’t begin to compare with the Veiled Prophets. It’s just what I thought--with their ‘Muddy-Graw,’ ” Fanny added, contemptuously.
“Coming from such high authority, we’ll consider that verdict a final clincher,” Hosmer laughed a little provokingly.
Fanny was looking again through the several sheets of Belle Worthington’s letter. “She says if I’ll agree to go back with her, she’ll pass this way again.”
“Well, why don’t you? A little change wouldn’t hurt.”
“ ’Tain’t because I want to stay here, Lord knows. A God-forsaken place like this. I guess you’d be glad enough,” she added, with voice shaking a little at her own boldness.
He closed his knife, placed it in his pocket, and looked at his wife, completely puzzled.
The power of speech had come to her, for she went on, in an unnatural tone, however, and fumbling nervously with the dishes before her. “I’m fool enough about some things, but I ain’t quite such a fool as that.”
“What are you talking about, Fanny?”
“That woman wouldn’t ask anything better than for me to go to St. Louis.”
Hosmer was utterly amazed. He leaned his arms on the table, clasping his hands together and looked at his wife.
“That woman? Belle Worthington? What _do_ you mean, any way?”
“I don’t mean Belle Worthington,” she said excitedly, with two deep red spots in her cheeks. “I’m talking about Mrs. Laferm.”
He thrust his hand into his pockets and leaned back in his chair. No amazement now, but very pale, and with terrible concentration of glance.
“Well, then, don’t talk about Mrs. Lafirme,” he said very slowly, not taking his eyes from her face.
“I will talk about her, too. She ain’t worth talking about,” she blurted incoherently. “It’s time for somebody to talk about a woman passing herself off for a saint, and trying to take other women’s husbands--”
“Shut up!” cried Hosmer maddened with sudden fury, and rising violently from his chair.
“I won’t shut up,” Fanny cried excitedly back at him; rising also. “And what’s more I won’t stay here and have you making love under my very eyes to a woman that’s no better than she ought to be.”
She meant to say more, but Hosmer grasped her arm with such a grasp, that had it been her throat she would never have spoken more. The other hand went to his pocket, with fingers clutching the clasp knife there.
“By heaven--I’ll--kill you!” every word weighted with murder, panted close in her terrified face. What she would have uttered died upon her pale lips, when her frightened eyes beheld the usually calm face of her husband distorted by a passion of which she had not dreamed.
“David,” she faltered, “let go my arm.”
Her voice broke the spell that held him, and brought him again to his senses. His fingers slowly relaxed their tense hold. A sigh that was something between a moan and a gasp came with his deliverance and shook him. All the horror now was in his own face as he seized his hat and hurried speechless away.
Fanny remained for a little while dazed. Hers was not the fine nature that would stay cruelly stunned after such a scene. Her immediate terror being past, the strongest resultant emotion was one of self-satisfaction at having spoken out her mind.
But there was a stronger feeling yet, moving and possessing her; crowding out every other. A pressing want that only Sampson’s coming would relieve, and which bade fair to drive her to any extremity if it were not appeased.