Just then Mrs. Brooks groaned in the next room and called Rose, who went in to minister to her real needs, or to condole with her fancied ones, whichever course of action appeared to be the more agreeable at the moment.
Mrs. Brooks desired conversation, it seemed, or at least she desired an audience for a monologue, for she recognized no antiphonal obligations on the part of her listeners. The doctors were not doing her a speck of good, and she was just squandering money in a miserable boarding-house, when she might be enjoying poor health in her own home; and she didn't believe her hens were receiving proper care, and she had forgotten to pull down the shades in the spare room, and the sun would fade the carpet out all white before she got back, and she didn't believe Dr. Smith's magnetism was any more use than a cat's foot, nor Dr. Robinson's electricity any better than a bumblebee's buzz, and she had a great mind to go home and try Dr. Lord from Bonnie Eagle; and there was a letter for Rose on the bureau, which had come before supper, but the shiftless, lazy, worthless landlady had forgotten to send it up till just now.
The letter was from Mite Shapley, but Rose could read only half of it to Mrs. Brooks,--little beside the news that the Waterman barn, the finest barn in the whole township, had been struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Stephen was away at the time, having taken Rufus to Portland, where an operation on his eyes would shortly be performed at the hospital, and one of the neighbors was sleeping at the River Farm and taking care of the cattle; still the house might not have been saved but for one of Alcestis Crambry's sudden bursts of common sense, which occurred now quite regularly. He succeeded not only in getting the horses out of the stalls, but gave the alarm so promptly that the whole neighborhood was soon on the scene of action. Stephen was the only man, Mite reminded Rose, who ever had any patience with, or took any pains to teach, Alcestis, but he never could have expected to be rewarded in this practical way. The barn was only partly insured; and when she had met Stephen at the station next day, and condoled with him on his loss, he had said: "Oh, well, Mite, a little more or less doesn't make much difference just now."
"The rest wouldn't interest you, Mrs. Brooks," said Rose, precipitately preparing to leave the room.
"Something about Claude, I suppose," ventured that astute lady. "I think Mite kind of fancied him. I don't believe he ever gave her any real encouragement; but he'd make love to a pump, Claude Merrill would; and so would his father before him. How my sister Abby made out to land him we never knew, for they said he'd proposed to every woman in the town of Bingham, not excepting the wooden Indian girl in front of the cigar store, and not one of 'em but our Abby ever got a chance to name the day. Abby was as set as the everlastin' hills, and if she'd made up her mind to have a man he couldn't wriggle away from her nohow in the world. It beats all how girls do run after these slick-haired, sweet-tongued, Miss Nancy kind o' fellers, that ain't but little good as beaux an' worth less than nothing as husbands."
Rose scarcely noticed what Mrs. Brooks said, she was too anxious to read the rest of Mite Shapley's letter in the quiet of her own room.
"Stephen looks thin and pale [so it ran on], but he does not allow anybody to sympathize with him. I think you ought to know something that I haven't told you before for fear of hurting your feelings; but if I were in your place I'd like to hear everything, and then you'll know how to act when you come home. Just after you left, Stephen plowed up all the land in front of your new house,--every inch of it, all up and down the road, between the fence and the front door-step,--and then he planted corn where you were going to have your flower-beds.
"He has closed all the blinds and hung a 'To Let' sign on the large elm at the gate. Stephen never was spiteful in his life, but this looks a little like spite. Perhaps he only wanted to save his self-respect and let people know, that everything between you was over forever. Perhaps he thought it would stop talk once and for all. But you won't mind, you lucky girl, staying nearly three months in Boston! [So Almira purled on in violet ink, with shaded letters.] How I wish it had come my way, though I'm not good at rubbing rheumatic patients, even when they are his aunt. Is he as devoted as ever? And when will it be? How do you like the theatre? Mother thinks you won't attend; but, by what he used to say, I am sure church members in Boston always go to amusements.
"Your loving friend,
"P.S. They say Rufus's doctor's bills here, and the operation and hospital expenses in Portland, will mount up to five hundred dollars. Of course Stephen will be dreadfully hampered by the loss of his barn, and maybe he wants to let your house that was to be, because he really needs money. In that case the dooryard won't be very attractive to tenants, with corn planted right up to the steps--and no path left! It's two feet tall now, and by August (just when you were intending to move in) it will hide the front windows. Not that you'll care, with a diamond on your engagement finger!"
The letter was more than flesh and blood could stand, and Rose flung herself on her bed to think and regret and repent, and, if possible, to sob herself to sleep.
She knew now that she had never admired and respected Stephen so much as at the moment when, under the reproach of his eyes, she had given him back his ring. When she left Edgewood and parted with him forever she had really loved him better than when she had promised to marry him.
Claude Merrill, on his native Boston heath, did not appear the romantic, inspiring figure he had once been in her eyes. A week ago she distrusted him; to-night she despised him.
What had happened to Rose was the dilation of her vision. She saw things under a wider sky and in a clearer light. Above all, her heart was wrung with pity for Stephen--Stephen, with no comforting woman's hand to help him in his sore trouble; Stephen, bearing his losses alone, his burdens and anxieties alone, his nursing and daily work alone. Oh, how she felt herself needed! Needed! that was the magic word that unlocked her better nature. "Darkness is the time for making roots and establishing plants, whether of the soil or of the soul," and all at once Rose had become a woman: a little one, perhaps, but a whole woman--and a bit of an angel, too, with healing in her wings. When and how had this metamorphosis come about? Last summer the fragile brier-rose had hung over the river and looked at its pretty reflection in the placid surface of the water. Its few buds and blossoms were so lovely, it sighed for nothing more. The changes in the plant had been wrought secretly and silently. In some mysterious way, as common to soul as to plant life, the roots had gathered in more nourishment from the earth, they had stored up strength and force, and all at once there was a marvelous fructifying of the plant, hardiness of stalk, new shoots everywhere, vigorous leafage, and a shower of blossoms.
But everything was awry: Boston was a failure; Claude was a weakling and a flirt; her turquoise ring was lying on the riverbank; Stephen did not love her any longer; her flower-beds were plowed up and planted in corn; and the cottage that Stephen had built and she had furnished, that beloved cottage, was to let.
She was in Boston; but what did that amount to, after all? What was the State House to a bleeding heart, or the Old South Church to a pride wounded like hers?
At last she fell asleep, but it was only by stopping her ears to the noises of the city streets and making herself imagine the sound of the river rippling under her bedroom windows at home. The back yards of Boston faded, and in their place came the banks of the Saco, strewn with pine needles, fragrant with wild flowers. Then there was the bit of sunny beach, where Stephen moored his boat. She could hear the sound of his paddle. Boston lovers came a-courting in the horse-cars, but hers had floated down stream to her just at dusk in a birch-bark canoe, or sometimes, in the moonlight, on a couple of logs rafted together.
But it was all over now, and she could see only Stephen's stern face as he flung the despised turquoise ring down the river bank.