When Rebecca entered the house, her mother was standing over the stove, making milk-toast for supper. The boiling milk steamed up fiercely in her face. “What makes you so long behind the others?” she demanded, without turning, stirring the milk as she spoke.
“I guess I ain't much, am I?” Rebecca said, evasively. She tried to make her voice sound as it usually did, but she could not. It broke and took on faltering cadences, as if she were intoxicated with some subtle wine of the spirit.
Her mother looked around at her. Rebecca's face was full of a strange radiance which she could not subdue before her mother's hard, inquiring gaze. Her cheeks burned with splendid color, her lips trembled into smiles in spite of herself, her eyes were like dark fires, shifting before her mother's, but not paling.
“Ephraim see 'em all go by half an hour ago,” said her mother.
Rebecca made no reply.
“If,” said her mother, “you stayed behind to see William Berry, I can tell you one thing, once for all: you needn't do it again.”
“I had to see him about something,” Rebecca faltered.
“Well, you needn't see him again about anything. You might jest as well understand it first as last: if you've got any idea of havin' William Berry, you've got to give it up.”
“Mother, I'd like to know what you mean!” Rebecca cried out, blushing.
“Look 'round here at me!” her mother ordered, suddenly.
“Look at me!”
Rebecca lifted her face perforce, and her mother eyed her pitilessly. “You ain't been tellin' of him you'd have him, now?” said she. “Why don't you speak?”
“Then you needn't.”
“You needn't talk. You can jest make up your mind to it. You ain't goin' to marry William Berry. Your brother has had enough to do with that family.”
“Mother, you won't stop my marrying William because Barney won't marry his cousin Charlotte? There ain't any sense in that.”
“I've got my reasons, an' that's enough for you,” said Deborah. “You ain't goin' to marry William Berry.”
“I am, if you haven't got any better reason than that. I won't stand it, mother; it ain't right!” Rebecca cried out.
“Then,” said Deborah, and as she spoke she began spooning out the toast gravy into a bowl with a curious stiff turn of her wrist and a superfluous vigor of muscle, as if it were molten lead instead of milk; and, indeed, she might, from the look in her face, have been one of her female ancestors in the times of the French and Indian wars, casting bullets with the yells of savages in her ears—“then,” said she, “I sha'n't have any child but Ephraim left, that's all!”
“Mother, don't!” gasped Rebecca.
“There's another thing: if you marry William Berry against your parents' wishes, you know what you have to expect. You remember your aunt Rebecca.”
Rebecca twisted her whole body about with the despairing motion with which she would have wrung her hands, flung open the door, and ran out of the room.
Deborah went on spooning up the toast. Ephraim had come in just as she spoke last to Rebecca, and he stood staring, grinning with gaping mouth.
“What's Rebecca done, mother?” he asked, pleadingly, catching hold of his mother's dress.
“Nothin' for you to know. Go an' wash your face an' hands, an' come in to supper.”
“Mother, what's she done?” Ephraim's pleading voice lengthened into a whine. He took more liberties with his mother than any one else dared; he even jerked her dress now by way of enforcing an answer. But she grasped his arm so vigorously that he cried out. “Go out to the pump, an' wash your face an' hands,” she repeated, and Ephraim made a little involuntary run to the door.
As he went out he rolled his eyes over his shoulder at his mother with tragic surprise and reproach, but she paid no attention. When he came in she ignored the great painful sigh which he heaved and the podgy hand clapped ostentatiously over his left side. “Draw your chair up,” said she.
“I dunno as I want any supper. I've got a pain. Oh dear!” Ephraim writhed, with attentive eyes upon his mother; he was like an executioner turning an emotional thumbscrew on her. But Deborah Thayer's emotions sometimes presented steel surfaces. “You can have a pain, then,” said she. “I ain't goin' to let you go to ruin because you ain't well, not if I know it. You've got to mind, sick or well, an' you might jest as well know it. I'll have one child obey me, whether or no. Set up to the table.”
Ephraim drew up his chair, whimpering; but he fell to on the milk-toast with ardor, and his hand dropped from his side. He had eaten half a plateful when his father came in. Caleb had been milking; the cows had been refractory as he drove them from pasture, and he was late.
“Supper's been ready half an hour,” his wife said, when he entered.
“The heifer run down the old road when I was a-drivin' of her home, an' I had to chase her,” Caleb returned, meekly, settling down in his arm-chair at the table.
“I guess that heifer wouldn't cut up so every night if I had the drivin' of her,” remarked Deborah. She filled a plate with toast and passed it over to Caleb.
Caleb set it before him, but he did not begin to eat. He looked at Rebecca's empty place, then at his wife's face, long and pale and full of stern rancor, behind the sugar-bowl and the cream-pitcher.
“Rebecca got home?” he ventured, with wary eyes upon her.
“Yes, she's got home.”
Caleb winked, meekly. “Ain't she comin' to supper?”
“I dunno whether she is or not.”
“Does she know it's ready?” Deborah vouchsafed no reply. She poured out the tea.
Caleb grated his chair suddenly. “I'll jest speak to her,” he proclaimed, courageously.
“She knows it's ready. You set still,” said Deborah. And Caleb drew his chair close again, and loaded his knife with toast, bringing it around to his mouth with a dexterous sidewise motion.
“She ain't sick, is she?” he said, presently, with a casual air.
“No, I guess she ain't sick.”
“I s'pose she eat so many cherries she didn't want any supper,” Caleb said, chuckling anxiously. His wife made no reply. Ephraim reached over slyly for the toast-spoon, and she pushed his hand back.
“You can't have any more,” said she.
“Can't I have jest a little more, mother?”
“No, you can't.”
“I feel faint at my stomach, mother.”
“You can keep on feelin' faint.”
“Can't I have a piece of pie, mother?”
“You can't have another mouthful of anything to eat to-night.”
Ephraim clapped his hand to his side again and sighed, but his mother took no notice.
“Have you got a pain, sonny?” asked Caleb.
“Yes, dreadful. Oh!”
“Hadn't he ought to have somethin' on it?” Caleb inquired, looking appealingly at Deborah.
“He can have some of his doctor's medicine if he don't feel better,” she replied, in a hard voice. “Set your chair back now, Ephraim, and get out your catechism.”
“I don't feel fit to, mother,” groaned Ephraim.
“You do jest as I tell you,” said his mother.
And Ephraim, heaving with sighs, muttering angrily far under his breath lest his mother should hear, pulled his chair back to the window, and got his catechism out of the top drawer of his father's desk, and began droning out in his weak, sulky voice the first question therein: “What is the chief end of man?”
“Now shut the book and answer it,” said his mother, and Ephraim obeyed.
Ephraim was quite conversant with the first three questions and their answers, after that his memory began to weaken; either he was a naturally dull scholar, or his native indolence made him appear so. He had been drilled nightly upon the “Assembly's Catechism” for the past five years, and had had many a hard bout with it before that in his very infancy, when his general health admitted—and sometimes, it seemed to Ephraim, when it had not admitted.
Many a time had the boy panted for breath when he rehearsed those grandly decisive, stately replies to those questions of all ages, but his mother had been obdurate. He could not understand why, but in reality Deborah held her youngest son, who was threatened with death in his youth, to the “Assembly's Catechism” as a means of filling his mind with spiritual wisdom, and fitting him for that higher state to which he might soon be called. Ephraim had been strictly forbidden to attend school—beyond reading he had no education; but his mother resolved that spiritual education he should have, whether he would or not, and whether the doctor would or not. So Ephraim laboriously read the Bible through, a chapter at a time, and he went, step by step, through the wisdom of the Divines of Westminster. No matter how much he groaned over it, his mother was pitiless. Sometimes Caleb plucked up courage and interceded. “I don't believe he feels quite ekal to learnin' of his stint to-night,” he would say, and then his eyes would fall before the terrible stern pathos in Deborah's, as she would reply in her deep voice: “If he can't learn nothin' about books, he's got to learn about his own soul. He's got to, whether it hurts him or not. I shouldn't think, knowin' what you know, you'd say anything, Caleb Thayer.”
And Caleb's old face would quiver suddenly like a child's; he would rub the back of his hand across his eyes, huddle himself into his arm-chair, and say no more; and Deborah would sharply order Ephraim, spying anxiously over his catechism, to go on with the next question.
It was nearly dark to-night when Ephraim finished his stint; he was slower than usual, his progress being somewhat hindered by the surreptitious eating of a hard red apple, which he had stowed away in his jacket-pocket. Hard apples were strictly forbidden to Ephraim as articles of diet, and to eat many during the season required diplomacy.
The boy's jaws worked with furious zeal over the apple during his mother's temporary absences from the room on household tasks, and on her return were mumbling solemnly and innocently the precepts of the catechism, after a spasmodic swallowing. His father was nodding in his chair and saw nothing, and had he seen would not have betrayed him. After a little inefficient remonstrance on his own account, Caleb always subsided, and watched anxiously lest Deborah should discover the misdemeanor and descend upon Ephraim.
To-night, after the task was finished, Deborah sent Ephraim stumbling out of the room to bed, muttering remonstrances, his eyes as wild and restless as a cat's, his ears full of the nocturnal shouts of his play-fellows that came through the open windows.
“Mother, can't I go out an' play ball a little while?” sounded in a long wail from the dusk outside the door.
“You go to bed,” answered his mother. Then the slamming of a door shook the house.
“If he wa'n't sick, I'd whip him,” said Deborah, between tight lips; the spiritual whip which Ephraim held by right of his illness over her seemed to sing past her ears. She shook Caleb with the force with which she might have shaken Ephraim. “You'd better get up an' go to bed now, instead of sleepin' in your chair,” she said, imperatively; and Caleb obeyed, staggering, half-dazed, across the floor into the bedroom. Deborah was only a few years younger than her husband, but she had retained her youthful vigor in much greater degree. She never felt the drowsiness of age stealing over her at nightfall. Indeed, oftentimes her senses seemed to gain in alertness as the day wore on, and many a night she was up and at work long after all the other members of her family were in bed. There came at such times to Deborah Thayer a certain peace and triumphant security, when all the other wills over which her own held contested sway were lulled to sleep, and she could concentrate all her energies upon her work. Many a long task of needle-work had she done in the silence of the night, by her dim oil lamp; in years past she had spun and woven, and there was in a clothes-press up-stairs a wonderful coverlid in an intricate pattern of blue and white, and not a thread of it woven by the light of the sun.
None of the neighbors knew why Deborah Thayer worked so much at night; they attributed it to her tireless industry. “The days wa'n't never long enough for Deborah Thayer,” they said—and she did not know why herself.
There was deep in her heart a plan for the final disposition of these nightly achievements, but she confided it to no one, not even to Rebecca. The blue-and-white coverlid, many a daintily stitched linen garment and lace-edged pillow-slip she destined for Rebecca when she should be wed, although she frowned on Rebecca's lover and spoke harshly to her of marriage. To-night, while Rebecca lay sobbing in her little bedroom, the mother knitted assiduously until nearly midnight upon a wide linen lace with which to trim dimity curtains for the daughter's bridal bedstead.
Deborah needed no lamplight for this knitting-work; she was so familiar with it, having knitted yards with her thoughts elsewhere, that she could knit without seeing her needles.
So she sat in the deepening dusk and knitted, and heard the laughter and shouts of the boys at play a little way down the road with a deeper pang than Ephraim had ever felt over his own deprivation.
She was glad when the gay hubbub ceased and the boys were haled into bed. Shortly afterwards she heard out in the road a quick, manly tread and a merry whistle. She did not know the tune, but only one young man in Pembroke could whistle like that. “It's Thomas Payne goin' up to see Charlotte Barnard,” she said to herself, with a bitter purse of her lips in the dark. That merry whistler, passing her poor cast-out son in his lonely, half-furnished house, whose dark, shadowy walls she could see across the field, smote her as sorely as he smote him. It seemed to her that she could hear that flute-like melody even as far as Charlotte's door. In spite of her stern resolution to be just, a great gust of wrath shook her. “Lettin' of him come courtin' her when it ain't six weeks since Barney went,” she said, quite out loud, and knitted fiercely.
But poor Thomas Payne, striding with his harmless swagger up the hill, whistling as loud as might be one of his college airs, need not, although she knew it not and he knew it not himself, have disturbed her peace of mind.
Charlotte, at the cherry party, had asked him, with a certain dignified shyness, if he could come up to her house that evening, and he had responded with alacrity. “Why, of course I can,” he cried, blushing joyfully all over his handsome face—“of course I can, Charlotte!” And he tried to catch one of her hands hanging in the folds of her purple dress, but she drew it away.
“I want to see you a few minutes about something,” she said, soberly; and then she pressed forward to speak to another girl, and he could not get another word with her about it.
Charlotte, after she got home from the party, had changed her pretty new gown for her every-day one of mottled brown calico set with a little green sprig, and had helped her mother get supper.
Cephas, however, was late, and did not come home until just before Thomas Payne arrived. Sarah had begun to worry. “I don't see where your father is,” she kept saying to Charlotte. When she heard his shuffling step on the door-stone she started as if he had been her lover. When he came in she scrutinized him anxiously, to see if he looked ill or disturbed. Sarah Barnard, during all absences of her family, dug busily at imaginary pitfalls for them; had they all existed the town would have been honey-combed.
“There ain't nothin' happened, has there, Cephas?” she said.
“I dunno of anythin' that's happened.”
“I got kind of worried. I didn't know where you was.” Sarah had an air of apologizing for her worry. Cephas made no reply; he did not say where he had been, nor account for his tardiness; he did not look at his wife, standing before him with her pathetically inquiring face. He pulled a chair up to the table and sat down, and Charlotte set his supper before him. It was a plate of greens, cold boiled dock, and some rye-and-Indian bread. Cephas still adhered to his vegetarian diet, although he pined on it, and the longing for the flesh-pots was great in his soul. However, he said no more about sorrel pies, for the hardness and the flavor of those which he had prepared had overcome even his zeal of invention. He ate of them manfully twice; then he ate no more, and he did not inquire how Sarah disposed of them after they had vainly appeared on the table a week. She, with no pig nor hens to eat them, was forced, with many misgivings as to the waste, to deposit them in the fireplace.
“They actually made good kindlin' wood,” she told her sister Sylvia. “Poor Cephas, he didn't have no more idea than a baby about makin' pies.” All Sarah's ire had died away; to-night she set a large plump apple-pie slyly on the table—an apple-pie with ample allowance of lard in the crust thereof; and she felt not the slightest exultation, only honest pleasure, when she saw, without seeming to, Cephas cut off a goodly wedge, after disposing of his dock greens.
“Poor father, I'm real glad he's tastin' of the pie,” she whispered to Charlotte in the pantry; “greens ain't very fillin'.”
Charlotte smiled, absently. Presently she slipped into the best room and lighted the candles. “You expectin' of anybody to-night?” her mother asked, when she came out.
“I didn't know but somebody might come,” Charlotte replied, evasively. She blushed a little before her mother's significantly smiling face, but there was none of the shamed delight which should have accompanied the blush. She looked very sober—almost stern.
“Hadn't you better put on your other dress again, then?” asked her mother.”
“No, I guess this 'll do.”
Cephas ate his pie in silence—he had helped himself to another piece—but he heard every word. After he had finished, he fumbled in his pocket for his old leather purse, and counted over a little store of money on his knee.
Charlotte was setting away the dishes in the pantry when her father came up behind her and crammed something into her hand. She started. “What is it?” said she.
“Look and see,” said Cephas.
Charlotte opened her hand, and saw a great silver dollar. “I thought mebbe you'd like to buy somethin' with it,” said Cephas. He cleared his throat, and went out through the kitchen into the shed. Charlotte was too amazed to thank him; her mother came into the pantry. “What did he give you?” she whispered.
Charlotte held up the money. “Poor father,” said Sarah Barnard, “he's doin' of it to make up. He was dreadful sorry about that other, an' he's tickled 'most to death now he thinks you've got somebody else, and are contented. Poor father, he ain't got much money, either.”
“I don't want it,” Charlotte said, her steady mouth quivering downward at the corners.
“You keep it. He'd feel all upset if you didn't. You'll find it come handy. I know you've got a good many things now, but you had ought to have a new cape come fall; you can't come out bride in a muslin one when snow flies.” Sarah cast a half-timid, half-shrewd glance at Charlotte, who put the dollar in her pocket.
“A green satin cape, lined and wadded, would be handsome,” pursued her mother.
“I sha'n't ever come out bride,” said Charlotte.
“How you talk. There, he's comin' now!”
And, indeed, at that the clang of the knocker sounded through the house. Charlotte took off her apron and started to answer it, but her mother caught her and pinned up a stray lock of hair. “I 'most wish you had put on your other dress again,” she whispered.
Sarah listened with her ear close to the crack of the kitchen door when her daughter opened the outside one. She heard Thomas Payne's hearty greeting and Charlotte's decorous reply. The door of the front room shut, then she set the kitchen door ajar softly, but she could hear nothing but a vague hum of voices across the entry; she could not distinguish a word. However, it was as well that she could not, for her heart would have sunk, as did poor Thomas Payne's.
Thomas, with his thick hair brushed into a shining roll above his fair high forehead, in his best flowered waistcoat and blue coat with brass buttons, sat opposite Charlotte, his two nicely booted feet toeing out squarely on the floor, his two hands on his knees, and listened to what she had to say, while his boyish face changed and whitened. Thomas was older than Charlotte, but he looked younger. It seemed, too, as if he looked younger when with her than at other times, although he was always anxiously steady and respectful, and lost much of that youthful dash which made him questioningly admired by the young people of Pembroke.
Charlotte began at once after they were seated. Her fair, grave face colored, her voice had in it a solemn embarrassment. “I don't know but you thought I was doing a strange thing to ask you to come here to-night,” she said.
“No, I didn't; I didn't think so, Charlotte,” Thomas declared, warmly.
“I felt as if I ought to. I felt as if it was my duty to,” said she. She cast her eyes down. Thomas waited, looking at her with vague alarm. Somehow some college scrapes of his flashed into his head, and he had a bewildered idea the she had found them out and that her sweet rigid innocence was shocked, and she was about to call him to account.
But Charlotte continued, raising her eyes, and meeting his gravely and fairly:
“You've been coming here three Sabbath evenings running, now,” said she.
“Yes, I know I have, Charlotte.”
“And you mean to keep on coming, if I don't say anything to hinder it?”
“You know I do, Charlotte,” replied Thomas, with ardent eyes upon her face.
“Then,” said Charlotte, “I feel as if it was my duty to say this to you, Thomas. If you come in any other way than as a friend, if you come on any other errand than friendship, you must not come here any more. It isn't right for me to encourage you, and let you come here and get your feelings enlisted. If you come here occasionally as a friend in friendship I shall be happy to have you, but you must not come here with any other hopes or feelings.”
Charlotte's solemnly stilted words, and earnest, severe face chilled the young man opposite. His face sobered. “You mean that you can't ever think of me in any other way than as a friend,” he said.
Charlotte nodded. “You know it is not because there's one thing against you, Thomas.”
“Then it is Barney, after all.”
“I was all ready to marry him a few weeks ago,” Charlotte said, with a kind of dignified reproach.
Thomas colored. “I know it, Charlotte; I ought not to have expected—I suppose you couldn't get over it so soon. I couldn't if I had been in your place, and been ready to marry anybody. But I didn't know about girls; I didn't know but they were different; I always heard they got over things quicker. I ought not to have thought— But, oh, Charlotte, if I wait, if you have a little more time, don't you think you will feel different about it?”
Charlotte shook her head.
“But he is such a good-for-nothing dog to treat you the way he does, Charlotte!” Thomas cried out, in a great burst of wrath and jealous love.
“I don't want to hear another word like that, Thomas Payne,” Charlotte said, sternly, and the young man drooped before her.
“I beg your pardon, Charlotte,” said he. “I suppose I ought not to have spoken so, if you— Oh, Charlotte, then you don't think you ever can get over this and think a little bit of me?”
“No,” replied Charlotte, in a steady voice, “I don't think I ever can, Thomas.”
“I don't mean that I am trying to get you away from any other fellow, Charlotte—I wouldn't do anything like that; but if he won't— Oh, Charlotte, are you sure?”
“I don't think I ever can,” repeated Charlotte, monotonously, looking at the wall past Thomas.
“I've always thought so much of you, Charlotte, though I never told you so.”
“You'd better not now.”
“Yes, I'm going to, now. I've got to. Then I'll never say another word—I'll go away, and never say another word.” Thomas got up, and brought his chair close to Charlotte's. “Don't move away,” he pleaded; “let me sit here near you once—I never shall again. I'm going to tell you, Charlotte. I used to look across at you sitting in the meeting-house, Sabbath days, when I was a boy, and think you were the handsomest girl I ever saw. Then I did try to go with you once before I went to college; perhaps you didn't know that I meant anything, but I did. Barney was in the way then a little, but I didn't think much of it. I didn't know that he really meant to go with you. You let me go home with you two or three times—perhaps you remember.”
“I never forgot,” said Thomas Payne. “Well, father found it out, and he had a talk with me. He made me promise to wait till I got through college before I said anything to you; he was doing a good deal for me, you know. So I waited, and the first thing I knew, when I came home, they said Barney Thayer was waiting on you, and I thought it was all settled and there was nothing more to be done. I made up my mind to bear it like a man and make the best of it, and I did. But this spring when I was through college, and that happened betwixt you and Barney, when he—didn't come back to you, and you didn't seem to mind so much, I couldn't help having a little hope. I waited and kept thinking he'd make up with you, but he didn't, and I knew how determined he was. Then finally I began to make a few advances, but—well, it's all over now, Charlotte. There's only one thing I'd like to ask: if I hadn't waited, as I promised father, would it have made any difference? Did you always like Barney Thayer?”
“Yes; it wouldn't have made any difference,” Charlotte said. There were tears in her eyes.
Thomas Payne arose. “Then that is all,” said he. “I never had any chance, if I had only known. I've got nothing more to say. I want to thank you for asking me to come here to-night and telling me. It was a good deal kinder than to let me keep on coming. That would have been rather hard on a fellow.” Thomas Payne fairly laughed, although his handsome face was white. “I hope it will all come right betwixt you and Barney, Charlotte,” he said, “and don't you worry about me, I shall get on. I'll own this seems a little harder than it was before, but I shall get on.” Thomas brushed his bell hat carefully with his cambric handkerchief, and stowed it under his arm. “Good-bye, Charlotte,” said he, in his old gay voice; “when you ask me, I'll come and dance at your wedding.”
Charlotte got up, trembling. Thomas reached out his hand and touched her smooth fair head softly. “I never touched you nor kissed you, except in games like that Copenhagen to-day,” said he; “but I've thought of it a good many times.”
Charlotte drew back. “I can't, Thomas,” she faltered. She could not herself have defined her reason for refusing her cast-off lover this one comfort, but it was not so much loyalty as the fear of disloyalty which led her to do so. In spite of herself, she saw Barney for an instant beside Thomas to his disadvantage, and her love could not cover him, extend it as she would. The conviction was strong upon her that Thomas was the better man of the two, although she did not love him.
“All right,” said Thomas, “I ought not to have asked it of you, Charlotte. Good-bye.”
As soon as Thomas Payne got out in the dark night air, and the door had shut behind him, he set up his merry whistle. Charlotte stood at the front window, and heard it from far down the hill.