In Acton there were two churches, a Congregational and a Baptist. They stood on opposite sides of the road, and the Baptist edifice was a little farther down than the other. On Sunday morning both bells were ringing. The Baptist bell was much larger, and followed quickly on the soft peal of the Congregational with a heavy brazen clang which vibrated a good while. The people went flocking through the street to the irregular jangle of the bells. It was a very hot day, and the sun beat down heavily; parasols were bobbing over all the ladies' heads.
More people went into the Baptist church, whose society was much the larger of the two. It had been for the last ten years — ever since the Congregational had settled a new minister. His advent had divided the church, and a good third of the congregation had gone over to the Baptist brethren, with whom they still remained.
It is probable that many of them passed their old sanctuary today with the original stubborn animosity as active as ever in their hearts, and led their families up the Baptist steps with the same strong spiritual pull of indignation.
One old lady, who had made herself prominent on the opposition, trotted by this morning with the identical wiry vehemence which she had manifested ten years ago. She wore a full black silk skirt, which she held up inanely in front, and allowed to trail in the dust in the rear.
Some of the stanch Congregational people glanced at her amusedly. One fleshy, fair-faced girl in blue muslin said to her companion, with a laugh: “See that old lady trailing her best black silk by to the Baptist. Ain't it ridiculous how she keeps on showing out? I heard some one talking about it yesterday.”
The girl colored up confusedly. “Oh dear!” she thought to herself. The lady with her had an unpleasant history connected with this old church quarrel. She was a small, bony woman in a shiny purple silk, which was strained very tightly across her sharp shoulder blades. Her bonnet was quite elaborate with flowers and plumes, as was also her companion's. In fact, she was the village milliner, and the girl was her apprentice.
When the two went up the church steps, they passed a man of about fifty, who was sitting thereon well to one side. He had a singular face — a mild forehead, a gently curving mouth, and a terrible chin, with a look of strength in it that might have abashed mountains. He held his straw hat in his hand, and the sun was shining full on his bald head.
The milliner half stopped and gave an anxious glance at him; then passed on. In the vestibule she stopped again.
“You go right in, Margy,” she said to the girl. “I'll be along in a minute.”
“Where be you going, Miss Barney?”
“You go right in. I'll be there in a minute.”
Margy entered the audience room then, as if fairly brushed in by the imperious wave of a little knotty hand, and Esther Barney stood waiting until the rush of entering people was over. Then she stepped swiftly back to the side of the man seated on the steps. She spread her large black parasol deliberately, and extended the handle toward him.
“No, no, Esther; I don't want it — I don't want it.”
“If you're determined on setting out in this broiling sun, Marcus Woodman, you jest take this parasol of mine an' use it.”
“I don't want your parasol, Esther. I —”
“Don't you say it over again. Take it.”
“I won't — not if I don't want to.”
“You'll get a sunstroke.”
“That's my own lookout.”
“Marcus Woodman, you take it.”
She threw all the force there was in her intense, nervous nature into her tone and look; but she failed in her attempt, because of the utter difference in quality between her own will and that with which she had to deal. They were on such different planes that hers slid by his with its own momentum; there could be no contact even of antagonism between them. He sat there rigid, every line of his face stiffened into an icy obstinacy. She held out the parasol toward him like a weapon.
Finally she let it drop at her side, her whole expression changed.
“Marcus,” said she, “how's your mother?”
He started. “Pretty well, thank you, Esther.”
“She's out to meeting, then?”
“I've been a-thinking — I ain't drove jest now — that maybe I'd come over an' see her some day this week.”
He rose politely then. “Wish you would, Esther. Mother'd be real pleased, I know.”
“Well, I'll see — Wednesday, p'rhaps, if I ain't too busy. I must go in now; they're 'most through singing.”
“I don't believe I can stop any longer, Marcus.”
“About the parasol — thank you jest the same if I don't take it. Of course you know I can't set out here holding a parasol; folks would laugh. But I'm obliged to you all the same. Hope I didn't say anything to hurt your feelings?”
“Oh no! Why, no, Marcus! Of course I don't want to make you take it if you don't want it. I don't know but it would look kinder queer, come to think of it. Oh dear! they are through singing.”
“Say, Esther, I don't know but I might as well take that parasol, if you'd jest as soon. The sun is pretty hot, an' I might get a headache. I forgot my umbrella, to tell the truth.”
“I might have known better than to have gone at him the way I did,” thought Esther to herself, when she was seated at last in the cool church beside Margy. “Seems as if I might have got used to Marcus Woodman by this time.”
She did not see him when she came out of church; but a little boy in the vestibule handed her the parasol, with the remark, “Mr. Woodman said for me to give this to you.”
She and Margy passed down the street toward home. Going by the Baptist church, they noticed a young man standing by the entrance. He stared hard at Margy.
She began to laugh after they had passed him. “Did you see that fellow stare?” said she. “Hope he'll know me next time.”
“That's George Elliot; he's that old lady's son you was speaking about this morning.”
“Well, that's enough for me.”
“He's a real good, steady young man.”
“P'rhaps you'll change your mind some day.”
She did, and speedily, too. That glimpse of Margy Wilson's pretty, new face — for she was a stranger in the town — had been too much for George Elliot. He obtained an introduction, and soon was a steady visitor at Esther Barney's house. Margy fell in love with him easily. She had never had much attention from the young men, and he was an engaging young fellow, small and bright-eyed, though with a nervous persistency like his mother's in his manner.
“I'm going to have it an understood thing,” Margy told Esther, after her lover had become constant in his attentions, “that I'm going with George, and I ain't going with his mother. I can't bear that old woman.”
But poor Margy found that it was not so easy to thrust determined old age off the stage, even when young Love was flying about so fast on his butterfly wings that he seemed to multiply himself, and there was no room for anything else because the air was so full of Loves. That old mother, with her trailing black skirt and her wiry obstinacy, trotted as unwaveringly through the sweet stir as a ghost through a door.
One Monday morning Margy could not eat any breakfast, and there were tear stains around her blue eyes.
“Why, what's the matter, Margy?” asked Esther, eyeing her across the little kitchen table.
“Nothing's the matter. I ain't hungry any to speak of, that's all. I guess I'll go right to work on Mis' Fuller's bonnet.”
“I'd try an' eat something if I was you. Be sure you cut that velvet straight, if you go to work on it.”
When the two were sitting together at their work in the little room back of the shop, Margy suddenly threw her scissors down. “There!” said she, “I've done it; I knew I should. I've cut this velvet bias. I knew I should cut everything bias I touched today.”
There was a droll pucker on her mouth; then it began to quiver. She hid her face in her hands and sobbed. “Oh, dear, dear, dear!”
“Margy Wilson, what is the matter?”
“George and I — had a talk last night. We've broke the engagement, an' it's killing me. An' now I've cut this velvet bias. Oh, dear, dear, dear, dear!”
“For the land's sake, don't mind anything about the velvet! What's come betwixt you an' George?”
“His mother — horrid old thing! He said she'd got to live with us, and I said she shouldn't. Then he said he wouldn't marry any girl that wasn't willing to live with his mother, and I said he wouldn't ever marry me, then. If George Elliot thinks more of his mother than he does of me, he can have her. I don't care. I'll show him I can get along without him.”
“Well, I don't know, Margy. I'm real sorry about it. George Elliot's a good, likely young man; but if you didn't want to live with his mother, it was better to say so right in the beginning. And I don't know as I blame you much; she's pretty set in her ways.”
“I guess she is. I never could bear her. I guess he'll find out —”
Margy dried her eyes defiantly and took up the velvet again. “I've spoilt this velvet. I don't see why being disappointed in love should affect a girl so's to make her cut bias.”
There was a whimsical element in Margy which seemed to roll uppermost along with her grief.
Esther looked a little puzzled. “Never mind the velvet, child; it ain't much, anyway.” She began tossing over some ribbons to cover her departure from her usual reticence. “I'm real sorry about it, Margy. Such things are hard to bear, but they can be lived through. I know something about it myself. You knew I'd had some of this kind of trouble, didn't you?”
“About Mr. Woodman, you mean?”
“Yes, about Marcus Woodman. I'll tell you what 'tis, Margy Wilson, you've got one thing to be thankful for, and that is that there ain't anything ridickerlous about this affair of yourn. That makes it the hardest of anything, according to my mind — when you know that everybody's laughing, and you can hardly help laughing yourself, though you feel 'most ready to die.”
“Ain't that Mr. Woodman crazy?”
“No, he ain't crazy; he's got too much will for his common sense, that's all, and the will teeters the sense a little too far into the air. I see all through it from the beginning. I could read Marcus Woodman jest like a book.”
“I don't see how in the world you ever come to like such a man.”
“Well, I s'pose love's the strongest when there ain't any good reason for it. They say it is. I can't say as I ever really admired Marcus Woodman much. I always see right through him; but that didn't hinder my thinking so much of him that I never felt as if I could marry any other man. And I've had chances, though I shouldn't want you to say so.”
“You turned him off because he went to sitting on the church steps?”
“Course I did. Do you s'pose I was going to marry a man who made a laughingstock of himself that way?”
“I don't see how he ever come to do it. It's the funniest thing I ever heard of.”
“I know it. It seems so silly nobody'd believe it. Well, all there is about it, Marcus Woodman's got so much mulishness in him it makes him almost miraculous. You see, he got up an' spoke in that church meeting when they had such a row about Mr. Morton's being settled here — Marcus was awful set again' him. I never could see any reason why, and I don't think he could. He said Mr. Morton wa'n't doctrinal; that was what they all said; but I don't believe half of 'em knew what doctrinal was. I never could see why Mr. Morton wa'n't as good as most ministers — enough sight better than them that treated him so, anyway. I always felt that they was really setting him in a pulpit high over their heads by using him the way they did, though they didn't know it.
“Well, Marcus spoke in that church meeting, an' he kept getting more and more set every word he said. He always had a way of saying things over and over, as if he was making steps out of 'em, an' raising of himself up on 'em, till there was no moving him at all. And he did that night. Finally, when he was up real high, he said, as for him, if Mr. Morton was settled over that church, he'd never go inside the door himself as long as he lived. Somebody spoke out then — I never quite knew who 'twas, though I suspected — an' says, ‘You'll have to set on the steps, then, Brother Woodman.’
“Everybody laughed at that but Marcus. He didn't see nothing to laugh at. He spoke out awful set, kinder gritting his teeth, ‘I will set on the steps fifty years before I'll go into this house if that man's settled here.’
“I couldn't believe he'd really do it. We were going to be married that spring, an' it did seem as if he might listen to me; but he wouldn't. The Sunday Mr. Morton begun to preach, he begun to set on them steps, an' he's set there ever since, in all kinds of weather. It's a wonder it ain't killed him; but I guess it's made him tough.”
“Why, didn't he feel bad when you wouldn't marry him?”
“Feel bad? Of course he did. He took on terribly. But it didn't make any difference; he wouldn't give in a hair's breadth. I declare it did seem as if I should die. His mother felt awfully, too — she's a real good woman. I don't know what Marcus would have done without her. He wants a sight of tending and waiting on; he's dreadful babyish in some ways, though you wouldn't think it.
“Well, it's all over now as far as I'm concerned. I've got over it a good deal, though sometimes it makes me jest as mad as ever to see him setting there. But I try to be reconciled, and I get along jest as well, mebbe, as if I'd had him — I don't know. I fretted more at first than there was any sense in, and I hope you won't.”
“I ain't going to fret at all, Miss Barney. I may cut bias for a while, but I shan't do anything worse.”
“How you do talk, child!”
A good deal of it was talk with Margy; she had not as much courage as her words proclaimed. She was capable of a strong temporary resolution, but of no enduring one. She gradually weakened as the days without her lover went on, and one Saturday night she succumbed entirely. There was quite a rush of business, but through it all she caught a conversation between some customers — two pretty young girls.
“Who was that with you last night at the concert?”
“That — oh, that was George Elliot. Didn't you know him?”
“He's got another girl,” thought Margy, with a great throb.
The next Sunday night, coming out of meeting with Miss Barney, she left her suddenly. George Elliot was one of a waiting line of young men in the vestibule. She went straight up to him. He looked at her in bewilderment, his dark face turning red.
“Good evening, Miss Wilson,” he stammered out, finally.
“Good evening,” she whispered, and stood looking up at him piteously. She was white and trembling.
At last he stepped forward suddenly and offered her his arm. In spite of his resentment, he could not put her to open shame before all his mates, who were staring curiously.
When they were out in the dark, cool street, he bent over her. “Why, Margy, what does all this mean?”
“Oh, George, let her live with us, please. I want her to. I know I can get along with her if I try. I'll do everything I can. Please let her live with us.”
“And I suppose us is you and I? I thought that was all over, Margy. Ain't it?”
“Oh, George, I am sorry I treated you so.”
“And you are willing to let mother live with us now?”
“I'll do anything. Oh, George!”
“Don't cry, Margy. There — nobody's looking — give us a kiss. It's been a long time, ain't it, dear? So you've made up your mind that you're willing to let mother live with us?”
“Well, I don't believe she ever will, Margy. She's about made up her mind to go and live with my brother Edward, whether or no. So you won't be troubled with her. I dare say she might have been a little of a trial as she grew older.”
“You didn't tell me.”
“I thought it was your place to give in, dear.”
“Yes, it was, George.”
“I'm mighty glad you did. I tell you what it is, dear, I don't know how you've felt, but I've been pretty miserable lately.”
They passed Esther Barney's house, and strolled along half a mile farther. When they returned, and Margy stole softly into the house and upstairs, it was quite late and Esther had gone to bed. Margy saw the light was not out in her room, so she peeped in. She could not wait till morning to tell her.
“Where have you been?” said Esther, looking up at her out of her pillows.
“Oh, I went to walk a little way with George.”
“Then you've made up?”
“Is his mother going to live with you?”
“No, I guess not. She's going to live with Edward. But I told him I was willing she should. I've about made up my mind it's a woman's place to give in mostly. I s'pose you think I'm an awful fool.”
“No, I don't; no, I don't, Margy. I'm real glad it's all right betwixt you and George. I've seen you weren't very happy lately.”
They talked a little longer, then Margy said “Good night,” going over to Esther and kissing her. Being so rich in love made her generous with it. She looked down sweetly into the older woman's thin, red-cheeked face. “I wish you were as happy as I,” said she. “I wish you and Mr. Woodman could make up, too.”
“That's an entirely different matter. I couldn't give in in such a thing as that.”
Margy looked at her; she was not subtle, but she had just come out triumphant through innocent love and submission, and used the wisdom she had gained thereby.
“Don't you believe,” said she, “if you was to give in the way I did, that he would?”
Esther started up with an astonished air. That had never occurred to her before. “Oh, I don't believe he would. You don't know him; he's awful set. Besides, I don't know but I'm better off the way it is.”
In spite of herself, however, she could not help thinking of Margy's suggestion. Would he give in? She was hardly disposed to run the risk. With her peculiar cast of mind, her feeling for the ludicrous so keen that it almost amounted to a special sense, and her sensitiveness to ridicule, it would have been easier for her to have married a man under the shadow of a crime than one who was the deserving target of gibes and jests. Besides, she told herself, it was possible that he had changed his mind, that he no longer cared for her. How could she make the first overtures? She had not Margy's impulsiveness and innocence of youth to excuse her.
Also, she was partly influenced by the reason which she had given Margy: she was not so very sure that it would be best for her to take any such step. She was more fixed in the peace and pride of her old-maidenhood than she had realized, and was more shy of disturbing it. Her comfortable meals, her tidy housekeeping, and her prosperous work had become such sources of satisfaction to her that she was almost wedded to them, and jealous of any interference.
So it is doubtful if there would have been any change in the state of affairs if Marcus Woodman's mother had not died toward spring. Esther was greatly distressed about it.
“I don't see what Marcus is going to do,” she told Margy. “He ain't any fitter to take care of himself than a baby, and he won't have any housekeeper, they say.”
One evening, after Marcus's mother had been dead about three weeks, Esther went over there. Margy had gone out to walk with George, so nobody knew. When she reached the house — a white cottage on a hill — she saw a light in the kitchen window.
“He's there,” said she. She knocked on the door softly. Marcus shuffled over to it — he was in his stocking feet — and opened it.
“Good evening, Marcus,” said she, speaking first.
“I hadn't anything special to do this evening, so I thought I'd look in a minute and see how you was getting along.”
“I ain't getting along very well; but I'm glad to see you. Come right in.”
When she was seated opposite him by the kitchen fire, she surveyed him and his surroundings pityingly. Everything had an abject air of forlornness; there was neither tidiness nor comfort. After a few words she rose energetically. “See here, Marcus,” said she, “you jest fill up that teakettle, and I'm going to slick up here a little for you while I stay.”
“Now, Esther, I don't feel as if —”
“Don't you say nothing. Here's the teakettle. I might jest as well be doing that as setting still.”
He watched her in a way that made her nervous, as she flew about putting things to rights; but she said to herself that this was easier than sitting still, and gradually leading up to the object for which she had come. She kept wondering if she could ever accomplish it. When the room was in order, finally, she sat down again, with a strained-up look in her face.
“Marcus,” said she, “I might as well begin. There was something I wanted to say to you tonight.”
He looked at her, and she went on:
“I've been thinking some lately about how matters used to be betwixt you an' me, and it's jest possible — I don't know — but I might have been a little more patient than I was. I don't know as I'd feel the same way now if —”
“Oh, Esther, what do you mean?”
“I ain't going to tell you, Marcus Woodman, if you can't find out. I've said full enough; more'n I ever thought I should.”
He was an awkward man, but he rose and threw himself on his knees at her feet with all the grace of complete unconsciousness of action. “Oh, Esther, you don't mean, do you? — you don't mean that you'd be willing to — marry me?”
“No; not if you don't get up. You look ridickerlous.”
“Esther, do you mean it?”
“Yes. Now get up.”
“You ain't thinking — I can't give up what we had the trouble about, any more now than I could then.”
“Ain't I said once that wouldn't make any difference?”
At that he put his head down on her knees and sobbed.
“Do, for mercy sake, stop! Somebody'll be coming in. 'Tain't as if we was a young couple.”
“I ain't going to till I've told you about it, Esther. You ain't never really understood. In the first of it, we was both mad; but we ain't now, and we can talk it over. Oh, Esther, I've had such an awful life! I've looked at you, and — Oh, dear, dear, dear!”
“Marcus, you scare me to death crying so.”
“I won't. Esther, look here — it's the gospel truth: I ain't a thing again' Mr. Morton now.”
“Then why on earth don't you go into the meeting house and behave yourself?”
“Don't you suppose I would if I could? I can't, Esther — I can't.”
“I don't know what you mean by can't.”
“Do you s'pose I've took any comfort sitting there on them steps in the winter snows an' the summer suns? Do you s'pose I've took any comfort not marrying you? Don't you s'pose I'd given all I was worth any time the last ten year to have got up an' walked into the church with the rest of the folks?”
“Well, I'll own, Marcus, I don't see why you couldn't if you wanted to.”
“I ain't sure as I see, myself, Esther. All I know is I can't make myself give it up. I can't. I ain't made strong enough to.”
“As near as I can make out, you've taken to sitting on the church steps the way other men take to smoking and drinking.”
“I don't know but you're right, Esther, though I hadn't thought of it in that way before.”
“Well, you must try to overcome it.”
“I never can, Esther. It ain't right for me to let you think I can.”
“Well, we won't talk about it any more tonight. It's time I was going home.”
“Esther — did you mean it?”
“That you'd marry me anyway?”
“Yes, I did. Now do get up. I do hate to see you looking so silly.”
Esther had a new pearl-colored silk gown, and a little mantle like it, and a bonnet trimmed with roses and plumes, and she and Marcus were married in June.
The Sunday on which she came out a bride they were late at church; but late as it was, curious people were lingering by the steps to watch them. What would they do? Would Marcus Woodman enter that church door which his awful will had guarded for him so long?
They walked slowly up the steps between the watching people. When they came to the place where he was accustomed to sit, Marcus stopped short and looked down at his wife with an agonized face.
“Oh, Esther, I've — got — to stop.”
“Well, we'll both sit down here, then.”
“Yes; I'm willing.”
“No; you go in.”
“No, Marcus; I sit with you on our wedding Sunday.”
Her sharp, middle-aged face as she looked up at him was fairly heroic. This was all that she could do: her last weapon was used. If this failed, she would accept the chances with which she had married, and before the eyes of all these tittering people she would sit down at his side on these church steps. She was determined, and she would not weaken.
He stood for a moment staring into her face. He trembled so that the bystanders noticed it. He actually leaned over toward his old seat as if wire ropes were pulling him down upon it. Then he stood up straight, like a man, and walked through the church door with his wife.
The people followed. Not one of them even smiled. They had felt the pathos in the comedy.
The sitters in the pews watched Marcus wonderingly as he went up the aisle with Esther. He looked strange to them; he had almost the grand mien of a conqueror.