The old Jackson homestead at Vernon Falls was a high, narrow, colonial house with three gables. Upon the broad terrace facing the south side there was a row of graceful, "wineglass" elms. Below the terrace stretched a broad, level meadow, which was marked irregularly by a dark line where a little brook wandered, and beyond the meadow passed the white road to Verulam, the nearest station. From this highway a lane led through copses of alder and birch along the east side of the meadow to the old house, which was withdrawn nearly an eighth of a mile from the public road.
It was an austere, silent, lonely place. Powers Jackson, during the last years of his life, had built a great barn and sheds behind the house with the purpose of making a stock farm, but since his death these had been shut up. He had also built along the terrace a broad veranda, which contrasted strangely with the weather-beaten, hand-made clapboards of the old building. The gaunt, lofty house seemed to be drawing itself away disdainfully from this frivolous addition at its base.
Jackson had often spent his long vacations at the farm with his mother when he was at college. Yet that April afternoon, when he came upon it from the bend in the Verulam road, it seemed to him singularly unreal. His memories of the house and the meadow in front of it had grown and flowered, until in his imagination it had become a spot of tender, aristocratic grace, a harmony of swaying elm branches and turfy lawn, lichened stone walls and marvellous gray clapboards. To-day it rose bare and severe across the brown meadow, unrelieved by the leafless branches of the elms that crisscrossed the south front. The slanting sun struck the little panes of the upper windows, and made them blaze with a mysterious, intensely yellow fire. Involuntarily his pace slackened as he turned from the highroad into the lane. The place appeared strangely silent, deserted. Was Helen there in the old house? Could she understand? Could she forgive him? ...
The northern spring had barely begun. It was cold, grudging, tentative, scarcely touching the brown meadow with faint green. Hiding its charm, like the delicate first bloom of Puritan women, it gave an uncertain promise of future performance—of a hidden, reticent beauty.
Jackson lingered in the lane, watching the sun fade from the window panes, until the air suddenly became chill and the scene was blank. Then, as he stepped on toward the house, he caught sight of a woman's figure stooping in the thicket beside the road. His heart began suddenly to beat, telling him, almost before his eyes had recognized the bent figure, that this was his wife. She looked up at last, and seeing him coming toward her, rose and stood there, her hands filled with the tendrils of some plant that she had been plucking up by its roots, her face troubled and disturbed.
"Nell!" he called as he came nearer, "Nell!"
And then he stopped, baffled. For long hours on the train he had thought what he should say when he met her, but now his premeditated words seemed to him futile. He saw the gulf that might lie between them forever, and he looked hesitatingly into her troubled face. She was wonderfully, newly beautiful. Her hair was parted in the middle and rippled loosely over the temples to the ears, in the way she had worn it as a girl, a fashion which he had laughed her out of. She had grown larger, ampler, these last months, and in her linen dress, with its flat collar revealing the white neck, without ornament of any sort, her features came out strong and distinct. That curve of the upper lip, which had always made the face appealing, no longer trembled at the touch of emotion. There was a repression and mature self-command about her, as if, having been driven back upon her own heart, she had recovered possession of herself once more, and no longer belonged to a man. She was beautiful, wholly woman, and yet to her husband waiting there she seemed to be his no longer.
"Nell," he began once more, still standing at a little distance from her, "I have come here to you, as you said."
Her arms hung limply at her sides, with the trailing plant drooping across her skirt, as though, thus taken by surprise, she were waiting for him to declare himself. He stepped nearer quickly, his heart sick with the fear that, after all, it was too late, that she had passed beyond his reach.
"You know what I mean! I have come to tell you that you were right when you went away. You were right all along, and I have been wrong."
But as he spoke she reached out her arms to him, beseeching him, drawing him to her, in commiseration for him. She put her arms on his shoulders, clasping them behind his neck, thus drawing him and holding him from her at the same time. Her lips trembled, and her breath fluttered as she looked into his eyes....
"Francis! Francis!" she murmured, holding him a little from her when he tried to take her in his arms....
And in her eyes and trembling mouth he knew that she could forgive him; but he felt strangely humble and little beside her. He saw himself in her eyes as he had never seen himself before. Slowly she drew him to her and kissed his lips, tenderly, unpassionately.
"The boys are over there by the brook," she said, nodding across the meadow.
They sat down on the crumbling stone wall to wait for them, and presently, catching sight of their father, they came tumbling over the wall with cries of "Dad, it's dad—he's come!" and together they all went on to the house.
Mrs. Spellman received her son-in-law in her equable, unknowing manner, as if she had expected him to arrive on that day. After supper she took the boys to their room while husband and wife sat in the west parlor, which the architect remembered just as it was this day, with the same faded drab carpet, the brass fire-irons, and worn furniture. The high-backed walnut writing-table stood in its familiar corner beside the window. Outside, a drooping elm branch swept softly across the glass pane. Nothing here was altered, nothing added, save the new lives of the modern generation. They watched the leaping flames lick the fire-eaten bricks of the old fireplace for a time, and then he turned to her with a sigh:—
"Now I must tell you the whole story, Nell."
"Yes," she answered, letting her hand fall softly on his arm. "Tell me everything."
And he began slowly to tell her the story as he had lived through it that night when he lay exhausted on the earth beneath the stars—the story of his work in the city, of the acts which for eight years he had hidden from all, even himself. He explained as well as he could the tangled web of his dealings with the contractor from the day when he had met him in the Canostota until the time of the arrangement over the school and the hotel. When he came to the end, to the horrible fire which had licked up the fraudulent Glenmore before his own eyes, hot tears fell upon his hands, which his wife held tightly in hers, and he could feel her body tremble against his.
"And that was the end! It made me see in one flash what it all meant. Of course, those men and women might have been caught anyway, no matter how well the building was put up,—there's no telling,—and Graves would have done the same job whether I had been in with him or not. Still, that doesn't count. When I saw them there, trapped, fighting helplessly for their lives, I felt as if I had stood by and let them be murdered—and made money by it, too!"
The horror of those minutes revived as he went over the story, and he paused wearily.
"Somehow," he resumed, "it was all of a piece—dirty work. Everything I had touched, pretty nearly, since I had started seemed rotten. It made me sick all over.... Well, that was the end. I went to Everett and tried to square the school matter as well as I could. I gave him all I had made out of it and more,—about every dollar I had. It leaves us where we started. But, Nell, I knew you would want me to do that first before I came here."
It seemed a pitifully trivial act, now that he had told it, yet he was glad that he could give her this proof of his sincerity. She said nothing, but she raised her eyes, still filled with tears, to his face with a calm, answering look.
"It's a bad story, as bad as it could well be," he resumed. "I see it clearly enough now. I wanted uncle's money, wanted the easy time, and the good things, and all that. Then when I didn't get it, I went in to make a big success and have the things I was after, anyhow. I saw men out there no more able than I who were making a lot of money, and nothing seemed to count so long as somehow you made good. I wanted to make good. It was a pretty cheap ambition."
"Yes!" she exclaimed fervently, "cheap! Oh, so cheap!"
Nevertheless she did not despise him as she might have despised him at the time of their marriage for his sordid soul. During these eight months that she had lived by herself she had come to see more justly the causes of things—she had grown wiser. She held him now less rigidly, less remorselessly, to her own ideal of life. For she had begun to understand that the poison which had eaten him was in the air he had breathed; it was the spirit of the city where he worked, of the country, of the day—the spirit of greed. It presented itself to men in the struggle for existence at every turn of the road, insidiously and honorably disguised as ambition and courage. She saw the man's temptation to strive with his competitors, as they strove for the things which they held desirable. And she had come to realize that to stand firmly against this current of the day demanded a heat of nature, a character that the man she had married and worshipped, had never possessed. He was of his time neither better nor worse than his fellows, with their appetite for pleasure, their pride—that ancient childish pride of man in the consideration and envy of his kind....
"So you have it all, and it's bad enough, God knows. Nell, can you ever really forgive it, forget it, and love me again?"
For answer she leaned toward him and kissed him, understandingly. Now that her heart knew him utterly, with all his cowardice and common failings, she might still love him, even foreseeing the faltering and unideal way of his steps, giving him, like many women, her second love, the love that protects in place of the love that adores. And with that kiss there began for her a new marriage with the man she had seen large in her dreams, the man who had been her hero....
The elms swayed softly in the night wind, brushing across the window by their side. The old house was very still with the subdued calm of age, and man and wife sat there together, without words, looking far beyond them toward the future that was to be theirs.