Mrs. Farrell

by William Dean Howells

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Chapter II

MRS. BELLE FARRELL, one of the summer boarders, stood waiting at the side of the road for Rachel Woodward, who presently appeared on the threshold of the red schoolhouse, with several books on her arm. It was Saturday afternoon; her school term had ended the day before, and she had returned now for some property of hers left in the schoolhouse overnight. She laid down the books while she locked the door and put the key in her pocket, and then she gathered them up and moved somewhat languidly toward Mrs. Farrell. This lady was slender enough to seem of greater height than she really was, but not slender enough to look meager, and she wore a stuff that clung to her shape, and, without defining it too statuesquely, brought out all its stylishness. Her dress was not so well suited to walking along country roads as it was to some pretty effects of pose; caught with the left hand, and drawn tightly across from behind, its plaited folds expanded about Mrs. Farrell’s feet, and as she turned her head for a sidelong glance at her skirt it made her look like a lady on a Japanese fan. The resemblance was heightened by Mrs. Farrell’s brunette coloring of dusky red and white, and very dark eyes and hair; but for the rest her features{17} were too regular; she knitted her level brows under a forehead overhung with loose hair like a French painter’s fancy of a Roman girl of the decadence, and she was not a Buddhist half the time. This afternoon, for example, she had in the hand with which she swept her skirt forward, a very charming little English copy of Keble’s Christian Year, in mouse-colored, flexible leather, with red edges. It was a book that she had carried a good deal that summer.

She now looked up and down the road, and, seeing no one but Rachel, she undid her attitude and pinned her draperies courageously out of the way. “Let us go home through the berry pasture,” she said, and at the same time she stepped out toward the bars of the meadow with a stride that showed the elastic beauty of her ankles and the neat fit of her stout walking shoes; she mounted and was over before the country girl could let down one of the bars and creep through. In spite of Mrs. Farrell’s stylishness, the pasture and she seemed joyously to accept each other as parts of nature; as she now lounged over the tough, springy knolls and leaped from one gray-lichened rock to another, and glided in and out of the sun-shotten clumps of white birches, she suggested a well-millinered wood nymph not the least afraid of satyrs; she suffered herself to whistle fragments of opera as she stooped from time to time and examined the low bushes to see if there were any ripe berries yet. Such as she found she ate with a frank, natural, charming greed; but there were not many of them.

“We shall have to stick to custard pie for another{18} week,” she said; “I’m glad it’s so good. Don’t let’s go home at once, Rachel. Sit down and have a talk, and I’ll help you through afterward, or get you out of the trouble somehow. Halt!” she commanded.

The girl showed a conscientious hesitation, while Mrs. Farrell sank down at the base of a bowlder on which the sunset had been shining. The day was one of that freshness which comes often enough to the New England hills even late in July; Mrs. Farrell leaned back with her hands clasped behind her head, and closed her eyes in luxury. “Oh, you nice old rock, you! How warm you are to a person’s back!”

Rachel crouched somewhat primly near her, with her books on her knee, and glanced with a slight anxiety at the freedom of Mrs. Farrell’s self-disposition, whose signal grace might well have justified its own daring.

“Rachel,” said Mrs. Farrell, subtly interpreting her expression, “you’re almost as modest as a man; I’m always putting you to the blush. There, will that do any better?” she asked, modifying her posture. She gazed into the young girl’s face with a caricatured prudery, and Rachel colored faintly and smiled.

“Perhaps I wasn’t thinking what you thought,” she said.

“Oh yes, you were, you sly thing; don’t try to deceive my youth and inexperience. I suppose you’re glad your school’s over for the summer, Rachel.{19}”

“I don’t know. Yes, I’m glad; it’s hard work. I shall have a change, at least, helping about home.”

“What shall you do?”

“I suppose I shall wait on table.”

“Well, then, you shall not. I’ll arrange that with your mother, anyway. I’ll wait on table myself, first.”

“I don’t see what difference it makes whether I work for the boarders in the kitchen or wait on them at the table.”

“It makes a great difference: you can’t be bidden by them if you’re not in the way, and I’m not going to have a woman of genius asking common clay if it will take some more of the hash or another help of pie in my presence. Yes, I say genius, Rachel; and Mrs. Gilbert said so, too,” cried Mrs. Farrell, at some signs in the girl, who seemed a little impatient of the subject, as of something already talked over; “and I’m proud of having been in the secret of it. I never shall forget how they all looked when I came dancing out with it and stood it up at the head of the table, where they could see it! They thought I did it, and they had quite a revulsion of feeling when they found it was yours. Where are you going, Rachel? To Florence, or the Cooper Institute, or Doctor Rimmer?”

“I have no idea of going anywhere. I have no money; father couldn’t afford to send me. I don’t expect to leave home.”

“Well, then, I’ll tell you: you must. Why can’t you come and stay with me in Boston, this winter? I’ve got two rooms, and money enough to keep a{20} couple of mice—especially if one’s a country mouse—and we’ll study art together. I might as well do that as anything—or nothing. Come, is it a bargain?”

“If I could get the money to pay for my boarding, I think I should like it very much. But I couldn’t,” answered Rachel, quietly.

“Why, Rachel, can’t you understand that you are to be my guest?”

Even the women of West Pekin are slow to melt in gratitude, and Rachel replied without effusion:

“Did you mean that? It is very good of you—but I could never think of it,” she added, firmly. “I never could pay you back in any way. It would come to a great deal in a winter—city board.”

“Do I understand you to refuse this handsome offer, Rachel?”

“I must.”

“All right. Then I shall certainly count upon your being with me, for it would be foolish not to come, and whatever you are, Rachel, you’re not foolish. I’m going to talk with your mother about it. Why, you little—chipmunk,” cried Mrs. Farrell, adding the term of endearment after some hesitation for the precise expression, “I want you to come and do me credit. When your things are on exhibition at Williams and Everett’s, and Doll and Richards’s, I’m going to gather a few small spears of glory for myself by slyly telling round that I gave you your first instruction, and kept you from blushing unseen in West Pekin. I’ve felt the want of a protégée a good while, and here you are,{21} just made to my hand. I heard before I came away that they were going to get up a life class next winter. Perhaps we could get a chance to join that.”

“Life class?”

“Yes; to draw from the nude, you know.”

“From the—” Rachel hesitated.

“Yes, yes, yes! my wild-wood flower. From the human being, the fellow-creature, with as little on as possible,” shouted Mrs. Farrell. “How can you learn the figure any other way?”

A puzzled, painful look came into the girl’s eyes, and “Do—do—ladies go?” she asked, faintly.

“Of course they go!” said Mrs. Farrell. “It’s a regular part of art-education. The ladies have separate classes in New York; but they don’t abroad.”

Rachel seemed at a loss what to answer. She dropped her eyes under Mrs. Farrell’s scrutiny, and softly plucked at a tuft of grass. At last she said, without looking up, “It wouldn’t be necessary for me to go. I only want to paint animals.”

“Well, and aren’t men animals?” demanded Mrs. Farrell, leaning forward and trying to turn the girl about so as to look into her averted face.

“Don’t!” said the other, in a wounded tone.

“Rachel, Rachel!” cried Mrs. Farrell, tenderly, “I’ve really shocked you, haven’t I? Don’t be mad at me, my little girl: I didn’t invent the life class, and I never went to one. I don’t know whether it’s exactly nice or not. I suppose people wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t. Come, look round at me, Rachel: I’m so glad of your liking me that if{22} you stop it for half a second you’ll break my heart!” She spoke in tones of anxious appeal, and then suddenly added, “If you’ll visit me this winter we won’t go to the life class; we’ll sleep together in the parlor and keep a cow in the back room.”

Rachel gave way to a laugh, with her face hidden in her hands, and Mrs. Farrell fell back, satisfied, against her comfortable rock again, and put her hand in her pocket. “Look here, Rachel,” she said, drawing it out. “Here’s something of yours.” She tossed a crisp, rattling ten-dollar note into the girl’s lap, and nodded as Rachel turned a face of question upon her. “I sold your Blossom for that this morning; I forgot to tell you before. No, ma’am; I didn’t buy it. Mrs. Gilbert bought it. The others praised it, Mrs. Gilbert paid for it: that’s Mrs. Gilbert. I told her something about you and how you owed everything to my instruction, and she offered ten dollars for Blossom. I tried to beat her down to five,” she continued, while Rachel stared dumbly at the money, “but it was no use. She wouldn’t fall a cent. She.... Ugh! What’s that?” cried Mrs. Farrell.

She gathered her dispersed picturesqueness hastily up, threw her head alertly round, and confronted a mild-faced cow, placidly pausing twenty paces off under the bough of a tree, through which she had advanced her visage, and softly regarding them with her gentle brown eyes. “Why, Blossom, Blossom!” complained the lady. “How could you come up in that startling way? I thought it was a man! Though of course,” she added, less dramatically,{23} “I might have remembered that there isn’t a man within a hundred miles.”

She was about to lean back again in her lazy posture, when voices made themselves heard from the wood beside the pasture out of which Blossom had emerged. “Men’s voices, Rachel!” she whispered. “An adventure! I suppose we must run away from it!”

Mrs. Farrell struggled up from her sitting posture, and, entangling her foot in her skirt, plunged forward with graceful awkwardness, but did not fall. She caught the pins out of her drapery, and Rachel and she were well on their way to the bars which would let them into the road, when two men emerged from the birch thicket out of which Blossom had appeared. One was tall and dark, with a firm, very dark mustache branching across a full beard. The other was a fair man, with a delicate face; he was slight of frame, and of the middle stature; in his whole bearing there was an expression of tacit resolution, which had also a touch of an indefinable something that one might call fanaticism. Both were city-clad, but very simply and fitly for faring through woods and fields; the dark man wore high boots; he carried a trouting rod, and at his side was a fish basket.

They looked after the two women with eyes that clung charmed to the figure of Mrs. Farrell, as she drifted down the sloping meadow-path.

“Magnificent!” said the dark man, carelessly. “‘A daughter of the gods, divinely tall and most divinely fair!{24}’”

A flush came over the cheek of the other, but he said nothing, while he absently advanced to the rock beside which the women had been sitting, as if that superb shape had drawn him thus far after her. A little book lay there, which he touched with his foot before he saw it. As he stooped to pick it up, Mrs. Farrell stopped fleetly, as a deer stops, and, wheeling round, went rapidly back toward the two men. When Mrs. Farrell advanced upon you, you had a sense of lustrous brown eyes growing and brightening out of space, and then you knew of the airy looseness of the overhanging hair and of the perfection of the face, and last of the sweeping, undulant grace of the divine figure. So she came onward now, fixing her unfrightened, steadfast eyes upon the young man, out of whose face went everything but worship. He took off his hat, and bent forward with a bow, offering the pretty volume, at which he had hardly glanced.

“Thanks,” she breathed, and for an instant she relaxed the severe impersonality of her regard, and flooded him with a look. He stood helpless, while she turned and swiftly rejoined her companion, and so he remained standing till she and Rachel had passed through the meadow bars and out of sight.

Then the dark man moved and said, solemnly, “Don’t laugh, Easton; you wouldn’t like to be seen through, yourself.”

“Laugh, Gilbert?” retorted Easton, with a start. “What do you mean? What is there to laugh at?” he demanded.{25}

“Nothing. It was superbly done. It was a stroke of genius in its way.”

“I don’t understand you,” cried Easton.

“Why, you don’t suppose she left it here on purpose, and meant one of us to pick it up, so that she could come back and get it from him, and see just what manner of men we were; and—”

“No! I don’t suppose that.”

“Neither do I,” said Gilbert, nonchalantly. “I never saw anything more unconscious. Come, let’s be going; there’s nothing to call her back, now.”

He put his hand under the fish basket, and weighed it mechanically, while he used the mass of his uncoupled rod staffwise, and moved away. Easton followed with a bewildered air, at which Gilbert, when he happened to glance round at him, broke into a laugh.


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