Mrs. Farrell

by William Dean Howells

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Chapter IV

THEY were at work on the foundations of the First Church in West Pekin when tidings came of the battle of Lexington, and the masons laid down their trowels, and the carpenters their chisels, to take up their flintlocks for the long war then so bravely beginning. After the close of the struggle, it appears that a sufficient number of the parishioners survived to finish the building in all the ugliness of the original design. It stands there yet, a vast, barnlike monument of their devotion, and after the lapse of a hundred years is beginning slowly to clothe itself in the interest which we feel in the quaint where we cannot have the beautiful. Some of the neighboring houses, restored and improved for the accommodation of summer boarders, have the languishing curves of the American version of the French roof, and are here and there blistered with bay windows; and by contrast with these, the uncompromising gables and angular oblongness of the old church acquire a sort of grave merit. There is no folly of portico, or pediment, or pillars; the front and flanks of the edifice are as blank and bare as life in West Pekin, but they are also as honest. It is well built; the inhabitants have, of course, the{46} tradition that when its timbers were exposed for some modern repairs, the oak was found so hard that you could not drive a nail into it. From time to time its weary expanses of clapboarding are freshened with a coat of white paint, under which whatever picturesque effects time might have bestowed are scrupulously smothered, so that it has not a stain or touch of decay to endear it. Every spring a colony of misguided swallows stucco the eaves with their mud-nests, placed at such regular intervals as to form a cornice of the rude material not displeasing to the eye of the summer boarder; and every spring when their broods are half fledged the sexton mounts to the roof and knocks away such of their nests as he can reach, strewing the ground with the cruel wreck and slaughter. But he is old and purblind, and a fair percentage of the swallows escape his single burst of murderous zeal, to wheel and shriek around the grim edifice all summer long, and to renew their hazardous enterprise another year.

The old church has no other grace than they give it, as it stands staring white on the border of the village green, and sends out over the valleys and uplands the wild, plangent summons of its Sabbath bell. It is not an unmusical note, but it is terrible, and seems always to warn of the judgment day, so that one lounging over the fields or through the woods, or otherwise keeping away from the sermon, must hear it with a shudder of alarm. It is a bell to bring a bird’s-nesting boy to his knees; and to the youth of West Pekin in former days I could{47} imagine it a peculiarly awful sound, which would pursue them through life and in all their wanderings over the sea and land. It could now no longer call many youth to worship, but mostly a thinned and faltering congregation of old men and women responded to its menace, and sparsely scattered themselves among the long rows of pews. The stalwart boys and ambitious, eager girls had emigrated or married out of the town, till now the very graves beside the church received none but aged dead, and the newest stones hardly remembered any one under sixty. From time to time an octogenarian or nonagenarian wearied of his place in the census, and irreparably depopulated West Pekin, to the loud sorrow of the bell, which made haste to number his years to the parish as soon as the breath was out of his body. The few young people who remained in the town after marriage limited their offspring to the fashionable city figures, and the lingering grandsires counted their posterity in the lessening procession which would soon leave the family names entirely to the family tombs. Their frosty heads nodded to the sermon with the involuntary assents of slumber or of palsy, and on the cushions beside them sat their gray wives, ruminating with a pleasant fragrance the Sabbath spray of dill or caraway, unvexed by thoughts of boys disorderly in the back pews or the gallery, or, if tormented by vague apprehensions, awaking to find their fears and boys alike an empty dream.

Even the theology preached them was changed. It was the same faith, no doubt, but it seemed to{48} be made no longer the personal terror it had been, nor the personal comfort; the good man who addressed them was more wont to dwell upon generalities of reward and punishment, and abstractions in morals and belief, and he could easily have been attainted of a vague liberality, if there had been vigor of faith enough left in his congregation to accuse him. But faith, like all life in West Pekin, had shrunken till one might say it rattled in its shell; and this great empty church seemed all the emptier for the diminution of fixed beliefs as to the condition of sinners in the world to come. A choir and a parlor organ rendered most of the psalms or hymns that the minister gave out, and when the congregation raised its cracked basses and trebles in song, it was doubtless an acceptable sacrifice, but it was not a joyful noise.

In West Pekin no one walks who can drive, even for a short distance; doubtless because of the mud of spring and fall, and the heavy winter snows, which make walking in New England, anywhere off the city pave, a martyrdom, three fourths of the inhospitable year; and Easton watched the church people arrive in their dusty open buggies, which they led, after dismounting, into the long sheds beside the church, hitching their horses in the stalls, there to gnaw the deeply nibbled posts and ineffectually to fight the embattled flies, and exchange faint whinnies and murmurs of disapprobation among themselves.

Easton was standing at the hotel door, dressed with whatever of New York nattiness he had been{49} able to transport to West Pekin in the small valise he had allowed himself. He was not a man of society in any sense, but he always, upon a fixed principle, kept himself scrupulously tailored, and it would have been a disrespect of which he could not be capable, to appear before the West Pekin congregation in anything but his best. The vehicles straggled slowly up the hill; the bell began to falter in its clamor, and to toll in a dismal staccato before it should stop altogether; and now the village people issued from their doors and moved hurriedly across the green to the church. Easton went back for a moment to Gilbert’s room, and found his friend, whom he had left in bed, lazily dressing. Gilbert looked at him in the glass, and said, “I’m going over to the farm when I’ve finished. You’d better come too, after sermon.”

“I don’t know. Shall you be on the lookout for me?”

“You wouldn’t have the courage to hunt me up in that houseful of women? All right. I’ll sit on the piazza and watch. I’ll expect you.” He went on tying his cravat, while the other took his way to church, and entered as the last note of the bell was dying away.

The choir began to sing, and Easton rose with the people and faced the singers. Mrs. Belle Farrell stood singing from the same book with Rachel Woodward, and she cast her regard carelessly over the church, and let her eyes rest upon him with visible recognition.

She was a woman whose presence would have been{50} magnificent anywhere; here her grace and style and beauty simply annulled all other aspects, and a West Pekin congregation could never have looked so old and thin and pale and awkward. Easton did not know music, and was ignorant that she sang with courageous error. She had a rich voice, from which tragedy would have come ennobled, but she had little tune or time. The subdued country girl at her side sang truer and with wiser art. Rachel was then twenty; her scarcely rounded cheeks had the delicate light and pallor of the true New England type; her hair was rather brown than golden; her eyes serenely gray; and her face, when she closed her lips, composed itself instantly into a somewhat austere quiescence. The girl glanced at Easton in sympathy with her companion—instinctively, perhaps, and perhaps because of some secret touch or push.

The sermon was of the little captive Hebrew maid who remembered the famous cures of leprosy by a prophet of her nation, and was thus a means to the healing of Naaman, her Philistine lord. From this the minister drew the moral that even a poor slave girl was not so lowly but she could do some good; he did not attempt the difficult application to West Pekin conditions. From the sandy desert of his discourse a dim mirage of Oriental fancies rose before Easton, with sterile hills, palms, gleaming lakes, cities, temples of old faith, and priestesses who had the dark still eyes, the loose overshadowing hair, the dusky bloom of Mrs. Farrell; a certain familiarity{51} in her splendor he accounted for suddenly by remembering a figure and face he had once seen in the chorus of the opera of Nabucco. This was in his mind still when he rose and confronted the Babylonian priestess as she sang the closing hymn in the West Pekin choir.

Without, the July noon had ripened to a perfect mellow heat which the yesterday’s chill kept from excess, and over all the world was the unclouded cup of the blue heavens. The village people silently and quickly dispersed to their houses, and the farmers sought their different vehicles under the sheds, while their wives stood about the church door and in a still way talked together; as fast as the carriages came up, each mounted into her own, and drove off, passing Easton as he strolled down the hillside road winding away from the village. The weather was dry, and the dust powdered the reddening blackberries of the wayside and gave a gray tone to the foliage of the drooping elm and birch boughs, and to the branches of the apple trees thrust across the stone walls and fantastically dressed with wisps caught during the week from towering hay wagons. When the road left the open hill slopes and entered a wood, Easton yielded to an easy perch on the stone wall and sat flicking the long, slim wood-plants with his cane. Between the walls the highway was bordered all along with young white birches; some were the bigness round of a girl’s waist, and, clasped with the satiny smoothness of their bark, showed a delicate snugness of corsage to which an indwelling dryad might have{52} given shape; they drooped everywhere about in pretty girlish attitudes; and Easton, whose fancy was at once reverent and rich, as that of an unspoiled young man may be, sat there in a sort of courtship of their beauty, which was all the fresher in him, for he was a life-long cockney, and, so far from sentimentalizing Nature, had hardly an acquaintance with her.

He had started on his stroll with the unconfessed hope that the road might somehow bring him to Woodward farm, and as he walked he had been upbraiding himself for his irresolution, without being able either to turn back or boldly to ask the driver of some passing team his way to the farm. In the joy of this coolness and silence and beauty of the woods his conscience left him at peace, and he lounged upon the broad top of the wall with no desire to do anything but remain there, when a wagon came in sight under the meeting tops of the trees at the crest of the hill, and his heart leaped at what he now knew he had been really waiting for. Yet as it came nearer and nearer he perceived that he had been waiting for it with no motive upon which he could act; and he felt awkwardly unaccounted for where he was. Mrs. Farrell was driving on the front seat, and behind her sat Rachel Woodward with her mother; they all three seemed to be concerned about some part of the equipage: they leaned forward and looked anxiously at the horse, which presently, as they came to a little slope, responded to whatever fears they had by rearing violently and dashing aside into a clump of bushes,{53} where he stood breathing hoarsely till Easton ran up and took him by the head.

“I don’t think you need get out,” he said, as the women rose. “It’s only something the matter with the holdback.” He turned the horse again to the road and began to examine the harness. “That’s all,” he said; “one side of the holdback is broken, and lets the wagon come on him. If I had a piece of twine— Or, never mind.” He took his handkerchief out of his pocket.

“Oh no; don’t!” pleaded the eldest of the women. “We sha’n’t need it, now. It’s uphill all the rest of the way to the house.”

But Easton said, “It’ll be safer,” and went on to supply the place of the broken strap, while Mrs. Belle Farrell, turning upon Rachel, made a series of faces expressing a mock-heroical gratitude. Suddenly she gave a little shriek as the horse darted off with an ugly spring and lurch. “Oh, do stop him! stop him!” she implored, and Easton had him by the bridle again before her words were spoken.

“Well, Mrs. Woodward,” said Mrs. Farrell, excitedly, “I should whip that horse.”

“No, don’t whip him,” said the elderly woman. “I don’t believe he’s to blame; I don’t think he was hitched up just right in the first place. The boys said there was something the matter with the harness; but they guessed it would go.”

“Very well,” answered Mrs. Farrell; “he’s your horse, but if he were mine, I should whip him; that’s what I should do.{54}”

Her eyes lightened as she stooped forward to gather up the reins, which had been twitched out of her hands, and the horse started and panted again, while Easton stood beside him in grave embarrassment. He made several efforts to clear his throat, and then said, huskily, “What do you want me to do? Shall I lead him? I don’t know much about horses.”

He addressed himself doubtfully to the whole party, but Mrs. Woodward answered: “Won’t you please get in alongside of that lady? I shouldn’t want he should think he had scared us; and he would, if we let you lead him.”

Easton obediently mounted to Mrs. Farrell’s side. She was going to offer him the reins, but Mrs. Woodward interposed. “No, you drive, Mrs. Farrell, so long as he behaves;” and the horse now moved tremulously but peaceably off. “We’re very much obliged to you for what you’ve done,” she added; and then Easton sat beside Mrs. Farrell, with nothing to do but to finger his cane and study the horse’s mood. He glanced shyly at her face; from her silks breathed those intoxicating mysterious odors of the toilette; the light wind blew him the odor of her hair; when by and by the horse began to sadden, under the long uphill strain, into a repentant walk, and she gave him a smart cut with the whip, Easton winced as if he had himself been struck. But the lady paid him very little attention for some time; then, when her anxieties about the horse seemed to have subsided somewhat, she looked him in the face and demanded, “If you{55} know so little about horses how came you to stop him so well?”

“I don’t know,” said Easton. “It was rather sudden; I didn’t— I had no choice—”

“Oh,” exulted Mrs. Farrell, “then if you could have chosen, you’d have let him go dancing on with us. I withdraw my gratitude for your kindness. But,” she added, owning her recognition of him with a courage he found charming, “I’ll thank you again for picking up that little book of mine, yesterday. You certainly might have chosen to let it lie.”

Easton, if brought to bay in his shyness, had a desperate sort of laugh, in which he uttered his heart as freely as a child; he set his teeth hard, and while he looked at you with gleaming eyes the laughter gurgled helplessly from his throat. It had a sound that few could hear without liking. It made Mrs. Farrell laugh too, and he began to breathe more freely in the rarefied atmosphere that had at first fluttered his pulses. She spoke from time to time to Mrs. Woodward or Rachel, who, the first excitement over, appeared distinctly to relinquish him to her as part of that summer-boarding world with which they could have only business relations.

They came presently to a turn in the road which brought the farmhouse in sight, and Mrs. Farrell lifted her whip to encourage the horse for the sharper ascent now before him; but she abruptly dropped her hand, and bowed her face on the back of it.

Then very gravely, “I beg your pardon,” she{56} said to Easton, “but I don’t know how we are going to account for you to the people in the house. What should you say you were doing here?”

“Upon my word,” said Easton, “I don’t know.”

Mrs. Farrell asked as seriously as before, “Were you going anywhere in particular? Have we taken you out of your way? This is Woodward farm.”

“Yes, I know it. I was coming here to find a friend.”

“Well, then, you have a choice this time. You can say we were passing you on the way and we gave you a lift; or you can say that you saved us all from destruction and got in to see us safe home. You’d better choose the first; nobody’ll ever believe this horse was running away.”

“We won’t say anything about it,” Easton suggested. “That will be the easiest way.”

“Oh, do you think so?” cried Mrs. Farrell. “Wait till you’re asked by each of our lady boarders.”

They now drove out of the woods and came upon a shelving green in front of the farmhouse. Here, at one side of the door, there were evidences of attempted croquet. The wickets were in the ground and the mallets were scattered about; the balls had rolled downhill into desuetude; there was not a level in West Pekin vast enough for a croquet ground. On the piazza fronting the road were most of the lady boarders; the five regular husbands were also there, and Gilbert, lounging on a step at the feet of his sister-in-law, dressed the balance disordered by the absence of the irregular sixth. He rose in visible amazement to see Easton{57} arrive in the Woodward wagon at the side of Mrs. Farrell, and walked down to the barn near which she had chosen to stop. The other spectators, penetrated by the sense that something must have happened, ranged themselves in attitudes of expectancy along the edge of the piazza. Mrs. Woodward and Rachel, dismounting, renounced all part in the satisfaction of the public curiosity by entering the house at a side door, but Mrs. Farrell marched, with the two gentlemen beside her, up to where Mrs. Gilbert sat, and gave a succinct statement of the affair, which neither omitted to celebrate Easton’s action nor overpraised it. She ended by saying, “I wish you’d be good enough to introduce my preserver, Mrs. Gilbert.”

“I will, the very instant I have his acquaintance,” replied Mrs. Gilbert. “William!”

“It’s my friend Mr. Easton. Easton—present you to Mrs. Gilbert.”

“I’m glad to see you, Mr. Easton,” said Mrs. Gilbert, shaking hands; “you’re no stranger. This is Mrs. Farrell, whose life you have just had the pleasure of preserving. Mrs. Farrell, let me introduce Mr. Gilbert, also.”

Mrs. Farrell kept her eyes steadily on the gentlemen, and bowed gravely at their names. Then she gathered her skirt into her hand to mount the step, gave them a slight nod, smiled with radiant indifference upon the rest of the company, and disappeared indoors. Mrs. Gilbert made proclamation of the facts to the ladies next her, and casually introduced her guests to two or three who presently{58} left them to her again, as they went to give themselves the last touches before dinner. Mrs. Gilbert then turned to Easton and said, “Mrs. Farrell ran a very fortunate risk. I don’t believe anything less would have brought you here.”

“Oh yes,” answered Easton, “I was on my way. The only difference is that I rode instead of walking.”

“Well, no matter, so you’ve come. I’ve been persuading my brother to stay to dinner, and he says he will, if Easton will. Will you?”

At every word Mrs. Gilbert kept studying Easton’s face, which the young man had a trick of half averting from any woman who spoke to him, with fugitive glances at her, from time to time. The light of frank liking for him came into Mrs. Gilbert’s eyes when he turned with a sort of hopeless appeal to Gilbert, and then said, “Yes. I shall be very glad to stay.”

“You’re ever so good to be glad,” she said, “but after saving one lady’s life, you couldn’t do less than dine with another. My brother says you and he are to be at West Pekin for a fortnight. That’s very nice; and I hope you’ll come here often. We consider any gentleman a treat; and the only painful thing about having two brilliant young New Yorkers in West Pekin is that perhaps we can never quite live up to our privileges.”

“One of us might go away,” said Easton, taking heart to return this easy banter, but speaking with a quick, embarrassed sigh. “Do you think you could live up to the other?{59}”

Mrs. Gilbert smiled her approval of his daring and of his sigh.

“We will make an effort to deserve you both. Has your friend here told you anything about us?”

“How can you ask it, Susan? Did you ever know me to be guilty of such behavior toward you?” demanded Gilbert.

“No, William, I never did; and I must add that it’s no fault of yours if I didn’t. He means, Mr. Easton, that he’s been generous to a little foible of mine. I do like to lecture upon people when I can get a fresh, uncorrupted listener, I won’t deny it; and I should have been inconsolable if William had exploited us to you, as he certainly would have done if he had liked to expatiate and expound—which he doesn’t; and I believe men never do, however much they like being expatiated and expounded to. Well now, as I’m not going to have any partiality shown by any guests of mine, and as I’m going to introduce you to every lady at dinner recollect, you’ve promised to stay— I’m going to give you a little synopsis of each of them. Mrs. Farrell you’ve already had the pleasure of meeting; once in the berry pasture, yesterday afternoon, and once this morning when you saved her life—yes, her life; I insist upon giving the adventure a decent magnitude, and I will listen to no mannish, minifying scruples—saved her life; and so I will only say that she is young, beautiful, and singularly attractive. The absence of any perceptible husband does not necessarily imply that she is a widow; though in this case it does happen that Mrs. Far{60}rell is a widow. Have I got the logical sequences all right, William? Yes? Well, I’m glad of that; not that I care the least for them, but I like to consult the weakness of a sex that can’t reason without them. As I was saying, she is young, beautiful, and attractive; the fact might not strike you at first, but she is. The only drawback is her extreme unconsciousness. But for all that, if I were a man, I should simply go raving distracted over Mrs. Belle Farrell.”

“I won’t speak for Easton,” said Gilbert, “but I think men generally prefer a spice of coquetry in the objects of their raving distraction. This simplicity, this excessive singleness of motive—it doesn’t wear well.”

Mrs. Gilbert owned, “It does render one forgetful and liable to accidents, but it isn’t the worst fault. You gentlemen are very exacting; I see that you’re bent upon decrying every one of our ladies, whatever I say of them, and I believe I shall leave you to form your own perverse opinions. Yes, I’ve changed my mind, Mr. Easton, and instead of lecturing you on them beforehand, I shall confine myself to satisfying any curiosity you may happen to feel about them when you’ve seen them. Isn’t that the way a man would do?”

“Perhaps,” answered Easton. “But he wouldn’t like it—in a woman.”

“I dare say. That’s his tyrannical unreasonableness. What was the sermon about this morning? Mrs. Belle Farrell?”

It was impossible not to enjoy the mock innocence{61} with which Mrs. Gilbert put this question. Easton’s eyes responded to the fun of it, while his blushes came and went, and he kept thrusting his cane into the turf where he stood, just below the step on which she sat. She went on: “We seldom go to church from the farm; we come to the country to enjoy ourselves. Mrs. Farrell goes, and sings in the choir, I think. Some of us went to hear her sing once, and came home perfectly satisfied. She’s a great friend of young Miss Woodward’s, and is the only boarder admitted into the landlord’s family on terms of social equality. The regime at Woodward farm is very peculiar, Mr. Easton, and will form the topic of a future discourse. I shall also want to inquire your views of the best method of extinguishing talent in the industrial classes; I believe you’ve experimented in that way.” Easton lifted his downcast face and looked at Gilbert with a queer alarm that afforded Mrs. Gilbert visible joy. “Miss Woodward is the victim of a capacity, lately developed, for drawing; your friend Mrs. Farrell has fostered this abnormal condition, and it is the part of humanity to stop it. Now perhaps your experience with Mr. Rogers—”

The dinner bell sounded as Mrs. Gilbert reached forward and appealingly touched Easton’s arm with her fan; and she stopped.

“Go on,” said Gilbert; “you might as well have your say out now, if there’s anything left on your mind. Easton’s made up his mind to renounce me, and you can’t do me any more harm.”

“Stuff! Mr. Easton and I understand each other, and we know well enough that you haven’t been disloyal to him. At least we won’t believe it on the insinuation of a malicious, backbiting old woman; if Mr. Easton has any doubts of you, I’ll teach him better. Come, it’s dinner. This is a great day with us: we have our first string-beans, to-day; that’s one of the reasons why I asked you to stop."


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