Mrs. Farrell

by William Dean Howells

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Chapter IX

IT had been rather too warm on Saturday. On Sunday the breeze that draws across Woodward farm almost all summer long, from over the shoulder of Scatticong, had fallen, and the leaves of the maples along the roadside and in the grove beyond the meadow hung still as in a picture; the old Lombardy poplars at the gate shook with a faint, nervous agitation. Up the valley came the vast bath of the heat, which inundated the continent and made that day memorable for suffering and sudden death. In the cities there were sunstrokes at ten o’clock in the morning; some who kept withindoors perished from exhaustion when the sun’s fury was spent. The day was famous for the heat by the seashore, where the glare from the smooth levels of the salt seemed to turn the air to flame; at the great mountain resorts, the summer guests, sweltering among the breathless tops and valleys, longed for the sea.

Easton lay awake all night, and at dawn dressed and watched the morning gray turn to clear rose, and heard the multitude of the birds sing as if it were still June; then he lay down in his clothes again, and, meaning to wait till he could go out and sit in the freshness of the daybreak, fell asleep.{151} When he woke, the sun was high in his window and the room was full of a sickly heat. He somehow thought Gilbert had come back, but he saw, by a glance through the door standing ajar, that his room was yet empty.

After breakfast, which could be only a formality on such a morning, even for a man not in love, he went out on the gallery of the hotel, and, as he had done the first Sunday, watched the people going to church. The village folk came as usual, but the bell brought few of the farmers and their wives. The meadows were veiled in a thin, quivering haze of heat; far off, the hilltops seemed to throb against the sky.

Easton saw the Woodwards drive up to the church; but Mrs. Farrell was not with them. He had not meant to go, even if she had come; yet it was a disappointment not to see her come. He went indoors and looked listlessly about the office, which had once been a barroom, and could not have been so dreary in its wicked days as now. Its manners had not improved with its morals. It was stained with volleys adventurously launched in the direction of a spittoon, it smelled of horse and hostler, and it was as dull as a water cooler, a hotel register, a fragment of circus bill, a time-table of the Pekin & Scatticong Railroad, can make a place. Easton went and sat upon the gallery till the people came out of church and dispersed; then he abruptly left the porch and struck out through the heat, across the graveyard and along the top of a bare ridge of pasture, toward the woods that lay be{152}tween the village and Woodward farm. He could think of no other place to pass the time but that which had yesterday heard him say he loved her. The whole affair had taken a dozen different phases during the night, as he turned from side to side in his sleeplessness. Once he had even beheld her in that character of arch-flirt in which Gilbert had denounced her. He saw a reckless design in what she had done, a willful purpose to test her power upon them both. But for the instant that this doubt lasted he did not cease to love her, to feel her incomparable charm. However she had wronged them, he could not do otherwise than remain true to her against every consequence. His love, which had seemed to spring into full life at the first sight of her, had been poisoned from the very beginning by the suspicion of others, and every day since then she had said or done things that were capable of being taken in the sense of consciously insolent caprice; yet all her audacity might be innocent in the very measure of its excess; and there was mixed with that potential slight toward her in his heart such tenderness and sweet delight, such joy in her beauty, grace, and courage, that every attempt to analyze her acts or motives ended in a rapturous imagination of her consent to be loved by him. He could not help feeling that she had not discouraged him; he excused the delay which she had imposed; how, when he thought of the conditions which she had made, could he doubt her goodness or fail to know her regret? He went, thinking, on toward the spot he was seeking, and{153} sometimes he walked very swiftly and sometimes he found he had stopped stock still, under the blazing sun, in attitudes of perplexity and musing. When at last he entered the dell, from the field on which they had yesterday emerged, drops of perspiration rolled down his forehead, and the shadow of the place had a sultriness of its own, in which his breath came almost as faintly as in the open sunshine of the meadows. He went toward the pool where the cattle drank, and bathed his face; then, seeking out that shelf of rock where she had sat, he laid himself down on the ledge below it and fondly strove to make her seem still there.

He fell into a deep reverie, in which he was at first sensible of a great fatigue, and then of a lightness and ease of heart such as he had not felt for the whole week past. While he lay in this tranquillity, he seemed to see Gilbert and Mrs. Farrell come laughing and talking up the glen together: Gilbert was dressed in his suit of white flannel, but she wore a gown of dark crimson silk, stiff with its rich texture, and trailing after her on the gray rocks and over the green ferns. Her head was bare, and in the dark folds of her hair was wound a string of what seemed red stones at first, like garnets in color, but proved, as she came nearer, to be the translucent berries of a poisonous vine. When she saw that they had caught his eye, she took Gilbert by the hand and called out to Easton, “Now you can’t escape. He’s going to make up with you whether you will or no. I’ve told him everything and he understands. Isn’t it so{154}—Major?” They looked at each other, and, with a swift, significant glance at Easton, burst into a laugh, which afflicted him with inexpressible shame and pain. He shuddered as Gilbert took him in his arms in token of reconciliation, and then he found himself in a clutch from which he could not escape. Mrs. Farrell had vanished, but “Easton, Easton!” he heard the voice of Gilbert saying, “what’s the matter?” And opening his eyes, he found his friend kneeling over him and looking anxiously into his face.

“I’ve been asleep, haven’t I?” he asked, stupidly.

“Yes, and going it on rather a high-stepping nightmare,” answered Gilbert, with his old smile. “Better have a little dip at the brook;” and Easton mechanically obeyed. He drew out his handkerchief to dry his face, and knew by the perfume it shed that it was the handkerchief Mrs. Farrell had restored. His heart somehow ached as he inhaled its fragrance, and he felt the old barrier, which had not existed for the moment, re-established between himself and Gilbert. He came and sat down constrainedly where he had been lying.

“I hope you won’t be the worse, my dear fellow, for your little nap,” said Gilbert. “Fortunately, there isn’t a spot in the universe where a man could take cold to-day.”

“I think I’m all right,” said Easton, and he looked down, to avoid Gilbert’s eyes.

Gilbert continued to gaze at him with the amused smile of patronage which people wear at the sight{155} of one not yet wholly emerged from the mist of dreams, and waited for a while before he spoke again. Then he said, “Easton, if you’re perfectly awake, I wish you’d hear me say what a very extraordinary kind of ass I think I’ve been for the past week or so.”

Easton looked up, and there was his friend holding out his hand to him and gazing at him with shining eyes. He could not say anything, but he took the hand and pressed it as he had that day when they had pledged each other not to let harm come between them.

“Confound it!” Gilbert went on, “I knew all the time that I was wrong, but I had to get away before I could face the thing and fairly look it out of countenance.”

“Did you have a good time?” asked Easton, his voice husky with the emotion to which he refused sentimental utterance.

“Glorious! But I missed you awfully, old fellow—after I’d made it all right with you—and I wish you had been with me. The trout bit like fish that had nothing on their consciences; and there was an old couple over there near the lake who supplied me with bread and milk; they could have gone into your Annals just as they are, without a change of clothing. They had three sons killed in the last fight before Petersburg; I’ll tell you all about them.”

“You’re back later than you expected,” said Easton.

“Yes; I wanted a few nights more on the pine{156} boughs, and so we waited for an early start this morning. We broke camp about four o’clock, and started for West Pekin with the sun. But he beat us. I never knew heat like it; it was a good thing for me that I had been toughened by a few days outdoors. We stopped for a wash in a brook about three miles back on the road, and then we steamed along again. I reached the hotel pretty soon after you left, and put on the thinnest clothes I had; and then I started for the farm. They had spied you making in this direction, and their information was so accurate that I hadn’t any trouble in finding you.”

In spite of a visible effort to be at ease there was a note of constraint in Gilbert’s voluble talk, and he seemed eager to find some matter not personal to them. He recurred to those old people at the lake, and told about them; he described the place where he had camped; he gave characteristic stories of the man whom he had taken with him and whose whole philosophy of life he had got at in the last three days.

At the end of it all Easton said: “I’m glad you don’t think I meant you any harm, Gilbert, and I’ve wanted to tell you so. But for once in my life I didn’t seem to be able to do the thing I ought. I couldn’t understand my own action. It was mortifying to think that I could have been so little myself as to have talked of that matter, and I was ashamed to recur to it; I couldn’t. I don’t see now what I can say. There is nothing to say except that I was entirely guiltless in wounding you, and that I am altogether to blame for it.{157}”

Gilbert smiled at the paradox. “Oh, never mind it, Easton; I tell you it’s all right. I really saw the thing in its true light at first; and if the devil hadn’t been in me, I shouldn’t have mentioned it. Nobody blames you.”

There was ever so slight an implication of superiority in the last words which stung Easton, however unmeant he knew it to be, and he rejoined anxiously, “Yes, but I was to blame; it’s unjust not to blame me.”

Gilbert had thrown himself back on the flat rock, and was looking at the leaves above, with the back of his head resting in the hollow of his clasped hands. He turned his face a little toward Easton, and asked, with a smile: “Aren’t you making it a little difficult? Let it all go, my dear old fellow. There never was anything of it. Why should we make something of it now?”

“How can I let it go?” cried Easton. “I either wronged you and was to blame, or else was not to blame because I was simply the helpless means of wronging you. It leaves me in a very cruel position; I must refuse your forgiveness or accept it at the cost of one who was entirely innocent. If I let it go as it is, I skulk behind a woman, who, as far as you are concerned, was really the victim of my own folly and weakness.”

Gilbert rose to a sitting posture and looked coldly at his friend. “I want you to take notice,” he said, “that I have mentioned no one, that I have tried to pass the matter all over. You have no right to put it as you do.” His eyes began to{158} flash, and he went on recklessly, “And if you come to talk of cruel positions, I leave you to say what you can for a man who will let his friend go as long as you have let me go, without saying the word that might have removed his sense of a cruelly injurious slight.”

Easton hung down his head. “I have nothing to say in my defense.”

“Oh!” groaned Gilbert. “I beg your pardon; I do indeed, Easton. I didn’t mean to say that.”

“It makes very little difference whether you say or think your contempt of me,” rejoined Easton, gloomily. “It can’t be greater than the contempt I feel for myself.”

He looked so piteously abased, so hopelessly humiliated, that Gilbert came and laid his arm across his shoulder—the nearest that an American can come to embracing his friend. “Look here, let’s stop this thing right here, or it will get the upper hand of us in another minute. Come, now, I won’t make another apology if you won’t! Is it quits?”

Easton caught Gilbert’s humor, and laughed the ghost of his odd, reluctant laugh. “It’s safest,” he said; “it seems to be the only way to keep from coming to blows. Besides, it’s superfluous on your part.”

“Oh, I can’t allow that,” retorted Gilbert, “if I may say so without offense,” he added, with mock anxiety.

“Gilbert,” Easton began, after a little silence, “I suppose you must know what I would like to tell you?{159}”

Gilbert, who had resumed his former place, glanced at his friend from the corner of his eye. “Yes, I think I can guess it.”


“Why, my dear fellow, it’s so very completely and rightly your own affair, that I can have nothing to say if you tell it. A man doesn’t ask his friend for advice in such matters; he asks him for sympathy, for congratulation.”

Easton gave a little sigh. “And that you’re not prepared to offer,” he said, with a miserable smile.

“Why, Easton!” exclaimed the other. “Isn’t this rather a new line for you? Since when have you wanted my approval of any course you were to take? You used to make up your mind to a thing and do it, and then ask my approval.”

“Approval isn’t the question, quite,” said Easton, nettled. “There’s nothing to approve or to disapprove.”

“I admit the word’s clumsy,” answered Gilbert, shortly.

Easton said nothing for a little while, and then he spoke soberly: “I don’t want to force any confidence on you, Gilbert; and after what’s passed I know it’s natural for you to shrink from having anything to do with this affair of mine; it is completely my own, as you say. But I can’t have things remain as they are in your mind in regard to—to Mrs. Farrell. You know that I’m in love with her; it’s no secret; I wouldn’t mind shouting it from the housetop, even if she had refused me a hundred times. But she hasn’t. I have told her that I love{160} her; and she hasn’t forbidden me; I don’t know whether she has warranted me in hoping, or not; but she has imposed conditions on my speaking to her again, and that is something.”

He glanced appealingly at Gilbert, who sat up and confronted him. “Easton,” he said, with an indefinable air of uncandor, “we never spoke of Mrs. Farrell together but once, and then I said things which, if I could have supposed you were going to take her so seriously, I wouldn’t have said. You know that.”

“Yes, I know that, Gilbert,” answered Easton, affectionately.

“Well; and now what do you want me to say? You must let me hold my tongue. It’s the only way. I will respect you in whatever you do. As for the lady who may some day forbid you to bring me to dinner any more, the least said is the soonest mended.”

“Yes; but you are very unjust to her.” The words seemed to have escaped from Easton, who looked a trifle alarmed after speaking them.

“Unjust? Unjust! You’re right; I revise my opinion; I think I didn’t do her justice.”

“What do you mean?” demanded Easton.

Gilbert gave a short laugh.

“You must know, Gilbert,” said Easton, breathing quickly, “that this is very insulting to me.”

“I beg your pardon. I don’t mean to insult you, Heaven knows. But I do ask your leave to be silent.”

“And I ask you to hear me patiently. Will you?”

“I will, indeed.”

Easton opened his lips as if to speak, but he did not speak at once; he did not seem to find the words or the thoughts so ready as he expected.

“I never blamed you,” he began, finally, “for any judgment you formed of her character, and I certainly invited the expression of it. I know that what she says and does sometimes can be harshly interpreted,” and again he hesitated, “but I’m sure anyone who will make a generous interpretation—”

“I’ll try,” interrupted Gilbert; “I’ll adopt any generous interpretation you offer of her experiment upon the strength of our regard. How does she explain it herself?”

“She explains it—” began Easton, “she made it a condition of my speaking to her again—she told me to say—”

He choked with the words, and Gilbert was silent. “Oh, my dear, dear old Easton,” he broke out at last, “do let it all go! What’s Mrs. Farrell to me or I to her? If you are in love with her, why, marry her and be done with it. I could imagine any woman’s turning constant by virtue of your loving her, and I’ve no doubt she’ll be the best wife in the world for you. I take back all I said of her.”

“It isn’t that; it’s what you haven’t said. It’s what you think,” said Easton, hotly.

“Oh, good Lord! And what is it I think?”

“You exonerate me from all blame in the cause of our disagreement.”

“Yes, I do!”

“But if you exonerate me at her expense, you{162} disgrace and dishonor me; you offer me a reconciliation that no man can accept.”

Gilbert did not answer, and seemed to have made up his mind not to answer. Easton went on, “She feels so deeply the trouble between us that she charged me to make friends with you at any cost; not to spare her in the least—to—”

Easton hesitated, and Gilbert said, “Well?” but the other did not go on. Then Gilbert said: “I have no comment to make on all this. What do you wish me to do?”

“To do? What do I wish? Do you think you don’t owe it to her to say—”

Gilbert laughed aloud. “That she acted from the highest motives throughout? No, I certainly don’t think that,” he said, and then he began to grow pale, while Easton reddened angrily. “By Heaven!” Gilbert broke out, “it seems that I have misunderstood this case. I supposed that between you you had somehow used me ill, but it appears that I have done an injury to a meek and long-suffering angel. I supposed that she had cunningly turned the chance you gave her against me, and meant, if she couldn’t make me feel her power one way, to make me feel it another. I supposed she intended to break us apart, and to be certain of you at any cost. But I’ll interpret her generously, since you wish me to. I’ll say that I acquit her of any particular malevolence. I’ll say that she merely wanted to over-punish me, like a woman, for some offense in my words or manner; or I’ll say that she acted from an empty and reckless caprice; that it was curiosity drove{163} her to follow up the clew which you had given her—for motives of your own; I won’t judge them. I’ll say that I believe she was frightened when she saw the mischief she had done, and would have undone it if she could; though I’m not so sure of that, either! You think she might be induced to forgive me, do you? Will you undertake to tell her what I say, and make my peace with her?” he asked offensively, his nostrils dilating. “I’ve had enough of this!” and he rose.

Easton had sat silent under this torrent of bitterness. He now sprang to his feet.

“Stop!” he shouted. “You have got to take back every word—”

“Don’t be a fool, Easton!”

Easton ground his teeth. “You take a base advantage of what has passed between us; you rely on my forbearance to—”

“Oh! Passed between us!” sneered Gilbert. “Your forbearance! What do you think of the forbearance of a man who could lend himself to an infamous scoundrel’s revenge; who could consent to rise at his friend’s expense, and then live to boast of it to a woman?”

Easton choked. “What do you think,” he cried with equal outrage, “of a man who could urge me to do what I did, and always refuse to do or be anything that could cancel my regret, holding my consent in reproach over me through years of fraud and hypocrisy, to fling it in my face at last?”

Their friendship, honored and dear so long, was in the dust between them, and they trampled it{164} under foot with the infernal hate that may have always lurked, a possible atrocity, in their hearts, silenced, darkened, put to shame by the perpetual kindness of their daily lives.

It remained for Gilbert, with all the insult he could wreak in the demand, to ask, “Is that Mrs. Farrell’s interpretation of my motives?” and then they were in the mood to kill, if they had been armed. But so much of the personal sanctity in which they had held each other remained instinctive with them that they could not inflict the final shame of blows.

They stood face to face in silence, and then Gilbert turned and walked slowly down toward the opening of the glen; Easton made a few mechanical paces after him. When Gilbert reached the border of the meadow he stopped and, with whatever motive, went swiftly back to the scene of their quarrel. He came in sight of the spot, but Easton was not to be seen there; he quickened his going almost to a run; and then he saw Easton lying at the brink of the pool. There was a slight cut along his temple, from which the blood ran curling into the clear basin, where it hung distinct, like a spire of smoke in crystal air.


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