Mrs. Farrell

by William Dean Howells

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Chapter V

MRS. GILBERT kept her word, and presented the young men to each of the boarders; but for all that, the talk did not become general. After dinner she went off for a nap, and the young men both followed Mrs. Farrell to the piazza, where they seemed to forget that there was anyone else. She was very amiable to both, but a little meek and subdued in her manner; if she encouraged one more than the other, it was Gilbert. She was disposed to talk of serious things, and said that one could not realize the New England Sabbath in town as one could in the country; that here in these hills the stillness, the repose, seemed to have something almost holy about it. Two young girls in gay flannel walking skirts and branching shade hats passed Mrs. Farrell where she sat with her court, and she who passed nearest dropped a demure glance out of the corner of her eye, and a demurely arch “good-by” from the corner of her mouth.

“What for?” asked Mrs. Farrell, breaking abruptly from her pensive mood.

“Those brakes,” said the girl over her shoulder, having now got by.

“Oh, come! Won’t you go, too?” cried Mrs. Far{64}rell. “It’s an old engagement. Wait, please!” she called to the girls, and ran in to get her hat, while they loitered down the path.

Gilbert walked forward to join them, and Easton stayed for Mrs. Farrell, who delayed a little, and then came out in walking-gear which had the advantage over the dresses of the young girls that foliage or plumage has over dress always—it seemed part of her.

“If you’ll be so kind—yes,” she said, giving Easton her light shawl, while she fitted her hat cord under the knot of her hair. “It’s a little coolish sometimes in the deep woods, and it’s best to bring one. Don’t you think,” she asked, dazzling him with the radiant, immortal youth of her glance and smile, “that the worst thing about growing older is that you have to be so careful about your miserable, perishable body? I hope I’ve not made you do anything against your principles, Mr. Easton, in getting you to go with me after brakes on Sunday? We don’t often do such things, ourselves.”

“No,” said Easton; “unfortunately, I have no principles on that point. I suppose it’s a thing to be regretted.”

“Oh yes, indeed!” said Mrs. Farrell, earnestly. “I think one ought always to be one thing or the other. I find nothing so wretched as this sort of betwixt-and-betweenity that most people live in nowadays; and I envy Rachel Woodward her fixed habits of religious observance. I wish she could have gone with us this afternoon; but the Woodwards never do. You must get acquainted with her,{65} Mr. Easton. She’s a splendid girl; she has a great deal of talent and a great deal of character; more than all of us lady boarders put together—except Mrs. Gilbert, of course.”

It vaguely troubled Easton, he did not know why, to have her talk of Rachel Woodward; at that moment it vexed him that there should be any other woman in the world than herself. But he contrived to say that Mrs. Gilbert had mentioned Miss Woodward’s talent for drawing.

“Isn’t she nice—Mrs. Gilbert?” asked Mrs. Farrell, looking into Easton’s face, and no doubt seeing there a consciousness of his having heard from Mrs. Gilbert something not to her advantage. “She’s the only one of our boarders that one cares to talk with; she’s such a humorous old thing that I like to hear her even when I know she’s looking me through and through. She’s a very keen observer, and such a wonderful judge of character! Don’t you think so?”

“I hardly know; I’m scarcely acquainted with her or the people she talks about.”

“To be sure. But then, I think you can often see whether a person understands people, even if you don’t know any of them.”

“Oh yes—yes,” answered Easton.

They had crossed the road from the farmhouse and, traversing some sloping meadows, were at the border of the wood in which the tall brakes grew, with delicate shapes of fern slowly waving and swaying in the breeze. He was offering her his hand to help her over the wall into the wood, and{66} she was throwing half her elastic weight upon his happy arm. Gilbert and the young girls were far ahead among the brakes, which their movement tossed about them with a continual, gracious rise and fall of the stately plumes, the bright colors of the girls’ dresses deepening their tint as they glimmered through the undulant greenery.

“How lovely!” cried Mrs. Farrell. She chose to sit still a moment on the wall. “And isn’t your friend superb in his white flannel and his planterish-looking hat? When I was a little girl I was traveling with my father on the Mississippi, and one night a New Orleans boat landed alongside of us. The most that I can remember is those iron baskets of burning pine-knots they stick into the shore, and the slim, dark young Southerners, in white linen from head to foot, as they came on and off the boat in the red light. I felt then that I never could marry anybody but a young Southerner in white linen. Your friend reminds me of them. But he isn’t Southern?”

“No; he was South before the war, awhile, and he tried a cotton plantation after the war; but he’s a New-Yorker.”

“How picturesque he is!” sighed Mrs. Farrell. “Was he a soldier?”

“Yes. He’s Major Gilbert, if you like.”

“Was that where you met him, in the army?”


“And were you a major, too?”

“I went in as a private,” said Easton.

“But you didn’t come out a private?{67}”

“Our regiment suffered a great deal, and the promotions were pretty rapid.”

“And so you came out a captain?”

“Not exactly.”

“A major—a colonel?”

“I couldn’t very well help it.”

“Oh, I dare say you’re not to blame!” cried Mrs. Farrell. “You and Mr.—Major Gilbert, were you in the same regiment?”

“Yes. I owed my first commission to his interest. He was my captain before I got my company.”

“Well, how was it, then, that you came out a colonel and he only came out a major?” asked Mrs. Farrell, innocently.

Easton turned about and looked after the others, whose voices, in talk and laughter, came over the bracken with a light, hollow sound that voices have in the woods.

“Oh, don’t snub me!” implored Mrs. Farrell; “I didn’t mean to ask anything wrong. You soldiers are always so queer about the war; one would think you were ashamed of it.”

“It was full of unjust chances,” answered Easton, almost fiercely. “All that I did Gilbert would have done better, and if he had done it he would have got the promotion that I got. I ought to have refused it; it’s my lasting shame and sorrow that I didn’t.” A look of strange dismay and of selfcontempt came into Easton’s face with the last words, which sounded like the expression of an old remorse.{68}

“Oh, excuse me!” said Mrs. Farrell with a quick sympathy of tone. “I’ve made you talk of something— I didn’t think—your men’s friendships are so much more tenderly brought up than women’s, that a woman can scarcely understand,” she added, a little mockingly; but she made obvious haste to get away from the subject that annoyed him.

“Here are tall enough brakes,” she said, “if it’s tallness we’re after; but I think we’d better get ferns. I want to show you a place down here in the hollow where I found some maidenhair the other day. Don’t you think that’s the prettiest of the ferns? Did you ever find it in any part of the South where you were stationed? I should fancy it might be in the Everglades—or some other damp place.”

“I don’t know what it is,” said Easton, absently.

“Not know maidenhair? Then I’ve the chance to show you something novel, as well as very pretty. Come!” She sprang lightly from the wall and swept through the bowing brakes and down the slope of the hollow to a spot where clustering maples, flinging their shadows one upon another, made a cool gloom beneath their boughs, and the delicate maidenhair balanced its crest upon its slender purple stems and trembled in the silent air. “Here, here!” called Mrs. Farrell. “Did you ever see anything lovelier? But doesn’t it seem a pity to pull it? Well, it must die for women, as humming-birds and pheasants do; we can’t look pretty without them, poor things! I’m going to sit down here, Mr. Easton, and you’re going to gather{69} maidenhair for me and show your taste; you haven’t experience in it, but you are to have instinct.”

She sat down on the broad flat top of a rock, and though her seat was in a spot where the slighter texture of the shade let the sunlight flicker through upon her, she gave a slight tremor and shrugged her shoulders. “You must let me have my shawl, Mr. Easton—my poor health, you know; there’s rheumatism and typhoid fever in every breath of this delicious air.”

He went to lay the shawl upon her shoulders reverently, but she dragged it down and adjusted it about her waist in a very much prettier effect. “There, now, give me your hat. One of the penalties that a gentleman pays for the pleasure of going braking with a lady is to have his hat trimmed with ferns and to be made to look silly. You may have your revenge in trimming my hat.” She began to undo the elastic from her hair; but there were hairpins upon which it was entangled, and she dropped her arms from the attempt, and with a quick, “Ah!” she tried to unloose her glove. It was fastened by one of those little clasps which are so hard to undo, and after many attempts she was obliged to look up at Easton in despair.

“May I try to help you?” he dared to ask.

“Why, if you will be so very kind,” she answered, and she held out her beautiful wrist, from which her hand drooped like a flower from its stem. It was a task of some moments, and the young man wrought at it in silence; when it was done, she did{70} not instantly withdraw her hand, but “Oh, is it really finished?” she asked, and then took it from him and pulled off the glove. She put it up to her hair again, and began to feel about with those women fingers that seem to have all the five senses in their tips; but now they were wise in vain. “I’m afraid, Mr. Easton,” she appealed with a well-embarrassed little laugh, “that I must tax your kindness once more. Would you be so very good as to look what can be the matter?” and she turned the wonder of her neck toward him and bent down her head. “Is it caught, anywhere?”

“It’s caught,” he answered, gravely, “on a hairpin.”

“Oh dear!” sighed Mrs. Farrell.

“May I?” asked Easton, after a pause.

“Why—yes—please,” she answered, faintly.

He knelt down on the rock beside her and with trembling hands touched the warm, fragrant, silken mass, and lightly disengaged the string. When he handed her the hat she thanked him for it very sweetly, and with an air of simple gratitude laid it in her lap, and drew out its long, hanging ribbons through her fingers. She did this looking with a downcast, absent gaze at her hat. When she lifted her eyes again they were full of a gentle sadness. “I hope you won’t think I spoke too lightly of the war and of soldiers, just now.”

“I can’t think you spoke amiss,” he answered, fervently.

“I am sure I meant nothing amiss,” said Mrs. Farrell, humbly. “But everything one does or{71} says in this world,” she continued, “is so liable to misconstruction, that if one values—if one cares for the opinion of others, one feels like doing almost anything to prevent it.”

Her eyes fell again, and she twisted the ribbons of her hat into long curls. “I’m glad that at least you understood me, and I do thank you—yes, more than you can know. How still and beautiful it is here! Do you know, I sometimes think that the boundary, the invisible wall between the two worlds, is nowhere so thin as in the deep woods like this?” Mrs. Farrell looked up at Easton with the eyes of a nun. “It seems as if one could draw nearer to better influences here than anywhere else. Not, of course, but what one can be good anywhere if one wants to be, but it isn’t everywhere that one does want to be good. Don’t laugh at my moralizing, please,” she besought him. “There, take your hat. I won’t make a victim of you. I know you’d hate to wear ferns.”

Easton protested that though he had never worn ferns, he did not believe he should hate to wear them.

“No matter,” said Mrs. Farrell, “the mood is past, now; but you’d better pull a few of them, because one mustn’t come for ferns without getting them.”

She put together in pretty clusters the ferns with which he heaped her lap, holding them up from time to time and viewing them critically to get the effect, and talked as she worked, while he reclined on a sloping rock near by. “Isn’t that rather nice?{72}” she asked, displaying the finest group, and letting the tips of the ferns drip through her fingers as she softly caressed their spray. “I suppose you’ll laugh if I tell you what my great passion in life would be, if I could indulge a great passion—millinery! Bonnets, caps, hats, ribbons, feathers!” Nothing so enraptures a man as to hear the woman of his untold love belittle herself; it intoxicates him that this adorable preciousness can hold itself cheap—as Mrs. Farrell possibly knew. “You know,” she went on, “I think I have some little artistic talent—not really enough for painting, but quite enough for clothes. I might set up a studio, and everybody would smile on my efforts, but if I set up a shop, nobody would associate with me. You wouldn’t, yourself! Don’t pretend to be so much better than other people,” cried Mrs. Farrell, with nothing of the convent left in her look.

“I don’t know about being better,” said Easton. “But I’ve lived too little in the world to be quite of it, I suppose. I’m afraid I am not shocked at the notion of anybody’s being a milliner that likes.”

“Oh yes, I know. Cheap ideas of equality. But you wouldn’t marry a milliner, if she was ever such a genius in her art.”

“If I were in love with her, and she were in love with me and would have me, I would marry her. But why do you make marrying the test of a man’s respect for a woman?”

“Isn’t it?”

Easton pondered awhile. “Well, yes, it does{73} seem to be,” he said, a little sadly. “But it narrows the destiny of half the world.”

“Are you woman’s rights?” asked Mrs. Farrell, trailing a plume of fern through the air.

“Oh, I’m woman’s anything,” said Easton; “anything that women really want; but rights are a subject that they don’t seem very certain of, themselves.”

“Yes,” sighed Mrs. Farrell, “that’s the trouble with women; from day to day, and from dress to dress, they don’t really know what they want. There’s Rachel Woodward; she has this decided talent, but she don’t seem to want decidedly to use it, as a man would. I’m not even sure that if all the world were propitious I should open a milliner shop. But I think I should. If I ever do, Mr. Easton, and you marry one of my ’prentices, I want you to promise that you’ll let her buy her bonnets of me. That isn’t asking a great deal, is it?” She was scrutinizing a crest of maidenhair and making it tilt on its stem, as if in doubt just where to put it in the cluster, and she began softly and as if unconsciously, to whistle in a low, delicious note. Then she suddenly stopped, made a little prim mouth, threw up her eyebrows, and said: “Why, excuse me, excuse me! What awful behavior in company!”

Easton gave himself to the joy of being played upon by her charming insolence, with a glad laugh, full of a sort of happy wonder; but she seemed not to notice, while she went on gravely adding spray to spray.{74}

“What are you making all those for?” he asked, when he was willing to change the delight of her silence for the delight of her speech.

“I don’t know—for Mrs. Gilbert, I think. She’s so much of an invalid that she can’t come after things that she doesn’t want, as the rest of us can, and so we’re always carrying them to her. I often wonder how she gets rid of them. You never see them next day. Isn’t it strange?” asked Mrs. Farrell, with a serious face; and abruptly, “What makes you come to the country if you don’t know anything about it?”

“Well, I take an ignorant pleasure in it. On this occasion I came because I thought Gilbert would like it.”

“Ah, Damon and Pythias! Do New York gentlemen commonly desert their business at the beck of their men friends in that way? We have six Boston husbands belonging to the wives of Woodward farm, and they can’t leave their business one workday in the week.”

“But I’m not a business man. I’m no more useless here than in New York.”

Mrs. Farrell looked interested, and Easton went on. “I went into the army too young to have a profession, and came out of it too old—or something—to study one. So I live upon a little money left me by a better man.”

“And you don’t actually do anything?”

“I can’t quite say that. I try not to keep other people from working; that’s something; and I have my little pursuits.{75}”

“But you have no business occupation?”


“Really! And your friend, Pythias—is he a gentleman of elegant leisure, too?”

“He’s a lawyer, if you mean Gilbert.”

“Yes, I mean Gilbert,” said Mrs. Farrell, abstractedly. “He didn’t go in too young, then?”

“He’s a little older than I.”

“‘I said an older soldier, not a better,’” quoted Mrs. Farrell. “Is he—why, excuse me! I seem to be actually pumping you.”

“I hope you’ll believe that I’m not in the habit of exploiting myself and my affairs,” said Easton.

But Mrs. Farrell did not seem to heed what he said. She looked him steadily in the face with her bewildering eyes, and asked, “Why doesn’t he live on some better man’s money, too?” and laughed to see his shame painted in his face.

“I have been so silly as to talk of my own business, and you’ve punished me as I deserved; but I don’t think I’ll enter into my friend’s concerns, even for the honor of making you laugh,” he answered, hotly.

“Then you don’t like being laughed at?” she gravely questioned. Easton rose to his feet. “What! Are you actually going away from me? I beg you to forgive me— I do indeed! I really meant nothing. You haven’t said a word that I don’t respect you for. I thought you wouldn’t mind it. Tell me how I shall treat you. It’s only for a week; I should be so sorry to be enemies with{76} you while you stay. What shall I do to make peace? What shall I say?”

She rose quickly, and stretched her hand appealingly toward him. A mastering impulse of tenderness filled his heart at her words of regret. Before he knew, he had pressed her hand in a quick kiss against his lips, and then stood holding it fast, awestruck at what he had done.

“Oh! What are you doing?” cried Mrs. Farrell, starting away from him in a panic. “Don’t; you mustn’t! Mr. Easton! Oh dear, there’ll be somebody coming in a moment!” She wrung her hand loose and, casting one look of fear, wonder, and reproach upon him, turned and walked sadly away. He followed her as silently, and without a word they mounted the slope of the hollow, and passed through the brakes and over the walls, which she mounted now without his help. When they came to the last, which divided the wood from the open meadow, she turned her aggrieved face upon him again and said, meekly: “I shall have to beg you to go back and get me those ferns we left there in the hollow. It won’t do to go home without anything. I’ll wait here;” and she sat down upon the low broken wall, and averted her face from him again. He went back as he was bidden, and with a little search found the place, the sight of which somehow sent a shiver through him as if it were haunted, and, gathering up the clusters of ferns, returned with them to her. He tried to say something, but could not. She took some of them, and began to talk in a curiously animated way, looking at them and com{77}paring them; and then, not far off, he saw Gilbert and the young girls approaching. Mrs. Farrell sprang down from the wall and hurried to meet them. They were covered with brakes and ferns and a gay laughing and talking broke forth among the women. Mrs. Farrell attached Gilbert to her for the walk home; and it fell to Easton to accompany the two young girls. When he left them they said he was very nice-looking, and he was very hard to get along with, much harder than Mr. Gilbert, who always kept saying something to make you laugh. They did not know whether Mr. Easton was really stupid or not; he did not look stupid, and it was quite delightful to have a man so bashful.

In the meantime he had parted in a blank, opaque sort of way from Mrs. Farrell, with whom he left Gilbert, and was walking moodily homeward over that road where he had met her in the morning. He found the hotel intolerable, and after a cup of its Japan tea, and a glance at its hot biscuit, its cold slices of corned beef, its little blocks and wedges of cheese, its small satellite dishes of prunes and preserves, and its twenty-five Sunday evening toilettes, he went out again, and walked far and long in a direction that he knew nothing of except that it was away from where he had spent the day. His heart was still thickly beating in his ears when he got back and found Gilbert alone on the piazza.

“Hello!” said Gilbert. “Developing into a pedestrian? Why did you go away so soon? I think the lovely Farrell missed you. She was quite pensive and distraite at first; though I must own{78} she cheered up and collected herself after a while. She looked extremely attractive in her melancholy.”

Easton sat down in the next chair without answering, and, drawing a match along the bottom of the seat, lighted his cigar. After a few whiffs he took it from his lips and held it till it went out.

Gilbert went on with a quick laugh, “She’s a most amusing creature!”

“I don’t understand what you mean by that,” said Easton, turning his face halfway toward his friend, in a fashion he had.

“Well, it’s hard to say. I suppose because she’s so deep and so transparent. She does everything for an effect, and she isn’t at peace with herself for a moment.”

“I suppose we all do that,” commented Easton.

“Yes, but not with her motive.”

“What is her motive?”

“That’s not so easy to explain. It’s a pity you haven’t the data for comprehending her, Easton, and enjoying her character; you don’t know other women, and you can’t see how sublimely perfect Mrs. Farrell is in her way. She’s one of the most beautiful women I ever saw; one of the brightest, the most amiable. But I should be sorry to marry her; I shouldn’t want my wife so amiable—to everybody. She isn’t meant for the domesticities. There’s no harm in her; she simply wants excitement, luxury, applause, all in one, all the time. By Jove! the man that gets her will wish she was his widow, and so will she, as soon as she has him. She’s an inspired flirt; and I don’t mean that sh{79}e’s like young girls who can’t help their innocent coquetries with a man or two; but her flirtatiousness is vast enough for the whole world, and enduring enough for all time. As long as she lives she’ll be wanting to try her power upon some one; and there can’t be any game so high or so low that she won’t fly at it. What a life that would be for her husband!”

Easton sat still while Gilbert spoke, and he remained silent when he ceased. But the words had given him a supreme satisfaction; they had lifted a load from his heart; they had made the way clear and straight. He was infinitely far from resenting what left her, as concerned Gilbert at least, so solely to his love and worship. With his passion their reason or unreason had not a feather’s weight.

“Shall you stay any longer than the end of the fortnight?” he asked at last.

“No,” said Gilbert, who was used to Easton’s way of suddenly turning from the matter of their talk, and coming as suddenly back to it some other time; “I don’t think I could stand it longer.”

Easton made a motion to replace his cigar in his lips, then looked at it with sudden disgust and flung it over the rail. His mind ran off in wild reverie upon the kiss, which he now feigned again and again upon her hand. His eccentric life and his peculiar temperament had kept him so unlike other young men that he had no trouble for the violated conventionality; it could only be a question of right or wrong with him; he believed that he had{80} taken an unfair advantage of her attempt at reparation, but the fire that burned in his heart seemed to purge it of whatever wrong there was in his violence. He was reclining there near her on the rock under the hovering shade, with the bracken in light undulation all around above their heads, and the summer at its sweetest in the air and earth; then he despaired to think that the night must pass before he could see her again, that life itself might pass and no such moment come again. His reverie broke in a long, deep sigh.

Gilbert gave a sudden laugh. “Why, I believe, Easton, you are hit! You had forgotten I was here,” he continued, as Easton looked round in a stupefied way. “Well, I’ll leave you to your raptures.”

“I’m going to bed, too,” said Easton. “I’m tired to death;” and he rose from his chair with a leaden sense of fatigue in every fiber.

Their rooms opened into each other, and Easton was abed when Gilbert rapped on the dividing door. “Come in,” he called.

Gilbert came into the room, which the bright moon would have made uncomfortable for any but a lover. “Look here, old fellow,” he said, bending over his friend, with one arm stretched along the headboard, “you didn’t think to-day, from anything my sister-in-law said, that I’d been making light of you, did you?”

“What did she say?”

“Oh, about Rogers, you know.”

“Certainly not.{81}”

“Then it isn’t necessary to say I hadn’t?”

“Oh no,” said Easton, turning his head impatiently. “I never thought of it again.” Gilbert’s anxious loyalty annoyed him, for since they had bidden each other good night the consciousness that he had, however against his will, suffered something to be extorted from him that might be construed as derogation of his friend had troubled him, but he had rather arrogantly dismissed the thought as unworthy of their friendship. Besides, without placing himself in a false light he could not speak of it, and it was vexatious to be reminded of it by Gilbert’s scruples.

“Then it’s all right?” asked Gilbert.

“Why, certainly!” said Easton, impatiently.

Gilbert slowly withdrew his arm from where it lay, and stood a moment in hesitation; then he said, “Good night,” and went into his own room.

Easton felt the vague disappointment in his manner, but was helpless to make the reparation to which his heart urged him. He could not expose Mrs. Farrell’s part in what had been said to his friend’s interpretation; the wrong done was one of those things which must be lived down.


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