Mrs. Farrell

by William Dean Howells

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Chapter VII

THAT evening Gilbert found his sister-in-law well of her headache, and disposed to celebrate the charm of a headache that always went off with the going down of the sun. He responded at random, and then she began to talk to him of Easton, and he listened with a restlessness which she could not help noticing. “You don’t seem to care to sing the praises of your idol, this evening,” she said.

“One can’t always be singing the praises of one’s idols,” he answered, “if you like to call them so. One wants a little variety. You know how the Neapolitans give themselves up to comfortable cursing in the case of saints who don’t indicate the winning lottery numbers.”

“I don’t exactly see the application, William, but I’m always ready to curse anybody; and we will devote Mr. Easton to a little malediction. Have you had a tiff?”

“I thought you were going to curse, and you commence questioning.”

“That’s true; my curiosity is uppermost. Do tell me about it. I suppose Mrs. Farrell is somehow at the bottom of it. I wouldn’t have such a friendship as yours and Easton’s on any account. It{104} has cost too much. I wonder you haven’t assassinated each other long ago.”

“I’m glad your headache’s gone,” said Gilbert.

“Yes, that’s gone—thanks to the sunset or the headache pill. But I’m getting what no pill has yet been patented for; I mean a heartache, and for you, my poor boy. Oh, you open book! Don’t you suppose I can read where that woman has written Finis in her high-shouldered English hand against the chapter of your friendship with Easton?”

“You are taking it seriously, Susan.”

“Well, well. See if I’m not right. I thought you told me your friend was afraid of ladies. Mrs. Farrell seems to have persuaded him that they’re not so dangerous. He’s been here all afternoon. Oh, one can know such a thing as that even with the headache in a darkened room. No, not the whole afternoon; they were gone a long while on a walk. He follows her all about with his eyes when she won’t let him follow on foot; he’s making a perfect trophy of himself. That’s the report.”

“Very likely,” said Gilbert. “Easton never does things by halves.”

“He’d better, then—some things.”

“Why, I don’t know. Why shouldn’t he marry her if he wants?”

“I don’t believe she wants. He can’t take her fancy long, though very likely now she thinks he can. That was very pretty of you to give her your trout, this morning,” said Mrs. Gilbert, with a sharp look at her brother-in-law. “She had them{105} for supper, and ate a great many—for your sake, I suppose. It’s you that she wants, William!”

“Does she?” asked Gilbert, with a bitterish accent. “She has an odd way of going about to get me.”

“What has she done?” demanded Mrs. Gilbert, making an instant rush for the breach. Gilbert covered it with a quizzical smile. “Oh!” she continued, plainly enjoying her own discomfiture, “when will men learn that the boomerang is the natural weapon of woman? We’re all cross-eyed when it comes to love-glances; you can’t tell where we’re looking. You think she’s aiming at Easton! Poor fellow!”

“If I stay here talking,” said Gilbert, rising, “I shall bring on your headache again. Good night.”

“Oh, William,” Mrs. Gilbert appealed, “something sad has happened between you and Easton; and I’m very, very sorry. I liked him, too; and I’m grieved to have your old friendship touched. But I know you are not to blame—and don’t you be! I shall hate him if he breaks with you. Good night, my dear. Don’t tell me anything you don’t want to.”

“I won’t,” said Gilbert, kissing his hand to her at the door.

She could not help laughing, but when he was gone she turned to the glass with an anxious air, and after a while began to let down the loose, hastily ordered folds of her hair. She stood there a long time, thoughtfully brushing it out, taking hold of it near her head with the left hand, and bending sidewise as she smoothed it down. In the light of{106} the kerosene lamps which she had set on either side of the mirror, her reflected face looked up from the lucid depths with an invalid’s wanness, which the whimsicality of her mouth and eyes made the more pathetic. Suddenly she glanced round at the door with an unchanging face, and said, “Come in,” in answer to a light rap; and Rachel Woodward entered with a shy, cold hesitation.

“Oh!—Why, Miss Rachel! Do come in!” repeated Mrs. Gilbert, contriving in the last words to subdue the surprise of her first tones. “You won’t mind my brushing my hair? There’s so very little of it! Sit down.”

She went on to give the last touches, with friendly looks at the girl in the glass, and with various little arts of inattention trying to make it easy for her visitor to disembarrass herself. Then she sat down in her rocking-chair, facing Rachel, who had received her kindliness not unkindly, but now came promptly to her business.

“I oughtn’t to disturb you to-night, Mrs. Gilbert,” she said, “and I should have come Saturday night, but I knew you had company; and last night was Sabbath. I wanted to thank you for buying that picture of mine. I never thought of anyone’s buying it; and I’m afraid you gave more than you ought. I couldn’t bear you should do that. I’ve been talking about it with mother, and she thinks I ought to offer you part of the money back.”

Mrs. Gilbert listened without interruption of any sort, and the girl, doubtless knowing better how to{107} deal with this impassiveness than with that second-growth impulse which in city New-Englanders has sprung up on surfaces shorn so bare by Puritanism, went on tranquilly.

“We think it is like this: it isn’t probable, even if this picture is worth all of what you paid, that I can do any more as good, and if you’ve bought it to encourage me, I might disappoint you in the end. Besides, we should not be willing to be beholden to anybody.”

Having said her say, Rachel waited for Mrs. Gilbert’s response, who answered, quietly, “I know that you and your mother are perfectly sincere, and I am glad you came to say this to me. How much should you think I ought to take back?”

Rachel thought a moment and said, soberly, “The paper cost twenty-five cents; then I used some of a preparation of Mrs. Farrell’s to keep the charcoal from rubbing, but that didn’t come to anything. If my picture took the first premium at the county fair—we did think some of sending it there at first—it would be three dollars, but we should have had to pay seventy-five cents for entering it. If you really want the picture, Mrs. Gilbert, and are not buying it for any other reason, you can have it for two and a quarter.”

“Very well,” said Mrs. Gilbert, gravely, “have you brought me the change? Then please hand it to me, as I’m an old lady and very much settled in my rocking-chair.” The girl obeyed, and approached her with some bank-notes in her hand. The elder woman leaned forward and caught her{108} by either wrist, and held her, while she exclaimed, “Rachel, you’re the manliest girl, and your mother’s the manliest woman, I know of—and I can’t say anything better! But don’t think you can take advantage of my sex, for all that. You shall not give me back a mill—if there is such a thing outside of the arithmetic. Two dollars and a quarter! Upon my word I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at you! I didn’t know there was so much uncorruption left in the world. What do you suppose Mrs. Stevenson will be asking by and by for her cat-tails, when she’s learned to paint them for door-panels? Why—no, I won’t blot your innocence with a knowledge of that swindling. Your Blossom is worth all I paid for her. Don’t be afraid that I bought her to encourage you. No, my dear, that isn’t my line. I’m the great American discourager. I suppose Mrs. Farrell has been babbling to you about the admiration your picture excited. She’s a foolish woman. It was admired, and I think you might be a painter. But, oh, dear me! why should anyone encourage you on that account? Talent is a trouble and a vexation even to men, who are strong enough to fight against it; but for women it’s nothing but misery. The only hope for you that I can see is that you’ve got something of a man’s honesty and modesty to help you through. Draw up your chair and sit down by me, Rachel. I want to talk to you, I want to catechise you. Oh, you needn’t be afraid of me! I’m not going to do you any favor; and you shall keep me at a proper distance in everything you say!{109}”

She smiled quizzically at the girl’s constraint, and added, “But I’m older than you, and I’ve seen more of the world, and maybe I’ll be able to tell you some things it would be useful for you to know. You shall pay me what you think is right, if I do. Why don’t you want to be beholden to anyone? Why shouldn’t I give you more for your picture than it’s worth, if I like?”

“I don’t know,” answered Rachel, shyly puzzled. “It’s a kind of feeling. The laborer is worthy of his hire; but he isn’t if he takes any more.”

“Good! first-rate! And you shouldn’t think it pleasant to have things given to you?”

“Oh no!” cried the girl quickly, with a kind of shiver; “we had enough of that when father was preaching, and we used to have to take everything we ate or wore as a sort of gracious gift. We children didn’t feel it as my mother did, of course. When we came here—” but at this word she stopped and set her lips firmly.

“Go on,” said Mrs. Gilbert. “When you came here your mother said you should starve and go in rags before you took a shred or a morsel from anybody.”

“How did you know?” inquired Rachel, lifting her eyes in a calm, grave surprise.

“I knew it because I respect your mother. When I order a great ideal picture of America from you, you shall paint me your mother’s portrait. Only in these days they’ll say it isn’t in the least like America. No matter: it’s like what she has been and hasn’t forgotten how to be again.{110}”

“Yes,” said Rachel, simply, “we all tell mother there’s not many like her nowadays, and folks won’t understand her way with them, and will lay it to pride.”

“Oh, let them lay it to what they like!” cried Mrs. Gilbert, with enthusiasm. “If she can keep the black burden of gratitude off your souls, it’s no matter. It hardens the heart worse than prosperity.”

Rachel looked sober at the expression of these cynical ideas, and edged ever so little away from Mrs. Gilbert, who burst into a laugh. “Don’t mind my harum-scarum paradoxes, Rachel! I’ve had a great many kind things said and done to me, and there are several of my benefactors whom I don’t hate at all. But how is it,” she asked, being perhaps unable to deny herself the pleasure of looking further into this sincere nature, even if she used an unfair pressure in her questions—“how is it that you have let Mrs. Farrell give you lessons in drawing for nothing?”

Rachel colored and was silent some moments before she answered with dignity, “We can take it off her board, when we find out what it ought to be. I don’t know as they could rightly be called lessons. I never copied anything of hers.”

“I can very well imagine it,” said Mrs. Gilbert, dryly. “Do you admire her pictures?”

Rachel paused again before answering. “No, I can’t say I do. But she has told me a great many useful things, and she has corrected what I was doing. I wish you hadn’t asked me that, Mrs. Gilbert; I don’t think{111}—”

“It was quite generous? No, it wasn’t; but I couldn’t help it. I’ve never seen any of Mrs. Farrell’s work, and if she’s been of use to you, I never want to. Don’t be troubled. You haven’t been disloyal to your friend. Dear me, you should hear how I talk about my friends! Don’t go yet, my dear,” coaxed Mrs. Gilbert, “it’ll be a real charity to stay with me a little while, to-night. I’m fretted. Do you like to draw? Did you enjoy doing Blossom’s portrait?”

“I hardly know about enjoying it. I didn’t think of my own feelings. But—yes, I was glad when I seemed to be getting it right.”

“I don’t quite know what to think of you,” said Mrs. Gilbert, gravely, and the calm-faced young girl returned her absent look with one that claimed a mutual uncertainty. Mrs. Gilbert resumed suddenly with, “Rachel! has anybody ever been so silly as to talk to you about genius?”

Rachel smiled a little, and said evasively that she did not mind such talk.

“That’s right!” said Mrs. Gilbert. “Don’t get that into your head; it’s worse poison than gratitude. I’m always twaddling about it; it’s my besetting sin; but I hope I see the folly and wickedness of it. If you are going to be an artist, think of pictures as hard work; don’t get to supposing that all your little efforts are inspirations. God has got something else to do. Don’t be alarmed at my way of putting things; it doesn’t sound like religion, but it is. If he’s given you a decided talent in this way—and it’s altogether too soon yet for you to be{112} certain—it’s probably because he finds you able to ‘endure hardness,’ as Paul says, to work and to be consoled and occupied by working. After all, my dear, it’s like every other thing here below; it’s only a kind of toy; and you mustn’t let it be your whole life; don’t be selfishly devoted to it. Sometimes it seems to me that the Lord must smile to see how seriously and rapaciously we take things. I can look back and see how balls and parties were once my toys, and my engagement was only a precious plaything! When I got married, what a toy that was! A new husband—just think of it! What an amusement for a young girl! And my first house, how I played with it, and petted it, and made it pretty, and adored it! When my health gave way, it all changed, but I had my toys still. I have had doctors of every age and sex for dolls. I’ve played with every school of medicine; just now I’ve a headache pill that I idolize; not that it keeps me from having the headache. The main thing, as I said, is not to be selfish with your toys. I would share my pills with my worst enemy.”

Mrs. Gilbert seemed to enjoy the gravity with which the girl listened, and to be as well satisfied as if she had taken her lightness lightly. Rachel answered what had been said, so far as it related to herself, by saying that she had scarcely thought of painting as a profession, and that she did not see how she could afford to study it. But she presumed that if it were meant she should, a way would be found for her to help herself.

“But have you no ambition to distinguish yourself?” asked Mrs. Gilbert, in some surprise at her coldness.

“I do not know as I have,” answered the girl. “If I was sure I could make a living by painting, I should like it better than anything else; but unless I took portraits, I don’t suppose I could make it pay, and I don’t think I could paint likenesses of people.”

“Well, I’m glad you have been thinking it over so soberly, for your own sake, Rachel. I suppose you didn’t get these ideas from Mrs. Farrell?” asked Mrs. Gilbert.

“Oh no! she’s very hopeful, and thinks I should succeed at once.”

“Humph!” commented Mrs. Gilbert. “When is your school out?”

“It ended on Friday.”

“Oh, indeed! And are you going to help your mother, now?”

“Yes. She’s not so well as common, this summer, and we can’t get hired help—any that’s worth having.”

“Shall you wait on table?” asked Mrs. Gilbert, with a keen look.

“No—not just at first,” said Rachel, with a little hesitation. Mrs. Gilbert lifted her eyebrows, and the girl blushed and added, “I wanted to, but mother thought it wasn’t best till the boarders had forgotten about—about the—the picture.”

“Your mother is right. They’ll forget it sooner than you think,” answered Mrs. Gilbert, looking to see if this arrow hit. But it seemed to fall blunted from Rachel’s armor; she rose and said she must bid Mrs. Gilbert good night. Mrs. Gilbert followed her to the door. “Don’t think, my dear,” she said, “that I meant to wound your feelings by saying that they’d soon forget your picture. Perhaps it’s true. But I wanted merely to see if you’d any false pride about you. I know how to strike it, for I’m full of it myself. Good night, Rachel; I wish you’d come again. Do let me be of use to you, if I can; and tell your mother that I couldn’t consent to give less than I did for Blossom. I bought it at the lowest price conscience would let me. You don’t blame me for having my way about it, do you?” Rachel dropped her eyes as Mrs. Gilbert took her passive hand.

She turned, as Rachel closed the door, to her bureau, near which the girl had paused; some loose bills lay on it; a five, a two, three quarters. Mrs. Gilbert’s talk had ended as it began, and she had paid two dollars and a quarter for Rachel’s picture, after all, as Rachel had steadfastly meant from the first. She gave a sharp “Ah!” and flung the money on the bureau again in disgust. “The girl’s granite!”


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