Mrs. Farrell

by William Dean Howells

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter X

GILBERT knelt at the side of the man who was his friend again, and caught up his head and dashed his face from the pool, while a groan broke from his own lips—the anguish of the sex which our race forbids to weep. He stanched the blood with his handkerchief, and then felt in Easton’s pocket for another to bind over the wound; and as he folded it in his hands it emitted a fragrance that pierced him with a certain puzzling suggestion, and added to his sorrow a keener sting of remorseful shame.

Easton unclosed his eyes at last, and looked up at him. “Did you strike me, Gilbert?” he asked.

“No, no—oh no! God knows I didn’t! How could I strike you, my dear old boy?”

“I thought you did; you would have done well to kill me. I had outraged you to the death.”

“Oh, Easton, I came here wanting to be friends with you, to make it all right again. And now—”

“I know that. It is all right. Whose blood is this? Were you hurt? Oh—mine! Yes, I must have fainted, and cut myself in falling. I’ve felt queer all day. This heat has been too much for me. How long ago was it?”

“How long? I don’t know. Just now.{166}”

“I thought it was longer. It seems a great while ago.”

He closed his eyes wearily, and Gilbert stood looking ruefully down upon him. After a little while he rose giddily to his feet. “Will you help me home, Gilbert?” he asked, as he leaned tremulously against a rock.

“You could never walk to the hotel, Easton,” said Gilbert. Easton sat down again, and Gilbert stared at him in perplexed silence. “By heavens!” he broke out, “I don’t know what to do, exactly. If you were over at the farm we could get that carryall and drive you to the hotel; but your room would be horribly close and hot after you got there.”

“I can’t go to the farmhouse,” said Easton, with languid impatience, “and run the chances of making a scene; I couldn’t stand that, you know.”

“No; you couldn’t stand that,” assented Gilbert, gloomily. “But it would be much the same thing at the hotel, with more women to assist. Faint?” he asked, looking anxiously at Easton’s face.

“A little. You’d better wet my head,” answered Easton, taking off the handkerchief that bound up his face. Gilbert did so, and then left the dripping handkerchief on Easton’s head. “Thanks. That’s good. We’ll stay here awhile. It’s the best place, after all. It’s cool as any,” he said, looking refreshed.

Gilbert watched his face anxiously; but he was at his wits’ end, and they both sat silent. He looked at his watch; it was two o’clock. He grimly waited half an hour, exchanging a word with Eas{167}ton now and then, and freshening the handkerchief at the pool from time to time. The opening of the glen darkened, and the steady glare on the meadow beyond ceased. Gilbert walked down to the edge of the pasture and looked out. A heavy cloud hid the sun. “Look here, Easton, this won’t do,” he said when he came back. “It’s going to rain, and you’ve got to get under shelter, somehow. We must run the gantlet to the back of the farmhouse, and try to find some conveyance to the hotel. Do you think you could manage to walk with my help across the meadow? The sun’s behind a cloud, now, and I don’t think it would hurt you.”

“Oh yes,” said Easton, “I can walk very well. Just give me your arm, a little way.”

They set out and toiled slowly up the long meadow slope, slanting their course in the direction of the orchard behind the house. Easton hung more heavily on his friend’s arm as they drew nearer. “Do you suppose we’ve been seen?” he panted, as they stepped through a gap in the orchard wall.

“No; there isn’t a woman on watch; not a solitary soul. They’re everyone asleep—confound ’em,” said Gilbert, in the fervent irrelevancy of his gratitude. “Now you sit here, Easton, and I’ll run up to the kitchen door and tell one of the boys to get out his team, and we’ll have you out of harm’s way in half a minute.”

Easton sank upon a stone, and Gilbert ran toward the house under cover of the orchard trees. He was not out of sight when Easton heard women’s voices behind a cluster of blackberry brambles{168} near the wall on the left; then, without being able to stir, he heard the sweep of dresses over the grass toward him; he knew that in the next instant he was to be discovered; he rose with a desperate effort and confronted Mrs. Farrell and the two young girls, Miss Alden and Miss Jewett, who were lamenting the heat and wondering how soon it would rain.

He felt rather than heard them stop, and he made some weak paces toward them, essaying a ghastly smile as he lifted his eyes to Mrs. Farrell’s face. Then he saw her blanch at his pallor, and saw her see the cut on his temple. “I’ve had a fall, and a little scratch. It’s nothing. Don’t mind it. Gilbert—”

A killing chagrin, such as only a man can feel who finds himself unmanned in the presence of her he loves, was his last sensation as he sank in the grass before her. The young girls fled backward, but she rushed toward him with a wild cry, “Oh, he’s dead!” and in another moment the people came running out of the house and thronged round them with question, and injurious good will, and offers to have him taken to their rooms. Gilbert came with them and flung up his fists in despair. Mrs. Farrell had Easton’s head upon her knee, and was sprinkling his face from one of many proffered flagons of cologne. “No, he shall not go to your room,” she vehemently retorted upon the last hospitable zealot; “he shall go to mine; he is mine!” she said. “Here, Rachel, Ben, Mrs. Woodward—will you help me?{169}”

The others fell back at her brave confession, and they all began to like her. They meekly suffered themselves to be dispersed, and they cowered together on the piazza while a messenger ran for the doctor. Then, while the ladies waited his report, they talked together in low tones, though they were separated from Mrs. Farrell’s room by the whole depth of the house. Not a voice dissented from the praises of the heroine of a love episode whose dramatic interest reflected luster upon them all. The ladies were even more enthusiastic than the men, and several rebuked their husbands, who had formerly been too forward in doing justice to Mrs. Farrell, for coldness in responding now to their own pleasure in her.

“George, how can you smoke?” asked the youngest of the married ladies, and reproachfully drew her husband’s newspaper away from him and sent him into the orchard with his cigar. Another made her husband take the children away for a walk, in order that the ladies might not be distracted by their play while attending the verdict of the physician. The common belief was that Easton would die, and in the meantime they excited themselves over the question as to how, when, and where he had fallen. The husband with the cigar was suffered to approach and say that he had known an old fellow once who had been out in the heat a good deal, and had gone into the woods to cool off, and had come home in the evening with a cut in his head and a story that he had been attacked and knocked down.{170}

“Yes,” said one of the ladies, who had a logical mind, “but Mr. Easton doesn’t pretend to have been knocked down, and—and he isn’t an old fellow.”

“I was going to say,” retorted the smoker, taking a good long whiff, with half-closed eyes, insensible to the frantically gesticulated protest of his wife, “that this old fellow was supposed not to have been attacked at all; he had got giddy with the heat and tumbled over and barked his skull against a tree, and then fancied he’d been knocked down; they often do.”

The theory seemed to have reason in it, but the language in which it was clothed made it too repulsive for acceptance, and there was open resentment of it by the tribunal before which it was offered. At this moment the doctor was seen slanting down the grass toward the gate from the side door; the ladies called after him and captured him.

“The wound is a very slight matter,” said the doctor; “but Mr. Easton had something like a sunstroke this summer in New York, and is very sensitive to the heat.”

“Yes, yes,” said the spokeswoman, eager for all, “but what happened to him? How did he get hurt?”

“His friend thinks he was overcome by the heat and struck his face against a point of rock in falling, over there in the valley by the sugar orchard.”

“There!” said the young wife, who at heart had felt keenly injured by the indifference to her hus{171}band’s theory, “it’s just as George said. Oh, George!” She took him by the arm, joying in his wisdom, and looked fondly into his face, while he smoked imperturbably.

“Yes, but will he get well?” tremulously demanded the spokeswoman of the group, pursuing the doctor on his way to the gate.

“Oh, I think so,” said the doctor; “he’s got the temperature in his favor now”; for though the threatened storm had passed without rain, it had left the air much cooler.

The doctor mounted into his buggy and chirruped to his horse and drove off. He came again in the evening, and said they had better not move Easton to the hotel that night, left his prescriptions, and went away.

Mrs. Woodward and Rachel began to talk together about where they should put Easton.

“Put him!” cried Mrs. Farrell, emerging upon them where they stood in a dimly lighted group, with Gilbert and Mrs. Gilbert just outside the door. She had an armful of draperies of which she had been dismantling her closet. “He’s not to be put anywhere. I’m going to stay with Rachel, and he’s to stay where he is till he gets perfectly well. It would kill him to move him!” The women were impressed, and looked to see conviction in Gilbert’s face.

“It would kill him to keep him where he is, Mrs. Farrell,” said Gilbert, dryly. “A man can’t stand too much kindness in his sensitive state. You must have some regard for his helplessness. He{172} would never let you turn out of your room for him in the world; and if you try to make him it will simply worry him to death. It’ll be gall and wormwood to him, anyway, to think of the trouble he’s given. You must have a little mercy on him.”

Gilbert had to make a long fight in behalf of his friend; he ended by painting Easton’s terrors of a scene when they were coming toward the farmhouse from the glen.

Opinion began to veer round to his side. “Well, well,” cried Mrs. Farrell, passionately, “take him away from me—take him where you will! You let me do nothing for him; you think him nothing to me!”

“If he could stay where he is for the night,” said Mrs. Woodward, “he could have Mrs. Burroughs’s room to-morrow; she’s going to the seaside and won’t want it any more.”

This matter-of-fact proposal seemed so reasonable that it united the faltering opposition, and Mrs. Farrell had to give way. In their hearts, no doubt, all the women sighed over the situation’s loss of ideality. At parting, Mrs. Gilbert took Mrs. Farrell’s hand and went so far as to kiss her. “I don’t think you need be anxious,” the older woman said. “The doctor says he needs nothing but care and quiet, and he’ll be well again in a few days. Even now I can’t help congratulating you. I didn’t know matters had gone so far—so soon. My dear,” she added, after a little hesitation, “I’m afraid I haven’t quite done you justice. I thought—excuse my saying it now—I thought perhaps you{173} were amusing yourself. I beg your pardon in all humbleness.”

“Oh don’t, don’t, Mrs. Gilbert!” cried Mrs. Farrell, and cast her arms about her neck, and sobbed there. She went to Rachel’s room, and changed her dress for a charming gown in which she could just lie down and jump up in an instant. She bound her hair in a simple knot, and when she came back to her own room with her lamp held high and shaded with one hand, she looked like a stylish Florence Nightingale with a dash of Lady Macbeth.

Gilbert was sitting there in the dark, beside a table on which the light revealed a curious store of medicines and restoratives, the contribution of all the boarders: five or six flagons of cologne and one of bay rum; a case bottle of brandy; a bottle of Bourbon whisky; a pint of Bass’s pale ale; the medicines left by the doctor; some phials of homœopathic pellets from Mrs. Stevenson, who used the high-potency medicines; a tiny bottle of liquid nux from Mrs. Gilbert, who preferred the appreciable doses, and despised all who did not; a lemon; three oranges; a box of guava jelly—from one of the young girls. Mrs. Farrell’s tragic gaze met Gilbert’s lowering eyes and wandered with them to this array; they both smiled, but she was the first to frown. She beckoned him from the room, and “Here is your lamp,” she said. “Don’t turn it down or it will smoke, but set it where it won’t shine in his eyes. I’m going to be there in that room.” She pointed down the passageway toward Rachel’s door. “If he needs the least thing you’re{174} to call me.” Her severity would have admonished any levity that lingered in Gilbert’s heavy heart, as she put the lamp in his hand.

“Let me light you back to your room,” he said, with moody humility.

“No, I can find the way perfectly well in the dark,” she answered. “Or—yes, you had better come, so as to make sure of the right door in case you need me. You think I tried to make you quarrel!” she said in a swift undertone, as they passed down the hall; “but I never meant it, and you know that, whatever you think. Oh, I have been punished, punished! But I’m glad you held out against me about the room,” she added. “He would have been as true to you; and if you had let me do anything to make him seem silly, I should have hated you!”

He saw with a man’s helplessness the tremor of her lips, and then she had opened and closed the door, and he stood blankly staring at it.

In the morning Easton was well enough to sit up in an easy-chair, and was fretfully eager to return to his hotel. It was clear that he was intensely vexed at having caused the sensation of the day before, and that the fear of giving further trouble galled him with the keenest shame. They were only too glad to release him from the fond imprisonment to which Mrs. Farrell would have sentenced him, on condition that he would consent to occupy the room vacated by Mrs. Burroughs for a few days, and be cared for better than he could be at the hotel, until he was quite well again.{175}

But in a few days he was not quite so well. He fell from his dull languor into a low fever, and from feebly lounging about his room and drowsing in an easy-chair it came to his not rising one morning at all.

Thus his hold upon the happiness so fiercely pursued, and now within his grasp, relaxed, and a vast vagueness encompassed him, in which he strove with one colossal task: to make Gilbert see a certain matter as he saw it, which was not at all the matter of their quarrel, but some strange abstraction, he never could make out what, though their agreement upon it was a vital necessity. He was never delirious, but he was never sure of anything; a veil was drawn between his soul and all experience; he could not tell, when he had been asleep, that he had slept; his waking was a dream; the world moved round him in elusive shadow.

He was what one of the ladies called comfortably sick. It was not thought from the first that he was in danger, and as it turned out he was not. But if he had lain for a month at the point of death, he could not have been more precious to that houseful of women, who enjoyed every instant of the poetic situation; maid and matron, those tender hearts were alike glad of the occasion to renew in this fortunate reality their faith in romance, and they turned fondly to Mrs. Farrell for a fulfillment of their ideal of devotion. It looked on the face of things rather like expecting devotion from a Pompeian fresco, so little did her signal beauty seem related to the exigency, so far should sickness and{176} sorrow have been from her world. But here Mrs. Farrell most disappointed those who most feared her picturesque inadequacy. She threw herself into her part with inspiration; rising far above the merely capable woman, she made her care of Easton a work of genius, and not only divined his wants and ministered to his comfort with a success that surprised all experience, but dealt so cunningly with his moods that he was at last flattered into submission if not resignation. In the beginning he was indeed a most refractory object of devotion; he chafed so bitterly against his helpless lapse into the fever, he was in such a continual revolt against his hospitable detention at the farmhouse, and was so weighed down, through all the hazy distance in which his life ebbed from actual events, with the shame of being a burden, that no magic less than hers could have consoled him. But she overcame his scruples and reconciled him to fate, so that it did not seem an unfair advantage to inflict the kindness against which he could not struggle; and she had her way with him, even to excess. Since she was not allowed to give up her room to him, she devoted herself in the moments of her leisure to the decoration of his chamber. She upholstered it almost anew with contributions from the ladies of scraps of chintz, mosquito-netting, and dotted muslin; she shut out the garish light with soft curtains; she put on the plain mirror and toilet table what Gilbert called a French cap and overskirt, and she furbelowed the mantelpiece. She took Mrs. Woodward’s ivies and trained them up the corners,{177} and she had a great vase on the table, often renewed with autumnal wild flowers, ferns, and the firstlings of the reddening sumac leaves. As a final offering she brought in her spinning-wheel—the mania was then just beginning—and set it by the hearth. It must be owned that when all was done the place had a certain spectacularity; the furniture and ornaments wore somehow the air of properties; on the window seats, which she had contrived for greater coziness of effect, it was not quite safe to sit down. But her friends—and all the ladies were her friends now—easily forgave this to her real efficiency and her unsparing self-sacrifice; the two young girls worshiped the carpets she trod upon, and the whole sympathetic household sighed in despair at the perfection with which she, as one may say, costumed the part. She had ordinarily indulged a taste for those strong hues that went best with her Southern beauty, but now her robes were of the softest color and texture; she moved in slippers that made no sound; in emblem of devotion to the sick-room she denied herself every ornament; at first she even left off her Etruscan ear-rings, and kept only a limp scarf of dark red silk, tied at her throat in a sentiment of passionate neglect. In behalf of Easton’s peaceful dreams she banished the Japanese fans, with their nightmare figures, and as she sat fanning him with a quaint, old-fashioned fan of white feathers, which she had skillfully mounted on a long handle, her partisans declared, some that she looked like an Eastern queen, other some, like an Egyptian slave. They remembered{178} her afterward in this effect, and also how she used to look as she stood at dusk lighting the little tapers which she had found at a queer country store in an out-of-the-way village of the neighborhood, and setting them afloat in a vase of oil, to illumine the chamber during the night. She realized the character as thoroughly in other respects; she met the friendliness all round her with gentle appreciation, availed herself of it little or nothing, and for the most part quietly withdrew from it. Her defiant airs were all laid aside; her prevailing mood was serious; she often spoke earnestly of matters which certainly had not commanded her open reverence before; there was a great change in her in every way, and some, who had always longed to like her, liked her now with thankful hearts for the opportunity. Among these Mrs. Gilbert made her advances like one who has an atonement to offer; Mrs. Farrell frankly accepted the tacit regret, and visited a good deal in her room.

But as the sick man’s disorder slowly ran its course, and the days took him further and further from any joy in her, Mrs. Farrell seemed to lose her hold of the situation, and another change came over her, in which she fell from her high activities into a kind of dull and listless patience, and dragged out the time, uncheered by the inspiration that had hitherto upheld her. She seemed not to know what to do. The spring was gone, the impulse exhausted, in that strange nature, which knew itself perhaps as little as others knew it. Those were the days when she surrendered her authority to Rachel,{179} and served under her about Easton, who had also fallen largely to the care of Gilbert and Ben Woodward. Few young ladies would not willingly assume the task of nursing a young man through a low fever in a romance, but the reality is different. If it had been something short and sharp, a matter of a week’s supreme self-devotion, it would doubtless have been otherwise with her; she was capable of great things, but a long trial of her endurance must finally lose its meaning. She had times of melancholy in which she sat behind her closed doors for hours, or when she went lonely walks through the woods or fields. She withdrew herself more and more from the society that sought her, and got a habit of consorting with poor old Nehemiah as he dug his potatoes or gathered his beans, and seemed to find him a relief and shelter. Heaven knows what they talked of. Doubtless, as she followed him from one potato hill to another, and listened to his discourse, he admired her taste for serious conversation, and was obscurely touched that such resplendent beauty should be so meekly contented with his company. She no longer teased Ben Woodward, whose open secret of a passion for her she used to recognize so freely; she was the boy’s very humble servant in manner; and to Rachel’s efficiency and constancy she was the stricken thrall. It was touching to see how willingly subservient she was to the girl, and how glad she was to be of any use that Rachel could think of. One night, after they had sat a long time silent by the taper’s glimmer while Easton slept, she suddenly caught{180} Rachel by the arm and whispered, “Why don’t you say it? How can you keep thinking it and thinking it, and never say it? For pity’s sake, speak this once, and tell me that you know I did it all, and that you despise me!”

“I don’t judge you,” said Rachel; “and I have no right to despise anyone. You know, yourself, whether you are to blame for anything.”

“Do you think I acted heartlessly that day when I made fun of him—there in the schoolhouse?”

“I did think so, then.”

“Do you now? Do you believe I’m sorry?”

“How can I tell? You seemed unfeeling then, but I don’t believe you were; and you seem sorry now—”

“And you don’t believe I am! Oh me, I wonder if I am! Rachel, you do believe I know how to feel, don’t you?”

“How can you ask such a thing as that?” returned the girl in a startled accent.

“I wonder if I do! It seems to me that I know how to feel, but that I never feel. It seems to me that I am always acting out the thing I ought to be or want to be, and never being it. Don’t trust me, Rachel—not even now; I think that I’m very remorseful and sorry, but who knows if I am? I keep asking myself what I should do if he were to die—what would become of me. I try to scare myself about it; but my soul seems to be in a perfect torpor; I can’t stir it. Rachel, Rachel! I did try to make him in love with me—all I could. There was such a deadly charm in it—his perfect faith in{181} me, whatever I said or did. But it frightened me at last, too; and I didn’t know what to do; and that day when I behaved so about him, I was frantic; if I hadn’t made fun of him, the thought of what I had done would have killed me. But I honored him all the time. Oh, he was my true, true lover; and when I thought how recklessly I had gone on, it almost drove me wild. Rachel, do you know what I did?” She poured out the whole story, and then she said, “But now I seem not to be able to care any more. It’s all like a dream: it’s some one running and running after me, and I am laughing and beckoning him on, and all of a sudden there he lies without help or motion; it can’t give him any pleasure to see me, now; I can’t do anything for him that some one else can’t do better, or that he won’t be as glad of from another. It’s as if he were in prison, and I sat at the door outside, waiting in this horrible lethargy. When he comes out, what will he say to me? I think that I should die if he upbraided me; but if he didn’t I should go mad. No, no! That’s what some other woman would do. Rachel, isn’t it awful to bring all these things home to yourself, and yet not suffer from them? Oh, but I care—I care because I can’t care. My heart lies like a stone in my breast, and I’m furious because I can’t break it, or hurt it. Rachel, if you give way before me I don’t know where I shall end. You must never yield to me, no matter what mood I’m in, or else I shall lose the one real friend I have in the world—the only one I can be myself to, if there is really anything of me.{182}”

As she ceased to speak, Gilbert came in to take his place for the night. He asked Rachel in a low voice what was next to be done, but he took no notice of Mrs. Farrell save to give her a slight nod.

No one else treated her with coldness now; but in his manner toward her there still lingered a trace of resentment. It had a tone of irony, to which she submitted meekly, like one resolved to bear a just penalty; and if there were times when he forgot to be severe and she forgot to be sad, then afterward he was the more satirical and she the more patient. It began to be said by some of the ladies that Mr. Gilbert had rather a capricious temper; but he had his defenders, who maintained that he was merely run down with worry and confinement over his friend.

One day he came into Mrs. Gilbert’s room, and found Mrs. Farrell with her. He offered to go away if he had burst upon a confidential interview, seeing that they fell silent at his coming, but Mrs. Farrell said that they had just finished their talk, and that now she was going.

Gilbert did not sit down after he had closed the door upon her, but took two or three lounging turns about the room. “It’s very pleasant to see you and Mrs. Farrell such friends, Susan,” he said, at last. “It’s really millennial. But which is the wolf and which is the lamb?”

He laughed his short laugh, and Mrs. Gilbert answered, nervously, “You know very well I told you, the first time we talked of her, that I liked her.”

“You said she fascinated you. The spell seems{183} to have deepened. You used to find some little imperfections in her.”

“Well, and who pretends that I don’t see them now?”

“Oh, not I. But I’m affected to see you so lenient to them of late. Did you know that she was a person of strong religious convictions?”

“What do you mean, William?”

“Nothing. She has found out that Easton and I are in a sort of suspense about such matters, and she says it is terrible. She can only account for our being able to endure it by supposing that men are different, more self-centered, not so dependent as women. She considers the Woodwards a high example of the efficacy of a religious training in the formation of character. She says she is not like Rachel; that she has an undisciplined nature, and was too irregularly trained, first in her father’s belief and then in a convent. What was her father’s belief? I suppose some sort of marine Methodism of the speaking-trumpet pitch. She wants my advice as to a course of reading in the modern philosophy; she thinks every Christian ought to know how his faith is being assailed.”

Gilbert stopped in his walk and looked gravely at his sister-in-law, who gave a troubled sigh.

“What right have you to suppose she isn’t perfectly in earnest now, William?”

“None; I think she thinks she is.”

“She has shown so much more character, so much more heart, than I ever supposed she had, in this affair, that I’m glad to believe we were mis{184}taken about her in several essential ways. The fact is, I always did have a sort of sneaking fondness for her, and now I’m determined to indulge it; so you needn’t come to laugh about her in my sleeve, William. I’m an ardent Farrellite, and have been ever since I found out that she was in love with your friend. Don’t you think she’s very devoted to him?”

“Oh, I dare say. He’s not in a state for devotion to tell upon, exactly.”

Mrs. Gilbert looked baffled. Presently she asked, “Are she and Rachel Woodward as good friends as ever?”

“How do I know?” returned Gilbert, resuming his walk. “That’s a curious girl, Susan. One meets enough good women in the world; I’ve always been able to believe in them,” he said, stopping at Mrs. Gilbert’s side to take her hand and kiss it; “in fact, the worst women seem pretty good, if one will only compare them with oneself; but I don’t think I’ve understood, before, just the sort of feminine goodness that the unbroken tradition of your New England religiousness produces. Puritanism has fairly died out of the belief—I don’t care what people profess to believe—but in such a girl as Rachel Woodward, all that was good in it seems to survive in the life. She’s more like Easton than any other human being I know; they’re both unerringly sincere; they’re both faithful through thick and thin to what they think is right; only you can’t help feeling that there’s something Quixotic in Easton’s noblest moods, and that he has an{185} arrogant scorn of meaner morals than his own. But her purity doesn’t seem to judge anything but itself, and her goodness and veracity always seem to refer themselves to something outside of her. You can see before she speaks how she is considering her phrase, and choosing just the words that shall give her mind with scriptural scruple against superfluity; if you know the facts, you know what she will say, for she’s almost divinely without variableness or shadow of turning where the truth is concerned. It’s awful; it makes me hang my head for shame, to watch the working of that vestal soul of hers. And with all this inflexibility—you might call it angularity—of rectitude, she has a singular charm, a distinctly feminine charm.”

“Oh, indeed! And what is her charm?”

“Poh, Susan!” said Gilbert, looking askance at her. “Don’t make me think you can be guilty of bad taste.”

“Oh, well; I won’t, I won’t, my dear boy! I didn’t mean to,” cried Mrs. Gilbert. “It was rather foolish in me to interrupt you.”

“I can’t call it an interruption, exactly; I had got to the end of my say.”

He went off to Easton’s room, where he found Rachel Woodward putting things in order for the evening, and he smiled to see with what conscientious regard she preserved Mrs. Farrell’s arrangements, as matters having a sacred claim to which no reforms of her own could have pretended, and yet managed somehow to imbue all that picturesqueness with a quality of homelike comfort.{186} He nodded to her, and said he was going out for a short walk.

On the road he overtook Mrs. Farrell, who was moving rather sadly along by herself. Her face brightened as she turned and saw him, but she waited for him to speak.

“Where are your inseparable comrades?” he asked.

“Oh!” said she. “Jenny Alden isn’t very well, this afternoon, and Miss Jewett has gone over with Mrs. Stevenson to Quopsaug.”

“Quop—what?” asked Gilbert, stopping short.

“Quopsaug,” repeated Mrs. Farrell, simply. “Did you never hear of it?”

“No, I never heard of Quopsaug. Is it—vegetable or mineral?”

“It’s vegetable, I believe. At least it vegetates. It’s a place—a huddle of unpainted wooden houses in a little hollow at the foot of Scatticong, on the east side. It has a Folly and it has a Bazar. But I wonder Quopsaug hasn’t come up long ago in our poverty-stricken conversation. I suppose everyone must have thought everybody else had talked you to death about it.”

“No,” said Gilbert. “What do people go to Quopsaug for?”

“To see the Folly—that’s the storekeeper’s mansion; and to buy things out of the Bazar—that’s his store. And to wheedle the inhabitants generally out of their spinning-wheels; at least that’s what Mrs. Stevenson’s gone for to-day.”

“And is Quopsaug a nickname?{187}”

“No; it’s one of those musical Indian names we’re so fond of in New England. The people adopted it thirty or forty years ago, when they started a cotton mill—which failed—there. The place used to be called East Leander, but they rechristened it Quopsaug, after a chief who scalped the first settler, and then became a praying Indian, and lies over there in the Quopsaug graveyard, under a Latin epitaph. You ought to go to Quopsaug.”

“I must,” said Gilbert, absently; the talk dropped, and they walked on in silence till they came to a rise in the road overlooking a swampy meadow. In the midst of this stood a slim, consumptive young maple in a hectic of premature autumnal tints, and with that conscious air which the first colored trees have.

“I suppose you would like a branch of that,” said Gilbert, “for your vase.”

“Why, yes,” assented Mrs. Farrell. When he brought it to her, she had turned about and was facing homeward. “An olive branch?” she asked, with a tentative little burlesque.

“If you like,” said Gilbert, with a laugh that was not gay. “It isn’t quite the color; but it’s olive branch enough for all the peace you probably mean, and it’s sufficiently angry-looking for war when you happen to feel like making trouble again.”

The leaves were mainly of a pallid yellow, but their keen points and edges were red as if dipped in blood. She flung the bough away and started forward, dashing the back of her hand passionately across her eyes.{188}

It was as though he had struck her. He made haste to come up with her. “Mrs. Farrell,” he faltered, dismayed at the words that had escaped him, “I’ve been atrociously rude.”

“Oh, not unusually so!” she said, darting a look upon him from gleaming eyes, while her lips quivered. “You seem to feel authorized to give me pain whenever you like. You needn’t do so much to make me know the difference between yourself and Mr. Easton.”

Gilbert’s face darkened. “Upon my word,” he said, “I think the less you say about that the better.”

“Why?” she retorted, trembling all over with excitement. “You force me every moment to remember his magnanimity and generosity; all your words and acts teach me how friendless I am without him. He never could believe so ill of a woman as you do; but if the case were changed, I don’t think he would choose the part of my torturer. And you are his friend!” She broke, and the tears fell down her face.

Gilbert walked speechless beside her. “It’s true,” he said at last, “Easton is a better man than I; he’s a manlier man, if you like—or if you mean that.”

She did not speak, but she slightly slackened her fierce pace, and seemed to be waiting for him to speak again.

“But I didn’t know that I had been giving you so much pain. I’m sorry—I’m ashamed—with all my heart. I ask your pardon.{189}”

“Yes, yes! I know how you say all that. Oh, I know the superior stand you take! I know how you say to yourself, ‘It’s my business to treat her handsomely for Easton’s sake, whatever I think of her. Come, I’ll do the right thing, at any rate!’ You ask my pardon. Thanks, thanks; I give it in all meekness. Yes, let there be a truce between us. I can’t choose but be glad to be let alone. Will you walk on and leave me now, Mr. Gilbert, or let me leave you?”

“No, I can’t part from you so. Let it be peace, not a truce. I make no such reservations as you imagine. I beseech you to pardon my brutality and to forget my rudeness.”

She halted, and impulsively stretched out her hand toward him, and then suddenly withdrew it before he could take it. “Wait,” she said, seriously. “I can’t be friends with you yet, till I know whether you really think me worthy. If you don’t, you shall have no forgiveness of mine. You must be more than sorry that you hurt my feelings.”

“I will be as much sorry, and about as many things, as you like.”

“Oh, don’t try to turn it into a joke! You know what I mean. Did Mr. Easton tell you what I told him to say about the trouble between you? Did he lay the whole blame upon me? Did he say that I did it willfully and recklessly, because your friendship piqued me, and because—because—though I never thought of that before!—I was jealous of it?”

Gilbert did not smile at the slight confusion of ideas, but answered, gravely, “Easton was not the{190} man to lay blame upon you—he would like it too well himself. Besides, I was unfair with him, and gave him no chance to speak in your defense.”

“Oh, how could you be so cruel as that? He was so true to you! I should think you never could forgive yourself for that. You ought to have heard him praise you. He told me everything. Yes, you did act grandly. But he could have done as much for you, and more, or he never would have suffered your self-sacrifice.”

“There is only one Easton in the world,” said Gilbert, gloomily; and he went on to talk of Easton’s character, his noble eccentricities, his beneficent life, and his heroic ideals. He spoke with a certain effect of self-compulsion very different from the light-hearted liking with which he had once before talked with her of Easton, but she listened reverently, and at the end she said with a sigh: “No, I see that I didn’t know him. Why, I hadn’t even imagined it! Why should he care for me?”

Gilbert did not undertake to answer the question, and she said, “But I am so glad you have told me so much about him. How proud I shall be to surprise him with it all!”

Gilbert made no sign of sharing her rapture, but she seemed not to heed him.

They were very near the house, now, and she turned on him an upward, sidelong look, as her lower stature obliged, and asked, “And you really think me worthy to be sorry?”

“Yes,” said Gilbert, with a heavy breath.

“Then I’ll forget your cruelty,” she said; “but don’t do it any more.” She dropped him a little nod, and went into the house without him. He stood there watching the black doorway through which she had vanished, but it was as if he had followed her, so wholly had all sense fled after her out of his face. He stirred painfully from his posture, and cast his eye upward at Easton’s room. The cold window met his glance with a gleam from which he shrank, with a sudden shock at the heart, as though he had caught Easton’s eye, and he turned and walked away into the nightfall.


Return to the Mrs. Farrell Summary Return to the William Dean Howells Library

© 2022