Mrs. Farrell

by William Dean Howells

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Chapter XII

IT was already dark when Gilbert knocked at his sister-in-law’s door. She was sitting in the chair from which she had risen at parting with Mrs. Farrell, and into which she sank again at her going. Gilbert sat down before her, but did not speak.

“Have you made up your mind when you shall go, William?” she asked, gently.

“I haven’t made up my mind that I shall go at all,” he answered, in a sullen tone.

“But I think you had better,” she said as before.

“I am always glad, Susan, of advice that costs me nothing,” he returned, with an affectation of his habitual lightness.

“I have been thinking about you, William, and I want you to go to New York at once. Your friend is out of all danger, now, and it’s you who are in danger.”

“You know I never was good at conundrums, Mrs. Gilbert. May I ask what particular peril is threatening me at present?”

“A peril that an honest man runs from—the danger of doing a great wrong, of committing a cowardly breach of faith.”

“Upon my word, Susan, you are using words{216}—”

“Oh, don’t catch at my words, my poor boy. Have you nothing to reproach yourself with? If you haven’t, I beg your pardon with all my heart, and I will be glad to take back my words, yes, take them back upon my knees!”

“What is all this coil about? What are you worrying me with these emotional mysteries for?” demanded Gilbert, angrily, yet with a note of ungenuine bluster in his voice. “What are you trying to get at?”

“Your heart, William; your conscience, your honor, your self-respect. Do you think I am blind? Do you think I have not seen it all? If you will tell me you don’t know what I mean, and make me believe it, I will never call myself unhappy again.”

“If you have suffered yourself to be made uncomfortable by any affair or condition of mine,” said Gilbert, “I advise you to console yourself by reflecting that it doesn’t really concern you. How long is it,” he demanded, savagely, “since you have felt authorized to interfere in my questions of honor and conscience?”

“Ever since a motherless boy let a childless woman love him. Oh, think that I do love you, my dear, and speak to you out of my jealousy for your stainless good faith, your sacred friendship, your unsullied life! You know what I mean. Think that she is pledged by everything that is good in her to your friend. If you believe she does not love him, let her break with him how and when she will. But don’t you be her wicked hope—wickeder a thousand times than she!—don’t be the temptation,{217} the refuge of her falseness. Leave her to herself! You could only add your treason to hers by staying!”

“Wicked hope, temptation, treason—this is all rather theatrical for you, Susan,” said Gilbert, with an attempt to smile. He frowned instead. “And what do I owe to Easton in the way of loyalty? Do you know how little care he has had for me? Do you know—”

“No, no, no! I don’t know, I won’t know! If he has wronged you in any way, you are only the more bound to be faithful to him in such a case as this. But I will never believe that Easton has wronged you willingly, and you don’t believe it, either, whatever the trouble is that she made between you—you know you don’t. You are talking away your own sense of guilt, or trying to. Well, I can’t blame you for that; but keep these things to silence your conscience with when you are alone; you will need them all. How long have you watched by your friend’s pillow with the hope of revenge in your heart?”

Mrs. Gilbert rose from her chair and walked to one of the windows, and then came and paused in front of Gilbert, where he now stood leaning against the mantelpiece. “Come,” she entreated, “you will go away, won’t you, William? I know you never meant him wrong. It has all been something that has stolen upon you, but you will go now, won’t you?”

“No, I will not go!”

“You will remain?”

“Till such time as I see fit. I am not a boy, to be sent hither and thither.”

“What good will you remain for?” demanded the woman, sternly. “Or do you choose to remain for evil? Every hour that you remain deepens your responsibility. Some things have been talked of already. How long will it be before the whole house sees that you are in love with the woman promised to your friend?”

“Do you suppose I care what this houseful of spying, tattling women see or say?”

“There are no spies and no tattlers; but if they were, a man who hadn’t shut his senses against his own conscience would care. No one blames you as yet, but the time will soon be when you will make the blame all your own.”

“I wouldn’t ask her to share it.”

“Oh, very fine! you think your brave words will make a brave affair of a cowardly, sneaking treason!”


“William! These people who are beginning to talk you over do not know what I know. They see that you are beginning to be fascinated with her, as he was. They don’t know that you have believed her false and shallow from the first, and that if you have any hopes of her love now, they are in your belief that after all that has happened she is still too false and shallow to be true to him. He was taken with what was best in her, with all that he believed was good. But you have dared to love her in the hope that she had no principles and no heart.{219} You are ready to lay your honor at her feet, to give all that makes life worth having for what would make your whole life a sorrow and a shame. If you could commit this crime against Easton and yourself and her, if you could win the heart you think so empty and so fickle, what would you do with it? If you could make her false enough to love you, how could you ever have peace again? How could you ever meet each other’s eyes without seeing the memory of your common falsehood in them? Think— Oh, my dear, dear boy, forgive me! I know that it isn’t your fault; I take it all back, all that I have said against you; I don’t blame you for loving her—how could you help it? She is charming—yes, she charms me, too; and to a man she must make all other women seem so blank and poor and plain! But now you mustn’t love her: she cannot be yours without a wrong that when you’re away from her you must shudder at. And—and—you will go, won’t you, William?”

Gilbert’s arm dropped from the mantel where it lay, to his side. “I will go,” he said, sullenly. “But I acknowledge nothing of all that you have chosen to attribute to me, motive or fact. And you must be aware that you have said things to me that are not to be forgiven.”

He turned to go out of the room, without looking at her, but she cried after him: “Never mind forgiving me, my dear. Only go now, in time to forgive yourself, and I will gladly let you hate me all your life. Good-by, good-by; God bless you and keep you!{220}”

He did not answer, nor turn about, but closed the door behind him and left her standing with her hands clenched, in the gesture of her final appeal. She sank into her chair, spent by the victory she had won.

Gilbert went to the room which he had been occupying since his constant attendance upon Easton had ceased to be necessary, and began to gather together the things scattered about the room. It was a great and bewildering labor, but he had succeeded in heaping many of them into his valise when Rachel Woodward appeared with his lighted lamp. Then he knew that he had been working in the dark. “Oh, thank you, thank you,” he said, in a strange voice of unconscious, formal politeness. “I—I was just going away, and it’s rather difficult getting these things together without a light.”

“You are going away?” she asked.

“Yes; I had a letter this morning recalling me to New York, but I hadn’t made up my mind to go until just now. I’m going to try to catch the express; I’ll get a man to drive me over from the hotel, and I’ll send him back from there for this bag.”

“And you are going at once?” she said, almost gladly.

“Yes,” he said; and he gave her an address, to which he asked her to have her mother send the account of her charges against him. With a little hesitation he offered her his hand, and she took it with something like a show of penitence. “Good-by,” said he, “I hope if you ever have occasion to{221} think of me, you’ll be lenient to my memory; and if it isn’t the thing for me to say that I feel as if I somehow owed you a debt of gratitude for being what you are, why, I hope you’ll excuse it to the confusion of the parting moment.”

Rachel’s face flushed a little, but she did not try to respond to the odd compliment, and Gilbert said he must go and take leave of Easton. He went abruptly to his friend’s room, but faltered a moment before he softly turned the door-knob. It was dark within, and the long and even breathing from the bed where Easton lay revealed that he was asleep. Gilbert stood a moment beside him, and then leaned over and peered through the darkness with his face close to the sleeper’s. Neither stirred. Gilbert waited another moment, and with a heavy sigh crept from the room. He went to his sister’s door, at which he knocked, but impatiently opened it without waiting to be bidden enter. Mrs. Gilbert looked at him without surprise.

“I came back on a small matter of business, Susan. I neglected to say, a moment ago, that I think myself an infamous wretch, totally unworthy of your pains and affection. You are right in everything. I thought I’d mention it in justice to you; we all like to have our little impressions confirmed. Good-by.”

“Oh, my dear, good boy! I knew you wouldn’t leave me so; I knew you would come back.” She took his hand between her own, and he bent over and kissed the pale fingers that clasped his with their weak, nervous stress. “You’re so good, my{222} dear, that I’ve half a mind not to let you go; but I think you had better go. Don’t you?”

“Yes; I don’t wish to stay. Very likely I should be able to behave myself; but it would be an experiment, and I haven’t time for it. On the whole,” he said, with a smile, “I’d as lief be innocent as virtuous.”

“Oh, yes indeed,” answered Mrs. Gilbert, “it’s preferable in some cases, decidedly. You’re not so young as you were when I used to kiss you, William,” she added, “but neither am I, and I’m really going to give you a kiss now for your exemplary obedience, and for good-by.”

“You overwhelm me, Susan. None of the women at Woodward farm seem able to resist my fascinations. I think perhaps I had better go away on your account.”

He stooped down and took the kiss she had volunteered, and then with another clasp of the hand he went.

The moon had risen, and was striking keenly through the thin foliage of the avenue of white birches which the highway became in its approach to the farmhouse, and in the leaf-broken light he saw drifting before him a figure which he knew. He stopped, and trembled from head to foot. Then, whatever may have seemed the better part for him to choose, he plunged forward again, and overtook her.

“You are going away,” she said, half turning her face upon him. “I came here so that you could not go without seeing me. I could not bear{223} to have you go away thinking I was such a heartless woman as you do, with no care or regret for all the trouble I’ve made you.”

“I wasn’t thinking of that,” said Gilbert; “I wasn’t thinking so much of you as of a man—excuse the egotism—who has a great deal more to answer for.”

“Oh no, no!”

“Sometime, when you tell Easton about it all, as you must, I want you to excuse me to him; no one else can. Tell him—tell him that all I had to urge in my own behalf was that I loved you.”

“No, no, no! You mustn’t speak to me in that way! It’s too dreadful.”

“Oh yes, it’s dreadful. But you can excuse it if he couldn’t. How could you excuse me if I didn’t love you? Why else should we be parting? I must have loved you from the first—before I knew. What else could have made me so bitter with poor Easton about what he told you? I knew he never meant me any harm; I knew he couldn’t; he was a man to have died for me. I was mad with jealousy. Did you mean it? You managed it well! But I loved you— What a fool I am! Don’t come any farther; in Heaven’s name go back! No,” he said, perceiving that she faltered in her steps, as if she were about to sink, “don’t stop—come on.” He had caught her hand, and now he drew it through his arm, and hurried forward. “Yes, come! I have something to ask you. I want you to tell me that since you have felt yourself bound to him, you have never—I want you to tell me that I was{224} altogether in a delusion about you, and that you have done nothing to make me recreant to him.”

“Oh, oh, oh!” she moaned. “How pitiless you are! How hard, how hard you make it for me!” She released her hand and pressed it against his arm in the eagerness of her entreaty. “Leave me—do leave me—the poor hope that I have seemed worse than I was!”

He threw up his arm across his forehead and started a few paces onward.

She hastened after him. “And do believe,” she implored him, “that I only wanted to meet you to-night to say—to—to—somehow to make it easier for you to go. Indeed, indeed—Don’t leave me to despair!”

He halted, and confronted her. “Was that what you came for? I thought it might have been to see if you couldn’t make me say what I have just said; I fancied you might have wished to send me away beggared in everything that makes a man able to face the past and the future, and to meet the eyes of honest men. I deserved it. But I was mistaken, was I?” he asked, with a bitter derision. “Well, good-by!”

“No, no! You shall never go, believing such a thing as that! If I hated you—hated you to death—how could I wish to do that to you? Ah, you don’t believe it. You—”

But he turned from her, and hurried swiftly down the lane without another look or word.

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