Mrs. Farrell

by William Dean Howells

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Chapter XIV

THE next morning, after Mrs. Farrell had gone, Rachel went with mechanical exactness about the work of putting in order the room where Easton had lain sick. Her mother came to the door and, looking in, hesitated a moment before she crossed the threshold and sat down in the chair that stood just inside.

“I don’t know as you’ve got any call to hurry so about it, Rachel,” she said, with a granite quiet.

“I’d just as soon, mother; I’d rather,” answered the girl, as stonily, not ceasing from her work.

The mother put her hand to her passive mouth and then rubbed it up over her cheek and across her forehead, and drew a long, noiseless breath, following the movements of her daughter about the room with her eyes. “I suppose we sha’n’t hear from Benny, hardly, for a week or more,” she said, after a pause of several minutes. Rachel did not reply, and her mother asked, after another pause, “Rachel, what do you believe made him so set on going away? Do you think it was—”

“I don’t want you should ask me, mother, anything,” answered Rachel, nervously.

The mother waited a moment before she said, perhaps with that insensibility to others’ nerves which years often bring, “I was afraid the boy{253} might have got to caring about her. Do you think he had?”

“Yes, I think he had,” replied Rachel, abruptly, as if the words had been wrenched from her.

Once more the mother waited before she spoke. She had never talked gossip with her children, and perhaps she was now reconciling to her conscience the appearance of gossip in what she had to say. “I always thought,” she began, “that they were both as fine young men as I almost ever saw. I never saw more of a friend than the other one was to this one. Do you think she was much sorry for what she did to part them?”

“Yes, I think she was. She did more than she meant, and I don’t know as we ought to be made to answer for more harm than we mean.”

“No,” said Mrs. Woodward. “At least it isn’t for us to say, here. Did you like her as well at the last as you used to?”

“Yes, I liked her,” answered Rachel. “Nobody could help that. She was very unhappy, and I never had any call to feel hard against her—on my own account.”

“I don’t know as I ever knew a person quite like her,” mused Mrs. Woodward. “I don’t know as I should ever rightly understand her, and I won’t judge her, for one; she’ll find plenty to do that. I don’t believe but what her feelings were led away for a while by the other one, and I don’t see as they ever rightly came back to this one, even supposing that she ever did care much for him.”

“Oh, mother, mother, mother!” the girl broke out, and cast herself into a chair, and hid her face on the bed.

A distress passed over the stony composure of the elder woman’s face, but she sat quiet, and did not go near her child or touch her. What comfort her children got from her went from heart to heart, or rather from conscience to conscience, without open demonstration; she hid her natural affections as if they were sins, but they ruled her in secret, and doubtless now her heart bled with the pity her arms withheld. She did not move from her place, and while the girl sobbed out the secret of a love which she had never yet owned to herself, the mother did not show by any sign or change of countenance that the revelation either surprised or shocked her. She may indeed have always suspected it, but however that was, she now accepted the fact as she would any calamity, in silence, and whatever inward trouble it gave her did not appear even to the solitude in which Rachel’s hidden face left her. She waited patiently, but when at last the girl lifted her face and sat with her head thrown back and her eyelids fallen, the mother still did not speak; she left her to deal with her pain alone, as was best. But that evening she came to Rachel’s chamber with her lamp in her hand, and took her place near her where she lay listless in her rocking-chair.

“Before Mrs. Gilbert went away,” the mother abruptly began, “she came and had a little talk with me about you, Rachel. I never told you, and I don’t know as I ever should.”

Rachel gave no token of interest. Mrs. Woodward went on:

“She seemed to think a good deal of that picture of yours, and she spoke as if you’d ought not to neglect any providence that put it in your way to improve yourself. I don’t use her words, but that’s what they come to in the end. She said if you would like to go down and study drawing in Boston or New York, this winter, she wanted I should let her lend you the money to do it. I was put to it what to say without seeming to hurt her feelings. I didn’t make any direct answer at the time, and I haven’t since. I wa’n’t sure in my own mind whether we should do right to accept of such an offer unless we could see our way clear to pay the money back, and what made me more doubtful was her saying that you’d ought to be very certain of your own feelings, whether you really wanted to be a painter or not, for if you didn’t it would be a misery every way if you was one. I don’t know a great deal about such things, but I thought that was sensible. She said there wa’n’t any doubt about your making a living that way, if once you gave your mind to it.”

Still Rachel did not change her posture or expression, but she passed her fingers over the hem of her apron across her lap.

“As to the money,” Mrs. Woodward went on, “there’s your school money in the bank; you’ve worked hard enough for that, and it’s rightfully yours. I know you meant to give it to James for his schooling, but now it don’t seem quite fair you{256} should. Why don’t you take it yourself, and go off somewheres, and study, the way Mrs. Gilbert said?”

“I don’t want the money, mother,” said the girl, coldly.

Mrs. Woodward waited awhile before she asked, “Don’t you feel sure ’t you want to study in that way?”

“Yes, I think I could do it. Of course it isn’t as if I were a man, but I believe I could be a painter, and I should like it better than teaching.”

“Then why don’t you take up with the idea? It would be a little change for you; and maybe, if you was away from the place for a while, you might—get to feeling differently.”

The mother was patient with her daughter while the girl sat thinking. The countenance of neither changed when at last the girl broke silence and said, very steadily, “I might go in the spring, mother. But I’m going to stay here this winter. If I’ve got any trouble, I can’t run away from it, and I wouldn’t if I could. If the trouble is here, the help is here, too, I presume.” After a little pause, she added, “I don’t want you should speak to me about it again, mother—ever.”

The mother said nothing, but awkwardly rose, and moved shyly to where her daughter sat. Her mouth trembled, but, whatever intent she had, she ended by merely laying on the girl’s head her large, toil-worn, kitchen-coarsened hand, with its bony knuckles and stubbed, broken nails. She let it rest there a moment and then went softly out of the room.


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