Saxe Holm's Stories, Second Series/Farmer Bassett's Romance
FARMER BASSETT'S ROMANCE.
IT began at a camp-meeting; and the odd thing was that John Bassett should have been at a camp-meeting at all. He had no more respect for such means of grace than Epictetus or any other stoical pagan would have had. He had no antagonism toward the Methodists; nor, for that matter, toward any of the five so-called religious sects which had places of worship in his native town, Deerway. If the whole truth could have been known, it would have been seen that he classed them all together, and favored them alike with his heartiest but most good-natured contempt. Luckily he was a silent and reticent man, and his townsmen never suspected in what low esteem he held their sectarian bonds,—their spiritual ecstasies and depressions. They only thought that he was "queer," and some of the more zealous Christians among them feared he might be an infidel, or at best a pantheist, though as to what that latter manner of man might be, there were very vague ideas in Deerway. The truth was, that John Bassett was a pagan,—a New England pagan. There are a few of these in every New England county. They are the offspring of the Westminster Catechism. Apply enough of the Westminster Catechism to a meditative, clear-witted, logical, phlegmatic boy, in his youth; let him spend most of his days out on sunny hill-sides, thinking it over in silence, and asking nobody any questions, and the chances are that, when he is twenty-one, he will quit going to church, and be a high-minded pagan. He will have absorbed much that is grand and ennobling; but he will have thrown away, in his slow-growing hatred of the cruel husk, part of the sweet kernel also, and will be a defrauded and robbed man all his days, for lack of true comprehension of the Gospel of Christ, which is loving, and of Christ's Father, who is love.
It is evident that a camp-meeting was the last place one would expect to see John Bassett in. If pools had been the fashion in Deerway, one might have made a fortune betting against the chance of John Bassett's hearing Bishop Worrell's sermon on the last day of the Middleburg camp-meeting. But he did hear it, every word of it.
He had been that day to Northborough, ten miles above Middleburg, to look at a pair of prize oxen he had heard of, and had a mind to buy. If those oxen had not been sold the day before, John Bassett would have bought them, and this story would never have been written; for if he had had the oxen to drive home, he would not nave got down to Middleburg till late at night, and the camp-meeting would have been over. As it was, he got to Middleburg Crossing at three o'clock in the afternoon; and there he had to stop, for Jerry, his horse, had cast a shoe, and John Bassett would no more have driven Jerry ten miles with one foot unshod than he would have walked it barefoot himself; no, nor half as quick, for Tom and Jerry, the two beautiful bay horses that he had broken as colts, and trained into the best ten-year-old team in all Wenshire County, were the pride and the love of John Bassett's heart.
So, there is another little "if" which might have made a big difference to John Bassett, and all the difference between this story's being written and not. If Jerry had not cast his shoe, his master would never have heard Bishop Worrell's sermon.
There are only three houses at Middleburg Crossing; the town itself is four miles farther south. One of these houses is a sort of inn, and the master, Hiram Peet, is well known to be the best blacksmith for many a mile round. Here John stopped and fastened his horse at the door of the forge, which was black and still.
"Gone to that confounded camp-meeting!" he exclaimed, as he stood by the anvil and tapped impatiently with his whip. "Hang it all. I wonder, if I could find him, whether he 'd come out and shoe Jerry."
Every blind in the house was shut. The hens walked about with an expression which showed that the family was away from home, and the cat looked out uneasy and suspicious from a high loft over the corn-house.
John walked a few steps down the road and looked at the two other houses. Shut up also; not a trace of life about them. The two Thatcher brothers, who married sisters, lived in these houses. "Well, I don't know what the Thatcher folks have got to do over at camp-meeting," thought John. "They 're all Baptists. They don't train in that crowd."
He had thought that he might while away the time by talking with Mrs. Susan Thatcher, who was a woman he had once almost thought he would like to marry. John was much vexed. He walked up and down the road and switched off the tops of golden rod and purple asters in a way that was really shameful. He was at his wit's ends: ten miles from home; Jerry waiting to be shod; not a human being to be found. But John Bassett's impatiences never lasted long. He was too good a pagan to fret and fume. He took Jerry out of his harness, led him into the barn, and gave him so delightful a rubbing down that the creature arched his shining neck and looked around at his masters hands, and would have purred if he could, he felt so comfortable. John patted him and talked to him as if he were a child.
"There, there, old fellow," he said, "eat your oats. You shall have four fine new shoes presently; and then we won't get caught this way again very soon."
Jerry whinnied back and did his best to be entertaining; but where was there ever a mortal man who did not weary of wordless affection? John began to be sadly bored. He looked over at the camp-meeting hill, where thin columns of smoke were curling up above the tops of the trees. The Middleburg camp-ground is one of the oldest in New England; it has been used as such for twenty years, and there are some eighty cottages in the "circle." People go there in June, and live in their cottages for two months or more before the camp-meeting week begins. John had often thought he would like to see what kind of a life it was that the Methodist people led on their religious picnics, as the worldly were in the habit of calling them. He began to consider within himself whether this were not a capital chance for doing it without any loss of self-respect on his part. He would go over and see if he could find Hiram Peet. This was not going to camp-meeting. Oh, no!
The camp-meeting grove was not more than a quarter of a mile from the forge. At John Bassett's goodly stride, this distance was quickly walked; and almost before he fairly realized what he had made up his mind to do, John found himself in the throng of people pouring through the outer gate. He and his ways were well known in all this region,—everybody stared to see him coming to camp-meeting.
"Hollo, John! Ez this you?" exclaimed one.
"What 's up?" said another.
"Glad to see you in the right way at last, John," called out a gray-haired elder of the Methodist church in Deerway.
John did not like this. At first he made no reply, except a good-natured laugh; but presently, to a townsman who shouted out, across many heads,—
"Why, John Bassett, what on airth 's brought you here, I 'd like to know," he answered in an equally loud tone,—
"Not any of the tomfoolery that 's brought you, I can tell you that. I 'm looking after Hi Peet to shoe my horse, back here at the Crossing."
"Oh, Hi? Well, he 's in there, in the seats, along o' his folks. But you won't get him to come out till after the sermon. The bishop 's jest beginnin' now."
John walked on in silence. The scene was beginning to take a vivid hold on his imagination. From his earliest boyhood he had had a passionate love of the woods. There was not a wood within five miles of his father's house which he did not know as thoroughly as if he had been an Indian or a trapper. The young trees had grown with his growth and strengthened with his strength; he often pushed his way through some thick wood, recollecting, step by step, along the path, how twenty years ago these stalwart trees had been saplings he could bend. No smallest leaf or fern was unknown to his eye; no flower, no berry; yet he had names for few. To see a great maple and ash and hickory grove swarming full of human beings, was at first as strange a sight to John Bassett as it would have been to a devout Roman Catholic to come suddenly upon his private chapel and find it crowded with strangers. John felt a mingled irritation and fascination in the sight. This noble army of trees seemed to lend something of their own sacred dignity to the motley multitude they were sheltering. There were three thousand people that day on the Micldleburg camp-ground. As far as one could see, the vistas between the trees were filled by horses, wagons, carriages of all descriptions. These were outside what is called the "circle," a large space of many acres, fenced in, and to be entered only by gates; within this circle were the cottages, all picturesquely disposed among the trees; winding and irregular paths had been trodden from one to another, and there was almost the semblance of a street in some places. But still the trees were left undisturbed; the street or the path turned reverentially to the right or the left, as the tree might require. Hardly a tree had been cut down. In the centre of the grove a large space had been filled in with rough wooden benches in an amphitheatre-like half circle. Even here stood the trees, thick and undisturbed, making of the circle of seats a many-pillared temple, canopied with green and roofed with blue. Fronting this had been built an elevated platform for the elders and the preaching—and on this, at the moment John entered the circle, had just risen a corpulent, round-faced, sonorous-voiced man, Bishop Worrell, who was to preach that afternoon's sermon. John stopped, leaned against a young hickory tree, and looked carefully up and down the rows of seats in search of Hiram Peet. At last he saw him sitting between his wife and his wife's mother, in the very middle of the circle, and only five seats back from the platform.
"I suppose it would be as much as Hi's life was worth to get up and come out from there before all these people," thought John. "I might as well give it up."
Then he fell to laughing so immoderately at Hi's expression of face, that he had to turn suddenly away, lest he should shock the sensibilities of the grave and decorous congregation. As he turned, he suddenly caught a glimpse of the profile of a girl who sat in the same seat with Hiram Peet, but at the farther end of it. The sight of this profile arrested John Bassett's steps as suddenly as a strong hand laid on his shoulder could have done. He stood still, with his eyes fixed on the face. He did not say to himself, "How beautiful!" he did not even think whether the face were beautiful or not—it simply arrested him, that was all. Presently the girl changed her position so that he could no longer see her face, and with a pang like terror, he saw it suddenly vanish from his gaze, and become lost and merged in the great mass of bonnets and hats and faces. He tried to keep his eyes resolutely on the spot where it had disappeared, as one tries to keep his eyes fastened on the spot where something has gone down at sea; but like the sea, the mass of faces seemed dancing and shifting under his look. At last he was rewarded. The girl turned her head again, so that for one brief moment he saw her profile, and also noted, with the eagerness of a detective, that she wore a black hat, with one single upright feather of bright scarlet in it.
Slowly, and with a bewildered wonder at himself all the time, John skirted the great semicircle of seats, pushed his way through and past knot after knot of men and women, and drew nearer and nearer the seat where the girl sat. As one after another saw him, noted his absorbed and grave look, exclamations and conjectures were whispered on all sides. There were many of the Deerway Methodists on the ground.
John Bassett stood no chance of being unobserved. Many a soul warmed with hope for his salvation on seeing him in this unwonted place. One good old Methodist woman who had nursed his mother through several illnesses, and who had come to love John very much, as all persons did who knew him intimately, plucked her neighbor suddenly by the sleeve, and exclaimed:—
"My goodness, Sarah Beman, if there ain't John—John Bassett, don't you know? Let 's git right down on our knees here 'n pray for his soul! Mebbe the Lord 'll give him religion right now!" and the two women actually sank on the ground, and were rocking back and forth on their knees, wrestling in prayer on John's behalf, as he passed by them. Perhaps there was never a moment in his life in which he was more in need of prayers.
When he reached a point opposite the seat in which sat the girl with the black hat and scarlet feather, he turned, and slowly looked in her face. She did not see him. She was listening in rapt attention to the bishop's sermon. Yet it was not the attention of a credulous or an ecstatic devotee. Her face wore now the look of one who was striving to penetrate a mystery; to fathom a secret; there was an expression of something like disapprobation on her features. All this John Bassett saw at his first glance. At his second, he perceived that the girl was no country girl; he felt, rather than perceived, that her whole attire, bearing, and atmosphere were of the city: she was a stranger. The two elderly women who sat with her were richly clad, and their whole manner betokened listless weariness. Up to this moment John Bassett could not have told, if he had been asked, whether this girl were fair or not; but now in the more assured composure of his new standpoint of observation, he began to study her features. They were of delicate mold, indicating sensibility rather than strength. Her hair was of so pale a yellow that only its great thickness saved it from looking dead. It was turned back from her low forehead in rippling waves which were too thick to lie flat. Her eyes were of a clear, bright dark blue, and in them shone a sort of restrained energy which gave to her face the strength which the delicate features would otherwise have lacked. It was not a beautiful face. It was very far from a pretty face. But it was a face to arrest one at first sight. As it had arrested John Bassett, it had arrested many a human being, man and woman, before.
But it always came to pass that each human being thus arrested by Fanny Lane's face, very soon forgot all about her face, in a vivid consciousness of her personality. Her individual magnetism was something not to be described, not to be defined. It was to some persons as powerfully repellant as it was to others attracting. There were men and women who had been heard to say that they simply could not stay in the same room with Fanny Lane, so disagreeable to them was her very presence, and there were men and women for whom simply her presence could transform the most cheerless room into a palace of joy and for whom her love, if they were once sure of possessing it, seemed enough to brighten a whole life-time.
Bishop Worrell's sermon was one hour long. Until the very last word had been spoken, John Bassett stood without once unfolding his arms or once removing his eyes from Fanny Lane's face; but he stood in such a position that while he looked steadily at her, he seemed to those about him to be looking in the preacher's face, and the intent and grave expression of his countenance gave rise to great hopes in the hearts of many who saw him. After the benediction had been pronounced, there was a general movement in the audience, and all except those who were interested in the special services which were about to follow, withdrew. More than half of the seats were left empty. A little knot of some half a dozen persons had gathered around Fanny Lane, and were all talking eagerly.
"City boarders from some hotel hereabouts," thought John. "I don't suppose I shall ever set eyes on that girl again; and I 'm sure I don't know why I want to." But he lingered, and waited, and furtively watched to see what the next movements of her party would be.
It was evident that an animated discussion was going on. Fanny Lane said little, but each time she spoke, she shook her head with great decision, smiling as she did so with a smile which was to John Bassett's mind a very perplexing smile; there was so much radiance about it, and yet such an expression of immovable will; it seemed as much out of the ordinary course of human smiles as a cold sunbeam would out of the ordinary course of nature. At last the party divided, and the two old ladies, wearing very dissatisfied faces, walked slowly away with the majority, leaving Fanny Lane and one other young woman alone in the seats. As the discomfited elderly people passed the tier where John still stood, leaning with his arms folded, watching in feigned carelessness the whole scene, one said to the other:—
"It 's perfectly absurd, Maria, the way you spoil that girl."
A look of fretful impatience passed over Maria's face as she replied:—
"It 's all very fine to talk about spoiling, Jane. You know as well as I do, that if Fanny makes up her mind to do a thing, she 's going to do it, come what will; and as for my saying 'must' or 'mus n't' to her, I know better than to try that. She 's just like her father."
"Well, I reckon she 's your own child," answered Jane, "and my child should mind me. I know that much," and the party passed on.
John Bassett smiled. He liked the picture of the fair girl triumphing always. He felt already that it was her right. Before the smile had died off his face, the old ladies came hurrying back; they had noticed his grave, honest, clear-eyed face as they passed, and they had turned back to ask him one of those anxiously helpless questions which the average woman is perpetually asking.
"Can you tell us where Mr. Goodenow's wagon is?" they said.
It happened that John could. It had chanced that as he walked up the hill, he had observed young Luke Goodenow sitting in his big farm-wagon playing cards on the back seat with a stranger, whose whole appearance had seemed so suspicious (to John) that he had said to himself as he passed by, "I wonder if Luke Goodenow 'd ever be such a fool 's to play for money;" and "I wonder if that 's the reason he fastened his team down in that hollow," was his second thought.
"Yes," said John. "I can. I will show you," and he led the way, thinking, as he walked.
"So these folks are the Goodenows' boarders. Now I can find out all about them."
Luke little understood John Bassett's affable kindness in helping him put in his horses, and being so very careful in examining the harnesses, before they set off. John was listening with strained ears to what one of the elderly women was saying to Luke.
"Miss Lane and Miss Wheelwright are not coming now. They wish to stay till the end of the meeting. They have friends there from the hotel who will take care of them, and you are to drive back after them at nine o'clock to-night.
"Well, I swanny," was Luke's reply. "I donno what I 'm goin to do for hosses."
The city lady looked calmly in his face with the city lady's usual incredulity of anything being impossible in the country town where she is spending her summer, and said:—
"Oh, it won't hurt these horses to come back."
Luke did not deign to argue this point, but answered reflectively:—
"Mebbe I can git Smith's. Hisn warn't out when we come off, an if I don't go for the girls, they can come home in the hotel coach; that warn't full."
"Oh, no; I should much prefer that you should go for them," said the bland lady. "You can surely get horses somewhere."
"There ain't any 'somewhere' in our town mum," replied Luke, sententiously. "If yer don't know jest where a thing is, 't ain't anywheres. But I 'll see that Miss Fanny 's got home somehow or another."
If Fanny Lane had heard Luke's reply, the unconscious and inimitable philosophy of its first clause would have given her a keen delight; but it was all thrown away on Aunt Jane, or if not thrown away entirely, passed for nothing more than the unintentional impudence of a farmer's lad. So that her orders were obeyed, as she would have called it, she was content and unobservant; and, luckily for her complacent peace of mind, wholly unaware how far from the thoughts of her landlord and his sons was any comprehension of the idea of obedience as she understood it.
When John Bassett returned to his post of observation by the young hickory-tree, he found the seat on which his attention had been so long concentrated occupied by two elderly women from Deerway,—his own next door neighbors. With a smothered ejaculation of contempt at his own folly, he made a hasty retreat, not however before both the women had seen him, and had beckoned to him with eager gestures to come and sit by their side. He shook his head and walked rapidly away in the opposite direction, as if he were about to leave the grounds; each moment, however, his keen eyes were roving to the right and to the left in search of a scarlet feather. Scarlet feathers there were in plenty, and knots of scarlet ribbon, as he found to his cost, after he had been for half an hour lured vainly about, first in one direction then in another, by them. His scarlet feather was nowhere to be found. To look for one person, among three thousand people roaming about in a grove of several acres, is like searching for a needle in a hay-stack; and so John said to himself at last, and vowed he would look no longer. He had been asking all the time for "Hi Peet," and had several times narrowly escaped finding him. The truth was he did not now so much want to find "Hi Peet," but he liked to give himself the shelter of that ostensible errand, and so he kept on asking. At last some one said in reply to his stereotyped question, "Why Hi?—Hi 's up in the Franklin tent at a big prayer-meetin' they 've got goin' on there. You might 's well give up all idee of gettin' hold of Hi Peet to-night. You 'll have to wait till morning. Hi 'll keep you over night fust rate; though I suppose they won't break up here till midnight."
This was precisely what John Bassett had in his own mind determined to do, but he replied with a diplomacy worthy of a deeper game:—
"Well, I call that pretty hard, to have to wait all night to get a horse shod, don't you?"
The man laughed, and answered:—
"Well, yes, I do. But you see, it 's just your luck that makes it happen so. They don't have camp-meetin' but once a year; and they don't have but one last night to each camp-meetin': an' you could n't ha' ketched Hi away from hum one o' the other three hundred an sixty-four nights; so you see it 's nothin' but your luck."
This curiously illogical logical speech made John laugh heartily, and a half shamed consciousness of the scarlet feather in his thoughts made him also flush a little as he replied:—
"Well, I don't believe in anything 's being luck." Just as he spoke these words, he heard a voice behind him, a voice of a quality such as he had never before heard. He did not turn his head. He listened, and it was an odd thing that as he listened, he said to himself,—
"If that is n't her voice, I 'm mistaken."
The voice said:—
"Can I sit for a few moments in one of these chairs, till my friends return?"
The voice was so near that John walked away a few steps, before he turned to see who had spoken. He walked on and on for a rod or two, so sure was he that when he turned he should see the face of which he had been in search. He was not mistaken. There she sat,—the strange, vivid, yellow-haired, blue-eyed stranger,—alone in a chair on a raised platform; the platform was full of camp chairs of all sorts which had been brought there by an enterprising Middleburg tradesman, to sell to the camp-meeting pilgrims. The tradesman had gone away for the afternoon and left the business in the charge of his wife, a brisk, bustling, dapper little body with a voice like a jew's-harp, and eyes whose sharp shrewdness was saved from being disagreeable only by their kindly twinkle, and lines of good-natured wrinkles at their outer corners. She was holding forth to two friends volubly and loudly on the subject of her grievances in the matter of the chairs.
"Folks seems to think we 've brought 'em over here just for them to set in," said she. "I 've tried every way I could think of; we turned 'em bottom side up some days, but the chairs don't show so well that way, an it don't make much difference they turn 'em right over an' flop down, and there they sit 's long 's they please, 'n when I say, 'These chairs is for sale,' they say, 'Oh, I don't want to buy, I only want to rest a while,' 'n' I do declare I 'm so mad sometimes I tell Eben he 'd better take the chairs home before they 're all worn out. There 's some on 'em now that looks just like second-hand. I fixed some folks yesterday, though," and she gave a hearty peal of unrestrained laughter at the thought: "they come along, a whole party—three on 'em, a man and two women, 'n' down they sot without so much 's a word; 'n' I steps forward 'n' sez I, 'We charge for these chairs bein' sot in, a cent a minnit!' You 'd better believe they jumped up 's quick 's if the chairs had been red hot, and one o the wimmin she said, 'Well, I never!' 'n' sez I, 'Well I never, nuther,' 'n' I laughed an I laughed till I thought I should ha' died to see 'em goin' off 's mad 's if the chairs had been theirn 'n' not mine."
John watched Fanny Lane s face during the whole of this long speech, which she could not have failed to hear. He had come slowly nearer and nearer until he stood within a few feet of her chair, but so much behind her that she could not see his face unless she turned her head. Various shades of amusement and sympathy flitted over her expressive face as she listened to good Mrs. Cross's troubles; but she was evidently now absorbed in watching the faces of all who passed by. She scanned each one intently, closely, as if she were looking for a face she knew; her face wore the same expression of mingled perplexity and disapprobation which it had worn during the sermon. The longer John looked at her, the surer he felt that he understood the mental processes through which she was going.
"She 's fighting this thing out for herself, just as I did ten years ago," he thought. "She can't swallow it all down, and yet it bothers her to let it go. She 'll come out all right, though,—no fear about a woman with such eyes in her head as those."
It was half an hour before Miss Lane's friends returned. They came up laughing and chattering, and gathering around her, exclaimed:—
"Oh, Fanny! it was too bad to leave you so long. We got off farther in the woods than we meant to. Have you been awfully bored, dear, waiting?"
"Bored!" exclaimed Fanny Lane. "I was never farther from it in my life. This is one of the most interesting sights I ever saw. I can't in the least make it out."
"Make it out! What do you mean, Miss Lane?" cried young Herbert Wheelwright. "Does it strike you as a conundrum? I think it is a confounded bore myself, except for having you girls to take care of."
"Be quiet, Herbert," interrupted his sister; "don't be so rude to Fanny; you don't understand her."
Herbert shrugged his shoulders and walked to the side of another young girl in the party who was not likely to oppress him with any psychological perplexities. As the group moved on, Fanny Lane turned back, and holding out a piece of silver to the proprietress of the chairs, said in the same low vibrant voice which had so stirred John Bassett's nerves at his first hearing of it,—
"You must let me pay you for the use of your chair. You were quite right in saying that it ought to be paid for."
The woman stretched out her hand to take the money, but her husband, who had returned and stood by her side, pushed down her hand impatiently, and exclaimed:—
"No, no, Miss. We 'd be happy to have you set here 's long 's you like. You ain't the kind we meant."
Fanny smiled, but still held out the money.
"I 'm very heavy," she said roguishly, "and should hurt the chair quite as much as anybody. Please take the money and buy something for your pretty little boy," and she pointed to a bright-eyed chubby fellow, some four or five years old, who was clinging to his mother's skirts, half in and half out of the folds, after the manner of shy country children. Thus conciliated on the side of his paternal affection, the man took the money, saying with a clumsy but well-meant attempt at respectfulness:—
"Much obliged to you, Miss, much obliged to you, I 'm sure, if it 's a present to Sammy. Thank the lady, Sammy."
But Sammy only burrowed the deeper in his mother's skirts, and evinced no gratitude whatever; as, indeed, why should he, since the chances were so small that he could have any hand in the spending of that half dollar!
As Miss Lane and her friends walked away, John Bassett turned suddenly in the opposite direction, and plunged into the woods. He was conscious of a sudden unwillingness to see this girl put off the face she wore when she was thinking, and alone, and put on the face she wore when she was talking. Already he had perceived that she was like a chameleon in her change of expression; and of the expressions he had thus far seen, the only one which did not jar and perplex him was the one she wore when she was silent and undisturbed by antagonistic or interrupting magnetisms. He roamed on till he reached the outer edge of the wood, where all was as still and peaceful as if it were a wilderness. Here he threw himself on the ground, and surrendered himself to his reveries, He was not much given to analyzing his own emotions; he had always been too healthy and too busy, and, moreover, had had very few emotions. He was affectionate and loyal in the relations in which he had found himself placed; but beyond one or two strong friendships for men who had been his playmates at school, he had not added to his list of affections since he was a little boy. He had never been in love, though he had often thought very sensibly about being married, and had done his share of taking the Deerway girls on sleigh-rides, and home from singing-schools in the winter; but he did it partly as one of the duties of a good citizen of the town, and partly from a quiet sort of good-fellowship, which would have walked or ridden almost as contentedly with a young man as with a young woman, if so the customs of young people had decreed. He was not without his preferences among the Deerway young women, but he had also his preferences among the Deerway young men; and he could have given as clear and satisfactory reasons for them in the one case as in the other, unless, perhaps, in the case of a little girl named Molly Wilder, whose mother was a widow, and took summer boarders in Deerway. They were very poor, and had lived on one of the Bassett farms ever since John could remember; and one of the earliest things he recollected was hearing his father say to his mother,—
"Well, Sam Wilder 'll never earn his salt in this world, but I sha'n't turn him out o' that farm 's long 's Molly lives. She 's no kind of a woman to be left without a house over her head."
At last Sam Wilder died of a disease so lingering and vacillating in its nature, that one of his neighbors was heard to say one day:—
"It don't seem 's if Sam Wilder could even die like other folks. He 's just a shilly-shallyin' along with that, 's he has with everything else he 's ever undertook,"
The day after the funeral poor Mrs. Wilder sent for her landlord, and told him the simple truth, that she had not a cent of money in the world, and no property except the little stock which they had put in the farm.
"Never you mind," said John Bassett's father; "you shall stay on this farm 's long 's you like. I 'll take the hay off the meadow land, and we 'll call that the rent. If you can manage to make a living for you and the girl somehow, you 're welcome to the house and the rest of the farm."
Ezekiel Bassett could well afford this, for the "Bassett farms," as they were called, were many and large, and comprised the greater portion of the best lands in Wenshire County. Nevertheless, it was a very generous thing for Ezekiel Bassett to do; and from that day the Wilders seemed to be a sort of outlying colony of the Bassett house. All the odds and ends of clothes and of food, which the Bassetts could spare and the Wilders could use, found their way to the little gray house down in the meadows; by the time John Bassett was ten years old, it seemed to him as natural to take blue berries to Mrs. Wilder as to his mother; he knew no distinction in the rights of the houses. And when little Molly was old enough to go to school, John led her in summer and drew her on his sled in winter, as if she had been his sister. Nothing else—nothing less would have seemed possible. When he was twenty and Molly was fifteen, occasions were less frequent for him to take care of her, for she was hard at work all day at her home, and he was hard at work all day at his, but he never lost the sense of responsibility for her; and if nobody else took her to the quilting, or the sleigh-ride, or the singing-school, he did. If he found that some one else was intending to ask her, he was content; so that Molly had the good time, he was satisfied. She never became a burden to him, for no girl in all Deerway had a sweeter face or more winning ways, or more admirers among the young farmers of the region. But all that John Bassett had ever yet thought about Molly, as in distinction from the other young girls he knew was, that somehow he always had a better time when he took her than when he took anybody else. He thought it was because he was so used to her. What Molly thought is neither here nor there in this story as yet.
Every summer Mrs. Wilder's little house was filled with summer boarders; and a hard time she and Molly had of it from June till October. Not the least hard part of it to Molly was that for all these months John hardly came near her. John disliked the very sight of a "summer boarder." He disliked their clothes, their ways, their general bearing. He disliked the annual invasion of the quiet of the town; the assumption which so many of them showed only too plainly, that they felt that the Deerway farms and farmers were created chiefly for the purpose of making summer comfortable to city people who must leave home. So John never crossed the threshold of Mrs. Wilder's house, if he could help it, while there was a single, summer boarder left; and this had been the source of many a half quarrel between him and Molly, who, gentle as she was, could not help resenting and misinterpreting his absence.
And here was John Bassett, at the Middleburg camp-meeting, absolutely spending a whole afternoon and evening in watching a "summer boarder," following her about, looking at her face and studying it, as he never studied a woman's face before!
"All for the want of a horse-shoe nail."
John's reverie did not last long. It passed by quick and easy stages into a sound sleep. When he waked it was almost dark. He sprang to his feet in bewildered wonder, but soon recalled the whole situation of his affairs. Sentiment and excitement had yielded in him, by this time, to fatigue and heat and hunger; and it must be acknowledged that as he walked briskly back toward the centre of the grove, his thoughts of himself and his behavior were not complimentary. He was as nearly surly as it was in his nature to be; and by a curious sort of moral metonymy all his impatience centred on the thought of Hi Peet. So when he found himself face to face with Hi, in one of the restaurant tents, he spoke to him with a gruff displeasure, which was, to say the least of it, uncalled for, and made Hi laugh heartily.
"Why, man alive," he said, "you did n't suppose I was bound to stay to hum year in and year out, on the chance of a man's wantin' his horse shod, did you? 'Tain't more 'n once a week or so that I git a job o' shoein', anyhow. 'T was jest your luck, you see, a-comin' to-day."
"Well, you 're the second man that 's said that very thing to me," replied John, "so I suppose it must be true." And as he was by this time much rested, and no longer hungry, agreeable reminiscences of the scarlet feather floated at once into his mind, and arrested on his very lips the last clause of his reply, which was about to be as before, "But you see I don't believe in any such thing as luck."
The people were already crowding into the seats in front of the platform. The elders and the preachers sat with their hands over their eyes, engaged in silent prayer. This was the last night of the camp-meeting, and most earnestly did they long for some especial signs and tokens of the Lord's presence before they should separate.
Again John walked slowly around the circle, scanning each seat attentively in search of Fanny Lane. This time he was more successful; in a very few moments he found her. She and her friends were sitting where Hi Peet had been in the afternoon, only five seats back from the pulpit, and near the central aisle. Fanny herself sat in the outside seat, with her face turned away from the platform, and her eyes bent earnestly down the long vistas of twinkling lights between the trees. It was a beautiful and impressive spectacle. Lanterns were hung upon many of the trees, and their light brought out the foliage above them in a marvelous gold and black tracery; in every direction long shadowy aisles seemed to stretch away, with alternating intervals of gloom and radiance; and overhead was a clear, dark sky blazing with stars. No wonder that in such a scene as this hearts are newly wrought upon by memories and appeals.
The sermon was not a long one. At its close, the usual invitation was given to all those who wished the prayers of the congregation to come forward into the seats reserved for them. Many went forward. Then rose the sweet wild hymn,—
"Come to Jesus! Come to Jesus!
Come to Jesus just now."
The tender plaintive cadences seemed to float up among the trees, and to be prolonged there, in the upper air, as if the echoes were entangled in the leaves; then came prayers,—earnest, wrestling prayers by men who believed with their whole souls that for many of the men and women sitting there, that night would be the only chance of salvation. Nothing in this life can be more solemn than such a moment to those who hold the Methodist belief. Tears flowed down the cheeks of strong men. Women sobbed hysterically; here and there could be seen a mother pleading with a child, a wife with a husband. The elders walked up and down in the aisles, urging and encouraging the timid and the hesitating; every few moments the presiding elder on the platform would strike up a new strain of song,—tender, plaintive, and subduing beyond all power of words. With each stanza there came forward more and more, till the seats were nearly full.
"Bless the Lord, here is another soul that 's going to be saved," the ministers would cry, as each person came forward. Heartfelt "Amens" and "Glorys" rose from the whole congregation. The cool evening wind rustled at intervals through the trees; and it needed no faith in the Methodist creed, no excitement of spiritual ecstasy, to make one thrill all through with the consciousness that the leaves rustled as if invisible hosts were passing by. Whatever be one's religious belief, however he may disapprove of all his class of abnormal influences, he cannot witness such a scene unmoved, unless he be of a hard and scoffing nature. John Bassett was astonished. He was too sincere and earnest himself, not to recognize earnestness and sincerity wherever he saw them. He had regarded the Methodist methods as akin to the methods of mountebanks and jugglers. He felt to-night, in every nerve of his being, that he had been wrong. He was affected in spite of himself—so powerfully that more than once he felt tears spring in his eyes.
He hardly dared look at Fanny Lane, so intense was her expression; her cheeks were flushed, her lips were parted; she bent forward unconsciously and looked up into the face of each person who passed her to take a seat among those who were "anxious." Whenever the singing broke forth, her lips trembled, and she fixed her eyes on the ground. John had taken his seat just opposite her—only the narrow, grassy aisle separated them. He could have reached her with his hand; and he felt again and again an impulse to do so, when he saw her excitement increasing.
At last she rose slowly, and turning toward her friends, said in a low voice, which John heard distinctly:—
"Don't say anything; I am going down into that seat to sit with those people."
And before her mortified and alarmed companions could utter a remonstrance, Fanny Lane had glided quietly three steps forward, and had seated herself by the side of an old woman, who was bent over nearly double with her face buried in her hands, sobbing.
John Bassett felt a strange, irrational rage at this sight, then a still stranger and more irrational desire to go and sit by her side. He gazed at her with a sort of terror, wondering what she would do next. He had not long to wonder. One of the elders approached her, and began to put to her the usual questions. She waved him gently aside, and said in a low, clear voice:—
"Thank you, I am not in the least unhappy. I did not come down here for that. I thought I should like to have all these people praying for me:—that is all."
Solemn as was the scene, and profoundly as John was feeling at that moment, he had to pass his hand quickly over his face to hide a smile, at the sudden and utter bewilderment of the discomfited elder. There was evident, at first, a quick, angry suspicion, that this finely clad city lady had taken her seat there out of pure irreverence; but one look into the steadfast blue eyes slew that suspicion; and with a grave "May the Lord bless your soul, my sister," the elder passed on.
When it was evident that no more persons would come forward to be prayed for, the whole congregation kneeled down, and the prayers began. Prayer after prayer—some quaint, simple, and touching; some incongruous and distasteful; but all earnest and impassioned. Fanny Lane sat still as a statue, her fair head unbowed, her eyes fixed steadily on each one who prayed. So strange, so foreign, so inexplicable a sight was never before seen on a camp-ground. More than one good Methodist man had his attention diverted and his devotion jeoparded by that startling face. And as for the good Methodist women, there was but one opinion among them of poor Fanny's conduct.
"Never see anything so brazen in my life."
"I wonder that Elder Swift did n't put her out."
"Should n't wonder ef he thought she was crazy, an' there might be a row that ud break up the meeting," were some of the indignant whispers at Fanny's expense.
Before the prayers ended, John stole softly away. He was uncomfortable. He had a vague instinct of flight from the place,—of flight from this girl whose atmosphere affected him so strangely. He found it no longer agreeable. His feeling toward her was fast becoming something like fear. Midway down the aisle, he stopped, turned, took one more look at her, and met her eyes, steadily, unmistakably fixed upon him. With a sense of something still more like fear in his heart, he turned abruptly and walked on.
When Hi and Hi's folks reached home, considerably past midnight, they found, to their great surprise, John Bassett fast asleep on the kitchen settee.
Hi shook him awake by degrees, exclaiming:—
"Why, John, how in airth 'd ye get in?"
"Through the buttery window." laughed John. "I stood it over at your camp-meeting as long as I could, and then I came out. If I 'd have dreamed that you 'd left a window open in all your house you would n't have caught me over there at all, I can tell you."
It was arranged that Hi should shoe Jerry as soon as it was light in the morning. And John would be off for Deerway by six o'clock, for there was mowing to be done that day which could not be put off. Then John went to bed, and as he settled himself to sleep, he said:—
"Well, that 's the end of that."
But the end was not yet.
Two weeks later, as John was driving Tom and Jerry leisurely along the road past the Goodenows' farm-house, just at sunset one night, he heard his name called loudly from the piazza, and saw Luke Goodenow running down the pathway toward him. John felt, rather than saw, that the piazza was rilled with people. He never passed the house without having a secret conscious wonder whether the blue-eyed, yellow-haired girl would be in sight; but he had never seen her since the night of the camp-meeting. Now he felt sure that she was on the piazza, for the whole family had gathered there, to look at the sunset, which was one rippling wave of fiery gold from the western horizon nearly to the zenith. John did not turn his head, but reined up his horses and sat waiting for Luke.
With true New England circumlocution Luke opened his communication thus:—
"Ain't very busy now, John, are you?"
Taken unawares, John said, frankly:—
"No; did the last of my haying yesterday. Why?"
"Well, father 'n' I was a wonderin' if you would n't do a job o' drivin for us. Ef yer would, 't 'ud be an awful help to us. We 're jest about drove out o' our senses. You see we hain't got hosses enough for all our folks; yer can't calkillate on boarders no how; one year there won't nobody want to ride at all, 'n' yer hosses 'll eat their heads off; an the next year, ye 'll cut down on hosses, and then everybody 'll want to drive from mornin' till night, and not make a mite of allowance for you nuther. Now, Kate, she 's gone lame; a feller here raced her up meetin'us hill last week, and pretty nigh killed her—I 'd like to break his darned neck for him; an' that breaks up our best team; and you see there 's some o' our folks we 'd agreed to take regular every afternoon, and they 're just upsot about it, an I 'm afraid they 'll go off if they can't have their rides,—it 's about all they do. I wish such folks 'd bring up their own hosses. Now could n't you jest take 'em for us? they won't be here more 'n a month. They 'll pay ye first rate, they 're rich, they don't care what they pay for any thing."
John laughed out.
"Why, Luke," he exclaimed, "I 'd do most anything to oblige you, but I can't really turn hack-driver. I 'm sorry."
Luke's face fell.
"I don't suppose ye 'd let anybody else drive Tom and Jerry, would you? Father 'd always go himself if ye 'd let us have 'em," he said in desperation, for this was really Luke's last hope.
"You 'd better believe I would n't," said John Bassett, a little proudly. "I 'm real sorry for ye, Luke. Well, summer boarders are nothing but a pest anyhow."
"Well, some on 'em is, an some on 'em is n't," replied the sententious Luke. "There 's folks in our house I 'd jest as lieves disappoint as not, and a little lieveser; but I do hate to disappoint Miss Fanny an her ma, the worst kind."
"Oh, it 's women folks, is it?" said dishonest John Bassett, with a bound at his guilty heart; "if it 's only women folks, I might take 'em, perhaps; but I 'll be hanged if I 'll drive any o' these city fellows round."
Luke jumped eagerly at this suggestion.
"No, indeed," he said; "there ain't no man in the party; jest the two old women and Miss Fanny, an they 're jest the nicest folks we 've ever had in our house, I tell you. Miss Fanny, she 's a smart one. The old aunt, she 's some stuck-up, but she 's no account, anyhow. It 's Miss Fanny's ma that pays all the bills. You jest come right up here and make your bargain with 'em now," urged Luke, anxious to strike while the iron was hot.
"Bargain!" shouted John Bassett, with a look of indignation which nearly paralyzed Luke. "I 'm not going to make any bargain. You can tell 'em that a friend of yours is going to do it for you. I don't want any of their money."
"But John," began Luke, "Father won't take it."
"Settle it among you as you like," cried John; "I sha'n't take any money. Let me know when you want me to come," and he gave Tom so sharp a stroke with the whip that Tom reared and plunged forward at a pace that whirled the wagon out of sight in the twinkling of an eye.
"Well, I swanny!" ejaculated Luke as he walked up the hill, "John Bassett is a queer one. I wonder how we 'll fix it!"
"I swanny" does such universal duty as an oath throughout New England that the expression merits some attention as a philological curiosity. No one can sojourn among rural New Englanders for any length of time without being driven to speculate as to the origin of the phrase. Could it have come down through ages of gradual elimination from some highly respectable Pagan formula, such as, "I will swear by any of the gods," for instance? This seems a not wholly incredible supposition, and lifts the seeming vulgarism at once to the level of a "condensed classic."
No perplexing considerations of the question of pay hindered the elder Goodenow from grasping gratefully at John Bassett's help in the matter of driving.
"They can pay us all the same," he said to Luke; "an' ef John Bassett 's such a fool 's not to take the money, he can go without it, that 's all. I sha'n't sue him to make him take it, I reckon."
And so it came to pass that on the next day, at three o'clock in the afternoon, John Bassett sat in his big strong wagon with Tom and Jerry shining like satin, and prancing in their harness before the Goodenow's gate, waiting to take three "summer boarders" to drive. He felt uncomfortable. He was sorry he had said he would do it, but he would not withdraw now; neither was he sure that he wanted to withdraw. In fact, just at present, John Bassett was not sure of anything. Minute after minute passed. Tom and Jerry pranced more and more.
"Look here, Luke," said John; "if this 's the way your folks keep horses standing, they can't drive with me. I 'll take a turn and come back,—it fidgets Tom so to stand,"—and he drove down the road at a rapid rate.
"What does the man mean?" exclaimed Aunt Jane, who had just appeared at the door, and was leisurely wrapping herself up. Fanny Lane also looked impatiently after the swift-going horses, and exclaimed, "How very queer!"
Luke hastened to explain.
"Ye see, Miss Fanny," he said, "John Bassett's horses aint like ourn. They wont stand a minute."
"What, are n't these horses quiet?" screamed Aunt Jane. "I sha'n't go a step. Maria, this man 's brought skittish horses; we 'll have our necks broken, and these country people never do know anything about driving."
Luke could not bear this.
"Well, mum," he said, "if you say that after you 've driven with John Bassett, I 'll eat my head. There aint no circus man can do any more with horses than John can. His horse plays hide-and-seek with him in the yard, just like a boy,—you 'd oughter see it."
Fanny Lane listened with delight.
"Oh, how charming!" she said, with one of her bewildering smiles bent full on Luke. "What good luck it was, Luke, that you found such a nice driver for us, and such nice horses! How did it happen that he was not engaged?"
The truth was very near escaping from Luke's lips in spite of himself; he was so tickled at the idea of John's being "engaged" as a "driver;" but he prudently choked both his laughter and the truth together and answered diplomatically:—
"Oh, he would n't drive for everybody, John would n't,"—which was certainly true, though it served Luke's purpose as well as a lie.
When Luke, with some confusion and mixing up of genders and pronouns, had succeeded in introducing John Bassett to the three women whom he was to take charge of for the afternoon, Fanny Lane looked full in John Bassett's face and said,—
"I have seen you before, Mr. Bassett—I saw you at the camp-meeting. You went out in the middle of the last prayer, and I thought it was so very wrong of you."
John was dumbfounded. All the old bewilderment of senses and emotions which he had felt at his first sight of this girl, rushed back upon him now,—also something of the old terror. How could he be sure that she had not seen him during the whole time he had spent in watching her? How could he be sure that she had not read his thoughts and feelings in his face? How could he be sure that she was not at this very moment reading clearly all his discomforts and perplexity? Heartily, John wished himself and his horses safely back on the Bassett farm.
But all that Miss Lane saw of this mental perturbation was a slight hesitancy and slowness of speech, which she set down to the natural shyness of a rural man—unaccustomed to be at ease with city women; and she found something very quaint and amusing in John's concise reply:—
"I do not think any one heard me go out. No one looked up that I saw."
As Miss Lane's eyes were probably the only eyes in that whole congregation which were not devoutly closed at the moment when John stole away so noiselessly on the grass, John had the best of this little opening passage at arms,—how much the best he did not dream, and would have been astonished if he had known that his companion was saying to herself at that moment: "How clever of him! Of course I should never have known that he had gone out if I had not been gazing about at everything," and Fanny Lane looked with a new interest at John Bassett's face. It was a face that a sensitive and timid woman might fear; but one that a high-spirited and independent woman might welcome with a quick and hearty sense of comradeship and trust. Very calm, very strong, very straightforward was the expression of the face in repose; the eyes were dark blue-gray; the eyebrows and lashes jet black; his smooth-shaved chin was too long and too heavily molded, and his lips were thin rather than full, though the outline of his mouth when closed was rarely fine, and when he smiled it was beautiful. Yet, the face was on the whole a stern one, and oftener repelled than won advances from strangers; it compelled confidence, but did not invite familiarity. The more Miss Lane looked at her escort, the more she took satisfaction in his appearance.
"Really," she thought, "this is a godsend; such horses as these, and a man who is not in the least stupid if he is a farmer! We shall have a lovely time on our drives."
And she settled herself back in the broad front seat with a content and pleasurable anticipation which radiated from every feature, and made itself felt like sunshine.
"Is n't this lovely, mamma?" she exclaimed. "What a lucky thing that old Kate went lame! These horses are a thousand times better that Mr. Goodenow's. In fact," she added, "that 's no way to speak of them; they would be superb horses anywhere; they 're not to be spoken of as the same sort of animal as Mr. Goodenow's."
"No," said John quietly.
The tone of the monosyllable meant so much that Fanny Lane exclaimed—
"You love your horses very much, Mr. Bassett, do you not?"
"They are my only brothers," replied John, "I have taken care of them since the day they were born."
"Oh, how perfectly delightful!" cried Fanny. "That 's the very thing I have always thought I should like to do,—have a colt for my own in the very beginning, when I could play with it as I would with a kitten."
"Yes, that 's the only way to have the real comfort of a horse," said John. "They are more intelligent than dogs, and much more loving, if they ever had a chance to show it. You ought to see Tom play hide-and-seek with me; he will hunt the whole place over and never give up till he finds me; and he knows just as quick in the morning if there 's a little difference in my tone of speaking to him; if I don't happen to feel quite first-rate myself, he 'll poke his nose into my hand, and whinny uneasily, till I speak in a chirker voice to him. I don't really need any reins to guide them. See here," and John suddenly said in a low tone—"Whoa, Tom! Whoa, Jerry!" The horses were trotting at a rapid rate down a little hill. So suddenly that they fell almost on their haunches, the beautifully trained animals came to a full stop, and stood still with their necks arched, their heads down, snorting a little in impatience. The sudden stop had given a severe jar to the wagon, and unfortunately had jolted Aunt Jane forward from her seat.
"There! I told you so, Maria! Let me get out! let me get out! We 'll have our necks broken. Young man, let me get out this minute; do you hear?" screamed the terrified old woman.
"Oh, Aunt Jane," cried Fanny, who could barely speak for laughing, "don't be absurd. There is nothing the matter. Mr. Bassett stopped the horses himself to show me how quick they would mind his voice. It 's all right."
"I did not realize that it would give the wagon quite such a jar, ma'am;" said John, gravely, though the corners of his mouth quivered. "I am very sorry it frightened you so."
Aunt Jane was not very easily appeased.
"Don't do it again. Don't do it again. I very nearly went out into the middle of the road,—a most dangerous trick for horses to have. I always am afraid of country horses," she said.
Any alarm in Aunt Jane's mind always broke out in a jerky, monosyllabic, incoherent, but quick-running chatter, like nothing under heaven except the cackle of a frightened hen. Nobody could help laughing at the sounds she produced; let the danger be ever so extreme, it would be impossible not to be amused at them. Fanny broke into an unrestrained peal of laughter in which John could not help joining,—a fact which completed Aunt Jane's discomfort, and reduced her to a state of ill-humor and absolute silence for the rest of the drive.
Mrs. Lane enjoyed and loved fine horses as much as her daughter did, and it was with a really cordial and unaffected tone, quite unlike her usual languid manner, that, when they reached home, she thanked John Bassett for the pleasure they had enjoyed.
"Yes, indeed, Mr. Bassett," echoed Fanny. "It is the very nicest thing we have had in Deerway. Now, you wont let anything keep you from coming every afternoon, will you? We shall depend upon it; I want to explore every inch of the whole region within fifteen miles round. It is the loveliest country I have ever found in New England. Remember, now, two o'clock exactly! We wont keep you waiting to-morrow. Good afternoon!" and she ran up the pathway like a fleet deer.
"Did n't touch his hat. Don't even know enough to touch his hat. What boors these country people are!" grumbled Aunt Jane, as she laboriously toiled up the piazza steps, lifting her fat ankles slowly, and swinging alternately to right and left, as a duck does when it waddles up-hill.
"Well, why should he touch his hat, Aunt Jane?" exclaimed Fanny aggressively. "He is n't a coachman, and he has never been taught that gentlemen ought to lift their hats to ladies,—nobody does in Deerway. If he had been born in the city he would have known better. It is n't his fault."
Aunt Jane was half way up-stairs, and wheezing audibly, but she stopped, whirled with difficulty on the narrow stair, and exclaimed:—
"It 's my opinion, Fanny Lane, that you 've got some notion in your head of flirting with that strapping fellow, and I 'm just going to put your mother on her guard."
Fanny flushed. "Oh, how could mamma ever have had such a coarse sister?" she thought, but she answered merrily.
"I 'm not afraid. Mamma knows much better than to believe anything you tell her about me."
And then Fanny Lane sat herself down in a corner of the piazza, and looked off into the vast golden twilight in the west, and said to herself deliberately:—
"It 's a very odd thing that I like that man's face so. I have never yet seen a face I like so much. He 's as strong as a lion, and as true. What 'll he ever do for a wife here in Deerway, I wonder."
The story of the next six weeks of John Bassett's life is as well told in one page as in hundreds; yet its vivid details of delight would need no spinning out, no exaggeration to fill the hundreds of pages; and as for color, it had the palette of the New England autumn, and the light of love, from which to paint its pictures.
It was an unusually beautiful autumn; the forests were like altar fronts in old cathedrals; they glittered with colors which gems could not outshine. Heavy September rains filled the brooks to over flowing, and left the air cooled for the October sunlight. Deerway lies on one of the highest plateaus in New England; this plateau is in places broken into myriads of conical and interlapping hills. These hills are thickly wooded with maple, ash, hickory, oak, chestnut, pine, cedar, hemlock, larch: not a tree of all New England's wealth of trees is lacking.
For miles and miles in all directions the roads run through forests and by the sides of brooks and streams. Then when you come out on the intervals and opens between these hills and forests, there are magnificent vistas of view to distant horizons where rise the peaks and ranges of New England's highest mountains.
Over these roads, under these trees, across these lifted plains, drove John Bassett and Fanny Lane, side by side, every afternoon for six weeks. The two elderly ladies behind, wrapped in their cloaks and shawls, and often half asleep, little dreamed of the drama whose prelude was so quietly and fatefully arranging and arraying its forces on the front seat.
Fanny Lane was a genuine and passionate lover of the country. As soon as she entered it, the artificiality, the paltry ambitions, the false standards of her city life, fell away from her like dead husks. She was another woman. Had her whole life been passed thus face to face with the nature she was born to love, she had been indeed another and a nobler person. As it was, all that her few months interval of each year of summer and out-door life did for her was to give her a marvelous added physical health, a suberabundance of vitality, which country life can never give to any one who does not love it with his whole soul. There seemed sometimes almost a mockery in the carrying back to the senseless dissipations and excitements of a gay city winter the zest and capacity to endure and to enjoy, born of woods and fields and sunrises and sunsets. But this was what Fanny Lane did year after year. It was like living two lives on two different planets; no one who knew her only in one would recognize her in the other,—would believe the other possible to her. How should John Bassett dream that this girl, who knew every tree, every wayside weed by name, who climbed rocks with exultant joy like a chamois, who came home from her drives, day after day, with her arms loaded with ground pine and clematis, with big boughs of bright leaves, with lichens and mosses, would be transformed one month later, in her city home, to a nonchalant, conventional woman of society, entirely absorbed in a routine of visits and balls?
Fanny Lane was also an artist by nature. No spot of color in the woods, no distant shading of tint in the horizons, no picturesque grouping of work-people in the fields, no smallest beauty of their rude homesteads, escaped her eye; she noted every one; and she spoke of each one with the overflowing tone of delight which belongs to the joy of the true artist nature. How should John Bassett dream that all these things which she seemed so to love and delight in, she loved and delighted in as a spectacle, as if they were painted on a canvas! and that she would use the same tones and show the same joy, a few weeks later, over rare jewels and beautiful raiment, over an exquisite equipage or a fine-flavored wine! How should John Bassett dream, when she jumped, lightly from the high wagon-seat to the ground, at one bound without touching his hand, and cried, "Oh, what a lovely drive we have had; I never had such a good time in my life, Mr. Bassett," that her happiness was as purely a sensuous one as if she had been a faun, and that she had said the same thing thousands of times before? Her faculty of enjoyment was simply a superb gift; it was the health and mirthfulness of a young animal added to the keen susceptibility and passionless passion of the artist nature: the overflow of all this, the effervescence of these two qualities, gave a sparkling enchantment to her life and behavior, which was contagious and irresistible to all persons who did not pause to analyze or question it. John Bassett neither questioned nor analyzed it. In the intervals of his absence from her, he simply recalled her. When he was with her, he simply felt and heard her.
And so the six swift weeks sped on, and the day came at last when John Bassett had to say good-by to Fanny Lane at the little Deerway railway station, to which he had driven them early one crisp October morning. In the hurry of checking luggage and bestowing Aunt Jane and her canary bird and her many parcels in the train, there was little chance for farewell words; but just at the last moment, Mrs. Lane said very cordially, for she had come to have an honest liking for the grave and manly young farmer:—
"Whenever you come to town, Mr. Bassett, be sure and come and see us;" and she shook hands with him warmly.
"Oh, yes, Mr. Bassett, you must come," cried Fanny; "I shall be so glad to see you. I shall miss Tom and Jerry horribly. Our horses are not half so nice, and our stupid park will be so dull after the Deerway woods. Oh, dear me! I wish I could stay here all winter. Good-by! Now, be sure and come and see us if you are in town," and the cars whirled away, bearing Fanny Lane out of John Bassett's sight.
He jumped into his wagon as if he were in great haste, and drove away at a furious rate. As soon as he was out of sight, he said to Tom and Jerry: "Walk, boys," flinging the reins loose on their necks, and never once roused from his reverie of thought and emotion till the whole six miles had passed, and the horses turned of their own accord into the farm-house gate. Then he started, and exclaimed:—
"Bless me! I meant to have stopped at Molly's, but it is too late now."
Little Molly had been looking out for John all the morning. It so chanced that their last boarders had gone to the station that morning, and Molly had seen John drive by with the Lane party, and had perceived, much to her joy, that they were also going to the train.
"Oh, I 'm so glad!" said Molly. "It 's all done with for this year. Now we can have peace and comfort again."
How many times John had come laughing within a few hours after the last boarders had taken leave, and exclaimed as he opened the door:—
"Thank heaven, the last summer boarder 's out of the way!"
So Molly felt very sure he would stop now on his way back from the station; and surprised enough she was, to be sure, when she saw him drive past the house,—Tom and Jerry walking as lazily as if they were in the pasture, and John sitting with his hands on his knees and his eyes fixed on the dasher.
"Why, what a brown study John 's in!" exclaimed Molly. "I wonder what he 's thinking about."
And this was all she thought, for Molly was a sweet, gentle, unsuspicious little girl; and besides, did not she know John Bassett through and through—almost as well as if they had been rocked in the same cradle? If anybody had suggested to Molly that John might be in love with one of the "summer boarders," she would have laughed merrily; she knew better than anybody else how he hated the very sight of all those city people; and she had often thought in the past few weeks how good it was of John to take those three women to drive every day,—"just to help the Goodenows."
Poor little Molly! It was some weeks after Fanny Lane's departure before the thought of asking her to be his wife took actual shape of purpose in John Bassett's mind. He was almost benumbed, he missed her so; and he spent whole days driving vaguely round and round in the roads where he had driven with her; he knew well enough what all this misery meant, but while it was at its first height, he could not even grasp at any ray of comfort or hope. He loved this woman with the whole intensity of his reticent and long-restrained nature, though his common sense told him (when he let it lift up its voice at all) that it would be folly for him to think of her as his wife,—folly on all accounts: her utter unfitness for a farmer's wife; the utter improbability of her loving him. "Pshaw," he said to himself, a hundred times a day. "John Bassett, you are a fool!" Nevertheless, day by day, and night by night, a cruel hope whispered to him. He recalled every word Fanny had said of her glad delight in the Deerway life.
"I 'm sure," he thought, "no human being could be happier than she was here. She belongs to the country. She 's country all over. There is n't any of the city lady about her. Not a bit.
"She said she wished she could stay here all winter. She need n't ever lift her hand to do a stroke of work. I could keep two or three girls for her, just as well as not;" and good John Bassett thought over, with true manly pride, how he could give to his lady-love all which, in his simplicity of heart, he could conceive of even a city lady's requiring.
"I 'd build her any sort of a house she wanted, if she did n't want to live here with mother. Or I 'd take her anywhere in the world she wanted to go. There 's money enough;" and so the treacherous hope allied itself to the blinded love, and both together lured John Bassett on until one day in midwinter he rang the door-bell of the grand house in which Fanny Lane lived "in town." He had not come with any assured hope; not at all; toward the last, his strong, good sense had come to look on the step more as a desperate remedy for a desperate hurt, than as a probable healing of the wound by the gentle and blessed healing of happiness. He said to himself, grimly: "It 's the only way I 'll every get free from it. I 've got to know the truth once for all; and I 'm not ashamed to ask her."
Mrs. Lane's black servant man had never seen at Mrs. Lane's door a person of precisely John Bassett's bearing. His first impression was, that he was some sort of tradesman, and he was on the point of giving him a seat in the hall, when John's quick and decisive tone—"Will you please say to Miss Lane that Mr. Bassett, from Deerway, wishes to see her," caused him to change his tactics, and usher this unclassed gentleman into the drawing-room.
On the very threshold of this room, John got his first blow. People who have been accustomed all their lives to laces and velvets, and paintings and statues in their rooms, can form no conception of the bewildering impression which such splendors produce on the mind of simply reared persons, seeing them for the first time. John's only experience of splendor, or what he thought splendor, had been in theatres, where he had, a few times in his life, seen plays put on the stage with considerable magnificence of appointment. He would not have conceived that even in kings' palaces could there be rooms so adorned as was this room in Fanny Lane's home. The only thing which he saw, which did not give him a sense of dazzling bewilderment, was the conservatory which opened from the farther end of the room. With a vague instinct of seeking refuge, he walked toward it; but even here all seemed unreal; the plants were, to him, as new as the soft carpets and the floating draperies of cobweb lace; not a familiar leaf or flower; only a great exuberant bower of strange colors and strange shapes, and an overpowering spicy scent which seemed, to his fresh and uncloyed nerves, almost sickening. Involuntarily he looked about him for a window; he wanted fresh air and a sight of the blue sky. Draperies and veils shut out one and hid the other; he felt as if he were in an enchanted prison, and it seemed to him a measurelessly long time before the black servant returned, and holding out to him some newspapers said, with a much increased respectfulness of demeanor:—
"Miss Fanny says, sir, that she is very glad, indeed, to see you, but she will have to keep you waiting awhile, for she is just dressing for a dinner. She sent down the morning papers, thinking you might like to look them over."
Mechanically, John took the papers and sat down in the simplest chair he could find, and as near to the wonderful window draperies as he dared to go. Mechanically, he fastened his eyes on the printed words; but he did not read one. He was wondering what would be the next scene in this play. Fanny Lane's face, as he had seen it the last summer, in a simple white chip shade hat tied loosely under her chin, with a branch of wild roses floating down on her shoulder, seemed dancing in the air before him. Would she look as she looked then? He had sat thus, wondering and dreaming for a long half hour, when a soft, silken rustle fell on his ear, and a swift, light step, and the voice he knew so well said, in the door-way:—
"Oh, Mr. Bassett, I 'm so glad to see you; and you must forgive me for keeping you waiting so long, but you see I am going to a stupid dinner at six o'clock, and I was just dressing for it. But now I am all ready, and have nothing to do but sit and hear all about Deerway, and dear old Tom and Jerry. I 'm ever so glad to see you; have you been well?" and the vision held out its hands, which looked like Fanny Lane's hands, and recalled John Bassett a little to his senses.
This was what Fanny Lane had done:—
When the servant brought to her Mr. Bassett's name and message, she sprang to her feet, and exclaimed, "Why, the good soul! I 'm so glad to see him. Tell Mr. Bassett I 'll be down in a moment," but before the man had left the room, she exclaimed: "Wait, William." Then turning to her mother she said:—
"I believe I 'd better dress before I go down, for it 's four o'clock now and he 'll be just as likely to stay two hours as one, and I never could hurt his feelings by telling him I had an engagement."
"Yes, dear, I think so too," assented Mrs. Lane, though she did not in the least think so, having a very distinct impression of the incongruity between Fanny's evening toilet and her Deerway visitor. Then Fanny went to her room, saying in her heart as she went:—
"It may be all a ridiculous fancy of mine, but it wont do any harm; and if the poor fellow has really come down here with any such idea in his head, nothing would cure him of it so soon as to see me in evening dress. I know John Bassett well enough for that."
Fanny Lane had never forgotten; she had often wished she could forget,—the look on John's face just as the train moved out of the Deerway station, the day she had bade him good-by. It smote her with a pang,—not of remorse, for she was not conscious of having by look, word, or deed done anything to invite or to awaken his love,—but of bitter and bootless regret. She liked and esteemed John Bassett heartily; more than that, she recognized in him the elements of a true manliness of the sort that she most admired; and she had more than once gone so far in her secret thoughts as to admit to herself that not one of the men with whom she had thus far been brought into contact could compare in point of fine native grain and honesty clear through to the core with this uncultured and unmannered farmer. Through all Fanny Lane's worldliness and ambition and conventionality, she had kept unsullied her womanly instinct of reverence for, and tenderness to, all real love. To break, or to hurt a heart wantonly was as impossible to her as it would be to John Bassett himself. Very sorely she suffered during the half hour that she spent in arranging herself to go down to meet this man whom she feared she had wounded; and it was a serious and pensive face that looked back at her from the long pier-glass, as she surveyed herself at last, and noting every point of the perfection of her attire, thought sadly,—
"I am sure if he has thought of such a thing, he will see now he has made a great mistake."
Kind, wise Fanny Lane! When John first looked up, he literally did not know her. The dazzling white neck and white arms were all he saw at first, and at sight of those he felt an honest and quick displeasure. To his unenlightened and uncultured sense, they were unseemly. He knew, he had read, that this was the way of the world; and he had often seen actress women thus bared to the eyes of men; but even in the theatre he had disliked it: he was so simple-hearted, so pure-minded,—this man of the fields,—and now, nearer, within the close and unrestrained reach of his eyes, he disliked it more. Yet it was not this, powerfully as this affected him, which slew on the instant the purpose with which he had sought Fanny Lane. For this he could have had patience and comprehension, seeing that all the influences and circumstances of her life made it inevitable. The thing which slew the purpose, almost the desire, within his heart, was the thing which Fanny Lane had divined beforehand would slay it, and had purposely plotted should slay it; it was the whole atmosphere of luxury, artificial elegance in her dress. She had chosen the showiest and costliest of her gowns: a heavy wine-colored silk, with a sweeping train trimmed profusely with white lace, white chrysanthemums, so daintily and truly made that it was hard to believe them artificial, looped the folds of the silk, and were scattered in the lace white chrysanthemums, made of pearls with yellow topazes for their centres, shone in her hair, on her neck and on her arms. She was superbly beautiful in this toilet, and she knew it; but she knew or believed that it was a kind of beauty which would bring healing and not harm to the heart of John Bassett. It did. It did its work so quickly that to her dying day, Fanny Lane never felt sure—and it was many years before she ceased to wonder—whether the healing had been needed or not.
"Very well, thank you, Miss Lane," said John Bassett, with an untroubled and warm-hearted smile, in reply to her first inquiry. "I am always well. Have you been well? and your mother and aunt? You asked me to come and see you, if I came to town, and so as I was here to-day, I called. Are you well?"
"I 'm very glad you did," said Fanny; and with an uneasy instinct which she never felt in a ball-room, she drew close up to her throat the fleecy shawl she had thrown over her shoulders as she came down-stairs. Without knowing what she felt, she had felt the avoidance in John Bassett's eyes. "Yes, I am very well."
"You do not look as well as you did in Deerway," said the honest man, looking at her more closely now that he could; "you are not out-of-doors enough, are you?"
"Oh, yes, but it 's a different out-of-doors," said Fanny. "It 's only one degree better than in-doors; but it 's all we can have till summer comes, and we can get back to Deerway."
"Will you be in Deerway next summer again?" asked John.
"Oh, no, Mr. Bassett, nor for two or three summers; we are going to Europe in May, to stay three years!" exclaimed Fanny, with great animation. "I 'm so delighted. It has been the dream of my life. But, Mr. Bassett, do tell me about Tom and Jerry; and how the pine woods look now the snow has come. I wish I could see Deerway in the winter."
Then John told her about Tom and Jerry, and about the pine-trees, with great avalanches of snow on their lower branches, and about the sledding, and sugaring-time, which would soon come; and before he knew it, it was already dark and time to go. As he rose, Fanny exclaimed:—
"Oh, let me give you some flowers, Mr. Bassett; come into the green-house."
Very ruthlessly, Fanny Lane cut the rare flowers, not even sparing the tremulous and spiritual orchids, of which she had a few. Putting the fragrant and beautiful mass of bloom into a basket which stood on the table, she said, with a sudden impulse:—
"Give some of these to that pretty little Miss Wilder I saw in Deerway, the one that sings in the choir. She lives near you, does n't she?"
"Oh, yes;" said John, "she is just like my sister; she is very fond of flowers."
"She has one of the very sweetest faces I ever saw," said Fanny, earnestly; "I never have forgotten it."
John looked a little astonished. He did not know that Molly's face was sweet; but he knew that she was.
"Molly 's a very sweet, good girl," he said warmly; and oddly enough, those were the last words, except good-byes, which passed between John Bassett and Fanny Lane.
After Fanny went up into her mother's room, she stood for some minutes at the window watching John's tall, broad-shouldered figure, as he walked away. Then she sighed and sat down.
"What 's the matter now?" said Aunt Jane.
"Nothing," said Fanny, "only I was thinking that country people are a great deal happier than we are."
"Pshaw!" said Mrs. Lane, languidly, "I wonder what Mr. Bassett thought of your gown. I don't suppose he ever saw a really handsome silk gown before."
"He did n't appear to think anything about it at all," said Fanny, half petulantly. Could it have been that, side by side with her good, true purpose of saving John Bassett from speaking words he might wish unsaid, she had had a petty desire that he should, at least, confess her more beautiful in her silks and jewels?
"What could you expect?" sneered Aunt Jane. "I don't suppose he 'd know a pearl marguerite with a topaz middle, from one of the ox-eye daisies on his farm!"
"Yes, he would," retorted Fanny, "and like the ox-eye daisy a great deal better; and that 's where he is happier than we are."
John Bassett went back to Deerway. The purpose, nay, even the desire to ask Fanny Lane to be his wife was slain, as we have said, in an instant by the sight and the sense of the Fanny Lane whom he had never seen, never known, till he saw and knew her in her city splendors. But there remained still the memory, the consciousness of the other Fanny Lane whom he had seen and had known during all those long, sweet, bewildering summer hours. This memory and this consciousness were not so easily slain. They died hard, and John was, for many months, a man bereft. If there had been in the Deerway grave-yard a mound under which he had laid away the dead body of a woman he had loved, his sense of loss would not have been much greater. The winter was a long and cold and sunless one. If it had been summer, John's loneliness would have been far less; nature would have helped to cure him through every pore, and every nerve; but the New England winter is a bitter season in which to be shut up alone with a grief; it takes a serene and ever-abiding joy to reconcile one to its imprisoning cold. The months seemed very long to John. They seemed very long to Molly Wilder also. The instinct of love is like the subtle added sense by which the blind know the presence or the approach of a person they can neither see, nor hear, nor touch. What had happened to John, Molly did not know, could not imagine; but that something had changed him, she felt so keenly, that she could hardly keep back tears when he spoke to her. Sometimes she fancied that he must have discovered that he had some deadly disease of which he knew he would sooner or later die; but he said that he was well; and he looked well. Sometimes, she fancied that she had in some unwitting way displeased him; and a hundred times a day, the gentle girl said, "I will ask John what I have done;" but a shy consciousness which did not clothe itself in words made it impossible for her to ask the question.
Molly was unhappier than John. Meantime, he came and went all winter in the old fashion, so far as times and seasons counted, and never dreamed that he was seeming unlike himself; never noticed, either, that Molly was pale, and was growing thin, until one day in April, when all the young people were out on a sunny hill-side looking after arbutus blossoms, he came suddenly upon Molly sitting alone on a mossy log, with a few violets lying loosely dropped in her lap, her hands crossed above them, her eyes fixed on the far horizon, and an expression of patient suffering on her countenance. He ran toward her.
"Why, Molly, what is the matter? Have you hurt yourself?" he exclaimed.
She flushed red, and replied:—
"Nothing. I am only tired."
But John saw that there had been tears in her eyes, and with a sudden lightning flash of consciousness, his heart pricked him.
"Dear little Molly!" he thought. "I do believe I 've been cross to her all winter. I 've been thinking about something else all the time, and she has n't anybody else but me."
From that hour, John's manner toward Molly changed, and the color began to come back to Molly's cheeks. Nothing could be further from love-making than his treatment of her; and yet she was comparatively happy, for the old atmosphere of brotherly fondness and care had returned, and gradually, the old, good cheer came too.
Molly did not dream that anything more would follow; if ever the thought had striven to enter her pure, maiden heart, that it would be a joy to be John's wife, she would have blushed with shame at herself, as if the thought were a sin; but it must have been hard for Molly to keep the thought away all through these days, when John was deliberately permitting himself to wonder whether, after all, little Molly were the woman who would bring him true peace and content. He was very honest with himself. He knew he did not love Molly as he had loved Fanny Lane; but he also knew clearly that his love for Fanny Lane was a mistake,—was a glamour of the senses,—and he was fast coming to feel, by Molly's side, a serene sort of happiness which he believed was a better and truer thing than the other. There was not a trace of coxcombry in John Bassett's nature. He did not once feel sure that Molly could love him as a husband, but he said to himself: "If I feel that I can make her happy, I believe she is the woman I ought to marry. I 've loved her ever since I can remember anything, and that ought to be the best sort of love."
And as the summer grew fair this feeling grew strong, and John and Molly grew happier and happier, until one October day when everything except grapes had ripened, this too ripened and fell, and Molly gathered it. When John said to her:—
"Molly, do you think you could love me well enough to have me for your husband?" she looked up into his face and said only:—
"Oh, John, do you think I should make you happy?" And in that instant something in the look on Molly's face, and in the tone of Molly's voice, smote the inmost citadel of John's heart which had never before opened, and never would have opened to any other or different touch.
There is an evil fashion of speech and of theory, that a man's love for a woman lasts better, is stronger, if he be never wholly assured of hers for him. This is a base and shallow theory; an outrage on true manliness; it has grown out of the pitiful lack of true manliness in some men; out of the pitiful abundance of selfish counterfeit loves and loving. Nothing under heaven can so touch, so hold, so make eternally sure, the tenderness, the loyalty, the passion of a manly man, as the consciousness in every hour, in every act of life, that the woman he has chosen for his wife lives for him, and in him, utterly and absorbingly.
Before snow fell, John and Molly were married. Molly went up from the house on the meadow to the house on the hill to live, and that seemed to be almost the only change, except in the gladness of her heart and John's, and that was a change nobody knew much about except themselves. A little change there was also in Molly's clothes, though not the usual metamorphosis which brides undergo. She was as quiet in her tastes as a Quaker, and the only adornment which she wore when she first went to church as John's wife, was a wreath of small white chrysanthemums in her hat. They were singularly becoming to her fair and rosy face. It cannot be denied that when John first saw them, he started a little, and remembered some he had seen a year before, made of pearls and topazes. But he thought these much prettier than those; and as Fanny Lane had said, "an ox-eye daisy on the farm" prettier than either.
We may not dare in this world to wonder why the sad people live and the happy people die. At times one is so overwhelmed by the terrifying consciousness of this cruel habit of fate, that one hardly dares rejoice at his fullest, for fear of being slain and removed from his joy.
John Bassett and his dear and beloved wife, "little Molly," lived together only one short year. Then with his own hands he laid her and their baby daughter, who had never breathed, in one grave under the apple-trees in the south orchard, where he could see the mound from his chamber window. Now was John Bassett, indeed, bereft. The blow told on him heavily. It changed him month by month by a slow benumbing process into a man sadly unlike what he had been before. He had lived, as we said, like a noble pagan. He suffered as the noble pagans used to suffer, with a grim stoicism, an unwilling and resentful surrender to powers he was too feeble to oppose.
Before little Molly was taken ill, she had had a presentiment that she would die, and she had set all her house in the most careful order to leave behind her. Her few little personal ornaments, her two or three bits of lace, and her two silk gowns,—only two, and of the simplest fashion,—she had laid away with bags of lavender in one of the deep drawers in an old-fashioned chest which stood in their chamber. Her common clothes she had packed in a box, and had said to John one day:—
"If I don't get well, dear, just give that box to mother; all the things will be of use to her; but the things in the drawer I 'd like to have kept for the baby. I don't believe God will take us both away from you; and I am sure it will be a girl,—a daughter would comfort you more than a son, would n't it, dear?"
And so it came to pass that after Molly was buried, there was hardly a trace left of her in the old Bassett house except her little work-basket, which stood on the stand by her bed, and held a little baby's sack of flannel, on which she had been working that last day. This basket John would not allow to be moved. It hurt him like a new sight of Molly's dead face whenever he looked at it, and yet he could not bear to have it taken away. He would often turn over the spools, the worn and discolored bit of bees-wax, the thimble, the scissors; he would take up the little sack, and look at it almost with thoughts of hatred. If the baby had lived, he would have come to love her in spite of her having cost her mother's life; but now he felt that Molly had gone childless out of the world, he was left childless in it; this miserable, frustrated, useless life, that was never a life at all, had separated him from Molly,—it was bitter. One day he felt in one of the silk pockets of the basket a rustling of paper; clumsily, and with difficulty, he thrust his big fingers deep down into the little receptacle, and drew out a crumpled bit of newspaper. It had been folded and refolded so many times that the creases were worn almost through, He opened it and read the following lines:—
"THE WIFE'S REVERIE."
O Heart of mine, is our estate,—
Our sweet estate of joy,—assured?
It came so slow, it came so late,
Bought by such bitter pains endured;
Dare we forget those sorrows sore,
And think that they will come no more?
With tearful eyes I scan my face,
And doubt how he can find it fair;
Wistful, I watch each charm and grace
I see that other women wear;
Of all the secrets of love's lore,
I know but one to love him more!
I see each day, he grows more wise,
His life is broader far than mine;
I must be lacking in his eyes,
In many things where others shine.
O Heart! can we this loss restore
To him, by simply loving more?
I often see upon his brow,
A look half tender and half stern;
His thoughts are far away, I know;
To fathom them, I vainly yearn;
But nought is ours which went before;
O Heart! we can but love him more!
I sometimes think that he had loved
An older, deeper love, apart
From this which later, feebler, moved
His soul to mine. O Heart! O Heart!
What can we do? This hurteth sore.
Nothing, my Heart, but love him more!
Tears filled John's eyes: "Oh, what could have made Molly keep that?" he said to himself. "Dear little girl! I never really loved anybody in this whole world, but her, and I never will."
The lines haunted him for days. He put the paper into the upper drawer where he kept his collars and neckties. He did not like to leave it in the basket, lest, some day, it might be read by some one else. Every morning, when he was dressing, he took it out and read it again, and it always brought the tears to his eyes. After awhile, he read it less often; and after another while, it was gradually pushed farther and farther back in the drawer till, it being out of sight he forgot it; and at last, some day, it might have been a year, it might have been two or three,—nobody will ever know,—the little worn wisp of paper over which sweet Molly Bassett had, in spite of all her quiet happiness, shed some tears, slipped through a wide crack at the back of the drawer, and fell down into the drawer beneath,—the drawer which held Molly's clothes, fragrant with the undying lavender. Here the verses lay for years, forgotten, and undisturbed,—forgotten,—for John Bassett had become a grave, silent, steady-working, contented farmer;—undisturbed,—for the key of the drawer lay where Molly had laid it, in the till of the chest, and John never saw it without thinking of her, and wondering uneasily what would be done with those garments when he should die. The verses he had forgotten all about. But it was not because he had forgotten Molly that he had forgotten the verses; neither was it because he had forgotten Molly, that when he was, in the Deerway vernacular, "just turned forty," he one day rode over to Middleburg Crossing and asked the widow Thatcher to marry him. He was lonely; he was uncomfortable; he had borne with the eye-service, the short-comings, the ill-nature of hired women in his house as long as he could; and just as the Deerway people had fairly settled down into a belief that "nothing under heaven would induce John Bassett to marry again," that "there was a man who was really true, from first to last, to his first love," they were electrified one fine morning, by finding posted up on the brick meeting-house walls, on the ominous black-board containing the announcement of intended marriages, the names of John Bassett and Mrs. Susan Thatcher.
Mrs. Susan Thatcher was the most notable housekeeper in Wenshire County. She was something of a farmer, too, and had "done very well for a woman," everybody said, with 'Siah's farm since his death. She made the best butter and cheese in the region; dried more apples, and pickled more pickles,—sweet, sour, and "mixed,"—than any two other women. Her bread always took the premium at the County Fair; and as for her "drawn-in rugs," they were the wonder and he admiration of everybody. She was a spinner, too, and stoutly discountenanced the growing disfavor into which that ancient and picturesque art was fast falling. "You can always spin at the odd times when you would n't do anything else," she said, and by chests full of home-made linens and woolens, she made good her words. With all this notable industry and skill, she was also warm hearted and cheery; had a pleasant word for everybody, and was a master hand at "bees" of all sorts, especially at "quiltings."
She was generous, too, and gave away her turkeys at Thanksgiving, and her chickens in July, with a cordial liberality not common in the country. She was generous, moreover, with what costs more than food or money, sympathy and help; she was confided in and leaned on by everybody; and even if her words sometimes seemed a little brusque or hard, it always turned out that, in their sense and substance, they were right, for Susan Thatcher was the incarnation of common sense.
As soon as Deerway recovered from its first shock of surprise at the announcement of John Bassett's intended marriage, the town was unanimous in its approval.
"The very best thing he could have done," they said; I wonder nobody 's thought of it before."
"He could n't have found a woman in all the country who 'd have gone right on to that farm, an worked everything 's Susan Thatcher will."
This was quite as clear to John Bassett as it was to any of his neighbors and it was with a great sense of assured satisfaction and calm contentment that he took his second wife home and installed her in his house. He felt for her a great esteem and an honest liking, and the sort of calm affectionate regard, which was all he had to offer her in the way of love, was all that Mrs. Susan Thatcher would have known what to do with. More would have embarrassed and annoyed her for she was, as we have said, the incarnation of common sense.
When in the course of her setting to rights all things in the house, she came upon the locked drawer in John's bureau, she said to herself:—
"Here 's some of Molly Wilder's things, I expect. I guess I 'd better let 'em alone. If he wants me to have 'em, he 'll say so when he gets ready;" and she asked no question about the drawer.
The little work-basket, with all its contents, now so yellowed and dusty with age,—for it was eight years since Molly died,—John had burned the night before he married Susan.
"I don't believe little Molly would like to have Susan have that," he thought, "and I don't think I want her to neither," he added, with a deep sigh and a yearning recollection of Molly's sweet face, as he watched the crisp straw crackle and the fine fiery lines of the threads quiver and turn from red to gray. Then he recollected the locked drawer and said to himself:—
"Some day I 'll give Susan the key to that drawer. I suppose the things might as well be used first as last."
When John gave his wife the key, and told her what the drawer held, she said in her clear, resolute, kindly tone:—
"Well, just as you like, John. Of course, I have n't any feeling one way or another about it; but there 's so many folks in need of clothes, it seems a pity to let anything be lying by idle."
As soon as John had gone out to his work, Susan went up-stairs to open the drawer. It must be confessed she had her own curiosity to look into it especially as John had said to her, a little huskily:
"I have n't ever opened the drawer. It 's just as Molly put the things in before she was sick."
"Poor little thing!" thought Susan, as she turned the key and slowly drew out the drawer; "it was real hard for her, but I can't say I 'm sorry exactly," and Susan's eyes took on a softer light. She had found out that she loved John Bassett better than she had ever loved Josiah Thatcher. She shook out the folds of the two silk gowns,—one black and one of a pale gray.
"I don't know as there 's any reason why I should n't use this black," she thought, rolling a bit of it between her thumb and finger, and mentally estimating that it must have cost at least ten-and-sixpence a yard.
"Black silk 's black silk, whoever 's worn it; nobody could tell one from another, and I might have the gray one dyed for a petticoat; no, I 'll give that to Molly's cousin, Sarah Beman; she never has anything pretty, poor soul! John 'u'd never see it on her, or he would n't know it if he did; she 'd make it up with red, most likely."
And so good Susan Bassett went on through the simple wardrobe, apportioning it in her own mind as seemed best, and quietly saying to herself at last:—
"I guess I 'd better not say anything to John about it; he 'll know I 've disposed of 'em somehow, and I reckon he 'd rather not know where they went. It 's only natural he should have some feeling about the things; 'taint so very long yet."
As she took out the last article from the drawer, she saw far back in the right-hand corner a small folded paper. She took it out, opened it, and seeing that it was poetry, was just about to threw it on the floor (Susan never read poetry); but suddenly recollecting the circumstances under which this drawer had been closed, she felt a curiosity to see what the verses were which had been put away so carefully with Molly's best clothes.
If "The Wife's Reverie" had been written in Sanscrit, it would have been but little more removed from Susan's comprehension. She read it slowly with a look of increasing contempt on her face.
"Pshaw!" she exclaimed, as she finished the fast line. "If that is n't just like Molly Wilder; she always was a silly little thing," and Susan crumpled up the paper, and tossed it on the bed. Then she put back the clothes, locked the drawer, and put the key in her pocket. The morning was slipping away fast, and she was in a hurry to be about her work. She had been cutting out some unbleached cotton shirts for John the day before, and as she left the room, she noticed a few of the yellow threads and bits of cloth on the floor; she stopped and picked them up; then she took "The Wife's Reverie" from the bed, and rolling it and the rags together in a tight ball, hurried down-stairs to oversee the churning. At the foot of the stairs, behind the door which opened into the kitchen, hung a big rag-bag made of bed-tick. It was so full that the mouth bulged open.
"Dear me," thought Susan, "I do wish that peddler 'd come round. The bag 's running over full;" and as she impatiently crammed in her little ball of ravelings and paper, and her eye fell again on a line of "The Wife's Reverie," she said to herself complacently:—
"It 's the queerest thing, when a man marries again, how sure he is to pick out such a different kind of a woman from his first wife. I suppose they find out what they really do want."