The Doll Lady
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Minnie, sitting in the arbor, walled in and roofed over by closely set grape-leaves through which only a dim green light of day filtered, taking dainty stitches on the hem of a muslin gown for herself, a charming muslin pattern with delicate little flowers scattered as on a summer field, heard every word. She could not help it. She could not make her presence known without causing a most unpleasant shock of embarrassment both to herself and others. She had not had time to escape, because the remark came like an explosive, and she did not even get a whiff of the cigar smoke until afterward.
“Marry Minnie!” proclaimed the masculine voice. “Marry Minnie, Wilbur! Why don't you propose that I marry a doll and be done with it?”
In reply came a voice which Minnie loathed. It was the voice of a man, but it had an almost feminine softness of tone. “My dear fellow,” said that voice, “Minnie is not such a doll as you think.”
“Looks like one, acts like one,” returned the other voice, which was manly, although full of unproven authority. That was the voice of the Rev. Edward Yale, the young minister who boarded with Minnie's widowed mother and her widowed sister, Mrs. Emma Prior; not in any sense with Minnie. Minnie never had any voice in household arrangements. She was much younger than her sister Emma, and she had been the child of her mother's more than middle age. She had been a petted darling of her old father, who had died the year before, and for whom she was just leaving off mourning. She was always the petted darling of her mother and sister, but being a petted darling sometimes involves a slight underestimation, even unconscious contempt. Petting implies superiority; being petted may imply inferiority, although a beloved and graceful inferiority.
Minnie continued to listen. She stopped sewing. “She is not at all,” said the unpleasant voice, which belonged to Wilbur Bates. She and Wilbur had been schoolmates, and he had always, she supposed, been in love with her, and she had certainly never been in love with him, had been more and more repelled as they grew older. Now his defense of her was hateful as his expressions of distaste could never have been. She knew just the expression of Wilbur's face as he spoke—his long, blond face, with its thin, much-curved mouth and his narrowing blue eyes. “Minnie has a great deal of character,” said Wilbur. “I have known her all my life, and I am sure of it.”
“It is well concealed, then,” said Edward Yale. He certainly spoke as no gentleman should have spoken regarding a woman who, whatever her faults of character, had always treated him well.
“All strong character is apt to be well concealed,” replied Wilbur Bates. The two had stopped just beside Minnie's arbor, and were seated, smoking, on the stone wall which separated the garden from the adjoining estate.
“I rather take issue with you regarding that,” said Edward Yale.
“I say, I am sure.”
Edward made no reply. A stronger whiff of cigar smoke penetrated the arbor.
“I have never,” continued Edward Yale in a crescendo of authority, “known a really strong character which was not indicated in some way by the face.”
“You can never be quite sure what soft pink curves and dimples conceal,” replied Wilbur.
Now Edward Yale laughed a pleasant, arrogant, boyish laugh. “In dolls they usually conceal sawdust,” said he.
Minnie turned pale. That was too much. It was even unchristian for a minister of the gospel to assume that any human being was stuffed with sawdust. She sat still, almost rigid. The young minister spoke of something else, but Wilbur persistently brought the conversation back to herself. Then she knew that Wilbur knew she was within hearing and compelled to listen to his praises and the other man's disdain.
Minnie did not take another stitch. Her heart beat like a trapped thing, but her wrath served as a stimulus. Her soft, curved cheeks bloomed again. Minnie had a temper which sustained her and which, although unholy, was a resource.
She sat perfectly still. She reasoned that the two men could not talk forever, sitting there on the stone wall. She knew that Mr. Yale could not have finished his sermon, although it was Saturday afternoon. He had procrastinating habits. As for Wilbur, who was a man of leisure and wealth, he could remain if he chose, but she was sure that he would leave when Mr. Yale did. He would not choose that Minnie should know that he had been conducting this discussion for her benefit.
At last Edward Yale said, rising, “This will not finish my to-morrow's sermon,” and Wilbur, also rising, returned: “Well, Yale, you had better think over what I have said. There is nothing like a wife and a settled home for a man of your profession. Then you can make sure that all the unmarried females of your flock are intent upon spiritual benefits when they listen to your discourses.”
“The whole idea is a shame,” said the other, hotly, and Minnie, in spite of her anger, liked him for the rejoinder.
She waited until there had been ample time for the minister to gain his study and until she had heard the trot, trot of Wilbur's horse recede entirely; Wilbur never drove, but rode a fine, high-headed animal of price and blood. Then she folded her work with a final air and put her sewing utensils in her little silk bag and returned to the house by a path which was invisible from the study.
Minnie's father had been a minister, and young Yale used the old study. When Minnie entered the house, her sister, Emma Prior, was writing a letter on an old-fashioned writing-desk, and her mother was peacefully reading a book from the village library. It was, Minnie considered, a stupid book, full of sweet platitudes, but her mother, who was somewhat of a sweet platitude herself, enjoyed such. Mrs. Abbot was always spoken of as a dear old lady, and she looked worthy of her reputation as she smiled serenely at Minnie. “It is a fine day, isn't it?” said she.
“Very fine, mother,” replied Minnie.
Emma, who had a long, nervous, but rather pretty face, glanced up from her letter. It was a duty letter written twice every year to a cousin out in Ohio whom she had never seen. Emma had many small duties with which she filled in the chinks of the larger ones. She was a very busy woman, and she was writing a most conscientious letter, with lines beneath the paper, that she might avoid optimistic upward slants and pessimistic downward ones. There was a nice pen-wiper on the desk, a blotting-pad, and a small dictionary. “Will you please look at the kitchen clock and tell me the time, Minnie?” said she. “I think this clock is not quite right.”
Minnie disappeared. Emma's pen moved smoothly again, filling in the slight chink.
“It is ten minutes of five, sister,” replied Minnie, returning. Her mother smiled happily at something in her book.
“What is Maria doing?”
“She is sitting beside the window.”
“It is time to put the biscuits in the oven, and they must be ready, but she will not do it unless I tell her to,” said Emma, rising.
“I will tell her, dear,” said Minnie.
“You!” repeated Emma in a tone of loving contempt, as if she were addressing a pet animal. “You know Maria would not put the biscuits in for you, dear.”
“I could put them in myself,” replied Minnie, with a slight note of rebellion in her voice which caused both her mother and sister to stare at her. “You!” said Emma again. Mrs. Abbot laughed pleasantly and turned her eyes again upon her book. Emma wiped her pen carefully upon the inside of the pen-wiper and left the room. Minnie also left by another door and ran up-stairs.
She went into her own room and closed the door. Then she sat down in a little rocking-chair which had survived her childhood, leaned her elbows on the open window-sill, and stared out into the green, overlapping spread of a cherry-tree. This was a favorite occupation of hers, or, rather, a favorite lack of occupation, for she was not only idle as to her body, but not consciously mentally active. She sat brooding over nothing as far as she knew, but always afterward came action. As she sat there the girl belied the young minister's description of her. She did not look in the least like a doll, in spite of the rounded figure in the little rocking-chair and the dimpled face resting in a cup of dimpled hands. Her eyes, staring into the glossy bosses of the cherry-tree, looked black instead of blue, and were set in reflective and reminiscent hollows. Her curved mouth was a straight line. She saw and did not see the cherry branches stirred now and then by a seeking robin, although the cherries were long since gone. She heard and did not hear her sister Emma and Maria moving about below preparing the evening meal to the accompaniment of tinkling china and silver.
Presently she rose and went to the glass which surmounted her old-fashioned mahogany bureau and looked at herself. Her look was severe. She told herself, angrily, that there was no semblance of a doll in that face. Then she tipped the glass and surveyed her figure, and she felt cold. Minnie's lack of height had always been a sore affliction to her. She was much below the average height, and her little body was absolutely void of angularity. If she bent her elbows even, one got the curve of a crescent moon instead of a triangle between waist and hips. Her whole form was undoubtedly on the plan of a doll's, and no corset could remedy that—Minnie had secretly tried it. Now she bent her whole energy to the work of discovering other means. She wore a white, embroidered blouse, with her black skirt belted with black ribbon with a dull jet buckle. Minnie recognized that her costume decreased her height. Then came action. There was a scant half-hour before supper. She was thankful that biscuits were to be baked, and the fire must have got low, for she could smell smoke from the kitchen chimney.
Minnie owned one dress which with a slight alteration would meet her new taste, but that was her very best. She could not wear that. She got an old black silk blouse out of her little dimity-covered shirt-waist box, snipped the sleeves to the elbow, cut out the collar, sewed with long stitches patches made from the snipped sleeves over worn places. Then she got out of her top bureau drawer a long, black veil, cut it in two, sewed the two lengths together, leaving holes for the arms, hollowed the neck, basted a bit of flat, black trimming around that, slipped it over her head, and began pinning skilfully with small black mourning-pins. The girl displayed, suddenly awakened, the first of all feminine talents, the talent of dress impelled to life by sheer vanity of sex. She pinned in marvelous fashion those soft folds of veiling. She draped her arms, she draped her waist, and girded herself with a black silk cord. The result was rather surprising. She had, apparently, gained in height. What were, in fact, her own curves seemed the flutter and fluff of the veil. She also looked much older. She pulled her crisply curling yellow hair straight back from the forehead in the center and fastened it securely. The result was a sweetly curved triangle of strength and womanliness.
Then she heard her sister call, and went down-stairs to the supper-table. Edward Yale stood there politely waiting until all the ladies were seated before he took his own chair. Minnie sat down. Her sister regarded her in a puzzled fashion. She resolved that she would ask her after supper what she was wearing. Meantime she poured the tea from the ancient silver pot and dispensed cream and sugar from its associates. Mrs. Abbot sat serenely opposite the minister, ate genteelly, and now and then made one of her obvious remarks. She said of the clear primrose-yellow sunset visible from the dining-room windows, “It is indeed a beautiful sunset.” She said of a breath of roses which came in from the open, “The roses are very sweet.” She said of a gust of warm air, “It is warmer.” She said, hearing the whining snarl of a mosquito in the room, “There is a mosquito.”
Everybody nodded assent or spoke assentingly to these remarks. Mrs. Abbot had never in her whole life received even a covert snub. She did not know the meaning of one, and yet she had gently wearied everybody with whom she had had to do. Mrs. Abbot did not notice Minnie's altered appearance. When she had once seen a person, she had seen her forever. Minnie could never make any new impression upon the placid imperturbability of Mrs. Abbot's mind. As for the minister, Minnie, watching furtively, suspected that he did not see her at all. Then her wrath grew, the righteous wrath of a really strong nature belittled and driven into petty ways to assert itself.
Because the minister did not look at her, Minnie stayed away from the preparatory lecture in the church vestry that evening. The next Sunday was that of the administering of the communion, and there was always a preparatory lecture. Directly after supper Edward Yale hurried to his study. Minnie knew that he was horribly pressed for time with regard to his sermon. “He had better have been writing that than talking about me to Wilbur Bates,” she thought, indignantly, sitting in her room in the little rocking-chair as she had sat before.
As she sat there the soft, summer twilight fell like a veil. The fragrance of the garden intensified by the dew drifted against her face. She heard the katydids and a whippoorwill singing to the accompaniment of a little river whose silvery rush she could just hear. Then came the rather discordant peal of the church-bell, and out of the yard passed three figures in black—her mother, her sister, and the minister. Then, scurrying to be in time, came another figure around the house corner, that of Maria, the servant-girl, also a church member in good and regular standing and intent upon being prepared for the solemn rite of the morrow.
Minnie realized that she was alone in the house, and felt a little thrill of dismay. She did not like being alone in the house, nor alone anywhere. After a while she could not endure the vacant house longer, and went down-stairs and out in the front yard. She stood in the gravel walk between the rows of shrubs, and started at a long light flung across them. The minister had left the study lamp burning.
Minnie went into the house to extinguish the lamp. When she entered the small, square room, lined with books, she shivered before a bitter-sweet memory. She had spent many hours with her old father in this room, and she resented its being occupied by another. Her father had never underrated her. He had a knowledge that she had an imbibing intelligence. In this very room he had taught her Latin and a smattering of Hebrew. Minnie pulled down the curtains; then she saw the minister's sermon on the table, one sheet in the shiny black typewriter. Edward Yale composed sermons on the typewriter, and some people considered it sacrilegious.
Minnie eyed the typewriter. It was a very innocent curiosity which impelled her, in spite of her wrath against the minister; an innocent curiosity and also an unconfessed anxiety lest the sermon should not be finished in time.
Minnie examined the sermon. That is, she looked at the number of the page on the typewriter. She saw at once that it was not more than half written. Minnie puckered her mouth, but she did not whistle. She could not. She could only manage that premonitory pucker. “Goodness! he will have to sit up half the night to finish it,” she thought.
She regarded the sermon, her chin dipped, intensifying her dimples; a peculiar tiny gleam like a bird's came into her eyes. The sermon was very neatly arranged. Edward Yale was an orderly man. The sheets of paper lay exactly placed, their edges meeting. Minnie could use the typewriter. She looked at the sheet thereon. It contained very little.
Minnie read: “We have now to remember carefully what has been before said, in order that the succeeding passages may be clearly understood. Sequence is a fundamental law of all human undertakings, as it may be of divine methods. It is ‘first the seed, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.’ The law of creation may well set the pace for our poor, little, futile efforts at performing our petty tasks. Therefore, I beg you, before I proceed, to consider well what has gone before.”
Minnie shook her head. That paragraph was not good. It was a mere hiatus. It was a begging for time. The church-bell had begun to ring, and the minister had played that off upon the machine simply with a view to so much space covered. He, however, would allow it to remain. Edward Yale had a trick of writing these hiatus paragraphs. It was due, no doubt, to his habit of procrastination and working under pressure. While his idea momentarily failed him he wrote like that, instead of stopping to consider, as many would have done. “What,” thought Minnie, “has come before?”
She took up the topmost sheet of neatly typewritten manuscript. She glanced over it, and the queer, bird-like gleam was more pronounced in her blue eyes. Here also haste was evident, although not in the neatness of the page nor the accuracy of the work. But the minister had left space enough for a very long paragraph before laying the sheet aside and inserting another in the typewriter. Minnie stood, her head on one side. Then she laughed—a rather uncanny laugh, taking into consideration the laughter. Minnie did not look capable of that sort of laugh. She glanced around quickly, then she removed the sheet of paper from the typewriter, took up the sheet preceding, with its blank space at the foot, inserted it carefully, and sat down and wrote. She did not hesitate. The machine ticked as rapidly as with the minister. The text of the sermon was, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” The last words of the paragraph which the minister had written upon that page were a repetition of the text.
Minnie was very clever. She also repeated the text, adding emphasis to emphasis and doing away with any immediate and violent transition which might have caused quick suspicion and alarm in the mind of the minister. Then she also repeated in a slightly different fashion an allusion which the minister had made earlier in the sermon to the double-faced shield and the dispute over the color, and the proving that each of the disputants was right.
“Let us not forget that double-faced shield,” typed Minnie, “the shield which has been one of the valuable object-lessons of humanity. Let us remember and understand that it is always possible for our wrong to be another's right, and be merciful and charitable, and humble our minds to a readiness of conviction as to our own mistakes. Who can even say, and be certain that he speaks the fundamental truth, that those gods of the heathen which were overthrown by the law and the prophets had not for their worshipers some meaning of good which we have never grasped? Are we fit judges even of Baal? Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Minnie, with her head on one side, considered. There was space for a line more, but she felt that, on the whole, she had written enough. She read it over. She did not see how the minister, once fairly launched upon her work by means of the deceptive mind slide of the text repetition, could avoid reading the whole. She did not know, but she could imagine the result. There were some very orthodox members in Edward Yale's church, even for this day and generation.
Minnie removed the sheet from the machine and inserted the other with its hiatus paragraph at the top. Then she stood trembling a little. She thought about undoing her work, copying over what Yale had written on the preceding page and omitting her emendation. She began to be frightened and conscience-stricken. Consequences began to multiply in her imagination.
Then she heard the scrape of a foot on the gravel walk outside, and she was possessed by a mad impulse of concealment. Aside from the matter of the sermon, she must not be caught in the minister's study. There had been plenty of talk already; she was such a beautiful girl and so much admired, and the minister was so young. It was fortunate that Minnie's brain worked rapidly. In one dart she was across the room and in the closet.
In the closet hung the minister's overcoats and hats, stood his umbrella. His two suit-cases were stacked neatly one on the other. Minnie was on the suit-cases and enveloped in the folds of the minister's winter overcoat before the front door opened. The bell had rung sharply twice first, and she had had plenty of time. She was beautifully concealed. She was thankful then for the minister's procrastinating habits, otherwise that coat would have been stored away in camphor and moth-balls by her careful sister. Yale had been intending to send it to a tailor for repairs, and had neglected to do so. Only that very morning Minnie had heard Emma remark to her mother, “That overcoat of Mr. Yale's will be eaten up by moths if he doesn't get it off before long, but I don't like to say anything.” “Moths were never in that closet in your father's time,” Mrs. Abbot had returned, giving Minnie the impression that the odor of sanctity might drive away moths.
Now Minnie got the odor of stale tobacco, which she loved, although the love puzzled her. It was rather well known that the minister smoked an occasional cigar out-of-doors, and many thought it unbefitting his profession. It was Wilbur Bates who, when he called on Yale, made a business of stripping the telltale bands of costliness from the minister's cigars and saying much about the cheapness of the brands which did not bear them. Yale was commonly credited with smoking two three-cent cigars per day, and, inasmuch as they would not buy two postage-stamps for the use of foreign missionaries, he was condoned. Minnie heard the talk among the women, and she knew that three-cent cigars had not the odor of the minister's, but she said nothing. As for the minister, he did not know of his reputation for cheap cigars, or an explanation from the pulpit might have ensued. Yale was nothing if not a hero of frankness. He only smoked out-of-doors, because he knew that the study of the former minister might be considered as desecrated if he smoked there. It involved much self-denial, and he often wondered if his sermons might not have been improved had he smoked while writing. He had been an inveterate smoker in college. Strangely enough, to-night for the very first time he had absently lit a cigar upon returning to his study after supper. He had almost immediately extinguished it, but Minnie had noticed the faint, fresh odor of tobacco in the room. That, however, was now lost in the stale odor with which the coat was permeated of the cigars which the young man had smoked.
When Minnie heard the front door being opened, a sudden pang of fear, aside from the mere fear of being found in the study, seized her. For the first time she thought of the possibility of a burglar. He might be in quest of this very coat, and, if so, what of her sheltered in its folds? Then she heard a snatch of song in a very good tenor, and knew it was Wilbur Bates. He was in the habit of first ringing the bell, and then, if nobody answered, walking in and entering the study. He and Yale were very intimate. Minnie was always puzzled by this intimacy, but it was largely an intellectual affair. Bates was a thoroughly educated, much-traveled man, and a rather subtle thinker. There was not another his equal in those respects in the town. Yale, therefore, had found him congenial, although neither man pretended to have any deep regard for the other. Bates's covert good-nature with regard to the belted cigars showed in reality some affection that the minister did not suspect. “Why, in the name of common sense, if I may ask, can you find any amusement in pulling those adornments off my cigars?” he had asked once.
“Hate them,” had been Bates's laconic reply. “Always pull them off on principle. Savor of snobbery—want to be looked upon as brother to the bootblack and all that sort of thing.”
“It strikes me I have seen a bootblack before now smoking a belted cigar,” Yale had returned, with a puzzled look.
“Then that particular bootblack should have been tempted to pick up a bomb,” replied Bates. “The hauteur of the poor is more abominable than that of the rich, for it is not even the real thing. It is veneered, gilded.” Then he had continued stripping the cigars and replacing them carefully in their box.
Now as Minnie stood concealed in the coat, in a measure relieved, because it was hardly rational that Bates would investigate the minister's closet, he entered the study still singing. The words of the song from some opera were in Italian and Minnie could not understand them. What she did understand was, she would be a prisoner in the coat while the man remained, and he might easily wait until the meeting was over, and he might easily stay for a long while afterward. It would not make the slightest difference to him that he was delaying a sermon. Bates was absolutely without consideration for his friends' pursuits. He was selfish to the core, although he had, when it did not interfere with his own pleasure, a good-natured readiness to serve them.
Minnie in the closet heard Wilbur aimlessly strolling about the room in a way he had before sitting down. He was a restless man, although he spoke slowly and gave an impression of calmness. Minnie knew him to be idly scrutinizing the books on the walls. She knew with a guilty conviction that, much as she disliked him, she was entirely safe, as far as he was concerned, from the discovery of her tampering with the sermon. She knew Wilbur Bates would no more even glance at a written line of his friend's study table than he would murder him. She was not sure that, under strong provocation, he would not prefer the murder to the subtler offense. After a while Wilbur sat down and smoked. Now and then he removed his cigar and went on with his Italian song.
Minnie was having a rather dreadful experience. For one thing, it was very warm in the closet in the folds of that heavy winter coat. It was almost smothering. Minnie thought of Ginevra and her smothered demise in the chest, although the cases were not at all parallel, except that she also might be found smothered. Then, irrelevantly, Minnie thought, as she had done many times before, with what irony she had been named Minnie. If she had been named Ginevra, even her dimples might have assumed importance, and the minister might not have spoken so cruelly as he had done that afternoon. Minnie in itself was a doll-name. That in combination with her appearance was fatal. If she had been named Margaret, for instance, she felt that she might have in time tiptoed up to the level of her name, but Minnie dragged her down. However, now it made little difference. She was having a horrible time, and her conscience began to torment her. She would have given—what would she not have given?—to undo what she had done! If only Wilbur Bates had not come, she knew very well that by now that page of the sermon would have been copied on the type-machine, her interpolated words omitted, and the former page destroyed. She was horribly sorry. She knew what would probably happen. The poor minister, led on so artfully by deluding words, could no more help reading what she had written than he could have helped stumbling into a pit. She had dug a pit for him, and she loved his very old coat, his coat reeking with stale tobacco.
She had some grievance. The minister had fallen from a high place in her faith when he had said those things about her. She did not mind the marrying part. Minnie colored with a red of shame besides the red of heat. He had never spoken to her about marrying, and Minnie was one of the maids who deem it a sacrilege done themselves to ponder upon such a matter with regard to any particular man before he has offered himself. It was not that. But he had spoken disparagingly of her; he had called her a doll with a doll character, and that he had no right to do. For the minister had, after all, not been insensible to Minnie's wonderfully perfect beauty and her charm, and he had looked with eyes which betrayed him, and he had said things which were naught in themselves, but his tones had been much, and he had pretended to be a good friend of hers, and this was traitorous to friendship. Besides, he had done her an indignity. He had refused in marriage to another man her whom he had not asked. He had assumed that she would be his for the asking. Even now resentment raged in her heart, but above it arose her sorrow and regret that she had done what she had done. Nothing could ever excuse that. And there sat Wilbur Bates. She made up her mind to remain just where she was until the minister returned, until Wilbur left, until the minister finished his sermon and retired for the night. Then she would steal out, and with soft taps at the machine she would undo the evil she had done.
However, the girl's fright made her illogical. She did not reckon the obvious results of such a course. She stood there, sweltering with heat, not daring to move, but feeling safe from discovery, when she heard Wilbur rise and approach the closet. Her mind, always a very quick one, leaped to his purpose. The minister kept his cigars in the closet. Wilbur was coming for them in order to strip them of their labels.
Wilbur opened the closet door. Minnie held her breath. He fumbled. His fumbling hands actually touched her feet, but, strangely enough, he did not apparently realize it. He was intent upon cigar-boxes and not looking for a girl's feet, and Wilbur Bates's mind moved in straight lines when he had any definite end in view. He had thought the cigar boxes might be where the suit-cases were. When he touched Minnie's feet he simply remarked, “Damn!” Then he lit a match and explored the closet shelf at its farthest end, where the boxes were neatly piled. Wilbur took them down and went out, leaving the lighted match on the floor. Minnie peered out of the coat and watched that match. She was obliged to. It was close to an inflammable duck suit of the minister's, and it was not her policy to be burned alive.
Wilbur had left the closet door open. Minnie reflected that men always left doors open, always threw lighted matches on floors. She reflected that women were superior, then that she loved the minister, though not in the way to induce her to marry him, partly because he had led her to love him in ancient ways and partly because he had injured her and she had injured him. The match went out. Minnie softly drew her eyes under the dark, tobacco-scented smother of the coat. Her hearing seemed preternatural. She could hear Wilbur stripping the gay little bands from the cigars and replacing them in the boxes. She wondered if he would finish before the minister returned and himself replace the boxes in the closet, or if it would fall to the minister's lot. She hoped Wilbur would replace them. He had failed to discover her once and might fail again, but Mr. Yale might be keener.
The time went on. Minnie heard the clock on the study shelf tick. It struck the half-hour, then, after what seemed ages, the hour. Then Minnie waited for the return of the minister, her mother, her sister, and also Maria. The church was near. They would come soon. Wilbur had not finished his work. The agony of waiting for one thing would soon be over, at all events. She would hear the front door flung open, the voices, the footsteps, then Edward Yale would enter the study and—she thought unreasoningly in a sudden panic—might rush at once to the closet and discover her. She did not stop to consider how very unlikely it was that he should be seized with a desire to inspect his winter coat upon this soft June night. Everything seemed horribly possible.
The front door opened; she heard the steps, the voices. Then Edward Yale entered the study.
“Hullo, Yale!” remarked Wilbur Bates.
“Good-evening, Bates,” returned the minister, in a voice whose dismay he endeavored vainly to conceal. The other man laughed easily with a queer mixture of malice and good-nature. Wilbur Bates was a tormentor from the cradle. Teasing was to him the condiment, the essential one, of all life.
“I call that a pretty welcome,” said he, “a mighty cordial welcome for a man who comes in and spends his precious time doing what might be called fancy work for a friend.”
“Oh, gammon!” replied the minister. “I am always glad to see you, but you know what the trouble is.”
“Your confounded sermon,” said Bates, coolly.
“Yes, just that. Saturday night and not half done.”
“Read an old one.”
“That I will not do.”
“You flatter yourself that a man or a woman in all your congregation would remember, O thou puffed up one!”
“I flatter myself with nothing. I dare say you are right and nobody would recall a word of a sermon I preached six months ago. I'm not sure that I could myself, but I am here to write new sermons, not palm off old ones.”
“Lord, what an inconvenience it must be!” said Bates, going on with his work.
“What is an inconvenience?”
“A conscience. Why don't you dump it, as Christian did his in the Pilgrim's Progress?”
“It was not his conscience, but his sins, which made his heavy burden,” said the minister, a trifle didactically.
“Rot! The sins would not have weighed a feather if it had not been for the conscience. When he dumped the sins, he dumped the conscience and walked off, like the cock of the walk, drums beating and plumes flying. Did you never learn that, man? That was the conscience that Christian was bent double under, not the sins.”
“I can't argue, Bates. I must finish my sermon.”
“Come on, then.” Bates got up and took another chair, leaving the one before the type-machine vacant. “Sit thyself and play off the law and the gospel.”
Then Minnie heard the tick of the machine, and she could picture to herself the poor minister, with a worried face, striving to write a sermon under such difficulties. Wilbur Bates had the decency to refrain from his humming song while Yale continued with his work. Neither of the men spoke. Minnie was suffering tortures from standing so long in one position. She began to fear lest overwrought muscles and nerves should give way and she go down with a crash. After a while Bates finished his work and moved upon the closet with his cigar-boxes. Minnie held her breath while he stacked the boxes on the shelf and retired.
“Whew!” he exclaimed, with a sniff.
“What is the matter?” asked the minister, absently.
“What a dandy you are, Yale!”
“Don't know what you mean.”
“You hang little dinky bags of violet sachet in your closet, I'll swear you do.”
“You do. I am going to close the door.”
When the door was closed Minnie sank down in a little heap of weak collapse upon the suit-cases.
“Mice in your closet, too,” she heard Wilbur state.
“Very likely. Don't care if there are. My best clothes are up-stairs,” returned the minister, rather irascibly. Bates eyed him with malicious enjoyment, and yet his glance was kindly. Minnie, huddled upon the suit-cases, knowing that if the door were opened suddenly she would certainly be discovered, waited.
Then that which ordinary logic should have taught her happened. There was an outcry, a dismayed outcry in the house, and the study door was flung open after a sharp knock. Of course, Minnie had been missed, by her mother and sister and Maria, and it was after ten o'clock at night. Minnie heard the sharp, staccato notes of alarm. She heard the minister and Wilbur Bates respond. She heard questions, answers, wild surmises. This surpassed all which she had imagined. There was no way out of the difficulty. She had not thought of her mother and sister and Maria, and the inevitability of their missing her.
She heard Emma's sharp explanatory words: “Came very near not knowing that she was gone. I happened to hear distant thunder—and Minnie is so apt to have all her windows wide open—and she has new curtains—and I thought they would be ruined, so I hurried into her room and—”
“The bed had not been slept in,” stated Maria.
“There was no one at all there,” came in her mother's mild tones of wonder, as if she had been surprised at not finding a large crowd.
Minnie's head swam. For one second she thought desperately of giving up this miserable ship, of disclosing herself. Then the thought of the utter impossibility of such a course kept her huddled stiff and still.
“We will go and search the house and grounds and rouse the village if necessary,” rang out suddenly in the minister's voice, and Minnie heard a note of anxiety in it. Then there was a rush of feet and silence except for vague, distant calls. Minnie could think of nothing better than to slip out of the closet and fly up-stairs. When they should find her at last she did not know whether she would be obliged to lie or not. She never had lied, but the possibility of the necessity of such a course occurred to her.
She waited until she could not hear a sound, then she slid stiffly down from the suit-cases, opened the closet door softly, and emerged, and there stood Wilbur Bates. He had just re-entered the room and had closed the door behind him. He turned as white as she when he saw her. “So I was not mistaken,” he said, in a hoarse whisper. Minnie regarded him in a sort of fascinated way. Her little, beautiful face was woefully scared and piteous, so scared and piteous that it was almost terrible to behold. The panic-stricken soul completely dominated all the soft flush of rose and gold and blue, the sweet curves and dimples. The girl stood naked as to her inner self before the man who loved her in his own way. He moved toward her and patted her shrinking shoulder. “Don't be frightened,” he whispered, “I'll find a way out.”
Then the quick compassion faded from his face, which became menacing and stern. “What,” he demanded, in such a loud voice that Minnie glanced apprehensively at the windows—“what were you doing in that closet, hiding in Edward Yale's closet?—you!” There was infamous suspicion and horror in his look and voice. Minnie told. She kept nothing back. She repeated what she had interpolated in the sermon, and Wilbur took up the page and read it with a grin. “You know I overheard this afternoon,” said Minnie.
“What a girl you are!” said Wilbur. He bent with silent laughter. “Lord,” said he, “that poor fellow will be certain to read it; he will think it witchcraft, and the congregation will think it heresy.”
“No, he will not read it,” said Minnie.
“What do you mean?”
“I shall tell him.”
Wilbur took her by the shoulders. “Do you realize what he will think of you?”
Minnie nodded. Her blue eyes looked black, her face was so pale.
“You know, of course, that he is head over ears in love with you.” Minnie gasped. “Didn't you know it? Well, I will tell you, because what you have done proves conclusively that you have no love for him.”
“But he said—”
Wilbur laughed. “That was nothing. I led him on. I was profaning his holy of holies, and he threw all his old boots in front of it to stop me. You can think yourself lucky that he said nothing worse. You women don't understand a man like Yale. Neither do I, entirely, for that matter. But I wanted him to say things which you would hear and which would not be flattering, and I had my way. I am, I presume,” stated Wilbur, with a queer, critical air, as if he stood before some spiritual looking-glass, “not altogether what poets term the soul of honor. I will grant that I do think Yale has been in some doubt about the expediency of marrying you; whether you are not too much of a beauty and a petted darling to make what is popularly called ‘a suitable minister's wife.’ Yale has an enormous appreciation of the demands of his profession. However, he is in love with you and—” Wilbur started. “You, too!” he cried.
“I am in love with nobody,” stated Minnie. But she was too late to conceal the flash of heavenly joy at the revelation of love.
Wilbur was silent for a moment. His curved lips were white. When he spoke it was very slowly, as if he had to make an effort not to stammer. “You know perfectly well,” said he, “that, whatever his sentiments have been, they would undergo a change the minute he knew of this. You know that—when he knows—”
“Well, it is like this, then: if he knows, he will put you out of his mind and heart. If he does not know and marries you, such a secret would be like a deadly poison between husband and wife, especially when the husband was Yale and the wife you.”
Minnie nodded. She tried to moisten her lips.
“In any light, everything is over, then,” said Wilbur. “Here is my proposition: You do not tell Yale, and I will not. Nobody will ever know. If he does read what you wrote” (Wilbur grinned)—“I know what people are—it will go in one ear and out of the other. He may puzzle over it awhile, but it will amount to nothing. You keep quiet, and I will. I have a plan to shield you. There is not much time. And—you must promise not to definitely refuse me for two years. I know you don't love me, but the years are alchemists. Promise, Minnie, quick! I hear them coming.”
Minnie heard, too. A horrible panic seized her. To be found here with Wilbur Bates! To have him tell the truth! And how many might come? There might be more than her mother and sister, Maria and the minister. She looked helplessly at Wilbur. He caught her arm, forced her out of the room into the hall to the stairs. “Run for your life,” he whispered. “Go into your room and lie down. Leave the door open and you can hear what I tell them. Then you can close it. Nobody will disturb you.”
Minnie obeyed. She fled up the stairs and into her room and flung herself on her bed, where she lay panting. She heard Wilbur's voice as through running water.
Wilbur had invention. It was a clever tale which he told. It would require, later on, certain precautions to establish it upon a lasting basis, but it was clever. “She is in her own room,” said Wilbur, finally. “She seemed quiet. I would advise nobody, not even her mother, to disturb her to-night. I have never seen any human being in such a panic of terror.” Wilbur had been telling a tale of Minnie coming home from the house of one of her girl friends down a lonesome side street, of a following man, of a détour, a mad scamper to the shelter of some thick undergrowth until she encountered Wilbur. “She seemed quiet at last,” Wilbur went on. “When we passed my house I made her stop, and my housekeeper gave her a glass of port and a quieting powder which she herself takes for insomnia. She will sleep if not disturbed.”
Minnie rose and closed her door softly. Then the house became very still. After a few minutes, however, her door was opened by degrees and a head thrust in. “She is there,” proclaimed Maria quite audibly, evidently to Minnie's mother and sister. There were warning hushes, and the door was closed again.
Minnie lay waiting. She had no doubt whatever of what she was to do. She had not the shadow of a doubt. She was not going to remain silent with regard to what she had done. She was going to destroy not only love, but the merest respect for herself in Edward Yale's heart. She thought with hot scorn of Wilbur Bates guarding her secret and waiting for her possible yielding to his suit. She was going to tell the truth. There was absolutely no struggle whatever in her mind, which was fixed in its purpose. She only waited until she was sure that her mother, sister, and Maria were in their rooms. She knew that the poor minister would have to remain in his study writing his sadly interrupted sermon.
Finally she rose and stole down-stairs. She dared not knock at the study door, and was relieved to find it slightly ajar, with a long glimmer of light marking its length. She pushed the door gently open. The minister did not hear her. He sat with his side face to her, and he looked very young, very tired and disheartened. The minister was young, and he had a boyish air which caused him to seem younger than he was. Minnie entered and closed the door softly behind her. Then he saw her.
He started up, looking fairly frightened, and tried to speak, but Minnie interrupted him. She told in a low, mechanical voice, as if she were repeating a lesson, her whole pitiful, absurd little story, but she did omit her eavesdropping in the arbor. That involved too much. She simply said, “You had vexed me about something, and I took that awful way to get even.”
To her astonishment, the young man looked relieved. “Goodness!” he exclaimed, like the veriest boy. “You do take a load off my mind. I have been reading that sentence over, and I had an uncle who was crazy, and I wondered if anything were going wrong with me.”
Minnie stared. The tears welled up in her blue eyes. She felt as if she had brought her feet down with a horrible jolt upon nothing at all. “I am sorry,” she almost sobbed.
Edward Yale looked at her: little, dimpled, feminine thing, weak and strong, harmonies and discords, altogether darling and the beloved of his soul. Then he took her in his arms. “I nearly went mad when I thought you were lost, that something dreadful had happened to you,” he said.
“Because I love you. Haven't you known it all along?”
“Then why did you say what you did to Wilbur this afternoon?”
“He did not tell!”
“No, I heard. I was in the arbor. I could not help hearing.”
Edward Yale hesitated. He colored. Then he spoke out like a man and called himself names. “I was a coward and a cad to speak so to Bates,” he said. “But—well, I will not excuse myself. I was a coward and a cad, but I loved you; only—You shall have the whole truth. You deserve it. I loved you—who could help it?—but I did have doubts, even if you would so honor me, as to whether you would prove just the best wife for me in view of my—sacred calling. You are so very beautiful and you have always been so petted and—”
“Made such a doll of,” said Minnie, piteously, looking up at him. “I know that very well, Mr. Yale.”
“Will you marry me?” asked the minister.
“I am afraid I am not best for you. What I did shows that you were right. I am just a doll.”
“What you did shows you are not a doll—coming down here and telling me the truth. Will you be my wife?”
“If you are sure—”
“No doll ever tells the truth,” said the minister. “She cannot, because she is just a pretty little lie herself. Will you?”
“If you are sure.—Poor Wilbur!”
“Oh, he told me. He is going around the world. He said he would get over it, and he will. He hates being unhappy.”
“When did he tell you?”
“Ran in here before he went home. Told me he was off to-morrow, and said good-by and told me how you had refused him. He gave a queer reason, though, for going.”
“He said he was going not because you had refused him, but because he had found out that my doll was a woman. Said he was hit harder than Pygmalion. Now, sweetheart, run up-stairs to bed.”
“You will not get your sermon done!” said Minnie after a little. She looked ruefully at the manuscript on the table.
“Of course not, dear. It is Sunday now, and I can't write sermons on Sunday.”
“What will you do?”
“Preach an old sermon to a new tune,” said the minister.