by Elizabeth Dean Barstow Stoddard
Mrs. Calton mused beside the fire. “Mechanical piety might be of value to me, or that which this novel illustrates—a chaotic piety; if one could have the patiences to feel or speak stuff with the cheerful heroine, who is driven from all material happiness with a sharp stick. She says, ‘It is enough to be close to things—you haven’t time to live ‘em all. To know all about it is to have it. I think it’s easy for the angels to be happy, so; they know. Tit’s easiest of all for God.’ Either way to get from myself!”
Mrs. Calton tossed the book from her, being restless as well as reflective, and looked out of the window. It was a gusty November day, more dismal without than within, and she turned away to throw herself upon the sofa—to sleep, perchance to dream, or anything else which chance might turn up. She was alone in the house, mistress of it, for Mr. Calton had gone the way of the earth more than a year ago. If grief is to be measured by one’s toilet, Mrs. Calton’s was modified; bits of violet peeped among her sables, rosettes on her little shoes, knots of ribbon in her black hair, and an amethyst ornament here and there. She was handsome, though her eyes were gray to greenishness, her hair so dense that it rose in waves round her forehead, and her mouth so large that “prunes, prisms, and Peru” could not draw it up; so full too dazzling teeth that an enemy might remember what Elia says—“The fine lady or fine gentleman who show me their teeth, show me bones.”
She laughed little now, for she had fallen upon weary days. Not for the first time, poor girl!
“Yes,” continued her reflections, “beads to count, a formula to repeat day after day, would absorb the hours. As it is, ‘nothing gives and echo to the throne where hope is seated.’ The arches of the cathedral, the pipes of the organ, the joints of the knees are mechanical; but in space, sound and attitude they suggest and invoke the unknown and desired.”
Mrs. Calton wast interrupted. Her quest for the light never seen on land or sea was delayed. The interruption appeared nothing more than a morning call; but and earthquake could not have been more effective, so far as the changing of her mood went. This opportunity gives her biographer a chance at narrative.
Lara Calton, at this date, between the vague twenties and thirties, was born of “gentle” parents, owners of a nail factory, members of a Congregational church, and the centre of a circle as like themselves as on pea is like another. If Laura’s mother had a tea-party in August, the neighbors, one after the other, gave the same early in September. If Laura’s father, from his money a little in advance of the community, had his barn painted a new shade, or his carriage lining changed, Mr. Allen or Mr. Perkins followed suit, in a cheaper fashion. It was a very respectable town; and excellent one o be born in, and perhaps a still better one to be buried in. The infants and the dead alone were save in the bare individuality of human nature. Nobody disputed nor governed their way; they would come into the world and go out of it upon a mysterious principle which on opinion could disturb. Laura being a girl of some force and originality, kicked in the orthodox walking-stool provided for her by her guardians and friends; even her good mother thought her queer, and no example to follow; and her indulgent father was often obliged, using his own expression, “to wink” at her. Ostracized people, whatever their acts of aims, are never quite happy, and Laura’s girlhood was not satisfactory. The curious comprehension of children which some parents show, Laura was a victim to. If she said “yes,” they said “no,” form a sense of duty; if she asked for twenty-five cents for a dolls’s tea-set, they gave her twenty cents to buy a a watering-pot to water the cucumbers in the garden with. The fine moral instinct, said to be innate, was much twisted in Laura’s mind. She was never allowed to be a law to herself, and nobody explained why she should follow laws that were originated by somebody else. Consequently, she was a child of “ups and downs,” possessed by Satan, or on the point of being blest, to use her mothers’s vernacular. When she grew up she was still variable, “as the sade by the light quivering aspen made;” her leaves were either turned inside out to wind and sun, or glittered darkly through mists and showers. She was not loved, but sought for more than any young lady in the county. Neither lilies nor roses sprang up in her footsteps, but the ribbon snakes of envy and detraction; and this fact closed here heart to the manifold springs of mercy, charity, and tenderness. No inner life was developed, and her outward life was cold and empty. At an early age she discovered that her dolls were stuffed with bran; later, that the worm was in every bud, and rose-bugs eating every flower. At twenty what ennui possessed her! Full of latent abilities, not a single one had been called into play. Mr. Joh Calton appeared upon the stage in the nick of time—for himself; in midsummer, her dullest period, when Nature promises all to the senses, but gives nothing. The world’s tired denizen, or a child of nature, Thoreau or Emerson, would have delighted in the season and the scene; but Laura had no soul for nature, no sentiment with every “common sight apparels in celestial light,” no dream of that relation between the seen and the unseen, which brings us glimpses of “that immortal sea which brought us thither.” The brilliant July sky was tiresome spectacle to her; she watched it from vacancy. The sovereign summer clouds, solid in base and apex a moment, boiling like yeasty waves and vanishing up the burning either, or spreading snowy tufts and plumes across the zenith, or rising like walled cities of towers and palaces, were not as much in her mind as the baseless fabric of a dream. She knew also that the sea rolled before the town; but its plaintive monotone, its fitful roar, the tides, the changing atmosphere and motion, the eternal waste and distance of old ocean “poured round” the world, so congenial to the melancholy and profound in feeling, stirred no mental echo in Laura’s spirit. The woods, the meadows, never drew here to themselves; the sprites and elves of the secret landscape, hid in moss, fern, and shrub, never showed their faces to her. Life was dull then without human contact and contest, which belongs to the crowd. What made ordinary people contented, she wondered—those who read novels, had few new dresses, and never came across attractive men? Must she see those white clouds eternally rise in the north, and the white horses in the bay forever chase each other? Was it her doom to walk up and down Maine Street for the rest of her life, to see that Cummings had a peck of clams outside his door, or a basket of cocoa-nuts, or, on the bench at Begg’s Emporium, Tom Frost and Jem Cole smoking, and disputing whether the wind was hauling round, and what the minister “went on” to say the Sabbath before? Must she look out of the window to see Daddy Cox gee and haw his oxen, Mrs. Mortmain scurrying to Mothers’ Prayer-meeting, and Mrs. Bond toddling along with eggs and blue yarn to sell, and various other tinkers?
“Oh, mother,” she cried, “what is to become of me these weary days? It is everlasting between sunrise and sunset. Oh, mother, how can you be so satisfied? I hate this whole place, and every identical thing in it.”
Laura “harried” her mother with these questions one afternoon, when there was not even an old novel nor magazine in the house; when the mail had arrived, bring her no letter; when she found no article to fix over in her wardrobe; when she had looked in the glass as lon as she possibly could, and had finished a neat toilet—all for nothing and nobody! The mother was in her own bedroom down stairs, engaged in darning stockings. The house was so still from garret to cellar—it being the interval between dinner and supper—that the buzz of every individual fly was quite trumpet-like. The fat weed on Lethe’s wharf was in a lively situation in comparison. Now and then a curtain flapped on the south side of the house, for the sea-breeze was stirring.
“Laura,” answered her mother, in a phlegmatic way, “it would be better for you if you were the daughter of a poorer man.”
“Why don’t father fail then,” answered Miss pertly. “You often say that you and father live for my advantage.”
Laura tipped herself back in her rocking-chair, and her mother instantly discovered that she had an old pair of stocking on her pretty feet.
“Laura,” she said, sharply, “why don’t you wear those open-work stockings I bought you in Ledford the other day? What is the use of buy ing expensive thins if you won’t wear them, I should like to know?”
“How about the poor man’s daughter, mother?”
Then the mother laughed too. She was a kindly woman, embedded in her beliefs, and rather overlaid with ideas of duty, but, in the main, spirited enough to excuse many of Laura’s extravagant notions. She owned to selves—one was hers; the other belonged to her church, her circle, and to that mystical relation which she called her obligations. Alas! Laura did not discover the nature nearest her own till it was too late.
The door of the sitting-room opened with a bang, and Laura saw her father, Mr. Lewis, coming in with a strange gentleman.
“Mother, where are you?” called Mr. Lewis, pulling up the shades.
Mrs. Lewis hurried in, followed by Laura.
“Wife,” said Mr. Lewis, with dignity, “I introduce you to Mar. Calton, from New York. He has come to buy nails of us. I expect he has hit the nail on the head. Ha! He likes the looks of our place so much that he calculates he’ll stop a day or two in our midst. This is my daughter Laura, Sir; my only child, Sir. Don’t apologize, mother, but I hope you can scare up something for supper. Mr. Calton has consented to take pot-luck with us.”
“If you will put up with the want of ceremony, Mr. Calton, we shall be pleased to have you stay,” said Mrs. Lewis.
Mr. Calton bowed, and said he didn’t like ceremony, and was excessively found of country diet. Laura darted a glance from her gray eyes, which he observed, and which caused him to say to himself, “By Jove!”
“Yes, Sir,” said Mr. Lewis, “that is just what we have, and nothing else—plain, wholesome, country food; nothing new-fangled or Frenchified in our dishes.”
“Curds and cream,” added Laura, “golden honey, new-laid eggs, and the crispiest of fresh rolls.”
Mr. Calton looked at her again, and this time said, internally, “Thunder and Mars.”
Mrs. Lewis frowned at Laura. If there was anything celebrated in the region it was her table, which always groaned with the first quality of the flesh-pots of Egypt. People rarely refused an invitation to dine or sup with the Lewises. And what should posses Laura to talk so—contrary creature!
“I am sorry it is between whiles with our fruit, Mr. Calton,” said Mr. Lewis, also fearing that Laura was on the verge of “capers,” and anxious to divert attention from her. “Our Hoveys are off, and our Lawtons haven’t come on. Wouldn’t you like to take a turn in the garden, Sir? Our pears promise well.”
“Certainly,” replied Mr. Calton; “I cannot have too much of out-of-doors life in this delightful country. Miss Lewis, why have I never heard of your scenery? It is by no means common to find so fresh a landscape in the neighborhood of the sea.”
“Coming for nails,” Laura answered, “perhaps you though to see ore and slag only. To my accustomed eyes this is but a dull spot.”
“You like city life best, possibly?”
“Innately, yes. I have never spent any time in the city.”
His look of surprise flattered her; and as he followed her father into the garden, she felt a new impulse. The atmosphere changed—how pleasant the afternoon had become! She felt grateful for living in a handsome house.
“He seems to be a genteel man,” commented Mrs. Lewis; “but he is no chicken.”
“Chicken,” murmured Laura, absently; “are you going to have chicken for supper?”
“Now, Laura, be spry. Open the parlor, and take Mr. Calton in. The table must be set now. I’ll bet that Mary Brown is abed and asleep, lazy trollop! But they are all alike. Help is help. The supper will be all right, daughter, though we don’t have chickens in July.”
Laura rushed into the parlor, threw up the windows, and examined the premises anxiously. She opened that piano and surged up and down the keys. The voice of the sumer sea mingled with the music; it had a glad sound, and she wondered that it came so near. It was provoking that there were no fresh flowers in the vases; but tomorrow it should be different; the room should be decorated, and set in order early! It was a delightful task, when anybody was there. The whole house woke up—the kitchen was a scene of bustling preparation.
“The place bang’d and buzzed and clackt,
And all the long-pent stream of life
Dash’d downward in a cataract.”
Mrs Lewis and her help ran to and fro so constantly that the effect of a state procession was produced, now in the keeping-room where supper was laid, now in the kitchen and buttery.
When Mr. Lewis returned with Mr. Calton quiet and order reigned. Mrs. Lewis was already in her high chair before the tea and coffee. Laura stood at her place with an air of indifference, but inwardly tormented with the fear that Mr. Calton might consider the whole affair “green” and countrified. Her fear was needless. Mr. Calton felt himself well entertained. Things might be verdant, but only in the sense of freshness. He thought Laura attractive, piquant, new. He was pretty well aware of the station and property of Mr. Lewis. Mrs. Lewis was by no means a tiresome woman, neither ugly nor vulgar. Nail buying had brought his lines inot pleasant places. All this he pondered, while eating his excellent supper with a relish which Laura hardly approved of, but which delighted the housewife heart of Mrs. Lewis.
His first visit was a type of the second, and of all. Mr. Calton remained a week with the Lewis family; that is, he slept at the hotel, and passed his days in Laura’s society. Mrs. Lewis served him with her best viands three times a day, and Mr. Lewis smoked a cigar and held short conversations with him at the same time and immediately afterward, but it was tacitly understood that the old people were not to interfere at any other time. The young pair walked on the shore in the moonlight evenings, and Laura tried to respond to Mr. Calton’s apostrophic condition. He was truly moved by this novel contact with Nature; she blended with his sudden passion for Laura, and the illusion was perfect. Laura’s thoughts were more wandering. She could not avoid seeing the opportunity that approached her. The monotonous life which surrounded her might be changed for a city life, for the theatre, the opera, and those inevitable engagements she supposed one must have entering society as a married woman. Still she was maidenly chaotic—in a flutter, and a little proud. Mr. Calton was a superior man—easy, jovial, and self-sufficient, different form the country beaux, so anxious, and so tenderly beseeching when seeking her favor; and alas! different from the young coast surveyor, the lieutenant, who swooped down on the bay last year like a fish-hawk, and vanished like the same, with the help of a revenue cutter, and who was as delightful a hero as Conrad ever was—the corsair of hearts! The thought of him was put aside with firmness and a sigh.
The end of the shortest week either had known arrived. It was Sunday morning, and Mr. Calton accompanied the family to church, arrayed in snow-white costume, which came by express the night before in cool haste from his tailor. The black suits of the congregation “sang small” beside this fellow in full sail in Laura Lewis’s tow! The impression he made was an irritable one. Common people are apt to feel scorn for that which is new to them; and scorn here was expressed by delicate sniffs, snuffs, and smiles. Laura discerned it, and looked at him, even during the sermon, to exchange kind glances. As soon as service was over he offered her his arm in the very aisle, and she took it, blushing celestial rosy red. Papa and Mamma Lewis also exchanged meaning glances when this act took place, proud and important and parental, like a pair of old ducks.
“I must go home tomorrow,” said Mr. Calton, as he and Laura turned into a side street.
“You must be tired of us by this time, I suppose.”
“Of course I am.”
“We shall never see you again.”
“If you say so.”
There was a dead silence between Mr. Allen’s orchard and Captain Jones’s sail-loft; then Mr. Calton skipped a pebble with his boot, and said:
“Do you say so?”
“I am sure we should be very happy to see you.”
“Could you lower that parasol a trifle? I cannot see your face at all.”
Laura muttered something about the sun’s dazzling here eyes, but nevertheless shut the parasol.
“We are near home,” continued Mr. Calton, “but there is time enough for you to answer me one question. My dear, what do you think of me?”
Again Laura muttered something—that he esteemed him highly as a friend—had enjoyed his visit—hoped they might continue friends, and—mum, mum, mum.
“Hereafter the best of friends, Laura; but I mean differently now, or mean more. I am unwilling to return to New York without the hope of making you my wife. I know I am a dozen years older—what do you say? I can give you a pleasant home, and my whole heart.”
“Not just now, please,” urged Laura. “I should like to get home.”
“Five steps more, and we are at your door. Yes or no, my dear Laura. My proposal can not appear so strange.”
He understood her, and shook hands heartily, whereat she laughed, and then he laughed. When they reached the room, where Mrs. Lewis was untying her bonnet, and Mr. Lewis dusting his hat, Mr. Calton, with timid formality, kissed Laura, “asked consent,” and it was as if the programme of a hundred years was settled. Within two months the wedding came off, and Laura left home for a new one, in which this November day finds her, alone and unoccupied.
Mr. and Mrs. Calton were a model couple. The prayer of Agur was answered in their love—neither poverty nor riches were in it, but that medium which keeps domestic life in its true orbit. After buying a good deal of jewelry, and going to many places of amusement, Mr. Calton went back to his business with fresh zest, and Laura took up life on a new external plan, which did not admit of bothersome analysis. In the third year of marriage they lost their first-born and only child. For a season Laura dropped, soul and body, into a dark abyss; the sun in heaven was put out, the moon did not shine, men were as trees walking, and she was alone in the world. That period passed, the accustomed life was resumed—a veil between it and the past, a shade upon Laura’s beauty, and older look in Mr. Carlton’s face, and a different, deeper affection between them; but that, according to the wont of our undeveloped life, was not brought out and commented upon. By what theory is our wonderful world created? Men and women live together, fulfilling the apparent conditions of existence, and so many facets of their nature are never cut! One man dies at thirty, whose character is only revealed in its tender simplicity by the shadow of death. Another in the hour of danger brilliantly flashed forth his soul, as from a dark lantern, and then turns the closed sides to the world forever. And there are those who, in some unimportant moment, behold each other’s souls in the prison of their eyes, feel them in the link between hand and hand, in the kiss, or world of flame from the lips. Sparkles all, darting and vanishing over the wide, misty plain of the commonplace!
At the end of five years Mr. Calton died suddenly—a prosperous man in the prime of life, full of schemes gratifying to Laura’s worldly ambition. The “top of the ladder” he promised she should be—the leader of her set. The rings on her fingers and bells on her toes might be conspicuous wherever she went if she chose. Laura agreed with him, and with him drifted more and more into that outer world where the fruit grows which must, sooner or later, become ashes to the taste. All this was at and end now. At first Laura was stunned, then surprised that her life could be so changed. At last she fell into a dreary melancholy, which she believed was to last till some fatal disease should seize her and carry her off. Mr. Calton’s will was a trifle humdrum in her estimation; the house was settled upon her, and an income enough to keep it up in the old fashion, not more. A relative or two was mentioned in the will; a cousin Martha was one—a widow, whom Laura had never heard of. This Martha was to have fifteen hundred a year paid to her at her home in the West, or at his own house in Darcy Street, provided she would consent to live with his wife, share her solitude, and her faithful companion. Laura ordered the mony to be sent ot Ohio, where the cousin lived, refused to hear here letters read which she wrote to Mr. Calton’s executors, and would not answer the several letters which Cousin Martha wrote to herself. So a full year passed. Nothing in the present moved her, nothing in the future interested. She told her acquaintances that the world seemed to have been made for the wind to blow in, and who could tell where the wind came from? And she was not going to be left out in the cold. Seriously, she was wretched, as any woman aged twenty-eight may well be with the ordinary experiences of life. Her liberty was restricted because she was a woman, because of Mr. Calton’s wishes, and because her fortune was small. The great panacea of change was denied her. It was the groove business with her as with most, but without heart to roll along in it. She felt no impulsion toward literature and art, was not “called” to be strong-minded, and had no especial faith to sustain her in this world, and take her to the next.
“When all that I have loved, that which has kept me vital, has passed into a blind and obdurate silence, how can I learn your faith?” she said to the Rev. Mr. Crucible. And Mr. Crucible wisely answered, “We must wait.”
Still Laura’s soul must have been groping for light; there must have been a latent sentiment for the spiritual, a yearning for that invisible but universal hope, or she would not have been knocking at the door of Catholicism, or at that still more obscure portal, Mysticism, or whatever name it goes by.
Her servant, Ann, opened the parlor door and her mouth at the same time, but said nothing, having no opportunity, she was followed so closely by a tall woman who sat down in the chair nearest the door, and began, in a clear voice:
“Me and my son agreed to look you up. Your silence, Cousin Calton, amused him and troubled me. Curiosity on his side, gratitude on mine. I am Martha Knox; John Calton’s mother and my mother were sisters. I am just in from Ohio, and have been traveling three days steady. Now, am I to have your good word or not?”
Mrs. Knox set down her carpet-bag with energy, and folded her hands; but, notwithstanding her volubility, she was confused, Laura stared so at her with mute amazement.
“Me and my son,” she repeated, as if to stay herself with a watch-word.
Laura was seized with a sudden acute perception that she had been very comfortable till now, and suffered a pang of remorse for not properly estimating the goods the gods had bestowed upon her. And here was Nemesis in the shape of “Me and my son.”
She started up and rang the bell for luncheon.
“You must be fatigued, Mrs. Knox. Please come to the fire.”
“I am fatigued; but am I to be Cousin Martha to you, or must me and my son give it up?” Mrs. Knox grasped her carpet-bag again.
“Is your son in that?” asked Laura, smiling in spite of herself, and Mrs. Knox smiled with her.
“I verily believe I shall have to like you,” she said; “and me and my son’s sense of duty will wear away.”
The old lady came toward Laura with outstretched hand, which was taken kindly; and then Laura carried her into the dining-room, and fed her.
“How did you know that I lived alone, Mrs.—Cousin Martha?” asked Laura.
“Mr. Eben Bangs wrote us in the beginning so. Afterward he suggested that we should invite you to Ohio. Later, he sent us word that he thought it unwise for you to remain in the scene of your troubles. Me and my son thought differently, and here I am. But, my dear, I have to learn thereby that a remnant of pride still hangs round my old self.”
Cousin Martha did not tell all that the executor had written. He called Mrs. Calton “week, obstinate, and mistaken.” As it was, Laura’s eyes flashed.
“Mr. Bangs is a goose,” she cried; “he exceeds his limits. And what has your son to do with any opinion concerning me? If you feel any necessity of expressing to me the obligation you feel toward Mr. Calton, pray do so; but we need not drag your son into the obligation.”
“My dear, I must. I always yield to him. He is a genius, and artist, is my son Lester Knox.”
“Old Woman of the Sea,” murmured Laura. “I don’t wonder he sent you off, this genius.” Curiosity prevailed at last, she asked Cousin Martha what her son had done.
“Oh dear, what a thing fame is! Lester is the young artist who did the statue of Whinny Ha-ha, which stands behind the Speaker’s chair in the hall of Congress. Lester is twenty-seven, you are twenty-eight.”
Laura colored, and said that she had been in Washington.
“The statue looks like you.”
“You see, Mr. Bangs sent us your photograph. Lester thought your brow was regal.”
Laura colored again, and felt rather lively; but was still angry.
“How very curious and fussy in Mr. Bangs to sen my picture!”
“Not very, considering that Lester asked him for it, from mere curiosity, for he said—”
Cousin Martha broke her speech abruptly. It was evident to Laura that Lester had something against her. Cousin Martha began presently again:
“My dear, did you think I could receive John’s bequest without learning all about him and his? A whole year has passed, and more. Knox nature could not stand it any longer. Me and my son are different. I had to come. He won’t come himself; he will never see you; but we agreed about my coming.”
Provoking Cousin Martha! Laura was thankful when bedtime came. Bedroom solitude loomed up as a desirable thing, though she had forgotten her annoyance more than once in preparing for Cousin Martha’s comfort. She was also ashamed of certain little twinges and pulsations of affection for this downright visitor. She was alone, that was a fact; and womanly sympathy was not so bad, even in Cousin Martha. She fell asleep and dreamed of “my son,” as a disagreeable, yellow-haired Hoosier, in slipshod shoes.
“Dear me!” thought Cousin Martha, feeling very sleepless. “I have put my foot in it. I am paying a price for poor John’s legacy. There is something I like in the girl too. I believe that John spoiled her. Aunt Liza, his mother, was a weak sister, if she was my aunt. Linen sheets in winter! She don’t take the least notice of what her Ann does; there was twice too much bread cut. I hate the Irish. Laura is as handsome and peculiar as Lester said she was. There’s a clock striking midnight, and there’s tramping in the street yet. Oh dear! I have not taken Bible out of my trunk. I forgot it. I hope I am excused.”
Cousin Martha had reason to forget her old ways, for she was out of place. Laura frustrated all her attempts at usefulness. In vain she begged for work. It was better, she declared, to watch Lester make clay noses and clay drapery than to sit looking at nothing, or into the street, where everybody dressed and walked alike. At last Laura took pity, and taught her some simple embroidery, which proved an advantage to both. Cousin Martha was docile, Laura was patient. “Though they pricked their fingers every stitch,” they left in every bud a better appreciation of each other. Still one was homesick, the other bored. Cousin Martha grew reticent. She saw that Laura was not heart-broken, and needed no sympathy, and she felt that there was some lack in Laura’s nature which her ignorance could not define. It might be profound, it might be repressed, undeveloped, or shallow. She thought it of no avail to remain with the independent, self-sufficient young widow, and decided to go home as soon as the claims of what she considered propriety were settled. It was a long and expensive journey; respect was due to John’s memory; her friends and neighbors were aware of her visit to John’s widow; pride would not permit a sudden return to them. Besides, she must wait for Lester’s orders. She ceased to mention him, and Laura was no linger annoyed by reference to “my son.” One day, when a letter came, Laura pleasantly asked her what was the news.
“He is making designs for a monument for General Marley, to be erected by his brigade. He mentions some French pictures on exhibition here—geener pictures he call them—and tells me to observe the story-telling power painter have. Lester loves to teach his mother. Goodness knows I am ignorant enough.”
“Well,” said Laura, “shall we go to the picture-gallery?”
“If you please. I shall go back to him soon; he leaves the time to me.”
Her face brightened so at the prospect that Laura felt a pang.
“You had a melancholy visit, I am afraid. We must first go sight-seeing, and then I will allow you to go home. Why will not Mr. Knox come for you?”
“Oh,” replied Cousin Martha, with haste, “he says it is quite enough for me to have bored you; besides, he never thought of coming. He surmised that possibly you would like me well enough to make me a visit; we live in a pretty place; but you’ll never thing of doing so.”
The eyes filled with tears, and her lips trembled in spite of her great self-control; and Laura felt so sorry and so ashamed that she kissed her vehemently.
“Dear Cousin Martha, you are worth two of me, and your son would find me a nuisance. What do I know of the artist life! I always thought artists were queer, and utterly irresponsible, vapid and fantastic outside of their art, slipshod in morals as well as in their shoes—not the sort of men to be related to, but exactly the sort to be invited to dinners and suppers, for the roaring element. I have myself met a painting lion or two with a good deal of mane.”
“You should visit me and my son,” replied Cousin Martha, with dignity.
That very day they went to the picture-gallery. On the way Laura asked if statues brought much money to artists in ordinary; of course she had heard the prices which the sculptors received who lived abroad.
“Lester will have eight thousand dollars for the monument; that includes the base with bass-relief designs.”
“You are quite rich, then.”
“All generals do not have monuments. Orders are few and far apart. We have been extremely poor. Lester has cut cameos, headstones, signs and wood even, Turks and Indians. Poor, grand boy! His father died when he was only five. I have made shirts, dresses, baby-clothes, everything to keep the wolf from the door; and we did. Nobody starves in the West. Corn-dodgers and pork are free to everybody that’s honest and industrious.”
“Hush,” said Laura, for Cousin Martha’s voice grew loud over her bitter recollections. “Here we are at Goupil’s; we must go upstairs.”
There must have been some latent artistic power in Cousin Martha, she so suddenly forgot everything in her delight; first at the harmonious aspect of the salon, and then over the pictures. It must be confessed that here she rose superior to Laura, and Laura humbly felt it. She followed silently in her wake.
“See!” said Cousin Martha, pointing to a Bourgereau—a mother and child—“the ineffable glory of maternity in this beautiful, simple woman’s face, as she watches her sleeping babe, as yet only a degree beyond a newborn kitten.”
“Yes,” answered Laura, softly.
“And here”—stopping before the “Autumn” of Hamon—“do you perceive the silent buoyancy of the floating figure extinguishing the last flowers in the pale, dusky atmosphere? Dear me, Lester ought not to be living in Lanerk, when such pictures come over the water.”
“It is beautiful; but what an impossible idea!”
“Lester says nothing is impossible to the spirit of Art. But here is a different picture; what do you think of it?”
“A Spanish coqatee—what handsome muleteers! One must go to Spain for such men.”
“Or to Lanerk, Ohio,” said Cousin Martha to herself.
Laura was pupil throughout the visit, and she came home with a sense of relief at the non appearance of “my son.” If the mother gained so much in the atmosphere of art, what would he prove to be? And herself so lamentably ignorant, so behind the times, as she perceived she was. What a musty old street Darcy Street looked! What a dingy old house hers! What and empty, foolish frivolous circle she moved in!
Cousin Martha did not appear the next morning at the breakfast table. Laura waited, and then went up to her bedroom to find her in bed, feverish, and with headache. By noon, she said, she could be well; Lester’s letter, or the pictures, or a cold, had made her a little poorly; a cup of tea would set her right! It was not so. At night she was so ill that Laura sent for a doctor, who declared the illness to be a rheumatic fever, which was always painful, some tedious, occasionally dangerous. Cousin Martha contradicted him with asperity; she knew her constitution, he didn’t. Besides, she must go home; Lester was expecting her, and she would not disappoint her dear boy for all the rheumatic fever in creation. The dear boy was not talisman enough to protect her from the fever; it increased, and in her sufferings she became dovelike in patience and gentleness. Laura watched her night and day; the long-stifled traits of compassion, benevolence, and self-abandonment came into full play. Tenderness gave birth to tenderness, and, except in the case of her child, Laura was never so absorbed. She received a shock, however, when the doctor said that Mrs. Knox’s family must be told of her illness, and perhaps sent for. A struggle took place in her mind, and then she went to Cousin Martha’s bedside.
“Dear cousin, it would be a comfort for you to see your son; shall I send for him?”
Such and appealing expression came over the worn face, that Laura had difficulty to hide her tears.
“It would be good of you to ask him to come; but it would make so much trouble to have a strange man in the house. I am not so very sick, am I?”
Cousin Martha folded her hands over the coverlet with such content that Laura hurried down, either to telegraph or write a letter to her son. She took her little, unused desk in her lap, and began to write:
“Sir.” That was stiff.
“My dear Mr. Knox.” That was conventional.
“Cousin Lester.” He was not her cousin.
The doctor came in.
“Better telegraph,” he said. “Time flies; it is a long distance between here and Ohio. Puss, you have done pretty well lately; I’ll give you a diploma.”
“Common decency,” said Laura.
“Fiddle-stick! The old woman comes of a stock, and you like her; she has done you a good deal of good. I know your appetite is better since she came.”
“It isn’t a mite better,” Laura replied, indignantly. The doctor laughed and went upstairs, and Laura dispatched the message. When Lester Knox received it, such was his consternation that he snatched up his hat and coat, hurried to the station, and jumped into the train just starting. He tried to shut out all thought. It was not possible to admit that his mother, the only woman friend and relative he had, was in danger. What a fool he had been to let her travel so far from him! He confounded Calton’s bequest. Why should they cotton to his widow for that? To be sure, it ad opened a vista to Italy; and that more confounded photograph of hers, which that old dunce Bangs and sent, had opened a foolish dream vista; he wished them all further—at the North Pole!
In this condition he arrived at Darcy Street early in the evening. He rung the doorbell furiously. Ann, who was in the hall lighting the gas, opened the door, and he rushed in. Laura at that instant was coming downstairs with a glass in her hand. He sprang toward her.
“How is she, Laura?” and he seized her hands. The glass fell and shivered as he drew her colse to him and looked anxiously into her face.
“She is no worse, Lester, tonight,” she soothingly replied. “I am so glad you have come. This way, please.”
She led him into the parlor to a seat, and took off his hat. He was on the point of breaking down; that, with a man, means crying like a woman. She stood before him in silence. Raising his head presently, he looked at her searchingly and said:
“I know that you have been most faithful in caring for her; thanks, Mrs. Calton.”
“I have done my best; you are welcome, Mr. Knox.”
He suddenly felt conscious of being shabby, and gave an embarrassed laugh.
“Where shall I go, Madam? I am tired, dirty, and hungry. Where’s the tailor, the butcher, and the candlestick maker?”
“Stay with your mother, of course. I must first tell her that you are here. She is feeble and nervous. It will not do for you to rush at her as you did me. Sir. Your room is ready.”
His eyes blazed like diamonds. The dust of travel was not over them at all events. He was relived, but still feared to ask questions concerning his mother.
“Cousin Martha has been better for twelve hours,” added Laura. “Ann will take you to your room.” Laura paused a moment to think of him. First, he was undeniably dirty; but then he was as undeniably handsome. He had no sentimental nor long-haired aspect; on the contrary, an uncommonly fierce and cropped one. His hair was short, his beard long, both reddish in hue; his nose was large, so was he; tall and broad-shouldered; and his eyes were awfully keen. She felt like having a fight with him, and made up her mind to avail herself of the first opportunity. Very softly she crept back to Cousin Martha’s bedside, to break the exciting news of his arrival, and—found him there. Cousin Martha had both arms round his neck, and he was kneeling beside her.
“Of course I asked Ann to bring me here. Ann is a good girl; has she waited much upon you, mother? I’ll make her bust,” he said, in a low voice.
“Only Laura has taken care of me, Lester dear. I have been a world of trouble to her. Oh, I have ached so!”
“It is nearly over now, old lady. Let me go. I’d like a little water to cleanse me of this business.”
She whispered that there were some new-fashioned shirts and gay cravats for him in her trunk. Would he have them now?
“Indeed I will; for it is alone my inky cloak, good mother. I came off without a rag of luggage.”
He tossed over the contents of the trunk till Cousin Martha begged Laura to assist him; he never could find anything. It was a picture to the old lady to see the two heads close together ove the trunk, and both their hands in it. At a suppressed giggle from Laura, she closed her eyes in pure thankfulness and remained silent. They left the room on tip-toe.
In the course of a few days Cousin Martha discovered that Ann was her nurse instead of Laura; but she was mending, and could easily keep the discovery to herself. Ann was also significantly silent.
No visitors came to the house now, it being generally understood that Laura’s visitor was severely ill, and the opportunity for acquaintance was excellent. Laura and Lester were firm in their resolution not to like each other, or allow any influence between them; but each gave way to the singular curiosity of probing the nature of the other. They told lies constantly, and were as constantly detected. It was a sort of guerrilla warfare—unexpected attacks were made on both sides, although they were as watchful as cats in combat. Then they were terribly moody. If one was melancholy, the other was gay; if Laura was conventional, Lester professed reckless Bohemianism; if she talked what he called cant and caste, he mounted his Ideal horse, and talked her out of sight. Every moment they loved more and more, and grew afraid and timid about winning each other. At last he determined to subdue her or die. and his ferocious determination led him to act as follows:
The dinner was served as usual one day. Ann was with Cousin Martha, and there was not regular waiting. The cook came up when the bell was struck. Lester sat opposite Laura. Placing his elbows on the table, he said:
“You know that I am madly in love with you. By my soul I must come over and sit beside you! Will you kiss me if I come? Then I’ll eat my dinner; otherwise I will not. I can not, dare not, stay in your presence another day.”
Laura made a cool feint of pressing the bell.
“Ring the bell, if you dare,” he said. Their eyes met; a steady light glowed in his, a flickering willful one in hers.
“Mercy!” she said. “Where am I?”
“In your own house; which I wish to take you out of. Come into my house, Laura; be my wife, and live a new life with me—and artist. Let me teach you happiness. Have you ever known any, my poor girl?”
Laura thought of her dead boy.
“Lester,” she cried, passionately, “do you remember that I have been a wife and mother?”
“A mother—yes. But you are and ignorant creature still. Laura, decide.”
He rose to his feet, and her glance followed his uprising. Should she give way? How he trembled at heart! Was he to lose this woman, who had so knit herself in her beauty and sweetness to his every fibre? But he stood in a quiet attitude, and there was no agitation in his face. Her whole life rolled before her like a panorama. Most of it was crude waste. All the ordinary experiences of womanhood binging her to this result! Was the right way before her at last?
She held out her arms, and he came to her.
“Tell me something,” he begged, kissing her passionately.
“Take care of me—save me. I have seen nothing. I am so unhappy!”
“More than this, my love, you must give me. I have been harsh with you.”
“I love you, Lester, just as you have loved me, from the instant you dashed the glass from my hand.”
A moment of that wonderful, virgin silence passed, and then Lester cried that the soup was cold.
“Go to your place,” Laura ordered. There was little dinner eaten that day. Lester left his place continually; and at last they went upstairs to Cousin Martha. Before they could utter a world she said:
“Laura, did I not tell you that me and my son were agreed? Oh, I am so happy! I am so glad I had the fever. Dear children, you belong to each other. But you are queer, and you must make allowances.”