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 Merna Wood stood leaning against the jamb in the open doorway. The morning-glory vines made a very effective draping for a very pretty picture; the attitude was the acme of indolence, which an indescribable expression of alertness belied.
Ned Glover was standing below, his face just on a level with hers; he was looking at her laughingly—in fact he was nearly always laughing—and Merna was never certain that he meant one-half that he was saying, which at this moment was: “Yes; I am going to buy a nice little home, and I want a housekeeper; will you come?”
Merna tossed her head saucily: “I do not intend to go out to service this summer,” she replied.
“If I must do so, I will hire some one to do the work, and have my wife oversee it. Will you come as my wife, Merna?”
Merna flushed rosily, she was not yet sure that he was in earnest, so she replied lightly, “Oh, you are just funning, as the children say.”
He tried to draw his face into lines of seriousness, but his bright blue eyes would twinkle, he was so jolly that it was impossible for him to assume an expression of severe gravity.
232He caught her face in both his large palms, and kissed her fondly: “Say yes! Say yes, I tell you!” he whispered forcefully.
“Yes! Yes! Let me go, Ned, mother is looking!”
“Well, mother has a perfect right to look; we do not care!” his face one broad laugh.
Ned was from this time—of course—a privileged visitor; always pleasant, and in a manner affectionate, yet no more loverlike than before their engagement. The tender nonsense that helps to make courtship so sweet; the airs of possession on one side, and of loving subjection on the other, the happy planning by both for the future, seemed to be entirely forgotten.
Love is a magician who fits the eyes with a deceptive lens; but not even through love’s magnifying could Merna find tangible ground for rosy dreams; she was not exactly unhappy, neither was she quite satisfied. She took herself to task for being so foolish—just because of the lack of definite words—but he seemed to have forgotten the engagement altogether, as he made not the slightest allusion to it. It made Merna’s face burn whenever she thought of it: “I do wonder if he was just making game of me, trying to ascertain what answer I would give him! Oh, I wish that I had have said no—Oh, I do not know what I do wish!” angry tears filling her eyes as she thought.
Ned came as usual one evening, and remained until very late; once, as she was passing him, she rested her hand upon the table, and leaned toward him in the act of speaking; he covered 233the hand with his warm palm, and his breath swept her cheek as he whispered: “I wish that I had you all to myself in a nice little home of our own!”
Her radiant eyes answered him, and she bent her head until her cheek touched his caressing lips.
As he was bidding her good-night, he caught her in his arms, saying over and over again, “I do love you, Merna! You are the sweetest little woman on the face of the earth!”
Her face was filled with happiness, and her eyes glowed with tender light; but she laughingly put her hand over his lips: “I imagine that is what you call ‘taffy’!”
He held her closely for a moment, his voice growing low and earnest: “Little one, I mean every word that I say! I do love you—and if only circumstances—well, never mind that talk, but believe that I truly love you!”
She sat in the moonlight thinking for a long time after he left; what was there in that closing speech which sent a chill over her? Only this—love is said to be blind—as to worldly judgment this is true; but love’s intuition of love grows keen with the development of the passion. She felt that she ought to be happy, but she was not—that is—not so very happy; little thrilling thoughts ran through her mind deliciously, then a cold wave of doubt, casting a chill over her spirits. A woman is flattered and pleased if a man makes her a sharer of his secrets, whether of business or otherwise; she thus knows that he fully trusts her love and judgment, and she holds 234it a sacred charge. She thought uneasily that she could have no fond anticipations with any certainty of their proving a reality. Whatever she built must be the very airiest kind of an air castle, its only foundation an engagement which seemed like a burlesque. Vague allusions, or even words of endearment do not form a very tangible ground upon which to build.
A restless sigh escaped her lips: “I wish——” The unfinished sentence ended with another sigh.
The next evening she waited for Ned in a state of impatient restlessness, she had determined to have a nice long talk with him, although she was not in anywise certain as to what she would say; she thought she would lead him to talk of the future, and the home of which he had spoken; she wondered if he would talk of it frankly, or would he evade her questions as he so often had done, as though he did not comprehend her remark.
She watched the clock anxiously; she walked down the path to the gate a dozen times; she took up her embroidery, set a half-dozen stitches, and laid it down in disgust; she took a book instead, turned a page or two without comprehending a word and tossed it aside with an exclamation of impatience, to restlessly drum on the window.
“Merna, what ails you?” asked her mother querulously.
“Oh, my head aches,” was the evasive reply.
“You had best go to bed; you make me nervous, fidgeting around so!”
235“It is too early to go to bed! I’ll go out in the air a little while—perhaps that will help my head,” answered Merna.
“Merna Wood, you have been down to that gate about a dozen times; why don’t you be honest, and say that you are looking for Ned!” half in derision, and a trifle crossly, retorted her mother.
Merna answered with mock humility: “Yes’m, I’ll confess, if you will not be cross. Oh, mamsy, I wish he would come; there is something I wish to say to him!” she kneeled down with her head on her mother’s knee, like a little child.
Her mother replied laughingly: “It appears to me that you do usually have something to say to him,” but her hand wandered caressingly through the soft, bright hair; thus evidencing her sympathy.
He did not come that night nor the next, and for three almost unending months Merna neither heard from nor of him; then incidentally, she heard that he was gone, but where her informant did not know.
Gone without so much as a word to her!
She shut her grief within her heart and went about her duties but with the subtle essence of hope and faith taken out of her life—she thought forever—she had little idea how elastic is hope; faith is more ethereal, hope has tough fibre.
When her mother would have sympathized with her, she made light of it: “I don’t care! If he wants to stay away, he can; don’t you fret about me, mamsy!” But mamsy was not in the least deceived.
236A year swept by, and Merna had become less restless, more submissive to that which she deemed the inevitable; it is a mercy that time casts so tender a haze over all things.
Ned had written no letter to her; at first she grieved, but latterly she had grown indignant.
“Why do you not accept other company?” said her mother.
“Oh, I don’t care for them; they are not nice, mamsy.”
“You are a very foolish little girl to waste your affections upon one who cares so little,” said her mother.
“Now, mamsy, I am not wasting a particle of anything. As for Ned Glover, I hate him!”
Her mother laughed, but said no more, trusting to time to effect a cure.
It was a lovely evening in June; the wind softly fluttered the thin curtains at the open window bringing in the odor of the roses which grew just outside. Merna sat in a low rocker just within, her arms thrown above her head, her book lying unheeded upon her lap; she was so absorbed in reverie that she heard no sound, and a sudden darkening of the window startled her.
Resting his arms on the window ledge, Ned stood regarding her quizzically: “Are you too sleepy to say ‘how do you do?’ How I do wish for a kodak!” precisely as though he had not been gone a day.
Merna started up with a subdued exclamation, and before she realized it she was smiling up into his laughing face.
237How often she had thought of this meeting—if he should return—and pictured to herself the cool, indifferent air with which she would greet him; instead, she was laughing and chatting as merrily as though there had been no break in their intercourse.
He resumed precisely his former position; he made just the same vague, intangible allusions, without one word upon which to place a hope securely. Merna seemed plastic in his hands—and what was there to resist, or to resent? Nothing—perhaps; yet Merna lost her healthful calm, and grew restless and irritable; one cannot successfully resist the intangible, or do battle with the wind. His alternate tenderness, and good-natured indifference filled her with restless longing; she wished that he would be more explicit, or go away and leave her alone; she thought resentfully that it was unjust that because of her sex she must utter no word to further her own happiness; and because custom ordered it, she must take the crumbs offered to her, or go altogether hungry; she must have no voice in shaping her future beyond an assent or denial. Oh, yes; to be sure! There are a thousand ways in which a woman may signify her preference, but it would be very shocking if she should put it into words, unless the man asked her to do so! It looks for all the world like putting a premium upon intrigue.
Her girlish friends exchanging confidences, rallied her about her beau: “Oh, Merna, when are you going to be married?”
“Just as soon as I can find a man who will 238marry me,” retorted she, but she flushed painfully.
“Oh don’t cheat! Tell us all about it!”
“There is nothing to tell,” replied Merna looking distressed.
A wild chorus of dissent greeted this reply; as soon as possible Merna slipped away to cry out her grief and mortification. She thought that every one of them was laughing at her because of her uncertainty regarding her lover.
Ned certainly had no such feelings; he took everything for granted in a laughing, off-hand way, not to be resisted; he came continually, he monopolized her completely; he spoke to her, and of her as belonging to him, but always in that laughing way which left the impression of a joke; he did not say, such a day we will be married; such a place will be our home; he said instead: “You belong to me; you could not get away from me if you tried; I should find you, I shall always know where you are.”
This was all very sweet, but—very unsatisfying. He was strong, masterful, laughingly dominant; but he was also either very thoughtless, or very secretive.
He made no allusion to the time of his absence except once; he had that evening been unusually demonstrative, and Merna—from some remark made by him—felt emboldened to ask: “Where were you while so long absent?”
“Oh, a dozen places. I can’t tell you—things get so mixed up sometimes that I don’t know what I’m about myself,” he replied evasively.
“You might have written,” said Merna quietly, it almost seemed indifferently.
239“Yes, I know—in fact I meant to, but—I hate to write letters, and there was nothing that you would care to know—” he broke off abruptly, as though he did not wish to betray himself.
“No, of course not,” answered Merna, with quiet sarcasm; she felt hurt and indignant, but was altogether too proud to show it.
Although Merna made no further mention of it, he seemed to feel ashamed of his neglect, and repeatedly said: “I will never leave again, without telling you that I am going;” so that in this respect she felt a greater assurance; but he spent the evening with her as usual, and in the usual manner bid her good-night, and she saw him no more for three years.
Sad changes came to Merna during this interval; her mother, long a widow, sickened and died. Merna’s grief was beyond words—beyond thought even; it benumbed all her senses. The home which she had thought her own was taken from her—unjustly—but what did that matter? She was alone, and as ignorant of law as a babe. Poor child! She thought that it did not matter, that nothing mattered, now that the gentle face of her mother had faded out of life; she felt that she could no longer live within those memory-haunted walls. During all these sad days she heard nothing from Ned, and her heart cried out piteously: “Oh, if he truly loved me he would not leave me to bear my burdens alone.” These hard realities took away all the lingering grace of girlhood, but added the charm and poise of sweet, self-reliant womanhood.
In these old towns, where people are born, 240live, and die in the same old house, generation after generation; where the ways are peaceful and narrow; where people drift along, content with no innovations of knowledge, or ne............
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