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upid and Psyche! The young man and the young woman who are in love with each other! The couple which is constantly vanishing and constantly reappearing; which has filled millions of various situations, and yet is always the same; symbolizing, and one might almost say embodying, the doctrine of the transmigration of souls; acting a drama of endless repetitions, with innumerable spectators!
What would the story-reading world—yes, and what would the great world of humanity—do without these two figures? They are more lasting, they are more important, and they are more fascinating than even the crowned and laurelled images of heroes and sages. When men shall have forgotten Alexander and Socrates, Napoleon and Humboldt, they will still gather around this imperishable group, the youth and the girl who are in love. Without them our kind would cease to be; at one time or another we are all of us identified with them in spirit; thus both reason and sympathy cause us to be interested in their million-fold repeated story.
We have the two before us. The girl, dark and dark-eyed, with Oriental features, and an expression which one is tempted to describe by some such epithet as imperial, is Bessie Barron, the orphan granddaughter of Squire Thomas Lauson of Barham, in Massachusetts. The youth, pale, chestnut-haired, and gray-eyed, with a tall and large and muscular build, is Henry Foster, not more than twenty-seven years old, yet already a professor in the scientific department of the university of Hampstead. They are standing on the edge of a rocky precipice some seventy feet in depth, from the foot of which a long series of grassy slopes descends into a wide, irregular valley, surrounded by hills that almost deserve the name of mountains. In the distance there are villages, the nearest fully visible even to its most insignificant buildings, others showing only a few white gleams through the openings of their elms, and others still distinguishable by merely a spire.
There has been talk such as affianced couples indulge in; we must mention this for the sake of truth, and we must omit it in mercy. “Lovers,” declares a critic who has weight with us, “are habitually insipid, at least to us married people.” It was a man who said that; no woman, it is believed, could utter such a condemnation of her own heart: no woman ever quite loses her interest in the drama of love-making. But out of regard to such males as have drowned their sentimentality in marriage we will, for the present, pass over the words of tenderness and devotion, and only listen when Professor Foster becomes philosophical.
“What if I should throw myself down here?” said[58] Bessie Barron, after a long look over the precipice, meanwhile holding fast to a guardian arm.
“You would commit suicide,” was the reply of a man whom we must admit to have been accurately informed concerning the nature of actions like the one specified.
Slightly disappointed at not hearing the appeal, “O my darling, don’t think of such a thing!” Bessie remained silent a moment, wondering if she were silly or he cold-hearted. Did she catch a glimmering of the fact that men do not crave small sensations as women do, and that the man before her was a specially rational being because he had been trained in the sublime logic of the laws of nature? Doubtful: the two sexes are profoundly unlike in mental action; they must study each other long before they can fully understand each other.
“I suppose I should be dreadfully punished for it,” she went on, her thoughts turning to the world beyond death, that world which trembling faith sees, and which is, therefore, visible to woman.
“I am not sure,” boldly admitted the Professor, who had been educated in Germany.
In order to learn something of the character of this young man, we must permit him to jabber his nondescript ideas for a little, even though we are thereby stumbled and wearied.
“Not sure?” queried Bessie. “How do you mean? Don’t you think suicide sinful? Don’t you think sin will be punished?”
She spoke with eagerness, dreading to find her lover[59] not orthodox,—a woful stigma in Barham on lovers, and indeed on all men whatever.
“Admitting thus much, I don’t know how far you would be a free agent in the act,” lectured the philosopher. “I don’t know where free agency begins or ends. Indeed, I am so puzzled by this question as to doubt whether there is such a condition as free agency.”
“No such thing as free agency?” wondered Bessie. “Then what?”
“See here. Out of thirty-eight millions of Frenchmen a fixed number commit suicide every year. Every year just so many Frenchmen out of a million kill themselves. Does that look like free agency, or does it look like some unknown influence, some general rule of depression, some law of nature, which affects Frenchmen, and which they cannot resist? The individual seems to be free, at every moment of his life, to do as he chooses. But what leads him to choose? Born instincts, conditions of health, surroundings, circumstances. Do not the circumstances so govern his choice that he cannot choose differently? Moreover, is he really an individual? Or is he only a fraction of a great unity, the human race, and directed by its current? We speak of a drop of water as if it were an individuality; but it cannot swim against the stream to which it belongs; it is not free. Is not the individual man in the same condition? There are questions there which I cannot answer; and until I can answer them I cannot answer your question.”
We have not repeated without cause these bold and crude speculations. It is necessary to show that Foster[60] was what was called in Barham a free-thinker, in order to account for efforts which were made to thwart his marriage with Bessie Barron, and for prejudices which aided to work a stern drama into his life.
The girl listened and pondered. She tried to follow her lover over the seas of thought upon which he walked; but the venture was beyond her powers, and she returned to the pleasant firm land of a subject nearer her heart.
“Are you thinking of me?” she asked in a low tone, and with an appealing smile.
“No,” he smiled back. “I must own that I was not. But I ought to have been. I do think of you a great deal.”
“More than I deserve?” she queried, still suspicious that she was not sufficiently prized to satisfy her longings for affection.
He laughed outright. “No, not more than you deserve; not as much as you deserve; you deserve a great deal. How many times are you going to ask me these questions?”
“Every day. A hundred times a day. Shall you get tired of them?”
“Of course not. But what does it mean? Do you doubt me?”
“No. But I want to hear you say that you think of me, over and over again. It gives me such pleasure to hear you say it! It is such a great happiness that it seems as if it were my only happiness.”
Before Bessie had fallen in love with Foster, and especially before her engagement to him, there had been a time when she had talked more to the satisfaction of the male critic. But now her whole soul was absorbed in[61] the work of loving. She had no thought for any other subject; none, at least, while with him. Her whole appearance and demeanor shows how completely she is occupied by this master passion of woman. A smile seems to exhale constantly from her face; if it is not visible on her lips, nor, indeed, anywhere, still you perceive it; if it is no more to be seen than the perfume of a flower, still you are conscious of it. It is no figurative exaggeration to say that there is within her soul an incessant music, like that of waltzes, and of all sweet, tender, joyous melodies. If you will watch her carefully, and if you have the delicate senses of sympathy, you also will hear it.
Are we wrong in declaring that the old, old story of clinging hearts is more fascinating from age to age, as human thoughts become purer and human feelings more delicate? We believe that love, like all other things earthly, is subject to the progresses of the law of evolution, and grows with the centuries to be a more various and exquisite source of happiness. This girl is more in love than her grandmother, who made butter and otherwise wrought laboriously with her own hands, had ever found it possible to be. An organization refined by the manifold touch of high civilization, an organization brought to the keenest sensitiveness by poetry and fiction and the spiritualized social breath of our times, an organization in which muscle is lacking and nerve overabundant, she is capable of an affection which has the wings of imagination, which can soar above the ordinary plane of belief, which is more than was once human.
Consider for an instant what an elaboration of culture[62] the passion of love may have reached in this child. She can invest the man whom she has accepted as monarch of her soul with the perfections of the heroes of history and of fiction. She can prophesy for him a future which a hundred years since was not realizable upon this continent. Out of her own mind she can draw shining raiment of success for him which shall be visible across oceans, and crowns of fame which shall not be dimmed by centuries. She can love him for superhuman loveliness which she has power to impute to him, and for victories which she is magician enough to strew in anticipation beneath his feet. It is not extravagance, it is even nothing but the simplest and most obvious truth, to say that there have been periods in the world’s history, without going back to the cycles of the troglodyte and the lake-dweller, when such love would have been beyond the capabilities of humanity.
It must be understood, by the way, that Bessie was not bred amid the sparse, hard-worked, and scantily cultured population of Barham, and that, until the death of her parents, two years before the opening of this story, she had been a plant of the stimulating, hot-bed life of a city. Into this bucolic land she had brought susceptibilities which do not often exist there, and a craving for excitements of sentiment which does not often find gratification there. Consequently the first youth who in any wise resembled the ideal of manhood which she had set up in her soul found her ready to fall into his grasp, to believe in him as in a deity, and to look to him for miracles of love and happiness.
Well, these two interesting idiots, as the unsympathizing[63] observer might call them, have turned their backs on the precipice and are walking toward the girl’s home. They had not gone far before Bessie uttered a speech which excited Harry’s profound amazement, and which will probably astonish every young man who has not as yet made his conquests. After looking at him long and steadfastly, she said: “How is it possible that you can care for me? I don’t see what you find in me to make me worthy of your admiration.”
How often such sentiments have been felt, and how often also they have been spoken, by beings whose hearts have been bowed by the humility of strong affection! Perhaps women are less likely to give them speech than men; but it is only because they are more trammelled by an education of reserve, and by inborn delicacy and timidity; it is not because they feel them less. This girl, however, was so frank in nature, and so earnest and eager in her feelings, that she could not but give forth the aroma of loving meekness that was in her soul.
“What do you mean?” asked Foster, in his innocent surprise. “See nothing to admire in you!”
“O, you are so much wiser than I, and so much nobler!” she replied. “It is just because you are good, because you have the best heart that ever was, that you care for me. You found me lonely and unhappy, and so you pitied me and took charge of me.”
“O no!” he began; but we will not repeat his protestations; we will just say that he, too, was properly humble.
“Have you really been lonely and sad?” he went on, curious to know every item of her life, every beat of her heart.
“Does that old house look like a paradise to you?” she asked, pointing to the dwelling of Squire Lauson.
“It isn’t very old, and it doesn’t look very horrible,” he replied, a little anxious as he thought of his future housekeeping. “Perhaps ours will not be so fine a one.”
“I was not thinking of that,” declared Bessie. “Our house will be charming, even if it has but one story, and that under ground. But this one! You don’t see it with my eyes; you haven’t lived in it.”
“Is it haunted?” inquired Foster, of whom we must say that he did not believe in ghosts, and, in fact, scorned them with all the scorn of a philosopher.
“Yes, and by people who are not yet buried,—people who call themselves alive.”
The subject was a delicate one probably, for Bessie said no more concerning it, and Foster considerately refrained from further questions. There was one thing on which this youth especially prided himself, and that was on being a gentleman in every sense possible to a republican. Because his father had been a judge, and his grandfather and great-grandfather clergymen, he conceived that he belonged to a patrician class, similar to that which Englishmen style “the untitled nobility,” and that he was bound to exhibit as many chivalrous virtues as if his veins throbbed with the blood of the Black Prince. Although not combative, and not naturally reckless of pain and death, he would have faced Heenan and Morrissey together in fight, if convinced that his duty as a gentleman demanded it. Similarly he felt himself obliged “to do the handsome thing” in money matters;[65] to accept, for instance, without haggling, such a salary as was usual in his profession; to be as generous to waiters as if he were a millionaire. Furthermore, he must be magnanimous to all that great multitude who were his inferiors, and particularly must he be fastidiously decorous and tender in his treatment of women. All these things he did or refrained from doing, not only out of good instincts towards others, but out of respect for himself.
On the whole, he was a worthy and even admirable specimen of the genus young man. No doubt he was conceited; he often offended people by his bumptiousness of opinion and hauteur of manner; he rather depressed the human race by the severity with which he classed this one and that one as “no gentleman,” because of slight defects in etiquette; he considerably amused older and wearier minds by the confidence with which he settled vexed questions of several thousand years’ standing; but with all these faults, he was a better and wiser and more agreeable fellow than one often meets at his age; he was a youth whom man could respect and woman adore. To noble souls it must be agreeable, I think, to see him at the present moment, anxious to know precisely what sorrows had clouded the life of his betrothed in the old house before him, and yet refraining from questioning her on the alluring subject, “because he was a gentleman.”
The house itself kept its secret admirably. It had not a signature of character about it; it was as non-committal as an available candidate for the Presidency; it exhibited the plain, unornamental, unpoetic reserve of a[66] Yankee Puritan. Whether it were a stage for comedy or tragedy, whether it were a palace for happy souls or a prison for afflicted ones, it gave not even a darkling hint.
A sufficiently spacious edifice, but low of stature and with a long slope of back roof, it reminded one of a stocky and round-shouldered old farmer, like those who daily trudged by it to and from the market of Hampstead, hawing and geeing their fat cattle with lean, hard voices. A front door, sheltered by a small portico, opened into a hall which led straight through the building, with a parlor and bedroom on one side, and a dining-room and kitchen on the other. In the rear was a low wing serving as wash-house, lumber-room, and wood-shed. The white clapboards and green blinds were neither freshly painted nor rusty, but just sedately weather-worn. The grounds, the long woodpiles, the barn and its adjuncts, were all in that state of decent slovenliness which prevails amid the more rustic farming population of New England. On the whole, the place looked like the abode of one who had made a fair fortune by half a century or more of laborious and economical though not enlightened agriculture.
“I must leave you now,” said Foster, when the two reached the gate of the “front-yard”; “I must get back to my work in Hampstead.”
“And you won’t come in for a minute?” pleaded Bessie.
“You know that I would be glad to come in and stay in for ever and ever. It seems now as if life were made for nothing but talking to you. But my fellow-men no[67] doubt think differently. There are such things as lectures, and I must prepare a few of them. I really have pressing work to do.”
What he furthermore had in his mind was, “I am bound as a gentleman to do it”; but he refrained from saying that: he was conscious that he sometimes said it too much; little by little he was learning that he was bumptious, and that he ought not to be.
“And you will come to-morrow?” still urged Bessie, grasping at the next best thing to to-day.
“Yes, I shall walk out. This driving every day won’t answer, on a professor’s salary,” he added, swelling his chest over this grand confession of poverty. “Besides, I need the exercise.”
“How good of you to walk so far merely to see me!” exclaimed the humble little beauty.
Until he came again she brooded over the joys of being his betrothed, and over the future, the far greater joy of being his wife. Was not this high hope in love, this confidence in the promises of marriage, out of place in Bessie? She has daily before her, in the mutual sayings and doings of her grandfather and his spouse, a woful instance of the jarring way in which the chariot-wheels of wedlock may run. Squire Tom Lauson does not get on angelically with his second wife. It is reported that she finds existence with him the greatest burden that she has ever yet borne, and that she testifies to her disgust with it in a fashion which is at times startlingly dramatic. If we arrive at the Lauson house on the day following the dialogue which has been reported, we shall witness one of her most effective exhibitions.
It is raining violently; an old-fashioned blue-light Puritan thunder-storm is raging over the Barham hills; the blinding flashes are instantaneously followed by the deafening peals; the air is full of sublime terror and danger. But to Mrs. Squire Lauson the tempest is so far from horrible that it is even welcome, friendly, and alluring, compared with her daily showers of conjugal misery. She has just finished one of those frequent contests with her husband, which her sickly petulance perpetually forces her to seek, and which nevertheless drive her frantic. In her wild, yet weak rage and misery, death seems a desirable refuge. Out of the open front door she rushes, out into the driving rain and blinding lightning, lifts her hands passionately toward Heaven, and prays for a flash to strike her dead.
After twice shrieking this horrible supplication, she dropped her arms with a gesture of sullen despair, and stalked slowly, reeking wet, into the house. In the hall, looking out upon this scene of demoniacal possession, sat Bessie Lauson and her maiden aunt, Miss Mercy Lauson, while behind them, coming from an inner room, appeared the burly figure of the old Squire. As Mrs. Lauson passed the two women, they drew a little aside with a sort of shrinking which arose partly from a desire to avoid her dripping garments, and partly from that awe with which most of us regard ungovernable passion. The Squire, on the contrary, met his wife with a sarcastic twinkle of his grim gray eyes, and a scoff which had the humor discoverable in the contrast between total indifference and furious emotion.
“Closed your camp-meeting early, Mrs. Lauson,” said[69] the old man; “can’t expect a streak of lightning for such a short service.”
A tormentor who wears a smile inflicts a double agony. Mrs. Lauson wrung her hands, and broke out in a cry of rage and anguish: “O Lord, let it strike me! O Lord, let it strike me!”
Squire Lauson took a chair, crossed his thick, muscular legs, glanced at his wife, glanced at the levin-seamed sky, and remarked with a chuckle, “I’m waiting to see this thing out.”
“Father, I say it’s perfectly awful,” remonstrated Miss Mercy Lauson. “Mother, ain’t you ashamed of yourself?”
Miss Mercy was an old maid of the grave, sad, sickly New England type. She pronounced her reproof in a high, thin, passionless monotone, without a gesture or a flash of expression, without glancing at the persons whom she addressed, looking straight before her at the wall. She seemed to speak without emotion, and merely from a stony sense of duty. It was as if a message had been delivered by the mouth of an automaton.
Both the Squire and his wife made some response, but a prolonged crash of thunder drowned the feeble blasphemy of their voices, and the moving of their lips was like a mockery of life, as if the lips of corpses had been stirred by galvanism. Then, as if impatient of hearing both man and God, Mrs. Lauson clasped her hands over her ears, and fled away to some inner room of the shaking old house, seeking perhaps the little pity that there is for the wretched in solitude. The Squire remained seated, his gray and horny fingers drumming on the arms of the[70] chair, and his faded lips murmuring some inaudible conversation.
For the wretchedness of Mrs. Lauson there was partial cause in the disposition and ways of her husband. Very odd was the old Squire; violently combative could he be in case of provocation; and to those who resisted what he called his rightful authority he was a tyrant.
Having lost the wife whom he had ruled for so many years, and having enjoyed the serene but lonely empire of widowhood for eighteen months, he felt the need of some one for some purpose,—perhaps to govern. Once resolved on a fresh spouse, he set about searching for one in a clear-headed and business-like manner, as if it had been a question of getting a family horse.
The woman whom he finally received into his flinty bosom was a maiden of forty-five, who had known in her youth the uneasy joys of many flirtations, and who had marched through various successes (the triumphs of a small university town) to sit down at last in a life-long disappointment. Regretting her past, dissatisfied with every present, demanding improbabilities of the future, eager still to be flattered and worshipped and obeyed, she was wofully unfitted for marriage with an old man of plain habits and retired life, who was quite as egoistic as herself and far more combative and domineering. It was soon a horrible thing to remember the young lovers who had gone long ago, but who, it seemed to her, still adored her, and to compare them with this unsympathizing master, who gave her no courtship nor tender reverence, and who spoke but to demand submission.
“In a general way,” says a devout old lady of my[71] acquaintance, “Divine Providence blesses second marriages.”
With no experience of my own in this line, and with not a large observation of the experience of others, I am nevertheless inclined to admit that my friend has the right of it. Conceding the fact that second marriages are usually happy, one naturally asks, Why is it? Is it because a man knows better how to select a second wife? or because he knows better how to treat her? Well disposed toward both these suppositions, I attach the most importance to the latter.
No doubt Benedict chooses more thoughtfully when he chooses a second time; no doubt he is governed more by judgment than in his first courtship, and less by blind impulse; no doubt he has learned some love-making wisdom from experience. A woman who will be patient with him, a woman who will care well for his household affairs and for his children, a woman who will run steadily rather than showily in the domestic harness,—that is what he usually wants when he goes sparking at forty or fifty.
But this is not all and not even the half of the explanation. He has acquired a knowledge of what woman is, and a knowledge of what may fairly be required of her. He has learned to put himself in her place; to grant her the sympathy which her sensitive heart needs; to estimate the sufferings which arise from her variable health; in short, he has learned to be thoughtful and patient and merciful. Moreover, he is apt to select some one who, like himself, has learned command of temper and moderation of expectation from the lessons of life.[72] As he knows that a glorified wife is impossible here below, so she makes no strenuous demand for an angel husband.
But Squire Thomas Lauson had married an old maid who had not yet given up the struggle to be a girl, and who, in consequence of a long and silly bellehood, could not put up with any form of existence which was not a continual courtship. Furthermore, he himself was not a persimmon; he had not gathered sweetness from the years which frosted his brow. An interestingly obdurate block of the Puritan granite of New England, he was almost as self-opinionated, domineering, pugnacious, and sarcastic as he had been at fifteen. He still had overmuch of the unripe spirit which plagues little boys, scoffs at girls, stones frogs, drowns kittens, and mutters domestic defiances. If Mrs. Lauson was skittish and fractious, he was her full match as a wife-breaker.
In short, the Squire had not chosen wisely; he was not fitted to win a woman’s heart by sympathy and justice; and thus Providence had not blessed his second marriage.
We must return now to Miss Mercy Lauson and her niece Bessie. They are alone once more, for Squire Lauson has finished his sarcastic mutterings, and has stumped away to some other dungeon of the unhappy old house.
“You see, Bessie!” said Miss Mercy, after a pinching of her thin lips which was like the biting of forceps,—“you see how married people can live with each other. Bickerings an’ strife! bickerings an’ strife! But for all that you mean to marry Henry Foster.”
We must warn the reader not to expect vastness of thought or eloquence of speech from Miss Mercy. Her narrow-shouldered, hollow-chested soul could not grasp ideas of much moment, nor handle such as she was able to grasp with any vigor or grace.
“I should like to know,” returned Bessie with spirit, “if I am not likely to have my share of bickerings and strife, if I stay here and don’t get married.”
“That depends upon how far you control your temper, Elizabeth.”
“And so it does in marriage, I suppose.”
Miss Mercy found herself involved in an argument, when she had simply intended to play the part of a preacher in his pulpit, warning and reproving without being answered. She accepted the challenge in a tone of iced pugnacity, which indicated in part a certain imperfect habit of self-control, and in part the unrestrainable peevishness of a chronic invalid.
“I don’t say folks will necessarily be unhappy in merridge,” she went on. “Merridge is a Divine ord’nance, an’ I’m obleeged to respect it as such. I do, I suppose, respect it more ’n some who’ve entered into it. But merridge, to obtain the Divine blessing, must not be a yoking with unbelievers. There’s the trouble with father’s wife; she ain’t a professor. There, too, ’s the trouble with Henry Foster; he’s not one of those who’ve chosen the better part. I want you to think it all over in soberness of sperrit, Elizabeth.”
“It is the only thing you know against him,” replied the girl, flushing with the anger of outraged affection.
“No, it ain’t. He’s brung home strange ways from[74] abroad. He smokes an’ drinks beer an’ plays cards; an’ his form seldom darkens the threshold of the sanctuary. Elizabeth, I must be plain with you on this vital subject. I’m going to be as plain with you as your own conscience ought to be. I see it’s no use talking to you ’bout duty an’ the life to come. I must—there’s no sort of doubt about it—I must bring the things of this world to bear on you. You know I’ve made my will: I’ve left every cent of my property to you,—twenty thousand dollars! Well, if you enter into merridge with that young man, I shall alter it. I ain’t going to have my money,—the money that my poor God-fearing aunt left me,—I ain’t going to have it fooled away on card-players an’ scorners. Now there it is, Elizabeth. There’s what my duty tells me to do, an’ what I shall do. Ponder it well an’ take your choice.”
“I don’t care,” burst forth Bessie, springing to her feet. “I shall tell him, and if it makes no difference to him, it will make none to me.”
Here a creak in the floor caught her ear, and turning quickly she discovered Henry Foster. Entering the house by a side door, and coming through a short lateral passage to the front hall, he had reached it in time to hear the close of the conversation and catch its entire drift. You could see in his face that he had heard thus much, for healthy, generous, kindly, and cheerful as the face usually was, it wore now a confused and pained expression.
“I beg pardon for disturbing you,” he said. “I was pelted into the house to get out of the shower, and I took the shortest cut.”
Bessie’s Oriental visage flushed to a splendid crimson, and a whiter ashiness stole into the sallow cheek of Aunt Mercy. The girl, quick and adroit as most women are in leaping out of embarrassments, rushed into a strain of light conversation. How wet Professor Foster was, and wouldn’t he go and dry himself? What a storm it had been, and what wonderful, dreadful thunder and lightning; and how glad she was that he had come, for it seemed as if he were some protection.
“There’s only One who can protect us,” murmured Aunt Mercy, “either in such seasons or any others.”
“His natural laws are our proper recourse,” respectfully replied Foster, who was religious too, in his scientific fashion.
Bessie cringed with alarm; here was an insinuated attack on her aunt’s favorite dogma of special providences; the subject must be pitched overboard at once.
“What is the news in Hampstead?” she asked. “Has the town gone to sleep, as Barham has? You ought to wake us up with something amusing.”
“Jennie Brown is engaged,” said Foster. “Isn’t that satisfactory?”
“O dear! how many times does that make?” laughed Bessie. “Is it a student again?”
“Yes, it is a student.”
“You ought to make it a college offence for students to engage themselves,” continued Bessie. “You know that they can hardly ever marry, and generally break the girls’ hearts.”
“Have they broken Jennie Brown’s? She doesn’t[76] believe it, nor her present young man either. I’ve no doubt he thinks her as good as new.”
“I dare say. But such things hurt girls in general, and you professors ought to see to it, and I want to know why you don’t. But is that all the news? That’s such a small matter! such an old sort of thing! If I had come from Hampstead, I would have brought more than that.”
So Bessie rattled on, partly because she loved to talk to this admirable Professor, but mainly to put off the crisis which she saw was coming.
But it was vain to hope for clemency, or even for much delay, from Aunt Mercy. Grim, unhappy, peevish as many invalids are, and impelled by a remorseless conscience, she was not to be diverted from finishing with Foster the horrid bone which she had commenced to pick with Bessie. You could see in her face what kind of thoughts and purposes were in her heart. She was used to quarrelling; or, to speak more strictly, she was used to entertaining hard feelings towards others; but she had never learned to express her bitter sentiments frankly. Unable to destroy them, she had felt herself bound in general not to utter them, and this non-utterance had grown to be one of her despotic and distressing “duties.” Nothing could break through her shyness, her reserve, her habit of silence, but an emotion which amounted to passion; and such an emotion she was not only unable to conceal, but she was also unable to exhibit it either nobly or gracefully: it shone all through her, and it made her seem spiteful.
As she was about to speak, however, a glance at Bessie’s[77] anxious face checked her. After her painful, severe fashion, she really loved the girl, and she did not want to load her with any more sorrow than was strictly necessary. Moreover, the surely worthy thought occurred to her that Heaven might favor one last effort to convert this wrong-minded young man into one who could be safely intrusted with the welfare of her niece and the management of her money. Hailing the suggestion, in accordance with her usual exaltation of faith, as an indication from the sublimest of all authority, she entered upon her task with such power as nature had given her and such sweetness as a shattered nervous system had left her.
“Mr. Foster, there’s one thing I greatly desire to see,” she began in a hurried, tremulous tone. “I want you to come out from among the indifferent, an’ join yourself to us. Why don’t you do it? Why don’t you become a professor?”
Foster was even more surprised and dismayed than most men are when thus addressed. Here was an appeal such as all of us must listen to with respect, not only because it represents the opinions of a vast and justly revered portion of civilized humanity, but because it concerns the highest mysteries and possibilities of which humanity is cognizant. As one who valued himself on being both a philosopher and a gentleman, he would have felt bound to treat any one courteously who thus approached him. But there was more; this appeal evidently alluded to his intentions of marriage; it was connected with the threat of disinheritance which he had overheard on entering the house. If he would promise[78] to “join the church,” if he would even only appear to take the step into favorable consideration, he could remove the objections of this earnest woman to his betrothal, and secure her property to his future wife. But Foster could not do what policy demanded; he had his “honest doubts,” and he could not remove them by an exercise of will; moreover, he was too self-respectful and honorable to be a hypocrite. After pondering Aunt Mercy’s question for a moment, he answered with a dignity of soul which was not appreciated,—
“I should have no objection to what you propose, if it would not be misunderstood. If it would only mean that I believe in God, and that I worship his power and goodness, I would oblige you. But it would be received as meaning more,—as meaning that I accept doctrines which I am still examining,—as meaning that I take upon myself obligations which I do not yet hold binding.”
“Don’t you believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” demanded Miss Mercy, striking home with telling directness.
“I believe in a Deity who views his whole universe with equal love. I believe in a Deity greater than I always hear preached.”
Miss Mercy was puzzled; for while this confession of faith did not quite tally with what she was accustomed to receive from pulpits, there was about it a largeness of religious perception which slightly excited her awe. Nevertheless, it showed a dangerous vagueness, and she decided to demand something more explicit.
“What are your opinions on the inspiration of the Scriptures?” she asked.
He had been reading Colenso’s work on Genesis; and, so far as he could judge the Bishop’s premises, he agreed with his conclusions. At the same time he was aware that such an exegesis would seem simple heresy to Miss Mercy, and that whoever held it would be condemned by her as a heathen and an infidel. After a moment of hesitation, he responded bravely and honestly, though with a placating smile.
“Miss Lauson, there are some subjects, indeed there are many subjects, on which I have no fixed opinions. I used to have opinions on almost everything; but I found them very troublesome, I had to change them so often! I have decided not to declare any more positive opinions, but only to entertain suppositions to the effect that this or that may be the case; meantime holding myself ready to change my hypotheses on further evidence.”
Although he seemed to her guilty of shuffling away from her question, yet she, in the main, comprehended his reply distinctly enough. He did not believe in plenary inspiration; that was clear, and so also was her duty clear; she must not let him have her niece nor her money.
Now there was a something in her face like the forming of columns for an assault, or rather like the irrational, ungovernable gathering of clouds for a storm. Her staid, melancholy soul—a soul which usually lay in chains and solitary—climbed writhing to her lips and eyes, and made angry gestures before it spoke. Bessie stared at her in alarm; she tried, in a spirit of youthful energy, to look her down; but the struggle of prevention was useless; the hostile words came.
“Mr. Foster, I can’t willingly give my niece to such an one as you,” she said in a tremulous but desperate monotone. “I s’pose, though, it’s no use forbidding you to go with her. I s’pose you wouldn’t mind that. But I expect you will care for one thing,—for her good. My will is made now in her favor. But if she marries you I shall change it. I sha’n’t leave her a cent.”
Here her sickly strength broke down; such plain utterance of feeling and purpose was too much for her nerves; she burst into honest, bitter tears, and, rushing to her room, locked herself up; no doubt, too, she prayed there long, and read solemnly in the Scriptures.
What was the result of this conscientious but no doubt unwise remonstrance? After a shock of disagreeable surprise, the two lovers did what all true lovers would have done; they entered into a solemn engagement that no considerations of fortune should prevent their marriage. They shut their eyes on the future, braved all the adverse chances of life, and almost prayed for trials in order that each might show the other greater devotion. The feeling was natural and ungovernable, and I claim also that it was beautiful and noble.
“Do you know all?” asked Bessie. “Grandfather has never proposed to leave me anything, he hated my father so! It was always understood that Aunt Mercy was to take care of me.”
“I want nothing with you,” said Foster. “I will slave myself to death for you. I will rejoice to do it.”
“O, I knew it would be so!” replied the girl, almost faint with joy and love. “I knew you would be true to me. I knew how grand you were.”
When they looked out upon the earth, after this scene, during which they had been conscious of nothing but each other, the storm had fled beyond verdant hills, and a rainbow spanned all the visible landscape, seeming to them indeed a bow of promise.
“O, we can surely be happy in such a world as this!” said Bessie, her face colored and illuminated by youth, hope, and love.
“We will find a cloud castle somewhere,” responded the young man, pointing to the western sky, piled with purple and crimson.
Bessie was about to accompany him to the gate on his departure, as was her simple and affectionate custom, when a voice called her up stairs.
“O dear!” she exclaimed, pettishly. “It seems as if I couldn’t have a moment’s peace. Good by, my darling.”
During the close of that day, at the hour which in Barham was known as “early candle-lighting,” the Lauson tragedy began to take form. The mysterious shadow which vaguely announced its on-coming was the disappearance from the family ken of that lighthouse of regularity, that fast-rooted monument of strict habit, Aunt Mercy. The kerosene lamp which had so long beamed upon her darnings and mendings, or upon her more ?sthetic labors in behalf of the Barham sewing society, or upon the open yellow pages of her Scott’s Commentary and Baxter’s Saints’ Rest, now flared distractedly about the sitting-room, as if in amazement at her absence. Nowhere was seen her tall, thin, hard form, the truthful outward expression of her lean and sickly soul; nowhere[82] was heard the afflicted squeak of her broad calfskin shoes, symbolical of the worryings of her fretful c............
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