She had dropped the key in the struggle, and must come near him cardano on chainto look for it in the thick rug. He was still only raised on one hand, but he made a sudden grab at her foot, pulling her down.
"You have made metron out of energy happy, me who adore you," was the evasive reply.Josephine came in from her walk with a high color and beaming eyes,and screamed, "Run, Rose!"On this concise, and to us not very clear instruction, Rose slippedup the secret stair. She saw Camille come in and gravely unpack hislittle portmanteau, and dispose his things in the drawers withsoldier-like neatness, and hum an agreeable march. She came andtold Josephine.
"Ah!" said Josephine with a little sigh of pleasure, and a gentletriumph in her eyes.She had not only got her desire, but had arrived at it her way,--woman's way, round about.This adroit benevolence led to more than she bargained for. She andCamille were now together every day: and their hearts, being underrestraint in public, melted together all the more in their stoleninterviews.At the third delicious interview the modest Camille begged Josephineto be his wife directly.Have you noticed those half tame deer that come up to you in a parkso lovingly, with great tender eyes, and, being now almost withinreach, stop short, and with bodies fixed like statues on pedestals,crane out their graceful necks for sugar, or bread, or a chestnut,or a pocket-handkerchief? Do but offer to put your hand upon them,away they bound that moment twenty yards, and then stand quitestill, and look at your hand and you, with great inquiring,suspicious, tender eyes.
So Josephine started at Camille's audacious proposal. "Nevermention such a thing to me again: or--or, I will not walk with youany more:" then she thrilled with pleasure at the obnoxious idea,"she Camille's wife!" and colored all over--with rage, Camillethought. He promised submissively not to renew the topic: no morehe did till next day. Josephine had spent nearly the whole intervalin thinking of it; so she was prepared to put him down by calmreasons. She proceeded to do so, gently, but firmly.Lo and behold! what does he do, but meets her with just as manyreasons, and just as calm ones: and urges them gently, but firmly.His distraught eyes rested on the church spire, fading in the twilight, and the little adjoining graveyard. "Oh, Bessie," he groaned, "why did you die? I was good enough for YOU. Oh! That all had gone on as it was and I had never known--"
He stopped, shook his head, and was silent. At last he signed, "I DID love Bessie. I love and respect her memory as much as ever. But somehow I never felt as I do now. All was quiet and matter-of-fact in those days, yet it was real and satisfying. I was content to live on, one day like another, to the end of my days. If I hadn't been so content it would be better for me now.I'd have a better chance if I had read more, thought more, and fitted myself to be more of a companion for a woman like Alida. If I knew a great deal and could talk well, she might forget I'm old and homely. Bessie was so true a friend that she would wish, if she knows, what I wish. I thought I needed a housekeeper; I find I need more than all else such a wife as Alida could be--one that could help me to be a man instead of a drudge, a Christian instead of a discontented and uneasy unbeliever. At one time, it seemed that she was leading me along so naturally and pleasantly that I never was so happy; then all at once it came to me that she was doing it from gratitude and a sense of duty, and the duty grows harder for her every day. Well, there seems nothing for it now but to go on as we began and hope that the future will bring us more in sympathy."Chapter 31 ＂Never!＂For the next two or three days Jane had no occasion to observe that Alida was in the least degree obtrusive in her attention to the farmer. She was assiduous in her work and more diligent than ever in her conscious efforts to do what she thought he wished; but she was growing pale, constrained, and silent. She struggled heroically to appear as at first, but without much success, for she could not rally from the wound he had given her so unintentionally and which Jane's words had deepened. She almost loathed herself under her association with Mrs. Mumpson, and her morbid thoughts had hit upon a worse reason for Holcroft's apparent repulsion. As she questioned everything in the sleepless hours that followed the interview in the garden, she came to the miserable conclusion that he had discovered her love, and that by suggestion, natural to his mind, it reminded him of her pitiful story. He could be sorry for her and be kind; he could even be her honest friend and protector as a wronged and unhappy woman, but he could not love one with a history like hers and did not wish her to love him. This seemed an adequate explanation of the change in their relations, but she felt that it was one under which her life would wither and her heart break.
This promised to be worse than what she had dreaded at the almshouse--the facing the world alone and working till she died among strangers. The fact that they were strangers would enable her to see their averted faces with comparative indifference, but that the man to whom she had yielded her whole heart should turn away was intolerable. She felt that he could not do this willingly but only under the imperious instincts of his nature--that he was virtually helpless in the matter. There was an element in these thoughts which stung her woman's soul, and, as we have said, she could not rally.Holcroft never suspected her morbid thoughts, and his loyal, loving heart was incapable of dreaming of them. He only grew more unhappy as he saw the changes in her, for he regarded himself as the cause. Yet he was perplexed and unable to account for her rapidly increasing pallor while he continued so kind, considerate, and especially so unobtrusive. He assuredly thought he was showing a disposition to give her all the time she wished to become reconciled to her lot. "Thunder!" he said to himself, "we can't grow old together without getting used to each other."
On Saturday noon, at dinner, he remarked, "I shall have to begin haying on Monday and so I'll take everything to town this afternoon, for I won't be able to go again for some days. Is there anything you'd like me to get, Mrs. Holcroft?"She shook her head. "I don't need anything," she replied. He looked at her downcast face with troubled eyes and shivered. "She looks as if she were going to be sick," he thought. "Good Lord! I feel as if there was nothing but trouble ahead. Every mouthful I take seems to choke me."A little later he pushed away almost untasted a piece of delicious cherry pie, the first of the season. Alida could scarcely keep the tears back as she thought, "There was a time when he would have praised it without stint. I took so much pains with it in the hope he'd notice, for he once said he was very fond of it." Such were the straws that were indicating the deep, dark currents.As he rose, she said almost apathetically in her dejection, "Mr. Holcroft, Jane and I picked a basket of the early cherries. You may as well sell them, for there are plenty left on the tree for us."
"That was too much for you to do in the hot sun. Well, I'll sell 'em and add what they bring to your egg money in the bank. You'll get rich," he continued, trying to smile, "if you don't spend more.""I don't wish to spend anything," she said, turning away with the thought, "How can he think I want finery when my heart is breaking?"Holcroft drove away, looking and feeling as if he were going to a funeral. At last he broke out, "I can't stand this another day. Tomorrow's Sunday, and I'll manage to send Jane somewhere or take Alida out to walk and tell her the whole truth. She shall be made to see that I can't help myself and that I'm willing to do anything she wishes. She's married to me and has got to make the best of it, and I'm sure I'm willing to make it as easy as I can."Jane was a little perplexed at the condition of affairs. Mrs. Holcroft had left her husband alone as far as possible, as she had advised, but apparently it had not helped matters much. But she believed that the trouble she had witnessed bode her no ill and so was inclined to regard it philosophically. "He looks almost as glum, when he's goin' round alone, as if he'd married mother. She talked too much, and that didn't please him; this one talks less and less, and he don't seem pleased, nuther, but it seems to me he's very foolish to be so fault-findin' when she does everything for him top-notch. I never lived so well in my life, nor he, nuther, I believe. He must be in a bad way when he couldn't eat that cherry pie."
Alida was so weary and felt so ill that she went to the parlor and lay down upon the lounge. "My heart feels as if it were bleeding slowly away," she murmured. "If I'm going to be sick the best thing I can do is to die and end it all," and she gave way to that deep dejection in which there seems no remedy for trouble.The hours dragged slowly by; Jane finished her household tasks very leisurely, then taking a basket, went out to the garden to pick some early peas. While thus engaged, she saw a man coming up the lane. His manner instantly riveted her attention and awakened her curiosity, and she crouched lower behind the pea vines for concealment. All her furtive, watchful instincts were awake, and her conscience was clear, too, for certainly she had a right to spy upon a stranger.
The man seemed almost as furtive as herself; his eyes were everywhere and his step slow and hesitating. Instead of going directly to the house he cautiously entered the barn, and she heard him a little later call Mr. Holcroft. Of course there was no answer, and as if reassured, he approached the house, looking here and there on every side, seemingly to see if anyone was about. Jane had associated with men and boys too long to have any childlike timidity, and she also had just confidence in her skulking and running powers. "After all, he don't want nothin' of me and won't hurt me," she reasoned. "He acts mighty queer though and I'm goin' to hear what he says."The moment he passed the angle of the house she dodged around to its rear and stole into the dairy room, being well aware that from this position she could overhear words spoken in ordinary conversational tones in the apartment above. She had barely gained her ambush when she heard Alida half shriek, "Henry Ferguson!"
It was indeed the man who had deceived her that had stolen upon her solitude. His somewhat stealthy approach had been due to the wish and expectation of finding her alone, and he had about convinced himself that she was so by exploring the barn and observing the absence of the horses and wagon. Cunning and unscrupulous, it was his plan to appear before the woman who had thought herself his wife, without any warning whatever, believing that in the tumult of her surprise and shock she would be off her guard and that her old affection would reassert itself. He passed through the kitchen to the parlor door. Alida, in her deep, painful abstraction, did not hear him until he stood in the doorway, and, with outstretched arms, breathed her name. Then, as if struck a blow, she had sprung to her feet, half shrieked his name and stood panting, regarding him as if he were a specter."Your surprise is natural, Alida, dear," he said gently, "but I've a right to come to you, for my wife is dead," and he advanced toward her."Stand back!" she cried sternly. "You've no right, and never can have.""Oh, yes, I have!" he replied in a wheedling tone. "Come, come! Your nerves are shaken. Sit down, for I've much to tell you.""No, I won't sit down, and I tell you to leave me instantly. You've no right here and I no right to listen to you.""I can soon prove that you have a better right to listen to me than to anyone else. Were we not married by a minister?"
"Yes, but that made no difference. You deceived both him and me.""It made no difference, perhaps, in the eye of the law, while that woman you saw was living, but she's dead, as I can easily prove. How were you married to this man Holcroft?"
Alida grew dizzy; everything whirled and grew black before her eyes as she sank into a chair. He came to her and took her hand, but his touch was a most effectual restorative. She threw his hand away and said hoarsely, "Do you--do you mean that you have any claim on me?""Who has a better claim?" he asked cunningly. "I loved you when I married you and I love you now. Do you think I rested a moment after I was free from the woman I detested? No, indeed; nor did I rest till I found out who took you from the almshouse to be his household drudge, not wife. I've seen the justice who aided in the wedding farce, and learned how this man Holcroft made him cut down even the ceremony of a civil marriage to one sentence. It was positively heathenish, and he only took you because he couldn't get a decent servant to live with him."
"O God!" murmured the stricken woman. "Can such a horrible thing be?""So it seems," he resumed, misinterpreting her. "Come now!" he said confidently, and sitting down, "Don't look so broken up about it. Even while that woman was living I felt that I was married to you and you only; now that I'm free--"
"But I'm not free and don't wish to be.""Don't be foolish, Alida. You know this farmer don't care a rap for you. Own up now, does he?"The answer was a low, half-despairing cry."There, I knew it was so. What else could you expect? Don't you see I'm your true refuge and not this hard-hearted, money-grasping farmer?"
"Stop speaking against him!" she cried. "O God!" she wailed, "can the law give this man any claim on me, now his wife is dead?""Yes, and one I mean to enforce," he replied doggedly.
"I don't believe she's dead, I don't believe anything you say! You deceived me once."I'm not deceiving you now, Alida," he said with much solemnity. "She IS dead. If you were calmer, I have proofs to convince you in these papers. Here's the newspaper, too, containing the notice of her death," and he handed it to her.
She read it with her frightened eyes, and then the paper dropped from her half-paralyzed hands to the floor. She was so unsophisticated, and her brain was in such a whirl of confusion and terror, that she was led to believe at the moment that he had a legal claim upon her which he could enforce."Oh, that Mr. Holcroft were here!" she cried desperately. "He wouldn't deceive me; he never deceived me."
"It is well for him that he isn't here," said Ferguson, assuming a dark look."What do you mean?" she gasped."Come, come, Alida!" he said, smiling reassuringly. "You are frightened and nervous, and I don't wish to make you any more so. You know how I would naturally regard the man who I feel has my wife; but let us forget about him. Listen to my plan. All I ask of you is to go with me to some distant place where neither of us are known, and--""Never!" she interrupted.
"Don't say that," he replied coolly. "Do you think I'm a man to be trifled with after what I've been through?""You can't compel me to go against my will," and there was an accent of terror in her words which made them a question.
He saw his vantage more clearly and said quietly, "I don't want to compel you if it can be helped. You know how true I was to you--""No, no! You deceived me. I won't believe you now."
"You may have to. At any rate, you know how fond I was of you, and I tell you plainly, I won't give you up now. This man doesn't love you, nor do you love him--""I DO love him, I'd die for him! There now, you know the truth. You wouldn't compel a woman to follow you who shrinks from you in horror, even if you had the right. Although the ceremony was brief it WAS a ceremony; and he was not married then, as you were when you deceived me. He has ever been truth itself, and I won't believe you have any rights till he tells me so himself."