"Oh, how clever!" she cried, "and how rapid! What a facility youhave! Moproject on cardano blockchainnsieur is an artist," said she gravely; "I will be morerespectful," and she dropped him a low courtesy. "Mind you promisedit me," she added sharply.
During this speech, Holcroft could only stare at the woman. The rapid motion of her thin jaw seemed to fascinate him, and he was in perplexity over not merelbittorrent crackedy her rapid utterance, but also the queries. Had she maliciously spoiled the coffee? Or didn't she know any better? "I can't make her out," he thought, "but she shall learn that I have a will of my own," and he quietly rose, took the coffeepot, and poured its contents out of doors; then went through the whole process of making his favorite beverage again, saying coldly, "Jane, you had better watch close this time. I don't wish anyone to touch the coffeepot but you."Even Mrs. Mumpson was a little abashed by his manner, but when he resumed his breakfast she speedily recovered her complacency and volubility. "I've always heard," she said, with her little cackling laugh, "that men would be extravergant, especially in some things. There are some things they're fidgety about and will have just so. Well, well, who has a better right than a well-to-do, fore-handed man? Woman is to complement the man, and it should be her aim to study the great--the great--shall we say reason, for her being? Which is adaptation," and she uttered the word with feeling, assured that Holcroft could not fail of being impressed by it. The poor man was bolting such food as had been prepared in his haste to get away.
"Yes," continued the widow, "adaptation is woman's mission and--""Really, Mrs. Mumpson, your and Jane's mission this morning will be to get as much butter as possible out of the cream and milk on hand. I'll set the old dog on the wheel, and start the churn within half an hour," and he rose with the thought, "I'd rather finish my breakfast on milk and coffee by and by than stand this." And he said, "Please let the coffee be until I come in to show you about taking out and working the butter."The scenes in the dairy need not be dwelt upon. He saw that Jane might be taught, and that she would probably try to do all that her strength permitted. It was perfectly clear that Mrs. Mumpson was not only ignorant of the duties which he had employed her to perform, but that she was also too preoccupied with her talk and notions of gentility ever to learn. He was already satisfied that in inducing him to engage her, Lemuel Weeks had played him a trick, but there seemed no other resource than to fulfill his agreement. With Mrs. Mumpson in the house, there might be less difficulty in securing and keeping a hired girl who, with Jane, might do the essential work. But the future looked so unpromising that even the strong coffee could not sustain his spirits. The hopefulness of the early morning departed, leaving nothing but dreary uncertainty.Mrs. Mumpson was bent upon accompanying him to town and engaging the girl herself. "There would be great propriety in my doing so," she argued at dinner, "and propriety is something that adorns all the human race. There would be no danger of my getting any of the peculiar females such as you have been afflicted with. As I am to superintend her labors, she will look up to me with respect and humility if she learns from the first to recognize in me a superior on whom she will be dependent for her daily bread. No shiftless hussy would impose upon ME. I would bring home--how sweet the word sounds!--a model of industry and patient endurance. She would be deferential, she would know her place, too. Everything would go like clockwork in our home. I'll put on my things at once and--""Excuse me, Mrs. Mumpson. It would not be right to leave Jane here alone. Moreover, I'd rather engage my own help."
"But my dear Mr. Holcroft, you don't realize--men never do realize--that you will have a long, lonely ride with a female of unknown--unknown antercedents. It will be scarcely respecterble, and respecterbility should be man and woman's chief aim. Jane is not a timid child, and in an emergency like this, even if she was, she would gladly sacrifice herself to sustain the proprieties of life. Now that your life has begun under new and better auspices, I feel that I ought to plead with you not to cloud your brightening prospects by a thoughtless unregard of what society looks upon as proper. The eyes of the community will now be upon us--""You must excuse me, Mrs. Mumpson. All I ask of the community is to keep their eyes on their own business, while I attend to mine in my own way. The probabilities are that the girl will come out on the stage Monday," and he rose from the dinner table and hastily made his preparations for departure. He was soon driving rapidly away, having a sort of nervous apprehension lest Jane, or the widow, should suddenly appear on the seat beside him. A basket of eggs and some inferior butter, with the burnt-out stove, were in his wagon and his bank book was in his pocket. It was with sinking heart that he thought of making further inroads on his small accumulations.With the exception of the episode of dinner the day was chiefly passed by Alida in a health-restoring languor, the natural reaction from the distress and strong excitements of the past. The rest that had been enjoined upon her was a blessed privilege, and still more happy was the truth that she could rest. Reclining on the lounge in the parlor, with a wood fire on one side and the April sun on the other, both creating warmth and good cheer, she felt like those who have just escaped from a wreck and engulfing waves. Her mind was too weary to question either the past or the future, and sometimes a consciousness of safety is happiness in itself. In the afternoon, the crackling of the fire and the calling and singing of the birds without formed a soothing lullaby and she fell asleep.
At last, in a dream, she heard exquisite music which appeared to grow so loud, strong, and triumphant that she started up and looked around bewildered. A moment later, she saw that a robin was singing in a lilac bush by the window and that near the bird was a nest partially constructed. She recalled her hopeless grief when she had last seen the building of one of their little homes; and she fell upon her knees with a gratitude too deep for words, and far more grateful to Heaven than words.Stepping out on the porch, she saw by the shadows that the sun was low in the west and that Holcroft was coming down the lane with his horses. He nodded pleasantly as he passed on to the barn. Her eyes followed him lingeringly till he disappeared, and then they ranged over the wide valley and the wooded hills in the distance. Not a breath of air was stirring; the lowing of cattle and other rural sounds softened by distance came from other farmhouses; the birds were at vespers, and their songs, to her fancy, were imbued with a softer, sweeter melody than in the morning. From the adjacent fields came clear, mellow notes that made her nerves tingle, so ethereal yet penetrating were they. She was sure she had never heard such bird music before. When Holcroft came in to supper she asked, "What birds are those that sing in the field?""Meadow larks. Do you like them?""I never heard a hymn sung that did me more good."
"Well, I own up, I'd rather hear 'em than much of the singing we used to have down at the meeting house.""It seems to me," she remarked, as she sat down at the table, "that I've never heard birds sing as they have today."
"Now I think of it, they have been tuning up wonderfully. Perhaps they've an idea of my good luck," he added smilingly."I had thought of that about myself," she ventured. "I took a nap this afternoon, and a robin sang so near the window that he woke me up. It was a pleasant way to be waked.""Took a nap, did you? That's famous! Well, well! This day's gone just to suit me, and I haven't had many such in a good while, I can tell you. I've got in a big strip of oats, and now, when I come in tired, here's a good supper. I certainly shall have to be on the watch to do Tom Watterly good turns for talking me into this business. That taking a nap was a first-rate idea. You ought to keep it up for a month.""No, indeed! There's no reason why you should work hard and I be idle. I've rested today, as you wished, and I feel better than I ever expected to again; but tomorrow I must begin in earnest. What use is there of your keeping your cows if good butter is not made? Then I must be busy with my needle."
"Yes, that's true enough. See how thoughtless I am! I forgot you hadn't any clothes to speak of. I ought to take you to town to a dressmaker.""I think you had better get your oats in," she replied, smiling shyly. "Besides, I have a dressmaker that just suits me--one that's made my dresses a good many years.""If she don't suit you, you're hard to be suited," said he, laughing. "Well, some day, after you are fixed up, I shall have to let you know how dilapidated I am.""Won't you do me a little favor?"
"Oh, yes! A dozen of 'em, big or little.""Please bring down this evening something that needs mending. I am so much better--"
"No, no! I wasn't hinting for you to do anything tonight.""But you've promised me," she urged. "Remember I've been resting nearly all day. I'm used to sewing, and earned my living at it. Somehow, it don't seem natural for me to sit with idle hands."
"If I hadn't promised--""But you have.""I suppose I'm fairly caught," and he brought down a little of the most pressing of the mending."Now I'll reward you," she said, handing him his pipe, well filled. "You go in the parlor and have a quiet smoke. I won't be long in clearing up the kitchen.""What! Smoke in the parlor?""Yes, why not? I assure you I don't mind it."
"Ha! Ha! Why didn't I think of it before--I might have kept the parlor and smoked Mrs. Mumpson out.""It won't be smoke that will keep me out."
"I should hope not, or anything else. I must tell you how I DID have to smoke Mrs. Mumpson out at last," and he did so with so much drollery that she again yielded to irrepressible laughter."Poor thing! I'm sorry for her," she said.
"I'm sorry for Jane--poor little stray cat of a child! I hope we can do something for her some day," and having lighted his pipe, he took up the county paper, left weekly in a hollow tree by the stage driver, and went into the parlor.After freshening up the fire he sat down to read, but by the time she joined him the tired man was nodding. He tried to brighten up, but his eyes were heavy.
"You've worked hard today," she said sympathetically."Well, I have," he answered. "I've not done such a good day's work in a year.""Then why don't you go to sleep at once?""It don't seem polite--"
"Please don't talk that way," she interrupted. "I don't mind being alone at all. I shall feel a great deal more at home if you forget all about ceremony.""Well, Alida, I guess we had both better begin on that basis. If I give up when I'm tired, you must. You mustn't think I'm always such a sleepyhead. The fact is I've been more tired out with worry of late than with work. I can laugh about it now, but I've been so desperate over it that I've felt more like swearing. You'll find out I've become a good deal of a heathen."
"Very well; I'll wait till I find out.""I think we are getting acquainted famously, don't you?"
"Yes," she nodded, with a smile that meant more than a long speech. "Good night."Chapter 23 Between the Past and Future
Human nature, in common with Mother Nature, has its immutable laws. The people who existed before the flood were, in their primal motives, like those of today. The conventionality of highly civilized society does not change the heart, but it puts so much restraint upon it that not a few appear heartless. They march through life and fight its battles like uniformed men, trained in a certain school of tactics. The monotony of character and action is superficial, in most cases, rather than real, and he who fathoms the eyes of others, who catches the subtle quality of tones and interprets the flexible mouth that utters them, will discover that the whole gamut of human nature exists in those that appear only like certain musical instruments, made by machinery to play a few well-known tunes. Conventional restraint often, no doubt, produces dwarfed and defective human nature. I suppose that if souls could be put under a microscope, the undeveloped rudiments of almost everything would be discovered. It is more satisfactory to study the things themselves than their suggestions; this we are usually better able to do among people of simple and untrammeled modes of life, who are not practiced in disguises. Their peculiar traits and their general and dominant laws and impulses are exhibited with less reserve than by those who have learned to be always on their guard. Of course there are commonplace yeomen as truly as commonplace aristocrats, and simple life abounds in simpletons.When a man in Holcroft's position has decided traits, they are apt to have a somewhat full expression; his rugged nature beside a tamer one outlines itself more vividly, just as a mountain peak is silhouetted against the horizon better than a rounded hill. It probably has been observed that his character possessed much simplicity and directness. He had neither the force nor the ambition to raise him above his circumstances; he was merely decided within the lines of his environment. Perhaps the current of his life was all the stronger for being narrow. His motives were neither complex nor vacillating. He had married to keep his home and to continue in the conditions of life dear from association and the strongest preference, and his heart overflowed with good will and kindness toward Alida because she promised to solve the hard problem of the future satisfactorily. Apart from the sympathy which her misfortune had evoked, he probably could have felt much the same toward any other good, sensible woman, had she rendered him a similar service. It is true, now that Alida was in his home, that she was manifesting agreeable traits which gave him pleasant little surprises. He had not expected that he would have had half so much to say to her, yet felt it his duty to be sociable in order to cheer up and mark the line between even a business marriage and the employment of a domestic. Both his interest and his duty required that he should establish the bonds of strong friendly regard on the basis of perfect equality, and he would have made efforts, similar to those he put forth, in behalf of any woman, if she had consented to marry him with Alida's understanding. Now, however, that his suddenly adopted project of securing a housekeeper and helper had been consummated, he would find that he was not dealing with a business partner in the abstract, but a definite woman, who had already begun to exert over him her natural influence. He had expected more or less constraint and that some time must elapse before his wife would cease to be in a sense company whom he, with conscious and deliberate effort, must entertain. On the contrary she entertained and interested him, although she said so little, and by some subtle power she unloosed his tongue and made it easy for him to talk to her. In the most quiet and unobtrusive way, she was not only making herself at home, but him also; she was very subservient to his wishes, but not servilely so; she did not assert, but only revealed her superiority, and after even so brief an acquaintance he was ready to indorse Tom Watterly's view, "She's out of the common run."While all this was true, the farmer's heart was as untouched as that of a child who simply and instinctively likes a person. He was still quietly and unhesitatingly loyal to his former wife. Apart from his involuntary favor, his shrewd, practical reason was definite enough in its grounds of approval. Reason assured him that she promised to do and to be just what he had married her for, but this might have been true of a capable, yet disagreeable woman whom he could not like, to save himself.Both in regard to himself and Alida, Holcroft accepted the actual facts with the gladness and much of the unquestioning simplicity of a child. This rather risky experiment was turning out well, and for a time he daily became more and more absorbed in his farm and its interests. Alida quietly performed her household tasks and proved that she would not need very much instruction to become a good butter maker. The short spring of the North required that he should be busy early and late to keep pace with the quickly passing seedtime. His hopefulness, his freedom from household worries, prompted him to sow and plant increased areas of land. In brief, he entered on just the business-like honeymoon he had hoped for.
Alida was more than content with the conditions of her life. She saw that Holcroft was not only satisfied, but also pleased with her, and that was all she had expected and indeed all that thus far she had wished or hoped. She had many sad hours; wounds like hers cannot heal readily in a true, sensitive woman's heart. While she gained in cheerfulness and confidence, the terrible and unexpected disaster which had overtaken her rendered impossible the serenity of those with whom all has gone well. Dread of something, she knew not what, haunted her painfully, and memory at times seemed malignantly perverse in recalling one whom she prayed to forget.Next to her faith and Holcroft's kindness her work was her best solace, and she thanked God for the strength to keep busy.
On the first Sunday morning after their marriage the farmer overslept, and breakfast had been ready some time when he came down. He looked with a little dismay at the clock over the kitchen mantel and asked, "Aren't you going to scold a little?"She shook her head, nor did she look the chiding which often might as well be spoken.
"How long have I kept breakfast waiting, or you rather?""What difference does it make? You needed the rest. The breakfast may not be so nice," was her smiling answer.