Work: A Story of Experience by Louisa May Alcott - HTML preview
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X. Beginning Again
IT was an April day when Christie went to her new home. Warm rains had melted the last trace of snow, and every bank was full of pricking grass-blades, brave little pioneers and heralds of the Spring. The budding elm boughs swung in the wind; blue-jays screamed among the apple-trees; and robins chirped shrilly, as if rejoicing over winter hardships safely passed. Vernal freshness was in the air despite its chill, and lovely hints of summer time were everywhere.
These welcome sights and sounds met Christie, as she walked down the lane, and, coming to a gate, paused there to look about her. An old-fashioned cottage stood in the midst of a garden just awakening from its winter sleep. One elm hung protectingly over the low roof, sunshine lay warmly on it, and at every window flowers' bright faces smiled at the passer-by invitingly.
On one side glittered a long green-house, and on the other stood a barn, with a sleek cow ruminating in the yard, and an inquiring horse poking his head out of his stall to view the world. Many comfortable gray hens were clucking and scratching about the hay-strewn floor, and a flock of doves sat cooing on the roof.
A quiet, friendly place it looked; for nothing marred its peace, and the hopeful, healthful spirit of the season seemed to haunt the spot. Snow-drops and crocuses were up in one secluded nook; a plump maltese cat sat purring in the porch; and a dignified old dog came marching down the walk to escort the stranger in. With a brightening face Christie went up the path, and tapped at the quaint knocker, hoping that the face she was about to see would be in keeping with the pleasant place.
She was not disappointed, for the dearest of little Quaker ladies opened to her, with such an air of peace and good-will that the veriest ruffian, coming to molest or make afraid, would have found it impossible to mar the tranquillity of that benign old face, or disturb one fold of the soft muslin crossed upon her breast."I come from Mr. Power, and I have a note for Mrs. Sterling," began Christie in her gentlest tone, as her last fear vanished at sight of that mild maternal figure.
"I am she; come in, friend; I am glad to see thee," said the old lady, smiling placidly, as she led the way into a room whose principal furniture seemed to be books, flowers, and sunshine.
The look, the tone, the gentle "thee," went straight to Christie's heart; and, while Mrs. Sterling put on her spectacles and slowly read the note, she stroked the cat and said to herself: "Surely, I have fallen among a set of angels. I thought Mrs. Wilkins a sort of saint, Mr. Power was an improvement even upon that good soul, and if I am not mistaken this sweet little lady is the best and dearest of all. I do hope she will like me."
"It is quite right, my dear, and I am most glad to see thee; for we need help at this season of the year, and have had none for several weeks. Step up to the room at the head of the stairs, and lay off thy things. Then, if thee is not tired, I will give thee a little job with me in the kitchen," said the old lady with a kindly directness which left no room for awkwardness on the new-comer's part.
Up went Christie, and after a hasty look round a room as plain and white and still as a nun's cell, she whisked on a working-apron and ran down again, feeling, as she fancied the children did in the fairy tale, when they first arrived at the house of the little old woman who lived in the wood.
Mrs. Wilkins's kitchen was as neat as a room could be, wherein six children came and went, but this kitchen was tidy with the immaculate order of which Shakers and Quakers alone seem to possess the secret,--a fragrant, shining cleanliness, that made even black kettles ornamental and dish-pans objects of interest. Nothing burned or boiled over, though the stove was full of dinner-pots and skillets. There was no litter or hurry, though the baking of cake and pies was going on, and when Mrs. Sterling put a pan of apples, and a knife into her new assistant's hands, saying in a tone that made the request a favor, "Will thee kindly pare these for me?" Christie wondered what would happen if she dropped a seed upon the floor, or did not cut the apples into four exact quarters.
"I never shall suit this dear prim soul," she thought, as her eye went from Puss, sedately perched on one small mat, to the dog dozing upon another, and neither offering to stir from their own dominions.
This dainty nicety amused her at first, but she liked it, and very soon her thoughts went back to the old times when she worked with Aunt Betsey, and learned the good oldfashioned arts which now were to prove her fitness for this pleasant place.
Mrs. Sterling saw the shadow that crept into Christie's face, and led the chat to cheerful things, not saying much herself, but beguiling the other to talk, and listening with an interest that made it easy to go on.
Mr. Power and the Wilkinses made them friends very soon; and in an hour or two Christie was moving about the kitchen as if she had already taken possession of her new kingdom."Thee likes housework I think," said Mrs. Sterling, as she watched her hang up a towel to dry, and rinse her dish-cloth when the cleaning up was done.
"Oh, yes! if I need not do it with a shiftless Irish girl to drive me distracted by pretending to help. I have lived out, and did not find it hard while I had my good Hepsey. I was second girl, and can set a table in style. Shall I try now?" she asked, as the old lady went into a little dining-room with fresh napkins in her hand."Yes, but we have no style here. I will show thee once, and hereafter it will be thy work, as thy feet are younger than mine."
A nice old-fashioned table was soon spread, and Christie kept smiling at the contrast between this and Mrs. Stuart's. Chubby little pitchers appeared, delicate old glass, queer china, and tiny tea-spoons; linen as smooth as satin, and a quaint tankard that might have come over in the "May-flower."
"Now, will thee take that pitcher of water to David's room? It is at the top of the house, and may need a little dusting. I have not been able to attend to it as I would like since I have been alone," said Mrs. Sterling.
Rooms usually betray something of the character and tastes of their occupants, and Christie paused a moment as she entered David's, to look about her with feminine interest.It was the attic, and extended the whole length of the house. One end was curtained off as a bedroom, and she smiled at its austere simplicity.
A gable in the middle made a sunny recess, where were stored bags and boxes of seed, bunches of herbs, and shelves full of those tiny pots in which baby plants are born and nursed till they can grow alone.
The west end was evidently the study, and here Christie took a good look as she dusted tidily. The furniture was nothing, only an old sofa, with the horsehair sticking out in tufts here and there; an antique secretary; and a table covered with books. As she whisked the duster down the front of the ancient piece of furniture, one of the doors in the upper half swung open, and Christie saw three objects that irresistibly riveted her eyes for a moment. A broken fan, a bundle of letters tied up with a black ribbon, and a little workbasket in which lay a fanciful needle-book with "Letty" embroidered on it in faded silk"Poor David, that is his little shrine, and I have no right to see it," thought Christie, shutting the door with self-reproachful haste.
At the table she paused again, for books always attracted her, and here she saw a goodly array whose names were like the faces of old friends, because she remembered them in her father's library.
Faust was full of ferns, Shakspeare, of rough sketches of the men and women whom he has made immortal. Saintly Herbert lay side by side with Saint Augustine's confessions. Milton and Montaigne stood socially together, and Andersen's lovely "Märchen" fluttered its pictured leaves in the middle of an open Plato; while several books in unknown tongues were half-hidden by volumes of Browning, Keats, and Coleridge.In the middle of this fine society, slender and transparent as the spirit of a shape, stood a little vase holding one half-opened rose, fresh and fragrant as if just gathered. Christie smiled as she saw it, and wondered if the dear, dead, or false woman had been fond of roses.
Then her eye went to the mantel-piece, just above the table, and she laughed; for, on it stood three busts, idols evidently, but very shabby ones; for Göthe's nose was broken, Schiller's head cracked visibly, and the dust of ages seemed to have settled upon Linnæus in the middle. On the wall above them hung a curious old picture of a monk kneeling in a devout ecstasy, while the face of an angel is dimly seen through the radiance that floods the cell with divine light. Portraits of Mr. Power and Martin Luther stared thoughtfully at one another from either side, as if making up their minds to shake hands in spite of time and space.
"Melancholy, learned, and sentimental," said Christie to herself, as she settled David's character after these discoveries.
"Perhaps thee had better step out and call my son. Sometimes he does not hear the bell when he is busy. Thee will find my garden-hood and shawl behind the door," said Mrs. Sterling, presently; for punctuality was a great virtue in the old lady's eyes.Christie demurely tied on the little pumpkin-hood, wrapped the gray shawl about her, and set out to find her "master," as she had a fancy to call this unknown David.
From the hints dropped by Mr. Power, and her late discoveries, she had made a hero for herself; a sort of melancholy Jaques; sad and pale and stern; retired from the world to nurse his wounds in solitude. She rather liked this picture; for romance dies hard in a woman, and, spite of her experiences, Christie still indulged in dreams and fancies. "It will be so interesting to see how he bears his secret sorrow. I am fond of woe; but I do hope he won't be too lackadaisical, for I never could abide that sort of blighted being."Thinking thus, she peeped here and there, but saw no one in yard or barn, except a workman scraping the mould off his boots near the conservatory. "This David is among the flowers, I fancy; I will just ask, and not bolt in, as he does not know me. "Where is Mr. Sterling?" added Christie aloud, as she approached.
The man looked up, and a smile came into his eyes, as he glanced from the old hood to the young face inside. Then he took off his hat, and held out his hand, saying with just his mother's simple directness:"I am David; and this is Christie Devon, I know. How do you do?"
"Yes; dinner's ready," was all she could reply, for the discovery that this was the "master," nearly took her breath away. Not the faintest trace of the melancholy Jaques about him; nothing interesting, romantic, pensive, or even stern. Only a broadshouldered, brown-bearded man, with an old hat and coat, trousers tucked into his boots, fresh mould on the hand he had given her to shake, and the cheeriest voice she had ever heard.
What a blow it was to be sure! Christie actually felt vexed with him for disappointing her so, and could not recover herself, but stood red and awkward, till, with a last scrape of his boots, David said with placid brevity:"Well, shall we go in?"
Christie walked rapidly into the house, and by the time she got there the absurdity of her fancy struck her, and she stifled a laugh in the depths of the little pumpkin-hood, as she hung it up. Then, assuming her gravest air, she went to give the finishing touches to dinner.
Ten minutes later she received another surprise; for David appeared washed, brushed, and in a suit of gray,--a personable gentleman, quite unlike the workman in the yard.
It was a very quiet meal, for no one said much; and it was evidently the custom of the house to eat silently, only now and then saying a few friendly words, to show that the hearts were social if the tongues were not.
On the present occasion this suited Christie; and she ate her dinner without making any more discoveries, except that the earth-stained hands were very clean now, and skilfully supplied her wants before she could make them known.As they rose from table, Mrs. Sterling said: "Davy, does thee want any help this afternoon?" "I shall be very glad of some in about an hour if thee can spare it, mother." "I can, dear." "Do you care for flowers?" asked David, turning to Christie, "because if you do not, this will be a very trying place for you."
"I used to love them dearly; but I have not had any for so long I hardly remember how they look," answered Christie with a sigh, as she recalled Rachel's roses, dead long ago. "Shy, sick, and sad; poor soul, we must lend a hand and cheer her up a bit" thought David, as he watched her eyes turn toward the green tilings in the windows with a bright, soft look, he liked to see.
"Come to the conservatory in an hour, and I'll show you the best part of a 'German,'" he said, with a nod and a smile, as he went away, beginning to whistle like a boy when the door was shut behind him."What did he mean?" thought Christie, as she helped clear the table, and put every thing in Pimlico order.
She was curious to know, and when Mrs. Sterling said: "Now, my dear, I am going to take my nap, and thee can help David if thee likes," she was quite ready to try the new work.
She would have been more than woman if she had not first slipped upstairs to smooth her hair, put on a fresh collar, and a black silk apron with certain effective frills and pockets, while a scarlet rigolette replaced the hood, and lent a little color to her pale cheeks."I am a poor ghost of what I was," she thought; "but that's no matter: few can be pretty, any one can be neat, and that is more than ever necessary here."
Then she went away to the conservatory, feeling rather oppressed with the pity and sympathy, for which there was no call, and fervently wishing that David would not be so comfortable, for he ate a hearty dinner, laughed four times, and whistled as no heartbroken man would dream of doing.
No one was visible as she went in, and walking slowly down the green aisle, she gave herself up to the enjoyment of the lovely place. The damp, sweet air made summer there, and a group of slender, oriental trees whispered in the breath of wind that blew in from an open sash. Strange vines and flowers hung overhead; banks of azaleas, ruddy, white, and purple, bloomed in one place; roses of every hue turned their lovely faces to the sun; ranks of delicate ferns, and heaths with their waxen bells, were close by; glowing geraniums and stately lilies side by side; savage-looking scarlet flowers with purple hearts, or orange spikes rising from leaves mottled with strange colors; dusky passionflowers, and gay nasturtiums climbing to the roof. All manner of beautiful and curious plants were there; and Christie walked among them, as happy as a child who finds its playmates again.
Coming to a bed of pansies she sat down on a rustic chair, and, leaning forward, feasted her eyes on these her favorites. Her face grew young as she looked, her hands touched them with a lingering tenderness as if to her they were half human, and her own eyes were so busy enjoying the gold and purple spread before her, that she did not see another pair peering at her over an unneighborly old cactus, all prickles, and queer knobs. Presently a voice said at her elbow:"You look as if you saw something beside pansies there." David spoke so quietly that it did not startle her, and she answered before she had time to feel ashamed of her fancy.
"I do; for, ever since I was a child, I always see a little face when I look at this flower. Sometimes it is a sad one, sometimes it's merry, often roguish, but always a dear little face; and when I see so many together, it's like a flock of children, all nodding and smiling at me at once."
"So it is!" and David nodded, and smiled himself, as he handed her two or three of the finest, as if it was as natural a thing as to put a sprig of mignonette in his own buttonhole.
Christie thanked him, and then jumped up, remembering that she came there to work, not to dream. He seemed to understand, and went into a little room near by, saying, as he pointed to a heap of gay flowers on the table:
"These are to be made into little bouquets for a 'German' to-night. It is pretty work, and better fitted for a woman's fingers than a man's. This is all you have to do, and you can vise your taste as to colors."
While he spoke David laid a red and white carnation on a bit of smilax, tied them together, twisted a morsel of silver foil about the stems, and laid it before Christie as a sample.
"Yes, I can do that, and shall like it very much," she said, burying her nose in the mass of sweetness before her, and feeling as if her new situation grew pleasanter every minute. "Here is the apron my mother uses, that bit of silk will soon be spoilt, for the flowers are wet," and David gravely offered her a large checked pinafore.
Christie could not help laughing as she put it on: all this was so different from the imaginary picture she had made. She was disappointed, and yet she began to feel as if the simple truth was better than the sentimental fiction; and glanced up at David involuntarily to see if there were any traces of interesting woe about him.
But he was looking at her with the steady, straight-forward look which she liked so much, yet could not meet just yet; and all she saw was that he was smiling also with an indulgent expression as if she was a little girl whom he was trying to amuse.
"Make a few, and I'll be back directly when I have attended to another order," and he went away thinking Christie's face was very like the pansies they had been talking about,
-one of the sombre ones with a bright touch of gold deep down in the heart, for thin and pale as the face was, it lighted up at a kind word, and all the sadness vanished out of the anxious eyes when the frank laugh came.
Christie fell to work with a woman's interest in such a pleasant task, and soon tied and twisted skilfully, exercising all her taste in contrasts, and the pretty little conceits flowerlovers can produce. She was so interested that presently she began to hum half unconsciously, as she was apt to do when happily employed:
"Welcome, maids of honor, You do bring
In the spring,
And wait upon her.
She has virgins many, Fresh and fair,
Yet you are
More sweet than any."
"The last verse is the best in that little poem. Have you forgotten it?" he said, pleased and surprised to find the new-comer singing Herrick's lines "To Violets." "Almost; rny father used to say that when we went looking for early violets, and these lovely ones reminded me of it," explained Christie, rather abashed.As if to put her at ease David added, as he laid another handful of double-violets on the table:
"'Y' are the maiden posies, And so graced,
To be placed
Fore damask roses.
Yet, though thus respected, By and by
Ye do lie,
Poor girls, neglected.'
"Will these do? I have varied the posies as much as possible, so that they may suit all sorts of tastes and whirns. I never went to a 'German' myself; but I have looked on, and remember hearing the young people say the little bouquets didn't mean any thing, so I tried to make these expressive.""Well, I should think you had succeeded excellently, and it is a very pretty fancy. Tell me what some of them mean: will you?" "You should know better than I, being a florist," said Christie, glad to see he approved of her work. "I can grow the flowers, but not read them," and David looked rather depressed by his own ignorance of those delicate matters. Still with the business-like air, Christie held up one after another of the little knots, saying soberly, though her eyes smiled:
"This white one might be given to a newly engaged girl, as suggestive of the coming bridal. That half-blown bud would say a great deal from a lover to his idol; and this heliotrope be most encouraging to a timid swain. Here is a rosy daisy for some merry little damsel; there is a scarlet posy for a soldier; this delicate azalea and fern for some lovely creature just out; and there is a bunch of sober pansies for a spinster, if spinsters go to 'Germans.' Heath, scentless but pretty, would do for many; these Parma violets for one with a sorrow; and this curious purple flower with arrow-shaped stamens would just suit a handsome, sharp-tongued woman, if any partner dared give it to her."
David laughed, as his eye went from the flowers to Christie's face, and when she laid down the last breast-knot, looking as if she would like the chance of presenting it to some one she knew, he seemed much amused.
"If the beaux and belles at this party have the wit to read your posies, my fortune will be made, and you will have your hands full supplying compliments, declarations, rebukes, and criticisms for the fashionable butterflies. I wish I could put consolation, hope, and submission into my work as easily, but I am afraid I can't," he added a moment afterward with a changed face, as he began to lay the loveliest white flowers into a box."Those are not for a wedding, then?" "For a dead baby; and I can't seem to find any white and sweet enough." "You know the people?" asked Christie, with the sympathetic tone in her voice. "Never saw or heard of them till to-day. Isn't it enough to know that 'baby's dead,' as the poor man said, to make one feel for them?"
"Of course it is; only you seemed so interested in arranging the flowers, I naturally thought it was for some friend," Christie answered hastily, for David looked half indignant at her question.
"I want them to look lovely and comforting when the mother opens the box, and I don't seem to have the right flowers. Will you give it a touch? women have a tender way of doing such things that we can never learn.""I don't think I can improve it, unless I add another sort of flower that seems appropriate: may I?" "Any thing you can find." Christie waited for no more, but ran out of the greenhouse to David's great surprise, and presently came hurrying back with a handful of snow-drops.
"Those are just what I wanted, but I didn't know the little dears were up yet! You shall put them in, and I know they will suggest what you hope to these poor people," he said approvingly, as he placed the box before her, and stood by watching her adjust the little sheaf of pale flowers tied up with a blade of grass. She added a frail fern or two, and did give just the graceful touch here and there which would speak to the mother's gore heart of the tender thought some one had taken for her dead darling.
The box was sent away, and Christie went on with her work, but that little task performed together seemed to have made them friends; and, while David tied up several grand bouquets at the same table, they talked as if the strangeness was fast melting away from their short acquaintance.
Christie's own manners were so simple that simplicity in others always put her at her ease: kindness soon banished her reserve, and the desire to show that she was grateful for it helped her to please. David's bluntness was of such a gentle sort that she soon got used to it, and found it a pleasant contrast to the polite insincerity so common. He was as frank and friendly as a boy, yet had a certain paternal way with him which rather annoyed her at first, and made her feel as if he thought her a mere girl, while she was very sure he could not be but a year or two older than herself."I'd rather he'd be masterful, and order me about," she thought, still rather regretting the "blighted being" she had not found.
In spite of this she spent a pleasant afternoon, sitting in that sunny place, handling flowers, asking questions about them, and getting the sort of answers she liked; not dry botanical names and facts, but all the delicate traits, curious habits, and poetical romances of the sweet things, as if the speaker knew and loved them as friends, not merely valued them as merchandise.
They had just finished when the great dog came bouncing in with a basket in his mouth.
"Why don't he offer to put up a swing for me, or get me a doll? It's the pinafore that deceives him. Never mind: I rather like it after all," thought Christie; but she left the apron behind her, and followed with the most dignified air.
It did not last long, however, for the sights and sounds that greeted her, carried her back to the days of egg-hunting in Uncle Enos's big barn; and, before she knew it, she was rustling through the hay mows, talking to the cow and receiving the attentions of Bran with a satisfaction it was impossible to conceal.
The hens gathered about her feet cocking their expectant eyes at her; the doves came circling round her head; the cow stared placidly, and the inquisitive horse responded affably when she offered him a handful of hay."How tame they all are! I like animals, they are so contented and intelligent," she said, as a plump dove lit on her shoulder with an impatient coo. "That was Kitty's pet, she always fed the fowls. Would you like to do it?" and David offered a little measure of oats. "Very much;" and Christie began to scatter the grain, wondering who "Kitty" was. As if he saw the wish in her face, David added, while he shelled corn for the hens:
"She was the little girl who was with us last. Her father kept her in a factory, and took all her wages, barely giving her clothes and food enough to keep her alive. The poor child ran away, and was trying to hide when Mr. Power found and sent her here to be cared for.""As he did me?" said Christie quickly. "Yes, that's a way he has." "A very kind and Christian way. Why didn't she stay?"
"Well, it was rather quiet for the lively little thing, and rather too near the city, so we got a good place up in the country where she could go to school and learn housework. The mill had left her no time for these things, and at fifteen she was as ignorant as a child.""You must miss her." "I do very much."
"Was she pretty?" "She looked like a little rose sometimes," and David smiled to himself as he fed the gray hens.
Christie immediately made a picture of the "lively little thing" with a face "like a rose," and was uncomfortably conscious that she did not look half as well feeding doves as Kitty must have done.
Just then David handed her the basket, saying in the paternal way that half amused, half piqued her: "It, is getting too chilly for you here: take these in please, and I'll bring the milk directly."
In spite of herself she smiled, as a sudden vision of the elegant Mr. Fletcher, devotedly carrying her book or beach-basket, passed through her mind; then hastened to explain the smile, for David lifted his brows inquiringly, and glanced about him to see what amused her."I beg your pardon: I've lived alone so much that it seems a little odd to be told to do things, even if they are as easy and pleasant as this."
"I am so used to taking care of people, and directing, that I do so without thinking. I won't if you don't like it," and he put out his hand to take back the basket with a grave, apologetic air."But I do like it; only it amused me to be treated. like a little girl again, when I am nearly thirty, and feel seventy at least, life has been so hard to me lately."
Her face sobered at the last words, and David's instantly grew so pitiful she could not keep her eyes on it lest they should fill, so suddenly did the memory of past troubles overcome her."I know," he said in a tone that warmed her heart, "I know, but we are going to try, and make life easier for you now, and you must feel that this is home and we are friends."
"I do!" and Christie flushed with grateful feeling and a little shame, as she went in, thinking to herself: "How silly I was to say that! I may have spoilt the simple friendliness that was so pleasant, and have made him think me a foolish stuck-up old creature."Whatever he might have thought, David's manner was unchanged when he came in and found her busy with the table.
"It's pleasant to see thee resting, mother, and every thing going on so well," he said, glancing about the room, where the old lady sat, and nodding toward the kitchen, where Christie was toasting bread in her neatest manner."Yes, Davy, it was about time I had a helper for thy sake, at least; and this is a great improvement upon heedless Kitty, I am inclined to think."
Mrs. Sterling dropped her voice over that last sentence; but Christie heard it, and was pleased. A moment or two later, David came toward her with a glass in his hand, saying as if rather doubtful of his reception:
"New milk is part of the cure: will you try it?"
The newly lighted lamp shone full in her face, and though it was neither young nor blooming, it showed something better than youth and bloom to one who could read the subtle language of character as David could. He nodded as he took the glass, and went away saying quietly:"We are plain people here, and you won't find it hard to get on with us, I think." But he liked the candid look, and thought about it, as he chopped kindlings, whistling with a vigor which caused Christie to smile as she strained the milk.
After tea a spider-legged table was drawn out toward the hearth, where an open fire burned cheerily, and puss purred on the rug, with Bran near by. David unfolded his newspapers, Mrs. Sterling pinned on her knitting-sheath, and Christie sat a moment enjoying the comfortable little scene. She sighed without knowing it, and Mrs. Sterling asked quickly: "Is thee tired, my dear?" "Oh, no! only happy.""I am glad of that: I was afraid thee would find it dull."
"It's beautiful!" then Christie checked herself feeling that these outbursts would not suit such quiet people; and, half ashamed of showing how much she felt, she added soberly, "If you will give me something to do I shall be quite contented.""Sewing is not good for thee. If thee likes to knit I'll set up a sock for thee to-morrow," said the old lady well pleased at the industrious turn of her new handmaid.
"I like to darn, and I see some to be done in this basket. May I do it?" and Christie laid hold of the weekly job which even the best housewives are apt to set aside for pleasanter tasks."As thee likes, my dear. My eyes will not let me sew much in the evening, else I should have finished that batch to-night. Thee will find the yarn and needles in the little bag."
So Christie fell to work on gray socks, and neat lavender-colored hose, while the old lady knit swiftly, and David read aloud. Christie thought she was listening to the report of a fine lecture; but her ear only caught the words, for her mind wandered away into a region of its own, and lived there till her task was done. Then she laid the tidy pile in the basket, drew her chair to a corner of the hearth, and quietly enjoyed herself.
The cat, feeling sure of a welcome, got up into her lap, and went to sleep in a cosy bunch; Bran laid his nose across her feet, and blinked at her with sleepy good-will, while her eyes wandered round the room, from its quaint furniture and the dreaming flowers in the windows, to the faces of its occupants, and lingered there.
The plain border of a Quaker cap encircled that mild old face, with bands of silver hair parted on a forehead marked with many lines. But the eyes were clear and sweet; winter roses bloomed in the cheeks, and an exquisite neatness pervaded the small figure, from the trim feet on the stool, to the soft shawl folded about the shoulders, as only a Quakeress can fold one. In Mrs. Sterling, piety and peace made old age lovely, and the mere presence of this tranquil soul seemed to fill the room with a reposeful charm none could resist.
The other face possessed no striking comeliness of shape or color; but the brown, becoming beard made it manly, and the broad arch of a benevolent brow added nobility to features otherwise not beautiful,--a face plainly expressing resolution and rectitude, inspiring respect as naturally as it certain protective kindliness of manner won confidence. Even in repose wearing a vigilant look as if some hidden pain or passion lay in wait to surprise and conquer the sober cheerfulness that softened the lines of the firmset lips, and warmed the glance of the thoughtful eyes.
Christie fancied she possessed the key to this, and longed to know all the story of the cross which Mr. Power said David had learned to bear so well. Then she began to wonder if they could like and keep her, to hope so, and to feel that here at last she was at home with friends. But the old sadness crept over her, as she remembered how often she had thought this before, and how soon the dream ended, the ties were broken, and she adrift again.
"Ah well," she said within herself, "I won't think of the morrow, but take the good that comes and enjoy it while I may. I must not disappoint Rachel, since she kept her word so nobly to me. Dear soul, when shall I see her again?"
The thought of Rachel always touched her heart; more now than ever; and, as she leaned back in her chair with closed eyes and idle hands, these tender memories made her unconscious face most eloquent. The eyes peering over the spectacles telegraphed a meaning message to the other eyes glancing over the paper now and then; and both these friends in deed as well as name felt assured that this woman needed all the comfort they could give her. But the busy needles never stopped their click, and the sonorous voice read on without a pause, so Christie never knew what mute confidences passed between mother and son, or what helpful confessions her traitorous face had made for her.The clock struck nine, and these primitive people prepared for rest; for their day began at dawn, and much wholesome work made sleep a luxury. "Davy will tap at thy door as he goes down in the morning, and I will soon follow to show thee about matters. Good-night, and good rest, my child." So speaking, the little lady gave Christie a maternal kiss; David shook hands; and then she went away, wondering why service was so lightened by such little kindnesses.
As she lay in her narrow white bed, with the "pale light of stars" filling the quiet, cell-like room, and some one playing softly on a flute overhead, she felt as if she had left the troublous world behind her, and shutting out want, solitude, and despair, had come into some safe, secluded spot full of flowers and sunshine, kind hearts, and charitable deeds.
XI. In The Strawberry Bed
FROM that day a new life began for Christie, a happy, quiet, useful life, utterly unlike any of the brilliant futures she had planned for herself; yet indescribably pleasant to her now, for past experience had taught her its worth, and made her ready to enjoy it.
Never had spring seemed so early or so fair, never had such a crop of hopeful thoughts and happy feelings sprung up in her heart as now; and nowhere was there a brighter face, a blither voice, or more willing hands than Christie's when the apple blossoms came.
This was what she needed, the protection of a home, wholesome cares and duties; and, best of all, friends to live and labor for, loving and beloved. Her whole soul was in her work now, and as health returned, much of the old energy and cheerfulness came with it, a little sobered, but more sweet and earnest than ever. No task was too hard or humble; no day long enough to do all she longed to do; and no sacrifice would have seemed too great for those whom she regarded with steadily increasing love and gratitude.
Up at dawn, the dewy freshness of the hour, the morning rapture of the birds, the daily miracle of sunrise, set her heart in tune, and gave her Nature's most healing balm. She kept the little house in order, with Mrs. Sterling to direct and share the labor so pleasantly, that mistress and maid soon felt like mother and daughter, and Christie often said she did not care for any other wages.
The house-work of this small family was soon done, and then Christie went to tasks that she liked better. Much out-of-door life was good for her, and in garden and green-house there was plenty of light labor she could do. So she grubbed contentedly in the wholesome earth, weeding and potting, learning to prune and bud, and finding Mrs. Wilkins was quite right in her opinion of the sanitary virtues of dirt.
Trips to town to see the good woman and carry country gifts to the little folks; afternoon drives with Mrs. Sterling in the old-fashioned chaise, drawn by the Roman-nosed horse, and Sunday pilgrimages to church to be "righted up" by one of Mr. Power's stirring sermons, were among her new pleasures. But, on the whole, the evenings were her happiest times: for then David read aloud while she worked; she sung to the old piano tuned for her use; or, better still, as spring came on, they sat in the porch, and talked as people only do talk when twilight, veiling the outer world, seems to lift the curtains of that inner world where minds go exploring, hearts learn to know one another, and souls walk together in the cool of the day.
At such times Christie seemed to catch glimpses of another David than the busy, cheerful man apparently contented with the humdrum duties of an obscure, laborious life, and the few unexciting pleasures afforded by books, music, and much silent thought. She sometimes felt with a woman's instinct that under this composed, commonplace existence another life went on; for, now and then, in the interest of conversation, or the involuntary yielding to a confidential impulse, a word, a look, a gesture, betrayed an unexpected power and passion, a secret unrest, a bitter memory that would not be ignored. Only at rare moments did she catch these glimpses, and so brief, so indistinct, were they that she half believed her own lively fancy created them. She longed to know more; but "David's trouble" made him sacred in her eyes from any prying curiosity, and always after one of these twilight betrayals Christie found him so like his unromantic self next day, that she laughed and said:
"I never shall outgrow my foolish way of trying to make people other than they are. Gods are gone, heroes hard to find, and one should be contented with good men, even if they do wear old clothes, lead prosaic lives, and have no accomplishments but gardening, playing the flute, and keeping their temper."
She felt the influences of that friendly place at once; but for a time she wondered at the natural way in which kind things were done, the protective care extended over her, and the confiding air with which these people treated her. They asked no questions, demanded no explanations, seemed unconscious of conferring favors, and took her into their life so readily that she marvelled, even while she rejoiced, at the good fortune which led her there.
She understood this better when she discovered, what Mr. Power had not mentioned, that the little cottage was a sort of refuge for many women like herself; a half-way house where they could rest and recover themselves after the wrongs, defeats, and weariness that come to such in the battle of life.
With a chivalry older and finer than any Spenser sung, Mr. Power befriended these forlorn souls, and David was his faithful squire. Whoever knocked at that low door was welcomed, warmed, and fed; comforted, and set on their way, cheered and strengthened by the sweet good-will that made charity no burden, and restored to the more desperate and despairing their faith in human nature and God's love.
There are many such green spots in this world of ours, which often seems so bad that a second Deluge could hardly wash it clean again; and these beneficent, unostentatious asylums are the salvation of more troubled souls than many a great institution gilded all over with the rich bequests of men who find themselves too heavily laden to enter in at the narrow gate of heaven.
Happy the foot-sore, heart-weary traveller who turns from the crowded, dusty highway down the green lane that leads to these humble inns, where the sign of the Good Samaritan is written on the face of whomsoever opens to the stranger, and refreshment for soul and body is freely given in the name of Him who loved the poor.
Mr. Power came now and then, for his large parish left him but little time to visit any but the needy. Christie enjoyed these brief visits heartily, for her new friends soon felt that she was one of them, and cordially took her into the large circle of workers and believers to which they belonged.
Mr. Power's heart was truly an orphan asylum, and every lonely creature found a welcome there. He could rebuke sin sternly, yet comfort and uplift the sinner with fatherly compassion; righteous wrath would flash from his eyes at injustice, and contempt sharpen his voice as he denounced hypocrisy: yet the eyes that lightened would dim with pity for a woman's wrong, a child's small sorrow; and the voice that thundered would whisper consolation like a mother, or give counsel with a wisdom books cannot teach.
He was a Moses in his day and generation, born to lead his people out of the bondage of dead superstitions, and go before them through a Red Sea of persecution into the larger liberty and love all souls hunger for, and many are just beginning to find as they come doubting, yet desiring, into the goodly land such pioneers as he have planted in the wilderness.
He was like a tonic to weak natures and wavering wills; and Christie felt a general revival going on within herself as her knowledge, honor, and affection for him grew. His strength seemed to uphold her; his integrity to rebuke all unworthiness in her own life; and the magic of his generous, genial spirit to make the hard places smooth, the bitter things sweet, and the world seem a happier, honester place than she had ever thought it since her father died.
Mr. Power had been interested in her from the first; had watched her through other eyes, and tried her by various unsuspected tests. She stood them well; showed her faults as frankly as her virtues, and tried to deserve their esteem by copying the excellencies she admired in them.
"She is made of the right stuff, and we must keep her among us; for she must not be lost or wasted by being left to drift about the world with no ties to make her safe and happy. She is doing so well here, let her stay till the restless spirit begins to stir again; then she shall come to me and learn contentment by seeing greater troubles than her own."
Mr. Power said this one day as he rose to go, after sitting an hour with Mrs. Sterling, and hearing from her a good report of his new protegee. The young people were out at work, and had not been called in to see him, for the interview had been a confidential one. But as he stood at the gate he saw Christie in the strawberry bed, and went toward her, glad to see how well and happy she looked.
Her hat was hanging on her shoulders, and the sun giving her cheeks a healthy color; she was humming to herself like a bee as her fingers flew, and once she paused, shaded her eyes with her hand, and took a long look at a figure down in the meadow; then she worked on silent and smiling,--a pleasant creature to see, though her hair was ruffled by the wind; her gingham gown pinned up; and her fingers deeply stained with the blood of many berries.
"I wonder if that means anything?" thought Mr. Power, with a keen glance from the distant man to the busy woman close at hand. "It might be a helpful, happy thing for both, if poor David only could forget."He had time for no more castle-building, for a startled robin flew away with a shrill chirp, and Christie looked up.
"Oh, I'm so glad!" she said, rising quickly. "I was picking a special box for you, and now you can have a feast beside, just as you like it, fresh from the vines. Sit here, please, and I'll hull faster than you can eat."
"This is luxury!" and Mr. Power sat down on the three-legged stool offered him, with a rhubarb leaf on his knee which Christie kept supplying with delicious mouthfuls.
"I feel as if I had been born again; as if this was a new heaven and a new earth, and every thing was as it should be," answered Christie, with a look of perfect satisfaction in her face."That's a pleasant hearing. Mrs. Sterling has been praising you, but I wanted to be sure you were as satisfied as she. And how does David wear? well, I hope."
"Oh, yes, he is very good to me, and is teaching me to be a gardener, so that I needn't kill myself with sewing any more. Much of this is fine work for women, and so healthy. Don't I look a different creature from the ghost that came here three or four mouths ago?" and she turned her face for inspection like a child.
"Yes, David is a good gardener. I often send my sort of plants here, and he always makes them grow and blossom sooner or later," answered Mr. Power, regarding her like a beneficent genie on a three-legged stool."You are the fresh air, and Mrs. Sterling is the quiet sunshine that does the work, I fancy. David only digs about the roots." "Thank you for my share of the compliment; but why say 'only digs'? That is a most important part of the work: I'm afraid you don't appreciate David." "Oh, yes, I do; but he rather aggravates me sometimes," said Christie, laughing, as she put a particularly big berry in the green plate to atone for her frankness. "How?" asked Mr. Power, interested in these little revelations.
"Well, he won't be ambitious. I try to stir him up, for he has talents; I've found that out: but he won't seem to care for any thing but watching over his mother, reading his old books, and making flowers bloom double when they ought to be single."
"There are worse ambitions than those, Christie. I know many a man who would be far better employed in cherishing a sweet old woman, studying Plato, and doubling the beauty of a flower, than in selling principles for money, building up a cheap reputation that dies with him, or chasing pleasures that turn to ashes in his mouth."
"Yes, sir; but isn't it natural for a young man to have some personal aim or aspiration to live for? If David was a weak or dull man I could understand it; but I seem to feel a power, a possibility for something higher and better than any thing I see, and this frets me. He is so good, I want him to be great also in some way."
"A wise man says, 'The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough.' I think David one of the most ambitious men I ever knew, because at thirty he has discovered this truth, and taken it to heart. Many men can be what the world calls great: very few men are what God calls good. This is the harder task to choose, yet the only success that satisfies, the only honor that outlives death. These faithful lives, whether seen of men or hidden in corners, are the salvation of the world, and few of us fail to acknowledge it in the hours when we are brought close to the heart of things, and see a little as God sees."
Christie did not speak for a moment: Mr. Power's voice had been so grave, and his words so earnest that she could not answer lightly, but sat turning over the new thoughts in her mind. Presently she said, in a penitent but not quite satisfied tone:
"Of course you are right, sir. I'll try not to care for the outward and visible signs of these hidden virtues; but I'm afraid I still shall have a hankering for the worldly honors that are so valued by most people."
"'Success and glory are the children of hard work and God's favor,' according to Æschylus, and you will find he was right. David got a heavy blow some years ago as I told you, I think; and he took it hard, but it did not spoil him: it made a man of him; and, if I am not much mistaken, he will yet do something to be proud of, though the world may never hear of it.""I hope so!" and Christie's face brightened at the thought.
"Nevertheless you look as if you doubted it, O you of little faith. Every one has two sides to his nature: David has shown you the least interesting one, and you judge accordingly. I think he will show you the other side some day,--for you are one of the women who win confidence without trying,--and then you will know the real David. Don't expect too much, or quarrel with the imperfections that make him human; but take him for what he is worth, and help him if you can to make his life a brave and good one.""I will, sir," answered Christie so meekly that Mr. Power laughed; for this confessional in the strawberry bed amused him very much.
"You are a hero-worshipper, my dear; and if people don't come up to the mark you are so disappointed that you fail to see the fine reality which remains when the pretty romance ends. Saints walk about the world today as much as ever, but instead of haircloth and halos they now wear"--"Broadcloth and wide-brimmed hats," added Christie, looking up as if she had already found a better St. Thomas than any the church ever canonized. He thanked her with a smile, and went on with a glance toward the meadow. "And knights go crusading as gallantly as ever against the giants and the dragons, though you don't discover it, because, instead of banner, lance, and shield they carry"-- "Bushel-baskets, spades, and sweet-flag for their mothers," put in Christie again, as David came up the path with the loam he had been digging.
Both began to laugh, and he joined in the merriment without knowing why, as he put down his load, took off his hat, and shook hands with his honored guest. "What's the joke?" he asked, refreshing himself with the handful of berries Christie offered him."Don't tell," she whispered, looking dismayed at the idea of letting him know what she had said of him. But Mr. Power answered tranquilly:
"We were talking about coins, and Christie was expressing her opinion of one I showed her. The face and date she understands; but the motto puzzles her, and she has not seen the reverse side yet, so does not know its value. She will some day; and then she will agree with me, I think, that it is sterling gold."
The emphasis on the last words enlightened David: his sunburnt cheek reddened, but he only shook his head, saying: "She will find a brass farthing I'm afraid, sir," and began to crumble a handful of loam about the roots of a carnation that seemed to have sprung up by chance at the foot of the apple-tree."How did that get there?" asked Christie, with sudden interest in the flower.
"It dropped when I was setting out the others, took root, and looked so pretty and comfortable that I left it. These waifs sometimes do better than the most carefully tended ones: I only dig round them a bit and leave them to sun and air."
Mr. Power looked at Christie with so much meaning in his face that it was her turn to color now. But with feminine perversity she would not own herself mistaken, and answered with eyes as full of meaning as his own:"I like the single ones best: double-carnations are so untidy, all bursting out of the calyx as if the petals had quarrelled and could not live together."
"The single ones are seldom perfect, and look poor and incomplete with little scent or beauty," said unconscious David propping up the thin-leaved flower, that looked like a pale solitary maiden, beside the great crimson and white carnations near by, filling the air with spicy odor.
"I suspect you will change your mind by and by, Christie, as your taste improves, and you will learn to think the double ones the handsomest," added Mr. Power, wondering in his benevolent heart if he would ever be the gardener to mix the colors of the two human plants before him."I must go," and David shouldered his basket as if he felt he might be in the way. "So must I, or they will be waiting for me at the hospital. Give me a handful of flowers, David: they often do the poor souls more good than my prayers or preaching."
Then they went away, and left Christie sitting in the strawberry bed, thinking that David looked less than ever like a hero with his blue shirt, rough straw hat, and big boots; also wondering if he would ever show her his best side, and if she would like it when she saw it.
XII. Christie's Gala
ON the fourth of September, Christie woke up, saying to herself: "It is my birthday, but no one knows it, so I shall get no presents. Ah, well, I'm too old for that now, I suppose;" but she sighed as she said it, for well she knew one never is too old to be remembered and beloved.
Just then the door opened, and Mrs. Sterling entered, carrying what looked very like a pile of snow-flakes in her arms. Laying this upon the bed, she kissed Christie, saying with a tone and gesture that made the words a benediction:"A happy birthday, and God bless thee, my daughter!"
Before Christie could do more than hug both gift and giver, a great bouquet came flying in at the open window, aimed with such skill that it fell upon the bed, while David's voice called out from below: "A happy birthday, Christie, and many of them!"
"How sweet, how kind of you, this is! I didn't dream you knew about to-day, and never thought of such a beautiful surprise," cried Christie, touched and charmed by this unexpected celebration.
"Thee mentioned it once long ago, and we remembered. They are very humble gifts, my dear; but we could not let the day pass without some token of the thanks we owe thee for these months of faithful service and affectionate companionship."
Christie had no answer to this little address, and was about to cry as the only adequate expression of her feelings, when a hearty "Hear! Hear!" from below made her laugh, and call out:
"You conspirators! how dare you lay plots, and then exult over me when I can't find words to thank you? I always did think you were a set of angels, and now I'm quite sure of it."
"Thee may be right about Davy, but I am only a prudent old woman, and have taken much pleasure in privately knitting this light wrap to wear when thee sits in the porch, for the evenings will soon grow chilly. My son did not know what to get, and finally decided that flowers would suit thee best; so he made a bunch of those thee loves, and would toss it in as if he was a boy."
"I like that way, and both my presents suit me exactly," said Christie, wrapping the fleecy shawl about her, and admiring the nosegay in which her quick eye saw all her favorites, even to a plumy spray of the little wild asters which she loved so much.
"Now, child, I will step down, and see about breakfast. Take thy time; for this is to be a holiday, and we mean to make it a happy one if we can."
With that the old lady went away, and Christie soon followed, looking very fresh and blithe as she ran down smiling behind her great bouquet. David was in the porch, training up the morning-glories that bloomed late and lovely in that sheltered spot. He turned as she approached, held out his hand, and bent a little as if he was moved to add a tenderer greeting. But he did not, only held the hand she gave him for a moment, as he said with the paternal expression unusually visible:
"I'm glad of that; and how do you mean to spend these long years of yours?" asked David, brushing back the lock of hair that was always falling into his eyes, as if he wanted to see more clearly the hopeful face before him."In doing what your morning-glories do,--climb up as far and as fast as I can before the frost comes," answered Christie, looking at the pretty symbols she had chosen. "You have got on a good way already then," began David, smiling at her fancy.
"Oh no, I haven't!" she said quickly. "I'm only about half way up. See here: I'll tell how it is;" and, pointing to the different parts of the flowery wall, she added in her earnest way: "I've watched these grow, and had many thoughts about them, as I sit sewing in the porch. These variegated ones down low are my childish fancies; most of them gone to seed you see. These lovely blue ones of all shades are my girlish dreams and hopes and plans. Poor things! some are dead, some torn by the wind, and only a few pale ones left quite perfect. Here you observe they grow sombre with a tinge of purple; that means pain and gloom, and there is where I was when I came here. Now they turn from those sad colors to crimson, rose, and soft pink. That's the happiness and health I found here. You and your dear mother planted them, and you see how strong and bright they are."
She lifted up her hand, and gathering one of the great rosy cups offered it to him, as if it were brimful of the thanks she could not utter. He comprehended, took it with a quiet "Thank you," and stood looking at it for a moment, as if her little compliment pleased him very much."And these?" he said presently, pointing to the delicate violet bells that grew next the crimson ones. The color deepened a shade in Christie's cheek, but she went on with no other sign of shyness; for with David she always spoke out frankly, because she could not help it.
"Those mean love to me, not passion: the deep red ones half hidden under the leaves mean that. My violet flowers are the best and purest love we can know: the sort that makes life beautiful and lasts for ever. The white ones that come next are tinged with that soft color here and there, and they mean holiness. I know there will be love in heaven; so, whether I ever find it here or not, I am sure I shall not miss it wholly."
Then, as if glad to leave the theme that never can be touched without reverent emotion by a true woman, she added, looking up to where a few spotless blossoms shone like silver in the light:
"Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I cannot reach them: but I can look up, and see their beauty; believe in them, and try to follow where they lead; remember that frost comes latest to those that bloom the highest; and keep my beautiful white flowers as long as I can.""The mush is ready; come to breakfast, children," called Mrs. Sterling, as she crossed the hall with a teapot in her hand. Christie's face fell, then she exclaimed laughing: "That's always the way; I never take a poetic flight but in comes the mush, and spoils it all."
"Not a bit; and that's where women are mistaken. Souls and bodies should go on together; and you will find that a hearty breakfast won't spoil the little hymn the morning-glories sung;" and David set her a good example by eating two bowls of hasty-pudding and milk, with the lovely flower in his button-hole."Now, what are we to do next?" asked Christie, when the usual morning work was finished. "In about ten minutes thee will see, I think," answered Mrs. Sterling, glancing at the clock, and smiling at the bright expectant look in the younger woman's eyes.
She did see; for in less than ten minutes the rumble of an omnibus was heard, a sound of many voices, and then the whole Wilkins brood came whooping down the lane. It was good to see Ma Wilkins jog ponderously after in full state and festival array; her bonnet trembling with bows, red roses all over her gown, and a parasol of uncommon brilliancy brandished joyfully in her hand. It was better still to see her hug Christie, when the latter emerged, flushed and breathless, from the chaos of arms, legs, and chubby faces in which she was lost for several tumultuous moments; and it was best of all to see the good woman place her cherished "bunnit" in the middle of the parlor table as a choice and lovely ornament, administer the family pocket-handkerchief all round, and then settle down with a hearty:
"Wal, now, Mis Sterlin', you've no idee how tickled we all was when Mr. David came, and told us you was goin' to have a galy here to-day. It was so kind of providential, for 'Lisha was invited out to a day's pleasuring so I could leave jest as wal as not. The childern's ben hankerin' to come the wust kind, and go plummin' as they did last month, though I told 'em berries was gone weeks ago. I reelly thought I'd never get 'em here whole, they trained so in that bus. Wash would go on the step, and kep fallin' off; Gusty's hat blew out a winder; them two bad boys tumbled round loose; and dear little Victory set like a lady, only I found she'd got both feet in the basket right atop of the birthday cake, I made a puppose for Christie."
"It hasn't hurt it a bit; there was a cloth over it, and I like it all the better for the marks of Totty's little feet, bless 'em!" and Christie cuddled the culprit with one hand while she revealed the damaged delicacy with the other, wondering inwardly what evil star was always in the ascendant when Mrs. Wilkins made cake.
"Now, my dear, you jest go and have a good frolic with them childern, I'm a goin' to git dinner, and you a goin' to play; so we don't want to see no more of you till the bell rings," said Mrs. Wilkins pinning up her gown, and "shooing" her brood out of the room, which they entirely filled.
Catching up her hat Christie obeyed, feeling as much like a child as any of the excited six. The revels that followed no pen can justly record, for Goths and Vandals on the rampage but feebly describes the youthf ul Wilkinses when their spirits effervesced after a month's bottling up in close home quarters.
David locked the greenhouse door the instant he saw them; and pervaded the premises generally like a most affable but very watchful policeman, for the ravages those innocents committed much afflicted him. Yet he never had the heart to say a word of reproof, when he saw their raptures over dandelions, the relish with which they devoured fruit, and the good it did the little souls and bodies to enjoy unlimited liberty, green grass, and country air, even for a day.
Christie usually got them into the big meadow as soon as possible, and there let them gambol at will; while she sat on the broken bough of an apple-tree, and watched her flock like an old-fashioned shepherdess. To-day she did so; and when the children were happily sailing boats, tearing to and fro like wild colts, or discovering the rustic treasures Nurse Nature lays ready to gladden little hearts and hands, Christie sat idly making a garland of green brakes, and ruddy sumach leaves ripened before the early frosts had come.
David saw her there, and, feeling that he might come off guard for a time, went strolling down to lean upon the wall, and chat in the friendly fashion that had naturally grown up between these fellow-workers. She was waiting for the new supply of ferns little Adelaide was getting for her by the wall; and while she waited she sat resting her cheek upon her hand, and smiling to herself, as if she saw some pleasant picture in the green grass at her feet."Now I wonder what she's thinking about," said David's voice close by, and Christie straightway answered: "Philip Fletcher." "And who is he?" asked David, settling his elbow in a comfortable niche between the mossy stones, so that he could "lean and loaf" at his ease.
"The brother of the lady whose children I took care of;" and Christie wished she had thought before she answered that first question, for in telling her adventures at diiferent times she had omitted all mention of this gentleman.
"Tell about him, as the children say: your experiences are always interesting, and you look as if this man was uncommonly entertaining in some way," said David, indolently inclined to be amused.
"Oh, dear no, not at all entertaining! invalids seldom are, and he was sick and lazy, conceited and very cross sometimes." Christie's heart rather smote her as she said this, remembering the last look poor Fletcher gave her."A nice man to be sure; but I don't see any thing to smile about," persisted David, who liked reasons for things; a masculine trait often very trying to feminine minds.
"I was thinking of a little quarrel we once had. He found out that I had been an actress; for I basely did not mention that fact when I took the place, and so got properly punished for my deceit. I thought he'd tell his sister of course, so I did it myself, and retired from the situation as much disgusted with Christie Devon as you are."
"Perhaps I ought to be, but I don't find that I am. Do you know I think that old Fletcher was a sneak?" and David looked as if he would rather like to mention his opinion to that gentleman.
"He probably thought he was doing his duty to the children: few people would approve of an actress for a teacher you know. He had seen me play, and remembered it all of a sudden, and told me of it: that was the way it came about," said Christie hastily, feeling that she must get out of the scrape as soon as possible, or she would be driven to tell every thing in justice to Mr. Fletcher."I should like to see you act." "You a Quaker, and express such a worldly and dreadful wish?" cried Christie, much amused, and very grateful that his thoughts had taken a new direction.
"I'm not, and never have been. Mother married out of the sect, and, though she keeps many of her old ways, always left me free to believe what I chose. I wear drab because I like it, and say 'thee' to her because she likes it, and it is pleasant to have a little word all our own. I've been to theatres, but I don't care much for them. Perhaps I should if I'd had Fletcher's luck in seeing you play.""You didn't lose much: I was not a good actress; though now and then when I liked my part I did pretty well they said," answered Christie, modestly. "Why didn't you go back after the accident?" asked David, who had heard that part of the story. "I felt that it was bad for me, and so retired to private life." "Do you ever regret it?"
"Sometimes when the restless fit is on me: but not so often now as I used to do; for on the whole I'd rather be a woman than act a queen."
"Good!" said David, and then added persuasively: "But you will play for me some time: won't you? I've a curious desire to see you do it."
"Any one who wants it. I only do it for the pleasure: I always liked pretty things; but, since I have lived among flowers and natural people, I seem to care more than ever for beauty of all kinds, and love to make it if I can without stopping for any reason but the satisfaction."
"'Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing, "'Then beauty is its own excuse for being,'" observed David, who had a weakness for poetry, and, finding she liked his sort, quoted to Christie almost as freely as to himself.
"Exactly, so look at that and enjoy it," and she pointed to the child standing knee-deep in graceful ferns, looking as if she grew there, a living buttercup, with her buff frock off at one plump shoulder and her bright hair shining in the sun.
Before David could express his admiration, the little picture was spoilt; for Christie called out, "Come, Vic, bring me some more pretties!" startling baby so that she lost her balance, and disappeared with a muffled cry, leaving nothing to be seen but a pair of small convulsive shoes, soles uppermost, among the brakes. David took a leap, reversed Vic, and then let her compose her little feelings by sticking bits of green in all the buttonholes of his coat, as he sat on the wall while she stood beside him in the safe shelter of his arm."You are very like an Englishman," said Christie, after watching the pair for a few minutes. "How do you know?" asked David, looking surprised.
"There were several in our company, and I found them very much alike. Blunt and honest, domestic and kind; hard to get at, but true as steel when once won; not so brilliant and original as Americans, perhaps, but more solid and steadfast. On the whole, I think them the manliest men in the world," answered Christie, in the decided way young people have of expressing their opinions."You speak as if you had known and studied a great variety of men," said David, feeling that he need not resent the comparison she had made.
"I have, and it has done me good. Women who stand alone in the world, and have their own way to make, have a better chance to know men truly than those who sit safe at home and only see one side of mankind. We lose something; but I think we gain a great deal that is more valuable than admiration, flattery, and the superficial service most men give to our sex. Some one says, 'Companionship teaches men and women to know, judge, and treat one another justly.' I believe it; for we who are compelled to be fellow workers with men understand and value them more truly than many a belle who has a dozen lovers sighing at her feet. I see their faults and follies; but I also see so much to honor, love, and trust, that I feel as if the world was full of brothers. Yes, as a general rule, men have been kinder to me than women; and if I wanted a staunch friend I'd choose a man, for they wear better than women, who ask too much, and cannot see that friendship lasts longer if a little respect and reserve go with the love and confidence."
Christie had spoken soberly, with no thought of flattery or effect; for the memory of many kindnesses bestowed on her by many men, from rough Joe Butterfield to Mr. Power, gave warmth and emphasis to her words.The man sitting on the wall appreciated the compliment to his sex, and proved that he deserved his share of it by taking it exactly as she meant it, and saying heartily: "I like that, Christie, and wish more women thought and spoke as you do."
"If they had had my experience they would, and not be ashamed of it. I am so old now I can say these things and not be misjudged; for even some sensible people think this honest sort of fellowship impossible if not improper. I don't, and I never shall, so if I can ever do any thing for you, David, forget that I am a woman and tell me as freely as if I was a younger brother.""I wish you were!" "So do I; you'd make a splendid elder brother." "No, a very bad one."
There was a sudden sharpness in David's voice that jarred on Christie's ear and made her look up quickly. She only caught a glimpse of his face, and saw that it was strangely troubled, as he swung himself over the wall with little Vic on his arm and went toward the house, saying abruptly:"Baby 's sleepy: she must go in."
Christie sat some time longer, wondering what she had said to disturb him, and when the bell rang went in still perplexed. But David looked as usual, and the only trace of disquiet was an occasional hasty shaking back of the troublesome lock, and a slight knitting of the brows; two tokens, as she had learned to know, of impatience or pain.
She was soon so absorbed in feeding the children, hungry and clamorous as young birds for their food, that she forgot every thing else. When dinner was done and cleared away, she devoted herself to Mrs. Wilkins for an hour or two, while Mrs. Sterling took her nap, the infants played riotously in the lane, and David was busy with orders.
The arrival of Mr. Power drew every one to the porch to welcome him. As he handed Christie a book, he asked with a significant smile: "Have you found him yet?" She glanced at the title of the new gift, read "Heroes and Hero-worship," and answered merrily: "No, sir, but I'm looking hard." "Success to your search," and Mr. Power turned to greet David, who approached."Now, what shall we play?" asked Christie, as the children gathered about her demanding to be amused. George Washington suggested leap-frog, and the others added equally impracticable requests; but Mrs. Wilkins settled the matter by saying: "Let's have some play-actin', Christie. That used to tickle the children amazin'ly, and I was never tired of hearin' them pieces, specially the solemn ones." "Yes, yes! do the funny girl with the baby, and the old woman, and the lady that took pison and had fits!" shouted the children, charmed with the idea.
Christie felt ready for any thing just then, and gave them Tilly Slowboy, Miss Miggs, and Mrs. Gummage, in her best style, while the young folks rolled on the grass in ecstasies, and Mrs. Wilkins laughed till she cried."Now a touch of tragedy!" said Mr. Power, who sat under the elm, with David leaning on the back of his chair, both applauding heartily.
"You insatiable people! do you expect me to give you low comedy and heavy tragedy all alone? I'm equal to melodrama I think, and I'll give you Miss St. Clair as Juliet, if you wait a moment."
Christie stepped into the house, and soon reappeared with a white table-cloth draped about her, two dishevelled locks of hair on her shoulders, and the vinegar cruet in her hand, that being the first bottle she could find. She meant to burlesque the poison scene, and began in the usual ranting way; but she soon forgot St. Clair in poor Juliet, and did it as she had often longed to do it, with all the power and passion she possessed. Very faulty was her rendering, but the earnestness she put into it made it most effective to her uncritical audience, who "brought down the house," when she fell upon the grass with her best stage drop, and lay there getting her breath after the mouthful of vinegar she had taken in the excitement of the moment.
She was up again directly, and, inspired by this superb success, ran in and presently reappeared as Lady Macbeth with Mrs. Wilkins's scarlet shawl for royal robes, and the leafy chaplet of the morning for a crown. She took the stage with some difficulty, for the unevenness of the turf impaired the majesty of her tragic stride, and fixing her eyes on an invisible Thane (who cut his part shamefully, and spoke in the gruffest of gruff voices) she gave them the dagger scene.
David as the orchestra, had been performing a drum solo on the back of a chair with two of the corn-cobs Victoria had been building houses with; but, when Lady Macbeth said, "Give me the daggers," Christie plucked the cobs suddenly from his hands, looking so fiercely scornful, and lowering upon him so wrathfully with her corked brows that he ejaculated an involuntary, "Bless me!" as he stepped back quite daunted. Being in the spirit of her part, Christie closed with the sleep-walking scene, using the table-cloth again, while a towel composed the tragic nightcap of her ladyship. This was an imitation, and having a fine model and being a good mimic, she did well; for the children sat staring with round eyes, the gentlemen watched the woful face and gestures intently, and Mrs. Wilkins took a long breath at the end, exclaiming: "I never did see the beat of that for gastliness! My sister Clarissy used to walk in her sleep, but she warn't half so kind of dreadful.""If she had had the murder of a few friends on her conscience, I dare say she would have been," said Christie, going in to make herself tidy. "Well, how do you like her as an actress?" asked Mr. Power of David, who stood looking, as if he still saw and heard the haunted lady. "Very much; but better as a woman. I'd no idea she had it in her," answered David, in a wonder-stricken tone. "Plenty of tragedy and comedy in all of us," began Mr. Power; but David said hastily: "Yes, but few of us have passion and imagination enough to act Shakspeare in that way." "Very true: Christie herself could not give a whole character in that style, and would not think of trying." "I think she could; and I'd like to see her try it," said David, much impressed by the dramatic ability which Christie's usual quietude had most effectually hidden. He was still thinking about it, when she came out again. Mr. Power beckoned to her; saying, as she came and stood before him, flushed and kindled with her efforts: "Now, you must give me a bit from the 'Merchant of Venice.' Portia is a favorite character of mine, and I want to see if you can do any thing with it."
"No, sir, I cannot. I used to study it, but it was too sober to suit me. I am not a judicial woman, so I gave it up," answered Christie, much flattered by his request, and amused at the respectful way in which David looked at her. Then, as if it just occurred to her, she added, "I remember one little speech that I can say to you, sir, with great truth, and I will, since you like that play."
Still standing before him, she bent her head a little, and with a graceful gesture of the hands, as if offering something, she delivered with heartfelt emphasis the first part of Portia's pretty speech to her fortunate suitor:
"You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand,
Such as I am: though, for myself alone,
I would not be ambitious in my wish,
To wish myself much better; yet for you,
I would be trebled twenty times myself;
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich; That, only to stand high in your account,
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends, Exceed account: but the full sum of me Is sum of something; which, to term in gross, Is an unlesson'd girl, unschool'd, unpractis'd:-- Happy in this, she is not yet so old
But she may learn; happier than this,
She is not bred so dull but she can learn; Happiest of all, is that her willing spirit Commits itself to yours to be directed, As from her lord, her governor, her king."
David applauded vigorously; but Mr. Power rose silently, looking both touched and surprised; and, drawing Christie's hand through his arm, led her away into the garden for one of the quiet talks that were so much to her.
When they returned, the Wilkinses were preparing to depart; and, after repeated leavetakings, finally got under way, were packed into the omnibus, and rumbled off with hats, hands, and handkerchiefs waving from every window. Mr. Power soon followed, and peace returned to the little house in the lane.
Later in the evening, when Mrs. Sterling was engaged with a neighbor, who had come to confide some affliction to the good lady, Christie went into the porch, and found David sitting on the step, enjoying the mellow moonlight and the balmy air. As he did not speak, she sat down silently, folded her hands in her lap, and began to enjoy the beauty of the night in her own way. Presently she became conscious that David's eyes had turned from the moon to her own face. He sat in the shade, she in the light, and he was looking at her with the new expression which amused her."Well, what is it? You look as if you never saw me before," she said, smiling. "I feel as if I never had," he answered, still regarding her as if she had been a picture. "What do I look like?" "A peaceful, pious nun, just now."
"Oh! that is owing to my pretty shawl. I put it on in honor of the day, though it is a trifle warm, I confess." And Christie stroked the soft folds about her shoulders, and settled the corner that lay lightly on her hair. "I do feel peaceful to-night, but not pious. I am afraid I never shall do that," she added soberly."Why not?"
"Well, it does not seem to be my nature, and I don't know how to change it. I want something to keep me steady, but I can't find it. So I whiffle about this way and that, and sometimes think I am a most degenerate creature."
"That is only human nature, so don't be troubled. We are all compasses pointing due north. We get shaken often, and the needle varies in spite of us; but the minute we are quiet, it points right, and we have only to follow it."
"The keeping quiet is just what I cannot do. Tour mother shows me how lovely it is, and I try to imitate it; but this restless soul of mine will ask questions and doubt and fear, and worry me in many ways. What shall I do to keep it still?" asked Christie, smiling, yet earnest.
"Let it alone: you cannot force these things, and the best way is to wait till the attraction is strong enough to keep the needle steady. Some people get their ballast slowly, some don't need much, and some have to work hard for theirs.""Did you?" asked Christie; for David's voice fell a little, as he uttered the last words. "I have not got much yet." "I think you have. Why, David, you are always cheerful and contented, good and generous. If that is not true piety, what is?" "You are very much deceived, and I am sorry for it," said David, with the impatient gesture of the head, and a troubled look. "Prove it!" And Christie looked at him with such sincere respect and regard, that his honest nature would not let him accept it, though it gratified him much. He made no answer for a minute. Then he said slowly, as if feeling a modest man's hesitation to speak of himself, yet urged to it by some irresistible impulse:
"I will prove it if you won't mind the unavoidable egotism; for I cannot let you think me so much better than I am. Outwardly I seem to you 'cheerful, contented, generous, and good.' In reality I am sad, dissatisfied, bad, and selfish: see if I'm not. I often tire of this quiet life, hate my work, and long to break away, and follow my own wild and wilful impulses, no matter where they lead. Nothing keeps me at such times but my mother and God's patience."
David began quietly; but the latter part of this confession was made with a sudden impetuosity that startled Christie, so utterly unlike his usual self-control was it. She could only look at him with the surprise she felt. His face was in the shadow; but she saw that it was flushed, his eyes excited, and in his voice she heard an undertone that made it sternly self-accusing.
"I am not a hypocrite," he went on rapidly, as if driven to speak in spite of himself. "I try to be what I seem, but it is too hard sometimes and I despair. Especially hard is it to feel that I have learned to feign happiness so well that others are entirely deceived. Mr. Power and mother know me as I am: other friends I have not, unless you will let me call you one. Whether you do or not after this, I respect you too much to let you delude yourself about my virtues, so I tell you the truth and abide the consequences."
He looked up at her as he paused, with a curious mixture of pride and humility in his face, and squared his broad shoulders as if he had thrown off a burden that had much oppressed him.
Christie offered him her hand, saying in a tone that did his heart good: "The consequences are that I respect, admire, and trust you more than ever, and feel proud to be your friend."
David gave the hand a strong and grateful pressure, said, "Thank you," in a moved tone, and then leaned back into the shadow, as if trying to recover from this unusual burst of confidence, won from him by the soft magic of time, place, and companionship.Fearing he would regret the glimpse he had given her, and anxious to show how much she liked it, Christie talked on to give him time to regain composure.
"I always thought in reading the lives of saints or good men of any time, that their struggles were the most interesting and helpful things recorded. Human imperfection only seems to make real piety more possible, and to me more beautiful; for where others have conquered I can conquer, having suffered as they suffer, and seen their hard-won success. That is the sort of religion I want; something to hold by, live in, and enjoy, if I can only get it."
"I know you will." He said it heartily, and seemed quite calm again; so Christie obeyed the instinct which told her that questions would be good for David, and that he was in the mood for answering them. "May I ask you something," she began a little timidly. "Any thing, Christie," he answered instantly. "That is a rash promise: I am a woman, and therefore curious; what shall you do if I take advantage of the privilege?" "Try and see."
"I will be discreet, and only ask one thing," she replied, charmed with her success. "You said just now that you had learned to feign happiness. I wish you would tell me how you do it, for it is such an excellent imitation I shall be quite content with it till I can learn the genuine thing."David fingered the troublesome forelock thoughtfully for a moment, then said, with something of the former impetuosity coming back into his voice and manner:
"I will tell you all about it; that's the best way: I know I shall some day because I can't help it; so I may as well have done with it now, since I have begun. It is not interesting, mind you,--only a grim little history of one man's fight with the world, the flesh, and the devil: will you have it?""Oh, yes!" answered Christie, so eagerly that David laughed, in spite of the bitter memories stirring at his heart. "So like a woman, always ready to hear and forgive sinners," he said, then took a long breath, and added rapidly:
"I'll put it in as few words as possible and much good may it do you. Some years ago I was desperately miserable; never mind why: I dare say I shall tell you all about it some day if I go on at this rate. Well, being miserable, as I say, every thing looked black and bad to me: I hated all men, distrusted all women, doubted the existence of God, and was a forlorn wretch generally. Why I did not go to the devil I can't say: I did start once or twice; but the thought of that dear old woman in there sitting all alone and waiting for me dragged me back, and kept me here till the first recklessness was over. People talk about duty being sweet; I have not found it so, but there it was: I should have been a brute to shirk it; so I took it up, and held on desperately till it grew bearable.""It has grovn sweet now, David, I am sure," said Christie, very low.
"No, not yet," he answered with the stern honesty that would not let him deceive himself or others, cost what it might to be true. "There is a certain solid satisfaction in it that I did not use to find. It is not a mere dogged persistence now, as it once was, and that is a step towards loving it perhaps."He spoke half to himself, and sat leaning his head on both hands propped on his knees, looking down as if the weight of the old trouble bent his shoulders again. "What more, David?" said Christie.
"Only this. When I found I had got to live, and live manfully, I said to myself, 'I must have help or I cannot do it.' To no living soul could I tell my grief, not even to my mother, for she had her own to bear: no human being could help me, yet I must have help or give up shamefully. Then I did what others do when all else fails to sustain them; I turned to God: not humbly, not devoutly or trustfully, but doubtfully, bitterly, and rebelliously; for I said in my despairing heart, 'If there is a God, let Him help me, and I will believe.' He did help me, and I kept my word.""Oh, David, how?" whispered Christie after a moment's silence, for the last words were solemn in their earnestness.
"The help did not come at once. No miracle answered me, and I thought my cry had not been heard. But it had, and slowly something like submission came to me. It was not cheerful nor pious: it was only a dumb, sad sort of patience without hope or faith. It was better than desperation; so I accepted it, and bore the inevitable as well as I could. Presently, courage seemed to spring up again: I was ashamed to be beaten in the first battle, and some sort of blind instinct made me long to break away from the past and begin again. My father was dead; mother left all to me, and followed where I led. I sold the old place, bought this, and, shutting out the world as much as I could, I fell to work as if my life depended on it. That was five or six years ago: and for a long time I delved away without interest or pleasure, merely as a safety-valve for my energies, and a means of living; for I gave up all my earlier hopes and plans when the trouble came.
"I did not love my work; but it was good for me, and helped cure my sick soul. I never guessed why I felt better, but dug on with indifference first, then felt pride in my garden, then interest in the plants I tended, and by and by I saw what they had done for me, and loved them like true friends."
A broad woodbine leaf had been fluttering against David's head, as he leaned on the slender pillar of the porch where it grew. Now, as if involuntarily, he laid his cheek against it with a caressing gesture, and sat looking over the garden lying dewy and still in the moonlight, with the grateful look of a man who has learned the healing miracles of Nature and how near she is to God."Mr. Power helped you: didn't he?" said Christie, longing to hear more.
"So much! I never can tell you what he was to me, nor how I thank him. To him, and to my work I owe the little I have won in the way of strength and comfort after years of effort. I see now the compensation that comes out of trouble, the lovely possibilities that exist for all of us, and the infinite patience of God, which is to me one of the greatest of His divine attributes. I have only got so far, but things grow easier as one goes on; and if I keep tugging I may yet be the cheerful, contented man I seem. That is all, Christie, and a longer story than I meant to tell."
"Not long enough: some time you will tell me more perhaps, since you have once begun. It seems quite natural now, and I am so pleased and honored by your confidence. But I cannot help wondering what made you do it all at once," said Christie presently, after they had listened to a whippoorwill, and watched the flight of a downy owl.
"I do not think I quite know myself, unless it was because I have been on my good behavior since you came, and, being a humbug, as I tell you, was forced to unmask in spite of myself. There are limits to human endurance, and the proudest man longs to unpack his woes before a sympathizing friend now and then. I have been longing to do this for some time; but I never like to disturb mother's peace, or take Mr. Power from those who need him more. So to-day, when you so sweetly offered to help me if you could, it quite went to my heart, and seemed so friendly and comfortable, I could not resist trying it tonight, when you began about my imaginary virtues. That is the truth, I believe: now, what shall we do about it?"
"Just go on, and do it again whenever you feel like it. I know what loneliness is, and how telling worries often cures them. I meant every word I said this morning, and will prove it by doing any thing in the world I can for you. Believe this, and let me be your friend."They had risen, as a stir within told them the guest was going; and as Christie spoke she was looking up with the moonlight full upon her face. If there had been any hidden purpose in her mind, any false sentiment, or trace of coquetry in her manner, it would have spoiled that hearty little speech of hers.
But in her heart was nothing but a sincere desire to prove gratitude and offer sympathy; in her manner the gentle frankness of a woman speaking to a brother; and in her face the earnestness of one who felt the value of friendship, and did not ask or give it lightly."I will," was David's emphatic answer, and then, as if to seal the bargain, he stooped down, and gravely kissed her on the forehead.
Christie was a little startled, but neither offended nor confused; for there was no love in that quiet kiss,--only respect, affection, and much gratitude; an involuntary demonstration from the lonely man to the true-hearted woman who had dared to come and comfort him. Out trotted neighbor Miller, and that was the end of confidences in the porch; but David played melodiously on his flute that night, and Christie fell asleep saying happily to herself:"Now we are all right, friends for ever, and every thing will go beautifully."
XIII. Waking Up
EVERY thing did "go beautifully" for a time; so much so, that Christie began to think she really had "got religion." A delightful peace pervaded her soul, a new interest made the dullest task agreeable, and life grew so inexpressibly sweet that she felt as if she could forgive all her enemies, love her friends more than ever, and do any thing great, good, or glorious.
She had known such moods before, but they had never lasted long, and were not so intense as this; therefore, she was sure some blessed power had come to uphold and cheer her. She sang like a lark as she swept and dusted; thought high and happy thoughts among the pots and kettles, and, when she sat sewing, smiled unconsciously as if some deep satisfaction made sunshine from within. Heart and soul seemed to wake up and rejoice as naturally and beautifully as flowers in the spring. A soft brightness shone in her eyes, a fuller tone sounded in her voice, and her face grew young and blooming with the happiness that transfigures all it touches."Christie 's growing handsome," David would say to his mother, as if she was a flower in which he took pride. "Thee is a good gardener, Davy," the old lady would reply, and when he was busy would watch him with a tender sort of anxiety, as if to discover a like change in him.
But no alteration appeared, except more cheerfulness and less silence; for now there was no need to hide his real self, and all the social virtues in him came out delightfully after their long solitude.
In her present uplifted state, Christie could no more help regarding David as a martyr and admiring him for it, than she could help mixing sentiment with her sympathy. By the light of the late confessions, his life and character looked very different to her now. His apparent contentment was resignation; his cheerfulness, a manly contempt for complaint; his reserve, the modest reticence of one who, having done a hard duty well, desires no praise for it. Like all enthusiastic persons, Christie had a hearty admiration for selfsacrifice and self-control; and, while she learned to see David's virtues, she also exaggerated them, and could not do enough to show the daily increasing esteem and respect she felt for him, and to atone for the injustice she once did him.
She grubbed in the garden and green-house, and learned hard botanical names that she might be able to talk intelligently upon subjects that interested her comrade. Then, as autumn ended out-of-door work, she tried to make home more comfortable and attractive than ever.
David's room was her especial care; for now to her there was something pathetic in the place and its poor furnishing. He had fought many a silent battle there; won many a secret victory; and tried to cheer his solitude with the best thoughts the minds of the bravest, wisest men could give him.
She did not smile at the dilapidated idols now, but touched them tenderly, and let no dust obscure their well-beloved faces. She set the books in order daily, taking many a sip of refreshment from them by the way, and respectfully regarded those in unknown tongues, full of admiration for David's learning. She covered the irruptive sofa neatly; saw that the little vase was always clear and freshly filled; cared for the nursery in the gable-window; and preserved an exquisite neatness everywhere, which delighted the soul of the room's order-loving occupant.
She also--alas, for romance!--cooked the dishes David loved, and liked to see him enjoy them with the appetite which once had shocked her so. She watched over his buttons with a vigilance that would have softened the heart of the crustiest bachelor: she even gave herself the complexion of a lemon by wearing blue, because David liked the pretty contrast with his mother's drabs.
After recording that last fact, it is unnecessary to explain what was the matter with Christie. She honestly thought she had got religion; but it was piety's twin-sister, who produced this wonderful revival in her soul; and though she began in all good faith she presently discovered that she was
"Not the first maiden
Who came but for friendship, And took away love."
After the birthnight confessions, David found it easier to go on with the humdrum life he had chosen from a sense of duty; for now he felt as if he had not only a fellow-worker, but a comrade and friend who understood, sympathized with, and encouraged him by an interest and good-will inexpressibly comfortable and inspiring. Nothing disturbed the charm of the new league in those early days; for Christie was thoroughly simple and sincere, and did her womanly work with no thought of reward or love or admiration.
David saw this, and felt it more attractive than any gift of beauty or fascination of manner would have been. He had no desire to be a lover, having forbidden himself that hope; but he found it so easy and pleasant to be a friend that he reproached himself for not trying it before; and explained his neglect by the fact that Christie was not an ordinary woman, since none of all the many he had known and helped, had ever been any thing to him but objects of pity and protection.
Mrs. Sterling saw these changes with her wise, motherly eyes, but said nothing; for she influenced others by the silent power of character. Speaking little, and unusually gifted with the meditative habits of age, she seemed to live in a more peaceful world than this. As George MacDonald somewhere says, "Her soul seemed to sit apart in a sunny little room, safe from dust and noise, serenely regarding passers-by through the clear muslin curtains of her window."
Yet, she was neither cold nor careless, stern nor selfish, but ready to share all the joys and sorrows of those about her; and when advice was asked she gave it gladly. Christie had won her heart long ago, and now was as devoted as a daughter to her; lightening her cares so skilfully that many of them slipped naturally on to the young shoulders, and left the old lady much time for rest, or the lighter tasks fitted for feeble hands. Christie often called her "Mother," and felt herself rewarded for the hardest, humblest job she ever did when the sweet old voice said gratefully, "I thank thee, daughter."
Things were in this prosperous, not to say paradisiacal, state, when one member of the family began to make discoveries of an alarming nature. The first was that the Sunday pilgrimages to church were seasons of great refreshment to soul and body when David went also, and utter failures if he did not. Next, that the restless ambitions of all sorts were quite gone; for now Christie's mission seemed to be sitting in a quiet corner and making shirts in the most exquisite manner, while thinking about--well, say botany, or any kindred subject. Thirdly, that home was woman's sphere after all, and the perfect roasting of beef, brewing of tea, and concocting of delectable puddings, an end worth living for if masculine commendation rewarded the labor.
Fourthly, and worst of all, she discovered that she was not satisfied with half confidences, and quite pined to know all about "David's trouble." The little needle-book with the faded "Letty" on it haunted her; and when, after a pleasant evening below, she heard him pace his room for hours, or play melancholy airs upon the flute, she was jealous of that unknown woman who had such power to disturb his peace, and felt a strong desire to smash the musical confidante into whose responsive breast he poured his woe.
At this point Christie paused; and, after evading any explanation of these phenomena in the most skilful manner for a time, suddenly faced the fact, saying to herself with great candor and decision:
"I know what all this means: I'm beginning to like David more than is good for me. I see this clearly, and won't dodge any longer, but put a stop to it at once. Of course I can if I choose, and now is the time to do it; for I understand myself perfectly, and if I reach a certain point it is all over with me. That point I will not reach: David's heart is in that Letty's grave, and he only cares for me as a friend. I promised to be one to him, and I'll keep my word like an honest woman. It may not be easy; but all the sacrifices shall not be his, and I won't be a fool."
With praiseworthy resolution Christie set about the reformation without delay; not an easy task and one that taxed all her wit and wisdom to execute without betraying the motive for it. She decided that Mrs. Sterling must not be left alone on Sunday, so the young people took turns to go to church, and such dismal trips Christie had never known; for all her Sundays were bad weather, and Mr. Power seemed to hit on unusually uninteresting texts.
She talked while she sewed instead of indulging in dangerous thoughts, and Mrs. Sterling was surprised and entertained by this new loquacity. In the evening she read and studied with a diligence that amazed and rather disgusted David; since she kept all her lively chat for his mother, and pored over her books when he wanted her for other things."I'm trying to brighten up my wits," she said, and went on trying to stifle her affections.
But though "the absurdity," as she called the new revelation, was stopped externally, it continued with redoubled vigor internally. Each night she said, "this must be conquered," yet each morning it rose fair and strong to make the light and beauty of her day, and conquer her again. She did her best and bravest, but was forced at last to own that she could not "put a stop to it," because she had already reached the point where "it was all over with her."Just at this critical moment an event occurred which completed Christie's defeat, and made her feel that her only safety lay in flight.
One evening she sat studying ferns, and heroically saying over and over, "Andiantum, Aspidium, and Asplenium, Trichomanes," while longing to go and talk delightfully to David, who sat musing by the fire.
"I can't go on so much longer," she thought despairingly. "Polypodium aureum, a native of Florida," is all very interesting in its place; but it doesn't help me to gain self-control a bit, and I shall disgrace myself if something doesn't happen very soon."
Something did happen almost instantly; for as she shut the cover sharply on the poor Polypods, a knock was heard, and before David could answer it the door flew open and a girl ran in. Straight to him she went, and clinging to his arm said excitedly: "Oh, do take care of me: I 've run away again!"
"Why, Kitty, what's the matter now?" asked David, putting back her hood, and looking down at her with the paternal expression Christie had not seen for a long time, and missed very much.
"Father found me, and took me home, and wanted me to marry a dreadful man, and I wouldn't, so I ran away to you. He didn't know I came here before, and I'm safe if you'll let me stay," cried Kitty, still clinging and imploring.
"Of course I will, and glad to see you back again," answered David, adding pitifully, as he put her in his easy-chair, took her cloak and hood off and stood stroking her curly hair: "Poor little girl! it is hard to have to run away so much: isn't it?"
"Not if I come here; it's so pleasant I'd like to stay all my life," and Kitty took a long breath, as if her troubles were over now. "Who's that?" she asked suddenly, as her eye fell on Christie, who sat watching her with interest:
"That is our good friend Miss Devon. She came to take your place, and we got so fond of her we could not let her go," answered David with a gesture of introduction, quite unconscious that his position just then was about as safe and pleasant as that of a man between a lighted candle and an open powder barrel.
The two young women nodded to each other, took a swift survey, and made up their minds before David had poked the fire. Christie saw a pretty face with rosy cheeks, blue eyes, and brown rings of hair lying on the smooth, low forehead; a young face, but not childlike, for it was conscious of its own prettiness, and betrayed the fact by little airs and graces that reminded one of a coquettish kitten. Short and slender, she looked more youthful than she was; while a gay dress, with gilt ear-rings, locket at the throat, and a cherry ribbon in her hair made her a bright little figure in that plain room.
Christie suddenly felt as if ten years had been added to her age, as she eyed the newcomer, who leaned back in the great chair talking to David, who stood on the rug, evidently finding it pleasanter to look at the vivacious face before him than at the fire."Just the pretty, lively sort of girl sensible men often marry, and then discover how silly they are," thought Christie, taking up her work and assuming an indifferent air.
"She's a lady and nice looking, but I know I shan't like her," was Kitty's decision, as she turned away and devoted herself to David, hoping he would perceive how much she had improved and admire her accordingly.
"So you don't want to marry this Miles because he is not handsome. You'd better think again before you make up your mind. He is respectable, well off, and fond of you, it seems. Why not try it, Kitty? You need some one to take care of you sadly," David said, when her story had been told.
"If father plagues me much I may take the man; but I'd rather have the other one if he wasn't poor," answered Kitty with a side-long glance of the blue eyes, and a conscious smile on the red lips."Oh, there's another lover, is there?" "Lots of 'em." David laughed and looked at Christie as if inviting her to be amused with the freaks and prattle of a child. But Christie sewed away without a sign of interest.
"That won't do, Kitty: you are too young for much of such nonsense. I shall keep you here a while, and see if we can't settle matters both wisely and pleasantly," he said, shaking his head as sagely as a grandfather."I'm sure I wish you would: I love to stay here, you are always so good to me. I'm in no hurry to be married; and you won't make me: will you?" Kitty rose as she spoke, and stood before him with a beseeching little gesture, and a confiding air quite captivating to behold.
Christie was suddenly seized with a strong desire to shake the girl and call her an "artful little hussy," but crushed this unaccountable impulse, and hemmed a pocket-handkerchief with reckless rapidity, while she stole covert glances at the tableau by the fire. David put his finger under Kitty's round chin, and lifting her face looked into it, trying to discover if she really cared for this suitor who seemed so providentially provided for her. Kitty smiled and blushed, and dimpled under that grave look so prettily that it soon changed, and David let her go, saying indulgently:"You shall not be troubled, for you are only a child after all. Let the lovers go, and stay and play with me, for I've been rather lonely lately."
"That's a reproach for me," thought Christie, longing to cry out: "No, no; send the girl away and let me be all in all to you." But she only turned up the lamp and pretended to be looking for a spool, while her heart ached and her eyes were too dim for seeing.
"I'm too old to play, but I'll stay and tease you as I used to, if Miles don't come and carry me off as he said he would," answered Kitty, with a toss of the head which showed she was not so childlike as David fancied. But the next minute she was sitting on a stool at his feet petting the cat, while she told her adventures with girlish volubility.
Christie could not bear to sit and look on any longer, so she left the room, saying she would see if Mrs. Sterling wanted any thing, for the old lady kept her room with a touch of rheumatism. As she shut the door, Christie heard Kitty say softly:"Now we'll be comfortable as we used to be: won't we?"
What David answered Christie did not stay to hear, but went into the kitchen, and had her first pang of jealousy out alone, while she beat up the buckwheats for breakfast with an energy that made them miracles of lightness on the morrow.When she told Mrs. Sterling of the new arrival, the placid little lady gave a cluck of regret and said with unusual emphasis: "I'm sorry for it." "Why?" asked Christie, feeling as if she could embrace the speaker for the words. "She is a giddy little thing, and much care to whoever befriends her." Mrs. Sterling would say no more, but, as Christie bade her good-night, she held her hand, saying with a kiss: "No one will take thy place with me, my daughter."
For a week Christie suffered constant pin-pricks of jealousy, despising herself all the time, and trying to be friendly with the disturber of her peace. As if prompted by an evil spirit, Kitty unconsciously tried and tormented her from morning to night, and no one saw or guessed it unless Mrs. Sterling's motherly heart divined the truth. David seemed to enjoy the girl's lively chat, her openly expressed affection, and the fresh young face that always brightened when he came.
Presently, however, Christie saw a change in him, and suspected that he had discovered that Kitty was a child no longer, but a young girl with her head full of love and lovers. The blue eyes grew shy, the pretty face grew eloquent with blushes now and then, as he looked at it, and the lively tongue faltered sometimes in speaking to him. A thousand little coquetries were played off for his benefit, and frequent appeals for advice in her heart affairs kept tender subjects uppermost in their conversations.
At first all this seemed to amuse David as much as if Kitty were a small child playing at sweethearts; but soon his manner changed, growing respectful, and a little cool when Kitty was most confiding. He no longer laughed about Miles, stopped calling her "little girl," and dropped his paternal ways as he had done with Christie. By many indescribable but significant signs he showed that he considered Kitty a woman now and treated her as such, being all the more scrupulous in the respect he paid her, because she was so unprotected, and so wanting in the natural dignity and refinement which are a woman's best protection.Christie admired him for this, but saw in it the beginning of a tenderer feeling than pity, and felt each day that she was one too many now.
Kitty was puzzled and piqued by these changes, and being a born flirt tried all her powers on David, veiled under guileless girlishness. She was very pretty, very charming, and at times most lovable and sweet when all that was best in her shallow little heart was touched. But it was evident to all that her early acquaintance with the hard and sordid side of life had brushed the bloom from her nature, and filled her mind with thoughts and feelings unfitted to her years.
Mrs. Sterling was very kind to her, but never treated her as she did Christie; and though not a word was spoken between them the elder women knew that they quite agreed in their opinion of Kitty. She evidently was rather afraid of the old lady, who said so little and saw so much. Christie also she shunned without appearing to do so, and when alone with her put on airs that half amused, half irritated the other.
"David is my friend, and I don't care for any one else," her manner said as plainly as words; and to him she devoted herself so entirely, and apparently so successfully, that Christie made up her mind he had at last begun to forget his Letty, and think of filling the void her loss had left.
A few words which she accidentally overheard confirmed this idea, and showed her what she must do. As she came quietly in one evening from a stroll in the lane, and stood taking off cloak and hood, she caught a glimpse through the half-open parlor door of David pacing to and fro with a curiously excited expression on his face, and heard Mrs. Sterling say with unusual warmth:"Thee is too hard upon thyself, Davy. Forget the past and be happy as other men are. Thee has atoned for thy fault long ago, so let me see thee at peace before I die, my son."
"Not yet, mother, not yet. I have no right to hope or ask for any woman's love till I am worthier of it," answered David in a tone that thrilled Christie's heart: it was so full of love and longing.
Here Kitty came running in from the green-house with her hands full of flowers, and passing Christie, who was fumbling among the cloaks in the passage, she went to show David some new blossom.
He had no time to alter the expression of his face for its usual grave serenity: Kitty saw the change at once, and spoke of it with her accustomed want of tact.
"How handsome you look! What are you thinking about?" she said, gazing up at him with her own eyes bright with wonder, and her cheeks glowing with the delicate carmine of the frosty air.
"I am thinking that you look more like a rose than ever," answered David turning her attention from himself by a compliment, and beginning to admire the flowers, still with that flushed and kindled look on his own face.
Christie crept upstairs, and, sitting in the dark, decided with the firmness of despair to go away, lest she should betray the secret that possessed her, a dead hope now, but still too dear to be concealed.
"Mr. Power told me to come to him when I got tired of this. I'll say I am tired and try something else, no matter what: I can bear any thing, but to stand quietly by and see David marry that empty-hearted girl, who dares to show that she desires to win him. Out of sight of all this, I can conquer my love, at least hide it; but if I stay I know I shall betray myself in some bitter minute, and I'd rather die than do that."Armed with this resolution, Christie went the next day to Mr. Power, and simply said: "I am not needed at the Sterlings any more: can you give me other work to do?"
Mr. Power's keen eye searched her face for a moment, as if to discover the real motive for her wish. But Christie had nerved herself to bear that look, and showed no sign of her real trouble, unless the set expression of her lips, and the unnatural steadiness of her eyes betrayed it to that experienced reader of human hearts.Whatever he suspected or saw, Mr. Power kept to himself, and answered in his cordial way:
"Well, I've been expecting you would tire of that quiet life, and have plenty of work ready for you. One of my good Dorcases is tired out and must rest; so you shall take her place and visit my poor, report their needs, and supply them as fast as we can. Does that suit you?""Entirely, sir. Where shall I live?" asked Christie, with an expression of relief that said much.
"Here for the present. I want a secretary to put my papers in order, write some of my letters, and do a thousand things to help a busy man. My old housekeeper likes you, and will let you take a duster now and then if you don't find enough other work to do. When can you come?"Christie answered with a long breath of satisfaction: "To-morrow, if you like."
"I do: can you be spared so soon?" "Oh, yes! they don't want me now at all, or I would not leave them. Kitty can take my place: she needs protection more than I; and there is not room for two." She checked herself there, conscious that a tone of bitterness had crept into her voice. Then quite steadily she added:"Will you be kind enough to write, and ask Mrs. Sterling if she can spare me? I shall find it hard to tell her myself, for I fear she may think me ungrateful after all her kindness."
"No: she is used to parting with those whom she has helped, and is always glad to set them on their way toward better things. I will write to-morrow, and you can come whenever you will, sure of a welcome, my child."Something in the tone of those last words, and the pressure of the strong, kind hand, touched Christie's sore heart, and made it impossible for her to hide the truth entirely. She only said: "Thank you, sir. I shall be very glad to come;" but her eyes were full, and she held his hand an instant, as if she clung to it sure of succor and support.
Then she went home so pale and quiet; so helpful, patient, and affectionate, that Mrs. Sterling watched her anxiously; David looked amazed; and, even self-absorbed Kitty saw the change, and was touched by it.On the morrow, Mr. Power's note came, and Christie fled upstairs while it was read and discussed.
"If I get through this parting without disgracing myself, I don't care what happens to me afterward," she said; and, in order that she might do so, she assumed a cheerful air, and determined to depart with all the honors of war, if she died in the attempt.
So, when Mrs. Sterling called her down, she went humming into the parlor, smiled as she read the note silently given her, and then said with an effort greater than any she had ever made in her most arduous part on the stage:
"Yes, I did say to Mr. Power that I thought I'd better be moving on. I'm a restless creature as you know; and, now that you don't need me, I've a fancy to see more of the world. If you want me back again in the spring, I'll come."
"I shall want thee, my dear, but will not say a word to keep thee now, for thee does need a change, and Mr. Power can give thee work better suited to thy taste than any here. We shall see thee sometimes, and spring will make thee long for the flowers, I hope," was Mrs. Sterling's answer, as Christie gave back the note at the end of her difficult speech.
"Don't think me ungrateful. I have been very happy here, and never shall forget how motherly kind you have been to me. You will believe this and love me still, though I go away and leave you for a little while?" prayed Christie, with a face full of treacherous emotion.
Mrs. Sterling laid her hand on Christie's head, as she knelt down impulsively before her, and with a soft solemnity that made the words both an assurance and a blessing, she said: "I believe and love and honor thee, my child. My heart warmed to thee from the first: it has taken thee to itself now; and nothing can ever come between us, unless thee wills it. Remember that, and go in peace with an old friend's thanks, and good wishes in return for faithful service, which no money can repay."
Christie laid her cheek against that wrinkled one, and, for a moment, was held close to that peaceful old heart which felt so tenderly for her, yet never wounded her by a word of pity. Infinitely comforting was that little instant of time, when the venerable woman consoled the young one with a touch, and strengthened her by the mute eloquence of sympathy.
This made the hardest task of all easier to perform; and, when David met her in the evening, Christie was ready to play out her part, feeling that Mrs. Sterling would help her, if need be. But David took it very quietly; at least, he showed no very poignant regret at her departure, though he lamented it, and hoped it would not be a very long absence. This wounded Christie terribly; for all of a sudden a barrier seemed to rise between them, and the old friendliness grew chilled."He thinks I am ungrateful, and is offended," she said to herself. "Well, I can bear coldness better than kindness now, and it will make it easier to go."
Kitty was pleased at the prospect of reigning alone, and did not disguise her satisfaction; so Christie's last day was any thing but pleasant. Mr. Power would send for her on the morrow, and she busied herself in packing her own possessions, setting every thing in order, and making various little arrangements for Mrs. Sterling's comfort, as Kitty was a heedless creature; willing enough, but very forgetful. In the evening some neighbors came in; so that dangerous time was safely passed, and Christie escaped to her own room with her usual quiet good-night all round.
"We won't have any sentimental demonstrations; no wailing, or tender adieux. If I'm weak enough to break my heart, no one need know it,--least of all, that little fool," thought Christie, grimly, as she burnt up several long-cherished relics of her love.
She was up early, and went about her usual work with the sad pleasure with which one performs a task for the last time. Lazy little Kitty never appeared till the bell rang; and Christie was fond of that early hour, busy though it was, for David was always before her with blazing fires; and, while she got breakfast, he came and went with wood and water, milk and marketing; often stopping to talk, and always in his happiest mood.
The first snow-fall had made the world wonderfully lovely that morning; and Christie stood at the window admiring the bridal look of the earth, as it lay dazzlingly white in the early sunshine. The little parlor was fresh and clean, with no speck of dust anywhere; the fire burned on the bright andirons; the flowers were rejoicing in their morning bath; and the table was set out with dainty care. So homelike, so pleasant, so very dear to her, that Christie yearned to stay, yet dared not, and had barely time to steady face and voice, when David came in with the little posies he always had ready for his mother and Christie at breakfast time. Only a flower by their plates; but it meant much to them: for, in these lives of ours, tender little acts do more to bind hearts together than great, deeds or heroic words; since the first are like the dear daily bread that none can live without; the latter but occasional feasts, beautiful and memorable, but not possible to all.
This morning David laid a sprig of sweet-scented balm at his mother's place, two or three rosy daisies at Kitty's, and a bunch of Christie's favorite violets at hers. She smiled as her eye went from the scentless daisies, so pertly pretty, to her own posy full of perfume, and the half sad, half sweet associations that haunt these blue-eyed flowers.
"I wanted pansies for you, but not one would bloom; so I did the next best, since you don't like roses," said David, as Christie stood looking at the violets with a thoughtful face, for something in the peculiarly graceful arrangement of the heart-shaped leaves recalled another nosegay to her mind.
"I like these very much, because they came to me in the beginning of this, the happiest year of my life;" and scarcely knowing why, except that it was very sweet to talk with David in the early sunshine, she told about the flowers some one had given her at church. As she finished she looked up at him; and, though his face was perfectly grave, his eyes laughed, and with a sudden conviction of the truth, Christie exclaimed!"David, I do believe it was you!"
"I couldn't help it: you seemed so touched and troubled. I longed to speak to you, but didn't dare, so dropped the flowers and got away as fast as possible. Did you think it very rude?"
"I thought it the sweetest thing that ever happened to me. That was my first step along a road that you have strewn with flowers ever since. I can't thank you, but I never shall forget it." Christie spoke out fervently, and for an instant her heart shone in her face. Then she checked herself, and, fearing she had said too much, fell to slicing bread with an energetic rapidity which resulted in a cut finger. Dropping the knife, she tried to get her handkerchief, but the blood flowed fast, and the pain of a deep gash made her a little faint. David sprung to help her, tied up the wound, put her in the big chair, held water to her lips, and bathed her temples with a wet napkin; silently, but so tenderly, that it was almost too much for poor Christie.
For one happy moment her head lay on his arm, and his hand brushed back her hair with a touch that was a caress: she heard his heart beat fast with anxiety; felt his breath on her cheek, and wished that she might die then and there, though a bread-knife was not a romantic weapon, nor a cut finger as interesting as a broken heart. Kitty's voice made her start up, and the blissful vision of life, with David in the little house alone, van ished like a bright bubble, leaving the hard reality to be lived out with nothing but a woman's pride to conceal a woman's most passionate pain.
"It's nothing: I'm all right now. Don't say any thing to worry your mother; I'll put on a bit of court-plaster, and no one will be the wiser," she said, hastily removing all traces of the accident but her own pale face.
"Poor Christie, it's hard that you should go away with a wound like this on the hand that has done so much for us," said David, as he carefully adjusted the black strip on that forefinger, roughened by many stitches set for him.
"I loved to do it," was all Christie trusted herself to say. "I know you did; and in your own words I can only answer: 'I don't know how to thank you, but I never shall forget it.'" And David kissed the wounded hand as gratefully and reverently as if its palm was not hardened by the humblest tasks.
If he had only known--ah, if he had only known!--how easily he might repay that debt, and heal the deeper wound in Christie's heart. As it was, she could only say, "You are too kind," and begin to shovel tea into the pot, as Kitty came in, as rosy and fresh as the daisies she put in her hair."Ain't they becoming?" she asked, turning to David for admiration. "No, thank you," he answered absently, looking out over her head, as he stood upon the rug in the attitude which the best men will assume in the bosoms of their families. Kitty looked offended, and turned to the mirror for comfort; while Christie went on shovelling tea, quite unconscious what she was about till David said gravely: "Won't that be rather strong?" "How stupid of me! I always forget that Kitty does not drink tea," and Christie rectified her mistake with all speed. Kitty laughed, and said in her pert little way: "Getting up early don't seem to agree with either of you this morning: I wonder what you've been doing?" "Your work. Suppose you bring in the kettle: Christie has hurt her hand."
David spoke quietly; but Kitty looked as much surprised as if he had boxed her ears, for he had never used that tone to her before. She meekly obeyed; and David added with a smile to Christie:"Mother is coming down, and you'll have to get more color into your checks if you mean to hide your accident from her." "That is easily done;" and Christie rubbed her pale cheeks till they rivalled Kitty's in their bloom. "How well you women know how to conceal your wounds," said David, half to himself. "It is an invaluable accomplishment for us sometimes: you forget that I have been an actress," answered Christie, with a bitter sort of smile.
"I wish I could forget what I have been!" muttered David, turning his back to her and kicking a log that had rolled out of place.
In came Mrs. Sterling, and every one brightened up to meet her. Kitty was silent, and wore an injured air which nobody minded; Christie was very lively; and David did his best to help her through that last meal, which was a hard one to three out of the four.
"I shall see you at church, and Tuesday evenings, even if you don't find time to come to us, so I shall not say good-by at all;" and David shook hands warmly, as he put her into the carriage.
"I'll invite you to my wedding when I make up my mind," said Kitty, with feminine malice; for in her eyes Christie was an old maid who doubtless envied her her "lots of lovers."
"I hope you will be very happy. In the mean time try to save dear Mrs. Sterling all you can, and let her make you worthy a good husband," was Christie's answer to a speech she was too noble to resent by a sharp word, or even a contemptuous look.
Then she drove away, smiling and waving her hand to the old lady at her window; but the last thing she saw as she left the well-beloved lane, was David going slowly up the path, with Kitty close beside him, talking busily. If she had heard the short dialogue between them, the sight would have been less bitter, for Kitty said:"She's dreadful good; but I'm glad she's gone: ain't you?" "No." "Had you rather have her here than me?" "Yes." "Then why don't you ask her to come back." "I would if I could!" "I never did see any thing like it; every one is so queer and cross to-day I get snubbed all round. If folks ain't good to me, I'll go and marry Miles! I declare I will." "You'd better," and with that David left her frowning and pouting in the porch, and went to shovelling snow with unusual vigor.
MR. POWER received Christie so hospitably that she felt at home at once, and took up her new duties with the energy of one anxious to repay a favor. Her friend knew well the saving power of work, and gave her plenty of it; but it was a sort that at once interested and absorbed her, so that she had little time for dangerous thoughts or vain regrets. As he once said, Mr. Power made her own troubles seem light by showing her others so terribly real and great that she was ashamed to repine at her own lot.
Her gift of sympathy served her well, past experience gave her a quick eye to read the truth in others, and the earnest desire to help and comfort made her an excellent almoner for the rich, a welcome friend to the poor. She was in just the right mood to give herself gladly to any sort of sacrifice, and labored with a quiet energy, painful to witness had any one known the hidden suffering that would not let her rest.
If she had been a regular novel heroine at this crisis, she would have grown gray in a single night, had a dangerous illness, gone mad, or at least taken to pervading the house at unseasonable hours with her back hair down and much wringing of the hands. Being only a commonplace woman she did nothing so romantic, but instinctively tried to sustain and comfort herself with the humble, wholesome duties and affections which seldom fail to keep heads sane and hearts safe. Yet, though her days seemed to pass so busily and cheerfully, it must be confessed that there were lonely vigils in the night; and sometimes in the morning Christie's eyes were very heavy, Christie's pillow wet with tears.
But life never is all work or sorrow; and happy hours, helpful pleasures, are mercifully given like wayside springs to pilgrims trudging wearily along. Mr. Power showed Christie many such, and silently provided her with better consolation than pity or advice.
"Deeds not words," was his motto; and he lived it out most faithfully. "Books and work" he gave his new charge; and then followed up that prescription with "healthful play" of a sort she liked, and had longed for all her life. Sitting at his table Christie saw the best and bravest men and women of our times; for Mr. Power was a magnet that drew them from all parts of the world. She saw and heard, admired and loved them; felt her soul kindle with the desire to follow in their steps, share their great tasks, know their difficulties and dangers, and in the end taste the immortal satisfactions given to those who live and labor for their fellow-men. In such society all other aims seemed poor and petty; for they appeared to live in a nobler world than any she had known, and she felt as if they belonged to another race; not men nor angels, but a delightful mixture of the two; more as she imagined the gods and heroes of old; not perfect, but wonderfully strong and brave and good; each gifted with a separate virtue, and each bent on a mission that should benefit mankind.
Nor was this the only pleasure given her. One evening of each week was set apart by Mr. Power for the reception of whomsoever chose to visit him; for his parish was a large one, and his house a safe haunt for refugees from all countries, all oppressions. Christie enjoyed these evenings heartily, for there was no ceremony; each comer brought his mission, idea, or need, and genuine hospitality made the visit profitable or memorable to all, for entire freedom prevailed, and there was stabling for every one's hobby.
Christie felt that she was now receiving the best culture, acquiring the polish that society gives, and makes truly admirable when character adds warmth and power to its charm. The presence of her bosom-care calmed the old unrest, softened her manners, and at times touched her face with an expression more beautiful than beauty. She was quite unconscious of the changes passing over her; and if any one had told her she was fast becoming a most attractive woman, she would have been utterly incredulous. But others saw and felt the new charm; for no deep experience bravely borne can fail to leave its mark, often giving power in return for patience, and lending a subtle loveliness to faces whose bloom it has destroyed.
This fact was made apparent to Christie one evening when she went down to the weekly gathering in one of the melancholy moods which sometimes oppressed her. She felt dissatisfied with herself because her interest in all things began to flag, and a restless longing for some new excitement to break up the monotonous pain of her inner life possessed her. Being still a little shy in company, she slipped quietly into a recess which commanded a view of both rooms, and sat looking listlessly about her while waiting for David, who seldom failed to come.
A curious collection of fellow-beings was before herj and at another time she would have found much to interest and amuse her. In one corner a newly imported German with an Orson-like head, thumb-ring, and the fragrance of many meerschaums still hovering about him, was hammering away upon some disputed point with a scientific Frenchman, whose national politeness was only equalled by his national volubility. A prominent statesman was talking with a fugitive slave; a young poet getting inspiration from the face and voice of a handsome girl who had earned the right to put M. D. to her name. An old philosopher was calming the ardor of several rampant radicals, and a famous singer was comforting the heart of an Italian exile by talking politics in his own melodious tongue.
There were plenty of reformers: some as truculent as Martin Luther; others as beaming and benevolent as if the pelting of the world had only mellowed them, and no amount of denunciatory thunder could sour the milk of human kindness creaming in their happy hearts. There were eager women just beginning their protest against the wrongs that had wrecked their peace; subdued women who had been worsted in the unequal conflict and given it up; resolute women with "No surrender" written all over their strong-minded countenances; and sweet, hopeful women, whose faith in God and man nothing could shake or sadden.
But to Christie there was only one face worth looking at till David came, and that was Mr. Power's; for he was a perfect host, and pervaded the rooms like a genial atmosphere, using the welcome of eye and hand which needs no language to interpret it, giving to each guest the intellectual fare he loved, and making their enjoyment his own.
"Bless the dear man! what should we all do without him?" thought Christie, following him with grateful eyes, as he led an awkward youth in rusty black to the statesman whom it had been the desire of his ambitious soul to meet.
The next minute she proved that she at least could do without the "dear man;" for David entered the room, and she forgot all about him. Here and at church were the only places where the friends had met during these months, except one or two short visits to the little house in the lane when Christie devoted herself to Mrs. Sterling.
David was quite unchanged, though once or twice Christie fancied he seemed ill at ease with her, and immediately tormented herself with the idea that some alteration in her own manner had perplexed or offended him. She did her best to be as frank and cordial as in the happy old days; but it was impossible, and she soon gave it up, assuming in the place of that former friendliness, a grave and quiet manner which would have led a wiser man than David to believe her busied with her own affairs and rather indifferent to every thing else.
If he had known how her heart danced in her bosom, her eyes brightened, and all the world became endurable, the moment he appeared, he would not have been so long in joining her, nor have doubted what welcome awaited him.As it was, he stopped to speak to his host; and, before he reappeared, Christie had found the excitement she had been longing for.
"Now some bore will keep him an hour, and the evening is so short," she thought, with a pang of disappointment; and, turning her eyes away from the crowd which had swallowed up her heart's desire, they fell upon a gentleman just entering, and remained fixed with an expression of unutterable surprise; for there, elegant, calm, and cool as ever, stood Mr. Fletcher.
"How came he here?" was her first question; "How will he behave to me?" her second. As she could answer neither, she composed herself as fast as possible, resolving to let matters take their own course, and feeling in the mood for an encounter with a discarded lover, as she took a womanish satisfaction in remembering that the very personable gentleman before her had once been.
Mr. Fletcher and his companion passed on to find their host; and, with a glance at the mirror opposite, which showed her that the surprise of the moment had given her the color she lacked before, Christie occupied herself with a portfolio of engravings, feeling very much as she used to feel when waiting at a side scene for her cue.
She had not long to wait before Mr. Power came up, and presented the stranger; for such he fancied him, never having heard a certain episode in Christie's life. Mr. Fletcher bowed, with no sign of recognition in his face, and began to talk in the smooth, low voice she remembered so well. For the moment, through sheer surprise, Christie listened and replied as any young lady might have done to a new-made acquaintance. But very soon she felt sure that Mr. Fletcher intended to ignore the past; and, finding her on a higher round of the social ladder, to accept the fact and begin again.
At first she was angry, then amused, then interested in the somewhat dramatic turn affairs were taking, and very wisely decided to meet him on his own ground, and see what came of it.
In the midst of an apparently absorbing discussion of one of Raphael's most insipid Madonnas, she was conscious that David had approached, paused, and was scrutinizing her companion with unusual interest. Seized with a sudden desire to see the two men together, Christie beckoned; and when he obeyed, she introduced him, drew him into the conversation, and then left him in the lurch by falling silent and taking notes while they talked.
If she wished to wean her heart from David by seeing him at a disadvantage, she could have devised no better way; for, though a very feminine test, it answered the purpose excellently.
Mr. Fletcher was a handsome man, and just then looked his best. Improved health gave energy and color to his formerly sallow, listless face: the cold eyes were softer, the hard mouth suave and smiling, and about the whole man there was that indescribable something which often proves more attractive than worth or wisdom to keener-sighted women than Christie. Never had he talked better; for, as if he suspected what was in the mind of one hearer, he exerted himself to be as brilliant as possible, and succeeded admirably.
David never appeared so ill, for he had no clew to the little comedy being played before him; and long seclusion and natural reserve unfitted him to shine beside a man of the world like Mr. Fletcher. His simple English sounded harsh, after the foreign phrases that slipped so easily over the other's tongue. He had visited no galleries, seen few of the world's wonders, and could only listen when they were discussed. More than once he was right, but failed to prove it, for Mr. Fletcher skilfully changed the subject or quenched him with a politely incredulous shrug.
Even in the matter of costume, poor David was worsted; for, in a woman's eyes, dress has wonderful significance. Christie used to think his suit of sober gray the most becoming man could wear; but now it looked shapeless and shabby, beside garments which bore the stamp of Paris in the gloss and grace of broadcloth and fine linen. David wore no gloves: Mr. Fletcher's were immaculate. David's tie was so plain no one observed it: Mr. Fletcher's, elegant and faultless enough for a modern Beau Brummel. David's handkerchief was of the commonest sort (she knew that, for she hemmed it herself): Mr. Fletcher's was the finest cambric, and a delicate breath of perfume refreshed the aristocratic nose to which the article belonged.
Christie despised herself as she made these comparisons, and felt how superficial they were; but, having resolved to exalt one man at the expense of the other for her own good, she did not relent till David took advantage of a pause, and left them with a reproachful look that made her wish Mr. Fletcher at the bottom of the sea.
When they were alone a subtle change in his face and manner convinced her that he also had been taking notes, and had arrived at a favorable decision regarding herself. Women are quick at making such discoveries; and, even while she talked with him as a stranger, she felt assured that, if she chose, she might make him again her lover.
Here was a temptation! She had longed for some new excitement, and fate seemed to have put one of the most dangerous within her reach. It was natural to find comfort in the knowledge that somebody loved her, and to take pride in her power over one man, because another did not own it. In spite of her better self she felt the fascination of the hour, and yielded to it, half unconsciously assuming something of the "dash and daring" which Mr. Fletcher had once confessed to finding so captivating in the demure governess. He evidently thought so still, and played his part with spirit; for, while apparently enjoying a conversation which contained no allusion to the past, the memory of it gave piquancy to that long tete-a-tete.As the first guests began to go, Mr. Fletcher's friend beckoned to him; and he rose, saying with an accent of regret which changed to one of entreaty, as he put his question: "I, too, must go. May I come again, Miss Devon?"
"I am scarcely more than a guest myself; but Mr. Power is always glad to see whoever cares to come," replied Christie rather primly, though her eyes were dancing with amusement at the recollection of those love passages upon the beach."Next time, I shall come not as a stranger, but as a former--may I say friend?" he added quickly, as if emboldened by the mirthful eyes that so belied the demure lips.
"Now you forget your part," and Christie's primness vanished in a laugh. "I am glad of it, for I want to ask about Mrs. Saltonstall and the children. I've often thought of the little dears, and longed to see them.""They are in Paris with their father." "Mrs. Saltonstall is well, I hope?" "She died six months ago."
An expression of genuine sorrow came over Mr. Fletcher's face as he spoke; and, remembering that the silly little woman was his sister, Christie put out her hand with a look and gesture so full of sympathy that words were unnecessary. Taking advantage of this propitious moment, he said, with an expressive glance and effective tone: "I am all alone now. You will let me come again?""Certainly, if it can give you pleasure," she answered heartily, forgetting herself in pity for his sorrow. Mr. Fletcher pressed her hand with a grateful, "Thank you!" and wisely went away at once, leaving compassion to plead for him better than he could have done it for himself. Leaning back in her chair, Christie was thinking over this interview so intently that she started when David's voice said close beside her: "Shall I disturb you if I say, 'Good-night'?" "I thought you were not going to say it at all," she answered rather sharply. "I've been looking for a chance; but you were so absorbed with that man I had to wait." "Considering the elegance of 'that man,' you don't treat him with much respect." "I don't feel much. What brought him here, I wonder. A French salon is more in his line." "He came to see Mr. Power, as every one else does, of course." "Don't dodge, Christie: you know he came to see you." "How do you like him?" she asked, with treacherous abruptness. "Not particularly, so far. But if I knew him, I dare say I should find many good traits in him." "I know you would!" said Christie, warmly, not thinking of Fletcher, but of David's kindly way of finding good in every one. "He must have improved since you saw him last; for then, if I remember rightly, you found him 'lazy, cross, selfish," and conceited.'" "Now, David, I never said any thing of the sort," began Christie, wondering what possessed him to be so satirical and short with her. "Yes, you did, last September, sitting on the old apple-tree the morning of your birthday." "What an inconvenient memory you have! Well, he was all that then; but he is not an invalid now, and so we see his real self." "I also remember that you gave me the impression that he was an elderly man." "Isn't forty elderly?" "He wasn't forty when you taught his sister's children."
"No; but he looked older than he does now, being so ill. I used to think he would be very handsome with good health; and now I see I was right," said Christie, with feigned enthusiasm; for it was a new thing to tease David, and she liked it.
But she got no more of it; for, just then, the singer began to sing to the select few who remained, and every one was silent. Leaning on the high back of Christie's chair, David watched the reflection of her face in the long mirror; for she listened to the music with downcast eyes, unconscious what eloquent expressions were passing over her countenance. She seemed a new Christie to David, in that excited mood; and, as he watched her, he thought:"She loved this man once, or he loved her; and tonight it all comes back to her. How will it end?"
So earnestly did he try to read that altered face that Christie felt the intentness of his gaze, looked up suddenly, and met his eyes in the glass. Something in the expression of those usually serene eyes, now darkened and dilated with the intensity of that long scrutiny, surprised and troubled her; and, scarcely knowing what she said, she asked quickly:"Who are you admiring?" "Not myself." "I wonder if you'd think me vain if I asked you something that I want to know?" she said, obeying a sudden impulse. "Ask it, and I'll tell you." "Am I much changed since you first knew me?" "Very much." "For the better or the worse?" "The better, decidedly." "Thank you, I hoped so; but one never knows how one seems to other people. I was wondering what you saw in the glass." "A good and lovely woman, Christie." How sweet it sounded to hear David say that! so simply and sincerely that it was far more than a mere compliment. She did not thank him, but said softly as if to herself: "So let me seem until I be"--
and then sat silent, so full of satisfaction in the thought that David found her "good and lovely," she could not resist stealing a glance at the tell-tale mirror to see if she might believe him.
She forgot herself, however; for he was off guard now, and stood looking away with brows knit, lips tightly set, and eyes fixed, yet full of fire; his whole attitude and expression that of a man intent on subduing some strong impulse by a yet stronger will.
It startled Christie; and she leaned forward, watching him with breathless interest till the song ceased, and, with the old impatient gesture, David seemed to relapse into his accustomed quietude.
"It was the wonderful music that excited him: that was all;" thought Christie; yet, when he came round to say good-night, the strange expression was not gone, and his manner was not his own.
"Shall I ask if I may come again," he said, imitating Mr. Flctcher's graceful bow with an odd smile.
"I let him come because he has lost his sister, and is lonely," began Christie, but got no further, for David said, "Good-night!" abruptly, and was gone without a word to Mr. Power.
"He's in a hurry to get back to his Kitty," she thought, tormenting herself with feminine skill. "Never mind," she added, with a defiant sort of smile; "I 've got my Philip, handsomer and more in love than ever, if I'm not deceived. I wonder if he will come again?"
Mr. Fletcher did come again, and with flattering regularity, for several weeks, evidently finding something very attractive in those novel gatherings. Mr. Power soon saw why he came; and, as Christie seemed to enjoy his presence, the good man said nothing to disturb her, though he sometimes cast an anxious glance toward the recess where the two usually sat, apparently busy with books or pictures; yet, by their faces, showing that an under current of deeper interest than art or literature flowed through their intercourse.
Christie had not deceived herself, and it was evident that her old lover meant to try his fate again, if she continued to smile upon him as she had done of late. He showed her his sunny side now, and very pleasant she found it. The loss of his sister had touched his heart, and made him long to fill the place her death left vacant. Better health sweetened his temper, and woke the desire to do something worth the doing; and the sight of the only woman he had ever really loved, reawakened the sentiment that had not died, and made it doubly sweet.
Why he cared for Christie he could not tell, but he never had forgotten her; and, when he met her again with that new beauty in her face, he felt that time had only ripened the blithe girl into a deep-hearted woman, and he loved her with a better love than before. His whole manner showed this; for the half-careless, half-condescending air of former times was replaced by the most courteous respect, a sincere desire to win her favor, and at times the tender sort of devotion women find so charming.
Christie felt all this, enjoyed it, and tried to be grateful for it in the way he wished, thinking that hearts could be managed like children, and when one toy is unattainable, be appeased by a bigger or a brighter one of another sort.
"I must love some one," she said, as she leaned over a basket of magnificent flowers just left for her by Mr. Fletcher's servant, a thing which often happened now. "Philip has loved me with a fidelity that ought to touch my heart. Why not accept him, and enjoy a new life of luxury, novelty, and pleasure? All these things he can give me: all these things are valued, admired, and sought for: and who would appreciate them more than I? I could travel, cultivate myself in many delightful ways, and do so much good. No matter if I was not very happy: I should make Philip so, and have it in my power to comfort many poor souls. That ought to satisfy me; for what is nobler than to live for others?"
This idea attracted her, as it does all generous natures; she became enamoured of selfsacrifice, and almost persuaded herself that it was her duty to marry Mr. Fletcher, whether she loved him or not, in order that she might dedicate her life to the service of poorer, sadder creatures than herself.
But in spite of this amiable delusion, in spite of the desire to forget the love she would have in the love she might have, and in spite of the great improvement in her faithful Philip, Christie could not blind herself to the fact that her head, rather than her heart, advised the match; she could not conquer a suspicion that, however much Mr. Fletcher might love his wife, he would be something of a tyrant, and she was very sure she never would make a good slave. In her cooler moments she remembered that men are not puppets, to be moved as a woman's will commands, and the uncertainty of being able to carry out her charitable plans made her pause to consider whether she would not be selling her liberty too cheaply, if in return she got only dependence and bondage along with fortune and a home.
So tempted and perplexed, self-deluded and self-warned, attracted and repelled, was poor Christie, that she began to feel as if she had got into a labyrinth without any clew to bring her safely out. She longed to ask advice of some one, but could not turn to Mrs. Sterling; and what other woman friend had she except Rachel, from whom she had not heard for months?
As she asked herself this question one day, feeling sure that Mr. Fletcher would come in the evening, and would soon put his fortune to the touch again, the thought of Mrs. Wilkins seemed to answer her.
"Why not?" said Christie: "she is sensible, kind, and discreet; she may put me right, for I'm all in a tangle now with doubts and fears, feelings and fancies. I'll go and see her: that will do me good, even if I don't say a word about my 'werryments,' as the dear soul would call them."
Away she went, and fortunately found her friend alone in the "settin'-room," darning away at a perfect stack of socks, as she creaked comfortably to and fro in her old rockingchair.
"I was jest wishin' somebody would drop in: it's so kinder lonesome with the children to school and Adelaide asleep. How be you, dear?" said Mrs. Wilkins, with a hospitable hug and a beaming smile."I'm worried in my mind, so I came to see you," answered Christie, sitting down with a sigh. "Bless your dear heart, what is to pay. Free your mind, and I'll do my best to lend a hand."
The mere sound of that hearty voice comforted Christie, and gave her courage to introduce the little fiction under which she had decided to defraud Mrs. Wilkins of her advice. So she helped herself to a very fragmentary blue sock and a big needle, that she might have employment for her eyes, as they were not so obedient as her tongue, and then began in as easy a tone as she could assume.
"Well, you see a friend of mine wants my advice on a very serious matter, and I really don't know what to give her. It is strictly confidential, you know, so I won't mention any names, but just set the case before you and get your opinion, for I've great faith in your sensible way of looking at things."
"Thanky, dear, you'r welcome to my 'pinion ef it's wuth any thing. Be these folks you tell of young?" asked Mrs. Wilkins, with evident relish for the mystery.
"My patience! ain't the creater old enough to know her own mind? for I s'pose she's the one in the quanderry?" exclaimed Mrs. Wilkins, looking over her spectacles with dangerously keen eyes."The case is this," said Christie, in guilty haste. "The 'creature' is poor and nobody, the man rich and of good family, so you see it's rather hard for her to decide."
"No, I don't see nothin' of the sort," returned blunt Mrs. Wilkins. "Ef she loves the man, take him: ef she don't, give him the mittin and done with it. Money and friends and family ain't much to do with the matter accordin' to my view. It's jest a plain question betwixt them two. Ef it takes much settlin' they 'd better let it alone."
"She doesn't love him as much as she might, I fancy, but she is tired of grubbing along alone. He is very fond of her, and very rich; and it would be a fine thing for her in a worldly way, I'm sure."
"Oh, she's goin' to marry for a livin' is she? Wal, now I'd ruther one of my girls should grub the wust kind all their days than do that. Hows'ever, it may suit some folks ef they ain't got much heart, and is contented with fine clothes, nice vittles, and handsome furnitoor. Selfish, cold, silly kinder women might git on, I dare say; but I shouldn't think any friend of your'n would be one of that sort.""But she might do a great deal of good, and make others happy even if she was not so herself."
"She might, but I doubt it, for money got that way wouldn't prosper wal. Mis'able folks ain't half so charitable as happy ones; and I don't believe five dollars from one of 'em would go half so fur, or be half so comfortin' as a kind word straight out of a cheerful heart. I know some thinks that is a dreadful smart thing to do; but I don't, and ef any one wants to go a sacrificin' herself for the good of others, there's better ways of doin' it than startin' with a lie in her mouth."Mrs. Wilkins spoke warmly; for Christie's face made her fiction perfectly transparent, though the good woman with true delicacy showed no sign of intelligence on that point. "Then you wouldn't advise my friend to say yes?"
"Sakes alive, no! I'd say to her as I did to my younger sisters when their courtin' time come: 'Jest be sure you're right as to there bein' love enough, then go ahead, and the Lord will bless you.'"
"Did they follow your advice?" "They did, and both is prosperin' in different ways. Gusty, she found she was well on't for love, so she married, though Samuel Buck was poor, and they're happy as can be a workin' up together, same as Lisha and me did. Addy, she calc'lated she wan't satisfied somehow, so she didn't marry, though James Miller was wal off; and she's kep stiddy to her trade, and ain't never repented. There's a sight said and writ about such things," continued Mrs. Wilkins, rambling on to give Christie time to think; "but I've an idee that women's hearts is to be trusted ef they ain't been taught all wrong. Jest let 'em remember that they take a husband for wuss as well as better (and there's a sight of wuss in this tryin' world for some on us), and be ready to do their part patient and faithful, and I ain't a grain afraid but what they'll be fetched through, always pervidin' they love the man and not his money."
There was a pause after that last speech, and Christie felt as if her perplexity was clearing away very fast; for Mrs. Wilkins's plain talk seemed to show her things in their true light, with all the illusions of false sentiment and false reasoning stripped away. She felt clearer and stronger already, and as if she could make up her mind very soon when one other point had been discussed.
"I fancy my friend is somewhat influenced by the fact that this man loved and asked her to marry him some years ago. He has not forgotten her, and this touches her heart more than any thing else. It seems as if his love must be genuine to last so long, and not to mind her poverty, want of beauty, and accomplishments; for he is a proud and fastidious man."
"I think wal of him for that!" said Mrs. Wilkins, approvingly; "but I guess she's wuth all he gives her, for there must be somethin' pretty gennywin' in her to make him overlook her lacks and hold on so stiddy. It don't alter her side of the case one mite though; for love is love, and ef she ain't got it, he'd better not take gratitude instid, but sheer off and leave her for somebody else."
"Nobody else wants her!" broke from Christie like an involuntary cry of pain; then she hid her face by stooping to gather up the avalanche of hosiery which fell from her lap to the floor.
"She can't be sure of that," said Mrs. Wilkins cheerily, though her spectacles were dim with sudden mist. "I know there's a mate for her somewheres, so she'd better wait a spell and trust in Providence. It wouldn't be so pleasant to see the right one come along after she'd went and took the wrong one in a hurry: would it? Waitin' is always safe, and time needn't be wasted in frettin' or bewailin'; for the Lord knows there's a sight of good works sufferin' to be done, and single women has the best chance at 'em."
"I've accomplished one good work at any rate; and, small as it is, I feel better for it. Give this sock to your husband, and tell him his wife sets a good example both by precept and practice to other women, married or single. Thank you very much, both for myself and my friend, who shall profit by your advice," said Christie, feeling that she had better go before she told every thing.
"I hope she will," returned Mrs. Wilkins, as her guest went away with a much happier face than the one she brought. "And ef I know her, which I think I do, she'll find that Cinthy Wilkins ain't fur from right, ef her experience is good for any thing," added the matron with a sigh, and a glance at a dingy photograph of her Lisha on the wall, a sigh that seemed to say there had been a good deal of "wuss" in her bargain, though she was too loyal to confess it.
Something in Christie's face struck Mr. Fletcher at once when he appeared that evening. He had sometimes found her cold and quiet, often gay and capricious, usually earnest and cordial, with a wistful look that searched his face and both won and checked him by its mute appeal, seeming to say, "Wait a little till I have taught my heart to answer as you wish."
To-night her eyes shunned his, and when he caught a glimpse of them they were full of a soft trouble; her manner was kinder than ever before, and yet it made him anxious, for there was a resolute expression about her lips even when she smiled, and though he ventured upon allusions to the past hitherto tacitly avoided, she listened as if it had no tender charm for her.
Being thoroughly in earnest now, Mr. Fletcher resolved to ask the momentous question again without delay. David was not there, and had not been for several weeks, another thorn in Christie's heart, though she showed no sign of regret, and said to herself, "It is better so." His absence left Fletcher master of the field, and he seized the propitious moment."Will you show me the new picture? Mr. Power spoke of it, but I do not like to trouble him." "With pleasure," and Christie led the way to a little room where the newly arrived gift was placed. She knew what was coming, but was ready, and felt a tragic sort of satisfaction in the thought of all she was relinquishing for love of David. No one was in the room, but a fine copy of Michael Angelo's Fates hung on the wall, looking down at them with weird significance. "They look as if they would give a stern answer to any questioning of ours," Mr. Fletcher said, after a glance of affected interest. "They would give a true one I fancy," answered Christie, shading her eyes as if to see the better. "I 'd rather question a younger, fairer Fate, hoping that she will give me an answer both true and kind. May I, Christie?"
"I will be true but--I cannot be kind." It cost her much to say that; yet she did it steadily, though he held her hand in both his own, and waited for her words with ardent expectation.
"Not yet perhaps,--but in time, when I have proved how sincere my love is, how entire my repentance for the ungenerous words you have not forgotten. I wanted you then for my own sake, now I want you for yourself, because I love and honor you above all women. I tried to forget you, but I could not; and all these years have carried in my heart a very tender memory of the girl who dared to tell me that all I could offer her was not worth her love.""I was mistaken," began Christie, finding this wooing much harder to withstand than the other.
"No, you were right: I felt it then and resented it, but I owned it later, and regretted it more bitterly than I can tell. I'm not worthy of you; I never shall be: but I've loved you for five years without hope, and I'll wait five more if in the end you will come to me. Christie, I need you very much!"
If Mr. Fletcher had gone down upon his knees and poured out the most ardent protestations that ever left a lover's lips, it would not have touched her as did that last little appeal, uttered with a break in the voice that once was so proud and was so humble now.
"Forgive me!" she cried, looking up at him with real respect in her face, and real remorse smiting her conscience. "Forgive me! I have misled you and myself. I tried to love you: I was grateful for your regard, touched by your fidelity, and I hoped I might repay it; but I cannot! I cannot!""Why?"
Such a hard question! She owed him all the truth, yet how could she tell it? She could not in words, but her face did, for the color rose and burned on cheeks and forehead with painful fervor; her eyes fell, and her lips trembled as if endeavoring to keep down the secret that was escaping against her will. A moment of silence as Mr. Fletcher searched for the truth and found it; then he said with such sharp pain in his voice that Christie's heart ached at the sound:"I see: I am too late?" "Yes." "And there is no hope?" "None." "Then there is nothing more for me to say but good-by. May you be happy." "I shall not be;--I have no hope;--I only try to be true to you and to myself. Oh, believe it, and pity me as I do you!" As the words broke from Christie, she covered up her face, bowed down with the weight of remorse that made her long to atone for what she had done by any self-humiliation.
Mr. Fletcher was at his best at that moment; for real love ennobles the worst and weakest while it lasts: but he could not resist the temptation that confession offered him. He tried to be generous, but the genuine virtue was not in him; he did want Christie very much, and the knowledge of a rival in her heart only made her the dearer.
"I'm not content with your pity, sweet as it is: I want your love, and I believe that I might earn it if you would let me try. You are all alone, and life is hard to you: come to me and let me make it happier. I'll be satisfied with friendship till you can give me more."
He said this very tenderly, caressing the bent head while he spoke, and trying to express by tone and gesture how eagerly he longed to receive and cherish what that other man neglected.
Christie felt this to her heart's core, and for a moment longed to end the struggle, say, "Take me," and accept the shadow for the substance. But those last words of his vividly recalled the compact made with David that happy birthday night. How could she be his friend if she was Mr. Fletcher's wife? She knew she could not be true to both, while her heart reversed the sentiment she then would owe them: David's friendship was dearer than Philip's love, and she would keep it at all costs. These thoughts flashed through her mind in the drawing of a breath, and she looked up, saying steadily in spite of wet eyes and still burning cheeks:
"Hope nothing; wait for nothing from me. I will have no more delusions for either of us: it is weak and wicked, for I know I shall not change. Some time we may venture to be friends perhaps, but not now. Forgive me, and be sure I shall suffer more than you for this mistake of mine."
When she had denied his suit before he had been ungenerous and angry; for his pride was hurt and his will thwarted: now his heart bled and hope died hard; but all that was manliest in him rose to help him bear the loss, for this love was genuine, and made him both just and kind. His face was pale with the pain of that fruitless passion, and his voice betrayed how hard he strove for self-control, as he said hurriedly:
"You need not suffer: this mistake has given me the happiest hours of my life, and I am better for having known so sweet and true a woman. God bless you, Christie!" and with a quick embrace that startled her by its suddenness and strength he left her, standing there alone before the three grim Fates.
"NOW it is all over. I shall never have another chance like that, and must make up my mind to be a lonely and laborious spinster all my life. Youth is going fast, and I have little in myself to attract or win, though David did call me 'good and lovely.' Ah, well, I'll try to deserve his praise, and not let disappointment sour or sadden me. Better to hope and wait all my life than marry without love."
Christie often said this to herself during the hard days that followed Mr. Fletcher's disappearance; a disappearance, by the way, which caused Mr. Power much satisfaction, though he only betrayed it by added kindness to Christie, and in his manner an increased respect very comforting to her.
But she missed her lover, for nothing now broke up the monotony of a useful life. She had enjoyed that little episode; for it had lent romance to every thing while it lasted, even the charity basket with which she went her rounds; for Mr. Fletcher often met her by accident apparently, and carried it as if to prove the sincerity of his devotion. No bouquets came now; no graceful little notes with books or invitations to some coveted pleasure; no dangerously delightful evenings in the recess, where, for a time, she felt and used the power which to a woman is so full of subtle satisfaction; no bitter-sweet hopes; no exciting dreams of what might be with the utterance of a word; no soft uncertainty to give a charm to every hour that passed. Nothing but daily duties, a little leisure that hung heavy on her hands with no hope to stimulate, no lover to lighten it, and a sore, sad heart that would clamor for its right; and even when pride silenced it ached on with the dull pain which only time and patience have the power to heal.
But as those weeks went slowly by, she began to discover some of the miracles true love can work. She thought she had laid it in its grave; but an angel rolled the stone away, and the lost passion rose stronger, purer, and more beautiful than when she buried it with bitter tears. A spirit now, fed by no hope, warmed by no tenderness, clothed in no fond delusion; the vital soul of love which outlives the fairest, noblest form humanity can give it, and sits among the ruins singing the immortal hymn of consolation the Great Musician taught.
Christie felt this strange comfort resting like a baby in her lonely bosom, cherished and blessed it; wondering while she rejoiced, and soon perceiving with the swift instinct of a woman, that this was a lesson, hard to learn, but infinitely precious, helpful, and sustaining when once gained. She was not happy, only patient; not hopeful, but trusting; and when life looked dark and barren without, she went away into that inner world of deep feeling, high thought, and earnest aspiration; which is a never-failing refuge to those whose experience has built within them"The nunnery of a chaste heart and quiet mind."
Some women live fast; and Christie fought her battle, won her victory, and found peace declared during that winter: for her loyalty to love brought its own reward in time, giving her the tranquil steadfastness which comes to those who submit and ask nothing but fortitude.
She had seen little of David, except at church, and began to regard him almost as one might a statue on a tomb, the marble effigy of the beloved dead below; for the sweet old friendship was only a pale shadow now. He always found her out, gave her the posy she best liked, said cheerfully, "How goes it, Christie?" and she always answered, "Goodmorning, David. I am well and busy, thank you." Then they sat together listening to Mr. Power, sung from the same book, walked a little way together, and parted for another week with a hand-shake for good-by.
Christie often wondered what prayers David prayed when he sat so still with his face hidden by his hand, and looked up with such a clear and steady look when he had done. She tried to do the same; but her thoughts would wander to the motionless gray figure beside her, and she felt as if peace and strength unconsciously flowed from it to sustain and comfort her. Some of her happiest moments were those she spent sitting there, pale and silent, with absent eyes, and lips that trembled now and then, hidden by the flowers held before them, kissed covertly, and kept like relics long after they were dead.One bitter drop always marred the pleasure of that hour; for when she had asked for Mrs. Sterling, and sent her love, she forced herself to say kindly: "And Kitty, is she doing well?" "Capitally; come and see how she has improved; we are quite proud of her."
"I will if I can find time. It's a hard winter and we have so much to do," she would answer smiling, and then go home to struggle back into the patient mood she tried to make habitual.
But she seldom made time to go and see Kitty's improvement; and, when she did run out for an hour she failed to discover any thing, except that the girl was prettier and more coquettish than ever, and assumed airs of superiority that tried Christie very much."I am ready for any thing," she always said with a resolute air after one of these visits; but, when the time seemed to have come she was not so ready as she fancied. Passing out of a store one day, she saw Kitty all in her best, buying white gloves with a most important air. "That looks suspicious," she thought, and could not resist speaking. "All well at home?" she asked.
"Grandma and I have been alone for nearly a week; David went off on business; but he's back now and--oh, my goodness! I forgot: I'm not to tell a soul yet;" and Kitty pursed up her lips, looking quite oppressed with some great secret."Bless me, how mysterious! Well, I won't ask any dangerous questions, only tell me if the dear old lady is well," said Christie, desperately curious, but too proud to show it.
"She's well, but dreadfully upset by what's happened; well she may be." And Kitty shook her head with a look of mingled mystery and malicious merriment.
"Mr. Sterling is all right I hope?" Christie never called him David to Kitty; so that impertinent little person took especial pains to speak familiarly, sometimes even fondly of him to Christie.
"I am, but not to Miles. Now don't you say another word, for I'm dying to tell, and I promised I wouldn't. David wants to do it himself. By-by." And Kitty hurried away, leaving Christie as pale as if she had seen a ghost at noonday.She had; for the thought of David's marrying Kitty had haunted her all those months, and now she was quite sure the blow had come.
"If she was only a nobler woman I could bear it better; but I am sure he will regret it when the first illusion is past. I fancy she reminds him of his lost Letty, and so he thinks he loves her. I pray he may be happy, and I hope it will be over soon," thought Christie, with a groan, as she trudged away to carry comfort to those whose woes could be relieved by tea and sugar, flannel petticoats, and orders for a ton of coal.It was over soon, but not as Christie had expected.
That evening Mr. Power was called away, and she sat alone, bravely trying to forget suspense and grief in copying the record of her last month's labor. But she made sad work of it; for her mind was full of David and his wife, so happy in the little home which had grown doubly dear to her since she left it. No wonder then that she put down "two dozen children" to Mrs. Flanagan, and "four knit hoods" with the measles; or that a great blot fell upon "twenty yards red flannel," as the pen dropped from the hands she clasped together; saying with all the fervor of true self-abnegation: "I hope he will be happy; oh, I hope he will be happy!"
If ever woman deserved reward for patient endeavor, hard-won submission, and unselfish love, Christie did then. And she received it in full measure; for the dear Lord requites some faithful hearts, blesses some lives that seem set apart for silent pain and solitary labor.
Snow was falling fast, and a bitter wind moaned without; the house was very still, and nothing stirred in the room but the flames dancing on the hearth, and the thin hand moving to and fro among the records of a useful life.
Suddenly the bell rang loudly and repeatedly, as if the new-comer was impatient of delay. Christie paused to listen. It was not Mr. Power's ring, not his voice in the hall below, not his step that came leaping up the stairs, nor his hand that threw wide the door. She knew them all, and her heart stood still an instant; then she gathered up her strength, said low to herself, "Now it is coming," and was ready for the truth, with a colorless face; eyes unnaturally bright and fixed; and one hand on her breast, as if to hold in check the rebellious heart that would throb so fast.
It was David who came in with such impetuosity. Snow-flakes shone in his hair; the glow of the keen wind was on his cheek, a smile on his lips, and in his eyes an expression she had never seen before. Happiness, touched with the shadow of some past pain; doubt and desire; gratitude and love,--all seemed to meet and mingle in it; while, about the whole man, was the free and ardent air of one relieved from some heavy burden, released from some long captivity."O David, what is it?" cried Christie, as he stood looking at her with this strange look. "News, Christie! such happy news I can't find words to tell them," he answered, coming nearer, but too absorbed in his own emotion to heed hers. She drew a long breath and pressed her hand a little heavier on her breast, as she said, with the ghost of a smile, more pathetic than the saddest tears: "I guess it, David." "How?" he demanded, as if defrauded of a joy he had set his heart upon. "I met Kitty,--she told me nothing,--but her face betrayed what I have long suspected." David laughed, such a glad yet scornful laugh, and, snatching a little miniature from his pocket, offered it, saying, with the new impetuosity that changed him so: "That is the daughter I have found for my mother. You know her,--you love her; and you will not be ashamed to welcome her, I think."
Christie took it; saw a faded, time-worn likeness of a young girl's happy face; a face strangely familiar, yet, for a moment, she groped to find the name belonging to it. Then memory helped her; and she said, half incredulously, half joyfully:"Is it my Rachel?"
"It is my Letty!" cried David, with an accent of such mingled love and sorrow, remorse and joy, that Christie seemed to hear in it the death-knell of her faith in him. The picture fell from the hands she put up, as if to ward off some heavy blow, and her voice was sharp with reproachful anguish, as she cried:"O David, David, any thing but that!"
An instant he seemed bewildered, then the meaning of the grief in her face flashed on him, and his own grew white with indignant repudiation of the thought that daunted her; but he only said with the stern brevity of truth:
"Letty is my sister."
"You could not know, because we hid the truth so carefully. I have no right to resent that belief of yours, for I did wrong my poor Letty, almost as much as that lover of hers, who, being dead, I do not curse. Let me tell you every thing, Christie, before I ask your respect and confidence again. I never deserved them, but I tried to; for they were very precious to me."He paused a moment, then went on rapidly, as if anxious to accomplish a hard task; and Christie forgot to weep while listening breathlessly.
"Letty was the pride of my heart; and I loved her very dearly, for she was all I had. Such a pretty child; such a gay, sweet girl; how could I help it, when she was so fond of me? We were poor then,--poorer than now,--and she grew restless; tired of hard work; longed for a little pleasure, and could not bear to waste her youth and beauty in that dull town. I did not blame my little girl; but I could not help her, for I was tugging away to fill father's place, he being broken down and helpless. She wanted to go away and support herself. You know the feeling; and I need not tell you how the proud, high-hearted creature hated dependence, even on a brother who would have worked his soul out for her. She would go, and we had faith in her. For a time she did bravely; but life was too hard for her; pleasure too alluring, and, when temptation came in the guise of love, she could not resist. One dreadful day, news came that she was gone, never to come back, my innocent little Letty, any more."
His voice failed there, and he walked fast through the room, as if the memory of that bitter day was still unbearable. Christie could not speak for very pity; and he soon continued, pacing restlessly before her, as he had often done when she sat by, wondering what unquiet spirit drove him to and fro:
"That was the beginning of my trouble; but not the worst of it: God forgive me, not the worst! Father was very feeble, and the shock killed him; mother's heart was nearly broken, and all the happiness was taken out of life for me. But I could bear it, heavy as the blow was, for I had no part in that sin and sorrow. A year later, there came a letter from Letty,--a penitent, imploring, little letter, asking to be forgiven and taken home, for her lover was dead, and she alone in a foreign land. How would you answer such a letter, Christie?""As you did; saying: 'Corne home and let us comfort you.'"
"I said: 'You have killed your father; broken your mother's heart; ruined your brother's hopes, and disgraced your family. You no longer have a home with us; and we never want to see your face again.'"
"O David, that was cruel!" "I said you did not know me; now you see how deceived you have been. A stern, resentful devil possessed me then, and I obeyed it. I was very proud; full of ambitious plans and jealous love for the few I took into my heart. Letty had brought a stain upon our honest name that time could never wash away; had quenched my hopes in despair and shame; had made home desolate, and destroyed my faith in every thing; for whom could I trust, when she, the nearest and dearest creature in the world, deceived and deserted me. I could not forgive; wrath burned hot within me, and the desire for retribution would not be appeased till those cruel words were said. The retribution and remorse came swift and sure; but they came most heavily to me."
Still standing where he had paused abruptly as he asked his question, David wrung his strong hands together with a gesture of passionate regret, while his face grew sharp with the remembered suffering of the years he had given to the atonement of that wrong.Christie put her own hand on those clenched ones, and whispered softly: "Don't tell me any more now: I can wait."
"I must, and you must listen! I've longed to tell you, but I was afraid; now, you shall know every thing, and then decide if you can forgive me for Letty's sake," he said, so resolutely that she listened with a face full of mute compassion.
"That little letter came to me; I never told my mother, but answered it, and kept silent till news arrived that the ship in which Letty had taken passage was lost. Remorse had been tugging at my heart; and, when I knew that she was dead, I forgave her with a vain forgiveness, and mourned for my darling, as if she had never left me. I told my mother then, and she did not utter one reproach; but age seemed to fall upon her all at once, and the pathetic quietude you see.
"Then, but for her, I should have been desperate; for day and night Letty's face haunted me; Letty's voice cried: 'Take me home!' and every word of that imploring letter burned before my eyes as if written in fire. Do you wonder now that I hid myself; that I had no heart to try for any honorable place in the world, and only struggled to forget, only hoped to expiate my sin?"
With his head bowed down upon his breast, David stood silent, asking himself if he had even now done enough to win the reward he coveted. Christie's voice seemed to answer him; for she said, with heartfelt gratitude and respect:
"Surely you have atoned for that harshness to one woman by years of devotion to many. Was it this that made you 'a brother of girls,' as Mr. Power once called you? And, when I asked what he meant, he said the Arabs call a man that who has 'a clean heart to love all women as his sisters, and strength and courage to fight for their protection!'"She hoped to lighten his trouble a little, and spoke with a smile that was like cordial to poor David.
"Yes," he said, lifting his head again. "I tried to be that, and, for Letty's sake, had pity on the most forlorn, patience with the most abandoned; always remembering that she might have been what they were, if death had not been more merciful than I."
"But she was not dead: she was alive and working as bravely as you. Ah, how little I thought, when I loved Rachel, and she loved me, that we should ever meet so happily as we soon shall. Tell me how you found her? Does she know I am the woman she once saved? Tell me all about her; and tell it fast," prayed Christie, getting excited, as she more fully grasped the happy fact that Rachel and Letty were one.
David came nearer, and his face kindled as he spoke. "The ship sailed without her; she came later; and, finding that her name was among the lost, she did not deny it, for she was dead to us, and decided to remain so till she had earned the right to be forgiven. You know how she lived and worked, stood firm with no one to befriend her till you came, and, by years of patient well-doing, washed away her single sin. If any one dares think I am ashamed to own her now, let him know what cause I have to be proud of her; let him come and see how tenderly I love her; how devoutly I thank God for permitting me to find and bring my little Letty home."Only the snow-flakes drifting against the window-pane, and the wailing of the wind, was heard for a moment; then David added, with brightening eyes and a glad voice:
"I went into a hospital while away, to look after one of my poor girls who had been doing well till illness brought her there. As I was passing out I saw a sleeping face, and stopped involuntarily: it was so like Letty's. I never doubted she was dead; the name over the bed was not hers; the face was sadly altered from the happy, rosy one I knew, but it held me fast; and as I paused the eyes opened,--Letty's own soft eyes,--they saw me, and, as if I was the figure of a dream, she smiled, put up her arms and said, just as she used to say, a child, when I woke her in her little bed--'Why, Davy!'--I can't tell any more,--only that when I brought her home and put her in mother's arms, I felt as if I was forgiven at last."He broke down there, and went and stood behind the window curtains, letting no one see the grateful tears that washed away the bitterness of those long years.
Christie had taken up the miniature and was looking at it, while her heart sang for joy that the lost was found, when David came back to her, wearing the same look she had seen the night she listened among the cloaks. Moved and happy, with eager eyes and ardent manner, yet behind it all a pale expectancy as if some great crisis was at hand:"Christie, I never can forget that when all others, even I, cast Letty off, you comforted and saved her. What can I do to thank you for it?" "Be my friend, and let me be hers again," she answered, too deeply moved to think of any private hope or pain. "Then the past, now that you know it all, does not change your heart to us?" "It only makes you dearer." "And if I asked you to come back to the home that has been desolate since you went, would you come?" "Gladly, David." "And if I dared to say I loved you?" She only looked at him with a quick rising light and warmth over her whole face; he stretched both arms to her, and, going to him, Christie gave her answer silently.
Lovers usually ascend straight into the seventh heaven for a time: unfortunately they cannot stay long; the air is too rarefied, the light too brilliant, the fare too ethereal, and they are forced to come down to mundane things, as larks drop from heaven's gate into their grassy nests. David was summoned from that blissful region, after a brief enjoyment of its divine delights, by Christie, who looked up from her new refuge with the abrupt question:"What becomes of Kitty?"
He regarded her with a dazed expression for an instant, for she had been speaking the delightful language of lips and eyes that lovers use, and the old tongue sounded harsh to him."She is safe with her father, and is to marry the 'other one' next week."
"Heaven be praised!" ejaculated Christie, so fervently that David looked suddenly enlightened and much amused, as he said quickly: "What becomes of Fletcher?" "He's safely out of the way, and I sincerely hope he will marry some 'other one' as soon as possible." "Christie, you were jealous of that girl." "David, you were jealous of that man." Then they both burst out laughing like two children, for heavy burdens had been lifted off their hearts and they were bubbling over with happiness.
"But truly, David, weren't you a little jealous of P. F.?" persisted Christie, feeling an intense desire to ask all manner of harassing questions, with the agreeable certainty that they would be fully answered."Desperately jealous. You were so kind, so gay, so altogether charming when with him, that I could not stand by and see it, so I kept away. Why were you never so to me?"
"Because you never showed that you cared for me, and he did. But it was wrong in me to do it, and I repent of it heartily; for it hurt him more than I thought it would when the experiment failed. I truly tried to love him, but I couldn't."
"Yet he had so much to offer, and could give you all you most enjoy. It is very singular that you failed to care for him, and preferred a poor old fellow like me," said David, beaming at her like a beatified man.
"I do love luxury and pleasure, but I love independence more. I'm happier poking in the dirt with you than I should be driving in a fine carriage with 'that piece of elegance' as Mr. Power called him; prouder of being your wife than his; and none of the costly things he offered me were half so precious in my sight as your little nosegays, now mouldering away in my treasure-box upstairs. Why, Davy, I've longed more intensely for the right to push up the curly lock that is always tumbling into your eyes, than for Philip's whole fortune. May I do it now?"
"You may," and Christie did it with a tender satisfaction that made David love her the more, though he laughed like a boy at the womanly whim.
"I wish I had; I confess I once or twice fancied that I caught glimpses of bliss round the corner, as it were; but, before I could decide, the glimpses vanished, and I was very sure I was a conceited coxcomb to think it for a moment. It was very hard, and yet I was glad.""Glad!" "Yes, because I had made a sort of vow that I'd never love or marry as a punishment for my cruelty to Letty." "That was wrong, David." "I see it now; but it was not hard to keep that foolish vow till you came; and you see I've broken it without a shadow of regret to-night."
"You might have done it months ago and saved me so much woe if you had not been a dear, modest, morbidly conscientious bat," sighed Christie, pleased and proud to learn her power, yet sorry for the long delay.
"Thank you, love. You see I didn't find out why I liked my friend so well till I lost her. I had just begun to feel that you were very dear,--for after the birthday you were like an angel in the house, Christie,--when you changed all at once, and I thought you suspected me, and didn't like it. Your running away when Kitty came confirmed my fear; then in came that--would you mind if I said--confounded Fletcher?""Not in the least."
"Well, as he didn't win, I won't be hard on him; but I gave up then and had a tough time of it; especially that first night when this splendid lover appeared and received such a kind welcome."
Christie saw the strong hand that lay on David's knee clenched slowly, as he knit his brows with a grim look, plainly showing that he was not what she was inclined to think him, a perfect saint.
"Oh, my heart! and there I was loving you so dearly all the time, and you wouldn't see or speak or understand, but went away, left me to torment all three of us," cried Christie with a tragic gesture."My dearest girl, did you ever know a man in love do, say, or think the right thing at the right time? I never did," said David, so penitently that she forgave him on the spot.
"Never mind, dear. It has taught us the worth of love, and perhaps we are the better for the seeming waste of precious time. Now I've not only got you but Letty also, and your mother is mine in very truth. Ah, how rich I am!"
"But I thought it was all over with me when I found Letty, because, seeing no more of Fletcher, I had begun to hope again, and when she came back to me I knew my home must be hers, yet feared you would refuse to share it if you knew all. You are very proud, and the purest-hearted woman I ever knew.""And if I had refused, you would have let me go and held fast to Letty?" "Yes, for I owe her every thing." "You should have known me better, David. But I don't refuse, and there is no need to choose between us."
"No, thank heaven, and you, my Christie! Imagine what I felt when Letty told me all you had been to her. If any thing could make me love you more than I now do, it would be that! No, don't hide your face; I like to see it blush and smile and turn to me confidingly, as it has not done all these long months.""Did Letty tell you what she had done for me?" asked Christie, looking more like a rose than ever Kitty did. "She told me every thing, and wished me to tell you all her story, even the saddest part of it. I'd better do it now before you meet again." He paused as if the tale was hard to tell; but Christie put her hand on his lips saying softly: "Never tell it; let her past be as sacred as if she were dead. She was my friend when I had no other: she is my dear sister now, and nothing can ever change the love between us."
If she had thought David's face beautiful with gratitude when he told the happier portions of that history, she found it doubly so when she spared him the recital of its darkest chapter, and bade him "leave the rest to silence."
"Now you will come home? Mother wants you, Letty longs for you, and I have got and mean to keep you all my life, God willing!"
"I'd better die to-night and make a blessed end, for so much happiness is hardly possible in a world of woe," answered Christie to that fervent invitation.
"We shall be married very soon, take a wedding trip to any part of the world you like, and our honeymoon will last for ever, Mrs. Sterling, Jr.," said David, soaring away into the future with sublime disregard of obstacles.
Before Christie could get her breath after that somewhat startling announcement, Mr. Power appeared, took in the situation at a glance, gave them a smile that was a benediction, and said heartily as he offered a hand to each:
"Now I'm satisfied; I've watched and waited patiently, and after many tribulations you have found each other in good time;" then with a meaning look at Christie he added slyly: "But David is 'no hero' you know."
She remembered the chat in the strawberry bed, laughed, and colored brightly, as she answered with her hand trustfully in David's, her eyes full of loving pride and reverence lifted to his face:
"I've seen both sides of the medal now, and found it 'sterling gold.' Hero or not I'm content; for, though he 'loves his mother much,' there is room in his heart for me too; his 'old books' have given him something better than learning, and he has convinced me that 'double flowers' are loveliest and best."