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   Chapter 5 No.5

A Modern Instance By William Dean Howells Characters: 22246

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

The house seemed too little for Marcia's happiness, and after dinner she did not let Bartley forget his last night's engagement. She sent him off to get his horse at the hotel, and ran up to her room to put on her wraps for the drive. Her mother cleared away the dinner things; she pushed the table to the side of the room, and then sat down in her feather-cushioned chair and waited her husband's pleasure to speak. He ordinarily rose from the Sunday dinner and went back to his office; to-day he had taken a chair before the stove. But he had mechanically put his hat on, and he wore it pushed off his forehead as he tilted his chair back on its hind legs, and braced himself against the hearth of the stove with his feet.

A man is master in his own house generally through the exercise of a certain degree of brutality, but Squire Gaylord maintained his predominance by an enlightened absenteeism. No man living always at home was ever so little under his own roof. While he was in more active business life, he had kept an office in the heart of the village, where he spent all his days, and a great part of every night; but after he had become rich enough to risk whatever loss of business the change might involve, he bought this large old square house on the border of the village, and thenceforth made his home in the little detached office.

If Mrs. Gaylord had dimly imagined that she should see something more of him, having him so near at hand, she really saw less: there was no weather, by day or night, in which he could not go to his office, now. He went no more than his wife into the village society; she might have been glad now and then of a little glimpse of the world, but she never said so, and her social life had ceased, like her religious life. Their house was richly furnished according to the local taste of the time; the parlor had a Brussels carpet, and heavy chairs of mahogany and hair-cloth; Marcia had a piano there, and since she had come home from school they had made company, as Mrs. Gaylord called it, two or three times for her; but they had held aloof from the festivity, the Squire in his office, and Mrs. Gaylord in the family room where they now sat in unwonted companionship.

"Well, Mr. Gaylord," said his wife, "I don't know as you can say but what Marcia's suited well enough."

This was the first allusion they had made to the subject, but she let it take the argumentative form of her cogitations.

"M-yes," sighed the Squire, in long, nasal assent, "most too well, if anything." He rasped first one unshaven cheek and then the other, with his thin, quivering hand.

"He's smart enough," said Mrs. Gaylord, as before.

"M-yes, most too smart," replied her husband, a little more quickly than before. "He's smart enough, even if she wasn't, to see from the start that she was crazy to have him, and that isn't the best way to begin life for a married couple, if I'm a judge."

"It would killed her if she hadn't got him. I could see 't was wearin' on her every day, more and more. She used to fairly jump, every knock she'd hear at the door; and I know sometimes, when she was afraid he wa' n't coming, she used to go out, in hopes 't she sh'd meet him: I don't suppose she allowed to herself that she did it for that-Marcia's proud."

"M-yes," said the Squire, "she's proud. And when a proud girl makes a fool of herself about a fellow, it's a matter of life and death with her. She can't help herself. She lets go everything."

"I declare," Mrs. Gaylord went on, "it worked me up considerable to have her come in some those times, and see by her face 't she'd seen him with some the other girls. She used to look so! And then I'd hear her up in her room, cryin' and cryin'. I shouldn't cared so much, if Marcia'd been like any other girl, kind of flirty, like, about it. But she wa' n't. She was just bowed down before her idol."

A final assent came from the Squire, as if wrung out of his heart, and he rose from his chair, and then sat down again. Marcia was his child, and he loved her with his whole soul. "M-well!" he deeply sighed, "all that part's over, anyway," but he tingled in an anguish of sympathy with what she had suffered. "You see, Miranda, how she looked at me when she first came in with him,-so proud and independent, poor girl! and yet as if she was afraid I mightn't like it?"

"Yes, I see it."

He pulled his hat far down over his cavernous eyes, and worked his thin, rusty old jaws.

"I hope 't she'll be able to school herself, so 's t' not show out her feelings so much," said Mrs. Gaylord.

"I wish she could school herself so as to not have 'em so much; but I guess she'll have 'em, and I guess she'll show 'em out." They were both silent; after a while he added, throwing at the stove a minute fragment of the cane he had pulled off the seat of his chair: "Miranda, I've expected something of this sort a good while, and I've thought over what Bartley had better do."

Mrs. Gaylord stooped forward and picked up the bit of wood which her husband had thrown down; her vigilance was rewarded by finding a thread on the oil-cloth near where it lay; she whipped this round her finger, and her husband continued: "He'd better give up his paper and go into the law. He 's done well in the paper, and he's a smart writer; but editing a newspaper aint any work for a man. It's all well enough as long as he's single, but when he's got a wife to look after, he'd better get down to work. My business is in just such a shape now that I could hand it over to him in a lump; but come to wait a year or two longer, and this young man and that one 'll eat into it, and it won't be the same thing at all. I shall want Bartley to push right along, and get admitted at once. He can do it, fast enough. He's bright enough," added the old man, with a certain grimness. "M-well!" he broke out, with a quick sigh, after a moment of musing; "it hasn't happened at any very bad time. I was just thinking, this morning, that I should like to have my whole time, pretty soon, to look after my property. I sha'n't want Bartley to do that for me. I'll give him a good start in money and in business; but I'll look after my property myself. I'll speak to him, the first chance I get."

A light step sounded on the stairs, and Marcia burst into the room, ready for her drive. "I wanted to get a good warm before I started," she explained, stooping before the stove, and supporting herself with one hand on her father's knee. There had been no formal congratulations upon her engagement from either of her parents; but this was not requisite, and would have been a little affected; they were perhaps now ashamed to mention it outright before her alone. The Squire, however, went so far as to put his hand over the hand she had laid upon his knee, and to smooth it twice or thrice.

"You going to ride after that sorrel colt of Bartley's?" he asked.

"Of course!" she answered, with playful pertness. "I guess Bartley can manage the sorrel colt! He's never had any trouble yet."

"He's always been able to give his whole mind to him before," said the Squire. He gave Marcia's hand a significant squeeze, and let it go.

She would not confess her consciousness of his meaning at once. She looked up at the clock, and then turned and pulled her father's watch out of his waistcoat pocket, and compared the time. "Why, you're both fast!"

"Perhaps Bartley's slow," said the Squire; and having gone as far as he intended in this direction, he permitted himself a low chuckle.

The sleigh-bells jingled without, and she sprang lightly to her feet. "I guess you don't think Bartley's slow," she exclaimed, and hung over her father long enough to rub her lips against his bristly cheek. "By, mother," she said, over her shoulder, and went out of the room. She let her muff hang as far down in front of her as her arms would reach, in a stylish way, and moved with a little rhythmical tilt, as if to some inner music. Even in her furs she was elegantly slender in shape.

The old people remained silent and motionless till the clash of the bells died away. Then the Squire rose, and went to the wood-shed beyond the kitchen, whence he reappeared with an armful of wood. His wife started at the sight. "Mr. Gaylord, what be you doin'?"

"Oh, I'm going to make 'em up a little fire in the parlor stove. I guess they won't want us round a great deal, when they come back."

Mrs. Gaylord said, "Well, I never did!" When her husband returned from the parlor, she added, "I suppose some folks'd say it was rather of a strange way of spendin' the Sabbath."

"It's a very good way of spending the Sabbath. You don't suppose that any of the people in church are half as happy, do you? Why, old Jonathan Edwards himself used to allow 'all proper opportunity' for the young fellows that come to see his girls, 'and a room and fire, if needed.' His 'Life' says so."

"I guess he didn't allow it on the Sabbath," retorted Mrs. Gaylord.

"Well, the 'Life' don't say," chuckled the Squire. "Why, Miranda, I do it for Marcia! There's never but one first day to an engagement. You know that as well as I do." In saying this, Squire Gaylord gave way to his repressed emotion in an extravagance. He suddenly stooped over and kissed his wife; but he spared her confusion by going out to his office at once, where he stayed the whole afternoon.

Bartley and Marcia took the "Long Drive," as it was called, at Equity. The road plunged into the darkly wooded gulch beyond the house, and then struck away eastward, crossing loop after loop of the river on the covered bridges, where the neighbors, who had broken it out with their ox-teams in the open, had thickly bedded it in snow. In the valleys and sheltered spots it remained free, and so wide that encountering teams could easily pass each other; but where it climbed a hill, or crossed a treeless level, it was narrowed to a single track, with turn-outs at established points, where the drivers of the sleighs waited to be sure that the stretch beyond was clear before going forward. In the country, the winter which held the village in such close siege was an occupation under which Nature seemed to cower helpless, and men made a desperate and ineffectual struggle. The houses, banked up with snow almost to the sills of the windows that looked out, blind with frost, upon the lifeless world, were dwarfed in the drifts, and seemed to founder in a white sea blotched with strange bluish shadows under the slanting sun. Where they fronted close upon the road, it was evident that the fight with the snow was kept up unrelentingly; spaces were shovelled out, and paths were kept open to the middle of the highway, and to the barn; but where they were somewhat removed, there was no visible trace of the conflict, and no sign of life except the faint, wreathed lines of smoke wavering upward from the chimneys.

In the hollows through which the road passed, the lower boughs of the pines and hemlocks were weighed down with the snow-fall till they lay half submerged in the drifts; but w

herever the wind could strike them, they swung free of this load and met in low, flat arches above the track. The river betrayed itself only when the swift current of a ripple broke through the white surface in long, irregular, grayish blurs. It was all wild and lonesome, but to the girl alone in it with her lover, the solitude was sweet, and she did not wish to speak even to him. His hands were both busy with the reins, but it was agreed between them that she might lock hers through his arm. Cowering close to him under the robes, she laid her head on his shoulder and looked out over the flying landscape in measureless content, and smiled, with filling eyes, when he bent over, and warmed his cold, red cheek on the top of her fur cap.

The moments of bliss that silence a woman rouse a man to make sure of his rapture. "How do you like it, Marsh?" he asked, trying at one of these times to peer round into her face. "Are you afraid?"

"No,-only of getting back too soon."

He made the shivering echoes answer with his delight in this, and chirruped to the colt, who pushed forward at a wilder speed, flinging his hoofs out before him with the straight thrust of the horn trotter, and seeming to overtake them as they flew. "I should like this ride to last forever!"

"Forever!" she repeated. "That would do for a beginning."

"Marsh! What a girl you are! I never supposed you would be so free to let a fellow know how much you cared for him."

"Neither did I," she answered dreamily. "But now-now the only trouble is that I don't know how to let him know." She gave his arm to which she clung a little convulsive clutch, and pressed her head harder upon his shoulder.

"Well, that's pretty much my complaint, too," said Bartley, "though I couldn't have expressed it so well."

"Oh, you express!" she murmured, with the pride in him which implied that there were no thoughts worth expressing to which he could not give a monumental utterance. Her adoration flattered his self-love to the same passionate intensity, and to something like the generous complexion of her worship.

"Marcia," he answered, "I am going to try to be all you expect of me. And I hope I shall never do anything unworthy of your ideal."

She could only press his arm again in speechless joy, but she said to herself that she should always remember these words.

The wind had been rising ever since they started but they had not noticed it till now, when the woods began to thin away on either side, and he stopped before striking out over one of the naked stretches of the plain,-a white waste swept by the blasts that sucked down through a gorge of the mountain, and flattened the snow-drifts as the tornado flattens the waves. Across this expanse ran the road, its stiff lines obliterated here and there, in the slight depressions, and showing dark along the rest of the track.

It was a good half-mile to the next body of woods, and midway there was one of those sidings where a sleigh approaching from the other quarter must turn out and yield the right of way. Bartley stopped his colt, and scanned the road.

"Anybody coming?" asked Marcia.

"No, I don't see any one. But if there's any one in the woods yonder, they'd better wait till I get across. No horse in Equity can beat this colt to the turn-out."

"Oh, well, look carefully, Bartley. If we met any one beyond the turn-out, I don't know what I should do," pleaded the girl.

"I don't know what they would do," said Bartley. "But it's their lookout now, if they come. Wrap your face up well, or put your head under the robe. I've got to hold my breath the next half-mile." He loosed the reins, and sped the colt out of the shelter where he had halted. The wind struck them like an edge of steel, and, catching the powdery snow that their horse's hoofs beat up, sent it spinning and swirling far along the glistening levels on their lee. They felt the thrill of the go as if they were in some light boat leaping over a swift current. Marcia disdained to cover her face, if he must confront the wind, but after a few gasps she was glad to bend forward, and bury it in the long hair of the bearskin robe. When she lifted it, they were already past the siding, and she saw a cutter dashing toward them from the cover of the woods. "Bartley!" she screamed, "the sleigh!"

"Yes," he shouted. "Some fool! There's going to be trouble here," he added, checking his horse as he could. "They don't seem to know how to manage-It's a couple of women! Hold on! hold on!" he called. "Don't try to turn out! I'll turn out!"

The women pulled their horse's head this way and that, in apparent confusion, and then began to turn out into the trackless snow at the roadside, in spite of Bartley's frantic efforts to arrest them. They sank deeper and deeper into the drift; their horse plunged and struggled, and then their cutter went over, amidst their shrieks and cries for help.

Bartley drove up abreast of the wreck, and, saying, "Still, Jerry! Don't be afraid, Marcia,"-he put the reins into her hands, and sprang out to the rescue.

One of the women had been flung out free of the sleigh, and had already gathered herself up, and stood crying and wringing her hands; "Oh, Mr. Hubbard, Mr. Hubbard! Help Hannah! she's under there!"

"All right! Keep quiet, Mrs. Morrison! Take hold of your horse's head!" Bartley had first of all seized him by the bit, and pulled him to his feet; he was old and experienced in obedience, and he now stood waiting orders, patiently enough. Bartley seized the cutter and by an effort of all his strength righted it. The colt started and trembled, but Marcia called to him in Bartley's tone, "Still, Jerry!" and he obeyed her.

The girl, who had been caught under the overturned cutter, escaped like a wild thing out of a trap, when it was lifted, and, plunging some paces away, faced round upon her rescuer with the hood pulled straight and set comely to her face again, almost before he could ask, "Any bones broken, Hannah?"

"No!" she shouted. "Mother! mother! stop crying! Don't you see I'm not dead?" She leaped about, catching up this wrap and that, shaking the dry snow out of them, and flinging them back into the cutter, while she laughed in the wild tumult of her spirits. Bartley helped her pick up the fragments of the wreck, and joined her in making fun of the adventure. The wind hustled them, but they were warm in defiance of it with their jollity and their bustle.

"Why didn't you let me turn out?" demanded Bartley, as he and the girl stood on opposite sides of the cutter, rearranging the robes in it.

"Oh, I thought I could turn out well enough. You had a right to the road."

"Well, the next time you see any one past the turn-out, you better not start from the woods."

"Why, there's no more room in the woods to get past than there is here," cried the girl.

"There's more shelter."

"Oh, I'm not cold!" She flashed a look at him from her brilliant face, warm with all the glow of her young health, and laughed, and before she dropped her eyes, she included Marcia in her glance. They had already looked at each other without any sign of recognition. "Come, mother! All right, now!"

Her mother left the horse's head, and, heavily ploughing back to the cutter, tumbled herself in. The girl, from her side, began to climb in, but her weight made the sleigh careen, and she dropped down with a gay shriek.

Bartley came round and lifted her in; the girl called to her horse, and drove up into the road and away.

Bartley looked after her a moment, and continued to glance in that direction when he stood stamping the snow off his feet, and brushing it from his legs and arms, before he remounted to Marcia's side. He was excited, and talked rapidly and loudly, as he took the reins from Marcia's passive hold, and let the colt out. "That girl is the pluckiest fool, yet! Wouldn't let me turn out because I had the right of way! And she wasn't going to let anybody else have a hand in getting that old ark of theirs afloat again. Good their horse wasn't anything like Jerry! How well Jerry behaved! Were you frightened, Marsh?" He bent over to see her face, but she had not her head on his shoulder, and she did not sit close to him, now. "Did you freeze?"

"Oh, no! I got along very well," she answered, dryly, and edged away as far as the width of the seat would permit. "It would have been better for you to lead their horse up into the road, and then she could have got in without your help. Her mother got in alone."

He took the reins into his left hand, and, passing his strong right around her, pulled her up to his side. She resisted, with diminishing force; at last she ceased to resist, and her head fell passively to its former place on his shoulder. He did not try to speak any word of comfort; he only held her close to him; when she looked up, as they entered the village, she confronted him with a brilliant smile that ignored her tears.

But that night, when she followed him to the door, she looked him searchingly in the eyes. "I wonder if you really do despise me, Bartley?" she asked.

"Certainly," he answered, with a jesting smile. "What for?"

"For showing out my feelings so. For not even trying to pretend not to care everything for you."

"It wouldn't be any use your trying: I should know that you did, anyway."

"Oh, don't laugh, Bartley, don't laugh! I don't believe that I ought to. I've heard that it makes people sick of you. But I can't help it,-I can't help it! And if-if you think I'm always going to be so,-and that I'm going to keep on getting worse and worse, and making you so unhappy, why, you'd better break your engagement now-while you have a chance."

"What have you been making me unhappy about, I should like to know? I thought I'd been having a very good time."

She hid her face against his breast. "It almost killed me to see you there with her. I was so cold,-my hands were half frozen, holding the reins,-and I was so afraid of the colt I didn't know what to do; and I had been keeping up my courage on your account; and you seemed so long about it all; and she could have got in perfectly well-as well as her mother did-without your help-" Her voice broke in a miserable sob, and she clutched herself tighter to him.

He smoothed down her hair with his hand. "Why, Marsh! Did you think that made me unhappy? I didn't mind it a bit. I knew what the trouble was, at the time; but I wasn't going to say anything. I knew you would be all right as soon as you could think it over. You don't suppose I care anything for that girl?"

"No," answered a rueful sob. "But I wish you didn't have anything to do with her. I know she'll make trouble for you, somehow."

"Well," said Bartley, "I can't very well turn her off as long as she does her work. But you needn't be worried about making me unhappy. If anything, I rather liked it. It showed how much you did care for me." He bent toward her, with a look of bright raillery, for the parting kiss. "Now then: once, twice, three times,-and good night it is!"

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