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   Chapter 31 No.31

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 22733

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The bustle and folly of a rummage-sale was once in every two or three years a frolic altogether pleasant to quiet Westways. It enabled Ann Penhallow and other wise women to get rid of worn-out garments and other trash dear to the male mind. When Leila complained of the disturbing antecedents of a rummage-sale, Mrs. Crocker, contributive of unasked wisdom, remarked, "Men have habits, and women don't; women have blind instincts. You'll find that out when you're married. You see marriage is a kind of voyage of discovery. You just remember that and begin early to keep your young man from storing away useless clothes and the like. That's where a rummage-sale comes in handy."

Leila laughed. "Why not sell the unsatisfactory young man, Mrs. Crocker?"

"Well, that ain't a bad idea," said the post-mistress slyly, "if he's a damaged article-a rummage-sale of husbands not up to sample."

"A very useful idea," said the young woman. "Good-bye."

In the afternoon a day later, Leila, making her escape from her aunt's busy collections, slipped away into the woods alone. The solitude of the early woodland days of summer were what she needed, and the chance they gave for such tranquil reflection as the disturbance and restless state of her home just now made it rarely possible to secure. She tried to put aside her increasing anxiety about her uncle and had more difficulty in dealing with John Penhallow and his over-quiet friendliness. She thought too of her own coldly-worded letters and of the suffering of which she had been kept so long ignorant. He had loved her once; did he now? She was annoyed to hear the voice of Mark Rivers.

"So, Leila, you have run away, and I do not wonder. This turmoil is most distressing."

"Yes, yes-and everything-those years of war and what it has brought us-and my dear Uncle Jim-and how is it to end? Let us talk of something else. I came here to be-well, to see if I could find peace of soul and what these silent forests have often given me, strength to take up again the cares and troubles of life." He did not excuse his intrusion nor seem to notice the obvious suggestions, but fell upon their personal application to himself.

"They have never done that for me," he said sadly. "There is some defect in my nature-some want. I have no such relation to nature; it is speechless to me-mute, and I never needed more what I fail to find in myself. The war and its duties gave me the only entire happiness I have had for years." Then he added, in a curiously contemplative manner, "It does seem as if a man had a right to some undisturbed happiness in life. I must go. I leave you to the quiet of the woods."

"I am sorry," she said, "I am sorry that you are able to imply that you have never known happiness. Surely you cannot mean that." It was all she could say. His look of profound melancholy hurt her, for like all who knew Mark Rivers well, she loved, respected and admired him.

He made no explanatory reply, but after a brief silence said, "I must go,

Leila, where there are both duties and dangers-not-no, not in cities."

"I trust you do not mean to leave us-surely not!"

"No, not yet-not while I can be of use to these dear friends."

As she moved on at his side or before him, he saw too well the easy grace of her strong young virgin form, the great blue eyes, the expressive tenderness of features which told of dumb sympathy with what she had no knowledge to understand. He longed to say, "I love you and am condemned by my conscience to ask no return." It would only add to his unhappiness and disturb a relation which even in its incompleteness was dear to him. The human yearning to confess, to win even the sad luxury of pity beset the man. In his constant habit of introspection, he had become unobservant and had no least idea that the two young people he loved so well were nearing what was to him forever impossible.

"Let me sit down," he said unwilling to leave her; "I am tired." He was terribly afraid of himself and shaken by a storm of passion, which left his sensitive body feeble.

She sat down with him on a great trunk wrecked a century ago. "Are you not well?" she asked, observing the paleness of his face.

"No, it is nothing. I am not very well, but it is nothing of moment. Don't let it trouble you-I am much as usual. I want, Leila, what I cannot get-what I ought not to get." Even this approach to fuller confession relieved him.

"What is there, my dear Mr. Rivers, you cannot get? Oh! you are a man to envy with your hold on men, your power to charm, your eloquence. I have heard Dr. McGregor talk of what you were among the wounded and the dying on the firing-line. Don't you know that you are one of God's helpful messengers, an interpreter into terms of human thought and words of what men need to-day, when-"

"No, no," he broke in, lifting a hand of dissenting protest. The flushed young face as she spoke, his sense of being nobly considered by this earnest young woman had again made him feel how just the little more would have set free in ardent words what he was honestly striving to control.

"Thank you, my dear Leila, I could wish I were all you think I am; but were it all true, there would remain things that sweeten life and which must always be forbidden to me."

He rose to his feet once again master of his troubled soul. "I leave you," he said, "and your tireless youth to your walk. We cannot have everything, I must be contented in some moment of self-delusion to half believe the half of what you credit me with."

"Then," cried Leila, laughing, "you would have only a fourth."

"Ah! I taught you arithmetic too well." He too laughed as he turned away. Laughter was rare with him and to smile frequent. He walked slowly away to the rectory and for two days was not seen at Grey Pine.

Leila, more at ease and relieved by the final gay banter, strolled into the solemn quiet of the pines the Squire had so successfully freed from underbrush and left in royal solitude. At the door of the old log-cabin she lay down on the dry floor of pine-needles. The quick interchange of talk had given her no chance to consider, as now she reviewed in thoughtful illumination, what had seemed to her strange. She tried to recall exactly what he had said. Of a sudden she knew, and was startled to know. She had come into possession of the power of a woman innocent of intention to inflict pain on a strong and high-minded man. A lower nature might have felt some sense of triumph. It left her with no feeling but the utmost distress and pitiful thinking of what had gone wrong in this man's life. Once before she had been thus puzzled. The relief of her walk was gone. She gathered some imperfect comfort in the thought that she might not have been justified in her conclusions regarding a man who was in so many ways an unexplained personality.

During the next few days the village was in a state of anticipative pleasure and of effort to find for the rummage-sale articles which were damaged or useless. At Grey Pine John and Leila Grey were the only unexcited persons. She was too troubled in divers ways to enjoy the amusement to be had out of what delighted every one else except John Penhallow. To please his aunt he made some small and peculiar offerings, and daily went away to the mills to meet and consult with the Colonel's former partners. He was out of humour with his world, saw trouble ahead if he did as he meant to do, and as there was an east wind howling through the pines, his wounded arm was recording the storm in dull aches or sharp twinges. He smoked, I fear, too much during these days of preparation for the rummage-sale, and rode hard; while Leila within the dismantled house was all day long like the quiet steadying flywheel in some noisy machinery. What with Billy as the over-excited Colonel's aide and her aunt aggrieved by a word of critical comment on her husband's actions, Leila had need of all the qualities required in a household where, as it seemed to her, it was hard to keep tongue or temper quiet.

Mr. Rivers towards the end of the week came in often, and would, of course, see that the Sunday school hall was made ready for the sale. He would make some contributions and help to arrange the articles for the sale. The Colonel's continuity of childlike interest deceived him into sharing the belief of Ann Penhallow, who was, Leila thought, unreasonably elated. Meanwhile Leila felt as a kind of desertion John's successive days of absence. Where was he? What was he doing? Once she would have asked frankly why he left to her the burden of cares he ought to have been eager to share, while Mark Rivers was so steadily helpful. When Ann Penhallow asked him to act as salesman, he said that he was at her disposal. The Colonel declared that was just the thing, and John must uncover and announce the articles to be sold. He said, "How long ago was the last sale? Wasn't it last year?"

"No, dear, not so lately."

"I must have forgotten. Perhaps, Rivers, we might sell a few useless people. What would Leila fetch in the marriage market?" Ann somewhat annoyed said nothing; nor did Rivers like it. The Colonel continued, "Might sell John-badly damaged."

"I must go," said Rivers. "I have my sermon to think over. I mean to use the text you gave me, Leila, some two weeks ago."

Sunday went by, and Tuesday, the day of the sale, came with a return of the east wind and a cold downpour of rain. The Colonel and Billy were busy late in the day; Mrs. Ann was tired; while John in some pain was silent at dinner. The carriage took the Colonel and his wife to the hall. He was now quiet and answered curtly the too frequent questions about how he felt.

"We will send back for you, Leila," said her aunt.

"No, I want to walk there with John."

The Captain looked up surprised, "Why, yes, with pleasure."

She came down in her rain-cloak. "Take a large umbrella, John. How it blows!"

As they set off in the face of a rain-whipped wind, he said, "Take my arm, Leila-the other side-the sound arm."

"You were in pain at dinner, John."

"It is my familiar devil, the east wind, but don't talk of it."

She understood him, and returned, "I will not if you don't wish me to talk of it. Where have you been all these uneasy days?"

"Oh, at the mills. Uncle refuses to speak of business and I am trying to understand the situation-some one must."

"I see-you must explain it all to me later."

"I will. One of the mill men of my Corps needed help. I have asked Tom to see him. How depressed Mr. Rivers seems. Gracious, how it rains!"

"Yes, he is at his worst. I am sorry you missed his sermon on Sunday-it was great. He talked about Lincoln, and used a text I gave him some time ago."

"What was it?"

"It is in Exodus: 'Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.'"

John's ready imagination began for a silent moment to play with the words. "How did he use it, Leila?"

"Oh, he told the preceding story briefly, and then his great seeking eyes wandered a little and he said, 'Think how the uplift of God's eagles' wings enlarged their horizon!' Then he seemed to me to have the idea that they might not comprehend, so he made one of those eloquent pauses and went on to say, 'Y

ou can all, like Lincoln, rise as he rose from the lesser things of a hard life to see more widely and more surely the duties of life. The eagle-wings of God's uplifting power are for you, for me, for all of us.' He made them understand."

"I am sorry I missed it. I spent the Sunday morning with my engineer."

"Aren't you getting wet, John?"

"No. How did he end?"

"What I did not like was the dwelling on Lincoln's melancholy, and the effort it must have cost him-at times. It seemed to me, John, as if he was preaching to himself. I wonder if clergymen often preach to themselves. Some of us have to. The sketch of Lincoln's life was to me a wonder of terse biography. At the close he did not dwell on the murder, but just said-'Then-and then, my friends, God took him to himself.'"

"Thank you, Leila. What a lot of wagons-we must have half the county-and in this rain too."

"Now, John, you hate this affair, and so do I; but the Westways people think it great fun, and in the last few years they have had very little."

"Ni moi non plus, Mademoiselle Grey."

"Yes, yes," she said, "I know, John, but make it go-make it gay, John.

It will soon be over."

"I will try." They left their wet garments in an empty outer room and entering by a side door stood beside the raised platform at the end of the crowded hall.

Quite a hundred villagers or farming people, young and old, filled the room, and the air was oppressively heavy. At one end on a raised platform the Colonel was seated, and near by his wife well pleased to see him smiling as he recognized here and there some of the farmers who had been the playmates of his youth. John stood by the long table on which, covered by sheets, lay the articles for sale. Rivers came forward to the front of the platform, leaving Leila, who declined to sit down, at one side with Mr. Grace and the two McGregors.

The murmur of voices ceased; there was an appearance of expectant attention. Rivers raised a hand, and said, "You are all, I am sure, most glad to welcome the friend who like others among you has paid so dearly for keeping unbroken the union of the States." Loud applause followed, as he paused. "An occasion like this brings together young and old for good-humoured fun, and may remind you of a similar meeting years ago. This is to be a rummage-auction of useful things out of use, and of useless things. If you will explain why anybody wants useless things I shall know why some of you come to hear me preach or"-with a slight pause-"my friend, Grace." Every one laughed, and John and Leila alike felt that Rivers had struck the right note.

"Captain John Penhallow"-loud plaudits-"Captain John Penhallow will mention the articles for sale. Now, as you see, they are all hidden-some of them I have never seen. Whoever makes the highest bid of the sale for the most useless article will collect the whole product-the whole proceeds of the sale, and"-he laughed-"will pay it over to the girl about to be married."

This was really great fun, and even John felt some relief as the hall rang with merry laughter. Only Tom McGregor was grave while he watched the Colonel. As Rivers spoke, Colonel Penhallow stood up, swayed a little, straightened his tall figure, and waving Rivers aside said, "I shall now conduct this sale." This was only a pleasant surprise to the audience, and was welcomed with noisy hands.

The two McGregors exchanged looks of anxious alarm as the Colonel said,

"Now, John!" Mrs. Penhallow smiled approval.

John uncovered a corner of the nearest sheet and brought out a clock without hands. "First article! Who'll bid? I think the hands have all struck like the mill-hands down East. Five cents-do I hear ten? Going-gone," cried the Colonel.

A rag doll came next and brought a penny. There was high bidding over a heavy band-box. When it went for half a dollar to Mrs. Crocker and was found to contain a shrivelled pumpkin of last year's crop, the audience wildly congratulated the post-mistress.

John, who was now thoroughly in the spirit of their fun, produced two large apples. "Now what daughter of Eve will bid," said the elated Colonel. Leila laughing bid fifty cents. "Going-gone."

"Look out for the serpent, Miss Grey," said Grace.

Leila handed the apples to a small girl, who losing no time followed Eve's remote example. "Oh, mother!" she cried, "it's got a five-dollar piece in it-most broke my new tooth."

"The root of all evil," said Grace.

There were pots that were cracked or bottomless, old novels, and to the evident dismay of John a favourite smoking jacket. Ann clapped her hands with delight as John shook at her a finger of reproach. Then came tied up in paper, which John unrolled, the long-forgotten cane of his youth, and how it got there the Squire or Billy may have known. John bid, but at a warning signal from Leila gave up, as she recaptured her property. There were other apples, with and without money; and so with fun and merriment the sale went on to Westways' satisfaction.

"What's this," said John, with an unpleasant shock of annoyance as he uncovered the Colonel's war-worn uniform. He hesitated, looking towards his uncle who seemed bewildered. "That's that rascal, Billy-it's a mistake," exclaimed the Colonel.

"No, sir," shouted Billy, "Squire told me to take 'em. There's a sword too. Squire said it wasn't any use now."

No one laughed; it was obviously one of Billy's blunders. John put the worn uniform and the sword aside and threw a cover over them. It was an unpleasant reminder of the Colonel's state of mind and disturbed the little group at one side of the stage. John made haste to get away from it.

"Last article for sale-it's large and must be bought covered up. Who will bid?" Amid laughter the bids rose. At a dollar and ten cents it fell to Mrs. Pole, and proved when uncovered to be another band-box. Mrs. Pole came forward, and Ann Penhallow pleased to have been able to amuse her husband said, "We are curious, Mrs. Pole, open it." Mrs. Pole obeyed, and as she held up the rolled package it dropped into the unmistakable form of a man's breeches.

Westways exploded into wild applause, understanding joyously this freak of fortune. Mrs. Pole joined in their merriment, and the carpenter punched the butcher in the ribs for emphasis, as he said, "How's that, Pole?" The butcher made use of unpleasant language, as John relieved said, "The sale is over. You can settle with Mr. Grace." As he spoke he moved over to where Leila stood beside the two McGregors.

The people rose and put on their cloaks preparing to leave. Then John heard Tom McGregor say, "Look out, father! Something is going to happen."

The Colonel moved forward unsteadily. His face flushed, grew pale, and something like a grimace distorted his features, as he said, "The sale is not over, sit down."

People took their places again wondering what was to come. Then with the clear ringing voice the cavalry lines knew in far-away Indian wars, he cried, "We will now sell the most useless article in Westways. Who'll buy silly Billy?"

"Can't sell me," piped out Billy's thin voice as he fled in alarm, amid laughter.

"The sale is over, uncle," said John.

"No, sir-don't interrupt. I'd like to sell Swallow."

This was much to their taste. "Guess he's sold a many of us," cried an old farmer.

"Why, he's dead," said Mrs. Crocker.

The Colonel's gaze wandered. The little group of friends became hopelessly uneasy; even Mrs. Ann ceased to smile. "You stand up, Polly Somers-you are the handsomest girl in the county," which was quite true.

The girl, who was near by, sat still embarrassed. "Get up," said

Penhallow sharply.

"She's withdrawed these three months," cried a ready-witted young farmer.

"Oh, is she? Well, then, we will go on." Tom McGregor went quietly up the two steps to the platform. All those who were near to the much-loved master of Grey Pine stood still aware of something wrong and unable to interfere. Rivers alone moved towards him and was put aside by an authoritative gesture. The moment of silence was oppressive, and Leila was hardly conscious of the movement which carried her up beside Dr. McGregor to the level of the platform.

"Oh, do something," she whispered; "please do something."

"It is useless-this can't last."

"Uncle Jim," she exclaimed in her despair, and what more she would have urged was unheard or unsaid as the Colonel turned towards her and cried, "One more for sale!"

No one spoke. At last these various people who loved the man well saw more or less clearly that he was no longer their James Penhallow of other days. He went on at once with raised voice: "Last sale-Leila Grey-likely young woman-warranted sound-single or double harness. Fetch her up." His confusion of mind was painfuly apparent. "Who'll bid?" A suppressed titter rose from the younger people.

"She is withdrawn, uncle," said John Penhallow distinctly.

"Ah! who did you say-Like Polly, owner withdraws her-Can't you speak out?"

"I said, withdrawn, sir," John repeated. As he spoke he saw the Colonel stagger backwards and sink into his chair; his face became white and twitched; his head fell to one side; he breathed stertorously, flushed slightly, and was instantly as one asleep.

Ann Penhallow and the two doctors were at his side. Rivers called out,

"Leave the room, all of you, please. Open the windows, Grace!"

"Is he dead?" asked Ann of McGregor.

"No, no-it is a slight fit-there is no danger."

A moment later Penhallow opened his eyes, sat up, and said, "Where am I?

What's all this about?"

John said, "A bit faint, uncle. The carriage is waiting." He staggered to his feet, and seizing Rivers's arm followed Ann and John in silence. With Rivers they were driven back to Grey Pine. Of all Ann Penhallow's schemes to amuse or interest her husband this had been the most utter failure.

Every one had gone from the hall when John missing Leila returned to the outer room to put on his cloak. The boy-cap Leila liked to wear in bad weather, her rain-cloak, his umbrella, were as they had been left. He stood still in the first moment available for thought and knew that here was a new trouble. She must have been so shocked and ashamed as to have fled in the rain eager to get away.

Neither he nor any man could have realized what she felt as her uncle talked wildly-and she had been put up for sale. She used none of the resources of reason. All her body was hot with the same flush of shame which burned in her face. In her passion of disgust and anger, she hurried out into the storm. The chill of the east wind was friendly. She gave no other thought to the wind-driven rain, but ran through the woods like a wild thing, all virginal woman, unreasonable, insulted, angry as a child is angry-even her uncle was forgotten. She ran upstairs, the glory of her rain-soaked hair in tumbled disorder, and in her room broke into the open speech which passion confides to the priest solitude.

"Oh, John Penhallow, how could you! That ends it-a man who could-and oh, John Penhallow!" She cried a little, wailing in a childish way, and then with some returning sense of anxiety put herself in condition to go downstairs, where she learned that her uncle was in bed. She went back to her room.

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