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   Chapter 17 THE WRONG PEW.

The End of the World: A Love Story By Edward Eggleston Characters: 12020

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


August's own good sense told him that the advice of Jonas was not good. But he had made many mistakes of late, and was just now inclined to take anybody's judgment in place of his own. All that was proud and gentlemanly in him rebelled at the thought of creeping into another man's house in the night. Modesty is doubtless a virtue, but it is a virtue responsible for many offenses. Had August not felt so distrustful of his own wisdom, nothing could have persuaded him to make his love for Julia Anderson seem criminal by an action so wanting in dignity. But back of Jonas's judgment was that of Andrew, whose weakness was Quixotism. He wanted to live and to have others live on the concert-pitch of romantic action. There was something of chivalry in the proposal of Jonas, a spice of adventure that made him approve it on purely sentimental grounds.

The more August thought of it, and the nearer he was to its execution, the more did he dislike it. But I have often noticed that people of a rather quiet temperament, such as young Wehle's, show vis inertiae in both, ways--not very easily moved, they are not easily checked when once in motion. August's velocity was not usually great, his momentum was tremendous, and now that he had committed himself to the hands of Jonas Harrison and set out upon this enterprise, he was determined, in his quiet way, to go through to the end.

Of course he understood the house, and having left the family in meeting, he had nothing to do but to scale one of the pillars of the front-porch. In those Arcadian days upper windows were hardly ever fastened, except when the house was deserted by all its inmates for days. Half-way up the post he was seized with a violent trembling. His position brought to him a confused memory of a text of Scripture: "He that entereth not by the door ... but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber." Bred under Moravian influence, he half-believed the text to be supernaturally suggested to him. For a moment his purpose wavered, but the habit of going through with an undertaking took the place of his will, and he went on blindly, as Baker the Nile explorer did, "more like a donkey than like a man." Once on the upper porch he hesitated again. To break into a man's house in this way was unlawful. His conscience troubled him. In vain he reasoned that Mrs. Anderson's despotism was morally wrong, and that this action was right as an offset to it. He knew that it was not right.

I want to remark here that there are many situations in life in which a conscience is dreadfully in the way. There are people who go straight ahead to success--such as it is--with no embarrassments, no fire in the rear from any scruples. Some of these days I mean to write an essay on "The Inconvenience of having a Conscience," in which I shall proceed to show that it costs more in the course of a year or two, than it would to keep a stableful of fast horses. Many a man could afford to drive Dexters and Flora Temples who would be ruined by a conscience. But I must not write the essay here, for I am keeping August out in the night air and his perplexity all this time.

August Wehle had the habit, I think I have said, of going through with an enterprise. He had another habit, a very inconvenient habit doubtless, but a very manly one, of listening for the voice of his conscience. And I think that this habit would have even yet turned him back, as he had his hand on the window-sash, had it not been that while he stood there trying to find out just what was the decision of his conscience, he heard the voices of the returning family. There was no time to lose, there was no shelter on the porch, in a minute more they would be in sight. He must go ahead now, for retreat was cut off. He lifted the window and climbed into the room, lowering the sash gently behind him. As no one ever came into this room but Jonas, he felt safe enough. Jonas would plan a meeting after midnight in Cynthy Ann's room, and in Cynthy Ann's presence.

In groping for a chair, August drew aside the curtain of the gable-window, hoping to get some light. Had Jonas taken to cultivating flowers in pots? Here was a "monthly" rose on the window-seat! Surely this was the room. He had occupied it during his stay in the house. But he did not know that Mrs. Anderson had changed the arrangement between his leaving and the coming of Jonas. He noticed that the curtains were not the same. He trembled from head to foot. He felt for the bureau, and recognized by various little articles, a pincushion, a tuck-comb, and the sun-bonnet hanging against the window-frame, that he was in Julia's room. His first emotion was not alarm. It was awe, as pure and solemn as the high-priest may have felt in the holy place. Everything pertaining to Julia had a curious sacredness, and this room was a temple into which it was sacrilege to intrude. But a more practical question took his attention soon. The family had come in below, except Jonas and Cynthy Ann--who had walked slowly, planning a meeting for August--and Mr. Samuel Anderson, who stood at the front-gate with a neighbor. August could hear his shrill voice discussing the seventh trumpet and the thousand three hundred and thirty and five days. It would not do to be discovered where he was. Beside the fright he would give to Julia, he shuddered at the thought of compromising her in such a way. To go back was to insure his exposure, for Samuel Anderson had not yet half-settled the question of the trumpets. Indeed it seemed to August that the world might come to an end before that conversation would. He heard Humphreys enter his room. He was now persuaded that the room formerly occupied by Julia must be Jonas's, and he determined to get to it if he could. He felt like a villain already. He would have cheerfully gone to State's-prison in preference to compromising Julia. At any rate, he started out of Julia's room toward the one that was occupied by Jonas. It was the only r

oad open, and but for an unexpected encounter he would have reached his hiding-place in safety, for the door was but fifteen feet away.

In order to explain the events that follow, I must ask the reader to go back to Julia, and to events that had occurred two hours before. Hitherto she had walked to and from meeting and "singing" with Humphreys, as a matter of courtesy. On the evening in question she had absolutely refused to walk with him. Her mother found that threats were as vain as coaxing. Even her threat of dying with heart-disease, then and there, killed by her daughter's disobedience, could not move Julia, who would not even speak with the "spider." Her mother took her into the sitting-room alone, and talked with her.

"So this is the way you trifle with gentlemen, is it? Night before last you engaged yourself to Mr. Humphreys, now you won't speak to him. To think that my daughter should prove a heartless flirt!"

I am afraid that the unfilial thought came into Julia's mind that nothing could have been more in the usual order of things than that the daughter of a coquette should be a flirt.

"You'll kill me on the spot; you certainly will." Julia felt anxious, for her mother showed signs of going into hysterics. But she put her foot out and shook her head in a way that said that all her friends might die and all the world might go to pieces before she would yield. Mrs. Anderson had one forlorn hope. She determined to order that forward. Leaving Julia alone, she went to her husband.

"Samuel, if you value my life go and speak to your daughter. She's got your own stubbornness of will in her. She is just like you; she will have her own way. I shall die." And Mrs. Abigail Anderson sank into a chair with unmistakable symptoms of a hysterical attack.

I am aware that I have so far let the reader hear not one word of Samuel Anderson's conversation. He has played a rather insignificant part in the story. Nothing could be more comme il faut. Insignificance was his characteristic. It was not so much that he was small. It is not so bad a thing to be a little man. But to be little and insignificant also is bad. There is only one thing worse, which is to be big and insignificant. If one is little and insignificant, one may be overlooked, insignificance and all. But if one is big and insignificant, it is to be an obtrusive cipher, a great lubber, not easily kept out of sight.

Appealed to by his wife, Samuel Anderson prepared to assert his authority as the head of the family. He almost strutted into Julia's presence. Julia had a real affection for her father, and nothing mortified her more than to see him acting as a puppet, moved by her mother, and yet vain enough to believe himself independent and supreme. She would have yielded almost any other point to have saved herself the mortification of seeing her father act the fool; but now she had determined that she would die and let everybody else die rather than walk with a man whose nature seemed to her corrupt, and whose touch was pollution. I do not mean that she was able to make a distinct inventory of her reasons for disliking him, or to analyze her feelings. She could not have told just why she had so deep and utter a repugnance to walking a quarter of a mile to the school-house in company with this man. She followed that strong instinct of truth and purity which is the surest guide.

"Julia, my daughter," said Samuel Anderson, "really you must yield to me as head of the house, and treat this gentleman politely. I thought you respected him, or loved him, and he told me that you had given consent to marry him, and had told him to ask my consent."

In saying this, the "head of the house" was seesawing himself backward and forward in his squeaky boots, speaking in a pompous manner, and with an effort to swell an effeminate voice to a bass key, resulting in something between a croak and a squeal. Julia sat down and cried in mortification and disgust. Mr. Anderson understood this to be acquiescence, and turned and went into the next room.

JULIA SAT DOWN IN MORTIFICATION.

"Mr. Humphreys, my daughter will be glad to ask your pardon. She is over her little pet; lovers always have pets. Even my wife and I have had our disagreements in our time. Julia will be glad to see you in the sitting-room."

Humphreys drew the draw-strings and set his face into its broadest and most parallelogrammatic smile, bowed to Mr. Anderson, and stepped into the hall. But when he reached the sitting-room door he wished he had staid away. Julia had heard his tread, and was standing again with her foot advanced. Her eyes were very black, and were drawn to a sharp focus. She had some of her mother's fire, though happily none of her mother's meanness. It is hard to say whether she spoke or hissed.

"Go away, you spider! I hate you! I told you I hated you, and you told people I loved you and was engaged to you. Go away! You detestable spider, you! I'll die right here, but I will not go with you."

But the smirking Humphreys moved toward her, speaking soothingly, and assuring her that there was some mistake. Julia dashed past him into the parlor and laid hold of her father's arm.

"Father, protect me from that--that--spider! I hate him!"

Mr. Anderson stood irresolute a moment and looked appealingly to his wife for a signal. She solved the difficulty herself. On the whole she had concluded not to die of heart-disease until she saw Julia married to suit her taste, and having found a hill she could not go through, she went round. Seizing Julia's arm with more of energy than affection, she walked off with her, or rather walked her off, in a sulky silence, while Mr. Anderson kept Humphreys company.

I thought best to keep August standing in the door of Julia's room all this time while I explained these things to you, so that you might understand what follows. In reality August did not stop at all, but walked out into the hall and into difficulty.

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