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   Chapter 22 A SKELETON IN THE HOUSE AT ERRING’S FORD.

The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 36169

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


MORE than three years had passed since Jo and Mateel were married, and I was alone on the last night of the year, thinking that the years were slipping away wonderfully fast of late, it seemed so short a time since we had lived in the country; since the Rev. John Westlock so strangely disappeared, and since I was a boy in distress at my own and Jo's misfortunes. The good year was dying, and would soon pass peacefully into the dim past, after the watchers had tired of waiting, and gone to sleep. As is the case when an old man dies, the announcement is speedily followed by the birth of a babe, and so the race and the years are continued. As is now said of the dying year, so it will be said of all of us. At some time in the mysterious future-nobody knows when-the hand that writes this will be picking uneasily at the covering of a death-bed, and it will be whispered in the room, and in all the house, and down the streets, "He is dying; poor fellow, he is dead." The eye that reads this-at some time in the future; nobody knows when-will become fixed, and it will be gently said "Dying; dead." The front door will be black with crape for a few days, and the people will pass the house reverently and silently, but after a very little while the token of death will be removed, the house will be thrown open and aired, and laughter will be heard on the inside. Birds will sing merrily at the front door, and flowers appear, and happy children play about the house, and through it, as though nothing had happened. The dead man may have been dearly loved, but everything and everybody encourages his friends to forget him, and they laugh in the room where he died, and where his coffin sat through the long nights before the burial.

The relics of departed friends, which were at first carefully laid away, are in the course of months or years resurrected, and given to their successors. The hat worn by the pretty boy who died last year, or the year before, is worn to-day by the boy who came after him, and he plays with his toys, which were at first so sacred, as though they had been brought to the house for him. The mother who put the little hat away no doubt thought she would keep it for years, and look at it to imagine that her first-born was wearing it again, but time has softened her grief; friends told her he was better off, and she hoped so, and tried to convince herself that it was all for the best.

So it will be with the dying year; it was well loved while it lasted, and brought us many good gifts, but it will be speedily forgotten, and in twelve months we shall be equally indifferent as to its successor. One dies; another is born; so go the people and the years. There will be a birth and a death to-night, but it is not an uncommon circumstance: there will be a little mourning for the death, but a great deal of rejoicing and ringing of bells for the birth.

The fire in the room where I usually worked had gone out, and I had taken my papers to an inner room, where Martin had worked late, and which was yet warm. It must have been ten o'clock, and outside the snow was falling steadily, promising great drifts in the morning, as I could see by the rays thrown out into the darkness from the single light which burned in the room. Just after I had settled down comfortably in my chair, some one opened the front door, and stood on the inside, scraping the snow from his feet, and brushing it from his coat, which startled me, for I supposed the door to be locked. Outside of the circle of the lamp it was quite dark, and as the visitor came slowly toward me, brushing the snow from his clothing, I was still in doubt as to who it was, until he stood almost beside me, when I saw with surprise that it was Jo Erring.

"Of all the men in the world," I said, getting up, and making a place for him by the fire, "you are the most welcome. I think you must be my New Year's gift, for I am lonely to-night, and was wishing you were here."

He held his hands up to the fire to warm them, but did not reply, and I noticed, when he looked at me, that his eyes were bloodshot and swollen.

"Is there anything the matter?" I asked.

Now that I was looking at him closely, I saw with alarm that tears were in his eyes. He made no effort to hide this, but looked at me as though he would speak, but could not, and with a face so pitiful that I became alarmed. He still held his hands up to the fire to warm them, and I expected him every moment to burst out crying.

"Jo, my old friend," I said to him at last, laying my hand on his shoulder, "tell me the meaning of this. You distress and alarm me."

Turning his face from the light, he remained a long while in deep study, and finally got up and walked to that part of the room which was the darkest, where he paced up and down a long time. I added wood to the fire, expecting him to sit down every moment and tell me his trouble, but he continued his walk, and wrapped his great coat about him, as though he was chilled to the heart. At last he turned suddenly, and came over into the light.

"For what I am about to say," he said, sitting down, "may God forgive me, for it is a matter that concerns no one but myself, and should forever remain a secret with me. But I have thought of it so much, and am so distressed from thinking of it, that I must speak of it to you, or lose my reason. If I could show you the wickedness in my thoughts, you would run away from me in alarm, but if I could show you my heart, you would weep over the misery it contains. It is unmanly for me to tell you what I came here to tell, but I am so wretched that I walked here to-night through the storm for the sympathy I am sure you will give, and which I need so much. I have not slept for weeks, except when nature asserted itself in spite of my misery, but through all the long nights I have tumbled and tossed about, thinking of the matter in a different light at every turn, hoping to get some comfort out of it, but every new thought of it seems the worst of all. I came out of the house to-night to cool my hot head, and walking towards you caused me to resolve to come on, and freeze myself into forgetfulness. Mateel does not know where I am, and I must go back as I came, but I would rather walk alone in this storm than trust myself in a darkened room with my thoughts. I am sick to-night, for the first time in my life, but it is from thinking of the matter I came to tell you about, for it has taken such possession of me that even sleep is denied me."

I was so distressed and alarmed that I could not say a word, but tried to appear natural by digging at the fire. After Jo had thought awhile, he continued:-

"I need not rehearse the story of my courtship and marriage-you are familiar with that, and you know that I have been very contented and happy, except that ever since I have known Mateel, I have noticed an indifference which often humiliated me, but which I have excused for a hundred reasons, and tried to think little of. The letter which I will shortly ask you to read explains it all, and it is this which has changed me into a wicked, worthless man, without hope or ambition. The letter was written by Mateel to Clinton Bragg, when she was his promised wife, before they came to Fairview, and I received it by mail, addressed in a strange hand, six weeks ago yesterday, on an evening when I was planning for the future, and when I was in unusual good spirits. That she had been engaged to Bragg I never knew, nor did I suspect it, for although I knew they were brought up in the same neighborhood, and had been children together, the thought never occurred to me that they had been lovers, for he is more fit for a hangman's rope than for an honest woman's regard. I know now that Mateel has never loved me as the letter indicates she loved the most contemptible man I ever knew; a hundred times I have wondered if there were no better lovers in the world than Mateel, but I have found that the trouble was that she had drained her heart dry in loving my enemy, and that there was none left for me. This is what has wounded my pride, and broken my spirits, and left me a useless wreck."

He took from an inner pocket and handed me an envelope, and taking from it the letter, I began to read aloud.

"Read it to yourself," he said. "I am familiar with it."

The letter was closely written, and read as follows:-

"My Brave Lover,-I write to-night to tell you for the hundredth time how much I love you. When you are away from me, I have no other pleasure than this, for it brings you to me to receive my kisses and embraces. Once you came in the middle of the day following the night I wrote you, and if you come to-morrow, and sincerely believe and never forget what I have to say, this letter will have accomplished its mission.

"What I want to say is (and I write it after a great deal of serious deliberation) that if by an unlucky chance we should never be married, I should still love you as I do now, forever. I love you so much that I am anxious you should know that even though I believed you had forgotten me, and I became the wife of some one else, because all women are expected to marry, I should continue to think of you as I do now, the only man worthy of my love in all the world; and every night after my husband had gone to sleep, I would put my arms around him, and imagine that it was you, and that you would waken soon, and love me as I am sure you do this night.

"I want you to believe this, for it is written with absolute sincerity, and if my hope of the future should never be realized, please read this over, and over again, and feel that I am married only in penance for being unworthy of you. Wherever I am, and whatever my condition, I beg of you to remember that I love only you; that I will never love any one else, and that with my last breath I will tenderly speak your name.

"I do not believe God will be so cruel as to separate us, but if He should, the knowledge that you knew I continued to love you would make my loss easier to bear. If I should consent to be married, it would be to some one who cared for nothing but my promise to live with him; and if I could call him up from the future now to stand beside me, I would bravely tell him that I love only Clinton Bragg, and that though my mind may change, my heart never will.

"If I should be so unfortunate as to have a husband other than you, I would be dutiful and just to him, but my love I would reserve until I met you in heaven, when, realizing how perfect it is, you would accept it. Loving you always.

"Mateel."

I folded the letter, and handed it back to him, and as it touched his fingers, he shuddered, as though overtaken by a chill.

"The very touch of it penetrates my marrow," he said, after putting it away in his pocket as though it were red-hot; "but for all my dread of its infamous contents, I have read it a hundred times. If I am tossing about at night, unable to sleep from thinking of it, I cannot help making a light, and reading it again."

"Did you ever talk to her about it?" I asked, and I am sure I was trembling all over; for I felt that Jo Erring, with all his prospects, was now a wreck and would never be himself again.

"Not about this, directly," he answered, "but she has told me that she was engaged to Bragg. She treated it so coolly that I thought perhaps such things are common, and that I am unreasonable to feel as I do. I am not familiar with the ways of good society; it may be that love is only an amusement, to be indulged in with every agreeable person; it may be that a woman is none the less a true woman for having been caressed and fondled by different men, and that it is no fault for a young girl to spend half a night with a lover who is liable to be succeeded in a month by another, but if such is the social creed, something convinces me that society is wrong, and that my revolting manhood is right."

He rose from his chair, and walked up and down in the dark part of the room again, and I could not help thinking of what Mr. Biggs had said: That every one has a private history.

"I do not know who broke the engagement," he said, returning to the fire at last, "but I have evidence in this letter that it was not Mateel, therefore it is fair to suppose that the insolent dog who sent this, tired of the contract, and broke it off. The girl was heart-broken, no doubt, and was brought West with the hope that she would encounter an ignorant fellow with industrious habits, but no sensibility, who could comfortably support her until old age and death came to the relief of her heart, but who could never hope to have her love, for that she had given already, although it was not wanted. Through the cruel neglect of God I became the man who is expected to labor early and late that she may be made as comfortable as possible, in her affliction. I receive nothing in return for this except the knowledge that as another man did not want her love, I may have her to care for, as her family is not well-to-do, and somebody must do it.

"Whenever I knock at my heart's door, it is opened by a skeleton hand, and this letter handed out to me; if ambition beckons to me now, the fleshless fingers of an inexorable devil hold me back; and instead of pushing on, I sit down and cry that I have been so disgraced through no fault of my own. They thought I was a rough country boy, lacking so delicate a thing as a heart, and that I would be content with a broken flower because it had once been very beautiful; I doubt if they thought of me at all, except that I was industrious and healthy, as all the consideration was for Mateel, who had been wounded and hurt."

I listened to the wind blowing on the outside, and I thought it was more mournful than I had ever heard it before.

"I cannot tell you how much my marriage to Mateel would have done for me had this letter never been written, for I should have divined its existence though it had never fallen in my way. Before I read it I was as happy as it is possible for a man to be, though the fear often oppressed me that a dark shadow would fall across my path, for I had always been taught to believe that great sorrow followed great happiness. The shadow has come, and the devils are probably content with its black intensity. I was proud that the home I had provided for Mateel was better than any she had ever lived in before, and was kind and careful of her that she might bless the day we met; I was proud to be known as a progressing, growing man that her father might be proud of me, as he knew how hard my boyhood was, but I see now that they all regarded me as a convenience; a trusty packhorse of great endurance, and I know that my years of work for Mateel were not worthy of a man's ambition. I can never tell you, though I would willingly if I could, how great is the burden I must bear from this time forward. Hope has been killed within me, except hope to die, and my ambition has been cruelly trampled upon and killed by a man I never wronged."

He sat crouching before the fire, like a man who had been beaten without cause by superior numbers, and who felt humiliated because his oppressors had escaped, and he could not be avenged upon them.

"Until six weeks ago, Mateel was a perfect woman in my eyes, and the queen of my heart; but since that time I have begun to criticise her (to myself; she does not know it), and if I become an indifferent husband, the fault is her own. I cannot be the same as I was before, for I shall be inclined to look upon her simply as the convenience she undertook to become, instead of my wife. If she fails to be convenient-and I fear I shall be a hard critic-I cannot help observing it in my present state of mind, though I shall remark it only to myself. She has deliberately deceived me, but in spite of it I love her, and every night-wind brings me word that it is not returned. The very wheels in the mill give voice to her entreaty to Bragg to remember that she will never love me; every sound mocks me that my wife is proud of her love for another, and piteously begs that it may never be forgotten. Since reading the letter I have never kissed my wife, or put my arms about her, and I hope God may strike me dead if ever I do either again."

He stood up in great excitement, as if calling on God to witness his oath; but, as if recalling something, he meekly sat down again, and continued in a subdued tone.

"I have apologized to her for my conduct, for she seems distressed about it, and promised that perhaps I would think better of it after a while, but I never shall; it is growing worse with me, and I tremble when I think of my future. I talk with her about the old affair with Bragg over and over again, hoping it was not so bad as I think. She is very truthful and candid, and reluctantly answers every question, however searching it may be, but the more I talk of it the worse it gets. Don't imagine from what I have said that she was ever anything but a virtuous girl; but she once loved that man so madly that she denounced me before she had seen me. The fresh and innocent affection which I should have had was given to Bragg-he had the fragrance of the rose; I have the withered leaves, after he tired of its beauty, and tossed it away. You can imagine the scenes between two young people who passionately love each other, and who only delay marriage until a convenient time. If you cannot, I can; and it is this imagination which never leaves me. And to add to my wretchedness, Bragg throws himself in my way as often as possible, that I may contemplate the man who was worthy of the woman I am not. The time may come when I would give my life to take him by the throat, and if ever it does, there will be murder done, for with my hands once upon him I would tear him into bits."

I did not know what to say in reply, for I could think of nothing that would comfort him; and though I knew he would never again need my friendship as he needed it then, t

his knowledge only confused me, and made me stammer when I attempted to put in a word. He seemed to have so thoroughly considered the matter that there was no defence, and stated it so candidly that I thought he only expected me to pity him.

"Jo," I said, as the thought occurred to me, "you undoubtedly received this letter from Bragg; no one else would be malicious enough to send it. Are you certain he did not write it?"

A new hope sprang into his eyes, though I noticed that his hand paused on its way to the pocket which contained the letter, as though it was of no use to look. But he unfolded the letter with trembling hands, and studied it with great care, spending so much time over it that I hoped we should have occasion to go out and find the scoundrel, and beat him, but after Jo had finished his inspection, I saw that he was satisfied that the letter was written by Mateel.

"That it might be a forgery never occurred to me before," he said, with a long sigh, "but it is genuine; there is no doubt."

"I need not tell you, my dear old friend," I said, "that I am sorry this has happened. I regret it so much that I am powerless to comfort you, if that were possible. Your tears have unmanned me."

"I want to apologize to-night for my future," he said, after a long silence, "for I no longer have ambition. I can never succeed now, and I want you to know why. If I do not advance in the future, I desire that my only friend know that I no longer care to advance; that I have no reason to wish for success, and that I am not trying. If I become a Fairview man, miserable and silent, without hope or ambition, I want you to know that I am not to blame. I have just such a business, and just such a home, as we pictured together when we were boys. I have proved to you that I did not over-estimate my strength, and if I do not progress now that I am a man, you will know that my strength has been broken. The home I built with so much care is distasteful to me; the business I own after such a struggle, I hate; and I want you to know that, while I have not tired of working, I no longer care to succeed. The one above all others who should have helped me has only brought me disgrace, and broken my heart. There was no contract between us, but when Mateel became my promised wife, I made a vow to accomplish what I have; I have succeeded, but she has succeeded in nothing except to bring me this letter and its humiliating contents. I would not be a successful man in the future if I could. Bragg will finally become a beggar, for he is a spendthrift and loafer, and I believe that she would use my means to help him. I would rather be poor than rich, for if I should die possessed of property, that scoundrel would overcome his former scruples and marry my widow. My ambition in the future will be to live long and die poor. I hope the Devil is satisfied. He has been after me a long while, and I have passed into his possession body and soul. But I must return home," he said, as if remembering the hour. "Mateel does not know where I am, though I suspect she does not care, and is soundly sleeping."

"How are you going?" I asked, as he got up, and began buttoning his great coat around him.

"As I came-on foot."

He started to walk past me, and would have gone away had I not held him back.

"To-morrow is Saturday, and New Year," I said. "It is a holiday, and I will go with you. Wait here until I come back."

He consented without a word, and sat down, and I think did not change his position until I came back with the horses. It was an hour after midnight, and the cold was intense-a miserable night for such a ride, but I willingly undertook it, knowing it was a kindness to Jo, and that we could easily make the distance in an hour. When I told my mother that I was going to Fairview, she was not surprised, nor did she ask me any questions, and I was soon on the way, with Jo by my side.

When we drove up to the house at the mill, which we did after a cold ride without speaking a word, I saw a curtain pulled aside in a room where there was a light, and Mateel's pale and frightened face peering out, but by the time she appeared at the door, and opened it, we had passed on to the stables, and were putting away the horses. I was chilled through with cold, but when we walked back toward the house, I am certain I shivered because I dreaded to see them meet, knowing how unhappy and how helpless both were. I opened the door, and we walked in together, Jo a little behind me, and we went direct to the fire, though I stopped and held out my hand to his frightened wife. She was very pale, and I knew she had been weeping, for her eyes were red and swollen. While she took my hat and coat, Jo took off his, and held his hands out to the fire as he had done when he came to see me in town. He had taken a hasty glance at his wife, and I thought her distress added to his own, as though now both were wretched, and nobody to blame for it.

"Jo, my husband," she said, in a piteous, hesitating tone, and almost crying, "what has happened? You look so strange. I have been walking the floor since eight o'clock waiting for you. Is there anything the matter?"

As Jo did not reply, she looked at me for an answer, and I said he had business in town which occupied him until late; and that, knowing she would be worried, I had brought him home. But this did not satisfy her, and walking over to Jo, she stood beside him.

"Why don't you speak to me? You have never treated me this way before."

As she stood trembling beside him, I thought that surely Jo's letter was a forgery, and that if she did not love her husband, a woman never did.

Looking up at her as though half ashamed, Jo said:-

"You know why I went out of the house to-night. It is nothing more than that; you say it is not serious."

Mateel walked over to a chair near me-I thought she staggered as she went-and sat down, and her face was so pale and frightened that I felt sure Jo wronged her when he said she did not care. We sat there so long in silence that I began wondering who would first speak, and what would be said, and whether it would clear up this distressing matter. When I glanced at Mateel, I saw despair and helplessness written in her face, and determined to go to bed, and leave them alone, hoping they would talk it over, and forget it. Jo saw my intention, and motioned me back.

"You say it is not serious," he said, glancing hurriedly at his wife, as if afraid that if he looked in her face, and saw its distress, his stubborn heart would relent so much so as to commit the unpardonable offense of taking her in his arms; "therefore you will not care that I have told Ned. I have talked to him more freely than to you. I went to town for that purpose."

Had my life depended upon it, I could not have told which one I pitied most.

"As I know you to be a truthful woman," he went on, after a long pause, "and you say it is not serious, I believe that you think so; but it is all the more unfortunate on that account, for it is a very grave matter to me. I can never explain to you fully why I take it so much to heart, because I should wound your feelings in doing it, but the change in me within six weeks will convince you that if I am unreasonable about it, I cannot help it, and that my pride has been humbled, and my spirit broken, by a circumstance for which you are probably not to blame, when everything is considered. It is unmanly in me to feel as I do, and I apologize to you that I have not manhood sufficient (if that is a reasonable excuse) to shake off a circumstance which will affect my future, but which you regard as trifling. I have loved you-and I do yet; it is nothing to me what those I do not care for have been-I have loved you with my whole heart, and I have never divided my affection with anyone, if I except an honest friendship for my sister's son, and who was the sole companion of my wretched boyhood; but the more I love you, the more unhappy I am. This is my unfortunate dilemma, and I only mention it because the serious truth must be known. Although it nearly killed me, I asked you never to show me affection until I felt differently; I did this because I believed you learned to be affectionate with a man I hate, and that you can never show me an act of kindness you did not show him, and which your love for him taught you. No woman's lips ever touched mine-my only sister's alone excepted, and hers not frequently-until yours did; my mind was never occupied with thoughts of love until I met you, and now that I know you only consented to marry me because you could not be better suited, my simple affection is hurt. I know that you care for me in a fashion; so you do for every one who is kind to you; but I wanted the affection you gave HIM, your first and best. I feel debased that this affair has ruined me, for it has completely, and I can no longer look an honest man in the face, for against my will I am an indifferent husband, instead of the worthy one I hoped to become. I was brought up in a community where the women were overworked, imposed upon, and unhappy; I resolved to make my wife a notable exception to this rule, but I cannot now, and I feel the disgrace keenly."

The pale, fretful women of Fairview, who talked in the church of their heavy crosses to bear, and sat down crying, passed before me in procession; and staggering behind them, with the heaviest cross of all, was Mateel.

"I was so particular to tell you how I felt about this matter before we were married," Jo went on, still looking into the fire, "though I spoke of it then only to convince you that I was a good lover, for I did not suspect that you regarded me as a victim instead of a man. I talked of it seriously that you might know I was in earnest, and much as I loved you, had I known this I would have given you up at the last moment. There might have been a remedy for it then; there is none now. As I have been during the past six weeks, so shall I be as long as I live, except that I shall grow more bitter and resentful. It is cruel that I have been mercilessly ruined, and nobody to blame for it. Were I injured in any other way, there would be some one to punish, and amends to be made, but in this no wrong has been done; indeed, I suppose I, who am so grievously injured, am more to blame than any one else for being so absurd. I am certain every one will regard it in this way, although that will not help the matter so far as I am concerned."

There were evidences of bitterness in his words now, rather than of sadness and regret; and he looked around the room fiercely, as though he would do something desperate to those who had injured him. But he soon began thinking again, and went on talking:-

"I speak frankly only that we may understand each other, for it grieves me to do it. It is not a pleasure for me to command you never to touch me again. During the short time we have lived apart on account of this unfortunate matter, I have prayed every night that you would come to me, though I had locked my door so you could not. When my heart finally breaks it will be because you no longer come to me, though I will not let you. One night I became so distracted thinking of your unhappiness as well as my own that I stole softly into your room intending to kiss away your tears, and ask you to forgive my unintended cruelty; but I found you quietly sleeping, and I will swear that by the light of my lamp I saw you smiling. I will swear that you spoke the name of Clinton; and I went back to my room determined to kill him, and then myself. But my cowardly heart-it was never cowardly before-failed me, and I could only become more ugly and wicked."

From the manner in which Mateel started at this I believed she had only gone to sleep when completely exhausted, and that she had only spoken the name because she was familiar with it, as she was familiar with a thousand others; but the circumstance seemed only to convince her that everything was against her, and that explanations would be useless; but, as if trying to avoid the subject, she asked, without looking up:-

"Since you have told Ned, what does he think?"

"I am not a competent judge," I answered hurriedly, sorry that she had appealed to me at all, for I could think of no comfort for either of them. "I can only say that I have so much confidence in your husband that I do not question his sorrow. It is enough for me to know that he is unhappy, though, if I should advise him, it would be to try to forget. The world is full of difficulties which have no other remedy than this, though they are seldom forgotten. I have always known that Jo was just such a man as he has shown himself to be to-night; I remember distinctly how gloomy he became in talking about it the evening I first went to your house with him, and how it changed his disposition; and I remember how gayly you laughed at it as if it were of no consequence. I have always been Jo's friend; I always shall be, and am his friend in this."

She did not look up, but kept gazing at the fire, as she had done before.

"It is my most serious fault that I did not tell him of it before we were married; but I was timid, and thought of it only as one of the many little regrets with which every life is filled, and neglected it. I could not love my husband more than I do, and I only failed to tell him of it because I feared it would give him unnecessary pain. I was but sixteen then; a school-girl without serious thought or purpose, and certainly every one of my companions was as guilty as I, if it can be called guilt. It is not necessary for me to make explanations, for he has given me notice that they will not be accepted, but if there is anything I can do to make atonement-no difference what it is; even to going away from him, and dying alone and neglected-I will gladly do it, and humble myself cheerfully if that course will relieve him. I have so much confidence in my husband that I do not question the honesty of his grief, and for his sake I regret my past. In justice to my womanhood I cannot say I am ashamed of it. If I mentioned a name which was obnoxious to my husband in my sleep, it was because the name had caused me trouble. I do not remember it, for since this unhappy change in our home I have been ill and worn out. I was never strong, but I am so weak now as to be helpless."

Jo seemed to not pay the slightest attention while his wife was talking, for he kept his eyes on the floor, but that he was listening intently I knew very well. Mateel looked at him timidly when she had finished, as if expecting a reply, but as he made none, she too looked at the floor. I watched her face narrowly, and there saw depicted such misery as I can never forget. She seemed to realize that she had made her husband unhappy by a thoughtless act, and to realize her utter inability to supply a remedy. I think a more ingenious woman could have made a more cautious statement, though not a more honest one, and won her husband back by explanations; but Mateel, as was the case with her father, gave up at once on the approach of a difficulty, and prepared for the worst. I saw in her face that she would never be able to effect a reconciliation; for, believing it to be hopeless, she would be dumb in contemplating the life they would lead in future. I knew she would be kind and attentive, and hope for the best, but in her fright and consternation she could not gather strength to test her ingenuity. I knew that she would accept her husband's increasing obstinacy as evidence that a great calamity had come upon their house, and meekly submit, instead of resolving to conquer and triumph over it. If she had put her arms around his neck then (as he wanted her to do, in spite of his commands to the contrary), and, between declarations of her love, asked him to give her a year in which to prove her devotion, and explain away the unhappy past, I believe this story would never have been written, but they misunderstood each other at the beginning, and continued it until the end. I could see, also, that Jo regarded what she had said as a sort of justification of her course, thus widening and deepening the gulf between them; and I became so uncomfortable that I walked the floor to collect myself, but I could not think of anything which, if expressed, would help them, and I became more uncomfortable still when I reflected that they would accept my embarrassment as an evidence that I thought there was nothing to be done except the worst that could be done. I sat down then determined to speak of the matter lightly, but a look at them convinced me that this would be mockery, therefore I changed my mind, and said I would go to bed. This seemed to startle them both, as though they dreaded to be left alone, and Jo asked as a favor that I stay with him.

"If you leave that chair," he said, "a Devil will occupy it, and stare at me until daylight."

I replied that I only thought of going to bed to leave them alone, because I felt like an intruder, and was not at all sleepy, and in response to his request I stirred the fire, and sat down between them. Occasionally I dozed, but on waking again, I found them sitting on either side of the fire, as far apart as possible, as my grandfather and grandmother had done before them. I felt that all had been said that could be said, and although once or twice I broke the silence by some commonplace remark, neither of them replied further than to look up as if imploring me not to go to sleep again, and leave them alone.

I thought the night would never end, but at last the room began to grow lighter, and when the sun came up over the woods, its first rays looked in upon two faces so haggard and worn that I wondered whether it did not pity them. The sun came up higher yet, but still they sat there; and the curtains being down, and the shutters closed, I thought the sunlight had deserted that house, and given it over to gloom and despair.

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