On the Sunday following the one of Barnabas Thayer's call Sylvia Crane appeared at meeting in a black lace veil like a Spanish seńorita. The heavily wrought black lace fell over her face, and people could get only shifting glimpses of her delicate features behind it.
Richard Alger glanced furtively at the pale face shrinking austerely behind the net-work of black silk leaves and flowers, and wondered at some change which he felt but could not fathom. He scarcely knew that she had never worn the veil before. And Richard Alger, had he known, could never have fathomed the purely feminine motive compounded of pride and shame which led his old sweetheart to unearth from the depths of a bandbox her mother's worked-lace veil, and tie its narrow black drawing-string with trembling fingers over her own bonnet.
“I'd like to know what in creation you've got that veil on for?” whispered her sister, Hannah Berry, as they went down the aisle after meeting.
“I thought I would,” responded Sylvia's muffled voice behind the veil.
“You've got the flowers right over your eyes. I shouldn't think you could see to walk. You ain't never worn a veil in your life. I can't see what has got into you,” persisted Hannah.
Sylvia edged away from her as soon as she could, and glided down the road towards her own house swiftly, although her knees trembled. Sylvia's knees always trembled when she came out of church, after she had sat an hour and a half opposite Richard Alger. To-day they felt weaker than ever, after her encounter with Hannah. Nobody knew the terror Sylvia had of her sister's discovering how she had called in Barnabas Thayer, and in a manner unveiled her maiden heart to him. When Charlotte had come in that night after Barnabas had gone, and discovered her crying on the sofa, she had jumped up and confronted her with a fierce instinct of concealment.
“There ain't nothin' new the matter,” she said, in response to Charlotte's question; “I was thinkin' about mother; I'm apt to when it comes dusk.” It was the first deliberate lie that Sylvia Crane had ever told in her life. She reflected upon it after Charlotte had gone, and reflected also with fierce hardihood that she would lie again were it necessary. Should she hesitate at a lie if it would cover the maiden reserve that she had cherished so long?
However, Charlotte had suspected more than her aunt knew of the true cause of her agitation. A similar motive for grief made her acute. Sylvia, mourning alone of a Sabbath night upon her hair-cloth sofa, struck an old chord of her own heart. Charlotte dared not say a word to comfort her directly. She condoled with her for the fifteen-years-old loss of her mother, and did not allude to Richard Alger; but going home she said to herself, with a miserable qualm of pity, that poor Aunt Sylvia was breaking her heart because Richard had stopped coming.
“It's harder for Aunt Sylvia because she's older,” thought Charlotte, on her way home that night. But then she thought also, with a sorer qualm of self-pity, that Sylvia had not quite so long a life before her, to live alone. Charlotte had nearly reached her own home that night when two figures suddenly slunk across the road before her. She at once recognized Rebecca Thayer as one of them, and called out “Good-evening, Rebecca!” to her.
Rebecca made only a muttered sound in response, and they both disappeared in the darkness. There was a look of secrecy and flight about it which somehow startled Charlotte, engrossed as she was with her own troubles and her late encounter with Rose.
When she got into the house she spoke of it to her mother. Cephas had gone to bed, and Sarah was sitting up waiting for her.
“I met Rebecca and William out here,” said she, untying her hat, “and I thought they acted real queer.” Sarah cast a glance at the bedroom door, which was ajar, and motioned Charlotte to close it. Charlotte tiptoed across the room and shut the door softly, lest she should awaken her father; then her mother beckoned her to come close, and whispered something in her ear.
Charlotte started, and a great blush flamed out all over her face and neck. She looked at her mother with angry shame. “I don't believe a word of it,” said she; “not a word of it.”
“I walked home from meetin' with Mrs. Allen this evenin',” said her mother, “an' she says it's all over town. She says Rebecca's been stealin' out, an' goin' to walk with him unbeknownst to her mother all summer. You know her mother wouldn't let him come to the house.”
“I don't believe one word of it,” repeated Charlotte.
“Mis' Allen says it's so,” said Sarah. “She says Mis' Thayer has had to stay home from evenin' meetin' on account of Ephraim—she don't like to leave him alone, he ain't been quite so well lately—an' Rebecca has made believe go to meetin' when she's been off with William. Mis' Thayer went to meetin' to-night.”
“Wasn't Mr. Thayer there?”
“Yes, he was there, but he wouldn't know what was goin' on. 'Tain't very hard to pull the wool over Caleb Thayer's eyes.”
“I don't believe one word of it,” Charlotte said, again. When she went up-stairs to bed that whisper of her mother's seemed to sound through and above all her own trouble. It was to her like a note of despair and shame, quite outside her own gamut of life. She could not believe that she heard it at all. Rebecca's face as she had always known her came up before her. “I don't believe one word of it,” she said again to herself.
But that whisper which had shocked her ear had already begun to be repeated all over the village—by furtive matrons, behind their hands, when the children had been sent out of the room; by girls, blushing beneath each other's eyes as they whispered; by the lounging men in the village store; it was sent like an evil strain through the consciousness of the village, until everybody except Rebecca's own family had heard it.
Barnabas saw little of other people, and nobody dared repeat the whisper to him, and they had too much mercy or too little courage to repeat it to Caleb or Deborah. Indeed, it is doubtful if any woman in the village, even Hannah Berry, would have ventured to face Deborah Thayer with this rumor concerning her daughter.
Deborah had of late felt anxious about Rebecca, who did not seem like herself. Her face was strangely changed; all the old meaning had gone out of it, and given place to another, which her mother could not interpret. Sometimes Rebecca looked like a stranger to her as she moved about the house. She said to many that Rebecca was miserable, and was incensed that she got so little sympathy in response. Once when Rebecca fainted in meeting, and had to be carried out, she felt in the midst of her alarm a certain triumph. “I guess folks will see now that I ain't been fussin' over her for nothin',” she thought. When Rebecca revived under a sprinkle of water, out in the vestibule, she said impatiently to the other women bending their grave, concerned faces over her, “She's been miserable for some time. I ain't surprised at this at all myself.”
Deborah watched over Rebecca with a fierce, pecking tenderness like a bird. She brewed great bowls of domestic medicines from nuts and herbs, and made her drink whether she would or not. She sent her to bed early, and debarred her from the night air. She never had a suspicion of the figure slipping softly as a shadow across the north parlor and out the front door night after night.
She never exchanged a word with Rebecca about William Berry. She tried to persuade herself that Rebecca no longer thought much about him; she drove from her mind the fear lest Rebecca's illness might be due to grief at parting from him. She looked at Thomas Payne with a speculative eye; she thought that he would make a good husband for Rebecca; she dreamed of him, and built bridal castles for him and her daughter, as she knitted those yards of lace at night, when Rebecca had gone to bed in her little room off the north parlor. When Thomas Payne went west a month after Charlotte Barnard had refused him, she transferred her dreams to some fine stranger who should come to the village and at once be smitten with Rebecca. She never thought it possible that Rebecca could be persisting in her engagement to William Berry against her express command. Her own obstinacy was incredible to her in her daughter; she had not the slightest suspicion of it, and Rebecca had less to guard against.
As the fall advanced Rebecca showed less and less inclination to go in the village society. Her mother fairly drove her out at times. Once Rebecca, utterly overcome, sank down in a chair and wept when her mother urged her to go to a husking-party in the neighborhood.
“You've got to spunk up an' go, if you don't feel like it,” said her mother. “You'll feel better for it afterwards. There ain't no use in givin' up so. I'm goin' to get you a new crimson woollen dress, an' I'm goin' to have you go out more'n you've done lately.”
“I—don't want a new dress,” returned Rebecca, with wild sobs.
“Well, I'm goin' to get you one to-morrow,” said her mother. “Now go an' wash your face an' do up your hair, an' get ready. You can wear your brown dress, with the cherry ribbon in your hair, to-night.”
“I don't—feel fit to, mother,” moaned Rebecca, piteously.
But Deborah would not listen to her. She made her get ready for the husking-party, and looked at her with pride when she stood all dressed to go, in the kitchen.
“You look better than you've done for some time,” said she, “an' that brown dress don't look bad, either, if you have had it three winters. I'm goin' to get you a nice new crimson woollen this winter. I've had my mind made up to for some time.”
After Rebecca had gone and Ephraim had said his catechism and gone to bed, Deborah sat and knitted, and planned to get the crimson dress for Rebecca the next day.
She looked over at Caleb, who sat dozing by the fire. “I'll go to-morrow, if he ain't got to spend all that last interest-money for the parish taxes an' cuttin' that wood,” said she. “I dunno how much that wood-cuttin' come to, an' he won't know to-night if I wake him up. I can't get it through his head. But I'll buy it to-morrow if there's money enough left.”
But Deborah was forced to wait a few weeks, since it took all the interest-money for the parish taxes and to pay for the wood-cutting. She had to wait until Caleb had sold some of the wood, and that took some time, since seller and purchasers were slow-motioned.
At last, one afternoon, she drove herself over to Bolton in the chaise to buy the dress. She went to Bolton, because she would not go herself to Silas Berry's store and trade with William. She could send Caleb there for household goods, but this dress she would trust no one but herself to purchase.
She had planned that Rebecca should go with her, but the girl looked so utterly wan and despairing that day that she forbore to insist upon it. Caleb would have accompanied her, but she would not let him. “I never did think much of men-folks standin' round in stores gawpin' while women-folks was tradin',” said she. She would not allow Ephraim to go, although he pleaded hard. It was quite a cold day, and she was afraid of the sharp air for his laboring breath.
A little after noon she set forth, all alone in the chaise, slapping the reins energetically over the white horse's back, a thick green veil tied over her bonnet under her chin, and the thin, sharp wedge of face visible between the folds crimsoning in the frosty wind.
While she was gone Rebecca sat beside the window and sewed, Caleb shelled corn in the chimney-corner, and Ephraim made a pretence of helping him. “You set down an' help your father shell corn while I am gone,” his mother had sternly ordered.
Occasionally Ephraim addressed whining remonstrances to his father, and begged to be allowed to go out-of-doors, and Caleb would quiet him with one effectual rejoinder: “You know she won't like it if you do, sonny. You know what she said.”
Caleb, as he shelled the corn with the pottering patience of old age and constitutional slowness, glanced now and then at his daughter in the window. He thought she looked very badly, and he had all the time lately the bewildered feeling of a child who sees in a familiar face the marks of emotions unknown to it.
“Don't you feel as well as common to-day, Rebecca?” he asked once, and cleared his throat.
“I don't feel sick, as I know of, any day,” replied Rebecca, shortly, and her face reddened.
As she sewed she looked out now and then at the wild December day, the trees reeling in the wind, and the sky driving with the leaden clouds. It was too cold and too windy to snow all the afternoon, but towards night it moderated, and the wind died down. When Mrs. Thayer came home it was snowing quite hard, and her green veil was white when she entered the kitchen. She took it off and shook it, sputtering moisture in the fireplace.
“There's goin' to be a hard storm; it's lucky I went to-day,” said she. “I kept the dress under the buffalo-robe, an' that ain't hurt any.”
Deborah waxed quite angry, when she proudly shook out the soft gleaming crimson lengths of thibet, because Rebecca showed so little interest in it. “You don't deserve to have a new dress; you act like a stick of wood,” she said.
Rebecca made no reply. Presently, when she had gone out of the room for something, Caleb said, anxiously, “I guess she don't feel quite so well as common to-night.”
“I'm gettin' most out of patience; I dunno what ails her. I'm goin' to have the doctor if this keeps on,” returned Deborah.
Ephraim, sucking a stick of candy brought to him from Bolton, cast a strange glance at his mother—a glance compounded of shrewdness and terror; but she did not see it.
It snowed hard all night; in the morning the snow was quite deep, and there was no appearance of clearing. As soon as the breakfast dishes were put away, Deborah got out the crimson thibet. She had learned the tailoring and dressmaking trade in her youth, and she always cut and fitted the garments for the family.
She worked assiduously; by the middle of the forenoon the dress was ready to be tried on. Ephraim and his father were out in the barn, she and Rebecca were alone in the house.
She made Rebecca stand up in the middle of the kitchen floor, and she began fitting the crimson gown to her. Rebecca stood drooping heavily, her eyes cast down. Suddenly her mother gave a great start, pushed the girl violently from her, and stood aloof. She did not speak for a few minutes; the clock ticked in the dreadful silence. Rebecca cast one glance at her mother, whose eyes seemed to light the innermost recesses of her being to her own vision; then she would have looked away, but her mother's voice arrested her.
“Look at me,” said Deborah. And Rebecca looked; it was like uncovering a disfigurement or a sore.
“What—ails you?” said her mother, in a terrible voice.
Then Rebecca turned her head; her mother's eyes could not hold her any longer. It was as if her very soul shrank.
“Go out of this house,” said her mother, after a minute.
Rebecca did not make a sound. She went, bending as if there were a wind at her back impelling her, across the kitchen in her quilted petticoat and her crimson thibet waist, her white arms hanging bare. She opened the door that led towards her own bedroom, and passed out.
Presently Deborah, still standing where Rebecca had left her, heard the front door of the house shut. After a few minutes she took the broom from its peg in the corner, went through the icy north parlor, past Rebecca's room, to the front door. The snow heaped on the outer threshold had fallen in when Rebecca opened it, and there was a quantity on the entry floor.
Deborah opened the door again, and swept out the snow carefully; she even swept the snow off the steps outside, but she never cast a glance up or down the road. Then she beat the snow off the broom, and went in and locked the door behind her.
On her way back to the kitchen she paused at Rebecca's little bedroom. The waist of the new gown lay on the bad. She took it out into the kitchen, and folded it carefully with the skirt and the pieces; then she carried it up to the garret and laid it away in a chest.
When Caleb and Ephraim came in from the barn they found Deborah sitting at the window knitting a stocking. She did not look up when they entered.
The corn was not yet shelled, and Caleb arranged his baskets in the chimney-corner, and fell to again. Ephraim began teasing his mother to let him crack some nuts, but she silenced him peremptorily. “Set down an' help your father shell that corn,” said she. And Ephraim pulled a grating chair up to his father, muttering cautiously.
Caleb kept looking at Deborah anxiously. He glanced at the door frequently.
“Where's Rebecca?” he asked at last.
“I dunno,” replied Deborah.
“Has she laid down?”
“No, she ain't.”
“She ain't gone out in the snow, has she?” Caleb said, with deploring anxiety.
Deborah answered not a word. She pursed her lips and knitted.
“She ain't, has she, mother?”
“Keep on with your corn,” said Deborah; and that was all she would say.
Presently she arose and prepared dinner in the same dogged silence. Caleb, and even Ephraim, watched her furtively, with alarmed eyes.
When Rebecca did not appear at the dinner-table Caleb did not say anything about it, but his old face was quite pale. He ate his dinner from the force of habit of over seventy years, during which time he had always eaten his dinner, but he did not taste it consciously.
He made up his mind that as soon as he got up from the table he would go over to Barney's and consult him. After he pushed his chair away he was slipping out shyly, but Deborah stopped him.
“Set down an' finish that corn. I don't want it clutterin' up the kitchen any longer,” said she.
“I thought I'd jest slip out a minute, mother.”
Deborah motioned him towards the chimney-corner and the baskets of corn with a stern gesture, and Caleb obeyed. Ephraim, too, settled down beside his father, and fell to shelling corn without being told. He was quite cowed and intimidated by this strange mood of his mother's, and involuntarily shrank closer to his father when she passed near him.
Caleb and Ephraim both watched Deborah with furtive terror, as she moved about, washing and putting away the dinner-dishes and sweeping the kitchen.
They looked at each other, when, after the after-dinner housework was all done, she took her shawl and hood from the peg, and drew some old wool socks of Caleb's over her shoes. She went out without saying a word. Ephraim waited a few minutes after the door shut behind her; then he ran to the window.
“She's gone to Barney's,” he announced, rolling great eyes over his shoulder at his father; and the old man also went over to the window and watched Deborah plodding through the snow up the street.
It was not snowing so hard now, and the clouds were breaking, but a bitter wind was blowing from the northwest. It drove Deborah along before it, lashing her skirts around her gaunt limbs; but she leaned back upon it, and did not bend.
The road was not broken out, and the snow was quite deep, but she went along with no break in her gait. She went into Barney's yard and knocked at his door. She set her mouth harder when she heard him coming.
Barney opened the door and started when he saw who was there. “Is it you, mother?” he said, involuntarily; then his face hardened like hers, and he waited. The mother and son confronted each other looked more alike than ever.
Deborah opened her mouth to speak twice before she made a sound. She stood upright and unyielding, but her face was ghastly, and she drew her breath in long, husky gasps. Finally she spoke, and Barney started again at her voice.
“I want you to go after William Berry and make him marry Rebecca,” she said.
“Mother, what do you mean?”
“I want you to go after William Berry and make him marry Rebecca.”
“Rebecca is gone. I turned her out of the house this mornin'. I don't know where she is. Go and find her, and make William Berry marry her.”
“Mother, before the Lord, I don't know what you mean!” Barney cried out. “You didn't turn Rebecca out of the house in all this storm! What did you turn her out for? Where is she?”
“I don't know where she is. I turned her out because I wouldn't have her in the house. You brought it all on us; if you hadn't acted so I shouldn't have felt as I did about her marryin'. Now you can go an' find her, and get William Berry an' make him marry her. I ain't got anything more to do with it.”
Deborah turned, and went out of the yard.
“Mother!” Barney called after her, but she kept on. He stood for a second looking after her retreating figure, struggling sternly with the snow-drifts, meeting the buffets of the wind with her head up; then he went in, and put on his boots and his overcoat.
Barney had heard not one word of the village gossip, and the revelation in his mother's words had come to him with a great shock. As he went up the hill to the old tavern he could hardly believe that he had understood her rightly. Once he paused and turned, and was half inclined to go back. He was as pure-minded as a girl, and almost as ignorant; he could not believe that he knew what she meant.
Barney hesitated again before the store; then he opened the great clanging door and went in. A farmer, in a blue frock stiff with snow, had just completed his purchases and was going out. William, who had been waiting upon him, was quite near the door behind the counter. At the farther end of the store could be seen the red glow of a stove and Tommy Ray's glistening fair had. Some one else, who had shrunk out of sight when Barney entered, was also there.
Barney saw no one but William. He looked at him, and all his bewilderment gathered itself into a point. He felt a sudden fierce impulse to spring at him.
William looked at Barney, and his faced changed in a minute. He took up his hat, and came around the counter. “Did you want to see me?” he said, hoarsely.
“Come outside,” said Barney. And the two men went out, and stood in the snow before the store.
“Where is Rebecca?” said Barney. He looked at William, and again the savage impulse seized him. William did not shrink before it.
“What do you mean?” he returned. His lips were quite stiff and white, but he looked back at Barney.
“Don't you know where she is?”
“Before God I don't, Barney. What do you mean?”
“She left home this morning. Mother turned her out.”
“Turned her out!” repeated William.
“Come with me and find her and marry her, or I'll kill you,” said Barney, and he lashed out suddenly with his fist in William's face.
“You won't need to, for I'll kill myself if I don't,” William gasped out. Then he turned and ran.
“Where are you going?” Barney shouted, rushing after him, in a fury.
“To put the horse in the cutter,” William called back. And, indeed, he was headed towards the barn. Barney followed him, and the two men put the horse between the shafts. Once William asked, hoarsely, “Any idea which way?” and Barney shook his head.
“What time did she go?”
“Some time this forenoon.”
The horse was nearly harnessed when Tommy Ray came running out from the store, and beckoned to Barney. “Rose says she see her going up the turnpike this morning,” he said, in a low voice. “She was up in her chamber that looks over the turnpike, and she see somebody goin' up the turnpike. She thought it looked like Rebecca, but she supposed it must be Mis' Jim Sloane. It must have been Rebecca.”
“What time was it?” William asked, thrusting his white face between them. The boy turned aside with a gesture of contempt and dislike. “About half-past ten,” he answered, shortly. Then he turned on his heel and went back to the store. Rose was peering around the half-open door with a white, shocked face. Somehow she had fathomed the cause of the excitement.
“We'll go up the turnpike, then,” said Barney. William nodded. The two men sprang into the cutter, and the snow flew in their faces from the horse's hoofs as they went out the barn door.
The old tavern stood facing the old turnpike road to Boston, but the store and barn faced on the new road at its back, and people generally approached the tavern by that way.
William and Barney had to drive down the hill; then turn the corner, and up the hill again on the old turnpike.
There was not a house on that road for a full mile. William urged the horse as fast as he could through the fresh snow. Both men kept a sharp lookout at the sides of the road. The sun was out now, and the snow was blinding white; the north wind drove a glittering spray as sharp and stinging as diamond-dust in their faces.
Once William cried out, with a dry sob, “My God, she'll freeze in this wind, if she's out in it!”
And Barney answered, “Maybe it would be better for her if she did.”
William looked at him for the first time since they started. “See here, Barney,” he said, “God knows it's not to shield myself—I'm past that; but I've begged her all summer to be married. I've been down on my knees to her to be married before it came to this.”
“Why wouldn't she?”
“I don't know, oh, I don't know! The poor girl was near distracted. Her mother forbade her to marry me, and held up her Aunt Rebecca, who married against her parents' wishes and hung herself, before her, all the time. Your trouble with Charlotte Barnard brought it all about. Her mother never opposed it before. I begged her to marry me, but she was afraid, or something, I don't know what.”
“Can't you drive faster?” said Barney.
William had been urging the horse while he spoke, but now he shook the whip over him again.
Mrs. Jim Sloane's house was a long, unpainted cottage quite near the road. The woman who lived alone there was under a kind of indefinite ban in the village. Her husband, who had died several years before, had been disreputable and drunken, and the mantle of his disgrace had seemed to fall upon his wife, if indeed she was not already provided with such a mantle of her own. Everybody spoke slightingly of Mrs. Jim Sloane. The men laughed meaningly when they saw her pass, wrapped in an old plaid shawl, which she wore summer and winter, and which seemed almost like a uniform. Stories were told of her dirt and shiftlessness, of the hens which roosted in her kitchen. Poor Mrs. Jim Sloane, in her blue plaid shawl, tramping frequently from her solitary house through the village, was a byword and a mocking to all the people.
When William and Barney came abreast of her house they saw the blue flutter of Mrs. Jim Sloane's shawl out before, above the blue dazzle of the snow.
“Hullo!” she was crying out in her shrill voice, and waving her hand to them to stop.
William pulled the horse up short, and the woman came plunging through the snow close to his side.
“She's in here,” she said, with a knowing smile. The faded fair hair blew over her eyes; she pushed it back with a coquettish gesture; there was a battered prettiness about her thin pink-and-white face, turning blue in the sharp wind.
“When did she get here?” asked Barney.
“This forenoon. She fell down out here, couldn't get no farther. I came out an' got her into the house. Didn't know but she was done to; but I fixed her up some hot drink an' made her lay down. I s'posed you'd be along.” She smiled again.
William jumped out of the cutter, and tied the horse to an old fence-post. Then he and Barney followed the woman into the house. Barney looked at the old blue plaid shawl with utter disgust and revulsion. He had always felt a loathing for the woman, and her being a distant relative on his father's side intensified it.
Mrs. Sloane threw open the door, and bade them enter, as if to a festival. “Walk right in,” said she.
There was a wild flutter of hens as they entered. Mrs. Sloane drove them before her. “The hen-house roof fell in, an' I have to keep 'em in here,” she said, and shooed them and shook her shawl at them, until they alighted all croaking with terror upon the bed in the corner.
Then she looked inquiringly around the room. “Why,” she cried, “she's gone; she was settin' here in this rockin'-chair when I went out. She must have run when she see you comin'!”
Mrs. Sloane hustled through a door, the tattered fringes of her shawl flying, and then her voice, shrilly expostulating, was heard in the next room.
The two men waited, standing side by side near the door in a shamed silence. They did not look at each other.
Presently Mrs. Sloane returned without her shawl. Her old cotton gown showed tattered and patched, and there were glimpses of her sharp white elbows at the sleeves. “She won't come out a step,” she announced. “I can't make her. She's takin' on terribly.”
William made a stride forward. “I'll go in and see her,” he said, hoarsely; but Mrs. Jim Sloane stood suddenly in his way, her slender back against the door.
“No, you ain't goin' in,” said she, “I told her I wouldn't let you go in.”
William looked at her.
“She's dreadful set against either one of you comin' in, an' I told her you shouldn't,” she said, firmly. She smoothed her wild locks down tightly over her ears as she spoke. All the coquettish look was gone.
William turned around, and looked helplessly at Barney, and Barney looked back at him. Then Barney put on his hat, and shrugged himself more closely into his great-coat.
“I'll go and get the minister,” he said.
Mrs. Sloane thrust her chin out alertly. “Goin' to get her married right off?” she asked, with a confidential smile.
Barney ignored her. “I guess it's the best way to do,” he said, sternly, to William; and William nodded.
“Well, I guess 'tis the best way,” Mrs. Sloane said, with cheerful assent. “I don't b'lieve you could hire her to come out of that room an' go to the minister's, nohow. She's terrible upset, poor thing.”
As Barney went out of the door he cast a look full of involuntary suspicion back at William, and hesitated a second on the threshold. Mrs. Sloane intercepted the look. “I'll look out he don't run away while you're gone,” she said; then she laughed.
William's white face flamed up suddenly, but he made no reply. When Barney had gone he drew a chair up close to the hearth, and sat there, bent over, with his elbows on his knees. Mrs. Sloane sat down on the foot of the bed, close to the door of the other room, as if she were mounting guard over it. She kept looking at William, and smiling, and opening her mouth to speak, then checking herself.
“It's a pretty cold day,” she said, finally.
William grunted assent without looking up. Then he motioned with his shoulder towards the door of the other room. “Ain't it cold in there?” he half whispered.
“I rolled her all up in my shawl; I guess she won't ketch cold; it's thick,” responded the woman, effusively, and William said no more. He sat with his chin in his hands and his eyes fixed absently. The fire was smoking over a low, red glow of coals, the chimney-place yawned black before him, the hearth was all strewn with pots and kettles, and the shelf above it was piled high with a vague household litter. It had leaked around the chimney, and there was a great discolored blotch on the wall above the shelf, and the ceiling. Two or three hens came pecking around the kettles at William's feet.
To this young man, brought up in the extreme thrift and neatness of a typical New England household, this strange untidiness, as he viewed it through his strained mental state, seemed to have a deeper significance, and reveal the very shame and squalor of the soul itself, and its own existence and thoughts, by material images.
He might from his own sensations, as he sat there, have been actually translated into a veritable hell, from the utter strangeness of the atmosphere which his thoughts seemed to gasp in. William had never come fully into the atmosphere of his own sin before, but now he had, and somehow the untidy pots and kettles on the hearth made it more real. He was conscious as he sat there of very little pity for the girl in the other room, of very little love for her, and also of very little love or pity for himself; he felt nothing but a kind of horror. He saw suddenly the alien side of life, and the alien side of his own self, which he would always have kept faced out towards space, away from all eyes, like the other side of the moon, and that was for the time all he could grasp.
Once or twice Mrs. Sloane volunteered a remark, but he scarcely responded, and once he heard absently her voice and Rebecca's in the other room. Otherwise he sat in utter silence, except for the low chuckle of the hens and the taps of their beaks against the iron pots, until Barney came with the minister and the minister's wife.
Barney had taken the minister aside, and asked him, stammeringly, if he thought his wife would come. He could not bear the thought of the Sloane woman's being a witness at his sister's wedding. The minister and his wife were both very young, and had not lived long in Pembroke. They looked much alike: the minister's small, pale, peaked face peered with anxious solicitude between the folds of the great green scarf which he tied over his cap, and his wife looked like him out of her great wadded green silk hood, when they got into the sleigh with Barney.
The minister had had a whispered conference with his wife, and now she never once let her eyes rest on either of the two men as they slid swiftly along over the new snow. Her heart beat loudly in her ears, her little thin hands were cold in her great muff. She had married very young, out of a godly New England minister's home. She had never known anything like this before, and a sort of general shame of femininity seemed to be upon her.
When she followed her husband into Mrs. Sloane's house she felt herself as burdened with shame—as if she stood in Rebecca's place. Her little face, all blue with the sharp cold, shrank, shocked and sober, into the depths of her great hood. She stood behind her husband, her narrow girlish shoulders bending under her thick mantilla, and never looked at the face of anybody in the room.
She did not see William at all. He stood up before them as they entered; they all nodded gravely. Nobody spoke but Mrs. Sloane, vibrating nervously in the midst of her clamorous hens, and Barney silenced her.
“We'll go right in,” he said, in a stern, peremptory tone; then he turned to William. “Are you ready?” he asked.
William nodded, with his eyes cast down. The party made a motion towards the other room, but Mrs. Sloane unexpectedly stood before the door.
“I told her there shouldn't nobody come in,” said she, “an' I ain't goin' to have you all bustin' in on her without she knows it. She's terrible upset. You wait a minute.”
Mrs. Sloane's blue eyes glared defiantly at the company. The minister's wife bent her hooded head lower. She had heard about Mrs. Sloane, and felt as if she were confronted by a woman from Revelation and there was a flash of scarlet in the room.
“Go in and tell her we are coming,” said Barney. And Mrs. Sloane slipped out of the room cautiously, opening the door only a little way. Her voice was heard, and suddenly Rebecca's rang out shrill in response, although they could not distinguish the words. Mrs. Sloane looked out. “She says she won't be married,” she whispered.
“You let me see her,” said Barney, and he took a stride forward, but Mrs. Sloane held the door against him.
“You can't,” she whispered again. “I'll talk to her some more. I can talk her over, if anybody can.”
Barney fell back, and again the door was shut and the voices were heard. This time Rebecca's arose into a wail, and they heard her cry out, “I won't, I won't! Go away, and stop talking to me! I won't! Go away!”
William turned around, and hid his face against the corner of the mantel-shelf. Barney went up and clapped him roughly on the shoulder. “Can't you go in there and make her listen to reason?” he said.
But just then Mrs. Sloane opened the door again. “You can walk right in now,” she announced, smiling, her thin mouth sending the lines of her whole face into smirking upward curves.
The whole company edged forward solemnly. Mrs. Sloane was following, but Barney stood in her way. “I guess you'd better not come in,” he said, abruptly.
Mrs. Sloane's face flushed a burning red. “I guess,” she began, in a loud voice, but Barney shut the door in her face. She ran noisily, stamping her feet like an angry child, to the fireplace, caught up a heavy kettle, and threw it down on the hearth. The hens flew up with a great clamor and whir of wings; Mrs. Sloane's shrill, mocking laugh arose above it. She began talking in a high-pitched voice, flinging out vituperations which would seem to patter against the closed door like bullets. Suddenly she stopped, as if her ire had failed her, and listened intently to a low murmur from the other room. She nodded her head when it ceased.
The door opened soon, and all except Rebecca came out. They stood consulting together in low voices, and Mrs. Sloane listened. They were deciding where to take Rebecca.
All at once Mrs. Sloane spoke. Her voice was still high-pitched with anger.
“If you want to know where to take her to, I can tell you,” said she. “I'd keep her here an' welcome, but I s'pose you think I ain't good enough, you're all such mighty particular folks, an' ain't never had no disgrace in your own families. William Berry can't take her to his home to-night, for his mother wouldn't leave a whole skin on either of 'em. Her own mother has turned her out, an' Barney can't take her in. She's got to go somewhere where there's a woman; she's terrible upset. There ain't no other way but for you an' Mis' Barnes to take her home to-night, an' keep her till William gets a place fixed to put her in.” Mrs. Sloane turned to the minister and his wife, regarding them with a mixture of defiance, sarcasm, and appeal.
They looked at each other hesitatingly. The minister's wife paled within her hood, and her eyes reddened with tears.
“I shouldn't s'pose you'd need any time to think on it, such good folks as you be,” said Mrs. Sloane. “There ain't no other way. She's got to be where there's a woman.”
Mrs. Barnes turned her head towards her husband. “She can come, if you think she ought to,” she said, in a trembling voice.
The sun was setting when the party started. William led Rebecca out through the kitchen—a muffled, hesitating figure, whose very identity seemed to be lost, for she wore Mrs. Sloane's blue plaid shawl pinned closely over her head and face—and lifted her into his cutter with the minister and his wife. Then he and Barney walked along, plodding through the deep snow behind the cutter. The sun was setting, and it was bitterly cold; the snow creaked and the trees swung with a stiff rattle of bare limbs in the wind.
The two men never spoke to each other. The minister drove slowly, and they could always see Mrs. Jim Sloane's blue plaid shawl ahead.
When they reached the Caleb Thayer house, Barney stopped and William followed on alone after the sleigh.
Barney turned into the yard, and his father was standing in the barn door, looking out.
“Tell mother she's married,” Barney sang out, hoarsely. Then he went back to the road, and home to his own house.