After Deborah Thayer had shut the door, the young girl sitting beside it arose. “I didn't know she was in here, or I wouldn't have come in,” she said, nervously.
“That don't make any odds,” replied Mrs. Barnard, who was trembling all over, and had sunk helplessly into a rocking-chair, which she swayed violently and unconsciously.
Cephas opened the door of the brick oven, and put in a batch of his pies, and the click of the iron latch made her start as if it were a pistol-shot.
Charlotte got up and went out of the room with a backward glance and a slight beckoning motion of her head, and the girl slunk after her so secretly that it seemed as if she did not see herself. Cephas looked sharply after them, but said nothing; he was like a philosopher in such a fury of research and experiment that for the time he heeded thoroughly nothing else.
The young girl, who was Rose Berry, Charlotte's cousin, followed her panting up the steep stairs to her chamber. She was a slender little creature, and was now overwrought with nervous excitement. She fairly gasped for breath when she sat down in the little wooden chair in Charlotte's room. Charlotte sat on the bed. The two girls looked at each other—Rose with a certain wary alarm and questioning in her eyes, Charlotte with a dignified confidence of misery.
“I didn't sleep here last night,” Charlotte said, at length.
“You went over to Aunt Sylvy's, didn't you?” returned Rose, as if that were all the matter in hand.
Charlotte nodded, then she looked moodily past her cousin's face out of the window.
“You've heard about it, I suppose?” said Charlotte.
“Something,” replied Rose, evasively.
“I don't see how it got out, for my part. I don't believe he told anybody.”
Rose flushed all over her little eager face and her thin neck. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then shut it with a catch of her breath.
“I can't imagine how it got out,” repeated Charlotte.
Rose looked at Charlotte with a painful effort; she clutched her hands tightly into fists as she spoke. “I was coming up here 'cross lots last night, and I heard you out in the road calling Barney,” she said, as if she forced out the words.
“Rose Berry, you didn't tell!”
“I went home and told mother, that's all. I didn't think that it would do any harm, Charlotte.”
“It'll be all over town, that's all. It's bad enough, anyway.”
“I don't believe it'll get out; I told mother not to tell.”
“Mrs. Thayer knew.”
“Maybe Barney told her.”
“Rose Berry, you know better. You know Barney wouldn't do such a thing.”
“No; I don't s'pose he would.”
“Don't suppose! Don't you know?”
“Yes, of course I do. I know Barney just as well as you do, Charlotte. Oh, Charlotte, don't feel bad. I wouldn't have told mother if I'd thought. I didn't mean to do any harm. I was all upset myself by it. Don't cry, Charlotte.”
“I ain't going to cry,” said Charlotte, with spirit. “I've stopped cryin'.” She wiped her eyes forcibly with her apron, and gave her head a proud toss. “I know you didn't mean to do any harm, Rose, and I suppose it would have got out anyway. 'Most everything does get out but good deeds.”
“I truly didn't mean to do any harm, Charlotte,” Rose repeated.
“I know you didn't. We won't say any more about it.”
“I was just running over across lots last night,” Rose said. “I supposed you'd be in the front room with Barney, but I thought I'd see Aunt Sarah. I'd got terrible lonesome; mother had gone to sleep in her chair, and father had gone to bed. When I got out by the stone-wall next the wood I heard you; then I ran right back. Don't you—suppose he'll ever come again, Charlotte?”
“No,” said Charlotte.
“Oh, Charlotte!” There was a curious quality in the girl's voice, as if some great hidden emotion in her heart tried to leap to the surface and make a sound, although it was totally at variance with the import of her cry. Charlotte started, without knowing why. It was as if Rose's words and her tone had different meanings, and conflicted like the wrong lines with a tune.
“I gave it up last night,” said Charlotte. “It's all over. I'm goin' to pack my wedding things away.”
“I don't see what makes you so sure.”
“I know him.”
“But I don't see what you've done, Charlotte; he didn't quarrel with you.”
“That don't make any odds. He can't get married to me now without he breaks his will, and he can't. He can't get outside himself enough to break it. I've studied it all out. It's like ciphering. It's all over.”
“What is it?”
“Why—couldn't you go somewhere else to get married? What's the need of his comin' here, if he's been ordered out, and he's said he wouldn't?”
“That's just the letter of it,” returned Charlotte, scornfully. “Do you suppose he could cheat himself that way, or I'd have him if he could? When Barney Thayer went out of this house last night, and said what he did, he meant that it was all over, that he was never going to marry me, nor have anything more to do with us, and he's going to stand by it. I am not finding any fault with him. I've made up my mind that it's all over, and I'm going to pack away my weddin' things.”
“Oh, Charlotte, you take it so calm!”
“What do you want me to do?”
“If it was anybody else, I should think they didn't care.”
“Maybe I don't.”
“I couldn't bear it so, anyhow! I couldn't!” Rose cried out, with sudden passion. “I wouldn't bear it. I'd go down on my knees to him to come back!” Rose flung back her head and looked at Charlotte with a curious defiance; her face grew suddenly intense, and seemed to open out into bloom and color like a flower. The pupils of her blue eyes dilated until they looked black; her thin lips looked full and red; her cheeks were flaming; her slender chest heaved. “I would,” said she; “I don't care, I would.”
Charlotte looked at her, and a quivering flush like a reflection was left on her fair, steady face.
“I would,” said Rose again.
“It wouldn't do any good.”
“It would if he cared anything about you.”
“It would if he could give up to the care. Barney Thayer has got a terrible will that won't always let him do what he wants to himself.”
“I don't believe he's enough of a fool to put his own eyes out.”
“You don't know him.”
“I'd try, anyway.”
“It wouldn't do any good.”
“I don't believe you care anything about him, Charlotte Barnard!” Rose cried out. “If you did, you couldn't give him up so easy for such a silly thing. You sit there just as calm. I don't believe but what you'll have another fellow on the string in a month. I know one that's dying to get you.”
“Maybe I shall,” replied Charlotte.
“Won't you, now?” Rose tried to speak archly, but her eyes were fiercely eager.
“I can't tell till I get home from the grave,” said Charlotte. “You might wait till I did, Rose.” She got up and went to dusting her bureau and the little gilt-framed mirror behind it. Her lips were shut tightly, and she never looked at her cousin.
“Now don't get mad, Charlotte,” Rose said. “Maybe I ought not to have spoken so, but it did seem to me you couldn't care as much— It does seem to me I couldn't settle down and be so calm if I was in your place, and all ready to be married to anybody. I should want to do something.”
“I should, if there was anything to do,” said Charlotte. She stopped dusting and leaned against the wall, reflecting. “I wish it was a real mountain to move,” said she; “I'd do it.”
“I'd go right down in the field where he is ploughing, and I'd make him say he'd come to see me to-night.”
“I called him back last night—you heard me,” said Charlotte, with slow bitterness. Her square delicate chin dipped into the muslin folds of her neckerchief; she looked steadily at the floor and bent her brow.
“I'd call him again.”
“You would, would you?” cried Charlotte, straightening herself. “You would stand out in the road and keep on calling a man who wouldn't even turn his head? You'd keep on calling, and let all the town hear?”
“Yes, I would. I would! I wouldn't be ashamed of anything if I was going to marry him. I'd go on my knees before him in the face and eyes of the whole town.”
“Well, I wouldn't,” said Charlotte.
“I would, if I was sure he thought as much of me as I did of him.”
Charlotte looked at her proudly. “I'm sure enough of that,” said she.
Rose winced a little. “Then I wouldn't mind what I did,” she persisted, stubbornly.
“Well, I would,” said Charlotte; “but maybe I don't care. Maybe all this isn't as hard for me as it would be for another girl.” Charlotte's voice broke, but she tossed her head back with a proud motion; she took up the dusting-cloth and fell to work again.
“Oh, Charlotte!” said Rose; “I didn't mean that. Of course I know you care. It's awful. It was only because I didn't see how you could seem so calm; it ain't like me. Of course I know you feel bad enough underneath. Your wedding-clothes all done and everything. They are pretty near all done, ain't they, Charlotte?”
“Yes,” said Charlotte. “They're—pretty near—done.” She tried to speak steadily, but her voice failed. Suddenly she threw herself on the bed and hid her face, and her whole body heaved and twisted with great sobs.
“Oh, poor Charlotte, don't!” Rose cried, wringing her own hands; her face quivered, but she did not weep.
“Maybe I don't care,” sobbed Charlotte; “maybe—I don't care.”
“Oh, Charlotte!” Rose looked at Charlotte's piteous girlish shoulders shaken with sobs, and the fair prostrate girlish head. Charlotte all drawn up in this little heap upon the bed looked very young and helpless. All her womanly stateliness, which made her seem so superior to Rose, had vanished. Rose pulled her chair close to the bed, sat down, and laid her little thin hand on Charlotte's arm, and Charlotte directly felt it hot through her sleeve. “Don't, Charlotte,” Rose said; “I'm sorry I spoke so.”
“Maybe I don't care,” Charlotte sobbed out again. “Maybe I don't.”
“Oh, Charlotte, I'm sorry,” Rose said, trembling. “I do know you care; don't you feel so bad because I said that.”
Rose tightened her grasp on Charlotte's arm; her voice changed suddenly. “Look here, Charlotte,” said she, “I'll do anything in the world I can to help you; I promise you that, and I mean it, honest.”
Charlotte reached around a hand, and clasped her cousin's.
“I'm sorry I spoke so,” Rose said.
“Never mind,” Charlotte responded, chokingly. She sobbed a little longer from pure inertia of grief; then she raised herself, shaking off Rose's hand. “It's all right,” said she; “I needn't have minded; I know you didn't mean anything. It was just—the last straw, and—when you said that about my wedding-clothes—”
“Oh, Charlotte, you did speak about them yourself first,” Rose said, deprecatingly.
“I did, so nobody else would,” returned Charlotte. She wiped her eyes, drooping her stained face away from her cousin with a kind of helpless shame; then she smoothed her hair with the palms of her hands. “I know you didn't mean any harm, Rose,” she added, presently. “I got my silk dress done last Wednesday; I wanted to tell you.” Charlotte tried to smile at Rose with her poor swollen lips and her reddened eyes.
“I'm sorry I said anything,” Rose repeated; “I ought to have known it would make you feel bad, Charlotte.”
“No, you hadn't. I was terrible silly. Don't you want to see my dress, Rose?”
“Oh, Charlotte! you don't want to show it to me?”
“Yes, I do. I want you to see it—before I pack it away. It's in the north chamber.”
Rose followed Charlotte out of the room across the passageway to the north chamber. Charlotte had had one brother, who had died some ten years before, when he was twenty. The north chamber had been his room, the bureau drawers were packed with his clothes, and the silk hat which had been the pride of his early manhood hung on the nail where he had left it, and also his Sunday coat. His mother would not have them removed, but kept them there, with frequent brushings, to guard against dust and moths.
Always when Charlotte entered this small long room, which was full of wavering lines from its uneven floor and walls and ceiling and the long arabesques on its old blue-and-white paper, whose green paper curtains with fringed white dimity ones drooping over them were always drawn, and in summertime when the windows were open undulated in the wind, she had the sense of a presence, dim, but as positive as the visions she had used to have of faces in the wandering design of the old wall-paper when she had studied it in her childhood. Ever since her brother's death she had had this sense of his presence in his room; now she thought no more of it than of any familiar figure. All the grief at his death had vanished, but she never entered his old room that the thought of him did not rise up before her and stay with her while she remained.
Now, when she opened the door, and the opposite green and white curtains flew out in the draught towards her, they were no more evident than this presence to which she now gave no thought, and pushed by her brother's memory without a glance.
Rose followed her to the bed. A white linen sheet was laid over the chintz counterpane. Charlotte lifted the sheet.
“I took the last stitch on it Wednesday night,” she said, in a hushed voice.
“Didn't he come that night?”
“I finished it before he came.”
“Did he see it?”
Charlotte nodded. The two girls stood looking solemnly at the silk dress.
“You can't see it here; it's too dark,” said Charlotte, and she rolled up a window curtain.
“Yes, I can see better,” said Rose, in a whisper. “It's beautiful, Charlotte.”
The dress was spread widely over the bed in crisp folds. It was purple, plaided vaguely with cloudy lines of white and delicate rose-color. Over it lay a silvery lustre that was the very light of the silken fabric.
Rose felt it reverently. “How thick it is!” said she.
“Yes, it's a good piece,” Charlotte replied.
“You thought you'd have purple?”
“Yes, he liked it.”
“Well, it's pretty, and it's becoming to you.”
Charlotte took up the skirt, and slipped it, loud with silken whispers, over her head. It swept out around her in a great circle; she looked like a gorgeous inverted bell-flower.
“It's beautiful,” Rose said.
Charlotte's face, gazing downward at the silken breadths, had quite its natural expression. It was as if her mind in spite of herself would stop at old doors.
“Try on the waist,” pleaded Rose.
Charlotte slipped off her calico waist, and thrust her firm white arms into the flaring silken sleeves of the wedding-gown. Her neck arose from it with a grand curve. She stood before the glass and strained the buttons together, frowning importantly.
“It fits you like a glove,” Rose murmured, admiringly, smoothing Charlotte's glossy back.
“I've got a spencer-cape to wear over my neck to meeting,” Charlotte said, and she opened the upper-most drawer in the chest and took out a worked muslin cape, and adjusted it carefully over her shoulders, pinning it across her bosom with a little brooch of her brother's hair in a rim of gold.
“It's elegant,” said Rose.
“I'll show you my bonnet,” said Charlotte. She went into a closet and emerged with a great green bandbox.
Rose bent over, watching her breathlessly as she opened it. “Oh!” she cried. “Oh, Charlotte!”
Charlotte held up the bonnet of fine Dunstable straw, flaring in front, and trimmed under the brim with a delicate lace ruche and a wreath of feathery white flowers. Bows of white gauze ribbon stood up from it stiffly. Long ribbon strings floated back over her arm as she held it up.
“Try it on,” said Rose.
Charlotte stepped before the glass and adjusted the bonnet to her head. She tied the strings carefully under her chin in a great square bow; then she turned towards Rose. The fine white wreath under the brim encircled her face like a nimbus; she looked as she might have done sitting a bride in the meeting-house.
“It's beautiful,” Rose said, smiling, with grave eyes. “You look real handsome in it, Charlotte.” Charlotte stood motionless a moment, with Rose surveying her.
“Oh, Charlotte,” Rose cried out, suddenly, “I don't believe but what you'll have him, after all!” Rose's eyes were sharp upon Charlotte's face. It was as if the bridal robes, which were so evident, became suddenly proofs of something tangible and real, like a garment left by a ghost. Rose felt a sudden conviction that the quarrel was but a temporary thing; that Charlotte would marry Barney, and that she knew it.
A change came over Charlotte's face. She began untying the bonnet strings.
“Sha'n't you?” repeated Rose, breathlessly.
“No, I sha'n't.”
Charlotte took the bonnet off and smoothed the creases carefully out of the strings.
“If I were you,” Rose cried out, “I'd feel like tearing that bonnet to pieces!”
Charlotte replaced it in the bandbox, and began unfastening her dress.
“I don't see how you can bear the sight of them. I don't believe I could bear them in the house!” Rose cried out again. “I would put that dress in the rag-bag if it was mine!” Her cheeks burned and her eyes were quite fierce upon the dress as Charlotte slipped it off and it fell to the floor in a rustling heap around her.
“I don't see any sense in losing everything you have ever had because you haven't got anything now,” Charlotte returned, in a stern voice. She laid the shining silk gown carefully on the bed, and put on her cotton one again. Her face was quite steady.
Rose watched her with the same sharp question in her eyes. “You know you and Barney will make it up,” she said, at length.
“No, I don't,” returned Charlotte. “Suppose we go down-stairs now. I've got some work I ought to do.”
Charlotte pulled down the green paper shades of the windows, and went out of the room. Rose followed. Charlotte turned to go down-stairs, but Rose caught her arm.
“Wait a minute,” said she. “Look here, Charlotte.”
“What is it?”
“Charlotte,” said Rose again; then she stopped.
Charlotte turned and looked at her. Rose's eyes met hers, and her face had a noble expression.
“You write a note to him, and I'll carry it,” said Rose. “I'll go down in the field where he is, on my way home.”
Tears sprang into Charlotte's eyes. “You're real good, Rose,” she said; “but I can't.”
“Hadn't you better?”
“No; I can't. Don't let's talk any more about it.”
Charlotte pushed past Rose's detaining hand, and the girls went down-stairs. Mrs. Barnard looked around dejectedly at them as they entered the kitchen. Her eyes were red, and her mouth drooping; she was clearing the débris of the pies from the table; there was a smell of baking, but Cephas had gone out. She tried to smile at Rose. “Are you goin' now?” said she.
“Yes; I've got to. I've got to sew on my muslin dress. When are you coming over, Aunt Sarah? You haven't been over to our house for an age.”
“I don't care if I never go anywhere!” cried Sarah Barnard, with sudden desperation. “I'm discouraged.” She sank in a chair, and flung her apron over her face.
“Don't, mother,” said Charlotte.
“I can't help it,” sobbed her mother. “You're young and you've got more strength to bear it, but mine's all gone. I feel worse about you than if it was myself, an' there's so much to put up with besides. I don't feel as if I could put up with things much longer, nohow.”
“Uncle Cephas ought to be ashamed of himself!” Rose cried out.
Sarah stood up. “Well, I don't s'pose I have so much to put up with as some folks,” she said, catching her breath as if it were her dignity. “Your Uncle Cephas means well. It did seem as if them sorrel pies were the last straw, but I hadn't ought to have minded it.”
“You haven't got to eat sorrel pies, have you?” Rose asked, in a bewildered way.
“I don't s'pose they'll be any worse than some other things we eat,” Sarah answered, scraping the pie-board again.
“I don't see how you can.”
“I guess they won't hurt us any,” Sarah said, shortly, and Rose looked abashed.
“Well, I must be going,” said she.
As she went out, she looked hesitatingly at Charlotte. “Hadn't you better?” she whispered. Charlotte shook her head, and Rose went out into the spring sunlight. She bent her head as she went down the road before the sweet gusts of south wind; the white apple-trees seemed to sing, for she could not see the birds in them.
Rose's face between the green sides of her bonnet had in it all the quickened bloom of youth in spring; her eyes had all the blue surprise of violets; she panted softly between red swelling lips as she walked; pulses beat in her crimson cheeks. Her slender figure yielded to the wind as to a lover. She passed Barney Thayer's new house; then she came opposite the field where he was at work ploughing, driving a white horse, stooping to his work in his blue frock.
Rose stood still and looked at him; then she walked on a little way; then she paused again. Barney never looked around at her. There was the width of a field between them.
Finally Rose went through the open bars into the first field. She crossed it slowly, holding up her skirts where there was a wet gleam through darker grass, and getting a little nosegay of violets with a busy air, as if that were what she had come for. She passed through the other bars into the second field, and Barney was only a little way from her. He did not glance at her then. He was ploughing with the look that Cadmus might have worn preparing the ground for the dragon's teeth.
Rose held up her skirts, and went along the furrows behind him. “Hullo, Barney,” she said, in a trembling voice.
“Hullo,” he returned, without looking around, and he kept on, with Rose following.
“Barney,” said she, timidly.
“Well?” said Barney, half turning, with a slight show of courtesy.
“Do you know if Rebecca is at home?”
“I don't know whether she is or not.”
Barney held stubbornly to his rocking plough, and Rose followed.
“Barney,” said she, again.
“Stop a minute, and look round here.”
“I can't stop to talk.”
“Yes, you can; just a minute. Look round here.”
Barney stopped, and turned a stern, miserable face over his shoulder.
“I've been up to Charlotte's,” Rose said.
“I don't know what that is to me.”
“Barney Thayer, ain't you ashamed of yourself?”
“I can't stop to talk.”
“Yes, you can. Look here. Charlotte feels awfully.”
Barney stood with his back to Rose; his very shoulders had a dogged look.
“Barney, why don't you make up with her?”
Barney stood still.
“Barney, she feels awfully because you didn't come back when she called you last night.”
Barney made no reply. He and the white horse stood like statues.
“Barney, why don't you make up with her? I wish you would.” Rose's voice was full of tender inflections; it might have been that of an angel peace-making.
Barney turned around between the handles of the plough, and looked at her steadily. “You don't know anything about it, Rose,” he said.
Rose looked up in his face, and her own was full of fine pleading. “Oh, Barney,” she said, “poor Charlotte does feel so bad! I know that anyhow.”
“You don't know how I am situated. I can't—”
“Do go and see her, Barney.”
“Do you think I'm going into Cephas Barnard's house after he's ordered me out?”
“Go up the road a little way, and she'll come and meet you. I'll run ahead and tell her.”
Barney shook his head. “I can't; you don't know anything about it, Rose.” He looked into Rose's eyes. “You're real good, Rose,” he said, as if with a sudden recognition of her presence.
Rose blushed softly, a new look came into her eyes, she smiled up at him, and her face was all pink and sweet and fully set towards him, like a rose for which he was a sun.
“No, I ain't good,” she whispered.
“Yes, you are; but I can't. You don't know anything about it.” He swung about and grasped his plough-handles again.
“Barney, do stop a minute,” Rose pleaded.
“I can't stop any longer; there's no use talking,” Barney said; and he went on remorselessly through the opening furrow. Just before he turned the corner Rose made a little run forward and caught his arm.
“You don't think I've done anything out of the way speaking to you about it, do you, Barney?” she said, and she was half crying.
“I don't know why I should think you had; I suppose you meant all right,” Barney said. He pulled his arm away softly, and jerked the right rein to turn the horse. “G'lang!” he cried out, and strode forward with a conclusive air.
Rose stood looking after him a minute; then she struck off across the field. Her knees trembled as she stepped over the soft plough-ridges.
When she was out on the road again she went along quickly until she came to the Thayer house. She was going past that when she heard some one calling her name, and turned to see who it was.
Rebecca Thayer came hurrying out of the yard with a basket on her arm. “Wait a minute,” she called, “and I'll go along with you.”