The weeks went on, and still Barnabas had not yielded. The story of his quarrel with Cephas Barnard and his broken engagement with Charlotte had become an old one in Pembroke, but it had not yet lost its interest. A genuine excitement was so rare in the little peaceful village that it had to be made to last, and rolled charily under the tongue like a sweet morsel. However, there seemed to be no lack now, for the one had set others in motion: everybody knew how Barnabas Thayer no longer lived at home, and did not sit in his father's pew in church, but in the gallery, and how Richard Alger had stopped going to see Sylvia Crane.
There was not much walking in the village, except to and from church on a Sabbath day; but now on pleasant Sabbath evenings an occasional couple, or an inquisitive old man with eyes sharp under white brows, and chin set ahead like a pointer's, strolled past Sylvia's house and the Thayer house, Barney's new one and Cephas Barnard's.
They looked sharply and furtively to see if Sylvia had a light in her best room, and if Richard Alger's head was visible through the window, if Barney Thayer had gone home and yielded to his mother's commands, if any more work had been done on the new house, and if he perchance had gone a-courting Charlotte again.
But they never saw Richard Alger's face in poor Sylvia's best room, although her candle was always lit, they never saw Barney at his old home, the new house advanced not a step beyond its incompleteness, and Barney never was seen at Charlotte Barnard's on a Sabbath night. Once, indeed, there was a rumor to that effect. A man's smooth dark head was visible at one of the front-room windows opposite Charlotte's fair one, and everybody took it for Barney's.
The next morning Barney's mother came to the door of the new house. “I want to know if it's true that you went over there last night,” she said; her voice was harsh, but her mouth was yielding.
“No, I didn't,” said Barney, shortly, and Deborah went away with a harsh exclamation. Before long she knew and everybody else knew that the man who had been seen at Charlotte's window was not Barney, but Thomas Payne.
Presently Ephraim came slowly across to the garden-patch where Barney was planting. He was breathing heavily, and grinning. When he reached Barney he stood still watching him, and the grin deepened. “Say, Barney,” he panted at length.
“Well, what is it?”
“You've lost your girl; did you know it, Barney?”
Barney muttered something unintelligible; it sounded like the growl of a dog, but Ephraim was not intimidated. He chuckled with delight and spoke again. “Say, Barney, Thomas Payne's got your girl; did you know it, Barney?”
Barney turned threateningly, but he was helpless before his brother's sickly face, and Ephraim knew it. That purple hue and that panting breath had gained an armistice for him on many a battle-field, and he had a certain triumph in it. It was power of a lugubrious sort, certainly, but still it was power, and so to be enjoyed.
“Thomas Payne's got your girl,” he repeated; “he was over there a-courtin' of her last night; a-settin' up along of her.”
Barney took a step forward, and Ephraim fell back a little, still grinning imperturbably. “You mind your own business,” Barney said, between his teeth; and right upon his words followed Ephraim's hoarse chuckle and his “Thomas Payne's got your girl.”
Barney turned about and went on with his planting. Ephraim, standing a little aloof, somewhat warily since his brother's threatening advance, kept repeating his one remark, as mocking as the snarl of a mosquito. “Thomas Payne's got your girl, Barney. Say, did you know it? Thomas Payne's got your girl.”
Finally Ephraim stepped close to Barney and shouted it into his ear: “Say, Barney, Barney Thayer, be you deaf? Thomas Payne has got—your—girl!” But Barney planted on; his nerves were quivering, the impetus to strike out was so strong in his arms that it seemed as if it must by sheer mental force affect his teasing brother, but he made no sign, and said not another word.
Ephraim, worsted at length by silence, beat a gradual retreat. Half-way across the field his panting voice called back, “Barney, Thomas Payne has got your girl,” and ended in a choking giggle. Barney planted, and made no response; but when Ephraim was well out of sight, he flung down his hoe with a groaning sigh, and went stumbling across the soft loam of the garden-patch into a little woody thicket beside it. He penetrated deeply between the trees and underbrush, and at last flung himself down on his face among the soft young flowers and weeds. “Oh, Charlotte!” he groaned out. “Oh, Charlotte, Charlotte!” Barney began sobbing and crying like a child as he lay there; he moved his arms convulsively, and tore up handfuls of young grass and leaves, and flung them away in the unconscious gesturing of grief. “Oh, I can't, I can't!” he groaned. “I—can't—Charlotte! I can't—let any other man have you! No other man shall have you!” he cried out, fiercely, and flung up his head; “you are mine, mine! I'll kill any other man that touches you!” Barney got up, and his face was flaming; he started off with a great stride, and then he stopped short and flung an arm around the slender trunk of a white-birch tree, and pulled it against him and leaned against it as if it were Charlotte, and laid his cheek on the cool white bark and sobbed again like a girl. “Oh, Charlotte, Charlotte!” he moaned, and his voice was drowned out by the manifold rustling of the young birch leaves, as a human grief is overborne and carried out of sight by the soft, resistless progress of nature.
Barney, although his faith in Charlotte had been as strong as any man's should be in his promised wife, had now no doubt but this other man had met with favor in her eyes. But he had no blame for her, nor even any surprise at her want of constancy. He blamed the Lord, for Charlotte as well as for himself. “If this hadn't happened she never would have looked at any one else,” he thought, and his thought had the force of a blow against fate.
This Thomas Payne was the best match in the village; he was the squire's son, good-looking, and college-educated. Barney had always known that he fancied Charlotte, and had felt a certain triumph that he had won her in the face of it. “You might have somebody that's a good deal better off if you didn't have me,” he said to her once, and they both knew whom he meant. “I don't want anybody else,” Charlotte had replied, with her shy stateliness. Now Barney thought that she had changed her mind; and why should she not? A girl ought to marry if she could; he could not marry her himself, and should not expect her to remain single all her life for his sake. Of course Charlotte wanted to be married, like other women. This probable desire of Charlotte's for love and marriage in itself, apart from him, thrilled his male fancy with a certain holy awe and respect, from his love for her and utter ignorance of the attitude of womankind. Then, too, he reflected that Thomas Payne would probably make her a good husband. “He can buy her everything she wants,” he thought, with a curious mixture of gratulation for her and agony on his own account. He thought of the little bonnets he had meant to buy for her himself, and these details pierced his heart like needles. He sobbed, and the birch-tree quivered in a wind of human grief. He saw Charlotte going to church in her bridal bonnet with Thomas Payne more plainly than he could ever see her in life, for a torturing imagination reflects life like a magnifying-glass, and makes it clearer and larger than reality. He saw Charlotte with Thomas Payne, blushing all over her proud, delicate face when he looked at her; he saw her with Thomas Payne's children. “O God!” he gasped, and he threw himself down on the ground again, and lay there, face downward, motionless as if fate had indeed seized him and shaken the life out of him and left him there for dead; but it was his own will which was his fate.
“Barney,” his father called, somewhere out in the field. “Barney, where be you?”
“I'm coming,” Barney called back, in a surly voice, and he pulled himself up and pushed his way out of the thicket to the ploughed field where his father stood.
“Oh, there you be!” said Caleb. Barney grunted something inarticulate, and took up his hoe again. Caleb stood watching him, his eyes irresolute under anxiously frowning brows. “Barney,” he said, at length.
“Well, what do you want?”
“I've jest heard—” the old man began; then he stopped with a jump.
“I don't want to hear what you've heard. Keep it to yourself if you've heard anything!” Barney shouted.
“I didn't know as you knew,” Caleb stammered, apologetically. “I didn't know as you'd heard, Barney.”
Caleb went to the edge of the field, and sat down on a great stone under a wild-cherry tree. He was not feeling very well; his head was dizzy, and his wife had given him a bowl of thoroughwort and ordered him not to work.
Caleb pushed his hat back and passed his hand across his forehead. It was hot, and his face was flushed. He watched his son following up his work with dogged energy as if it were an enemy, and his mind seemed to turn stupid in the face of speculation, like a boy's over a problem in arithmetic.
There was no human being so strange and mysterious, such an unknown quantity, to Caleb Thayer as his own son. He had not one trait of character in common with him—at least, not one so translated into his own vernacular that he could comprehend it. It was to Caleb as if he looked in a glass expecting to see his own face, and saw therein the face of a stranger.
The wind was quite cool, and blew full on Caleb as he sat there. Barney kept glancing at him. At length he spoke. “You'll get cold if you sit there in that wind, father,” he sang out, and there was a rude kindliness in his tone.
Caleb jumped up with alacrity. “I dunno but I shall. I guess you're right. I wa'n't goin' to set here but a minute,” he answered, eagerly. Then he went over to Barney again, and stood near watching him. Barney's hoe clinked on a stone, and he stooped and picked it out of the loam, and threw it away. “There's a good many stone in this field,” said the old man.
“It was a heap of work clearin' of it in the first place. You wa'n't more'n two year old when I cleared it. My brother Simeon helped me. It was five year before he got the fever an' died.” Caleb looked at his son with anxious pleading which was out of proportion to his words, and seemed to apply to something behind them in his own mind.
Barney worked on silently.
“I don't believe but what—if you was—to go over there—you could get her back again now, away from that Payne fellar,” Caleb blurted out, suddenly; then he shrank back as if from an anticipated blow.
Barney threw a hoeful of earth high in air and faced his father.
“Once for all, father,” said he, “I don't want to hear another word about this.”
“I shouldn't have said nothin', Barney, but I kinder thought—”
“I don't care what you thought. Keep your thoughts to yourself.”
“I know she allers thought a good deal of you, an'—”
“I don't want another word out of your mouth about it, father.”
“Well, I ain't goin' to say nothin' about it if you don't want me to, Barney; but you know how mother feels, an'— Well, I ain't goin' to say no more.”
Caleb passed his hand across his forehead, and set off across the field. Just before he was out of hearing, Barney hailed him.
“Do you feel better'n you did, father?” said he.
“What say, Barney?”
“Do you feel better'n you did this morning?”
“Yes, I feel some better, Barney—some considerable better.” Caleb started to go back to Barney; then he paused and stood irresolute, smiling towards him. “I feel considerable better,” he called again; “my head ain't nigh so dizzy as 'twas.”
“You'd better go home, father, and lay down, and see if you can't get a nap,” called Barney.
“Yes, I guess I will; I guess 'twould be a good plan,” returned the old man, in a pleased voice. And he went on, clambered clumsily over a stone-wall, disappeared behind some trees, reappeared in the open, then disappeared finally over the slope of the hilly field.
It was just five o'clock in the afternoon. Presently a woman came hurrying across the field, with some needle-work gathered up in her arms. She had been spending the afternoon at a neighbor's with her sewing, and was now hastening home to get supper for her husband. She was a pretty woman, and she had not been married long. She nodded to Barney as she hurried past him, holding up her gay-flowered calico skirt tidily. Her smooth fair hair shone like satin in the sun; she wore a little blue kerchief tied over her head, and it slipped back as she ran against the wind. She did not speak to Barney nor smile; he thought her handsome face looked severely at him. She had always known him, although she had not been one of his mates; she was somewhat older.
Barney felt a pang of misery as this fair, severe, and happy face passed him by. He wondered if she had been up to Charlotte's, and if Charlotte or her mother had been talking to her, and if she knew about Thomas Payne. He watched her out of sight in a swirl of gay skirts, her blue and golden head bobbing with her dancing steps; then he glanced over his shoulder at his poor new house, with its fireless chimneys. If all had gone well, he and Charlotte would have been married by this time, and she would have been bestirring herself to get supper for him—perhaps running home from a neighbor's with her sewing as this other woman was doing. All the sweet domestic comfort which he had missed seemed suddenly to toss above his eyes like the one desired fruit of his whole life; its wonderful unknown flavor tantalized his soul. All at once he thought how Charlotte would prepare supper for another man, and the thought seemed to tear his heart like a panther. “He sha'n't have her!” he cried out, quite loudly and fiercely. His own voice seemed to quiet him, and he fell to work again with his mouth set hard.
In half an hour he quitted work, and went up to his house with his hoe over his shoulder like a bayonet. The house was just as the workmen had left it on the night before his quarrel with Cephas Barnard. He had himself fitted some glass into the windows of the kitchen and bedroom, and boarded up the others—that was all. He had purchased a few simple bits of furniture, and set up his miserable bachelor house-keeping. Barney was no cook, and he could purchase no cooked food in Pembroke. He had subsisted mostly upon milk and eggs and a poor and lumpy quality of corn-meal mush, which he had made shift to stir up after many futile efforts.
The first thing which he saw on entering the room to-night was a generous square of light Indian cake on the table. It was not in a plate, the edges were bent and crumbling, and the whole square looked somewhat flattened. Barney knew at once that his father had saved it from his own supper, had slipped it slyly into his pocket, and stolen across the field with it. His mother had not given him a mouthful since she had forbidden him to come home to dinner, and his sister had not dared.
Barney sat down and ate the Indian cake, a solitary householder at his solitary table, around which there would never be any faces but those of his dead dreams. Afterwards he pulled a chair up to an open window, and sat there, resting his elbows on the sill, staring out vacantly. The sun set, and the dusk deepened; the air was loud with birds; there were shouts of children in the distance; gradually these died away, and the stars came out. The wind was damp and sweet; over in the field pale shapes of mist wavered and changed like phantoms. A woman came running noiselessly into the yard, and pressed against the door panting, and knocked. Barney saw the swirl of light skirts around the corner; then the knock came.
He got up, trembling, and opened the door, and stood there looking at the woman, who held her hooded head down.
“It's me, Barney,” said Charlotte's voice.
“Come in,” said Barney, and he moved aside.
But Charlotte stood still. “I can say what I want to here,” she whispered, panting. “Barney.”
“Well, what is it, Charlotte?”
“I've come over here to-night, Barney, to see you,” said Charlotte, with solemn pauses between her words. “I don't know as I ought to; I don't know but I ought to have more pride. I thought at first I never—could—but afterwards I thought it was my duty. Barney, are you going to let—anything like this—come between us—forever?”
“There's no use talking, Charlotte.”
Charlotte's hooded figure stood before him stiff and straight. There was resolution in her carriage, and her pleading tone was grave and solemn.
“Barney,” she said again; and Barney waited, his pale face standing aloof in the dark.
“Barney, do you think it is right to let anything like this come between you and me, when we were almost husband and wife?”
“It's no use talking, Charlotte.”
“Do you think this is right, Barney?”
Barney was silent.
“If you can't answer me I will go home,” said Charlotte, and she turned, but Barney caught her in his arms. He held her close, breathing in great pants. He pulled her hood back with trembling strength, and kissed her over and over, roughly.
“Charlotte,” he half sobbed.
Charlotte's voice, full of a great womanly indignation, sounded in his ear. “Barney, you let me go,” she said, and Barney obeyed.
“When I came here alone this way I trusted you to treat me like a gentleman,” said she. She pulled her hood over her face again and turned to go. “I shall never speak to you about this again,” said she. “You have chosen your own way, and you know best whether it's right, or you're happy in it.”
“I hope you'll be happy, Charlotte,” Barney said, with a great sigh.
“That doesn't make any difference to you,” said Charlotte, coldly.
“Yes, it does; it does, Charlotte! When I heard about Thomas Payne, I felt as if—if it would make you happy. I—”
“What about Thomas Payne?” asked Charlotte, sharply.
“I heard—how he was coming to see you—”
“Do you mean that you want me to marry Thomas Payne, Barney Thayer?”
“I want you to be happy, Charlotte.”
“Do you want me to marry Thomas Payne?”
Barney was silent.
“Answer me,” cried Charlotte.
“Yes, I do,” replied Barney, firmly, “if it would make you happy.”
“You want me to marry Thomas Payne?” repeated Charlotte. “You want me to be his wife instead of yours, and go to live with him instead of you? You want me to live with another man?”
“It ain't right for you not to get married,” Barney said, and his voice was hoarse and strange.
“You want me to get married to another man? Do you know what it means?”
Barney gave a groan that was half a cry.
“Oh, Charlotte!” Barney groaned, as if imploring her for pity.
“You want me to marry Thomas Payne, and live with him—”
“He'd—make you a good husband. He's—Charlotte—I can't. You've got to be happy. It isn't right—I can't—”
“Well,” said Charlotte, “I will marry him. Good-night, Barney Thayer.” She went swiftly out of the yard.
“Charlotte!” Barney called after her, as if against his will; but she never turned her head.