One Sunday evening, about four months after the cherry party, Barnabas Thayer came out of his house and strolled slowly across the road. Then he paused, and leaned up against some pasture bars and looked around him. There was nobody in sight on the road in either direction, and everything was very still, except for the vibrating calls of the hidden insects that come to their flood-tide of life in early autumn.
Barnabas listened to those calls, which had in them a certain element of mystery, as have all things which reach only one sense. They were in their humble way the voices of the unseen, and as he listened they seemed to take on a rhythmic cadence. Presently the drone of multifold vibrations sounded in his ears with even rise and fall, like the mighty breathing of Nature herself. The sun was low, and the sky was full of violet clouds. Barney could see outlined faintly against them the gray sweep of the roof that covered Charlotte's daily life.
Soon the bell for the evening meeting began to ring, and Barney started. People might soon appear on their way to meeting, and he did not want to see them. Barney avoided everybody now; he had been nowhere since the cherry party, not even to meeting. He led the life of a hermit, and seldom met his kind at all, except at the store, where he went to buy the simple materials for his solitary meals.
Barney turned aside from the main road into the old untravelled one leading past Sylvia Crane's house. It appeared scarcely more than a lane; the old wheel-ruts were hidden between green weedy ridges, the bordering stone-walls looked like long green barrows, being overgrown with poison-ivy vines and rank shrubs. For a long way there was no house except Sylvia Crane's. There was one cellar where a house had stood before Barney could remember. There were a few old blackened chimney-bricks still there, the step-stone worn by dead and forgotten feet, and the old lilac-bushes that had grown against the front windows. Two poplar-trees, too, stood where the front yard had met the road, casting long shadows like men. Sylvia Crane's house was just beyond, and Barney passed it with a furtive anxious glance, because Charlotte's aunt lived there. He saw nobody at the windows, but the guardian-stone was quite rolled away from the door, so Sylvia was at home.
Barney walked a little way beyond; then he sat down on the stone-wall, and remained there, motionless. He heard the meeting-bell farther away, then it ceased. The wind was quite crisp and cool, and it smote his back from the northwest. He could smell wild-grapes and the pungent odor of decaying leaves. The autumn was beginning, and over his thoughts, raised like a ghost from the ashes of the summer, stole a vague vision of the winter. He saw for a second the driving slant of the snow-storm over the old drifting road, he saw the white slant of Sylvia's house-roof through it. And at the same time a curious, pleasant desire, which might be primitive and coeval with the provident passion of the squirrels and honey-bees, thrilled him. Then he dismissed it bitterly. What need of winter-stores and provisions for sweet home-comfort in the hearts of freezing storms was there for him? What did he care whether or not he laid in stores of hearth-wood, of garden produce, of apples, just for himself in his miserable solitude? The inborn desire of Northern races at the approach of the sterile winters, containing, as do all desires to insure their fulfilment, the elements of human pleasure, failed suddenly to move him when he remembered that his human life, in one sense, was over.
Opposite him across the road, in an old orchard, was a tree full of apples. The low sun struck them, and they showed spheres of rosy orange, as brilliant as Atalanta's apples of gold, against the background of dark violet clouds. Barney looked at this tree, which was glorified for the time almost out of its common meaning as a tree, as he might have looked at a gorgeous procession passing before him, while his mind was engrossed with his own misery, seeming to project before his eyes like a veil.
Presently it grew dusky, and the glowing apples faded; the town-clock struck eight. Barney counted the strokes; then he arose and went slowly back. He had not gone far when he saw at a distance down the road a man and woman strolling slowly towards him. They disappeared suddenly, and he thought they had turned into a lane which opened upon the road just there. He thought to himself, and with no concern, that it might have been his sister Rebecca—something about the woman's gait suggested her—and William Berry. He knew that William was not allowed in his mother's house, and that he and Rebecca met outside. He looked up the dusky lane when he came to it, but he saw nobody.
When he reached Sylvia Crane's house he noticed that the front door was open, and a woman stood there in a dim shaft of candle-light which streamed from the room beyond. He started, for he thought it might be Charlotte; then he saw that it was Sylvia Crane leaning out towards him, shading her eyes with her hand.
He said “Good-evening” vaguely, and passed on. Then he heard a cry of indistinct words behind him, and turned. “What is it?” he called. But still he could not understand what she said, her voice was so broken, and he went back.
When he got quite close to the gate he understood. “You ain't goin' past, Richard? You ain't goin' past, Richard?” Sylvia was wailing over and over, clinging to the old gate-post.
Barney stood before her, hesitating. Sylvia reached out a hand towards him, clutching piteously with pale fingers through the gloom. Barney drew back from the poor hand. “I rather think—you've—made a mistake,” he faltered out.
“You ain't goin' past, Richard?” Sylvia wailed out again. She flung out her lean arm farther towards him. Then she wavered. Barney thought she was going to fall, and he stepped forward and caught hold of her elbow. “I guess you don't feel well, do you, Miss Crane?” he said. “I guess you had better go into the house, hadn't you?”
“I feel—kind of—bad—I—thought you was goin'—past,” gasped Sylvia. Barney supported her awkwardly into the house. At times she leaned her whole trembling weight upon him, and then withdrew herself, all unnerved as she was, with the inborn maiden reticence which so many years had strengthened; once she pushed him from her, then drooped upon his arm again, and all the time she kept moaning, “I thought you was goin' right past, Richard, I thought you was goin' right past.”
And Barney kept repeating, “I guess you've made a mistake, Miss Crane”; but she did not heed him.
When they were inside the parlor he shifted her weight gently on to the sofa, and would have drawn off; but she clung to his arm, and it seemed to him that he was forced to sit down beside her or be rough with her. “I thought you was goin' right past, Richard,” she said again.
“I ain't Richard,” said Barney; but she did not seem to hear him. She looked straight in his face with a strange boldness, her body inclined towards him, her head thrown back. Her thin, faded cheeks were burning, her blue eyes eager, her lips twitching with pitiful smiles. The room was dim with candle-light, but everything in it was distinct, and Sylvia Crane, looking straight at Barney Thayer's face, saw the face of Richard Alger.
Suddenly Barney himself had a curious impression. The features of Richard Alger instead of his own seemed to look back at him from his own thoughts. He dashed his hand across his face with an impatient, bewildered motion, as if he brushed away unseen cobwebs, and stood up. “You have made—” he began again; but Sylvia interrupted him with a weak cry. “Set down here, set down here, jest a minute, if you don't want to kill me!” she wailed out, and she clutched at his sleeve and pulled him down, and before he knew what she was doing had shrunk close to him, and laid her head on his shoulder. She went on talking desperately in her weak voice—strained shrill octaves above her ordinary tone.
“I've had this—sofa ten years,” she said—“ten years, Richard—an' you never set with me on it before, an'—you'd been comin'—here a long while before that came betwixt us last spring, Richard. Ain't you forgiven me yet?”
Barney made no reply.
“Can't you put your arm around me jest once, Richard?” she went on. “You ain't never, an' you've been comin' here a long while. I've had this sofa ten years.”
Barney put his arm around her, seemingly with no volition of his own.
“It's six months to-day sence you came last,” Sylvia said—“it's six whole months; an' when I see you goin' past to-night, it didn't seem as if I could bear it—it didn't seem as if I could bear it, Richard.” Sylvia turned her pale profile closer to Barney's breast and sobbed faintly. “I've watched so long for you,” she sighed out; “all these months I've sat there at the window, strainin' my eyes into the dark. Oh, you don't know, Richard, you won't never know!”
Barney trembled with Sylvia's sobs. He sat with a serious shamefacedness, his arm around the poor bony waist, staring over the faded fair head, which had never lain on any lover's breast except in dreams. For the moment he could not stir; he had a feeling of horror, as if he saw his own double. There was a subtle resemblance which lay deeper than the features between him and Richard Alger. Sylvia saw it, and he saw his own self reflected as Richard Alger in that straining mental vision of hers which exceeded the spiritual one.
“Can't you forgive me, an'—come again the way—you used to?” Sylvia panted out. “I couldn't get home before, that night, nohow. I couldn't, Richard—'twas the night Charlotte an' Barney fell out. They had a dreadful time. I had to stay there. It wa'n't my fault. If Barney had come back, I could have got here in season; but poor Charlotte was settin' out there all alone on the doorstep, an' her father wouldn't let her in, an' Sarah took on so I had to stay. I thought I should die when I got back an' found out you'd been here an' gone. Ain't you goin' to forgive me, Richard?”
Barney suddenly removed his arm from Sylvia's waist, pushed her clinging hands away, and stood up again. “Now, Miss Crane,” he said, “I've got to tell you. You've got to listen, and take it in. I am not Richard Alger; I am Barney Thayer.”
“What?” Sylvia said, feebly, looking up at him. “I don't know what you say, Richard; I wish you'd say it again.”
“I ain't Richard Alger; I am Barney Thayer,” repeated Barney, in a loud, distinct voice. Sylvia's straining, questioning eyes did not leave his face. “You made a mistake,” said Barney.
Sylvia turned her eyes away; she laid her head down on the arm of the hair-cloth sofa, and gasped faintly. Barney bent over her. “Now don't feel bad, Miss Crane,” said he; “I sha'n't ever say a word about this to anybody.”
Sylvia made no reply; she lay there half gasping for breath, and her face looked deathly to Barney.
“Miss Crane, are you sick?” he cried out in alarm. When she did not answer, he even laid hold of her shoulder, and shook her gently, and repeated the question. He did not know if she were faint or dying; he had never seen anybody faint or die. He wished instinctively that his mother were there; he thought for a second of running for her in spite of everything.
“I'll go and get some water for you, Miss Crane,” he said, desperately, and seized the candle, and went with it, flaring and leaving a wake of smoke, out into the kitchen. He presently came back with a dipper of water, and held it dripping over Sylvia. “Hadn't you better drink a little?” he urged. But Sylvia suddenly motioned him away and sat up. “No, I don't want any water; I don't want anything after this,” she said, in a quick, desperate tone. “I can never look anybody in the face again. I can never go to meetin' again.”
“Don't you feel so about it, Miss Crane,” Barney pleaded, his own voice uncertain and embarrassed. “The room ain't very light, and it's dark outside; maybe I do look like him a little. It ain't any wonder you made the mistake.”
“It wa'n't that,” returned Sylvia. “I dunno what the reason was; it don't make any difference. I can't never go to meetin' again.”
“I sha'n't tell anybody,” said Barney; “I sha'n't ever speak of it to any human being.”
Sylvia turned on him with sudden fierceness. “You had better not,” said she, “when you're doin' jest the same as Richard Alger yourself, an' you're makin' Charlotte sit an' watch an' suffer for nothin' at all, jest as he makes me. You had better not tell of it, Barney Thayer, when it was all due to your awful will that won't let you give in to anybody, in the first place, an' when you are so much like Richard Alger yourself that it's no wonder that anybody that knows him body and soul, as I do, took you for him. You had better not tell.”
Again Barney seemed to see before his eyes that image of himself as Richard Alger, and he could no more change it than he could change his own image in the looking-glass. He said not another word, but carried the dipper of water back to the kitchen, returned with the candle, setting it gingerly on the white mantel-shelf between a vase of dried flowers and a mottle-backed shell, and went out of the house. Sylvia did not speak again; but he heard her moan as he closed the door, and it seemed to him that he heard her as he went down the road, although he knew that he could not.
It was quite dark now; all the light came from a pale wild sky. The moon was young, and feebly intermittent with the clouds.
Barney, hastening along, was all trembling and unnerved. He tried to persuade himself that the woman whom he had just left was ill, and laboring under some sudden aberration of mind; yet, in spite of himself, he realized a terrible rationality in it. Little as he had been among the village people of late, and little as he had heard of the village gossip, he knew the story of Richard Alger's desertion of Sylvia Crane. Was he not like Richard Alger in his own desertion of Charlotte Barnard? and had not Sylvia been as little at fault in taking one for the other as if they had been twin brothers? Might there not be a closer likeness between characters than features—perhaps by a repetition of sins and deformities? and might not one now and then be able to see it?
Then the question came, was Charlotte like Sylvia? Was Charlotte even now sitting watching for him with that awful eagerness which comes from a hunger of the heart? He had seen one woman's wounded heart, and, like most men, was disposed to generalize, and think he had seen the wounded hearts of all women.
When he had reached the turn of the road, and had come out on the main one where his house was, and where Charlotte lived, he stood still, looking in her direction. He seemed to see her, a quarter of a mile away in the darkness, sitting in her window watching for him, as Sylvia had watched for Richard.
He set his mouth hard and crossed the road. He had just reached his own yard when there was the pale flutter of a skirt out of the darkness before him, and a little shadowy figure met him with a soft shock. The was a smothered nervous titter from the figure. Barney did not know who it was; he muttered an apology, and was about to pass into his yard when Rose Berry's voice arrested him. It was quite trembling and uncertain; all the laughter had gone out of it.
“Oh, it's you,” said she; “you frightened me. I didn't know who it was.”
Barney felt suddenly annoyed without knowing why. “Oh, is it you, Rose?” he returned, stiffly. “It's a pleasant evening;” then he turned.
“Barney!” Rose said, and her voice sounded as if she were weeping.
Barney stopped and waited.
“I want to know if—you're mad with me, Barney.”
“No, of course I ain't; why?”
“I thought you'd acted kind of queer to me lately.”
Barney stood still, frowning in the darkness. “I don't know what you mean,” he said at length. “I don't know how I've treated you any different from any of the girls.”
“You haven't been to see me, and—you've hardly spoken to me since the cherry party.”
“I haven't been to see anybody,” said Barney, shortly; and he turned away again, but Rose caught his arm. “Then you are sure you aren't mad with me?” she whispered.
“Of course I'm sure,” Barney returned, impatiently.
“It would kill me if you were,” Rose whispered. She pressed close to him; he could feel her softly panting against his side, her head sunk on his shoulder. “I've been worrying about it all these months,” she said in his ear. Her soft curly hair brushed his cheek, but her little transient influence over him was all gone. He felt angry and ashamed.
“I haven't thought anything about it,” he said, brusquely.
Rose sobbed faintly, but she did not move away from him. Suddenly that cruel repulsion which seizes mankind towards reptiles and unsought love seized Barney. He unclasped her clinging hands, and fairly pushed her away from him. “Good-night, Rose,” he said, shortly, and turned, and went up the path to his own door with determined strides.
“Barney!” Rose called after him; but he paid no attention. She even ran up the path after him; but the door shut, and she turned back. She was trembling from head to foot, there was a great rushing in her ears; but she heard a quick light step behind her when she got out on the road, and she hurried on before it with a vague dread.
She almost ran at length; but the footsteps gained on her. A dark skirt brushed her light-colored one, and Charlotte's voice, full of contempt and indignation, said in her ear: “Oh, I thought it was you.”
“I—was coming up—to your—house,” Rose faltered; she could hardly get her breath to speak.
“Why didn't you come, then?” demanded Charlotte. “What made you go to Barney Thayer's?”
“I didn't,” said Rose, in feeble self-defence. “He was out in the road—I—just stopped to—speak to him—”
“You were coming out of his yard,” Charlotte said, pitilessly. “You followed him in there—I saw you. Shame on you!”
“Oh, Charlotte, I haven't done anything out of the way,” pleaded Rose, weakly.
“You have tried your best to get Barney Thayer all the time you have been pretending to be such a good friend to me. I don't know what you call out of the way.”
“Charlotte, don't—I haven't.”
“Yes, you have. I am going to tell you, once for all, what I think of you. You've been a false friend to me; and now when Barney don't notice you, you follow him up as no girl that thought anything of herself would. And you don't even care anything for him; you haven't even that for an excuse.”
“You don't know but what I do!” Rose cried out, desperately.
“Yes, I do know. If anybody else came along, you'd care for him just the same.”
“I shouldn't—Charlotte, I should never have thought of Barney if he—hadn't left you, you know I shouldn't.”
“That's no excuse,” said Charlotte, sternly.
“You said yourself he would never come back to you,” said Rose.
“Would you have liked me to have done so by you, if you had been in my place?”
Rose twitched herself about. “You can't expect him never to marry anybody because he isn't going to marry you,” she said, defiantly.
“I don't—I am not quite so selfish as that. But he won't ever marry anybody he don't like because she follows him up, and I don't see how that alters what you've done.”
Rose began to walk away. Charlotte stood still, but she raised her voice. “I am not very happy,” said she, “and I sha'n't be happy my whole life, but I wouldn't change places with you. You've lowered yourself, and that's worse than any unhappiness.”
Rose fled away in the darkness without another word, and Charlotte crossed the road to go to her Aunt Sylvia's.
Rose, as she went on, felt as if all her dreams were dying within her; a dull vision of the next morning when she should awake without them weighed upon her. She had a childish sense of shame and remorse, and a conviction of the truth of Charlotte's words. And yet she had an injured and bewildered feeling, as if somewhere in this terrible nature, at whose mercy she was, there was some excuse for her.
Rose was nearly home when she began to meet the people coming from meeting. She kept close to the wall, and scudded along swiftly that no one might recognize her. All at once a young man whom she had passed turned and walked along by her side, making a shy clutch at her arm.
“Oh, it's you,” she said, wearily.
“Yes; do you care if I walk along with you?”
“No,” said Rose, “not if you want to.”
An old pang of gratitude came over her. It was only the honest, overgrown boy, Tommy Ray, of the store. She had known he worshipped her afar off; she had laughed at him and half despised him, but now she felt suddenly humble and grateful for even this devotion. She moved her arm that he might hold it more closely.
“It's too dark for you to be out alone,” he said, in his embarrassed, tender voice.
“Yes, it's pretty dark,” said Rose. Her voice shook. They had passed the last group of returning people. Suddenly Rose, in spite of herself, began to cry. She sobbed wildly, and the boy, full of alarm and sympathy, walked on by her side.
“There ain't anything—scared you, has there?” he stammered out, awkwardly, at length.
“No,” sobbed Rose.
“You ain't sick?”
“No, it isn't anything.”
The boy held her arm closer; he trembled and almost sobbed himself with sympathy. Before they reached the old tavern Rose had stopped crying—she even tried to laugh and turn it off with a jest. “I don't know what got into me,” she said; “I guess I was nervous.”
“I didn't know but something had scared you,” said the boy.
They stood on the door-steps; the house was dark. Rose's parents had gone to bed, and William was out. The boy still held Rose's arm. He had adored her secretly ever since he was a child, and he had never dared as much as that before. He had thought of Rose like a queen or a princess, and the thought had ennobled his boyish ignorance and commonness.
“No, I wasn't scared,” said Rose, and something in her voice gave sudden boldness to her young lover.
He released her arm, and put both his arms around her. “I'm sorry you feel so bad,” he whispered, panting.
“It isn't anything,” returned Rose, but she half sobbed again; the boy's round cheek pressed against her wet, burning one. He was several years younger than she. She had half scorned him, but she had one of those natures that crave love for its own sweetness as palates crave sugar.
She wept a little on his shoulder; and the boy, half beside himself with joy and terror, stood holding her fast in his arms.
“Don't feel bad,” he kept whispering. Finally Rose raised herself. “I must go in,” she whispered; “good-night.”
The boy's pleading face, his innocent, passionate lips approached hers, and they kissed each other.
“Don't you—like me a little?” gasped the boy.
“Maybe I will,” Rose whispered back. His face came closer, and she kissed him again. Then, with a murmured “good-night,” she fled into the house, and the boy went down the hill with sweeter dreams in his heart than those which she had lost.