The Tree of Knowledge
by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
“The Tree of Knowledge,” so called by the people who dwelt in its vicinity, stood on the border of the turnpike road to Boston. It was an ancient elm, as venerable as any prophet, with the wide benediction of his giant arms and the shelter of his green mantle on a hot noon-tide.
And there was a great hollow in the mighty trunk of the tree, and therein was a sack of calf-skin, cunningly fitted for protection of its precious contents against rain and dampness. Every day the driver of the Boston stage drew in his mettlesome steeds beside the old elm and plunged a hasty hand into the depths of the calf-skin sack. There was no post-office in this tiny settlement, and therefore no way of sending or obtaining the mail except through the friendly offices of the driver and the tree.
The stage dashed down the turnpike every night with a rattling roar of wheels, which carried far, and caused the men in distant hay-fields and wood-lots to stand and listen with hollowed hands at ears, and remark, with that small and primitive triumph which comes from the unquestionable evidence of the senses, “There's the stage-coach.”
Every night, just after the passing of the stage, came young Annie Pryor, to see if perchance she might glean anything from its leavings for herself.
Annie would hasten down the road in the summer-time, ruffling to the wind like a rose, with her muslins and laces and ribbons. In the winter season she went clad from neck to heel in a great red cloak, which parted the pale dusk like the red breast of a robin as she danced along.
No matter how fast she came, she always paused a moment before she thrust her little hand into the secret place of the old elm in search of a letter, as if she were collecting her courage for a possible disappointment. But always once in a fortnight, and sometimes oftener, she found there a letter for herself, addressed in a handwriting very fine and clearly cut, with elegant curves and shadings, but always large, with even an exaggeration and affectation of boldness, to prove beyond doubt that it was a man's. Always when Annie secured her letter, and turning the superscription to the light, saw the handwriting, a soft blush came over her face and a look of rapture and wonder into her eyes.
She always hid the letter in the lowest depths of her pocket, and never by any chance read it until after she was home, and sometimes not until she went to bed, and was sure that nobody would see her face until the look which it had worn during the reading had faded away. However, there was nobody in the house to see her except her elder sister, Cornelia, and the servant-woman, Deborah Noyes, who had lived with them ever since Annie was born; but their eyes were very sharp and pitiless with love.
There never had been and never would be letters like these, according to Annie Pryor's judgment, which was biassed by the wisdom of utter innocence of the world, and a fancy as holy in its picturings as a Fra Angelico's. As all women were angels to him, so were all men angels to her. Annie read these letters as she read her Bible, with her heart and her pulses aglow indeed with a warmth which confused her, but with her imagination in the holy of holies, and crowning the writer with an aureole of beauty and sanctity.
She had never seen him in the flesh, and had no idea concerning his identity. The name signed to the letters was clearly a fictitious one — “David Amicus.” In those days sentiment was in its fulness of glory, and had not yet overlapped its own height to the descent of the ridiculous. People, especially women, regarded its farthest flights in their correspondence seriously, and with most ardent approbation.
So Annie Pryor, reading with flutterings and palpitations innumerable these epistles signed with a name evidently inspired by Scripture and Latin and sentimentality, and full of such lofty conclusions that the writer seemed more than mortal man, could he exemplify them in himself, was in a rapture of enthusiasm and admiration. She was in love with a man whom she had never seen, and who represented to her mind something between a Messiah and a Crusader.
But, after all, the affection of her maiden heart was awakened by nothing except the love which made itself evident through all the lofty verbosity of sentiment, like the strong sweetness of honey. Annie tasted, smelled, and inbreathed the fervent love and the tender glorification of herself in the letters, and her heart leaped to meet it, all in the dark, but none the less surely.
Annie never answered these letters; she never dreamed of such a thing; indeed, there was no address given. She was quite contented to respond silently to all this graciousness of affection, not having as yet arrived at such an understanding of love that its need of herself could occur to her and fill her with distress.
Annie had received her first letter from her unknown admirer when she had just passed her seventeenth birthday. The week before, she had heard of the marriage of the only girl friend whom she had ever known, who had moved to another village with her parents two years before. Annie returned from the neighbor's where she had heard the news, her eyes big with wonder and a certain vague trouble.
She seated herself at a window and remained for some time, looking out without speaking. Then she said, slowly and timidly, to her sister Cornelia, who was sitting opposite embroidering a fine cambric frill for her, “Cornelia.”
“What is it, love?” asked Cornelia, softly.
The two were half-sisters; there was a difference of many years in their ages, and a great dissimilarity in their figures. Cornelia was extremely tall and full of a willowy sinuosity, and Annie was almost as small and slight as a child, and as weakly pliable in her movements; still, the likeness to their common father was in their faces. Their voices were widely different too, Annie's having a thin sweetness of quality like a reed, with no reserve, and Cornelia's being not low, but hushed. Cornelia gave the impression of being reined in, either by herself, in opposition to the urgings of Providence, or by Providence, in opposition to her own desire for bolting. She looked at Annie now with a mild gravity of expression, which concealed a quick warmth as of fire. “What is it, love?” she repeated, when the young girl did not answer at once, but still hesitated with that look of vague trouble in her eyes.
“Rebecca is married,” Annie said, slowly.
“Yes,” assented Cornelia, who never seemed surprised.
“She is married to a young man in Greenfield, where they went to live, her aunt Maria told me.”
Cornelia saw that Annie's eyes were full of tears.
“Are you hurt because Rebecca did not write you about her marriage, dear?” she asked, tenderly.
“No; she has written me very seldom since she went away. Her aunt said she would write soon. She has been very busy making her wedding clothes. She has hem-stitched and fagoted everything, and trimmed all her bed-linen with knitted lace.” Annie looked at Cornelia with a kind of abashed directness. “Cornelia, when do you think I shall be married?”
Cornelia smiled; then her mouth drew down at the corners. “In the Lord's good time, I trust, love,” she replied.
“I hope it will be before long,” said Annie, simply and seriously; “or maybe I shall not be married at all. I am seventeen — two months older than Rebecca was.”
“Are you not contented and happy as you are, love?” asked Cornelia, and there was a delicate intonation of reproach in her voice.
Then Annie's heart smote her. “Oh, dear Cornelia,” she cried out, sweetly, “of course I am happy and contented, but —” then she stopped again.
“I am contented and happy since I have you. I ask for nothing more. You have filled my cup of blessing up full, Annie.”
“But I have no Annie,” the younger sister rejoined, laughing childishly, “and when I am as old as you, Cornelia, I will have no Annie.”
“There is nothing for you to do, for any woman to do, but to trust in the Lord about all such matters,” Cornelia said, sternly and with a certain dignity. “If He intends you to have a married life, He will send you some one in good season; if not, and He intends you to be single, you must learn to be contented. Every state has its compensations, and nothing is as unequal as it appears.”
“Dear Cornelia,” said Annie, abruptly, “was that why you did not get married — just because the Lord did not send you any one?” Annie spoke in a tone of the sweetest and most deprecating curiosity, her face flushing, but Cornelia turned pale as Annie had never seen her, and Deborah Noyes, who had come in and was sweeping the hearth, gave a frightened start.
“I would rather not talk about such matters, love,” Cornelia answered, gently, and yet with an accent which filled the younger sister with pain and distress.
“Oh, Cornelia, forgive me!” she faltered out.
Annie had a feeling that she had outraged secrecy and delicacy, and all the more because old Deborah later took her apart and charged her never to ask her sister such questions. “There air things which had better not be talked about,” said the old woman, who had been married in her early youth, had the wisdom of experience, and regarded Annie as her own child.
“Oh, Deborah, I did not mean any harm!” Annie returned, piteously.
“I know you didn't,” rejoined Deborah; “but there air things which is only betwixt folks and their Maker, and not to be spoke of by their nearest and dearest.”
So Annie Pryor, being forbidden to speak, could only think, and as a result of her thought kept her love-letters secret when they began to arrive a week later.
Annie felt quite justified in her secrecy. The dear and noble unknown had signed what was evidently an assumed name; he did not wish his identity discovered, and she had the authority of her elders that there were subjects better not discussed, and between one's self and God.
So Annie hid her love and her letters, and grew and blossomed into fuller life, like a flower which conceals the secret of its growth from even those who tend and love it, keeping always the god that giveth the increase hidden in the shadow of its own life. Annie had always been pretty, but now she grew into such a beauty that even the stolid farmer folk thereabout, men blunted with tail and the dull fitting of desires to means under the yoke of Providence, turned back to look at her, and the women grew reminiscent and comparative at the sight of her, and glanced in their looking-glasses.
However, she had very few admirers of any kind in this little place, scarcely more than the nucleus of a village. It had always been inconceivable to people why Captain Jonas Pryor, Annie's father, had settled there when he gave up his traffic on the high seas. It may have been that the loneliness and isolation of the place appealed to the man, used to the loneliness and isolation of the sea; at all events, he seemed happy there. However, he had Annie, for whose sake he had quitted his life work and turned his back forever on his good ship, and she was all-sufficient. Captain Pryor had always been a kind father to Cornelia, but she was not like little Annie, the child of his pretty second wife, herself young enough to be his daughter, who had died when he was cruising off the coast of Ceylon.
After Captain Pryor came home he never let Annie out of his sight when he could avoid it, and he was as wroth as he might have been on his quarter-deck, when somebody suggested sending her away to school.
“I guess by the time she knows as much as her sister and I can teach her she will know enough for any woman,” he said; “and as for putting that little tender thing in with a parcel of great girls not good enough to tie her shoes, I'll be damned first! I've sailed about enough around this world to get my bearings, and know about as well where the rocks and the quicksands be as the teachers and the parsons, and I guess I'll be full as faithful about shunting her off 'em as they. And as for the rest, I guess Cornelia has been polished high enough to give a little of her shine to her sister.”
Cornelia was well fitted to teach her young sister, having graduated at a young ladies' seminary, and having been well grounded in the accomplishments, as well as in some more advanced branches than were usually in vogue in such institutions.
As for Captain Pryor, being determined to keep his darling with him and avoid all necessity for self-reproach, he taught her the rude astronomy acquired during long watches on deck under the expanse of stars, and also, as well as he was able with no opportunity for practical illustration, how to navigate a ship.
He imparted to her his well-tested knowledge of geography, with sundry scornful dissensions from the maps in use. “I tell you all the way to know a coast is by sailing round it,” he would say, emphatically, “and it goes out here where that fool has made it go in. Guess he would go to pieces before he had time to say his prayers, if he tried to sail where he has marked water. Don't you ever try to sail a ship according to such bearings, sweetheart.”
In fair and mild weather little Annie used to sit with her father on the house-top, around which he had erected a balustrade, and she learned strange lessons of fact and fancy, having for a great treat the looking through her father's spy-glass at the strip of blue sea visible on a clear day, and watching the sails moving along the horizon distance like clouds in the sky. But it did not last long. Captain Pryor was quite an old man, and the breaking-up of the ways of a lifetime shake the foundations of life. He died suddenly when Annie was still only a child, and she was left in the care of her elder sister. She was as safe as she would have been with her own mother. As fond as Annie's father had been of her, it would have been impossible for him to surround her always so impalpably and yet so completely, with such fine and discriminating tenderness. The tenderness of one woman for another is farther reaching in detail than that of a man, because it is given with a fuller understanding of needs. Annie was fenced and ramparted against all evils and roughnesses of life, in all the ways which the patience and loving cunning of two devoted women could devise. They kept her from all evil, and all knowledge of it. They saw to it that her feet were dry, and the food for her imagination clean. She had seen only the love-illumined side of her old sea-captain father, whose knowledge of the wickedness on the face of the earth was as securely hidden from the innocent eyes of his daughter as if it had lain at the deepest bottom of the sea. She had never read a novel; she had had only one companion of her own age, a simple girl, whose life had been as sequestered as her own, and Cornelia had never left the two alone long, and taught Annie to tell her what they talked about. There were no young men in the village except one lout of a farmer's lad, who was beyond the reach of her imagination, or, rather, far short of it. Annie regarded him no more than she would have regarded a wayside tree, and he viewed her with Heaven knows what dull acquiescence of admiration, stepping out of her path as stupidly and unquestioningly as one of his own oxen. He being the only other of her own age in the village, it was not surprising that Annie was obliged to draw wholly upon her imagination for the original of her unknown lover. Her mind was an absolute blank as to his reality. She could not, search her memory as she would, recall the face of any man whom she had ever seen who in the least answered to her conception of him. So she fed her love with her own fancy and the noble sentiments and words of ardent and respectful devotion transcribed upon the sheets of foolscap, and many a time, when she was ostensibly seated with her sister at work on her embroidery, she was holding sweetest communion with her lover in that farthest closet of secrecy behind silent lips.
Sometimes, however, since there were forces at work within herself of which she knew nothing, she was not quite happy, and there was a sense of insufficiency in her life. She was reaching the point where dreams would not content her. In those days she took to standing long at the gate in the evening and peering down the country road in the dusk, as if she were looking for some one, and on a moonlight night she sat at her window watching out over the pale illumination of the meadow, instead of going to bed. If the knocker sounded, her heart beat high with anticipation, and every footstep smote her ear like the prophecy of another. She prayed timidly not being sure that such prayers were right, that her lover might appear to her at the elm some day, instead of his letter, and she became so agitated that she could scarcely breathe or walk steadily on her way thither. She reasoned that he might come on the stage, and wait there for her. Finally she became quite sure that he would do so, and every night arrayed herself with the daintiest care. Her mother had possessed an expensive wardrobe, which had been little worn at her death. Cornelia kept her own finery of youth only for her young sister, and Captain Pryor had been well-to-do for those times. Annie went clad in fine array, in shimmering silks and fine muslins and embroideries, like a princess, but they became her well as concerned her looks and her breeding and her birth. Both Annie's mother and Cornelia's had been of fine old Boston stock, with high claims to gentility.
Annie always waited, by her sister's instructions, until the stage was so far past that nobody could espy her, before she sought the tree; and thus it often happened that her dainty toilets were all unseen except by the loving women at home, who would have thought her fair in rags. Sometimes a sense of impatience and futility came over the young girl as she tied on her hat before the looking-glass and arranged her brown curls to the best advantage. She longed, as naturally and innocently as she might have longed for water when thirsty, for the eyes of her lover to reflect her beauty, that she might see it with its best meaning. This little Annie Pryor, stealing palpitatingly down the road to the old tree, was feminine to the heart's core. No power of straining out of her natural line was in her. Noble sentiment was her spiritual bread, and love was her honey. She was fonder of her quiet needle than of any other employment, and her soul seemed to permeate to the farthest hem on her flounces, the scallops of her tucker, and the forked ends of her ribbons, such an entirety of prettiness she was as she walked.
It happened one afternoon in December, when Annie had just passed her eighteenth birthday, that the Boston stage was late, though she did not know it. She had sat in her favorite place by a window, embroidering a pocket-handkerchief which she privately designed for a feature of her wedding finery, until it was past the usual time for the arrival of the stage; then she rose.
Cornelia looked up from her work at an opposite window. “Wrap yourself up warmly, love,” she said, “for it looks cold outside.”
Annie put on her red cloak and wound a furry tippet round her throat before she set out. It was cold, and threatening snow. The sky hung low with gray clouds, and there was a stillness which shocked the senses like sound. The presence of the storm seemed to make itself felt, like the presence of life in a dark and silent room. It was almost night, but not dark; somewhere beyond the clouds was the full moon. This little human thing full of life and warmth hurried on like a spark of fire through the quiet of death and storm. She did not meet a living creature nor hear a sound until she was near the old elm. Then she heard the rumble of the approaching stage. “The stage is late,” she told herself, in dismay, and did not know what to do. Then she reasoned quickly, while the stage was drawing nearer, that she would not have time to go back and reach the turn into the lane where the Pryor house stood before it was upon her, and made up her mind to the only course of action possible. She stepped aside from the road, and sought the shelter of the wood at the right behind the great elm. The wood was composed of oaks, and white birches waving about in the dusk like white wands of conjurers. Annie went as far into the wood as she deemed necessary to screen herself from prying eyes on the stage-coach, and hid behind an oak, folding her red cloak tightly around her slender form. Then she waited until the stage rolled up. The driver alighted, approached the tree, and was busy for a minute or two beside it. Annie could see quite plainly, as she peeped around the trunk of the oak, the stage with its team of four horses drawn to a slanting curve beside the road. There were no outside passengers except one man on the box, who was holding the lines. She thought that not many had ventured forth on such an inclement day, and with a thrill of her usual disappointment she thought that her unknown lover had not arrived.
She waited until the driver was back in his place again and had hallooed to his horses, which had moved on with a mighty rattling and jingling; then she stood out from behind the oak and peered around fearfully. All at once she became conscious of something unusual. She had felt, rather than heard, something in the wood near her. She looked behind her, then to the right, then to the left, and saw what it was — a man and a horse standing as motionless as an equestrian statue in a cleared space among the trees.
Annie did not cry out, but she seemed to shrink within herself, and folded her arms with a curious involuntary motion, as if she were fairly hugging herself for protection. The man looked sharply at this slender fair thing, her poor pretty face, wild and white with terror, intent upon his, and remained motionless for a moment, as if uncertain what to do.
Then he stepped forward with a courtly lift and flourish of his broad slouched hat, and all at once Annie's fears fled, for she knew that he had come. She looked up, innocently and quite fearlessly, into the dark, handsome face bent over hers, though the soft pink mounted high to the roots of the curls on her forehead.
“I hope I have not alarmed you, madam,” said the man, with the utmost gentleness and deference; and he smiled as he spoke, and Annie's heart quivered under the smile as under a caressing hand.
Still, she answered with considerable dignity, her own young copy of her elder sister's soft state when addressing a stranger. “I was alarmed for a moment, sir, because I had not expected to see any one here,” she said; and her voice sounded to the young man like a flute played by some nymph of the winter woods.
“But you are not alarmed now, I trust?” he rejoined, gently.
“No, I am not alarmed now, sir.”
The stranger held his horse by the bridle, and continued to regard Annie. She could not see his face plainly, because it was under the shadow of his broad hat, but she made sure that it was the face of the man of her dreams, and did not belie the sentiments of his letters. In such a tumult of emotion was she that she felt herself hot and cold, and all her pulses were throbbing above her thoughts; but so fine was her breeding, and the instincts inherited from generations of gentlewomen, that she made no sign.
“Allow me to say that I think you are out rather late in such a lonely place,” said the stranger at length, in a tone which he might have used towards a child.
“No, sir; it is quite safe,” replied Annie. “I come here every night for my letters.” She blushed as she said the last, and her eyes fell, since she made sure that he knew all about the letters. She knew that he must be David Amicus, and she wondered what his real name might be.
As she wondered, he told her, with another courtly bow.
“If you will permit me to present myself, I am Harry Carew, at your service,” he said — Annie courtesied — “and I still think it overlate for one so young and fair to be out alone; and I will stand beside the road and keep watch that you are not molested until you are safely home. You do not live far from here?”
“Only a short distance, sir; but I assure you that it is quite safe.”
Annie, and Harry Carew leading his horse, went out to the border of the wood to the old elm, and Annie, with another courtesy, and a gentle “Good-night,” and “Thank you, sir,” started down the road.
But the young man called after her, with a half laugh. “You have forgotten to look for your letter,” he said; and he laughed again softly, for he thought that it was a letter from a sweetheart that she was expecting, and that the sight of his own handsome face had driven it from her mind; for Harry Carew was not without vanity.
Annie turned back confusedly and thrust her hand into the hollow of the tree, but there was only one letter there, and that for one of the farmers. Then she went her way, thinking that Mr. Harry Carew had it in his mind to jest with her, since he must have known that there would be no letter there.
When Annie reached home and entered the warm room, bright with the hearth fire, and the lamp hung around with rows of glittering prisms, beside which her sister sat, she turned her face away, as if to screen her dazzled eyes after the dusk outside, but in reality to hide her face until it should be under better control. Annie felt as if her meeting with Harry Carew was written in such plain characters upon her face that Cornelia would read all at a glance. She sat at a window and stared out at the night, though Cornelia asked her tenderly if she had not better draw near the fire. She sat there while old Deborah laid the tea-table in the dining-room, with musical clink of glass and silver, and her heart sank at the thought of poor Harry Carew out in the storm, which had begun: the snow was falling fast. She wondered if he would obtain shelter at one of the neighbor's, or if he would ride on to the nearest tavern: it seemed late for that. She wondered what Cornelia would have said had she asked him to come home with her, if it would have been maidenly to do so. She kept her eyes downcast when she sat at the tea-table opposite her sister, but she felt that Cornelia was glancing perplexedly at her face. Cornelia thought that the girl had a strange and unwonted look, and speculated anxiously as to what it might mean. Annie was uneasy under her sister's fond and reflective gaze, and somewhat guilty. She thought that possibly she ought to tell her secret now, since without doubt Mr. Harry Carew would seek her at her own home before long, possibly the next day. Several times during the evening she was on the verge of confession. Once she said, “Sister —” then stopped.
“What is it, love?” asked Cornelia.
“Nothing,” replied Annie.
Cornelia had a subtle sense of disturbance. The sudden repression of confidence from one soul to another may well produce a commotion like that from the stoppage of a wave. “You do not feel ill, I hope, love?” she said, uneasily.
“No, sister,” replied Annie.
Annie lighted her candle and went to bed early. She wanted to be alone. The storm had come with all force, and the night was full of the white drive of the snow. The wind had arisen, and came in a steady wall of advance from the northwest. Annie lay in bed listening to it. “It is a dreadful storm, and even a strong man might freeze if he were out in it,” she thought. While she had no doubt, the simple romanticism of her nature making it almost incapable of interrogation towards events which coincided with her theories, she was yet somewhat bewildered at the strange advent of her mysterious lover. It was certainly singular that he had appeared in such wise. Annie had no knowledge of heroines of romance, upon which to draw for comparison, but she reflected vaguely that it might have been more according to the fitness of things had Mr. Harry Carew come dashing boldly up the turnpike, and knocking at her door, implored permission to pay his addresses, than for him to lurk in the oak wood on the chance of seeing her when the stage passed.
Still, she had no doubt that Harry Carew was the David Amicus of her letters, and her whole heart went out towards him with trust and love and the most fervent admiration. She considered him as grand and handsome as a prince in his appearance, and as for his character, were there not the noble sentiments in his letters to vouch for that?
Annie recalled many to herself as she lay there sheltered from the storm in her maiden nest. She had many expressions, word for word, in her memory. Some which she specially admired and treasured ran after this wise — “To walk ever in the path of virtue and honesty, though the hedges set with cruel thorns press close on either side, is to my mind better than to walk in the path of vice, though there be room therein for the wide spreading of purple and fine linen, and the society of the gay and light-minded with whom to pass the time to eternity by song and jest.” And another — “Constancy and the faithful keeping of vows and promises I enjoin upon myself, for I comprehend not how I can be false to another without also being false to my own self.” And another — “I shun intemperance and impurity as I would shun the plague, for I am well aware that you could esteem me no more after my moral death than you could do after my physical, and the wedded bliss towards which I ever look forward as towards an earthly paradise would be forfeited forever.”
“There is no man in the whole world so noble and so good,” thought Annie Pryor, though she had seen Harry Carew only once, and then at a disadvantage, on account of the dusk, and his slouched hat well over his flashing eyes; but by some unwritten law of love those eyes had found their way at once to her soul.
It was midnight before Annie fell asleep; then it was an hour or more before she woke suddenly, with the conviction borne in upon her that there was something unwonted astir.
Annie was timid, but was that night in a state of excitement and exaltation of spirit which was beyond ordinary fear. Without the least hesitation she sprang out of bed, ran to the window, and looked out. The storm was furious; all the night was a whirlpool of white crystals, yet made faintly luminous by the full moon. She could see dimly the yard in front of the house, and the figure of a man plodding through the snow.
Annie hesitated, not knowing whether to awaken her sister and Deborah, or not; then she decided not. She knew who had come — Mr. Harry Carew, seeking shelter from the storm. He must be nearly spent. She did not see his horse; perhaps that had fallen down exhausted. It would take some time to arouse her sister; there might be some parley before he would be admitted, since they were three lonely women, and there were valuable silver and some jewelry in the house. While they delayed and talked he might fall fainting on the door-stone; she resolved that she would admit him herself.
Annie put on her clothes hurriedly, lighted a candle, and shading it carefully lest the light shine through the cracks of her sister's door across the hall, stole down-stairs to the front door. She drew the bolt and threw the door wide open, and there was nobody there. Then she heard a slight noise in the north parlor, and ran to the door of that and opened it. The wind and snow from an open window came in her face, and her candle would have flickered out had she not carefully shaded it. She dimly perceived a man's figure before her, and spoke at once, though in a hushed and tremulous voice. “Oh,” said she, “I am sorry that you had to climb in the window! I am very sorry! I went to the door as fast as I could. I am very sorry!” Then, when he made no response, she spoke again, with the sweetest pity in her voice: “I fear you are overcome with the cold and the storm,” she said, “you have been out in it so long. Please come out in the other room, where the fire is. It is covered, but I will soon have it blazing again, and the room cannot be cold yet. Please come out in the other room, and I will get some wine for you; I fear that you are almost exhausted.”
Then there was a smothered ejaculation in return, which might mean almost anything; then silence. The shadowy figure of the man was motionless. Annie stood regarding him with hesitation and fear, lest he might be unable to do as she said, and might at any minute fall on the floor at her feet.
“Oh,” she pleaded, falteringly, “I hope you are able to come. Pray come, if you can, or — or — would you like me to help you?”
Annie made a timid motion towards the man as she spoke; then, to her intense relief, he answered her in a smothered voice.
“I will come,” he said.
Annie led the way across the entry to the south parlor, which was the ordinary sitting-room of the family in winter weather, where the great hearth fire was kept, being raked over with ashes every night, and readily kindled anew every morning. Annie pulled a rocking-chair before the hearth.
“Please be seated, sir,” she said, “and I will soon have the fire burning.”
But as she went down on her knees upon the hearth the man pushed her gently aside and took the shovel from her hand.
“Nay, be seated yourself,” he said: “this is no work for your hands.”
“Oh, sir, I fear you are not able.”
Harry Carew laughed faintly and confusedly, and went on with his work of raking away the ashes from the bed of glowing coals. Annie lighted the candles, and he piled some sticks on the fire, which soon blazed. The room was full of light, and Annie looked timidly at her guest. He was very white, so white that she was confirmed in her opinion that he must be exhausted by his struggle with the storm; and, moreover, his face wore a strange expression, half of reckless mirth, and half of something else which she could not decipher.
However, his face, now seen fully, was very handsome and quite young. He had tossed his slouched hat aside and displayed his head of black curly locks. His clothes, though they were rough and sat upon him somewhat carelessly, had yet the air of a gentleman's. His short cloak, thrown back over his shoulders, disclosed a pistol in his belt, which was a common enough ornament for a gentleman travelling alone on horseback, and Annie thought nothing of it.
The young man, on his part, saw for the first time — for he had not fully seen her that evening — the very loveliest maid his eyes had ever beheld. She was clad in a sack and petticoat of crimson wool, of which the fire-light and the candle-light made a rich flow of color, and her face was surrounded by the loose stream of her brown hair. Of such an exceeding fineness and delicacy was Annie's beauty that it had an unreal character, and led a beholder to doubt if he saw aright. The face of the young man surveying her became more and more singular in expression. He had a feeling as if a draught of wine had gone to his head, and he did not fairly know if he were in his sober senses or not.
“I am sorry that I was so long in coming to admit you,” she said again, with sweetest apology. “I saw you from my window, and as soon as I could went down to unbolt the door, but you were not there. I am sorry that you had to climb in the window.”
Mr. Harry Carew colored like a girl; he began to speak, and stammered, then laughed nervously to hide his confusion.
“I should have begged you to come home with me this evening, perhaps,” said Annie, with a sweet and childlike directness, though she was evidently stirred with maidenly modesty and embarrassment. “My sister Cornelia would have made you welcome, and — and — I knew, of course, who you were.”
“What the devil can she mean?” thought Harry Carew, then checked even his reckless mode of thought before the tender innocence in her face.
“I am very sorry I did not,” Annie continued, almost tearfully, feeling more and more distressed at her lack of courtesy. “I knew the storm was coming fast, too. It is dreadful that you wandered about so long.”
“Oh, do not think of that, I beg of you,” returned Harry Carew, in a choked voice.
“Please be seated,” urged Annie, sweetly.
“No, no; thank you,” he stammered out. “You — you are an angel. I never saw mortal woman like you. But I cannot stay. I must be back in Boston before to-morrow morning.”
He reached towards his hat, then turning, saw Annie regarding him with a look of such utter alarm and wonder that he started. Then with a gesture of the very helplessness of recklessness he sat down in the chair which she had placed for him. “Well,” he said, with something between a laugh and a groan, “I will stay, and thank you for your hospitality, as I would thank an angel at the gate of heaven. But call your sister, child, for 'tis after midnight, and she does not know me as well as you do, for there cannot be two such miracles of trust and innocence under one roof.”
Annie turned towards the door, but it was opened before she reached it, and Cornelia stood there, pale and stern and frightened, with old Deborah's nightcapped face peering around her shoulder.
Cornelia advanced into the room and stood staring, her head turning as with measured method, first towards her sister, then towards Carew, then back again. Her eyes were full of dismay and incredulity.
“Oh, sister —” Annie began, but Cornelia did not seem to hear her; her head was turned towards the young man, and him she addressed.
“Who are you? Why do you come here at dead of night in such fashion as this?” she asked, and her voice had the awful sternness of aroused gentleness. There was no lack of spirit in Cornelia Pryor, especially when she had her young sister to defend.
The young man, who had arisen at her entrance, opened his mouth to speak, but Annie anticipated him.
“Oh, Cornelia!” she cried out in a grieving voice, as if she would burst into tears. “Oh, sister, do not speak to him so! The poor gentleman is overtaken by the storm on his way to Boston, and he is almost exhausted; see how pale he is. Oh, sister!”
“Is this true, sir?” demanded Cornelia, with keen eyes on his face.
The young man bowed. “It is true that I am overtaken by the storm, and I begin to doubt the possibility of my getting through to-night; the snow has gathered fast, and my horse is somewhat jaded. She has carried me from the south shore this afternoon.”
“Where is your horse, sir?”
“Tied to the gate yonder, madam.”
“Did you knock? I did not hear you.”
Then Annie interposed, with her eagerness like that of a child. “No, sister, he did not knock. I heard him coming, and I looked out of the window and saw him in the yard, and I —”
“Why did you not call me?”
“Oh, sister, I was afraid that he would fall down out there in the storm before he would be let in. I thought you might be frightened because we were all alone and there were the silver and mother's jewels in the house, and — and you did not know him.”
“Do you know him?” asked poor Cornelia Pryor, with a gasp.
“Yes, sister,” replied Annie, blushing, but looking bravely at Cornelia.
“What is your name?” asked Cornelia, turning to the young man. Her lips were stiff: she could scarcely speak.
“Harry Carew, madam.”
“What is your native place?”
“Are you a relative of General Carew?”
The young man's mouth twitched and his forehead contracted. He looked whiter than ever, but he answered, presently, “I am his youngest son, madam.”
A quick light of recollection flashed over Cornelia's face. “Oh,” she said, involuntarily, “you are the son of whom I —”
But Harry Carew stopped her with a gesture of almost agony. “Oh, madam,” he cried out, as if he were in an extremity of peril — “oh, madam, I beg of you to be silent! I beg of you to wait until I have had an opportunity to speak with you in private! I beg of you, by your womanly pity!”
Cornelia's face softened. “I have my sister to protect, sir,” said she.
“And I will defend your sister with my life against any who offer her harm or insult, be he myself or any other man!” cried Harry Carew, hotly.
“Oh, sister!” said Annie.
Cornelia drew herself up to her full height. “Mr. Carew,” said she, “we are a household of women, utterly helpless and unprotected. You are a stranger to me personally, though you claim to belong to a family whom I have known in times past; and it may be so, for you resemble General Carew, as I remember him, but I have no proof.”
The young man pulled a letter from his pocket and handed it to Cornelia. “There is a letter received from my father not three days since,” he said, “if that will serve as proof of my identity. I should have no object in coming by such a letter by unfair means, for it is of no value, since the golden words which it contains do not pass as coin of the realm.”
Cornelia looked at the superscription on the great folded sheet.
“You are at liberty to read the contents,” said the young man. “I beg that you will do so at your leisure.”
Cornelia regarded him steadfastly, with the letter in her hand. “Admitting that you are Harry Carew,” said she, “there are still grave reasons why I should hesitate about admitting you into such a household as this at such an hour, but I cannot drive you from my door in this storm, and I therefore bid you welcome to a house which has never yet had its hospitality outraged or betrayed.”
“And it shall never have it outraged or betrayed by me, madam,” replied Harry Carew.
“Oh, sister!” Annie sighed, faintly.
“Deborah will fetch you the lantern and the keys,” said Cornelia, “and you had best lead your horse to the barn and feed him. Then, when you return, you shall have some refreshment.”
“Oh, madam,” cried the young man, eagerly, “I want no supper for myself, only for my horse! If you will but give me a bed and shelter, it is all I ask.”
“We send not our guests to bed supperless,” replied Cornelia, with her mild stateliness of manner.
Mr. Harry Carew took the lantern and keys as directed, and when he had stabled and fed his jaded horse, had his own supper, served daintily with fine damask and all the silver tea things, and then went to bed in the bedstead of state in the guest-chamber of the Pryor house.
That was the great snow-storm, which became the folk-lore tale of a generation. Once in a while a storm of the elements, like a storm of human passion, rages itself into immortality. The snow fell during two nights and the greater part of three days, and all the roads were impassable. Harry Carew remained in the Pryor house nearly all the week, otherwise he had stood a fair chance of perishing by the way. All the landmarks of stones and fences were lost, the trees stood branch-high in windward swirls, and the houses, with shaggy walls and pendulous eaves, like old men's beards, cowered low under great weights of snow.
Harry Carew worked manfully, fighting the snow with shovel and broom, defending the house of his entertainers as best he might against the onslaught of the storm. Several times the great chimney had to be dug out, since its cap of snow extinguished the hearth fire, and the house was thereby filled with smoke. The blinds and shutters of the northeast windows had to be braced, else the windows would have been forced in with the battering gusts of the storm.
“Only see how hard he is working for us, sister,” said Annie, with soft reproach, “and you hesitated about asking him to stay, though he would have perished in the storm.”
“I was only fearful for you, love,” replied Cornelia, in a troubled voice. Cornelia was very pale; she seemed to have grown thin in a few days.
“Well, you are not now; you have seen his letters, and you know there is not such a man anywhere. I am not sure that even father was as good as he is,” said Annie, radiantly.
The morning after Harry Carew's arrival Annie had gone to Cornelia with her precious letters.
“What are they?” Cornelia asked, faintly, when she held them out towards her. She made no motion to take them.
“The letters he sent — the letters he wrote.”
“The letters who wrote?” Cornelia spoke as if her voice were failing her.
“The letters that Mr. Harry Carew wrote,” replied Annie, blushing, and looking at her with surprise. “Who else could have written them?”
“Take them away,” said Cornelia, thrusting at the letters with her slim, trembling hand.
“Why, no, sister. I want you to read them; then you will see how good and noble he is,” Annie said, in a hurt fashion.
“No, dear; I would rather not read them.”
“Oh, sister!” pleaded Annie, in her little sweet voice, which had always won the elder sister from her own way. Cornelia took the letters, and the red surged over her thin face, and her hands shook as she opened them till the paper rustled like leaves in a wind.
Annie waited; then she confronted Cornelia with a look of triumph. “He wrote them, sister,” she said, then started, her sister's face was so strange and ghastly, and so laboring with speech which yet did not come. “Why, what is it? what is it, sister?” she cried out. “Are you ill? Oh, sister!”
Cornelia motioned her away, trying to smile.
“Sister, are you ill?”
“No, no, love. Go now; take your letters and go. I want to think.”
“You are not ill?”
“No, I tell you, love.”
“Oh, sister, was there ever anybody like him? And you are not angry because I did not tell you before about the letters?”
“No, love,” said Cornelia, patiently; but she did not look at Annie.
“I will never keep anything from you again, sister. You will not mistrust him ever again, now you have seen his beautiful letters, will you, sister?”
“No, love,” Cornelia repeated: she was breathing shortly, as if she had been running.
“Shall I tell her? Shall I tell her?” she kept asking herself; but she told nothing, and Annie went away with her letters, rather puzzled and hurt by her sister's manner, but not seriously so. This young girl was cast on very simple lines, and with the lack of subtlety in her own nature came the lack of comprehension of it in others. She would always see the characters of her fellow-beings like pure colors, with no complexities of shadings and motives, and no amount of jostling by life would ever depose her from the first ground of observation from which her childish eyes had beheld the world and the things thereof.
She went away with her letters, and there was Harry Carew standing in the door of the south parlor, bowing low, and accosting her as if she were indeed an angel, as he had said, and with all the little savor of gentle mockery and merriment gone from his manner.
“Oh, believe me, I do not know how to express to you my gratitude, my more than gratitude, my heart-felt devotion, for the confidence which you place in me and the permission which you and your sister give me to remain,” he said, fervently, with eyes of reverent admiration on her face.
Annie laughed gently. There was a soft blush all over her sweet face, which seemed to the young man like a tangible veil of maiden modesty which separated her from him. “Oh, sir,” she replied, “it requires no trust after these letters! They bear testimony to what you are.”
“Yes, sir. Have you so soon forgotten your own letters?” Annie laughed again, though in a puzzled fashion.
“Yes, sir, your letters.” Annie's face, surveying his, began to look grieved as well as puzzled, and she straightened herself a little at the same time.
Harry Carew extend his hand. “Since you say they are mine, may I see them?” he asked, almost timidly.
But Annie held the letters with a quick motion close to her bosom, and looked at him with a deepening blush on her cheeks.
“As you please. I would not look at them against your will,” Harry Carew said, gently and humbly.
“You may see them,” Annie said, in a whisper. Then she gave him the letters, and stood with her head averted while he looked at them, lest he read certain passages at the same moment when she should remember them.
Harry Carew unfolded the letters with trembling hands and glanced over them. His face changed as he read. “Who is this man, this friend of yours, who calls himself David Amicus?” he asked, abruptly.
Annie was cruelly bewildered at the question. She did not know if she should be hurt or indignant. She did not answer at once, but glanced at him irresolutely.
“Well?” asked Harry Carew, harshly.
“Why, sir, you yourself! It is scarcely kind or courteous of you to make a jest of me,” said Annie then, with something of dignity.
Harry Carew drew a long breath. “Believe me, I have no thought of making a jest of you,” he said, earnestly. “I crave your pardon if I have seemed to do so. But tell me the whole story, if you please. How long have you been receiving these letters? How did they come?”
“But you already know, sir.”
“But tell me over. I beg of you.”
Then Annie half reluctantly, for she was still doubtful as to whether or not he was making a jest of her, told him the story of the letters.
When she had finished she scarcely knew Harry Carew's face, that she had seen it before, so softened it was, and full of sorrow and shame and tenderness. It seemed to her, also, that his black eyes were bright with tears; but that she doubted, since he was a man, and she knew of no reason for them.
Harry Carew gave the letters to her. “Thank you,” he said, and bowed, and went abruptly, turning his face aside like a girl, as if he wished to conceal it, into the south room, in whose door he had been standing.
Annie went away with her letters, somewhat puzzled and hurt by Mr. Harry Carew's manner, as she had been by Cornelia's, but never doubting anything. She reflected that he had probably some good reason for pretending surprise concerning the letters, as he had had for secrecy in the first place.
Later in the day Harry Carew and Cornelia Pryor had a private conference in the north parlor, whither she had led the way, that they might be secure from interruption. There was no fire in the room, and the white storm drove past its four windows, filling it with a pale gloom. Cornelia stood in the midst of the great square apartment, confronting her guest with a mild pitilessness. “I found a window in this room open last night, Mr. Carew,” she said. “I continue to offer you my hospitality, but it is best that we understand each other. Why did you come to this house last night?”
“I came to rob you, to steal your money and your jewels,” answered Harry Carew, looking at her with face as white as if he were dead. Then suddenly, before she could speak, he had thrown himself on his knees before her. “Oh,” he cried, “I beg of you never to let her know! I beg of you never to let your sister know! If you do, you will have snatched away the last straw that could save me from destruction.”
“Your poor father, whose letter I have read, should save you from destruction, and not my sister,” answered Cornelia, coldly.
“Oh,” said Harry Carew, hoarsely, “I have read those letters, and I know what she thinks of me. For God's sake, never tell her what I am! Never let me see myself in her eyes as black as I am, lest I can never be anything else forever. Oh, I beg of you never to tell her that those letters are not mine!”
“Would you then deceive her, and add treachery to your other sins?” Cornelia asked, sternly.
“No, no; I would make those letters true. I would grow to be what she thinks I am. I would reach the height on which I see myself in her innocent heart. Oh, I beg of you do not take away my last chance of salvation! Let me work and strive until I have made myself worthy of her.”
“You have not known my sister one day,” said Cornelia, coldly.
“How long does it take to learn to love an angel?” demanded Harry Carew. Suddenly a look of jealous anxiety came over his face. “Who wrote those letters?” he asked. “I thought, when I read them, that no man wrote them, for I never knew a man so good; but if any did, he has first right.”
“I wrote them,” said Cornelia.
There was something fairly majestic about Cornelia Pryor, standing before him in her long black gown, which shaded as unsubstantially into the gloom of the room as a shadow. “I had in my youth a bitter experience,” said she. “I discovered the treachery and wickedness of man. I threw my heart away upon one who was unworthy, and I wanted to save my sister from a like fate. I wanted to fill her mind with such a pure ideal that there could be no danger. I endeavored in those letters to show what a man worthy of her affection should be, that she might love no other.”
Cornelia Pryor disclosed her visionary and romantic scheme with a quiet stateliness and dignity which challenged criticism. Harry Carew stared at her incredulously, then he almost laughed, though the tears stood in his bold black eyes. “And then — and then,” he stammered, “I came with the husks in my heart and my stomach, and she invested me with all those virtues. She greeted me, coming to rob her, as if I were the prince.”
Harry Carew's face took on an expression of the most passionate devotion; his voice broke. “Bless her! bless her!” he said. “I will worship her for that till my dying day, if I can have no more.
“It is the first time I ever attempted to steal,” he added, eagerly. “I hope you will believe that. Last night I was well-nigh desperate. I had lost every cent at cards. I determined to rob the Boston stage. Then she came and saved me from that. I would have dropped dead first then.
“Then I had not a cent in my purse, and the storm came on. I did not know that she lived here; I thought she went to the house beyond. I have never attempted highway robbery or burglary before. I trust you will believe that. I beg you never to let her know what I came here for last night, as you hope for mercy. Let me have my chance to reach what she thinks I am; then I will tell her all myself.”
Harry Carew went away nearly a week later. He saw Annie alone in the north parlor a few minutes before he left, but there were no words of love passed between them. He only held both her little hands in his, and looked in her eyes as if they had been indeed those of an angel, and who can say what angel of himself poor Harry Carew saw there?
“Good-bye,” he said, “and he shall come back to you some day.”
“Who shall come back?” asked Annie, wonderingly, and trembled under his eyes, which had meanings besides love which she could not fathom.
“The man who wrote the letters,” replied Harry Carew. Then he kissed her hands and was gone.
It was two years before Harry Carew returned, and then in far different fashion from that in which he had come before. His father and mother were with him, and they all rode in the great Carew coach; and Harry had arrived at that fair after-estate of the prodigal son, and no question of his abiding. He was arrayed in purple and fine linen; he held his head high, and looked abroad like one who sees things as they are from the unwavering foothold of his own self-respect. Harry had just been elected to a high office in the city government of Boston. People opined that he would yet be the most prosperous of the Carews.
Then Annie Pryor and Harry Carew were married and went away, and the evening after they were gone Cornelia strolled out to the turnpike, and then a little farther to the old elm, the “Tree of Knowledge,” as the people called it. It was a clear December night; there was no snow on the ground, and the sun was setting redly. The limbs of the tree, with their mottle of gray lichen, reflected orange tints of flame, and looked like mottled orange snakes uprearing in triangular contortions against the sky. Cornelia stood under them, reflecting. She called to mind everything which had passed — about the letters, and Annie's love and wooing and wedding — and she wondered if it might not sometimes be better to guard the Tree of Knowledge with the flaming sword, instead of the gates of a lost Paradise.
Cornelia wondered, standing under the tree, clad still in the dress of splendid brocade which she had worn at Annie's wedding: there were gold and silver threads in it. The sun sank, and the orange light on the tree paled. Cornelia gazed down the darkening curve of road. Annie was wedded and gone, all her own romance was dead, and she was left alone; yet her peace did not fail her, nor her anticipation of joy to come, for she had thrust herself and her own needs and sorrows so far behind her trimmed and burning lamp of love that she had become, as it were, a wedding-guest of all life.