A Village Ophelia and Other Stories/A Lamentable Comedy
I stood one July noon on the platform of the desolate station at Wauchittic, the sole passenger waiting for the stage. The heat was quivering in the air. I watched the departing train, whirling like a little black ball down the narrow yellow road, cut between the green fields, and was vaguely glad that I was not going to the end of the Island on it. This was somewhere near the middle, and it was quite far enough from civilization.
The village, like so many Long Island villages, was distant from the railroad. Only one or two farm-houses were in sight. There was hardly a sound in the hot noonday air, now that the train had gone, except the whistling of a cheerful station agent, who sat in the window of the little oven-like Queen Anne structure, in his shirt sleeves, looking out at me with lively interest. I had sought for a quiet country place in which to finish my novel, the book which would decide beyond doubt whether I had a future as a writer, or whether I was doomed to sink to the level of the ordinary literary hack, for into it I had put, I knew, all that was my best.
As I looked absently down the track, I reviewed the past winter months, the long days and evenings spent at my desk in the stuffy little lodgings to which I was limited by my narrow income, interrupted frequently by invasions on various pretexts of the ill-fed chambermaid, who insisted on telling me her woes, or by my neighbor from the next room, the good little spinster, who always knocked to ask if she might heat a flat-iron at my grate when I was in the midst of a bit of minute description. She would sit down, too, would poor withered Miss Jane, in my little rocking-chair to wait while the iron heated, and she said she often told the landlady she did not know how I could write, I had so many interruptions.
I had come to a place now, I thought, trying to quell the sense of loneliness that oppressed me, as I looked around at the expanse of stunted wood and scrub-oaks, where I could be perfectly undisturbed. If the farmer's family with whom I was to board, were noisy or intrusive, one could take one's writing materials and go—well, somewhere—into the woods, perhaps. I was only twenty-two, and I was sanguine.
I saw a cloud of white dust down the road—nothing more, but the station-agent, with a certainty born of long experience, shouted encouragingly: "Thar she comes!" and presently I found myself in a large, sombre and warm conveyance, very like the wagon known to the New York populace familiarly, if not fondly, as "the Black Maria."
The driver was a tow-headed lad of sixteen, so consumed with blushes that, out of pity, I refrained from questions, and sat silently enduring the heat behind the black curtains, while we traversed, it seemed to me, miles of dusty, white road, bordered by ugly, flat fields, or dwarf woods and undergrowth, before we stopped at a smart white farm-house. The farmer's wife, hearing our approach, stood on the little porch to welcome me. Mrs. Hopper gave a peculiar glance at my begrimed person and face, and I followed her up the narrow stairs with an odd, homesick sinking of the heart, seized by a momentary pang of that "nostalgia of the pavement," felt oftener by the poor than rich dwellers of the city, in exile. Perhaps I loved New York in an inverse ratio to what I had suffered in it. All the miseries of hope deferred, unremitting labor, and unnumbered petty cares attendant upon a straightened income, were forgotten, and I yearned for its ugly, midsummer glare, even its unsavory odors, and my stifling little chamber "au troisième" as I surveyed the tiny bare room, with its blue and gray "cottage set," its white-washed walls, hung with a solitary engraving of Lincoln and his Cabinet. It was not a beautiful spot, truly, yet I thought dubiously, as I drank in the silence, it might be a very good place in which to bring to an end the sufferings of my heroine, who had agonized through several hundred pages of manuscript.
"I expect you're tired," said Mrs. Hopper, sitting down carefully on the edge of the feather-bed to which I was condemned. "It's a pretty quiet place here—ain't much of a village, but then you said you wanted a quiet place to write in. I guess you'll be s'prised—there's another orther here. Maybe you know him, his name's Longworth, John Longworth? Don't! Why, he lives to New York! No, he ain't right here in the house, he's across the street to the Bangses', but you'll see him," she said, encouragingly. "It'll be awful pleasant for you two orthers to get acquainted. The Bangses don't keep cows, an' every night at milkin' time, over he comes to get a glass o' warm milk; guess he likes to talk to our men-folks. Old Bangs ain't much comp'ny for anybody, let alone a writer. He's got a man with him to wait on him; a kind o' nurse, I b'lieve. He was near dead before he came here, though he looks pretty smart now—had a fever. Some of the folks here hev got it around he was out of his head, a man so, a-settin' around out o' doors, writin' from mornin' till night. Lord, how mad it made the Bangses!" Mrs. Hopper indulged in an abrupt retrospective laugh of enjoyment. "They was so set up, havin' a writer there, an' Mary Bangs was pretty well taken down when I told her we was a-goin' to have one here. She acted as if she didn't b'lieve there was more'n one orther to New York, an' that was Mr. Longworth," continued Mrs. Hopper, regarding me with a proprietor's pride, as I removed my hat and hung it on a nail driven in the wall. I smiled as I reflected that I, too, should doubtless be looked on with suspicion as a fit subject for a straight-jacket, if I, an able-bodied young woman, should sit "out o' doors" with my writing, while my presumable betters were working.
"Well, I guess I'll go down now," said Mrs. Hopper, after a brief pause, in which she examined my gown. "I expect you want y'r dinner. We live a good piece from the store, Miss Marriott an' any time if you should get out of ink, don't make any bones of asking for it. We've got some right here in the house, an' you're as welcome to it as if you was my own daughter."
I was glad to find, at dinner, that the family consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Hopper only, with the exception of a couple of farm-hands, whose lumbering tread down the back-stairs wakened me each morning about four. I found Mr. Hopper a tall, bent old man, with meek, faded blue eyes, and a snowy frill of beard. He had an especially sweet and pathetic voice, with a little quaver in it, like a bashful girl's.
He laid down his knife and fork, and looked at me with an air of gentle inquiry, as I took my seat at the table. "Mrs. Hopper tells me you're a literary," he said at length. I'm afraid I replied, "Yes?" with the rising inflection of the village belle, nothing else occurring to me to say.
"Well," said Mr. Hopper, softly, pushing back his chair, and rising to leave the table, "it's in our fam'ly some too. And in Ma's. One o' my uncles and one o' her brothers." He shuffled out of the room with a placid smile, as Mrs. Hopper said, deprecatingly, but with conscious pride, "La, pa, Jim never wrote more'n two or three pieces."
For a few days I took a vacation. I wandered about the "back lots," down to the mill-dam, up and down the lonely, winding street where all the prim houses—and they were very far apart—wore a desolate, closed look, as though the inhabitants were away, or dead. I grew accustomed to my environments; the little bedroom began to seem like home to me. On my way to the post-office some one passed me on the sandy, yellow patch, a man clothed after the manner of civilization, whose garments, cut by no country tailor, were not covered by overalls. I knew it must be "the other orther." None of the males in Wauchittic appeared in public, except on Sunday, save in overalls. It would have been, I think, considered unseemly, if not indecent.
The man was young, with a worn, delicate face, marked by ill-health, and though I had studiously avoided the yard near "milkin' time," in spite of Mrs. Hopper's transparent insistance each evening on my going out to see the brindled heifer, I think my indifferent glance was assumed, for though John Longworth, so far as I knew, had not his name inscribed on the records of fame, and was probably a penny-a-liner on a third-rate newspaper, I had the instinct of fellow-craft, that is, alas! strongest in the unknown and ardent young writer. He walked feebly, and his brilliant eyes were haggard and circled, as though by long illness. I saw him drive by nearly every afternoon, accompanied by his nurse, a good-humored young fellow, who helped him tenderly into the carriage, and drove, while he lay back with the irritated expression that the sense of enforced idleness and invalidism gives a man in the heyday of youth. Mrs. Hopper, who was loquacious to a degree, told me long stories of his parents' wealth, of the luxuries brought down with him, and of the beautiful pieces of furniture he had had sent down for his room, for his physician had recommended him to an absolutely quiet place for the entire summer. She burned with an irrepressible desire to have me make the acquaintance of this son of wealth and literature, either from the feminine proclivity for match-making, or because, possibly, she thought, having an intense reverence for writers, that our conversation would be of an edifying and uncommon character. I fear she was disappointed, for on the occasion of our first meeting,—I believe Mr. Longworth came to see Mrs. Hopper on some trifling business, and I happened to be writing on the front porch,—our remarks were certainly of the most commonplace type, and I saw a shade of disappointment steal across her face, as she stood by triumphantly, having accomplished her wish to "get us acquainted."
Mr. Longworth overtook me the next day, as I was returning listlessly, toward noon, from a long walk, my arms full of glowing St. John's wort, the color of sunset. Back of me lay the long stretch of flat road, and the fields on either side were scorched with the sun. The heat was intolerable. Mr. Longworth would carry the flowers for me, and I resigned them, knowing that nothing is more distasteful to a man than to be treated like an invalid. And the bunch was really a heavy burden,—I had gathered such an enormous armful, together with some tender creepers of blackberry vine. We chatted of the place, of the people, and I found that my companion had a keen sense of humor. As we neared the house, after a moment's hesitancy, I asked him to come and rest on the little porch, where a couple of splint rockers and a palm-leaf fan invited one to comfort and coolness. He accepted the invitation with alacrity, though he chose to sit on the wooden steps, while I tilted lazily back and forth, overcome by the noonday lull and heat.
He looked so boyish when he took off his hat, with the dark little curls falling over his forehead, that I thought he could not be older than I. The walk had perhaps been more than he could bear, for he was so pale that I could not help saying, "Pardon me, Mr. Longworth, but you look so ill. Will you let me give you a glass of wine?" I had brought a little with me. He looked slightly annoyed, but he answered gayly,
"I suppose Mrs. Hopper has been telling you I am a confirmed invalid. Indeed I am almost well now, and I need Wilson about as much as I need a perambulator, but I knew if I did not bring him, my mother would give up Bar Harbor, and insist on burying herself with me, either here or at some other doleful spot, stagnation having been prescribed for me. Oh, well, I don't mind the quiet," he continued, leaning his broad shoulders against the pillar, and pulling at a bit of the St. John's wort, for he had thrown it down in a straggling heap on the floor of the porch. "I'm at work on—on a book," he said with a boyish blush.
"Yes," I replied, smiling. "Mrs. Hopper told me that there was 'an orther,' in Wauchittic."
"And that was what Mrs. Bangs told me the other day!" he declared audaciously. And then we both laughed with the foolish gaiety of youth, that rids itself thus of embarrassment.
"It is my first book," he confessed.
"And mine," I said.
Our eyes met a little wistfully, as if each were striving to read whether the other had gone through the same burning enthuiasms for work, the same loving belief in its success, the same despondent hours when it seemed an utter failure, devoid of sense or interest, and then, somehow, we felt suddenly a mutual confidence, a sense that we knew each other well, the instant camaraderie of two voyagers who find that they have sailed the same seas, passed through the same dangers, and stopped at the same ports.
I heard Mrs. Hopper open the hall-door, caught a glimpse of her looking out at us with satisfaction on her face, warm from the kitchen fire, and heard her close it, with much elaboration, and, tip-toe heavily away.
"Yes, this is my first book," he went on, as though we had not paused. "Of course I have had experience in writing before, magazine sketches, and that sort of thing, and beside that, I once had a mania for newspaper work, and much to my mother's horror, I was really a reporter on one of the city papers—The Earth."
"Circulation guaranteed over 380,000," I continued, rather ashamed of my flippancy, although he laughed.
"Exactly. Well, after a time I had an offer to go on the editorial staff of the Eon, through a friend who has influence with the management, and it was just then I was taken ill with this typhoid fever that has left me the wreck you see," he said, with a whimsically sad smile. "That is not the worst, though," he went on, a shadow falling over his upturned face, "I cannot explain it, although my doctor pretends to. I had written—oh! say half-a-dozen chapters of this book before my sickness. As soon as I began to be convalescent, I wanted to amuse myself by going on with it. I had my plot roughly blocked out, my characters were entirely distinct in my mind, yet when I took up my pen again, I found I could not write connectedly. It was simply horrible. I shall never forget that day. Of course I imagined I should never write again. I sent for two or three doctors, announced that I had paresis, and was told that it was madness for a man who had been as ill as I to attempt any sort of literary work for weeks, if not months. But the sense that I absolutely could not write preyed upon me. I used to do a little each day in spite of their orders, but it is only now that I am beginning to feel the confusion of ideas lessening, and the ability to present them coherently growing Even yet I only write disconnected parts of the chapters I had planned. It is—oh! what is that pet word of phrenologists? continuity, that I have not at my command. I suppose you cannot quite understand the agony of such an experience, never having gone through it. Only yesterday I tore up thirty pages of manuscript, and had more than half a mind to burn the whole thing. It is only the consideration of the possibly great loss to the literary world that withholds me, you know," he said with a half bitter laugh, throwing down the ruins of the flowers he had pulled to pieces with his thin, nervous hands, and rising.
"But I've been an unconscionable bore, even for a valetudinarian, and I believe they are privileged to tax people's amiability. I hope I havn't tired you so that you will forbid my coming again. I will promise not to talk about myself next time," he said, as he turned to go down the path.
I wondered what his book was like, as I lazily watched him cross the street in the noonday sun, and then I remembered with a twinge of conscience that I had hardly written a thousand words since I came. This soft air, redolent of spicy midsummer odors, seemed to produce an invincible indolence, even of thought. After the struggles of the past winter, I was feeling the reaction in utter relaxation of will and purpose. I wondered, were I in Mr. Longworth's place, would I ever write again, from the mere love of it? Was the end, even if that end were success, worth the pain of attaining it? And then, fearing to question myself further, I went to my room and began to write.
Late July was very beautiful in Wauchittic. From the ocean, a dozen miles distant, was wafted the faintest suggestion of the odor of the sea, the wide fields of lush pasture seemed to drink the sun. All night the murmur of the little stream falling over the mill-dam, filled the dark hours with soft whispers. The low woods, with their glittering leaves of the scrub-oak, tempted me, and I discovered fairy glades in their depths, where the grass was thin and pale, and strong ferns grew about the roots of the trees. Sometimes Mr. Longworth would accompany me on my trips of exploration, and, happy in our youth and the gladness of summer, and forgetful of strict conventionality, we would spend long mornings together, writing and reading in an especially cosy spot at the edge of the woods back of the farm. Mr. Longworth was growing so strong that Wilson's position was almost entirely a sinecure, and he spent most of his time lounging in the one village store, relating remarkable stories of New York to a circle of open-mouthed idlers. Day by day, I watched the lessening pallor and the growing health of Mr. Longworth's face, and saw him visibly gain strength. He could carry all the rugs and books and writing materials to our sylvan sanctum without fatigue, and he was so boyishly proud of his health that he used to exhaust himself with too long walks, for which I administered lectures that he always received submissively. One warm morning we had spent an hour in writing. I had grown tired, and throwing down my pen and pad, I left Mr. Longworth still at work, and strayed out into the field in the sun. There had been no rain for days, and the locusts filled the air with their zeeing. The wide field was dotted with golden patches of the arnica blossom, or yellow daisy, as the farmers called it. I wandered through the hot, knee-high grass, picking handfuls of the broad yellow suns, then childishly threw them away, and pulled others, with great heads of sweet red clover, and spears of timothy too. I was so happy. My whole being was filled with causeless peace and gladness. From time to time I glanced back to the shade of the oak trees, to the tall, slender figure, with the dark head bent over the white sheets of manuscript, and I sang softly a little song for very joy of my life. I looked up to the deep, cloudless sky, around at the wide stretch of green in the golden sunlight, then almost unconsciously back once more to the edge of the woods, where the spread rugs made a tiny home fit for the heart of summertide. Nor did I guess, even then, which was the dominant note of this wonderful chord that my life had unconsciously struck. I knew only that the world was far more beautiful than I had ever dreamed, and still singing under my breath the little cadence that seemed to fit the day, I wandered slowly back, leaving a path crushed between the tall, sun-faded grasses as I went.
Mr. Longworth laid down his work as I approached. A strange, absurd shyness possessed me, after the weeks of strengthening friendship and simple good-fellowship, but I held out the great bunch of daisies playfully to him, as I seated myself on the pile of rugs. He reached his hand for them eagerly, and buried his face in their sunny depths.
His eyes shone feverishly with his stress of work, and his thin cheeks were flushed. "You look tired," I said. "You should not write so long."
Thus far, though we had often jested about it, we had never read each other portions of our work.
"When I get mine half done," I had said, when he begged me to read him a chapter.
"When I can manage to make a chapter run smoothly to its end," he had replied laughing, in turn, but now to-day, urged by some necessity for an absorbing topic into which I could plunge, losing my restlessness, I insisted that he should read fragments, at least, to me.
He demurred at first. "I have told you how stupid it sounds, these disconnected bits, little descriptions, detached conversations. Sometimes I think I shall never use them after all." He fingered the pages absently.
"No, read it to me as it is," I begged. "I must hear it. I understand, of course, how it is written."
And so, yielding to my entreaties, he read, while I leaned back against the tree trunk, listening at first critically, and interested, perhaps, because it was his work, then with clasped hands and shortening breath, leaning forward that I might lose no word. A little squirrel scampered through the undergrowth back of us, and far in another field I could hear Mr. Hopper's quavering voice, as he called to the haymakers. Sometimes a leaf rustled, falling to the ground, but it was very quiet.
At last he laid down the leaves, and fixed his dark eyes eagerly on my face, as if he would read my thoughts, but my eyes were full of tears, and they were selfish tears. "My poor book!" I said, with a tender contempt for it.
"Do you mean—?" he began increduously.
"I mean that this is wonderful, and that I know I shall never write again," I said. "I do not know how it is, but I can read by the light of your book that you have genius, and that I am a failure. It is well that something brought it home to me before I wasted any more time." I meant to speak bravely, but I knew more than this. I knew that, with all my air-castles shattered, with the knowledge that to him literature was a pastime, while to me it meant livelihood, I gloried more in his success than I should in my own, that I was glad that he, and not I, was to have fame; and in the tumult of new emotions against which I struggled, my lip quivered, I turned aside my head, and felt, but I did not see, the hand that touched mine, thrilling me so that I drew away.
"No, no," I cried, facing him with my cheeks crimson, and speaking rapidly, "I want you to let me send a few pages for a reading to Mr. ——, the editor of ——'s Magazine; he is a friend of mine; he has been so good to me. You say you have no publisher in view. I am certain he will take this when it is finished, and you know what that means; it will make your reputation, and—"
"Ah, but you see, these are only fragments," he said, sadly, regaining his composure. "Suppose I am never able to weave them properly into the plot? You cannot know how discouraged I am sometimes."
"Will you not let me send them?" I asked eagerly. "It is quite true that they are only fragments, but no one could write such things and then fail of success in elaborating; it is impossible. Come, let us go, it is nearly dinner-time," I went on, not giving him time to speak, as I began gathering up the books and rugs. "No, do not talk of my book; it is over. It was only a fancy of mine. I ought to have known I could not really write, and it came to me clearly this morning—so clearly! If you will let me be godmother to yours, that will be a little consolation," I said laughing, and having now his consent to send his MSS. to Mr. ——, I hurried him homeward, talking gaily of indifferent topics, and avoiding the tender, questioning eyes that sought my own.
That there was bitterness in the realization that I had miserably failed, that my novel was stupid and lacked the elements of interest, I cannot deny. Why I had not seen it all before, I can never understand, but this morning, as I compared it with the brilliant and strange play of fancy that characterized Mr. Longworth's work, I felt it keenly and conclusively. In the long afternoon hours I spent that day alone with my manuscript, I learned to face calmly the fact that I must go back to newspaper work without the vestige of a hope that I should ever write a readable novel. What it meant to me to arrive at this conclusion no one will understand who has not had the same hopes and the same downfall, yet through those hours in the little white-washed bed-room, with the locust boughs tapping against the window, the memory that I strenuously put away of that warm clasp, of the new tenderness in the voice that had called me by my name, softened the sharp pangs of disappointment; and he, at least, would not fail as I had done.
Toward sunset I laid away my dead book, and went down to the sitting-room where Mrs. Hopper sat placidly mending. She looked a trifle anxiously at my reddened eyelids. "Feel well?" she queried, plying the needle swiftly. "You mustn't let things prey onto your mind," she admonished, "or you won't get your money's worth of good out of the place, and besides, Lord! what is there worth worryin' over, any how? Money ain't worth it, and love ain't worth it," she declared, with a keen glance at me. "But, there, what is the use of tellin anybody that? I worried some before I married Pa. I guess it's natural. I thought, thinks I, 'Mary Ann Bishop, he's years older'n you, 'n' he's weakly, 'n' there ain't much doubt but what you'll be left a relic'. Now look, that was ten years ago, and Pa ain't no more out o' slew 'n' he was then. 'N' then I thought, 'There, he's had one wife.' (Pa was a widower.) N' I expect he'll be always a-comparin' of us.' It ain't happened once, at least, not out loud, an' oh! how good he was to that woman! It didn't seem as if he could be as good to his second. It was all over the place," said Mrs. Hopper laying down "Pa's" calico shirt, and speaking in low and impressive tones, as befits the subject of death, "how he bought her a bran-new wig two weeks before she died, an' he let her be buried in that wig, that cost over thirty dollars! An' as for a stone! Well, there, he went over to Gilsey's marble-yard to New Sidon, 'n' picked out a sixty-dollar tomb, 'n' never asked 'm to heave off a cent! An' that man, Miss Marriott," said Mrs. Hopper, "he'd do just as well by me as ever he done by her, 'n' I'm contented, 'n' I'm happy. I can tell you, I'm a believer in marriage," she said, with a proud smile, as she rose to get tea.
Mr. Longworth brought over a neat package of manuscript that evening, which I sent, with a letter to Mr. ——. We sat talking on the porch, watching the moon rise and flood the dew-wet fields with a tide of white radiance. Occasionally we heard Mr. or Mrs. Hopper in the lamp-lit sitting-room making brief comments on neighborhood gossip, or the crops, and then Mrs. Hopper would go on silently sewing, and "Pa," his white head bent over a "Farmer's Almanac," made long and painful calculations on a scrap of paper in which he seemed to get much mysterious assistance from the almanac.
Without, the cool night air touched my face gently. My head was burning and fevered with the day's emotions, but I felt the infinite peace of the evening calming me.
"No," I said firmly, "indeed I have decided wisely, Mr. Longworth. I am going back to my old work cheerfully, and shall never think again of my—my disappointment. I believe I can easily get work on my old paper, the "Courier," and I have been offered an editorial position on a new fashion paper, beside my weekly letter to the "Red Cañon Gazette.'" Naturally I did not tell him that I had spent all my savings of a year on this planned vacation, when I was to finish the book that should reimburse me.
"You shall not go back to that wretched drudgery," said Mr. Longworth, in his impetuous, nervous manner. "Do not imagine you are ever to do it again. Tell me," he said, lowering his voice, and leaning toward me so that he could see my face, shaded by the vine-hung trellis. "Could you be happy—"
We heard Mr. Hopper moving around the room uneasily, and instinctively Mr. Longworth paused.
"Ma," said the old man, a trifle reproachfully, "I'm afraid you don't try to make it cheerful for them young folks. Why don't you go out and set for a spell? I guess I'll go."
"Stay where you are, Joseph," said Mrs. Hopper, in loud tones of disapproval, that were wafted through the open window to us. "Did we want the old folks forever runnin' after us before we was married?" Mr. Longworth tried not to steal a mirthful glance at me, but he found it hard to resist. "Oh! pshaw, Ma," replied the old man gently. "There ain't none of that goin' on. He ain't a marryin' man," and we heard his slippered feet pattering softly over the oil-clothed entry, and his mild face beamed on us through the net door, which he held open for a moment before he came out and seated himself in the rocking-chair.
"Well, now, this is comfortable," he said, with a cheerfully social air. "I can tell you this is a night for authors. Here's a chance for poetry!" with a wave of his thin, weather-worn hand toward the peaceful fields. "Made any this evenin'?" he inquired. "Ain't? well, I guess you'll never come across a more inspirin' night," he said, with some disappointment. "I expected likely you'd have some you could say right off. Fer a plain farmer, I don't s'pose there's anybody fonder'n I am of verses," he said, musingly. "I b'lieve I told ye 'twas in our family. I wish you could have met my uncle, Mis' Marriot, died on his ninety-second birthday, and had writ a long piece on each birthday for a matter of forty year. That ther man was talented, I tell ye. There wasn't no occasion he couldn't write a piece onto. Why, the night Ma and me was married (we was married in Ma's sister's parlor) we hadn't more'n turned 'round from the minister, 'n before anybody had a chance t' congratulate us, uncle, he steps right up in front of us, an' sez he:
'Now you are married, an' man an' wife May you live happy this mortial life, An' when your days on this earth is o'er May you both meet together on the evergreen shore.'
"It come to him, jus' come to him that minute, like a flash," said the old man, reflectively, the pathos of his sweet, tremulous voice lending unspeakable melody to the preposterous stanza.
Mr. Hopper had evidently settled himself for the remainder of the evening, and after a time Mr. Longworth bade us good-night, and went across to the Bangs homestead.
All that night I tossed about on my uncomfortable feather-bed, or rather, when I found I could not sleep, I rose after a time, and wrapped in my dressing-gown, I sat by my tiny window, watching the shadows of the wind-blown locust-boughs on the moonlit grass below, full of the dreams which are the stuff that romances are made of, and which, though I had often used them as "material," I had never known myself before; shy and tender dreams they were, that glorified that summer night, and kept me wakeful until dawn.
The next day and the next I was ill and feverish, so ill that I could not rise. Mr. Longworth brought for me great bunches of choice flowers, for which he must have sent Wilson to the next town of New Sidon, and a dainty basket of fruit. The third day I rose and dressed toward noon, and weak as I felt, I decided to walk down to the post-office, for I thought perhaps the air would do me good, and beside, the mail was never brought up until after dark, and I longed to find if Mr. —— had written me as I expected, about the manuscript. I knew he would be very prompt with me.
I found several letters in the box for me, and eagerly scanning the envelopes, I discovered the well-known buff tint, with the red device of a female figure with a book clasped to the breast, that is the livery of "——'s Magazine." I tore it open, reading as I slowly walked. Mr. —— had written as follows, in his hurried hand:
"OFFICE OF ——'s MAGAZINE. "MY DEAR MISS MARRIOTT:
"I return the MSS. you sent us, and I have no hesitation in saying that your friend is a genius. In fact, I was so chained by the somewhat wild and singular style that I sat up most of Tuesday night to go through it myself.
"Of course in their present disconnected state, the fragments are quite unavailable to us, but when worked into a story, they ought to make a success. I hope we shall have the first reading of the completed book. I understand it is the work of a beginner, but it bears none of the marks of the novice, and I can but think we have discovered the 'coming American novelist.'
"By the way, how is your own book coming on?
"Yours in haste,
I had walked on some distance from the post-office as I read this, for Mr. ——'s chirography was almost undecipherable, even to one accustomed to it. I was just folding the letter to replace it in the envelope, when I heard heavy footsteps hurrying behind me. I turned my head and saw Wilson, quite red in the face with trying to overtake me. "Beg pardon, Miss," he said, touching his hat, "I saw you coming out of the office, and—I'd like to speak to you a minute, if I may."
"What is it?" I asked, somewhat surprised. I stepped back from the path, and Wilson stooped down awkwardly, and picked a twig from a low bush that grew by the fence. "Well," he began, drawing a long breath, "I've been thinking it over, and I've made up my mind to tell you. I expect I ought to have done it before, but my orders was so strict, and—you see I'm saving up to get married, and a man hates to lose a good place,—but that's neither here nor there, Miss, the truth is, I ain't Mr. Longworth's nurse, and I ain't his valley neither. I'm—I'm his attendant."
"Well, what of it?" I said, with some irritation. How could Wilson's absurd distinctions matter to me? What did I care whether he called himself valet, or nurse, or attendant?
To his credit, be it said that there was no tone of half-exultation, almost pardonable after my manner of annoyance, as he went on. His heavy, spatulate finger-tips were stripping the little twig bare of its leaves. As he continued, I fixed my lowered eyes on that bit of alder. I remember every tiny, bright brown knot on it, and how one worm-eaten leaf curled at its edges.
"You see," said Wilson, clumsily, "I mean I was his attendant up to the Retreat. It was a real high-toned place, and they did not take any dangerous ones, only folks like him. His people ain't the kind that stand for price. They've got plenty, and they don't care what they pay. I dare say you've been in his father's store many a time,—Longworth & Whittles, one of the biggest and best dry-goods stores on Sixth avenue. The old gentleman's rolling in gold, and there ain't a nicer lady in New York City than Mrs. Longworth. You see, it was this way. Young Mr. Longworth didn't like business, and they sent him abroad to be educated, and when he come back he just fooled around and went out a good deal, and finally, he got in with some literary folks. One of his friends took him to their receptions, and he got it into his head he was going to be a writer. His folks didn't care, they'd have paid a publisher any price to take his books if it would have done any good; but finally he took to shuttin' himself up in his room day and night, writin' all the time, and it told on him pretty well, for I guess he'd never wrote anything but cheques before. And then he'd burn it up as fast as he wrote, and not eat, and not come out o' that room for days at a time. He kept a-saying it would be all right if it would only fit together but that's just where it is, it don't any of it fit together. And now he just writes over and over the same things he wrote a year ago. He don't know it, he burns 'em up, and then he thinks it's all different. He got so bad the doctors said he'd be better up to Dr. Balsam's Retreat, where they could kind of soothe him down, and make him think his health was out of order, and get his mind off his writing, but he did have a pretty bad fever up there, an' ever since he thinks he was editor or somethin' on some paper, and he can tell it off straight as a string. He's all right about everything else, and if you didn't know about it, you'd think he was just what he says, sure enough."
"It's pretty near killed his mother. Seems funny; a young fellow with nothing to do but spend money, getting it into his head to write books! Well, they said I wasn't to tell anybody, and I ain't told anybody but you, and I thought as you was a writer, and pretty busy, I guessed you wouldn't want to waste your time over his book. They say, folks do, that it's first-rate, as far as it goes; but you see it don't never get any farther, and it never will. I thought I'd better tell you about it," said Wilson, his plebeian, kindly face crimson with a delicate pity that would have done honor to an aristocrat, and still working assiduously at the little twig, "I knew you was a genuine writer yourself, and it seemed a pity for you to take up your valuable time helpin' him on, about something that can't amount to anything."
May he be forgiven that gentle falsehood!
I looked for a moment at the wide-spread field and distant woodland, lying green in the peaceful sunshine, at the place grown so dear to me, that now whirled before my eyes. Far down the road a heavy farm-wagon creaked its way toward us, in a cloud of white dust.
"You did quite right to tell me, Wilson," I said, turning to go. "No one shall hear of it from me."
I looked down at the buff envelope from "——'s Magazine," which I had crushed in my hand, and smoothed it out mechanically, as I went on in the increasing heat.
It was only August, but my summer was over.