Emeline Hardacre's Revenge
Emeline Hardacre's Revenge.
When Emeline Hardacre, on rising, peered through the small-paned window toward the west, she started and rubbed her hand across her eyes. Surely the mist of sleep still blurred them. Surely the thin early column of smoke which had never yet failed to see, a bluer spiral against the cold blue western sky of the morning, was curling upward to-day as usual. But though she rubbed her eyes again and again, and brought her sharp face close against the glass, there came no puff from the chimney of the house in the hollow.
For many years that morning smoke had been to her the symbol of all that she hated most. At sight of it she had each day reawakened the bitter rage, the black jealousy, the implacable sense of outrage which the night had taught to sleep. This morning, failing to see it, she was shaken. Had the sun itself not risen, she had almost been less perturbed. As she made her swift toilet she turned constantly to the window again; but still across the frosty field and the stone-hard road which divided her place from Etta Jordan's no morning signal of life fluttered.
She lit her own fire with trembling hands. She prepared the breakfast for herself and her brother with feverish haste. When he came stamping in from the milking he was conscious, albeit not sensitive, of the tense atmosphere of the room. He had no glimmering notion of the reason for it; for a quarter of a century the Jordans had not been mentioned between the brother and sister. But while her hatred had grown in the brooding silence to be a vast thing, coextensive with her life, as noxious things flourish in the dark, his interest in them had only briefly outlasted speech concerning them. He did not connect them with Emeline's nervousness that morning.
From time to time, all day, she was at the windows which gave upon the west end the Jordans' cottage. Still there was no smoke.
To the outward eye it was a mean enough place, a one-storied cottage with rooms facing the road on either side of the door. The straggling lilac hushes against the doorway were bare; there was nothing in all the bleak March landscape to give a hint of quickening sap or warming sunshine.
But the miserable house stood to Emeline for another woman's triumph and her own degradation. She saw it in all its stages. She saw Westley Jordan working at it, moving lithely among the yellow timbers, kicking the shavings with lively feet. That was after he had jilted her—her, the one little heiress of the countryside, her whose needle had been busy a six-month on her linen, her the proud, the unloved, the loving!—after he had jilted her openly, shamelessly, weakly, for the red and brown winsomeness of old Jake Sedbury's orphan niece, newcomer to the place.
He had always been weak and selfish, had Westley. She had known it even when the frozen currents of her nature stirred with love for him. And she had known with relentless intuition, which she put down and down and down, that he was bartering his easy attractiveness for her small holdings. Well—and they had not been enough to keep him. Etta had come, and Westley had pliantly turned from the greed of gold to the greed of beauty. And she, Emeline, in the house across the road had heard the hammer-blows that built their home.
She had seen the bride come home, lifted from the buggy in Westley's arms. She had watched them pass together in the late afternoon light between the flowering lilacs into the house.
She had seen other processions pass into it—now a group of friends come to a quilting, now a christening party, now the undertaker. No one dared speak to her of the Jordans, but day by day she followed their lives with bitter knowledge. She knew their poverty, their debts, their illnesses. She knew Etta's waning beauty and charm. She saw Westley reach his level of weak self-indulgence and indolence. On all their calamities she fed her malevolence, but she could never sate it. In the desolation of the far countryside there were no distractions. No new tenderness ever came to soften her grim, passionate sense of injury. Each day she awoke to the sight of her rival's house across the field and the road, each day she saw the signal from her rival's hearth-fire flutter in the air. And no wretchedness or disaster that could befall the woman and the man seemed great enough to satisfy her consuming hatred.
A year before, when the latest of the funeral processions moved from the little house, with the ne'er-do-well riding in ebon and silver state, and his widow, childless now, whimpering in the carriage behind, even then it had not seemed to Emeline that she was revenged. She had been thwarted rather! Sorrow had come, but not through her. No greater grief had befallen the thief of her honor and her happiness than befell half the women in the village. The thought of the futility of her malignancy deepened it.
All to-day. with the chilly March sunshine lying thin upon the frozen lands, she chafed and worried and made fruitless trips to the window. She wished that some one would pass, that some one would come, were it only the tiresome peddler on his season's rounds. She wanted to know the secret of the unlighted hearth. Had Etta Jordan been spirited away over-night? Had she gone where Emeline's vengeful, impotent eyes could never again take bitter note of her risings-up and lyings-down, could never see again the morning smoke or the ruddy square from the evening lamp in the black bulk of the house? Had death itself——
Then Emeline's heart almost stood still. Could death itself have come and robbed her of that upon which her heart fed itself full of hate? Could death have snatched from her the last opportunity of some cruel, biting vengeance—she knew not what—long delayed, long awaited?
She could stand her suspense no longer. She ran back to the kitchen, caught up a shawl, and, enveloping her head and shoulders in it, ran out. She did not quite know what she meant, only she must be assured that there was still something left for her to hate.
She ran down the long path that led from her door to the highway, skirting the field. She crossed the road, lifted the Jordans' gate, which would not swing upon its broken hinges, and had rapped at the door almost before she knew her own intention.
There was no answer.
She rapped again more loudly, and, pulling back her shawl, laid her cheek against the panel and listened. She thought she heard a weak, quavering call to enter. She pushed against the door, but. it would not yield. She rapped again, and this time she made sure of a long-drawn, half-crying request that she would come in. She pushed hard against the cracked panel, and it gave way under the pressure. Her hand slipped through the aperture, finding the lock, and she had unfastened the door.
Off the tiny entryway was a bedroom, and in it she saw the white ghost of that brown and red Etta who had won her man from her—a white wisp of a woman, half risen on an elbow in the bed.
"You!" gasped the ghost, and Emeline went in.
The figure in the bed fell back upon the pillows. Her dark eyes followed the movements of the newcomer with a fascinated terror. Emeline sat down.
"So!" she said.
Her breath came slowly, too. She did not know what she had expected or what she intended. What she found was a clammy, cold house, an empty wood-box. a bare cupboard, a frail, sick, frightened creature too weak to stir.
"Are you—are you— going to kill me?" whispered the blue lips.
Joy surged through Emeline at the question, joy and splendid contempt.
"Is that what you're afraid of?" she asked exultingly.
Weak tears came from the brown eyes and coursed slowly down the chalky face of the sick woman.
"What would you want to kill me for?" she whimpered. "I took your beau—but, Lord, that's a many years ago. And ain't I suffered for it enough—with him that shiftless and complaining, and all the children sickly? I know you always hated me, Emeline Hardacre. but you've had the best of it, I can tell you that. And now—now you've come to gloat over me! Well, I won't be here long for nobody to gloat over!" Her voice trailed off into tears again.
Emeline looked at her with antagonistic emotions struggling in her heart. Contempt for the poor, weak thing before her killed jealousy of the rustic beauty who had wronged her long ago; and pity, reluctantly born in her, tried to oust the cherished hatred. That poor thing upon the bed there, sick and starving and afraid—was that what she had hated? That life of drudgery and neglect and sordid trial—was that what she had longed for?
By the time her survey of Etta was ended, she knew that the battle was over, too. She knew that all the old sense of wrong, and all the old desire for revenge, must yield., But aloud she obstinately denied this. She surrendered in terms of obstinate defiance.
"Oh, yes, you will live," she stormed. "I never knew how 'twould come about, but I knew, I knew 'twould come that I should have revenge on you. And now I see. To gloat over you in your poorness, to gloat over you in your sickness, to remind you day by day of what you've done and how you gained nothin' by it, nothin' at all, nothin' at all—that's my revenge on you! And you'll live for it—I'll keep you alive for it!"
There was a fireplace on one side of the room, its clear hearth showing no ashes in witness of recent fires. Emeline ran to the hallway and out through the kitchen to the woodshed. There was no wood there. She stooped and filled her apron with chips, she broke a wooden box, and with the plunder she hurried back to the cold room. She coaxed a blaze upon the bare stones of the fireplace.
"Emeline Hardacre," moaned the sick woman, "I do believe you're crazy. Let me be, can't you? Let me be!"
Emeline wasted no time in explanation.
"I'll be right back," she cried, and rushed out into the purpling dusk across the road and back to her own place. There was a child's express wagon in the front hall—pitiful relic of the days when her brother's boy had played about the place. She filled it with wood and with provision, and hurried back through the darkness to her charge. And there was a warmth and singing in her heart, such as it had not known since the foundations of the house opposite were dug.