The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 17/Number 99/Doctor Johns
The foreign letters rarely came singly; and Adèle had already accomplished the reading of her own missive, in which Maverick had spoken of his having taken occasion to address, by the same mail, a line to the Doctor on matters of business, "in regard to which," (he had said,) "don't, my dear Adèle, be too inquisitive, even if you observe that it is cause of some perplexity to the good Doctor. Indeed, in such case, I hope you will contribute to his cheer, as I am sure you have often done. We owe him a large debt of gratitude, my child, and I rely upon you to add your thankfulness to mine, and speak for both."
"You look troubled, New Papa," said Adèle. "Can I help you? Eh, Doctor?"
And she came toward him in her playful manner, and patted the old gentleman on the shoulder, while he sat with his face buried in his hands.
"I don't think papa writes very cheerfully, do you? Eh,—Doctor—Benjamin—Johns?" (tapping him with more spirit.)—"Why, New Papa, what does this mean?"
For the Doctor had raised his head now, and regarded her with a look of mingled yearning and distrust that was wholly new to her.
"Pray, New Papa, what is it?"
The old gentlemen—so utterly guileless—was puzzled for an answer; but his ingenuity came to his relief at length.
"No, Adaly, your father does not write cheerfully,—certainly not; he speaks of the probable loss of his fortune."
Now Adèle, with her parsonage training, had really very little idea of fortune.
"That means I won't be rich, New Papa, I suppose. But I don't believe it; he will have money enough, I'm sure. It don't disturb me, New Papa,—not one whit."
The Doctor was so poor a hand at duplicity that he hardly knew what to say, but meantime was keeping his eye with the same dazed look upon the charming Adèle.
"You look so oddly, New Papa,—indeed you do! You have some sermon in your head, now haven't you, that I have broken in upon?—some sermon about—about—let us see."
And she moved toward his desk, where the letter of Maverick still lay unfolded.
The Doctor, lost in thought, did not observe her movement until she had the letter fairly in her hand; then he seized it with a suddenness of gesture that instantly caught the attention of Adèle.
A swift, deep color ran over her face.
"It is for my eye only, Adaly," said the Doctor, excitedly, folding it and placing it in his pocket.
Adèle, with her curiosity strangely piqued, said,—
"I remember now, papa told me as much."
"What did he tell you, my child?"
"Not to be too curious about some business affairs of which he had written you."
"Ah!" said the Doctor, with a sigh of relief.
"But why shouldn't I be? Tell me, New Papa," (toying now with the silvered hair upon the forehead of the old gentleman,) "is he really in trouble?"
"No new trouble, my child,—no new trouble."
For a moment Adèle's thought flashed upon that mystery of the mother she had never seen, and an uncontrollable sadness came over her.
"Yet if there be bad news, why shouldn't I know it?" said she. "I must know it some day."
"'Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,'" said the Doctor, gravely. "And if bad news should ever come to you, my dear Adaly,—though I have none to tell you now,—may you have strength to bear it like a Christian!"
"I will! I can!" said she, with a great glow upon her face.
Never more than in that moment had the heart of the old gentleman warmed toward Adèle. Not by any possibility could he make himself the willing instrument of punishing the sin of the father through this trustful and confiding girl. Nay, he felt, as he looked upon her, that he could gladly make of himself a shelter for her against such contempt or neglect as the world might have in store.
When Reuben came presently to summon Adèle to their evening engagement at the Elderkins', the Doctor followed their retreating figures, as they strolled out of the parsonage-gate, with a new and strange interest. Most inscrutable and perplexing was the fact, that this outcast child, whom scarce one in his parish would have been willing to admit to the familiarities of home,—this daughter of infidel France, about whose mind the traditions of the Babylonish harlot had so long lingered,—who had never known motherly counsel or a father's reproof,—that she, with the stain of heathenism upon her skirts, should have grown into the possession of such a holy, placid, and joyous trust. And there was his poor son beside her, the child of so many hopes, reared, as it were, under the very droppings of the altar, still wandering befogged in the mazes of error, if, indeed, he were not in his secret heart a scoffer. Now that such a result was wholly impracticable and impossible, it did occur to him that perhaps no helpmeet for Reuben could so surely guide him in the way of truth. But of any perplexity of judgment on this score he was now wholly relieved. If his own worldly pride had not stood in the way, (and he was dimly conscious of a weakness of this kind,) the wish of Maverick was authoritative and final. The good man had not the slightest conception of how matters might really stand between the two young parties; he had discovered the anxieties of Miss Eliza in regard to them, and had often queried with himself if too large a taint of worldliness were not coloring the manœuvres of his good sister. For himself he chose rather to leave the formation of all such ties in the hands of Providence, and entertained singularly old-fashioned notions in regard to the sacredness of the marriage-bond and the mystery of its establishment.
In view, however, of possible eventualities, it was necessary that he should come to a full understanding with the spinster in regard to the state of affairs between Adèle and Reuben, and that he should make disclosure to her of the confessions of Maverick. For the second time in his life the Doctor dreaded the necessity of taking his sister into full confidence. The first was on that remarkable occasion—so long past by—when he had declared his youthful love for Rachel, and feared the opposition which would grow out of the spinster's family pride. Now, as then, he apprehended some violent outbreak. He knew all her positiveness and inflexibility,—an inflexibility with which, fortunately, his convictions of duty rarely, if ever, came in conflict. He therefore respected it very greatly. In all worldly affairs, especially in all that regarded social proprieties, he was accustomed to look upon the opinions of his sister as eminently sound, and to give them full indorsement. Unwittingly the old gentleman had subordinated the whole arrangement of his ceremonious visitings and of his wardrobe to the active and lively suggestions of Miss Eliza. Over and over, when in an absent moment he had slipped from his study for a stroll down the street, the keen eye of the maiden sister had detected him before yet he had passed through the parsonage-gate, and her keen voice came after him,—
"Really, Benjamin, that coat is hardly respectable at this hour on the street. You'll find your new one hanging in the press."
And the Doctor, casting a wary look over his person, as if to protest in favor of an old friend, would go back submissively to comply with the exactions of the precise spinster. A wife could not have been more irritatingly observant of such shortcomings; and it is doubtful if even so godly a man would have yielded to a wife's suggestions with fewer protests.
After due reflection on the letter of Maverick, the Doctor stepped softly to the stairs, and said,—
"Eliza, may I speak with you for a few moments in the study?"
There was something in the parson's tone that promised an important communication; and Miss Johns presently appeared and seated herself, work in hand, over against the parson, at the study-table. Older than when we took occasion to describe her appearance in the earlier portion of this narrative, and—if it could be—more prim and stately. A pair of delicately bowed gold spectacles were now called into requisition by her, for the nicer needle-work on which she specially prided herself. Yet her eye had lost none of its apparent keenness, and, inclining her head slightly, she threw an inquiring glance over her spectacles at the Doctor, who was now as composed as if the startling news of the day had been wholly unheard.
"Eliza," said he, "you have sometimes spoken of the possibility of an attachment between Adaly and our poor Reuben."
"Yes, I have, Benjamin," said the spinster, with an air of confidence that seemed to imply full knowledge of the circumstances.
"Do you see any strong indications of such attachment, Eliza?"
"Well, really, Benjamin," said she,—holding her needle to the light, and bringing her spectacles to bear upon the omewhat difficult operation (at her age) of threading it,—"really, I think you may leave that matter to my management."
"The letter which I have received to-day from Mr. Maverick alludes to a rumor of such intimacy."
"Really!"—and the lady eyes the Doctor with a look of keen expectation.
"Mr. Maverick," continued the Doctor, "in referring to the matter, speaks of the probable loss of his fortune."
"Is it possible, brother? Loss of his fortune!" And the spinster gives over attention to her work, while she taps with her thimble, reflectively, upon the elbow of her chair. "I don't think, Benjamin," said she, "that Reuben has committed himself in any way."
"That is well, perhaps, Eliza; it is quite as I had supposed."
"And so the poor man's fortune is gone!" continued the spinster, plaintively.
"Not gone absolutely, Eliza. Maverick's language is, that his estate is in great peril," returned the Doctor.
"Ah!" The spinster is thoughtful and silent for a while, during which the thimble-finger is also quiet. "Does your friend Maverick speak approvingly of such an attachment, brother?"
"By no means, Eliza; he condemns it in the strongest terms."
Miss Johns is amazed at this revelation; and having taken off her golden-bowed spectacles, she passes them, in a nervous way, from end to end, upon the Doctor's table.
"Benjamin," says she presently, with a shrewd look and her sharpest tone, "I don't think his fortune is in any peril whatever. I think Reuben Johns is a good match for Miss Adèle Maverick, any day."
"Tut, tut, Eliza! we must not glorify ourselves vainly. If Maverick disapproves, and Reuben shows no inclination, our course is both plain and easy."
"But I am not so sure about the inclination, Benjamin," said the spinster, sharply; and she replaced her spectacles.
"If that is the case, I am very sorry," said the parson.
The good man had hoped that by only a partial revelation of the contents of the letter he might divert his sister effectually from any matrimonial schemes she might have in hand, and so spare himself the pain of a full disclosure. It was quite evident to him, however, that the opposition of Maverick, if unexplained, would only stimulate the spinster to a new zeal in the furtherance of her pet project. There was nothing for it but to lay before her the whole disagreeable truth.
When the Doctor commenced the reading of the letter, Miss Johns resumed her needle-work with a resolute composure that seemed to imply, "The Johns' view of the case has been stated; let us now listen to what Mr. Maverick may have to say."
For a while her fingers plied nimbly; but there came a pause,—an exclamation of amazement, and her work (it was a bit of embroidery for poor Adèle) was dashed upon the floor.
"Benjamin, this is monstrous! The French hussy! Reuben, indeed!"
The Doctor returned composedly to his reading.
"No, brother, I want to hear no more. What a wretch this Maverick must be!"
"A sinner, doubtless, Eliza; yet not a sinner before all others."
The spinster was now striding up and down the room in a state of extraordinary excitement. With a strange inconsequence, she seized the letter from the Doctor's hands, and read it through to the end.
"I am bewildered, Benjamin. To think that the Johns' name should be associated with such shame and guilt!"
"Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased," murmured the Doctor.
But the spinster was in no mood for listening to Scriptural applications.
"And that he should dare to ask us to cloak for him this great scandal!" continued she, wrathfully.
"For the child's sake, Eliza,—for poor Adaly."
"While I am mistress of your household, brother, I shall try to maintain its dignity and respectability. Do you consider, Benjamin, how much these are necessary to your influence?"
"Without doubt, Eliza; yet I cannot perceive how these would suffer by dealing gently with this unfortunate child. A very tender affection for her has grown upon me, Eliza; it would sadden me grievously, if she were to go out from among us bearing unkind thoughts."
"And is your affection strong enough, Benjamin, to make you forget all social proprieties, and the honorable name of our family, and to wish her stay here as the wife of Reuben?"
The Doctor may have winced a little at this; and possibly a touch of worldly pride entered into his reply.
"In this matter, Eliza, I think the wish of Maverick is to be respected."
"Pah! For my part, I respect much more the Johns' name."
As the spinster retired to her room, after being overheated in the discussion, in which the calmness of the Doctor, and the news he had communicated, contributed almost equally to her frenzy, she cast a look, in passing, upon the bed-chamber of Adèle. There were all the delicate fixtures, in which she had taken such a motherly pride,—the spotless curtains, the cherished vases, and certain toilette adornments,—her gifts,—by each one of which she had hoped to win a point in the accomplishment of her ambitious project. In the flush of her disappointment she could almost have torn down the neatly adjusted drapery, and put to confusion this triumph of her housewifely skill. But cooler thoughts succeeded; and, passing on into her own chamber, she threw herself into her familiar rocking-chair and entered upon a long train of reflections, whose result will very likely have their bearing upon the development of our story.
About this time, Phil Elderkin had come back from his trip to the West Indies,—not a little bronzed by the fierce suns he had met there, but stalwart as ever, with his old free, frank manner, to which he had superadded a little of that easy confidence and self-poise which come of wide intercourse with the world. All the village greeted him kindly; for there was not a man or a woman in it who bore Phil Elderkin a grudge,—unless it may have been the schoolmaster, who, knowing what a dullard Phil had been at his books, had to bear some measure of the reproach which belonged to his slow progress. But there are some young gentlemen (not, however, so many as dull fellows are apt to think) who ripen best by a reading of the world, instead of books; and Phil Elderkin was eminently one of them. The old Squire took a pride he had never anticipated in walking down the street arm in arm with his stalwart son, (whose support, indeed, the old gentleman was beginning to need,) and in watching the admiring glances of the passers-by, and of such old cronies as stopped to shake hands and pass a word or two with the Squire's youngest boy. There is this pleasant feature about such quiet, out-of-the-way New England towns, (or was twenty-five years since,) that the old people never forget to feel a pride in the young men, who, having gone out from their borders to try their fortunes, win any measure of success. Of course they are apt to attribute it, with a pleasant vanity, to their own good advice or example; but this by no means detracts from the cordiality of their praises. Phil won all this,—since it was hinted, on the best possible authority, that he had tried certain business chances on his own account in the West Indies, which promised the grandest success.
Even the Doctor had said, "You have reason to be proud of your boy, Squire. I trust that in time he may join piety to prudence."
"Hope he may, hope he may, Doctor," said the Squire. "Fine stout lad, isn't he, Doctor?"
Of course Phil had met early with Reuben, and with the fresh spirit of their old school-days. Phil had very likely been advised of the experiences which had brought Reuben again to Ashfield, and of the questionable result,—for even this had become subject of village gossip; but of such matters there was very coy mention on the part of young Elderkin. Phil's world-knowledge had given him wise hints on this score. And as for Reuben, the encounter with such frank, outspoken heartiness and manliness as belonged to his old school-friend was, after his weary mental struggle of the last few months, immensely refreshing.
"Phil, my good fellow, your coming is a great godsend to me. I've been worrying at the theologies here: but it's blind work. I think I shall get back to business again."
"But you haven't made it blind for Adèle, Reuben.—so they tell me."
"And it is true. Faith, Phil, if I could win her beautiful trusts I would give my right arm,—indeed, I would."
"But she's not blue," said Phil; "she's as cheery and mirthful as I ever saw her."
"There's the beauty of it," said Reuben. "Many women carry their faith with a face as long and as dull as a sermon. But, by Jove, her face bubbles over with laughter as easily as it ever did."
Sister Rose had, of course, met Phil on his return most gushingly. There is something very beautiful in that warm sisterly affection which at a certain age can put no bounds to its admiring pride. There is a fading away of it as the years progress, and as the sisters drop into little private clamorous circles of their own, and look out upon other people through the spectacles of their husband's eyes,—as they are pretty apt to do; but for a long period following upon the school age it is very tender and beautiful. If Phil had been coarse, or selfish, or awkward, or ten times the sinner in any way that he was, Rose would most surely have found some charming little excuse for each and every sin, and delighted in reflecting upon him the glow of her own purity.
Of course she insists coyly upon his making the village rounds with her. Those intellectual ladies, the Misses Hapgood, must have an opportunity of admiring his grand air, and the easy manner he has brought back with him of entering a parlor, or of passing the compliments of the day: and, indeed, those respectable old ladies do pay him the honor of keeping him in waiting, until they can arrange their best frontlets, and present themselves in their black silks and in kerchiefs wet with lavender. Now little Rose maintains an admiring and eager silence while that rare brother astonishes these good Ashfield ladies with the great splendors of his walk and conversation.
Then with what a bewildering success the traveller, under convoy of the delighted Rose, comes down upon the family of the Tourtelots! What an elaborate toilette Almira matures for his reception! and how the Dame nervously dusts and redusts her bombazine at sight of his grand manner, as she peeps through the half-opened blinds!
The Deacon is not, indeed, so much "taken off the hooks" by Phil, but entertains him in the old way.
"Pooty well on't for beef cattle in Cuby, Philip?"
And Rose's eyes glisten, as Brother Philip goes on to set forth some of the wonders of the crops, and the culture.
"Waäl, they're smart farmers, I've heerd," says the Deacon; "but we're makin' improvements here in Ashfield. Doän't know as you've seen Square Wilkinson's new string o' wall he's been a-buildin' all the way between his home pastur' and the west medders?"
Phil has not.
"Waäl, it's wuth seein'. I doän't know what they pretend to have in Cuby; but in my opinion, there a'n't such another string o' stone fence, not in the whole caounty!"
And Phil has had his little private talks with Rose,—about Adèle, among other people.
"She is more charming than ever," Rose had said.
"I suppose so."
And there had been a pause here.
"I suppose Reuben is as tender upon her as ever," Phil had said at last, in his off-hand way.
"He has been very devoted; but I'm not sure that it means anything, Phil, dear."
"I should think it meant a great deal," said Phil.
"I mean," continued Rose, reflectingly, and with some embarrassment of speech, "I don't think Adèle speaks of Reuben as if—as I should—think—
"As you would, Rose,—is that it?"
"For shame, Phil!"
And Phil begged pardon with a kiss.
"Do you think, Phil," said Rose, concealing a little fluttering of the heart under very smoothly spoken words, "do you think that Reuben really loves Adèle?"
"Think so? To be sure, Rose. How can he help it? It's enough for me to see her as I do, odd whiles in our parlor, or walking up and down the garden with you, Rose; if I were to meet her every night and morning, as Reuben must, I should go mad."
"Aha!" said Rose, laughingly; "that's not the way lovers talk,—at least, not in books. I think you are safe, Phil. And yet" (with a soberer air) "I did think, Phil, one while, that you thought very, very often, and a great deal, of Adèle; and I was not sorry."
"Did you, Rose?" said Phil, eagerly; "did you truly? Then I'll tell you a secret, Rose,—mind, Rose, a great secret, never to be lisped,—not to mother even. I did love Adèle as far back as I can remember. You know the strange little French hat she used to wear? Well, I used to draw it on my slate at school, Rose; it was all I could draw that belonged to her. Many's the time, when, if a boy came near, I would dash in some little flourishes about it, and call it a basket or a coal-scoop; but all the while, for me, her little dark eyes were shining under it. But there was Reuben,—I told him I thought Suke Boody the prettiest girl in Ashfield, but it wasn't true,—and he beat me in reading and writing, and everything, I think, but fisticuffs."
"Did he?" said Rose, with the prettily arched brow which mostly accompanied only her mischievous sallies; and it seemed to Phil afterward that she would have resented the statement, if he had made it concerning any other young fellow in Ashfield.
"Yes, indeed," continued he. "I knew he must beat me out and out with Adèle. Do you remember, Rose, how you told me once that he had sent a gift of furs to her? Well, Rose, I had my own little gift hidden away for her for that same New-Year's day, and I burned it. Those furs kept me awake an awful time. And when I went away, Rose, I prayed that I might learn to forget her; but there was never a letter of yours that came with her name in it, (and most of them had it, you know,) but I saw her as plainly as ever, with her arm laced in yours, as I used to see you many a time from my window, strolling down the garden. And now that I have come back, Rose, it's the same confounded thing. By Jove, I feel as if I could pitch into Reuben, as I used to do at school. But then he's a good fellow, and a good friend of mine, I'm sure."
"I'm sure he is," said Rose. "But, Phil," continued she, meditatively, "it seems to me, if I were a man, and loved a woman as you love Adèle, I should find some way of letting her know it."
"Would you, Rosy? Do you think there's a ghost of a chance?"
"I don't know, Phil: Adèle is not one who talks of such things."
"Nor you, I think, Rose."
"Of course not, Phil." And after a little hesitation, "Of whom should I talk, pray?"
Now it happened that this private conversation took place upon the same day on which had transpired the interview we have already chronicled between the Doctor and Miss Johns. Reuben and Adèle were to pass the evening at the Elderkins'. Adèle was not of a temper to be greatly disturbed by the rumor at which the Doctor had hinted of a lost fortune. (We write, it must be remembered, of a time nearly thirty years gone by.) Indeed, as she tripped along beside Reuben, it seemed to him that she had never been in a more jocular and vivacious humor. A reason for this (and it is what, possibly, many of our readers may count a very unnatural one) lay in the letter which she had that day received from her father, in which Maverick, in alluding to a possible affaire du cœur in connection with Reuben, had counselled her, with great earnestness, to hold her affections in reserve, and, above all, to control most rigidly any fancy which she might entertain for the son of their friend the Doctor.
It amused Adèle; for Reuben had been so totally undemonstrative in matters of sentiment, (possibly keeping his deeper feelings in reserve,) that Adèle had felt over and over a girl's mischievous propensity to provoke it. Not that she was in any sense heartless; not that she did not esteem him, and feel a keen sense of gratitude; but his kindest and largest favors were always attended with such demureness and reticence of manner as piqued her womanly vanity. For these reasons there was something exhilarating to her in the intimation conveyed by Maverick's letters, that she was the party, after all, upon whose decision must rest the peace of mind of the two, and that she must cultivate the virtue of treating him with coolness.
Possibly it would have been an easy virtue to cultivate, even though Reuben's attentions had shown the warmth which the blood of nineteen feminine years craves in a lover; but as the matter stood, there was something amusing to her in Maverick's injunction. As if there were any danger! As if there could be! Should it grow serious some day, it would be time enough then to consider her good papa's injunction; very possibly she would pay the utmost heed to it, since a respect for Mr. Maverick's opinions and advice was almost a part of Adèle's religion.
We left Miss Eliza Johns in her chamber, swaying back and forth in her rocking-chair, and resolutely confronting the dire news which the Doctor had communicated. What was to be done? Never had so serious a problem been presented to her for solution. There were both worldly and religious motives, as the spinster reckoned them, for plucking out of her heart all the growing tenderness which she had begun to feel toward Adèle; and the sudden discomfiture of that engaging, ambitious scheme which she had fondled so long prompted a feeling of resentment which was even worse than worldly.
How would you have treated the matter, Madam? Would your Christian charities have shrunk from the ordeal? But whatever might have been the other sins of the spinster, there was in her no disposition to shrink from the conclusions to which her logic of propriety and respectability might lead. Adèle was to be discarded, but not suddenly. All her art must be employed to disabuse Reuben of any lingering tenderness. The Doctor's old prejudice against French blood must be worked to its utmost. But there must be no violent clamor,—above all, no disclosure of the humiliating truth. Maverick (the false man!) must be instructed that it would be agreeable to the Johns family—nay, that their sense of dignity demanded—that he should reclaim his child at an early day. On this last score, it might be necessary, indeed, to practise very adroit management with the Doctor; but for the rest, she had the amplest confidence in her own activity and discretion.
She was not the woman to sleep upon her plans, when once they were decided on; and she had no sooner forecast her programme than she took advantage of the lingering twilight to arrange her toilette for a call upon the Elderkins. Of course she led off the Doctor in her trail. The spinster's "marching orders," as he jocularly termed them, the good man was as incapable of resisting as if he had been twenty years a husband.
In a few swift words she unfolded her design.
"And now, Benjamin, don't, pray, let your sentiment get the better of you, in regard to this French girl. Think of the proprieties in the case, Benjamin,—the proprieties,"—which she enforced by a little shake of her forefinger.
Whenever it came to a question of the "proprieties," the Doctor was conscious of his weakness. What, indeed, could the poor man know about the proprieties, as set forth by Miss Johns, that he should presume to argue against them? What, indeed, can any man do, when a woman bases herself on the "proprieties"?
It was summer weather, and the windows of the hospitable Elderkin mansion were wide open. As the Doctor and spinster drew near, little gusts of cheery music came out to greet their ears. For, at this time, Miss Almira had her rival pianos about the village; and the pretty Rose had been taught a deft way of touching the "first-class" instrument, which the kind-hearted Squire had bestowed upon her. And, if it must be told, little sparkling waltzes had from time to time waked the parlor solitude, and the kind Mistress Elderkin had winked at little furtive parlor-dances on the part of Rose and Adèle,—they had so charmed the old Squire, and set all his blood (as he said, with a gallant kiss upon the brow of Mrs. Elderkin) flowing in the old school-boy currents. Now it happened upon this very evening, that the Squire, though past seventy now, was in the humor to see a good old-fashioned frolic, and, Rose rattling off some crazy waltz, Phil, at a hint from the old gentleman, had taken possession of Adèle, and was showing off with a good deal of grace, and more spirit, the dancing-steps of which he had had experience with the Spanish señoritas.
Dame Tourtelot, who chanced to be present, wore a long face, which (it is conceivable) the hearty old Squire enjoyed as much as the dancing. But Mrs. Elderkin must have looked with a warm maternal pride upon the fine athletic figure of her boy, as he went twirling down the floor, with that graceful figure of Adèle.
Upon the very midst of it, however, the Doctor and Miss Johns came like a cloud. The fingers of Rose rested idly on the keys. Adèle, who was gay beyond her wont, alone of all the company could not give over her light-heartedness on the instant: so she makes away to greet the Doctor,—Miss Johns standing horrified.
"New Papa, you have surprised us. Phil was showing me some new steps. Do you think it very, very wrong?"
"Ah, you dear old man, it isn't wrong;—say it isn't wrong."
By this time the Squire has come forward.
"Ah, Doctor, young folks will be young folks; but I think you won't have a quarrel with Mrs. Elderkin yonder. My dear," (addressing Mrs. Elderkin,) "you must set this matter right with the Doctor. We must keep our young people in his good books."
"The good books are not kept by me, Squire," said the parson.
Reuben, who had been loitering about Rose, and who, to do him justice, had seen Phil's gallant attention to Adèle without one spark of jealousy, was specially interested in this interruption of the festivities. In his present state of mind, he was most eager to know how far the evening's hilarity would be imputed as a sin to the new convert, and how far religious severities (if she met any) would control the ardor of Adèle. The Doctor's face softened, even while he talked with the charming errant,—Reuben observed that; but with Aunt Eliza the case was different. Never had he seen such a threatening darkness in her face.
"We have interrupted a ball, I fear," she said to the hostess, in a tone which was as virulent as a masculine oath.
"Oh! no! no!" said Mrs. Elderkin. "Indeed, now, you must not scold Adèle too much; 't was only a bit of the Squire's foolery."
"Oh, certainly not; she is quite her own mistress. I should be very sorry to consider myself responsible for all her tastes."
Reuben, hearing this, felt his heart leap toward Adèle in a way which the spinster's praises had never provoked.
Dame Tourtelot here says, in her most aggravating manner,—
"I think she dances beautiful, Miss Johns. She dooz yer credit, upon my word she dooz."
And thereupon there followed a somewhat lively altercation between those two sedate ladies,—in the course of which a good deal of stinging mockery was covered with unctuous compliment. But the spinster did not lose sight of her chief aim, to wit, the refusal of all responsibility as attaching to the conduct of Adèle, and a most decided intimation that the rumors which associated her name with Reuben were unfounded, and were likely to prove altogether false.
This last hint was a revelation to the gossipping Dame; there had been trouble, then, at the parsonage; things were clearly not upon their old footing. Was it Adèle? Was it Reuben? Yet never had either shown greater cheer than on this very night. But the Dame none the less eagerly had communicated her story, before the evening closed, to Mrs. Elderkin,—who received it doubtingly,—to Rose, who heard it with wonder and a pretty confusion,—and to the old Squire, who said only, "Pooh! pooh! it's a lover's quarrel; we shall be all straight to-morrow."
Adèle, by her own choice, was convoyed home, when the evening was over, by the good Doctor, and had not only teased him into pardon of her wild mirth, before they had reached the parsonage-gate, but had kindled in him a glow of tenderness that made him utterly forgetful of the terrible news of the day. Reuben and the spinster, as they followed, talked of Rose; never had Aunt Eliza spoken so warmly of her charms; but before him was tripping along, in the moonlight, the graceful figure of Adèle, clinging to the old gentleman's arm, and it is doubtful if his eye did not feast more upon that vision than his ear upon the new praises of the spinster.
Yet, for all that, Rose was really charming. The young gentlemen, it would seem, hardly knew his own heart; and he had a wondrous dream that night. There was a church, (such as he had seen in the city,) and a delicately gloved hand, which lay nestling in his; and Mr. Maverick, oddly enough, appeared to give away a bride, and all waited only for the ceremony, which the Doctor (with his old white hat and cane) refused to perform; whereat Phil's voice was heard bursting out in a great laugh; and the face of Rose, too, appeared; but it was only as a saint upon a painted window. And yet the face of the saint upon the window was more distinct than anything in his dream.
The next morning found Miss Eliza harsh and cold. Even the constrained smile with which she had been used to qualify her "good morning" for Adèle was wanting; and when the family prayers were said, in which the good Doctor had pleaded, with unction, that the Christian grace of charity might reign in all hearts, the poor girl had sidled up to Miss Eliza, and put her hand in the spinster's,—
"You think our little frolic last night to be very wrong, I dare say?"
"Oh, no," said the spinster. "I dare say Mr. Maverick and your French relatives would approve."
It was not so much the language as the tone which smote on poor Adèle, and brought the tears welling into her eyes.
Reuben, seeing it all, and forgetful of the good parson's plea, gnawed his lip to keep back certain very harsh utterances.
"Don't think of it, Ady," said he, watching his chance a little later; "the old lady is in one of her blue moods to-day."
"Do you think I did wrong, Reuben?" said Adèle, earnestly.
"I? Wrong, Adèle? Pray, what should I have to say about the right or wrong? and I think the old ladies are beginning to think I have no clear idea of the difference between them."
"You have, Reuben! you have! And, Reuben," (more tenderly,) "I have promised solemnly to live as you thought a little while ago that you would live. And if I were to break my promise, Reuben, I know that you would never renew yours."
"I believe you are speaking God's truth, Adèle," said he.
The summer months passed by, and for Adèle the little table at the parsonage had become as bleak and cheerless as the autumn. Miss Johns maintained the rigid severity of manner, with which she had undertaken to treat the outcast child, with a constancy that would have done credit to a worthier intent. Even the good Doctor was unconsciously oppressed by it, and by the spinster's insistence upon the due proprieties was weaned away from his old tenderness of speech; but every morning and every evening his voice trembled with emotion as he prayed for God's grace and mercy to descend upon all sinners and outcasts.
He had written to Maverick, advising him of the great grief which his confession had caused him, and imploring him to make what reparation he yet might do, by uniting in the holy bonds of matrimony with the erring mother of his child. He had further advised him that his apprehensions with regard to Reuben were, so far as was known, groundless. He further wrote,—"Upon consultation with Miss Johns, who is still at the head of our little household, I am constrained to ask that you take as early a time as may be convenient to relieve her of the further care of your daughter. Age is beginning to tell somewhat upon my sister; and the embarrassment of her position with respect to Adèle is a source, I believe, of great mental distress."
All which the good Doctor honestly believed,—upon Miss Eliza's averment,—and in his own honest way he assured his friend, that, though his sins were as scarlet, he should still implore Heaven in his favor, and should part from Adèle—whenever the parting might come—with real grief, and with an outpouring of his heart.
As for Reuben, a wanton levity had come over him in those latter days of summer that galled the poor Doctor to the quick, and that strangely perplexed the observant spinster. It was not the mischievous spirit of his boyhood revived again, but a cold, passionless, determined levity, such as men wear who have secret griefs to conceal. He talked in a free and easy way about the Doctor's Sunday discourses, that fairly shocked the old people of the parish; rumor said that he had passed some unhallowed jokes with the stolid Deacon Tourtelot about his official duties; and it was further reported that he had talked open infidelity with a young physician who had recently established himself in Ashfield, and who plumed himself—until his tardy practice taught him better—upon certain arrogant physiological notions with regard to death and disease that were quite unbiblical. Long ago the Doctor had given over open expostulation; every such talk seemed to evoke a new and more airy and more adventurous demon in the backslidden Reuben. The good man half feared to cast his eye over the books he might be reading. If it were Voltaire, if it were Hume, he feared lest his rebuke and anathema should give a more appetizing zest.
But he prayed—ah, how he prayed! with the dead Rachel in his thought—as if (and this surely cannot be Popishly wicked)—as if she, too, in some sphere far remote, might with angel voice add tender entreaty to the prayer, whose burden, morning after morning and night after night, was the name and the hope of her boy.
And Adèle? Well, Reuben pitied Adèle,—pitied her subjection to the iron frowns of Miss Eliza; and almost the only earnest words he spoke in those days were little quiet words of good cheer for the French girl. And when Miss Eliza whispered him, as she did, that the poor child's fortune was gone, and her future insecure, Reuben, with a brave sort of antagonism, made his words of cheer and good-feeling even more frequent than ever. But about his passing and kindly attentions to Adèle there was that air of gay mockery which overlaid his whole life, and which neither invited nor admitted of any profound acknowledgement. His kindest words—and some of them, so far as mere language went, were exuberantly tender—were met always by a half-saddened air of thankfulness and a little restrained pressure of the hand, as if Adèle had said,—"Not in earnest yet, Reuben! Earnest in nothing!"