The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 5/The Old Well

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THE OLD WELL.

On a bright April morning many years ago, a stout, red-faced old gentleman, Geoffrey Purcill, followed by several workmen bearing shovels and pickaxes, took his way to a little knoll on which stood a wide-spreading chestnut-tree. When they reached the top of the knoll, the old man paused a moment and then struck his gold-headed cane upon the ground at some little distance from the trunk of the tree, saying, "Dig here."

The workmen looked at each other and then at their master.

"It would be useless to dig a well here, Sir," said one of the workmen, very respectfully,—"no water would ever come into it."

"Who asked for your opinion?" inquired Geoffrey, in an angry tone. "Do as I bid you;—the well shall be rigged here, and water shall come into it."

The man ventured no further remonstrance; he took off his jacket, and struck his pickaxe into the hard, dry soil near the point where the cane rested.

Geoffrey Purcill was a choleric old gentleman, who, having had his own way all his life, was by no means inclined to forego that privilege now that he was advanced in years. As he sat beneath the chestnut-tree, one warm spring day, he felt very thirsty, and he suddenly thought what a good thing it would be to have a well there, so that he might refresh himself with a draught of clear, cool water, without the trouble of returning to the house. The more thirsty he grew, the pleasanter seemed the project to him,—a large, deep well, neatly stoned, with a sweep and buckets,—it would be a pretty object to look at, as well as comfort to man and beast. The well should be digged forthwith, and what Geoffrey Purcill once resolved upon he was not slow to execute; and, despite the remonstrances of those who knew better than he, the work was commenced at once.

A more unpromising place for a well could not have been selected in all his extensive grounds; but he was not a man to be patiently baffled even by Nature herself, and he stood looking with grim satisfaction at the hole which rapidly widened and deepened under the vigorous efforts of his sturdy workmen.

Day after day old Geoffrey watched his workmen on the knoll. The well increased in size till it was large enough to have watered a whole caravan,—but the desert of Sahara itself was not drier. Geoffrey fumed, raved, and swore; and when two of the men were killed by the falling of the earth, and the rest absolutely refused to work any longer, he bade them go, a pack of ungrateful scoundrels as they were, and, procuring more laborers, declared "he would dig there till the Devil came to fetch him."

Geoffrey was as good as his word;—he labored with a pertinacity worthy of a better object, and dug deeper into the bowels of the earth, and partly stoned his well,—but no water, save that which fell from heaven, ever appeared in it.

And when old Geoffrey was gathered to his fathers, he left his house and grounds to his only daughter, Eleanor Purcill, on the express condition that the well was not to be filled up, but to remain open till water did come into it.

One July day, when Geoffrey Purcill had been some twenty years with his fathers, or with Satan, (which two destinies might have been one and the same, after all, for he came of a turbulent, wicked race,) two children, a boy and girl, sat on the brink of the well and looked down into it. It was half filled with the rubbish of the fallen stones, but it was still deep, and dark enough to tempt their curious eyes into trying to discover what lay hidden in its shadowy depths. The great chestnut-tree, rich with drooping, feathery blossoms, shaded them from the burning sun,—a few stray beams only finding their way through the glossy leaves, and resting on the golden curls of the girl.

The boy leaned over the well, and peered into it;—the little girl bent forward, as if to do the same, but drew back again.

"Take hold of my hand, Mark," said she, "and let me lean over as you do."

"What do you want to look in for?" asked the boy,—"there is nothing to see. Oh, yes," continued he, mischievously, "there is a horrid dragon, just such as St. George fought with, lying all curled up in the bottom of the well, with fire and smoke coming out of his mouth."

Rosamond Purcill was too true a descendant of old Geoffrey to be frightened at the thought of a dragon. She caught hold of Mark's arm to steady herself, and leaned over the well.

"Let me see! let me see!" cried she, eagerly.

Mark made one or two feints of pushing her in, but at last held her firmly by the waist, while she looked in vain for the fabulous monster below.

"Where is he, Mark? I don't see anything, and I don't believe you saw him."

"Oh, yes, I did," said Mark;—"there, don't you see the end of his tail sticking out from under the largest stone? May-be he has had one little girl for breakfast this morning, and don't care about another for luncheon, or else he would spring up after you, and gobble you up in a minute."

"What stories, Mark! Aunt Eleanor says there are no dragons, nor ever were."

"Pooh!" retorted Mark, contemptuously,—"Aunt Eleanor has not seen everything that there is to be seen in the world. Look again, Rosy."

Again the little curly head was bent over the well, somewhat puzzled which to believe, Aunt Eleanor or Mark, but half-inclined to credit Mark's eyes rather than Aunt Eleanor's words.

"Do you think that can be one of his scales?" asked she, pointing to a small piece of tin which glittered in a stray sunbeam among the stones.

Mark's eyes followed the direction of her finger, and he was about to declare that it must be a scale that the dragon had scraped off his back, wriggling among the stones, when both children were startled by a loud voice calling out, "What are you doing, children? You will fall into the well and break your good-for-nothing little necks!"

Mark and Rosamond drew back, and saw a young man, their brother Bradford, with a basket and a fishing-rod in his hand, coming up the knoll.

"Why are you here, Mark?" asked he. "Aunt Eleanor thinks it a dangerous place, and has forbidden you to play here."

Mark looked up at his brother. "I come," said he, sturdily, "for that very reason,—because I am told not to. I won't mind Aunt Eleanor, nor any other woman."

Bradford shook his head and burst out into a laugh. "Ah, Mark, my boy," said he, with a serious, comical air, "it will do very well for you to talk,—you will find out, sooner or later, that all men have to do just what women wish."

Mark opened his incredulous eyes, and inwardly resolved that this should never be the case with him; and considering that Bradford was only eighteen it is somewhat remarkable that he should have gained so much wisdom, either by observation or experience, at so early an age.

"Mark says," chimed in Rosamond, "that there is a dragon at the bottom of the well; and I want to see him."

"A dragon?" cried Bradford,—"Mark is a story-teller, and you are a goose;—but if there is one, I will catch him for you";—and he stood on the brink of the well, and sportively threw his line into it.

"You are a pretty fellow to talk about catching a dragon, Brad!" retorted Mark, a little nettled at the tone in which Bradford spoke of him,—"you can't even catch a shiner!"—and he glanced at Bradford's empty basket.

Bradford laughed louder than before. "And for that very reason I expect to catch the dragon. One kind of a line will not catch all kinds of fish; and this line may be good for nothing but dragons, after all.—There! I've got a bite. Stand back, Rosy," cried he, "the dragon will be on the grass in a minute."

Bradford tried to pull up his line, but it was either entangled among the stones, or had some heavy object attached to it, for the rod bent beneath the weight as he with a strong pull endeavored to draw up his prize. Rosamond's eyes opened to their widest extent, and, fully expecting to see the dragon swinging wide-mouthed in the air over her head, drew a little closer to Mark, who, on his part, wondered what Bradford was at, and whether he was not playing some trick upon him.

When the end of the line rose to the top of the well, they saw suspended by the two hooks, not a winged, scaly monster, but a small rusty box, in the fastenings of which the hooks had caught.

Rosamond drew a long breath,—"Is that all, Bradford? I am so sorry! I thought, to be sure, you had the dragon."

"Never mind the dragon, Rosy," cried he; "let us see what I have caught. "Who knows but the purse of Fortunatus or the slipper of Cinderella may be in here?—they have been lost for many a day, and nobody knows where they are."

Bradford knelt down on the grass, and, unhooking his line, strove to undo the rusty hasp; but it resisted all the efforts of his fingers, and it was only by the aid of a knife and a stone that he opened the box. In it was a morocco case, much discolored, but still in tolerable preservation, from which he drew a small manuscript book.

Rosamond's disappointment was greater than before. "It is nothing but a writing-book, after all," said she. "I wish you had not said anything about the purse or slipper, and then I should never have thought of them. You never heard anybody say where they thought the purse and slipper were hid,—did you?"

"Come, Rosy," cried Mark, "come down to the meadow; there is nothing more to be got out of the old well. Let us leave Brad alone with his book and his fish."

The children turned away towards the meadow,—Rosamond meditating upon the probability of her ever finding the purse and slipper, if she should ever set out in quest of them, and Mark thinking what a fool such a big fellow as Bradford must be, to mind any woman that ever was born.

Bradford took the box and the book to the chestnut-tree, and, stretching himself at full length in the shade, began to turn over the leaves. It was a journal, written in a delicate, graceful hand; and though the paper was somewhat yellow, and the ink faded, the writing was perfectly legible. Bradford looked at it, carelessly reading here and there a sentence, till his eye catching some familiar names, he opened it at the commencement, and read as follows:—

"December 31.—It is the last night of the old year. A few more steps, and the old year will have vanished into the great hall of the Past, where all the ages that ever have been are gathered. I have been sitting the last hour by myself, and have fancied that time moved not with its usual swiftness,—that the old year lingered with a sad regret, as if loath to pass away and let the new come in. Even now the midnight clock is striking,—eleven,—twelve;—the last flutter of the old year's robe is out of sight, and the new year glides in with noiseless feet, like one who enters the chamber of the dead. These are but melancholy fancies;—because I am sad myself must I put all the world in mourning? The old year did not linger;—it is only I that am loath to go. I have been so happy here, that the prospect of spending the coming year with Cousin Eleanor fills my mind with sad forebodings;—and yet my childish remembrances of her have in them nothing unpleasant. I think of her as a grave, quiet woman, who never strove to attract and win the love of a child. How I shall miss the life and gayety, the jests and laughter of Madge and Bertha! Madge the more, because she is so full of whims and oddities. To-night she came into my room, and brought this little book for me to write a journal of all that befell me while I was gone, making me promise to write often in it. Not that she ever wished to see it again. Heaven forbid that she should ever be so cruelly punished as to be made to read anybody's journal!—least of all such a stupid one as mine must be, shut up with Cousin Eleanor!—but she thought that I could never draw the book from the case (she had chosen one that fitted very tightly, and would give me much trouble for that very reason) without thinking of her;—and to be thought of often by her friends she confesses she is weak enough to wish.—Dear Madge, I could not forget her, if I would. The book just fits in a little japanned box that belonged to my grandmother, in which she used to keep rouge and pearl-powder. I will keep it in that, and remember my promise to Madge.

"February 21.—The journey is over, and I am at Cousin Eleanor's. How the evils that we dread shrink into nothing when we fairly meet them! Cousin Cousin Eleanor received me kindly, and looked neither so grave nor so cold as my memory, assisted by my imagination, had pictured her; and Ashcroft is a pretty place, even in midwinter. I am never tired of sitting at the library-window, and looking at the bare branches of the black ash-trees, as they spread out their network against the winter sky. I have a little desk near the bay-window, where I have my drawing and writing materials, and where I pretend to write and draw, while Eleanor occupies a larger one at the opposite window. Eleanor is a woman of business,—keeps all her accounts, looks after her farm and servants, and manages all her own affairs, and, though a strict and exacting mistress, is neither harsh nor unkind;—she evidently intends to perform all her own duties punctually and faithfully, and expects others to do the same. I often look at her with wonder, her nature is so different from mine,—never impulsive, always cool and steady,—full of ceaseless activity, yet never hurried, and seemingly never perplexed. I sometimes think she sees the whole of her life mapped out before her, and takes up every event in order. With the exception of the servants, we are the only occupants of the house, Eleanor does not seek nor desire the society of her neighbors; and so while she works I dream, read, or answer Madge or Bertha's letters.

"February 28.—It has been snowing ceaselessly for two days. I have read, drawn, and sewed till I am as weary as Marianna in the moated grange. I have yawned aloud a dozen times, but Eleanor does not mind it. She has been extremely busy with accounts, papers, and letters. For the last four hours I do not think she has spoken a word. I hear nothing but the scratch of her pen as it moves over the paper, and the wind in the ash-trees. I have taken Madge's journal in despair. Ah, Madge! I wish the bonnie girl were here;—how we would talk nonsense by the hour together, just to keep our tongues in practice, and Madge would hunt down an idea through all its turnings and windings, as if it were a hare, and she a dog in chase of it! A ring at the door;—I hope it may be some human body that will make Cousin Eleanor open her lips at last.

"March 1.—The blots on the opposite page show with what haste I shut up my journal yesterday. The ring at the door brought more than I anticipated, and opened my eyes effectually for the rest of the day. 'Mr. Lee,' said the servant, throwing the library-door wide open, and ushering in a man wrapped in a cloak, with a travelling-cap in his hand. Cousin Eleanor rose instantly, and advanced to meet him. I expected to see her extend her hand towards him, and welcome him in her usual courteous manner. Instead of that, she gave him a hearty kiss, which could be heard as well as felt, and which was returned, as I thought, with interest. If the marble Widow Wadman in the library had kissed the sympathizing face of Uncle Toby, I should not have been so much surprised, and should have thought it much more likely to happen.

"'I am very glad to see you, Thornton,' said she. 'I did not think you could come till to-morrow.'

"'I have made the best use of my time,' returned he, 'and had no wish to spend my precious hours at a country inn. It seemed good to see winter and snow again, after so many months of summer.'

"Bending forward to catch a better view of him as he spoke, the rustling of my dress reminded Eleanor of my presence.

"'My cousin Elizabeth Purcill, Thornton Lee,' said she. 'My two good friends I hope will also be friends to each other.'

"Mr. Lee made me a gentlemanly bow, and said something about the pleasure of seeing me; but more than suspecting that my presence in the library was no pleasure to either of them, I shut up my journal, crowded it into the box, and stole out of the room at the first convenient opportunity. On the stairs I met Mrs. Bickford, the housekeeper.

"'Is any one in the library with Miss Purcill?' asked she.

"'Yes,—a Mr. Lee.'

"'Mr. Lee?' exclaimed she, in surprise. 'I did not know as he was expected home now.'

"'Who is Mr. Lee?'

"'He is the gentleman whom Miss Purcill is to marry; but I thought he was not coming till autumn. I wonder if she knew it.'

"What Eleanor knows she always keeps to herself; none of her household are any the wiser for it. I was more surprised than Mrs. Bickford. Eleanor affianced! I never thought or dreamed of such a thing. Eleanor in love must be a curious spectacle. I did not feel sleepy any longer. What could a woman, so independent, so self-relying, so sufficient for herself, want of a lover? She always seemed to be a whole, and did not need another half to complete herself. I speculated much on the subject, and, when the bell rang for tea, went down-stairs with something of the same feeling of eager curiosity with which I open the pages of a good novel. There is nothing so interesting to idle, observant people as a pair of lovers, provided they are not silly, in which stage they are perfectly unbearable, and never should suffer themselves to be seen even by their intimate friends. Was it my fancy, or not? I thought Eleanor had grown young since I left the library. A soft light beamed in her eyes, and a clear crimson—the first trace of color I had ever seen in her face—burned on her cheek. It was a very different countenance from that at which I had been casting sidelong glances half the day, and yet it seemed to me that she was ashamed of these signs of joy, and thought it but a weakness to feel so glad. I sat silent nearly all the evening;—words always come more readily to my pen than to my lips, and, were it not so, there would have been no occasion for any speech of mine. Their conversation flowed on uninterruptedly, like a full, free river, whose current is strong and deep. How much richer both their lives seemed than mine! He had travelled, thought, seen, and felt so much, and had brought such wealth home with him, fitly coined into aptly chosen words; and she had gathered treasures as priceless from the literature of her own and foreign lands. I had nothing to offer either of them but my ears, and for those I doubt whether they felt grateful,—and when that doubt became a certainty, I crept into the great window in the drawing-room, and looked out upon the lawn. The moon, breaking through the clouds, shone brightly on the new-fallen snow. I sat down on a low chair,—the curtains fell about me,—their voices came to me with a low, dreamy sound,—I leaned my head on my hand, and fell asleep. When I awoke, the fire had died away, and the chairs were empty.

"March 20.—Mr. Lee comes every day. His father lives only a few miles from us,—a distance so short as to be no obstacle to a lover with a good horse; though I suspect, if the horse could speak, he would wish the distance either less or greater. These midnight rides must be detrimental to the constitution of any steady horse, and he often wakes me up at night, pawing impatiently under the window while his master is making his lingering adieux on the door-step.

"April 1.—I dislike Eleanor more every day. I know not why, unless because I watch her so closely. When Mr. Lee is not here she works as industriously as ever. If I were in love, I would give myself up to a dream or reverie now and then, and build myself an air-castle, if it were only to see it tumble down, and call myself a fool for my pains; but she is too matter-of-fact to do that. Well, if there is not much romance about her love, perhaps there is more reality; yet Thornton Lee is just the man one could make an ideal of, if one only would. But this is not what I especially dislike her for; people must love according to their own nature and temperament, and not after another's pattern. The thing that frets me most just now is the way that Eleanor has of divining my thoughts before they are spoken, and even before they are quite clear to myself. Sometimes, when we are talking together, some subject comes up on which I do not care to express my opinion. Eleanor fixes her clear, penetrating eyes upon me, and drags my thought out into the light, just as a kingfisher pounces upon and pulls a fish out of the water. Had I anything to conceal, any secret, I should be afraid of her; and as it is, I do not like this invasion of my personal kingdom,—though my thoughts often acquire new strength and beauty from Eleanor's strong and vigorous language. Last evening, Mr. Lee, Eleanor, and myself were turning over the prints in a large portfolio. We paused at one, the Departure of Hagar into the Wilderness. The artist had represented Hagar turning away from the door of the tent with Ishmael and the bottle of water; Abraham was near her; while Sarah in the background with a triumphant face exulted at the driving out of the bondmaid. The picture had not much merit as a work of Art; but in Hagar's face was such a look of despairing, wistful tenderness, as she turned towards Abraham for the last time, that it moved me almost to tears. I drew a long breath as the picture was turned over. Looking up, I saw Eleanor's eyes fixed upon me.

"'You pity Hagar, then? You think it was a harsh and cruel thing to drive her out into the wilderness with her child?'

"'Yes,' said I, shortly,—a little provoked that she should have seen it in my face.

"She went on: 'Sarah was right. Had I been she, I would have driven her out as remorselessly and as pitilessly. Did she not, presuming upon her youth, her beauty, and her child, despise her mistress? and why should her mistress feel compassion for her? The love of a long life might well thrust aside the passion of a few months, and Sarah, contemned by her bondmaid, is more worthy of pity than Hagar, in my eyes.'

"I was about to say that Sarah was more to blame for Hagar's conduct than she was herself, when Mr. Lee observed 'that Abraham was more to be pitied than either of them, for he was unable or unwilling to protect either of the women whom he loved,—his wife from the contempt of her bondmaid, or the bondmaid from the fury of his wife.'

"I fancied Eleanor did not exactly like this remark, for she turned to the next print hastily and began commenting upon it.

"May 6.—The groves and fields are beautiful with the fresh beauty of the early spring. We have given up our winter occupations for long rambles on the hills and in the woods. I sometimes decline being a third in the lovers' walks; but Eleanor seems so dissatisfied, if I refuse to accompany them, that I consent, lagging behind often, and have learned to be both blind and deaf as occasion requires. I think, too, that Mr. Lee is not sorry to have me with them. He and Eleanor have been separated for three years, and I sometimes wonder if they have not grown away from each other in that time. A long absence is a dangerous experiment even for friends, much more for lovers. Besides, no life is long enough to allow such great gaps in it.

"June 1.—We were sitting yesterday under the ash-trees on the lawn,—Eleanor netting, Mr. Lee reading Dante aloud, and I making myself rings and bracelets out of the shining blades of grass, and pretending to listen, when a servant brought Eleanor a letter. It was very short, for she did not turn the leaf. When she had read it she drew out her watch.

"'I have an hour before the express-train starts. Tell Mrs. Bickford to pack my trunk for a journey. Harness the black horse to drive to the station.'

"She put the letter into Mr. Lee's hands. 'My brother is very ill, and I shall go to him at once. Elizabeth, I am sorry to leave you here alone, but while I am gone I hope Thornton will consider you under his charge and protection.'

"She rose, as she spoke, and went towards the house, followed by Thornton. In a few minutes she appeared again, dressed in a gray travelling-dress,—kissed me lightly on the check, and bade me good-bye. All her preparations for this long journey had been made without any hurry or confusion, and she did not apparently feel so agitated or nervous at the thought of travelling this distance alone as I should to have gone by myself to the nearest town. Why Thornton did not accompany her, whether he could not or she did not wish it, I do not know; but he parted from her at the station, and soon returned for his horse.

"July 1.—Eleanor has been gone a month; in that time we have received but one letter from her. Her brother still lies in a very critical state, and she will not leave him at present. His motherless children, too, she thinks require her care. It seemed very lonesome at first without her. I did not think I could have missed an uncongenial person, one with whom I had so little sympathy, so much. I think I must belong to the tribe of creeping plants, which cling to whatever is nearest to them. Ashcroft grows daily more beautiful, and Thornton comes often to see me. We read together books that I like, (not Dante,) walk and sketch. We are on excellent terms, and call each other Cousin in view of our future relationship. I can talk more freely to him, now that Eleanor is not here,—and feel no disposition to hide my thoughts, now that I can keep them to myself, if I choose.

"July 24.—A week ago, one fair midsummer afternoon, we strolled to the knoll, and sat down under the blossoming boughs of the chestnut-tree.

"'I think,' said I, 'this is the pleasantest place in all the grounds; but Eleanor never seemed willing to come here.'

"'Eleanor has many unpleasant remembrances connected with the place,' replied Thornton. 'Her father's obstinate persistence in digging the well was a great annoyance to the whole household, and, unimaginative as Eleanor is, I fancy sometimes, from her avoidance of the spot, that she has some superstitious idea connected with the well,—that she fears through it some great misfortune may happen to some of the family.'

"'I hardly see how that can be,' said I, rising and going to the brink of the well; 'it is very deep, but there was never any water in it.'

"Just then I caught sight of a little flower growing out of the cleft of one of the stones. I knelt down and bent over to reach it. I slipped, I know not how, and should have fallen, had not Thornton sprung to my side and caught me.

"'Ah, my foolish cousin!' said he, 'there needs not to be water in the well to make it a dangerous place. Promise me that you will not attempt such a thing again.'

"'Not I,' said I, laughing gayly to conceal my fright,—for I did think I was about to break my neck on the stones below. 'There is no harm done, and I have got what I was after,'—and I held up the flower.

"It was an ugly little thing, and looked not half so pretty in my hand as it did in the shadow of the well. I would not have gathered it, had I seen it growing by the roadside. 'Is it not pretty?'

"'Humph!' said he, 'very!—worth breaking one's neck for!'

"'I was about to offer it to you, but, since you despise it, I will keep it myself,'—and I stuck it into my hair.

"Some time after, I missed the flower. I did not see it on the grass, but a leaf strangely similar peeped out of Thornton's waistcoat-pocket. When we passed by the well, on leaving the knoll, 'Promise me,' said he again, 'that you will not reach over the well for flowers any more.'

"I was a little irritated at his pertinacity. 'I shall do no such thing,' returned I; 'you are growing as superstitious as Eleanor. On the contrary, I think I shall make a garden there and tend it every day; and whenever I go away from Ashcroft, I will leave something on the stone for you, to show how idle your fears are.'

"Thornton did not answer. He was provoked, but showed his anger only by his silence. We sauntered back to the house in a different mood from that in which we had left it.

"August 4.—Thornton came into the library to-day with a letter from Eleanor. She cannot leave her brother, and wrote to Thornton about some papers that she wished sent to her without delay. They were in the drawer of the desk at which I was sitting. Thornton said he was in haste, as he wished to prepare the packet for the next mail. I rose at once. In his hurry he knocked the little japanned box on to the floor. Begging pardon for his awkwardness, he picked it up, and looked at it a moment to assure himself that it had suffered no damage.

"'It is a curious little thing,' said he, 'and looks as if it were a hundred years old.'

"'It belonged once to my grandmother, and held pearl-powder and rouge,' said I.

"'And is used for the same purpose now?' inquired he.

"'Yes,' returned I, my cheek reddening a little. 'I was just putting some on as you entered.'

"'It must be very uncommon rouge,' remarked he, quietly fixing his eyes on me; 'it grows red after it is put on, and must require much care in the use of it.'

"'I thought you were in a great hurry, Thornton, when you came in.'

"'And so I am';—and he began undoing and separating papers, but every few moments he would steal a glance—a glance that made me feel uneasy—towards me, as I sat at the other window busying myself with my needle.

"August 25.—I wish Eleanor would come home. I sometimes think I will go away; but to leave Ashcroft now would imply a doubt of Thornton's honor, and impute thoughts to him which perhaps have no existence but in my vanity.

"October 3.—Ah, why was I so foolish? Why did I not go when I saw the danger so clearly, instead of cheating myself into the belief that there was none? Would that I had never come to Ashcroft, or had had the courage to leave it! These last six weeks, I do not know, I cannot tell, how they have been spent. Thornton was ever by my side, and I—did not wish him away. We sat this afternoon on the lawn under the great ash-tree,—the one under which he sat reading Dante to Eleanor the last day she was with us. The love which had burned in his eyes all day found utterance at last, and flamed out in fiery, passionate words. He drew me towards him. His vehemence frightened me, and I muttered something about Eleanor. It checked him for a moment, but, quickly recovering, he spoke freely of himself and of her,—of the love which had existed between them,—a feeling so feeble and so poor, compared to that which he felt for me, as to be unworthy of the name. He entreated, he implored my love. I was silent. He bent over me, gazing into my face. There was a traitor lurking in my heart, which looked out of my eyes, and spoke without my consent. He understood that language but too well. I bent my eyes upon the ground,—his arm was around my waist, his hand clasped mine, his lips approached my cheek. A shadow seemed suddenly to come between me and the sun. I looked up and saw Eleanor, clad in mourning, standing before us. I started at once to my feet, and, like the coward that I am, fled and left them together. I ran down to the old hawthorn-tree, against which I leaned, panting and trembling. Yet, in a few moments, ashamed of my weakness, I stole back to where I could see them unobserved. Eleanor stood upon the same spot, calm and motionless. Thornton was speaking, but I was too far off to hear more than the sound of his voice. When he had ended, he approached her, as if to bid her adieu; but she passed him with a stately bow, and entered the hall-door. Thornton took his way to the stables, and I soon heard the clattering of his horse's hoofs on the hard gravelled road. When the sound died away in the distance, I stole into the house and crept up to my chamber. How long I was there I could not tell; but when I heard the bell ring for tea, I washed my face and smoothed my hair. I would not be so cowardly as to fear to see Eleanor again, and perhaps it would be better for us both to meet in the presence of a third person.

"Mrs. Bickford was alone at the table. 'Miss Purcill would not come down tonight,—she was fatigued with her journey.'

"The good lady strove to entertain me with her conversation, but, finding that I neither heard, answered, nor ate, our meal was soon brought to a close. It is long past midnight. I have thought till I am sick and giddy with thinking. I cannot sleep, and have been writing here to control the wildness of my imaginings. I have been twice to Eleanor's chamber. The door is half ground-glass, and I can see her black shadow as she walks to and fro across the room. She has been walking so ever since she entered it.

"October 4.—What shall I do? Where shall I go? All night and all day Eleanor has walked her chamber-floor. I have been to the door. I have knocked. I have called her by name. I have turned the handle,—the door is locked. No answer comes to me,—nothing but the black shadow flitting across the panes. I sat down by the threshold and burst into tears.

"Mrs. Bickford found me there. 'Do not grieve so, Miss Elizabeth,' said she, kindly. 'It is dreadful, I know; but Miss Purcill walked the floor all night after her father died, and would admit no one to her room. She will be better to-morrow.'

"I shook my head. Could I believe that grief for the dead, and not sorrow for the conduct of the living, moved her thus, I should be happy. Then I could offer consolation and sympathy; but now, if I saw her, what could I say? Pity, sorrow for her grief, would be but idle words, which she would spurn with contempt,—and she would be right. There is but one thing left for me,—I must go from Ashcroft; then, perhaps, she and Thornton—But no, it cannot be; so wide asunder, they cannot come together again. And do I wish it? Is not his love as much mine now as it ever was hers? Ah, how some words once spoken cannot be forgotten! Before me now is the little picture of Hagar, which Eleanor had framed and hung in the library. Did she place it before my eyes as a warning to me? In Hagar's fate I see my own; for even now I hear Eleanor asking if the passion of a few hours is to thrust aside the love of long years. The bondmaid will go ere she is driven out. But Thornton—I cannot, will not, see him again. He has written to me to-day, saying that he cannot come here, and asking me to meet him at the well to-morrow. By that time I shall be far on my way to Madge. He will wait for me, and I shall not come. How can I leave him thus? He will believe me heartless and cruel. I grieve even now for his pain and grief. He will think that I did not love, but only sported with him. How dearly I love him words cannot tell; and I go that his way may be smoother, and that in my absence he may find—peace at last. A little dried flower lies on the page that I turned. It is one of those that grew in the well, that I wore on my bosom one day, that he might see and know it, and chide me for having been there again. His chiding was sweeter to me than others' praise. I will not be so unjust to myself. I will not go without one word. I jestingly told him once I would leave a token for him on the stone in the well when I went away from Ashcroft. I will put my journal there. He will see the box and remember it. He will learn that I have gone, and will know that I love, but that I leave and renounce him."

The remaining pages of the book were blank. Elizabeth Purcill's journal was ended. Bradford was busy with conjectures. Why had not Thornton found and kept the journal intended for him? Had it fallen at once to the bottom of the well, and lain there for years, while he waited in vain for her coming or her token? Her departure had not brought Eleanor Purcill and Thornton Lee together; for his aunt still remained unwedded, and he came every Sunday to the village church, with a sweet matronly-faced woman on his arm, and two children by his side.

Bradford thrust the journal into his pocket, took up his fishing-rod and basket, and sauntered towards the village. He thought he remembered the name of Elizabeth Purcill on a head-stone in the church-yard. He opened the little wicket and went in. The setting sun threw the long shadows of the head-stones across the thick, rank grass. The sounds of the village children at play on the green came to his ear softened and mellowed by the distance.

He turned towards the spot where, year after year, the Purcills had been gathered,—those who had died in their beds in their native town, and those who had perished in far-off climes, and whose bones had been brought to moulder by the old church-wall. He found the stone, and, bending down, read, "Elizabeth Purcill, died Oct. 5th, 18—, aged 19." Bradford opened the journal and looked at the last date. She had died, then, the day after the journal was ended. But how, and where?

He sat down on the flat stone which covered his grandfather, and turned over the pages again, as if they could tell him more than he already knew. So absorbed was he, that he did not see a woman who a few minutes afterwards knelt down before the same stone, and with a sickle began to cut away the weeds and grass.

Bradford looked up at last, and, as the woman raised her head for an instant, saw that it was Mrs. Bickford. He approached her and called her by name. She gave a little start, as she heard his voice.

"Why, Master Bradford, who would have thought of seeing you here at this time?"

Bradford smiled. "Whose grave is this that you are taking such pains to clear?"

She pointed to the name with her sickle.

"Yes, I know all that that can tell me. But who was Elizabeth Purcill?—what relation was she to me?—and how came she to die so young, and to be buried here?"

"Why do you think I should know?" she replied. "People often die young; and no matter where the Purcills die, they all wish to come here at last;—that one died in Cuba,—that in France,—that in Greece,—and that at sea." And she turned her hand towards them, as she spoke.

"But you do not care for their graves; look, how the grass and weeds nod over that tombstone; and you would not clear this, unless you knew something about the girl that lies underneath it."

"It is an old story," said she, with a sigh, "and I can tell you but little of it." She laid her sickle down on the cut grass and sat down by it.

"Elizabeth Purcill was the daughter of your grandfather's brother, and therefore your father's cousin. Long as I have lived in the family, I never saw him; for he went to India, while a young man, to seek a fortune, which was found too late to benefit either himself or his children. Elizabeth, his eldest daughter, was sent home for her education, and lived first with one of her kinsfolk, and then another, as her father's whims or their convenience dictated. You remember, though so young, when your Aunt Eleanor came to your father's house on her way to your Uncle Erasmus in his last illness?"

Bradford nodded.

"A little before that time Elizabeth Purcill came to Ashcroft. She was a pretty, lively girl, and it was pleasant to see in our sober household one who had time to be idle and could laugh. Your Aunt Eleanor was always a busy woman,—busier then than she is now,—and had no time for mirth. Every servant in the house liked Miss Elizabeth for her sunny smile and her pleasant ways. Shortly afterwards, Thornton Lee came home. He had been three years in Africa, and he and your aunt were to be married in the autumn.

"When Miss Purcill went away, Mr. Lee remained, and came often to see Miss Elizabeth. She had a winsome face, that few men could look upon and not love; and I sometimes thought, when I saw them together, how much better she was suited to Mr. Lee than your Aunt Eleanor, and wondered if he had not found it out himself. Your aunt was away a long time, and, by some mistake, the letter, saying that she was coming home, did not reach us till the day after her arrival.

"It was a beautiful October afternoon. I had been gathering the grapes that grew on the garden wall, and was carrying a basket of them to Miss Elizabeth, whom I had seen, half an hour before, with Mr. Lee, on the lawn. As I was crossing the hall, Miss Purcill, dressed in deep mourning, looking ghastly pale, entered the front door. I started as if I had seen a ghost, and dropped my basket. Miss Eleanor passed me quickly and went up-stairs. I spoke to her. She did not answer, but, entering her chamber, fastened the door behind her.

"I looked out of the window. No one was on the lawn; but presently I saw Mr. Lee coming out of the stable, leading his horse. He mounted and was out of sight in an instant. Miss Elizabeth was nowhere to be seen. What had happened I could not tell. I could only guess.

"Miss Elizabeth was the only one who came to tea, and her eyes were heavy and dull, and she seemed like one in a dream. That night was a wretched one to both. When I went to the library to see if the windows were fastened for the night, Miss Elizabeth sat by the smouldering fire with her face buried in her hands. I shut the door softly and left her, and till I slept I heard Miss Eleanor's steps across her chamber-floor.

"The day was no better than the night. Miss Purcill did not leave her room, and her cousin wandered about the house, as if her thoughts would not let her rest. Once I found her in tears at your aunt's door, and tried to console her; but she shook her head impatiently, as if I could not understand the cause of her grief.

"The next morning, while I was dressing, my niece Sally came to me in great haste, saying that Roger, the gardener, wished to see me at once. I hurried on my clothes and went down. I knew by the man's face that something dreadful had happened; but when he told me that he had been to the old well, and had found Miss Elizabeth lying dead at the bottom of it, I felt as if I was stunned.

"I roused myself at last. I ran to Miss Purcill's door. I shook it violently and called her by name. She came and opened the door in her night-dress. Somehow, I know not and cared not how, for it seemed to me that she had something to do with all this, I told her that her Cousin Elizabeth was lying dead at the bottom of the old well. She staggered and leaned against the door like one who had received a heavy blow. For a moment I repented my roughness. But she was soon herself again. She thrust her feet into her slippers, and, wrapping her dressing-gown about her, went down-stairs, and gave directions, as calmly and collectedly as if she were (Heaven help her!) ordering a dinner for the men—to bring the body home. Ah, me! I never shall forget how the poor thing looked when the four men who bore the litter set it down on the library-floor. A bruise on the temple showed where she had struck on the cruel stones. The hoarfrost, which had turned into drops of dew, glittered among her soft brown curls."

The tears which had been gathering in Mrs. Bickford's eyes fell in large drops into her lap as she went on.

"On the day of the funeral, she lay in the library, still and cold in her coffin. I had gathered a few flowers, with which I was vainly trying to cheat death into looking more like life, by placing them on her bosom and in her stiffened fingers. Miss Eleanor sat at the foot of the coffin, almost as motionless as the form within it. I had finished my task and turned away, when the door opened and Mr. Lee came in silently. A slight shudder went through him, as he came to the coffin and bent over it. What a change had three days made in the man! Ten years would not have taken so much youth and life from him and made him look so old and wan. He looked upon her as a man who looks his last upon what he loved best in the world;—his whole soul was in his eyes.

"I think he did not see Miss Eleanor till he was about to leave the room. She had not spoken, and he was unconscious of her presence. He turned towards her and held out his hand; his lips moved, but no words escaped them. I heard Miss Purcill's low, unfaltering answer to his unspoken thoughts. She did not take his proffered hand, but said, 'Nothing can unite us again, Thornton,—not even death.'

"His hand dropped by his side;—he quickly left the room, and never came to Ashcroft again. When I went to take a last look of Miss Elizabeth, I saw that the white rose which I had placed in her hand was gone;—he had taken it."

Mrs. Bickford paused. Her story was ended. In a few minutes she took up her sickle again, and Bradford stood leaning against the head-stone till the grass was all cut on the grave. He had no more questions to ask,—for the journal had told him more of the dead below, than Mrs. Bickford, with all her love and sympathy, could do. She had fallen into the well, then, while endeavoring to place the box on the stone. When Mrs. Bickford's task was done, she walked silently back to Ashcroft with Bradford.

Late in the evening he was alone in the library with his Aunt Eleanor. The picture of Hagar, now so full of interest to him, still hung on the wall, and the little desk was at the window which looked out upon the lawn. Should he show the journal to his aunt, or keep it to himself? Would Elizabeth Purcill wish her Cousin Eleanor to read her written words as she once read her untold thoughts?

Wrapped up in his own musings, he started suddenly when Miss Purcill said to him, "Rosamond tells me that you found a book to-day in the old well; what was it?"—and answered promptly, "It was Elizabeth Purcill's journal."

It was the first time Eleanor had heard the name for years. She showed no signs of emotion. "I should like to see it," said she; "give it to me."

Bradford had been brought up in such habits of obedience, that he never thought of disputing his aunt's command. He drew the journal from his pocket and handed it to her without speaking.

"You have read it?" said she, fixing her keen eyes upon him.

"Yes."

She drew the lamp towards her and opened the book. The shade on the lamp kept the light from her face; but had Bradford seen it, it would have told him no more of the thoughts beneath it than the stone in the churchyard had told him of Elizabeth Purcill.

He watched her turning over the leaves slowly, and thought that her hand trembled a little at the close. Those pages must have stirred many a memory and many a grief, as the wind shakes the bare boughs of the trees, though blossom, fruit, and leaves have long since fallen.

She closed the book, and spoke at last:—"I think, Bradford, this book belongs rightfully but to one person,—Mr. Thornton Lee. Shall I send it to him?"

Eleanor's question was uttered in a tone that seemed to admit of but one reply. Bradford assented. If he might not keep the journal himself, he would rather Thornton Lee should have it than his aunt.

The next day, Thornton Lee received a small packet, accompanied by a note which ran thus:—

"To do justice to the memory of one who, years ago, came between us, I send you this little book, found in the old well yesterday. From it you will learn how she came by her death, and—how much she loved you. Eleanor Purcill."

As Thornton Lee read the journal, his children climbed his knee and twined his gray curls around their fingers, and his wife came and leaned sportively over his shoulder and looked at the yellow leaves.

In some lives, as in some years, there is an after-summer; but in others, the hoar-frosts are succeeded by the winter snow.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.