The Folly of Others/Constancy
MISS LOWELL and her visitor sat on the little porch in the hot hush of the summer evening. They had just had tea. The man held a large black cigar in his fingers. He was big, broad-shouldered, and erect. His dark hair and close-clipped beard were grizzling; his skin showed the touch of a fiercer sun and a freer wind in its deep bronze. He had discarded his coat, and his light blue flannel shirt and broad silk belt appeared in novel splendor to the timid glances of Miss Lowell.
He was her nephew, but she had not seen him for twenty years, and she could not yet quite identify this personage with the slender boy who—not so long ago it seemed—had left the village to seek his fortune in the vague "West."
They had been talking—Richard answering her questions—of his success, and he had sketched lightly for her his early life at the mines and his sub sequent experiments in sheep-farming, orange-raising, hauling pine lumber, editing a Republican newspaper in a Democratic town, speculating in real estate during "the boom," and starting in again, when that bubble had collapsed, as half partner in a fruit and newspaper stand, with a joint capital of thirty dollars. He had told her something of the little Colorado woman who had married him in the days of his poverty and had stuck by him and worked with him through those hard times and then had died just when prosperity was in sight. And finally he had told—as nearly as he knew—how many thousand acres of wheat-land and head of cattle he owned; and, overwhelmed by these carelessly mentioned figures, Miss Lowell had relapsed into silence, while the cicadas droned in the maple-trees, and a cricket under the porch broke into staccato protest against further interruption.
At length Richard definitely produced his cigar and rose.
"I believe I'll take a stroll and a smoke," he said, in his fine bass tones, softened to the pitch of the quiet evening.
"Certainly," said his small aunt, a trifle nervously. She wondered whether she ought to tell him that she didn't mind the smoke, but her courage failed her. He did not go at once, however, but stood leaning against one of the vine-covered posts of the porch, looking out into the deepening dusk, the unlighted cigar in his mouth. He took it out to say, slowly,—
"I passed the old Bascom place on the way up this afternoon. Seemed to be shut up. I suppose no body's living there now?"
Miss Lowell gave an audible gasp. There was a long pause before she said, feebly,—
"Yes; Almiry's living there."
"Mira! You don't say so! Is she—all by herself?"
"Yes. Her father died as much as ten years ago. Hal's married and living in Boston, or was, last I heard."
"Mira ever married?"
"Dear me! no."
There was another pause. Miss Lowell rocked nervously, and her nephew gazed meditatively at the freshly-sprinkled lawn.
"Mira must be getting on, too," he said, ruminatingly. "I'm forty-one myself, and she must be pretty near that. Naturally she wouldn't show as much wear and tear as an old hulk like me, though, that's knocked around in all kinds of rough weather. 'M—seen her lately?"
"No; I don't know's I have. No, I haven't," said Miss Lowell, palpitating, but truthful.
"Oh! Perhaps she don't know I'm here then. I was thinking I'd drop in there for a minute "
"Oh, don't, Richard! I mean, I don't believe I would——"
"Wouldn't, eh? Well, why not?"
He laughed indulgently.
"I suppose that means you've quarrelled about something. Perhaps you don't speak. It that it?"
"Well, yes, we—haven't spoken for some time. And perhaps she won't be expecting you, you know——"
"Oh, I daresay the neighbors have told her. I remember how news used to fly about in the old times. But I'm sorry you and Almira don't hitch. I've a sort of a—an interest in her, you know; and I thought you'd tell me about her,—how she's been getting on, and all that."
"I don't believe I can, Richard. I haven't seen her for—for some—I haven't seen her for twenty years!"
Miss Lowell brought out the last words with a jerk.
"What! Why, Aunt Jemima, what do you mean?"
The big man turned and looked down on the shrinking figure in the rocking-chair.
"Well, I haven't. But it ain't my fault. She don't want to see me."
"But do you mean you haven't seen her since I went away?"
"No. I've seen her once since then. I went over to see her, and she told me right to my face I needn't trouble to come again, and I haven't." The little woman rose to her feet. "I might as well tell you, Richard, just how crazy she is, and then I guess you'll think twice before you go to see her. Do you remember her telling you that if you went West she'd never step over her door-sill again, till she was carried out? Well, you went, and Almiry's kept her word. She hasn't set foot outside her door for twenty years. When the house caught fire four years ago this Fourth of July, they carried her out. And next day she made 'em carry her back again before she'd have the roof mended or anything, and there she's stayed ever since. Well do I remember, the day after you left town, your mother and I went over as you asked us, to try and talk her into reason. Land! She turned on us like a crazy woman, accusing us of putting it into your head to desert her, and I don't know what all. Before we knew it we found ourselves on the front stoop with the door shut and locked behind us; and never from that day to this have I set eyes on Almiry Bascom."
Lowell stirred at last, straightened himself up, and absently felt for a match. Finally he extracted the silver case from the pocket of his coat and took up his broad Panama hat.
"Well, I think I'll go and smoke," he repeated, and went down the steps along the gravelled path, bordered with sweet alyssum and rows of lilac-trees, to the gate. Here he paused a moment to light his cigar, then went on down the walk, his firm regular tread echoing from the gray worn boards through the empty street. He walked slowly, his head bent and his hands clasped behind him, two fingers holding the cigar, which presently went dejectedly out. He forgot to relight it.
A few people passed him, generally in pairs, walking close together in the shadow of the trees. A passing buggy stirred up a cloud of dust from the road, but the neat lawns on either side were exquisitely kept, fresh and glistening. Lowell counted the changes which twenty years had made in the street he remembered; here and there a new house had been built or an old one altered; most of them, new and old, had an air of quiet prosperity.
The Bascom place stood on a corner. The large front yard was well kept and full of the pale roses he recollected; the house had been newly painted. The green blinds of all the front windows were closed, but a keen observer would have noted that the slats were open. Behind the house, where the grass used to grow long and thick and the old apple-trees stood in rows, sounded the shrill voice of a small boy upbraiding a stubborn cow. Richard Lowell, walking slowly past, looked closely at the house, which seemed to sleep behind its shutters. The thought of the woman in there moved him strangely. Twenty years within those four walls—what a nun's life! It would have seemed impossible to him if he had not himself been New England born and bred and used to see the unyielding granite crop up in unexpected places through the grass and flowers. As it was, this sudden disclosure of Mira Bascom's "craziness" came upon him with a confusing shock.
He had not heard from the village since his mother's death, soon after his own departure. But he had always meant vaguely, when he had "made his pile," to go back and see again his boyhood's haunts,—and perhaps Mira Bascom; if she were a Bascom still, which of course was improbable. She had been the village belle. Not exactly his first love, but certainly the strongest and most vivid emotion of his life, had been given to her. In the hard drifting years since he had left her there had been no time to cultivate the softer feelings; romance had gone to the wall. Mary, poor soul, had not appealed to that hidden vein in his nature. She had not been pretty nor poetic. And since her death, though he was now successful and still a young man, and though many women had looked kindly on him, he had not felt moved to appropriate any one of them. He had taken it for granted that passion was lost to him with his youth and the only woman who had ever inspired it. He wondered now if Mira Bascom were still pretty.
He did not call on her that first evening, though he walked past the gate four times, unaware of the fact that behind one of those slanting shutters a pale woman stood watching him pass and repass. The nun in her chosen cell had and made use of means of communication with the world, in the shape generally of Jimmy the chore-boy. She knew whose was the tall figure on the side-walk. She stood at the window when she could no longer see him; she heard his slow footsteps go by for the last time and die away.
Half an hour later she went upstairs to her bedroom. Between its two windows hung a long old-fashioned mirror, with carved candelabra on either side. She lighted the three candles in each. The mirror showed a tall slim figure, a face as colorless as an anemone, an abundance of auburn hair carefully arranged. Mira Bascom studied this reflection closely. Then she unlocked a black walnut chest which stood in a corner and lifted out its contents till she came to a mass of pale muslin, which diffused an odor of lavender as she shook it out. It was a white gown with lilac sprigs, made with the full skirts and sleeves of a bygone fashion. She put it on, fastened the belt of lilac ribbon, which still fitted exactly, and, standing again before the mirror, loosened slightly the bands of her beautiful wavy hair and pulled it into little curls about her face. It was a vision of youth which looked back at her from the glass. Not a thread of gray showed in the hair; in the kind light the fine lines about the eyes were invisible. The skin had the dead whiteness of things kept from the sun. But as she gazed a delicate flush overspread her face, her red-brown eyes lit up till their color matched her hair; she smiled in startled triumph. She was still beautiful!
Then a swift change came over her. She blew out all but one of the candles, and, turning her back on the mirror, took off her gown with cold, shaking fingers.
Some days later Richard Lowell came to see her. She opened the door to her old-time lover, led him into the dim parlor, seated him on the horse-hair sofa, and conversed with him for half an hour about the weather and the changes in the village. Mira was outwardly the cooler of the two, though secretly she was trembling with excitement. Lowell stumbled over his commonplaces, looking at her in bewilderment. She appeared little older than the girl of nineteen he had left. She was still as exquisite as one of the roses in her garden, to which he had always compared her. No rough winds had visited her, it was plain, in this sheltered nook; she had lived her monotonous days like a nun, untroubled and placid. To him, whose manhood had passed in the midst of racking storm and stress, who had long been tired of the conflict, there was something inexpressibly touching in the thought of this seclusion and serene remoteness from the petty concerns of every-day life. It seemed to hedge her about, like another sleeping princess, her maidenly charm inviolate. It seemed to annihilate those twenty years and give him back the girl he had loved and the eager heart of youth. For she had not withered in her solitude; behind the calm mask of her face he could see the blood come and go.
After that first visit he saw her every day for a few moments. She seemed interested to hear of his life in the West, but avoided any talk of herself. When Lowell indirectly suggested that he might bring his aunt to see her, she recoiled from the idea, her serenity troubled for the first time. She saw very few people, she said; her habits were so settled that the slightest change—— Lowell abandoned the subject, and did not refer to it again; but these words of hers lingered in his mind and caused him a vague discomfort. Did she really mean to live out her life in this fashion? He talked of her a good deal to Miss Lowell, who, being secretly of a sentimental mind, could not but take a sympathetic interest in this belated blossoming of romance.
"Almiry is a good manager," she said, artfully. "She's kept up the old place all these years, and she's even put by a little money in the bank. Her father left her the house, you know, and fifty dollars a year; the rest of the money went to Hal: he was provoked at Mira's notions. She makes preserves, and does fine embroidery, and has quite a trade, they say."
"But doesn't she see any one?"
"Oh, yes. Bella Staines is there a good deal. She makes Mira's gowns, and does her errands in the city. She says Mira buys a lot of books, and takes in two magazines regularly. It seems odd: she was never a girl for reading."
After receiving this information Lowell went one day and called on Miss Staines, who was the village dressmaker, and who received him in a flutter of ribbons and smiles. He sat for an hour in her parlor, filling it with his large presence. Miss Staines, however, fought shy of the subject of Mira, and turned the conversation half a dozen times to more promising themes. She asked about Colorado, and spoke of her distaste for village life. Lowell did not repeat his call.
The week or two which he had meant to give to his old home lengthened into four and five. Letters came from his business agents, urging the necessity of his presence. There was trouble with the Miners' Union; the men were threatening to strike. A mountain fire had destroyed some square miles of his timber, and the mills were at a standstill. A drought menaced the prosperity of his cattle-ranch. Lowell put the letters in his pocket, sent a few telegrams, and postponed his departure another week.
In this unexpected crisis of his life his clearness of vision had by no means failed him. He knew what held him here, and he had determined that when he went Mira Bascom should go with him. But he did not deceive himself as to the difficulty of the situation. His heart sank sometimes, perceiving the absolute fixity of her habits, and divining beneath her outward gentleness a rock-like immobility. The gayety of the girl, the capriciousness of the spoiled beauty, were lost now in a calm and dreamy indifference. Lowell did not know how much of this manner was assumed. But nothing else could have attracted him so surely. He remembered the girl who had been his betrothed, a creature all fire and spirit; and he had caught more than one tell-tale flash in those eyes which the meek lids tried to hide. He wanted to wake this statue.
One evening as they sat in the dim parlor Lowell reached out a muscular arm and flung the shutters of one window back on their rusted hinges. Mira started from her chair with a cry, dropping the field flowers he had brought her from her lap. Lowell caught her hand and drew her to the window. A broad band of moonlight fell upon her; the heavy scent of the sweet clover hung on the scarcely stirred air. It was just such an evening twenty years ago——
Suddenly the man's eyes wandered from her face to the gown she wore. It was the lilac-sprigged muslin; her shoulders were covered by a frilled kerchief; her hair was loosened about her face and fell into the clinging curls he remembered.
"You witch," he said, huskily, "that is the very gown you wore!"
Mira drew away her hands.
"I meant to tell you, Richard," she said, rather shakily, "that—that I think you had better not come—any longer, as you have been doing. It makes people talk, and I——"
"You meant to send me away, then, and so you put on that dress, to make the process more pleasant? But you need not have been troubled, Mira. I came to-night to tell you that I'm going: business affairs call me back home. So the dress was entirely appropriate after all, wasn't it?"
She quivered at his tone and at the memory of their former parting. If she could not keep him then, how absurd to have fancied she was doing so now! She drew back out of the moonlight.
"I supposed you must be going soon," she said, coldly. "There is not much in this place to keep you."
"There is everything! Mira——"
"It is getting late," her colorless tones interrupted. "Will you close that shutter, please, before you go?"
"No," said Richard, grimly. He went to the other window and opened it also to the night. "You need light and air," he said. "What foolishness to bury yourself in this old house as you do!"
All the surface serenity of the place was gone. His anger had shattered it; his voice was rough and biting; his glance stung her where she leaned in the shadow.
"Was the boy that threw away your love worth wasting your life for?" he demanded.
Mira found no answer.
"Tell me, did you really care for the rascal, after all? Even after he had taken his own path alone rather than walk in yours with you?"
"No," she said, at last. "It was because—I had to keep my word."
"Ah, I see. Not constancy, then, but plain mulish obstinacy. I did not know, Mira, that you had it in you. But honestly, now, wasn't I right to go?"
"Yes," she said, in a low voice, "I had no right to keep you here. It was selfishness."
"Not love. My very words: do you remember, Mira?"
He took up his hat and went toward the door, and she followed very slowly. He went out upon the porch; she stood just within the threshold.
"How sweet the air is!" he said; "though the roses are gone. I remember you wore some in your belt——"
In the lilac ribbon she had tucked a spray or two of his purple asters. He touched them softly, and his eyes sought hers.
"Yes, the summer is nearly over," he said lingeringly. "The golden-rod and asters are all along the road. Mira . . . don't throw those away, as you did the roses!"
"I didn't throw them away," she said, laughing a little, nervously. "They withered."
"You tore up the roots, because they wouldn't grow just on your chalk-line!"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Richard."
"Oh, yes, you do! You didn't want me unless you could make me in your own image. You cared a lot more about your vanity than about your lover."
"I was worth some sacrifice—then," said Mira.
"No more than you are now. And I am worth none now, any more than I was then."
"You never loved me!"
"Will you walk to the gate with me—this last time?"
"Oh, don't ask me—I can't!"
"You will not, then?"
"I can't break my word."
"If you were on the other side of that gate would you promise to marry me?"
"Don't ask me—don't——"
"It's only a matter of a few steps, then, that separates us—only two steps to cross that threshold—and you will let me go?"
"It's you that let me go! Why didn't you take me with you when you went? You could have done it, if you'd cared enough. You could have taken me in spite of myself. And now—after all these years—you think you can take me up again—as though——"
"Take you up again; yes, by Jove, I can and I will! You're but a featherweight, Mira, reasons, obstinacy and all! For the last time, will you walk to the gate with me?"
"I can't break my word."
He caught her wrist and drew her forward. "You needn't. What happened when the house caught fire four years ago? See—how easy it is!"
He bundled her up in his arms and carried her down the steps. She writhed and struggled in his grasp, protesting, commanding, entreating; before he had reached the gate her wounded dignity gave way, and between fright and anger she burst into hysterical tears. Richard put her down.
"That's right, cry: I like it," he said, interposing his broad shoulder between her and the moonlight. "But there's some one coming: it looks like Miss Staines."
"Don't let her see me!"
"Too late. She has seen you, Mira. Take my arm. Come, now, do you want her to know that you've been crying like a baby?"
He swung open the gate, drew her hand resolutely through his arm, and under the very nose of the dumb-struck passer-by they walked out like any other sedate middle-aged couple, down the walk beneath the maple-trees.