The Soldier Man
Two men sat at the study windows of the one large, pretentious house on the main street. One was Lawyer Jennings; the other, Dr. Wayne. They had been talking; now they sat gazing out of the windows at Henry Ludd. A little farther up the street was a small house painted green; at the right were rows of hothouses glistening in the sun with great patches of blinding light. In and out of the hothouses dashed Henry Ludd. He carried flower-pots and garden utensils, moving always with such intensity of velocity that it was fairly startling.
“That man is a psychological problem,” said Wayne. “Theoretically he is not strong enough to do a day's work at the rate he is working now, but he does the work of ten men. He lacks physical strength, but he never gives in. No wonder they call him the Soldier Man. Sometimes it seems to me as if he were wound up to go a certain length of time like a mechanical toy-soldier and nothing on earth can stop him. He can't even stop himself.”
“He does go like a soldier,” Jennings returned. “He holds himself like one, walks as if he were drilling, and runs on the double-quick. They tell me he has had a hard life.”
Jennings had lived in the village only a few years. Wayne and Henry Ludd had lived there all their lives.
“He has had nothing but a hard life from the time he drew his first breath,” said Wayne. “He inclines one to believe in births under adverse stars. No use going over it all. The disasters would sound petty, but they were cataclysms to him. Henry's father came of an overwrought strain — as complex a network of intermarriages as if he had sprung from a royal dynasty. He died under forty, simply not enough strength to live. Henry's mother is of another type. Her race has for generations been possessed of an exceptional vitality of body and an abnormal vitality of mind, which has, in individual cases, amounted to menace. Sophia Ludd was a Jennings, and for two generations the Jenningses have been terrors. Sophia is one of the queerest of them. She seems to be a good woman, one that completely outdoes the wicked women in pure cussedness. She has kept all the Commandments to do them all the days of her life and tempted most people who have come within a stone's-throw of her to break them. Henry adores her. There he goes now, in to dinner. I don't believe he will eat enough to keep him alive. He gets thinner and thinner, but he must have a strong strain in him. He keeps on his little war-path.”
“He is coming out again and going to the hothouse,” said Jennings.
“He must have forgotten the flower for his mother. The poor devil is cursed with sentimentality with all the rest; always puts a fresh flower beside his mother's plate every meal. My housekeeper had it from Mrs. Jordan — the cousin who lives there.”
“Yes, there he comes with a daffodil,” said Jennings.
The men watched Henry dash into the house, bearing the long-stemmed golden flower.
Henry stopped in the kitchen to wash his hands and face at the sink. Lizzie Jordan, his father's second cousin, who lived with the Ludds, was taking some steaming vegetables from the stove. She cast a glance at the flower which Henry had laid carefully on the table while he was washing. She was an elderly woman, with a long, pale face which took on an expression of extreme scorn and impatience. She sniffed delicately with thin nostrils.
When Henry turned, after wiping his dripping face on the roller-towel, she spoke pleasantly enough. “Feel any more appetite this noon?” she asked.
“I guess so, Lizzie. I eat enough, anyway.”
“You don't eat enough to keep a cat alive, and you know it, Henry Ludd!”
Henry laughed. His weary face was extremely sweet when he laughed. Lizzie felt a throb of affection for him. “It is the cat's own fault when the cooking is as good as yours, Lizzie,” he said.
“More than cookin' 's needed sometimes.”
“You work too hard.”
“And it ain't altogether the work. Every laborer is worthy of his hire. You don't get your hire, Henry Ludd.”
“You have never had your hire,” repeated the woman, firmly. “This is some of your own new asparagus, and I do hope you relish that.”
Henry looked disturbed. “You know how many bunches I have promised to sell,” he said. “Of course I want mother to have some, but —”
“I counted the stalks,” replied Lizzie. “That's all right.” She was arranging the asparagus on toast. She held her face, which wore a queer expression, averted from Henry.
When Lizzie summoned the others to dinner, there was a tall vase of flowers directly in front of Sophia Ludd's plate concealing it from her son. Henry had eaten his asparagus, which had tempted his poor appetite before he noticed something; his mother had pushed her plate aside and was gazing at it with a scornful, catlike majesty.
“Why, what is the matter, mother?” asked Henry, anxiously.
“Nothing,” replied Sophia Ludd, in a thin voice of strained sweetness like a bird's. She said “Nothing” as if it were the universe.
Henry peered around the vase of flowers. “Why, mother!” he exclaimed, in dismay. “You have all the ends. I must have had the tips myself.” He looked reproachfully at Lizzie.
She met his eyes unflinchingly. She lied without a qualm. “My goodness!” said she. “I made a mistake. I mixed up the plates.”
“And I have eaten up all the good asparagus,” said Henry, mournfully. He eyed his empty plate, then his mother. He whitened a little before her direct, dark gaze. Sophia Ludd had magnificent dark eyes in her old woman's head.
Lizzie took another slice of bread. She always said she did not care for asparagus, until there was so much in the garden that Henry did not care to sell all of it. Lizzie lied a good deal, but had no moral scruples regarding it. She claimed that lies were a necessity if she lived with Sophia.
“I will get some more asparagus, and Lizzie will cook it,” declared Henry. He half rose from his chair.
“Set down,” said Sophia.
Henry sat down with an air of conciliation and alarm. “I am real sorry, mother,” he said, tenderly.
“Queer how I came to mix the plates,” said Lizzie. Her tone was perfect. Nobody in their senses could have suspected a woman with that pale, almost stern, face of cherishing in the depths of her soul a fairly malignant impishness. Even Sophia, keen old woman, suspicious by nature, did not suspect Lizzie Jordan. She was, however, coldly indignant with her. She refused with a glare a proffer of custard-pie.
“Poor mother didn't eat any dinner at all,” Henry said to Lizzie afterward when they were alone in the kitchen.
“I set her pie in the pantry,” said Lizzie, coolly. “Don't you worry, Henry. I guess your mother will eat it by and by. She most always eats a bite between meals.”
“I hope she will,” Henry said, pitifully.
“She will,” said Lizzie.
After Henry had returned to his work, Lizzie laughed to herself over her dishes. “He got that asparagus down, anyhow,” said she, quite aloud. She had good nerves. She did not start when Sophia close at her side said, “Hey?”
“Hey what?” said Lizzie.
“What did you say?”
“Me say? I didn't say anything. What's the matter, Sophia?”
“You were talkin'.”
“Guess you were dreamin'. Who was I talkin' to? There ain't a soul here. Didn't think I was talkin' to the tea-kettle, did you?”
Sophia looked dazed. She was slightly deaf, and that made her less confident. She shook her head and rustled away. Sophia, old woman, very old woman though she was, had never capitulated to black raiment. She wore a gown of thin wool, bright blue in color, sprinkled with little crimson roses. It was an ancient fabric, but still in fair condition. The nice, white ruche at the throat was fastened by a large hair-brooch, set askew. There was always one askew note about Sophia. Her hair had never turned gray. It was auburn and smoothly crimped, and laid over her ears, fastened by a carved comb in the back. Her face was triumphantly beautiful, with a strange stateliness of beauty. Her skin was thick but very clear, and rose-tinged on the cheeks; her eyes were very large, dark, and clear. Her mouth was set in a smile which was unswerving. Sophia had smiled through life. It was a mask-smile, but few realized that. They said Mrs. Ludd always looked so serene and pleasant. The constant smile had produced some hard lines around her mouth, but the firmness of her skin modified them. She was very erect, although she carried herself with a slight stiffness. She seated herself beside a front window and folded her hands in her lap. They were smooth and white and showed no prominent veins. Sophia kept glancing at them. She was proud of her hands, which were not the hands of an old woman. Sophia used no beauty devices to preserve her youth, but she fought age with a steady, forbidding front of mind. Her one concession was in the matter of idleness. She was perfectly aware that physical ravages of years could no longer be held in check, should she attempt to perform the tasks of youth or middle-age. She therefore sat quite still during the greater part of her days.
Henry passed the window, rake in hand. He glanced up at his mother, half worshipfully, half anxiously. His mind was still on the asparagus. Sophia understood quite well what the look signified. She looked back at him with her unvarying smile.
Not long afterward she heard Lizzie go out. The kitchen door always banged. She knew she was taking the dinner scraps to feed the chickens. Sophia rose, stole stealthily out to the pantry. She found her custard-pie and devoured it greedily. She then washed the plate at the kitchen sink and returned to her station at the window. The woman was in reality a queer character. Beyond an unswerving concern for her own welfare and pride in her own personality, she might hardly be said to exist. She never read; she never used her fingers for light feminine tasks. It seemed doubtful if she even thought, but she commanded from her son adoration, love, and the utmost sacrifice. She must have been aware of that, though it apparently afforded her no satisfaction. Henry, and his father before him, had always stepped and spoken as she wished. She was an unopposed creature, absolute in her petty place. She was primeval in her simplicity of self-interest. Henry years ago had fallen in love with Adela Dyce. Then Sophia had shown the subtlety which usually accompanies intense self-esteem. She had not made the least opposition. She had invited Adela to the house; she had talked about her as a daughter; she had made much of the girl; and Adela a few months later had told Henry flatly that she would never marry him unless he could furnish a separate establishment — that she refused to live with his mother. Poor Henry Ludd had been overcome. When he had asked faintly if his mother had not treated Adela well, the girl had replied, dryly, “Well enough, but I won't live with her.”
The engagement was broken. Henry could not afford the separate establishment and would not in any case have left his mother. Sophia had had her own way. Adela had not married. She was a music-teacher, and flitted about the village with a music-roll, prettily dressed and alert. Henry often met her, and she greeted him, but hurriedly. It was as if Adela feared lest Henry should renew his wooing. Nothing could have been further from his thoughts. He still loved her, but he had renounced her. When he heard of some other man paying her attention, he felt even a sad delight. He thought it hard that she should not be married and have her own home, but spend her life teaching music to other people's children. Henry had at first suffered at the collapse of his love-dream. Now he suffered no longer. Adela had become to him as a sweet past day of youth.
He wondered still concerning her attitude toward his mother. He had expressed that wonder to Lizzie Jordan at the time the engagement was broken. “Don't ever speak of it, Lizzie,” he had said, “for it would break poor mother's heart, but Adela thought she couldn't live with mother. Mother was as nice and loving to her as could be, too. I don't understand it.”
“Yes, it does seem strange,” assented Lizzie.
When Henry then had gone out, Lizzie, who was a rather young widow, her husband having just died, shook her thin fist at the parlor where Sophia sat. “Live with you and married to your son!” said she. “Lord! I'd as soon marry the old Harry himself and live with his mother!”
As the years went by many people who had blamed Adela Dyce for her attitude toward Sophia and her treatment of Henry gradually took another view. In some way Sophia had been at least partly found out. Lizzie Jordan had perhaps dropped a few hints. People began to say that Adela had shown sense in not marrying Henry and going to live with his mother. She was still pretty and popular. She sang in the church choir. Sunday after Sunday Henry heard Adela's clear soprano soaring in the lilt of sacred song. He heard it peacefully. Occasionally he glanced at her, seated before them all in her Sunday bravery, and there was peace and courage in his look. It would have torn his heart had Adela looked sad and old and ill-kempt, as if she had ceased to value herself. He was glad that she was prosperous. He had a curious pride in her which his mother never offended.
Sophia seldom spoke of her; when she did, it was with praise and a sympathetic undertone for her son. “She is a real smart girl,” she said one day when she had watched Adela trip past the house in her pretty gray suit, with roses nodding on her hat. “I suppose a lot of girls like her that can earn money do hate to marry and settle down to housework, and they may back out and hurt feelings without realizing what they're doing.”
“Guess you are right, mother,” said Henry.
When he went out in the kitchen and saw Lizzie over the cook-stove with her face flushed, he tried to feel glad that she was not Adela. He thought how sweet his mother was, how kind and understanding. He returned, with no repining, to his back-breaking labor.
Gradually the epithet “Soldier Man” was fastened upon him. It may have been from his almost painful erectness of carriage, as if he would disavow all the burdens of his life and keep in step with the rank and file of the successful who had lived to see the fulfilment of their hopes of youth; it may have been from his speed of movement which suggested attack upon labor itself with a stern purpose of conquest; it may have been for some subtler reason in the character of the man which people recognized but could not specify. It is certain that, laboring year in and out without the personal benefit which a man has a right to expect from his toil, he labored like one under marching orders, which were not for him to disregard or question, but to obey with his cheerful might. He charged the fertile ground with seeds. His flowers and vegetables, standing in brave order of life, might have been a host which he commanded, not for self, but for something beyond his humble outlook.
Henry unquestionably derived much pleasure from his brilliant flower-beds and his glass-houses steaming with the green breaths of lusty plants, from his vegetable garden which was wonderful and brought him considerable profit, and mostly from the comforts and luxuries which he added every year to his mother's possessions. He furnished the little parlor anew in a manner which to him savored of magnificence. He bought a talking-machine on the instalment plan, and it gave him intense delight. Although Sophia liked it, the fixed smile on her face did not intensify while the thing sang and made music and talked, but in her watching son's face was a rapture which was almost holy.
The machine was not a very good one. Poor Henry had been cheated. Lizzie Jordan knew, but she lied and praised it as a wonder. Lizzie was not quite old enough to be Henry's mother, but she loved him as if he were her son, carpingly, adoringly. She thought him at once a fool and perfection. Lizzie alone made Henry's home for him, although he did not know it. The complacent old creature in the parlor window filled to his mind all the requirements of home. Sophia was as a lily of the field, made self-conscious of its own importance. She sat in her parlor as in a crystal of regal isolation. There was something stupendous about so much satisfaction and so much pride over so little. Sophia Ludd was as complacent with her life as any woman could be, until the cold winter of the catastrophe. The catastrophe was the burning to the ground of poor Henry Ludd's greenhouses and the destruction of their flowers and ferns and palms. It was the more cruel because it happened just before Easter, and hundreds of stately Easter lilies were sacrificed. Henry saved a few, almost at the risk of his life. He felt as if he were saving children as he carried them into the house. The house was never in danger because the wind was blowing a gale away from it. Sophia stood at a window and watched the fire. On her face was a curious expression — the combination of her unswerving smile and a balked rage of eyes and brows. Sophia did not wish the hothouses to be burned. She could not understand why, since she did not wish it, they should be burned. She was very quiet. Nothing could excite her, at least on the surface. When Henry came bringing in his rescued lilies, she observed, calmly, “Put some water on that fire and put it out.”
“Land sake! 'ain't she got any sense, standin' there and seein' our fire company and the two others they sent for playin' on it and not puttin' it out because they can't?” said Lizzie.
Either Sophia did not hear her or did not choose to admit she did. “Put some water on that fire,” she ordered again.
“Don't you worry, mother,” said Henry. He stifled a groan as he went out. He carried no insurance, and he faced a great calamity. Still he moved with his usual erectness, and did not for a moment lose his self-control. He saved what he could, and worked to as good purpose as he could with the crash of glass in his ears and the dreadful sight of his cherished nurslings shriveling in white heat. When it was all over and the fire companies had gone, and only a few sympathizing neighbors were left, he maintained his steady bearing.
“It's a shame, Henry,” said one man. Another clapped him on the shoulder and bade him not be discouraged. Henry smiled. Then his face stiffened into a new expression which it wore the rest of his life. His mouth looked like that of a hurt and wondering child; the upper part of his face dominated it with a stern invincibility. The neighbors stared at him as he went into the house. “Pretty hard luck, I call it,” said one. “Henry has worked like a slave all his life and he 'ain't got anything out of it. He built those greenhouses himself, poor feller,” said another.
The door opened, and Lizzie Jordan came with cups and saucers and sugar and milk on a tray. Henry followed, bearing a great tin coffee-pot. Lizzie had made the coffee. It was a cheap brand and boiled — not a delicious beverage, but the neighbors, who had worked hard to save Henry's property, had never drank much better, and they were grateful. Henry, still with that new expression on his face, followed Lizzie about, filling the cups. There were both men and women in the throng. Some of the women wept as they sipped the coffee. “Poor feller!” they whispered to one another, “thinkin' of givin' us coffee when he's met such a dreadful loss!”
After the people had all gone, Henry watched the glowing bed of coals where his beloved hothouses had stood. He feared lest the wind should change and there be danger for the house. He did not go in until the east was pale with dawn and the wind had gone down. His mother was in her bed in her room off the parlor, and she called him. “Henry Ludd, you come here,” said she.
Henry obeyed. He stood beside the high, white billow of bed and looked down at the beautiful, old, accusing face. Sophia still smiled, but her eyes were like black ice covering terrible depths of self.
“Why didn't you put water on and put that fire out?” said she.
“Don't you worry, mother. We all did the best we could. There were three fire companies, and they worked hard.”
Sophia snorted. “Better have tried to put that fire out with my tea-kettle,” said she. “Fire companies! They don't know how to put out fires.”
“Don't you worry, mother.”
“What you goin' to do now, Henry Ludd?”
“Just the best I can. Don't you worry, mother.”
“You 'ain't got anything to sell, except them few lilies you brought in. What you goin' to do?”
“Don't you worry, mother.”
“That ain't answerin' me. What be you goin' to do? You have got outdoors left, and when summer comes you'll have things to sell out of the garden, but you 'ain't got them greenhouses. What be you goin' to do?”
“I am goin' to build some new greenhouses, mother; have them up in a jiffy. Don't you worry.”
Suddenly Sophia Ludd sat up in bed and stared at him. “Stand in front of me. I want to look at you, Henry Ludd,” she ordered. Henry obeyed. “What have you been doin' to your face, Henry Ludd?”
Henry passed a hand over his face in a bewildered fashion. “Is it black?” he asked.
“No, it ain't black; but you don't look natural. What makes you look that way, Henry Ludd?”
“I guess I don't know what you mean, mother. Don't you worry. It is going to be all right.”
Sophia sank back on her pillows. “Well, if none of all you men couldn't put water on that fire and put it out before everything burnt up, I can't help it,” said she. “I'm goin' to try and get a little sleep. You hadn't ought to have had the fire in the first place. You might have known how it would upset me.”
“I can't think how it started,” Henry said, thoughtfully.
“It don't make much difference now how it started,” said his mother, with asperity. “What made the difference was, it burnt down with a lot of men standin' round and lettin' of it. Shut my door when you go out, Henry Ludd.”
Henry went out, closing the door softly.
Lizzie Jordan was waiting for him. “You come right in and have your nice hot breakfast. I've made some fresh coffee for you,” she said. Henry obeyed with a sort of stern apathy. Lizzie watched his face in a puzzled way as he ate. “Don't you take it to heart too much, Henry,” she said.
“Oh no, I won't take it to heart too much, Lizzie,” replied Henry. “Don't you worry. I am sorry about poor mother. I had planned to build a bay-window in the parlor for her this spring and have the piazza screened. I can build the greenhouses again. I shall catch up all right. But I am sorry about poor mother. Somehow she doesn't seem to sense it just right.”
“No, she don't,” agreed Lizzie, dryly.
“She keeps on asking why we didn't put the fire out. Everything was done that could be. Poor Mother doesn't understand.”
“No, I guess she don't. Have you any idea how that fire started, Henry?”
Henry regarded her in a puzzled way. “Why, no, I haven't the slightest idea. I left everything all right. Of course it is nonsense to think they were set on fire.”
Lizzie Jordan looked at Henry Ludd. At times her long, pale face had the expression of a mystic. It had now. “I think your greenhouses were set on fire, Henry,” she said, firmly.
“I think they were set on fire. I think the fire was 'lotted out to you just as other hard things have been. You were born to bad luck, Henry. No use talkin'; you know it. You fight your luck and you're goin' to win out in the end, because you're a born fighter, but you were born to bad luck. It was your bad luck set that fire.”
“It is so. When folks are born to bad luck just such things happen. Your greenhouses were set on fire by your bad luck. They burned up because they were yours, and you were made so you wouldn't own you were beat, but would set to and build 'em up again. Maybe they'll burn again. You will keep on buildin' and fightin' and — you sort of like it.”
Henry regarded her with his strange new expression — that of a fighter of the world, made up of the unquestioning obedience and wonder, before fate, of a child and of the indomitable purpose of a man. “Maybe you're right, Lizzie,” he said. “To tell the truth, I don't feel as discouraged as I should think I would, and I'm going to see about new glass and lumber this morning.”
“Eat a good breakfast,” said Lizzie.
Henry ate heartily, and was off.
It was later than usual when Sophia Ludd rose. She came out in the kitchen, in her nice gray skirt covered with a lace-trimmed white apron, with her blue-flannel dressing-sack. Her hair was carefully arranged, and she smiled as usual, but her face looked hard, almost cruel.
“I'll get your breakfast ready in a minute,” said Lizzie. “Pretty hard lines for poor Henry, ain't it?”
“He had ought to have seen to it that the fire was put out,” said Sophia, firmly. She sat down in the rocking-chair by the south window, and the sunlight illumined her crinkly auburn hair. She gazed out at the lamentable ruins of her son's hothouses. They still smoked, and here and there fire gleamed out in a gust of wind. “After I've had my breakfast,” said Sophia, “I wish you would bring them lilies Henry lugged out of the fire, in here. They are so sweet they are sickish all through the front of the house.”
“All right,” said Lizzie.
“Whose little boy is that comin' in the yard?” asked Sophia.
“Why, that's Sammy Harkins. I guess he's comin' with your paper. I guess he's been down to the post-office and his folks told him to get it, because they thought Henry would be busy this mornin'. Mis' Harkins is real thoughtful.” Lizzie went to the door and returned with a letter.
Sophia reached out for the letter. She scrutinized it carefully, but did not open it. After Lizzie had set her breakfast out on the kitchen-table, she ate. Then she went into her parlor. Lizzie had moved the lilies, but the room was still sweet with them. Sophia sniffed angrily, still smiling. She sat beside the window, holding the still unopened letter. Neighbors began to come in. They talked about the fire and condoled with her. Many brought offerings of cake and pies and tumblers of jelly. They told her not to worry herself sick about the fire, and Sophia smiled and regarded them with her hard eyes, and observed that the fire ought to have been put out. She seemed not to hear the assurances that everything possible to extinguish it had been done.
She did not open the letter until noon. Lizzie came in and saw that Sophia had opened it. She said nothing. She paused imperceptibly, but the other woman gave no information. Lizzie went out with a little flounce. “Let her keep her letter to herself if she wants to,” she muttered. Sometimes Sophia's deafness was an unworthy source of satisfaction to Lizzie Jordan.
Henry came home at noon. He looked tired but unconquerable. He did not talk much. Sophia said nothing about her letter. She did not tell him until that evening. Lizzie went to evening meeting, and when she returned Sophia had gone to bed, and Henry met her in the kitchen.
“Mother, it seems, had a letter this morning,” he began, abruptly.
“She has just been telling me about it. Has she told you?”
“No, she hasn't.”
“Well, it seems that Aunt Jane, out in Ohio — mother's only sister, you know —”
“Yes, I know.”
“Well, her daughter has just married a very rich man and gone to California to live, and Aunt Jane didn't want to give up her own home. She is pretty well fixed, you know.”
“Yes, I know. Jane is the same relation to me that your mother is. I always knew she married a man that made money.”
“Well, it seems that she has a nice place and plenty to run it, and keeps two girls and a man and horse and carriage, and she is sort of lonesome since Cousin Clara got married, and she wants mother to come on and make her a long visit. Mother seems to want to go.”
Lizzie looked at Henry. “Why, Henry Ludd, you poor man!” she said. She saw Henry's tired, brave eyes shining with tears.
Henry gave his head a quick lift. “Oh, it's all right,” he said, steadily. “I can see how poor mother feels. She hasn't seen her sister for years, and Aunt Jane lives nicely, and, now I've got to build up again, I can't do as much as I would like to for her. Aunt Jane says she knows a man that's coming on this way on business, and he'll take charge of mother out there, and Aunt Jane sent a check for money for expenses.”
“What is it, Lizzie?”
“Your mother hasn't been writing Jane that she hasn't had enough done for her!”
“Mother wouldn't dream of such a thing!” said Henry. “Lizzie, I'm ashamed of you.”
Lizzie said nothing.
“I guess mother'd better go,” said Henry.
“Two weeks from to-day, mother says; the man will stop here on his way and take her along. Mother seems — quite — pleased. She hasn't had much, no change at all for years.”
“Neither have you.”
“I have my work. All poor mother has had has been to sit there by that window day in and out. It will do her good. First I thought she was too old to take such a trip, but mother seems a good deal younger than she is, and I guess it will do her good.”
After Henry went out, Lizzie said to herself, “She wrote to Jane just as soon as she heard Clara was married.”
Sophia went. The man from the Ohio village created a furor by motoring out from the city and taking her and her little trunk in to catch the Western train. Henry went to see his mother off. She looked strange, seated in her section in the sleeping-car, strange and very remote. Poor Henry felt himself beneath his beautiful old mother traveling in state. Sophia smiled as ever when Henry bade her good-by. She showed no regret whatever.
Henry, returning home, called upon all his store of courage. When he walked up from the station, the neighbors, looking out of windows, remarked that they guessed it was a sort of relief to poor Henry to have Sophia go.
Lizzie had a nice supper ready for Henry, but he could not eat much. When Lizzie was washing the dishes she wept a little, softly, out of pity for him.
The next day Henry worked as if for his life. He had been obliged to mortgage his house to obtain money for his new hothouses. When Sophia had been called upon to sign the mortgage she had made no demur, but Henry felt mortally shamed. Henry did most of the work himself. Then Lizzie Jordan's half-brother Tom came and offered to work for his board. He was a silent, elderly man and a good worker. Henry was glad to have him.
The hothouses were finished and affairs moving much as before the fire, when a letter came from Sophia. Jane wished her to remain there as long as she lived if she only would; Sophia realized that she had been a great expense to Henry, and now there was the mortgage and the interest to pay, and she had everything she wanted and was more comfortable than she could be at home, and she knew how much Henry would think of that.
Henry turned ghastly white when he read the letter, but he told the news to Lizzie and her brother Tom without a flinch. “You see it is pleasanter for poor mother out there,” he said. “She always wanted a bath-room, and she has one just for herself; and she has a screened piazza to sit on, and she is waited on hand and foot.”
“She was here,” Lizzie could not help interpolating.
“Of course she was, Lizzie, but there is more to do with there. And mother always liked nice things, poor woman! She writes about the beautiful things she has to eat, and she goes out to ride every pleasant day. I don't blame her for wanting to stay.”
Henry walked just a bit unsteadily as he left the room. “A saint with a pig for a mother if ever there was one!” Lizzie said to Tom. “How in the world Sophia Ludd ever had such a son as Henry!”
Tom grunted. He was a very silent man, but very much attached to his sister and Henry.
It was not long after that when Adela Dyce stopped and spoke to Henry. They were both coming out of the post-office. Adela inquired for his mother, and Henry replied that she was well and enjoying herself.
“Is it true what I hear, that she is going to live out there?” asked Adela. Then she flushed a deep crimson, and Henry saw it, and his schooled heart stirred.
They walked along together, and he told her about his mother. Adela decided that Sophia would most certainly live out there. She glanced up at Henry. Once she had loved him, or thought she had. He was not a bad figure of man, with his erect carriage and his expression denoting depths of firm character. Although he went rather shabby, his clothes were neat. Adela was growing older and had no suitor. When they parted, she asked Henry to call and see her.
Henry did not go. He scarcely realized that she was serious in her invitation; besides, he did not yet exactly care about going.
Soon they met again at the post-office, and Henry had just read another letter from his mother. The letter sounded fairly snobbish with pride and delight in her mode of life. There was something wistful in the man's attitude as he listened again to the woman he had expected to marry. He went to call on her that evening.
It was not long before everybody knew that Henry and Adela were to be married, after all. Henry told Lizzie. “We want you to stay here just the same,” he said. “You and Tom. Adela doesn't want to give up her music scholars. She says that, after all these years, she has got her hand out of housekeeping, and she feels she had better keep on with the music. I don't quite like to have her, but she seems set on it, somehow.”
“Most women you have anything to do with do seem set,” retorted Lizzie. Her face was flushed and there was anger in her voice. She disliked Adela Dyce.
Henry looked anxiously at her. “You don't mean you won't stay, Lizzie?”
“Oh, I've stood a good deal, and I guess I can stand a little more,” said Lizzie.
When Henry had gone to see Adela that evening she spoke her mind to her brother. “Land! it's bad enough for a man that's a mix betwixt a saint and a soldier of the Lord to have a pig for a mother without having a pig for a wife,” said she.
Tom grunted and looked melancholy.
However, the general feeling in the village was one of kindly congratulation. Everybody agreed that they were glad that at last poor Henry Ludd was to have some good luck. Even people who had not entirely liked Adela saw her glorified by Henry's long, faithful love, and approved.
Unexpectedly Henry's business affairs took on a more prosperous aspect. A contract to supply a large city market with vegetables was offered him, and Henry's vegetable garden was more successful than ever that season. He saw his way clear to soon paying the mortgage. He was going to marry Adela in the fall. Insensibly he had ceased to regret his mother's absence. There was apparently no reason why Henry Ludd should not be happy, and yet he did not look as well as he had done. Something seemed missing which had tended to his retention of more than the strength of youth — the fighting strength of the man. He no longer walked soldier-wise. He stooped slightly. He no longer moved as if in a swift charge upon untoward circumstances. People observed with wonder that Henry Ludd did not look as young and well now that he was happy and things were going his way at last.
Then came the letter from Sophia, informing him that she was coming home. She insinuated gently that her sister Jane was not easy to live with, also that she missed her dear son.
The true reason for the return Lizzie Jordan did not doubt. She had told her brother Tom, soon after Henry's engagement, “You mark my words, Sophia Ludd ain't goin' to stay out West and have Adela Dyce here usin' her things.”
Henry read the letter calmly. He told Lizzie calmly. He showed no disturbance, if he felt any. That evening he told Adela. The two were sitting in Adela's studio, where she had her music classes. “Mother is coming home,” he said, abruptly.
“To stay?” asked Adela. She immediately knew that she was brutal, but the situation was brutal for herself.
“Yes,” replied Henry. When he spoke he knew that his romance was now over for all time. He did not even ask Adela if she would live with his mother. He accepted the fact. “I am sorry, Adela, that it must happen again,” he said, quite simply.
Adela looked at him in a stunned fashion. She was not altogether an unselfish woman; she was not of an affectionate nature, but such love as she had to give she gave Henry. She gave in larger measure than before. The man now represented more than he had done years ago. Henry looked at her white, shocked face. Adela was still pretty. The expression in her blue eyes clutched at his heart. “I know it don't seem fair to you — the second time,” he said.
Adela looked about the studio. “Well, we must make the best of it, I suppose,” she said, in a despairing, listless voice.
“I don't see quite why you feel as you do about mother.”
Adela did not answer.
“She treated you real well, it seemed to me.”
Adela looked at him. She was a shrewd woman. She understood the man's mother. The man loved her, and Sophia was not there. She opened her mouth to speak. Then she closed it. There was something noble about her face. “She was never unkind to me,” she said.
“It is no use, Henry. I think a great deal of you, but I know it can't be,” said Adela, firmly. She rose and stood before Henry, tall and pale and pretty in her blue dress. She put her hands on the man's shoulders and drew his face down. He kissed her. “There,” said Adela, “we must make the best of the snarl of life we are in. Cutting the snarl would be worse than you know, and trying to unsnarl would only make the cutting inevitable. You will have your mother, and your love for her is the best thing about you. Though I feel as I do, I am not sure that I don't think more of you just because of that. You will have your mother, and I have my work.”
“Music means a great deal to you?” asked Henry, wistfully.
“Yes, a great deal,” said Adela.
He went soon afterward. He did not feel as unhappy as he had expected, not even although he knew that his contract with the city market was at an end. Some man had underbid him. He felt dimly the return of something — of some superlatively good thing which he had missed during his weeks of happiness and success. If he had heretofore walked like a soldier, he now walked like a general at the head of an army which spelled victory.
The next morning when he went out a man said to another, “Henry Ludd looks like himself this morning.”
Lizzie Jordan watched him when he entered the yard at noon-time, and said to herself, in her colloquial mutter; “Henry has had bad news about business and he ain't goin' to be married. He looks like himself.” Then she added, thinking of her own personal interest, “Well, I know what I have to put up with livin' with Sophia Ludd, but I was kind of in the dark about Adela Dyce.”
Henry came in and ate his dinner. He told his news calmly. “Well, it seems Adela and I have thought better about getting married,” said he, “and Mother is coming home.”
After dinner Henry attacked his work with his old magnificent energy. Some souls are truly themselves and truly at home only on the battle-fields, great or petty, of their lives. Henry was one of them. Steeled to meet disaster, he had a strange weakness, which might in time have tended to deterioration before ease and happiness. He harked eagerly back to the fight, which was, after all, the love of his life.