"A Woman's Reason" is certainly one of the most ambitious novels Mr. Howells has written, not merely because it is so long, but because the author has reached out for effects which he neglected in his earlier books. It is not a radical departure from his established methods, but it indicates a larger and broader conception of the scope, the opportunities, and the resources of his art. The story of Helen Harkness's struggles has an enduring claim upon every reader's sympathy, the incidents of the book are spirited, and the movement is alert, vigorous, and at times highly dramatic in its surprises and suspended interest. The author is so loyal to his heroine that she is rarely permitted to disappear from the scene, but such constancy denotes a steadfastness of purpose and leads to a concentration of interest; this method is always artistic if it can be sustained without becoming tiresome, and there are few para graphs in "A Woman's Reason" which even one who reads for the story alone will care to skip. The keynote is sounded within the first few pages, but the revelation of the motive does not clog the interest of development, and the intelligent reader is the more gratified because the author has paid him the compliment of taking him into his confidence. The story is that of a Boston girl who has been reared without any thought of possible necessity for self-support, is left almost penniless at the death of her father, and surrenders voluntarily the small remnant of the paternal estate to which she had a perfect legal title in order to satisfy her own high sense of principle. She refuses to be de pendent upon friends, and she is separated from her sweetheart by a misunderstanding for which she was to blame. These are conditions which could be made heartrending or sensational, according to the treatment there of; Mr. Howells has the delicate art of making them interesting and sympathetic without straining the probabilities or exciting morbid sentiment.
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A Woman's Reason
WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS
A Woman's Reason, W. D. Howells
Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9
The day had been very oppressive, and at half past five in the afternoon, the heat had scarcely abated, to the perception of Mr. Joshua Harkness, as he walked heavily up the Park Street mall in Boston Common. When he came opposite the Brewer Fountain, with its Four Seasons of severe drouth, he stopped short, and stared at the bronze group with its insufficient dribble, as if he had never seen it before. Then he felt infirmly about the ground with his stick, stepped aside, and sank tremulously into one of the seats at the edge of the path. The bench was already partly occupied by a young man and a young woman; the young man had his arm thrown along the back of the seat behind the young woman; their heads were each tilted toward the other, and they were making love almost as frankly in that public place as they might in the seclusion of a crowded railway train.
They both glanced at the intruder, and exchanged smiles, apparently of pity for his indecency, and then went on with their love-making, while Mr. Harkness, unconscious of his offence, stared eagerly out over the Common, and from time to time made gestures or signals with his stick in that direction. It was that one day of the week when people are not shouted at by a multitude of surly signboards to keep off the grass, and the turf was everywhere dotted with lolling and lounging groups. Perhaps to compensate for the absence of the signboards (which would reappear overnight like a growth of disagreeable fungi), there was an unusual number of policemen sauntering about, and it was one of these whom Mr. Harkness was trying to attract with his cane. If any saw him, none heeded, and he had to wait till a policeman came down the mall in front of him. This could not have been so long a time as it seemed to Mr. Harkness, who was breathing thickly, and now and then pressing his hand against his forehead, like one who tries to stay a reeling brain.
"Please call a carriage," he panted, as the officer whom he had thrust in the side with his cane stopped and looked down at him ; and then as the man seemed to hesitate, he added: "My name is Harkness; I live at 9 Beacon Steps. I wish to go home at once; I've been taken faint."
Beacon Steps is not Beacon Street, but it is of like blameless social tradition, and the name, together with a certain air of moneyed respectability in Mr. Harkness, had its effect with the policeman.
"Sick?" he asked. "Well, you are pale. You just hold on, a minute. Heh, there! heh !" he shouted to a passing hackman, who promptly stopped, turned his horses, and drew up beside the curb next the Common. "Now you take my arm, Mr. Harkness, and I'll help you to the carriage." He raised the gentleman to his benumbed feet, and got him away through the gathering crowd; when he was gone, the crowd continued to hang about the place where he had been sitting in such numbers, that the young man first took his arm down from the back of the seat, and the young woman tilted her head away from his, and then they both, with vexed and impatient looks, rose and walked away, seeking some other spot for the renewal of their courtship.
The policeman had not been able to refrain from driving home with Mr. Harkness, whom he patronized with a sort of municipal kindness, on the way; and for whom, when he had got him in-doors, and comfortably stretched upon a lounge in the library, he wanted to go and call the doctor. But Mr. Harkness refused, saying that he had had these attacks before, and would soon be all right. He thanked the officer by name, after asking him for it, and the officer went away, leaving Mr. Harkness to the care of the cook who, in that midsummer time, seemed to have sole charge of the house and its master. The policeman flipped the dust from the breast and collar of his coat, in walking back to his beat, with the right feeling of a man who would like to be better prepared if summoned a second time to befriend a gentleman of Mr. Harkness's standing, and to meet in coming out of his house a young lady of such beauty and elegance as he had just encountered. This young lady, as he closed the door behind him, had run up the steps with the loop of her train in one hand—after the fashion of ten years ago, and in the other a pretty travelling-bag, carried with the fearlessness of a lady who knows that people are out of town. She glanced a little wonderingly, a little defiantly, at the policeman, who, seeing that she must drop one or other of her burdens to ring, politely rang for her.
"Thank you!" said the young lady, speaking a little more wonderingly, a little more defiantly than she had looked.
"Quite welcome, Miss," returned the policeman, and touched his hat in going down the steps, while the young lady turned and stared after him, leaning a little over the top step on which she stood, with her back to the door. She was very pretty indeed, with blue eyes at once tender and honest, and the fair hair, that goes with their beauty, hanging loosely upon her forehead. Her cheeks, in their young perfection of outline, had a flush beyond their usual delicate color; the heat, and her eager dash up the steps had suffused them with a dewy bloom, that seemed momently to deepen and soften. Her loveliness was saved from the insipidity of faultless lines by a little downward curve, a quirk, or call it dimple, at one corner of her mouth, which, especially in repose, gave it a touch of humorous feeling and formed its final charm: it seemed less a trait of face than of character. That fine positive grace, which is called style, and which is so eminently the gift of exquisite nerves, had not cost her too much; she was slim, but not fragile, and her very motionlessness suggested a vivid bird-like mobility; she stood, as if she had alighted upon the edge of the step. At the opening of the door behind her she turned alertly from the perusal of the policeman's retreating back, and sprang within.
"How d' do, Margaret?" She greeted the cook in a voice whose bright kindness seemed the translation of her girlish beauty into sound. "Surprised to see me?" She did not wait for the cook's answer, but put down her bag, and began pulling off her gloves, after shaking out her skirt, and giving that penetrating sidelong downward look at it, which women always give their drapery at moments of arrival or departure. She turned into the drawing-room from the hall, and went up to the long, old-fashioned mirror, and glanced at the face which it dimly showed her in the close-shuttered room. The face had apparently not changed since she last saw it in that mirror, and one might have fancied that the young lady was somehow surprised at this.
"May I ask why policemen are coming and going in and out of our house, Margaret?" she demanded of the cook's image, which, further down in the mirror, hesitated at the doorway.
"He come home with your father, Miss Helen," answered the cook, and as Helen turned around and stared at her in the flesh, she continued: "He had one of his faint turns in the Common. He's laying down in the library now, Miss Helen."
"O, poor papa !" wailed the young lady, who knew that in spite of the cook's pronoun, it could not be the policeman who was then reposing from faintness in the library. She whirled away from the mirror, and swooped through the doorway into the hall, and back into the room where her father lay. "The heat has been too much for him," she moaned, in mixed self-reproach and compassion, as she flew; and she dropped upon her knees beside him, and fondly caressed his grey head, and cooed and lamented over him, with the irreverent tenderness he liked her to use with him. "Poor old fellow," she murmured. "It's too bad! You're working yourself to death, and I'm going to stay with you now, and put a stop to your being brought home by policemen. Why, you ought to be ashamed, breaking down in this way, as soon as my back is turned! Has Margaret done everything for you? Wouldn't you like a little light?" She started briskly to her feet, flung up the long window, and raising and lowering the shade to get the right level for her father's eyes, stood silhouetted against the green space without : a grass plot between high brick walls, on one of which clambered a grape-vine, and on the other a wisteria, while a bed of bright-leafed plants gave its color in the center of the yard. "There!" she said, with a glance at this succinct landscape. "That's the prettiest bit of nature I've seen since I left Boston." She came back and sat down on a low chair beside her father, who smiled fondly upon her, and took one of her hands to hold, while she pushed back his hair with the other.
"Are you awfully glad to see me?"
"Awfully," said Mr. Harkness, falling in with her mood, and brightening with the light and her presence. "What brought you so suddenly?"
"Oh, that's a long story. Are you feeling better, now?"
"Yes. I was merely faint. I shall be all right by morning. I've been a little worn out."
"Was it like the last time?" asked Helen.
"Yes," said her father.
"A little more like?"
"I don't think it was more severe," said Mr. Harkness, thoughtfully.
"What had you been doing? Honor bright, now: was it accounts?"
"Yes, it was accounts, my dear."
"The same old wretches?"
"The same, old ones ; some new ones, too. They're in hopeless confusion," sighed Mr. Harkness, who seemed to age and sadden with the thought.
"Well, now, I'll tell you what, papa," said Helen, sternly: "I want you to leave all accounts, old and new, quite alone till the cold weather comes. Will you promise?"
Harkness smiled, as wearily as he had sighed. He knew that she was burlesquing somewhat her ignorance of affairs; and yet it was not much burlesqued, after all; for her life, like that of other American girls of prosperous parentage, had been almost as much set apart from the hard realities of bread-winning as the life of a princess, as entirely dedicated to society, to the studies that refine, and the accomplishments that grace society. The question of money had hardly entered into it. Since she was a little child, and used to climb upon her father's knee, and ask him, in order to fix his status in her fairy tales, whether he was rich or poor, she might be said never to have fairly thought of that matter. Of course, she understood that she was not so rich as some girls, but she had never found that the difference was against her in society; she could not help perceiving that in regard to certain of them it was in her favor, and that she might have patronized them if she had liked, and that they were glad of her friendship on any terms. Her father's great losses had come when she was too young to see the difference that they made in his way of living; ever since she could remember they had kept to the same scale of simple ease in the house where she was born, and she had known no wish that there had not been money enough to gratify. Pleasures of every kind had always come to her as freely and with as little wonder on her part as if they had been, like her youth, her bounding health, her beauty, the direct gift of heaven. She knew that the money came from her father's business, but she had never really asked herself how it was earned. It is doubtful if she could have told what his business was; it was the India trade, whatever that was, and of late years he had seemed to be more worried by it than he used to be, and she had vaguely taken this ill, as an ungrateful return on the part of business. Once he had gone so far as to tell her that he had been hurt by the Great Fire somewhat. But the money for all her needs and luxuries (she was not extravagant, and really did not spend much upon herself) had come as before, and walking through the burnt district, and seeing how handsomely it had been rebuilt, she had a comforting sense that its losses had all been repaired.
"You look a little flushed and excited, my dear," said her father, in evasion of the commands laid upon him, and he touched her fair cheek . He was very fond of her beauty and of her style; in the earlier days of her young ladyhood, he used to go about with her a great deal, and was angry when he thought she did not get all the notice she ought, and a little jealous when she did.
"Yes, I am flushed and excited, papa," she owned, throwing herself back in the low chair she had pulled up to his sofa, and beginning to pluck nervously at those little tufts of silk that roughened the cobwebby fabric of the grey summer stuff she wore. "Don't you think," she asked, lifting her downcast eyes, "that coming home and finding you in this state is enough to make me look flushed and excited?"
"Not quite," said her father quietly. "It's not a new thing."
Helen gave a sort of lamentable laugh. "I know I was humbugging, and I 'm as selfish as I can be, to think more of myself even now than I do of you. But, oh papa! I'm so unhappy!" She looked at him through a mist that gathered and fell in silent drops from her eyes without clearing them, so that she did not see him carry the hand she had abandoned to his heart, and check a gasp. " I suppose we all have our accounts, one way or other, and they get confused like yours. Mine with— with—a certain person, had got so mixed up that there was nothing for it but just to throw them away."
"Do you mean that you have broken with him finally, Helen?" asked her father gravely.
"I don't know whether you call it finally," said Helen, "but I told him it was no use—not just in those words—and that he ought to forget me; and I was afraid I wasn't equal to it; and that I couldn't see my way to it clearly; and unless I could see my way clearly, I oughtn't to go on any longer. I wrote to him last week, and I thought—I thought that perhaps he wouldn't answer it; perhaps he would come over to Rye Beach—he could easily have run over from Portsmouth—to see me—about it. But he didn't—he didn't—he—wrote a very short letter—. Oh, I didn't see how he could write such a letter; I tried to spare him in every way; and yesterday he—he—s—s—sailed!" Here the storm broke, and Helen bowed herself to the sobs with which her slimness shook, like a tall flower beaten in the wind. Then she suddenly stopped, and ran her hand into her pocket, and pulled out her handkerchief. She wiped away, her tears, and waited for her father to speak; but he lay silent, and merely regarded her pitifully. "I couldn't bear it any longer there with those geese of Merrills—I'm sure they were as kind as could be—and so I came home to burden and afflict you, papa. Don't you think that was like me?" She gave her lamentable laugh again, sobbed, laughed once more, dried the fresh tears with her handkerchief, which she had mechanically shaped into a rabbit, and sat plucking at her dress as before. "What do people do, papa," she asked presently, with a certain hoarseness in her voice, "when they've thrown away their accounts?"
"I never heard of their doing it, my dear," said her father.
"Well, but when they've come to the very end of everything, and there's nothing to go on with, and they might as well stop?"
"They go into bankruptcy," answered the old man, absently, as if the thought had often been in his mind before.
"Well, that's what I've gone into—bankruptcy," said Helen. "And what do they do after they've gone into bankruptcy?"
"They begin the world again with nothing, if they have the heart," replied her father.
"That's what I have to do then—begin the world again with nothing! There! my course is clear, and I hope I like it, and I hope I'm satisfied!"
With these words of self-reproach, Helen again broke down, and bowed herself over the ruin she had made of her life.
"I don't think you need despair," said her father, soothingly, yet with a sort of physical effort which escaped her self-centered grief. "Robert is such a good fellow that if you wrote to him—"
"Why, papa! Are you crazy?" shouted the young girl. "Write to him? He's off for three years, and? don't think he'd come posting back from China, if I did write to him. And how could I write to him, even if he were in the next room?"
"It wouldn't be necessary, in that case," said her father. "I'm sorry he's gone for so long," he added, rather absently.
"If he were gone for a day, it couldn't make any difference," cried Helen, inexorably. "I argued it all out,—and it's a perfect chain of logic—before I wrote to him. I looked at it in this way. I said to myself that it was no use having the affair off and on, any longer. It would be perfect misery to a person of my temperament to be an officer's wife, and have my husband with me today and at the ends of the earth to-morrow. Besides, his pay wouldn't support us. You told me that yourself, papa."
"Yes," said Mr. Harkness. "But I thought Robert might leave the navy, and—"
"I never would have let him!" Helen burst in. "He would have been as unhappy as a fish out of water, and I wouldn't have his wretchedness on my conscience, and his idleness—you know how long that splendid Captain Seymour was trying to get into business in Boston, after he left the service: and then he had to go to California before he could find anything to do; and do you suppose I was going to have Robert mooning round in that way, for ages?"
"He might have gone into business with me for the time being," said Mr. Harkness, not very hopefully.
"Oh yes! you could have made a place for him, I know! And we should both have been a burden to you, then. But I shouldn't have cared for all that. I would have met any fate with Robert, if I had believed that I felt toward him just as I should. But, don't you see, papa? If I had felt towards him in that way, I never should have thought of any—any —prudential considerations. That was what convinced me, that was what I couldn't escape from, turn which way I would. That was the point I put to Robert himself, and—and—oh, I don't see how he could answer as he did! I don't see how he could!" Helen convulsively clutched something in the hand which she had thrust into her pocket. "It isn't that I care for myself; but oh, I am so sorry for him, away off there all alone, feeling so hard and bitter towards me, and thinking me heartless, and I don't know what all,—and hating me so."
"What did he say, Helen?" asked her father, tenderly. She snatched her hand from her pocket and laid a paper, crumpled, bewept, distained, in the hand he stretched towards her, and then bowed her face upon her knees.
Helen and her father were old confidants, and she had not more reluctance in showing him this letter than most girls would have had in trusting such a paper to their mother's eyes. Her own mother had died long ago, and in the comradeship of her young life her father had entered upon a second youth, happier, or at least tranquiller, than the first. She adored him and petted him, as a wife could not, and this worship did not spoil him as it might if it had been a conjugal devotion. They had always a perfect understanding; she had not withdrawn her childish intimacy of thought and feeling from him to give it to her mother, as she would have done if her mother had lived; he knew all her small heart affairs without asking, more or less in a tacit way; and she had an abidingly grateful sense of his wisdom in keeping her from follies which she could see she had escaped through it. He had never before so directly sought to know her trouble; but he had never before seen her in so much trouble; besides, he had always been Robert Fenton's friend at court with Helen; and he had quietly kept his hopes of their future through rather a stormy and uncertain present.
He liked Robert for the sake of Robert's father, who had been captain and supercargo of one of Harkness and Co.'s ships, and had gone down in her on her home voyage when he was returning to be junior partner in the house, after a prosperous venture of his own in Wenham ice. He left this boy, and a young wife who died soon afterwards. Then Mr. Harkness, who was the boy's guardian, gave him and the small property that remained to him more than a guardian's care. He sent him to school, but he made him at home in his own house on all holidays and in vacation. These sojourns and absences, beginning when Robert was ten years old, and continuing through his school-boy age, had renewed alternately his intimacy and strangeness with Helen, and kept her a mystery and enchantment which grew with his growth, while to her consciousness he was simply Robert, a nice boy, who was now at school, or now at home, and who was often so shy that it was perfectly silly. When he was old enough to be placed in some career, he was allowed to choose Harvard and a profession afterwards, or any more technical training that he liked better. He chose neither: the sea called him, as the old superstition is, and every nerve in his body responded. He would have liked to go into the trade in which his father had died, but here his guardian overruled him. He knew that the India trade was dying out. If Robert's soul was set upon the sea, of which there seemed no doubt, it was better that he should go into the navy; at Annapolis he would have a thorough schooling, which would stand him in good stead, if future chance or choice ever cast him ashore to live.
Helen was in the sophomore year of the class with which she was dancing through Harvard when Robert came home from his first cruise. She was then a very great lady, and she patronized the midshipman with killing kindness as a younger brother, though he was in fact half a year her senior. He now fell in love with her outright: very proud love, very jealous, very impatient. She could not understand it. She said to her father it was so queer. She never thought of such a thing. Why, Robert! It was absurd. Besides, he had such a funny name; Fenton! But a passion like his was not to be quenched with reasons even so good as these. He went to sea again, bitterly, rapturously brooding over her idea, and came home in the autumn after Helen's class day. All the fellows had scattered now; and she was left much younger and humbler in her feelings, and not so great a lady for all her triumphs. Two of her class had proposed to her, and lots had come near it; but her heart had been left untouched, and she perceived, or thought she perceived, that these young gentlemen, who were wise and mature enough for their age, though neither Solomons nor Methuselahs, were all silly boys. In herself, on the contrary, the tumult of feeling with which she had first entered the world had been succeeded by a calm, which she might well have mistaken for wisdom. She felt that she now knew the world thoroughly, and while she was resolved to judge it kindly, she was not going to be dazzled by it any longer. She had become an observer of human nature ; she analyzed her feelings; sometimes she made cutting remarks to people, and was dreadfully sorry for it. She withdrew a great deal from society, and liked being thought odd. She had begun to take lessons in painting with a number of ladies under an artist's criticism; she took up courses of reading; she felt that life was a serious affair. On his return, Robert at first seemed to her more boyish, more brotherly than before. But in talking with him certain facts of his history came out that showed him a very brave and manly fellow, and good, too. This gave her pause; so keen an observer of human nature at once discerned in this young man, who did not brag of his experiences, nor yet affect to despise them as trifles, but honestly owned that at one time he was scared, and that at another he would have given everything to be ashore, an object worthy of her closest and most reverent study. She proceeded to idealize him, and to stand in awe of him. Oh yes! with a deep sighing breath, and a long dreamy look at him —he! What he had been through must have changed the whole world to him. After that night in the typhoon—well, nothing could ever have been the same to her after that. He must find all the interests at home sickeningly mean. This was the tone she took with him, driving him to despair. When he again urged his suit, she said that she could not see why he should care for her. At the same time she wanted to ask him why he did not wear his uniform ashore, instead of that unnatural civil dress that he seemed so anxious to make himself ridiculous in. Being pressed for some sort of answer, she said that she had resolved never to marry. After this Robert went off very melancholy upon his third cruise. But she wrote him such kind and sympathetic letters that he came home from this cruise, which was a short one, more fondly in love than ever, but more patiently, more pleasingly in love; and he now behaved so sensibly, with so much apparent consideration for her uncertainty of mind, that she began to think seriously of him. But though she liked him ever so much, and respected him beyond anything, the very fact that she was wondering whether she could ask him to leave the navy or not, and where and how they should live, seemed sufficient proof to her that she did not care for him in the right way. Love, she knew, did not consider ways and means; it did not stop to argue; it found in itself its own reason and the assurance of a future. It did not come after years of shilly-shallying, and beating about the bush, and weighing this and that, and scrutiny of one's emotions. If she loved Robert so little as to care what happened after they were married, she did not love him at all. Something like this, but expressed with infinite kindness was what she had written from Rye Beach to Robert stationed at Portsmouth. She ended by leaving the case in his hands. She forbade him to hope, but she told him that there had been a time, a moment, when she thought that she might have loved him.
Robert took all this awry. He did not deign to ask her when this mysterious moment was, far less whether it might ever recur; he did not answer one of her arguments; he did not even come over to Rye Beach to combat and trample on her reasons. He wrote her a furious, foolish reply, in which he agreed with her that she had never loved him, and never would, and he bade her farewell. He managed to exchange with a friend who was bemoaning his hard lot in being ordered away from his young wife to the China station, and he sailed with their blessing three days after getting Helen's letter. She only learned of his departure by chance.
The old man held the letter in his hand, after reading it, for so long a time, that at last Helen looked up. "It seems to me you take it pretty coolly, papa," she said, her lips quivering.
"Yes, yes. Poor Robert! poor boy!" sighed her father. Then while she bridled indignantly at his misplaced compassion, he added, "I'm sorry, Helen. I think you would have come to like him. Well, well! If you are contented, my dear—"
"How can you say such a thing, papa?" cried Helen, astonished that he should have taken what he understood of her letter just as Robert had done, "when you know,—when you know I—" but Helen could not finish what she was going to say. She could not own that she thought her letter susceptible of quite a different answer. She set her lips and tried to stop their trembling, while her eyes filled.
Her father did not notice. "My dear," he said presently, " will you ask Margaret to make me a cup of tea? I feel unpleasantly weak."
"Why, papa!" cried Helen, flying to the bell, "why didn't you tell me before, instead of letting me worry you with all this foolishness? why didn't you say you were not so well?"
"I wasn't thinking of it," said her father, meekly accepting her reproof. "It's nothing. The wind has changed, hasn't it? I feel the east a little."
"You're chilly?" Helen was now tempted to be really harsh with him for his remissness, but she did not stay from running after the wrap, soft and light, which she had brought back from the sea-side with her, and had thrown down with her bag in the hall, and though she bemoaned his thoughtlessness, as she flung it over him, still she did not pour out upon him all the self-reproach in her heart. She went and hurried Margaret with the tea, and then set an old-fashioned teapot beside the sofa, and when the tea came, she drew up her chair, and poured it for him. She offered to pull down the window, but he made her a sign to let it be; and in fact, it was not cooler without than within, and no chill came from the little yard, on whose lofty walls the sunset was beginning to burn in tender red light. She poured herself a cup of tea when she came back, and when she had made her father repeat again and again that he felt much better, she began to see the absurdity of being tragic about Robert at this late day, when she had so often refused him before without the least tragedy. This, to be sure, was not quite like the other refusals; not so one-sided; but really, except for Robert's own sake, what had she to be sorry for, and why should she pity his towering dudgeon? An ache, faint and dull, made itself felt deep in her heart, and she answered sadly, "Well," to her father's tentative "Helen."
He did not go on, and she asked presently, "What is it, papa?"
"Oh, nothing. There was something I was going to speak to you about. But it will do another time." Helen recollected that once or twice before this her father had begun in the same way, and postponed whatever he had been going to say in the same fashion. It was not a thing to be curious about, and she had never pressed him to speak. She knew that he would speak when he really thought best . But she wondered now a little if his mind were still running upon Robert. .
"Was it something in regard to—to—me, papa? "
"Why, yes. Yes; indirectly."
"Well, then, don't think of it anymore. I shall not . I'm sorry I worried you about it."
"About what, my dear?" asked her father, who could not have followed her.
"Robert!" said Helen, abruptly.
"Oh! I wasn't thinking about Robert."
"Because, if you were, papa, I want to tell you that I am quite reconciled to have everything end as it has done. Robert and I will always be good friends. You needn't be troubled about that."
"Oh yes, certainly," assented her father, closing his eyes.
Helen sat looking at him, as if she would like to go on. But she was a little ashamed, and a little piqued that her father should shut his eyes in that way while she was talking of Robert. He had taken the whole affair rather oddly. She had been prepared to defend Robert if her father were angry with him, as she expected; but instead of being angry, he had really seemed to side with Robert, and had somehow, by his reticence, implied that he would have been glad to have her humble herself to Robert.
"If you wish to sleep, papa," she said with a dignity wasted upon him, for he still lay with his eyes closed, "I will go away."
"I'm drowsy," said her father. "But don't go, Helen. Sit down here."
He made a motion for her to sit beside him, and after an instant's further resentment she drew up her chair, and laid her beautiful head down upon the cushion by his. She gave him a kiss, and dropped a large tear against his withered cheek, and wiped it away with her handkerchief, and then she hid her face again, and wept peacefully till all her tears were gone. At last she lifted her face, and dried her eyes, and sat dreamily watching the red sunset light creeping up the wall on which the wisteria clambered. It rose slowly, leaf by leaf, till it lit an airy frond at top, that swayed in it like a pennon. Suddenly it leaped from this and left it dark, and a shiver coursed through the next rank of foliage. It somehow made her think of a ship going down below the horizon, and the waves running along the sky where the streamers had just hung. But Robert must have been out of sight of land for two days and more before that .
Helen sat beside her father, while the solitude of the house deepened from silence to silence. Then Margaret came to the door, and looked in as if to ask whether it was not time for her to fetch away the tea-things. Helen gave her a nod of acquiescence, and presently rose, and followed her out to the kitchen, to tell her that she was going to her own room, and to say that she must be called when her father woke. But in the kitchen Margaret's company was a temptation to her loneliness, and she made one little pretext after another for remaining, till Margaret set her a chair in the doorway. Margaret had been in the house ever since Helen was born, and Helen still used the same freedom with her that she had in childhood, and gave herself the range of places to which young ladyhood ordinarily denies its radiant presence. She had indeed as much intimacy with the cook as could consist with their different ages, and she got on smoothly with the cook's temper, which had not been so good as her looks in youth, and had improved quite as little with age. Margaret was of a remote sort of Irish birth; but her native land had scarcely marked her accent, and but for her church and her sense of place, which was sometimes very respectful and sometimes very high and mighty with those above her, she might have been mistaken for an American; she had a low voice which only grew lower as she grew angry. A family in which she could do all the work had been her ideal when she first came to Boston, but she had failed of this now for some thirty years, and there seemed little hope that the chances would still turn in her favor. In Helen's childhood, when she used to ask Margaret in moments of tenderness, following the gift of dough in unexpected quantity, whether she would come and live with her after she got married, Margaret had always answered, "Yes, if you won't have anyone else bothering round," which was commonly too much for the just pride of the actual second-girl. She had been cook in the family so long ago as when Mr. Harkness had kept a man; she had pressed upon the retreat of the last man with a broom in her hand and a joyful sarcasm on her lips; and she would willingly have kept vacant the place that she had made too hot for a long succession of second-girls. In the intervals of their going and coming, she realized her ideal of domestic service for the time being; and in the summer when Helen was away a good deal, she prolonged these intervals to the utmost. She was necessarily much more the housekeeper than Helen, though they both respected a fiction of contrary effect, and Helen commonly left her the choice of her helpers. She had not been surprised to find Margaret alone in the house, but she thought it well to ask her how she was getting on without anybody.
"Oh, very well, Miss Helen! You know your father don't make any trouble."
"Well, I've come now, and we must get somebody", said Helen.
"Why, I thought you was going back on Monday, Miss Helen," answered Margaret.
"No, I shall not leave papa. I think he's not at all well."
"He does seem rather poorly, Miss Helen. But I don't see why you need anyone, in the summer, this way."
"Who's to go to the door?" asked Helen. "Besides, you couldn't take care of both of us, Margaret."
"Just as you say, Miss Helen; I'd just as lives," answered Margaret, stubbornly. "It isn't for me to say; but I don't see what you want with anybody: you won't see a soul."
"O, you never can tell, Margaret. You've had a good rest now, and you must have somebody to help you." Helen's sadness smiled at this confusion of ideas, and its suitableness to Margaret's peculiar attitude. "Get somebody that you know, Margaret, and that you'll like. But we must have somebody." She regarded Margaret's silent and stiff displeasure with a moment's amusement, and then her bright face clouded; and she asked softly: "Did you know, Margaret, that Robert,—that Lieutenant Fenton— had sailed again?"
"Why, no, Miss Helen! You don't mean that? Why, I thought he was going to stay the summer at Portsmouth?"
"He was," said Helen, in the same low voice, "but he changed his mind, it seems."
"Sailors is a roving set, anyway," Margaret generalized. Then she added: "Did he come down to say good-bye to your father?"
"Why, no," sadly answered Helen, who now thought of this for the first time. Her heart throbbed indignantly; then she reflected that she had kept him from coming. She looked up at the evening blue, with the swallows weaving a woof of flight across the top of the space framed in by the high walls on every hand, and "He hadn't time, I suppose," she said sadly. "He couldn't get off."
"Well, I don't call it very nice, his not coming," persisted Margaret. "I'd 'a' deserted first." Her associations with naval service had been through gallant fellows who were not in a position to resign.
Helen smiled so ruefully at this that she would better for cheerfulness have wept. But she recognized Margaret's limitations as a confidant, and said no more. She rose presently, and again asked Margaret to look in pretty soon, and see if her father were awake, and call her, if he were: she was going to her room. She looked in a moment herself as she went, and listened till she heard him breathing, and so passed on through the drawing-room, and trailed heavily up-stairs.
The house was rather old-fashioned, and it was not furnished in the latest taste, but it made the appeal with which things out of date, or passing out of date, touch the heart. It was in fact beginning to be respectable because it was no longer in the contest for effect, which the decorations of the newer houses carried on about it, and there was a sort of ugly keeping throughout.
In the very earliest days of Mr. Harkness's housekeeping, the ornamentation of his home had reflected the character of his business somewhat. There had been even a time when the young supercargo brought back—it was his first voyage—quaint and beautiful shells from the East, for his wife to set about the tables and mantels; but these objects, so exquisite in themselves, so unyielding in composition, had long since disappeared. Some grotesque bronzes, picked up in Chinese ports, to which his early ventures had taken him, survived the expulsion of ivory carvings and Indian idols and genre statuettes in terra cotta, (like those you see in the East Indian Museum at Salem) and now found themselves, with the new feeling for oriental art, in the very latest taste. Tire others were bestowed in neglected drawers and shelves, along with boxes containing a wealth of ghastly rich and elaborate white crape shawls from China, and fantastically subtle cotton webs from India which Helen had always thought she should use in tableaux, and never had worn. Among the many pictures on the walls (there were too many), there were three Stuarts, the rest were of very indifferent merit; large figure paintings, or allegorical landscapes, after the taste of Cole and Poussin, in great carved and scrolly frames. Helen had once thought of making a raid upon these enemies of art, and in fact she had contemplated remodeling the whole equipment of the parlors, in conformity to the recent feeling in such matters; but she had not got further than the incomplete representation of some goldenrod and mullein-stalks upon the panels of her own chamber-door; and now that the fervor of her first enthusiasm had burnt itself out, she was not sorry she had left the old house in peace.
"Oh, I should think you'd be so rejoiced," said the chief of her friends; "it's such a comfort to go into one house where you don't have to admire the artistic sentiment, and where every wretched little aesthetic prig of a table or a chair isn't asserting a principle or teaching a lesson. Don't touch a cobweb, Helen!" It had never even come to a talk between her and her father, and the house remained unmolested the home of her childhood. She had not really cared much for it since she was a child. The sense of our impermanent relation to the parental roof comes to us very early in life; and perhaps more keenly to a young girl than to her brothers. They are of the world by all the conditions of their active, positive being, almost from the first—a great world that is made for them; but she has her world to create. She cannot sit and adorn her father's house, as she shall one day beautify and worship her husband's; she can indeed do her duty by it, but the restless longing remains, and her housewifeliness does not voluntarily blossom out beyond the precincts of her own chamber, which she makes her realm of fancy and of dreams. She could not be the heart of the house if she would, as her mother is, or has been; and though in her mother's place, she can be housekeeper, thrifty, wise, and notable, still some mysterious essential is wanting which it is not in her nature to supply to her father's house.
Helen went to her own room, and, flinging up the windows, let in the noises of the streets. A few feet went by in the secluded place, and a sound of more frequent trampling came from the street into which it opened. Further off rose the blurred tumult of business, softened by the stretch of the Common, and growing less and less with the lapse of the long summer day. It was already a little cooler, and the smell of the sprinkled street stole refreshingly in at the window. It was still very light, and when Helen opened her blinds, the room brightened cheerfully all about her, and the sympathetic intimacy of her own closest belongings tenderly appealed to her. After something has happened, and we first see familiar things about us as they were, there comes, just before the sense of difference in ourselves returns to torment us, a moment of blind and foolish oblivion, and this was Helen's as she sat down beside the window, and looked round upon the friendly prettiness of her room. It had been her room when she was a child, and there were childish keepsakes scattered about in odd places, out of the way of young-ladyish luxuries, high-shouldered bottles of perfume, and long-handled ivory brushes, and dainty boxes and cases, and starred and beveled hand-glasses, and other sacred mysteries of toilet. Of the period when she had thought herself wedded to art there were certain charcoal sketches pinned against the wall, and in one corner, not very definite at first glance under the draperies tossed upon it from time to time, was her easel. On projections of her mirror-frame hung souvenirs of Robert's first cruise, which had been in the Mediterranean : ropes of Roman pearls; nets and bracelets and necklaces of shells and beads from Venice; filigree silver jewelry from Genoa; strands and rosaries of black, barbarically scented wooden beads from the Levant: not things you could wear at all, but very pleasant to have; they gave a sentiment to your room when you brought any one into it; they were nice to have lying about, and people liked to take them into their hands: they were not so very uncommon, either, that you had to keep telling what they were. She had never thought that possibly Robert had expected her to wear the absurd things. With an aching recurrence to their quarrel (it could be called no less) and a penitent self-pity, she thought of it now. It did not seem to her that she could touch them, but she went languidly to the mirror and took some of them down, and then all at once fantastically began to array herself in them: like a mad girl, she reflected. She threw the loops of Roman pearls and the black strands of Levantine beads about her neck; she set a net of the Venetian shell-work on her hair, and decked her wrists and her lovely ears with the Genoese filigree; a perfectly frantic combination, she mused, as she shook her head a little to make the ear-bobs dance. "Yes, perfectly frantic," she said aloud, but not much thinking of the image confronting her from the mirror, thinking rather of Robert, and poignantly regretting that she had never put them on for him; and thinking that if the loss of him had made her certain about him too late for ever, how fatally strange that would be. Again she went over all the facts of the affair, and was able to make much surer of Robert's motives than of her own. She knew that if he had understood her saying that she might have loved him once to be any encouragement for the future, he would not have written as he did. She could imagine Robert's being very angry at the patronizing tone of the rest of her letter; she had entire faith in his stupidity; she never doubted his generosity, his magnanimous incapability of turning her refusal of him into a refusal of her; his was not the little soul that could rejoice in such a chance. She wondered if now, far out at sea, sailing, sailing away, three years away, from her, he saw anything in her letter but refusal; or was he still in that blind rage? Did he never once think that it had seemed such a great thing for her to make confession, which meant him to come to her? But had she really meant that? It seemed so now, but perhaps then she had only thought of mingling a drop of kindness in his bitter cup, of trying to spare him the mortification of having loved a person who had never thought for a moment of loving him? From time to time, her image appeared to advance upon her from the depths of the mirror, decked in all that incongruous frippery, and to say with trembling lips, "Perfectly frantic, perfectly frantic," while the tears ran down its face; and she found a wild comfort in regarding herself as quite an insane, irresponsible creature, who did not know what she was about. She felt that fate ought not to hold her to account. The doorbell rang, and she snatched the net from her hair with a fearful shudder, and flung down all the ornaments in a heap upon her dressing-table. Bumping sounds in the hall below reminded her that in her trance before the glass, she had remotely known of a wagon stopping at the door, and presently she heard Margaret coming up the stairs behind the panting express-man who was fetching up her trunk. She fled into another room, and guiltily lurked there till they went Out again, before she returned to unlock and unpack the box. It was one of Helen's economies not to drive home from the station, but to send her baggage by express and come up in a horsecar. The sums thus saved she devoted to a particular charity, and was very rigid with herself about spending every half-dollar coach-fare for that object. She only gave twenty-five cents to the express, and she made a merit of the fact that neither the coach-hire nor the charity ever cost her father anything. Robert had once tried to prove that it always cost him seventy-five cents, but she had easily seen through the joke, and had made him confess it.
She was still busy unpacking when Margaret came up to say that her father was awake now, and then she left off at once to go to him. The gas had been lighted in the hall and library, and that made life another thing. Her father was in his armchair, and was feeling decidedly better, he said; he had told Margaret to have tea there in the library. Helen laughed at him for having two teas within two hours; he owned to being hungry, and that reminded her that she had eaten nothing since an early dinner. When the tea and toast came in, and the cloth was laid half across the round table, in the mellow light of the study lamp, they were very cozy. Helen, who was always thinking of Robert, whatever else she thought of, began to play in fancy at a long life of devotion to her father, in which she should never marry. She had always imagined him living with her, but now she was living with him, and they were to grow old together; in twenty years, when he was eighty, she would be forty-three, and then there would not be much difference between them. She now finally relinquished the very last idea of Robert, except as a brother. She did not suppose she should ever quite like his wife, but she should pet their children.
"Helen," said her father, breaking in upon these ideas, " how should you like to live in the country?"
"Why, papa, I was just thinking of it! That is, not in the country exactly, but somewhere off by ourselves, just you and I. Of course, I should like it."
"I don't mean on a farm," pursued her father, "but in some of the suburban towns, where we could have a bit of ground and breathing space. I think it grows closer and closer in town; at times it seems "as if I could hardly catch my breath. I believe it would agree with me in the country. I can't get away from business entirely for a few years yet—if the times continue so bad, I must bend all my energies to it, in fact—and I have a fancy that the coming in and out of town would do me good. And I have a notion that I should like to build. I should like a new house—a perfectly new house. We could live on a simpler scale in the country."
"O yes, indeed!" said Helen. "I should come into town to shop, with my initials worked in worsted on the side of my bag, and I should know where the bargains were, and lunch at Copeland's. I should like it."
"Well, we must think about it . I daresay we could let the house here without much trouble. I feel it somehow a great burden upon me, but I shouldn't like to sell it."
"O no, papa! We couldn't think of selling it. I should just like to let it, and then never go near it, or look in the same direction, till we were ready to come back to it."
"I have lived here so long," continued her father, making her the listener to his musings rather than speaking to her, "that I should like a change. I used to think that I should never leave the house, but a place may become overcrowded with associations. You are too young, Helen, to understand how terrible it is to find one's own past grow into the dumb material things about one, and become, as it were, imprisoned in them."
"O yes," sighed the girl, "there are some dresses of mine that I can't bear the sight of, just because I felt, or said, or did certain things when I wore them."
"An old house like this," Mr. Harkness went on, "gets to be your body, and usurps all your reality, which doesn't seem to live in it either, while you move round like a ghost. The past is so much more than_ the present. Think how much more these walls and these old chairs and tables have known of us than we now are!"
"No, no! Don't think of it, papa, or we shall be getting into the depths again," pleaded Helen.
"Well, I won't," consented her father, coming back to himself with a smile, which presently faded. "But it all makes me restless and impatient. I should like to begin a new life somewhere else, in a new house." He was silent a while, trifling with the toast on his plate; his appetite had passed at the sight of the food, and he had eaten scarcely anything. He looked at Helen, and then at a portrait on the wall, and than at Helen again.
"I'm not much like mamma, am I, papa?" she asked.
"Not much in face," said Mr. Harkness.
"Do you wish I was more?" she pursued timidly.
"No, I don't think I do," said her father.
"It would only make me more painful, if I looked more like her, such a helpless, selfish thing as I am," morbidly assented Helen. "I should only make you miss her the more."
"Why, Helen, you're a very good girl—the best child in the world," said her father.
"O no, I'm not, papa. I'm one of the worst. I never think of anybody but myself," said Helen, who was thinking of Robert. "You don't know how many times I've gone down on my mental knees to you and asked you to have patience with me."
"Asked me to have patience with you?" said her father, taking her by the chin, and pressing against his cheek the beautiful face which she leaned toward him. "Poor child! There's hardly a day since you were born that I haven't done you a greater wrong than the sum of all your sins would come to. Papas are dreadful fellows, Helen; but they sometimes live in the hope of repairing their misdeeds."
"Write them on a slip of paper, and hide it in a secret drawer that opens with a clasp and spring, when you don't know they're there," said Helen, glad of his touch of playfulness. "We've both been humbugging, and we know it."
He stared at her and said, "Your voice is like your mother's; and just now, when you came in, your movement was very like hers. I hadn't noticed it before. But she has been a great deal in my mind of late."
If he had wished to talk of her mother, whom Helen could not remember, and who had been all her life merely the shadow of a sorrow to her, a death, a grave, a name upon a stone, a picture on the wall, she would not spare herself the duty of encouraging him to do so. "Was she tall, like me?" she asked.
"Not so tall," answered her father. "And she was dark."
"Yes," said Helen, lifting her eyes to the picture on the wall.
"She had a great passion for the country," continued Mr. Harkness, "and I liked the town. It was more convenient for me, and I was born in Boston. It has often grieved me to think that I didn't yield to her. I must have been dreaming of her, for when I woke a little while ago, this regret was like a physical pang at my heart . As long as we live, we can't help treating each other as if we were to live always. But it's a mistake. I never refused to go into the country with her," he said as if to appease this old regret. "I merely postponed it. Now I should like to go."
He rose from the table, and taking the study-lamp in his hand, he feebly pushed apart the sliding-doors that opened into the drawing-room. He moved slowly down its length, on one side, throwing the light upon this object and that, before which he faltered, and so returned on the other side, as if to familiarize himself with every detail. Sometimes he held the lamp above, and sometimes below bis face, but always throwing its age and weariness into relief. Helen had remained watching him. As he came back, she heard him say, less to her as it seemed than to himself, "Yes, I should like to sell it. I'm tired of it."
He set the lamp down upon the table again, and sank into his chair, and lapsed into a reverie which left Helen solitary beside him. "Ah," she realized, as she looked on his musing, absent face, "he is old and I am young, and he has more to love in the other world, with my mother and both my brothers there, than he has in this. Oh, Robert, Robert, Robert!"
But perhaps his absent mind was not so much bent upon the lost as she thought. He had that way fathers have of treating his daughter as an equal, of talking to her gravely and earnestly, and then of suddenly dropping her into complete nothingness, as if she were a child to be amused for a while, and then set down from his knee and sent out of doors. Helen dutifully accepted this condition of their companionship; she cared for it so little as never to have formulated it to herself; when she was set down, she went out, and ordinarily she did not think of it.
A peremptory ring at the door startled them both, and when Margaret had opened it there entered all at the same instant, a loud, kindly voice, the chirp of boots, heavily trodden upon by a generous bulk, that rocked from side to side in its advance, and a fragrance of admirable cigars, that active and passive perfume, which comes from smoking and being smoked in the best company. "At home, Margaret?" asked the voice, whose loudness was a husky loudness, in a pause of the boots. "Yes? Well, don't put me in there, Margaret," which was apparently in rejection of the drawing-room. "I'll join them in the library."
The boots came chirping down the hall in that direction, with a sound of heavy breathing. Helen sprang from her chair, and fled to meet the cheerful sound; there was the noise of an encountering kiss, and a jolly laugh, and "Well, Helen!" and "Oh, Captain Butler!" and later, "Harkness !" and "Butler!" as Helen led the visitor in.
"Well!" said this guest, for the third time. He straightened his tall mass to its full height, and looked out over his chest with eyes of tender regard upon Harkness's thin and refined face, now lit up after the handshaking with cordial welcome. "Do you know," he said, as if somehow it were a curious fact of natural history, "that you have it uncommonly close in here?" He went over to the window that opened upon the little grassy yard, and put it up for himself, while Harkness was explaining that it had been put down while he was napping. Then he planted himself in a large leathern chair beside it, and went on smoking the cigar on the end of which he had been chewing. He started from the chair with violence, coughing and gesturing to forbid Helen, who was hospitably whispering to Margaret. "No, no; don't do it. I won't have anything. I couldn't. I've just dined at the club. Yes, you may do that much," he added to Helen, as she set a little table with an ash-holder at his elbow. "You've no idea what a night it is. It's cooler, and the air's delicious. I say, I want to take Helen back with me. I wish she'd go alone, and leave us two old fellows together here. There's no place like Boston in the summer, after all. But you haven't told me whether you're surprised to see me." Captain Butler looked round at them with something of the difficulty of a sea-turtle in a lateral inspection.
"Never surprised, but always charmed," said Helen, with just the shade of mockery in her tone which she knew suited this visitor.
"Charmed, eh?" asked Captain Butler. Apparently, he meant to say something satirical about the word, but could not think of anything. He turned again to her father: "How are you, Harkness?"
"Oh, I'm very well," said Harkness evasively. "I'm as well as usual."
"Then you have yourself fetched home in a hack by a policeman every day, do you?" remarked Captain Butler, blowing a succession of white rings into the air. "You were seen from the club window. I'll tell you what; you're sticking to it too close."
"O yes, Captain Butler, do get him away," sighed Helen, while her father, who had not sat down, began to walk back and forth in an irritated, restless way.
"For the present I can't leave it," said Harkness, fretfully. He added more graciously: "Perhaps in a week or two, or next month, I can get off for a few days. You know I was one of the securities for Bates and Mather," he said, looking at Captain Butler over Helen's head.
"I had forgotten that," answered Captain Butler gravely.
"They left things in a complete tangle. I can't tell just where I am yet, and, of course, I've no peace till I know."
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