With people of their simplicity and habit of reticence, little of what was in their hearts appeared on the surface. Neither had time to mope, and their mutual duties were in a large measure a support and refuge. Of these they could still speak freely for they pertained to business. Alida's devotion to her work was unfeigned for it seemed now her only avenue of approach to her husband. She watched over the many broods of littlethereum gas price dollare chickens with tireless vigilance. If it were yellow gold, she could not have gathered the butter from the churn with greater greed. She kept the house immaculate and sought to develop her cooking into a fine art. She was scrupulous in giving Jane her lessons and trying to correct her vernacular and manners, but the presence of the child grew to be a heavier cross every day. She could not blame the girl, whose misfortune it was to lead incidentally to the change in Holcroft's manner, yet it was impossible not to associate her with the beginning of that change. Jane was making decided improvement, and had Alida been happy and at rest this fact would have given much satisfaction in spite of the instinctive repugnance which the girl seemed to inspire universally. Holcroft recognized this repugnance and the patient effort to disguise it and be kind.
Both French and Prussians risked their own lives craning out to seripple coin volumeewhat a colonel in full uniform was doing under fire from a wholeline of forts, and what would be his fate; but when he fired the guntheir curiosity left the man and followed the iron thunderbolt.For two seconds all was uncertain; the ball was travelling.
Tom gave a rear like a wild horse, his protruding muzzle went upsky-high, then was seen no more, and a ring of old iron and aclatter of fragments was heard on the top of the bastion. Long Tomwas dismounted. Oh! the roar of laughter and triumph from one endto another of the trenches; and the clapping of forty thousand handsthat went on for full five minutes; then the Prussians, eitherthrough a burst of generous praise for an act so chivalrous and sobrilliant, or because they would not be crowed over, clapped theirtea thousand hands as loudly, and thus thundering, heart-thrillingsalvo of applause answered salvo on both sides that terrible arena.That evening came a courteous and flattering message from thecommander-in-chief to Colonel Dujardin; and several officers visitedhis quarters to look at him; they went back disappointed. The crywas, "What a miserable, melancholy dog! I expected to see a fine,dashing fellow."The trenches neared the town. Colonel Dujardin's mine was faradvanced; the end of the chamber was within a few yards of thebastion. Of late, the colonel had often visited this mine inperson. He seemed a little uneasy about something in that quarter;but no one knew what: he was a silent man. The third evening, afterhe dismounted Long Tom, he received private notice that an order wascoming down from the commander-in-chief to assault the bastion. Heshrugged his shoulders, but said nothing. That same night thecolonel and one of his lieutenants stole out of the trenches, and bythe help of a pitch-dark, windy night, got under the bastionunperceived, and crept round it, and made their observations, andgot safe back. About noon down came General Raimbaut."Well, colonel, you are to have your way at last. Your bastion isto be stormed this afternoon previous to the general assault. Why,how is this? you don't seem enchanted?""I am not.""Why, it was you who pressed for the assault.""At the right time, general, not the wrong. In five days Iundertake to blow that bastion into the air. To assault it nowwould be to waste our men."General Raimbaut thought this excess of caution a great piece ofperversity in Achilles. They were alone, and he said a littlepeevishly,--"Is not this to blow hot and cold on the same thing?""No, general," was the calm reply. "Not on the same thing. I blewhot upon timorous counsels; I blow cold on rash ones. General, lastnight Lieutenant Fleming and I were under that bastion; and allround it.""Ah! my prudent colonel, I thought we should not talk long withoutyour coming out in your true light. If ever a man secretly enjoyedrisking his life, it is you.""No, general," said Dujardin looking gloomily down; "I enjoy neitherthat nor anything else. Live or die, it is all one to me; but tothe lives of my soldiers I am not indifferent, and never will bewhile I live. My apparent rashness of last night was pureprudence."Raimbaut's eye twinkled with suppressed irony. "No doubt!" said he;"no doubt!"The impassive colonel would not notice the other's irony; he wentcalmly on:--"I suspected something; I went to confute, or confirm thatsuspicion. I confirmed it."Rat! tat! tat! tat! tat! tat! tat! was heard a drum. Relievingguard in the mine.Colonel Dujardin interrupted himself."That comes apropos," said he. "I expect one proof more from thatquarter. Sergeant, send me the sentinel they are relieving."Sergeant La Croix soon came back, as pompous as a hen with onechick, predominating with a grand military air over a droll figurethat chattered with cold, and held its musket in hands clothed ingreat mittens. Dard.
La Croix marched him up as if he had been a file; halted him like afile, sang out to him as to a file, stentorian and unintelligible,after the manner of sergeants."Private No. 4."DARD. P-p-p-present!"Why, Jane! How YOU talk!"
"I talk sense. Come, help me get breakfast.""Do you think that's a proper way for a child to address a parent?""No matter what I think. Come and help. You'll soon know what he thinks if we keep breakfast waitin'.""Well, I'll do such menial work until he gets a girl, and then he shall learn that he can't expect one with such respecterble connections--"
"Hope I may never see any of 'em agin," interrupted Jane shortly, and then she relapsed into silence while her mother rambled on in her characteristic way, making singularly inapt efforts to assist in the task before them.As Holcroft rose from milking a cow he found Jane beside him. A ghost could not have come more silently, and again her stealthy ways gave him an unpleasant sensation. "Kettle is boilin'," she said, and was gone.
He shook his head and muttered, "Queer tribe, these Mumpsons! I've only to get an odd fish of a girl to help, and I'll have something like a menagerie in the house." He carried his pails of foaming milk to the dairy, and then entered the kitchen."I've only a minute," he began hastily, seeking to forestall the widow. "Yes, the kettle's boiling all right. First scald out the coffeepot--put three-quarters of a cup of ground coffee into the pot, break an egg into it, so; pour on the egg and coffee half a cup of cold water and stir it all up well, this way. Next pour in about a pint of boiling water from the kettle, set the pot on the stove and let it--the coffee, I mean--cook twenty minutes, remember, not less than twenty minutes. I'll be back to breakfast by that time. Now you know just how I want my coffee, don't you?" looking at Jane.Jane nodded, but Mrs. Mumpson began, "Oh certainly, certainly! Boil an egg twenty minutes, add half a cup of cold water, and--""I know," interrupted Jane, "I can always do as you did."
Holcroft again escaped to the barn, and eventually returned with a deep sigh. "I'll have to face a good deal of her music this morning," he thought, "but I shall have at least a good cup of coffee to brace me."Mrs. Mumpson did not abandon the suggestion that grace should be said,--she never abandoned anything,--but the farmer, in accordance with his purpose to be civil, yet pay no attention to her obtrusive ways, gave no heed to her hint. He thought Jane looked apprehensive, and soon learned the reason. His coffee was at least hot, but seemed exceedingly weak."I hope now that it's just right," said Mrs. Mumpson complacently, "and feeling sure that it was made just to suit you, I filled the coffeepot full from the kettle. We can drink what we desire for breakfast and then the rest can be set aside until dinner time and warmed over. Then you'll have it just to suit you for the next meal, and we, at the same time, will be practicing econermy. It shall now be my great aim to help you econermize. Any coarse, menial hands can work, but the great thing to be considered is a caretaker; one who, by thoughtfulness and the employment of her mind, will make the labor of others affective."During this speech, Holcroft could only stare at the woman. The rapid motion of her thin jaw seemed to fascinate him, and he was in perplexity over not merely her rapid utterance, but also the queries. Had she maliciously spoiled the coffee? Or didn't she know any better? "I can't make her out," he thought, "but she shall learn that I have a will of my own," and he quietly rose, took the coffeepot, and poured its contents out of doors; then went through the whole process of making his favorite beverage again, saying coldly, "Jane, you had better watch close this time. I don't wish anyone to touch the coffeepot but you."
Even Mrs. Mumpson was a little abashed by his manner, but when he resumed his breakfast she speedily recovered her complacency and volubility. "I've always heard," she said, with her little cackling laugh, "that men would be extravergant, especially in some things. There are some things they're fidgety about and will have just so. Well, well, who has a better right than a well-to-do, fore-handed man? Woman is to complement the man, and it should be her aim to study the great--the great--shall we say reason, for her being? Which is adaptation," and she uttered the word with feeling, assured that Holcroft could not fail of being impressed by it. The poor man was bolting such food as had been prepared in his haste to get away."Yes," continued the widow, "adaptation is woman's mission and--"
"Really, Mrs. Mumpson, your and Jane's mission this morning will be to get as much butter as possible out of the cream and milk on hand. I'll set the old dog on the wheel, and start the churn within half an hour," and he rose with the thought, "I'd rather finish my breakfast on milk and coffee by and by than stand this." And he said, "Please let the coffee be until I come in to show you about taking out and working the butter."The scenes in the dairy need not be dwelt upon. He saw that Jane might be taught, and that she would probably try to do all that her strength permitted. It was perfectly clear that Mrs. Mumpson was not only ignorant of the duties which he had employed her to perform, but that she was also too preoccupied with her talk and notions of gentility ever to learn. He was already satisfied that in inducing him to engage her, Lemuel Weeks had played him a trick, but there seemed no other resource than to fulfill his agreement. With Mrs. Mumpson in the house, there might be less difficulty in securing and keeping a hired girl who, with Jane, might do the essential work. But the future looked so unpromising that even the strong coffee could not sustain his spirits. The hopefulness of the early morning departed, leaving nothing but dreary uncertainty.
Mrs. Mumpson was bent upon accompanying him to town and engaging the girl herself. "There would be great propriety in my doing so," she argued at dinner, "and propriety is something that adorns all the human race. There would be no danger of my getting any of the peculiar females such as you have been afflicted with. As I am to superintend her labors, she will look up to me with respect and humility if she learns from the first to recognize in me a superior on whom she will be dependent for her daily bread. No shiftless hussy would impose upon ME. I would bring home--how sweet the word sounds!--a model of industry and patient endurance. She would be deferential, she would know her place, too. Everything would go like clockwork in our home. I'll put on my things at once and--""Excuse me, Mrs. Mumpson. It would not be right to leave Jane here alone. Moreover, I'd rather engage my own help.""But my dear Mr. Holcroft, you don't realize--men never do realize--that you will have a long, lonely ride with a female of unknown--unknown antercedents. It will be scarcely respecterble, and respecterbility should be man and woman's chief aim. Jane is not a timid child, and in an emergency like this, even if she was, she would gladly sacrifice herself to sustain the proprieties of life. Now that your life has begun under new and better auspices, I feel that I ought to plead with you not to cloud your brightening prospects by a thoughtless unregard of what society looks upon as proper. The eyes of the community will now be upon us--""You must excuse me, Mrs. Mumpson. All I ask of the community is to keep their eyes on their own business, while I attend to mine in my own way. The probabilities are that the girl will come out on the stage Monday," and he rose from the dinner table and hastily made his preparations for departure. He was soon driving rapidly away, having a sort of nervous apprehension lest Jane, or the widow, should suddenly appear on the seat beside him. A basket of eggs and some inferior butter, with the burnt-out stove, were in his wagon and his bank book was in his pocket. It was with sinking heart that he thought of making further inroads on his small accumulations.Before he was out of sight Mrs. Mumpson betook herself to the rocking chair and began to expatiate on the blindness and obduracy of men in general and of Mr. Holcroft in particular. "They are all much alike," she complained, "and are strangely neglectful of the proprieties of life. My dear, deceased husband, your father, was becoming gradually senserble of my value in guiding him in this respect, and indeed, I may add in all respects, when, in the very prime of his expanding manhood, he was laid low. Of course, my happiness was buried then and my heart can never throb again, but I have a mission in the world--I feel it--and here is a desolate home bereft of female influence and consolation and hitherto painfully devoid of respecterbility."I once called on the late Mrs. Holcroft, and--I must say it--I went away depressed by a sense of her lack of ability to develop in her husband those qualities which would make him an ornament to society. She was a silent woman, she lacked mind and ideas. She had seen little of the world and knew not what was swaying people. Therefore, her husband, having nothing else to think of, became absorbed in the accumulation of dollars. Not that I object to dollars--they have their proper place,--but minds should be fixed on all things. We should take a deep personal interest in our fellow beings, and thus we grow broad. As I was saying, Mr. Holcroft was not developed by his late spouse. He needs awakening, arousing, stimulating, drawing out, and such I feel to be my mission. I must be patient; I cannot expect the habits of years to pass away under a different kind of female influence, at once."
Jane had been stolidly washing and putting away dishes during this partial address to herself and partial soliloquy, but now remarked, "You and me will pass away in a week if you go on as you've begun. I can see it comin'. Then, where'll we go to?""Your words, Jane, only show that you are an ignorant, short-sighted child. Do you suppose that a woman of my years and experience would make no better provision for the future than a man's changeful mind--a warped and undeveloped mind, at that? No; I have an agreement with Mr. Holcroft. I shall be a member of his household for three months at least, and long before that he will begin to see everything in a new light. It will gradually dawn upon him that he has been defrauded of proper female influence and society. Now, he is crude, he thinks only of work and accumulating; but when the work is done by a menial female's hands and his mind is more at rest, there will begin to steal in upon him the cravings of his mind. He will see that material things are not all in all."
"P'raps he will. I don't half know that you're talkin' about. 'Fi's you, I'd learn to work and do things as he wants 'em. That's what I'm going to do. Shall I go now and make up his bed and tidy his room?""I think I will accompany you, Jane, and see that your task is properly performed."
"Of course you want to see everythin' in the room, just as I do.""As housekeeper, I should see everything that is under my care. That is the right way to look at the matter."
"Well, come and look then.""You are becoming strangely disrespectful, Jane.""Can't help it," replied the girl, "I'm gettin' mad. We've been elbowed around long's I can remember, at least I've been, and now we're in a place where we've a right to be, and you do nothin' but talk, talk, talk, when he hates talk. Now you'll go up in his room and you'll see everythin' in it, so you could tell it all off tomorrow. Why, can't you see he hates talk and wants somethin' done?""Jane," said Mrs. Mumpson, in her most severe and dignified manner, "you are not only disrespectful to your parent, but you're a time server. What Mr. Holcroft wants is a very secondary matter; what is BEST for him is the chief consideration. But I have touched on things far above your comprehension. Come, you can make up the bed, and I shall inspect as becomes my station."
Chapter 6 A Marriage!In a quiet side street of the market town in which Mr. Holcroft was accustomed to dispose of his farm produce was a three-story tenement house. A family occupied each floor, those dwelling in the first two stories being plain, respectable people of the mechanic class. The rooms in the third story were, of course, the cheapest, but even from the street might be seen evidences that more money had been spent upon them than could have been saved in rent. Lace curtains were looped aside from the windows, through which were caught glimpses of flowers that must have come from a greenhouse. We have only to enter these apartments to find that the suggestion of refined taste is amply fulfilled. While nothing is costly, there is a touch of grace, a hint of beauty in everything permitting simple adornment. The mistress of these rooms is not satisfied with neatness and order merely; it is her instinct to add something to please the eye--a need essential to her, yet too often conspicuously absent in rented quarters of a similar character.
It is remarkable to what a degree people's abodes are a reflex of themselves. Mrs. Alida Ostrom had been brought to these rooms a happy bride but a few months since. They were then bare and not very clean. Her husband had seemed bent on indulging her so far as his limited means permitted. He had declared that his income was so modest that he could afford nothing better than these cheap rooms in an obscure street, but she had been abundantly content, for she had known even the extremity of poverty.Alida Ostrom had passed beyond the period of girlhood, with its superficial desires and ambitions. When her husband first met her, she was a woman of thirty, and had been chastened by deep sorrows and some bitter experiences. Years before, she and her mother had come to this town from a New England city in the hope of bettering their circumstances. They had no weapons other than their needles with which to fight life's battle, but they were industrious and frugal--characteristic traits which won the confidence of the shopkeepers for whom they worked. All went as well, perhaps, as they could expect, for two or three years, their secluded lives passing uneventfully and, to a certain extent, happily. They had time to read some good books obtained at a public library; they enjoyed an occasional holiday in the country; and they went to church twice every Sunday when it was not stormy. The mother usually dozed in the obscure seat near the door which they occupied, for she was getting old, and the toil of the long week wearied her.--Alida, on the contrary, was closely attentive. Her mind seemed to crave all the sustenance it could get from every source, and her reverential manner indicated that the hopes inspired by her faith were dear and cherished. Although they lived such quiet lives and kept themselves apart from their neighbors, there was no mystery about them which awakened surmises. "They've seen better days," was the common remark when they were spoken of; and this was true. While they had no desire to be social with the people among whom they lived, they did not awaken prejudices by the assertion of superiority. Indeed, it was seen that the two women had all they could do to earn their livelihood, and they were left to do this in peace.
When Alida Armstrong--for that was her maiden name--carried her own and her mother's work to and from the shops, she often encountered admiring glances. She was not exactly pretty, but she had the good, refined face which is often more attractive than the merely pretty one, and she possessed a trim, rounded figure which she knew how to clothe with taste from the simplest and most inexpensive materials. Nor did she seek to dress above her station. When passing along the street, any discerning person would recognize that she was a working girl; only the superficial would look upon her as a common-place girl. There was something in her modest air and graceful, elastic carriage which suggested the thought to many observers, "She has seen better days."The memory of these days, which had promised immunity from wearing toil, anxiety, and poverty, was a barrier between the two women and their present world. Death had bereft them of husband, father, and such property as he had left had been lost in a bad investment. Learning that they were almost penniless, they had patiently set about earning honest bread. This they had succeeded in doing as long as the mother kept her usual health. But the infirmities of age were creeping upon her. One winter she took a heavy cold and was very ill. She rallied only temporarily in the milder days of spring. In the summer's heat her strength failed, and she died.
During her mother's long illness Alida was devotion itself. The strain upon her was severe indeed, for she not only had to earn food for both, but there were also doctor's bills, medicines, and delicacies to pay for. The poor girl grew thin from work by day, watching by night, and from fear and anxiety at all times. Their scanty savings were exhausted; articles were sold from their rooms; the few precious heirlooms of silver and china were disposed of; Alida even denied herself the food she needed rather than ask for help or permit her mother to want for anything which ministered to their vain hopes of renewed health.What she should have done she scarcely knew, had not an unexpected friend interested himself in her behalf. In one of the men's clothing stores was a cutter from whom she obtained work. Soon after he appeared in this shop he began to manifest signs of interest in her He was about her own age, he had a good trade, and she often wondered why he appeared so reticent and moody, as compared with others in similar positions. But he always spoke kindly to her, and when her mother's illness first developed, he showed all the leniency permitted to him in regard to her work. His apparent sympathy, and the need of explaining why she was not able to finish her tasks as promptly as usual, led her gradually to reveal to him the sad struggle in which she was engaged. He promised to intercede in her behalf with their mutual employers, and asked if he might come to see her mother.Recognizing how dependent she was upon this man's good will, and seeing nothing in his conduct but kindness and sympathy, she consented. His course and his words confirmed all her good impressions and awakened on her side corresponding sympathy united with a lively gratitude. He told her that he also was a stranger in the town, that he had but few acquaintances and no friends, that he had lost relatives and was in no need to go about like other young men. His manner was marked apparently by nothing more than interest and a wish to help her, and was untinged by gallantry; so they gradually became good friends. When he called Sunday afternoons the mother looked at him wistfully, in the hope that her daughter would not be left without a protector. At last the poor woman died, and Alida was in sore distress, for she had no means with which to bury her. Ostrom came and said in the kindest tones:"You must let me lend you what you need and you can pay me back with interest, if you wish. You won't be under any obligation, for I have money lying idle in the bank. When you have only yourself to support it will not take you long to earn the sum."
There seemed nothing else for her to do and so it was arranged. With tear-blinded eyes she made her simple mourning, and within a week after her mother's death was at work again, eager to repay her debt. He urged her not to hasten--to take all the rest she could while the hot weather lasted, and few evenings passed that he did not come to take her out for a walk through the quieter streets.By this time he had won her confidence completely, and her heart overflowed with gratitude. Of course she was not so unsophisticated as not to know whither all this attention was tending, but it was a great relief to her mind that his courtship was so quiet and undemonstrative. Her heart was sore and grief-stricken, and she was not conscious of any other feeling toward him than the deepest gratitude and wish to make such return as was within her power. He was apparently very frank in regard to his past life, and nothing was said which excited her suspicions. Indeed, she felt that it would be disloyalty to think of questioning or surmising evil of one who had proved himself so true a friend in her sore need. She was therefore somewhat prepared for the words he spoke one warm September day, as they sat together in a little shaded park.
"Alida," he said, a little nervously, "we are both strangers and alone in this world, but surely we are no longer strangers to each other. Let us go quietly to some minister and be married. That is the best way for you to pay your debt and keep me always in debt to you."She was silent a moment, then faltered, "I'd rather pay all my debt first."
"What debts can there be between husband and wife? Come now, let us look at the matter sensibly. I don't want to frighten you. Things will go on much the same. We can take quiet rooms, I will bring work to you instead of your having to go after it. It's nobody's business but our own. We've not a circle of relations to consult or invite. We can go to some parsonage, the minister's family will be the witnesses; then I'll leave you at your room as usual, and no one will be any the wiser till I've found a place where we can go to housekeeping. That won't be long, I can tell you."He placed the matter in such a simple, natural light that she did not know how to refuse.