"No, it wouldn't be for my sake. I don't wish you to go, and wouldn't let you. If you should let the Oakville rabble drive you away, I WOULD be in danger, and so ethereum definicaowould others, for I'd be worse on 'em than an earthquake. After the lesson they've had tonight, they'll let us alone, and I'll let them alone. You know I've tried to be honest with you from the first. Believe me, then, the trouble's over unless we make more for ourselves. Now, promise you'll do as I say and let me manage."
"Mrs. Mumpson," said Holcroft, half desperately, "if anyone comes it'll be out of pure curiosity, and I don't want such company. Selling enough butter,ape nft drop eggs, and produce to pay expenses will encourage me more than all the people of Oakville, if they should come in a body. What's the use of talking in this way? I've done without the neighbors so far, and I'm sure they've been very careful to do without me. I shall have nothing to do with them except in the way of business, and as I said to you down at Lemuel Weeks's, business must be the first consideration with us all," and he rose from the table."Oh, certainly, certainly!" the widow hastened to say, "but then business is like a cloud, and the meetings and greetings of friends is a sort of silver lining, you know. What would the world be without friends--the society of those who take an abiding interest? Believe me, Mr. Holcroft," she continued, bringing her long, skinny finger impressively down on the table, "you have lived alone so long that you are unable to see the crying needs of your own constitution. As a Christian man, you require human sympathy and--"
Poor Holcroft knew little of centrifugal force; but at that moment he was a living embodiment of it, feeling that if he did not escape he would fly into a thousand atoms. Saying nervously, "I've a few chores to do," he seized his hat, and hastening out, wandered disconsolately around the barn. "I'm never going to be able to stand her," he groaned. "I know now why my poor wife shook her head whenever this woman was mentioned. The clack of her tongue would drive any man living crazy, and the gimlet eyes of that girl Jane would bore holes through a saint's patience. Well, well! I'll put a stove up in my room, then plowing and planting time will soon be here, and I guess I can stand it at mealtimes for three months, for unless she stops her foolishness she shan't stay any longer."Jane had not spoken during the meal, but kept her eyes on Holcroft, except when he looked toward her, and then she instantly averted her gaze. When she was alone with her mother, she said abruptly, "We aint a-goin' to stay here long, nuther.""Why not?" was the sharp, responsive query."'Cause the same look's comin' into his face that was in Cousin Lemuel's and Cousin Abiram's and all the rest of 'em. 'Fi's you I'd keep still now. 'Pears to me they all want you to keep still and you won't.""Jane," said Mrs. Mumpson in severe tones, "you're an ignorant child. Don't presume to instruct ME! Besides, this case is entirely different. Mr. Holcroft must be made to understand from the start that I'm not a common woman--that I'm his equal, and in most respects his superior. If he aint made to feel this, it'll never enter his head--but law! There's things which you can't and oughtn't to understand."
"But I do," said the girl shortly, "and he won't marry you, nor keep you, if you talk him to death.""Jane!" gasped Mrs. Mumpson, as she sank into the chair and rocked violently.The girl sprang to her feet, and hesitated whether to fly or obey. "Don't be afraid," added Holcroft. "I won't scold you. Come!"
She stole toward him like some small, wild, fearful animal in doubt of its reception. "Sit down there on that rock," he said.She obeyed with a sly, sidelong look, and he saw that she kept her feet gathered under her so as to spring away if he made the slightest hostile movement."Jane, do you think it's right to watch people so?" he asked gravely."She told me to."
"Your mother?"The girl nodded.
"But do you think it's right yourself?""Dunno. 'Taint best if you get caught.""Well, Jane," said Holcroft, with something like a smile lurking in his deep-set eyes. "I don't think it's right at all. I don't want you to watch me any more, no matter who tells you to. Will you promise not to?"The child nodded. She seemed averse to speaking when a sign would answer.
"Can I go now?" she asked after a moment."Not yet. I want to ask you some questions. Was anyone ever kind to you?""I dunno. I suppose so.""What would you call being kind to you?"
"Not scoldin' or cuffin' me.""If I didn't scold or strike you, would you think I was kind, then?"
She nodded; but after a moment's thought, said, "and if you didn't look as if you hated to see me round.""Do you think I've been kind to you?"
"Kinder'n anybody else. You sorter look at me sometimes as if I was a rat. I don't s'pose you can help it, and I don't mind. I'd ruther stay here and work than go a-visitin' again. Why can't I work outdoors when there's nothin' for me to do in the house?""Are you willing to work--to do anything you can?"Jane was not sufficiently politic to enlarge on her desire for honest toil and honest bread; she merely nodded. Holcroft smiled as he asked, "Why are you so anxious to work?""'Cause I won't feel like a stray cat in the house then. I want to be some'ers where I've a right to be.""Wouldn't they let you work down at Lemuel Weeks'?" She shook her head."Why not?" he asked.
"They said I wasn't honest; they said they couldn't trust me with things, 'cause when I was hungry I took things to eat.""Was that the way you were treated at other places?"
"Mostly.""Jane," asked Holcroft very kindly, "did anyone ever kiss you?"
"Mother used to 'fore people. It allus made me kinder sick."Holcroft shook his head as if this child was a problem beyond him, and for a time they sat together in silence. At last he arose and said, "It's time to go home. Now, Jane, don't follow me; walk openly at my side, and when you come to call me at any time, come openly, make a noise, whistle or sing as a child ought. As long as you are with me, never do anything on the sly, and we'll get along well enough."
She nodded and walked beside him. At last, as if emboldened by his words, she broke out, "Say, if mother married you, you couldn't send us away, could you?""Why do you ask such a question?" said Holcroft, frowning."I was a-thinkin'--""Well," he interrupted sternly, "never think or speak of such things again."
The child had a miserable sense that she had angered him; she was also satisfied that her mother's schemes would be futile, and she scarcely spoke again that day.Holcroft was more than angry; he was disgusted. That Mrs. Mumpson's design upon him was so offensively open that even this ignorant child understood it, and was expected to further it, caused such a strong revulsion in his mind that he half resolved to put them both in his market wagon on the morrow and take them back to their relatives. His newly awakened sympathy for Jane quickly vanished. If the girl and her mother had been repulsive from the first, they were now hideous, in view of their efforts to fasten themselves upon him permanently. Fancy, then, the climax in his feelings when, as they passed the house, the front door suddenly opened and Mrs. Mumpson emerged with clasped hands and the exclamation, "Oh, how touching! Just like father and child!"
Without noticing the remark he said coldly as he passed, "Jane, go help Mrs. Wiggins get supper."His anger and disgust grew so strong as he hastily did his evening work that he resolved not to endanger his self-control by sitting down within earshot of Mrs. Mumpson. As soon as possible, therefore, he carried the new stove to his room and put it up. The widow tried to address him as he passed in and out, but he paid no heed to her. At last, he only paused long enough at the kitchen door to say, "Jane, bring me some supper to my room. Remember, you only are to bring it."
Bewildered and abashed, Mrs. Mumpson rocked nervously. "I had looked for relentings this evening, a general softening," she murmured, "and I don't understand his bearing toward me." Then a happy thought struck her. "I see, I see," she cried softly and ecstatically: "He is struggling with himself; he finds that he must either deny himself my society or yield at once. The end is near."A little later she, too, appeared at the kitchen door and said, with serious sweetness, "Jane, you can also bring me MY supper to the parlor."
Mrs. Wiggins shook with mirth in all her vast proportions as she remarked, "Jane, ye can bring me MY supper from the stove to the table 'ere, and then vait hon yeself."Chapter 13 Not Wife, But WaifTom Watterly's horse was the pride of his heart. It was a bobtailed, rawboned animal, but, as Tom complacently remarked to Alida, "He can pass about anything on the road"--a boast that he let no chance escape of verifying. It was a terrible ordeal to the poor woman to go dashing through the streets in an open wagon, feeling that every eye was upon her. With head bowed down, she employed her failing strength in holding herself from falling out, yet almost wishing that she might be dashed against some object that would end her wretched life. It finally occurred to Tom that the woman at his side might not, after her recent experience, share in his enthusiasm, and he pulled up remarking, with a rough effort at sympathy, "It's a cussed shame you've been treated so, and as soon as you're ready, I'll help you get even with the scamp.""I'm not well, sir," said Alida humbly. "I only ask for a quiet place where I can rest till strong enough to do some kind of work."
"Well, well," said Tom kindly, "don't lose heart. We'll do the best by you we can. That aint saying very much, though, for we're full and running over."He soon drew rein at the poorhouse door and sprang out. "I--I--feel strange," Alida gasped.
Tom caught the fainting woman in his arms and shouted, "Here, Bill, Joe! You lazy loons, where are you?"Three or four half wrecks of men shuffled to his assistance, and together they bore the unconscious woman to the room which was used as a sort of hospital. Some old crones gathered around with such restoratives as they had at command. Gradually the stricken woman revived, but as the whole miserable truth came back, she turned her face to the wall with a sinking of heart akin to despair. At last, from sheer exhaustion, feverish sleep ensued, from which she often started with moans and low cries. One impression haunted her--she was falling, ever falling into a dark, bottomless abyss.
Hours passed in the same partial stupor, filled with phantoms and horrible dreams. Toward evening, she aroused herself mechanically to take the broth Mrs. Watterly ordered her to swallow, then relapsed into the same lethargy. Late in the night, she became conscious that someone was kneeling at her bedside and fondling her. She started up with a slight cry."Don't be afraid; it's only me, dear," said a quavering voice.