His efforts were useless. He glanced with rueful dismabittorrent news reddity over his shoulder as he thought, "If she falls out, I don't see how on earth I'll ever get her back again."
On the other hand, her knowledge of economics was not sufficient to give reasonable hope that she could sustain a conversation upon them without expbitcoin binance live chartosing greater ignorance than a hostess prefers to show, and with this consciousness, and that of her international duty of entertaining her guest with a suitable topic of conversation, her mind naturally turned to a subject which had largely occupied it during the voluntary seclusion of the previous week. She introduced the question of the desirability of the marriage of cousins with the verbal adroitness which few men and most women have.Its connection with economics (if any) is remote, but the old gentleman was one of those numerous specialists who, having succeeded in establishing a reputation for good crowing on their own dunghills, consider that any other should do equally well; and he was, more exceptionally, of wide interests and an unprejudiced mind.
He rose to the bait at once. He said that, like many popular beliefs, the objection to such marriages was only conditionally true. Like to unlike is the law of physical attraction, and cousins are likely but not certain to combine like qualities, both good and bad. The question, should cousins marry, is therefore incapable of absolute reply. Some should, and others should not. A minority of cousins are widely different in temperaments and physique, and, in such cases, if they should both be in good health, their unions might be particularly successful. Nothing can alter the arithmetical fact that the children of first cousins will have less than the normal number of grandparents, and the one who is duplicated may have an abnormally strong influence either, or perhaps both, for good and evil.The learned doctor having a rather penetrating voice, which was more frequently exercised in the classroom than at the fireside, and the guests not being numerous, his remarks gained the attention of a silent table.A discussion followed, exposing some differences of opinion, but nothing was said to disturb Irene's opinion that the learned doctor was a most able man.Mr. Thurlow, listening without comment at the other end of the table, concluded that if Will Kindell were asked to dinner his daughter would not be vexed, and being a man of prompt action when his decisions were clearly made, he telephoned him next morning, and found, without surprise, that his invitation was promptly accepted.Kindell came that evening, and found that the ambassador and his daughter were dining alone.
Mr. Thurlow explained that he had asked him because he was curious to know what was being done by the police to secure the conviction of Professor Blinkwell (to whom he alluded in language unfitting for the lips of an Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the august country he represented) for his countless crimes, and he enquired with a more personal anxiety to what extent Irene was likely to be involved in the criminal proceedings which had become obviously unavoidable."We don't want," he said, "more publicity than we can't help, but we know the mistakes we've made, and I want Allenby to understand that there'll be no squealing from me.""Indeed I don't. I don't advise my friend's course; neither do I oppose it. He's certainly old enough to act for himself. I suppose I'm a rough counselor for a young woman, but since you appear to have so few friends I'm inclined to act as one. Just you stand on the question of right and wrong, and dismiss from your mind all foolish notions of what people will say. As a rule, all the people in the world can't do as much for us as somebody in particular. Now you go in the parlor and listen like a sensible woman. I'll be reading the paper, and the girl will be clearing off the table in the next room here."
Puzzled and trembling, Alida entered the apartment where Holcroft was seated. She was so embarrassed that she could not lift her eyes to him."Please sit down," he said gravely, "and don't be troubled, much less frightened. You are just as free to act as ever you were in your life."She sat down near the door and compelled herself to look at him, for she felt instinctively that she might gather more from the expression of his face than from his words."Alida Armstrong is your name, Mr. Watterly tells me?"
"Yes, sir.""Well, Alida, I want to have a plain business talk with you. That's nothing to be nervous and worried about, you know. As I told you, I've heard your story. It has made me sorry for you instead of setting me against you. It has made me respect you as a right-minded woman, and I shall give you good proof that my words are true. At the same time, I shan't make any false pretenses to what isn't true and couldn't be true. Since I've heard your story, it's only fair you should hear mine, and I ought to tell it first."
He went over the past very briefly until he came to the death of his wife. There was simple and homely pathos in the few sentences with which he referred to this event. Then more fully he enlarged upon his efforts and failure to keep house with hired help. Unconsciously, he had taken the best method to enlist her sympathy. The secluded cottage and hillside farm became realities to her fancy. She saw how the man's heart clung to his home, and his effort to keep it touched her deeply."Oh!" she thought, "I do wish there was some way for me to go there. The loneliness of the place which drove others away is the chief attraction for me. Then it would be pleasant to work for such a man and make his home comfortable for him. It's plain from his words and looks that he's as honest and straightforward as the day is long. He only wants to keep his home and make his living in peace."As he had talked her nervous embarrassment passed away, and the deep sense of her own need was pressing upon her again. She saw that he also was in great need. His business talk was revealing deep trouble and perplexity. With the quick intuitions of a woman, her mind went far beyond his brief sentences and saw all the difficulties of his lot. His feeling reference to the loss of his wife proved that he was not a coarse-natured man. As he spoke so plainly of his life during the past year, her mind was insensibly abstracted from everything but his want and hers, and she thought his farmhouse afforded just the secluded refuge she craved. As he drew near the end of his story and hesitated in visible embarrassment, she mustered courage to say timidly, "Would you permit a suggestion from me?""Why, certainly."
"You have said, sir, that your business and means would not allow you to keep two in help, and as you have been speaking I have tried to think of some way. The fact that your house is so lonely is just the reason why I should like to work in it. As you can understand, I have no wish to meet strangers. Now, sir, I am willing to work for very little; I should be glad to find such a quiet refuge for simply my board and clothes, and I would do my very best and try to learn what I did not know. It seems to me that if I worked for so little you might think you could afford to hire some elderly woman also?" and she looked at him in the eager hope that he would accept her proposition.He shook his head as he replied, "I don't know of any such person. I took the best one in this house, and you know how she turned out.""Perhaps Mr. Watterly may know of someone else," she faltered. She was now deeply troubled and perplexed again, supposing that he was about to renew his first proposition that she should be his only help."If Mr. Watterly did know of anyone I would make the trial, but he does not. Your offer is very considerate and reasonable, but--" and he hesitated again, scarcely knowing how to go on.
"I am sorry, sir," she said, rising, as if to end the interview."Stay," he said, "you do not understand me yet. Of course I should not make you the same offer that I did at first, after seeing your feeling about it, and I respect you all the more because you so respect yourself. What I had in mind was to give you my name, and it's an honest name. If we were married it would be perfectly proper for you to go with me, and no one could say a word against either of us."
"Oh!" she gasped, in strong agitation and surprise."Now don't be so taken aback. It's just as easy for you to refuse as it is to speak, but listen first. What seems strange and unexpected may be the most sensible thing for us both. You have your side of the case to think of just as truly as I have mine; and I'm not forgetting, and I don't ask you to forget, that I'm still talking business. You and I have both been through too much trouble and loss to say any silly nonsense to each other. You've heard my story, yet I'm almost a stranger to you as you are to me. We'd both have to take considerable on trust. Yet I know I'm honest and well-meaning, and I believe you are. Now look at it. Here we are, both much alone in the world--both wishing to live a retired, quiet life. I don't care a rap for what people say as long as I'm doing right, and in this case they'd have nothing to say. It's our own business. I don't see as people will ever do much for you, and a good many would impose on you and expect you to work beyond your strength. They might not be very kind or considerate, either. I suppose you've thought of this?"
"Yes," she replied with bowed head. "I should meet coldness, probably harshness and scorn.""Well, you'd never meet anything of the kind in my house. I would treat you with respect and kindness. At the same time, I'm not going to mislead you by a word. You shall have a chance to decide in view of the whole truth. My friend, Mr. Watterly, has asked me more'n once, 'Why don't you marry again?' I told him I had been married once, and that I couldn't go before a minister and promise the same things over again when they wasn't true. I can't make to you any promises or say any words that are not true, and I don't ask or expect you to do what I can't do. But it has seemed to me that our condition was out of the common lot--that we could take each other for just what we might be to each other and no more. You would be my wife in name, and I do not ask you to be my wife in more than name. You would thus secure a good home and the care and protection of one who would be kind to you, and I would secure a housekeeper--one that would stay with me and make my interests hers. It would be a fair, square arrangement between ourselves, and nobody else's business. By taking this course, we don't do any wrong to our feelings or have to say or promise anything that isn't true.""Yet I can't help saying, sir," she replied, in strong, yet repressed agitation, "that your words sound very strange; and it seems stranger still that you can offer marriage of any kind to a woman situated as I am. You know my story, sir," she added, crimsoning, "and all may soon know it. You would suffer wrong and injury.""I offer you open and honorable marriage before the world, and no other kind. Mr. Watterly and others--as many as you pleased--would witness it, and I'd have you given a certificate at once. As for your story, it has only awakened my sympathy. You have not meant to do any wrong. Your troubles are only another reason in my mind for not taking any advantage of you or deceiving you in the least. Look the truth squarely in the face. I'm bent on keeping my house and getting my living as I have done, and I need a housekeeper that will be true to all my interests. Think how I've been robbed and wronged, and what a dog's life I've lived in my own home. You need a home, a support, and a protector. I couldn't come to you or go to any other woman and say honestly more than this. Isn't it better for people to be united on the ground of truth than to begin by telling a pack of lies?""But--but can people be married with such an understanding by a minister? Wouldn't it be deceiving him?""I shall not ask you to deceive anyone. Any marriage that either you or I could now make would be practically a business marriage. I should therefore take you, if you were willing, to a justice and have a legal or civil marriage performed, and this would be just as binding as any other in the eye of the law. It is often done. This would be much better to my mind than if people, situated as we are, went to a church or a minister."
"Yes, yes, I couldn't do that.""Well, now, Alida," he said, with a smile that wonderfully softened his rugged features, "you are free to decide. It may seem to you a strange sort of courtship, but we are both too old for much foolishness. I never was sentimental, and it would be ridiculous to begin now. I'm full of trouble and perplexity, and so are you. Are you willing to be my wife so far as an honest name goes, and help me make a living for us both? That's all I ask. I, in my turn, would promise to treat you with kindness and respect, and give you a home as long as I lived and to leave you all I have in the world if I died. That's all I could promise. I'm a lonely, quiet man, and like to be by myself. I wouldn't be much society for you. I've said more today than I might in a month, for I felt that it was due to you to know just what you were doing."
"Oh, sir," said Alida, trembling, and with tears in her eyes, "you do not ask much and you offer a great deal. If you, a strong man, dread to leave your home and go out into the world you know not where, think how terrible it is for a weak, friendless woman to be worse than homeless. I have lost everything, even my good name.""No, no! Not in my eyes."
"Oh, I know, I know!" she cried, wringing her hands. "Even these miserable paupers like myself have made me feel it. They have burned the truth into my brain and heart. Indeed, sir, you do not realize what you are doing or asking. It is not fit or meet that I should bear your name. You might be sorry, indeed.""Alida," said Holcroft gravely, "I've not forgotten your story, and you shouldn't forget mine. Be sensible now. Don't I look old enough to know what I'm about?"
"Oh, oh, oh!" she cried impetuously, "if I were only sure it was right! It may be business to you, but it seems like life or death to me. It's more than death--I don't fear that--but I do fear life, I do fear the desperate struggle just to maintain a bare, dreary existence. I do dread going out among strangers and seeing their cold curiosity and their scorn. You can't understand a woman's heart. It isn't right for me to die till God takes me, but life has seemed so horrible, meeting suspicion on one side and cruel, significant looks of knowledge on the other. I've been tortured even here by these wretched hags, and I've envied even them, so near to death, yet not ashamed like me. I know, and you should know, that my heart is broken, crushed, trampled into the mire. I had felt that for me even the thought of marriage again would be a mockery, a wicked thing, which I would never have a right to entertain.--I never dreamt that anyone would think of such a thing, knowing what you know. Oh, oh! Why have you tempted me so if it is not right? I must do right. The feeling that I've not meant to do wrong is all that has kept me from despair. But can it be right to let you take me from the street, the poorhouse, with nothing to give but a blighted name, a broken heart and feeble hands! See, I am but the shadow of what I was, and a dark shadow at that. I could be only a dismal shadow at any man's hearth. Oh, oh! I've thought and suffered until my reason seemed going. You don't realize, you don't know the depths into which I've fallen. It can't be right."Holcroft was almost appalled at this passionate outburst in one who thus far had been sad, indeed, yet self-controlled. He looked at her in mingled pity and consternation. His own troubles had seemed heavy enough, but he now caught glimpses of something far beyond trouble--of agony, of mortal dread that bordered on despair. He could scarcely comprehend how terrible to a woman like Alida were the recent events of her life, and how circumstances, with illness, had all tended to create a morbid horror of her situation. Like himself she was naturally reticent in regard to her deeper feelings, patient and undemonstrative. Had not his words evoked this outburst she might have suffered and died in silence, but in this final conflict between conscience and hope, the hot lava of her heart had broken forth. So little was he then able to understand her, that suspicions crossed his mind. Perhaps his friend Watterly had not heard the true story or else not the whole story. But his straightforward simplicity stood him in good stead, and he said gently, "Alida, you say I don't know, I don't realize. I believe you will tell me the truth. You went to a minister and were married to a man that you thought you had a right to marry--""You shall know it all from my own lips," she said, interrupting him; "you have a right to know; and then you will see that it cannot be," and with bowed head, and low, rapid, passionate utterance, she poured out her story. "That woman, his wife," she concluded, "made me feel that I was of the scum and offscouring of the earth, and they've made me feel so here, too--even these wretched paupers. So the world will look on me till God takes me to my mother. O, thank God! She don't know. Don' you see, now?" she asked, raising her despairing eyes from which agony had dried all tears."Yes, I see you do," she added desperately, "for even you have turned from me."
"Confound it!" cried Holcroft, standing up and searching his pockets for a handkerchief. "I--I--I'd like--like to choke that fellow. If I could get my hands on him, there'd be trouble. Turn away from you, you poor wronged creature! Don't you see I'm so sorry for you that I'm making a fool of myself? I, who couldn't shed a tear over my own troubles--there, there,--come now, let us be sensible. Let's get back to business, for I can't stand this kind of thing at all. I'm so confused betwixt rage at him and pity for you--Let me see; this is where we were: I want someone to take care of my home, and you want a home. That's all there is about it now. If you say so, I'll make you Mrs. Holcroft in an hour.""I did not mean to work upon your sympathies, only to tell you the truth. God bless you! That the impulses of your heart are so kind and merciful. But let me be true to you as well as to myself. Go away and think it all over calmly and quietly. Even for the sake of being rescued from a life that I dread far more than death, I cannot let you do that which you may regret unspeakably. Do not think I misunderstand your offer. It's the only one I could think of, and I would not have thought of it if you had not spoke. I have no heart to give. I could be a wife only in name, but I could work like a slave for protection from a cruel, jeering world; I could hope for something like peace and respite from suffering if I only had a safe refuge. But I must not have these if it is not right and best. Good to me must not come through wrong to you."
"Tush, tush! You mustn't talk so. I can't stand it at all. I've heard your story. It's just as I supposed at first, only a great deal more so. Why, of course it's all right. It makes me believe in Providence, it all turns out so entirely for our mutual good. I can do as much to help you as you to help me. Now let's get back on the sensible, solid ground from which we started. The idea of my wanting you to work like a slave! Like enough some people would, and then you'd soon break down and be brought back here again. No, no; I've explained just what I wish and just what I mean. You must get over the notion that I'm a sentimental fool, carried away by my feelings. How Tom Watterly would laugh at the idea! My mind is made up now just as much as it would be a week hence. This is no place for you, and I don't like to think of your being here. My spring work is pressing, too. Don't you see that by doing what I ask you can set me right on my feet and start me uphill again after a year of miserable downhill work? You have only to agree to what I've said, and you will be at home tonight and I'll be quietly at my work tomorrow. Mr. Watterly will go with us to the justice, who has known me all my life. Then, if anyone ever says a word against you, he'll have me to settle with. Come, Alida! Here's a strong hand that's able to take care of you."She hesitated a moment, then clasped it like one who is sinking, and before he divined her purpose, she kissed and bedewed it with tears.
Chapter 19 A Business MarriageWhile Holcroft's sympathies had been deeply touched by the intense emotion of gratitude which had overpowered Alida, he had also been disturbed and rendered somewhat anxious. He was actually troubled lest the woman he was about to marry should speedily begin to love him, and develop a tendency to manifest her affection in a manner that would seem to him extravagant and certainly disagreeable. Accustomed all his life to repress his feelings, he wondered at himself and could not understand how he had given way so unexpectedly. He was not sufficiently versed in human nature to know that the depth of Alida's distress was the adequate cause. If there had been a false or an affected word, he would have remained cool enough. In his inability to gauge his own nature as well as hers, he feared lest this businesslike marriage was verging toward sentiment on her part. He did not like her kissing his hand. He was profoundly sorry for her, but so he would have been for any other woman suffering under the burden of a great wrong. He felt that it would be embarrassing if she entertained sentiments toward him which he could not reciprocate, and open manifestations of regard would remind him of that horror of his life, Mrs. Mumpson. He was not incapable of quick, strong sympathy in any instance of genuine trouble, but he was one of those men who would shrink in natural recoil from any marked evidence of a woman's preference unless the counterpart of her regard existed in his own breast.
To a woman of Alida's intuition the way in which he withdrew his hand and the expression of his face had a world of meaning. She would not need a second hint. Yet she did not misjudge him; she knew that he meant what he had said and had said all that he meant. She was also aware that he had not and never could understand the depths of fear and suffering from which his hand was lifting her. Her gratitude was akin to that of a lost soul saved, and that was all she had involuntarily expressed. She sat down again and quietly dried her eyes, while in her heart she purposed to show her gratitude by patient assiduity in learning to do what he required.Holcroft was now bent upon carrying out his plan as quickly as possible and returning home. He therefore asked, "Can you go with me at once, Alida?"She simply bowed her acquiescence."That's sensible. Perhaps you had better get your things ready while I and Mr. Watterly go and arrange with Justice Harkins."
Alida averted her face with a sort of shame which a woman feels who admits such a truth. "I haven't anything, sir, but a hat and cloak to put on. I came away and left everything.""And I'm glad of it," said Holcroft heartily. "I wouldn't want you to bring anything which that scoundrel gave you." He paced the room thoughtfully a moment or two and then he called Watterly in. "It's settled, Tom. Alida will be Mrs. Holcroft as soon as we can see the justice. Do you think we could persuade him to come here?"
"One thing at a time. Mrs. Holcroft,--I may as well call you so, for when my friend says he'll do a thing he does it,--I congratulate you. I think you are well out of your troubles. Since you are to marry my old friend, we must be friends, too," and he shook her heartily by the hand.His words and manner were another ray of light--a welcome rift in the black pall that had gathered round her.
"You were the first friend I found, sir, after--what happened," she said gratefully."Well, you've found another and a better one; and he'll always be just the same. Any woman might be glad--"