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As I was strenuously seeking to gain possession of my wits, so that I could avail myself of any opportunity that offered, or could be made by adroit, prompt action, the stalwart and elderly Friend, who had seemed thus far one of the ministers of my impending fate, again took my hand and said:
"I hope thee'll forgive me for asking thee to conform to our ways, and not think any rudeness was meant."
"The grasp of your hand at once taught me that you were friendly as well as a Friend," I replied.
"We should not belie our name, truly. I fear thee did not enjoy our silent meeting?"
"You are mistaken, sir. It was just the meeting which, as a weary man, I needed."
"I hope thee wasn't asleep?" he said, with a humorous twinkle in his honest blue eyes.
"You are quite mistaken again," I answered, smiling; but I should have been in a dilemma had he asked me if I had been dreaming.
"Thee's a stranger in these parts," he continued, in a manner that suggested kindness rather than curiosity.
"Possibly this is the day of my fate," I thought, "and this man the father of my ideal woman." And I decided to angle with my utmost skill for an invitation.
"You are correct," I replied, "and I much regret that I have wandered so far from my hotel, for I am not strong,"
"Well, thee may have good cause to be sorry, though we do our best; but if thee's willing to put up with homely fare and homely people, thee's welcome to come home with us."
Seeing eager acquiescence in my face, he continued, without giving me time to reply, "Here, mother, thee always provides enough for one more. We'll have a stranger within our gates to-day, perhaps."
To my joy the Friend lady, with a face like a benediction, turned at his words. At the same moment a large, three-seated rockaway, with a ruddy boy as driver, drew up against the adjacent horse-block, while the fair unknown, who had stood among a bevy of young Quakeresses like a tall lily among lesser flowers, came toward us holding a little girl by the hand. The family group was drawing together according to my prophetic fancy, and my heart beat thick and fast. Truly this was the day of fate!
"Homely people" indeed! and what cared I for "fare" in the very hour of destiny!
"Mother," he said, with his humorous twinkle, "I'm bent on making amends to this stranger who seemed to have a drawing toward thy side of the house. Thee didn't give him any spiritual fare in the meeting- house, but I think thee'll do better by him at the farmhouse. When I tell thee that he is not well and a long way from home, thee'll give him a welcome."
"Indeed," said the old lady, taking my hand in her soft, plump palm, while her face fairly beamed with kindness; "it would be poor faith that did not teach us our duty toward the stranger; and, if I mistake not, thee'll change our duty into a pleasure."
"Do not hope to entertain an angel," I said.
"That's well," the old gentleman put in; "our dinner will be rather too plain and substantial for angels' fare. I think thee'll be the better for it though."
"I am the better already for your most unexpected kindness, which I now gratefully accept as a stranger. I hope, however, that I may be able to win a more definite and personal regard;" and I handed the old gentleman my card.
"Richard Morton is thy name, then. I'll place thee beside Ruth Yocomb, my wife. Come, mother, we're keeping Friend Jones's team from the block. My name is Thomas Yocomb. No, no, take the back seat by my wife. She may preach to thee a little going home. Drive on, Reuben," he added, as he and his two daughters stepped quickly in, "and give Friend Jones a chance. This is Adah Yocomb, my daughter, and this is little Zillah. Mother thought that since the two names went together in Scripture they ought to go together out of it, and I am the last man in the world to go against the Scripture. That's Reuben Yocomb driving. Now thee knows all the family, and I hope thee don't feel as much of a stranger as thee did;" and the hearty old man turned and beamed on me with a goodwill that I felt to be as warm and genuine as the June sunshine.
"To be frank," I exclaimed, "I am at a loss to understand your kindness. In the city we are suspicious of strangers and stand aloof from them; but you treat me as if I had brought a cordial letter of introduction from one you esteemed highly."
"So thee has, so thee has; only the letter came before thee did. 'Be not forgetful to entertain strangers'--that's the way it reads, doesn't it, mother?"
"Moreover, Richard Morton," his wife added, "thee has voluntarily come among us, and sat down with us for a quiet hour. Little claim to the faith of Abraham could we have should we let thee wander off to get thy dinner with the birds in the woods, for the village is miles away."
"Mother'll make amends to thee for the silent meeting," said Mr. Yocomb, looking around with an impressive nod.
"I trust she will," I replied. "I wanted to hear her preach. It was her kindly face that led to my blunder, for it so attracted me from my perch of observation on the wall that I acted on my impulse and followed her into the meeting-house, feeling in advance that I had found a friend."
"Well, I guess thee has, one of the old school," laughed her husband.
The daughter, Adah, turned and looked at me, while she smiled approvingly. Oh, blessed day of destiny! When did dream and reality so keep pace before? Was I not dreaming still, and imagining everything to suit my own fancy? When would the perverse world begin to assert itself?
Sitting just before me, on the next seat, so that I could often see the same perfect profile, was the maiden that I had already wooed and won in fancy. Though she was so near and in the full sunlight, I could detect no cloudiness in her exquisite complexion, nor discover a fault in her rounded form. The slope of her shoulders was grace itself. She did not lean back weakly or languidly, but sat erect, with a quiet, easy poise of vigor and health. Her smile was frank and friendly, and yet not as enchanting as I expected. It was an affair of facial muscles rather than the lighting up of the entire visage. Nor did her full face--now that my confusion had passed away and I was capable of close observation--give the same vivid impression of beauty made by her profile. It was pretty, very pretty, but for some reasons disappointing. Then I smiled at my half-conscious criticism, and thought, "You have imagined a creature of unearthly perfection, and expect your impossible ideal to be realized. Were she all that you have dreamed, she would be much too fine for an ordinary mortal like yourself. In her rich, unperverted womanly nature you will find the beauty that will outlast that of form and feature."
"I fear thee found our silent meeting long and tedious," said Mrs. Yocomb, deprecatingly.
"I assure you I did not," I replied, "though I hoped you would have a message for us."
"It was not given to me," she said meekly. Then she added, "Those not used to our ways are troubled, perhaps, with wandering thoughts during these silent hours."
"I was not to-day," I replied with bowed head; "I found a subject that held mine."
"I'm glad," she said, her face kindling with pleasure. "May I ask the nature of the truth that held thy meditations?"
"Perhaps I will tell you some time," I answered hesitatingly; then added reverently, "It was of a very sacred nature."
"Thee's right," she said, gravely. "Far be it from me to wish to look curiously upon thy soul's communion."
For a moment I felt guilty that I should have so misled her, but reassured myself with the thought, "That which I dwelt upon was as sacred to me as my mother's memory."
I changed the subject, and sought by every means in my power to lead her to talk, for thus, I thought, I shall learn the full source of womanly life from which the peerless daughter has drawn her nature.
The kind old lady needed but little incentive. Her thoughts flowed freely in a quaint, sweet vernacular that savored of the meeting- house. I was both interested and charmed, and as we rode at a quiet jog through the June sunlight felt that I was in the hands of a kindly fate that, in accordance with the old fairy tales, was bent on giving one poor mortal all he desired.
At last, on a hillside sloping to the south, I saw the farmhouse of my dream. Two tall honey locusts stood like faithful guardians on each side of the porch. An elm drooped over the farther end of the piazza. In the dooryard the foliage of two great silver poplar or aspen trees fluttered perpetually with its light sheen. A maple towered high behind the house, and a brook that ran not far away was shadowed by a weeping willow. Other trees were grouped here and there as if Nature had planted them, and up one a wild grape-vine clambered, its unobtrusive blossoms filling the air with a fragrance more delicious even than that of the old-fashioned roses which abounded everywhere.
"Was there ever a sweeter nook?" I thought as I stepped out on the wide horse-block and gave my hand to one who seemed the beautiful culmination of the scene.
Miss Adah needed but little assistance to alight, but she took my hand in hers, which she had ungloved as she approached her home. It was her mother's soft, plump hand, but unmarked, as yet, by years of toil. I forgot we were such entire strangers, and under the impulse of my fancy clasped it a trifle warmly, at which she gave me a look of slight surprise, thus suggesting that there was no occasion for the act.
"You are mistaken," I mentally responded; "there is more occasion than you imagine; more than I may dare to tell you for a long time to come."
A lady who had been sitting on the piazza disappeared within the house, and Adah followed her.
"Now, mother," said Mr. Yocomb, "since thee did so little for friend Morton's spiritual man, see what thee can do for the temporal. I'll take the high seat this time, and can tell thee beforehand that there'll be no silent meeting."
"Father may seem to thee a little irreverent, but he doesn't mean to be. It's his way," said his wife, with a smile. "If thee'll come with me I'll show thee to a room where thee can rest and prepare for dinner."
I followed her through a wide hall to a stairway that changed its mind when half-way up and turned in an opposite direction. "It suggests the freedom and unconventionality of this home," I thought, yielding to my mood to idealize everything.
"This is thy room so long as thee'll be pleased to stay with us," she said, with a genial smile, and her ample form vanished from the doorway.
I was glad to be alone. The shining tide of events was bearing me almost too swiftly. "Can this be even the beginning of true love, since it runs so smoothly?" I queried. And yet it had all come about so simply and naturally, and for everything there was such adequate cause and rational explanation, that I assured myself that I had reason for self-congratulation rather than wonder.
Having seen such a maiden, it would be strange indeed if I had not been struck by her beauty. With an hour on my hands, and thoughts that called no one master, it would have been stranger still if I had not been beguiled into a dream which, in my need, promised so much that I was now bent on its fulfilment. Kind Mr. and Mrs. Yocomb had but carried out the teachings of their faith, and thus I was within the home of one who, developing under the influences of such a mother and such surroundings, would have the power beyond most other women of creating another home. I naturally thought that here, in this lovely and sheltered spot, and under just the conditions that existed, might be perfected the simple, natural flower of womanhood that the necessities of my life and character required.
I was too eager to prove my theories, and too strongly under the presentiment that my hour of destiny had come, to rest, and so gladly welcomed the tinkle of the dinner-bell.
The apparent mistress of my fate had not diminished her unconscious power by exchanging her Sunday-morning costume for a light muslin, that revealed more of her white throat than the strict canons of her sect would warrant perhaps, but none too much for maidenly modesty and artistic effect. Indeed, the gown harmonized with her somewhat worldly hat. I regarded these tendencies as good omens, however, felicitating myself with the thought that while her Quaker antecedents would always give to her manner and garb a beautiful simplicity, they would not trammel her taste with arbitrary custom. Though now more clearly satisfied that the beauty of her full face by no means equalled that of her profile, I was still far more than content with a perfection of features that sustained a rigorous scrutiny.
"Richard Morton," said Mrs. Yocomb, "let me make thee acquainted with Emily Warren."
I turned and bowed to a young woman, who seemed very colorless and unattractive to my brief glance, compared with the radiant creature opposite me. It would appear that I made no very marked impression on her either, for she chatted with little Zillah, who sat beyond her, and with Reuben across the table, making no effort to secure my attention.
If Mrs. Yocomb's powers as a spiritual provider were indicated by the table she had spread for us, the old meetinghouse should be crowded every Sunday, on the bare possibility that she might speak. From the huge plate of roast-beef before her husband to the dainty dish of wild strawberries on the sideboard, all was appetizing, and although it was the day of my destiny, I found myself making a hearty meal. My beautiful vis-a-vis evidently had no thoughts of destiny, and proved that the rich blood which mantled her cheeks had an abundant and healthful source. I liked that too. "There is no sentimental nonsense about her," I thought, "and her views of life will never be dyspeptic."
I longed to hear her talk, and yet was pleased that she was not garrulous. Her father evidently thought that this was his hour and opportunity, and he seasoned the ample repast with not a little homely wit and humor, in which his wife would sometimes join, and again curb and deprecate.
I began to grow disappointed that the daughter did not manifest some of her mother's quaint and genial good sense, or some sparkle and piquancy that would correspond to her father's humor: but the few remarks she made had reference chiefly to the people at the meeting, and verged toward small gossip.
I broached several subjects which I thought might interest her, but could obtain little other response than "Yes," with a faint rising inflection. After one of these unsuccessful attempts I detected a slight, peculiar smile on Miss Warren's face. It was a mischievous light in her dark eyes more than anything else. As she met my puzzled look it vanished instantly, and she turned away. Everything in my training and calling stimulated alertness, and I knew that smile was at my expense. Why was she laughing at me? Had she, by an intuition, divined my attitude of mind? A plague on woman's intuitions! What man is safe a moment?
But this could scarcely be, for the one toward whom my thoughts had flown for the last three hours, and on whom I had bent glances that did her royal homage, was serenely unconscious of my interest, or else supremely indifferent to it. She did not seem unfriendly, and I imagined that she harbored some curiosity in regard to me. My dress, manner, and some slight personal allusions secured far more attention than any abstract topic I could introduce. Her lips, however, were so exquisitely chiselled that they made, for the time, any utterance agreeable, and suggested that only tasteful thoughts and words could come from them.
"Now, mother," said Mr. Yocomb, leaning back in his chair after finishing a generous cup of coffee, "I feel inclined to be a good Christian man. I have a broad charity for about every one except editors and politicians. I am a man of peace, and there can be no peace while these disturbers of the body politic thrive by setting people by the ears. I don't disparage the fare, mother, that thee gives us at the meetinghouse, that is, when thee does give us any, but I do take my affirmation that thee has prepared a gospel feast for us since we came home that has refreshed my inner man. As long as I am in the body, roast-beef and like creature comforts are a means of grace to me. I am now in a contented frame of mind, and am quite disposed to be amiable. Emily Warren, I can even tolerate thy music--nay, let me speak the truth, I'd much like to hear some after my nap. Thee needn't shake thy head at me, mother, I've caught thee listening, and if thee brings me up before the meeting, I'll tell on thee. Does thee realize, Emily Warren, that thee is leading us out of the straight and narrow way?"
"I would be glad to lead you out of a narrow way," she replied, in a tone so quiet and yet so rich that I was inclined to believe I had not yet seen Miss Warren. Perhaps she saw that I was becoming conscious of her existence, for I again detected the old mirthful light in her eyes. Was I or Mr. Yocomb's remark the cause?
Who was Emily Warren anyway, and why must she be at the farmhouse at a time when I so earnestly wished "the coast clear?" The perverse world at last was asserting its true self, and there was promise of a disturbance in my shining tide. Moreover, I was provoked that the one remark of this Emily Warren had point to it, while my perfect flower of womanhood had revealed nothing definitely save a good appetite, and that she had no premonitions that this was the day of her destiny.
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