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Holcroft was not long in climbing to a sunny nook whence he could see not only his farm and dwelling, but also the Oakville valley, and the little white spire of the distant meeting house. He looked at this last-named object wistfully and very sadly. Mrs. Mumpson's tirade about worship had been without effect, but the memories suggested by the church were bitter-sweet indeed. It belonged to the Methodist denomination, and Holcroft had been taken, or had gone thither, from the time of his earliest recollection. He saw himself sitting between his father and mother, a round-faced urchin to whom the sermon was unintelligible, but to whom little Bessie Jones in the next pew was a fact, not only intelligible, but very interesting. She would turn around and stare at him until he smiled, then she would giggle until her mother brought her right-about-face with considerable emphasis. After this, he saw the little boy--could it have been himself?--nodding, swaying, and finally slumbering peacefully, with his head on his mother's lap, until shaken into sufficient consciousness to be half dragged, half led, to the door. Once in the big, springless farm wagon he was himself again, looking eagerly around to catch another glimpse of Bessie Jones. Then he was a big, irreverent boy, shyly and awkwardly bent on mischief in the same old meeting house. Bessie Jones no longer turned and stared at him, but he exultingly discovered that he could still make her giggle on the sly. Years passed, and Bessie was his occasional choice for a sleigh-ride when the long body of some farm wagon was placed on runners, and boys and girls--young men and women, they almost thought themselves--were packed in like sardines. Something like self-reproach smote Holcroft even now, remembering how he had allowed his fancy much latitude at this period, paying attention to more than one girl besides Bessie, and painfully undecided which he liked best.
Then had come the memorable year which had opened with a protracted meeting. He and Bessie Jones had passed under conviction at the same time, and on the same evening had gone forward to the anxious seat. From the way in which she sobbed, one might have supposed that the good, simple-hearted girl had terrible burdens on her conscience; but she soon found hope, and her tears gave place to smiles. Holcroft, on the contrary, was terribly cast down and unable to find relief. He felt that he had much more to answer for than Bessie; he accused himself of having been a rather coarse, vulgar boy; he had made fun of sacred things in that very meeting house more times than he liked to think of, and now for some reason could think of nothing else.
He could not shed tears or get up much emotion; neither could he rid himself of the dull weight at heart. The minister, the brethren and sisters, prayed for him and over him, but nothing removed his terrible inertia. He became a familiar form on the anxious seat for there was a dogged persistence in his nature which prevented him from giving up; but at the close of each meeting he went home in a state of deeper dejection. Sometimes, in returning, he was Bessie Jones' escort, and her happiness added to his gall and bitterness. One moonlight night they stopped under the shadow of a pine near her father's door, and talked over the matter a few moments before parting. Bessie was full of sympathy which she hardly knew how to express. Unconsciously, in her earnestness--how well he remembered the act!--she laid her hand on his arm as she said, "James, I guess I know what's the matter with you. In all your seeking you are thinking only of yourself--how bad you've been and all that. I wouldn't think of myself and what I was any more, if I was you. You aint so awful bad, James, that I'd turn a cold shoulder to you; but you might think I was doing just that if ye stayed away from me and kept saying to yourself, 'I aint fit to speak to Bessie Jones.'"
Her face had looked sweet and compassionate, and her touch upon his arm had conveyed the subtle magic of sympathy. Under her homely logic, the truth had burst upon him like sunshine. In brief, he had turned from his own shadow and was in the light. He remembered how in his deep feeling he had bowed his head on her shoulder and murmured, "Oh, Bessie, Heaven bless you! I see it all."
He no longer went to the anxious seat. With this young girl, and many others, he was taken into the church on probation. Thereafter, his fancy never wandered again, and there was no other girl in Oakville for him but Bessie. In due time, he had gone with her to yonder meeting house to be married. It had all seemed to come about as a matter of course. He scarcely knew when he became formally engaged. They "kept company" together steadfastly for a suitable period, and that seemed to settle it in their own and everybody else's mind.
There had been no change in Bessie's quiet, constant soul. After her words under the shadow of the pine tree she seemed to find it difficult to speak of religious subjects, even to her husband; but her simple faith had been unwavering, and she had entered into rest without fear or misgiving.
Not so her husband. He had his spiritual ups and downs, but, like herself, was reticent. While she lived, only a heavy storm kept them from "going to meeting," but with Holcroft worship was often little more than a form, his mind being on the farm and its interests. Parents and relatives had died, and the habit of seclusion from neighborhood and church life had grown upon them gradually and almost unconsciously.
For a long time after his wife's death Holcroft had felt that he did not wish to see anyone who would make references to his loss.
He shrank from formal condolences as he would from the touch of a diseased nerve. When the minister called, he listened politely but silently to a general exhortation; then muttered, when left alone, "It's all as he says, I suppose; but somehow his words are like the medicines Bessie took--they don't do any good."
He kept up the form of his faith and a certain vague hope until the night on which he drove forth the Irish revelers from his home. In remembrance of his rage and profanity on that occasion, he silently and in dreary misgiving concluded that he should not, even to himself, keep up the pretense of religion any longer. "I've fallen from grace--that is, if I ever had any"--was a thought which did much to rob him of courage to meet his other trials. Whenever he dwelt on these subjects, doubts, perplexities, and resentment at his misfortunes so thronged his mind that he was appalled; so he strove to occupy himself with the immediate present.
Today, however, in recalling the past, his thoughts would question the future and the outcome of his experiences. In accordance with his simple, downright nature, he muttered, "I might as well face the truth and have done with it. I don't know whether I'll ever see my wife again or not; I don't know whether God is for me or against me. Sometimes, I half think there isn't any God. I don't know what will become of me when I die. I'm sure of only one thing--while I do live I could take comfort in working the old place."
In brief, without ever having heard of the term, he was an agnostic, but not one of the self-complacent, superior type who fancy that they have developed themselves beyond the trammels of faith and are ever ready to make the world aware of their progress.
At last he recognized that his long reverie was leading to despondency and weakness; he rose, shook himself half angrily, and strode toward the house. "I'm here, and here I'm going to stay," he growled. "As long as I'm on my own land, it's nobody's business what I am or how I feel. If I can't get decent, sensible women help, I'll close up my dairy and live here alone. I certainly can make enough to support myself."
Jane met him with a summons to dinner, looking apprehensively at his stern, gloomy face. Mrs. Mumpson did not appear. "Call her," he said curtly.
The literal Jane returned from the parlor and said unsympathetically, "She's got a hank'chif to her eyes and says she don't want no dinner."
"Very well," he replied, much relieved.
Apparently he did not want much dinner, either, for he soon started out again. Mrs. Wiggins was not utterly wanting in the intuitions of her sex, and said nothing to break in upon her master's abstraction.
In the afternoon Holcroft visited every nook and corner of his farm, laying out, he hoped, so much occupation for both hands and thoughts as to render him proof against domestic tribulations.
He had not been gone long before Mrs. Mumpson called in a plaintive voice, "Jane!"
The child entered the parlor warily, keeping open a line of retreat to the door. "You need not fear me," said her mother, rocking pathetically. "My feelings are so hurt and crushed that I can only bemoan the wrongs from which I suffer. You little know, Jane, you little know a mother's heart."
"No," assented Jane. "I dunno nothin' about it."
"What wonder, then that I weep, when even my child is so unnatural!"
"I dunno how to be anything else but what I be," replied the girl in self-defense.
"If you would only yield more to my guidance and influence, Jane, the future might be brighter for us both. If you had but stored up the Fifth Commandment in memory--but I forbear. You cannot so far forget your duty as not to tell me how he behaved at dinner."
"He looked awful glum, and hardly said a word."
"Ah-h!" exclaimed the widow, "the spell is working."
"If you aint a-workin' tomorrow, there'll be a worse spell," the girl remarked.
"That will do, Jane, that will do. You little understand--how should you? Please keep an eye on him, and let me know how he looks and what he is doing, and whether his face still wears a gloomy or a penitent aspect. Do as I bid you, Jane, and you may unconsciously secure your own well-being by obedience."
Watching anyone was a far more congenial task to the child than learning the Commandments, and she hastened to comply. Moreover, she had the strongest curiosity in regard to Holcroft herself. She felt that he was the arbiter of her fate. So untaught was she that delicacy and tact were unknown qualities. Her one hope of pleasing was in work. She had no power of guessing that sly espionage would counterbalance such service. Another round of visiting was dreaded above all things; she was, therefore, exceedingly anxious about the future. "Mother may be right," she thought. "P'raps she can make him marry her, so we needn't go away any more. P'raps she's taken the right way to bring a man around and get him hooked, as Cousin Lemuel said. If I was goin' to hook a man though, I'd try another plan than mother's. I'd keep my mouth shut and my eyes open. I'd see what he wanted and do it, even 'fore he spoke. 'Fi's big anuf I bet I could hook a man quicker'n she can by usin' her tongue 'stead of her hands."
Jane's scheme was not so bad a one but that it might be tried to advantage by those so disposed. Her matrimonial prospects, however, being still far in the future, it behooved her to make her present existence as tolerable as possible. She knew how much depended on Holcroft, and was unaware of any other method of learning his purposes except that of watching him. Both fearing and fascinated, she dogged his steps most of the afternoon, but saw nothing to confirm her mother's view that any spell was working. She scarcely understood why he looked so long at field, thicket, and woods, as if he saw something invisible to her.
In planning future work and improvements, the farmer had attained a quieter and more genial frame of mind. "When, therefore, he sat down and in glancing about saw Jane crouching behind a low hemlock, he was more amused than irritated. He had dwelt on his own interests so long that he was ready to consider even Jane's for a while. "Poor child!" he thought, "she doesn't know any better and perhaps has even been taught to do such things. I think I'll surprise her and draw her out a little. Jane, come here," he called.
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."
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?"
"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."
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