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If Susanna's path had grown more difficult, more filled with anxieties, so had John Hathaway's. The protracted absence of his wife made the gossips conclude that the break was a final one. Jack was only half contented with his aunt, and would be fairly mutinous in the winter, while Louisa's general attitude was such as to show clearly that she only kept the boy for Susanna's sake.
Now and then there was a terrifying hint of winter in the air, and the days of Susanna's absence seemed eternal to John Hathaway. Yet he was a man about whom there would have been but one opinion: that when deprived of a rather superior and high-minded wife and the steadying influence of home and children, he would go completely "to the dogs," whither he seemed to be hurrying when Susanna's wifely courage failed. That he had done precisely the opposite and the unexpected thing, shows us perhaps that men are not on the whole as capable of estimating the forces of their fellow men as is God the maker of men, who probably expects something of the worst of them up to the very last.
It was at the end of a hopeless Sunday when John took his boy back to his aunt's towards night. He wondered drearily how a woman dealt with a ten-year-old boy who from sunrise to sunset had done every mortal thing he ought not to have done, and had left undone everything that he had been told to do; and, as if to carry out the very words of the church service, neither was there any health in him; for he had an inflamed throat and a whining, irritable, discontented temper that could be borne only by a mother, a father being wholly inadequate and apparently never destined for the purpose.
It was a mild evening late in October, and Louisa sat on the porch with her pepper-and-salt shawl on and a black wool "rigolette" tied over her head. Jack, very sulky and unresigned, was dispatched to bed under the care of the one servant, who was provided with a cupful of vinegar, salt, and water, for a gargle. John had more than an hour to wait for a returning train to Farnham, and although ordinarily he would have preferred to spend the time in the silent and unreproachful cemetery rather than in the society of his sister Louisa, he was too tired and hopeless to do anything but sit on the steps and smoke fitfully in the semidarkness. Louisa was much as usual. She well knew--who better?--her brother's changed course of life, but neither encouragement nor compliment were in her line. Why should a man be praised for living a respectable life? That John had really turned a sort of moral somersault and come up a different creature, she did not realize in the least, nor the difficulties surmounted in such a feat; but she did give him credit secretly for turning about face and behaving far more decently than she could ever have believed possible. She had no conception of his mental torture at the time, but if he kept on doing well, she privately intended to inform Susanna and at least give her a chance of trying him again, if absence had diminished her sense of injury. One thing that she did not know was that John was on the eve of losing his partnership. When Jack had said that his father was not going back to the store the next week, she thought it meant simply a vacation. Divided hearts, broken vows, ruined lives she could bear the sight of these with considerable philosophy, but a lost income was a very different, a very tangible thing. She almost lost her breath when her brother knocked the ashes from his meerschaum and curtly told her of the proposed change in his business relations.
"I don't know what I shall do yet," he said, "whether I shall set up for myself in a small way or take a position in another concern,--that is, if I can get one--my stock of popularity seems to be pretty low just now in Farnham. I'd move away tomorrow and cut the whole gossipy, deceitful, hypocritical lot of 'em if I wasn't afraid of closing the house and so losing Susanna, if she should ever feel like coming back to us."
These words and the thought back of them were too much for John's self-control. The darkness helped him and his need of comfort was abject. Suddenly he burst out, "Oh, Louisa, for heaven's sake, give me a little crumb of comfort, if you have any! How can you stand like a stone all these months and see a man suffering as I have suffered, without giving him a word?"
"You brought it on yourself," said Louisa, in self-exculpation.
"Does that make it any easier to bear?" cried John. "Don't you suppose I remember it every hour, and curse myself the more? You know perfectly well that I'm a different man today. I don't know what made me change; it was as if something had been injected into my blood that turned me against everything I had liked best before. I hate the sight of the men and the women I used to go with, not because they are any worse, but because they remind me of what I have lost. I have reached the point now where I have got to have news of Susanna or go and shoot myself."
"That would be about the only piece of foolishness you haven't committed already!" replied Louisa, with a biting satire that would have made any man let go of the trigger in case he had gone so far as to begin pulling it.
"Where is she?" John went on, without anger at her sarcasm. "Where is she, how is she, what is she living on, is she well, is she just as bitter as she was at first, does she ever speak of coming back? Tell me something, tell me anything. I will know something. I say I will!"
Louisa's calm demeanor began to show a little agitation, for she was not used to the sight of emotion. "I can't tell you where Susanna is, for I made her a solemn promise I wouldn't unless you or Jack were in danger of some kind; but I don't mind telling you this much, that she's well and in the safest kind of a shelter, for she's been living from the first in a Shaker Settlement."
"Shaker Settlement!" cried John, starting up from his seat on the steps. "What's that? I know Shaker egg-beaters and garden-seeds and rocking-chairs and oh, yes, I remember their religion's against marriage. That's the worst thing you could have told me; that ends all hope; if they once get hold of a woman like Susanna, they'll never let go of her; if they don't believe in a woman's marrying a good man, they'd never let her go back to a bad one. Oh, if I had only known this before; if only you'd told me, Louisa, perhaps I could have done something. Maybe they take vows or sign contracts, and so I have lost her altogether."
"I don't know much about their beliefs, and Susanna never explained them," returned Louisa, nervously "but now that you've got something to offer her, why don't you write and ask her to come back to you? I'll send your letter to her."
"I don't dare, Louisa, I don't dare," groaned John, leaning his head against one of the pillars of the porch. "I can't tell you the fear I have of Susanna after the way I've neglected her this last year. If she should come in at the gate this minute, I couldn't meet her eyes; if you'd read the letter she left me, you'd feel the same way. I deserved it, to the last word, but oh, it was like so many separate strokes of lightning, and every one of them burned. It was nothing but the truth, but it was cut in with a sharp sword. Unless she should come back to me of her own accord, and she never will, I haven't got the courage to ask her; just haven't got the courage, that's all there is to say about it." And here John buried his head in his hands.
A very queer thing happened to Louisa Banks at this moment. A half-second before she would have murmured:
"This rock shall fly From its firm base as soon as I!"
when all at once, and without warning, a strange something occurred in the organ which she had always regarded and her opinion had never yet been questioned as a good, tough, love-tight heart. First there was a flutter and a tremor running all along her spine; then her eyes filled; then a lump rose in her throat and choked her; then words trembled on her tongue and refused to be uttered; then something like a bird--could it have been the highly respectable good-as-new heart?--throbbed under her black silk Sunday waist; then she grew like wax from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet; then in a twinkling, and so unconsciously as to be unashamed of it, she became a sister.
You have seen a gray November morning melt into an Indian summer noon? Louisa Banks was like that, when, at the sight of a man in sore trouble, sympathy was born in her to soften the rockiness of her original makeup.
"There, there, John, don't be so downhearted," she stammered, drawing her chair closer and putting her hand on his shoulder. "We'll bring it round right, you see if we don't. You've done the most yourself already, for I'm proud of the way you've acted, stiffening right up like an honest man and showing you've got some good sensible Hathaway stuff in you, after all, and ain't ashamed to turn your back on your evil ways. Susanna ain't one to refuse forgiveness."
"She forgave for a long time, but she refused at last. Why should she change now?" John asked.
"You remember she hasn't heard a single word from you, nor about you, in that out-of-the-way place where she's been living," said Louisa, consolingly. "She thinks you're the same as you were, or worse, maybe. Perhaps she's waiting for you to make some sign through me, for she don't know that you care anything about her, or are pining to have her back."
"Such a woman as Susanna must know better than that!" cried John. "She ought to know that when a man got used to living with anybody like her, he could never endure any other kind."
"How should she know all that? Jack's been writing to her and telling her the news for the last few weeks, though I haven't said a word about you because I didn't know how long your reformation was going to hold out; but I won't let the grass grow under my feet now, till I tell her just how things stand!"
"You're a good woman, Louisa; I don't see why I never noticed it before."
"It's because I've been concealing my goodness too much. Stay here with me tonight and don't go back to brood in that dismal, forsaken house. We'll see how Jack is in the morning, and if he's all right, take him along with you, so's to be all there together if Susanna comes back this week, as I kind of hope she will. Make Ellen have the house all nice and cheerful from top to bottom, with a good supper ready to put on the table the night she comes. You'd better pick your asters and take 'em in for the parlor, then I'll cut the chrysanthemums for you in the middle of the week. The day she comes I'll happen in, and stay to dinner if you find it's going to be mortifying for you; but if everything is as I expect it will be, and the way Susanna always did have things, I'll make for home and leave you to yourselves. Susanna ain't one to nag and hector and triumph over a man when he's repented."
John hugged Louisa, pepper-and-salt shawl, black rigolette, and all, when she finished this unprecedented speech; and when he went to sleep that night in the old north chamber, the one he and Louisa had been born in, the one his father and mother had died in, it was with a little smile of hope on his lips.
Set her place at hearth and board As it used to be!
These were the last words that crossed his waking thoughts. Before Louisa went to her own bed, she wrote one of her brief and characteristic epistles to Susanna, but it did not reach her, for the "hills of home" had called John's wife so insistently on that Sunday, that the next day found her on her way back to Farnham.
Dear Susanna [so the letter read], There's a new man in your house at Farnham. His name is John Hathaway, but he's made all over and it was high time. I say it's the hand of God! He won't own up that it is, but I'm letting him alone, for I've done quarreling, though I don't like to see a man get religion and deny it, for all the world like Peter in the New Testament. If you haven't used up the last one of your seventy-times-sevens, I think you'd better come back and forgive your husband. If you don't, you'd better send for your son. I'm willing to bear the burdens the Lord intends specially for me, but Jack belongs to you, and a good-sized heavy burden he is, too, for his age. I can't deny that, if he is a Hathaway. I think he's the kind of a boy that ought to be put in a barrel and fed through the bunghole till he grows up; but of course I'm not used to children's ways.
Be as easy with John at first as you can. I know you'll say I never was with my husband, but he was different, he got to like a bracing treatment, Adlai did. Many's the time he said to me, "Louisa, when you make up our minds, I'm always contented." But John isn't made that way. He's a changed man; now, what we've got to do is to keep him changed. He doesn't bear you any grudge for leaving him, so he won't reproach you.
Hoping to see you before long, I am,
Yours as usual,
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