When Lawrence Eastman began going to see Bessy Houghton the Lynnfield people shrugged their shoulders and said he might have picked out somebody a little younger and prettier—but then, of course, Bessy was well off. A two-hundred-acre farm and a substantial bank account were worth going in for. Trust an Eastman for knowing upon which side his bread was buttered.
Lawrence was only twenty, and looked even younger, owing to his smooth, boyish face, curly hair, and half-girlish bloom. Bessy Houghton was in reality no more than twenty-five, but Lynnfield people had the impression that she was past thirty. She had always been older than her years—a quiet, reserved girl who dressed plainly and never went about with other young people. Her mother had died when Bessy was very young, and she had always kept house for her father. The responsibility made her grave and mature. When she was twenty her father died and Bessy was his sole heir. She kept the farm and took the reins of government in her own capable hands. She made a success of it too, which was more than many a man in Lynnfield had done.
Bessy had never had a lover. She had never seemed like other girls, and passed for an old maid when her contemporaries were in the flush of social success and bloom.
Mrs. Eastman, Lawrence's mother, was a widow with two sons. George, the older, was the mother's favourite, and the property had been willed to him by his father. To Lawrence had been left the few hundreds in the bank. He stayed at home and hired himself to George, thereby adding slowly to his small hoard. He had his eye on a farm in Lynnfield, but he was as yet a mere boy, and his plans for the future were very vague until he fell in love with Bessy Houghton.
In reality nobody was more surprised over this than Lawrence himself. It had certainly been the last thing in his thoughts on the dark, damp night when he had overtaken Bessy walking home alone from prayer meeting and had offered to drive her the rest of the way.
Bessy assented and got into his buggy. At first she was very silent, and Lawrence, who was a bashful lad at the best of times, felt tongue-tied and uncomfortable. But presently Bessy, pitying his evident embarrassment, began to talk to him. She could talk well, and Lawrence found himself entering easily into the spirit of her piquant speeches. He had an odd feeling that he had never known Bessy Houghton before; he had certainly never guessed that she could be such good company. She was very different from the other girls he knew, but he decided that he liked the difference.
"Are you going to the party at Baileys' tomorrow night?" he asked, as he helped her to alight at her door.
"I don't know," she answered. "I'm invited—but I'm all alone—and parties have never been very much in my line."
There was a wistful note in her voice, and Lawrence detecting it, said hurriedly, not giving himself time to get frightened: "Oh, you'd better go to this one. And if you like, I'll call around and take you."
He wondered if she would think him very presumptuous. He thought her voice sounded colder as she said: "I am afraid that it would be too much trouble for you."
"It wouldn't be any trouble at all," he stammered. "I'll be very pleased to take you."
In the end Bessy had consented to go, and the next evening Lawrence called for her in the rose-red autumn dusk.
Bessy was ready and waiting. She was dressed in what was for her unusual elegance, and Lawrence wondered why people called Bessy Houghton so plain. Her figure was strikingly symmetrical and softly curved. Her abundant, dark-brown hair, instead of being parted plainly and drawn back into a prim coil as usual, was dressed high on her head, and a creamy rose nestled amid the becoming puffs and waves. She wore black, as she usually did, but it was a lustrous black silk, simply and fashionably made, with frost-like frills of lace at her firm round throat and dainty wrists. Her cheeks were delicately flushed, and her wood-brown eyes were sparkling under her long lashes.
She offered him a half-opened bud for his coat and pinned it on for him. As he looked down at her he noticed what a sweet mouth she had—full and red, with a half child-like curve.
The fact that Lawrence Eastman took Bessy Houghton to the Baileys' party made quite a sensation at that festal scene. People nodded and winked and wondered. "An old maid and her money," said Milly Fiske spitefully. Milly, as was well known, had a liking for Lawrence herself.
Lawrence began to "go with" Bessy Houghton regularly after that. In his single-mindedness he never feared that Bessy would misjudge his motives or imagine him to be prompted by mercenary designs. He never thought of her riches himself, and it never occurred to him that she would suppose he did.
He soon realized that he loved her, and he ventured to hope timidly that she loved him in return. She was always rather reserved, but the few favours that meant nothing from other girls meant a great deal from Bessy. The evenings he spent with her in her pretty sitting-room, their moonlight drives over long, satin-smooth stretches of snowy roads, and their walks home from church and prayer meeting under the winter stars, were all so many moments of supreme happiness to Lawrence.
Matters had gone thus far before Mrs. Eastman got her eyes opened. At Mrs. Tom Bailey's quilting party an officious gossip took care to inform her that Lawrence was supposed to be crazy over Bessy Houghton, who was, of course, encouraging him simply for the sake of having someone to beau her round, and who would certainly throw him over in the end since she knew perfectly well that it was her money he was after.
Mrs. Eastman was a proud woman and a determined one. She had always disliked Bessy Houghton, and she went home from the quilting resolved to put an instant stop to "all such nonsense" on her son's part.
"Where is Lawrie?" she asked abruptly; as she entered the small kitchen where George Eastman was lounging by the fire.
"Out in the stable grooming up Lady Grey," responded her older son sulkily. "I suppose he's gadding off to see Bessy Houghton again, the young fool that he is! Why don't you put a stop to it?"
"I am going to put a stop to it," said Mrs. Eastman grimly. "I'd have done it before if I'd known. You should have told me of it if you knew. I'm going out to see Lawrence right now."
George Eastman muttered something inaudible as the door closed behind her. He was a short, thickset man, not in the least like Lawrence, who was ten years his junior. Two years previously he had made a furtive attempt to pay court to Bessy Houghton for the sake of her wealth, and her decided repulse of his advances was a remembrance that made him grit his teeth yet. He had hated her bitterly ever since.
Lawrence was brushing his pet mare's coat until it shone like satin, and whistling "Annie Laurie" until the rafters rang. Bessy had sung it for him the night before. He could see her plainly still as she had looked then, in her gown of vivid red—a colour peculiarly becoming to her—with her favourite laces at wrist and throat and a white rose in her hair, which was dressed in the high, becoming knot she had always worn since the night he had shyly told her he liked it so.
She had played and sung many of the sweet old Scotch ballads for him, and when she had gone to the door with him he had taken both her hands in his and, emboldened by the look in her brown eyes, he had stooped and kissed her. Then he had stepped back, filled with dismay at his own audacity. But Bessy had said no word of rebuke, and only blushed hotly crimson. She must care for him, he thought happily, or else she would have been angry.
When his mother came in at the stable door her face was hard and uncompromising.
"Lawrie," she said sharply, "where are you going again tonight? You were out last night."
"Well, Mother, I promise you I wasn't in any bad company. Come now, don't quiz a fellow too close."
"You are going to dangle after Bessy Houghton again. It's time you were told what a fool you were making of yourself. She's old enough to be your mother. The whole settlement is laughing at you."
Lawrence looked as if his mother had struck him a blow in the face. A dull, purplish flush crept over his brow.
"This is some of George's work," he broke out fiercely. "He's been setting you on me, has he? Yes, he's jealous—he wanted Bessy himself, but she would not look at him. He thinks nobody knows it, but I do. Bessy marry him? It's very likely!"
"Lawrie Eastman, you are daft. George hasn't said anything to me. You surely don't imagine Bessy Houghton would marry you. And if she would, she is too old for you. Now, don't you hang around her any longer."
"I will," said Lawrence flatly. "I don't care what anybody says. You needn't worry over me. I can take care of myself."
Mrs. Eastman looked blankly at her son. He had never defied or disobeyed her in his life before. She had supposed her word would be law. Rebellion was something she had not dreamed of. Her lips tightened ominously and her eyes narrowed.
"You're a bigger fool than I took you for," she said in a voice that trembled with anger. "Bessy Houghton laughs at you everywhere. She knows you're just after her money, and she makes fun—"
"Prove it," interrupted Lawrence undauntedly, "I'm not going to put any faith in Lynnfield gossip. Prove it if you can."
"I can prove it. Maggie Hatfield told me what Bessy Houghton said to her about you. She said you were a lovesick fool, and she only went with you for a little amusement, and that if you thought you had nothing to do but marry her and hang up your hat there you'd find yourself vastly mistaken."
Possibly in her calmer moments Mrs. Eastman might have shrunk from such a deliberate falsehood, although it was said of her in Lynnfield that she was not one to stick at a lie when the truth would not serve her purpose. Moreover, she felt quite sure that Lawrence would never ask Maggie Hatfield anything about it.
Lawrence turned white to the lips, "Is that true, Mother?" he asked huskily.
"I've warned you," replied his mother, not choosing to repeat her statement. "If you go after Bessy any more you can take the consequences."
She drew her shawl about her pale, malicious face and left him with a parting glance of contempt.
"I guess that'll settle him," she thought grimly. "Bessy Houghton turned up her nose at George, but she shan't make a fool of Lawrence too."
Alone in the stable Lawrence stood staring out at the dull red ball of the winter sun with unseeing eyes. He had implicit faith in his mother, and the stab had gone straight to his heart. Bessy Houghton listened in vain that night for his well-known footfall on the verandah.
The next night Lawrence went home with Milly Fiske from prayer meeting, taking her out from a crowd of other girls under Bessy Houghton's very eyes as she came down the steps of the little church.
Bessy walked home alone. The light burned low in her sitting-room, and in the mirror over the mantel she saw her own pale face, with its tragic, pain-stricken eyes. Annie Hillis, her "help," was out. She was alone in the big house with her misery and despair.
She went dizzily upstairs to her own room and flung herself on the bed in the chill moonlight.
"It is all over," she said dully. All night she lay there, fighting with her pain. In the wan, grey morning she looked at her mirrored self with pitying scorn—at the pallid face, the lifeless features, the dispirited eyes with their bluish circles.
"What a fool I have been to imagine he could care for me!" she said bitterly. "He has only been amusing himself with my folly. And to think that I let him kiss me the other night!"
She thought of that kiss with a pitiful shame. She hated herself for the weakness that could not check her tears. Her lonely life had been brightened by the companionship of her young lover. The youth and girlhood of which fate had cheated her had come to her with love; the future had looked rosy with promise; now it had darkened with dourness and greyness.
Maggie Hatfield came that day to sew. Bessy had intended to have a dark-blue silk made up and an evening waist of pale pink cashmere. She had expected to wear the latter at a party which was to come off a fortnight later, and she had got it to please Lawrence, because he had told her that pink was his favourite colour. She would have neither it nor the silk made up now. She put them both away and instead brought out an ugly pattern of snuff-brown stuff, bought years before and never used.
"But where is your lovely pink, Bessy?" asked the dressmaker. "Aren't you going to have it for the party?"
"No, I'm not going to have it made up at all," said Bessy listlessly. "It's too gay for me. I was foolish to think it would ever suit me. This brown will do for a spring suit. It doesn't make much difference what I wear."
Maggie Hatfield, who had not been at prayer meeting the night beforehand knew nothing of what had occurred, looked at her curiously, wondering what Lawrence Eastman could see in her to be as crazy about her as some people said he was. Bessy was looking her oldest and plainest just then, with her hair combed severely back from her pale, dispirited face.
"It must be her money he is after," thought the dressmaker. "She looks over thirty, and she can't pretend to be pretty. I believe she thinks a lot of him, though."
For the most part, Lynnfield people believed that Bessy had thrown Lawrence over. This opinion was borne out by his woebegone appearance. He was thin and pale; his face had lost its youthful curves and looked hard and mature. He was moody and taciturn and his speech and manner were marked by a new cynicism.
In April a well-to-do storekeeper from an adjacent village began to court Bessy Houghton. He was over fifty, and had never been a handsome man in his best days, but Lynnfield oracles opined that Bessy would take him. She couldn't expect to do any better, they said, and she was looking terribly old and dowdy all at once.
In June Maggie Hatfield went to the Eastmans' to sew. The first bit of news she imparted to Mrs. Eastman was that Bessy Houghton had refused Jabez Lea—at least, he didn't come to see her any more.
Mrs. Eastman twitched her thread viciously. "Bessy Houghton was born an old maid," she said sharply. "She thinks nobody is good enough for her, that is what's the matter. Lawrence got some silly boy-notion into his head last winter, but I soon put a stop to that."
"I always had an idea that Bessy thought a good deal of Lawrence," said Maggie. "She has never been the same since he left off going with her. I was up there the morning after that prayer-meeting night people talked so much of, and she looked positively dreadful, as if she hadn't slept a wink the whole night."
"Nonsense!" said Mrs. Eastman decisively. "She would never think of taking a boy like him when she'd turned up her nose at better men. And I didn't want her for a daughter-in-law anyhow. I can't bear her. So I put my foot down in time. Lawrence sulked for a spell, of course—boy-fashion—and he's been as fractious as a spoiled baby ever since."
"Well, I dare say you're right," assented the dressmaker. "But I must say I had always imagined that Bessy had a great notion of Lawrence. Of course, she's so quiet it is hard to tell. She never says a word about herself."
There was an unsuspected listener to this conversation. Lawrence had come in from the field for a drink, and was standing in the open kitchen doorway, within easy earshot of the women's shrill tones.
He had never doubted his mother's word at any time in his life, but now he knew beyond doubt that there had been crooked work somewhere. He shrank from believing his mother untrue, yet where else could the crookedness come in?
When Mrs. Eastman had gone to the kitchen to prepare dinner, Maggie Hatfield was startled by the appearance of Lawrence at the low open window of the sitting-room.
"Mercy me, how you scared me!" she exclaimed nervously.
"Maggie," said Lawrence seriously, "I want to ask you a question. Did Bessy Houghton ever say anything to you about me or did you ever say that she did? Give me a straight answer."
The dressmaker peered at him curiously.
"No. Bessy never so much as mentioned your name to me," she said, "and I never heard that she did to anyone else. Why?"
"Thank you. That was all I wanted to know," said Lawrence, ignoring her question, and disappearing as suddenly as he had come.
That evening at moonrise he passed through the kitchen dressed in his Sunday best. His mother met him at the door.
"Where are you going?" she asked querulously.
Lawrence looked her squarely in the face with accusing eyes, before which her own quailed.
"I'm going to see Bessy Houghton, Mother," he said sternly, "and to ask her pardon for believing the lie that has kept us apart so long."
Mrs. Eastman flushed crimson and opened her lips to speak. But something in Lawrence's grave, white face silenced her. She turned away without a word, knowing in her secret soul that her youngest-born was lost to her forever.
Lawrence found Bessy in the orchard under apple trees that were pyramids of pearly bloom. She looked at him through the twilight with reproach and aloofness in her eyes. But he put out his hands and caught her reluctant ones in a masterful grasp.
"Listen to me, Bessy. Don't condemn me before you've heard me. I've been to blame for believing falsehoods about you, but I believe them no longer, and I've come to ask you to forgive me."
He told his story simply and straightforwardly. In strict justice he could not keep his mother's name out of it, but he merely said she had been mistaken. Perhaps Bessy understood none the less. She knew what Mrs. Eastman's reputation in Lynnfield was.
"You might have had a little more faith in me," she cried reproachfully.
"I know—I know. But I was beside myself with pain and wretchedness. Oh, Bessy, won't you forgive me? I love you so! If you send me away I'll go to the dogs. Forgive me, Bessy."
And she, being a woman, did forgive him.
"I've loved you from the first, Lawrence," she said, yielding to his kiss.
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