Dr. Mulbridge did not wait for the time he had fixed for his return. He may have judged that her tendency against him would strengthen by delay, or he may have yielded to his own impatience in coming the next day. He asked for Grace with his wonted abruptness, and waited for her coming in the little parlor of the hotel, walking up and down the floor, with his shaggy head bent forward, and his big hands clasped behind him.
As she hovered at the door before entering, she could watch him while he walked the whole room's length away, and she felt a pang at sight of him. If she could have believed that he loved her, she could not have faced him, but must have turned and run away; and even as it was she grieved for him. Such a man would not have made up his mind to this step without a deep motive, if not a deep feeling. Her heart had been softened so that she could not think of frustrating his ambition, if it were no better than that, without pity. One man had made her feel very kindly toward all other men; she wished in the tender confusion of the moment that she need not reject her importunate suitor, whose importunity even she could not resent.
He caught sight of her as soon as he made his turn at the end of the room, and with a quick "Ah, Ah!" he hastened to meet her, with the smile in which there was certainly something attractive. "You see I've come back a day sooner than I promised. I haven't the sort of turnout you've been used to, but I want you to drive with me." "I can't drive with you, Dr. Mulbridge," she faltered.
"Well, walk, then. I should prefer to walk."
"You must excuse me," she answered, and remained standing before him.
"Sit down," he bade her, and pushed up a chair towards her. His audacity, if it had been a finer courage, would have been splendid, and as it was she helplessly obeyed him, as if she were his patient, and must do so. "If I were superstitious I should say that you receive me ominously," he said, fixing his gray eyes keenly upon her.
"I do!" she forced herself to reply. "I wish you had not come."
"That's explicit, at any rate. Have you thought it over?"
"No; I had no need to do that, I had fully resolved when I spoke yesterday. Dr. Mulbridge, why didn't you spare me this? It's unkind of you to insist, after what I said. You know that I must hate to repeat it. I do value you so highly in some ways that I blame you for obliging me to hurt you—if it does hurt—by telling you again that I don't love you."
He drew in a long breath, and set his teeth hard upon his lip. "You may depend upon its hurting," he said, "but I was glad to risk the pain, whatever it was, for the chance of getting you to reconsider. I presume I'm not the conventional wooer. I'm too old for it, and I'm too blunt and plain a man. I've been thirty-five years making up my mind to ask you to marry me. You're the first woman, and you shall be the last. You couldn't suppose I was going to give you up for one no?"
"You had better."
"Not for twenty! I can understand very well how you never thought of me in this way; but there's no reason why you shouldn't. Come, it's a matter that we can reason about, like anything else."
"No. I told you, it's something we can't reason about. Or yes, it is. I will reason with you. You say that you love me?"
"If you did n't love me, you would n't ask me to marry you?"
"Then how can you expect me to marry you without loving you?"
"I don't. All that I ask is that you won't refuse me. I know that you can love me."
"No, no, never!"
"And I only want you to take time to try."
"I don't wish to try. If you persist, I must leave the room. We had better part. I was foolish to see you. But I thought—I was sorry—I hoped to make it less unkind to you."
"In spite of yourself, you were relenting."
"Not at all!"
"But if you pitied me, you did care for me a little?"
"You know that I had the highest respect for you as a physician. I tell you that you were my ideal in that way, and I will tell you that if"—she stopped, and he continued for her.
"If you had not resolved to give it up, you might have done what I asked."
"I did not say that," she answered indignantly.
"But why do you give it up?"
"Because I am not equal to it."
"How do you know it? Who told you?"
"You have told me,—by every look and act of yours,—and I'm grateful to you for it."
"And if I told you now by word that you were fit for it."
"I shouldn't believe you."
"You would n't believe my word?" She did not answer. "I see," he said presently, "that you doubt me somehow as a man. What is it you think of me?"
"You wouldn't like to know."
"Oh, yes, I should."
"Well, I will tell you. I think you are a tyrant, and that you want a slave, not a wife. You wish to be obeyed. You despise women. I don't mean their minds,—they 're despicable enough, in most cases, as men's are,—but their nature."
"This is news to me," he said, laughing. "I never knew that I despised women's nature."
"It's true, whether you knew it or not."
"Do I despise you?"
"You would, if you saw that I was afraid of you: Oh, why do you force me to say such things? Why don't you spare me—spare yourself?"
"In this cause I couldn't spare myself. I can't bear to give you up! I'm what I am, whatever you say; but with you, I could be whatever you would. I could show you that you are wrong if you gave me the chance. I know that I could make you happy. Listen to me a moment."
"No! If you have taken the trouble to read me in this way, there must have been a time when you might have cared."
"There never was any such time. I read you from the first."
"I will go away," he said, after a pause, in which she had risen, and began a retreat towards the door. "But I will not—I cannot—give you up. I will see you again."
"No, sir. You shall not see me again. I will not submit to it. I will not be persecuted." She was trembling, and she knew that he saw her tremor.
"Well," he said, with a smile that recognized her trepidation, "I will not persecute you. I'll renounce these pretensions. But I'll ask you to see me once more, as a friend,—an acquaintance."
"I will not see you again."
"You are rather hard with me, I think," he urged gently. "I don't think I'm playing the tyrant with you now."
"You are,—the baffled tyrant."
"But if I promised not to offend again, why should you deny me your acquaintance?"
"Because I don't believe you." She was getting nearer the door, and as she put her hand behind her and touched the knob, the wild terror she had felt, lest he should reach it first and prevent her escape, left her. "You are treating me like a child that does n't know its own mind, or has none to know. You are laughing at me—playing with me; you have shown me that you despise me."
He actually laughed. "Well, you've shown that you are not afraid of me. Why are you not afraid?"
"Because," she answered, and she dealt the blow now without pity, "I'm engaged,—engaged to Mr. Libby!" She whirled about and vanished through the door, ashamed, indignant, fearing that if she had not fled, he would somehow have found means to make his will prevail even yet.
He stood, stupefied, looking at the closed door, and he made a turn or two about the room before he summoned intelligence to quit it. When death itself comes, the sense of continuance is not at once broken in the survivors. In these moral deaths, which men survive in their own lives, there is no immediate consciousness of an end. For a while, habit and the automatic tendency of desire carry them on.
He drove back to Corbitant perched on the rickety seat of his rattling open buggy, and bowed forward as his wont was, his rounded shoulders bringing his chin well over the dashboard. As he passed down the long sandy street, toward the corner where his own house stood, the brooding group of loafers, waiting in Hackett's store for the distribution of the mail, watched him through the open door, and from under the boughs of the weatherbeaten poplar before it. Hackett had been cutting a pound of cheese out of the thick yellow disk before him, for the Widow Holman, and he stared at the street after Mulbridge passed, as if his mental eye had halted him there for the public consideration, while he leaned over the counter, and held by the point the long knife with which he had cut the cheese.
"I see some the folks from over to Jocelyn's, yist'd'y," he said, in a spasm of sharp, crackling speech, "and they seemed to think 't Mis' Mulbridge'd got to step round pretty spry 'f she did n't want another the same name in the house with her."
A long silence followed, in which no one changed in any wise the posture in which he found himself when Hackett began to speak. Cap'n George Wray, tilted back against the wall in his chair, continued to stare at the store-keeper; Cap'n Jabez Wray, did not look up from whittling the chair between his legs; their cousin, Cap'n Wray Storrell, seated on a nailkeg near the stove, went on fretting the rust on the pipe with the end of a stiff, cast-off envelope; two other captains, more or less akin to them, continued their game of checkers; the Widow Seth Wray's boy rested immovable, with his chin and hand on the counter, where he had been trying since the Widow Holman went out to catch Hackett's eye and buy a corn-ball. Old Cap'n Billy Wray was the first to break the spell. He took his cigar from his mouth, and held it between his shaking thumb and forefinger, while he pursed his lips for speech. "Jabez," he said, "did Cap'n Sam'l git that coalier?"
"No," answered the whittler, cutting deeper into his chair, "she did n't signal for him till she got into the channel, and then he'd got a couple o' passengers for Leyden; and Cap'n Jim brought her up."
"I don't know," said Cap'n Billy, with a stiff yet tremulous reference of himself to the storekeeper, "as spryness would help her, as long as he took the notion. I guess he's master of his own ship. Who's he going to marry? The grahs-widow got well enough?"
"No. As I understand," crackled the store-keeper, "her husband's turned up. Folks over there seem to think't he's got his eye on the other doctor."
"Going to marry with her, hey? Well, if either of 'em gets sick they won't have to go far for advice, and they won't have any doctor's bills to pay. Still, I shouldn't ha' picked out just that kind of a wife for him."
"As I understand," the storekeeper began; but here he caught sight of Widow Seth Wray's boy, and asked, "What's wanted, Bub? Corn-ball?" and turning to take that sweetmeat from the shelf behind him he added the rest in the mouth of the hollowly reverberating jar, "She's got prop'ty."
"Well, I never knew a Mulbridge yet 't objected to prop'ty,—especially, other folks's."
"Barlow he's tellin' round that she 's very fine appearin'." He handed the corn-ball to Widow Seth Wray's boy, who went noiselessly out on his bare feet.
Cap'n Billy drew several long breaths. When another man might have been supposed to have dismissed the subject he said, "Well, I never knew a Mulbridge that objected to good looks in women folks. They've all merried hahnsome wives, ever since the old gentleman set 'em the example with his second one. They got their own looks from the first. Well," he added, "I hope she's a tough one. She's got either to bend or to break."
"They say," said Cap'n George Wray, like one rising from the dead to say it, so dumb and motionless had he been till now, "that Mis' Mulbridge was too much for the old doctor."
"I don't know about that," Cap'n Billy replied, "but I guess her son's too much for her: she's only Gardiner, and he's Gardiner and Mulbridge both."
No one changed countenance, but a sense of Cap'n Billy's wit sparely yet satisfyingly glimmered from the eyes of Cap'n George and the storekeeper, and Cap'n Jabez closed his knife with a snap and looked up. "Perhaps," he suggested, "she's seen enough of him to know beforehand that there would be too much of him."
"I never rightly understood," said Hackett, "just what it was about him, there in the army—coming out a year beforehand, that way."
"I guess you never will,—from him," said Cap'n Jabez.
"Laziness, I guess,—too much work," said old Cap'n Billy. "What he wants is a wife with money. There ain't a better doctor anywhere. I've heard 't up to Boston, where he got his manifest, they thought everything of him. He's smart enough, but he's lazy, and he always was lazy, and harder'n a nut. He's a curious mixtur'. 'N' I guess he's been on the lookout for somethin' of this kind ever sence he begun practising among the summer boarders. Guess he's had an eye out."
"They say he's poplar among 'em," observed the storekeeper thoughtfully.
"He's been pooty p'tic'lar, or they have," said Cap'n Jabez.
"Well, most on 'em's merried women," Hackett urged. "It's astonishin' how they do come off and leave their husbands, the whole summer long. They say they're all out o' health, though."
"I wonder," said old Cap'n Billy, "if them coaliers is goin' to make a settled thing of haulin' inside before they signal a pilot."
"I know one thing," answered Cap'n Jabez, "that if any coalier signals me in the channel, I'll see her in hell first" He slipped his smooth, warm knife into his pocket, and walked out of the store amid a general silence.
"He's consid'ble worked up, about them coaliers," said old Cap'n Billy. "I don't know as I've heard Jabez swear before—not since he was mate of the Gallatin. He used to swear then, consid'able."
"Them coaliers is enough to make any one swear," said Cap'n George. "If it's any ways fair weather they won't take you outside, and they cut you down from twenty-five dollars to two dollars if they take you inside."
Old Cap'n Billy did not answer before he had breathed awhile, and then, having tried his cigar and found it out, he scraped a match on his coat-sleeve. He looked at the flame while it burned from blue to yellow. "Well, I guess if anybody's been p'tic'lar, it's been him. There ain't any doubt but what he's got a takin' way with the women. They like him. He's masterful, and he ain't a fool, and women most gen'ly like a man that ain't a fool. I guess if he 's got his eye on the girl's prop'ty, she'll have to come along. He'd begin by havin' his own way about her answer; he'd hang on till she said Yes, if she did n't say it first-off; and he'd keep on as he'd begun. I guess if he wants her it's a match." And Cap'n Billy threw his own into the square box of tobacco-stained sawdust under the stove.
Mrs. Maynard fully shared the opinion which rocked Dr. Mulbridge's defeat with a belief in his invincible will. When it became necessary, in the course of events which made Grace and Libby resolve upon a short engagement, to tell her that they were going to be married, she expressed a frank astonishment. "Walter Libby!" she cried. "Well, I am surprised. When I was talking to you the other day about getting married, of course I supposed it was going to be Dr. Mulbridge. I did n't want you to marry him, but I thought you were going to."
"And why," demanded Grace, with mounting sensation, "did you think that?"
"Oh, I thought you would have to."
"Oh, you have such a weak will. Or I always thought you had. But perhaps it's only a weak will with other women. I don't know! But Walter Libby! I knew he was perfectly gone upon you, and I told you so at the beginning; but I never dreamt of your caring for him. Why, it seems too ridiculous."
"Indeed! I'm glad that it amuses you."
"Oh no, you're not, Grace. But you know what I mean. He seems so much younger."
"Younger? He's half a year older than I am."
"I did n't say he was younger. But you're so very grave and he's so very light. Well, I always told Walter Libby I should get him a wife, but you were the last person I should have thought of. What's going to become of all your high purposes? You can't do anything with them when you're married! But you won't have any occasion for them, that's one comfort."
"It's not my idea of marriage that any high purpose will be lost in it."
"Oh, it is n't anybody's, before they get married. I had such high purposes I couldn't rest. I felt like hiring a hall, as George says, all the time. Walter Libby is n't going to let you practise, is he? You mustn't let him! I know he'd be willing to do anything you said, but a husband ought to be something more than a mere & Co."
Grace laughed at the impudent cynicism of all this, for she was too happy to be vexed with any one just then. "I'm glad you've come to think so well of husbands' rights at last, Louise," she said.
Mrs. Maynard took the little puncture in good part. "Oh, yes, George and I have had a good deal of light let in on us. I don't suppose my character was much changed outwardly in my sickness," she suggested.
"It was not," answered Grace warmly. "It was intensified, that was all."
Mrs. Maynard laughed in her turn, with real enjoyment of the conception. "Well, I wasn't going to let on, unless it came to the worst; I did n't say much, but I kept up an awful thinking. It would have been easy enough to get a divorce, and George would n't have opposed it; but I looked at it in this way: that the divorce wouldn't have put us back where we were, anyway, as I had supposed it would. We had broken into each other's lives, and we couldn't get out again, with all the divorces under the sun. That's the worst of getting married: you break into each other's lives. You said something like it to me, that day when you came back from your sail with Walter Libby. And I just concluded that there could n't be any trial that would n't be a great deal easier to bear than getting rid of all your trials; and I just made up my mind that if any divorce was to be got, George Maynard might get it himself; a temporary separation was bad enough for me, and I told him so, about the first words I could speak. And we're going to try the new departure on that platform. We don't either of us suspect we can have things perfectly smooth, but we've agreed to rough it together when we can't. We've found out that we can't marry and then become single, any more than we could die and come to life again. And don't you forget it, Grace! You don't half know yourself, now. You know what you have been; but getting married lets loose all your possibilities. You don't know what a temper you've got, nor how badly you can behave—how much like a naughty, good-for-nothing little girl; for a husband and wife are just two children together: that's what makes the sweetness of it, and that's what makes the dreadfulness. Oh, you'll have need of all your good principles, I can tell you, and if you've a mind to do anything practical in the way of high purposes, I reckon there'll be use for them all."
Another lady who was astonished at Grace's choice was more incurably disappointed and more grieved for the waste of those noble aims with which her worshipping fancy had endowed the girl even more richly than her own ambition. It was Grace's wish to pass a year in Europe before her husband should settle down in charge of his mills; and their engagement, marriage, and departure followed so swiftly upon one another, that Miss Gleason would have had no opportunity to proffer remonstrance or advice. She could only account for Grace's course on the theory that Dr. Mulbridge had failed to offer himself; but this explained her failure to marry him, without explaining her marriage with Mr. Libby. That remained for some time a mystery, for Miss Gleason firmly refused to believe that such a girl could be in love with a man so much her inferior: the conception disgraced not only her idol, but cast shame upon all other women, whose course in such matters is notoriously governed by motives of the highest sagacity and judgment.
Mrs. Breen hesitated between the duty of accompanying the young couple on their European travels, and that of going to the village where Libby's mills were situated,—in southern New Hampshire. She was not strongly urged to a decision by her children, and she finally chose the latter course. The mill property had been a long time abandoned before Libby's father bought it, and put it in a repair which he did not hasten to extend to the village. This had remained in a sort of picturesque neglect, which harmonized with the scenery of the wild little valley where it nestled; and Mrs. Breen found, upon the vigorous inquiry which she set on foot, that the operatives were deplorably destitute of culture and drainage. She at once devoted herself to the establishment of a circulating library and an enlightened system of cess-pools, to such an effect of ingratitude in her beneficiaries that she was quite ready to remand them to their former squalor when her son-in-law returned. But he found her work all so good that he mediated between her and the inhabitants, and adopted it with a hearty appreciation that went far to console her, and finally popularized it. In fact, he entered into the spirit of all practical reforms with an energy and intelligence that quite reconciled her to him. It was rather with Grace than with him that she had fault to find. She believed that the girl had returned from Europe materialized and corrupted; and she regarded the souvenirs of travel with which the house was filled as so many tokens of moral decay. It is undeniable that Grace seemed for a time, to have softened to, a certain degree of self-indulgence. During the brief opera season the first winter after her return, she spent a week in Boston; she often came to the city, and went to the theatres and the exhibitions of pictures. It was for some time Miss Gleason's opinion that these escapades were the struggles of a magnanimous nature, unequally mated, to forget itself. When they met she indulged the habit of regarding Mrs. Libby with eyes of latent pity, till one day she heard something that gave her more relief than she could ever have hoped for. This was the fact, perfectly ascertained by some summer sojourners in the neighborhood; that Mrs. Libby was turning her professional training to account by treating the sick children among her husband's operatives.
In the fall Miss Gleason saw her heroine at an exhibition of pictures. She rushed across the main hall of the Museum to greet her. "Congratulate you!" she deeply whispered, "on realizing your dream! Now you are happy, now you can be at peace!"
"Happy? At peace?"
"In the good work you have taken up. Oh, nothing, under Gawd, is lost!" she exclaimed, getting ready to run away, and speaking with her face turned over her shoulder towards Mrs. Libby.
"Dream? Good work? What do you mean?"
"Those factory children!"
"Oh!" said Mrs. Libby coldly, "that was my husband's idea."
"Your husband's!" cried Miss Gleason, facing about again, and trying to let a whole history of suddenly relieved anxiety speak in her eyes. "How happy you make me! Do let me thank you!"
In the effort to shake hands with Mrs. Libby she knocked the catalogue out of her hold, and vanished in the crowd without knowing it. Some gentleman picked it up, and gave it to her again, with a bow of burlesque devotion.
Mrs. Libby flushed tenderly. "I might have known it would be you, Walter. Where did you spring from?"
"I've been here ever since you came."
"What in the world doing?"
"Oh, enjoying myself."
"Looking at the pictures?"
"Watching you walk round:'
"I thought you couldn't be enjoying the pictures," she said simply. "I'm not."
She was not happy, indeed, in any of the aesthetic dissipations into which she had plunged, and it was doubtless from a shrewder knowledge of her nature than she had herself that her husband had proposed this active usefulness, which she once intended under such different conditions. At the end of the ends she was a Puritan; belated, misdated, if the reader will, and cast upon good works for the consolation which the Puritans formerly found in a creed. Riches and ease were sinful to her, and somehow to be atoned for; and she had no real love for anything that was not of an immediate humane and spiritual effect. Under the shelter of her husband's name the benevolent use of her skill was no queerer than the charity to which many ladies devote themselves; though they are neither of them people to have felt the anguish which comes from the fear of what other people will think. They go their way in life, and are probably not disturbed by any misgivings concerning them. It is thought, on one hand, that he is a man of excellent head, and of a heart so generous that his deference to her in certain matters is part of the devoted flattery which would spoil any other woman, but that she consults his judgment in every action of her life, and trusts his sense with the same completeness that she trusts his love. On the other hand, when it is felt that she ought to have done for the sake of woman what she could not do for herself, she is regarded as sacrificed in her marriage. If, it is feared, she is not infatuated with her husband, she is in a disgraceful subjection, without the hope of better or higher things. If she had children, they might be a compensation and refuge for her; in that case, to be sure, she must be cut off from her present resource in caring for the children of others; though the conditions under which she now exercises her skill certainly amount to begging the whole question of woman's fitness for the career she had chosen.
Both parties to this contention are, strange to say, ladies. If it has not been made clear from the events and characters of the foregoing history which opinion is right, I am unable to decide. It is well, perhaps, not to be too explicitly in the confidence of one's heroine. After her marriage perhaps it is not even decorous.