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Chapter 12

XII.

Lemuel let himself into Miss Vane's house with his key to the back gate, and sat down, still throbbing, in his room over the L, and tried to get the nature of his deed, or misdeed, before his mind. He had grown up to manhood in an austere reverence for himself as regarded the other sex, and in a secret fear, as exacting for them as it was worshipful of women. His mother had held all show of love- sickness between young people in scorn; she said they were silly things, when she saw them soft upon one another; and Lemuel had imbibed from her a sense of unlawfulness, of shame, in the love- making he had seen around him all his life. These things are very open in the country. Even in large villages they have kissing-games at the children's parties, in the church vestries and refectories; and as a little boy Lemuel had taken part in such games. But as he grew older, his reverence and his fear would not let him touch a girl. Once a big girl, much older than he, came up behind him in the play-ground and kissed him; he rubbed the kiss off with his hand, and scoured the place with sand and gravel. One winter all the big boys and girls at school began courting whenever the teacher was out of sight a moment; at the noon-spell some of them sat with their arms round one another. Lemuel wandered off by himself in the snows of the deep woods; the sight of such things, the thought of them put him to shame for those fools, as he tacitly called them; and now what had he done himself? He could not tell. At times he was even proud and glad of it; and then he did not know what would become of him. But mostly it seemed to him that he had been guilty of an enormity that nothing could ever excuse. He must have been crazy to do such a thing to a young lady like that; her tear-stained face looked her wonder at him still.

By this time she had told 'Manda Grier all about it; and he dared not think what their thoughts of him must be. It seemed to him that he ought to put such a monster as he was out of the world. But all the time there was a sweetness, a joy in his heart, that made him half frantic with fear of himself.

"Lemuel!"

He started up at the sound of Sibyl Vane's voice calling to him from the dining-room which opened into the L.

"Yes, ma'am," he answered tremulously, going to his door. Miss Vane had been obliged to instruct him to say ma'am to her niece, whom he had at first spoken of by her Christian name.

"Was that you came in a little while ago?"

"Yes, ma'am, I came in."

"Oh! And have you had your supper?"

"I—I guess I don't want any supper."

"Don't want any supper? You will be ill. Why don't you?"

"I don't know as I feel just like eating anything."

"Well, it won't do. Will you see, please, if Jane is in the kitchen?"

Lemuel came forward, full of his unfitness for the sight of men, but gathering a little courage when he found the dining-room so dark. He descended to the basement and opened the door of the kitchen, looked in, and shut it again. "Yes, ma'am, she's there."

"Oh!" Sibyl seemed to hesitate. Then she said: "Light the gas down there, hadn't you better?"

"I don't know but I had," Lemuel assented.

But before he could obey, "And Lemuel!" she called down again, "come and light it up here too, please."

"I will as soon as I've lit it here," said Lemuel.

An imperious order came back. "You will light it here now, please."

"All right," assented Lemuel. When he appeared in the upper entry and flashed the gas up, he saw Sibyl standing at the reception-room door, with her finger closed into a book which she had been reading.

"You're not to say that you will do one thing when you're told to do another."

Lemuel whitened a little round the lips. "I'm not to do two things at once, either, I suppose."

Sibyl ignored this reply. "Please go and get your supper, and when you've had it come up here again. I've some things for you to do."

"I'll do them now," said Lemuel fiercely. "I don't want any supper, and I sha'n't eat any."

"Why, Lemuel, what is the matter with you?" asked the girl, in the sudden effect of motherly solicitude. "You look very strange, you seem so excited."

"I'm not hungry, that's all," said the boy doggedly. "What is it you want done?"

"Won't you please go up to the third floor," said Sibyl, in a phase of timorous dependence, "and see if everything is right there? I thought I heard a noise. See if the windows are fast, won't you?"

Lemuel turned and she followed with her finger in her book, and her book pressed to her heart, talking. "It seemed to me that I heard steps and voices. It's very mysterious. I suppose any one could plant a ladder on the roof of the L part, and get into the windows if they were not fastened."

"Have to be a pretty long ladder," grumbled Lemuel.

"Yes," Sibyl assented, "it would. And it didn't sound exactly like burglars."

She followed him half-way up the second flight of stairs, and stood there while he explored the third story throughout.

"There ain't anything there," he reported without looking at her, and was about to pass her on the stairs in going down.

"Oh, thank you very much, Lemuel," she said, with fervent gratitude in her voice. She fetched a tremulous sigh. "I suppose it was nothing. Yes," she added hoarsely, "it must have been nothing. Oh, let me go down first!" she cried, putting out her hand to stop him from passing her. She resumed when they reached the ground floor again. "Aunty has gone out, and Jane was in the kitchen, and it began to grow dark while I sat reading in the drawing-room, and all at once I heard the strangest noise." Her voice dropped deeply on the last word. "Yes, it was very strange indeed! Thank you, Lemuel," she concluded.

"Quite welcome," said Lemuel dryly, pushing on towards the basement stairs.

"Oh! And Lemuel! will you let Jane give you your supper in the dining-room, so that you could be here if I heard anything else?"

"I don't want any supper," said Lemuel.

The girl scrutinised him with an expression of misgiving. Then, with a little sigh, as of one who will not explore a painful mystery, she asked: "Would you mind sitting in the dining-room, then, till aunty gets back?"

"I'd just as lives sit there," said Lemuel, walking into the dark dining-room and sitting down.

"Oh, thank you very much. Aunty will be back very soon, I suppose.
She's just gone to the Sewells' to tea."

She followed him to the threshold. "You must—I must—light the gas in here for you."

"Guess I can light the gas," said Lemuel, getting up to intercept her in this service. She had run into the reception-room for a match, and she would not suffer him to prevent her.

"No, no! I insist! And Lemuel," she said, turning upon him, "I must ask you to excuse my speaking harshly to you. I was—agitated."

"Perfectly excusable," said Lemuel.

"I am afraid," said the girl, fixing him with her eyes, "that you are not well."

"Oh yes, I'm well. I'm—pretty tired; that's all."

"Have you been walking far?"

"Yes—not very."

"The walking ought to do you good," said Sibyl, with serious thoughtfulness. "I think," she continued, "you had better have some bryonia. Don't you think you had?"

"No, no! I don't want anything," protested Lemuel.

She looked at him with a feeling of baffled anxiety painted on her face; and as she turned away, she beamed with a fresh inspiration. "I will get you a book." She flew into the reception-room and back again, but she only had the book that she had herself been reading.

"Perhaps you would like to read this? I've finished it. I was just looking back through it."

"Thank you; I guess I don't want to read any, just now."

She leaned against the side of the dining-table, beyond which Lemuel sat, and searched his fallen countenance with a glance contrived to be at once piercing and reproachful. "I see," she said, "you have not forgiven me."

"Forgiven you?" repeated Lemuel blankly.

"Yes—for giving way to my agitation in speaking to you."

"I don't know," said Lemuel, with a sigh of deep inward trouble, "as
I noticed anything."

"I told you to light the gas in the basement," suggested Sibyl, "and then I told you to light it up here, and then—I scolded you."

"Oh yes," admitted Lemuel: "that." He dropped his head again.

Sibyl sank upon the edge of a chair. "Lemuel! you have something on your mind?"

The boy looked up with a startled face.

"Yes! I can see that you have," pursued Sibyl. "What have you been doing?" she demanded sternly.

Lemuel was so full of the truth that it came first to his lips in all cases. He could scarcely force it aside now with the evasion that availed him nothing. "I don't know as I've been doing anything in particular."

"I see that you don't wish to tell me!" cried the girl. "But you might have trusted me. I would have defended you, no matter what you had done—the worse the better."

Lemuel hung his head without answering.

After a while she continued: "If I had been that girl who had you arrested, and I had been the cause of so much suffering to an innocent person, I should never have forgiven myself. I should have devoted my life to expiation. I should have spent my life in going about the prisons, and finding out persons who were unjustly accused. I should have done it as a penance. Yes! even if he had been guilty!"

Lemuel remained insensible to this extreme of self-sacrifice, and she went on: "This book—it is a story—is all one picture of such a nature. There is a girl who's been brought up as the ward of a young man. He educates her, and she expects to be his wife, and he turns out to be perfectly false and unworthy in every way; but she marries him all the same, although she likes some one else, because she feels that she ought to punish herself for thinking of another, and because she hopes that she will die soon, and when her guardian finds out what she's done for him, it will reform him. It's perfectly sublime. It's—ennobling! If every one could read this book, they would be very different."

"I don't see much sense in it," said Lemuel, goaded to this comment.

"You would if you read it. When she dies—she is killed by a fall from her horse in hunting, and has just time to join the hands of her husband and the man she liked first, and tell them everything— it is wrought up so that you hold your breath. I suppose it was reading that that made me think there were burglars getting in. But perhaps you're right not to read it now, if you're excited already. I'll get you something cheerful." She whirled out of the room and back in a series of those swift, nervous movements peculiar to her. "There! that will amuse you, I know." She put the book down on the table before Lemuel, who silently submitted to have it left there. "It will distract your thoughts, if anything will. And I shall ask you to let me sit just here in the reception-room, so that I can call you if I feel alarmed."

"All right," said Lemuel, lapsing absently to his own troubled thoughts.

"Thank you very much," said Sibyl. She went away, and came back directly. "Don't you think," she asked, "that it's very strange you should never have seen or heard anything of her?"

"Heard of who?" he asked, dragging himself painfully up from the depths of his thoughts.

"That heartless girl who had you arrested."

"She wasn't heartless!" retorted Lemuel indignantly.

"You think so because you are generous, and can't imagine such heartlessness. Perhaps," added Sibyl, with the air of being illumined by a happy thought, "she is dead. That would account for everything. She may have died of remorse. It probably preyed upon her till she couldn't bear it any longer, and then she killed herself."

Lemuel began to grow red at the first apprehension of her meaning.
As she went on, he changed colour more and more.

"She is alive!" cried Sibyl. "She's alive, and you have seen her!
You needn't deny it! You've seen her to-day!" Lemuel rose in clumsy
indignation. "I don't know as anybody's got any right to say what
I've done, or haven't done."

"O Lemuel!" cried Sibyl. "Do you think anyone in this house would intrude in your affairs? But if you need a friend—a sister——"

"I don't need any sister. I want you should let me alone."

At these words, so little appreciative of her condescension, her romantic beneficence, her unselfish interest, Sibyl suddenly rebounded to her former level, which she was sensible was far above that of this unworthy object of her kindness. She rose from her chair, and pursued—

"If you need a friend—a sister—I'm sure that you can safely confide in—the cook." She looked at him a moment, and broke into a malicious laugh very unlike that of a social reformer, which rang shriller at the bovine fury which mounted to Lemuel's eyes. The rattle of a night-latch made itself heard in the outer door. Sibyl's voice began to break, as it rose: "I never expected to be treated in my own aunt's house with such perfect ingratitude and impudence— yes, impudence!—by one of her servants!"

She swept out of the room, and her aunt, who entered it, after calling to her in vain, stood with Lemuel, and heard her mount the stairs, sobbing, to her own room, and lock herself in.

"What is the matter, Lemuel?" asked Miss Vane, breathing quickly. She looked at him with the air of a judge who would not condemn him unheard, but would certainly do so after hearing him. Whether it was Lemuel's perception of this that kept him silent, or his confusion of spirit from all the late rapidly successive events, or a wish not to inculpate the girl who had insulted him, he remained silent.

"Answer me!" said Miss Vane sharply.

Lemuel cleared his throat. "I don't know as I've got anything to say," he answered finally.

"But I insist upon your saying something," said Miss Vane. "What is this impudence?"

"There hasn't been any impudence," replied Lemuel, hanging his head.

"Very well, then, you can tell me what Sibyl means," persisted Miss
Vane.

Lemuel seemed to reflect upon it. "No, I can't tell you," he said at last, slowly and gently.

"You refuse to make any explanation whatever?"

"Yes."

Miss Vane rose from the chair which she had mechanically sunk into while waiting for him to speak, and ceased to be the kindly, generous soul she was, in asserting herself as a gentlewoman who had a contumacious servant to treat with. "You will wait here a moment, please."

"All right," said Lemuel. She had asked him not to receive instructions from her with that particular answer, but he could not always remember.

She went upstairs, and returned with some banknotes that rustled in her trembling hand. "It is two months since you came, and I've paid you one month," she said, and she set her lips, and tried to govern her head, which nevertheless shook with the vehemence she was struggling to repress. She laid two ten-dollar notes upon the table, and then added a five, a little apart. "This second month was to be twenty instead of ten. I shall not want you any longer, and should be glad to have you go now—at once—to-night! But I had intended to offer you a little present at Christmas, and I will give it you now."

Lemuel took up the two ten-dollar notes without saying anything, and then after a moment laid one of them down. "It's only half a month," he said. "I don't want to be paid for any more than I've done."

"Lemuel!" cried Miss Vane. "I insist upon your taking it. I employed you by the month."

"It don't make any difference about that; I've only been here a month and a half."

He folded the notes, and turned to go out of the room. Miss Vane caught the five-dollar note from the table and intercepted him with it. "Well, then, you shall take it as a present."

"I don't want any present," said Lemuel, patiently waiting her pleasure to release him, but keeping his hands in his pockets.

"You would have taken it at Christmas," said Miss Vane. "You shall take it now."

"I shouldn't take a present any time," returned Lemuel steadily.

"You are a foolish boy!" cried Miss Vane. "You need it, and I tell you to take it."

He made no reply whatever.

"You are behaving very stubbornly—ungratefully," said Miss Vane.

Lemuel lifted his head; his lip quivered a little. "I don't think you've got any right to say I'm ungrateful."

"I don't mean ungrateful," said Miss Vane. "I mean unkind—very silly, indeed. And I wish you to take this money. You are behaving resentfully—wickedly. I am much older than you, and I tell you that you are not behaving rightly. Why don't you do what I wish?"

"I don't want any money I haven't earned."

"I don't mean the money. Why don't you tell me the meaning of what I heard? My niece said you had been impudent to her. Perhaps she didn't understand."

She looked wistfully into the boy's face.

After a long time he said, "I don't know as I've got anything to say about it."

"Very well, then, you may go," said Miss Vane, with all her hauteur.

"Well, good evening," said Lemuel passively, but the eyes that he looked at her with were moist, and conveyed a pathetic reproach. To her unmeasured astonishment, he offered her his hand; her amaze was even greater—more infinite, as she afterwards told Sewell— when she found herself shaking it.

He went out of the room, and she heard him walking about his room in the L, putting together his few belongings. Then she heard him go down and open the furnace door, and she knew he was giving a final conscientious look at the fire. He closed it, and she heard him close the basement door behind him, and knew that he was gone.

She explored the L, and then she descended to the basement and mechanically looked it over. Everything that could be counted hers by the most fastidious sense of property had been left behind him in the utmost neatness. On their accustomed nail, just inside the furnace-room, hung the blue overalls. They looked like a suicidal Lemuel hanging there.

Miss Vane went upstairs slowly, with a heavy heart. Under the hall light stood Sibyl, picturesque in the deep shadow it flung upon her face.

"Aunt Hope," she began in a tragic voice.

"Don't speak to me, you wicked girl!" cried her aunt, venting her self-reproach upon this victim. "It is your doing."

Sibyl turned with the meekness of an ostentatious scape-goat, unjustly bearing the sins of her tribe, and went upstairs into the wilderness of her own thoughts again.

William Dean Howells