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Chapter 14

XIV.

Sewell chanced to open his door to go out just as Miss Vane put her hand on the bell-pull, the morning after she had dismissed Lemuel. The cheer of his Monday face died out at the unsmiling severity of hers; but he contrived to ask her in, and said he would call Mrs. Sewell, if she would sit down in the reception-room a moment.

"I don't know," she said, with a certain look of inquiry, not unmixed with compassion. "It's about Lemuel."

The minister fetched a deep sigh. "Yes, I know it. But she will have to know it sooner or later." He went to the stairway and called her name, and then returned to Miss Vane in the reception-room.

"Has Lemuel been here?" she asked.

"No."

"You said you knew it was about him—"

"It was my bad conscience, I suppose, and your face that told me."

Miss Vane waited for Mrs. Sewell's presence before she unpacked her heart. Then she left nothing in it. She ended by saying, "I have examined and cross-examined Sibyl, but it's like cross-questioning a chameleon; she changed colour with every new light she was put into." Here Miss Vane had got sorrowfully back to something more of her wonted humour, and laughed.

"Poor Sibyl!" said Mrs. Sewell.

"Poor?" retorted Miss Vane. "Not at all! I could get nothing out of either of them; but I feel perfectly sure that Lemuel was not to blame."

"It's very possible," suggested Mrs. Sewell, "that he did say something in his awkward way that she misconstrued into impertinence."

Miss Vane did not seem to believe this. "If Lemuel had given me the slightest satisfaction," she began in self-exculpation. "But no," she broke off. "It had to be!" She rose. "I thought I had better come and tell you at once, Mr. Sewell. I suppose you will want to look him up, and do something more for him. I wish if you find him you would make him take this note." She gave the minister a ten- dollar bill. "I tried to do so, but he would not have it. I don't know what I shall do without him! He is the best and most faithful creature in the world. Even in this little time I had got to relying implicitly upon his sense, his judgment, his goodness, his—Well! good morning!"

She ran out of the door, and left Sewell confronted with his wife.

He did not know whether she had left him to hope or to despair, and he waited for his wife to interpret his emotion, but Mrs. Sewell tacitly refused to do this. After a dreary interval he plucked a random cheerfulness out of space, and said: "Well, if Miss Vane feels in that way about it, I don't see why the whole affair can't be arranged and Barker reinstated."

"David," returned his wife, not vehemently at all, "when you come out with those mannish ideas I don't know what to do."

"Well, my dear," said the minister, "I should be glad to come out with some womanish ideas if I had them. I dare say they would be better. But I do my poor best, under the circumstances. What is the trouble with my ideas, except that the sex is wrong?"

"You think, you men," replied Mrs. Sewell, "that a thing like that can be mended up and smoothed over, and made just the same as ever. You think that because Miss Vane is sorry she sent Barker away and wants him back, she can take him back."

"I don't see why she can't. I've sometimes supposed that the very highest purpose of Christianity was mutual forgiveness—forbearance with one another's errors."

"That's all very well," said Mrs. Sewell. "But you know that whenever I have taken a cook back, after she had shown temper, it's been an entire failure; and this is a far worse case, because there is disappointed good-will mixed up with it. I don't suppose Barker is at all to blame. Whatever has happened, you may be perfectly sure that it has been partly a bit of stage-play in Sibyl and partly a mischievous desire to use her power over him. I foresaw that she would soon be tired of reforming him. But whatever it is, it's something that you can't repair. Suppose Barker went back to them; could they ignore what's happened?"

"Of course not," Sewell admitted.

"Well, and should he ask her pardon, or she his?"

"The Socratic method is irresistible," said the minister sadly. "You have proved that nothing can be done for Barker with the Vanes. And now the question is, what can be done for him?"

"That's something I must leave to you, David," said his wife dispiritedly. She arose, and as she passed out of the room she added, "You will have to find him, in the first place, and you had better go round to the police stations and the tramps' lodging-houses and begin looking."

Sewell sighed heavily under the sarcastic advice, but acted upon it, and set forth upon the useless quest, because he did not know in the least what else to do.

All that week Barker lay, a lurking discomfort, in his soul, though as the days passed the burden grew undeniably lighter; Sewell had a great many things besides Barker to think of. But when Sunday came, and he rose in his pulpit, he could not help casting a glance of guilty fear toward Miss Vane's pew and drawing a long breath of guilty relief not to see Lemuel in it. We are so made, that in the reaction the minister was able to throw himself into the matter of his discourse with uncommon fervour. It was really very good matter, and he felt the literary joy in it which flatters the author even of a happily worded supplication to the Deity. He let his eyes, freed from their bondage to Lemuel's attentive face, roam at large in liberal ease over his whole congregation; and when, toward the close of his sermon, one visage began to grow out upon him from the two or three hundred others, and to concentrate in itself the facial expression of all the rest, and become the only countenance there, it was a perceptible moment before he identified it as that of his inalienable charge. Then he began to preach at it as usual, but defiantly, and with yet a haste to be through and to get speech with it that he felt was ludicrous, and must appear unaccountable to his hearers. It seemed to him that he could not bring his sermon to a close; he ended it in a cloudy burst of rhetoric which he feared would please the nervous, elderly ladies—who sometimes blamed him for a want of emotionality—and knew must grieve the judicious. While the choir was singing the closing hymn, he contrived to beckon the sexton to the pulpit, and described and located Lemuel to him as well as he could without actually pointing him out; he said that he wished to see that young man after church, and asked the sexton to bring him to his room. The sexton did so to the best of his ability, but the young man whom he brought was not Lemuel, and had to be got rid of with apologies.

On three or four successive Sundays Lemuel's face dawned upon the minister from the congregation, and tasked his powers of impersonal appeal and mental concentration to the utmost. It never appeared twice in the same place, and when at last Sewell had tutored the sexton carefully in Lemuel's dress, he was driven to despair one morning when he saw the boy sliding along between the seats in the gallery, and sitting down with an air of satisfaction in an entirely new suit of clothes.

After this defeat the sexton said with humorous sympathy, "Well, there ain't anything for it now, Mr. Sewell, but a detective, or else an advertisement in the Personals."

Sewell laughed with him at his joke, and took what comfort he could from the evidence of prosperity which Lemuel's new clothes offered. He argued that if Barker could afford to buy them he could not be in immediate need, and for some final encounter with him he trusted in Providence, and was not too much cast down when his wife made him recognise that he was trusting in Luck. It was an ordeal to look forward to finding Lemuel sooner or later among his hearers every Sunday; but having prepared his nerves for the shock, as men adjust their sensibilities to the recurrent pain of a disease, he came to bear it with fortitude, especially as he continually reminded himself that he had his fixed purpose to get at Lemuel at last and befriend him in any and every possible way. He tried hard to keep from getting a grudge against him.

At the hotel, Lemuel remained in much of his original belief in the fashion and social grandeur of the ladies who formed the majority of Mrs. Harmon's guests. Our womankind are prone to a sort of helpless intimacy with those who serve them; the ladies had an instinctive perception of Lemuel's trustiness, and readily gave him their confidence and much of their history. He came to know them without being at all able to classify them with reference to society at large, as of that large tribe among us who have revolted from domestic care, and have skilfully unseated the black rider who remains mounted behind the husband of the average lady-boarder. Some of them had never kept house, being young and newly married, though of this sort there were those who had tried it in flats, and had reverted to their natural condition of boarding. They advised Lemuel not to take a flat, whatever he did, unless he wanted to perish at once. Other lady boarders had broken up housekeeping during the first years of the war, and had been boarding round ever since, going from hotels in the city to hotels in the country, and back again with the change of the seasons; these mostly had husbands who had horses, and they talked with equal tenderness of the husbands and the horses, so that you could not always tell which Jim or Bob was; usually they had no children, but occasionally they had a married daughter, or a son who lived West. There were several single ladies: one who seemed to have nothing in this world to do but to come down to her meals, and another a physician who had not been able, in embracing the medical profession, to deny herself the girlish pleasure of her pet name, and was lettered in the list of guests in the entry as Dr. Cissie Bluff. In the attic, which had a north-light favourable to their work, were two girls, who were studying art at the Museum; one of them looked delicate at first sight, and afterwards seemed merely very gentle, with a clear-eyed pallor which was not unhealth. A student in the Law School sat at the table with these girls, and seemed sometimes to go with them to concerts and lectures. From his talk, which was almost the only talk that made itself heard in the dining-room, it appeared that he was from Wyoming Territory; he treated the young ladies as representative of Boston and its prejudices, though apparently they were not Bostonians. There were several serious and retiring couples, of whom one or other was an invalid, and several who were poor, and preferred the plated gentility of Mrs. Harmon's hotel—it was called the St. Albans; Mrs. Harmon liked the name—to the genuine poverty of such housekeeping as they could have set up. About each of these women a home might have clung, with all its loves and cares; they were naturally like other women; but here they were ignoble particles, without attraction for one another, or apparently joy for themselves, impermanent, idle, listless; they had got rid of the trouble of housekeeping, and of its dignity and usefulness. There were a few children in the house, not at all noisy; the boys played on the sidewalk, and the little girls stayed in their rooms with their mothers, and rarely took the air oftener than they.

They came down rather later to breakfast, and they seemed not to go to school; some of them had piano lessons in their rooms. Their mothers did not go out much; sometimes they went to church or the theatre, and they went shopping. But they had apparently no more social than domestic life. Now and then they had a friend to lunch or dinner; if a lady was absent, it was known to Mrs. Harmon, and through her to the other ladies, that she was spending the day with a friend of hers at an hotel in Newton, or Lexington, or Woburn. In a city full of receptions, of dinner-giving, and party-going, Mrs. Harmon's guests led the lives of cloistered nuns, so far as such pleasures were concerned; occasionally a transient had rooms for a week or two, and was continually going, and receiving visits. She became the object of a certain unenvious curiosity with the other ladies, who had not much sociability among themselves; they waited a good while before paying visits at one another's rooms, and then were very punctilious not to go again until their calls had been returned. They were all doctoring themselves; they did not talk gossip or scandal much; they talked of their diseases and physicians, and their married daughters and of Mrs. Harmon, whom they censured for being too easygoing. Certain of them devoured novels, which they carried about clasped to their breasts with their fingers in them at the place where they were reading; they did not often speak of them, and apparently took them as people take opium.

The men were the husbands or fathers of the women, and were wholly without the domestic weight or consequence that belongs to men living in their own houses. There were certain old bachelors, among whom were two or three decayed branches of good Boston families, spendthrifts, or invalided bankrupts. Mr. Evans was practically among the single gentlemen, for his wife never appeared in the parlour or dining-room, and was seen only when she went in or out, heavily veiled, for a walk. Lemuel heard very soon that she had suffered a shock from the death of her son on the cars; the other ladies made much of her inability to get over it, and said nothing would induce them to have a son of theirs go in and out on the cars.

Among these people, such as they were, and far as they might be from a final civilisation, Lemuel began to feel an ambition to move more lightly and quickly than he had yet known how to do, to speak promptly, and to appear well. Our schooling does not train us to graceful or even correct speech; even our colleges often leave that uncouth. Many of Mrs. Harmon's boarders spoke bad grammar through their noses; but the ladies dressed stylishly, and the men were good arithmeticians. Lemuel obeyed a native impulse rather than a good example in cultivating a better address; but the incentive to thrift and fashion was all about him. He had not been ignorant that his clothes were queer in cut and out of date, and during his stay at Miss Vane's he had taken much council with himself as to whether he ought not to get a new suit with his first money instead of sending it home. Now he had solved the question, after sending the money home, by the discovery of a place on a degenerate street, in a neighbourhood of Chinese laundries, with the polite name of Misfit Parlours, where they professed to sell the failures of the leading tailors of Boston, New York, and Chicago. After long study of the window of the Parlours, Lemuel ventured within one day, and was told, when he said he could not afford the suit he fancied, that he might pay for it on the instalment plan, which the proprietor explained to him. In the mirror he was almost startled at the stylishness of his own image. The proprietor of the Parlours complimented him. "You see, you've got a good figure for a suit of clothes—what I call a ready made figure. You can go into a clothing store anywheres and fit you."

He took the first instalment of the price, with Lemuel's name and address, and said he would send the clothes round; but in the evening he brought them himself, and no doubt verified Lemuel's statement by this device. It was a Saturday night, and the next morning Lemuel rose early to put them on. He meant to go to church in them, and in the afternoon he did not know just what he should do. He had hoped that some chance might bring them together again, and then he could see from the way Miss Dudley and 'Manda Grier behaved, just what they thought. He had many minds about the matter himself, and had gone from an extreme of self-abhorrence to one of self-vindication, and between these he had halted at every gradation of blame and exculpation. But perhaps what chiefly kept him away was the uncertainty of his future; till he could give some shape to that he had no courage to face the past. Sometimes he wished never to see either of those girls again; but at other times he had a longing to go and explain, to justify himself, or to give himself up to justice.

The new clothes gave him more heart than he had yet had, but the most he could bring himself to do was to walk towards Pleasant Avenue the next Sunday afternoon, which Mrs. Harmon especially gave him,—and to think about walking up and down before the house. It ended in his walking up and down the block, first on one side of the street and then on the other. He knew the girls' window; Miss Dudley had shown him it was the middle window of the top story when they were looking out of it, and he glanced up at it. Then he hurried away, but he could not leave the street without stopping at the corner, to cast a last look back at the house. There was an apothecary's at that corner, and while he stood wistfully staring and going round the corner a little way, and coming back to look at the things in the apothecary's window, he saw 'Manda Grier come swiftly towards him. He wanted to run away now, but he could not; he felt nailed to the spot, and he felt the colour go out of his face. She pretended not to see him at first; but with a second glance she abandoned the pretence, and at his saying faintly, "Good afternoon," she said, with freezing surprise, "Oh! Good afternoon, Mr. Barker!" and passed into the apothecary's.

He could not go now, since he had spoken, and leave all so inconclusive again; and yet 'Manda Grier had been so repellent, so cutting, in her tone and manner, that he did not know how to face her another time. When she came out he faltered, "I hope there isn't anybody sick at your house, Miss Grier."

"Oh, nobody that you'll care about, Mr. Barker," she answered airily, and began to tilt rapidly away, with her chin thrust out before her.

He made a few paces after her, and then stopped; she seemed to stop too, and he caught up with her.

"I hope," he gasped, "there ain't anything the matter with Miss
Dudley?"

"Oh, nothing 't you'll care about," said 'Manda Grier, and she added with terrible irony, "You've b'en round to inquire so much that you hain't allowed time for any great change."

"Has she been sick long?" faltered Lemuel. "I didn't dare to come!" he cried out. "I've been wanting to come, but I didn't suppose you would speak to me—any of you." Now his tongue was unlocked, he ran on: "I don't know as it's any excuse—there ain't any excuse for such a thing! I know she must perfectly despise me, and that I'm not fit for her to look at; but I'd give anything if I could take it all back and be just where I was before. You tell her, won't you, how I feel?"

'Manda Grier, who had listened with a killingly averted face, turned sharply upon him: "You mean about stayin' away so long? I don't know as she cared a great deal, but it's a pretty queer way of showin' you cared for her."

"I didn't mean that!" retorted Lemuel; and he added by an immense effort, "I meant—the way I behaved when I was there; I meant—"

"Oh!" said 'Manda Grier, turning her face away again; she turned it so far away that the back of her head was all that Lemuel could see. "I guess you better speak to Statira about that."

By this time they had reached the door of the boarding-house, and
'Manda Grier let herself in with her latch-key. "Won't you walk in,
Mr. Barker?" she said in formal tones of invitation.

"Is she well enough to see—company?" murmured Lemuel. "I shouldn't want to disturb her."

"I don't believe but what she can see you," said 'Manda Grier, for the first time relentingly.

"All right," said Lemuel, gulping the lump in his throat, and he followed 'Manda Grier up the flights of stairs to the door of the girls' room, which she flung open without knocking.

"S'tira," she said, "here's Mr. Barker," and Lemuel, from the dark landing, where he lurked a moment, could see Statira sitting in the rocking-chair in a pretty blue dressing-gown; after a first flush she looked pale, and now and then put up her hand to hide a hoarse little cough.

William Dean Howells