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Chapter 15

XV.

"Walk right in, Mr. Barker," cried 'Manda Grier, and Lemuel entered, more awkward and sheepish in his new suit from the Misfit Parlours than he had been before in his Willoughby Pastures best clothes. Statira merely said, "Why, Mr. Barker!" and stood at her chair where she rose. "You're quite a stranger. Won't you sit down?"

Lemuel sat down, and 'Manda Grier said politely, "Won't you let me take your hat, Mr. Barker?" and they both treated him with so much ceremony and deference that it seemed impossible he could ever have done such a monstrous thing as kiss a young lady like Miss Dudley; and he felt that he never could approach the subject even to accept a just doom at her hands.

They all talked about the weather for a minute, and then 'Manda Grier said, "Well, I guess I shall have to go down and set this boneset to steep;" and as he rose, and stood to let her pass, she caught his arm, and gave it a clutch. He did not know whether she did it on purpose, or why she did it, but somehow it said to him that she was his friend, and he did not feel so much afraid.

When she was gone, however, he returned to the weather for conversation; but when Statira said it was lucky for her that the winter held off so, he made out to inquire about her sickness, and she told him that she had caught a heavy cold; at first it seemed just to be a head-cold, but afterwards it seemed to settle on the lungs, and it seemed as if she never could throw it off; they had had the doctor twice; but now she was better, and the cough was nearly all gone.

"I guess I took the cold that day, from havin' the window open," she concluded; and she passed her hand across her lap, and looked down demurely, and then up at the ceiling, and her head twitched a little and trembled.

Lemuel knew that his hour had come, if ever it were to come, and he said hoarsely: "I guess if I made you take cold that day, it wasn't all I did. I guess I did worse than that."

She did not look at him and pretend ignorance, as 'Manda Grier would have done; but lifting her moist eyes and then dropping them, she said, "Why, Mr. Barker, what can you mean?"

"You know what I mean," he retorted, with courage astonishing to him. "It was because I liked you so much." He could not say loved; it seemed too bold. "There's nothing else can excuse it, and I don't know as that can."

She put up her hands to her eyes, and began to cry, and he rose and went to her, and said, "Oh, don't cry, don't cry!" and somehow he took hold of her hands, and then her arms went round his neck, and she was crying on his breast.

"You'll think I'm rather of a silly person, crying so much about nothing," she said, when she lifted her head from his shoulder to wipe her eyes. "But I can't seem to help it," and she broke down again. "I presume it's because I've been sick, and I'm kind of weak yet. I know you wouldn't have done that, that day, if you hadn't have cared for me; and I wasn't mad a bit; not half as mad as I ought to have been; but when you stayed away so long, and never seemed to come near any more, I didn't know what to think. But now I can understand just how you felt, and I don't blame you one bit; I should have done just so myself if I'd been a man, I suppose. And now it's all come right, I don't mind being sick or anything; only when Thanksgiving came, we felt sure you'd call, and we'd got the pies nicely warmed. Oh dear!" She gave way again, and then pressed her cheek tight against his to revive herself. "'Manda said she knew it was just because you was kind of ashamed, and I was too sick to eat any of the pies, anyway; and so it all turned out for the best; and I don't want you to believe that I'm one to cry over spilt milk, especially when it's all gathered up again!"

Her happy tongue ran on, revealing, divining everything, and he sat down with her in his arms, hardly speaking a word, till her heart was quite poured out. 'Manda Grier left them a long time together, and before she came back he had told Statira all about himself since their last meeting. She was very angry at the way that girl had behaved at Miss Vane's, but she was glad he had found such a good place now, without being beholden to any one for it, and she showed that she felt a due pride in his being an hotel clerk. He described the hotel, and told what he had to do there, and about Mrs. Harmon and the fashionableness of all the guests. But he said he did not think any of the ladies went ahead of her in dress, if they came up to her; and Statira pressed her lips gratefully against his cheek, and then lifting her head held herself a little away to see him again, and said, "You're splendidly dressed too; I noticed it the first thing when you came in. You look just as if you had always lived in Boston."

"Is that so?" asked Lemuel; and he felt his heart suffused with tender pride and joy. He told her of the Misfit Parlours and the instalment plan, and she said, well, it was just splendid; and she asked him if he knew she wasn't in the store any more; and "No," she added delightedly, upon his confession of ignorance, "I'm going to work in the box-factory, after this, where 'Manda Grier works. It's better pay, and you have more control of your hours, and you can set down while you work, if you've a mind to. I think it's going to be splendid. What should you say if 'Manda Grier and me took some rooms and went to housekeepin'?"

"I don't know," said Lemuel; but in his soul he felt jealous of her keeping house with 'Manda Grier.

"Well, I don't know as we shall do it," said Statira, as if feeling his tacit reluctance.

'Manda Grier came in just then, and cast a glance of friendly satire at them. "Well, I declare!" she said, for all recognition of the situation.

Lemuel made an offer to rise, but Statira would not let him. "I guess 'Manda Grier won't mind it much."

"I guess I can stand it if you can," said 'Manda Grier; and this seemed such a witty speech that they all laughed, till, as Statira said, she thought she should die. They laughed the more when 'Manda Grier added dryly, "I presume you won't want your boneset now." She set the vessel she had brought it up in on the stove, and covered it with a saucer. "I do' know as I should if I was in your place. It's kind o' curious I should bring both remedies home with me at once." At this they all laughed a third time, till 'Manda Grier said, "'Sh! 'sh! Do you want to raise the roof?"

She began to bustle about, and to set out a little table, and cover it with a napkin, and as she worked she talked on. "I guess if you don't want any boneset tea, a little of the other kind won't hurt any of us, and I kinder want a cup myself." She set it to steep on the stove, and it went through Lemuel's mind that she might have steeped the boneset there too, if she had thought of it; but he did not say anything, though it seemed a pretty good joke on 'Manda Grier. She ran on in that way of hers so that you never could tell whether she really meant a thing or not. "I guess if I have to manage many more cases like yours, S'tira Dudley, I shall want to lay in a whole chest of it. What do you think, Mr. Barker?"

"Mr. Barker!" repeated Statira.

"Well, I'm afraid to say Lemuel any more, for fear he'll fly off the handle, and never come again. What do you think, Mr. Barker, of havin' to set at that window every Sunday for the last three weeks, and keep watch of both sidewalks till you get such a crick in your neck, and your eyes so set in your head, you couldn't move either of 'em?"

"Now, 'Manda Grier!" said Statira from Lemuel's shoulder.

"Well, I don't say I had to do it, and I don't say who the young man was that I was put to look out for——"

"'Manda!"

"But I do say it's pretty hard to wait on a sick person one side the room, and keep watch for a young man the other side, both at once."

"'Manda Grier, you're too bad!" pouted Statira. "Don't you believe a word she says, Mr. Barker."

"Mr. Barker!" repeated 'Manda Grier.

"Well, I don't care!" said Statira, "I know who I mean."

"I don't," said 'Manda Grier. "And I didn't know who you meant this afternoon when you was standin' watch 't the window, and says you, 'There! there he is!' and I had to run so quick with the dipper of water I had in my hand to water the plants that I poured it all over the front of my dress."

"Do you believe her?" asked Statira.

"And I didn't know who you meant," proceeded 'Manda Grier, busy with the cups and saucers, "when you kept hurryin' me up to change it; 'Oh, quick, quick! How long you are! I know he'll get away; I know he will!' and I had to just sling on a shawl and rush out after this boneset."

"There! Now that shows she's makin' it all up!" cried Statira. "She put on a sack, and I helped her on with it myself. So there!"

"Well, if it was a sack! And after all, the young man was gone when I got down int' the street," concluded 'Manda Grier solemnly.

Lemuel had thought she was talking about him; but now a pang of jealousy went through him, and showed at the eyes he fixed on her.

"I don't know what I sh'd 'a' done," she resumed demurely, "if I hadn't have found Mr. Barker at the apothecary's and got him to come home 'th me; but of course, 'twan't the same as if it was the young man!"

Lemuel's arm fell from Statira's waist in his torment.

"Why, Lemuel!" she said in tender reproach.

"Why, you coot!" cried 'Manda Grier in utter amazement at his single-mindedness; and burst into a scream of laughter. She took the teapot from the stove, and set it on the table. "There, young man— if you are the young man—you better pull up to the table, and have something to start your ideas. S'tira! Let him come!" and Lemuel, blushing for shame at his stupidity, did as he was bid.

"I've got the greatest mind in the world to set next to S'tira myself," said 'Manda Grier, "for fear she should miss that young man!" and now they both laughed together at Lemuel; but the girls let him sit between them, and Statira let him keep one of her hands under the table, as much as she could. "I never saw such a jealous piece! Why, I shall begin to be afraid for myself. What should you think of S'tira's going to housekeeping with me?"

"I don't believe he likes the idea one bit," Statira answered for him.

"Oh yes, I do!" Lemuel protested.

"'D you tell him?" 'Manda Grier demanded of her. She nodded with saucy defiance. "Well, you have got along! And about the box- factory?" Statira nodded again, with a look of joyous intelligence at Lemuel. "Well, what hain't you told, I wonder!" 'Manda Grier added seriously to Lemuel, "I think it'll be about the best thing in the world for S'tira. I see for the last six months she's been killin' herself in that store. She can't ever get a chance to set down a minute; and she's on her feet from mornin' till night; and I think it's more 'n half that that's made her sick; I don't say what the other four-fifths was!

"Now, 'Manda Grier, stop!"

"Well, that's over with now, and now we want to keep you out that store. I been lookin' out for this place for S'tira a good while. She can go onto the small boxes, if she wants to, and she can set down all the time; and she'll have a whole hour for her dinner; and she can work by the piece, and do as much or as little as she's a mind to; but if she's a mind to work she can make her five and six dollars a week, easy. Mr. Stevens's real nice and kind, and he looks out for the girls that ain't exactly strong—not but what S'tira's as strong as anybody, when she's well—and he don't put 'em on the green paper work, because it's got arsenic in it, and it makes your head ache, and you're liable to blood poisonin'. One the girls fainted and had spasms, and as soon as he found it out he took her right off; and he's just like clockwork to pay. I think it'll do everything for S'tira to be along 'th me there, where I can look after her."

Lemuel said he thought so too; he did not really think at all, he was so flattered at being advised with about Statira, as if she were in his keeping and it was for him to say what was best for her; and when she seemed uncertain about his real opinion, and said she was not going to do anything he did not approve of, he could scarcely speak for rapture, but he protested that he did approve of the scheme entirely.

"But you shouldn't want we girls to set up housekeeping in rooms?" she suggested; and he said that he should, and that he thought it would be more independent and home-like.

"We're half doin' it now," said 'Manda Grier, "and I know some rooms—two of 'em—where we could get along first rate, and not cost us much more 'n half what it does here."

After she cleared up the tea-things she made another errand downstairs, and Lemuel and Statira went back to their rocking-chair. It still amazed him that she seemed not even to make it a favour to him; she seemed to think it was favour to her. What was stranger yet was that he could not feel that there was anything wrong or foolish about it; he thought of his mother's severity about young folks' sickishness, as she called it, and he could not understand it. He knew that he had never had such right and noble thoughts about girls before; perhaps Statira was better than other girls; she must be; she was just like a child; and he must be very good himself to be anyways fit for her; if she cared so much for him, it must be a sign that he was not so bad as he had sometimes thought. A great many things went through his mind, the silent comment and suggestion of their talk, and all the time while he was saying something or listening to her, he was aware of the overwhelming wonder of her being so frank with him, and not too proud or ashamed to have him know how anxious she had been, ever since they first met, for fear he did not care for her. She had always appeared so stylish and reserved, and now she was not proud at all. He tried to tell her how it had been with him the last three weeks; all that he could say was that he had been afraid to come. She laughed, and said, the idea of his being afraid of her! She said that she was glad of everything she had gone through. At times she lifted herself from his shoulder and coughed; but that was when she had been laughing or crying a little. They told each other about their families; Statira said she had not really any folks of her own; she was just brought up by her aunt; and Lemuel had to tell her that his mother wore bloomers. Statira said she guessed she should not care much for the bloomers; and in everything she tried to make out that he was much better than she was, and just exactly right. She already spoke of his sister by her first name, and she entered into his whole life, as if she had always known him. He said she must come with him to hear Mr. Sewell preach, sometime; but she declared that she did not think much of a minister who could behave the way he had done to Lemuel. He defended Sewell, and maintained that if it had not been for him he might not have come to Boston, and so might never have seen her; but she held out that she could not bear Mr. Sewell, and that she knew he was double-faced, and everything. Lemuel said well, he did not know that he should ever have anything more to do with him; but he liked to hear him preach, and he guessed he tried to do what was about right. Statira made him promise that if ever he met Mr. Sewell again, he would not make up to him, any way; and she would not tolerate the thought of Miss Vane.

"What you two quar'lin' about?" demanded 'Manda Grier, coming suddenly into the room; and that turned their retrospective griefs into joy again.

"I'm scoldin' him because he don't think enough of himself," cried
Statira.

"Well, he seems to take it pretty meekly," said 'Manda Grier. "I guess you didn't scold very hard. Now, young man," she added to Lemuel, "I guess you better be goin'. It's five o'clock, and if you should be out after dark, and the bears should get you, I don't know what S'tira would do."

"'Tain't five yet!" pleaded Statira. "That old watch of yours is always tryin' to beat the town clock."

"Well, it's the clock that's ahead this time," said 'Manda Grier. "My watch says quarter of. Come, now, S'tira, you let him go, or he sha'n't come back any more."

They had a parting that Lemuel's mother would have called sickish without question; but it all seemed heavenly sweet and right. Statira said now he had got to kiss 'Manda Grier too; and when he insisted, her chin knocked against his, and saved her lips, and she gave him a good box on the ear.

"There, I guess that 'll do for one while," she said, arranging her tumbled hair; "but there's more kisses where that came from, for both of you if you want 'em. Coots!"

Once, when Lemuel was little, he had a fever, and he was always seeming to glide down the school-house stairs without touching the steps with his feet. He remembered this dream now, when he reached the street; he felt as if he had floated down on the air; and presently he was back in his little den at the hotel, he did not know how. He ran the elevator up and down for the ladies who called him from the different floors, and he took note of the Sunday difference in their toilet as they passed in to tea; but in the same dreamy way.

After the boarders had supped, he went in as usual with Mrs. Harmon's nephew, less cindery than on week-days, from the cellar, and Mrs. Harmon, silken smooth for her evening worship at the shrine of a popular preacher from New York. The Sunday evening before, she had heard an agnostic lecture in the Boston Theatre, and she said she wished to compare notes. Her tranquillity was unruffled by the fact that the head-waitress had left, just before tea; she presumed they could get along just as well without her as with her: the boarders had spoiled her, anyway. She looked round at Lemuel's face, which beamed with his happiness, and said she guessed she should have to get him to open the dining-room doors, and seat the transients the next few days, till she could get another head- waitress. It did not seem to be so much a request as a resolution; but Lemuel willingly assented. Mrs. Harmon's nephew said that so long as they did not want him to do it he did not care who did it; and if a few of them had his furnace to look after they would not be so anxious to kick.

William Dean Howells