Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 20

XX.

"I'm afraid your little friend at the St. Albans isn't altogether happy of late," said Evans toward the end of what he called one of his powwows with Sewell. Their talk had taken a vaster range than usual, and they both felt the need, that people know in dealing with abstractions, of finally getting the ground beneath their feet again.

"Ah?" asked Sewell, with a twinge that allayed his satisfaction in this. "What's the matter with him?"

"Oh, the knowledge of good and evil, I suspect."

"I hope there's nothing wrong," said Sewell anxiously.

"Oh no. I used the phrase because it came easily. Just what I mean is that I'm afraid his view of our social inequalities is widening and deepening, and that he experiences the dissatisfaction of people who don't command that prospect from the summit. I told you of his censure of our aristocratic constitution?"

"Yes," said Sewell, with a smile.

"Well, I'm afraid he feels it more and more. If I can judge from the occasional distance and hauteur with which he treats me, he is humiliated by it. Nothing makes a man so proud as humiliation, you know."

"That's true!"

"There are a couple of pretty girls at the St. Albans, art-students, who have been painting Barker. So I learn from a reformed cow-boy of the plains who is with us as a law-student and is about with one of the young ladies a good deal. They're rather nice girls; quite nice, in fact; and there's no harm in the cow-boy, and a good deal of fun. But if Barker had conceived of being painted as a social inferior, and had been made to feel that he was merely a model; and if he had become at all aware that one of the girls was rather pretty—they both are—"

"I see!"

"I don't say it's so. But he seems low-spirited. Why don't you come round and cheer him up—get into his confidence—"

"Get into the centre of the earth!" cried Sewell. "I never saw such an inapproachable creature!"

Evans laughed. "He is rather remote. The genuine American youth is apt to be so, especially if he thinks you mean him a kindness. But there ought to be some way of convincing him that he need not feel any ignominy in his employment. After so many centuries of Christianity and generations of Democracy, it ought to be very simple to convince him that there is nothing disgraceful in showing people to their places at table."

"It isn't," said the minister soberly.

"No, it isn't," said Evans. "I wonder," he added thoughtfully, "why we despise certain occupations? We don't despise a man who hammers stone or saws boards; why should we despise a barber? Is the care of the human head intrinsically less honourable than the shaping of such rude material? Why do we still condemn the tailor who clothes us, and honour the painter who portrays us in the same clothes? Why do we despise waiters? I tried to make Barker believe that I respected all kinds of honest work. But I lied; I despised him for having waited on table. Why have all manner of domestics fallen under our scorn, and come to be stigmatised in a lump as servants?"

"Ah, I don't know," said the minister. "There is something in personal attendance upon us that dishonours; but the reasons of it are very obscure; I couldn't give them. Perhaps it's because it's work that in a simpler state of things each of us would do for himself, and in this state is too proud to do."

"That doesn't cover the whole ground," said Evans.

"And you think that poor boy is troubled—is really suffering from a sense of inferiority to the other young people?"

"Oh, I don't say certainly. Perhaps not. But if he were, what should you say was the best thing for him to do? Remain a servant; cast his lot with these outcasts; or try to separate and distinguish himself from them, as we all do? Come; we live in the world,—which isn't so bad, though it's pretty stupid. He couldn't change it. Now, what ought he to do?"

Sewell mused a while without answering anything. Then he said with a smile, "It's very much simpler to fit people for the other world than for this, don't you think?"

"Yes, it is. It was a cold day for the clergy when it was imagined that they ought to do both."

"Well," said Sewell, rising to follow his friend to the door, "I will come to see Barker, and try to talk with him. He's a very complicated problem. I supposed that I had merely his material prosperity to provide for, after getting him down here, but if I have to reconcile him to the constitution of society!——"

"Yes," said Evans. "I wish you'd let me know the result of your labours. I think I could make a very incisive article on the subject. The topic is always an attractive one. There is nobody who doesn't feel that somebody else is taking on airs with him, and ought to have his comb cut. Or, if you should happen to prove to Barker that his ignominy is in accordance with the Development Theory, and is a necessary Survival, or something of that sort, don't you see what a card it would be for us with the better classes?"

They went downstairs together, and at the street door Evans stopped again. "Or, I'll tell you what. Make it a simple study of Barker's mind—a sort of psychological interview, and then with what I've been able to get from him we can present the impression that Boston makes upon a young, fresh, shrewd mind. That would be something rather new, wouldn't it? Come! the Afternoon would make it worth your while. And then you could work it into a sermon afterwards."

"You shameless reprobate!" said Sewell, laying his hand affectionately on his friend's arm.

There was nothing in Lemuel's case that seemed to him urgent, and he did not go to see him at once. In the meantime, Fast Day came, and Lemuel got away at last to pay his first visit home.

"Seems to me ye ain't lookin' over and above well, Lem," was the first thing his mother said to him, even before she noticed how well he was dressed.

His new spring overcoat, another prize from the Misfit Parlours, and his new pointed-toe shoes, and Derby hat, with the suit of clothes he had kept so carefully all through the winter, were not the complete disguise he had fancied they might be at Willoughby Pastures. The depot-master had known him as soon as he got out of the cars, and ignored his splendour in recognising him. He said, "Hello, Lem," and had not time to reconcile himself to the boy's changed appearance before Lemuel hurried away with the bag he had bought so long before for the visit. He met several people on his way home from the depot: two of them were women, and one of these said she knew as soon as she looked at him who it was, and the other said she should have known it was Lem Barker as far as she could see him. She asked him if he was home for good now.

His mother pushed back his thick hair with her hard old hand as she spoke to him, and then she pressed his head down upon her neck, which was mostly collar-bone. But Lemuel could hear her heart beat, and the tears came into his eyes.

"Oh, I'm all right, mother," he said huskily, though he tried to say it cheerfully. He let her hold his head there the longer because mixed with his tenderness for her was a horror of her bloomers, which he was not at once able to overcome. When he gained courage to look, he saw that she had them on, but now he had the strength to bear it.

"Ye had any breakfast?" she asked, and when he said that he had got a cup of coffee at Fitchburg, she said, well, she must get him something, and she drew him a cup of Japan tea, and made him some milk toast and picked-fish, talking all the time, and telling him how his sister and her husband had gone to the village to have one of her teeth drawn. They had got along through the winter pretty well; but she guessed that they would have had more to complain of if it had not been for him. This was her way of acknowledging the help Lemuel had given them every week, and it was casually sandwiched between an account of an Indian Spirit treatment which Reuben had tried for his rheumatism, and a question whether Lemuel had seen anything of that Mind Cure down to Boston.

But when he looked about the room, and saw here and there the simple comforts and necessaries which his money had bought the sick man and the two helpless women, his heart swelled with joy and pride; and he realised the pleasure we all feel in being a good genius. At times it had come pretty hard to send the greater part of his week's wages home, but now he was glad he had done it. The poor, coarse food which his mother had served him as a treat; the low, cracked ceilings; the waving floor, covered with rag carpet; the sagging doors, and the old-fashioned trim of the small-paned windows, were all very different from the luxurious abundance, the tesselated pavement, and the tapestry Brussels, the lofty studding, and the black walnut mouldings of the St. Albans; and Lemuel felt the difference with a curious mixture of pride and remorse in his own escape from the meanness of his home. He felt the self-reproach to which the man who rises without raising with him all those dear to him is destined in some measure all his life. His interests and associations are separated from theirs, but if he is not an ignoble spirit, the ties of affection remain unweakened; he cares for them with a kind of indignant tenderness, and calls himself to account before them in the midst of pleasures which they cannot share, or even imagine.

Lemuel's mother did not ask him much about his life in Boston; she had not the materials for curiosity about it; but he told her everything that he thought she could understand. She recurred to his hopes when he left home and their disappointment in Sewell, and she asked if Lemuel ever saw him nowadays. She could not reconcile herself to his reconciliation with Sewell, whom she still held to have behaved treacherously. Then she went back to Lemuel's looks, and asked him if he kept pretty well; and when he answered that he did, she smoothed with her hand the knot between her eyes, and did not question him further.

He had the whole forenoon with his mother, and he helped her to get the dinner, as he used to do, pulling the stove-wood out of the snow-drift that still embedded part of the wood-pile, though the snow was all gone around Boston. It was thawing under the dull, soft April sky, and he saw the first bluebird perched on the clothes-line when he went out for the wood; his mother said there had been lots of them. He walked about the place, and into the barn, taking in the forlornness and shabbiness; and then he went up into the room over the shed, where he used to study and write. His heart ached with self-pity.

He realised as he had not done at a distance how dependent this wretched home was upon him; and after meaning the whole morning to tell his mother about Statira, he decided that he was keeping it from her, not merely because he was ashamed to tell her that he was engaged, but because it seemed such a crazy thing, for a person in his circumstances, if it was really an engagement. He had not seen Statira since that night when he brought her to look at the pictures the art-students had made of him. He felt that he had not parted with her kindly, and he went to see her the night before he started home, though it was not Sunday, but he had found her door locked, and this made him angry with her, he could not have said just why. If he told his mother about Statira now, what should he tell her? He compromised by telling her about the two girls that had painted his likeness.

His mother seemed not to care a great deal about the pictures. She said, "I don't want you should let any girl make a fool of you, Lem."

"Oh no," he answered, and went and looked out of the window.

"I don't say but what they're nice girls enough, but in your place you no need to throw yourself away."

Lemuel thought of the awe of Miss Carver in which he lived, and the difference between them; and he could have laughed at his mother's ignorant pride. What would she say if she knew that he was engaged to a girl that worked in a box-factory? But probably she would not think that studying art and teaching it was any better. She evidently believed that his position in the St. Albans was superior to that of Miss Carver.

His sister and her husband came home before they had finished dinner. His sister had her face all tied up to keep from taking cold after having her tooth drawn, and Lemuel had to go out and help his rheumatic brother-in-law put up the horse. When they came in, his brother-in-law did not wash his hands before going to the table, and Lemuel could not keep his eyes off his black and broken fingernails; his mother's and sister's nails were black too. It must have been so when he lived at home.

His sister could not eat; she took some tea, and went to bed. His brother-in-law pulled off his boots after dinner, and put up his stocking-feet on the stove-hearth to warm them.

There was no longer any chance to talk with his mother indoors, and he asked her if she would not like to come out; it was very mild. She put on her bonnet, and they strolled down the road. All the time Lemuel had to keep from looking at her bloomers. When they met any one driving, he had to keep himself from trying to look as if he were not with her, but was just out walking alone.

The day wore heavily away. His brother-in-law's rheumatism came on toward evening, and his sister's face had swollen, so that it would not do for her to go out. Lemuel put on some old clothes he found in his room, and milked the cows himself.

"Like old times, Lem," said his mother, when he came in.

"Yes," he assented quietly.

He and his mother had tea together, but pretty soon afterwards she seemed to get sleepy; and Lemuel said he had been up early and he guessed he would go to bed. His mother said she guessed she would go too.

After he had blown out his light, she came in to see if he were comfortable. "I presume it seems a pretty poor place to you, Lem," she said, holding her lamp up and looking round.

"I guess if it's good enough for you it is for me," he answered evasively.

"No, it ain't," she said. "I always b'en used to it, and I can see from your talk that you've got used to something different already. Well, it's right, Lem. You're a good boy, and I want you should get the good of Boston, all you can. We don't any of us begrutch it to ye; and what I came up to say now was, don't you scrimp yourself down there to send home to us. We got a roof over our heads, and we can keep soul and body together somehow; we always have, and we don't need a great deal. But I want you should keep yourself nicely dressed down to Boston, so 't you can go with the best; I don't want you should feel anyways meechin' on account of your clothes. You got a good figure, Lem; you take after your father. Sometimes I wish you was a little bigger; but he wa'n't; and he had a big spirit. He wa'n't afraid of anything; and they said if he'd come out o' that battle where he was killed, he'd 'a' b'en a captain. He was a good man."

She had hardly ever spoken so much of his father before; he knew now by the sound of her voice in the dim room that the tears must be in her eyes; but she governed herself and went on.

"What I wanted to say was, don't you keep sendin' so much o' your money home, child. It's yours, and I want you should have it; most of it goes for patent medicines, anyway, when it gets here; we can't keep Reuben from buying 'em, and he's always changin' doctors. And I want you should hold yourself high, Lem. You're as good as anybody. And don't you go with any girls, especially, that ain't of the best. You're gettin' to that time o' life when you'll begin to think about 'em; but don't you go and fall in love with the first little poppet you see, because she's got pretty eyes and curly hair."

It seemed to Lemuel as if she must know about Statira, but of course she did not. He lay still, and she went on.

"Don't you go and get engaged, or any such foolishness in a hurry, Lem. Them art-student girls you was tellin' about, I presume they're all right enough; but you wait a while. Young men think it's a kind of miracle if a girl likes 'em, and they're ready to go crazy over it; but it's the most natural thing she can do. You just wait a while. When you get along a little further, you can pick and choose for yourself. I don't know as I should want you should marry for money; but don't you go and take up with the first thing comes along, because you're afraid to look higher. What's become o' that nasty thing that talked so to you at that Miss Vane's?"

Lemuel said that he had never seen Sibyl or Miss Vane since; but he did not make any direct response to the anxieties his mother had hinted at. Her pride in him, so ignorant of all the reality of his life in the city, crushed him more than the sight and renewed sense of the mean conditions from which he had sprung. What if he should tell her that Miss Carver, whom she did not want him to marry in a hurry, regarded him as a servant, and treated him as she would treat a black man? What if she knew that he was as good as engaged to marry a girl that could no more meet Miss Carver on the same level than she could fly? He could only tell his mother not to feel troubled about him; that he was not going to get married in any great hurry; and pretend to be sleepy and turn his head away.

She pulled the covering up round his neck and tucked it in with her strong, rough old hand, whose very tenderness hurt.

He had expected to stay the greater part of the next day, but he took an earlier train. His sister was still laid up; she thought she must have taken cold in her jaw; her husband, rumpled, unshaven, with a shawl over his shoulders, cowered about the cook-stove for the heat. He began to hate this poverty and suffering, to long for escape from it to the life which at that distance seemed so rich and easy and pleasant; he trembled lest something might have happened in his absence to have thrown him out of his place.

All the way to Boston he was under the misery of the home that he was leaving; his mother's pride added to the burden of it. But when the train drew in sight of the city, and he saw the steeples and chimneys, and the thin masts of the ships printed together against the horizon, his heart rose. He felt equal to it, to anything in it.

He arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and he saw no one at the hotel except the Harmons till toward dinner-time. Then the ladies coming in from shopping had a word of welcome for him; some of them stopped and shook hands at the office, and when they began to come down to dinner they spoke to him, and there again some of them offered their hands; they said it seemed an age since he had gone.

The art-students came down with Berry, who shook hands so cordially with him that perhaps they could not help it. Miss Carver seemed to hesitate, but she gave him her hand too, and she asked, as the others had done, whether he had found his family well.

He did not know what to think. Sometimes he felt as if people were trying to make a fool of him almost. He remained blushing and smiling to himself after the last of them had gone in to dinner. He did not know what Miss Carver meant, but her eyes seemed to have lost that cold distance, and to have come nearer to him.

Late at night Berry came to him where he sat at his desk. "Well, Barker, I'm glad you're back again, old man. Feels as if you'd been gone a month of Sundays. Didn't know whether we should have you with us this first evening."

Lemuel grew hot with consciousness, and did not make it better for himself by saying, "I don't know what you mean."

"Well, I don't suppose I should in your place," returned Berry. "It's human nature. It's all right. What did the ladies think of the 'Roman Youth' the other night? The distinguished artists weren't sure exactly, and I thought I could make capital with one of 'em if I could find out. Yes, that's my little game, Barker; that's what I dropped in for; Bismarck style of diplomacy. I'll tell you why they want to know, if you won't give me away: Miss Swan wanted to give her 'bit of colour'—that's what she calls it—to one of the young ladies; but she's afraid she didn't like it."

"I guess they liked it well enough," said Lemuel, thinking with shame that Statira had not had the grace to say a word of either of the pictures; he attributed this to 'Manda Grier's influence.

"Well that's good, so far as it goes," said Berry. "But now, to come down to particulars, what did they say? That's what Miss Swan will ask me."

"I don't remember just what they said," faltered Lemuel.

"Well, they must have said something," insisted Berry jocosely. "Give a fellow some little clue, and I can piece it out for myself. What did she say? I don't ask which she was? but I have my suspicions. All I want to know is what she said. Anything like beautiful middle distance, or splendid chiaroscuro, or fine perspective, or exquisite modelling? Come now! Try to think, Barker." He gave Lemuel time, but to no purpose. "Well," he resumed, with affected dejection, "I'll have to try to imagine it; I guess I can; I haven't worked my imagination much since I took up the law. But look here, Barker," he continued more briskly, "now you open up a little. Here I've been giving you my confidence ever since I saw you—forcing it on you; and you know just how far I'm gone on Miss Swan, to a hundredth part of an inch; but I don't know enough of your affections to swear that you've got any. Now, which one is it? Don't be mean about it. I won't give you away. Honest Injun!"

Lemuel was goaded to desperation. His face burned, and the perspiration began to break out on his forehead. He did not know how to escape from this pursuit.

"Which is it, Barker?" repeated his tormentor. "I know it's human nature to deny it; though I never could understand why; if I was engaged, the Sunday papers should have it about as quick!"

"I'm not engaged!" cried Lemuel.

"You ain't?" yelled Berry.

"No!"

"Give me your hand! Neither am I!"

He shook Lemuel's helpless hand with mock heroic fervour. "We are brothers from this time forth, Barker! You can't imagine how closely this tie binds you to me, Barker. Barker, we are one; with no particular prospect, as far as I am concerned, of ever being more."

He offered to dramatise a burst of tears on Lemuel's shoulder; but
Lemuel escaped from him.

"Stop! Quit your fooling! What if somebody should come in?"

"They won't," said Berry, desisting, and stretching himself at ease in the only chair besides Lemuel's with which the office was equipped. "It's too late for 'em. Now o'er the one-half world nature seems dead-ah, and wicked dreams abuse the curtained sleep-ah. We are safe here from all intrusion, and I can lay bare my inmost thoughts to you, Barker, if I happen to have any. Barker, I'm awfully glad you're not engaged to either of those girls,—or both. And it's not altogether because I enjoy the boon companionship of another unengaged man, but it's partly because I don't think—shall I say it?"

"Say what?" asked Lemuel, not without some prescience.

"Well, you can forgive the brotherly frankness, if you don't like it. I don't think they're quite up to you."

Lemuel gave a sort of start, which Berry interpreted in his own way.

"Now, hold on! I know just how you feel. Been there myself. I have seen the time too when I thought any sort of girl was too good for Alonzo W., Jr. But I don't now. I think A. W., Jr., is good enough for the best. I may be mistaken; I was the other time. But we all begin that way; and the great object is not to keep on that way. See? Now, I suppose you're in love—puppy love—with that little thing. Probably the first girl you got acquainted with after you came to Boston, or may be a sweet survival of the Willoughby Pastures period. All right. Perfectly natural, in either case. But don't you let it go any further, my dear boy; old man, don't you let it go any further. Pause! Reflect! Consider! Love wisely, but not too well! Take the unsolicited advice of a sufferer."

Pride, joy, shame, remorse, mixed in Lemuel's heart, which eased itself in an involuntary laugh at Berry's nonsense.

"Now, what I want you to do—dear boy, or old man, as the case may be—is to regard yourself in a new light. Regard yourself, for the sake of the experiment, as too good for any girl in Boston. No? Can't fetch it? Try again!"

Lemuel could only laugh foolishly.

"Well, now, that's singular," pursued Berry. "I supposed you could have done it without the least trouble. Well, let's try something a little less difficult. Look me in the eye, and regard yourself as too good, for example, for Miss Carver. Ha!"

An angry flush spread over Lemuel's embarrassed face. "I wish you'd behave yourself," he stammered.

"In any other cause I would," said Berry solemnly. "But I must be cruel to be kind. Seriously, old man, if you can't think yourself too good for Miss Carver, I wish you'd think yourself good enough. Now, I'm not saying anything against the Willoughby episode, mind. That has its place in the wise economy of nature, just like anything else. But there ain't any outcome in it for you. You've got a future before you, Barker, and you don't want to go and load up with a love affair that you'll keep trying to unload as long as you live. No, sir! Look at me! I know I'm not an example in some things, but in this little business of correctly placed affections I could give points to Solomon. Why am I in love with M. Swan? Because I can't help it for one thing, and because for another thing she can do more to develop the hidden worth and unsuspected powers of A. W., Jr., than any other woman in the world. She may never feel that it's her mission, but she can't shake my conviction that way; and I shall stay undeveloped to prove that I was right. Well, now, what you want, my friend, is development, and you can't get it where you've been going. She hain't got it on hand. And what you want to do is not to take something else in its place—tender heart, steadfast affections, loyalty; they've got 'em at every shop in town; they're a drug in the market. You've got to say 'No development, heigh? Well, I'll just look round a while, and if I can't find it at some of the other stores I'll come back and take some of that steadfast affection. You say it won't come off? Or run in washing?' See?"

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself," said Lemuel, trying to summon an indignant feeling, and laughing with a strange pleasure at heart. "You've got no right to talk to me that way. I want you should leave me alone!"

"Well, since you're so pressing, I will go," said Berry easily. "But if I find you at our next interview sitting under the shade of the mustard-tree whose little seed I have just dropped, I shall feel that I have not laboured in vain. 'She's a darling, she's a daisy, she's a dumpling, she's a lamb!' I refer to Miss Swan, of course; but on other lips the terms are equally applicable to Miss Carver; and don't you forget it!"

He swung out of the office with a mazurka step. His silk hat, gaily tilted on the side of his head, struck against the door-jamb, and fell rolling across the entry floor. Lemuel laughed wildly. At twenty these things are droll.

William Dean Howells